“This is the bodyguard?” Wilbur says, very slowly, eyeing the kid.
The kid crosses his arms, eyebrows knitting, nose wrinkling. He’s four inches shorter than Wilbur at least, and looks like he’s missed a couple more meals than he can afford to miss. His pants are shredded at the knees, patched with surprisingly neat stitches.
“You can’t be more than, like, thirteen,” Wilbur says.
The kid bristles. “I’m eighteen,” he blusters.
“Yeah, sure, and I’m forty.”
He gets a narrow-eyed glance at that. “Fine,” the kid mutters. “I’m … sixteen.”
Wilbur still doesn’t believe him, but before he can retort, Phil clears his throat. “Boys,” he says. “Will—I know you think you don’t need one, but Tommy’s offered to act as bodyguard after last time.” Last time being an assassin clambering through Wilbur’s window and attempting to slit his throat in the middle of the night—Wilbur whacked him over the head with his guitar. He still has the scar.
“Right,” Wilbur says, “yeah, I get that. Just—no offense, Tommy, but … he’s literally twelve.”
“I just said I was fucking sixteen—”
“He’s been a knight-in-training for the past year,” Phil says. He shoots Wilbur a placating look, your typical Please quiet the snark, just for a little while, and Wilbur begrudgingly nods. “He’s excellent with a sword and even better at hand-to-hand combat.” He puts a hand on Wilbur’s shoulder. “And I’ll feel more comfortable if you have a bodyguard. Just for a short while, we’ll test it out.”
Wilbur opens his mouth and promptly shuts it, searching for words.
“Sure,” he says. “Okay, Dad. Don’t worry so much.” He pokes Phil’s nose, and Phil’s eyes go crossed as he blinks, wings puffing up. Wilbur fights back a laugh. “You’ll give yourself wrinkles.”
“Oi, you little—” Phil bats his hand away, laughing. “I’m still the king.”
“Oh, you gonna have me executed for treason? The pain, the shame—”
Phil sighs fondly. “Get along, boys,” he says, and ruffles Wilbur’s hand. He rests a gentle hand on Tommy’s shoulder, and Tommy blinks, hackles raising before he seems to realize that it’s just Phil. “Love you, Will. Settle in, Tommy.”
And then he’s sweeping around the corner, and that’s that. Wilbur’s got a new bodyguard.
Tommy flat-out refuses to accept a bed.
He curls up on a mattress on the floor instead, burrowing into his blankets at nine in the morning, tracing the stitching of the pillow with his index finger.
“Er,” Wilbur says. He nudges his guitar out of the way, sweeping up a mess of maps and plopping them onto his desk—shit, maybe he should’ve picked up this morning. Or yesterday morning. Or any of the days before that. “Right—you alright?”
Tommy squints up at him. “Yeah,” he says, “why wouldn’t I be?”
“Hell if I know. I’ve never met you.”
“Mm-hm,” Tommy mumbles. He sits up, patting the blankets down with one hand, as if making sure they’re firm enough. “Well—er. I dunno. Not much interesting about me.”
“So why’d you volunteer to be a bodyguard?” Wilbur blinks over at him.
Tommy shrugs. “I didn’t,” he says. “The king picked me. Said I reminded him of his son.”
Ah, fuck. Wilbur should’ve seen this coming.
He tilts his head back in a groan and topples back onto his bed. When he glances up, Tommy is squinting at him, bridge of his nose creased with his confusion.
“Techno used to be my bodyguard,” Wilbur informs him.
“Wha— Prince Technoblade?”
“Yep. That’s the one. Tell me, do you have parents?”
“I—” Tommy bristles. “No.”
“Ah, fuck. Well, when Phil tries to adopt you, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
It’s stilted enough at the beginning.
It was awkward with Techno, too, but that part’s blurred by now, shifted into a brother instead of a bodyguard. On the contrary, Wilbur and Tommy haven’t yet built any kind of friendship. And, considering the amount of time they spend together, that makes it more than a little strange.
Wilbur tries to ignore it. Ignore it and it goes away, right? So he goes about his studies with his maps and his scrolls and his stories (gods, he fucking hates reading), and walks about the castle tailed by a scrawny little shadow.
When the first assassination attempt happens, then, it’s a bit of a surprise.
Wilbur slings himself into his chair and groans aimlessly at Phil. “I hate maths,” he says, with passion. “It’s disgusting.”
Phil chuckles. “You’ll get it eventually, mate.”
“No, I will not. They’re making me learn imaginary numbers, Phil. They don’t even exist!”
“What d’you expect?” Techno deadpans. “Some old guy invented math in the middle of the desert ‘cause he was bored. It’s not supposed to make any sense.”
Wilbur groans again. He picks up his sandwich. Brings it to his mouth. Prepares to take a bite.
Tommy leaps out of nowhere and slaps the sandwich out of his hands.
Wilbur jolts. His eyes flick to Tommy, then back to the sandwich, as it bounces off the table and splatters against the ground. “What— Oi!”
Tommy flat-out snarls, eyes fixed on a fallen piece of bread. “Don’t eat that,” he says. “It’s—it’s bad.”
“Bad?” Wilbur says, quizzical, and then the lights go out.
He hears Tommy swear, a hissed, drawn-out “Shit,” as Wilbur gropes for something to ground himself. He finds the table and drags himself up and out of his chair. “What happened?” he shouts. The sheet of impenetrable darkness barely wavers. He lifts a hand in front of his face and struggles to make it out half an inch from his nose. “Techno? Phil?”
Shing. Wilbur hears something whoosh past his ear and swears, hauling himself around. Seconds later, pain blooms, and—his hand goes to his ear—shit. He’s bleeding.
“Get down!” Tommy shouts. He flies out of the darkness like a beam of light. One second, he’s invisible, and then he lunges toward Wilbur and tackles him to the ground.
Wilbur gasps for air. Tommy’s already shoving himself to his feet, yanking a knife from his boot. He sends it flying. A scream echoes out.
“Get under the table,” Tommy orders. Then he disappears.
When the darkness clears, it’s because Tommy’s swept open every window in the dining hall, and beams of autumn light pierce through the black. Gusts of wind drag the inky darkness off to the sides of the walls, and Wilbur pries his eyes open.
Tommy is in the corner, eyes flaming, clutching a knife in one hand. The other knife has made a home in the shoulder of a tall, burly, currently very unconscious man.
“Wilbur?” Phil says, and Wilbur fights his way out from the table to embrace him. Techno joins them. Phil draws back quickly, hand going to Wilbur’s bleeding ear. “Shit, are you alright? Did they hurt you? What—”
“I’m fine, Dad,” Wilbur says. His ear smarts. He forces a smile. “I’m good. Really. Tommy saved me.”
Tommy’s head twitches toward them at the mention of his name. After a moment, he lifts a hand to acknowledge them before he goes back to yanking the assassin into cuffs and dragging him off to the side of the dining hall.
“Well,” Techno says. “At least we know he’s nearly as good at his job as I was.”
Wilbur laughs and slugs him in the shoulder. “Have some modesty, Techno.”
“Modesty’s boring. I prefer to overexaggerate my skills as much as possible.”
Wilbur’s heart is still racing, but he manages a grin.
“Thanks,” he says to Tommy, later that night, when everything’s been dealt with. “I mean—for not letting me get killed, at least.”
Tommy rolls his eyes, but he offers Wilbur the first smile Wilbur’s ever seen from him. A tiny one, but it changes his whole face. “Sure,” he says. “Now go to sleep, I’ve got training tomorrow.”
“Mm-hm,” Wilbur says. It’s the first time Tommy’s ordered him around playfully, and he grins as he burrows into his covers. “‘Night, Tommy.”
A beat. “G’night, Wilbur,” Tommy mutters.
The second assassination attempt comes in the middle of the day, when Wilbur’s new archery instructor pulls a sword from his belt, sets it to his throat, and says, “Confess your sins and Prime shall redeem you before your death.”
Ah, fuck. The one day Tommy’s got lessons halfway across the castle.
Now. Wilbur can appreciate a little drama, as a rather dramatic person himself. The religious zealotry? Cool! The overly-long name for the assassin’s sword? He couldn’t care less! But being forced to confess his sins? Like—he’s probably not perfectly sinless, but he’s pretty sure he’s not committed that many of them. Maybe.
He’s not really sure how to confess, if he’s honest—hard to believe in God when you grew up on the streets—but what the hell. “Right,” Wilbur says, nodding. He stops nodding when the man presses the sword harder against his throat. “I—er. Sins. Yes.” He swallows. The blade is cold. “Er—well, I’m very … prideful. And I’m gluttonous. Yes. I love my … soup. I’m a glutton for soup.”
He is going to have words with Niki for putting the love of soup in his head.
“Continue,” the man snarls. “Tell Prime of your sins, of the ones you have murdered, of the wealth you have stolen from countless of Prime’s chosen—”
“Oh, you’re not another of the fuckers who’re mad we’re raising your taxes, are you?” Wilbur says, aghast. “You’re so fucking annoying, just chill—” The blade digs into his throat. “Never mind.”
“Farewell,” the man says. He’s breathing hard. What the hell was that about murder being a sin? Hypocritical, Wilbur would call him, if his life weren’t teetering on a dangerous line. “Prime rises above as we offer him this fountain of crimson to feed his ever-glowing health—”
With a furious snarl, Tommy hooks an arm around the man’s throat and slams him to the ground.
“Motherfucker,” Tommy spits, and plants a knee on the man’s chest. The man shouts out, struggling, and Tommy’s head snaps back with the force of a punch. “You bitch.”
Wilbur is breathing hard, and he’s not sure whether he should intervene, help Tommy, do something—but in a matter of seconds, Tommy punches the guy in the jaw, plants his other foot to stomp the man’s wrist into pieces, and snatches up the sword to turn the point on the assassin.
“Bitch,” Tommy repeats, teeth bared. “Nice fucking try.”
The assassin stays perfectly still, pale as milk. His lips move soundlessly—praying to Prime or something, probably. Tommy rolls his eyes and carefully gets to his feet, mindful of the man’s good hand, sword still leveled at his throat. “I don’t believe in God,” Tommy says, “but I don’t think he’d appreciate you taking his name in vain.”
His eyes flick toward Wilbur. “You good?”
“Uh,” Wilbur says. “Yeah?”
“Shit,” Wilbur says, “that’s a bad bruise.”
Tommy blinks. He lifts a hand to press it and grimaces when he makes contact. “‘S not too bad,” he says, and goes back to polishing his knife. He blinks when Wilbur crouches in front of him.
“Stay still,” Wilbur says gently, and lifts a hand to cup the bruise. Tommy’s eyes flicker with something, breath hissing out. “Oof, yeah, that’s gonna be there for a while. I can get some ice if you want?”
Tommy blinks. Wilbur’s gaze flickers down to his neck, and he stills—because there, right there, is a scar.
“Shit, Tommy,” he says, “what—”
Tommy smacks his hand away, ducking his head to hide it. “Nothing,” he says. “It’s nothing.”
“Tommy, I—that’s not nothing.” Wilbur tries to meet his eyes, but Tommy furiously avoids him, gaze fixed on the blankets beneath them. “Hey. Hey, Toms, listen to me.”
He’s not sure where the Toms came from, but it seems to work: Tommy’s eyes flick toward him.
“Look,” Wilbur says. He tugs down the neck of his sweater and tilts his head back. “Same scar, see?” He knows it’s there from the days he wants to vomit looking at it, remembering the cold fear, the pain. “An assassin climbed through my window at midnight and tried to slit my throat.”
Tommy stares. “Oh,” he croaks. “I—okay.”
“Yeah. Nothing to be ashamed of.” Wilbur hesitates, then sits down beside him. Tommy doesn’t pull out a knife, which is really all he can hope for. “It was just after Techno moved out of my room, ‘cause, you know, it’s not too smart to have both princes in the same room. He still beats himself up about it.” He glances toward Tommy. “You don’t have to tell me how you got yours if you don’t want to.”
A tiny noise escapes Tommy—a bark, maybe, or a whine, so small that Wilbur barely catches it. “Then I’m not going to tell you,” Tommy says after a moment. “Fuck off.”
“That’s okay, Toms.” Wilbur ruffles his hair gently. The same whining noise pitches out of Tommy’s throat. It’s unquestionably wolflike, like a dog pawing at the door, begging to be let in. “You don’t have to tell me. But if you want to, I’m here.”
Tommy still avoids his eyes, but he nods. “Right,” he mutters. “I—okay.”
Wilbur gives him one last awkward smile, then heads to get the ice for his bruise.
Halfway down the hall, he freezes and says, “Shit.”
Ah, fuck. He’s started viewing his bodyguard as a brother. Again.
Assassination attempt number three: some random woman pops out of the crowd at an assembly, nocks an arrow, and shouts, “For King Harold!”
Wilbur does the smart thing and dives out of his chair. He hits the hardwood floor with a grunt and goes tumbling, down a dozen steps, till he rolls to his feet. He’s bitten his tongue, and his mouth tastes like copper and salt. “Shit,” he hisses, and shoves himself to his feet.
A quick glance tells him Phil is gone. Easy enough for him, since he’s got fucking wings. Wilbur’s human, unfortunately, so he ducks down and submerges himself into the crowd.
Screams echo left and right. Wilbur glances around, looking for the woman with the bow. He doesn’t see her.
A scream pierces out.
“Bitch,” is all Wilbur has to hear before he stretches to his full height and narrows in on Tommy. Tommy sputters curses as the woman yanks the bow away from him, pulling another arrow from her quiver and stabbing down toward his chest. Tommy just barely twists out of the way, and it buries himself in his forearm instead.
Tommy makes a strangled noise, half-bark and half-yelp. He disappears from view for a second, through the tangle of passersby. When Wilbur bursts through the crowd, self-preservation be damned, he finds Tommy staggering and clutching his arm, the woman’s bow splintered in the corner, the woman herself gasping in the corner.
Tommy is breathing hard. “Shit,” he hisses. “Son of a bitch.” Through his splayed fingers, red oozes out. The arrow shaft sticks out like a thumbs-up.
“Tommy,” Wilbur says quickly. He grabs Tommy’s shoulder, and Tommy whirls around, already tugging a knife from his boot, before he freezes.
“Will,” he says, eyes still abnormally wide. “I—oh.”
“Tommy,” Wilbur repeats. He yanks Tommy into a hug without a second thought, as gentle as possible. “You’re alright? I mean—shit, of course not, but you’re okay. She didn’t get, like, an artery, right? You’re not bleeding out?” He stumbles back, out of the hug, and takes Tommy by the shoulders. “Tell me you’re not bleeding out.”
Tommy looks, above all else, bemused. His eyes keep flicking from Wilbur down to his arm and then up at the sky, as if he’s wondering if he’s hallucinating. “I mean,” he says, “I—I’m fine, yeah.” His arm shifts, and he grimaces. “I’ll be fuckin’ better when she’s gone.”
They both turn toward the woman when she begins shrieking.
“Fucking freak!” she shouts. In Wilbur’s peripherals, Tommy goes stock-still. “I know what you are, you dirty fucking pig, I’ll tell them all, I’ll tell them all just how much of a fucking beast you are—”
“Shut up,” Wilbur spits, nearly surprising himself—but Tommy’s clutching his arm, blood dripping on the carpet, looking like he wants to vomit, and fire spins in his chest. “Shut the fuck up.”
He yanks off his fancy dress jacket and tears a strip of the fabric, then crouches to gag her, knotting it tight. She glares up at him, eyes glistening.
“You okay?” Wilbur murmurs.
Tommy shrugs aimlessly. “Fine,” he says.
Tommy’s tossing and turning.
Wilbur’s roused at around midnight. He blinks through the hazy darkness of half-sleep. “Mm,” he mumbles, voice raspy. “Wha— Tommy?”
Tommy doesn’t respond, just lets out another, louder whine. Wilbur, blinking with bleary eyes, kicks his way out from under his blankets and makes his way over to Tommy. Pity stabs in his chest.
Tommy is curled into himself. His mouth is moving, forming words Wilbur can’t quite make out, eyes squeezed tightly shut. Every so often, a whine tears itself out of his throat.
“No,” Wilbur thinks he’s saying. “No, no, please, no, not him, not them, don’t— Don’t—”
“Tommy,” Wilbur hisses, and crouches beside him. He sets a gentle hand on Tommy’s shoulder, and Tommy thrashes. “Tommy. Hey, Toms, wake up, it’s alright. Wake up.”
Tommy’s eyes fly open. He sits bolt upright and punches Wilbur right in the chest.
Wilbur attempts to gasp for air, but his lungs don’t cooperate. He gestures frantically instead to convey Yes it is me, yes it is Wilbur, please don’t hurt me, and wheezes hard. “Fuck,” he manages first. He coughs and attempts another inhale. “Ow.”
“Shit,” Tommy says, “Will—”
“‘S okay,” Wilbur says, waving a hand, still rasping. He hacks up a lung, trying to clear his throat. “Just … a misunderstanding.” He pounds his chest. “Knocked the wind out of me.”
Tommy watches him. His eyes are glistening. Wilbur doesn’t mention it.
“Anyway,” Wilbur rasps, “you—you were talking in your sleep.”
“You sounded scared.” Tommy’s eyes slide to the side, always with that careful blankness that’s basically the antithesis of his entire personality, and—fuck. “It’s—it’s okay, Tommy. Everyone gets scared sometimes.”
“Oh, especially knights,” Wilbur says. Gingerly, he scoots to perch beside Tommy on the bed. Apparently it’s the right move, since Tommy doesn’t stab him or anything. “Listen—I’ll tell you a secret, okay. Techno doesn’t seem like someone who’s scared of anything, right?”
“Right,” Tomy says, squinting at him.
“Techno’s super fucking scared of Slime.”
Tommy blinks. “The—the butler?”
“Yep,” Wilbur says proudly. “Because—long story, okay, but Techno comes from the Nether, so he had to deal with magma cubes all the time and they’re super dangerous. And Slime’s a slime hybrid, and they’re pretty similar to magma cubes, so Techno’s always super fucking careful not to piss him off or anything. It’s hilarious.”
Tommy huffs a half-laugh. He’s holding his arm close to his chest; Wilbur glances down at it and winces at the state of the bandages, all wrinkled from his thrashing around. “How’s the arm?”
“Oh.” Tommy studies it. “Fine, I guess. Just hurts.”
“Oh, gee. What a surprise.”
Tommy knocks Wilbur’s shoulder with his own, huffing another laugh. Wilbur blinks at the gesture, so casual, before he grins.
“Earlier,” Tommy mumbles eventually. Wilbur’s eyes stray from the darkness through the window and toward him. “I mean—the lady. The one who tried to kill you.”
“I don’t think I remember her,” Wilbur says teasingly, “you’ll have to refresh me.”
Tommy bumps their shoulders again, cracking the tiniest smile. “When she was—when she was screaming at me. Calling me a freak. And you stopped her.”
“Yeah,” Wilbur says quietly.
“I mean—thanks. For that.” Tommy’s shoulders slump. “I—I dunno what she was talking about. I don’t remember anything. I just used my nails to scratch her.”
“Those scratches were bleeding like hell,” Wilbur recalls.
Tommy huffs a weak laugh. “Well, I’ve got sharp fucking nails. Don’t piss me off.”
“Oh, never,” Wilbur says. “I’m too scared of you. You remember when I caught you and Bad throwing knives at that target in the kitchen?”
Tommy preens. “I got a bullseye.”
“You did.” Wilbur slings an arm around Tommy’s shoulders. Tommy stiffens, then practically melts into Wilbur’s side, head falling onto Wilbur’s shoulder. It’s overwhelmingly precious. “You’re literally adorable.”
“I …” Tommy stifles a yawn. “I am not.”
“Mm-hm. Hey, are you gonna tell me your age yet?”
“I”—yawn—“told you. ‘M sixteen.”
“Right.” Wilbur carefully maneuvers him to lay down on the mattress, and Tommy’s head flops onto the pillow. He lets out another of those whines, wolflike as anything Wilbur’s ever heard. “Sleep well, Tommy.”
Tommy seems to force his eyes open. “I’m—” He falters. “I’m s’posed to take care of you. Not … not the other way around.”
Something in Wilbur’s chest twists at the pain in his eyes as he says it—like he thinks he’s giving something up, like he’s certain warmth can’t be a part of this life he’s got. He wants, more than anything, to prove him wrong.
“It’s a two-way bargain,” Wilbur says softly. “You save my life, and I make sure you’re happy. That way you don’t become an assassin too, okay? I’m doing this to preserve my own well-being.”
The corner of Tommy’s mouth twitches upward. His eyes flutter shut. “‘Kay,” he mumbles. “That works.”
“Sleep well, Toms.”
Attempt number four: a man bursts through the window, shrieks “YOU WILL DIE FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!” and then is immediately tackled back out the window by Tommy.
Wilbur lunges for the gaping hole, poking his head through the windowframe, and exhales with relief when he sees that they’ve landed in a hedge. Tommy rolls off the guy, yanks his knife from his boot, and makes a rude gesture at the other man.
They scuffle on the dirt for a moment—not very long. Wilbur gets the idea that Tommy’s toying with the guy, playing with him, in the intricate dance of the fight. After a couple seconds, he snaps back into action, knocks the man unconscious, and whistles for the royal guard.
“TOMS!” Wilbur hollers from the window. “YOU ALRIGHT?”
Tommy gives him two thumbs-up. Wilbur smiles.
“I don’t get it,” Tommy complains. “It’s literally—it doesn’t make any fuckin’ sense, why’re there more sounds?”
“Language doesn’t make sense,” Wilbur says sympathetically. “But—look, you can use inference to figure it out, see?” He points to the line. “It says here that it’s day—so if the sky is bright cerulean, then cerulean must mean—”
“Blue,” Tommy realizes. He meets Wilbur's eyes and grins. “Hell yeah! I figured it out!”
Wilbur grins back. “You did,” he says.
Attempt number five: “I’M GONNA FUCKING KILL YOU!” shrieks a random passerby, all but frothing at the mouth. They yank a satchel of dust from their pocket and toss it down at Wilbur’s feet.
After that, they pull out a knife. By then it’s too late—the second Wilbur even gets nicked, Tommy is appearing in the doorway, like he can smell the blood from a mile away. Wilbur’s never been prouder to say that a random person with a knife is no match for his little bro—his bodyguard.
Apparently, after Tommy’s dragged them off to prison, the would-be assassin never stops complaining about how King Philza employs “witches.”
Bit hypocritical of them to employ a supposed “witch” to make them a powder that would cause the crown prince instant death, but it worked out, seeing as it wasn’t an actual witch. Or maybe it was, and they just like playing pranks on innocent humans, like filling a satchel with ordinary flour.
Honestly, Wilbur wouldn’t put it past Eret to do something like that. He sends a mental thank-you to the witch, just in case.
“Ha!” Tommy traps Techno’s legs, and they both go tumbling to the ground, Techno grunting. They scuffle for a moment before Tommy loses his advantage and goes tumbling across the grass. “Bitch,” he calls to Techno, and stays there. “You’re—fucking cheating. I’m sure of it.”
“Consider,” Techno offers instead, “maybe the fact that I weigh twice as much as you helps.”
Tommy sticks his tongue out.
Wilbur laughs, and the warmth in his chest just seems to stick there, pervading everything—some kind of nonsensical omnipresent joy, something the bards he studies would write about. Joy, and its odd catalysts, and family you dig up like flowering roots in a garden.
“Full moon tonight,” Wilbur observes.
Tommy jolts. “What?” he says.
“It’s the full moon tonight. You know, Autumn Festival, the celebration, all that.” Wilbur slings himself into a chair. “You’ll love the celebrations. They pass out these cakes with caramel melted inside, and they throw slips of paper dyed red with fortunes written on them and the one that lands in your hair is supposed to tell your future, and—”
“Cool,” Tommy says. “I—hang on. I’ve got to—got to go.” He stands hastily. “I’ll be there for the festival.”
Wilbur blinks and watches him leave, all but sprinting. “Oh,” he says.
He’d thought Tommy would like it.
But Tommy’s not entirely running away. Wilbur has to get a firm hold of himself and tell himself that: Just because he’s acting a bit odd doesn’t mean he suddenly hates you. Tommy shows up an hour before sunset, right on schedule, fidgeting in his coat.
Wilbur chuckles. “Your collar’s all messed up.” He yanks it carefully into place. “You ready?”
“Yep,” Tommy says, and with that, they head through the castle gates and out into the town.
“I don’t get it,” Tommy says. “What’s so special about autumn?”
“Well, it’s the best season,” Wilbur says immediately. Tommy huffs and mutters something that sounds suspiciously like “spring,” but Wilbur ignores him. “And it’s kind of—it’s the last resort before the frigid winter. Celebrates warmth and joy and excitement, all those summer things, right?”
Tommy nods. “That makes sense,” he says. “Oh, what’s that?”
Wilbur knew he would love it.
Tommy drags him back and forth, in any and every direction, from the suncake vendors to a stall selling clocks, and then to a tiny robotic gatherer. “I call it an Allay,” says the vendor proudly. “Made him myself. He’ll revolutionize mining when I can figure him out all the way.”
“Whoa,” Tommy says. He offers the Alley a tiny chunk of cookie, and the creature chirps and flits to the side to deposit it beside a music box. “Look at him, Will! He’s flying!”
The shopkeeper smiles. “Your brother?” he says to Wilbur, as Wilbur surreptitiously purchases a miniature copper statue of the Allay. “You have the family resemblance.”
Wilbur blinks. “Oh,” he says. “No, he’s—he’s like a little brother to me. Not related, though.”
“Ah. Well, have a lovely night. May autumn wish you well!”
“May autumn wish you well!” Wilbur calls in return, and they stroll off.
He digs the little statue out of his bag as they walk, and Tommy all but squeals, turning it over in his hands. “Aw, look at him!” He beams. “He’s so small!”
“Like you,” Wilbur says immediately. Tommy elbows him in the ribs.
“Thanks, Will,” he says quietly after a moment. He drops the Allay back into the bag—for Wilbur to carry, of course. Maybe Tommy is like a little brother after all.
After sunset, though, something in Tommy’s demeanor changes—like a switch has flipped and his wiring’s gone dim. He keeps his hands buried in his pockets, burrowing into his coat, a grimace wrinkling between his brows. Every so often he exhales harshly, like he’s not even aware he’s doing it.
Wilbur knows him too well at this point, even though they’ve known each other for—what? A month? A month and a half at most? Tommy’s in pain.
“You alright?” he says.
Tommy’s eyes flick toward him. “Huh?” he says. “Yeah, I’m fine, why’re you asking?”
“You’re walking like you’ve been stabbed,” Wilbur observes quietly. Off to either side, people cheer and celebrate, tossing confetti and scraps of red paper through the air. “Seriously, if you’re hurt—we can go back, it’s fine—”
“Nah, I’m good,” Tommy says. Wilbur watches him and knows he’s making a conscious effort at that same blankness, all over again. “I’m fine.”
Wilbur wants to argue, but he lets the subject settle for now as they stumble into a dancing ring.
Wilbur grins. “Look,” he says, and seizes Tommy’s hand. “Come dance with me, Tommy! Let’s go!”
“Wha—” Tommy cackles, half-disbelieving, as Wilbur yanks him into the circle. “What’s this, Will? What’re you—how d’you—”
“It’s easy,” Wilbur says. “When the lantern’s floating, you dance, and then as soon as it dips below the line, you freeze— Freeze!”
They go stock-still. Then the lantern flares bright and wobbles its way back up, and the dancing resumes, laughter roaring all around.
Wilbur takes Tommy’s hands and spins him around, whirling in circles. Tommy’s teeth are bared in a full grin, his mouth wide open with laughter. Wilbur twirls him around, and Tommy nearly trips over his own feet, toppling into Wilbur. The crowd breathes and swirls, expands and contracts as one.
The lantern dims and dips. They freeze, and then the dancing begins all over again.
Wilbur’s not sure how long it is that they dance, ears full of distant music and cackling. They freeze over and over again, the lantern bobbing up and down, until he’s dizzy with the noise and the spinning. Tommy is practically glowing with his joy, in a way Wilbur’s never truly seen him. He shrieks and laughs and lets loose.
Eventually the lantern begins to gutter and, with a ringing sense of finality, touches down on the pavement. The flame snuffs out. Tommy giggles when Wilbur does a little jig-hop as they exit the circle.
“Oh,” Tommy says, and stands on his tiptoes to pluck the piece of paper. “In your hair. Your fortune, Will!”
“My fortune,” Wilbur says, and blinks at it. Tommy hands it to him. He unfolds the piece of crimson paper and squints down at the scribbled words: Everything is not as it seems. “Huh. That’s a bit ominous.”
“What is it?” Tommy says. He leans over to read it himself and seems to stiffen, but Wilbur barely notices, reaching down to grab Tommy by the wrist and drag him over to his favorite spot by the docks.
Tommy yelps and yanks his hand out of Wilbur’s grip.
Wilbur falters. “Tommy?” he says. Tommy cringes back, grimacing, and shoves his hand into his pocket. “Tommy, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Tommy says hastily.
“That’s—Tommy, are you okay? Is there something wrong with your wrist?”
“Leave it alone, Will.”
“No, Tommy, I— It’s okay, you can tell me. Are you hurt? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Leave it.”
Tommy takes off, pacing toward the end of the street. Wilbur follows hastily as Tommy ducks down an alleyway, through to the opposite street, and breaks into a near-run into the closest field. Wilbur pants as he trails him. “Tommy!” he calls. “What’s going on?”
Tommy skids to a stop. Wilbur takes the opportunity and, without a second thought, yanks his hand from his pocket and pulls his sleeve up.
Metal glints. Tommy lets out a shaky breath.
A howl cuts through the beating in Wilbur’s ears.
Tommy freezes. “Shit,” spills out of his mouth, almost involuntarily. “I—fuck, Will, we need to go.”
Wilbur turns and stiffens.
He counts them quickly enough—one, two, three, four, five—fuck, six. Enormous, hulking wolves, eyes glinting in the moonlight, teeth bared and stained red. “Shit,” Wilbur whispers. “Tommy—listen, I’ll try to distract them. On the count of three, run.”
Tommy stares at the wolves like he doesn’t even hear Wilbur. “He wants to kill you,” he whispers.
“What—Tommy? What do you mean?”
“He wants to kill you.” Tommy swallows. His hands are shaking. “Fuck—Will. Take this.” He yanks off his jacket, and there’s the glint of metal again, like a cuff around Tommy’s wrist. Wilbur barely gets a good look at it before Tommy’s shoving his jacket on him. “Put that on, put it around your face, cover everything. Whatever you do, don’t let them bite you.”
The full moon. The full moon, and werewolves—but Tommy—
“What about you?” Wilbur says urgently. “You’re not—what if you get bitten?” Tommy takes a step forward. “Tommy?”
The metal glints as it falls to the ground. Tommy’s form ripples, twists, and then—
The wolf rises up from where Tommy used to be—broad, gray-furred, snarling.
Everything dissolves into bedlam.
Wilbur stumbles for the corner of the field, headed for the paved road, for civilization. The wolf—no, Tommy—wolf-Tommy lunges for the leader of the pack with a horrible snarl, and they go tumbling to the ground. The others lunge for Wilbur, but one bark slows them. Wilbur doesn’t speak wolf, but he gets the idea: He’s mine.
His heart pounds in his ears.
He’s not fast enough before the first wolf tackles him. It buries its teeth in Wilbur’s shoulder, but the double-layer of jackets does enough. Wilbur fumbles for the dagger in his boot and plunges it into the wolf’s shoulder.
He tears a shriek from the hulking thing, hot breath spraying his face. He rolls away from another wolf, yanking his knife free, and stabs the second one in the leg. It goes limping away, whining shrilly, blood spattering the grass.
Two down. Wilbur pushes himself to his feet and finds another one lying limp and bloody. Tommy’s snarling and clawing at a tawny wolf. As Wilbur watches, he opens his jaws and clamps them down on the wolf’s front leg, and shrill howls pierce the air.
Wilbur whirls around just before he hears the whoosh of air behind him. The wolf lands against his chest and sends him to the ground all over again. Wilbur gasps as he feels the blade slam flat between them, nicking through his shirt and sending pain slicing into his ribs. He rolls to the side feebly, fighting to throw the wolf off as it snarls and lunges for his face.
He braces a hand against the wolf’s neck and finally manages to shove it back far enough. He yanks the knife out and buries it in the wolf’s side. The wolf shrieks and lurches away, dragging Wilbur’s knife with it.
Wilbur sits up, and a chill rolls over the back of his neck. He looks up.
The biggest of the wolves stares down at him, blood dripping from his maw, teeth bared.
Wilbur skids to the side, fighting to shove himself up, but the wolf tackles him to the ground. Pain flares through his ribs as Wilbur hits the dirt sideways, a fresh wave of blood trickling from his stomach. He gasps and flips onto his back, bracing his hands against the wolf’s neck as the wolf snarls down at him and sprays Wilbur’s face with flecks of blood.
Tommy. Where’s Tommy? Is Tommy—no, he can’t be. He can’t.
“Tommy,” Wilbur wheezes. “Tommy, please.”
The wolf lunges for Wilbur’s throat once more, and Wilbur squeezes his eyes shut and waits—but the pain never comes.
A horrible canine shriek echoes through the darkness.
Wilbur’s eyes fly open. He scrambles to a sitting position, practically crawling away from the two wolves as they snarl and howl and do their best to tear each other apart.
Tommy is tattered: fur bloodied, scrapes along his back, bites and claw marks at his ears. The other wolf looks better, but he stumbles back like he’s shocked at the bite Tommy packs.
Tommy snarls and lunges again. Wilbur’s stomach twists as he claws at the other wolf’s sensitive underbelly, and another shriek tears out.
The bigger wolf lunges up and fixes his teeth on Tommy’s shoulder. Tommy yelps and hops back, twisting side to side. “No,” Wilbur breathes. “No, no—Tommy, please, c’mon, Tommy, you can do it—”
Tommy’s fighting seems to falter.
Wilbur stops breathing.
And then, all in one beat, Tommy twists out of the bigger wolf’s grip and lunges for his throat.
He clamps his teeth there and holds on tight—even as the other wolf claws at him, and shrieks, and gurgles horribly. Tommy shakes him back and forth like a dog toy, side to side. Blood spurts.
Slowly, the fight leaves the wolf’s body, and he goes limp.
“Tommy,” Wilbur pants. “Tommy, he’s—Tommy, he’s dead.” Tommy keeps shaking him. “It’s okay, Tommy,” Wilbur whispers. “It’s okay. He’s dead.”
Tommy lets out a mournful whine. He drops the wolf’s body on the ground and turns to Wilbur, muzzle stained with blood.
Instead of heading for Wilbur’s open arms, he pads toward the center of the field again. As Wilbur pushes himself to his feet, Tommy paws at something he must have found in the grass, and he whines—a horrible, shrieking sound—before his form flickers, then twists, and then shifts.
Tommy is breathing hard. “Fuck,” he hisses, clamping a hand over his mouth. His eyes shine with unshed tears. “Fuck.”
“Tommy,” Wilbur gasps. He falls to his knees beside Tommy, gaping. Tommy clutches the bracelet in his hand—because that’s what it is, isn’t it, a bracelet that was causing him so much pain? When he shifts his grip on it, the moonlight illuminates his blister-ridden palms. “Tommy, what—”
“I’m sorry,” Tommy rasps, “I—I didn’t mean to lie to you, I swear, I didn’t—”
“Oh, Tommy,” Wilbur says, and throws his arms around him.
Tommy stiffens, then slumps into Wilbur’s hold, burying his face in Wilbur’s torn shirt. He grips so tight that Wilbur winces, but never complains.
“I—I,” Tommy says, “I didn’t—I wasn’t sure—”
“I don’t care,” Wilbur promises. “I—I love you, Tommy, you’re my brother.” He huffs a broken laugh. “I couldn’t give less of a shit.”
Tommy exhales, half-sobbing, against Wilbur’s shoulder. “I—” Another whine pitches out of his throat. Wilbur feels Tommy’s clumsy grip on the silver bracelet shift. “The bracelet—it hurts, Will.”
“Does it stop you from transforming?” Wilbur asks. Tommy nods against his shoulder. “Why would … you don’t have to—”
“I thought I had to,” Tommy rasps. “It—it hurts, Will, I can’t—the full moon—”
“You have to transform,” Wilbur says. Tommy nods.
Wilbur tightens his grip around Tommy’s shoulders and combs a shaking hand through his hair. “Go ahead,” he murmurs. “No one will hurt you. Not while I’m still breathing.”
The silver bracelet tumbles from Tommy’s hand with a clatter. In a matter of moments, Wilbur is clinging to a wolf instead of his scrawny, human little brother.
It’ll take a while to adjust, but he thinks he’ll manage.
He drags himself to his feet, swiping his hair out of his eyes. “C’mon, Toms,” he says. “Let’s go home.”
They stumble through the gates, Wilbur’s hand on Tommy’s back. Tommy is limping, stepping gingerly on one front paw, but he turns his face to lick Wilbur’s hand gratefully.
“Wilbur!” Phil shouts, and sweeps out of the sky to tackle him in a hug. Wilbur nearly topples over. “Eret had a vision, he sensed that you were hurt—are you okay?” Phil steps back and his eyes go wide. “You’re bleeding. What happened?”
His eyes flick to the side and go even wider. “Oh.”
“Hi, Dad,” Wilbur says. “This is Tommy.”
Tommy’s ears flatten back against his head as Phil crouches in front of him. “I see,” he says softly, something sad in his eyes. He sets his hands on either side of Tommy’s face and smiles. “Hello, Tommy. Thank you so much for taking care of my son.”
Tommy’s tail wags slowly. He bumps Phil’s forehead with his nose, and Phil chuckles.
“You can tell me the story while we fix you up,” Phil says. He scratches behind Tommy’s ears. “Both of you.”
Wilbur smiles weakly. “Love you, Dad.”
The door slams open, and Techno charges inside. “I smell blood,” he snarls, “what—”
He blinks when he sees Wilbur. “Ah. Never mind.”
“Hi, Tech,” Wilbur says. He pushes himself up and grunts when pain slices through his stomach. “Er—long story.”
Techno’s eyes flick toward Tommy in the corner, curled up on the floor with his eyes shut, and says, “Is that Tommy?”
Wilbur blinks. “Uh—yeah? How’d you know?”
“Smells like him.” Techno crosses the room and crouches down in front of Tommy, who opens his eyes and stiffens. Techno lifts a careful hand and sets it on his head. “Hi, Tommy. You look a lot less ugly like this.”
Tommy makes a halfhearted yipping noise. His tail whacks the baseboard with a thump as Techno rubs behind his ears, smoothing a hand carefully across his back.
“You look like shit,” he murmurs to Tommy, and gently takes hold of his paw. Phil’s gone off to look for bandages, since Wilbur would rather keep this on the down-low, instead of having the entire infirmary panic. The blisters on Tommy’s paw haven’t been treated yet, and Tommy bares his teeth just a bit as Techno inspects it. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Tommy. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
Wilbur bites back a smile and settles back onto the table, crossing his legs. Techno’s speaking quietly to Tommy, smoothing a hand over his rumpled gray fur.
“I like wolves,” Techno murmurs. “They’re nicer than people. Hey, I bet you could beat me in a fight in this form.”
Tommy opens his mouth and lets out a wolflike yawn, all tiny sharp teeth and pointy ears. Techno chuckles.
Tommy shifts back at the break of daylight and stumbles.
“Shit,” he mutters, and fumbles for the doorway, wobbling. “Ow.”
“Tommy,” Wilbur says, and hastens toward him. Tommy cringes back before he seems to remember that everything’s okay, and then Wilbur’s embracing him. Tommy presses his face into Wilbur’s shoulder weakly. “Hey, Toms.”
“Hi, Will,” Tommy murmurs. “‘M tired.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.” Wilbur wraps an arm round his shoulders and steers him gently down the corridor as Tommy yawns. “C’mon, love. Let’s get you to bed.”
Wilbur nudges him gently onto his bed once they get into their room, and Tommy blinks at him sleepily. “This …” He furrows his eyebrows. “This is your bed, Will. My bed’s over there.”
Wilbur chuckles. “Go to sleep, Toms.”
Tommy wrinkles his nose at him and burrows into the blankets. He’s doing the patting thing again, pressing the sheets down, kneading them into the right arrangement; Wilbur stifles a smile. He tugs the sheets over Tommy, and Tommy’s eyes fall shut.
As he turns to leave and let him sleep, Tommy catches Wilbur’s wrist. Wilbur glances toward him. “Toms?” he says. “You need something?”
Tommy exhales slowly. “I’m—I’m fourteen,” he says.
“Oh,” Wilbur says softly.
“And the scar’s from … from when—when he tried to kill me.”
He. Wilbur has an inkling that he knows who Tommy’s talking about. “The wolf,” he says.
“Mm-hm,” Tommy mumbles. “He killed my parents. Turned me. Not very nice.”
“Not very nice,” Wilbur agrees, and brushes Tommy’s hair gently off his forehead. He leans into the touch. “Sleep well, Toms.”
Tommy doesn’t respond. He’s already drifted off.
“Bitch!” Tommy shouts, and leaps at Techno. Techno grabs him around the waist and tosses him into a bush, and Tommy shrieks dramatically, rolling to his feet. In one fluid moment, he’s shifted and leaps back toward Techno, who crumples under the weight of a wolf that’s roughly his size. Tommy yips playfully. Techno laughs.
Wilbur grins. “Ha,” he calls, “you just got fucking tackled—”
Tommy turns toward Wilbur and his mouth splits into a doggy grin. Wilbur’s eyes widen as Tommy lunges up to place his paws on Wilbur’s shoulders. Wilbur laughs. “Hi, Toms,” he says, and ruffles his scruff. “Happy?”
Tommy bonks Wilbur’s forehead with his nose. Wilbur grins.
“Hey, boys!” Phil calls. He spreads his wings and swoops down to land on the grass, grinning at the three of them. Wilbur beams. “Tommy, son, shift back, I’ve got something to—” He falters.
Tommy shifts back, stumbling slightly. He looks a bit like he’s been hit over the head.
“Er,” Phil says. “Well—that spoiled the surprise a bit, actually.” He pulls a sheaf of papers out of his pocket and holds them out to Tommy. “Tommy, honestly, you’re already part of this family. I was wondering if you wanted to make it official?”
It’s mostly a blur after that—Tommy’s hands over his mouth, eyes wide and shimmering, as Wilbur embraces him, then Phil, then Techno—and then they’re all on the grass, a mess of jumbled limbs.
“I’ll be honest, Phil, it might be smart to get me a bodyguard you don’t want to adopt,” Wilbur says, and Tommy laughs through his sniffles.
Tommy hugs him tight. “Thanks, Wilby,” he mumbles. “And Phil, and Techno—just—thank you. For everything.”
“Of course,” Phil says.
Techno hums in agreement.
Wilbur beams. “Welcome to the family, Toms.”