The sunlight filters through the screen of trees, casting a dappled greenish light on the forest floor. It is rather late into autumn and the ground is coated in fallen leaves, all gorgeous shades of red and orange and yellow. By all accounts, this is a beautiful day. The sky is brilliantly blue, not a cloud in the sky, the wind blows gently through the branches, and color bursts from every niche and crevasse.
It is peaceful. It is calm. It is safe.
The peace is broken by the pounding footsteps of two boys sprinting through the forest.
“Go,” Wilbur gasps out, shoving Tommy hard in the back. “Don’t slow down, just go-”
Tommy’s breath wheezes in his chest. “I- I can’t-”
He stumbles, and panic shoots through Wilbur. “Go! It isn’t that much farther, we can make it, just keep running, keep running! Tommy Innit, don’t you dare- don’t slow down, we can make it-”
But Tommy is only getting slower and more unsteady, staggering into trees and using them to propel himself forward. He isn’t as good of a runner as Wilbur is. Tommy has spent his entire life in the shithole that is the camps. He never had the opportunity to be exposed to fresh, clean air that people need to grow up healthily, not like Wilbur was. Yes, Wilbur coughs far more than Tommy does as a result of it, but Tommy has never had as much stamina as him and it shows. Tommy can’t keep up. But Wilbur can keep going.
Through the trees, there’s a shout. Wilbur’s head jerks back towards the direction they had run from, but no one is visible.
He whips his head around to look at Tommy as they run again. “You can get on my back,” Wilbur suggests desperately. “C’mon, I’ll carry you, I can-”
Tommy shakes his head violently. “No! I’m going to get caught either way, if you try and carry me then you’ll get-”
“Do you think I fucking care?” Wilbur yells. He has Tommy by the upper arm now, nearly dragging him along by now. “You are not getting caught while I’m still alive! If that-”
An arrow whizzes past their heads, close enough to tug at Wilbur’s hair. Both of them yelp in shock, stumbling to a halt and ducking instinctively as the arrow thuds into a tree trunk. “Go!” screams Wilbur, pushing Tommy forward while more shouts ring out behind them. Tommy, blue eyes blown wide with fear, must be responding to the order out of instinct because he doesn’t hesitate before whirling and racing toward the direction of the safehouse. Wilbur follows right on his heels, covering Tommy’s back with his own body and trying his best to suppress the tickle of the budding cough in his throat.
If there are any gods left to protect them, Wilbur prays they’ll turn a merciful gaze upon Tommy.
He’s just a kid, for Prime’s sake.
He doesn’t deserve this.
He doesn’t deserve any of this. He doesn’t deserve to have spent so many years of his life trapped here in these camps, stolen away from his blood family. For someone native born to the Antarctic Empire, an attempt to escape from Dream’s essempi is punishable by death in some cases. Tommy doesn’t deserve to die.
Wilbur has seen what the executions look like.
Either the guards drag a bloodied body back from the woods, congratulating each other on a good chase, or they set up a harsher death. Wilbur has watched stones being tied to people’s ankles to assure they couldn’t swim to the surface of lakes, has watched hounds be set upon captives, has watched people be left to freeze in snowstorms, has watched bodies in trees sway in the wind. He cannot let that happen to Tommy.
Death is nothing new to Wilbur. She is an old friend of his by now. He has spent too many years struggling through fevers and bloodstained coughs to not know Her embrace. It wouldn’t be too bad for him to sink into Her realm- maybe sad, in the eyes of some, for a eighteen year old to die like this, but no great tragedy. For Tommy to die…
Tommy is meant to live and thrive.
Wilbur is expendable. Tommy is not. If Wilbur dies now, he has to assure that Tommy gets to the safehouse and survives. No matter what happens, he cannot let his adopted brother die.
Thin, leafless branches whip at his skin as he runs, but Wilbur doesn’t care. This is why he wrapped Tommy in his trench coat before they left, to protect him from these kinds of cuts and injuries. One particularly harsh branch with small thorns sticking out of it catches on Wilbur’s cheek and he grunts in pain as his skin tears and blood beads along the cut. Tommy glances at him, and Wilbur cuts him off before he can even speak. “I’m fine, just-”
He coughs heavily, slowing slightly as he tries to catch his breath, and this time it’s Tommy who seizes his arm. “No, no, no, Wil, come on! You said we’re almost there!”
“Tom-” Wilbur is cut off with another hacking cough, doubling over and steadying himself against a tree. Each cough sends a sharp pain through his chest, and they aren’t stopping. All he can do is attempt a few steps forward before another bout of coughs overtakes him.
Tommy grabs his arm and slings it over his shoulder. “You said we could make it, don’t fucking- don’t fucking give up, you can make it-”
Wilbur clutches at his chest with his other hand, unable to protest verbally, and Tommy takes off again. They run in exhausted silence, barely half the speed they were before between Tommy’s dwindling stamina and Wilbur’s failing lungs. When they started running, the sun had just set over the trees. Now it shines bright above the treeline. Wilbur thought the night would cover them, and it had. But their absence was discovered far too early and they weren’t as far along as they should have been, and now Wilbur and Tommy are running for their lives in broad daylight while people on horseback chase after them.
He thought the safehouse was closer.
They were told it was closer.
Why aren’t they there yet?
When the arrow strikes Wilbur’s back, he doesn’t process it at first. All he feels is a blunt force between his shoulder blades, strong enough to knock what little air was in his lungs out and send him toppling to the ground. He hits the ground hard and gasps automatically at the impact. Tommy lets out a choked cry, instantly dropping to his knees next to him. “Wilbur!”
“Don’t stop!” Wilbur gasps. “I’ll-”
Tommy’s voice is shrill with panic. “There’s a fucking arrow in your back, Wil!”
Wilbur fumbles to reach his back, and finally the pain hits. An agonized groan slips past his gritted teeth, and he forces himself up. “Go- don’t stop for me, the safehouse is just-”
“No!” Tommy glances behind them, eyes wild. “I’m not leaving you!”
“You have to!” Desperation floods Wilbur’s voice as he shoves Tommy towards the direction of the safehouse. “Tommy, please! I’ll distract them, you run-”
“I’m not leaving you!”
The first horse comes into full sight through the trees. Without a second thought, Wilbur whirls in place, shunting Tommy behind him so that the boy’s body is entirely shielded by Wilbur’s. It’s a good thing that he does, because the next arrow would have gone through Tommy’s heart.
Instead, it buries itself just underneath Wilbur’s ribcage.
Tommy screams. Wilbur stumbles, mouth open in shock, and his knees buckle. He nearly collapses right on top of Tommy, who barely manages to catch him and lower him fully to the ground. Wilbur lets out a low moan of pain, and Tommy’s hands press against the wound. “No, no, no, no- fuck, Wilbur, what do I do, what do I-”
Wilbur grasps at Tommy’s hands, pulling them away from the wound. Even that small movement sends searing pain shooting through his abdomen, and he makes a strangled noise. This is not the first time he’s been shot. There are countless scars on his forearms and torso from blades and arrows alike, and over the years he grew used to the pain of deep injuries. This is different. This is pain that makes his vision waver and darken at the edges, makes his body convulse against his will, makes him cough and-
He doesn’t realize that he’s coughing up blood until Tommy’s shaking hands are attempting to wipe it away. It only serves to smear more blood over Wilbur’s face. Tommy sobs, and Wilbur slides back into reality. “Go- they’re coming-”
For a moment that feels far too long to Wilbur, Tommy looks torn.
Then Tommy’s face hardens into determination. Wilbur’s vision whites out and he chokes out a scream as Tommy hauls him up by the arms in one clumsy motion, jostling the arrow in his gut. Immediately his legs give out, and Tommy grunts in effort as he struggles to keep Wilbur up. If it were any other time, Wilbur would have lightly pushed him away, stood up on his own, put himself in between the men after then and his baby brother. But now, with two arrows stuck in very crucial places, all Wilbur can do is lean heavily on Tommy and fight for breath through the pain.
The only time that could even begin to be comparable to this is when Wilbur broke his ankle trying to get over the fence before the guards caught them. He hadn’t been able to hide Tommy then, and Tommy had lost a week’s worth of rations for it. The punishment of a broken ankle was deemed enough for Wilbur. Even then, he had insisted upon giving Tommy his rations instead.
Wilbur can’t do anything here. Not in this situation. Not with his blood pooling in dark red puddles on the ground underneath their feet. Not while the guards who had been chasing them are catching up, circling them, trapping them.
He can feel Tommy stumble, trying to find a way out. Wilbur’s vision flickers in and out, and he makes a weak attempt to turn Tommy towards a gap he thinks he sees. Tommy starts forward, and instantly the gap closes. A horse rears, and both of them flinch back. Deeper into the circle.
There’s no way out.
Tommy lets out a soft sob, pressing against Wilbur’s side, and a desperate surge of protectiveness rushes through Wilbur. Forcing the pain to the back of his mind- he’s fine, he’s fine, ignore the warm wetness covering his stomach and making his hands sticky, Tommy’s safety is more important than his own- Wilbur shoves himself in front of Tommy. Immediately, bows and swords rise at the movement, and Tommy makes a frightened noise. “Wil-”
“Two little runaways,” purrs a voice, and Wilbur’s heart sinks. Of course their escape captured the attention of the captain of the guard. “You put up quite a chase, I’ll give you that, but it’s time to go back home now.”
“We are going home,” Wilbur hisses, fighting back a wave of pain. Tommy’s hands clutch at Wilbur’s coat, gathering the fabric up into fistfuls. “This was never our home, you fucking bastards took us-”
The captain clicks his tongue mockingly. “Now, now, did you really think you’d make it? All the way to the Antarctic Empire? Nevermind the fact that the border is way south of here, but what was your plan to get past the soldiers? Better come back to camp.” He gives Wilbur a sharp grin. “Get those wounds healed, perhaps?”
Tommy whimpers into Wilbur’s coat, drawing closer. Wilbur tries his best to maintain eye contact with the captain despite the way his vision swirls, mind whirling in panic.
He’s losing blood quickly. They are completely surrounded by armed guards on horseback. Tommy is stuck to his side like a burr, depending on him for safety and protection. Depending on him for a way out.
There is no way out.
Even if there was, Wilbur won’t make it.
His state of frozen panic ends up making the decision for it.
One moment, Tommy’s warmth is pressed against him. And then the captain’s eyes flick from Wilbur’s. There’s the jostling sound of movement behind them and-
The warmth is gone.
Tommy screams. “Wilbur!”
Horror stabs through Wilbur at the sheer terror in Tommy’s voice and he turns fast enough that his vision spins. One of the guards has his little brother’s wrist held in an iron grip, tall enough atop the horse that Tommy has to scramble for stable purchase on the ground. Tommy is thrashing and flailing in the guard’s hold, fighting as hard as he can against the guard but he can’t get free. “Wilbur!” Tommy wails again, terrified desperation taking over his voice, and fright jolts up Wilbur’s spine.
“Tommy!” he shrieks, the gravity of his wounds forgotten as he lunges at the guard. No one touches Tommy like that, no one hurts Tommy, no one puts that kind of fear in his eyes, no one separates him from his brother-
A different guard gets in between them before Wilbur can reach Tommy. Wilbur slams into the horse’s side and catches a harsh boot in his ribs, knocking the breath out of him. Distantly, Wilbur registers that Tommy is screaming again, and the guard backhands him across the face. Wilbur crashes to the ground, and his vision blacks out completely.
For a moment, Wilbur remains in darkness. Simply floating in the black, no pain or fear or feeling. No awareness.
He comes back to consciousness to the sound of screaming and struggling. Wilbur doesn’t process it fully at first, lost in a haze of pain in confusion. Then rough hands snatch the front of his coat, dragging him up, and Wilbur keens in pain as his back is slammed against a tree trunk. He is held there for merely a minute, the volume of the voices around him making his head ache, but he’s released just as quickly. Wilbur crumples to the ground, the coppery tang of blood rising in the back of his throat as he coughs.
“No! No, stop- let go of me! Wilbur!”
Wilbur lifts his head. “Tommy,” he croaks out. There are blurry shapes ahead of him, fuzzy figures of horses and men and in the thick of it, the small blond boy Wilbur calls his brother.
They’re taking him.
They are taking his brother.
“No…” Wilbur struggles to his hands and knees, reaching futilely towards Tommy. “No, Tommy! Tommy! Stop! You can’t- don’t take him-!”
A forceful kick flips him onto his back. Wilbur lets out a strangled cry, and the captain’s boot comes down hard on his chest. “I’d say don’t follow us,” he says, too casual for the sickening fear and pain coursing through Wilbur’s body. “But I don’t think you’ll survive five more minutes.”
Tommy is still screaming. Choking cries and sobs that tear through Wilbur’s heart more efficiently than any weapon could. The boot on his chest lifts, and all Wilbur can do is roll over and raise himself to his elbows. In the split second that his sight focuses, he catches a clear view of Tommy’s face. Smudged with dirt and blood, eyes wild with fear and hysteria. Mouth forming Wilbur’s name in a desperate plea.
Wilbur lets out a guttural wail, a horrific, despairing sound. Nothing answers him apart from Tommy’s terrified sobbing. And even that fades, drowned out by static that’s overwhelming loud in his ears. Wilbur’s head dips, vision darkening for a moment. But the moment is all that it takes for him to all too suddenly be alone in the clearing.
Agony like someone has stuck a white-hot rod into his gut makes him curl in on himself, helpless in the dirt and fallen leaves. They’ve taken his brother from him. Wilbur failed to keep Tommy safe, failed to get him out of here, failed to keep the one promise he swore on his life that he would keep. He swore he would protect Tommy with his life.
Now Tommy is gone. And Wilbur is paying with his life.
His blood is sticky and hot when he brings his hands to his abdomen. The guards didn’t give him the mercy of pulling out the arrows, leaving Wilbur to slowly bleed rather than let the blood rush out in streams. His fingers twitch and shake, and he knows instinctively that he is not strong enough to pull out the arrows and finish the job himself.
Wilbur is going to die a slow, painful death, and Tommy is going to be taken who knows where.
Perhaps the guards did do him mercy by leaving him in the dirt to die. Wilbur is allowed to die. But if they didn’t kill Tommy on the spot, didn’t stab him and leave him to bleed with Wilbur, then he won’t die immediately upon return to camp either. Tommy could be tortured. Either a show will be made out of his death, or he will be sent to work in even harsher conditions. No matter what, Tommy will not rest as quickly as Wilbur is right now.
He lost Tommy.
It was his plan that got them to this place. It’s Wilbur’s fault that Tommy was taken.
Blood is starting to fill his mouth, choking him. Wilbur’s body convulses, and he sobs quietly. Things should not have ended like this, but it’s too late to stop it. There is nothing Wilbur can do now but give in to the darkness creeping in at the rims of his vision.
So he gives in.
Wilbur lets his hands fall away from his stomach, feeling his fingers already stiffening. Blood trickles out from between his lips, spilling down the side of his cheek, and Wilbur breathes out shakily. He’s seen what happens to victims of blood loss. He knows what is going to happen to him. There’s nothing he can do to stop it.
His blood is the only thing keeping him warm.
Wilbur’s eyes drift shut, and a swell of panic floods his body. He recognizes this drowsiness, this fatigue, this tiredness that takes over his senses and dulls his nerves. He recognizes it from a friend long past, falling asleep before they got through the woods and never waking up. He recognizes it from the countless times that he’s worked in the medical tent, the way a person would mumble through numb lips that it would just be a small nap, just a brief moment of rest. There’s a reason why medics do everything in their power to keep their patients awake, and it’s because passing out is dangerous. If he falls asleep, he will not wake up.
But there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
Gradually, the panic lessens until all Wilbur can feel is an all encompassing numbness. No fear, no pain, no warmth. Simply numbness.
And then the numbness is gone.
And Wilbur feels nothing.