Chapter 2: Checkmate
Dream has to face the consequences of his “nightmare,” and listens to a song.
What the fuck was that dream?
He isn’t sure how long he’s been petrified into this state; the thought of George’s lips and his smile and his sounds overwhelmingly on loop. The fury of panic and confusion flash behind his eyes nearly all at once. What was George doing in his nightmare? Why did it make him feel so safe, and warm, and wanted? Why, good god, did he kiss him? He can feel the liberation still coursing through his blood, heart pounding, skin tingling where George’s hands had been.
The heat trickles down his back.
He hadn’t experienced a dream of that caliber in a very long time. To be touched, and kissed; to feel the deep embrace of lust that leaves a firm afterthought in his boxers. Yet guilt undermines the euphoria he feels. His teasing with George is fun, and lighthearted—but having an erotic fantasy with his subconscious projection of his best friend is crossing a line.
He slowly lets go of his taut hair. The glaring sunlight lays slices of heat across his shoulders, and he can hear faint chirps of birds outside his window. A small nest had been forming for the past week in the nearby rain gutter. He’d caught glimpses of them before; blue-feathered and spry creatures. Sapnap had teased him when he learned Dream spent several hours researching their species: the purple martin. Normally, the birds started fussing early in the morning.
He checks the time, 8:05am.
“Disgusting,” he says.
He looks at the towel hanging on the back of his door, and sighs. A cold shower could refresh his muddled brain and rinse off the thin layer of sweat.
Once in the bathroom, he reluctantly opens his phone. His text chain with George is still waiting patiently on the screen.
Maybe that’s why he showed up, Dream bargains, the last person I thought of before going to sleep.
His thumb hovers over the song recommendation for a moment, then presses play before he steps into the shower.
Streams of icy water race down his chest, shocking his skin. His ribs tense and he resists the urge to shiver. He thinks of his mask lying in the cold sand; he thinks of George’s breath on his face. He deserves a miserable shower or two.
He attempts to relax into the water as it slowly becomes a refreshing wash. The soft soap lifts the feeling of grime that had settled on his body, his stink finally down the drain. A breath of contentment escapes him. He’s grateful to have cold water in the absence of a working air conditioner. Maybe the weather behaved like a fever dream, giving him outlandish thoughts that now fade away with each scrub. Clean hair, clean pits, clean mind. Right?
The muffled music begins to grow louder from beyond the clear curtain.
Road shimmer, wiggling the vision, heat heat waves, I’m swimming in a mirror...
He closes his eyes.
Sometimes, all I think about is you
Late nights in the middle of June
Heat waves been faking me out
Can’t make you happier now
His eyes fly open. The lyrics crawl into his chest, bass line tangling with his heartbeat. Warmth floods his face despite the goosebumps on his skin.
I just want to know what you’re dreaming of, when you sleep and smile so comfortable...
His trembling hand reaches for the shower knob.
I just wish I could give you that
That look that’s perfectly unsad
His mind is flooded with memories of George’s smile. The water shuts off with a terrible squeak as suds still slide down his skin.
He lets the rest of the song play out as he slumps down in his towel to the bathroom floor. Wet droplets cling to his hair.
The past few months he’d been living in a haze, routinely gaming and eating and sleeping without much else to make him feel awake. After repeating the same days over and over again, new interests and emotions were few and far between.
Yet here he is, stunned by George’s recommendation. The last notes of the song gently transition into stark silence, their vibrations fading from Dream’s hollowed out soul. He hasn’t felt a deep, meaningful connection to music like this in a long time. He hasn’t felt a connection to a person like this in a long time.
He scowls, quickly grabbing his phone, and heading to his room. Sour collections of frustration and shame churn in his stomach. Nothing has changed besides him finding a new anxiety to unnecessarily wrap his head into knots over. Sometimes, he feels that his mind will grab onto any spike in emotion, and play with it just to keep him busy.
Not this time. Not with George. Perhaps it will be best if he keeps his distance, until his brain tires itself out.
His phone vibrates while he’s getting dressed.
Hop on froggy, Sapnap texted.
How did you know I was up, Dream types back. Also, why are you awake? He sits down at his desk while Sapnap’s bubble reappears.
George wants to test stuff out before he streams later. You’d never miss that.
Dream is beginning to grow irritated with his friends for no discernible reason.
He puts on his headphones and waits for his computer to hum to life. He drums his fingers on his mouse. A strange feeling tightens in his chest when his screen lights up and the Discord window appears. It takes him a moment to realize—he’s nervous. He’s never been anxious about joining a call before. He glances at the names under the voice-channel.
It’s only Sapnap, Bad, and George.
“Dream! Hi,” Bad greets happily once he’s connected.
“That was fast,” Sapnap says.
Dream’s voice is flat when he replies, “Hey.”
“Hello,” George says, “is your heat wave any better today?“His question is met with silence. “Dream?”
Dream feels his words die in his throat at the sound of George’s voice. He really doesn’t want to talk about the weather.
“Dream? Hello?” Bad says, exaggerating his vowels.
“It’s fine.” Dream watches their icons lose their green ring after catching the tone of his voice. He rubs a hand over his face. This isn’t how he wanted to start the call. “Sorry, guys, I’m still a little tired.”
“No worries,” George says, but he sounds cautious. “We’re on the test server if you wanna join. Sapnap and I are going to try out the chess board, I think I’ve got the coding down but you always find something I’ve missed.”
Dream hesitates, a small smile forming on his features. “You’re finally doing the chess stream? Sure.” He opens Minecraft.
“Might have been a bad idea to let him play,” Bad says.
Dream joins the server and bounds over to where they’re huddled in an open field. Beyond them is a large chess board, the pieces several stories high made out of dark oak and birch. “No, George normally beats me.”
Sapnap laughs. “That might be the first time you’ve admitted that George is better than you at something.”
“That’s not true,” George says, “Dream is honest with me.”
All the air in Dream’s lungs rushes out in one breath.
I know honesty is important to you, George’s teasing voice echoes in his mind.
He remembers how it felt to kiss him, to touch him. How honest would that be? He glances at George’s avatar, with his stupid little glasses, how they’d held the whole night sky to him when sitting on that beach. Is it fair always ask for honesty from everyone else, while not being transparent himself? George isn’t entitled to know what he dreams about, but keeping it from him feels wrong.
Then again, keeping most things from George tends to feel that way. Most.
“But he still hasn’t given you a face reveal,” Sapnap says, voice proud.
“You’re so smug,” George hits Sapnap’s character. “I can’t wait to beat you later.” He pauses while BadBoyHalo tosses several flowers on the ground and hops in place. “I’m not going to force Dream to do anything. Though I am waiting for the day I open a Snapchat he’s sent me and it’s of his face.”
Dream laughs nervously. “I’m too pretty. I’d break George’s mind.”
“Oh please,” George says, “didn’t we learn from my stream yesterday that it’s the other way around?”
Dream’s heart skips. “Yes,” he mumbles, “we did.” He hears laughter in the call, and clears his throat so that he can fine-tune his joking tone. He can’t afford to slip up. He says, “George, you are beautiful.”
“Oh my god. You’re annoying.”
Dream grins. “You can dish all you want but the second I turn it around—”
“Yeah, that’s so true,” Sapnap says, “George gets so uncomfortable.”
“I don’t,” George says, sounding uncomfortable.
“You do. It’s okay,” Dream says. He feels pinpricks of warmth in his chest. The words rise up faster than he can temper, laced with soft honey, “you’re so cute.”
The call falls silent.
They heard it. The affection in the tone of his voice, different than usual, no trace of humor. The way it came from the hearth below his heart, glowing with secrecy and shame—for George, and George only. They had to have heard it.
He doesn’t move.
“I should really start muting you,” George says. He sounds...normal. Embarrassed, but normal.
He didn’t hear it.
Dream tilts his head back against his chair in relief.
“Right...so, should we try to use this thing?” Sapnap says. Dream feels a singe of embarrassment. It’s likely that Sapnap can read the inflections of his voice better than anyone from many years of listening, and Dream expects to receive a confused message in his inbox at any moment.
He waits, and nothing comes.
They mess around on the server for a while, shifting pieces and testing out the take-system which involves explosions. Dream lets himself sink into the comforting familiarity of days like these. He discusses a few strategies with George, comparing skill, and plays one game against Bad where he narrowly wins. He can’t catch any mistakes George has made in his coding; it is perfect. Dream is surprised when it gives him a wave of admiration. Watching his friends grow and change as the years go by is a humbling and exciting experience; seeing them mature, learn, lose, and keep moving forward. He didn’t know when he started seeing himself as older than George, but every once in a while, he is reminded of the truth.
Eventually, Bad disconnects from the call and Dream leaves the server to catch the beginning of George’s stream.
“Hey guys! Hi, hi,” George says, a large smile on his face. “Welcome to the stream! Today, we’re going to...”
As he continues to speak, Dream’s eyes are drawn to the corner where George’s face beams happily. He takes in the curve of his mouth, his high cheekbones, his eyes. George looked surreal in the moonlight, like it glowed from within him, and shined through his skin and voice. Dream reaches his hand up to his own face, and traces over his lips gently where George had kissed him.
He flushes immediately, clenching his hand and dropping it into his lap. Way too far.
He keeps his fingers curled tautly against his palm as the game continues, eyes darting between the board to George’s face with enough restlessness to rise him from his chair.
“I’m going to go make some food,” he says, and Sapnap groans.
“Right when I need you the most?”
Dream glances at the game, seeing Sapnap is hurting and George is up several pieces. “You’ll be fine.”
He pulls his wireless headphones down to his neck, and heads downstairs to the kitchen. When he opens the fridge, he lowers his head for a blast of cool air to greet his face. The breeze slips over his brows and down his throat. He hums happily.
He sets a few items on the counter to make a breakfast sandwich, and feels a soft rub against his calf. He looks down to see Patches peering up at him.
“Hi there lil’ girl,” he says sweetly. “Are you hungry? Let me get you some breakfast.”
“Aww,” George’s voice comes quietly from his headphones, and he half-tugs them back on. “Dream, you’re not muted.”
He rolls his eyes. “I don’t care. Kitty says hi.”
He pours her some food and fills her water, then goes back to his meal. He cracks the eggs into the pan, listening to them sizzle with satisfaction. The smell is nice; Patches takes a break from her bowl to mewl in curiosity. He can hear Sapnap and George talking faintly. He smiles to himself, then pulls out his phone and sends a snap of his meal to George.
“Ooh, Dream sent me something,” George says. “Chat, what do you think it is?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea to ask,” Sapnap says, and after a pause, starts laughing. “Yeah, exactly.”
“What are they saying?” Dream asks towards mic in his headset, muttering a small ‘ow’ while moving his hot sandwich from the skillet to his plate.
“Feet pics, mostly,” George replies.
“Mostly,” Sapnap says.
“Oh no, people are getting angry with each other. Guys, it’s fine. Here, let me see what it is,” George says, and Dream watches as the delivered sign changes to opened.
It was a photo of the sandwich, but Dream had added a text that read: bet you wished it was my face, didn’t you? He’s flooded with anticipation instead of the humored confidence he normally feels.
His pulse races. Maybe he shouldn’t have sent that.
“George is blushing!” Sapnap calls, cackling.
Dream’s heart soars.
“I’m not! You’re so dumb,” George says, “it was just his breakfast, chat, calm down. Alright, Sapnap. Can you go already?”
Dream thinks that’ll be the last of it—George often leaves him on read, anyway—but when he’s carrying his plate of food out of the kitchen, he gets a notification.
Goog is typing...
He waits. The typing stops, then starts again.
The sandwich looks good, but I bet you look better, George texts.
Dream’s eyes widen and he nearly drops his plate. He yanks the mic on his headset close to his mouth. “George!” he yells.
George’s laugh is quiet but still adds to the pink blooming on Dream’s face. He can only imagine what the chat must think.
“What—stop texting Dream, okay, we have a serious game going on,” Sapnap says.
Dream can’t help rereading the text over again while he goes back to his room. He keeps the door open slightly in case Patches wants to slip in to say hi. George doesn’t compliment him much, and avoids making comments that Dream considers ‘forward’ behavior.
The reciprocation brings a feeling of satisfaction and nervous embarrassment—does George really think that, even without knowing what he looks like? Dream tries to ignore the low warmth it gives him, little webs stretching out in his mind, connecting his emotions to George’s friendship to his dream. He wants nothing more than to bat them away and break the ties all together.
He munches on his food remorsefully.
“Oh my god, no,” Sapnap says. “I didn’t see that. What the hell, George.”
Dream looks at the screen, sitting down in his chair. In the time he’d been gone, George set up a fork, and recently exploded a rook Sapnap was using to try and break the castle defense. Additional pressure is on Sapnap’s queen, possibly a take in the next move, which Dream is sure Sapnap sees.
“George, don’t do it, come on. I can see you hovering around your bishop, move the pawn instead, please,” Sapnap says. “Dream, help me!”
He laughs. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Distract George, I don’t know!”
George rolls his eyes. He seems confident, and bright, and happy. Dream remembers seeing that look up close, feeling his friend’s presence next to him. It hits him all of the sudden how badly he wants to meet him—in person. The thought alone makes him lightheaded.
“Do something!” Sapnap pleads.
George scoffs, beginning to move his bishop across the board. “That’s not going to work—”
“I had a dream about you,” Dream blurts.
George’s eyes widen and his head turns sharply to look at the Discord window, letting go of the piece in the wrong square before taking Sapnap’s queen.
“Yes! Yes!” Sapnap screams. “You already placed it, you placed it!”
“You what?” George’s voice is complicated by confusion and surprise.
Dream’s head falls into his hands. Why.
“You were in my dream last night,” he says slowly, through his teeth.
Sapnap laughs, exploding the misplaced piece with his queen. “Oh god, that was perfect. Thank you.”
George’s attention is brought back to the game, and he groans. “I don’t think we should count that, that’s cheating.”
“It’s so not,” Sapnap says happily.
“A cheap trick, shame on both of you,” George complains. “Oh my god, chat is freaking out right now.” He clears his throat, awkwardly. “They want to know what the dream was.”
Dream’s face burns. It is time for some gentle damage control. “You were in Florida,” he says, keeping his voice even, “and it was cool. I normally have a recurring uh, dream, about the beach we were at but you showed up instead. You had your goggles on.”
“Oh,” George says. He pauses briefly. “Well, did I have a weapon?”
Dream lifts his head quizzically. “Yes, actually. An axe.”
“Metal,” Sapnap says.
“It’s a weird thing people tell me. Whenever I’m in their dreams, I’m always holding a weapon or something,” George clarifies.
“That’s actually facts,” Sapnap inputs, “I once had a dream we went to England and George greeted us at the airport with a bow and arrow.”
“What...” Dream begins to laugh. “A ridiculous coincidence.”
George giggles. “I like to think it’s because I’m so threatening.”
Dream wheezes. “More like you need to be protected,” he says.
“Are you kidding me? You are watching the same game as us, right?” George voices with acute confidence.
Dream watches his stream with a smile, completely lost on how he managed to escape that conversation. He’d been surprised by George’s immediate reaction, and feels a faint flicker of hope.
Hope? Hope for what? He wipes the look off of his face. Nothing, he assures himself.
He hopes for nothing.
George has a valid point, though. He is, in short, defeating Sapnap by a landslide. They continue playing, George winning the first three games and barely losing the fourth, where Dream and Sapnap combine forces to try and take him down. As time passes by, the clock slowly shifts from early morning to mid-noon; the hottest part of the day. Dream doesn’t notice at first when the air around him grows stagnant, and sweat begins to lightly ghost his upper lip. He unknowingly drains his water bottle, and it isn’t until he wipes his clammy hand on his shirt absently that he realizes.
“Oh my god,” he says. George and Sapnap both ask him what happened. “It’s back,” he whines, slumping in his chair in defeat, “I was so naive, so ignorant. I thought I was safe.”
“Sounds like it’s hot again,” Sapnap says. “Sorry, dude.”
“I might cry,” Dream feigns.
“So it really is a heat wave,” George says, “I was just kidding about it earlier. I hope I didn’t curse you.” Dream tries to not look at the small smile on his face, to think of how the song numbed his mind and cut him open.
“That was a good song,” he mutters. George says nothing, and they carry on.
Eventually, the stream ends and Sapnap tells them he’s going back to sleep, exhausted from carrying so many losses in a row. Once he leaves the call, they are alone.
With no other tabs open on his computer, Dream stares at his keyboard as the room slowly turns into a swamp. George is being rather quiet, like he often is after streaming for a while. Dream thinks he becomes burnt out by talking so much, but it’s secretly his favorite time to be on a call with him. George is a little tired, so he speaks softer and more contemplative than usual. Dream finds it very comforting. It’s a space where most of their profound conversations have come from so far.
“The chat kept trying to make me ask you about your dream,” George says, breaking the silence. “I feel like that’s going to be clipped everywhere.”
“There’s not much else to know,” Dream lies. I kissed you. “Nothing really happened.” I wanted you. He can hear George start and stop typing on his keyboard—and then nothing. Is George idly sitting there, staring at his computer, too?
“You mentioned that...I showed up instead,” George says.
“You said I showed up ‘instead,’ in the recurring dream,” George pauses. He’s speaking carefully. “Instead of who?”
“Oh,” Dream says. He wraps his arms around himself subconsciously despite the heat. “Uh, well...me. Instead of me.”
“You? But I thought you were already there.”
Dream feels his chest grow tight. “I...yeah. There’s normally two of me.”
The seconds of silence that follow terrify him. He hears George inhale, then speak very softly, “what kind of dream is it normally, Clay?”
He closes his eyes at the sound of his name coming from George’s mouth—it is rare, like he only saves it for the moments when Dream feels the most vulnerable.
“A nightmare,” he mutters, pinching his eyebrows together. “I’ve been having it for so long I’ve memorized every second of it. I wake up on the beach in the middle of the night; a lagoon with the edge of a forest about twenty feet behind me. I always have my mask on and I can’t see very well. Out of the trees’ shadows comes me—another me, except...his mask is covered in blood. He gives me a few seconds, and then...” His voice dies. He’s never told anyone about his nightmares before.
“Then what?” George asks.
Dream grips his arms tightly, fingernails digging into his skin. “I run. As fast as I can, but it’s never fast enough. You know, dream logic.” He pauses, letting himself take a breath. “We fight. We always fight. Sometimes he stabs me, sometimes we drown, and sometimes I...I don’t run. I just stand there, and let him get me.”
“Do you...ever win?” George’s voice is serious and low.
“Every once in a while,” Dream says. “But then the next time I’m back there, I’m the one at the edge of the woods, seeing myself by the water. It’s fucked up.” He hates those nights the most, because he understands the fear of being chased. Sitting on the sand, waiting for the slightest quiver in the leaves to start sprinting, heart in his ears and terror on his tongue. Yet there’s a frenetic burning he feels standing in the woods with a weapon in hand—a sense of raw duty, urgency, survival. It’s as if only one of them is supposed to exist in that space, and he’s never been able to figure out who.
“Why do you think I was there?” George asks.
Why are we here? His memories echo.
“I don’t know, honestly,” Dream says, “it took me by surprise. But when you were there, it...wasn’t a nightmare anymore.” He prays he won’t have to explain any further.
“I’m not sure what to say to that,” George admits. Dream winces, forever fearing that he’s gone too far, until he adds, “I kind of feel like it was a compliment?”
His hands gently let go of his arms. “It was.”
“Okay,” George says, the smile in his voice audible.
Dream finds himself starting to grin, too, as the quiet space between them grows warm. The dust suspending in the hot air floats idly by, his empty plate radiates a faint smell of bread and eggs, and he reclines into the comfort of his chair. Not speaking for long moments on calls tends to make Dream anxious, and it is only when he and George are alone that he finds solace in it. He wonders if the feeling passes through his microphone and permeates George’s world, too.
He wonders if they really could be connected in the way that both frightens and calms him.
“You know,” George says finally, “you were once in a dream I had, too.”