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you say we're not like the others

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Philza and Technoblade are not the same.

Phil likes to think that they are, that they can exist on the same plane, two wayward souls tied to the mast of a sinking ship, bound together, but Techno could never agree with him, would never want to bring Phil down to his level.

Phil is a killer, yes, but so are most people. They sit in the middle of a war – if you aren’t a killer, you’re doing something wrong, and perhaps Phil had killed more than most, but that pales in comparison to the lives Technoblade has taken. Phil is a killer, and he is reckless and quick to anger, but he has a gentleness about him that is unmatched by any other creature or human Techno has ever met. He is kind in his words, soft in his touch in a way that makes him seem almost inhuman, above human, displaced from the tyranny and ignorance that swarms the earth, something separate entirely.

Technoblade cannot say the same for himself. He is dirtied, figuratively and literally; blood and soil sticks to his hands like a second layer of skin, resting deep under his nails, making their home in his matted hair. He is of hybrid blood, scum, torn between two worlds and cursed never to find a home in either, rejected by the sounder he was born into as a child, forced to survive the realm of the nether alone until he had found his sweet escape. Yet even here, he is not wanted. Here, he was a dangerous thing, a feral beast who’s only worth was to be hunted down or bet on for sport, better to be locked away in iron chains than to be ever gifted a semblance of humanity or mercy.

Phil gives him humanity and mercy. Sometimes Techno thinks it would be easier if he didn’t.

Technoblade is a monster. Voices of the damned and the dead whisper to him as he walks, calling out for destruction and blood in exchange for power, and he obeys them, because what else could he do? When you are weak, and outcasted, you cling to power like it is the only thing giving you air, the only thing pushing blood around your veins, and so Technoblade slaughters kings and adorns himself in their jewels. For each life he takes, the voices pass him the remaining years tenfold.

Phil’s kindness was unlike anything Technoblade had ever witnessed, the way Phil can take his calloused, scarred hands and not flinch, the way Phil will sing his praises so casually, as if his words were nothing to be mused upon, as if everything he speaks weren’t sacred.

Technoblade told Phil once that he likened him to an angel, and Phil had laughed in his face, the sound of it ringing like church bells.

“Techno, mate,” he’d giggled, “I get I have the wings ‘nd all – “and what a sight they were, brilliant crows wings as black as the void, iridescent against moonlight “- but I’m not an angel, I’m just some guy.”

Technoblade had decided then that he’d work to prove Phil wrong, would work to make him angelic, even if it meant pulling down a halo from the heavens and placing it upon Phil’s head himself.

-

Paperwork sits piled on his desk, tensions with other nations grow ever stronger, and Technoblade cannot sleep.

He keeps looking back to a particular memo, the paper held tight and crumpled in his fist – ‘rumours that Business Bay moves to the connecting bridge, stay alert’. The invoice came through three days ago, three whole days, and Techno hasn’t rested since. ‘Stay alert’ the message had said, and so he has, creeping out of bed every night and sitting at his desk until sunrise, pouring over old treaties, trade deals, anything that would increase his hope for a peaceful resolution to this unfortunate situation. He finds nothing, and so instead he keeps his amour out of the armoury, keeps his sword within arms reach at all times.

The candle within his lantern is on the verge of death, the wick practically swimming in molten wax, but he doesn’t move to clean it. When the flame fades, he will simply put another candle in, balancing it atop the rest of the wax, and watch the layers of it grow over time.

Techno drops the piece of paper unceremoniously onto his desk, and drags a hand down his face. His body aches with the heaviness of sleep, begging for it, but his mind won’t allow it, forces him to stay awake, stay alert, stay waiting. He’d tried to rationalise with himself – surely it would be better to be well rested if there truly was an attack on the way? But that form of self-coercion is useless to him now, time and time again he’s proved to himself that he can fight just as well on no hours of sleep than he can a full night’s rest, and it’s a technique he’s not above beating into the ground.

He stretches and shakes his head, a few strands of his braid falling loose and curtaining his vision. He attempts to blow one away, but grumbles as it just falls back into his face.

An attack from Business Bay wouldn’t be war … not immediately, anyway. What it would be is an intentional break of an important, long establishes treaty, encroaching on undefended foreign soil, and if a battle did break out, Techno can only wonder at what other nations Business Bay could entangle in their conflict.

An attack from Business Bay wouldn’t be war, but they could very easily make it one, and although Technoblade himself was prepared, he couldn’t confidently say the same for the rest of his army.

Techno scoffs lightly – ‘his’ army. By all rights and laws, they are his, he’s a commander, an Emperor, and, on a technicality, every member of the Antarctic Empire serves under him, but Gods … sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

The simple fact of the matter is this – Technoblade isn’t like them. He’s not from the overworld, hell, he’s not even totally human. He’s a hybrid, a piglin one, and normally its impossible for piglins to leave the nether without becoming immediately zombified, but some blessing or curse in his genes allows him to live in both realms, and somehow, he is not wanted in either of them.

To the piglin folk, he was always too human. He has a lot of human features, sure, their face, their build, hair adorning his head instead of fur covering his body. They are pack creatures, and anything who didn’t look like them, act like them, were rejected from the sounder, and that included Technoblade. He had watched them from afar, learned to fight by copying their movements, survived off of the scraps of meat they left behind on hoglin corpses after a hunt, envied the way they dripped each other in gold, the way they pressed their foreheads together, the way they protected each other.

To humanity, well, it was the opposite. Too piglin, too tall, sharp tusks pointing up from his lips instead of the neat rows of teeth they held, large ears, naturally pink hair, too strong, too unnatural, too … everything. They take him for a monster, for a beast, a thing without cognition or empathy, berated the accent that fell from his tongue when he first learnt common until he forced himself to swallow it back.

And here he was, years on, still barely an adult but too far separated from childhood, and he had an Empire in his hands, something he had raised from the ground up, built brick by brick, won battle after battle, and warriors had flocked to it, people like him looking for a chance to prove themselves, to find safety, to belong. He finds his place on the battlefield, and all expectations, all judgements melt away, but as soon as the battle ends …

Technoblade sighs.

The candle is almost dead, the flame clinging desperately to the wick.

He keeps doing this – spending his sleepless nights … thinking, and he’s not very fond of it. He needs to stop, actually, he decides, because Gods know soon enough it’s going to become a habit, one unhealthier than it already is.

Techno runs himself through his little list of lies – ‘I don’t care what people think of me, I don’t need to be liked, my past doesn’t matter to me, not when I have the future ahead of me, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care’.

There is one truth among the list, and it is a very simple truth, one that Technoblade, no matter how bad his brain gets, will always believe.

‘Philza is my friend’.

“Tech …?”

A scratchy, sleep tinted voice echoes throughout the office, accompanied by a bright stream of light that makes Techno flinch.

Ah, speak of the angel, and he shall appear.

“What’re you doin’ up so early mate?” Phil yawns, a lantern hold aloft in one of his hands, the other shrouding his eyes from its light.

He’s just woken up, Techno can tell from the unseemly state of his hair, matted and poking out every which way, trying and failing to sit contained under his hat, and the way his haori has been hastily pulled on, falling awkwardly off of his shoulders. His wings, feathers slightly displaced, sit heavy against the floor. Phil shuffles closer, dragging his bare feet across the carpeted floor, the sound piercing against the silence of the early morning.

Technoblade shrugs in an empty reply and watches as Phil walks towards him, dropping the lantern onto Techno’s desk and pulling up a chair. Phil sits cross legged on the chair, luckily the width allows for it, and leans forward, crossing his arms on the desk and resting his head down on them, looking up at Techno through one open eye.

“Is it the memo?” Phil pries, and when Techno fails to respond immediately, Phil simply sighs deeply into his sleeve. “It won’t do you any good staying up waiting for war, Techno. You’ll just stress yourself, and neither of us want that, do we?”

Techno shakes his head softly in agreement.

Trust Phil to be the one that comes to him in the early morning, dragging himself from his bed to keep Techno company, to try and urge him to care for himself in a way Techno will be reluctant to follow, but will always appreciate hearing.

Phil ruffles his feathers and yawns, sitting up ever so slightly straighter to stretch his back muscles, his wings shaking along with the movement. For a brief moment, Techno sits back and admires the way they move, the effortless way in which Phil is able to control them, even when he has just pulled himself out of sleep. The deep black of his feathers twist in the warm lantern light, almost seeming a dark brown in the orange glow.

“Those need preenin’” Techno says quietly.

He’s always hesitant, even with explicit permission, always worrying that his touch won’t be accepted and, if he lets the darker part of his brain wonder, why would it be? His hands are not gentle, not like Phil’s, they’re not made for the intricate and delicate touch that preening requires and Phil knows this, Phil has sat for hours on end and coached him through every movement, given him every direction he could on how to do this right, how to not make it hurt.

Because Techno has the hands of a killer, always covered in blood, even when he can’t see it. There was a play he read like that once – out damned spot, out I say – something about guilt, and Gods if Techno isn’t seeped in it. He shouldn’t be trusted to be gentle, to be able to touch Phil’s wings with such unabashed freedom, to rake his fingers through his feathers, to push them back into place.

For all Phil knows, Techno could be taking advantage of this unchecked trust, could be waiting for the right moment to grab and to pull and … he’s done it again, gone down a rabbit hole of intrusive thoughts.

Technoblade would never hurt Phil, never. The one truth, Phil is his friend, and if Phil trusts him, which he does, he will never take advantage of this trust, never do anything to harm him.

“Hmm, so they do,” Phil mumbles, voice muffled slightly by the sleeve of his haori.

Phil’s unashamed, unfiltered trust in him is part of the reason Techno regards him as angelic – who else would treat him so kindly, would give themselves to him wholeheartedly if not an angel, a figure blessed by God?

The wings that sit upon his back prove half his theory, the lack of a halo upon his head is glaring.

Technoblade does not make a move to reach out to Phil’s wings, the weight of his thoughts hanging thick over him, and Phil does not make any move to attempt to fix them himself, and so they both continue to sit in a comfortable silence at Technoblade’s desk, Phil’s head tucked comfortably in his arms. He looks to be almost on the verge of sleep again, eyes flittering between open and closed, and Techno decides to go about his work as quietly as he can so not to disturb him.

He looks back over to the memo, taking the piece of paper back into his hands and reopening it. His eyes flicker over the words – ‘rumours that Business Bay moves to the connecting bridge, stay alert’.

The connecting bridge was a project completed a few years back spearheaded by another commander by the name of Pete who works close with both Technoblade and Phil. It was his pride and joy, and it joins the continent of the Antarctic to Australia, and therefore the rest of the world. Pete had been in fairly close contact with builders in Newfoundland throughout the project, a steady but informal alliance, and had been explicitly constructed with the idea that it would only be used by members of the Antarctic Empire.

Business Bay making camp at the opposing end of the bridge spelled trouble for several reasons – the nation was small, but strong and its leaders were prone to violence, and the Empire had done battle with them more than once and left victorious. However, since then, Business Bay has allied themselves with some other major players along the world map – real alliances, written in ink and signed for in blood – and that prompted the threat of something more than a simple series of battles.

That threatened war.

Business Bay was officially allied with Newfoundland, and things had been growing tense with them as of late, and Techno has no doubt that the President there is eager for an excuse to air their growing grievances publicly, and in a rather bloody manner at that.

The soldiers would follow him onto the battlefield, they have done so before and they would do so again. War was one of the only places that Technoblade’s hybrid blood wasn’t seen as a burden, or something to be feared, at least not by the soldiers on his side. Sometimes he likes to wonder what would become of him if he wasn’t the emperor, rather just a simple solider, if he didn’t have at least a polite immunity to their taunts and sneers. Still, he would rather be used as a war thing than for sport or entertainment.

Ah, there he goes thinking again. He’ll have to do something about that.

Trying not to make too much noise, Techno returns to reorganising the papers on his desk, piles of old trade deals and treaties half printed and half scrawled by illegible writing. Phil has fallen asleep at his desk, his face completely buried in his arms, only small strands of his blond hair visible under where his hat sits crooked on his head. His wings make a small noise as they are dragged across the floor, rising and falling ever so slightly in tune with Phil’s breaths, but it’s a noise of comfort.

Technoblade’s lantern has died, and now only Phil’s burns, the candle full and strong. It doesn’t matter much; the shadows in his office are growing weaker, and soon the sunlight will begin to pool through the windows, and so the day will begin.

They haven’t much to do today, in all honesty. They are both dressed – Techno hasn’t gotten out of the clothes he wore yesterday, the simple shirt, pants and boots that make up the bare bones of his more formal attire, and Phil had most likely pulled on his clothes when he woke up – and aside from food and a meeting with the other commanders, their day sits fairly empty.

Meetings had never been his strong suit, but it’s only the five of the, that being himself, Phil, Pete, and the other commanders Calvin and Wisp, Wisp of whom defected from Business Bay over half a year ago, and has since proved himself to be a loyal and helpful confidant. Still, as both emperor and a commander, he is required to attend.

Sometimes he thinks – a good thought this time, he swears – that it would be a lot easier if the position was shared, if there was another shoulder beside him to help shift and bare his burdens, but there was only one man he would dare ask, sat sleeping at his desk.

Emperors Technoblade and Philza … it has a certain ring to it, but the title is more of a glamour, hiding the stress and the pain that come with the position, and although he knows Phil would take it, he knows Phil would help him, he doesn’t want to burden Phil more than he himself already does.

A small ray of sunlight pushes itself through the glass of the office window, and drifts down onto Techno’s desk. Some of it catches against the brim of Phil’s hat, peeking under, and it must hit him in the eyes because Phil suddenly shifts, groaning weakly, trying to push himself further down into his arms.

Techno chuckles lightly, and Phil’s hand bats out, smacking Techno’s own lightly. Phil’s muffled laughter echoes throughout the room, soft and still slightly sleep tinged. It is like music to Techno’s ears.

The peace doesn’t last long.

It never does, like there’s some sort of curse over this place, or perhaps just on him, but he takes what he can get, revels in it, commits it to memory.

It’s not an unfamiliar image before him – Phil sitting across from him, still half caught within the throws of sleep, hand raised and swinging as if he could physically push away the sun. He slowly lifts his wings off of the floor, tucking them up comfortably to his back, and he straightens his hat, and Techno mirrors the action and straightens his crown.

Even when he is alone, he likes to wear it, is fond of the weight of the metal, and the metal itself. Call it his piglin genetics pushing through, call it the last attachment he truly has to the culture he was born into, he’s always been fond of gold, and this crown was his first piece of it, something he had forged himself whilst still in the nether. Gifts of gold for piglins were a very precious thing, they were never made for yourself, always as a gift for someone else, but Technoblade, the outcast he is, was barred from these traditions, and so he had made it himself, a symbol of power without meaning until he had become emperor.

Techno stretches awkwardly, linking his hands together and pushing them out before him, and Phil opens his mouth to speak.

He never gets to.

The office door is thrown open, hitting the wall behind it with a violent slam, causing both Phil and Techno to jump in their seats. With the door opened, they could now hear the raising level of noise behind it, all muffled but desperate shouts, and in the doorway, breathing heavily, stood Pete, armour fastened hastily to his chest, sword in his hand.

“Pete …” Phil said, voice steady but laced with some kind of warning, a ‘don’t you dare’. They both knew exactly what he was going to say, always prone to fearing the worst.

“Armour up!” Pete calls, straightening his stance, and Technoblade copies almost instinctively, pushing himself to his feet, standing to attention at full height. “Business Bay moves on the connecting bridge! Prepare for battle!”

Pete leaves, pulling the door closed with him. The sound of the clambering soldiers fades with the click of the door falling back into place, and Phil sighs shakily.

Almost in sync, they both immediately begin to move. Phil rushes back into the bedroom, cursing faintly as he disappears, and Technoblade immediately turns to where his armour is situated beside him, the netherite glimmering in the faint but growing sunlight. The motions of putting it on are practiced, so much so that he forgoes the action of double or triple checking his buckles where he fastens the armour to himself. He pulls them taut, the leather and metal digging into his skin, but better that then having them too loose. The leg guards go on first, then the chest plate, then the arm guards, and then Technoblade begins to fiddle with his sheaths, looping them around his waist and across his chest.

From behind him, a clicking sound appears, one that he can instantly recognise as the sound of Phil’s sandals moving against the stone floor. He turns, and Phil is adorned in his own netherite armour, less of it than Techno, only the wrist and leg guards, his wings preventing him from wearing a chest plate. In his hands, he is holding a bundle of red fabric which, when he sees that Techno is watching him, he passes over.

Technoblade fastens his cloak around his neck.

He sheaths his sword at his hip and his axe at his back, and Phil slides into place beside him, bow clutched tightly in one hand, his cane in the other, sword imbedded inside. Techno looks down to his friend, and Phil shoots him a quick grin.

Techno opens the door to the office, and the emperor and his second in command head out to battle.

Pete waits for them at the end of the corridor, clutching his sword to his chest and tapping his foot anxiously against the floor. He is not a fighter, more a builder and a strategist, and will be communicating with the others over the communicator system, but he holds his sword anyway, just in case.

Groups of soldiers run about the halls of the castle as they walk, all three of them now together, and for once, Technoblade cannot feel any stray eyes lingering on him. A positive side effect of the blind panic caused by the chance of looming death he supposes.

“So, Pete,” Phil eventually asks as they turn into the main hall, the gates that lead out into the snow of the arctic wide open, the floor just before it beginning to be coated in a thin dust of snow. “What’re the details of the situation. Give us all you know mate.”

“You both know about the memo that came in a few days back, I assume?” Pete begins, and they both nod in agreement. “Well, we had a few footmen travel down the direction of the bridge a few leagues away, just to keep an eye on the situation, make sure no one got too close or anything similar.”

“Let me guess,” Techno grunts, hand placed tightly on the handle of his blade, “they got too close.”

“More than too close I’m afraid,” Pete sighs. “Late last night soldiers baring the emblem of Business Bay were spotted trying to cross the bridge- “

“Last night?” Phil hisses.

“We only received notice this morning. We can’t all travel as fast as you, Philza, we aren’t all blessed with those wings of yours.”

Phil ruffles his feathers, trying to bite back the scowl on his face. He is failing quite miserably, but Pete ignores him and continues. “Trust me, if I knew any earlier, I would’ve called for you both, but I didn’t, so that’s why I’m calling for you now.”

Pete leads them both out into the clearing in front of the castle, the snowy field swarmed with anxious soldiers; Techno can practically smell the stress and fear radiating from them as they shuffle about on their feet and chatter in nervous, hushed tones. It will leave them eventually, it always does.

“So, the bad part is,” Pete continues, “close quarters combat on the bridge is probably the thing we least want to do, and I have completely vetoed any and all plans for usage of explosives unless they get over three quarters of the way to the castle, which would be the worst-case scenario. Calvin has offered the use of portal tactics in order to sweep from behind whilst we leave one or two divisions up top here in case we do need to send troops down the bridge – thoughts?”

“I’m with Calvin,” Techno huffs. Pete is right, close combat on the connecting bridge is a death sentence, and sailing across the channel to sweep from behind would take far too long. “Portals are dangerous, but they’re our best shot.”

“Good, was hoping you’d say that,” Pete smiles, “because Calvin has already begun construction of a portal and is trying to map out a route. I assume both of you can help him with that?”

Techno nods firmly, and Pete clasps his hands together over the handle of his sword, exhaling deeply. He smiles, some of his greyed hair falling over his eyes, and walks away, leaving just him and Phil.

“Should I come through the nether with you,” Phil asks, “or fly over the bridge myself, do some reconnaissance?”

“With me,” Techno says, a snap decision. “If they see you flying over, they’ll know something is coming, they’ll be more likely to suspect us.”

Phil nods, and he follows Techno through the snow.

Just as Pete had said, Calvin stands with several brigades of soldiers, an empty frame of obsidian stood resting in the snow. When he sees Techno and Phil, he waves them over quickly, a basket of something glowing faintly held in his hands. One of the soldiers is stood beside him, a flint and steel, waiting for Calvin’s command.

When they approach, Calvin eagerly holds up the basket to Techno, and when he looks inside, he finds bottles of shimmering, pale orange liquid – fire resistance potions. Techno takes one and attaches it to the potion holder in his belt, Phil quickly diving in to grab one afterwards. It’s a standard safety precaution for nether travel, just in case the environment they spawn in has shifted somehow and they need to be wary of free-flowing lava.

Most of the planning for the expedition goes unspoken between the three commanders. Calvin turns and directs his men, distributing the slowly dwindling supply of fire resistance potions amongst his more talented fighters, getting them into their stations. Phil shuffles beside Techno, spreading his wings out ever so slightly. Crossing the nether will be little issue, they know the route by now, even have it mapped out, they just make sure to destroy the portals after every use, make sure nothing unsavoury follows them home.

Eventually, a whistle sounds from behind them, and the soldier stood in front of the portal sparks the stones against the obsidian. The portal roars to life, a purple fire-like film wrapping around the insides of the obsidian frame, the mist inside whirling and pulsing in a way that seems almost hypnotic. Calvin appears back beside Techno, sword drawn and held tightly in his hand. In sync, all three of them drop the bottles of fire resistance at their feet, Techno inhaling deeply as the effects of the potion begin to seep into his bones, the sound of smashing glass echoing behind them as the rest of the soldiers follow their lead.

“You gonna fly up and guide us, Phil?” Calvin whispers, and Phil laughs.

“Of course mate, if that’s what you want.”

The army of the Antarctic Empire march into the nether.

Travelling by nether portal takes a lot of time to get used to. When Techno was younger, a lot younger, and had left the nether for the first time, the sensation of stepping through the portal had made him vomit, and he had almost managed to convince himself that he had died. Now, he’s so familiar with it that it comes as nothing more than a tingle, something like a mild electric shock.

Behind him he can hear the sounds of faltering footsteps and distant wretches from the soldiers as they follow through, but in time they will get used to it too.

As soon as Phil has shaken off his own shock, he spreads his wings, stretching them out to their full length. He gives Techno a heavy pat on the shoulder, a gesture of ‘good luck’ and ‘stay safe’ and a thousand other things Techno couldn’t possibly explain, and then, in one practiced movement, launches himself up into the air.

Watching Phil fly is something that Technoblade doubts he will ever get tired of.

The act of flying comes unnaturally natural to Phil, considering he wasn’t born with them. His wings were a gift from a Goddess, so the story goes, and he swears up and down that it took years of trial and error to perfect his form, tons of uncomfortable landings and painful accidents. The only reason that Techno is inclined to believe Phil’s story is that he has a wound to prove it, a wrongly healed ankle that he snapped when learning how to land safely at high speeds. He’d ignored the wound for days, walked on it, ran on it, fought on it until it had completely collapsed out from under him, and now he sits with a neat scar around his ankle and chronic pain making its home in his muscles, which is why he carries a cane.

However, all that work was certainly worth it. Phil flies like it easier than walking, easier than breathing, the great wings on his back spread out like a piece of the void placed against the dusty red sky of the nether as he glides. He watches with the utmost attention as Phil pulls himself higher, higher, higher until he has almost reached the nether roof, the beating of his wings almost creating the wind that is naturally absent within the nether.

Phil stops, floating in the air for a moment. Now, he is just a colourful blur pressed against the ceiling of the nether, completely engulfed by his wings as they steady him, holding him aloft.

After a few quiet moments, Phil whistles loudly, the sound bouncing off of the netherrack walls and echoing down to the ground.

“All clear! Pick up the pace!” Calvin yells, and the army advances.

They travel a few hundred blocks, something easily sprinted. This section of the nether is, thankfully, completely barren – no warped or crimson forests, no abandoned fortresses or ruined bastions, no piglin sounders. The anxiety Technoblade feels when entering the nether is something that will never be matched. Realistically, rationally, he shouldn’t care – piglins are territorial creatures, they protect their own, and if they were to attack, Techno remembers enough of their language to tell them to back off, provided one of Calvin’s men didn’t strike first. The notion that he would somehow come across his original sounder is foolish and childish and not even worth entertaining.

The thought, however, is present each and every time he steps through the swirling purple fumes of a portal. Would they recognise him, remember him, treat him with any more kindness, or the same hostility.

Technoblade shakes his head. This really isn’t the debate he should be having with himself before going into battle. The nether is not his home, was never his home to begin with.

When they reach their destination, a small clearing sheltered by a piece of overhanging netherrack, Phil is already waiting, hovering a few feet above the air, his ankles hanging at Techno’s eye level. A few soldiers push past, carrying inventory bags filled with obsidian, and they quickly begin to construct their exit portal.

Calvin turns to address his men, projecting his voice across the sea of soldiers that have followed them, and Technoblade simply steps closer to Phil. Phil lowers himself down slightly, but still keeps flight, his knees tucked up to his chest so his feet don’t hit the floor, the great whooshing sound of his wings beating drowning out Calvin’s yelling.

“Stay safe, hmm?” Techno asks. It’s barely a whisper, he couldn’t bring himself to raise his voice any higher. Phil laughs, voice clear, completely separate from the other soldiers.

“Yeah, something like that,” he chuckles, and Technoblade’s heart aches.

“Phil – “He hates the way he sounds, pleading, desperate, like some dependant thing, but he needs to hear it, needs to hear him promise, even if it’s empty.

“Of course, Techno, of course,” Phil smiles softly. He reaches out and buries his hand in the mess that is Techno’s braid, something he didn’t bother fixing before they were rushed out the castle. Now that he’s paying attention, the same can be said for Phil’s feathers, some still ruffled and misplaced from when he was no doubt tossing and turning in his sleep. “As long as you promise me the same?”

Ah, and there he goes again, that kindness, that humanity, that care. “I promise,” Technoblade nods, and he means it.

There is the sound of flint striking iron and beside them, the exit portal roars to life. Technoblade unsheathes his sword, knuckles white around the handle, the netherite weapon glowing bright purple under the effect of its enchantments and the glow of the portal mist.

Beside him, in his peripheral vision, Techno watches Phil slip an arrow against the string of his bow. Wordlessly, they slip into the ranks of the soldiers a few lines back from the front and await Calvin’s signal.

Calvin raises his sword and lets it hover for a few minutes; the blade sharp enough to cut the silence that lingers above them.

Technoblade inhales steadily, regulating his breathing.

Phil is still flying beside him, refusing to land. Techno knows that as soon as he pushes through the portal, his friend will dart up into the sky, acting as their aid from above. Techno doesn’t mind. He likes it when Phil distances himself from battles, when he gives into instincts and treats the fight like a bird would treat hunting pray. Knowing that Phil is safe makes it a lot easier to focus on the fight in front of him.

Calvin drops his sword, and the soldiers begin to move.

Techno exhales, and steps through the portal.

The first thing he notices – before the yelling and the screaming, before the echoing sounds of explosives, before the sensation of Phil’s wings pushing past him, throwing himself into the sky – is the weather. They landed on the other side of the connecting bridge, they were in Australia, but it was snowing … it was snowing, and the winds were harsh enough to pull Techno’s hair free from his weak braid, sending the piece of ribbon that has kept it tied together tumbling across the battlefield.

Something, something, pathetic fallacy, Technoblade’s brain supplies – something is very wrong here.

Aside from that first observation, there really is no time to think.

The air is already thick with the heat of battle, Business Bay soldiers forming defensive lines before the entrance of the bridge, trying to seal it off as the empires own forces advance. Some of their soldiers attempt to run down the bridge, thinking it would be safer, completely unaware of Wisp’s own forces waiting on the other side. Of course, they don’t get very far. Archers easily strike them down before they get too far, most arrows raining from above, and when Techno turns his head to the sky, he can see Philza, hovering just out of arrow range, his own bow loaded and drawn.

Techno turns his gaze back to the battle, and lets his instincts take over.

His goal is simple – make his way to the bridge and fortify a position. As soon as they take back the bridge, the enemy will retreat, if there is any of them left to, and then they can advance home, cleaning up whatever filth still remained trapped halfway on the bridge.

Battle is, perhaps, one of the only times his more piglin features become useful to him. The unfortunate truth is that, well, people are scared of him, for his height, his stature, the depth of the tone of his voice. In war, the fear that his own people, his own soldiers and commanders, feel is turned towards another source, people who should be afraid of him, people he wanted to fear him, rather than those he wished trusted him.

He towers above the tallest fighters on the enemy side, casting a shadow over them as they fight, and his strength allows him to wield his heavy sword as if it were as light as a staff, spinning it with a grace and precision that he can see strikes fear into the men he fights.

The wind pushes his cape around him as he fights, and the more foolish members of Business Bay’s militia will try and grab for it, trying to pull him away from the soldier he was currently fighting, some poor attempt at self-sacrifice or glory stealing. In the end, it is useless; he cuts them both down with ease, and with very little remorse.

Soldier after solider, with each step forward he takes, another blade clashes harshly against his own.

Some fights last longer than he intends them too – some of the soldiers are fast, and light on their feet, and can avoid the heavy hits and swings of Technoblade’s sword. They are placed in this awkward dance, almost chasing each other around their spot in the battlefield.

One soldier in particular, clad in the barest, most ill-fitting steel armour Techno has ever seen, manages to keep Technoblade on his feet for minutes, always escaping the metal of his sword by inches. He looks young, younger than anyone should be on a battlefield, but Techno can’t bring himself to pre-emptively mourn. He was just as young, if not younger when he found himself entangled in his first war, this boy almost just as skilled as he was – almost.

The sound of the carnage surrounds him as he pushes forwards. War is rarely pretty, and soon enough Technoblade finds himself stepping over the bodies of fallen soldiers, the black and red of Business Bay and the white and blue of the Antarctic Empire mixing together on the floor, one horrific swirl of colour.

Pained screams echo around him, interlaced with the clashing of metal against metal and the twinging of bow strings. One soldier falls beside him – Business Bay or Antarctic Empire, he cannot tell – and the man knocks into him as he falls, his twitching hands grabbing at Techno’s arm as if attempting to steady himself, trying to stay on his feet. There is an arrow lodged neatly between two of his ribs; the man bares no chest plate. Techno watches as the man stumbles and falls, blood spurting from the wound as he hits the ground, all colour draining from his face.

He carries on forward.

An archer sends an arrow darting past his head, and Techno’s heart almost stops in his chest with how close it came to hitting. He doesn’t have time to search for the assailant, because soon enough he can hear the familiar whooshing of another arrow, and on instinct he raises his hands to block his face. He cringes as the head of the arrow strikes his wrist guard. An angered growl rises up in the back of his throat, an animalistic noise, and he lowers his arms to glare over them.

Across the clearing, stood by the edge of the bridge, stands a young soldier, another arrow locked into his bow. His brow is ruffled, but his aim is steady, and it is trained upon Technoblade.

The soldier shoots, and Techno jumps to the side, the projectile whizzing past him. He flicks his gaze back to the soldier, and he watches as the boy swallows nervously.

He is blond, and quite tall for a human boy, but what really strikes Techno is the Business Bay emblem engraved onto his armour, and the enchantments glimmering upon it …

He’s a commander, or a high ranked soldier at least. The soldier boy has been watching Technoblade on the battlefield, analysing how he fights, how he defends himself, and he has been making a mental catalogue of his movements, figuring out how best to attack. He knows that Technoblade does not carry long ranged weapons, he does not have his crossbow on him, and he knows that one Technoblade has been challenged to a fight, there is very little possibility he will back down.

The soldier boy has, effectively, sealed his own death warrant, but surrounded by his army, his head held high, almost mocking, he doesn’t seem to care. He says something to one of the soldiers next to him, something too low for Techno to hear, but they all stand to attention, readying their weapons, turning towards Techno on the field.

Techno breaths deeply. In an instant, the chaos of the battlefield fades away, and his vision tunnels onto what lays before him. If the soldiers advance, he can take them – ten or fifteen against one is nothing new – but the bow clasped in the boy’s hand provides an element of chance, an element of uncontrollable danger.

He readies his sword, and raises his head. Challenge accepted, he decides. If he can push past the young commander, he will be able to take control of the bridge, and then signal Calvin over to him, declaring the battle won in their favour, and the enemy will either wisely retreat, or be slaughtered where they stand.

The boy notches an arrow in his bow, and draws back the string. The soldiers that surrounded him advance forward, and Techno watches, waiting, deciding his first move.

Suddenly, there is a light whooshing noise, not from an arrow, but from another projectile entirely.

Techno flicks his attention up to the sky and watches as something, a small red stick, falls from the sky.

Dynamite –

In a flash, Phil lands in front of him, crashing to the ground in a less than graceful landing, the string of his bow pulled back tightly in his fingers. Without hesitation, he releases the arrow, sending it whizzing up into the air towards the falling explosive.

Phil drops his bow and spins on his heel, mantling his wings and turning to face Technoblade. Before he can react, Phil pushes himself against Techno, sending them both falling back to the floor, the shadow of Phil’s wings covering them both protectively.

Outside of the blanket of Phil’s wings, a deafening boom echoes over the battlefield, and both he and Phil raise their hands to cover their ears. A billowing cloud of dust swarms them, and Phil’s wings twitch and jitter under the change in air pressure and the assault of the dirt carried over from the blast. There is screaming, or, rather, the remnants of it anyway, but Technoblade cannot focus on that, cannot focus on anything except for the weight of Phil on top of him, his ragged breaths echoing in Techno’s ear.

Where the hell did Phil get that explosive? And why the hell did he think it was a good idea to drop himself right between Techno and the damn thing?

“To help you, idiot,” Phil coughs, and Techno realises he’s been speaking aloud. “And I nicked it from one of Calvin’s men, one of the demo experts who stayed back to destroy the portal after we came through.”

“Ah,” Techno mutters, and Phil rolls off of Techno, unceremoniously falling to the ground, continuing to cough as he tries to waft away the cloud of dirt and soot and snow.

Phil had … Phil had thrown himself in front of an explosion for Techno, to stop him from fighting several soldiers at once. He had killed them, Techno can see the outlines of their bodies shadowed by the dust cloud, and Phil had … Gods, Phil had shielded Technoblade with his body … with his wings …

Nervously, Techno looks across to where Phil is sat beside him. His wings, although littered with dirt and debris, feathers sat bent every which way, remain uninjured, unburnt.

Phil had protected him. The thought is hard to shake. Sure, Phil has protected him in battle before, thrown himself in front of swords and pulled him away from stray arrows but never … never once with his wings, the precious things they are. Gods, Techno doesn’t know what he’d do if Phil injured his wings protecting him.

Beside him, Phil has pulled himself to his feet, and he extends a hand down to Techno. He takes it gratefully.

“Phil,” he sighs deeply.

“Yeah mate?”

“Never do that again,” Techno says, and Phil cackles, throwing his head back, hand on his chest. It’s an awful noise, more snorting than actual laughter, but Phil throws Techno the widest grin he’s ever seen, Phil’s face plastered with dirt and grime, and Techno cannot help but be comforted by the sound.

He had protected Techno with his wings, had descended from the heavens like some kind of …

Guardian angel, his brain supplies, and Techno nods to himself in agreement.

Yeah, he decides, like a guardian angel.

The smoke and dust begins to clear.

The soldiers were definitely killed by the blast, Phil seems to have shot the explosive right as it fell on their heads, and any that didn’t die from the detonation wouldn’t survive the wounds that followed, not from the amount of blood that now slicked across the earth. Phil hovers closely at his side, his wings half folded on his back. He dips down quickly and picked up his bow from where he had abandoned it on the floor, gently brushing what he can of the dirt off with his fingers.

Technoblade peers into the horizon. Something shifts.

The soldier boy clambers to his feet, several feet back from the blast, his hair caked in dirt and a thick line of blood pooling down his face, dripping down his armour. He is struggling to breath in the smoke, hands on his knees, wheezing and spluttering, body convulsing.

After the detonation, the battlefield has fallen fairly quiet. Across the clearing, he can hear Calvin yelling, but can’t separate the noises into words. They’re advancing to the bridge, Techno hopes they are, because they’re close, they’re so close to all swords down, to no more bloodshed, to victory.

Technoblade steps forward, just a few steps.

Surely this is it, surely no one else has to die, surely no one else will dare fire –

“Technoblade!” Phil screams, the sound high and violent and ripped forcefully from his throat.

Phil scrambles forward, pushing himself in front of Techno, and for a moment he doesn’t understand, not until Phil stumbles back into him like he has been struck, not until he looks ahead of him, and sees a familiar curve of wood clutched within the hands of the daring, dead little soldier boy.

The kid tried to shoot him.

The kid tried to kill him.

Phil took the arrow …

Almost in sync, the soldier boy and Phil fall to their knees. Techno doesn’t know what happens to the blond boy, whether he lives or dies, whether he bleeds to death from his wounds, is slain by Calvin or whether he escapes clinging to life and, frankly, he doesn’t care. He shot Phil, and Phil is kneeling in front of him and, Gods, he’s bleeding, there’s so much blood –

Technoblade falls to his knees next to Phil, one hand wrapped around Phil’s shoulder, clinging, the other pressed tightly to his stomach where the wound is, fingers separated by the body of the arrow from where it pokes out of Phil’s stomach. He screams at the application of pressure, some awkward noise that he tries to bite back down, but it falls free from his lips anyway, followed by a light string of broken whines and keens.

“Fuck …” He spits, and there’s blood on his tongue, blood staining his haori, blood staining Techno’s hands, and it’s Phil’s, it’s … it’s …

It’s not a deadly shot, or, at least that’s what Technoblade tries to tell himself, not if they get Phil back to the empire, back to the infirmary, get the arrow pulled free and the wound stitched up before he can lose any more blood …

It’s warm against his skin.

Finally, after a few painful moments of silence, Techno swallows his fear and forces himself to speak.

“Phil,” he says, and it’s a start, because Phil turns his head to look at him, and there’s a smile tugging at his lips. “What … what did I just say, Phil?” Techno laughs, and it’s an empty thing, forced, but he doesn’t know what else to do.

“Never … do that again?” Phil responds, and then descends into a small flurry of coughs, hacking up blood until it pools into his mouth and he can spit it onto the snow dusted ground beneath him.

Technoblade nods and, oh, there’s tears in his eyes now. “Yeah, yeah,” he forces out, voice straining.

Somewhere around him, there is the sound of footsteps approaching, and he doesn’t have the strength to check whether they are an ally or an enemy, all he can do is keep his eyes ahead of him, watching as Phil shakes, his wings shuddering along with the movement. He keeps one hand on Phil’s shoulder, holding him upright so he doesn’t double over, and one applying pressure to his middle.

“I never … made any promises,” Phil whispers, and he raises a hand of his own and presses it against Techno’s on his stomach, asking for more pressure. Techno complies, and tries not to feel guilty at the way Phil flinches.

“No, I guess you didn’t.”

There is a noise beside him, the skidding stop of shoes, the deep clinking of armour, and Techno hesitantly turns his head towards it.

Calvin stands to his side, sword tucked back into its sheath, but one of his hands hovering over the handle, the other cupped over his mouth in shock. If he notices the tears lingering in Technoblade’s eyes, he does not mention them. Instead, he crouches down, and in a low whisper, says, “We need to get him back to the empire, commander.”

Commander – Calvin is calling him commander. They don’t … the five of them don’t call each other commander, not unless …

Calvin is scared of him.

In this moment, looking across at Technoblade, bathed in blood, none of it his own, clutching the wounded body of his friend, Calvin is scared of him, scared of what he might do should they try and take Phil from him, even to help him. In this moment, they see him as an animal, and Techno half suspects that they view Phil as his prey. They don’t, of course, they see Phil as something much more important, but Technoblade hasn’t come to that revelation yet, and so he can only interpret their fear of him as such.

“Commander,” Calvin tries again, and, instinctually, Techno grabs Phil’s shoulder harder, and Calvin’s eyes go a little wider, the hair on the back of his neck stands a little more on edge. “He needs … he needs medicine, Techno. We need to go back.”

And they do, they do need to go back, but Calvin is afraid of him and the revelation has stunned him into stagnancy. Calvin is afraid of him, and Technoblade thinks that Calvin thinks Technoblade sees Phil as pray, and the whole thing is hurting his head and he just wants everything to stop. Suddenly the silence is too loud, the blood on his hands too warm, and Phil has begun whimpering again, the hand that rests over Techno’s now digging it’s nails into his skin.

Calvin is afraid, and so is Technoblade. He doesn’t want Phil to die, he doesn’t … he doesn’t want people to be afraid of him, and now Phil, the only person who sees him as more than an animal, the only person who sees him as human is bleeding out before him and … and …

Reluctantly, Techno loosens his grip on Phil’s shoulder, pulling his hands away, and Calvin and his men sweep in to take his place.

Almost instantly after Techno’s hands vanish from their resting places on Phil’s body, a faint, whining keen rises in the back of his throat, and the sound shatters Techno’s heart. Immediately regretting his decision to comply, he tries to reach out again, but Calvin and his men have already surrounded Phil, replacing Techno’s hands with their own.

Phil’s keening noise steadily begins to grow louder, rising into something almost panicked, and it is interlaced with hiccupped, muffled sobs.

Calvin’s soldiers surround Phil, giving him what little slapdash medical attention they can before they begin to take him back home, and through the gaps in the wall made by their bodies, Techno can barely make out the image of Phil’s hand, shaking and clenching, his fist hitting itself against the dirt of the floor.

Without hesitation, Techno snakes his hand out, forcing it through the gap and intertwining his fingers with Phil’s. Techno rubs his thumb over the dirty skin of Phil’s hand and, amongst the little sobs and keens, he recognises a light cooing noise begin to bubble to the surface.

For a brief moment, Technoblade is able to forget about the presence of the other soldiers, and the way they tense anxiously as he sits by them, and simply focuses on the pressure of Phil’s hand laced within his own, the metal of Phil’s wedding ring, another gift from his elusive Goddess, cool against his skin.

The last dregs of the battle settle into the dust around them, and the snow continues to fall, a little heavier now.

Technoblade isn’t one hundred percent … there, for the rest of it.

Physically he is, it’s not like he could particularly wander off anywhere when he has a job to do, but his mind isn’t in touch with the movements of his body, and neither is his heart. The injured – Phil – and the dead – thankfully not many – are taken home by the nether route, infinitely more faster than carting them across the bridge, and a whole lot safer, since the status of the apparent forces that began to cross this morning remains unknown.

On autopilot, Technoblade moves across the connecting bridge along with the surviving soldiers. The remaining forces from Business Bay, if there were any, had long since retreated, but Techno still cannot bring himself to sheath his sword. Instead, he keeps it gripped tightly in his hand, the netherite blade dripping blood across the bridge as the walks, and the soldiers walking with him leave a distance of a few feet between themselves and the emperor.

They’re scared of him, brooding face, bloodied sword, body shaking with rage, and thinking about it only makes him angrier. Part of him hopes there are still men from Business Bay somewhere along the bridge, an excuse to take out his anger on something without consequences, but, sure enough, the army walks home with no incident.

Gods, how could he have been so stupid.

Phil sacrificed himself for him, or, at least he tried to, and Technoblade just stood there and let it happen, exploiting Phil’s kindness for his own selfish gain, keeping himself alive. It’s not the first time he’s had this thought, that he’s somehow using Phil, as if his friend was his friend because of anything except his own free will. He knows he’s wrong, that Phil is by his side of his own volition, his own kindness, but, but …

But why? Why would anyone so … angelic, be friends with someone like him? They are both so awfully inhuman, but placed on opposite ends of the axis. No wonder Phil was blessed by a Goddess, no wonder he married her, he is something akin to God like, placed above humanity but never quite acting like it. Technoblade is inhuman in the way that he is a monster, rejected by both his sounder and by humanity. Techno aches for the acceptance, Phil has already surpassed the need for it.

But he finds his acceptance in Phil and, if Phil is a holy being, does that not make him worthy of something, anything, does that not elevate him above?

No, he decides, it does not. Phil almost died today due to his error, no matter what anyone says, and he will not entertain stupid fantasies of acceptance, not until Phil says them in his own voice … an unlikely event.

It pains him to think about. He stops. He should’ve stopped thinking along time ago.

When they return to the Antarctic Empire, the peaks of the castle towers poking out from the white wisps of mist that seem to hover permanently above the continent, Wisp is waiting at the other end of the bridge. Somewhere behind him, Techno can just make out the image of a group of men tearing down the remains of a nether portal, shovelling away torn apart chunks of obsidian. By his estimate, that means the group of soldiers guiding the injured got back a half hour ago, maybe a full hour? He’s not sure how long the trek across the bridge took, he wasn’t completely present for most of it and, honestly, he still isn’t.

Wisp says something, and it takes a few moments for Techno to realise that he is speaking, and another few for the words to actually enter his head.

“… single brigade made it half way down the bridge, none further than that, but we managed to take care of it with very few casualties and no harm done to the bridge itself, which Pete is more than overjoyed about.”

“Good,” Techno manages to say, and he does mean it. The empire wasn’t breached, the bridge is fine, they won the battle, all good things, but even with his intrusive thoughts shifted to the side of his brain for the time being, he can only really think about one thing.

“Where is -?” Techno starts, but he doesn’t get to finish before Wisp interrupts, sighing loudly and scratching the back of his neck.

“Commander, I don’t think – “And there it is again, commander, commander, commander. Wisp pauses and sighs again, crossing his arms and tapping his foot, shifting his body language in a way that makes Techno anxious, makes him assume the worst.

“Please,” he says, and Gods, he hates how desperate he sounds, the way his voice cracks on the final syllable, but needs to know. As his men had carried Phil away, Calvin had turned to him and promised that he would be okay, a promise Techno knows that he can’t keep, but one he hopes will stay true.

“All of the injured were taken to the infirmary when they came back through the portal,” Wisp relents, and Techno immediately turns on his heel to walk away, to head to the infirmary, but Wisp scrambles forward, grabbing out at his arm to hold him back, his hand slipping where some of the blood splattered onto it still hadn’t dried.

Techno, reluctantly, stops.

“I just … I think it’s better to give him time, give them all time. He didn’t look in the best of shape when they carried him through, and I just,” Wisp stumbles on his speech as Techno’s face crumples and falls, “I just wanna make sure that he has a chance to heal, and the doctors have a chance to do their work.”

The worst part is, Techno knows Wisp is right. Phil needs time to heal; the arrow wound was deep, and Techno’s memory is still bright and burning with the amount of blood that had poured from Phil’s stomach. He’s sure some of it is till on his hands now, dried and flaking.

He clenches his free fist, releases it, and then clenches it again.

“I can’t stop you commander,” Wisp says, and he’s also right about that, “and I want Phil to be okay just as much as you do. Just …” Wisp dwindles off, and resigns himself to a nod. In a swift movement, he turns around and leaves, walking over to where the men are clearing away the remains of the nether portal, quietly asking questions and giving orders. He leaves Techno alone in the clearing, the soldiers that were still running around after the battle making sure to stay clear of him, just like they had done on the bridge.

It’s only then that Techno realises he’s still holding his sword, knuckles white with how hard he’s been gripping the hilt. Clumsily, he sheaths it, cringing when he realises the thing is still bloody, and he’s undoubtedly ruined the leather inside. He huffs out a small sigh, and turns his head to the sky.

Its snowing here too, ever so lightly, and the sun is beginning to slip into afternoon hours, becoming warmer and darker in its colours, although it gives off very little heat.

Techno raises his hands. Like he suspected, it is still bloody, some of it undoubtedly Phil’s, but most of it is dried, one more than the other. He lifts his crown off his head with his cleaner hand, and then runs his other hand through his hair, pushing it back, the slick of the still wet blood sticking it into place. He drops his crown back atop his head.

He takes Wisp’s advice; he does not go to the infirmary.

Instead, he walks into the castle, the see of moving figures parting for him, and he slips away, turning down dark corners until he finds a winding staircase. He follows it up, up, up to the top of the tower.

He can hear the contents of the room before he enters, loud, screeching, discontent caws, the harsh and wild flapping of wings against air and stone. The room is never locked, it doesn’t need to be, no one ever comes up here apart from him and Phil. To be honest, he’s not sure if anyone else knows the room exists, but that’s probably for the best.

Sacred things sit here, a place of worship.

Technoblade slips the wooden door open, hinges creaking, and wanders inside, letting it fall back shut behind him.

Lined against the old stone walls, nesting on their perches, sit hundreds of sleek, black corvid birds, identical crows, all with the same glassy stare and tone of voice. They are Phil’s, his murder, another one of his Goddesses little gifts. She’s very generous, which is something he remembers saying to Phil a while ago, and he had laughed and agreed fondly.

Upon seeing Techno enter, the crows cease their cawing and fall silent. There’s no use talking when its only him here, he can’t understand them, not in the way that Phil can, their warbled caws translating into a single, static voice inside his head. Instead of crying out loudly, they simply ruffle their feathers and chat in hushed caws amongst themselves, their eyes still trained on him as he spins in a small circle, looking up at them.

One he is satisfied; Techno crosses the room.

Sat under the singular window in the room is a small table, covered with a sleek black lace and bathed in soft sunlight. The table is adorned with candles of different colours and heights, all burning together, the flames sitting strong on their wicks. Decorated around the candles are a gathering of small crystals, purple and golden and none of them Techno can reliably name or state the properties of. There’s no real gold on the table, he would be able to tell, but sometimes he mistakes the faux golden flecks imbedded inside the stone for real.

The centre piece of the table is a small pile of one simple thing – Phil’s feathers. They are all healthy, and fell naturally from his wings during malting or preening, and he’s taken the best of the best and placed them here, sleek coverts or ones that have speckles of white hidden amongst the black, always somehow shaped like small diamonds.

The final decoration covering the table sits in jars, preserved – bones, human and animal. Ribs, whole and broken, spinal discs from vertebrae, pieces of skulls all mixed together in the same little jar.

It’s morbid, sure, but who is Techno to judge how people conduct their worship when he himself venerates his own God in a way people see as strange or upsetting. Bells and blood serve as his tools of prayer, why should he care if Phil is digging through ethically sourced animal bones to put in jars for his Goddess.

And that’s what the table is, after all; an altar to the Goddess of Death, the deity Phil serves as an acolyte of, his wife.

Exhaling steadily, Techno shuffles to his knees in front of the altar. He takes his crown in his hands, spinning it awkwardly as he thinks of something to say – ‘Hello my Lady, I’m sorry your husband got deathly injured trying to save my life, and I can’t promise it won’t happen again because he’s a self-sacrificial idiot, so please look after him for me’ doesn’t quite seem like it would work, although he can’t really think of much better.

He pops his crown back onto his head and sighs, clasping his hands together in prayer. Instantly, everything falls silent, even the voices lingering in his head go nauseatingly still in a way he will never get used to. Their screaming is almost like background noise to him now, something that just gets louder or quieter without words, unless they all fixate on the same subject, a rarity these days.

“Hello my Lady,” he speaks into the emptiness, throat scratchy and dry. He tries to ignore the way his hands shake as he forces them to press against each other.

Technoblade waits for a response. He looks up to the altar and watches as the flames on the candles flicker and flash wildly in a way that would be impossible with the lack of wind, and it could only mean that she is watching. The candles burn bright, suddenly too bright, and he jerks his head down to the floor, clenching his eyes closed. His heart slams in his chest.

Maybe she is angry – angry that he allowed her husband to get hurt, angry that he came to beg for her forgiveness before going to see if he was okay, angry, angry, angry. He can’t imagine any other outcome.

Instead, however, her voice comes to him as light as rain, and a chill breeze washes over him, almost as if he can feel her presence behind her. He knows not to open his eyes, he won’t see her, only Phil can when he prays, but she still presents herself to him in some form, and that is enough to wash some of the doubt away from his mind.

“Hello, friend of my angel,” she greets, and then she laughs. A physical weight appears on Techno’s shoulders, pushing them down from where they were hunched up by his ears. “Relax yourself, vessel of the Blood God, you have nothing to fear here. You know I am a kind soul.”

And he does, Phil speaks of her highly, so much so that Technoblade sometimes feels like he knows her more than he actually does. With her direction, Techno relaxes his shoulders, letting some of his tension slip away.

“My Lady, I’m so s- “

“Please do not apologise,” she says, and Techno snaps his jaw shut immediately. “My angel would not want you to, and neither do I. Do not feel guilt over your action or inaction today, Blood God, my angel acts of his own free will, neither you or I can control him, and he will continue to do as he pleases.”

“Continue,” Techno echoes, and the Goddess of Death hums in his ears.

“He is alive, Blood God. He had his foot on my doorstep yes, and he is in pain, but he is alive.” Her voice sounds strained, almost wavering, and Techno recognises it immediately as concern.

He tries to focus on the fact that Phil is alive – not the fact that he is in pain, or that he was close to death, but the fact that he is alive, he is still breathing, Techno can see him again.

“He is sleeping,” the Goddess continues, “and he shall for a while, but I know that when he awakes, he would like you by his side.”

Techno nods. That he can do. “If he wants me there, I will be there,” Techno says, and he can almost hear her smile behind him.

“I know you harbour much self-doubt, friend of my angel,” she says, “but please know you hold a special place in his heart. I would not give you the epithet of his friend if I knew it to be a lie. Remember, just as you do not see yourself worthy of him, he does not always see himself worthy of you.”

Techno scoffs on instinct. He would never call the Goddess a liar to her face, but this is the closest he’s come to it. “My Lady, he is an angel.”

“Yes, and you are a God.”

“The God of Blood,” he spits, perhaps with more venom than he intended.

“And he, the Angel of Death. One in the same, no?”

“No.”

The Goddess hums again, more sombrely this time. “He cares for you, is that not the only truth you accept amongst your little list of lies?”

“It is,” he says, and he feels like there’s a vice grip around his brain, forcing the confessions out of him. His armour is suddenly heavy, weighing his body down, and it hurts, and he’s beginning to lose focus of where he is, eyes still clenched shut.

“Then believe it, Blood God. You want to make my angel believe he is exactly that, an angel, just as he wants to make you believe that you are worthy, that you are loved. You do not have to be alone in your eternal years, acolyte of the Blood God, and neither does he. Trust in him, please, for your own sake, believe him when he speaks to you, and push your own thoughts aside. You will be much better for it.”

The way she projects her voice makes it echo around Techno’s head, bashing against the walls of his skull and pooling out his ears like blood, whilst at the same time somehow feeling gentle. Her voice pulls him into sleep like a lullaby, but the weight of her words make him alert, make his heart thud against his ribcage as if it were trying to escape, makes him sweat and feel ill and want to scream at her to stop. In the end, however, he can’t do anything.

If she says anything else after that, Techno cannot hear her. He has fallen asleep.

Hours later, Technoblade snaps his eyes open, and the sun has long since set. The room has been bathed in a thick layer of darkness, the dim, flickering flames of the candlelight his only remaining light source. He finds himself curled up in front of the altar, still wearing his armour, cape half pulled over him to act as a blanket. His bones ache something horrid; he’s still caked in blood.

The Goddess of Death has left him, the infernal chattering of the voices has returned in her absence, and he can no longer sense her presence. Distantly, he wonders how long he’s been asleep for, but he can’t quite bring himself to care, not when the only thing that sits on his mind is a growing disgust for the clothes he’s sitting in and a desperate need to be clean again.

Picking himself up off the floor, he swiftly crosses the room and leaves, letting the creaky door slam shut behind him, not turning back to look at the altar once. He does not think about the words the Goddess spoke.

Instead, he returns to his own personal quarters and asks for a bath to be drawn.

Techno’s never been quite so happy to get his armour off. He doesn’t exactly make a habit of trying to sleep in it, at least, not the netherite stuff, but when he has it’s never been for this long before, however long that actually was. His joints ache with a stiffness he instantly never wants to experience again, and when he finally removes his armour, the weight shift on his body is so great he almost stumbles and falls.

He hangs his armour up back in its temporary place in his office. If someone doesn’t come and clean it, he will do it himself later, although it looks like it’ll be a hell of a job to complete. Along with it, he places his sword and his axe, and then moves to gather some clean clothes.

He’s not a man of very man outfits, at least daily outfits anyway. His wardrobe is filled with a plethora of fancy garments meant for overseas meetings, peace treaties, dances and weddings and funerals, but also several carbon copies of the same loose white shirt and black pants combo. He grabs a shirt and a pair of pants, and wanders off for his bath.

The water is warm, but not scaldingly so, and he wastes no time before grabbing a bar of soap and trying to wash the dirt and blood and dust from where it has made its home on his skin. Baths were a foreign thing to him once – they didn’t have water in the nether, the atmosphere itself was too hot, and it would evaporate as soon as any unaware traveller tried to bring it through their portal. When he was younger, he’d simply deal with the dirt, hell, he was half convinced when he was a child that it was the red dust of netherrack that turned his hair pink, instead of it simply being natural.

There is some dirt, some blood, that he will never be able to wash away, no matter how hard he tries, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing until his skin turns red raw and aching.

His hair is the worst to tackle, and he regrets his past self’s decision to slick it back with his bloody hand.

By the time he is done, he sits in red, muddy water, and he’s more than happy to step out of it. He dries and dresses himself quickly, trying not to notice how his wet hair dampens the back of his shirt. It’s times like this that make him consider cutting it, just for conveniences sake, but he would never be able to go through with it. He liked it long; the act of braiding his hair, or having someone else braid it for him, was comforting, and he was never able to keep it long in the nether, so to him it was a symbol of change, or perseverance, something like that. Any excuse to keep it long. Honestly, it just made him happy.

He combs it out with what he thinks is his comb, although he can see strands of blond lingering within its teeth, so he’s either using Phil’s comb, or Phil has been using his. It doesn’t matter, and when he is done, he pulls it all back into another braid, and fastens it with his signature red ribbon, something he seems to always have an endless supply of.

His cloak sits cleaned on the chair by his desk. Whenever he comes back from battle, its always the first thing to be cleaned, and he could never thank the person who does it enough.

Technoblade drapes his cloak over his shoulder, pulling his hair out from under it, and places his crown back atop his head. He sighs deeply, and squares his shoulders.

Perfect, now there is only one thing left to do.

Despite the words of the Goddess of Death, Techno can’t help but be a little … worried, as he approaches the infirmary. She had said that Phil had wanted Techno by his side when he woke up, how she had known that Techno would never understand, but he had fallen asleep himself after his talk with the Goddess. What if Phil had woken up and he hadn’t been there as he wishes, what if his condition had gotten worse whilst Techno was away dozing in the altar room, what if, what if, what if …

He doesn’t want to linger on his conversation with the Goddess too much.

The infirmary is almost on the exact opposite side of the castle, and Technoblade finds himself almost alone in the castle as he walks. When he asks a passing soldier, one of the very few he sees, the boy quietly responds that its about one in the morning, or somewhere close to it at least. The speed at which he hurries away from Techno is noticed, but not commented on.

The doors of the infirmary are guarded by two soldiers, both stood to attention. They both tense when they see Technoblade heading down the hall, the clicking heel of his boots against the stone floor audible before they see the man himself. He walks with his head held high, golden metal of his crown glinting in the candlelight that illuminates the hallway, cape billowing behind him as he walks.

Without speaking, or acknowledging him verbally at all, they both step aside, almost in sync, and let Techno enter the infirmary without complaint. For his own sanity, he decides to chalk it up to emperor’s authority rather than hybrid fear.

The infirmary is fairly empty, all things considering. There are several soldiers asleep in their beds, bloodied piles of white linen sheets scattered around in laundry bins, half used rolls of bandages and empty glass potion bottles absolutely swarm every countertop. There are very few doctors around either, just a few doing night checks, wandering aimlessly from bed to bed, pressing their heads to people’s chests, making sure they were still breathing.

One of the doctors spots Technoblade out of the corner of his eye, and walks over. Techno immediately opens his mouth to ask where Phil is, but the doctor seems to already know what he was going to ask, directing him over to the corner of the room.

Phil is in his own sectioned off part of the infirmary, hidden from the rest with curtains draped from the ceiling. It is not hard to find, and soon enough Techno finds himself pulling back fabric, and poking his head inside. There are no doctors here either, and so Techno slips into the room, and situates himself on a small chair positioned by the side of Phil’s bed.

He looks … peaceful.

Phil is laying on his back, his wings half spread, half tucked into his body, a few feathers hanging off the sides of the bed. They are, in short, an utter wreck, and in desperate need of preening, feathers bent and strewn aside, some barely hanging onto his wings and are in need of being guided loose, dust and debris lodged inside the layers. From where Phil has shifted in his sleep and his shirt had ridden up, Techno can also see bandage wraps plastered over his stomach where the wound is, and they seem to be fairly clean, indicating that most of the bleeding has stopped since they were last changed. His hair is a mess, and his hat is sitting on his bedside table, along with several empty potion bottles labelled ‘regeneration’.

Phil’s blankets have been pulled up around his sides, forming a little wall, almost like a nest, and it’s so achingly familiar it makes Techno want to laugh. Phil always insists he’s not a bird, but time and time again his instincts prove him otherwise. Carefully, Techno slips his cloak off of his shoulders and drapes it half over Phil, adding it to his nest.

Similarly, Phil’s cane is propped up in the corner of the room, sword tucked safely inside, and his bow is leant up against the wall next to it, the few things that had been carried from the battlefield with him. His armour, wrist and leg guards, are sat on the floor beside it all, the metal still stained with blood and caked in a small layer of dust, only small patches sitting clean where the light snowfall had stuck and then melted.

Techno watches as his chest rises and falls with his steady breathing. He doesn’t seem to be in pain at all, which is definitely a good sign, and it takes a lot of invisible weight off of his shoulders. One of Phil’s hands is resting on his chest, the other hanging off of the bed. Gently, Techno takes the hand hanging off the bed in his own.

“I’m so sorry, Phil,” he says, voice barely a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

The night passes slowly after that.

At some point, a doctor drifts into the room and suggests that Techno leave, go and sleep in his own room and then come back in the morning. The way that Techno tells the doctor ‘no’ is perhaps a little more harsh than he intended it to be, but it does the job, and he spends the entire night sat by Phil’s bedside, eventually resting his head on the edge of Phil’s bed and falling asleep himself.

When the morning comes, he awakes from one of the more questionable sleeps of his life to a crick in his neck and another doctor hovering at the edge of the bed, slowly soaking a roll of bandages in a regeneration potion. Techno simply drops his head back down on the bed, averting his eyes as the doctor changes Phil’s bandages as his friend still sleeps. He doesn’t want to see the wound, not now, not until it becomes another one of a million white scars dotted on Phil’s skin, and many years later they can look back at it and laugh, Phil tracing it carefully as Techno recounts the story.

The day passes slowly too. No more doctors enter Phil’s small sectioned off area of the infirmary, and no one comes to find Technoblade. He was half expecting Pete to appear, a handful of paperwork clutched under his arm, to try and drag Techno back to his office to do his work, or for Wisp and Calvin to drag him out to oversee some training, or to train himself, but no one comes, and Techno is grateful for it.

He can’t leave Phil, so instead he sits in the busy silence of the infirmary, listening to doctor’s chat with the soldiers and with each other through the thin curtain walls as Techno sits holding Phil’s hand. Eventually, he begins tracing patterns and little drawings on the back of Phil’s hand, crowns and swords and wings.

When the night comes, Techno turns his attention out of the window, of which there is no curtain to block, and tries to see how many stars he can find, spotting constellations. The same doctor returns to replace Phil’s bandages again, and also leaves Techno with the small gift of a lantern, which the doctor makes room for on the beside table by taking away some empty potion bottles with him when he leaves.

Just before the doctor manages to slip away, Techno raises his voice and asks a question he’s not completely sure he wants the answer to.

“How bad was he … when they brought him in?” He says, and the doctor stops, balancing the empty potion bottles in his arms. He sighs deeply, averting his eyes.

“They told me,” he says, speaking slowly, “that he passed out when they entered the nether, the shock of the temperature change, most likely, and he stayed that way until he came to us.”

The doctor falls silent after that, but Techno can tell there’s more to say, he just doesn’t want to say it. “And then?” Techno prompts.

“And then he was awake, and a menace,” the doctor grumbles, “operating with those wings of his bashing about and knocking every important thing to the ground definitely made things harder for both us and for him. He … was in a lot of pain, your highness, he kept calling for you, but I promise you he is stable now. He will be okay.”

Before Technoblade can react, the doctor leaves.

He was calling for him – Phil was calling for him, no doubt whilst Techno was locked away in the tower room praying to his wife, or sleeping the rest of the afternoon away. The worst part is, he can almost hear it, Phil begging out his name between warbled keens and stifled sobs. Technoblade turns his attention back to the stars.

There are none of Techno’s constellations out tonight, no sign of Heracles or Orion or Theseus, but instead there are Phil’s constellations, the Ender King and the Blaze Empress and the Ocean Overlord among many. ‘Old friend’ Phil had called them when he first taught Techno their stories and, somehow, Techno doesn’t doubt him. Only fitting that Phil’s stars come out tonight, he thinks.

He is sat looking at the stars when it happens.

Phil’s hand falls loose from his grip, and for a moment Techno thinks he’s dropped it, but when he turns to look, instead he is greeted with the sight of his friend raising his arm to his face and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

Technoblade watches, slack jawed expression slowly transforming into a smile as Phil flutters his eyes open, staring up at the ceiling above him.

“Phil?” He tries, voice gentle, barely above a whisper, and almost as soon as he speaks, Phil jolts up into a sitting position and whips his head around to face Techno. Rationally, Techno wants to tell him to stop, to slow down, he’ll hurt himself moving like that, but his instincts override it all, and when Phil flings his arms open, Techno can’t do anything but fall into them.

“Techno!” Phil cries, too loud for night time, shattering the perfectly curated silence of the infirmary, but Techno doesn’t care. Phil is awake, his arms around him, and he is able to wrap his own around Phil in return, squeezing, holding him tight as if he might disappear.

Phil buries his head into Techno’s shoulder, and Techno brings one of his hands up to lace his fingers in Phil’s hair, petting at his head. Light cooing immediately erupts from the back of Phil’s throat as he pushes himself from his nest of blankets closer to Technoblade, almost falling off of the bed in the process. Instead, Techno slips from his chair and slides onto the edge of Phil’s bed, never once letting go as he moves.

“Gods, Phil, I’m so glad you’re okay, I’m so happy you’re okay,” Techno mumbles, and he can feel the pull of sorrow at the back of his throat as he speaks, but he swallows it back. Phil laughs into his shoulder, and then pulls away. He is grinning, and he lifts one hand up to rest on Technoblade’s cheek.

“Fuck, Techno, I’m fine, I … I’m so happy you’re here,” Phil smiles, and all Techno can do is nod in agreement.

They let a soft silence fall over them after that, Techno moving slightly to sit squarely in the centre of Phil’s bed, Phil sat pretty much in his lap, both of them holding each other. Phil shifts his wings, stretching them wide before curling them around them both, blocking them off from the rest of the world.

It is easy to find comfort in Phil’s arms; it is easy to forget about the weight of the empire on his shoulders, the blood on his hand. Every odd thought, intrusive and unwelcome, slip away, until there is nothing in Technoblade’s ears but Phil’s heart, alive and beating, and it drowns out the voices along with it.

The dim lantern light loops around Phil’s head, a soft glow, and Technoblade once again regards him as an angel. He rests his chin on Phil’s head, and looks out at his wings. Gently, Techno raises one of his hands, and drifts his fingers down Phil’s feathers. The man before him shakes, a full body sensation, and lifts his head out from under Techno’s.

“What are you …?” He begins softly, voice drifting off into nothing as Techno drags his fingers down Phil’s wings again, and he twitches involuntarily.

“They need to be preened, Phil,” he says, and he thinks back to the morning of the attack, almost two days ago now. His wings had needed preening then too, but he hadn’t reached out, hadn’t offered. In this moment, that kind of hesitation is gone now. Phil almost gave his life in place of Techno’s – the least he could do is preen his friends wings for him.

Phil hums in agreement, but doesn’t make any indication of moving. Techno strokes his feathers again, and Phil’s wings jitter, flaring out ever so slightly, and Technoblade sighs.

“Please Phil, let me,” he says, and after a few moments, Phil finally relents. He shifts off of Techno’s lap where he was half sat, and turns so that his back is to his friend’s chest. He shuffles, getting comfortable, and then releases all of the tension from his wings, letting them fall limp onto the bed.

“Thank you,” Techno says, and Phil hums again.

“Yeah, yeah,” he mutters dismissively, but Techno latches onto the joking tone in his voice, and chuckles.

The process begins slowly. Technoblade takes one of Phil’s wings onto his lap, eyes ghosting over them, looking for any large, obvious pieces of debris buried inside the layers of feathers that would restrict flight, or make it harder for Techno to set the feathers that have been moved back into place. He finds quite a few, rocks and pieces of gravel and little, hardened pieces of the earth that he has to gently lift away, brushing them off of the bed where they fall and letting them gather on the floor.

This part of preening is long, and uncomfortable for Phil, and not best done in the dark, so several times Techno has to lean back to grab the lantern from the bedside table and hold it close to Phil’s wing, seeing if there’s anything he missed. When he is done, he repeats the process with the second wing, trying to still remain meticulous whilst being fast.

Phil shuffles in his spot awkwardly, rolling his back muscles in a way that make his wings shift and turn with the movement. Techno pulls another piece of debris free and lets it fall to the ground.

“I don’t regret it,” Phil says suddenly, and Techno’s hands stop in their tracks from the shock. “I really don’t, and you know I don’t.”

“Phil …” Techno whispers. His hands are moving again, but his brain lingers. Of course he doesn’t regret it. Phil is stubborn, and kind, and just stupid enough to think sacrificing himself for Technoblade is a worthy way to die.

“I know you told me never to do it again, but I won’t promise you that, mate, and I never will.”

They only talk like this in the dead of night, when they can’t see each other’s faces. It’s easier that way, when you can’t tell what kind of reaction the other person is having, so you can at least pretend it is something positive, rather than the horror you would know to see if you were sat face to face. They rarely talk like this; they’re both emotional men, but never open about it, Phil even less than Techno most times.

“I know,” Techno says. He presses his fingers to the very top of Phil’s wing and gently slides them down over the skin and feather where his bones lay underneath. Phil inhales sharply.

“It would kill me to know that you got hurt and I could’ve done something to prevent it but didn’t, Tech,” he says, and it’s that kindness again, that inhuman, mind numbing kindness that only Phil can seem to muster.

Techno chuckles, a nervous reaction.

“And you wonder why I call you an angel, Phil,” he mutters.

“I’m not an angel, Techno,” Phil scoffs, “I’m just a decent person. It’s just that every other person you’ve ever interacted with has treated you like shit.”

“The Goddess of Death calls you an angel.”

“Kristin is allowed to call me an angel, she’s my wife,” Phil smiles, “but that still doesn’t make it right.”

Technoblade tuts, and moves his hands down Phil’s wing down to his primaries and his primary coverts. One by one, he brushes his hands down the feathers, shifting them with his fingers back into place, pulling whatever ones are loose free. Almost immediately, Phil melts into his touch, the coo at the back of his throat going so loud it consumes the small space they sit in.

It’s a noise of pure comfort, a recognition of safety, and of care.

“One day I’ll make you believe it,” Technoblade huffs, and Phil trills loudly as Techno continues to preen one wing whilst stroking the feathers of the other. He’s much too out of it to respond now, to try and fight back, and so Techno counts this as a win.

He silences himself after that. At the state they lie in, properly preening Phil’s wings will take hours, probably almost until morning, but Techno has the dedication. He knows that Phil could never be bothered to preen them on his own and, with his injury, Techno wouldn’t let him if he tried. He puts the most care into Phil’s flight feathers. Ideally, he should be using oil, he knows Phil has a vial of it tucked somewhere in his room, but there’s no way in hell he’s leaving Phil now to trek back to the room to go get it.

The act of preening wings is such a vulnerable one. Technoblade is the only person Phil trusts to even touch his wings, never mind doing something such as intimate as preening them. It is an instinctual thing, Phil getting into this headspace of complete relaxation to the point where he loses a lot of control over himself, reduced to a warbling mess of light coos and trills.

Sometimes Techno thinks he shouldn’t be doing this; his hands are not gentle things. They are made for war, for harming things, not for fixing, for caring.

But Phil leans into his touch like it is the one thing keeping him safe, keeping him grounded, and he emits noises of pure comfort that he only Techno’s ears are privy to, and so he forgets.

Part way through the process, Techno begins to hum, silly little noises and tunes with no meaning or origin. There’s one point where Phil’s coos sync up with Techno’s humming, and Techno can’t help but snort out a little bit of laughter at the way they harmonise together.

As Techno preens, the pile of feathers that he’s had to remove from Phil’s wings grows steadily bigger, placed delicately beside him. When Phil is able, he will take the feathers up to his room of worship and place them upon his Goddesses altar, and until he does, Techno will keep them safe, lock them in a little wooden box he keeps in his chamber to prevent them from being damaged.

For now, they remain on the bed, blending into the night’s darkness.

When Technoblade finishes preening, it is long past late into the night, around the time of the witching hour, and his arms are heavy with the weight of holding them up, eyes fighting against sleep. He’s not one hundred percent sure if Phil is even still awake, it’s not completely uncommon for him to coo or trill in his sleep instead of snoring, but even so he continues preening his wings until every last inch is done, his hands simply making steady, sleepy motions as he drags them across Phil’s feathers.

Inches away from sleep, Phil’s wings twitch and flare under his touch, and the sudden action forces awareness into Technoblade.

He watches with blurred vision as Phil shifts, slow in his movements, and turns to face Techno. He lifts his hands up to Techno’s neck, making absent grabbing motions. Techno dips his head closer, and Phil lifts his hands up to Techno’s hair and, in one awkward motion, pulls the ribbon holding his braid together loose. Trying his best to be gentle, Phil begins to gather Techno’s hair in his fingers.

“Phil …” he tries, but his friend just shakes his head.

Phil looks how Technoblade feels – large, heavy bags lay under his eyes, his haori slipping off his shoulder, his hands twitching and jittering as they try to separate Technoblade’s hair into three equal strands.

Techno raises a heavy hand of his own and places them on top of Phil’s, trying to push his hands away, but Phil lets out this strikingly loud keen, a harsh contrast to the comforting coos that had been coming from him only moments before, and so Techno immediately relents.

Phil shakes his head again and pushes himself closer until he’s almost in Techno’s lap again. He collapses on Techno’s chest, pressing his shoulder uncomfortably against his collarbone, but Techno makes no effort to move him. Phil’s head hovers parallel to his, his trembling fingers pulling the strands of Techno’s pink hair into a braid.

“Phil,” he says again, voice gruff and scratching at the back of his throat. “You don’t … you don’t have to. You’re tired, Phil, you’re injured … go to sleep.”

Phil keens again, softer this time, but it still has the same effect as last time, and Techno quickly falls quiet. The noise is scarily familiar to the sound he had made on the battlefield when Calvin and his men had pulled him out of Technoblade’s grasp, just without the sobbing, and it makes Techno’s heart hurt.

However, it doesn’t stop him from attempting one last try.

Perhaps it should of.

“Phil,” he whispers, casting his gaze to the side and looking upon Phil’s face, where his eyes are heavy and his brow is furrowed with concentration, “go to sleep.”

Without looking across at Techno, Phil shakes his head, and in the softest voice imaginable, spits out some of the most damning words Technoblade has ever heard in his life.

“Flock reciprocates flock.”

Technoblade’s heart stops in his throat, and tears flood to his eyes.

The holy words, straight from Phil’s mouth; the horrific gospel truth. All these years Technoblade has spent walking the earth, believing himself to be a stain upon it, and then he finds a man who floats above, wings of a bird, soul of an angel, one whom he could trust, one whom he could worship. And that is what his friendship was – worship, veneration. Walking alongside Philza felt like both the most horrendous blasphemy and the most unwavering acceptance, something Technoblade could trick himself into believing he was worthy of, but now …

Flock – Philza considered him his flock.

Elevation or damnation – has Phil pulled Technoblade up into the heavens, or has Techno dragged his friend down to hell with him? He doesn’t know, he doesn’t care … flock, flock, flock.

Flock is family, it is friendship, it is unquestioning trust and unbridled protection and safety and care and everything Technoblade had believed himself impossible of receiving, and yet here Phil was, sleep deprived and injured by Technoblade’s own idiocy, thrusting it upon him.

Technoblade was Phil’s flock, and Phil was Technoblade’s sounder – a revelation close to enlightenment.

If he had dragged Phil down into the dirt with him, Phil didn’t care, for his hands were sat tangled in his hair, pulling it into a simple braid, and he had let Techno drag his own claws down his wings mere moments ago, and he had cooed and trilled in comfort and keened in pain when Techno had tried to force him away – flock reciprocates flock, flock, flock …

Silently, Technoblade begins to cry, steady streams of tears pouring down his face as he sits, looking out into the darkness, completely consumed by the electric touch of Phil’s fingers in his hair and the weight of his body on his lap. His chest grows tight with an invisible pressure, like the pulling of an elastic band, and he clenches his jaw and scrunches up his eyes as to not let out a sob and break the fragile silence.

Phil is an angel – he’s absolutely sure of it now, there could be no evidence presented to him that would convince him otherwise. Phil is an angel, married to the Goddess of Death herself, and he still decided to extend his hand to Technoblade with a smile, and welcome him into his flock.

Instinctually, Techno raises a trembling hand, and lets it rest on the feathers of Phil’s wing. Beside him, Phil sighs contentedly, and Techno takes a chance to glance sideways and sees a soft smile pulling at his lips.

He thinks back to the sounders he observed as a child – he was a jealous thing back then, and would mock their rituals for no other reason than he was outcasted from them, but now he can’t help but feel a little happy that he was bothered enough to pay attention.

Phil had said it loud and clear himself – flock reciprocates flock, it is how they show their affection and appreciation for each other, mainly the preening of each other’s wings, and since Technoblade doesn’t have wings to preen, the closest he can get is helping in the care of Techno’s hair. Members of a flock protect each other, shield each other, just as Phil had done for Techno on the battlefield, and on many levels, members of a sounder are the same.

Piglins are pack animals by nature, always existing in large groups and helping one another to some degree, but a members of a sounder hold a more special importance. To piglins in a sounder, the equivalent of preening someone’s wings is gifts – more specifically, gifts of gold.

Distantly, Technoblade thinks back to Phil’s lack of a halo.

Techno’s own crown sits upon his head, knocked aside by Phil’s shaking hands, but still resting where it belongs.

Despite sitting on the verge of sleep, Technoblade hatches a plan.

But first, before any further action can be taken, Phil hums a neat note of satisfaction and pulls his hands away from his hair. Techno glances down and watches as Phil ties the red ribbon around the bottom of his braid.

“There,” he smiles, and when he looks back up to Techno’s face, his smile falters a moment. Techno panics for a brief moment until Phil raises one of his hands to brush at his cheek, and Techno remembers that he is still crying.

“I’m fine,” he says quickly, before Phil can get out any words of concern. Phil seems unconvinced, and so Techno takes Phil’s hand from his cheek, and holds it in both of his, and says again, “I’m fine, Phil.”

Phil sighs, the feathers on his wings ruffling slightly against the darkness. “If you insist, Tech,” he mumbles softly, and Technoblade nods. Phil yawns, and Technoblade mimics the noise immediately after, making them both giggle softly.

Phil buts his head against Techno’s shoulder, and whispers into the dark, “Stay?”

“Of course,” Techno says, and Phil instantly collapses the rest of his body weight against him, and moments later, he is asleep. Techno tries not to laugh about how quickly Phil succumbed to sleep, wings spread limp against the bed and his head tilted at an uncomfortable angle on Techno’s shoulder. However, he can’t judge his friend too hard, because as soon as Techno leans back and closes his eyes, he’s out like a light.

When he comes too in the morning, some time close to midday, the first thing he notices, before the light of the sun basking upon his face, blinding, or the dulled voices of chatting doctors and soldiers, is the weight of Phil pressed against his side. He is sleeping on his stomach, having slipped off of Techno in the night, and one of his wings is draped comfortably over Techno’s chest.

Almost immediately after he wakes, a doctor walks in, forcing Techno to move to change his bandages, waking Phil up in the process, but there are a few brief moments before then where Techno allows himself to bask in the quiet, in the comfort, in the warmth of Phil pressed into his side.

The doctor, as gently as he can, urges Technoblade to stand outside whilst he fixes Phil’s bandages, quietly insisting that, “Now he is awake, emperor Technoblade, we have a lot of tests to conduct that weren’t possible whilst he was asleep. The process would go much smoother and quicker if both the commander and I had minimal distractions.”

Techno feels kind of bad arguing with a doctor, so with a soft smile from Phil, he nods his head and leaves, exiting not only Phil’s sectioned off area, but the infirmary entirely. Better to just exit the premises as a whole, he decides, than to linger outside the curtained walls and be forced to resist the urge to eavesdrop.

Plus, he remembers as he walks, it will give him time to put his plan into action.

It’s not … the best plan in the world, and if handled without tact, could go incredibly wrong, but he decides it’s worth the risk. After all, Phil’s words from last night still linger in his head – flock reciprocates flock.

Technoblade stops in his path, just before the infirmary door, and brings his braid over his shoulder, looking down at it. Phil has tied the red ribbon into a lopsided little bow. Techno smiles fondly, and pushes the infirmary doors open, walking out of the infirmary for the first time in days. As soon as he walks into the main body of the castle, Techno is struck with how busy the hall is, soldiers and servants alike rushing down the corridors, chatting in hushed tones.

If something were wrong, Pete, Wisp or Calvin would’ve come to alert him, even if he were hiding away in the infirmary, and so Techno continues down the winding paths of the castle, passing through the newer halls until the brick starts to fade into rock, and the rock starts to rot and crumble, and the air becomes thick and stuffy with descent.

The castle of the Antarctic Empire is built on the foundation of ruins that stretch deep underneath the ice, a stronghold that was searched and excavated by the first soldiers that landed here, Technoblade included among them. The primary buildings sit hidden under the mountain, and now are home to war rooms, armouries, and what Technoblade is journeying there for now – the forges.

The bridges are unstable, and in dire need of reinforcements, but Techno crosses them just like he has done hundreds of times before, head held high and simply hoping the ropes wont snap underneath his weight. As he walks, the blacksmiths and army captains that linger among the crumbling halls of the inner stronghold regard him with a fear and caution stronger than most, but he pushes past, because in this moment there is only one thing on Technoblade’s mind, a goal that nothing will stop him achieving.

Flock reciprocates flock – Phil has made it clear to Techno that he sees him as flock, and now it is Techno’s turn to make sure Phil knows that he is his sounder, and perhaps finally convince Phil of his angelic nature in the process.

-

Phil is released from the infirmary two days later under strict orders to take things easy and stay out of trouble, something he promptly ignores.

He insists on trying to follow Techno to every meeting he has missed, tries to insert himself into every training session that Wisp drags Techno away too, desperate to be involved and not left on the side lines. There’s little Techno can do to dissuade him, and he knows that Phil would feel more insulted being taken easy on than he would being excluded, and so Techno bares his teeth as he fights and laughs whenever their swords clash.

Whenever commanders spar with each other it manages to draw a fairly large crowd, soldiers flooding around the training grounds, whispering predictions and gambling away their meagre earnings on bets as to who will win, but there’s always a few people who are convinced that the match will end in bloodshed.

Fighting with Phil is often like a dance, all familiar movements but without the boredom that comes with repeating them. Fighting with Phil, oddly enough, is safe – they hurt each other, yes, no one ever walks away from a sparring match without a few bruises or cuts, but never anything enough to scar, never anything enough to break the trust between them. Phil thrusts his blade out and the thin netherite metal nicks Technoblade’s arm, drawing blood, and he grins, knowing that, later, Phil will help him bandage the cut as they laugh over the memory.

Phil cackles as he retreats, jumping back and flaring his wings. To Technoblade, the noise sounds holy.

Technoblade’s gift sits in a small wooden box hidden in his office, tucked in a draw and buried beneath piles and piles of old paper. It was completed before Phil left the infirmary, and he’s been building up the courage to give it to him ever since.

Perhaps now is the perfect time.

The sparring session ends in a draw, as they commonly do these days; they know each other’s movements far too well to win in the short amount of time allotted to these matches. They shake each other’s hands, grip firm, and Phil flashes him a brilliant smile, a small trickle of blood pushing down his brow from where Techno had hit him in the head with the pommel of his sword, and Techno returns the smile tenfold.

Wisp and Calvin step up to fight next, Phil meanders over to Pete to clean up the small gash on his forehead, and Technoblade awkwardly excuses himself, promising to be back later, and rushes into the castle.

Perhaps running through the castle whilst already out of breath from sparring wasn’t Technoblade’s best idea of the day, but he’d already let Phil break almost every rule the doctor gave him, so it wasn’t his worst idea of the day either. His cape flows behind him as he runs, and he takes a moment to be thankful that he isn’t slowed down by the weight of armour, which is something neither he or Phil can be bothered to put on when they engage in friendly sparring matches.

Techno takes the steps two at a time, and when he finally reaches the door of his office, he stops and takes a moment to try and slow his erratic breathing. Somehow, he can’t, and it takes him a moment to realise that it isn’t from the running anymore, its from nervousness. Ah, terrifying, he decides, and then pushes his office door open, stepping inside the dark room.

He wanders over to the desk, slipping open one of the draws and spends a few moments digging amongst the piles of papers inside until his fingers brush against cold wood. Technoblade slowly removes the box from its hiding place.

The box itself is a simple thing, carved from oak wood with a hinged lid, and it is shallow but wide. However, of course, it is what the box contains that truly matters. It is large enough to be held with two hands, and so Techno does, gripping it tightly as he exits his office, kicking his door shut behind him, refusing to linger.

As he walks back to the training grounds outside the office, he racks his brain and forces it to form a plan.

Eventually, he decides that whilst Wisp and Calvin are sparring, he will gently pull Phil aside, somewhere inside the empty walls of the castle where they can neither be heard nor seen, say his piece, and present his gift, and pray to any God that hears him that Phil accepts his offering.

It will be quick, it will be quiet, and it will be discreet.

The clicking of Technoblade’s heeled boots echo across the floor as he walks; his knuckles as white with how tight he is gripping the box.

Where he expects to return to cheers, to the clashing metal of swords, Technoblade returns to the training grounds to be faced with the harsh winds pushing grit and gravel through the air, and the angered screaming of raised voices. An even larger crowd has formed now, one that is blocking off view of the main training area from the entrance of the castle, and it seems that even the staff have flocked out into the cold winter air to observe what is going on. Technoblade holds the box tightly to his chest with one hand, and perks up his ears, desperate to discern the voices over the whistling of the wind.

“He’s a monster, he ain’t human!” The first voice calls, loud and drawling and spitting hellfire, and Techno is immediately swept with a familiar sinking feeling present in his gut, one that bares nothing but bad news. There’s the echoing sound of boots scuffing against dirt, as if someone has been physically assaulted, pushed back, and then the second voice calls out over the wind, louder and with far more venom than the first.

“Who gives a shit if he’s a hybrid? He’s your fucking commander, your emperor, and you should show him some fucking respect!” Phil yells, and Technoblade’s heart aches.

Phil is … Phil is arguing with one of the soldiers, a soldier who had insulted him. Phil is fighting back, fighting in Techno’s honour, Phil is injured, Phil could get hurt …

As discreetly but as quickly as he can, Techno begins to push his way through the crowd, ears angled back, still fighting against the wind and the infernal chatter to pick up the voices of Phil and the soldier he is arguing against.

“Piglin folk are dangerous!” The soldier screams, and Techno can’t help but let a growl slip past his lips, a noise that startles the people around him as he pushes past. Territorial, protective, caring for their own kind – everything boils down to dangerous to humans, believing that every other creature within the three realms knows nothing but to kill and injure as if they were nothing more than animals, as if they weren’t races with their own civilisations, their own culture, as if they weren’t creatures with feelings.

“Piglin folk are loyal! To a fault!” Phil yells back, and as Technoblade gets closer, he can see Phil’s wings raise themselves above the crowd. He is mantling them as if he were a bird facing off against prey, feathers ruffled in agitation. “And you better be damned happy that Technoblade has placed his loyalty in this god forsaken place, in you, because lord knows you don’t fucking deserve it! Without him this empire is nothing! You’d die without his protection – “Technoblade pushes free from the crowd and into the clearing, breath hitched, eyes wide and trained on Phil’s every movement “- and I’d fucking laugh!”

The soldier, caught up in the rage of being challenged, clenches his fist and swings a punch at Phil. With an almost laughable ease, Phil steps to the side and dodges, and then snaps his own hand out, one latching onto the man’s fist and the other pulling his sword free from his cane. The wooden sheath clatters to the ground, and in one swift motion Phil bring the pommel of his sword down onto the man’s wrist with a precise pressure, and shatters the bone inside.

The soldier screams something guttural, not quite bloodcurdling but not exactly something pleasant to the ears, but Phil grins something manic, smiling as if the scream is akin to music, and when the soldier drops to the floor, Phil pins him there by burying his foot on his chest.

“Think,” Phil spits, pressing his foot down with an inch more pressure every second, “before you fucking speak, soldier.”

Phil lifts his foot off of the soldier’s chest, and the man inhales sharply, his breath quickly devolving into a mess of harsh splutters and coughs. Phil smacks his hands together as if he is trying to clean dust off of his palms, and spins on his heel. He and Technoblade immediately lock vision, and Phil’s expression flickers back and forth between elation and sorrow.

“Techno!” He says, rushing over, acting as if he were unaware of the crowd, thousands of eyes trained upon them as Phil almost crashes into him, grabbing at his free hand and taking it inside both of his. “Shit, Tech! How much did you hear? I’m so sorry mate, I- “

“Let’s leave,” Techno says, unable to raise his voice above a shaking whisper, and when Phil raises his brow in confusion, Techno gestures to the crowd with a small movement of his head. Phil’s face immediately falls, shrinking in on himself, pulling his wings closer to his body as a look of guilt descends over his features, and he nods quickly. Still clinging to Technoblade’s hand, both men turn and walk back to the castle, the sea of soldiers parting for them with ease, eyes averting and muttering kept to a minimum as they pass.

When they reach the castle, Technoblade continues walking, dragging Phil along corridors and winding passages until he is sure that no snooping soldiers or servants have followed them, and then he stops. They end up parked in a large, wide, but empty hallway towards the back of the castle, the wall decorated with large windows that look out into the tundra, a blanket of white covering the horizon.

Technoblade exhales shakily, and Phil shuffles his feet against the tiled floor. Like someone had snapped their fingers, Techno is suddenly aware of the weight of the box in his hands where he holds it to his chest, and he sighs again. He turns to face his friend, mouth open to speak, but Phil gets there first.

“I’m not going to apologise!” He says, so quick he almost stumbles over his words, shoulders hunched to his ears and fists clenched at his side. “He was just … Gods, Techno! I couldn’t just stand there and listen to him talk such bullshit about you, not when you weren’t even there to defend yourself!”

“Phil …” Techno tries, raising his free hand, but Phil doesn’t stop so easily.

“An absolute fucking coward! The shit he said about you, and … and no one stopped him! Gods, I meant what I said, mate, I hold no sympathy for that fucker when he dies! It’s- “

“Phil,” Techno tries again, speaking a little louder this time, and Phil deflates before him, dropping his shoulders and letting out a shaky sigh. “It’s okay, Phil.”

“But it’s not!” Phil whines, glancing up at him, and Gods, the expression on Phil’s face makes him almost look broken. “It’s not okay,” he repeats, voice wavering in a way too close to tears for Technoblade’s liking. Without a second thought, he wraps his arms around Phil, pulling the man into a hug. Phil doesn’t reciprocate the movement, but Techno didn’t really expect him to. “The way they talk about you, Tech,” Phil mumbles into his chest, “It’s not fair … What did you ever do to them?”

“Exist,” Techno snorts lightly. It’s not exactly the best time to be making a joke, he recognises this, but Phil raises a fist to hit weakly against his chest, and he muffles a laugh in Techno’s shirt, so he considers it a success. He loosens his arms, and Phil pulls away, wiping the small sheen of tears away from his eyes.

“I mean it, Techno,” he mutters, “It’s not fair. You deserve better than this.”

And there it is again, that elusive kindness. Technoblade wants to laugh, say ‘you’re the only person that believes that Phil’ but, if Phil believed it, then what did it matter if anyone else did or not? Gods, Phil has welcomed him into his flock, if he believes that Technoblade is worthy, then he is worthy.

Phil makes him worthy.

“I have a gift for you,” he says, he can’t stop the words before they fall out of his mouth. Phil perks up almost comically, a sly smile slipping onto his face.

“I like gifts,” he says, and Techno hums.

“But you have to trust me, okay?” He chuckles, and Phil nods, quick and eager.

“Okay, I trust you.”

Technoblade presents Phil with the box.

Phil holds out his hands, palms cast up to the heavens, and watches with awe as Techno relinquishes the box into Phil’s possession. There is a heavy silence surrounding them, nothing to be heard but both of their nervous breaths, and the click of the clasp as Technoblade leans over and undoes the lock, the creaking of the hinges as he lifts the lid for Phil to see.

When he had first met Phil, back at the beginning of the empire, Technoblade had mistaken him for an angel, his black wings pressed out against the snow, stark and mesmerising in their contrast. Phil’s golden hair had shone in the cold sunlight, giving the effect of a glowing halo wrapped around his head, and Techno was almost disappointed when he realised it was a trick of the light.

As they grew closer, as they became friends, Techno came to realise that he was right all along – Phil was an angel, a divine being walking upon men, blessing lesser beings with his presence, and for some reason, it was Technoblade he had chosen to walk beside. Phil regaled him with tales of centuries past, of empires and civilisations, of wars and of the lives they stole. He told Techno about the many Gods and deities that resided over the three realms, of their ways of worship, their temples, and of the people that gave their service to them. He told Technoblade of the time he was human, ragged and wild and free, and of his journey to beat death, and how, in the end, he had fallen in love with her, and how she had gifted him wings of a crow and eternal life to boot.

Every single story did nothing but strengthen Technoblade’s belief that his friend was holy. Phil fought beside Technoblade with the strength and wit of a man possessed by the frenzy, something he had never seen before except for within himself, and they had bandaged each other’s wounds by firelight, had excavated the stronghold of the arctic, had built a castle together, had created an empire together …

Phil let Technoblade preen his wings. Phil had tried to give his own life to save Techno’s. Phil had named him as part of his flock …

Inside the box sits a golden crown.

It is almost like a circlet, thin and circling all the way around to make up one complete, sturdy band. It is not adorned with any jewels, not like Technoblade’s own crown, but it is still intricate in its making. It shines in the sunlight that seeps through the windows, the reflection of the glittering metal visible in Phil’s eyes as he stands, slack jawed and motionless, staring at the grand piece of jewellery before him.

Gently, Technoblade reaches over and, balancing it between his two hands, lifts the crown from its resting place in the box. Almost immediately, Phil falls to one knee, closing his eyes and hanging his head, resting the box on the floor beside him. With a shaking hand, he removes his hat from his head, and clutches it tightly to his heart.

Philza bows before his emperor.

“Rule with me,” Technoblade says, fighting to keep his voice steady and commanding as it echoes down the empty hall. “Stand by my side, fight by it, and I swear in everything that I do, that I will protect you, Philza. You will be my confidant, my second in command, my best friend, my … my sounder, as I am your flock.”

Technoblade listens to Phil’s breath hitch, and watches as his friend gently inclines his head, a wordless nod.

“Thank you,” he whispers, the crack in his voice not unnoticed, just unmentioned.

Technoblade leans down and places the crown upon Philza’s head, nestling the band of gold amongst his hair.

On unstable legs, Phil stands, looking upwards as if he would be able to see the crown on his head, one of his hands lifted and hovering around the top of his skull, inches away but not daring to touch. There are tears in his eyes, and tears in Technoblade’s too, but they are both smiling.

“There,” Techno says, gesturing up to Phil’s head. “A halo. Now you can’t complain when I call you an angel anymore.”

Phil barks out a quick, wet laugh, and Technoblade grins.

“I guess I can’t contest that, now can I?” He hums. “Sounder, hmm?” He echoes, and Technoblade nods.

His hand twitching with nerves, Phil carefully places his hat back atop his head, trying not to disturb the crowns placement on his head. Techno watches as the golden halo slips out of view. Technoblade opens his arms, and Phil crashes into them, immediately spreading his wings wide and looping them around them both, blocking them from the light of the windows. Under the dark cover of Phil’s wings, Technoblade finally allows himself to cry, the silent tears falling freely from his eyes as Phil muffles his own sobs in Technoblade’s shirt.

They cling tightly to each other, so tightly, afraid to let go, afraid of finding out that this was all a dream, or a lie, some trick or deceit. But that revelation never comes, and so they simply stand in each other’s embrace, lingering in the warmth and the comfort.

It’s a surreal moment, one Technoblade fights to commit to memory, trying to remember the exact way that Phil feels pressed against him, the volume of his speech and of his sobs, the way he had knelt before Technoblade with such ease, the way the crown had glimmered in the sunlight, had fitted perfectly atop Phil’s head.

No matter what comes, no matter what the future brings, he doubts anything could make him forget this moment.

Here, Technoblade’s life is split into two – the before and the after.

Phil is his sounder, Techno is Phil’s flock, and that kind of revelation binds people together in a way that is near inseparable. They will conquer the world, and they will give it back. They will be dragged to execution blocks laughing like mad men, and they travel the realms side by side, and when danger comes their way they will draw their swords together, back-to-back, and they will defend each other to their dying breaths. Each and every time they are torn apart, fate will somehow find a way to bring them back together, over and over and over again.

Phil’s wings twitch with a violent movement, and when Techno pulls away, just an inch, he finds Phil clutching one of his flight feathers in his hands. He holds it up to Technoblade like an offering.

“Phil, you don’t – “

“Flock reciprocates flock, Techno. You got me a gift; it’s only right I give you one too.”

Technoblade laughs softly, and Phil smiles. Perhaps they are more alike than they first seemed after all, two wayward souls tied to the mast of the same sinking ship, and no matter what happens, they vow to go down together.