Pandora's Box - rabbitsintheclouds - Dream SMP [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Chapter 1: Far

Summary:

Tommy clings to his last hope in the form of a compass and a party.
Dream decides Tommy won't have either.

And while everything appears to be painfully real, nothing is ever what it seems.


Pandora's Box - rabbitsintheclouds - Dream SMP [Archive of Our Own] (1)

Notes:

Important Edit: pay attention to the OOC by nature tag! This is obviously not going to be a faithful portrayal of the characters because of the nature of fanfiction, AUs, limited PoVs and the biggest culprit which is that of an unreliable narrator (aka pandora's box!Dream). Any vilification, exaggeration, or altered characterization is for the purpose of story-telling exclusive to this fic.

Also small reminder that works rated M are intended for mature audiences (this can be 16/17+ or up to 18+ in some cases; if we're going by an average rating standard for visual media). Graphic violence, death, drug use, torture, suicide, abuse, explicit language, and all the rest of the tags will be handled in a manner that may be unsuitable for those under 16. Reader discretion is advised.


Thoughts of Pandora's Vault and the AU of God!Dream made my dumbass brain go brrr--

Alright bear with me, the first few chapters of this have Tommy and the Exile Arc, and things and actions won't quite make sense until more and more context is gathered.

This whole fic takes minecraft mechanics, and minecraft lore and puts it through a meat grinder-- some things are followed, some aren't, sort of a eh, f*ck it, if it works for the story situation.

As this goes on it will start to get into all sorts of things, like the Eggpire, Quackity's Las Vegas/Nevadas, Sam's Capitalism Arc, the Syndicate, nukes and destruction, gods and the idea of immortality etc. etc. fancy philosophical stuff.

If you have a question feel free to ask and I might have an answer!

(Also I haven't quite gone back through and edited all the minor mistakes with capitilaization, grammar, etc. in this it's just hard as hell to do on a phone so apologies in advance-- I'll get to it some day or maybe when I finally finish this.
And if you see the summary change for this fic just pretend you didn't I am indecisive!)

(And yes, there is absolutely a reason that the cover art for this fic is Fundy and Dream, it will all make sense in due time-- and no it isn't mind control or something, it's just two dudes trying to survive against some evil crimson Egg and some other cosmic shenanigans fhdjjdjd)

--Additinal CW/TW's: none; the tags cover this one.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

There's something quietly peaceful that settles over Dream's mind as he listens to Tommy talk and talk and talk about his little beach party.

All excited, swinging his arms in wide, animated gestures the kid pushes and shoves and crafts decorations. Tables from logs and chairs from stumps sunk in the sand, all slightly askew. Stubbornly chaotic even as Ghostbur trails behind, shifting every object until it seems perfect, his voice less tremulous, richer, steady as he echoes Tommy's sentiments.

And Tommy's more alive than he's been since he was exiled.

A warmth in his voice, that familiar spark that had nearly been snuffed out returning to a steady flame. Defiance latched on to a fantasy.

Dream watches from the slope that overlooks the beach. Down below, Ghostbur struggles to drag the heavy object in his translucent grip. Tommy curses as he's forced to shoulder the extra weight on the other end. They fall, the wood plank hits the sand with a thump.

Laughter fills the air.

A relic of the original L'Manberg living on in the two people who couldn't be further from its legacy.

He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets, chin dipping as his eyes narrow behind the safety of his mask.

Tommy yells something his way. Dream smiles, never really needing to, and not always wanting to, but he does it anyway as he takes sliding steps down the dune.

It was easier to pretend that way.

And by the time the sun starts to sink lower, the beach is lit with fancy torches. All inviting and warm, and yet still liminal and only ever temporary.

He's played his part and as he stands shoulder to shoulder with Tommy, he watches the sun crawl towards the blue line of the horizon. His face is blank behind the mask. Emptier than even the dead eye smile etched on the front.

"Since I can't go to L'Manberg, I can give the invitations to Ghostbur and he'll--" Tommy stumbles over the words, rushed excitement tripping up his tongue, "he'll give them out to everyone."

Blue eyes dart to the ground and then up towards Dream and then back again. Tommy's heel sinks in the sand with a twisting kick. "Right?"

Dream looks on, eyes dead, lips flattened into a harsh line. Always out of sight and out of mind. Despite that, his tone of voice remains only ever friendly. "Yeah, that should work."

Tommy stares at him a moment longer, thumbing at the pulse of some other phrase and Dream watches the kid open his mouth, shut it with a click and then look increasingly frustrated.

Eyes skate away again, the spark of a glare manifesting, dark circles catching less light as Tommy dips his chin.

Looking up with the taunt stance of a flinch at the ready, Tommy mumbles, "thank you."

It's such a quiet thing and Dream's lips tug up into a smile on one side. Still, it's not enough.

Dream tilts his head. "Sorry, what was that?"

Tommy grimaces, crosses his arms and throws his gaze back towards the water. Always just some defense mechanism that was nothing more than a hastily constructed sense of standoffishness. "I said 'thank you', you want me to f*ckin' say it again, Dream?"

Dream laughs. "You're welcome, Tommy."

Success comes in the form of a sweeping smile across Tommy's face, a snort of laughter as his eyes roll and he looks away again.

It's another coffin nail hammered into the box shaped sense of camaraderie between them.

Dream gives a nod, a small audible hum under his breath as he looks back out towards the ocean just the same.

Like a dog given the order to stop heeling, Tommy scrambles into action, leaving his side with curses back on his tongue as he runs up to the tent, kicking up clouds of sand the whole way. "Ghostbur!" A sigh, a loud tsk, and the kid forges on, "Where the f*ck's that dickhe*d gone now..."

--

By the time Dream makes to leave, the sun's already tucked below the sea, the stars flickering across the expanse of the night sky like distant echoes to the endless burn of the torches now lining the shore.

Tommy is still sitting there on the beach, waves lapping at his tattered shoes. A track plays on the jukebox, filtering down the hill with it's distant, melancholic tune.

It was moments like this that he was reminded of who Tommy really was, just a mortal kid. Small and uncaring for the creatures that wandered the night. As if he's made safe by the very idea that he won't be so alone even if it's just for one day.

And maybe Tommy was right.

If fearlessness could make someone invincible, then Tommy would be untouchable.

But there is a stark contrast to the image of someone willing to scream in his face and swing a sword at him versus the figure huddled on the beach, knees drawn up to his chest.

"They'll come. I built the bridge, they don't--" Tommy cuts off with a shake of his head before he keeps talking down to something in his hand. "There's no excuse now … Surely not."

The slow tumbling notes of music fill the silence and--

And there's something in Tommy's hands, his eyes drawn to it like a call to danger. It's certainly not the invites he'd watched Tommy press so eagerly into Ghostbur's palms, the spirit giving a mock salute before heading off.

Dream walks on silent steps, the irritated spectre cast in the long fractured shadows of Tommy's silhouette as he moves along the top of the hill to try and get a better line of sight.

Whatever it is, it's glowing softly with an enchantment, round and palm sized. Tommy lets his hand fall, knuckles hitting the sand and a red needle spins a moment before settling back to point across the sea.

Dream holds back a twisted scoff behind bared teeth, fingers folding into fists at his sides. Slow and automatic, all before he can force them to lie smooth, iron out the rankled form of some bent and crooked sense of betrayal before it grows out of control.

For a fleeting second of something pitying and stupid, he'd felt that pang of wayward sympathy chomp at his heels until he seriously considered letting the kid have his party.

The glint of fire light in the compass's glass taunts him.

It's clear now.

It was never enough to simply convince Tommy. That no matter how many times he claimed that Tubbo held no remorse, claimed that he left his compass in a chest, claimed that he said L'Manberg was better off without such a liability-- no matter how close he pushed Tommy to the edge he'd always dance back from it, compass in hand.

It would never be enough.

No, not when Tubbo walked around with one to match, eyes glued to the needle, watching where it pointed with a look in his eyes that's always too conflicted.

It's the same look Tommy casts across the water.

It's the look of someone who doesn't understand.

L'Manberg could never have a Tommy.

It would never again have some spark of rebellion, it's destructive thirst for some empty freedom, it's unwavering and hollow independence in the shape of a boy too fearless for his own good.

Just as it would never again have a Wilbur Soot.

And it all would work perfectly.

Because he'd done his part, right?

Sacrifices had to be made and unruly pawns dealt with, if there was ever going to be any sense of control. Any semblance of peace. Any hope of a return to something before the declaration of the very thing that set the world up for a cyclical sort of suffering.

They forced his hand, and so he played his part. The role handed down to him, not by any divine right, but by a man who thought himself anything but a tyrant until the day he begged for a sword through the chest in the ruins of his own country.

And in the aftermath, his hand was forced again to do this. Forced to fill that hollowed out shape of a person between two people lest Tubbo and Tommy keep up the endless endeavor of their little Us versus Dream game. Because it was tiresome and maybe they'd come to see reason, and maybe it was also amusing.

Regardless of the motive, it was better this way.

And at one point, he had actually been their friend.

And for what?

Time wasted on some childish god-damned game of trying to pretend like he was actually allowed to care still. Like somehow he could still find it in himself to want anything but for every iteration of L'Manberg to be scattered into ashes and dust. Destroyed beyond recognition for everything it had done, every beast and monster it cultivated and crafted under it's birth. Every wrong and hurt and-

And New L'Manberg was the same. It would always be the same.

He'd do just about anything to wipe it off the map, even go so far as to play along, fulfill the role of ally, of friend so well that for a frightening moment he'd considered actually leaving the country alone only for it to stir up more trouble. He'd almost thought that it could be something, as if he hadn't been proved wrong time and time again. Like somehow he'd come to foster a sense of allyship in a chess game that's dragged out for too long? As if he'd ever have the audacity to let himself lose again?

His nails dig into his palms, a quake running up both arms.

At this rate, he doesn't think he'll be able to watch the nation fall until the damn near end of the world.

His thoughts become cyclical, a deluge of the same angry currents until they grow sour and bitter.

No, no... All of it, all the stupid obsessions, the discs, the compasses, the clinging to some dead idea, it's about what he expected. It's the same bullsh*t over and over again, the same hurts, the same transgressions, the same betrayals, the same molasses crawl towards the idea that everything was always going to turn from solace to dagger stuck in his back. He should've expected that.

Tubbo clinging to someone who would sooner defy everything and everyone all for two discs, all for the false narrative of some country built on the idea of rotten bones and rotten blood.

And in exile Tommy clung back, so desperately stubborn he'd stay up all night waiting for something that will never happen. The same sort of naivety that led him to fight a war for a nation that was never meant to be anything more than some snake oil balm. Some too good to be true remedy for the ailment of always running away from the idea of home.

And if Tubbo visits, if anyone makes it to that party, any illusion of control is over. If Tommy leaves exile he doesn't know what he'll be forced to do, he doesn't know if having the discs will ever be enough. He doesn't know if any of it will ever be enough to scrub away all the goddamn wrongs, the wrinkles in time, the nasty scrapes and bruises in the story.

Dream turns away, manifesting Nightmare in a shimmer of purple light. The axe blade glints like the misshapen fang of a wolf smiling in the dark.

The notes from the jukebox play through the night.

He has a ghost with some invites to hunt.

And as he walks away, he doesn't see Tommy look back. He doesn't see eyes search the shadows beyond flickering torch lights, he never hears the last lingering whisper of,

"Dream?"

Notes:

Listen I know it seems like just another Tommy angst fic, but I can 100% guarantee this is very much Dream angst [f*ck it, it's probably considered whole server angst by the end of it.]

Edit Jan 2022
It's been over a goddamn year since this fic started :'D holy sh*t

Chapter 2: This Blade Shouts "Ruin!"

Summary:

Dream knows ghosts can't die, but memories can.

Remembering is always the problem.

And the worst part is, there was never much of a difference between dreams and memories in the first place; easy to get lost in, easy to get confused by.

But this, it's all real... right?

Notes:

The title is a reference to the angel Cassiel and his blade that dripped lightning and slayed kings.

Additional Trigger Warnings and Content Warnings: graphic descriptions/depictions of death and dying, description of neck wounds, blood, character death and ghost character death (both temporary), extreme themes of distress, muddled sense of reality, unreality (to be safe), dissociation, and unreliable narration!!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Dream cuts Ghostbur down before the spirit can even shut the door to his sewer home. All it takes is a netherite axe cleaving straight through him with hardly a sound apart from a short-lived whistle against the air.

The spectre's eyes don't even have time to widen, he's simply one moment in the doorway, the next gone. And it's not like he's killing him. Ghosts don't die as far as he knows, but they could dissolve, evaporate, and reappear back where they sprang up. It wasn't the first time Ghostbur had gotten himself caught up in a temporary death, he'd be back soon enough all a bit confused and dazed.

No, he's not here for the satisfaction of killing anything, he's here for those invites; that's it. Dream stares down at the items left behind, scattered across the cobblestone.

They all have an odd flimsy quality to them, as if they eroded from reality every second Ghostbur held them in his inventory.

Upon a quick glance, he sees there's too much blue, easily being a hundred brittle rocks of the powdery substance the ghost loved to offer to all his friends. Dream nudges at one with the toe of his boot.

'Here, have some blue, Dream.'

Everytime the ghost handed him blue, everytime he crushed it under his fingers and smeared it across his skin it only shifted closer to navy, and then a blueblack so dark it resembled obsidian, and from there it refused to change color no matter how long he held it. And it never made that tight knot in his chest any looser. It never did what the ghost and his friends claimed it did.

It was the same results every time. Again and again, he hardly knows why he bothers with it anymore.

So when he crouches down and sweeps the blue aside, he pays no mind to the fact each one instantly bleeds a darker shade all the way to navy.

Beneath the pile lies a stack of photographs. Pictures of L'Manberg and her surrounding territories, other corners of the little world, of the people who lived there, of friends and allies, family, and so unlike the empty one's Dream saw stitched into the canvas sides of Tommy's tent.

He sifts through vials of ink, pens, and journals, a book titled Things I Remember.

Nothing.

He searches the ghost's home.

Nothing.

He steps back out with a calmness like the early roll of storm clouds, gently closing the door until it clicks shut behind him. Now all that's left is to stare down at the items left behind once more. Crouching down on his haunches, elbows resting on his knees, his fingers twitch before curling and then uncurling, repeating the gesture.

Nothing.

The fire of every torch snuffs out like a final breath. And the world plunges into a darkness that resembles a suffocating box of pure obsidian.

A dark, fathomless, burning thing sealed shut by lava and he blinks, tossing his head like a sick dog- chasing out that awful image, that screeching ring in his ears the crunch and grind of redstone that isn't there-

He's not there. He's not--

Desperately reaching forward in the dark his palms hit loose items and the world rights itself into the image of an empty sewer absent of light.But his shoulders still leap with panicked breaths and his mind is still churning reds and angry lines that crunch and clash and before he can stop himself he's throwing all those items Ghostbur left behind right into the cobblestone wall on the tail end of a shout, glass and blue stones shattering under the force.

And then he keeps going. Paper tears, the sound of objects splashing into the water echoes too loud. Objects scraping stone, clattering and breaking and rattling, he swipes at every single one. Ignoring the way his fingertips and knuckles split bloody and messy against the rough corners of the cobble stone, a lasting red testament because the wounds were already stitching themselves shut.

Shoulders heaving, hunched over like an animal, Dream stares into the immediate nothing of absolute darkness. A knot of frustration tight in his chest, still squirming, unsatisfied and he can't even begin to place why the hell it's even there. Teeth bared on open mouthed pants, they spread across his own lips and cheeks, hot air trapped momentarily behind the curve of his mask.

He stands, mechanical and detached, ztamping down everything until he's stepping forward without care, something crunching under heel. Fists swinging at his sides, his back straight, each step eats up a length of darkness with an unnatural silence, as if the the very sounds themselves were too afraid to echo.

-

Up on the surface is always bright even at night. It stays well lit by the copious amounts of torches, lanterns, and other fixture strewn chaotically about in the newest iteration of L'Manberg.

Dream's heels hit the wooden path with dull, deliberate thuds as he treks across the boardwalks of the newly rebuilt nation.

He dons no armor, carries no weapon, nor ill will or aggressive intent as he follows the laws of the land and plays along. It's only right.

His steps quiet on instinct, the sight of a black and white figure in the distance registers first as a threat and then something almost friend, or maybe as someone too familiar somewhere in the back of his brain, setting him on edge until the hair at the nape of his neck stands on end.

Ranboo is the first to turn his head. It's just enough for his crown to glint in the warm light, just enough for a red eye to stare him down. Dream stops in his tracks, waiting, watching, and taking note of the way the kid's tail goes from a wide swing to a tight flick, sharp ears pinning back ever so slightly.

But he isn't here for Ranboo, he's here for Tubbo. The both of them having some quiet conversation facing out towards the docks of New L'Manberg. And while Tubbo carries on, it's Ranboo who keeps looking over his shoulder, and having to stare the ender in the eye for even a second makes him bristle. It's some prickling and clawing sensation at that space near the back of his skull that builds until the roots of his teeth ache and his gums itch.

With a practiced ease, he pretends it's nothing. His molars separating from their bone crushing crunch until he's able to do the same greeting he always does, a friendly palm raised, a soft cordial, Hello.

Tubbo jumps, whipping around, hand brought to his chest, "D-Dream--" the president's eyes dart nervously towards Ranboo before centering, "How long have you been standing there?"

Dream tilts his head. He scrutinizes the way that Tubbo's eyes were always brighter than Tommy's, always so much like a loyal dog lighting up when it spots its owner.

"Not long," Dream says on a grin hooked too high on one side, "why, are you trying to hide something from me?"

It's spoken like a joke, it reads as a threat.

"No, no--" Tubbo laughs, gesturing clumsily to Ranboo and then to the lanterns hanging in the air, "just, y'know, showing Ranboo the lanterns Wil- Ghostbur's put up."

"They're nice." Dream tilts his head back as if to admire the handiwork.

"How's--" Trailing off, guilt flashes in Tubbo's eyes. A brilliant, fleeting thing followed up by a tug at the corner of his lips. "How's Tommy?"

The night air crackles, light seeming to bend around the sudden tension. Dream's lip curls, eyeteeth glinting in an unseen threat.

Ranboo shuffles. Not so much as putting himself between Tubbo and danger, but with one foot angled in front of the other, he looks ready to jump in front of the shorter kid.

"Dream," Ranboo starts, trying to calm a situation he shouldn't even be apart of, hovering like a gnat.

They've never even spoken before, not technically, and here the ender is trying to play the part of mediator. Dream knows the role too well and that makes it all the more insulting.

Dream bites back the aggression threatening to crawl its way out of his throat. "Listen, I need to speak with Tubbo… alone."

Conceding after a second of hesitation, Ranboo gives a tiny bow. His mismatched eyes meet Tubbo's own and something passes between the two before the ender is slipping off into the night.

The ensuing silence is loud.

Tubbo takes half a step forward, question scrawled on his brow.

Dream watches. Uncertainty, fear, and a contained sort of despair crawl across Tubbo's face. Tubbo pulls the compass out of his pocket a heartbeat later and cups it in both hands. Eyes glued to the steady swing of the needle, shoulders jumping with fast, frantic breaths before Tubbo looks up and only asks--

"Dream?"

He'd heard the same flavor of fear drip from Tubbo's voice once before, a different name falling from that tongue.

And no, he's not--
That's not--

He's not Schlatt.

Dream rushes to smooth out his posture. Hands up and placating, switched from the flashing danger of a black suit and ram horns in Tubbo's mind to the friendly shape of soft greens and open palms.

"Tommy's fine- he's fine." Dream says, managing a comforting smile that goes unseen, it remains just on the edge of too sharp.

He moves forward then, placing a hand on Tubbo's shoulder, gentle and reassuring. Even when every dangerous impulse in him begs for that compass to be smashed to pieces.

Tubbo visibly relaxes. "I thought--" he sniffs, following it up with a sigh, "for a moment I…"

Trailing off, Tubbo pockets the compass.

There's a sweeping change in composure then. A darker glint in Tubbo's eyes as he finally tilts his chin up and even though he says nothing, the glint of unshed tears and a clenched jaw says everything.An unspoken accusation.

"I wouldn't kill him."

"No-- no--" Tubbo corrects, eyes wide and head shaking, "I wasn't suggesting that you'd- I know you wouldn't, Dream, even after everything."

Eyes narrowing ever so slightly, Dream becomes the cat satisfied by its quarry. He removes his hand, letting Tubbo take a step back.

"I'm just... I think I'm more worried that Tommy will do something..." Tubbo trails off, looking down at his shoes.

A single bursting bubble of lava echoes in Dream's ears. Then comes the feeling of someone squirming under the sole of his boot, the cringe worthy sound of nails scratching and splitting on stone, the heaving sigh of defeat, it's never my time to die--

"To Tommy," Dream finishes for him.

The chirp of crickets fills the space between them, Tubbo nods instead of answering outloud.

"I- uh, I do need to talk to you about something," Dream continues, rocking back on his heels. "About, well- about Tommy actually. It's something important."

Dream doesn't give Tubbo room to refuse as he walks past him and knows he'll hear those shorter strides follow.

He's not disappointed.

-

"What's this about then?" Tubbo says as he shuts the door behind them, his voice remaining only ever an aggravating hopeful. "You've thought about letting him come back to visit haven't you?"

The words and their meaning scratch at his ears and Dream grimaces without comment.

Already moving across the office, Dream trails his fingers along the edge of the desk. That thing only a little less than vacant now. Dark mahogany and water damage rings from whiskey glasses and no coasters, all of which belonged to a far more imposing figure. Something as dangerous as hesitating at the crossroads and waiting on some devil to latch on to the tasty offer of a deal. That sort of threat is diminutive now.

Sifting through the stacks of paper, Dream spots a few of Tommy's invites with their tattered uneven edges, their spots of ink and frantic script.

There aren't even any directions on them beyond a hastily drawn nether portal and some squiggles, everything labeled to explain the crude map. It's enough to get there, sure, but not enough to go on without the use of the Nether.

A smiley face drawn by Tommy's chicken scratch of a name sits at the bottom of it.

Picking up one, Dream holds it up to the light. "Actually, I'm here about this."

"Oh right, right- he mentioned you in it." Tubbo narrows his eyes a tick, walking forward a few paces until he's on the opposite side of the desk. "Says you're gonna let him throw a beach party. That you authorized it. I think it's a great idea--"

"Burn them."

"W-what?" Tubbo steps back, eyes wide.

Dream keeps holding it out, arm steady.

"You, you--" Tubbo's fists clench at his side, not grabbing for the paper like he should. "You green bastard, you can't do that to him!"

He sounds too much like Tommy.

"Can't I?" Anger loosens Dream's tongue, the words harsh as he shakes the invitation in the air, thinking, grab it, grab it or else.

"No!" Tubbo shouts sweeping an arm out to the side, "no, you can't. I've already handed out the goddamn invites!"

"Well... that's unfortunate."

Tubbo flinches, forearm coming up like the world's worst makeshift shield as his voice shakes and he asks, "Why?"

It's so small and unsure, so much so that Dream let's Tubbo try again.

"Why? You told me he was a liability and I believed it was what's best for L'Manberg, but now I'm…" Tubbo's voice falters, regret laced like fine embroidery. "Now I'm not so sure."

"It's not just about Tommy. Can't you see that?" Dream moves around the edge of the desk looming, mask disguising the twisted snarl to his lips as he spits the half-lie, half-truth, something that hardly even matters-- "It's about helping L'Manberg become the nation it was meant to be."

Tubbo remains unconvinced.

"It's about building it better," Dream smoothes over, voice winding and full of false praise. "It's about building it under better leadership. It's- it's about no more liabilities. I mean, c'mon, Tommy was always blowing things up, causing problems. You have to admit things look a lot better with him gone."

"But, why--" Tubbo barks back, "why do you care so much? You... you said it yourself, L'Manberg can be independent. So, why do you care about our 'liabilities'?"

The resistance Dream meets is not what he wants.

So, he backtracks. "Because you're not free."

Tubbo opens his mouth, but Dream cuts him off, pointing outside with a harsh finality.

"Tomorrow morning-- tomorrow morning you're going to go out there, and you're going to tell them-- you're going to tell them that the whole thing is off. That Tommy didn't write these, that it was a prank, that he rescheduled for thirty years from now-"

Dream cuts himself off, raising both hands in a pinched gesture, "I don't care. So long as no one goes."

"You're being irrational." Tubbo counters, glare not matching his voice. "You know I don't have the power to actually stop anyone."

And that was the problem, wasn't it?

Dream steps back, looking Tubbo up and down like how someone sizes up a particularly feisty squirrel. It's not like he hadn't already considered that, the nether portal long destroyed on the L'Manberg side, but it didn't matter if they repaired it. No one would be finding Tommy's lonely little island even if Tubbo decided to convince everyone of nothing. He'd make sure of that.

This is about more than just that formality. This isn't about that if.

His eyes catch sight of Tubbo's hand at his pocket, the edge of the enchanted compass glinting purple between pale fingers, red needle wobbling. The only thing bridging the gap between Tommy and everyone else. It stands glaring and bright, just a small sliver of painted magnetized metal in a glass case.

It had to be destroyed.

The bleeding red of the needle shakes and shudders in his vision the longer he stares. It shakes, and it shakes, and it blurs until it's red that fills his vision and stuffs his ears--.

Blinking it away, he's not there. No longer in the here nor the now.

He's in front of the church, Church Prime, that church he'd helped build on land that shouldn't even be holy. Almost more joke than anything, like a middle finger to the idea that sanctified ground existed in a world absent of a benevolent deity's caring gaze. He stands there in the shape of deliverance, blood boiling, teeth gnashing as Sapnap gets in his face, staring down the two beady black eyes of a permanent smile.

And the memory plays out like a record scratched and missing too many notes, skipping as it sees fit.

"You're being a tyrant, dude."

He keeps his axe leveled at Quackity's throat, ignoring Sapnap's presence even as the accusation rips through him. He doesn't waver, doesn't flinch, doesn't give a millimeter. Grip steady and righteous.

A tyrant wouldn't ensure that no one got hurt by stupid, impulsive actions.

"What're you gonna do, Dream?" Sapnap gets dangerously close, teeth flashing, voice hoarse with the strangle of a shout. "What the f*ck can you do?"

"We could kill all of you."

We, because it was never just him. That's not how it worked, it couldn't.

"Do it then!" Sapnap shouts, not backing down.

He looks down his nose, all everyone sees is a subtle tilt back of his mask.

"First you make George the king and then you give the crown back to Eret, who you said betrayed you. And then you blow up over a protest--" Quackity says, throat bobbing against the axe blade, an unrelenting confidence in his eyes.

Dream inches the blade up higher, forcing Quackity's chin higher.

Acting like a man who's not hovering a hairsbreadth from death, Quackity let's out a laugh. "Do you even know what the f*ck you're doing anymore?"

"It was a threat. You committed an act of terror."

"It was a protest."

Dream grimaces and presses the edge of the axe into Quackity's throat hard enough to draw blood.

"You're acting insane." George steps closer, sword drawn at the ready. The betrayal of it only stings for a moment.

Eret puts a hand on the hilt of their own sword, dark frames flashing on their face as they step forward in turn. An indecisive king for an empty throne always so eager to defend it.

Pushing George back, Sapnap whips back around, rounding on all of them with a simmering rage.

"You keep saying you don't care about anything-" Sapnap's approach is stopped by a sword drawn and leveled with his chest, he continues nonetheless until the sharp tip presses into his sternum. Lingering there, Sapnap shouts around Eret's form. "So then why the f*ck do you keep getting involved?"

He tightens his grip on the axe haft.

After a long stretch of nothing but haunting tension, Dream let's the axe fall. A final warning in the form of a weeping red line on Quackity's neck.

Eret and the rest of the knights stand down, letting the members of El Rapids gather their leader.

"Come on." Sapnap grabs Quackity's arm, tugging him along.

George lingers and Dream opens his mouth, but he knows-- he remembers how he couldn't manage a single word. From his friend's perspective it would look like he's simply staring, impassive, uncaring, but his face is twisted into more confliction than he knows how to handle, lips moving, tongue stuck. And that's the point of a mask isn't it?

Nightmare glints in his gloved hand, the very edge of it darkened with the hint of drawn blood.

It coalesces along the sharp half crescent of the blade, dropping to the grass without a sound.

George's eyes track it before he shakes his head and turns away, swiping the back of his hand across his face with a derisive sniff, pushing up those ridiculous white goggles in the process.

"They'll be back."

Eret's lie brings no comfort.

He shrugs off the comforting hand, a deep disdain for the sting it leaves behind that only makes him walk away faster.

He leaves alone. Stares and whispers trail after him, haunting the corners of his mind. A persistent paranoia he only manages to beat into submission with the same mantras he's always reciting in his head.

He had to. He had to.

He loses them, but he had to.

His job was to protect them, he'd never considered how far he'd fed himself that lie. So, he had to do this.

He has to. For them, for himself, for the way grave dirt sticks under the nails and stains the skin-- and the dead are none the wiser. Their ultimate betrayal being the fact they ever let themselves be lowered into the ground in the first place.

And the blue doesn't work, it doesn't f*cking work. That ghost scammed him, he lied, and now there's stacks of it littered around the basem*nt of a community house that's too big now, too empty. That hollow, gutted thing that stood in as everything he wanted, but could never seem to have.

He manifests a blade swinging it across the photos pinned fondly on the wall. He listens to the framed ones shatter, the loose ones tear and rip, his face scratched out in every one. Familiar smiles beside his own chopped down one by one, until he can't convince himself to care about any of them at all.

He swings again and again. He strikes the walls of that thing shaped like the winding halls of his own mind, scoring it too deep with every swing of the blade. It all creaks and sways and screams, and the marks only ever increase in volume until all he sees is the chalky blueblack ichor that the walls weep.

He's left only to spin in place. Again and again, it's the same four walls he sees-- dark and yawning, obsidian as above and so below.

He shouldn't be here. He swings the sword with a singing arc through the air, sparks flash as it meets obsidian--

The world tilts with a click, click, click, like the strike of flint and steel, the sweet smell of nitroglycerin, the churn of redstone being activated. It is ash and blood in his mouth.

He blinks and stumbles back into the cradle of what is supposed to be the present.

Blade point aimed at the wood floor, the walls plain and illuminated once more; safe. Shoulders heaving, hair falling over the edge of his mask he watches Tubbo stumble back.

One hand flailing to catch any solid surface, the other grips the red spilling from his throat and Tubbo doesn't seem to realize he can no longer speak, lips trying to quake around some phrase or another.

Dream looks on, sword gone before a drop of blood ever hits the floor. Red flecks his mask, spilt harsh and dark against the green of his clothes.

Tubbo collapses, gurgles twisted, wet and desperate, words never forming past the incessant froth of blood down his windpipe. Trying so desperately to swallow at the sensation before he starts to aspirate, but only causing more pain in a relentless cycle of fruitless gulps.

Tears track down Tubbo's cheeks and he finally looks like what he really is. A kid in a suit, too big to ever fill.

Then he's crawling, red dragging behind him in great smeared swathes that stain the light wood.

Fingers reaching and breaths harsher than shallow gasps.

The chest he's trying to get to still so far away.

Dream steps easily in front of Tubbo's path.

Tubbo's eyes go wide. His hands and feet work to scoot and scramble away, back bumping up against a wall until he's left trying to inch up the length of it only to collapse under his own weight.

Staring up with glazed eyes and half hearted swallows, Dream's shadow falls across him. Yet all that's left of Tubbo are the hollow whimpers of a kicked dog.

Dream crouches down in front of him.

Tubbo's head starts to lull forward, eyes rolling as blood loss begins to choke his brain, hand falling away from his neck.

There's a detached, mechanical sort of effort to Dream's movements as he pushes Tubbo's head back up. Grabbing the bottom of the kid's jaw with one hand, a god apple manifests in the other. He shoves it against Tubbo's lips pulling a limp jaw down with an unkind grip, forcing him to chew off a piece of the golden fruit.

The second it hits Tubbo's tongue, it does it's job. The rest of it dissolves in a dissipation of warm light that starts to manifest around the gaping wound of Tubbo's throat.

It's clinical, safe, distant. Less of a risk than healing him by any other means. Already stepping so far out of cosmic line that he can feel the disgruntled, vengeful weight of the universe bear down on him. Old lectures from older voices buzzing like gnats in his ears, but they don't ring louder than the heavy notes of static, of some sort of slick, slippery déjà vu.

There's something uncannily familiar and yet twistingly wrong about the situation. Like the spinning reel of a film that's been spliced and chopped and cut too many times to be considered the original. Still, it plays out just like any moment should and there's no time to dwell on it.

Tubbo blinks back to a slim awareness. It seems only in remnants at first, but enough for Tubbo to stare past Dream and mutter something almost unintelligible under his breath.

"I'm sorry… I'm sorry…"

He follows Tubbo's gaze.

The compass lays on the ground, glass broken and cracked by the impact. A body's worth of weight having fallen on top of it. The red needle continues to point true and steady.

And that's the problem. That sentiment right there. That Tubbo is relying far too much on Tommy, that's weakness. That Tubbo is weak beyond that facade of a reasonable and competent leader, his use quickly bumping up into a wall labeled useless. That so long as Tommy lives in his head, as long as there's that hope, the problem persists. The weakness persists. The same history continues. And he can't control that.

Hadn't They thought the same thing of him?

Dream steps back, soundless and cold, his eyes flashing behind his mask. A split second decision to dig his grave further, because if he's to earn a rap sheet for interference, for some sort of unholy treason on every level in the star shaped eyes of pretentious things labeled gods, he thinks he might as well make every step out of line worthwhile. Living and breathing and never dying by the sentiment; it's not like it ever mattered much anyway.

It takes him only a second to mentally snare, snap and drag something both into and out of place, like plucking a star out of the sky and pinning it to a hasty diorama. Forcing it to burn there until it fizzled out.

As if it didn't threaten to permanently scar and blind him the longer he held it there. Too much energy allotted to a task that's comparable to biting off his own fingers before they can even begin to frostbite.

It's a stupid decision, wildly impulsive and absent of forethought because he's hardly powerful enough for it, hardly more than something that unshouldered the burden of a god in a way poor Atlas bore the world on his shoulders and never could. No, instead he named himself after something as simple as dreams for a reason, he donned his armor and his weapons like nightmares when the time called, and he thinks there isn't much of a difference between the two. To be fair, there was never much difference between dreams and memories either, that perhaps they mixed with one another until one became the other, or both, or neither-

And yet the one constant truth about dreams was that despite everything they always felt real.

He stands there and uses every scrap of power to force Tubbo to relive a nightmare simply because he can, simply because the end justifies the means and his worries are too frigid to care if he's using up the very energy that keeps himself alive.

Immediately Tubbo starts to bleed again and his panic, his inability to breathe, his pain, the reliving it, has the kid thrashing. Kicking and hoping he can escape but all he has is the wall at his back and death standing in front of him. Both just as cold and unmoving as the other.

Tubbo dies.

Dream watches Tubbo blink back awake. Wound free and alert, words bubbling up only to be cut off, eyes glazed like a rabbit in a snare.

Tubbo dies again.

Gurgling, wheezing, there's the sound of shoes slapping the floor, nails scraping the ground.

Tubbo dies.

He watches.

Tubbo dies.

He watches.

It goes on for so long that he stops counting. It goes on for so long that he feels the universe give up it's monumentous task to thrash and right itself with a great heave. A final parting, 'fine, you win', but not without it's warning, not without some preordained punishment dished out like the dead wishes and final decrees of a timeless sentencing.

It's an old tale of self-cannibalization because energy couldn't be created or destroyed and every creature from the End knows the universe will always take its dues until there's nothing but dust.

It's the same old metaphysical jail cell. Always shaped like a world he'd only understood to be everything but not his own when he'd crawled his way out of the End. All of it decided, just fate, just destiny; stuck in the same broken loop it seems.

And there comes a point when Tubbo stops fighting death altogether, slumped on his side, hands limp, head turned to stare straight up at the ceiling. He bleeds out again, not even a hand brought up to staunch the wound this time, eyes already empty and cold.

Preemptively dead if not for the whistle of strangled air through the gaps between parted lips and teeth drenched red.

Tubbo's eyes hardly shift from their glassy state when the wound blinks away and starts up all over again.

Blue so blank and glassy it's as dim as fogged glass.

Tubbo dies again and again and again.

Dream stares, eyes equally dead. Pathologically calm and statue-like with all the combined acceptance of someone waiting in the line at the bloodied chopping block. The shing of the executioner's axe filling the air.

Blood slicks the ground, spilt so thick it's stench is overwhelming.

Dream forces Tubbo to relive the same hell only to snap him back to the start, like a scratched record, a broken disc, like him, like this world, like L'Manberg, and he watches long after the kid is a husk, long after his own limbs go numb, long after his chest starts to burn and burn and his fingertips turn a necrotic purples, a sort of wither creeping up cell by cell.

Every death now hits with a sharper ache. A tug on his mind, a fleeting moment of despair that's stronger than the last, an unheeded warning that resets like climbing a ladder and falling one rung for every two, and then more and then more until hopes of reaching the edge settle for desperate moments spent clawing up the soil at the bottom of the pit.

Over and over like a ticking clock with no cadence.

Tubbo lays there, gurgling weakly heaving a last wheezing breath.

When Tubbo dies this time, it's different.

He feels Tubbo give up like a snapping rib in his chest.

Vague hints of an impending doom crowd his mind, loud and screeching things, all of them terrified, all of them the old notes of condemnation for a task failed. A passing part of him is afraid he'll see a ghost rise up instead, mind too broken, too seperate to be anything but a shallow projection of the soul it came from.

No, no, no--The world jumps and shatters, crying obsidian shaking like a scratched film reel in front of his eyes, no windows, no doors, nothing but a bright rectangle of lava, three obsidian walls shaped like a cell.It's still there. He's still there--He's still-

Dream nearly slips in the blood as he stumbles forward, grabbing at Tubbo's shoulders, fingers twisting in the suit jacket, he shakes him. Trying to wake him with an angry sort of injustice in his words, in his threats. Like Tubbo had the audacity to die.

The memory, the nightmare, the twisted upside down dream of a happening, it spits them out like nothing's wrong at all.

Nausea sits heavy on his tongue, just as heavy as the tight anger in his chest.

It was a mistake, something he prides himself on the knowledge to fix like stitches slapped on old wounds. He opts to ignore the encroaching feeling that it's too late, in shuddering visions of black stone and dark blood muttering in the primal corners of his mind.

He doesn't see his fingertips stay a necrotic purple beneath his gloves, a warning to future transgressions, because god forbid it should ever reach his heart- he thinks he's supposed to remember what that means, but it's hazy, out of touch, echoing too loud. Every thought, every movement and word that he recalls, all of it feeling less real and more like mementos scrawled on a page; desperate to be remembered.

All the angles in his mind left bent just a bit more out of sync, an incendiary flash of betrayal, of jealously, an acrid bitterness curved into envy because he can't understand why Tubbo didn't just listen to him, further than that he can't understand why it feels like he's been trapped.

He waits, sitting back on his haunches.

Tubbo still doesn't move. Even as that splitting wound across his throat doesn't reappear, no more blood spills, no more blood coats anything. Tubbo's eyes stay closed as if he's just fallen asleep on the wooden floor.

A pained groan escapes Tubbo's lips, in the next heartbeat he tries to scrape himself off the ground.

Dream scrambles to help him up, voice gentle and soft, comforting notes he knows how to mimic; or that's what he tells himself, "Tubbo--hey, hey-"

The blood is gone, the red is gone, it's gone. It was never meant to be there, but Dream sees it like a broken afterimage on his wrists, his forearms where his jacket's rolled up, sees it staining the whites of Tubbo's shirt under his suit.

Tubbo flinches back with a shout, kicking and punching until he manages to get away, until he's backed into the far corner of the office. Fingers twisted in the curls of his hair, Tubbo keeps his head bowed, forehead pressed into the wall of his knees as he utters a sound like a rabbit being gutted.

Dream forgets to feel the pain from the hits that connected, stunned into sitting there, hands still hovering in the air.

Twisted sobs hammer against his ears.

And he watches, hands falling by his sides as he stands, shoulders curved slightly in, head bowed just a tick, the blue in his inventory growing darker and darker.

"What the f*ck--" the broken strangled shout cuts the air, Tubbo's fingers scrabble at a clear throat with no hint of a scar. "What the f*ck was that?!"

Dream opens his mouth, only to shut it with a grimace, permanent smile aimed away.

"Dream?!" Tubbo stands halfway on shaky limbs, forearm braced against the cobblestone, spine pressed into the corner, "Was I-- was I--"

Tubbo can't say it, chest heaving, on the verge of hyperventilating again, a far off look in his eyes.

Stepping forward, Dream shakes his head, slow and exaggerated, hands out and crouched more on Tubbo's level. Determined to say the lines that taste like he's playing a part in some unseen play.

"No- no, you're fine. I just found you asleep at your desk..." Dream gestures to it, one foot placed slowly in front of the other.

"But I- I didn't..." Tubbo's gaze darts to the desk before snapping back to him.

"You must've been having a pretty bad nightmare. 'Cause you... well, you didn't know who I was when I tried waking you up." Dream reasons, taking one step and then another.

Tubbo frowns, but his hands start to uncurl from shaking fists.

"You just flipped the hell out, Tubbo. I mean that's why you're over there, like it must've been something really scary 'cause you were scrambling away so fast I- I couldn't even stop you from smacking your head against the ground." Dream says it like a friend would, he says it as if he's the only person in the world Tubbo should believe. He says it like the voice of reason. He says it and believes it.

Tubbo's hand reaches up, touching a very real bruise at the back of his head. "I thought…"

Tubbo's eyes slide to the window with a spark of doubt.

"I'm… I'm sorry." Tubbo apologizes, trying a smile on for size, a laugh to match but it jumps and fails as his brows pinch and his lips twist. "I guess I really shouldn't be working so late."

Tubbo stays on the floor, rubbing at his throat and staring at the desk. The action is an annoying reminder to the raw ragged shape of pain wrung like two hands around Dream's own throat, jagged and bright like he'd taken the blade to himself instead. It's a problem for later.

Dream cuts off Tubbo's line of sight and holds a palm out for him to take.

Tubbo takes it with a certain lack of haste.

Dream helps the kid stand, making sure he's steady on his feet and there comes a point just a millisecond after the fact where Tubbo pulls violently away.

Eyes wide, shoulders colliding with the wall, one hand cradling the other, Tubbo looks down at the appendage like he doesn't understand why he wrenched it out of Dream's. He looks at it the same way someone slams their hand on the burner of a stove and forgets that it really, really hurts. Tears form in his eyes another apology on his lips.

Dream pulls Tubbo into a hug, using the easy tune of comfort to disguise everything else. He keeps his words soft and delicate he goes through the motions of comfort he'd memorized. "Hey, hey, it's okay, you're okay--"

Like someone who doesn't care if the show of comfort is particularly real or fake, Tubbo caves, fingers fisting in the back of Dream's jacket a face shoved into the front of it as he cries.

A few minutes pass until Tubbo falls quiet, no doubt savoring that something that he'd lost, maybe never even had apart from the lingering traces of a best friend with almost the same hair, nearly the same eyes. Family, a word that he thinks might look more like a fractured web of broken glass than something allowed to be whole in Tubbo's mind.

"Hey listen, you still have that compass, right?" Dream starts, low and quiet. "The one Ghostbur gave you?"

Tubbo tenses, stepping back, hand going to his pocket only to find nothing there.

Dream raises his hand, the cracked compass manifests in the middle of his palm and he holds it aloft like a precious offering.

"Well... I need you to burn it."

It all clicks in such a visceral way in Tubbo's mind that Dream can practically hear the slide of the proverbial pin into place. It's a true testament to how tired the kid is when he doesn't bother fighting for the truth.

"Why?" Tubbo asks it like someone who already knows the answer.

"'Cause Tommy- he burned his. He threw it in the lava like it was nothing." He doesn't falter in the lie. "He doesn't care about you, Tubbo, I don't think he ever really did. I mean c'mon, you heard him say it yourself."

This time, Tubbo accepts it without resistance. This time he watches as Tubbo grabs the compass and he watches as those blue eyes remain emptier than they did in death.

The sound of flint clicking against stone fills the air.

There's a dull luster in Tubbo's eyes that starts to feel less and less like a victory the longer he stares into the flames. It doesn't feel like an accomplishment any more than seeing the sunrise does. It's just what has to be done.Orange eats up the blue in Tubbo's eyes and lava bubbles burst like distant echoes in Dream's ears.

"We're different," Tubbo says, voice as empty as his eyes.

Dream hums in reply, tilting his head, waiting and watching, giving the kid his final words to what he assumes will be a eulogy.

"I never wanted control."

There's no holding back his surprised blink. It goes unseen, but only just, Dream's shoulders dropping before he flips to something more harsh and guarded when he catches the show of emotion. He's surprised by Tubbo's choice of words and therefore uncertain, and yet both taste equal amounts of wrong on his tongue.

"I just wanted what's best for everyone." Tubbo affirms, fingers squeezing the compass. "I wanted them to be safe, Dream. No more wars, no more fighting. Everyone working together for something... for something bigger and better than themselves."

Dream listens and feels no more sure of himself when Tubbo finally casts the compass into the fireplace. He watches as the thin metal twists and parts, the glass popping with a crack until the red needle keeps pointing and finally after a few seconds it's beyond recognition.

"If you can promise me that-" Tubbo's voice falters. "That no one else has to get hurt, I'll do what you want. I'll make sure they never see Tommy again."

"I'm sorry, Tubbo, but I... I can't exactly make that promise anymore."

"Then promise you won't hurt him!" Tubbo rounds on Dream, backlit by the fire, flames angry, sparks popping, hair so mussed that for a moment it looks as if he has the bumpy outline of ram horns. "You've already taken so much from him, the least you can do is that!"

Dream stands taller, occupying the office like a demon at the crossroads offering an open palm. Invisible swathes of red scuffing the floor between them in another world, another life, in a nightmare. He stands and knows he's only doing what's right, what's deserved. He offers his palm and knows in some significant way, Tubbo has to see it too.

Tubbo looks down at the offered hand and then up at Dream's face. The mask stays absent of any holes no matter how desperately Tubbo's eyes seem to search it, always standing as that ever present barrier, that obstacle, that immortal smile.

A palm slots against his own and Dream grins. "I promise."

Notes:

I hope you all can see where I'm going with this-- like haha oh no, obsidian, everything seeming to be wrong and surreal, intense feeling of some cryptic déjà vu, some decay/rot creeping up limbs and unreliable memories? I'm sure this will have no consequences for the future :).

Important Edit: There's some discussion about future chapters that happened in the comments down below. I know some people like reading comments and stuff so just a heads up if you see those walls of text I'd avoid them if you don't like spoilers!!!

Chapter 3: God Bless Us Everyone.

Summary:

Dream has no other choice but to make Tommy forget he ever cared about something as silly and sentimental as a compass.

So then why does it feel like he's always just talking to himself?

Notes:

Chapter title is a reference to the song Catalyst by Linkin Park.

Content/Trigger Warnings: suicidal ideations and themes of suicide, manipulation, coercion, physical and psychological violence, all other themes relating to the Exile Arc
-corrupted text, in case that's an eyestrain/very annoying for anyone (this is also the only chapter that has so much of it, the other chaps-- ch. 10 really-- has like only a few words. Also the crossed out or corrupted text basically stops happening after chapter 4.)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Dream only stays in New L'Manberg long enough to ensure that Tubbo makes his announcement.

The president chooses a frank and logical explanation, simply stating that with the nether portal destroyed they had no way of getting to Tommy with any sort of ease. That it was something they'd be rescheduling, and that Tommy would understand. They'd send a message along with the only person allowed to see the exiled citizen.

This ruffles some feathers, or fur, at least in Fundy's case. The fox's eyes sweep the surrounding area until they land on Dream's figure hidden under the shade of L'Mantree.

Muzzle bent and teeth flashing, Fundy gives him a look like he's stepped in something foul.

He offers Fundy a sarcastic salute in return, a bit co*cky but it's not as if acting any different would instill more trust between himself and the fox. If anything, Fundy would just sound as radical as anyone else who brought forward an illegitimate concern, slander dripping like drivel, dismissed by a president who was more doormat than person.

His eyes skirt across the gathering until they get caught on red and green staring right back. Ranboo stands there like a tall stone statue among the rest, always on the sidelines and never seeming to learn that he had to put a little more bite into his bark-- that if he never actually did something all the conflict would just be the same.

Dream smirks, the slight tug of his lips folding into a thin frown as he tilts his head. Ranboo narrows his eyes and looks away, the dual toned figure obscured a moment later by the crowd of bodies stepping into the fray for another pointless shouting match.

Some things never change.

Pushing off the trunk of the L'Mantree, Dream heads down the wooden path. He doesn't pause to spectate the arguments that break out like the pops of fireworks behind him. He has a party to get to after all.

---

Dream ends up walking quite a ways before he realizes he's not alone.

Ghostbur trails behind him like a confused shadow. Following him out of L'Manberg and then out of the greater kingdom altogether, until they're walking in the dappled shade of thick woods.

"Where are you going?"

He doesn't answer, hoping the ghost will lose interest or even forget why he's following in the first place. There's no such luck. At that point it would start to get suspicious if he cut him down again.There's already the risk that the loose marble rattling around Ghostbur's skull might finally twist and turn the right direction and he'd remember.

"Are you going to Tommy's party? Everyone keeps mentioning it but I..." That tremulous voice trails off, caught in some lapse of thought. "Where is Tommy?"

He stops, allowing the ghost to catch up before he continues his trek."He's in Logstedshire."

"Oh, right," Ghostbur deflates. "It's just that… I don't think I remember where that is."

"Well, it's..." He gestures vaguely out to the depths of the forest. "It's out past everything, out near the tundra before you hit the mountains."

That could theoretically be anywhere.

"But that's so far," Ghostbur seems to consider this for a second, finger tapping his chin as he looks up to where the treetops kiss the sky. "How'd he get so far?"

"I took him there," you went with me once, he doesn't say.

Ghostbur accepts it in a stride, moving on to the next train of thought like it's listing off the tracks, not a brake mechanism in sight. "See the thing is, they can't get to him. Tubbo said someone broke the portals last night and it'll take a while to get them operational again."

Something seems to click in Ghostbur's brain, finger tapping his chin before he points it. "Wait, aren't you really powerful- I mean, couldn't you just repair them?"

Dream narrows his eyes, hesitating on his next step just a fraction too long before he lets his heel hit the earth and gives a full body shrug.

"I'm not a god," Dream scoffs.

The forest cuts to silence, shocked into a lapse of sound like even the wind expected to be struck down. Ghostbur's eyes skitter around, tongue darting out to wet his lips.

The wind returns with the quiet rustle of the leaves in the canopy. It all hits with a familiar sting and Dream's steps fall a bit harder, eyes darker.

"Oh, right--" it's said with a smile that shatters and falls. "Right...."Ghostbur trails off, falling slightly behind again and Dream turns his head just enough to see the translucent figure. "I just… I want to see him, I don't know if he's going to be okay. I… I don't want him to be sad- 'cause I know he'll be sad we missed the party."

"He'll be fine. He just won't be able to see anyone for a little while, that's all."It's empty reassurance and Dream follows it with a nod of his head, a curt gesture telling the ghost to keep up.

Soon enough the forest starts to thin, shifting from eroded hills to mountains clawing up towards the sky, the slope of the shore down to the water not far now.

He knows there's a nether portal hidden further out, a spotty thing with a less than solid manifestation, always trying to spit you out somewhere different. He can practically feel the sparking energy of it thrum like the hint of a threat in his blood. Equal parts drawn to it and repulsed. It's nestled among the sheer cliffs that frame the shore, tucked neatly from most eyes and in such disrepair almost no one was stupid enough to risk it.

He can't let Ghostbur go with him and with all the convenience the universe can muster, the fluffy whites of friendly clouds gather darker overhead, stirring and ominous. Humidity climbing until he feels the distant roll of thunder rumble in his chest. The smell and the taste of the approaching rain sit at the base of his tongue like a convenient solution.

"Right, right. I know, I know that..." Ghostbur is ahead of him now, walking backwards as he waves his hands, "I know he did something, I know he was exiled-- I just wanted, no, I want to be there; in Logstedshire. I think he needs me."

They arrive at the edge of the forest and Dream holds his hand out to catch the first drop of rain. He rubs his fingers spreading the moisture into leather gloves before he drops his hand by his side and looks back out at the thick wall of approaching precipitation in the distance. The sound of it like a quiet, growing whisper.

"I'll take care of him," His voice comes out much softer than he intends. A fraction of a second spent wincing at the loose mumbles, he tries to scrape back together a confident tone as the rain barrels closer. "But um... listen, I need you to stay here and look after Tubbo for me."

"Why? Is he alright?" Ghostbur asks, shrinking away from a spot of rain that lands on his arm, slicing through with a hiss. "He seemed fine this morning. A tad upset, sure, but given the circ*mstances--"

"Just keep an eye on him," Dream acts the proper part of someone concerned, exasperated, frustrated, all those little things that he's not sure he remembers properly anymore. "And tell me anything you hear, there's a few dumbasses who- well, they might try something soon."

In the silence between, he casts his eyes to the corners, waiting for Ghostbur's response, waiting for the gears rusted beyond repair to grind and click in that mind filled to the brim with a spiraled out explosive fractal of two clashing ideals. He flexes his fingers, quiet and subtle, wondering if he'll have to grab the spirit by the back of the neck and toss him into the rain.

The wall of it crashes across where they're standing, thundering and loud, lightning cracks across the sky drowning everything out.

When the white light dissipates, the ghost is nodding, dull eyes trained on him.

"Oh, okay. I can do that..." Ghostbur trails off, arms hugging himself as he tries to avoid the slant of the rain, yellow sweater tucked over his hands like mittens, shoulders scrunched up to his ears.

The wind quiets down, the rain falling just as hard, but no longer sweeping into their little spot of shelter.

"Well if you're- if you are going to see him, I have some blue. And--" Ghostbur rummages around in the bag strapped across his chest, "Could you take him this letter?"

Ghostbur holds up an envelope decorated with a series of clashing colors, the front of it scrawled with rather neat, if only a bit shaky, font that simply reads, 'sorry we missed your party.'

"I managed to get a few people to sign it, you can sign it too if you'd like…" the ghost flashes a thin smile. "We wanted to let him know that we'll... we'll visit once the portal's fixed."

Dream doesn't return the gesture as he takes the letter and the blue, pocketing the latter immediately.

Studying the letter, he turns it over. There's a picture of two sad stick figures hugging on the back. A few drops of rain crash heavy through the thick shelter of the leaves and land in quick succession on the paper, running the ink into watery splotches.

He tucks the letter away, somewhere safe, somewhere that hopefully it will never see the light of day.

"He'll like that," Dream finally smiles, something half-empty, wasted in its effort.

Ghostbur tilts his head, eyes crinkling at the corner as his grin widens ever so slightly, still just shy of crumpling into something sad, eyes always a bit blue.

Stepping out into the rain, head down and hood up, Dream leaves the ghost to stand, and wait, and watch beneath that tree. Trapped in a rainstorm that shows no signs of an end.

---

Tommy is dragging the jukebox down to the beach when Dream finds him. The kid's frame is practically shaking apart at the molecular level, excitement riddled like a thick, infectious cloud around his form. Face and hands scuffed with fresh bruises and cuts, but his eyes are the brightest they've ever been.

He walks up behind him, not offering to help, just simply standing there to watch.Tommy finally manages to drop the jukebox closer to the shore, dusting his hands off like it's a job well done, all with a a full crooked grin. The kid spins on his heel only to jump back, a shoddily forged sword manifesting in his grasp.

Rocking back on his heels, hands raised in a silent It's just me, Dream chuckles, Tommy realizing who he is a millisecond after the fact. At least the kid had decent reflexes, even if his smithing was sh*t.

Dismissing his weapon, Tommy crosses his arms."Why the f*ck are you always sneakin' up on me, prick?"

"Sorry, I was running a bit late--"

Dream rambles on, ignoring the question, he always does and there's still a bit of laughter threaded through his words, making them so much lighter. Just that extra bit of amicable that makes Tommy roll his eyes and mutter a 'Yeah you are, bitch', but not really mean it.At least not in the way that Tommy knows how to sling curses like throwing stones at windows. These were just soft and harmless, a desperate sort of look in the Tommy's eyes that screamed, Finally... finally someone's here.

Making a show of looking around, Dream steps past Tommy, boots sinking into where the grass is eaten up by the sand.He stares at the empty chairs and empty tables, studying them and wondering for a second why he only feels numb.He looks over his shoulder. A question slipping off his tongue like he couldn't possibly fathom the answer. "So, where's everyone else? I mean today's the day of the party, right?"

Tommy seizes up, a hopeless flash in his eyes before he seems to stamp it down. "Yeah yeah, they're all running late apparently--"

Something dawns on Tommy, the sentence slamming to a stop so suddenly it's like he's actually been struck."Right, sorry."

Dream raises a brow. Eyes darting around, trying to figure out if there was something he somehow didn't catch, some lingering phrase or gesture, anything--

An array of random items hit the grass with dull clatters and soft thuds. Tommy pulls the leather chest plate over his head, the leather guards on his legs following, all of it done so clinically and detached like he'd done so for days now. This was the first time Tommy had done it without any prompting at all, not even a shallow hole in sight to safely destroy the items in.

"No, no it's fine," Dream says, hand out, flat and steady as he shakes it like he's dismissing a dog.

Tommy looks up, brows furrowed, eyes swimming as if he's genuinely and personally betrayed by the idea that he could be allowed to actually keep his things.

The pattern so ingrained now that Tommy looks right at him, hears his words, and still unties the cords of the vambraces on his arms.

Dream clicks his tongue under his breath, looking to the side. His mind moves at a rapid pace until he's weighed the costs and the merits of a mind so stripped of autonomy that it might as well be the hapless, wasteland of a ghost's.

And ghosts were… aggravating at best.

"No really, keep it, Tommy." Crouching down Dream grabs up one of the iron ingots. He shakes it firmly in the air when Tommy just stares.

Tommy reaches for it, hand jumping back, fingers curling in and away. Lips parted on a question that never falls. He stays frozen, caught between understanding.

Dream grabs Tommy's wrist yanking his hand forward until he can force the iron ingot into a half open palm and fold the kid's fingers around it.

It's the same way he'd seen Wilbur hand things to Tommy during the revolution-- towards the end that is. Down in that ravine when he'd watched the man practically split from himself in a sweeping sense of disillusionment. When everyone and everything had driven the divide deeper like a cruel joke all for the explosive punchline, when he'd handed over the TNT to Wilbur in order to aid him in ending some idea and country that was all better off deader than dead.

The flinch he receives from Tommy surprises him. Enough so that he let's something like the beginning of a what fall from his lips. It stays half finished when the Tommy backpedals.

Rubbing at his wrist, wrapped in those dirty bandages all the way to the elbows, Tommy watches him with the wary hunch of a feral animal. Blue eyes distant, muttering something Dream doesn't catch, Tommy finally gathers up all the dropped items. The armor disappearing into his inventory rather than being put back on.

Huh. Dream tilts his head, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jacket. He chalks it up to some sort of fear or association floating around the Tommy's head, he was just like that after all.

"Thanks."

The voice is quiet, it hardly sounds like Tommy at all and Dream gives the him a smile in exchange, only seen in the slope of his shoulders, the casual set of his stance.

Trying to be as friendly as possible even when he keeps thinking about Tubbo flinching the same way. Dream's hands curl a bit harder in his pockets, forming fists.

"Well, um…" Dream starts, looking to the sun as it crawls across the sky. "Let's just make the best of it then, we can wait for everyone to show up."

A breathless, offended sort of scoff leaves Tommy. "They better, I baked a f*ckin' cake and everythin'--"

"How'd you even make a cake?"

"I have a stove, idiot," Tommy fires back, stomping down to the beach, calling over his shoulder. "'M not just eating meat raw like some kind of f*ckin' caveman."

The cake, all things considered, is impressive. And so are the other dishes of food all laid out on the uneven planks of the table. No doubt all of it gathered and prepared throughout the night, Tommy's eyes wrung with the deepest purple Dream's seen on him yet.

He sits across from Tommy, neutral and patient, occasionally looking out to where the sun is sinking closer and closer to the watery horizon. He doesn't move his head to do so, just his eyes, mask staring forward and silent for him.

Tommy drums his fingers on the table. A staccato little tune that makes his own fingers itch under the nail beds, eager to echo the restless movement.

But like a broken mirror, he remains still, unmoving and statue-like. Static eating his insides as he watches Tommy push back against the table every once in a while. The stump Tommy's sat on leaning at a precarious angle from the ground before it falls back with a thump in the sand. Repeating the pattern, unable to sit still for longer than a few seconds.

It's not as if he doesn't understand the sentiment, but there's an odd sort of calmness settled over his shoulders, a numbness that makes him sit in stark contrast. Heavy and consuming, some empty distant threat.

By the time the sun kisses the horizon, Tommy's gone unusually still.

Dream considers reaching for the cake at this point, it'd be cruel to let it go to waste.

Unbidden, the thought conjures up the warm creature comforts of the community house-- his lips tug into a frown, the thought stuck like the sound of the all too loud realization that he would never get to pick and choose his last words before being written off as the villain. It's just how it had to happen.

Breaking him out of the thought, Tommy falls forward, forehead thunking against the table fingers in his hair, a growl drifts from him. "Why is no one here? They promised-- Wil told- he told Tubbo in person! You saw-- he told him in person, right?!"

The distress is so raw that he almost feels a shred of pity. A sliver of something that is marginally uncomfortable with how desperate Tommy is for something as stupid as a party.

"Yeah, yeah, he told him in person," Dream shrugs, hand waving in the air, lying as natural as breathing. "I mean most people he left it in their homes, I don't think they could've missed it, but..."

Tommy stares.

"I mean they might've," he stresses the word, sowing the slightest seed of doubt like an arrow nocked, drawn and shot between the eyes.

Picking up one of the wooden forks on the table, he studies it, twisting it in the air like it's the most interesting thing in the world. The texture rough and catching, so hastily whittled.

It's certainly more interesting than speculating about Schrödinger's party, speculating what constitutes a gathering, what makes it both alive and dead, why it really matters so damn much. And to Tommy, well he thinks it's shaping up to be a bit more dead.

This really was and would always be the only way; cutting him off completely, isolation and loneliness the bitter, metal bit shoved in the stubborn horse's mouth.

"With Tubbo… I saw Wilbur tell him." Dream is careful to make himself sound convicted.

"So it's just- You're the--" Tommy draws in a long breath, hands folded as if in prayer. "It's just you?"

Dream stares, answer obvious.

Tommy stands, slamming his palms down. "And you were late?!"

Dream almost laughs, almost. "I mean I figured you'd care the least if I was here. I assumed everyone else would be here."

"And Tubbo…"

Tommy stares down, frame sagging.

Dream stops fiddling with the fork, he stops being nonchalant. He stops being confident the moment that name hits the air again. He lets the silence hang like a man at the gallows, he lets it fester and twist before he speaks and says the damning words. "Guess they all had something more important to do."

"More important than seeing me?"

It's whispered, as if for the first time the thought donned on Tommy that he wasn't actually that important.

"No one cares about me anymore."

"That's not true--"

"No! No one cares about me," Tommy cuts him off, sat back down now, back painfully curved, fists pressed into the table, knuckles white where they bruisingly mash against the wood grain.

"Tommy--"

"No, no," Tommy laughs, all twisted and artificial, teeth flashing more like a warning than a smile. "No one cares about me. No one showed up to my party!"

Dream remains quiet this time. He'd let Tommy stumble the rest of the way into his own conclusions, a sheep forced to the slaughter through narrow corridors and shut doors, one after the other. Never knowing the same person who shoved him through the iron gates of the chute waited at the end, bolt gun glinting in hand, finger on the trigger.

"And it's the one thing! The one thing that they had to do for me--"

'You had one job! One job, Tommy, and you couldn't even do that!' Tubbo's voice rings in his ears, a distant echoing memory as for a single moment he's standing on those obsidian walls, the world small and distant, left only to observe the scene below, left to watch and listen as friends become strangers, as strangers become enemies, and he tells himself it's only right, it's only fair, he convinces himself of the tired lie that it could never go any other way. 'You're selfish.'

"--after exiling me and f*ckin' me over! And not one of 'em care about me anymore. Cause I'm not in L'Manberg anymore." Tommy throws air quotes harshly around the name of his old home, eyes rolling before settling on a dead set glare, "'Cause I'm not with- 'cause I'm not the vice president!"

Tommy's shoulders heave, fists curled at his sides, arms shaking, the muted red sleeves of his shirt start to bleed. Red running across, running through, red on white, red soaking a dark suit, on pale fingers, on a pale face, in dead blue eyes, clumped rusty and thick in blond hair, splashed across polished wood. Red on everything, everyone.

Red, red, red, red, red, he blinks and blinks and why the hell won't it go away?

He shuts his eyes, red still caught behind the lids, throat stinging, the gurgles of labored breaths puncturing his ear drums. It's only a small mercy that the darkness isn't the grooved texture of obsidian.

He sighs.

It doesn't take any effort to remove his mask, an innate enchantment being the only thing that ever really holds it in place; plain, simple, easy. He lets the disguise rest on his thigh, keeping his features just shy of neutral even as his pulse whistles in his ears and his fingertips turn to violent static.

The breeze from the sea whips against his face, and it's all so immediately strange, almost painful where it cuts across his skin and demands every nerves attention. As small of a nuisance as it is, he never really got used to any of it. He never got used to the wind's razor sharp whip, he never acclimated to the elements so harsh against his eyes, the torch light now blindingly bright even in the civil twilight.

It's stupidly vulnerable and he despises it, but there's not a lot of trust be fostered if there's always a mask in the way, an animalistic sort of instinct to trust something with more mirror neurons and less rigid, permanent smiles--

It's what he tells himself, because he's not about to admit that he took it off because he couldn't… he couldn't f*cking breathe. Like he was drowning in the blood from a slit throat. Like he was the one who died and died and died. Like he's not supposed to wear it anymore.

He looks at the mask in his lap, turning it in the light. In between the red, in that prickling kiss of the wind on his cheeks, the salt spray stinging his eyes, he forgets for just a second that he's sitting across from Tommy god-damned Innit, resident thorn in his side since L'Manberg took a free falling nose dive.

The kid in question has gone uncharacteristically quiet.

His eyes meet Tommy's.

"I knew it." Tommy leans back, focus switched from a doomed party to a fresh target, latching on if only for a little while.

Dream raises a brow, question riding a laugh. "Uh, knew what?"

"You're f*ckin' ugly."

"Hah-hah."

"No, no I mean it, Big D--" Tommy gestures vaguely. "It's all f*cked and sh*t. Like it's all messed up. 'S prolly why you cover it up, so you don't scare away any women. And you know I know a lot about women. Kind of an expert if you know what I mean--"

Dream crinkles his nose, face twisted at the sheer crudeness Tommy always donned like a second coat. "Tommy what the hell are you talking about? You know like three women, if that--"

He cuts himself off, flicking his wrist before gripping the short dagger that forms in the center of his palm.

Tommy's eyes flash to the weapon, but Dream remains aloof in his movements. Broadcasting them in the most nonthreatening manner as he simply uses the blade to get a slice of cake and then continue talking as if not a second passed.

"-and you literally said last week that scars were, and I quote, 'cool'?" Two fingers lifted from the hilt of the dagger Dream throws air quotes around the word. The blade glints for a second in the sun before he dismisses it with a lazy afterthought.

"I know plenty of women, m'kay, alright," Tommy levels him with a look that naturally means he's about to open his mouth and say something one half childish, one half embarrassing. "And- and they are- they are-"

Tommy cuts off with a growl, words lost like an angry scrappy dog, swiping a curled finger across a fresh pink line cutting through his brow, earned when he stood too close to one of the TNT blasts. "Scars are cool, just not on your f*ckin' mug, Mr. Humble As sh*t. You're just jealous."

Dream rolls his eyes. An amused huff pressed from his lips as he rubs at the back of his neck and then sets his mask on the table. The endless smile grinning up at the sky.

He was used to seeing that empty, porcelain shell in reflections, anything beneath it left behind like an afterthought. Still, he knows it. He knows the winding, twisting road map of scars like slashes over his cheeks, across his nose, thick and twisted and gnarled, slicing violent and loud through his brow and down to his chin. He knows the subtle absence of flesh from his lip, like it sports the permanent nick of a knife pressed too deep.

He knows them like the daily greeting of shaking hands at the red sun's rise, scars littering the backs of those too. Like knuckles constantly split by the gravely ground on an endless loop, the labyrinth of scars stretching up his arms, his shoulders, his torso.

He treats them like phantoms without homes to haunt, timeless and lost and usually never his to begin with. No matter the glamour or the enchantment, the scars remained, like a finger pointed and looking to cast blame and hell, he never had a good alibi.

So he hides each one like he's hiding ricin laced love letters at the bottom of an enderchest. Often unwanted, but maybe one day useful.

And in every part of it, it still feels like an illusion. There's the nagging fear that--

That...

He watches Tommy stumble, arrow sticking out between his ribs, green fletch bright and mocking. The water swallowing Tommy whole as the kid goes tumbling off the boardwalk. A stupid, naive idea, a duel- a damn duel for nothing! He turns away hand gripping the bow, the wood creaking and splintering as he feels the kid gasp and drown, feels hands scrabbling for an arrow like he's the one drowning, like he's the one screaming and kicking and choking down breathless lungfuls of water, like he's the one turning the water red. Like he's the one being dragged back to the surface, a healing potion pressed bitter and acrid to his lips, a fatal wound closed by the miracle brewed draught.

Miracle indeed. He raises a hand to his chest, rubbing at a spot to the left of his sternum, blood warm and slick under armor. His lungs rattle on each exhale, heart thudding around a ragged wound as he flashes George and Sapnap a smile, fists and voices raised in the air.

He's afraid that one day someone might see them and realize, and know he is undoubtedly weak because he can't let Tommy die, he can't let any of them die.

It's really a pointless thought to dwell on though. He doesn't think any of them could scrape together the collective brain cells to ever connect the dots.

He waves an empty palm, acting like he didn't just get caught in his head. "Well I mean, at least I don't have your face. Y'know it's all…"

"Mine?! I- hwhat? What the f*ck's wrong with my face?"

"You know. It's just like that," Dream gestures, faking a grimace.

"Oh, I bet you wish you had my face on your face," Tommy jabs across the table, all with a sh*t-eating grin. "You big green bitch, I oughta--"

"Tommy."

Tommy's mouth shuts with a click, sitting back down with a cowed stare. Dream lets the silence linger like morning fog, propping his chin up on the back of his hand he uses the other to stab off a piece of that sad little slice of cake.

Bringing it towards his lips, he looks past it, eyes glinting as he speaks with the utmost gravity. "This is why you don't have any friends."

The last word falls like the downward chop of an axe and Dream takes a bite of the confectionery. Because all of it really means nothing.

Tommy flinches. "I thought they'd come and see me. Ghostbur told me everyone would want to come and see me..."

The sugar turns to ash on Dream's tongue, too sweet. He abandons the dessert, the first bite instantly becoming the last as Tommy's words remain caught in the air like the lazy swirl of gulls in an updraft.

It's all a bit watered down, something too lonely, something a bit sad.

"Dream?"

Dream looks up, waiting for the rest of the question, but seeing the husk of it lying dead in Tommy's eyes he realizes he's going to be forced to fill the gap.

"I don't know you can ask Wilbur--" Ghostbur, it's Ghostbur now, Wilbur Soot is dead, he's dead. Remember? He's dead. And ghosts were always difficult like that. Dream doesn't correct himself. "He's the one who handed them out."

"Where is Wilbur? Where is he-- where is Wilbur?"

"I…" Dream starts, eyes wandering across the horizon. "I don't know, I thought he was going to be here, too. I'm just as confused as you are. But... well, I'm sure next time you see him though, you can ask."

Dream offers a smile, as if there's a chance. As if he didn't leave the ghost there to melt in the pelting rain.

Tommy let's his head fall, frustrated whine like a cornered animal leaving him. "And you're sure? Wait you're- you- hh-"

The stop and start dissolves into a growl, Tommy sitting up straighter as he tries and fails to pick apart the doubts. "You're one hundred percent sure that someone in that entire f*ckin' server got an invite?"

The suspicion greets him with an unbidden shock of anger. A brand of it sunk into the cosmic grey matter of his mind, those boiling, fraying edges of his sense of self.

"Why do you care so much?" Dream says, white teeth caught on a treacherous grin, declarations of doubt strung along a confessional hook, line and sinker. "It's not like they want you anyways, Tommy. No one showed up to your party and everyone was invited."

There's silence, Tommy's head sunk back against the tabletop, harsh breaths like scoffs under his breath, fingers clutched in the unkempt strands of hair.

"It doesn't f*ckin' matter," Tommy mumbles, voice bubbling. "… It doesn't matter does it?"

Tommy sounds too much like Wilbur and when the kid lifts his head, he looks like him too.

Without warning, Tommy sweeps his arms across the table. Everything laid out sent clattering against the other, hard work wasted in the fraction of a second. All of it upturned or cast into the sand, utterly destroyed.

Tommy stands shoulders heaving, fingers tilted to form an expectant palm. "Give me your pickaxe. I know you have it."

"Tommy, I don't think-"

"Just for a second Dream, please."

Dream manifests Nightmare, the weapon settled in its favored form. Axe blade thrumming and sharp, echoing the tension in the air.

Tommy could kill him, or at least get somewhere close. He could f*ck everything up that he's worked so hard for.

Tommy could do something stupid.

Tommy could..... well, Tommy could do a lot of things.

But despite any reservations, Nightmare's blade shifts into the thin smile of a pickaxe.

Dream hands it over, Tommy taking the weapon's weight with a grim set to his jaw.

A moment later he's following Tommy into the purple haze of the nether portal, hands in his pockets, mask back on his face.

---

It's only after he watches Tommy smash the obsidian bridge into the lava that he finds the opportunity to slip the metaphorical snare round his neck.

Tommy really sets himself up for it. Staring down at the compass in his left hand, Nightmare thrumming in his right, swinging down low by his calf. It's keen to destroy, but Tommy just stops and stands and stares, and the pickaxe falls quiet.

Tommy stares at that damn compass, the lava spitting and bubbling far below practically begging him to just throw it in. Be done with it.

"You know, I heard…" Dream starts, scuffing the heel of his boot against the netherrack, sniffing at the tickle of heat and smoke crowding his nose even behind the mask. "I heard that Tubbo burnt his."

"What- why are you-why're you saying--" Tommy stutters. "You're lying."

Dream arches a brow. Eyes looking from the resistant glint in Tommy's to the way he's turned back towards him, Nightmare clutched tighter in hand, the weapon baying for something bloodier than smashed rock.

Shoving his hands deeper in his pockets, Dream tilts his chin up; a silent challenge. He dared the kid to try it.

"You're lying," Tommy stalks forwards, the splitting soles of his shoes slapping the ground unevenly before he's getting in Dream's face and hurling the words, "What'd it say dickhe*d, if you actually saw it, what'd it say? f*ckin' tell me!"

"It said..."

The flash of hope in Tommy's eyes is mirrored only by the creaking tension.

"It said, Your Tommy."

Tommy stumbles back, hand half curled into an unfinished fist pressed over his sternum. Pressed into that old mirage of something that is no longer there, just an old mirrored scar and scratched bones.

"Hf, I--" Tommy huffs and scoffs, casting the pickaxe at Dream's boots before pacing back and forth. Hands twisted in his hair, Tommy starts to slip into understanding. "He said- he... all along I should've known. No one cares. No one- nobody f*ckin cares."

Tommy stops. Spine curved, clutching the compass in shaking hands. "He burned it… on purpose?"

"I think so."

Tommy's eyes skate out to the lake of lava below, shadows tilting across his face. He stands there staring, fingers adjusting their grip until he's spinning the compass in an agitated, pointless loop around his palm.

"Why don't you sleep on it, Tommy. Don't do anything you can't take back." Dream doesn't intend for the words to be condescending, but it's almost unavoidable at this point, like he's watching the frog finally realize the water is boiling and it's hard not to feel a sort of pettiness.

"I don't sleep anymore."

Well, that was at least something they had in common.

"It was…" Tommy continues on, heels rocking slightly before taking a step forward, and then another, and then he's completely bathed in the warm light cast up by the lava below. Peering right over the edge, he gives a laugh that's next to lifeless. "It was a stupid dream… just a stupid f*ckin' dream."

Dream doesn't echo it. He waits patiently amongst the blistering heat of the Nether and feels a numbness creep frighteningly far up his arms, the static cling of the underworld crowding his eardrums.

"You're my friend, right?" Tommy asks, angled just enough to look back at him, just enough to try and plaster on a smile like it's all he knows how to do. "You won't-- you won't f*ckin' leave me too, yeah? Everyone's always betraying me, even f*ckin' Ghostbur."

"I've always been on your side, Tommy," Dream speaks it like a truth. He speaks it with the conviction that he's never believed anything else even as history stands to contradict it.

Tommy stares down at the lava below.

And everything hinges on Tommy's next words. Every second, of every time, of every instance that he had ever done anything that Tommy could consider a personal wrong flashes through his mind, the proper response for each loaded on his tongue.

Tommy nods, a sigh following. "Yeah… you're right."

Arms crossed, Tommy curls in on himself, looking like any other wounded animal desperately clinging to its own version of comfort.

Dream grins, a thing half broken by uncertainty when Tommy still doesn't step away from the edge.

"Tommy?"

"No, no. You're right."

The words hang like the guillotine blade before the drop.

And then Tommy is shuffling forwards not back, netherrack crumbling as he sways, compass reeled back as if to be thrown; as if his body can't decide if he was meant to toss it or himself over the edge. Maybe both.

The world screeches, the very earth rumbling and creaking and protesting with a booming wrong in Dream's ears.

He doesn't have time to think, the withering rot on his hands creeping up a bit higher--

He can't die.

He can't die.

He won't let him.

His frame flickers, one second too far away and the next too close as he hooks a hand in the back of Tommy's shirt.

He rips Tommy back from the edge, not caring if he chokes, all harsh and hard enough that the sound of threads splitting cuts the air. A startled yelp of a gasp twisted from Tommy's throat.

He throws Tommy back so hard the kid lands right on his ass, nearly going head over heels.

Surprise shaping Tommy's face, hands suddenly empty as the compass falls and bounces, left behind at the edge;

Once.

Twice.

It wobbles and spins before plummeting right off.

Dream hears Tommy curse, spewing stutters and gasps, the sound of shoes scuffed against the ground.

Angling his head, he's privy to Tommy scrambling forward, crawling and scurrying like some feral creature, belly first across the netherrack.

Torso hitting the hot rocks when his limbs refuse to coordinate, Tommy reaches down, reaches for that long gone compass like if he tries hard enough it will come back.

It all goes too far when Tommy keeps crawling until he's almost slithering right off the edge. Gravity ready to snag him in its claws and pull down.

Dream doesn't think when he grabs under Tommy's arms and wrenches him back from the ledge, again. Tommy devolving into a squirming and shouting mess of unruly limbs, all flailing and kicking and screaming, trying to demand something that was not only stupid, but impossible. He couldn't want the compass that bad.

He couldn't want to die that bad.

And just to be safe, Dream drags Tommy back until there's more than enough solid ground between them and the dizzying drop to the lava below. He keeps going until he feels confident enough Tommy won't go jumping off.

The whole time he's met with Tommy trying to twist and kick him, hands swinging to claw at any part that nails will reach, teeth flashing on curses so colorful that they could fill a new dictionary.

Dream lets Tommy go and the kid drops like a sack of potatoes against the rocks.

Of course, Tommy takes the newfound freedom as an opportunity to try and run. Emphasis on the try, because Tommy doesn't even get fully vertical before Dream drives a boot into the back of a knee, cruel fingers hooked into the hollow of Tommy's collarbone.

Tommy crumples, folding like wet paper and Dream only lets up his grip when he feels the thin bone start to give.

Tommy falls back, one hand catching himself on the netherrack, the other pressed tightly over bruised flesh and bone. Stuck staring up at Dream, face slack and pupils wide, Tommy's shoes scuff the ground like he wants to scoot back, but can't quite get a grip.

Like somehow he's finally seen the frightening monster come crawling out from under the bed.

Dream stares down, just waiting for Tommy to do something stupid all over again.

The universe for its part in all of it is mockingly quiet, some wounded and pissed off thing.

He feels its anger in the creeping crawl of static up his arms, prickling and heavy about his head like some crown of thorns. A part of him understands he's always on borrowed time, feels it like the droning din of indecipherable voices, like the cast judgement of impossibly tall figures, with purple stars for eyes, despondent gazes burning five times hotter.

The stifled sound of a sniffle cuts through the accusatory notes of static and he tunes back into the hazy form of the present.

It pisses him off more than it should, that Tommy won't stop looking towards the beckoning glow of lava. Arms hugging his legs, looking like he's curled as tightly into a ball as he could physically go and still he tries to make himself smaller, limbs shaking.

He crouches down, getting on Tommy's level as he grabs him by either side of his arms, equal parts stern and comforting like he's some angry parent to an unruly kid at the fairgrounds.

One hand moving to brush Tommy's hair out of his face, Dream takes in how the skin is matted with soot, all scratches and bruises and tears, some truly miserable sight. Still Tommy only flinches, refusing to look at him.

"Tommy, hey, hey-"

"⌼̴̡̢̢̨̧̨̨̡̧̛͈̬̠̲̱͕̱͓̱͇̬̰̤̱̯̬̮̺̲͚̮̙̺̰͔͈̱͕̳̠̱̣̬͇͖͖̫̼͖̖̖̗̭̜̞͇͚͎͍̖̙̦̳̜͖̪̝̪͔̭͖͙̪̖̘̫̱̣̬̻̠̻̮̘̬̳͍̱͎̦͈͖͍̮̱̟̽͌̊͐̓͗̊̓̂̈́͒̒͜͜ͅṙ̴̢̨̡̧̢̧̡̙̠̪͈̰̙̯̬̣͍̫͖̲̖̤͍͙̮̦̬̘̫̼͚̼̯͇̞̳̮̲̘̜̳̪̫̖̱͇͈̼͍̭͉͖͕̯̱̹͙͍͔̗͈̫̣̦̲͍̝̘̻̎͆̇͛͛̀̉̅̑͑̐̏̃̎̈́͘̚̕͜͜ͅͅͅሁ̴̡̨̧̧̧̧̨̨̧̛͖͍̮̻̺̻̞̜̟͈͎̰̥̞̯̹̟̮̰̳̺̩̬̼̭̘͙̩̠̤̖̝̣͓͔͍̙͍͍̰̗̪̱̪̜̦̼̼̤̻͚̤͔̺̫̗̝̪͈̘̔̒̀̐͐͑͊̔̐̃̾̀̈́̈͊͌̈͋͐̈͊̈̈̐̔̈́̓̌̄̒̋͆͗̂̊̇̈͌̐̽̀̑͌͛̑̄̑͆̔̓͌͋̉̑̑̿͑͌̇̒͗̑̏̀͆̊̂̇͌̀͐̆̓͌̎͂̔̌̿̉̌͗͐̋̚̕̚͘̚̚̚͘͜͜͠͠͝͝͠͝ͅ╕̷̢̧̧̢̧̛̛̛̛̛̰̠̼̙͈̝̹̣͔͉͉͎̘̙̙̬̱͕̭̝̟̘̣͚̳̹̟̜̞́̈́͛̈́͗͐̈́̀̇̔͆̈͗̎̆̇͗̿͑̒̃̃͗͋͆̓̿̃̈́͂͒͂̉͊̈́̈́̃̾̑̈́̊̂͊̇̊̓̿̎̾̊̏̊̏͛̾̀̔̉̒̽̐̔͗̒̍̌̄̊̃͌̈́̾̓̓̐͛̈̐̈́̿̽̽̔̿̈́͊̂̏̕͘̕̕̕̕̚̚͜͝͠͝͝͝͝͠͝͠m̴̡̨̧̧̢͇̞̲̪̬̙̭̯͉̞͎̝̲̹̯͈͍̞̥̦̙̭̫̻̟͍̠̞̖̳͓̬͉̝͚̩͂͐͌̽̓̓͒̀͗̑̎̉͐͒̂̐̆̽̃̆̈́̏̓͑̎̏͌̃̀̿̓̾̾̅̏͆̀͐̌̒̏̈́̈́̉̀̃͋̒̈͒͒͘̕͘̚͜͜͜͝͠͝͝͝͝ͅͅ." Ș̵̢̬̬̻͙̠̥̫̯̬̯̘̻̊ǫ̴̼̠̘̣̑͛̿̏̈́̄̄͘m̵̛͇̘͓͉̥̲̽̔́̊̐̄̊̑͋͌̂̄͜ę̴̡̟̙̯̠̞̮̥̣͙̽̈̍͗̍̈́͊̐̚͝t̸̝̞͂̈́͗̽͗͑͒͘̚ḣ̵̜̰̠̋i̶̧̛̤̯̎̅͂̂̇͊̒̍̚n̶̨̟̱͈̔g̷̛̩̼̿͗̂̈́̕̕̚ ̶̺̖͚̱̮̼̝̘͖̘̽̑̄̍̾̽͆̌̌̽̏͠l̶̨̤͐̾̄̏͛ḯ̵͕̘̳̱̮̰̄̃̐̐ͅk̸͇̼̻̈́ȩ̷̘̹͙̘͚̜͎̅͗͛̍̍͜ ̴̛̤͍͕̈́͌ă̷̭̠̖̼͉̙̟̣͌̇͐̚͘ ̴̼̗̪̘̙̦͉̣̏̈́̊̔͑͂̓̇͛̈́̈́͗̚ȟ̷͈̈̍͛̾͐̊͘̚͝a̵͖̥͕̖͔̮̟̯̜͚͔͋̚͜ͅͅn̸̟̥̆̊̿̑̄́̽̕̕d̶̡̗̠̙̤͇̞̦̲͙̣͚̘̼̐̋̄̓̇̏͋͊͘͘͜͝ ̵̝̫̝͌̎̎͜g̴̢̢̠̞̙̲̫̔͜͜ŗ̸̡̗̤̖̤̣̞̘̓̊̆̇͝ả̵͕̹̞̫͍̺̠̖̙̖̱̯̓͗̽̏̕ͅb̷͓̟̭̜̓̈̊s̵͉̩̬̳̙̗̭̼͙̫̜̾͋̓̓͊͛̐̽͐̓̆̈́̕̕ ̷̡̜͉͔̮͖̭̮̠͒h̷̼̔̅̆ī̷̤̮͎̯̯̝̥͖̜̺̙̜̏̚s̵̬͓̺̺̺̮̍ ̵̢͚̬̲̝̟̫̻͚͓͉͊́̊̒̇̓͠c̶̪͖͖̭͛̿ḩ̴̧̖͔̱͇̱̝͎̞͖͍̝̉̂͛̐͊̓̀̔͐̆͒̕͜ͅi̵̢̧̲͙͈̘̻͕̬̝̔͝n̷͙͍̜͍͔͉̻̓͌̿̈́͑͂̐͂̈̚͝,̵̡̡̛͎̮̻̰̜̯̪̒͌͋͌̿̈́̑̕ ̸̩̞͈͖̱̎̂͐m̴͎̘͓̠͕͍̬͚̲͎͍̌͗̈́́̓̓͋̆a̸̡͆͒͋͋̒̈́͌̒̾̇͘͝d̴̡͙̞̳̯̘͙̪̈͗́̄̊̿͂̈́̋̍̓̑̚̕͜ȩ̴̭̘̮͓̖͉̩̞̂͌̚ͅ ̵̜̪̹̝̪̪͍̼͇̹̇̀̋̊͌̾̉́̒ͅǫ̷̡̱͈̥̠̩̱̩̹̅̂̃̒̆̏͑̂̔̕͝f̷̺̟̭̖̺̔͊̓͝ ̶͇̗̘̞͎͙͇̹̫̠̬͒͌̈́̋̂̈̒́̽́͘̕͝͝͝ͅs̵̨̨̰̻̗͕̤̙̙̲̦̼̾̾̿̓͐̇̃̍̅̆͐̇͝t̶̨̨̖̰̫̥̬̘̺͕̻͈̓̊̈́̈́̄̿̄̓̍̋̕͘͜͠a̵̡̜̳̠̭͕͑͊̊r̴͖̩̖̹̰͎͓̍̀s̴̡̩͎̯̼̳̪̺͔͈̥͖̻͋́̿̈́̉̍̔͋̈̈͊̽̄̇́ͅ,̷̧̗̣͍̫̦̖̫̻̾͋̈́͋͂͋̊̓ ̷͈͔̦͎̽a̴͙̻̣͈̣̠̻͖̓͌̂̆̑̋͌̕n̶̛͕̤̔͗͆̇͆͆͌̆͠d̴̛͚̫͓̝̺͈̻̂̂͐͒͛͑̉͊ ̸̡̛̋͗̋͗̽͛͌͐͜͠s̴̹̺͇̺̻͉͖̳̥̘̱̝̆̅͊̏͗̐́̈͆̚p̸̨̢̢͖̰̱̟͙͔̩̺̲̤̽͂̏͐̈̐̏̀̎͋̕͝ͅͅa̴͎̞͎͋̿̔̔̃̐̌͗̂͐̕ć̵̙͉͔̙͉̣̌̉̈͋͑̍͘̚ȅ̴̗͚̦̺̥͆͛̂͒̔̅̈̽͑̒̋͜,̵̢̨͉̖̾̈̂͒̆̂̊ ̵̨̧̧̡̰̮̺͕͕͎̬̓̒̊̈́̄͒ạ̷̣̃̓̈́͗̐͊̄̏̿̚͠n̸̡̫̟͓͈̪͍̹̘͇͂͋̉̋͜͠d̵̛͙͖̳̲̟̟͉͓̳͎̗̫̯̥̬̓̽͑̓̀́̚͝͝ ̷̨̟͉̗̩̣̱̳̼̥̊͂̓̓̊̅͜m̴̛̝̝̰̼͈̒̓̈̾͗̐͛̔̓̅̕ą̸̡̢̳̺̖̲̩̹̘̫̳̳͖͕̓̍̾̈́̅̌̾͂̃̄͘͝͠t̶̩̮̗͇̞͌̂t̸̺̥̬͙̪͛͒͂͝ẹ̵̽̂͒̕r̶̛͖̞͎̖̖̫͈̀̈́̃̏͌̎͒̌̐̃́͝,̶̧̧̟͓͉̣̞͙̭̤͍̖͐͒̑̾̓̔͘͜ ̴̡͍̦̗͖̭̰̦͕̳͇͖̦̖̐̽̋̏̈́͗͜t̸͇̱͍͔̮̻͇̭̗͖̣̖̣̞͒̈h̵̨̫̦̱̠̜̹̥̥̥̙̝͂́̌̌̈́͑͆ë̵̹̹̖̩ ̴̧̧̨̲̭̗̦̖̠̳̩̲̄̍̂͜͠s̴̨̡̙̮̬̠̤̝̥̖̟͕͈̪̺͛̈́̃͐̔͗͐͊̾̋̚͠p̴̨̳͔̝̈́͋̕̚a̸̛̛̛̙̞̍̈́̑̽̈́̾̏͑̓̚c̴̬̽̾̊͒̈́͛̐͆͝͝ę̴̧̪̲̱̥̪̗̹͂̑̈́̆̂͒̕͜͜ ̷̧̨̧̯̱̬̯͖̤͍̲̬̰͆͛̊̉̅͒͊̇̓b̵͓̺͒̽̂͐̋̇̇̎͋͒̌͝ẹ̷̢̛̙̮̦̮̇̈̽̋̈̆̓͋̃͑̋͘ţ̴͎͕̬͖͖̯͍̞̭̊̃̃͛̃̋͘̕͝ẃ̵̺͈͔̰̼̩̰͕̞͉̜͚͈̒̊̈́̒͌̽̉̍̈́͗͊̈́̕ȇ̸̛̠͇̐̅͆̐̇ę̵͇̱͖̫̽̈́͋̔͌͑͊͑͠n̴̠͖̻̯͖̽͋̾͂̈́̈̊̉͑͐́͠ ̴̡̢̨̨̟̜̺͎̟̰̑̂̊̓̓̓m̵̨̮͓̗̹̘̜̻̃͛͋̊̂̆̍͜͝ȍ̵̰̻͓̑́̍̓̊̏l̶̼̹͙̹͍̙̆̍̔̕͠e̶̡̪̭̩̦̟͈͎̩̻̿̌̿̏̂͌̿͌̍̏̈́͘c̴͓̲̜͕̲̼̯̰̩͆̑͒͜u̷͇͕̓̋͠͝l̵̨̙̰̫͚̥̜̗̭̬̇e̸̪̬̍̅̈́͗̋͘̚͘ͅş̵̩͛̈͆͆̉͆̏ ̴̧̛͓̳̩̜̦̞̟͔͚̟̾̾͋̓̔̋̐͘̚̕͜͠a̵̧̽̽̊̊̂͊͠͝͝n̴̢̛̥̱͈̟̩̺̖͋͌̊͆̄ͅḍ̵͍̲̠̪͖͕̠̹̙͉̬̰̼̅̔̀͆̄̎̈́͋̓́͑͒ͅ ̴̘͕̑̊͊́̍T̵̲̥̣̹̫̙̣̮̦̄͂̀̐͑̋͘͝h̵̛̅̈́̏͗̾̀͜͠ë̵̢͕̫͍̘̭̤͓̱̝̝̖͖̐͋́̓̋̈̚̚͝ÿ̷̼̻̻̣́͆́ ̸̛̛̲͎̭̹̝̺̟̑̉͌̿̇̂̾̀̅͊̔̽̕ŗ̵̞̤͔̱͚͙̖̬̬̦̜̊̇̅͜ͅͅȁ̷̡̜̱̮̫̜͈̳̱̤̙̭r̸̡̡̨̢̛̘̰̣͉̭̃̈́͊͌̓͊͑̏͐̃̏̈́͜͝͠ȩ̸͔͍̩͕̻̈̀̈́͝ͅl̶̢̠͕̳̝̙̓̽̔̃͑͛̏̒̿̚ͅy̵̛̪͚͓̰̬͔̬̫̫̫̞̣̘̦͊̋͊͋̋͑́̋͋̑̇̐͝ͅ ̷̨̧̗̯̦̠͙̜̙͔̐̋̌̈̉̇̕͝͝ͅf̶͇̭̗͔͓̗͈͈̝̋́̉̍̀̀̾̓̕͝ơ̸̡̛̮͎̤̜̱̱̻̦̞̆̎͂͑͂̆ŗ̸̢̧̧̛̳̱͇̞͇̗̭͎̩̥̿͆̏͊́͂̾̈́̃͑̃m̶̡̛͍̳̝͇̺̝̫͕͔̱͍͊͋̾̽͊̏̿̊͋̈̇̏̚͝ͅͅe̵̡̧̧̛̩̹̥̹̺̹̜̼͓̲̗͌̏͗̏d̷̡̛͕̹̣̰̣̯̻̼̽̅̃͊͑̔͋͆̽̈́̆̕͝ ̴̩̰̳̟̺̱͈͓̹̝͋̾͌h̷̺̻͚͚̖̟͒̐̌ã̵͙̩̬̖̩̰̹̲̺̖̩̉͋̈́̂̅̎̓͊͘̚͠͝͠ͅn̸̫̬͔̖̹̺̊͌̔͂͂̋̑̿͊͘ͅͅd̴̯́͑̽͌͘s̸̰̜̝͍̤̫͉͒͒͂̀̿̈́̚͘͘ ̴̜͕̠̩̥̺͑̽̍̌͆̏̏̒̈͐͘ṭ̷̡̻̲̰͉̙̺̈̈̐̅̓̉̕h̶̛̞̬̻̩͈̬͇̃͂̎͋̔̀̆͌̍̂̋̚͝ͅa̵̡̟̮̟̭̘͎͕̖̓̀̈́̌̈́̓͂͘t̵̮͖̮͓̥̘̭̮̎͆̇͗̚̚͝ ̶͕͇͈͛͂͒̓̒̒̃̑̿͒̑͝w̸̛̗͇̦̭͔̺͚͉̤̥̮̍͑̂̏͌̆̚͠e̷̼̞͓̙̺̱̯̋̉̈́̊r̶̢̥̝͍͉͕̆̌ȩ̵̗͓̹͈̝̱̗͎̰̫͕́ͅn̶̮͚̆̈̾͌͐̓̀̏͜'̸̢̡͚͈͙̩̤͔͙̖̤͙̼̙̾t̵͚͍̞̲̙͒́̾ ̶̧͐͐̈́̽̓͑̀̋̈̋͒̐͗̉͘ç̴̣̣̱̼͍̯̘͙̺̃̍̉͆̾̅̓̌͛̾̕̕͜͠l̶̛̛̘͈͓͎̱̻̄̽̌͠͝͝a̷̱̰̰͖̬͈̒̍͐̑̈́̏̽͘̕w̷͙̮͔̪͙͚̭̖̮̬̥̺̩̺̿͊̓̅̆̏͆͐̔͗͆ͅş̸̭̣̼̲͙̮̩̟̜͈̳̣͔͊̈̋͗̎̐͆̑̚͠.̴̼̪̤̟̾̀͒̇̈̒̌̉̎͋͐̌͘͝ ̴̩͔̣̙̦̳͔̘̭̳͔͎̏̍̔̚"̴̣͎͎̺̖̝̦͍̳̰̈́L̸̙͖̘̮͓͆̔͌͊̉̽̿͊͛͝ȉ̵̡̡͖̻͈̥͚͔̤̼̳̭͔̜̮ş̵̡̛̮̻̗̬͕̪̬̹͖̻͇͑̋̊̏̄t̵̲͈̲͈̰̝̝̎̈̾͘̕͜e̵͈̹͝n̵̨̡̠̦̲̳̔̓̾͆ ̵̝̯̠̜̝͐t̵̢̺͙̬͈͕̫̣̬̗͚́͑̄̏ȏ̷̬͙̥͇̯̮̲͚̻̙̰̠̫̽͌̿̆ͅ ̷̢̳̥̻̟̯̹͓̓͊͂̈́̓̕͠m̸̱̈́̃̿͌́́̌̊͋̏͝e̸̞̾̓͆̕."

Tommy's eyes are distant, rolling like a scared rabbit, hands shoving against where Dream has a grip on his bicep, firm and bruising.

"Look at me." Dream tries again, words nearly slipping into an entirely different language.

Tommy's eyes dart towards him but then look away, still trying to pry his fingers off all whilst mumbling curses and weak insults between the sounds of breaths interrupted by sounds too close to sobs. And how the hell could Tommy be that upset after he quite literally just saved his life?

He grabs Tommy's chin, shaking him a bit, molars gnashing, teeth bared and sharp behind the mask. "Look at me."

L̴̢͙͎̳͗̌̋͆̔̍̀̕̚͝ǒ̴͕̠̮͔̮̆̋̂̇̈́͒̌͌̌͒̔͊ö̵̹̙k̵̡̰̮̗̼̠͒̄̌̅͗̈̈́͊̊͊͝ ̸̬̎̍̃ã̶͇͚̈́̇̒̉̀̉̈́͐̍̕͝t̶͈̠̠̫͈͊̈́̈́̊͒̂̚̕ ̸̡̢̣̠͉͓̮̦͈̤̦̓̾͜m̴̡̨͙̤͖̠͇̭̭̞̑̌̏̈̐͛̇͊͑̾͗e̷̡̛͖̱̥̣͚̙̙̖͇̪͂̂̂̊͜͜ͅ.

L̸͖̹̮͗̕͜ǫ̵̦̃̈́ͅơ̵̻̓k̸̦̋̅̾ ̷̧̣̰̐̍ä̷̭͔́͜t̵͍̹̫̄́̿͝ ̸̢̖̠͉̌͒̔̇m̷̡̰̘̖̍̿̆̈́ë̸̥́.̴͎̔̉"̸̠͋͗̌ͅ ̶̬̖̖̉̆͋Á̷͕͎ ̸͙̜̬̀̚̚h̵̨͍̬̆̇ạ̵͆͂̾͌n̸̢̗͖͋͗d̷̩̝̝̋ ̷͖͎̲̌̈́͘g̶̛͕̯͍r̸̋͐͐͌ͅĩ̶̙̽͊̅p̸͎̗̀͋͒͜s̷̝̩̠̈ ̵̨̼̅͊̿h̶̡͎̻̥̃ỉ̵̥̯̭̽ͅs̸̰̟̩̏̎̽ ̸́̒̈́͜c̴̥̫͙̳̑ȟ̷͎i̴̜͔͚͝ǹ̸̤̳̦̈́̈̒ ̷̧̛̙͌t̵̘̏̒͝ị̶͉̿̈g̶̡̦̈́h̵͚̻̰͒͌t̵̮̬̏̾ë̵̢̨̙̞́r̷̢̳͈͑̋̀.̴̗̬̐͆̈́̑͜ ̶̪̔̉"̸̲̦́͐͠L̸̘̔͒ŏ̵̢̘͕̏̽͜͠ő̴̻̩͌k̵̦̬̪͊ ̸͉̎a̸̖̙͈͖͊ẗ̴̛̳̘͗ ̶̗͖̐̄͊͜ṃ̶̅̈è̶͉͓̱̩̐,̵̩̹̬͔̀̑̉⌼̴̡̢̢̨̧̨̨̡̧̛͈̬̠̲̱͕̱͓̱͇̬̰̤̱̯̬̮̺̲͚̮̙̺̰͔͈̱͕̳̠̱̣̬͇͖͖̫̼͖̖̖̗̭̜̞͇͚͎͍̖̙̦̳̜͖̪̝̪͔̭͖͙̪̖̘̫̱̣̬̻̠̻̮̘̬̳͍̱͎̦͈͖͍̮̱̟̽͌̊͐̓͗̊̓̂̈́͒̒͜͜ͅṙ̴̢̨̡̧̢̧̡̙̠̪͈̰̙̯̬̣͍̫͖̲̖̤͍͙̮̦̬̘̫̼͚̼̯͇̞̳̮̲̘̜̳̪̫̖̱͇͈̼͍̭͉͖͕̯̱̹͙͍͔̗͈̫̣̦̲͍̝̘̻̎͆̇͛͛̀̉̅̑͑̐̏̃̎̈́͘̚̕͜͜ͅͅͅሁ̴̡̨̧̧̧̧̨̨̧̛͖͍̮̻̺̻̞̜̟͈͎̰̥̞̯̹̟̮̰̳̺̩̬̼̭̘͙̩̠̤̖̝̣͓͔͍̙͍͍̰̗̪̱̪̜̦̼̼̤̻͚̤͔̺̫̗̝̪͈̘̔̒̀̐͐͑͊̔̐̃̾̀̈́̈͊͌̈͋͐̈͊̈̈̐̔̈́̓̌̄̒̋͆͗̂̊̇̈͌̐̽̀̑͌͛̑̄̑͆̔̓͌͋̉̑̑̿͑͌̇̒͗̑̏̀͆̊̂̇͌̀͐̆̓͌̎͂̔̌̿̉̌͗͐̋̚̕̚͘̚̚̚͘͜͜͠͠͝͝͠͝ͅ╕̷̢̧̧̢̧̛̛̛̛̛̰̠̼̙͈̝̹̣͔͉͉͎̘̙̙̬̱͕̭̝̟̘̣͚̳̹̟̜̞́̈́͛̈́͗͐̈́̀̇̔͆̈͗̎̆̇͗̿͑̒̃̃͗͋͆̓̿̃̈́͂͒͂̉͊̈́̈́̃̾̑̈́̊̂͊̇̊̓̿̎̾̊̏̊̏͛̾̀̔̉̒̽̐̔͗̒̍̌̄̊̃͌̈́̾̓̓̐͛̈̐̈́̿̽̽̔̿̈́͊̂̏̕͘̕̕̕̕̚̚͜͝͠͝͝͝͝͠͝͠m̴̡̨̧̧̢͇̞̲̪̬̙̭̯͉̞͎̝̲̹̯͈͍̞̥̦̙̭̫̻̟͍̠̞̖̳͓̬͉̝͚̩͂͐͌̽̓̓͒̀͗̑̎̉͐͒̂̐̆̽̃̆̈́̏̓͑̎̏͌̃̀̿̓̾̾̅̏͆̀͐̌̒̏̈́̈́̉̀̃͋̒̈͒͒͘̕͘̚͜͜͜͝͠͝͝͝͝ͅͅ,̶̡̙̋̊̂̒ ̶̧̟͑̄̐͠w̷̛̥̆̃h̸͍̓̓͒ÿ̸̧̠͌̔͝ ̷̟̎w̶͓͕̰̋͝ǫ̶̙̮͘ͅu̷̟͍͔̳͑̆̅͂l̴̲̖̔̽̑̽ḑ̴̝̳̔ ̵̨͚͊̿y̶͈͎̹̺̅̉̐̕ọ̶̩̆u̵̧͈̠̻͒ ̸̳̼̗̄͠d̴̖̝̖̾o̷̟̗̒̆ ̸̬͑̈́t̴͔͌͂͛h̵͈͇̹͑̏͜a̴̤͚̮͂̚ṱ̵͋̐?̶̧͖̌͋̿́"̶̣̐̆͒͂ ̴̨̤̣̍̃T̷͕̙̕h̸̡͕̖̒͐̀ẹ̷̛̮͕̔̋͜ȳ̵͎͇̆͑ ̷̹̆̽͗̉ã̵͎͋s̶̰̜͇̋̽k̶͇͓̻͍͋͌̚ ̴̣̮̪̟̈͠ȁ̶͙̙͈̣n̴̨̨̧͎͗͗d̸̼̮̩͘ ̶̙̿h̴͇͓͂e̵͍̟̅͑̆̅ ̸͔̙͊̄d̸̪͈͓̽͜o̵̡͖͓̙̾̕e̷̥̮̿͊̚͠s̵̡̹̟̄̈́͘͜n̶͚͍̝͎̐̋̌'̶͚̹̬̓͑ͅţ̸̮͈̍͛ ̷̢̥̰̏r̵̺̘͖̬̄̈́̚e̶͇̹͆̚m̷͉͍͕̌e̸͍̔̋m̵͍͓̃̽b̴̧̩̹͍̄̈͋͝ḙ̸͂̓̚r̴̨̺̍̒,̶̹̜̐̇ ̶͈̦̗̄ḫ̴͈͒́ë̶̥̺́̋͌͊ ̸̤̼̝̯́͌d̷̥͔̑̉͘o̸̳͓͆͛̆ë̸̩̬̮͙̚͠s̶̱͓̓n̴̨̟̟̖̆͑̿̉'̵̙̬͚̙͑͗t̷̗͓̦͇̿́͒͛ ̴̠̋ŕ̸̝̄ë̸̛̝́͝m̵͈̋̾̑̄e̵̟͓͑̽̎͘m̶̱̮̓͂b̴̙̻̠͕͠e̶̳͙̖̜͑r̴͔̉,̷̻̰͖̽͠ ̵̝͉̘̼̅w̷̞͋̄ḧ̸͚̹̙́y̴̦͇̑̊̃͝ ̸̧̥͕̃̓͗͝d̸̜͚̠̅͛͌õ̵̜̳͚̦ë̷̹̺̞́̀͠s̴̢̙̤̬͋n̶͎̥͓̂'̸̮̭̎̐t̸͎̒͘͝ ̵̩̣͖͘h̶͓͇͔̍e̵̮̎̂͜͝ ̴͙̿r̸̪̠̒́e̵̳͋̎̉̉m̴̘̖̜̆̈́e̸̫̮̫͜͝͝m̶̪̰̞̦̀b̵̧͎͚̫͊͑̇̍ë̵̘̼̠́̈͝r̴͚̻͚̫̃͝,̷͙̝̩͛̽ ̶̡̩̩̆̊̌Ť̴̜̝̃̓͆ͅh̶̫͆͑͊ȅ̴̲͕̝͜ẙ̴̩̠ ̸̰̼͉̅̈́h̴͕̏̉̋o̶̡͉͉̓̇͆l̴̢͔͈̰̈́̕͝d̷̝̞͂̓̍͒ͅ ̸̖͕̥h̴̟̔̌̾͋i̴̧͈̲͓͋͠m̶̹̺͂ ̴̩͑̈́t̷̡̜̬͒ḩ̵͎͋̉̿e̵͍̓͂͆ŗ̸́̾e̴̪͉̻͍̅̂̏͝ ̴̭̬̝͂d̴͔̗͇͊͘e̵̜̾̓̉m̸̺̬̀͘ä̵̝̟̲́̐n̶͕͎̤̈̊̉d̴̜̹̺̽͜i̴̥̓̅͘n̸̢̦͙g̸͍̻͓̓̉ ̶̧̻̱͂̋̚h̶͙̖̞͗̉̾i̶͔̮̖̔š̶͕͙͗͆ ̶͎̀̒a̴̖͊ţ̶͎͌̒t̷̩̰̬̎̏̕e̸̲͕̤̿͗n̷̢̝͉̠̕ẗ̵̤͎̺́̈i̵̲̅̇̆o̸̭̳̒̚n̵̘̳̂ ̴̰͓͉̣̂̾̋͌ạ̸̢̙͛̿͜n̴̛̛̟̽̍ḑ̵̅͂͑͘ ̵̪̼̝̱̉̓̋ḣ̶̜͜ȇ̴̼͙̝̝̇͊ ̶͉͉̩͗ǎ̶̢l̸̞̝̇̓̿ẃ̸̙̏̏̅â̴͉͝y̶͈͎͂s̵͕͈̠̈́̉͝ ̸̙́h̵̪͎̜͒̕a̷̺͓̭͊t̷͉͓̗̻̄͊̍͠e̶͇̠̔̄̋̌d̸͈́̅̏̌ ̷̫͕̅̍͝l̶͎̩̠͠͝͠͝ỏ̷̬̦̎͘ͅo̵͍͎̭̿̍͑̈́k̵̤̬̍͊̏i̵̭̖̦̺͆͂͠n̴̨̞̠̰͋͆g̸͖̐͐ ̴̢̮̙̇̐̈ĭ̷̙̈́ͅṇ̶͗̎ ̵̹͇͝T̴̼͗h̸̩̾̍̾̓ͅe̶͉͗̇i̷̬͊̅͗r̵̛̝̪ ̴̢̮̓̈́e̷̗̓y̵̤͔̋e̸̛͙̿͠ͅs̵̼̑͛͝͝.̸̐̍͜͠ ̴̘̤͎̂̀Ṡ̸͉̠͉̘ȏ̵̦̝͔̅͆̕ ̷̯̾͘͝ͅĥ̴̲̕ë̸̞̥̪̖̌ ̶̘̘̙́͛c̵̳͔̣̄l̶̫͖̆͒o̸̭̪͇̤͑̃š̶ͅͅe̷̝̹̔̾s̵̡͉̤̪͊̏͊ ̴̭̣̈́ͅh̴̹͗̍i̴̦̙̪̊̇̏̀s̷̢̫̈́͠,̶̫̮̈́ ̶͙̆̅͂ͅä̷̱̞́l̵̪̰͔̏̃̈́w̴̼̦̤͌̑͝a̵̺͙̺̓͋͜y̵̭͈͑̈́ş̶̨̮̝͊̎ ̶̲̳̠̚p̶̲͈̎͋͆͒ā̴͙r̸̘̮̯̋ä̸͇͖͠l̸̤̯̹͂ÿ̶͈̩́̆̊z̵̧͈̽̏͘͠e̵̱͐͠d̶͙͓̩̫͌̽̔͝,̷̠̜̳͗ ̵̧̉̽̐͆a̷̩͝ ̸͉͕͛̅g̶̯̠̀̒͒̇ḩ̸̛̟͔̯̃̉͋ő̷̺͔̯̰s̸̗̭͚͎͋̿̀ț̵̢̣̽͛͘͠ ̴̯̫͓͙̍o̴̡̟̪̠̊͐f̵͓̼͓͇ ̶̺̐̍̚b̴̝͆̽͘ŗ̶͚̱͈̒́̊ì̷̺g̴̨̦̈͜ȟ̴̝̙̖͐t̷̹͓̳̘ ̷̨̰̃͂͆ȅ̵̢͍ͅŷ̸͓̠̲̍̎̈e̴̢͓̺̾̍̈s̸̢͓͖̎͛͋ ̸̗̑̄̉͗c̵̤̗͙͑̓̑̕ā̶̦̳̺̈͛ȗ̵̟̐g̴̙̱̥̀̂h̷̤̖̹̪͐t̷̬͔͎̝̊ ̸͙̏ș̵͙͒̅͘h̷͕͔̿͑i̴̢̖̊̊n̸̬͔͓͈͑͌̾͝i̷̪͂̒̕ñ̴̗̰̠͑g̸͙̮̉̈́ ̵͖̯̘͆͆i̵̳̚n̴̩̫̽͂̃̕͜ ̶̜̫̈̂̓̊t̶̘̳̀h̶͈̥̐͒̓̓e̵̡̖̲͆̔ ̴̪͔̼̒͊̂d̷̟̻̑͋͜a̷͎͒̃̕r̸̨̰̠k̶̩͚̇͑̏.̷͓̈́ ̶͚̄̕"̷̨̗̉͆Ḯ̵̟̺̓̏̃ ̶̧̂͊̂̍d̸̺͐̿͝o̶̺͜n̵̟̞̄̎̉'̸͉͍̩͋̈́̽̒ť̶̡̹͇̯̑̔̅ ̵͙͙͕͖͂͊̑k̴̛̛̜̯̊͊ṅ̷̻̭̽͗ỏ̴͚̄̚ẅ̵̡͇̬̬.̶̥͍̹̂ ̸̮̹̓̾͌͒Ī̷̤̍̈̅ ̴̲̟̳̓ḋ̴͓̬̇͝ȍ̶̡̲̼̺n̵̜̯̻̬̾̈́́̈'̴̧̅t̵̘͉͙͊́ ̸͔̳̍k̸̨̭̺̿̔͝n̸̙̱͇̐o̸̫̺̰͗͑̅͝w̷͍̹͘ͅ.̴̢͎̫͗͂ ̶̧̝̬̝̏I̸̭̗̒̀ ̷̗͘ͅd̵̡̿i̸̪̔̐̓d̸̳̘̀͋n̵̖̂́'̷̦̀ţ̶̰̿͐͋̑-̸̺̽̀̊͜ͅ ̷͎̞̰̱͒͊Ị̴̫͒̽̍͝ ̵̛̦̲̕d̷̜̓͛͛ĭ̶̙̽͘d̴̥͉̾͒n̸̙̽'̸̘̠̾̎̋t̵̩͈̰͊͒̀ ̸̢̮̺̝̏͐w̸̡̌̐ͅă̴̗̔n̷̹̮͈͋̽t̴̡̙͔̦͘ ̶̹̬̖͕͑͑͝ṯ̶̦͎̐̑͘h̷̫͙̠̓̽͂ē̶̳͆m̵̱͈̈́̍̆͝ ̷̪̭̠̃̈́̊t̶̡͎̼̄̐ȯ̴͇͑̒͛ ̸̙͍͕̍͜ḑ̶̪̿͐͋͑ḭ̸̢̚e̵̟͋̕.̸̧̲̔̈́̕"̶͙̀̉̓̓ ̸̢̞̭͂̓̓̕͜T̵̹̀̐h̷̬͝e̴̯͊̓͝y̸͍͛̆̈́͌ ̵̜̓͗ş̶̯̒̽͋͜i̴͈̠̗̤̿̾g̸̜̭͛̽̀͘h̸̡̹͑,̸̢͚̉ ̸̡̝̌̓̚l̴̳̙o̵̟̯̎͝n̷͓͇̰̮͆̾́g̶̦̝̑̏̐ ̸̫̂̏͗a̴̻͈͓͕̾́̈́n̸̟̮̫̆d̸̠͖͍͎̒̽͐ ̴̞̽͋̇̈́ļ̵̗̈́̎̇͘o̶̧̱̥̍̍̓͊w̴̨̔͑̎͋,̷̮͊͆ ̶̯͓̫̑ḑ̶̗̞̊ę̷̞͎̆͘e̴̱͈̣̼̊p̷̭̅̊̇͝ ̸̛̤͘l̵̤͇̺̄̃ḯ̶͓͂k̴͈̝̜̀̓̋͝e̴͔͚̹̓̀͑ ̵̻̇͑t̶͔̱̺̭͌́͘h̵͔͇͘ḛ̵̙͊́ ̷̡̯̥̝̐b̸̝̆̐̕͜r̸̭͔͓͋͝͝e̸̺̣͑̔͝a̷̹͕͓̋ṯ̴̿̂͆h̶̙͓͘ ̵̟͑̀̇ọ̵͋f̵̠̅̓ ̴͚̩̏̀͑̕ȃ̵̧̛̤̬̽ ̸̭͈̻̍͗̿͠d̸͈̒̑̓y̵̢̞̩̓́̅͋ͅi̵̗̒͝ņ̶̛̻͎g̴̩̀̋̐̔ ̷̘̊͌̓͠ş̵̳̱͚̓͒ư̴̭̞̮̿̂͠ͅņ̴͓̲̤̾͘,̶̧̗̫͖͗ ̸͍̙̟̯̐a̴̳͗͘n̴̼̮̉̂͘͘͜d̴̬̮͇̪̍̽̈ ̵̥͍͊̏́t̴̢̤͠ḧ̶̯͖͂͝e̵̼͊̓̓̂y̵̡̦̱͉͂̕ ̷̭̮̩̠̏̽̆͘l̴͍̰̾̐ȩ̴͚͇͙̊̌t̴̨̙̻̟̃ ̸͙̲͎̥̾h̵̦̥̣̠̄i̵͚̾m̶̠͝ ̵͕̲͉͗̿͆ǵ̵̪̯ͅo̵̧̡̾̕͜ ̴̞̈͜b̸͕̥̽͒ú̴̝̎t̴͔̼̜̍̚ ̵̺̰̱̃̕h̴̻͆̔ȇ̷̟̜̰̰ ̵̢̘͛̄̓͠ŝ̴͎̙̹͔̓́ț̵̭̙͉̔i̵̪l̶̮͈̈̋̊͜l̵͎̏͊̆̕͜ ̸̰̌̂c̴̤͙̫͑̊͊͊ͅa̴̼͉̙̗͝ņ̸̳̮̘̇̿͝'̷̦̹͇̼̐̎̿͒ẗ̸̢́̃̕ ̵̠̩̄ͅl̴̨̘͈͈̈̄͝e̸̥̬̎̆a̸̛̫̖̪̯͒̒v̵̭̥̎̂̒̚e̴̥͋̐͛͝,̶̫̀͘ ̸̠́̓ṱ̸͚̩̰̋̀̃͊ĥ̵̬̩e̵̗̳͕͓͛̇̑r̵̛̥ḛ̸͑̌'̸̲͓̈́s̴͓̉̒͆͝ ̵͚̼̭̃̊ṅ̴̛̙͎̒e̶̛̗͍̋̒̆v̷̮̹̘̦͋e̷̮̭̟͎͗r̴̰̍̈́̽ ̴̛͇̼̊͝a̷̧̞͈̋n̵̖̲̗̠͊̊͝ẏ̷̞̣̎̉̔w̶͓̫̞̮͐h̵̛̙͓͚͊̍ẹ̴̪̃̿r̶̤̤̖̃̿̑̈́e̷̺͙͎̽̄̾͊ ̷̧̖̣͆̕͜t̸͚͌̌̇̏ō̸̪͙̚ ̷̠̐r̷͙̲̜̥̓͛̕u̷͍͋͂̋ͅn̸̛̝̆͝ͅ.̴̠̠̚͠ ̷̨̻̦̘̈́͑͗͝"̸̙̭̭̌ͅȲ̸̧̩̩͜o̴̭̓̔u̷̝̔̈́̕ ̸̡̻̘̥̑͑c̵̢̠̅̀̈́a̵͔̕ň̴̡̛͍̹̲͂n̵̗̅̄͜ỏ̷̺͙͖͘t̶̯́̌͠ ̶͇̖͙̱̑͂i̸̺̒n̵̖͕͈͗t̴̩̭̂͝ḙ̵̳̈́̈́r̵̰̃̂͗̾ḟ̴ͅē̵̹͉r̴͈̮̽ͅë̴̟̯́͘̚.̵͇̌̿̈́͜͝ ̸̧͙͓̠͗̊̑Ý̵̐̃͜o̵̘̭̰̍u̷̼̻̎̐̐ ̷̨̠̝͈̈́͐͗̃k̶̩̈̾͝n̴̫̓o̵̯̘̹̪͆̓̚͝w̶̰̲͂͌̉ ̶͕̒̈̎i̷̢̭̅ṫ̸̯̼͕ ̷̠̹̌̓̑ẃ̸͍̤̙̕i̴̢͗͘͜l̸̝̖̝̰̓l̵͇̙͋͆ ̶̙̎͌͆͂k̷͈̹̳̠͆͋̇̕i̷̢͓̠̒̈̍̄l̴͍̃͌͛͝l̸̝̤͍̙̊̒ ̸̗̦̫͛͜y̶͕̰̌ō̴̫̳̪̽̉ͅư̴̮͊̄.̴̥̗̱͍̍̓̋"̵̨̏ ̵͔̖̿̎T̵͕̻̉̋ḧ̵̲̫ȅ̷̛̯͇̤i̶̫̥̻r̵̜̠͇̘ ̵̛̺͖̭̮̋̾̃v̵̧̿̊͠͠o̷̬̬͂ḭ̷̖̺͘c̴͎͈͠ę̷̅͗̕͠ ̷̟͔̤̪͛͑̿i̶̛̩͊̕s̸͉̋ ̴͈͈̱̏͠r̴̹͔̬̋̎̂́o̷̘̦͒͑͂̉u̸̩̫̓g̵̡̛̣̲̽̾̈́ḧ̶͇͕́͛ ̵̟̗̬̦̃̎â̴̪̦̐n̸̗̹̑d̴̫̹̐̄̇ ̵̨̰̪͓̔͘h̵͙̿̈̓o̷̼̫l̸̘̊l̷͇̂o̴̼͌̅̋w̸͚̆̄̏,̴̧͎̤̅ͅ ̴̮̼̒̈s̶͇̘̲͆h̶̙̙̰̓̅ä̷̜͎̻̜́͗͠p̸̧͎͎̐͌͘e̸͙̖̍d̴͕͌͋ ̷͔̍̽̿l̷͕̝͚̮̈́̅̚i̴̫̤̩͋̾̕k̴͎̞͂͂e̴̤̯̟̊͊ ̴̢͍̲̑͂ť̶̫̤̠̄h̸͈̜̿̋̈́e̴̡͊̎̎ ̶̢͕̦̓̓̾̂c̵̡̓̍̓͘ř̵̙ȁ̵̩̤͖̓̊t̵̲̞̘̀͘e̷͙̣͉̽r̵̟̭̼̰̔s̶͙̦̟̱̾͐͘ ̸̭̠͒f̶͓͝r̴̙̮͕͊̇o̷͉̦̳͈͋͂̎͘m̸̪̪͛̿ ̸̺̝̹͚̾͘a̷̧̛̫̠̰͒̒̈n̴̻ ̵̱̭̋a̷̛̹͚̣n̷͉̏̐̈́̈́c̴̛̻̍̈́̄í̶̫ẹ̸̌n̸̠̓ẗ̵͕͕ ̶̘̺̯̀̓̉̀a̸̧̧̠͈͌̋̚s̴̛̮̝͇̭̊̿t̷̛̹͉̹e̸̮̯̿̚͝r̶̰̹̺̝̽̍̉͘o̴̟̩͇̅̌̏̚i̴̧͇̱͒̈́̏d̴̢̧̟̖̐̓̀.̵͓̗͉̅̉ ̶̦̗̼̮̅̋"̵͙̘͕̔̊̔͠T̴̮̔h̵̡͉̓e̸̦̪̯͌͌ý̷̜͕̬̚ ̷̗̗̥̐̈́̋͘w̸̺̝͛͜ḯ̴̼̦̽̚l̸͙̝̹̱̇̈́́l̸̫͖̲̉̈́̏̎ ̷̼̼̒̈k̴̛͇͙̝̼̄̕i̷̱̩͛̋̐̚͜l̵͗͜l̸͚͕̳̙͛̄͘ ̷̘̳́y̶̥̌̉̚͝ǒ̴̟̺͊̓u̶̥͋̒.̶̩̠͉͌̉"̸̬̩̿̿̔͜ͅ ̵͉̹̹͗͊̄͑H̸̨̱̺̄̃̒ẽ̷͉̺̗ͅ ̷̗͚̑͐c̴͕̜̈́̏ų̶̢̫̤͑̎r̷̯̩̾͆͘l̶͍̝͕̒s̷̥͑̔ ̵̹̗̂͋t̷̡̘̿̓̕͠i̷͇̹̒̃̆̌ḡ̶͉̦͐h̵̰͓̆̃̊t̶̰͕̫̩́e̶͚͎͔̮̋̏̈́r̵̹̯̄̄͗͘,̷͓͖̯̩̀̍̽͝ ̶̠̜̹̩͂̀̿̐ě̶̯̮̈́̎ạ̴̈́͒r̴͚̰͌̔̽͂s̸͖̭̎̅͗ ̸͔͓̀̀̽̃s̷͔̋ę̷̪͉̬̍̈̓͝ṭ̴͓̹̌̌ͅ ̷̧̩̖͂͊̑b̴̝͒ą̶͍̲̬̂c̸̦̎k̵͓͍̅͒ͅ,̵̣̏̊ ̴̯͉͇̋̆͒t̷͖̱̜̃ẻ̷̹̐ę̶̫͍̇̔̕͝t̶̮͇̔ĥ̷̞̘̦̠ ̴̼̓̚ḇ̶͚̈́̿̈́͛ả̶̳̉̃ȑ̵̨̺̯̠͒̆̈e̷̤̙͐̄͝d̶̪̣͝,̴̖͕̩̿̑͠ ̴̡̬̜̳̋͝t̸̳̊̈́̃ř̶̨͆̅̇ͅy̷̲͔̖͍͊̏̓̈́ĩ̷̫̹̭̚͜n̴̛̜̭̆g̴̫̙͌̏ ̸̹t̷̢̹̟̅͜o̶̯̞͌͜ ̶̖̲̀ẉ̸̐ŗ̵̤̲͋͜͠ä̸̻̣́̽͊̕p̵̨͓͕̽̾ ̸̟͔̳͝h̷̛͙̽͘i̷̲̳̕ş̷̜̔ ̵̡̄͋̄͠ͅṯ̴͊̔̊̅o̸̧̝̱̩̓͆̓͘n̸̞̟̝̩̒̓̓͝g̴̭͔̙̈́̄̂u̴̦͇̔̔̈̽e̷̓͛͑̚ͅ ̵͖̆͆̓å̴̠̦̅ř̸̡͈̤̟̐̓͝o̵̼̺͉̤͋̊̉ǘ̶̬͉̙̜͒̾n̷̢̼͈͈̈́̋d̸̥͖̿̾͠ ̶̨̤̓̓͘a̶̠̙̖̤̓̂ ̸̟l̷̞̅̓ą̸͍̆͌̓̈́ň̶̡͖̪ǵ̵̺̯ü̵͉̣̼͑̅â̵̛͍̚g̶̤̰̘͒̽ȩ̶͎̈͠ ̶̩͇̣̃͜͠ơ̷͉͍͐̚͝u̴̢͙͖͂͌t̸͍͔̂s̸̛͍͖̈́́̍i̷̳͕͓͍̿̀̐̚d̵͍̋̌͋ė̷̲͔͈̟̇̍ ̶̹̑̓̕f̸͓̼͓͜͝l̴͙̑͘͝e̵̹͓̓̈̌͘s̸̮̠̏̈̀ͅh̴͉̲͉̓ ̵͖̈̍̌ȁ̸̧͈͇̇n̵̖̼̫̟͛̆̑͗d̸̙̞͍̜̓ ̸̗̎͐͆b̴̘̑́͘o̴̟̬̖͛̑̆n̴̘͝e̵͕͗͝ ̸̪͑a̸̡̼̋̉n̵͙̊̿d̸̰͒͜͠ ̷̺͘̕s̸̰͌̈̃͌ớ̶͇̰̊͠m̵̫̍e̸̛͔̮͜t̵̟͈̏̓̿͠h̸̢͙͓̑̾͑ì̷̮̺̈́́ń̶̟g̷̣̳̤͝ ̶̜͙̗͐̍̾ṯ̸͓̙̯́̈́̑͝ḧ̸̹̱́̌͂͝ã̶̻̱̔̎̌t̴̹̹̬̣̽͗̿ ̸͔̩̓̅͆̿͜h̶̛̼̰͕̓̉̓a̸͍͐d̵̮̺̟͊ ̴͚͍̭͈͛͆͠n̸̼͔͌̂o̵̧̘̍̚ ̵̰̼̘͆͗̚r̶̨̖͊̚͜e̴̢̩͘a̶͠ͅl̶̤̾́̑̔ ̷͎̳̻͍̋̒s̴̛̲͍̺̰̿̾̽ö̵̹́̔͗̚ù̶͕̘̓̒̑ñ̸̼̥d̵͉̼̈́͘.̶̬̦̼̃̕ͅ ̵͙̈̆͘"̵̪̞̹̫͌̉͌̕I̸͖͆͒̎̿ ̶͔̪̞̜̃͠ḍ̸̩͕̅̈̏õ̸̡̍̕͜͝n̶̩̭̟̼͌̽͒'̵͙̽t̶̢͖̬͜͝.̵̨̧̞͓͝.̵͖͌͊͐͒.̵̡̛̥͆̔̚ ̴͖͙͍͐̆I̴̛̪ ̴̽͌̒͜d̴͍͐̉i̴͍̳̘̳̊͐͠d̷̟͙͕̜̐͐̽n̵͓̖̉̃͑͗'̴͇̗̰̎͊ţ̷̡͓̳̇̇-̴̲͍̚ ̴̢͓͐͗̚i̸͈̘̤̒t̷̪̘͍̒̆̆'̸̘͉͐͌̾s̶̠̦̹̗͒̈ ̴͉̱͓̾̈́̈́̕n̵̗͗͌̒ő̷̤͗͂t̴͖͌̓ ̸̙̓̆̚f̸̻̺͎͗̅̚ͅă̸̤̼̟̠͗̿i̵̡̞̱̤̊̒r̵̛̼̬̲̊̔.̷͍͛͆͠͝"̸͖̈́̽̾ ̸͔̥̪̋͒̄H̷̡̱̖͉͗͝e̷̖͆̆͂̑ ̶͚̔̈̆̀c̵̨̛͈̱̲̄̈́͑ä̴͕́n̵̖͍̭͌'̷̗̀̿̉t̶̮̺̝̀̂̂̉ͅ ̶͇̦̘̾̍r̶̟̦̆̓̕͘e̷̢̱͐̿m̵̺̞͚̦͐̀̏ê̶͓̘̳̂̆m̴͙͇͎̱̉̊b̷̨̛͖͇̐̇͝ë̶͚̪̠̝́͌͛r̷̭̳͎͗̌ ̶̜̘̰̉w̴̳̎h̴͙͑̎y̶̛̠̗͓̝̐͛͠.̷͔͔͑́ ̶̢͈̈́T̴̯̲̆͐̿ẖ̶̦̔͆̃e̴̬̊ÿ̷̮̲ ̷̢̫̲̪̒́s̸͚͛̄́͜t̴̲̪̆̀͑͘ͅä̷͖͔̣̻́͊r̵̼͉͛e̵̪̗̼̮̊͑̂̓ ̶̰̒̎̚͜d̸̼̖̝̝͛ò̵͉͑̄w̴͓̳̦̥͑̉̚n̶̮̫̟̟̿͝͝ ̸̜̼̦̒͋a̷̺̻̽͒͜t̴̲͙̽̾͒͐ ̶͎̲̈́̾̕ȟ̵̦̮͓̱͠ȉ̵̭̜͍̑͛̎m̵̙̣̫̈̈͘,̶̻̙͕̿̕ ̴̡͉͇̅̌̀́͜d̶̢͙̗̊̂̕͝i̵̱̝̫͆̓͗̃s̵̞͕̳͑t̸̝͉̘͚͝a̸̡̮̮͓͊̂̏͠n̴̢͉͕͌t̷̟̗̩̋̕ ̶̹͈̀ą̵̭̩̣̈́n̵͚̭͋̂̂́ḋ̷̯̫̹̠ ̶̡̯̆̂̾́c̸̢͍͙̪͊̓͛o̶̹͖̠̔l̵̹̑͋͒͝d̷̥͗̌̿̈́ͅ.̷͕̍̏ ̸̣̞̱͋"̵̙͖̱͝Ȉ̵̢͉̯t̷̯̦̫͔̉̆'̶̤͈͙̳͐̓̑s̸̨̫̥̈̎͘ ̸̱̬͂l̸̯͐͛̕ï̵̛̱͑̏͜f̵͙̓͜e̶̦̫͋̓̃̇.̷̠̯͙̇͊͊⌼̴̡̢̢̨̧̨̨̡̧̛͈̬̠̲̱͕̱͓̱͇̬̰̤̱̯̬̮̺̲͚̮̙̺̰͔͈̱͕̳̠̱̣̬͇͖͖̫̼͖̖̖̗̭̜̞͇͚͎͍̖̙̦̳̜͖̪̝̪͔̭͖͙̪̖̘̫̱̣̬̻̠̻̮̘̬̳͍̱͎̦͈͖͍̮̱̟̽͌̊͐̓͗̊̓̂̈́͒̒͜͜ͅṙ̴̢̨̡̧̢̧̡̙̠̪͈̰̙̯̬̣͍̫͖̲̖̤͍͙̮̦̬̘̫̼͚̼̯͇̞̳̮̲̘̜̳̪̫̖̱͇͈̼͍̭͉͖͕̯̱̹͙͍͔̗͈̫̣̦̲͍̝̘̻̎͆̇͛͛̀̉̅̑͑̐̏̃̎̈́͘̚̕͜͜ͅͅͅሁ̴̡̨̧̧̧̧̨̨̧̛͖͍̮̻̺̻̞̜̟͈͎̰̥̞̯̹̟̮̰̳̺̩̬̼̭̘͙̩̠̤̖̝̣͓͔͍̙͍͍̰̗̪̱̪̜̦̼̼̤̻͚̤͔̺̫̗̝̪͈̘̔̒̀̐͐͑͊̔̐̃̾̀̈́̈͊͌̈͋͐̈͊̈̈̐̔̈́̓̌̄̒̋͆͗̂̊̇̈͌̐̽̀̑͌͛̑̄̑͆̔̓͌͋̉̑̑̿͑͌̇̒͗̑̏̀͆̊̂̇͌̀͐̆̓͌̎͂̔̌̿̉̌͗͐̋̚̕̚͘̚̚̚͘͜͜͠͠͝͝͠͝ͅ╕̷̢̧̧̢̧̛̛̛̛̛̰̠̼̙͈̝̹̣͔͉͉͎̘̙̙̬̱͕̭̝̟̘̣͚̳̹̟̜̞́̈́͛̈́͗͐̈́̀̇̔͆̈͗̎̆̇͗̿͑̒̃̃͗͋͆̓̿̃̈́͂͒͂̉͊̈́̈́̃̾̑̈́̊̂͊̇̊̓̿̎̾̊̏̊̏͛̾̀̔̉̒̽̐̔͗̒̍̌̄̊̃͌̈́̾̓̓̐͛̈̐̈́̿̽̽̔̿̈́͊̂̏̕͘̕̕̕̕̚̚͜͝͠͝͝͝͝͠͝͠m̴̡̨̧̧̢͇̞̲̪̬̙̭̯͉̞͎̝̲̹̯͈͍̞̥̦̙̭̫̻̟͍̠̞̖̳͓̬͉̝͚̩͂͐͌̽̓̓͒̀͗̑̎̉͐͒̂̐̆̽̃̆̈́̏̓͑̎̏͌̃̀̿̓̾̾̅̏͆̀͐̌̒̏̈́̈́̉̀̃͋̒̈͒͒͘̕͘̚͜͜͜͝͠͝͝͝͝ͅͅ.̶̨̢̥͗ ̴̡̱̅̏͝͝Į̸̺̻̠̐̒̐t̶̡̜̯̻͂̇'̸̰͍̥̞̾̆̎͠ŝ̶̗̜̹̈̂ ̵̟͂j̴͈̳͔̼͛ů̵̢͓̜ͅs̴̖̞̋t̸̜̹̥͕̉͛͑͋ ̸̡͚̹̓l̴̫̃̐̾i̵͕̒̍f̶̫̫̘̫͌̄̎e̵͎̋.̶̠̭͕̈́"̷̞̳͚̻̉

Ȉ̸͔̮̹̒͒̓̒̈́͂̈́́͑t̵̡̧͍̪̠̜̳̰̘͉̬͉̬͛͛̾̋͐͌̄͂͜ş̵̨̭͕̟̱̻̖̩̱͕͇̬̃̈́ ̷̗̺̠̱̹͎̣̟̹̤̝̠̆̎͋͒̚̕͝͠ͅj̶̧̖͎̠͉̐ų̸̧̡͈̗̗̞͖̭͌̾̉̉̓̆͌͝s̸̡͎͕͚̮̖͕͗͋̂͆̍ṭ̶̳̬̮̞̭̮̯̭̘̜̭̓̀͒̐̒́̋̿̄̏͝͝͝

"It's just--"

Dream starts, voice distant and dull, echoing a corrupted memory that he can't even be sure is his but it keeps lingering at the tip of his tongue. Tommy wrenches his chin out of the suddenly slacking grip, trying to tuck it into the safety of his own shoulder.

Dream grabs Tommy's chin again, grip harsh and grinding down to the bone, forcing him to look back up. "It's just a compass."

Tommy hits him.

A rabid right hook, knuckles slamming harmlessly into the hard shell of a mask before glancing off.

Dream's eyes fall half shut, a single huff pressed out from his nostrils.

He lets Tommy go, 'cause that's what he wants right?

Tommy scrambles clumsily to his feet, running to go look back over the edge, hand flying up to cover his mouth, like he's desperately trying to hold something in. Words pressed like chants from his ribs I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry- I just- I

The compass is long gone, as distant and mindless as anything else.

"I just... I wanna go home. Please, can I go home?"

Tommy's cracking words ring in Dream's ears. He doesn't remember when it got so hard to keep himself from sinking into the past, flickering between the strings of red thread winding to the labyrinth's middle. Somehow forgetting where his heels were planted like he couldn't get enough of reliving every second. It wasn't this bad, it wasn't. It was easier before everything started to rot.

Before L'Manberg.

Before everything.

À̴̢̎ ̸̩̍̔p̸̗̌̒a̶͔̿̿r̶̭̾t̷̡̳̉̾ ̴̡̜̈́͗o̷͎͑f̵̺̭͝ ̴̮̌̓h̶̬̗̅̚i̵̪̒̔m̸̪͎̌ ̴͉̝̈͛i̵͕̿s̴̘̈́ ̴̧͑͐a̸̤̿l̴̙͆w̸̘̆a̷̯̺͑y̴̭̱̅s̷͎̝͠ ̸̕͜i̸͈͓̅̌n̵̟͙͂̓ ̷̣̈́ă̸̻̜ ̷̆̋͜t̴͚̰͗̇h̶̫͝͠o̸̞͛u̸̧̔s̶̛͓̏ā̷̧̰n̶̗̒̕d̷̤̈͘ ̵̘̘̚ḋ̶̝ḙ̵̓a̶̮͂̂d̸̡̯̚͝ ̴͕͝ẅ̸̳̘́õ̶̬̼͝r̶̝͗l̷̤̈́̚d̸̜̬͒͒s̷̹͐.̷̥̺͗͋ ̶̩̆͠C̸͙̭̉r̵̰͝ă̸̲̫t̷̯̅͛e̷̫̓͂r̷̼͐̑s̴͇̻̈̀ ̵̘̀ş̵͖̔̃p̸̣͎̒l̸̬̑͠i̷̲͚͊t̴̨̀ẗ̵͇̥i̵̙̅n̸̢̜̉g̴̩̯̀́ ̶̙̰̈͝ṱ̴̛̘̽h̴̞̔e̸͎͘ ̵̮͛ḛ̶̑̍ḁ̶͒̒r̷̥̎t̸̀̿͜ͅh̴̻͈̿͂ ̵̡͎̌̈l̸̼ĭ̸͔̘k̷̻͍̉̐e̶͚̚ ̷̻͍͗̿s̵̭͕̓c̴̻̫͊̔a̶͍̠͒ȑ̸͕s̴̫͠.̴̭͝ ̴̬͈̿̀Ĕ̵̦̝x̵̻͝p̴͉̼̌ḽ̵̓͒o̸͍͔͛͘s̶̭͐̓i̷̩͈̔o̷̩̣͒n̷̦̠̍s̵͈̟͆ ̴͉̏͗s̴̖̖̒͌h̸̜̏̽ȧ̵̠̥̓p̶͉̒e̶͖̹̐d̴̙́ ̶̰͓͑l̶̙͎̃ḯ̵̪͈ḳ̷ḙ̴̑ ̶̠͍̏̚s̴͓̟̎͗t̵̖̜͂͂o̷̗̝̅n̶̛̙̆e̷̲͌͠ ̸̮͆s̷̜͖̿k̸̭̍ì̸̕͜n̸͓͑̎ ̷̳̲̓̇r̵̡̙͐ḯ̸͍p̷̨̭͂̄p̷̱̎̅e̴͉̊d̸͉̿̉ ̸͈̠̊͊ẅ̵̥̖́ĭ̷̼͝ḏ̵̱ė̸̯͇ ̵̻̥o̶̤p̷̞͐e̴̹̓̈n̴̖͠,̵͈̅ ̶͓͖͠t̵͓͍̋̚ŏ̸̳r̷̳͔͑n̶̠͈̍͝ ̴͇͉̈́f̷͔̓̉r̷͔͆̓ỏ̶̭͉m̵̱̑ ̴̫̾t̷͎͑h̸̻̿͊ȩ̴͐̾ ̶̭̲͗b̷͈̀̕ọ̸͌n̶̛̬̟ë̵͚́s̷̖̐ ̵͑̏ͅọ̴͚͆̊f̷̡̺̈ ̷̝̿̌t̶̡̿̐ȟ̴͎̑ḙ̸̹̎ ̶̖͈͝g̸͓̏͜r̵̻̜̋̈́ờ̴͇͎u̷̲͝ṇ̵͉̓̎ḋ̶̨̉.̷̰̥̓ ̴̦̎H̵͎͛̀ē̸͇͕ ̷̬́͑l̷̜̇ö̵͖̪o̵̢͝k̸͚̫s̷̰͋̎ ̴̜̰͐ụ̸̡̈́̆p̶̙̾ ̶̞̺͂ả̵̲ţ̴̰͑ ̵̲̳̓̾T̸̿ͅh̶̛̥͕̅e̵̮͋m̷̘͑̿,̴̖͗͝ ̶͎̪͊̓l̸̢͓͝ǐ̷̘̺̑s̷̝̈́t̶̞̙͆́l̸̢̬̔e̷͇̾s̷̙̐ͅs̴͙̞ ̵̰͓͒͒a̴͖̿ṅ̴̥̐g̶̙̓̚ͅe̵̟̦͂̚r̵̻̒̚ ̶͍̚m̷͍̍͐e̷͕͍͊̕e̴̬̿t̴͙͐͜ì̴̧n̴̙̳̎͠ḡ̷̣̹ ̸̛̭̠ȟ̵̨̖ọ̷͐͝p̶̫̓e̷̥̐͝l̴̨̥̆̎ȅ̴̤̦͛s̴̢͛̏ş̵͂͛ ̶̛͕͘h̷͇͗̍a̴͂̐ͅt̶̩̎̍ẹ̵̄.̴̣̹̎ ̴̦̅A̸͉̞̒̒n̸̯͑d̶̹̑ ̶͕̯̃h̶̺̭͋͊ĕ̸͖ ̴͇̭̎̈́r̵̡͋̒e̴̮͝m̸̼͎̿ẹ̵̯̄́m̸̦̭̾̊b̴̘̳̅e̴̠̱̽r̵͎̋̐͜s̵͕̊̉ ̶̂̈́ͅẖ̵̪͗ö̸̘͝ẃ̸̱ ̶̳͊̂i̵̳̻̕t̸̩̊ ̵̢͆a̶͇̐l̷͈͎͂͝w̴͇̻a̸͍̐ŷ̷͈͒͜š̵̟͝ ̶̝͗d̶͎͈̿i̴̻͘e̶̺̫͌s̸̼̒̀,̵͎̝̈͠ ̸̛͔̒ĩ̷̤̈́t̷̻͊ ̸̞̃̓a̵̢̒l̷̪̈́ͅw̸͓͊͋ä̷̝́y̸̦͂ṣ̴͘ ̷̼̚͠d̵̳̟̓o̵͕̹͘e̸̦̚̕s̴̪̆̏,̷̟̱̒ ̸̛̰h̸̤̭̿i̸̜̽t̷͈͘c̷̭͍̆̂h̴̹͌͝e̴̯̦d̵͖͔̒ ̷͕̙̊͘o̶̺ṉ̷̓͝ ̴̟̺̅̈s̴͚̉ţ̶̛̹͆ǎ̷̡̔r̸̿ͅĺ̶͖̹̈́e̵̬̓̅s̶̢̻̊s̷͈̳͑͑ ̶̤̤̈́e̴̺̿y̵̍̏͜ê̶̲ṡ̴̮̌ ̵̗͋a̷̜̙̒̇n̴̜̪͌͝d̸̟̉ ̵̩̱̎e̴̲̍̕m̵̫̍͐p̵̛ͅt̷̝̄̑y̵̬͗͌ ̵̠̲͠p̵͈̯̿̂r̶͕̉a̶̯͗̕y̸̠͉̑ḛ̷̍r̸̲͓̓͘ŝ̸͖.̷̰͓̾͂ ̴̥́H̷̠͌ͅe̷͉̟̾ ̴͚͕̚t̴̳̎͋ȟ̵̦͜ḯ̶͔͐n̸̬̱͐k̸̞͒s̶͎̏͘ ̷̥͝ͅi̸̝̠̾̇f̷̯̅ ̶̝̃h̶̲͔̾͠ȇ̴̖̯͘ ̷̠̣͋̄c̵͚͙͑ǫ̸̭̑u̸̘̕l̵͍̜̄̎ď̶̲̻͋,̶̹̐ͅ ̷̬͒̃h̴̯͠ͅe̸̛͖̠'̶͖͋̓d̷̙͉̄ ̶̝͒k̷̺̳̄i̶͖͜l̷̞̿ļ̸̫̃ ̸͔̕T̶͉̓h̵̖̅̓e̴̫̺̾m̴̭̼͗ ̷̺̰͆͒t̶̤̑o̴͉̝̎̚o̴̫͍͗̆.̴̫̬͗͗ ̸̲͑̌"̴͎͠P̸͎̄l̵̟͂͠ė̷̫͘á̵̗s̷̪̭̆͑ě̴͔…̴̼̱͗̐ ̶̠̎̽I̶̪̍ ̶̦́ǰ̴̭u̷̧͖̇s̶̢̗̊́t̷̲̍ ̴̦̍w̴̯͓̔̚a̴̖͉̕̕n̸̯͒t̵̗ ̶̱͔͑̉t̶̼͗̆ō̶̠̝̓ ̸̼̩͐̓g̶̛̲͆o̴̢̝̅ ̵͓̜͑h̷͔͒ǫ̷̩̉m̵͈̼̾͐e̸͈͈̚.̷̤̝̐"̴̤̇ ̴̳̈B̶͌͜ǔ̸͎t̷̨͂ ̵͈̐t̸͎̅̅h̸͙͒̎e̸͍͕̒̅r̶̮̉̍ȅ̶̗̈ ̵̦͋w̴̹͠a̵͙̮̐s̵̩̯̈́͐ ̴̩̰n̶̦͖̓̽ó̷̧̩̔ ̷̹̉͠h̴͇̫̽o̵̗̟̅m̵̞͆̽e̸͎͊.̸̨̃̚ ̵̘̈͑H̴̠͎͋é̵͖̾ ̷̧̐̉k̶͉̗͂n̵̛̟̠͂o̶̦̮̒w̷͍̞̓͂s̸͎̈,̸̬͘ ̷͓̔̏h̵̜̭̃̂ę̷̕ͅ ̸̥̤̅̍ḱ̶̞̪͆n̴̩͇͒̚o̴̖͝ẘ̸͉̳ş̷̊ ̵̧̯̃b̶̘̏̚e̴̙̓c̴̬̊a̷̟̝̍͊u̴͚͖͑̀s̷̡̮̍e̶̗͆́ ̷̫̠͝h̴͍̪͆ȩ̷̝̉͝ ̶̨͊ͅk̵̥̠̃̐i̶͍͚͗͒l̵̥̣͑l̷͈̺̄͝ẹ̵͙̀͠d̴̞͑ ̸̦̺̋i̸̼̯͐͝t̵̋̈ͅ,̸̡̻̂ ̵̡̙̄a̸͚̓͂͜l̵̰̩͋̈l̴͉͔̊ ̸̞̔̿t̷̮͍̿h̶̙̖̾̚o̷̯͌s̶̢͝ě̷͖͔͠ ̴̛̲s̵͕̥̃c̷͙͒á̶͇͉r̵̖̙̾̊s̸̖͉̽̅ ̴̩̋͠t̵̩̝̕h̶̗͐a̴̼̟̒̑t̴͈̠̐̏ ̵̣̥́̃r̴̖͠ē̸̘n̸͚͆̋ͅd̶̲ͅ ̴̹̇̄t̴͍̖͋͘ẖ̸̂e̸͔͊͜ ̴̜̽̌e̶̛͚ȧ̴̪̓r̶̬̍ẗ̴̻͔́h̴̗̼̒-̷̭̆ ̴̳̊̕t̵̖̚h̵̳̔e̷̫̽y̴̖̒ ̶̼̐s̶̳͂͛c̸͈̤̈r̷̦͂͋e̷̺͊á̷͈̻m̴͈̓̈́ ̴̦͛l̴͎̠͌ì̵̜̐ḵ̸̢̉̃ẹ̷̆͐ ̴̨͕̽͋ā̷̗̬ ̶͕͑̋w̶͉̕ă̴͕͝r̶͉͖̈͗n̶͔̜͑i̶͔̾n̸͔̕͝g̴͙͓͒͆,̶̧͓̑͠ ̴̙̖̈t̴̢̔̋w̶̲̄i̸͓͛s̵̛͖̱̏t̴͕͙̃͊ ̸̢͖̽ḩ̷̲̅̆ỉ̶͜͝s̵̯͙͒̚ ̷͇̀͗s̶̭͈͑͝t̵̡͠ơ̵̯m̴̮̭̎a̷̻̒͐c̷̲͒́h̶͔͈͗,̸̢̻̎͝ ̸̦̐̂h̶̩̞͠e̸̘ ̶̞͉̓ă̴̘̲l̸̤̋ẁ̴̻͉̆ä̵̺́͝y̷͉̰̅̏s̵͚̍͋ ̴̖̅͠f̴̱̣̔o̵̝̗͛̏ṝ̶̉g̸͖̩̈e̸̼̘͌t̷̜̪̒s̷̠̔͊ ̸̢̼̌t̷͕͘͝h̵͍̗͊e̷̻̓̚ ̸͖̳̃͊l̷̰ē̵̩̐s̶̛̻̠͒ş̶̤̿̈́ŏ̵͍ñ̵͚̫̕.̴̻͍̔͒ ̸͇̌͊Ḧ̸̻́e̷͖̝͝ ̶̫̎̃s̴̥̅͜t̵͖͆a̵̮͖̽r̶͓̭͋ȩ̵̯̾s̶͖̊ ̸̹̃i̸̼̽ṋ̶̈́͜͠t̴̨̘̅ǫ̷̟̒͌ ̸̉̇ͅt̶̗̼͊̂h̵͕̕ẹ̷͝ ̷͎̯̒b̵̖̱͊l̷̤̓͛a̶͈̣͒c̷̪̑͋k̶̥͕̀h̶̡̯̍͠o̶͈͌l̵̪̅e̴̘͑ ̴̻̪͝d̴͉̃́ê̶̤͜p̵̢̃t̴̳̋h̸̜̄s̷̫̣͒͂ ̸̰͘o̴̯̓f̸͔̍ ̷̙̫̊t̸̩̉͘ḣ̴̦̮̿e̶͈̕ ̶̠̦̐͒c̷̠͑͝r̶̘̪̉͋ą̵̪̏ṭ̴̺̿̚e̴͋̈́͜r̶̤̔ ̶͖͓̌ạ̶̗̽n̴̝̏̚d̶̙͓ ̸̺̂͜t̷̛͕̤h̶̺̮i̶͈̝̐̏n̴̫̝͘k̴̗̍s̷͔̏͒ ̵͙̍̇h̴̼͐̊e̷͔̕'̷̓̽͜ľ̵͖l̸̨͔͘ ̴̞̔̓j̴̠͈̇̕ư̶̫͌m̸̡̂p̴̹͐ ̴̻̪̂ṯ̵͗ḥ̶͛i̵̟̔͆s̷͙̀ ̶̭͑̃t̶̯̙͌͝i̸̲͘ṃ̸̎̇é̶͕̏ ̶̥͒͑t̷̨̂̓o̸͇͉̒o̴̠̩͒,̵̯̑ ̴̘̿ť̶̥́h̶̙͓̑͝i̸̧͌ṋ̵͋k̴̦̮͒̎s̶͍͖̚ ̴͍̃͝h̵̲̿ȩ̸̝̿̑'̸̥̤̃͘l̴̨̖͒ļ̷̎ ̴̤̋̓k̵̘͋i̸͚̮̐ḻ̶̿͜l̴̟̞̉ ̵̭̺̎͝h̶͉̝͆̾ḯ̶̖̕m̵̊̏͜s̶̫͎̿͝e̴̬̹͘l̶̤͑͝f̵̛̮͚̉ ̶̡̙́o̵̠̬̒n̴̜̑ ̷̯́t̸͖̟̋͒ḧ̵̺̖͐e̴̫̽ ̵̠͘j̴̼̜͌ǎ̴̢͝g̸̛̲̮͝g̶̲̓e̵̫͈̕d̴̗͊ ̵̲̼͋b̶̺̌ǒ̴̫̘t̸̡̧̂͠t̸̺͔̄̚ő̸͎͒m̶͙͠.̵̭̕ ̶̛̮͊I̷̠͌͝t̷̪͙͋ ̷̺̉d̶̛̻͒i̴̧̇̅d̵̃̔ͅn̶̛͍̦'̶̦̜͗t̴͎̰͂ ̷̢͚͂m̴̲͋ả̵̼͔t̸͖͓̊͐ẗ̷̯͙́̈́ê̷̘͈ŕ̶̲̾͜.̸̺͍ ̵̤͇̔T̷͚̕h̵̋ͅe̶̹̬̒ẙ̴̹́'̶̢͑ḓ̵̈́͠ ̸̖͖͐͑j̵͇̋û̴͖̺̏s̵̞̬͂͊t̸͉̊͘͜ ̶̛̫͝ġ̷̨̺͊a̶͓̦͠t̸̮̃̐ḫ̴̅ḛ̷͗̆ṛ̶̋̊ ̷̟̏̉u̶̘͆p̸͈͛̍ ̸̩̈́͛t̴̨̄̐h̵̳͈̔͆e̶̱͒̓ ̷̣̂p̷̧̳̂̌i̶̘̟͗̏ě̵͕̑c̵̥͘͝e̵̫̯͊ș̸̐,̵͔̂͗ ̶̲̲͊p̸̟̙̈́̕u̵͙̼̐ẗ̸̠̈́ͅ ̸̟͐̍ͅh̸̪i̴̹̬͋m̸̳͇̐ ̴̧̌̇b̴̭̯͆a̸͍̰͛́c̸̡̹̽k̴̡̦̕ ̵̢̄t̷͇̼̆ọ̴̑g̷̜ě̸̯͎̈́t̸̘̍͝h̸͉̅e̴̘͉̐r̶̲̈,̸͕͍̃͒ ̴̹̘̍b̵̭̮̽͆ū̶͙̖ẗ̸͇́ ̶̤̓n̶͇͚͝o̸̗̳̓́t̴̠͉͘h̸̘̕i̷͙̟̍͑n̸̢̪̋g̶͚͂ ̴̼̞̐e̶̬̰̍l̶̯̩̈́s̷͚̎ē̵̱,̶̢͉͒̍ ̸̦͇̐̏n̵̳͋̅ȩ̴̤̂v̸̛̻͎è̴̤r̸̼̂͝ ̸̧̒ǎ̴̞̖͘l̴̢͊̑l̴̨͕̏ ̴̜̐͝ỏ̶͙̮͝f̴̗̅͜͠ ̶̼͌̕i̵͎̦̾t̷̺͓͛.̵̙̿ ̶̱͌̅H̵͙͎̿ė̷̹̚ ̶̟͆͌w̵̯̘̆́i̵̱͚̎̌s̸̙͕h̸̳̔e̷͉̓̋s̵̫̍͂ ̶̤̑͛ṁ̷̧͓o̷̟͌r̵̺̽̍e̷̱̗̊ ̶͉̺͆͝ţ̸̍h̸̬͓̍̿a̷̰̍n̵̫͂̌ ̴̹̝̀̌a̷̩̔͒ṉ̸̏ȳ̶̩̘̚t̸̰̻̓ḧ̷̭͚́i̶̯̇n̸̟̣̈́g̵͊̎͜ ̶͙̗͂͠h̸͓͒ͅë̵͙̻́ ̸̡͔c̴͖̞̓o̴͐̓ͅų̴̈́̆l̴̜͠d̸̻̟̏͝ ̷̩̈f̷̱̜͘o̷̭̖͐r̷̡͍͠ĝ̸̢̳e̵̱̼̐t̸̜̕ ̷̮̯̆̃h̶̺̮̔͘o̴̼͓͝ẅ̵̧͇ ̵̬͓̆h̶̩͔͝e̵͍͘ ̵͓̇ã̷̧͖l̷̡̋̌ŵ̸̱ạ̵̺̋y̵̜̳͆ş̸͔̽ ̴̟͚̇f̴͍͑ḛ̸̀l̵̩͊t̶̥͊ ̶̗̳̆ĕ̴̥̙͐v̷̞͛͛e̶̢̛r̸̠͕̄y̷̹͘t̶̤̗̓h̵͚̬́̀i̷̠̼͗n̵͓͔̎g̶̛͇̪ ̸͚̋d̵͉̎ḭ̶̏è̵̘͜.̵̯̉ ̶̳̏͒H̵̩̹̅e̸̛͜ ̴͖w̸̮̏i̵̖̓s̸̯̓h̶̼̐e̴̬͝ś̵̛͚͖ ̴̙̚̕m̶̛͙̻o̷͎̔̃r̵͈̗͝ẻ̵̺ ̶̥̣͐t̶̤̼̉͝h̵̨͓̃a̴͓̋n̵͍̓ ̶̡̫á̸̦ņ̵͔͂͊y̷̨̩̌t̸̫͌͜h̵͔̲̀ḭ̶͔̑̋n̶̩͇̽g̴̬͔͑̍ ̴̹̂̔ṫ̶̖͎͠ȟ̸͖ä̴̧́̈t̷̺̣̍̋ ̸̦̬̓̚h̵̝̿e̴̬̐ ̷͎̬̈́͐w̸͈̭̿̉a̷͓͂s̸̙̊͑ ̴͈̿̕a̷̩͐͝ḷ̶͠ļ̶̿o̵̺̚w̸̱̫̽̇ḛ̷͊d̷͉̽ ̸̭͝t̵̬̕o̴̩͕̿.̷͕̓

He hates that it keeps happening, eating up his mind and his vision for two seconds too long, it shouldn't be a problem in the first place. All the blue in that dimensionless space of his inventory bled shockingly dark, the letter from Ghostbur resting there alongside it. Purple blacks of obsidian walls right in front of his eyes, blinking in and out, as he stares and stares and stares, splashed darker with something that he knows is blood as he reaches for it. It disappears, forgotten like it was never there.

World once more washed in reds and oranges, he curls his fingers in a lazy pattern at his sides, feeling them ache like he'd spent hours slamming the knuckles into a wall. The ache dulls and he steps forward until he's stood at Tommy's shoulder.

Tommy keeps looking down and even if he doesn't take a weightless step, he knows the hounding call of the void, knows it's only a matter of time before Tommy comes back alone.

Dream studies Tommy's dead eye stare and thinks he's never really looked at someone and felt how much they wanted to die.

Because how could they? How could some kid, some reckless fearless little nuisance have the audacity to want that so bad? After spending so long listening to no one, he what? Suddenly decided to listen to that little voice that screamed jump.

He puts a hand on Tommy's shoulder, less an olive branch of comfort and something more practical.

Despite every warning, despite every time he's tried to manipulate something as fragile and volatile as memories, despite every instant he ever had it backfire- he does it again.

He takes the memory of the compass, because at the end of the day is it not some sort of dream that crawled and bit its way into an obsession, some reality? He plucks out the very part of it that dwelled in Tommy's head, the metastasized growth of it. He takes that desire to jump like a siren song of the abyss and replaces it with calm greys and gentle seas, the tiniest speck of a fear of lava, bending the concept of being close to it into a nightmare.

The very essence of finicky and uncertain, a sloppy and impulsive sort of work, a lot like he's just waltzed into some stranger's home and lifted a family heirloom while sweeping the broken glass shards from the door under the welcome rug.

He grafts it to himself, plants the idea of a suicidal ideation in his head to be dealt with later and he burns the wound closed with a careful torch to staunch all the missing parts, connect them like they aren't bridges left half broken, some map of schemas unfinished.

All that matters is that he leaves Tommy with no way to ever complete the thought that lava is some sort of solution ever again. He strips him of that decision, just like he'd shoved him into the isolation of exile. Pragmatic and utilitarian about it.

It's fair trade, abiding by the laws of conservation at the same time ensuring he doesn't have to repeat this all over again. So he isn't forced to babysit Tommy every minute, of every hour, of every day to make sure the kid isn't wandering in the Nether or trying to kill himself.

The new memory sits in Dream's mind, foreign and odd, like a single virion intruding on the nervous system-- because a memory couldn't just be destroyed. It's a bleak sort of magic, an eye for an eye and rarely used by anything for that reason. But he was always in over his head.

Tommy's dream to die by lava starts to eat at him like it was always his. Until Dream's the one staring down, orange taking up his vision, the allure so strong he almost sways with it- so close he can almost taste it. He just has to take a step.

It sounds nicer than anything.

Nicer than the pain in his chest, nicer than the rope 'round his throat, nicer than the shake in his hands and the whisper in his ears, a paranoia so thick and cloying it chokes him to his core-- words wrung like the rabid wing beats of diseased bees in the bone arena of his skull; had it always been this quiet- had he always been alone- they hated him- Tubbo hated him- he's alone- there's nothing- no one left- not even the discs- where are the discs- where's Dream- all he has- all he has- all he had was the compass-

"Maybe it's not too bad, just me and you," Tommy glances towards Dream, an actual smile on his face. The sound of Tommy's voice echoing oddly with the intrusive thoughts caught in a violent loop in Dream's head.

Fair enough, Dream thinks, they were Tommy's after all.

So, he does his best to ignore them, letting them fade into background noise with a grimace, eyes cutting away from the orange beckon of something impossible like death.

"Alright, yeah, we can party together," Dream replies and returns the smile, guiding Tommy away from the edge. Tommy doesn't flinch this time, only smiling and launching into some animated story, hands waving through the air as he tries to use everything at his disposal to recount it.

Dream nods and answers along, all the right things said at all the right times, trying to ignore the incessant pull to just turn his head, to just look at the bubbling lava, to just fall in.

But he wouldn't have gotten this far if he let himself be swayed that easily. And to fall in line with Tommy's way of thinking would be nothing short of some sort of weakness-- or that's what he'll keep telling himself.

The purple of the nether portal grows larger in the shimmering heat haze of the hell world. Dream's eyes dart to his own wrist, staring at that spot where the sleeve of his jacket doesn't quite meet the end of his glove, there's no more plausible deniability.

There's no sliver of familiar flesh. There's just a rotten purple so dark it looks like the world's angriest bruise, a creeping necrosis that stands out in the sickly wash of the glowstone overhead.

It echoes the mounting static like sweet metal stuck in the back of his throat.

It stares back at him as he watches Tommy step through the portal.

It decrees in all its tolling church bell booms a two words as he flexes his wrist, tosses his head, and steps out of the Nether on to the trilling welcome of grass underfoot:

Time's up.

Notes:

Yeah... :)

Chapter 4: Parasite Eve

Summary:

Tommy's exile was never going to go to plan, Dream knows that. He saw it coming. It was an optimistic horse hitched too loosely on opportunity.

And having a prison built was always going to be a last resort. A vault; hulking obsidian behemoth fit for diamonds or gold, books and knowledge, precious things and precious plans-- a double edged stowaway for the world's evils and ailments in the hopes that maybe Elpis will finally have a chance to escape in the chaos.

Sometimes best laid plans are laid too well.

And sometimes... even those are lost to him.

Notes:

Title is both a reference to the novel and the song Parasite Eve by Bring Me the Horizon

Alright, here's the part where I say that half of this fic is allusions to mythology, literary and film references, and ten thousand metaphors, so the dialogue and stuff is like I'm writing an A24 film. There are also so many literary, art, and media references in this whole thing, I often wonder if anyone picks up on them-- I'll start adding specific references at the end of chapters in the future but probably won't list all of them/won't say exactly what they are just because the end note would be three thousand words long.

Thank you for sticking with the wild ride and on to the prison arc of this we go!

(Oh and I keep forgetting to say the summaries for this fic are important to the chapters, they're not excerpts from the fic itself but guiding points and clues!)

Content/Trigger Warnings: Drug (Potion) Abuse/Use, Implied Overdose, Self-Harm, Violence, Blood, Derealization and Depersonalization, unreality!!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It's a different sort of cathartic to spend hours setting neat rows of blackstone. Well, it's certainly more cathartic than trying to deal with all the squabbles that break out on the daily ever since Tommy's exile at least. It's nice to just... build, not think.

The muted greens and golds of Sam's figure move at a practiced clip, a square formed with the L-shape of his fingers and then spread apart in a tireless loop. A block settling itself neatly on the edge of the roof with a soft glow each time, forming the beginnings of the parapet for a prison.

Dream's hands move in a similar manner, copying the motion with a little less grace as he works on setting the dark blocks shoulder to shoulder, or arguably shoulder to bicep, beside Sam.

Bad, Antfrost, and Punz set blocks at the opposite end of the prison's roof. Although some do more work than others, Bad spending too much time chastising the other two for making it a competition.

The sound of their chatter is a pleasant background noise, one that's been on repeat since the building had started. Ever since there suddenly became the necessary anxiety to build an inescapable prison, ever since that chomping sort of gnaw at the back of his brain started up and then quickly became an obsession over the idea that one day soon he'll have to use it. Pandora's Vault a clever name, a twist on the old mythos he'd explained to Sam in the early days of planning. That effectually if you closed Pandora's box, sealed every ounce of chaos and misery back inside, then the obsidian monolith stood as the shut lid between the world and its evils.

There's a cautionary tale somewhere in there, some stale reminder that when Pandora opened the jar, hope remained inside. This, he opts to ignore.

He ignores it like how he ignores the incorrigible glare of the evening sun. Glinting with the quality of glass shards across his pupils everytime they catch the light. At this rate, his mask might as well not even be on. A pounding headache creeps in like the crawling burn of a fire ant bite and it takes him more conscious effort than he'd like to conjure up stone block after stone block.

For the record, he was never a great builder, affinities gravitating in the opposite direction.

"You know, I've been here awhile and I've known you a lot longer than most..." Sam trails off, moving to set the next chunk of blackstone with a certain sort of easy grace. Spindly silhouette framed against the backdrop of the pale blue sky. "But somehow all this time, you've managed to avoid telling me who the heck you're the vassal of."

Mid-step, almost as if his whole body seizes up at the word, he hooks the toe of his boot on the back of his heel.

The block he catches himself on gives, rock slipping against rock with a throaty screech. Heart plummeting unbidden into his stomach on a flesh and blood instinct.

It's a word that without permission stings his ears with the sheer weight of it.

'Dream, I want to be your vassal.'

TNT and wide smiles, a date with death sealed everytime he pressed red wax cylinders into soot covered palms and sealed both their fates at the beckon of fool's gold and silver tongues--

Long fingers catch his shoulder, pulling him back.

Steady now, Dream bats the hand away and then moves to drag the block back into place, gloved palms pressed to the vertices. Purple crawling up to his elbows with the press of magic between the molecular chains.

"Well--" Sam chuckles, "you certainly didn't get a blessing of grace."

"What is wrong with you? You- you're not supposed to ask something like that," Dream rounds on Sam, swiping imaginary dust off his jacket. Bristling like a cat dunked in water.

"Alright, sure, whatever helps unbruise your ego," Sam shrugs with a lingering laugh, stepping away as he dusts off his hands with a scrape of netherite plated gloves, singing like the shing of knives.

Something about the notes screech in Dream's ears. Something about it makes him hunch low, stare past, through, it's all obsidian, it's always obsidian filling his vision, hanging on every breath, it's all wrong-

"So, seriously, tell me," Sam starts, dragging out the words, "who is it? I think you owe me that much for, y'know--" he gestures to the entire prison, "all of this."

"Oh, so 64 diamond blocks just isn't enough these days?"

"The economy's in shambles," Sam deadpans.

Dream let's his laughter pass into a sigh, flexing his hands at his sides.

"Uh, well…-" Dream struggles to scrape together a defense, "look, I mean, what the hell even makes you think I'm some sort of acolyte or- or vassal? I'm literally just some guy, I don't serve anyone."

The last syllable is bitten off with almost a scoff and Dream hops up to sit on one of the finished pillars of the parapet, easy as a cat to the alleyway dumpster. As if to disprove the notion that he tripped on his own two feet in the first place. Limbs a bit weak, a bit shaky, and why? Why's there the sting of something at the base of his skull?

He rubs at it, the dull throb remains the same. It doesn't make any sense. He thinks, no he knows he's done this, like a mounting prickle of impending doom, only more threatening.

Sam gives a huff, "Let's see, you make deals and bargains like your life depends on it, you're way too good a fighter, you heal fast--"

Dream leans forward, elbows on his knees, waving his hand in a circle. A silent, please, continue.

"And you hold some truly cosmic ass grudges, that's pretty much Their entire calling card. Like I get why you hang around though, you've got a lot invested here. But I'm sure you could just as easily head to a bigger world, really make a name for yourself-"

Furrowing his brow, Dream's fingers move to clench against the edge of his stone seat. Bounties, contracts and serving selfish deities was for rabid dogs, he'd liked to think he didn't come off as one; not anymore, not so obviously.

Sam studies him, black eyes with no sclera sweeping up and down with a subtle glint.

"Y'know, I always pegged you as a Chaos. You got the dramatic flair."

"Yeah, no-" Dream's voice breaks with mirth, "that's definitely more Techno's speed."

"That why he kicked your butt, then?"

"Alright, now you're just being a dick."

"Dream, c'mon, it's gotta be Chaos."

"I'm- listen, I've never even been to the End. You know it's unreachable here."

A half-truth; he'd most certainly been to the End, just not since it was practically destroyed. And it's not like he could scrounge up a plan to sneak back in, not when he's trapped in the boundaries of this world for all eternity. Not when he doesn't really want to.

He thinks, no, he knows he's not supposed to remember most of it. Left eviscerated, ripped to pieces on the black marble halls of an unreality, purple blood burning bright on his hands and the catch of white fangs, all the damning proof They needed as he grinned up, up, up to the highest stand of a kangaroo court and spat not guilty.

"Oh, huh... Always assumed you'd done alotta adventuring before you found this place."

"Nope, I'm uh-" Dream shrugs away the hesitation, "-I'm born and raised, as they say."

"No joke?"

"Heh," the single chuckle falls easy, before Dream realizes Sam is serious. "C'mon, is it really that hard to believe?"

"You're just--" Sam gestures to all of him, "I dunno you don't exactly give off those old hometown boy vibes."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

Dream shakes out his wrist, rubbing his thumb into the junction where it aches. Since when did he start wrapping them? Nails pick at the white layers of bandages peeking out from the gap between kelly green and black. When he pulls the sleeve down, the bandages go all the way up to his elbow.

He can't remember why that's important.

And staring down at them, he wonders what the fascination is. Since he can remember, the End existed in the brittle, ashen frame of a burnt down home, twisted foundation like funeral pyres, all the signs pointing to arson. The gas canister and the match glued to his hands.

Yet, everyone always seemed to go about drooling at the heels of the Elysian allure, two-faced in their hatred of abandoned gods from the void and their thirst for power. All that before and all that after, the Beginning and the End. Like getting to that hallowed wasteland and it's wandering shadows truly meant something more than wading through the wreckage of bombs and uncaring forces, only to become the next dog left begging for rotten scraps while tugging at its chain in the yard.

It made no sense.

Still, they went, still they slaughtered the enderman. All of them dropping their fancy pearls like a consolation prize. And maybe that was the whole gimmick of it, the journey was sacrilege. It meant you were the best of the best, hand-plucked by destiny, no longer just some mortal, but something worthy of being in-between.

The facsimile of a hero's journey with the false golden fleece at the end, a parting congratulations in the form of cosmic servitude. It's almost embarrassingly familiar, like the smoky after image of craters caught in his peripherals when he walks through L'Manberg.

It's hypocritical.

Kill the dragon, get the blessing.

Kill the dragon, get the blessing.

Kill the dragon, get the blessing.

He'd read about it so many times. Heard it from the smug lips of self-declared adventurers so many times, from mercenaries and hunters, it's smeared thick into the grooved etches of scraped out memories that shout and mourn; it wasn't supposed to be this way. All the aftermath of a corrupted understanding, some bastardized policy on non-interference, that somehow cursing a handful of lucky mortals was less egregious than refusing to just stand there and allow things to fall apart and die when it could just as easily be stopped.

He occupied some space in between, some grey shade of a being huddled under the heavy whispered distaste for Their own creation. A life spent wishing for something else, taking the form of sweet kerosene splashed across demands and haughty decrees. And all he ever did was make the same mistake, fall from 'grace' for the same things, the same people, the same green worlds. He'd smile and strike the match, an endless parting f*ck you before the final curtain call on a stage show he was forced to play.

What a waste, he'd learned to say in the aftermath as he threw his arms over his head, bent his back and curled low. All in the beats before anyone could pluck him up and scrape out the sloppy, cobbled portions of a beating soul. Some sickness, an infection, a parasite, a clerical error more vindictive than a kicked wasp's nest and twice as angry. The pale imperfect impression of that thing, that beating sort of heart birthed only in the bone and meat cage of everything less than a god. Their eyes always cast down, hung like stars to remind him of where he comes from and what he had to be.

They would hold him tight by the scruff, as he twisted and turned, a wild rabid thing who screamed at the walls in bruised blacks and was doomed to forget the words, desperate to bite the hand that feeds because it was never worth it. Nothing was.

Vassals, champions, acolytes-- no matter the titles they chose and the gifted armors and weapons they donned; they were just as trapped. The only difference being the shape of the shackles, the length of the chain.

He angles his head to look out across the kingdom, out across the world, the ocean surrounding the prison glinting like a backdrop of diamonds cast bruised and purple in its shadow.

A world sometimes always violent, peace waged between the disgruntled notes. Chaos being the only thing that ever reminded anyone of peace. It's an illusion as cruel and unusual as the passage of time whenever the sun stretches it's rays across the leaping line of forest only to be interrupted by buildings.

"You ever think about how weird it is?" Sam continues, "like it's weird, right? To think about how They used to live here, y'know like all the different gods... all those things that come before us I guess. And They'd watch the same sunsets on the same worlds and all that. Or at least someone would, for this world, I mean-" Sam gestures to the horizon, "like someone made this whole place and then they just left? It's just kinda hard to believe, like why even build it then if you're just gonna turn around and abandon it?"

Dream's stomach turns like he's staring at a rotting carcass and not the way the sun dances on the water.

"Eh, guess I never really cared," Dream lies with a shrug like he hasn't asked himself the same question with a different tune ten times over, "it's not like it matters. Like sure creation myths are interesting and all but- well, knowing why any god does anything still wouldn't change all of, y'know- this. They don't care." Dream shoves his hands into his pockets, shuffling until his heels are dangled over the water. As if the conversation delves far enough into unsavory territory he'll just risk the jump.

Sitting so many stories up, staring down at the water so far below it might as well be concrete.

"Suppose you're right…" Sam's voice drawls. "My mother used to say They just up and left 'cause some- some kid stole magic and gave it to the rest of the Overworld or something. That it pissed Them off so bad They pulled the old dad goes to the store routine and haven't been back since. They built utopias after all; how could anyone want more?"

Sam tilts his head, sharp ears setting back. "But I don't think utopias can exist… I used to, I really did." He dips his chin, sighing, "But not anymore. And maybe that kid knew it when he had the guts to steal the one thing They forbid."

The story is a familiar one, mishapen like the nursery rhymes he used to hear when he curled up under bedroom windows just to learn the discordant notes. Nights spent mumbling the words to himself, tracing less than confident letters in the dirt, all until he spoke the strange syllables without stumbling. And during the days, he'd swipe dusty tomes off low shelves to trace the irreverent turn of phrase and put the crude vowels to proper structure. Every day dedicated to building the rickety scaffolding of a better life just to have the brief halcyonic peace of it stolen from him.

He thinks maybe he knows that fairytale.

"--and we're weak, y'know, we all still die," Sam continues, and Dream isn't sure what words he's missed, but Sam is holding his body and his words in that familiar way that suggests he's off on a tangent. Conversation circling around a focal point like red string to a cork board, moving back along the threads to the center.

"And no amount of magic or prayers is ever gonna change that. Sure some of us make it to the End, and what? Live a few hundred more years? But I think it's just a game to everything that lives there. That They just watch. And... I'm starting to think it's all They've ever done. My father, well he obviously had a different story," Sam gestures to himself, explanation enough. "It's stupid but, I dunno, as a kid I remember thinking They were just allergic to water or something, that that's why They hated the whole Overworld- that it's why so many gods hide in the Nether and the End. I mean the haunts of enderman hate the stuff so it made sense."

Dream wheezes on a half-laugh; it's the dumbest thing he's ever heard.

"Oh, like you thought any different?"

"Yeah, I did." I lived it, Dream thinks as he grinds the back of his heel against the rough pattern of the stone, voice still caught in the notes of a laugh. All the details are roughly there, but they're half bubbled in, awkward and jumbled, there's nothing noble, or nice, or even idyllic about the past. Nothing kind about the old grandfather clock once lovingly tuned now left to twist and grind, and then finally decay.

"Alright, wise guy, let's hear it then."

Sam's tall frame sinks further against the groove of the parapet, shoulders hunched, looking out towards New L'Manberg, the vibrant greens and chaotic silhouette of a world no bigger than the cupped palms of a young god's hands.

Dream freezes up.

No one's ever bothered to ask.

And he tries to recall it, tongue caught between his teeth, brows creased. Staring at the water as it bleeds with refracted light on gentle waves. Blinding reflections stabbing his eyes, each little light the melody to a new headache, an icepick from temple to jaw. Chipping away.

No, no. He remembers it still, he has to, it's an old tale, a dusty thing shaped like a box, sealed shut with no holes, no gaps for escape. Or maybe it's a jar- it's… it's hard to recall.

He opens his mouth, tongue heavy with the words, vocal cords clogged with them.

Nothing comes out.

He tries again.

And again.

But no sound ever comes. The world continues, a loosely triumphant thing, with noise, and light and color, and everything that isn't him.

In the lull of unbidden silence, Sam swipes a hand down his arm where redstone clings like a permanent aura. The dust of it puffing up like smoke.

Violently red.

Hand flying to his throat, he tries to say his name, tries to shout anything, and the resounding nothing is deafening. Nails gouged like claws into fabric, and then flesh, and then muscle, like he's trying to rip out his own windpipe for simply refusing to cooperate. A desperate animal instinct to scratch and gnaw at the problem in the hopes that it rights itself-

He coughs, something wet and dying, and he only knows it by the rough slide of his ribs. The desperate jumping heave of his lungs. Silent, ugly heaves that send blood sliding across his tongue, choked and breathless with gurgling whines until they spill past his lips.

Sam stares, not lifting a finger. Judgement, expectation, some performance that's meant to happen and somehow Dream's always forgetting his lines in the same worn out play.

Hunching, hands shaking and beyond clumsy, he fumbles at the mask still on his face, pushing at it with the heel of his palms, fingers curled into useless broken things, sliding clumsily against the slick surface.

The white porcelain tumbles away.

He doesn't have the mind to care. Too busy cradling hands over his mouth, sitting in forceful silence as he's left to shudder violently. Blood dripping, spilling from some internal malady until his forearms are soaked with it, dirty bandages saturated in a polluted sunrise. The excess splashing against the blackstone, rolling down, down to stain the water red with each guttural cough, iron nails twisted and scraped up his throat.

Huddling low, cupping his hands, it's harder and harder to-

f*ck, he can't remember what, what-

He can't-

It doesn't make any sense.

Blinking lazily, the thought dies like he's just thrown a punch at a brick wall. With shuddering eyes, pupils struck down to poisoned pinpricks, he forces them towards the blurring visage of muted greens and golds and flashing netherite purples still standing there-- someone he knows he's supposed to recall but the shapes and the lines are all wrong.

An empty heaviness gnaws at his thoughts, memories ripped and wrangled under the bullish canines of a pack of starving dogs. Chomping, tearing hunks of himself from the bone, flawed and rotten and wrong, and still they choke down the maggots and the flies until he seizes and thrashes, dead hands scrabbling to scrape up the shattered pieces while still trapped under the monotonous crunch of jaws.

He mumbles, red the only thing slipping past his lips as he lists against the wobble of doubled vision. Hands slapping the nearest solid surface to hold himself up, legs bent awkward and wrong as he draws his heels up. Tangled and overlapped, pain spreading and collapsing on itself endlessly.

Fingers twist in his jacket's collar, yanking him right off the parapet. Scraping and careless, fabric tears, skin catching and ripping, red multiplied. Limbs and joints knock together like a puppet's cut from its strings, the back of his skull colliding with the blackstone.

The crack is deafening. Vision cutting out only to return with an empty, crushing heaviness, eyes spinning of their own accord when they spring open.

Whites flashing, frustration perched under his chin like a scream. There's nothing that could have prepared him for the agonizing inching crawl to get the hell away as his limbs quake and scream with each awful drag belly first against the burning stone.

A heel planted between his shoulders sends his chin smacking into the ground, molars abused under the crack of his jaw.

Elbow bending, fingers slipping and never catching, he flashes his teeth, bloody and stained, soundless shouts and curses pressed from his flattened lungs as he squirms like a bug, weak and suffocating. Madness is expecting the thrashing to work, and the weight bearing down on his spine reminds him he's nothing more than something that practices a daily routine of bruises and broken bones for barking back too many times, for snarling at its own reflection in everyone's eyes.

"It's not your time to die yet, Tommy."

He seizes, limbs rigid. He knows it's just a nightmare that pins him to the stone, but it's his own voice that echoes in his ears. It's the right line for the wrong person and his mind's so fractured he can't stop himself from breathing it in like the truth.

The churn of lava pops in his ears, background symphony to the hop skip of breaths punched out of him on the verge of hyperventilating. Eyes screwed shut, cheek pressed to the hot grind of netherrack, or maybe it was always just lava hot obsidian, his mouth opens before he can throw his hands up to slam it shut--

"It's never my time to die."

The words tumble out like nasty blisters, cracking his ribs under iron fists held hostage to a crumbling repetition, a poisoned derealization churning in the blackhole of his brain. He hates how they're ripped from him, like pliers shoved into his mouth, metal clacking against the enamel, stabbing at the meat of his tongue until it slots and catches on the grooves of a sharp molar. Twisting out all at once with a sickening pop.

If he cranes his neck, if he looks now- no. He's not sure if he will see himself, or the warden, or something in between. Something like retribution and karma, all those little things that all the world loved to believe--

The heel grinds harder, ribs cracking with distant pops, his diaphragm struggles to force air into his lungs until he's dizzy with the delirious rush of acid building up in his blood, brain choking.

A split second spell of clarity in the hypoxia injects him with the truth.

That he's always just been face down, foaming at the mouth on the floor of an obsidian cell. Overdosing on weakness, slowness, harming-- something bright, something pink. And the lines too blurry between stolen and ordered, it's too muddied between getting the f*ck out and sinking too deep and every damn potion he ever gets his shaking hands on, he rips the corks out with his teeth. He kicks it back and prays for the best in the failure of shattered glass digging into his own feet when he wakes up in the same f*cking place and the cycle repeats.

Reality chimes away for a moment in images of warbling darkness broken by the dim glow of glass shards coated in the bitter remains of sweet potions.

It's snuffed out on the next shuddering blink.

Swivel-eyed, oranges and reds of the Nether spill back across his sight. He lifts his head, and doesn't hesitate when he cracks his temple against the ground.

Crunch.

Crunch.

Crun-

….

He narrowly misses an axe to the face, leaping back, the momentum of it cuts the air with a whistle. He backpedals into the domestic setting of three figures gathered around a simmering fire. Boots knocking over a few items as he spins in a tight circle, off guard and sorely confused.

They're not on the roof-

He's not--

Why isn't he...

He glances up, question dying on his lips.

Punz rests an axe on his shoulder, other hand casually slung in the pocket of his hoodie as he tilts his chin up with a grin. The sweat glittering on his forehead stands in as the sign of a spar, a clue to some fight that he can't remember but feels reflected in the ache up his arms, fingers a mess of static where they wrap around Nightmare's haft.

"Are you two done?" Bad chides, righting the things that had been knocked over with a scolding tsk.

"Yeah, I think it's safe to say Punz won that one," Sam chimes in, poking at a fish laid out over the flames, chin propped up in his hand.

"Aw-" Punz coos mockingly, "thanks, Sam. Y'know your undying support really means the world to me."

"Alright, now you're pushing it," Sam warns, light and friendly.

And like nothing's wrong at all, Punz moves to sit on one of the chests pulled close by the fire, reaching for the glint of a netherite ingot that Sam offers to him with a parting comment.

Some deal struck between the two that he knows exists like snide comments tossed back and forth. But the pieces are gone, holes ripped in the narrative that desperate fingers plunge through only to stretch them wider, losing more, the harder he tries to recall them.

Punz and Sam strike up some easy conversation, as if they'd been chatting for hours already, Antfrost and Bad meshing into it like rivers converging into a lake.

The rest of their words are distant, muffled under miles of cloth, clogged like water beating against his eardrums. They continue in the distance even as he stands only feet away.

He's too busy tracking his eyes from the shape of the prison across the water, to the fire, to the walls of Bad's home, a bright backdrop to their little gathering. Every turn of his head is stiff, forced out of him through the twang of strings yanked taut at every joint.

He doesn't remember.

He doesn't think he remembers how to remember because he isn't supposed to forget-

It doesn't- it's right there. He knows it's right there, tastes it like something burning his tongue, feels it like something sticky on his lips, spilt down his chin.

His eyes finally skate to where the sun had just been.

It's gone; moon pinned like a silver smile high in the sky.

There's a heavy hand of something oppressive pushing him down. Gravity shoving at his shoulders like if it tries hard enough, it'll push him straight through the ground. A constant tension like the opposite ends of two magnets held millimeters apart.

In the delirium, some disturbingly loud feeling decides to crowd his mind among the numb notes of its usual rhythm. Hand shaking, he swipes the back of it under his chin, catching the gathered moisture there before stepping out of the ring of seated figures. Moving further into that liminal space where the shadows dance with the edges of the light.

A couple steps out, he half-turns back, watching a moment as the four of them laugh and smile around the fire. Antfrost pelting something across the impromptu grilling pit at Punz, the latter throwing his head back with a laugh.

Brilliant flames leap and spit their embers, keeping them safe from the annoyance of mobs in the night, the light splitting the darkness like a beacon to the heavens. Illuminating bright eyes and brighter smiles, the smoky crackle of fish and warming bread rests between them, wafting into the air.

A wispy huff of a breath presses from his ribs and he pivots on his heel, the urge to run chomping at them.

"Wait, wait!" Bad calls, reaching over to pat the nearest flat surface, "sit down, mister, you gotta eat something before you go running off."

Not really remembering the when or the how, he occupies that last seat in their little semi-circle, tense with all the energy of an animal ready to bolt. There's a knot in his stomach that twists harder until he's hunched lower and lower and he has to leave, they'll lock him back in, he has to-

There's the crunch of a loaf of bread being torn before it's held in silent offer. Vapor wisping off the fluffy innards.

Whispers of poison chant and chatter in the back of his head. A persistent, unfounded paranoia, he furrows his brow and grabs the split roll in strict defiance.

He doesn't realize he's just sort of holding it, mask angled down, immortal line of a smile grinning at the cooling hunk of something as simple as flour, yeast and water. He remembers this. No, no, he definitely remembers this.

Punz stares across the fire, brow raised, picking at the flaky flesh of blackened fish. His eyes fall to the bread, to the beady black dots of the mask, and then back again. One hand moves through the air, curving into a quiet question of a gesture, you good?

The concern is an annoying habit.

Rolling his eyes half-heartedly, thumb stuck under the bottom edge of his mask, he tilts it up, and takes a bite-

He's almost surprised when nothing happens. The bread tasting of warm creature comforts, time spent kneading dough and a cozy sort of companionship. It's almost too easy to finish, no usual aftertaste of ash or rubber, or metallic sweetness, like for once he was actually allowed to enjoy something.

Staring into the fire, listening to them talk, it's easy to forget that all of this feels like something he shouldn't have.

"Hey, Dream," Bad starts, white eyes glowing and curious, "where'd you get that?"

"What're you talking abou--" his words are cut off when he looks down at his hand, once clutching the last scraps of bread now-

He throws the compass like it's bit him.

Scrambling, he falls right off the back of his impromptu seat. The grass slick with moisture as he crawls his way through it. Wild and frantic, heart leaping in his throat as he bites off choked sounds and kicks his heels to get away.

Four figures stand, slow and calculated, smoky silhouettes stretching and flickering in the flames. Their eyes burning angry purple whites.

He runs.

Ducking under and leaping over obstacles, he moves like he's got them all memorized, every jump as scripted as breathing, fingers never slipping where they grip as he swings himself up and over. He runs until his boots hit the prime path and he ducks under the safety of the archways, peering around corners and expecting to feel the snag of claws, the bright kiss of a blade.

Looking over his shoulder, expecting something that never comes, he keeps going. Feet lead by some instinct and he trusts them, he trusts the tug of safety, the almosts, the freedom. He just has to-

His next step meets air and he throws his hands out, twisting like a cat to snag the ledge. Body slamming into the jagged blown out side of a cliff, he wastes no time driving the toe of his boot into the rockface and throwing himself back up onto the ledge.

Heaving panted breaths into the dirt, hand clutching bruised ribs, he casts a glare at the misplaced hole punched into the earth too violently.

All sense of urgency dies when he recognizes the outline of homes across the crater, all reduced to husks and tinder, half hanging over the crater's edge. A familiar flag with familiar crosses stands all the way at the bottom, fiery light cast across it by pockets of lava. A lattice of obsidian stretches across the red sky in the snaring fingers of a net, illuminated by the glow of tattered lanterns that still drift and wobble in the air.

L'Manberg blown to kingdom f*cking come, and he doesn't even have the capacity to feel vindicated, it's all numb, static, something nestled halfway between tragedy and confusion; one part not remembering, one part traumatized. Like he's someone stood on the edge, not above, bright flashes of bombs caught in his eyes, ash in his mouth like curses flung at a traitor. The sick burning crawl of irritated air in every drawn breath to the pit of his lungs.

Something shoves him, a firm palm drove into his shoulder.

He whips around only to be met with a sarcastic smile, a familiar face, a white hoodie.

"C'mon, dude, just jump."

"What're you- what the hell is wrong with you?" He laughs and looks to the bottom, like it will ease the tension, ease the rapid descent into delirium, palms and the back of his neck prickling.

"Jump."

"I'm-" he takes a step back, "Punz, I'm not gonna jump. Stop being weird." Firmer, incredulous, he faces Punz and tosses the words with an easy lob. They hit an impassive brick wall.

Punz takes a step, and then another and he's forced to mirror each one in an equal exchange. Feet moving of their own accord, forced further against the dizzying drop with each step Punz takes. He doesn't- he can't run away, he can't hurt him.

"You do this every f*cking time, man," Punz sighs, "Doesn't it get old?"

"Wh- no, I'm not- I've never-" the words are stolen from him each time they start. He looks from Punz to the approaching drop. "You're not making any sens-"

The words bite off as his heel slips off the edge.

"f*ck, wait- this-" he gestures to all of it, breathless and agitated, "this doesn't make any sense."

Heels hanging over the ledge now, he sways and sends pebbles slipping off into the lava below. He looks over the edge and chomps on the inside of his cheek harder, it's wrong, it's all wrong and he feels nauseous with the noxious throes of it.

"Punz?" His voice is so much smaller than it should be.

"You should've paid me more, Dream."

When he looks up, it's not just Punz anymore, but a gathered audience behind him, a colorful crowd of impassive gazes, judgement cast in the tired set of their eyes, the glint of their armor and weapons. That weary wartorn hunch to all of their shoulders. Every one of them huddled in close, staring, waiting.

"You can't kill me," he whispers it to the jury, a final defense.

"Yeah, but it doesn't matter does it? Just so long as it hurts."

Punz stabs fingers into his sternum like knives, shoving him straight into the open arms of gravity.

He smacks the ground.

The fall a thousand feet too short. Every bone crying for their prolonged abuse, every bruise casting their tired cries when they collide against obsidian. Bloody fingers twisted into the wrong shapes, chipped claws scraping the slick ground of the cell, he pushes himself back up into that black cube of darkness.

That yawning casket of nothing in the absence of everything.Days tracked by the mocking lava sunrise and lava sunset that's too bright and too hot, always sweltering and choking. Flashing purple in his peripherals, enchanted netherite cuffs welded too tight around each wrist sing the symphony of blisters and welts- damning taunts to his own demise. And he throws himself at the prison walls if only to feel the world tumble away again.

Notes:

Thank you for reading as always!
If you wanna leave a comment or just yell about sh*t feel free to !

And be sure to take breaks while reading this, get something to eat, drink water, take your medicines, and above all else get some sleep if you need it! <3

Chapter 5: A Poor Man's Poison.

Summary:

It's the same four walls; three obsidian, one lava. Same bed, same books, same clock, same food, same, same, same-- and at the very least he can find ways to lose himself in the past...

But he'll always wake up to the same cell. The same blurred line of reality.

... And he tries not to think about how he's starting to forget why he's even in here.

Notes:

Title is a play on a Poor Man's Meal which consists of just potatoes, onions, and hotdogs (and a reference to the band A Poor Man's Poison)

"There are many ways to destroy a person, but one of the simplest and most devastating is through prolonged solitary confinement... Their sense of their own bodies- even the fundamental capacity to feel pain and to distinguish their own pain from that of others- erodes to the point where they are no longer sure if they are being harmed or harming themselves." - Solitary Confinement: Social Deaths and Its Afterlives, Lisa Guenther

Trigger/Content Warnings: self harm!, hallucinations, derealization, implied memory loss, suicidal ideations, all of the themes of imprisonment

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

His hands smack the solid surface, running along the dips and grooves with a rasp. Claws scraping the sides of his obsidian coffin until they're chipped, brittle, cracked things, less familiar than when he started. Fingers forming fists when they start to bleed and he settles for throwing punches.

They always start as weak tosses at first. Gentle taps with his knuckles against the obsidian likes he's knocking. Like the warden who's face he can never quite recall will come rushing to answer, words calm and collected as he whispers them in half-realized rhymes to no one. A one way ticket to a descent into bitter madness when it finally dawns on him.

Until he's slamming them into the wall full force.

"No, no, no, no, no--"

He beats at the obsidian, fists beyond broken, knuckles crushed into dust, and he was just there. He was just there-

He was just-

Fingers splayed across the grooves, no hints of chips or cracks, he bows his head until the top of it bumps against the wall.

"Please… please, I'll-" he cuts off, lips curled, fangs flashing as he breathes words into the world, feels them sting on his tongue. "I know you can hear me… I know, I know-" it's harder and harder to find them, "I'll be different, Sam."

Who?

He clings to the name, even if it no longer means anything to him besides the difference between endless solitude and freedom.

"Just let me… let me out. Let me- I promise," he whispers broken prayers to stone, dead and quiet.

His eyes catch on the form of damnation caught in the purple glow of netherite bands welded around each wrist. Unbreakable, unmeltable, inescapable, shackled to clenched fists and explosive self-destruction; the enchanted carved deep into them is the ancient runes of something found only in the deepest pits of the Nether. And every opportunity he takes to rid himself of them fails miserably.

There's some sort of cruel irony that he's so much closer to that thing he always wanted to be- something less god, more human- an enviously fragile, mortal, fleeting thing- but it's useless if every single death in this little box means nothing and every breath means even less than that. It's pointless if he's just meant to rot away while he feels the tug of the world pass by without him like a splinter driven deeper and deeper into the center of his palm.

The walls sway in front of his eyes, heaving like the sides of a great beast. He shuts his eyes against the vertigo it incurs, oranges cast like a cruel, constant lamp light over his shoulders, spinning reality into a derisive joke. Always too hot, lava scorching the air, his lungs, his eyes, wrapped around his mind, constantly buzzing, always droning on with the lifted notes of a never ending mockery at his expense that he had once screamed and snarled for it to stop and failed when finally his voice gave out too.

There it remains, the endless scorching lava he'd given up trying to swim through, when after one time too many he found himself back in that cell. Rage left to fester without direction, forever aimed at the small luxuries he had been afforded. All of them cast into the molten rock just to watch it disappear- just to watch something crumple and burst into flames-- just so he can scoop burning pages into shaking hands if only to watch his bones press through the remains of burnt skin, blood boiling black, relentlessly confused by the sight.

He earned more scars, earned more books, new chests, new everything, stuck in a loop for eternity.

They just brought him more.

They just watched.

Scattered images like the flashing reel of an old projector spin through his mind, projected onto a life recalled in slow motion. That damn beach party, L'Manberg, Pogtopia, Logstedshire, craters like fingers reached from the heavens to gouge great holes into the earth, thunder shook down as boughs of explosive lightning shot from the sky, gone, gone- all of it. Like the sickly sweet smell of nitroglycerin, the vinyl grooves of music discs, miles of blackstone traded for obsidian.

He was just there, he was just...
He'd just--

He'd had it.

Blood splashes like toxic waste across the ground, seeping down his arms, into the thirsty fabric of an orange jumpsuit. Red spilt sticky in the texture of obsidian under the pads of his feet, too bestial to be anything but paws. Body and hands to match.

He throws himself at the wall harder, limbs crashing into it, body breaking against the immovable force with a crack.

He crumples, blinking awake to a familiar world of nothing a moment later. That knot of a poisoned ache at the base of his brain jumps into a leaping crescendo with his pulse. Mouth parting on fast pants, the air tastes sticky and acrid, teeth and tongue slicked with old blood and older bile.

The world is a doubled mess of static. Quivering lines echoing the fractures spread out in thin spider webs across his skull.

He staggers, acid coating his tongue as he lists and stumbles, catching himself on all fours, limbs too long, ungainly, angles in all the wrong places. He thinks he's supposed to be used to them by now. When he tries to walk straighter, his shin collides with something solid.

Busted fingers twist in the fabric of bed sheets. The rotten purples stand out against the white like fresh bruises, and he presses his knuckles down into the slight give of a flimsy bed roll on the slats of wood beneath it.

How long has he had a bed?

The fabric tears, bones and tendons crunching as he wrenches the scratchy sheets towards himself, trying to see it- trying to remember.

He bumps it against his nose and still the reminder never comes.

He'd already done this-
Had he done this?

Like a record stuck on scratch he's back at the wall, thinking if he throws one more fist, if nothing changes then he'll start bashing his skull again; that at least showed some results. He casts his eyes to the corner, knows there's glass and the sticky dredges of a dried up potion laid there, blood and sweat and vomit like the coffin markers to an empty grave. He was out of options after all.

He rears his fist back--

"You are a dumbass, you know that? You spend all day goin' round in circles doin' the same sad sack of sh*t circus act."

No, no, no, f*ck, not him again. He looks to the curtain of lava, the neon vibrance of it glittering, flowing without interruption. No indication that it ever stopped or that it would.

No one is there, he knows that, but he can feel the gaze, that heavy thing that never seems to lift itself from the hunch of his spine, the draw of his shoulders.

Bristling, he flashes his teeth. Ears set back and tail straining against where he'd tied the damn thing to his leg, an old strip of fabric ripped from the sheets serving as the tourniquet to salvage his humanity. He had turned refusing its existence into a pastime.

Finally pushing away from the wall, he shoves his hands into his pockets and swings his head, coming face to face with blue eyes and blonde hair. A growl punches from his chest on instinct.

"Go ahead. Growl, bitch. You're never gettin' out. Not in a thousand million f*ckin' years."

"You should go," he warns, words scraped up his throat.

"Hf, that is rich comin' from you," the kid laughs, eyes set somewhere between smug and sarcastic, always too bright. Glinting superficially in the way that warped hallucinations do.

"You... you shouldn't be here-" they're barely sounds this time, he's just repeating the same old mantras to the same old ghosts.

"Yeah," the hallucination scoffs, scuffing a heel against the floor that never makes a sound. "Right, cause when you're not too busy tryna off yourself, you sit there begging the walls to talk back. Pick a struggle, puss*."

"I… I said I don't want to talk to you."The words are more air, less sound.

"Then why'm I the only one who bothers showin' up?"

"'Cause you're not real."

"I'm real. I'm the realest between us, bitch."

"I don't need your opinion, T-" the name dies, decaying as fast as it comes to him. "To...T-" It dissolves into the crunch of glass and bones, a grinding growl echoing into nothing. The name stolen from him. He clenches his fists, hands shaking at the tension, clinging to the tiny scrap of control.

"You don't even remember my name." There's a single bitter chuckle. "This is just f*ckin' sad."

"I do. You're the- y'know, you're that kid," he laughs, biting and quick, a sloppy defense scraped together on flashing teeth and false animal grins. A frown mars his face a second later, moving into a pace, head tucked down, "You're the… the kid-" he waves a hand in front of his own face, "the uh, the one with the… eyes."

"The eyes? Holy sh*t man, you really are f*cked in thee head."

"Tommy… Tommy!" Triumphant he shouts, grinning at nothing, smiling too easy over something so stupid. Like it's an accomplishment to forget the same thing everyday.

"Congrats, dickhe*d." Tommy sits, falling into a haphazard cross legged thing on the bed, not a dip or creak from it. "You remembered a name ain't that impressive, ey? Riddle me this, who was I?"

He doesn't have an answer and the kid knows it. It's just him after all.

"C'mon you f*cked around in my head, took a few memories or some sh*t. There's gotta be something still rattlin' round the cobwebs up there."

"I never…" It trails off, dead and flat, the single resounding thought of did I? becomes a rhetorical question.

"Who do you miss the most?" A lull stretches that he refuses to fill. "Who do you miss the most? if I were you I'd miss Sapnap."
"I think you should go, Tommy."
He holds his breath, eyes turned away.
"No, tell me who you miss the most."
He never does, not even when he hears the words uttered in every iteration and they expect him to break under the weight.

Crouched on the ground, caught in the landslide of memories seeping through the gaps in his mind, the sound of chirping notes haunts his ears.

Curling in on himself, he throws his arms over his head and drags his heels closer to his body, ears pinned back until they strain the delicate muscles. And he curls tighter because they're wrong, it's wrong, it's all wrong, they shouldn't move, they shouldn't- he shouldn't-

He can't remember what he's supposed to look like. Understanding ripped at the edges everytime he looks into the water basin and catches the face of someone, something he hasn't been for so long and still it's all he knows. The sense of self decayed and remodeled after the ancient afterimages, a timeless exposure on a silver print photograph.

Claws catch the long fur on his scalp, so familiar, almost almost like hair, scraping through, tearing, stuck alone with a solitary violence.

The bittersweet melody of a music disc he'll never forget plays louder and louder, warping into the soulful tunes of song birds.

It's a sinking sort of realization when he tries to remember the sky, but can only recall the birds.

The sky.
He was just under it.
He was just-

The warbling grind of redstone and moving levers echoes in the obsidian coffin, the lava churning angry and interrupted in its sluggish flow.

Stomach dropping he refuses to face it. The constant glow bouncing around the room, slamming into his pupils, blown too wide to try and catch every scrap of light.

In a sweeping wash of numbness, he plants his heels and stands mechanically.

The first order of business is sweeping the old shards of glass on the ground into the lava. Nothing to be done about the bittersweet remnants of potions of weakness smeared into the obsidian, nothing to be done about plans of escape with glass clutched between his knuckles only to end in a sword through the chest and a death that won't stick.

A hungry part of him leaps eagerly at the notion that the guards will show up. He's starving for more chances to try and rile them up, piss them off, throw those raw potatoes back in their faces if only to watch another person react and move and consume the space in front of him. He'd tried using the splash potions they'd have lashed to their belts on them once- in their fancy armor with their flashy weapons-- but they never seemed to have an effect. So he settled on downing the rest of them himself just in case.

And something about the taste, the immediate emptiness, the way the bright potions condensed all of time into smiling stupidly up at the ceiling until the purple cracks in the ceiling spun out like falling stars and ten thousand galaxies-- something about it made him go back for more.

And when he ran thin on that, when the guards would stop showing up, he found himself begging for them back-- he can't even remember when that started. Somewhere between the first three weeks and the first three months, for all he knows it could have been the first few hours. Time stretched to a billion and one odd infinities with no sun to trace her way across the sky.

He'd scratch a sloppy impression of his own name into every surface that his claws could sink into, and then every name after that. Even the clock was etched with the jagged letters of some name on its golden flank-- some letters he can no longer read, but he knows how the marks feel under his fingers. And he'd recarve it with fewer lines every single time after.

After he'd lose himself to some boredom smacking headfirst into frustration where he'd spit and snarl at his own face reflected in the clock's glass. When he'd laugh and chuck it at the ground until it shattered and then he'd burn all the pieces.

And even when the warden came and stole his books, when he looked through all his things, when he'd stare at and question him on all the blood and the wounds and the jagged scars, those missing clocks, asking the same questions over and over--

He found himself playing nice; he would smile and laugh and pretend.

He'd cram all the jagged parts of himself back into a smoother shape just so the guards and the warden would stop chucking potatoes across the netherite barrier like he was a rabid animal. He would do it over and over again, all until they actually stepped foot back inside in his cell, those shiny potions still on their belts, and the cycle would start all over again.

And this was hardly a different state of being.

On an unsteady gait, he stumbles to the single chest in the corner of the cell, glowstone blinking over head. The clock ticking away, too fast, too slow, the starting shot to a losing race as desperate bloody hands slip on the lid before he catches the edge and wrenches it open.

Desperate, he sifts through them like a feral animal in the trash. Books, loose sheets, broken quills, broken sticks of charcoal all swiped aside without care, he can't save them all, he can't-

If Tommy, the real Tommy, didn't throw them in the lava, the books that were filled from the first to last page would always be the ones collected for penance anyway.

Hands wrapped around the worn spine of the oldest one, he thumbs through it, sloppy sketches of places and faces greet him, names scribbled in the margins.

He shoves it in the chipped out corner beneath the mattress of his bed. Smoothing the sheets out on top, he nearly vibrates apart at the seams when red smears and handprints glare up at him with all the damning conviction of a confession.

They'll find it.

He reaches for it, glancing over his shoulder when the ambient light starts to dim. He's out of time, the lava barrier fallen away, he doesn't stop to see who it is. It doesn't matter, it never matters, he's too busy contemplating where he can hide it, but his brain is sluggish and slow, reactions existing solely in the realm of instinct and a new hiding place never comes.

There's just that absent sort of logic that occasionally screams in his ears and reminds him that he'll just keep forgetting more.

The scribbled words and pictures are the only thing between him and a dark, listless void. The blank pages that replace them are always harder and harder to fill. He's starting to think that maybe that's the--

"Duckling?"

Hooves click against obsidian.

"I know I should've come to visit sooner. I'm so sorry, things just… things just got outta hand, and I got busy with the therapist office and some stuff in Snowchester and…" The words trail off, left on a short sigh, always shaped like the way warm light filters through the gaps in the leaves.

He remembers that, remembers them.

"I know it's probably a stupid question but… how are you holdin' up?"

"Uh, pretty good, all things considered..." He hammers his words smooth as he turns slightly, angling himself just enough to see that white splash of wool, the red of a sea captain's coat.

Hooves click closer and he turns to face her fully, crouched slightly, shuffling to set himself between her and the one book he can't let them take.

Frustration stirs like a thunder cloud in his chest when he sees her, recognizes her, and still can't remember her name. He has to pretend, anything else is admitting weakness.

There's that same shuffling silence that collapses around them, like everyone walks in the cell and the capacity to hold a conversation just disappears.

She removes her captain's hat, shuffling it in her hands, eyes cast somewhere between the ground and him. For a moment he almost looks over his shoulder, a stale momentary confusion that comes with forgetting he's real.

"I wanted to bring you some cookies but Sam wouldn't let me in with 'em."

Sam? Sam… right, the warden.

"Yeah, that guy is a stickler." He shrugs, mind racing to come up with the right thing to say, all of it thin and slippery. "It's fine though, I get potatoes. They're raw, but… eh, guess it's something y'know. At least they… at least they feed me."

"You sound terrible." Her brow scrunches, voice wrung tight, "you look terrible."

"Thanks." He flashes a smile, seeing a sad one reflected back and he jots it down as a win.

Letting himself fall back on the bed, he flexes his hand and stares at it like it's not his own, like the distant cry of pain from still bleeding knuckles isn't his.

"And you're bleeding!" She sits beside him, hooved hands cupping his own, "Duckling, how long ago was this?"

"I…" His ears set back, "I don't know, an hour maybe?"

Her silence sets his tongue scrambling for justification.

"It's hard to… it's hard to tell, the clock is- I think it's too fast."

His eyes keep drifting to the corners, she's sitting too close, too close, every inch of his being itches with the notion.

"It should've healed by now." She dabs at the worst of it with the corner of the bed sheets. Only ever staining them further red.

"Yeah the… the enchantment on the cuffs, it negates innate magic. Uh, glamours and natural magics like the ones influenced by… by the End." He gestures to all of himself, the words clumsier than intended, and he can't remember if he's had this conversation before but it's something he knows, something he can control.

"I know, you told me last time." She says it so plain, so casual, as if it's that easy to recall.

Last time?

Eyes wide he tries to breathe normally.

"-we talked about L'Manberg, I told you about Sam's plans for an economy, you showed me some drawings..."

"What?" He can't stop it before it comes tumbling out of his mouth.

"Dream, do you… you know who I am, right?"

He can't lie, he can't lie, and that name suddenly sounds so odd, and he knows it's his, but what's hers? Maybe if he plays the part well enough, she'll be a piece in the long puzzle to get himself out. The books and the lava, none of it will matter.

"I'm sorry, I-" Scrubbing the back of his hand across his cheek, he bows his head. It's easy to pretend to cry when he's that frustrated, "I don't know. It's hard to keep track, I write them all down, but…"

"Right, your books!" She stands, moving towards the chest and rummaging through it like she'd done it before.

"Don't touch them." It's more snarl than words, teeth flashing.

"No, no--" She backs away from the chest, hands up and placating, before she turns back with an explanation on her lips. "I'm just looking, I swear. I just wanna see something."

He watches her and he is trapped with trailing thoughts that if he tries hard enough he could snap her neck. No armor, no weapons, nothing to save her. It rings around his head until she emerges triumphant from the depths of the chest.

Her smile wipes away the thought with almost a hapless wash of guilt, a small wriggling thing that makes him grimace more than anything.

Flipping through the book, Puffy scans the pages.

"Here, duckl- Dream. This page right here-" she holds the book out, thumb holding the spot, "see you do remember, it's just a bit hard for you right now. That's all."

She presses the book into his hands, not realizing he'd automatically raised his to accept the offering.

On the open page there's the vague shape of something that he thinks is supposed to be a drawing of her. Script wrung around the little drawing like a scribbled crown.

"Puffy."

"Hey, there you go," she congratulates, words soft as velvet. Patronizing, he decides as he looks up at her and then back down at the book.

His fingers trace the arrows on the page. He can't remember drawing them, he can't recall the logic, and he leaves a thin rusty trail of blood across the paper as he runs his fingers along it. Dragged down to the right corner of the page he traces the shape of an some oval drawing, an egg, squiggles stretching from it, question marks drawn thick-

"An... egg? What's that got to do with you?" He chuckles, the distant knock of a fistfull of memories pounds against his skull. Crimson and creeping, something on the tip of his tongue. An altogether parasitic thing that he recalls distantly, like an intruder in his own home that he keeps forgetting is there but for the items that he keeps finding moved around. He smears his thumb across the page, staining the drawing red.

"You remember when-" Puffy stops, voice quieter, "sorry poor choice of words."

"It's alright." He nods, pads of his fingers tracing out the sharp edges of the parchment.

"So, uh, last time I told you about Bad-"

"The guard." He interrupts, overly confident in his stance on that. He knows that at least.

"Well, he was also your friend- I mean he was my friend," Puffy's voice jumps, "I just, ugh, listen I know you're stuck in here, but it's-"

Puffy throws her hands up, crossing her arms with a huff as she starts to pace, frustration bled from her in a way that doesn't seem to line up with the few stray memories he manages to clutch in his hands.

"Bad wants to let these red vines spread all over the place, and he's got this whole Eggpire and they're tryna get everyone involved. And just when we had an ounce of peace-"

He tilts his head, ears set forward, catching every word like he's straining to hear through static.

"And I don't- I'm not sure what to do. I mean it doesn't exactly seem harmless! Like something's wrong with them. Something's wrong with my friends. Things are all- they're just-"

She sits on the bed with a huff, back bowed hands over her eyes. "And you're in here. And I'd… I'm afraid it's all just gonna escalate into the same chaos. All of this?" The sheep gestures around the cell, before hunching until her elbows hit her knees, defeated. "It feels like it's gotten us nowhere."

"I can help. It's my…" He trails off, unspoken words sour and tasteless, "I could fix it. You just have to convince them to let me out."

A lie, an easy one, or maybe it's just another half-truth he memorized in the margins of pages and that he's burn when the lines and shapes would quake. And dark silhouettes would darken the space of the only opening to his cell when the lava falls away.

She looks stunned, and then her face softens into something contemplative.

"Please, I've changed. I just… I don't want to be alone." He pushes another plea on her, perhaps a modicum of some twisted honesty to the words that sits heavy and wrong among the yawning emptiness stuck between each rib. "I can fix it."

She shakes her head, a broken huff of a laugh bubbling up as she stands.

"I'm sorry, I just- I can't. I have to try and handle this on my own or the title of knight means nothing. And you… you've done too much damage. You were cruel. There's a lotta people out there that you hurt, duckling." Puffy rests a hand on his shoulder and he hates it's collective weight. "You have to reconcile with your own cruelty."

The words sing in his sternum like the strike of a knife through the bone.

"It's time for you to leave. Now." He swipes the hand off his shoulder, becoming robotic and cold. A thing that hardly consumes air or space, staring and seeing nothing but the shutter of freedom like watching a small gap be sealed shut by an iron door.

"I'm sorry. I'll try and… I'll talk to Sam, to someone- I'll try to get you some more things, okay?"

She leaves, her sad eyes and sad frowns taken with her. All pity and no solutions, and it hardly registers to him beyond the thankless relief of a fly buzzing out of a wide open window.

Soon enough, he finds himself staring at the clock. Spine pressed against the wall, sat back on his haunches as he stares, and stares, and stares, hands trembling against his knees.

On to the next one, he thinks, over and over, a relentless cacophony of the conversation repeated in his head, acted out like puppets on strings before his eyes until the movements and the words grow muddled and he's left with the spin of the clock. The heat of the lava, the bubbling churn, the whisper of his own breath, legs burning from holding the same position.

He stares at the clock.

And he becomes a liminal being of pressed air from nostrils, cold and untouchable, an imperfection on the wall. Pressed and smeared into the obsidian, filling depthless lungs until the lights in the room seem to fade and the walls close in with each breath that grows shallower on the heels of the next one.

On the bed beside him rests a book with all the gathered remnants of his splintering sense of self. Rertrieved from its hiding spot it lays spilled open to its final page the same word scrawled over and over again, gouges in the pages where the lead had snapped-- no more ink or quill pens just crudely made bits of wood with charcoal centers that smudge the pages and coat his palms. All of it the constant ploy to hold on to all the contents spilling out from his skull indefinitely.

Remember. Remember. Remember.

Notes:

SIDE NOTE: Just so it's not confusing, Dream for the remainder of the fic (unless specified) will not look human, all that really needs to be understood is that he's similar to Ranboo but not quite

Alright, so I hope that chapter came through some what! Thank you to everyone who's reading and leaving kudos and commenting, and all that!

Chapter 6: Law of Inertia

Summary:

Jack Manifold and Quackity pay a visit.

⟒⎐⟒⍀⊬⏁⊑⟟⋏☌ ⟟⌇ ⎎⟟⋏⟒.

Notes:

Title is a reference to Newton's First Law, the law of inertia states that objects have a tendency to keep moving in a straight line at a constant speed when no forces act upon them.

Alright here we go with some more visitors. This can only go well, right? :)

Warnings: self harm!!, graphic depections of autophagia (biting/trying to consume one's own flesh), physical and psychological violence, dehumanization, crude jokes, implied death (temporary), all the themes of imprisonment and torture

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

He thinks he's getting better at it, the keeping track part.

It incurs a heavy toll, a constant hunger churned up from chucking potatoes into the lava, abusing all those potions forgone for a clearer head, for days and nights spent wondering if one was the other. For violent withdrawals to some latent grip of a drug induced haze, a poisoned mind he sweats and claws out until he's finally less of husk and he can spill his sense of self right back into the cavity of his own skull and pray that it keeps.

Time starts to grow thin and strange after that. It hardly exists at all at the same time there's too much of it. The heavy claws of a strange sensation constantly gnaw at his insides soon after that. He learns they are the hallowed throes of starvation when it drives him to gnaw on the back of his wrist just to fight the nausea that spins the room even when he's lying completely still. It is the constant reminder of an adjacent mortality. But he doesn't die, it doesn't kill him.

And he learns that hunger becomes boring after a while. That the pain grows dull, the mind apathetic, and the body follows with it. Each opportunity to curb it he meets with abject refusal, he won't make the same mistake, he won't lose himself, he can't. The food is poisoned-- it's all poisoned, it has to be. All he has to do is remember that.

But there are times when he thinks if he gives in, if he does what they want… if he just forgets, they'll- no, no, they won't. He can't trust them.

The buzzing ring of burbling silence is violent this time. A missed meal cast freshly into the hungry molten stomach of the lava. He's been trying to write, trying to distract himself with the sound of it, the feel of it, sink into the pages, the memories, the shape of the outside, the phantom taste of fresh air, but the cotton between his ears is thick and his vision is greying.

He shakes his head, palms pressed to his temples, jaw unhinged on a silent shout, a thrashing, writhing thing that sits in wheezed echoed from the empty chambers of his lungs. Harsh and winding, air wrought against unforgiving stone, and he thinks the walls are closing in again, eyes open but the light's gone out. Last glimmers of hope in the fireworks that burst behind his eyelids when he shuts them with enough force to shake the space behind the pupils, sound jumping into the rumbles of an earthquake.

He's hungry and it's dark.

Explosions rumble like fists thrust against the curved fingers of his ribs, hot ash clogging his throat, leaving every breath to trickle out of him like smoke. The more he breathes, the less he feels.

And when he holds his breath he only drowns.

So he gulps on the air like a fish out of water, claws dragged against his scalp just to hear the scratching of nails on the hollow bone coffin.

Breathing becomes almost monumentous, a Sisyphean task of pulling air down by the fistfuls only to push it back out with too much force, breathless on the end of each until he's losing track of the timing. Clock ticking away between the chatter, the noise.

He's so hungry and it's so dark, and he dwells among the twisted statics like a beast out of time. A twisted thing made of flesh and blood and bone, all poison, all slavering and desperate, spit sloughed off his tongue to choke him when the earth beneath his fetal frame cracks and shudders, and it's anger threatens to shrivel him from the inside out.

He's never been so hungry. It becomes a fist punched through his middle, wounds ragged and raw until even the appeal of sleeping becomes something less troublesome and more useful. Curled in on the gaping, yawning stretch of it, sharp bones of his elbows thrust into the soft length of a belly that had never experienced something as poignant and mortal as hunger.

He'd never experienced sleep either.

Not until it had gripped him round the throat, two hands like a garrote as it choked him into its arms, the sweetest momentary caress of something like death, but always disappointing. Filled with sounds and images and somehow hunger finds him there, too.

It'd be so easy to get rid of. He just has to eat that's all, something small, anything, just once. That's it-

No. He has to remember.

His hands fall in his lap and the netherite cuffs clink together, the two solid bands casting a purple glow. A little less dark, but never a beacon of hope. The blisters and scars peek out from under the edges, glaring up in soft pinks to combat the rotten purples.

If he can just get them off. No more hunger, no more sleep, no more cell-

He snarls, teeth bared, clawing at the cuffs, the grooves and dips of it always burning sickly hot with an enchantment. He claws until he feels them spin slick with blood, feels the catch of fur clumped and matted with it. He hunches over, scraping at them and no matter how he bends or breaks or crushes the bones in his wrist he can't-

He can't-

He sinks his teeth into the sensitive junction of nerves and tendons-

Gnawing, tearing and twisting, blood spilt across his tongue with the squelch of fresh meat, hot and tangy, it almost, almost pings the starving parts of himself. All just the distant thought of food as he crunches down harder and swallows what doesn't drip down his chin and splash against his lap. All it does is curdle his empty stomach, clog his nose like copper coins being shoved right into his brain and he sighs, a burbling thing that makes the rogue sounds of a feral dog ripping into a fresh meal that much louder.

All the wet notes of fangs tearing flesh play in his ears on loop, a horrid jukebox tune that makes him hunch further. He readjusts the grip on his own wrist and rips his eyeteeth into it harder, a fortuitous meal in his mind's eye, viscerally afraid it'll be snatched from him now that he's found it.

It takes him a moment to fully realize where the sounds are coming from, jaws parted around a scene that's devolved into self-cannibalism.

Spitting and gagging, he reels back, cupping his arm where blood boils to the surface from several violent tears, glinting just like a spilled pot of ink in the light. He casts his eyes away from the ground meat of it, glaring at the obsidian walls and the elder guardians beyond them like they're to blame.

And they are, they always f*cking are, and maybe if he just goes far enough, bites hard enough, rips deep enough, he'll pop his hand from his wrist- maybe.

He abandons the inane thought, shaking fingers clamped around the worst of the wound. The dull pulse from the pressure racing up his arm, chased all the way to his brain until it scatters the dredges of mad thoughts.

Chin dipped low, he chokes down open mouthed breaths, bubbles of thick blood popping obscenely in the back of his throat. The dead rumble of a stone cage echoes the sharp sound.

Splintering memories of lifting a crude wooden spear over his head blink and shatter in the vacant opera seating of his mind. Cast in the old familiar notes of bloody palms, something snapped off the slats of that bed they'd entrusted him with.

Salvation scraped obsessively against the walls until it formed a point.

He missed so many times. Slamming the point into the obsidian with a crack of thunder, shouting, saliva gathered like the bubble of foam dripping off his lips. Frothed up from the seething depths of an inability to accept reality, like the rabbit that scrapes at the ground when it fights the snare. Slick, broken voice sloughed off a tongue with each mindless drift of words from blood filled lungs, half language, half sound.

Desperate and unhinged, until finally he'd lifted it again and knew he had the mark. He drove it into the center of his wrist, jaw popping with a howling shout as he twisted and the pain detonated like the flash of a bomb.

It didn't come off, it never comes off, always burning and heavy, and no matter how much he tried the cuffs always stayed. And when they found him halfway to severing the limb they'd just pin him down, tip a healing potion over it, and watch him howl.

He's too weak, too clumsy. No good for anything, but hunching over books and watching clocks, and nothing else. And maybe that's the point. Maybe that's the plan.

And he knows getting those cuffs off is never going to work, he knows, he knows, he doesn't need the silent judgement of his own hallucinations to remind him of that.

But maybe if he just-- maybe if he tries again, maybe it'll work. Why else would he keep trying?

Cracked and broken sentences hop and skip between animalistic growls, each one breaking off into a whining, pitiful note as he clamps his fingers over the wound hard enough to bruise the bone. He abandons the sluggish flow to paw at slick metal. The faint purple glow a mocking beacon in the pitch black yawn of insanity.

"C'mon, why won't…." He whispers it more to himself, always incomplete, never caring to finish the question. The echoing rumble of it bouncing off the walls, ears switching from pinned back to alert, catching sounds that aren't even there.

He forgets the rattle of his own voice, just like he loses the sound of redstone being activated too.

Movements turned infinite and meaningless, caught staring into the depths of his own folly, unable to crawl out from under it.

"Oh, how the mighty do fall."

The voice silences his thoughts.

It numbs him altogether, everything instantly clearer, easier, and the rush of adrenaline at the whiff of a threat is the soothing balm to his own spiral into panic.

Suddenly smooth and mechanical, he angles his gaze just enough to cast his eyes to the corners and make out the glint of red and blue lenses.

"You know, for once... I'm glad I don't remember you," he calls from the bed, a cross legged and scrawny thing. Blood drips down his chin and his arm in a manner so casual even the other doesn't comment on it, or maybe the visitor doesn't care, and he thinks that's a rather important distinction to make.

The visitor's steps eat up the shallow hovel of his obsidian cell, lava closing in behind him. Effectively shutting them in together, for better or worse.

"Eh, they told me you might not. Doesn't really matter if you remember good ol' Jack Manifold though. 'Cause I've got memories enough for the both of us." The self-proclaimed Jack Manifold shrugs, moving with the air of someone who wants so desperately to fill every space with his presence, but fails.

Eyes sweeping up and down the figure, he watches Jack paw through everything in the cell. Sifting through all the items like he's got the authority to. Flipping pages, adjusting the sloppy tilt of the clock on the wall, like the bobcat turning over stones to find the tasty mouse. Tearing it all apart, invading the corners of a careful construction with fumbling, childish fingers that make him crinkle his nose and reduce Jack Manifold to the rank of annoying little beetle in his head.

This guy, this kid in the eyes of immortality, would not be useful. He decides it the moment he catches the deep disdain glinting behind those glasses. That self-congratulating smirk stuck on too smug lips.

"You still remember Tommy, right?" Jack doesn't let him answer, "I'm sure you do, you said it yourself, he's the only thing you still give a sh*t about."

Dream holds his silence close, allowing for frustration to steep in a mixed bag of a refusal to give the other any sense of satisfaction. The scrutiny from Jack makes him feel as if he'd been dipped in tar, the false idol ripped from its pedestal, waiting to be feathered.

"Y'know it's a bit of a problem that your brain's been knackered. Really throws a wrench in my plans for revenge-"

"Revenge? Heh, that's funny…"

"Funny?"

He gets something out of Jack, something familiar that he latches on to. He latches on to that ounce of confusion, that lapse in that naive tightrope walk of smarminess the man trekked.

"It's just that…" He taps a finger against his chin, eyes aimed sarcastically at the ceiling, "I do remember you, a bit; only the memorable things really. And trust me those are… well uh, they're lacking."

He laughs, dark and long and woefully familiar, the notes of it drifting up from the pit of his stomach like an old friend. Filling each word with a new sort of malice as he continues, "Jack Manifold, everyone's least favorite idiot."

He grins up into Jack's face. Recalling words sanctified to parchment, a history rehearsed in the desire to never forget, even if it's only ever hazy. He hones it into a tool sharp enough for killing.

"A traitor by nature, am I right? And you were- well you were always so easy to pick on. I mean, how many times have you almost died now? Ten? Twenty?"

Jack's face darkens but no words flee him. And so he forges on, an anchor dropped and scraped through a coral bed, damage wreaked by the simple fact that it was a tool performing its primary function.

"And it's… it's funny that you bring up Tommy. Has he finally stopped stealing your things? Or are you still getting bullied by some kid?"

He doesn't know where it really comes from, the words spoken like he's a creature possessed, some marionette on strings, mouth opened and shut on all that tar that keeps bubbling up from his insides. All frothing writhe of claws sunk into his loosening sense of control, and each word is his denail of everything with a self-indulgent rage.

"Fancy, fancy phrases, Dream. Surely." Jack's expression slips and slides like a snake's belly across cold tile.

He's struck by the confidence of it, the utter certainty that makes him recoil and lose grip on his own spell of confidence. Slipping up and stumbling right into a slack expression, shoulders curved away and spine collapsing on itself as the world suddenly feels smaller, louder, and Jack becomes the imposing figure, a threatening, flickering shadow back lit by lava. A common sight that frequently haunts his vision.

It's something that had he never been shut inside a box, he would have never allowed, never entertained as a possibility besides something to laugh about. Now, he's got no choice.

"You certainly have your words still. Your little attempts to get a rise out of people, I'll give you that," Jack huffs, casting a scathing look over him, "It's admirable, really. And maybe if you weren't stuck in here, stuck looking like that-- maybe I'd have cared. But all I hear are the desperate words of some muzzled bastard who's all bark, no bite."

"I could kill you." His voice is colder than snow at the gallows, his mainline defense boiled down to the single cast of an overused phrase.

"You think I'm stupid?" Jack laughs, acid splashed against the air. "Go ahead, big man, take a crack at it."

He considers it for half a second, limbs tense, chin tucked low. Every ounce of himself honed in on every way he memorized a mortal capable of dying, the basis of his existence that's as primal as it is unobtainable.

"That's what I thought." Jack spits the word like he's a filthy dog begging at his feet. "Now, you're gonna sit there, and you're gonna rot. And tomorrow when I kill Tommy? There's gonna be nothing you can do about it. Feel free to tell anyone who'll listen though, doubt they'll believe you. And when it's done you'll really have nothing but this godforsaken cell."

For half a second, he considers looking to the side, breaking his sight from those red and blue lenses, that dark shape of eyes beneath the glass. He can practically see the bright reds and whites of a hallucination flitting around his peripherals. It's a constant paranoia, a curdling sense of attachment to the catalyst of his own downfall, the origin and epicenter of calamity and chaos, and in the true fashion of an angry god he couldn't let that grudge go.

He narrows his eyes, hands folded in his lap, measured as he jots down a hasty note in the burnt out corners of his mind, a timeless reminder that Jack Manifold would only ever dedicate his existence to pissing him off.

"You're not gonna kill him."

"It's a nuke, you- you understand what that is, right?"
Jack stammers, hand twisted around something at his side, some piece of paper, a goddamned script, and isn't that rich?

"Yeah." He knows the bombs better than most, he knows the way they flash and burn in half an instant, and he thinks he can make his words just as incendiary if he tries. "But you're not- trust me, you're not gonna kill him."

"I'll be back here same time tomorrow tellin' you differently."

"It's a date."

He dares the non-believer to drag himself back before the bloodied pulpit and spit more false prayers.

He is left victorious among the hollow fingers of numbness when nothing shaped like Jack Manifold ever slinks its way back into his cell.

--

Watching darkness eat the light on pale pages, he almost doesn't catch the tune of shifting levers and pistons.

He turns his head and he sees the lava curtain pulls back on a figure in blue satin. Some out-of-place fancy three piece suit dotted with three golden buttons down the left, a red cravat to pull the whole ensemble together.

When the visitor finally steps off the platform and onto obsidian it's with the gait of something co*cky. A loud thing with louder steps, a confidence that jangles like plastic chips thrown across green felt tables, slick with smoke and flimsy poker cards. A thousand exploited vices.

A dice shaped broach sits on the lapel of the suit, some sort of symbol etched on it, an LN in fancy gold lettering upon closer inspection. It glints in the glowstone, just as gleaming as the lopsided grin the visitor tosses into the air.

And still, he doesn't stop writing, stuck in a stream of consciousness trailed down the margins when he tosses the co*cky visitor a short glance and then resumes his task. He really only needed to care when the guards finally decided to show up for their usual routine, or at worst, the warden.

Otherwise the revolving damn door of his cell stood as the only tangible passage of time aside from the clock.

Something clicks in his head. Gaze turned back up, that particular shade of blue greets him. He studies the out of place beanie; and who the hell ruins a suit like that?

It all adds up quick enough. Spelt out in the misshapen letters of a name, half written in a common tongue, half scrawled in something closer to the symbols of ender.

Still, it reads clear as day and Quackity snatches the book from his lap, flipping through the pages, fingers smudging the words with reckless abandon.

"I see you still remember me." Quackity slams the book shut, tossing it straight into a corner of the cell. "Lemme tell you, I am god-damned honored, man."

"Don't flatter yourself..." He bites out on rusty vocal cords, head swinging towards the book's final resting place. His limbs twitch to retrieve it, but be doesn't move.

There's a long silence that stretches on. Time always warped in its march until he can't tell if it's been seconds or hours, and the moment he parts his jaw, voice found on a full breath ready to dismiss the glaring annoyance- he's cut off.

"Y'know, this suits you, Dream." Quackity looks down his nose, chin tipped up. "You always wanted to keep us in the goddamn dark ages, scraping around in the dirt like a bunch of f*ckin' animals. Now you get to live like one while the rest of us move the hell on."

He doesn't afford him a reply, staring and numb, the words are nothing more than white noise. Something to compound the ring his ears, all unamusing things that hardly draw his attention beyond a dull glare. He just wants to keep writing.

Quackity quirks a brow at the silence, and then he's stepping forward, fast enough to crowd his space all at once. So suddenly, so without warning that danger lights up in flaring neons across his mind, puncturing every organ with a devastating shock-

It's unbidden fire ignites in his nerves, that cloying violent scream of every instinct dipped in magma, forcibly honed by hours of no one and nothing, just a creature of pure hypervigilance wearing a flimsy social suit.

An overreaction. And he busts out of it with a snarl, rattling and shaking, grinding it's way through the body he's trapped in.

He abandons all sense of humanity on a scramble backwards, teeth parted like a snake rearing its head back to strike.

"Cute," Quackity says, all saccharine now before taking a few steps back with a scoff. "Why the hell do you even look like that anyways? Thought gods were supposed to be made of tougher sh*t."

"I… I could ask you the same thing." His voice is small as he eyes the suit and distantly remembers Quackity to be someone who was often chronically underdressed.

"Listen, I'm a changed man." Quackity sweeps his arm out to the side, all in a mockery of a bow, "I've built something, Dream. I know that's hard for you to understand 'cause all you ever cared about was blowing perfectly good sh*t up. But we've finally got something that works. Something that people are actually thriving under- in goddamn peace. I'm doing what you couldn't and honestly I've got you to thank for that, pal. That whole taking people's sh*t and holding it over 'em? Yeah, turns out that's actually pretty smart. And it's pretty f*ckin' easy with the right economy."

Quackity moves closer. And the words Quackity speaks thunk against his skull like the slow notes of a sour song. He tracks every step Quackity takes with a tongue held between his teeth, eyes narrowed.

Quackity stops, leans down, and suddenly his face is close to Dream's.

"You see I'd get into the semantics of it all, but you'd just forget that sh*t, right? That's why you're still here, asshole."

Quackity ruffles the fur on top of his head like he's just a damn dog, smug hands shoved right back into those satin lined pockets again.

Dream presses himself away from the touch, spine molded into the wall with such quaking force the very stone threatens to swallow him up until he's just as dead. A glare is quick to set in.

Because the thing about being trapped in the same place is that it gets boring and the sheer apathy it incurs will only ever mount into something unchecked, a simmering pot welded shut from the inside left to gather steam. Pressure always set to rise until the metal has no choice but to give.

And there's almost nothing left to hold him back now, not when Quackity's words bang a hammer against the sides of his tightly shut capacity for rage, mind boiled over into easy rhythms, conjuring up old words that he knows he only need to lob through the air and make sure they hit the mark.

"You're such an idiot."

"Excuse me?" Drawn out, Quackity turns with a brow raised.

As if the suit wearing prick had the audacity to pretend he didn't hear those words. As if Quackity couldn't possibly fathom them, and the disbelief only spurs Dream on, breaths growing shallow and words easier to recall.

"You're gonna fail. You are a f*ck up, Quackity. Like tell me how's- how is this gonna be any different?"

Dream hangs his head, a nasty laugh wrenched straight from that writhing belly of something that hasn't quite been stolen from him, yet.

"My memory could be totally f*cked and I'd still- I'd remember that. I mean I probably wouldn't even have to 'cause it's literally all you do." He sneers, voice biting, "You f*ck up. You are a dumbass. You get used, Quackity! And it's -it's all you were good for! And it's not like that's changed, everyone's probably using you right now and you're so stupid you don't even realize it!"

It's crude, all stones thrown at fragile thoughts, and more find themselves sliding into the arsenal on his tongue. Gripped in the space between his palms where he curves the shaking planes of empty fists against the air, grasping nothing and wishing for something, anything to give.

"Shut up, shut the hell up-"

"C'mon, Quackity," He drawls sickly sweet, just like they're old friends. Coaxing the other to come closer, stick his fingers right through the bars of the proverbial enclosure. "Listen, I'll even tell you where the book is. I mean, you might as well bring Schlatt back, get a few bruises on those knees while you're at it-"

The first punch is all the excuse he needs.

He probably deserves it, but there's no logic left to spare when he launches himself at Quackity. The crackling screech of a communicator coming online rends the air when the body beneath him smacks the obsidian.

Heavy kicks slam into his middle, throwing him off, just enough for Quackity to try to claw himself up and away.

"Get the f*ck- Sam!" Quackity shouts into the communicator, half crawling, half standing.

It's a mistake to turn his back at all.

He grabs Quackity's ankle, yanking him with enough force to send his chin cracking against the stone. Quackity gets as far as flipping onto his back when he straddles him and swings the first punch.

Caught up in the grip of something hot and red, rage strikes on every beat of his pulse that whooshes in his ears and rips up the length of his arms, echoing on thrown fist after fist.

His knuckles strike the hard bone of someone's forearms thrown over their head.

He doesn't hold back, doesn't even care to change trajectory, keeping the squirming body pinned as he does everything in his derisive power to wipe that smile off that smarmy face, finish the job that some piglin with a pickaxe had started and see that scar on his lip go all the way through to the back of his f*cking brain.

If Quackity wanted an animal, an animal he'd get.

And he stops just long enough for Quackity to let his guard down, the duck brained fool dropping his arms only to catch a glimpse of a treacherous snarl and a fist aiming to cave his teeth in.

The pain ricochets across his own molars, flashing and hot but it's easy to ignore the tang of blood when he's so used to choking on it. He doesn't care, reckless abandon found in hearing Quackity sing the symphony of fists crunching against bone as red spills across his vision each time the landing blow shakes up the stretch of his arm.

The fight devolves into a scuffle across the ground. Reduced to two dogs battling over the last scrap of rotten meat, flea bitten and feral things that soon swap fists for claws and respectability for gnashing teeth sunk into flailing limbs.

Just as suddenly as it started, it stops, hands dragging him back, forcing him straight down into a kneel, knees smacking the obsidian. One after the other.

Eyes wrung with bruises, one half shut by a nasty cut, Quackity scrapes himself off the ground and scrambles back, hiding behind the safety of netherite armor.

Quackity casts him a parting glare. A thing that screams, you're f*cking dead, as knuckles scoop blood from a busted mouth and nose, and he flees altogether, chasing safety on waspish steps as someone sends the stone platform back across the chasm.

He's effectively abandoned, left with the three guards that stay behind, and it's certainly not the first occasion.

He bucks against the palms on his shoulders, twin sets of fingers twisted into the junction of his elbows to pin his arms behind his back like he's a bird for the slaughter. Left to shake his head from side to side, he scrapes together a defense in the form of curses soaked in bloody saliva spat at the feet of his captors. Seething and mindless, nothing like the person he'd learned to be outside these walls.

"Dream, stand down."

Super heated numbness fills his limbs at the sound of that voice and he casts his gaze towards its source, Quackity's little savior, that guard with the white headband, the one so often patronizingly nice, yet simple to anger. He doesn't have to look to know it's the cat and the demon at his sides then, pinning him down.

He knows them, knew them, just… it'd been right there. It had been so easy to recall and now it's all murky, muddled and even when he looks the guard in the eyes, it tries to elude him. Just as frustrating as the shape of fingers swiped through a babbling brook, trying to fetch blood in rushing water.

The guard repeats his command, voice firmer, knuckles bone white around the haft of a trident.

He laughs, breathless and empty, and he allows himself to sag bonelessly until he's dropped against the welcoming embrace of the obsidian. Back bent low, nose nearly brushing the stone, he holds his breath and waits for the sound of the guards to retreat. Waits for the silence. Waits for the only sounds to be the gurgle of lava and the churning tick tock of his clock.

"Sapnap?"

The warden's voice crackles through the air.

His stomach lurches.

"Sam."

"Go ahead and destroy everything."

Eyes wide, the blood drains from his body and the world trembles with the crushing weight of his dropping heart.

"Torturing him like that isn't gonna help his mental state." Bad chimes in, uncaring for the fact that the warden might hear those words.

It's a scrap of hope, a thing that brightens in his chest as he casts his gaze up towards the glowing eyes of the tall demon, the guard having been the champion in ensuring he always had new things, even if it was as simple as a rubber ball or a tiny potted plant destined to wither and die.

Plastic bends and cracks under the force with which Sapnap cradles the communicator in his hand, eyes cast to the ground.

"Sapnap, we should just go talk to Sam, discuss it before we do anything rash. Maybe get him to come to a compromise." Bad reasons. "He hurt Quackity, I get that- but he still has rights. We can figure out a more humane punishment… something that's more constructive, right?"

Sapnap hesitates on a nod, lips thin.

"I'm not…" Sapnap starts, thumb hovering over the receiver as he speaks into it, "I'm not- I don't think we should take everything, sir. The prisoner is..."

Sapnap trails off, communicator dropped near his chin, the static crackle from the other side plays an awful tune before it's broken with a brief screech and then silence, a chilling pause before clipped words.

"He knew the consequences. He's gotta start from scratch."

The comm line shuts off with a final damning click.

Sapnap casts Dream a single look, a single moment of doubt that he clings to with bruising force. It pleads in every note of silence that the guard doesn't condemn him, and he doesn't pause to consider that begging silently on his knees was something he would have rather died than allow himself to ever do.

"Bad, we have to. He'll just hire new guards. And they'll- trust me, it'll be worse."

"I- but we can't just…" Bad sighs, "we'd be just as cruel as him."

Sapnap clips the communicator back to his belt, eyes dark. "It's- it'll be fine, okay? I'm sure Sam'll let him earn everything back and maybe he won't- y'know, freakin' attack people after this."

Bad concedes with a dipped chin and a flat frown.

They grab everything.

And he kneels there, forgetting he can scrape himself off the ground.

Every scrap is tossed wholly into the wide open catch of the lava pool. The wooden chest of books first, the bed following, stray papers crumbled up and lobbed without hesitation. He watches them flash and burn, bright pops of light that burst like solar flares and leave no remaining trace of those sh*tty participation trophies he'd spaced out on an empty shelf, as if to prove to every onlooker that he'd lived some modicum of a life once worth something.

His clock remains-

No the clock. There's no his, he doesn't… it doesn't matter.

But he stares at that single splash of spinning color on the wall and his blood curdles.

Shaped so innocently like something he'd taken for granted, something he never realized he needed until he lost everything in a matter of seconds. Sharp breaths wrestled only as shallow as the top half of his lungs where he hunches on the ground and loses everything in a matter of seconds.

He thought it'd be louder. Brighter. Like the black rain and white light of a thousand explosions. Instead it's quiet.

A dull, rumbling ache that sweeps from his ankles to his scalp. A creeping desperation that grips him by the throat and squeezes until he's scrambling to his feet to escape the noose. Words pried like stubborn splinters from the tissue of his throat as he spews them with the coughing choke of a dying fire.

"C'mon, you won't- you woul- you can't just leave me here with nothing."

"Stand down."

The sharp prongs of a trident swing towards his face, the glare down the length of it shakes him like thunder.

He pushes it down with a casual hand, fingers sparking where they meet electrified metal.

"You can't… you can't punish me for defending myself, Sapnap." The name tastes like blood, or maybe it's just the split gums. It holds less weight than a spat curse, the words clumsy and slow.

Black clouds form in Sapnap's eyes, a callous and cold being where something bright once burned.

"We're taking the clock too, right?" Antfrost hovers near the wall, thieving paws reaching for that circle of glass, that dias of salvation and safety and everything that he can't stand to lose.

"Take it."

"Sapnap- wait!"

Bad's last plea goes ignored as the clock is ripped from the wall.

It's more than just instinct to lunge for it.

He's stopped short, vision flashing with a lurch, fingers brought up to slip against metal as he chokes.

Breathy things punch from his chest when he tries to conjure up pathetic sounds in the spirit of a shattered ribcage and a skewered heart, impaled like a fish on the business end of a trident.

Bad's face hovers in the corner of his vision. Glowing line of his mouth parting fast and harsh, words flung as black claws grab at his shoulders and push Sapnap away, the trident dropping from the latter's hands. A slack face and wide eyes beneath the white stretch of a headband are the last things he sees before the room spins and he's dragged straight to the ground-

He gasps awake.

Flat on his back, fingers fumbling through the tattered holes of fabric over his sternum. He grasps at his chest, shaking palms pressed over the thrum of a heart as he sits up. That leaping and skipping thing that betrays him with each tumultuous thud.

He casts his gaze around the stripped cell, long since abandoned by everything. Those bare black bones pitted down to the marrow grin back at him, all smug whispers of I told you so.

The clock doesn't tick.

It doesn't tock, it doesn't do anything.

And he'll… he'll be fine.

He doesn't need it, no attachments, right? Why would he give a sh*t about a stupid clock?

He didn't care about the books, he didn't care about the bed, all meager meaningless things, he'd accepted their demise quick enough when he watched them be cast into the hungry maw of molten rock. That was easy, this was easy.

He should have never cared- he didn't. He doesn't.

He doesn't care.

Even as that statement contradicts all his previous actions and he mourns their untimely death in the forceful sense that he- not the clock, or the books, or the bed, or the discs, or the chaos- is the one they shut inside the coffin and buried.

He jams his fingers into his palms, shoulders drawing up towards his ears.

And the world starts to warp into jagged lines the longer he looks at obsidian and tries to find something to interrupt the endless stretch of it.

The lava curtain only serves as a looping eyesore, not enough, never enough, senses long tuned to drown out the dripping hiss.

The silence grows, the nothing grows.

A deafening crescendo that forces his spine to curve, head shoved into trembling hands as he drives his elbows into his thighs and tries with all his might to fold himself in half.

Jaw cracked wide enough to pop, the noise that flees him is emptier than the air. A backwards, aberrant attempt at a sound that belongs solely in the maws of tall, wandering figures with bright purple eyes.

Notes:

Big shout out to everyone sticking with it!!
Thank you for reading!

Chapter 7: The Monomaniacal Tower

Summary:

⟟⏁'⌇ ⟊⎍⌇⏁ ⏃ ⎅⍀⟒⏃⋔. ⟟⏁'⌇ ⟊⎍⌇⏁ ⏃ ⎅⍀⟒⏃⋔. ⟟⏁'⌇ ⟊⎍⌇⏁ ⏃ ⎅⍀⟒⏃⋔.

He's dreaming, he knows that- but that doesn't mean he's used to it.

⟟⏁'⌇ ⟊⎍⌇⏁ ⏃ ⎅⍀⟒⏃⋔. ⟟⏁'⌇ ⟊⎍⌇⏁ ⏃ ⎅⍀⟒⏃⋔. ⟟⏁'⌇ ⟊⎍⌇⏁ ⏃ ⎅⍀⟒⏃⋔.

Notes:

Chapter title based on The Tower tarot card which is commonly interpreted as meaning danger, crisis, destruction, and liberation, and unforseen change. Monomaniacal is a pathological preoccupation with a single idea, object, or person.

Important: This is where that warning in the beginning of Chapter 1 about vilification, unreliable narrator, and exaggeration of certain characters is probably the most important. This is a nightmare chapter after all-- and nightmares tend to be f*cking twisted, scary, and full of symbolism.

Trigger/Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of violence, depictions of derealization, unreality, distressing content typical of violent nightmares, graphic tooth pulling (in a nightmare), allusions to torture

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It's hard for him to do anything but sleep anymore.

He'd spent more than a lifetime never really seeing a point, never being tired enough to to just lay down and let himself be that vulnerable. The only time sleep ever came were all the times he'd cracked his skull on the ground, fell too far from a high place, and generally all the times he'd forget he was something more clumsy and fragile-- there's others that are a bit fresher shaped like concussive blasts, death blows from crossbow bolts and swords, the ash and smoke of war. But even all of those were simple stretches of darkness. Never nightmares or dreams, never that which he'd named himself after.

Now he relies on dreams for entertainment. He relies on them for a measure of coping with the sheer boredom of nothing and no one. He relies on the way they feel so real that sometimes he can't tell what reality is.

And even when his dreams grow into distressing and twisted things, it's not as if he has a choice. He only hopes they don't start to fade, hopes they don't grow into grey, dull images of only the walls, of only the warden and the guards. He hopes and knows it's only a matter of time.

He doesn't know how many days it's been since Quackity's visit, he doesn't know how many days it's been since his cell was emptied out, since he lost the clock. Nothing to mark down how many days he thinks have passed.

If he had to guess he'd say a thousand, when he thinks about it too much it feels like a few hours.

His life, if he can even call it that, is spent in suspended animation. A listless malaise. He can't figure out if it has more to do with the oppressive heat of the lava, the malnutrition, or the endless dull stare at the same walls.

There's no clock to watch, no books to write in, nothing but the water basin remains and after awhile even that stopped being entertaining. Drowning himself too much only made the warden mad. And even then the warden threatened to stop showing up if he kept up the behavior.

So he often sits in the corner of the cell. Sometimes he betrays his own advice and he faces the lava curtain and he waits for that pounding ice pick headache to hit. After awhile it makes him dizzy. And awhile after that, it makes him slump low against the ground, forearm over his eyes to block it out.

Ears ringing, mouth dry. His pulse pounds in his ears and even that is not enough to keep him awake. Eventually his eyelids grow too heavy, the cell too warm, his limbs too numb- and the world collapses into black notes of static.

--

There's the endstone and the dark bleeding skies. The winding towers and the deceiving landscape, and he knows instantly that something isn't right, that he isn't right. Caught in the fractured narrative of a nightmare. And for every time he recognizes this, his only reward is to forget it. Vision left distorted in hazes of purple particles that swirl whenever he turns his head.

He moves with a weightless gate, that thing of no fatigue, no concept of gravity or friction, trekking across the warped stage of twisted memories. Greeted by a sinking feeling at every blurry landmark and hazy figure, all of it making a vague amount of sense as feverscapes are prone to do.

Soon enough, he picks his way over the ruins of an end city. Never remembering how he got there only that he clambers over the gutted remains of purpur and endstone towers, something half gone, tilted to lean like a fallen soldier over the endless catch of the void.

The missing chunk is like something took a bite out of the endstone, or more aptly the tired rock finally gave out under immense pressure. Like the sinkholes and craters that swallow cities whole in the precarious lands of the Overworld, the End crumbles at the edges from a virulent disease that refuses to be culled, aided by the infection of countless explosions from unstable end crystals.

He clambers under a broken pillar, the triangle it forms just large enough to duck through, a little entrance between a crumpled building and tonnes of debris. His palm rasps against the cracked surface as thousands of palms once did before his. All of it gone in a flashing instant, and it's a version of destruction that is numb and distant even as he finds himself weaving towards the epicenter of it and intimately recalling the rhythms.

Haunts of enderman wander the wreckage, grabbing blocks of rubble in their claws only to carry them to another crumbling island, pushed and pulled around like toy soldiers half discarded. Uncanny vultures uncaring for whom or what once dwelled there, what hands or claws had brushed stone walls and carved life into them. It didn't matter, they were just blocks to build from now.

Life snuffed from the city like a thumb pressed into a little squirming ant, thousands more still in line, just an inconsequential thing, and it would always be on to the next one, and the next one.

Some of the enderman raise their heads at his presence, and he draws his shoulders up higher, tail brought tighter to his calf as he makes himself smaller and knows he still stands out sorely against the surroundings. A blip of color in a world that lacked it.

Their purple eyes burn bright as stars, almost as bright as those cosmic figures that stand far taller, far more imposing but too prideful, too apathetic to wander far from an ivory tower.

He skirts around the enderman, head down and mind quiet, worried if he draws too close, thinks too loud, they'll know. And he's not sure what they'll know. He can't quite remember why or how that matters, but it tastes of conspiracy and betrayal, the sharp bitter tang of gunpowder and soot. A concussive sense of paranoia better suited for something still capable of guilt.

The feeling hounds the base of his brain and keeps him skirting around any and all signs of life, eyes cast to the corners like a skittish animal. All with the grim thought that if he meets an enderman's gaze for even a second too long, his own will grow just as dull and defeated.

After long enough spent clambering over rubble, he finds who he's looking for. Never realizing he was searching for someone in the first place until he'd spotted their silhouette and that tug at the cavity in his chest had dissipated.

There, sitting huddled at the edge of destruction, is a familiar figure that he knows only in the long halls of his mind as some sort of friend, or at least, he always assumed.

Something a little more than just ender, both of cursed origins and a life never truly allowed to be lived. They were always pushed to the brink of an existence, cast in blacks and thousands of tiny speckled whites, dull green eyes tacked on like an afterthought.

He thinks it's only a passing oddity that they never told him their name. And perhaps it just makes sense, they never wanted one. They never took well to the ones he'd throw at them with wide grins and bubbling laughs, thinking it's only fair-

But they'd brush the monikers off with half-hearted glares and smiles thrown from toothy fangs.

Now, still nameless, they sit on that newly formed cliff. A one person vigil spent mourning another piece lost to the tune of careless governance, or perhaps just blind faith.

Too long legs dangling over the edge, hands fisted in their lap. Every sign points to the fact that everything is far from fine.

Drawing closer only stirs something rough and cutting in his stomach, that drag of razor wire through his organs and down to his toes that turn each step into a complex dance over a thousand eggshells. A vulnerability that he hates with a passion.

Still, he inches forward until he sinks down beside them, almost shoulder to shoulder, a nostalgic thing accompanied by a long stare out into that vast nothing just the same.

Sitting beside them is the easy part, convincing himself to speak is something else altogether.

He opens his mouth, breath wrangled down in the hopes of forming words only to snap shut when he reconsiders.

They don't even blink at the hushed sound. Casting their dead stare down, down, down. Eyes fixed and dark like the clouds that gather over fields and stretch the shadows.

Once bright things having long since faded and joined the company of empty frowns. Vibrancy dissolved by thankless duty and aimless ambition.

"What are you doing here?"

The words strike him, angry and bitter. His tongue refuses to conjure a defense.

"I don't… I don't know." He settles for the truth, lame and jumbled.

"That's what you always say," they sigh, shoulders dropping. "Like somehow you stumble here by accident and we both know that isn't true."

Their words are rough, slipping between enchanted and ender, as if they can't make up their mind. As if they don't know how.

They slump forward, elbows striking knees. A warped mirror of himself, darker and taller, something a bit sharper around the edges.

Together they sit in silence, hands fisted in laps, chins tucked, too old to be the kids they once were, but still young enough to be that liminal space between. Naive and brash and too weary, dealt cards that they never know how to wage a collective war against.

"I told you it would only get worse," he bites out, harsher than intended.

"So… you've come to gloat then?"

"No. No, I'm here to bargain."

"For what?" They scoff.

"Your loyalty." He looks over, words mild, "you're either against Them or you're not."

They turn to face him fully, that smatter of white flecks cast so vibrantly across dark cheeks. Always a splash of stars that shake and shudder where their face bends and breaks, and words are traded for a venomous glare, teeth parted on the beginnings of a snarl.

He knows he's f*cked up.

"You haven't changed." They spit it on a hiss, getting to their feet with a finality that leaves him reeling with the sting of it.

And he's changed, he's changed so damn much that he doesn't understand how anyone could have the audacity to claim otherwise. It's like a flashing sign, a mocking arrow sitting over his head always pointing it out. To have it spit back in his face makes his blood boil, temper thin and fraying-

Since when did he care?

He scrambles after them, answering his own question of weakness as he grabs their arm.

"Just listen-"

They wrench it out of his grip, eyes flashing purple. A warning.

He crowds their space in turn, heedless and brash, uncaring of ears set back and fangs parted when he affords them the same treatment.

"Listen to me." The words rumble in the back of his throat, and even up on the pads of his toes he's still only barely nose to nose with them, "What the hell are you still clinging to? Are you- aren't you tired of this?"

They give a nasty laugh, sarcastic and jagged. "You think you're any better? You think you're the winning side?"

"I know I am," he replies, cold and sure.

The ender steps back, putting enough space between them for the air to grow cold.

"There aren't any sides. There were never any sides. Because sides don't work- they never work." Their eyes stay down, syllables edged into a sharpness that comes from a throat constricted by grief, by loss, that depthless throe of sadness, "There's you and then there's Them, and you forced everyone in between that. You did that, that blood is on your hands. I won't… I won't let you smear it on mine."

"You- you know I'm not the villain, right?"

"I'd argue that you're not much of a hero, either." They bark the words back, gaze twisted up to meet the shattered horizon, stretched frame hunched with a back breaking burden. "Gain a little perspective. You wanted this."

He steps back once and then twice. A hesitance sprouting with the inability to keep his chin raised, his frame steady, even the smallest thoughts and movements too over complicated.

The accusations are difficult to understand, hard to decipher like cotton soaked in mineral spirits, shoved into every crevice of his brain. Dizzy, wrong, he raises his hands to cup the sides of his head. Palms pressed tight over pounding ears as if to keep the hot liquid of a melting mind from spilling out.

And that familiar figure, that body always stood on the opposing side, forges on. Hands cutting through the air, shoulders jumping, always an anger to match. "You do terrible, terrible things and you don't- you never think about the consequences because they don't affect you, right? Because they're fun, right?"

"You don't know anything about me," he cuts the phrase from his lips on a conviction that nothing could strike it down.

"Oh, I know you. I know you better than you know yourself."

They loom over him, purple caught behind the snarl of their teeth.

He catches a glimpse of his own face reflected in their eyes, a lingering phantom trapped in the same toxic greens, a loathing greater than what must have burned in Cain's eyes as he lifted the stone to slaughter his own brother.

"What makes you think I don't? You think I don't- you think I don't understand?" They push him back until he stumbles, and when his eyes gravitate towards the ground, they just force his chin back up, "I am you."

All in a blink, a breath, on the snapped fingers of realization and the click of a lighter; the world breaks like glass.

Shards of bright endstone and black void shatter to set the next stage.

He tries to stumble from it. A clumsy, sickened animal backing itself straight into a corner, spine rammed against stone as he twists and squirms at the trapped sensation. Left with a weakness that he doesn't know how to survive because he'd only ever forced it on others just to keep himself from confronting it.

And the words, those sour phrases, they still ring in his ears and his legs give out. He sinks unbidden to his knees, eyes screwed shut against the scrutiny of greens. Head bowed, spine bent, his body forms the curve of irreverent supplication, the world spun and spun and spun like a clock that never stops.

He sways with it, nausea climbing up his vertebrae like they're the rungs of a ladder. There is nothing he can offer but the same pointed fingers, the same language of violence.

And it spins, and spins, and spins.

It brews his blood into a poison he can't spit out.

Ears ringing, breaths fast, he opens his eyes to a tiny room, obsidian walls pressing in on all sides. Static eats at the corners of his vision.

Something cold splashes against his head, a ticklish trail left in its wake down his cheek. He leans back, dodging the purple tears only to raise shaking hands in hopes of catching the next one that falls from the crying obsidian.

It splashes into the muddy mix of gun powder on his palms. The glowing swill caught in scarred hands cupped like claws against the air, some thankless invocation to an existence reduced to this. Head tipped back, mouth half parted, the crying obsidian bleeds before his eyes.

When did they end up inside?

When was he thrown into a room that shakes and shudders? Spruce signs tacked up like half-crazed mementos, desperation marked by how deep the iron nails are sunk into the wood, gouges left to form desperate words;

DREAM IS THE REASON

It should be everyone against Dream

You are fine.

Don't choose a side. Choose people.

The cage and it's rigid walls heave with every breath, cracking and bleeding and caught perpetually in the throes of panic.

The floor, the stone, that bed of rock remains cold, a puzzle of slick grooves dug straight into the bones of his knees. Salt water lingering in all the little pools and on a stifled tongue.

Moist and chilling it prickles at his skin. He eyes the curtain of water without comprehension, too used to a lifetime spent choking down air made hot and dry by miles of dripping lava.

And then it hits him, falling from a kneel into a tight curl, pressed into the corner of that damp obsidian room. He stares at the shape of freedom and doesn't know how he can ever bring himself to reach out and grab it.

He remembers… he remembers; it can never truly be called a cage if there's a door.

There's a sound. Words. Something muffled by a palm catching hitched sobs and the room grows colder, the obsidian weeps harder and he props his chin on his knees, wraps his arms around his legs and stares across the panic room. Right at the only other figure molding itself into the opposite corner-

A figure split down the middle, eyes a familiar green and a burning red, a crown made crooked by the claws that push through tangled hair, twisting desperately in the strands.

Ranboo.

And perhaps the name doesn't mean anything beyond the basic sounds now. Still, it almost means something when he stares at Ranboo and thinks he's never seen something look so broken when it cries.

A hand pressed tight over a mouth, legs drawn up close, sticks of TNT laid like offerings to a false god at Ranboo's feet. A frame shaking on violent inhales that are too quick to fly back out, bright tears spilling over the edge of a bright palm leaving scars in their wake, tail curled around his ankles. It's pitiful, like watching a rabbit struggle for air.

Fancy suit, fancy clothes, fancy crown, fancy shoes, all dressed up for the occasion. Like the ender's playing a game of who can cry harder at his own funeral.

Dream presses his fingers into patterns on his knees and picks apart the threads of his expired thoughts. Brittled by rot, his lip twists in a snarl, a last defense left to bleed wordless into the air, all teeth and gums, and he knows every deed he's accused of is collapsed right in front of him.

Ranboo flinches, looking up at the sound, eyes cast between the gaps of his fingers, the pupils shrunk until they're almost gone, "You're not- it's not real."

Dream shoves the knuckles of a fist up under his own chin. Arms tucked behind the wall of his legs, he curls tighter and stares across the room.

"It's not real, it's not real, it's not- it's not-"

Ranboo's mantra dissolves into sounds and syllables, crunching notes of cracking bones and jaws.

They both try to wake up.

"What do you want from me?"

He tries to speak, he tries to answer, but his tongue is trapped against the roof of his mouth. And what would he say? What's left? Could he even bark and howl loud enough to drown out the sound?

No, he can't… he can't even remember.

The irony isn't lost on him. He scrapes nails down the side of his face, fingers curled into fists until he pushes knuckles into the meat of his cheek, the soft spot of his temple. Driving the bone into the tissue as he cants his head and bares his teeth. Trying to drive some point into his brain, but it just won't stick.

His eyes slide across the room and he reads the words on the first sign he sees. "I don't know."

It's an honest enough answer.

A hand brushes through his hair, featherlight and foreign, and he looks up, practically falling over himself to both lean into and away from it.

No one is there and he only manages to sprawl against the slick floor. Heaving sharp breaths, staring down at the backs of his palms, relics of damp skin, of fur, of wild things that jump between being human and not.

He draws his fingers into a fist and pushes himself back up.

Eyes steel, he stares forward, he stares at the dark torso of an obscured figure standing in front of him, stares at the disk they offer in a gloved hand and he takes it without question.

When he looks up at their face, he sees only a tilted smile before they disappear.

It's just him and Ranboo again. The latter preoccupied with staring at the jukebox in the center of the floor. A strange sort of calm and composed when just moments before the half-ender had been nigh hysterical.

He turns the disk over in his hand. The notes whisper in the back of his mind.

"⌿⌰⏃⊬ ⟟⏁."

"Why?"

"⟟⏁'⌇ ⊬⍜⎍⍀⌇. ⎅⍜⋏'⏁ ⊬⍜⎍ ⍀⟒⋔⟒⋔⏚⟒⍀?"

"No I- I can't… I can't remember." His voice rasps, thin and weak. Frowning, he catches his reflection in the purple and white plastic at the center.

"⎅⍜⟒⌇ ⟟⏁ ⋔⏃⏁⏁⟒⍀? ⊬⍜⎍ ☊⏃⋏'⏁ ⌇⏃⊬ ⋏⍜."

It doesn't matter? No, that's not quite right. It does, it should, it should matter, he should have some sort of say, some illusion of a grasp on his own narrative.

He sits with the knowledge that he doesn't.

Forced forward by it, he slides the vinyl into the slot of the jukebox and he waits.

A rusty melody chirps out. Getting crisper with each note before it suddenly fades behind a wall of static.

Scratchy and rough, an awful backwards tune churns out of the speakers. Scuffed like an ancient radio station broadcasting through space and time. Between the jaunty cacophony, a voice filters through.

Gravely comical, he thinks he recognizes it. Familiar, like a particular shade of blue, a laugh, a smarmy grin.

He leans forward to better catch the sound.

"You stand as the accused, without alibi, without defense, and thus you serve a sentence as the preemptively damned. Tell the good folks back home, what do you plead?"

He meets Ranboo's eyes. They plead opposites, not sure who uttered the guilty and who uttered the not.

The room floods with water like the end of a held breath. It crashes over and swallows him whole, dashing his skull against obsidian in order to spit him right back out into darkness.

He blinks and he's standing back in the End, met with two green eyes and scathing words. A black and white figure absent of any red.

"-and it's all you've ever done. You have made everything so much worse."

He flinches back at their accusation, cold enough to form ice in his stomach. He steps back, head shaking, thrown right back into it, forgetting he's all but arguing with himself, arguing with nothing.

"I made things worse?" He bites back.

"It's all you do. You're never one to just sit it out? No, it's all-" They sigh, voice cracking.

"All what?"

"You. It's all you- it's always you!" They throw their palm out to the side, words stumbling in their haste to leave curled lips, "Because I didn't ask for this. I didn't want this. I didn't want- nobody wanted this. We were fine, I was fine-"

"What? Do you want a goddamn apology? Well, I'm sorry," He spits the words, never more insincere, "I am- I'm sorry I actually did something. I am sorry that I wanted something for myself."

There's a beat of silence, the both of them pressed into each other's space, two sides of the same coin, the same sharp lines of anger.

They look down their nose at him and he's never felt so small.

"Every day that you fight for control, every day that you drag others into it. Look where it gets us-" they wave their hand at the destruction of the end city. "And there's no winning, you'll never win and nothing's ever going to change. Even if you killed every last one of Them. They'll just come back, something else would come back-" they bite off their own words, chasing it up with a glare, a huff and finally something more collected, "I mean, what are you even fighting? Fate? Destiny??"

Dream steps back, arm raised in a half shield as they back him up against his own crumbling frustration. It crackles in his chest and he knows it's only a matter of time before it gives.

"You're a rusty link in an error chain. And it's about time you understood that if you're given a role?" They shove fingers into his sternum, pushing until he stumbles, "You're better off sticking to it."

"f*ck, you're..." he sneers, tongue loose and sharp, "You're as braindead as them- don't you get it? Aren't you- aren't you scared?"

He sweeps his arm to the side, head swinging to match, angled sarcastic and cold towards the nearest enderman, "They will f*ck you for the rest of your life and no one- no one wants to talk about it, no one wants to do anything about it. You- you're just a pawn! You are a means to an end. They say jump and you- you sit there, tail wagging, and ask how high."

"That's life," they deadpan.

"And that's fine with you?" Blood boiling, his temper is thinner than a knife. He doesn't know why he can't just walk away.

"Because fighting back's done you so many favors."

Hands clenching, his ears set back, "What do you know?"

"You're right. What do I know?" They reiterate firm and cold, "I'm just like them after all."

The enderman scowls, picks up a block and cradles it. The point driven home like the hammer to the spike of a lobotomy.

"You're being an idiot," Dream smoothes over, anger trapped behind a barricade of grinning ivory, "You're being irrational- you're, you have to- you have to see that, you have to see that anything is better than this. You know anything is better than this."

We deserve better. He doesn't add, doesn't get the chance because they're snarling right in his face.

"I don't care!" They yell, mouth a yawning purple, eyes flashing, cracking sounds like end stone crumbling under immense force. "It's not worth this. Nothing was worth this. Do you-" they're almost hysterical voice cracking, "do you even care? Do you even care that these were people? Are you even capable of that?"

"We are people- I am a person."

"Are you? I'd argue this-" they point their fingers at the ground, sardonic, "this isn't something people do"

"I am doing what I have to-"

"Oh man--" hand sliding down their face, they give a shattered half-laugh, half-sigh, "you're never going to learn, are you? You can't win. You're never going to- there is never going to be an end to the conflict. You will never be anything more than what you were always meant to be, maybe you should just learn to live with that."

"Maybe... maybe I can't be anything different." He admits it like he's pulling teeth, one painful syllable at a time. It breaks something in him and he bleeds from the tongue, lets the reds paint his lips and his teeth as he confesses, "But if I can't, if there's no point to any of this- if there's- if you're just-"

He shakes his head, and it's so hard, it's so damn difficult to find the words, but he has to, he has to, he has to. His life depends on it. "If none of it matters, if it's always the same sh*t then I will destroy every city, every nation, every world- I will rip every last star right out of the sky and burn it all to the f*cking ground and- and I mean who cares, right? It doesn't change anything!"

"Dream-"

"Aren't you happy? Isn't that what you always want from me? You want me to-" he breaks off with a laugh, shoulders heaving, "you want me to-" His voice bends and snaps, trying to hold something back after too long spent behind a mask. Stillborn words slip through the gaps of his crumbling self, "You want me to confess? Fine. I wanted to do it. I wanted that- I wanted to destroy it and I didn't care-" he wheezes like he's been shot, collecting air on painful rattles, "I don't care… I don't give a f*ck about anything."

"Good," they say and he flinches.

He stares at the ground, hair flopped in his face, chest heaving. Wretched sounds caught in the back of his throat and he doesn't know what to do with his hands, his arms, his limbs, that hot itch of venom crawling under the skin that tugs at his lips and curls them back in jumping snarls.

He presses nails shaped like claws into his palms and he buries himself with a single sentence. "I'll be glad to forget you."

"Come on, you don't mean that. Why would you want to forget me?" They purr the words, hand ghosting against his cheek, moving to brush the hair out of his face. "I'm your only friend."

He looks up wide eyed.

No. No.

All he sees is a respirator, black eyes, and a toxic burning green; a golden circlet and a red gem to seal the deal.

The warden stares down at him, imposing and neutral.

A flashing image, drifting into the territory of something that he doesn't immediately recognize.

Shaking gaze trapped on a nightmare shaped like the warden's face, Dream steps out of reach, the drag of netherite armored gloves on his cheek left like an old haunting as he goes. Heels and back bumping hot obsidian, he looks over his shoulder and smacks the back of a fist against the stone.

Again and again and again.

Trying to wake up.

Red weeps from the split skin, jumping into toxic purples and he blinks, lips parted, whispering conjectures.

The warden snaps fingers in his face like he's a dog.

Dream stands to attention and the world threatens to spiral out, but he has to listen, has to stay awake, has to stay Pavlov's dog to the ringing bell.

The warden's gaze is oppressive judgement, everything that makes him bristle and drag his nails through the grooves of obsidian at his back. It reduces him to something weak and irritating, a bug in the heel of the warden's shoe.

He slides into a hunch, shoulders drawn up, head angled to avoid staring the warden directly in the eye. Fingers brought up to spin a loose button on his jumpsuit like it's a substitute for a clock on the wall.

The warden tilts his head, looking him up and down with a scrutiny that scrapes up the sides of his soul. A beat passes and the warden reaches up to tug that respirator from his mouth, letting it rest at his neck and the smile is all wrong.

It jumps and jitters, a white crescent glowing too bright in the cell. His cell. His smile. Wrong-

Dream claws it off the warden's face, hot blood sizzling where it splashes across the ground.

Ducking out of the warden's retaliation, he scampers out of reach. Watching as the tall figure turns, slow and measured, wiping purple blood from cut lips bent in a frown. More boiling from between the lines cut though the top of the warden's cheek to the bottom of his jaw.

It bleeds purple, turning the greens brown, red- he forgets the color, he forgets it's-

He doesn't care, he doesn't think, doesn't consider. He's only breath and blood and vindication.

A thing born and bred off the idea of survive, and he's never felt more like a frothing animal, a thing with power in its palms, caught on its fangs, eyes catching the light.

He matches each step the warden takes towards him, an unspoken law of conversation. He knows he should be dead right now, left counting the steps backwards, knowing he should be ten paces into lava, but it never comes and the warden catches up.

He always does.

"You're perfect." The warden shoves him, sardonic voice twisted into a thousand others, face flickering to match. "A perfect, perfect little puppet. An easy scapegoat. Sowing chaos and destruction wherever you go."

Again and again, he falls and each time the warden patiently waits for him to get back up, only to throw him down again.

He gets up slower and slower each time.

Until he is laughing at the vertigo, and he drives himself into a breathlessness that numbs everything. A few steps later his legs give out and refuse to work at all.

The warden's haughty words crawl in his ears, "You'd bend the whole world at its knees just to demand it all go a little differently, wouldn't you?"

Dream chuckles, lungs aspirating on the answer. Biting his cheek, he holds back the cough that threatens to expel it and his eyes stay stuck on the doubled image of the warden's boots. He refuses to let it out even as his ribs seize.

Laughing was always easier than trying to defend himself. He only accepts the accusation because it's expected of him.

A fist folds in the front of his jumpsuit, wrenching him up to his feet and then some. Until he's up on his toes, scrabbling at a forearm to hold himself up and still laughter sloughs off his lips.

Nose to nose, the warden's face is a mess of static. Trading for enderman features and a wide jagged maw and then warped in a blink into that of a smiling mask, dots and curved lines popping like purple sparks overhead.

"Remember, this is your fault."

They drop him on the final word and he spins into nothing. Fallen straight through the floor, he thinks he'd rather have his skull split open then go tumbling back down the rabbit hole.

He doesn't have a choice.

A chaotic dance sends him falling through the pages of book after book, spilt into a bleeding sky, dropping down like the viscous purple of crying obsidian to stain the parchment. Words flying by that he tries to catch but only ever holds on to the smiling faces, the scratchy impression of the letters.

He hits the ground.

Reality cracks and he finds himself walking down a narrow stone corridor. The steps make far more sense than the question of how he got there, and his hand brushes the wall. Fingers dragged with a rasp behind him, blood he doesn't see left in their wake.

'Well, I've heard there was a special place,
Where men could go and emancipate,
The brutality and the tyranny of their rulers…'

The humming notes resonate in the air and drift down the steps. He takes each one with a deliberate stride, eating up the space between him and the phantom tune. It dumps him out into a long corridor, illuminated only by the red spill of light at the end, pads of his feet sinking into a carpet of wool as he draws closer.

Growing narrower and narrower, his breathing quickens and he wonders if it will crush him on all sides before he ever reaches the end. Every step, every touch, every drag of his soul down the cattle chute stains it crimson.

He pauses at the threshold. A held breath, bathed half in light, half in dark. He considers entrenching himself in the shadows, safer, easier, more like home, but he knows the nightmare can't end until he takes that step.

He steps inside and the singing stops.

TNT rings the whole room, stacked and wired, bundle after bundle, crystals formed on the sweating sticks. Volatile and explosive and the single lantern on the ceiling makes the red of them dance like flames. Wax string lines run from the blast caps into holes in the wall, red stone dust peppered alongside it. The whole place wired to blow.

He walks along the wall and becomes a slinking shadow. Gaze trapped on the ragged figure in a trench coat sat in the lonely wooden chair facing the wall. TNT stacked around the humble throne.

His eyes track the man's line of sight, and for a long moment they both stare at a button on the wall. The innocuous thing surrounded by words etched into the stone. Verses once sung and now scratched from history.

The lantern swings with a creak, warping the shadows and the man drops his face into his hands. Fingers snaking up under a beanie to grab at curly hair, his shoulders shake and the broken laugh that spills out is something that will always be ingrained in Dream's skull.

"Wilbur?"

Wilbur lifts his head from his hands, eyes dark and dull behind round glasses. He looks a hundred nights deep into no sleep, a lifetime spent sitting there, staring at that button like he's never left this room. Like he's not allowed to.

"I had the perfect opportunity to blow everything up and finally end it, y'know?" Wilbur stands and Dream steps back into a lower stance prepared to defend himself, but the threat never comes. Wilbur simply moves to stand in front of that button on the wall.

Words biting and sharp, Wilbur keeps stringing them along, "I had the perfect opportunity to just blow up everything and end it and just- and just completely save everyone from the existence of tyranny."

He knows these old words are never meant for him.

He knows he fills the space of the intruder, that thing that occupies the wrong role and is forced to listen, forced to acknowledge and find reason. The wrong manifestation of a corrupted memory. But the words are a tired sentiment he often finds himself agreeing with.

"And I can just… I can still press it. I can literally just press it, it's right there." Wilbur hunches against the wall, teeth flashing, fist hovering over the button. "It's still there."

Wilbur's voice shatters and he drops his hand, shoving it in his pocket as he draws air into his lungs on a long sigh.

"I just- I just wanna f*ckin'... I just want to f*ckin' end it, man. I just want it to end."

He thinks he's never agreed with Wilbur more.

Eyes cast somewhere near the soles of dirty boots, he stands and waits for the proverbial clock hand to wind the rest of the way through its cycle. Waits for it to tick and tock straight to the end, finish with its cruel pantomime.

It doesn't come no matter how hard he drives his nails into his palms, bites his tongue and shuts his eyes.

He soon finds himself sitting on the ground. Back pressed into stacks of explosives, head hung, eyes distant and he props a wrist up on his knee and flexes his fingers like a new fixation. Staring unfocused, waiting for the room to implode. At least then it'd be over.

"Don't want to tell the rest then? You can't expect me to do all the leg work."

His brow bends at Wilbur's accusation, an irritation that has his eyes narrowing and his temple jumping with the clench of his jaw.

There's a tsking sigh, footsteps, and then he's tilting his head back to stare lazily up at Wilbur's face.

"Come on, Dream, you're gonna tell me you already forget this one?" Wilbur asks honey smooth. "I thought it was your favorite. It's all about you, after all."

Wilbur leans down and Dream glares up into his face, dragging his heels closer to himself as the man presses in too close. All with the air of someone peering down at something once dangerous and wondering how it got that feeble.

Tilting his head with the twist of a smile, Wilbur grabs Dream's chin, fingers driving into the bones of his jaw, straining his neck as he tugs him forward. The picture immediately delving into everything that's so very far from right--

And he knows he just has to claw his way out. He knows it's right there screaming for blood. Screaming at the edge of his mind, at the roots of his teeth, burning and baying, but the harsh reality is that he deserves it- he deserves it because he was stupid enough to let himself be trapped without a key in the first place.

"That's how it goes, right? You go too far, you stop being useful, stop being that mediator, the hero. The impartial little do-gooder and they'll muzzle you. They'll rip out those teeth one by one."

A thumb pushes his lips up and he tries to recoil. An icy shock running down his spine at the slide of skin over his gums, across his teeth and his eyes roll with panic, ankles kicking and scraping the ground when a nail tries to pry his jaws apart by the seam.

He's left with the all consuming powerlessness that comes with being manhandled, of being too weak to stop it. Left to shake and draw faster breaths as he chokes on air like he chokes on his pride. An unbidden hotness pricking at the corner of his eyes.

There's almost a glimmer of defiance in the fact that he manages to keep his mouth shut. It's dashed against the rocks of inevitably when a boot crushes the bones in his tail and he pitches forward with a shout.

He always hated the damn thing, but he hates the sensation of fingers in his mouth even more. All ash, and soot, and the spice of black powder.

Growling around them, he crunches down on the intrusion, chokes on the blood that bursts across his tongue, spilt down his chin. And it does nothing.

It does nothing to stop the old familiar tune of fingers, of pliers, grabbing a canine and twisting it straight out of his jaw. The wet popping crunch echoing horridly in his skull, the electric shock shooting through every nerve.

He gargles some pathetic sound, ignored as he shoves and kicks, and it's always futile. Always the same dream, the same nightmare, the same words-

"They'll trim those fangs and discard you, trap you there in that cage. Something pretty and purposeful, all faux shiny and new. They'll make you weak, right?" The Wilbur shaped nightmare muses, turning the bloody tooth in the lantern light before letting it drop.

The next canine follows with the same brevity.

"And sure, you're smart. Of course you'll find brand new ways to mess with all the things that manage to slip their way through the bars."

The sound of the second tooth pinging against the ground is somehow so much louder than the third.

"But I reckon that's not enough, it's never enough. You go to so much f*cking trouble, and-" Wilbur's voice cracks, almost hysterical. "And why? For what? You let yourself be used again, and again, and again."

By the fourth and final canine, he seizes.

"And then you went scrambling for power, grasping at control and-" Wilbur cuts off with a laugh, chock full of a mirthful contrite, "-and oh, you failed brilliantly at that, too."

With hitched breath lobbed from his lungs, he barks out pathetic sounds at the end of each punched one. A second later he ends up like a fish on a line, dragged back to his feet by fingers hooked in the roof of his mouth and then discarded.

"You cared- no, you care too much, Dream," Wilbur concludes, wiping a bloodied hand off on his coat.

It's only a small mercy that Wilbur let's him go. Left to hunch in on himself, half collapsed against the stacks of TNT. A forearm braced against the wired explosives, other hand shaking, slapped over bloody lips, over bubbled nonsensical phrases in reply to all the damning words. Those sounds and syllables that accuse them both.

Curving fingers and nails into his own cheeks, he spits out empty vitriol through the hollow sting of missing teeth.

All wide eyed, left panting into the cup of a hand when his voice holds no weight. It's all just thick blood mixing with spit to spill into a rotting palm and trail down his arm. Drops slapping the floor with an obscene sort of loudness.

Wilbur looks on with something half glare and half dread. A small crack glints at the edge of his glasses, the lense smudged with blood where he'd pushed them back up his nose.

He matches Wilbur's stare. And for a second, even among the notes of violence, the sharp sting of wounded ego and malformed pride, they share the same blood on their hands. An understanding approached from two different sides. A coin tossed into the air and slapped on a palm, and then the back of a wrist. Never quite a heads or a tails depending on where the story ends.

"You know, you deserve every second of it."

The condemnation is stale and he thinks it's a phrase meant more for the warden's mouth. Or maybe it's just another thing he's forgetting.

The hollow sound of snapping bones and twisted flesh sings in his ear. That haunting sound without a source and he shakes his head, tongue moving to push sounds out in reply, some sort of plea to stop. It's always the same things, the same cycle, over and over and-

He steps back and his foot meets nothing.

Fallen through the ground like it's just a canvas painting, some illogical illusion, he grabs onto the edge before he can go tumbling down; refusing the fate. He can't wrap his head around the idea that perhaps he's been standing atop of that winding tower this entire time, blinded to the buffeting wind, the whip of sparks and embers, the kaleidoscope stretch of the sky. All of it offset by a thousand ticking clock faces hung from an obsidian lattice.

As he hangs from the edge of the tower, gaze cast to the ground, he thinks it's all familiar. From the crater among the ruins of a lonely fort to the burnt out remains of a tent, to that broken nether portal. It echoes with the sourness of suicide and a decision not to jump.

Clinging to the ledge, he tries to scramble back up, pads of his feet working uselessly, claws scraping the stone. He slips down an inch for every bit of ground that he gains.

Please, please, please-

His arms shake with the effort to claw himself back up. He sees the toxic orange fabric of a jumpsuit, the purple of netherite cuffs on his wrists, and his heart screams in his chest, pounding so fast it thumps behind his sternum with bruising thuds. The tower spins into slick obsidian and he starts to slip.

Please-

And the cycle repeats itself.

He looks up and sees Wilbur standing over him, staring down at him with an empty expression.

"Tell me, was it worth it? Did you 'save' them?"

He struggles, trying to reach higher, get his hands close enough to grab at those boots and then leverage himself the rest of the way up before he can be kicked off. Air whistles through his clenched teeth, spit and blood spilt from sore gums.

He doesn't have an answer.
No answer is good enough.

Nothing can truly summarize why, nothing can even begin to scrape the surface of a long history spent in quarters and halves, time divided between chaos and peace. Memory half gone, the rest crumbling into static, and he feels it slipping even now. Turning Wilbur's face into a thick mask of scattering particles, a tilting smile that clicks and spins like a clock's hands.

He lets himself sag against the side of the tower, forehead resting against the stone. Exhausted. It's just the same, it's always the same- it's-

He opens his mouth, conjuring up words only to let them die. Swallowing them back down into the poisoned pit of his belly.

"No, no- tell me, what'd you have to say? Was it worth it to come back here, to press that button- did you fix everything?" Wilbur crouches down, shifting into a thousand different forms and faces, but it's always himself at the end.

He doesn't have an answer.
No answer is good enough.

And it's always the same, it's always the same, it's always-

Both hands gripping the ledge, trying to keep himself afloat in the widening pull of gravity, the dizzy wind and the crumbling sky; it's always the same.

Lava spills from holes ripped in the sky, igniting the air to unleash the sun in long dripping pillars that tumble down to flood the land. The world crumbles, heats up, and starts to die. And he clings to it, afraid of what happens if he let's it go.

Wilbur grabs his jaw again and he tosses his head to throw him off, twisting and squirming from hands that smear purple, red, burnt blood into his skin, into his fur, into the scales and the scars and every twisted up portion of himself.

Into that chewed up spit out raw nerve that still sings with the pain of pulled teeth.

It's the same. It's always the same. Over and over and over. It's always the same-
It's just the same- it's-

Those same fingers had already pulled his eye teeth from their sockets, the gums bled dry, tongue heavy with the iron tang- what more could they want?

He pretends like he doesn't give up, a learned helplessness driving him to let his jaw part and he knows, he knows, he knows-

A stick of dynamite is shoved lengthwise between his teeth, molars forced shut on it until he tastes the sweet sand beneath the wax paper and it's a cruel sort of symbolism.

Like a dog holding a stick between its teeth, he can't bring himself to spit it out. He clenches his eyes shut and bites harder, knows it should explode under the kinetic force, the moisture, all of it- knows it should grant him a death like the fitters of his own violence.

Dynamite, TNT, blackpowder. It didn't matter, It was all the same, all the same goal, the same flash, the same smell, the same-

The metal clink and winding click of a lighter rings out.

A hand fisted in the collar of his jumpsuit drags him up, like somehow he weighs nothing, is nothing, and he opens his eyes only to stare straight into Wilbur's own, stare at the way they glint red at the very edges.

"Now… you get back to that box." Wilbur bites the words out, lighting the dynamite's wick, the flame flickering in the dark catch of his pupils.

Dream's eyes widen, the sound of the burning wick buzzing like a thousand wasps in his ears as he clutches Wilbur's forearm, reaches for that trench coat, kicks and twists and tries so damn hard to drag the man off the precipice with him.

It does nothing.

Wilbur throws him from the tower and he should've known.

He always falls alone.

A thousand hands catch him and pull him down.
Morphing into red vines that choke him and his eyes water, his vision bleeds and he struggles against the relentless tug, the crowding obsessive haze swirling in his mind. Voices whispered like backwards hisses in his ears.

The crimson draws him in, dragging him deeper and deeper, hatching phrases in his ears, asking him what he wants, what he craves, spilling the allure of a better world across his mind. The whispering red never realizes he's the bomb until the wick burns down to the end and it's far too late to spit him back out.

The world goes white.

And he finds himself struggling underwater, finally awake, aware, alive or so he thinks, or so he has to believe-

Crawling up like a waterlogged rat on to the boardwalk, the community house greets him like an old friend and he collapses onto his back at the sight of it. There's a laughing sense of relief at the humble sight of all the bricks and the planters.

Smile cast to the sky, he throws an arm over his eyes and just breathes. Ensconcing himself in the fresh air, the sting of the wind against damp skin, the water leaving behind a lingering burn that's easy to ignore. Things that he shouldn't even miss, but somehow it feels like embracing an old friend.

He pretends the taste of ash in his mouth doesn't exist.

"It's a bit cold to be taking a swim isn't it?"

He looks towards the aloof voice and something bright bursts in his chest.

"It's- it's not that cold. It's like just below lukewarm at best. Perfect for swimming, honestly." There's a slight chatter to his words, a natural sarcasm to them that tastes stale now. He doesn't care that his words contradict his numb fingers, he feels warm, feels more than alive as he stares up at George and knows he must look ridiculous.

"You totally fell off the boardwalk, again? Didn't you?"

Sitting up he pushes wet hair out of his face too human and smiles up at an offered hand, "What? What- no, I didn't that's-"

George looks unimpressed.

"I did not fall off the boardwalk. I mean we haven't put the railings up, but it's not like- you can't just fall off unless you're- I dunno fishing too close to the edge or- or something-" jumping around for a defense he lets George pull him up to his feet, "what kind of idiot does that?"

"You, apparently." George rolls his eyes with a huff, cutting the air with a little smile. "Come on then, let's get you some dry clothes, maybe some brain cells while we're at it."

He chuckles but doesn't have the energy for anything else. Doesn't care to add anything else, because each second, each word, each smile feels like he's digging deep into a rotting past. Living on borrowed time.

And perhaps George thinks it's all a bit odd because he pushes those sunglasses to the top of his head and looks like he wants to ask something.

They both settle for changing the subject. Easier words found in more familiar phrases. Sapnap joins in when they enter the community house, such a familiar tune, filling the home with its warm music.

It just makes sense, all of it. Even Bad wrapping the scrapes and cuts on his hands, the few on his face, never asking how he got them, only caring to see each one cleaned and covered. He spends a long moment staring down at wrapped knuckles, flexing his fingers and wondering why it feels like he's been slamming his fists into a wall.

He spends a whole minute staring and wondering why they haven't healed. Blood staining the white bandages pink.

When they grow concerned he tries his best to smile, to laugh, to throw quips around, but it feels like he's an imposter. Smile never reaching his eyes, the world always a bit dull, shaped a bit wrong. Still, it's home, even if he feels wrong.

When the sun sinks low, they all sit around the communal table. Partaking in the same humble feast served every night to anyone who wanders through the door, stories exchanged under the lamp light.

He feels like he's drifting in and out, the lanterns chasing the shadows around the table, an orange afterglow that ruminates like lava. Eyes tracing the backs of his hands, he taps his fingers on the table and feels nothing but a stiff caricature of the sensation.

He looks down the table, all the faces unfocused before he blinks and rights the image. Callahan stares back at him, head tilted, signing something he doesn't quite catch except for the last gesture-

"Wake up."

The door swings open, creaking loud on its hinges, stealing his attention.

He has no goddamn idea what Callahan means until he sees the warden standing there.

"Sorry I'm late." Sam kicks the door shut, arms full of sticks he drops by the door. "Got caught up dealing with the bamboo garden. It looked like some of the new shoots were getting heart rot so I had to clear 'em out."

"Oh-" Bad interrupts himself with a sip from a glass, "we could've helped you. You could've just called us--"

"Nah, it's all good now. Just gotta make sure a creeper doesn't blow it up, again."

"I keep telling you we could always just get some cats or something," George chimes in.

"Oh no- no." Sam shakes his head with a laugh, "that's not gonna happen. Those things seriously freak me out."

"You're scared of 'em?" Sapnap leans back in his chair, arms crossed. "Huh, thought you were half-human."

"Yeah and I'm also half-creeper." Sam emphasizes, waving a hand as he sheds his coat and hangs it on the back of an empty chair, "and I'm more of a dog person anyways."

Dream tracks Sam's steps like his life depends on it.

The warden Sam sits across from him, scooping up a baked potato only to drop it with a hiss when it burns his fingers, thumb caught between his lips to stymie the pain. Bad calls a late warning of 'Careful, they're still hot!' down the table.

The warden Sam laughs, and more comments fly around the table, the cheer of food and drink mixed with the quiet comfort of warmth from the cold.

He's so human it hurts. Even with all the mob features, even with the same black eyes, the same voice. Even without that respirator mask, without that circlet, without the dark circles and the tired, empty expression. It's too strange to see him without a netherite sword at his hip, the burden of keeper weighing on his shoulders.

"So-" Sam starts, "I noticed the railings are still half done. I can finish 'em up tomorrow if you want me to."

"Nah it's fine, we'll get 'em finished. Gotta keep Dream from trying to swim with the fishes after all-" Sapnap explains with a wave of his hand.

The warden's scrutiny turns on him now.

"You fell in? Again?" Sam's voice is a mixed bag of concerned and amused.

He ducks his head on forced instinct mumbling a flat, "I'm fine."

Someone nudges his side and he leans away, lips thin and eyes glazed over.

"To be fair, last time he was climbing the planters trying to save a bird's nest during a wind storm." George defends him, covering for his uncharacteristic silence, "I told him he should've just built a scaffolding instead of climbing straight up like a dumbass, but- uh, you were worried it was gonna blow off, right?"

George looks over, but Dream keeps his eyes down and hardly understands who he is supposed to be.

He can barely manage a smile at the anecdote, let alone an answer. Staring, and staring, and staring, and his fingers spin a wooden bowl like it's a clock, the bits of vegetable and meat floating in the stew serve as the numbers.

Words drift in and out of his ears and his vision threatens to double, and then triple and he can't stop his lips from moving.

"This isn't real."

"What're you-" Sam's eyes drift to the bandages, concerned, "are you- are you sure you're alright? You're acting a bit weird."

It's a loaded question.

Sam looks to the others for an answer, and in some significant way he seems genuinely worried, Dream misses it when he pushes away from the table.

He's moving for the door with monomaniacal intent, frantic, steps jagged with a wobbling gait, he has to try the handle, he has to-

He has to make sure it's not locked.

It opens and he presses his forehead into the cool wood of the frame. His fingers twisted around the handle, all shaking breaths and adrenaline.

He sees only a tiny sliver of the world when he looks out into the night. Torches illuminating the boardwalk and the edge of the forest, leaving a glowing path straight to the community house's front door. And it is everything- everything he's fought so hard for.

But looking back over his shoulder, that cozy scene turns empty, grown cold and sour with the table overturned, chairs half broken and forgotten. Twisted by time and neglect.

The only person left is the warden. Standing expectant among the quiet remains, waiting for him to run or to stay.

He considers it, remembers every time he tried to run and the paltry rewards it earned him. After a moment, eyes glued to the outside world, he shuts the door and accepts his fate.

--

He startles awake to the sight of dripping lava, hot obsidian against his cheek and his ribs as he grabs the sides of his head and curls in. Staring at the molten rock until it grows into a blur of orange that keeps him endlessly hypnotized.

Alone in that empty cell he isn't sure if he prefers this or the nightmare. He isn't sure of anything.

Notes:

Ender Translation in order:
Play it.
It's yours. Don't you remember?
Does it matter? You can't say no.

And back to the daily grind of the prison cell and reality we go :')

As always thank you so much for reading!

Chapter 8: Lateralus

Summary:

Everything's a blur of noise and color, everything lost to chunks of black and time gone and he can't remember when he shuts his eyes and falls asleep anymore, only that sometimes he'll open them--

And there's only one thing he ever manages to remember:

... the food is poisoned...

It was never supposed to go like this.

Notes:

Title is a reference to the song Lateralus by Tool

Content/Trigger Warnings: Derealization, Depersonalization, unreality, lost time, implied prolonged non-consensual drug use, coercion, the usual distressing content and themes

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

He's standing at the lectern, staring down at a book and not comprehending the movement of his own hands as they write something again and again.

The scratch of the pen, the drag of the nib on the paper, dark words bloom across the parchment.

Something's wrong. He thinks passingly that there always is, but this feeling is much stronger. Prescribed to every nerve and every bone, he angles his head and casts his eyes to the corner. Peering at the clock on the wall, the thing ticks and ticks and--

"Dream?"

Wiping smudges of ink off on his jumpsuit he turns to face the visitor.

Not the guards, not the warden, no it's the first time in a while he's looking at another person standing opposite of him. And it's too surreal. He can't quite contend with the relief that comes when he recognizes those red and green eyes in the barest sense.

It's an echo of the past, of fever dreams and memories colliding to form half finished puzzles, ink sloshed across them to fill in the gaps in all the wrong ways. An angry river rising as he steps away from the drying ink of a half filled book and faces the present, hands clasped behind his back in a parade stance.

"Hello." He says it with a tilt of his head, greeting soft and reserved.

The ender mimics the tilt, mismatched eyes never quite settling on his face, claws clutched around a book in a tirelessly nervous grip.

"This is a bit weird, considering we've never really spoken before," The ender speaks in common, all trailing and awkward, "uh, well-"

"What happened to your eye?" He doesn't know why he interrupts, but the red seems important, the white splitting half the ender's face is odd. Or was it enderman? He can't quite recall and the difference was always so flimsy and thin Regardless he's half, he thinks, something halved- and the thought is loose and winding, hard to grasp like everything these days.

The ender startles, "W-what?"

"Your eye," he reiterates, "you're not..."

He trails off, tongue thick with questions but the spark to ignite them never comes. The words shrivel and die.

"My-" The ender gestures to his own face, "It's always been like this, I mean since I can remember at least I- what are you- No, no. You're just trying to confuse me."

The strength behind the words is almost amusing, the ender swapping between a shaking sort of nervousness to a stern confrontation. It almost leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

The ender holds that book out to him, steel-faced and brave, voice shaking more than his hands do, "I need you to tell me if you changed anything in here."

He eyes the book, finally spotting a name beneath the blocky title of Do Not Read #2. "… and if I don't?"

"You-" Ranboo cuts himself off with a shaky breath, "you're going to tell me. You've got nothing else to do in here, you have nothing left to dangle over everyone's heads-"

His lips bend into a frown. Since when did the kid grow a spine?

Ranboo stares him down, eyes actually locked on his own for once- not just caught on his brows or his nose. Not stuck on a mask that used to be there- no, Ranboo meets his gaze and matches it.

"You're going to tell me if you're the one who blew up the community house."

He smirks, breaking eye contact with a shrug and a slurred, "Fair enough."

He grabs the book and pretends like he knows what he's looking for. Admitting what he can't recall, what he doesn't know about this kid, and his book, and his 'community house' is a creeping fear of weakness that spreads like ice inching across the side of his skull. Something cracked and peeling back, slow and daunting, he's afraid it'll catch up to his teeth and tongue.

Fumbling through the pages, he angles away and paces with a calm gait if only to hide the way his fingers clumsily catch the pages. Palms shaking as he smooths them over flimsy lines of ink.

The first thing he notices is how it starts neat and gets messier, more disjointed.

It reminds him of the books he still has in the chest.

So much like those pages filled with all the things he can never seem to remember. Of pigs and favors owed, of scribbling shapes in empty margins and tall shapes with open maws. Eyes that he scratches lines through to turn into stars and the gnarled shape of a dragon, of red and green and hushed memories like the haunted corridors of a winding maze that only ever grows more confusing.

It reminds him of himself in some significant way until he gets to a few pages dedicated only to words scored so deep they punch holes through the backs of the paper.

I DONT WANT TO REMEMBER I DONT WANT TO REMEMBER I DONT WANT TO REMEMBER I DONT WANT TO REMEMBER I DONT WANT TO REMEMBER I DONT WANT TO REMEMBER I DONT WANT TO REMEMBER I DONT WANT-

It shakes and shudders, the sounds of explosions sounding off alongside the elder guardians' droning chime.

The world quiets when he frantically turns until the words finally disappear. And then it's just random phrases and actions, a day to day narrative marked by snippets of dialogue jotted down without any real context. All little mementos used to sum up the short stretch of a life lived like an impressionist painting.

He flips back to the start, driven by some instinct- something he has to see, has to confirm and he doesn't even understand when his eyes stare down at the page.

You blew up the community house :)

He traces the smiley face with a thumb. Something prickles at the base of his neck and he hears the faint trace of a familiar tune, it dies when he looks up at Ranboo.

"You wrote that you did it."

"I know, but that's not- I know I didn't-"

"You had the disc." He reads it outloud, slow enough for it to linger in the air. Damnation.

"I did, I did have it. But that's not-"

"Then you did all those things."

"Yes, I mean- no. No, that's not the- you told everyone that you destroyed the community house." Ranboo gestures wildly, "unless you were covering for me, in which case I want to know why. Why me?"

Bristling he clutches the book and feels like he's been backed into the world's smallest corner, unable to recall something that he's been forced to give up, something stripped from a tight grip, something that he should never have f*cking lost. He feels a tremor claw its way up his arms, creeping up and down his spine, a horrific sense of dread.

Lip curled, chin down he bites back with all that he truly knows, "How- how could I have done anything? I've been stuck in here--"

"No, you're not going to do that," Ranboo's voice breaks on a brittle laugh. "Before this, before the prison. You said- you told everyone you did it. You looked me in the eyes when they dragged you away- I want to know what that means- I want to know why I-"

Ranboo hunches in on himself, breaths impossibly shaky as he runs both hands through hair that's more fur than anything, "I want to know why I had the TNT-" Ranboo starts to slip into a mad dash of questions, "Why did I have the disc? Why do I hear-"

"You seem upset."

Ranboo laughs, broken and disparate. "You think?"

"Listen," he sighs, "you… I'm pretty sure you won't find your answers here."

"What makes you think that?"

"I'm not the person you're looking for," he affirms, words feeling distant like he's talking in his sleep. But he's sure of them, he has to be.

"What? What do you- what does that even mean?"

Instead of answering, he flips to the end of the book, eyes scanning the lines. Conjuring up some sort of finished puzzle with the half charred pieces and thinking he's on to something even though it's a race he's always destined to lose.

He silently reads over the lines, reminds himself of them, all of it shaking from common into ender and back again.

Dream lied. He never brought up the fact that I had the disks. He never brought up the fact that I may have helped blow up the community house.

"Dream-" Ranboo stresses, stepping forward, "what does that mean?"

It's that name again, that damn name and the pressure in his skull builds into a dull ache and his mouth feels like it's stuffed with cotton when he finally replies.

"You wrote…" He slams the book closed, staring at the cover, "you wrote if Dream's a bad guy and I've done the same things as Dream. Am I the bad guy?"

"...I… I did. But-"

He looks up at Ranboo, pinning him with a glare, "So, you helped Dream do all those things."

Ranboo startles, eyes widening a fraction before they narrow and he dips his head with a grimace.

"Why are you referring to yourself in the third person? Have you- have you gone insane in here?" Ranboo asks, voice cold and dipped in something bitter and affronted.

He offers a smile in defense, but he can't muster words. Despite tasting blood and hearing a shattering screech, he collects the pieces of himself into the pinnacle of calm and collected.

He sets Ranboo's memory book on the lectern and moves to grip the edge of the water basin, trying to keep his shoulders from jumping too high with every fast breath.

Nausea roiling behind the barricade of his teeth he tries to recall where he is, who he is, what he is, and somehow each answer is another nightmare.

He watches Ranboo creep closer out of his peripherals as he stares down into the basin. His own reflection spilling out, overflowing, never settling and he waits and waits- he waits for it to smooth out and make sense.

It doesn't. Not really, not into anything concrete. It's just some shape of black and white, two blurs of red and green, the golden echoes of a crown to top it off. He looks towards Ranboo, offering a small shrug and a thin smile.

"It's just a- a little joke. It gets boring in here... " He trails off with an empty chuckle, letting the lie drip down into the water below.

Ranboo stays silent, only picking up his book from the lectern and stowing it back in his inventory with a conflicted expression. Suddenly scrutinizing him, mismatched eyes scrape up the shell of his soul with a contemplation and a palpable sort of pity.

Like he's something brittle and breaking, not worth the power he knows himself to be capable of.

It makes him bristle, lip curled back just enough to barely flash his teeth as he raises his chin and stares straight at the wall.

He straightens his spine and clasps his hands behind his back, driving sharp claws into scarred palms so deep they draw blood. The bite of pain isn't enough to get the colors right, all the purples still off, the obsidian different, everything dull and lacking contrast.

He can feel Ranboo stare and so he rocks back on his heels and switches his gaze to the clock on the wall. Watching it spin and spin in the stretch of silence.

Something isn't right, it keeps stuttering, moving one tick to the right and then jumping back to the left.

He contemplates asking Ranboo if he notices, but something tells him to hold the thought and let other words drip out.

"Listen." He starts, turning to look Ranboo in the eyes, and feeling as if he's staring at himself. "Maybe you just- maybe you don't remember. You must've done all those things if you're this upset."

"But I wouldn't- I wouldn't do those things," Ranboo protests, his tail sweeping in an agitated line. "I would have no reason to do those things unless-"

"Maybe, but you're… you're guilty right?" He cuts Ranboo off, voice clinical. "Why feel guilty for something you didn't do? Why try to pin it on someone else?"

He punctuates each word by stepping in a slow circle around Ranboo, watching as the kid turns to keep him in sight.

"I mean-" he stops, arms crossed and head tilted, "it seems pretty useless to me unless you did do it and you just don't want to remember."

He's only being honest, it's not his fault Ranboo can't accept the truth.

"No, you're-" Ranboo shakes his head, stepping back, "you're just trying to confuse me. You must know- you know I hear your voice, you know I catastrophize things- you're just trying to twist it all in my head."

He looks on in silence as Ranboo throws down his final defense, airing out every claim to his innocence.

Ranboo puts a hand to his chest, voice strained, "You're trying to make me a traitor."

Something about it makes him frustrated, confused, he thinks he's supposed to have a better grasp on this conversation, a better understanding of where it started and where it's leading, but it's all muddied- it's always different. Tracks carved into sand only to shift and disappear in a moment.

He can hear the harsh scrape of Ranboo's breathing. Can practically feel the distress radiating off the ender with every second that passes and all he offers in exchange is a leveled stare.

When the silence grows too long, he dips his chin and narrows his eyes. Every thought swirling around his head feels like a rubber band pulled until it might snap, gums prickling and skin static at the anticipation, at the threat. He thinks back on the book. Thinks back on the kid panicking and thinks and thinks and thinks-

Something whispers against his ears and he repeats the exact words with all the confidence of a judge delivering a sentencing. "Doomed are those who try to run, for it always catches up eventually."

The words linger, a delay between them hitting Ranboo like a slap to the face because the ender stumbles back, muttering protests, knees crumpling a moment before he catches himself on shaking palms. When Ranboo claws his way off the ground he keeps skittering back until he's pressed into a corner, covering his head with his arms like the ceiling is going to cave in.

Some one sided conversation carried out in notes that hitch on near sobs, hysterical back and forths and he wonders curiously what those wide eyes see, pupils constricted to pinpricks as they bounce around the room and never settle.

He watches Ranboo break apart and wonders if he'd looked the same.

The ender shakes and mutters something, curling in on himself as something gnaws at him, eats up his insides and spits them back out, purples flashing in his eyes.

He stares at Ranboo breaking apart on the obsidian floor and he doesn't blink or flinch. He feels nothing more than a subtle irritation, like looking into an open flame for too long. Unable to tear his eyes away even as the world starts to blur and the stuttering tick of the clock grows into a crescendo.

Soon enough all that remains is the dark blur of colors and relative silence.

...

"Dream."

Something shakes him.

He blinks and the world is sideways, brow pinched he fans his fingers out across the ground. Slow and delicate, like the obsidian might break under them, he drags his palm a few inches and it takes him longer than it should to realize he's laying down.

The name lingers in his ears and it takes him a few shaky inhales to recognize it's always been his.

Something kicks his shoulder again, the world wobbling violently with the jarring movement. He doesn't even blink at the sting of pain, he just stares and stares, and remains in a level of catatonia that turns him into something as dead as the obsidian.

It's not real.

The hands that always shove and hit him aren't real. The boot kicking him in the shoulders is no different. It's just a product of paranoia; that's all.

He scrunches his brow, casts his gaze to where Ranboo had been and wonders where he's gone.

There's a sigh, loud and exasperated from up above. He shuts his eyes and knows it's not real, even if it rings louder than sound, it's nothing, it's always nothing-

There comes the shuffle of soles on obsidian, the thud of footsteps, all of it too hard to ignore and on the animal impulse to watch danger coming he opens his eyes only to see the shape of boots take up his vision.

He turns his head just enough to glare up at the fresh hallucination of the warden-

A boot connects with his stomach.

Not a hallucination, he thinks bitterly as he wheezes, gums and teeth bared against the obsidian as he wraps arms around his middle and rolls on to his front. Breath turned to ragged coughs against the stone.

"Sit up."

He must not do it fast enough because the warden grabs him by the back of the collar and hoists him up. Like some stubborn cat he flails his limbs for a second, swinging and hissing before he's dropped unceremoniously back on the ground.

Hunched forward, arms wrapped around his middle he feels his lips curl into a snarl, all glares and venom aimed somewhere around the warden's shins. Every part of him agitated at the sheer loudness of another thing actually taking up the same space as him.

The warden crouches down, elbows on his knees, hands clasped in the middle. Cold black eyes greet him when he finally looks up.

Dream takes in the familiar form and everything that's changed. All that doesn't line up alongside the warden's constant glare, all that doesn't quite align itself with the unforgettable shape of disappointment.

His eyes get caught on the fresh scars wrapped around the warden's forearms, the marks standing out angry and gnarled like flesh had been ripped off with teeth. A laugh bubbles up that he swallows down, some drunkenly amused feeling swimming in the corroded edges of his brain. He thinks it's amusing that they match.

"When did Ranboo leave?" He asks, curious about how much time he'd lost.

"Ranboo?" The warden starts, brow bent, "Dream, no one's visited since Quackity."

"N-no. No, he was just… he was-" His stomach turns and he looks around, determined to prove the warden wrong. He has to be wrong.

"Don't change the subject." Fingers grab his chin and wrench his attention back, "You know I'm disappointed with you. I thought we had an understanding."

He hears the words, feels the touch scorch his skin but it's hard to comprehend, eyes rolling like a rabbit's he scours the cell. And of course there's no clock, there's no lectern, there's no chest, the cell has been empty for days- or weeks, or months. He prays it's not the latter.

Scratchy notes of recent memories stay buried under something too oppressive to shake off even when he tries. That constant poisoned feeling at the base of his skull, echoing to his jaw and up behind his ears until it crowds the space behind his eyes.

He tries to recall the last thing, the easiest thing, tries to remember just one coherent detail, but all he manifests is the taste and smell of blood. A quaking chill to his own limbs.

"You attacked Quackity," the warden explains, letting go of his chin.

He ducks his head immediately, cutting eye contact instantly in favor of looking somewhere past the warden's knee, unable to handle the direct scrutiny. He can hardly handle the irrational thought that the warden has wormed his way so deep into his brain that he can hear his thoughts.

Because the way the warden says it, the way he lets him absorb the three words and mull them over is reminiscent of something less annoyed and more expectant.

As if he-

He has to know. He has to know.

Dream chances a glance back towards the warden, keeping it to something out of the corner of his eyes, all sharp edges and distrust. He never looks at him full on, occupied by the thought something stalks just out of sight, that cyclical thought that brings him back to the same spiraling grasp on reality.

He remembers seeing red, the sound of crunching bone and giving skin, the jar of fists.

"I guess I did," He admits, slow and measured.

The warden looks unimpressed.

And it's odd, he knows it's odd- the way that his pulse whispers in his ears like the drone of distant voices, the way his breath loops on repeat, the way his ribs rise and fall and he finds it hard to remember what it's like to be alive. It's strange and twisted, warped by an understanding that the present for him is fragile.

It's the most real that everything has been and yet he spends it staring half at obsidian, half at an impassive face. Sitting on the ground, chin tucked low like an obedient dog, no real desire to see the experience curbed into any sort of violence, he thinks that's perhaps the strangest thing of all.

Lips tugging up, Dream aims a shaky grin at the warden. "So... you've come to beat me then?"

"No. That would be counterproductive at this point."

He laughs, a raspy thing that nearly ends in a cough, "Well- when the hell did that change?"

The warden doesn't answer.

No, he just stares, confliction bending the warden's face for just a split second before he composes himself with a tired breath.

"Listen, you're already being punished for stepping out of line. I'm here because you haven't been eating."

Dream's shoulders inch up closer to his ears, proverbial hackles raised, "I have."

"Do you really want to lie to me right now?"

"I have." He repeats, sharp and fast.

He doesn't expect a hand to grab his forearm, wrenching it across the space, dragging him forwards. He expects the crunch of breaking bones, he's almost disappointed when it never comes.

"This is getting worse." The warden shakes his arm, frustration clear, "the wither's almost to your damn elbow. It's on your face and your ears." The warden looks down at Dream's tail where it's still tied to the side of his leg, "and look at that, the rot's there too. So, do you want to try that again?"

Dream feels his ears set back.

He doesn't have to look down to see the way the necrosis has crept up towards his elbow, disappearing beneath rolled up sleeves.

"You've been wasting too much energy on not starving-"

Dream scoffs, wrenching his arm out of the warden's grip before scraping himself off the ground. "Take the cuffs off then."

"You know I'm not going to do that."

"Then bring- at least put the books and the clock back."

"Also out of the question." The warden stands, dusting off the plates of his armor with the back of his hand, unconcerned. Resting a palm on the hilt of warden's Will.

"Then I guess-" Dream shrugs, turning his back to the warden against his better judgement, "I guess you're out of luck. You lose your prisoner, you- you lose the book. Death will be permanent. Are you… Are you really willing to risk that?"

"You're not in a position to negotiate."

"Arent I?" Dream turns, frame shaking with a mounting chill as he scrubs the back of a wrist over his brow.

The warden doesn't rise to the bait, opting to change the subject and leave him with a doomed understanding that the book itself is only so much a bargaining chip as his own ability to recall everything that's in it. Which is to say it could easily become unreliable at best.

"If it's the fact it's potatoes I can get something else-" The warden's tone overflows with the desire to be anywhere else, "it'll have to be just as tough and bland, this is punishment. Not vacation."

"It's not-" he breathes heavily, the air rattling in his chest, "it's not about the potatoes- it's- they're poisoned. You know it's-" and he realizes how it sounds, voice growing thin, "you know it is."

"Poisoned?" The warden raises a brow, "I'm not- why would I poison you? Do you even hear yourself?"

The warden's doing that voice. That condescending drawl, and hell, Dream knows it well, he weaponized it. To hear it thrown around at his own expense is nothing short of an insult.

"I'm not f*cking stupid," Dream growls.

"No, you're not." The warden's eyes glint, chin tilted up slightly, "So you see why that sounds insane, right?"

"It's not- I'm not insane." He says it with a shaky sort of anger, a confidence that wavers because he's choking air down too fast. It's like his heart can't seem to beat fast enough to keep up, sluggish and defeated by a crippling lack of calories and the room starts to wobble.

He knows it's worse if he eats. It always is.

It takes only a few miserable steps to get to the wall, hand braced against it as he wills the room to stop spinning. The timing couldn't be worse, the nauseous shock of a dipping blood pressure leaves his arm crumpling, shoulder braced against the obsidian that is too cold, too wrong.

Because the world keeps tilting to the right, over and over until his eyes follow the sinking sensation, and his head is almost too heavy to hold up.

"I'm not-" He slips into mumbling ender, temple pressed against the stone.

And all that adrenaline, all that defiance is short-lived, the crash worse than the start because he is starving, he has been for long enough that its toll is more than just shaking hands.

He knows the effects in passing, can list them off because he's seen them kill.

Impossibly slow heart rate, a fainting, feeble, weakness; and despite every ounce of rage he's still in the same boat as every living thing that relies on something as precarious as scarfing down food just to survive.

Held up to the flames of a twisted mortality and left to dangle over them, he's demanded to change. All because he's trapped in an obsidian box, those two cuffs welded around his wrists that cut him off from everything.

And for a split second he heeds the warden's words more than his own, believing that perhaps he is wrong, perhaps he's just-

"You've got a fever."

A palm brushes over his forehead, sticky and uncomfortable. He flinches at the sudden touch, tense with a snarl on his lips before it trades swiftly for a rumbling sense of content. He mumbles something nonsensical in reply, forgoing everything just to sag against the cool relief of the warden's palm just a bit more.

The hand retreats and it's like clarity is spilled back into his feverish skull. He tries to step back, but the warden catches his wrist in a strong grip and he nearly throws a rabid punch.

"Here." The warden presses a glass bottle into his hand before letting go. It's more dehumanizing than kind, the warden moving back similar to how one affords a skittish animal their little corner to hiss and spit in.

"It's-" For the first time the warden stumbles on his words, "it's not much, but at least it'll bring that down."

Whatever the potion is, it's shockingly cold, relief shaped in the way the glass sweats against his palm under the intense heat and he considers pressing it to the side of his neck in his delirium.

It's all an insulting mercy, some pitiful act and he glares, eyes catching the light in a way that turns his stomach. Stabbing a violent spear through the back of his skull in the same path as the steel needle to a lobotomy. He's forced to lower his gaze.

"So what, you take care of me now? I'm like your- your little pet?"

The warden glowers. "No, it's just medicine. Try to be a little grateful."

Dream leans against the wall and turns the bottle in his hand. The bright viscous liquid inside clings to the sides as it turns. It might as well glow a dark toxic red for how much he doesn't know what the hell it is, and yet in the same breath he thinks he's seen it before. It's a dangerous sort of déjà vu.

The warden seems to catch on to the hesitation, "I can always force it down your throat."

And there it is.

"What does it do?" He doesn't hide his scowl when he asks.

"It's just healing, mixed with some regen and mint."

The warden says it like he's rehearsed the answer.

Dream mulls over the idea that he's asked it before, considers the possibility that they've stood in some scenario just like this, some other reason driving the warden to press the potion into his palm. Maybe he wasn't even given that courtesy.

Agitation gnaws at his fingertips until they're static.

"Yeah." Dream smiles wryly, curling his fingers tighter around the neck of the bottle. "We both know that's a lie."

The warden's fingers curl around the hilt of warden's Will.

The small act makes his skin light up, a hot prickling sensation that rests under his chin and chokes him with the vice grip of a trained sort of fear.

He wrenches the cork out of the glass and kicks it back with a feral sort of self-dignity. The instant it hits his tongue he sees bright flashes of jagged memories, things that puncture his psyche only to remind him what it feels like to have hands force his jaw open, pour it down his throat and hold a palm over his mouth until he's forced to choke it down.

It's the same sickly sweet taste that lingers in the starch of the potatoes.

Gasping and sputtering, instinct tries to convince him to spit it out but it's too late and he bares his teeth in a smile that borders on a hiss.

Swiping a wrist over the back of his mouth, he casts the empty bottle at the warden's boots as hard as he can.

He's disappointed when it doesn't shatter loud enough and he watches the warden kick at the largest shards of glass entirely unamused, like he'd just witnessed a dog piss on his favorite rug.

For a stretch of time he sits against the wall and glares at the warden's boots. Nothing happens.

But slowly, subtly, his eyes start to fall half shut, vision warping at the edges until it creeps to the center and the warden's visage of green and gold doubles.

His mouth goes so dry his tongue becomes scratchy cotton and he slowly angles his head to stare at the water basin. Watching it shift and shudder in his sight, he licks his lips and wonders if he can somehow chase away enough of that numbness to crawl across the cell.

Thinking grows into a momentous task soon after that. An airy, fleeting sense of self has him scrunching his brow and pushing a heavy palm against the side of his head until confusion drives him to forget the limb is even his. In the wake of it, he spends a considerable staring down at his own palm where it had slipped down the side of his face and fallen into his lap.

He flexes his hand and watches the fingers curl in. He does it again because he doesn't remember why he can't feel them. He does it again because he doesn't remember why he can't-

He lists to the side, catching himself with a stuttered laugh.

"Hey, hey- stay with me now."

Someone pushes him until he's sitting upright.

More laughter bubbles up between breaths and suddenly the wobble of the cell is endlessly amusing.

A hand taps the side of his face, keeping his eyes from slipping closed.

"Need you to stay awake for a bit-"

Slurring protests, he's annoyed at it for keeping him from sinking into that fuzzy mess of nothing.

"I need you to remember something for me, okay?"

Everything is warm and pleasant. He thinks he likes the sound of the warden's voice. Smiling weakly he tries to keep his eyes centered on the warden's face but it's always jumping and dripping, shaking apart before buzzing right back together.

He gives a nod.

"The food is fine. Everything is fine."

That's not true, he barely thinks the thought before it cracks apart and he draws in a shaky breath.

"Everything is fine." He repeats and the warden smiles back.

"Good." The voice grows distant, muffled like it's underwater, "Now, I need you to do me a favor. I need you to tell me where you have Schlatt's book."

Red, he sees it flash across his vision and knows he should bite his tongue.

"I-" He feels his mouth move, but the rest is black.

--

"Dream."

Dream blinks, lurching forward like he's been shocked he grabs at the space above his sternum. Fingers twisting in the fabric his heart thuds out its familiar tune. He's- he… he can't remember, he'd just been standing hadn't he?

"Do you feel better?"

Right... The warden's words chase away the immediate unease and he casts his gaze to where he expects to see shattered glass. Nothing's there.

He scrubs a hand down his face before bringing it back up to set against his brow, propping an elbow on his knee. It's all floaty and jumbled, twisted into a facsimile of some brief stretch of time he thinks he's missing, but he's not entirely sure of.

"Yeah…" Dream starts, voice rough, the words feeling as if they've been chosen for him, "I- everything's fine."

He pulls his head out of his hand and looks up. The warden smiles and he finds himself copying it, not really sure why. Not understanding that the nicety is a formality that should turn his stomach and freeze his blood.

The warden offers a hand and Dream takes it, the whole exchange rubbing him the wrong way as he's pulled to his feet. It's some pale reconstruction of a past, a shell of an old friendship that's too broken to ever glue back together. At least not properly.

"Tommy said he wanted to visit one last time. For closure." The warden dusts a hand across Dream's shoulder, cleaning off some imaginary speck of dust or maybe it's just to test something. "I might let him if you behave."

A hand grabs his wrist then and Dream doesn't fight it. Not even when the warden turns the appendage palm up and places a potato into the center of it, forcing his fingers to curl around it.

He stares down at the root vegetable, not thinking anything of it when he digs his teeth in like he's biting through an apple because he's f*cking starving. It tastes of nothing but dirt, cardboard, and something cloyingly sweet. It might as well be ambrosia for the ichor it puts into his veins.

When he meets the warden's eyes again he sees a quirk to his lips that's almost satisfied. It disappears a moment later.

"When's To-" Dream stutters over the name, trying to get it off a numb tongue, "when's Tommy supposed to visit?"

"About a week." The warden turns to leave before the last word can fully hit the air.

Dream watches him go, eyes tracking every step, every action, every mechanism that's engaged, every part of the process that goes into leaving that he knows so well, but never aids him in getting out.

It's such a grim notion that when the lava cuts off the world again, he realizes he wanted the warden to stay. Like he's just some mangy dog always waiting for its owner to storm back in and kick a boot straight into its side.

He hates the vile nature of it, detesting it to the utmost degree as he lets himself slide back down the wall to sit and wait. Gnawing on a meal of raw potatoes that sits far too heavy in his stomach as he mulls over the thought that he has a week and no way to track the time.

He has a week to remember who the hell Tommy is.

Notes:

As always thank you so much for reading!! :D

And here's another reminder to take breaks while reading this, get something to eat, drink water, take your medicines, and above all else get some sleep if you need it! This fic isn't going anywhere and the chapters get a hell of a lot longer from here, so take a nice rest before reading some more <3

Chapter 9: You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison?

Summary:

He thinks it's nice to finally see another face- it's great actually! He couldn't be happier to finally see a real tangible person standing across from him. He can't wait to hold an actual conversation that isn't composed of orders and weapons-

It's the best thing that's happened, yet. :)

Notes:

Title is a reference to the My Chemical Romance song by the same name.

I told myself I wouldn't write this like a frame story but here I am, posting this chapter with its frame story format. :')

Trigger/Content Warnings: blood, violence, references to exile arc, dehumanization, implied torture, implied death (temporary), tiny bit of derealization/characters suddenly unsure if something is real or not, the usual distressing themes and content

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

His head spins, eyes chasing the pulsing spots and shaking stars as he pushes himself up on shaking elbows.

"You could've killed him."

The warden's voice is odd, and not for the way it sounds too far away, ringing from ear to ear in a doppler effect. No, it's for the way it shakes, vibrations eating up the syllables that dispel the first hints of a cracking persona. That unwavering impassiveness the warden always donned like a second skin, stronger than any netherite armor and yet here it cracked, here it crumbled.

The dragon with its diamond teeth and fiery breath shedding its precious scales to reveal the soft underbelly beneath.

Dream lets his arms give out, elbows bending, sinking him straight back to obsidian, fingers flattening from fists into palms to scrape across the grooves as he keels forward on a laugh.

It was that close-

It was that close!

Freedom chased away on the heels of some kid, snatched just like that, and if only, if only he'd had a clearer mind, a sharper understanding he would've seen...

He would've seen that it was simple.

That the warden would have let him go…

'He would have let me go', he repeats the thought, whispering it between dying notes of laughter that thin out into ragged breaths and rumbling snarls.

f*ck, he curls his fingers back into his palms and drives his knuckles into the ground, feeling them split on each jarring strike.

The shooting pain, the taste of blood, it spins his skull back into delirium.

A shaking thing, halfway between a laugh and a sob grips his shoulders, shaking them like the boughs of a tree in a hurricane. Frame shuddering as he winds up on his side and he grins, bloody and delirious up at the ceiling, throat working around the blood clogging his airways that he sucks down and coughs out in hacking, violent heaves of laughter.

It's not the first time he's been here. And it was only a matter of time before he was doomed to watch the merciful, the charitable, the dutiful warden crumble back into violence. This time without hesitation, without all that squeamishness lurking under the surface. This time it was a honed sort of vengeance. Practiced and just.

This time, the warden threw punches less like they were orders and more like they actually f*cking meant something.

This time it was just personal.

He bends low and swallows back gagging laughs, aspirating on his own blood as he loses himself to the familiar gurgling sound, the drowning sensation that clogs his head and makes it all the more fuzzier the more desperately hopeless, the weak curdling thing that crawls like insects under his rotting skin.

"You said-" The warden's hands fist in the collar of his jumpsuit, laughter bubbles up even thicker as he's pulled up, "you acted like you were better- that you didn't remember…"

The warden can hardly finish the thought.

The thought, that naive thing that had misled the warden to believe he was somehow broken, a moldable dog that frothed at the mouth but stayed medicated, all safe and dulled by its effects.

But he's not stupid, you don't lock a rabid animal in a cage with the intent to let it out.

They want something from him.

And he was just fulfilling the expectations. He didn't expect the warden to react like that. He didn't expect the warden to care about some kid they'd left to rot in the cell with him.

He's dropped back to the obsidian, landing on bruised ribs that shove against bruised lungs and he curls away from the sharp sting, coughing along the way until the hacking sounds break into wheezing laughs all over again.

Casting blood stained teeth up at the warden, he grins, but his chin shakes and his lips falter to hold the smile as he clambers to his feet.

Swaying, one hand wrapped around a couple cracked ribs, he holds the warden's glare. The black eye he'd gifted him in self defense stands out odd and angry against green skin.

He stumbles forward and the warden actually falters, shuffling back the smallest half-step.

He tracks the movement, that tiny flinch, the way the warden's eyes widen a fraction and those shoulders draw up, hands twitching for a weapon on his belt.

It's almost flattering that the warden still considers him a threat. Some villain pacing in the footsteps of a ghost always just shy of starving, always at the mercy of an empty cell. It's a powerful feeling, a thing to get drunk off as he stands in front of the warden and he almost feels less like an animal and more like an equal.

Almost.

He pants, each breath more painful than the last, eyes stuck on the fear he spots swimming beneath the hatred shining in the warden's eyes.

"You're not..." Dream coughs weakly, driving the sound into weak words, "you did this-"

The world shakes and spins to black with a jarring hit. When the ringing dies down he blinks back to awareness with a groan, back on his hands and knees. Back to kneeling on obsidian.

"C'mon, you have to admit… it's your fault that kid's hurt." Dream says it soft, the words more truth than taunt as he stares at the ground. "He… he could've died. That sort of blood- it'd be on your hands, wouldn't it?"

It's a funny sort of thing to say, a truth to it even when the blood in question coats his own hands, but who is he if not the warden's dog?

He looks up just in time to catch a boot to the face.

World ringing like the aftermath of an explosion, he rocks back and then forward, mouth open in a hissed shout at the shock of pain, hands brought up to cradle his face.

He catches the fresh blood that bubbles past his lips, letting it pool in his palm as he stares down with a widening sense of detachment. It slips and slides down his palm and to his wrist without comprehension. He stares at it until his hearing returns in slow beats.

The ringing fades until he hears his own labored breathing echoed by the warden's.

Everything seems smaller, vision cut by more than a quarter, he can no longer see the warden standing to his left. He presses the heel of his wrist to the bone just below his eye and immediately rips it away with a garbled whimper.

There's a shocking, ringing pain wrapped around the entire side of his face. Eye useless and ruptured by the kick to it, orbital bone broken by the traumatic blow, he hunches forward sucking down air into the pit of his lung as he fights the scream trying to scrape its way up his throat.

He folds himself in half until he's forcing his elbows into his own stomach, rewarding himself with nausea, with a sense of rage that does nothing more than shake his frame and threaten to crack his candies and his molars.

His forehead brushes the ground and he stares at the bleak stretch of crying obsidian, vision halved and greying at the edges.

Hot and wrong, something like tears sting his cheeks as they slide down his face. The rumbling stab of pain mounts with every beat of his heart trying to snap his sternum from the other side, as if the cracks already in it weren't enough.

Every inhale chases another exhale, too fast, too shallow and he angles his head, sharp teeth parted, blood and spit slipping past his lips as he pushes himself up and straightens his spine. He meets the warden's impassive gaze with only half of a glare now.

Despite such obvious resolve, the warden's hands are shaking as he tries to scrub the blood from them. Clumsy and subconscious, some sort of instinct as if now that the deed is done they can't stand the feel of it.

All it does is smear dark reds across the light fabric of clothes peeking between armor plates.

Useless and ineffective, the warden has the audacity to seem affronted when he looks down at his palms and sees the blood still there. As if washing your hands of something that sticky was ever going to be easy.

Dream grins, a shaky exhale bleeding into a chuckle because it's funny.

It's funny how that always works. How he can hardly remember what it was that he must've done to get so much proverbial blood on his own hands, and yet here he is, stuck in this box, still paying for it under the warden's particular brand of mercy.

He comes to the tragic conclusion that above all else, the warden is a coward, and he should've taken the opportunity to use it against him when he had the chance.

"You were supposed to be-" The warden cuts himself off, voice empty and bitter, "Tommy was supposed to be safe."

Tommy… Tommy…

If he'd just threatened Tommy...

If he'd just held him hostage, dangled his life in his hands- if he'd known the warden cared, if he'd-

If he'd just--

The name rings in his head and he shuts his eyes, hearing it mount in volume, ratcheting up into a screeching crescendo that screams and echoes in every crevice of his head until his lips pull back and he hisses the name-

Tommy-

"Tommy-"

"Sam! SAM!"

He's cut off by Tommy screaming again.

It's the fifth- no the sixth time Tommy's tried calling for help since the rumble of explosions, since the crackle of the comm and the warden's words that damned the kid to seven days in hell.

Seven days stuck with him.

He's starting to think it's the other way around.

Even with zero results, Tommy is still screaming at the lava, standing close enough to the radiation of it that Dream can see the kid's face turn bright red from more than just the incessant shouting. If he doesn't step back soon, he'll be walking out with a lot less skin.

He eyes the way the Tommy's shoes keep shuffling closer to the molten rock, like the desperation keeps tugging Tommy closer even when he'd spent the first few minutes staying as far from the burning curtain as possible.

At this rate, Tommy might not be walking out at all.

"You're wasting your time," Dream starts, voice low, speaking words he once whispered to himself, "he's not coming. No one ever does."

"No. No, motherfu-" Tommy draws in shaky breaths, fumbling hands unclip the communicator from his belt and he types away at the little keypad. All hunched with sharp angles and sharp elbows, heaving breaths against the oppressively hot air and still standing too damn close to the lava.

Dream crosses his arms and considers dragging the dumbass back by the collar lest his clothes spontaneously combust from the intense heat.

Tommy's shaking fingers fly across the buttons and Dream thinks if had his own communicator still, he'd see the messages pop up in the greens and blacks of the analog screen. Something like short pleas in all caps, things littered with typos, spammed over and over to anyone who will listen.

And the typing is getting Tommy nowhere except a spiral straight down into an episode, some spell of panic that he'd rather not have to deal with because he can already imagine it's just going to end up with the kid heaving his lunch onto the ground. It's how it always goes.

He's not about to deal with the stench of boiling vomit for several days, too.

"Tommy."

Tommy doesn't even look up, he just stands and shakes and keeps typing away.

"Tommy, stop." Dream says it the way the warden does, the way the smiling figure he can't quite remember does, always standing at the warden's shoulder. He says it with stern words but without the firm hands, without the pulling and pushing him to do what's asked and when he doesn't-

Dream grimaces, ignoring the taste of blood in his mouth, the crunch of bones in his ears as he stalks right up to Tommy and grabs for the comm.

He woefully underestimates Tommy's reflexes because he misses by a long shot, the kid dancing out of reach, clutching the little hunk of plastic like a lifeline.

"f*ck off- I'm- Sam! SAM!" Tommy shouts into the device, backpedaling further, "Phil! I- someone get me the f*ck out- I can't- you can't f*ckin'- you can't leave me here, Sam."

Dream heaves a sigh, but he doesn't follow. He tracks Tommy's steps with half lidded eyes, too exhausted to play a game like this.

He's starting to get a headache.

And it really had been peaceful before. He'd been feeling fine, feeling better, remembering more or maybe he just wasn't losing anything else. Hell, he doesn't think he'd ever felt more calm, more at ease, time passing like a pleasant drift at sea and less like the drowning, choking gamble of the losing game it always seemed to be.

Still, there's always that heavy, swill of something acidic that lurks just below the surface and reminds him of what defiance costs. But it was easy to forget-

It was easier this way. Even when his pride still eats away at the inside of his ribs and he can't quite conceptualize how he got to this point, but it doesn't matter, it never matters so long as he doesn't end up back there again.

He'll take the constant fuzziness, that endless droning whine always stuck in his ears that he can't quite claw out. That burning, fading sense of almost everything, he'd take it, and live with it, and accept it. Just to have something nice.

Even without the books, and the quills, and the clock--

It was nice.

It was pleasant.

Everything was fine.

And he'd even for a-

For a second been excited to see another face. He'd disguised his eagerness and let the kid speak, let him drop vitrol to the stone to pool slick and useless like the crying obsidian- he let him talk, and talk, and talk.

And he thinks he was supposed to dedicate some amount of time to remembering who the hell this Tommy kid is, some latent determination ground right into dust. And maybe-

Maybe he should've been more vigilant, more attentive… maybe he's missing something, but it keeps slipping away and there's not a chance in hell of remembering now; not with all this shouting and screaming.

He was lucky to even catch the kid's name from the comm speaker when the warden's voice filtered through. He didn't even hesitate when he smiled, bit his tongue and slipped straight into the role of pretending to be Tommy's best friend.

Tommy, Tommy, Tommy- the name sounds as familiar as his own, and when it falls from his tongue it feels like something he's said a thousand and one times too many. An easy, natural thing-

So much unlike the festering confusion at why the kid bristles whenever he barks words like he expects Dream to understand the cutting phrases. He can't quite put a finger on why Tommy had walked in cutting glares from sharp blue eyes, gaze cast to the corners as the kid maintains a constant distance. A hyper aware thing, spine curved and steps measured in a feral sort of manner.

Maybe it was always doomed to end up like this, he thinks as he watches Tommy drive himself further into panic.

His lip curls in a snarl, Tommy's pleas slapping against his ear drums like smacks to the face, each one stinging more than the last.

Moving faster, quieter, he grabs the comm right out of Tommy's hands. And as he holds it up and away, he seriously considers chucking it straight into the lava.

"Give that back you f*ckin' bastard-"

Tommy makes a swipe for the comm and he holds the device out of reach, shoving Tommy away. The kid growls, before swinging fists without hesitation.

"Stop- Tommy- stop! What the hell is wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with me?" Tommy swings a rabid fist, Dream dodges it, "I'm f*ckin' stuck in here- I'm stuck with you- I'm trapped, I'm- I'm f*ckin'- this isn't f*ckin'-"

Tommy reaches for the comm again, Dream keeps it out of reach.

It's a dance that leads them both around the cell, but at least it gets Tommy away from the lava.

He's backed himself almost into the corner when he grimaces and glances towards the lava. If this is how it's going to be for a week-

"Listen, you're stuck here, okay?" Another hit to the shoulder, Dream blocks the sloppy swing from the left, weaving away. "And whether you- whether you like it or not- it's happening."

He dodges a clumsy fist to the face, Tommy's eyes bright with feverish intent. Actions clouded by single minded intent.

After enough failures, Tommy seems to calm down, anger unraveling into wariness. Eyes roaming the cell, one hand rubbing at a forearm as he keeps his head low and his shoulders high.

"You'd think they'd at least put a cat in here or something."

Something tells him that Tommy isn't very good with animals. A cat would f*cking die in here, just like anything, just like the plants one of the nicer guard's used to bring him. Dream frowns and casts a wary eye at Tommy's fists, before flickering his gaze back up to his face.

"There aren't even any books!" Tommy shouts, waving his arms, the comm momentarily forgotten. "What the hell happened- the last time I visited, you had some stuff. Now all you've got is the f*ckin' sh*tter."

Tommy peers down into the water basin in question.

"That's a basin- for drinking!" Dream stresses, pushing Tommy away from it, worried what the f*ck the kid might do.

Tommy brushes him off, moving as far away as possible, scrubbing harshly at wherever his hands had landed. "Yeah, well not for long if you know what I mean-"

"Tommy." Dream pinches the bridge of his nose, the name sounds odd again, he… maybe he's said it too many times? Maybe that's it or- or it's not enough and he thinks maybe he's getting one of the vowels wrong. "It's Tommy, right?"

"The f*ck do you means 'It's Tommy, right?' That's my name you've only said it fifteen thousand f*ckin' times. Tahmmy Tahmmy, Tahmmy Innit-"

"Shut up, alright." The words slip out far too harsh, frustrated by his own slip up he shuts his eyes and heaves a sigh. "You're stuck in here whether you like it or not."

"I don't- I do not f*ckin' like it--"

"I don't care!" Dream growls, stalking forward until Tommy's backpedaling. "I don't care if you don't like it, because it's what's happening! We're stuck together, and I don't know if you've ever been trapped in one room longer than a day, but it's not great, it - it's not fun."

Tommy scowls, face bent in a frown, eyes cast towards the lava a name whispered under his breath. Desperation, fear, all of it wiped away for another glare.

"We don't have any books, or games, or anything like that to keep your- your little child brain occupied. So we're going to talk." Dream is condescending, no longer caring if he shows his teeth and spits the words at the mercy of seeing the kid flinch.

He digs his claws into the shell of the communicator in his hand until he hears the plastic creak. For once Tommy is quiet.

"We're going to talk, okay? We're going to talk just like-" Dream hesitates, searching for the right words, "Just like old times, just like we're friends."

Something in Tommy snaps.

"No, no-- f*ck that. Give my comm back."

"Tommy."

"Dream," Tommy growls back.

Dream grits his teeth, pressing the comm into the side of his thigh just to keep himself from handing it over on instinct. His own name ringing in his ears.

It's stupid, he's not going to do what some loud-mouthed kid tells him just because he said it in a stern enough voice. He's not. He's really, really not.

He bares his teeth, humiliation eating at the skin on his neck, creeping up the back of his ears as he lowers his head and red stirs lazily at the edges of his vision.

A cold complacency drifts in the animal parts of his brain, making his hands creak around the device, claws scratching grooves into the plastic.

"Give it the f*ck back, Dream. Right f*ckin' now or I swear to god-"

Dream glares, vision dull, world lackluster as his arm moves and his hand reaches, and he drops the device onto the obsidian with a clatter. It jumps a few times, plastic giving off a hollow sound as it bumps its way against the smooth grooves.

Stepping away with his head down and eyes up, he stands there like a stubborn dog reprimanded for not dropping the stick in its mouth.

Tommy stares for a moment, lips twisting into something indiscernible. "You listened. You actually…"

The kid takes a shaky breath, staring down at the comm, before stooping to pick it up and brush off specks of imaginary dirt.

Dream crosses his arms, spine hunched. Voice stolen as he digs his teeth into the tip of his tongue and considers biting the damn thing off just so he can feast on the words he wants to say, but knows he's not allowed.

"Dream."

Dream angles his gaze up, curious as much as he is violently ashamed of himself for following orders like a trained animal. The burn of it is caught in the base of his throat, clinging to his gums and his eyes meet a blue that's duller than it was when Tommy first stepped in the cell. It's something mature and reserved. Keen.

"Are you scared of him?" Tommy asks, voice so calm it's almost eerie.

He opens his mouth, shuts it and feels his brows bend, his lips twist and he nearly bites out a nasty phrase only for it to dry up on his tongue.

He looks down at his arms and thinks he must be remembering it all wrong, no- no, the scars had always been there he got them from… he'd got them from healing, from when the world hurt and it hurt him back, when he stepped out of line… right?

He'd had them when--
He grabs at his throat, feels the line across it and wonders where it really came from. If he just confused the infliction, warped it in his brain to try and fill in the gaps of slashing his own throat or if… if someone else did. As if he couldn't fathom it.

Or maybe he did all those things, was all those things that came prowling into his psyche when he shuts his eyes, trailing blood with every footstep to plague him with pale reminders of how he ended up here.

It's hard to comprehend that there's an outside to this box, a way to pry the nails loose and push them out from the coffin lid.

He lives and breathes the stale air of things he can't quite remember properly, the memories slippery as hell, but they hold some grain of truth. Tommy is proof of it.

Because he thinks he remembers Tommy's voice, a conversation, calling him something, some party, some discs, some mask, some country, some … something.

He looks at his arms and he knows there aren't supposed to be that many scars. That many pink swathes and jagged lines mingled with the purple creep of rot, that ironic thing that never fails to remind him of the world he'd grown too attached to. That he relies too much on.

For every scar he tries to recall, he remembers it falsely, a single question splitting apart the idea like the way blades cleave skin, pickaxes puncture holes, shears cut and pliers pull teeth. The way axes fracture bones and split lungs and the way even the most immovable object can bend and shatter when hit enough times.

The way a scar slashed down a face bends with the shadows and the way white teeth flash on a grin.

There has to be a reason. There has to be a reason, a righteous sort of situation for someone to do all of those things, to be all of those things, to become that. He wonders who he ever was to deserve this.

Dream stares at the wall, tongue and throat moving before his mind can, scrubbing a hand down the raised marks. "I don't- I'm not-"

"Dream." Tommy pulls him back into the present. "Are you f*ckin' scared of him?"

"No, uh… no. The warden's fantastic." Dream laughs bitter and soft, he thinks there's some truth to it because the warden isn't so bad, he feeds him, gives him new clothes, talks to him sometimes--

"Do you hate him, then?" Tommy asks, a bit of that familiar demeanor peeking through. "He f*ckin' has you locked up in here like you're Hannibal Lecter, he took all your sh*t, he stopped visitors, and you- no offense, you're all subdued about it now, big man, like he's your friend. "

There's some double meaning to the words he doesn't catch, like Tommy's gunning for some sort of response but he can't for the life of him figure out what it's supposed to be.

"Well, I've been in here a long time." Dream reasons, trying to offer up a grin but it's weak and he lets it slip off his face. "And I'm not, well I'm not gonna hatehim for just doing his job I guess-"

"You should." Tommy sighs, words beyond cryptic as he moves to sit against the nearest wall. Mouth shut in a thin line and eyes stuck on the lava, Tommy's fingers fidget with the comm and he never elaborates.

It's going to be a long seven days.

--

It's quieter.

Ever since Tommy calmed the hell down he became more subdued, withdrawn, eyes just shy of glazed.

Dream looks across the cell occasionally and he sees himself reflected there. He sees himself in those glazed over blue eyes, that despondent disbelieving sort of stare, the listless pass of time, that silent wallow towards acceptance- that slow march towards understanding he can't leave. But every minute is still dedicated to the idea that maybe it's all just some practical joke, that maybe he can still walk out.

He knows that sort of thinking.

And they haven't spoken, not really. It's hard to determine how long it's been but occasionally he counts up the seconds to an hour, often losing track somewhere in-between 2,313 and 2,836.

It's his tenth attempt at counting when he catches the sound of a rumble, the noise disturbing the normal cacophony of things, disrupting the harmony and he flicks an ear, shakes his head and goes back to counting-

It happens again and he sits forward, angling his head slightly, teeth parted, eyes narrowed. It takes him a moment to realize it's the growl of someone's stomach and for once it's not his own.

"Tommy."

The kid stares.

"Tommy!"

Tommy jumps, breathing harsh and hard, woken from a catatonic state with a hand over his heart, shoulders heaving and curses slipping off his lips.

"You- you uh, drifted off there," Dream trails off, wondering if he'll have to bring up the obvious or if the kid will.

Tommy checks his comm, groans and lets his head fall back. "Do you have any potatoes?"

"They made you sick last time," Dream grimaces, picking at the end of his sleeve, nose crinkled.

"Yeah, well it's not like there's anything else to eat. Sam said he'd- that he'd-" Tommy cuts off, head in his hands. "It doesn't f*ckin' matter. Just give me the goddamn potatoes, Dream."

"You can…" Dream trails off, thinking for a moment, "you can try and contact him again, I'm sure he wouldn't let you starve."

Tommy laughs brokenly, "You're a f*ckin' prick. You are an asshole-"

Dream rolls his eyes, moving to the haphazard pile of potatoes under the dispenser. He chucks one at Tommy, satisfied when he hears a dramatic ow.

Despite the theatrics, and the evidence of what happened last time still splashed on the obsidian, Tommy bites into the root vegetable like a starving animal.

Tommy spits it out a second later. "f*ckin' hell-" he scrubs his shirt sleeve across his tongue, "they still taste like cotton f*ckin' candy."

"You get used to it." Dream shrugs, the thought ringing a few alarm bells that cut to silence too suddenly to dwell on.

Tommy grumbles something in reply, but doesn't put up much of a fuss, hunger always winning out. Dream just hopes the kid doesn't vomit because he thinks he'd rather stab his ears out than have to hear that sound again.

There's more silence then and he doesn't really know when or how, but he's pacing. Just a slow gait, something to pass the time in his usual routine to make himself tired enough to actually fall asleep. He nearly forgets Tommy's even there everytime he turns his back, but then he pivots and the kid's there- someone's there! And his ears set forward, and his mouth opens-

And then he sees Tommy's dead gaze and he shuts his jaw with a click, letting his ears fall back.

And the pattern repeats all over again.

The pads of his feet are sore by the time Tommy speaks again.

"Dream," Tommy starts, voice wavering as he swallows thickly, words slurred, "It's uh, it's f*ckin' hot in here like… I thought I could ignore it, but I'm literally- my brain's all- 's all mush and I think I've sweated more in the last coupla hours than in my entire goddamn life..."

The kid sounds scared, which isn't exactly abnormal but this time he has the sort of haphazard, sickly look to really back it up.

To put it frankly, Tommy looks like absolute sh*t. Sweat clings to every spot of exposed skin, dark circles sit thick under his eyes, and he's sort of listing, head bobbing in a way that suggests the world is definitely spinning for him.

He's pretty sure some human kid wasn't designed for this.

He was hardly designed for this, but even with the netherite cuffs choke chaining his magical ability, he at least knows that he can withstand extremes just so long as he has enough energy to draw on. At the worst, if he dies, he resets and resets, and he's pretty sure it can go on for almost forever until either heat death through entropy or he's run through with a god-killing blade.

He's pretty sure for Tommy, it'd just be a one time sort of thing.

So, there's no small pang of frustration at the warden's expense for dumping the responsibility on him. That somehow he has to keep this kid alive until the security issue is dealt with. Deeper than that there's the ticking whisper in his ears that he should somehow be equally to blame.

"Dream…" Tommy says his name again, and then he's whispering the warden's and then some more, and it's really the lack of venom that's the most daunting.

"Just- just hang on." He stutters, not really meaning to but the words keep getting caught. The same way his hand seems to shake the more he tenses, how his fingers fumble when he rips off a piece of fabric from the edge of the jumpsuit's sleeves and his whole arm wobbles slightly from side to side, grip numb and unsure.

He grimaces and elects to ignore it, curling his fingers harder in the hopes the tremors will go away.

Dipping the fabric in the water basin, he cups the sopping wet mess in his claws, feels it sting where the molecules clash against his own. It leaves only a slight burn, like brushing bare palms over the iron door to a boiler room- more unpleasant than anything.

And maybe it's just a testament to how long he's spent in the Overworld, that he's gradually forced himself to become something more like the things that build homes among hills of rolling grass than his own kith and kin.

It used to be him, hazy memories of being powerful, but still dodging rain and covering every inch of his skin when he'd hide in all the iterations of the Overworld, avoiding passed water bottles and anything of the sort that would leave burns on his skin. Disguising himself made it easier, wearing a mask let him dodge questions, and nights spent chewing the wooden end of a pencil while flipping through ancient texts finally paid off.

He'd cobbled together a glamour from all the things he understood to be the furthest from godhood, something mashed up and duller, something underestimated. He'd been something mostly human, and even now the confusion persists.

But the itching crawl of fire ants up both arms begs otherwise, and the pain grows worse by the second- all latent and delayed, cells caught in limbo until they come to the stuttering conclusion that maybe water is supposed to hurt him.

Grimacing, he ferries the wet fabric over to where Tommy slumps against the wall.

He doesn't think much about it, grabbing Tommy's arm without so much a warning, feeling the kid give a full body flinch. He can't tell if it's due to his hands being a hell of a lot colder than clammy skin or if it's the hypervigilance that always seems to crowd the space around Tommy's ears.

It doesn't matter, and he drags the wet cloth across Tommy's wrist, noting the scars like nicks in the skin, like shrapnel had bit into the soft undersides of his forearms. Dream furrows his brow, the sound of explosions and the searing heat of climbing flames just an afterthought.

Tommy leans away, pressing himself back against the wall, arm shaking where it strains against his grip.

The sound of water splashing against the obsidian fades in and out and Dream shakes his head, frowning until he realizes he's still gripping Tommy's wrist in an iron hold.

Dream lets him go like the touch burns and Tommy immediately shuffles away.

The silence is loud and he crouches there a second, staring after the trembling kid. He's glad Tommy at least had the forethought to get himself further away from the lava and not closer to it.

"Here." Dream sighs, letting the wet fabric tumble out of his hands. "It's not much, but it'll cool you down at least. It uh…" he trails off, the kid just looks at him like he's seen a ghost, some affront to nature, something twisted and terrifying, something to be hated.

"It works best on your neck, or- if you want- I guess you could dunk your whole head in. But, y'know, wrists are easier." He offers a friendly smile, but only gets a flat glare in return.

Tommy moves to pick it up only when Dream has moved all the way to the other side of the cell.

Dream stares at the lava, fingers picking at the loose button on his jumpsuit, palms still itchy from the water. A tired phrase comes to mind on an instinct that is reared from the belief that everything is conditional.

"You… you owe me," Dream mumbles, unfocused eyes stuck on the patterns of molten rock as it falls.

He gets so lost in the wobbling brightness and the stale taste of those flimsy words slipping off his tongue that he doesn't see Tommy look at him, open his mouth, and then opt to say nothing with a shake of his head. Muttering something too soft to be heard under his breath.

Dream stares at the lava and swipes the back of his knuckles across his cheek. They come away stinging like bruises.

--

"What's it like?"

"What?" Dream angles his head to look at Tommy, brow quirked.

"Having a tail."

It's a stupid question and Dream looks back up at the ceiling, not sure if he even wants to answer it. He gives a deep sigh that feels as though the very earth is exhaling, his hands rising and falling where they lay flat on his stomach.

They'd been going round in conversational circles for hours now, at about the sixth abrupt change in topic he opted for laying sprawled out on the cell floor.

The obsidian at his back, the obsidian above, it made him feel more grounded. Every breath something that he could draw in and viscerally feel as his ribs expanded and his shoulders brushed the ground. He could shake his foot and tap his fingers, and it only added to the musical chorus of crying obsidian splashing down all around him.

It kept him there. It kept him as something alert and calm despite the stirring twisted knot behind his sternum that tries to convince him he's always five seconds from drowning.

So, when Tommy asks his dumb question it's just more noise.

Nothing productive, all passingly safe. Never dipping into anything that could be considered digging into the past, not quite.

At least not since the last incident where he'd nearly walked himself into a hundred circles, backed himself into a thousand corners, trying to keep up with every reference, every name, and place and every bit of history that slipped through his fingers like sand. He's wondering how long it will take Tommy to question him on that again.

Tommy had already said he was different. He can't quite put together the pieces that would allow him to be the same.

"If I was all furry and sh*t I think I'd want to be a raccoon."

"You have magic don't you?" Dream bites back, sarcastic and flippant.

"Yeah, bitch, but it's not-" Tommy sniffs, tone smoothing out, "Back in my world we had like guns and trains and- y'know, planes and sh*t. We didn't exactly need f*ckin' magic. We didn't need 'gods' neither. Every prick who thought himself that f*ckin' powerful was just some dickhe*d so far up his own ass-"

Tommy stops abruptly and Dream looks over to see the kid slightly hunched, knuckles tapping his chin as he stares off at some spot on the ground.

"Well, unless you count Techno but even he knew he'd cark it up against an AK-" Tommy mutters, leaning forward before cutting an accusatory look at Dream. "Wait, why the f*ck don't we have guns?"

"Tommy, I barely know what a train is- why would I-"

"We've got minecart systems, don't we? That's like trains, but smaller and sh*ttier."

"Okay, and you expect me to know why we don't have guns?"

"I dunno, big man, it's your f*ckin' world, innit? Couldn't you have just-" Tommy gestures, searching for words, "cooked 'em up or something. Isn't that how all this divine bullsh*t works?"

"Not exactly." Dream shuts his eyes, lifting a noncommittal palm before letting it rest flat on his stomach again.

He thinks there's some merit in the twinge of indignation that comes from Tommy mentioning minecarts and the cold crack of steel that came from being killed by one once. There's the brief roil of anger that stems from Tommy misconstruing the idea of things he could never understand, like somehow it has everything to do with why Dream's infinitely glad no one ever got their hands on anything more than a crossbow.

Or at least… that's what he remembers, that's what he thinks. It's all fragmented, more emotions and intuition than concrete people or places.

He knows trains, he knows guns, he knows things, but it's like skimming an infinite encyclopedia in his head, too many things redacted and blacked out. And yet, it's still enough.

Dream stays silent, mulling over a few different thoughts with an obsessive quality. Desperately trying to figure out what batsh*t hellworld this kid crawled his way out of- and who the f*ck is Techno?

Raising his hands he presses his palms into his temples, trying to stave off the pounding headache-

A half eaten potato hits him in the leg.

He shoots Tommy a glare, but the kid only seems to care about saying his next words, asking the next question.

"Well, how's it work then, genius?"

"You really think I'm just gonna tell you?" Dream props himself up on an elbow, speaking with a laugh.

Tommy rolls his eyes. "Well it can't be that f*ckin' great your dumbass is still stuck in here."

"You're in here with me, so what the hell does that make you?" Dream fires back sitting up all the way, all elbows and knees bent, tone clipped.

"I just don't-" Tommy growls, "If you're so powerful why not just stop us from the beginning? You went to all that trouble over L'Manberg, over the discs, you tormented us- you tormented me and you- you nearly killed Tubbo. You… you played with our lives, Dream. You treated it like a game."

Again it's all the things Dream keeps hearing on repeat and still he can't stop them from slipping right through one ear and out the other, all without making an impact. Without making a dent, because they're just words and without the proper meaning the only thing that pisses him off, that makes him sick and tired, is Tommy's tone.

"Why didn't you just end it at the start?"

"Well, it's… it's not that simple." Dream shrugs, crossing his arms, "I can't just-" he extracts a palm to make some whimsical gesture, "do or make whatever the hell I want. I'm not-" he bites off, not willing to sound helpless, not willing to sound like he's a thing that struggles to recollect and remember, "There's limits."

"That's kind of f*ckin' dumb."

Dream grimaces, lips twisting as he remembers fire. Anger, indignation, something lost and mourned in the shape of burnt branches arched to meet the sky, blackstone and yellow walls taking their place and rising up to kiss the pale blue sky, a flag with three X's fluttering at the top.

He tilts his head, bitter words coming to him even as he doubts the answers.

"I mean what do you want me to say? That technically I'm some sort of god just because I don't live or die exactly like you do?"

Tommy pulls a face, something just shy of a grimace as he dips his chin and for once, opts for silence.

"Well, then I guess I'm a god!" Dream mocks, arms thrown out. "Every enderman is a god, every zombie piglin and dumbass who makes it to the End is a god. I mean, if a god is just something you're afraid of- if it's just something you think you can control, then yeah- I'm a god."

"How humble-" Tommy scoffs.

"I mean technically, if you think about it, I'm your god."

Tommy rolls his eyes.

The words sit like ash in Dream's mouth, all twisted and unforgiving, face falling flat as if the effort to keep it molded into something co*cky was just too much goddamn effort. But he'd take that over days spent breaking his back just to hold on to something as simple as his own name.

"You're not a god, Dream. I don't care what you do, or what everyone thinks." Tommy sounds serious; funeral serious, jury serious, damningly serious, it rubs Dream the wrong way. "You're just a f*cked up little thing under all that netherite armor and skin. Even your dumb book is a f*ckin' lie. You can't control death- you just lied to save your own skin."

If it were another life he thinks he'd be pissed about the accusation, but now it's just hollow.

He dips his chin, not rising to the bait, or so he assumes that's what Tommy wants- or maybe Tommy was just trying to piss off someone he thought still dwelled in this box.

But it's just him now, some shimmer of a past that spends too long staring down into the same basin of water, staring at the same wall of lava, the same glowstone, the same obsidian until it's all the same, until he's the same inanimate thing.

And sure, he can recall what's inside that book, that's easy, it's burned there- etched like the sort of thing someone memorizes when it's a matter of life or death, and getting it wrong even once isn't an option. But he doesn't understand why it's important. He doesn't know why he'd lie about it.

Brows knit, Dream looks off to the side mouthing words that he recalls like the distant ring of a waking nightmare.

I need you to tell me where Schlatt's book is.

"What?" Tommy shoots him an odd look.

Dream shakes his head, huffing a sharp sound as he shakes himself out of the rapid sink into calamity and chaos, "I mean, maybe that's why you're stuck here- cause it's fate. Maybe you're supposed to make me better."

He says it like a joke, all shrugs and everything. Accompanied by all the theatrics because it's amusing and it's fitting, and he can never really mean it- not when he doesn't know what it could possibly entail. Not when getting better looked like fists, and kicks, and punches.

"It's not my job to fix you." Tommy spits, "it was my job to walk in here and leave- and to never see your stupid f*ckin' face again."

"Well… we got what- three days left now? You'll be out in no time."

And even though he's taking a wild guess, jealousy curbing his tone, he really means it.

Tommy sighs, letting out a shaky breath that rocks the air, head tucked in the palms of his hands.

"....You're different."

Tommy never finishes the thought, not even when seconds turn to minutes, turn to hours, and Dream stares emptily at some spot past Tommy's ear and wonders how he's supposed to fix that.

----

"I'm starving…"

"Drink more water."

Tommy lets out a long sigh.

"Why won't he come get me?"

Dream taps his fingers against his shins and watches Tommy crumble.

"Why can't I… why can't I just have one thing? One f*ckin' thing on this sh*tty f*ckin'- in this stupid f*ckin'-" Tommy's words keep cracking and failing, made raspy by a dry throat. With shaky syllables, and a smaller voice Tommy asks, "Do you… you think anyone even noticed I was gone?"

Dream looks to the side and considers what some version of himself might say. "I'm sure someone did."

Tommy looks alarmed.

Sucking in a shallow breath, stomach twisting, Dream realizes he's said the wrong thing all over again. It eats at him like a hunger, angry and simmering, looking for a way to boil over- always in his headspace, some ticking time bomb. It'd only be a matter of time before it goes off, but there it ticks, all fragile hands, and fragile glass, little arrow counting down the numbers tick, tick, tick.

He tucks his arms behind the wall of his legs and wraps his hands around his ribs, claws dug into his own flesh to try and jog his memory with the familiar bite of pain.

--

"Why the f*ck do you sleep so much anyways?"

Dream sighs, mind warped and fuzzy at the edges, exhaustion attempting to shred it and it always feels hauntingly close to dying.

"Does it have to do with that purple sh*t on your arms?"

Dream shuts his eyes, ears set back and fingers curled into fists as he stays curled on his side and lets Tommy's idle chatter fade into background noise.

"Y'know they don't have like a comprehensive course where you're sat down and taught about the End, right? They sorta just go, listen here bitch, take this sword and this sh*tty bucket of water and kill some enderman." Tommy sniffs, pausing a second. "And it's weird 'cause you went from being some dirty grown ass man to lookin' sort of like Ranboo- god, I hope you two aren't f*ckin related, could you imagine-"

Tommy breaks off into his own brand of weak laughter, something that had waned with each day and now stood only as barely a breathy sound scraped from a throat made too dry by the heated air.

"Why even try to pretend? What, did Gogy think you were ugly or somethin'? Did Sapnap make fun of you-"

And there's that defense, that brick wall of nose turning, aggravating, childish behavior that Tommy loved to build up as a defense, like he's slapping mortar and bricks together just to see how thick he can make that wall of asshole-ry get.

"You're making it hard to sleep, Tommy."

There's the scrape of shoes, the shuffle of fabric. "Listen, big man, I just wanna know if there's more of you? 'Cause I think it'd be weird if Punz just showed up one day like, Oi, I'm actually some dickhe*d from the End."

Dream opens his eyes, casting them towards where Tommy's figure sits sideways in his vision, cause he sure as sh*t wasn't about to sleep with his back to this kid.

"Y'know it's weird that we can't go there-" Tommy scrubs some smear of crying obsidian on his palms, only spreading the purple stain more before he sighs. "It's weird that we don't just- I dunno, that we didn't just pack up and leave."

"Who knows?" Dream starts, tone venomous, irritation thick. "Maybe you're all trapped."

Tommy seems to mull the idea over, getting to his feet with a noisy shuffle of fabric and the slight squeak of worn soles on obsidian.

Dream scrambles to copy him if only to remain always ever on the same level, the same playing field, and he stares across the cell, fingers twitching at his side. Eyes slightly narrowed as a widening sense of distrust metastasizes in his skull.

"I think I've diagnosed you- you're lonely, Dream." Tommy doesn't let him get a defense in, words falling faster. "It's why you did it. You f*ckin' tricked everyone into comin' here, tricked 'em into calling this place home, 'cause you had nothing else. 'Cause you got bored. Well congratulations, dickhe*d, you lost everything. Was it worth it?"

"You want me to say yes?" Dream angles his head, lip curling with the abrasive tone as he asks, "is that what you want to hear?"

"I don't want to hear anything. I want you to feel what I feel-" Tommy stabs five fingers into his own chest, shoulders heaving with the confession. "If you're even capable of that. 'Cause I'm so f*ckin' tired of feeling the same sh*t over and over- I want you to feel alone and f*ckin' scared cause you're here and you'll never- you're never gonna understand it."

Dream stands there facing the torrent of something that had been building for days now, and each sentence is like a thorn driven through his skin, the end of it hooked in the flesh and it would hurt worse to pull them out then leave them in.

So, he lets the tide of accusations wash in, lets it sting and eat at his flesh as more and more he feels like it's going to cause him to bleed out, tear him to pieces until he's skin and bone, until he's dragged straight out to sea. Straight to where the salt will sting old wounds and red would weep like tears-

He stays silent, letting the world pass, letting the words fall like the old familiar beat of a ticking clock.

"I want you to feel guilty. I should be out there with my friends-" Tommy points, voice cracking, "that's my home. You tried to take it from me but you couldn't, because it wasn't a f*ckin' place. And you wanna know why I visited? Because lemme tell you big man, I didn't wanna come here. I didn't want to see your stupid sorry f*ckin' face-

"But maybe I'm just a dumbass 'cause I did and now I'm stuck here. But I had to know, right? Cause when I try and remember- It's confusing, you're confusing- it's all f*ckin' f*cked in my head, man-

"When I look at you my brain keeps shoutin' at me, screamin' at me- tellin' me friend, but when I hold a knife I just want to stab you-"

It boils over-

It snaps-

Dream bends and breaks under the pressure built like steam trapped in a nuclear reactor-

He should've said it the moment Tommy walked in here and yet he didn't and here he was, more floundering and helpless. He shuts his eyes, clenches his fists and feels his stomach flip as the confession is pried from his lips.

"Tommy- I don't even know who the f*ck you are!"

"What?"

Dream gestures sharply, "I don't know you, okay? And all you've done is act like a little bitch since you got here-"

"No, no you're f*ckin' lying-"

"Why would I lie about that? What- what advantage do I gain by admitting that I don't-" his words stutter, tongue trying to move too fast, "that I don't know you? That I don't remember your stupid laugh, and your dumb questions, and whatever the f*ck L'Manberg is-"

"You are a f*ckin' liar, you lie, Dream. It's what you do-"

"Oh my g- what are you not getting?! You don't know me!" Dream snarls, palm slapped against his chest as his shoulders jump. "As far as I know, we've never met- You don't get to tell me what I do or don't do!"

Tommy backs away, shattered and betrayed before his eyes harden and he's stomping forward, pointing a finger at the ground. "Throw your stuff in the hole, Dream. I'm your only friend, Dream. I'll come back and visit you, Dream- Does that remind you of anything? Does that sound familiar, Dream?"

"No," Dream says and he's never been more sure of something in his life. "No, it really doesn't."

"The whole point of you- the whole f*ckin' point of you being in here was so you'd sit and rot, and remember what you did. Forever." Voice cracking, eyes wet, Tommy forges on, "So you'd remember every way that you hurt people. So that maybe somewhere in that black f*ckin' heart of yours, you'd find a little speck of remorse. Some guilt, some I dunno, sadness, regret- some sh*t…"

Dream flexes his fingers, eyes downcast, lips thin. Remembering how he'd spin a clock, watch it turn, colors shifting like seeing the arbitrary jump of time meant he was actually manipulating something; a reminder that he was still capable of autonomy. This was everything but.

"This is wrong. It's wrong. This is-" Tommy runs shaking hands through his hair, turning in a tight circle, "is it this place? Is it the f*ckin'- is it the heat? I just don't understand why… why the hell do I- why am I stuck remembering? You can't just forget- you can't just- how's that fair? I- that's not f*ckin' fair! I remember- it's all I remember-"

"I'm sorry, Tommy." He apologizes. Automatic, robotic, a learned response shaped with the same tools that leave scars, the apology is just shy of nothing. It weighs less than air.

Because what the f*ck is he supposed to say? Is he supposed to voice his suspicions, is he supposed to claim he was drugged- as if that didn't always end the same, as if that didn't make him look insane, as if it mattered. He'd eat the potatoes just the same because at this point he almost doesn't want to remember.

He thinks about the way Tommy complained of headaches, a stuffy head, a dry mouth and a wobbly sort of balance, he thinks about the way the kid wouldn't care or wouldn't listen; too caught up in his own understanding of everything to realize by proxy he'd been drugged too. And the warden didn't f*cking care.

So, he apologizes again, because it's what he's supposed to do. Because it's easier than fighting.

Tommy refuses it, every molecule vibrating, not afraid to get in his face and a part of him waits for the fist that never comes-

"This was supposed to be the solution, Dream. Locking you up was supposed to be- it was supposed to work. It was supposed to fix everything."

Dream blinks slow, fingers ice, teeth prickling at the roots, words pried off his tongue.

"I'm sorry."

"Stop!" Tommy bristles, shoving him, "stop f*ckin' saying that, stop acting like that, stop-"

Tommy shoves him again.

Something in him snaps at the contact, at the stumble he's forced to take, the weakness of it, and he gathers his footing only to rise slowly to his full height. Staring Tommy down like a pissed off fox getting kicked in the face by a co*cky rabbit.

"What? You want me to be a monster? You want me to-" Dream looms over Tommy, "you want me to hurt you? You want me to play out all those dumb little assumptions in your head? Fine-"

A red hot madness overtakes him as he grabs Tommy by the shirt collar, rears back a fist and-

"Hel..lo?"

Dream backs down, cowed by the staticy, garbled voice of a guard.

Staring at his own hand he flexes the fingers and wonders why the action feels so detached, why the grooves between the knuckles craved the sharp blows of violence because otherwise they felt numb and cold to the touch. As if all his problems could be solved by simply caving them in with thrown fists because that's what he'd been taught, that's what he remembers best.

It echoed and rattled in every bit of his marrow. In every broken bone, in every inch of split skin, every chamber of his heart that beat a tune and bled notes of rage with no one to pin them on.

When he looks up, words dying and failing faster than his tongue can hope to form them, Tommy stares back, open mouthed and shaking.

"Hello? Tommy?"

Tommy cradles the comm like it's the holy grail in quaking palms, backing away until his spine collides with the nearest wall, "Badboyhalo? Bad, christ, holy f*ck-"

"Language!"

"Sorry, sorry I don't really give a f*ck, I'm just happy to hear you- happy to hear another person!"

The phrasing stings only a little; person said like it's something he's not allowed to have and when he curls and uncurls his fingers, when he thinks on it, he supposes it's right. He watches the exchange with a hunched spine and a side eye, observing the closing gap between himself and total isolation.

Every part of him still feels like a live wire, every breath scraped through his lungs, every word that hits his ear drums is met with the taste of metal in his mouth, a ringing in his mind.

"Tell me that whole security breach stuff is over, right?"

"Uh, yeah- yep, that's why I'm here."

"Thank f*ck…" Tommy sighs, pressing the comm to his forehead as he sags in place, muttering something or other about finally leaving this sh*thole, "y'know what, Bad, I'll forgive chu for all that egg bullsh*t, my friend, my pal. Just please-" there's a shaky breath, "get me the f*ck out of here."

"Alright, just gimme a second-"

When Bad talks, Dream can hear the whispers of something like enchanted in his voice filtering through the sh*tty speakers. Bastardized and twisted, so very, very weak like it's being muffled, but it's definitely there. The vowels sounding like they're run backwards through a shredder and then forwards again, all red and whispering and he looks at Tommy-

And something is wrong. Something isn't adding up. The warden specifically stressed that he'd be the one to lift the lockdown, that he'd fetch Tommy- and he hates that there's the feeling of a snare cinched tight around his throat that demands he stop struggling against every order and command.

But it's also an opportunity to get Tommy to stay longer, he needs him to stay longer, forever- something inane and cruel but he can't be alone- he can't-

"Wait, wait-" Dream puts a hand over the comm's speaker. "Do you hear that?"

Tommy pushes him away.

"Tommy I'm serious- this is serious something is- there's-"

"Spit it the f*ck out, Dream-"

"You have to stay."

"Go f*ck yourself."

The elbow to the face is uncalled for and Dream glares at Tommy in the wake of it, ears ringing as he cups a hand over his busted lip. "I'm trying to help you, and it's not like you deserve it at this point-"

"You're just tryna keep me here cause you're sad, and you're f*ckin' lonely, and you've- you're a f*ckin' asshole, Dream. You put yourself here, and you can't keep me here just 'cause you've lost all your toys, just cause you're not right in the head-"

"He barely knows about the security issue- isn't that a little suspicious?" Dream reasons, looking around trying to scrape something desperate together, "What happens if- if that lava lowers and I use you to get out? What happens when the warden finds you here alone? What then-"

"Hate to say it, but I don't really c-"

"You think he won't keep you here? You think you're special? Think about it- he left you here for days, what the hell would he do if he thinks you're the reason I escaped?"

"That'd be Bad's fault then, not mine. Nice try, bitch."

"You think that matters to him?"

Tommy's temple jumps, fists curling, but he doesn't answer. Instead the kid just moves to stand in front of the lava curtain, expecting it to go down at any second and to see Bad on the other side. He stands there expecting to be escorted out of the cell, but there's a flaw to the whole thing-

"I'm leaving, Dream."

And it'd be final, it'd be confident and true, it'd be the same thing that happens every time-

Except it never happens and Tommy doesn't leave.

The comm long since faded into radio silence, the curtain of lava never stops flowing. Dream watches Tommy's panic hitch to new levels as the kid turns to face him and there's something glazed in his eyes, a haunted look like staring into the abyss and feeling it gaze back.

Horror twists Tommy's features and for a second they both wonder the same thing, because no matter how many times Tommy speaks into the comm there isn't an answer- there's no indication anyone had been there, and it's not like it's possible to share a hallucination.

Right?

So, he reasons it's some sh*tty f*cking joke, some ulterior motive or simply a matter of the warden getting alerted to a guard trying to do something really, really stupid-

"What the f*ck did you do?"

"Tommy, c'mon, how- how could this be my fault? Just calm down, alright-"

"What the f*ck did you do?!"

Back lit by the lava Tommy advances on him and the kid's silhouette warps from the heat, stretched into something taller, less whippish and more threatening, something clad in full armor and then morphed into a shorter figure carrying a crooked smile with a golden tooth- danger.

Tommy meets him with the sort of spitting, hissing violence expected from a creature stuck too long in a trap. The sort of thing wound up for too long and finally let go-

He matches it, trading punches and kicks even when Tommy keeps getting the upper hand, some well fed teen versus a malnourished ghost. He loses the ability to claim self defense when he knees the kid right in the sternum and then follows it up with a vicious punch, fingers half curled.

Tommy claws and scratches his way out of range, spitting blood and curses. "f*ck you- f*ck you- this is your f*ckin' fault-"

"My fault?" He snarls, all bloody teeth and lips, "Tommy, you're the dumbass who decided to visit me. You're the idiot who threw the first punch! Why the f*ck are you always blaming me?"

Trembling Tommy glares at the ground, swiping a jerky hand over the split skin on his cheek.

Dream knows he'll pay for every hit that lands later, for every bruise and cut and fracture, but f*ck if he wasn't tired of laying down and just taking punches. Still, the fear of consequences persists louder than the blood boiling in his veins, a sense of helpless loyalty to a cause he doesn't really believe in-

He raises placating palms, trying to be reasonable, and calm, and peaceful, and good- he's good just like the warden would want. "Calm the hell down, alright? Just stop being a brat for five goddamn seconds and maybe-"

"f*ck you."

"What the hell is wrong with you? Do you just- do you enjoy being this annoying? Or is it just like a professional pastime?"

Tommy doesn't answer, growling as he lunges forward, pissed off beyond all reason and Dream forgets all attempts at nicety. Not hesitating to dodge the sloppy hits and send Tommy sprawling to the ground under his own momentum.

It's easy to get lost in it, rage a slippery thing because he's been forced to stay in a box with this, shaken apart every second at the seams by the understanding that he did something so f*cking despicable to land himself here, that he is a vile creature in the eyes of some kid he doesn't even know, and he wants to hurt him, he wants him dead because he can't be the most helpless thing in the room.

He spots an opening, seizes the opportunity, and cracks Tommy's skull back against the obsidian.

It must be everything he knows, everything he is, understanding that begins and ends with the sound a fist makes when it breaks flesh-

It crawls up his spine like choking smog, clouding his brain with its feverish intent, smothering everything until he's consumed by the incessant chatter, the disquieting sense of doom at being told things he's done that he can't recall-

Why the f*ck would they keep him here if he wasn't supposed to be dangerous?

With Tommy curled into a ball on the ground, he ignores every slurred 'stop' that tumbles out of the kid's mouth. He ignores them the way every plea always echoes in this cell on loop, the way the walls remember begging knowing full well nothing ever answers.

He doesn't hesitate, doesn't falter when he yanks Tommy up by the shirt collar only to rear a bloody fist back-

...

"Dream."

Boot between his shoulders, jaw smacking the ground, Dream nearly bites right through his tongue; left sprawled out under the oppressive weight- stars spinning across his vision as he finds himself swept jarringly back into reality.

He glares at the wall, diaphragm seizing and head growing fuzzy as his lungs struggle to suck down air. He wonders what would have happened if the warden had been a few minutes too late.

"You almost killed Tommy-" The warden's voice is strangled, human in the briefest sense of the word. "If Bad hadn't- if he hadn't- he'd be-"

He curls his fingers, split knuckles stinging, tucking his limbs in close as he tries to shake the warden off, it's like trying to scratch and shove his way out from beneath ten tonnes of concrete.

"Tommy, go-"

"What're you gonna do to him?"

"This doesn't concern you, just go-"

"Course it f*ckin' concerns me, he almost beat me to death-"

"Tommy."

"Sam."

"I'll meet you on the other side when I'm done handling this. I promise."

He remembers the weight of the last look Tommy had cast over his shoulder, somehow heavier than the warden's boot crushing his spine now.

"No one can visit you. You understand that, right?"

More weight crushed down, he squirms, scrabbling at the obsidian like a co*ckroach before going limp, wounds throbbing with the rabbit fast beat of his heart. A small cough racking his frame as he chokes down enough air to speak.

"... yes."

"That's forever, Dream. You'll be lucky if I ever give your things back."

The warden looks down at him, and he sees more than animosity reflected in those black eyes. Fear is always unbefitting of the warden and his netherite skin but there it dwells, there it eats at him- driving every action. He always wonders what exactly there is to be scared of.

"Your eye's busted." The warden observes like he's commenting on the weather. "And if I hold you here long enough I'm pretty sure, god or not, it'll get stuck like that."

Lips curling, Dream shuts the eye that's still intact, shuttering a world that is too flat and blurry. Thoughts dark and red, he feels the blood continue to spill down his face, slipping over the bridge of his nose, through the line of his lips to draw ticklish lines down his cheek and all the way to his ear.

A sound like a whimper presses from between his teeth.

The boot lets up and he tries to skitter away.

He doesn't see the hand reach out to snag him by the back of the neck, pinning him right back to the ground. Cheek smashed into the obsidian, nostrils flared on growling breaths he can't get his limbs to coordinate well enough to try and claw the thing off.

It presses harder, cutting air off for a second and he stills, frame tense as the remaining portion of his vision greys out and the loudest thing stuck in his ears is a rattling wheeze.

"Listen, I have been kind to you. I would've let you out in the courtyard. I- I would've let you have more things. No one else would've been that generous, okay? You ruined that, Dream. This is your life now-"

Thumb and fingers plated with leather and netherite dig into either side of his vertebrae. Stinging where they press into the flesh, stab muscle, strike bone and it's a miserable sort of existence. Fire lancing up his frame like he's being burned at the stake, scorched for being untamable.

"You want the pickaxe or the sword?"

"Pickaxe." He feels his lips move, words pressed out like ragged things and the choice is the only one he still has. He snatches it with bloody fingers, settling for its illusion of freedom.

Because when he's dead, even for a second, even if it never lasts; he doesn't feel pale imitations of remorse, of regret, of guilt, he doesn't feel fear, or pain, or terror. So, he saves himself the trouble by taking the pickaxe to the skull like it's just a pleasant pipe dream.

Notes:

Every time I see the hit count on this I am like :000 that's more people than I can even comprehend man!

Thank you for reading this and big thank you to everyone who comments and stuff!!!! ❤️
Sorry I only update like once a month now, I'm just slow as sh*t at writing cause I type on my phone and I will write and then delete thousands of words in the process of making just one chapter. :''')
Being sick 24/7 also hasn't helped either lmaooo

Chapter 10: The Ship of Theseus

Summary:

He doesn't think dreaming is supposed to feel that real- but the more he sleeps the harder it gets, the worse it is when he wakes up; like somehow, some part of him is actually leaving that obsidian coffin behind.

There's something wrong about the whole thing.

There's something wrong.

Notes:

Title reference to the philosophical thought experiment 'ship of Theseus'

Alright, this one is long as hell-- hoping there isn't a f*ck ton of errors but I miss sh*t sometimes.

There's a lot going on in this one that starts to really set everything up-

If you want the vibes for this long ass chapter just listen to Hildur Guðnadóttir's OST for HBO's Chernobyl (as well as 'Nightmare' by Artie Shaw and His New Music, 'Beyond the Sea' by Django Reinhardt, and Bioshock Infinite's 'Baptism', 'The Girl for the Debt' and 'Elizabeth')

Trigger/Content Warnings: Derealization and unreality (mostly in the beginning), corrupted and repeated text (eye strain), implied torture, some violence, suicide mentions, drug use/abuse, self harm, dehumanization, the usual themes

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"f*ck." The sound of a knife pinging off stone rings through the air. "Hold on, hold on, that one doesn't count-"

Dream looks up from the mug he's been staring into, fingers wrapped round the sides, shoulders hunched so that his elbows dig right into his knees. The tabletops in the dining hall always make for easy seats; easy to leap off of, easy to run from, easy to see the whole room and not feel trapped under its weight so readily.

Easy to sit and observe the odd knife throwing game between a sharp tongued anarchist and her wayward friend.

"No side stance, Jack."

"What? Side stance is perfectly legal-"

"Oh. So, you'd like to forfeit the game then?"

"Niki, c'mon I've got a bad shoulder, it's gone to sh*t- I'm-" Jack stumbles over a defense, "Fine, but next time I'm makin' the rules."

Jack waves a throwing knife dangerously by the blade before he draws back and sinks it wide of a crudely painted circle.

The sound the point makes when it sinks into wood is a dull thud, a throaty sort of thing that makes Dream flinch.

A weak moment where his stomach flips at the sound off of an ugly lullaby and all he sees are the shears, the pliers, the hammer, the sword, the axe-

And he sees the knife, he sees the knife, he sees the-

Body too tense, lip curled, he's confused when there's no sharp sting of pain, when the proverbial rug isn't pulled out from under his feet and he's not squirming under a blade.

He goes back to looking down. Ears set back and frame wound tight, watching the lights from above dance like fireflies in the depths of watered down cider.

If he angles the mug just right they almost spin. Shaking and shimmering into stars, moons, planets; mockeries of numbers and broken clock hands. Watching it spin smooths out the tense draw of his shoulders and the sound of the world crawls its way back into his ears.

He looks back up at Jack and Niki, each making their throws before giving sarcastic bows and friendly quips. Letting the other step up to the chalk line etched across the stone to take their turn.

They started the game hours ago, or maybe it was just one- or… or less. He pinches his brow, the base of his skull prickling with the creep of a headache, a stretch of throbbing pain from temple to ear like something is trying to squirm it's way under the bone. Like it's planted there, skin sliced, peeled back and then stitched again and he rubs at it.

Shaky and jerky trying to determine if there's a scar, but there's so many and all he manages to do is nearly tip the mug in his hand. The appendage forgetting it was supposed to be holding something level and steady.

It's hard to keep track of things, hard to determine reality from fiction, but... it's not all bad.

The dull throb grows to a stab, an icepick driven through his skull sort of thing and his lips peel back in a grimace. Eyes squinted, he hunches forward and scrubs a palm over his forehead.

Looking back down at his reflection he can't quite make it out, the flash of purple eyes is enough to make him startle. When he blinks it's settled back to jumping ripples from the tremors up his arm.

He grabs the mug in both hands again, frowning when it doesn't calm the way he wants.

⊬⍜⎍'⍀⟒ ⏚⟒⟟⋏☌ ⌿⏃⍀⏃⋏⍜⟟⎅

"You uh, you go to that festival last week? The one up at the old L'Mancrater?"

"It was so bad."

Jack laughs, "f*ck it was, wasn't it? They're really scraping the bottom of the barrel."

"That's an understatement. They invited f*cking Philza, Jack. Philza!"

"Really?"

"They claimed it was a show of good faith with the Arctic Commune, or something like that. He brought up L'Manberg and then started quoting Bonanno so they pulled him right off the podium-"

Jack and Niki's banter continues.

They're always talking, always filling silences with words like it'll soothe the sour air. Humoring one topic or another, they talk because it's all there is to do. Something better than what they have.

They talk and he thinks they keep trying to rope him in. All polite and cordial, leaving awkward openings and then glancing back when they're not filled. A pointless kindness that's just playing nice because they're too stupid to sink all those shiny tools into his throat, too naive to cut out his tongue or to rip out his teeth.

They're trying to make him smile, trying to make him… something.

And he's not sure what, but he has half a mind to bite back, if only to watch them stand there and take it when he bares his teeth and tears them apart. Just to get a glimpse, just for it to make sense-

It rumbles and roils in his veins, a dense hollow weight that demands attention in frothing screeches.

It demands rage and isolation because at least that was easy to control.

But he's far too tired to act on it. So he resigns himself to remaining perched on that table, feet on the bench, nursing the same cup of watered down cider for hours now as he stares forward. Watching the targets slowly fill with marks and knives. Points tallied up in a crude game of connect four.

He's left sitting among maps and documents, scribbled pages of plans and books stacked with dog eared pages, opened haphazardly and quickly forgotten. The table scattered with empty pens and broken pencils, stolen blueprints tucked down at the bottom to detail the inside of an obsidian monolith, a behemoth of an understanding that he sits among them not as a person, but a tool. A means to an end.

He takes a sip of that cider and grimaces at the curdling sweetness.

"Come on, it's your turn, Jack-"

"Nah, we should get Dream in on this round."

"I-" Niki glances back. "I don't think he wants to play."

"Don't see why not. Just know he's got an opinion about every throw, but does he ever get off his ass and play? No. 'Cause he knows he'd lose."

Niki shakes her head, fingers restless on the flat hilts of a few throwing knives. "Could you stop being an asshole? We can just play another round since you're the one who's so sore about losing."

"Me? I totally got four- look those are my knives. I paint the ends red!"

"Jack-" Niki sighs, laughter laced in it, "that's not red."

Jack rips his glasses off, marching up to the painted boards of pine, before pinching his nose and heaving a sigh.

"Christ, these glasses I f*ckin' swear-"

"Maybe you should play with them off next time."

"Right, right laugh it up then-" He dismisses the red and blue lenses, trading them for knives in a flash. "Best hold on to that when I really get good at this and kick your ass."

Dream watches them out of the corner of his eyes, angled slightly away, tension crackling under his skin as every instinct demands he head up the stairs of the underground city and leave before-

B̷e̴f̶o̴r̷e̵ ̵w̶h̶a̴t̶?̷

There's a sudden shift in the atmosphere, all the lanterns creaking and candles flickering in the lull of silence. He despises the scrutiny, one moment passive spectator to a proverbial sh*t-talking contest, the next the object of attention. And then back again.

He should leave before…

He blinks, not catching the thought. And he shakes his head, trying to throw off the feeling like a fly buzzing in his ear.

H̴e̷ ̴s̵h̵o̷u̴l̷d̷ ̸l̷e̷a̷v̸e̴.̸

The ceilings were always too high anyways, the only saving grace being the dark that hid their yawning stretch. Still, he feels the openness of the room like a crushing weight on his shoulders, strange and foreign. Wide and far enough in fact that his vision blurred before it ever reached all the way to the other wall, and the same could be said for every direction.

Just a warped world of frosted glass and he's cupping his hands, peering through it.

Sometimes he can hardly make out their faces, as if they are shadowy imposters between blinks and he has to remind himself these are the people he's been living with for weeks-

H̸̪̆͜ę̵̞̋̄̚͝ ̶̡̧̬̈́̈́̋s̶̝̓̍h̶̙̼͌ò̸̥̺̿̓̒u̶͈̱̞͕̅̽̽̈ḻ̶͕̹̣̈ḑ̷̛̟̍̃ ̴̗̑l̵̺̜͑̎e̴̲̫̩̔̍̏ä̵̡̩́̂v̷̼͙̮̑͆̋ẽ̵͔͔͔̬.

But sometimes when they say his name…

It doesn't match up with the movement of their mouths. One extra syllable, a hard consonant rolling off the tongue right in the middle, right where it shouldn't be-

⊬⍜⎍'⍀⟒ ⏚⟒⟟⋏☌ ⌿⏃⍀⏃⋏⍜⟟⎅.

He glances at the enderman passing by, considers what they just said- no, no what they didn't say, they don't… that's not-

It's in his own head.

Hearing voices isn't the thing he struggles to contend with-

Because he can't seem to remember anyone else, just Jack and Niki and a hundred endermen, can't see or find or hear anyone else, j̵u̷s̵t̴ ̵t̷h̸e̷m̶,̴ ̸j̷u̴s̸t̴ ̷e̶n̶d̴e̷r̴m̵e̵n̵,̵ ̴j̴u̵s̴t̶ ̶h̶i̷m̶s̷e̷l̴f̴,̵ just himself because he's-

"D̸̘͒̃̋͂̾͠r̵̡̝̥̺̼̹̻̟̳̺̗͂̒̉͘͠ȩ̸̛̦̦̺̹̠̦̹̼͋̍̽͛â̶̢̬̯̠͇̻̖̣̙͈̼̖͈̈m̷̡̨͙̱̙͕̝̭̖̙̙̬̳̽̎̐̂̓̐͗̈́̋̌̏. Dream!"

Dream stares at the shapes of two people, of pink hair and a shaved head, and when he stares and they stare back it doesn't make sense. All faces blurred, never whole or unbroken, but cracked and bleeding violent reds and they're not-

"He's zoning the hell out again." Jack snaps his fingers and Dream startles looking immediately towards the sound.

It's just in time to see Niki drive an elbow into Jack's side.

"Ow, f*ck- you don't have to hit me."

"He's not a dog."

"Sure acts like-"

Niki cuts him off, stepping forward, "You're allowed to play, Dream. Everyone here is, it's just a game for fun and a bit of practice, that's all."

Niki pushes the idea, holding up the stacked handles of five throwing knives. Patient and without expectation. An offering.

They might as well be five swords for how deadly and fast the idea of accepting them grows in his head.

He only needs to step down, walk forward and take them. But the task is daunting, riddled with danger, and he digs his claws into the sides of the mug.

He doesn't move and Jack takes it as a personal cue, snatching the knives rudely out of Niki's hand.

"Well, it's not just a game-" Jack stresses, hopping up to sit right by him, all co*cky and full of sh*t. "See we can't exactly pull off a heist unless we're able to keep ourselves from getting too close. Cause bringin' a knife to a gunfight- well, it's a pretty sh*t idea. And knives are quieter than bullets anyways."

Jack offers only a single throwing knife, a thing pushed across his vision.

The lackluster steel of it glints sharp in the lantern light and it makes his stomach turn.

"Jack, just let it go," Niki warns.

Dream stares down, refusing to look at the weapon in his peripherals. No, no, all he sees is the gold edges of a clock reflected in the cider and even that's too much- it's- it reminds him of-

He sets the mug down with a clatter, unintentionally sloshing it on the plans, and the books, and the blueprints and it never goes down it never-

Jack doesn't listen, he never listens and so he barrels on and Dream stares at the wet spots spreading across paper, and books, and ideas.

"Hey, listen mate, you learn to throw, you learn to kill. And you've already got one of those under your belt- so I'm guessing this won't be too difficult for you, right?"

Niki snatches the knife, eyes dark as she tugs Jack off the table by the sleeve. "We're not killing anyone."

"Just hypotheticals-" Jack raises his hands, placating.

He should leave, and this time Dream makes good on the idea; slipping off the table, turning just enough to keep them in sight because he refuses to have them at his back.

"What're you gonna wuss out then?"

Dream keeps walking, head down, eyes cast to the corners. Ignoring Jack as he heads for the stone stairs that lead up to the world above.

"C'mon, Dream-" Jack calls after him. "f*ck it, we're better off not trustin' him with a buncha knives anyways, man's a real headcase-"

"Why are you like this?"

"Why'm I- Niki, you almost let me hand a criminal deadly weapons. Sounds a lot like abettin' to me-"

"We're all criminals. Unless you're forgetting why we are all stuck down here, why we are always hiding-"

"You know, it's really not my fault we're trapped in this Looney Tunes nightmare. I personally did nothin' wrong like well, pretty much ever."

"That's not something you get to decide, Jack."

The rest fades into the background as Dream ducks into the stairwell, side scraping the wall when he's forced to dodge around the legs of all the endermen crowding the stairs.

One of them carries a pansy flower delicately in their claws and as he slips by they turn and offer him a curious chirp, friendly and young. He bristles at the nicety returning it with a snapping curse, looking them right in the eyes until ender particles bend the air.

The thing growls in return, mouth glowing and jaw crunching, pissed off and threatened by the sudden show of aggression; force fed the reaction as an only defense.

He doesn't stick around to see them crush the flower between their hands.

...

Sitting up at the edge of the tunnel, staring off into the ruined kingdom, the world is quiet here.

He breathes the dust, the soot, all that ash in the air, and he doesn't care if it scrapes up the inside of his lungs. He doesn't care if it makes him wheeze, if later it'll make him spit toxic reds, purples- whatever the f*ck he bled these days.

Because the air is poisoned. He knows that.

Knees tucked up, he sets his head back against the wall and angles his gaze to where the ceiling is half smooth stone and half red sky.

If he stares long enough black creeps in at the edge of his vision and he thinks it's how its supposed to be, everything off and not quite right, it's-

Something scrapes the ground.

Something back down the tunnel and he straightens his spine, eyes tracking the sound as it creeps its way closer.

And closer.

And he knows it, god he knows it-- he knows it-- he knows--

It scrapes and whines, grinding gears and mechanisms-

He readies himself to run.

Because he doesn't have a fighting chance in hell, no inventory access meant no weapons, nothing strapped to his person either, and he was sh*t out of luck; a sitting duck in the damn water.

The sound draws closer, morphing into clunking steps like netherite boots on slick stone.

Armor glinting and he scoots up the wall, heels tucked under.

Head down, trying to make himself smaller, fighting the instinct to tuck his limbs in and just keep his gaze down because it was easier, it was better, it was expected. It was-

"Just me, big man," Jack steps out of the dark, hands raised. "Couldn't let you have all the bitchy broodin' time to yourself."

Dream shakes his head, looking back out towards the world, letting his spine scrape the wall in a slip and slither back into a haphazard sit. Legs out, knees bent and elbows propped up on them.

Jack sinks down on the opposite side of the tunnel, legs crossed and almost leaning out to where the dull light slices across the shade of the entrance and never reaches the city below. Half in, half out.

"Listen. I know I'm just some prick, I know I'm just..." Jack trails off with a sigh, waving a hand, trying to find some other word, but none seem to come. "But dickhe*d to dickhe*d, I bet this prolly isn't the uh, picturesque sh*thole of a future you had rattlin' around your head-

"And man, it's really sh*t innit? All blown to hell, air poisoned, crops dead- we-" Jack runs a hand down his face, cupping a hand over his mouth, teeth bared in a grimace between his fingers. "We really f*cked it…"

Considering the merit to Jack's phrases, Dream looks to where the stone cracks and ends, meeting grey dirt and then patches of dead grass. All shriveled and black, gnarled worms frozen on poisoned earth. They're not even afforded the luxury of rotting because everything that used to decay it is stuck in the limbo of too much radiation.

Like time itself has ground to a halt, devoured under the miles of red as far as the eye can see.

It would be redundant to look Jack in the eye and say 'Yes.'

"-and y'know I was in that prison."

Dream blinks, ears sitting up as he cuts his gaze across the way. Trying to catch what he missed while static crawled through his brain.

Jack doesn't seem to notice, paving his conversational path like a guy who's more confident speaking to himself than anyone else.

"Yeah, not for long or anythin'. Lot of us ended up there actually. And maybe it was just for fraud or some sh*t, maybe it's 'cause I was tryna take the warden's job. I… well, I don't really know. Never bothered to ask… sh*t, never bothered to remember honestly," Jack laughs, the thing spilling like a sink left to overflow. "But Sam was pissed and it sucked and-"

Jack cuts off, teeth bared in something like a smile, but it's too pained, too tense. Words bitten off despite there very clearly being more to say… but maybe that's just how it is.

A thing witnessed like a horrific hole ripped in the sky, jagged and rotten, pus formed on the edges, festering where no one else can see, and if you lived it, saw it, felt it, you knew it's crushing weight. It didn't need explanation, it didn't need winding words and tender phrases, it didn't need conversations crept around like stepping on eggshells tucked above landmines, trying to pin down words to an experience that feels more abstract than concrete.

It just was.

And they both saw that hole in the sky.

"Um…" Jack starts again, rubbing the back of his neck. "Guess what I'm tryna say is maybe we're both stuck here 'cause we failed- maybe it's 'cause revenge isn't easy."

"It's not about revenge," Dream rasps, speaking feeling more like choking, and half-truths always tasted strangely bitter. "I'm… I'm not doing this for revenge."

"Revenge? Control? Power? I mean, what's the difference really?" Jack picks up a pebble and chucks it hard, the rock clattering in the hallowed silence. "We do things 'cause we're convinced we can somehow make it all better, and the arrogance of the whole thing is that we're never gonna get it right. And we're- well, we're never gonna care who we hurt 'cause we think we got the authority to let ourselves feel f*ckin' great about it."

The words are absent of that annoying confidence, absent of a front, and it's jarring to witness, jarring to sit beside. They're separated by less than five feet and somehow there's miles between them now.

Somehow he looks over and all he sees is the shape of something that he can never be.

"'Cause it feels damn good throwin' dirt into that pit the first few shovelfuls, y'know?" Jack continues, throwing another pebble. "But it's not a hole we get to fill. And to be honest I don't think we're even allowed to."

Dream picks up a stone in his own hand, turning over the painted rock, tracing a thumb over the grooves in it, long since shattered off the remains of some kingdom that doesn't exist anymore. It thrums like dead stone always does, with dull notes and lackluster tones.

"Suppose, that's the first mistake," Jack clicks his tongue, nodding to himself like he's got it all figured it out.

"Mistakes imply everything we've done is an accident," Dream bites out, tossing the rock, watching it kick up a cloud of red dust.

"Eh, maybe. I like to think at least some part of me was justified at least, that I was even just two percent in the right." Jack waves a couple of fingers to match before folding his arms tight and awkward again. "'Cause personally, I would've felt good about actually nukin' Tommy, probably would've felt good about killin' you, too. At least I understand that- even if it would've only been for a second... I would've been right about that."

Dream studies him, Jack staring off at the ruins of the bombed out mushroom kingdom, eyes glinting red where they reflect the glare of the sallow sun.

"Actually doin' it? That's the mistake. It just took me awhile to realize that."

"Well, I'm glad you had a change of heart-" Dream praises him sarcastically, offering an empty grin. "You uh, you plan on 'repenting' for the rest?"

"Water under the bridge."

Dream huffs a laugh. "Wow… you- you say that like it's easy."

"Hey, no one really blames the guy who built the nukes. They just care 'bout who launches 'em. And even then they tend to point their fingers at the idea of evil and not much else."

He opens his mouth to refute, explain that it's not the same. There are things that can't be atoned for, because atonement implies an absolvement of sin and the world doesn't function like bended knee confessionals and sorry souls begging at the rotten altar. It's not something to wash away like a baptism, it's not transactional, it's not an exchange of prayers to gods that never hear them.

It's not about that.

It works with memories and sensations, emotions and scars. Real, tangible things that cut deep and flay the heart, make it struggle in its beat every time it's even reminded of the pain, the hurt; everytime it catches a glimpse of the things that ever dared to f*ck it up in the first place.

It hooks claws in the mind to turn heads and harden glares; hone tongues and sharpen teeth. It defends itself without question or care.

The real world isn't a dream built on the idea that redemption is an actual journey or that it even stands in as some white checkered flag at the end of the world's most grueling race. That finish line will always move.

It will always be something blindly chased because it's never going to be enough in the eyes of every spectator.

It is that fathomless pit dug deeper every time someone finds themselves scrabbling at the bottom, grinning falsely with dull teeth and dull eyes; whispering obsessively, 'I'm halfway there.'

And he looks at Jack with the full understanding that redemption is a luxury for the chosen few who manage to climb that fantastical ladder back towards some version of humanity imposed from above.

The rest are left wallowing at the bottom, abandoned to time and pretense. Chewing on one another in hopes of gaining enough strength just to stick around and fight for the splintering ladder. They are seen only as slavering, starving creatures, never performing pretty enough to make the cut. Just the ragged, the rabid, and the wrong; all twisted and f*cked up, too angry, too bitter, too antisocial, just something that learns it deserves to bleed out from every stone cast down into the pit.

Because ultimately that's the idea, that anything left down there begins to believe it deserves suffering, that it deserves death, in the eyes of every figure that rings the top.

He knows he stands at the bottom.

He's not going to fight for some broken rungs.

"I don't…" Dream hesitates. "I don't think I'm-"

"Holy sh*t-" there's the frantic scrape of boots as Jack stands, "Fundy?"

Dream follows suit, words abandoned.

He follows Jack's line of sight until he sees a figure in the hazy landscape, a blip of a thing amongst the crumbling monoliths; a fox. A harrowed, torn up figure with wide eyes and tiny pupils, ears down, looking over his shoulder with such terror that he trips, falls and scrabbles forward a few paces on all fours before throwing himself back into the run.

"f*ckin' christ, that's Fundy- Dream he's, I think he's-"

Jack's shouting something then, moving forward and Dream stares at the back of his head unable to follow suit. Hand firmly grafted to the wall, body leaning out only enough to try and get a closer look, to narrow his eyes and attempt to tame the blurriness.

Leaving the safety of the tunnel's entrance is impossible, the protection of a roof over head is too precious. Dream chances a frantic look up at the daunting stretch of the red sky, and then down, and then right back at Jack again.

He can't bring himself to cross that line, step into a world slathered in dead memories, a world that's too open, too wide, too threatening, unpredictable- safety shaped like solid walls and this isn't it, it's not it, it's not-

Fundy nearly barrels into the both of them, Dream leaping out of the way to press himself against the wall like a skittish cat.

"Go- go- we have to-" Fundy waves a paw, bent double, heaving breaths that slice up his words in wheezes.

"Mate, mate, calm the f*ck down- take a breath, is someone after you? You bein' chased?"

"We have to go- we've got to-"

"Fundy, you're makin' zero f*ckin' sense-"

"It's over! It's over, Jack. I-"

"What's over?!"

Fundy shoves Jack against the wall, teeth flashing in his face. "Listen to me, okay? For goddamn once, just shut up and listen-"

The air stinks of fear.

Dream curls his fingers, pulling them into fists. Left standing by, watching the ordeal because intervening is something he won't- he can't do unless ordered. Honed and polished into a weapon.

A part of him wouldn't mind seeing Jack get hurt though, a part of him craves it. The way the world can be constantly condensed into acts of cruelty and violence. The way it can bend around a person like light through glass, shifted and broken from the other side until it reflects every type of pain all at once. But he knows desperation, he knows it like he knows the taste of sickly sweet potatoes and stale air.

Fundy isn't going to hurt anyone, even if he wants to.

"I've been here a thousand times, explained it to you a thousand times, and still I haven't woken up- and I'm tired, okay? I'm tired of being toyed with-" Fundy snarls the words, shaking Jack by the shoulders. "And I am tired of having to relive the same sh*t, I am tired of being stuck. I am tired of making the same goddamn mistake every time. So, please-"

Fundy bows his head, ears folded back, plea broken. "Shut the hell up and go back underground before it's-"

Fundy dissolves into wet coughs, letting Jack go in favor of catching the blood that comes frothing up. The fox gives a weak smile, sharp teeth stained.

Dream steps back at the sight, eyes stuck on the red, nostrils clogged with the cloying scent of blood.

Legs crumpling a moment later, Fundy nearly hits the ground.

"Woah, woah, hold on-" Jack catches Fundy by the shoulders muttering curses under his breath as he tugs the fox until he's propped safely against the wall.

"I thought maybe if I... that maybe I could've stopped it from happening- just once... Just one time. I thought I was wrong, yeah? I should've listened to that f*cking book, I should've..." Fundy trails off into a hysterical sort of laughter, words slipping from a bloody muzzle without clarity.

It twists and scrapes Dream's psyche, making him step back when the noise grows too familiar. There's a particular disdain for the sounds because he can't be entirely sure they aren't his own when he's so used to hearing them, so used to making them, nipping and gnawing at his insides with the thankless reminder until he stands there and grows confused by the lack of breathless hysteria.

"Dream- Dream- help me out here-" Jack calls, Fundy slumping forward out of his grasp. "Hold him up while I get a regen-"

Jack doesn't even get the chance to stand before Fundy's mumbling again.

"I'm sorry."

"What- wait, what's he apologizin' for?" Jack glances over his shoulder. All accusatory as if somehow, by some miracle, Dream is supposed to have a goddamn clue. Like he isn't standing there awkwardly watching scenes wind out like blank film reels, Fundy becoming just as unrecognizable as Jack when he turns his head just right.

All kaleidescoped out, shifting and changing based on the angle and Jack has the audacity to level him with a glare, like he personally reached down Fundy's throat and ripped up his insides any more than the f*cking air did, anymore than some invisible figure did.

It's the sort of thing that comes with always being perceived as a threat. It's just another thing he's forced to get used to.

"What's he-" Jack starts again, shifting nervously and swinging his head back towards Fundy, this time with a certain vengeance. "What the f*ck did you do?"

"I ran- I didn't know where else to go-"

"God damnit, Fundy! If you led someone back here I swear I'll make your life hell," Jack threatens, voice grave but there's a tremor there, something unequivocally afraid. "You already f*cked off to that casino once on your suicidal little pipe dream."

"That's the funny thing about dreams, Jack Manifold…" Fundy sags against the wall, muzzle turned up towards the ceiling, grimacing. "You never remember the start, right? But the end- man, the very end's always gonna be crystal clear."

"Christ, right he's talkin' nonsense-" Jack says as he stands, hands hovering, expression swimming. He jabs a finger in Dream's direction and then down towards Fundy. "Look, I'll- I'll be back in a sec. Make sure he doesn't die or that's on you."

Jack's not even through the last word before his frantic steps backward nearly send him tumbling down the stairs. Catching himself, he gives Dream one last look, a thing of liminal trust before he's leaping down into the belly of darkness.

It's at that moment Fundy starts to list, eyes slipping half shut.

Dream moves forward, mind buzzing, rattling and angry like a swarm of insects when he's chained to the sort of obedience that makes him move forward when he'd rather stay back. Because he doesn't owe Jack anything.

He doesn't owe any of them a single thing, but that thought dwindles and dies like paper held to a candle flame. When put up against the sort of burning heat it does nothing but mold a person into thinking that they always do.

His hands meet Fundy's form, pushing the fox back upright by the shoulders. He nearly recoils-

Because something is horribly wrong.

Fundy seems to recognize it, eyes snapped open, alert and red around the edges.

"You're not supposed to be here," Fundy brushes Dream off, shoving past him with a wheezing cough.

And Dream is granted the sight of watching the fox push himself up off one wall only to stumble his way into the next one. Palm thrown out to catch himself, still hunched over, but far more coherent and able to hold his own.

"You can't- you shouldn't be here."

Fundy's accusation is nothing new.

"I shouldn't be here?" Dream spits the question. "I've been here for weeks. No one's come to take me back. No one's-" He cuts his gaze away, mouth dry, ice burning in his chest. "No one's taken me back."

"Look around! You don't even know how you got here- you can't remember anything before this, right? And listen, okay, I know it's going to be hard to hear, but this- all of this?" Fundy gestures sarcastically. "It's not real."

"You're lying."

Fundy sighs, a boneless thing that rips its way through the air. "Fine, fine, tell me who broke you out then?"

"I-"

⍙⏃☍⟒ ⎍⌿!

No, no, f*ck, he closes his eyes, claws worried into skin to try and wake him because if he's asleep- if he's…

Shoulders leaping with tangled breaths, he chokes down breaking inhales and pushes out shattered exhales and none of it feels real, it's not real, it's not-

"I don't know, alright? I don't. I'm not-"

"Because you're still f*cking there!" Fundy throws a paw out towards the horizon, towards it. "You've never been here- this place was built after we locked you up. Everything, everyone here-"

"I know them. I know this." Dream interrupts, mind bright with bestial anger and if he'd had a blade he'd curve it against Fundy's throat just to pry the confession from him that it's all just a cruel f*cking joke. That reality is just something he can force to make sense if he snaps and snarls in its face.

But he doesn't. And he won't. And the fire of it spits and leaps behind his sternum.

"You don't." Fundy steps forward, paw clutched over his own ribs, somehow standing a thousand feet tall despite being curled in. "This shouldn't mean anything to you because you're not the one dreaming, I am!"

⍙⏃☍⟒ ⎍⌿.

Dream backs away, whipping around violently when he collides with Jack as he comes rushing back up the stairs, bottles in hand.

"f*ck's sake, watch out, I could've dropped these-"

And suddenly the air scrapes every molecule of his being like sandpaper, trying to claw him out at every turn because he's the parasite that's worming its way into the host. Invading a dream, a nightmare, a scene he's stumbled into because sleeping was a dangerous game, often deadly in the way it allowed room for reality to be bent by envy.

He swings his head towards Fundy, looking past the fox to the way the red seems to glow brighter just outside. Crimson eating up the sloping hills, bloody hands stretched across the dead land and the dead grass, seeping and winding.

The world is deathly quiet, the silence clutched harshly between the twin palms of time destined to squash it.

Jack looks between them, hands gaining a slight tremor. "Do... do you taste metal?"

Sirens split the air.

Over and over, polluting everything until all he feels is his stomach dropping to his feet every time the droning sound repeats-

The sirens repeat.

And repeat.

And repeat; rivaled only by the radio screech of static, comms coming online to spit their echoed warnings.

'This is a red alert. You are advised to go to your nearest shelter area immediately.'

The sirens keep bellowing out their violent tune, the same long ringing whine that dips and swells until the very air blackens with it.

He stands and stares at the blood red sky.

Paralyzed by the worst sound imaginable.

"No, no, no, f*ck-" Fundy's panicked words jump between the harsh screams of it. Jack yelling distantly accompanied by the robotic broadcast-

'Find shelter. There is not time to leave the city.'

And he stares.

And he stares.

And he can't move because the crack and cave of the earth, the implosion of the world that will send it careening into the sky doesn't come- not yet, not yet- not yet- not again-

The sirens scream.

Hands grab him, shove him, ripping and tugging at his person, trying to drag him back.

'Please remain calm. Every precaution will be taken for your protection-'

"D̸̘͒̃̋͂̾͠r̵̡̝̥̺̼̹̻̟̳̺̗͂̒̉͘͠ȩ̸̛̦̦̺̹̠̦̹̼͋̍̽͛â̶̢̬̯̠͇̻̖̣̙͈̼̖͈̈m̷̡̨͙̱̙͕̝̭̖̙̙̬̳̽̎̐̂̓̐͗̈́̋̌̏!"

"We have to go! C'mon- we've got to f*ckin' move!"

It's always hands on his shoulders, his forearms, at the back of his neck, wrapped around his head, digging under his skin-

Trying to tug him back inside obsidian.

And he fights them, thrashing and tugging against the holds even as the outside screeches, every warning more imminent than the last and he doesn't care if throwing himself out in the dying sun is what'll kill him.

The sirens scream.

Fundy keeps pulling him back, Jack at his side, working together to shut him back in that f*cking box.

"We have to go!" Fundy shouts, skittering around in his vision, shoving Dream back until he trips over his own heels. "You're going to wake up and you have to stay-"

Dream snarls, cutting the words off as he thrashes against the grip that hooks under his arms and wrenches him back, heels scraped bloody on the stone. His throat goes numb from shouting, screaming something that's lost to the ringing in his ears, the din of the sirens as he kicks at the ground, twisting and trying to throw himself out of a grip that's too strong.

"Don't trust him- do you hear me? Whatever you do, you can't trust him. If he offers you a deal, don't- you cannot f*cking take it-"

He rakes claws through Fundy's fur in the hopes of catching skin, spitting curses that sound more animal than person, ender blended in until purple particles dance in his vision and all he sees is the shape of the warden doubled and wrong where it morphs with the pointy face of a shouting fox.

"Are you listening?! Forget about all the sh*t you've done- none of that matters anymore!" Fundy's words are thunderous trying to compete with Jack yelling and the sirens and the radio. "Forget about the prison! Just don't- you can't take that deal- You can't trust anyone-"

Fundy's grip slackens as he mutters a curse, something growled between the thin notes of, It's too late.

Dream crawls away. Slithering frantically across stone until his elbows smack the dirt outside the tunnel's mouth and he scrapes himself to his feet mid-run. Heaving breaths of toxic air, arms wrapped around his middle as he steals each awful step.

When he finally turns his gaze up, he spots the trail of smoke, following it with shaky eyes to where it disappears over the horizon.

His heart stops. His stomach flips. Fire crawls across his skin, horror slicing him down to the marrow.

He shakes, laughter scraped up with the sound of a painful sob until he's grimacing at where the crumbled buildings in the distance kiss the sky-

Freedom.

The sirens scream.

And a flash of light destroys the world.

...

Dream startles awake, arm raised and scrambling back. Left blinking away the white light and the urge to cower from it as the sensation ricochets through him on repeat.

"Nightmare?"

The warden's flat question breaks him out of it. When he looks, up the imposing silhouette stands there patiently, backlit by the ethereal glow of the lava, all armor and no weapons.

All with a wickedly gentle demeanor that belies everything beneath. The warden's kindness only ever exists in a way that demands complacency and for longer than he can remember he's been bowing his head to it.

Because for a second in each brief stretch of silence between them, he can casts his eyes up and allow himself to think, friend.

"Something like that…." Dream mutters looking down at the warden's boots. Sirens still stuck in his ears as he brings his knees up and slings his arms across them, breathing just a bit too fast. Slightly dizzy and more than a little nauseous.

"Quackity wants to talk to you."

Quackity…

He stares at his knees and recalls the name easily enough.

It sits atop one of the few remaining pillars in the crumbling foundations of his mind. Stronger and taller than the rest. Built with jagged laughter, smarmy smiles, and a glinting gold canine that lines up with a long scar. A milky eye with a broken pupil that glints just as deadly-

Something hits the ground by his feet and he flinches, curling away automatically, eyes flashing up to meet the threat.

It's a neat stack of blacks and whites, something far fancier than thin cotton oranges.

"What, am I dressing up for the occasion now?" Dream snarks, staring down at it with the sort of despondence that comes from a lack of autonomy.

"No actually, I can't let you walk into the casino looking like that."

The warden says it so nonchalantly it almost doesn't register, the words passing through his brain like a typewriter without ink, making an impression, but not a mark.

So he stares up at them, head tilted and lips thin, a lazy sort of acceptance swimming in his chest as he waits for the warden to leave and-

It clicks.

Numbness swept aside for heart clawing panic until he's curling in on himself, eyes wide and stinging at the corners. The widening chasm of gut wrenching frustration ripping up his insides with ruthless fingers.

Wake up.

W̷̢̜͎̖̳͎̱̠̝̊͂́̏̐̉̿͂̚͝a̵͍̯̬̰̤̽k̸̖̱̦̭͂̓̇̈́͑̇̈́̐͒̑͘ë̴͈͉̬̣̹͍̣̙̖̝͕̗̈̈́͂͆͜ͅ ̶͕̼̱͕̫͇̺͈̽̅u̷̧͇̔̽p̵̯͓̫̼̎̅̎̊̆̑͘͝.̸̨͖͒̅͊̿͋̑̋͂̃̓͘

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Wake up.

Wake up.

Wake up.

Wake up

He chants it to himself, fingers buried into his scalp elbows digging into his thighs. He folds himself into a ball and wills the world to right itself because he can't-

He can't leave-

He's been here so long, an unfathomable number of days passing too fast and too slow, and he's lost track, clock never returning to the wall, books never brought back. Empty and awful and wrung into an existence that he spends picking himself apart when he's not being chomped up in the jaws of someone else, and he has the warden.

They're all he had.

The black walls, the lava, the warden.

The black walls, the lava, the warden.

Until he relied on him with the deranged sort of desperation that comes with looking someone in the eyes, knowing they hate him and still he can't remember why.

It can't be real- it can't. Because he'd spent every day, every night, every second of withered and faded time fighting for something that never seemed to matter- that never lasted-

No words or syllables to even keep for himself, no way to bargain his way out of it except in the spaces between the brilliant flashes of pain and some tight lipped secret.

He can't even be sure he has that still.

It never seemed to be enough, not even when they consumed every part of him. Forced every bit from his clenched fists and pried back every rib until it snapped. Scooping out his curdled subconscious until he stared blankly up at the blinding arch of a pickaxe and no longer held a basic understanding of who he is beyond the instincts that come from doing something long enough it's impossible to forget.

Begging for whatever's left to be killed and never quite remembering the routine of wake, torture, darkness. Never really knowing what for, only that it happened, and it happened, and it happened-

So, he has to be asleep.

Because leaving can't be that easy, it can't- what's the point, if they just let him out whenever-

Then what was the f*cking point?

"⊬⍜⎍'⍀⟒ ⌰⊬⟟⋏☌," he rasps in ender, lips pulled back and eyes shut, claws gouging marks into his skull.

"Hey, hey. Don't hurt yourself."

Dream drops his hands instantly. Breathing fast, vibrating on every note as his teeth scrape each other and he forces his palms flat against the top of his thighs.

Trying to follow an order while caught in the blinding desire to drive pain into his skin, to flay himself open until he jolts awake at the screech of it.

"Give me your palm."

Vision shaking, he raises his hand at the command. The world a thing of violent noise as he uncurls the fingers and hot ash sticks to the inside of his lungs, slithering up his spine and crowding the space below his throat. Fighting everything that keeps him from sinking his teeth into the hand that feeds when all he entertains in the back of his mind is the worst mixture of loathing and stilted rage.

Useless, listless things that occasionally shake his soul, but without much luck, and lately he's been following orders without much resistance because there's nothing else to look forward to.

An iron grip snares his wrist and he tries to tug back on instinct. Face turned away, shoulders dropped, waiting for something that never comes and so he's left looking out of the corners of his eyes.

A flinch played on repeat, skipping like a broken disc. Nostrils flaring on whistled notes of heavy breaths and the painful confliction to both go still and run.

The warden slices a dagger straight across his palm and then tips a healing potion over it before blood can start to well. Clinical and clean, efficient and nothing like the messy notes of sloppy torture he's used to.

The world grows brighter with the echoing sting, condensed like the gravity of a blackhole, all of it warped and approaching the event horizon as the warden solidifies a bad practice of realization in his mind.

A dangerously soothing balm that whispers to him, wrapped in smooth notes of this is not a dream and he cradles his hand in his lap, mumbling breathy nonsensical words from scarred lips aimed at the ground.

He can feel the warden's stare like crawling ants.

"See? You're awake."

"Yeah, no sh*t." He casts a glare up, words spat half-ender and half-not, thinking clouded and jumbled with the buzzing wasps of a nightmare that never seems to end. Eased by the presence of the one person he should f*cking hate, but can't seem to learn how to.

And the warden just crouches there scrutinizing him, acting like he's performed the world's most boring magic trick.

"You good to stand on your own or do you need me to help?" The warden drawls and it's strange, all of it twisted up with everything until Dream's wrapping his arms around each other, spine hunched to try and piece together the dots.

"⍙⊑⊬ ⍙⍜⎍⌰⎅-" He catches himself, grimacing at the metal taste in his mouth when he switches back to common tongue. "Why- why would you let me leave?"

The warden stands, brushing invisible dust off his forearms, something half sigh slipping out to wiggle and die in the air.

"The same reason I always do."

Dream smirks lifelessly at the ground, the words ringing like distant sirens.

He always f*cking hated riddles.

---

"You're going to feel really bad until we get further away from the prison. And even then you're not going to be able to run."

He stares at the falling curtain of lava, blinking with failed attempts to keep his head up, knees trying to buckle inwards the more he tries to lock them. The warden's palm is a crushing weight on his shoulder and he pretends like if he tries to take a single step forward he's not going to crumple straight down to the obsidian.

So, he stands and sways, licking dry lips and swallowing around the heavy sensation in the back of his throat. That wheezing, rattling, choking thing that came with a heavy dose of weakness.

The kind of thing that makes the world spin and shake on top of mining fatigue and the edge of malnourishment.

The kind of thing that exists in glass bottles pressed into scarred palms and he knows the routine. The kind of thing that when it hits his tongue it leaves chills, and when it hits his stomach it feels like glass pressed through the bottom of it, jagged edges thrust through the haphazard shape of something like a liver, a spleen until it slashes at the muscles of his legs and sends his knees buckling, head turning and body twisting; leaving him in the death throes of an animal with its teeth bared.

The lava falls away.

There's no sense of triumph at earning freedom like this, at witnessing the real thing when he's spent so long staring, and thinking, and planning around the idea. Scraping intricate schemes into the obsidian until his claws chipped and his mind broke.

The feeling that comes from seeing the chasm and knowing he's allowed to finally cross it, is one that churns deep in the pit of his stomach. He thinks it must be the feeling lambs have when they're carted off to the slaughter. All shaking, wide eyed things that see the white light of the butcher's box as freedom.

The warden pushes him forward and his legs give out.

Caught up under the arm he tries to get his feet back under himself. Struggling against the sensation of being trapped- pinned- grabbed- held in place like an unruly cur and he bares his teeth like one when that hand stings worse than anything.

Apart of the same pair of hands that had fixed the buttons, the cuffs, and the collar of the dress shirt he'd slipped his arms into. The same ones that pulled sleeves down over those netherite cuffs, the same ones that tucked all the rabid parts of himself into a fancy little outfit. Blood and grime scrubbed off until only the scars and the rot remained.

The warden left slightly puzzled in the midst of it when he'd asked for string and deliberately taken the time to tie his tail to the belt loops. How if he could he would've trimmed and cut back the parts of himself that stood out as reflections of the End because despite everything he didn't know, he knew how to try and be human.

Compared to the warden, it's just the simple wayward shift of a pawn on the chess board.

Because what the warden plays is a more complicated game of pretend.

Something to cover up like slapping a row of cheerful bandaids on an infected wound, a distraction because going outside meant being seen-

And the warden was trying to hide something.

"Can you walk?"

"..." He holds his silence, weak glare cast up to the doubled silhouette of greens.

Fingers curve harder into his flesh, jostling him. "Can you walk?"

"...No."

Admitting it feels like ripping out teeth.

The warden cuts his gaze away, grip slackening on his arm and Dream tucks the limb back to himself.

Left swaying in place, eyes following the spinning of the floor until he's so dizzy he thinks he might actually be sick-

He stands there all hunched over, too pathetic to even run or fight, and what he expects is to be dragged out by the back of the neck. What he doesn't expect is to shut his eyes, swallow down the creeping crawl of bile up his throat only to nearly gag anyway when the world violently spins and spins and spins-

Until he's blinking sluggishly up at the ceiling, brows furrowed, trying to shift his legs to sit up, but he finds himself struggling for nothing. An arm up under his shoulders, the other under his knees, stuck in a cradle carry he can't even escape.

The warden stares forward and stays silent as he walks, everything a duty. Everything just another task to complete, another thing to impose, or do, or say- left with the most utilitarian of existences.

Dream stares at the blurry, jumping outline of that respirator, that stupid golden circlet. All that green, green, green, and he thinks he hates the color.

Ears set back and jaw clenched, humiliation burns a hot sort of crawl through his brain at being carried around like an unruly kid.

At being carried like the warden had never dedicated time to caving his skull in, like he'd never withheld food, never forced him to down potions like a lab rat, never turned and twisted his own mind against himself, until he couldn't even think- until he couldn't remember- until everything bled into a constant disreality and he learned to nod and listen-

Until kindness became isolation. Until it became any time he was left alone, no harsh hands, or cold eyes, or flashing smiles, no shiny pliers.

Until the warden became the very idea of 'kind' and he could only blink stupidly and think friend.

Because he knows; he knows there was a time when he learned he could strike fear into the heart of everything. When he could lie and cut the very air with a grin, spit vitrol and laugh in the faces of everything he forced himself give less than a f*ck about.

There was a time when helplessness was just some distant shore he always stood oceans apart from, scoffing at the other side.

There was a time when he was happy, when sunsets were more than just pleasant memories, when he swapped smiles and traded rosy cheeked laughs until he was breathless, when he felt alive-

There was a time when he wasn't brittle bones and scarred flesh, some pitted, rotten apple core light enough to heft into the air and toss without care.

There was a time, and so he bristles at the audacity of being turned into anything less. Even if it never gets him anywhere.

The elder guardians' chime rings out and the weakness rattles stronger with it until he's left blinking. Head rolling until he sees the world upside down and lava trades for dark hallways, winding staircases that lead to nowhere, dim bits of glowstone and bright pillars of quartz.

And then rows and rows of iron doors.

Little windows with bars frame each cell and he spots movement in some of them, flickers of light among the pace of figures like shadows between the gaps.

Trying to stare at them makes him sick. The rush and sway of the world so vomit inducing it has him trying to get away, everything spinning sideways, door after door after door- and every single one dredges up the sense that he's supposed to know why they're there.

The world grows dark at the edges until it creeps across his vision and fills his ears.

Tucked away in the space between consciousness and the stretch of poisoned sleep, everything stays far away.

A familiar sort of weightlessness and nothing that cradles the fractured parts of himself.

It's always pleasant, better than the dreams or the nightmares. Better than anything...

But it always ends.

Muffled voices slowly start to become clearer and even when the world spirals into a heightened sense of clarity he stays ragdoll still on instinct.

Because it's better to let them think he's completely out of it. The best bits of honesty always came forward when people thought there was no one to overhear them.

"What're you doing here?"

"Should be askin' you that- why the f*ck's he outside the prison?"

There's a lengthy pause, the sheer venom having shook the air and he knows that voice, settling like the sticky ghost of blood on his palms, bruises and beatings and days stuck with someone else in the cell.

The old ugly stench of rage and fear.

"He'll be brought back later today."

"Right..." The voice sounds unconvinced. "He's not like… pretendin' to be sick is he? 'Cause you're kinda sh*t at your job. Like for a guy who's always tryna save the server- or the f*ckin' world- or- or whatever the f*ck; you're just- you are actually very, very bad at it, Sam. Like this dickhe*d aside, how are you even still qualified to be a warden? How has no one sued you yet? Any Joe Schmoe with a sword could do a better job-"

There's the huff of a breath, the rant still lingering in the air as the voice continues, "Y'know I bet Big Q could. Not like he hasn't visited this place fifteen thousand f*ckin' times or nothin-"

"Tommy," The warden interrupts, tone clipped. "Why are you here?"

"Nothing!" A throat gets cleared, the words calmer. "No reason, I just, y'know... guess I'm headin' to Snowchester."

"Alright, well, you're headed the wrong direction."

"Don't wanna get spotted by the f*ckin' cops, ey? You'd be surprised how many people avoid this particular sh*thole of a shindig, big man."

The warden sighs. "You stole again?"

"I gotta eat- not all of us have fancy f*ckin' banks we can launder with." There's the sound of someone crunching into an apple, followed by chewed words, "'Sides that Vegas place has got loads of sh*t no one's ever gonna use anyways. They just throw it out! No one's gonna notice it missing so you can stop being a big puss* about it."

"Tommy. No one throws out gapples."

"Listen, Sam- Samuel, can I call you that-"

"No."

"You help me help you-" there's another obnoxious bite- "so in other words, you don't tell on me and I don't tell on you- think of it like a uh, that benefit mutualisms stuff, yeah? Like a- a deal."

"Tom-"

"No, no, don't Tommy me, we're makin' a deal cause I'm tired of being in deep sh*t with the biggest cop on the f*ckin' server."

"You're not in deep 'sh*t', Tommy."

Dream fights the urge to scrunch his brows, lips quirking at the corners because it's almost funny how the warden spits the curse so uncomfortably.

"No, I am in deep sh*t, and I've- I have been in deep sh*t every goddamn day since I left that cell. You f*ckin' accosted me for tryna break into the prison and I'm not stupid, I know how this works-"

"That was ages ago, you and your friends are technically off the hook for that one."

"Yeah that one." There's a long sigh, a lengthy pause. "It- look, it doesn't matter. Just make sure that green prick stays put in that f*ckin' cell or I'll find a way to kill him myself."

The world shifts, blackness spinning the threat as tactless as the nausea.

The warden doesn't answer immediately, something withheld and then silently exchanged.

"Look, Tommy, I just... just make sure you get to Snowchester before the sun goes down," the warden warns, voice devoid of all life like he's just reading every syllable off a script. "And make sure you actually wear the proper safety gear this time. The radiation around those parts has gotten a lot worse with the snow melt."

"f*ck. Off. We're not friends, Sam. I shouldn't even f*ckin' be here. Unless you're forgettin' it's you're stupid economy that took my hotel, that- that took my house, that took-" The words shatter and crumble before coming back in darker tones. "...So don't baby me- don't act like you care what happens outside your dumbass little fantasy land. You are just a massive prick and a bitch; and from where I'm standing? You're both green."

Silence rings thick and heavy, crude words boiling and hissing in the air.

It's a sudden weight that crushes the atmosphere until it bends with the cast of violent defeat, from cracked and fizzled accusations chopped up in the throat of some kid he feels like he hardly knows. But it's the same old sound he remembers like the distant buzz of a gnat, and he knows without a doubt that he's heard Tommy spit broken words before.

"...Bye, Tommy."

"Burn in hell, Sam."

It's a touchingly familiar exchange.

He opens his eyes just in time to see Tommy stalk away, middle finger raised in a salute, golden apple clutched in the other hand. All dirty hair, too big jacket and taped up boots that must've seen better years as the kid clambers down to the rocky shore on some chaotic plan of action.

He wonders how the hell someone that brash and scrappy could stand up to the likes of the warden. When he considers it for half a second, he thinks that's exactly how.

He thinks in a twisted sort of way, it's the opposite of him.

And somehow above all else his addled brain finds the whole thing funny- like he's watching his own life from the outside in, some sitcom and he's the only member of the live audience. Laughter as fake as the jokes.

"You're… you're good with kids, I take it?" Dream slurs sarcastically, tongue moving ahead of his brain.

"Tommy's not a kid."

The warden drops him the full distance to the ground.

He laughs into the grass, boneless and drunk, everything too bright, head stuffed with the delirious sensation of suddenly being so close to so much of something that's alive.

Everything condensed to what it feels like to breathe and taste the air for the first time all over again. Feel the soil sing, energy thrumming just out of reach as he presses his fingers into the ground.

And being outside, taking it all in, it isn't as shocking as it should be. In fact it's so underwhelming it hurts, some injustice to it when the drunken happiness of it fades and leaves him staring listlessly at the blades of grass.

A lazy smile wiped away until he kneels there and he wonders if that's it.

It… it can't be it?

It can't be just another thing robbed from him. It...

He looks towards the concrete path and wonders where all the green went, he looks to the shore that frames the offshore prison and he can't remember there being boulders stacked to form a seawall.

How everywhere he swings his head, nature seems demarcated to strips of land sectioned off by smooth curbs and fences. Green only wrapped around the sides of buildings or sitting on shallow pots and planters.

Artificial and tamed, covered with a red sort of fungus, a disease clinging to the outer edges of all the shiny signs. The flashy buildings, the chalky greys that seem to overtake the memory of something that used to be brighter, more chaotic.

Ironically, the last bits of green in the area are the patches of grass and flowers wringing the prison's entrance building. Huddled together in the shade of blackstone and obsidian.

Staring at where the sickly alliums sway in the breeze, he wonders if he's allowed to believe this one's real.

"Don't think about running," The warden starts, grabbing him by the arm and hoisting him up roughly. "You wouldn't get far and you're not gonna like what happens if I have to drag you back."

He cuts his gaze up, never looking the warden directly in the eyes. Glazed stare always stuck somewhere just below, to the side, anywhere that meant he didn't have to see himself reflected in black scleras.

"Do you understand?"

Lips curled slightly, he lets his chin dip, eyes shut when he breathes out a tired, "Yes."

The warden lets him go and Dream steps away, but only enough to throw a sliver of space between them lest the blood in his veins boil over and he do something stupid.

Because where the f*ck would he even go? To the End?

He almost laughs at the thought, hand rubbing absently at the spot that still stings from the warden's rough grip.

There is no one, nothing that doesn't want him dead, that wouldn't hunt him down. That much he knows for sure. That much they drilled into his head.

That much he understands with absolute clarity. Tommy had shown up and hammered the final nail in the coffin box of his doubts, kicking them six feet down into the bottom of a grave before wiping his hands of it and walking away.

There was no running.

There was never going to be any running.

And he smiles a shaky, thin wisp of a thing because maybe if he tries hard enough to hold on to the sallow green, and the flowers, and the whisper soft sounds of the shore, he can at least settle for better dreams.

When the warden pushes him forward he walks with shaky stumbles. Gait slightly favoring one side and then the other and then shaping up into something stiff when the warden grabs him by the arm again.

His eyes stay stuck on the ground, breaths shallow and short because it's easier to stare at rough concrete then pretend like he could weave his way through the alley of every building. Leap over every roof and eventually reach the treeline somewhere outside the city.

No, he's better off here.

---

As they walk, the only thought that worms its way into his mind, is that time has passed.

A lot of it, the world shiny and new and yet even for all it's crowded change it still reads relatively the same. There were familiar buildings, the wreckage of old places and patches of earth and thickets of flowers that stood healthier than the rest. The burnt up remains of old wooden paths that make him tug against the warden's grip. Called forward at the beckon of singed signs and yellowed posters that beg him to stop in his tracks and stick around long enough to remember.

If he could just remember-

The most haunting of the wreckage is a broken up obsidian lattice hanging in the air. A skyscraping tower half collapsed beyond it, something important, something lost, something-

Fingers dug into the back of his neck make him hear static. All cold indignation and hot rage, seething and foaming at the mouth, but unable to act as everything is washed away and he's shoved forward again.

Even now he's left staring at it through the reflections in passing windows, images warped and trapped inside. Barely able to breathe the thin air, staring at his own dull eyes in a silhouette he only recognizes because so many minutes, days, months had passed.

It's change. It's progress, and somehow it feels like he should mourn it.

When he cranes his neck to gaze emptily up at the towering casino, he's struck with the understanding that it all seems familiar. Like a recent dream, a funny sort of thought that sticks between his teeth like the papery skin of potatoes.

Curious and carefully disordered in its structure, the signs they had been passing all boasted a wonderful place called Las Nevadas in flashing neon colors. The premier casino, the magnum opus stood at the very heart of all that flashy Vegas, a monolith of white marble and purple glass. As quiet and imposing as thick snowfall after a blizzard.

A muted sign beside the fountain outside that reads;

Las Nevadas Casino Resort

It gleams beautiful and serene like marbled heaven, something fit for the mythical halls of the skyworld.

When he brushes the back of his knuckles against the stone, it screams hell.

As they approach the open doors, two masked figures stand like statues on either side. Eyes and mouths covered, hoods up so they're just faceless, nameless guards in black that track them with their glass stares behind sleek gas masks.

The air around them squirms red and he can't stop his feet from trying to move away on instinct. With nowhere to go he bumps into the warden's side and then he's crouching lower like the stumble is supposed to earn him a hit- but he's ready for it, ready to duck, ready to-

He's almost startled when the warden's hand leaves the bruising grip on his arm only to push against the center of his shoulders. He curves away, baring his teeth at the patronizing touch.

Fingers curve into his collarbone then, stopping him short and tugging him back. Pushed and pulled like an unruly animal until he's standing properly in place at the warden's shoulder.

The patrons of the casino hardly turn their heads, the waitstaff mingling around them with golden platters and shiny drinks. Everyone's smiles wide and empty, eyes glazed as they hang off the next card, the next roll of the dice, stubbing out cigarettes on crystal ashtrays as they push chips to the center and call their bets.

The air smells sweet, smoke curled in the notes of it that burn his throat and he stifles a cough. Head down and eyes jumping too fast from person to person, threat to threat.

"Don't talk to anyone, don't take anything. Just walk."

"What..." Dream mumbles, hand prickling as he flexes it at his side, mind singing with hurt and screams, wrong, wrong, wrong; and he always bites off more than he can chew. Stuck forcing fear into sarcasm when he's got nothing left. "Am I like- am I supposed to pretend to be your side piece?"

"No." The warden angles his head, pushing him forward. "You're not my type."

He'd laugh at the deadpan nature of it if he wasn't too busy trying not to crawl out of his own skin. Ears forced as flat as they can go when the bustling inside of the casino finally slams into him. All noise and colors smacking him across the face at full force and it's nearly agony. A sharp sword shoved through his stomach because it instantly makes him want to turn back.

He hardly spins in place before the warden's turning him back around, a glare cast from black eyes.

Dream avoids the scrutiny, chin tucked low as he studies each passing table loaded with cards, dice and gamblers. The lights from each row of cheery slot machines spin in his eyes and clog his ears until he's dizzy with the flash of the pixels, the trilling ding, ding, ding of a jackpot.

He fights the instinct to crawl into the tightest, smallest corner. He defies the urge to throw his arms over his head and force his claws through the back of his brain until the world goes black.

Until it makes sense, until he's not jumping and tensing at the slightest movements. Shaking and trembling for too long after someone brushes by too close, at the music and chimes, and everything he can't predict, that he can't expect or anticipate.

His steps reflect it in the way his limbs stay numb. His ankles weak and he tries not to stumble on the garrish carpet, the pattern resembling the poker chips that tumble down to it and remain forgotten.

It feels like the pads of his feet are being stabbed by the coarse fibers. The sensation is acid crawling under his skin until his teeth ache at the roots and his gums sting, and it's nothing like walking on obsidian.

Lights too bright, sounds too harsh, the hand at his back feels as hot as a brand and he wishes he had a hood, or a mask, something. Anything to condense the world because it's too much after being consistently reduced to an existence of nothing.

More than that, it's the intense fear of simply being seen. Because being seen, locking eyes with someone else, that meant being hurt.

Each step into the maelstrom of sensation has him crowding closer to the warden's shadow. Side pressed unwittingly to the warden's until he's just like a shaking dog who can't separate itself from its owner's heel.

He still has enough self dignity to glower at the ground and tell himself he would have prefered to be dragged here in chains. He'd prefer to be collared and muzzled because this is a different kind of humiliation.

This is voluntary, like he stuck his own head and hands in the laughing stocks.

But he can't comprehend doing anything else, mind mixed up into notes of panic that snare him and pin him in place.

A splash of purple in all the red red, red, red draws his attention. It's just a flash of it out of the corner of his eye and when he tracks it among the chaos he sees the glass and shiny countertops of a bar, a thing that's white and purple just as Las Nevadas appears from the outside.

A balm in all the green felts and violent reds.

Nestled into the wall, serving a colorful array of patrons, the sign hanging above it reads a mocking Church Prime in looping tubes of neon.

His eyes are stuck on the bartender though, a fox with a black bow tie and arm bands to match. Fresh pink scars down one side of his face, eyes down as he idly dries off a glass.

When he looks up Dream meets his dark eyes and nearly screeches to a halt in his tracks.

He remembers, he actually-

The fox's eyes widen, glass nearly dropping before he's fumbling to catch it. Spitting some curse when he finally snags it on the bar counter.

It's right in-between the space of two patrons, a well-dressed piglin and a man who both angle their heads down in tandem. Lips moving and words said, but too far away to catch.

The piglin turns to follow the stricken stare, expression twisting before he's elbowing the winged man at his shoulder. The latter spins in his seat, and Dream can see words falling from his lips that trail off mid-sentence and then fold into a grimace.

The scrutiny makes his lips curl, because these eyes aren't empty and dull like the others, they're alert, staring at him, through him.

They know him. Everything he used to be lying in them.

And it's frustrating to know that, to see it and still have no grasp on how to make that reality reflect in himself. He doesn't know how to remember and it never stops being a hollow, breathless existence. A losing battle he's forced to fight with his hands tied.

The winged man cuts his gaze away and kicks back a drink, raising the empty glass towards the bartender as more words slip out, gesturing towards the casino floor. Dream only understands the stiffness of the movements, the hunch of those ragged wings to be that of something icy and simmering.

Suddenly the warden is stepping right across his vision, shoving him away with stiff words and pinched brow.

Dream forgets all about them when he's pushed through a tall door into a cozy office. Fire burning in the hearth with a hungry flame, a desk opposite of it and a damningly familiar figure sitting with his feet propped up atop it. Hands tucked under his chin as he gives a crooked smile.

Quackity's lopsided grin is one thing he knows he's never going to forget.

It makes him stiffen like a deer in headlights. Head shaking back and forth as his eyes dart around the room and he goes light-headed with the stomach plummeting urge to run. Stepping back only sends him bumping into the warden.

Two hands plant against his shoulders and he's shoved forward, catching himself before he can go sprawling on the ground.

He hunches in place then, stance lower and body curled in, eyes caught on the wall behind Quackity's head where weapons gleam in their frames. Crowded around souvenirs that go all the way to the ceiling like a hunter's trophies. A cracked mask sits among them, smile split down the middle, pieces chipped off and smeared with the rust marks of old blood.

Grooves and scuffs, and painful things he can almost recall.

"Well hey there, fellas." Quackity sits up, drawing Dream's attention back down to the real threat in the room. "Why don't you have a seat?"

Dream moves cautiously with the knowledge that he's the whipped lion forced to sit across from the ringmaster. Maybe he would have scoffed at the situation before this, but now his bones show through his skin like a shrub wrapped in plastic, teeth, and he's never been further from cognizant and healthy.

Scars wrung around his body like a sh*tty wrapping job, he sits with all the gracelessness that comes from having nothing but obsidian for a chair. From knowing nothing but the taste of bitter blood and stuttered pleas whenever a shadow shaped like Quackity entered the cell.

"You know it would've been easier if you just came by the prison."

The warden doesn't sit, opting to stand off to the side like he expects Dream to leap over the desk and gut Quackity any second.

Dream stares down at the backs of his palms. The way that dark netherite peeks out beneath the white cuffs of a dress shirt, and he thinks he should.

"Don't be goddamn downer. You need to get outta that place more anyways- and hey, you got him here, right?" Quackity leans back, hands lazily tapping at the desk as he looks Dream up and down. "I mean, you even dressed him up this time. I dunno how the hell you managed that one, but I admire the commitment to keeping up morale. I'm sure the last thing folks need to think is that you let prisoners get their sh*t kicked in on the regular."

"Tommy saw him."

"Tommy?" Quackity arches a brow. "That guy's not a problem, trust me."

"I'm... aware, but he could tell someone else that Dream's out right now." The warden crosses his arms, looking back over his shoulder. "It looks like Technoblade and Philza might've already heard."

Quackity shakes his head with a laugh, elbows thrown up on the desk, palms pressed together in some mockery of prayer.

"You know you- you really do worry too much, Sam. If they were gonna break him out they would've done it by now. They let you walk right past, didn't they? And let me tell you, they're gonna let you walk outta here, too." Quackity's smile grows dark, teeth sharp where they catch the light. "They're just here on business and we're way past the point of anyone giving a sh*t. I mean christ, the only time people broke in was to try and kill him."

Quackity's eyes slide over to meet Dream's, a half and half sort of stare broken up by that scar etched through one pupil.

Dream scoots back at the movement and despises the wicked way all his nerves ignite at the slightest threat. Every breath, every look, every gesture just the precursor to something that doesn't come, but he always expects.

Talked around and never to, existing like a particularly annoying gnat in the room. An endless state of being that is both highly scrutinized and not worth wasting precious breath on.

Because Quackity isn't telling that story for the warden's sake. Quackity's saying it for his. Driving home a point that echoes like words birthed in an obsidian oven. Seared into his skin beside every mark and he's unable to differentiate from whose hands they come, only that there's a long history of blood being spilt there.

"What does Techno want?" The warden asks.

"The same thing he always does."

"You're not actually-"

"It's not important, Sam," Quackity cuts the warden off, gesturing sharply towards Dream. "Right now this is about him."

Dream flinches, lips flat and ears down, eyes stuck staring at the glint of too many rings on Quackity's fingers. The relentless survival instinct to keep track of them leaves him trapped there, obsessively stuck on the thought of when not if.

"Hey." Fingers snap in the air. "C'mon, I expected a little more enthusiasm. Like sh*t man you weren't spacing the hell out last time-"

He goes still, rigid with his claws brought up to wrap around his biceps, chin tucked low, that knot of muscle in his chest leaping and skipping a beat.

If he stays still, he'll go away. If he doesn't breathe, he'll go away. If he doesn't think, he'll go away. If he doesn't remember, if he doesn't snarl, if he doesn't speak, if he doesn't-

If he doesn't-

If he doesn't-

I̵̙̯̋͑̌̆̓͗̎̒́͝͝͠ͅf̷̛͉̯̟̪̲̳̗̩͚̯͝ͅ ̸̲̌̎̈́͗̀̄̊͝͠h̶̛̠̳̉͊͐̍͐̓͝e̷̪͎̭͙̦̪͈̿̇͋̋̃͂͌͆͗͊͜͝͝

A hand grabs his chin forcing his head up and he tries to wrench away, shocked by a touch like sinking his teeth into live wires.

Dream, do you know who I am?"

"Y...yeah." He stutters, eyes darting to the sides, anywhere- anywhere, but centered.

"Good." Quackity's praise is slick and curdling. "Now, you know why you're here, right?"

Avoiding Quackity's eyes at all costs, Dream's gaze gets stuck on the wither rose sitting on a shelf beyond his shoulder, the petals giving off their steady supply of wispy rotten smoke.

Vision losing focus the longer he stares, the world condenses into shapes and colors, everything just as ephemeral as the smoke. He doesn't answer, but it's still a simple truth by omission.

"Jesus, that sh*t we've been giving you must be stronger than I thought. You think you'd at least remember that one," Quackity laughs, the smile never reaching his eyes.

Chin let go with a throw, Dream flinches away, the back of a wrist scrubbing at the lingering sensation of fingers ground into the bone. A slimy, dirty texture to being manhandled that he never has enough time to wipe off.

Quackity doesn't seem to care. He doesn't hesitate as he leans back and holds out his hand, a book manifesting in the center of his palm.

"You gave this up yesterday."

The words pierce through him like shears. A hot, slicing reminder of how much he begged to remember and how little he ever actually did and his frustration ratchets up at the proverbial bomb drop.

It's like stumbling into the same understanding of losing the same sh*t Every. Single. Day. Day in and day out; day forgotten. Over and over and over again. And he doesn't know whether to laugh, or to cry, or to feel any particular way about it because it's always moving, everything shifting right beneath his feet until he's thrown to the next demanding scene.

No amount of white knuckled holding on would ever keep him in the same place.

"Which is why he doesn't need to be here," The warden finally cuts in.

"Nah, yeah, you're probably right." Quackity flips through a few pages, carefree and lazy before he slams the book shut. "But I sincerely wanted to thank him from the bottom of my heart. Like without you, Dream, none of this sh*t would've been possible."

Quackity holds the book up, waving it and Dream can hardly make out anything from between the grey static. Panic a proverbial cloth of chloroform pressed over his lips and nose.

"-and I get it y'know. Loose lips sink ships and your little plan to stay relevant was watertight."

He hears Quackity's words like a bad radio station, swimming in and out.

"-shame it's useless."

And the worst thing imaginable is watching Quackity lean over the desk and lob the book frisbee style straight into the hungry flames across the office.

Because that meant it was worth nothing and he was worth less than that.

The warden is the first to move, trapped between striking Quackity down right there or grabbing the burning book himself. But when Dream looks over his shoulder, a lazy sort of detachment to the whole thing, the flames are too high, the fire too hungry and the only thing the orange spits is ashes and embers.

When he cuts his gaze away from the open flames he is privy to the grand soap opera of crumbling trust as the warden grabs Quackity by the collar and hoists him up.

He thinks he'd find some enjoyment in it, but there isn't room for that and he's left like a shadow holding its breath in the wake of the warden's fury.

"What did you do?"

"The book was blank," Quackity chuckles around his words like a man who doesn't comprehend danger. "It was- Sam it was- f*ck man, don't you get it? It was empty!"

"You- you've lost your mind. We can't bring anyone back without that book. We can't-" the warden drops Quackity, hands stuck in the air like he can't believe they ever grabbed him. "Oh god… Tell me, tell me right now that was fake."

"It was never about the goddamn book! The book was-" Quackity cuts off, bent double like it's a joke that's making it hard to breathe. "That book was a red herring."

"What?"

"I already have it. He told me what was inside it months ago. How the f*ck do you think we've been running this place?"

Dream stares at the ground, trying to conjure up the idea. The determination to get up, to go to the wall and grab that axe down. That's all it would take. All the in-fighting is the perfect distraction, the perfect opportunity-

Just get up.

Just- he digs his claws into his thighs, eyes shut.

He could kill them both.

He could kill them.

He could escape- he could-- f*ck, he could escape. He knows he could in every muscle that quakes and every ragged scrap of his subconscious that scream in his ears, but trying to move is like slamming his fist into a brick wall.

Watching the knuckles split, the bones give and he grinds himself into dust against the idea until he's repeating the process over and over. Expecting different results isn't just madness, it's stupidity.

Because he'd already broken months ago and his skull didn't even have the f*cking decency to split open and let that sort of beaten in helplessness slither out.

"So you lied to me? You had me doing all that for nothing then? You had me-" The warden cuts off, composure cracking. "He told me where the book was, I thought that was the point."

"Oh, no, no, no-" Quackity shakes his head, the height of chilled snark. "You drugged that motherf*cker to make him forget, I mean look at him, he can barely keep his head up-"

Dream hardly registers the hand that shoves his head down against the desk, and even when Quackity lets him go it takes him a long second to realize he can raise his chin again. That he can watch them once more and consider the sort of anger that should boil in the starving stomachs of broken mutts, and wonder why he can hardly muster more than a growl.

"And if I'm remembering right, wasn't that your idea? You thought of that one all on your own, I told you to execute him, but you convinced me there was a better idea. You gave me that opportunity to invest in something, Sam-" Quackity smoothes his voice into something softer. "We invested together."

The warden shakes his head. "I didn't invest in this. I would've kept him in that cell, I would've handled him myself and that's it. Forever. You used me-"

Quackity huffs a laugh, cutting the warden off as knuckles rap loudly against the desk. Dream flinches at every hollow tap.

"You know what your problem is? You're a coward Sam."

"I'm a coward?"

"Yeah, you're a coward." Quackity scoffs, waving a hand. "Like what? Suddenly you can't justify you're f*ckin' actions and you lose your goddamn nerve. My god man, I'll let you in on a little secret- it doesn't matter. If you've got such a problem doing your job why don't you join those hippies hiding out in the desert, or better yet those barbarians out in the Arctic-"

"My actions were justified-"

"Jesus Christ- get over yourself!" Quackity shouts, the air rattling with it. "I'm in charge here, Sam. If you've got a problem with it why don't you shut up or f*ckin' kill me."

"... You sound like Schlatt."

The name strikes Dream like an anvil, an emptiness left behind that makes his eyes flicker up and study the dark shadows dancing across Quackity's face.

"I'm not-" Quackity snarls, getting in the warden's face before backing down. Hands raised and shoulders shrugged, Quackity turns away. "Fine, f*ck it."

"Q," The warden warns.

"Nah, nah- f*ck it, right?" Quackity steps back and when he brings his hand up there's the glint of cold steel.

Dream recognizes it. The flash of it catching in his mind hauntingly different to any way that pliers, or shears, or any other weapon ever could. This rattles every molecule in him with an animalistic warning that finally unglues him from the chair until he goes tumbling out of it. Stumbling backwards like a startled rabbit struck dumb at the shine of the snare.

"You know what this is? It's progress, Dream," Quackity explains opening the cylinder of a revolver, the soft metal clicks of the chambers being spun echo in the air. "This is the future. No gods or kings, just order and politics."

There's a final click, the cylinder pushed back in place, and Quackity looks towards him.

"Listen, Wilbur's taken care of. Schlatt's out of the picture. We got Snowchester and those anarchist pricks under control, the greater kingdom no longer exists, and we finally got those eggheads to see some reason. So, as far as potential threats go… I guess that just leaves you."

Quackity casually aims the revolver at Dream, shaking it once before he levels it back towards the ground.

"And I'm sure all those words don't really mean jacksh*t to you anymore, huh? No, you're all actions-"

"Quackity, you wanna tell me why you're waving that thing around?" The warden sounds exasperated more than anything.

"I'm testing your dog," Quackity answers, finally stepping away from the desk to walk the floor.

Recognizing the looming threat means analyzing it, and Dream steps back for every one Quackity takes forwards until his spine meets the wall. Items clattering where he bumps into them and he doesn't have even half a mind to grab a single one in defense because he's too busy studying the way Quackity's gait seems to favor the left side.

A right sided weakness that's opposite of the scar on his face, canine replaced with gold to match. That whatever caused it must've punctured the skull too. Funny in the way that brains always worked like that.

Funny in the idiotic manner that Quackity seemed to lean on everything when he was standing while refusing something as simple as a cane.

And he knows with every fiber of his being that if he were to fight him now, even like this, he would win. Because Quackity isn't a fighter, he's a gambler.

And yet he's stuck fast, just a moth staring into a flame, because he knows above anything, above every shattered and fractured memory Quackity of all people shouldn't f*cking have something like that.

"I'll make you a deal. You kill your old pal Sam here- you put a bullet in his green skull and y'know what? I'll let you go free. I'll take off those cuffs. Hell, I'll even give you some TNT on the house." Quackity offers him the gun, handle first like he's not passing a loaded weapon to the one thing in the room that wants him dead. Like he's that damn confident. "You get to go free, Dream-- no conditions, no loopholes, none of that, alright? All at the cost of one little life."

He takes the revolver with every intent to put a bullet right between Quackity's eyes, but when the time comes, he just stands there. He can't raise his arm.

"I…" Dream hesitates, voice difficult to find. "I could just… what's stopping me from killing you?"

"Do it then, asshole."

Dream pulls the hammer back, relishes in the click-click that it sings, and still he can't move because it's too good to be true. It's too good to be real and even still, every part that knows Quackity's tongue is laced with silver is met with a part that just wants to believe him.

"I'm the last thing standing between you and freedom, pal. You kill me and you're gonna go from half-dead to walking corpse real fast, but not before I make your life a living hell." Quackity drives the point home with fingers jabbed into his sternum. "Cause all that sh*t I already did is nothing compared to what I'm gonna do- you think you'd survive mind intact if I came by everyday and really put my back into it?"

It's all bluffs, each one bigger than the last. Daring moves to try and get him to fold because Quackity would die instantly if he sunk a bullet straight into his skull. He'd die, because there's not a drop of magic or immortality, or anything in those veins. And maybe he survived a pickaxe but there's not a potion in the world that could bring him back.

There's nothing but blood, whole and human, and if he loses enough of that then he's gone. For good. Forever.

There's no totem of undying clutched in his hand, there's no secret card up his sleeve, even the book-- even that damn book was a leap of f*cking faith and the idea that it was the difference between life and death only extended to how alive the person stayed. At least he thinks, at least he hopes, at least that's what sits heavy in his mind as he tilts his chin up and looks Quackity in the eyes.

"Or, y'know, you could..." Quackity raises two fingers to his skull, held in the shape of a gun as he mimes pulling the trigger. All with a grin, a lazy narrow to his eyes. "But we all know how that one ends."

Dreams eyes dart around the room, shuffling in place, a defiant fury that riots against the fact he can't just end it. Even if it means he's dragged back to obsidian he can just-

"So… why don't you do yourself a favor and kill him."

Eyes shut, he shakes his head. Tying to throw off the confusion, the daunting sense that he'd prefer them both dead, but Quackity's words burn like venom until he's stepping forward, stepping past him. Arm raised and when he opens his eyes he's staring down the impassive expression of the warden, mind cold and gone.

And he wants him dead.

Nothing compares to it. It's hunger rose up like a dog breaking its neck on its own chain. Ruthless, and for all that it froths, for all that the warden stares him down and he doesn't heed every warning sign that something is wrong, that the threat of death hardly phases them-

He can't pull the trigger.

No, no. He wants him dead- he has to- he has to-

He wants-

Teeth grit, fingers shuffling in their grip, the clock in the room ticks so loudly that he finally hears it screech among the cacophony of everything. It rings out every second, every damning moment he doesn't do the one thing that should be the easiest to do.

He can't kill him.

And when he lowers the revolver he's left with ragged, wounded breaths. Staring at the ground in the wake of folded cards and a bet he was never going to win.

"Alright," Quackity draws out and Dream looks over automatically, eyes flat, world grey. "Looks like you're not getting your freedom today. But y'know what, there's always next year, right?"

A hand falls over his own, trying to pry the revolver out of fingers that are practically rigor mortis. Dead and cold, and dead and-

It's been a year.

It's been an entire year-

He sees red, feels red, and when he blinks he's leveling the barrel of the gun at Quackity's forehead, digging the metal in and walking the smug prick back a few steps until the room thickens with the threat.

"Wow, man, thinking sh*t through really isn't your forte right now is it?"

All he has to do is pull the trigger. Just one simple thing. Something he's done a thousand times with a crossbow. Simpler than the push of a button or the pull of a lever. Not even thrown fists and broken bones to make it laborious, not even white hot rage and swung axes or ripping teeth and claws to make it monumentous. It would take less than the time between blinks.

It would be effortless.

"Well? What's your next move, wise guy?" Quackity taunts, hands shoved in his pockets, voice barely shaking. "What's your plan? You gonna crack those cuffs on your own? Get revenge? Blow up another country? What the hell are you gonna-"

Dream pulls the trigger.

It clicks, there's nothing, and he doesn't even have time to retreat before Quackity's throwing a sucker punch.

When the world stops spinning he's down on hands and knees. Looking up at the doubled silhouette of Quackity, he watches the gambler shake his hand out and then adjust the cuff of his sleeve. The rings glinting on every other finger are the one thing that genuinely makes the sloppy hit sting like a bitch.

Because Quackity's not a heavy hitter and Dream knows those hands too well. Knows the press of those rings into flesh, the way they split lips and bust eyes, and wield sharp tools and weapons far better than they ccould ever form fists. And he should've pulled away, he should've refused the offer, he should've left the warm metal of the revolver behind from the start.

Pushing himself up into a bent back kneel, the lights hum hot behind his ears, buzzing and damning. Glare at the ready because it's the one thing he's got left.

"You know you're one tough son of a bitch to break. Consider it a compliment really."

Dream swallows harshly, wiping the blood from his busted lips off on his sleeve.

Reddish purples blossom against perfect whites.

Some conversation breaks out overhead.

Half perceived through the sickly notes of a pounding headache and the sort of post-concussive rapture of watching a stain spread like it's the only interesting thing left in the world.

"-not your f*ckin' fault. Remember, you said any cost, that includes Tommy, that includes Ponk, that includes Kar- that- it includes everyone. So no, you can't go back for nothing." Quackity pushes at the warden's shoulder driving the point home. "You're in this for life. That's the sacrifice we made, that's what we have to make to keep this sh*t running. To keep it safe."

The warden hesitates, Quackity presses on.

"And if it takes keeping his ass drugged to hell and back? If it takes torturing him until he doesn't remember a goddamn thing? Then that's how we control him, Sam- that's how we keep law and order, that's how we keep peace. That's our bread and circus."

The warden casts Dream a look, hand tensing at his side, black eyes scrutinizing. "But if he forgets enough, wouldn't that eventually make him someone else. Wouldn't it-" he sighs bitterly, "wouldn't we…"

The warden trails off, palm scrubbed down the side of his face, bumping into that mask, shoulders all tense and hunched. The air crackles with unspoken words stuck forever in limbo.

Dream blinks, startled by the implications because it's the first drop of regret in an endless desert. Even if it's backhanded and twisted, it's something odd, something that drives him to lift his gaze from where it's pinned to the floor, lips moving around soft words and softer breaths.

A question that instantly dies on his tongue when Quackity shoots him a look.

Immediately, he trains his gaze back down. Back towards the blood on his sleeve, more of it trickling down his chin that he scrubs off with jerky swipes just to see the white fabric grow darker. Just to see it shake and shudder in his vision.

"He's not like Ranboo or something. This is… this is Dream we're talking about-" Quackity reiterates, voice smooth like a snake's scales. "What's he going to do if he can't remember? What's he going to do if you convince him you're his only friend?"

"Nothing," the warden answers cordial and curt.

"Nothing-" Quackity grins in return, "exactly. That's right, f*ckin' nothing, okay? And listen, let's be real, look me in the eyes and tell me you're actually still doing this for Tommy, 'cause you're not. You didn't let me in that cell out of some thirst for revenge, you handed me those tools because you needed him broken. And you knew that."

The words are thrown down at the warden's feet, Quackity expectant.

Dream angles his head, watching the exchange as he considers for a dark blip of a moment that maybe he's not the only dog in the room.

Head turned, chin twisted up, the warden surveys all the items hung on the wall. When he looks back down, he levels Quackity with a dark stare. "What about the casinos? You think I didn't notice you're spiking the alcohol?"

Quackity's demeanor shifts into an easy smile. Leaning back against the desk, he raises one hand and suddenly there's a vial pinched between two fingers.

"If you're worried that people are getting addicted- they're not. This isn't like a blue or- or a 'soma' situation, or some sh*t. It just makes 'em, y'know, a little more relaxed." Quackity draws the word out, tossing the vial so that the warden can catch it. "It keeps people gambling for longer, making bigger and riskier bets at high costs just like any alcohol we'd sell, all without the headache. We don't drug the clientele here. But man, that'd be really messed up... wouldn't it?"

The warden turns the vial in his hand.

Dream can't make out the printed label but he's drawn to the glinting reflection it gives off. He knows the color, knows the taste, the impossible sweetness; the blood tinged undertones. He knows it used to come in nondescript glass bottles, that it used to glow stronger and brighter, how the taste even to this day never seems to leave and it lingers in every potato he eats--

"Yeah, I'm sure it would." The warden finally admits, the vial disappearing into his inventory, arms crossed again like it was never there. "Glad to see you finally found a decent way to make people irresponsible then."

"We," Quackity corrects, clapping a hand on the warden's shoulder before gesturing sweepingly to the door. "Now get the hell out and make sure his ass gets back home."

Quackity hoists Dream up to his feet in a surprising show of strength or maybe he's just grown that frail. He thinks it's the latter when Quackity shoves him like he's just a burlap sack of broken twigs, weightless and easy.

The warden drags him out of the office. The taste of metal is heavy in his mouth as he looks over his shoulder and watches Quackity give a final sarcastic salute.

---

Skin buzzing, crawling, writhing with maggots and awful disdain, his mind is a cluttered gyre. A thing left drowning instead of treading water and he chokes, sputtering against the cold waves.

Flailing underwater where he'd just been afloat because walking outside the second time hurts worse than any punch to the face ever could.

He can't stop scrubbing hands down his arms. Scraping claws at the back of his neck, down his face, brushing off invisible insects, invisible eyes, invisible hands, breaths stolen by growls as he bares his teeth and punches out every exhale with more force.

Wide, glazed eyes never seeing the world quite right as he trails behind the warden, feet following obediently while his mind isn't.

Everything bent and broken, burnt up and bombed out like a sunset at nuclear winter. But when he blinks the buildings are whole again, the sunset a deep bruised purple backlit with vibrant reds, every light shining in every window burning bright enough to drown out the stars.

It should be obsidian. It should be half an instant backed into a corner, trembling at the approach of the same grinning figure that haunts every waking moment.

He keeps falling behind, the warden having to turn and tug him forward only for the steps to pathetically repeat. He's only stopping mid-step because he's gone too far in the cell-

The wall should be there. Six and a half steps, nine on a bad day.

It should be-

The warden grabs him just above the elbow, wrenching him forward.

Obsidian falls away until he spots it again as the prison rises up above every rooftop in the distance.

Each step creeps him closer to it. Each step makes him feel like he's something that's been crawled into, something lived in, something used.

And he keeps hearing the click of the revolver in his ears.

Again.

And again.

And again.

He jumps at every instance, cowering from something he can't see, something that isn't there and the frantic hypervigilance only becomes bearable the moment he feels the mining fatigue infect his bones again.

It's only just bearable, because every step outside, every step with no walls, no ceiling, it gets harder to rationalize.

Stepping through the portal is easy. Slipping back into an orange jumpsuit is easier. Having blackstone and obsidian on every side is even more so.

It's easier to expect the things he knows even if he hates them, even if they hurt him, even if he wants to run from them.

He trails at the warden's heels because it's easier to stare at the backs of netherite boots then it is to relearn the way the clouds drift across the sky. Easier to teach himself careful numbness than it is to relearn bloodcurdling fear, then to be shocked and surprised, to feel outrage and indignation at losing everything.

He never has to feel them if there's nothing left to take.

Staring at the back of the warden's head he knows how to make it hurt at least. If only just a little, if only just enough to keep his teeth sharp and his mind honed. A thing learned from watching the warden flinch just once during Quackity's winding monologues.

"Who's Ponk?"

The warden stops in his tracks, gaze cast to the side as he hesitates and then moves forward again.

"No one."

Liar, Dream thinks as he falls right back in line again.

---

He realizes something is wrong when they've walked too many steps to get back to the maximum security cell and still there isn't a drop of lava in sight.

The corridors are strikingly familiar, or… they're supposed to be, but he can't remember going down them. Twisting his head left and right hazy notes of fear start to trundle their way up his limbs, spilling into his chest and the room swims to reflect it.

He'd lost track, let his guard down and now he's staring at blocks of blackstone upon blackstone and it all looks the same, it all starts to blend. Everything except the shape of the warden and that's not exactly the most soothing of sights; it's just recognizable which makes it more palatable than every alternative.

It's impossible to tell what's reality. Like it's the worst nightmare meeting the most pleasant dream and determining if he's awake was a grueling task. The outside is still too fresh in his head, Quackity's smile still flashing behind every blink, outside air still mingling down in the ashen pits of his lungs, the feel of grass still lingering beneath his feet--

He looks down and sees green.

And when he looks up he's struck by the sight of a veritable oasis.

There's not a window or door in sight. No inch of sky to go with the little patch of nature when he looks up and sees only more dark stone up above.

The courtyard is sealed tight, a thing entirely separate from the world. Isolated and vibrant, untouched by creeping reds and sickly greys, unaffected by the lingering disease that seemed determined to devour every living thing outside.

He's no longer a dying thing stood on a dying world, now it's just him that's rotting as he crouches down and sweeps his hand through the long grass. Listening to it rustle and sing with a cheerful tune, blissfully unaware it's never seen the sun.

Hand drawing back at the realization he sits in silence, quietly envious of some damn plants.

Movement in his peripherals has his head swinging to face it, spine pulled straight like he's a puppet on strings.

The warden stands yards away, reaching up to study a cluster of blue flowers that have climbed their way up one of the trees.

Delicate and mundane, it's hard to imagine they're the same person. It's hard to imagine those same hands that cup the edge of flowers and gently check the stems are the same ones that curl around the hilt of swords and the haft of axes.

Fully armored, fully capable of slaughtering, fully capable of anything and there the warden stands. Wasting his time checking plants in a courtyard that as far as Dream's concerned he shouldn't f*cking be in.

It was a security flaw- it was-

He shakes his head, sighing because the thought doesn't really make much sense, and maybe it's just another one he's been fed. It's loud, sure, but that didn't mean it was worth dwelling on.

Then of course there's some thoughts he just says.

"It wasn't you." The words fall before Dream can bite them back.

"What?" The warden half-turns, voice unusually soft.

"I..." Dream trails off, "well, I guess I always thought that… that you were the one who kept beating the sh*t out of me."

Dream laughs brokenly because this time it really is funny. It's hilarious. Because for all he knows, he could still be wrong. He smiles, a wide drunken sort of thing that's more grimace than grin. All blood stained teeth and dying memories, and it really doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter who gave him which scar. It doesn't matter who makes him cower. It doesn't matter…

Looking at the backs of his hands he can almost see fresh blood among the marks there. It's hard to imagine one transgression as worse than another when he spends all day watching the shadows dance on the wall of Plato's Cave. A million and one cruel things, and only one understanding that they were drawn into that box because of him.

He could categorize them all and it wouldn't change a thing.

He could sit and compare the warden to Quackity and it wouldn't change a thing.

"I want you dead." Dream shakes his head, hanging it with a chuckle, shaky and thin. As wispy as the poisoned air that creeps its way up the brittle chords of his throat. "I want you dead. And out of everything that's the least confusing. I want to kill you. I want it every day… I- I've wanted it for months- for…"

He raises his hands, palms pressed to the side of his head, voice bending and breaking, "I wanted it for so long and I think- and I- it's all I do-"

He curses, eyes shut, curling in on himself, trying to drive fury into his bones but it only stays flatlined. Something dead on arrival that leaves ash on his lips, blood on his tongue, and he speaks words into his forearms, his own teeth and hot breath scraping the scars.

"Maybe I forget, maybe I- maybe I never get out of here, maybe you- maybe Quackity-" Stuttering words dissolve right back into a laugh, and he unfurls from a tight ball like a crude metamorphosis. He tilts his chin up and smiles. "All I know- All I know is that if I wasn't like this, if I wasn't… I would have pulled that trigger a hundred times if it meant I could see the wallpaper through the back of your f*cking skull."

The warden stares him down, hands held at his sides. Not advancing or retreating, just observing in silence.

The chirp of a few lonely birds, the buzz of insects, and the rustle of creatures through the leaves is an odd sort of background noise to it.

The warden- Sam holds out warden's Will, hilt first, netherite gloves wrapped around the sharp blade.

"Go ahead."

Dream looks to the sword and then bows his head, teeth ground against each other hard enough to crack the enamel. He watches ants trek through the spaces between the blades of grass, he digs his fingers in between his ribs to match.

That's not fair. He thinks, but never says. Eyes moving a slow path towards the tiny creek babbling away in the distance. The soft chords of music that isn't there chiming away, a melancholic tune, a purple and black thing.

He stares at the sharp glare of the water reflecting the glowstone way overhead. It strikes his eyes like the biting glint of swords.

Dream twists his gaze back towards the warden finally, air drawn into his lungs on a long sigh. Backlit by the lanterns hung on their wooden poles, the warden stands there, offering a sword that Dream knows he should do everything in his power to drive straight through his chest.

Him sitting, the warden standing, they warp into strange reflections of each other like a mirror with a fist punched through it.

The warden gives a single nod and warden's Will disappears, hands folded back in their easy stance. Then turning away, he heads for the blackstone outskirts of the courtyard. "You've got an hour in here, enjoy it while you can... you'll be lucky if you remember it."

Eyes back on the ground, ears settling flat, Dream buries his hands in the grass. Fingers catching on the roots, he twists his feet into the soil and he stays entrenched there until the ants decide to crawl their way up his sleeves.

He watches one bold ant crawl up towards his shoulder, the little thing buzzing with frantic energy.

It's solace. Tracking the insects new route to nowhere shrinks the world down into just that single moment.

Lifting his head, he angles his gaze just enough to see the warden leaning against one of the walls that cages in the courtyard, staring down at that bright vial Quackity had thrown him.

A little innocuous thing meant to be marketed and sold, a thing meant for the painted and jeweled fingers of gamblers, a thing to maintain empty smiles and empty eyes; all still there, but something missing.

He does nothing, but cross his arms over his knees and prop his chin on them when he sees the warden pull down that respirator and kick the whole vial back.

All hands shaking, a desperate edge, the warden grimaces and presses a hand to his forehead as he tucks his head low. It's sort of expression seen at funerals when the mourners clutch framed pictures and plea silent bargains with the local deities; it's the same look when they venture to the bars to sink their sorrows into anything.

He watches the warden stand there and clutch the empty vial like a fumbling prayer. Brows pinched and mouth twisting from flat into a frown, and then back again.

Dream looks away.

He stares across the little oasis.

It wouldn't be worth trying to get out. It wouldn't be worth succeeding.

Not if he gets to see this courtyard again. Even if it's only once a year. Even if it's at the cost of…

He rubs a hand below one of the cuffs, fingers brushing raised scars and burn marks, all manner of things that had warped and changed since he'd been trapped here.

It was worth it.

Even if it's at the cost of everything.

All the green, all the animals, all the tiny bugs and the blooming flowers were healthy and whole here, not being slowly choked by invisible threats seeping through the air and the water. Everything here was safe in this box; forever.

And maybe the world outside wasn't worth trying to get back to.

Notes:

That was a long ass chapter so remember to take a break before continuing if you need to!

To the people who bookmark this and then return every time I update and then leave comments, you are literally the reason this fic is still going
/kisses you platonically on forehead
(also people who leave their comments in the bookmarks, you're also very very cool dhdjd)

Some references:

There's a lot of references to real life things (because dsmp canonizes real life sh*t so why can't I :')) ) and there's also a lot of tarot and other stuff in here.
Here's just a couple to clear some things up or if you don't wanna google stuff-
All that throwing knife stuff in the beginning directly correlates to sword tarot cards.
Alfredo M. Bonanno- Anarchist Writer
Soma- Reference to A Brave New World's drug that makes people "happy"

Also I don't think I ever explained the title for this fic actually!

It actually doesn't have to do with just Pandora's Vault, but it has everything to do with a reveal that happens later (hoping I actually get there)!
There's more to the old tale than just the jar after all--

The original title of this was actually going to plain and bluntly be "The Langoliers", "Four Past Midnight" or "As Above, So Below" because I am unoriginal and there was a big reason for naming it after those.
But I figured Pandora's Box worked just fine!

Chapter 11: Dreamland: Part I, 'Epimetheus'

Summary:

There's a set of tracks and a long tunnel. A dream that never seems to end no matter how far he goes, how fast he runs, but at least he's not stuck in limbo alone.

Wilbur always was a good friend... right?

Notes:

Title is a reference to Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, and whose name meant 'hindsight'

Oh man I had to cut this one short because it got into way too much sh*t and it felt better to cut it instead of having one massive chapter--

This includes a lot of headcanons and also stuff that's been planned since the beginning, like how I have Quackity's country nebulously be called Las Vegas but the casino resort itself is Las Nevadas (I mean he did say he was buidling the whole Vegas that one time, also Fallout New Vegas references, and Las Nevadas is a really cool name so I had to put it in here after seeing the first lore stream for it). Also the hc that Fundy's immortality works a lot like a phoenix and he's been an adult since the early days of L'Manberg- Wilbur just happened to be in the right place at the right time and all that (and the hc that Wilbur Soot himself isn't exactly human but no one can prove or disprove it). Those kinds of thing.

Regardless- this took way too long to write cause I'm perpetually sick but hey it's here now! :D

And remember this is an AU, these characterizations are different, things are warped and changed and molded to fit this story

TW/CW: self harm, implied suicide, Derealization! Depersonalization! smoking, implied torture, implied drugging, violence, distressing themes that come with nightmares, horror elements, dehumanization, unreality, unsettling content

(A rather cliche set of music I listened to on repeat while writing this, in case anyone's curious-
Mr. Sandman- SYML
The Other Side of Paradise- Glass Animals
The Angry River- The Hat
To the End- MCR
Helena- (but specifically the Ruston Kelly cover)
Lost on You-LP
The Bioshock Infinite Soundtrack (as always)


Oh! Also might wanna skim through the previous chapter cause there's a lot of things directly related to that!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The first thing he recognizes is the sun.

Glinting, glaring, and altogether too bright, his eyes snap towards where it hovers above stone walls. Black and yellow parapets stretching upwards to greet the sinking sun. Backlit by the glow, a dozen flags flutter like tattered wings against the sky.

Raising a hand he ducks his head, lip curled as the light slams right into the back of his corneas without mercy.

And the second thing he recognizes is laughter.

Chasing away the ringing of his ears, the chattering notes hit the air and he jumps at the proximity- the suddenness. Laughter a damning sign of everything unpleasant to come. Of a hammer, a knife, shears, a question asked he barely remembers, but the scars certainly do it for him.

Gaze locking on to the laughing threat, he sees a fox, a humanoid, a hybrid- the semantics never mattered much not when the white streak through tufts of fur on the fox's head meant resurrection of a certain, violent flavor. A phoenix-adjacent immortality that spat the cursed out in different forms and increasingly illogical places- like Athena bursting from a skull or a fast-growing fox from a broken off toe and a salmon.

Mid-laugh, head thrown back, the fox clutches a fishing pole and rocks in place. Young and uncaring, eyes crinkled shut, they're lost in the mirth of some passing joke. Dressed in a bright blue uniform, all patchwork and splotchy like the fabric was cooked up in a pot with only the last dredges of dye.

Then stitched lovingly together with inexperienced paws and a dutiful sort of care just the same. Just trying to match-

And there's nothing funny about it.

A jarring sickness twists and rips its way through his stomach. Chased on snapping jaws to sink its teeth straight into his heart, begging it to leap faster with hungry bites.

He flinches, scooting back, away, anywhere even if it's just a fraction, even if it's just an arm half raised.

Reflexes don't get him far, hip hitting the wooden side of a boat, legs wobbling when he tries to stand from the bench. He hunches low and grabs the side, fingers pale against the dark grain, grey gunpowder caught under the nails, wrong.

He's stuck staring down into a rippling lake, hearing the way the water slaps at the hollow flanks of the boat.

Sickening. A familiar-unfamiliar.

The way it wobbles beneath his feet, makes his ankles shake up to his knees. His stomach flips and he plants his ass back on the seat because he's terrified of flipping straight into the water.

And even above that, he's absolutely terrified of a world without obsidian walls and lava. Here there's already too many blues and greens, and honey sweet air to be anything close to predictable.

Lips parted, breaths harsh, he brings a shaky hand up to push back the thing that's slipping it's way down the bridge of his nose- glasses, he realizes when the world presses in closer from it's fishbowl warp.

His gut continues to turn at the unrecognizable sight mocking him in the water below.

A human face, a dark shock of curly hair.

He expects lavender tones, blacks, whites and greens violently cut by pink scars and bruises. Dull eyes glazed and shot through, red, purple and blue. He expects a sick, hacking, heaving sort of ordeal that never churns up from the ugly depths because it's like it's all been covered up under the wrong skin- or… or something just shy of right.

"Wilbur?"

A name, not his own, but familiar. Concern laced like the quiet call of a fox who speaks it as if he wants to fill in the gaps with something shorter, something more endearing--

"Dad?"

Dream blinks, chancing a glance at the fox before cutting his gaze away. Refusing the title because it's not his to take. None of this ever is, and maybe he doesn't know where, or who, or what he is- but what he's not? That he has to be sure of.

Because he understands himself to be many things, monster, thief, god, but anything close to a father will always be among the least.

And so he stares at the back of those hands that aren't his, too unscarred, too smooth, too blunt, too human. Ignoring the fox's stare, the few words he still speaks linger like flies in the summertime, something to be tuned out and perhaps even swatted away.

The thought crosses his mind.

A cold steel frustration that bends under incredible stress. The same sort of thing that stings like the brass knuckle suckerpunch of failure.

And for a split second he considers just shoving the fox overboard. Head over heels to plunge right in the water because he can't just sit there. He can't just pretend like somehow this is supposed to make any sense. Like his mind isn't a too short stick of dynamite lit at both ends and having someone else sit across from him, outlined by the very way the sky bends, is the very definition of wrong.

He has to keep every living thing as far away as possible because allowing anything within an arm's reach, letting them stay? That would only end in hurt. That ends in suffering. That is a bone deep sort of weakness that he can't let himself have-

And he thinks about it, but doesn't move. Wary gaze stuck at the bottom of the boat because his limbs feel like lead and his lungs only spit up ash.

And f*ck if he isn't tired of always being stuck at rock bottom. As if the person's skin he's masquerading in wasn't at some point in the same boat, literally.

Always expecting an easy way out with sour words and teeth stained red. And he could just say f*ck it; make it someone else's problem.

But he has the annoying habit of always making it personal. Keeping it close to the chest, no bleeding hearts on ragged sleeves, just masks and axe blades, crossbows and trenchcoats.

It makes him crave a cigarette lest the taste of phantom smoke sits too heavy on his tongue. He craves the ring of silence that lingers after shouting his lungs out belly deep in a ravine. Surrounded by pressing silence and darkness like the death he craved.

Because he knows the fox's name. Oh, how much he f*cking knows Fundy. All of it, every memory that's not his something less whispered in his ears than ripped right off his tongue as he mouths the name and never lets the air leave. Breath held and then cast in a heavy sigh, chin dipped and reluctance settled like all the world upon Atlas' shoulders.

Thumb brushing over pale knuckles, dark specks of soot smear along the bumps and the ridges until he scrapes a nail through the flesh. Pink lines trail behind it.

Zoning out, drifting in his own thoughts, mapping out scars that should be there, but aren't and never will be.

He traces those invisible lines ripped up between scales and wither rot. All of it eating away at each other in the wake of every blow that reduced his hands to ground meat, fingers bent back, smashed, snapped. Palms slashed, burnt, salt and water pressed into the open wounds, fire smeared through every crevice of his being and all he ever asked for was a book.

A stupid f*cking book.

A powerful f*cking book.

And maybe not even that… not anymore.

A useless book.

All for nothing. All for pain. All for the pleasure of watching something scream. Hypocrisy on high, a scarred smile and a glassy eye, all coming up with reasons until one day the words just because slipped from those flashing teeth.

Dream pushes fingers through his hair, Wilbur's hair, those too curly locks wrapping around the digits and he makes a frustrated little sound as he wrenches his hand free.

And- and no… these delicate hands aren't his.

These walls aren't his, these people are not his.

Wilbur Soot is a pale reflection of a timeless history, the old saying that maybe it doesn't always repeat, but it sure as sh*t rhymes.

And it's strange to actually be aware of a fever dream before the shock of it can be dunked down his spine. Before it can blow up in his face, before it can choke or drown him--

He tilts his chin up and lets the dreamworld slam into the back of his eyes. All of it strange, otherworldly in the way everything registers in such sharp focus as he swings his head to look at the walls on all sides, a blackstone fortress. All slightly warped and curved at the edges when he trails his gaze down to the treetops, the water, a hotdog van and--

Figures moving about on the shore. Names springing to his tongue like the sweet sting of ash and metal after a stack of TNT detonates.

Familiar uniforms swimming in the distance, lingering in the wriggling haze of the shore that stays stubbornly out of focus no matter how hard he scrunches his brow or squints his eyes. But it doesn't take clear vision to understand they match, the same blues, whites and reds sticking out like sore thumbs on gangly bodies. And adult or teenager, it didn't matter, they're all too young for a soldier's uniform.

Not as if there was ever a good time to don one anyway.

Dream cuts his gaze away, something sour resting at the base of his tongue. Memories recalled only to start a fistfight with the ones already lingering in that red mess between his ears. Things harbored in his head like rusty anchors scraping long dead reefs. Never knowing where his own end or begin, and dreaming was always confusing.

Or… at least he thinks it is--

Some life never lived, but inserted right into. Just a rusty coin into a sh*tty slot machine, the notes played from the chosen record, spilling out from the beaten-up jukebox. Not even half-finished, never fully understood and yet somehow, illogically complete.

Because in a dream everyone seems to know you better than you know yourself.

It's just one more thing that makes it harder to understand when he's awake.

And now he's stuck in a uniform that's so far from home, so separate from himself. Fighting the desire to thumb at all the navy strings and pull at all snags, spin the loose gold buttons because he's used to the plain stretch of starchy orange, the occasional dirty bandage.

Blood and scars and oppressive heat. Sparks of brilliant pain and a never ending hunger. Something, everything lost.

Not this.

Not the gentle kiss of the sun's heat. The soft tune of birds and bugs, the whispers of the curious wind and the ripples of a less than still lake.

With too steady fingers, he pushes his glasses back in place, hating the way the damn things never seemed to sit right, always bent and crooked in desperate need of repairs-

And the memory isn't his. It's not. He has to keep reminding himself of that as he stares at the bottom of the boat.

When he looks up again, Fundy is suddenly crowding his space. Leaned forward across the length of the boat, a paw out to poke him in the arm, mouth half open in a question.

Dream flinches, boots smacking the wood as he jumps back and tucks himself away with flaring nostrils and wide eyes. Please, don't-, caught behind the barricade of his teeth.

"Wil- sh*t." Fundy sits back down with a huff, setting the fishing rod across his knees. "Listen, uh Dream-er, bur? Dreambur, yeah let's just go with that- I- look, alright maybe it's hard for you to understand or maybe you're having trouble remembering. But I- things are already confusing enough, and this- you're not helping, okay? I need you to stay out of my head. Like, I mean do you..."

Fundy trails off with a sigh. "Do you even remember what I said to you last time- that last time you were here?"

Dream barely opens his mouth before he's cut off.

"No!" Fundy cries, gesturing wildly. "No, cause you're here, looking like that- fishing in L'Manberg- oh cause that makes perfect sense!"

Fundy's shout ends with him leaning over the edge, a spitting and angry shape of fur and fangs. Words spat at the water like it's the culprit.

There's no room for a retort, the fox falling back into the boat heaving some sort of ugly sound. Half-laugh, half-sob, clutching the fishing rod to his chest in some sad version of a hug. Exasperation caught in that toothy grin aimed at the sky.

"Oh man, it's not like it ever matters, right? I mean I don't even know if you're f*cking real- I don't know, I can't tell- I- I can't tell, you know how hard that is? And that's always the worst part, that's- it's… because sometimes it is, sometimes it's there. I wake up and it's there… and you don't understand. You don't-" Fundy cuts off with a groan, face buried in his paws, claws scraping through his fur. "What's the point- what's the point?!"

It's like watching himself, some version of unreality unraveling in front of Dream's eyes and he wonders if he shakes the same, if his chest heaves and his shoulders jump like that. If his breaths are just as harsh, if he mumbles the same pleas, if he goes still and quiet, and accepts it all with that very same scowl.

"It's not like you'll listen to me, no one ever listens in these. I could-" Fundy breaks off into a bitter chuckle. "I could scream at a brick wall and y'know, I'd probably get more results. Do you know how frustrating that is? How old that starts to get? Man, I just… I just wanna close my eyes one night and for the love of god, sleep."

And Dream doesn't know how to look Fundy in the eyes and say, yes, yes, I f*cking do. He doesn't even know where to start because his words are something that are barely his anymore.

So he dips his chin and rubs his palms down his thighs, air wrestled down his lungs to form a lame defense.

"I'm… " Dream licks his lips, voice sounding odd, rolling off the lips with rounded vowels and softer consonants. "It's not like I'm trying to end up here. It just keeps happening."

"I know. Trust me, I know. All of this sh*t really got started once we threw you in that vault."

"Why?"

"Why? Dude, your name is literally Dream."

Dream blinks, brow pinching and lips thin.

"You're gonna sit there and tell me that's got nothing to do with it, aren't you- like you're-" Fundy cuts off with a sigh. "No, you know what, doesn't matter. It really, really does not matter."

Fundy grabs up the fishing rod, casts the line and does everything in his power to ignore the elephant in the room. The wind picking up for half a second to buffet the boat, spinning it to the right ever so gently. The fox just keeps his gaze on the red and white bobber floating lazy in the catch of blue.

Clouds drift lazily in the shiny lake.

The whole scene a serene, peaceful sort of thing.

A calmness that's split every time Fundy scrapes the back of his wrist across his cheek and up to his brow, sniffing softly. Over and over again, like he's itching at some old wound. The fourth time it happens, Dream sees a scar appear that wasn't there before- a spiderweb of pinks kissing reds, blinking into existence.

It's an angry sort of thing.

Something that speaks volumes of pain as it takes up a little more than a quarter of Fundy's face. Stretching all the way down to his neck and curving across the top of his muzzle.

There's a boiling sort of rage that simmers low in Dream's stomach the more he studies it.

Like somehow he should have prevented that. Some deluded sense of control that somehow enduring the wrath of his own punishment meant no one else was supposed to take it- no else was supposed to get hurt, how could they?

It's a selfish sort of misunderstanding that scars don't always come from the blood stained hands of Force and Violence.

"Who did that to you?"

"No one. Not… not really. It's just some dumb luck, a red torch and a stupid egg." Fundy hardly glances over, eyes cast to the corners before centering again. "Who, uh, who gave you yours?"

Dream looks down, patriotic uniform flickering to reveal bloodstained orange. Ripped and tattered, a thing punctured messily with dull blades and blunt shears.

He can't stop himself from shoving fingers through the largest tear in the jumpsuit, hooking fingers in the fabric to drag it away from his skin. Revealing a gutting blow right through the stomach and he sees the wound like stars spilled out from bloody cosmos, gas and smoke, the world blinking around it.

Dark and cold and-

"Hey, hey, Dream-"

Something touches his arm and he flinches violently. Eyes wide, glazed, not there because physical contact was meant to break bones and never splint the limb later.

And he can't-

He can't tell him, can't tell anyone, can't, won't, shouldn't-

Because they know, and they don't care, and all he really understands is that they want him to rot in that prison cell- they want him to die, over and over and over again- they want it to hurt- everything, everyone; they have to know about that torture and that has to be the point. No one cares if he doesn't understand- if he no longer remembers the crime. He just has to suffer.

...why else would they leave him in there?

"Listen you've got to- you need to focus, you need to- you can't get lost or we're both gonna-"

The world fizzles into sparks of static. Darkness. Angry, violent reds splitting it like gnashing teeth and Dream blinks, palms pressed over his ears as the screeching crescendos and he cowers on the cold, obsidian floor of nothing, nothing, nothing-

And then he's back, spine too stiff, shoulders hunched, body not quite his, sitting on the hard bench of a small boat.

There's the rock of the vessel, paws scuffing wood, movement out of his peripherals. He looks up from behind those round lenses and sees Fundy turned in his seat. Doubled over to dig around at the bow of the boat, ears flat with muttered curses brought up alongside each dull thud of wooden planks.

Fishing rod abandoned to the bottom where it scrapes noisily with the rock of the boat.

"C'mon, c'mon, where is it--" Fundy mutters to himself, tail sweeping an agitated line.

Dream tilts his head, some conversation missed, a glaring blank space. Something changed, shifted, like a reshuffling of cards and he isn't sure if he's been forced to fold and draw a new hand or not. He'd gotten lost for a split second and it's hard to know if hours or minutes had passed.

"Ahah, found it!" Fundy tosses Dream a book, a tattered and charred memoir. A History of L'Manberg printed on the front.

Dream bends the paperback journal between his fingers, but never cracks it open.

Some things aren't worth trying to remember.

"You said you don't remember," Fundy explains, nodding towards the book, "well it's all there, Dream. L'Manberg's history told by the one son of a bitch who wanted it gone the most. It's- it's a wonderful story, right? The tragic tale of how things went from bad to worse to f*cked and Bye-Bye L'Manberg. Bye Manberg, f*ck… all of it."

Dream connects the dots. Distantly recalling explosions and wild laughter.

"That explains the TNT."

Stacks and stacks of it to be precise. Resting in that dimensionless space of his inventory, the sort of primal magic he hadn't felt in what feels like such a long, long time. Except this one feels cramped. It's all confined and restricted to a certain amount as he mentally thumbs through it, sifting through the sea of red cylinders and wax string.

"Yeah, Wilbur always had an inventory full towards the end. He'd uh, well he'd kind of get a lot of it from you actually," Fundy laughs, dark and thin.

Dream laughs too, just a soft little thing because he thinks maybe he's supposed to. That it was a joke, but Fundy's eyes are dull and his shoulders hunched and Dream shuts his mouth with a click.

"I… I think I miss him," Fundy whispers. "I know that doesn't make sense, but yeah… I do. I miss who I thought he was."

I'm sorry. He doesn't say because who the f*ck is he to say something so empty?

"I just wanted-" Fundy shakes his head. "I don't know, I just…"

The fox holds his tongue and looks towards the shore.

Dream follows his gaze.

And the sight is sickeningly sweet, too happy, too picturesque, all the right players, but all the wrong moves. The wrong game, the wrong story.

Tommy and Tubbo stomping in the shallow waters of the lake. Wet sand clinging to their uniforms, hats long since knocked off. They're both caught in some argument that involves splashing water and lobbing handfuls of sand at each other. Eret stepping in a heartbeat later, hardly trying to actually break up the fight while Jack eggs it on and Niki elbows Wilbur in the ribs- the real Wilbur. Or as real as a dream can make him.

And Fundy's there, right at Wilbur's shoulders, never standing quite as tall no matter how much he straightened his spine or raised his chin. Wanting to join in the fun, but stuck trying to amount to something and somehow always crashing headfirst into nothing.

"I just- I can never figure out why me? Why am I always being f*cked over- why am I… why am I the one who's not allowed to have jacksh*t- because every single time, every single thing I try and hold on to? Well it just blows up in my goddamn face and I'm tired of it. I'm so f*cking tired of this." Fundy's voice cracks. "And I- I think I get why Wilbur hated it so much, y'know? I get it now, and it's f*cking terrifying, it's the scariest goddamn thing because sometimes I can't tell the difference. Sometimes I don't want to f*cking wake up and that's wrong, it's wrong, it's so-"

"You hate that you love them," Dream whispers in Wilbur's voice, but the words are his own.

"Yes-" Fundy gestures, relief almost palpable, "I hate it, man. I hate how much I want to stay here in this godforsaken dreamland. 'Cause L'Manberg's dead, she was dead the day they built that stupid hotdog van."

Fundy sags, hands twisted in that baby blue uniform, tearing at the sh*tty dye job. Voice choked and twisted, each note haunts the air, "I just want- I don't- it hurts. It's been so long and everyone- they've moved on, but y'know it- it still hurts."

I'm sorry. He doesn't say again, because what's the point in being cruel and lying about something like that?

Laughter and shouts continue to drift from the shore. Everything that L'Manberg was never going to be.

Dream hardly knows what the hell that thought's supposed to mean, but when he looks at Fundy, when he sees someone cling so desperately to a fantasy that they can't bear to let go- he thinks maybe he understands.

He understands how much something like that can hurt. How much it can linger and fester. How it can metastasize and grow, two hands wrapped around his throat until all he chokes down is the reminder of everything he lost.

Until he's high on the metaphorical hypoxia and he forgets why it hurts, only that it does.

And he understands that he, not Wilbur, or Fundy, hates these black and yellow walls, those fluttering flags, but he cares for the thing it stands on. The world that stretches far beyond. The thing that sings in his flesh and blood, the thing that tugs his gaze, turns his chin and forces him to stare at the blurry colors through those cross shaped holes punched in L'Manberg's walls.

Torn between elective amnesia and a painful past, he watches Fundy hunch low with arms wrapped desperately around his middle. Dream's stomach twists at the sight, at the sound of shaky breaths and lost composure. Painfully, pitifully, and he feels a question rest heavy on his tongue, feels it wriggle in his chest. Burning white hot, and he doesn't have to ask it.

He doesn't have to say a goddamn thing. Fundy can go back to fishing and he can go back to pretending, basking in something so gentle it's hard to accept until he blinks awake in that cell.

He can have that. It's right there.

And yet the question burns.

"What's… what's past these walls?" Dream asks quietly, studying the treetops that jut above the parapets. Home, he feels in his veins but isn't entirely sure.

"You really…" Fundy sits up a bit straighter, voice rough before he clears his throat. "I guess you really don't remember?"

Dream looks down at the water, a shaky smile tugging at his lips. "Well… I'm not- I mean, no, I don't think so."

"I…" Fundy starts, eyes flickering up before falling. "I can't tell you."

Defiance sparks in Dream's throat and slithers it's way up to his tongue.

"Well, maybe you can show me then, like it'd be-" Dream cuts off, grabbing for the oars that bob idly in their rings, seized by a rabid desire. "I think I'll remember if I- if I just go out there. I'll remember and-"

"You're not a great guy, Dream."

The words hit like a slap to the face. He lets go of the oars, letting them drift. Hands hovering over them, frozen because he knows-

"Trust me on this one, alright? Anything worth remembering, it's better off staying out there."

"But that's- those are-" Dream sucks in a short breath, stifling the stutter that grips his tongue. "Maybe I- maybe I want to remember."

And f*ck, he doesn't even know why but it makes sense- it makes so much sense and maybe he'd understand why- maybe it'd be easier- maybe it'd clear up the constant confusion. The drunken leap from moment to moment with hardly anything in-between. Maybe every scar would add up and he'd be able to carry himself to the logical conclusion that he had to do something to deserve it, right?

He has to. He has to-

Because that's how it works… right?

"Don't you get it?" Fundy spits cold and dark, paw swiped jerkily across his eyes. "No one gets what they want here! It's just the same f*cking bullsh*t ten thousand times over and you're better off starting over 'cause you f*cked it so bad the first time! You're lucky- you're so goddamn lucky you get to forget. You're lucky and you don't even know it! How- how messed up is that?"

"I'm not."

It's just two whispered words, but it might as well be a bomb with how it quiets the world.

"...what?"

"I'm not that lucky. I didn't…" It's a weak confession aimed at the backs of his hands. "I still remember enough, okay? I'm not- I know where I'm going to wake up. And yeah, I have a pretty good idea of what's outside of that box. I know that. And maybe I- maybe I wake up and forget all over again, but I… I know you all f*cked it up."

Fundy doesn't even flinch at the accusation. No, instead he cuts his gaze to the left, teeth parted, brows bent and Dream almost spits more bitter words because that crackling in his chest, that sour sort of anger feels better than good.

"Wait… wait, wait, wait-"

The kindling rage sputters out.

Fundy's demeanor shifts entirely.

"If you're- if Quackity didn't-" Fundy starts and stops, scooting forward as he waves his paws to gather his thoughts. "You haven't taken the deal, yet! At least not the one that'll f*ck everything up. Holy sh*t man- that's, oh my god, do you know what this means?"

Dream blinks, brows bent under the force of the cryptic words. And yet he remembers a shiny revolver, a fist to the face. The loud and bright noise of a casino. Quackity. Quackity. Quackity. Some deal that never was because he was always doomed to lose the bet.

A deal.

But the wrong one.

Fundy laughs, leaning forward with an over eager sort of nature. The kind of giddiness found sparkling in the eyes of young oracles who spell doom with their lips only for no one to ever listen. And he remembers Fundy's last warning, hears it alongside the awful blare of nuclear sirens, and maybe- maybe there's a chance.

"We can still fix it!" Fundy cries, laughter bubbling up again.

Dream hates that he cowers at the sound. Eyes glued to swinging hands he fully expects to curl into fists.

"f*ck, man- we can fix everything! This is- it's great it's- it's fantastic! We can-"

Fundy catches on, frame sagging with a quiet, oh. Reeling his excitement back in, movements slower, all broadcasted, Fundy acting as if he's dealing with a wounded animal. Palms out, ears flat, hunching in to make himself smaller with pity in those eyes.

And that… that f*cking stings.

Dream ducks his head, mouth sour, pride rancid and Fundy wisely doesn't apologize.

The fox just scoots back and takes a deep breath. "Alright, okay, yeah- you know what, we can, I can work with this. Easy-peasy, Fundy, all you have to do is get him to remember. That's not hard, right?"

"Remember what…" Dream trails off, question anemic because he's unsure if he wants to know what Fundy's implying.

"So," Fundy draws in a sharp breath, "so, okay don't uh, listen just- hear me out. They're going to let you go. And not for a day trip neither. Not to the gambling pits, or- or Quackity's office, or the boulevards of Vegas, no, no-- Dream, you're gonna be carted out of that prison for good."

"No." Dream refuses it automatically.

"No? What the hell do you- what do you mean no?! Didn't you wanna get out of that f*cking place? Wasn't that like the- isn't that your whole goal?"

"No I'm supposed to- I'm supposed to stay in there, I'm not- I don't leave. I don't-"

He can't-

He can't-

"Listen, you're gonna leave, man. I'm just the messenger, I can't- I can't change that and if it were up to me you'd f*cking stay there- And I'm telling you, okay, right now all you have to remember is that you need to run, all you have to do is run- that's all you have to do! Pack up your sh*t, find a new world; run. It's easy! Trust me I know-" Fundy slaps a paw against his own chest, something not said. "Just get the hell away from everything! Anything to do with this server has got to be out of the picture, and you're not gonna pass go, you're not gonna collect two hundred dollars. You get out and- listen, alright, you don't stay in the Arct-"

"I'm not leaving."

The air crackles, his ears ring, and those three words drip with every ounce of conviction because he'll die by them.

He's not leaving. He's not leaving-

"Maybe- look maybe you don't have a choice, Dream. You stay and everything gets worse. That- okay, at least that I can guarantee."

"I can't leave."

"Dream--"

No, no, Dream shakes his head, hands brought up to shove his fingers across a scalp that isn't his, nails scraping the bone casing of an unfamiliar skull. Crumbling, cracking, heaving, and the sky grows red, the water boils, the air goes bad and Fundy's words swim like drowning gnats in his ear-

He bites his tongue, tastes it bleed. Trying desperately to hold the sweet cyanide truth in. That thing he'd professed to himself in the courtyard he can hardly f*cking remember-

"Don't you- don't you f*cking get it?"

Throat burning, lungs filled with hot ash, he stands up in the boat and doesn't care if it's going to capsize because he feels nothing but vindicated when Fundy flinches, when the fox cowers, body pressed to the bow, eyes blown wide-

"I- I am not leaving, okay? I'm not leaving because that's not how any of this works, Fundy. And you're a- you are a goddamn idiot for thinking otherwise. You- you think I want to leave? You think I-"

Dream's words crumble into laughter, awful and ugly, bubbling up like tar in his throat.

"You think I haven't tried?! I am not f*cking leaving. I am not running away." Dream looms over Fundy, hand raised in a shaking fist, fingers snagging the front of the fox's uniform, boat rocking dangerously.

He sees himself reflected in Fundy's eyes, his real self, not the pale mirage of someone else. The shape of a nightmare and nothing else.

'I'm sorry- I'm sorry-' Fundy whimpers, trying to scamper away with nowhere to go. And Dream's too far gone, swimming in a torrent of red as he bares his teeth and snarls.

"I want to stay- I want-"

I want to stay.

Just as suddenly as he's confessed, a train barrels past, horn blaring, wheels clicking on the tracks, and he's underground.

Sitting on a bench.

There's no lake, no boat, no walls. No Fundy.

He's just shouting at the f*cking walls.

Screaming at those sad concrete pillars and groutless, cracked tiles that do nothing to muster up any sort of cheer in the place. Those yellowed advertisem*nts and flashing signs with dreary graffiti to match stay silent and unmoved. That blur of lights then cold steel speeding by behind glass barriers says nothing.

And this time he sees himself reflected in the doors of the Jubilee Line, down to that familiar god awful orange.

He sees the very man he'd wrongfully been sitting all the way at the other side of the bench. Patriotic uniform traded for a tattered trench coat and yellow sweater. That same curly hair, that same stupid beanie that does nothing to hide the shock of white struck through the brown like a brand of lightning.

"They never stop, you know." Wilbur muses, pulling out a lighter. Cigarette stuck between his lips already as he cups his hand over it, flicks the sparkwheel, and brings the thing smoldering to life. "Well, that's a lie. Once it did. One time that bloody train pulled to a rolling stop and you know- you know what I did? I got on it. And still, I dream of this place- this sh*thole- my personal hell."

Dream watches Wilbur laugh, take a drag and then exhale, smoke billowing out past his lips alongside the lingering notes. Eyes almost too soft as they stare at that train speeding past. Gaze caught behind round lenses that reflect ghostly passengers waiting for a train that never comes.

"I shut my eyes and it's like I never left, I still end up here. And the real tragedy of it is… I think a part of me actually f*ckin' misses it." Wilbur confesses, tapping ash out on the ground. "A part of me wonders if I was meant to ever crawl out- if that ticket was for me or somehow I'm just playing the wrong part. The doubt? That eats at you, man. It's that annoying little thing right there in the back of your head that tries to tell you, you don't deserve it."

Dream shuffles his feet, mind detached from his body, one never catching up to the other as he sweeps his gaze slowly across the whole scene.

Indecipherable signs line the top of the barriers, crumpled papers and wrappers littering the ground. Everything dirty and scuffed, and smelling faintly of harsh cleaners and piss. Some spot of something sticky and spilt, and of course there's no one else down here, but somehow there's a quiet, dead sense of a life that once was.

He stares at himself in the barriers' reflection again. He sees grey static shapes that move between forms and he doesn't know who he is but he knows without a doubt he's not the man he's sitting next to--

"Here."

Dream angles his head, eyes stuck to the corners but there's nothing to worry about because Wilbur's still staring straight ahead. So he turns fully, ears up, feet softly scraping the ground as he sits a bit straighter and sniffs derisively at the burning orange of the cigarette offered to him.

There's the flicker of stone cave walls and long shadows. A thousand wooden buttons. And then it all disappears.

And when he takes the offering, Wilbur pulls his hand away immediately, fingers never brushing, avoiding everything. Reality composed of sitting on a bench, almost eternally alone, waiting for the same train that's got an infinite estimated time of arrival. Announced by the red dot matrix rolling by on dusty screens hung over the doors that never open.

Dream rolls the little paper tube between his fingers, nicotine laced and burning, smoke gently rolling up in thin wisps.

He studies the teeth marks indented in the orange filter.

A habit spent worrying a stick that blackens lungs and stains teeth, but it has to be worth the cost- a single hit or a lifetime of them. And addiction was always more about feeling something in the face of an endless stretch of wriggling reds and days of black. It had so much more to do with feeling better down in bleak tunnels with single tracks and no end, and maybe every hit staves off that crash into the brick wall at the end just one day longer.

Dream glances warily back towards Wilbur. Keeping an eye on that profile of messy curls and cracked glasses as he brings the cigarette to his lips and drags the smoke down his throat.

It curls hot and heavy across his tongue. Spilling straight into his lungs, forcing a cough out of him on instinct.

Brain lit up with the scream of danger because it's the same sensation of standing over a smoldering crater.

"sh*t, man, I remember back down in that ravine, back in Pogtopia, back when you still stood for something..." Wilbur chuckles, gentle like the rumble of waves. "I used to find you up near the surface, sitting on one of the ledges. Legs dangling right over the edge, that stupid f*cking mask in your lap. And you know, you'd- you wouldn't even turn to face me before you were asking for a smoke. And you'd always- you'd always cough like that. Like you were some kid offered his first drag by a sh*t friend. And if I'm totally honest I don't think it ever helped. No amount of nicotine in the world ever seemed to do a damn thing for you, Dream."

Dream turns the cigarette in his fingers, claws clicking softly together as he weighs the words.

"Your hands- they always shook, didn't they?" Wilbur adds and Dream pulls his lips into a frown.

He sits there, wallowing in the scrutiny. Feeling that sort of something too shy of the sort of guilt he knows he's supposed to have and Wilbur doesn't take the burning stick back.

No, the man does what he does best, he talks. All silver-tongued and flowery phrases. Winding his way down to a single point of truth amongst all the pomp and circ*mstance.

Petty f*cking formalities like somehow he needs some made up version of Wilbur Soot to spell everything out for him. And no matter how much he wants to convince himself it's a dream, It feels completely and utterly out of his control. It feels real.

"Cause, you see, shaking fists well they'll hurt just as much as steady ones I'd reckon. And maybe you had it all figured out- that if you threw your punches fast enough, they'd all look the same." Wilbur reasons, shrugging with ease like Dream isn't vibrating in place, like he isn't choking down more smoke just to feel the way it smooths his rankled thoughts out.

"You'd seem strong, Dream, you'd be strong, and you'd be powerful. You'd be capable of curbing any foe, any threat, and fists became a whole lot f*ckin' easier than words didn't they?"

A broken announcement chimes out, the garbled arrival of the next train for the wrong station set to barrel by.

"You can hurt, and you can kill, and you can maim," Wilbur continues, leaning forward so that his elbows hit his knees. "All while holding power in a vacuum of your own design because the shake of those fists curled at your side meant nothing once they were stained in blood. They were just fists then."

Dream finds his gaze wandering back to the scrolling dot matrix of the overhead signs again. All numb and too present at once, like humidity in a hot room. The words scroll by in common, just a few spotty letters that make no real sense before enchantment trundles across to spell a cheery phrase of backwards red.

'You'll be happy here.'

He shakes his head, rough jerky things trying to toss out the tantalizing idea that maybe the red words are right. And still, Wilbur's soliloquy continues, all winding and easy.

"-power is just power. Whether it's ever won through honest means? Well, no one really cares once that picture's painted, the chessboard laid. You were never going to be a leader, or a good man making a few tough decisions. You were always doomed to be the little god with a complex and those shaking fists that never stopped being red."

Dream looks down at his hands. Those foreign things that curl on instinct and he can't quite hold a fist for longer than a few seconds anymore. Skin and fur and scales, the gaseous smokey form of the End, jumping between all manner of wild things painted with blood in blurry, shaking vision.

"Let's face it, you were made to be hated. And that was always going to be the easiest path to take." Wilbur decrees, spat with the gravity of a judge's gavel pounding on the sound block.

And he wants to disagree, he wants to refute, he wants to argue his point, but how the hell can he hope to clamber up on that soap box when he doesn't remember what the f*ck he stands for?

As far as he knows, Wilbur Soot is just telling the truth. And maybe that's the point.

Maybe they were always going to be two stubborn assholes who only ever understood each other. Some grotesque match made in heaven or forged in hell. Two things cut from different corners of the same cloth. Always destined to collide.

The lights flicker, plunging the world into a stop motion film of black and white. Dream blinks in tune with it, head stuffed with cotton as he hunches forward and ignores the way nausea lights up at the sudden strobe, eyes caught on the ground where his feet shuffle against dirty concrete; half monster, half black boots hiding something human. Half nightmare. Half god.

Back and forth.

The cigarette burns the brightest in the dark. A steady constant amongst all the flashing. The slightest weight clutched between two fingers and a thumb like it's a butterfly's wing.

One flap of it capable of changing anything.

It hardly registers in his mind as he stamps the burning orange circle against the inside of his arm, just below those cursed netherite cuffs.

Smoke curling up thicker, stinking sickly sweet.

Pain shooting up his arm.

His nerves register it all a little bit better down here. Because dreams don't have to adhere to the logic of a sickly mind and a frail body. They don't have to give in to the principles of cosmic rot, a necrosis from being cut away from the world like a nasty tumor.

He can be everything he's not while he withers away in that cell and barely lets himself eat enough to stay awake. Always two steps from slipping into a coma because a sickly sweet potato a day is hardly enough to keep anything going on top of everything else.

And that rot had everything to do with the fact that he was a lot of power crammed into a small frame and then forced into a flimsy sort of mortality where he couldn't use an ounce of it to stay alive.

Like a potion shaken up, bubbling and fizzing behind the glass. Pressurized.

And the easiest thing to do is cannibalize himself like a starving dog.

"Hurts like a bitch doesn't it?"

Dream looks over at Wilbur, the man's foot shaking where he has it propped up on his knee, elbow resting on the arm of the bench, sleeve pushed back.

Burn marks form a cluster of purple and red circles on the inside of his forearm, begetting the habit of putting cigarettes out there.

Wilbur sighs. "You're lucky that wasn't my last one by the way. Last time I had to scrounge through the bins for weeks."

Dream lifts it off his arm, the burn red and raw, angry at the edges, blood boiled black in a small circle. "Sorry. I thought I'd, y'know…"

"You'd wake up?"

Dream's ears set back and he lets the words tumble loose, "I mean, yeah.... well, I'm supposed to."

A hand reaches over, a half-gloved thing with soot stained fingers, plucking the crumpled cigarette out of Dream's grasp.

Wilbur flicks it, letting it join the rest of the litter on the ground. "That's not how it's done. Not this deep."

He knows it all just means, 'you can't run.'

"Come on."

Wilbur stands, dusting hands down his front before shoving them deep into his pockets. He moves towards the emergency exit, shoving his side against the part of the door that reads 'push to open', boot kicking at the bottom of it to shove it the rest of the way.

It slams against the guardrail causing Dream to jump at the sharp sound, but Wilbur just holds the door open and makes no comment. Hand swept out to gesture to the yawning depths of the dark tunnel, head slightly inclined with a lopsided smile tugging at one corner of his lips. Cordial and polite.

Dream ducks through, concrete traded for industrial grate, and then for loose gravel when his heels leave the bottom step and he hardly makes a sound.

Breath held for some threat he doesn't know, Wilbur's boots on the metal steps echo loudly and he flinches at every sharp sound. The silence in-between hanging like the smell of ozone and damp concrete thick in the stale tunnel air.

Stepping with an unsteady gait, he follows at Wilbur's heels without question. Drawn forward by some invisible force that tugs at his feet and pushes his shoulders, fear coaxing him straight into the unknown because falling behind, ending up alone is suddenly out of the question.

Still, he finds himself looking over his shoulder at the flickering lights that fall behind.

A part of him wishes he was back at the station. Back on that bench. Back to waiting for nothing.

Waiting to forget everything.

And maybe he's wishing for that prison cell instead.

Either way, this feels like he's crawled belly first into the last circle of hell, the poet Virgil by his side with some pretentious moral lesson to be learned as he's led down, down, down to greet the devil himself.

"Watch the third rail."

He stops short, electricity screeching through his frame, ankle next to an innocuous rail of metal. Stepping away until he's hugging the wall he hunches there, Wilbur's footsteps stopping short a few moments later. All he sees of the other man is the glint of those glasses in the dark, a hazy outline as Wilbur looks over his shoulder.

Wilbur waits patiently every time he falls behind. Always waiting for him to follow once more, but every step is something that's starting to feel more and more like he's straying off course.

"Where are we going?" Dream asks, grimacing at how hoarse the whispered question is.

Wilbur doesn't answer.

He just stands there in the dark, just out of reach of those dim overhead lights that seem to follow them, flickering on and then sputtering out the moment they pass.

Dream licks his lips, fingers fisting in the starchy fabric of his jumpsuit. "We… we should go back."

The glint of round glasses turns sideways, flashing like the eyes of a creature glinting in the dark.

"I'm the boogeyman in your nightmares, right?" Wilbur starts, and it's just another question. That's all it ever is. Cryptic and Indecipherable, and all the more unsettling as Dream takes a single step back and swings his head to look down the tunnel. Temple jumping as he worries his teeth.

"A figment of your imagination? Your subconscious whispering in your ear, blah, blah, blah." Footsteps ring out, ominous crunching things and Wilbur steps back into the light, a shrug jumping his shoulders. "f*ck it man, for a ghost from your past I feel pretty real."

"We should go back." Dream's voice shakes when he says it. Eyes jumping from Wilbur's face to the ground and then staying there.

Wilbur says nothing. He just bites down on another cigarette and lights it with a gentle click, click a moment later. Smoke dragged in and sighed out through a grimace.

"Trust me, you don't want to go back there."

And he follows Wilbur down the tunnel with a wasp nest in his stomach, a slight shudder in his hands as the lights flicker and wink out behind them.

--

"You ever see the film Inception?"

Dream skirts close to the wall, practically hugging it as his shoulder brushes and snags on the rough concrete. All nervous gait, eyes glinting in the dark and ears constantly moving. And it's just another one of Wilbur's nonsensical questions.

At first he hadn't answered them, but slowly, sometime after his feet grew sore and the gentle curve of the tunnel never ceased he'd found his voice. Raspy and rough at first, just a shaking thing with clipped answers until slowly he started to sound more like himself.

"No, what the hell makes you think I have? I've never seen a film."

"That you can remember." Wilbur fills in and Dream sees that glowing end of the cigarette grow brighter in the dark, reflected two fold in the lense of his glasses as he takes a drag.

"Fundy what the hell even is this?"

"It's a VCR-" The fox slaps the top of the machine, the tiny screen that's below the box going from a dizzy kaleidoscope of fuzz and static to the dancing logos that roll before a movie- "Yeah! Woo-hoo, got it first try!"

"O...kay- why'd you wanna show it to me? It's just some weird piece of junk-"

"Junk? No, no, no-- this, Dream, is the sort of entertainment this place has been lacking. Look, just give it a shot, I promise it's really cool-"

"Treasure Planet… That's a dumb name."

"You're dumb. If it's too lame for you and your mysterious little 'my name is Dream and- and I wear a mask and hang out on rooftops all day' persona, you can just go, man- door's right there, don't let it hit you on the ass on the way out."

"Oh my god- fine, fine. I'll stay, okay? If it means a lot to you, y'know I'll- I've got time to waste. I just- I don't really get what's so great, like George and Sapnap literally don't shut up about it."

He sits cross legged on garrish orange carpet, words saying one thing, but his eyes are jumping around the screen already. Trying to take in every detail, absorbed in the dancing pixels. Fundy sinks down on the ground beside him, turning to him with the bright smile and bright eyes of someone who covets his friends above everything, who shares with them all of their most precious things- who just wants them to smile and be happy.

Fundy elbows him softly, words softer, "You'll see."

Dream shakes his head, the greys and blacks of that tunnel returning in a flash.

Scrubbing the back of his hand across his brow, shaky breath exhaled, a headache pounds in the back of his skull. He trains his eyes back on Wilbur's silhouette further up the tunnel and he quickens his steps immediately to keep up. Flickering lights blinking in and out like little lightning bugs in his wake.

"Well, listen, it's a- it's a film, y'know? It's got gun fights, high stakes, a grossly over exaggerated sense of time; all that movie motion picture type sh*te. I'm sure Fundy's got a copy of it still lying about or maybe..." Wilbur stops and then clicks his tongue. "f*ck, it doesn't f*ckin' matter. He blew his base up months ago, all the SMP Earth relics Jack gave him with it. Godspeed to our fallen soldiers."

With a sarcastic salute, cigarette burning between his fingers Wilbur offers his condolences to a bygone era before he puts the smoking stick back to his lips.

"What's your point?" Dream bites out, pulling a face in the dark at the crack of his own voice.

His hand trails open palmed along the concrete wall with a quiet rasp. A slight hunch to his frame that with each step strays closer and closer to an animal crawl.

Something doesn't feel right.

"The point is, it's got this whole metaphor- this scene with some tracks and an approaching train. A daring escape from Limbo." Wilbur speaks with the authority of a pulpit under his heels, while in reality he's just balancing like an idiot on one of the dead rails. "The tragic tale of a self-rescue by suicide."

One slow step placed in front of the other, Wilbur performs his task with such care he might as well be tightrope walking between two buildings and not six inches off the ground.

Or perhaps he knows he's one bad slip away from falling and stumbling on the third rail.

Either way, Dream stops in his tracks, spine pressed against the side of the tunnel, eyeing every measured step. Heel to toe, heel to toe.

Time wasted, stalling for-

Dream feels it before he hears it.

The ground jumps beneath his feet, the rumbles leaping up his frame until they shake his jaw and rattle that space behind his eyes.

There's a train and there's only one set of tracks.

"Wilbur."

The horn blares, deafening and loud and he jumps, heart sinking into his stomach before leaping into his throat. The light blinding as the train rounds the bend.

"Wilbur!"

The man doesn't listen, he doesn't even budge.

He just stands there facing away from the hurtling train. That comet of cold steel and thirty-eight thousand kilos of pure death generating an earthquake that climbs it's way up the Richter scale every millisecond.

Air stuck in his throat, limbs locked, Dream watches smoke curl up like a halo around Wilbur's hair and that crooked beanie. Backlit by the high beams and the blaring horn and-

Dream doesn't hesitate when he pushes Wilbur out of the way.

...

"...welcome back, asshole."

He blinks and sees specks of white against dark blue, spinning and wobbling. Shivers rack his frame and his eyes spin to the right, an awful retching sound chased up his throat as he stumbles into the side of something warm, knees buckling.

"Hey… hey! Stay the f*ck with me- I'm not carrying your sorry ass all the way to the Arctic. You better stay-"

Ringing chases out that voice, that unforgettable thing branded into his mind that has his teeth chattering more than the cold ever could.

"You're a goddamn mess, Dream. Jesus christ, if you throw up on me I'm taking you back to that f*cking cell and I swear to every god I'll-"

Ragged breaths rasp in his ears and he hardly registers they're his own. He hardly feels the icy bite of snow as he sinks up to his heels in it. He stumbles, hands out, vision filled with blinding, bright white.

He gags when a rough grip tugs him up by the back of the collar. He flails to try and get back to his own two feet. Mind listing and wobbling and he's so cold, he's so cold, he's burning.

His skin is on fire. And where's Wilbur?

Where's-

When he manages to raise his head on a neck that's all rubber, there's no tunnel or blinking lights. There's white, and trees, and… and-

Where's Wilbur-

Where's-

"Wil…" He whispers, the sound wheezes out in a cloud of smoke. Lips frozen, tongue stiff. Mind a frozen wasteland of names tacked to shattered pillars of salt that hardly mean much of anything.

His arm is slung up around someone's shoulders and he twists his claws into whatever's beneath them to try and stay up. Head too heavy to, eyes rolling until he's blinking at the ground.

Feet dragged forward inch by awful inch through the snow. Tugged and pushed and every single time he falls, knees and hands buried in the snow. Always panting and heaving, trying to crawl his way back, somewhere, anywhere- only to collapse on his side with drunken, chattering laughs until he's wrenched right back to his feet and forced forward again.

"-this better be f*ckin' worth it."

And the world tips, spinning backwards in a slow motion fall as he drowns on the icy air, staring up at the spinning vortex of falling stars. A blurry face fills his vision, hands shaking his shoulders with harsh words and orders. Mask over their mouth and nose, fur hood framing their face, but he knows that scar, he knows those dark eyes-

He knows Quackity better than anything.

And he tries to raise lead heavy arms to fend him off but the limbs won't budge.

Something slaps his cheek, rough and stinging, fingers grabbing his chin- the world shaking violently from side to side. He's too busy sinking to actually feel it.

Eyelids growing heavier with each blink, he's left swimming, drowning in the colors that pop and wriggle behind his eyelids, words a thousand miles away-

"Get. Up. I'm not playing Dream, get the f*ck up right n-"

Dream?

"Dream."

He blinks awake. The world sideways or right side up, it's… it's too dark to really tell-

Sideways, he decides when he lifts his cheek off the ground and almost gags with the violent spinning.

There's a burning torch, the same tunnel but cast in an eerie wash of red instead of those bright blinking whites. Those square fluorescents hung every few meters down the tunnel no longer sputter to life. All of them dead, all of them completely snuffed out.

But there's still light. There's still that torch.

He fumbles for it, hand clumsy as he drags it towards himself, the heat of it kissing his skin and chasing out the cold.

When he holds it, when he lets the dying flame dance painfully close in his vision he realizes it's fennel, a dried stalk of it made to store a sputtering flame.

Those orange embers bleed into vibrant soulfire blue as he stumbles to his feet, leaping hungry and higher to shed light on the situation.

"God, f*ck, welcome back to the land of the living-" Wilbur coughs, bits of gravel pinging against one another as he aims a viscous kick at the ground. "Christ man you- you just had to go and f*ckin' bugger it!"

"Wh-" Dream scrubs a hand against the side of his head. Blood comes away to glint softly in the torchlight, dark as ink.

"You bloody well got hit by a speeding f*cking train for- for nothing, f*ckin' hell man-" Wilbur scrubs his hands through his hair before rounding on him. "What, getting tortured just isn't enough these days?"

An I saved your life, never leaves his lips as much as he wants to spit it at the man's feet. Because then he'd have to admit he's so f*cked in the head he saw that train and forgot the whole thing wasn't real, that he really went and played pretend.

That he gave a sh*t about what happened to a man who's supposed to be dead.

"What's- what're you- no. No, this is just some stupid fu-" Dream breaks off into a growl, heel of his palm pressed into his eye where it throbs like a fresh lobotomy. "f*ck, this is just a dumb dream, you're not real, this isn't real- I'm- I'm supposed to be-"

...awake. He doesn't say, palm pulled away from his eye so he can stare at the blood that coats it, blinking in and out of existence.

The resounding silence is deafening.

Not even the gentle crackle of the flames or his own harsh breaths rival it.

All of it staying painfully and utterly real no matter how hard he shuts his eyes, no matter how many times he shakes his head or how many empty pleas he tosses to the hungry catch of nothing.

When he cracks his eyes open, he sees Wilbur standing there. Looking unchanged and unbothered within the torch's blue light. Hands slung in the pockets of his dirty trenchcoat, lips crooked in the barest of frowns. A pitying sort of thing.

And he's still stuck here. Great.

"Listen. You can stay here and wake up after a long, long stretch of boring nothing and maybe- maybe that next train comes and maybe it takes you out sooner. Or…" Wilbur lets the word hang, voice strung soft and sweet as fireflies in the summer. "Or you can remember. Not that it'd do you much good. But c'mon man, remembering just to forget well, isn't that what dreaming is all about?"

Dream shuffles in place, the pebbles that make up the ground rolling uncomfortably against the pads of his feet. He glances down and sighs at the sight of something more paw-like rather than the shine of black boots.

"This... all of this was a lot easier when I didn't, y'know- sleep." Dream admits, fingers shuffling on the fennel stalk, eyes skating to the right. Wide and unseeing past the wall of absolute darkness.

And it's always just one big cosmic joke. A constant middle finger, Wilbur Soot taking center stage in his fever dream serving as the real cherry on top. For better or for worse, because at least he's not stuck down here alone.

"Real shame, innit?" Wilbur shrugs. "I'd argue it's the best part of living."

Dream laughs, sharp and bending, a single note chuffed against the air. Shaking his head and never giving an actual answer because of course the living dead guy would find being unconscious a valuable waste of time.

"You laugh, but for an ender who claims to hate it so damn much you spend an awful lot of time down here." Wilbur ribs, chin tilted slightly up. The man sniffs softly and studies the non-existent ceiling, rocking back on his heels. "Think of it like this, getting knocked the f*ck out is the closest thing you're ever going to get to a peaceful, fulfilling death, Dream. That's- I'd imagine that's actually comforting to you."

"It's…" Dream starts, looking off to the side. "It's something. Comforting isn't exactly-"

And... Wilbur's gone.

There's just that endless tunnel in his place, the blue glow of dim soul fire that hardly eats away at the darkness.

"Prick." He mumbles to no one, turning in place, the loneliness not yet sinking in.

But the longer he stands there, the more it creeps and slithers its way into his restless mind, his brittle heart and crumbling soul. That fractured thing that hardly reflected the best parts of himself anymore. So unsure of what to do now that it's just him and that endless tunnel. Those shiny tracks. The possibility of an approaching train.

Voices drift softly down one end of it, whispering and just out of grasp, down, down, down, that false labyrinth in his own head. Only two ways to choose from but every step in either direction just leaves him more confused until he finally stands right in the center of those tracks.

He looks up, squints his eyes and raises that burning flame over his head.

And he thinks he can almost make them out. He thinks he can almost see flecks of snow dancing in the black up there. He thinks he can almost feel the bone-biting chill of arctic wind-

He can almost-

"Well, what'll it be then?" Wilbur's voice echoes hauntingly down the tunnel.

Dream jumps, bristling and chest heaving with panicked breaths. He hears footsteps crunch on gravel before he sees Wilbur step back into that ring of blue, bathed in flickering and crackling torchlight.

Shadows cast long and harsh across his face, two rings sunk deep around his eyes as he steps off to the side, hands shoved in his pockets. The tired salesman to a timeless pitch speaking silent coaxing words that scream, follow me down these train tracks.

"We've got a long walk and it's not going to be easy. I won't blame you- y'know, if you want to stay here and all that… ." Wilbur angles his head towards the sky, squinting at something that's not there. "But Dream, I know you're curious. Deep down I know you want to see what's at the end of these tracks, you want to confront whatever gazes back when you stare into that abyss. So…"

Wilbur looks back down, lazy smile brighter than everything. "Let me show you."

Against all better judgement, he follows Wilbur down those tracks again. Looking back over his shoulder only once, he clutches the torch harder, sets his jaw and then keeps his eyes forward. His steps constant, because each one is something he doesn't want to take back. Each one is something he doesn't want to regret.

Because it's all a one-way ticket to somewhere.

And he knows he's dreaming. That's getting easier to understand.

He knows it's only a matter of time before he wakes up and loses himself all over again. It's only a matter of time before Fundy's words spill over into reality, warnings unheeded because they're too damn slippery to ever remember- but he knows at the very least that Fundy was real- Fundy had to be real; two minds crosswired in the same dream. Somehow that just made sense.

That felt familiar.

But here, trailing at the heels of someone else, flaming torch in hand- far away from that lake, and that boat, and that idyllic dreamland cooked up in Fundy's head, the real question is...

The only question is-

Is this mirage of a man stuck in 'limbo' supposed to be Wilbur Soot, or is something just using nightmares to play pretend?

Notes:

Massive thank you to everyone who's still sticking around for this! I promise we're going somewhere mbhjkkdkj

And as always massive thank you to everyone who comments and has this bookmarked and comes back everytime this fic updates !

And to anyone new reading this for the first time thank you for taking the time to read this!

Next chapter will be out 7/4/21 :) (it is finally finished but I just want to wait until then)

Chapter 12: Dreamland Part II: 'Prometheus'

Summary:

Alright, so maybe he doesn't know as much as he used to and maybe reality continues to allude him here. There's something so terribly off about every waking moment, about every decision, about every nightmare, about everyone--

And he knows one thing, one single and tangible thing for absolute sure, there's something so terribly off about Wilbur Soot in this particular nightmare.

Notes:

Title is a reference to Prometheus the Titan god whose name meant 'forethinker'.

Holy sh*t sorry this took so long, but finally it's here on the monthly-ish schedule! I looked this over the best I could but it's long as hell so there's probably typos and stuff :')

Again this one's directly related to the previous chapter so skimming through that one might help to better understand this one!

So, to preface this chapter is quite literally the reason all those beginning chapters even exist, in case anyone was wondering why the hell those were relevant, well we're finally here :D (I've seen people comment on the relevancy and I thought it was funny as hell that I took this many chapters to get there and there's still more to be revealed that's been hinted at)

Another list of songs that may or may not be cliche:
Revenge- Chevelle
The Precipice- The Classic Crime
Masterpiece Theater 2- Marianas Trench
Honeypot- Demon in Me
A Little Messed Up- june
Neglected Space- Imogen Heap
Liar- The Arcadian Wild
Broken Bones- CRX
Mark My Words- Doll Skin !
Cradles- Sub Urban

**(Huge thank you to Snowy for reccing the song Cradles to me! )

Trigger/Content Warnings:

Implied torture, violence, unreality, self-harm, smoking/implied drug abuse, aloofness/apatheticness of multiple characters trauma(s), crude jokes, unhealthy depictions of coping, threats of gun violence, the usual themes that go along with the rest of the fic

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"Are we actually going anywhere?"

Beyond stale, the question is the same one that's left Dream's lips too many times now.

Wilbur answers the same as he always does. With a casual shrug, chin tilted slightly, both hands shoved deep into those trench coat pockets. Always a low hum followed by a, "not quite."

It echoes. Solitude reflected ten fold down twelve thousand kilometers of concrete and rebar.

And maybe for the past hour and some odd infinities he's said nothing in reply. To be fair he can't quite remember how to navigate those waters without constantly stumbling, tripping over those words sitting all jumbled on his tongue. Every step forward becoming just the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, and he forgets it all over again every time he chances a glance over his shoulder.

His silence always held fast in the fashion of a particularly clingy ghost stuck on the heels of public enemy number one, but something gnaws at his ribs, squeezes his lungs and forces out the words he's been too busy swallowing-

"So, you're telling me we've just been walking hours on end...for nothing?"

"Maybe."

"I mean, is- is there even an end?"

Wilbur hums again. "Maybe. I mean, it really depends-"

And Wilbur goes off on some meandering turn of phrase all over again. Prattling off words like he needs them to flee his chest in order to make room for his lungs to draw the next empty breath.

Dream scoffs, lips curled back, the sound more animal chuff than anything. Breath rolling hot in his chest, frustration scorching hotter as he screeches to a halt in the middle of those train tracks.

He stands there, all sharp angles and sharper shadows slung across curved tunnel walls. Flickering, crackling things that dance and stretch when he clutches that soulfire torch tighter to his chest, head shook side to side in the hopes he can somehow toss off the vision of an endless labyrinth.

Like it's nothing more than a pestering little parasite clinging to the inside of his ear, and if he just gets it off-

If he just shakes hard enough, it'll stop worming its way deeper under the skin. Whispers bathed red like the allure of some damnation, some welcoming pit darker even than this one he's so f*cking lost in, and he shoves the heel of a palm over his ear. Trying to scrape it out, dig it out, gouge it out- and if he had a knife he'd have driven it right into his ear drum by now just to drown out the sound.

He looks at the blue flame…. and he considers it.

It being the way his arm jumps and his ear twitches, and he's one degree of separation from it; destroying that ringing. That thing that for half a second had him wanting to stick the hot embers and ash against his head until he burned a hole right through it, to it, into that droning din beneath the shell of his skull.

That buzzing. That itching. That red, wriggling thing that latches onto his middle ear and poisons every sound that passes.

And he stares at the back of Wilbur's head, watching with dull eyes and flat lips as the man edges further into darkness.

Wilbur turns around after a few more steps, lips moving around words drowned out. Those glasses glinting and between blinks Dream sees those wriggling reds, he knows that's not--

….and the thought disappears.

He's left with teeth slightly parted, noisy breaths hauntingly shallow among everything that's grown quiet.

"You-" Dream cuts off, fingers a cage trapping his ear flat against his skull, "do you plan on elaborating at some point? Or am I what, supposed to blindly follow you through this-" he growls, words spat, "this sh*thole forever?"

"Ouch," Wilbur chuckles, "careful what you say, you'll piss it off."

Dream's stomach drops as he utters a tiny, "...what?"

Wilbur nods for an answer, eyes flickering up to stare somewhere over the top of Dream's head.

Dream swings viciously around to face the way they'd come. The flame nearly winking out.

Sputtering, faltering-

The darkness vibrates, pupils shaking too match and he stares into nothing. That nothing that has the world collapsing in on itself, all thin paper walls crumpling under the heavy weight of all the things that prowl in dark voids. Imaginary taunts of crumbling concrete that seem to press in at all sides and maybe it's the dark- maybe it's just obsidian-

But Wilbur's words have Dream swinging the torch wildly, head following, chasing some threat in circles that he sees in every damn thing; everywhere, everyone, all the time-

Chest heaving, all a mad dash to keep his vision from greying out-

Because this place is f*cking wrong.

And it's so awfully easy for a single doubt to spiral into a million. Cascading too fast and too vast to bury until he's up to his chin treading water in the open catch of hypervigilance teetering dangerously at the edge of insanity.

It's that sort of mounting fear that is steeped three tenths in paranoia and seven tenths in what's lying right in front of his eyes, but his head's too stuffed full with old scars and infected wounds. Too f*cked up to notice or care, and that winding thread of logic is twisted tight into red knots that won't come untangled.

Nothing, nothing, nothing- it echoes back to him in every step that he peels his heels off the ground only to inch forward and then leap back at the flashes of netherite and pulsing crimsons that aren't really there.

His stomach sitting permanently near his feet, spine made of ice. The chill creeps up the back of each rib as his insides crash against the brittle sides of his own panic. That trembling thing he can't swallow back down before it rolls from the heart leaping in his chest.

Stuck wide-eyed, he stares down the stretch of darkness at his back like he expects teeth to crack through the ceiling and the floor. The whole thing just a set-up to devour him whole. A cruel, elaborate joke. An illusion.

His hand trembles, chasing the blue flame of the torch into jerky wisps, shadows jumping and it only serves to make him see more shapes, more frightening things. And he'd never been scared of the dark, he'd never cowered in place and turned tail so much, he'd never shake and shiver at the thought of monsters that lurk in obsidian shadows.

He used to never believe lies dressed in abstract threats and bloodstained button up shirts, the applause of breaking bones-

Red eyes, red scrutiny. Red tastes bitter at the back of his tongue; ash and decay. The ringing words screech in backwards enchanted that toll with the throaty boom of broken church bells; I'm not finished with you, yet.

Fingers snap.

The sharp sound slices through everything and Dream pivots, ears twitching. Just a trained dog attuned to following it.

The world smears itself into smoother lines, lighter tones. A numbness that doesn't overflow the banks. Still, those wriggling reds linger like bugs crawling under his skin even as Wilbur's silhouette materializes at the hazy edges of the torch's light again.

Crouching over something off to the side of the tunnel, Wilbur raises a hand to wave Dream over.

"Bring that torch a bit closer, yeah?"

And somehow it's all just back to being a tunnel, just some amalgamation of Wilbur Soot down in the dark. A liminal calmness suddenly returned.

Dream makes his way over, steps slow. All numb heels to static toes, or whatever the equivalent was on feet like this.

The blue light falls across Wilbur first, flashing purple. Glinting red at the edges like the kaleidoscope of colors that greets closed eyes when palms are pressed too hard into them.

One more step and it illuminates a body sprawled on the ground in blue, in red, in violent purples and greys. All those little pebbles pushed up around the figure's limp outline trapping them in a petrified sea. A sharp, frozen sort of coffin.

Artificial waves stuck forever in time to resemble a constant nose pressed into gravel sort of drowning.

Empty bottle abandoned by a limp hand with scarred knuckles, chipped nails that are more hoof than human. A ripped and tattered suit jacket with sleeves half pushed back, red tie peeking up over the shoulder. All of it a sloppy mess brought together by the curve of chipped ram horns around floppy ears, a tangled nest of brown hair flopped over the greys of a face that doesn't even twitch.

Wilbur reaches out and takes the liquor bottle, turning it, expression blank, movements clinical before he drops it with a careless clink. Rummaging in his trench coat pockets a second later.

"You were wondering if there's others, right?" Wilbur asks, turning just enough to cast a look over his shoulder.

It's a question Dream doesn't need the answer for.

Luckily enough, Wilbur doesn't waste his breath on giving it.

Instead, Wilbur fishes two chips with bright bracket smiles out from the depths of his pockets. Scraping the plastic faces noisily against each other for half a second, before he sets them down gently. Right between the shoulders of that dusty, grimy suit jacket that looks a decade old.

A neat stack, white smiles facing up.

The red chips rise and fall on each shallow breath the ram-horned man takes.

Dream stares at them, those smiles jittering with the echo of ringing jackpots and the din of too much to drink. A constant haze of smoke that stings throats and lungs. Red tinged eyes, red rung pupils, white smiles and sparkling glasses. Never enough risky gambles. Never enough time. And no one ever seems to set their cards down, collect their winnings and leave.

Dream shakes out his wrist, dips his chin and steps back. The crunch of gravel is loud as he steals the light of the torch for himself and leaves the horns and the hooves, that familiar ram behind.

But even still, the stretching shadows don't quite drown out the bright red poker chips. They don't drown out those mocking, immortal smiles.

And it'd be more appropriate for Wilbur to have flipped the body over and placed those poker chips over closed eyes like two silver obols-- because down here? Everything is worse than dead.

Down here, two poker chips are the false metaphor for a two way trip down the River Styx, and everyone knows the second coin was always just in case they needed to pay the ferryman again. But no one ever comes back down that cursed river, at least they're not supposed to.

It's all meant to be just some naive impossibility.

Wilbur stands, brushing imaginary dust off his sleeves before he pushes his glasses back up his nose. A single sniff, a frown deepened by the toss of shadows, Wilbur tilts his head and throws words down.

"Poor f*ckin' bastard got lost a long time ago. To be fair, bottom of a bottle is one hell of a way to go. Wash it all away with a bit of liquor and well…" Wilbur nudges the bottle, voice louder, "well suddenly the world's blurry enough to be just shy of alright. A few days out from damn that's better. Six weeks from rolling in a shallow grave! And no more misery, no more pain, no more aggravations. Nothing left really, but all those little insects that eat the soft bits of your brain."

The silence rings.

Dream holds his own like he holds the torch close enough to that space over his heart to feel it burn. There's words heavy on his tongue, dancing at the roots and the gums.

A question to be asked, but it never comes. And not for lack of trying because had he been the same person he was even exactly six seconds ago he would've split his teeth and uttered it. Even then.

Even with the same scars and the same reservations, the same voice that's just across the line of shakes too much. An old air of confidence made up for only in the occasional false bravado. Arched brows and a lazy tongue to make it all really come together.

He has to wonder who the f*ck he's still putting it all together for.

He has to wonder how he could even have the energy. Because every minute, every hour, every day feels like fading, head turned gently, chin dipped, following the trembling hands of some deathless death. Tired.

And the endless show isn't for Wilbur any more than it is for himself, any more than it is some pattern to constantly fall back on and then lose that, too. He's getting used to loss… warming up to the idea-

Getting used to the way it always arrives with viscous force at the rise of every morning that looked like whenever he opened his eyes and his only sun was the steady fall of a lava curtain. His only existence a constant headache so heavy it breaks his spine. Hands hardly more than static smeared across lead, cumbersome and clumsy- in the prison, out of it; down in the gentle curves of a metro's bowels with not a train in sight-

Something will always hold his tongue for ransom without warning, and it has less to do with the body on the ground and more to do with the living.

Wilbur scrutinizes him. A sweeping up and down thing that pins him like a bug.

Dream keeps his chin down, eyes scooting off to the sides, gaze kept to the corners. Never straight on.

"It's weird to see you so… different," Wilbur starts, lips sharp, teeth bright. "You're- it's all, well it's pitiful really. You are trying so hard, but you're absolutely sh*t at it and I…" Wilbur trails off, stepping forward once, and then twice, and again, and again. "Once, you were made of sturdier stuff, now a stiff breeze could bowl you over. You skitter around like your own shadow's out to get you. You flinch at every unexpected sound, you're always looking over your shoulder and I- I'm curious, Dream."

Dream steps back on instinct, all sharp angles and red glares, a fragmented illusion that dances in the torchlight.

"I'm curious, what's the thing that always breaks you? Was it the torture?"

He steps back again- heel shaking, the quake of it sent right up to his knee as he hears the swing and crunch of an axe.

"Was it starving?"

He remembers the claws of hunger ripping at his insides until he'd stay doubled over for hours, days, weeks, gnawing on his sleeves, his arms, his fingers until he'd whittled them down to the bone just to stop the ache-

"Was it the isolation?"

From wrists to elbows, his arms sing with broken fists thrown at obsidian, beating and screaming at the walls when his mind snapped on its regular schedule of twisting and mending itself. Always dragging himself down into short-lived destruction, exhilaration suckerpunching red hot anger; spreading from his hand to his head whenever he sticks it in the lava just for fun. Every monument of his accomplishments lost and left behind in the shell that he is and he can't even remember how it all began or how it's supposed to end. But there's failure, and there's scars, and there's the desperation to just f*cking survive on the same long-winded lie of maybe he'll get himself out and everything will be whole again-

"Or did you simply just lose yourself? Did you forget?"

The world is punctuated by dull, listless days, the taste of something, some potion, some drug, potatoes with green spots and little sprouts, the insides too pink, too sweet; addictive.

Drunken smiles and easy nods, orders followed with no sirs, yes sirs, sitting like a dagger's edge threatening to slice his tongue. He writes in books and pushes them at Quackity's feet, the gambler grinning down with that smile. A saccharine 'thank you', on those sharp lips. Always saying jump and he never hesitates to ask, 'how high.'

Because he never stood a chance in those four walls, strung out like a laundry line on every grin and every lie, and nothing went according to any sort of plan. Nothing about him was recognizable anymore. He was the sort of burned out flame that is never destined to reignite. Tail wagging, ears up, hardly even there.

He hardly knows who Dream is, was, or would be, beyond the name they continue to call him. That moniker that settles heavy in his ears and he's always halfway to cracking his teeth and asking, 'who?'

And maybe… maybe it's all a bit easier down here, maybe it's more like the winding, fractured halls of an old maze. It's all a bit closer, a bit clearer, when he's unconscious, when he's ten leagues deep in his own goddamn brain. But there's a stark difference between the real world and a fever dream.

He's not the same out there.

Not where everyone, everything passes like faces on the wrong side of wet windows. Casinos and quartz and roadways, fountains, craters, red, all of it … dead- dying, wrought with decay; all of it a home smeared by lines of rain.

"Would you have been the same given everything that's happened, if they hadn't have shoved that poison down your throat and made you lose it all?" Wilbur asks, words slippery notes of crimson now.

Dream's heart sits in his throat as he looks up and meets Wilbur's eyes, those old nightmares tucked behind cracked lenses. He sees himself reflected in them.

"Hell, could you really be happier anyways?" Wilbur adds, sincere but sickly so.

"Happier?" Dream shakes with the bitter laugh, the bitter taste. "That's- isn't that pretty funny coming from the guy who basically offed himself when he lost all his playthings?"

Wilbur sighs softly, his smile softer. "And they say hindsight is everything."

Something about the words sting. Barely more than a hollow pinch of it twisting in his gut, still it makes Dream turn his back on Wilbur, on all of it.

Head tossed, breath pressed fast from his nostrils, he starts back down those train tracks and he doesn't care where he's headed only that it's away--

Eyes stuck on the ground he stumbles his way straight into the past, brick walls and glass windows nearly smacking him in the face as he stops short. Neck craned, eyes wide, he raises the torch and stares up at the facade of the community house that's risen from the dark.

It flickers in the blue light, an ocean cast across the length of it. Still whole, unblemished, every brick and every block all in its proper place-

Somehow floating in a sea of gravel. Somehow making sense, somehow blessing disguising a curse.

And he shouldn't believe it.

Except he's already moving towards the window on numb heels, pressing a hand to the glass. Cold and condensate, claws tapping the surface as he peers past his own reflection.

Warmth reflected in the figures that flit about inside, the sound of laughter, flashing smiles, crinkled eyes; just some world he forgot.

He draws his hand back.

Because the longer he looks the more he only sees a thousand red flags planted in every single moment. All those little flashing things he learned to spot in every kind gesture, every precursor to betrayal, all the things he was too stupid to never see coming. And he taught himself it was never if it was when.

He throws a fist at the glass- on a shout, on a lie- on the blind conviction that he has to be better off this way because then he's angry for nothing, he's bitter and beaten and broken for nothing-

He never hears the window crack.

He's in the community house.

Shadows stretch long, silver slicing patterns across the floor from a chronic lack of doors and dusty windows smothered with fingerprints. The soulfire torch is gone along with the smooth miles of curved concrete and glinting train tracks. There's no phantom shaped like Wilbur to haunt his vision, and the only reds exist in stacks of TNT piled high in every corner.

Red bundled sticks of it litter the floor just for good measure. Strings and wires forming a web that trails down from the roof all the way down to the basem*nt as he kneels at the epicenter on the main floor. Fingers twisting wires, out of focus, memorized movements from having done the same thing over and over too many times.

Footsteps creak softly against the wood floor and the wind trickling in from the doorway whispers friend before Ranboo ever opens his mouth.

"They're planning to kill you at that festival."

"I know," Dream admits, hands idly messing with the switch to his homemade bomb, yet to be hooked up. "I uh, stumbled across your book."

"So, you're the one that's been snooping in my house."

"Guilty as charged," Dream mutters around the wires clenched between his teeth as he bites down on the crude wire crimp.

He knows it's just a taunt.

Ranboo always told him where he'd left it on purpose.

There's the shuffle of steps, a long beat of silence, a breeze tickling the back of his neck and the side of his face. Dream follows the gentle beck and call of it, turning his chin up to see Ranboo standing by the empty dining table.

Hands going still, chill creeping up his spine he knows he left the photos he'd ripped off the walls there.

That sad stack of polaroids he'd deliberated over for longer than he should have. Stuck between leaving them tacked on the basem*nt walls- hung right over those three moth eaten beds still pushed together- or ripping them down to just burn altogether.

Before he knew it he'd had the photos gathered in his hands, clutched tight in gloved fingers as he cast them on the table and paced for too long. And everytime he picked them up, he'd have them slipping between his palms, hands fisted in his hair, explosions a distant thought as he stared at the picturesque mess on the floor-- only to pick it all up again.

Thoughts intruded by the last remnant of cheerful warm nights, full dinners, the worst conflict looking like who gets the last slice of pie or who gets to do the dishes.

And he'd sat down, wasted precious time on nothing but distractions, spine bent and elbows digging into the table. Missing things that were simple.

He'd forced himself to stand back up, chair tipped over, mask ripped off, and he'd forgotten all about the photographs as he planted TNT and never looked back.

Now Ranboo's just another witness to his own weakness scattered on polished oak.

Dream stands, abandoning his task as he brushes imaginary dust off his sleeves.

"I'd ask if you lost your mind, but…" Ranboo sighs, dragging the photos on the table towards himself, "clearly you have."

Ranboo pushes it back, something tense, tail flicking to match. An unquiet static flickering between them.

Dream picks up the photo and stares at it, bending it between fingers that shouldn't be so small, so fragile, so corporeal.

Stuck staring down at blurry faces, his own smiling back up at him.

It's always strange to never really recognize that face under the mask. It's hard to see himself in those strands of soft hair, white teeth just shy of too sharp, dark freckles clustered like scales kissing a few pale scars across his cheeks. Green eyes that were less pupil and more swirl of stars, galaxies in tow like bright purple drops of lightning. It was easier to hide all of that behind a mask.

But his shadow often stretched like a reminder that he should be towering and thunderous, a never ending nightmare. Something breathlessly chaotic, composed of constantly shifting forms and all the space between the cosmos. Smoke and ten million flickering galaxies, energy in every form. Dark matter laced with the lazy spin of dying worlds hung in hungry voids, all an oil slick backdrop to the universe caught between his ribs and stars that would spill out on each breath.

And despite everything, he would give it up all over again. He would sign his name on that proverbial dotted line even with the understanding that giving up so much power still came with the consequences of immortality.

Always so close and yet so far from some fearful thing that shies away from pain and suffering. Always within arm's reach of a constant wasted effort on a vessel that's slowly been turning him to all meat and bones and breakable things. Soft decay and slow rot one degree of separation away.

And something like infinite lives never made every brush with death any less daunting.

"You, uh… you look terrible by the way."

Dream looks up, the greens and reds of Ranboo's eyes flickering to purple in muted flashes.

"For an End god that is," Ranboo adds.

"Wow, thanks," Dream chuckles, smile tense, "what uh, y'know what gave it away?"

"Nothing. Um, I guess I've sorta known for a while actually, but you're- well, despite everything you're painfully human. Which I guess is the weirdest part-" Ranboo tilts his head, words twisting into something lighter, "'cause how does someone like you end up so far from home?"

"Well… I could ask you the same."

"Hah, you know I don't remember that much."

"Eh, figured you'd've somehow jogged your memory by now or- or something," Dream shrugs. "People seem to remember things after sticking around long enough."

Some don't, some get worse, he doesn't say.

Ranboo huffs out a laugh, ears drooping. "I- I mean, does it really even matter still?"

"I guess it doesn't, yeah."

Ranboo seems to contemplate all the non-answers and Dream watches as the ender scrubs a hand down the white side of his face. Red eye and tear scars standing out; all shocking imperfections that clash with the other half.

Dream holds his tongue. There was no use in
comparing scars when they'd just be wasting both their breaths.

"So," Ranboo drags out, breaking the awkward silence, "what's the straw that broke the camel's back?"

Dream raises a brow in question, Ranboo tilting his head waving a hand towards the ceiling as if that explained everything.

"I'm just, I'm guessing all of this-" Ranboo gestures again, "is, y'know the reason you're not like ten stories tall and built like an enderman on steroids is all."

"It's…" Dream hesitates, "it's one of them."

"Ah," Ranboo nods, stepping carefully over the wires on the floor, "so George and Sapnap w-"

"Why do you even care?" Dream cuts Ranboo off, "aren't you going to forget this conversation anyways?"

Ranboo clicks his tongue, brows raised. "I'll take that as a yes."

"Look, Ranboo, it's- it's not that simple, okay? And it's, well it's not even important-"

"Isn't it?"

Ranboo levels Dream with half a glare, both of them stood on either side of all those wires and initiators stretched to every corner. A mess waiting to be detonated, waiting for the push of a button.

"All I want to know is why can't we go to the End," Ranboo continues in ender this time, purple particles drifting lazily around that false crown on his head. "Like the real reason."

"It doesn't matter."

Ranboo's eyes flash purple, "that was my home--"

"And you're better off without it," Dream says, teeth bared and his shadow climbs in all directions. "The End, that's not your home, Ranboo- your home isn't some- some husk you hardly remember."

"Oh and this is? Yeah you're doing a real bang up job there!" Bold as ever, Ranboo takes a step forward not back and meets the words head on.

Dream crinkles his nose and lets the stir of anger sit heavy at the back of his throat. Eyes tracking Ranboo as the kid moves in a wide circle, hands moving to aid his explanation. All sweeping gestures to try and destroy some fragile house of cards.

"-over half the server hates you, the other half wants you dead. Tommy's gone missing, after you claimed you'd watch him in exile. And I got roped into the Butcher Army, the people who if you recall are trying to kill you. This place has never been more divided. Why not just tell them the truth? Why not just fix things if you've got the power to-"

"Gods don't fix things, okay? And besides that's- that's not how it works. I'm not-" Dream pauses, ribs heaving, hating every second that he lets the words slip off his tongue, "that's not me- and yeah, you don't get it and that's fine, you're mortal, Ranboo. Trust me, that's a good thing."

Behind the barricade of his teeth he holds back everything he still desperately wants to spit. Every nasty, cruel thing that rots in him, that looks like crude words wrapped around the idea that enderwalk was just a fancy way of slapping together the worst self defense- that even enders who were nothing like gods could live too long compared to all the Overworld things, and memories became too easy to separate. Sometimes it just happened on its own, sometimes all it took was a bad injury, and that was the easy birth of every wandering enderman.

And he never understood why Ranboo wanted to know the past so bad when he couldn't even stomach the present; when he couldn't stomach the fact they weren't so different when it came to wanting the same things for this world.

Dream holds tight to all those things he'd spit at the other ender's feet about order and bureaucratic bullsh*t, the lie of filling roles like coins to paper sleeves and slot machines. How the story was always the same endless fairytale of villains versus heroes, empty gods and their little champions.

He wants to say all those sharp little things, the venomous minutia that'll spell it all the f*ck out; that the End didn't matter and that Ranboo knows it, too. And if there was someone to blame then Ranboo should set his sights on Wilbur, on Schlatt, on everything-

Blame fell on every instance he ever tried to be pleasant, every time he tried to be nice, every single time he let anyone have an inch and they'd take a mile, how all it brought was disaster and ruin and death. Over and over again. How no one ever listened, no one got along, and the only universal truth to every equation he jotted down was violence. It was control. It was exploitation. It was prayers cast to the rubble and ash of total destruction in hopes of something beautiful, of something better. Some misguided hope for even a scrap of the idyllic past based on the bitterest of memories while kneeling in the fresh dirt of a grave.

Or maybe it's all just been the crude satisfaction of trying to burn bridges before they could ever be crossed. And outright detonating them when they were.

No matter the answer, no matter the motive, no matter the acid Dream wants to cut from his tongue and fling at the mercy of everything to blame; he tells himself it's all for the best.

"For someone who claims they're not a god, you act just like one," Ranboo observes, nothing short of accusatory.

"You can think that."

"I do-"

"And maybe you're right, but I think I'm right, too," Dream shrugs, crouching down to finish connecting all the wire leads to the switch. The picture of nonchalance even as the space between his knuckles aches all the way up to his elbows, frustration stuck thick under his skin.

"Even still, what the hell does this get you? It's not like you're making anything better by blowing up your old home-"

"I'm not trying to," Dream admits, eyes stuck somewhere on the pattern of the floor.

"O-kay, so you want everyone to hate you then? You want to be worse than Wilbur, you wanna be worse than Schlatt?" Ranboo presses. "You want to what, make yourself the monster, bring everybody together to rally against you and then get a sweeping redemption arc? You call that a plan?"

"Well, that'd be ideal, but…"

"Unrealistic," Ranboo finishes for him.

"Yeah."

For a long stretch of silence, Dream stays crouched there, elbows on his knees, eyes unfocused. Fingers tracing the wires gripped loosely in his hand as he waits for Ranboo to take the hint to leave.

Ranboo doesn't, instead footsteps rasp softly on wood, drawing slightly closer.

"Do you… do you know the story of Prometheus?"

"Why?" Dream blinks, brows scrunched as he asks, "what're you channeling Techno now?"

"Just- look, hear me out. You know what happens to him, right?"

"Zeus has Force and Violence seize him and then he's bound to a rocky crag by unbreakable cuffs for the rest of eternity," Dream explains, scratching nails against the back of his wrist. The skin twinging with phantom pains like the blistering cut of metal cuffs that aren't there.

"And a giant eagle comes every day, rips him open and eats his liver," Ranboo adds, voice steady, words crunching half-ender, half-common, "But he can't die, so the liver just grows back. And it happens over, and over, and over again. It- it never gets any less painful, and there's not a day that the eagle doesn't come, nor a night that his liver doesn't regrow."

"But he gets free," Dream curls his fingers into his palm, voice soft.

"Only after he promised to give up a valuable secret," Ranboo counters, something distant in his voice as his eyes flash red and green before the purple creeps back. "It's all just the same- like it really is, isn't it? God, we- we just do the same things, we make the same mistakes, and- and it's always the same eagle. And it doesn't get us anywhere- nobody actually does anything. We just try to run from it, and it doesn't matter, Dream- because you're not going anywhere- none of us are... are we?"

Dream frowns at the dips and cracks in the ender's voice. "It's just a story, Ranboo."

Ranboo sighs, a tiny 'yeah' pressed out with the hollow breath.

The drone of crickets and frogs from outside filters in. Soft noises like a symphony that has no idea it will be interrupted by a blast that will ignite the sky. That will blaze red hot as if somehow the sun had crashed to earth in the middle of the night.

Ranboo tilts his head, eyes tracking a line along the interior of the community house, face bent into a frown for half a second. "How long have you spent trying to blow this place up?"

"Not that long," Dream says too fast, welcoming the change in subject, but annoyed by the implications that somehow he couldn't blow up a building because there was too much sentiment. "I just- I don't want like half of it to still be standing, that'd be pretty lame-"

"Yeah, mmhm."

"Shut up, it's not even sunrise yet-"

"You've literally spent hours rigging this whole place up when you probably could've just snapped your fingers and finished the job-"

"Authenticity."

"You're blowing up a building not baking a cake, man. All they're gonna see is what you leave behind."

"And you're-" Dream cuts off, hands shoved through his hair where it's fallen in front of his face, "And you're just- you're suddenly an expert on blowing things up then?"

"I mean…" Ranboo trails off, giving a shrug, "I've burnt things down, not much difference."

Dream rolls his eyes, the back of his wrist pressed to his brow, headache stirring in his temple. "You should leave, Ranboo, or this'll kill you."

And five seconds later Dream never figures out if it's Ranboo or if it's him- he never figures out whether it's because he's twisting wires and fiddling with the wrong things or because Ranboo's feet snagged something in that obsessive pacing, but someone trips one of the initiators without the flip of the switch.

The click, click, click of redstone is the only warning he gets.

Time and space condensed on instinct, he grabs Ranboo by the scruff and then they're both tumbling onto the boardwalk. Dream wrenching Ranboo back before he goes falling into the water. Hand fisted in the back of the kid's suit he puts himself between Ranboo and the community house on instinct.

The building explodes, all cascading percussive booms. Heat billowing out, raining down bricks, glass, and hunks of sharp wood.

Something sharp cuts across his spine and ribs and he doesn't have to see it to know there's holes ripped right through to bone, reds no doubt spreading across the kelly green. He should've thrown on armor and not been such an idiot, he thinks as the world dips and spins and he claps a hand over his ear.

Falling forward, elbow catching himself he blinks at the way the rough pattern of wood wobbles in front of his nose. Oranges leaping in the corners of his vision, everything muffled and slow like he's floating face down in the water. The absence of sound is odd all things considered and so he forces his palm harder against his ear, like somehow the pressure would force the world to scream back to life.

Hands grab his shoulders, shaking him and he blinks up at the doubled sight of Ranboo above him. Ears ringing too loud to catch the words that flee a moving mouth and flashing fangs, all highlighted orange, not a scratch, hardly a speck of soot on that blurry face, not like the warmth he feels slip down his own temples, the sting of splinters and cuts, burns radiating and awful to mirror the stench of burnt flesh and charred fabric.

Ears trading a high-pitched ring for any sounds, he wonders how Ranboo's standing and shouting, completely fine. He realizes with a sinking feeling he must've healed Ranboo out of habit.

"-is wrong with you?! Are you out of your mind?! You made a dead man's switch-"

"I told you it'd kill you," Dream slurs, shouldering off Ranboo's concerns as he stands and shoves shaking fists in his pockets. Still swaying a little too much.

"And? That means it'd kill you, too!" Ranboo's eyes blaze with the fire's reflection, fangs bared and shoulders jumping.

Dream just keeps his eyes dull and forward. Back kept to the crackle of flames, refusing to look where the occasional snap of wood beams echoes the splash of charred bricks tumbling away into the water.

Ranboo shakes his head, pacing a tight circle as he runs his hands through his hair, crown forgotten somewhere on the boardwalk or flung into the water. Muttering something under his breath as the world burns hot around them and ash trickles down.

And the poison red of the artificial sunrise is something that stretches to contrast the night, the twinkle of dying torches, blotting out the moon and the stars. All the little orange lights dancing in the glossy photos scattered on the boardwalk.

He hadn't even realized Ranboo had grabbed them in the first place.

Ranboo sighs, stooping to pick up the photos that aren't floating face down in the water. Dream stares, not processing the gravity of anything. It's all just memories after all, just fragile things as fragile as lives. And maybe that was the appeal of snapping polaroids that faded when they were hung where the sun could reach them.

"Did you um…" Ranboo holds the photos out to him.

Dream doesn't grab them.

He doesn't hesitate when he brushes past Ranboo and the only thought swirling in his head is the one that makes him pray that all those smiling faces get tossed into the f*cking fire-- it's the only way to ensure they stay safe.

And just like that he's back to throwing fists at nothing but a concrete wall down in a train tunnel. Because the community house was never there.

So he stands there with blood smeared in a useless stain on the wall, purple rotten skin split on each knuckle, bones brittle and grey peeking through to weep dark reds. Empty gestures fueled by irrationality.

And his constant prison is never seeing how far he's crashed through the bottom line, never seeing the knife until it was buried in his back. That flashing thing in the mirror as he casts glances over his shoulder, detached from the strange reflections flickering in round pieces of glass.

"Oh, prison did wonders for you," Wilbur drawls and Dream stares at the concrete, less and less confident that the other is some illusion his mind had crafted for the saddest form of comfort.

No, he thinks instead he's left with an infection that's discolored and oxidized. All that's left is the desire to shove his thumbs through the backs of Wilbur's eyes rimmed red until claws hit the back of a rotten skull.

And he stands there, thinking about it, always just a flaming torch in one hand.

Shaking fist in the other.

And if he can't rely on his words, if he can't rely on goals and checkboxes, then he'll rely on the way teeth pierce flesh and bone.

So he rounds on it, him, Wilbur, Not Wilbur, suddenly far less person and more thing to sink his teeth into--

The rage dies when he sees no one is even standing there.

Everything dimmed to a simmer. The words he's supposed to speak, the things he's supposed to admit don't come as easily anymore. Nothing does and it's just another thing to shock his insides, creep fire up his wrists and across his collar bones to rest like lightning in that hollow junction of his neck. Embarrassment taut between knuckles that creak so horridly under clenched fists.

"They put me in that cell," Dream starts, words less than confident, confessions he's rehearsed with the sound of hammers and knives. It never mattered if he believed them only that he learned to say it. "... They put me in that cell because I did something- because I was something wrong. I was dangerous- and for over a year of- of--"

'The only reason I come and torture you so much, Dream-- every single day, is merely because at the end of the day, no matter how many times I f*cking torture you, that will never amount to the amount of f*cking evil that you've done to this place and the people in it.'

"And for a year of that- I think I did alright. I didn't break… and they're- they're- this is just- look, I-"

He stumbles on his words over and over, again and again and again. Stutters traded for growls and he sounds too much like the rabid dog who bleeds itself out on the choke chain.

Cradling rationality in the pits of his lungs, he stares into the dark and breathes out the words that he knows will summon the spectre back.

"All of it? It's justice, alright. It's politics. That's it, that's all it ever is and I'm, well I- what the hell do you expect me to do?"

Liar.

Wilbur steps out of the dark, hollow grin all hooked on one side, bathed in reds despite the blue glow of the torch's flame.

"Justice and politics, ey?" Wilbur taps fingers against his chin, seeming to mull it over. "Well, That's certainly one way to put it. I mean considering your sentence is forever, none of that really matters now does it? No, you're f*cked, mate."

Dream shakes his head, shouldering past Wilbur as he continues back down those endless train tracks. He hates that he's so sick of being alone that even an absolute asshole is better company.

"Listen, Dream, as much as I thorougly enjoyed you spouting off that crock of sh*te, I'm still just hearin' Quackity, Sam, Tommy, bloody f*ckin' Ranboo-" Wilbur spits the name like it's personally offended him. "That's boring. That's stale. I want to know who the f*ck you think you are, that's what I wanna hear. Not who everybody f*ckin' tells you you're supposed to be- and I get it. That's easy. You wanna be the villain so bad, fine, mission accomplished. You wanna believe you're some sort of hero, the purveyor of change in your own narrative? Go right ahead, I'll give you a standing ovation! But how the hell do we get there- how did we get here?"

"You know," Dream starts, venomous smile half thrown over his shoulder, "why don't you tell me, since you seem to know more than I do?"

And if the encroach of madness is bristling at the same sh*t over and over, at smelling the same stale air, the same cigarette smoke until his head was stuffed full of it then he'd rather be loosing his mind in that f*cking cell than loosing it down here.

Wilbur chuckles behind him like he can hear his thoughts and they're the world's best joke.

Dream rolls his eyes and walks faster. Half wondering where his feet are still taking him. Half wondering if this is the hundredth time he's heard that lighter click, if Wilbur's just got an endless supply of smokes in his pockets.

"You know you're here- you're here and I don't think you want to leave anymore," Wilbur's accusation echoes, filling the still air like the smell of cigarette smoke. "Better in the box, better to be in that place where all the evils stay locked away- where hope exists in little courtyards and the whisper of long grass, the babble of a tiny brook. Waiting for Pandora to stumble upon it, open it out of curiosity. Or is that all just another dream? Do you even know which one's reality anymore?"

Answering is futile, so Dream bites his tongue and keeps his eyes forward. Never needing to turn and see that orange glow light up in the dark to know Wilbur's standing right there. Trailing on every step but never too close, never more than a shark just circling in the water.

Eventually, having Wilbur at his back becomes an unbearable task all together. All of it somehow made worse by the crunch of gravel, the occasional quiet sniff, a drag and exhale of smoke and so he lets Wilbur pass.

Dream lets Wilbur get a few yards ahead so he can keep his eyes trained on the back of his head. Some pale shape of comfort in knowing that the only other thing down here was always in sight.

And Wilbur couldn't care less. Back to practicing balance beam on slippery train tracks, but this time Dream knows there's never going to be an actual train. Not anymore.

"Y'know, I've been wondering…" Wilbur starts, "what did you do that was so f*ckin' bad you got stuck with me?"

"You mean other than whatever makes Quackity use me like a pincushion every day?" The sarcasm flees Dream's tongue before he can stamp it down, and then it just keeps going, "I mean, your guess is as good as-"

Wilbur stops in his tracks.

Dream shuts his mouth with a click, stopping with him.

When Wilbur turns his head, it's just enough to see the edge of his glasses, all reds reflected from the blues. Dancing, dim purplish like bruises from angry fists.

A cold chill creeps up his neck. Dream backtracks, footsteps loud, cowardly things and he nearly trips on his own heels, uneven and stiff on the shifting gravel.

"You still don't get it do you?" Wilbur clicks his tongue, head shaking, a laugh curdling the air. "Oh, you're priceless, Dream-"

You're too fun.

"-you want to know what's at the end of all this? Well… you're never gonna make it if you keep running the hell away."

"I- I'm not running from anything." But even as he says it he takes another step backwards.

"Not yet," Wilbur adds, stepping to the side. Elbow propped on a crossed arm, smoke pouring from his lips.

Dream scrunches his brows, eyes tracking him, teeth parted on a question-

He chokes it down on a pitiful sound when something moves out in the dark past Wilbur. Glinting, dangerous, the purple's of a netherite blade, gold flashing in a grin and-

"I'd run if I were you."

And try to run Dream does, try being the crucial part because he's falling all over himself, torch slipping right out of his hand, blazing from blue to red the second it hits the ground and then quickly starting to fade.

His limbs lock and freeze as he scampers back on some animal thing that he spends more time clawing himself back to his feet than actually getting anywhere, the light dips in and out, a strobe that illuminates in slow motion Quackity as he swings an axe.

Dream throws himself back, away from the arc of it, using the fall as a sloppy dodge before he tries to weave around Quackity, dive for the torch-

But when his back hits the ground, he keeps falling. Cast head over heels, he doesn't even have time to catch himself before he's colliding and crashing down to the bottom of some yawning pit punched right in the center of the labyrinthic train tunnel. The thumb of some angry god pressed right into the middle of a nightmare.

The world becomes a series of crunches punctuated by jarring fists of pain, all framed by flashes of red. The snapping of bones. Shouts of pain.

All until he crashes right into the bottom of it.

A brief cut to black. A gentle float in calm waters, a spinning, drifting lull of nothing, bliss. Eyes shut against a freezing arctic chill that bites at his limbs and creeps down to the core. It freezes the blood in his veins, his heart, ears numb to the howling wind, ice crusted on his clothes-

He blinks open to a ring of figures, all sideways until he raises his head and pushes himself up off the ground. Hand wrapped around his ribs to push fingers into phantom pains of total fractures and punctured lungs.

Some red judgement hall of pulsing vines and wriggling crimson greets him at the bottom of an inescapable pit. He casts his eyes up towards the top and sees no perceivable end.

It's an oddly familiar scene with unfamiliar words, figures lofting netherite weapons and donning netherite armor. Surrounding him on all sides as he coughs and cradles his wounds, matching glares with every set of red eyes.

"Lovely of you to join us," Wilbur announces, walking on to the scene. His only armor is that trench coat, his only weapon a packet of paper clutched in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The smoking stick stuck back between his teeth as he flips through the pages and scowls, "God, this sh*t is always so annoying to read- like who the f*ck chooses this font?"

Dream pushes himself slowly to his feet, eyes stuck on Wilbur as the man muses over pages like they're the most important thing in the world. Distracted it seems, so much so that he doesn't even turn his head or look up.

And Dream is seized by a desire to run so daunting that his feet are moving before his mind is and he finds himself getting thrown back on his ass when one of those statue still figures checks him with the butt of an axe-

"Hey, kid, are you lost? You've been following me around like a little duckling, and I won't lie following me prolly isn't the best idea. I've literally got no idea where the hell I'm going-" her laughter was always something that lit up the air, a vibrancy that matched a red coat, a captain's hat. Soft eyes and soft wool, easy smiles and easier lessons of morality and mortality steeped in a blinded sense of justice and heroism. "But, hey I met this Foolish guy- I think you'd like him-"

Dream blinks and the memory is gone, traded for the dull eyed stare of a sheep humanoid that's all reds, no trace of blues. No captain's hat, or captain's coat, no sunglasses or bright smiles, just cold netherite and colder nothing.

Hands hook in the back of Dream's jumpsuit collar, knuckles brushing his neck and red invades his mind the instant they do. Fingers reaching back on an instinct to pry the offending appendage off. His mouth and throat filling with static that spills down into an empty stomach, and his efforts to claw out the red go ignored.

"You see, there's this saying that history is doomed to repeat itself, but in your case it's a little more literal," Wilbur explains, hoisting him up by the back of the collar. Demeanor shifted to something callous and cruel, bathed in mercury sulfides. Somehow unearthly strong, dragging him to his feet and shoving him forward. Words strung out in twisted enchanted that stuff his head. "And let's just think of this little moment we're having together like the judge and jury you never had. Except there's no deliberation, no adjudication, no verdict, just evidence. This is all you, Dream- all your memories packed into one space and honestly that's kind of f*ckin' sad, isn't it?"

Before Dream can even muster up the words to ask what the hell that means he's nearly stumbling onto the trident of another netherite figure. Hands finding the haft on instinct as he keeps it from impaling his chest. He's forced to lock eyes with a familiar face on the other side of those deadly prongs, donning a familiar white bandana-

"sh*t, that things sharper than it looks-"

"Well yeah dumbass, you're not supposed to hone something like that-" he reaches for the netherite axe in Sapnap's hands, but then stops short, "uh, can I...?"

"Yeah, yeah-" Sapnap passes it over, "it's uh- it's actually for you."

"Really?"

"Yeah, you y'know didn't have anything except for that sh*tty diamond sword-"

"Diamonds aren't sh*tty-"

"Compared to this they are."

And Sapnap's right. It's a weapon on par with a god-killer, a thing that thrums and sings in his grip, weightless in his palm trilling soft notes and humming gentle tunes that scream if swung fast enough maybe its blade could slash through dimensions. It's the sort of thing forged in the very heart of the Nether by the very demons who dwell there. Smiths of god-killing weapons, worlds, and life; and even this, something relatively small in comparison, is still a shape-shifting blade with nearly a mind and soul of its own.

It's something he really didn't think he'd need, but now that it's in his hands he can't imagine anything different. He can't imagine why in the world someone would ever give it up. He can't imagine why Sapnap would spend time and energy, blood, sweat and sacrifice crafting it just to give it away. It's the furthest thing from sense. It's idiotic, actually.

And so he stands there like an idiot himself. Staring down at the axe, trying to work his way through how to form the right words and gestures to match such a selfless goddamn act.

"This is um," he grimaces, clearing his throat to try and get the crack out of his voice, "thank you, seriously, I- I don't even- like I'm… thank you."

It's a lame sort of gratitude, but Sapnap doesn't seem to care-- face already lighting up in a smile.

"You're welcome, dude," Sapnap beams, "it's really nothing special, honestly. Like compared to what the folks who raised me could make? This is legit like baby-steps level stuff-"

"Oh, so he's humble, too?" He teases, shoving at Sapnap's arm, chuckling until something on the axe blade catches his eye. Symbols of enchanted glint along the curve of it and he raises a brow, smile belying his sarcasm, "Nightmare, eh? That's very original."

"Oh, hey, you can actually read that sh*t? Bad put that on there," Sapnap shrugs, "he said it'd be funny."

"Of course he would," he says as he tilts the weapon and spots white eyes like stars and purple flames burning in the reflection. He sees his own face hidden behind a mask when he tilts it a bit more.

He stows it in his inventory a second later, looking over, mouth open to say something but the words die when he notices that Sapnap still has a hand pressed up under his arm. Red smeared on the white of his shirt, looking a bit pale with sweat beading on his forehead, and yet nonchalant like he's trying to hide it.

"Alright, how bad is it?"

Sapnap's shoulders draw up to his ears as he steps away and gives the lamest answer for a bad liar. "It's nothing, man, really it's just a little scratch-"

"Sapnap-"

"No, Dream, c'mon it's fine it's just- it's a little scratch honestly, dude, it's really nothing."

He doesn't buy it for a second, eyes narrowed as he quickly reaches out and jabs at Sapnap's arm. Jostling the limb in an easy plan to make the injured hand move where it's pinned between a bony elbow and a ribcage.

Sapnap flinches.

"You literally just flinched-"

Sapnap smiles, but it's all grimace. "No, I didn't I just looked into the sun-"

"It's dusk!"

"The moon?"

"Oh my god…" He rolls his eyes and gently grabs Sapnap's arm- gently because everytime his fingers land on anything he's always worried that for half a second he'll snap bones and cave skin without pause.

Sapnap relents with a sigh, uncrossing his arms and uncurling blood slick fingers to reveal a slice so deep it cleaves through tendons and bone. "See it just needs a couple regens, man- it'll be alright-"

Sapnap tries to brush it off, but even he knows that's not really how it works. Permanent damage usually set in almost immediately even if there were regen or healing pots available. And it wasn't the scars that mattered, it was all the tissue and nerve damage that never healed properly underneath.

And it's not as if he really understands he can do anything to help but something leads him to press his palm over Sapnap's, holding the other steady when he hisses and tries to pull away.

"Woah, holy sh-" Sapnap cuts off, staring down at where their hands meet. "Did- did you just heal me?"

Did… did he? And there's a new sting throbbing up his arm, blood still smeared thick between both their palms, and even he blinks when he pulls his hand away and Sapnap's wound has vanished. A magician surprised by his own trick.

"I guess-" he flexes his own palm, cut clean down to the bone now, red bubbling up, "I guess I did, but it-"

"Wait, f*ck- now you're hands all screwed up, what the hell-"

"Normally it doesn't work like this. I..." he tries to explain, feeling the blood slip down his elbow, drip off his fingers. And it's weird, it's hotter than he expected. And it's red. It's so dauntingly red. And instead of the wound knitting shut instantly it just sits there, it throbs and screeches, and-

"Well, you're not a god, man- don't, uh don't do that next time, okay?" Sapnap grabs his hand, reaching up to tug the bandana off his head at the same time, "alright, we could've just trekked back and I could've got a regen or something."

"Yeah, you're right-" he mumbles and never means it, fingers numb and cold against Sapnap's own.

"No, Dream, listen-" Sapnap uses his teeth to undo the knot in the bandana, words muffled, "healing magic is really rare, this is actually serious stuff. If, if I- if George, if one of us gets hurt really bad you gotta promise you won't do that, okay?"

He frowns, staring at the bone, the muscle, the yellow layer of fat, the skin, all split like a canyon. Unable to walk himself into the understanding that Sapnap could be anything but ecstatic- mortals were supposed to be afraid of feeling pain. Why wasn't this better?

"You gotta understand, if it's going to hurt you- it's not worth it. You shouldn't take on something just because you think you can-"

Sapnap wraps the bandana around the cut, reds welling up and ruining the fabric, that in another life would be purples that shine like oil spills.

"Sometimes, I dunno, sometimes I think you forget that… you hurt, too."

The fabric is tied off with a sharp tug, the ends neatly tucked into the wrappings at the edges.

"You tied it too tight, dickhe*d," he says as he pulls his hand back just to break the tension. Because it's easier than addressing all of that.

"Shut up-" Sapnap shoves him and Dream laughs, hand cradling injured hand. The appendage burning like he'd dunked it in ichor and his palm tingles and the pain is nothing because he's too busy hurting his cheeks with a wide smile.

And he almost wishes he knew how to stop time because somehow it always feels like he's always just borrowing it. It feels like he's had this conversation, this moment before. Like he's run through all the lines and all the gestures one dozen times too many.

A part of him wants to somehow freeze all of it, stay in this moment and the dozens of others that are ambrosia sweet compared to everything.

A part of him knows how it ends.

Always prickling at the back of his neck, in his heart, in his head, in his palms. Always staring into his eyes from behind a mask. That slow burning sort of sickness that stirs beneath the skin, the churn of a fever that will eventually burn him out because he's got the worst impending sense of doom that he's going to lose it all over again.

And it all goes the way he never wants it to.

Because if they go to war-
If he takes arrow wounds and death blows-
If he takes it upon himself to finish the job, destroy everything-
If he stares down the betrayal in Sapnap's eyes-
If he hardly remembers all the promises-
If he never understands how he got here-

"It won't be Tommy or Techno that takes your last life, Dream- it'll be me."

--well, he never listened anyways.

...and then Dream is back down in that pit, down on the ground, fallen at the foot of an old friend he can hardly remember. A trident leveled at his head, cough racking his frame as one hand scrabbles at the red dust and gravel of some dreamworld, the other twisting fingers into the space over where a liver would be.

Dark stain spreading across that orange jumpsuit. He pulls his fingers away and stares at the way they shine red like everything else.

And when he looks up at Sapnap he only sees red there, too.

Fingers twist into the back of his collar again, hoisting him back up, dragging him away. He twists and thrashes against it, fingers scrabbling to try and get the pressure off his neck. Ugly choking sounds pressed out with uglier curses as he regrets ever trusting so blindly in the fool's gold of Wilbur's words and whatever the f*ck was playing dress up with him.

And every figure they pass down the endless line Dream cuts his gaze towards with shaking eyes, all of them consumed by that same red. All of them hardly names, and barely faces, things remembered without context and each one is more haunting than the last.

P̶͍͔͌u̴̮̘͐f̵̮͚͓̏̿͝f̷̮̹̠̐͋̒y̵̜̟͉̣̮̯̅́,̶̧̩̼͔̓̚͠͝͝ P̶̢̘̫̾õ̴̧n̶̳̼̙̠̳̮͐̾̊̓k̵͍͑̀̅͆̕,̶̙͒́͊̈́̈ S̸͙̞̞̖͒͆a̶̢̪̜͉͇͆͜p̵̰̖̠͇͊n̸̛͔̥͈̼̠̊͌̒ͅȃ̵̡̠̐͊̉p̸͎̐͊̓̒,̶̲̫͙̜̊̊́̀͒̕ ̶͈͓͓̏̇̽̔B̷̘̩͓̘̍̊͒á̷̟̜̀͝d̶̨̺̲͉, P̵̮̼͚͆͘u̵̱̱͚̒̌͒͝ǹ̸̯̝͗z̴̻͈̠͒̕,̶̼̻͍̲̱̳̎̑ ̵̖͖̺͛̋T̶̼̾o̶͔̘͖̠͑m̴̝̫̻̒̄̓m̵̛̠̯̣̳̖̜̐̇̈̽y̵͚̜͓̺͐̄͂̇̓,̸̥̰͚̠̬̓͗̋̿̈̏ ̷̥̫̝̒͆͛͗̈͜T̷̤̥͚̺̹̈́͒͂ư̶̦͉̕b̶̻̮̮͖͑̑ͅb̷̺̳͙̗̓͋o̴̡͈̦̔̌̂,F̵̧̣̂͂̽̿͊͝ọ̷̊ò̶͚̖̹̈́l̶̻͖̩̖̹̎̋į̴̯̪̃̌̚s̴̺̮͈̭̭̚h̷̙͑,̸̫͛̀̆͋̿ ̷̡̰̮͕̓̕H̸̪͔̲͓̪̞͗̾̀͑a̵͈̩ņ̴̼̈́͋͆̈́͠n̶̦͔̯͗ā̵̱̂̂͝ḧ̷̟̣͎̅̎́̕,̸̞̪̖͉̖̪͒͋̾͛̈́ ̸̮̠̦̞̐ͅȨ̸͈͇́ṙ̷̦̫̦̮͙̊̽̾̐ḙ̵̦̟̰̍̈́ͅt̸̟̯̻̯͇̎̈̐ͅ--

And it keeps going-

F̸͇̜͊͆̈̔̓͝ư̴̖̲͙̌͋n̷̡̲͚̒̐̽̔͂̚d̸̤̽͠y̵̠͚͇͍̟̮̓̏̓̔̄̊,̶̂̆̎̎̅̕͜ ̷̙̲͔̘̽̋P̵̘̺͓̺͚̓͘ư̶̡̭̟͚̟̗̎̍̀̊r̵̝͚̆̉̿p̷̡̟̜͈̜̠̑̈́̈́̉͐l̶̯͓̮̔͋è̵̡̼̘̪̱d̴̛̯͉̤̻̃̄͛̑,̴̬͌ ̴̛̗͍̗̞͋̄̊͆̚S̷͍̪̹̮̓̎à̴̪̌̓m̷̱͗̈́̅͊̒ͅ,̶̛̠̫̳͙̈ ̷̗̋͂͠Q̸͚̯͉͚̃̾͘͜ͅŭ̸̘̉͗͜͠a̶̯̝̬̤͙͆c̶͙̆̏́̋̂k̴̙͐̿̃i̶̺͇̱̘̫͍t̵͇̓̈́͐̕y̷̲̘̦̾͋́̂,R̵͔͔̦̤̳̝̆̎͌̈́̅ă̸͓̆̈̓͋͝n̴̛̬̗̮͊̅͜b̴̲͓̆̏͒͌ǒ̷͖̺͓̈́̂̀ö̷̬̕,Ņ̷̲̟͓̩̌i̷̯̬̼̹͘k̶͉͔͙̊̀̈͋́ị̴͇̩̜̟̘̈́̇̉̓,̶̬̳͎̇͂͋ ̷̡̼͍̞̝̻̍̊̓͠Ţ̷̰̘̪̻͉̆̔̈́̈́ė̸̯͚͔̓ç̴̱̫͆̋ͅh̷̝͗̽̂̂n̴͓͚̾̒̚ō̴̜̹͔͎͕̍ͅb̶͔̤͈̻̀̀̔̒l̵̙̔̉̾̀a̵̱̠̝͈͍̘͑̐̃͆͠d̴̜͜͠e̶̝͈͚͗̒̾͜͝,̶̨̫̮͈̦̄͒̅͜ ̴̳̽͒͆P̴̡̨̯͎̭̉̋h̴̯̩̽͆į̷̟̂̍̈́̈̽l̵̬̻̘̘̙̼̂̈́̍̂z̷̻̀̃̃̉å̴̠͍̰̆̔̾̚-̵̧̨͔̖̼̜̇-

It keeps going-

Name after name after name after name after-

He's let go, smacking the ground like a sack of potatoes. Eyes stuck on the ground, vision blurry, his own breathing rasps loud in his ears. Dream stares at the boring brown boots in front of him and refuses to look up.

That Wilbur shaped nightmare still swimming at his back, Dream ducks his head lower. He presses his hand harder into his side where it twinges and throbs. Fabric torn, flesh ripped and shredded like it really had been torn open by the beak of an eagle.

"In some ancient poems liver was often used in place of the word heart," there's the idle click of a lighter, the lazy flip of pages. "So, you can imagine that puts quite the spin on the Prometheus tale. The whole liver getting plucked out thing, that is-- because if the pervasive idea was that it was the repository of life, well it's all a tad more f*cked up then, right? And maybe, well maybe I'm just spitting bullsh*t, man-"

There's an empty laugh, the scuffle and clack of a boot kicking gravel. "Maybe I'm saying complete and utter nonsense- hell, maybe- maybe I'm just preaching to the goddamn choir. But I guess, the real million dollar question is, how do you hurt something that doesn't have a heart?"

Dream bares his teeth, sick of all the cryptic sh*t, sick of being down in the halls of some endless hell, sick of being anywhere that wasn't that goddamn prison because at least that made sense-

And he moves with the full intent to tackle the Wilbur-shaped thing to the ground and find a way out of this labyrinth in the crack of fists against a skull- Ariadne's red thread in the strings of blood.

Or maybe he's just the minotaur trapped at the center that finally remembered its only function was to be a tool of torture and death. It's only freedom at the bite of a hero's golden blade.

Whatever the part he's meant to portray, he's stopped short. A sword point at his throat. He looks up the length of it and he sees no netherite armor this time. There is only that same blue shirt, that little 404 on the chest, same eyes hidden behind the same goggles.

Dream looks up at a face he hardly remembers and all he can do is hope he forgets--

He remembers that sometimes on the colder nights he actually pretended to sleep. Indulging in some foolish thing where he'd waste his time laying in a bed shoved up against two others. All of them side by side, almost suffocating, almost smothering, but more comforting than anything.

And in the darkness he'd listen to the sounds of soft breathing. And after a few hours he'd sit up, scoot back until his spine hit the wall and he'd tuck his knees up to his chest. Staring at the far wall, staring through the glass, the shapes of fish and kelp drifting in the dark water. The way the moon slices through in wavy patterns and never makes a sound. The way photos and pages and memories tacked on the wall look so small and meaningless when the light's gone.

In the darkness the world is always quieter, gentler. Almost like a breath held before the exhale of dawn. A pause before the burning kiss of the sun, but she always left her lingering warmth with each parting goodbye.

In the darkness he realizes he always wants what isn't his. Surrounded by some little world, a place apart, no griefing, no stealing, no killing the enderman (though they still had to work on that one), and most importantly no going to the End.

Or that's what it's supposed to be. Maybe, he sighs and looks to the side, George right next to him, always sleeping like he's laid in a coffin. Hands folded on his stomach that barely rise and fall- Sapnap just past him, sprawled out like a starfish, always kicking in his sleep like somehow there was never enough bed.

And in the darkness sometimes he'd lift his hand and set it over George's heart, and it wasn't anything special. He'd do the same to Sapnap, to the sheep and the cows kept out in the pasture; he did it just to remind himself they were all alive. But for George he'd always make sure he had pleasant dreams and not night terrors. Once a troubled sleeper now he spends more time asleep than awake; maybe just to make up for lost time.

In the soft whispers before dawn, it's hard to remember the start. It's hard to remember if he ran away, if this was all planned, all birthed from ten thousand wrong beginnings only to find one end he'd cobbled together with the scraps to be something half right. It's a muddied and jumbled mess of befores and afters, slippery things to lose track of between then and now because he cares too damn much about something as f*cking stupid and mortal as a polaroid picture he keeps tucked in the shirt pocket under his hoodie at all times. Always there even under all of that netherite armor he'd started to wear--

And it's such a small thing. It shouldn't mean anything but somehow it weighs more than all the cosmos. Just one little picture among a thousand snapped from a dusty camera Bad scrounged up in the bottom of some treasure trove he'd dragged back from some other world. It shouldn't mean anything, just a tiny square of colors, a blurry image of himself, George and Sapnap, Bad a small smiling shape in the very corner; the community house half-done in the background.

And he can't remember when his eyes went from purple's blazing white-hot to bright greens. He can't remember on what world he started to gain small freckles like stars spread out against the void of space across his cheeks, down his neck, up behind his ears- he can't remember when those stopped being sharp and lamb-like either. He can't remember all the places haunted by hands too real, and fragile and mortal that slowly scorched the immaterial parts of him into tangible, tainted things, smoke and pure formless shapes solidified into something that can be touched without the risks of immolation.

Something, someone caught between mortal and not, something dragged crashing into earth. The edges of himself kissed by the grass and wind of all the Overworld until the greens crept across his form, until he became just as much of it as it was of him. Until it mingled perfectly with all that was already there. And he can't remember if any of that was true either-- he can't remember the lines between god and not. He can't remember what that's supposed to mean or why he ever hated it.

And down in the basem*nt of the community house, palm held gently over a fragile beating heart, he always slips out before the light.

Before the light he'd find a place to lie down and drift away and think of the mess he's made-

"No, no, you-" he bows his head, bends a knee, and tries to plead his case to the End, "you don't understand-"

"It'll pass, your infatuation with this little world is simply because you're young-" patronizing, They all speak at the same time, They always do. "It's alright, you'll forget them soon- you'll move on just as you've done with all the others." They kneel down and ruffle the fur on top of his head, a thousand hands warm and cold, and everything at the same time like the soft breath at the last exhale of the universe, "we all fell in love with the things we built once."

And he knows in the golden ichor of a beating heart that those words are wrong; all but one line of it. And there is no guilt he harbors for his own defiance. There is no forgetting, or forgiving, or regretting all that he is. All that he does.

And in the light he promised that the world-- that friendship, bubbling laughs, and warm meals, tight hugs and lopsided smiles, all the soft and small things that he'd waste eternity on- was everything he would bring down the stars for. It was everything he would destroy worlds over and rip the sun right from her path just to see her fizzle out for daring to shine on anything anymore once it's all gone-

Because how can the universe have the audacity to go on when everything he loves is dead? How can that make sense, how can that be right?

And in the shadows of a creeping infection on his land he would stare up at blackstone walls and yellow ramparts and promise to bring the very heavens crashing down on it for ever making the threat.

…He blinks and he thinks finally, finally-- he's back where he belongs.

Staring at obsidian walls, the orange of lava in his peripherals and he almost lets out a sigh of relief. He almost lets himself sag and kiss the ground because the constant monotony of this cell is a beautiful thing that's practically worth crying over, and he ignores everything in favor of believing he's back there- all until he realizes he's not alone.

And least of all he's not awake, not yet.

He glares at the shape of Wilbur Soot sitting in a metal chair at some banged up metal table in the center of the cell. An empty chair across from him that he pushes out with a foot, the scraping sound horrid as he gestures for Dream to take a seat. Cigarette ever burning between his fingers, smile hooked on a lopsided grin-

Dream stands and limps over to take the seat. That aggravating wound still bleeding on his side, liver still plucked out it seems- and what the hell else is he supposed to do?

"Prometheus bound," Wilbur starts, flipping and moving cards in some bastardized game of solo solitaire, but all the cards are drawings of familiar people and familiar places. "The crime, defiance of the gods, theft of something as precious as self-determination. A refusal to bend the knee to tyranny and it brought upon the world death and suffering."

"What's your point?" Dream asks, eyes stuck on the cards.

"I guess there isn't one, not really. It's all a bit of fun, a game-" Wilbur grins, bending a card between his fingers, "'cause really, this isn't some reckoning- this isn't some narrative meant to foster your long welcomed regrets, Dream. This isn't about your bended knee confessions and your soulful apologies. You did what you did, and you'd do it again. That's all that counts."

Dream leans forward, elbows hitting the cold edges of the table, netherite cuffs clacking against it when he eyes Wilbur and reaches for one of the cards. Curious to see what he'll do, curious to see one up close because the red dust smeared on them is ringing bells in the back of his head shaped like vague impressions of buildings covered in red vines and red haze that lingered thick in the air.

"Go ahead-" Wilbur says, pushing one of the cards towards him, "technically, they all have to do with you."

He takes it, the card somehow heavier than it appears, the image a cartoonish depiction of a hat-wearing fox holding up a spoked wheel, tears falling from wide eyes. The image stays upside down no matter how much he turns it.

Wilbur takes it back and Dream's left to glare empty handed across the table again.

The silence drags on like the slow drip of lava in the background and the lazy swirl of smoke in the air.

"How?" Dream asks, the taste of metal in his mouth.

"How what?"

"How's- how does this have to do with me?"

Wilbur gives a huff, twisting that cigarette in his fingers, eyes red, smoke red, words red. "It's your game. The same round of solitaire with infinite rounds and the same hands, the same plays that are always going to keep you here. The same ones that are gonna keep you losing everything."

"That's-" Dream shakes his head, laughter chipped from his lungs like the glaze off old ceramics. "That's a pretty sh*tty game."

"It is, but I didn't make the rules."

"Then who did?"

"Does it matter?"

Dream curves his fingers into his palms, feet shuffling against the ground as he dips his chin and stares at his fractured reflection. Mulling over the question and trying to find the right ones to ask, playing a cosmic game with no clear rules and no set plays.

"For God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment," Wilbur quotes, drawing Dream's attention back up only to see that he's reading off that stack of papers again, adjusting his glasses as he continues, "spoiler alert, the rest of the book's been turned into something pretty sh*t, but damn if it doesn't have some badass lines and stories."

"Do you like only talk in half-truths or-"

"Oh," Wilbur interrupts, teeth flashing, "there's no halves here, Dream. You're just always missing the bigger picture."

Wilbur throws the papers down and Dream snatches them up like it's food to a starving dog, fingers dirtying and crumpling the edges as he stares down at what looks like a script.

All in enchanted, all of it accompanied by notes in the margin, things crossed out, others highlighted, all of it in varying shades of red. Arrows pointing to certain sections, segments circled and underlined, and Dream flips through it. He quickly realizes that it seems to go on forever and ever. That somehow no matter how far he flips it all starts to repeat, it's all the same--

Community House, Camarvan, L'Manberg, Manberg, Pogtopia, country after country, festival after festival, exiles and wars, and bloodshed-- bombs and poisoned worlds, prisons and red vines and red eyes, casinos and subterfuge; all of it starting all over again. Community House, Camarvan, L'Manberg, Manberg, Pogtopia--

He finally hits the last page. His own name scratched in common on a dotted line to the left, the rest of the font centered and clear. The sentencing in boldface.

Fixed Time Loop until Heat Death or Decay; whichever comes first.
Terminal Location: Dream SMP
Crime: Insubordination. Conspiracy to Mutiny. Cosmic Interference. Attempted Apotheosis of Multiple Mortals. Indulging in Corporeal Pleasures. Theft. Murder. Detonating Explosiv-

Dream shoves it back at Wilbur, scattering all those cards, never a point in reading the rest of it as his shoulders heave and his words lodge in his throat in the most guilty of denials.

"This-" he laughs, his words crumbling with his sanity, "this isn't real- this- this is just some stupid f*cking dream."

"Maybe, doesn't change the fact this is your prison, your personal little slice of purgatory. Obsidian or lush greens, it doesn't matter-"

Dream looks up and sees not just Wilbur, but the reds that have crawled from his eyes. Vines creeping up over a skeletal face, filling in the cracks of those glasses, rotten and decayed bone and teeth peeking through. Something that's not a man, but an entity, some omniscient it.

"-I will always be the fungus that grows from the darkest corners overhead. I will always watch you do the same things over and over again, every single time that withering rot hits that beating little heart you shouldn't even have."

Staring down at the purple rot on his arms, Dream swipes hands down them on instinct like he can scrape it off. Like he can avoid the inevitable, like somehow it matters-

"And we're on, oh-" it flips a page, checking the script, "the twelfth run through now? Things tend to get a little more f*cked up from here. Nothing enjoys being stuck in the same place even if it can't remember. Memories? Dreams? They're delicate, y'know, they get a bit… mixed up."

"I would've remembered that-" Dream bites out, all the thumbtacks and red string adding up for every odd instance and he hates that it makes any sense, "I would know if I'm trapped in a goddamn loop."

"f*ck, mate, you barely remember your own name outside of here-" it laughs in all crimsons, smoke spilling from its teeth, "look, it doesn't matter if you remember them. They're meaningless. See that's the problem right, you- you toss someone in a box, you knacker 'em that hard and then what? You expect them to take responsibility? You expect them to give a sh*t? No, all that matters is the punishment. That's all anyone in the bleachers ever cheers for."

"So that's it- I'm- I-" Dream hesitates, glass stuck on his tongue, the words dirty confessions, foul tasting things that demand too much when he looks down at the cards still on the table and all the faces stuck in them. "They're what-- they're all just trapped here because of me?"

"They're all trapped here because of themselves. None of them were forced to show up. None of them were forced to run from the things that they did. None of them had to fan the flames and stoke the coals of all the sh*t that went down in the first place," the Wilbur shaped nightmare shrugs. "It's not always about you, Dream- don't be selfish."

"That's… I guess that's comforting." In reality, it's no real relief to hear. It just begs more questions and muddies the few answers.

"Hey, chin up, maybe there is a cruel irony somewhere in there. That you built your own rocky crag of the Kaukasos, crafted your own adamantine fetters, and you didn't even know it. So I guess this big obsidian vault really is just like double prison for you, isn't it?"

Dream gives a single broken smile at the familiar joke, every other insinuation making his stomach turn and the name he associates best with rot and crimson and creeping fungus grows heavy on his tongue until he spits it out-

"You… you're Decay," Dream admits with a grimace, spine hunched, and he never had much love for the epitome of mortality.

"Hey, look who figured it out," Decay smiles fondly, still wearing Wilbur's face and voice like it's a favorite coat. "I'd say it's kinda outdated at this point, I've been thinking of something like Red or Velvet- that'd be pretty f*cking cool, right? But sh*t, gotta admit name changes are always so much paperwork. Suppose there's nothing special about who or what I choose though. All your little friends will still call me some sorta 'crimson egg', and besides, I've been everyone. Well, almost everyone. Time's funny like that and Wilbur did always seem to have the most fun with it."

Dream stares unamused across the table. He stares with the dull eyes and dead heart of someone who's been locked in the same cage for too long begging for the same scraps and only getting crumbs. He stares with the grey haggard sort of monotony of someone who's come to the conclusion that every choice, every sacrifice, every broken bone and cutting scar was for less than nothing. That it meant less than nothing if all his choices only ever amounted to the same beginning and the same end, over and over again.

Decay offers him a raised brow, shuffled cards and the shake of a wrist like it's asking him to play a poker game as if there's even a chance the house will lose. It's all just bullsh*t.

"I'm just your summary execution then?" Dream's never uttered something so bitter, so wrought with hopelessness that he almost gives in to the urge to let his head thunk against the table. He sits their and practically wills the loop to start all over again. Just so he can have the good parts at the beginning- just so he can leave this- because maybe there's some cruel sort of hope left in that-

"Wow, way to make it sound like you're a sloppy one night stand," Decay remarks crudely, leaning forward to ruffle the fur on top of Dream's head like he's just a particularly amusing dog. "C'mon, give yourself a little credit, yeah? You're more fun than that."

Dream bats away the hand, it only laughs at the effort.

"Oh, don't give me the long f*ckin' face, Dream. Who knows? Maybe you'll get rid of me, maybe you'll find some brilliant way to kick my ass and save the day like everyone's always expecting you to. But man that'd be a bit cheap, wouldn't it? Like it gets old I mean..." Decay trails off with a click of its tongue, waiting for Dream to lift his chin and meet its eyes before it tilts its head. It takes a drag of smoke, and exhales words like a red caterpillar down in wonderland. "I don't think that one's really for you, is it? You don't have the balls for it, that's not in the script..."

The smoke curls everywhere, red obscuring the lava, the obsidian, the purple drops from the cracked blocks that never stop crying--

And he wakes up.

Not with a gasp. Not with a shout. Not a flash or a bang or anything.

He just opens his eyes… and for once the world is quiet.

There are no phantom ticks from long burnt clocks.
There is no burble of lava. There is no chime from Elder Guardians to weigh down his mind and his limbs. There's no smiling figures bathed in red, no winding, twisting nightmarish visions.

There is nothing....

And between his ears and behind his eyes is that same wall of static back where it belongs, that thing he can't seem to claw down.

There's the distant drone of sirens echoing over the howling wind.

He's sitting up in the snow, staring forward through a proverbial blizzard. Not entirely sure how he got there but there's no desire to move, there's no need to run. There's just a grey sort of weight that sits on his shoulders and keeps his eyes tracking the crunch of boots, a figure pacing back and forth just a few meters away.

"-yeah, well boohoo man, I don't care, okay? Everything Is literally under control. This plan was set in stone months ago. Look, I'm sorry we had to leave out the finer details, but y'know you're- you're paranoid, Sam! That place was eating you alive and listen, okay, you literally cooked up your own solution. Now you've got plenty of free time, no prisons, or guard keys, or- or drugging sorry assholes- you've got none of that sh*t to worry about. You're a free man. Enjoy it a little, go hang out with people, see things, touch some grass."

There's a pause, the figure stops and Dream's not so out of it to pretend like he doesn't know who's under that fur-lined hood, whose face is under that mask. Even still, even if he knows it's Quackity and every instinct in the back of his mind screams kill him or run away-- he just sits there and waits.

Limbs ice cold, fingers numb. Shivers and chatters just starting to take hold like he's finally realizing it's f*cking freezing and he's got nothing more than a flimsy jumpsuit with tatters and holes in it.

"Thank you. And yeah, yeah, you can-"

Another pause, Quackity giving a sigh, angling back towards Dream before shaking his head.

"Yeah whatever, just- it doesn't matter…" Quackity trails off. "Look, it's not, okay. It's not going to go wrong. And if you wanna, I dunno, lock him up after he's expended his use, yeah go for it man. Prove the big bad wolf's gone- or whatever. Like whatever makes the most money. Whatever gets people on our side. Las Nevadas needs this, alright? That's all I care about, all the bullsh*t is secondary."

Quackity nods, gloved hand scrubbing down the front of his jacket, half scraping ice off- half nervous habit.

"Alright. Talk to you later, go on a goddamn walk or something. Christ man, you were starting to look like sh-" there's an abrupt end to the sentence, Quackity staring at the comm for a second too long before giving a terse laugh. "Wow, he really hung up on me."

At this point, Dream can't stop his teeth from chattering loud enough to practically be heard over the gale, hot breaths pressed out in huffs that only freeze in the air.

Bootsteps crunch closer, uneven, a slight drag and limp to them and Dream tucks his limbs in closer at the approach. Claws digging themselves into the backs of his arms, feet shuffled up close to his own body.

"Well hey, look who's finally awake-" Quackity crouches down in front of him, tugging that mask down, ripping those goggles off, grin and mismatched eyes on full display between the flurries of snow. Fingers in gloves snap without a sound, and Quackity changes tactics to just waving a hand in front of Dream's eyes, tapping him lightly on the cheek. "Hey, hey, c'mon, big guy, you're gonna tell me that potion hasn't worn off yet?"

The sirens, the cold, the dark catch of the sky and blurry shapes of trees add up to something wrong. Some violation, and even as he wraps his arms around himself tighter to try and block out the chill he still manages to chatter out a thin, "what did you do?"

"I got you outta there, man-" Quackity smiles, voice dipping into friendly, "you're free, well- y'know, free as someone like you can be, but hey- isn't this nice? Even better, I don't have to visit you anymore!"

Dream blinks, but doesn't say anything because he's just… It's the same old nightmares, and he's not sure he even wants out of the box, he's not sure if he can. It's just… nothing.

Hollow.
Empty.

Every snowflake that hits him feels too cold, burns too much, smoke rising up where every rebellious molecule that still resembles the End exists.

And the world whispers to him in broken, stuttered wails. Crying, who the f*ck are you? Where have you been?

All in brittle sounds that are sickly and wrong, things that make him shiver with nowhere to shake.

"Gonna be honest I expected a little more enthusiasm. Expected you to be a little more grateful-"

"Sorry, I-" he tries to say and hates the taste.

"What, Dream?"

"T...thank you."

Quackity shakes his head, words too soft to catch until he sighs and says, "Sorry, man, I didn't quite catch that."

Lips curled back, head angled down, Dream spits an angry, "thank you."

Quackity beams, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "There we go, pal. You're welcome, you're goddamn welcome. Now, I need you to do me a favor-"

The words make the world grow even duller and he almost doesn't bite back the, yes, sir on his tongue.

"I need you to sit tight here until someone comes and finds you. And you don't mention me, okay- you don't mention anything about how you got out-"

The words hit his ears and his limbs aren't just frozen, they're cement now, and he won't- can't move until the circ*mstances are fulfilled. His teeth are locked, things pinned shut not by threats or fear, but training. And he knows even if he wanted to tell a single soul he's never going to get the words out. Some lesson well learned.

"-and somewhere in that f*cked up skull of yours I know you remember our little arrangement, right?" Quackity cuts a grin from his teeth, bending into snarl with dark eyes a second later. "Right?"

"Yes."

"Good. Great. Awesome." Quackity's smile returns and suddenly he's got a comm in his hand that he's bringing up towards his mouth before he hesitates. Brows scrunched as he looks Dream up and down, mulls over something and then shakes his head. Standing back up with an order of, "sit tight."

The 'yes, sir', goes unsaid.

Head angled up, sitting practically up to his waist in the snow, Dream stares up at Quackity like he's the most loyal of beaten dogs. All while a million thoughts war in the red mess of his mind. A chill creeping up his spine to rival the one from the arctic air. Or maybe it's just burning heat crawling across his skin from hypothermia handshaking sheer frustration. Either way he feels like he's halfway to igniting in flames with how much he wants to sink his teeth into Quackity's throat until the snow bleeds red.

And the worst thing of all is the frustration one feels when they're faced with the perfect opportunity and can do nothing to take it.

So it's just him, and the snow, and his personal nightmare- less animosity and more duty, as he watches Quackity put that comm up to his lips and seem to throw on his best acting skills.

"Commune this is Dolos, do you read me. Two and a half kilometers due east of base, this is an official distress call. Over."

There's nothing in response. The channel the comms tuned to only receiving static in bursts.

Quackity tries the message again, putting a bit more urgency to it.

The comm cuts to silence then abruptly-

"10-2, Dolos this is Zephyrus. ETA 25 minutes. Over and out."

Quackity stares down at the comm, mouth twisted into something part frown before he's tossing the device towards Dream's feet. The speaker is still spitting out staticy bursts even face down in the snow.

"Holy sh*t, uh-" Quackity chuckles, "I'm gonna be honest I didn't expect that to actually work, thought I'd have to drag your ass all the way to the goddamn entrance. That or hire some sorry asshole to do it for me," he admits with a shrug, words half muffled as he pulls the mask back up over his nose and tugs his goggles back on to hide snow covered eyelashes.

Dream tilts his chin down to stare at the dark shape of the comm in the snow. Face half tucked into the pocket of warmth formed by his arms wrapped around his knees. He's at least got a countdown now.

Twenty five minutes of complete obedience on the clock as Quackity gives him a sarcastic salute and a parting, "see you around, Dream."

Quackity only stops short to pull something from his inventory, twist the cap off it and strike it until it flares to life with a red light. Thick smoke billowing out undeterred by the blizzard. Quackity stabs the flare stick into the snow, a burning beacon left behind as he stares at it a second and then disappears into the wall of white.

Staring at the burning flare, Dream blinks against the heavy weight of the cold. The desire to just lay down so strong it tugs on every part of him. He doesn't remember what it feels like to have toes, fingers, a face, a tail, his ears don't even twitch. It's all just the blizzard. It's all just the cold. All until he stops feeling that too and even his heartbeat starts to thud slower in his chest.

Maybe he'll just close his eyes for a second, that's all- just a tiny moment and then when he opens them- he'll move, he'll run, he swears he'll track Quackity down no matter what it f*cking t--

The flare is still burning when he opens his eyes. This time burning sideways as he clings to the earth and lays curled in the snow.

The wind has died down, visibility enough to see the line of spruce trees that jut sharp teeth into the dark.

"Wilbur!"

The cry rings out like a puncture wound, ungraceful and grating. He knows that name, hell he's convinced he knows that voice too, yet instinct leads him to stay huddled under the safety of the snow; nothing but some skittish little mouse.

"I'm right here, Tommy," the reply finally comes, "you don't need to f*ckin' scream. I can see the flare, too."

"f*ck, sorry, big man. Looks like a false alarm though, I don't think there's anything there. 'S just all this stupid-" it's all muffled, but then grows clearer, "-this stupid gear! It's making my visibility for absolute sh*te, I tell you-"

"Put it back on-"

"No, f*ck you, big man, you're not even wearing a stupid mask--"

"Tommy, I'm half dead and the cold still hurts like a bitch. Not to mention everything else in the air. The f*ck do you think happens if you breathe that sh*t in? Christ only knows what's been getting kicked up in that blizzard-"

"Yeah, well-" there's a scoff and then far quieter, "maybe it'd scramble me f*ckin' brains a bit more, give me free therapy or some sh*t-"

"Right, now you're being ridiculous, just-" there's the sound of a brief squabble, then a patronizingly soft, "Tommy-"

"Wilbur, don't you f*ckin' dare I swear to god-"

"Then stop being a f*ckin' child for two seconds, yeah?"

"Me? I'm the child? You blew the diamonds I gave you on f*ckin' drugs, Wilbur! 'Cause you're better at bein' a self-destructive dumbass than you are at quittin' literally anything-"

"Oh grow up, how many times are you gonna bring that one up? Hm? As much as you go on about L'Manberg? Exile? Like good god man who c-"

There's the rapid sound of snow crunching, someone smacking the ground as if pushed. Laughter rich like dark honey.

"f*ck you. f*ck you! You are a bitch, you are an asshole, you are a goddamn thorn in my- in everyone's side- I mean ff, for f*ck's sake why do I even listen to you and your stupid ideas-"

And it's Dream's turn to make a sound, skittering away when something trips right over him. He crouches upright in the snow, chest heaving, staring right back at a kid who's all bundle of thick coats and unruly blonde hair, too small for the mask and goggles slung around his neck.

They both blink, both of them buried up to their elbows in the snow. Neither of them move. Neither of them recognize the other.

"Wilbur-"

"Oh what now you're gonna blame me for tripping you, too? Tommy, I wasn't even near-"

"No, no, shut the f- that's not- there's a person!"

Silence.

"What?" Wilbur laughs, "you're- you are f*cking joking, that's- c'mon man stand up, play times over."

"No, Wil, I'm serious there's-" Tommy fumbles forward, half-crawling, half-walking towards where the flare burns low. Mumbling a curse when the thing sputters and finally snuffs out. They're all just shapes in the dark now, lit only by the sea of white. "Look there's someone there- what the f*ck?"

A tall figure approaches, a trench coat with snow clinging to it, stained sweater peeking out underneath. Dream looks up into a face with round glasses and a thin line that quirks up in the hint of a smile. An offered hand that Dream reaches for, hesitates and then slots his palm in and the sweet phantom taste of death sits on his tongue as he's tugged to his feet.

At least there's no red, he thinks bitterly, a thin, thank you, fleeing his throat.

"Hey, Tommy, how many prisons are on this server?" Wilbur eyes Dream as he asks it.

Tommy scoffs like it's the stupidest question, still milling around in the background like he can't wait to move the hell on. Leave what was assumed to be just some stranger behind. "There's one, dumbass- far as like real prisons go."

"Right, right… so you remember those sirens we heard earlier?"

"Yeah, why? 'S not like-" Tommy stops like he's been struck.

Dream hears the metal slide of a bolt and he's met with the sight that's a glorifying example of Murphy's Law- Tommy stands there lofting a rifle like it isn't the most disturbing sight in the whole world. And maybe he doesn't remember the kid all that well, but there's nothing right about any of that.

"Holy sh*t- don't shoot him!" Wilbur steps in, human shield in a pointless endeavour. Dream lets him take the idiotic stance, not keen on taking a bullet with those netherite cuffs still on his wrists. "What the f*ck's gotten into you, man?"

"He's got to go, big man- he's out the prison-" Tommy stresses, "do you- do you know what that f*ckin' means?"

"And what," Wilbur practically laughs, "what are you gonna do without any bullets?"

"f*ck this," Tommy growls, tossing the rifle into the snow as he storms forward.

"Tommy-" the effort to stop the kid is slim, Wilbur hanging his head, hand scrubbing at his temple, "you- you know this is useless, this gets you nothing, f*ck's sake, you can't even kill him properly like that-"

"I don't f*ckin' care-"

Wilbur grabs Tommy's arm, firm now, "you want to beat a man when he's already down?"

"Yes." Tommy snarls, wrenching out of the grip.

Dream backpedals, hands raised, words stuck in his chest never leaving his mouth because he's too busy choking down air, and even a few steps feel like miles. And Tommy shows no signs of slowing.

Wilbur is less than useless as he just stands there, hands twitching like he's itching for a cigarette, all of this just some soap opera he's accidentally tuned into. Something that's piqued his curiosity and he's willing to watch it unfold just so long as it doesn't get too bloody.

He's alone, Dream realizes. This Wilbur guy a momentary ally turned enemy, and maybe Dream doesn't have to worry about death, but dying still sucked. Everything about it now feels like there's a limit to how many lives he gets before there's some finite. Some brick wall. Some sort of end that wasn't there before when he was trapped down in the hot lava belly of that proverbial Tartarus-

Well, he doesn't plan on letting it happen, he thinks as he curls the pins and needles of his fingers into fists.

Matching Tommy's curled lip sort of snarl, Dream's not sure why fear is still crashing through his veins when the only thing he's supposed to be afraid of is miles away by now.

Tunnel vision swimming, he doesn't make the dodge he planned to, instead he's slogging through the oppressive weight of orders to be followed and limbs that won't cooperate. Some f*cked up sort of full body flinch even as his skull feels like it's crammed with a million angry excuses and he's all bared teeth, ten thousand denials-

Tommy tackles him and as he hits the snow he wonders why the hell this feels like they've already fought before.

He wonders what the hell he did- he wonders why his heart's leaping in his chest so fast it hurts and bile sits heavy in his throat and he's less pissed off than he thinks he should be. No, instead he's all more fret and less wit, a shaking animal that's mangy and flea-bitten.

A thing birthed in the hundred or so days spent under the knife-- and churning panic into red hot rage was always going to be the easiest way to respond to anything.

Tommy throws hits that hardly bruise, clumsy and soft from gloves that he takes the time to rip off with his teeth and Dream claws and thrashes his way out to freedom at the opportunity. Sending Tommy crashing to the side, Dream aims a vicious kick at his head.

It connects but only barely, and the violent pins and needles aren't exactly worth it. But maybe they're worth the look on Tommy's face, the blood dripping from his nose.

A sweeping sense of triumph, some David versus the Goliath, or maybe it's the other way around-

"f*ck you, bitch-" Tommy spits, the snow speckled red.

Dream scampers backwards, trying to get himself back up to his feet, but he keeps landing back in the snow. Elbows deep, then shoulders deep, then repeat. Head spinning, breaths too fast, sluggish, slow, exhausted-

Sweat rising off like smoke, breath clouding the air-

"What…." Dream heaves, too out of breath, "what the hell is wrong with you?"

Never answering, Tommy slowly gets to his feet. Morphing into just another shadow in the dark of night. The snow stuck thick on the trees, his bright backdrop. The bits of ice swinging through the air like sparks-

A tall shadow backlit by lava, tall only because he's always down on the cell floor looking up, up, up, elbows aching, chin tucked to his chest, backed into the corner, eyes glazed and hopes dead-

And maybe he came out the gate swinging, but now he just throws his hands over his head when Tommy grabs him by the collar. He expects an instant fist, followed by another and another, and sharper, crueler things. And then the same questions, the same phrases, he can already hear them ringing out-- pickaxes cutting flesh and smacking stone in his ears. Red with pain. Red with the things he spits and coughs up everyday when he's made to writhe like a lowly worm crawling from a bird on pitiful display.

He hates that when all those things don't come, he's left peeking through the gaps between his forearms. He hates that he sees hesitation dulling blue eyes- he hates that he sees himself both reflected and fractured there.

"Are you done?" Wilbur chimes in.

Tommy's face bends in a scowl for a second, fist raised and then he's all sighs, fingers uncurling, shaking the appendage out. "Yeah… this prick isn't worth it."

Dream's back hits the snow and he blinks at the retreat. It doesn't make any f*cking sense. Why would someone- why would anyone, just let him go- that's not how it works… it's not how it works.

Wilbur, Tommy; those familiar strangers start up conversation again, like Dream isn't lying there staring up at the way the stars seem to spiral out and fall through the sky.

He sits up in the snow, hands limp in his lap. Nothing adding up as he stares at the dark shape of that rifle in the snow and then tracks his eyes to the two figures.

"f*ck, christ…" Tommy takes a shaky breath, "what the f*ck are we gonna do with him-"

"Well, I suppose he could be a hefty bargaining chip-"

"Oh, shut up, you just want 'im around cause he's your f*ckin' hero or whatever gross sh*t-"

"I mean, he brought me back, Tommy. Are you implying that counts for nothing then?"

"f*ck you, of course it doesn't! This is Dream, this is the motherf*cker who-" the words dissolve into a growl, "your opinion of him counts for absolute- for-- for jacksh*t, actually- cause I want him dead, Wilbur- that's all I want. And if I have to kill him ten thousand times to get there, that's what I'll f*ckin' do."

"Really? Ten thousand times? Hell, that's- I have to say that's certainly ambitious," Wilbur chuckles.

"It's a figure of speech, dumbass."

"You're not a killer, Tommy," Wilbur decrees, but he's looking right past Tommy's head, dark gaze meeting Dream's. "Maybe you've slaughtered things, but you- oh, you've not got the stomach for the big one. And sure that's fine, perhaps that's even admirable, but don't be a f*ckin' puss* and pretend that you can just 'cause you're a little pissed off."

Tommy bristles, shoving Wilbur, curses flying-

Dream seizes the distraction, diving for the rifle in the snow before his mind can catch up. Before rationality can chase out the adrenaline chomping at his heels. Before he can rationalize anything beyond, 'survive or you'll wish you were dead'-

His fingers brush the metal, his stomach flips when he can't feel it, and he can only watch as his hands refuse to curl tight enough no matter how hard he tries and then Tommy's snatching the rifle for himself.

The only object around to cave a skull in- gone.

And maybe it says something profound that Tommy doesn't use it for that-

Instead it's a nasty skirmish, rolling shoulder over shoulder, trading kicks and elbows to the face, Tommy cracking the rifle against Dream's teeth. Stars bursting behind his eyes as he throws out a wild swing and leaves bloody lines raked down Tommy's face.

They fight like they're playing who gets to hurt the hardest, like they're deciding who's allowed- like whoever comes out on top will finally be entitled to their own pain. Because Dream keeps seeing that same look reflected in Tommy's eyes that's been staring up at him from the depths of a dirty water basin in a tiny empty cell.

He knows he's not destined to win this one. Soon enough, Dream has two palms shoving up against the rifle Tommy's got across his throat- determined to press through it, crush his windpipe, break his neck. All of Tommy's weight bared down, teeth flashing, stained pink, nose bloody, red dripping down to gather on his chin.

Dream never gets the upper hand again, he never does more than stay like a squirming beetle on his back, far weaker than he used to be-

Hell, maybe it's pointless, but he certainly feels alive. Numbness washed out for the euphoria of breathing in air so cold it burns, of feeling the wind, getting choked to death under the stars and no more pickaxes, or hammers, or shears. Trading feeble sickness for a thousand wasps buzzing behind his eyes, stinging the roots of his gums; like he's been asleep forever dreaming the same awful nightmare and now he's awake. Now he's present. Now he's not buried under tonnes of obsidian and lava-

He almost laughs.

He does laugh.

He laughs broken chuckles and shattered smiles stained from split gums and Tommy bears down harder like all he cares about is getting him dead. And f*ck, how stupid is that?

How pointless.

This kid would just have to kill him all over again. And again. And again; a hopeless endeavour like anything else.

And if bruised eyes, black hearts, and open wounds are all he remembers, then they're all he knows.

They're all he understands--

"What are you doing?"

The newcomer's voice is muffled by the ring in Dream's ears, angling his head he only sees a blurry shape of green, the black outline of ragged wings-

Tommy doesn't seem to give even a single sh*t.

"Unpacking some trauma, apparently," Wilbur answers lazily, "lovely to see you too, Phil."

There's a long suffering sigh. The familiar crunch of boots sinking in snow. This time they're fast, experienced steps, not slogging things.

"Chrissake, Tommy, get the f*ck off him!"

Suddenly the pressure's getting ripped off his throat, Tommy wrenched to his feet like an unruly cat and Dream rolls to the side the second he's free.

Coughing into the snow, the cold slush gets into his mouth and nose with every ragged breath. He doesn't even care as he heaves fresh air down like it's sweeter than ambrosia.

Hands cradling the fresh bruises on his throat, Dream stays down in the snow. Knees pulled up to his chest, huddled and small. Eyes cast to the corners, looking up at his savior who he figures must be Zephyrus- the one he's supposed to go with according to all those little orders marching like toy soldiers in his brain. There's a cruelness to the fact they always remain the clearest things; thoughts grey, vision blurry, ears ringing, limbs heavy, but Quackity's words stay polished and clean.

And this Zephyrus carries a rifle too, a thing that's painted with chipped whites and greys, a longer barrel with a scope. Enchanted painted in soft blues that reads, Angel of Death. Half of it partially smudged off like the paint never had a chance to dry.

It's fitting and Dream can't stop the way his lips quirk at the humor of it.

Even still, that chattering in his ear doesn't quit when he sits back on his haunches, when he barely manages to get off the ground before his limbs decide against it and he falls right back down. The wind lamenting in mournful tunes that the world hasn't been right for a while now, all of this just the cherry on top- the culture shock, the coal fire to the mine collapse.

An angel of death is the only thing standing between him and a pissed off kid who wants him deader than dead- the irony isn't lost on him. And maybe that's what Quackity always meant when he'd fist his hand in his hair, when he'd wrench his head off the cell floor until the strands would break and he'd decree him monster with the swing of an axe. Monsters were meant to be slayed. That's just how it is.

"He- he tried to kill me-" Tommy starts, voice cracking before he's slinging venom, "again, Phil! Twice now- holy f*ck…" he lets out a shakey breath, "why're you defendin' him, why're you babyin' his green ass like he's isn't a goddamn animal! He's f*ckin' unhinged, out of 'is head, twisted f*cked up motherfu-"

"Mate, you literally had him in a chokehold!"

Tommy looks off to the side, hands shuffling on the rifle he still clutches. There's a moment of awkward silence, the soft clack of metal as Tommy sighs and slings the rifle over his shoulder, one hand stuck in a white-knuckled on the strap. "Technically, I mean theoretically speakin' no, I didn't, I just had- l- f*ck look, it doesn't matter! He has to go, Phil! He can't be out, he can't he here- it's not right. It's not f*ckin'-"

"Tommy," Phil cuts the kid off, non-negotiable, "you- you and Wilbur shouldn't be out just wandering around. You should head back home to that clubhouse f*ckin' thing you've got sitting by Las Nevadas- Vegas- whatever the f*ck they're calling it these days. You're safer there than out in no man's land."

Tommy mumbles under his breath something to the tune of, define f*ckin' home.

"We, uh… you see, Phil," Wilbur steps in, his smile twitching like it doesn't want to stay put, "there's a teeny, tiny bit of a problem with that. We haven't quite got a place to go- it's kinda why we're out here, stuck looking for the odd scrap left behind to try and scrounge something together."

"He's lyin'-" Tommy confesses, "he's just pissed off Qua-"

Wilbur elbows him.

"Whatever," Tommy sighs, dull eyes stuck on the ground, "can you just give me some thirty-ought-sixes or- or some sh*t?"

"Fat f*ckin' chance, mate, I'm not giving you bullets for that f*ckin' thing-" Phil gestures sharply to the rifle slung over Tommy's shoulder, "you should be glad I don't take it."

"C'mon, Phil- Philza, my friend, my pal, my sh*tty paren-tial figure-"

"Shut it, mate. I'm not your dad- and it's not happening."

"W-what the f*ck, man?" Tommy scoffs, "Like you have one, like what the- now you're hoardin' sh*t, too? What happened to all that 'what's mine is yours' big man talk?"

"I'm not enabling whatever the hell this is-" Phil gestures pointedly to Wilbur, "you know, you keep following him around, you keep listening to his sh*te, you're gonna get shot or worse. You know that. I know you know that--"

Tommy waves Phil off, eyes rolled, as he kicks at the snow, and deepens his voice comically, "Practicin' mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress- see you have to. It's in your stupid bylaws or whatever."

"The fact you memorized that, but can't bloody well think for yourself-"

"Well, maybe I'm content, Phil. Maybe I like bein' a dirty crime boy," Tommy grins, but it never reaches his eyes, "maybe I like the life on the run, all that- that fast and furious sh*t, y'know? Better then sittin' round doin' f*ck all with my life on this stupid compound-" his facade of a grin twists into a snarl, "growin' sh*tty potatoes and waitin' for the inevitable crushin' end 'cause everyone's too much of a puss* to admit we- we're all f*cked."

Phil stays silent, angling his head towards Wilbur, the latter just gives a shrug, hand waved like it explains everything. Wings drawn tight, Phil pinches the bridge of his nose, words mumbled brittle as ice chips under his breath.

Dream watches warily as Phil moves to pick something up in the snow, crouching there a second. Flipping it in a gloved palm, Phil shakes his head and casts his gaze to the sky searching for some divine intervention. The stars remain quiet, the earliest light of dawn barely beginning to make them fade.

"You're just gonna be more trouble out there then you are here," Phil sighs as he stands, hitching the rifle a bit higher on his shoulder as he faces Wilbur and Tommy. "You can come back to the commune, but no fighting, no f*ckin' around, you hear? You two wanna duke it out or settle your sh*te- do it past the fence. But once you're in there, you're civil. If you can't handle that then stay the f*ck away from each other, alright? Last thing we needs another incident."

Tommy's face crumples into a frown, he throws out a hand towards Dream. "What about that prick?"

Dream sharpens his glare to match Tommy's. Sitting with his legs crossed in the snow, practically an icicle, sparks of rage still stir weakly in his chest. Something about being beaten daily for the nebulous crime of 'monster' is far less frustrating than trying to defend himself from the constant accusations flashing in Tommy's eyes.

But if it comes down to it, he'll prove them right; no point in acting like he wasn't everything that Tommy slung at him.

Phil steps across Dream's line of sight, Tommy disappearing behind ragged black wings and muted greens.

"I'll deal with him."

It's all Phil says, the dismissal twisting the air.

"C'mon," Wilbur mumbles, hand landing on Tommy's shoulder, but only barely like the last thing he wants to do is touch anyone or anything. Still, he pulls Tommy to turn and trek towards the thin lines of smoke rising up over the horizon.

Almost immediately after the two have their backs turned, Tommy still casting sour looks over his shoulder, Phil offers Dream a hand.

For a long moment he just stares at it, not instantly reaching out like he had when Wilbur made the same offer. His brain fried in a way that makes him implicitly trust the guy who'd stood by and let Tommy almost crush his windpipe, but not the one who'd actually desecalated it. Something about favors owed, orders followed, the ring of explosions and the sweet smell of nitroglycerin, and he just eyes Phil's hand until it retreats from his vision and the winged man steps back without comment.

Getting to his feet on his own is practically a piecemeal endeavor, all disjointed, taking too long to do just one basic task. Tommy and Wilbur are already colorful dots in the distance by the time Dream manages to stand without crumpling. The sun is not yet peeking over the nearby mountain, but still she casts her warmth and light.

Without the icy whiteout of a blizzard, without the grip of night, the sight in front of his eyes is beautiful- everything hushed, the world at a standstill from the top of that little hill. All the trees resolute soldiers encased in snow, the sky a stretch of wispy clouds marbled into a rainbow of colors, reds and oranges and purples reflected in everything.

Still there's something lurking at the edges of the taiga. Something he can't quite make out as he shields his eyes from the burning brightness after so long spent learning to keep his back to lava.

He follows Phil on swaying steps, lifting each foot from the snow only to have it sink down up to the calf. But he presses on, huffing heavier and heavier breaths, arms wrapped around his middle. Movements stiff, jerky, and uncoordinated. His vision isn't much better as he sniffs and coughs against the bite of the cold.

When he falls behind, Phil waits for him to catch up every time. Always keeping a distance until Dream stumbles a bit too much and then he's picking him up out of the snow.

Dream bats the hands away, bitter taste on the back of his tongue as he stays almost doubled over. I'm fine, I'm fine pressed from each ragged breath, hardly more than whispers.

"You uh, you good, mate?"

"I'm…" Dream licks his lips, swallowing against the taste of metal. Standing a bit straighter he looks at the rest of the distance between himself and the split-rail fence that surrounds a ring of cabins with windows lit, smoke spilling from their chimneys. "I'm good, yeah, thanks."

It's a nonsensical sort of gratitude. Hell, he's not even sure what exactly he's thanking him for, just that it's the best thing his brain can muster when it feels that empty.

It doesn't seem to matter either way to Phil, the winged man keeping his distance. "Just uh, y'know consider it a favor owed, now I don't gotta give you an enchanted apple for that trident, right?"

It's a joke that he doesn't get and Dream stares blankly, mouth not even twitching, everything flatter than flat.

Phil shuffles awkwardly, shifts his gaze to the side and then nods to himself once. Some affirmation as he turns on his heel and starts back on that trek through the snow again.

Dream keeps his eyes on the back of Phil's short cape, the red heart there mirroring the one he'd seen as a metal clasp in the front.

All of it coming together a bit muddied in his head. The wings, the faint smell of marigolds and melting candle wax mixing with the earthy aftertaste of graveyard dirt stuck on his tongue; because a single red heart was always the everlasting symbol of Death. That angel of death thing a lot more literal than he'd thought.

When they both stop walking, they're standing in front of a cabin that has a potato field wrapped around the side. A thing that defies all odds with full green bushes and no frost or snow sitting on the leaves.

Dream shuffles forward, eyes stuck on the allure of the cabin, mind only churning with the incessant thought of getting back under a roof, back to four walls, back to safety. A dog too used to the comforts of the cramped kennel.

Phil grabs him by the elbow, stopping him short- Dream frozen in place by the touch, bristling at it, insects crawling violently under his skin until he's spitting the words, "let go."

"Sorry-" Phil steps back instantly, "just wanted to be sure of something before you head inside."

Dream flexes his hands at his sides, looking away for a moment before he swings his head back towards Phil. Waiting for the inevitable, waiting for the winged man to drag him back to that cell by the collar, toss him in like a disobedient dog--

But all he sees in Phil's eyes is someone who's the sort of tired that even sleep can't fix.

"Quackity called it in, right?" Phil asks, and Dream's sure he already knows the answer.

So, Dream stares, tongue heavy with all the things he's not allowed to say.

"Dolos, daimon of trickery and guile," Phil continues, "he might've told you not to say f*ck all, but he wanted us to know."

"Then…" Dream starts, brow furrowed, "why would you let me stay?"

The comm Quackity had earlier appears in Phil's hand in a flash of quicksilver light. Phil raises it with a shake and an arched brow. "'Cause better the devil you know. I'm not gonna try and outplay a gambler, mate. I've played that game before and well, I- I've lost one time too many. Found it's better to handle the cards you're dealt before you end up a f*ckin' crater in the ground."

It's so innocuous, the sleek black device with all those little buttons, shiny and nondescript. Dream eyes it and then after a moment of hesitation, he takes it. Eyes jumping to Phil's before skittering back to the ground.

"I- I don't have an inventory."

"Just hang on to it, we'll figure somethin' out later," Phil shrugs and turns away, continuing on like nothing ever happened.

As if it's that easy, as if there's a later, as if this isn't all somehow the strangest dream full of genuine comforts that make him bristle at the fact that he's not allowed to enjoy it.

As if there isn't something so horribly wrong with the fact that he follows Phil into the cloying warmth of a cozy cabin. Dream standing there, some stranger, lost and bitter, a sore thumb sticking out in the domestic scene. He should be bleeding out on the ground of an obsidian cell by now.

And this, all of this?

It isn't easy. It isn't clear-cut or familiar anymore. It's all a blur of colors and motion, everything taken not in strides but in snapshots like he's moving through life only after it's happened.

And he hardly remembers when he'd changed into wool pants and a wool sweater, he doesn't remember when a heavy wool blanket was wrapped around his shoulders; but at least he's warm now. Hands cupping some cooling mug of tea that he just holds and never sips. Tail twitching and ears laid flat as he sits with his back to the fireplace and stares down at the dark floorboards, all the nicks and cuts and scuffs in them that tell a thousand stories.

Average, boring, mundane.
Is this really what he'd been missing?

Some homely home, some place apart from an endless day in, day out greeting of the same punishment. The same torture. The same forgetting.

The fact that nothing's tried to hurt him yet, that's how he knows he doesn't belong here.

It's all some sort of peaceful. The only sound to disturb it is the echoing creak of boots across the floor upstairs, Phil searching for something- someone- it's hard to tell. But soon enough Phil's climbing back down the ladder, heaving a sigh and pulling out his comm before he's even on solid ground.

At the sight of the device, Dream looks down at the one sitting innocently by his knee. The only message on the screen is a bracket smiley face beside two words, you're welcome.

He stares at it.

Some hollow sensation prickles in his chest, something like fingers worming their way through the grey matter of his brain.

The world narrowing, sound growing muffled-

He's pulled out of the thousand yard stare by the violent sound of raised voices as Tommy and Wilbur come crashing through the door like they've always lived there. Lofting freshly acquired bowls and bags, butcher paper tucked under arms and wrapped tight-- food.

Phil answers questions on where to set things with a distracted wave as he thumbs at the keys of his communicator, all brows scrunched, frown tugging at his face.

Wilbur clicks flint and steel in the belly of an oven like he owns the place. Tommy plants himself in a chair with dirty boots propped up on the table as he leans back.

"Tommy, get your feet off the f*ckin' furniture or I swear to god-"

"Fine, fine-" Tommy jumps up, hands shoved in his pockets, "I'm off, I'm off, christ I don't see why it f*ckin' matters-"

Phil just sighs. "Why are you guys cookin' breakfast here anyways? There's plenty of other cabins with working stoves."

The words swim in Dream's ears like he's tuned into a bad radio station. He's stuck staring somewhere between the floorboards and the shape of moving figures.

"Dunno, good memories in this bitch, I guess. Techno's cabin is- was the closest thing I had to a home, y'know… after everything went to sh*t."

"Well, Dream's gonna be here for a bit, so I'm just sayin' mate like… it's really not the best idea."

"What, you think I can't be in the same room as that motherf*cker?"

"Oh, I dunno-" Phil starts sarcastically, "maybe 'cause I found you out there tryin' to break his trachea- so you tell me?"

"I just got a bit carried away, 'm not a rabid f*ckin' animal, man. I'm not… there's a lot of emotions up here, Phil. Lotta thoughts and- and sh*t. Some of 'em just get really, really loud and it's hard- it's confusing cause like your gums'll itch and your chest'll hurt, but then a part of you is still thinkin' no, no, he's my f*ckin' friend, right?"

"And that's- Tommy, that's literally why you shouldn't be sticking around here specifically."

"No, no- listen I just, I need to keep an eye on him."

"Tommy, mate, Wilbur can go with you-"

"No, not Wil-" Tommy cuts off with a sigh, "look, he's like- he's all f*ckin' different and stuff. Quackity's been doin' something to him. That's why he was always visiting the prison. 'S why he's all-" Tommy gestures, hands waving and twisting, trying to say something words can't.

"So, what're you implying? He seems… decently alright, he's on his own two feet at least. Like all things considered-"

"He doesn't remember us, this, L'Manberg! The whole f*ckin' thing- all the sh*t he did, Phil! I never really said anything back then 'cause I- I thought he was lying! But now I look into that prick's eyes and I know, I know there's barely anything left! f*ck man, maybe we should've thought about doin' that to him a long time ago, could've saved us all the trou-"

Dream shakes his head hard enough to only hear his own brain rattling in his skull and nothing else. Shoulders hiked up high, the rest of the words tuned out as he digs his claws into the mug between his palms until the ceramic chips.

He sets it down before he can shatter it.

It's aggravating to have everyone always under the assumption he's something weak and harmless because he can't remember it all, because he's more skeleton than muscle, because he's got ten thousand new scars and bruises and now they all can guess the origins. Tommy spilling the information like it was somehow his to even give.

And despite how much he wants to tune everything out completely, he can't bring himself to keep his back to that many people, that many threats. So, he sits at an angle. Right side getting seared by the heat of the fire, left side still cold, eyes keeping track of all the movement. Waiting for the inevitable, or maybe just searching for something.

The argument going about how he expects, all backs and forths, glances cast his way. Wilbur though, he sits at the table off to the side, slowly eating some unappetizing bowl of pale mush as he seems to take it all in. Studying every movement and committing every word to memory.

Everything useful, everything always an important detail for later, and more than once Dream finds himself meeting Wilbur's eyes. It's easier to see the patches of purplish-grey, the sallow sunken skeletal parlor of Wilbur's face all too obvious under the bright ambiance of the cabin. A familiar shock of white hair shot through brown curls. Eyes almost as glazed as the other's like they're two sides of the same coin, both scarred, both half-dead.

Wilbur gives a small smile and raises a glass. Some mocking toast as he gestures to the seat in front of him. Dream rolls his eyes, tugs the wool blanket around himself a bit tighter and refuses the offer… for now.

He's not exactly opposed to it, out of all of them Wilbur just seemed to be the one that felt the most familiar. Of course, he doesn't bother to ask- he doesn't bother prying open that can of worms, but he thinks maybe in some significant way they had to be friends then… right?

Suddenly the argument by the door delves in a different direction, interrupting the train of thought. Tommy storming off towards the little space that could be called a kitchen. Grabbing at the stove, the pots and pans, all manner of sh*t being banged around that makes Dream cringe. Teeth set as he clamps a palm over one ear and prays for the cacophony to end.

Everything's too loud or it's too damn quiet here, it's unpredictable, it's aggravating, it's the sort of thing that makes the knot of paranoia in his chest twist tighter and for a split second as his ears ring and his head throbs metal crashing against metal, he almost wishes Quackity had dragged him back to that cell.

Some split second regret, some momentary grievance where he wonders if he went and begged on his knees would he actually be thrown back in-- or is he just a thing that's not worthy of even that backwards sort of autonomy? A thing that's meant to carry out a task and then it can have some illusion of choice.

The door hinges creak, cold air whipping through the cabin. Dream turns further, eyes stuck on the outside.

"Techno's not picking up his comm, I'll- look, I'll be back in a sec, alright? So, don't f*ckin' kill each other-" Phil's parting words ring in the air, the door shutting behind him quietly like leaving isn't the worst mistake in the world he could make.

Dream stares after him longer than he should. Fistfighting the urge to get up, stumble for the door, tug at the handle and ensure it isn't locked.

There's only a brief spell of tense silence before Wilbur and Tommy are arguing again. Like it's their bread and butter, their default setting.

They go on and on about how to best cook eggs and hash, scrambles and other meals that don't make much sense. Slinging insults and crude words, swapping laughter like there's nothing and everything wrong all at the same time. Like violence, crudeness, some twisted sense of camaraderie that equals constantly going at each other's throats is the most normal thing anyone can do in this world. Like it's just another boring day.

And it's like he's not even in the room at all.

He prefers that honestly. He's able to actually look around, he's able to feel a bit better about a ceiling over his head and forget about the open sky and how it felt too vast, too threatening. He's able to take a second and just look at something new, something other than lava and obsidian, lava and obsidian-

He finds that his eyes aren't quite able to settle on one thing, a subtle shake to everything when he focuses a bit too hard. There's too many colors, too many things to the point it's overwhelming and he has to look back at the boring floor just to look up again.

The place is cluttered, cramped, things piled everywhere and he can't tell if that's better or worse. If there's meant to be some sort of contradiction between less space making more sense with all those posters, those little trinkets. Everything hung proudly on the walls even though it isn't strictly valuable, but it's still valuable to someone.

He's busy trying to find some sort of pattern to the absurd amount of chests stacked everywhere when Tommy shouts-

Dream flinches, stomach flipping, limbs frozen at the unexpected sound.

Eyes stuck on a scene where Tommy's still shaking out his hand, eyes throwing daggers across the table at Wilbur.

There's no actual danger. There's nothing to flinch at. And Dream's forcing wide eyes into a glare, lip slightly curled to flash his teeth because snarling was better than cowering. Shaking hands raised to grab at the edges of a blanket and wrap it around his shoulders tighter, and he hates how his heart is sitting in his throat traitorously pounding away over something as tiny as that.

"Ow, f*ck- why'd you have to stab me with your fork?!"

"Tommy, why the f*ck are you stealing off my plate?! You've got two bloody bowls!"

"That one's not for me, dumbass-"

"Oh, pray tell, who's it for, the f*ckin' boogeyman?"

"It's for him." Tommy jabs a thumb in Dream's direction.

Wilbur blinks. "You're acting awful civil."

"Look, the food's f*ckin' good, better than the trash we've been eating. I'm not gonna ruin that by getting on Phil's sh*t list or- or whatever. And it's- I dunno, it's all bout bein' the bigger man... right?"

Wilbur hums. "Where'd you hear that one?"

"Read it in a book-" Tommy says mouth full.

"Chew your food for f*ck's sake, man."

"Shut up-" Tommy fires back and then heaves a sigh. "f*ck, is he just gonna mope on the ground there all day? This sh*t's gonna go to waste."

"Leave him be. Didn't they ever teach you to let sleeping dogs lie?"

Dream hunches a bit further, willing the conversation to change directions. Of course, he doesn't get that wish.

"Yeah, who?" Tommy laughs, bitter and clipped, "everyone stuck in this hellhole is a pretty sh*tty role model to say the f*ckin' least."

"C'mon, was I- I wasn't that bad. Sure things got a little dicey-"

"You were literally the worst!"

"Now, wait a minute," Wilbur starts, finger tapping his chin, "I thought Dream was the worst. Like you're mixing it all up, Tommy- I'm confused, honestly."

"Shut up, before I f*ckin' punch you."

There's the slide of a chair, the clunk of boots, each step a bit too heavy like the soles are slapping the ground before the heel can roll all the way to the toes. A telltale sign of shoes too big for the wearer.

Dream keeps his head down, eyes glaring holes through the floor even when boots fill his vision. The things are desperately held together by too much tape and string.

"Take it," Tommy orders, bowl held out.

Dream doesn't move, he hardly breathes.

"f*ckin' take the bowl, Dream, or I'm gonna-"

"What?" Dream tilts his chin up, voice thinner than he wants it, but still just as toxic, "you're- you're gonna choke me, again? Wow, one round just wasn't enough, huh?"

Tommy flinches and it's almost darkly satisfying to not be the only thing that cowers in the room.

"Holy sh*t, Tommy, man-" Wilbur sputters in the background drunk on amusem*nt at the tiniest of things, "you're absolutely positive he doesn't remember? 'Cause that sounded exactly like the old Dream. I mean, maybe there's a chance you knocked those loose screws right back into place, yeah?"

Tommy shakes off whatever made him stiffen up. Middle finger thrown up, Wilbur gives a one finger salute right back. Always taking everything with a stride.

And Dream stares forward again, expecting Tommy to give up on his endeavour, but instead the kid just sets the bowl on the ground. When he doesn't move to grab it, Tommy nudges it forward with his shoe until it hits Dream's shin. Dream shuffles back on instinct, staring at the offering of food like it's bit him.

"Look, you have to eat food just like the rest of us, dickhe*d. Some sorta server god or not you're f*ckin' down on our level now. So, y'know, congrats and welcome to the real world. It's sh*t."

Dream eyes it, suspicion crawling on to his tongue like the metallic aftertaste of raw potatoes that were always too sweet. "What is it?"

"Mashed potatoes." Tommy's answer hits like a slap to the face; insult added to injury. "Sans the sausage and egg scramble 'cause I ate all that. Bone apple teeth."

"I'm not gonna eat that."

"Wh- the f*ck do you mean you're not-" Tommy throws his hands up, "potatoes should be your favorite by n--"

Dream doesn't even hesitate when he grabs the bowl and chucks it in the fire.

Mechanical, efficient, orange heat leaping and crackling and maybe it's not like how the lava used to devour things, but it finally all makes a little bit of sense now. He's used to throwing things in and watching them burn. There was something important about it, something exhilarating, something about seeing the way the warden and the guards reacted and at least that he could always control--

"Holy f*ck, what is wrong with you?! That was food, man, like actual clean and super not rotten or- or diseased, or f*cked up sustenance and you just-" Tommy's voice cracks, hands fisted in his hair as he watches the ceramic pop and burn. The wooden spoon devoured by orange, white mush blackened to brown and then black. "You're f*ckin' insane-"

"...okay," Dream rasps, eyes stuck on the flames.

"Okay?" Tommy parrots, "like what- what the f*ck does that mean? That doesn't fix the fact you just-"

"Tommy, c'mon," Wilbur cuts in, mumbling around a cigarette, hands cupped to light it, "quit bothering him already just- just let him take it all in. A whole lot has changed since he got thrown in the slammer and if you're right and he really doesn't remember jack sh*t well…"

The rest goes unsaid. Implications as wispy and winding as the smoke that curls in the cabin air.

"f*ck it, man… f*ck this, why do I even-" and the rest is all mumbles as Tommy shakes his head and walks back towards the table. Shoulders stiff, back hunched, Tommy sits down with a huff and shoves his head into folded arms.

Wilbur gives Tommy a single pat on the shoulder before he leans back and meets Dream's gaze, smoke curling from his lips as he exhales. Dream expects some sort of lopsided grin, but it never comes. Instead Wilbur just stares, remaining flat and grey, lips and eyes flatter.

Mouth twisting into a frown, Dream looks away. His fingers snake their way around his own ankles as he curls further in, elbows caught on bent knees, shoulders up by his ears. The epitome of tense and uncomfortable, am awkward thing under awkward scrutiny. He worries the inside of his cheek between sharp teeth until he tastes blood.

The silence drags on, interrupted only by the pop of sparks from the fireplace.

Finally the squeaky hinges of the door sound off and the world is a screeching cacophony all over again-

Phil ducks in first, hanging his hat on the pegs by the door, wings ruffled to shake off bits of snow. The figure that darkens the doorstep immediately behind Phil is much larger, a pink hulking piglin in plain farmer's gear and a fur lined cloak, glasses sitting on his snout to complete the look.

The piglin offers a small, hullo before his red eyes sweep the room. "Man, I'm not- I'm not really seein' enough carnage to warrant sprintin' back here from the turtle farm through like twenty snow drifts."

Wilbur just gives a lazy grin, waving the words off. "Oh, you didn't know? I'm actually an excellent babysitter, Techno."

"Bro, how? You're literally smokin' in my house-"

"Bad habit, really," Wilbur mumbles, hand propping up his chin.

"Dude, this isn't like a- a hotel balcony, c'mon man. I- like I kinda gotta sleep here. You ever try washing that stuff out? Pretty sure it's actually impossible."

"Wil, outside-" Phil jabs a thumb over his shoulder like he's talking to a dog who pissed on the rug, "you know doing all that sh*t's gonna catch up and kill you-"

"Not like it'd be the first time, ey?" Wilbur counters, and then he raises his palms, moving for the door. "I'm going, I'm going- I'm not a complete dickhe*d, but uh, by the way, if Phil didn't y'know fill you in... Dream's out of the prison."

"Thanks, 'cause the fact I got a green teletubby chillin' by my fireplace totally didn't give it away."

"Mm, yeah, you're right…" Wilbur concurs, lingering a second to look over his shoulder. Eyes locking with Dream's before he's ducking outside and the doors swinging shut behind him.

And then there were three, Dream thinks as he fists his claws in the wool blanket, eyes stuck on the remaining figures.

Tommy still has his head down at least, no longer that constant shape of loud sounds and crude taunts. Legs kicked out in front of him, arms half uncurled, Tommy looks like he's actually fallen into some state of sleep out of pure exhaustion.

"Uh, so what's wrong with Tommy? Normally he's like invadin' my personal space by now." The piglin pokes at Tommy's shoulder. "Like you- you good, man?"

Tommy gives a grumble, but doesn't budge.

Phil shakes his head, lifting the lids to a few chests and rummaging around. "He's probably just crashing from whatever Wilbur had him doing for days on end. Probably mining stone and stealing from gamblers, again."

"Pog."

"Yeah," Phil starts, something like folded sheets stuffed under one arm. "Gonna go ahead and put 'em both out in the east side of the commune. We don't need y'know-" the winged man waves a hand, "the whole place going up in flames."

"Cool, cool, well- you have fun with that. That guy's heavier than he looks."

Phil kicks Tommy's ankle, raising a brow like See? Problem solved, and a lot like this isn't the first time he's had to handle this particular situation. Dream figures the only factor not included in the standard equation is himself.

Tommy jolts awake at the kick, looking around like he's surprised to see everything that isn't the yawning void of sleep. Only one question flees his lips, "Wh- f*ck, where's Wilbur?"

"Out front, mate. C'mon-" Phil shoves those sheets into Tommy's arms, the kid still scrubbing at his eyes as he clutches all the fabric to his chest. Blinking slowly and swaying a bit, Tommy looks like he's well over halfway to passing out again, mashing knuckles into closed eyelids to try and jumpstart his brain.

And just like that, they leave. Easy as ever, easy as walking out a wooden door and then swinging it shut. Like that's standard, like that's just life. No whir and crunch of redstone. No lava and stone bridges. No levers to be pulled and pushed, no hopelessness at trying the door only to see that it's always locked.

They leave, and it's just him and the piglin now.

"And then there were two," Techno starts, hooves clicking as he moves to sit on the floor beside Dream like it's the most normal thing in the world.

The piglin facing the fire, Dream facing the other way. They sit there in silence just feet apart. Never having to look at each other, never having to see more than the blurry shapes in their peripherals. Techno staring into a crackling fire, Dream staring all the way across the room at the handle on the door. And yet the both of them are down on the same level now, and that's never how it's supposed to be.

"You gonna drink that?"

Dream glances over with a blink. Techno just stares forward, there's no hint of a smirk, no malice glinting in red eyes, no weapons hidden or at the ready. It's just… honesty. No double standards, no hidden cues, no demands.

Deeming it safe, Dream pushes the long abandoned tea mug towards Techno. Hating the way that the scrape across the floorboards makes him cringe. Hating that it feels like he's pushing ten thousand boulders and not less than a pound of liquid and ceramic just a few short feet.

Techno thanks him, takes up the mug and sips at it before pulling a face and then setting it down. No comment other than a question, head turned just slightly to not so much force Dream to meet his eyes, but to simply acknowledge he's there. "So... Dream, how's freedom feel?"

Dream just stares past him. When he feels his mouth twist into a frown, he swings his chin forward to stare at the shut door of the little cabin all over again. The fire popping at his back, Techno's presence a thing that buzzes like static electricity-- invading his constant idea that reality meant always being alone. That speaking with anyone was only ever a means to an end, some task to be completed, never a thing that was allowed to stay even if he wanted them to.

Limbs crawling with static, chest hollower and hollower on each shallow breath that creaks ribs with a thousand old fractures; he smiles.

He smiles, because asking how freedom feels? Well, it's a tragic f*cking joke with a worse punchline that goes a little like, 'this is all just another stupid nightmare.'

The worst one yet because the fire feels too real. The subtle itch of a wool sweater too strange, the constant weight of a blanket on his shoulders too grounding, and the bright brilliance of a well-lit room too foreign. Fresh air, fresh space, fresh faces, fresh sights and sounds- all the good things, all the worst things, everything is just--

"Great." Dream breathes the lie with a grin. A stupid sting in his eyes that he chalks up to smoke and not that thing worming like a headless, thrashing snake in his chest.

Because there was nothing to smile about, how could this be real anyways?

Notes:

And this can only go well for everyone involved :')

This is another rest stop reminder! Remember to take a break in-between reading these monster chapters and eat food, get something to drink, take your medicines and rest if you need to! <3

On another note though, the next chapter is a lot more montage, timeskip, snippets of things- think slice of life but darker with some more humorous dsmp-esque shenanigans thrown in [at least that's what I have outlined but it'll probably get derailed lmao]. And as much as it might be implied here, Tommy is probably not going to show up too much for a bit; think more along the lines of Wilbur and Dream win the worst friendship award together and make that everyone else's problem! :D

And surprisingly this is not actually a Syndicate Dream fic as much as it seems like it's going to be-- Syndicate Dream is literally one of my favorite AUs/headcanons but nah for this is going to diverge in a different direction from that!

Also as always huge thank you to everyone reading this! And massive shout-out to everyone who leaves kudos or comments or bookmarks!! Always feel free to just go off in the comments even if it's like the wildest most rambling stuff or even if it's just like two words, all of it keeps me writing honestly !!

(...
10/31

The next chapter is taking five thousand years to edit among other things
Just pretend like I didn't say I was going to upload today (yesterday?) And I'll post the chapter very soon)

Chapter 13: Visita Interiora Terrae...

Summary:

The commune is a dull, wall-less prison, but at least there are books here.

At the very least, he can read;


ESTELLE: You won't gain anything. If that door opens, I’m leaving too.

INEZ: Where?

ESTELLE: I don't care where. As far from you as I can.

GARCIN: Open the door! Open, blast you! I will take it all: tongs, molten lead, prongs, garrotes, all that burns, all that tears, I want to truly suffer. Better one hundred bites, better the whip, vitriol, than this suffering in the head, this ghost of suffering which grazes and caresses and never hurts enough. Now will you open?

(THE DOOR FLIES OPEN-- a long silence.)

INEZ: Well, Garcin? You're free to go.

GARCIN: Now I wonder why that door opened.

At least he can read.

Notes:

The titles of chapters 13 and 14 are references to VITRIOL, the acronym that forms an Alchemic motto. Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem
The playbook that will be quoted in both summaries is a translation of Huis clos || No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre.

This is a double update; so if you accidentally read chapter 14 first, welcome back to chapter 13 :)

Let me preface this by saying, take pretty much everything I ever said to anyone about what was going to happen in this chapter and throw it out the window. This is not that more slice-of-life montage that I promised in the last chapter's author's note-- at least not this specific chapter; not yet. I still plan to throw in some lighter things, humorous sh*t, more DSMP-esque zaniness.

And this chapter is late, like really late, and I changed the date when it was meant to come out many, many times. I've been really sick since even before I started planning this whole fic. Not to mention a bunch of other sh*t that's happened/happening. What can you do y'know? You win some, you lose some. Seeing people referring to a pandemic in the past tense is definitely not helping--

But the chapter is out now. It's gotten to the point that it's getting very difficult to write in general, so I hope these 40k+ words are worthwhile in some way and make up for that hiatus.

This chapter will reflect a state of intense dissociation, depersonalization, and repetition. It's going to have characters contradict themselves. It's going to be both literal and highly metaphorical. It's going to have characters who seem to know too much and those who assume they do, and actually don't. It will be Pandora's Box at its most frustrating.

Unfortunately skim-reading this or skimming just the dialogue is going to be … an experience, to say the least. (I'm sorry, I know :''), I love skimming fics too, especially when it's monster chapters like this). This is just a warning, please feel free to read however you'd like!

References/Credits and some really cool fanart someone made will be in the end notes of chapter 14!

Trigger/Content Warnings:
Strong violence, self-harm, suicide, cannibalism, character death, smoking, drinking, victim blaming, graphic revenge fantasies, c!Quackity and c!Dream hurt-- the usuals, c!Schlatt's entire brand of drunk dialogue, crude and crass humor, unreality, implied/referenced drug use, a f*ck ton of cursing and offensive language (gonna be honest didn't realize how much everybody drops the word f*ck until I listened to a Fundy lore compilation playlist for a few hours), c!Fundy calling the Egg vines red cum, aloofness and dismissal of other's trauma, some blasé treatment of mental health, brief gun violence and depictions of nuclear bombs

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

|OPEN server.log|

[6:00:2400:20:00]
'Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.'

… that's what the book said- well, not the book, but a book. So, I pushed my hands through the snow yesterday. I touched the dead-- I touched the frozen grass. It's texture was rotten and slick. It held its breath, I held its breath. And it expelled a sharp painful yes that smelt of vermicide when I finally let it go.

I can't help but think some part of it, some part of this, won't like the truth.

[10:17:4284:3:34]
... is this even helping? The trying to remember, the writing it down, the dog eared books with water stains and wounds wrought by the jaws of co*ckroaches--

No. I don't think it does anything, it's just something. Something.
Something.

That thing, that other thing-- the thing no one talks about. The thing no one talks about...

[18:31:12541:10:28]
The turtles are sick again. Not the same sick-- as us, I mean. Not sick like you, if you're even there… if there even is a you, or some sort of us.

The turtles are sick, something about a potion. Not that one, not the scutes. Not the pink. Not the sweet.

The turtles are sick. Something about a loss, an approaching curve, an inevitable bend; I peer around the edge. I turn the corner and the wreckage only continues.

The turtles are sick. Technoblade cares about them.

[17:37:11615:9:41]
I think there was a dog?
Dogs.

I hear them bark; it is the cacophony of an army. I ask and they aren't there. I look, but I see nothing.

I found a chest of collars in the basem*nt today.

Poggings, jabber, Banana, LeaFrostFern, Em, Max, Dream has a house…

Then there are the ones hung on hooks like trophies, or maybe just reminders. Friend, Henry, Carl, Steve… They are just names without meaning. They are sad dusty relics now. They are mysteries solved instantaneously.

They're all dead.

[18:34:12575:10:29]
My name is Dream and I am the biggest bitch, I am a loser and an asshole. I waste my days writing gibberish and feeling sorry for myself, and I hate everything because THE Tommy Careful Danger Kraken Innit is the cooleshgkydgzjgzjggJDK

[400:7235] Communication compromised.
Redact day's message log.

[18:58:12969:10:48]
Fran.
Ossium.
DogChamp.
Sand.

There is nothing in the barn.

[19:03:13048:10:52]
I will write to him.
Correction, I will write to you.

All of you. Every lasting part that lives in each broken mirror, at the end of every endless corridor, in every crooked door frame I walk backwards through.
I write in the margins of this world and the next. I hope it gets to you.

I hope you die before it does.

I write to the constellations I'm told that I once hung in the sky. I have the scars to prove it… but this world is too bitter. They always are.

I sit and I write. I write to the green lion that gnaws for ten thousand days upon ten thousand suns. I write to the winged one that tames it with golden chains and canines cut through its jugular.

Sometimes, I think I hear the red. That red stuck in the winged lion's fur, stuck between its ivory teeth.
It tells me that it's telling me what I want.
So, why doesn't it ever get it right?

It won't let me be right.

[00:00:18000:15:00]
I don't think it's healthy. The waiting.

… I don't think I'm looking for the proper answers. The right solutions.

I am standing at the edge of the woods. I shed my skin, my fur, my scales, my breath. I am the trees. I am the sallow shapes of dead arctic hares that never rot. I am the snow. I am the red rust that gathers thickest on the north side of every structure. I am the craters in the nearby hills. I am grave wounds punched through quartz, marble, and blackstone.

I am the lamb. I am out in the taiga towards the south where light spills up into the night sky and eats the stars. White wool, green eyes, a dozen dark spots across my forehead.

I am the reason the others are sick. Those lambs in the pasture; they kept stumbling. Their eyes were red, their wool was red, their hooves red, their teeth red--

No, the commune never had lambs, just starving sheep with bloody teeth.

[4:33:22550:18:47]
185201Q whispers to you: I need a favor.

You whisper to 185201Q: 10-4.

|ERROR 185201Q server.log unavailable|

[4:55:22925:19:06]
'Sic semper evello mortem tyrannis.'

There's a sign hung in the empty stronghold beneath the lava pool. Ask anyone and they'll say I jumped, but the truth is more complicated than that. It's more than just chairs and tables. Those stress fracture scars in warped forest wood.
It's something as ludicrous as a broken End portal, it's stuck there- stuck between, inoperable. They know that. Or maybe they don't.

Wither roses hung in every sconce. Warm light traded for secrecy.

Moths and woodlouse. Damp smells. The ashes are old and careful, there's an empty fire piled high with them. A map remains but it lacks cardinal direction. It's strange and red… it's nothing. There is nothing.

This is the Pompey Theatre's destruction.

Brutus is gone.

The ides never come.

Caesar reigns.

[5:01:23031:19:11]
It rained today. The snow is red with it. The sirens belted out their broken screams all over again. Right on schedule. It's getting harder to see through the static. Every turn I take it just goes deeper. There's something wrong with the air, the soil is sick, the land is dead-- the world is a coffin and every sunrise is another nail struck through the lid.

It doesn't matter if there's only one way through, this labyrinth is too narrow to turn back in.

[5:27:23459:19:30]
There are four people here.

It's a fair conclusion. There have been only traces of others, things older than this. It's becoming difficult to tell them apart. Voices are starting to sound the same. All hands and eyes and mouths that move and I lose grasp on the difference. It's too easy.

The cobblestone is obsidian. The boiled snow is candy sweet. The guards are loud and obnoxious, they love to stare and walk away. They are always missing. Always skipping duty. Talking and talking and never going anywhere. Never getting anywhere. And there are two statues at my bedside. The same thoughts keep running in my head.

They remind me that everything Philza and Technoblade do is wrong.

Dream scrolls and more entries tick by across the analog screen.

He scrolls faster, brow bent further in the middle. Annoyance stirs in his chest at the sight of so many things he can't recall writing.

But it's clockwork.

It's the familiar day in, day out routine all with a different sort of playbook. It's forgetting and then learning to not give a damn, because freedom, or rather coming to terms with it, is a new sort of presentable liberty. It's that pragmatic matter of brushing off days that march by without him until suddenly he's sitting at the same weathered table staring down into the same bowl of mashed potatoes.

The same guards only occasionally standing watch across from him, absorbed in a book or jabbing at the keys of a comm, or worse chatting amongst themselves. He's too feeble a threat for them to actually guard the door in any serious capacity. They don't care when he stands and opens it only to sit back down and ensure it's still unlocked a few minutes later.

It's always back to the table. Back to the only foods he can seem to stomach, potatoes and self imposed starvation. The very same order of operations that turns his gut into a nest of writhing snakes and he doesn't know how many days it's been.

At the very least the potatoes are no longer whole spuds with green patches and sprouts that creep from their eyes. They're not judging, not anymore.

And after long enough spent at the commune's table he's come to the conclusion that it's all the same moon crawling higher and higher into the night, up and over. It's that damn chill that always bites deeper. The call of the void past the taiga that's not yet strong enough to tug him out of the erratic orbit he has meandering around this place-- this 'sanctitude'.

And the potatoes are bland and pale. They have only a ghost of some seasoning that turns his palette to ash when he finally gives in and eats them on the ninth day.

By the end of the second week he musters up the strength to scrounge through the cabinets and the chests of the messy kitchen. He searched for something, but could never quite figure out what.

The only reason he ever manages it without scrutiny is because the guards are busy-- always distracted and sometimes arguing, yet the conflicts tend to smooth over in a way that was… strange. It was at odds with the way he understood those sorts of things to implode and collapse, and repeat. They don't escalate, they don't antagonize, they don't get violent, they don't aim for low blows and spitting vitriol. They never cut their teeth through each other's necks or draw weapons.

They contend with the world and its occupants as if there is always some external force to blame.

They live with circles under their eyes that grow darker bruises every day. Their shoulders constantly forced low into a hunch, their steps heavy. There is something that plagues them in the very same way that the ground beneath his feet occasionally heaves screams of festering wounds and pus. Yet the world is forced to churn on, everyone spinning with it.

It spins and spins and somewhere tucked under the mattress of his bed he knows there is a charcoal pencil and a book. Two sentences scratched down in letters that shake a slant across the first page:

Philza and Technoblade are rivers.

Tommy and Wilbur are landslides.

Any witness could confirm that the latter is true. Ten thousand stacks of TNT would detonate with more grace than the way the world crashes, bends, and reforms around those two. And yet, it makes all the more sense for it. He finds that Tommy is usually the one to yield first, steps loud, door slammed, but not without lashing out-- not for the last laugh but… for something shaped like dignity. In the aftermath, Wilbur always stares at the ground and heaves a quiet sigh, only to tug himself back together at the seams. A cigarette unlit and worried between his teeth. The lighter finding it soon.

It ends, only for it to repeat again.

By the fourth time, he had pieced the clues together. He scribbled it down and traced the patterns, he realized and recognized that Wilbur did it-- does it, on purpose. He recognized that Tommy wasn't stupid for taking the bait either. It just was. It simply is and was, like the tall guard with the white eyes and dark horns who once brought him potted plants and softer words; someone to look forward to and eventually never see.

But this is a different reality. The guards and wardens and walls are different here. They're always here. The fights and arguments are always here-- even when they’re kicked to the background.

They are his clock. His lava sunrise.That point somewhere exactly between night and day, and something a little more than just metaphor.

He looks forward to it. He wastes his days sitting in one of the moth-eaten armchairs surrounded by the bookshelves upstairs. Waiting, listening, tense and ready to scramble clumsily to the window or clamber down the ladder into the heart of Techno's cabin to try and catch a glimpse of the next altercation because it was the only thing that kept making sense.

Some days it didn't happen.

Some days it was him and the guards, clipped questions, shallow orders-- mere suggestions; and the world made a little less since. Some days it was just him and Techno, stunted potatoes and snowy fields, and nothing made sense. Some days it was him and Phil, a dozen books, a warm fire and awkward conversation that he always fled. Some days it was both. Some days he can't sit still. Some days he can't move.

Most days, he spends alone. The wind's murmurs through the cabin some barely there sort of company.

They are all boring days. Familiar unfamiliar quiet things he ascribed to a past life. That before and then that before the before. Because he can feel it every single day like he's placing his palms flat against that unscalable brick wall and begging to be let through. He's always leaning in too close to try and listen through the sand and lime, the concrete and silica.

There's the thought that maybe he would've enjoyed all of this tranquility, but through that wall? He hears nothing. He feels nothing. Not even the warmth of sun soaked bricks. Not even the mortar's roughness. Not obsidian, nor the hot bite of lava. Nothing.

Whatever camaraderie he may have held with the oh-so-noble guards who ascribe themselves the tiles of Technoblade and Philza, it has been beaten out of him in exchange for the black and blue tune of a different music sheet.

Because perfect days were always going to be when he got to witness a real fight.

Perfect days were when he watched sh*t storms unravel into hurricanes, when stacks of chests got toppled, when potion stands and glass bottles were thrown and shattered. When he'd flinch at every tiny thing, when his heart would stutter in his chest and he'd curl inward. Reduced to nothing more than an animal building a square cage around itself with its own limbs only to peer through the gaps.

He'd bare his teeth. He'd growl. He'd snarl, he'd twist his lips into a doggish grin and pull at the curve of his cheeks to drag them down. He'd laugh, drunk and rough, and at no one in particular. Wheezing terribly on the ends, book in his lap shoved to the floor as he wrapped his arms around his knees and the crooked end of his tail curled.

He'd taste blood from his bit tongue and bit cheeks.

He'd stare with burning eyes and burning throat and swallow down all the acid he couldn't cough up.

He wanted to be them.

In some ways he already was, in some ways he felt the phrases that fled Wilbur's, or Tommy's, or even Phil's mouth as if they were his own. Techno only ever had dry quips, clipped remarks, level-headed to a supernatural degree. The guards were strange, nothing changed about that. The cell echoed that sentiment.

Still, all of it only added to the confusion, that disrupted self-image, it's all an idle sort of existence spent believing he can somehow flee his own body-- that he can somehow become the jagged, hapless shape of others.

And the one time he got involved in all of it, it earned him a black eye, a book thrown right at his face. It stopped hurting too fast so he'd mashed his fingers into the bruise. He'd felt it burn the roots of his teeth, the pit of his belly. He'd choked on a sound too close to a laugh until his breath clouded the sky as Phil dragged him outside, sat him on the steps and asked;

"You good to stay out here a sec?"

He presses his knuckles harder into the bruise at the question. He spills a porcelain chipped whine of a thing and rocks forward, then back, then forward again. Forearm pressed across his ribs to feel them shake, feet twisting to curl in the snow.

He says a simple, irreverent, "yeah, I'm great."

To which he earns a frown, a nod, an awkward shuffle and then strange words from the guard's mouth-- Phil's mouth-- names; They all have names.

"Things'll cool off in a minute, then it should be alright to head back inside… unless you wanna stay out here a bit? Weather's uh, well it's nice, better than it usually is at least."

A choice then. He stares forward and then cuts his eyes to the corners, then back again. He decides there is nothing to decide and he will wait for the guard to fetch him when the task is done, then he shall be returned to his cell. Protocol.

It's all reasoned and accepted even before Phil taps his knuckles against the railing of the steps, turns to retreat and throws over his shoulder a, "welp, just don't go wandering too far off, yeah?"

He doesn't move from the steps.

And those perfect days taste like victory. Fraught with the enjoyment of some bright and exhilarating reality. Like watching lava walls until they would stutter and cease to fall. Like seeing the glint of the warden's armor all over again.

They tasted like when he had finally found what he was looking for inside all those wooden chests, under all those kitchen cupboards he couldn't help but search through. That perfect thing to pair with those bland potatoes, that perfect thing to pair with this bland life, this polygonal prison and the acute state of disrepair. Those days tasted like the dredges of sugar cane juice he'd scooped out of a dusty jar buried at the bottom of a chest. Forgotten, browned and bittered by time--

Toxic molasses.

It tastes so much sweeter coming back up. And all that matters is that it makes him feel the same way as getting his skull caved in. For a moment, bent double shaking in the snow, coughing up bile and splashing red across white he feels that thrilling dizziness. His body becomes an empty, hollow vessel. He can feel the ashes of what's left get cast away with the wind, sink into the snow, and worm its way into the permafrost. Eager for any escape from this current state.

He did, does, and will feel alive heaving his guts out the same way he'd felt alive getting a book to the face, holding his palm over candles, smashing glass and wood until everything turned red, slamming his knuckles into cobblestone, jumping in freezing water under thawed ice, diving into lava pools, stubbing cigarettes out on his arms, downing potions without checking the color--

Cut to black. Return to square one.

Life here in the arctic? It's always back to square one. Back to potatoes. Back to vicariously living through the fleeting moments of hearing others rip into each other's throats and imagining that they'd actually killed each other, killed him, killed everyone, killed everything-- death, pain, rosy tinted f*cking goodness. Bloody smiles and bloodier knuckles.

Cheap thrills and cheaper bullsh*t narratives of living life like he isn't the thing that darkens every doorstep, and lingers on cast looks and sealed lips, and behind him there isn't a looming threat yanking the crudely tied strings.

He lives in a state of fantastical, righteous fury, wishing for the apocalypse like a roof ripped off a church to remind the worshippers there were gods and they were real.

...he'd read that in a book somewhere. He'd read a lot of books lately. At first he didn't. His old cell lacked them, but now he finds himself scrawling quotes from them on the inside of his arms, writing all the way up to his shoulders, savoring the curves and the loops and the stilted sounds. Black ink stains fit well with the rot and the scar tissue. It’s a clockwork pastime smudging shaky words during stiff conversations and games of twenty questions that he only wins by keeping his mouth shut.

Books were escape.

Books are escape. Books represent the faustian bargain that had landed him here in the first place. Books are dangerous; that’s what the warden once said.

So, here he sits on these icy wooden steps. Elbows slung on his knees, static fingers twisting knots around themselves in the middle. The communicator cradled between them. He thinks and he thinks and he never gets anywhere. He never goes anywhere.

He stares past the comm until the ground blurs and his ears pin back.

He sits there and he does what he always does as he awaits the first rays of the sun that will spill rosy tints across the taiga. He hides behind the idea that each blink will land him back where he belongs, that each refusal will be another stain on his record. As if it's a worthy sort of achievement to be thrown back into the pit; as if it's a mercy he's never granted it.

He walks himself daily to the logical conclusion, that all he needs to do is play along with this fugue state and maybe he'll come out in a more familiar place at the end. Maybe that's why he's just another idiot, sitting at a long table of other idiots, all hoping for another person to come along and clean up the mess. Or perhaps make it worse.

Maybe it's why he's always catching the silhouette of Wilbur Soot at the corners of his vision.

Visitor, he often recategorizes, not guard.

Somehow that trench coat and messy hair has become the shape of the next crossroads devil haunting his every step. An unspoken offer caught behind grey lips that's not yet more tempting than the one he's already got. It's a small victory that he never gives in to curiosity. It's an even smaller one that in return, he's left relatively to his own devices.

Despite the stares. Despite the questions. Despite the fact that he feels as if there's always at least one pair of eyes on him at all times-- he sits there and contends with the bright unbearable reality that an entire month has already passed here. Maybe it's already a year. Maybe it's a minute. But it's something. Time is, after all, inevitable.

And if on the daily he still checks the communicator Quackity gifted him, if he sees it looks worse for wear each time, if he refuses to acknowledge the feeling of hands still around his throat? Well then it's all just as meaningless as anything.

He's not surprised that a month's worth of comm messages is nonsensical.

All of them sent via that same corrupted channel, the only channel the comm operates through. He'd confirmed and tested that himself. It's a two-way encrypted sort of deal, one he can only ever assume has Quackity sitting pretty and pomp on the other end. So, he types him bullsh*t letters that he hopes are more than annoying to decipher. An order followed, but not without friction.

His last hoo-rah, a crooked f*ck you. … but not really.

Dream turns the comm in his hand again. Fingers creaking, claws clicking against broken plastic.

He flips it and the screen is dark and shattered. A few buttons are missing, and he swears… he swears he remembers smashing it to pieces in the cobblestone belly of Techno's basem*nt at the end of that first day, the last day, some day-- he doesn't know when, but it's there. He can even see the scars, those twisted things that gleam when he turns his arm and flexes his hand. Sophic silver wrought by potions that knit shut wounds. Metallic scars wider where he'd dug his claws in to pick out the shards as he bit at his own shoulder to muffle the sound.

A sick, twisted sort of animal. He had clawed the bandages off that Phil had bothered to wrap around his palms and up past his wrists, all the way to sharp elbows. An empty gesture for wounds that heal before the sunrise. Or one's that were supposed to.

He hates the sight of those bandages. He hates the way they cover the gleam of his netherite cuffs; gleaming gifts from the prison halls. That continued consolation prize won from a perilous journey he can't properly recall.

He hates the way those bandages hide it; all the wounds, the blisters. That ichor of spilled ink in every atom, every cell, and something about the sight of bandages on his arms makes him think about--

… he's getting lost again.

"f*ck," Dream mouths the curse at the snow. Brow pinched, eyes closed, some ice pick headache brews between the disordered thoughts, the jumbled associations.

He wastes hours a day doing this, just sitting here, out in the cold on Techno's doorstep, just thinking. Ruminating. And hell, not even successfully.

Scrubbing a hand across his forehead, Dream reaches for the wooden railing of the steps and pulls himself to his feet.

The world grows muddier with the change. Eyes stuck in constant half-lids.

He's getting distracted, cyclically so.

Glancing down at the comm again, he frowns and then he stows it in the bag of holding strapped to his hip. Secure and simple to access, something easy to use and difficult to lose in lieu of an inventory.

Bags like it are only rarer than totems of undying because of their outdatedness. "Some real nerd stuff," Techno proclaimed when he'd handed it to Dream like he hadn't just forked over a few thousand year old artifact and asked for nothing in return.

He knows for a fact this makes him no different than the average mob now. Sharp teeth and sharp claws, eyes that flash in the dark; insult to injury.

It's better than the corner he'd dedicated to piling potatoes in.

It's a blind sort of trust, so he stores all the books he steals off every shelf in it.

Empty, full, written in with smeared ink, or strange printed things that are too neat. If it held anything useful, it was his. If he could get his hands on it and he assessed that no one would miss it, he kept it. Pencils, tools, blocks and planks of wood, rope, flint and steel. A hammer, a knife, painful instruments he forced himself to take after working past the revulsion, those orders ringing in his ears every time he stood within four feet of them.

They're all things for escape, for protection, for revenge-- he always tells himself he needs them. They entertain those echoes that flicker and pop in the back of his thoughts. He needs them for when he escapes.

Eventually, just as soon as he figures out a way to get within the same orbit as Quackity--

No, no, it's a stupid idea, it's not thought out. Not yet, too soon, he has to wait. He has to abide by every rule and march down death row; he can't plan ahead. He knows he can't because he writes down all the moving parts, he obsesses over the minutiae, over every useless detail he just barely recalls, and as soon as he shuts the journal and stows it-- he loses it. He keeps losing all of it, over and over. The plans can't work, not like this, not without understanding where to start.

They're unabashedly reckless for something like him. The machinations of someone out of their damn head, that's what he spits at the cobblestone walls when he's legs drawn up to his chest, clawing at his own skull, the bed's side rail digging right into his spine.

The warden is always disapproving, standing just out of sight no matter where he sits or stands or paces. No matter if he covers his eyes or ducks his head, if he crawls under the bed and shoves his face into the cradle of his arms. Breathing so loud down in the dark, and the warden is always there with him, Quackity too.

So, he makes plans, sowing seeds of anger in a harvest that only reaps frustration.

They're bad plans, stupid plans, rotten like the warden always says. Bad and foul, just like being a stupid kid and licking banana slugs on a dare, hoping for a sweet taste.

He shakes his head, chasing out the chatter, the listeless careening thoughts that vie for a chance to muddy his present with the past. He reaches into the bag of holding and he thinks of an item in flashes of obsidian, lava, crunching bones--

A hammer settles in his palm.

He grips it tight and his senses evaporate into a symphony of shouting, screeching images. He crunches his molars and shuts his eyes, forcing the thoughts back until he's fine.

Absolutely fine, he thinks as he crunches through the snow, the cold hardly biting anymore. He gives a shake of his head once again, ears ringing, popping, chattering all over again--

[23:50:34.817843:14:52.7] Watch yourself.

A snap-

Sound rushes in, fingers brush the space right between his shoulders.

He flinches and scampers forward, heart caught under his tongue. Pivoting, half crouched in the snow, he parts his teeth on a strangled curse, teeth bared and everything screams--

There's no one.

The world shakes around him.

His breath clouds the air and he sags like a puppet with its strings cut.

Of course, there's no one. Nobody. Just the arctic wind and the arctic sky. Nothing as it always f*cking is, and always was, and will be. He hangs his head, laughter brittle as it bubbles up to fistfight the acid in his throat.

Pushing fingers through his hair, smoky breath spills out into the cold a bit faster as he fists the strands until he's tugging his own head to the side. Neck straining, shivering down in the snow, burning alive. Other hand brought up, hammer still clutched tight, the claws of it ghost across his cheek.

He forces air past the cancerous lump of his heart, a smattering of messy nerve endings. He tilts his wrist until the hammer's claws dig into the dark circles under his eye. He pushes harder, the sky drips red, his ears ring, hair breaks--

[23:50:34.817843:00:00.0] What a loyal mutt.

… there's something spreading on the barn siding.

The rotten wood rips off the building easily enough. Still it sends him stumbling back. He catches his breath for a second as he shakes out his wrists and stares at the innards of the wood plank now split into several pieces on the ground.

Red rot has bored holes right through the spruce. The specks of fungus and torn vines lay scattered in the snow around it like a crime scene.

He stares at it, eyes stuck. His fingers sting where splinters have slid beneath the skin. Red rot coats them dark as blood.

It's a simple job, he reminds himself, whispered under his breath for no one to hear. It's a one and done sort of thing. That's all it is.

Replace the rotten siding on the empty doghouse, turned stables, turned storage barn. The exact name for the spruce monstrosity never mattered, only that it existed and it stood among the commune's graveyard of derelicts. All rotting away with the rest of the sparse narrative he's crafted for himself in his head.

It's an empty job.

Empty like how someone lights all the fires in each cabin every night, and there's nobody to sit by them. Empty like the crater in the commune's backyard, all that rubble he'd dug through only to find another collar. Enderchest. Empty like how he doesn't know who the home once belonged to, only that it's abandoned now. Only that it makes him stand there and scrub a fist across his eyes, chasing out some pathetic sting.
"Ranboo's still alive, dumbass--"is the answer he receives when he swaps it for a question. It’s just… empty.

This job is similar. A task, an undertaking for no other reason than to undertake it. No one's asking him to do sh*t. No one wants him to.

He does it because mindless, repetitive actions make passing out at the end of the day that much easier. It makes it so he's not just staring at the wall, side pressed to stone, the other brushing the wood slats of a bed above, hands curled up under his head as the room spins and he sees Quackity staring back at him. He turns and sees the warden staring back at him. He shuts his eyes and it's just another cut to black.

The bed's too soft, the menagerie of wood and cobblestone floor isn't the same as hot obsidian. The cell is too spacious even if it's just a hovel carved out in the basem*nt. It was just easier this way. Distracting the constant minecart crash of his mind? Well, that was just a bonus.

So, when he lunges forward to rip the next plank off the barn, it's personal.

He is a scratching, clawing beast reduced to a creature barely affecting the world now. He steps back and he observes that his work is far from over.

Still, the wound left behind is festering. It's a long strip of exposed innards glaring at him from within the spruce barn. He sees red vines, wriggling viscous flesh, a diseased scab he's ripped from the hard skin of the building without regard for the things locked within. It is a crimson abyss that stares back at him.

Heaving rattling breaths, that tight knot in his chest lodges in his throat now. The world gurgles and whines, the barn's flanks rise and fall with a pained groan to match.

[23:50:34.00000:00:00.0] You belong here.

He rolls his shoulders, a shiver creeps it's way up his spine and he wobbles his head side to side. A desperate dog sort of ploy, a violent brain rattling shake, all to try and chase out a flea.

Maybe it's right. Or maybe belonging is something he can't hope to understand, but the biting gnat in his ear canal claims he does-- so it has to be true.

Or maybe it's just an echo. Maybe it's just the warden. Maybe it's just Quackity. Maybe it's the void, the same walls, three obsidian, one lava. He finds himself screaming at them in his sleep, when he's awake, when his body's moving and he's not and he's left with five hundred yard stares. Shut and twisted lips that only part around nasty words, nastier snarls. A life half lived without his consent.

His mind churns out more and more of the nonsensical. Layer upon layer of images and sounds that all jostle and howl for attention.

He picks up the hammer from its snow coffin and he swings it at the rotting spruce planks.

There is a wounded squeal.

Then silence. It's ambrosia turns the quiet morning into elysium.

Arm braced against the siding he rests his forehead against it and shuts his eyes. The wind is deathly still. The world is condensed to the rasp of his own breath, the constant bite of the cold and snow, the shaky thuds of his heart. He has never felt less at home in this bone and skin coffin.

Inevitably, when the red noise slithers its way back into his ear, he only needs to stumble back and swing away at the wooden planks all over again.

He's meant to pry them out carefully. He's meant to lay a plank, and then another, tap a hammer against the bottom edge until it's wedged in place just right. Even, level, perfect, and then set with nails. He knows how to fix this.

He knows what he's meant to do.

That's what makes it all the more satisfying to rip off each piece until it's a broken mess. Irreparable, chaotic, a thrilling goddamn thing compared to rotting away. His palms split with nasty blisters, his arms tremble, his fingers solidify in their death grip around the hammer's haft. The murder scene at his feet rusts the tundra away.

It's a haunting breath of clarity.

Letting the hammer swing down by his side he keeps his head forward, his shoulders hunched. Eyes up, chin low, stiff fingers shuffling and aching.

The rot has spread. The red eats up every inch of spruce with a voracious hunger now, only ever angered by his transgressions. It writhes and snarls, and he snarls back. It weeps lava from every wound and his fingers and knuckles weep blood in tandem. It repairs itself like the hands of a clock grabbed and forced backwards.

All zeros. No numbers.

He shuffles back two half-steps to mirror it.

The world clicks forward again.

He swings at the red fungus, its veins and its vines. He destroys the foundation it clings to beneath without care or hesitance. It is pure reckless abandon. Salvation found in every draw back and swing of a hammer that collides with the image of a scarred smile, sparkling teeth.

(He swings and bones crunch, flesh gives, snide scoffs and laughter turn to animal shrieks--)

He swings and he thinks. Each pause between every fifth swing is just long enough to run down the list of everything. He swings the hammer like he isn't used to being thrown flat on his back, boot in his gut, his ribs, his chest, heel kicked right through his sternum until each breath is a karmic agony filled with bone splinters.

A give and exchange. An economy of tit for tat.

(He can see himself reflected in Quackity's blood, red and boring, he stares and he sees his own silhouette. That disobedient dog. Bleak endings, the same absolutes. He swings the hammer and he only ever hits himself--)

He's better. He knows that. Otherwise he wouldn't be out here, he wouldn't be doing this. He's nothing like those first few days when he spent days sweating out that unbreakable fever. Tossing and turning, suffocating in the embrace of wool sheets, too weak to fight gravity.

Skin burning, smoking--
Wasted.
Emaciated.

Withdrawal; from what? He hardly remembers how to associate the word with proper memories, but it's among the first ones he retains with brutal clarity. Everything in comparison is a flimsy, flammable photo reel left out to be damaged and destroyed by the sun.

His associations had been broken and so he charted erratic maps in his head all over again. But knows he got them wrong because everything passes in smears and then clearer images, and he drags charcoal across pages like he'll somehow miraculously remember what the final manuscript meant. He woke from an endless sleepwalk only to spend half his time choking down and choking out food in ungrateful heaves. Nasty sounds, nastier tastes. Bent low in the snow splattered pink and red, only to let his eyes slip close and sleepwalk all over again.

He dreams of pink and only ever swallows sour ash when nothing tastes quite so sweet. Even the potions he scours through and upends with trembling hands aren't the right color. Corks yanked out with teeth, liquid spilt into cupped palm. It is never the right taste. Never the right thing.

Nothing was, is, or has been quite right ever since.

If he's not here taking out revenge fantasies on the sides of derelict buildings, he's out growling at stumbling mobs and picking losing fights with the sky or her stars. Tanking the property value, as Techno would say, the day he had the brilliant impulse to cut his teeth into the throat of a wandering creeper only to wake up at the bottom of a crater; hollower than before.

It just… made sense. So he did it-- does it- he rips off the barn's wooden flanks and he imagines he's killing Quackity instead. Picturing the warden is a trickier affair, but it's easy to remember those black mirror eyes and get pissed at his transgressions. Their stalwart flavor of non-interference.

It's too easy to picture revenge, some part of him that's dissociated from the perfect obedience when he's under the knife. It festers, conjuring vivid images of what he'd do if he ever set eyes on them ever again.

("You reap what you sow," Quackity spits and Dream slashes his way through the words until he's the only thing reflected in those mismatched pupils. Until it's his smile, his laugh, that makes Quackity cower.

"You reap what you sow," Dream spits as Quackity clambers backwards, all hands and feet and bruised elbows on slippery marble. Red smears splashed across the casino's steps. Everything red. Red slipping past his teeth, red dripping off his chin, crimson all the way up to his eyeballs as he grabs Quackity by the collar and yanks him up off the ground. Nails scratch uselessly at his arms, empty begging makes him grin and he rears his fist back--)

It's easy to be angry. Often felt and then forgotten, he gets pissed off by minor inconveniences one second, only to go numb the next.

(He kills him until the obsidian is slick. Until the red pops and bubbles, boiling off dark clouds of foul steam across the stone. He's boiling alive inside this lava cage. Changing form, changing shape, shedding old skin, he's being flayed from it. He's twisting hammer claws into flesh with every downward swing. It rips away with a crunch like wood--)

It's his second time stepping foot out of Techno's cabin when he realizes there is no discipline structure here. No consequences to expect, no knees to bend, or heads to bow-- he just is. There are no Quackity's standing around every corner waiting for lava curtains to drop.

It's the third time outside when he realizes there is something, but the shape of the torture is different.

He has no choice but to recover. He has no choice but to kick back chalky coral dust and water mixtures, and then move onto real food when he finally stops beelining for the door at the sight of it. The chant of poison, poison, poison in his head never grows any quieter; it just gets easier to ignore. Because everything about this quaint, pitiful existence is meant to foster a sound mind, a sound body. It's purpose is to fix him; as if somehow he wasn't already fixed.

Clearly, he's not dangerous anymore, clearly he's not whoever he was in the interim between a god playing disguise and whatever he is now. Even Tommy, for all he trembles like a scrappy dog in some catch between anger and fear-- even Tommy scoffs at him. Tommy throws snide, taunting remarks more than anyone else, more than Wilbur; that has to mean something.

Behavioral correction was the crux of the warden's work after all. Informing him of the fact he still needed to dance through the debasing hoops of some sort of self-healing was just another insult, the next spit in the face.

It was insulting for Wilbur to climb down the basem*nt ladder, lantern in one hand, books tucked under arm on that fifth morning in the commune. It was insulting to stare down at the overbearing titles and smiling faces on the covers, empty journals pushed off on him with encouragement to write instead of punching at the keys of his communicator while he's too fatigued to do much else.

It made fire crawl through every cavity between muscle and bone. He tried to burn the books, but Wilbur just hung the torches higher with a patronizing tsk. He tried to throw them at the walking corpse, Wilbur just dodged and grabbed the books off the ground. Wilbur set them at the foot of the bed and then repeated as necessary.

He stopped throwing them when his arms could no longer lift under their own weight. So, he cracked them open instead. All glares and sharp angles, no shortage of eye rolls as Wilbur's small smile hung in the black behind every blink.

The books came with hand written notes, each signed at the bottom with a little heart and the name Puffy. But the notes weren't for him, the books weren't for him-- not originally.

They were old, tattered, and dogeared. Things crinkled and bent, carried in the inventory of someone who was prone to getting in scraps and losing all his things. Some rough-and-tumble sort with a loose grasp on how to take care of worldly possessions. It doesn't take a genius to trace the back of those letters, angle them against the light, and see that scratched out Dear, ___- hides the raised letters of the name Tommy.

It made him angry enough to stumble out of bed. Shaking, he had painstakingly dragged each book upstairs and dumped them in the fireplace. The letters crumpled up around them. Perfect tinder.

All he needed was a lighter. A flint and steel. Finding it was as easy as looking in the nearest chest. He can't pretend, even now, that he hadn't for a split second considered burning the whole place down.

And of course, it was Techno who caught him burning the books--

"Bro... those better not be my books in there."

He doesn't look away from the flames, he doesn't say anything. Out of sight, out of mind, some belief that if he doesn't move he can't be seen.

Techno looks him up and down, brow quirked, glasses pushed back up his snout.

"Look, Dream, I'm just gonna- I'm gonna go ahead and say I'm cool with you, y'know, borrowin' things for an unspecified amount of time. It's cool. You live here and you obviously needed these books burned for a reason, I respect that. I'd say some of 'em deserve the fire, like they're--" Techno cuts off with a small chuckle. "They're objectively bad, man. Like the Ayn Rand's I got layin' around? Bro, they would make better tinder. But crappy books, they're entitled to their space on a shelf still."

It's his turn to raise a brow, arms folded, he spits out words from a throat of nails, "10 Paths to a Happier Self?"

Techno cringes. "Yeah, we're gonna need more firewood."

"Wil gave you the therapy books?" Phil calls from across the cabin, laughing. "Oh my god. He's just f*ckin' with you, mate. Least Tommy'll be glad to know they're gone."

It's an upside. A twist on the normal chorus of laughter that plays on repeat in his head. He finds himself smiling, cheeks and lips numb. It's there, even if it's just an echo.

And he goes on to find better books in Techno's library. Books that are complicated, dark, funny things with words to die for, worlds to get lost in. Not something that tells him he's too f*cked in the head and hey, here's ten easy ways to get fixed--

He hasn't burned a book since.

It's progress.

To be frank, progress is a loose term. There's not a day that goes by on the commune that he doesn't catch himself in every reflection and slide his eyes away. That he doesn't conceptualize himself as that thing that slithers on its belly in the dark, down in the cramped space beneath the bed in the cabin's basem*nt.

He is that thing that haunts those shallow shadows with shoulder blades pressed up into the bed slats, elbows tucked up beneath his ribs. So he can pretend that when he shoves his forearms against the ground and presses his spine into the solid weight above that he's being crushed to death. When it doesn't budge, it leaves bruises.

He can pretend it's the warden's boot planted on his back keeping him down, blood on his knuckles, under his hands, and the sting is healing pots dumped on his head--

He can pretend the shaking of every limb, the bleed of strength after every second is meant to happen. He can pretend the Elder Guardians' chime is the thunderous whoosh in his ear that picks up speed in frightening crescendos as his heart skips faster. That the sliver of orange light from flickering torches is the lava. Cast against polished cobblestone, flashing in bright halos against the back of his brain.

He can always pretend the dark shape of boots is Quackity come to find him. Finally.

But nothing changes, and no one ever talks about it.

He's still just here, ripping boards off a spruce barn with the claws of a hammer, conjuring up fantasies and losing time, and somehow there's always more. Somehow the red fungus has crept onto his fingers, his wrists, up his arms. For every board he tears down, there's always another, and the red writhing meat inside seems to grow new ones like some dragon with wooden scales.

(He swings the hammer, the pickaxe, the axe; always hounding for the same revenge--)

They say it's a dish best served cold. He likes to believe when he gets it, it'll be scorching. Because he can only ever gain potential energy every time he kills Quackity in his head. It'll be a slaughter, he thinks, a fitting death for a butcher. It's all he can tell himself.

[23:50:00.00000:00:00.0] Trust me trust me trust me trust me.

The world rewinds again. It sets him back at the start. Back to the first slat, that dusting of crimson rot on an otherwise spotless build. He takes it in a stride, he tears the commune's barn apart plank by plank, he always does.

Relapse, recover, repeat. Two rungs up, twenty down. The same brand of sick in the head.

And trust, contrary to every second he spends in the company of those guards who refuse to conform to the mold-- trusting them? Trusting Phil and Techno? It's an unswallowable sore throat of metal in his throat. It's a bronze spear stuck right through the back of his skull that he's forced to bite between his teeth until they break.

He is at the mercy of Mégês, that nephew of Odysseus, the warrior who fought as if the smear of blood on the backs of his hands were the very imprints of Ares' thick fingers wrapped about them. Guiding him to take up the bronze spear, each step at the god's blessing. He is at the mercy of the embodiment of every brutal and tasteless aspect of battle, the dirty politics of war.

In this story, he is Pedaios the bastard child, the illegitimate runt who shares a lineage with a man best known for his betrayal against Troy. In this story, there is a seat specially reserved down in antenora just for him. Just for when he follows in his father's footsteps and puts a knife in all of their backs. That is when he will be slain and awake to an eternity buried up to his neck in ice.

In this story, he's meant to be killed before he ever gets the chance. But Mégês never lofts his spear, death never comes, and it's all a bright unbearable reality that Techno and Phil must be too stupid to realize he's a threat. He is a loose end. A wound that needs cauterizing.

He is--

Dream stares down at the backs of his knuckles. On each one sits a welling pool of murky red. A few drops chase a line around the edges of his palm before they smack the snow. Crimson, just like everything.

He rolls his eyes and huffs a breath, swiping at his bloody knuckles with the other hand only to make them worse.

The metaphor is pretty sh*tty. He's no more Pedaios or Lycomedes, than Tommy is Theseus. Technoblade is not Achilles, or Protesilaus, or Ares himself. Philza is not Zephyrus or Thanatos anymore than he is the last vestige of death's grace on a rotting world. Wilbur is not a trickster god or a clever forethinker, he is not Loki or Hermes armed with honey words and a slippery sort of dark wit. Whispers of Lethe, Nemesis, and Harpocrates mean nothing more than myth among the commune's whispers. They're just stories.

Stories he should stop reading before he loses himself.

He twists his fingers around the hammer's haft until his bones creak. More red spills from his hand and his teeth flash in a snarl as he tries to remove the rot from the barn all over again.

All the while his knuckles and fingers split wider wounds and his own blood smears every unstained inch that he touches. Indistinguishable from the greedy crimson fungus already feeding there.

(He swings the hammer, the axe, purple metal sharp and hot, the warden's specialty. He spills blood with a vengeance, sweet and acrid, stinking up the stale air. He bleeds him out and he only ever hears his own screams.)

[23:00:00.00000:00:00.0] If gods can bleed--

What the hell is a god anyway?

Is it Quackity?

Is it Techno?

Is it the red roses that manage to make roots in irradiated ground? Is it the slime that sees all and can never die? Is it old kings and their monuments built only to erode and crumble?

Is it an obsidian prison? A lemon tree? Two discs? A room full of wooden buttons? Ten thousand kilos of TNT?

Gods were subjective, if he knew anything for absolute certainty; it was that.

Maybe it's stupidly existential to even entertain a question like that, but it's a thought, and it's there. And it's loud. Louder than the crunch-snap of spruce planks, louder than the way they knock and crash against one another piled high in the snow. Louder than the way bones break, or obsidian chips, or netherite swords hiss when plunged in lava and ripped back out--

Louder than the way the earth cracks and the sky breaks as bombs rain.

So, what's a god?

It's whatever gets a name.

Because even the ants who crane their heads to gaze up at the boot have to call it something.

It's why it’s a bit more than weird that he's under the same roof as a piglin, some pig, with a blood mark. He wasn't an idiot, he spent most of his time studying the guards, jotting down notes in a twisted sort of shorthand.

He'd been sipping at some broth the day he saw Techno roll his sleeves up past his elbows. The piglin's hands moved to elaborate at some point, but all Dream could do was slap a hand against his own chest and try to breathe, salty water sucked straight down into his lungs. Wide eyes stuck on the brand shaped like a cursive 'E' with too many segments and fangs. It just sat there, innocuously, right between wrist and elbow.

Techno shrugged it off like it was nothing. Nothing because Techno never mentioned bounties, or rogue gods, or hunting down anyone or anything-- not for duty, not for sport. Techno didn't draw a blade and run him through for good. He didn't wake up back in the End, ten billion years having passed with no conception until all that he was managed to reform exactly as he is now. Energy never created. Energy never destroyed.

The piglin waved off every concern and hung around with one of Death's chosen. Techno didn't do anything right, he didn't do anything that made sense. He didn't seem to commune with the Blood God at all.

No, Techno read book after book. Techno sipped the same mug of tea for six hours every single day, he gardened, he followed Phil around, he left for days on end, or he slept for just as long. Techno put scraps of food out in dog dishes only for no animal to ever come.

Techno spoke to the air and checked on the outskirts' cabins where no one lived apart from the debris of old occupants who must have called it home. Wooden toys, pots and pans, even clothes still hung on laundry lines near dead fires. Unbothered by time, every item whispered a story about the villagers who once held them as if they were still there.

Techno complained about retirement, he committed blasphemy in blasé jokes about his own patron while jokingly worshipping a false one. He took things at face value and somehow still saw through pure bullsh*t. He was just a guy, some piglin who managed to claw his way into the ranks of some immortality without coming out half rotted, and then further still clawed his way back to absolute personhood. Then he just lived with it, causally so.

Dream skulked about in the piglin's shadow just to make sense of the impossible. Just to answer a single question he'd written in one of his books--

What is a god?

It's a pig who didn't waste his time on one.

It's a bank. It's a casino. Hell, a god was even a strip club out front of some too-good-to-be-true pool and resort. Gods were faded burger stands with one employee, propaganda for a crimson empire, even off-brand therapy and mercs for hire. It was black gas masks and pretty pink draughts, nuclear bombs and holy water soaked soul sand packed alongside gunpowder in bullets.

They're all odds and ends that all tell a full story he can't quite read, but it's always popping into his mind with jarring regularity. Some this or that. Some tiny little thing that makes something snap and for a split second he'll be down on his hands and knees in the snow-- and he'll remember everything.

He'll wonder for less than a millisecond what god could be so--

And then it's gone all over again.

(Lesson 317: You can't kill a 'god' like Quackity.)

It's a lesson he rehearses well as his lungs heave smoke into the air and the hammer swings idly by his side. Bloody with fungus and splinters. The spruce barn mocks him with a dry laugh, every plank of its wood siding still firm on its flanks.

His knees are weak, numbness creeps down the backs of his calves, to his ankles, to alien toes.

He lets himself fall back in the snow, hands forming a blockade across his vision as he raises them, empty handed now. He turns them slowly, front of palm, then back of palm, then repeated all over again. Slow blinks, sluggish thoughts he can't understand how all the blood got there.

Not quite, not really. He doesn't look towards the hammer flashing purple in the snow.

A sound, a distant crunch of boots has his ears sitting up.

He angles his head and shields his face with a hand, peeking only through the scarred gaps between bone-thin fingers.

The spruce barn continues to laugh in the background. An awful scraping noise like a whetstone used poorly.

Through the gaps in his fingers he sees the world only in red. He tucks his legs closer to his body, he hunches until his ribs touch his knees and his tail curls up around his shins. Out in the open, out in the blank white slate of a tundra, there is nowhere left to hide.

A few figures trudge through the snow in the distance. They tow supplies behind them on wooden sleds, dressed poorly for the weather as if they're headed somewhere hotter. Artificial snow coating sandy hills comes to mind, but even that doesn't seem quite right.

It's a rag tag sort of bunch.

They're not a threat, he assesses, but that doesn't stop him from staying deathly still.

Pink Hair and Blocky Headphones talk animatedly, exchanging gestures and rolled eyes. Red Balaclava jumps in, their chatter flowing into the others as they make a pointed gesture. Laughter follows. It's a natural sort of camaraderie as the three of them walk side by side, and they never look towards the barn or the creature hunched in the snow outside. They have their sights set on different horizons.

Fox trails behind the group, sled of his own in tow, paws wrapped around the leather strap of a rifle slung across his shoulder.

It's Fox who stops and stares after the group. A pitiful sort of sight in the snow, it becomes terrifying when Fox turns his head and looks him right in the eyes.

It strikes like a hammer, bright and shocking, never anticipated. He knows the fox's name like he knows the taste of blood; impossible to forget completely.

He drops his hand from its shield position over his face and he opts to wrap his arms around himself until he's digging claws into shoulder blades.

Still, Fundy stares.

In turn, he is a deer looking across minecart tracks, afraid of the hurtling comet that orbits them. One step and maybe he's dead, maybe he's not, but the risk is too great to gamble on. It's too daunting even if he's only ever seen the comet once.

Ironically, it's Tommy who comes to the rescue. Barreling out of Techno's cabin, leaping down the steps, and then hopping awkwardly through the snow as he shouts Fundy's name and waves a black hat with gold decals.

Fundy waves him off at first. Tommy presses, stepping closer. Fundy steps back in turn, shrugging and shaking his head, his tail limp and his ears flat. A paw brought up to rub at the back of his neck, the other waves in the air as Fundy's muzzle parts in something half-grimace, half-grin.

After a beat, Fundy takes the hat like he'd rather pick through a rotting corpse. He doesn't put it on, he throws it on the sled and the wind tugs at the tattered thing.

Then the pointing starts. It's more gesturing in his general direction, but it's still the indication that the conversation's now about him. He bares his teeth on instinct, but cuts his gaze to the ground out of obligation.

The snow is overwhelmingly white. The longer he pins it with a stare the fuzzier it gets, the redder it grows.

The barn and the taiga fades. Techno's cabin is white noise among the others that dot the horizon. The bite of the wet and the cold melts into greys. He can sense the pressure of his own arms wrapped around his person, but they're not really there. He can register the ache of his spine where it bends, but he's not--

The second time he talks to Tommy, it isn't even really talking. It's just another fight. Or more accurately it's getting accosted for just living there. If he could call it that; living.

Techno and Phil are out on some emergency with the turtles; or so they always said. Wilbur is god knows where, doing god knows what, ripping off god knows who with his 'trade business'. So, it's not surprising that Tommy strolls through the door, geared up in a fur lined coat and a gas mask that he pulls down around his neck, stomping snow off his boots. Voice raised, Tommy calls for Wilbur loud enough to rattle a brain in its skull.

Dream just glances Tommy's way, elbows on the table, half slumped over a bowl of food he has no plans to touch. He can only muster the barest spark of a glare.

Tommy doesn't immediately leave, which is, in itself, aggravating. Something about seeing the kid just stand there, muddying up the floor, damaging Techno's property-- it makes his teeth hurt. It overrides the flimsy association of the word visitor with Tommy in his head.

"Uh, can I... help you?" Dream rasps it out with a quirked brow. He doesn't disguise the venom.

Tommy pretends like Dream's not there until he finally heaves a sigh and asks, "where's Wilbur?"

"Out."

Tommy gives him a deadpan stare. "Well, when's he comin' back?"

"Later."

There's a pause. The air sours.

"You- f*ck, you're a real Sherlock Holmes, aren’t you?" Tommy crosses his arms, temple jumping. "God, I can't wait 'til Big Q changes his mind about making you his bitch 'cause I'm sick and tired of seeing your stupid face hanging around here, Dream."

Dream huffs softly, leaning back in his chair and it's like he's possessed. Something seizes his body to lift scarred lips in a smirk. "How long were you sitting on that one?"

"I wasn-- you're... shut the f*ck up," Tommy growls, but oddly enough it's shaken off immediately. Fingers brushing down jacket sleeves, something mumbled under Tommy’s breath that sounds awfully close to some apology. The dictionary definition of conflicted.

There is little triumph to be found in shutting Tommy up. Shoulders dipping, face falling slack, the world is back to greys.

It's a stand-off of sorts. Leg bouncing, tail twitching, Dream watches Tommy struggle between holding his ground or heading for the door.

Finally Tommy's eyes roll up from the floor to slide across his, rough as hail on a tin roof.

"Tell me where he is."

Dream's ears pin back; deflect. "Look, I don't know, okay? Just… why don’t you just message him-"

"Can't. I don't have my old comm and the new one's absolutely for sh*t, Snowchester messes with the- y'know, the cheap electronic-y bits. And ol' reliable, well she's still locked up in the prison locke-" Tommy stops, huffs a breath and then shoves his fists into his coat pockets. "Look, just- just f*ckin' tell me where he is, like f*ck man, what are you tryna gain here? You don't have anything-- you don't gain anything by not telling me where Wil is. You've got nothing. Nobody's here, nobody cares-"

"Well, that's not entirely true," Dream counters under his breath.

"Shut up-" Tommy raises a hand, eyes closed, frustration bled off in jagged lines. "Okay? Just- just shut up, alright? I have had a long day, I've been walking through snow, and radiation and-- and sh*t. So, think, man, just dig deep somewhere in that loose marble brain of yours and tell me--"

'You're gonna tell me what's in that book, Dream, and I don't care how long it takes, or what I have to do to get it-'

Tommy's mouth moves and it’s hard not to hear Quackity.

"-where's Wilbur?"

There is no clear route of escape. There is only lava beyond Tommy's silhouette, and at every side is black ink that drips down to form obsidian blockades.

His eyes dart back to hands shoved in pockets. No weapons, a bad play, a sh*tty gamble on the other's part-

He holds his breath and then holds his stare.

Defer.

Tommy opens his mouth and then shuts it, stepping back a half step. Dream stays frozen. Tommy waves a hand and snaps his fingers; muddied questions stretched out.

"--you even listening? Dream? …Dream? Major Tom to green bitch?"

Unsteady steps in too big boots, burn and shrapnel scarred wrists, slight limp on the right, exploitable weakness, exploitable weakness--

Tommy kicks at one of the table legs. Hard enough to tip the bowl of potatoes over and send the spoon clattering to the ground. Two flinches earned, a line overstepped, and trained dogs never hesitate to bite.

Defend.

He stands and shoves Tommy--

Cut to black.

The third time he talks to Tommy, he's sitting up on the roof of the cabin, tracing constellations with blurry eyes as the wind tries to pry him off the cedar shakes. Angry and indignant in its gusts, its task is to tug him somewhere past that tundra shaped box.

And somewhere down in the basem*nt there is one too many books filled with scratchy drawings of a fox and the word, leave.

On the roof, the sun falls, then rises, then falls again.

In that time, Phil only tries to get him down once-- or twice, maybe more, it's not as if he's keeping track. Techno leaves a few books along with stale apple chips, and a blanket is tossed up at some point. He doesn't remember when but he's got it balled up in his lap, fingers kneading at the fleece. It doesn't keep the cold out or the snow off, but worrying holes into it somehow makes all the difference.

The guards are too nice here. That's probably the hardest thing to contend with. The fact there's even the presence of others at all because at some point--

At some point he knows the visits stopped, the guards never came, the lava never dropped and even Quackity stayed away. Something happened… something changed. The revelation hasn't dawned on him quite yet so he sits with the same contemplation stewing in the back of his head. When does this end?

He hears the telltale clank and thuds of someone clambering up the window shutters to get to the roof.

The wind shifts, nervous and sour, whispering unintelligible hints at who the intruder is. He sits perfectly still, the picture of the alley cat watching the dog come sniffing its way into his business, searching for scraps among the refuse.

Tommy's face pops over the edge of the roof. The usual scowl curves his lips, old shrapnel scars and all. Dream rolls his eyes and shoves his chin back into the crook of his arm, cold shoulder thrown. Conversation, especially with the likes of Tommy, is just another thing to be pissed off at all over again.

Company isn't soothing. It's not that fairytale flimsy thing he would conjure up only to lose a grasp on in his lava box.

It's so much worse than he thinks he's supposed to remember it being.

It's exhausting to slog through, and somehow he winds up saying too much or too little. Somehow he flinches at all the wrong parts, and growls at the right ones-- somehow he manages to drive conversation off like it's a bacterium trying to worm it's way into a fresh cut. He is a hammer put against grindstone until he is forced into the sharpest point. Somewhere along the line, he came out wrong-- really, really f*cking wrong.

And he knows wrong. After all, right and wrong are teachings laid out like netherite tools in item frames. It's just something to learn. It's just more rules to break.

He tries to fix that. Rectification found in conversations eavesdropped, so he can hear it and hear it and get lost again. Listening only to write the script in journal after journal, lines of backs and forths, starts and stops, breaks and pauses. Perfect recreations to study by lantern light only to open the right page and find that he can't read a damn thing. It's legible when he's jotting it down, but it's always wrong the next day.

It's the sort of thing that has him always tracing sideways steps to the nearest door. Until he finds clarity in the quiet corners of that spruce barn where those sickly sheep meander through stale hay and demand nothing. Their soft bleats a background noise, and even when they headbutt him in the ribs, even when they bowl him over or dig their hooves into his sides and demand food; it's not malicious.

This? It demands attention. It demands that aggravating scramble over eggshells praying the crunch of them won't be too damn loud, praying it won't draw attention- and yet it only brings ire, fingers curled into fists to chase out ringing ears, parted teeth, bloody gums, bloodier fists. Black eyes and bruises and chipped teeth, the sort of sh*t that gets spat at your best enemy on repeat. Despite his best efforts he is thrown into conversation the way he remembers throwing himself into obsidian walls. All with a breathless sort of frustration and no way out, not really.

It'll end with violence. He knows that, he holds that promise close; it always ends with violence one way or another.

Tommy sits well away from the edge of the roof perched up on the ridge. Dream angles his gaze back over his shoulder, looking up the length of the roof towards the shape of Tommy just sat there. Same jacket, same fraying patches, same boots taped together at every seam.

Dream doesn't blink or move, claws half curled into his own forearms. He sits and contemplates, resting somewhere halfway between predator and prey. Halfway between pushing Tommy backwards off the ridge of the roof or not moving at all.

"Why're you up here?" It's tactless and thin, but it's a start, all things considered.

"It's my roof," Tommy fires back.

"Wow, I'm sorry, I-- I really had no idea," Dream drawls sarcastically, palm raised off his arm. "Y'know I could've sworn- I thought it was Techno's."

Tommy scoffs, there's the sound of a heel scuffed against the roof's shakes. "It's mine, actually, built it with me own two hands. My blood, sweat, and tears. Big man stuff, you really wouldn't understand. I just let him stay here, 'cause y'know charity work's important and all that."

Dream plays along. "So, Phil is...?"

"He's an acceptable tenant. Always pays his rent on time, real stand up bloke that one," Tommy's accent dips into comically exaggerated. "He's definitely not a questionable man with questionable sanity nor a casual co-mmitter of filicide and major terrorism."

"Well, I mean... those last two things are pretty debatable."

"Right, 'cause your dumbass totally remembers what happened with L'Manberg.”

Dream digs his claws into his palm, then his forearms, when for a second all he sees, hears, tastes, and smells is that same scene all over again. The one where he shoves Tommy right off the roof and he gets to hear his neck break. Just to end the conversation because there are no wardens to fetch visitors and end it for him.

"Does it matter?" Dream rattles out, a small cough chased with it. "I mean, L'Manberg, no L'Manberg? Technically everything's mine anyway, so-- I guess that means y'know, you owe me rent actually."

"f*ck, you are a prick," Tommy laughs, square and flat.

"Well, I guess that's fair. But you're kind of a dick, too."

There are no crickets to break the way the snow devours every scrap of noise then.

Staring back out at the tundra, it's easy to pretend he's back in that cell. Just talking to the hallucination with the red and white shirt that constantly hovers in his peripherals. That crude and crass thing, two measly parts of a whole so easily condensed into a caricature. It's among the sort of wreckage that remained when his mind burnt, and it took him six whole days to put together that the person who'd tried to kill him on sight and that old hallucination were meant to be one in the same.

Like everything else out here, the equation doesn't quite hold up. Things are different, things are--

"I came up here to say thanks, by the way."

Dream blinks and takes altogether too long to finally ask, "for what?"

"For the black eye, bitch," Tommy clarifies.

Dream doesn't have to look back to see it, he knows it's shining there, a conspicuous ring rung round Tommy's left eye. More than an ounce of payback and maybe three quarters a rotten sense of an eye for an eye. Thin fur, spiderwebs of cracked necrotic skin, a ridiculous wool sweaters to hide his own set of bruises.

"You shouldn't have threatened property," is all he manages to scrape together as his ground to stand on.

"Wha-" Tommy stutters, "do you f*ckin'- are you-- you're not serious?"

Dream holds his silence, a bright burn divided by ten pin pricks where claws gouge holes in clenched fists. He doesn't believe in claiming anything different.

"I should've stabbed you on sight. I should've killed you. I could've done everyone a favor like- like where's the Axe Of Peace when you need it, christ… property?" Tommy spits, the syllabes tripping over one another. "What'd you even mean by that, like what the f*ck does that-- like is that you or Techno's stupid table? What defines 'threatening property', Dream?"

"I dunno, Tommy, maybe if you stay up here you'll find out."

It's hard to pinpoint where the words come from, but once they've fled an ache starts up across his jaw, wrapped up around the back of his head. Axe through the skull sort of pain. Tongue turned to ash.

"A for effort, big man… that was some solid delivery, really.”

Dream huffs out the world's tiniest laugh, cheek laid flat against his forearms. He doesn't need to say anything, tail limp, ears flat, hunched over his own knees, they are dark mirrors with cracked reflections. Two very different shaped fists punched through them. Tommy's fractal debris is too familiar. It lines up too easily with the bone mountain shape of his curled knuckles--

"I'm not scared of you, Dream. Not like this."

Dream shifts his gaze back over his shoulder, he doesn't say anything before he's looking away again. Dull, numb, refusal that doesn't match the words on his lips.

"I know," is all Dream manages to get out.

Tommy fidgets, the cedar shakes echo it.

Agitation rises like the scrape of a blade up Dream's neck. He drags his chin across his arm until his eyes meet the shadows of the taiga and then he tilts his gaze up. His pupils shake from the strain, throwing the stars into a fuzzy aura, a dozen copies made for each bright pinprick.

Still, he knows his constellations. He knows their shapes. He traces the horse, far dimmer now than when it was first hung there. Officially, on paper, it takes up only 72 square degrees of the entire celestial sphere. It might as well sit along 1,303 with how empty the rest of the black canvas feels.

He traces the other stars that blink at him. They send messages he can no longer catch and every time he thinks he recognizes them, every time he thinks he catches those desperate sounds from barking aluminum stars-- they're gone again.

So, correction, he notes to himself as his eyes fall back on the irregular polygon, he knows one constellation. He knows he had a horse.

"You know I named all of them," Tommy interrupts his thoughts, the moment suspiciously surreal.

As much as he'd rather dig his teeth into his own arm then slog through more idle conversation, he bites on Tommy's offer; hook, line, and sinker.

"You named what exactly?"

"The stars. The constellations. I dunno, all of it. Nobody ever told me the names so every place I go I just-- I sort of name 'em myself. And Tubbo, he helps me sometimes. Wilbur too, uh, he did back when…" words bit off, Tommy takes a deep breath. "It's easier that way. Feels a bit f*cked up if I look at them and there's just f*ckin' stars someone hung to decorate a void."

Dream blinks, a face pulled for half a second before he tucks his chin back behind the blockade of crossed arms. He settles in for a long stretch of wondering why Tommy hasn't skittered off or said something cruder yet. There's civility and then there's this.

The wind shifts restlessly, going from breeze to gust, then back again. It tugs at every part of him and it's still not enough to chase him off the roof. At this point, it's morbid curiosity. At this point maybe he can put together the pieces. At this point--

"You're just sad," Tommy concludes unprompted and Dream feels eyes heavy on the back of his head. "You're sad like Wilbur, and Techno, and- and Philza. You are sad like every sorry motherf*cker left on this server. The game's over, you lost four hundred and something f*ckin’ days ago and I-- well, I gambled the discs away so you don't even have that anymore neither. You don't even remember what the f*ck they are! You've literally nothing left, Dream."

There it is, Dream's lip twitches at the colorful words. This is routine, this is based in well-rehearsed reality and facts, and every way he'd come to understand actual conversation. In every way he'd come to understand an obsidian box's echoing words and hallucinations.

"You're so deep in f*ckin' sh*t, you’re up to your damn eyeballs and all I wanted- all I wan- you know what I want?" Tommy grits his teeth, words thick. "You know what I wanted? I wanted to kill you in that cell. But then I see you, alone out in that f*ckin' snowstorm and I knew, I knew I couldn't do it. 'Cause that's not how gods work, that's not how big dumb pricks like you work. We're dead either way. It is some f*cked up sort of Saw game 'cause we're all just little lab rats locked in a cage someone went and hooked the exhaust pipe to. And nobody’s got the balls to say it outloud. Nobody talks about the world borders or the f*ckin’ radioactive haze.

And the-- the fact is, none of that even mattered. Good and evil didn't matter. It didn't matter if you understood a goddamn thing because I wanted you to look me in the eyes and beg. Just so I could stand there and tell you to go f*ck yourself. I wanted to cave your face in until my knuckles broke. I wanted to make your teeth hurt the same way mine did every time I ever saw you. Every time I ever thought about you while I was sittin’ in f*ckin’ Logstedshire."

Here he is, he went soul-searching on a rooftop and here he has found deliverance from the mouth of what he can’t remember. Cutting words and claims and things he remembers only ever as the background track jumping and skipping on repeat. The perpetually missing pieces are obsidian, lava, and the harsh bite of sharp netherite tools. Laughter, a gold canine, and a trailing scar.

He listens with the attentiveness of young gods freshly built and knelt before the pulpit because that is what he is trained to do.

"I guess… I guess I just needed you dead. ‘Cause I figured that’s gotta be about the only way I keep everything safe," Tommy declares and there's a dark edge to the words. It is the underlying and ever truthful statement that this all comes from more than just the mouth of some kid stuck in time, but someone who knows what it means to dig two graves when he gets revenge. "And… and you know what? I’m glad I didn’t kill you. I am glad you're not dead. I’m glad because now you can be just as f*cked up, and miserable, and half-a-f*ckin’-live. Now, you’re exactly how you f*ckin' should be, big man.”

These are the words. Here is the ranting, raving beratement-- nigh bereavement, more mourning than vindicated upon examination. There is that precursor to the next long stay of popping lava and nothing but obsidian to chip at. The frustrated roiling confusion that stirs when he tries to recall exactly what he did and only ever comes up blank so he makes up scenarios in his head over and over and over again.

The tune goes discordant when Tommy continues.

"And yeah, I've hurt people. Hell, I've killed people. I have f*cked sh*t up and..." Tommy clears his throat. Dream doesn't have to look back to know Tommy’s rubbing a thumb into the center of his palm, pushing hard enough to punch a hole through the middle. "I really thought that would change with you gone. I thought, yeah, I thought things would f*ckin' change with you gone. f*ck it was supposed to--”

There's a shaky breath, the whisper soft sound of fingers clenched so hard around fistfuls of hair that the strands break.

One of those tar and feathered apologies tries to slip off Dream's tongue. To let it out would be a mockery of the game; the tightrope act dangling by sliced fingers. Bowing his head or breaking his f*cking back and holding on for what? For this? For some--

"It was supposed to change," Tommy's lament cracks right in the middle. It's cobbled back together with a growl. "Everything- everyone, it all pointed to-- they said it would be better! I thought it would feel so much better, I am supposed to feel better! And now I'm stuck with you, and, f*ck, man-- I'm stuck with Wilbur all f*ckin' over again. It's like we never left that f*ckin' ravine! It’s like--"

"You could literally just leave," Dream cuts him off, hand thrown out towards the wide-open tundra. "Nothing's stopping you. You can go right now and nobody would stop you."

"Yeah, that's..." Tommy sniffs, chasing it with a bitter laugh, "that's actually funny as f*ck comin' from you, Dream. That's hilarious, really."

Everything about the tone makes him bristle.

"You don't have to patronize me."

"Why, does it piss you off?"

"No." Dream forces his eyes into a roll, shoulders shrugging even as a growl rattles between his ribs. "You're just-"

"Just what?"

"You're-"

"An asshole? A bitch? Annoying- do I annoy you, Dream? Am I annoying?" Tommy pushes, no grin, all snarl.

"You- you're-" Dream starts but can only churn out stutters and then snarls. Fire crawls between his teeth and under his chin, wiring his teeth firmly shut.

"Aw, look who's upset," Tommy mocks nastily, "f*ck off, man, you're such a f*ckin'--"

"You deserved it.” Dream stands shoulders heaving, words slung as he glares up at Tommy. Teeth and fingers curled to form basket claw cages. There is less than a dozen feet of a roof's incline stopping him from bloodying them.

Tommy matches him, balanced on the roof ridge, teeth bared, fists shaking at his sides.

"You deserved it," Dream repeats, teeth twisted around the phrase. He's crunching rotten bones to get the syrupy marrow. He's gunning for a cheap fight using fulminating silver. He's vying for Tommy to be the weakest thing in the cell because maybe Quackity will go after someone else instead, maybe he can find a way out, maybe--

Maybe he's not in a cell, he re-evaluates as Tommy's disc eyes flash in the moonlight and he stares him down confused as to who's the fox, and who's the rabbit, and who's the warden meant to spectate the losing fight. Maybe he's not in the cell, he self-assures, but the alternative is utterly unthinkable.

That tinder box sky, four walls and a frozen ground. The silver disc warden watching from above. It couldn't be anything else.

There is a beat of silence, thin and reedy it buzzes in the air. A whine that stretches in his ear canal when Tommy doesn't budge. He gets nothing out of the splattered guts of a faded memory he's spat on the roof except a closed off stare, a sigh, and bait that never snags a bite.

"Christ, you know how much time I wasted thinking about this?" Tommy starts, clenched fists shoved into baggy bomber jacket pockets.

Dream says nothing and ducks his head. His eyes settle for the roof shakes under Tommy's boots. He refuses to budge even when his frame shakes and he feels the ghosts of fingers squeezing the back of his neck. He ignores the pressure and he finds his gaze cutting its way back up to Tommy's only to run away again.

Uncertainty, a poison that makes him stand in place even when he could turn away.

"Look, maybe it means nothing to you, but I might as well get it out there while we're standing around like a coupla dumbasses. But every day since your ass landed in that prison, I would- I would sit and stew on it. I'd stew, I'd ask myself, 'oh, I wonder what Dream's doing? I wonder what I'd do if I saw him?’ I wonder and I wonder. And it's not like-- I mean no one teaches you to think any different. Every conversation just goes back to Dream, the big bitch himself. So thinking about him? Thinking about you all the f*ckin' time-- well, it has to be pretty alright then, yeah?" Tommy sniffs and swipes the back of a wrist across his nose, head tilted down as he sighs. "But it's not, it's not it. It’s really not worth it, and I'm tired of letting you live rent free in my f*ckin' head. I’m done, Dream. I am finished wasting my time on you. That’s what I came up here to f*ckin’ say."

Dream doesn't flinch at the words. He doesn't move, he hardly breathes. The air is stale and it is less than nothing. His limbs are foreign entities as he traces the back of his knuckles across his own throat. There is a raised scar pattern to follow in a slice straight across his neck, two, three, he's not sure how many, they’re too bunched together. Haunted by blackstone and gold.

He presses a curled knuckle harder into it and ducks his head.

"I guess you got what you wanted then…" The line echoes in the warbles and crunches of ender. A line he knows well.

Is it everything you wanted, little god?

Tommy only sighs and shakes his head. It's checkmate to a game Dream doesn't understand that he's losing until Tommy says;

"Look at yourself, Dream."

He struggles to process the order. There is no reflective surface in which to peer in to apart from Tommy's face.

Look at yourself--

There is no fist with brutal fingers to force his head over a bucket of boiling saltwater. There is no unsteady reflection. There is no one to hold him under until his lungs fill with flames. Until every wound screams and every part of him roils and smokes. There is no obsidian floor to thrash against.

Look at yourself.

(Lesson 218: Wear a mask, cover your eyes, for your reflection should be unrecognizable.)

He looks at Tommy and he sees shallow, vibrating anger. He sees flies beating their wings against fly paper, buzzing fruitlessly until they die. He sees the bob of a throat, a single swallow and the mountainous shape of knuckles folded into fists. He sees something disappointed, disgusted, scared, biting like the draught from fermented potatoes poured into the still. Vaporized and condensed to remove every impurity, only to be watered down again.

He confuses his own silhouette with the one backlit by the moon. He has to rehearse how to hate it. He has to be angry, he has to be bitter, and guarded, and violent-- he wants to be all those things. And yet he is stuck only with dreams where he fights his human self and when he breaks that mask he has no reflection.

He sees the way he's wasted his time doing whatever bullsh*t therapy those stupid books said. Self-healing to be found in writing out the things he can't hope to understand and he'd rather choke than let someone else lay it all out for him. And does it work? Well, not quite, all he can wrap his mind around is Quackity, Quackity, Quackity-- plotting graphic revenge fantasies instead of actually useful information, instead of reality grounded plans.

He sees the way Tommy looks him up and down, shakes his head and then shuffles down the opposite side of the roof. Wooden scrapes and clanks, the crunch of boots meeting snow. Dream's eyes drift towards the only other cabin with its windows still lit. Wilbur waits outside, donned in his crown of smoke, his broken glasses dipped in red.

He even sees the mock salute.

'Look at yourself,' Wilbur Soot declares silently from three hundred feet out. 'You never learned how to stop.'

Teeth bared, he tilts his chin up and looks down his nose. Their eyes meet. Hazy reds and mirrors, and unself portraits, both stood atop their empires, craters in all directions.

So, the fourth time he talks to Tommy, he says nothing at all.

The fifth time, Tommy's standing twenty feet behind Wilbur's shoulder and it’s Wilbur he wants to talk to. No one else.

The sixth time, Wilbur passes him a cigarette and a sermon; Tommy long gone.

There is no seventh and Techno intervenes. Techno tries to talk to him instead. Techno listens to him mumble nonsense and scrub the heels of his palms against both temples and never manage the right excuse before he’s running away. Sorry it's too bright, sorry it's too loud- sorry-- a word so f*cking foul. And so, one last time, he asks Techno, "do you see them?" He asks him after he tries to remove himself from the equation all over again and he only ever manages to wake up back first in the snow, two hundred meters from the cabin.

"You get used to it,” Techno said, hoofed hand offered, pulled right back on those feet that shake, trees rotten at the root. And they never talk about it.

There is no eighth, no ninth, no eighteenth, he never talks to Tommy because such a task will only ever remain less than empty.

There's just him and better conversation now, cigarette smoke and two potions of harming passed between skeleton knuckles, potent drugs to the half-dead. Pretty pinks of distilled happiness to chase it down. One lesson on his tongue when he smashes the bottles and the jumping glass makes him bleed purple-reds--

[00:00:00.00000:00:00.0] Gods can die.

He's back to sitting in the snow, netherite cuffs clanking together where he's got his hands wrapped up over the top of his skull. Elbows brought together, wrists overlapping, fingers digging in. He eases back into the present shape of reality like a stone tossed in a lake.

Fingers untangled from the mane of his hair, he sits up straighter and peers to his left. Ears forward, eyes sharp, he expects to see someone, but there are only old sled tracks through the snow now. There's supposed to be… someone.

There is supposed to be--

The dull grey of a hammer in the snow catches his eye. Spruce planks in all manner of splinters litter the ground around it. He follows the trail up and there gapes a yawning hole in the build's side.

Right, on to replacing the boards. He curls and uncurls his fingers. Palms flexed, then shook out, then shoved in the snow until he's up and wobbling on his feet.

He can only hope he brought enough planks.

And he wouldn't admit it, but his ability to keep track of events in a linear fashion is wobbly at best. It's rickety scaffolding with less sense than an infinite staircase. Somewhere, some time in the very recent past he managed to get spruce planks into a bag of holding that's more relic than utilitarian. Remembering how many? Remembering if he actually followed through with the task? Now that's tricky.

Plank in hand, wood warm from floating in an astral pocket, he crunches through the snow to retrieve the hammer. Pulling off an awkward dance of setting the plank across the barn's wounded flank and then swapping the hammer to his dominant hand, he pins the wood board in place with his shoulder-- arms already shaking, wrists numb.

He twists to grab three wrought iron nails from the bag and he shoves two between his teeth. He chomps down and shudders at the click-clack that ricochets through his skull. At least they didn't taste as bad as the pliers.

One nail pinched between scarred fingers, he watches it wobble back and forth. Ears pinned, lip curling, he tries to hold it steadier, but it only shakes more.

f*ck it, he growls, pushes his shoulder against the spruce plank harder and pulls the hammer back. He loses the nail immediately on the swing down. Glancing off the edge, it's sent spinning into the snow, joining lost causes and wasted effort. Little things that do nothing more than grow orange spots in the snow as they corrode. Things that no one ever bothers to dig up even when they stop to stare at where the snow bleeds.

Another nail then. He's shaking even worse, lifting the hammer makes his wrist wobble, gelatin bones shaking his whole arm.

Nail two disappears.

Another nail plucked from its ivory trap then. This time he bares his teeth. Saliva thick on his tongue from the taste of metal, he grips the hammer up by the head, pad of his thumb digging into the claws. He swings the hammer like he's throwing a punch.

It never connects with anything before he's backpedaling, a dark shape moving within the barn. Not just a passing shadow no, a hand. He'd followed the blur of movement and there was a hand that reached from the dark, painted nails and gold rings and--

A throaty crunch emits from the hole in the barn. Wet meat butcher thing, he doesn't just taste metal now, he smells it too.

He steps back, the sounds continue. The sort of raucous only associated with starving dogs and carcasses.

He glances over his shoulder, Techno's cabin shakes in his vision.

He should tell the guards. He should...

His eyes walk to the ground, smoke breath pressed out and then restoked. It doesn't take him much consideration before he's following the imaginary red string through the gaping wound in the barn instead.

There is nothing for him in the uncharted dangers of warmth and full hearths, red circle targets painted on his back and the constant reminders of what's to come. There's only alkali burns to be found in all those stories that change when he's around, when Techno slips too easily into calling him friend.

"...Hello?" he calls, stale air twists it into a cough.

Not even the draft whipping through the barn answers. There's only that rip, tear, rubber echo; louder than ever.

There is no whisper from slumbering livestock as the usual ambiance. It's a yawning abyss of nothing in comparison. Not even the walls or her rafters sing their barely perceptible tunes, their languishing tales of wood placed and left to rot.

The barn has never felt so empty. By all logic, there should be nothing here, and yet the crunching sounds continue.

Something dark stains the pale straw. A few splashes at first and then a sticky river of dark ink he can no longer dodge. The further he goes, the hotter it gets, the sticky copper tang crawls all over everything.

He traces the blood trail, stomach dropping all the way to bedrock as his eyes catch the culprit.

Even in the lowlight he knows that stained dress shirt, those suspenders, the gold pocket watch chain. Shiny, shiny black shoes brightened by blood, always.

Frozen, he fights with his own limbs to reach for a weapon.

Quackity turns, still crouched over the split open ribs of a sheep, white bone steeples folded in prayer to the ceiling. A half-grin reveals teeth that are too sharp. His limbs are too thin, the angles all off, everything about the silhouette horribly skewed as Quackity's fingers grip a beating heart and his lips hover over it.

The mirage is that of a man stuck in a bastardized sort of infatuation, the hungry sort of one that only ever ends with a mouthful of viscera and blood. Unquenchable envy, a drug as cruel and unreachable as it comes.

Quackity smiles wider. Red slips out between his teeth.

No amount of mental rehearsal could prepare him for how much he shuts down at the sight. Net zero, no, net negative, he is cowering on hot obsidian all over again, eyes wide and glassy from the lava.

Standing to his full height, Quackity hooks one hand under a suspender strap, the other holds tight to that half eaten viscera. Blood slips past his fingers with each beat. The heart's altogether too big for a sheep.

"Damn," Quackity drawls with a chuckle, "you are looking rough as sh*t. You sure you're doing alright? I mean you look like you've seen a ghost-"

There's another crude laugh followed by wet popping bubbles, blood that coats a throat and tongue. One step forward, Quackity morphs into shifting images run down a line of figures. Too many, too fast. A ram, a man with a sword through his stomach, trident bearers and crowned kings, tall shapeless judgement, and Quackity, always Quackity. He steps forward again, all the wrong cadence, bent slightly at the waist, head canted.

Bloody lips and scar on his face twist in a mockery of concern.

Dream backs up slowly, each step an equal exchange with the approaching threat. There is no turning away, not when he's pinned by familiar eyes.

His side collides with the corner of a stable. He rolls off it, gripping his ribs in one hand as the other goes for the skinning knife in his bag. He raises it the moment the bone handle burns in his palm. Ozone aftertaste on his tongue, he grips it tighter until his hand trembles and he parts his teeth-- flashing white a warning.

And stabbing Quackity through the heart is the easy part.

It's a squelch, crunch, twist sort of ordeal. He stumbles out of range the moment it's in. Back hunched, arms crossed, fingers and claws ripping at opposite shoulders. Dream holds himself together, pathetic whining and flared nostrils all that's left as he defies the nausea roiling up at the sight of authority so gravely injured.

Only it doesn't pan out the way he'd envisioned. Quackity doesn't fall to his knees, he doesn't collapse on his side. He doesn't die the way he lived, flying too close to the sun with melting wax wings and scars from great beasts.

(Lesson 317: You can't kill a God like Quackity.)

No, the god in the Quackity suit frowns down at the knife buried in its chest. It reaches up, yanks the blade straight out, and then drops it to the straw floor without a flinch. The wound weeps magma, viscous and bright. Hot molasses dribble eating holes in the dress shirt and melting buttons as it drips down.

There is nothing left but teeth and claws, and neither one ever won him good fortune back in his lava cage.

Dream skitters backwards. He swings his head. He sees obsidian shake, lava flicker, he turns and throws his shoulder into the wall. He expects to fall right through and burn, when he doesn't he stares down at his blistered palms. When he looks up, he runs.

He makes it exactly two and a half steps before he's pinned to the stable wall. Side of his face smashed against the wood, one arm forced up behind his shoulder. Every point of contact screeches violent red. He thrashes against it only for it to grip tighter, lift his skull off the wall, and snap it forward. White flash, throaty crunch, he is spinning constellations and hot copper tangs.

"Hey, c'mon-" Quackity's voice swims in his ear, "What, you're not happy with your quaint little farm life? Technoblade and Philza just too good for you, huh? God, you're so ungrateful and here I thought-"

He throws his elbow back into a ribcage, the hold doesn't budge, the words don't either.

"I thought I was doing you a favor."

The red screeches and it's sheer panic that has him kicking at the wall to throw himself back. It's worth the instant ache that rocks up his body like he's been shot through both kneecaps. It's worth it when he gets the god to topple. Before his own back can smack the ground he's rolling off to the side, right out of reach.

He scrapes himself to his feet. He watches that laffy-taffy false Quackity get to its own. Straw brushed off, face twisted into disgust. A hand with many rings smooths out a rumpled dress shirt. Stained fingers reach the last button only for the image to flicker into bars and blocks of cracked color that crash into static.

The god looks up, donned now in greens and neutrals, and Dream locks eyes with himself. All fleshy face, human shape, and wither rot eaten cheeks giving way to the pale ghosts of bone. Stained with blood from scarred chin to scarred brow, teeth just shy of too sharp bared in a red-stained smile.

His stomach turns. It's only months of forcing down nausea that keeps him from bending over and choking up stomach acid right there on the spot.

"You don't get to wear my face," he finally manages, notes stuck on rattles and wheezes.

"Well," the god shrugs, voice smooth as honey, "you see-- I mean technically it's not yours either. So, I'd say it's pretty fair game."

Jaw parting and then crunching closed again, Dream swallows his words without pride. This is what it means to curse himself in a two-way mirror. This is the epitome of cognitive dissonance.

So, what's a god? He asks himself as he looks towards the half-eaten sheep discarded across the dark field of the barn's stomach. It's a lack of providence.

It's a chess game where there is no checkmate and he's burned through all his pawns with ruthless efficiency.

It's staring down the glacial blue abyss of a moulin. Hearing the thundery crash of water as it plunges down into the depths of nowhere, and taking the leap anyway.

He has no better name for the god that stands before him than the ones he gives himself. All simple nouns, simple choices, and it was among the gravest insults for a god to bestow upon Themself a name that a mortal had not once given Them.

Simple rules.

At the very least, he had the warden to thank for his most recent title; Prisoner.

"You're... you're trapped with me, aren't you? You're stuck here until the job's finished." He squares up the root of the problem with a scathing look. Lips pulled back just enough to sneer. They shake, just like everything else on him does.

The god frowns and tilts its head.

His own lips tug down to mirror it.

The world flickers around them, two magnets forced together at the same poles. An unrelenting charge that wants nothing more than to slide past, grip over grip, and shed itself of the tension.

It's broken with a laugh, a breathy chuckle of a thing as the god treks a slow circle around Dream. All silent steps, the crunching straw far too afraid to let itself be heard yet.

"And if the End so much as interfere, so too shall They be made to lie in the belly of the barathrum," the god spreads its arms and spins in place, voice cast as if to an audience. "You know as well as I do, gods don't do punishments. They play games."

The words translate poorly into common, but the old decree still makes his gums sting nonetheless. Echos of that bitter taste from the metaphorical bit caught there between his teeth.

The old slice of a tongue, the sharp tang of metal as he'd crunch, crunch all day long like an unruly horse. Head tossed, tail lashed, forced down onto his knees at the foot of a court that no longer recognized him in his Overworld manifestation. Blood slicked palms and blackpowder burns. Not the first to be dragged there and certainly not the last, but certainly the most stubborn.

"Then tell me how to win."

All he needs is a clue. Just one.

The god circles closer but divulges nothing. Dream swings his head tracking it with pupils that shake.

"You owe me that much-" he presses, unrighteous declaration and for what he isn't even sure of because it tastes just as sulfuric as anything.

"Oh, I don't owe you sh*t," the god snarls, flashing all its teeth. "You're the dumbass that got yourself into this mess. You have to play the game. That's the whole point of these things."

"The point?" Dream bristles, lip curled, acid thick on his tongue. "If there was a point to- to any of this you'd be telling me what I did instead of just saying that I did something to deserve this- to deserve you. You'd be-" he's breathless, too many words, not enough air, "you-- you'd be telling me how to beat this stupid f*cking game."

"You’re not actually gonna stand there and pretend like you don’t already know how to win?”

"I don't know anything!" He spits the half-truth, fingers in a fist, shaking apart for nothing. "I don't know, I don't- I'm not--"

The god's steps continue, clinical, unfeeling. Sound now echoes from each heel to toe crunch through straw. Repeating awful noises that make him jump as he spirals out into the same mantra, the same paltry I don't know's over and over again until he's gripping broken strands of hair and tugging until the roots scream.

Fear is what makes him flinch, but anger is what consumes him. The god pushes him by the shoulders and he stumbles, transformed into a creature skittering down on all fours that snaps his teeth at the shadows that linger. Swiping at the shape of a god that's already out of reach.

Crouched there, elbows tucked into his stomach, every part of him is curled into a protective cocoon, he shakes at the seams. Every part of him is a dynamite stick without a wick, desperate to detonate. He feels eyes crawling on the back of his neck.

Dream tucks his face into the shield of his shoulder, ears pinned back, gaze cast to the side. He sees the god standing there, eyes flashing in the dim light. It opens its mouth and speaks fool's gold, shiny and alluring-- too polished. Toxic.

"Here you are, little god. Wandering from hexagonal room to hexagonal room down in your Library of Babel," the god decrees, voice warped. Choked by static and then ringing right back into clarity again. "You're never going to conjure up a way out if you can't admit you've been too busy throwing every book over the railing just because you didn't like it enough. Just because you think somehow infinity means you can cut the truth in half. You can't twist history just because you don't want to remember it."

"I… I can't remember it right, and you won't tell me-- nobody tells me. That's-" he stumbles over his defense, voice too quiet. "That's the problem."

He blinks and the god is gone.

Swinging his head to face forward, crossed arms wrapped around himself harder, he finds the god standing ten paces directly in front of him now. A buzzing drone permeates the air, echoing the way the god's shape is not still. It crescendos and crashes, an anxiety inducing thing that swims in his ears. It's so very similar to a siren, but before it can swell into a screaming pitch it cuts off again. And again. And again.

He stares at the god and it stares back. It is the first to move, looking him up and down. "No one's going to see it that way. Your word against a thousand? You lose. You rope everybody else into this? Fine, it's at least a way forward, but pointing fingers at easy causes does not a fair game make. It’s up to you if this drags out longer."

Dream bristles, palms shaking, claws clicking where his fists fold. No amount of fatigue is enough to curb the frustration that throws him head first into baring his teeth in turn. He's graduated from screaming at walls to snarling at broken puppets of himself.

His silhouette simply pastes on a crooked smile, hands shoved in jacket pockets.

"It's just a game. Lighten up a little." the god rolls its eyes, grin following. "All we have to do is play."

It flickers into the shape of Wilbur, of Quackity, of the warden, and suddenly sinking his teeth into it is a lightbox fixation. It's cherry sweet secondhand smoke he can't stop choking down and he stoops to pick up the dropped skinning knife in the straw. He grips it close with the full intent to flay the face of a false god just to see what lies beneath it. He just needs an answer, not a reflection.

He expects the god to fight back.

He expects to be swatted away, he expects the god to trick him and metamorphosize back into the grinning sneer of Quackity. Only to laugh and laugh as he breaks himself on the nightmare's bones. And yet just as he grips the bottom of the god's chin, just as he forces its head to tilt back and its neck to be exposed; it does nothing more than stand there.

The chattering siren song continues, crying louder this time. Blaring a warning on repeat, the trumpeting sounds off closer and closer together as he raises the knife. It glints in the light and he twists it to see the shape of his own reflection.

The god doesn't budge. It is the epitome of smug, hands still in pockets. Smile twitching on its lips, Dream puts the hook of the skinning knife where ear meets chin.

The broken sirens scream, rumbling in his chest, screeching in his ears. It's gut punch after gut punch and he grits his teeth against it, ears flattened to try and chase out the noise. He presses until the hooked edge of the knife slides beneath the god's skin. The world tumbles into silence.

It is his own heart that betrays him with violent thuds now. His own hands that shake in his task. His own legs that grow weak and rotten at the copper scent of fresh blood to wash everything out.

He digs in until lava pours out, until red pours out, until purple pours out, until he sees the glint of ivory and quicksilver. The god twitches in his grasp and he digs his claws in harder, he drags the knife faster--

Skin curls back. Thin paper held above a flame flaking off wherever the knife goes, wherever his claws sink in. They cannot stand to exist in the same plane. Physics won't allow for it when they're both down in the same pit.

He peers into his own eyes through the reflection of another god and he sees only red.

He peels its face from its unnatural form, gripped up under the edges, all cruel fingers, knife held between his teeth. It comes away with awful sounds and the god reaches up only to wrap its fingers around the netherite cuffs encasing his wrists. Blunt human nails bounce off the metal, a jaunty little tune playing out.

There's a hum under its breath that takes up residence in Dream's ears. The slide of the knife had almost zero effect other than the occasional hitched breath and now the god is left grinning without a face. The detritus of it sloughed off into the grooves under chipped and blackened nails.

Dream lets the god go, stepping back, knife still clenched between his teeth. The metal tastes acrid, poisoned with the oil slick blood of the god it had carved into.

He shakes out his hands and smears them on the front of his clothes, those dirtied things Techno and Phil are always trying to wash but he's too used to residing in the same jumpsuit to understand why, let alone indulge them. Sense of smell long burnt away until everything was mildew and ash, and it's an embarrassingly daunting task to try and stay clean.

In every way, that is. Potions, cigarettes, roofs, lava pools, cracks in little frozen lakes. Each has one thing in common; him. And so he makes an attempt, a thing that is only enough to win trust and then prey upon it. A thing that pushes him further away from scrutiny and further still from Technoblade and Philza.

It's important he stays away. It's important he--

He is dirt and grime. He is the muck that still grows thick at the bottom of the water basin in an empty cell. He is the blood he smears and the knife he chews.

The god stares back at him with a frightening face of nothing recognizable, gleaming bright crimson all apart from its teeth, its eyes.

It cracks open its jaw on a loose hinge. Viscous orange seeps out and Dream backpedals as it splashes the straw. It sizzles, it bubbles, it spits sparks that arc through the air. The heat bends the world into shimmering waves and the god doubles over, gasping and choking. It collapses then, folded in on itself, down on hands and knees spitting up puddles of lava.

Fingers scrabbling where a face once was, it heaves a scream cobbled from a collapsing star. There is no black void to swallow the sound here. There is nothing to disguise the crack of bones loud as the falling tree whose canopy snags on all the others before a boom shocks the earth. There is nothing to eat up the tear of skin that roars like an earthquake splitting a ravine.

There is nothing left but a god crawling out from its cocoon.

He keeps stumbling back only to slip in the blood soaking the ground. Landing flat on his tail the pain doesn't register, there is no care or concern for bones made too fragile by a starving form. There is nothing more preoccupying than getting the f*ck away.

But the barn's too small, and the beast's too big. He's shouting as he kicks at the ground and his palms keep giving way to elbows, giving way to molten gold and then lava that clings to his fingertips and burns them right to the bone.

Up on his feet, he is nothing more than a shivering rat pressing itself into the furthest corner of the barn. Vermicide thick in the air as the god huffs sweltering breaths from its lungs and swings its great head.

Ram's horns and lion's teeth, narrow dog-like skull with a patchwork of scarred skin and fur and scales. Green like the field, gold like the sun, rotten like the borer beetle's treasured bark. Nightmare incarnate, the leviathan is a creature with teeth longer than his forearm and twice as shiny. Aqua regia pours out between each blade, frothed up from a belly full of swallowed suns.

There is nothing he can do as it plucks him from the corner and slams him against the ground. He is reduced to nothing but a little thing to play with until he breaks.

Free of claws' cold grasp, he scrapes his limbs into a crawl and he throws himself at the light blinking between the gap in the barn doors.

The world cuts to black. He blinks back to ringing ears and the churning sight of straw in his face. He squirms and he scrabbles, and he gets nowhere, nothing but armfulls of hay kicked up and gouges carved deeper into his back.

Little mouse pinned under the paw of the cat, he cranes his head and snarls. It's interrupted by kicked dog whines each time his lungs run dry and he heaves a shallow breath just to start all over again. Just to end the same. Under the knife. Under the boot. Under a world eater's claws. He has nothing else left but to bare his teeth at his own reflection and dare it to devour him.

"You're too co*cky," it leans down, teeth close, grin wide, eyes rings of green and gold and dead stars, the debris of planetary collisions. "You forget, down here is where you belong--"

It lets him go and Dream seizes the opportunity to flee. Immediately, he is flattened back against the ground by a massive paw, long digits somewhere halfway between man and creature.

"You forget that you're always chasing what you can't have, and hiding from what you do."

More pressure bears down on his spine, the words spin in and out around the screeching in his ears. The snapping flashes of blinding white, screaming.

"You're lost. You've lost, and putting up a fight's only entertaining for so long because like you? I'm not above playing with my food and that's--" The god laughs, all growls and metal slicing metal. "f*ck, it really is the saddest part because you're not even tasty."

Arm trapped at the wrong angle he grits his teeth around a shout when bone crunches in his ears. It is a weight he can not scratch himself out from. Two great claws hooked into either shoulder he only ends up gouging them deeper as he twists and turns, pitiful sounds punched out. It only makes it worse.

"You want all of this to be just an easy little game. You want it to be just another thing for you to recognize as rigged so you can throw the board and scatter the pieces. Seize that fairytale bullsh*t in the entropy. You want to win, little god--" the beast sneers and he tries to curl away from the sound, "--is that it?"

He shakes his head, face mashed into the ground, erratic breaths heaved into straw and blood and obsidian. And he is exhausted. He scrabbles at the ground. Feeble twitches and attempts to push himself up by the elbows only get him nowhere. He knows how this ends and yet he keeps getting stuck on the idea that the god isn't there. That he isn't pinned down. That the weight is not Sisphyus' boulder and he has not finally broken under the endless task. That maybe all he has to do to escape is just--

"Is that it?" The god snarls, hot breath racing across the back of his head and neck.

Ozone and toxic fumes swim heavy on his tongue as his ribs crack under the crushing gravity of the blackhole's grasp he's trapped himself in. His silence is the event horizon, and he holds his tongue tight between his teeth and tucks his chin towards his chest to stem the words of the singularity. Free hand thrown out, he clutches at straws, literally.

"Come on, look at you! You carved our face,” the god snarls, teeth snapping, aqua regia drool splashes into the straw by his head. "I'm curious if you even found your clue."

The acid burns. He sucks in a breath and he's choking on chlorine. Coughing against the corrosive sting, his eyes water until everything blurs.

"I'm curious…" the god trails off with a thunderous rumble.

Suddenly, the weight is lifted, the loss of gravity so fantastic that for a second he doesn't move. Playing dead to be absolutely safe, he holds his breath and waits. After a beat, he strains his neck to peer back and he pushes himself forward on aching limbs, only to collapse, and then drag himself forward all over again. This time, when he stands, his injured arm is pinned to his stomach. He is the pathetic shape of the wounded bird that drags itself to the dark safety of the predator's shadow. Just as naive. Just as young, just as stupid.

He tries the doors. The latch does not budge.

He skitters about the outskirts, straw rustling, the hollow reeds snapping. Too loud, too loud, he hisses lowly and chases a pipe dream to the hole he'd carved in the wall. A convenient back up plan, always an escape.

Fingers splayed, reaching in the dark, tracing the crumble of rotting wood, he keeps his eyes trained on the epicenter.

Eyes loom in the dark. Two mirrors floating too far off the ground. Sometimes green, sometimes red as he tilts his gaze and shifts his head.

He looks away in slow motion. The world stays red. The hole in the barn's flanks is filled in by red vines, red wriggling flesh. Healed over like a scab, he presses his palm into its writhing warmth. He lifts his hand away and lava sloughs off alongside his skin.

It's brief glow dirties the air. The pitted surface of a netherite cuff flashes. He turns his wrist to and fro, and the corrosion gleams. Scrubbing fingers into it makes the dark purple flake away until he's nose pressed close, peering into the wrong metal peeking out from underneath.

Gold.

Everywhere the aqua regia from the god's jaws had splashed is pitted gold.

Frantically he hooks his claws under the edge. He tugs and rips at it, scratches and claws and it bends-- it actually bends and he gets dizzy from the rush that hits his head. It's not enough.

It still clings to his wrist even as he wraps his teeth around the soft metal and tries to crack it where it's weakest. It doesn't budge the way he wants it to.

The knife, the knife, he mutters frantically loping back to where it rests in the straw.

Fingers fumbling, hands shaking, he snatches it up, drops it, and then snatches it again. Crouched in the dark, looming mirror eyes still hung up above, he is back in that orange jumpsuit. He is back to jamming sharp objects up under the cuffs and trying to gouge them off in his little coffin box.

Only this time the cuff pops off. Pure gold split right in half under the force.

He barks out a laugh and falls forward. Hand wrapped around the knots of scar tissue and ancient blisters, his mind is a losing race between everything and nothing. He mourned this. To see it resurrected is to understand that pure bliss is as simple as wrapping his thumb and his fingers around his entire wrist until his claws click.

He still needs to pry the other one off.

When he digs the knife up under it, it doesn't bend. It is netherite through and through. The powerful enchantments glowing softly.

The drone of sirens starts up again. The god's breath rumbles in the dark. He doesn't have much time left. He doesn't have enough time left.

He yanks at the knife harder, the slippery sound of it catching only flesh flits in his ear and echos down his arm. Blood is warm, but it is not lava. It is not acid. It is not corrosive and no amount of it eats the netherite into gold.

The fantastical does not occur and he is one cuff down and sh*t out of luck.

He throws the skinning knife at the shape of the dark with a shout.

The sirens bark back even louder and the mirror eyes narrow, satisfied by their entertainment.

Nothing changes.

He clutches at his wrist and snarls open mouthed. Twisted, chipped teeth and scarred gums, all spit and no words and he is just as slavering as the beast that had pinned him to the straw floor.

Nothing changes.

He grabs the broken cuff off the floor, hand wobbling, muscles jumping with the tension. He chucks it as hard as he can, the gold flashes and then sings when it smacks an obsidian floor. It bounces, hits a wall of the same volcanic glass, and then it skitters back across the cell.

No more straw, no more barn, no more beastly gods and sheep carcasses that attract flies who only ever stutter through the air and nothing ever rots; not properly.

A netherite boot stops the golden cuff from sliding all the way into the lava.

Nothing changes.

Back hunched, curled in he chases his gaze up the warden's armor and he meets those familiar eyes. He lowers his own immediately. Back straightening as if on a string tugged through the top of his head, his tail stays curled low, his tongue stays caught between his teeth.

Obsidian stained with purple tears is the appropriate sight for obedience. The orange glow of the lava dances its usual patterns and he forces his breaths to be steady despite the rapid staccato of his heart.

Chin low, hands curled and uncurled at his side. His fingers snag and pick at the loose threads of his jumpsuit. He keeps his back straight and his eyes shifting anywhere between the obsidian and lava horizon, but never higher than the warden's shoulders. Not long enough to get caught looking the warden in the eye at least.

"I thought you were gone," the warden declares, punctuated by a hand on his sword's hilt.

He steps back, eyes cut to the left. Lips curled. The obsidian is shiny, slick with moisture it shouldn't have. He looks wrong and the cracked obsidian drips honey red. His house is haunted. His house is angry. He is the unwelcome ghost still clinging to its four walls, languishing in the acid that roils in its lava stomach even as it rejects him.

"You were gone. You left." Words harsher now, smoke billows out the slits in the warden's respirator. "You're not supposed to be in here."

His eyes go to the broken cuff still pinned under the warden's boot. Teeth just barely parted, he tries to whisper and then shuts his mouth with a click. It's a game, and so he opens his jaws and forces out a different dialogue.

"It's gold. Why didn't you… why didn't you tell me they were gold?"

The warden tilts his head, looks down at the manacle and then picks it up. Gloved fingers smoothed over the torn edges, the warden is gentle, eyes dark and shoulders curled.

"I didn't make them," is all the warden admits.

"No-" Dream shakes his head. "No, you made them. You made everything in this maze, that's the point-- that's why you're here. That's why I'm here." He thumps a hand against his own chest, voice cracking from the dry heat. "You made them wrong. And- and that's why they broke, that's why, it's why they broke. It's your fault, that's why you're here to fix it."

The warden stands in front of him now, Dream's eyes wobble between the bottom of a respirator and the top of a netherite chest plate. He sees himself warped and curved in both reflections, yet he's too afraid to let his gaze wander higher lest his pupils slide across the ones that he knows swim somewhere in the warden's mirror eyes.

"I didn't make them," the warden reiterates, stepping even closer. "Of all people, you should know that, Dream."

There is a metaphor somewhere in there. An irony that's lost on him as he shuffles back from the warden, protests swallowed up by grey static in his chest.

Daedaleus. He remembers, eyes catching on the warden's circlet, the gold spikes that form the hints of a crown. The red jewel in the center is dull now, the same goes for the pink of hypertrophic scars sliced through the warden's greens.

"You're wrong..." he trails off, raising his hands, crooked fingers cupping the air and catching nothing.

"What's wrong about it?" The warden asks, placing the golden manacle into Dream's open palms. "You commissioned this prison, so I built it. You commissioned these cuffs, Bad forged them. This was your plan all along. This is all you."

Molars ground into dust, Dream dips his head to stare at the flash of gold resting in his own hands. Numb fingers move to trace the ragged edges of split metal. He scratches at the layer of crusted blood and it flakes away to reveal runes.

Etched into the inside is the crude outline of a lion eating a sun, VITRIOL stamped in common runes in a crown over the beast's head.

"It wasn't supposed to go like this, not-- not at the beginning at least. I had a plan and it worked and it-" his lip curls, fire burns behind his teeth, it wraps around his tongue, the crunch twist of pliers slotting into place around the next tooth. It'll be the decomposed truth by halves that gets ripped out. It's--

"It's not my fault it got f*cked up," Dream growls in the warden's face.

"Then this isn't for you." The warden takes the cuff back. Dream chases the lost weight only for an iron grip to ensnare his wrist. "It can't be for you--"

The warden shoves him away, disgust, malice, something he can't recognize twisted on those words now, smoke thicker. Dream bares his teeth back, the warden does not flinch.

"You're not him. We put those cuffs on one god, and out came something else. That's how broken mirrors work, right? You-" the warden gives an airy laugh, eyes shut for half a second. "You're not Dream."

It shouldn't, but it pisses him off. That pitying sort of air the warden's got draped on his shoulders. That stark refusal to grant him the one thing he has left.

"Then why am I still here?!" He spits it at the warden's retreating heels.

He gets nothing in exchange. He gets nothing for his efforts. Nothing sits across from him in the invisible confessional booth.

What's the difference? Tell me the difference! You took that from me- He's shouting, unfathomable confessions slashing the air. Not words, but sounds, ten thousand things broadcasted and not a signal received. The warden's shadow is no longer cast across the cell. He chases its empty comfort only to slam into the netherite barrier. Only to throw his arms through the bars and swipe claws and teeth at the air. The elder guardian's scream. He screams louder-- Tell me who I am!

His rage churns into panic as the warden steps on the stone bridge. Quackity's teeth flash all the way from the other side.

"Sam--" the taste is all wrong but he heaves the name out anyway, "Sam! S-"

His voice splinters and it gets him nowhere. Embers pop and spark off the lava chasm, chasing lights across his vision as Quackity takes up Warden's Will and moves to his place on center stage.

Quackity crosses with that ever present grimace and Dream flashes his teeth in turn.

Head lowered, eyes up, Dream steps back until his spine hits the wall. Quackity steps down onto the obsidian all tilted grin, sword slung over his shoulders. His shadow is cold when it darkens the cell. Dream knows the mismatched pattern of those steps too well, but the tinny click-click of a leg brace is altogether new. No longer a weaker limb to exploit.

He meets Quackity's eyes and he reminds himself that to a god, names don't matter.

"It sounds like somebody remembers a bit more than they let on." Quackity arches a brow, rings clicking where he dances them on the sword's hilt. "I gotta wonder what else you've been lying about."

"You and me both," Dream barks back, digging his own grave. The dirt tastes sublime. And he's starving, he's starving, the cell is starving.

Quackity's smile falls. The sword slides from off his shoulders to hit the ground point first, stabbed hard enough to chip obsidian. Both wrists on the pommel, Quackity leans forward.

"Listen, you've got a lot of f*cking nerve moping about like you've actually hit the real bottom line. Like sh*t, man--" Quackity shakes his head with a laugh. "You know how this one ends, and how the next one ends, and the next one and- well, you get the picture, right? It's boring to expect the same old end. It's boring that you sit there and think the beginning just doesn't count for sh*t. Like it was all roses and sunshine and..."

Quackity trails off looking Dream up and down before he stalks forward, Warden's Will dragged behind him with a screech. Dream slides down the wall, arms raised, wrists crossed. The old rule spinning in his head that only netherite could hope to chip netherite. That there was always a chance.

"And trust me, alright-- when I say you weren't any f*cking happier before all of this? I goddamn mean it," Quackity growls as he lofts the sword.

Warden's Will swings down. Sparks fly. The world rings.

Unkind fingers ghost across his shaking wrist before digging under the edge of the metal still there. Crimson spills into his mind as the last cuff is ripped off with cruel force.

It clangs across the obsidian. It's echoes are the only sound to disturb the yawning silence as Dream opens his eyes.

He rubs at his freed wrists, caressing months of blisters forced into rough calluses. Pain spreads in waves up the length of his forearm, fingers jumping and twitching without prompting. Numb and ice cold, those trapped nerves finally allowed their reprieve can only scream their protests.

His chest heaves. Glass scrapes up the inside of his throat as he barks out a nasty cough. Something burns his tongue and bites at the back of his gums, hot ash and embers, tar and lava churned up from a hollow stomach. Hollow hate, hollow freedom, bitter damn taste. He's free from those cuffs, but he's still starving down, down in his shallow little grave.

Something thrashes under his skin, scraping its way back to the surface with ugly fistfuls. Every heave of his ribs, every bruising beat of his necrotic heart shatters the glass of a thin domed resolve. A porcelain mask, smoke and mirrors and all those things that fairytale monsters tell themselves to justify their execution at the end. Every crunch and creak of bone that snaps in his ears only slices his vision with static. He throws his hands up to catch the red acid that spills from his mouth then.

His knees smack obsidian. He is clawing off his own skin, ripping out his own teeth, he cracks against the ground and something worms its way out through the fissures.

Crouched low, eyes spinning, skull mashed against the obsidian he looks back up towards Quackity only to see the sword swinging down again.

He catches the blade with hands he does not recognize.

Motion picture movie churning on without him, he's ten thousand feet deep, floating in a violent haze. Looming over the entity that's circled six thousand times in the back of his head with the very word hate. Fear eradicated from the margins until the only thing left is crimson golds spilling from between his teeth, and his box is too small, his ceiling too low--

Quackity tries to wrench the blade out of his grip.

Clawed fingers bend the netherite until it breaks, until it's useless, until it's chucked across the cell and the lava swallows it in one fiery gulp. Until it's as easy as snarling in Quackity's face, until the warden's screaming from the other side--

He heard revenge tastes sweet, but when he wraps his teeth around it, it's offal and meat.

It's f*cking tasteless.

Quackity laughs, blood thick on his tongue. Red grin to match red eyes as he gazes up at him sprawled out on the obsidian, one hand pressed over a gaping wound.

Dream looms over the god in the puppet suit, a leviathan cast as tiny pinpricks in those glass eyes.

He sees himself there. His unfamiliar outline poorly tailored. Green like the field, gold like the sun. Lion's teeth and ram's horns, narrow dog-like head. The ripple and shift of new and dying stars, and ten thousand spoken stories cast across an outline that sublimates at the edges. He can't figure out where one ends and the other begins. It's all too blurry in Quackity's eyes.

And cruelty for cruelty's sake is a match made in heaven. He knows cruelty, the god at his feet, hole ripped in a heaving flank, knows cruelty.

He is as Phobeter is to mortals.
And Icelus is to gods.

All forms twisted and mangled by the decay of time, by the decay of their own half-digested stories. Self-perpetuating cycle of creation and decomposition. They are all wallowing in the acid pools of some greater beast's stomach, and then a beast greater than even that one. Tall tales and grander myths, and maybe only one grain of truth among the lot of them. Maybe just one tiny, itty bitty pebble of sand among the billions that hold every answer for every time anyone ever looked up and asked, how can something be that cruel?

In the lava sephlecur of Pandora's shut box are two gods.

In the lava sephlecur of Pandora's shut box are two stories.

In the lava sephlecur of Pandora's shut box are two mirrors.

One is cruel and one can only reflect the other. There is no discernable way to tell the difference.

They are the reflected reminders that mirrors only know how to show us flipped images; things already heard and seen. There comes no moment when scales shall fall from eyes and one mirror will reveal the true nature of the other.

There is no secret, there is no clue. There is only smooth, polished silver. And there will never be a point at which cruelty takes any particular shape aside from the one that persists in every photon that strikes the mirror and bounces back at exactly the same angle.

You are cruel-- one mirror says to the other.
You are cruel-- one mirror says to the other.
You are cruel-- one mirror says.
You are cruel-- it says.
You are--

In the lava sephlecur of Pandora's Box there are two endings.

Dream stands between them both, blood on his teeth, rage on his breath, form twisted into the cracked obsidian and its tears. Spine bent and tangled to the contours of a box that's grown far too small for far too long.

He is the tangible reminder that gods are not designed to perform savory, heroic work. They are not meant to be pretty or decorative heroes to place on too high shelves. They are not golden fleeced with golden blades and golden words.

They are storytellers who devour their own tales in cruel elaborate ouroboroses. They are famished things left floating alone in the void with two choices to make; eat or be eaten. Write or starve.

Or perhaps it's just him. Perhaps he is the thing that stays behind when the lid is lifted and then slammed shut again. Perhaps hope is just another form of cruel starving stubbornness. Perhaps it is bitter and stale and never meant to be anything but that baseless ideal who shakes hands firmly with petty retribution.

He is the tangible reminder that there is no mercy in revenge. That there is no particular direction in which to tread in order to alleviate the sort of hunger that it brings. There is no point in which this is anything but an act of exaggerated cruelty. There is no point in which godhood is any different from coaxing someone into begging for mercy and forgiveness only to snarl back no.

There is no point in which he looked in the mirror and it reflected anything but himself.

You are cruel, the mirror says.

And so he knows his ending.

He stares down at Quackity. He stares down at that god donning a puppet suit and he bares his teeth, jaws parted, one great palm crushing the god into the obsidian until bones snap; cruel.

"Now that's more like it," Decay wheezes back, grinning up at him, sharp and crooked.

He rips the smile right in half and all he tastes is red.

Notes:

... it’s the red, it’s the details. it’s the details: he’s always asking himself how he’ll do it, never when, never how. those don’t matter here. These are questions for after, for the likes of trembling ghosts not starving hands; staving ghosts… trembling hands. there is only the before. there is only the after.
red is red here. grey is grey.
nothing is more important.

Chapter 14: Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem.

Summary:

In the red mirror;
There is a door he can’t walk through, a world he can’t meet.


GARCIN: It's a trap. They're watching you, to see if you'll fall into it.

INEZ: I know. And you're another trap. Do you think they haven't foreknown every word you say? And of course there's a whole nest of pitfalls that we can't see. Everything here's a booby-trap. But what do I care? I'm a pitfall, too. For her, obviously. And perhaps I'll catch her.

GARCIN: You won't catch anything. We're chasing after each other, round and round in a vicious circle, like the horses on a roundabout. That's part of their plan, of course... Drop it, Inez. Open your hands and let go of everything. Or else you'll bring disaster on all three of us.

INEZ: Do I look the sort of person who lets go?

He must stare into that mirror; he must walk through that door. These things he cannot change. But he can decide who goes with him.
He can decide who asks;
Do you like hurting other people?

Notes:

(This was a double update!! The first part of of this is Chapter 13, so be sure to read that first!)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

He is back in the barn.

Half submerged in an avalanche of straw and hay, he claws his way out spitting and sputtering when the dry stalks stab him in the face. Vying to get into his eyes, his nose, his mouth, and the world tastes of the stalest grain as he continues to kick and struggle against the weight.

Phantom claws, phantom gravity, phantom horizon event, they all threaten to reel him back in, but he thrashes too hard against it. He cements himself directly on the other side, directly on the shallow straw shores of safety as he wriggles his way out of the beast's red snare.

Wood boards clatter and clack. His eyes follow the sound back along the path he'd carved out only to see the loft has collapsed, the bales of spoiled hay spilled down with rotten beams snapped right in half. Red fungus eating away at it.

When he finally gets to his feet he stumbles out into a quiet world, dim and grey, dull and stale. There is no sign of gods or skirmishes, no blood or viscera. There are no dead sheep aside from the ones that have long since been buried in the frozen soil out near the commune's fence.

The last living residents of the barn raise their heads and floppy ears as he limps past. He hears the sheep's whispers of fear exchange for the calmer waters of curiosity.

His path is wobbling, taking him from one object to lean against, to another. He can't stop wiping the back of his forearm across his mouth throughout the whole process. He can't stop tasting the awful tangs of rotten meat. Straw and hay, ash and lava and--

The hole he'd originally ripped in the barn's side is no longer there either. Scabbed over completely now, it is healed with only the hints of bloody fingertips etched on the rough wood like someone had been scratching at it. The rot is not gone.

The splinters in his fingers ache.

In his path back to the barn doors he spots the dark shape of the skinning knife and he picks it up. It thrums strangely in his grip, blood rusty from hilt to curved tip. Useless and warped by intense heat.

He turns it in the lowlight and the metal does not flash. There is no reflection. The cuffs around his wrists do reflect readily though, and he traces fingers across them with a furrowed brow. There is no pitting, no flaking paint, just solid metal stronger than anything. He'd be stupid to expect any different and yet there the thought sits.

There it waits and it waits and it waits.

He looks back to where the missing planks are supposed to be. Where Quackity is supposed to be. Where that looming god is supposed to be. There is straw, and hay, and refuse; stale dust and staler nightmares and nothing changes.

He stows the knife and stows the stir of frustration. He stows the idea that he's losing more than just time out here. He stows the notion that he's barely existing and the world is constantly unraveling even as he digs his claws into the edges and drags it back together. Most days, it just doesn't stick.

There's the haunting sense that he's been crushed and clawed at, tossed around like a plaything by something for so long that he can still taste its chlorine and ozone smog at the back of his throat on every breath. He's too afraid to drag the hem of his sweater up and be faced with fresh bruises and cuts dark beneath the phantom of fur and skin. Things that don't match with snapped loft beams and being crushed to death in his sleep. Not quite.

He stows it, that idea, that uncertainty that will only make him doubt everything he sees. He must have fallen asleep beneath the hay loft. He must have fallen asleep. He must have fallen asleep alongside the easy company of sheep. The loft must have collapsed in his sleep. He must have fallen asleep--

(Lesson 267: Sleep is dangerous.)

If he digs back through the rubble he'll find books. He'll find journals. He knows he will. He knows he will find nothing but the evidence that he reads too many stories and his world cuts to black too easily. He knows it does. He knows, he knows, he knows he hears and sees the same selection of imagery. Prisons, gods, empires, kings. Lava, obsidian, red mirrors, and golden rings. Himself. Apart and a part from himself, of himself-- a reflection.

So, it must have been a fever dream.

Life categorized into awake or not, and on every occasion it seems the line is just over that hill of too f*cking blurry. But he knows, he has to know; at the very least the guard, the-- Phil, had pulled him out of a catatonic state enough times to teach him that clocks never worked right in these.

All 0's, spinning clock hands; he checks the comm and it blinks back with a dead screen… dead battery, used up redstone. And maybe he’s approaching the idea that he’s an idiot who should've taken Phil up on the offer of a pocket watch, but he knows he can’t stand the sight of the golden chain.

But that isn’t his problem. That metastasizing grey mass in his chest isn’t his problem. If he's nothing more than a doll with its limbs pushed and pulled, that isn't his problem.

And somehow fixating on the rot that's spreading on the barn isn't his problem, but he makes it his own anyway.

He pushes the latch of the barn door up before shoving at it with his shoulder.

It gives a throaty creek. The sheep bleat quietly in the background. Alarm bells tolling over his shoulder, he lingers between the crux of a triangular shadow and the bright catch of a dim sun. One hand on the door, the other twisting around loose threads.

Eyes cast back to the dark straw field, he sees the sheep eyes flash. Above them, looming in the darkest corner he sees two round lights. Red gradients shifting, two moons hung in the indigo black.

"So... what's in the barn?"

He turns back and Fundy's right there. Paws shoved in the pockets of that familiar black jacket, aggravatingly familiar sight but… not quite. Mismatched patches of painted armor and thick leather don't conform to the proper outline of the fox's shins, arms, or shoulders. Glowing purples peek through the scratches in the matte black. Black gas mask hanging off a belt to match.

Fundy, as usual, sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the sea of snow.

He counts four stripes on Fundy's jacket. Grey, yellow, red, and the palest shade of pink. Red, yellow, blue, and the palest shade of lilac. Grey, yellow, red, and pink--

Red, yellow, blue, and lilac.

Grey, yellow… red… and pink.

The pink scar on Fundy's face swims in and out with shakes of static. Everything is faded, losing shape, losing weight, losing vibrancy. Even the fox's orange fur is inching closer to a dark, sickly yellow with every second his eyes crawl across it in the hopes that the shape of Fundy will disappear altogether.

Nothing changes.

No pocket watches or spinning clocks are required. This one's especially cut and dry.

He steps out, turns, and shuts the barn door. Lowering the latch on the outside with a tenderness the task never calls for and yet he feels as if he'll snap straight in two if the wood makes a sound. It doesn't.

He sighs. "You already know the answer to that question."

"Yeah," Fundy drags out, eyes shifting to the right. "I just wanted to be sure you weren't like..."

Dream tilts his head.

"--I wanted to be sure you weren't possessed."

Crude oil slips between the holes in his bone marrow. "I'm not."

Flat voice. Flat like it is with the warden. Flat like it is with Quackity. Grey by default. Dull by design. Manufactured thing that lacks the quality his tongue wants so desperately to wrap around the syllables and craft with an edge. It often doesn't function by choice. Not when his heart's thundering away in his chest and he's got his hackles raised.

"Well… um--" Fundy trails off, clapping both paws together, pointer fingers steepled. "You know, I guess as long as it stays locked in there, we're all good then, right?"

"You don't know anything about it," Dream counters, feeling his mouth move and yet he's simultaneously a hundred kilometers away. His feet send him forward of their own volition, the snow crunches, and he's brushing past Fundy, trailing along all those invisible strings.

It's him and the snow.

It's him and the snow and the air that stings the cavities of his mouth and nose.

It's him and the snow and the backs of his knuckles dragged against the barn's wooden flank. Jumping across the humidity warped planks as he rounds the corner.

It's him and the crunch of-

"Hey--"

His lips curl, his tongue loosens and the backs of his ears grow hot with the curdle of irritation.

"Hey, look, it's not like--"

It's just him and the snow, it's just him and the snow, it's just him and the--

"Dream. Dream?"

He stares ahead. Destination made, destination had, feet no longer moving; that hole in the barn is gone. All the planks are replaced by ones that bleed red, and lava and--

And all his work is laid to waste.

He stands in front of it, eyes searching for the signs that he had ripped planks from the barn's flank. Searching for the evidence that he'd climbed into the wreckage and emerged with bruises and cuts no more or less triumphant. The burn of a god's eyes on the back of his neck. Third degree lava scars and unblemished netherite cuffs.

Eyes cut to the corners, fingers folded into fists. He stares at the hammer glinting in the snow by his feet and he tries not to think about the desaturated orange among all the greys and reds. The crunch of the snow that's not his own.

The orange crosses his vision anyway. A fox stands in front of him all over again, hung in that rotting portrait, square wooden frame of a spruce barn and its rotting patch of red.

He should get the guards, he thinks as he glances towards Techno's cabin and spots the movement within it.

Stupidly, his feet remain frozen. Stupidly, he waits and listens.

"Look," Fundy raises his paws, "I wouldn't be the first to say, I'm not your biggest fan. But the least you could do is pretend like this isn't somehow my choice. I don't want to be stuck here with you, either."

Fundy's form crackles, and then settles, and then his shoulders curl in. "And I get it, you're-- you're a bit confused, right? You lose track of things, you're- you've got a lot on your plate, but that's life, man. We move on, we all have to move on because when we don't we are worse than dead. And we… we need to have a proper chat-- we really need to talk, Dream."

Dream shakes his head, not a refusal but always that dog sort of thing. One ear towards the sky, then the other, and then over again.

And then the words, those words come that he has been expecting since he saw the fox standing there in the snow.

"You need to leave the arctic," Fundy orders.

The world grows greyer.

"I... I can't," Dream scrapes off his tongue, roots of his teeth screaming as he follows the wrong script.

"I'm not asking."

"Really?" Dream clips sardonically, spitting out the easiest defense that puts fire in his lungs. "I- well, I thought you said we needed to talk. That sort of implies there's going to be a whole discussion and--"

"That's later, right now I need you to goddamn focus," Fundy cuts him off, feet shuffling, muzzle wrinkled. That little fox who wants so desperately to run and hide is still somewhere in there. Dream is absolutely sure of it. And yet, Fundy dares to look him in the eyes. "I heard you screaming in that barn for six minutes straight. The fact it keeps leaving you unscathed is a miracle-"

"The hayloft collapsed."

His eyes slide to Fundy's right.

"That's not what I'm talking about, you know what I'm talking about. Don't do that-- please, don't f*cking do that. Don't tell me what you think I know just to get out of this," Fundy spits, eyes shiny and tail lashing. "I've been telling you to stay away from the commune since we started sharing these and you're just... you're not listening. Because I am telling you as plainly as I can that everything goes from bad to worse, starting right f*cking here. Starting with you."

The words are a localized force to tempered glass, hole punched through it. Crown of shards barely holding together.

"I'm the problem?" Dream snarls. "It's your name I saw carved into the barrel of a rifle. I'm not an idiot, I'm not just-- I didn't just forget how to read or understand basic logic. Those had to be your blueprints. That means it's your brand of crafting. All this bullsh*t with guns is literally your fault! Tommy has a gun because of you, Fundy--"

"It was Bad's blueprints! All the pieces were leftovers we managed to scrounge together since he- he--" Fundy shakes his hands through the air, ears pinned flat. "Listen, not everyone even has one. Tommy and Wil share it as far as I know, so… so it's okay, it's fine, we agreed to only use them on mobs. I did what I had to, to keep people safe. But oh, that's right, you wouldn't know that cause you've got your head buried so far in the sand here!"

Fundy's shoulders heave, the words don't even ring. It's a pointless fight, and yet Dream's itching to see the snow splash red, he's itching to see the pinks that will reflect the ones cast across his own frame. The ones that shimmer in a web across Fundy's face.

And that name, that damn name Fundy says like it's that easy to just conjure up, it stings like a snapped rib. The bold-faced lie from Fundy's mouth hits like a punch to the face and somehow the former is still what pisses him off more.

"And that makes it better, how?"

(The flash of silver, the spin of the cylinder, cold metal pressed against a temple. He walks Quackity backwards, hand wrapped around the warm ghost of his palm still lingering on the revolver's grip. Down, down in the belly of that shiny casino office-)

"You're right, no, you know what, you're right actually," Fundy yields. But an inch is not a mile, and the fox hardly gives any ground. "Let me clarify, it doesn't. It doesn't make it better, but I didn't have a choice. Crossbows and rocket launchers aren't enough when you're stuck out there. It's not safe during the day and you're dead meat when it's night."

There's a dark edge of desperation.

(He pulls the trigger and Quackity doesn't die.
Nothing changed. Nothing changes.)

He curls his grip around the phantom of something that only exists in scorching spears punctured through his chin and out through the back of his head every time he thinks about it too hard. Whenever the wrong word is said. When the wrong tone meets the right stance. Weapons and steel. Iron blood taste stuck under his tongue, triggered by the flash bang of all that violent imagery. He knows what it means to bite a bullet. He knows what it takes to pull a trigger.

"So, you get it then. You understand that I'm not-- that I don't get a choice then."

"No, no, you had choices, you had so many choices, you literally had five thousand other ways things could've gone down! You're just a dick, Dream. That-" Fundy laughs, dragging a palm down the side of his face. "Man, prison didn't change that. Why would it?"

Dream shakes out his wrist, the netherite cuff rattles against the bones, hot and burning. Claws always folded to form basket cages. It's the same old sh*t and he can't deny he'd be glad to rip that laugh right out of Fundy's throat. It's the least Quackity would do, that much his understanding of torture extended to. That much he wholeheartedly agrees with.

[Lesson 999: Never be the weakest thing in the cell. Never hit him. Never laugh. Never plead. Never-]

His eyes trace their way to the hammer still buried in the snow.


'All I know is that it's just you and me and this empty room and one of us has an axe and the other doesn't.'

Quackity's words ring in his ears and Dream mouths them like he's breathing out prayers.

Fundy shifts uncomfortably, stepping back.

Unfocused, tongue heavy, Dream forces his gaze away from the hammer again and again.

There is no use dissecting what he's destined to forget. The sooner he gets ground to churn up and bury the fox beneath it, the sooner this is over with.

"You signed a deal with the devil," grey words, grey mind, he's speaking with tunnel vision. "You didn't just get roped into that. You extended your hand- you took that offer. That's how contracts work, that's the only way they work. So, maybe--" Dream cuts off, burning at the edges, red creeping up his lungs. "Maybe when you were wasting your time begging me not to take some deal-- begging me not to stay here-- you should've been talking to yourself. Because guess what, Fundy? It didn't work, it was never going to work and now we're both Quackity's bitch."

Fundy flinches, bright eyes skittering for the treeline and then back again. He draws in a deep breath, and then pushes out steel plated words. Galvanized things that refuse to rust or tarnish.

"They're still my family, Dream. That was my family. That's what Las Nevadas was, that's what the whole Vegas thing meant to me. And after L'Manberg, after Dry Waters fell through... I wanted that sh*t to work out so, so badly. It's all I wanted actually."

Paw twisting at painted spaulders, Fundy looks towards the south.

Dream follows Fundy's line of sight. There those blue beacons slice their way up over the hills, the trees, the mountains. Burning their way through the air, ionizing it, spilling into the radioactive haze and the blood laced clouds. One beast eats the air, while the other eats the land. Both perform a function. A mindless act. The devoured meal offered to a prisoner who's illusion of choice doesn't even approach when or how much; not even a what.

"Do you…. do you even understand how hard it was for me to realize I had to spy all over again? Like I was still under goddamn Schlatt? Like I- I didn't think it'd go this far. I didn't want this and I have to believe Quackity didn't either."

"You didn't think--" a laugh rattles Dream's ribs; crude and rough. "You really didn't think it'd get this far? Wow, you really are stupid."

Fundy's eyes harden and he crosses his arms. The momentary silence devours the creak of leather.

"At least I'm not you, Dream."

Unwavering resolve is not what he wants. Dream steps back, eyes bouncing along the angles of a complicated polygon. Hammer, fox, beacons, red, taiga, tundra, cabin-- more vertices than he can count formed by all the things he can't stand. He can't stand it. Those bright unbearable realities.

If he wanted to watch something not break; he could just go find Tommy. He could go find the guards. He could find Wilbur and watch the smug asshole laugh at every insult or dodge every thrown fist with a blank face. Un-f*cking-wavering. Snapped back like the palm tree bent low in the super typhoon.

He could stare into the flashing lava teeth reflection of unbreakable netherite cuffs down in the basem*nt. Down, down in the belly of his cell.

He casts one last look at the red rot on the barn before he walks away. Steps uneven, he crosses his arms and digs his claws in between his ribs. Tail dragged behind him in the snow.

"Just-- look... just go home, Fundy," he recites the closing act in lines of smoke.

It's not far out from Techno's cabin when something collides with his shoulder. Something compact that slams right into the muscle and bone and explodes on impact. Stumbling forward, hand clutched over where flesh stings, he crouches low.

Cold. Wet. His fingers burn and he pulls them away to see a few wisps of smoke.

He spins around and sees Fundy scratching at the snow. Packing it tight into his fists and then standing with an arm already wound back, snowball loaded in his palm.

They lock eyes.

Fundy falters, hiding the snowball behind his back. When the stand-off stretches to a full minute, the packed ice is tossed on the ground next to the abandoned hammer.

Dream turns back around, hand still swiping at the stubborn bits of melting snow soaking the fibres of his sweater. His sweater, blood red thing that it is, is not dull like the rest of the world. With that stupid blob of a cat knitted on the front and some bygone conversation lingering in the threads, it's just like the one he's leaving. Except he's gained nothing from Fundy but a pain in the--

Another snowball smacks him in the head.

Defend

He doesn't need the hammer, he thinks as he rounds on Fundy and each step eats up the snow.

Quackity never did.

But he isn't Quackity no matter how much he wants to flay open the gambler's skin. No matter how much he wants to live in it, no matter how much he's haunted by him-- no matter how f*cking confused he is; he knows this routine like the scars on the back of each hand.

Fundy stands his ground precisely until the moment he doesn't. That brain cell finally rattled it's way around the fox's skull enough to send the idiot backpedaling. An impulsive, unwise move that only pins Fundy between the barn and an approaching threat. Fundy does not dive for the easy weapon, he pulls nothing from his inventory; this Dream knows.

This is right.

The hammer is flashing purple.

The wall behind Fundy is obsidian.

He snatches the hammer from the snow, fingers grafted to the frozen haft.

He ignores the ache in his limbs, the shake of his arms, the way the world is listing as his shadow casts itself across Fundy's face. Jagged knife of navy outlined by reds.

"Hey, wait, wait, wait, I--"

Bar of an arm across Fundy's throat, he shoves the fox back. He cuts those words off, slamming him into the wall, pinning him in place, then dragging him up until Fundy is kicking at the air. He pulls the hammer back, he watches the shadows shift across Fundy's face, he watches it flash in Fundy's eyes.

"I just-" Fundy barely chokes out, scrabbling, "I just needed you to--"

Dream swings the hammer down.

Wood crunches, the hammer's claws sink in, Fundy's eyes stay screwed shut.

He leaves it buried in the wood there. A warning.

Fundy whimpers and does not speak. He doesn't even try to open his eyes. Dream lets the fox go and he takes six and a half steps back. Six and a half and he should be standing up against the lava wall of the cell. Nine and he'd be in it.

He takes twelve then. Twelve and he walks right out of it; pads of his feet long since burned through being frozen.

No obsidian. No lava. It's not quite right, but this is still what he memorized well under the warden's tutelage. This is how you shut up a fox who doesn't know what the f*ck he's talking about. This is.

Fundy crumples in the snow, coughing and rubbing at his throat. Curses punch out with each hoarse sound. The whites of Fundy's eyes flash as they roll up to stare at the hammer embedded inches from where his skull had been.

"Dude, what the f*ck--" Fundy coughs again before swiping a paw across his muzzle. "I can see those anger management classes are doing you wonders."

It's a painfully slow endeavour for the fox to get back up.

Don't step out of line again, the warden's reprimand echoes in Dream's head. Ringing true and clear, restless amongst the idle chatter. Restless amongst the way he watches Fundy sway and shake his head. It's like staring at some pale impression of himself.

Fundy an odd look, something that's watered down, more habit than genuine reaction and something bubbles beneath the surface. He can see it.

Silence drags on until; "You've never been in a snowball fight, have you?"

It's a stupid question that garners a more stupid answer, so Dream holds his tongue. Parade stance only just barely shaking, arms tucked behind his back, chin held high; he says nothing. He divulges nothing. He plays the ill-fitting part of warden that the fox in front of him can't quite seem to figure out. He keeps his eyes leveled with Fundy's paws as they brush imaginary snow from sleeves.

Losing sight of them would be a mistake.

He holds his ground, back to the sun, back to the lava, weighed down by the rotten shape of invisible netherite armor; gravity setting in to tug at his bones, slice the paper strings of his muscles. To remind him he is not, and never has been, the shape of the warden cast across obsidian. Apart from, not a part of, and yet so easily confused when he stares too long into funhouse mirrors of obsidian and he sees only warped greens reflected back.

Fundy wraps his fingers around the handle of the hammer, gaze barely cut back over his shoulder as he speaks and it's hard to match the voice to the way his mouth moves. Everything is always one second off, one second too soon, too--

"You know, there's no water in the End--"

Fundy tugs at the hammer and it doesn't budge.

"That's…" Fundy tries again; nothing. "That's the one thing everybody who's never been always knows for sure. Every type of ender hates water; fact of life. Even the ones we go around calling gods, even the biggest scariest dudes that haunt everybody's f*cking nightmares-- they're supposed to run from it. Because that's what gods do best, right? They run. They blame others. They're petty-- that's just how it is."

The hammer comes loose with a crunch and it sends Fundy back a few steps. There is no moment where the fox stows it or holds it tight, the hammer is simply reeled back and chucked as far as it will go. It slams into the snow with a powdery thud.

Fundy stares after it for a heartbeat, fists curling and ears flattening.

Dream's eyes dare to slide back to Fundy's when the fox turns to face him.

"Look, you--" Fundy scrubs at his temples. Scathing and scalding, at odds with the way the warden had been tightly lidded pot prone to boiling over. "What I'm trying to say is, you do so, so much running, Dream, and I'm starting to think you don't even know it. Which is weird considering it's literally your entire life and why wouldn't it be, am I right? Am I right, because you and I both know nothing good ever comes from staying in one place. Nobody, no one just gets to be that lucky--"

Dream takes another step back; thirteen. The cell is too big. The walls are too high. There are no guards, no wardens to cart away annoying visitors who overstay their welcomes.

But he has to try,

He has to try something,
There has to be something else--

He shakes his head. No, I don't know, I'm… I'm not sure, he says, he mouths, he whispers. Easiest answer to an unasked question from every figure who ever walked the length of this cell.

"Of course, no, no, no, of course that doesn't make any sense--" Fundy's voice cracks as he continues, scrubbing palms down his face. "Why would it make sense? Why would you-" it falters into a broken chuckle. "You blew up an entire country and yet somehow, somehow it was still just another version of you saving your own ass because that's how--"

Fundy's mouth moves and the words speak and the world is grey.

It reminds him of… something.

He stares at Fundy and he sees a patriotic coat twenty shades of blue too bright. He sees a fox who ran at every scary sound and sharp thing; torch in hand to chase out the uncertainty of the dark. And still, this is a different creature.

Hardened and not kindly, bitter and not better. Warm eyes chipped at sharp edges.

Dream bites his tongue like it's second nature. He sucks the smoke back into his lungs and it snuffs out the fire in his chest. Ice creeps in.

This is off-script, off-beat, out of line--

This is backwards; Fundy should be leaving. Or better yet, Fundy should be picking up that hammer and swinging it back at him. Fundy should be--

"--that's what this is. This is just f*cking off in the most inconvenient way possible! Because how?" Fundy tosses out the name like it's poison. "Explain to me how we ended up throwing you in prison at exactly the point everybody's lives went from wow, this isn't exactly 'the sh*t' to straight up apocalyptic? Did you, did you like f*cking plan on that? Is that--"

"Fundy-" he tries, palms raised, palms placating. Deflect.

"No, no!" Fundy is a spitting, shaking silhouette now. "Don't do that- don't act like you didn't just do that. Don't act like you didn't just swing a hammer at my head--"

"Fundy-- look, I- I'm sorry, I don't--" Deflect, defuse-- the steps go racing through his head all over again. It all amounts to nothing. He's back to square one, square zero. He is the weakest thing in the cell grabbing at the rungs of a ladder he broke too soon. "I'm sorry, alright? I- I just… I guess I got confused- I got mad- you know, I- I-"

"You got mad?" Incredulous, Fundy advances, thumb jabbed at his own chest. "Dude, I am mad-- no, you know what, I am pissed off actually."

The world crunches in.

Square and tight, obsidian frames the edges of his vision and it's his turn to back away from a threat. It's his turn to be backed into a corner. It's his turn to be the thing that trips over its own heels as it scrambles backwards.

His feet know this one, his hands know this one--

"I am pissed because you're still taking all of your sh*t out on everybody else-- that is a choice, Dream. That is deliberate. And Quackity acts like this is some super amazing solution to all of our problems when you are straight up an asshole now! You are so much worse, man-"

Dream's down in the snow, backed all the way into that little corner where the steps to Techno's cabin meet that plank way to the cabin just opposite it.

Fundy paces back and forth, cutting off every potential exit.

Restless guard, restless warden, it doesn't matter if it doesn't match. It doesn't matter because all he can do is fold his spine into stone and wood, drown in the snow up to his elbows, curl his limbs into that cage around himself-- and wait for the reprimand to be over. It's closing act to opening act, waiting for the parts that are most familiar.

The hardest act to forget. Because he's always just waiting and waiting for Quackity's rant to be over, the warden's rant to be over. He's waiting for the words to end and the blade to bite because that means the day is almost done. That single stretching day that equals ten thousand and one because every second of eternity is exactly the same as three hundred and thirty three months of it. Three hundred and thirty years. Three hundred and thirty seconds.

Infinity indivisible by infinity.

Any anger he has left is wasted on smoke that churns out of his lungs on sharp breaths. It's wasted on claws at the back of his eyes as they shake and he stares and he stares and he--

"I saw you-- I've seen you! I’ve watched you try to leave. I have seen you try to leave.” Fundy points out towards the gate. “You barely make it past the fence and then you turn right back around. The first few times you straight up collapsed. The fifth time you and Wilbur smoked by the frozen lake for six whole hours. It's-- why are you even hanging out with him? What's that gonna do? It's like you want to get used, man!"

Object, tool artifact. Dream knows that. He knows that. That's easy.

Deflect, change of subject, shift-- deflect, deflect, deflect--

Dream latches on to what sticks out.

"You're spying on me?"

Fundy stops pacing, arms crossed, then uncrossed, then crossed again. Mouth opened and then shut again. Those patterns of confliction repeat until Fundy settles for a deadpan stare.

Dream's stomach flips. He curls his fingers harder into his own flesh, catching it with his claws, snagging the sweater; nothing is more trepidatious than waiting to see if he's won the prison's daily game.

Reward?

Nothing. Not really, not exactly. It's nothing but that screeching that slinks cowardly back into his ears, begging him to win through brute force, but only when the warden's back is turned.

Only when he's alone in the cell and finally, finally he can move and think and he scratches at his own reflection staring up at him from the obsidian.

He meets Fundy's eyes and he loses.

"Do you even know what the f*ck is wrong?" Fundy questions, voice dark. "And- and I know, I know we keep going in circles. I know, trust me I know, but it's not-- like something isn't sinking in. It's not, and if you think this is repetitive, you should try being me. Because for a second, for a second when I gain any ground I'm back here-- with you! Explaining it all f*cking over again. It never ends!"

Dream bares his teeth, but his face is tucked behind the barricade of his arm. Fundy just shakes his head, a paw thrown up in the air. The silhouette of the fox sharper than ever.

"Bro, you're--" Fundy cuts off, turning to look out at the tundra, then out towards the gate before his focus returns to center and he gives a tiny false grin. "You're actually pathetic. I think you're even more pathetic now then when we cornered your ass in that vault. How is that possible? How can you act like nothing's going on? How can you act like you're the only person on this server with a goddamn arrow in his side?"

The refutation is right there on his tongue. It burns and it burns, and Dream can't spit it out no matter how much his ribs heave. He can only glare and shake and internalize in that predestined role of pathetic thing who cowers on the filthy floors of filthy cells. Hostage to the cage of words and static that imprison him.

"Out here? Out in the real world? It sucks, it really, really sucks and I've had to deal with this for a lot longer than most. I've already had to deal with one ghost who couldn't remember sh*t. I've already had to deal with so many people who claim that they didn't do sh*t- who didn't want to own up to the sh*t they did. I have been lied to and-- and spit on, and you're not special, Dream. You're not different. You're not better for being so absolutely f*cked in the head," Fundy snaps, full and unstoppable. "Because I have tried so goddamn hard to crawl out from the shadow of my father's bad ending! I tried despite every time it f*cking backfired, despite every time I got hurt-- I try; that's the difference!"

The grey slithers it's hands around Dream's throat and he feels them squeeze until he's choking. Until he's hunching lower and lower and he's twisted back into that wet-eyed cowering thing; repetitive chain of events.

"So, I'm here to do the one thing-- the one thing that maybe stops all of this. I mean, I don't know, but I have to try and I--" Fundy's voice cracks, it bends and breaks and suddenly he's quieter, "I have to stop you from f*cking it all up again. That's why I'm here, that's why I am asking you to shut up and remember this one! Please, for the love of god, just remember it--"

Fundy's words send the fox tumbling righteously back into that role of divine justice all over again. Red halos rung around eyes and ears, white halos cast around orange fur. The only thing missing is a sword.

It's enough though-- it's enough.

"I'm sorry," Dream whispers. It's pure instinct. It's easy to say two words and only understand them as a means to a better end. A last ditch effort. The iron bucket to the sinking ship. The difference between silence or the scream of the knife wiggling under skin. "I… I'm sorry."

Fundy backs off with a mumble, some mirrored apology that's thinner than air. Dream can only watch himself cower in place now. Snared in all that out-of-body grey, sounding off the same mantra; some empty, empty apology drilled into his brain to assuage the ghosts who haunt his cell.

It all dies down.

No blows land, no axe is drawn. No crushing, bruising karmic hand or curled fist ever arrives.

It's almost disappointing. All that build-up and for what? He's just shivering in a corner, earning the frostbite badge of honor. Earning that same lost sense of dignity at the end of every rise and fall of the lava curtain call. Except there are no fresh wounds to splash dirty water onto and watch red-violet blood boil off into smoke.

They both lull into quiet and the arctic wind howls her eerie tune on schedule. Fundy stares, ears low and eyes low. Dream can only stare back, expectations cast somewhere in the long shadows tossed across the tundra.

Fundy opens his mouth and then bites back the words. He cuts his gaze to the side, then back at Techno's house. Some scrutiny, some epiphany has the fox hopping back a few steps through the snow, expression lit up with the proverbial lightbulb flashing overhead. Every crunch makes Dream flinch against his will.

Ideas and sudden bursts of inspiration were never good. Not when Quackity got them.

But it's not the same, it's always different and that's the problem--

Fundy stoops out in the snow further from the steps of the cabin.

There's an escape route now. An easy one at that, one that he could realistically take, he could seize the opportunity and shove Fundy down into the snow while he's distracted. Where to run? That's the real question, that's the kicker. That's the f*cked up sort of game that follows when a puzzle is missing just enough pieces to be absolutely unsolvable.

So, Dream opts for waiting and watching. There is no other choice to be had.

One paw goes for the gas mask on his belt before Fundy shakes his head and forgoes it. Scratching at the tundra, a slush of ice piles up at Fundy's feet, frothy white and then murky pinks and then bright angry reds. Fundy stops digging. He shakes the wet clumps of it off the fur of his paw and it splatters across the snow like any other murder scene. A thousand drops of blood slung in a curved line.

The red spores, the crimson vines, the fungus, the rot, the thing nobody talks about. Dream stares at it. He blinks, furrows his brow, and then lifts his own hand from where it's buried in the snow. Breath held on primal instinct, he looks down at where the red clings to the dips and grooves of his palm.

They both match, him and Fundy, at least on the very surface.

"Look, you see this, right? You see this?"

Fundy moves closer all over again, this time stooped lower, steps quieter, paws held out. The damning evidence on display.

Dream stares at it, breath held as the red spores get caught on the wind and spin through the air. His body aches and it's an awful reminder that has him forcing himself further into the corner. He's left blinking against the red that threatens to swallow up his vision.

"This is real. This hurts people. It kills people, and it's not like that magically stops when we both wake up from this nightmare," Fundy explains, crouched in front of him now. "Maybe you gut this one with a hammer. Maybe you slap on on all those shiny new planks, and hey it's all good then- it's all good, right? No. No, you will fail, Dream. You've failed every single time, that's how it goes, that I can absolutely guarantee. Game over, this stupid red cum wins."

The crude moniker doesn't even illicit a laugh.

Fundy's decree is just a spear of hot metal through the back of Dream's head. He breaks his teeth clamping down on it and gains nothing but shattered ivory in return.

"I… I didn't know at first, I mean…I didn't know," Dream admits, just a senseless whisper that sinks into the wood and the stone he's trying to press himself into-- through, defying the resistance of all the electrons repelling his own. If only he could sink right through, if only he could stop himself from walking his eyes back to Fundy's and spilling out the same late confession; "I didn't know I was dreaming."

Fundy sighs, elbows on his knees, digits curled to press claws into palms. "Yeah… you'd be surprised how many times I've heard you say that."

Instead of demanding exactly how many, instead of indulging that stomach sinking curiosity, Dream scrapes the side of his face against the wall of his cell, his resolute corner. Cheek rasping against the surface, it is burning and harsh, solid and real, lulling him back into that catch of this reality.

It's not the same heaving obsidian that once soothed him. His eyes are left to rove aimless patterns across grey stone instead. Tumbling and following winding paths that do nothing but wobble out into the tundra, into the spinning hellscape.

Nothing changes. Nothing ends. He knows that.

Fundy stays there, watching him, scrutinizing him, expression unreadable or maybe… or maybe starving. It's starving, it's the face of the last survivor on some dying world staring at the only scrap of entertainment for miles around. Or maybe it's that same one that swims in the eyes of the commune's guards who always ask the same stupid questions; how're you holding up? Did you need anything?

There's never a way to be sure. Not unless he starts miraculously prying through thoughts again and that's a fickle stone tossed in a glass house, less than a guarantee. Even that doesn't exist as a reality to grasp onto anymore.

Only one question comes to mind.

One possible question forms in relation to the shape of Fundy's warm eyes and pinched brows, that slowly twitching tail. It's the same thing that sunk its iron claws into the back of his teeth when he had Fundy pinned to that wall by the throat.

"Were we friends?" Dream asks and regrets it instantly.

But words don't get taken back. This is important now; it's about the details. It's about nightmares and questions that aren't supposed to make sense. There is no harbor of rationality here in the fractal corners of their shared dreamland.

Fundy's demeanor shifts then. He sits down in the snow and tilts his head.

"Would you like the, um…" Fundy holds one paw out and then the other to match. "Do you want the short answer or the long answer?"

Dream's eyes move slowly from one empty palm, to the other, and then up towards Fundy's eyes only to repeat the pattern again.

Two choices.

It's a card game but without the red, black, and white plastic poker chips; the clubs, the spades, the diamonds, and the aces. No golden rings or Quackity's brand of gambling; misdirection and pyrite promises.

"Alright, so... here's the deal, Dream. I'm gonna give you a chance to win yourself a day. I'm gonna give you a chance to earn an entire day free of our regularly scheduled program." Quackity sits on the cell floor and he pulls out a deck of cards. "'Cause I'm feeling generous, I'm-- I guess I'm just trying to mix things up a little bit. And hey, what the hell, I'll even have Sam bring you whatever you want as a bonus. All you have to do is win. All or nothing. One round."

Deck by his right knee, three cards in hand, Quackity shows him the faces. Jack of spades, queen of hearts, and the ace of diamonds nestled right between.

"Keep an eye on the ace of diamonds, got it?"

The card faces are hidden again. Quackity shuffles them in his hands, slow and exaggerated, one card over another, under another, over another.

Three cards and he only needs to keep track of one to win. One to win, one to win, one to win--

His eyes stay glued to it. Tracking it with shaking pupils, he bites the inside of his cheek to stop himself from saying exactly where it is the moment Quackity sets the cards face down in a row.

"So, tell me, which one is it?" Quackity asks, wrist propping up his chin.

Dream drags himself over, sharp obsidian grooves gnawing at his palms and feet.

His fingers are on the card, but he pulls away. Something churns in his stomach as he remains trapped in the limbo of not knowing whether he wants to win or lose.

"It's the…" Dream trails off, fractured ribs protesting. "The middle. This one in the middle."

"Turn it over," Quackity orders.

Dream flips the card and his heart skips a beat. He flips the other two just to prove the ace of diamonds was never actually there.

Quackity stands, mechanical and efficient, shiny new leg brace click-click-clicking away. Blank face performer standing in the dark on center stage. A netherite axe finds its way into Quackity's open palm as he steps forward. An ace of hearts disappears under the polished shape of a dress shoe.

"Better luck next time--" and the axe swings.

And he figures out the game. He figures it out and he points to the middle card every single time Quackity comes around to play it anyway.

Fundy offers two choices; two illusions.

Dream's eyes fall, he scratches at the cuffs and the chalky sound rings in his ear. Here, all over again, it doesn't matter what he chooses because Fundy's answer won't change. The only variable is time and how much more he's willing to waste.

"Short," Dream clips out, reeling himself back in. "It's-- I'd rather have the short answer."

"We were…" Fundy curls his fingers into fists in his lap. "Yeah, I think we were friends. Pretty sure you could call it that."

Metal in his mouth, Dream's crunching on the stale tastes of staring into that dull mirror and seeing nothing reflected.

"So you know what I did? You know what I am?"

"Oh, I know, trust me," Fundy breathes it out, grin twitching on his lips.

Like it's all a bit funny because it's sad. Like it's funny because he knows, and he knows that he doesn't. Like it's funny because he's--

The dam in his mind fractures, red molasses seeps through. Dream digs his claws into the snow, he hunches his back and he stares at the white canvas between them, red dripping into it. Ice and rust, one and the same. He sees himself threaten Fundy over and over again, looped in on itself and looped in itself and looped, and looped, and looped and--

'You brought this on yourself--' the warden declares, netherite boots floating in the black.

Eyes shut, pain shoots down Dream's spine, the phantom pickaxe splits his skull apart.

"If you know- if you-- " Dream stumbles over his own tongue. "If you understand, then why the hell aren't you ever afraid? You're... I'm pretty sure you're supposed to be afraid."

"Bro, I'm scared sh*tless."

Dream blinks and leans back, drawing all his limbs back in to perform the familiar self-cage routine. Long-awaited answer meets uncertainty.

"That's the funniest part, right? I am scared." Fundy confesses, easy as breathing, and he doesn't crack, he doesn't cave, he doesn't wither despite the gravity. "I am so f*cking scared that I'm making a mistake. The mistake. Just another screw up from Wilbur's 'lil champion' and then I'm gonna wind up alone and just nobody all over again. Because either I have the free will to change the future and that means I'm not actually some kind of oracle; I'm not some kind of prophet." The fox hangs his head with a laugh. "Or I can see the future and that means I have zero free will; and that-- well, I guess that means we are absolutely f*cked anyways, yeah?"

It doesn't quite hit home at first. Not until Dream traces a line in the snow and connects the words with rusty saccharin. Blood and steam boils off when his temper flares. Envy, greed, jealousy--

"You're… you're scared of a paradox? You're scared of something that hasn't even happened!" Dream stands, bristling and spitting, proverbial arrow lodged in his chest. That obsidian microlith of pride. "I could kill you, do you understand that? I could kill you right now, because it's just a nightmare, right? I could kill you and you'd just-- you'd come back, you'd keep coming back like an absolute--"

"Do it then!" Fundy dares to shout, dares to stand, all sharper angles instantaneously. "f*cking kill me, man! So I can come right the f*ck back here and have this conversation all over again!"

There's hesitation, Dream's fingers loosen from their fists as he's cast in the penumbra of doubt. That at one point he had a friend. That he can be the one who decides how this ends. That it ends; that it has to.

"C'mon, it'll be fun! It'll be great!" Fundy throws his arms out. "It's not like you hesitated the first time I pissed you off, how's this one any different? You said it yourself, it's just a dream--"

It's expectation then. Dream's jaw sets, sharp molars ground.

That makes it easy. Order of operations passed down the command chain and here's how it goes:

/kill Fundy ⇒ wake up.

He already has a plan in mind. Lost in the screech of the red that spurs him on, and it's not backwards enchanted, it's not the rotten sweet promises, it's his own; it's his own hands that curl in the lapels of Fundy's jacket. It's his own idea to exploit the fox's tendency to freeze up as he goes to throw him down into the snow.

But five fingers twist in the front of Dream's sweater then, five more wrap around his elbow, a shoulder slams against his sternum and the world's flipping heels-over-head unexpectedly.

Stars dance across his vision. He's suddenly staring up at the sky, and it lists, and lists, and lists to the right. Eyes and head chasing the spin, he gives a pained groan and tries not to throw up.

Lungs empty, ribs scream, his limbs are splayed out making some sh*tty snow angel.

"What the…" Dream slurs out, turning his head back towards the sky only to see Fundy looking down at him.

"I flipped you on your ass, you're welcome," Fundy snarks, face and words blurry.

Dream sits up. He keeps his back to Fundy despite every learned instinct that rips its way through his veins and commands him to do otherwise. Head down, he hunches in the snow and laughs softly. All pillars of smoke and trembling skin.

He understands why Fundy is here now. The only reason anyone ever sticks around the cell this long; is because they need something. They want something from him. They demand it.

"This still doesn't mean I'm going to listen to you... let alone help you," Dream says, eyes cut back.

"I know." Fundy's voice echoes behind him.

Dream drives knuckles into the space between his own ribs, bruises screaming. "Who the hell even taught you to fight? We both know it wasn't Wilbur."

"Niki did."

Pink hair, the smell of warm ovens and the taste of halva and coconut flan sits heavy on his tongue. His eyes slide to where the sled tracks still cut through the snow. "That… I guess that name doesn't really ring a bell anymore."

"She used to visit here all the time. She stopped coming here after Techno's little anarchist book club got blown to kingdom come. So, when we need supplies, we show up and then we leave. And you're always none the wiser."

"What--" Dream whips around, standing and then crumpling and then he's back up on his own two feet again. "You're not supposed to-- why would you just tell me that?! The- the guards- Phil-- Techno-- the whole point of this--" he shoves the heel of his wrists into his shut eyes, the cuffs sharp, laugh sharper. "You can't just say that--"

"It doesn't matter! You're wasting time barking up the wrong trees. Of all the sh*t shows we have going on currently, that one's a complete nonissue." Fundy crosses his arms. "You're going to be long gone from here before it becomes a problem. I have to trust you on that-- I am trusting you on that. I have to trust myself on that. I have to."

Dream pulls the comm out, the thing that sits too heavy in shaking hands, heart leaping up his throat. Un-f*cking-belivable. He waves it in the air.

"You trust Quackity?"

"No, not exactly, I…" Fundy trails off. "What I do trust is that you're not gonna be typing a word on that piece of junk even if you tried."

Dream looks down. He's cradling the guts and gore of a smashed comm, shiny wires and redstone dust spills out from the circuit boards snagged between his fingers.

He shakes it off his hand. It slaps the snow in a shallow crater. Some spider web that shakes, reforms, and caves in.

"You smashed it at exactly noon yesterday," Fundy explains, the missing pieces finally coming together. "And I know that when I wake up, I'm gonna clock in for my shift, and Quackity will be sitting at the bar again. He'll be rolling an empty glass back and forth, he'll be asking me to go find out what the hell happened. That's how this starts. That's how this plays out. These dreams-- these nightmares, they haven't been wrong about that, not yet."

Dream's head snaps up, attuned to Quackity's name; the promises it brings, the certainty. He holds his tongue.

Fundy paces. "Then he'll-- he'll send Slimecicle to spy on me. Because of course, of course Quackity can't trust anyone. And he's right. He's so right! And the only reason-- the only reason I am not being sentenced for treason right now is because that slime is curious enough to see how this batsh*t ploy plays out."

"Wait- wait- so, Quackity's-- you're saying there's a chance he's gonna take me back then?"

"What? No--" Fundy shakes his head. "Dude, why the f*ck do you sound so excited about that?"

"Because it's better than being eaten alive out here!"

There it is, the truth dragged kicking and screaming from his chest.

Fundy takes a step back, arm up, bristling and guarded.

"I can guess what happens in that cell, I can't do that out here. I can't…" Dream trails off, something lodged in his throat. That shard of glass he swallows back down, but the words won't go with it-- they won't. "I see the craters, I see the vines, and the smoke, and those-- the lights. And-- and this world is dying while I'm stuck out here knowing that there is some speck of green still left in that prison."

"So, you know what is then? You know what is out there, digesting us? You know how to stop it?"

"No-- I mean, yes, but it's not that simple, it's--" the red wiggles in Dream's vision. From his temple to jaw aches and he course-corrects. "Look, all I know is that it can't get through that much obsidian. It didn't touch anything that was already in there-- the courtyard? That's perfectly safe."

"You're wrong."

"I'm... wrong?"

"Yeah, you are."

"How--" Dream flashes his teeth, "how exactly am I wrong?"

"Oh, I dunno--" Fundy waves sarcastically. "Maybe because hiding away and letting everything else die isn't a practical solution?"

Dream's laughing before Fundy's even got the words all the way out.

"Unbelievable. You're unbelievable--" Dream huffs around a nasty smile. "Do you even hear yourself? You want to save a lost cause, Fundy!"

Fundy doesn't flinch. Those fox ears set back and clenched fists are shoved into pockets-- but it is not a flinch.

"We're not lost causes."

Fundy's declaration stings worse than any punch. Dream raises the back of a wrist to rub at the imaginary bruise it leaves, jaw wired shut.

"I'm sick and tired of that narrative. I am tired of acting like we're always destined to just rot like this." Fundy's eyes stay on the ground, smoke breaths spilt into the freezing air as he continues. "Maybe I can't have my old life back, f*ck it, that's fine. I am fine with that. I don't want it back. But that doesn't mean I-- it doesn't mean I end up becoming something so much worse just because I happened to live here. Because we all happened to live here. Just because you invited us and yeah, why wouldn't we choose to stay? What the hell did we have to lose? That doesn't automatically make this some kind of easy karma for the things we do or did. This is my home, it doesn't... that doesn't mean it has to disappear because I got too attached to it. That is bullsh*t, Dream."

Dream steps back, head not wired properly to comprehend. This Fundy is terribly, horribly misshapen. This is not the fox who once played ring around the flagpole, obsessed with the same hopeless pursuit of belonging. Of meaning anything to anyone at absolutely every cost, and every flag ever hoisted was only more kindling to catch flame.

Self-worth and Fundy did not exist in the same sentence.

But this Fundy looks at him and Dream doesn't know the other at all. He got it all wrong, but he has to try-- he has to try. He has to deliver the proper words from atop his soapbox of rotten wood and rusty nails. He has to be the most righteous thing in the cell.

"Look, I'm sorry, I really am. But it's a bad ending. That's just how it is. I don't make the rules." The syllables burn crude reds as Dream spills more of them. "Sometimes-- sometimes you are just going to lose. You lose and that's life, Fundy, that's how it actually works. That's just the way it is. It's not fair, or just; it's not even senseable. You can't save the f*cking world. You can't stop anything just because you and your little friends hope hard enough for it. That's fantasy. That's bullsh*t."

Silence hangs heavy in the air.

Triumph stirs ugly in Dream's chest, worms writhing under monsoon rain. Pisspoor trophy for a sh*ttier game, but he's won-- he's won the reward of getting Fundy to shut his mouth.

Fundy parts his jaw, snaps it shut, and then he's walking away. He's walking back towards that sled he'd abandoned in the snow. He's halfway there and Dream's hoping, pleading for the nightmare to cut to black, for it to toss him back out wherever the hell he'd laid his head.

But Fundy stops, fists curling at his sides, calf deep in the snow. And then he's turning back. He's stomping right up to Dream, shorter and somehow a thousand feet taller.

Eyes bright, fur bright, a flame burns in every part of Fundy that refuses to snuff out. The greys of the world curve around him.

"Y'know, Ranboo tried to tell me something just like that. Two times, two different times he stood there and he said that choosing sides doesn't work, and look where it f*cking got him." Fundy points towards the crater that frames the nearest mountainside, the quartz pillar remains of a bombed out home reduced to rubble. "He said that we should just give up. He believed in that even when he finally came by the Underground. When he dropped off all those blueprints Niki helped him steal. She offered him a place, she offered him what he'd lost over again and over again, and he stood there and he said it was a lost cause anyways. And yeah, I- I didn't- I really didn't blame him. How could I?"

Dream stares past the blurry mirage of Fundy's fingers, still held out, still pointing towards the evidence of how wrong sh*t could really go. How lucky the commune was. Or wasn't. He remembers following Techno through the rubble into the side of a mountain, some secret bunker blown to pieces, a single wither skull barely intact.

The spider web of red threads and loose ends starts to make a bit more sense.

The poles, the sirens, the community board with evacuation directions to tunnels underground. Information for diagnosing sickness, radiation and red spores, followed by a doctor's comm line. The cost of prussian blue and some advertisem*nt about the last barrels of Church Prime's holy water. All of it tacked beside a faded poster that reads ender pearl's half off. Loans and terms of service, warnings and declarations for the collection of collateral signed off by The Bank.

There's the scorched earth spread out in spirals where even the snow refuses to sit. The charred marks burned into the same side of every building. Red vines sprouting from the shadows that even the barrier magic laced into the split-rail fence can't seem to stop entirely.

Dream's eyes slide back to Fundy's and he's never felt something quite like this, not in that cell at least, all sour lungs and shallow breaths. Subjected to absolute soul-bearing scrutiny that when he's put to light, when he's pitted against Fundy, he's nothing more than superficial; flimsy and pissed off for no reason. He's never felt this small, not even under the warden's gaze.

"You wanna know what he does now? You want to know where that got him?" Fundy asks, not nasty, not condescending, just plain question and unspoken fact.

"He works twenty-four-seven at some crappy burger joint to try and pay off Snowchester's debt. Just to pay off his own. Just to pay for some medicine that barely works because eventually Tubbo's gonna die from radiation poisoning. We all know it. There are not enough potions, or god apples, or totems of undying in this world to cure that which lingers after those bombs get built. That's the hole we are sitting in. That's our bright rosy future if we do absolutely nothing. And if we're really, really lucky, well, then hey, maybe- maybe we just get possessed--" Fundy cuts off with a harsh sniff, swiping an arm across his eyes. "But we are not some lost cause just because you refuse to help us.”

"That's not my problem, none of that is my responsibility." It's his last defense.

"Does it matter? Does that even matter anymore? You can't sit there and tell me that some part of you-- some microscopic speck of a thing deep, deep down doesn't still give a single f*ck about this server. About everybody in it?"

Dream holds his silence. Fundy presses,

"Did you care, Dream?"

He doesn't need to remember everything to answer it. That terrible question. The thing that scorches up his spine and gnaws at that bleeding heart that he wants to reach into his chest and crush to dust--

"Yes."

Fundy nods. "Then it's your responsibility."

The words, that assertion; they seal his fate. They are the downward chop of the axe aided by gravity. Easier to let fall than to push back up. He accepts the words with a painful swallow, throat ash and dust, ears ringing muffled reds.

He stands and waits, mind attuned to stare at the heels of netherite boots on repeat. Some feverish follow, follow, follow-- a fundamental restructuring.

That's all it is. A restructuring.

He stands there and waits for the expected. Time stretches on awkwardly.

Instead, Fundy steps forward, empty paw held out.

Dream eyes it.

"We'll shake on it then," Fundy elaborates.

The fox's silhouette flickers into a different shape, a different deal. But at the beginning and end of each blink Dream only sees Fundy, full and saturated against the grey landscape.

"Shake on what exactly?"

"On the condition that I am trusting you and you have to trust me if we both want to get out of this." Fundy's eyes only burn true and bright, full, wide, still naive despite the wire thin scars that frame them. "We're shaking on that, okay. I'm fully aware that you've got a bit more of your god juice or whatever in these, so you'll-- listen, you'll see that I'm not lying. I'm not tricking you or pulling some prank, alright?"

Dream stares at Fundy's palm.

Rehearsing the past and the future in his head, he runs down all those lines of text he'd read that claimed the same thing over and over again. That dreams are at their most basic a synthesis of life events across all time simultaneously.

He reaches out, fingers unfurling slowly, palm coated crimson where Fundy's has been almost wiped clean.

Dream hesitates. His hand hovers there half a second before it slots against Fundy's.

At first there's nothing but the burn, the usual scorching that comes from every electron refusing to occupy the same space as another's. The deep disdain for the way the backs of his teeth and his eyes prickle something unmanageable. Ritual revulsion meets instinctual avoidance.

And then he sees it.

The abstract. The whirling notes spin between the silence and the melody slinks under the metaphysical gaps of the netherite cuffs, the residual that can never quite be cut off.

Together they wake from night terrors in separate cells surrounded by cobblestone; two strangling, pounding hearts. They obsessively check for intruders. Locks and latches. They peek around corners, they lurk in shadows, checking the same places over and over with the same results. Fingers splayed, pressed across the gaps between door and frame like that's enough to stop it getting kicked in. Shadows follow them, looming overhead, to the left, to the right--

They diverge.

He sees himself, he chases his own silhouette down titled corridors, he turns corner after corner and the hall narrows. He expects to meet fate; that which he runs from but hopes desperately to greet. But the white bandana never shows up.

The warden and Quackity never come closer than just out of reach. They never step from their posts stood at his side every night; always there, never leaving as he turns from one side to the other only to tumble onto the floor and drag himself beneath the box shaped world directly below the slat underbelly of the bed.

He tells himself the barriers hold strong. He stares at the diseased mobs choked by red vines that bump against the split-rail fence; unaffected by the sun. Runes engraved in stone, in posts, in permafrost under snow. Fading, crumbled, overgrown--

He sees a shadowy figure approach and he begs the air to let him sleep--

He's back to seeing the world burn, bombed straight into nothing, TNT in hand. Something far bigger than cherry bombs dropped from above. And then the interior of an empty city; smooth stone walls, glass stairs, a haunt of enderman, a table with well-laid plans. Blue paper, white lines; once white paper and blue lines left out in the sun. Bank, casino, prison. Dangerous things that would, that should, get the underground bombed to bedrock. This is how Fundy hands him the puzzle package of the truth.

This is how it gets hidden in the loopholes of a nightmare.

Dream rips his hand out of Fundy's.

Fundy blinks a moment, head shaking minutely before the glass of his eyes clears up.

They both cradle their hands respectively in turn.

"Come on," Fundy says, shaking out his palm and then shoving it back into the safety of a pocket. "We should, uh… we should try and catch up at least. We're already pretty far behind."

Heading towards the sled, Fundy stops and looks over his shoulder. He nods for Dream to follow.

Dream complies, still scrubbing his palm against his sweater, trying to rub out the phantom sensation of Fundy's hand still burning there. There is no foundation of trust between them and yet Fundy keeps his back turned.

It's idotic, but… familiar. That same sort of assumption that was always made deep in Pandora's Vault; backs turned as he marched at netherite heels without question.

And it's why he looks towards Techno's cabin, his eyes drift to Phil's, then out to the rest. That tundra, that sleeping giant of ice and frost that slumbers and never wakes. Transitional space that never feels like more than anything but the brief confusion which arrives upon waking from a dream. Nothing more than temporary.

From one cell to another, to another. The simplest equation.

Dream trails behind Fundy, the wooden frame of the flat sled between them. The items are sparse. Mostly chests with no lids, potion bottles rattling together from the depths within, potatoes stacked in another. All manner of things that those with limited magic can't fit properly in an inventory.

Even the rifle is tucked next to Fundy's hat on the sled. Dream traces a line from the back of Fundy's head to the weapon, and then back again. It's no longer a question of if the fox had inventory room, or not-- he's simply just a dumbass. Absolute proof right there.

It makes his chest turn, that viscously uncomfortable something he can't ever pin down. Something that makes him shake his head, huff a sharp breath. For half a heartbeat he's stuck seeing the same violent image of himself grabbing up the rifle and putting a bullet right through the back of Fundy's head. Again and again and a--

It'd be a waste of time. He crosses his arms instead, stuffing curled fingers into the warm pockets under each folded. The snow grows deeper with each step. He's up to his calves now, Fundy's up to his knees, and somehow the fox is still having an easier time with all of it.

It takes him embarrassingly long to realize Fundy is stepping directly in someone else's footprints to make the trek easier. Sled dragged along in similar fashion, almost line for line.

Dream hesitates, stopping and staring out at the other sled tracks, those figures waiting in the distance.

Fundy looks back over his shoulder, mouth wrapped around a question-- and then his face falls slack in horror. His ears flatten against his skull. Orange lava lights dance across Fundy's wide eyes, wide pupils, jumping and twisting, and then he's dropping the sled's rope altogether. Scrambling into motion.

Dream remains frozen. He smells it before he hears it. That thick, cloying stench of smoke swinging through the air. The crescendo roar of a hungry fire that always follows.

Fundy's shouting for the others.

Orange light claws its way across everything. It frames every shadow, flickering in and out, dashing every dark shape into fractals that split and reform.

Dream doesn't look back.

The din grows louder and the yelling continues, hoarse and breaking. Fundy rummages through the chests on the sled bed. Slipping in the snow, he tips the whole thing over with a loud curse. It doesn't slow him down as he snags a few orange bottles, uncorks one, downs it, and then he's sprinting as he cradles the others.

Everyone is running towards the fire, shouting and tossing items back and forth. They race right past where Dream stands, his heels grafted to the snow.

The sirens on their poles scream. Or maybe it's just those shadows racing around, those ghoulish strobes screaming all the way to the cratered mountains. Paper puppet show.

Dream half-turns. He casts a slow glance over his shoulder before his body follows. In less than half a heartbeat he's down on his hands and knees in the snow. Tiny speck bent low at the blazing pulpit. The entire commune is bathed in oranges, in reds, leaping, writhing, gnashing teeth of fire.

He stands, then stumbles, then stands again-- arm raised to shield his face from the searing heat. There is a warning stuck fast to the roof of his mouth. It refuses to scrape off his tongue. Throat squeezed shut and lungs refusing to fill. He tries to shout waxy red and sour sweet, belated warning of stacks and stacks of TNT--

The furious crack of thunder rolls. The world erupts into blinding light, searing heat. The concussive force slams through him. He's thrown back, the snow crunching, whites and oranges, whites and oranges and--

Cut to black.

"--it's never how was your day, Fundy? What have you been up to? How's the apocalypse been treating you? Oh, it's been great, thank you! Thank you for asking--"

"Nobody actually asks that stuff."

"Nobody asks that?" Fundy's face scrunches up. "It's- it's like-- it's part of normal conversation, bro! It's part of the script!"

"I- how the hell am I supposed to know--" Dream sputters, feet kicking over the water, fingers wrapped around the edge of the dock. "It's objectively a stupid line of questioning. Like why even ask if the answer is obvious?"

"You're saying nobody asks you, how was your day?" Fundy quirks a brow. "Like not even George or Sapnap?"

Dream's mouth remains shut and his eyes travel along that hazy line where the ocean kisses the sky. The world is grey here, too. It's flashes of cigarette smoke, thin smiles, cracked glass, folded arms and grimaces swimming out among the waves. Too far.

He can only reliably remember a few people asking the question. It danced somewhere between a mechanical start to clockwork conversation and sarcasm as sharp as any netherite blade. No in-betweens.

"What's the point?" Dream finally asks, inflection flat. "Every day's literally the same in prison."

The silence hangs and his gaze is tugged back towards Fundy.

Less than a second passes before the fox is forging on without comment. Mind seemingly made up as he pulls curled fists from the safety of pockets only for a fishing pole to settle between his palms in an orange flash of light.

The line is cast. Dream tracks the glint of the hook and bobber through the air.

It's disorienting, staring at that little piece of painted balsa wood drifting out in the catch of the blue. The hook shines deadly down below, and the too curious fish never learns better because its first bite is its last. He feels more kinship with the fish than the hook these days.

Side by side all the way at the end of the dock, neither speaks another word. The wind stays stale. Her breath held as not to interrupt.

Claws scratching grooves into the wood below, Dream's eyes walk diagonal lines. One direction, then the other, then back again. He assesses everything, barely keeping his neck above the proverbial water as he drowns in the new scene. There's planks of cedar underneath him. No longer snow and ice, but slick salt spray and the rough grooves of slowly warping wood.

He swings his head over his shoulder and he sees the dock stretches all the way back to the distant shore. He looks down and he's wearing a yellow sweater, hands caught between human and not. His hair is too short, too curly when he pushes shaking fingers through it. Glasses and their metal arms push awkwardly against his face.

He pulls them off and blinks at the blurry world. The echoed lines slowly drift back together. Focus returns to his sight and he tosses the round glasses into the sea without a second thought. They're not his anyway.

When they smack the water, they barely splash. There is no expected sizzle or melting upon contact. It's a deceptive expectation.

"Y'know…" muses Fundy, "I hate whenever you show up looking like him."

Dream hums, picking at a loose thread on the sweater's hem. "It's not exactly like I have a choice."

Fundy gives a soft snort and clicks his tongue as he tugs at the fishing pole. The bobber jerks in the water and then settles.

"You could have at least manifested as Philza or something. It would've made more sense. He's the one who sat here with me here while Wilbur was too busy playing amnesiac ghost around the L'Manhole."

"That wouldn't be as fitting." Vision far away, teeth crawling with static, Dream continues. "Somehow this, it-- well, it makes sense, right? I mean, you wanted Wilbur to teach you to fish, so…"

He trails off, waving a hand out towards the grainy borders of the dreamland.

"How the hell do you know that?"

Deflect? Dream shakes his head, chasing out the thin, reedy voice. That thing that oscillates between his own, the warden's, Quackity's. hom*ogeny of sounds that swinging wildly from obedience to defiance.

"I… I don't know, I just do," is all he can force himself to say.

Fundy sniffs, mumbling something under his breath before his spine takes on a deeper hunch. Elbows propped on his knees, Fundy stares down into the watery reflections, down at the bobber that floats too close to the pier to catch anything at all. He doesn't even bother to recast the line.

"Yeah. Yeah, well you're uh, you're right, he was going to teach me how to fish. Just some good ol' father-son bonding time, ey? Which is--" Fundy cuts off with a thin chuckle. "It's kind of funny, because he's about as much my dad as he is Philza's son. It's sort of this honorary title, not precisely a kinship thing. Like, you know how a sculptor chisels out statues from marble and then they'll claim the art was born from the stone? I guess you could say I was chiseled out, and then someone-- some sculptor, claimed they birthed me. So, I'm still his kid, but in a weird way, right? Because I was never like a baby or anything... I just kind of was."

"Makes sense," Dream affirms, hardwired to churn out a response. Hardwired to understand what it means to be built, not born.

"And…" Fundy's fingers tighten their grip on the fishing pole. "And he seemed normal. Or maybe I really am just a massive idiot. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention-- maybe I'm-- maybe it really was just me. Maybe I was the one stuck in the dark. I was the one who just kept brushing off those bright red flags. And it's me, isn’t it? I'm the one that didn't see it coming because I assumed. I just assumed, because I wanted things to be okay. I… Wilbur seemed okay, didn't he?"

There's nothing for him to say, no counterpoint that would lead to any clear conclusion because he'd only be digging his own grave. So Dream kicks his heels over the water and he throws a glance in Fundy's direction. The fox is too busy, too trapped staring at the water and seeing something else entirely.

"He had been stressed before. He’d stayed up nights on end and smoked a pack a day before. He'd done that. He had done that. He'd done all of it-- he'd done all of that before." Fundy draws in a shaky breath, arming himself with full diaphragm to scrape more of those sticky words out.

In the interim the air is sour. And Dream is attentive, just as he was attentive to each of those visitors to his cell. Back when he still yearned for the echo of voices, that crooked frame and cracked casing of delivered monologues; accusation after accusation.

"He'd talk about these heroes and these villains. All of these ancient tales and these amazing legends. He loved them. He loved telling them! And it's not like I haven't watched him spiral into delusions of grandeur before. I've watched him get lost in paranoia. It happened, it happened a lot, but that's the difference-- we always managed to figure it out. For Wilbur? He seemed fine-- he was acting f*cking normal. He was acting like we'd win that stupid war, like we'd valiantly prevail in our revolution. And everything, everything would be completely fine. That's how he made it seem. That's how these things are supposed to work. It's how they're supposed to work."

Canines flash and Fundy's eyes harden, and he's shaking. From his fingers up to his arms, his knuckles tighten around the fishing pole until it creaks under the pressure.

"And for one second. That one f*cking second right after all those explosives went off? When I looked up and I saw him standing there in all that wreckage-- I could literally only think of one thing. I thought that somehow I could have prevented it. Like somehow that makes sense?" Fundy spits the words, all shown teeth. "Like it mattered; like I matter. Like I could have miraculously made the difference between life and death. That'd certainly be some divine intervention, wouldn't it?!"

Fundy's snarling and Dream's world only grows greyer. Hands in his lap now, eyes set permanently to the corners, he watches Fundy the way he'd watch the warden; he watches and waits and listens. Defer.

Fundy chucks the fishing rod at the water. It slaps the waves. It bobs there in absolute mockery as Fundy lets his face fall into his palms and he scrubs frantically at his face with the heel of his wrists. When his paws fall away, Fundy is left with messy fur and a dull gaze; staring, staring, staring.

"And when I blink, he is dead," Fundy whispers. "I blink and he's back. I blink and he's gone all over again and then guess what? I blink and I'm here. I'm here; and who cares if you're the problem? Who cares about some book that can bring back the dead? Like who the f*ck cares, man?! Because the real goddamn irony is that locking you up was only ever gonna ensure you'd be the last person alive and safe on this whole server!”

Safe is a relative term, Dream thinks bitterly to himself, ash thick on his tongue, eyes stuck on the water. The ocean's dancing white caps bleed into the lava glow that once flashed across every lofted piece of netherite. Dream braces for the impact that never comes, the cut to black, the fade in, fade out to the next scene, mind fleeing body, fleeing mind, fleeing body, fleeing…. and, alive certainly is relative, too.

Fundy loves to howl and bark his heart out. Fundy is alive. Fundy mirrors those same tunes played on repeat, wriggling in the haze of every dream, and every dream within that dream; every layer of the stumbling dance across the glass surface of every limbo. Where the heels of those below, mirror the heels of those above, and when it finally cracks they'll both fall through infinity until the other wakes.

The mirrors only ever prove to him that despite how much he bared his teeth in that prison, he's still a different creature wearing a sheep's skin outside of it--

"Somehow we locked your ass up and you're exactly the f*ckin' same--"

"Good. At least someone still thinks that."

He shuts his eyes and he is in the prison. He wants to leave it, the past, he wants to leave it. He lies to himself about that those first few minutes he sat on the edge of a bed. He lies to himself every time he shut his eyes and it is an impressive feat to open them again. He wants to leave it. He lies to himself.

It feels like he just happens to be there, to be here, like he just barely exists. He's a ghost constant watching itself from somewhere up upon the ceiling; framed by those barking aluminum stars.

"What to do when the world ends?" Fundy chuckles to himself, soft and hoarse. One leg brought up to his chest, both arms wrapped around it. "That's the real question. Not the meaning of life or what our purpose is in it. But what to do when you know you haven't got much of it left. There's probably a book out there. There's gotta be a book in Niki's library that answers that."

"Except it doesn't feel like it ends," Dream mumbles.

"Ctrl + C."

"What?"

"It's, uh--" Fundy gives an awkward grin, "it's sort of a way to terminate infinite loops in a program. It's not really useful here, but the sentiment still stands."

The explanation scratches at the back of Dream's brain. Familiar unfamiliar, like he's staring down at a deck of cards and he can't read the numbers or the symbols, but he recognizes the upside down pictures.

They lull back into the quiet rhythms of the waves lapping the pier's poles. Those syllables and decibels they're both guilty of fade into the recent past. That's how it works, it's always the past. By the time the opportunity comes, by the time those words rattle at the ivory bars that form the backs of his teeth-- the moment has passed.

He lives vicariously through others' frustration. Fundy is no different than any other mirror he's stared at and wanted to throw his fist through.

He blinks and the sun begins to set.

That one hundred and eighty degrees of the horizon makes for a fitting clock. The sun slides with the drop of the minute hand.

The sky turns blood red as the sun sinks into the water. Colors burst across the sky. Lavish tendrils spill paint with lazy strokes to form their mosaics and splash across clouds without care.

Tongues of fire, an unending scream, it doesn't take a genius to understand that they're both staring at the same poisoned purple-pinks of a toxic sunset.

It flashes white, and then gold, so bright and so powerful that it appears as if the sun has changed her mind. It's as if she is climbing furiously back into the sky. Higher and higher, defying the encroachment of night with all her might.

Only there is no sun, she is tucked safely beneath the ocean covers of her bed.

Her doppelganger is a ball of fire climbing thousands of feet into the sky. The world is deathly silent. Its breath is held in terror as the roar of the blast races across the waves on the heels of thermal radiation burning hotter than any sun.

They can see their annihilation coming. It barrels towards them faster than they could ever hope to outrun. Hundreds of meters a second, thousands of feet a second, shoulder to shoulder with the bomb's hungry maw flashing in their eyes. Therein sits the indelible truth. Fundy claims it so-- Fundy believes it so--

Surviving, living, reversing apathetic fate; these are not impossible tasks.

This is not an impossible task.

They will have 30 seconds.

Dream looks at Fundy; there are too many questions unasked and the seconds are too slim.

They will have 24 seconds.

There are too many answers that need decrypting. Too many memories that demand excavation. There is too much he still doesn't understand and too much he wishes he didn't. There are too many confessions to trade for brand new lies, too much friendship to be bought through a mutual lack of faith, a mutual paranoia and a mutual distaste. Too much looking in each other's eyes and declaring everything is completely not f*cking fine. There is too much time and there is too little-- and there is the bomb's blast that will slice through them.

They will have 9 seconds.

"I want to hold onto this," Fundy pleads.

It is too short a eulogy. Too long of a pause.

"I don't want to lose this." Fundy curls in on himself. "I don't want to lose this. I can't lose this, I can't lose this-- I can't, I can’t keep losing everything! I want to hold on to this!"

They will have seconds.

Dream grabs Fundy and leaps forward.

They splash into the dark waves, slipping under the ocean's cold embrace. Sound and light are instantly muffled, and Dream pushes every ounce of air from his lungs. He ignores the icy sting as he tugs Fundy down further.

The fox wriggles out of his grip, instantly fighting for the surface. Bubbles stream out from Fundy's nose and mouth as he claws at the water. Dream looks on from the depths below, still sinking.

Water is dense; he knows this. Far, far denser than air. He knows this. A concussive blast will always be far worse down here. Fundy knows that. Fundy knew that.

He watches the approaching blast. The way it sends a mountain of froth rushing across the ocean's surface. The way it warps the water below. The way it is right there. He stares at death as he has many times before except this time he--

When he opens his eyes he believes he's fallen into the void.

For half a moment he's back in the End, having made some childish mistake on an endship's journey that's left him stranded out in the nothingness for seconds, minutes, millennia. However long it takes to slowly drift back or be fetched by the next passer-by. Or worse, he'll feel the starry collection of hands scoop him up and set him back on solid ground, some moral lesson loaded onto metaphorical tongues and he'll run off to mingle with the enderfolk just to piss Them off all over again. Lesson learned be damned, it'd take him a couple thousand eons to finally understand that.

He is floating, deathly still, deathly calm, no air to be drawn into already full lungs. Cracked ribs, fractured bones, burning skin; he drifts and he drifts.

He can barely see the surface, he can't hope to make out the bottom. Clarity isn't needed to know that Fundy is no longer there.

He's sunk too deep. There's just debris, floating things that he's stuck among. Surrounded like solitary figures trapped in their snowglobe prisons.

Rope and canvas sail eels dance lazily around him. The cracked pieces of a small boat threaten to snare him as they drift past, some destined for the depths.

It's a distinctly Overworld craft, brittle kindling shaped and formed to sit like cupped palms upon the surface of any ocean. Flashes of light chase shadows down from above, illuminating the shattered wood skeleton.

A body floats up there, caught in the deafening veil, ripped sail dragging it down just as Icarus once sank under the weight of his own wings. He knows her; he knows this particular tale which has little to do with inescapable labyrinths and their monsters.

He kicks against the cage of the ocean's embrace and just as he has a thousand times before, he grabs her by the shoulders. He tries to shake her awake. Name pressed from his mouth it only dies under the weight of the water again and again. He cuts the sail with his claws, ropes chewed through with his teeth until he can drag them both back up to the surface unimpeded.

Choking up water, he heaves horrid cough after cough, painful wheezes dragging air back in only to lose it all over again. He sees no sign of shore, only rough waves and the opaque blanket of night.

He kicks at the water furiously, keeping them both afloat even as his skin starts to burn and every drop of the ocean is determined to drag him back down.

"Alyssa," He shakes her by the arm, grip bruising. This game isn't funny, this prank is not funny. "Hey, this-- this isn't funny anymore, c'mon, we--" He coughs. "Look, we've gotta get back to shore the boat's totaled. Alyssa--"

This is not funny.

It was his idea to go looking for a heart of the sea, knowing full well he could just waste some magic allotment on conjuring one up. But there was no fun in that. There was too much risk in that. Too many questions on a world that's still a bit too new.

It was his idea to fetch the heart just like any mortal would; just to make sure nothing went wrong.

And it was just a wave-- a freak wave. And this is not fun. It's not funny. His choppy laughter turns to shouting and he is sinking back below the ocean's surface-- angry, indignant refusal, watery claws sinking into his flesh to force him back under.

Down, down, into the underland; down, down into the deep-dark that brings all meaning to the word light--

"What, it's not like I'm gonna die and then I'll regret forever that I didn't say goodbye," Alyssa says as she looks back towards the shore.

"You're not even gonna say goodbye to Ponk?" Dream puts a sarcastic hand over his heart. "That's really cold actually."

"Fine, fine, you big sentimental baby--" Alyssa stands in their little sailboat, waving cheekily for a moment only to follow it up with a middle finger as she falls back into her seat.

"Oh, you're totally gonna die now."

"What the f*ck, bro--" She kicks at Dream's shins, laughter thick in her voice. "That's totally not funny. No I'm not, unless there's something you want to tell me? Like we're both alone, out here, on the ocean, and you're sort of holding all that rope for the sails--"

Dream arches a brow.

"You're a serial killer?" Alyssa deadpans. "Remember, that's why you wear that stupid mask, right?"

"Hah-hah, like I haven't heard that one before."

"That's because it's true, the smiley face is a bit too much."

"Wh-- how? It is not too much, it's literally just like a-- a friendly smile."

"With the leather and buckles get-up-- it kinda really is a bit much."

"And you're what, you're suddenly an expert on mask fashion then?"

"Yeah. Because I wear one and I actually look good in it."

"What-- what the hell?" Dream laughs, tying off the rigging for the mainsail. "Now you're just being a dick."

Her eyes crinkle at the corners, that dead giveaway that proves she's smiling as she gives Dream one last half-hearted kick to the ankle. "Shut up and steer before we end up hitting a reef."

And the sailing is smooth, the ocean is as calm as it's ever been. The boat bobs idly. The shadow of an ocean monument looms underneath.

"You know you're gonna have to be the one who swims down to get the heart, right?" Alyssa notes.

"Oh come on, you're gonna make me fight off all the elder guardians alone?"

"Sorry, I know I could take 'em out in two hits--" Alyssa mimes throwing a few punches. "But I don't wanna inhale like a speck of water and end up having an attack out here. Regens and stuff don't really help with them. I’m kinda relying on Ponk's supply of ephedra and that's low as it is, y'know."

"They're still that bad?" Dream asks, flaking the sail.

"No, no, gods no, they're so much better actually." Alyssa waves off the concern. "The air's about a million times cleaner here than 2b2t. All I have to worry about is like cooking smoke, and pollen, and some other stuff."

"Like swimming," Dream adds, brows pinched.

"Well, yeah, but it's really not a big deal. I gotta be actually inhaling it for my lungs to freak out which kinda takes more effort than you'd think."

"Then this'll be easy," he reassures. "You'll be alright down there."

Dream grabs the edge of the sailboat and swings himself into the water. He frowns at the initial agitation that stirs up from the ocean and her depths. Too jagged where the wind is smooth. Unpredictable where the land hums steady tunes. It rejects what ichor still churns through his veins.

The flavors of distaste fade into the background.

Alyssa looks over the side, blanching, twisting fingers in her hair. "Did I… mention that I’m scared of giant underwater ruins though?"

"You were the one who suggested the idea!" He laughs, full and hearty, treading water like he's weightless and that's how laughter always feels.

"Yeah, not before I saw that up close and in person--" Alyssa gestures. "Look at that thing! It's so f*cking creepy. It's just like this shadow constantly coming up from the abyss, it's making my eyes water just looking at it."

"Well, I'll just say you went down and got the heart then. No one'll know any better, trust me."

There's a moment of consideration and then she nods.

"You've got yourself a deal." Relief palpable, Alyssa's white-knuckle grip on the boat's side loosens as she holds out a hand. They both shake on it. "I'll tell Sapnap you screamed like a baby when you saw the first drowned and I valiantly saved you--"

"I'm counting on it," is the last thing he ever says to her.

And he lets her go, he lets her fall away, back down into that deep-dark. Down, down with all the others, goggles, and bandanas, deer, and demons, and brick community houses. Down, down with all that he fears to lose and that which he wishes to remember. Or maybe it's always been the other way around.

It means nothing. He is a creature remolded to take orders, wide eyes and burnt corneas. He is remolded to rethink. He is a creature remolded-- again and again and again. Parts of him bled out and exchanged with each iteration. He is a creature remolded by his own hand and the hands of ten thousand others.

And never has he been able to shove a soul back into a corpse; even he cannot demand that from Death.

He knows in the original tale he had blunt human nails and dull human teeth, that he had to cut at the ropes with a knife only to realize that he'd been so betrayed by his own f*cking world he couldn’t even conjure up a new boat. Swimming and teleporting, and peeling at the edges. All the glamorous parts of godhood traded for a gamble, and here the odds were sh*t. He called into a waterlogged comm with no answer until finally he went from choking on seawater to choking on sand, tumbling into the rough embrace of the shore. Still warm from the sun's daily glow, he'd dug his fingers into the tiny grains and he had stared up at the spinning stars. And none of it did he recognize.

He felt like he was drowning for six whole days.

He destroyed every boat and plucked any love for the open ocean from every person's head with a firm hand snared around each wrist. Mechanical, efficient.

It was just one wave.

And her last words are not particularly poetic or moving, but they are words and they hold more weight than every uttered sentence combined simply because there will never be more. Death unwittingly adds worth to life like that.

He remembers this; here down in his void, in his sea, in-between those laced fingers of larger gods too grand to comprehend.

Hand on coffin, words in head, he writes them down and gives them to Ponk in the hopes she will be able to craft something better with them.

Because he will always be a guest at this funeral. And guests do not sit vigil. They do not celebrate life lived. They are hardly allowed to mourn.

It will be the last funeral he ever attends--

"You think it ever gets easier?"

Dream turns towards the voice and he's no longer drifting in the ocean.

He's standing in an office, a familiar one, fireplace crackling and coughing up embers. A smoke haze from cigarettes stubbed out in their diamond ashtrays competes for the illustrious title of what can make his eyes sting worse.

There's a dark mahogany desk with papers and letters piled high, so egregious in its organization that a quarter of its contents have spilled straight onto the floor. A half empty whiskey bottle and two tumblers tops it all off, not a coaster in sight to mitigate all the water damage. The rings already staining it. He stares at them.

"Hey, big guy, I can't-- I honestly can't tell if you're zonin' out on me with that creepy f*ckin' mask."

Fingers snap crudely in front of his face.

Dream's reality bleeds into that of Schlatt moving to stand in front of him. Ram horns, wrinkled white dress shirt and loose red tie, Schlatt clutches a glass in one hand. Those rectangle pupils scrutinize him.

"Christ, you know, this is just some personal advice I'm hittin' you with, but you should really get that sh*t checked out." Schlatt kicks his glass back and then continues. "That local doc you got here? Now, that's a real doctor, not one of those uppity soyboy beta-male schmucks who tells you to quit smoking, eat kale, and f*ck off. Like f*ck me, these pricks'll charge you ten grand for a single goddamn propranolol."

"Why did you call me here, Schlatt?"

"'Cause I want you to answer my f*cking question." Schlatt slams the empty glass down on the desk, turning back with a lazy grin. "Does it ever get easier for a coupla guys like us? Do you think we ever get past all this petty bullsh*t, all the whining and bitching? Do you think we ever get a goddamn rest?"

Dream pulls a face behind the safety of his mask, the words a bit too crude, but he can see the sentiment rung dark purple around Schlatt's eyes. "Maybe. I mean, yeah, I don't see why it couldn't? There's always a better end somewhere down the line."

"Optimistic type, I like that." Schlatt wags a finger, pulling a comm out. "Lemme just jot that down for your dating profile-- you, uh, f*ck, are you a a fire or a water sign? I can never tell the difference--"

Waving Schlatt off, Dream makes for the door.

"Schlatt, you're drunk, and I've g