“Brother Rafe?” Ranboo asks quietly, “where are we going?”
“Its a surprise,” Brother Rafe says, “just for you. Since you were so good today.”
Ranboo beams up at him, “really?” he asks, a yawn interrupts him mid-word.
“Really,” Brother Rafe says.
“But isn’t it bad to be out of bed this late?”
“I’m with you, so its alright.”
“What’s the surprise?”
Brother Rafe laughs, “if I tell you its not much of a surprise, now is it?”
“But I wanna know,” Ranboo whines.
“Shh, quietly,” Brother Rafe reminds him, “we don’t want to wake anyone else. They’d be jealous.”
Ranboo frowns, “they were good too though,” he says, “don’t they get a surprise?”
Brother Rafe ruffles his hair, “you’re a sweet kid, they’ll get their own surprises in the morning.”
“Okay,” Ranboo says cheerily. There are a lot of them. If all the kids in his cohort have to go one at a time to get the surprise it’ll take forever, it makes sense that Brother Rafe has to start so early in the day that its practically late.
Brother Rafe takes him through the city, all the way to the gates. Ranboo stares with wonder at the glittering magic that keeps them all safe. He bounces in Brother Rafe’s arms, “do we get to see the wards? They’re so cool! Sister Sheena was telling us about them!”
“Maybe another time,” Brother Rafe says, “now be quiet, little brother, remember?”
Ranboo claps his hands over his mouth to keep the questions in. But the wards are really cool and he wants to talk about them more.
Brother Rafe’s fingers spark and the wards chime lowly and dissipate.
A curl of fear sprouts in Ranboo’s gut, “Brother Rafe?” he asks, holding a little tighter. “We aren’t supposed to go outside of the wards.”
“I’m with you,” Brother Rafe reminds him, “it’ll be alright.”
“But its dangerous.”
“Not at all, I have friends who live outside of the wards. That’s who we’re going to meet.”
“You know Traders?” Ranboo asks, his eyes wide. Sister Sheena said that Traders did important stuff, but they were kind of bad because they went outside of the Wards and talked to Outsiders. Outsiders are the worst, Sister Sheena said so.
“I know some,” Brother Rafe says, “but that’s not who we’re going to meet. Have you heard of eagles, little brother?”
“Sister Sheena said that they were huge,” Ranboo says, his stomach churns and his wings fluff up. He doesn’t want to meet an eagle. They’re big and they have big talons and worst of all they’re Outsiders. They’re dangerous and scary.
“He’s pretty big,” Brother Rafe agrees. “Around seven feet tall I believe.”
Ranboo curls his wings around himself, “Brother Rafe I don’t want to meet an eagle. I want a different surprise.”
“Now little brother, you’re being ungrateful. And judgemental. Come on now, you’ve never met an eagle before, don’t judge Dream just on what Sister Sheena told you. She’s never met an eagle either. Dream is very nice.” Brother Rafe holds him tighter, his hand running over Ranboo’s wings. “Eagles are the noblest of the Outsiders you know, they are kings and princes and emperors. Wouldn’t you like to meet a king?”
“Kings are weird though,” Ranboo mutters. He doesn’t get why the Outsiders would want just one person in charge of everything. That’s too much work for one person to do.
Brother Rafe laughs, “You’ll like Dream, don’t worry little brother.”
They step through the Wards and out onto the edge of the island. The ground is far, far below them. Ranboo buries his face in Brother Rafe’s shirt.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall,” Brother Rafe says, tucking him close. And then he steps off of the edge and they are flying. “Take a look,” Brother Rafe encourages him, nudging Ranboo a little bit. “Don’t you want to see the world?”
Hesitantly, Ranboo pokes his face out. The sky stretches endlessly around them, and below, there is green. Like the park full of grass and trees that is in the center of the city. Only this goes on forever.
Brother Rafe brings them down to the ground, landing on the grass at the edge of the trees. It must be a forest Sister Sheena had told them about forests. They have animals and plants and all sorts of stuff. They’re also really dangerous.
Ranboo clings tighter as Brother Rafe tries to lower him to the ground.
“Its alright little brother, its only grass. It won’t bite you.”
Hesitantly, Ranboo lowers his feet to the ground. It feels just like the ground back home. He reaches down and touches his palm to the grass. It doesn’t have the hum of the ground up in the city. There is no magic here. He can’t make the grass grow if he wanted to. He can’t make the air stir unless he flaps his wings.
A twig snaps. He leaps for Brother Rafe’s arms with a high chirp. “There’s wolves! Or bears! Or deer!”
Brother Rafe laughs. “No, little brother. It’s only Dream. Look.” He turns and Ranboo can see, in the moonlight, the silhouette of a massive person.
He stares, too shocked to move as Dream comes closer.
He must be as tall as the buildings of the city, his wings are as wide as the walls. “Rafe,” Dream says, his voice is a low rumble.
“Your majesty,” Brother Rafe says, “this is the boy I was telling you about. Say hello little brother.”
Ranboo holds tighter, a tiny fearful noise escapes his lips and Dream laughs again. “Aw little scrap,” he says, kneeling down.
He’s still too tall. He’s too big. He’s reaching out with one hand, his fingers are tipped with talons as long as Ranboo’s forearm. As long as his whole arm. He buries his face in Brother Rafe’s shirt.
“I want to go home,” he cries, “Brother Rafe I want to go home. Please. Please!”
“Hush now,” Dream says, “Its alright. Gosh you’re tiny aren’t you?”
Something touches his back and he shrieks, trying to cling tighter to Brother Rafe. Something long and cool brushes through his feathers, he shudders, he can’t move, he can’t breathe. Brother Rafe’s arms are too tight around him. Dream’s talon is brushing the back of his neck.
His eyes burn and he sobs, “Brother Rafe please, I want to go home. I don’t like this surprise.”
“Its alright, Dream won’t hurt you.” Brother Rafe pulls him away from his chest. Ranboo wails, desperately trying to reach for him but his arms aren’t long enough. A hand wraps around his chest, and then moves him to its palm. Black talons curl around him like a cage. He freezes, a tiny, strangled chirp the only sound he makes.
Dream stands, “its alright, Ranboo, right? I’m not going to hurt you see? I was actually going to ask if you could help me.”
“No,” Ranboo says. “No, no, no.” He’s shaking so hard his teeth are chattering. “Put me down. Put me down. Please. Brother Rafe.” He reaches out, but Brother Rafe is just standing there with his arms crossed, watching. He’s not saying anything. He’s not reaching back.
“You’re going to stay with Dream for a little bit, brother.”
“Won’t that be exciting, Ranboo?” Dream asks, pulling him close to his chest. Pinning him there with his hand when Ranboo tries to push away. He is so big, so strong.
Ranboo can hear Dream’s heart, can feel the thud of it. Slow and ponderous, there’s so much time between the beats that he almost thinks that Dream has no heart at all.
He whimpers, high and scared and pleading.
“Goodbye, little brother,” Brother Rafe says.
“Please,” Ranboo cries, but Brother Rafe takes off and leaves him in Dream’s hands.
“I’ll take good care of you,” Dream says, the tip of one of his talons touches Ranboo’s head.
Ranboo flinches and ducks away, hiding his head in his arms. His wings curl up around him. He is shaking, crying, he wants to scream but the sound won’t come out. He wants to run, but he can’t move.
“I want to go home,” He whispers.
“I’ll show you your new home,” Dream says, “you’ll like it.”
He spreads his massive wings and holds Ranboo close to his chest and then he takes him away from the city. Away from the Wards. Away from Sister Sheena, away from his cohort, away from safety and into the world of the Outsiders.
Ranboo has heard about Albatross. Sister Sheena taught them about the albatross when she was telling them about the other Outsiders. The Outsiders don’t have magic, so their cities can’t send messages to each other like hummingbird cities can. Instead they send Albatross across the distance.
And now there is one here. Ranboo isn’t allowed to see her, of course. Nobody but Dream and his friends are even allowed to know Ranboo lives here, let alone see him. Dream certainly isn’t going to introduce him to someone who carries the news and gossip to the other kingdoms.
Ranboo is in his cage while Dream talks to her instead. He wraps his hands around the thin wires, peering through them. Dream’s room is still and quiet. His nest is empty, piled with fine pillows and blankets. There is a shed feather on the floor.
The maids haven’t come yet.
Ranboo bites his lip.
The maids aren’t supposed to know about him but there is one, a soft-winged dove named Elleanor who brings him food sometimes. He likes Elleanor, but if he isn’t here when she comes to clean Dream’s rooms, she’ll notice.
Will she tell?
She always looks so sad to see him in his cage, and she sings and brings him food, but she still listens to Dream. She is scared of him, like Ranboo is.
This is his only chance to get out of here, though. Ranboo wrings his hands.
If he gets caught Dream will be angry. He shudders at the thought. Dream needs Ranboo so that he can help his people. Dream loves his people very much, he’s said so. And if Ranboo puts them in danger.
He sniffles, wiping at his eyes.
He has seen what Dream’s talons can do.
But staying here means that he’ll have to stay with Dream.
Ranboo reaches out to the lock on the door of his cage and shuts his eyes. He wants it to open, he wants it to click the way it does when Dream pulls the key from the chain around his neck and slips it in. He wants the door to swing open.
And so it does.
Ranboo huddles in on himself, waiting for Dream to come storming into the room. Waiting for him to scream, to flare his massive wings until Ranboo feels even tinier than usual.
The door remains shut. The room is still.
Ranboo jumps. He covers his mouth to stifle the scream that wants to come out. His wings beat desperately at the air but he only has down, not feathers. He can’t fly, he can’t stop himself from falling.
He lands with a thump in Dream’s nest. The blankets and pillows cushion him and he doesn’t even bounce. His heart beats fast behind his ribs. His hands shake, but he’s done it. He’s out. He’s down.
He has to get to the albatross, he has to find a way to hide with them. He doesn’t care where they take him. It has to be better than here.
He squeezes his hands into fists and focuses very hard on not being seen. He is nothing but a mouse in the walls. Not worth seeing, not worth noticing.
His legs ache, he wants to sit down and cry. He can’t find the albatross. Dream is going to realize that he’s gone. Dream is going to find him. Dream is going to wrap his hand around Ranboo with his talons pressed to his chest. He never squeezes, he never hurts. He doesn’t leave bruises.
But he could.
He rests the talon of his thumb right over Ranboo’s heart and if he just pushed he could--
Ranboo covers his mouth. His eyes are blurry and his breath is shuddery. He wants Sister Sheena, he wants this cohort. He wants someone, anyone who isn’t one of the outsiders.
He’s so tired of being small, of being scared. Everything is so big. So dangerous.
He hugs the wall as a maid’s skirts swish by. Another person follows her, their wings are long. Held partially unfolded so that their feathers don’t drag on the ground. Not even Dream has to do that.
The albatross, it has to be.
Ranboo twitches towards them, but then back towards the wall. They’re so big, and they won’t see him. What if they step on him? But he’ll never be able to keep up with them. If they get away he’ll never find them again.
Muffling a frightened chirp, he rushes away from the wall and chases after the albatross. She has a bag dangling at her waist, the strap threaded between her wings. He can see its stuffed with letters and packages. Surely she wouldn’t notice a little more weight.
He leaps, beats his wings frantically. His fingers don’t even brush the bottom of the bag.
No, he has to make it. He has to.
His next leap nearly carries him too high. He grabs the fabric and digs his claws into it. He made it. He made it. He crawls into the bag, among the letters and the packages and curls himself into his wings and hopes with all his heart that Dream won’t notice he’s gone until after the Albatross has left.
The air is cold here, Ranboo has never seen snow before, but he thinks this place is covered in it. From what he saw when the albatross was flying over at least. She’s inside the palace now though, and its huge. Bigger than Dream’s, Ranboo thinks.
This is the first real place she’s stopped since they left Dream’s castle. There were a few inns, but those places were small. Ranboo would have to use his magic constantly to keep from being found there.
Here there are corners and shadows. Here he could hide until he’s got his feathers in and then he can fly back to the city and then he’ll finally be safe. Ranboo slips out of the bag and into the shadows.
The boy is staring right at him. It should be impossible. Ranboo should be hidden. He’s been using his magic so much its almost second nature. The crow-boy shouldn't be able to see him.
“Hi,” he says anyway.
Ranboo flinches and cowers into the corner.
The crow-boy frowns. “Why are you scared?”
“You--you’ve seen me,” Ranboo whispers.
“And you’ve seen me!” the crow-boy says, “my name is Tubbo, what’s yours?”
“Hi Ranboo! Its nice to meet you. Now you don’t have to be scared cause I’m not a stranger.”
Tubbo tilts his head, “isn’t that why you were scared? Strangers are scary, but now we’re not strangers.”
“You’re a crow,” Ranboo says, “you’re an Outsider.”
“No we’re inside.”
Ranboo frowns. “Outsiders are mean,” Ranboo says, “and bad.”
“Well I don’t think I’m mean or bad,” Tubbo says, sitting down, “so I don’t think I’m an outsider.”
Ranboo doesn’t think that’s how it works. “But you’re outside of the city.”
“So are you, we’re in the palace.”
“No, the city,” Ranboo says.
“I don’t know what that means,” Tubbo says, “but I was going to go play outside. Do you want to come?”
“Its cold outside.”
“No, the gardens are magic. They stay warm even though its snowing outside. Its really cool.”
Magic. That means that hummingbirds have been here. Traders.
They’ll come back, and then he can go home with them.
“So do you want to come?”
Ranboo hesitates, bites his lip. “Yes.”
Tubbo grins and holds out his hand. Ranboo presses into the corner with a chirp.
Tubbo’s smile fades away, “why are you so scared?”
Ranboo wraps his arms around his chest and his wings over his arms. “I don’t like people reaching for me.”
“Oh,” Tubbo says. “Okay.” He folds his hands into his lap. “I won’t then.”
Ranboo watches him, waiting for him to do something, but he just waits. “Thank you.”
Tubbo smiles, “you’re welcome! I don’t like people touching my face very much so I understand.”
Ranboo gets to his feet carefully and watches Tubbo’s face. He’s still just smiling. Sitting on the floor like he’ll wait there forever.
“How did you see me?”
Tubbo tilts his head.
“I was using magic,” Ranboo says, lifting his chin, “how did you see through it?”
Tubbo frowns, “I dunno. I just felt like I should look over, and so I did and there you were.”
Ranboo bites his lip, he wonders if Tubbo is the only one who can do that. He wonders why he didn’t try to run the moment Tubbo saw him.
He feels like he can trust Tubbo, even though they only just met. Even though Tubbo is a crow and an Outsider. Ranboo steps closer and dares to reach a hand out to Tubbo’s arm.
The air hums with magic and oh.
“Oh,” Tubbo says quietly. “That was tingly...you’re big now.”
Ranboo opens his eyes. He’s higher up, looking Tubbo right in the eyes. He looks over his shoulder, at his wings. They’re still downy black, but now they look more like Tubbo’s wings.
He’s a crow.
And that means Tubbo is--
“We’re best friends,” he says.
“Tommy is my best friend,” Tubbo says.
“No. Magically. Sister Sheena told us about it. Sometimes you meet your sold...uh, something. But your magic really likes them. And their magic really likes you, and so you’re best friends.”
“I don’t have magic.”
Ranboo frowns, “yeah. I dunno. Sister Sheena said that sometimes people were Best Friends with Outsiders and that was different.”She also said that being Bonded with an Outsider was bad, but Ranboo doesn’t think it is. His magic likes Tubbo, and Tubbo seems really nice so Ranboo can see why.
“Weird.” Tubbo says. “Do you still want to go play outside? Tommy has lessons so I’m bored.”