Chapter 1: Setup
Not many outfitters can be described as ruthless, but that was the perfect word for Nightmare’s boys. His gang of wranglers had driven other companies out of business and seen farms go under in a blaze of light. They owned this mountain range. In most cases, quite literally. More than 100,000 acres in this range belonged to one or another of the gang. The rest was national park or national forest land, and therefore free range, at least with the proper permits. They had them. Whether or not they had earned them was up for debate.
With such a huge land tract available you would think there would be dozens or even hundreds of groups that roamed them. Nightmare’s gang was the only one. Occasionally a private group would venture into their territory. Never more than once. They simply didn’t allow that. Since there was only one you might reasonably assume there were a gaggle of horses. That would be wrong. This group ran less than 20 in a single train, and that included the pack mules. There were a further dozen on reserve, resting and growing strong on a rich, vast pasture. The skeleton simply known as Farmer made sure of it.
Today they were loading up the trailers for another pack trip. This one would be gone for two weeks. The gang rarely took trips this long, but the client had money and right now they were a bit… cash strapped. Nightmare had promised the Horror brothers that they would never go hungry again, and he kept his word.
That meant sometimes taking on clients that weren’t his usual handpicked bunch. Nightmare could be one of the most selective outfitters in the region. He couldn’t stand dealing with city folks who had never seen, let alone been on, a horse. No, his requirements were stringent. Unfortunately even that had earned him enough of a reputation to attract his worst fear. This client couldn’t have come at a worse time. Nightmare needed the cash to feed his boys. He couldn’t afford to be selective right now. But why did it have to be him?
Nightmare surveyed the parking lot. It was 5 am and his boys were loading up the trailers for the long haul to the trailhead. Old Classic, the trailer Nightmare had been running for ages, was being loaded up with the first five horses. Nightmare had already personally loaded up his bay pony, Razz. The gelding wasn’t his first choice, but Grape and Wine had finally grown too old for these trips. They were enjoying a well-earned retirement on the ranch, so Razz it was, despite his tendency to rush headlong into areas of uneven footing. He always seemed to come out alright, but Nightmare was an old horseman. He knew that every horse was an accident waiting to happen. He just hoped it wouldn’t be this time.
Killer’s little hellbeast was already loaded up, too. Nightmare couldn’t see what his right hand skeleton saw in the 1/2 thoroughbred bay gelding. Slim was an absolute nightmare to ride, heh heh. He required constant attention or else he would try to run a race. Nevermind that he wasn’t on the racetrack anymore. He always wanted to race. But Killer managed him effortlessly, so all Nightmare could do about him was complain.
Cross was just tying off the next two geldings. Honey, a dun gelding, was his personal horse. He was the tallest horse in the bunch at 17.3 hands. Conversely, Berry, an appaloosa, was the shortest pony at 12.3 hands. He was a guest pony, the one they usually saddled child or elderly monsters on. He was steady as a rock.
The final horse waiting to load up on Old Classic was Ghost, Dust’s grey mare. She was a sweetheart who Nightmare really should have retired already. But he’d yet to find another horse that could put up with Dust’s constant talking to his… brother… so for now Ghost had to stay.
Error, Nightmare’s newest hire, was loading up the last three true horses onto Big Red. His own black mare, Shadow, was nearly matched in colour by Classy, the second guest horse. Shadow spooked at everything. Gates, leaves, other horses, her own footsteps; everything, that is, except Error’s constant glitches, which was why she was still around. Classy was a real lady, dainty in her footing and wily as a fox. She’d sneak treats off of any bleeding heart she could. Nightmare liked to use her as a test. If the guest could manage her then they could come back. Rustle was the final horse on the trip, a pretty paint horse that was easy going and gentle as could be.
Blood and Sugar, the Horror brothers, were loading up their two mules. Pumpkin was a chestnut mare, bulky and imposing until you got to know her. Yes she could weather a hurricane and come out the other side fine, but she loved to snuggle and be groomed. Shanks, on the other hand, was a blood bay gelding that only a monster like Sugar could love. He bit, he kicked, and he was an absolute bear to the other horses. Except for Pumpkin, that is. Those two were just as much in love as their owners, Nightmare was sure. It was a little sickening how sweet that set could be, but that wasn’t exactly a problem, now, was it?
The final trailer held the pack mules and all their gear. Crown and Regal were a matched set of palominos who Nightmare had… inherited… from another outfitter. He didn’t know the stories behind their names. They certainly didn’t seem to fit the playful attitude of those two mules.
Much like Boss, when Nightmare wanted everyone’s attention, he had it. His boys paused in what they were doing and looked at him. He sighed and pulled out his lucky bandanna, a teal paisley print that he’d found after the apple incident, and wiped his neck with it.
“Well, boys, here we are again. You know the mission as well as I do. Keep the whole pack trip from going to shit. Whether or not the client enjoys it is the name of the game. We’ve done this a million times, but this time’s gonna be different. This isn’t a set of our usual clients. These are city slickers. I know you hate it as much as I do, but we didn’t really have a choice. I’m not about to let my boys go hungry. So I had to take them on,” Nightmare huffed, “Now for the part you didn’t already know. There’s just three of them coming with us. I don’t know about two of them, and the third… heh. You’ve heard about the third from me enough times. It’s my twin, Dream.”
That little bombshell had about the reaction he was expecting. Cross looked grim, like he had found out about his brother’s death all over again. Killer’s smile grew and his hand reached for his knife. Dust snarled, his eyes flicking to where he thought his “brother” probably was. Blood and Sugar stepped closer together, and Blood reached for his pack (which Nightmare knew held his butcher knife). Error just seemed confused. He hadn’t had the pleasure of hearing about Nightmare’s past yet.
“wasn’t there anyone else you could have gotten? even reaper’s family would have been better than this, and he makes us bring so much coffee!” Blood complained.
Nightmare shut him up with a look. “Do you really think I would have made this choice if there were any other options? It was this or sell off land, and that would have taken way too long. It had to be this,” He looked around at everyone, meeting their eye sockets with his singular one. “Now, I’m going to ask you to do your best job to not scare him. We need to put up with his group for two weeks. It’d be better for us if he didn’t want to turn back around halfway through. Besides, then he’d want a refund, and I already spent the money, so you’d better earn it. Is that understood?”
Everyone saluted with varying styles and degrees of formality. Nightmare grins. He loves it when they do that. It makes him feel like a prince rather than just a wrangler.
“Okay then. Carry on.”
And just like that, everyone went back to working like the smooth operation they were.
Dream’s hands gripped the steering wheel of his trusty old Jeep so tight that, if he’d been a human, his knuckles would have been white. As it was, the joints protested. They were used to typing away at a computer all day, not commanding a car through miles and miles of unpaved roads. They really wanted to just go home, but Dream wasn’t about to do that. No, he had committed to this and he was going to see it through. Besides, his friends were so looking forward to this trip. It would hurt to disappoint them.
Speaking of his friends, Dream quickly checked up on them. Ink was sitting in the passenger seat, chattering away about something or other. The artist was such a chatterbox. It was ridiculous. Frequently Dream found himself wanting to gag Ink with his own scarf. He never did, though. Maybe it was because Ink was his oldest friend, the first person who had taken a chance on him when he moved to the city. Maybe it was the fear that even that wouldn’t shut Ink up. Instead, Dream periodically had to just… take a break from his talkative friend. Ink was very forgiving. Or, more accurately, he was very forgetful. Dream was pretty sure that was why they were still friends. Dream was willing to put up with all his faults.
He had his good points, too. Ink was the definition of creative. He was always seeing the world in a unique light, and hanging around him made Dream constantly have to stretch and grow his mind and comfort zone. You never knew what Ink would come up with next, and it was always fun to follow him into trouble. Also, Ink always knew all the gossip, and didn’t mind sharing it with Dream at length.
His other best friend, Blue, was sitting in the back seat next to all their gear. Blue was small, maybe 4’ tall at the most. He was always full of energy, although sometimes it could only be described as nervous energy. His cheerful attitude permeated everything around him and reminded Dream of his own little goal: to spread positive energy wherever he went. With Blue around to help, that was easy. Dream just wished he could bring his friend more happiness of his own. Given the state of Blue’s home life, it was no surprise that he was always wanting to hang out with the two other “Star Sanses”. Dream tried to think of every excuse he could to take him out and about with them.
Dream wasn’t quite sure what had prompted him to schedule this little trip. Yes, Blue was getting close to his breaking point. Yes, Ink was getting restless in between commissions. And, yes, Dream was yearning to see something other than the city for once. But all those things happened on a regular basis, and this was not how he usually dealt with them.
Maybe it was those dreams (heh) he’d been having. Every night for weeks now Dream had dreamt of being on a horse, riding through the woods like he had when he was a child. His friends had been around him, and Dream was filled with this sense of peace and rightness. He couldn’t help but want to fulfill it.
And then Reaper had mentioned to Dream about the wrangler group he and his family went out with. Every word had had Dream more and more intrigued. He honestly couldn’t think of a single thing they were doing that he wouldn’t have done… at least when it came to their horses. He had no idea that the world of wrangling was so cutthroat. And then Reaper had dropped the bombshell like it was nothing. Nightmare was… okay? He had friends? More than that, he had horses and his own business? That was an absolute shock, so much so that Reaper had needed to splash Dream with a cup of cold water in order to break him out of it. Maybe he took a little too much pride in doing so, but Dream could hardly blame him. Every little bit of happiness he could spread made Dream feel that much better. Even if it was at his own expense.
Now Dream was driving through the countryside on his way to find out if what Reaper had said was true. Maybe it was a different skeleton named Nightmare and covered in living goop? That seemed unlikely, but you never knew what would happen in a world like this.
Chapter 2: They Meet
The two groups meet and prepare to set out.
Sorry for the long wait! I've been dealing with some crippling back pain and only just found a medicine that helps with it without making me loopy. I'm going to get imaging sometime in the next two weeks to see what the hell is wrong with me this time. Then I see my new doctor again!
In the meantime, enjoy this long-awaited chapter 2!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dream made that final turn into the driveway to the ranch and sighed. It looked absolutely perfect. There were fields of hay blowing in the wind and huge tracts of grass dotted with horses. All of the horses looked happy, not too thin and not too fat. There were old ones, too, who clearly were getting to enjoy their retirement. Dream had to resist the urge to go and pet them. They wouldn’t take kindly to a stranger trying to touch them, even if he did have treats.
A little bit further up the road Dream came to the main house. It was huge, practically a castle, with so many windows and doors that Dream lost count. In front of the house were three giant trailers on the back of three king cab trucks. Dream could see horse noses poking out of the windows, and it brought a smile to his face. He couldn’t wait to cuddle one. He loved the smell of horses more than anything. There was something about that smell that soothed him like nothing else could.
Standing in front of the trailers in a loose line were the wranglers, but Dream had eyes for only one. His brother was standing there, tentacles waving in the wind, with his hands in his pockets and a slight frown on his face. He looked good, even after all these years. Something inside of Dream relaxed when he saw his twin. He was okay.
Dream parked the car and jumped out of the Jeep, tucking the keys into his jean’s pocket. Blue and Ink jumped out after him, Blue in old jeans, Ink in a pair that was brand new. They lined up with Dream as he stared at his brother; Nightmare and his gang of wranglers facing off against Dream and the Star Sanses. It was one of Nightmare’s group, a black-boned skeleton that was somehow even more glitchy than Geno, who broke the silence.
“Well, I don’t know about you lot, but I’d like to get out on the trail before it gets dark. Why don’t you go get your bags and we’ll load them up?”
Dream blinked at him. His brain was lagging a little bit behind. When he got it, he smiled and ran for the back of the car. “Oh! Before we head out, I have a little treat for all of you. I have some for the horses, too, but they can wait until we hit camp.”
All eyes were on him as Dream pulled out the box full of treats. It was huge! He grabbed a container out of it and held it out to the wranglers. “I know you’ll like these, brother, but I hope everyone else does, too!”
Nightmare visibly hesitated in front of Dream. Then, from one second to the next, he went from being empty handed to holding a little homemade candy bar in his hands. He stared at it for nearly a minute before he said, in a voice that had haunted Dream for years, “Is this… one of our Mom’s apple pie candy bars?”
Dream nodded. His voice hardly shook at all when he said, “Yep! I brought enough for everybody to have one every day if they want. She always did say to take care of the people who help you, so I do! Um… is that okay with you?”
Everyone pounced on the package of treats as Nightmare nodded slowly as he stared at the treat in his hand. Then he turned his attention to the treat box. “That’s more than enough for two weeks, Dream. Unless you brought extra?”
Dream waved his hand dismissively. “The rest of the box is full of treats for the horses. I made your salty oat treat for them. I’ve never met a horse that didn’t love them. Or a mule, for that matter. Don’t worry, I wrapped them in wax paper so the horses can’t smell them in the packs.”
Dream was too wrapped up in watching his twin to register the expressions of the rest of his gang, but they all had grins that were growing by the second. And here they’d been worried that this monster had forgotten everything he ever knew about horses. Two minds in particular were thinking something else. Cross and Killer saw the way Nightmare was standing and reacting, saw the way Dream was focusing on him, and came to the obvious conclusion; i.e., that they needed to set the twins up on a date as soon as possible. Dream was definitely worth keeping.
Killer looked around to take in the reactions of the rest of their crew, since it was obvious that Nightmare was too busy to do it. Those reactions had him raising an eyebrow. Not all of them; Dust, Horror, and Sugar all seemed to be confused more than anything else. It was the other two that had him wondering.
Cross seemed more than a little pissed at the stranger with the paint vials. The feeling didn’t seem to be mutual. The other (and what kind of a monster carried around paint vials like bullets?) had interesting eye lights. At first, while he was looking at the horses in the trailer, they were a blue horseshoe and a yellow star. Then he caught sight of Cross. His eye lights changed into a question mark and an orange square. Then, between one blink and the next, they changed into a red exclamation point and a green four-leaf clover. Killer had no idea what those symbols meant. He hoped he could learn soon.
Error’s reaction was even more interesting. He seemed embarrassed when he looked at the short skeleton dressed all in blue. The other just seemed happy to see him. He was waving at him like he’d just seen a long-lost friend. Error quickly looked away and pretended not to see him. Very interesting.
It was Killer this time who broke the silence with his silver tongue. He bowed to the Star Sanses and gestured to their car. “Well, cuties, these treats are perfect to warm our bellies. Why don’t you set your bags into their own piles? We’ll be happy to get this packing business started.”
Dream and Nightmare blinked at him, even as Nightmare absentmindedly stuck his treat in his mouth. His face was never the best for showing his positive emotions, but it radiated pleasure today. Killer could tell that he’d missed those treats. He also knew that he would refuse to admit, even to himself, that he’d missed his brother, but it was obvious that he had. He hadn’t missed the creature he had thought Dream had turned into, but this Dream, the real one, didn’t seem like that at all. Looks could be deceiving, though, as Killer well knew. He’d reserve judgement for later.
The Star Sanses didn’t have much luggage, just five boxes. There was the treat box, one suitcase each for the blue-clad one and Dream, and two suitcases for the paint guy. That’s okay. They’d allowed for two each, given that it was a two week trip and these were city slickers. What they hadn’t allowed for was the contents of the suitcases. Three of the suitcases were filled with clothes. The last suitcase, one of the paint guy’s, was filled with jugs of paint.
Killer could feel the energy radiating off of Nightmare, and it was anything but positive. Most of the rest of the crew was almost laughing out loud. Paint guy couldn’t have picked a worse thing to pack.
“What. Is. This?” Nightmare asked, barely able to keep the fury out of his voice.
Paint guy didn’t seem to notice it. He laughed and waved a hand. “Oh, that’s just my paint. I need it to feel emotions since I don’t have a soul. Weird, right? I’m pretty sure that’ll be enough for two weeks plus a few days extra in case of a big event.”
Everyone was stunned for a moment. At least, everyone from Nightmare’s gang. Dream actually burst out laughing, and his laugh was sweet and clear. Killer wouldn’t mind hearing it again. And again. And again. He definitely wanted to keep Dream around, not only for Nightmare’s sake, but also for his own selfish pleasure. He was already plotting his next move, and at least the next half dozen after that. Killer was a planner. At least, he was when he wasn’t actually fighting someone. Then he just let his instincts carry him through.
Dream recovered from his burst of laughter and wiped his eyes. “Ink, we’ve talked about you just saying that. You’re supposed to be more gentle, remember? Gradual introductions are key.”
Ink’s eyelights changed into a blue question mark and a yellow hourglass. “Um… No? I don’t remember that. Did I write it down on my scarf? Should I have checked my scarf before I said that?”
Dream nodded. “It’s near the first quarter mark, Ink. In the green pen.”
The scarf was removed quickly, then folded and scanned. Killer noticed the hundreds of scribbles in different colors along its length. Were all of those notes? He wasn’t quite sure he believed that there could be a monster who was that forgetful, but the scarf said differently. Killer was pretty sure that a notebook would have been a better choice.
“Oh! Yeah, sorry, my bad. My memory is horrible. Souls do more than give you emotions, they give you a big memory, too,” Ink explained.
He opened his mouth to say something else, but Error cut him off. Error looked ticked off, which didn’t surprise Killer. Error’s default state was angry. It was part of his charm. “How the hell are you alive without a soul? That’s what gives us monsters our lives, not to mention our magic and our personalities. Without a working soul you die! Everybody knows that!”
Ink shrugged in an extremely unhelpful manner. “No one’s really sure. Lots of doctors have tried to figure it out. They haven’t figured out how to give me a soul, either. Right, Blue?”
The third of their guests jumped. He seemed nervous, and Killer instantly picked up on it. He couldn’t figure out why, though. They hadn’t even done anything threatening yet, not that they would. They had money to earn, after all. Killer had even put his trusty knife into its sheath and hidden it under his jacket. No one who didn’t know him would be able to tell that he was wearing it. Dust’s and Cross’s magic knives were both not summoned. Horror’s butcher knife was hidden in his packs. So why was Blue nervous? Did they really look that threatening?
“Y-yeah, Ink. None of them have been able to figure it out, and you won’t let them run any more tests,” Blue accused, “despite the fact that there are several promising new ones that might show them how to help you.”
Cross, unexpectedly, laughed. Killer’s skull whipped around to face him, but his other mate was already waving him away. Killer’s eye sockets narrowed. Oh, did he want to fuck the answers to all this mystery out of him. Well, that could happen later. Right now they really should be getting packed and then out on the trail.
“Okay!” Killer said brightly, “Since it’s pretty clear that you need these paints to show us your wonderful personality, I’ll pack them for you while the rest of our gang gets everything else squared away.”
Everyone turned to blink at him. Then they got to work quietly… except for Ink. He seemed to be unable to stop himself from talking. Killer could see the way that Nightmare’s tentacles were waving, and he decided then and there that he would put the chatterbox towards one end of the line so Nightmare had to deal with him as little as possible.
Time passed. Nightmare surveyed the lineup of their little caravan one last time before they started out on the trail. Everyone was mounted on their horses or mules. Nightmare was on Razz, already ready to ride sweep.
Riding at the head of their troop was Killer on Slim. Nightmare trusted them to lead them safely along any trail in the mountains.
Second in line was Ink. Ink was quickly becoming Nightmare’s worst nightmare (heh). He never stopped talking, he had those stupid paints, he had never even seen a horse before, his jeans were stiff; every little thing about him quickly got on his nerves. At least Rustle seemed to be able to stand him. That horse would put up with anything or anyone.
Error followed after, mounted on Shadow. There was no way Nightmare was putting anyone else next to that chatterbox. Error would just have to suck it.
Dream came next. He’d actually been the last to mount; not because he had forgotten how to ride. No, his mounting was too smooth for that. It was because Nightmare had almost literally had to pry him and Classy apart. Nightmare had forgotten how much Dream loved to just snuggle with the horses. He was addicted to the way they smelled.
Cross was next, on Honey. Killer had insisted that he be in front of Blue. Cross was gentle company, and Killer had told Nightmare in a moment of privacy about Blue’s skittishness. Nightmare hadn’t argued with him. He trusted his mates implicitly.
Next was Blue on Berry. Nightmare had learned that he was once an accomplished horseman, but some kind of an accident had led to Blue getting bucked off. He needed Berry’s steadiness to build his confidence back up. Nightmare could respect that. Besides, he was the shortest out of the entire group.
Ghost carried Dust next. He always rode in front of the pack mules, so that was where he was. If Blue could handle Ink’s nonstop talking he could handle it from Dust.
Crown, Regal, Cherry, and Boss followed one after the other. They were good mules (except for Cherry, who was a good horse). They wouldn’t cause any fuss or problems. They knew better by now than to do that. Besides, they had ridden this route before. Bar something unexpected it was highly unlikely that these solid pieces of horseflesh would so much as bat an eye.
The final two mules were Pumpkin, carrying Blood, and Shanks, carrying Sugar. Those lovebirds always rode tail. Nightmare was never sure how the guests would react if they found out about the two brothers’... arrangement. He hoped it never came up.
That was everyone, and every cinch strap and tie was perfectly in place. Nightmare couldn’t really get away with keeping them here any longer, so he didn’t. “Alright, everyone. Remember what I said - yes, that means you, Ink - and try not to get yourself or anyone else hurt. Understood? Good. Then it’s time to move out.”
Slowly, one horse at a time, they headed out on the path that would lead them into the mountains… and their future.
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Chapter 3: First Ride
The first ride and the first camp are achieved. The fire brings out something new in everyone.
I'm grieving with my cat, who died suddenly a few weeks ago. If you can and you want to, could you wish him well wherever he is now, however your religious beliefs will let you do so? Thanks.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first ride of the trip was always the most problematic. This trip was no exception. Nightmare had sighed when Ink had lost his stirrups the first time. The next three times had been annoying. After that it had ceased to be annoying and started to become funny. Rustle wasn’t going to let him fall, and it wasn’t like Nightmare himself hadn’t ridden without stirrups before. Just so long as he kept his heels down Nightmare would be happy.
But that was just the start of the problems. Dream was turning out to be just as annoying as he knew he’d be, but for an entirely different problem. That problem had a name. His name was Cross. Cross, apparently, hadn’t taken enough heed of all the stories Nightmare had shared with his gang about Dream. Cross was too thirsty for that. He was taking full advantage of his position behind Dream to watch his ass. Yes, he said it was because he wanted to be sure of the other’s seat, but Nightmare knew better. One, he knew that Dream’s seat was impeccable, and two, he could see the purple blush on Cross’ cheeks. He was just lucky that Dream didn’t notice. He would only pay for ogling a client, not for trying to go behind Killer’s and Nightmare’s backs.
The next problem was Dust. It was always like this; as soon as he thought Nightmare had gone out of his hearing range he started talking to his brother. Nightmare sighed. Blue didn’t seem too disturbed, but that couldn’t be said of his pony. Berry hadn’t ridden near Dust recently, so the gelding must have forgotten about his chattering. His ears were constantly swiveled back, but Blue seemed to be handling him well. His seat was good and his hands were soft even as he maintained control over the horse. That made Nightmare feel better about letting him stay there.
The last problem, and one that Nightmare had been predicting, was Ink’s paints. Their sloshing around was scaring the pack train. Blood and Sugar eventually had the whole line stop so they could redistribute the load. That seemed to calm down the mules, but Cherry was being his usual spooky self. That was okay. They were used to Cherry’s spookiness.
Nightmare was impressed when they made the first stopping place in reasonable time. He had allowed for much more malarky than actually occurred. Unfortunately it looked like they needed that time. The camp was in shambles. If Nightmare had to guess he would have said that a herd of elk had bedded down there recently. The trees were still leaking sap, the grass was laid flat by the weight of those sleeping bodies, and the tents that were the sleeping areas were torn to the ground. Nightmare sighed. It would take at least an hour to fix everything.
His crew immediately ground tied their horses and got to work. Dust and Blood saw to the grass, fluffing it up so that the horses could actually eat. Cross set to gathering firewood and wiping down the trees. Sugar looked after the pack train. Error used his strings to fix the tents, and Killer helped Ink to dismount. Dream and Blue had gotten down and were looking around.
“How can we help, brother?” Dream said instantly, Blue right beside him. Nightmare blinked his one eye at him. He hadn’t expected them to want to help.
“Why don’t you… help Sugar unload the food for tonight?” He eventually said. He still didn’t trust his brother, not after what he had done, but he knew that unpacking the mules would be very hard to mess up.
Dream and Blue nodded, ground tied their horses, and walked calmly over to Sugar. Good. They at least knew better than to spook the horses.
Killer’s soft voice interrupted his focus on his brother. “Somebody’s got a crush, huh?”
Nightmare spun to face him. Killer had his signature grin on his face, and his soul was beating at a speed Nightmare recognized as happy. Nightmare relaxed slightly and said, “I didn’t realise Cross was being so obvious. He’s been ogling Dream’s ass this entire time.”
Killer chuckled. Nightmare didn’t see what was so funny. “Yeah, Cross. The big guy’s always had a soft spot for people who dote on the horses.”
Nightmare tilted his head. He didn’t particularly remember Cross being like that in the past, but Killer was miles away more observant than he was. That was why Nightmare trusted him to be his second in command. He was a general; Killer was his chief of intelligence. Neither of them could operate without the other. And they both needed Cross to keep the peace between them and guard against the dangers of the road.
“Well, he’d better be prepared to meet the consequences of his actions. Dream is a client, and he is definitely not a part of our relationship. What would you say would be an appropriate punishment? 15 lashes?”
Killer grinned. If there was ever a monster who was the definition of a sadist, it was Killer. “Oh, at least. I’d say we edge him a few times, too.”
Nightmare shook his head. He had the final say in this, and he thought that that was going a bit too far. “It’s only been a few hours, Killer. If he continues this behaviour tomorrow, then we can think about edging him. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir!” Killer said, saluting. Then he wandered off to begin unsaddling the horses for the night and getting everything ready for supper.
Blue was fascinated by the fire. He could vaguely hear the rest of the Star Sanses and Nightmare’s Gang moving around, setting up things for the night, cooking food on the other side of the fire, and, in Ink’s case, chattering away. None of that really mattered to him right now, though. His whole attention was consumed by the fire.
It had been so long since he had seen an untamed fire like this. When he was younger he saw them every weekend while his Dad was still alright and well. Then, after his accident, Blue had seen them every night as he struggled to raise a child all on his own. Then Stretch had grown up enough to say he hated the smell of smoke and that was that. Blue hadn’t realized how much he missed it until now.
Blue’s hypnotized state ended when one of Nightmare’s Gang sat next to him and passed him a cup. Blue looked into it. It seemed to have… ketchup?
“Here, drink it. I’ve never met a Sans who didn’t like a condiment, and you’re pretty cute, so enjoy,” The stranger said. His voice was deeper than Blue would have pictured, deeper and hoarser. Blue would have predicted the hoarseness after all of the talking this monster had done today.
Blue honestly wasn’t sure who the monster behind him had been talking to, but he couldn’t judge. One of his best friends still hadn’t stopped talking. Ink would have been hoarse had he been a normal monster. He wasn’t. It wasn’t that he was crazy. Ink was the kind of anomaly that rules had to be built around. So was the dark boned skeleton Blue recognized from a few years ago. Now if only Blue knew his n-
“What’s your name, anyway? I’m Sans, obviously, but most people call me Dust. Not my brother, though. He still calls me Sans,” Dust said with a grin, his mismatched eye lights shining bright. The concentric rings of red and purple were almost as fascinating as the fire.
“I’m Blue,” he said, startled, “Technically it’s Dr. Blue, but I don’t actually practice at the moment, so most people call me Blue. My brother calls me Sans, though, too.”
The wide smile that shone from Dust’s skull was dazzling. Blue’s eye lights widened as he took it in. Wow, Dust was cute. A blush spread across Blue’s maxilla, along with a hesitant smile. Maybe he could do something about that? Stretch wouldn’t be happy, but he already wasn’t happy about this little trip. What would be the harm in having a little fun?
“Well, Dr. Blue, I’d love to have you examine me sometime,” Dust said, waggling his brow bones.
Oh, that was flirting! Blue knew what to do with flirting. He batted his eyelids back at Dust and leaned in. “Oh, I’d be happy to. I’m sure you have some pieces of your anatomy that can fascinate me for hours. I might even have one or two suggestions that would make your life more… pleasurable! Mweh heh heh heh!”
Ink overheard his friend laughing and grinned from ear to ear. “Yay, Blue! I’m glad he’s feeling good enough to laugh. He’s always so stuffy! That was one of the reasons we took this trip; to make Blue relax a bit! He-”
“Stars, do you ever shut up?” Error growled. He was securing the last string to the ground with some kind of spike. Ink didn’t know the names of any of this stuff, and he barely knew Error’s name. As far as he was aware he had never left the city before. Then again, his memory was absolutely horrible. Not as bad as Blue’s dad’s, but still objectively horrible. Good thing he wasn’t objective!
“Nope!” Ink said, popping the p. “I don’t like it when things are quiet at all! It’s super scary and makes me feel isolated and alone in a place where no one can rescue me. The same thing happens if I see too much of the color white! It’s kind of a trigger, so I fill up the silence with as much noise as I can and make lots of art! I’m constantly repainting the walls of my apartment, and I always have some music playing at home.”
Error was giving Ink the funniest look. It was almost… sympathetic? Curiosity sparked in Ink’s mind. Why would anyone relate to an experience like that? Ink was about to ask when Error spoke up. “That’s stupid. You’ve got actual friends, idiot. They’re not going to abandon you.”
Ink nodded. “I know that, but that’s not how triggers work. Triggers are totally illogical. They’re weird little psychological phenomena that we don’t fully understand. A trigger can be anything from the smell of lilacs, to the taste of chemo medicine, to the feeling of tulle between your toes, to the sight of a specific crack on the ceiling of your house, to-”
“The sound of door locks? Those ones with a full bar you lock into place with a key?” Error asked suddenly.
Ink took in the sight of him. Error looked haunted. Interesting. Ink’s curiosity made him a promise: he would find out everything about Error and his past that he could to satisfy his own curiosity. If he was going to do that, however, he needed to win Error’s trust.
“Yeah! That’s definitely something that could be a trigger,” Ink said, then he went on, “and it’s not like you’d have to know why it was a trigger, either. Sometimes we just have something that’s triggering to us without any explanation. Dream is that way about moles. The little furry animal, I mean. Totally sends him into a panic attack whenever they show up in a nature documentary we’re watching. Blue now likes to pre-screen any movies we’re going to see, just in case. Actually, he pre-screens them for a lot of things. Useless sex scenes, for one.”
Error snorted. Ink blinked at him, feeling an unfamiliar paint combination roll over him. He couldn’t have put a name to it, but there were bits of yellow, pink, and green in there. Yellow was happiness of all sorts, pink was affection or love, and green was the need for something. It could be the need for information, or food, or a plan, or… anything, really.
“Don’t,” Error snorted, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those sex purists who thinks you should only have sex after marraige. That’s so stupid.”
Ink laughed his own unique laugh that couldn’t decide between being a chuckle and a giggle. “No, I just think that those stupid sex scenes take away from the body of the story. Sometimes they’re good, but mostly they’re just put in for horny fans. They don’t even make any sense. People just don’t hop into bed with perfect strangers at the drop of the hat. At least, not any sane people. Not that sanity’s earned its good ratings, mind you.”
“Well that’s true,” Error agreed with distaste. “Sex shouldn’t be some kind of spectacle for anyone to see. I know I wouldn’t want anyone but my lover or lovers to see me like that. I might be the most handsome skeleton in existence, but that doesn’t mean I want to show myself off.”
It was Ink’s turn to snort. “You? Handsome? Your bones are black, Error. Don’t you know that the darker your bones are the less handsome of a skeleton you are?”
Error’s grin was absolutely crazy, and Ink couldn’t help but mirror it. It looked like so much fun! “That’s what they want you to think! After all, so many people are cursed with white bones. They had to come up with some way to boost everyone’s egos. Telling them that white bones are best is a good PR spin! I bet even you believe it about your own bones!”
Ink blinked at him, then slipped out of his overshirt and bared his bones. They were covered in patterns, almost random, that had more black to them than white. “It’s not like my bones are all white, though. I guess that means that, by your definition, I’m ugly, too! Oh well.”
Error’s larger eye light was now almost as wide as his socket. The other one, the grey one, had wandered off. Ink wondered if he could even see out of that eye or if he just had lazy eye. Either way it was disconcerting. “Well… you’re not that ugly. You’re less ugly than all those bleached-boned idiots in the movies. After all, you have some black on there. And the contrast looks… kind of nice, if a bit blurry. D’ya mind taking a step back?”
“Why?” Ink asked, tilting his head curiously.
“It’s none of your business why, chatterbox!” Error screeched, “Just do it!”
Ink sighed. He’d been doing so well with winning Error over, but nothing worth doing was worth doing too fast. He stepped back a few paces. “Alright, Error. Is this good?”
Error was too busy studying Ink’s patterns to answer. Ink studied his expression, committing it to memory. It was so… fascinating… the way he was staring at Ink. The play of light on the black bone of his skull was so enchanting, and the lines of his mouth were inviting in a way Ink couldn’t place. He longed to sketch it. Maybe later, after dinner, although the fire wouldn’t be the ideal light source. Needs must, though!
Killer grinned as everyone took up their positions around the fire. The small blue skeleton and Dust were already seated, flirting with each other like there was no tomorrow. The artist and Error were arguing, but it involved more words out of Error than Killer had heard the entire time he’d been working for them. Blood and Sugar were sitting as far apart as they could stand, cooking the food and shooting each other longing glances. Cross was sitting at attention next to Dream and shooting him the most adoring looks. Dream seemed just about as oblivious as Nightmare could be. He was staring into space, zoning out. That left Killer to work on Nightmare. Perfect.
“Hey, Boss~” Killer purred as he slid in next to Nightmare, taking one of his tentacles into his hands and slowly massaging it. It was tense as hell. It was pretty obvious who was causing their leader so much stress. His eye light was fixed on Dream like it had been nailed in place.
“Yes, Killer?” Nightmare said distractedly, his eye light not leaving Dream, “What is it?”
Killer brought the tentacle up to his teeth, kissing it. “The tension in your aura is palpable, Boss. You need to relax a bit. Let me lavish you with all the attention you so richly deserve.”
Nightmare turned to face him, his eyebrow raised and his one eye light showing Killer his amusement. “Laying it on a little thick tonight, aren’t you? What are you trying to do, impress me? You know you already do. Or are you trying to distract me from Cross’ misbehaviour? I can see him over there. He’s acting like a lovestruck teenager.”
So are you, Killer thought to himself, a lovestruck teenager that’s fallen in love with his biggest rival. Out loud he said, “If you want to say that about Cross you have to say that about all of them. Dust is flirting with that small blue one like it’s his favorite hobby, Blood and Sugar are doing their Romeo and Juliet act, and Error is arguing so much with that artist that I wouldn’t be surprised if his voice wasn’t hoarse tomorrow.”
“The small one is called Blue and the artist’s name is Ink,” Nightmare said absently.
Killer blinked at him, then smiled his most winning smile - the one he wore when he was trying not to get caught at something sketchy. “You know, it would probably be a good idea if we introduced everyone before matching people up for the night. Why don’t I get everyone’s attention and you can tell people who they’ll be sleeping with?”
Nightmare tore his eye light off of Dream just long enough to narrow it at Killer. Then he sighed and shrugged. “Fine, then. No knives, though. I know you like to show off, but please, save it for another time.”
Killer saluted with the half-ironic, half-serious form that drove Nightmare crazy. “Got it, Boss!”
Then he turned to the center of the fire everyone was gathered around, raised his hands to his mouth, and hollered, “Heylalo, skellies! Listen up, the boss has something to say!”
Eight heads turned to face him with expressions that varied from annoyance to curiosity to mildly dissociative. Killer frowned slightly. Blood he could understand, but why would Dream be dissociating? Had something happened to him since he and Nightmare parted ways? Or was it just the general absentmindedness of a normal monster? Killer vowed to find out.
Nightmare’s grunt interrupted his thoughts. Killer turned to face his handsome datemate and listened closely to the orders of the night. “Now that I have your attention, I’m going to introduce you all and tell you who you’ll be sleeping with. Remember that these arrangements might change as the trip goes on, so if you can’t handle sleeping with someone please let me know. Blood, Sugar,” He pointed to the two of them in turn, “you’ll be sleeping together in the red tent. Ink, Blue,” Again he pointed to each of them in turn, “You’ll be sleeping in the blue tent. Killer, Dream,” He signaled who each of them was, “you have the yellow tent. Error, Dust, please take the black tent,” He gestured at both of them. “Finally, Cross and myself will take the green tent. My name is Nightmare. Now, does anyone have any questions?”
The boss studied each face in turn, as did Killer. They would compare notes later.
Cross was blushing and averting his eyes from Nightmare’s face. He knew he was in trouble for today, but that didn’t stop him from looking forward to being punished. It never had before.
Blue was looking at Dust with longing and a flushed face. The expression was mutual. Interesting. Maybe they should be paired up in a tent tomorrow night. Dust could use a bit of a chance to unwind.
Ink had clearly lost interest in the conversation. He was looking around at the clearing with his hand twitching in the air. Long strokes, short curves, and forceful jabs would have painted a picture if Ink had only been holding a paintbrush. Killer would have bet any amount of money that he was already planning a drawing or two of their surroundings. Artists were like that.
Blood was eyeing the food with hunger, as usual. After what he had been through it was hardly a surprise. Sugar was beaming at his brother. Only his practiced eye told Killer that he was ready for their night’s more… intimate activities. Hopefully this time they wouldn’t get caught.
Dream was eyeing Killer with something like anxiety, except moreso. It almost looked like fear. It did look exactly like the expression Nightmare had turned on him the first time they’d been asked to share a tent. Huh.
Finally, there was Error. Error, as usual, was grumbling to himself. Killer knew exactly what he was upset about. He hated having to share a tent with anyone. He was always on edge, worried that they were going to bump into him in the night. He knew better by now, though, than to complain. Nightmare had no sympathy for his disgust at the touch of others anymore. No one had ever touched him at night. That wasn’t going to change.
Nightmare nodded when he was satisfied that no one was going to complain. “Good. Now, Blood, please serve out tonight’s food to everyone. It’s time to eat.”
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Chapter 4: Hiatus
Hi! If you’re reading this, then I’ve had to go on hiatus. My mental and physical health are really bad and frequently act up. My meds don’t always work right, either. So! I’m going to be taking a break from publishing until something changes. I don’t know when that will be, but I will finish this story eventually, so please be patient!
Chapter 5: Dissociation
Things develop a little further with the main four, Dream is not as healthy as he seems, and Blood needs help sometimes.
Sorry to post this so late in the day! I slept all day because of my fever.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Error had never needed much sleep. Scratch that, he’d never needed any. He usually spent his nights on watch… sometimes even with Nightmare’s blessing. Giving him a spot in a tent was more or less an excuse for Nightmare to bring an extra tent along. You never knew when an argument would mean somebody needed to “sleep on the couch”, so to speak.
Because he was up all night, Error was aware when Ink woke up and got out of his tent. It was ridiculously early in the morning. It was so early in the morning that the sun wasn’t even thinking about getting up. What the hell was the artist doing now?
He shadowed Ink, his years as an enforcer blending perfectly with his years as a wrangler to give him the skill to shadow someone silently in the woods. He tried not to think about those years before he had met Nightmare. He’d hated them, but he’d loved them, too. He’d hated how he’d been treated, everyone hating him and throwing him out of places just for trying to do his job, but he’d loved getting to destroy things and attack people who got too close.
As he followed Ink through the camp, he noticed the way the other moved. Ink almost seemed to glide, as if the mere presence of grass, branches, and horse dung didn’t matter to him. Error ghosted over and saw something he wasn’t expecting: a complete lack of footprints, even in the mist-wet mud.
What the fuck? Error thought to himself, I swear he just stepped there!
That was when he noticed the black ink at the artist’s feet. It flowed like a cloud, silent and untraceable after it had passed. Error frowned. Cheater. Why did he get to do that when all Error could do was mess with the code that played his glitched “Judgement Hall” walk sequence to shut it up. There was a reason he preferred riding to walking.
Finally, Ink came to a stop near the horses. It was a little too far for him to bother them, which Error was thankful for. When he had first joined the gang, he’d made the mistake of standing too close to the horses in the wrong spot. He’d gotten kicked for his trouble. He’d never needed a doctor (not that he would trust one after… well, maybe the little one. Blue? He was a doctor. After what he’d said when Error had kidnapped him, maybe he could trust him.) but he had needed lecturing. He was glad he didn’t have to deliver it to Ink. They really would have gotten in trouble if he said what Nightmare said to him to a client.
Ink… sat down? Crouched? Whatever it was looked uncomfortable as hell. He had some kind of notebook in his hand, and a pencil. Then… he just… drew?
Error watched him draw for at least an hour. The horses didn’t seem to mind it, and neither did he. He was caught off guard when Ink turned around and winked at him. His open eye light was a green heart. “You never know when you’ll need to draw something new. Maybe sometime I could draw you~”
When Error woke up out of his crash at the audacity of Ink suggesting that he might draw perfection as if it were a horse, he was face to goop with Nightmare, who didn’t look amused. “Time to mount up, Error. Your punishment for missing breakfast is to wait to eat until lunch.”
The ride on this, the second day of the trip, was going well. Ink had only lost his stirrups once so far, and Nightmare had told him to stop bothering with them. Dream had snorted so loud at that, that even Sugar, riding tail at the end of the line, could hear him. He couldn’t see Nightmare’s blush, but he knew it was there.
Sugar had always suspected that Nightmare had a crush on his brother. He was too deeply betrayed by Dream’s actions during the Apple Incident for the relationship to be the usual mixed one between brothers, and it was long past the time when he should have forgiven his brother if they had a good but familial brotherly relationship. No, Nightmare had to have felt something more, something deeper, for Dream’s actions to have bit so deeply for so long. Add that to his reaction when he saw Dream again, all these years later, and you had a recipe for love. Who better to recognize it than another brother lover? No one, that’s who.
Well, there were technically two brother lovers on this trip today, but Blood was having a bad time with his dissociation. His last doctor had declared that he was “cured” of his PTSD after a few weeks without night terrors or flashbacks. Nightmare had made sure that the emphasis was on “last” when he found out why Blood didn’t have any more pills to take after their usual monthly trip into town.
Unfortunately, that meant that there were no doctors within 50 miles who could treat him, since he’d run through every doctor and therapist in range. Nightmare had threatened the hospital with losing their land lease if they didn’t hire somebody new and decent. They hadn’t found anyone yet. Sugar hoped they would soon. His brother needed his medicine.
In the meantime, Sugar would just go on being the amazing mate he was and try to keep his brother in the here and now whenever he started to drift away from his body.
“DO YOU RECOGNIZE THIS PLACE, BROTHER?”
Sugar watched as his brother looked around them. They were about two hours into the ride. They’d reached one of their usual stopping points, but they’d reached it much sooner than Nightmare had anticipated, so they were going to continue on to the next one before their rest. It was a beautiful spot. There was a large meadow, maybe the size of one of the basketball courts Sugar used to play on. The meadow was full of wildflowers at this time of year. There were dozens of different types, if not hundreds. There was a human wilderness botanist who was one of their regular customers just so he could see this meadow. It was also the place where Blood and Sugar had both proposed to each other at the same time.
“uh… no, sugs. should i?” Blood asked.
Sugar frowned. Oh, it was one of those ones, then. They were the worst. “YES, BUT IT’S NOT URGENT. I CAN TELL YOU ABOUT IT BACK AT CAMP. IN THE MEANTIME, WHY DON’T YOU TELL ME ABOUT ALL OF THE WILDFLOWERS! DO YOU SEE ANY GREEN ONES?”
Blood looked around, searching. Eventually he said, “i don’t see any green ones, bro, but the leaves and stuff are green. there’s some really pretty yellow ones. they look like the bouquets mom used to make in springtime. what did she call them again? um… daffodils, that was it. she used to say we were both going to be stuck carrying them at our weddings, heh. we should carry them, you know, to prove her right when we get ma- hey, isn’t this where you and i proposed to each other last year?”
“GOOD JOB, BROTHER!” Sugar cheered, his voice coasting over “loud” into the zone of “excited but not going to scare the horses”, a distinction he’d learned to keep a long, long time ago (although not in a galaxy far, far away).
Blood reached up and started to tug at his head wound. Sugar was distressed to see more black goo leaking out of it. “heh. how long did it take me this time?”
“ONLY ABOUT TWO MINUTES! THAT’S FOUR MINUTES FASTER THAN LAST TIME!”
Blood smiled weakly, checked the line of horses ahead of them with paranoia, and then blew Sugar the fastest kiss he’d ever managed. “all thanks to you, sweet cheeks. you’re the most awesome datemate a monster could ask for.”
Sugar’s grin could have lit up a crypt. “THANK YOU!”
Cross wasn’t aware that something was wrong with Dream until he hit his skull on the branch. Up until that point he’d thought that Dream was just… well, not very good at taking compliments.
He’d seen the way Killer watched Dream with hunger in his eyes, and he’d seen Nightmare’s tentacles forming little hearts when he didn’t think anyone was watching. Since both of his datemates were interested in the positive little skeleton, he figured it was okay to flirt with him. Especially given how adorable he was.
The flirting hadn’t really succeeded. Dream had brushed off every compliment to his skills, although it was a bit awkward. Cross had complimented his seat when Classy made a completely unnecessary jump over a twig. Dream had said that Nightmare had taught him how to do it, that his brother was always the faster learner. Cross had complimented his handling of a creek crossing and Dream had blinked, then said he hadn’t noticed it.
Then Cross had complimented him on his outfit of the day, going as far as to say it was pretty as hell. Dream was wearing a blue western shirt with a yellow floral pattern on it on top of his jeans. It really fit him well, and Cross couldn’t help but blush. That is, until he saw Dream flinch.
Cross frowned. Why would Dream flinch like that? It was a harmless compliment. Hell, it barely even counted as flirting. So why would Dream flinch as if he was shot? The shirt had to be associated with a bad memory. That was what usually made Cross flinch, like when little Goth had brought his new locket on their trip two years ago. That had hurt.
Cross shook his thoughts about that out of his head when he saw Dream ride straight into the branch as if he hadn’t seen it. It was a thick branch, easily 4 inches in diameter. Anyone with a bad seat would have been knocked to the ground. As it was Dream just… fell back a bit. His posture wasn’t bad, but it reminded Cross of the time that Dust had been kicked by the only donkey they’d ever owned, Fell. Fell was… no longer around. Dust’d gotten a pretty bad concussion, and Cross had volunteered to ride with him to the hospital. Dust had been half stunned the entire time they’d ridden back. The fact that Dream looked like that scared him. Cross signaled to Nightmare that they needed to halt the line because of Dream.
Nightmare passed the signal along to Killer, who called out, cheerfully, “Okay, everyone! It looks like we’ve run into another little problem! Time for a rest!”
Meanwhile, Nightmare had dismounted next to Dream. Cross could see the anger in his eyes, so he quickly explained, “He hit his head on a branch back there, Boss. Must have been pretty hard, because he’s acting off.”
Dream didn’t defend himself. He just slowly slumped forward, like he didn’t have the energy to sit up anymore. Nightmare’s tentacles caught him with the surprising gentleness that always made Cross feel loved, even though he knew it was just his datemate being careful. Nightmare carried Dream over to a clearing. Cross didn’t see what happened next because he was taking charge of both Classy, Dream’s mare, and Razz, Nightmare’s gelding. Razz… well, he put up with Honey, Cross’ gelding. Barely. That made handling both of them at the same time hard.
The next thing he knew, another set of reigns was being handed to him. Blue got down smoothly and walked over to the mess behind him. Cross spared a quick look. Dream was laid out on the ground, staring up at the sky and mumbling responses to Nightmare’s gruff questions. Then Blue arrived, and his voice carried. “Is he dissociating again? Or is it something more?”
Nightmare glared at Blue, but his eyes were glassy with shock. Cross knew what it was that caused that. He’d never mentioned his brother dissociating before, and he knew how bad it could be from Blood. He was probably scared stiff.
Cross, his voice just loud enough to carry without scaring the horses, explained, “He hit his skull on a thick branch, but I think he was dissociating before that. He seemed really out of it.”
Blue nodded, understanding the situation, and turned to Dream. Cross saw the brightest green glow he’d ever seen from any healer, including the ones at the hospital his- Nope, not going to think about it. The glow outlined the tiny monster. Then he heard rustling, and Dream sat up, smiling and standing as if nothing had happened. Hmm. Cross turned to look at Sugar, and they shared a look. They needed to get Blue to see to Blood as soon as possible.
When they finally reached the safety of the next sleeping site, Nightmare sighed. He felt… conflicted. On the one hand, he was glad his brother knew suffering. After everything he’d done (and not done) to Nightmare when they were kids, Dream deserved that karma. On the other… he was surprised at how… protective he still felt about Dream. He had forgotten how naive Dream could be. He hoped… no, he wouldn’t. He’d spent years mad at Dream. He wasn’t going to stop now.
Still, he was a client, and it would be bad if they had to turn back now. Blue- no, Dr. Blue had fixed the obvious problem, but Nightmare still would prefer it if Dream were watched that night. That left him in a bit of a dilemma. He’d wanted to put Dust and Dr. Blue into a tent together tonight, but he needed to put Dr. Blue with Dream. Hmm.
“Alright, everyone!” Nightmare called out as they settled around the fire. “Sleeping arrangements are going to change tonight. Killer, Cross, you’re with me,” Cross gulped and Nightmare smiled. If he’d thought he’d gotten out easily last night he had no idea what he was in for tonight. “Ink, I’m putting you - yes, you. I’m putting you with Dust. Error, you’ve got a tent to yourself tonight. Dr. Blue, please keep watch over Dream tonight. Finally, Blood, Sugar, you boys share the last tent. Everyone understand?”
The skeletons in question all nodded. Error looked particularly pleased. Nightmare knew he would be. He hated sharing a tent with anyone.
“Good,” Nightmare said, nodding to Blood, “Now, why don’t you hand out the food?”
It wasn’t that Dream intended to break out of observation. It was more… well, if he’d actually been present when Nightmare told Blue he needed to be watched, he would have. But he’d been dissociating again. It wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t Nighty’s, either! It was just… that… compliment, really.
Dream had never liked compliments when they were directed at him. They made him feel uncomfortable, like people weren’t really seeing him, just whatever they were complimenting. His teachers had said he needed to get used to it, so he’d tried to. He’d been doing well… up until the Tea Incident, that is. After that, he just… stopped trying. If that was what happened when people didn’t see him as him, he wasn’t going to give them a foothold. If he just ignored them, they’d go away, right? Or they’d turn out like Ink or Blue, but they were different.
Ink was only attracted to aesthetics and sources of curiosity. As in, he thought everything was pretty, but in a “I want to paint it” way. He’d made that clear right at the start. The people he wanted to fuck were the people who challenged or confused him. Once Dream had shared his backstory that first time, Ink was no longer attracted. That made Dream feel safe.
Blue had complimented him when they first met, too. But even Dream could see that he was scared, not attracted. The fact that he had apologized later, when Stretch wasn’t around judging him, and explained his own backstory, well… That made Dream feel safe, too.
So when Cross had complimented his shirt all of a sudden, it had made Dream have a flashback. He wasn’t sure whether he was lucky or unlucky in that his flashbacks made him dissociate. It wasn’t really something he could control, and this was far from the first time he had been hurt because of it, but at least he hadn’t been forced into a ward. He was irrationally terrified of the ones in the city. He didn’t understand how Ink could go into them willingly.
It wasn’t Cross’ fault he’d reacted that way either, though. Cross didn’t know. Hell, Nightmare didn’t know. He probably was trying to make friends with Dream, just like Ink and Blue had done, and now he probably thought Dream was mad at him or, worse, broken.
That was why Dream had left the tent with Blue. It hadn’t been to escape observation. It was so he could find Cross and apologize to him for… well, Dream wasn’t quite sure. He just needed to.
Unfortunately, what he needed to do came into direct conflict with what was actually real when he reached the side of his brother’s tent. From there, he could hear what was going on inside, and it sounded… weird. There were groans and slaps and muttered whimpers. Dream found himself leaning against the side of the tent to try and be able to hear better.
“So, Cross, do you feel like apologizing for flirting with my brother yet?” His twin's sinuous voice snaked into his ear.
Wait, flirting? With him? Cross had been flirting? Dream shuddered, and yet… it didn’t scare him. Mostly because Cross hadn’t been rude or gross about it, but also because he was kinda- No. No, he wasn’t allowed to think that. It wasn’t safe. It wasn’t safe.
Dream had just about reached that point in his thinking process when he heard the voice behind him, silvery and just as sweet as he had dreamed. “Oh, hello there, little light. What brings you out of your tent so late, hmm? Just taking a walk to cool your head, or were you looking for something? More importantly, did you hear something you liked~?”
Dream turned around and blushed. Oh, Killer looked… good. He was sweaty, but his clothes were clean. He was glowing around all his joints, and Dream could see a peak of his magic formed underneath them. It was then that he felt his own magic yearning to form.
That threw a bucket of cold water over him. Oh, no no no no no! He couldn’t be… he couldn’t- New topic! “I’m sorry for flirting with Cross! I didn’t know he was taken or that he was in a closed relationship, and I didn’t realize I was flirting with him, but that’s not a good excuse, and I’m sorry! I don’t want my brother to be mad at me. I don’t want any of you to be mad at me! Please forgive me!”
Killer had raised his hands and one brow bone when the words spilled out of Dream. “Hey, don’t worry about it, little light. He’s not in trouble, really. Nightmare’s just reminding him that he’s supposed to ask our permission before he flirts with anyone. Our relationship isn’t closed, but it’s not wide open, either. We’re a kitchen table poly. That means that everyone in the relationship should at least get along with everyone else enough to share a meal. You should give us a chance. We want to get to know you, little light. Whether it’s just as a friend or something more is up to you. Right now we just want to get a chance to flirt with such a bright little thing. You okay with that?”
Dream gulped. “Um… maybe? I, um… need to think about it.”
Killer winked at him. “Take your time. The only one of us in any rush is Cross, and me and Night will… educate him. Now, let me walk you back to your tent. You really should be getting some sleep.”
“So, that’s who it was. He looked better than he did earlier, Boss. A hell of a lot more present. I think he came to apologize. He seems to think he was flirting, too, although not intentionally. You know, like you did when you first met me? And then I explained that “flirting without knowing it” is just incel code for “being attractive and existing”? Someone sure did a number on him, Boss. He actually thought you were going to be mad at him for flirting with one of your datemates without permission.”
Nightmare was frowning, and Killer could tell that he was pissed at whoever had hurt his twin, but even as he fought with himself over that Killer still wasn’t able to slip that last line past him.
“Why would I ever give Dream my permission to flirt with one of my datemates?”
Killer knew he should tread carefully… but fuck if he knew how. Besides, that always made Nightmare suspicious as hell. Better to be honest and deal with the fallout later than make him mad by being careful right now. “C’mon, Boss, you don’t have to hide it from me. You’ve got a crush on him. Cross clearly has a crush on him. So do I. Why don’t we give him a shot, hmm? At the very least it will give him some practice. I don’t think anyone’s ever shown him how to flirt… or what that should really mean.”
Nightmare stared at him, his tentacles whipping behind him in a way Killer couldn’t quite place. Then, after a long pause, he said, “... Fine, but no kissing until I say so. Not with me, not with you, and definitely not with Cross.”
Killer grinned. That went better than he’d expected. “Of course, Boss. That’s how a good relationship works.”
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Chapter 6: Horror's Past
The Horror brothers' past and present is laid bare for all to see. Blue reveals something, too.
There is going to be a gap before the next update because:
a) I'm having surgery tomorrow
b) I haven't written anything else yet
c) I'm dealing with sudden major pain spikes that are debilitating
d) I'M HAVING SURGERY TOMORROW!!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dream was wandering around the camp again, although this time it was with Blue's blessing. Ever since the Tea Incident, Dream had... had trouble eating breakfast. Ink had indulged him when he found out, but Blue had helped him find a hack. If he worked up an appetite by exercising a bit he could usually manage to eat something small, which really was healthier for him. Since they were around company that might get worried or angry if he didn't eat he had been taking walks every morning before breakfast.
Usually he went to go check on the horses... alright, he went to go cuddle with them. Could you blame him? Horse noses were some of the softest, warmest, best smelling things on the planet! Who wouldn't want to cuddle with them?
Today, though, Blue had asked him not to leave the main camp. It wasn't that he didn't trust him not to get lost! That was what they were always both worrying about with Ink. No, it was that Blue wanted to make sure someone else could find him if he started to dissociate again. Yesterday had been bad according to Blue. The fact that Dream didn't remember it backed him up. He was probably going to be better today, but... well, it was better to be safe than sorry.
The other reason Dream was up so early was his, well, dreams. He'd had another bad one, a true night terror that made him remember his past mistakes so vividly they still hurt. Since he'd been dissociating it only made sense that he would have one. He couldn't get it out of his head.
Then he heard a cry he had only ever heard come out of his own throat and all thoughts of his own problems fled. It sounded like someone was having a night terror! He had to help! He ran to the source of the cry. It was the red tent, the one Blood and Sugar slept in. Had something attacked them? Dream looked around desperately for a weapon. He saw a big stick, grabbed it, and burst into the tent... just in time to see Sugar kiss Blood. On the teeth. With tongue. And... yeah, it was still going on. Not a platonic kiss then.
Dream quickly backed out of their tent, thinking hard. He knew that was... supposed to be bad, right? Loving your brother? But... they looked so happy. He should ask his brother whether they were dating. He knew Blue would want to give them a gift, probably some sort of... actually, Dream wasn't sure what Blue would want to give. Medical supplies, maybe? That hole in Blood's head looked... not good. Dream couldn't help but wonder how it happened. He'd only ever seen anything like it when Nightmare had tried to k-... during the Apple Incident. Blue had been so good so far, not asking about it. Dream was sure it was because he was afraid of getting in trouble for asking. Dream should ask for him!... After he cuddled with the horses.
When Dream finally deigned to join them for breakfast, Nightmare and his gang were already starting on their second helpings. Nightmare was last in line. He always made sure his boys were taken care of before he took care of himself. It was important to him that it worked that way.
Nightmare didn't really want to talk with his brother. He didn't want to think about what he had agreed to last night. He didn't want to hear Dream's excuses. He didn't want to know Dream's opinion. When Dream spoke, though, it wasn't about any of that, although it was just as much something he didn't want to talk about... at least not with Dream. "I saw Sugar kiss Blood this morning. Are they dating? I think he was having a night terror. Why? Was it because of the wound on his head?"
The whole camp went silent at Dream's loud questions. Nightmare wanted to turn around and hit him. Then the idea that that thought had even crossed his mind horrified him. Dream was his brother! Even at his lowest he wouldn't have hurt him deliberately!
Instead, he turned around slowly, taking in the emotional state of Dream, Blue, and Ink. Dream seemed determined, sad, and hopeful at the same time. Hmm. Blue was staring at Blood's wound like he'd just noticed it. His hands were twitching, probably wanting to help. Finally, Ink... he was looking blank. His eye lights were black with shock. Then they filled with a purple heart and a yellow box. There wasn't any judgement there, not in any of them. Interesting.
At the fire, Blood coughed. Everyone turned to face him. He was blushing like crazy, and his Determination was shining through. "you can tell 'em, boss. i think they'll be good, and shug says that blue might help."
Now all eyes were on Nightmare. He sighed. "As you wish," he said. Then he began the Horror brothers' tale, "Blood and Sugar used to work for another wrangling company, one that lost its license and decided to operate in our territory illegally. They were lead by an Undyne who was... less than a stellar leader. On their last trip she forgot to pack rations. To hide her own mistake, she attacked Blood, caved in his skull, and claimed it was his fault and that she had dealt him justice. She convinced the rest of their crew to leave him and his horse for dead at an abandoned cabin on the trail. Sugar refused to leave his brother, so he stayed behind, too. Winter came early that year, long before they had been able to gather enough supplies to survive. They ended up having to eat their own horses. They were still almost starved to death when my gang and I came along. We saved them. Needless to say that crew of wranglers is... no longer around."
Silence once again filled the camp, only broken by the grunt of Pumpkin, in the distance, trying to squeeze himself between Ghost and a tree. He had a problem with being able to tell how wide a space he needed to exist in. Sometimes it was hilarious where he tried to fit, but right now no one was watching. They were all watching Nightmare and Dream.
Dream had shrunk back into himself at the story. Too late Nightmare remembered that his brother had never dealt well with abuse or gore in the stories they'd read. He was, for a fleeting second, worried that Dream wouldn't be able to handle it. Then Dream shook himself out of it and put a pained smile on his face. He didn't say anything, he just turned to Blue, clearly waiting for instructions on what to do next. Hmm. Was there a reason he turned to Blue other than that he was a doctor? Nightmare wanted to find out.
Blue looked insanely worried about Blood, but he was also keeping an eye on Dream. Hmm. That was interesting. Blue nodded to his friend and stood up. "Dream, go get my medical kit, would you please? Ink, can you manage to carry a bucket of water? I want to examine Blood right away."
"You don't have to-" Blood started to say, but was interrupted by the most tasteless outburst Nightmare had ever heard.
"I'll be sure to get a hole lot!" Ink sang. The whole camp went dead silent.
Before Nightmare could rip into the artist for daring to mock his friend, Cross jumped down the other's throat. "How fucking dare you, Ink," He said. Nightmare was thinking the same thing. That wound caused Horror constant pain, it gave him night terrors and dissociative episodes, it made him scratch like crazy, and- "-it leaks blood and black goo. Fucking apologize or else!"
The whole gang froze when they realized that Cross had just threatened a client. Cross was always impulsive, but this was a whole new magnitude of scary.
"Sorry," Ink said, his chastised voice small, "i didn't mean to be rude."
Blue gasped and jumped up. "Did you just say it leaks black goo? Was it always black, or did it used to be pus- um, greenish white, yellow, or pale orange?"
All of Nightmare's gang froze when they heard that. He knew he could still vividly remember each of those colors coming out of Blood's skull and staining the bandages he'd worn at first. It had been terrifying. They'd been so sure that they were going to lose blood, and they were all sure that if they did they would lose Sugar, too. They hadn't, but... "Yes, Dr. Blue. It was all of those colors at one time or another," Nightmare answered firmly.
Blue looked both extremely worried and extremely happy, a very interesting combination. "He has memory issues, right? I know how to fix that! My dad had a similar skull injury that I designed the solution to as my thesis! It's not that hard to do; it just takes a lot of careful spellwork. May I?"
.If it had been anyone on Nightmare's team saying that they would have already been moving over to help and the question would have been perfunctory. Yet somehow, the fact that Blue was standing nervously and darting his eye lights between Blood, Sugar, and Nightmare was didn't seem to be because he didn't care. It was more like he did care so much that he was trying, even though he thought it would end badly for him. Hmm. Nightmare knew that feeling. He looked at Dream. His brother had that same look of empathetic pain that he'd had when Nightmare had tried to get him glasses so he could read, too.
"PLEASE, DR. BLUE, IF YOU THINK YOU CAN HELP HIM TRY!" Sugar pleaded, distracting Nightmare from his chain of thought.
Once he was given permission Blue ran over to Blood's side, his magic swirling to the ready around him. Everyone gasped. There was so much there, and he didn't even seem to be trying! The magic was powerful and controlled, too. That was more impressive than a mere degree. People could work hard and get a degree eventually, but that kind of power was born, not grown.
The moment Blue reached Blood's side he directed the magic to gather in front of him. He ran his finger through it like he was drawing in the sand, nudging the dense magic into the proper shape. The sigils and symbols he created formed patterns even Nightmare couldn't understand, and he was the most accomplished magic user of their group (apart from Error, but he used glitches and code, not magic. No one could understand it when he tried to describe what he did, and he couldn't understand them when they tried to explain their magic, so everyone just went with it). Compared to Blue, though, Nightmare was small fry. He was glad they didn't have to fight him. They'd lose.
Then the magic began to work. It sparkled, bright and full of hope, pervading Blood' wound. It filled him with so much light that both sockets glowed brighter than when he was angry. Then, slowly, it dissolved leaving no visible changes in its wake.
Nightmare was feeling betrayed. He'd gotten his hopes up for this? He started stalking towards Blue, his tentacles sharpening behind him. Then he heard three words he never would have imagined hearing from Blood in... well, ever. "It... doesn't hurt!" Nightmare froze in mid-step and listened for more. "It doesn't hurt! I... it doesn't even make me dizzy! I don't feel like I'm going to move into a migraine any second, either!"
The goopy skeleton turned around slowly. Blood still looked the same as he always did, but his skull... it was starting to glow with a slightly red light, like a little shield or umbrella that floated above the hole.
"That barrier will get stronger and more solid over the next few days!" Blue's voice called out from behind him. Nightmare turned again. The tiny skeleton was grabbing a piece of his skull above and around his right socket and... removing it?!! "I got the idea because of this! Getting anything, even just water, inside your cranial cavity can restart the infection. My prosthetic is expensive and takes a long time to make, but this shield will do the same thing for free! I can't make it look real, though. It'll look like magic no matter what you do. I'm sorry about that. I can give you the name of my prosthetist, but you'll need to have your skull completely sterile and stable. It's already stable, but my spell only kills the infection, it doesn't sterilize the wound. I can do that for you before you go in if you want to go that direction! I want you to be as happy as possible!"
Everyone stared at the little force of nature. Specifically, they stared at the giant hole in his skull. "THAT'S EVEN BIGGER THAN MY BROTHER'S!" Sugar exclaimed.
Blue flinched and quickly replaced the little piece of plastic. "It's f-f-fine! It was an accident, completely and totally! It definitely didn't happen because-"
"Aaaand you're over apologizing again, Blue!" Dream said cheerfully, sweat rolling down his bones. For a moment the intense desire to lick it off bombarded Nightmare. He quickly brushed it away by thinking of Blue. That kind of wound was horrible. Had Blue been about to say that someone did this to him? Nightmare swore to find out, no matter how much his brother interfered. Dust was closer than family to him. He wanted to do good by him, and that meant keeping tabs on his lovers.
Nightmare must have missed some of the rest of that conversation, because the next thing he knew Dust was holding the small doctor and looking at nightmare hopefully. "Hey, Boss? Can we go through the trail with the overlook? You know, the one with the pretty sand and the caves?"
He considered it. Dust so rarely made requests that he was inclined to accept it. On the other hand, that route would add nearly a day to their schedule. On the first tentacle, Dream used to love pictures of sand dunes, so he would enjoy it. The second tentacle held the counter argument that newbie riders like Ink were not prepared for the technical aspect of the approach. On the third tentacle, slightly stained with his goo, was the desire to give something to Dr. Blue as recompense for helping Blood. The last tentacle said, "Do it." He listened to the last tentacle.
Turning to his brother, Nightmare asked gruffly, "Would you mind an extra day on the trail? I'll charge you half price. We'd need it to see the overlook."
Somewhere in the food line near him Killer hollered, "It's worth it! It's worth triple!" Nightmare noted that. Killer must be jealous of Cross getting all the attention in their tent. That was usually the only time he acted up like that.
Dream was still sweating at the beginning of the conversation, clearly worried and shocked. Towards the end, though, a slow, sneaky smile spread across his face. "Well, then, I'll just have to pay triple, won't I? Don't give me that look, brother. I have more than enough money now than I know what to do with. Let me spend it on brightening the lives of my friends."
Nightmare stared at him, anger welling up and quickly getting plugged back up at the idea of Dream with money. Of course he would have a lot. The sale of their farm probably earned him most of it. Bastard. Then Nightmare locked it down and smiled smugly at his brother. "Oh, I'm sure you do~ Maybe my boyfriends and I can show you a few other ways to spend it~"
Dream blushed, trembling slightly and clearly trying to stop. Hmm. Killer had been right. Nightmare smiled. He was looking forward to showing his brother what a real relationship meant.
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Chapter 7: The Overlook
Dust learns more about Blue and decides to fall in love with him. Nightmare and Dream share a moment over the beauty of Nightmare's lands.
Here's another chapter of this!
I'm still dealing with medical stuff, but I'm planning to apply for graduate school starting in 2022!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dust was in love. Not only was Blue the most gorgeous monster he had ever laid eyes on, and not only could he flirt with Dust at the perfect pace, and not only was he smart, skilled, and powerful, but he wasn't perfect. Dust hated perfect people, and Japes, his ghost of a brother that no one else could see, agreed. Perfect people were highly suspicious.
He'd suspected that Blue might be a perfect person until yesterday. Blue was so pretty, so kind, so genuine. Then, when Blue had taken off that prosthetic... Well, that was the moment that Dust had really fallen in love. Japes thought he was an idiot. Dust wondered what Blue's brother thought. Was he a ghost like Japes or something else? Maybe he was dead? Japes wasn't dead, no way. Dust pushed back the memory of his brother's skull being crushed under the hooves of those stampeding horses. There was a reason he was so terrified of lightning. He just didn't want to acknowledge it.
Now Dust was doing everything he could to woo Blue. On top of his sweet words and best flirting, Dust was being extremely attentive. He was bringing Blue the best food. He was helping him pack up his saddlebags in the morning. He was cupping his hands so that Blue could step in them to mount up. He would do anything for Blue.
Blue just seemed confused and maybe a little afraid. He was trying to hide his fear, but Dust was a good judge of emotions. He could tell when someone was trying to hide something.
Because of that fear Dust was going much slower than he wanted to. He wanted to pull Blue into his tent and ravish him, but that would probably only drive the tiny skeleton away. No, Dust needed to be careful... Or so he thought. It turned out that what he needed to do was wait for Blue to make the first move.
It was at the overlook that Blue acted. Dust honestly didn't get what was so cool about those dunes down there. It was just a bunch of sand near some mountains. What was the big deal? Blue seemed to like it, though. He stared out at the big pile of sand with sparkling eyes. Then he moved.
Dust almost reacted badly to Blue's quick charge until he realized what was going on. He chuckled as Blue wrapped his arms around Dust and strained to reach his face.
"DUST! I mean, Dust!" Blue oddly corrected his own enthusiastic tone, "Stop laughing and lean down, please, so I can kiss you!"
"I dunno," Dust said, smiling mischievously, "Isn't it against the rules for a doctor to kiss their patient?"
Blue pouted and snorted at the same time. "Oh, it is. It really is, but you aren't my patient yet, are you? I think... Yes, I think I'd like to call you my lover first. I want to thank you for convincing Nightmare to take us to this beautiful place! Are you up for being thanked?"
Dust smiled even wider, an anticipatory element entering his expression. "Oh, I'm up for it. The question is, are you?"
Later, as he sat in the mouth of the cave and stared out at the rest of the gang enjoying the overlook, Dust asked the question that Blue had been dreading. "So, what does your brother think about you and me doing this?"
Blue couldn't help it. He started to hyperventilate as he thought about how his brother was going to react to this. Stretch was going to be furious. He knew Blue didn't want to be in a relationship with him; that he was only doing it because no one else would give Stretch a chance. Besides, Blue didn't deserve to have what he wanted. Not after what he had done before. That didn't seem to matter to Stretch, though. He treated Blue so nicely... Well, up until Blue messed up.
Blue, unfortunately, messed up a lot. He made so many mistakes, and Stretch tried to be nice about it, but he had to be strict with Blue. If he wasn't, how would Blue ever get better?
So he yelled at Blue and, when he didn't think the yelling was working, he hit Blue. He didn't hit him hard! Blue was just really, really fragile. Stretch forgot that a lot. It wasn't his fault, though! His soul had been injured when he was a kid and it had never healed properly. He had a giant schism going down the middle, a crack that almost cut his soul in two. It made his memory awful and his personality unpredictable.
Blue was glad that he wasn't worse, honestly. He'd experienced the worst of humanity when he'd had to sell himself as a child. It had been years since then, but he would never forget everything he had gone through. Sometimes it still felt real. He wished Stretch thought that they could afford for Blue to go to therapy. He was struggling. He needed help.
Blue hadn't realized that he was talking aloud until he felt the hug. Warm arms wrapped around him, arms encased in a blue-grey hoodie that smelled safe and felt good against his bones. Blue snuggled into it, cuddling and accepting the comfort in a way he usually didn't allow himself, but, since he was coming out of a flashback and panic attack, he allowed himself to let go a little.
Then he heard the words that were being said and his little bubble of safety changed. It, for the first time since he'd met Dream and Ink, expanded.
"... It's okay, Blue. I get it. My brother yells at me a lot, too, and after the accident his personality changed, but he'd never hit me. There's nothing you could have done that deserved that. There's definitely nothing you could have done that means you deserve that permanently. I wish I could help you get away from all that. You deserve a lot better."
Dust's voice was soothing to Blue. It coated his panic in a layer of calm and understanding that he hadn't known he needed. Before he knew it Blue had broken down crying. "I... I want to get away from it. I really do. I don't know how, though. He doesn't let me carry any money or work for myself. He only let me go on this trip because I lied and said that Dream was sick and needed a nurse. He thinks I'm still in the city."
Dust frowned. Blue could feel the movement of his skull against his own. "I don't really know either, but I can do some research. Why don't you give me your phone number? I can give you mine, and we can figure something out together."
Blue stared at him, his eye lights wide open in shock. "You really mean it? You'd help me get out?"
"Of course," Dust said, pulling out his phone, "I always keep my promises. I hate making them. I promise that I'll get you out of your situation and into something safer. I promise."
Nightmare ignored the sounds of canoodling coming from the cave and looked out over the dunes. He loved this overlook, although he could never bring himself to admit it. It was, to him, the most beautiful place in his territory.
"This place is beautiful, Nightmare," Dream said next to him, startling him. He glanced at his brother and saw nothing but awe for the landscape. "Can you tell me more about it?"
Reluctantly, Nightmare recounted this place's history. He quietly said, "Eons ago there was a sea where the mountains and plains now stood. It was the biggest sea that this world has ever known, covering more than 80% of it. The mountains didn't exist then. Not far from here are some fossil deposits that come from the bottom of that ancient sea. They were lifted when the great forces of geologic change, volcanism and tectonic movement, fought. Their battle produced these mountains and the valley below them."
"Due to the way the mountains cup the valley, surrounding it and looming over it like an overbearing teacher, a lake formed in the valley. It was a huge lake, almost 6,000 square miles. Not only did the normal runoff from the annual rain and snow fill it, but there were almost certainly flash floods. Down in the valley a few scientists who have gone on trips with us have found large rocks and buried pockets of mountain soil that they say prove that this was true."
"The lake's long life was ended when it's sheer size broke through a barrier left by the volcanos long ago. That would have been over there to the south. The sheer amount of water that drained from it likely formed a small canyon not far from here. It isn't in our lands. I believe it is unowned. There are several different rafting companies that operate through there."
"After the large lake collapsed a few smaller lakes still survived. Soil and sand from the mountains rolled down and filled them. Later, when the world warmed again, the lakes dried up. They left behind the rolling dunes you see before you. Some of their water still survives in wetlands on the other side of the dunes."
"The majority of the time the dunes are blown up towards us here in the mountains, but sometimes, during the powerful storms that sweep through the valley from behind us, the sand is blow back into the valley. Because of these two forces the dunes are constantly growing taller. There are streams that also turn the dunes like a giant, slow lazy susan. You can't see them right now, but in a few weeks the creeks will peek above the ground. There's a huge festival of sand castles and dune climbing that happens then. I wish yo could feel the cold water trickling from below the ground briefly brush across your bones. There is nothing like it in the world."
At that point, Nightmare seemed to come back to himself. He coughed and said, "Of course, I only know the basics. If you wish to learn more I can connect you with..."
That was when Nightmare looked up and saw his brother's face. Dream was sparkling with interest and excitement, looking between him and the valley as though he didn't know which was cooler. "Night! That's amazing! I'd love to hear more about this place. What else can you tell me about your lands? I read what you have on your website, but I'd much rather hear about it from you. Please?"
For a moment all Nightmare wanted to do was kiss him. His brother looked beautiful. It was the strongest whim he'd felt in a while, and he almost gave into it. Then he shook his head to wipe it clean. Not yet.
He could flirt with his brother, though, right? "Of course you can, Dream, but I promise you it isn't nearly as interesting as you are."
Dream froze and Nightmare was treated to his fear for the first time. It was an almost physical force, and it made him angry. Who had dared to hurt his brother? Could Nightmare find out? If he did he promised himself that he'd find a way to punish them.
"I... What do you mean, brother?" Dream asked, his voice shaking.
"I mean that you are more than just a surface level monster, Dream," Nightmare explained carefully. "You love to cuddle with the horses and yet used to be afraid of sheep. You think geology is interesting, but you hated physics in school. You look absolutely stunning when you're happy, and yet you're really afraid when people tell you that. You are interesting, Dream, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Dream blushed and looked down. It was clear he was fighting with himself. Eventually he looked up, still scared but pushing bravely through it, and said, "Thank you, Night. You are, too."
Nightmare was sure that that was a huge step for Dream and swore, in that moment, that he would help his brother get past this even if it killed him. It probably wouldn't unless he really did go after whoever had done this to Dream. Then he might get hurt, but he doubted it. His gang was more than capable of handling a little fight.
Not far away, in the background, Killer and Cross were grinning as wide as they could. Killer couldn't help it. When Dust had suggested this place he'd known it was going to go well. Nightmare could talk about this place for hours, and, by the looks of it, Dream was just as fascinated. The two of them were looking so happy and animated.
Then Nightmare said something and Killer sucked in his breath. Dream looked downright terrified, like a baby bird looking over the edge of the nest, totally scared to make that first jump. Killer was ready to jump to his rescue, and he was sure that Cross was in the same state.
Slowly, though, Nightmare talked him down; Dream forced his fear into submission and bravely responded to what Killer was sure was a flirt. Killer's grin returned. When he turned to check on Cross, he was grinning, too.
"They're actually bonding!" Cross said in a happy stage whisper.
Nightmare jerked but didn't look away from Dream. Killer's grin widened into a smirk. "They are indeed, Crisscross. They are indeed."
"Do you think we can get them together with us for real, Killer? They're adorable, both of them, and I want to... Well, I want them both. Can we pull it off?" Cross hedged hopefully.
Killer rolled his non-existant eye lights. "Of course we can. We got Nightmare to date someone already. We can do it again."
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Chapter 8: The Poachers
The group runs across some poachers and deals with them.
I GOT THE JOB!!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dream wasn't really paying attention to the trail ahead of them at the time. He'd been incredibly aware of what Cross was doing behind him. Cross seemed nice enough, so maybe... He was trying to flirt with Cross. He was letting his body sway with the horse's gait a little more than necessary. That would show himself off, right? Every so often he looked back and winked at the monochromatic skeleton. That definitely counted as flirting.
Because he was flirting so heavily, Dream didn't see the start of the incident. All he knew was that the comfortable quiet of the horses and birds was shattered by the screams of the front horses, the shouts of the gang, and the sound of gunshots.
Killer was bleeding when Dream looked around, and his face had a gleeful expression on it. Horror was licking his lips and staring at the carcass of a dead dear while Nightmare's tentacles whipped through the clearing faster than Dream could track. Dust had pulled out a knife and was getting ready to throw it. Cross looked dead serious as he dismounted and summoned a giant pair of knifes. Dream dreaded what was about to happen. He hated violence and blood.
The fight was going surprisingly well - at least, from Blue's limited knowledge of the subject it seemed that way. There were maybe a dozen of the poachers; all were humans dressed in dark camo and sturdy boots. Nightmare was holding off four of them single-handedly. Well, single handed and four tentecled-ly. Cross had another two at his mercy, and Killer had 3. Horror was handling the one who was doing the butchery. That left two for Dust, and that was one too many.
Dust was clearly capable of dealing with them, but he kept turning to check on Blue. That didn't make sense to Blue. It wasn't like Blue hadn't been badly hurt before, and he could be checked on after the battle was over. But no, Dust was splitting his attention, and that was a bad idea. Blue saw the blow aimed at the base of Dust's skull when he wasn't looking. He could tell it would be crippling, if not actually lethal. Dust would be too slow to stop it, even if he moved right now. Blue had to act. If he didn't, he would lose the monster he was coming to love.
So Blue closed his eyes and pulled a thread of sedative magic out of his soul. He found and locked onto every single one of the poachers' souls. Then he sent tendrils out of that thread shooting straight into the core of the poachers' souls, knocking them out in an instant, but having enough sense not to kill them.
When Blue opened his eyes, it was to the sight of Dust's mismatched purple ones hovering only an inch away. Dust looked upset, and Blue couldn't help but wince when Dust said, "Why did you do that? We were doing fine! We've done this before, you know."
Shakily, Blue said, "Th-there was one of them who was going to h-hit you from behind. It would have destroyed your spinal column. If that didn't k-kill you it would have paralyzed you for the rest of your life. I... I didn't want that to happen, so I sedated them. They're just asleep. It doesn't take much magic for me to do this. I can keep it up for a few days if I need to."
Dust reached out and took one of Blue's hands. It was only then that Blue realized how badly they were shaking. "I'm not mad at you, brightest Blue. I was trying to reassure you. Guess it didn't work," He said with a shrug, "Heh. I've never been any good at doing that. But I'm really impressed and proud of you. Doing this kind of magic so fast is a big deal! The monster at the hospital here takes an hour to put you under and another hour to bring you back up! It's really boring and annoying. This- This is epic!"
Blue gaped at him. "You're p-proud of me? Really?"
The soft look that Dust gave him made Blue's insides do funny things. "I am, Blue. I really am. Now, do you think you can keep it up for an hour or so? Such an amazing thing deserves a good reward~"
Cross snuck a peak at Dream in between the thrusts of his shovel into the dirt. Dream was pacing back and forth, pale, and sweating; he was clearly nervous. From the way Nightmare waas watching him Cross had a suspicion that Dream didn't do well with gore. It wasn't even like it was human gore! It was all the remains of a deer that those damned poachers had killed.
Nightmare had a strict no poaching policy on his land, as everyone in the area knew well, so these had to be either newbies or city folk. Either way they had made the wrong choice of a place to go after deer; the gang were under strict orders to "detain" any poachers they found.
This set of poachers was actually going to get off lightly by their standards. Dream was insisting that they call the local sheriff on them. Normally Nightmare didn't bother with that. He just had one of his boys tie the criminals upside down from a tree naked, with their gear smashed to pieces not far away. It was only fair, Nightmare said. They'd gone after an unarmed and unclothed animal with the intent to kill it. They deserved to learn what it felt like to be on the other end of things. Cross wasn't sure whether he agreed or not. He'd rather just kill them and be done.
This time no one was going to be happy with the ending for these guys. The poachers had already had their gear destroyed by Killer (Dust usually did it, but he was... Busy). Now they were tied up while Cross dug a pit trap to leave them in. Dream was telling the sherif to bring a ladder. He hadn't wanted their gear destroyed because it was so expensive.
Killer, satisfied with the state said expensive gear was now in, had sidled over to Dream and taken his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, Cross saw Nightmare's tentacles twitching. Oh, boy. Killer was in for trouble if he didn't watch himself.
"You are the most merciful monster I have ever met, Dream. You want them to go free despite how much seeing their kill has affected you. Truly brave. Truly."
Dream, who had just hung up the phone, turned distractedly to Killer. "Oh, I don't know about that. I did tell the sheriff that they'd tried to murder us. I think they won't be going free for a long, long time."
Nightmare let out one of his surprised little laughs, the "Mweh heh heh," that Cross adored.
"Dream, you haven't forgotten how to be devious, have you? I'm so proud of you," Nightmare said, chuckling like he hadn't just mwehed.
Dream grinned at him. Killer looked lost behind him and Cross wasn't far behind. "Well, I did have an excellent teacher. Honestly, though, I have to use it a lot at my current job. The people there are so... They're not straightforward. Or nice."
Nightmare frowned. "Why do you put up with them, then?"
Dream gulped, his layer of sweat increasing with nerves. "I... Can't afford to. I don't have the right skills for the big city. This is the best paying place that would still hire me."
Cross' own frown joined Nightmare's. That wasn't good. They'd have to do something to fix that. Even if they didn't end up dating him, Dream was too good of a person to waste on assholes. Maybe Killer could make a few calls.
Later that night, when they were all sitting around the campfire in the loudest awkward silence Dream had ever heard, the Star Sanses looked at each other with worry. None of them wanted to be the ones to say what they were thinking, although Dream was absolutely sure that Ink was thinking something completely different than what he and Blue were. Dream took in the expressions on his friends' faces. Blue looked mildly floaty and completely happy. He kept waving at Dust like the lovestruck fool he clearly was. Ink? He was twitching in a way that Dream knew meant he wanted to draw something. Dream really hoped it wasn't the gory scene from earlier.
That left Dream as the one who had to ask the question. He hated this. He needed to know, but he didn't want to know. He wished he didn't need to know this. He was sure it was going to make him angry, and he didn't want to be angry at his brother.
"Nightmare?" Dream hesitated, letting the silence swell as he waited for his brother to respond, "Brother?" He asked again, this time a little bit louder.
"Yes, Dream?" Nightmare said absently.
Dream studied him fully. He looked... Distracted. His eye light kept wandering from monster to monster and taking in every inch of them. If Dream didn't know better he would have thought Nightmare was checking them for wounds. Did Dream know better? Were they all fine? He followed his brother's lead and checked for injuries. He found none. A wave of relief washed over him. They were all okay.
"Dream?" Nightmare said, reminding him that he'd had a question to ask.
"Oh, yes. Um... Why do you do what you usually do to poachers? You know, stripping them naked and destroying their gear? Those things are expensive, aren't they?" Dream said doubtfully.
Everyone froze. Oh no, had he stumbled upon a taboo subject again? Dream flinched, only to find two pairs of bony hands taking his to comfort him. He looked up. Cross was on his right side and Killer was on his left.
"Don't worry about this, sunlight," Killer said charmingly, "It's just an old story I used to be sensitive about. You deserve to know, though."
Then he went on to tell a tale that made Dream truly angry.
Killer had only been sleeping. He hadn't even woken up at all, let alone enough to notice them. The poachers were completely undetected. Their attack was completely unprovoked and unneeded.
The poachers had been operating in this area of the gang's lands for at least two days when Nightmare's gang stumbled upon them. There were two carcasses in the area, and they were completely broken down, so the humans had to have been there for a while. The poachers were let off with a warning by Nightmare. That was his first mistake.
His second mistake was with their gear. It was older than the saddles on the horses' backs. They really should have confiscated it. After all, why should they trust in the honor of people who were trespassing on their land to end lives? They didn't, though. They should have.
It was Killer who paid for their mistakes. He woke to find his legs broken and his soul cut. It was slowly bleeding out on the virgin grass. He tried to call out for help... But nobody came.
Then, it seemed to him, he blinked for only a moment and then his world had changed. Now he was laying in the horribly decorated room of the hospital. His legs were elevated and bandaged. He couldn't feel his soul. Fuck. He was scared.
"You almost died," Were the first three words he heard after he woke up. Killer's head whipped around to see who had spoken. Nightmare was crumpled in a visitor's chair. He looked like hell.
"I did?' Killer finally managed to croak.
"You did. The poachers came after us in the night. They seemed to focus on you. Dust thinks they might have known who you used to be. They beat you to a pulp and beyond. You've been out for 5 days while the doctors dealt with your cut soul. It's fine, by the way. It'll be a while before they clear you to get on a horse, though. Sorry," Nightmare said gruffly. He was still working on allowing himself to show he cared about others.
Killer laughed, his creaky voice full of irony as he realized that Nightmare had essentially just admitted to caring about him because he'd almost been killed. "You know, it's pretty messed up that you still think you have to apologize for the actions of others. I do not accept your "sorry" because you don't need to say it."
"But-" Nightmare tried to protest.
"No butts unless they're the cute one on you or Cross, Boss. You don't need to apologize. Now, if I'm going to be stuck here I'd like something electronic so I can at least watch cat videos. Are you gonna hook me up or what?"
Dream was officially pissed. He'd jumped to his feet and was pacing back and forth while he ranted to try and work off some of this angry energy. "How could anyone treat you like that? It doesn't matter what you did in the past, you don't deserve to be treated like that! No one deserves to be hurt or almost killed in their sleep! Everyone should, at the very least, have to face their death and what it's caused!"
Dream didn't have to look to know his brothers's skull had snapped to face him with that statement. It wasn't exactly aimed at Nightmare. It was just caused by him.
"Oh, stars, will you shut up already?" Killer complained for the umpteenth time. "I'll tell you my past if it'll get you to shut up! I promise! And I never promise anything or tell anyone about my past!"
Dream's head whipped around to face him, suddenly very interested. "You'll tell me? Really?"
"Yes, really!" Killer said, radiating the notion that he was rolling his eye lights. "But you have to shut up first. Can you do that for me, pretty Dream?"
Freezing in place was Dream's immediate reaction to that. Then he slowly blushed as he accepted the compliment. He could be pretty, right? That was okay. And... Killer was nice and pretty, too. He wouldn't hurt Dream like they had. He wouldn't lie.
"Good boy," Killer purred just as Dream came to that realization. "Now, it all started when I was a kid. I loved to play politician. I ran for every office at every school I ever went to. Every single time my best friend and rival, Char, ran against me. Well, fast forward to adulthood. I get elected mayor of a town near here and they get hired by my team as an intern."
"Well, they were jealous. I'd done better in school than they had, made more friends, gotten into better classes, that sort of thing. So they hatched a plan to discredit me so they could inherit my position. I don't know why they thought that was how it worked, but they did. They started slipping hallucinogens into my coffee. Up until that point I was really well liked. After that, well, they say I made some crazy decisions that could have gotten people killed."
"I could tell I was off, though, so I came out here to go on a ride with Nightmare to clear my head. I made a mistake, though. I only told Char. I thought I could trust them. I was wrong."
"They faked that I'd flown the thought of being found out and forged a note "confessing" that I'd done it all on purpose, that I wanted to kill people and took pleasure in death. Where Char came up with that idea I have no idea," said Killer to ta snicker from Cross "but then they got the idea to send the whole town after me. people bought it. i tried to clear my name a couple of times, but it was too late. people around here believed me, though. they heard my breakdown when the drugs ran out and i learned what i'd done."
Dream could feel his mouth hanging open, but he was too stunned to care. That was insane!
"heh. from the look on your face i can tell you think i'm crazy. i can promise you, i'm not," Killer said.
Dream knew he wouldn't lie, not about this, so he replied, "It wasn't you that I thought was crazy, but this Char person. How petty can you get? How reckless, too? Who knows how many people could have died if their trick had gone wrong? It's crazy!"
Killer shrugged. "yeah, but that's kind of their thing. i really should have known better than to trust them."
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Chapter 9: The Slot Canyon
Things go wrong.
gonna feel awful for a while, unfortunately. would still like comments.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dust was the first one to notice the storm. It wasn't all that big, and it wasn't anywhere near them, but that didn't matter. They were in a slot canyon. That meant they were right in the line of danger for a flash flood.
Suddenly, the beauty of the towering walls of undulating sandstone above them loomed instead of soared. Suddenly, the walls that had been so welcoming pressed in on them from all sides, trapping them in a corridor of stone that seemed endless. Suddenly, Dust's brother was screaming in his ear. There were no words, only raw fear. Dust felt it, too. There was a reason he was terrified of lightning. Flash floods and panicked horses were it.
He almost froze when the lightning flashed all around them. Thank Nightmare for training that response out of him. Otherwise he would be long dead.
The minute Nightmare figured out which of the idiotic weather people hadn't predicted this storm they were dead. There wasn't supposed to be any weather like this for the trip, let alone today! He shouldn't have trusted a lazy human. He should have kept a watch on the sky himself. Maybe then they wouldn't be racing down a slot canyon, pushed on by the minuscule hope that they could outrun it. He doubted it. If he lived through this he would have to find a shrine to pray at. That was how grim their odds were.
Killer had always been a gambler, but, man, was he bad at math. He'd seen the damn storm building as they entered the canyon, but he'd been sure it was headed the other way. Stupid. A flash flood didn't care how far away from the storm you were. It killed on every single whim.
Maybe he should call in his winnings at the resort over the mountains. If this was his luck with plain survival there was no way he was going to make money on anything but a minting machine.
Dream would have left his life savings on a shrine's alter if he came out of this alive. Money was only ever a headache for him. He knew how to live off the land. That would be better than hiding from his drunken boss in the bathroom every morning.
If he didn't live, well, at least he'd gotten to know that Nighty was okay. He'd been so worried for his twin all these years. After that suicide attempt, who wouldn't be? He just wished his brother wasn't going to die with him. Nightmare was too good not to live.
Cross wished he'd died in that assassination attempt with his brother. Then he wouldn't be feeling the heartache he was over knowing that he couldn't save the monsters he loved. Even with all his training to kill and protect there was nothing he could do about a thunderhead.
Then again, if he'd died with his brother he never would have gotten to love his datemates. He never would have learned to ride and feel the thrill of jumping. He never would have known what it really meant to be alive. He'd been smothered, ordered around, and literally controlled his whole life. Getting to be free was more than worth this agony.
Ink was pretty sure he was supposed to be in agony right now. His left arm had beed scratched to pieces on the sandstone wall when his horse spooked and slammed him into a wall. It probably hurt, but he'd run out of paints when a stray bullet from a poacher's gun had pierced the jugs and let it all drain out. He hated being blank, but at least Dream and Blue hadn't noticed yet. They'd completely panic.
Error was definitely panicking. He'd been panicking since he'd seen that paint puddle slide into the confines of a tight aspen grove. He'd been panicking ever since he noticed the way Ink slowed down and stopped caring as much about everything. He'd been panicking ever since he'd noticed that Ink's eyes were round white dots.
Then again, Error's ground state of being was anger and panic, so all he needed was a little trigger and he'd lose it. So when he saw Ink get hurt because of his horse, Error's magic went berserk. It threaded him into the code of the landscape. He quickly rearranged the canyon so they were right by the end. He didn't want the stupid squid to die. He was too damned interesting. Besides, Error still hadn't killed his old mafia boss. That was a pretty important task. The guy had fucked his life up beyond rescuing.
Blue knew that his life was horrible now, and the relief when they burst from the canyon into the relative safety of the plains was intense. He wasn't going to die. He wasn't going to lose Dust. He wasn't going to be trapped anymore. He would get a life he liked.
When he felt the code around him settle down, he turned in his saddle for a moment, knowing that his horse was trained to follow the one in front no matter what, and checked over Error. He knew using his powers to that degree could make his Stable Code Deficiency worse. Sure enough, the floating error signs that Blue had worked so hard to fix were back. He sighed. At least he'd know better what to do this time.
Blood was glad he'd rehearsed what to do about the pack horses in an emergency with Sugar so many times, because he was pretty sure he'd left his brain behind somewhere in the canyon. He moved on muscle memory as he led them to a safer space and held them kindly while Sugar rapidly stripped them of their tackle. The bags were set aside for later. The horses were worth more than even the... Empty bag of paints.
Sugar was starving. He'd always needed to use more magic to do anything than he'd let his lover know, and racing the flood, dismounting, and unloading the pack horses was more than his light breakfast could fuel. He really should know better than to do that, but...
He' noticed that Dream barely ate, and Sugar couldn't bring himself to eat more than their guest. Not only was he paying them, but he was so thin. He hid it well, but Sugar was observant. He was pretty sure the others hadn't noticed. If they had, Sugar knew they'd be making the two monsters eat much more. He really wasn't up for that. He hadn't been since he and Blood had tried soul sex for the time. He still didn't know that they should have used the right kind of protection. That hadn't been in his dating manuel anywhere.
It was Nightmare's turn to pace back and forth in front of the fire that night. Unlike Dream, he was muttering to himself instead of yelling. His gang knew to stay back when he was like this. Dream had forgotten.
Nightmare didn't even register what his goopy magic did when Dream snuck up on him. He didn't feel his tentacles whip around to capture his brother in an almost bone-crushing grip, dangling him several inches above the ground and squeezing his neck. He didn't know Dream had come to ask him if he wanted a candy bar. He didn't know that Dream wanted to hug him. He was too angry to know anything except that his brother was close and he was angry. All his pent up energy came out in a way he didn't want it to and never had before.
"How dare you sneak up on me, brother. You've always liked doing that, haven't you? You snuck into the queue for paying for a pack trip. You snuck into the basement and made me eat the apples. You snuck the sale of our family farm to the highway people around me. Do you even know how much that hurt me? I'd wanted to stay there for the rest of my life. I wanted us to stay there for the rest of our lives. I wanted to raise horses and grow apples and fuck around with those bullying townspeople just like we used to, but no. You had to sell it just to spite me for my depression. Oh, don't act angry. It's true, isn't it? Every. Last. Bit."
Dream wasn't angry, though. He looked and felt... Anguished? Nightmare didn't understand. He should have been angry; at the very least because Nightmare had a tentacle around his throat. "I just wanted to-"
"I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU WANTED TO!" Nightmare screeched, his full, nightmarish form running loose on his face. "I had one hope, Dream. One! And you sold it! I hate you so much for that! You know what? You're going to the back of the line with the mules for the rest of the trip. I don't want to see your face again."
Nightmare ignored the yelling that followed. Cross and Killer could deal with it. He wasn't apologizing. Dream had taken everything from him except his favorite horse and tackle. He had run away, far away, to a ranch they had visited with their Mom when he was young. Nightmare had begged for a job and that was that. He'd tried so hard not to look back. He knew this would happen if he did. He'd run away from his problems like he always did and cry somewhere where the bullies couldn't hit him.
Later, when Cross and Killer finally worked up the courage to join him in the tent, they found Nightmare sobbing on the floor of their tent, his knife out and blood all around him. Killer and Cross both sighed. Then they got to work bandaging their lover. They knew he was going to do this eventually. Nightmare always turned self-destructive when he lashed out at anyone he cared about. They knew that he sometimes only managed to avoid dying because of the goop.
They hated those nights. He was always so full of agony. They couldn't leave him alone until morning. The horses always managed to calm him as nothing else could. The other thing about those nights was that they always ended up incredibly sore. Nightmare was the biggest sub when that happened, and they knew they needed to indulge him.
This time was different. This time he was crying out a different name. This time he was crying out for Dream.
That last day on the trail was going to haunt Dream just as much as the day he'd found his brother at the bottom of the stairs with his skull smashed in. It had started out gloomy. There were clouds overhead that threatened rain and maybe even lightning.
Nightmare wasn't talking to him and refused to acknowledge that he existed, which wasn't helping Dream's dissociation. He was barely present, and the only thing keeping him there was the horses. They knew something was wrong with him and had circled up when he came to cuddle with them early that day, forming a protective herd around him. It was sweet, even if it probably would have scared someone who didn ’t really know horses. Even with them, he only felt so much better. He didn't bother to eat breakfast that morning.
The trail ’s beauty was wasted on him. He was sort of aware that they were climbing a mountain of some sort only because he had to lean very, very far forward and hook his heals very, very far back. He didn’t see the trees fade away as the grass slowly took over and covered everything. Trees could only grow so high up because they needed thicker air than you found up there. He didn’t see the gorgeous alpine tundra, with its burgeoning flower content and extremely rude rodents. He didn’t see the ice piles, still present even in this, the depths of a hot, hot summer. He didn’t see the clouds down below them. He didn’t see anything. He wasn’t aware enough to see.
He didn ’t see the bighorn sheep that rammed his brother, either. Or, rather, the horned creature that almost did. It did scare Razz, though, the horse his brother was riding. It spooked him so bad that he threw Nightmare.
Dream did see his brother fall;. He couldn ’t move. He was frozen in pure terror. The blood was everywhere, as was the goop. Dream hated blood. It had triggered his rare flashbacks ever since he’d seen his brother at the bottom of the stairs. It wasn’t the sight that did it, it was the smell. So Dream really shouldn’t have tried to help his brother. He would have been useless to him no matter what he did.
His guilt didn ’t know that. Neither did Dust, who hadn’t seen his reaction to Ink the first time they’d met, hadn’t seen the reaction to the butchered deer, and hadn’t had to teach him about PTSD when he realized why his best friend was so scared of blood and hated himself for it.
So when Dust came over to yell at Dream after Blue had run to Nightmare ’s side, Dream took it. He took the yelling, he took the screaming, he took everything. Everything that Dust said he believed. If he hadn’t made Nightmare so mad earlier this wouldn’t have happened.
Everyone but Blue, who was too focused on healing what he could of Nightmare ’s injuries, heard the tirade. Most of them were too busy worrying, helping, or trying to deal with Ink to do anything about it. The only ones who wasn’t were Cross and Sugar. They had taken the horses as they always did. Cross quickly handed the reigns to Killer, who knew this needed to happen. He could see the look in Dream’s eye lights as well as Cross could.
After Cross said something to Dust that Dream couldn ’t hear, he tried to rouse Dream. It didn’t work for a long, long time. When it did, it was bad. Dream collapsed and curled up on himself when Cross touched him, screaming and crying that he was so sorry, that he’d do anything to fix it. Anything. He felt, so, so guilty. Nothing Cross could say would change his mind that it was his fault that Nightmare was hurt so badly. They needed to get him to a hospital immediately, Blue said. Dream shut up when he heard that. He didn’t say anything the entire trip back.
* * *
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Chapter 10: The Digs
The gang and the stars arrive in the city.
Killer was panicking. He might not look like it, but he was panicking so hard on the inside that he felt like he might have a soul attack. It was bad. To be fair, his boss had been broken into pieces. Pieces, as in more than two. He was hurt so badly that the most powerful healer Killer had ever seen wasn’t able to fix him and needed to take him to a hospital for help.
The only reason he was in charge was that everyone else was in a worse place, mentally, than him. Cross was trying to take care of everybody and completely failing at everything except keeping Dream from wandering off. Dream was in some weird state that Killer kinda envied. Dust was freaked out by the whole canyon thing and still hadn’t moved on. Horror and Sugar were off taking care of the pack train. Blue was completely occupied with Nightmare’s health. Ink and Error were fighting and, well, the worst people to put in charge of the group he could imagine. That left Killer.
He led them as fast as he could back to the horse trailers. He also… might have broken the speed limit driving to the hospital. Maybe just a little.
When they got the the hospital, that was when things got fucked up. The front staff didn’t want to let Nightmare be admitted because Blue was with him! Seriously? He was a doctor, but they were saying that he was some kind of sinner. Stupid hospitals and their stupid religions. Nightmare was dying and they cared more about how Blue had kept his brother fed when they were kids!
That bullshit ended when the boss showed up. She had that bad psych’s bag in hand as they walked out on crutches, spewing more stupid stuff about religion and how it somehow meant they should keep their job despite being shit at it? Horror was literally on the edge of a breakdown and having nightly night terrors because they thought he was cured! They deserved to get fired for that alone.
Then the boss lady saw Blue. A huge smile lit up her face. She dropped the bag into the hands of a greeter, told them to see the “former employee” out, and practically skipped over to Blue. “Stars, Blue- Wait, I mean Dr. Blue! I haven’t seen you in forever! What is the best soul surgeon I’ve ever seen doing out here in this rinky dink place?”
He blushed bright blue. “I, um, was bringing you a patient. This is Nightmare, and he had a horrible fall off of a spooked horse. I’ve kept him stabilized, but he really needs a lot of help that isn’t my specialty. He’s-“
“Nightmare’s the one who’s hurt this time? Stars, he never gets hurt. No wonder he is so bad off. He’s got a lot of karma to pay back. Somebody take him back, please! If you dare to give me any religious nonsense I will fire you on the spot!”
Finally, people moved to help Nightmare. Blue let him go, a mixed expression on his face. The boss lady noticed. “Dr. Blue, your brother is being mean. You love to help people. Go help. I’ll pay you for the day. I’d draw you up a contract if I thought this place was good enough for you.”
Blue lit up. “You’d let me… you’d take me? Really?”
The boss lady’s face softened. “Of course, Dr. Blue. I wasn’t kidding when I said you were the best soul surgeon I’d ever seen. You’re also one of the best healers, and the only one I can think of at the moment who’s better is Lady Life. Are you saying you’d like the job? I’ll offer you whatever I can if you’ll stay!”
“Yes! Please! Um… if that’s okay?” Blue gulped.
“It is. Go help, I’ll get typing. I’ll even throw in a filly from our ranch. I married Hiroku after all, Dr. Blue. I know you love horses. I’ll let you pick,” She said, surprising Killer. He knew her husband. He was one of the best trail horse breeders in the country. Nightmare bought from him all the time. A filly from him would be worth over a hundred thousand dollars. She must really want Blue. He was pretty sure Dust would agree.
As she and Blue raced off in different directions, Killer turned to the remaining crowd. “Well, guess that’s settled then. Dust, you hang with Blue until he’s safe from that brother of his. Error, just… don’t cause too much trouble. Maybe stay with Ink or go back to the ranch. Cross, Dream, we’ll, uh…Dream, do you mind if we bunk down on your floor?”
Dream blushed, but didn’t hesitate to say, “You can have the bed for what that’s worth. The floor might be better.”
With that enigmatic statement floating around, the group split and headed out.
Cross looked around Dream’s apartment with confusion. Given how Nightmare had talked about his brother and money, he would have expected the fanciest digs he’d ever seen, even fancier than Gaster’s. Instead, it was even smaller than the apartment he and his brother had been crammed into. Like, maybe 200 square feet. Maybe.
The bed touched three walls, and it was just an ancient mattress with no sheets. There were holes in it, and one spring peeked through. It was questionably stained… including with blood. The walls were the same color as the blood, a dirty, crumbly brown that made Cross sick just looking at it. The closet was too small for anyone to fit in. It wasn’t even deep enough for hangers.
The kitchen wasn’t even a full kitchen, it was a “kitchenette” with a Bunsen burner to cook with. There was no microwave, no counter space, and no place to eat. The fridge was a dirty tan and looked a good 40 years out of date. The door on it didn’t hang right.
The bathroom had the smallest shower that whoever built this place could legally get away with. It had no sink, just a tub of hand sanitizer. Presumably you could use the one in the kitchen… the one with no handles to turn it on. The toilet had no seat or lid. The handle hung limply, like a dying plant’s leaves. Personally, Cross would rather have used the bathrooms in the national parks. They would have been better equiped, even without a shower. Besides, there wouldn’t have been the disgusting apple themed wallpaper.
That was it - no other rooms. Dream’s studio was the crappiest thing he’d ever seen.
“Sorry about this,” Dream said, exhaustion in his voice and in the way he stood, “It’s the only place I could find that was close enough to my work for me to walk there and accepted someone with no money reputation in the city. I hate it here. I can’t even go in the bathroom without throwing up. I was saving up for a new bed, but what’s the point? The unit next door plays their music as loud as it will go all night long. The police never responded when I tried to report it. I never get any sleep. I might as well spend the money on my friends.”
Dream turned away from them, but not fast enough to hide the tears. “The landlord of this place… He… kinda makes my skin crawl. I get the feeling that if I didn’t ward the room every night he would do something I wouldn’t like. Not that it would be the first time.”
Cross froze, and he saw Killer do the same out of the corner of his eye. They had been operating under the impression that Dream had just been in a badly abusive relationship, just like Nightmare had. That sentence, though… that sentence made it seem like Dream had had something more happen. Something they didn’t want to think about happening to someone as kind and nice as him.
Cross’ signaled frantically for Killer to leave it be, but Killer, curious as the cats he adored, ignored it all and asked Dream, “So you’ve been raped?”
“I don’t like to talk about it,” Dream said, pushing on them with almost as much magic as Nightmare, forcibly telling them that he wasn’t doing this… yet. There was a glimmer of a possibility in there. Maybe they could get him to talk in the future.
Cross jumped in to prevent Killer from making this worse. “I get it. I don’t get why you’d stay here, though. Why don’t you find a better place? Nightmare’s trips aren’t cheap.”
Dream laughed. “I saved up for months for that trip. I know I shouldn’t have, but… I wanted to make sure my brother was okay, and Blue really needed a break from Stretch before Stretch broke something again, and Ink always likes going somewhere new where he can pick up some inspiration. I don’t care about the debt I owe. I’ll never be able to pay it back. I might as well take whatever the debt collectors choose to do to me and enjoy my life a little. If I didn’t… I’m not sure how much longer it would be.”
“What are you in debt for? It’s clearly not this place,” Killer said, sticking his foot in his mouth once again.
Dream turned away again, his whole body shaking. “Please… Please don’t ask me that.”
Cross glared at his lover until Killer folded. They were pushing Dream too far. They needed to do something to cheer him up. Cross had an idea. “I know a place not far from here with the best pasties in town. Want one? I’m paying.”
Dream perked up. “A pasty? I haven’t had one in forever. Yes, please!”
Error looked at Ink’s apartment like someone else might look at a dead plant. That was a fairly good metaphor, especially considering that Ink’s hallway was full of them. There must have been at least 50 dead plants crammed into a space of about 8 square feet. They hadn’t even gotten inside yet and Error was already pretty sure he was going to need to look in the thesaurus app for the word “chaos”. The paint smeared door was another clue.
Inside the apartment, Error was assaulted by colors. Everything was a different color or a different shade from the thing next to it. The floor was green. The walls were orange and yellow striped. The couches (3 of them!) were all clashing shades of blue in a patchwork of patches. The rug below them was one of those recycled t-shirt rugs. The windows were wide open, and Error twitched, feeling the wards that kept this place safe and being disgusted that anyone would waste so much magic when a lock would do just fine.
The next room, the kitchen, was a stinky, stinky mess. A half dozen abandoned cooking projects were scattered around the massive counters. All of them looked either burnt or moldy. Error got the impression from the piles of dishes that Ink’s friends did the cleaning. It probably was out of pity and kindness. Ink was clearly too forgetful to do it himself.
The room they went into next was just as overwhelming, although this time by frustration instead of sight or smell. The room was an “art room”, and it embodied everything Error hated about that kind of thing. It was bright, it was cheerful, and it was completely devoid of soft things for him to collapse on. He scowled. What good was an art room without something soft to knit on? He thought that was a complete waste. There was even a perfect corner to this room that was crying out for a massive beanbag like the one he had in his room back at the ranch. Who needed a mattress when you had a bag full of alpaca fiber?
The final room they went into was more to Error’s liking. It was dark, cold, and cave-like. Not just any cave; no, this was a cave full of a hoard of blankets, which, in his impeccable opinion, was the best kind of hoard. He immediately started to inspect them. It wasn’t until over an hour later that he remembered Ink. He looked up. The artist wasn’t in sight. He searched quickly, which was easy considering how few rooms there were. He found Ink blissfully painting in his art room. He was painting Error inspecting the blankets.
“Squid, what are you doing?” Error asked, glitching with exhaustion. Getting Ink to stay in the white painted hospital long enough to be treated was an ordeal he wished he’d taken a pass on.
“Painting,” Ink said absently, not looking away from his work.
“How much longer are you going to be painting, ink-stain? I’m tired. Can’t we go to bed?” Error said petulantly.
Ink, with his brush and careless of the splatter, gestured a few times for Error to forget about it. “Don’t worry, I don’t need to sleep. Take the bed. I don’t really use it, anyway. Even knowing Dream doesn’t keep me safe at night.”
“Night terrors?” Error asked sympathetically as he snuck up on Ink. The doctor had said he needed sleep to heal, so sleep he was going to get.
“Mhmn,” Ink mumbled absently.
That was when Error pounced. He wrapped the artist in his strings and, careless of the protests, dragged him into his bedroom and dangled him over the bed. He stood back, analyzing that position, then dropped him on the bed and cuddled up next to him. Ink just about screamed. So did Error. Stars, did it hurt! But… he wanted to touch Ink. Ink was special. His phobia needed to go fuck off.
Ink started to say, “I thought you didn’t-“
Error didn’t let him finish, arranging Ink so he was wrapped around Error like a big spoon. “Shut up. I can do what I want, and I want to sleep next to you, so you’d just better put up with it and go to sleep. Do you understand me?”
Ink was grinning at him. Error might be facing away from the artist, but he could still feel the force of that grin heating up the back of his neck. “Yep!”
“Good. Now, sleep.” Error said. Then he pushed their codes just a little and sent them into sleep. Neither of them was even close to sleeping right now, but they both needed it, so… he helped.
Dust spent his day watching his lover be happy. Blue might not have been beaming with happiness the entire time, but Dust could feel his soul radiating contentment and happiness in equal measure. This was what it felt happiest doing, so this is what Dust needed to help it do. To do otherwise would be cruel. Very, very cruel.
Blue kept going, literally, until he dropped. It had been hours of constant work and healing, but when the slip happened, he wasn’t prepared for it. DUst was. He caught Blue before he hit the ground. He barely spared a thought to curse the monster or human who had left that spill unmarked. The rest of his attention was on Blue. His lover was clearly in a flashback, shaking and mumbling like he’d been gagged. Dust knew what to do with flashbacks. Most everyone in the gang had them.
He picked Blue up, holding him close to his chest, and sent a small pulse of love into Blue. It was echoed immediately. Dust smiled. That was good. Blue wasn’t going to be alone again.
That was when he heard their audience. When he looked around, everyone was sighing or clapping. He wanted to snarl, warning them and their mockery away, until he realized… They were genuine. These people (none of whom had been in the lobby when Blue had been shunned) were happy for them. They wanted Blue to be happy. They wanted him to be happy. Dust couldn’t help but blush. He was used to being disliked, although not as much as Blue. This… This was nice.
The warmth from that moment carried him all the way back to Blue’s apartment. He held Blue close almost all of the way. Blue had slightly twisted his ankle when he’d slipped on that puddle. Dust didn’t want him to make it worse.
The apartment… wasn’t what Dust was expecting. It was dressed to the nines. Pretty bookcases, hand-turned table legs, leather couches; the whole nine yards were filled with stuff. Pristine, unused, perfectly cleaned stuff. The couches didn’t jingle with change. The tables had neither scuffs nor stains. The books were all evenly pushed back and the exact same height. It was creepy, honestly. Specter agreed.
Dust frowned. Blue didn’t seem to fit this kind of place. This was perfect. He was not. He turned to ask him about it, but Blue was fast asleep. That left Dust to find his room on his own. Oh, well. Time to snoop.
He checked out the cleanest door first, finding a bathroom inside. The bathroom was pretty small, but not a squeeze. The general theme was tan… wait. No, no it wasn’t. The theme was white. The dried blood spray scattered around the room’s walls made it look tan. Dust felt like he might throw up, especially when he saw the inside of the tub. There were chains and a lot more blood.
They didn’t stay in that room very long. Dust almost ran to the next one, hoping it would be better. This room reminded him painfully of his brother’s. The color scheme, arrangement, and contents of the room all spoke of him. There were a few differences that Dust clung to, mostly the age of the computer and the state of the bed. It was a mess, clearly something that never got made and rarely got cleaned. There were white and brown stains all over it. Dust felt sick again. They left fast.
The last room was depressing as hell. There was nothing that looked newer than 10 years old in there. An ancient, cracked desk with a splintery chair sat in one corner, the place where Dust would have put a bureau for clothes. The bed wasn’t really a bed, just an old mattress on the floor. It was thin, lumpy, and stained a lot worse than the other room. It clearly never got cleaned.
The only other thing in the room was a trash tornado, only instead of socks it held bandages. Anger stoked in Dust smoldered to light. Oh, Stretch was going to hurt when Dust was done with him. He was already making a mental list. It was very long.
* * *
You can find me on:
Chapter 11: The Family
Family is more than just who you're born with. It's also who you choose.
Blue was exhausted. It wasn’t his usual exhaustion, that burnt out feeling of having every drop of worth and value drained from him and carelessly discarded; no, it was a happy exhaustion, the kind that, somehow, filled you with an even greater desire to work hard tomorrow. He had missed this kind of exhaustion around his brother. Dust seemed dedicated to keeping that happiness going. That… felt nice.
Dust was currently holding him. He wasn’t carrying him this time, just holding him softly against his chest. Blue felt safe there. Dust wouldn’t let anyone hurt him like he’d been hurt so many times before.
Killer was pacing back and forth in the lobby of the hospital. They were all there, waiting for visiting hours to start so they could check up on Nightmare. Blue knew there would likely be no real change in his condition yet. It was highly unlikely that someone as reserved as Nightmare would be put on a rush.
Blue was wrong, as Cross’ happy squeal the minute they entered his room told him. Nightmare was awake. Blue didn’t believe it. He reached out, doing a tentative check with his magic, and found Nightmare in a much better state than he would have thought he would be. He wasn’t in a state to move or speak, but he was stable and conscious. Why? Why was Nightmare such a high priority? Why?
It was Error who inadvertently answered Blue’s question. He was wandering around the room, looking at the walls, when he noticed the hospital’s sign out the window. “Why haven’t they fixed the sign yet? It’s supposed to say the Apple Tree Memorial Hospital, isn’t it? I thought that was what Nightmare renamed the place.”
Killer shrugged. “Signs aren’t as important as medicine. Besides, He’s only a part owner.”
“Yeah, but you and Cross are the other two owners, and you agreed!” Error hissed. Blue ached to find out where that glitching came from. It wasn’t unique to Error, but it was a hotbed of debate in the medical community.
Cross, who’d been leaning against Nightmare’s bed and watching him (a little creepily), jumped. “Wait, he actually put our names on the title? He must really care for this place.”
“He does,” Killer said fondly, “It’s the place where-“
Blue interrupted him with a question, unable to wait any longer. “How long have you owned this hospital?”
“Only about a year,” Killer answered, “Before that it was run by some weird religion. Now we’re getting rid of all of that stuff. Well, except for the chapel. It’s got some beautiful stained glass and hosts children’s choirs sometimes for the patients. Also, everybody dies sometime, and everyone grieves differently. But the stupider stuff? That’s on the list to be taken out.”
Blue slowly smiled. “Good. Because there’s a lot of policies in place back there that either make no sense or actively harm patients. I know Indira is working on that, but it’s good to know she won’t get in trouble for it. She’s a good person.”
“Heh. I know. She was my chief medical advisor when I was in politics. I’m the reason she’s here,” Killer admitted.
“Thank you,” Blue said, his soul backing up his sincerity tenfold, “And thank you for letting me work here. I… I really did miss it more than I thought I did. I don’t know how I ever gave it up!”
“Of course, Blue!” Cross said a little too loudly. He was shushed by the nurse on duty. “Sorry. Of course. We needed a soul surgeon, and making you happy is great, too!”
“What Cross means,” Killer rephrased, “Is that it is a pleasure for you and a pleasure for us to have you working here, both because it makes you happy and because we truly need you. You never know who or what you need in life until you find it.”
Error had no idea where he was. He couldn’t remember how he got here, he couldn’t remember where he was going, and he could only barely remember his name! Crashes were a chit like that. He hated them with a passion… when he could remember what they were.
This time he seemed to be in a hospital of some sort, and his immediate reaction was to get out of there faster than a bolt of lightning. He hated hospitals. After having been locked in at least a dozen mental wards and teaching units over the years while people tried to “fix” him, his instinct was to spend absolutely zero time in them again. Only later would he remember about Nightmare and Blue, and remember that this hospital was under orders not to treat him. As it was, terror was in control.
He had no idea how far he got into the city before the van swerved out in front of him. He looked up at it. Blank white sides and monsters in full-body tights assailed him. He sighed. Oh, goodie. He was getting kidnapped again.
The kidnappers clearly didn’t have much experience with this. Only one of them stayed in the car, none of them stood guard, and all of them were giggling. The screams around them that filled the streets didn’t seem to be a bother. That told the still-crash-addled Error who it was. Ah, goodie. Them.
There were 7 monsters around him. Three of them were too short to do anything. He briefly considered putting up a fight, just for the heck of it… oh, right. He couldn’t swear near him, could he? That limited his vocabulary a bit. The kids should already know a few curse words by now. They were the reason he decided not to fight back, even if it was just for appearances. He didn’t want to hurt a kid. He never had.
So, instead, he put on a face of fake terror, threw up his hands in mock surrender, and said, voice dripping with sarcasm, “Alright, take me wherever you want, just don’t hurt my family!”
The kids snickered. A brief smile graced his face. He knew that one would get them.
Knowing it was only going to devolve from there, the adults jumped on him like a herd of horses on a new fudging play ball. Darn it, he needed to swear! Why wouldn’t that fudger even let him swear in his own head? Whatever, it wasn’t like it really mattered. He wasn’t in any real danger right now of anything but being touched, and the cocoon of strings he wrapped around himself prevented that. His kidnappers didn’t even pause, they just picked him up, cocoon and all, and hauled him into the van. They set him down very gently. Rude.
After a while of enduring the most hair-raising driving he’d ever known (and he’d been in a car with Ink this morning), he said casually, “You know, you could have just sent me a note.”
“We did. You never bother to read them,” A kidnapper said. He had to concede that. This was a heck of a lot more fun.
Dream felt dull, but having Cross and Killer nearby made him feel safer to be so. He wanted to feel. He wanted to sympathize with Cross clear hatred of this place. Dream didn’t really understand why he hated it, though. It was just a cemetery.
Then, after walking along a muddy path all the way to the back corner of the cemetery, where the trees hadn’t been trimmed and the flowers on the graves were all wilted, they reached it. It was the cheapest gravestone in the place, a rough, small slab with only “RIP” written on it. Dream frowned. It wasn’t even worth a name?
“This is where my brother is buried,” Cross said into the empty air. Dream jumped. This was what?! “He died in an… accident. I don’t really believe the story my father,” he spat, “told me. He said that Paps was on an assignment at our old job. We were raised to be bodyguards. Something went wrong, that much I know. Paps ended up completely dusted; almost all his dust had been soaked into a mop-head. A mop-head! I scraped up the little I could find for his funeral. My father,” again Cross spat, “was too busy to bother. I had to buy this headstone myself. I still don’t know what happened to my paychecks. I certainly never saw them. This was money I got from selling some of the comics my best friend, Epic, gave to me. I haven’t seen him in a while. I miss him.”
Dream couldn’t help himself. He might not really understand what happened to this Paps, but he knew how much it hurt to think you’d lost your brother, even if Nightmare was okay now. He flung himself at Cross and hugged the taller skeleton close. “I’m so sor-“
“Look at you, still getting swooned at by the stupidest-“ A strange voice interrupted him.
They didn’t get to finish, either. Cross was suddenly out of Dream’s arms and throwing attacks at a human nearby. Dream panicked. What was Cross doing? Humans were dangerous! Dream used his seldom-called-upon magic and lured Cross close to him with a promise of happiness. It made him feel sick, but at least it worked. Cross stopped attacking and came over to him, fast. “Dream, shit, are you okay?”
Killer, speaking to the strange human, said, “Oh, hey there, Chara. I’ve heard Cross talk about you before! You’re the one who got him into chocolate, weren’t you?”
This Chara laughed. “You’re really obvious, you know that? Yeah, I’m sure he talks about me. I’m the reason his brother is dead, after all. I bet he hates me now. Funny, because he and I used to be best friends. He even still wears that stupid locket!”
That was when Dream snapped. He was livid that someone who Cross clearly still felt a lot about (a very confusing mix of pain, trust, hate, and humor) would treat him like this. He let his full power out of its cave, the sheer amount of magic he kept hidden away overwhelming all three of the others. Only Cross remained standing, and that was because he was leaning on Dream.
“How dare you! Cross is sweet and nice and loves people. You’re treating him worse than a chained-up dog might be! He cares about you, but you clearly don’t care about him. You need to learn some manners. Go off and try. Maybe when you’ve learned them we’ll let you see Cross again. Maybe. Killer, do you think we will?”
Killer, who’d sunk to the ground with a feeling of awe, shook his head. “No way. Not with everything I know about him. He’s the most manipulative bastard ever. Letting him back into Cross’ life can only cause him pain.”
Dream turned back to Chara. “That’s that, then. Go away. If I ever see you again I will show you how much I’m like my brother.”
Chara, released from the pressure of Dream’s magic, ran away crying and full of fear. Dream sagged. Cross and Killer were there to catch him. He found himself thick in the midst of a storm of tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry-“
It took a long time for them to get him out of that loop.
Ink had no idea what time it was when he got back to his apartment. He rarely had any idea what time it was, though. It was still daylight, but he was starving for food. He rarely remembered to eat on his own, either. Usually he either randomly got the inspiration to cook (and subsequently never did the dishes) or one of his friends showed up at his apartment and made him do it. He didn’t really care either way. No food would ever taste as good as his paints.
What he did remember was that Error was supposed to be at his place, though. Well, “supposed to”. In this case, that meant everyone had assumed that when he disappeared from the hospital. Ink could see the logic behind it, but he couldn’t see Error.
He didn’t really mind that Error was hiding in his apartment. He could tell that Error didn’t do well with crowds… or people at all, really. He also didn’t seem to like bright colors, which was all that Ink’s front room had in it. Error didn’t really seem to like his art room, either. Ink wanted to know why. Should he put a beanbag in there or something? Where had that idea even come from?
Ink had searched the entire apartment before he realized it. Error wasn’t there. He froze when he figured it out. Why was he looking for Error again? Error was free to live his life and follow his own story… which Ink was now deeply invested in. Crap.
He had to go investigate this. Not because Dream wanted him to or Blue asked him to; no, he had to go investigate this because otherwise he’d never know the rest of this story, and he’d promised himself that he’d learn the whole thing! He wasn’t even halfway there yet. He needed to know more.
There was only one problem with that, though; Ink had no idea how to search for someone. There had to be a way. Maybe he could find a book at the librarby? It was worth a shot. He headed for the house of books, unaware of the speeding white van that almost ran over him. That was irrelevant. He had a mission! Finding Error was his current goal in life… even if the mission would have been a lot shorter if he’d just looked inside that white van.
Dust couldn’t help his instincts when he heard the key being messily turned in the lock of Blue’s apartment that afternoon. He whisked himself into the darkest corner of the front room and put out his eye lights, hiding himself completely from anyone who wouldn’t know he was there. Blue gave him a half puzzled, half panicked look. Then Stretch arrived.
The first impression Dust got of Stretch was clearly the one he was supposed to get. Stretch looked like a bumbling, genial idiot, probably the kind who smoked one thing or another and dodged work at every opportunity. Harmless, that was the first impression.
Then Stretch closed the door and his whole visage changed. Gone was the idiot. In was intelligence. Out was the bumbling and in was drunkenness. Genial was replaced by aggressive. The rest, the smoking and work-dodging, stayed. Horniness appeared out of nowhere. Oh, no. That was a very dangerous expression.
“Heeey, Blue. Wherrre’ve you been? I been fuck wanting to days since several now. Come here and ge-“ Blue backed away from his brother, clearly scared. Stretch’s face snapped from horny into anger. “Oh, don’t pllllay that game. I know you hate leeeeaving the house bones with broken. You know what? I thiiiink I know the perfect bone to break. You woooon’t even be able to leave-“
That was as much as Dust could take. He stepped out of the shadows and inserted himself between Blue and Stretch. “Oh, hello there. You must be Stretch, Blue’s brother. I’m so… excited to miss you. Isn’t that right, Pappy?”
Stretch’s reaction was priceless. He almost jumped through the ceiling, that was how startled he was. He looked at Dust with pure fear on his face, although it was quickly covered by anger, then guile. Then his drunk brain seemed to process what Dust had said, because he snarled and looked around, clearly trying to find Dust’s brother.
“What the heeell do you mean, “excited to miss you”?” Stretch slobbered as he spoke, “and where the heeell is your brother?”
“Oh, he’s dead, just like you should be,” Dust mentioned casually.
“Dust-“ Blue started to say.
“Exchuse me!” Stretch dramatically slurred, “I deserve to be dead? Why?”
Dust rolled his eye lights and laid it out for the abusive idiot, shifting the story slightly to make it sound like he’d been spying on Stretch rather than that Blue had told him. Stretch still got mad at Blue, though.
“WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU LIE LIKE THAT YOU DIRTY WHORE?!” Stretch roared.
Dust let his LV flare, inevitably remembering all of the humans and monsters he’d killed in his life. He hated it. They’d all been deserved deaths, just like this one would be. Paps said so. He needed to save Blue right now, though. He just did.
“Dust, please, don’t hurt him!” Blue screamed. Dust froze, realizing his LV had almost led him to kill Stretch - not that that would have been a waste.
“Why?” Dust asked, his tone dead as it always was when he was running on LV.
“He’s my little brother! I raised him after the accident. I don’t want him to die!” Blue plead. Dust winced. He knew that feeling, didn’t he Paps?
“Fine. But if I ever see him near you again all bets are off. Got it, Stretch? Blue is free to be his own person and do what he wants. You’ll just have to suffer along all by yourself, because I’m revoking your privileges as a brother. You don’t deserve them anymore.”
Blue was shivering with fear when Dust turned around and faced him. He put a smile on his face, then said, “And Blue? You can do whatever you want now and go wherever you want. After everything you’ve done for us we’ll help set you up wherever you want to go, okay? Starting with a hotel. Come on, I know a nice old lady I think will be happy to feed you whatever you want. If you want to come, that is. You don’t have to. Do you? Want to come, that is?”
Blue looked so lost and happy. He also looked overwhelmed to the point of fainting. Dust got his arms ready to catch him if needed. It wasn’t.
“I… I’d like that. Please, can we go now? If that’s okay?”
Dust grinned. That’s a great sign. “Sure thing, Blue. Let’s get out of this joint.”
* * *
You can find me on:
Chapter 12: The Morning
Some things are found out which should have been, and others are learned that are not as friendly.
Killer liked the hospital Nightmare had bought. Yeah, it had almost bankrupted them, but it basically meant any injuries that the gang got were treated without fuss. Before Nightmare had bought this place, they’d had to drive all the way out to the next county because this place had no money to spend on expensive treatments and good doctors. Now they didn’t have to drive so far, and neither did anyone else in this area.
Today it was gloomy outside, although most of that was the weather. It was raining, not in a hard, dangerous way, but in a soggy, persistent way that warned of a long, long storm to come. Killer wished it was wrong. It wasn’t.
The hospital room where Nightmare was still recuperating was gloomy, too. The light in the ceiling didn’t work at all, so the only light was the one coming from the outside world. The outside, rainy world. Yeah, it was pretty dark in here.
Then light filled the space. It was a warm light. Scratch that, it was hot! Not too hot to bear, but hot enough to make him sweat. He’d never felt magic like this before yesterday. It had a familiar flavor now, though. It tasted like Dream, and, sure enough, when he turned around to check on the group, Dream was the skeleton with his eyes glowing the brightest.
That was when he noticed it. They weren’t all there. Cross was pacing with his emotions locked down as tight as his fists. Dust was hovering near the doorway, his feet firmly planted as if to spring into a fight at any second. Dream was glowing, but he looked dead inside, as if just the act of seeing his brother had turned his soul to stone. Blue was monitoring the monitors that surrounded the still bedridden and voiceless Nightmare. Ink… Killer felt a little bit of kinship with the forgetful skeleton, but right now he couldn’t understand the fear in his eye lights. Finally, Error-
Error was nowhere to be seen. Killer checked the room again, but there was still no glitches or pixilation in sight. Well, that explained Ink’s panic. Killer called everyone’s attention to it.
“Hey, Ink, what’d you do with Error?” He asked jokingly. He wanted it to be funny, not scary. It didn’t work.
Ink didn’t waste any time before he started freaking out. “He’s gone! I woke up and he wasn’t there and I looked all over for him and he wasn’t there and I went to the librarby to find a book on how to search for someone and he wasn’t there and neither was the book and-“
“Woah, Ink!” Dust said quickly, “Slow down a bit. Error does this sometimes. He just vanishes for days or weeks, but he always comes back. We just have to wait.”
“But what if he gets hurt?” Ink begged, “Can’t we look for him just in case?”
Killer saw the way that everyone was looking at him and quickly squashed it. "Yeah, no one say what they're thinking, because if you do you'll have a knife in an unexpected place, and I'm not entirely sure it will be mine. Error may be weird and annoying sometimes, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't deserve help. That being said, we're all pretty busy, so let's just search where we go, okay? Ink, you can search wherever you want. If we find him we'll call you. Okay?"
Ink didn't look satisfied, but, then again, neither did anyone else. Well, except Blue. He looked worried and confused. Killer knew he should probably ask... But he got the feeling that Blue wouldn't tell him in front of everyone. He would have to save it for later.
Cross wasn't exactly lying when he said he'd look for Error. He was! It was just... He was searching where Dream searched, just to double check... Okay, he wasn't looking for Error. He was following Dream. But he was doing it for a good cause! Dream didn't seem right at the moment. He might be powerful, but Cross knew even powerful monsters could be hurt by a human with a bad enough intention. He was being selfish. He didn't want Dream to die.
It turned out that that was the farthest thing from any of their minds. The humans and monsters that worked at the sleazy office building where Dream went to work were... Well, they matched the building. Dream didn't even seem to think as he stepped out of the reach of grabbing hands and turned his back to lust-filled gazes. Cross wanted to scream. And then it happened.
The Asgore that came into the room wasn't one that Cross recognized. He was skinny with very patchy fur and yellowed skin. His eyes were sunken in deeply and ringed in black bruises that made Cross sure he'd been in a fight. He was about to be in another one if he touched Dream.
The Asgore walked a clear, wide path through the building heading straight for Dream. His face was full of a kind of hunger that made Cross sick. It wasn't sexual lust- it was bloodlust.
Before Cross could intervene, Dream was being picked up by his neck and pinned to the wall. His eyes were glassy. He wasn't here anymore, and that scared Cross. What was going to happen was something he knew was unstoppable and painful enough that he didn't want to be around. That did not bode well.
The Asgore smirked at Dream, then, quick as a whip, he grabbed Dream's dangling arm and squeezed until the bones went crunch. Cross could feel his magic boiling. What the hell?
"Oh, little daydream, you finally came back. I wondered if you were ever going to return, or if I was going to have to send my boys after you. You still owe me so much money~ How did you manage to afford a vacation when you can't afford to pay me? You know the rules I have about hiding things. I'm just extracting the price for what you did. Now, bleed good for me. Your blood isn't hardly worth enough for this to be worth my time."
Still holding Dream's wrist, one of the other employees grabbed a glass flask, the kind a scientist would use to mix valuable chemicals, and held it under the steady stream of blood falling from that clenched fist. The scary part? Dream still hadn't reacted.
That was when Cross remembered something from his early days with Nightmare. The boss had accidentally let slip that his blood was almost pure magic and that it was worth more money than Killer was when he was at the height of his political career. Cross put that together with what this creep was doing to Dream and the words he'd said and circled them. This monster was gaslighting Dream into giving away thousands of G, if not millions, while he forced the skeleton to toil and be abused by his (criminal) accomplices.
"Dream," Cross said into the empty space interrupted only by hunger, "You know, Nightmare told me that his blood is worth a lot of money. I know he's sold some once or twice to save our lives. A few drops got Sugar's teeth fixed. Why don't we head back to the hospital and see what Blue thinks you can give? It's always good to get a second opinion when this much money is on the line."
Dream's skull had snapped to face him, and his eye lights had returned, mote by mote, while Cross spoke. Meanwhile, the Asgore's face had grown more and more angry. "And who are you to be such an expert on something like this?"
Cross stood straight up and let his magic flare, showing the Boss Monster how strong he was. "I'm called Cross, but I'm the son of the Underverse X-Gaster and a trained bodyguard, so I suggest you let the skeleton go before I lose my temper."
Dream was quickly released with just as much confusion on his face as there was fear on the Asgore's. Cross didn't bother to deal with him. He just grabbed Dream and ran out of the building as fast as he could.
Ink was lost. This wasn't all that uncommon, but at least he usually was only physically lost. Right now he was mentally, physically, emotionally, and directionally lost. He had no idea where he was, what he was doing, where he was going, why he was going there, who he was, or... He was so lost he didn't even know where his thoughts were going. He was just lost.
The only thing he really knew for certain was that he was still in the city. There were tall buildings on three sides of him and a big park on the other side. That generally meant city.
The park was one of those giant ones that he loved to get lost in. There were at least 15 types of trees. Probably the number was closer to 50, but he always got distracted by something around the 15th type and lost count. None of the trees could agree on what season it was. Some looked dead. Others were in full bloom. One was covered in yellow leaves, but that one was always yellow. It should be said that Ink didn't know much about trees. He knew more about flowers, and this park had plenty of those. Snapdragons, lilies, and chrysanthemums all bumped shoulders. The smell was wonderful. He was pretty sure they were kept in bloom by one of the Asgores or Toriels with gardening magic. The paths were padded with moss despite the foot traffic; that was his main clue. He could never remember what time of year it actually was.
The buildings on the other three sides of him were variations on the theme of hotel, with each one sporting different colors, and yet all of them looked equally unimaginative. Ink ached to redesign them. No, he wasn't an architect, but he was an artist, and he was pretty sure anyone could see how ugly the lines on the third building were. The second one was just a box, for stars sakes! There was no imagination in them whatsoev-
That was when he heard it. There was something about that screech that was both inescapable and immutable. He was pretty sure that the glitches were always in the same order with the same tones and intensities. They had been the last time he heard it in the canyon just before the flash flood; they had been the times before that. So his guess was a pretty safe bet.
Then he realized what he had heard and everything about what he had been doing came back to Ink. That was Error! He'd recognize that weird, computer-mimicking screech anywhere! Error was nearby!
He had to go find him. Ink looked around, completely ignoring the traffic jam that had developed around him when he stepped into the street to get a better look at the second hotel, turned his limited ability to focus on searching for the sound. The next time he heard it he sprinted off, straight into the park that lay to his open side. He had to find Error. He had to.
Nightmare couldn't have been more frustrated by the way Killer was looking at him. He couldn't even move, damn it! How could he do anything but glare when Killer was looking so mischievous? He knew that Killer was going to cause some trouble today. He just did. The real question was, what?
At least Cross and Dream were back. Admittedly, they looked like they'd been run over by an orderly, but- wait, those weren't his arm guards from when they were kids. Dream's wrists... Something was wrong with Dream's wrists. They were bleeding all over the floor. They were broken. Dream was hurt. Damn it, and here he'd thought Cross would be able to keep his brother safe. Cross had better explain.
Funnily enough, it was little Blue who asked for the explanation. Dust was hovering over him in a very proud and protective way. Blue seemed to draw confidence from him, because he visibly surprised Dream when he asked, "Who hurt you, Dream? Actually, who is the one who hurts you like this every month?"
"Every month?!!" Cross squeaked, "He's been doing this to you every month? For how long?"
Dream wasn't meeting Nightmare's eye, or anyone else's for that matter. He looked scared. Blue, his own questions still hanging thick in the air, answered Cross. "Since before I knew him. Dream had all kinds of scars on him that I healed, but the violence of his wounds has only gotten worse. This is bad. It hasn't been this bad before."
"His boss did it. A Fell Asgore who definitely should be in prison. He said something about paying off a debt? There's no way a debt could be so big that he'd need so much of Dream's blood every month! Nightmare's is super special! Why wouldn't Dream's be?"
Nightmare couldn't tear his eye off Dream, and not just because he couldn't move. Dream was shaking with fear, and his aura was wrong. It felt like he remembered feeling in high school the day he threw himself down the stairs in hopes of dying. Why would Dream feel like that? Dream shouldn't feel like that. No one he loved should. That Fell Asgore was lucky Nightmare couldn't move right now, because otherwise he might be experiencing the raw power of all of Nightmare's corruption.
"Dream," Blue said slowly, "We're not mad at you, we're mad at him for lying to you. Your blood is worth more than a thousand G per CC. It's pure positivity, Dream."
His brother's skull snapped up to look at Blue. He was shocked down to his core. Then he slumped and started to cry. Why? A few words entrenched in the tears infuriated Nightmare. "Taking care of the farm and Mom's medical bills cost so much money. He owns the debt. I'm trying to pay it off, but he keeps adding interest, and then he gets a bad blood batch that poisons the rest and we have to start over, and-"
"That's a lie," Dust interjected, "It doesn't matter what you mix with pure magic, the result will always be usable. You can't poison it. He lied."
"How much do you owe him right now, Dream?" Killer asked the question burgeoning on Nightmare's tongue. He hadn't known the farm cost money, or that their Mom's medical care did, either. Logically, now, he knew they had to. Back then Dream had hidden that from him. How much else had he left to hide?
"148,500 G," Dream said immediately. Anger filled Nightmare. He could have paid that off with a liter of blood himself, but it had been held over Dream's head as a threat to make him cooperate with being a blood bank.
"That's not gonna last long," Cross said fervently, "We'll get you a fair deal and you can pay it off for good. There's no way we're going to let someone abuse you like that. Right, guys?"
"Definitely," They all said, or at least some variation thereof. They were all in agreement. Dream's debt had got to go.
* * *
You can find me on:
Website (in progress): https://yastaghronline.com
Chapter 13: The Check
Dream gets some help, but still hides things. Also, Ink.
Dust felt like shit. Seeing Dream trying to hide his arms from the hospital staff as he'd first come in to see his brother, then seeing the full state of those arms now... It made Dust sick. Someone had done that to him. Someone had broken him. Why? He didn't deserve that. His brother hadn't actually died. Not like Dust's had.
A small hand slipped into his and he felt himself steady. Right. Blue was here. His brother might not be, but Blue was. Blue was there to believe in him, something he was bad at that Dust tried to hide from his friends. Blue was there to help him see the good in people as well as the bad. That kind of understanding was something they were both bad at, but together? Together they felt they'd finally figured it out.
Figuring it out had made Dust realize something: he had a seriously big apology in his future to give to Dream. He'd way overreacted when Nightmare was thrown from his horse. It made sense why: Dust's own brother had died that way. It hurt to remember, even now, but the lightning that had spooked his brother's horse wasn't the ram that had scared Razz. The way they'd been thrown was the same, but their backs had been broken in completely different ways, and Nightmare had Blue to heal him. He wasn't a month away from help, barely able to breathe, and completely unable to move. He didn't have a brother who made the choice to kill him out of mercy. He had a brother who took Dust's misplaced guilt and accepted it as his. Fuck. This was going to be a huge apology.
Dream was clearly dissociating again when Dust and Blue walked up close. His eye lights were almost too dim to see, staring at nothing with great focus. Blue had to send a little pulse into Dream's magic for them to get his attention. Even then, Dust wasn't sure Dream was fully there.
"Hey, uh, Dream? Can I talk to you for a sec?" Dust asked, bending down in front of him to look him in the eye. The other monster nodded at him, so he went on, "I really shouldn't have yelled at you the other day. You are not the reason your brother fell. At all. He would have fallen off of Razz no matter what mood he was in. That stupid ram came out of nowhere. You get that, right?"
Dust did not see the light of, well, anything spark in Dream's eye sockets. He still looked dull and full of agony. He very clearly still hated himself.
"Dream... Do you know what happened to my brother?" Dust said suddenly.
The newly-bandaged monster blinked at him, then shook his head. Dust, who hated when he had to admit to himself that his brother really was dead, told the story. He told the story of the slot canyon, the storm, the panicked rear, the throw, the stampede. He left nothing out. He didn't even leave out the tears that had ravished him when his brother crumbled to dust under Dust's own knife. He didn't even leave out burying it. He really should have.
Dream burst into tears when he talked about the feeling of his brother's dust on his phalanges. Slowly, through the sobs, Dust and Blue learned why. They learned about how Dream had come home one horrible day and found the house empty. He'd stumbled to the basement to get started on dinner, more than a little used to Nightmare being out late, only to find him. Nightmare was laying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs. Half of his skull had been broken in. Dream had done everything he could think of in his desperation to save his brother... Including trying to get him to drink some of Dream's own marrow. It didn't work, making him somehow sicker. Then Dream had done the unthinkable. He'd forced his brother to eat one of their mother's magic apples. It had changed him forever, turning him to goop and anger at everything Dream did.
When he left, Dream... Stopped. He stopped fighting and trying for a while, although Dust couldn't get him to admit why or what against. He turned into an echo of himself, a moving statue with the emotions of a cold, dead stone. He'd eventually had no choice but to move to the city. That was when he'd found Ink and Blue.
The sobs became inarticulate then, words vanishing in sheer despair. Dust felt horrible again. He insisted that Blue and he take Dream back to the hotel to get some sleep.
Ink had to stifle a snort when he found Error. Of all the places he could have imagined the glitch being, surrounded by kids while being tied to a chair at a family reunion was not one of them. No, it wasn't one of them at all.
At least the chair he was tied to was comfortable. It was a nice cobalt blue Adirondack, a sloping one with the skeleton's friend, a darker blue striped cushion, beneath its occupant. Error didn't seem to notice it; he wa still shifting and cursing like crazy. Then again, his bones were more used to being on a horse, weren't they? Maybe a pelvic cushion wouldn't feel good to him.
The kids? They seemed to be having a blast, so much so that Ink wanted to join them. They were playing with Error's glitches, poking, prodding, and shaping them when he wasn't looking, kind of like play putty or another kind of fidget toy. When he was looking, though, he'd send a set of strings to steal the glitches back if the kid was still touching them. It reminded Ink of that weird traffic light game. What was it? How did he remember it? Why did it exist? None of those answers came to him, so he shrugged and gave into his instincts.
The kids soon found random patches of paint appearing and disappearing in front of the glitch master's eyes. He scowled, growled, and just about howled his annoyance... Until he saw Ink, sitting on the Adirondack's arm, next to him, and grinning with a small brush in his hands. A sly grin spread across Error's face. Oh, it was on.
Ink didn't notice their audience, although Error did. His family (an extended set of brothers, their lovers, and their kids all seemed to count) was finding this new playmate... Friend... whatever of his amusing. Well, he'd show them!... That they were right. Ink was hilarious. He'd joined in a game of BZZT! Without even knowing the rules. In a park. In midday. And somehow made it better. It felt like he fit. If only the universe gave Error things like that more often.
"You need to talk to Blue," Dust's text said. There was no punctuation, but there were capitols. Capitols and Dust didn't usually mix. Cross was pretty damn sure that something had upset his friend a lot. Like, enough that he'd be killing someone or something soon. It would probably be a good idea to get him back to the ranch soon. There were a lot of reasons Nightmare kept chickens, but Dust was one of them. He found killing the chickens therapeutic... Especially when they could eat them for dinner afterwards. Horror and Sugar liked that part better. Cross missed them.
Cross, well, he didn't need to kill like Dust did. He did need to be curious, though. He'd always had it in him. It was a deep need that could not be slaked, but he had to try. He wanted to see what would happen when he did.
That meant he not only needed to talk to Blue in Dust's opinion, he had to talk to Blue in his soul. At least, it felt that way. He was also the biggest drama queen bar Error in the group.
Cross wouldn't have admitted to anyone in his team, but he already had Blue's number. Those few years after his family had stuffed him in the insane asylum for trying to kill his dad he'd bounced around a lot. No one seemed to understand that he didn't want to kill anyone else, really. It was just his dad. His dad, the one who hadn't even bothered to buy Cross' brother, his own son, a headstone!
Blue had understood though. Blue had taken him in for a few weeks... Or maybe a few years. He wasn't really clear on that because Cross had dutifully been taking his medicine until Blue begged him not to. The longer he took it, the more dependent on it he would become and the more it would destroy his personality. He didn't need it. He wasn't a threat. He kinda wished he had been one to Stretch, though, now that he knew what the bastard was like when he hadn't been around. Cross would have gone back into the wards if it meant he could have helped Blue. Gladly.
He damn well was going to help him now, though. He pulled out his phone, the very nice but sturdy one he'd bought with his first paycheck a few years back. It meant a lot to him. It was the first real paycheck he'd ever gotten.
Then he dialed that number still living in his phone and waited for an answer. It didn't take long. Blue's voice sounded genuinely happy.
"WEI, YOU'VE REACHED ME! BLUE! HOW CAN I HELP YOU?"
Cross gulped and laughed nervously. "Hey, Blue. You know you don't need to shout for me to hear you, right? Anyway, Dust said I needed to talk to you?"
"Oh, yeah," Blue's voice quieted, but for the first time since Cross had met him he didn't sound dejected. Good. "I think he wanted me to tell you about Dream. He's... Well, we took him back to the hotel for the night, but I think he needs some... Company. Tissues. Hugs. That sort of thing. Can you-?"
"Always, Blue. I lov- yeah. I care about him," Cross blushed at almost slipping up, embarrassed. "I'll help him. Always."
"Good, because he needs you. Let me tell you his side of his brother's... Accident..."
In hindsight, Killer was an idiot not to take anyone with him to deliver the blood check, although it hadn't mattered. It wasn't like Killer had gotten hurt. Everyone in that building had been too afraid of him to move.
It helped that he'd been there before. The Fell Bestreds organization was one Killer knew well now; it was the one that had supplied the drugs that Char had used to destroy his reputation and damn near get him killed. Those drugs were illegal, and not just because it was politically convenient. Those drugs, in the right doses, could kill anything. That included whales. Apparently it didn't include skeletons. The Fell Bestreds had given the human more than enough drugs to kill the whale. Char didn't mess around. They'd dealt the hand his immunity gave them. They still wanted him dead, though. Thus, the hunters.
The Fell Bestreds hadn't been expecting to see Killer walk, bold as brass, right into their front. They pretended to be a pharmaceutical company, which, ew! Killer wouldn't want any of the people in this building making medicine. Not even Dream, although the monster was more likely to hurt himself mixing things up than someone else. Apparently he'd been in original acquisitions, whatever the hell that was. Killer deeply suspected it was code for "blood bank". Dream hadn't been smart enough to catch it.
The Asgore that Cross had seen had taken one look at the grin on Killer's face and fainted, which totally ruined his fun. Killer had gotten to watch a movie in the waiting room at the hospital earlier that had a great scene with a knife being flashed around nicely in front of a human, then stabbed between two of their fingers. He'd really wanted to try it out! He wasn't stupid enough to use the "I missed" bit. That would be too obvious.
After the big baby had passed out Killer knew it wouldn't be fun to mess with him. He just wrote a note saying that the check had better cover Dream's debt, pinned it through the Asgore's lapel with a stiletto, and left.
* * *
You can find me on:
Chapter 14: The Reveal
Things finally come to light, for better or worse.
There was an odd thing about healing that Blue was always secretly happy about: the communication. Blue could feel a little bit of someone else when he was healing, just like they could feel him. It wasn't words, exactly, or emotions. It was both deeper and shallower than that. It was safe, but yet made him feel known. He liked feeling like someone knew him, even if only for a moment. He had a feeling that might be why Stretch had tried to stop him from healing. He didn't seem to like it when Blue's happiness was someone else's fault.
Right now, Blue was healing Nightmare, and so he could feel a bit of him fairly well. Nightmare was a protective, scarred mother bear inside; he'd loved and lost, but he was more than willing to fight for what he loved again. Blue could tell Nightmare was feeling his fear, although he had no idea how. This fear wasn't for himself.
Nervously, Blue began to talk about what was scaring him so much, "Dream was weird when he first showed up, you know. Not bad! Not bad at all! He was just soul-numbed by something he wouldn't let anyone know about. It could have just been a manifestation of his PTSD, but-"
"You didn't know that, did you?" Blue chirped when he felt the protective side of Nightmare stir with surprise and anger, "He has it. It's very strong, but he won't take medicine for his symptoms, no matter how much I can tell he wants to. He never has. Now that I know about the marrow thing... That might have been why, but I'm not sure. I hope it is. I hope we can get him to take something now. He really hates his dissociation, and there's a few anti-depressants and some anti-psychotics that might help. I can only do so much when he won't let me see his soul."
Blue looked down at Nightmare's chest for a moment. "Your soul is relatively healthy, you know. My specialty is soul surgery, and I've seen worse. Geno and Error are both much worse."
That was another surprising burst of protectiveness and love. "They're twins, you know. Well, two of three triplets. I worked with all three of them, them and Fresh, in school. They were nice... At least, the other two. Error was scary at first, but he's nicer than he looks. His soul is in a horrible state, but it's more stable than Geno's... Or my brother's. Error tried to kidnap me, once. I think he just wanted a friend. He only kept me over the weekend, and we just hung out and watched Undernovela. I taught him how to knit and he let me talk. I needed to do that. I... I'd not had someone that I felt safe enough to vent to in a long, long time."
Blue paused for a moment, remembering when Error made him let his anger out. "He left the trial when he gave me back to my brother. I wish he hadn't left. My brother wasn't happy that I'd been gone that long. I think Error would have let me cry on him afterwards... or taken me to the hospital. Most likely just the crying thing, though, and just next to him. Touch isn't good for his soul, and I was sticky and gross."
"Dream hates being sticky and gross," Blue added absently, "Not with magic, though. He said last night he likes how your corruption feels. I know what he means. It's protective of those you love. No, it's not that kind of thing he dislikes... Its the things where he steals Ink's shower or mine... Or should be in the hospital. He wouldn't let me take him after he saw what Stretch does... Did... When I went the first time. That was when he first showed up. He was covered in other people's magic and muck. He still won't use his own shower. The landlord won't change the apple wallpaper. I wish he would. It makes Dream throw up."
Finally, Blue looked Nightmare in the eyes. He was still very out of it, being on so many pain drugs, and Blue wasn't sure he'd caught everything. He didn't seem to do mornings very well. He hoped he'd caught enough. Those two needed to make up.
"So, my radical brother Error, who's the one who gets y'all out of trouble and who-" The colorful one introduced to Ink as Fresh said.
"Ink is hell, trouble incarcerated in monster form. I cannot get him out of trouble, I can only prevent his fucking trouble from killing him and every little shit around him," Error said simply. It was true, although way more poetic than Ink thought he usually went for. At least there was swearing. Ink was pretty sure he needed the swearing.
"That's true!" Ink said cheerfully.
"Well, at least you can agree," Reaper, the one who seemed to be married to the brother named Geno, said jokingly. At least, Ink thought that he was a brother, and that he was joking.
"Yeah! It's nice to be able to agree with your crush!"
Silence swirled around Ink like molasses in a flood through the streets of Boston.
"You have a crush on me?" Error asked incredulously. Ink was sure about that. His face painted a classic picture of it.
"YUP!" Ink just about shouted, he was so excited. Error was the best! He took care of him when he had no paints! "No idea what kind, though."
Error grumbled, "Kind? There's more than one kind?"
It was one of the little ones, Goth maybe, who ended up explaining, "There's at least three: platonic, romantic, and sexual! You can have more than one of them, or even all of them at once!"
"Hmm..." Error said, his mind clearly wandering off in thought.
Geno watched him for a moment, then sighed. "Well, while my brother goes off in his skull and does... Whatever he does when we'd be thinking... How about the rest of us get back to eating?"
"Yup!" Ink said distractedly. He was watching Error think and wondering if anyone would mind if he got out his sketchbook. The afternoon light was that perfect shade of gold, and the way it picked up the red, blue, and yellow undertones in Error's bones was intensely interesting. He wanted to try and capture it with his pastels. If he used the oils he could...
"Geno brah, I don't think he's chewing on anything in that noggin of his that wouldn't make us trippy either," A voice barely registered in his brain. He didn't hear the response. He was too busy pulling out his art supplies.
"-and then he fainted on me, which totally ruined the joke I was going to make on him. Wanna hear the joke?"
Killer looked down at his lover. Nightmare looked just about done with him, which was an expression of Nightmare's that Killer was very familiar with. The boss was frequently exasperated with Killer's antics outside of work. Even during work, Killer was a barely constrained bundle of chaos and humor. His sense of humor didn't help matters. He could be very... Nonchalant about things that he had no right at all to care that little about.
He decided to tell Nightmare the joke anyway. "So I get out my knife, right? Daisy, of course, not Peach. Peach would be totally wrong for this, even if she is my favorite. I'd have needed something small for this. Anyway, knife - I flash her around in front of him. Show off every skill I have. Then? When he gives me a stupid bit of lip? I stab her -Stab!- Right between his stupidly fat fingers. Well, I thought they'd be fat. He was skinny as fuck. Didn't like the look in his eyes - foggy and out of it. Probably doing some... Sampling of his company's products on the side. That had to be why he fainted. Then again, those Fell Asgores can be weak and skittish. Their people aren't always that strong. These ones were sketchy and sleazy, like Crossy said; not strong in the least."
Killer took a look back at his mate's eye light. Nightmare was looking good actually. Unlike those stupid henchmen he'd waltzed past yesterday, Nightmare was strong. He'd make it through this. Hell, he was almost back to normal! The doctors were saying they'd let him out before the end of the week. They were so excited to start working with Dr. Blue. He was clearly a powerhouse.
"Oh, uh..." Killer wasn't looking forward to talking about this bit, but he'd drawn the short straw, so he had no choice, "Dream's... Kinda had a breakdown. Cross is with him right now, and they're staying in the hotel with Blue and Dust, but... You two need to talk, Blue says. He told them his side of your attempt. Boss... He gave up when you were gone. He said so himself. He said he basically turned to stone. He won't say why or to what, though. I mean, what he gave up to. He said he was stumbling around when he got home. He was fucking terrified to lose you, and... And Dust thinks we might lose him if you can't get him to talk. None of us can. Sorry, Boss."
"Typical," Nightmare's voice croaked into the breath Killer took. It was the first word he'd said since he woke up. Killer grinned. At least it wasn't something scary like 'thanks' or 'lover'. Boss wasn't big on either of those words. He'd mean them with every ounce of his soul, but they'd never leave his lips. Not for them, anyway. He cared too much to say them.
The voice was quiet. It was so quiet that, at first, Dream didn't think it was real. Why would it be? He hadn't spoken like this to his twin in a very long time.
<I am real and I want to talk, Dream. Talk to me.>
<Nightmare?> Dream thought back tentatively. He wasn't sure it would go through. A few times, many years ago, he'd tried to speak to his brother like this. It hadn't worked. He had just wanted to wish him a happy birthday and say sorry.
This time his twin didn't hesitate before saying, <I love you. I'm sorry.>
<Okay, Nighty,> Dream said back automatically, his childhood response coming through. He'd never wanted to pressure his brother. He'd never wanted him to think he was trapped.
<Alright, that's enough... Please. Dream. Tell me what happened to you when I left. Tell me why you were stumbling that day. Tell me why you are afraid to eat in the morning. Tell me why you sometimes seem to turn to stone. I won't judge. Not you. Unless it's to say, "No, that's not actually a bad thing. It's weird, Dream, but not a bad thing," like the time you ate the worm on a dare and started crying.>
<... You won't like it.>
<I'm sure. Tell me anyway, Dream,> Nightmare insisted.
Dream hesitated for a long time. Then he told him. He told him how, the day that Nightmare had tried to die, he'd left to go to a tea party that the other people in the town said would help him pay off the farm's debt. He'd been naive to think they'd be that nice. Instead, he guiltily enjoyed talking to them... Up until the drugs in the tea overwhelmed his magic. They'd drugged him for a reason. They'd always thought he was the pretty one, they'd said as they raped him. Everyone used him for so long they had to force him to drink more of the drugged tea. Then, when they were done, they left him covered in magic, marrow, and gook. Oh, and 5G so they didn't break their promise. It was his first time.
He'd had to clean himself up and walk home, still under the effect of the near overdose of the drugs, naked and bleeding everywhere. He'd forced himself to shower and get dressed so Nightmare wouldn't see him like that. Then he'd staggered downstairs, still drugged, and found Nightmare with his skull bashed in.
At first he'd thought it was a hallucination. He'd had a few of those that day, mostly ones his own mind came up with to try and keep him from losing hope. When he realized it wasn't one, he'd done everything he could to help his brother. He didn't realize he'd grabbed one of the special apples. It had saved Nightmare, though... But when he'd woken up from the coma? When he'd attacked Dream for selling the farm and run away? Dream gave up.
He let himself be used. He let himself be hurt. He let it all happen, none of it feeling real until the drugs finally wore off. Then he'd run until his feet were raw. He'd run into Ink in the city and been dragged into his life. Ink had been oblivious that he was the only reason Dream hadn't killed himself like Nightmare had tried to.
He flinched, sure his brother now hated him and only spoke to him to tell him so, but, feeling he deserved it, he answered, <Yes?>
<I love you. I'm never letting that happen to you again, okay? You're going to come home with us... Please? I can't... I can't believe that... That you suffered through all of that alone. You were so strong, Dream, but you don't have to be alone anymore.>
It wasn't as though Dream hadn't cried a lot the last few days. This time, though, it felt like it was doing good.
You can find me on:
Chapter 15: The Relationships
A bunch of different feelings about relationships are explored, and Dream hides in a tree for a bit.
The next day Blue was happy to look at Nightmare's chart. It was full of improvements, both medical and in the personel who were responsible for it. Blue, as a doctor and a person, was thrilled. He was happy because the staff who worked with him at this hospital needed to be good at their jobs for his patients to actually improve. They also needed to be functioning in their roles with as little bias as possible. It was statistically improbable for to enter any situation without bias. People who claimed that they could were either ignorant of the meaning of the word bias or lying. The amount of bias that had been previously present, though, was ridiculous.
The other reason that Blue was happy was that Nightmare was doing better! He was talking, which was a good thing, because that was an indicator of soul health in monsters that chose to do so. There were other indicators that could be used to determine soul health, but speech was a fairly good one. It was also easier to record, since "it was of a greenish, orange flavored magic level", while a great indicator of the soul, didn't make a lot of sense to those who weren't soul-savvy.
What both that level of soul health in magic and speech meant was that Nightmare could go home! That was a really good thing, because everyone needed him now, not just his gang or his brother. They needed him to provide scathing wit if nothing else, but they needed him as a friend (or more) even more.
Dream wanted him the most, though. He seemed to be desperate to see his brother again, but he was in no condition to travel. He wasn't exactly hurt... Or injured, anyway, but Blue knew his friend. Dream would have a huge breakdown if he saw his brother in any state like he'd been in up to now. Now he could walk and talk, which were better for someone who had broken down and told the entire crew about his and Nightmare's shared past after his brother had accepted it and promised he wouldn't have to be alone anymore. They were more than happy to handle that while Nightmare was still hospitalized, but having him there to comfort his brother in person would be the best scenario of all.
Dr. Blue was happier to sign off on those discharge papers than any others he'd ever done. Admittedly, that wasn't many; Stretch hadn't let him work in the hospital, or at all, for very long. It was still enough, though, for Nightmare's to be the happiest of them all.
The sun was just beginning to set on the horizon when Ink settled into his seat on the outer reaches of the branch. Error was perched next to him, closer to the oak tree they were hanging out in. Below them, strewn about the grass like the marbles in a game after a well aimed shot, were the children. Inside everyone's souls (at least those people who had souls) was the magic of a good, big meal.
Error was sitting straight upright, his hands gripping the limbs of the tree tightly in the growing breeze. It was clear that he was afraid to fall, which Ink thought was hilarious. They weren't even 7 feet off the ground! The tree limb they were on was thicker around than Error's ribs! He was being a silly goose.
"Are we supposed to be kissing right now?" Error asked in a suddenly awkward silence.
Ink fidgeted on the branch, which only made Error cling to it even more, his bones paling with the effort. If he were a human the knuckles would have been going white.
"I guess, but I really could care less. I'm aromantic and asexual, so kissing is just. Blah to me. You don't like touch at all, either, right? So why should we kiss when we can just hang out and watch the sun set slowly with its train of color cascading down behind it?" Ink asked.
Error snorted, which Ink thought wasa a fair reaction. "You sound like a book of stupid, gross poetry. Stop it."
"Make me!" Ink prattled back.
His opposite growled and clearly thought about lunging for him before remembering about the tree. He ended up just glaring at Ink before eventually giving up and looking away, back to the beautiful sunset that was now underway.
"What are we?" Ink asked in the newly reborn awkward silence that had come from Error's acts.
The other glared at him, but there was no hate or anger in his eyes, just mild annoyance. "What the HeCK do you mean, what are we? We're friends, dummy. What else would we be?"
"Well," Ink said slowly as he tried to think of how to put this into words, "I feel better around you and different, too, than I do with my other friends like Dream. There's no way I'd want to date you, not at all. That's seriously weird. But... I want to have more of a relationship with you than just friends, or even just as best friends. Do you get me?"
The glitch rolled his eye lights. "No."
Ink huffed. "I mean... Have you ever heard the term queerplatonic?"
Error blinked at him slowly. Then, stretching out his words like bubble gum, he said, "Yeah, I have. You want that?"
"Yes! It just feels right for you and me, you know? We're more than friends, but not romantically involved," Ink almost shouted with glee.
Error slapped his hands over his ear-adjacent area. It did nothing, but it was a good signal to the noisemaker to shut up. "Shut up and let me think about what that means, will you? I can't decide with you breathing like that!"
Ink stopped hyperventilating at that point. He didn't really need to breathe anyway, it was just a reflex. "Okay!"
Error thought for a long time before he eventually said, "Okay, we can be q-pees. Happy?"
"Yes!" Ink shouted, startling the kids below and shaking the tree just enough to drop him from the branch. He braced himself for an impact that never came. Error had caught him in his strings. Ink smiled and started to swing, annoying the glitch to no end. Yeah, this was perfect for them.
Far in the distance, on past the horizon, the sun set on a better world.
Dream was terrified right now. He'd been hiding so many things for so long, and now they were out there, in the world, and everyone he actually cared about knew. They knew about the farm debt, they knew about his self-harm, they knew about the Tea Incident, they... He couldn't handle it.
On the one hand, it felt good for him to have people to lean on and count on again- even more than he'd been doing with Blue and Ink up to now. He'd trusted them, but... Not completely. He'd trusted them with his housekey (which didn't actually work against the people who wanted to hurt him) but he hadn't trusted them with himself. His memories and real personality? Those were locked away too tight.
His twin, his friends, and his twin's gang had completely blown open the safe that his secrets were holed up in. Not only had they blown it open, they'd ripped off the door and laid everything inside out in the brightest light, under a microscope, so it could be seen in its entirety. He had every right to be afraid. Everyone was afraid of losing secrets like that.
So maybe it wasn't all that surprising that his instincts kicked in and he fled the safety of their company, heading out to his favorite hiding place for the comfort he always had sought when he was scared as a child: a tree. Well, it was either a tree or a herd of horses, but horses weren't immediately available to him right now. Trees were. They might be the wrong kind of tree (anything but an apple tree was wrong) but the trees he had access to were tall enough and leafy enough for his fear to be eased.
That was where Error and Ink accidentally found him, coming out of the deeper forest with two completely different nice creams in their hands. They stared up at him like he was some weird, tame kind of raccoon. He peered down at them like a deer in the headlights of an electric bike. Both parties were thinking the same thing: "What exactly are my options here?"
"I think we should play some music for him!" Ink eventually shouted, making absolutely no sense as usual.
"What? Why would we do that?" A bamboozled Error questioned his weird friend-partner's sanity. He was a very, very long way from being the first one. No one had any clue who the first one had been. That included Ink.
The artist answered, "Music calms me down. I have some heavy rock on my phone!"
"No!" Error yelled, swatting at him but not actually making contact. "Are you insane? No, don't answer that. We should bring him a weighted blanket! That'll work!"
"He's up in a tree, though. Wouldn't that be dangerous?" Ink argued back.
It went on that way, the two of them arguing about how to comfort Dream and proposing increasingly silly ways to do so. That was actually more calming to him than any of their suggestions would have been. He slowly relaxed against the trunk of the tree where he could watch them argue in comfort. Yes, his whole world had come out of the guarding dark and into the light, but some things had stayed the same.
Sugar watched his brother watch Farmer through the window of the main house. It was really more of a castle or mansion, but, since it was way out in the middle of nowhere in the vague middle of the state, it was simply a sprawling house. Nightmare hadn't built the core of it. That was the pantry. The rest of the house had been burned down by the gang in one of their earliest "raids" on fellow wrangler's properties. They didn't really do that anymore, but it was really only because there were no fellow wranglers close enough to their ranch to be worth raiding.
Farmer was tending to the horses like he always did, patiently and with occasional longing glances over at the window where Blood was watching him. Sugar was coming to the realization that neither of them were ever going to work up the gumption to ask him or each other out. As usual, things were left to the Impeccable Sugar to solve! Nweh!
"Blood, you do realize that Farmer is in love with us, don't you?"
His fiancé stared at him like he was speaking gibberish. He wasn't. It was Blood's brain that was out of whack. Finally, though, it caught up to the present moment enough to squawk, "he's WHAT?!"
Cross's tires absolutely didn't squeal when he pulled into the park's parking lot; he didn't know what Killer was talking about. Yes, he was in a rush to get to the place where Ink and Error (who were together even more scatterbrained than they were apart) had said he was crying while ensconced, hiding, in a fucking tree! Seriously, a tree? That was the kind of thing Nightmare did, only he did it when he felt like the whole world was coming after him and nowhere was safe.
It occurred to Cross, as he stared up into the tree where Dream had entrenched himself, that Dream’s world had changed completely in a very short period. He’d gone from an abused, victimized, and secretive monster to someone with a support network a mile wide. That was a lot.
“Dream!” Cross called out loudly, “You don’t have to hide up there. We’re not going to make you come down, but you don’t have to hide your emotions. We’ll help you if you ask us to!”
Both Killer and Dream stared at him with mild distrust, but Killer was the one who spoke first. “Cross, you’re usually the first to insist that someone get help. What’s with this sudden change of heart? Did you hit your skull on the car when you were getting out or something?”
“Well, I was just thinking-“ Cross started to say.
Killer interrupted him by saying, “-That’s dangerous.”
Cross glared at him. “As I was saying, I was thinking about how much your life has changed lately, Dream. It’s been a lot all at once. I’d need some time to process, too, so I figured we should give it to you. Can you possibly handle waiting for him, Killer, or will I need to tie you up again?”
Killer blushed, obviously remembering the last time. A giggle floated down from the tree. Both Killer and Cross looked up to see Dream blushing down at them. He looked happy, or at least happier. That was an improvement. Yay!
“I think I’m ready to come down now, so there’s no need for you to wait, Killer. I… I needed some time alone, but you guys and Ink and Error earlier reminded me that being around others can be fun, too. Is it okay if I come back down?” Dream fretted.
“It’s okay, Dream,” Cross reassured him, “You can come down. We’ll be here for you no matter what.”
* * *
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