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glory falls

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Dream’s fall from grace is messy, quick, and very, very public.

It starts when Sapnap shakes him awake way too early in the morning, and Dream, tangled in his sheets, flails as Sapnap all but drags him out of bed.

“Dream, you gotta wake up, man,” Sapnap says urgently. He’s only got his black long-sleeve on, still in his boxers, and his hair is messy and uncombed. His headband is nowhere to be seen. “I’m not kidding, wake the fuck up.”

“Sap…?” Dream asks groggily. There’s dry drool on his chin, and he scrubs it with the back of his hand. “It’s… The fuck? It’s like, 4 a.m.”

“I know.” Sapnap’s voice is grim in a way that it never is. “But this can’t wait. You have to see this.”

His tone is serious enough to finally register in Dream’s brain, and so he sits upright.

“Show me,” he says and gets off the bed.

He follows Sapnap down the stairs of their shared house. George is already seated in the kitchen, face pale as he taps his fingers anxiously against the countertop.

“Thank Prime,” George says when he sees them, jumping to his feet. “They’re already on their way.”

Who’s on their way?” Dream asks. “Guys, what—What’s going on?”

George and Sapnap exchange a long, heavy glance that has Dream’s heart itself jamming into his throat. Then George sighs and passes over a piece of paper.

“This was issued just now,” George says flatly. “All across the server.”

Dream glances down and—

That’s him. His face, his smile, his axe strapped to his back, and—

A warrant for arrest. A bounty for his head. Dead or alive.

“What,” Dream says, or rather, tries to say. The word gets stuck in his throat, and he has to clear it several times before he can get it out. “What is this?”

“They’re saying you committed treason,” Sapnap growls. His fists are clenched at his side, embers sparking. Dream eyes him warily, but Sapnap takes a deep breath and reels his temper back in before he can burn their house down. “Apparently, you’ve abused your status as champion to come up with a plan on how to incite rebellion, and soon you’re going to try and overthrow the king.”

“That makes no sense,” Dream says. He’s in shock, he thinks, because his mouth seems to be moving independently of his brain. “Why would I want to overthrow the king? I—I’ve only been champion for a few months now. All of my matches have been public. The freaking paparazzi follow my every move!”

“Obviously, but—”

“When would I even have time?” Dream asks, frustrated. “I don’t even know who the king’s heirs are or—or where they are! I don’t want to be king, it makes no sense!”

“Dream, we know!

George’s shout stuns Dream into silence, and he reels back as George comes around the kitchen counter. His mouth is set, and his eyes are hard.

“We know,” George repeats. “But this—For some reason the king wants you gone, Dream. And he’s going to chase you across the entire server if he has to.”

The words fall like a judge’s anvil.

“Okay,” Dream says to himself. He feels reality slipping in and out of his fingers, and he punches himself in the thigh. The pain shocks him back to awareness. He can’t afford to lose focus now.

“Okay,” he says aloud again. The pieces are settling into place, and they form a picture that he really does not like. “So now—I need to go.”

Sapnap looks guilty as he says, “The guards are already on their way. Bad is stalling them.”

Dream had been wondering where their older brother figure was.

“I need to go now,” he amends.

Mentally, he counts off the supplies he needs. His clothes, some food, weapons… Where can he run to? If there’s been a server-wide warrant, he can’t trust any civilians to shelter him. He’s popular, sure, but not enough to go against the king’s wrath. Besides, it’s not like he has any true friends beyond the ones right here with him. For half a second, Dream considers going to the Nether and then dismisses the idea in the same breath. There’s a reason it’s forbidden to travel there. Capable as he might be, Dream doubts he’d be able to survive its extreme conditions. Maybe the forest? They could potentially hide there if—

A thought strikes him, and all of Dream’s planning skids to a halt.

“You can’t come with me,” he states.

George and Sapnap don’t even have to say anything. Their expressions answer for them, guilt and protectiveness splitting their faces in two.

“A group of three is more noticeable than one,” George says quietly, “And they’d know that we’re your weak points.”

“That’s—” This is a downside that Dream hadn’t thought of when he vowed to bring his childhood friends along with him on his journey to fame. “They’ll use you against me here.”

“They haven’t accused us of anything,” Sapnap says, face set. There are no flames, but Dream can sense the anger simmering beneath his best friend’s skin. “They can’t do anything but question us and suspect us of being accomplices.”

“We’ll keep them off your scent,” George adds. He smiles, a thin wavering thing. “Who knows. If we’re convincing enough, they might send us after you. Just like old times.”

Dream can’t stop the snort that escapes him.

“That would be a sight,” he says sarcastically. Before he can say more, a rustle catches his ear, and he whips around. “What was that?”

Sapnap and George tense immediately, both reaching for their weapons. George creeps over to the window and peeks out briefly before withdrawing to the center of the room.

“Soldiers,” he says, face drawn and tense. “Dream, there’s no time. You have to go. Now.

Dream swears under his breath.

Scrambling across the room, he grabs his bag and fills it with supplies. Bread, flint and stone, some gold—

He pauses when he comes to his netherite axe, Nightmare. He’s used it for years, crafted it himself with painstaking attention to each detail. It molds itself to the palm of his hand, and the heft of it is a reassuring weight. This axe has seen him through the worst trials and the greatest victories.

It’s also one of Dream’s most distinctive trademarks.

Closing his eyes, Dream drops the axe.

“I can’t take Nightmare,” he says, voice heavy with regret. “It makes me too much of a target.”

“But—” Sapnap starts to protest before George shushes him and steps forwards.

“We’ll take care of it for you,” George promises. His eyes are sharp as he says, “You just stay safe until we get this all cleared up.”

“I will,” Dream says. “I will.”

George leans in, hesitates, then wraps Dream in a brief but tight hug as he says, “You better go.”

Dream sways in place. He wants to lean into George’s touch, but there’s no time, so he says, “George—”

“Dream,” George interrupts. His eyes are flinty as he pulls out his bow, one hand resting on his quiver. “Go.

So Dream, server champion, renowned fighter, and wanted criminal runs from his own house in the dead of night as the kingdom’s armies kick his doors down.

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Months Later

“Where did he go? Find him!”

Dream holds his breath as armored feet trample through the underbrush. He’s hiding in the treetops, branches obscuring his figure as he looks down at the soldiers chasing him. They’re more persistent than the last group; they’ve been on his tail since a few villages back, and try as he might, Dream hasn’t been able to shake them.

He listens as they disperse into the forest, and one shouts before the rest clamor to follow him. They must have found the false trail that he laid then. Good.

Dropping down, Dream winces as a small twig cracks beneath his leather soles. He waits with bated breath to see if anyone has heard, adjusting his mask. He’d made it himself in a moment of paranoia when freshly made fugitive. Something about it’s blank smile reassures him, makes him feel like less people can truly see who he is. He’s still not used to its weight, but keeps one hand on it as he listens closely.

There’s no response. The sound of the soldiers fades further into the distance, and Dream allows himself a quiet moment of relief.

Then, his gaze sharpens, and he heads out.

Sneaking through forests has become depressingly familiar in the past months that he’s been on the run. Dream has never been a slouch when it comes to roughing it, but his few glorious months as the server's champion, living in relative comfort, have definitely softened him. There had been a sharp learning curve as Dream found himself expecting blows to glance off diamond armor only to realize that he didn’t have that anymore, diving out of the way at the last minute to avoid a messy end.

Luckily, Dream has always been a fast learner. Especially when the only other option is death.

Now, more often than not, Dream finds himself continually scrounging for supplies to last him the next confrontation with his hunters. The shoddy wooden armor he can construct from planks isn’t quality enough for him to lug around, and it’s easier to just make it and break it as needed.

Make up then break up, he hears Sapnap say jokingly, and Dream chuckles softly, shaking his head before the pang of homesickness stabs him between the ribs.

He misses his friends.

Something snaps behind him, and Dream whirls around, hand going to the sword at his side. He wishes he had an axe, but his moves would give him away immediately to anyone who had been a fan, and, well, not to brag, but Dream had a lot of fans.

At least, he did before he was declared a criminal and sentenced to a serverwide manhunt.

Hand on the hilt, Dream eyes his surroundings warily. It hadn’t sounded like iron armor, no, the snap was too light for that. Still, Dream has quickly learned that letting his guard down will only get him killed, so he strains his ears, waiting.

Sure enough, he hears that same sound again, closer this time. Before he can think, Dream draws his sword and points it in that direction. Then, his brain catches up with his actions, and he blinks.

There’s a kid on the other side of his blade.

“Who are you?” he demands.

“Who are you?” the kid demands brashly. There are twigs sticking out of his blond hair, and his blue eyes are wide as he goes cross-eyed staring down the point of Dream’s sword. “Holy shit, is that real?”

“You don’t recognize me?” Dream asks as his mind whirls. Is this a trick? Have the soldiers sunk so low as to send out a kid as some kind of bait?

“Should I?” the kid fires back. His red and white shirt is stained to hell and back. “You’re a fucking arrogant prick, aren’t you?”

“You really don’t know who I am,” Dream states. There’s no recognition in the kid’s angry eyes, and he looks more pissed than shocked that he’s run into the highest bounty in the kingdom.

A few months ago, Dream wouldn’t have believed it. His rise to champion status had been swift, and he overshot the rest of his rivals by a longshot to claim the abandoned position with all eyes on him. With his distinctive speed and easy smile, Dream had quickly won the citizens over. He hadn’t been able to go anywhere while wearing his signature green outfit and netherite axe slung over his back, at least not without getting mobbed.

To be fair to this kid, though, Dream doesn’t recognize himself much nowadays. He’s gotten rid of the green hoodie (too distinctive), grown out his hair (now in a messy ponytail half the time), and taken to wearing a mask to hide his face.

The porcelain smiley face doesn’t sit that comfortably against his skin yet and Dream finds himself tugging on it more often than not. Still, it offers some semblance of anonymity, and Dream is grateful for it.

“I already said I didn’t. What, are you deaf?” The kid spits to the side as he glares down Dream’s sword. “Put that fucking thing down, you’ll hurt someone with it.”

“That’s kind of the point of a sword, kid,” Dream says dryly. “What are you doing out here? Where are your parents?”

The kid juts his chin out.

“Don’t have any,” he says.

An orphan. Common enough around these parts.

“Other family? Friends?” Dream tries.

“Wil—None that matter,” the kid hisses, and finally, there’s some sign of weakness as his shoulders hunch minutely forward.

“So there is someone,” Dream concludes.

“It’s none of your fucking business, bitch!” the kid erupts. “Now let me go, idiot. You really gonna hurt a child?”

“No!” Dream says, because he would never, no matter how annoying the kid is. “Look, it’s not safe for you to be around here. You need to leave.”

“Well, I would, but there’s some fucking freak pointing a sword at me, innit?”

This kid has a sailor’s mouth, Dream thinks despairingly and turns his eyes toward the sky. What has he done to deserve getting cursed out?

Suddenly, his gut twists, and Dream cranes his neck as he tries to listen for his hunters. He’s outpaced them by quite a bit, but they’ve gotten better the past few months. Either the king has been sending out stronger bounty hunters, or the survivors have gone back with reports about Dream’s techniques. One of them had almost gotten the drop on him a few days ago, and Dream had narrowly escaped while clutching his wounded arm.

His shoulder still throbs from it.

“I can’t drop the sword,” Dream tells the kid. “But you need to leave if you don’t want to get hurt.”

“Why?” the kid asks, eyes bright. “You’re wearing a mask and asked me if I recognized you… Are you some kind of criminal? A murderer?”

He sounds disturbingly fascinated by the possibility.

“Something like that,” Dream concedes. “Just… Forget you saw me. Go back to wherever you came from.”

“Can’t,” the kid says, jaw set in a stubborn clench. “Got nowhere to go.”

That makes Dream look, really look.

When he does, he sees signs that he hadn’t noticed earlier: the scowl painted on the kid’s face, making him look older than his skinny frame suggests; the defiant jut of his chin; the grime smeared along his hollow cheeks.

It reminds him too much of another dirt-poor blond kid who grew up staring at slivers of sky between cramped alleyways, who had seen the glittering crowns adorning champions’ brows and vowed to take their place someday.

Fuck.

“What’s your name?” Dream asks.

“Tommy,” the kid says, and he really shouldn’t be giving his name out that easily, but Dream is just relieved that he doesn’t have to call him ‘kid’ anymore. “What’s yours?”

“Dream,” Dream says. “Tommy, can you run?”

The kid—Tommy blinks, frowns even more deeply, and says, “Is that supposed to be a trick question? Of course I can run, you dipshit—”

“Good,” Dream interrupts. “Get ready.”

And then the bushes erupt with soldiers.

Dream explodes into motion. He sweeps Tommy behind him (and hopefully out of the way) with one movement and blocks an incoming blow, biting back a shout as the pressure jars his wounded shoulder. Straining under the weight for a second, Dream lets his body go lax and dodges to the side as the soldier’s axe comes swinging down. The axehead buries itself in the ground and Dream takes the chance to kick the soldier’s legs out from under him.

Grabbing the axe, Dream yanks it out of the ground and brandishes it. Another soldier charges forward with a yell, and Dream narrows his eyes. There’s a chink in the armor, right where the helmet and chestplate are supposed to connect…

He strikes, and blood sprays.

Dream forces himself not to wince as the soldier collapses in front of him, his blood sliding down Dream’s mask. That’s definitely not earning points in his favor, but Dream can’t afford to go easy. Not when they want him dead for a crime he didn’t commit.

So Dream turns and keeps fighting.

It’s not a fair fight at all. Dream is outnumbered and exhausted from all the running he did before. He can feel himself weakening rapidly, but there’s no time to rest. He grits his teeth and shoves a soldier off of him, banging their foreheads together. His mask protects him, but the force knocks the other guy out.

Panting, Dream turns and sees Tommy wrestling with another soldier some distance away. Prime, he’d almost forgotten about the kid.

Tommy seems to be holding his ground though, dodging between strikes as the soldier lumbers towards him. Dream can see right away that the soldier is hesitating, pulling his punches. He’s probably confused at what a random kid is doing in the middle of the woods with the former champion. He might even be comparing him to his own kid at home, if he has any. Maybe a younger brother.

It’s nice of the soldier to not aim to kill Tommy. Kind, even.

Too bad for him—Dream doesn’t have time for kindness. Not anymore.

Sneaking up behind the soldier, Dream drops his axe and grabs his neck. He twists it in one quick, efficient movement, and the soldier drops like a stone.

Tommy gapes at him, but Dream doesn’t waste time trying to explain himself. Instead, he grabs the back of Tommy’s shirt and pulls him toward him.

“We’re going,” he grits out, glancing back over his shoulder to see the decimated squad regathering. One of them, the captain, points and shouts something in their direction. “Time to run.”

Then he’s hauling Tommy over his shoulder, ignoring his protests, and running.

 

 

 

 

Dream runs until the forest and the hunters are far, far behind him. Tommy’s skinny frame bangs against his shoulders, but he’s smart enough not to struggle. Once Dream judges that they’ve put enough distance between them, he dumps Tommy on the ground.

“Come on,” he demands. “We have to keep going.”

“Fuck, man,” Tommy swears as he clambers to his feet. “I’m not a sack of potatoes! That hurt!”

“Save your breath,” Dream says and pushes Tommy forward. “Let’s go.”

They run until they hit a desert plain, sand spraying beneath their feet. Dream’s feet are burning through his leather soles, and it feels like the heat has reached into him and is piercing through his bones, but he forces himself on. Leather is the best he can get without iron, and it makes less sound. He’ll take the pain.

Eventually, they come across a desert temple, and Dream pushes Tommy back.

“Stay here,” he orders, peeking his head around the corner.

“When are you going to—”

“Shh!” Dream hisses. When he’s confident that Tommy isn’t going to barge recklessly in and set off the TNT lurking beneath the floor, Dream cautiously steps in. He does a brief sweep, confirms that it’s clear, and nods. “You can come in now,” he calls.

Tommy steps in after him, brushing sand off his shirt.

“The fuck is this?” he asks, looking around.

“A desert temple,” Dream replies. He opens a chest in the corner of the room, making a small sound of satisfaction. Two golden apples. Not bad. He snatches them up and pockets them. He’ll need them later. “Normally abandoned by ancient villagers, but they’re sanctuaries in the desert. A blessing for people lost in the wilderness.”

“Or people on the run,” Tommy says, slanting Dream a wary glance. It seems like his self-preservation instincts are finally kicking in. Good. “Who are you?”

“I told you already,” Dream says. He sits cross-legged on the ground and pulls out his water flask, turning to the side as he raises his mask to take a long sip, melting in relief as the water quenches his thirst. “I’m Dream.”

He sees the way Tommy is longingly eyeing the flask and passes it over. Tommy snatches it with greedy hands and starts chugging, water spilling over his chin. Dream winces. He’s going to have to find enough water for two people now.

“Okay, Dream,” Tommy says, wiping his face with a grimy sleeve. “Why did you take me with you?”

That’s… a surprisingly hard question to answer. If he’s being honest, Dream isn’t entirely sure himself. He chews his lip, glad that Tommy can’t see his conflicted expression behind the mask.

“I don’t know, Tommy,” Dream says, placing equal emphasis on Tommy’s name. “Why did you want to come?”

Tommy pouts and crosses his arms. “Fair enough,” he says grudgingly.

They sit in silence for a few moments. Tommy hands the water skein back, and Dream takes it. It’s lighter now. They’ll need to find a river soon.

“Hungry?” he asks Tommy.

Tommy starts, surprised at being addressed. As if on cue, his stomach grumbles, and Dream laughs.

“Shut up!” Tommy exclaims, face turning bright red. “Not my fault I haven’t had my breakfast or lunch, fucker.”

“I have bread,” Dream offers through his wheezes. “It’s stale, but better than nothing.”

“Give it here!”

Dream passes his bag over and watches as Tommy rummages through it, pulling out the half loaf that Dream had been saving. He bites into it, making a face as he has to work to pull a chunk off with his teeth.

“It is stale,“ he says through a mouthful. “Gross.”

But he finishes the loaf anyway.

Dream props his chin up with one hand and stares at Tommy, fascinated. It’s been a long time since he had so much face to face interaction with someone, not on edge or waiting for them to inevitably recognize him and turn him in.

Tommy is incredibly expressive in the way that all teenagers are, every emotion flitting across his face. Annoyance that the bread is stale, then satisfaction when he feels full. Leaning back, he pats his stomach and burps. This time, it’s Dream’s turn to make a face.

“Thanks for that,” Tommy says. Then, he looks guiltily down at his empty hands and says, “Uh… I don’t have anything to give you.”

“That’s okay,” Dream says and mentally files that away. So Tommy does have manners. Someone taught those to him. “You’ll pull your weight eventually.”

“Right,” Tommy says under his breath. “Yeah, I can do that.”

Dream waits another second before he says cautiously, “You know… I’m wanted.”

“Figured that much out myself, yeah,” Tommy grumbles. “What about it?”

Dream shifts uncomfortably. Were Sapnap or George ever this difficult?

“So you probably don’t want to stick with me,” he offers. “I’m on the run.”

“Sounds exciting,” Tommy says.

Dream throws up his hands in exasperation.

“What is your deal?” he demands. “Is it something like, like—What, you were living on the streets? Bad household? Cause I know what it’s like in one of those, and it sucks, but at least you have a roof over your head. Taking your chances with me is probably worse.”

“What? No!” Tommy blurts. He gets to his feet and balls his hands into fists at his side, glaring at Dream. “I wasn’t—I don’t have a bad household or whatever. Or at least, not recently.”

“You said you don’t have parents,” Dream observes. Adrenaline creeps up on him, the kind that makes itself known when he’s facing a particularly clever opponent, one he has to figure out to defeat. “And you’re too skinny. That all reads street kid.” He squints as Tommy shifts uncomfortably under his gaze. “But you’re defiant. Mouthy. That probably wouldn’t last in a rough house. So… a rebellious street kid. With someone who looked after you.”

“Who said someone looked after me?” Tommy bristles.

“You trusted me too quickly,” Dream starts.

“Okay, fuck you, bitch, I don’t trust you—”

“You came with me,” Dream says quietly as more pieces begin to slot into place. “You let an adult you don’t know throw you over his shoulder and run for miles. That doesn’t come from a kid who’s been hit by an adult. You have someone who loves you.”

“Fuck you,” Tommy spits. He crosses the room in a few gangly strides and jabs a finger into Dream’s chest. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“Am I wrong?” Dream asks. His chest pangs as he thinks about George, sleepily waiting at the kitchen counter with a mug of hot chocolate, Sapnap and Bad bickering out in the training yard. Even in the years before that, when they were fighting to survive and went nights without food, they had always comforted themselves with the fact that at least they had each other. To have someone who loves you, no matter how hard the outward circumstances… “Why would you leave that?”

“Because he was suffocating me!” Tommy bursts out. “Okay?” He begins pacing, gesturing with his hands as he rants. “He treated me like some fucking kid who doesn’t know shit! Wouldn’t let me go out by myself, wouldn’t let me fucking breathe without hovering around me like some kind of mother bird. And he wouldn’t tell me about his family even though I know he has one—”

“It sounds,” Dream interrupts gently. “Like he really loves you.”

That makes Tommy go stockstill, the only motion in his entire body the rise and fall of his chest. Then, like all his strings have been cut, he collapses to the floor and buries his face in his hands.

“Yeah,” he says, muffled. “He does.”

Dream doesn’t go toward him, doesn’t offer him a hand on his shoulder because Tommy’s words have just opened the wound sitting in the center of his chest. It’s been there since he had to leave his own home in the dead of night, never properly scarring over. How could it, when George and Sapnap and Bad each own a part of his heart, and Dream will never be complete without them by his side?

So he sits, waits for Tommy to collect himself, and misses home.

When Tommy looks up, eyes red-rimmed, Dream offers, “Do you want me to take you back?”

Tommy’s mouth drops open, and Dream continues, “If you tell me which town you came from, I’m sure I could help you get there. Whoever your...”

“Brother,” Tommy fills in. A sort of longing infuses his voice as he finishes, “Wilbur’s my brother.”

“Right,” Dream says. Wilbur. He’ll remember that name. “Your brother is probably really worried about you. I can help you get back to him quicker.”

Going back the way he came is sure to spell trouble for him, but Dream has handled worse before. He’s not called the fastest champion for nothing. It’s just a matter of how many injuries he’ll take before he gets out.

Still, he can’t in good conscience let this kid tag along with him when he’s got a loving brother waiting.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Tommy says urgently. He holds out both hands as Dream pauses, tilting his head to listen. “You can’t take me back.”

Dream looks at him incredulously.

“Uh, we just talked about why you should go back,” he points out. “Or was I the only one listening?”

“No, you don’t understand,” Tommy says, distressed. “You can’t take me back.”

“Why not?” Dream is starting to wonder if he spoke too quickly and misjudged the situation, as he is wont to do from time to time. More often than just ‘from time to time’, George’s mocking voice drifts by. “Does Wilbur hurt you?”

“No!” Tommy genuinely looks sick at the thought. “But it’s… complicated.”

“I’m on the run from the king for a crime I didn’t commit,” Dream says, and maybe it’s a little reckless to reveal that much to a kid he met today, but he’s tired of hiding. “Try me.”

Tommy hems and haws for a bit longer before he plops back onto the ground, scooting so that he’s sitting closer to Dream now.

“Wilbur’s got some kind of family issue he’s not telling me about,” he confides, dropping his voice as if telling Dream a secret. “We used to live in some house that his deadbeat dad left him, but something happened, and we got kicked out. That’s when he started getting all paranoid.”

“What happened?” Dream asks, leaning in as he gets absorbed in Tommy’s story without intention.

Tommy scowls.

“City evicted us, made up some bullshit about, ‘abandoned properties’,” he says, making quotes around the last words. “Nevermind that we’d been living there for years. So we were on the streets for a good bit, and Wil was pretty worried that I’d get myself into some kind of trouble.”

“I can imagine,” Dream says dryly.

“Wilbur said something about getting in touch with his brother to help us, but we’d have to leave the city,” Tommy continues. “So we wandered around for a bit, uprooting ourselves and traveling and all that big man shit—”

“You’re like, twelve!” Dream says in disbelief.

“Oi! I’m sixteen, bitch.”

“Oh, like that’s so much better,” Dream rolls his eyes.

“—and Wilbur wasn’t having any luck getting in contact with his brother, so I thought I could help him out and get him instead. Save Wilbur the stress, you know?” Tommy’s voice takes a turn for the genuinely upset, and he picks at the ground as he mutters, “But Wilbur wouldn’t tell me anything. Even though I was being helpful, even though I was being good, he kept—kept hiding things from me.”

Dream winces. He never had the chance to be treated like a child, but the pain in Tommy’s voice is real.

Tommy sniffs and wipes his nose aggressively with his sleeve.

“So I decided,” Tommy says, squaring his jaw, “I would prove myself to him so he can’t treat me like a fucking child anymore.”

“By running away,” Dream says and privately thinks that Tommy has probably given Wilbur nothing but a heart attack. He doesn’t even know the guy, but he feels for him. “Alright. And why can’t I just drop you back where you left?”

“Uh...” Tommy is caught off-guard at that and scratches his head sheepishly. “I… don’t… remember?”

“How the fuck do you not remember where you left?” Dream demands.

“Hey, in my defense, we’d been traveling a lot!” Tommy protests. “Man can’t remember every place he’s been. I can’t remember a lot of things!”

I can, Dream wants to point out, but that would mean he’s trying to one up a sixteen year old, so he holds back.

“So. Let me get this straight,” Dream says instead. “I’m stuck with a sixteen year old runaway who doesn’t remember where he left his loving brother because he felt stifled.”

“You’re the one who threw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes,” Tommy sulks. “And you could always try not being on the run, have you thought of that?”

“Thanks, but I like my head attached to my neck,” Dream says.

“Would they really kill you?” Tommy asks, sounding morbidly fascinated. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” Dream says. “And my bounty says dead or alive, so yes, I assume they wouldn’t be opposed to killing me.”

“If you didn’t do anything,” Tommy says, believing Dream way too easily (a part of Dream glows at that unconditional trust. It’s been a long time since someone listened to his side of the story), “Then why does the king want you gone?”

Dream has turned that same question over in his head hundreds, thousands of times, tossing and turning during sleepless nights under the open sky. The king accused him of trying to overthrow him, but the thought has never even crossed Dream’s mind. The king is… well, he’s the king. He’s always been there, and Dream can’t remember any kind of dissent against him. So why would the king make up such a lie? Why would the server believe him?

As far as he can remember, Dream hasn’t done anything to offend the king. They’d crossed paths at tournaments as Dream, custom for the champion, paid his respects at the opening ceremonies before beating people up for the king’s entertainment, as well as the required rites inside the palace, but Dream can’t remember much of what happened during those.

Of course, he knew that opinions were split on him inside the castle. Dream was equally loved and hated for the fact that he didn’t come from the champion training grounds and had never gone through their system. There was reason to think that the king would look down on an outsider like Dream, but they’d never exchanged more than a few congratulations and murmured thank yous, so why…

Prime, Dream hates this. Thinking about it makes his chest seize up, something hot flashing through his body in response to his distress. He never used to get so anxious about things like this, but that’s what living on the run will do to a man.

“... I wish I knew,” he says at last. “But I don’t.”

Tommy shifts forward, placing his hands under his legs like a child.

“Let’s go find Wil’s brother,” he says earnestly. “I’m sure he can help somehow.”

Dream snorts.

“Sure, a random guy can solve all my problems,” he says sarcastically. “How would he help? And besides, he’s your brother too.”

“Nope!” Tommy pops the ‘p’ sound, blond hair flopping as he falls back so that he’s laying half-sprawled on the ground. “Wil took me in. We’re not blood-related.”

“Oh.” Dream frowns at that. “Guess I shouldn’t have assumed.”

“Yeah, well, you’re an arse anyway, aren’t you,” Tommy snarks.

Dream stifles a laugh and stands up, leaning over Tommy so that his shadow falls over him.

“I don’t mind getting you to your… Wilbur’s brother,” he says truthfully. “Though that might end up putting a target on his back if the soldiers follow us that far.”

“Meh, I’m sure he can handle it.”

“What makes you say that?” Dream asks. “Who is Wilbur’s brother?”

Tommy shrugs.

“Dunno,” he says, then adds completely casually, “Wilbur says his name is Technoblade?”

Dream chokes.

Technoblade?” he exclaims.

Tommy eyes him.

“You’re acting quite weird, man, you alright?” he asks before bulldozing forward: “Yeah, yeah, Technoblade. Fucking stupid name, but I guess he can’t help that. Why, you know him?”

Does Dream know him. Well.

What a question to ask about Dream’s predecessor.

“Dream? Dream, you there?”

Dream thinks his fingers have gone numb. He opens his mouth to reassure Tommy and tell him that he’s fine, but nothing comes out. Scratch that, maybe his whole body is numb.

“I think I have to sit,” he tells Tommy and awkwardly keels over to the ground in an ungainly pile of limbs as Tommy squawks.

“The hell happened to you?” Tommy demands, scrambling over on his hands and knees. “You get poisoned or something?”

Dream waves a hand in the air, hoping that conveys the appropriate amount of, Your brother’s brother is the fucking Blood God, the champion who got away, and now we’re going to find him? Holy fuck.

“I can’t understand sign language,” Tommy says, annoyed. “Use your words, dumb fuck.”

“It’s not—Whatever.” Dream pulls himself up with a sigh. “Wilbur’s brother is Technoblade? You’re sure?” he checks.

“Why would I lie about something like this?” Tommy asks indignantly. “I’ve never even met the guy in my life.”

“You’ve never heard of him?” Dream asks in bafflement.

“What is with you and asking if people have heard of—No! No, I haven’t heard of him, alright?”

Tommy crosses his arms and huffs, looking for all the world like a toddler whose toy got taken away. Dream would chuckles in amusement at the sight if not for the complete confusion he feels.

“Wait, wait,” Dream says, raising his hands to slow Tommy’s impending sulk. “Tommy, have you… ever heard of the champions?”

“Well, I’m a champion,” Tommy says. “The biggest, in fact.”

Resisting the urge to face palm, Dream says, “No, like, a server champion.”

Tommy hums and blows a stray lock of hair out of his eyes.

“What’s that?” he asks.

Dream reels.

Champions are the superstars of the server, so revered that parents send their children to the king in hopes of their child becoming the next victorious winner. People flock to the selection tournament from every biome, near and far, and when the final drop of blood is shed and the new champion stands—

They become legends.

But Tommy doesn’t even know what a champion is.

Dream doesn’t know what to make of it.

Then again, Dream thinks as his stomach twists. It’s not like there aren’t disadvantages to having a champion in the family. Dream himself is familiar with most of them, and when he thinks back on the resignation in George and Sapnap’s eyes as they stayed behind…

Maybe it’s better that Tommy doesn’t know what the champions are, much less the only man whose location is more wanted than Dream at the moment. Wilbur must have known that. For Tommy to not know that his adopted brother was related to the most infamous champion of all and to never hear of Technoblade’s name…

Wilbur must have taken every precaution to protect Tommy.

“Do you know Technoblade?” Tommy challenges, oblivious to Dream’s inner turmoil.

“Not personally,” Dream admits. “But I’ve heard of him.”

“What’s he like? Go on then.”

Dream thinks back on the whispered rumors he’d heard in the tunnels beneath the palace, where wannabe champions milled about between rounds as the air stank of fear and ambition. No one was your friend in that hellhole, and the only way out was up. To get there, you had to climb over scores of dead bodies.

The most important skill in a place like that?

“Immortal,” Dream says, turning back to Tommy. “They say Technoblade never dies.”

Tommy’s mouth drops open.

“Cool,” he whispers fervently.

“It’s all an exaggeration, of course,” Dream says. “Reputation makes up for a lot of things.”

Even as he says it, his mind whirls. If Tommy really does know where Technoblade might be, will the former champion be able to help Dream? Surely he didn’t disappear for no reason. He must know something that could restore Dream’s innocence.

“Did Wilbur say where to find Technoblade?” Dream asks, urgency leaking into his voice. “Any details you can remember?”

“He said...” Tommy trails off, furrowing his brow as he thinks. “He said we were headed north. To the Arctic.”

The Arctic.

Dream sits back on his heels, shoulders slumping. The Arctic is famously inhospitable, practically unlivable with its harsh conditions. If Technoblade is truly up there, it’s no wonder that no one has been able to locate him.

“Fuck,” Dream breathes. “This just got a whole lot harder.”

“Why, why?” Tommy demands. “Tell me, tell me, tell me—”

Dream shoves a hand over Tommy’s mouth, Tommy making a muffled noise of indignation behind it as Dream massages his temples with his other hand.

“The Arctic is a long way from here,” he says, thoughts racing. “The soldiers will never follow me up there, it’s too dangerous. But if I go, there’s no way for my friends to reach me either.”

Something wet and slimy touches his palm, and Dream yelps, dropping his hand.

“Did you just lick me?” he asks.

Tommy smirks.

“Shouldn’t have put your hand over my mouth,” he says triumphantly. “You’ve got friends?”

“Yes, I have friends,” Dream says, rolling his eyes for the umpteenth time that day. “They’re in the capital.”

“Why aren’t they with you?”

Dream pauses and considers Tommy, tilting his head. Tommy shivers a bit at that, and Dream is glad to know that the intimidation factor of his blank smiley face mask is still there.

“They’re protecting me,” he says quietly. “However they can.”

Tommy stills.

“Oh,” he says meekly. “I can understand that.”

“Good.” Dream gets to his feet, stroking his chin as he thinks. “We can go,” he decides. “It’s killing two birds with one stone. You get back to your brothers—”

Wilbur is my brother, this Techno-whatever-blade isn’t—”

“—and I might get more clues,” Dream finishes. “Hopefully, I lose the soldiers on my tail too.”

He casts a considering glance down at Tommy, who glares at him, albeit weaker than before.

“What’re you looking at, bitch?” he asks.

Dream scans him up and down, taking in the boney arms, still growing limbs, and uncalloused fingers. That won’t do. There’s potential there, but it’ll need to be brought out, refined.

“Tommy,” Dream says, a grin curving up his mouth behind the mask. “How do you feel about training?”

Chapter Text

“—seen him? Got a mask on now...”

“Fucking scary. Who knows where he could show up next?”

Wilbur hunches over his drink at the pub, fingers gripping the slippery glass for dear life. He’s already finished his third drink of the night and is all the more miserable for it, alcohol making his thoughts hazy and out of reach.

Two weeks. Two weeks of searching every nook and cranny in this Prime-forsaken city, and no sign of Tommy anywhere. Where did he go? How did he just disappear like that?

And why?

“... Crazy to think that someone like him was plotting treason,” someone says at the table to his left. “You know, I saw him a few times in the capital, and he always struck me as a decent sort of guy. From a bad background, sure, but there’s no winning everything, I guess.”

“Maybe that was it,” their companion suggests. “Even a crown can’t hide piss-poor.”

Wilbur’s mouth twists. What a charming fellow.

“Knew it was too good to be true when he was never trained by the system,” The first man sighs and tips back his drink, taking a swallow before continuing. “Don’t know how he’s evaded the bounty hunters and the soldiers for so long, though. The king has sent out so many already.”

“He’s a nimble bastard, isn’t he? That won’t last long if the rumors are true, though.”

“What rumors?”

The man leans in conspiratorially, eyes flickering back and forth in the low lighting.

“I heard,” he says, voice just carrying to Wilbur’s table. “That he’s picked up some kid. Slowed his pace down quite a lot.”

“No way.

“Yeah. A blond, skinny kid with a loud mouth is what my sources said. They’ve been spotted on the outskirts of a few towns.”

“What would a guy like that want with a kid? That’s just weird.”

“I agree—”

Wilbur slams his palms down, knocking over his drink. Jolting to his feet, he stumbles over to their table and lists heavily to the side, just barely catching himself on the side of their chair. Two men glance up at him, one dark-haired and stocky while the other sports an overgrown beard that could really use a trim.

“You alright there?” the dark-haired man asks, clearly alarmed. “Had too much to drink?”

“You said a blond kid,” Wilbur says, ignoring his question. He hasn’t had enough to be properly drunk, but desperation is a more powerful drug than any liquor. “Did you hear any other description? What he was wearing, or—or his name?”

“No name,” the man says and eyes him warily. “As for outfit… Not sure, but my friend mentioned something about red, which is surprising considering that Dream bastard only wears green.”

Shit. Wilbur’s stomach churns.

“Which direction were they headed?” he asks. “Please.”

“The hell are you so demanding for?” the bearded man huffs. “Are you a bounty hunter or something?”

“Yes. Sure, yes,” Wilbur says. He feels like he’s going insane. His first lead on Tommy in weeks, and it’s apparently in company with the most wanted criminal on the server? “Any information you have would be helpful.”

The men exchange glances.

“Well...” one drawls.

Wilbur knows what that means. Wincing, he reaches for his pocket and pulls out his money pouch. It’s disturbingly light. They hadn’t had much before, but with the way that Wilbur has been frantically going from town to town searching for Tommy, he’s burned through his funds faster than he thought possible.

Tommy is worth any cost, though.

Digging through the pouch, Wilbur fumbles until his hand closes around his last two emeralds. Laying them on the table, he says, “This is all I have, but please—”

The dark-haired man snatches one up, holding it up to the light and humming at what he sees.

“They’re real,” he says and looks over at the other man, who shrugs. “I guess we can tell you what we know.”

A wave of relief rushes over Wilbur, so strong that it almost knocks him over.

“Thank you,” he says, only to be rocked by despair again when the man says, “I don’t know what direction they were headed.”

“What? That’s not information!” Wilbur cries.

“But! But,” the man continues. “I did hear that the king is sending out a new group of hunters after them. Extremely elite and with some kind of hidden information to capture that Dream fellow. You might want to link up with them.”

“Where are they?” Wilbur asks.

The man chuckles.

“That’s the real information you’re paying for,” he says and gestures for Wilbur to come forward. Wilbur does, and the man’s hot, smelly breath fans across his face as he whispers, “They’re here in this town right now.”

Wilbur’s heart jumps, and he leans back, eyes wide.

“Really?” he asks, and the man nods.

“It’s a group of three,” he says. “Look for a man with goggles, a man with a headband, and a demon.”

“A demon?” Wilbur asks, caught off guard. Hybrids aren’t unheard of, but ever since the king sealed the Nether off (Wilbur can’t quite remember when), seeing hybrids has been rarer and rarer. “For real?”

“That’s what they say,” the man shrugs. “Hey, man, I’m glad we could, uh, help you out, but that’s all the information we have, yeah? Maybe you can...”

He makes a shooing motion with his hand, and the meaning is clear. They want Wilbur to fuck off so they can enjoy the rest of their drinks and gossip in peace. Wilbur backs up, the last of his tipsy fog clearing as he considers his new goal.

“Alright, thank you gentlemen for your information,” he says. “I’ll leave you to it.”

He escapes through the front door, heart pounding. The fresh air slaps him across the face and wakes him up even more as he pauses in front of the pub, scanning the streets. Goggles and a headband aren’t that distinctive, but a demon…

As Wilbur wanders through the town, he keeps his eyes and ears peeled. It seems like the former champion is on everyone’s mind as posters of a charming freckled face are pasted on every streetlight and bulletin board. There’s a hushed exchange on a street corner, a group of young girls sitting at the fountain, the indignant dialogue between some workers seated outside a restaurant.

Wilbur drifts through the conversations, ears pricked as he listens.

“—didn’t seem like the type to do that, and the king doesn’t have any proof.”

“—a shame. All for a power grab? It’s not worth it, the king is the king, he can’t be moved—”

“—so good-looking, I’m so sad that we won’t get to see him anymore! But do you think those cute friends of his are still around?”

“—can’t possibly think that there’s any merit to the accusations, right? The king never liked him because of his background, but that doesn’t mean that Dream is a criminal. If anything, he’s too well-liked, and the king—”

“Shh! Stop talking so loudly, man, someone will hear!”

Pausing, Wilbur turns his head incrementally to the side and listens to see if they’ll say anymore, but whoever was talking seems to have taken their friend’s advice in stride.

Wilbur has never liked or cared about the server champion. The title itself leaves a bad taste in his mouth, but Wilbur is objective enough to admit his distaste probably had its roots in how Technoblade had left home one day and then, after being crowned, kept leaving.

If being champion means leaving your family behind, Wilbur doesn’t want anything to do with it.

But Techno is long gone, and the current champion is on the run, and he has Wilbur’s little brother with him.

He has to find those hunters.

Night has fallen by the time Wilbur finally stops, feet aching in their worn leather soles. A few weeks ago, he would have had the money to get another pair, but when the city had taken their house, they’d also taken his funds. His dad was shit with the attention, but he’d been generous with his money. That was the only thing he was good for by the end.

Wilbur has half-given up, already resigning to another night of curling up on a park bench and hoping that the guards don’t chase him away before sunrise, when the sound of bickering echoes faintly in the distance. Squinting, Wilbur stares into the alley that the noise is coming from and forces himself to listen.

“George, give me back my mutton!”

“You weren’t eating it!”

“I was going to! Bad, tell him I was going to!”

Argh! You muffins! Stop arguing like you’re a bunch of toddlers!”

In the middle of the sketchiest alleyway Wilbur has ever seen (and trust him, he’s seen a lot) is a group of three men arguing with one another. One has goggles slung around his neck and is arguing with a man whose headband holds back his thick black hair. Corralling them and looking incredibly fed up is a demon, horns poking up from beneath his hood as milky eyes glare at the other two.

“George, give Sapnap back his mutton,” the demon orders. “Sapnap, don’t punch him. And eat your mutton.”

“I was going to,” the one named Sapnap sulks as George grudgingly hands the food back. “Thanks, Bad.”

“You’re welcome, Sapnap. And please try not to cause such a scene, we’re trying to keep a low profile here. People can’t know—”

“Excuse me,” Wilbur interrupts. He jogs over and waves a hand as they look around, trying to locate the voice. “Hi, me, I’m the one who called you. Are you the hunters?”

“Depends,” George says at the same time that Sapnap says, “We are.”

They glare at each other.

“Oh, you two!” Bad sighs, massaging his forehead with his hand. He turns to face Wilbur, and Wilbur tries not to startle at the inhuman features. “You’ll have to be more specific. We’re hunters by trade.”

“Sorry,” Wilbur says awkwardly and tries to gather himself. Nerves are making his hands jitter and his thoughts start and stop. “I meant the hunters that the king has sent after Dream.”

Much like the two men in the pub, the group exchanges a glance, but Wilbur knows immediately that this is different. At his question, the whole atmosphere changes, tension ramping up, and electricity practically crackling between them.

“Why?” George asks at last. He has a sleepy look about him, but that disappears as he fixes Wilbur with eyes that seem to know far too much. “Who’s asking?”

This is his chance.

“My name is Wilbur,” Wilbur introduces himself, barely managing not to stutter. “Wilbur Soot. I’m, um, it’s a long story, but I lost my little brother—”

“You lost your little brother?” Sapnap asks incredulously. “Bro, how the fuck did you manage that?”

“Sapnap, be quiet!”

“Sorry, Bad.”

“It just—It just happened,” Wilbur says. His nerves are fraying, and after weeks of panic, he feels like he’s second away from a breakdown. He really does not want that to happen in front of his only chance at getting Tommy back. “But they’re saying that Dream has him, please, if I can just go with you—”

“What would Dream want with a kid?” George murmurs under his breath. His brow creases. “That makes no sense.”

“It matches up with the reports, though,” Bad says thoughtfully. “Are you sure that it’s your brother?”

“I’m not completely certain,” Wilbur admits. “But it’s the only lead I’ve got.” He looks at them, and after a second of hesitation, goes to kneel. “Please, if you can just—”

“Woah, woah, holy fuck, dude, you don’t have to kneel,” Sapnap says, alarmed. “Get up!”

“Please let me travel with you,” Wilbur repeats. Bad tugs on his upper arm, and he rises laboriously to his feet. “I won’t slow you down, I’m used to traveling a lot, and I don’t need many supplies at all.”

“We’d give you supplies,” George says, shifting uncomfortably. He’s got a bow slung over his shoulder, and he fiddles with the point of it like a bad habit. “That’s not a problem.”

“Then take me with you,” Wilbur says, almost begging. “Please. I’m desperate.”

The group exchanges glances again, and Wilbur resists the urge to tear out his own hair and scream. Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, is the only thought running through his mind. Tommy with his brilliant smile, Tommy with his bluster and recklessness, Tommy who Wilbur took one look at and decided to love, Tommy who has repaid that love to Wilbur a million times over—

Tommy, who Wilbur can’t afford to lose.

“You don’t have anything against Dream?” George asks after a long moment.

Wilbur shakes his head.

“I don’t care what he’s done as long as he hasn’t hurt Tommy,” he says. “If he has, I’ll—”

“He won’t have,” Sapnap interrupts. “Dream doesn’t hurt kids.”

“How do you—? Nevermind.” Wilbur cuts himself off. “Is that it, then? Can I come with you?”

“That’s… fine,” Bad says hesitantly. “We’ll be traveling long and hard, though.”

The relief is enough to crack Wilbur’s chest in two, and he barely stops himself from collapsing at their feet to thank them.

“Thank you so much, you have no idea how much that means,” he says fervently. “I’ll do anything, I’ll be your pack mule—”

“Prime, who did you travel with before?” Sapnap asks, alarmed. “It’s okay, dude. Just keep up with us, and it’ll be fine. We’re not gonna use you like a, a fucking pack mule.”

“Right.” Wilbur takes a deep breath, and the rush of air brings a dizzying sense of purpose. He knows where Tommy is. He knows where he’s going now. “Keep up. I can do that. Which direction are we heading?”

George reaches into a pouch slung across his chest and pulls out—Wilbur’s breath catches.

“That’s a compass,” he says, stunned.

George glances up and then down in one quick movement, tilting the compass so that the streetlights obscure its surface.

“It is,” he says, gripping it tight. Even from a distance, Wilbur can see the intricate carvings around the side, delicate and painstakingly done. “Got a problem with that?”

“No, no,” Wilbur says, raising his hands. “Just… surprised. The king must have paid a lot of money to get you that.”

From the side, Sapnap snorts.

“Ha! Sure,” he says before Bad grabs his arm and murmurs something under his breath. Sapnap subsides after that while Wilbur continues staring.

Compasses are high-level magical objects, enchanted to always point in the direction of the target. Incredibly rare and notoriously difficult to craft, they’re reserved only for the most intensive of hunts or as the most extreme shows of devotion.

This must be the hunters’ secret weapon.

George stares down at the compass, and for a second, Wilbur thinks he sees something wistful flit over his face, but that can’t be right. He dismisses it as the aftermath of too many drinks and emotions all at the same time and focuses, listening intently.

“North,” George says with a note of finality. “We’re going north.”

Distantly, a bell tolls.

 

 

 

 

Fuck!

Dream huffs and places a hand on his hip as Tommy goes sprawling back again, helmet askew. Dream had managed to make a basic leather one for him after finding a tanned hide in one of the chests nearby, but so far, it hasn’t done much by way of protecting Tommy.

Mostly because Tommy keeps letting himself get hit.

“Your stance was too tight there,” Dream says. “There wasn’t enough time for you to block me.”

“No shit,” Tommy spits as he clambers back on his feet. “That’s cause you came barreling straight at me, innit?”

“I told you I was coming,” Dream points out. “In fact, I remember saying very distinctly, ‘Tommy, I’m going to come at you, and I want you to try and block me.’ Does that ring any bells?”

Fuck you.”

Dream sighs.

It’s been a few weeks since they started traveling together. Or, rather, Dream should say, since he started having another item to drag along with him. The only difference is that this particular item is mouthy and heavy, and Dream can’t store him in his inventory when convenient.

They had to abandon the desert temple fairly quickly since there was no water source nearby. Thankfully, the desert winds stirred up the sand behind them and obscured their tracks. Dream is fairly certain that they’ve stumped the soldiers for a bit and is grateful for the reprieve that they’ve had so far.

He’d taken Tommy past another forest biome until they were on the cusp of a plain and made camp. They’ve stayed here for the past few days, heading into the woods to trap small animals and gather supplies while using the open field to try and get Tommy’s fighting skills up to par.

‘Try’ being the optimal word.

“Look, you’re doing really well,” Dream offers when it becomes clear that Tommy is in another one of his sulks. “Surprisingly well, actually. You’ve got good instincts, and you pick up on the stances really fast. Plus, you’re light on your feet. You just tend to panic a bit quickly and then forget that you’re holding a sword.”

“Well, it’s not like I had a lot of chances to learn before,” Tommy complains. “Wilbur barely let me touch anything sharp.”

“And he was right,” Dream says, crossing his arms. He thinks back on the rumors he heard whispered in the castle corridors, about children brutally trained in underground chambers, and shudders. “Kids don’t have any business being around weapons,” he says firmly.

“How did you get this good then?” Tommy asks, gaze sharpening. “You’re older than me, but not by that much. Yeah, that mask doesn’t hide as much as you think it does,” Tommy adds when Dream stiffens. “I’ve seen your face.”

Raising his hand to his mask, Dream strokes his fingertips across the smooth porcelain, the smile gouged into its surface, and lets them linger for just a second before dropping his hand.

“It wasn’t my choice,” he says, choosing to answer Tommy’s unspoken question. “It’s… a necessity.”

He doesn’t know if he’s talking about the fighting or the mask.

Tommy hums and tilts his head to the side.

“Then why don’t you take it off when it’s just the two of us?” he asks curiously.

“Reasons,” Dream replies.

He ignores Tommy’s indignant squawk. It’s easier to brush Tommy off under the guise of having his life together than to admit the real answer, which is that he doesn’t know why it’s becoming harder and harder to take the mask off. Dream hasn’t thought a lot about his face before being on the run, but something about having his expressions hidden, knowing that people can’t judge him…

It’s comforting.

Shaking himself, Dream continues.

“Your footwork needs work too,” he says and moves forward. Grabbing Tommy’s shoulders, he uses one of his feet to nudge Tommy’s into the proper position and says, “Look, distribute your weight evenly, and you’ll be able to react even faster. Try.”

Dream steps back and watches as Tommy tests the ground, flexing his legs before making a tentative jump to the side. His eyes widen.

“That felt smoother,” he says as Dream nods encouragingly. “Holy shit, that worked!”

“I’m not—I wasn’t champion for nothing,” Dream corrects himself. The misstep makes him falter for a second before he recovers. “A-anyway, so much of fighting is just muscle memory. You have to practice to get the movements down, to read people’s body language, know when and how to strike, and all the rest. You’ll get—”

The words die in his mouth as Tommy repeats the movement, flawlessly leaping from foot to foot as he dodges an imaginary strike. He stares quizzically at Dream when he’s done.

“Dream?” Tommy asks. “Were you saying something?”

Dream’s jaw closes with a click.

“Just, ah,” he says and scratches the back of his head. “That you’ll get there eventually.”

Eventually was going to come a lot sooner than Dream anticipated, though, if Tommy kept improving that quickly.

“Not fast enough, though,” Tommy says in another astute moment that never fails to catch Dream off guard. “I’m slowing you down.”

Oh, boy.

“You are,” Dream agrees because he’s never been in the habit of bullshitting around. “But that’s okay for now.”

“Only because the hunters haven’t been able to find our trail,” Tommy says, expression grim. His hands white-knuckle against the hilt of the wooden sword that Dream had hastily crafted for him. “If they come after us like they did that first time, we’re dead.”

“Well, not dead,” Dream fumbles. “I’m pretty good at avoiding death, actually. I’ve gotten this far, haven’t I?”

“But it won’t be as easy for you as before,” Tommy says quietly. “Fuck, I shouldn’t have made you take me with you, that’s fucking unfair, you’ve got people trying to kill you! And I’ve just been here, using—using up your resources! Wil always did call me a gremlin, but it was okay when it was him and not for real. Oh, Prime, I’m a right fucking mess, aren’t I, you’re gonna die because of me! Fucking hell—”

“Hey, hey, Tommy!”

Tommy stops his rambling when Dream raises his voice and looks up, eyes bright and watery, and shit, Dream is really not equipped to deal with a crying teenager.

“Look, I knew what I was doing when I said I’d take you to meet Technoblade,” he says, shuffling his feet in place. “I know the risks better than anyone, so if I decided to take you with me, it wasn’t for no reason.”

Tommy doesn’t say anything, and Dream adds as gently as he can manage, “Can you trust that I know what I’m doing?”

That gets a wet snort out of Tommy, and he swipes his nose on his increasingly grimy shirt, saying, “Fuck no. You tripped over your feet when you woke up this morning.”

“I’m just not a morning person, you can’t hold that against me!”

Tommy laughs at that, and Dream counts it as a win. Reaching down, he grabs his own wooden sword and lets himself, for the briefest moment, miss the heft of his netherite axe. Then he takes a deep breath and pushes past the feeling.

“Two more rounds,” he says and is proud that his voice doesn’t shake. “Then we break and see if we can make some more progress today.”

Tommy perks up.

“We’re moving on?” Tommy asks eagerly.

“We have to,” Dream replies. Outwardly, he keeps his body language loose and relaxed, nothing to indicate that something is wrong. Inwardly, however, his instincts are screaming. It’s been quiet for too long. Surely, the soldiers are approaching them from behind. “We’re nowhere near the Arctic yet, so moving north is as best as we can do.”

“Maybe we can find a village to stop at,” Tommy says brightly, and Dream has to remind himself that this is just a kid who isn’t used to living under the open sky. “Get some supplies, you know?”

Dream winces.

“That… might not be the best idea,” he says.

“What! Why not?”

“Too visible,” Dream says, gesturing to himself. “And most villages out here are pretty isolated, they might not feel comfortable trading with outsiders.”

Frowning, Tommy argues, “That’s exactly why they would trade with us.”

Dream is caught off-guard.

“Explain,” he says.

“Well, they’re not used to seeing outsiders, so why would they be suspicious?” Tommy asks. “I know that the king warranted a bounty for you across the server, but most people here have never even seen the capital. They probably don’t even know who you are.”

“That’s… a good point,” Dream says. He hadn’t stopped to consider that before, those early weeks of his run filled by paranoia and a desperation that hadn’t let him sleep for several nights straight. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Tommy huffs in satisfaction.

“See? I know shit sometimes,” he says smugly. “You grow up in the capital then?”

And, oh, Tommy is far more perceptive than Dream gives him credit for.

“Not always in the nice part,” Dream replies. “But yes.”

“See, then you wouldn’t know,” Tommy says. “It’s a big world out here, Dream.”

Unable to help himself, Dream asks, “Then how do you know?”

“I—” Tommy’s brow furrows as he tilts his head to the side, squinting. Every part of his face is scrunched up, and Dream has half a mind to tease him about it when Tommy says, “I don’t know.”

There’s a note of honest confusion that makes Dream draw up short.

“You said Wilbur took you in,” he prods carefully, watching for any chance in Tommy’s expression. “Where were you before that?”

“I’m… not sure,” Tommy says after a pause. “Fuck, I mean, I had to have parents, but I don’t remember them at all, what the fuck?”

“That can be normal,” Dream says, placating. “I don’t remember too much from when I was a kid either.”

“But you do remember some things,” Tommy states.

“Well, I—yes.” Like how the orphanage was always too cold in the winter, how the other kids had stared at Dream and called him names, how he’d decided that he had a better chance on the streets than waiting to die in a hollow building that didn’t care. “But it’s all general stuff, Tommy, kids don’t have good memories.”

“But I don’t remember anything,” Tommy says, a note of genuine distress creeping into his voice. “I don’t—I mean, I was young, obviously, but fuck, why don’t I remember? Nothing? There was me, something that hurt, then Wil, and then… What came before that? Why can’t I remember?

“Tommy. Tommy!”

The sound of Dream’s yell snaps Tommy out of whatever funk he was sliding into, and he turns to Dream, pupils blown wide. Dream falters, not quite sure how to follow up. So he responds the only way he knows how.

“Let’s just… Go another round?” he offers weakly. “You can try to put your footwork into action.”

Tommy is quiet for a second, and Dream worries that he’s misstepped (sensitivity to teenagers wasn’t part of his job description as champion) but then his eyes light up, and he steps forward.

“You just want to beat me into the dirt again,” Tommy snarks, gripping his sword tight. “Well, fuck you, Dream! I’m going to beat you this time.”

That’s more like it.

Dream grins behind his mask, wolfish, and says, “Bring it, kid.”

They take their stances.

 

 

 

 

Three hours and a very beaten up Tommy later, they drag themselves into a small village.

Honestly, it can barely even be called a village, Dream thinks. It’s really more of a collection of ramshackle huts, villagers milling about as they exchange goods. Dream and Tommy get a few curious glances, but no real suspicion.

“Told you so,” Tommy whispers triumphantly and yelps as Dream elbows him in the stomach. “Fu—Watch it, I have a bruise there.”

“Shouldn’t have let me hit you,” Dream says, scanning their surroundings.

He sees a stall that looks like it’s selling dried meat, an invaluable addition to their food stack, and beyond that, a small stable with a few horses. Dream notes it down as an option, though he’s not sure if he wants to commit to having yet another mouth to feed. A horse’s speed might be worth the investment, though.

As he’s musing over this, Tommy barges past him and loudly proclaims, “Hello!”

All around them, the villagers pause, beady gazes turning upon them.

Dream grabs Tommy’s arm and drags him back.

“What are you doing?” he hisses, eyes darting back and forth. “Don’t be so loud—”

Tommy shakes him off and strides forward.

“Hello!” he says again, louder this time as if trying to prove a point. “Me and my buddy here are new in town.”

“That’s obvious!” someone calls from further down the road, and the villagers chuckle appreciatively as Tommy splutters.

“We’re looking for some supplies and somewhere to stay the night,” Tommy announces, recovering. “Anyone know where we can find that?”

“I don’t remember saying anything about staying the night,” Dream murmurs, but Tommy turns back, eyes bright.

“Come on, Dream,” he wheedles. “Think about it, a soft bed? That’d be the shit.”

“There’s nowhere for us to even stay—”

“You can stay with Sally down over there,” a villager says, nodding down the road. “She’s got a nice place and lets travelers stay with her. I think she has someone there now, but I’m sure she has enough beds for you.”

“Thank you,” Tommy says triumphantly. “Shut your mouth, Dream, you’ll catch flies—Thank you!”

Dream closes his jaw with a click and says disbelievingly, “How?

“You’d be surprised at what a winning personality and good manners gets you,” Tommy says grandly. “Now come on, I want a bed.”

Sally’s place turns out to be the biggest house in the village, with two floors. Sally herself is a nice looking young lady who welcomes them with a smile.

“A lot of travelers come through here, actually,” she says. “So I always try to make sure to have a few empty beds. There’s food in the kitchen, you can help yourselves.”

“Thank you,” Dream says while Tommy cheers. Dream keeps his arms crossed and his stance wide, though, as he surveys the room. “Someone mentioned that you had another guest?”

Pausing on the way up the steps, Sally says cheerfully, “That’s right! A nice man has been staying here with me for a while, he’s perfectly polite. In fact, I’ll get him now so you can get to know each other.”

“There’s no need—”

Dream can’t even finish his sentence before Sally disappears up the stairs, and he huffs in frustration. He’s been getting interrupted a lot today.

“This is nice,” Tommy remarks. Pulling out a chair, he flops down on it with a groan of relief. “A real chair! Prime, I can’t remember the last time I sat in one of these.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Dream says as he lowers himself into one across from Tommy. It is nice to have a proper seat instead of a bumpy log or pokey tree branch, but he refuses to admit that out loud. “It hasn’t been that long for you.”

“How would you know?” Tommy sniffs. “You don’t know me.”

“That’s… true,” Dream is forced to admit.

He’s only known Tommy for a bit, but for some reason, the kid has managed to win a part of Dream’s heart that’s normally reserved for his closest friends. Obviously, they’re nowhere near the same level, but something fond and protective settles over Dream all the same when he considers Tommy’s spitfire attitude and awkward enthusiasm.

“That’s okay, Dream.” Tommy is using his fake voice, the one where he deepens it to sound ridiculous on purpose and put on an act. “I know you think we’re the best of friends. We can be, we can be. You’re no Wilbur, but you’re alright.”

Dream cracks a grin under his mask.

“Thanks, Tommy,” he says dryly. “You’re alright too.”

They fall into a kind of silence. Tommy hums and drums his fingertips against the table, content to lean back on the chair legs and bask in the comfort of sitting in a real room.

Dream, on the other hand, finds himself tensing with each minute that passes. It’s been so long since he sat inside, and he hadn’t realized just how claustrophobic the four walls would feel. Not being able to see the stretch of the horizon makes all of Dream’s muscles tense up, and he feels sweat break out at the nape of his neck.

There are four possible exits to this house. The door, obviously, and the two windows on the walls. But it’s likely that any soldiers will end up surrounding the house, which makes all three of those options moot. That leaves jumping from the second story .

Dream knows his limits and has jumped enough times to know how to land safely, how to roll, how far he can go. It was his trademark as champion, doing daring flips and jumps that others couldn’t even touch. A two story jump is nothing.

Tommy, on the other hand…

“Dream, stop thinking so hard,” Tommy says, as if reading Dream’s mind. “What’s got you so worked up?”

“Too little space,” Dream grits out. He leans forward in his chair and has to bite back the instinct to make Tommy do the same. “If the king’s men find us now—”

“They won’t,” Tommy says confidently. Then, doubt flickers across his face. “Will they?”

“Better to be safe than sorry,” Dream says, then tenses. He hears something. “What was…?”

Sally comes clattering back down the stairs, a pretty smile on her face.

“He was sleeping, so it took a while to wake him up,” she tells them conspiratorially. “But he’s up now and excited to meet you two! Phil!” she calls back up the stairs. “These are two other travelers, just like you!”

“Oh, hello there,” a friendly voice says as a pair of legs appear, then a torso as man walks down the stairs. “Good to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you too!” Tommy enthuses as Dream freezes.

The man comes to a halt at the bottom of the stairs, hands hanging loosely at his sides and a kind smile on his face. He’s wearing green striped bucket hair, and his blond hair is shaggy around his face. His blue eyes are warm. The only concession to vanity that Dream can see is a single emerald earring dangling from his left ear. For all intents and purposes, he looks harmless.

Dream knows better.

“Where are you two from then?” The Angel of Death asks as Sally beams from behind him.

“We’re—” Tommy starts before Dream cuts him off brutally and efficiently.

“Just traveling,” he says and shoots Tommy a warning glare. Tommy, smart when he needs to be, abruptly shuts his mouth and looks down at the table. Good. “Wanderers, you know.”

The Angel of Death hums.

“Yeah, I know a bit about wandering,” he says as if he isn’t famous for conquering worlds and leaving them in the same breath. “We can relate to one another on that one.”

Dream’s heart is going a mile a minute, mind racing as he tries to think about how to extract themselves from the situation. The Angel of Death is unpredictable and rumored to be immortal. Dream doubts that he would even notice if Dream and Tommy really were two normal travelers, but they’re not. Dream is a wanted man, and while the Angel of Death has no known allegiances to servers, he probably wouldn’t say no to a pretty sum of money either.

They have to get out of here.

“I’ll get started making dinner,” Sally says, bustling around the kitchen. “Do you two have any preferences?”

“I like meat, any kind of meat,” Tommy says eagerly. “Do you need any help?”

He’s halfway out of his seat when Dream says tightly, “Actually, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” Tommy looks back, questioning. “It’s bad manners not to help, you know. Dream, did no one teach you manners?”

Underneath the joking tone, however, there’s a serious question in Tommy’s voice.

Do we need to leave?

Dream gives a tiny nod, and Tommy’s face immediately turns serious.

“Dream, is that your name?”

Both Dream and Tommy stiffen as the Angel of Death comes a step closer, one hand on his chin and an unreadable gleam in his eyes.

“Unique name,” he muses. “Nice, though. It’s got a good meaning.”

“Thanks. And what can we call you?” Dream asks, hand inching towards his inventory. Tension grips the air, stretching and stretching and stretching. It’ll only take a second for it to snap.

The Angel of Death smiles.

“Call me Phil,” he says. “And I’m gonna have to ask what a wanted criminal is doing with a kid.”

Before Phil is even finished speaking, Dream is out of his chair. Shoving the table (and a yelping Tommy) away from him, he pulls his sword out of his inventory and lunges forward as Sally screams in the background. Only—

Crack.

The wooden practice sword breaks clean in two as Phil pulls out his own netherite sword.

“That all you got, mate?” he asks, sounding unimpressed. “I have to say, I was expecting more from the champion.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck. How had Dream forgotten to craft an iron sword? Strike that, how had he forgotten to gather some iron? Had he really gotten so distracted by training Tommy?

It’s a deadly mistake, and one that Dream can’t afford to focus on if he wants to get himself and Tommy out of this situation. Gritting his teeth, he scrambles to think of a solution.

“Former champion,” he says as he mentally riffles through his inventory. Some food, some cobblestone, why the fuck does he have a bell? Where did he even pick that up? “Not anymore.”

“Oh, I’ve heard,” Phil says, and if he wasn’t pointing a sword at Dream, he might even sound conversational. “Still doesn’t answer my question of what the kid is doing with you.”

“I was—”

“Shut up, Tommy!” Dream barks. Tommy flinches back, and Dream doesn’t have to worry about that as Phil’s eyes narrow. “Look, we don’t want any trouble. We were just stopping to get supplies. No harm here.”

“Then why is the kid covered in bruises?” Phil questions, and fuck, Dream has really gotten himself into trouble.

“It’s a long story,” Dream says, hoping beyond hope that it’s enough.

“I’d like to hear it,” Phil says and launches himself forward.

His strike takes out the entire back wall as Dream throws himself out of the way. He hits the ground palms first and rolls forward, coming to a halt by the kitchen stove. There’s no time to be polite, and he pushes Sally out of the way.

“Move,” he says and grabs a burning log from the fireplace.

“Wait, this house is wood, you can’t—!”

Dream throws the fire down, grabs Sally in one arm, Tommy in the other, and bursts through the window.

They land on the other side in a rain of glass, Dream shielding the other two with his body as best he can. A sharp shard manages to get underneath Dream’s mask and leave a deep cut on his cheek. Hot blood rushes down his face, his neck. It hurts.

“Dream, what the fuck did you do?” Tommy demands. “The house—It’s on fire!”

Indeed it is, smoke curling towards the sky in a dark forbidding column. Fuck, Dream has practically sent out a signal of his location to the entire fucking server. This is not good, not good at all. Fuck.

Think about that later, Dream, there’s no time now.

“Sorry about your house,” he tells Sally who looks rather shell-shocked. “Now stay out of the way.”

Villagers are gathering around at the commotion, murmuring among themselves, and Dream spots one holding an iron axe.

“Can I—”

Without waiting for an answer, he snatches it out of their hands and whirls around. Sally’s house is properly on fire now, flames licking their way upwards as smoke makes the bystanders cough. Dream squints, his mask protecting him from the worst of it. Where did…?

A thunderous crack sounds as the roof explodes and an object goes hurling up towards the sky, dark against the afternoon sun. It’s hard to make out what it is against the backlight. That is, until the thing spreads its fucking wings.

Of course, Dream thinks dumbly as Phil looks down at him from the sky, giant wings spread wide behind him. Of course the Angel of Death has actual fucking wings. Because why not?

“You better surrender now, mate,” Phil calls down. The villagers scurry away, leaving a wide ring around Dream as he stares up at the sky. “You can’t win.”

“I can’t surrender!” Dream shouts back up. “Why don’t you just leave me alone? You don’t even need the money.”

“I don’t need money to do the right thing.”

“You don’t understand,” Dream says desperately. Prime, he hates this so much, hates that he has to defend every decision he makes, hates that he can’t go two steps without something, always fucking something, getting in his way. “It’s not that simple.”

“Then explain,” Phil says and bullets toward the earth.

Dream raises his axe just in time to meet Phil’s sword, and the force of Phil’s blow makes Dream slide back several feet. He tightens his grip and widens his stance.

“You’re really not giving me a chance to talk here,” he gasps.

“It’s not looking like you want to talk,” Phil says and presses down, hovering above Dream as his wings flap behind him.

Dream grunts, a bead of sweat falling down his face with the effort of pushing against Phil’s sword. His arms shake.

In the sun, the glare from their blades is almost blinding. Dream shifts his axe slightly and pauses when he sees what it reflects back at him.

A white, smiling mask. Blood trickling down.

A monster.

“I am not,” Dream forces out. Tightening his grip, he eyes the way Phil’s body hangs in the air, how it leaves his stomach exposed. If Dream can just… “a criminal!

He strikes.

Phil shouts in surprise as Dream’s axe leaves a gash in his clothes. Flying back, Phil presses a hand to his side and looks down with surprise on his face as his hand comes away bloody.

“Huh,” he says and tilts his head to the side. “You’re the second person to land a hit on me.”

Dream doesn’t even have time to relish that victory. It’s not a deep wound, he can tell right away, and there’s no way he can outrun someone with wings. No choice, then, but to press the advantage.

Wielding his axe, Dream runs forward and leaps at Phil. The momentum is enough to carry him a bit further, and he flips midair to get behind Phil, aiming for the back of his neck. He slashes down, only for Phil to jerk around at the last moment. Dream doesn’t pull away fast enough, and Phil’s sword hits home.

Dream hits the ground hard, air leaving him in a whoosh, and curls around himself, hacking for breath. Phil hit him on the arm, the same place where the soldier injured him weeks ago, and the reopened wound bleeds freely, crimson pouring into the dirt beneath him.

He can’t stay on the ground. It hurts, but he has to get up. Dream has to—

He forces himself onto his other arm and freezes.

There’s a sword at his throat, and Phil above him.

“Looks like it’s the end of the line for you, mate,” Phil says not unkindly. His hat hides his expression. “It was a good fight.”

He raises his sword.

“Wait!”

A shout stops Phil’s arm mid-motion, and he halts as Tommy comes sprinting forward. He knocks Phil’s sword aside and throws himself in front of Dream, spreading his arms.

“You’re making a mistake!” he says firmly, slightly out of breath. “Dream’s not hurting me or whatever you think he’s doing.”

“Tommy,” Dream coughs. His vision swims. He’s lost more blood than he thought. “Get out of the way.”

“No,” Tommy shoots back. “Mr. Angel of Death—”

“Mr. Angel of Death?” Phil asks, sounding amused.

“Phil, whatever!” Tommy tilts his head up and glares at Phil. “You’ve got it all wrong. Dream and I really are traveling together, and he’s been training me. That’s why I’m all bruised up. It’s not ‘cause Dream’s a shit person, it’s cause I’m a shit learner.”

“No child travels with a wanted man for no reason,” Phil says cynically. “Did he coach you to say that?”

“No!” Tommy says, frustrated. “You’re not listening to me. I’m saying that Dream is fine, I’m fine, and we just want to do our own thing okay? We don’t need some old man getting in our way.”

Dream feels sick. It’s either the blood loss or the fear that makes him want to throw up.

“Tommy,” he says urgently, reaching out to snag Tommy’s shirt. The movement makes the muscles in his arm seize up, and Dream grunts in pain. “You should just—You should leave.”

“I won’t,” Tommy says, eyes blazing. “Dream hasn’t even done anything wrong, that shitty king just falsely accused him, and now he’s on the run because no one will believe him!”

“Tommy—”

“That’s a big thing to say, mate,” Phil says. “Falsely accused?”

“Dream, tell him,” Tommy says.

He doesn’t see how it’ll help, not when he’s kneeling at the feet of an immortal, but Dream doesn’t want Tommy to see him die. Plus, what would George and Sapnap say? He has to at least try.

“It sounds crazy, but it’s true,” he says and laboriously drags himself to his feet. Tommy makes an alarmed noise in the back of his throat as Dream sways, but Dream waves him off. “I woke up one morning and found out that the king had charged me with treason.” He lets out a broken laugh. “I didn’t have a choice. I ran. And I’ve been running ever since.”

“Treason, huh,” Phil muses. “That sounds familiar.”

“So you see, Dream is fine,” Tommy interrupts.

“And what about you then?” Phil levels at him.

“I—” Here, Tommy falters. Dream blinks, and his vision goes all spotty. Is it supposed to do that? “Dream is helping me get somewhere.”

Phil doesn’t let him get away with that half answer.

“Get where?” he asks. His wings flare out, black as night. “Be specific.”

“To find Technoblade!” Tommy blurts out, eyeing the wings nervously.

Phil’s eyes narrow.

“What do you want with Technoblade?” he asks.

“My brother knows him,” Tommy croaks as Dream fights to stay conscious. “I don’t really know why either, it’s just—”

“Your brother?” Phil asks. He’s clearly taken aback but shakes himself, expression settling back into firm intensity. “How do I know that you don’t have ill intentions toward Techno?” he asks, sharp. “He doesn’t need any more people poking into his business, that’s happened before—”

Something clicks into place, and Dream takes a dragging step forward.

“You know Technoblade,” Dream says. His tongue feels thick in his mouth, each word slurring over the next. “You know where he is.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m telling you where—”

The world spins, and Dream tilts to the side.

“Dream! Dream, are you okay?”

“Oh, shit, that’s more blood than I expected—”

“Please,” Dream manages to whisper. “I just want to go home.”

Then he hits the ground, and everything goes black.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

By the time they finally reach the next town, Wilbur is feeling a bit more optimistic about the whole thing.

After the night around the fire, Wilbur feels a bit closer to George. Call him a dreamer, but he thinks that he and George might actually be bonding. George is the most enigmatic of all the hunters, always with a far-off gaze as he peers through the world in those tinted glasses of his, but he’s loosened up. Now, he even requests songs from Wilbur as they walk.

It’s enough to make Wilbur feel closer to the group as a whole. If even George is warming up to him, then, hell, Wilbur might be on his way to actually socializing. Take that, Technoblade! See, society isn’t all that bad.

… Right?

They’ve been traveling for a few days together when Bad finally calls it quits, and they begin looking for real civilization.

“We all deserve a break,” Bad reasons as the group massages their aching feet on the ground. “Won’t it be nice to find a peaceful place to rest for a bit?”

Yes,” everyone choruses emphatically.

The town they end up stopping at is a proper one with a bustling market and children running to and fro under their feet as their parents yell at them to slow down. Miners head home with pickaxes slung over their shoulders, shaking coal dust from their boots, while teenagers pose with weapons, cocky grins adorning their faces. At the street corners, guards shift in place with their spears propped over their shoulders. Their eyes scan the crowds for trouble, not that they’d find any in such a peaceful place.

Overall, the town is beautiful, the kind of place that Wilbur would have once dreamed of living in. Of having his own family here, singing in the center square with his guitar while Tommy and—

He shakes his head. There’s no need for fanciful imaginings, not when he hasn’t seen Tommy in weeks.

“I’m going to get us some beds for the night,” Bad says. He pulls out the hunters’ collective money pouch and distributes a few pieces of gold to Sapnap and George respectively. “Sapnap, get us food. George, get us weapons.”

“Why can’t I get weapons?” Sapnap complains.

“Because you’ll get carried away and buy too many,” Bad says with a sigh. “Just… Please listen to me?”

“Okay...”

After that exchange, the two break off as Sapnap makes a beeline for a stall where the scent of roast meat drifts enticingly over.

“They’re a handful,” Bad says fondly with one hand propped on his hip. “But I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

There’s a lump in Wilbur’s throat as he jokes, “I know how that feels.”

Bad’s eyes soften, and he places a clawed hand on Wilbur’s shoulder.

“If Tommy is really with Dream, he’ll be fine,” he says kindly. Wilbur doesn't know how Bad can promise something like that, unless he's confident that the hunters are just that good. Which, maybe they are. They're all Wilbur's got, after all. “You’ll see him soon.”

“If it's not too late,” Wilbur murmurs and shoves his hands into his pocket. “Have to get to him first though.”

“And we will,” Bad says. “Here, take this. Maybe this will cheer you up.”

Wilbur looks as Bad drops a few gold coins into his hand. His mouth drops open, and he stares at Bad.

“I can’t take this,” he says, stunned. “I—I have my own money.”

He doesn’t, but Bad doesn’t need to know that.

“You’re one of us now,” Bad says as if it’s that easy. “Our money is yours. Go ahead, buy something nice.”

Clutching the coins to his chest like they’ll disappear if they let go, Wilbur asks, “Thank you. Is—Is there anything I should get? For the group, I mean.”

Bad hums and tilts his head to the side.

“Something that will cheer us up,” he says, white eyes crinkling. “See you soon, Wilbur.”

With that, he waves a hand and jogs off to find them a place to stay for the night, leaving Wilbur in his wake.

Still in a little bit of shock, Wilbur lets his feet lead him around the town. He wanders down the main street, almost bumping into several people while muttering apologies under his breath.

It’s barely sunset, golden and pink clouds flitting across the horizon as Wilbur walks. The air is warm with the last remnants of summer as a cool breeze caresses his cheeks. Here and there, he stops to examine a stall’s goods, looking at beautifully crafted figurines, smooth iron polished until he can see himself in its reflection, and emerald earrings that glisten under the sunlight.

The last one makes Wilbur’s heart pang, and he forcibly turns away.

Nothing really fits Bad’s description of “something that will cheer them up,” though, so Wilbur keeps looking. He’s on the verge of giving up when his ears perk up at a familiar twang in the air. A gentle wind carries the sound to him, and Wilbur follows as if entranced.

It leads him to a small stall where an old woman sits while strumming a guitar. Her fingers are knobbly and wrinkled, but they’re sure on the guitar frets as she plays a soothing melody.

“One day,” she sings gently. “I know that you will be there. One day...

She must see him looking, because her strum slows, and she turns a soft smile in his direction.

“Hello, young man,” she says. “Can I help you?”

“That guitar,” Wilbur blurts. “How much is it?”

“This one?” The elderly lady holds it up and appraises it. “Hm… I’m afraid that this one is my personal guitar. It’s not for sale.”

“Oh.” Wilbur deflates, shoulders dropping. He should have expected that. After all, he’d thought that he would never sell his guitar either, all the way until he and Tommy were living on the streets and Tommy had gone hungry for two days, and no guitar was worth listening to the hollow grumble of Tommy’s stomach. “I understand, I’m sorry for asking.”

“Wait.” The woman’s eyes sharpen as Wilbur turns to leave, and she asks, “Are you a musician yourself?”

Wilbur laughs self-deprecatingly and scratches the back of his head.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a musician,” he says, embarrassed. “I just like to play.” Then, for a reason he can’t comprehend, he adds, “My dad used to love to listen to me play.”

“That’s lovely,” the old lady says, the rumble of age soothing and soft. “Does he still…?”

Wilbur draws in a sharp breath. After all these years, it still fucking hurts, every time.

“No,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” the lady says sincerely. She waits a beat as if considering something and then says, “You know what... I could be persuaded to sell this guitar to you.”

“Oh, no,” Wilbur protests, waving his hands. “You said—”

“For a very high price, of course,” she continues. “One that I don’t know if you can afford or not.”

“That’s alright, I’ll just—”

“Sing a song for me,” she finishes, a smile lighting up her face. “Then I’ll give you this guitar.”

Wilbur stops his protests, eyes wide.

“Are you serious?” he asks.

“Deadly,” she says and then laughs a bit at herself. “Sometimes I get tired of playing for other people. For once, I would like someone to play for me.” She holds out the guitar to him. “Please? For an old lady?”

Gingerly, Wilbur takes the guitar almost reverently, running his hand down the smooth surface. He’s almost afraid that it’ll feel foreign under his touch, but instead, when he takes a seat on the ground and settles it across his lap, it feels just like coming home.

“I’m a bit—I’m a bit rusty,” he coughs. “So, apologies if it doesn’t sound any good.”

The lady doesn’t say anything, just watches him with those ancient eyes, and Wilbur clears his throat.

“Right,” he says and takes a deep breath. “Here goes.”

His fingers pluck the strings as Wilbur falls into that well-loved headspace that he’s been missing for far too long. Music winds around him, and he feels the melody settle deep in his heart like a wayward child returning home. Words that he hasn’t sung in so long return to his mouth and flow from his lips. Before long, Wilbur has forgotten that he even has an audience, completely lost to the music.

When he opens his eyes again, the sun has almost sunken fully behind the rooftops, and the lady smiles at him with the setting rays gilding her face.

“Thank you,” she says sincerely. “That was lovely.”

Before Wilbur can thank her, something clatters behind him, and he hears, “Wil?”

Wilbur stiffens.

“There’s no way,” he says under his breath. “No fucking way.”

He almost doesn’t dare to turn his head, but it’s like someone has wrapped a noose around his neck and is tugging on it, forcing him to look around.

“Phil?”

Sure enough, standing several feet away, is a familiar winged figure.

Phil looks just as shocked as Wilbur feels, a string of dried fish almost falling from his hand.

“What are you doing here?” Phil asks, stunned.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Wilbur says and doesn’t hide his scorn. His fingers tighten on the neck of the guitar. “Back on this old server? I thought you didn’t come back to worlds you had already defeated.”

Phil flinches at the venom in Wilbur’s tone.

“I didn’t conquer this world,” Phil says. “You know why I left.”

Bitterness wells in Wilbur’s chest, an old enemy.

“To protect me,” he forces out through clenched teeth. “Or so you said.”

“Wilbur,” Phil says. He sounds pained. “You know that I would never hurt you.”

“Intentions don’t mean anything when you abandon your child, Phil,” Wilbur says. “You left me. Alone, in that house, for years.”

He remembers days of shadowed hallways, the echo of a lock turning in an empty house, and the constant wondering of why, why, why wasn’t he enough?

Why wouldn’t Phil take him with him?

“I didn’t mean to leave for that long,” Phil says. “You know that time passes differently for me.”

“I knew it,” Wilbur says under his breath. “The same fucking excuse, every time.”

“Wil—”

“When will you stop?” Wilbur shouts. Leaping to his feet, he hugs the guitar to his chest, barely resisting the urge to begin ripping at his own hair. “When will you learn that humans aren’t something for you to fuck around with? First it was mom, then it was me—”

“Don’t talk about her like that.” Phil’s voice is low, dangerous. “Don’t cross that line, Wilbur.”

Silence.

Wilbur’s chest heaves, and he swallows down the incoherent rage that threatens to choke him and leave him writhing on the ground. He won’t give Phil that satisfaction, he won’t. He’s survived this long without Phil, he doesn’t need him.

Turning back to the old lady, Wilbur says stiffly, “Thank you for letting me play. But I think I should return this.”

He holds out the guitar, but the lady shakes her head.

“It’s yours,” she says, and her gaze is flinty as she adds, “Anyone would be blessed to hear you play.”

Phil recoils, and Wilbur feels vicious satisfaction. Good.

“Thank you,” he tells her. “You have no idea what this means to me.”

And then he whirls on his heel and leaves.

“What—Wilbur, wait!”

“It’s too late, Phil,” Wilbur says without stopping. He can hear Phil hurrying after him, the clack of his shoes against the cobblestone road. Still wearing those stupid loud sandals. Wilbur’s heart hurts. “I grew up without you. I don’t need you.”

“You did grow up,” Phil agrees. Wilbur can’t see his expression, doesn’t want to see what’s written all across his father’s face. “And I’m proud of you.”

Wilbur’s vision goes red.

“You have no right,” he says, coming to a complete halt. Phil makes a startled noise and steps back. “I built my life without you, Phil. You and Techno both couldn’t be fucked with me anymore, so I took responsibility for myself. I—” A sudden burn in his throat draws him up short, and Wilbur has to dash at his eyes before any tears fall. “I found my own family.”

“I know, mate, I know,” Phil says quietly. “And you did great.”

“How would you know?” Wilbur asks scornfully. “For an immortal, you have the memory of a goldfish and the empathy of a snake. You only care for yourself.”

Phil chuckles.

“I have missed your insults,” he says wistfully. “Always a wordsmith, my Wilbur.”

“I’m not yours!” Wilbur yells. “Not anymore! You gave up that right long ago!”

“I know,” Phil says for the umpteenth time in their conversation. “And if you would just listen—”

“I don’t want to hear anything you have to say! Why did you even come back, you said you never come back to worlds that you—”

“Wil, I have something important to tell—”

“Oh, you can just fuck right off with that horsecrap—”

Boom.

In the distance, something explodes, and Wilbur staggers as the shockwaves force him forward. He just manages to turn his body around, back hitting the ground force as he wraps his arms protectively around the guitar. When the rumbling in the ground has stopped, he blinks and checks the guitar.

No damage. He breathes a sigh of relief, then looks up.

“What was that?” Wilbur asks.

Phil is still on his feet, eyes narrowed.

“Bad news,” he says, mouth pressed into a grim slash. “Did you see anything suspicious when you came into town, Wil?”

Wilbur shakes his head mutely. Then, suddenly, he remembers the guards posted at the corners. At the time, he’d thought it was strange that there were so many armed guards in such a quiet little town, but…

“Is there trouble?” he asks. Then, hope impossibly rising, “Is it Dream?”

Phil shoots him a sharp look.

“How did you—Never mind,” he says. “Stay here, Wil, you could get hurt.”

“I’m coming,” Wilbur says and pushes himself off the ground. “I have… I know people that will want to know what’s going on.”

“People?” Phil asks, surprised. “You’re traveling with a party?”

Wilbur thinks about Sapnap’s boisterous teasing that becomes more familiar by the day. He thinks about the way that Sapnap has to physically pick George up and shake him for him to get out of his bedroll in the morning. He thinks about Bad bandaging his feet, offering him the gold coins.

Something that will cheer us up, he told Wilbur. You’re one of us now.

“Yeah,” Wilbur says. “Been traveling with a few friends.”

Without waiting for Phil’s answer, he takes off for the city center.

 

 

 

 

An axe buries itself next to Dream’s head.

Dream throws himself out of the way as another soldier attacks, this one lighting an arrow on fire and sending it into the wooden wall. Someone screams, and Dream takes the briefest moment to grab the bystander and shove him away from the fire.

“Tell your friends to stay back,” he says sharply. The man nods, eyes wide, and Dream turns back to the platoon of guards leveling their spears at him.

“Surrender now, criminal,” the captain barks. “The king would like a word with you.”

Dream pulls out his iron axe, tosses it from hand to hand, and hopes that his bared teeth somehow carry from behind his mask.

“No, thanks,” he says and launches himself forward.

Rewind a little bit.

They had decided to stop at this town after traveling a good distance. The further north they got, the more the woodlands thinned out, and the more Dream’s shoulders tensed. As if sensing Dream’s growing tension, Tommy had suggested the town, eyes bright.

“You should sleep in a real bed after getting hurt,” he’d said, stupidly earnest. “Please? For me?”

Dream hadn’t had the resilience to say no, but Prime, he’s regretting it now.

His axe digs into the captain’s shield with a crack, splinters flying as the captain pushes back against him. Dream keeps one hand on his axe as he twists out of the way of another soldier’s blow, using it to propel himself up until he’s perpendicular with the ceiling.

Landing behind the captain, Dream kicks his legs out from under him and, in the ensuing commotion, makes a break for the door.

“Get him!” the captain screams as Dream slams the door open.

He races out onto the street, scanning for something, anything to get him ahead of the soldiers. Spotting a street lamp, Dream leaps for the bar and scrambles up, jumping to a nearby rooftop. He chances a glance behind him as soldiers pour from the building.

“Where did he go?” the captain demands, barging out after his men. “Find him!”

No chance, Dream thinks and ducks behind a chimney as the soldiers rattle on below him.

Dream waits until he’s sure they’ve left the streets and abruptly heads the opposite direction, landing lightly on the tiles as he vaults from roof to roof.

It’s a good thing that Tommy isn’t here. Dream had left him in Phil’s care while he went ahead to scope the town out, trying to look inconspicuous as possible as he ducked between alleyways and side streets.

Of course, that meant he had run straight into a guard patrol in the one building he’d decided to enter.

Ahead of him, a building spirals toward the sky. It looks like some kind of church, stained glass glinting under the setting sun. At the base of its pointed spire, there’s a steel railing that’s probably intended for builders to use when repairing it. The church sits squarely in the center of the town, and Dream can see a long stretch of unbroken rooftops behind it.

Beyond that, freedom.

Dream crouches and makes his way to the edge of the roof. The ledge crackles underneath his weight, a small piece of tile dislodging and falling to the ground. Dream watches it fall and imagines his own body, broken and cracked against the pavement.

Hell yeah. A challenge.

Taking a second to stretch, Dream flexes his fingers and cracks his knuckles. He leans from side to side, feeling the muscles in his calves jump. In some ways, parkour always makes him feel like a kid again, climbing up gutters to get away from angry shopkeepers or pulling George and Sapnap behind him when the roof was the only safe place to spend the night.

“Just like old times,” he quips to himself.

Narrowing his gaze to a metal banister sitting right on the edge of the church, Dream backs up a few steps.

And jumps.

For a split second, there’s nothing but the breathless rush of adrenaline and the wind against his hair. But that feeling is quickly followed by almost-panic, his stomach bottoming out as Dream’s body realizes that there’s nothing but air beneath him and stone in front of him.

Dream throws his hands out, and his body jerks.

Metal digs into his palm as Dream hangs grimly on. His legs flail beneath him as Dream fights to gain control of them. Eventually, he finds some purchase against the sandstone blocks and manages to push himself up so that both his arms are wrapped around the railing. He hauls himself over the edge and collapses onto the roof, chest heaving.

Then he laughs.

Getting to his feet, Dream takes a second to take in the view. The city sprawls beneath his feet, painted in burnished orange and rust as the sun drops lower and lower in the sky above. Hecan see the curls of smoke from where the soldiers set off TNT, and from far away, the sounds of enraged shouting are heard.

Up here, though, it’s quiet.

Dream takes a deep breath and exhales. The wind swirls gently around him, caressing the skin at the back of his neck.

For a second, it’s so peaceful that Dream could trick himself into thinking everything was normal, like he’s beaten George and Sapnap in one of their races across the city. Any moment now, Sapnap is going to come scrambling up behind him, bitching him out for cheating or something as Dream laughs. George is going to follow right behind him and join in Sapnap’s teasing while his soft gaze rests on Dream, making Dream feel more undone than any applause or stadium. Dream will throw his arms around their shoulders, and they’ll stumble home laughing as Bad chides them for their recklessness.

“Dream?”

Dream inhales sharply. His imagination is getting the better of him.

“Dream, you idiot, what are you doing?”

But his imagination can’t recreate the annoyed inflections in Sapnap’s voice, not even in Dream’s best dreams or worst nightmares.

He turns.

Sapnap is standing behind him, mouth dropped slightly open. His headband has come loose, one strand fluttering in the wind as he takes a step toward Dream. He looks skinnier, and dark circles are pressed deeply under his eyes.

“Sapnap,” Dream’s mouth says. He feels untethered from his own body, mouth moving without his permission. “Is that really you?”

Sapnap takes another step closer.

“Who else would it be?” he asks gruffly. “You know anyone else who can follow your crazy parkour? Please, I’m the best parkour warrior in the whole server.”

“Second best,” Dream corrects automatically. His lips curl into a faint smile. “I’m still here.”

Snorting, Sapnap says, “More like a ghost with how hard you are to track.” His lower lip trembles suddenly and violently, and Dream is alarmed for a second before Sapnap says, “I’m gonna hug you now.”

The word, “Sure” is only halfway out of Dream’s mouth before Sapnap is throwing himself forward, wrapping Dream into a bear hug.

Dream freezes under his touch, body going stiff and tense. Then, inch by inch, he forces himself to relax.

You’re safe, he tells his body. This is Sapnap, the only one who always has your back.

You’re safe.

He hugs Sapnap back.

“You have no idea how worried we’ve been about you, man,” Sapnap says, voice choked. “Shit, the king has been going crazy trying to drag you back to the capital. I know you’re too good for them, but the odds are so fucking stacked against you, it’s crazy.”

“I figured with the amount of soldiers coming after me that he was doing something like that,” Dream admits. Then, “Wait, what are you doing here?”

Drawing back, Sapnap gives Dream a final thump on the back and smirks, “You have Bad to thank for that .It took a few months, but he managed to convince the king that we were so betrayed by you abandoning us that we wanted the chance to drag you back ourselves.”

“That doesn’t sound like something the king would fall for,” Dream says skeptically.

Sapnap shrugs and reaches into his pouch.

“I don’t think he really believes that either,” he says. “But this was too good for him to pass up.”

Something drops from his hand, dangling from a chain, and Dream’s eyes widen.

“That’s—”

The compass. The one that Dream had gifted to them so long ago when he had finally saved up enough to pay for a custom enchantment job.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” he had said nervously after the three of his friends had unwrapped his gift and were staring down at it quietly. “I-I mean, it’s just a, I don’t know—I thought you’d like it? Cause it’s not like we go far from one another anyway, but now that I’m champion, I have to do a lot of stuff, you know, talk to people and go to events. I’d feel better if you guys knew where I was and what I was up to. So—”

“Dream,” Bad had said in shock, running a reverent finger over the runes etched into the compass’s surface. “This must have cost a fortune.”

Dream shifted on his feet and shrugged.

“It’s worth it,” he said simply. “And besides… I feel safer knowing you guys are out there and have my back. You wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”

“Dream...”

“If you don’t like it, I can take it back,” Dream said, halfway to panicking. “Uh, I don’t think I can get a refund ‘cause it’s custom made, but I’m sure—”

He was cut off by George crossing the room in quick, sure strides, and covering Dream’s mouth with his hand.

“Don’t take it back,” George had said, so close that Dream could see the thick fan of his eyelashes. “You idiot.”

And Dream had known that it would all be okay.

“I know we’re not supposed to use it for this,” Sapnap says now, a little sheepishly. “But we needed something to convince him to let us out of house arrest.”

“You guys were on house arrest?” Dream snaps out of his daydream. Anger flares, hot and sharp in his stomach. “How dare he—”

“It was fine,” Sapnap placates immediately. “We had everything we needed. But we were going a little stir crazy not knowing what was happening to you, so we had to pull out all the stops. Now the king thinks that we’re going to drag you back with us so you can stand trial for your crimes or some bullshit like that.”

“Just you three?”

“Well, we picked up a traveler, but...” Sapnap trails off, and his brows furrow. “Hey, come to think of it, what’s up with that kid we hear you’ve got with you? I didn’t think you had time to babysit while you were on the run.”

Dream winces and runs his hand through his hair.

“It’s a long story,” he says. Guilt fissions through him as he realizes that neither Tommy nor Phil know where he is. Well, Phil has wings. Finding Dream shouldn’t be a problem for them. “But basically, this kid ran away from his brother—”

“Oh, fuck.” Realization dawns on Sapnap’s face. “So it really is Wilbur’s brother.”

“You know Wilbur?” Dream asks in shock.

“So that kid is Tommy?”

“What the fuck—”

“Also, what’s with that stupid ass mask, dude, I heard you were wearing one, but your taste is shit—”

They start talking over one another, words overlapping as they piece together two halves of the same story. Dream tells Sapnap about the mouthy blond kid who had gripped his heart and refused to let go, swearing and all, while Sapnap shares about a desperate brother pushing through exhaustion to find his family member.

“Who would have thought that things would line up like this?” Dream asks, running a disbelieving hand through his hair. “Is this good or bad?”

“I don’t know,” Sapnap says grimly. “But unlike most people, Wilbur definitely thinks you’re a criminal and is worried about what you’re doing with Tommy. We, uh.” He frowns. “We haven’t told him that we’re your best friends.”

“Don’t,” Dream says at once, mind racing. “Wilbur is hiding something from Tommy. I don’t know what yet since Tommy doesn’t know either, but if he’s not showing his hand, we don’t show him ours.”

“It’s going to be pretty hard to hide,” Sapnap argues. “Especially if we try to fake capturing you—”

“You can’t,” Dream interrupts. His gut twists. Sapnap starts to protest, but Dream barrels on. “You can’t catch me now, even if it’s staged. The king’s guards are too close, and there’s no guarantee that you’d be able to protect me from them. We have to stay separated.”

Hurt cleaves Sapnap’s face in two, and Dream forces himself to ignore it.

“But—” Sapnap starts before cutting himself off. Gathering himself, he pulls back his shoulders, stiffens his upper lip, and asks, “For how long?”

“It’s too dangerous for me to go back without knowing why the king accused me in the first place,” Dream replies, calculating in his head. “I have to talk with Technoblade.”

“What?” Sapnap reels. “Technoblade? The Blood God? You never said anything about—”

“Long story,” Dream says for the second time. The hair on his arms prickles, and he suppresses a shiver. “We’ve talked for too long already, but Sapnap, you should know—”

“There he is!”

A shout sounds from beneath them, and they glance down at the same time.

The base of the building is surrounded with soldiers, some armed with crossbows that are aimed directly at Dream. If he squints, Dream can make out a blue speck somewhere lost among the sea of iron armor. His heart pangs.

“We have no time,” he says, turning back to Sapnap. “Fight me.”

“My favorite activity,” Sapnap jokes, but his expression is grim. “Fuck. You have a way out of here?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Dream thinks he sees a shadow against the sun.

“Yep,” he says. “I just need you to distract them. Something big and noticeable.”

“Oh, I can do that,” Sapnap says. Sparks crackle around his hands.

Taking a deep breath, Dream sinks into a fighting stance, ready to spring as Sapnap begins circling him. For a split second, Dream thinks about taking off his mask. It would feel so good to feel the air against his bare skin, to take the mask off and face the world unhidden. Besides, this is Sapnap. Sapnap who saw Dream’s face when it was smeared with dirt and blood. Sapnap, who held Dream when he cried because of a hunger that wouldn’t go away. Sapnap, who vowed to follow Dream wherever he went and hasn’t broken that promise since.

But they have no time, and Dream’s mask stays on.

“One last thing,” Dream says as the shouts underneath them grow louder and more frantic. He hears the sound of crossbows being notched. “How—how’s George?”

Sapnap's face softens immediately.

“He’s fine,” he reassures Dream. “He misses you.”

Dream’s heart twists.

“Tell him—” He stops himself, some unnameable wash of emotion choking him. He tries again. “Tell him I miss him too.”

Sapnap nods.

“Will do,” he says. “Hey, Dream?”

“Yeah?”

“Duck.”

A fireball blitzes through the sky, singing the top of Dream’s hair as he drops to the ground and rushes forward. He sweeps a leg out, hoping to catch Sapnap off guard only for Sapnap to leap over him easily. Sapnap summons a sword and swings down, shattered stone flying as Dream rolls out of the way.

“You’ve gotten rusty, Dream!” Sapnap calls as Dream draws his own axe.

“Still good enough to beat you!” Dream shoots back.

He swings his axe, and Sapnap deflects it with his sword, sliding under their crossed weapons to try and stab Dream in the chest. Dream barely dodges in time and lashes out with his fist, catching Sapnap under the chin.

Sapnap staggers back from the force of the blow, but before Dream can press the advantage, an arrow whizzes through the sky. Dream flips back to avoid it, only to flatten himself against the ground as more come flying.

“The hell?” he says. “You’re here too, they’ll hit you!”

“They don’t care,” Sapnap gets out as he avoids a stray shot. “As long as they can get to you...”

Another arrow flies in their direction, and Dream flips back only for it to go wide by a fraction of an inch. Looking down, Dream can just barely make out George’s familiar stance, bow notched with another arrow. If he squints hard enough, he can almost pretend that they’re making eye contact.

George releases his bow. Dream doesn’t move.

The arrow misses.

George never misses.

A soft smile spreads across Dream’s face, and he wishes he could flit down the rooftops to whisper a soft “thanks” into George’s ear, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, another hail of arrows rains down on them, and Sapnap is forced to bring his shield out of his inventory, going down to one knee with the force of their impact.

Fury kindles in Dream’s stomach, hot and raging, but he wrestles it down.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he says. “Sapnap, that distraction?”

Sapnap's grin is wide and feral.

“Oh, I can distract all right,” he says. “You?”

A shadow covers the last light from the setting sun, and Dream braces himself.

“Don’t worry about me,” he says. “Stay safe.”

Dream launches himself from the roof just as the church erupts into fire.

It’s that same falling feeling from earlier, only this time, Dream has no goal, no aim. He just forces his eyes open, watering against the wind, as he hopes that—

Phil swoops in and catches him under his arms, Dream’s feet brushing the ground before they’re off into the sky again, Phil’s wings flapping behind them.

“That was cutting it close, mate,” Phil remarks casually as they soar away from the chaos behind him. Dream is tempted to twist his head to look, but any movement causes a wave of nausea to rush through him. “Almost got charred there.”

“I was fine,” Dream says. “Tommy?”

“Still out of the city,” Phil confirms. “I made sure he stayed put before heading to where you were.”

Dream breathes a sigh of relief.

“That’s good,” he says and chances a look up. He can’t really see Phil’s face from here, the shadow from the brim of his hat blocking off his eyes, but Phil’s mouth is twisted downwards in an unhappy frown. “You alright?”

“I’m fine,” Phil says distractedly, and that’s not a tone that inspires confidence in Dream, not when he’s dangling from Phil’s arms in the air. “Just… Some memories, that’s all.”

Dream thinks about leaving Sapnap on that roof, the wonderful yet faraway glance at George with his straight back and steady bow, and sighs.

“I know what you mean,” he says wistfully.

“It doesn’t matter now.” Phil continues talking as he flies. They leave the town far behind them until it’s only treetops and plains. Below them, Dream can hear the rustle of monsters waking up to nightfall. “I just have to keep moving on.”

It sounds like he’s talking more to himself than Dream, but Dream nods all the same.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “No way but forward.”

 

 

 

 

It’s dark by the time Wilbur reunites with the hunters.

Sapnap looks… singed, for lack of a better word. There’s a bruise forming on the bottom of his chin, dark and mottled as he faces down the captain of the guard with his chin tilted defiantly up.

“It’s not my fault that you were too incompetent to catch him,” he’s saying as Wilbur comes up. “Don’t blame me.”

The captain looks seconds away from tearing his own hair out. Or stabbing Sapnap through the stomach.

“That,” he grits out. “Does not give you permission to burn down the church!

Oh. So that’s what the smoldering remains in front of Wilbur are.

Sapnap shrugs, arrogantly casual.

“Hey, I was just trying my best,” he says, examining the soot beneath his nails. “Tell the king to pay for it. All part of the hunting expenses.”

He turns away from the spluttering captain, and for a second, Wilbur thinks he sees a shadow cross Sapnap’s face. But the expression is gone as quickly as it came, and Sapnap is jogging over to him and clapping him on the shoulder.

“There you are,” he says cheerfully. “We were looking for you.”

Wilbur nods stiffly.

“I saw the explosion,” he says. “I was on the other side of the city, though, so it took me a while...”

He trails off as Sapnap reaches over him and grabs the guitar slung across his back.

“Where’d you get this?” he asks curiously. “Is this a—”

Don’t touch it.

Sapnap blinks and lets go, and Wilbur regrets his outburst right away. Backing away, Sapnap eyes him with more curiosity than wariness.

“Alright, sheesh,” he says. “I was just curious. No one is coming to take your things.”

Wilbur is still scraped a little too raw from running into Phil earlier, and the image of Phil taking to the sky with his night-dark wings is too fresh in his mind, so he just shakes his head.

“It’s fine,” he says. “I’m just… a little on edge. Sorry.”

Before Sapnap can reply, Bad and George jog up to them, George’s bow still in his hand.

“We need to follow them,” George says. His goggles are shoved up on his head, and his eyes are strangely red. From the smoke, maybe? “Did you see who caught him? It was the Angel of Death—”

“Wait,” Wilbur interrupts. His hands are shaking, and he grips the guitar a little bit tighter to his chest. “The Angel of Death is with Dream?”

“Unless you know another winged immortal who flies around, then yeah,” George says before switching his attention back to Bad and Sapnap. “We have to—”

“We have to wait,” Bad says firmly. His ears flick to the back of his head as he grabs George’s arm, as if he’s afraid that George will take off running. “They’re probably far away from us now, there’s no way we can track someone who flies. Besides,” he looks around, “We should help repair this town.”

Sapnap looks down guiltily at that.

“But—” Wilbur starts. “If Phil—I mean, if the Angel of Death is traveling with them, then that’s all the more reason to hurry, right?”

George throws his hands up.

Exactly,” he says, tone sharp with frustration. “This time was too close. He barely got away.”

The hunters begin to argue among themselves, Bad saying that they need to wait while George pushes for them to go after Dream faster. Sapnap looks like he wants to say something, gaze flitting between his friends, but he stays silent.

Wilbur is about to join George’s side when he feels a tap on his shoulder.

Turning, he sees the captain of the guard gesturing for him to follow. Wilbur turns to look back at the hunters, but the captain shakes his head. Confused, Wilbur follows him as he leads him into a small alcove at the side of the street, well out of the earshot of the crowd.

“You’re Wilbur Soot, right?” the captain asks.

Wilbur jolts.

“How did you know my name?” he asks warily.

“The king knows many things,” is all the captain says, rather ominously at that. “Do you know who you’re traveling with right now?”

“Um...” Wilbur gestures back to the hunters. “Sapnap, George, and Bad? I don’t know last names, sorry.”

“Not their names,” the captain says impatiently. “I mean, do you know who they are?”

“Hunters,” Wilbur answers hesitantly. “I’m sorry, what are you—”

“The fallen champion has evil roots,” the captain says scornfully. “When he first appeared in the stadium, we all knew there was no way for some gutter trash to win, yet he did, in the most violent way that we’ve seen since the Blood God. And guess who he brought with him to the very heart of the capital?” He nods in the hunters’ direction, and Wilbur goes cold. “His best friends.”

What?

Wilbur’s heart pounds in his ears, blood rushing to his head.

“I thought—I thought they were trying to bring him back to the capital,” Wilbur stammers out. “They said they were hunting him.”

“In name, maybe,” the captain dismisses. “But I wouldn’t trust a pack of street rats as far as I could throw them, and believe me,” he lowers his voice conspiratorially, “Neither does the king.”

While Wilbur is still in shock, the captain continues.

“I know there’s been a lot of… talk, recently,” he says distastefully. “How the champion has been falsely accused, how there’s no evidence, but trust me, there is. He’s just been building his lies for years, but we caught him in the middle of plotting against the king. Can’t trust those who come from outside, you know. But don’t fear. Once he’s captured, the truth will be revealed, and people will no longer fall for his pretty face and clever words. Everyone who’s associated with him or his little group of hunter friends, well… Let’s just say they’ll face the consequences.”

Wilbur flinches, Fuck, has he accidentally committed treason then? He’s not particularly patriotic, but if there’s going to be yet another barrier between reuniting with Tommy—

“Now, you can be forgiven for assisting them,” the captain says as if reading Wilbur’s mind. Wilbur startles back, and the captain tsks. “Ignorance is hardly a crime, and we all know how manipulative those demons can be.”

Bad hadn’t seemed manipulative. Bad had bandaged Wilbur’s feet. Bad had given Wilbur those golden coins.

“But the king will forgive you,” the captain continues grandly. “As long as you do a little something for us.”

“What do you want?” Wilbur asks. Paranoia is making his vision swim, and fear leaves him groping through the dark of his own panic. “I—”

“All we need,” the captain says, his voice honey sweet, “is your cooperation.” Stepping forwards, he lays an armored hand on Wilbur’s shoulder. “Keep traveling with the hunters, but leave a trail for us to follow, and we’ll capture that criminal in no time. Be subtle, and don’t let them catch you. We’ll do the rest and bring the whole lot back to the capital where they’ll face justice.”

“My brother,” Wilbur’s numb lips force out.

Tommy. What does this mean for Tommy? Has Wilbur been—

“Will be returned to you, safe and sound,” the captain promises. “That Dream is a manipulative son of a bitch. A child can’t be held responsible for believing in him.” He shakes Wilbur once, twice, until Wilbur’s eyes focus on his face again. “Do we have an agreement?”

His expression is as eager as a panting dog. Wilbur can almost see the drool dripping down from his chin in a long, ugly strand.

But if he wants to reach Tommy…

“One last thing,” Wilbur says. The captain’s face pinches, and Wilbur hurries to finish. “What will you do about the Angel of Death?”

 

It’s embarrassing, it really is, but seeing Phil again has shaken Wilbur to his core. When they yelled at each other on the street, Wilbur had let the fury overtake him, but now that some time has passed, Wilbur’s thoughts are rearranging themselves. Hadn’t Phil taken care of him when no one else would? Hadn’t Phil bought him his first guitar, held Wilbur’s hand through the trial and error of learning?

Hadn’t Phil loved him?

“We’ll deal with him,” the captain says. “For now, we’re not sure why the Angel of Death is traveling with a traitor, but he often has his own agenda. We’re familiar with his dealings, so he’s not a factor beyond capturing the criminal. Those hunters, though...”

Gulping, Wilbur takes one last look over his shoulder. The hunters are still arguing, Sapnap’s hands waving in the air as he explains something to the two of them. Wilbur can’t hear what he’s saying, but George’s face crumples, and he nods resignedly. Bad places a hand on his shoulder, and George leans into the touch.

They don’t like a group plotting to overthrow the king. They look like…

They look like a family.

But Wilbur’s got a family too, one that he’s already sworn to protect with his life, and he’s paid that price several times over already. He can’t afford to lose that, not for anything.

“So?” the captain asks. “Are you with us?””

Wilbur takes a deep breath and clenches his trembling fingers into a fist. Looking the captain in the eye, he weighs his options and makes his decision.

When Wilbur goes back to the group, they look at him at the same time, like a single unit.

“There you are,” Bad says, a note of relief in his voice. “We were wondering where you went.”

“Yeah, where did you go?” George asks. His eyes narrow.

“Just… taking a breather,” Wilbur lies. His heart jumps, and he hopes his expression doesn’t give him away. “The smoke is bad for my lungs.”

“Can’t relate,” Sapnap grunts.

“Well, maybe you can be the tiebreaker here,” Bad says. “We were just talking about if we should go after Dream tonight or not. Personally, I think it would be smart—”

“Let’s go,” Wilbur says.

All three hunters pause, clearly not expecting such a fast response.

“Are you sure?” Bad asks cautiously. “It’s been a long day. I mean, we can handle the travel, but you—”

“No, no,” Wilbur says. “I’m fine. I say that we go while the trail is still hot.” Sweat beads down the side of his face. “No sense in wasting time, right?”

“That’s what I said,” George agrees, but his voice is more cautious than it was before. “We don’t need to catch up with him right now, but we can do more the closer that we are.”

Sapnap starts, “But Dream said—”

“He said something to you?” Wilbur asks sharply.

Immediately, Sapnap looks caught out, and he glances to the side, untying and tying his headband nervously.

“No,” he says unconvincingly. “Just, you know, taunting me.”

Now that Wilbur is looking, he can see all the cracks in Sapnap’s demeanor. The way he fiddles with his sword hilt, avoiding meeting Wilbur’s eyes… Betrayal twists his gut, and he forces it down. It was his own fault for believing a group of strangers so easily. Doesn’t he know better? Hasn’t he warned Tommy of the same thing countless times before?

Hasn’t he learned that no one chooses Wilbur?

“Then why would you listen to him?” Wilbur asks. “He taunted you because he knows you’re going to catch him. We need to follow him now.”

That might have been too much. Even George looks disturbed by the intensity in Wilbur’s voice, so Wilbur directs his next words to him.

“You’re the one who wanted to go after him,” he says pointedly. “If we want to catch up to him, we need to pay a price. Even if it’s with our own bodies.”

Wilbur has always been good with his words. My little wordsmith, Phil had called him after Wilbur persuaded him to give him just one more, one more piece of candy after dinner. Always so persuasive.

George is no different. He falls for the callback, hook, line, and sinker. Reaching up, he snaps his goggles over his eyes so that Wilbur can’t read his expression anymore.

“Fine,” he says. “Let’s go then.”

Bad sighs but begins to organize their things busily. As he finishes, he slings their bags over his shoulder and looks at Sapnap and George.

“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” he says.

George and Sapnap immediately look guilty.

“Bad—” Sapnap starts.

“No, it’s okay,” Bad waves them off. “I’m just letting you know, for transparency. At the end of the day, though, I’ll do whatever you muffins decide. That’s what we promised each other, remember?”

To Wilbur’s surprise, Bad turns to him next and says, “I trust you too, Wilbur. You’re one of us now, your input is just as needed.”

Fuck.

“Thank you, Bad,” Wilbur croaks. His throat is dry. “I really appreciate everything that you guys are doing for me.”

“It’s not a problem at all,” Bad says cheerily. “And, oh—Is that guitar yours? Did you buy it just now?”

Wilbur runs his hand down the frets, feeling the metal strings catch on the skin of his fingers.

“Yeah,” he says. “I hope this will help cheer you all up.”

“I’m sure it will,” Bad says encouragingly. “I can’t wait to hear you play it for us.”

Taking a deep breath, Wilbur smiles shakily.

“I’m looking forward to it too,” he lies.

Far in the distance, in the midst of scorched rubble, the captain smiles.

Chapter Text

“Shit!”

Dream curses as he sprints over to where Tommy is running from a group of hunters. Leaping at them, Dream catches one around the neck and slams her into the ground, grabbing his crossbow and firing an arrow into her companion. He goes down with a thud, and Tommy instantly disappears into the nearby foliage.

Across the clearing, Phil is already finishing up his fight, huge wings easily knocking out two assailants as he pins the other to the ground.

“This one says she’s not sent by the king,” he calls over to Dream. “They’re just bounty hunters. Independent.”

“How did he find us?” Dream asks, grim. Striding over, he looks down on his would-be attacker and places the tip of a sword to her throat. “What tipped you off?”

“Anonymous reports said you were in this area!” the bounty hunter blurts. Her face is pale and clammy with sweat as she talks almost faster than her mouth can move. “Villagers gossip, so we knew you left the cities. Plus, the king increased your bounty, so there’s a bunch of us hunters looking for you. We spread out through this forest, one of us was bound to find you at some point.”

“Fuck,” Dream spits. “There are other groups searching right now?”

The bounty hunter nods frantically.

“Lots,” she says. “If you let me go, I’ll lie about which direction you went. I’ll say you were wearing different clothes, please—”

“You know we can’t risk it,” Phil tells Dream. His wings flex behind his back.

Breathing heavily through his nose, Dream stares down at the bounty hunter. She’s started crying now, tears and snot dripping down her face and falling to the dirt.

“I have a family,” she begs. “Little cousins, my parents. They need the money. I used to be a stone worker until the king took our mines, please, I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Dream,” Phil warns.

Dream shuts his eyes.

“I don’t want to hurt you either,” he tells the darkness. “But you were going to hurt me first.” Then, “I’m sorry.”

He strikes quickly.

“Well done, mate,” Phil says as Dream cleans off his sword. “Quick and painless.”

“I learned that fast in the arena,” Dream replies quietly. As he scrubs the blood off his blade, he sees his mask in the reflection. “Some of the other contestants liked to draw it out. I never did.”

“That’s good,” Phil says. His voice is light, but his gaze is heavy. “Keep that part of you. It’s what makes you human.”

Dream doesn’t feel very human, sitting several feet away from a dead woman, but he nods quietly all the same.

“Can you get Tommy for me?” Dream asks. “I’ll—I’ll try to clean some of this up.”

Phil nods.

“We’ll take our time,” he promises.

Phil brings Tommy back right after Dream finishes disposing of the last bodies, emerging from the bushes with Tommy looking none the worse for wear as he grabs onto Dream.

“You two are safe!” Tommy exclaims, hands latched around Dream’s arm like a vice. He doesn’t seem to notice or care about the blood stains on the ground, despite Dream’s best efforts to cover them with leaves. “Fuck, everything happened so fast, I didn’t even see you when you finished them off.”

“You have to move fast in a fight like that,” Phil says, nodding at Dream as if Tommy isn’t holding onto him. “You did good getting out of there as fast as you did, mate. Smart thinking.”

“Yeah, well.” Tommy scowls. “Knew I couldn’t take them in a fight, could I? So I did what you said the smart thing was.”

A bolt of fondness fissures through Dream’s chest, and he ruffles Tommy’s hair.

“That was exactly right,” he says, unable to stop the note of warmth from leaking through. “Good job, Tommy.”

Tommy beams up at him and lets go of his arm. In turn, Dream drops his hand and sags to the ground with a sigh, all the day’s adrenaline catching up with him. It’s been a few days since their fight in the town, and the hunters had caught them off guard. Dream had naively thought that they’d found a safe place to take a breather when they dropped from the tree tops with their weapons in their hands and death in the winds.

“That was too close,” Dream breathes, drawing a hand across his mask’s eye holes. “Fuck! I never get a moment to rest.”

“We did alright for a little bit,” Tommy points out tentatively. Then he frowns. “Though the first time we met, you were getting chased by, like, a whole platoon of soldiers, so maybe that point is moot.”

“The time between running into hunters is getting shorter,” Dream says, exhausted. Letting his head sag, he runs a weary hand through his hair. “But it’s not even that. It’s knowing that I can’t relax, even for a second. It’s not being able to trust anyone or anything.”

Swallowing, he thinks about the look in Sapnap’s face, the warmth of his touch when they had hugged and how Dream, for the briefest of moments, had wished he could just wake up and have the past months just be a horrible nightmare.

“It’s how I can’t go home,” he tells the ground defeatedly, “and I don’t even know why.”

There’s a faint rustling sound, and when Dream turns his head a little bit, he sees Tommy crouching next to him, arms wrapped around his legs.

“Do you think you’ll ever be able to?” Tommy asks him quietly. “Go home, that is.”

Dream’s gut twists.

“I want to,” he replies, but both of them know that’s not really an answer. “Do you?”

“I want to see Wilbur,” Tommy replies. A shadow falls over them, and Dream knows that it’s Phil with his wings outspread. “But I don’t know about ‘home’, you know? Like, what is that? A place? A country? I don’t think I really know.”

Dream thinks about the scent of freshly baked muffins filtering through a window. He thinks about a warm rag washing away the blood he can’t reach after a day at the arena and the soothing voice that follows it. He thinks about two beds pushed together.

He thinks about his friends.

“Home is a place where you know you’re safe,” he tells Tommy. “It’s where you can always go back to, and—”

Homesickness rises up and chokes him, and Dream cuts himself off before his voice can shake. It’s one thing to think about his friends and what he’s left behind. It’s another to cry about it when they’re only inches away from being caught, no less. In fact, it’s pretty fucking useless, actually. Dream needs to be better than this. He has to be.

Abruptly, he slaps his mask, and Tommy yelps in surprise. Dream doesn’t actually hit his own face, but the impact is enough to make his palm sting, and the edge of the mask digs into his face.

“The hell are you doing, Dream?” Tommy asks.

“We need to go,” Dream says, standing and scanning the surrounding area. “The last bounty hunter said that there were other groups searching. We can’t be here for long.”

“I can fly up to scan for where they are,” Phil says, wings flapping already.

Dream shakes his head.

“Bad idea,” he says. “That gives away our location now.”

“Alright, then what’s your plan?” There’s a touch of annoyance in Phil’s voice.

“We need to find somewhere to hide,” Dream says, mind working furiously. “If we keep running, we won’t have time to cover our trail effectively, and they’ll always be able to follow us. If we can find a place to hunker down for a little bit—”

“I know where to go,” Tommy says suddenly. When both Dream and Phil glance over at him, he says defensively, “What? I can be useful too!”

“How would you know where to go?” Dream asks. “You’ve never been here before.”

“It’s a forest, innit?” Tommy asks, jutting his chin out, and it’s so reminiscent of their first meeting that Dream almost physically rocks back from the nostalgia. “I know some secret places in forests.”

When Dream and Phil look at each other, he huffs and says, “Look, I know you two think I’m a kid who doesn’t know how to take care of himself, but I did survive by myself for weeks without you two. Plus, Wil and I traveled a lot after we got kicked out, so it’s not like I’m helpless, yeah?”

Without waiting for a response, he turns on his heel and strides off into the forest.

“You lot coming or what?” he calls back.

Dream looks at Phil. Phil raises an eyebrow. Then, he shrugs and goes after Tommy.

Choice taken out of his hands, Dream follows.

His nerves are on high alert as they stalk through the undergrowth, his hand flying to his axe handle whenever he hears a crinkle in the distance. Phil is similarly on the lookout, watchful eyes scanning their surroundings while his wings flex on their back.

In sharp contrast, however, Tommy is almost skipping ahead of them. He darts through the trees sure-footedly, dancing between boughs. He looks almost more at home in the forest than any other setting Dream has seen him in.

“Should be around here somewhere...” he hears Tommy mumble under his breath. “Ah! Found it!”

“What did you—”

Before Dream can finish his question, Tommy disappears.

Dream and Phil lunge forward simultaneously.

“Tommy!” Dream shouts.

Scrambling to where Tommy was just standing (he was just standing there), Dream finds himself looking over the edge of a pit so dark that he can’t see the bottom. His arm dangles uselessly down, fingers still outstretched for someone that’s no longer there.

There’s no sound from the bottom.

“Tommy,” Dream repeats helplessly.

“Heads up,” Phil says from above him. Dream can’t bring himself to look away, caught staring into the darkness where Tommy disappeared. “I think we’ve got company.”

A snicker.

“You’ve got that right,” a stern female voice says. Dream can hear the drag of metal across the forest dirt. “You were hiding so well, too. Shame you gave yourself away.”

“Who’s Tommy?” a nasally male voice pips in, and Dream stiffens.

Fuck. His shout.

Forcing himself to his feet, Dream keeps his head bowed and his hands clenched into fists. Something builds inside of him, a heat that scorches through his insides. It’s like a forest fire consuming everything in its path until all that’s left is the roar of white noise in his ears and the thumping pulse of blood blood blood in his heart.

He lifts his head and examines the enemies in front of him.

It’s mottley group of five or so, their leader standing in the front. She’s a tall woman whose hair is combed back into a neat ponytail and is holding out an iron sword, potions strapped to her belt.

“Come quietly,” she tells him in a commanding voice. “The king wants you alive or dead, and I for one would prefer you alive. No blood needs to be spilled.”

Dream laughs, a crackly sound. Tommy’s gone, and they’re saying no blood needs to be spilled?

Fuck that.

“And what do you think will happen when you take me back?” Dream asks. “No blood for an accused traitor, right.”

“You shouldn’t have done it anyway,” the woman says, brow furrowing disapprovingly. “You had everything you ever wanted. Why throw it all away for some scheme for the throne? What did it give you? More power?”

This whole ordeal is so ridiculous and Tommy’s absence so acute that Dream has to press a hand to the side of his head, gritting his teeth through the pain lancing through him.

“I didn’t do it in the first place,” he says. “Not that anyone cares.”

“That’s bullshit.” The man that Dream had heard laughing ambles forward, a scar splitting his lips and exposing a mouth full of yellowed teeth. “Don’t try and convince us, we heard you were manipulative. She doesn’t want blood, but I don’t mind it.” He sniggers. “Not at all.”

“Fine with me.” The blood rush is stronger now, Dream’s head throbbing as his fingers itch for a weapon. He has his iron axe stowed away in his inventory, a few swords as well. The blades are sharp; he tested them yesterday. They’ll cut into flesh so well. “If it’s blood you want, then—”

Something tugs at him, and Dream jerks back.

“Don’t rush into it,” Phil says under his breath. “You’re being reckless.”

Dream hadn’t even noticed that he was starting forward. He doesn’t feel very in control of his body right now.

“I can beat them,” Dream says, not tearing his eyes from the way that the group has shifted into formation: Three fan out across the clearing, cutting off possible escape paths; two take point, the woman and the ugly man, their weapons poised for attack. Dream summons his axe, wraps his fingers around its handle, and relishes the way the hunters take a step back in fear. “Let me kill them, Phil.”

“Dream, I need you to trust me on this. I know it’ll sound crazy at first, but you need to trust me.”

Phil is speaking very quietly and very fast. Dream hears his words, but it takes a second for them to process.

“Trust,” he scoffs. “I’ve let you come with me this far, isn’t that trust enough? Now let me kill them, Phil. Don’t get in my way, or I’ll—”

“Dream. Tommy’s not dead.”

What?

That draws Dream short. His entire body locks up for the briefest of seconds before he turns to Phil.

“The drop,” he says, mouth numb. “He didn’t respond when I called for him.”

“I know that, but if this is what I think it is, then he’s not dead,” Phil insists. He shakes Dream’s arm and says, “You have to believe me, or we’re not getting out of this without blood.”

“That’s fine,” Dream says mechanically. “At least it won’t be mine.”

“Won’t be—You sound like Technoblade right now, and that’s not a good thing.”

“What are you blabbing about?” the man calls. He’s got an axe out, spinning it between his hands as he grins maniacally at them. “Trying to come up with a way to escape? Hate to break it to you, but this isn’t the arena, champ.

Ignoring him, Phil mutters urgently to Dream.“I can’t explain everything now, but you need to leave this fight be,” he says. “If you listen to me this time, I promise you’ll see Tommy soon.”

Prime, Tommy. Everything had happened so quickly, Dream’s been given no time to process the deceptive calm, shock, despair, and adrenaline. Part of him wants to throw Phil’s arm off and run headfirst into battle and see the fine mist of blood scatter through the air.

But. Tommy.

Dream unclenches his fingers around his axe.

“What do I need to do?” he asks.

Phil’s hands come up and curl around Dream’s biceps.

“Jump,” he says and then throws them down the pit.

 

 

 

 

Dream twists his body just in time as he lands with an oof. Scrabbling beneath him, his fingers scrape against some kind of… cobble, maybe? No, the texture isn't quite right for that, and there are strange mossy strands clinging to each block. He straightens and takes in his surroundings automatically, the stone walls that form some kind of... underground structure? There are even doors leading out of the room that they’ve landed in, and Dream’s mouth falls open behind his mask as he takes it in.

What is this place?

Before he can ask, Phil is behind him, urging Dream to his feet.

“Block the entrance,” he says, clearly still on edge. “No sane person would follow us down here, or even think we’re alive, but better to be safe than sorry.”

“You said Tommy was down here,” Dream says. His headache is gone, as well as that odd surge of bloodlust that had felt so… unfamiliar, but he hasn’t forgotten Phil’s words. “Then where—”

“Oi! Dickheads!”

The familiar shout makes Dream’s heart lift impossibly in his chest, and he turns, breath caught in his chest.

“Tommy…?”

Across the room, Tommy throws open a door that Dream hadn’t even noticed and races across to them, skidding to a stop in front of Dream.

“What took you so long?” he frowns, crossing his arms. “I was waiting for ages. What, did old age slow you down?”

“You’re alive?” Dream asks in shock.

Tommy stares at him strangely.

“Of course I’m alive, what else would I be?” he asks nonsensically.

“But you—I called your name,” Dream says helplessly, mind whirling.

“Not like I could hear you when I was off exploring like a big man, could I,” Tommy offers as an explanation.

Above them, Phil drifts down from where he flew up to cover the hole with some debris lying around, dusting off his hands as he lands.

“Dream?”

When Dream doesn’t respond, Tommy squints and leans in closer as if he can scrutinize Dream’s expression behind the mask.

“Are you shaking?” Tommy asks delightedly.

Dream shoves Tommy further and backs up slightly.

“No,” he says and tucks his hands under his armpits.

It’s too late, though, and Tommy just crowds up against Dream again, this time standing on his tiptoes to get as close to Dream’s mask as possible.

“You are! Were you scared? Were you worried about me, Dream?” Tommy coos. Dream can almost see the sparkles coming out of his eyes. “Awww, Dream! I didn’t know you cared so much!”

“Shut up,” Dream grumbles. He can feel his ears turning red and hopes that Tommy doesn’t notice, but no such luck.

“And your ears! They’re so red! Is that why you wear a mask, because otherwise you’d give everything away?”

“Tommy, shut up! And yes, of course I was worried!” Dream throws his hands up in exasperation. “You—You were right in front of me, and then you disappeared, and there was a giant hole that I couldn’t see the bottom of! I thought you fell! I thought you died.

The last word sobers Tommy up as he straightens, scratching the back of his neck ruefully.

‘I suppose it could seem like that, huh,” he says sheepishly. “But look, Dream, I knew it was perfectly safe!“

“I did too,” Phil adds, coming up behind them.

Dream gapes.

How?” he demands.

Phil doesn’t answer right away, gaze turning dreamy and distant as he looks around.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here,” he says wistfully. “Nothing has changed.”

“What does that mean?” Dream asks, feeling like all he has is questions and no answers. “Phil?”

“Come on,” Phil says, ignoring Dream’s question. “Let’s go explore.”

Tommy pumps his fist in the air.

Hell yeah!” he cheers.

Phil strides through the room, throwing open the door as Tommy scampers after him. Left with no other choice, Dream follows behind helplessly. It’s a feeling that he’s become very used to these days.

Their footsteps make eerie echoing noises as they walk through the underground fortress. Dream keeps looking around him warily, at the way that that strange moss clings to dilapidated stone, the creaking iron doors that they have to force open.

“How long has this been here?” he asks as Phil examines the corner of a room. “It looks… ancient.”

“Oh, centuries, most likely,” Phil says as if that’s not a mind-boggling fact. “Historians’ best guesses say that this is a remnant of a previous civilization that lived on this server eons ago. These strongholds are our only remnants.”

“What?” Dream might have been a street kid, but he’s not completely uneducated. “I’ve never heard anyone say that.”

That makes Phil look up in surprise.

“You haven’t—?” he starts and then frowns. “Did I get it wrong? I thought that the king kept his champions-to-be here, using these strongholds as training grounds...”

“Well, I wouldn’t know,” Dream says. A bolt of sudden insecurity strikes him, and he wraps an arm around his middle protectively. “I was never part of those training sessions.”

“You were an outsider,” Phil says with an air of revelation. He looks at Dream, something shining in his eyes. “So that’s why the king is so determined to come after you.”

“What are you—”

“Guys! Guys, look at this!”

Dream looks over to where Tommy is waving a torch frantically. He and Phil head over, and Tommy grins at them, blue eyes shining in the yellow light.

“Look at that cool bug!” he exclaims, pointing to the ground. “It’s all silvery and shit! And it’s huge.

Bending down to examine it, Dream makes a face under his mask. The bug-like creature that Tommy has found is… ugly, to say the least. It’s the size of a cat and has plated scales running down its back, beady black eyes staring balefully at Dream. It chitters at him, small pincers clicking as it scuttles between his feet.

Dream is about to poke it when Phil shouts, “Don’t touch it!”

Dream jumps back at Phil’s words and drags Tommy with him as Phil stabs the bug with a single precise motion. It makes a high-pitched sound before flopping lifelessly around Phil’s sword.

Phil tugs his sword out and kicks the bug’s carcass aside.

“It’s a silverfish,” he says and sheaths his sword. “Not overly dangerous, but their bites can get infected really easily. We have to find its spawner and destroy it.”

“You know what it’s called?” Dream asks while Tommy blurts, “Why’s it called a fish? It’s a bug!”

“I’ve seen them before,” Phil says in reply to Dream’s question. “And I guess they looked like fish to the people who used to live here,” he tells Tommy.

“Idiots,” Tommy says under his breath. “That’s obviously a bug.”

“I feel like I’m the idiot here,” Dream blurts, causing both of their heads to turn towards him. “Are we seriously just treating this massive underground structure like it’s no big deal?”

“Oh, right,” Phil says, making a face of realization. “This is probably your first time seeing one.”

“City boy,” Tommy jeers.

Dream feels like he’s been thrown to the ground in a fight and gotten a concussion, his head is spinning that much.

“What is going on?” he demands, placing his hands on his hips. “Can you two cut the bullcrap and tell me?”

“Actually, yeah,” Phil says, turning to Tommy. “I know how I know this place, but I don’t know how you know. How do you know?”

“Not gonna lie, that made no sense to me at all, Phil,” Tommy replies with a straight face. Seeing Phil’s unamused expression, he shrugs and says, “I dunno. It just feels familiar. Kind of like… I’ve seen it before. Don’t know where though, or when.”

Remembering the panic that Tommy had fallen into the last time his past before Wilbur came up, Dream tenses, looking for that same hysteria, but it’s not there. Instead, there’s just a blank acceptance that sits on Tommy’s face.

Disturbed, Dream decides not to push it, at least not now. There will be time to talk about it later.

There’s a strange look on Phil’s face, and he tilts his head to the side like a bird as he looks at Tommy. Dream waits for him to say something, to call Tommy out, but instead, Phil just shakes his head and walks forward.

“Let’s head deeper,” Phil urges. He walks over the silverfish, now sliced in two, and pushes open another creaking iron door. “It should be around here somewhere...”

Dream doesn’t even bother asking what the “it” is. Instead, he crouches next to the rotting chest by the door and opens its lid, checking for supplies. It’s not bad—a few arrows that he tucks away in his inventory, some iron ingots, and a gently pulsing blue sphere.

Frowning, Dream holds it up to the light and examines it. It doesn’t look like any kind of valuable metal, not as deep blue as a sapphire nor as green as an emerald. In fact, it almost looks like there’s something staring back at him, like—

“Dream! You coming, mate?”

Dream jumps and pockets the sphere, a cold lump against his thigh as he heads to Phil’s shout.

“Coming!” he calls.

He’ll think about the mysterious sphere later.

As Dream catches up to Phil and Tommy, he finds them standing around the ruins of some kind of a broken structure. Pieces of pierced metal lie on the ground, and shattered crystal shards crunch under his boots.

“What is this?” Dream asks, stepping gingerly to where Phil and Tommy stand by what looks like the base. “Some kind of… building?”

“An End crystal,” Phil says quietly. His face is wane and pale as he picks up a piece of broken metal. “How did it get to the Overworld? It’s not supposed to leave the End.”

“Looks shiny,” Tommy remarks. He bends and pokes the crystal with a finger, holding up a shard and turning it so that it reflects the dim torchlight. “It’s purple!”

“That’s pink, not purple,” Dream says automatically, ignoring Tommy’s indignant response. He turns back to Phil and tells him, “Phil, I literally have no clue what you’re talking about, haven’t since we got here. What’s going on?”

Phil opens his mouth, and Dream says sternly, “No avoiding the question. Just—What is this?”

“First of all,” Phil says. His face is still that awful ashy color, and he looks like he’s been stabbed in the stomach. “You’re gonna have to be a bit more specific than that.”

“Okay, where are we?” Dream says, patience fraying quickly. He’s surprised that his temper hasn’t appeared earlier considering the clusterfuck that this entire day has been.

“This is a stronghold,” Phil says with a faintly incredulous air. “They’re rare but scattered all throughout the server. You normally can’t come across them by accident but, well, Tommy over there seems like a bonafide stronghold tracker.”

“I’m like a dog,” Tommy says proudly, puffing out his chest. “Sniffing out whatever-holds these are.”

“And what are strongholds originally for?” Dream asks.

Phil looks gobsmacked.

“Do you really not know?” he asks, aghast.

“No, I don’t, and you’re making me feel like a real idiot for not knowing.” Dream crosses his arms across his chest and glares at Phil the best he can through his mask.

“Mate,” Phil says in disbelief. “You go through a stronghold to reach the End.”

The End.

Somehow, the way Phil says it makes Dream think that he’s not talking about the end of a book.

“What is… the End?” Dream says the name carefully, as if the words are fragile sugar-spun ornaments that could crack between his teeth.

Phil curses and, in a rare moment of frustration, hurls the piece of metal he was holding across the room. His wings burst open, black feathers casting a menacing shadow against the walls as his blue eyes coldly burn with anger. His feet lift off the ground until he’s hovering, toes barely brushing the floor.

Dream and Tommy jump at the clatter of metal against stone, and Tommy scurries to Dream’s side, one hand reaching out to grab the hem of Dream’s shirt.

“‘m not scared,” Tommy says defensively as Dream moves his head to the side a little. “Just got shocked, that’s all.”

“Mmhm,” Dream hums but lets it slide. With Tommy behind him, he feels just a little bit warmer.

“Fuck,” Phil says, chest heaving from exertion. He stares down at the broken remnants of… whatever the structure was and curses again. “Fuck!”

“Phil?” Tommy says warily, poking his head out from Dream’s side. “You alright?”

“I didn’t think he would actually do it.” Phil sounds like he’s talking to himself now, the outline of his sword flickering in his hand as he rapidly shifts it from his inventory to reality. Back and forth, back and forth. “That bastard is fucking insane. How did he get away with this? The amount of energy that he must be using—”

“Who are you talking about?” Dream shouts. Phil jumps as if only just remembering that he isn’t alone, and Dream takes a step closer. “Phil, you need to calm down and explain yourself.” Then, the nail in the coffin, “You’re scaring Tommy.”

“No, he’s not!” Tommy exclaims as if his voice isn’t shaking. “But Phil, you definitely could chill out a bit right now. I know your nickname is the Angel of Death, but not around us, yeah? You know, your friends?”

Awareness flickers back into Phil’s eyes, and his wings stop flapping. He settles back onto the ground, and his whole being deflates as he retracts his wings.

“Shit, sorry,” he says, shaking himself. “I just—I got carried away. Shouldn’t have scared you two like that. My bad.”

“It’s alright,” Tommy says while Dream frowns behind his mask. “Just don’t do it again.”

“I won’t,” Phil says, sounding genuinely remorseful. “Fuck. Bad habits.”

“Not so fast,” Dream says, making sure his voice is cold. Tommy stiffens and casts him an alarmed look, but Dream focuses on Phil who’s gone still. “You don’t get to freak out on us, lose control, and then chalk it up to ‘bad habits.’ Explain.”

“Dream,” Tommy laughs nervously. “It’s fine, he apologized. I mean, don’t we all lose control once in a while?”

“Sure, but not when I have the power to kill most living things in my immediate vicinity,” Dream states, still not looking away from Phil. “That’s on you, Phil.”

“I know, I just—Fuck!” Phil breaks off abruptly and swears. “Look, I promise I’ll explain, but I don’t know if it should be here.” His eyes dart from side to side. “We need to get to Techno. He can give you a better picture.”

Dream starts. He’d almost forgotten about their original goal in meeting Technoblade.

“Technoblade!” Tommy bounces up and down in place excitedly. Dream sees the way his spine is tense, though, and Tommy’s excitement is clearly a mask for his nerves. “Great, then we can see what got Wil so upset about his family. I want to see them for myself, you know, see how shit they really were.” He frowns. “Though were they really shit if Wil wants to look for Techno? Who knows!”

Dream doesn’t miss Phil’s flinch and, once again, has to bite down the urge to confront Phil.

“We’re almost at the Arctic,” he points out instead. “Will Techno be there?”

“If he’s the Techno I know, then yes,” Phil replies. He casts a glance over his shoulder, almost longing, at one of the closed doors behind them. Dream notes it. “The bounty hunters must be gone already, we can head back up.”

“Prime, but wasn’t this a great hiding spot?” Tommy remarks. “Can’t say I won’t be sad to leave it, I find the creepy moss to be… oddly comforting.” A pause as he considers. “I kind of want to lick it.”

Phil chuckles, the sound almost foreign after the tense moments just before.

“Aw, Tommy,” he says affectionately. “You’re a special one.”

“That’s what Wil always said!”

The two of them begin heading back the way they came, though not before Phil scoops up some of the debris from the broken structure and vanishes it into his inventory. Dream hangs back, waiting until they’re out of the room before he speedily crosses over to the door that Phil was eyeing earlier.

He throws it open and stifles a yelp as something scurries past his foot. More of the things that Phil had called silverfish scurry out, and Dream immediately kills them before entering the room.

Immediately, he can tell that this one is different from the other rooms they’ve seen. There’s a squat staircase in the middle of the room with a metal cage sitting on top of it. As Dream watches, another silverfish appears and crawls out of the cage, making a beeline for him. Dream kills it and bounds up the stairs in two strides, taking the time to crush the cage before examining what lies at the top of the stairs.

A void, formless and empty, stares back at him.

Dream represses a shiver as he gazes into the swirl of darkness. It’s so black that it almost shines, rippling like the surface of a pond. Around the void is an odd frame of green and yellow sockets. Dream counts twelve empty spots, frowning. He’s never seen anything like this before. It almost looks like a table or a door frame that should lead somewhere, but try as he might, Dream can’t see beyond the darkness in the center.

Something pulses against his leg, and Dream’s hand goes down to touch it. It’s that sphere from earlier, now hot enough to be felt even through his pants as Dream palms it thoughtfully. This stronghold, as Phil called it, only continues to set mysteries before him.

Returning his gaze to the platform, Dream chews his bottom lip thoughtfully as he examines it. It almost looks like there are stars somewhere deep below the surface. If Dream leans in a little bit more…

“Dream! Dream!”

Tommy’s voice yanks Dream back from the void, and he flails as he straightens, almost falling back from how far he was leaning forward.

“Where’d he go?” Tommy’s voice continues. “Dream! We’re gonna leave you behind, you slowass!”

“Don’t shout so loud, I’m here,” Dream says as he emerges from the room .He closes the door behind him and forces his shoulders to relax as Tommy glares at him. “Sorry. I got distracted.”

“Well, that’s not very alert of you, is it?” Tommy grumbles. “Come on, we found our way out. Phil is waiting for us at the surface already.”

“No hunters?” Dream asks, only now remembering their narrow escape.

“Nope,” Tommy confirms. “They all ran like pussies.” As they make their way through the stronghold, Tommy asks curiously, “What were you distracted by anyway?”

Dream thinks about that whorl of emptiness, spinning and shifting as it called to him, and how the all-consuming gloom had looked almost… welcoming.

“Nothing,” he says. “Now come on, let’s find Technoblade.”

 

 

 

 

“We’re making good progress, guys,” Bad says optimistically as they slog through what seems like the fiftieth swamp biome in as many blocks. “Just keep your energy up, and we’ll reach them eventually!”

“So what’re we gonna do when we do catch up to them?” Sapnap asks, crossing his arms. His sword rests at his hip, faintly pulsing with enchantments. “Should we just go after them?”

George sighs, and the sound is long-suffering, as if he’s had this argument countless times before.

“We can’t,” he says. “We need a plan, remember?”

“Do we really though?” Sapnap scratches his chin where scruff has begun to grow out. “I mean, I always figured that we would just figure it out as we went.”

“Are you stupid?” George mocks in a baby voice before turning serious. “We can’t just go charging in there, Sapnap, that’s too risky.”

“Why not? It’s Dream—”

Because—”

All three of their heads swivel towards him, and Wilbur shuffles his feet. There it is. The reminder of why they need a plan.

Him.

“I think a plan is a good idea,” Wilbur offers. “You never know what kind of tricks a criminal will pull out of his sleeve.”

Sapnap immediately deflates, and Bad places a hand on his shoulder, lightly stroking his claws down Sapnap’s arm.

“He’s right,” Bad says. “We need to figure out… what to do about all this.”

The double meaning isn’t lost on Wilbur, and he clenches his fists as his insides go to war with themselves.

He just can’t decide what to make of this funny group of hunters. Loyalty, he can understand, especially if they’re as close as the captain made them sound, but for a group of four to threaten to overthrow the kingdom? Wilbur has no loyalty to the king, but it seems a bit much, especially with their small numbers. Wilbur hasn’t seen any evidence of them trying to drum up rebellion, and no matter how skilled they are, only four people can’t make that much of a dent.

Besides that, the biggest problem is…

“We can walk and talk,” Bad suggests. Turning to Wilbur, he smiles. “Wilbur, you’ll have to sing a song to keep our spirits up. This is some pretty depressing scenery.”

“You can say that again,” Sapnap agrees in disgust. He kicks a pebble.

The problem is that they’re so fucking kind that Wilbur doesn’t know what to do with it.

“Of course,” he says, the words tasting like ash on his tongue. “I’m happy to.”

Bad’s eyes crinkle as he beams, big and bright.

“Great!” he says. “I always feel better when you sing, Wilbur. It’s like it reminds me that everything will be okay, you know?”

“I’m flattered,” Wilbur manages to get out. “Though I’m really not that good.”

“Don’t say that,” Bad scolds, wagging a finger exaggeratedly. “You are good, and even if you weren’t, what does it matter? It’s your heart that counts. Who made you think otherwise?”

Phil, Wilbur thinks, heart twisting. Techno.

Fuck, that’s a whole other issue he hasn’t thought about. His brother—his twin is so close. What is he going to say if he sees him? What will Techno think about the mess that Wilbur’s gotten himself into?

Will Techno even care?

“Let’s just walk,” George says. Wilbur can’t see his expression behind his goggles. “Wilbur can sing if he wants.”

The last words are said with a touch of derision, and Wilbur tries not to wince. He’s clearly suspicious about Wilbur, something changing between the time they’d sat beside the fire together and now. George’s suspicions would hurt more if they weren’t right, in some way.

You’re being wishy washy, Wil, he can almost hear Phil chide. Make a decision and stick to it.

Like yours to leave me? Wilbur wants to ask, but he knows Phil won’t answer. Besides, they’re not the same thing at all, far from it.

Betrayal has all sorts of flavors, after all. Wilbur’s betrayal just happens to look like the arrows he’s left carved on tree trunks behind them.

Since that first night, Wilbur has tried to space out his trail markers a bit more, making them more confusing, but he’s still left them for the soldiers to follow. He feels on edge all the time, constantly checking behind him and smiling uneasily when Bad checks in on him.

It’s draining, and Wilbur can feel himself getting closer and closer to slipping off the edge completely.

“Do you think Tommy’s alright?” Wilbur asks instead, pushing the rising panic down. He can’t screw this up. Not now. Not when Tommy is on the line. “He’s never traveled without me before.”

George gives him a weird look, like he thinks Wilbur is soft for worrying about his little brother’s comfort, and Wilbur tries not to let his shoulders rise defensively.

“Well, he’s definitely getting tons of new experiences now that he’s with Dream,” George says. “Probably traveling further than he’s ever been in his life.”

Prime, now that Wilbur knows what to look for, now that the captain has laid the hunters' lies bare in the light, he can hear the neutrality there, how George can't quite lean in and say that Dream is a danger to Tommy. How cruel. How fucking cruel of him to treat Tommy's suffering like a new experience.

“I don’t know about that,” Wilbur replies, forcing his voice to stay light despite the anger boiling beneath his skin. Don’t slip, Wilbur. Don’t slip. “We did travel quite a bit together when we were on the road.”

“Yeah,” Sapnap interjects. “Then you lost him. Still don’t know how you managed that.”

“Oh, shut up,” Wilbur snaps back. “You’re the one who can’t do your own job description. We haven’t hunted anything but wild pigs for days now.”

“Damn,” Sapnap says softly, chuckling uneasily. “You didn’t have to go that hard, Wilbur.”

“Careful, Sapnap,” George says. His goggles flash as he tilts his head up at Wilbur. “You’re playing with fire when it comes to the baby brother.”

“It’s not playing with fire,” Wilbur protests, temper flaring. “It’s—Do you know how it feels? To have lost the most important person in your life and know that he’s in danger?”

The temperature drop is almost tangible after that comment.

All three of the hunters shift, their body language going from various stages of active to tense. Sapnap scowls and looks away while Bad lashes his tail uncomfortably, reaching into his pouch and double-checking the compass.

George just looks angry.

“I do, actually,” he says, and his voice is so cold that it could freeze the ocean over. “And if you don’t remember, we’re the ones who have been doing all the actual work here while you hang around as deadweight. We let you join us as a kindness, a favor.”

The unwelcome reminder that George knows Dream—is friends with Dream—is like someone has thrown Wilbur into a river in the middle of winter. These people he's trusted, almost knelt before—They're the ones keeping Tommy from him.

I trusted you, he thinks at George, voice stuck in his throat. I say by the fire with you. I sang a song for you.

The echoes of that song ring hollowly in Wilbur's chest. When will he finally learn not to trust? How many times do people have to leave him before he finally gets it?

Wilbur clenches his hand into a fist, ready to bite back when the captain’s words echo in his mind.

Be subtle, and don’t let them catch you, his smarmy voice says. We’ll do the rest.

Your brother will be returned to you, safe and sound.

No matter how angry he gets, no matter what he has to put up with, Wilbur can’t risk Tommy.

“You’re right,” he forces out. “I lost my temper for a bit. I’m stressed, but that’s no excuse. Sorry.”

George looks surprised at Wilbur’s easy acquiseness and fumbles a bit for an answer.

“Well, I mean, that’s fine,” he says. Tugging his goggles off his head, he cleans them with the hem of his shirt before snapping them back in place. “I shouldn’t have snapped either. My bad.”

There’s a second of silence before Bad jumps in.

“There!” he says with forced cheer. “All good now! See what the power of communication can do?” He doesn’t wait for a response before barreling on. “There’s a lot on the line for each of us, but that doesn’t mean we should blow up at one another. No more fights from now on, okay?”

No response, and Bad repeats himself, “Okay?

“Yes, Bad,” all three of them chorus.

“Good.” Bad settles back, satisfied. “Let’s keep going.”

As they continue walking, Wilbur hurries to catch up to George. It’s not hard, especially when his legs are almost twice the length of George’s, and Wilbur stoops a bit to make sure George can hear him.

“Hey, I really am sorry, you know,” he mumbles and tries not to wonder if he really means it or not. “Tommy is just really important to me.”

George is silent for a bit before he blows out a long breath.

“I get it,” he says. “There’s… someone like that for me too. So I get where you’re coming from.”

He doesn’t say anything else, and once again, Wilbur has to wonder at what kind of hold Dream has over the hunters. Friendship and loyalty he can understand, but as he scans George's face for any signs of remorse, any hint that he's ashamed of protecting a criminal, all he can see is a soft affection. Somehow, that hurts more than any arrow George could fire into his heart, the knowledge that they've been stringing Wilbur along with no intention of telling the truth. What are they going to do when they finally do reach Dream? What will they do to Tommy? To Wilbur?

George doesn't answer Wilbur's unspoken questions. Instead, he forges onward, and Wilbur has no choice but to follow.

As they continue walking, the swamp biomes give way to forest biomes instead. Mud squelches beneath their feet change to grassy clearings, and they take the time to wipe off their boots with some fallen leaves.

“Prime, I hate swamps,” Sapnap says fervently, shuddering exaggeratedly. “I’d be happy if I never saw one of those again.”

“Hey,” George says, standing. He reaches for the quiver slung across his back. “Incoming.”

Alarmed, Wilbur raises his head to see a group approaching them from across the clearing. They’re decked out similarly to the hunters themselves, with iron armor and various weapons.

“Don’t engage,” Bad says, coming to the front and raising a hand in warning before someone (most likely Sapnap) can do something stupid. “They’re probably not looking for a fight.”

“Are you sure?” Wilbur asks. “They look pissed.”

“I’m sure.”

“Stop!”

The lead figure holds up her hand, and the rest fall to a stop behind her. She takes a few steps forward as Bad does the same, meeting in the middle.

“We’re just passing through,” Bad says, not raising his arms but keeping his tone calm. “We’re fellow hunters and have no intention of stealing your prey.”

The female hunter snorts.

“Good luck with even trying,” she says, but sounds more tired than sarcastic. “We saw them just hours ago. They’re gone.”

“They’re fucking dead,” someone adds from behind her.

Wilbur stiffens, and the hunters bristle as one. Out of the corner of his eye, Wilbur sees George go as pale as a ghost.

“The hell do you mean?” Sapnap demands. He starts forward, but Bad holds one arm out, stopping him. “Dream isn’t dead, what are you talking about?”

“We saw him jump with our own eyes,” the female leader replies. “He and the Angel of Death leapt into a void and never came out.” She shakes her head. “Suicide. A fair decision, perhaps, given the circumstances.”

Phil, dead? There’s no way. The man has fucking wings, and he isn’t called an immortal for nothing. He can’t be dead.

Still, Wilbur can’t stop the bolt of fear that lances through him, nor the traitorous thought that whispers, You’re too late. As always, you’re too late.

“Did you go down and check?”

George’s voice is shaky but the press of his mouth is determined as he steps forward. Bad raises an arm again, but George shakes it off impatiently. The other group of hunters look startled and shake their heads.

“So you saw your target jump into a hole and disappear, and you never even thought to go down yourself.” George’s voice is filled with scorn so strong that Wilbur almost feels embarrassed on the other hunters’ behalf. “And you call yourself hunters.”

He doesn’t spit, but he might as well have from the way their faces color.

“We couldn’t see to the bottom of the hole,” their leader defends. She’s got her shoulders up now, hackles raised at the insult to her pride. “Go see for yourself, but I’m telling you, it’s a dead end. They’re dead, and the king is going to have to deal with it.”

“That’s unfortunate.” Nothing in Bad’s voice gives away that he’s anything less than peaceful. “Where was this so-called void located again?”

“We said they fucking died,” the same person, an ugly man, calls. “Do you not understand that, demon?

“Shut up!” their leader barks. Turning to Bad, she says, “I apologize for his rudeness. It’s straight ahead, but I don’t think you’ll find anything there. It’s like they dropped through the forest floor, and there were no sounds to indicate life.”

“Well, any information is helpful information,” Bad says. “We appreciate it.”

The leader starts.

“You’re going to keep going?” she asks.

Bad tilts his head.

“Of course,” he says, polite bemusement in his voice. “Even a dead body receives a bounty doesn’t it? Assuming there still is one, that is.”

And, oh, Wilbur recognizes when someone is trying to get information out of you. Phil had taught him, and Wilbur had practiced on Techno. He never succeeded, of course, but he has enough failed attempts to recognize the signs. The other hunters have given up the chase, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more information to be had.

“Getting higher,” the female hunter replies wryly. “The king is getting impatient. I can almost understand why they chose to jump. I don’t want to imagine what the king would do to the fallen champion if he finally did get caught.”

“Seems like that’s not a problem anymore,” George says from the side. His voice is icy.

Slanting her gaze at him, the hunter tips her head acknowledgingly.

“Not for us, though it sounds like you still want the scraps,” she says. “Reports have gone out that the king is confident that the troops he’s sent this time will do the job, but I imagine they’ll be called back soon.”

Sapnap snorts.

“Confidence means nothing without actions to prove it,” he snarks. “What, does the king even know where Dream is?”

“The king has his ways. He always knows more than us,” the female hunter responds, and she doesn’t look at Wilbur, doesn’t give any indication that she knows what he’s done, but he flinches all the same. “Well, best of luck to you in your future hunts, this one notwithstanding.”

“Same to you.” Bad inclines his head.

It’s tense as the two hunter groups pass one another, both parties clearly sizing the other up as they go. The ugly man spits at Sapnap’s feet when he passes him, and Sapnap’s hand flies to his sword handle as Bad shakes his head as a warning.

“Don’t panic,” Bad says when the other group has passed and are out of earshot. He curtails whatever Sapnap and George are about to say by raising a hand and digging in his pouch. “The compass will tell us if he’s alive or not.”

“I don’t believe for a second that Dream is dead,” Sapnap declares, though a closer look betrays the faint tremble of his knees. “That bastard is too competitive, he’d die before killing himself.” A considering pause. “Wait, did that make sense?”

“Check,” George urges. “Bad, stop wasting time, hurry up and check!

“I’m trying!

At last, Bad pulls the compass out of his bag, its ornate case patterned by the shadows of the trees. Wilbur hovers over them as George and Sapnap force their way closer, looking over the top of their heads as Bad opens the latch with a snick.

He doesn’t think he’s imagining everyone holding their breath.

The red arrow falters for a second before spinning wildly in a never ending circle, until it’s nothing but a crimson spread across the surface. Slowly, slowly, the spin stills, and the red tip is left pointing north in an ever-faithful point.

As a group, they all sigh in relief.

“This is good,” Bad says encouragingly. “The other hunters will spread the news that he’s dead, and he’ll have less people chasing him. Plus, we know that the Angel of Death is enough on his side to get him out of sticky situations. This is good!”

"How is this good?" Wilbur can't stop the words from slipping out, nor can he hide their sharp edge. The hunters whip their heads toward him, almost like they've forgotten he's there, and the fury that's been bubbling inside of Wilbur all day finally breaks free. "Dream is a criminal. He's a danger to society. You should be fucking disappointed that he's not dead because Prime know we'd all be better off if he was."

"The fuck—" Sapnap starts forward only for Bad to grab onto his arm and restrain him before he can more.

"It's just because this way, we can be the ones to claim the bounty," Bad soothes. It's to smooth, so seamless of a lie that Wilbur might have bought it if he didn't already know the truth. "Independent hunters compete with each other for the monetary rewards. Now we have less competition."

Wilbur is tempted to call him on the lie, to confront him, but then he remembers that he's outnumbered one to three and that Tommy is right before them. He holds his tongue and turns away.

“Then we have to keep going,” George says grimly once it's clear that Wilbur won't say anything more. “Once the king’s men hear that Dream is dead, they might want confirmation. Hopefully, they’ll give up, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Wilbur’s stomach sinks as he considers the repercussions. Dream is close, and that means Tommy is too. Fuck, the captain—how far back is the captain and his men?

“Agreed,” Sapnap says. “We have to push. The faster we can get to him, the better.”

“Nothing wrong with a bit of good old-fashioned running,” Bad says. Then, looking over at Wilbur, he adds, “That is, if Wilbur is okay with it.”

Wilbur thinks about the long trail of arrows left marked on the tree trunks behind him, the captain’s words in the dark of a collapsed building awning, and how every block the hunters cross is another block closer to Dream.

Another step closer to Tommy.

He says, “Let’s run then.”

Chapter Text

Phil leaves just as the weather turns.

“We’re close,” Phil says before he goes, wings spread behind him in a gloriously feathered wash of night. “I can sense him.”

In the pale Arctic sun, his emerald earring glints, and Dream shivers.

“Do you know where exactly?” he asks. The Arctic is a sprawling, inhospitable biome, and something about it puts Dream on edge. “Any particular direction or...”

Apologetically, Phil says, “Not sure about the exact location. He could be anywhere.”

Dream’s expression is covered by his mask, but his body language must be clear as Phil raises his hands.

“I mean it,” he says. “I haven’t been back to this server for a long time. Techno could have moved. I’ll just have to look for him the old fashioned way.”

Dream looks at Phil’s wings, capable of bringing him across thousands of blocks in the matter of moments and snorts.

“The old fashioned way,” he says. “Yeah, sure.”

Smiling knowingly, Phil reaches over and ruffles Tommy’s hair.

“Stay out of trouble, kid,” he says as Tommy grumbles and pretends that he’s not leaning into Phil’s touch. Phil adds, “And make sure Dream doesn’t get into trouble either.”

“Me?” Dream places a mock-offended hand on his chest and raises an eyebrow behind his mask. “I never get into any trouble.”

“Which is exactly why you have a bounty on your head,” Phil chuckles. “Alright. I’ll go find Techno and let him know that you’re coming.”

No doubt to warn him as well, Dream privately thinks.

“And then come back to tell us where he is?”

A passing cloud covers the sun, and for a second, Phil’s face is hidden in its shadow as he looks at Dream.

“I’ll come back for you,” he agrees.

Taking a step back, Phil tilts his head toward the sky. He closes his eyes as a strong wind ruffles his shaggy hair, and a smile crosses his face. Above them, the clouds roll threateningly across the sky.

“Good weather to fly,” Phil says.

His wings flare out, dark and dominating against the landscape. Under the winter sun, Dream can see each individual feather groomed to perfection.

Phil beats his wings once, sending scraps of grass and pebbles flying. Tommy raises his arms to protect his face, but Dream can still see him peeking out between them.

Twice, and Phil’s feet lift off the ground. They hover there for a second, toes pointed downwards as Phil takes a deep breath. His chest swells, and when Phil exhales, it’s like the world around them responds. As if on cue, the sky growls. Dream glances up automatically as the pressure in the air builds. A roaring tide, barely held back by a dam. A tiger baring its fangs, prowling in its cage.

A storm, on the verge of breaking.

Dream shivers. This is the real presence of an immortal.

“I’ll see you soon, mates,” Phil says easily. “Stay safe.”

And then he’s off, shooting to the heart of the gathering storm with his wings spread so wide that they seem to cover the sun.

Dream and Tommy watch him go, awe leaving them speechless for a moment. Then Tommy says appreciatively, “Fuck, that’s badass.”

Dream can’t help but agree.

“Alright,” he says and slides a hand down his mask. The smooth porcelain is comforting against his fingertips. In his pocket, the sphere from the stronghold pulses warmly. “Guess we’re on our own now.”

“Just like old times,” Tommy says, satisfied.

Behind his mask, Dream quirks a smile.

“Like old times,” he agrees.

As gray as the Arctic is, the landscape is far from boring. It’s littered with stones of various sizes, some jutting out of the ground while others lie on their side as if tumbling from a mountain long dissolved to the sea. Occasionally, Dream can hear the scuttle of rabbit paws as they dive for their burrows.

It’s living in a strangely poignant way, and though Dream misses the reassuring cover of woodland trees, he can see why people would seek solace here.

Tommy crows as he leaps from one boulder to another. It’s his new favorite hobby. At first, Tommy had slipped off of each one, cursing as he scrambled back to the top, but now he jumps with feet as nimble as a gazelle.

“I’m practicing my footwork,” he says when Dream shoots him a glance and immediately attempts to divert his attention “Look! Bet you can’t make this jump.”

Dream snorts and eyes the jump that Tommy is talking about.

“That one?” he asks, nodding toward a gap between a clump of boulders.

Tommy wobbles on the top of the rock he’s climbing and nods.

The jump in question is a stretch of empty land between two stacks of stone. From what Dream can see, the stack that Tommy is on is slightly lower, meaning that he’d have to jump upwards and probably scrabble for a handhold to pull himself up to the top. It’s a challenge, but...

“It’s pretty far,” Dream concedes even as his competitive spirit stirs in his chest. “But I could make it.”

“You couldn’t,” Tommy says. “It’s too far, even for you.”

“Could too.”

“Could not!”

“Watch me then,” Dream challenges.

Slipping his bag off his shoulder, Dream lightly jumps up to where Tommy is precariously balanced and gazes up at the rock. It’s got a rough surface, and Dream can see plenty of handholds for him to grab. He flexes his fingers and rocks back on his heels as he braces himself.

A memory floats back to him, one from when he was just one of many in a crowd of fighters as the arena opened and champion hopefuls flooded in. Like the rest of the hopefuls, Dream had pushed and shoved as people fought for the best position for the first round.

The king had stood over them, the sun at his back, as he raised his arms in a triumphant display.

“My dear warriors,” he had announced grandly as the crowd’s cheering rose to a fever pitch. “Fight, and offer this land your life. In return, I will crown you with glory beyond imagination. Offer your life to the king!”

Dream’s fingers had tingled as the bloodthirst rose palpably among them, the sharp snick of weapons being drawn from their scabbards sounding like a deadly orchestra.

Sapnap, Dream had thought as he reached for his own axe slung across his back. Bad.

George.

“Let the games begin!”

Trumpets had blared, and Dream had run.

He had climbed his way out that day, hanging from the side of a pillar that he scaled as the fighting whittled the numbers lower and lower and lower. It hadn’t been until Dream glanced down, saw the thinning crowd, and tightened his grip around his weapon that he’d taken a deep breath and leapt.

When Dream dropped from the sky to slam his axe through the last opponent’s head, he thought he saw the king smile at him.

Now, Dream shakes the memory away.

“Ready to eat your words?” he asks as Tommy gazes at him in fascination. “If I make this jump, you have to…” He scrambles for something to bet. “Give me all your stuff.”

“What!” Tommy protests and clutches his bag to himself. “Get your own stuff! Besides, I don’t even have that much!”

“A bet’s a bet,” Dream says and backs up a few steps. “You started this, Tommy!”

“I didn’t say anything about—”

Dream jumps.

There may have been times when Dream has been accused of being a so-called “adrenaline junkie”. Bad calls him that with a disapproving frown and plenty of healing potions on hand. George calls him that exasperatedly but never discouragingly. Sapnap, on the other hand, eggs him on, and then tries the same jumps as Dream.

There’s a reason why they say that; there’s almost nothing Dream enjoys more than the swoop of his stomach mid-flight, the way he feels weightless and eternal all at once. Prime, he could live in that moment forever, and the satisfaction of landing on the other side is just as sweet.

This time, however, just as Dream starts reaching out for the other side, a bolt of pain lances through him, and he plummets to the ground.

“Ha!” Tommy cheers from above him as Dream lands with a thud. “Knew you couldn’t make it, you bitch! The weak will be killed first!”

Dream opens his mouth to respond, but nothing but a pained wheeze comes out.

“Fuck you, Dream, I get to keep my stuff! Now, I should… I should get your stuff! It’s only fair! Fuck yeah!”

Dizziness hits Dream and passes in the same moment, and he grimaces. It’s a good thing that Tommy can’t see his face under the mask; it’s almost certainly gone sickly pale.

“Dream? Aren’t you going to argue with me?”

A pause, and then Dream can faintly make out the sound of Tommy’s boots scrabbling against rock as he clambers down from his perch. His footsteps stop by Dream’s head, and then there’s a hand on his shoulder shaking him slightly.

“Dream?” Tommy’s voice sounds like it’s coming from somewhere very, very far away. “Dream, what’s wrong? It wasn’t that far of a fall. Are you okay?”

“Tommy,” Dream manages to grit out, massaging his temples. His skull is about to split in two. “Please, for just one second, shut up.”

Tommy shuts up.

Dream can’t bring himself to feel bad for his harsh words, though, not when he hurts like this.

The truth is, the further north they get, the worse Dream has felt.

It’s not just the biting chill that replaces the warm breezes from the south, nor is it the way that the woodlands begin to thin, giving way to hard-packed dirt and gray boulders. It’s not even the way the skies have become overcast, clouds pregnant with thunder rolling across the horizon like a looming threat.

No, it’s the way that Dream’s entire body has stopped feeling like his own.

For some reason, Dream wakes up each morning feeling like… absolute shit. There’s no other way to put it. His limbs are heavy, and the simple act of walking is like dragging two rocks along with him. Random migraines spike through him, so intense that Dream often has to stop to take a breath. That’s not even to mention the white hot pain that lances through his bones like it’s trying to rip them out of his body.

In short, it sucks.

Especially when it stops Dream from impressing Tommy.

Slowly, Dream pulls himself to a sitting position, even though his arms feel like jelly beneath him.

“I’m fine,” he tells the hovering Tommy. “Just had the wind knocked out of me for a second.”

“You sure?” Tommy asks dubiously. A worried frown creases his brows. “It looked like you were injured.”

“I’m fine,” Dream says and doesn’t know why it feels like a lie. He didn’t even hit his head, so why does it hurt so much? “I’m sorry for yelling at you just now.”

“Oh.” Tommy relaxes, shoulders dropping. “It’s okay, I’m used to it. Wilbur used to yell at me all the time when I did stupid shit, which was often. Appreciate the apology though.”

“Sounds about right,” Dream says.

Or, at least he intends to say it but when he opens his mouth, a wave of nausea overtakes him, and he abruptly turns his back to Tommy. Ripping his mask off, he retches onto the ground. Bile comes up, acidic and burning as he heaves over and over again.

He’s lightheaded when the nausea finally passes, and he puts his mask back on before turning to face his companion.

“Dream,” Tommy says. His face is pale. “What’s going on?”

“Not sure,” Dream is forced to admit. “Maybe it’s a concussion. Nothing that a healing potion won’t help.”

“Shall I give you one?”

Anxiously, Tommy pulls out a purple-tinged potion and passes it to Dream. Dream doesn’t like the idea of wasting potions on something as minor as this, but Tommy looks so worried. Turning his back again, Dream tips his mask up just enough to expose his mouth and drinks.

“See?” he says as he waits for the potion’s healing effects to settle over him. “Good as new—”

Fuck.

Dream doubles over, clutching his stomach as more pain washes through him.

“What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” Tommy chants, leaping to his feet. “Are you sick?”

“I don’t think so,” Dream answers, trying to pacify Tommy’s worries. Another beat, and then the pain recedes enough for Dream to stagger to his feet. His vision swims, but he manages to hold himself steady. “It’s gone now.”

“That’s not normal,” Tommy states. “You’re, dare I say, a smart guy, Dream, you have to know that’s not normal.”

Dream splutters.

“What!” he says. “Look, this has only happened a few times.” More and more often, as of late. “It doesn’t stick around. I promise, I know myself, and it’s fine.”

“It doesn’t sound like you’re fine,” Tommy says skeptically. “You sound like you’re being real fucking irresponsible right now.”

“How am I being irresponsible?”

“You should take care of your body first,” Tommy says. He sounds like he’s quoting someone. “Everything else comes second. Take care of your basic needs.” He throws Dream a derisive glance, worry buried shallowly beneath the faux scorn. “That’s what Wilbur always said.”

“Well, Wilbur isn’t here,” Dream snips and regrets it when Tommy’s face falls. “Look, I promise I’m fine. I don’t really know what’s going on either, but I’ve got it under control.”

“It sure doesn’t seem like it,” Tommy grumbles. When he looks up at Dream, his eyes seem even bluer against the ever-darkening sky. “You scared me, Dream.”

A lump rises to Dream’s throat, and he swallows it down. Those words are all too familiar.

“You scared me, Dream,” George had said quietly while bandaging Dream’s wounds after the tournament. Someone had snuck up on him and before Dream noticed, managed to swipe a sword against his side. George touched the wound with a gentle hand. “You could have died.”

“But I didn’t,” Dream countered. “And I won. I won! I did it, George! We—We don’t need to starve anymore! You can have your mushrooms without people stepping on them, Bad can make his muffins, and Sapnap can… Well, whatever! We can do whatever we want.”

It was either the blood loss or the triumph that made Dream so dizzy.

“We can have everything we ever wanted now,” he continued. Grabbing George’s hands, Dream ran his thumb over the raised knuckles, knobbly and warm under his touch. “We’ll never be afraid again.”

“I was afraid for you,” George said. “I know you did it for us, but—”

“George,” Dream broke in. “It was the only way out for us. You know that, we all know that. I choose this, George. I did it for you.”

“I know!”

George’s outburst startled them both, and Dream fell silent.

The infirmary that the guard had led him to after that final moment of blood-soaked triumph was quiet and golden in the low light of afternoon. They had only allowed one visitor, and Dream, caught between disbelief and elation, had been helpless to choose anyone else but George. When George had stumbled in, eyes wide, Dream just knew that everything would be alright.

“I’m fine,” Dream promised when George didn’t say anything else. “Everything will change.”

“Everything will change,” George repeated quietly. His gaze flickered up to Dream through his eyelashes. “That’s true. But will you?”

“Of course,” Dream had answered, confused. “I’m champion now, not some kid on the streets. I have to fulfill my duties.”

“To fight,” George dully responded. “Until the king gets sick of you or you die.”

“But I won’t,” Dream said. Leaning in, he knocked his forehead against George’s and, relishing the warmth of George’s body against his, said, “I’ll always come back to you, George. I promise.”

George said nothing else for a long, long moment. Then, sighing, he turned his face until his nose brushed against Dream’s.

“I’m holding you to that,” he said, soft and fond. “Idiot.”

George was so close, closer than he’d ever been to Dream before. His eyelashes were long and dark, so close that Dream could almost imagine their light touch against his face. Against the golden sunlight of the windows, Dream couldn’t help but wonder at how easy it would be to just lean in and—

“—ream? Dream!”

Tommy shakes him, and Dream comes back to himself with a snap. Dazed, he lifts a hand to his lips only for them to be met with the cold surface of his mask.

Why did he think of that all of a sudden?

“I have to let you know,” Tommy says, eyeing him warily. “The sudden bouts of unresponsiveness are really not inspiring confidence.”

“It’s not like that,” Dream protests, still caught in the memory of George so close to him. “I just remembered something.”

“Are you lying to me?” Tommy asks. His fingers clench the bottom of his shirt, and he glances to the side.

Guilt hits Dream like a hammer to the head, and he shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “Not this time.”

Unsaid between them: but I have before.

“Whatever,” Tommy says. He gets to his feet, aggressively dusting off his pants. “Take care of your fucking self if you’re such a big man. Clearly, you don’t trust me enough.”

“Tommy, that’s not—”

Marching forward, Tommy doesn’t look forward when he says, “Well? We finding this bitch or what?”

A hollow pit in his stomach, Dream hauls himself to his feet and follows.

Above them, the storm waits.

 

 

 

 

“We’re close.”

Bad turns to the group, compass clasped firmly in his hands. His eyes glow against the gray terrain.

“They can’t be too far ahead of us now,” he says. “The compass has been going crazy since midday.”

Indeed, the compass’s arrow spins wildly before settling into a straight line pointing straight ahead. Several seconds later, it begins to spin and settle again. Over and over, a hypnotizing cycle that Wilbur can’t stop himself from staring at.

It should be good news, but the hunters’ faces only grow more tense as they push forward. The closer they get to Dream, the more obvious it is that tempers are fraying.

Wilbur finds himself loitering a few steps behind the rest of the group, uneasy at the amount of tension thick in the air.

George is closed off like usual, only now he bites back when Sapnap complains, and their fights escalate from bickering to shoving to drawing their weapons on one another and shouting loudly enough that nearby rabbits bolt from their burrows. Their constant fighting gets to the point where even Bad loses his temper.

“Will you two stop it!” he roars as Sapnap strides up to George to stick the point of his sword under George’s chin. “Argh, you’re acting like literal children, you guys need to grow up!”

“Well, maybe I would,” Sapnap growls, eyes locked on George, “If this piece of fucking piss shit would stop fucking insulting me every chance he got!”

“Only because you make it too easy,” George spits back. His normally flat mouth is twisted in a fierce scowl, and he glares Sapnap down. “Oh, Sapnap, so noble! Even when he’s the only one who actually got to talk to Dream, he doesn’t have anything useful to offer but complaints!”

“Say that one more time,” Sapnap snarls, “and I’ll stab you with my sword, I swear to Prime I will.”

“You can try.” George’s voice darkens. “See if you get there first.”

“What do you—”

Sapnap looks down, and George has a dagger slid out of its sheath and pressed against his ribs.

Even from behind them, Wilbur can see the bead of sweat that trickles down Sapnap’s face.

“Don’t think I’ve become lax, Sapnap,” George warns softly. Behind his goggles, his expression is indecipherable. “I’ll do whatever it takes to reach him.”

“Then you probably shouldn’t be fighting one another, right?” Wilbur blurts.

He regrets it a second later when all three of their heads turn to him, and, pinned by three gazes, Wilbur swallows nervously.

“Things have been tough recently, I get it,” he says and forces himself not to take a step back at the threatening aura the hunters give off. “But fighting is the least productive thing to do, isn’t it? We need to keep our wits about us.”

“Big words from someone who’s never held a sword in his life,” Sapnap taunts.

“Hey! Don’t take it out on Wilbur!” Bad scolds.

“Or what? Or what, Bad? You’re really gonna pick some random over me? Someone you’ve known your entire life?”

“Sapnap, you’re going too far. Wilbur hasn’t done anything—”

“Oh, and I have?

“You’ve done nothing but cause trouble this whole time! You’re frustrated, I get it, but you can’t go around shoving your sword at George of all people!”

He’s got a knife to my stomach, what about that?”

“Only because you started it, idiot.”

“The fuck did you call me?”

“I said—”

Shut the fuck up!

Everything stops at that.

Wilbur pants as he stares the hunters down. Gulping in another breath of air, he forces himself to his full height as he marches over and looms over them as he channels as much of Phil and Technoblade as he can.

“Drop your weapons,” he commands. Neither Sapnap nor George move. “Drop them. Now.”

They glare at each other.

“You first,” George says, raising an eyebrow.

“Fuck you, no. You first.”

“You think I’m an idiot? You—”

Losing patience, Wilbur lashes out, one, two, and both the sword and dagger clatter to the forest floor. Sapnap and George are left empty-handed, mouths gaping as they stare at Wilbur.

Sapnap recovers first.

“How did you do that?” he demands.

“It’s just your nerves,” Wilbur says impatiently. Techno taught him that on one of his first visits back from the capital, when he was still interested in spending time with his twin.

“You’re not that strong,” he’d told an insulted Wilbur. “But you can hit them fast and accurately. This will end most fights before they even begin. You just press here...”

Techno would be proud of him now—Or would he?

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Sapnap tells him. He sounds impressed and pissed at the same time. “What the hell, man, you didn’t tell us you could fight.”

“I only do it to stop other people from fighting,” Wilbur responds and massages his temples. “Look, I don’t know what exactly is causing you to do all… this, but it’s got to stop. Our pace has slowed significantly.”

“He’s right,” Bad chimes in from the side. He pulls out the compass again, watching the needle spin aimlessly before settling in a steady point. “We haven’t made much progress.”

Bad’s voice is calm, but there’s something in his gaze that makes Wilbur look away from him.

“You want to catch up to Dream, right?” he forces himself to continue as Bad comes up beside him. The demon’s presence behind him is dark, and Sapnap and George both wince at the sight of his anger. Even Wilbur represses a shiver. “Then we have to stop fighting amongst ourselves.”

“But—” Sapnap starts.

“Shut up, you nimrod,” George breaks in. Before Sapnap can protest again, he continues, “I’ll drop it if you drop it. Okay?”

“Fine,” Sapnap grumbles. Stooping over, he scoops up his sword from the ground and vanishes it to his inventory. He points a finger at Wilbur accusingly and says, “If you try to mess with my weapons again, though, you better watch your step.”

Wilbur responds, “If you don’t use them like a child, then I won’t.”

Sapnap's face turns bright red immediately, and he stomps away. George hangs back, remarking, “Good one” before following Sapnap.

Wilbur sighs and massages his temples.

“Thank you,” Bad says from behind him. His menacing aura from earlier has died down, leaving him back in his disarming and smiling state. “You calmed them down faster than I could have, so I appreciate that.”

“It’s just like wrangling children, isn’t it?” Wilbur replies. “I used to have to talk Tommy out of stupid rants all the time too.”

Bad laughs, high and squeaky.

“They are very much like children sometimes,” Bad agrees, but the fondness in his voice is obvious. “I wouldn’t trade them for anything, though.”

Wilbur smiles to hide the way that his stomach twists sharply. Sapnap and George's argument leaves a sour note in the back of his throat, something frantic sprinting through his blood. If they're already got such volatile tempers with one another, what does that mean for Tommy with Dream? Wilbur is no stranger to violence, far from it, and he's seen the hunters in action. That hadn't done anything to prepare him for the way his guts threatened to spill from his throat when he saw their blades leveled at each other. Tommy is with one of them. Tommy is with Dream.

Wilbur has to get to Tommy before it's too late.

A quick glance at the sky tells him that a storm is approaching, and that means that any markings Wilbur leaves for the soldiers behind him risk getting swept away. Plus, the slowdown in the hunters’ pace means that the soldiers have to be close now, and if the hunters see them…

“Hey, Bad?” Wilbur says aloud, thoughts racing. He has to do something, and with Sapnap and George in front of them, this is his best shot. “Um… I’m sorry to bother you, but...”

Bad turns back, milky eyes soft as always.

“What is it?” he asks. “Are you hungry? Do you need more food?”

Wilbur grimaces.

“No, but it’s very kind of you to offer,” he says. “Actually, I was wondering if I could borrow your pouch.”

“My pouch?” Bad frowns, and his hand strays protectively over the brown pouch hanging at his waist. Deliberately, Wilbur keeps his gaze fixed on Bad’s face. “What for?”

Thinking fast, Wilbur says, “I need to see if I can find some string. My guitar broke recently because of the change in weather, and I really need some string to fix it.”

Bad’s frown deepens.

“I don’t know if I have any,” he says apologetically. “Sorry. I can ask George or Sapnap though—”

“That’s okay!” Wilbur blurts. Despite the cold, sweat beads at his temples. “It’s fine if you don’t have string, there might be something else that works. I just need to take a look.” In a fit of inspiration, he adds, “You know how bad George and Sapnap are at thinking ahead. You definitely have more items than them.”

“That’s true,” Bad concedes. “Well, do you want to tell me what kind of material you’re looking for? I can sort through my stuff for you.”

“I don’t want to bother you,” Wilbur hurries. “Besides, I need to see it to know.”

It’s bullshit. He’s losing Bad; Wilbur can see it in the hunch of his shoulders, the way his gaze narrows slightly as he examines Wilbur. It’s like his eyes can see through Wilbur’s obfuscations and straight to his true intentions. Fuck, fuck, fuck, what can Wilbur say to convince Bad? What’s his weak spot?

“Bad, hurry up!” Sapnap calls from ahead of them. He waves his arms, demanding attention. “You guys are too slow!”

“Just a minute!” Bad yells back. Facing Wilbur again, he says quietly, “Are you feeling okay, Wilbur? You seem a little bit on edge.”

And just like that, Wilbur knows what he has to do.

“To be honest...” he starts. Dipping his head, he scratches his hair and avoids Bad’s gaze. “I’ve been feeling a bit anxious, you know? We’re so close to seeing Tommy again, a-and, I just don’t know what to say when I see him again. I’ve missed him for so long.”

“Oh, Wilbur,” Bad says immediately. “That’s understandable, but Tommy loves you! You’re his brother, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you no matter what.”

“Yes, and I keep wanting it to be perfect, you know?” Wilbur asks. Bad nods along, sympathy written into every line of his face, and Wilbur presses forward. “And so, I really wanted to play Tommy his favorite song when I see him, but I can’t do that if my guitar is broken, and it’s been making me feel like shit.” Swallowing, he says, “I know it’s a long shot, but if there’s anything, anything in your pouch that could help me fix it… Prime, it would mean the world to me, Bad.”

He can see the exact moment when Bad breaks, just like Wilbur wanted him to.

“Of course,” Bad says and passes his pouch to Wilbur. “Anything for a friend! I don’t know if there’s really anything that will help, but I do tend to pick up a lot of knicknacks along the way. Can I suggest the vines? They might—”

Bad!” Sapnap shouts again. “Hurry up!

“Ugh, this impatient child,” Bad says affectionately as Wilbur clutches the pouch to him like a lifeline. “Just give it back when you’re done!”

“I will,” Wilbur promises, insides twisting.

“Hopefully you find what you’re looking for!” Bad says warmly. “Now please excuse me, I have to go tell these idiots to calm down.”

With that, he jogs after Sapnap, and Wilbur is left with his pouch.

Wilbur doesn’t waste a second before diving in. His palms are slick with sweat as he rummages through Bad’s inventory. He bypasses Bad’s dried mutton, the colorful mushrooms, an assortment of flowers that Bad has lovingly pressed between the pages of his book, the vines—

Instead, his fingers close around cold metal.

His heart is pounding so hard that Wilbur fears it might break through his ribs and splatter on the ground, ugly and bare, but he pulls his hand out of the bag and quickly pockets his prize anyway. Taking a second, Wilbur breathes hard and forces himself to calm down. Then, he hurries to catch up with the hunters and gives Bad the pouch.

“Oh, thank you!” Bad says, absently taking it. “Did you find what you needed?”

Wilbur shakes his head.

“No,” he lies. “But thanks for letting me look.”

“Of course,” Bad responds. Reaching out, he places a gentle hand on Wilbur’s shoulder. It’s like a brand, searing in its kindness. “I’m sorry that my stuff wasn’t more useful.”

“It’s alright,” Wilbur says, a little light-headed from the adrenaline. “I appreciate you letting me look anyway.”

In his pocket, the compass spins.

In the Arctic, there’s nowhere to hide. The landscape is bare and exposed, with watchful birds aloft in the skies as they scan the ground for prey. There’s no fronting here, no shadows between trees to sneak in.

It’s only the strongest who survive, so when Wilbur slides the hunters their drugged food that night, he doesn’t whisper an apology under his breath.

Sneaking away is easy after that, all three hunters left slumped against the ground as an unnatural exhaustion takes hold of them. Wilbur hurries back, squinting to make out their tracks in the dark while keeping his eyes peeled for the soldiers. They should be impossible to miss, but—

Wilbur slams into something solid, and he yelps, falling back. A hand grabs his shoulder and yanks him up, Wilbur stumbling against nothing.

“Shut up!” the harsh voice of the captain barks. “Do you want to give us away?”

Wilbur whips his head from side to side.

“Wha—Where?” he starts. There’s nothing around but the Arctic.

“Here, you fool.” A torch appears out of nowhere, and Wilbur gapes as he sees banners lifted toward the sky, weapons held by no one. “It’s—”

“Invisibility potions,” Wilbur says through numb lips. He’s shaking. “I—This shouldn’t be possible. Just how much magic are you using?”

The captain’s voice is smug.

“We have our ways,” he says. “Now, what do you have that’s so important that you’re meeting us in person?”

Still in shock, Wilbur draws his hand out of his pocket.

“This,” he states.

The compass glitters against the torchlight.

There’s a slight pause before the captain snatches it from his hand. Held up by an invisible force, it spins on its chain, and when it snaps open, sure enough, the arrow spins for a few seconds before pointing firmly north.

“Well done,” the captain tells Wilbur. “Obtaining this is quite a feat.”

“Tommy—”

“Is alive, and we’ll be sure to return him to you, yes, yes,” the captain interrupts absently. “I haven’t forgotten our bargain, and I’m good for my word.” He holds the compass up and admires it, watching it spin on its chain. “ How did you get this off of the hunters?”

“It wasn’t hard,” Wilbur says quietly. He shuffles his feet. “They’re kind people.”

“They’re useless people after this,” the captain says. “Soldiers! Ready up, we’re going ahead.”

“Wait!” Wilbur says, startled. “Are you really going to try and get past them?”

“Why wait?” the captain questions. “By giving this to us, you’ve cut out the middle man. We can bypass those idiot hunters and go straight to the prize now.”

“The hunters are smart,” Wilbur protests. “Even if you have invisibility potions, they’ll wear off eventually. And what about the noise? You’re all armoured.”

Scoffing, the captain says grandly, “You really don’t need to know, but I’ll tell you anyway.” His sudden breath against Wilbur’s ear makes him jump. “It’s perception magic.”

Wilbur’s lungs freeze.

“How?” he manages to get out.

“None of your business,” the captain says. Briefly, he flickers into view as his invisibility potion wears off, a smug expression on his face as he claps Wilbur on the shoulder. “Thank you, Wilbur. You’ve been very useful to the king. We’ll remember that.”

For some reason, his praise is far from reassuring.

“What will you do?” Wilbur asks. His feet feel like they’ve been planted to the ground, layers and layers of clay molding him to the very earth. He can’t move. “What will happen to Dream and the hunters?”

“The same thing that happens to all traitors,” the captain says. Reaching into his inventory, he pulls out a purple potion, downs it, and throws the bottle to the side. It breaks with a faint shattering sound. “The king will take their lives.”

He vanishes from sight again, and Wilbur is left cold and alone in the wake of his own betrayal.

 

 

 

 

Dream doesn’t even see them coming.

One moment, he’s curled on the hard ground, trying to find a more comfortable position on the bare grass as Tommy sprawls beside him, and the next—

“Get him!”

What?

There’s no time to process. Something grabs Dream’s arm and drags him up, and he twists to break free of the hold only to bump into a hard metal plate. Iron? But he can’t see anything, what—

Quickly backing up, Dream grabs his axe out of his inventory and blindly swings. His axe makes a wide arc, screeching as the edge scrapes against an unseen force. The back of Dream’s neck prickles as he tries to look around, only for what feels like a sword hilt to hit him over the head. He falls to the ground with a grunt, catching himself for the briefest of seconds before a hand grabs the tender skin of his wrist and pushes down hard.

Something snaps.

Dream drops his axe.

There are hands now, grappling at him, tugging at the material of his shirt as they grab his upper arms and wrestle them behind him. Dream tries to fight them, struggles to pull free, but everytime he jostles his wrist—broken, he’s almost sure—a white hot bolt of pain lances through him. Gasping for air, Dream kicks out with his feet. He makes contact, and for a second, Dream thinks he can get up, but someone holds his legs to the ground, and he’s pinned.

“Dream!”

Dazed, Dream tries to lift his head only for someone to slam into it again, and he blacks out for a second. When he comes to, tiny pinpricks of light explode across his vision, and he moans weakly.

“-ream! Dream! You fuckers, what the hell did you do to him? I’ll fucking kill you, don’t think I won’t, you fucking pricks—”

“‘ommy?” Dream slurs. The world tilts alarmingly before his eyes. “‘ou okay?”

“I’d be fine if these fucking bitches would get off of me—Get off of me, you fuckers! Where the hell are you, show yourselves, you fucking cowards!”

“Well, that’s certainly some foul language you have there.”

A hot liquid drips down the side of Dream’s head. He tries to blink it away only for it to cling to his eyelashes, creating a thin film over his eyes.

The air in front of him shimmers, and slowly, a pair of iron boots materialize. They come closer and closer, thudding softly against the ground as Dream bucks up in a futile attempt to break free. He manages to twist around, trying to get some leverage against the ground, but an armored fist smashes into him, and Dream chokes. Vaguely, he thinks, My rib just broke.

More and more shapes appear now, gleaming figures decked out in armor surrounding them as whatever magic they were using wears off. A veritable wall surrounds them. Dream experimentally flexes against the grip of the soldiers holding him only to hiss as the movement jars his broken wrist.

“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

A somewhat familiar figure materializes out of the ranks as the soldiers make way in one smooth ripple. The ones holding Dream force him to his knees, none too gently, and Dream bites back a yell of pain as he glares up at the approaching figure.

“Who knew that it would be this easy in the end?” the captain croons as he stoops down by Dream’s head. “You let your guard down, champion.”

“‘ow did you—” Saliva fills Dream’s mouth. Weakly swallowing, he tries again. “How did you find us?” he rasps.

“I have to admit, it was quite a task,” the captain says. “Your skills certainly weren’t exaggerated. You led us on a merry chase.” He pauses, tilts his head to the side consideringly, and says, “I always hated seeing the stupid white mask of yours. Let’s take it off. I want to see your face when you realize you’ve finally reached a dead end.”

Dream is helpless as the captain’s hand hooks around the bottom of his mask and pulls it off. The off-white looks wrong in his hands, the smile a mockery as Dream flinches at the dual sensation of cold air biting at his bare skin and the burn of the captain’s gaze.

“There,” the captain says, satisfied. Reaching out, he grabs Dream’s chin and forces his head back, tilting Dream’s face from side to side like a particularly interesting piece of merchandise. Dream’s vision swims. “Why did you begin hiding your face, I wonder? Did you realize?”

“Realize what?” Tommy calls from across the clearing. Dream can’t see him at this angle, but he sounds unhurt and angry. Good. That’s good. “That you’re a massive fucking prick and that your bitchboy of a king isn’t much better?”

“What a mouth that boy has,” the captain muses. “You know what? I think I would enjoy shutting him up. ”

Dream stiffens as the captain starts rising to his feet.

“Wait,” he croaks. Instinctively, he tries to force himself up, but a soldier grabs his shoulder and slams him back into the ground with a grunt. His vocal chords feel like they’re scraping against one another as he speaks, and Dream frantically tries to think of something, anything that can get Tommy out of this. “He’s just a—He’s not a threat. He’s just some random kid I picked up along the way.” Prime, fuck, he hopes this works. “He’s not worth your time, he—Just let him go.”

“Interesting.” The captain stoops down again and pets Dream’s head in a mockery of affection, a slight smile on his lips. “You’re a terrible liar, champion. Your face gives everything away. Is that why you wear a mask?”

Fuck.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dream says. “You can do whatever, drag me back to the capital, kill me—”

“What the fuck?” Tommy yelps. “No, no, no, you can’t, Dream, shut the fuck up, they can’t kill you! I’m going to—”

“I’ve had enough. Shut him up,” the captain orders without looking. There’s a loud crack, Tommy’s yelp of pain, and then—

Silence.

Dream feels sick.

“Please. Just let him go,” he begs. “He literally has nothing to do with this. You have me, you have to bring me back to the king as soon as possible. You don’t need dead weight on your way back. Please, just—”

“Be quiet,” the captain says absently. His hand is still in Dream’s hair, and he suddenly fists it and yanks, jerking Dream’s head up. The angle puts an uncomfortable strain on Dream’s neck, and he bites his tongue as several strands rip free from his scalp. “I couldn’t care less about some foulmouthed brat, even one that follows the champion around like a lost puppy, but if it weren’t for him, we might never have found you.” He smiles sardonically. “And we wouldn’t want that to happen again.”

It takes a while for his words to sink in, Dream’s head pounding, but as soon as Dream realizes, his eyes widen.

“Tommy—”

The captain cuts him off.

“Not him. He’s too loud and fond of you to ever think of leading us to you,” he dismisses. His eyes glint. “His brother, on the other hand… fell into some very interesting company. A group of hunters you might be familiar with.”

No. There’s no way.

“Loyalty is so cheap nowadays, isn’t it?,” the captain says as if reading Dream’s mind. “Though I guess when you come from the streets, anything can be bought.”

“They wouldn’t,” Dream says. His stomach is a fistful of pain, so visceral that he thinks he might pass out, but he can’t. Tommy is close, probably hurt, and Dream needs to help him. He can’t let himself get distracted. He needs— “You’re lying.”

Chuckling, the captain suddenly releases his hold on Dream’s hair, and Dream hits his chin on the ground. The metallic taste of blood fills his mouth as he bites his tongue, but there isn’t enough time for the pain to register as the captain casually slaps him across the face. Then again. Again and again, until Dream’s face is one massive throb of pain, blood pouring from his nose, and something in the side of his face splinters.

Fuck. His entire body hurts. This is worse than the sharp knives of hunger that stabbed into him daily on the streets, the brutal strain on his body as he grimly slashed his way through his opponents in the colosseum, even those early days on the run when Dream missed his home and friends so much it felt like a physical wound slicing him open.

“Believe what you want,” Dream hears the captain say through the haze of pain that surrounds him. Blearily, Dream raises his head and tries to focus as the shape of the captain reaches for something at his waist and pulls it out, round and shining. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I have this.”

An object drops in front of Dream’s face, dangling from a silver chain. A familiar pattern is wrought into its surface, one that Dream has memorized under his fingertips.

“Useful little enchantment, this, and beautiful too. Dual purpose. I appreciate that in a magical object.”

Oh.

“What were their names again? There’s the demon, Bad, Sapnap, and who else…” The captain snaps his fingers together. The compass jangles. “George!”

Dream thought he knew pain before. He thought he knew how to hurt.

“Your best friends,” the captain croons, “led me straight to you.”

But nothing, nothing—has ever hurt as much as he does now.

“Take him. Take the brat too, we don’t want to leave any loose ends. Oh, and—Make sure he can’t fight. We don’t want any surprises on our way back.”

Rough hands grab at Dream’s ruined face and force a cold glass bottle past his lips, pouring something acrid and bitter down his throat as he gags, helpless.

It’s almost a relief when the world goes dark.

Chapter Text

As soon as Wilbur sees the encampment ahead of them, he knows there’s nowhere to hide.

“What the hell are the king’s men doing all the way out here?” Sapnap mutters as they draw to a halt just in sight of the gleaming silver horde. From this distance, Wilbur can vaguely hear the soldiers’ conversations and laughter. “Thought they were too pussy to leave the cities.”

“They must be scouting or something,” Bad reasons. Wilbur’s gut twists. “Otherwise, there’s no reason for them to come to the Arctic.”

Squinting, Sapnap says, “Isn’t that the captain that was stationed in the town we… uh… caused some trouble?”

“You mean the town where you burned their church to the ground?” George raises his eyebrow.

“Hey! It was just a little burnt!” Sapnap defends himself sheepishly.

“Whatever.” Crossing his arms, George eyes the soldiers warily. “I don’t trust them. How are they directly in our path? Especially if what the other hunters said is true, and they’ve reported that Dream is dead. The king’s men must know something we don’t.”

Bad and Sapnap grow alert at that, and Wilbur glances to the side. There are no convenient hidey-holes, no caves for him to duck into and escape the oncoming shame.

“You mean if they’re after Dream?” Bad asks. “I don’t see how they could be ahead of us if that’s the case. We have the compass, after all.”

“Check,” George urges. All of a sudden, his tone sharpens, and his shoulders tense. Wilbur is abruptly reminded of a snarling wolf, crouched watchfully at the mouth of a cave and ready to pounce. “You haven’t looked at it at all. Check the compass.”

Wilbur sees it happen as if the world has suddenly slowed its rotation. Bad shrugs his pouch off his shoulder and reaches into it. Sapnap fiddles with his sword hilt. George watches. Bad’s fingers hit the bottom of the bag, and his eyebrows furrow. He searches again. And again. And again.

“What’s taking so long?” Sapnap bursts out. He closes his fist around his sword hilt as if to yank it out and looks over his shoulder. “We don’t have all fucking day, Bad!”

“Language!” Bad chides automatically, but his face pinches as he searches. “That’s funny, I could swear that I put it in here somewhere...”

“Ugh, you’re so slow,” Sapnap complains. Snatching the bag from Bad, Sapnap plunges his hand in and starts groping while making a disgusted face. “You always carry so much junk, that’s probably why you can’t find it.”

Wilbur’s heart climbs his throat, trying to wrestle its way out of his throat as he watches. In the distance, the hoard of soldiers seem to pause and then undulate as one, as they start heading in their direction, armor glittering under the pale sunlight.

“Fuck, where is it?” Sapnap swears. “I swear to Prime, Bad, if you lost it—”

“I didn’t lose it! I’m telling you, it was right here this morning, and then—”

“Guys,” George says, pulling his bow off his shoulder and notching an arrow. He clearly notices the soldiers’ movement as well. “They’re coming.”

Blood pounds through Wilbur’s ears like a wardrum, until it’s the only thing he can hear as the soldiers come closer and closer. The hunters pull together like a single unit, Sapnap at the point, Bad slightly to the side, and George backing them up. Wilbur steps further back, an asymmetrical jut to the diamond formation. He doesn’t belong with them. He doesn’t fit.

That’s going to become obvious soon.

“Look who joined the party,” the captain’s familiar voice calls. Soldiers make way for him as he comes to the front, and Sapnap audibly growls in his direction. The captain casts an amused glance in his direction. “Down, boy,” he remarks.

“Fuck you,” Sapnap snarls.

“Mm, no thanks.” Sauntering closer, the captain grins and says, “You’re late. I expected you sooner than this. It’s not very good manners to make us do all the work.”

“What are you talking about?” George asks from the back. The bowstring is taut underneath his fingers, and his back is straight as a steel rod. “Late to what?”

The captain feigns surprise.

“Why, the celebration of course!” he exclaims. “For the success of our hunt.”

Wilbur barely has time to hear Bad begin to say, “Wha—” before a soldier shoulders his way up and tosses a body onto the ground between them.

It’s Dream. No mask, hands bound, bloodied all over.

There’s a single moment of silence where the only sound is the whistle of the wind and hunters’ disbelief, and then—

Sapnap roars.

Wilbur has the briefest moment to think, Where’s Tommy? before chaos erupts.

The shriek of metal against metal rings through the air as Sapnap lunges forward and swings his sword down, the captain drawing his own to block in the same moment. Snarling, Sapnap bears his weight down. He looks feral, sparks flying from his grip around the sword as his hair flies in a wild halo around his head.

Bad and George don’t waste any time either, exploding into action. As soldiers bear down all around them, Bad reaches into his pouch and pulls out a rapidly-expanding block of TNT, placing it and grabbing Wilbur’s collar at the same moment.

“Don’t struggle!” he says and jumps back, pulling Wilbur with him as the TNT explodes.

The force of the explosion barely misses them as Bad drags Wilbur to safety like he weighs nothing. Dirt flies up, stinging Wilbur’s cheeks, and he closes his eyes, coughing.

Something collides with his back, and Wilbur falls forward, just barely managing to catch himself on his hands. Rubbing his eyes, Wilbur squints and looks up to see George with his bow drawn and arrows notched, a steely gaze as he studies the soldiers.

“You’re in my way,” he says coldly. Lifting his bow, he fires calmly into the mob of soldiers. His aim is true, and Wilbur sees the soldier go down, clutching the arrow at the junction between his helmet and chestplate. Without pause, George draws, notches, and fires another arrow. Another soldier goes down. He doesn’t spare Wilbur a glance as he says, “Either fight or move. It’s your choice.”

Wilbur’s breath catches in his lungs. Scrambling backwards, he fumbles to his feet and staggers a distance away as George scans the landscape and jumps up a small mound of boulders. With the height advantage, he begins to shoot even faster, arrows raining from the sky as he unerringly picks off soldiers one by one.

In the middle of the fight, Sapnap is a flurry of motion, droplets of blood flying from his blade as he mows through soldiers left and right. Wilbur can’t see the captain or Dream anymore, but Sapnap doesn’t seem to care as he stabs and slices in the same deadly movement.

“What the fuck did you do to him?” he howls. “I’ll fucking kill you!”

Bad darts between the outskirts of the battle and the thick of it, claws extended as he trips soldiers, stomping them to the ground and twisting their arms. Wilbur winces at their yells of pain as their bones pop from their sockets, limbs left dangling as Bad drops them.

“I’d say sorry,” Bad says, and for once, there’s no trace of warmth or laughter in his voice as he steps over the fallen soldiers. “But you should just be grateful I didn’t kill you.”

Seeing the hunters work together is… entrancing. Wilbur watches, rapt, as the three hunters move together like a well-oiled machine. Each clearly knows their own role—Sapnap taking point as he charges forward recklessly, George from behind as he picks off imminent threats, and Bad covering both by going back and forth between them.

It would be beautiful if not for the violence, but Wilbur can still see the holes, small as they might be. It’s when Sapnap leaves his side open slightly too long, and a sword glances off of him, causing him to grunt in pain. It’s the way George is stuck in one place, unable to move without someone to cut down anyone getting too close, forced to dodge arrows as more and more soldiers notice him and begin retaliating. It’s how Bad, despite his power, doesn’t kill the soldiers, leaving them for a phantom to deliver the killing blow, only for the soldiers to stagger their feet and try again.

They need a fourth, and try as he might, Wibur’s feet won’t move.

Frozen in place, Wilbur watches as slowly but surely, the hunters are overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how good they are when there are only three of them against what seems like a neverending tide of soldiers. Sapnap is panting, blood dripping into his eyes as he clutches the shallow wounds lanced on his side, and a soldier sneaks up behind him to tackle him to the ground.

“Sapnap!” George yells.

Distracted, he lowers his bow for the slightest second only for an arrow to catch him in the shoulder. George’s eyes are hidden behind his goggles, but his lips part in surprise as he staggers back. Wilbur sees his foot slip and reaches out uselessly only for George to fall backwards off the rocks, hitting the ground with a thud.

It’s only Bad left now, fighting desperately as soldiers swarm towards him. His sword is knocked out of his hand, and Bad quickly draws a dagger as he parries and ducks, but there’s too many of them. He can’t last.

Somehow, they lock eyes, Bad’s eyes widening as he narrowly dodges a soldier’s axe.

“Get out of here!” Bad yells as Wilbur stays where he is, rooted in place. “Wilbur, run!”

“Now why would he want to do that?”

Wilbur’s heart stops.

Appearing out of seemingly nowhere, the captain casually raises his arm, and the soldiers stop. The lack of motion is jarring, and Bad falters for a second.

It’s a mistake.

Soldiers are on him in a flash, piling on top of him to hold him down as he struggles against them. To the side, Sapnap bucks up, eyes red-rimmed with anger.

“Bad!” he howls, and when more soldiers appear, dragging a bleeding George behind them, “George!

“Stop that flailing. It’s useless, you know,” the captain says. “Though I suppose you all take after the champion.”

At the reminder that Dream is captured, Sapnap starts thrashing harder.

“I’ll kill you, I swear to Prime I will,” he snarls. “What did you do to him?”

“Just made sure that he would submit. He also put up a good fight, though I suppose that’s expected for someone of his skill.” The captain looks over to Wilbur and smiles. “I doubt we would have ever caught him without Wilbur’s help.”

The world goes quiet.

Wilbur swallows.

“Wilbur?” Bad says from the ground. He sounds bewildered. “What is he...?”

“You fucker,” Sapnap spits. Next to him, George’s silence is so loud that Wilbur is almost afraid to look in his direction. “You’re a fucking traitor!”

“Oh, stop, let’s not call names,” the captain says scornfully. “Don’t add being a hypocrite to your list of crimes. Weren’t you the ones who said you were hunting Dream? Weren’t you the ones who claimed he betrayed you? You can’t blame Wilbur for giving us the upper hand. After all,” he shakes his head mournfully, “We all thought we were on the same team.”

“The compass,” George says, speaking up for the first time. He’s on his knees, arms held behind him as a broken arrow protrudes from his shoulder. His goggles are shattered, empty white frames dangling from his neck, and his eyes are icy as he stares Wilbur down. “Bad didn’t lose it. You stole it.”

Wilbur is going to throw up.

“I—”

“He reunited you all!” the captain breaks in. He spreads his arms wide, magnanimously, and Wilbur can’t look at the hunters, can’t look at the wrath that crosses George’s face, the anger in Sapnap’s, the sadness in Bad’s— “Isn’t this what you wanted? This is what you get. This is what you deserve for trying to trick the king.”

“When we get free from this,” George says quietly. Wilbur forces himself to look at him. George is bloodstained and injured, but as he gazes up at Wilbur, the burning wrath in his eyes is enough to make Wilbur take a step back. “I’m going to kill you.”

“I didn’t...” Wilbur says weakly. His words fade in a chilly blast from the north. He shivers and tries again. “I didn’t want—”

“You didn’t what? Want this to happen?” George’s voice is hard, and his words are unforgiving as Wilbur flinches. “We took you in and treated you like one of us, and this is how—”

“You never treated me as one of your own!”

The words burst out of Wilbur, surprising both him and George enough that George falls silent. Wilbur pants a little, light-headed.

“You didn’t,” he repeats. “If you really treated me like one of you, you would have told me about Dream. You wouldn’t be secretly covering for a criminal that has my baby brother and then lied about it to me.”

Bad speaks up.

“Wilbur, we didn’t want to deceive you,” he says pleadingly. His tail lashes, agitated. “We didn’t know if we could trust you. We just wanted to protect Dream.”

“And all I want is to protect Tommy,” Wilbur says. He wants to cry, and for a single blistering second, he misses Phil. He misses the feeling of his father’s wings wrapped around him, a warm cocoon safe from the rest of the world. He misses when he was protected, not the protector. He misses his family. “That’s all. I did what I had to.”

Bad looks stricken.

The captain sighs, bored.

“Take them away,” he instructs, and the soldiers haul the hunters to their feet. They’re not gentle, and Wilbur sees George bite back a yell of pain as someone pulls roughly on his injured shoulder. “Make sure they’re secure. Oh, and don’t put them next to each other. We don’t know what kind of tricks they’ll pull.”

Sapnap spits at his feet as the soldiers drag him past, but the captain is unfazed.

“Traitors will be dealt with accordingly,” he says, eyes glinting. “Their lives offered to the king.”

Wilbur watches as the soldiers haul the hunters to separate corners of the camp, forcing them to the ground and tying them more securely. Pausing for a second, the captain shakes himself and beckons for Wilbur to come closer. When Wilbur doesn’t move, he sighs and says, “Enough. Let me take you to your brother.”

The reminder of Tommy (Tommy, here, alive, Wilbur can hold him soon—) is enough for Wilbur’s feet to move forward.

“Is he alright?” he asks urgently as the captain leads him past the others. Now that the fight is over, soldiers are beginning to set up camp, building a fire and stationing themselves around it in guard shifts. From the corner of his eye, Wilbur can see a hint of bright green motionless on the ground. He doesn’t think about that. “Is he hurt?”

“He’s a little banged up,” the captain grumbles, a look of discontent crossing his face. “Only as needed, though. He’s a mouthy one.”

Did he hit—

“You hit Tommy?” Wilbur exclaims. “You fu—”

“He deserved it,” the captain cuts in, annoyed. “He should be grateful that I’m not dragging him about in chains after the stunts he pulled with that damn criminal. Now shut up, and don’t give me any lip. Do you want to see him or not?”

Wilbur shuts up.

They keep walking. Past the burgeoning fire, past the chained hunters, past Dream, slack and unresponsive on the ground, and there, in the shadow of a tent, Wilbur sees a familiar shock of bright blond hair and blue eyes. When the figure stands up, he feels his knees buckle.

“Tommy,” Wilbur says in relief. Then, “Tommy.

“Wil?” Tommy says, sounding confused. As they draw closer, Wilbur can see the shadow of a bruise blooming high across his cheekbone, and Tommy moves gingerly like he’s trying not to jostle something. “What are you doing here?”

“Nevermind that, are you alright? Are you hurt?” Wilbur frantically pats Tommy down, noting the dirtiness of his shirt and the unexpected lines of muscle in his arms. Tommy winces when Wilbur accidentally presses on his ribs, and a flare of rage rises inside Wilbur. “What did they—”

“Nevermind them, what about you?” Tommy parrots back impatiently. Batting Wilbur’s hand away, he shifts in place, and Wilbur tries not to let the hurt show on his face. “How the fuck did you find me?”

“I wasn’t going to just let you run away,” Wilbur says indignantly. He’s not like Phil, he takes care of his family. “Why did you do that anyway? Do you know how worried I was—”

“I know, I know, it was a stupid decision!” Tommy says. He throws his hands up, and Wilbur is surprised all over again by the definition of his bicep. Tommy has always been scrawny, too coltish to put on any muscle, but now, he has the build of an endurance runner, all lean bulk that speaks to practice. Practice that Wilbur has never seen. “But I needed to get away, man, you were suffocating me!”

“Suffocat—Tommy!

“What?” Tommy crosses his arms over his chest stubbornly, refusing to meet Wilbur’s gaze. “It’s true! I know you took me in and all, but, man, I don’t have any freedom with you around!”

Wilbur feels like he’s spinning in place, conflicted feelings of relief and frustration warring with one another in his chest. If Tommy knew just what suffocating really meant, if he could remember, then surely, surely—

“Don’t say that,” he croaks. “You have no idea what I’ve done to give you freedom.”

The muscles in Tommy’s forearms tense, and Wilbur can see that Tommy is tempted to ask what Wilbur means, but his stubbornness wins out, and Tommy remains silent.

Biting his lower lip, Wilbur searches for any number of things he could say. He could keep scolding Tommy, he could ask Tommy to tell him about his time with Dream, he could even try and pretend none of this has happened, to see if he could win Tommy back with a well-placed joke. But there’s only one question in Wilbur’s heart, almost too vulnerable to be said out loud. Nevertheless, Wilbur has to. He has to.

Opening his mouth, Wilbur asks, raw, “Did you miss me?”

Tommy’s mouth snaps shut, and he gazes at Wilbur, eyes wide. Wilbur doesn’t even try to disguise the desperation in his voice, stepping forward and grabbing onto Tommy’s shoulders like he’s the edge of a cliff and Wilbur is just holding on. Lowering his head, Wilbur knocks his forehead against Tommy’s and, after a moment, Tommy leans into the touch.

“Did you miss me?” Wilbur repeats. “Please. Tommy.”

“I—”

Wilbur hangs his head, listening for Tommy’s response. It doesn’t come, and after a long, terrible moment of waiting, Wilbur forces himself to look up. When he does, he sees Tommy’s eyes shining, wet with unshed tears, and then Wilbur is being pulled into a crushing embrace, Tommy’s arms wrapping around him, and—

“Fuck you, Wilby,” Tommy chokes out. “Of course I fucking missed you.”

Wilbur’s chest splinters, and he gasps out a laugh. It comes out wet and warbly, turning into a sob as Wilbur hugs Tommy back. He folds Tommy’s body into his as he relishes the familiar angles and touch of his brother.

Wilby. Tommy hasn’t used that nickname since he was knee-level, and the sound of it has never been sweeter.

“I missed you too,” he manages to get out. “So, so much. I love you, Toms. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Tommy says, muffled. Wilbur feels something damp on his shoulder and hugs Tommy tighter. “I’m sorry for making you worry. I was a right dickhead.”

“You were,” Wilbur agrees. “But we’re together now, and that’s what matters more.”

They stay like that for a long moment, wrapped around one another as the sky darkens. Eventually, Wilbur is forced to let go, rubbing at his runny nose as he and Tommy stare at each other, red-eyed.

“Look at us sad sacks of shit,” Tommy jokes, but the nasally tone of his voice does nothing to hide his sniffs nor the faint tear track down his face. “We’re really fucking useless, aren’t we?”

“Hey,” Wilbur says, offended. “I raised you for practically all your life, and you seem to have done pretty well for yourself without me. We’re not useless, far from it.” He frowns. “Speaking of which, how do you look so good?”

Tommy’s eyes light up.

“Oh, yeah!” he says eagerly. “Wil, you will not believe what’s happened since we last saw each other, it’s insane.”

“I can guess,” Wilbur says as the weight of the past months crashes him back to reality. “How did you end up with Dream of all people?”

“Dream is the fucking best,” Tommy says fervently. “Wait, Wil—” He grabs Wilbur’s arm, urgency written across his face. “We have to get him out of here. I don’t know what the fuck the king wants with him, but there’s got to be some mistake, Dream wouldn’t betray anyone, I don’t know what they’re talking about—”

“Tommy,” Wilbur says. That sick feeling from earlier is back, and it’s somehow worse as Wilbur stares into Tommy’s earnest face. “What are you talking about?”

Taking a deep breath, Tommy says, “Look, I know I bullshit a lot and haven’t given you much reason to trust my judgement in the past, but I’m not joking around now. Dream’s really looked out for me. He took me in even though I would only slow him down, shared his rations with me, trained me, did all sorts of shit to make sure I was safe… Prime, what hasn’t he done for me? Plus,” Tommy adds, indignance fading to something softer and quieter. “I made him laugh.”

“He’s a criminal, Tommy,” Wilbur says as he fights to wrestle down his ever growing sense of unease. “A traitor.”

“Dream would never betray anyone,” Tommy insists, vehement. His eyes light up with an angry fire, one that’s so similar to Techno’s that Wilbur reels in place. “Since when were we loyal to the king anyway? The king is on some shit, I’m telling you, and this fucking captain isn’t much better. He’s drugged Dream up with something, I don’t know what, but it can’t be good.”

“Tommy—”

“We have to save him,” Tommy continues heatedly. “I’ve been looking around camp—they don’t think I’m a threat for some reason, what the fuck?—and they’ve got him locked up in the center. If we create a big enough distraction, then one of us can sneak in and grab him to escape. We’re going to help him, Wil. This time, I’m gonna be the one to save him.”

“I don’t think—”

“Don’t know what all that commotion was, back there,” Tommy says. He’s bouncing in place, fists clenched at his side and looking like he’s ready to take on the world for the man Wilbur sold out. “Or how the soldiers even snuck up on us, really, Dream is too good for that.” Finally, he pauses to take a breath and looks at Wilbur full in the face. “Do you know?”

“Tommy,” Wilbur says. There’s no running in the Arctic. Not even from his own decisions. “I’m the one who led them to him.”

Tommy doesn’t believe him, Wilbur can tell. It shows in that way that Tommy laughs shakily and takes a step forward, feet crunching on the dry grass.

“You couldn’t lead the soldiers to him, how would you even do that?” Tommy asks. “You have nothing to do with him. How would you know where he was?”

“Once I heard you were with Dream, I traveled with a group of hunters to reach you,” Wilbur says. Each word is like a nail dragging across the inside of his throat. “They’re Dream’s friends. They wanted to help him.”

“So you went with them.” Tommy jumps ahead of Wilbur, desperately filling in the blanks. “And… You screwed up somehow. Gave away your position. You’re not made for stealth or hard travel, too soft for that. But that’s not your fault!”

“They had a compass,” Wilbur forces himself to continue. He’s many things: a traitor, a coward—but he won’t be a liar. Not to Tommy. Not anymore. “I stole it.”

Tommy looks like Wilbur has slapped him across the face.

“What?” he breathes faintly.

There’s no time, Wilbur has to speak before he faints or throws up, whichever one comes first. “Tommy, I didn’t know anything about Dream except that he was a criminal and you were with him,” he says, words racing to get out even as Tommy’s expression contorts. “The hunters were the only way I could get close to you.”

“They let you travel with them?” Tommy asks, always too sharp. “And you used them to get straight to Dream. To me.”

“Yes, but I didn’t know,” Wilbur insists. “I had to make sure you were safe, you understand—”

“You fucking sold them out,” Tommy says in realization. “You sold Dream out.”

Wilbur is out of options and out of time.

“For you,” he says helplessly and watches as he loses his younger brother one more time. “For you.”

He reaches out, and Tommy steps back, shaking his head. A knife to the stomach would be less painful, Wilbur thinks, hand outstretched in midair.

“Don’t touch me,” Tommy says, face twisted. “I’m not—Don’t touch me. Not now.”

“Tommy, please,” Wilbur pleads. “You can’t blame me for this, I just wanted to find you. You were the one who ran away first.”

“Don’t fucking turn this on me!” Tommy spits. “Sure, I made a dumb decision, but at least that only affected me! You’ve sold a man out, Wilbur, that’s not fucking okay!”

“And what am I, then?” Wilbur shouts. Tommy startles at that, and Wilbur blinks furiously, trying to keep the hot wash of tears at bay. “It only affected you—then what am I, huh? Did it not affect me at all? Did my feelings not mean anything?”

Tommy is speechless, and for a second, Wilbur relishes the victory before it turns sour as Tommy’s face hardens. He turns his back to Wilbur, shoulders hunched, but Wilbur still hears his next words, loud and clear.

“Dream is my friend,” Tommy says quietly. “I’m going to save him. Nothing is going to stop me.”

Not even you.

He stomps off, and Wilbur watches him go. Tommy makes his way to the gaggle of soldiers by George, and when one steps away to say something to him, Tommy snaps and yells something until the soldier raises his hands in surrender. George looks up as Tommy crouches, and the two speak in tones too low for Wilbur to hear across the camp. The bloodstains on George’s shirt have only spread.

At one point, George slants him a glance, and Wilbur jumps as they make eye contact. It’s only a second, and he’s probably imagining the scorn in George’s eyes, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less when George ignores him and turns back to the conversation with Tommy.

Sapnap and Bad are a good distance away from one another, but they’re clearly looking at one another and motioning with jerks of their head to where Dream lies, prone on the ground. Out of them all, Wilbur is the one with the most freedom, able to stand and go where he chooses. His guitar has even managed to survive the chaos of the day, forgotten against his back. He could sit by the fire and play a song. He knows that the king’s men would let him sit with them, even sing along if they know the words.

So why is Wilbur the one who’s all alone?

 

 

 

 

The world is a void.

Dream groans and tries to sit up but falls back immediately, sinking into the ground as he squeezes his eyes shut, and the world is a void.

Something deep inside of him aches, like someone has grabbed his heart and is squeezing it between clawed hands, clenching and twisting until Dream is gasping for breath, and the world is a void.

Everything hurts, and Dream shakes as pain washes over him like a storm over the ocean, battering ships and sailors alike in its unrelenting assault. He tries to curl in on himself, but something is holding him back, limbs unresponsive as he jerks them against—restraints? Where did those come from? Is he back on that cold floor with the king’s eyes raking over him, a purple glow suffusing the room as he lay passive and—

No, that’s not right. Those were his champion’s rites. A good thing, not the pain of the void.

Fuck. His thoughts aren’t clear.

Shuddering, Dream forces his eyes open only to shut them immediately again. Even the barest glimmer of light hurts, and he buries his face into the ground to hide from it.

His stomach churns, and Dream is suddenly hit by the sensation of gagging on some acidic liquid, remembers the way that it slithered down his throat and immediately rendered him useless. Some kind of drug? Whatever it was, Dream can’t waste time staying in that dazed state. He has to break out.

Dry grass itches at the skin of his face, the sensation nearly foreign as Dream fights his way back to reality. Turning his head, he rubs his cheek against the ground and feels the scratch of withered grass, on its way to death as the Arctic winter approaches. The scratch of it grounds him.

Dream breathes deeply, letting the scent of the earth fill his nostrils. It’s musty and slightly sulfuric, but there’s a freshness there too, a clean smell that cuts through the rest of the odor and penetrates Dream’s foggy brain. Slowly, his senses filter back to him.

His arms. They’re bound behind him, ropes crawling all the way from his wrists to his shoulders in a sturdy cage. When he shifts on his knees, he notices the same thing with his ankles additionally chained to some kind of stake. Moving his leg, he hears the chain drag through the grass, its weight making it impossible to lift his leg higher than an inch off the ground.

Groaning, Dream thumps his head back as a swarm of vague impressions and memories overtake him. The fight. Not being able to see his attackers. Tommy, crying out then falling silent.

The compass, dangling tauntingly in the captain’s hand.

At that, a bolt of hurt lances through Dream, and he shivers. The captain had said they betrayed him, but, no. They would never, right? For a second, Dream entertains the possibility that the captain was telling the truth, that somehow Bad, Sapnap, and George decided it was easier or better to sell him out, but then certainty wins over. Dream would give his life for those three, and he knows they would do the same. It makes no sense that they would turn on him.

In fact, the more Dream thinks about it, the more something doesn’t add up, whether it’s how the soldiers caught up to him or how he was captured in the first place. He remembers being hit over the head several times when he was captured, and the way his thinking spirals and circles certainly supports that, but when Dream moves his head, he doesn’t feel any aches or pains. Something definitely hurts, but it’s not coming from any injuries on his body. If anything, it’s in his body.

The cut on his arm from Phil, the one that had healed in days. Did the same thing happen again?

Dream squirms a little on the ground to test his theory, and in the process, feels a hard lump press into his thigh. For a second, Dream wildly wonders if he left a piece of food in his pocket (though that’s more of a Tommy action to do) then remembers the strange sphere he’d picked up in the stronghold. It pulses, hot, against his thigh, almost like a heartbeat.

Wake up.

Dream jerks in his bonds, only for the rope to bite into the thin skin of his wrist as he looks around. What was that?

It sounded like some sort of whisper, so soft that the words were less heard and more felt, but when Dream cranes his neck, all he sees are lumps of soldiers sleeping, two standing near him as they shift on their feet in guard.

No one looks like they said anything and, confused, Dream tries to sit up. Crunching his abs, he winces as the cuffs around his legs cut his ankles but manages to maneuver himself into a kneeling position. Several feet away, the guards tense, and Dream frantically starts looking around.

He barely has time to take in the layout of the camp (circular, soldiers staggered around the rim facing outward and inward, him in the center) before a guard is shouting and stalking towards him.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

Dream doesn’t even get the chance to try and get out of the way when an armored foot crashes into his stomach. Wheezing, Dream folds in half, coughing as another kick lands, this one throwing him back until his back hits the ground.

“Stay down,” the guard orders, her voice cold and unsympathetic. “Don’t even think about trying to escape.”

“He’s up already?” A second guard joins the first, and Dream raises his head only for the first guard to casually place a foot on his throat. Dream freezes. “The captain said that potion should have knocked him out for at least a day.”

“Prime if I know,” the first guard grumbles. She presses down on Dream’s neck almost idly. “I don’t understand why we’re using those potions anyway, they’re in short stock now that the champions are gone. We should just do things the old-fashioned way.”

Her foot pushes down harder, and Dream fights panic as the pressure against his throat increases. Dark spots flash every time he blinks, and with his arms and legs bound, he can’t get enough leverage to throw her foot off. Helpless, he kicks out with his legs.

“Can’t—breathe—” he croaks. “S-stop—”

“Fuck, cut that out!” the second guard snaps. At his words, the foot lifts, and Dream rolls over, gasping. He coughs, sucking in large desperate breaths that hurt when he inhales. “The captain will have your head if you actually kill him. The champion is supposed to live, remember?”

“I know, I know,” the female guard grumbles. “That ancient fucker and his precious champions and their precious lives. Fucker.” She spits on the ground.

“Shut up!” The second guard’s voice is sharp. “Don’t get caught talking like that. Look, let’s just make sure he’s down and stays down. That’s our job.”

“And how do we do that?”

“Potion. If one won’t work, maybe two will.”

As the guards start towards them, one reaches into the pouch at his waist and pulls out two purple-tinged bottles. The sight of them makes Dream blanch, and he scrabbles back as best he can with his limbs tied.

“I won’t try to run,” he says desperately. The fog from earlier, the way he couldn’t think clearly, odd memories resurfacing, and that strange, strange feeling of dread as he lay on the floor— “Y-you don’t have to—Just knock me out. Not that.”

“Sorry, champ,” says the guard, not sounding very sorry at all. “We’re just doing our jobs here.” He nods at the female guard. “Hold him still.”

Strong hands grab Dream’s face and pry his mouth open. A knuckle knocks against Dream’s teeth as he fights to get loose, efforts futile as the hands stay firmly in place, stretching his jaw as the other guard uncorks the potions.

“Open wide,” Dream hears, and then that same stinging mixture is poured down his throat.

It burns on its way down, Dream spluttering as he chokes. There’s no rest as the first bottle is withdrawn, and immediately, a second glass rim presses against his lips. Droplets fly from his mouth, hissing where they land on the bare skin of his neck, and Dream struggles again to throw it up. Gloved hands pinch his nose shut, however, forcing him to swallow even as he gags.

“Sleep tight,” the guard says as that hazy dread descends on Dream once again. “You poor fucker.”

They must leave eventually. They must. Dream can’t tell because the second that the liquid hits his stomach, his entire system falters. It’s like he’s fighting to break free from a cage, only the bars are his body, and the world is the laughing audience. Invisible fingers cling to him, dragging him down as Dream struggles to regain awareness of his surroundings. Heat wracks him, cramping what feels like every muscle in his body as he curls in on himself in a vain attempt to escape.

It hurts. Prime, it hurts.

Time passes. Dream doesn’t know how much of it, but he knows it passes because the next thing he registers is someone shaking him. Their touch is rough but not harsh as Dream bites his tongue against another wave of pain that washes through him.

“Wake up,” the voice says, low. It would be almost melodic in its tones if not for the urgency lacing it. “Dream, you have to—you have to—”

A sound escapes Dream, and the voice begins panicking.

“Oh, fuck, what did they give you, uh—Tommy said a drug? A potion, maybe? Please, please, I know you’re hurting, but don’t be that loud! What did—Fuck, we don’t have time for this, you have to work with me here, please.”

“Sa’na’,” Dream slurs. Prime, his body feels so, so heavy. “Bad. ‘eorge.”

“George—? They’re okay. I’m getting them out after you, okay, fuck, not that they would want to see me again. I think George is actually going to take out my eyes at the very least. But I’m trying. I’m trying to make it up to them, okay? Trying… to do the right thing.”

Something falls to the ground with a rattle, and Dream bends his leg. Vaguely, he’s surprised to find that it moves.

“That’s one… Let me do your arms now.”

There’s a sawing sound and a snap, and then Dream is leaving the ground as someone hauls his arm over their shoulder. It’s a taller point of view than he’s used to, and he sways on his feet as he blearily tries to make out what’s going on.

It’s night, and the darkness is so thick that Dream can almost taste it.

“Fuck,” the voice grunts, “I need to work out more.” A pause as Dream’s feet drag across the ground, and his head lolls to the side as he fights to regain awareness. His broken rib and wrist ache. “For the record… I’m sorry.”

Sorry? For what?

The thought never leaves Dream’s mouth as he’s dropped rather unkindly to the ground. The impact startles something in his brain, and he gasps as the air leaves him.

Above him, there’s that same sawing sound again, and then a familiar voice hissing, “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing! He was like this when I got to him, the soldiers must have drugged him with a potion.”

“Well, fix him.”

“We have to get out of here first. Look, I know you hate me right now, but can we agree that that comes first? Escaping.”

“... You’re not getting off that easily. Let me see him.”

A rustle, and then gentle hands on Dream’s face, the touch startlingly familiar as someone says, “Hey, idiot. Are you there?”

Dream would recognize that tone and that insult anywhere, and he makes a weak effort to raise his hand.

“George,” he manages to get out.

“That’s me,” George (it’s George, right? Dream isn’t hallucinating?) replies with an equal mix of exasperation and fondness. “I have to admit, this isn’t the reunion I was imagining.”

“‘s not safe,” Dream mumbles. “Gotta... Gotta protect you.”

“Idiot, you’re in no state to protect anyone right now. Hang on.” George grunts, and then something cold and familiar is being pressed into Dream’s palm.

“Uh… Are you sure you want to give him that?”

“Why not? It’s his weapon.” George’s voice is terse.

“Well, it might be, but he’s not really in a state to—”

“Better for him to be armed than not. Besides,” George’s voice drops. “I promised him.”

A promise. That’s important.

Dream struggles to focus on that, and weakly, he manages to curl his palm around whatever George gave him. It’s heavy, but it fits into his hand like it was made for it, and he hears George let out a quiet sigh of relief.

“Nightmare missed you,” Dream thinks he hears George say. Then, George’s tone changes as he turns his head and snaps, “Get the others, and quietly. Don’t wake up the soldiers.”

“I know, I’m not stupid, you know. Tommy is already doing that.”

“Tommy? Who’s that again?”

“He’s—”

“Whatever. We need to get him out.” The hands leave Dream’s face, leaving him cold and aching again, and he whines in the back of his throat. He wants that touch back. “This is a terrible plan.”

“You try doing better when you’re surrounded,” is the harried response. “Look, there they are! Now let’s go.”

Someone hoists him up, and that nice voice that freed him is saying, “It would be really helpful if you could move on your own right now.”

Eyelids fluttering, Dream makes an effort to focus. Like before, his senses filter back one by one—the ache in his shoulder from being slung around a neck, the smell of sweat and adrenaline, and a pile of brown curls on top of an angular face.

“There you are,” the unfamiliar man says. Relief is naked over his expression. “Can you fight?”

Fight what? Dream wants to ask, but even through the confusion, the question filters through.

Can you fight?

If there’s one thing Dream’s body remembers, even without all his mental faculties, it’s how to fight.

That must show in his face, because the brown-haired man breathes a sigh of relief.

“Okay,” he says under his breath. “We might be able to pull this off.”

He speaks too soon, because as soon as the words leave his mouth, there’s a rattle and then the shout, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

“Oh, fuck,” the man says, face pale. “Tommy! Run!”

Tommy?

Dream pulls his arm from the man’s grip and wobbles to his feet, ignoring the man’s alarmed yell. He squints, and in the near distance, he can see a familiar blond head of blond hair sprinting as blobs of gray chase after him. A hood and headband flutter in the wind, and Dream’s heart lifts inexplicably.

“Sapnap,” he says. Then, “Bad!”

“Drea—”

Bad doesn’t get to finish his sentence as a soldier swings his sword with a vengeance. It cleaves through the air, Sapnap turning too late, mouth dropping open to yell, and then—

An arc of blood. A stunned silence.

Bad, falling to the ground.

It’s strange, the way that the world slows. Dream blinks, and he can sense every blade of grass pricking at his feet, the heady roll of storm clouds like the blood rushing to his head as he watches Bad lie motionless on the ground. Vaguely, he registers George screaming behind him, sees how Sapnap tries to hoist Bad up to be struck from behind and fall, Tommy sprinting towards Wilbur with his hand outstretched, but—

Swords, axes, arrows. A descending mob thirsty for blood. The cruel silver of armor swarming his friends, hurting them—

Wake up.

The realization hits Dream with startling force, a single moment of clarity breaking through the numbness as a soldier grabs at Tommy and raises his sword, ready to cleave down if someone doesn’t do something.

Oh. There are enemies here.

Dream should get rid of them.

Wake up!

He’s moving before he can think, hand going to his pocket and finding that glowing sphere, pulsing so violently it’s like he’s holding a living heart in his hand, and he’s squeezing and he’s crushing it and it shatters and something tugs in the pit of his stomach and—

 

 

 

 

When he comes back to himself, the first thing Dream notices is the smell. It reeks, a sharp metallic scent so thick that Dream’s nostrils feel wet when he inhales. He takes a step, and his foot squelches wetly against the ground. When he raises his foot to check, mud drips thickly off his boots, streaked through with crimson. Huh.

The second thing Dream notices is the pain. His face feels like it’s been split open, a chasm yawning from his temple to his chin. Raising a hand, Dream gingerly feels along the edges of where his skin has been carved open. It hurts, but that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is—

Dream walks forward, ignoring the corpses littering the ground and kicking aside limbs as they get in his way. Below him, someone groans, and Dream absently steps on them, pressing until he hears a sick crunch, and then the groaning stops. Good. That was noisy.

There are so many bodies on the ground. Distantly, Dream thinks that he should be bothered, should be wondering where all of them came from, but he’s too distracted. So many bodies, but none of them are the ones he’s looking for. Where are they?

“D-Dream?”

That’s his name.

Whipping his head around, Dream scours the landscape until he spots the one who called him. It’s a child, clutching an injured arm and staring at him with wide blue eyes. He’s crouched over a figure in a brown coat, motionless on the ground. The child looks familiar, and Dream searches his memories for wisps of recognition.

A meeting in a forest. Empty bravado. Swearing. Lots of it.

Grabbing onto that thread of memory before it unravels, Dream whispers, “Tommy?”

“Dream,” the child—Tommy says. He’s pale and shaking. Is he cold? “You’re scaring me.”

Dream tilts his head to the side, confused.

“Why?” he questions.

“Why? Why? You just—You killed them all, Dream! Look at them, you just—”

“I saved you,” Dream says in response. There are others now, he sees, people he should recognize coming up with wariness in their gazes and fear in their steps. They matter. Dream doesn’t know why, but they matter. He doesn’t want them to be scared of him. “I killed them for you.”

“You—”

Dream is getting annoyed now.

“Are you mad at me?” he asks. He’s still holding an ax in his hand, he realizes, but its handle is slippery and wet. He grips it tighter. “You shouldn’t be.”

“Dream, what the hell is wrong with you? You—you’re acting strange.”

Prime, Dream’s face hurts.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he responds.

“This isn’t you, man, what the fuck! What’s wrong, tell me what’s wrong!”

Dream is about to respond, about to raise his ax to show Tommy, look, I used this for you, I did this for you when something catches his attention, and he raises his head. High in the sky, Dream hears the beating of wings and then a piercing whistle as something shoots down from above.

From the ground, there’s the thud of boots as something—someone—comes towards them. The hairs on the back of Dream’s neck prickle. Danger.

The boots come to halt several feet away, and Dream whirls around, ready to fight even—even though—Prime, he’s so tired, and he hurts everywhere, why does it hurt? He can’t even make out the features of whoever is approaching them, a smudge of pinks and reds as he squints.

Regardless, Dream snaps, “Who’s there?”

They don’t answer the question. Instead, a low voice drawls in response, “Well, this is a mess, isn’t it?”

“Who are you?” Tommy asks from the ground. He scrambles to his feet, and Dream wants to tell him to stay back, to let Dream protect him, but Tommy is up in a flash. “You’re—No way. No fucking way.”

“Well, I’ll tell you the good news,” The interrupter says, voice tinged with dry amusement. His ears twitch. “This is only the second worst thing that could have happened to those soldiers.” His eyes flicker up. “Phil?”

Dream starts saying, “Wha—” and then he’s engulfed by night.

Chapter Text

Dream really has to stop waking up like this.

He’s lying on something soft, which he knows from touch as he curls his hand into fluffy bedding. Stiffness makes him wince before he can form a fist, however, and it’s with great effort that Dream forces himself out from under the covers (also insanely soft and furry to boot) to sit up and take in his surroundings.

He’s in a cabin of some sort, dark wood panels and two torches framing the door creating a cozy atmosphere. By his bedside is a glass of water and a golden apple, sliced into neat pieces with little bunny ears formed from the peel. Dream can’t help but quirk a smile up at it. Then he remembers himself and quickly looks up.

Where is he?

The incongruence of his surroundings and where he last remembers himself (pushed into the ground, helplessness overtaking him as he’s surrounded by a hoard of armor—) makes Dream nervous, and he throws his covers off. Swinging his legs off the side of his bed, he makes to stand only to wobble on his feet. He reaches for the edge of the nightstand but his hand slips, and Dream falls to the ground with a crash.

Barely a second later, the door slams open, and a well-loved face enters, eyes wide.

“You’re awake!” George exclaims. The sound of his voice is so familiar that Dream suddenly has to swallow down tears. “You idiot, what are you doing out of bed? Do you want to stay injured?”

“Didn’t know where I was,” Dream mumbles instead of any other host of things he could say, like, How did I get here, or Are you okay, or I’ve missed you. Instead, he asks, “The others?”

“All fine,” George says. His brows are tightly creased together as he comes deeper into the room to pull Dream up and maneuver him back into bed. His touch is firm but gentle, and the heat of his palm through Dream’s shirt is enough to make him shiver. “We were all pretty roughed up, Bad especially, but he’s recovered now.”

“Bad was hurt?” Dream frowns. Vague flashes come back to him, of seeing Bad fall but… “What happened?”

George looks sharply at him.

“You don’t remember.”

It’s a statement, not a question, and Dream shakes his head.

Sighing, George pushes his hair back with one hand and mutters, “Alright, they warned us this might happen. Wait here, I’m going to go get the others. They can explain everything properly. You’re not too tired? It won’t be overwhelming if we get a crowd in here, right?”

George’s hair has gotten longer, Dream notes. A few stray bangs have slipped loose and they frame his face, which is also skinnier. He looks tired, but good.

“Dream? Did you hear me?”

“Huh?” Dream tears his gaze away from George’s hair and coughs sheepishly. “Y-yeah, that’s fine. I’m not tired.” As he says the words, he realizes they’re more true than he thought.

“Makes sense, considering you just woke up,” George remarks dryly.

“It’s weird,” Dream says. He stares down at the palms of his hands, bandages wrapped around broken skin he doesn’t remember tearing. “I feel like I’ve been sleeping for a really long time.”

George is quiet. His brown eyes flicker up and down Dream’s face, to his hands, then back up.

“It’s been a few days,” he says. “We were worried about you.”

“Sorry,” Dream apologizes automatically. “I still don’t—How are you here? I thought—”

“Wow, Dream thinking? That’s new,” George teases. A hot flush runs down Dream’s neck, and George laughs, though not unkindly. “We came after you, silly.”

“But how?” Dream asks. “I mean, we ran into each other at that town, but I thought I was covering my tracks well enough, and—”

“Here.” George presses something into his hands, and Dream glances down at it. His breath catches in his throat.

It’s the compass he gifted them so long ago, metal warm from George’s body heat. The etchings gleam as brightly as ever, and when Dream opens it, the needle points straight towards his heart.

“I took it back from the captain…’s body,” George says quietly. His eyes are dark and intense, and they rest on Dream like a physical thing, making a flush crawl up the back of Dream’s neck. “I would never let you go, Dream.”

“George—” Dream has to cut himself off, clearing his throat and turning his head away to blink rapidly. The compass is a reassuring weight in his hand, and he grips it tightly when he looks back at George. “But… The last thing I remember is getting captured, how did we end up here?”

“It’s a long story, but basically, we all got captured by those fu—stupid soldiers. They knew we weren’t going to turn you in.”

“What? How?” Dream demands, which seems to be the recurring question. “Wait, I was captured too, right? Me and Tommy—” He bolts upright. “Tommy!”

“Tommy is fine,” George interjects. He shoves Dream back down onto the mattress, and Dream goes easily, gazing up at George’s face. It’s rare to see him this stern, and Dream feels like he’s been so starved of anything George that he wants to drink everything in, would do anything he wanted, if he just asked. “He’s pissed off, but fine. He actually got off a lot easier than the rest of us.”

“Why’s he pissed?” Dream asks.

A shadow crosses George’s face.

“Long story,” he says again. “But you’ll hear it better from the others. Let me go and get them.”

He turns to leave. Dream is resigned to watching him go, an aching longing in his chest that makes him want to rise up and go after George, but before he can voice this, George pauses, one hand on the door, and turns back.

“I’m glad you’re here,” George says, voice so soft it’s almost a whisper. “I missed you.”

And then he’s gone, leaving Dream staring at the open door.

It’s not more than two minutes before someone else enters, and Dream yells as Sapnap flies through the air, tackling him into the mattress.

“You idiot!” Sapnap yells, completely shattering the quiet atmosphere George left behind. “I fucking thought you were dead, man! That was too close! Too close, you hear me?”

“Sapnap,” Dream croaks out. “You’re—too heavy—”

“Yeah? Well, deal with it, you asshole! I thought you were going to die! I thought I was gonna die! Prime, I thought all of us were going to die!”

“We’re glad you’re okay, Dream,” Bad chimes in. He entered the room after Sapnap, his tail lashing as he fiddles with his fingers. There’s a startlingly white bandage wrapped around his head. “You did scare us.”

“Forget me, are you okay?” Dream asks.

He manages to free one hand from under Sapnap and wiggles it in the air. Obligingly, Bad walks closer and holds it, grip warm and familiar. Behind him, George returns to the room. With all his friends in one place, safe, alive, Dream finally feels like he can relax.

Bad smiles and answers, “Nothing a little rest won’t fix. That, plus potions.”

“Potions?” Dream repeats, disoriented. “Where did you get those?”

“Our host,” Bad replies. “He’s—Oh! Didn’t hear you come in.”

The mood changes.

Sapnap scrambles off Dream, clearing his throat and patting himself down uselessly before settling into a scowl. George wisps over to Dream’s bedside and stands by him, one hand on the headboard while Bad smiles nervously.

“The room is a little small for all of us...” Bad trails off. “But I’m sure we can squeeze!”

“It’s fine,” their host dismisses and walks to stand by the foot of Dream’s bed. “I’ve got a lot of house to spare.” He looks at Dream. “Hey,” says the Blood God. “I’m Technoblade.”

Dumbstruck, Dream can only gape.

The Blood God is big. Really big.

He towers above Dream in the bed, more than a full head taller than George standing next to him, and the way he’s got his arms crossed shows off the thickly toned muscles stretching across his chest. His shoulders, framed by an oddly elegant white button down, are broad in a way that speaks to years of hard training and physical labor. As Dream casts his gaze down, he sees that the Blood God’s feet are firmly spread apart, his stance angled to take hits rather than dodge.

As for his face… Dream had heard that the Blood God was half-piglin, but the protruding tusks are a surprise nonetheless. They curve slightly upwards, making his chin jut out aggressively, and paired with the pointed ears, no one could mistake that the Blood God has supernatural origins. The rest of his face is human, with a crooked nose that looks like it’s been broken twice-over and a golden nose ring hanging from his human nostrils. Dark and intense eyes are fixed on Dream.

The only concession to softness: braided pink hair slung over one shoulder. It’s such an unexpectedly dainty touch that Dream is thrown off for a second.

The Blood God sighs.

“I leave my wonderful warm home to rescue a bunch of strangers, offer them that same wonderful warm home, and no thanks?” he grumbles. “This is why I became a hermit.”

Starting, Dream fumbles, “Uh, no, we’re very thankful that you let me—us!—stay here, uh… Blood God.”

At the sound of the title, the Blood God frowns.

“I’m retired,” he says, deliberately light. “No one has called me that in a long time. Just use Techno. That’s my name, after all.”

“Techno,” Dream says. His head is spinning. “Right.”

“You’re Dream,” The Bloo—Technoblade states. He shifts, and it’s like the gravity of the entire room shifts with him. “My replacement.”

“Former champion,” Dream says, and he can’t help the bitter taste that the title leaves in his mouth. “At your service.”

Technoblade hums and scratches an ear idly. From this distance, Dream can see that the tips of his nails are slightly sharper than he might expect.

“Good on you for getting out,” Technoblade says. “Even if it wasn’t your choice.”

That rattles something in the back of Dream’s head, and he sits up straighter, wincing as he pulls at a wound in his side. George makes a startled noise, immediately reaching towards him, but Dream waves him off. Forcing himself up, Dream absently touches his face where his fingers come in contact with another bandage. Oh. The splitting pain from earlier. Right, well, he’s going to think about that later.

“Phil said that you had answers,” he says, ignoring George’s worried look. “I’ve been trying to find you for so long now.”

“I make myself hard to find on purpose,” Technoblade responds. “And for Phil to say that… Well, let’s just say we have two different pieces of the puzzle. He’s got the beginning, and I have the middle. You, on the other hand...” He pins Dream with a thoughtful stare, and Dream shivers. “You have the End.”

“The End,” Dream echoes. Gripping his arm, he says, “That name has come up before.”

“Uh, sorry to butt in, but what the fuck is going on here?” Sapnap interrupts. He doesn't seem very sorry at all and crosses his arms, glaring back at Technoblade when the hybrid frowns at him. “Look, I’m no ‘former champion’ with a mysterious blah blah blah, but I’m Dream’s friend, and we’ve been chasing this guy for months now.” He gives Dream a harsh noogie, and Dream yelps. “I think we deserve to know what’s going on too, so can someone please explain?”

“Might not be the best idea, mate.”

A new voice breaks in, and Phil enters the room. He takes a step closer to Techno, dwarfed by Techno’s height, and smiles genially at the room’s occupants.

“Hey,” he says. “Thanks for taking care of Wilbur.”

That brings up a whole new realm of chaos as the room explodes.

Bad’s, “How do you know Wilbur?” is drowned out by Sapnap’s yelled, “Fuck Wilbur, we never should have taken him in!” and George’s quiet, “Huh,” goes unnoticed as Dream is left spinning in the wake of it all. His head actually starts to pound at the onslaught of noise, and he makes a pained sound, clutching his head and causing all the attention to switch to him instantly.

“Are you alright?” George asks. He’s back on the bed, taking a seat after Phil enters, and his hand is gentle on Dream’s shoulder. “Sapnap, you idiot, you were too loud.”

“It’s not my fault!” Sapnap defends, but then a guilty expression crosses his face. “You okay, man?” He asks Dream, looking a little like a kicked puppy. “I probably should be quieter, huh.”

“‘s not your fault,” Dream manages. The stabbing pain doesn’t last long, and he forces a smile. “I missed your noise.”

“Probably not a good idea to get all worked up, though,” Phil chimes. Though he’s standing in Technoblade’s shadow, there’s a hard downward tilt to his mouth that makes him look serious and cold. “We don’t want a repeat of what happened to those soldiers.”

A chill runs down Dream’s spine.

“What soldiers?” he asks, and the room goes silent. Looking around, Dream tries to shove down the rising panic in his stomach. “The ones that captured us? I don’t—Did something happen? I don’t remember how we got away.”

“Dream—” Bad starts, milky eyes wide, but George cuts him off.

“They died,” he says, and the coldness in his tone makes Dream draw up short. “You took care of them.”

“Me?” Dream breathes. He’s no stranger to death and has had plenty of blood on his hands, but… “There were so many of them. There’s no way I could have...”

“A normal person couldn’t,” Technoblade says after Dream trails off. “But you’re not. Not anymore, at least.” He looks at Phil. “Can we get some space here? We need to talk.”

George picks up on what Techno means faster than Dream does, and he reacts faster too.

“No,” he says, voice hard. The sternness in George’s tone makes Dream shiver, and not in a bad way. “We’re not leaving him.”

“This isn’t a conversation you should be a part of,” Techno says. He sounds cross. “Too many ears means more loose mouths.”

“You can have your little conversation another time,” George responds. He scoots higher up on the bed, until his thigh rests against Dream’s bare arm, and Dream’s face grows warm. “We just reunited. We need to spend time together.”

“Yeah!” Sapnap chimes in. “So you can fuck off right off with your ‘space’ thing. Dream’s with us.”

“Language,” Bad mutters, but he sighs and adds on, “We would really appreciate some time with Dream. He’s family, after all. You know how it is.”

A shadow falls over Techno’s face, and when Dream looks at Phil, he sees Phil tug the brim of his hat down to hide his eyes.

“Family,” Phil says, and the word is weighty and loaded from his mouth. “I see.”

He turns to leave, and Techno says, “Wait, Phil—”

“Leave them be for now,” Phil says as he opens the door soundlessly. “It can wait.”

“You really think—”

“I’ve waited for centuries,” Phil says. It’s so casual that Dream almost misses the weight behind it. “What’s another day or two? Besides…” He trails off, and through the walls, Dream thinks he can hear the mournful strum of a guitar. “You and I both have someone waiting for us.”

Techno grunts, but despite his obvious reluctance, follows Phil to the door. Before leaving, however, he turns and fixes Dream with a hard gaze.

“When you want answers,” he says, eyes glowing brimstone red. “Come find me.”

Dream’s voice is stuck in his throat for a second before he finds it again and nods.

“I will,” he says.

With one final glance behind him, Techno disappears, and the door shuts behind him.

Dream barely has time to let out a sigh of relief before bodies are pressing against him, and he gets out a strangled oof as their weight crushes him to the bed.

“Guys—” he starts only to be fiercely shushed by his friends.

“Shut up,” Sapnap says while wrapping Dream in a not-so-gentle headlock. Dream winces as the movement jolts his injuries but doesn’t protest when Sapnap rests a stubbly cheek against his own. “You don’t get to move or talk or do anything, you absolute nimrod. Fuck you.”

“What Sapnap means,” Bad says helpfully from where he’s sprawled over Dream’s legs, “is that you made us worried, and we’re glad you’re okay.”

“Sure doesn’t sound like that,” Dream chuckles.

At his side, George is pressed so firmly against him that Dream half-deliriously wonders if it’s possible for their bodies to meld together, a single perfect unit that can never be separated. His fantasy is broken as George’s hand comes up to trail across the wound on his face.

He doesn’t know if he’s expecting reassurance or a soft word, but when George says, “You’ll be ugly after this,” all Dream can do is crack a faint smile of relief.

“Too ugly for you, George?” he jokes. “I didn’t think you were that shallow.”

“I’m not shallow,” George says, and he doesn’t move his hand. Beneath his touch, Dream swears that George’s fingers are leaving a trail of electricity. “But I guess I’ll stick with you,” George concludes. “If you’ll have me.”

Dream’s body gives way at that, all the remaining tension fleeing his body as he lets himself relax under George’s touch.

“Always,” he says softly. His eyes are half-lidded, and he feels sleep descending upon him like an old friend. A yawn cracks his jaw, and Dream mumbles out, “Will you stay?”

There’s a pause, and then Dream feels his friends cling closer all around him until he’s encased by their warmth, gravity pushing them together like an unbreakable law of nature.

“Always,” George echoes as Dream’s eyes close. “We’ll be here when you wake up, Dream. Just rest.”

Surrounded by safety for the first time in months, Dream does.

 

 

 

 

The following days are… strange, to say the least.

Slowly, Dream acclimates to being in one place rather than on the run. He hobbles from room to room as his injuries heal, albeit, much faster than he’s used to. Bad’s eyes narrow thoughtfully every time he changes Dream’s bandages and sees that the way that the wounds seem to shrink before their eyes.

“This will scar,” Bad says, and Dream winces as Bad applies a thin layer of healing paste to the slash that now covers half of his face. It stings, but both Dream and Bad know that it’s already healed much faster than usual, and Bad is quiet as he stares contemplatively at it. “Did you always heal this quickly?” he asks.

“No,” Dream says and thinks about days of nursing his own injuries in a lonely hole in the ground, no soothing touch or whispered words of reassurance. “That’s… changed.”

It’s not the only thing that’s changed. Living with people other than his friends is a shock to Dream’s system. Techno, as their host, flits about the shadows. He’s surprisingly nondescript for a hulking piglin hybrid, but Dream’s eyes find him every time they’re in the same room together. Same with Techno. They don’t talk, but whenever their eyes meet, Dream feels like he’s on the edge of anticipation, only for the moment to be abruptly broken as someone else barges in.

One day, Dream is pensively studying the shards that he’s kept in his pocket, the remnants of the orb he found in the stronghold. As he holds it up to the firelight, it warms under his touch. When Dream squints into it, he imagines he can almost see the reflection of flames leaping against the turquoise gleam, lava spitting against the edge of a brick wall.

A door creaks, and out of the corner of his eye, Dream sees Techno linger by one of the doorways in the cabin, and he can tell Techno is staring at the shard in his hand. Furrowing his brow, Dream opens his mouth to call out to him and get some answers and—

“Dream!” Sapnap hollers, throwing the door open.

Starting, Dream shoves the shard back into his pocket.

“Yeah?” he calls back. “You scared me!”

“Sorry,” Sapnap says, not sounding very sorry at all. “Get out here, get some sunshine. George is doing shooting practice.” Gleefully, he adds, “I’m gonna move them.”

“That’s dangerous,” Dream says on autopilot, but there’s no heat behind his words. The image of George, back straight and shoulders proud as he stands with his bow notched, makes Dream’s heartbeat quicken, and he forces himself to his feet. “I’ll be right out,” he says and makes his way to the door.

Little moments like this punctuate his days as Dream re-learns the familiar patterns of his family. It’s in stark contrast to the rest of the cabin inhabitants who make themselves scarce when specific others are present.

Dream doesn’t see much of Phil, but catches glimpses of him staring out into the Arctic wasteland around them, a monolith against the barren landscape. One thing is for sure: if Phil is in one room, then Wilbur will be in another, the tall man skulking from corner to corner while George glares daggers in his direction.

“Phil is his dad,” Tommy whispers conspiratorially to Dream one evening. Wilbur is by the fire, staring into the leaping flames while trying to avoid George’s death glare. He’s unsuccessful if the hunch in his shoulders is anything to go by. “I didn’t know that.”

“They don’t seem very close to me,” Dream whispers back. “I thought family was supposed to, I don’t know, at least talk with one another.”

“Beats me,” Tommy says. “Techno is Wil’s brother, but they don’t talk at all either. Maybe it’s how they show affection to one another?”

“By not showing any at all?” Dream responds skeptically.

Tommy shrugs.

Dream can’t help but feel for Wilbur, but he did also betray his friends, so… He tells Tommy as much only for Tommy to whack him lightly in the upper arm.

“Don’t talk like that about Wil,” Tommy orders, unapologetic as Dream winces. “He’s got issues, yeah, but who doesn’t, man? Coming from you especially!”

“That’s… fair,” Dream concedes.

“Yeah, so don’t talk shit about my family!” Tommy declares. “I won’t take it, not even from you!”

Even me?” Dream asks, something in his chest warming. “Is there something special about me?”

“Ooh, you just love a good ego stroke, don’t you, Dream,” Tommy mutters. “Don’t know how I put up with you all this time.”

“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Dream teases. “In fact, I distinctly recall having to lug you around, literally over my shoulder once—!”

Argh, you are the most insufferable man I’ve ever met!”

Dream laughs.

Speaking of Tommy, combining him with the rest of Dream’s friends is an unexpected source of chemistry, much to Dream’s amusement and George’s despair. For some reason, Tommy latches onto George immediately, wasting no time in bestowing a nickname (“What the hell is a ‘Gogy?’” “That’s you, my good friend, buddy, pal: Gogy!”) and pestering George at every opportunity.

At first, George pushes against Tommy’s easy familiarity, ignoring his attempts to communicate and pushing him away (“Why don’t you ask someone else to spar with you?” “It’s more fun to ask you!”). Eventually, though, even George gets worn down by Tommy’s endless enthusiasm, submitting to his barrage of requests to practice sparring. Surprisingly, Tommy manages to hold his own against George’s arrows, dodging with dexterity and focus in his sharpened eyes. It’s something that Dream can tell reluctantly impresses George as he slowly gives in to Tommy’s badgering with less and less complaining.

It’s during one of those impromptu training sessions, Dream watching from the porch with Wilbur plucking absently at his guitar an uncomfortable distance away, that it all comes to head.

“Where did you learn that?” George demands, looking about a second away from throwing his bow down in frustration after Tommy has successfully evaded every shot from the blunted arrows. “That was too good to be an accident!”

“Haha!” Tommy crows. “So you do think that I’m good!”

“There’s no way that Dream is that good of a teacher,” George says, ignoring Tommy’s gloating entirely and bruising Dream’s pride in the process. “Tell the truth. You were trained before, weren’t you?”

“Not at all,” Tommy shakes his head. “Swear to Prime, I’ve never learned before.”

Several feet away, Wilbur stiffens. His fingers slip on the guitar, and it lets out an out-of-tune twang that hurts Dream’s ears.

“Sorry,” Wilbur says when Dream casts a glance his way. His face is pale. “I—Sorry.”

“There’s no way,” George says again from the yard and calls over, “Dream! Explain yourself. What is this?”

Turning his attention away from Wilbur, Dream raises his hands in surrender.

“Beats me,” he says back. “Tommy was always a fast learner when I taught him. Maybe it's a natural skill?”

“You hear that?” Tommy yells. Who the question is directed to is unclear. “I’m naturally skilled!”

“What’s all this noise?”

Techno exits the house, scratching the back of his head. His lips are turned down in a grumpy frown, and his tusks glint in the winter sun.

Tommy whirls around excitedly and brandishes one of George’s arrows in the air, uncaring of its razor-sharp tip.

“Dream says I’m ‘naturally skilled,’ ha!” Tommy exclaims for the second time. Techno startles at that, the same way that Dream has noticed he does every time he sees Tommy, but his face soon smoothes back into its normal complacency. “What do you think about that, former champ?”

“You would know better than me,” Technoblade says. The way he says it makes Dream raise an eyebrow. The statement feels loaded, somehow, and Tommy squirms as Techno continues scrutinizing him with that blank stare of his. “You… Are you playing dumb?”

Tommy throws his arms into the air.

“Why does everyone think I’m cheating?” he bemoans. “Honestly, I’m just that good! With Dream and Gogy here—”

“Hey, I never agreed to this,” George says, cross.

Tommy continues obliviously, “—I’ll be good enough to be a champion in no time!”

Clang.

Dream startles as Wilbur’s guitar hits the ground. It yowls, strings vibrating angrily against the wooden porch, and as Wilbur scrambles to pick it back up, it falls out of his hands with how hard they’re shaking.

“Wil?” Tommy asks. He’s up on the porch and by Wilbur’s side in a flash, hands hovering around Wilbur’s shoulders. His voice is uncharacteristically small as he asks, “Are you okay?”

“F-fine,” Wilbur stutters, but it’s obvious that he’s not. He’s shaking badly, like a bomb has gone off inside of him and the reverberations are spreading to his very words. Dream has half a mind to get up and offer to help when Wilbur finally manages to pick up his guitar and straighten. “I—Don’t say that, Tommy.”

“Say what?” Tommy asks, bewildered. George comes up to Dream’s side, bow in one hand. The familiar shadow of it against the porch floor is comforting. “Be a champion?”

Don’t.” Wilbur’s voice is sharp. “You don’t mean that.”

“Wha—”

Before Tommy can finish his question, Technoblade shoulders his way into the conversation. His massive bulk fills Dream’s vision as he stands between Tommy and Wilbur, dwarfing the two. Technoblade isn’t that much taller than both, but he is broader, and it lends an appropriately threatening air as he growls, “Wilbur. You didn’t.”

Recovering fast but still pale, Wilbur sneers, “Oh, of course, this is going to be the first thing you say to me?”

“Not the time for that,” Techno says. “Tell me: what did you do?”

Flinching, Wilbur retorts, “Does it matter?”

“Of course it does!” Techno bangs his fist against a wooden railing, and the whole cabin seems to shake. “Wilbur, do you know what you’ve sacrificed, what you’ve left behind in order to—”

“You don’t get to lecture me on sacrifice.” Wilbur’s voice turns vicious as he pins Technoblade with a glare. “Brother.

Techno is the one who lurches back this time, eyes wide like he’s been struck and Wilbur looks sickly pleased. Dream didn’t think anything could hurt the famous Blood God, except, apparently—

Wilbur!

—family.

Phil bursts through the doors in a blaze of black feathers, Sapnap and Bad on his heels. The porch is crowded now, and Dream is jostled closer to George in the crush of bodies.

“Sorry,” he says absently, only for George’s hand to clamp around his upper arm. When Dream glances over, he sees that George’s gaze is sharp.

“This is getting interesting,” George murmurs.

Before Dream can respond, Phil’s voice cuts through the chaos.

“Enough,” he says, voice deceptively calm. “Wilbur, Techno—both of you need to calm down.”

“Don’t stop the show right as it’s getting fun.” George breaks in before Dream can stop him. He’s pushed his goggles on top of his head and surveys the scene coolly. Sapnap and Bad push over to their side, until it’s Dream and his hunters facing off against Phil, Techno, and Wilbur. Tommy is in the middle, eyes darting between the two sides. “I think it’s high time we got some answers, and this looks like the perfect time to do it.”

“You’re the ones who wanted ‘space,’” Technoblade says. Derision drips from the word ‘space’ as he tilts his head. “Now you’re interrupting a family affair. Not very good manners, I’d say.”

“Family?” Sapnap echoes. He scoffs and looks straight at Wilbur. “Some family you betrayed us for. They don’t seem to like you all that much.”

Wilbur reels, and Techno snarls under his breath. He moves forward, but Phil’s arm comes up to bar his way even as Sapnap’s hand flies to his sword.

“I understand there’s a lot of confusion right now,” Phil says. His words remain even, but Dream sees the crease in his eyebrows like clouds gathering before a storm. “But don’t talk about things you have no knowledge of.”

Techno glares straight at him, and with a rock in his stomach, Dream knows that his time relaxing is up.

“We don’t have time for this,” Techno says. “Dream, you’ve been avoiding me long enough. It’s time for us to give you some answers.”

“Running away again?” Wilbur bites out. “Behind your little champion title—”

“This is why we can’t talk!” Techno growls. “You—You always play the victim, act as if you know everything when in reality, you have no idea, and then you act and do stupid things, like what you’ve done to Tommy!”

“What has Wil done to me?” Tommy sounds like he’s trying to joke, but his question just comes out lost and small instead. “Wil?”

“I guess I’m always in the wrong, then,” Wilbur says bitterly. “And you always know best, isn’t that right, Blood God?

Techno’s face shutters.

“Phil,” he says and turns towards the immortal. “We need to get out of here.”

Phil nods grimly.

 

“I know,” he says and addresses the rest of the crowd. “Alright. Do you lot want to go in or stay out here? We’ll go wherever you’re not.”

“What?” Sapnap blurts. “Why do we have to go anywhere?”

“Because this isn’t for you,” Techno breaks in brusquely. All the while, he keeps his eyes fixed on Dream and nods in his direction. Without his mask on, Dream feels bare and exposed. “It’s for him.”

“I’m not going anywhere without my friends,” Dream says firmly. “And until one of you explains whatever the hell you’re talking about with Wilbur doing something to Tommy.”

At that, Wilbur turns away, face pinched.

“You want answers,” Techno states, eyes still boring into Dream. “You’ll only get them if you come with us.”

“I’m not just going to leave—

Someone touches his wrist, and when Dream glances down, it’s Bad with his fingers wrapped loosely around him.

“You should go,” Bad says under his breath, concern obvious in the grip of his hand around Dream’s wrist. “Something’s not right here, hasn’t been from the beginning. We need more information.”

 

Dream casts a glance back at Tommy, who looks back at him like he’s looking for approval. Dream doesn’t know what to give him, though, so they can only exchange helpless looks.

“But Tommy—” he says.

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Bad promises, and Dream instantly relaxes. When Bad promises something, it makes Dream feel like a kid again, like everything will be alright once big brother Bad gets on the case. “And find out what really happened.”

From several feet away, Wilbur’s back tenses.

Bad hasn’t been speaking quietly, and once he stops talking, Phil hums and gestures to the hunters.

“I understand your concern, but trust me: we’re not your enemies,” he says. Sapnap does not look assuaged by this reassurance. “We’ll fill you in later,” Phil continues as he ushers Dream to the door. Behind him, the hunters move forward instinctively, but Phil unrelentingly stands in front of the door, blocking them from entering. “For now, though, this conversation is champions only.”

“Then why are you allowed?” Sapnap blurts. He looks a bit uncomfortable challenging Phil but sticks his chin out anyway, like he’s trying to pick a fight. “I know you’re hot shit as an immortal and all, but you’re not a champion.”

Phil smiles.

“Child,” he says, and there’s something ancient and unfathomable of his voice, so deep that Dream’s breath stops in his chest. “I was the first one.”

Then he’s closing the door, and Dream watches his friends disappear from view.

 

 

 

 

Wilbur is cold.

Stumbling to the edge of the porch, he slumps to a seat and rubs his fingers together, futilely trying to warm them up. His coat isn’t doing much to help him, the ragged edges blowing pathetically in the unforgiving Arctic wind.

Pathetic. Just like he feels.

“Wil,” Tommy says lowly from behind him. “You alright?”

Wilbur tries to make his mouth move, to get his frozen lips to respond, but nothing comes out. Just the ragged edges of Techno and Phil’s absence, and Prime, Wilbur hates that they still matter to him all these years later.

“Wil?” Tommy’s voice gets closer. “Wil?”

Why is Wilbur surprised? Why does he even delude himself into thinking that things will change? He should have known the moment that Techno appeared in those bloody fields, resplendent as ever and without a second glance in Wilbur’s direction.

The moments after the fight had happened so quickly that Wilbur felt like he didn’t even get the chance to process. In the aftermath of Dream’s bloody rampage, Techno and Phil had appeared out of nowhere, whisking them away from the carnage to this surprisingly homey cabin.

Techno hadn’t said anything to him. Just grunted and gave him back his guitar, the same one that Wilbur holds loosely on his lap now. To be honest, he doesn't know how it survived all the fighting. Maybe it is actually a magical object, and the old lady in the market was a fairy. Maybe the guitar is charmed to always be in tune and bring joy to whoever is listening.

… Right. And maybe Wilbur hasn’t lost his remaining family because of his own decisions.

Techno’s voice sounds faintly in his ears, like a distant song faded by time and memory.

Wilbur. You didn’t.

Tell me: did you do it or not?

Tommy’s face, so young and full of life, calling up to Wilbur in the stands, his grin as he scrambled up to see him, the way that he and Wilbur had grown closer and closer as Techno had become more and more distant—

Fuck.

Wilbur slumps to the ground.

The rage he felt so acutely just seconds ago had faded now, replaced by the habitual sting of rejection. Techno hadn’t looked at him as he went inside, too preoccupied with Dream, the champions’ business closing him off from Wilbur once again.

Wilbur is so locked into his own thoughts that he doesn’t notice when a hand falls heavily on his shoulder, he startles and scrambles to his feet, accidentally kicking the guitar. It bangs against his foot with a loud thunk.

Shit,” Wilbur curses, pain startling his voice back into being. Ignoring the pain in his knee, he hurriedly examines the back of the guitar, running his hand over the back. No cracks that he can see, thank Prime. Keeping his head bent close to the wood, he says, “You scared me.”

“Sorry.” Tommy says. Wilbur can just barely see the tips of his fingers, hints of an outstretched hand, in his periphery. “Didn’t mean to.”

Wilbur’s fingers are clumsy as he picks his guitar back up and places them on the guitar frets. His fingertips are numb, and he can’t even feel the strings under his fingers as he tries to strum out a chord. It’s discordant and jarring, and he winces at how out of tune the guitar is. The cold weather isn’t doing it any favors. It would be a miracle if the wood hasn’t warped by now.

Nevertheless, he tries again, and the guitar echoes mournfully over the frozen landscape. Part of Wilbur can’t believe that he’s really here, can’t believe that he has his whole family in the same radius. He hasn’t seen the full extent of Techno’s home yet, but there’s a surprising amount of care in the softness of the wood logs, a welcoming glow to the strategically placed torches.

“That’s alright.” Wilbur says.

He still can’t bear to turn to look at Tommy. He’s never noticed before, never had the chance to, but this guitar is so old and well-loved. Its surface is burnished despite years of age worked into the wooden grains, and the shape of it is smooth and without blemish. It’s beautiful.

There’s a hesitant pause, the sound of feet shuffling against the balcony, and then Tommy asks, “Can you look at me?”

Wilbur’s eyes are hot.

“Don’t know if you’d want me to,” he croaks.

“That’s ridiculous!” The words are indignant, and for the first time, Tommy sounds like the little brother that Wilbur remembers. “I’m—I mean, I’m confused, mostly because of you, Wil, that’s for sure, but I’m not going to forbid you from looking at me, what the fuck?”

“I don’t know!” Wilbur grits out. “I’ve just been fucking things up for ages, haven’t I? Tried to find you, and now you’re mad at me. The hunters hate me for betraying Dream, Techno won’t talk to me, and Phil won’t even look at me, and you—” He cuts himself off, chest heaving.

“Wil.” There’s a note of pleading in Tommy’s tone now, and Wilbur realizes with a start that he’s crying. He tastes salt on his upper lip. “Look at me. Please?”

Hastily, Wilbur raises a sleeve and wipes the tears away. Taking a deep breath, he slowly raises his neck and turns to Tommy.

Tommy is standing barely a meter away from him, shivering in the cold with his hands stuffed in his pockets. He’s got a jacket over his classic red and white shirt, which looks cleaner now, and his hair has gotten longer. Wilbur hadn’t noticed that at the camp.

“Hi, Wil,” Tommy says quietly. “Can I hug you?”

It’s almost a replica of where they stood at the soldiers’ camp, Wilbur and Tommy facing one another. Only this time, Tommy is the one asking for Wilbur.

Wilbur opens his arms.

“Please,” he croaks.

No other words are needed. Tommy barrels into him and wraps his arms around his waist, holding Wilbur as he shakes.

“I’m still mad at you,” Tommy informs him. His voice is muffled against Wilbur’s chest as they cling to one another. “But… Not that mad.”

“Thanks,” Wilbur whispers. “I deserve it though.”

“At least you know it too.” There’s a rustle, and then Tommy’s brow wrinkles as he reluctantly pulls away. Wilbur keeps a hold on his jacket sleeve, though, and Tommy doesn’t shrug his hand off. After a moment of silence, he hesitantly asks, “Wil… What was Techno talking about back there?”

Wilbur’s chest aches.

“What do you mean?” he asks, playing dumb even as a countdown sounds in his head. Tick, tick, tick. Time is running out.

“What you did,” Tommy states. “To… him.” In Wilbur’s arms, Tommy seems so small all of a sudden, so vulnerable as he asks, “Who was he talking about?”

Tick, tick, tick.

The timer runs out, and Wilbur has nowhere to hide.

Hunching his shoulders around his ears, Wilbur blows out a cloud of white fog as his breath mingles with the air. “You.”

Tommy stiffens and pushes out of Wilbur, looking like he’s been struck by lightning. Wilbur lets his arms fall limply to his side, and he starts to say, “Tommy, let me explain—”

“Well, this is nice and all, but I didn’t know we were the audience for a play.”

Wilbur flinches at George’s flat voice. Turning, he sees the hunters leaning against the railing on the other side of the porch. He’d forgotten they were there.

Sapnap rubs his hands together, sparks jumping between his knuckles. Bad looks oddly subdued, tail drooping, and George might as well be formed out of ice for how coldly he stares at Wilbur.

“Well?” George says. Nodding towards Tommy, he says to Wilbur, “You got Tommy back. Why aren’t you happier?”

The words are clearly mocking, and Wilbur bristles.

“I am,” he says and tries not to let it sound like a lie. “I have Tommy, you have Dream—It worked out.”

“Dream almost died,” George counters. It sounds like he’s been saving this up. Wilbur should have known that these past days of peace, tense as they were, were too good to last. “Bad almost died. You let us get captured. That’s all on you.”

“Look,” Wilbur says. His patience is running thin after the morning he’s had, and he rakes a hand through his hair frustratedly. “I don’t care if you blame me. Call me a traitor, a liar, whatever. The point is, you didn’t share all your information with me, so I didn’t share mine with you. We both had our priorities.”

“George, he’s right,” Bad says, voice placid. “I get your frustration, but—”

“It’s not just frustration, though, is it?” Sapnap barges in. Crossing his arms, he eyes Wilbur distrustfully. “George is the one who’s right. Wilbur fucked up. Big time. And for those guys?” He nods towards the closed cabin door, and Wilbur’s gut twists at the reminder that his family—what’s left of it, anyway—is inside without him. “Not worth it, dude. They don’t seem to give a shit about you. Why go crawling back to them?”

“Is all that talk to make up for something?” Tommy asks. He squares his shoulders and takes a small step in front of Wilbur, as if trying to shield him, all while looking Sapnap up and down with a sneer on his face, and Wilbur is viscerally, pathetically grateful. “You, uh, lacking anything substantial down there?”

“Hey!”

Sapnap's face turns bright red as he splutters, and Bad screeches, “Language!” behind them while Tommy laughs. Wilbur sees George turn his face away, but he swears that he can see the hint of a smile on George’s lips.

“Why the fuck did Dream pick you up?” Sapnap grumbles after Tommy’s sniggering has died down. “What did he see in you?”

“Most people find me annoying at first,” Tommy says with a shrug. “But I win them over.”

Wilbur can’t help but smile at that.

“Fuck that shit,” Sapnap says, and small sparks leap from his hand to the ground, leaving little wet spots as they melt the gathered frost where they land. “I’ll think you’re annoying forever, probably.”

“You’re magic?” Tommy asks with his eyes wide. He looks excited, eager, and Wilbur has to turn away. “That was fucking sick!”

“I—yeah,” Sapnap says, taken aback. Then he says, “Just a little bit though.”

“I don’t care, that’s amazing!” Tommy says fervently. “I only know about magic ‘cause Wilbur told me, like perception magic and all that shit. Fire magic is cool.

“I can’t really control it,” Sapnap says, but it’s obvious that he’s flattered. Like the sparks on the ground, he’s warming up to Tommy, Wilbur can see it. “But it can be handy in a fight. Definitely saved us from a couple of sticky situations even Dream couldn’t save us from.”

“I can’t imagine that,” Tommy says, and Wilbur is unpleasantly reminded of Tommy’s… admiration of the older man. “You’re Dream’s best friends,” Tommy continues. Tugging Wilbur with him, Tommy plonks down on the wooden porch, crosses his legs, and leans forward, eyes wide. “What was he like before?”

Exchanging glances with one another, the hunters follow Tommy and also sit on the floor.

“What do you mean, ‘before’?” Sapnap asks. “He’s just Dream.”

“Well, I only met him on the run, didn’t I?” Tommy remarks frankly. “He was always a bit on edge. I’m wondering what he was like when he was, you know. Relaxed. Comfortable.”

Wilbur doesn’t think he’s imagining the way Tommy’s knee presses against his subtly.

“Dream doesn’t relax,” George says. He’s deceptively slouched, his chin propped up with his hand, but Wilbur notices the distance in his eyes, how he surveys Tommy like a potential threat. “He was always on the move, looking for a challenge, trying to stay alive.”

“He’s the friend you talked about,” Wilbur blurts as the realization slots together in his mind. He feels a bit like an idiot for not realizing before and resists the urge to smack himself on the forehead. “The one who tried to become champion.” He pauses. “I assumed he died.”

“Not the brightest star in the sky, are you,” Sapnap says wryly. Bad elbows him, and a second later, Sapnap reluctantly says, “... Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Wilbur waves it off. It feels good to hear the apology from Sapnap, but it’s not the one he really wants. Maybe he doesn’t deserve it though. “I should have known, really, what with Techno and all that. Champions aren’t that rare, it seems.”

“So you’re the Blood—Technoblade’s… brother,” Bad says, carefully testing the title. “How…?”

“Adopted,” Wilbur says tersely. “Phil is my biological dad, and he took Techno in while he was a little… lost. But we’re brothers.”

It doesn’t matter if Techno stopped play-fighting with Wilbur because Wilbur was too weak to keep up with him. It doesn’t matter that Techno went to the capital to seek glory and didn’t ever fully come back, not really. It doesn’t matter that Phil’s eyes go to Techno first, even all these years later.

They’re brothers. That doesn’t change.

Bad doesn’t question Wilbur’s statement and accepts it mutely. Turning to Tommy, he asks, “Are you adopted too?”

“Wil’s my brother,” Tommy states. This time, he’s the one to cross his arms. “But Phil’s not my dad.”

“How does that...”

“It’s complicated,” Wilbur and Tommy say at the same time.

“Well,” Bad says after a moment of processing. “Far be it from me to say anything about strange family dynamics. Not when I’ve got these muffinheads.”

“I just know that Wil took me in off the streets,” Tommy chimes, and Wilbur doesn’t correct him. If he’s lucky, Tommy will believe that for the rest of his life. “How’s that for being a good guy, eh?”

“Dude, the streets were gnarly,” Sapnap says. “I mean, it definitely sucked to have to fight for food and everything, but that’s where we met Dream, you know? So it’s some good memories too.”

“I don’t have good memories from before Wil,” Tommy says. His eyebrows crease. “Don’t remember any memories, actually.”

Wilbur stiffens, and his fingers find each other in his lap. There’s the sudden recollection of sneaking out to follow Techno to training grounds, hiding beneath the stands while giggling with an erstwhile child, and then fumbling with brewing stands that were too hot to handle, rifling through Phil’s library to find books that were never meant for him, but it didn’t matter because he was lonely, and there was a child who was suffering, and if Wilbur could ease that pain by just a little bit, then—

“Best time of my life, man,” Sapnap says with a sigh. He ignores Tommy’s last statement, and Wilbur quietly sighs in relief. “Hey, George, remember that time we pissed off the guards by trying to sneak into their barracks? That was fun.”

“They almost killed us,” George reminds Sapnap. “The only reason we survived was because Dream bailed us out.”

“He always does,” Sapnap says, flippant. “But now Dream is too busy talking about secret champion stuff to bother with us,” With his hands in his lap and his lower lip jutting out in a pout, he suddenly looks like a toddler who got told he can’t keep playing outside. “Did you know that the Angel of Death is the first champion? What’s that all about?”

“That’s right.” George’s eyes narrow, and he pins Wilbur with a glance. “First champion? I’ve never heard anything about this.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Wilbur says, heart racing. His palms are sweaty, and he wipes them nervously on his coat. “It happened a long time ago. Phil is immortal, remember?”

“Surely there would be stories of that somewhere,” George says astutely. “The king keeps his records locked away, but rumors always escape.”

“Not if you make sure there’s nothing to talk about,” Wilbur says.

George stands.

“Explain,” he orders.

“Hey, man, don’t get so aggressive,” Tommy complains. Shivering a bit at the cold gust that suddenly whips about them, he says, “We’re all fucking cold and tired, but there’s no need to get up when we’re all having such a nice chat with one another.”

“Tommy, you’re cold?” Wilbur asks, leaping at the distraction. “Here.”

He tugs off his coat and drapes it around Tommy’s shoulders, ignoring his protests. It leaves him in his worn-thin sweater, but he can’t feel the cold because his entire body feels warm with something like shame. It’s the feeling he gets when he plays guitar in front of others, like he’s going to forget the chords and embarrass himself, only this time, it’s much, much worse.

“Don’t ignore me.” George’s voice is biting as Wilbur fussily adjusts the coat around Tommy’s shoulders, making sure it’s wrapped tight. Tommy blinks up at him, and Wilbur swallows back an apology. “You, Phil, Technoblade… You’re all keeping something from us.”

“I don’t have anything,” Wilbur says, and it’s a half-truth. Is knowledge a possession, something to be bartered and sold? He supposes that it is. “Phil and Techno are the ones who are knee-deep, and now Dream is too. They’re telling him, aren’t they?”

“You’re keeping something from Tommy too,” George presses. His eyes glint with the look of a man who won’t stop hitting until Wilbur breaks. “You think that’s fair to him? To be talked around like he doesn’t exist?”

“I’m right here, man,” Tommy complains, but he bites his lower lip all the same. “Wil… You’re going to tell me, right? Doesn’t have to be now, I know you’ve got a lot going on, but… Soon?”

“No, now. Give us answers,” Sapnap demands. Bad is silent as the other two hunters get more worked up. Wilbur has always been confident in his ability to match others, if not in fighting prowess then in words, but the intensity radiating off of George and Sapnap is intimidating. “If Phil won’t tell us, then you will.”

“Maybe you’re being left behind for a reason,” Wilbur shoots back. Something slimy and sickly crawls over him, and he bites his lip as the feeling roils in his stomach. “Ever think about that?”

The hunters stare at him as if he’s gone crazy.

“Dream wouldn’t leave us behind,” George says simply. “Never.”

That. The simplicity of the statement bowls Wilbur over, and he gapes at George. He must look undignified, mouth hanging open and eyes wide with disbelief, but Wilbur can’t bring himself to care.

“How can you be so sure?” he asks. Tommy’s head snaps up, and he stares up at him while Wilbur tries to ignore his gaze. “You don’t know the future. You don’t know what’ll make Dream abandon you.”

“He won’t,” George says, and there’s a certainty there that shakes Wilbur to his core. Something almost… pitying creeps into his gaze as he looks at Wilbur. “I’ll go to the end of my life knowing that. Dream will never abandon us.‘

Bad scoots over and wordlessly places a clawed hand on Wilbur’s shoulder. His touch is different from the unshakeable confidence in George’s voice, or the fiery stubbornness radiating from every line of Sapnap’s body. Bad is gentler, more understanding.

“It’s true,” he says, voice warm. “I’ve known Dream since he was scrapping on the street and losing every other fight. He’s got our backs, and we’ve got his. We’re a team, after all. We’re family.”

Clearing his throat, Wilbur cranes his neck back to survey the landscape. It’s almost entirely dark now, a blue-black coat coating the sprawling Arctic. The only glimmers of light come from moonbeams reflected against snow, marked only where wild animals have trodden. Rabbits in their winter coats, blending in against the white, or wolves prowling in packs at the edge of the forest. Further, Wilbur imagines he can see the faint outline of a polar bear trudging along the frozen riverbank.

There’s so much life, even here, that Wilbur can’t help but sigh. He’s just one of many small beings in this chunk of the world. He hasn’t done any great things, has no titles proclaiming his deeds far and wide. He doesn’t even have a house, for Prime’s sake.

But he has Tommy at his feet, warm and alive after so long apart. Tommy is even defending him, despite their argument at the soldiers’ camp and Wilbur letting him down over and over again. That has to count for something.

Maybe it’s a combination of that heady feeling of realizing one’s own insignificance along with a gratefulness for what he has that makes Wilbur turn back to the waiting audience and say, “I can only tell you the bits I was there for.”

“What?”

The hunters lean forwards eagerly as one, and Tommy shifts closer to Wilbur as well. He’s not shivering anymore, the brown of Wilbur’s coat making his blond hair appear to glow, and Wilbur lets that image steady him as he casts his mind back. He swallows, stomach heavy with the memories he’s about to confess.

“You know about the champions,” he says. “Trained from a young age, destined for greatness. Like fairy tales.”

“Legends,” Tommy whispers.

Wilbur nods. Already, the atmosphere of the group has started to change, as if an otherworldly spirit has descended upon them. The wind is softer, the moon is brighter, and Wilbur has the eyes of the world upon him.

“Exactly,” he says. “But there’s a price to pay for that championship, and not everything is as it seems. I saw it happen to Techno firsthand.” He lowers his eyes to his guitar, feeling vaguely disconnected from his body as his chapped fingers rest on the frets. “I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.”

“Get to the point,” Sapnap demands, but there’s interest in his eyes too. All of them, without exception, are following Wilbur’s words like insects drawn to honey, unable to resist its temptation. “Tell us what happened already.”

“This isn’t directly related to Dream,” Wilbur warns. “You have to understand the champions first. Who they are, what they are, why they are. Why the king is so obsessed with them, and what happens after they’re crowned.” He sighs. “So where should I begin?”

“The beginning,” George says. His eyes are gleaming. “Start from the beginning.”

Wilbur takes a deep breath and lets the chill fill his lungs. Unerringly, his fingers find the guitar strings, and he starts plucking absently as a bare tune fills the Arctic skies. In front of him, his audience sits, spellbound.

“Once upon a time,” he says. “There was a boy...”

Chapter Text

Before

“Don’t follow me.”

Wilbur scrambles after Techno, feet sliding in the wet grass as Techno makes his way between tree trunks. His pink hair is glaringly bright against the greens and browns of the forest, and Wilbur cranes his neck to keep it in view.

“You can’t stop me,” he says mulishly. Techno takes a hard right, and Wilbur jumps over a rock to keep up. “Just because the king ‘chose you’ and ‘recognized your potential’ or some shit, I don’t know why you have to disappear for hours on end.”

“Maybe because you’re not supposed to understand,” Techno says, voice tight. “Didn’t Phil tell you not to come?”

Wilbur huffs. He’s not used to this much exercise, and he can feel a cramp starting up in his side.

“Phil’s not the boss of me,” he says.

Even facing away, Wilbur can tell Techno is rolling his eyes.

“Whatever,” Techno grumbles. “Just—Don’t let yourself be seen, alright? I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I won’t,” Wilbur states with certainty. Techno stops at that, coming to a halt as Wilbur catches up and grins cheekily up at him. “You’ll protect me, right?”

Techno’s hair falls into his eyes, strands catching in his tusks. Reaching up, Wilbur brushes it out of Techno’s face and idly thinks that Techno needs a haircut again.

“Right,” Techno says faintly. “I’ll protect you.”

“So you don’t have to leave me behind at all!” Wilbur concludes triumphantly. “You can do your mysterious champion bullshit, and I’ll be close behind. Don’t worry,” he adds, seeing Techno open his mouth. “I won’t do anything stupid.”

“That’s too out of character for you,” Techno grumbles. “Now be quiet, we’re getting close.”

Obediently, Wilbur falls silent as they approach a forest clearing. It looks like any other, a small oasis tucked away between towering trees and falling leaves, but when Techno kneels to the ground, Wilbur sees a hole going straight down.

His heartbeat quickens.

“Techno?” Wilbur croaks.

Techno doesn’t look back. “Jump,” he commands, and then—

He’s gone. Taking a shuddering breath, Wilbur looks down the hole where Techno disappeared. He peers over the edge, and there’s nothing, nothing at all, just a pit of darkness. If it were up to Wilbur, he’d back away and say, “No, thank you!” and hurry back home with his proverbial tail between his legs to where Phil is waiting in his brewing room, one hand on his enchanting books and the other extended to Wilbur with a warm, “Welcome back, mate.”

But Wilbur trusts Techno, and Techno told him to jump. So screwing his eyes shut tightly, Wilbur braces himself.

And he jumps.

Landing doesn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. Save for the small “oof!” from the initial impact, Wilbur manages to get to his feet unscathed. Before he can look around, though, Techno’s back is in front of him, covering Wilbur’s vision.

“You have to hide,” Techno hisses.

“Where am I supposed to do that?” Wilbur protests irritably. Curiosity nibbles at him, and he cranes his neck to try and see something, anything. “Don’t bring up problems if you’re not going to offer solutions.”

Techno groans.

“Here, I’ll—”

Before he finishes speaking, Techno reaches out and punches a hole in the wall. Literally. Stone blocks crumble underneath his touch, and Wilbur gapes as a small tunnel forms, leading to an open arena.

“There,” Techno says. “A solution.”

Wilbur continues gaping.

“Go hide in the stands there,” Techno continues. “You’ll see us soon.”

“That was...” Wilbur trails off. He glances down to Techno’s relaxed hand, and Techno’s knuckles aren’t even bruised. Impressed, Wilbur says, “You really are a monster, huh?”

“Don’t—Don’t call me that,” Techno says. His hands form into fists, and is that a shake Wilbur hears in his voice? “Not you too.”

Blinking, Wilbur says, “It’s a good thing. I was complimenting you.”

“It’s not a compliment.” Techno’s voice is hard. “Not for me.”

Slowly, Wilbur nods.

“Okay,” he says. “I won’t anymore.”

The set of Techno’s shoulders relaxes minutely, and he says, “Thanks,” gruffly. Then, “Now hide!” as the rapid patter of footsteps comes down the hall.

Wilbur ducks into the tunnel, grimacing as he shakes dirt out of his hair and crawls forward. Behind him, he can hear high young voices clamouring. They sound so young compared to Technoblade, too young to be doing the kind of training that Wilbur knows Techno does. But he doesn’t have time to linger on the sounds as he pushes forward, forward, until he emerges in the stands of a makeshift arena.

“Just how much money does the king have...” Wilbur mutters as he takes it in.

It’s a training stadium, has to be, with the way that the layout mimics the real arena that Wilbur has only gotten glimpses of. Phil always pushes him away when he wants to linger in the market, and despite Techno being accepted into the champion training program, Wilbur has never successfully followed him out here.

Until now.

Hauling himself up, Wilbur squints across the stadium. Rows of raised stone mimic the stadium stands, and the grass emerging between blocks makes a comfortable cushion as Wilbur settles down.

“What do they do down here all day?” he wonders out loud. If Wilbur doesn’t look up, it’s easy to forget that he’s underground, but as he lies on his back so that he’s hidden by the raised stone, all he can see is the ceiling above. He misses the sky already. “I hope Techno shows up soon.”

Techno doesn’t show up, and Wilbur has no choice but to wait. Wait with his arms crossed behind his head, wishing for a breeze and a brother whose back is more familiar than his face.

Wilbur falls asleep at some point because the next thing he knows, he’s jostled away by the clang of metal. He narrowly avoids hitting his head as he peeks out and over at the din beneath him.

It’s the kids from earlier—or at least, he assumes they are. They come in all shapes and sizes, little smudges of iron armor against an equally gray background as they grimly face off in one-on-one stances. Prowling amongst them, Wilbur can see the uniform of the king’s soldiers, and occasionally, he hears a yelp when one of the soldiers reaches out to smack one of the trainees.

“Focus!” He can hear, the sharp tone clear despite the distance. “How will you honor your king with sloppiness?”

In the far corner, Wilbur sees a familiar head of pink. It’s Techno, a head taller than his opponent as he marches forward with a sword in hand. For a second, Wilbur thinks it can’t be real iron, not in this setting. After all, this is just training, isn’t it? Then the kid is charging forward, and Techno is swinging, and—

“Who’re you?”

Wilbur barely bites back a yelp but can’t avoid falling backwards onto his butt at the voice behind him. He lands with an oof, and immediately, snickers explode from behind him.

“You look like a fucking idiot!”

“Shut up!” Wilbur says. He can feel his face turning red. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Me?” The gremlin that interrupted him puffs out his chest, sticks a thumb at himself, and declares, “I’m Tommy!”

The first word that Wilbur thinks of when he sees this Tommy kid is… bright. He’s scrawny, all gangly limbs poking out of his overly large armor, but his eyes are big and blue and lit up with laughter as the dim lighting reflects off his blond hair. He peers curiously at Wilbur, and when he sees the shock written over Wilbur’s face, a devilish grin crosses his face.

“Who’re you?” he repeats. “You’re not supposed to be here. I know that ‘cause my soldier told me only special ‘uns are allowed.”

“Special ones?” Wilbur asks. Then. “What do you mean, ‘my’ soldier?”

Tommy looks at him like he’s an idiot.

“We all get our own soldier, don’t we?” he asks like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “To make sure we don’t run away or some other shit like that. ” Bending down, Tommy whispers to Wilbur, “He’s not very fun, mine. Yells at me a lot.”

“Then where is he now?” Wilbur asks. His palms are growing sweaty. As much as Wilbur likes to make Techno’s life difficult, he’s not an idiot. He knows that he’s taking a risk by coming out here, and to be honest, Wilbur’s not very good at dealing with the consequences of his own actions. “Is he somewhere here?”

Tommy chortles.

“I got away!” he hisses triumphantly, and the joy that overtakes his face is so incandescent that Wilbur is entranced by it, as if a miniature sun has appeared in this underground lair. “Fucker can’t make me train, no way. I’m sitting this one out.”

Wilbur takes a second to be impressed before Tommy’s words register, and he frowns.

“Hang on, you don’t want to train?” he asks. Techno had volunteered, he knows, after the king’s soldiers had noticed his piglin blood and recruited him for the program. Techno had chosen to stay. “Don’t you want to be the champion?”

“Fuck no,” Tommy says emphathically. “Training hurts. I don’t like it.”

That makes Wilbur take a closer look. Scattered up and down Tommy’s bared forearms are bruises, loud and blotchy and in various stages of healing. The greens and purples make Wilbur faintly ill. He’s no stranger to injuries, not after growing up with Phil as his dad and Techno as his brother, but Wilbur has always been the peacemaker among them, happier to stay inside with his books than go out and fight with swords.

That being said, Wilbur knows what a training injury looks like, and the finger-shaped marks that run all along Tommy’s skin?

Those don’t come from training.

“Do they hurt you?” Wilbur blurts, only for Tommy to blink slowly in his direction.

“We fight, of course they hurt me,” he says frankly.

“No, I mean—Are they cruel to you?” Wilbur asks. Tommy looks away, and with a sinking feeling in his stomach, Wilbur pushes, “Tommy, do you want to be here?”

“I like fighting,” Tommy says after a long pause. Those bright blue eyes of his are shadowed now, and he hangs his head like he’s trying to hide from Wilbur even though he’s right in front of him. “I don’t like it when they hurt me.”

Anger kindles in Wilbur’s stomach, hot and sharp like the fires underneath Phil’s brewing cauldrons. He opens his mouth, and—

“Brat! Get back here!”

Tommy’s head whips around so fast that Wilbur worries for his neck, and when he turns back to Wilbur, there’s panic in his eyes.

“Hide!” Tommy hisses. “Don’t let them see you!”

“What—”

Apparently Tommy doesn’t have time for Wilbur’s questions because he shoves Wilbur down and stands in front of him in one smooth motion, placing his arms behind his back as the clank of iron comes closer and closer.

“Just promise me,” Tommy whispers from the corner of his mouth, so soft that Wilbur can barely hear it. “Come back and see me again, yeah? I like you.”

“Tommy—”

“Skipping training again?” Wilbur hears and presses himself lower to the ground. “When will you learn?”

“I already know this stuff,” Tommy says stubbornly. “Dodging, stances—You don’t need to hit me anymore, I get it!”

“Do you now? Dodge this.”

There’s a smack, a yelp, and Wilbur tries to rise to his feet on instinct only for Tommy’s hand to keep him firmly in place.

“You think you can become the champion like this? You think you can kill all those other kids and be the last one standing, huh?” Another smack. “Well, if you don’t keep training, you’ll just be another body we get rid of. The king demands the best. Now get over here.”

Wilbur presses his body as close to the ground as he can get, heart racing in his throat as Tommy is dragged away. His hand lingers in Wilbur’s hair, and Wilbur wishes he could reach up and catch it. Instead, he lies low and watches as dusty leather boots are dragged away.

Later, when all the children are long gone and Techno comes to collect him from the stands, Wilbur is quiet on the way back home.

“What’s wrong with you?” Techno grumbles. He’s in a bad mood, and he smells bad too. Unlike Tommy, however, Wilbur can’t see any finger-shaped bruises on him. “Did you finally have enough of your stupid adventure?”

“Why do you get to choose?”

Techno looks taken aback, nostrils flaring.

“What do you mean?” he asks warily.

Wilbur kicks the ground and thinks about Tommy’s spitfire attitude contrasted with the resignation in his body as he was taken back. I don’t like it when they hurt me. Like he didn’t have a choice.

“I mean, you get to come back home to me and Phil,” he says. “The other kids… Where do they go?”

Techno is silent for a second before he sighs and scrubs a hand through his hair. There’s dust in it, Wilbur notes, and he wants to brush it out but he knows Techno won’t let him, hasn’t let him since he started training.

“The king gets a lot of volunteers to become a champion,” Techno says bluntly. “The finest stock, but not every parent is willing to let their kid go. So his soldiers fill out the rest with whatever they can find. Street rats. Kids who don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Wilbur feels sick.

“And you?” he asks bitterly. He kicks at the hard ground. “You have somewhere to go. Why are you so special?”

Techno smiles, and Wilbur is so caught off-guard that it takes him a second to realize that Techno isn’t actually smiling. Not really. It’s more a grimace.

“Because,” he says. “I’m the strongest.”

Wilbur gulps.

Techno slants a look at him and asks, “Why are you so curious about this now? I thought you were happy just trailing in my footsteps.”

Wilbur ignores the barb and shrugs.

“Met someone who changed my mind,” he says. “Do you know Tommy? Blond, loud, annoying.”

“Sounds familiar,” Techno grunts. “Why?”

Wilbur clenches his fist, a plan starting to take form in his head.

“I’m going to be his friend,” he declares.

“Oh no.” Wilbur doesn’t even have to look to know that Techno is face-palming. “This isn’t going to go well.”

But it does. Wilbur keeps sneaking after Techno when he goes to his training sessions, and he keeps not getting caught. Tommy keeps running from his soldier, and he and Wilbur chat in the stands as the other kids batter away at one another beneath them. Wilbur learns about Tommy’s life as a street kid before the king’s soldiers plucked him off.

“No one cared about me then,” Tommy says, swinging his legs idly. “And no one cares about me now.”

He says it so frankly that it stings Wilbur’s heart, and when he turns to Tommy and says, “Hey. I care about you,” he makes sure that Tommy believes it.

In turn, Tommy hears all about Wilbur’s family. He hears about Wilbur’s father (who remains unnamed) and his older brother (also unnamed) as Wilbur recalls fond memories of learning magic by Phil’s knees or pushing Techno over when he still stood a chance against him. From time to time, Wilbur can see Techno glance up at the stands, long enough for him to recognize Tommy, but when they head back home together, Techno never says a word.

It goes well. Until it doesn’t.

Things happen so quickly that Wilbur feels like he blinks and his entire life has fallen apart before his eyes. Techno goes to the arena with half of the batch he trained with. He comes back alone, bloody and crowned, and when Wilbur tries to ask what will happen to the other children, his only response is, “That Tommy kid better be strong. I don’t want you to get hurt if he doesn’t come back.”

Techno becomes champion and soon, wracked by an invisible burden that only he can bear, Phil disappears as well. Once Wilbur realizes that neither of them are coming back, Wilbur knows—

He won’t lose Tommy too.

And when he sneaks Tommy out of the stronghold, when Tommy sits at his feet all wide and guileless eyes as Wilbur pores over Phil’s well-loved enchanting books, when Wilbur asks, “Tommy, you trust me, right?” and Tommy says, “Of course,” when Wilbur opens the book and places his hands on Tommy’s head and focuses—

Tommy wakes up and blinks.

“Wil?” he asks, confused. “ That’s… You’re Wil, right?”

“That’s right,” Wilbur says, collapsed and sweating on the ground. Magic takes a lot of energy, more than Wilbur expected, and when he blinks, dark spots dance before his eyes. “I’m Wilbur. Your brother.”

“My brother,” Tommy repeats. His arms come up around himself like a hug, and Wilbur drags himself closer to Tommy. He thinks he should feel bad, seeing how disoriented Tommy is, but instead, he just feels relief. Relief that Tommy is safe. Relief that Tommy won’t remember. Relief that Tommy is his family. “You’re Wilbur, my brother. But… Who am I?”

Try as he might, Wilbur can’t bring himself to regret it.

“A street kid,” he answers. Reaching out, he pries Tommy’s fingers out of the death grip they have on Tommy’s shirt and instead, tugs Tommy into his arms. “No one cared about you. But I do. I’ll always care about you.”

“Okay,” Tommy says and leans into Wilbur’s touch. “Okay.”

 

 

 

 

Now

The last notes of the guitar fade into the Arctic. Placing it down, Wilbur rubs his fingers together. The cold sting feels like judgment. Silence reigns as Wilbur braces himself for the oncoming storm.

Surprisingly, Bad is the one who speaks up first.

“Perception magic,” he says with something like horror painted across his face. “You took his memories.”

Wilbur rubs his fingers together again, hoping that they’ll stop feeling so numb.

“It wasn’t hard,” he says quietly. “I’ve watched Phil do it since I was a kid, and he never thought to hide his books from me.”

“Magic that powerful always has a cost,” Bad says, and of course he would know, as a half-demon. “What did it take from you?”

Wilbur laughs bitterly.

“I don’t know,” he says. “That was the only time I’ve ever used it, but nothing changed after that. I felt fine. Normal.”

“Do you regret it?” Bad asks, intent.

Wilbur doesn’t even have to hesitate.

“No,” he says and tries to feel nothing.

Bad’s face shutters.

“Sometimes,” he says, and his tone turns from horrified to sorrowful. “We don’t even realize what abusing magic makes us become.”

There’s a shuffling sound to the side, and Wilbur looks over to see Tommy scrambling to his feet.

“I have to—” he says jerkily. His face is pale, and Wilbur’s stomach swoops in a way that abruptly makes him want to throw up. “I’m gonna go.”

“Wait—”

Wilbur reaches out only for his hand to come short as Tommy flinches back. His feet catch on a loose floorboard, and Tommy falls. Hard. But he doesn’t wait for anyone to help him up, only gets back on his feet and takes off into the surrounding fields.

Wilbur starts after him, but a voice says, “Let him go.”

Turning, Wilbur sees George with his chin propped up by one hand, boredly observing Wilbur through his dark goggles. Sapnap next to him looks a little more flustered, thin wisps of smoke coming off of his hands like he doesn’t know what to do with them.

“You’ll make it worse if you go after him now,” George continues. “Let him have some time to process.”

With a thud, Wilbur sits back onto the deck floor and buries his head in his hands.

“I’ve ruined everything,” he says, muffled. “He hates me now.”

“You did kind of fuck up,” Sapnap agrees unhelpfully. “Majorly. Yikes, bro, what made you think erasing the kid’s memory was a good idea?”

“I wasn’t thinking!” Wilbur bursts out. “I just wanted to save him!”

“You kind of took away his choice in the matter, though,” Sapnap points out, still unhelpfully. “I mean, he could have become champion.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Bad mutters. He still sounds sad. “Magic wasn’t meant to be used against people, much less the people we love. I understand why you did what you did, Wilbur, but—”

“You were right.”

Wilbur raises his head and stares George in the eyes. He’s pushed his goggles up, and it’s almost a shock to meet his naked gaze.

“What?” Wilbur breathes.

George shrugs and pulls his bow into his lap. Stringing and unstringing it with quick hands, he continues, “Tommy would never have won against Technoblade, not right after he became champion. You would know best.”

“Right,” Wilbur says dumbly, and then he shakes himself because George is defending him, George of all people. “Techno was—is the strongest. No matter how good Tommy got, I knew that he couldn’t beat him.”

“So you saved his life,” George says, and to hear it boiled down so succinctly makes Wilbur sag in place. “I understand. If I were in your position, I… I can’t say that I wouldn’t do the same thing.”

George casts a glance towards the closed cabin door, so subtle that Wilbur would have missed it if not for the way that George visibly reels himself back, like he’s afraid that he’s given away too much.

“Because it’s not just about his life, is it,” George states, far too knowingly. “It’s about what becoming a champion does to you.”

“Are you talking about—”

Wilbur cuts himself off because the answer is obvious. Who else would have a front row seat to the way that the championship holds empty promises like a laurel wreath about their heads, only to take and take and take once it’s finally placed? Who else would know the true cost that fighting in that arena takes, what champions give up in order to keep their throne?

The champions are inside, true, but the ones who are left behind?

They’re stuck in the cold.

“Dream,” George starts. He stops after the name and doesn’t go on.

Furrowing his eyebrows, Wilbur glances over at Sapnap and Bad, but they don’t seem confused. Instead, they just look like they usually do—Bad, empathetic, and Sapnap determined. They’re waiting, Wilbur realizes, for George.

Said hunter makes a frustrated sound.

“I’m not good at this,” he complains, wringing his hands in an out of character show of frustration. “Fuck.”

“It’s okay,” Bad says, laying a gentle clawed hand on George’s shoulder. “We get it.”

“You don’t agree with what Wilbur did.” George switches tracks, addressing Bad instead of Wilbur. Wilbur wonders if it’s easier for him this way, talking to a friend rather than a traitor or former friend or whatever category he’s occupied in George’s mind. “But if I was in his shoes, if I could choose again between keeping Dream or watching him go off to that arena, then I—”

“George,” Sapnap says. He’s somber. “It doesn’t matter what happened before. We can’t go back. That’s why we just have to become strong enough to protect him. And we have, George.”

He gestures at George’s bow and the sword at his own hip.

“Not all the time, though,” George says, and Wilbur knows he’s thinking about Dream bound and helpless, eyes glazed over with bruises running up and down his face. Or, even more than that—their inevitable fall from grace. “Not enough.”

“George,” Wilbur says. Or at least, he means to say it, but the name gets caught in his throat, and he coughs a few times to clear it before trying again. “George, I—Thanks. For understanding.”

George looks at him and scoffs.

“Whatever,” he mutters and turns away. “I don’t forgive you for what you did to Dream. As far as I’m concerned, you’re still a sellout and a traitor. But...” Drawing his knees up, George rests his chin on them. He looks so much younger like this. “Maybe we’re more similar than I thought.”

“Yeah,” Wilbur says. Unbelievably, his spirit rises a little. “I think so too.”

Tommy is out there somewhere, coming to terms with what Wilbur has stolen from him. A future or an early end—Tommy will never truly know, but he’s alive and breathing. Because of that, that simple truth, Wilbur will never regret protecting Tommy.

But after learning the truth, does Tommy regret Wilbur?

“When are they coming back out?”

Sapnap breaks the silence with his question. Crossing his arms over his chest, he glares mulishly at the cabin door, still closed.

“We had enough time to hear Tommy’s sob story, but they’re still not done talking with Dream?” he complains. “I’m cold, I want to go inside!”

“You have fire magic!” Bad says, exasperated. “You don’t get cold!”

“Yeah, but it’s the principle of the thing, you know?”

Their bickering lightens the atmosphere, and Wilbur watches the angry rise of George’s shoulder gradually slope down. Slowly, he releases his knees to reach over and whap Sapnap across his head.

“Stop complaining, you idiot,” he says, sounding more like the George that Wilbur has grown to know. “You’re like a dog begging for a treat.”

“Oh, sure, like you’re not dying to know what’s going on in there the same as me,” Sapnap shoots back. “Georgie missing his Dreamie poo? Or should I say, Gogy?

Tommy’s unsolicited nickname for George makes the budding laughter die in Wilbur’s chest, and he casts his gaze over the surrounding tundra. Snow has started drifting down, icy flakes trying to gather before they become water, disappearing into the ground. A thin layer of frost has started forming, and Wilbur shivers a bit. There’s nowhere to hide in the Arctic, yet Tommy has disappeared from view.

“He’ll be alright.” Bad’s comforting voice sounds as he takes a seat next to Wilbur, having moved from his spot with Sapnap and George. “He’ll come back once he’s had some time to wrap his head around everything.”

“How do you know?” Wilbur asks.

“You’re family,” Bad says, as if the answer is obvious.

“Family doesn’t always mean you come back.”

“That’s true.” Bad’s eyes soften. “But Tommy loves you. He’ll come back.”

Ears heating up, Wilbur mumbles, “Thought you said I was abusing magic. Why are you trying to comfort me?”

“And I stand by that,” Bad says. “I’ve said it before: magic is misunderstood, but it should never be used to take other people’s choices away from them.”

“You sound like Technoblade,” Wilbur says. He’s not whining. He’s not.

“That would make sense, considering we probably had similar experiences with magic growing up.” Bad’s voice is mild, but he continues before Wilbur can open his mouth. “I think you meant well, Wilbur, and you can’t go back and change what happened. Just… Perception magic is dangerous. It can corrupt you.”

“Phil does it all the time.” Now Wilbur knows he’s whining, but he can’t stop. “And he’s fine.”

At that, Bad hums thoughtfully.

“I think Phil might pay a bigger price than you think,” he says. “Sometimes, leaving is the greatest sacrifice there is.”

Wilbur feels like Bad has dropped a boulder on him.

“Do you mean—”

“I don’t know,” Bad says. “All I know is that you fought very hard for Tommy. I don’t agree with your choices, but it’s not my judgement you need.” He nods to the snow-blistered ground. “It’s Tommy’s.”

Quietly, Wilbur nods.

Standing, Bad brushes some snowflakes off his pants and says, “The decision is out of your hands now. All you can do is wait.”

Wilbur sighs. His breath escapes as a puff of frosty air, and when he picks up his guitar, the wood is cold under his fingers. It’ll warm up, though. Given enough time and care, the wood will one day shine like a beacon, and melodies will flow from each perfectly tuned string. For now, it’s Wilbur’s companion, and as he plucks at the strings, a small tune begins to form. Not a song, though. Not yet.

Wilbur plays his guitar and waits.

 

 

 

 

 

“What is this?” Dream asks as soon as they get inside. Shattered turquoise pieces lie in the flat of his hand, and flames from the fireplace flicker across the surface. It almost looks like they’re coming from inside the shards.

“Ender pearl,” Techno says as if that explains anything at all or as if Dream even knows what an Ender pearl is. “I didn’t realize you had one. That would explain how you completely decimated those guards earlier. Well,” he pauses, “that, and also...”

“Mate,” Phil says from the fireplace. “You’re going to want to start from the beginning.”

Techno takes a deep breath.

“Right,” he says, half muttering. “Right.” Then, immediately switching tones, Techno abruptly asks, “How long has the king been reigning?”

Dream starts.

“What does that have anything to do with this?” he asks warily.

He feels like he’s left one world and entered another. Phil sits in an armchair by the fire, finger steepled in front of an intense gaze as the fire crackles in the background. It should be homey and welcoming, but the shadows from Techno pacing back and forth and the darkness lining Phil’s face make the flames seem more threatening than anything else.

Techno rakes a hand through his hair, mussing his braid.

“Just answer,” he says impatiently.

Dream tucks the remains of the Ender pearl back into his pocket and leans back in his own chair at the dining table with a sigh, tilting back until the chair legs teeter beneath him.

“Been around as long as I can remember,” he responds. “But when I was on the streets, I didn’t pay much attention to politics. It didn’t matter who was king, you know? We just had to survive the day.”

Techno’s frantic pacing pauses as he mutters, “You were a street kid?” before shaking his head and continuing. “It doesn’t matter if you were or not,” he says. “The question is, do you remember who was king before him? Think carefully,” Techno adds, seeing Dream open his mouth. “This is important.”

Biting back the urge to give a smartass answer, Dream tries to think. He wasn’t lying when he said street kids weren’t concerned about politics, but it wasn’t entirely truthful either. Changing policies meant shopkeepers tightened their stealing standards when taxes were raised. Bakeries previously prone to overlooking a few sticky fingers started rapping them, and guards who used to indulge their presence turned mean. But taxes changed like the tides in the ocean. People didn’t.

“No...” Dream says slowly. “I don’t. The king has always been the king.”

Technoblade nods grimly.

“And that,” he says, “is the linchpin.”

“But how could that be?” Dream asks. His head spins. “Are you implying—”

“The king is immortal,” Phil says from the fireplace. His face is backlit by the dancing fire. “At least, as close as he can get to it.”

Dream’s chair legs fall back onto the floor with a thunk.

“What,” he asks flatly. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he says, “S-so, what does this mean? He’s like you?”

“He wants to be,” Phil says. “But he couldn’t become immortal through the legitimate way, so he had to cheat. And that’s what’s caused this whole fucking mess.”

“No one realizes that the king is immortal,” Techno says, picking up from where Phil left off. “Think about it. Even if he wasn’t, how could he keep his seat for so long? No wife, no heir—Prime, not even a good approval rating from the citizens. How has no one tried to overthrow him?”

“I thought people liked him,” Dream says nonsensically.

Techno gives him a look.

“Did you really think that?” he asks. “Or did people like you?

Dream has nothing to say in response to that.

“He uses perception magic to do it,” Phil says grimly. “Massive amounts of it. No one knows that he’s been king this long, no one cares, no one even remembers his name—”

He cuts himself off, leaping to his feet as his wings explode out in one violent motion. Dream pushes his chair back sharply, legs screeching against the wooden floor as he falls into a ready stance. Techno freezes, shoulders caught in an uncomfortable hunch around his ears.

Phil’s chest rises and falls as he breathes heavily. His wings are a tangible shadow, and when Dream focuses, the edges of his feathers look sharp as knives. Extended fully and black as night, Phil looks exactly like the Angel of Death that he’s known as.

“Phil,” Dream starts carefully. “You said you were the first champion. What did you mean?”

Phil laughs bitterly.

“Oh, I wasn’t just his first champion,” he says. “I was his first friend. We did everything together, even went to the End together until he decided that power and immortality was more important than everything else. He gave up everything for that. Including me.”

Phil might continue talking after that, but Dream can’t hear him over the low buzzing in his ears. Static fills his head as a strange feeling rises in his chest, like something is tugging him forwards. Unconsciously, Dream leans in.

“The End,” he echoes. The word comes out reverent. “You’ve been there.”

“I’m the only one who has,” Phil says. “At least, legitimately.”

“What is it like?” Dream asks breathlessly.

Phil looks wistful.

“Beautiful,” he says softly. “It’s beautiful.”

“The king has also been there, but he didn’t get the full treatment that Phil did,” Techno says. Dream breaks out of his reverie and looks back at where Techno has settled against the wall, all that tense energy hidden beneath the fall of his cloak. “He was the second one in, right, Phil?”

“Right.” Phil shakes himself as if coming out of a shower. “It’s a long story—you don’t want to hear all of it—but back when this server was new, my friend—the king and I traveled to the End. We’d heard stories from server hoppers—”

Server hoppers?” Dream asks, eyes round. “That’s a thing?”

“It used to be, until the king sealed us off from every other world,” Phil says. “Back then, it was rumored that you had to reach the End in order to gain immortality and the ability to travel between worlds, so the king and I were determined to go. But what we didn’t know was that it’s a privilege that only one person on each server can have.”

“The first one to reach the End,” Dream realizes.

Phil smiles grimly.

“Exactly,” he says. “And I stepped through the portal first, so I got these—” He gestures to his wings, “and immortality.”

“And the king?” Dream dares to ask.

“Got nothing but knowledge,” Techno says from the wall. “And sometimes, that’s the most dangerous thing.”

“He used me to get power,” Phil says, and the frankness of the statement has the veracity of a familiar wound, long-aged but scarred over. “I was his friend, but he called me his ‘champion,’ and when he declared himself as king because he’d been to the End, I was the one who took care of all his enemies. Thus,” he gestures to himself without humor. “Angel of Death.”

“But he wasn’t the one who received immortality,” Dream says. His heart is hammering against his ribs, a prisoner desperate to escape. “How is he still alive?”

Techno pushes himself off the wall and comes over, backing Dream up until the edge of the chair hits his thighs. Dream is knocked back into his seat, caught staring up as Techno pushes their faces so close that the tip of tusk brushes the still-healing scar on Dream’s face.

“Ever wonder why champions always disappear after they’re defeated?” Techno asks softly, dangerously. “Or, a better question—Ever wonder what happened during your rites?”

Flashes. Dark purple, pressed into his eyelids, the cold weight of chairs against his limbs and the equally cold stone beneath him. Shivering as bright pink flashed in the corner and that awful, awful emptiness that crawled inside.

The sensation of life, dripping away.

Dream reels.

“You remember now,” Techno states. It’s a fact, not a question.

“I—” Dream presses the palm of his hand to his head. “What did he do to me?”

“He tied your life force to his,” Techno says quietly. “Same as he does with all champions.” His eyes glow red. “Same as he did with me.”

“It’s not true immortality,” Phil says. “Immortality can only be given, not stolen, and that’s exactly what he’s done for all these years. Creating this system of champions, farming their energy, sucking them dry until it’s time for the next one. Remember when we were in the stronghold?” Phil asks, eyes intent. “You saw something.”

Dream screws his eyes shut.

“There was that void,” he says. “And… And...”

Phil’s anger. His disbelief. Shattered remains of a crystal, and an empty metal skeleton looming over them.

“It’s called an End crystal,” Phil says as if reading Dream’s mind. “I’ve suspected for a while that the king was doing something like this, but I had no proof. Not until I saw that. The End crystal is meant to heal, but he’s twisted it to do more than that.”

“So he uses champions to keep himself alive,” Dream summarizes. “That’s why there’s the training system. That’s why—” The pieces slot together. “Is that why he falsely accused me? To make room for someone from the system?”

“Most likely,” Phil agrees. “You’re an unknown, the first champion in what must have been decades to not come from the training system and molded to be a good champion, ready to die for the king without even knowing it. He probably thought you were a risk.”

Techno turns away, eyes clouded, but Dream barely notices.

Offer your life to the king.

“Why did I never think of it?” Dream asks. “If—If I was such a wild card, why did I never put it together?”

“Perception magic, again,” Phil replies. “Don’t blame yourself, no one could be expected to break it without realizing that it’s there in the first place. It’s a handy tool for a tyrant who can erase his subject’s memories at will.”

He sounds bitter.

“The healing,” Dream says. His head is spinning. “I—The pain. When it felt like I was on fire.”

“Side effects of being tied to the king,” Techno says. He might sound apologetic if his tone wasn’t so grim. “I don’t know how he does it, but somehow, we get both ends of the stick.” Stalking over the other side of the room, Techno leans down and says, “Let me borrow this from you—”

Dream can barely protest, “What?” before Techno grabs Nightmare from Dream’s inventory.

Dream yelps and bolts upright, and his hands itch for the familiar heft of Nightmare in his hand. Techno turns the blade towards the light, causing the etchings to gleam, and Dream has to force himself to stay still. He’s carried it with him since Bad deemed him well enough to hold weapons again, and as much as Sapnap might joke and call the axe Dream’s teddy bear, it’s disconcerting to see his weapon in the hands of another champion.

“It’s a blessing,” Techno says, and then he’s bringing the axe up to his own throat, the razor edge of it kissing the thin skin of his neck, and Dream yelps, scrambling forwards.

“Stop, what’re you—”

“And a curse.”

Techno draws Nightmare across his throat.

Phil tucks his hands into his sleeves, unfazed as Dream pants, staring wide-eyed at Techno. The axe left a shallow cut across Techno’s neck, and Dream gapes as it the wound seals up right in front of him, leaving only a viscous trickle of blood, already drying before it can stain Techno’s white shirt.

“We heal faster,” Techno says, wiping off the blade with his sleeve. “But we’re not immortal. Not really.”

“Because we haven’t been to the End,” Dream says slowly. “Instead, our bodies just… aren’t our own.”

There’s something disturbing about the fact that his body has changed without any visible scars and wounds. Dream is familiar with those, like how his left ankle gives way more easily from when he broke it running from a shopkeeper, the way he has a thin white scar running up his side from the arena. Even the scar on his face, new as it is, is a tangible reminder.

“You’ll always be pointed towards the king,” Phil says somberly. “Always feel that tug towards him.”

Dream’s heart thumps, and he reaches for something, anything to ground him. His hands find the compass in his pocket, warm against his skin, and he clutches it, letting the familiar engravings bite into his skin to ground him.

“This is insane,” he says and laughs a little bit. It does nothing to ease the tension sitting heavy on top of his chest. “I mean, come on. We all agree that this is kind of unbelievable, right?”

“Is it any crazier than the fact that you just watched me slit my own throat?” Techo asks dryly. “Or that Phil travels between servers?”

“I thought that was just a rumor…” Dream says weakly. “You know, exaggerating his reputation.”

“Believe me, it’s all true,” Phil says quietly. “The king can’t stop me since I won my powers legitimately, but…” His eyes flick to Techno and then to the door. “I try not to stay in one place for too long. Don’t want to risk anything.”

“Besides, your body knows the truth,” Techno continues. “You know that you couldn’t have taken out that whole troop of soldiers by yourself, especially not in that state”.

“Your body burned through the potions faster than normal,” Phil explains. “And, well. Let’s just say that another side effect is losing control.”

“More like becoming a monster,” Techno says bitterly.

Phil cuts him a sharp glance.

“You’re not a monster, Techno,” he says. “No one thinks of you like that.”

Techno simply turns away.

“So what do we do?” Dream asks. His hands feel slippery with sweat, and Dream can almost smell the acrid tang of fear and stress in the air. “I mean, there has to be something we can do, right? I guess we could just hide from the king—it seems to have worked well enough for you, Techno—Um, and, well, it kind of sucks that I can’t go back to the capital, but at least my friends are here now. We can go build our own house so that we’re not freeloading off of you, Techno, and we won’t be homeless anymore, and—”

“You don’t get it yet?” Techno cuts Dream’s rambling off mercilessly. His eyes are bloodshot as he says, “We’re living on borrowed time out here. You’ve given away my location, and now that the king knows, he’s definitely going to send more people after us.”

“So we’ll move,” Dream says. “I’m fast, I can get away from anything.”

“You can’t run forever,” Techno rebutts. “You’ve already tried—look at where that got you.”

“Fine,” Dream spits. His brain scrambles for other options.“ We can—we can fight.”

“I’ve tried fighting my whole life,” Techno says. He sounds exhausted as he says it. “Once it starts, it never ends.”

Dream winces on Techno’s behalf. The title “Blood God” didn’t come from thin air, after all.

“The only way to really be free,” Techno continues, “is to kill the king.”

That sounds simple enough.

“Okay, then we kill the king,” Dream says. He’s killed a lot of people, what difference does one more make? “Easy. Why haven’t you done it before this?”

“That’s what I always ask,” Techno murmurs and looks over at Phil. “But this old man takes persuading.”

“We haven’t exhausted all our options,” Phil says with an edge in his voice. “I’m not going to let you cut off hope before you even wait to see if it exists.”

“Phil, you’ve been looking for decades,” Techno says, and there’s a note of pleading in his voice now, so raw that Dream isn’t sure he’s even supposed to be here to hear it. “You’ve gone to different worlds to find the solution and come up with nothing. It’s not going to happen. And look,” Techno gestures at Dream. “He’s got another one under his belt. How long are you going to let sentiment hold you back?”

“I don’t understand,” Dream interjects. His pulse is quickening, a rabbit caught in a snare. The hair on the back of his neck prickles as he senses a hunter stalking closer, closer, ever closer. “Sneaking back into the capital will be dangerous, sure, but the king is only a man. We kill him, we undo everything he’s put this server through.”

“See, Dream gets it,” Techno says. “If we kill the king, we’ll be free.”

Free. Dream likes the sound of that.

“Techno, you’re not telling the whole story,” Phil says, and he takes off his hat, laying it neatly to the side. Without it covering half of his face, he looks older. Tireder. “Look, Dream. You, Techno, all the other champions before you… You don’t belong to yourselves anymore. You may have once been free, but not after becoming champion. Now, you can’t be separated from the king. Your life forces are twined together.”

The compass spins in Dream’s pocket.

“Oh,” he says. Are there any routes he can take? Is there another escape path? There always is. There has to be. Any second now, the compass will point him back towards safety, towards home. That’s always been the end destination. That can’t change. “So that means…”

Phil looks at him.

“I’m sorry, Dream,” he says. “If we kill the king, you die too. That’s the end.”

The compass stills.

Chapter Text

Tommy slinks to Dream’s door long after the rest of the house has gone to sleep.

Dream pulls his gaze away from the spinning compass in his hand. There’s a weird ache-y feeling in his chest, the same one that’s been sitting there since Phil said, “You can’t be separated from the king. I’m sorry, Dream,” when the familiar blond head pokes through, he puts the compass to the side. Tommy is a welcome distraction.

“Tommy?” he calls as Tommy hovers by the door, one foot in, one foot out. “What are you doing here?”

“Hey, Dream.” Tommy’s voice doesn’t have any of its usual energy. “Sorry to bother you. Mind if I come in?”

Dream frowns. Since when did Tommy apologize for bothering him?

“Of course,” he says.

The door opens fully, and Tommy steps in, closing it behind him with a click. For a second, he stands at the door frame shuffling his feet in place like he doesn’t know where to go. Dream pats the edge of his bed.

“Get over here,” he says, unable to stop the note of fondness from leaking into his voice. “You look cold.”

“That’s because I am,” Tommy complains, sounding a fraction more like himself. He makes his way over to the bed and perches on the side next to Dream, hands shoved into his pocket as he stares into space.

Awkwardly, Dream clears his throat.

“Did you… come here to ask me about something?” he asks. If Dream is being honest with himself, he feels oddly unequipped for whatever crisis Tommy is clearly dealing with. Give him an axe and a shield, and he can help any day, but emotional talks? Well, it’s definitely not Dream’s forte.

It is, however, much easier than dealing with the knowledge that he’ll probably die soon.

… Wow. Even the thought is pretty upsetting.

In general, it's been a day of feeling off-kilter for Dream, and when Tommy says, “I dunno, I just feel upset that I’m not more upset, you know?” Dream has to take a second to process Tommy’s words.

“Upset about…?” He trails off. “I’ve gotta admit, I’m a bit lost here.”

“Right, you weren’t there,” Tommy shifts and sits on his hands, then pulls them back out, then puts them in his lap. “You were with Phil and Techno and the whole—” He waves his hand in the air, “—champions thing.” A considering pause. Then, “Did you know I was almost a champion?”

“What?” Dream sits up so fast he almost bangs his head into Tommy, and Tommy yelps and dodges back. They stare at one another for a second, and Dream says, “You’re gonna have to back up.”

“Well. Well.” If Tommy was standing, he’d definitely be shuffling his feet. “Remember when I said I was a street kid? And I didn’t remember anything before Wilbur took me in?”

Wilbur, Dream notes. Not Wil.

“Yeah,” he affirms.

“Turns out, that’s because of Wilbur,” Tommy says, and his brother’s name comes out with a venomous tinge. “He used perception magic to erase my memories from before.” There’s an angry crimson flush high on his cheeks as he looks at Dream. “I was training to become champion.”

Dream just about chokes on his own spit.

“You were one of—”

He tries to picture it. Bright, effervescent Tommy as one of those grim-faced trainees. Dream hadn’t had many chances to interact with them after he became champion, but he’d always thought of them as arrogant and stuck-up, thinking too highly of their own skills. They were good, sure, but too mechanical in their movements, and Dream killed enough of them in the arena to prove that.

His breath hitches.

“I would have killed you,” Dream says, stricken. Tommy’s age lines up to when Dream became champion, and— “Shit, Tommy. I would’ve—I probably—”

No, fuck! Don’t say that, Dream,” Tommy says fiercely. He grips the bed sheets beneath him, twisting them in his fists. “Fuck. That never happened, so don’t get all worked up about it no, okay, that’s fucking stupid.”

He’s technically right, but—

“Whatever you’re thinking, stop it,” Tommy orders, cutting off Dream’s train of thought before it can really even begin running. “It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault either.” Under his breath, he bitterly mutters, “It’s Wilbur’s.”

Dream has to sit and absorb that for a moment.

“Fuck,” is the only thing he can say, because what else do you say to a revelation like that? Then, “That sucks.”

Tommy heaves a sigh so deep that his shoulders move with it.

“Yeah, well,” he says. “What do you do when your whole life turns out to be a lie?”

“Fuck if I know,” Dream says wryly. “But, hey, you’re not alone. At least you and I are in the same position.”

Unbelievably, Tommy actually perks up at that.

“Fuck yeah,” he says and holds up his hand for a fist bump.

Chuckling, Dream bumps it and relaxes back into his pillow.

“You know what the worst part about all this is?” Tommy asks for a stretch of comforting silence. Dream has almost dozed off as the exhaustion from the day’s information dump finally begins hitting him, but he forces his eyes back open as Tommy speaks. “That I’m not even really mad at Wilbur. I’m upset, but I can’t be mad at him. Not really. How can I? He saved my life.”

Dream is silent for a moment, turning that over. He doesn’t think Wilbur was wrong. Knowing what he knows now about what it truly means to become champion, Techno’s despair and isolation, and even his own life of having choice after choice ripped from him—Dream wouldn’t want that for anyone, much less Tommy.

On the other hand…

“That wasn’t your choice though,” Dream points out. “He still tampered with your memories, Tommy. That’s not a small issue.”

“I know, but…” Tommy looks torn and falls backwards so that he’s sprawled on top of Dream’s legs, hands behind his head. “I don’t want to be mad at him. And I kind of am? But not really.”

Dream shrugs and says, “Who says you have to be mad?”

Tommy sits back up at that.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“I mean, you don’t have to be mad if you’re not,” Dream says. He tries to sort out his next words, thoughts moving as if through syrup. “There’s no right response to something like… that.”

‘That’ being told that the person who you trust most in the world took something vital away from you but probably saved your life in the process.

Tommy draws his knees up to his chest and buries his face in them.

“I just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel,” he says, muffled. “I’m upset, but I don’t want to be mad at him. But I don’t want to never talk to him again.”

Dream has never not wanted to talk to his friends, but then again, he supposes that he’s never been in a situation like Tommy’s either. Unfortunately, his normal coping mechanism of running or doing parkour until all his muscles are numb doesn’t seem like it will help here.

“Do you want to talk with him now?” he asks instead.

Tommy is silent for a moment.

“Maybe,” he says. “I don’t know. I can’t tell.” After a beat, Tommy adds, “He’s just so damn good at talking, you know? And I feel like—I feel like he’ll have already decided what we need to talk about, and then he’ll say all of it.” Another beat. “But I don’t even know what I want to say to him.”

“You don’t have to,” Dream says, blinking against sleep. The weight of Tommy’s body over his legs isn’t helping, the added pressure like an extra blanket of warmth on top of him. “It’s okay to take time to process, you know.”

“You say that like you’ve ever slowed down for anything in your life,” Tommy grumbles, but Dream can feel him relax, muscles untensing. “You think he’ll be okay with that?”

“I don’t think Wilbur’s in any position to decide what he’s okay with,” Dream replies. “That’s all you.”

“You’re right.” The sheets rustle, and Tommy sits back up, a new glint of determination in his eyes. “I’m not gonna let Wil talk over me! He’s gonna listen to what I have to say, even—even if I don’t know what it is yet!”

“That’s the spirit,” Dream says through a yawn. “He has to listen to you.”

“Yeah.” Tommy gets to his feet and straightens out his still-wrinkled shirt, but his eyes are soft when he looks back at Dream. He doesn’t seem to notice Dream’s tiredness at all. “Besides, Wil is my brother. That doesn’t change.”

“No,” Dream agrees. “It doesn’t.”

Tommy nods sharply to himself, once, twice, and then says, “Right. I’m gonna go find him. And we’re gonna talk.

“Glad I could help,” Dream says, amused as Tommy marches for the door. “Oh, and Tommy?”

“Yeah?” Tommy turns toward him, one hand on the doorknob.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Dream says sleepily but tries to force every ounce of sincerity into the words. He doesn’t know how much time he has left to say these things. “Champion in training or not… I’m honored to be your friend.”

The tips of Tommy’s ears turn scarlet.

“Fuck off with that sappy shit,” he mutters and glances to the side. “I’m glad I met you too, Dream. You’re a real good guy.”

And then, before Dream can continue the “sappy shit,” Tommy flees the room, leaving Dream to chuckle and finally, finally, close his eyes.

Sleep doesn’t come right away. Flames flicker behind his eyelids, juxtaposed by an eerie pink glow as the phantom figure of the king looms over him.

My precious champion, he seems to coo. You can’t run. You can’t hide. Your life is tied to mine.

Tossing about, Dream tries to ignore the roiling in his stomach. There’s no way to avoid the king forever, but their only other option is to go back to the capital and… And what? Hope that solution appears out of nowhere? Kill the king, free the server, and die in the process?

Paths are closed off everywhere Dream looks, and the very thought of even returning to the capital makes Dream ill. He’s been on the run for so long that the capital doesn’t feel like home anymore, especially not with how, it turns out, the king has literally been sucking the life from Dream’s body. He’s never been safe, not really, but Dream had happily entertained the notion that he finally had won some hard-earned security, only for it to all come crumbling down.

“I know you’re not asleep, Dream, I can hear your brain whirring from here.”

Dream doesn’t even bother opening his eyes as a new weight joins him on the bed. Despite the thoughts running through his mind, he can’t help the small smile that crosses his lips.

“Shut up, George,” he says. “I’m sleeping.”

“No, you’re not. Idiot.”

A side problem that Dream hadn’t realized until after he woke up: Techno’s cabin is not exactly built for visitors, so the shortage of beds meant that they had to double up. Dream’s certainly not complaining, happy to spend as much time cuddling with his friends as possible. It looks like tonight’s visitor is George, and as George slides under the blanket, Dream shifts so that their legs press together.

“Your feet are cold,” he notes, and George scoffs in the darkness.

“Yeah? Who’s fault is that?” he asks.

“What?” Dream laughs. “That literally makes no sense, George, it’s not my fault your feet are cold.”

“Whatever, Dream.”

Dream has to bite back another chuckle at that. He likes George in any setting—soft in the early mornings, loud and laughing when joking around, or sharp and focused on the battlefield. He’ll take George any way he can, but this George, acerbic and uncompromising, even about the silliest things, is one of Dream’s favorites. Only a few people get to see this George, and Dream counts himself lucky that he’s among them.

For George to express himself without holding anything back—Dream has missed this. He hasn’t been able to spend so much time with George, both their guards dropped, for so long.

He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll get to have this.

Propping himself up on one elbow, Dream looks down at George. He’s facing away from Dream, and all Dream can see is the mess of curls on top of his head.

“Hey, George,” he says. George doesn’t say anything or move or do anything to indicate that he’s heard, so Dream tries again. “George!”

“What? You’re so annoying.”

“Be serious for a second,” Dream says. He bites his lip. “Please.”

A pause, and then George rolls over and blinks at him, blanket pulled halfway up his face. For all his studied disinterest, his eyes are alert and patient.

“What is it, Dream?” he asks.

“If—” Dream hesitates. George has worried about Dream ever since he went off and became champion. What will he do if he knows what Dream knows? That their choices are for Dream to sit on his hands and let his friends be hunted down like prey, or to kill the king and for Dream and Techno to—to—

He can’t tell George or any of the others. Dream knows what decision they’ll make, and it’s not one that he’s okay with.

He can protect them from this. One last time.

“If we had to go back to the capital,” Dream blurts as the weight of George’s gaze becomes more and more expectant. “What would you say?”

“That it’s a dumb idea,” George says without missing a beat. “Honestly, I thought you were supposed to be smart, not suicidal.”

“I’m not,” Dream says even as his gut churns. The dark holds all sorts of shadows, and Dream can almost feel the king’s hand closing around his neck. “Just—It might be our only option.”

“You want to kill the king?” George asks, a little too immediate and bloodthirsty for Dream’s liking.

“It might come down to that, yeah.” Dream’s not lying. He’s not, he would never lie to George. It doesn’t matter if it feels like he is, Dream is… He’s protecting him. “I mean, the only other option is to wait here with Techno and them—”

“Ugh, no, I can’t stand the family drama,” George complains and forces a chuckle out of Dream. “Get me out of here.”

“Okay, so that’s not an option,” Dream says. “We could keep running, but…” He hesitates and chooses his words carefully. There are lies, and then there are half-truths. He chooses the second. “I’m tired of running. I miss home.”

George is silent for a second before he speaks.

“We can make a home for just ourselves,” he says, encouraging in a way that Dream seldom hears from George. “We did it before you got all your fancy champion trappings. Me, you, Sapnap, Bad… We even know how to get materials and houses now, it doesn’t have to be cardboard on the streets. We could do it, Dream. Find a place, just for us.”

It sounds wonderful. It sounds impossible.

“We could,” Dream says and forces his voice to steady. “But you know me, George. I’m not like Techno. I couldn’t live like that.”

George huffs and says, “That’s true, you always did like the attention.”

That’s not what Dream meant, but he’s grateful for George’s assumption anyway. It means one less guilty sentence on his soul.

“I think that’s what I want to do,” Dream says. “After I talked with Phil and Techno… Yeah. I think I need to go back.”

 

“So it’s back to the capital after this, huh,” George says into the darkness. Dream’s not even looking at him, but George’s tone gives away his emotion. He sounds annoyed. “The place that tried to take you away.”

“Technically, I’m the one who left,” Dream points out, but he drops the semantics after George kicks him under the blankets. “Ow! Okay, yeah. There’s no other choice, I guess.”

“Hm.” George sounds unimpressed. “Phil and Techno are coming?”

“I think the whole crew is.” Dream plays with his blanket, rolling the edge between his index finger and thumb over and over until he feels it begin to fray. Techno won’t be happy about that. “We’ll need their help.”

“I don’t see why we can’t just do it ourselves.”

Dream sighs fondly.

“You don’t mean that,” he tells George. “You know we don’t have enough manpower.”

George is quiet for a moment before he says, “I know. It just sucks. I feel like I just got you back.”

“You’re coming with me this time,” Dream says and swallows down the sudden tide of emptiness threatening to sweep through him. He just got George back too. “I didn’t even want to leave you the first time, why would that change?”

“Dunno. You’ve got your fancy champion stuff now. Maybe you were bonding with Techno and Phil.”

Sitting up straight, Dream tugs on the blankets until they’re down past George’s chin and Dream can see his bare face, achingly familiar in all its planes. He savors the sight, grayscale as it is in the darkness.

“I promise,” Dream says as he continues to drink in George’s face. “I’m bringing you with me, wherever I go.”

George shifts in bed and sits up, and suddenly Dream is staring into George’s dark eyes, only inches away from one another.

“Even,” George says, “to the end?”

Dream’s breath hitches.

“All the way to the end,” he vows. He holds George’s gaze steadily. “We go together.”

“Oh,” George breathes. The air feels electric, every minute motion setting off a tingle across Dream’s skin, and he swears the stars have deserted their stations in the sky to come and rest in the room. George reaches out and grasps Dream’s hand, loosely twining their fingers together. “I’m holding you to that, Dream.”

“Okay,” Dream replies. There’s something giddy in his chest, bubbly and warm and exciting. It’s almost enough to forget the resignation that threads alongside it. “I’ve got you, George.”

George mumbles something under his breath, and Dream leans in closer.

“Couldn’t hear, sorry,” Dream says teasingly.

“I said,” George repeats, louder. “I’ve got you too, Dream. Now shut up and go to bed. Stop keeping me awake, I’m tired.”

“I was already in bed when you came. You were the one who woke me up,” Dream protests, but he grins and ducks back under the covers anyway. “Good night, George.”

There’s no reply, but this time, when Dream closes his eyes, there’s nothing but rest.

 

 

 

 

“So I just want to make sure I have this right,” Sapnap says dubiously the next morning. They’re eating breakfast together, and Sapnap is waving a fork with a pancake speared on the end of it in a way that has Bad hovering about him anxiously with a cloth in hand. “That in the greatest conspiracy that this server has ever seen, the king is immortal and stealing Dream’s—” (“And The Blade!” Tommy pipes up helpfully) “—life energy somehow, so we need to go back and kill the king to free them?”

“That… sounds about right,” Phil says sheepishly.

At the stove, Techno flips another pancake, and Dream purposefully avoids Techno’s glare. Techno had wanted to tell them everything, but Dream had put his foot down.

(“They don’t need to know all the details,” he’d said. “It doesn’t have to be that complicated for them.”

Techno had stared and shaken his head.

“And you say we have issues,” he said. “Talk about character foils.”

“What?”

“Forget it.”)

Now, Bad is holding his hands cupped underneath Sapnap’s fork as Sapnap considers Phil for a beat then says, “Fuck it. Alright, let’s do this shit.”

He shoves his pancake into his mouth, and Bad sighs in relief.

Turns out it’s not as simple as, “Let’s do this shit” would suggest. There are decisions to make, routes to plan, and supplies to gather.

“We can’t go back through the Overworld,” Phil says grimly as they survey a giant map on Techno’s wall, stretching from ceiling to floor. “The king will have realized that a whole squad has gone missing, and troops will be extra alert.”

“Okay, genius,” Sapnap snarks. Part of Dream wants to hit Sapnap for being so openly disrespectful to someone who, by all accounts, is much more powerful than him, but another part of Dream is just glad that Sapnap has his back. “Then what other way do you suggest?”

“You’re not gonna like this, Techno,” Phil says, and Techno grunts from the other side of the room. “I think we should go through the Nether.”

Just the name of the place makes Dream shiver, and he sees the same trepidation written all over his friends’ faces.

“Do you really want to go back there?” Wilbur asks from the corner. His voice is subdued, and he picks at the edge of his sweater when all eyes swivel to him. “I mean… Techno, I know how much you hate it.”

Techno looks like he wants to say something, and Dream can’t read the expression that comes over his face before it quickly smoothes back into Techno’s normal stoicism.

“Doesn’t matter what I want,” he says. “I’ve been there enough times to survive. Question is: can you guys take the heat?”

“We can take anything!” Sapnap exclaims, completely missing the way Wilbur shrinks in on himself again. Tommy, standing about a foot away from Wilbur, glowers at them.

Dream doesn’t know what they talked about, but Tommy seems happy to protect Wilbur from perceived slights from his family. Dream wouldn’t say that they look comfortable around one another, but the way that Tommy follows Wilbur, or the way that Wilbur always looks for Tommy as soon as he enters a room is telling enough. Whether Tommy’s forgiveness is that easily earned or their bond is just that strong, it’s not Dream’s place to judge.

Either way, Wilbur nods curtly at Techno and crosses his arms.

“You’ve got a portal nearby then?” he asks, and Dream remembers that Wilbur is Phil’s son, knowledgeable in his own right.

“I can build one,” Techno says. “Don’t want to leave one open for just anyone to wander on through, you know.”

“Right,” Wilbur says. “You don’t want people to follow you after all.”

There’s some double meaning there, but honestly, Dream is too tired of their family drama to care. They can handle it (or not) themselves.

“Dude,” Sapnap says under his breath to Dream as they’re harvesting potatoes. Dream doesn’t really know why or how the potatoes are growing at such frigid temperatures, but Techno had insisted on bringing them as food, saying that he had an overabundance anyway. “Is it just me, or is this shit kind of crazy? I mean, you went from being falsely accused of a crime to, what, being some experiment to give another dude immortality?”

“Oh, thank Prime.” Dream drops the potato he was holding onto the ground and clutches Sapnap’s shoulders. “It’s not just you. I’m constantly wondering how this happened to me.”

Sapnap pulls a face.

“You’re getting my shirt dirty,” he says, and Dream drops his hands with a muttered, “Sorry,” as Sapnap continues. “We-e-ll, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised,” he says. “You always had a way of attracting drama.”

“Excuse me?” Dream asks, offended. “Since when?”

Eyeing him, Sapnap says, “Remember the horse incident?”

Dream winces.

“That was—”

“Or the fight with that beekeeper?”

“Well—”

“How about when you somehow managed to insult the arena guard’s wife, honor, and fighting skills all in one sentence?”

Dream wilts.

“Okay, maybe you have a point,” he concedes.

Sapnap goes back to yanking potatoes out of the ground with surprising vigor. Soil sprays, and Dream covers his face with his arms to avoid getting dirt in his mouth.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t have done any of those things,” Sapnap says. “If anything, I’ve done worse. Just that it’s a bit rich for you to be saying you don’t know how you got here.”

Deflating even further, Dream says pitifully, “Sapnap, you’ve gotta have my back, man. If you’re not with me, then who is?”

If the words come out a little bit too vulnerable, Sapnap doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’m literally following you into hell, Dream, that’s as much with you as anyone can get.” Sapnap must notice Dream’s crestfallen face because he shuffles over and bumps shoulders companionably. “Hey, chin up. I’m not gonna let some old washed up geezer use up your life force. I’ll kill him before that happens.”

If you do that, you’ll kill me too.

“Gee, thanks, Sapnap,” Dream says instead. Sarcasm is better than despair, so that’s what he layers on when he continues, “I really feel like I can trust you with my life.”

“Any time, bro,” Sapnap says, satisfied. “Any time.”

Then he throws a potato at Dream, Dream yelps and throws one back, and if they trudge back inside carrying more dirt than potatoes, well—

That’s just how it is.

Time passes quickly as they prepare. Inventories are stocked, weapons are sharpened, and Techno passes them poorly drawn diagrams of all sorts of monsters that are waiting for them. Ghasts, brutes, Endermen…

“What is this?” Dream asks, touching one of Techno’s pictures. It’s a blocky shaped creature with what look like flames sprouting all around it. Techno has also drawn arrows around its middle, indicating spinning.

Techno glances over.

“Blazes,” he says. “Basically flying balls of fire. Get within a couple blocks of them, and they’ll start spitting fire at you.” Rolling up his sleeve, Techno shows Dream a whitened patch of skin that covers his forearm all the way up to his elbow, and Dream recoils while Techno smiles grimly. “You don’t want to get on the wrong end of them.”

“Noted,” Dream says, feeling vaguely ill.

He’s still studying the creature diagrams when Techno speaks and catches him completely off-guard.

“You think you’re protecting them by not telling them,” Techno says.

Dream startles and nearly knocks over a stack of scrolls.

“Shit!” he curses and hurries to stabilize them. “What?”

Techno sighs and repeats, “You think you’re protecting them by hiding the fact that we’re planning to die,” he states, and the bluntness of the statement is shocking. “You’re not.”

“What do you know?” Dream asks defensively. His hackles come up, and he clenches his fists, wrinkling paper. “If I tell them, they’ll disagree, and then they’ll get hurt. I don’t want that to happen.”

“Doesn’t matter what you want,” Techno says nonchalantly. “People get hurt anyway. Most of the time, it’s our fault.”

Dream’s gut clenches.

“I would never hurt my friends,” he says.

“And Wilbur would never hurt Tomy,” Techno replies. “Look at how well that turned out.”

Dream squints at Techno. Something about his words rings as uncomfortably true, but the other part…

“You’re not just talking about Wilbur,” he says, and it’s only because he’s looking so closely that he catches the way Techno stiffens ever so slightly. “You’re talking about yourself.”

“Assumptions, assumptions,” Techno drawls, but the non-answer is as good as an answer for Dream. “You haven’t lived the aftermath of being champion as long as I have. You don’t know how dangerous you are.”

“Well, if we get our way, I won’t be here to find out,” Dream replies.

He and Techno hold each other’s gazes, eyes locked and unwavering. Dream keeps his eyes forced open for so long that they begin to water, and he really hopes that he doesn’t cry. That would be embarrassing.

Luckily, Techno puts him out of his misery by snorting and turning away.

“Touche,” he says. “Now tell me: how would you defeat a ghast?”

Dream sighs.

After weeks of being crammed into the same small cabin, Dream can tell that the rest of the hunters are itching to leave with Bad pacing the length of the porch multiple times, tail lashing behind him, and George and Sapnap’s bickering rising to increasingly high volumes as they grow testy.

Tommy, on the other hand, keeps bouncing between Phil, Techno, and Wilbur. One moment, he’s leaning over Phil’s shoulder and chatting up a storm about whatever enchantments Phil is adding to their weapons, and the next, he’s play-fighting Wilbur in the yard, guiding him through a very familiar exercise in footwork. The tension between the two seems to have disappeared.

“Come on, Wil!” Dream hears Tommy wheedle. “You’ve just gotta adjust it a little bit, and then—Look! You’re way more stable now.”

“Fuck,” is Wilbur’s amazed response as Tommy tries ramming into him and he manages to hold his ground. “Can’t believe that worked.”

“See?” Tommy asks triumphantly. “You’re not hopeless at fighting at all!”

Reaching over, Wilbur ruffles his hair.

“That’s because I have a good teacher,” he says warmly.

Tommy practically glows at that, and when he turns his head to give Dream a proud smile, Dream can’t help but smile back in return.

“You two made up then?” he asks Tommy later that evening, when it’s just the two of them in the living room.

Tommy huffs and drapes his long arms over the table. He’s still a lanky teenager, but Dream can see the slow maturation of his features compared to the first time they met—dropped baby fat, leaner muscle. Tommy looks a bit more grown up.

“Yeah,” he says. “You could say that.”

Dream waits, and sure enough, Tommy gives in and continues talking.

“I just—We talked. He listened to me, which was great, and then Wil told me a little bit more about himself, which is a weird thing to say about the only person I really remember” Tommy says. “I don’t know what I would do in his shoes, but I think I understand it now. And he was trying to protect me, which I’m grateful for. Besides,” he adds and glances towards the bedrooms where Techno and Phil disappeared long before. “I think I understand a little bit better.”

Dream nods.

“Family issues, huh,” he says sagely.

“Dream,” Tommy says fervently. “You have no idea.”

Dream chuckles and ruffles Tommy’s hair. Tommy ducks his head, looking as pleased as when Wilbur did it earlier, and Dream savors the warm feeling bubbling up in his stomach.

“Now I know how you must feel,” Dream tells Bad later that evening, long after Tommy has gone to bed. Dream had stayed downstairs, nursing a cup of lukewarm tea as Bad stumbled in from the outside, humming a vaguely familiar tune as Dream invited him to sit down. “That kid has me wrapped around his pinky finger.”

“He’s a good kid,” Bad says and serenely munches on an apple.The tip of his claws poke at the fruit’s thin skin, never enough to break the surface and spill juice everywhere. “Loud, and a bit annoying, but a good kid.” He kicks Dream under the table. “Reminds me of some kids I used to know.”

“Haha,” Dream says, but he nudges Bad’s foot back gently. “I don’t know if I was ever that… carefree? Is that the right word?”

“Well, you were reckless, that’s for sure,” Bad remarks. “I had no idea what was happening when you three ragamuffins randomly attached yourselves to me. You gave me heart attacks every day for at least a year.”

“Oh, come on.” Dream tips his head back and stares up at the wood-paneled ceilings. Amidst the whorls and streaks in the timber, he can almost see three short figures clinging to a horned person, refusing to let him go. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“Hey! You try holding Sapnap back when he wants to start a fight, or getting George to arrive at something on time!” Bad eyes Dream. “Or getting you to wake up.”

“I’m better at it now!” Dream protests. “I didn’t even hit anyone the past few times.”

“Sapnap is permanently scarred,” Bad reminds him, munching on his apple. He’s finished the flesh and is now nonchalantly eating the core. How, Dream has no idea. “He’ll never open your door again.”

Dream laughs but Bad’s last sentence plunges him into an oddly melancholy mood. Never. Such a permanent word.

“Well,” Dream says and forces his voice to stay light. “He has plenty of chances now.”

Bad doesn’t respond. Dream waits, but when nothing comes, he forces his head back upright, the blood rush making him dizzy. His neck is already starting to cramp, and he massages it with one hand, wincing, as Bad studies him across the table.

“What?” Dream asks, suddenly self-conscious. “Do I have something on my face?”

Bad’s face does something complicated, and Dream wants to smack himself as he remembers. The scar. The one that Bad has been helping treat. Of course. Dream’s a fucking idiot.

“I—I mean, not that,” Dream fumbles. “I wasn’t talking about the scar. I was just joking, like, you know, if I had food on my face or—”

“Dream,” Bad interrupts, and Dream shuts up immediately. “It’s fine. You can joke about an injury you received, I don’t care. It just sucks when I get reminded that you were hurt.”

That doesn’t sound right, and Dream points out, “You were hurt the worst out of all of us.”

“That’s different.” Bad sighs and scrubs a hand down his face. He looks exhausted all of a sudden, and guilt strikes Dream right between the ribs. He’s the one who made Bad look like that. “You know, when we were still on the streets, I said that I would protect you. I’m older, more magical. It was supposed to be my job.”

“Friendship isn’t a job,” Dream says. “And you have protected us! We wouldn’t have survived without you all those years ago.”

“That’s only true to a certain point,” Bad says. “You were doing fine without me.”

“Yeah, but…”

Dream tries to find the right words to say. How to express the way that he, George, and Sapnap were just hanging on by a thread before Bad appeared and took them under his wing? He says that they showed up one day, but really, it was the other way around. Bad had saved them as Sapnap’s magic became more explosive along with his temper, as Dream was losing one too many fights and George was pulling away a little bit further each time. They loved one another, sure, but love couldn’t feed them or win them fights on the streets. It wasn’t until Bad, kind against all odds, took them in, that they truly found their footing.

Dream can’t say all of that directly to Bad, though, not without crying, so he says instead, “You’re important to us, Bad. To me. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”

Bad’s face softens.

“Same to you, Dream,” he says. Reaching across the table, he lays one hand on top of Dream’s own. Bad’s hand is slightly sticky with apple juice, but he holds Dream with the same gentleness as the apple from earlier. His hands are clawed, yes, but never piercing. “You know, ever since you went and became champion, I feel like you’ve been running without a break. Literally, sometimes. You’re too hard on yourself sometimes. It’s okay to rely on others too.”

Dream’s eyes burn, and he stares down at the tabletop, blinking hard.

“Yeah,” he whispers. Despite his best effort, his words come out choked. “Thanks, Bad.”

“Of course.” Bad’s hand doesn’t move, and he’s quiet for another second before speaking. “Dream… Are you keeping something from us?”

Cold washes over Dream, and he hurriedly swipes at his eyes with his other sleeve.

“What?” he croaks. “I—Why would you think that?”

“It’s just…” Bad’s tail lashes behind his chair. “You’ve been a bit melancholy recently, I guess, and it’s not like I think you’re lying or, or deceiving us! Just—I don’t know. You’ve been weird.”

Dream swallows down the rush of fear that comes over him.

“Weird how?” he asks.

Bad still hasn’t moved his hand, and Dream hates that it comforts him this much. He hates that it takes away some of the loneliness that’s been plaguing him the past few days.

“I don’t know,” Bad says again, sounding distressed. “You’ve just seemed… distant. And lost.” He pauses and then says, “I didn’t want to bring it up because everyone has been kind of stressed, but—”

“No, you’re right, Bad,” Dream interrupts. His pulse is racing under his skin. He has to salvage this somehow. “Honestly, I have been kind of overwhelmed the past few days. It’s just… My world has shifted, you know? Everything that Phil, Techno, and I talked about is a lot.”

“Of course!” Bad gasps. “Oh my gosh, yeah, I can’t imagine how crazy that is for you. I thought you were handling it well, but you’re not unflappable. You’re human!”

“Exactly,” Dream says and hates how easy it is to dangle half-truths in front of Bad and let him fill in the rest. “I thought I was dealing with it, but not as well as I thought. I’m sorry that I made you feel like I was pushing you away.”

“No, no, no, don’t apologize,” Bad orders. “I should apologize for not taking your feelings into account, that was silly of me.”

“Don’t—Don’t beat yourself up, Bad,” Dream says and tries to push down the way that his gut twists. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Honestly, I’m just really grateful you guys are here. You make everything better.”

Bad’s tail perks up.

“Really?” he asks hopefully.

“Yeah,” Dream nods. He inserts some pep into his voice. “I mean, even this, just talking to you like this… It means a lot. I’ve—I’ve missed it.”

“Good,” Bad says, and he sounds so genuine that a lump rises to Dream’s throat again. “You deserve a bit of a break, Dream. I want to see you happy.”

“I am.” It’s a bit strangled, and Dream tries again. “I am. I really am, Bad.”

“Then that’s all that matters.” Bad smiles and then yawns, jaw cracking. “I better get to bed, I’m not as young as I once was. Dream, are you coming?”

“In a bit,” Dream says and curls his hand around his now cold tea mug. “You go first, Bad, I’ll catch up.”

“A rare situation with you,” Bad teases as he heads for the stairs. “You’re usually so much faster than everyone else!”

Dream cracks a smile.

“Sometimes,” he says. “It’s not so bad to slow down.”

Bad waves good night, and then it’s just Dream and the orange glow of the torches, flickering, flickering, flickering.

 

 

 

 

And then, and then, and then—

Dream is standing in front of a portal.

“Wow,” he says faintly.

Dream and Techno have gone ahead of the group to the place where Techno and Phil built the portal. The dark obsidian frame looms over the landscape. It towers above Dream, pillaring towards the sky. Dark purple swirls through the obsidian, and when Dream places his hand on the obsidian frame, it’s freezing to the touch.

“It’s beautiful,” Dream tells Techno who’s standing several feet away with an unreadable expression on his face.

“It is,” Techno agrees and comes closer, boots crunching in the snow.

He stands side by side with Dream, and though Techno is still bulkier, Dream doesn’t feel as intimidated as he did when he first saw Techno upon waking up. There really is nothing like living with someone to dispel all previous perceptions, especially if that someone was a legend too grand to be contained.

But while Techno surely is the Blood God (despite how much Techno despises the title), he’s also awkward and blunt and surprisingly funny. Dream wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re friends, but whenever he snorts at one of Techno’s deadpan statements, the other man glances over with something like relief in his eyes. Maybe that’s close enough.

“My first time building one of these, I poured water all over the lava pool,” Techno tells Dream. The corner of his lip quirks up in a self-deprecating smirk, making his tusk arch closer to his nose. “I spent ages searching for another one big enough to get obsidian.”

“Did you come from the Nether?” Dream asks, fascinated. It’s easy to forget Techno’s origins, even with the piglike features on his face. Despite everything, he’s just so… human in his mannerisms and ways. “Or are you from the Overworld?”

“A little bit of both,” Techno replies, not answering Dream’s question at all. “But I never learned how to build a portal until I came up here. I only destroyed them before.”

Dream knocks his knuckles against the purple-black obsidian, wincing at the impact against his hands.

“I imagine it takes a lot of strength to destroy one of these,” he comments.

“Nah,” Techno dismisses. He opens his hand, and a diamond pickaxe materializes. It shines against the Arctic’s winter palette, and Dream can make out his own face, pale and wane, reflected in the sheen of its head. “You just need the right tools.”

 

Dream watches as Techno hoists the pickaxe over his shoulder, raising it with one hand. The muscles in his arms tense, and Techno swings the pickaxe towards the portal with all his strength. Dream starts forward with half a mind to stop him, only for the tip of the pickaxe to stop only centimeters away from the obsidian.

Dream waits, but Techno doesn’t say anything. Just holds out the pickaxe without a tremble.

“Techno?” Dream asks tentatively.

Techno tilts his head to the side.

“I wasn’t actually going to do it,” he says. Dream can’t tell if Techno is talking to him or himself. “It’s just good to know how to destroy the thing you built.”

“O…kay,” Dream says. He thinks for a second, finds that he’s as lost as when Tommy ranted to him about Wilbur, and decides that discretion is the better part of valor. “Hey, look, Phil and the rest are joining us soon, right? We can chill for a bit, maybe sit down. Get some rest before we have to start the journey, you know.”

Techno blinks at that and shakes himself slightly, an annoyed expression crossing his face.

“Sure,” he says. He still looks pissed, juxtaposed to his bland tone. “They’ll be here soon, though.”

“Hey! Idiots!”

As if on cue, Sapnap’s yelling comes across nice and clear as he jogs up to them, Tommy at his heels. His cheeks are flushed from the cold, and he draws short as he gapes at the portal.

“Whoa,” he says. “That thing is huge.

“That’s what he said!” Tommy crows and snickers to himself.

Dream laughs as the rest of the group jobs up, everyone laden with supplies. Dream is no different. The last time he set out on a journey, he was forced out of his home in the dead of night, bringing only the bare essentials. This time, he has a leather rucksack slung over his shoulder with an inventory brimming with supplies. In his matching belt, Nightmare hangs reassuringly. It’s not like having Nightmare changes that much, Dream thinks as he runs his thumb across the flat of the blade, but it’s more than enough to give him a confidence boost.

Bad, Sapnap, and George stand at his back while Tommy badgers Wilbur to the side. Phil has joined Techno, and they stand in front of the rest of the group, fiddling with something at the base of the portal.

“Stand back,” Phil says, and Techno hovers for a moment longer before grudgingly taking a step backwards. “Here we go!”

Phil lights up his flint and steel and tosses it into the center of the portal. Immediately, ripples of color unfold.

Dream gapes at the sight of the active portal. Rich purple hues swim before his eyes in a never-ending pattern. It’s almost as if the portal is alive with how the shades undulate like the tides in the ocean. A faint hum emanates from it, like a siren call beckoning him forwards.

“This, my friends,” Phil says, “is a Nether portal.”

Techno stares at it, and Dream thinks he sees something like longing cross his face before he clenches his jaw and turns to face the rest of the group.

“Once we go in there, it’s a long journey to come back,” he warns. “It may be a shortcut to the capital, but it means more pain in the process. You’ve seen the monsters that lie down there.” A tinge of bitterness. “Do you still want to go?”

Technoblade looks every inch the Blood God that he is standing there in front of them. Backlit by the glowing purple, a sword hilt peeking over his broad shoulders, a faint snarl on his face as he speaks—Dream can’t help but grin at the sight. Before he met Techno, he might have been intimidated, but now he’s just reassured.

Technoblade is just so damn cool.

“Why are you asking a question you already know the answer to?” Dream responds. For the first time in what feels like years, bravado swells within him. He walks up to the portal and holds his palm out until it’s parallel to the glow. He’s sick of moping about and preparing for his own funeral. If he’s going to go out, he’s going out in style. “We’ve been over this. The king has overstayed his welcome and taken far too much. We’re going to get it back from him,” Dream meets Techno’s eyes and holds them steadily. “No matter what.”

“Hell yeah!” Sapnap cheers from behind him. “We’re going to fuck him up!”

“Sapnap, you’re such an idiot.”

“Shut up, Bad!”

“Language!”

“So,” Phil says, stepping up beside Techno. Somehow, his eyes are both sharp and sad as he stares Dream down. “You’re willing to accept the consequences, not only for yourself, but for your friends?”

Behind him, Dream can hear the familiar sound of Sapnap and Bad bickering, George egging them on in the background. It’s noisy and annoying, but a melody that Dream loves all the same. The thought of losing that forever is enough to make him hesitate.

Phil’s eyes flare with hope, like he thinks Dream is changing his mind, but it lasts for only a second before Dream shakes himself. He’s made his decision. He’ll stand by it.

“They can handle it,” Dream says firmly and watches Phil’s expression turn resigned. His voice grows quieter as he says, “They have to.”

Techno huffs, and Dream thinks he detects a note of amusement in the sound.

“Then,” he says. “What are you waiting for?”

And because Dream was born a dramatic bastard and will die a dramatic bastard, damn it, he smirks at Technoblade and says, “For you to catch up.”

He falls backwards through the portal—

—and lands with an oof.

The first thing Dream notices is the heat. The Nether is a cauldron, boiling over as sweat immediately begins dripping down Dream’s neck. The soft spongy texture of Nether wart greets him, and Dream laughs breathlessly, squishing it beneath his palms as he climbs to his feet.

“Wow,” he says, twisting his neck in every direction as he tries to take everything in.

Crimson fills his vision wherever he turns, and when Dream gingerly takes a step forward, he sees lava pools spitting in the near distance. He doesn’t get far before the portal glows again, and Dream whips around to see Bad, Sapnap, George, Wilbur, and Tommy stumble through it. Techno and Phil follow shortly after, and once they’re all on the other side, Techno spreads his arms wide.

“Welcome,” he announces, “to the Nether.”

Chapter Text

Wilbur fucking hates the Nether.

It’s hot and sticky and so dry that he swears his nostrils are burning. When they’re not walking across the disgustingly squishy nether wart, they’re walking across what Phil calls a soul sand biome. Wilbur despises the sand. It gets everywhere, somehow finding its way into his boots, and it’s not even useful for anything! They can’t even grow anything from it or eat it!

Yeah. Wilbur is not having a good time.

He can’t even appreciate the landscape for what it is, it’s so damned hot. The Nether is the opposite of the Arctic in every way, colors almost too vibrant. The orange of the lava oceans that they seem to pass every other second is offensively bright (and hot), and Wilbur finds himself cursing out every deity he knows as they walk.

“Why did I decide to come with you?” he pants at Tommy. “I should have stayed in the Overworld.”

“That’s what you get for insisting on coming!” Tommy says. He tries to sound cheerful, but he can’t disguise the way that his entire face is red with heat. His boots drag across the ground petulantly. “You’ve got this Wil, come on.”

The majority of his former (current? Wilbur’s not too sure, actually) traveling companions seem to be faring unfairly better. Bad looks right at home, tail lashing happily as he walks among the fire without fear. Sapnap doesn’t seem to mind the heat as much as everyone else, and he occasionally plunges his hand into a nearby fire seemingly for kicks.

George, on the other hand, is suffering. His goggles are perpetually pushed to the top of his head, little red marks around his eyes from where they dug in, and his light blue shirt has turned navy with the amount of sweat soaking it.

“We should have just let the king find us,” Wilbur hears him grumble one night (or is it day? There doesn’t seem to be a difference down here). “Dream can go all blood rage mode on them again.”

“I don’t know if we can count on that, George,” Dream says. His blond hair is a sweaty mess on top of his head, and his scar is red and irritated from the heat. It stretches across his face, pulling at his lips as he frowns. “Or if I want to do that.”

“Techno seems to have it under control,” George replies snarkily. “So you’re saying he’s better than you?”

“W-well, I never said that!

“Wo-o-w, the great Dream is afraid of Technoblade, he can’t measure up—”

What? How are you escalating it this quickly?”

“Oh, you want to see what else I can escalate?”

Tuning out their weird flirting, Wilbur glances over at Techno. His brother has been standoffish since they got to the Nether. On the one hand, he leads them forward confidently, often cutting through ghasts or magma cubes before the rest of them even notice they’re there. On the other hand, Techno has barely even spoken a word, and while that’s normal enough for Wilbur, it’s definitely not for Phil. Wilbur can see Phil’s worry in the way his eyebrows furrow and he hovers around Techno.

Wilbur squashes down the urge to go over and try and strike up a conversation with Techno. The last time they’d spoken, it hadn’t ended well. Wilbur can still remember the accusation in Techno’s words.

Do you know what you’ve left behind?

Wilbur smiles bitterly. Left behind. As if Techno has any idea what that means. If Techno wants to talk, he can come to Wilbur himself. Wilbur isn’t chasing after him. Not anymore.

Techno is useful for some things, though. Namely—

“Holy shit, duck!

Wilbur dives to the side as a fireball shoots past him. A huge ghast blocks their path, eyes blank and red as it opens its mouth for another shot. Before Wilbur even has time to get back on his feet, Bad is tugging on his arm and pulling them behind a rock.

“That thing is huge!” Bad’s voice is high and shaky with adrenaline. “That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen!”

“That’s what she said,” Sapnap snarks from behind another boulder. The ends of his headband are singed, and he looks ready to dive back into the fray with nothing by his bare hands, but George has an arm across his chest, holding him back.

“Don’t be an idiot,” George says through gritted teeth. “Let them handle it.”

There’s a gleam of purple, a flash of diamond, and then two figures are leaping into motion.

Dream arcs through the air like he has wings. Pushing off boulders and then the cliffside, he plummets toward the top of the ghast’s head with his axe raised over his shoulder. Gravity gives him momentum as Dream prepares himself to bring the axe down on the ghast’s head.

At the same time, Techno streaks across the rocky terrain until he’s directly underneath the ghast. Sand sprays as he digs into the ground, his cloak flaring out behind him as he raises his sword. The second that the ghast notices him, it turns a fireball his way only for Techno to deflect the fire straight back at it.

The timing is perfect.

The fireball hits the ghast right in the face just as Dream’s axe cleaves through its head like butter. The ghast yowls in pain and slowly sinks to the ground. Before it gets the chance to retaliate, Techno is on it and plunges his sword straight through its mouth. Blood sprays, and the ghast falls with a thud, limp and unmoving.

“Nice,” Dream says from where he’s got one foot propped up on the ghast’s head.

Techno nods shortly back at him and wipes away a streak of blood from his face.

“You too,” he says.

Wings beat, and then Phil lands with his arms laden with gold ingots.

“I heard the noise from miles away,” he says and drops the gold with a clang. “What did I miss?”

Dream hops off the ghast, landing smoothly like it’s nothing, and immediately begins helping Phil. The hunters gather around him and distribute the gold among themselves, talking in low voices. At one point, George shoves Bad lightly, laughing as Bad stumbles back and snaps out a playful response. They look happy.

Tommy fits right into their dynamic, Wilbur observes, as Sapnap grabs Tommy in a headlock and musses his hair playfully while Dream watches with such obvious indulgence that it’s like looking into a mirror. Phil lords over it all, keeping an eye on their surroundings as he takes to the sky again.

Only Techno doesn’t join the rest. Instead, he’s methodically hacking away at the ghast, cutting away great sections of white flesh. His sword goes up and down, up and down, as Techno slowly carves the ghast up.

Wilbur doesn’t want to go over to him. He doesn’t, except that he does, and when he finds himself only a few blocks away from where splatters of blood are flying in the air, his mouth opens and says, “Mutilating bodies now?”

Techno stops moving, arm half-raised above his head. His hair has come loose from its braid from exertion, and when Techno glances over, his cheeks are streaked with blood.

“What did you say?” Techno asks.

Wilbur takes a step back.

“I said,” he says and carefully rephrases, “What are you doing?”

“Harvesting.” Techno goes back to chopping, and the sickly squelch of flesh hitting the ground makes Wilbur wince. “It’s stupid to waste supplies down here.”

“And what, exactly—” Wilbur dodges a flying piece of ghast, “—are you harvesting?”

Without warning, Techno plunges his arm into the cavern he’s carved out of the ghast’s chest, rummaging around. He’s pushed his sleeve up, but the edges of his white button-down are still stained with blood when he draws his arm out, holding a small oblong gray object in his hand.

“Ghast tears,” Techno says. “Good for making potions.”

Wilbur casts his mind back to the leather-bound books that stocked Phil’s library, packed with diagrams that Wilbur memorized when Phil wasn’t looking. He’d thought that if he knew enough, impressed Phil enough, that he would stop leaving.

“Potion of regeneration?” he asks and watches a flicker of surprise pass over Techno’s face. “That would be handy, you’re right.”

Techno mumbles something in acknowledgement and keeps digging as Wilbur watches. Techno looks… off. It’s not the first time that Wilbur has seen him covered in blood, and it won’t be the last, but there’s something about the slump of Techno’s shoulders that makes Wilbur pause and take a second look.

Beneath the gore and violence, Techno looks paler than usual. It’s not like he gets plenty of sun when he lives in the Arctic, but this isn’t the kind of pale that getting more vitamin D can help. Wilbur looks again, even more carefully, and though Techno might seem as apathetic as always, the downward twist of his lips is more pronounced than usual. It’s almost like—

“You’re tired,” Wilbur says.

Techno pulls his arm out with a squelch, another ghast tear clutched in his palm.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says and doesn’t meet Wilbur’s eyes.

“You’re tired,” Wilbur repeats with more certainty this time. He walks over to Techno, ignoring the blood splattering the ground. Halting at the foot of the dead ghast, he thinks a second about climbing up to where Techno sits, but there are no footholds in the soft and squishy flesh. He settles for looking up at Techno instead. “It makes sense. You’ve been pushing yourself the most since we got here, clearing out the mobs, leading the way… Have you even slept?”

“I get enough rest,” Techno says, but it’s not a real answer.

“You don’t need to lie to me, you know,” Wilbur reminds him. “I can tell when you’re not okay.”

Techno scoffs and jumps down. The ground sinks a little beneath his feet when he lands, and he shakes himself off like a dog. Wilbur grimaces as blood flicks onto his coat.

“I don’t need you to babysit me,” he says and makes to stride away back towards where the rest of the group have started setting up camp. “I can take care of myself.”

Wilbur isn’t going to let him go that easily.

“Wait.” Wilbur’s hand darts out and grabs Techno’s wrist. Techno startles enough that his footing falters, and Wilbur is able to drag him closer to himself, until he can smell the iron scent of blood on Techno’s skin. When their eyes meet, Wilbur is suddenly, abruptly, done with Techno ignoring him. “We need to talk.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Techno says. Wilbur knows he’s lying. He can feel it in the way Techno’s forearm tenses. “Let me go, Wilbur.”

“Not this time.” His grip tightens. “You’re listening to me this time. Sit down, and take a break.”

Techno breathes out harshly.

“Let me go,” he says slowly, “before I make you.”

Wilbur can’t help himself. He laughs.

“Try it,” he dares. “What are you going to do? Kick my teeth out? Break my arm?”

“Wilbur.” Techno is genuinely pissed now, annoyance edging into anger. He shakes his arm slightly, but not hard enough to dislodge Wilbur’s grip. “Stop.”

“You stop,” Wilbur shoots back, “and sit the fuck down before you collapse.”

That makes Techno give him a murderous glare.

“You’re not in charge of me,” he spits, and the contrast between Techno’s venomous tone and the sheer childishness of his words makes Wilbur smirk.

“No,” he says, “but I’m your older brother, so I’m telling you: sit the fuck down.”

Wilbur yanks down and pulls Techno to the ground with him.

Techno goes down in a flurry of limbs that has Phil glancing over, worry in his eyes. He starts heading in their direction, only for Bad to say something to him, and Phil stops, replying to Bad instead. Wilbur doesn’t know what Bad says. It’s probably just coincidence, but he thanks the hunter silently anyway.

“What’s the point of this?” Techno grumbles. He straightens his cloak from under him and frowns at Wilbur. “You’re acting strange.”

“Excuse me for wanting to make sure that you get enough rest,” Wilbur defends himself.

Techno scoffs, “Yeah, so what? Are you gonna offer me water? Some golden apples?” The sarcasm in his voice is stifling. “Have any potions of strength you could give me?”

“Well, no,” Wilbur admits. He’s got a good amount of supplies on him, sure, but the enchanted items, the ones that really beef you up for a battle—those have gone to the fighters. “I just—”

“You thought that forcing me to sit down for ten minutes would help?” Techno interrupts. “Genius idea, Wilbur, thanks, you really changed the game with that one.”

“I’m just trying to help!” Wilbur snaps back. His ears are red, and not from the heat. “Don’t be a fucking prick about it.”

“Your ‘help’ isn’t much help at all,” Techno says, and Wilbur resists the urge to hit him. A second later, though, Techno sighs and mutters, “You haven’t changed.”

Wilbur bristles.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he demands.

“Woah, there.” Techno holds up his hands, placating. “See? That right there is what I mean when I say you haven’t changed.” Wilbur must not look convinced because Techno sighs and adds, “It’s not a bad thing.”

“You’re doing a great job of convincing me otherwise,” Wilbur sulks.

He pulls his knees up to his chest, trying not to feel too childlike as he wraps his arms around them. For a second, Techno looks torn between reaching out and getting the fuck out of there, but he sighs and stays seated.

“It’s really not a bad thing,” Techno repeats, looking unsure for the first time since Wilbur has seen him again. “You’ve always jumped in headfirst without knowing what you were getting yourself into. Even when you don’t have the right tools.”

Wilbur flinches and then covers it up with a snarky, “Well, excuse me for trying to help.”

“You do try,” Techno admits, and it sounds like every word is being torn unwillingly from his mouth. “It just doesn’t come the way you want it to, sometimes.”

Wilbur knows they’re both thinking about Tommy.

“So I should sit back and do nothing is what you’re saying,” Wilbur says bitterly into his knees. “Let you all do the work because you’re so much stronger and better and—”

“You stay behind and stay safe,” Techno interjects forcefully. There’s a slight shake to his words that has Wilbur looking over at him in surprise. Techno’s glaring at him, mouth curled downwards, and Wilbur sees his hands trembling slightly before Techno shoves them beneath his cloak. “Don’t pretend you didn’t hear it all the time growing up, Phil always said—”

Know your odds,” Wilbur finishes. He can almost hear Phil’s voice overlaying his, a strange echo of sitting at Phil’s feet while Techno goes through sword forms in the yard. Phil’s hand is an invisible weight on his hair as Wilbur watches Techno with wide eyes. “Sometimes, it’s the smart move to leave people behind.

“Exactly,” Techno says and completely misses the bitterness saturating Wilbur’s voice. “And you’ve never listened. Despite our best efforts to get you to.”

“Your best efforts,” Wilbur echoes. He’s hollow inside, Techno’s words echoing in the cavern of his chest. “To leave me behind, you mean.”

Techno doesn’t deny it, and Wilbur can’t decide if that’s better or worse. Instead, he says, “You should’ve stayed behind this time too.”

“Fuck you,” Wilbur spits. The emptiness has been replaced by fire, anger snapping into place like it had never left. “You think you get to choose that for me? Yeah, I get it, I’m not fast enough or strong enough or champion enough, but you don’t fucking get to make my decisions for me.”

“Wilbur, I’m trying to protect you!” Techno’s voice rises a fraction, finally betraying his upset. Out of the corner of his eye, Wilbur can see the group tense and look over. “The hunters—That’s a different story, they’re trained, but you—

“And who were you trying to protect me from all those years ago?” Wilbur interrupts. He might as well have hit Techno over the head for the stunned look he receives. “Say what you want about now, whatever, but all those years ago, when it was just you, me, and Phil, who the hell were you trying to save me from—”

“From me!

The words burst from Techno like shrapnel from a loose cannonball, and his chest heaves in the aftermath. Behind the twisted frustration on his face, Wilbur can see the faint surprise written there too, like Techno can’t believe he’s said it himself. But it’s too late for him to take it back—the words are out, and there’s no hiding it anymore.

“Techno,” Wilbur says, lost. For once in his life, no words come to mind, nothing biting or indicting against his brother. Just, “Techno.”

Techno hunches over, gripping the edges of the cloak.

“You have no idea, Wilbur,” he says. His voice is so rough that it hurts to hear, and there’s a wild pleading in his eyes when Techno finally meets Wilbur’s horrified gaze. “You have no idea what being champion makes you become. I never wanted you to see that. Never.”

“But I wanted to,” Wilbur says, and he can’t stop the longing that saturates his words. “More than anything, Techno, I just wanted you to let me stay with you. For you to stay with me.

Before he finishes speaking, Techno is already shaking his head.

“I can’t,” he says, and the present tense aches and aches like a fresh wound. “Hurting you—That’s my last straw.”

“That—That wasn’t—” Wilbur stumbles over his words. “Techno, you would never hurt me. I would never—”

“But I would,” Techno says urgently. His eyes dart from side to side, almost glowing in the orange light of the Nether. “You never saw the worst of it, I made sure to leave before that happened—”

“Did you think that way even before you became champion?” Wilbur asks, dismayed. Memories flit through his head like shadows. Playing in their backyard, teasing Techno, the time they snuck out and built a pile of twigs in the forest and called it home— “We were just kids!”

Laughing bitterly, Techno says, “You think any normal kid wants to become champion after all that training and realizing they have to kill the same people they trained with?” Wilbur doesn’t have a response for that, and Techno continues, “Kids like Tommy—They didn’t have a choice. I did. I wasn’t a kid, Wilbur, I knew what I was doing. So tell me, who’s the real monster here?”

Techno doesn’t stutter once through his rant. There’s shame there, sure. It’s visible in the clench of his fists and the stiff lower lip, in the raised tone of his voice. But Techno doesn’t hesitate. There’s no doubt at all as he calls himself a monster, and that, that is what makes the last of Wilbur’s reservations shatter. It makes Wilbur reach out without thought and pull Techno into a hug, ignoring the startled noise that Techno lets out in response.

“You’re an asshole,” Wilbur says thickly into Techno’s shoulder. “Fuck you, Technoblade.”

Techno doesn’t say anything, as if the words have been stolen from him, but Wilbur doesn’t need a response. Instead, he clings to his brother and waits for the tense muscles underneath him to relax, fiber by fiber.

“Uh, I’m getting some mixed messages here,” Techno says, aiming for joking but landing on stunned. His hands are stiff in the air, so close to Wilbur’s shoulders that he can almost imagine their pressure. “Calling me names while hugging me… I just wanna make sure I’m picking up on the right cues.”

“Pick up on this, you prick,” Wilbur says and then uses all of his strength to squeeze Techno tight enough that a little oof of breath escapes Techno. “Listen. I don’t care what you did. You’ve never been a monster, and you’re the biggest idiot ever for thinking that about yourself.” Techno doesn’t say anything, and Wilbur squeezes him harder. “Do you get that?”

“Wilbur,” Techno starts, but Wilbur doesn’t let him finish, steamrolling on through.

“You’re my brother, and that’s what matters.” Wilbur blinks hard. Fucking Nether. Too much smoke, he can’t see. “Fuck the rest.”

“Possessive as always,” Techno says, but he drops his head against Wilbur’s shoulder, resting on him in a way that he hasn’t done in… Wilbur can’t even recall. It’s been a long time, that’s for sure. “I kinda like that about you.”

“Well, someone has to,” Wilbur jokes. Then, because it seems right to say, “I missed you, Techno.”

Techno is quiet for a long moment, so long that Wilbur thinks he’s fallen asleep on top of him, but then his voice comes out, raspy and low.

“I’m sorry, Wilbur,” Techno whispers. “You won’t have to worry about me soon.”

“That’s silly,” Wilbur says through a watery chuckle. “I’ll always worry about you. You can’t get rid of me.” Silence. “Techno? Techno?”

Techno’s entire body sags on top of him, and Wilbur has to use all his energy to hold him up. Grunting, he manages to tilt his head back enough to take in the relaxed slope of Techno’s features, the even rise and fall of his breath as he sleeps on top of Wilbur.

The rest of the group are watching them, huddled around their little camp, but Wilbur can’t be bothered to see their reactions. Like this, with Techno trusting him again, relying on Wilbur again, Wilbur can’t think about much else at all. He just closes his eyes.

He has his brother back for the first time in a long time, and by Prime, he’s going to enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

They push on.

Days pass as they scale cliffs that are almost too hot for their bare hands and duck and hide from feral piglin. Every time Dream thinks that he’s gotten the hang of traveling the terrain, the Nether continues to brutalize them.

Physically, however, he feels good, better than he has in weeks. There’s a lightness to his movements, a buoyancy that reminds him of when he was well-rested and able to tackle each day with a good night’s sleep and ample food.

“It’s because we’re getting closer to the capital,” Phil says grimly one day as Dream mentions it to him. He polishes off an apple and wipes his hands on his pants as he finishes. “Distance works differently in the Nether than in the Overworld. We cover more ground here, but it’s more dangerous. That’s the tradeoff.”

“How does that even work,” Dream despairs, but Phil just shrugs and claps him on the shoulder.

“Don’t question it, mate,” he advises unsympathetically. “Just roll with it.”

Dream doesn’t have a choice, and pretending otherwise is a sure path to misery, so Dream shoves that to the back of his mind and soldiers on.

This journey isn’t like his previous run from the king’s soldiers, a lonely path with no end in sight. This time he has company. His friends’ bickering is a welcome backtrack to the endless grind, and now that Wilbur and Techno have seemingly made up, there’s another level of closeness that Dream gets to observe.

The family dynamic there is… interesting. Things are still frosty between Wilbur and Phil, but at least now, Wilbur softens after a few minutes of Phil approaching, and Phil no longer has that shadow of mixed doubt and self-righteousness as they speak. At times, Techno and Wilbur seem like they’re halves of one mind, so in sync that they get ahead of themselves, and at times, they fumble and pause like dancers relearning an old routine.

Between it all, however, is Tommy. He’s clearly the glue that’s holding them together, bouncing from person to person. His usual exuberance is only slightly dampened by the heat, and even with blond hair matted and stuck to his forehead, his cheery fuck-all attitude never fails to lift Dream’s spirits.

“We’ll be in tip-top shape to fight the kind after this,” Tommy remarks one day after they’ve run from a horde of piglins. Wiping sweat from his brow, he grins at Dream. “This is the most in shape I’ve been in my life!”

“You’re dehydrated,” Dream points out and eyes Tommy critically. “And a little too skinny.”

“Fuck you, don’t body shame me!”

“It’s not body shaming, it’s just the truth!” Dream protests, but Tommy ignores him, well and truly on his way to a good rant.

“Fuck you, Dream, fuck you, you think you’re so cool and shit, but you’re actually just a sad, sad man who can’t get Gogy to look at you—”

Dream lunges at Tommy and covers his yelp with his hand, only to pull it away with disgust as Dream feels something slimy.

“Did you just lick me?” he asks, but Tommy’s shit-eating grin answers for him. Shaking his head, Dream says, “Never mind. What are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Tommy says and preens at Dream’s disbelieving look. “Oh, come on, man, denial isn’t a good look on anybody! And you’ve got a hard enough time as it is.”

“Are you… making fun of my scar?”

Tommy shrugs, blase. “Do you care?” he asks.

Self-conscious now that Tommy pointed it out, Dream reaches up and fingers the raised lines on his face. There are a lot more now than there were a few months ago.

Dream has never thought of himself as particularly ugly. He doesn’t have the smoothest skin nor the finest features, but he’s not bad looking. Have the scars changed that?

“Woah, okay,” Tommy says after Dream fails to respond to his jab. “I didn’t mean… Hey, big man, you know no one cares about that, right? I mean, I think the scars are fucking awesome.”

“I’m not insecure,” Dream defends, suddenly, well, insecure. “I don’t care about how I look.”

Tommy rolls his eyes and says, “Sure, and that’s why you wore a mask for the whole time we traveled together.” His eyes narrow. “Where did that go, by the way?”

“That wasn’t—” Dream starts, and then stops. His mask.

“Yeah, it was pretty damn creepy,” Tommy continues. “I still remember when you yelled at me for taking it away from you when it didn’t even help hide your identity! It just made you seem scarier.”

“You were scared by my mask?” Dream asks.

Tommy seesaws his hand in the air.

“We-e-ll, not scared,” he hedges. “But it wasn’t nice to look at. It was all white and blank and had that fucking smile—

Something moves over Tommy’s shoulder. Dream frowns, but when he peers closer, there’s nothing there.

“And, like, it was a stupid disguise! You looked so distinctive—”

Dream blinks, and something seems to shift again, like a living shadow flitting across the landscape. Is it a trick of the light? He frowns, and in his pocket, something seems to chime. Dream pats it absently. The shards from the stronghold. He’d forgotten about them. Why are they reacting now?

“—really hate the way you stupid adults do things, like, “Oh, Tommy, stay back, it’s for your own good! I’ll wear this scary mask or stupid skull to make me seem less approachable!” Well, that’s horseshit, and I’m telling you now so you remember—”

“Tommy, get down!

There’s no time to think, no time to process. Dream darts forward and shoves Tommy to the ground as something screeches. Tommy yells, voice muffled by the dirt, and Dream forces him down lower as Tommy thrashes against his hold.

“Stay down!” Dream shouts.

The screeching grows louder and louder, metal shrieking against metal. Distantly, Dream registers Sapnap and Bad huddled to the ground, both with their eyes squeezed shut as the wailing shreds their eardrums. George is behind them, and Dream desperately wants to go to him when he sees the agony written all over his face.

Only Techno and Phil are still standing, the former standing protectively over Wilbur collapsed at his feet. There’s something wild and feral in Techno’s eyes as he snarls into the empty air. Phil has thrown subtlety to the wind, and his wings are flared out, dark and dangerous.

Casting one last glance at Tommy to make sure that he’s not going anywhere, Dream forces himself up and staggers to his feet. Every movement hurts, like the sound is knives digging into his exposed skin, but he grits his teeth.

“What’s happening?” he shouts across at Phil and Techno. They don’t seem to hear him, and Dream tries again, loud enough that his vocal chords feel like they’re tearing, “What’s happening?

That gets their attention, and Phil’s face is pale as he shouts back, “Endermen!

Dream doesn’t have time to ask what the hell those are before his vision is filled with darkness.

Lean figures appear and disappear before him, bursts of purple sparking. He whips his head from side to side, trying to focus on them as the horde of slender creatures press ever closer. It’s like being surrounded by a forest of moving trees, only these trees are snarling angrily as their eyes glow in the murky Nether light.

Nightmare appears in Dream’s hand as he readies his stance, but it’s impossible to find a target as the Endermen continue jumping from spot to spot. There’s a burst of crimson as Sapnap yells angrily, swinging at them with sparks jumping from his sword, but the Endermen easily evade his unfocused blows, chittering that same cacophonous sound all the while.

“How are we supposed to hit these guys?” Dream barely makes out Sapnap’s frustrated yell over the endless ringing. “They keep fucking disappearing!”

Darkness ripples, and then Phil is in the air, wings outstretched as he grimly surveys the battlefield beneath him.

“Find shelter!” he commands and spreads his arms. TNT, a lot of it, appears midair, and Dream’s stomach swoops. “Hide!

Phil lights the TNT.

Dream doesn’t think, just reacts as he hurls himself and Tommy towards a craggy ledge. They’re inches away when the first TNT lands, and the explosion propels them that last bit of distance. Tommy yelps as his shoulder hits the wall, and Dream grunts as his back slams into the cliff. The armor helps, but Dream is still winded, shaking his head to try and get the ringing out of his ears as he peers over at the sheer destruction that Phil has rained onto the landscape.

Massive craters litter the ground, maw gaping hungrily upwards as smoke wisps up. Rubble crackles under Dream’s feet as he dares to take a step out from their slight shelter. All around, dead Endermen lie on the ground, some still twitching. Arms, legs—Their limbs have been blown from their bodies, and crimson blood mixes with the debris as it pools all around the Endermen.

It’s silent except for the crunching of Dream’s footsteps, a stark contrast to the wild clanging of before. Dream hardly dares to breathe as he looks out over the Nether. It’s brutal. Dream can scarcely take in the scale of the destruction. Where had Phil gotten that much TNT?

The man in question descends like a wrathful angel, eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat as he surveys the remains. Several blocks away, George coughs as he pulls himself from behind a boulder with a chunk blown out of it.

“George!”

Dream rushes toward him and helps him the rest of the way up, George wincing as Dream presses against some scrapes. Blood runs down the side of his face, and there’s a dazed look in his eyes that worries Dream.

“Are you alright?” he asks urgently.

George shakes his head like he’s trying to dislodge water from his ears and squints.

“I’m fine,” he says, but his face is pale. “The rest?”

A quick glance tells Dream that Sapnap and Bad have found their way to their feet as well. Bad’s hood hangs in rags around his neck, and he’s holding his side gingerly. Sapnap’s headband is spotted with blood, and he leans heavily to one side as if trying to keep weight off of one leg. Both of them are standing, however, and Dream breathed a sigh of relief.

“We’re okay,” he says as Tommy spots the group and scrambles over. George sags in his arms, and Dream holds him closer, pressing his mouth to the top of George’s head. “We’re okay.”

“The fuck was that?” Tommy asks. He’s speaking louder than usual, hearing probably still muffled from the explosions. “What the hell is an Enderman?”

“Creatures from the End,” Phil explains grimly. He’s scanning their surroundings, and even though he’s just single-handedly destroyed an entire mob of creatures, he doesn’t seem at rest at all. “No one knows how they get through to here, but they become aggressive if you disturb them.”

“We didn’t do anything though,” Sapnap protests peevishly. His face is split into a half-snarl, like he’s waiting for more enemies to attack. “Those fuckers appeared out of nowhere.”

“Teleportation,” Phil says. Bending down, he plunges his hand into the chest of a mauled Enderman body. Dream takes a step back, and the rest of the group make startled noises as Phil rummages around its chest before pulling out a familiar orb. “This is an Enderpearl. Smashing one will allow you to teleport as well.”

“That’s—That’s what I had,” Dream blurts. Digging in his pocket, he pulls out the shards and holds them out. It’s the same as the intact one that Phil holds, albeit less blood-streaked. “I found this in that stronghold we were in.”

“Enderpearls are incredibly useful for battle,” Phil says. “We should harvest them from the bodies here.”

“Do you have to… dig into them like that?” Bad asks. His face is wane, and his tail lashes behind him, disturbed. “They might be animals, but they were living creatures too. To desecrate their bodies like that—”

“They’re already dead,” Phil interrupts harshly. “I’m not going to pass up on an advantage because you were squeamish.”

“Don’t talk to Bad like that.” Sapnap leaps to Bad’s defense. He seems glad to have somewhere to channel the lingering aggression, and he shoulders his way past Bad to stare down an impassive Phil. “You don’t get to tell him what to do.”

Phil is undisturbed as he stares Sapnap down coolly.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he advises, tone dark. “Save the fighting for our enemies.”

“Which ones? The ones you just blew up?” Sapnap gestures at the violence around them. “You killed them all and almost killed us too!”

“Endermen never travel alone,” Phil says. “We took care of this group, but if there’s more—”

Hot wind blows over the group, dry and suffocating, but what’s worse is the faint screech that it brings. Phil’s face pales, and he searches his inventory with quick and precise movements only to come out hands empty. His mouth is a grim slash as he says. “I’m out of TNT.”

Fuck,” Sapnap says with feeling.

“What do we do?” Tommy asks. He’s bouncing on the balls of his feet. There’s an iron sword in his hand, one that Dream equipped him with back at the cabin, but it looks unnatural in his hand. “Can we fight them?”

“Maybe if we get the pearls—” George starts toward one of the other Enderman bodies, only for his steps to stutter as the screeching increases in volume. A hunted expression settles over his blood-streaked face. “There’s no time.”

“Can we escape them if we dig?” Dream asks, but Phil is shaking his head before he even finishes talking.

“They can appear underground too,” Phil says. “The only way to beat them is to annihilate each and every one.”

Dream takes a deep breath. The suffocating air fills his chest, and Dream feels a familiar calm settle over him like a cloak.

“Then we fight,” he says. Nightmare appears back in his hands, the cold Netherite a comfort as he grips the axe. “Our odds aren’t that bad.”

The odds were stacked against him in the arena too. A piss-poor street kid, going up against people who were bigger than him, more trained than him. No one was betting on him in those days, and though Dream will never admit this to anyone, he wasn’t betting on himself either. All he had was the axe in his hand, the wind beneath his feet, and the desperation to survive.

Beside him, Sapnap draws his sword, a familiar gleam lighting up his eyes.

“Hell yeah, baby,” he says. Dream knows his best friend well enough to recognize the waver in his tone as fear, but Sapnap hides it well enough with bravado. “I’ve been looking for a good fight.”

“Don’t get reckless,” Bad chides, but his claws are out and extended even as he scolds Sapnap. “Fighting is all about caution and choosing the right moment to strike.”

“Sapnap wouldn’t know anything about that.” George is still unsteady on his feet as he scales a nearby wall, heaving himself to a craggy outcrop. He draws his bow and reaches for an arrow. The white straps of his goggles have blood left on them, but his stance is tall and perfect and beautiful. “All he knows is just hacking away at things.”

Dream can’t help but laugh at the familiar banter passing between his friends. Phil looks faintly surprised at how quickly the mood has shifted, but Dream isn’t. If there’s anything he knows about his friends, it’s that they’re always ready for a good fight.

He’s beaten the odds before. He’ll do it again with his friends at his side.

“Well,” Dream says as a tide of Endermen crests over the Netherwart, mouths hanging open in a screaming void. “Let’s do it.”

He’s bracing himself, shifting into a stance more familiar than breathing and ready to fall into that sacred headspace before a battle when—

“Wait, wait, wait, wait—” Tommy’s voice is panicked, breaking through the battle-calm that’s washed over Dream. He looks over, and Tommy is spinning in a circle, eyes wide and distraught. “Wil—Where’s Wil?”

Dream sees the exact moment that Phil’s heart drops, but there’s no time as the screaming grows louder. This time, the Endermen mill about in the distance for a moment, as if wary of more TNT appearing.

“They’ve learned,” Dream says in shock.

“Does anyone know where Wil is?” Tommy sounds scared in a way that Dream has never heard him before, and he looks seconds away from abandoning the fight to try and find Wilbur. “Is he okay?”

“He was with Techno,” Phil says, but there’s fear underpinning his voice. “Techno—”

They’re here!

And then there’s no time for any words as George’s arrow flies straight and true to impale an Enderman right between the eyes

Chaos erupts, and all Dream knows is the battle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Techo, Techno, calm down!

Wilbur knows he’s fighting as a losing battle as he wrestles to keep Techno down. His brother’s muscles strain under his shirt as he snarls, eyes uncomprehending as Wilbur struggles to hold him back.

As soon as Phil had taken to the air, Techno had smashed the ground underneath them and made an alcove for them to hide in, explosions muffled and rocking the surface as they hid. It had reminded Wilbur of hiding in the stronghold, the little nooks that Techno carved for him back then.

When the explosions stopped ringing, Wilbur had peeked over Techno’s shoulder, cautious.

“I think we can go out now,” he said, only to be met with silence. “Techno? Techno?”

Techno had growled, and Wilbur knew that his brother was gone.

Leading them here: Techno, eyes bloodshot and red as he heaves with bloodlust.

“Techno, stop,” Wilbur says urgently. He can hear fighting above them, the temporary peace broken as the sound of Endermen reaches them even underground. “Can you hear me? I said stop!”

There’s no response. Only Techno thrashing in his arms.

Wilbur winces as Techno’s arm flails out and strikes him across the cheek. It hurts, and Wilbur’s vision blurs slightly as he tries to press back against Techno.

“Listen to me, Techno!” he says desperately. “Come on, stay with me! Stay with me!

It’s a futile battle, and with one last growl, Techno breaks free from Wilbur’s hold. He lashes out, and Wilbur’s head slams into rock. Hard. Lights explode across his eyes like a dying star, and Wilbur’s pretty sure he blacks out for a second because when his vision comes back into focus, Techno is gone, and Wilbur is left behind again.

“Fuck,” he swears and scrambles up. He sways in place, pressing a hand to his forehead as he tries to stop himself from the sudden need to throw up. There’s a dull pain radiating from his face where Techno had hit him, and Wilbur has to bite his lower lip to stop the ache from distracting him. “Techno, you are literally the worst brother ever.”

Clumsily, Wilbur heads to the tunnel that Techno had made for them and fumbles for footholds. Each time he pulls himself up, a new sharp pain stabs him behind the eyes. Had he hit his head that hard? That’s a problem for another day, and Wilbur grimly soldiers on as he climbs up and up and up and up.

When he finally makes it back to open air, Wilbur gasps for air, chest heaving as his shoulders strain from his own weight.

“Fuck this,” he grits out and takes another shuddering breath. “Fuck me!

He pulls himself out and is met with carnage.

Endermen are everywhere, appearing and disappearing in flashes of purple. The hunters are in the thick of them, closed in from every side. Wilbur can barely make them out in the crush of Endermen. Fire spurts periodically, announcing Sapnap’s presence as Endermen screech and back away from the flames, but the man himself is panting. Wilbur can see his exhaustion from here.

Bad and Dream are twin blades as they dart between Endermen. Bad’s claws shred their sides, leaving the Endermen wailing in pain before Dream’s axe swings down to finish the job. Netherite flashes as Dream tears through the Endermen, a whirlwind of destruction. He’s a force in and of himself, moving so quickly that Wilbur can’t believe he doesn’t have wings.

Speaking of wings—Phil dives down from the sky with his sword in hand, cutting down swatches of Endermen each time. George stands proud and high, picking off Endermen from his perch as Phil circles back from time to time, making sure that no Endermen get too close to him.

They’re strong. They’re so fucking strong.

Wilbur knows it’s not enough.

Endermen continue to pour out of seemingly nowhere, bodies streaming down from the cliffs, climbing up from the lava pools. For every ten that are killed, another twenty appear until the crimson terrain is buried under the swell of their inky bodies. It’s never ending, and when Wilbur looks closer, he can see the fighters wearing down.

When Dream strikes out with his axe, the Enderman he was aiming at disappears, and Dream is left battling his own momentum as another appears behind him. It gets in a blow, and Dream staggers before managing to heft Nightmare back around to decapitate the Enderman. How many hits has he taken already, though? Exhaustion is painted all over his face, and Wilbur can see his limbs become heavy with exhaustion.

Where’s Technoblade? Wilbur is in the middle of looking for him when he hears a scream.

Wil!

Wilbur’s head whips toward the sound of his own name, and he sees Tommy running towards him. There’s an iron helmet, too big for his head, tilting dangerously off, and the chestplate he’s wearing is battered and dented. His iron sword is streaked with blood, and Wilbur has just enough time to think, No, when something hits him from behind.

Staggering forwards, Wilbur catches himself on his palms, moaning in pain as rocks tear the skin of his palms open. His instincts scream at him, and Wilbur laboriously rolls to the side as an Enderman’s arm comes swinging down, hammering the ground only inches from where his head just was.

“Wilbur!”

Tommy is before him in a flash as if he teleported himself, and the Enderman’s next blow is directly met by Tommy’s sword as he stands above Wilbur. Pain is evident in his muscles, and Wilbur sees the way his feet are pushed back as the Enderman screeches.

“Get up, Wil!” Tommy yells, words strained. “Wil, please, don’t just lie there, get up!”

“I’m—trying,” Wilbur gasps out. Nausea swims over him, and he heaves for a second before trying to get to his feet. Spots dance before his eyes, and he stumbles back down. His muscles feel like jello, and spikes seem to drill themselves through his head. Fuck. His head really hurts. “Really trying here, Toms.”

“Then try harder! Please!”

Tommy’s grip on his sword slackens, and just as the Enderman presses down, Tommy dodges the blow and swings out. Blood sprays, and the Enderman screeches as Tommy hacks away at it, not stopping until the Enderman has fallen at his feet, twitching. There’s blood on Tommy’s face as he pants, and Wilbur doesn’t even have time to register how much he hates the sight. Tommy’s hands are under his arms, hauling him to his feet, and they stumble blindly forwards.

“Wil, Wil, come on,” Tommy urges. Everything hurts as Wilbur tries his best to keep up with Tommy’s frantic pace. “You’re hurt. How are you hurt? Where were you?”

“Techno,” Wilbur tries to say, but his tongue feels thick and heavy in his mouth. Prime, he feels like shit. “Hit me.”

“Techno? Where is he?” The other half of Wilbur’s words register, and Tommy blinks twice, eyes a fiery blue. “He hit you?”

“Not,” Wilbur tries to say only to turn his head to the side and retch. Bile comes up, thin and acidic and watery, and Wilbur groans. “Not on purpose. He’s not—Techno’s not himself right now.”

“Then where is he?” Despair paints the rise and fall of Tommy’s voice. “Where is he?

A roar sounds, cutting through the high-pitched screaming. As one, the Endermen stop in their tracks, their chittering dying down. They don’t seem to care as George redoubles his arrows, shooting down as many as possible. The Endermen stand stock still, not even moving as Sapnap’s sword cleaves through them.

“What the fuck,” Tommy breathes.

“What—” Wilbur starts. He can barely open his eyes now, and when he does, colors are smeared across his vision like a child’s painting. “What’s happening?”

“It’s Techno,” Tommy says. “He’s—He’s here.”

“What?”

At that, Wilbur forces his eyes to focus. There’s a figure standing in front of him, crimson bleeding out behind him. Familiar pink hair whips through the air as a dry gust billows around them.

Tommy has settled him with his back against a rock, and Wilbur pushes himself up and tries not to throw up.

“Techno,” he says, or tries to at least. “Techno!”

Techno glances back at him, but there’s no recognition in his eyes. Only pure lust for violence. Wilbur swallows and calls out again.

“Techno,” he says. “Are you-–Are you there?”

For a second, Wilbur thinks he sees recognition spark in Techno’s eyes, but the moment is gone as quickly as it comes. An Enderman wails, breaking the fragile silence, and then Techno’s attention is gone back towards the fray as a sword appears in either hand. An inhuman snarl tears from his throat, and Techno’s entire body tenses as he prepares to leap forward.

“Wait,” Wilbur says. His throat hurts, and his heart too. “Techno, wait!”

Technoblade howls, and the Endermen scream as he plunges forward, shredding through bodies like they’re paper in a whirl of madness and violence.

The Blood God has arrived.

Chapter Text

“Shit!”

Dream crashes to the ground, groaning as he coughs. An Enderman looms over him, mouth open in a void as it bears down on him. Laboriously, Dream manages to roll himself to the side and avoid the blow, but it’s only just.

They’re losing, and there’s no miracle TNT to appear and save them now.

The Enderman follows him, vibrating so quickly that Dream’s eyes have trouble focusing on it. It screeches and lunges forward, and Dream braces himself for a hit—

—that never comes.

Coughing, Dream sucks in a breath as he tries to process what happened. The Enderman is gone. Did it teleport away? Dream was ripe for the taking, but now it’s—

Somewhere in front of him, Bad is being pressed in by a circle of Endermen. His movements are sluggish, and Dream can only watch helplessly as the Enderman grow close enough to completely bury him, only—

They don’t.

A snarl rips through the air, and before Dream has time to process, the Enderman around Bad are gone. No, not gone. They’re dead, bodies spasming on the ground as Bad stares around him, stunned.

Dream feels the same way. His tongue is thick in his mouth as he splutters out, “What?”

In front of him, Technoblade slowly, slowly turns to look at him. There’s no recognition in his crimson eyes, however. Only bloodlust.

“Techno—”

Before Dream can finish his half-formed thought, Techno turns and disappears into the fray again. Blood sprays as he tears through the Endermen in his way, Techno indiscriminately ripping limbs from bodies. George and Sapnap, where they were fighting back to back, suddenly have no enemies as Technoblade’s sword cleaves through the Endermen they were fighting. Phil drops from the sky, wings still extended, but he doesn’t have to lift a finger before there’s a ring of dead Endermen lying at his feet. Soon enough, the Endermen are cowed, hissing between their teeth as they back away from the group.

“What’s going on?” George asks. His quiver is empty, and he’s squinting through the blood still pouring down his face. He stumbles toward Dream, dragging an exhausted Sapnap behind him. “Is that—?”

“That’s Techno,” Dream manages to get out. He swallows, unable to tear his eyes away from the destruction that Techno is wreaking before him. “That’s the Blood God.”

No one has anything to say in response to that.

The sheer level of violence is almost awe-inspiring in its brutality. Techno is more than a machine and less than human as he mows through their enemies with terrifying efficiency. Dream should admire it. He should be studying Techno’s movements, learning the techniques that brought Techno to the very peak of power, but instead, Dream just feels sick.

“Did I look like that?” he asks the air. The only sounds around them are of violence, the wet squelch of flesh being ripped off, the whistle of a blade through the air, the inhumane, guttural sounds splitting Techno’s throat. “Did I—”

There’s no reply, and that’s answer enough for Dream. He stumbles, knee hitting the ground with a dull thud as he gasps. He wasn’t fully there to see the aftermath of the fight in the Arctic, but seeing all the dead Endermen, imagining the soldiers, there, humans—

Technoblade doesn’t even look human anymore. He just looks like a monster.

Suddenly, there’s a hand on his shoulder, gripping him tightly enough that Dream winces. Fingertips dig into his shoulder, and Dream knows there will be bruises here later.

“Stop it,” the owner of the hand says harshly. It’s Sapnap, steam curling off of him in wisps as he shakes Dream. “I know what you’re thinking, and you need to stop.”

Dream doesn’t doubt for a second that Sapnap is thinking the wrong thing. They’ve known each other too long for that.

“But,” he starts. “I—”

“You’re not,” Sapnap insists. His face, streaked with dirt and sweat and blood, is hard underneath all the grime. “Whatever names you’re calling yourself in your head, you’re not.”

“No one should be able to do this,” Dream says helplessly. His arm jerks, an aborted gesture to the landscape that is quickly emptying of Endermen. Their bodies are piling now, swollen purple clashing with the orange Nether, like someone has taken a paint bucket and upheaved it without care. “No one—Fuck, no one should be so strong, to be able to, to—”

Then he’s being pulled to his feet and spun around, and Sapnap’s mouth is a hard and angry tilt, Dream’s shirt smouldering under his touch, and then Sapnap says, “You saved us, Dream, and Techno is saving us now, there’s nothing wrong with that, don’t you see—

Dream says, “I—” and then he’s being pulled into a hug, sweaty and firm, and then he’s blinking into Sapnap’s shoulder as Endermen die all around them.

“You’re fine, Dream,” Sapnap says thickly. Something blows up, and Dream automatically twists to see it, but Sapnap’s grip around him is iron, and Dream can’t move. “You’re fine.”

Something burns, and it isn’t the lava surrounding them.

“Okay,” Dream says. “Okay.”

He closes his eyes.

They rock back and forth like that for a few moments, Dream and Sapnap against the world, just like old times. But then there’s a rushing sound, like all the winds have blown in from the four corners of the world, and then Phil’s firm voice saying, “That’s enough,” and then—

Silence.

Sapnap lets go of Dream after what feels like an eternity, and Dream stumbles back, rubbing his eyes. In the distance, Phil is restraining a snarling Techno who thrashes a few times before Phil says something sharply to him. Immediately, Techno goes limp like all his strings have been cut, and Phil gathers him up like a wounded child.

“Techno!”

Glancing over, Dream sees Wilbur half-walk half-crawl over to them, Tommy uselessly offering him a hand only for Wilbur to push past him like he hasn’t even seen it. Wilbur is clearly injured, the dazed look in his eyes an all-too familiar sign of a head injury, but he doesn’t stop his single-minded journey to where Phil holds Techno.

“Is he okay?” Wilbur asks. His voice cracks on okay, and it makes Dream look away, the pain too raw, too intimate for him to hear. “Please, I just got him back, I can’t—”

“He’s fine,” Phil says. His words are quiet but carry to where Dream is standing anyway. “He’s tired, but he’ll be alright. This… drains him.”

“You could say that again,” Sapnap grumbles from behind him, and it’s like his words release the last amounts of tension hanging over them. As one, George, Bad, and Sapnap all collapse to the ground, groaning. Dream joins him, his legs trembling with exhaustion. “Oh, fuck. Oh, shit, I feel like I’ve gone ten rounds with a ravager.”

“You basically did,” George says, and he’s so tired that he doesn’t even try to conceal the waver in his voice. “The Endermen, are they…?”

“They’re gone,” Bad confirms. His milky white eyes are bloodshot even as he strains them to look around. “They were either afraid and fled or…”

He trails off. Everyone knows how to fill in the last half of his sentence.

“Is he okay?” Dream manages to find his voice to ask as Phil stumbles over, face grim as he lugs Techno behind him. Techno’s feet drag on the ground, and Dream tries to stand up to help only to fall to the ground again. “Both Techno and Wilbur, I mean.”

“Techno will be fine,” Phil repeats, and the lines on his face are drawn with exhaustion. “As for Wilbur, I don’t know.”

“Techno hit him,” Tommy butts in. His jaw is set, and his lips tremble with either anger or concern, Dream can’t tell. “He needs to get his head injury checked out.”

“Don’t be silly, I’m fine,” Wilbur says without missing a beat. His declaration loses any power that it had, however, as he pales and doubles over to vomit up a thin stream of bile.

“That,” George says and wrinkles his nose in disgust, “is not fine.”

Wilbur groans weakly in response.

The next few moments are a haze of pure fatigue as they somehow manage to stumble to the base of a nearby cliff. Dream’s muscles scream as he wearily hoists Tommy over his shoulders, Tommy scrambling as he tries to find a good grip to climb the rest of the way himself. Panting, Dream extends his hand to George who takes it with a conflicted expression on his face.

“You’re alright,” he states more than asks.

Dream nods his head mutely and flexes his fingers.

“Come on, George,” he mumbles. “Hurry up.”

If he stops moving now, Dream doesn’t know when he’ll be able to start again.

George gives in with a sigh, and Dream pushes him up the rock face, clenching down on a groan of pain. Luckily, George finds his footing quicker than Tommy, and Sapnap and Bad follow in quick succession. Phil has already flown to the top, wings beating strongly in the air as he brings Techno with him.

At last, it’s just Dream and Wilbur left at the bottom, Wilbur still blinking woozily. Dream is genuinely concerned that he’s suffered some kind of permanent brain damage, but then Wilbur takes one step, then another, towards Dream.

“One last push,” Wilbur says, half to himself and half to Dream. “Then we can rest.”

Dream can barely muster the energy to direct a weak smile at him.

“Yes,” he says and holds out his hand. “Just a little bit more, Wilbur. You’ve got this.”

Wilbur goes, shaking with every moment, and Dream follows closely behind, forcing himself to stay alert. If Wilbur drops from the side of the wall, then, well. Dream doesn’t want Tommy to see that.

It feels like eternity before they finally reach the top, and Dream is barely beginning to heave himself over the edge before hands are on him, dragging him the last bit of the way. Wilbur is whisked away by Phil who immediately pulls out several glittering potions and forces them into Wilbur’s hands.

For his part, Dream sprawls on his back, breath shuddering as he focuses on inhaling and exhaling. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Prime, he can’t remember last time he’s been this exhausted.

No one seems to have the energy to speak. It’s only by sheer willpower that Bad pulls out some birch planks from his inventory, arranging them so that Sapnap can set them on fire with a weary snap of his fingers. Water is silently passed around, and tired as they are, no one is careless enough to spill it.

The Nether is unforgiving. They learned that today.

Someone rustles up a pack of cooked meat, and Dream almost cries in relief when it finally makes its way to him. He doesn’t even taste the food as he mindlessly chews and swallows, desperate for some of his energy to return. The meat is gone all too quickly, and Dream is left sucking the oil off his fingers.

He sits there, unmoving, for who knows how long. Fire crackles, and smoke curls upwards like it wants to escape into the sky, but there’s nothing like that in this hell. There’s no open blue waiting above, no birdsong to laugh along with. There’s only the suffocating scent of heat and death.

Numbly, Dream wonders if this is how animals feel in the moments before their death. Caged, trapped—

Waiting.

“We need to rest.”

Phil is the one to break the silence. His wings dangle limply behind him as if they too are as exhausted as the rest of them. Somehow, though, Phil manages to pull himself to his feet and begin laying out bedrolls. He keeps glancing upwards, as if anticipating an attack. Dream knows that they’re not in the safest location; they’re exposed and on the edge of a cliff. Anything could find them in what passes for night in the Nether.

Still, Phil doggedly prepares their campsite.

“We’re almost there,” he says, words growing faint as he shuffles about the fire. “It’s been an exhausting bit of time, yeah, but we have to press on. We can’t do that if we don’t rest.”

“What about Techno then?” Tommy’s voice is strained, two notches past hoarse as he jerks his chin to where Techno slumps, motionless, to the side. “Is he going to rest?”

“He’s unconscious now, so, yes, he is resting.” Phil’s voice sharpens a tad, but Tommy only lifts his chin higher. It makes him look ridiculous, but Dream can’t help but feel a burst of fondness all the same. “This is part of the price of being champion. This is what Wilbur saved you from.”

“Yeah, well, it seems like Techno didn’t bother saving Wilbur from anything,” Tommy fires back. “Hurt him instead.”

“Tommy.” Wilbur is pale, and he shakes like a leaf from where he sits by the fire, but his eyes are clear when he says, “It’s not Techno’s fault.”

Dream sees Tommy bite back a scoff, but he doesn’t say anything else. Instead, he scoots to Wilbur’s side and lets Wilbur lean on his shoulder. His brow remains pinched, but his eyes soften as Wilbur’s head lists against him.

“Is there any way to stop it?” Bad asks. He’s pinching the flesh between his thumb and index fingers, over and over again, an anxious tick that makes Dream want to take his hand to stop him from hurting himself. “Techno and Dream—Techno saved us this time, but if the bloodlust hurts them…”

Dream interrupts Phil because he can answer.

“We get to the capital,” Dream says firmly. Hoisting himself to sit straighter, Dream carefully arranges his face so that no one sees him wince. There can’t be any room for doubt, not here, and so Dream musters all the energy he has left and says, “Once we kill the king, this won’t happen anymore. We’ll—” Dream has to swallow around a sudden lump in his throat. “We’ll be free,” he finishes.

“What Dream said is right,” Phil says after a long silence in which he levels Dream with an unhappy glance. Dream refuses to look at him, instead keeping his gaze trained on his friends. He wants to drink in every twitch, every sigh, every moment while he can. “This won’t end until we reach the king. And for that to happen, we all need rest.

“Alright, we get it, dad,” Sapnap grumbles. He shoots Dream a look that says, Are you okay? and Dream gives a grimace-shrug that replies, I’m fine, just tired. Satisfied, Sapnap nods and nudges George. “Come on, Georgie-poo. Princess needs his beauty sleep.”

“Shut up,” George says but clambers up anyway. “You’re so annoying. Come on, Bad.”

They follow one another, synchronized in their sluggish movements. As they arrange themselves on the too-small bedrolls, there’s a moment when George pauses, looks over, and very deliberately shifts to leave an inch of extra room beside him. His eyes are questioning.

Dream can read his intent easily enough and starts to shake his head. He’s never had trouble showing his affection for his friends, always the first to sling an arm around their shoulders, but this—This feels too exposing. Dream is scrubbed raw, and his hands tremble even after he clasps them together. He’s the one who dragged them into this. He doesn’t want George to feel his fear.

Phil is watching them, head turning back and forth as George frowns and gestures again, more violently this time. Then, with a sigh, Phil beats his wings once, twice, and then he’s by Dream’s side.

“Go to them,” he says into Dream’s ear. His wings are flared out in a way that covers Dream from George’s view, and the sudden block is enough to make Dream take a shuddering breath and wipe away the stray tear that’s suddenly escaped his eye. “You’re already set on how this ends, so… make the most of the time leading up to it.”

“I can’t,” Dream croaks. He knows he must look like a mess, hair sticking to the back of his neck in a sweaty mess, his face grimy and scarred, but it’s the idea of his friends seeing his tears, asking what it means that scares him the most. “If I go to them, I—I might change my mind. I can’t afford to do that. I won’t.”

Phil’s hand flexes like he wants to reach out and do something like hug Dream, but he doesn’t raise it.

“Trust me, mate,” he says instead. His voice is heavy. He nudges Dream, and there’s genuine sorrow underpinning each word as he says, “There’s no glory in leaving people behind. Especially when you love them.”

Dream shudders once, and then he can’t stop. For a second, he thinks that he’s going to shake apart here on this cliff with only Phil as witness, but then a familiar cadence stretches past Phil’s wings and stills him.

“Dream,” George says, and of course it has to be George, no one else can take him apart and put him back together in a single syllable, “Stop overthinking, and come here.”

“Well,” Phil says quietly. His eyes flicker to the side where Wilbur must be resting, he and Tommy wrapped around one another. “Are you going or not?”

Dream’s chest rises, falls. He squares his shoulders and prepares himself to be brave once again, to be Dream—the champion, the friend.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m going.”

Phil’s wings rise like a curtain parting for actors, and Dream walks to his friends before he can change his mind. Sapnap is already sprawled over two bedrolls, one arm flung over Bad’s stomach, the other behind his head, but he goes easily when Bad prods him over a little bit. Dream lies down gingerly, trying not to disturb his wounds. They’re already better than they were hours ago, and Dream can tell that most of the shallow ones will be gone by morning.

“Hey, Dream,” George says lowly, and there’s no dark here, not really, when lava is constantly crackling from somewhere, but lying here feels intimate still, covert. Sacred, even. “You know you can tell us anything, right?”

“Of course,” Dream says and means it.

“Then,” George shifts so that he’s lying on his side, and one hand comes out to gently grasp the front of Dream’s shirt. “You know you’re not alone. We’re with you, Dream. Always.”

The stinging in his eyes returns, but Dream refuses to give his tears anymore room to run.

“Of course,” he says again.

Reaching out, Dream brushes his fingers over George’s cheek and watches the way his eyelashes flutter. George exhales, a silent sigh as his eyes slide shut, and Dream watches as sleep steals over George. Inch by inch, the furrow of George’s brow relaxes, and his mouth falls open in a half-part until Dream feels the rhythm of tiny puffs of breath ghosting over his face. George is asleep.

He wants to memorize this moment, to sear it across the back of his eyelids until it’s all he sees when he closes his eyes. And if he were a better man—if Dream were a stronger man—he would turn over and go to sleep as well. But because Dream is nothing but himself, flawed and fallen and fragile, he keeps his eyes open until George is all that he can see.

“Good night, George,” he breathes, and then, hardly daring but unable to resist, “I love you.”

The confession is so quiet that it’s barely a whisper. Dream waits with his heart caught in his throat for one, two, three endless heartbeats, but George doesn’t respond, doesn’t move at all save for the rise and fall of his chest. Dream exhales in relief. It’s good that George didn’t hear. That confession wasn’t meant for his ears, not really. That confession was for Dream.

Leaning forward, Dream presses a gentle kiss to George’s forehead and closes his eyes. No matter what waits for them above, no one can take this moment, suspended in amber, away from him.

At least he has this. At least he has this.

 

 

 

 

 

When Wilbur wakes, it’s to two things: a splitting headache and an impossibly low mumble of voices.

He’s about to make his distress known when Tommy’s presence registers. Tommy is lying beside him, chest rising and falling evenly. In his sleep, his brows are furrowed, and Wilbur immediately stifles his groan of pain before it can escape his lips. Unpeaceful as Tommy’s sleep might be, at least he’s sleeping.

That’s more than can be said for the voices that Wilbur hears. As soon as he registers that he is hearing voices and that it’s not the ringing in his ears from his head injury, he holds himself still for one breathless moment. Are they under attack? Is someone sneaking up on them?

Then a distinctive rumble sounds, and Wilbur relaxes all at once. He knows that timbre, that reluctance. It’s Techno. He stiffens as soon as that realization sinks in because, holy shit! It’s Technoblade!

He’s about to sit up and demand to know if Techno is okay, if the blood madness has passed, when he catches a snatch of the conversation.

“—another way,” Wilbur hears, and, oh, that’s Dream, voice wrecked by some unseen emotion. He sniffles. “I know, I know it’s too much to ask, but I have to try—”

“We’ve been over this,” Techno says. He sounds cold and worn down all at once. “There is no other way, and believe me, I’ve searched.”

“I know.” Dream sounds resigned, and Wilbur badly wants to twist around to see what expression Dream is making, but he holds absolutely still instead. He won’t get another chance to overhear something like this again. “I guess, I just… I wish it could be different.”

The rustle of heavy fabric, and a little huff of air. Wilbur tries to imagine what they’re doing. Hugging? No, Techno isn’t tactile enough for that. But the drag of cloth against the ground is distinctively a cape. Dream doesn’t wear anything long enough to sound like that. Maybe Techno has moved closer, enough to press their shoulders together in camaraderie.

It’s a long moment before anyone speaks again.

“You saved us today,” Dream says quietly. “It was incredible.”

A snort, and then Techno’s dry voice saying, “Believe me, it wasn’t intentional.”

“Do you think we could have won if you hadn’t, you know,” Dream probably gestures here. The man is expressive with his hands. “Would we have stood a chance?”

“Maybe.” Wilbur mentally inserts a Techno-shrug here. “From what Phil told me afterwards, the initial blast scared them off pretty badly, but Endermen don’t like being intimidated, ‘specially not in their own territory.”

“So we would have been run down.” Dream’s voice is flat and weary. “Great.”

“Listen, it has nothing to do with skill. The blood lust, it’s…” Techno hesitates and says, “It doesn’t care about the odds. It only cares about one thing, and that’s winning at any cost. Even ignoring your own body.”

Ugh, that was the worst,” Dream says. “I couldn’t tell how many of my injuries were from getting jumped by the soldiers or just from sloppy fighting.”

“Tell me about it. You know, half of my scars are probably just from not blocking while I’m in that state?”

“Seriously? No shit?”

“Yeah. Kind of a raw deal.”

“Huh.”

Wilbur fights down an irrational stab of jealousy as he listens to them banter. He never knew any of that. He’d only known the bare minimum, how Techno lost himself in the battle and became a being that only demanded blood, more blood, more blood—This, the effect on their bodies, the almost joking tone that they, the champions, use when talking about it—

Wilbur has never heard any of it.

He’s still wrestling with the implications when Techno says, “Interesting how we came up with the same solution.”

Wilbur doesn’t have to look to know that Dream freezes.

“Uh…” Dream says. “What are you talking about?”

“The mask,” Techno says. “You know, your creepy smiley face that probably gives small children nightmares, me wearing a literal skull over my face? Those masks?” A pause. “I know it’s been a long day, but you didn’t even hit your head.”

“No, that was Wilbur,” Dream responds snippily.

Another pause, and then, “Touche.”

“I don’t know what you mean, though,” Dream continues. “I mean, I started wearing the mask before I knew any of this champion stuff. It was just a way to hide my identity.”

Techno laughs, “Sure. You’re a smart guy, Dream, you had to know that it would draw more attention to you. A tall blond guy wearing green walking around? Dime a dozen. A tall blond guy wearing green and wearing a freaking mask? You’ve gone and given yourself an identifier.”

“You sound like Tommy,” Dream says, and he doesn’t sound too upset by the comparison. “He told me the same thing.”

“Should have listened to the child then.”

“Heh.”

“Still, my point stands. No one with a critical thinking brain puts on a mask to disguise themself.”

Dream deftly side-steps the topic, saying with a hint of forced mirth, “Are you calling me stupid?”

Techno doesn’t let him dodge.

“Look, Dream,” Wilbur hears him say. “You can deny it as much as you want, but the truth is, you knew. Before Phil and I told you everything, you already knew the truth.”

The truth? What truth?

“And what truth is that supposed to be, Technoblade?” Dream’s voice is as sharp as the edge of his axee, and Wilbur fights down a shiver at the sound of it.

“You and I, we’re not human anymore. We’re monsters.” It’s the same argument that Wilbur has heard from Techno all this time, the same thing that they talked about recently even, but why does it sound so foreboding from Techno? Why does he sound so defeated? “There’s only one thing to do with monsters. That’s why we wear the masks. That’s why we have to run. Given enough time, everyone can tell.”

“I got rid of my mask.” Dream’s voice is defiant. “I’m a lot of things, Techno, but I’m not—I won’t be a monster, not like you say.”

Techno scoffs.

“Did you get rid of it,” he asks with the slightest tinge of meanness, “or did you lose it the same night you lost control of yourself?”

Dream is silent, and Wilbur waits for the witty reply, the snappy comeback. He can think of three off the top of his head, but instead, Dream stays quiet. Confused, Wilbur shifts slightly, legs scraping against the Netherwart. Why isn’t anyone saying anything?

“They’ll be okay, though,” Dream says at last, and the end of his sentence is tipped upwards like a question even though his tone is resigned. “Once it’s all taken care of, they’ll be okay.”

“Of course,” Techno agrees, but he doesn’t sound convinced. “What other choice do they have?”

There’s a sniff and another shuffle. For some reason, Wilbur pictures Tommy sitting beside him on those bleachers, all those years ago. Tommy had a habit of tucking his knees up to his chest, shrinking his gangly self down to a fraction of who he really was. Wilbur always wondered if it was because Tommy was still a child, still needed the reassurance that everything would work out, even if it was only from himself.

He wonders if Dream is doing the same thing now.

“... You’re alright now?” Dream asks after a long beat. Techno grunts in response, and Dream’s voice turns reproaching as he says, “Look, I get the self-sacrificial tendencies and all, but we need you in tip-top shape—”

“Don’t worry about that,” Techno interrupts. “I’m functional. We don’t have much time left anyway.”

Dream falls quiet again before saying, “That’s true.”

A sigh.

“Go to sleep, Dream. Your cuddle pile is waiting for you.”

“Only if you do the same,” Dream answers. “And speak for yourself.”

“... I don’t think—”

“Techno, come on. You really think they would turn you away? After all this?”

“Shut up, nerd, just go to sleep.”

“Only if you do too.”

They must reach some kind of stalemate that Wilbur can’t see because the next thing he knows, there are two steps of footsteps, one headed away from him, and the other in his direction, and—

Something warm drapes over him.

It’s all Wilbur can do to stop himself from flinching in surprise. Instead, he feigns a sleep-heavy sigh and brushes his fingers against whatever is on top of him. It’s thick, soft, and—is that fur?

Suddenly, Wilbur knows exactly what’s on top of him, and he swallows, turning his face into it so that Techno’s cloak hides any wetness that escapes his eyes.

Techno doesn’t say anything. Wilbur listens as the footsteps continue, and for a second, he panics, thinking that Techno is leaving, but they stop after only one or two beats. Wilbur doesn’t hear anything else, and after a moment, he dares to peek, just a sliver.

There, just a foot or so away, Techno sits cross-legged on the ground. His arms are crossed, and his head is bowed towards his chest, jerking up and down every few moments. It can’t be comfortable, and he’s not touching Wilbur in any way. Still—

Wilbur fingers the edge of the cloak and smiles. This time, he drifts off to sleep peacefully.

 

 

 

 

This feels familiar.

Cliff after cliff, lava pool after lava pool—How many more days have passed? The scenery starts to grow old after a while, no matter how much Tommy jokes in his ear to try and cheer him up. Wilbur feels it wearing on him even more than when they first started. Though everyone is marginally more accustomed to the Nether now, that familiarity has also sharpened them, made everyone’s teeth a little more bared, more feral.

At this rate, the only thing that really keeps Wilbur going is the potions that Phil forces down his throat. Ostensibly, they’re to help with his head injury, but Wilbur has a sneaking suspicion that Phil is using strength potions to bulk him up so he can get through the day. Maybe someone should say something about Wilbur essentially being fed steroids, but when Wilbur sits down at the end of the day and massages his swollen feet, well…

He can’t help but feel grateful that it’s not worse.

“We’re almost there,” Phil says quietly while handing Wilbur another shimmering vial. He has to stoop to where Wilbur is sprawled on the floor, taking a break while the hunters chat several feet away. Wilbur grimaces but takes it carefully. “Hang in there a bit more, mate.”

“... I don’t need you to baby me,” Wilbur says after a pause. Pulling a face, he pinches his nostrils shut and chugs the potion, shuddering as the distinctly rotten taste that hits him. “Ugh, that’s vile.”

“That’s what happens when spider eyes are one of the ingredients,” Phil says. It sounds like he’s joking, but there’s a worried crease in his brow that gives Wilbur pause. “Helps though, doesn’t it?”

“I guess,” Wilbur says sullenly. To his surprise, Phil huffs out a short breath of laughter, and Wilbur crossly asks, “What’s so funny?”

Phil waves a hand in the air, saying, “Nothing, it just brings back memories. You never liked taking your medicine as a child either.” He hesitates before adding the next part. “Your mother was always better at getting you to take it.”

Wilbur stiffens.

“She would be proud of you, you know,” Phil continues, determinedly ignoring the tension that’s creeping up on them. “She had big dreams for you.”

“Why are you bringing her up now?” Wilbur asks. He can’t do anything to disguise the hoarseness in his voice. He can’t even remember the last time Phil openly brought her up, and when Wilbur brought her up in that town, Phil’s response had been snappish. “What changed?”

Phil ducks his head so that the brim of his stupid hat covers his eyes. “Nothing has changed,” he says, but Wilbur doesn’t call him out on the lie right away. He wants to hear this first. “Wilbur, you know that I never intended to make her taboo, right?”

“But you did,” Wilbur says. Another wave of nausea passes over him, and he fights it down as the potion roils in his stomach. “When you left her behind—”

“I didn’t,” Phil says. “She chose to stay.”

“Bullshit, she never would have—”

“Wilbur,” Phil says, and for once, there’s no defensiveness in his voice, no self-justification as he looks at Wilbur. Just sorrow. “She chose.” Wilbur can’t seem to find his voice, so Phil continues, speaking softly and gently as if talking to a child. “Something as grand as immortality… It doesn’t come cheaply. I had to pay a price for my immortality, Wil. I don’t regret it, but what I do regret is the pressure that it puts on people I love. At the end of the day, though, I can’t make those decisions for them.”

Wilbur swallows. He doesn’t think the emotion rising in his chest has anything to do with the potion anymore.

“I miss her,” he says, choked. “I miss when we were a family.”

“We still are,” Phil says gently. “You and Techno and even Tommy… You’re my family. And if you let me, I’ll be part of yours too.”

“Didn’t you just meet Tommy?” Wilbur asks just for the sake of being contrary. “You’re a softie, aren’t you?”

“I am,” Phil agrees without hesitating. “It’s the one good thing you got from me.”

Wilbur thinks back to Phil’s opening words, She would be proud, and sniffs hard.Fuck.

As if reading his mind, Phil adds with a small smile, “For the record, I’m proud of you too.”

Wilbur rocks back a little, and for a moment, he allows himself to feel his grief all over again, one so old and familiar it’s like a childhood acquaintance. One. Two. Three. He says hello, and then he bids it goodbye, at least for the moment. Sucking in a deep breath, Wilbur pulls himself back together. He brings his knees up to his chest and tucks his head between them.

“So,” he says, muffled. “Does becoming immortal also make you a dickhead?”

“It might be a side effect,” Phil says agreeably. He lowers himself to the ground with a groan, and Wilbur swears he can hear several joint popping. “But unfortunately, I think it’s simply genetic.”

It takes a moment, but then Wilbur says, “Wait,” and then, “Wait!‘ again as Phil’s eyes crinkle with suppressed mirth. Wilbur is torn between being insulted or impressed as he says, “Did you just roast me?”

“I didn’t roast anyone,” Phil says innocently. “But if the shoe fits, you might want to take a look at yourself.”

Phil.” Loathe as he is to admit it, Wilbur is delighted. “Fuck. That was good.”

“Glad you think so.” Phil stretches his legs and tips his head back towards the Nether ceiling. If they were in the overworld, Wilbur could almost imagine the breeze ruffling his hair. “I’ve missed this with you, Wil. It’s been a while.”

A month ago, Wilbur might have bristled at that and immediately shut him down. He might have leapt to his feet and stalked away, fuming at the injustice of it all, at how Phil could barge back in and pretend to miss him even after making every bad decision on Wilbur’s behalf.

But Wilbur has almost lost Tommy, so instead of yelling or getting angry, he extends his leg and nudges Phil with his foot. Phil looks at him, surprised, and Wilbur doesn’t say anything. Just leaves his foot there, the bare minimum of contact. It’s worth it for the brilliant smile that lights up Phil’s face.

Perhaps, Wilbur thinks, life is too short even for Phil.

“Hey.”

Jolting, Wilbur looks over. George is watching them curiously, head tilted down as he stares. It’s a bit odd to feel shorter than George for once, and Wilbur rises to his feet after a beat of silence.

“Did you need something?” he asks, coughing into his hands.

“Just letting you know that break’s over. We’re going.” George jerks his head back to where Sapnap is currently bullying Tommy into putting away his bedroll for him. They’re snapping at each other, much like two yappy puppies who think they’re fully grown. “Techno says we should reach the portal in a few more hours.”

Techno is currently watching Tommy and Sapnap with a face torn between amusement and annoyment, much like Wilbur feels much of the time.

Phil gets to his feet as well and squints as he looks around before nodding.

“Techno’s right,” he says with a nod. “I hadn’t realized we were so close, but if we push, we could even make it before we break for camp tonight.”

“We’ll reach the end?” Wilbur almost can’t believe his ears, and his chest suddenly feels like a gigantic load has been taken off of it. “Fucking finally. I didn’t know how much longer I could last in this hellhole.”

Phil makes a funny face at the beginning of Wilbur’s statement, but he relaxes, saying, “Yeah, we’ll be up in the overworld again soon.”

“Thank Prime.” Wilbur groans and scrubs a hand over his face. “You have no idea how much I missed fresh air.”

“Well, we have to get there first,” George butts in dryly. “We’re not there yet, so better start walking.”

Without waiting for a response, he turns on his heel and walks back to where the group are waiting, all packed up. Wilbur glances at Phil, who shrugs, and with a chuckle, the two head to join the rest of the group.

Tommy bounces up to Wilbur’s side immediately. To be honest, Wilbur is surprised that Tommy even left him alone with Phil for that long. Since the Endermen attack, Tommy has stuck to Wilbur’s side like glue, refusing to catch up with the rest of the group when Wilbur inevitably flags. Part of Wilbur is embarrassed (he’s older, he’s supposed to help Tommy, to save him, not the other way around), but a larger part of him is grateful to make up for lost time.

“Wil, Wil, did you hear?” Tommy asks. His energy is back, and he’s practically vibrating in place as they fall into a line and begin walking. Dream and Techno lead at the front, Phil flying lazily above them, while George brings up the rear, constantly scanning the landscape. “The overworld! We’re gonna be able to see cows again!”

Wilbur blinks and asks, “What’s so special about cows?”

“They’re just beautiful creatures,” Tommy enthuses. “They’re so innocent, would never hurt a soul—”

“I eat cows,” Sapnap remarks, grinning wolfishly when Tommy turns wide betrayed eyes onto him. “I can’t wait to eat steak again.”

“And I can’t wait to kick your ass!” Tommy retorts, Sapnap responding, “You can try,” without missing a beat, but Tommy turns back to Wilbur. “What’re we going to do first when we get back up there?”

“Dream or Techno probably know what’ll happen better than me,” Wilbur admits. He’s still a bit unclear about what they’re supposed to do. Something about breaking into the castle and killing the king? “You can ask them.”

“But I want to ask you,” Tommy emphasizes. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we reach the overworld again?”

“I—” Wilbur falters. He has to take a moment to think, really think. He’s thought about others for so long, whether finding Tommy or freeing Techno and Dream, that it’s hard for him to even pinpoint something he wants to do. But with Tommy looking at him so expectantly, Wilbur somehow manages to find his tongue and say, “Probably go for a run.”

Tommy snorts. Then he looks at Wilbur again, then again, and then again, and double-takes.

“Wait,” he says. “You’re serious?”

“What’s wrong with running?” Wilbur asks defensively. Sure, it’s not on his list of typical hobbies, but… “I want to feel the fresh air against my face.”

“But you could do that while sitting,” Tommy points out. “You usually do that by sitting.”

“I might have changed!” Wilbur says, feeling weirdly defensive over a hypothetical. “Things have been crazy the past few months, I might have changed my priorities!”

Tommy just levels him a look that reads, You’re crazy, before turning and calling up, “Hey! Dream! Techno! Are we almost there?”

Dream glances over at Techno who must mumble something because Dream calls back, “Techno says he can see it!”

“What! Does being champion give you good eyesight too? What the hell, that’s so unfair!Tommy complains.

Squinting, Wilbur tries to see what Techno is talking about. Try as he might, he can’t make out anything other than the all-too familiar Netherwart that Wilbur is pretty sure he’ll be seeing in his dreams from now on.

“I don’t see anything,” he says. “Are you sure—”

“Shh!” George hisses between his teeth. Wilbur’s mouth clamps shut automatically, though he feels annoyed that he listened. “Wait.”

Wilbur waits, and they turn the corner of a cliff, and then—

He sees it.

The portal is identical to the one in the overworld, shimmering purple impossibly contained by the four oppressive obsidian frames. Even from this far away, Wilbur imagines that he can feel the chill.

“It’s actually there,” George says, drawing up beside him. He sounds stunned for someone who told Wilbur to be quiet only seconds ago. “I didn’t—Part of me didn’t actually think—”

“I get it,” Wilbur says, because he does. After so long of endless walking, fighting off hostile monsters, always looking over his shoulder, the promise of an escape is almost too good to be true. “I really get it.”

“I’ve missed the sky,” George says, so softly that Wilbur almost misses it.

“Hey! Slowpokes!” Sapnap hollers. He’s sprinted up and past them, already almost halfway to the portal as he turns back to wave an arm frantically in the air. “Hurry up! I’m gonna kill and eat a cow!”

Fuck no, you won’t!” Tommy takes off after him, almost tripping in his haste to reach him. Sapnap laughs, more joyful than mocking, and the two take off at a dead sprint towards the portal.

The rest of them go at a more sedate pace, though Phil does fly a bit faster to reach the portal before Tommy and Sapnap, stopping them before they can leap through in their excitement. Their formation is broken now; instead of walking in a line, it’s a loose huddle of overlapping chatter as excitement builds.

Wilbur somehow ends up next to Dream and Bad, Dream looking torn between following Sapnap’s footsteps and running for the portal and staying behind. When Wilbur looks around, however, he sees that George is several steps ahead of Dream. There’s no reason why Dream couldn’t go to him.

No one in their little group says anything for a long moment, and that’s when Wilbur realizes that he’s never talked with Dream, like, at all. Other than the time he pulled Dream’s drugged body to his feet and set off a bloodlust that killed the soldiers that Wilbur set on Dream because…

Well. Maybe there’s a reason they haven’t talked.

“So!” Bad chirps, ever willing to risk the ire of others for the sake of friendliness. “That was fun.”

Wilbur is unable to stop himself from saying, “Do you really mean that? No, look me in the eyes, Bad, and tell me: do you really think it was fun?”

Bad tries to meet Wilbur’s eyes and then deflates all at once.

“I’m sorry!” he wails. “I just thought I’d, you know, try and put an optimistic spin on things!”

“And I appreciate that,” Wilbur says, because he does, and doggedly presses on, “But we’re literally in fucking hell, Bad, it’s okay to admit that it sucks.”

Dream snorts, and when Wilbur looks over, his eyes are bright with mirth.

“It did suck,” Dream agrees. “We almost died a bunch of times, especially to a mob of angry void-beings.”

“But we’re alive!” Bad says weakly.

Dream and Wilbur glance at each, amused. Though they haven’t talked much, Wilbur feels a sudden sense of camaraderie with Dream, the kind that says, I’m too pessimistic to believe whatever this guy’s saying but too optimistic to completely deny it. It’s a weird contradiction to be caught in, but hey, why does the glass have to be half-full or half-empty when it can just exist?

“This is the right one,” Techno says in front of them, pulling Wilbur back to reality. He runs his hands over the portal, barely flinching at the difference in temperature and steps back. “This’ll take us to a forest biome right outside of the capital.”

“Are you sure it’s hidden enough?” Dream asks. He fidgets with his sleeves, tattered and fraying at the ends. “I mean, something like a portal would attract attention, right?”

“Don’t worry,” Techno says. “Surely a group of losers like us will go undetected.” Dream scowls, and Techno ignores him. “Here, catch.”

He tosses something at Dream, the object flying through the air like a frisbee, and Dream snatches it with barely a glance. When he does look down, though, something unreadable crosses his face.

“How did you get this?” he asks Techno, voice hard.

Techno doesn’t back down an inch, looking Dream straight in the face as he says, “Consider it a favor from me. You’re going to need that.”

That’s when Wilbur finally manages to get a good look at what Techno has given Dream. It’s a mask, blank and smiling and terrifying. Inadvertently, a shiver goes down Wilbur’s spine.

“Fuck, not that thing again,” Tommy complains, making a noise of disgust as he sees it. “Freaks the hell out of me.”

“For once, I agree with Tommy,” Sapnap says and scrunches up his nose. “It’s a bad fashion statement at most, dude, don’t wear that shit.”

“I mean, is it really necessary?” Bad chimes in. “He’s not on the run anymore. If anything, we’re on the offense here.”

“I don’t like it,” George says, and that’s it. Wilbur keeps waiting for him to add something on, but George doesn’t finish his statement. Instead, he just looks quietly disturbed with his arms crossed.

“Dream,” Techno says, eyes boring into him. “It’s a reminder. Until we finish what we need to do.”

Phil doesn’t say anything, but he turns away at Techno’s words, closing his eyes.

Dream wavers. “I don’t…” he starts and then trails off. He starts again. “It’s not necessary, Techno.”

“I’m telling you, it is.” And then Techno is reaching into his own inventory and pulling out a skull, jagged and vicious. Bone-white. He settles it over his face, and then Wilbur’s brother is gone. The Blood God stares out instead. “Put the mask on, Dream.”

For some reason that Wilbur doesn’t understand, Dream looks like he wants to cry. But then he steels himself, mouth tightening into a hard line, and Wilbur knows he’s made a decision. Slowly, Dream raises the mask to his face and slips the band into place in the back of his head. In an instant, his aura transforms. Gone is the man who Wilbur has seen joking around with Bad, sparring playfully with Sapnap, teasing Tommy and ruffling his hair, or staring after George with a besotted look on his face. None of that is left.

Instead, Champion Dream looks out in all his glory.

“Come on,” he says, voice echoing strangely behind the mask. “Let’s end this.”

When Dream plunges through the portal, they have no choice but to follow.