It was the light of a rising star that woke Arthur, so warm on his face that he could almost see it through his eyelids. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter, turning his face away from the insistent heat—John could wait a moment to see until his head stopped spinning. It was quiet, nothing growling or tearing at their flesh, and whatever surface he was reclined against was perfectly comfortable.
But he could feel the light growing brighter, and with it the chance of being spotted. And, more pertinently, the last thing he remembered was discussing their next plan of action as they walked through the desert. Whatever had happened to muddle his thinking, to knock him out, had to be dealt with. No matter how at ease he felt, for once.
Well. Nothing to do but take stock of things. With a bracing breath, Arthur opened his eyes—
Fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. "John?" he breathed, eyes darting around. He sat in a cave, facing desert stretching as far as he could see. Nothing living, thank god, just indistinct shapes and shimmering haze cast by a bright blue star.
"Welcome back, Arthur." John didn't sound alarmed, but something was off, something Arthur couldn't quite grasp. "We're safe, for now."
"John, what the hell happened?" He started to stand up—
But something was holding him in place. Something draped in faded yellow fabric, something alive, pulling him back against the strangely cushioned surface he had been sleeping against.
"Arthur, calm down. Listen to me." That was it, he realized. John's voice wasn't echoing in his head. Instead, the voice came from behind him—
From the creature holding him down.
Arthur needed to sort himself out, and fast. He was still sluggish, mind swimming and limbs heavy from whatever had happened—escaping was out for the time being. Talking, then. Pretending he didn't know who he was talking to until he could come up with a way out.
Keeping his voice even, Arthur said, "All right. I'm calm."
The...creature had the audacity to sound concerned. "Arthur, you're trembling."
Arthur bit down on the inside of his cheek. "I—I'm sorry. It's...been a long day. Just a little cold." The limbs holding him were tight—not tight enough to hurt, but enough that the creature would be able to feel any movement towards escaping. At least his arms were free.
"It's hot out. Are you feeling sick—" Arthur shifted a little too obviously, and the creature abruptly stopped.
"N-no, I just...could use a walk," he said, hurriedly. "Stretch my legs, and all that."
The creature gave a very familiar annoyed sigh. "Arthur, it's me. John Doe."
The King wouldn't call himself that, not even as a misdirection. But still, here in the King's domain, and with John miraculously out of his body... "And why should I believe you?"
"Because if the King in Yellow had absorbed me, he wouldn't waste time waiting for you to wake up. You'd be dead."
Arthur let out a long breath, the knot in his stomach dissolving. "No need for subterfuge when he's already won, yes. I believe you." Letting himself relax against...John, he supposed, he experimentally flexed his left hand. That was his again, too. "In any case, I think I could tell the difference. Even if he was imitating you."
John scoffed. "Don't be overconfident, Arthur. He can enter your dreams, draw out information from you before you've even realized what you're telling him. He's done it before."
"I know that! I had no idea what we were facing back then, remember? And I know he doesn't understand you. He'd never acknowledge—" Arthur blinked. "Wait, are you trying to convince me you are the King now?"
"I'm trying to tell you to be careful!" John snapped, and Arthur couldn't help the laugh that bubbled out of him. John huffed, but after a moment, his chuckle joined Arthur's. "Well."
"Well." Arthur shook his head, laughter subsiding. "You're certainly you, John. Now will you explain why you're holding me captive?"
"I'm not," John grumbled. "I'm holding you upright so we can move if anything notices us—"
"Wait, wait," Arthur said before another argument could start. "Start from the beginning. Why are you here?"
John hesitated before answering. "We...separated."
Arthur relished the opportunity to roll his eyes. "Yes, I figured that part out."
"I haven't exactly had the chance to investigate further, Arthur. I had to find somewhere safe before dark. And, despite the choice presenting itself, splitting up while you were unconscious wasn't in our best interests."
"So it just...happened? Nothing attacked..." Arthur trailed off as the light of the rising star caught his eye—it was playing against a shadow, far in the distance, but the light was twisted into an impossible angle and swallowed so deeply that he couldn’t—
John's hand slammed over his eyes and Arthur snapped out of it with a gasp. "For Christ's sake, stop looking at that," he growled.
Arthur took a deep breath, calming his suddenly roiling stomach. "Right. Yes." He took a moment to steady his breaths, eyes closed beneath John's...hmm. Whatever was covering his eyes was firm enough, presumably a limb, but it felt unfamiliar. "Is...that your hand?"
He could feel the—appendage—tensing over his face. "More or less," John said, finally.
"What are you?" Arthur started to twist—and then whatever was holding him in place tightened, around his face and chest and waist all at once.
And a voice growled in his ear, "Don't turn around."
Arthur's entire body tensed under the restraint. "What—what's behind me?"
Arthur swallowed, acutely aware of the alien vista surrounding them, of the enormity of the evidence that John was far less human than he sounded. "You don't say?" he said, weakly, heart pounding in his chest. "I hardly expected you to look human, John."
"There's a difference between whatever you've imagined and the reality of facing a being from beyond your world. Hearing about the landscape didn't hypnotize you, seeing it did."
Arthur sighed in irritation. "So describe yourself to me. Then I'll be prepared." John didn't reply for a long moment. "John?"
"I...don't think that's a good idea," John said, uncharacteristically subdued.
"And why the hell not?"
"Your mind is fragile right now, Arthur. Trying to wrap your head around anything in the Dreamlands is dangerous. You're still getting used to seeing again—better to avoid such sights while you recover."
"I'd rather avoid such sights by getting up and finding our way out of the Dreamlands." The limbs around him tightened, as if saying the words would allow him to stand. "Why are you so insistent that I not look at you?"
John's sigh was half growl. "Because you already saw me, Arthur."
"When we separated. We were walking along like normal, we blinked, and suddenly I was looking at the back of your head. You turned around, saw me, and immediately passed out because beings from the Dark World are not meant for human eyes."
"Or," Arthur said, holding up a finger, "I passed out because someone’s soul had just removed itself from my head. Besides, you've been seeing creatures from the Dark World with my human eyes all this time."
"So you want to deliberately expose yourself again?"
With an irritated sigh, Arthur reached up to remove the limb from his eyes. It shied away before he could touch it, leaving him blinking into the light. He could see the desert again, strange and foreboding under the light of the blue star. This time, he'd keep his eyes on the unchanging black sand. Or he could look down to see exactly what was holding him, the form beneath obscuring cloth—
But before he could get a sense of them, the limbs unwrapped themselves. Well. He’d best be prepared for John to spring backwards and let him crash to the floor rather than get the vaguest sense of what he looked like. "It's not like I'm going to walk around with my eyes closed the whole time I'm here, John. I'm going to be seeing things that aren't meant for human eyes in any case, and I'd rather see friend than foe."
"We could fashion you a blindfold," John said, infuriatingly reasonable. "I can guide you more effectively with a body of my own."
"Oh? How's that? Will you hold my hand?" Arthur reached to the limbs behind him, fingers barely brushing fabric before John jerked out of reach. "Now you're just being childish—"
"I'm trying to save your life, Arthur! Like I am every time you put it at risk looking for more—"
"Bullshit." John went quiet, finally, and Arthur continued. "You're scared."
John's laugh reverberated behind him, through his chest, and Arthur could suddenly hear every otherworldly echo of his voice. "Scared? You think I'm not showing you my true form because I'm scared? I'm trying to cram the survival instinct you so desperately need into your head. Do you think you'd be here if you saw the King in Yellow, Arthur? You'd have clawed out your eyes before he even brought you to his domain."
"You're not the King in Yellow, John."
"No?" John's laugh was harsh. "But I look like him. I look every inch a god, and you don't fucking understand—"
"I don't care!" Arthur snarled. "You know full well you can't keep me from seeing horrific things—especially not here—you just don't want me to see you. I know you're not human! I'm fairly sure that was a tentacle covering my eyes. Do you think I can't tell the difference between a monster and my friend?"
In the stillness, he could feel a steady pulse against his back. A heartbeat, stronger and deeper than a human's. John's heart, beating fast, in fear of what Arthur might think of him.
"You…won't like what you see."
"Because I've been enjoying myself so much since we met?" John was silent, and Arthur swallowed down a ridiculous surge of guilt. "I understand why you're hesitant, John. But simply being able to see again, it's…" He held his left hand up, looking over the wooden finger and angry black veins crawling out of sight. "It's miraculous, no matter what I see. And it's not only that, you know. I feel safer than I have in ages. Not just because you're out of my head. Because you're out of my head and still here."
John stilled against him, the only movement the beat of his heart. Finally he said, very softly, "You shouldn't."
Arthur snorted. "Take a compliment, John." He let his head tilt back slightly, hair brushing against the fabric covering John's chest. Perhaps. "Honestly, I didn’t expect you’d be wearing clothes."
John laughed. "Oh. You've pictured that, have you?"
"Not in detail!" he protested, willing down the flush threatening to rise on his cheeks. "I just thought of…a mass of tentacles, too many teeth or eyes, something like that."
"Did you," John said, clearly trying for neutral and failing.
"It wasn’t a value judgement! I was extrapolating from everything else you've described to me."
"Two out of three," John admitted.
"Tentacles, eyes, and teeth. You had two out of three right."
Arthur laughed, a little giddily. "Two out of four, if you count the clothing. Obviously tentacles, so…I’ll go with eyes. Am I close?"
"You can’t be close with a fifty-fifty choice, Arthur."
"You know what I mean."
John was smirking, he could tell. "I told you I wouldn't describe myself."
"Fuck's sake, John!"
John laughed, low and long, before quieting. "Well, Arthur, you have a choice. You can save your sanity and let me walk behind you. You’ll see plenty more to test it before we leave."
"Or?" Arthur prompted
"Or." John took a long, careful breath, and Arthur could feel his chest expand against his back. "You can turn around and—see me."
"And which do you suggest?"
John huffed a laugh. "So you can do the opposite?" He stayed silent for a long moment, only the ambient sounds of the shifting Dreamlands filling the air. "I don’t think you should."
"I suppose I didn't need to ask," Arthur said with a sigh.
"But at the same time, I want—" John stopped himself, and the unsaid words hung in the air between them.
Arthur rested for just a moment longer, lingering in the warmth of the large body he leaned against. Finally, with a hand braced on the ground, he carefully stood up. Stifling a sound of discomfort, he stretched, listening to John's quiet breathing.
"Hello, John," he said, and faced him.