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War Games

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He’s in over his head from the moment False asks for his help, but he doesn’t know it then. It’s all fun and games, building the death roller coaster on Grand Central Station, helping her get her revenge on Ren for the prank that wasn’t his. It’s not as much fun when he’s picking himself off the floor of a ghost ship hold, poison in his veins slowing his movement, giving him no time to react when the blocks are pulled aside to allow four zombies at him. 

Grian shoots up in bed when he respawns, hands clutching at his arms and his neck and his face, anywhere the zombies had just moments ago pulled his flesh from his bones. Of all the mobs to die to, he hated them the most.

Surely he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t prank Ren because he wanted to, after all. He was just doing what he promised False when she won the Head Hunt. Retaliation is in order. 

The robbery goes fine, until the diamonds disappear. The prank war fine, until Iskall asks him to blow up his desert castle—his face is turned away to hide his grief at the demolition of his build. Everything is fine until he’s standing in the middle of a field in the rain, Joe’s hand on his shoulder gently pulling him away from the white flag. There’s a glint in Doc’s eye that goes beyond a little friendly competition as they back away towards their plot of land. He feels like he’s made a terrible mistake. 

When Grian returns to his base a few days later to grab some materials for the G-Team and to catch a little sleep, he finds his mailbox repaired and upgraded courtesy of Impulse and he relaxes for the first time in what feels like weeks.

He doesn’t see Impulse again until the teams reconvene at the white flag, bases built and a war roiling. They trade banter, but his heart isn’t in it. He doesn’t want to go through with this. He imagines the look in Doc’s eyes when they first declared truce. He wonders whether it’ll leave at the end of the war or not. He wonders if there will even be an end to the war.

His heart thunders in his chest when the flag is blown to bits along with Mumbo, Tango, and Wels, louder than the explosion itself. He’s being dragged away from the chaos by Joe again, who has to use a more forceful hand to get him moving. He thinks he hears Jevin shouting something at Team STAR, but he can’t make out the words. He’s barely calmed down by the time they get back to their meeting room. 

His team is laughing, joking, and he forces himself to join, if only to keep them from worrying. They’re having fun. He should be having fun too. He almost does, until a fireball rocks the room, the glass and concrete behind him exploding into small chunks that pepper his back. The joking is cut short then as they all race out of the room, down to the armory to prepare for war. 

The battle passes in a blur. So does the entire week. Grian and Iskall reenforce the base, and then he re-reenforces it, and re-re-reenforces it until Tango and Stress catch him and convince him to get some rest. The base would be fine. And even if it wasn’t, it didn’t matter. It was all fun and games, after all.  Grian repeats the mantra as he squeezes his eyes shut and tries to sleep.

He’s awoken by a beeping from his communicator, and when he blearily checks it there’s a dozen messages from Mumbo saying bananas, each more urgent than the last. He let’s out a shout, hoping that anyone at all is around to help him defend the base from the incoming infiltration team. He gets Iskall, Stress, and a dozen dogs.

Team STAR doesn’t even see them coming. One minute Doc, False, Xisuma, and Mumbo are alone in a fancy hall and the next the armor stands are coming to life and attacking. He strikes Xisuma down and prepares to deliver a fatal blow, but his arm jerks to a stop when he sees fear flashing in Xisuma’s eyes. The dogs finish the enemy off for him. 

After the four infiltrators have respawned safely back at their base, they open up a line of communication. Everyone laughs at the poor attempt at subterfuge. He laughs too. Makes up an excuse for how they knew. He thinks they’ve bought it until days later Doc calls him to a meeting and tells him what he knows. Doc’s tone is even throughout the exchange, and Grian can’t tell how angry he really is. 

He wishes the war was over already. 

He thinks of a way that it could be. 

It’s another sleepless night before he’s ready. Grian calls the two teams to meet him at the platform he spent hours preparing. He tells them he has a way the war can end. His heart skips a beat when Doc readily agrees and then pulls out his trident and aims it for his head. Doc lowers the trident only a moment later with a chuckle and the others laugh at his joke, laughter that dies away a bit when Grian doesn’t react immediately. 

He forces out squeak that was meant to be laughter of his own and continues his explanation, avoiding eye contact with anyone. He ignores the way everyone seems to be watching him more closely than before, as if they were looking beyond his words and right into his soul. It’s all just fun and games. There’s no need to worry his friends. 

The two teams readily agree to his Capture the Flag proposal and set about hiding the flags. In less than a day Grian’s own flag is taken, and in a blind panic he recruits Mumbo to help him take one of Team STAR’s in return. Grian drags Mumbo through the labyrinth in a vice-like grip, and Mumbo graciously says nothing about the bruises that circle his wrist when they finally escape. They’ve only lost their team three lives, and they carry with them a flag. The panic binding Grian’s heart loosens its hold, if only by a tiny bit.

In only a few days time both teams are down to a single flag. G-Team is down on lives. Everyone is gathered for one final confrontation, what will hopefully be the end of the war. Grian slips his hands up his sleeves to hide the way his fingers shake. It doesn’t matter if they win or lose, it’s all for fun and games. But even as his team prepares for the fight he can’t help but ask himself, what if it’s not?

It comes down to him, in the end. The other team is distracted, and he slips back into the labyrinth for what will hopefully be the last time. It’s as dark as before, but this time he’s alone. There’s no one here to hide his shaking from, so he let’s his hands drop back out of his sleeves. The flag is here, somewhere. He just hopes that he’ll find it before whatever force he feels crushing his lungs suffocates him. 

Grian runs down the stairs, peering in every hallway he passes. Every empty corridor makes the vice in his chest squeeze harder. He’s nearly ready to give up when he finally spots it, and without thinking about traps he sprints down the hallway, stopping only when the walls begin to explode in front of him. He turns back the way he came in time to see another explosion. Another sounds off behind him. Then again in front of him, closer this time. He’s trapped. He’ll die here. He’ll lose G-Team a life. He may even lose them the war. Would they forgive him? Would he forgive himself?

Before he knows it the hallway is silent, darker than before, but the echoes of the final blast have long since faded. Grian doesn’t know how long he had been standing there like an idiot. He let’s out a breath, and it turns into something like a sob at the end. He’s suddenly grateful that he’s alone down here. He turns back to the flag and runs to it, grabbing it from where it stands and running back out into the labyrinth with it, heart pounding. 

His ears are ringing when he makes it back to the surface, and the sound of a ghast fireball makes his breath catch in his throat. The battle is still on. He wants it to be over. He doesn’t think he can take this much longer. He doesn’t think he can even make it back to the G-Team base at this rate. He forces his shaking legs forward anyway. 

He makes it across Joe’s bridge and into No Man’s Land, skirting the fighting and avoiding sight as well as he can. The ground to his right explodes as a ghast fireball hits and he falls to his knees with a yelp. He can’t do this. He can’t keep going. He thinks of the way Doc looked at him all those weeks ago, the way he threatened him with his trident only days earlier. What would he do if Team STAR lost? He was surely capable of so much worse. Would it be better to let Team STAR win? What would his own teammates think of that? Would they hate him for his weakness?

In his panicked thoughts, Grian barely registers the sound of footsteps approaching at his back. He squeezes his eyes shut when the sound of metal scraping on metal accompanies them. His heart stops entirely when Doc’s voice calls out with concern. 

“Grian?”

——

Doc doesn’t know how long the alarm has been tripped when he finally notices it. He had been so caught up launching fireballs at Jevin and Cleo he’d forgotten entirely to keep an eye on their base. Judging by the fact that Ren was still positioned at the other ghast cannon, he had as well. With a growl, Doc takes another swing, directing a fireball towards the edge of the battlefield where it goes up in a cloud of flames and dust.

Doc’s eyes catch sight of a shadow beyond the settling cloud of dust. A suspiciously person-holding-a-flag shaped figure on the outskirts of the battlefield. So, there was their little intruder. Doc smirks and grabs his trident. 

“I’ll be right back,” he says lowly to Ren, sweeping down the tower and out onto the battlefield. He finds the makeshift bridge and follows it, trying to trace the path of the intruder, each step more excited than the last until he’s running down the trail. 

He comes upon the figure and slows to a stop behind them, a grin spreading across his face. He recognizes Grian’s red sweater from here. His grip on the trident shifts as he slows to a halt a few feet behind the G-Team’s leader. His hand twitches, automatically moving to raise his trident to attack, but something holds him back, and his grin drops into a slight frown. He hasn’t exactly hidden his presence. Grian had to know he was there. But still, he sat with his back to Doc, clutching the flag in a white-knuckled grip. Had he even moved at all since Doc spotted him from the ghast tower?

“Grian?”

Grian doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even move. Doc steps closer, the concern in his gut growing. “Grian, are you okay? Is something wrong?”

He gently puts his hand on Grian’s shoulder, and he nearly pulls away when Grian flinches. His breath comes out in shuttering gasps and Doc drops his trident in an instant, dropping to his knees in front of Grian and grabbing his other shoulder firm enough to hopefully ground him, but not so hard as to hurt him. “Grian, calm down! What’s wrong, man?”

“D-Doc…?” Grian squeaks out, and Doc is reminded of the forced laughter Grian put on days ago when he proposed the Capture the Flag game. He hadn’t thought much of it at the time—just assumed Grian was having an off day—but now the looks his fellow G-Team members had been giving him made more sense. He’d barely seen Grian since the war had begun. Had he been like this the whole time? 

“You gotta breathe, man, c’mon. Like this.” He says and demonstrates, inhaling deeply and holding it for a moment, then releasing it. He does it again, taking one hand off Grian’s shoulder and motioning for him to follow suit. Under normal circumstances he would have gotten a pithy quip and a roll of the eyes, but now the man before him simply does his absolute best to copy the action, his breath hitching repeatedly as he inhales until his lungs are full. Doc exhales, slow and steady, and Grian’s breath comes out in a quick woosh.

“Slow down,” Doc says gently, demonstrating breathing to Grian again, waiting for Grian to fill his lungs completely each time before letting his own breath out. It feels like forever before Grian’s no longer catches in his throat. Doc squeezes his shoulder when it finally does. “Grian. What’s wrong?”

“I…” Grian starts, but seems unable to gather his thoughts. He looks down at the banner still clutched in his hands. “The flag… I… got it… Why do I still have it?”

It’s a silly question taken at face value, but Doc is able to read between the lines. Grian’s wondering why Doc hasn’t killed him and taken Team STAR’s flag back yet. Doc furrows his brow. “You were freaking out. I was not going to just leave you like that. Would anyone be back at your base to help you if I did?”

“But… the war…” Grian says, and Doc huffs before he can say anything more. He regrets it when Grian flinches again.

“Forget the war for a second! You’ve been acting weird for weeks now, man. What’s going on?”

“It’s nothing, Doc…” Grian says quietly, but even he doesn’t sound convinced. 

“Cut the crap, Grian. Nothing didn’t make you have a freaking panic attack out here.”

Grian doesn’t say anything for a moment. “We’re supposed to be having fun… right? It’s all… for fun?”

Doc furrows his brow again and nods, unsure of where Grian is going with this.

“The pranks, the bases, the battles… it’s all just… fun? That’s it, right?”

“Yeah, man,” Doc says. “What are you going on about?”

Grian swallows, digs his fingers into the wooden pole the banner is attached to so hard Doc worries he’s going to break his nails on it. “…I’m not having fun anymore, Doc.”

Doc doesn’t know what to say. Why didn’t Grian say something sooner? Instead, Doc carefully pries Grian’s fingers away from the banner pole, releasing his vice-like grip from it and setting the flag aside. 

“I thought you—” Grian pauses. “Everyone… Everyone seemed so… angry. Beyond just… the war.”

Doc doesn’t miss the way Grian singles him out. He feels a pang in his chest. Did Grian really think Doc held a grudge? He could be competitive and intense, he knew, but to hate his friend because of this? That wasn’t him.

“Grian… It is just for fun. I promise you.” Doc says. “The diamonds? It doesn’t matter. You’re my friend. The diamonds doesn’t change that. The war doesn’t change that. Do you understand?”

Grian nods. He let’s out a shaking breath. Then he glances down at the flag. “Well… you caught me. You can take your flag back.”

Doc squeezes Grian’s shoulder again. “You take it. I’ll give you a head start, alright? So you better start moving!”

Grian snorts, the closest thing to a real laugh Doc has heard from him. He picks up the flag and offers it to Grian, who takes it from him delicately. He stands up and stays like that for a moment, just holding the flag and staring at it, and Doc is afraid he might be having another attack.

“Thanks, Doc.” Grian says finally, looking up with a smile. “Catch me if you can!”

Then he’s gone, sprinting away towards the G-Team base with renewed vigor. Doc allows himself a satisfied smile and turns back to Team STAR’s base.

Doc has barely returned to the base when a message comes through on the communicator from Grian, declaring to everyone that he had captured Team STAR’s final flag. The war was officially over. 

Slowly but surely, the skirmishes across the battlefield came to an end. The teams met one another in the middle, near ConCorp’s raised platform. There’s no fighting now. Just friends laughing, sharing stories, and enjoying each other’s company. Grian is the last to approach the group, and Doc meets his eye from where he stands. He nods to his friend.

“Good game, Grian.”