Phil wakes to a gentle hissing sound. Half-aware and half-panicked, he lurches from the bed, grabbing his shield by the arm restraint in a defensive swing and his sword’s grip, tearing it free from its sheathe.
There’s no creeper, his mind supplies blearily, and he scans the room a few more times as he pulls himself together.
No TNT either, it would’ve set off by now. The soft hissing was still audible, though. He loosens and tightens his grip, taking a deep breath. It wasn’t too big of a jump for people to guess this was where he’d defected to after escaping L’Manberg.
(Someone’s here to kill him, part of him rumbles low in his throat, all teeth and cold fury, patient and sluggish as it rises steadily with his adrenaline-fueled paranoia.)
(Someone or something. Who? What?)
(He shoves it back down, not unkindly, corking it loosely back in its place, deep in his chest. Not yet. Soon. But not yet, he assures it when it grumbles its displeasure.)
(He thinks of a government, their faces blurred yet their actions familiar and repetitive. How much? How much can he allow? How long will he last? How many times?)
Phil grits his teeth and slips to his feet properly, moving swiftly across the room and creeping down the ladder. The main room is clear, both basement levels clear, and it becomes obvious enough it’s coming from outside when he slips to the front door.
Tommy was long gone. Techno, walls high and muscles tightly wound with reactive emotion unable to be released quite yet, had taken off on a trip for more supplies for the raid of the capital city, already gone for two of the expected six days.
“Ghostbur?” He cuts through the silence. The hissing becomes that much more alarming. He’d forgot the sound. Forgotten the sound of his son--
“Ghostbur?” He raises his voice, throwing the doors open and racing to the rails, scouring the pitch fields. The hills glow despite the lack of moonlight, an eerie gleam of half-melted slush.
“Wil?!” He calls, cupping a hand to project his voice as he spots a figure out of place in the landscape, a freezing chill creeping down his spine as the gentle sprinkling of foggy rain begins to ramp up with his anxiety. His eyes burn with the strain, but he yanks at his immobile magic anyway, heaving the empty force up and squeezing whatever spark he could from the once blazing forge of energy.
(Dream could make his power useless. Could make it archaic and obsolete in the face of his world’s own.)
(Dream made the mistake of believing his power was anything but bloody, stubborn, force-of-will vitality made physical.)
The ghost of his dead son stands in the rain, his form melting and bleeding away under the gentle onslaught. Already, the top of his head and shoulders, his sleeves were all missing, steaming ever so slightly. He turns slightly at his name, but the top half of his head is misty and dissolved, tops of his ears fuzzy, his eyes transparent and thin with a grey gradient.
Phil throws himself over the railing, abandoning his sword and shield as fear took flight in his heart. His right wing burns as he extends it, his left faltering. He manages two, maybe three feet of gliding before he crashes onto his hands and knees in the slush, joints flaring. Still, he scrambles the short distance into the field and throws himself over his ghostly charge, throwing his haori’s sleeves wide. His wings shake violently with the strain of opening them and fanning his feathers, but he makes a cover above them nevertheless, covering the part of him unshielded by the disorganized feathers with his sleeves.
“Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur,” he rasps, cupping the back of his son’s head with a desperate, trembling hand, eyes burning with wetness as he curls his fingers to scratch comforting through the wet, tangled strands and his fingertips ghost straight through him. “Wilbur... I had thought...”
“Hello, Phil,” the ghost replies weakly, seeming to aim for cheery and landing somewhere between despairing and hollow, unaided by the fact some of his chest and throat had been eroded by the wet wind. “What brings you out here on this fine night?”
“You-- Wilbur, you goddamn bastard, you know the rain and snow hurt you! You know-- that’s not funny!” He snarls into his shoulder, tightening his grip even as the ghost seems to ooze out around him.
In life, Wilbur had been made of hard points and sharper edges, a bony boy by nature who Phil had always had to pad in order to coddle. His aching heart crumples in on itself a little more as he wraps himself around the taller man a little more firmly, some of the more obvious points of his shoulders still retaining their strength despite his ribs seeming smaller, softer, almost feeling to squish under his tight grasp.
“That’s not my name.”
“What?” Phil lifts his head wearily.
Ghostbur has a strange look on his face. Not entirely blank, eyebrows furrowed just as Phil’s did, an unsatisfied twinge to the thin of his lips. His eyes find his Phil’s briefly, skimming past him towards the horizon he’d been watching beforehand.
“Ghostbur, can we go inside?” He asks tiredly.
There’s a spark of his own in those eyes when they turn back on him, pinning him with a sharp glance of furious indignation before it weakens.
(You don’t have to be out here with me, Wilbur would’ve argued a few short years ago. You don’t have to stay, he’d snap.)
(No, Phil agreed that very first time, but I will anyway.)
Wilbur stares down at him for a long few seconds before nodding. Phil’s wings burn something angry, the worst it’s been in a while, visibly shaking and drizzling water all around in a thin shower with the strain of keeping them up and out, and he drops them with a pained hiss as he quickly yanks his haori free and throws it over his companion.
Wilbur, for all his ghostliness, seems to half disappear into it. His natural cold aura distributed around Phil seems to bring the temperature close to actual freezing. He resolves to hurry back to the house, breaking the silence with the crunch of the refreezing slush under a single pair of boots.
At least that, he’s used to. The silence of ghosts, Wilbur with his wet, dissolved feet and the crowded isolation of his other worlds make him more equipped for the strange not-pressure not-presence that falls over them.
Phil goes through the motions with all the repetitive, mindless ease of a father. A fireplace lit, quilts removed from overstuffed chest downstairs, a few cushions laid out. Milk, caramel, chocolate, some peppermint leftover and too-large mugs because Techno was nothing if not efficient in all forms and means of life.
Wilbur, where he rests on a cushion before the fire, half-covered in a similarly massive blanket, must have the same idea when Phil hands him his hot chocolate, giggling into the two-thirds full mug.
Still, after a few long pull of it and a handful of slow breaths, Wilbur places his mug down between his feet, wrapping his arms around his knees and resting his head on them. His form seems to sway, shifting slowly, almost sleepily between levels of visibility.
Phil tucks his feet a little firmer under his quilt, pulling the blanket tighter around him. It was harder to tell when Wil was around and when he’d faded into background static now that winter had truly set it. His chill was the biggest identifier when he wasn’t visible, but with his son still wearing his haori as he vanishes, the chill is cold regardless of its source.
“I thought I could bring back Wilbur. If I stood in the rain long enough. It sounds... bad to say it out loud, but I don’t know where I got the idea from. I just saw the storm outside and thought...” His disembodied voice trickles away into silence.
A phantom memory ghosts Phil's mind, the feeling of small hands pulling at the sleeves of his kosode and haori, asking for stories. Chuckling under his breath, he lets his head fall forward, hair curtaining.
"Do you remember the summer storms?" Phil asks the air. "At home, when you were little?"
His house is silent. Nothing creaks besides the things he means to, nothing reaching out to him as out of the ordinary.
"Aah, the chaos of it all," he lets himself take a moment to giggle. "The storms would pull everything in with an inhale, then spit it all back out with an exhale you'd say. Ooh, the stress you caused me!"
"You'd cry and cry until you got a little older, grew up a little, then you'd pout and mope around." He loses himself to the nostalgia of it all. "And then you'd either ask to go out or I'd skip the dancing around and let you go out and you'd smile with your entire being! And then out the door, you would go. Sometimes pajamas and all.
"And you'd stand there, after awhile, out there in the storms that were wilder than anything we've ever seen in any world since, and you'd just... let the rain fall on you, gentle or rough. I asked once, and you'd said... C'mon Phil, can't you feel it?"
Phil shook his head in recalled exasperation. “I didn’t understand it then. I don’t entirely do now, either, but... I get it in my own way. Rain makes everything heavier and lighter at the same time. It washes everything away, the mud, the dirt, until everything buried and bright rises to the surface. You were young, for thoughts like that, but... who was I to judge?”
“Do you miss him?”
Phil starts slightly as Wilbur reappears, not quite as drastically he might’ve a few weeks prior though he was sure he’d never really get used to the ghostly physics of his eldest. “Who?”
“Wilbur. Alivebur. Whichever.”
“You are Wilbur, Ghostbur,” he says carefully, furrowing his eyebrows.
“I don’t have his memories. And I have... gaps... in my own. I lose so much... it’s like I’m leaking. I’m not him. I’m his ghost.”
“What do you think a ghost is, Wil?”
“No! No, I’m-- I’m an... I’m an imprint. Everything he did, everything he touched, every impact he made, it all culminated into a shadow of who he used to be. Into me.”
Phil sighs heavily despite his weak smile. “You don’t even realize it.”
“You’re just as stubborn. Just as melancholy. Bittersweet. Ghostbur, you’re him! Wilbur... you spent so long projecting a persona of a leader, of someone infallible and strong, confident and sure, that you forgot who you really are, under it all. And without that anchor, you’re falling back into the you that lurks underneath.”
“I just want to make sense of this! All these memories, all these secrets, all of it! Wilbur did something and I don’t know what, but it makes people look at me like they see someone else and I can’t stand it!” His voice shook with a gentle, creaking ache as he drops his head into his palms. “I don’t know who they see. I don’t know how many versions of me I created for them, and I don’t know how to get them back so people can stop looking through me for the person they want! Because whoever they want, it’s not me!”
Phil lifts his head properly, looking out the window from his spot on the floor. The temperature grows frost over the wood of the shutters, but the faintest beams of a cloudy night’s moon peer through.
“You’re my son. No matter what form, or who you are. You’re my son. And I’m your father. This won’t change no matter what. No matter how much changes.”
The freezing cold suddenly swallows him, clouding his breath and driving a spike of cool air to burn his lungs.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Phil. But I can feel your sorrow every time you touch me. In every glance. You don’t have to lie.”
He wrestles the air back, tucking back into his drink with a scoff. “Wilbur Soot, I have lied many times in my life, but never about something like this. You know better than that. You don’t need to drive me away because I’m grieving and you’re feeling confrontational.”
“You’re grieving!” The ghost crows, bittersweet satisfaction apparent.
Phil put his mug down with a heavy thud that silences the building.
“My son died. I killed him. I unsheathed the sword I used to play make-believe with him, that I used to teach him to swordfight, that I used to defend him in battle, and I killed him with it.”
Once, a few short weeks ago, he would have screamed it. The sentences would tear from his throat, bloody and raw, heat bubbling and boiling in his veins.
(When he’d first arrived, finally forcing himself to peel from around Wilbur’s cold body after day and night’s long hours had passed, he had stumbled into the wilderness, throwing himself into survival mode. He still had the scars on his forearms and shins from swinging his pickaxe with blind force into walls of fragile mines, blind with rage and regret, one near-fatal swing into a vein of Redstone igniting a small explosion of crimson power that fragmented the stone around it into shards of shrapnel.)
“He begged me to kill him. And I did because he was my son and he was suffering and he begged me. And I remember every millisecond of it. Every night and every day, I have to live knowing I did that. I’m grieving the loss of life. I’m grieving the chaos I caused being a poor father. I’m grieving the boy who grew into a man, and the people who I took that man from. I’m grieving the end of it all. And I’m grieving every conflict I’ve been a part of and caused with my actions those few weeks ago. I’m grieving everything I did and will do. To me and to him and to everyone else who loved and hated him and everything in-between.
“They don’t blame me, not really,” he smiles, tears dripping off his chin. “And that’s worse. Unbearably so, sometimes.”
There’s a hand on his own, in his lap. Cool fingers curl around his own and he lets himself sway to the left, dropping his head on his son’s shoulder with a heavy sigh as a fuzzy arm wraps around him, rubbing circles into his own shoulderblade.
Just like Phil used to do when Wilbur was young. He lets that last string of tension leave his muscles, leaning into the touch.
“You and me,” Wilbur breathes, near-silent. A ghost of a smile crosses his face when Phil glances up. “Odd one’s out once again, huh?”
“Like father like son,” he agrees, snorting ruefully as he picks his mug up once more. “Ahh... what am I saying? We’ll get through this.”
Wilbur looks over at him, tilting his head. “So easily?”
“No, gods no, I didn’t say easily. We’re in the thick of it now. The summer storm.”
“And when it passes?”
“Petrichor. A rainbow,” he adds, humming tiredly in thought. “Maybe a double rainbow.”
“I don’t want to... hurt anymore, Phil. I don’t want to hurt you,” Wilbur echoes his earlier sentiment, sobering up.
“What, you think I’ve been kicking around the block this long without a little hurt? I don’t want to dismiss it all, obviously, but... I’ll survive. Somehow. I have to, even if I didn’t already want to. I have too much left. Too much to do. Too many people. Too much of myself left.”
Phil pulls from his grasp, turning in place and wrapping his arms around a surprised, wet-eyed Wilbur.
“Live, Wil. Don’t resign yourself to death before this world lets go of you. The good of it all-- it’s worth it. Even in a different form. This is a storm, Wilbur.”
“And all storms pass,” Wilbur says, quirking a small smile as he pulls free, looking years younger despite the bags under his eyes and the greying pallor to his skin.
“Now, are you going to finish your hot chocolate, or what? We can’t leave any evidence about when Techno gets back or he’ll pitch a fit.”