1. Sensory issues.
So, Wilbur hates shopping malls.
Typically, he prefers places where it isn’t so crowded — where it’s hushed, calm, just a few people mulling about. Dim lighting. Quiet music. He’s not a recluse — despite the streamer stereotype, actually likes going out quite a lot — but it’s to places like record stores, small independent booksellers, his local library. In the end when he’s able to, though, he’s always going to favour ordering online as opposed to having to go somewhere like the supermarket in person. It’s just how he is. He doesn’t like places that are oversaturated, overcrowded, overwhelming. Corner shops often feel like too much, let alone shopping malls.
But he’s out with Phil and Tommy for a vlog. And that’s where they wanted to go. Or — well, it’s where the child wanted to go. So he couldn’t just turn them down, that would be … weird. Besides, he’s fine. They’re hanging out for the second time after their initial meet-up, and Tommy was adamant on avenging the death of his Vlog Gun by returning to where it all began and earning a much better, much less breakable prize. It’s unlikely, but he doesn’t want to crush the kid’s dreams.
Not like he crushed the Vlog Gun.
Which is how he’s ended up in this situation — where they’re walking through a crowded atrium, past huge floor-to-ceiling posters of pensive models advertising jeans, lit up signs and enormous escalators. Tommy is gesticulating animatedly, talking with Phil about Tubbo’s new plans for his server, and Wilbur wants so badly to join in, enjoy himself and their day out together — but he can’t concentrate. He keeps drifting, only catching snippets of their conversation because he’s trying so hard to repress the utter discomfort taking up residence within his body, using up all his mental bandwidth.
For one, it’s too fucking bright — fluorescents and harsh white floors with nauseating checkerboard patterns, kaleidoscopic store fronts, glaring neons. And there’s people fucking everywhere, with bright clothing and shopping bags and they’re talking and laughing and coughing and making eye-contact and he doesn’t know where to look. In fact, he doesn’t want to look anywhere. So he does the next best thing which is to train his gaze on his feet. The black and white checkers continue to mess with his eyes and he ends up polishing his glasses on his shirt over and over again because it feels like he can’t see properly, even though he can. The light feels like it’s somehow refracting weird.
Plus, it’s loud. Music from stores they pass, music from overhead speakers in the atrium itself, blending together. Chatter, yelling children, yelling adults, cell-phones ringing, the hum of electronics.
He finds himself surreptitiously flicking his fingertips repetitively, wringing out hands, rubbing knuckles, fiddling with the bottom of his bomber jacket. At one point Phil’s gaze darts to Wilbur curiously as he shakes his hands out for about the hundredth time since they’ve entered the mall and his face flushes as he tucks them under his arms.
He tries to focus in on Phil and Tommy’s conversation, really does. Now they’re onto something about Hypixel and acquisition? But there’s so much going on.
So … he just starts kind of — quietly humming to himself, trying to filter out some of the excess stimulation. Not a tune, but just random tones. He focuses on the vibration in his chest, the consistency of the notes. Everything else around him manages to fade from being harsh, smothering, to a dull swirl as he hones his focus in on this single point.
About five minutes later, though, Tommy frowns, looking around before his gaze settles on him.
“What’s … Is that you humming?”
Wilbur blinks, unaware that he was being that loud, or even actually audible at all. He just assumed the mall was so noisy it wasn’t noticeable.
He attempts an easy grin, tossing his fringe and running a hand through his hair. “You know me, Toms. I’m always composing, yeah? The next Your New Boyfriend in the works. You can’t tell but I’m crafting my next magnum opus.” He points to his head.
Tommy laughs. “Dude. It literally sounded like you were just doing one note. Like —“ He pulls a stupid face and hums from his sternum, before laughing again.
Wilbur chuckles back nervously before looking away.
But then Tommy’s gone silent, and when he looks back he’s stopped, narrowing his eyes in confusion.
“Are you okay?”
Tommy asks it very suddenly, bluntly, taking Wilbur off-guard, and he’s not quite sure how to respond. Maybe it was something his face was doing? He didn’t think it seemed like he was uncomfortable.
“Fine. Or, actually —“ He hesitates. “I kind of fucking hate shopping malls.”
“But — hey! We already hung out around here last time and I was thinking — how’s about we go back down to the pier?”
“Ugh, but Will. You know you’re actually so boring, right? I swear the second you enter your twenties you just transform into a sad old man. A sad, senile old man. Who the hell wants to pass off going to the arcade to go to the pier? It’s just like, wind and sand. And sea gulls.”
“I thought we could get ice-cream.”
Tommy’s eyes widen.
“Actually! Scratch what I just said about you being boring and old. Big Dubs, you are a genius.”
He stops in his tracks, spins around.
“BOYS —“ He yells, rallying the troops, and making Wilbur wince. “I demand ICE-CREAM! Take me to your nearest CREAMERY.”
“Phil, please. Control the child.”
Wilbur doesn’t think he conceptualises time the same way other people do; doesn’t primarily break up his life in terms of birthdays, big events, or even really relationships. Rather when he looks back on his twenty-four years, everything fits into these kind of, feverish, cyclical obsessions. Phases he goes through. That’s what Niki calls them. Usually in the context of something like: “Wilbur. You’ve mentioned the Gardner Museum heist like, five times in this past hour. I feel like this is going to become one of your phases.” And she’s usually not wrong.
There’s that time he spent a month straight holed up in his flat obsessively learning Dutch, managing to get fluent enough to read the entirety of De kleine Prins cover to cover in just three weeks. (He doesn’t fail to see the irony in that, coming off of just researching the 1672 Franco-Dutch War. But it’s one of his favourite books.) Or the time he got obsessed with cartography, geography, anthropological linguistics, songwriting and poetics, roleplay and narrative theory, vexillology … He comes back to that last one quite a lot. What can he say? He likes flags.
It’s not that he’s just interested in these things, but that whenever he finds something new that completely captures his attention, it’s all he really wants to think about.
Unfortunately, everyone in his life knows when it’s happening — because the conversation inevitably somehow manages to circle back round to it. No matter what the topic, Wilbur is always suddenly reminded of an interesting fact, or something he wants to research later (or more frequently something he wants to research on his phone right that instant).
Learning just makes him happy. There’s a particular kind of satisfaction in feeling all these pieces of knowledge fall into place in his brain, knitting together to form a beautiful and complex, cohesive web of information.
But it has its upsides and downsides.
The more passionate he is about the subject, the more he truly loses the thought — or even desire — to eat or sleep. For some reason his body just kind of … forgets it needs those things. Plus, when he was a kid people were actually kind of assholes about it. His thing with getting stuck on subjects. There was a lot of yelling at him to shut up, people bluntly cutting him off mid-sentence to tell him that they simply didn’t care or had zoned out mid-way, people telling him to “just speak in English for once”.
But now his friends are surprisingly … supportive? Maybe that just comes with age. It’s a surreal change, one that he’s still not entirely used to.
One day he and Quackity are on call together and he suddenly realises that he’s been talking for quite long — much too long — and he feels a sudden rush of shame sweep through him.
“Well. I should — probably just shut up now! I’ve been going on.” He laughs.
“No, no. It’s fine. Go ahead.”
Quakity’s face is kind, open, and interested.
And Wilbur blinks. Because — what?
“It’s okay. You can talk about what you’re interested in. I really don’t mind.” He shrugs. “You know. I like hearing about it.”
“Oh, I … Thank you, Quackity.”
“You good, man?”
“Yeah, no. Sorry. Just people don’t usually respond like that.”
“… How do they usually respond?”
Wilbur snorts. “They tell me to shut the hell up.”
“Shit, man. What? You can talk to me. I really don’t mind.” Quackity shakes his head, dismayed. “You’re fine. You’re good.”
Over time he gets more comfortable talking openly about what he’s actually thinking about with his friends, suppresses the fear that someone’s suddenly going to humiliate him, call him strange or annoying. And if he begins to take over the conversation for too long people just … let him know. It’s easy.
When out with his mates now he finds himself readily expounding on the many reasons Ankii is the superior flashcard software; what the best algorithms are for staggered, intermittent reinforcement of learning. And it’s kind of liberating.
Despite all this, though, and his amazing friends, he’s not sure he’ll ever be entirely free of that feeling that he’s taking his interests too far. That he’s going to get caught off-guard, inadvertently dominating a social interaction with info-dumping and boring everyone around him. That they’ll get tired of him eventually.
The first time he meets up with Niki in person, they’re sitting across from each other, knee-to-knee in a cramped restaurant booth over a bowl of hot chips when he realises he’s been going on for about ten minutes — monopolising the conversation by talking about literally just flags. When they’ve just met. Fucking flags.
“I’m sorry.” He backtracks awkwardly. “What am I doing? You don’t want to hear about this.”
“No, no … It’s — interesting.” Niki smiles. “You obviously care a lot about this stuff. It’s cute. And I like listening to you talk.”
Wilbur flushes, ducks his head and hides behind his fringe.
3. Social … clumsiness.
This is Wilbur’s least favourite character trait of his. One that leads to a lot of trouble sleeping as he replays events over and over his mind as he’s lying in bed at night, scrutinising interactions to figure out what went wrong. One that makes him doubt whether or not he’s actually the kind person his friends make him out to be. It’s this line of thinking, that worry that there might be something inherently, very deeply wrong with him, that makes him think that he should maybe consider pursuing a proper diagnosis. To get some sort of relief, some comfort or explanation for why certain things are so difficult for him sometimes.
This time when it happens, he’s on stream with Jack Manifold and Tommy. They’re just fucking around, doing a bit of improv and then a sort of comedy-roast style bit, teasing Toms about being, well, a child, and stupid stuff like his shaky-breath acting on the SMP. Y’know, how if — given the opportunity — Wilbur would not hesitate to punt him into the fucking stratosphere. That sort of thing.
Unfortunately, this leads to a severe miscalculation on his part.
They’re all laughing, messing around, when Wilbur thinks it’ll be a great idea to poke fun at the recent internal Tommy failed in college — one where he’d gotten carried away, read the assessment criteria wrong. He’s been complaining about it all day, so it’s at the forefront of Wilbur’s mind — and he makes a joke about it. Whatever. He’s just joining in with what Jack and Tommy have been doing back and forth for the past ten minutes.
He can’t remember what he says exactly — something stupid like: “You might have to seriously ease up on the block-game playing before you become any more of a moron. At this rate you’re gonna have to join Tubbo as a drop-out, my man. But it won’t be by choice.” No one laughs. In fact a hushed silence falls over the call and Wilbur has to double-check that he hasn’t suddenly lost all his bars.
“Hello?” He leans into his mic to test that it’s still picking up his audio. “… Hello?”
“What the fuck, Wilbur.” Jack looks slightly shocked, but also pissed off.
There’s another stern silence.
He’s so confused. In Jack’s facecam he can see that the guy’s just staring at him with this look of utter disbelief. Like he’s fucked up really bad. And he feels this sick, sinking feeling in his chest. It’s disorienting, anxiety-inducing, not knowing what’s going on in a social situation but getting the sense that everyone else knows.
What the fuck is wrong with him?
It’s then that he realises Tommy’s facecam has disappeared and his mic has been muted. Then, his icon vanishes and he leaves the call entirely.
“Why the hell did you say that?”
“What? The thing about his college?”
“Dude, yes. That was fucking brutal.”
“I don’t … Jack, come on. I was just doing a bit.”
“You’re a fucking moron, bro.”
“I —“ His face feels so hot.
He shuts everything off, leaves the call, can’t even think what chat might have been saying, what fucking Twitter will no doubt have to say about him.
His mouse hovers over Tommy’s Discord icon in their private chat for a long moment as he holds his breath, before eventually calling again.
It only takes a couple of beats before the kid picks up, his face filling the screen.
“Tom. Tommy, Toms. I’m so fucking sorry,” Wilbur immediately begins, before he can get a word in.
Tommy looks like he’s trying not to cry, or maybe just has, eyes faintly red, gaze flitting around the room, anywhere but his monitor. The expression looks wrong on his face. He shouldn’t look like that. He should be boisterous, excitable, fucking chugging back cans of coke like his life depends on it, not looking sad and serious and a bit nervous, like he’s afraid of what Wilbur might say next. He feels nauseous. Why is he like this? Why does this always happen?
“It’s okay, Big Dubs. I’m just …” He shrugs, rubbing the back of his neck.
The word ‘overreacting’ remains unspoken. Wilbur never wants to make anyone feel that way.
“No, man. What the hell. I — That was way out of line. I was just dicking around. I don’t actually think that way about you.”
“Then why did you —“
“I was just … I don’t know! I saw what Jack was doing — the fucking, comedy-roast-bit-thing and then —“ He groans. “I just copied what he was saying. I thought — Listen, I fucked up. Tommy, please. You’re so bright. You’re the brightest kid I know.”
Tommy raises an eyebrow. “Aren’t I the only kid you know?”
“I also know Tubbo.”
He lets out a loud, staccato laugh. “I’ll make a point not to tell him you said that.”
“Oh, oh — for fuck’s sake. Have I done it again? I —“
At that Tommy bursts out laughing properly, slamming his hand on his desk and causing his facecam to shake.
Wilbur isn’t really sure why that’s funny, but he’s so fucking glad that he’s somehow managed to cheer the boy up that he lets out a nervous, breathy laugh of his own.
“Hahah, ha. Holy shit, big man. No. Don’t worry. You’re good.” Tommy pretends to wipe away a tear.
“Oh, okay.” Wilbur tilts his head to the side, somehow managing to smile in a way that feels both relieved and slightly concerned.
“Listen. Don’t make fun of me for this but —“ Tommy rakes a hand through his hair restlessly, shifts in his seat. “Yeah. It’s kind of … Weirdchamp. This thing where I care a lot about your opinion, innit. But you’re so … I dunno! You’re fucking cool, man, and like, I’m pretty sure you’re an actual genius? I — Well, I might — look up to you just a bit — and quite frankly! I don’t really want you to think I’m an idiot.”
Wilbur thinks about this. About how despite Tommy’s charisma behind it all he can still sometimes catch glimpses of this insecure kid. It really does feel like he’s his younger brother — and Tommy thinking for even a second that Will could possibly think badly of him will not fly. It’s simply not true.
“Toms, listen to me when I tell you this. You are so fucking smart, okay? Do you see any other sixteen-year-olds out here capable of sustaining a career like the one you’ve got right now? You’re doing better than most grown-ass adults I know. I’m serious. That’s not because of luck, it’s because you’re clever as shit.”
He can see Tommy trying to suppress a smile and failing.
“Well, uh,” he chuckles with faux-bashfulness, practically preening at the praise. “Why, thank you, Will.”
As much as it relieves him to see Tommy feeling a bit better, he still feels so unbelievably terrible for what he’s managed to do. The fact that it’s by accident always makes it worse.
Wilbur leans back and scrubs at his eyes beneath his glasses. “I’m really sorry, Tommy. I don’t believe half the bullshit that comes out of my mouth. I swear to God sometimes I just … say things. Most of the time it works out fine, but every so often it just goes so comically wrong. I hate that I’m the type of person that just … hurts people without meaning to. I hate that you had to experience that.”
There’s a thoughtful pause.
“Does that happen often?”
“Not as often as when I was a kid. But Christ, man, is it the bane of my existence.”
“Am I boring you?”
Wilbur frowns. “What? No?”
“You seem a bit … distracted.”
He looks up to find himself on the receiving end of an incredibly pointed glare.
The last thing he wants to do is manage to convince his landlord that he’s impolite — or worse, that he’s some sort of stoner. (Not like last time. Never mind that he doesn’t even smoke at home, prefers to get high and wander the beach alone at night. Probably not the best idea, but he’s 6’5 and isn’t super concerned about anyone trying to assault him.)
It’s hard. He’s trying his best — but this conversation has been going on for so long that his ability to hold eye-contact and mirror body language properly (see: the nebulous concept that has been pitched to him as ‘acting normal’) has rapidly dwindled to the point where he’s been looking everywhere but the guy who he pays his rent’s face for the past ten minutes.
Up until then he’d been having one of those weird moments where he feels like he should be making more eye-contact, but then gets so caught up in maintaining the right ratio of looking to looking away that he has no clue what his facial expression looks like, is concentrating so hard that literally none of the words the other person’s saying are going in. Which isn’t ideal. Especially when the person you’re talking to is responsible for your living situation.
It’s not that he’s deliberately trying to be rude. It’s just that — eye-contact is so … intense.
When he looks at people’s faces for too long they start appearing alien, really quite strange, and he gets distracted by the unsettling way their irises look (furrows and crypts shifting in the light, pupils expanding and contracting), and that too-exposed feeling of being on the receiving end of someone’s expression and attention and vice versa. He hates how he’s looking out, but that the other person is also looking in. It’s just too much for extended periods of time. The vulnerability makes him feel uneasy, makes him want to recoil, gives him the same compulsion to rest his gaze somewhere else as if he’s been staring into a bright light for too long.
“No! I’m just —“ Wilbur opens his mouth and then closes it again. “I’m listening.”
Maybe if he looks at bridge of the guy’s nose instead …
5. Scripting + Echolalia.
Up until now, Wilbur never really noticed that he does this weird thing where he kind of … repeats things. Just mimics what people say back to them. If he hears a funny joke he repeats it a second time. If someone says something in a particular accent, or in a way he thinks sounds interesting somehow, he repeats that too, sort of like he’s testing out an accent or an impression. He’s not making fun of people. It just feels … Good? Satisfying? Is a way to purge excess energy? To be honest, he isn’t quite sure why he does it. Wasn’t even aware that he did until a mate outright asked him why he was mocking them, and he realised how strange that might be. Other people don’t mimic. Not nearly as frequently as he does.
Then again — no one’s ever really pointed out how much Wilbur does it either. Maybe it’s not noticeable?
Now that he’s aware of his own habits, though. It is slightly frustrating. Mostly because he can’t stop repeating fucking stupid shit he reads on the internet. That’s kind of a caveat of his job, he supposes. But he wants to sound like a normal, eloquent twenty-four year old — not the type of person who accidentally slips up and says “pogchamp” when on a fucking business call. As it turns out, he has a lot of difficulty interacting with people in authority in general (ie., his landlord) probably because he’s trying so hard to appear normal that his anxiety makes it backfire spectacularly.
Along with the repeating, he frequently finds himself inserting quotes from television shows, books, movies into his everyday speech. (West Wing, Frasier, Mad Men …) Kind of like little autocomplete sentences from a drop-down menu in his brain. He imitates the speech patterns and mannerisms of characters he likes in media, finds their cadence and rhythm of voice contagious. When he was younger this actually lead to him inexplicably being mistaken for having a slight American lilt to his accent, people asking him if he’d ever lived abroad.
The first time Tommy acknowledges it is actually while they’re on stream together, filming for a Minecraft mod video that involves being able to literally transplant the organs of mobs.
Wilbur’s doing his usual bit, of carrying out some mildly concerning role-play in which his character eventually devolves into madness. And naturally he ends up inadvertently slipping a quote in without even realising he’s doing it.
Tommy shakes his head, slams his hand down on his desk appreciatively. “‘History will prove them wrong?’ Dude, that’s fucking raw as hell.”
“Oh, uh —“
“Wait — chat is telling me … Hold on. WHAT — WILBUR.”
“They — the boys. They’re telling me you’ve been quoting Hamilton this whole time?”
“You — you’re a fan, Tommy! Tommy, you’re a fake Hamilton fan.”
“I thought,” Tommy splutters, clearly embarrassed. “This whole time I thought you were coming up with these raw fucking one-liners and you’ve just been quoting Hamilton?”
“How did you not know?” Wilbur wheezes.
“I’M SORRY, WILL. NOT ALL OF US CAN BE AS CULTURED AS YOU. ‘FUCK’S SAKE.”
“Toms, you have to realise I’m not actually smart. I’m just repeating other things people cleverer than me have said all the fucking time.”
“I can’t believe this. Chat, I can’t believe this. Spam one if you think I should kill Wilbur to atone for his crimes.”
+1: Sensory overload.
He just needs to make it through the rest of this day.
Actually? Hold that thought. He just need to make it through the rest of this panel. Just this one. He’s not even going to think about everything they’ve got lined up for the next — three days? Oh Christ.
They’re about thirty minutes in, now, and Wilbur’s already rapidly beginning to realise that there’s no fucking way he’s going to get to the end of two hours of interviews, skits, live gameplay. His ears are still ringing from when they first walked out onstage.
He knew Dream’s face reveal stunt was going to be a big moment, really get the crowd going, but he wasn’t prepared for what that would actually look — or sound — like. As it turns out, quite painful. As he sits with one knee drawn up to his chest, perched on his chair, alongside his friends who were able to make it to the States for VidCon that year, the way his senses have now seemed to ratchet up tenfold is becoming more and more difficult to ignore. He’s hyperaware of everything around him, like what he felt at the shopping mall with Tommy and Phil but so much worse.
In all honesty, he could see this coming.
All day it’s been building up, thousands of tiny grievances that he’s been trying to push down. The thing is — he’s been doing everything right. Smiling when he’s overwhelmed and doesn’t feel like smiling, forcing himself to make eye contact with so many people, trying to appear alert and interested and witty, to be charming and tell good jokes, to make sure everyone is happy and gets what they paid for. He doesn’t want anyone to have a bad time, doesn’t want any kid who looks up to them to come away feeling like he’s at best disinterested or at worst a complete a-hole.
It’s just while these social skills seem to come naturally to everyone else, it’s like he’s running on manual where everyone else is on autopilot. Even after just a couple of hours of it Wilbur’s fucking exhausted. He feels like he’s about to bloody keel over, like it’s an effort to even keep his eyes focused. During the moments he was able to stand back, watching Phil, Tommy and Tubbo, Dream, George, Sapnap chat excitedly with fans, give hugs and take selfies, he found his mind frequently drifting, escaping into a fantasy where he’s back in his apartment, in the dark and cool, surrounded by silence. As the day stretches on he imagines literally sneaking away to escape to a supply closet somewhere so that he can just sit there for a while.
But instead, he ends up here, on this panel, gritting his teeth and trying desperately to hold onto the last remaining threads of his self-control. The fabric of his new dress shirt and blazer feels itchy and weird against his skin, coarse like sandpaper, and he swears he can literally feel how dry the contact lenses in his eyes are when he blinks. And then there’s Dream’s microphone, which is rigged up so that every time he leans just a bit too close to George — which is frequently — the high-pitched whine of audio feedback fills the auditorium, makes even the people standing backstage wince. But while the audience and the rest of his mates turn it into a running joke that Dream can’t manage to just keep to himself, every screech of static hits someplace deep within Wilbur’s brain that translates that feeling of too much into actual physical pain.
The occasional scream, cheer, heckling from the audience is jarring, the sound of his friends answering questions, confident and funny, is just too loud. The lights are so bright, refracting off of his eyelashes, that they wash out the audience leaving the crowd as an indistinct blur, while his friends next to him are illuminated in staggering quality. Tommy leans back casually with one of his trainers propped up on his knee, taking a sip of his bottled water. Everyone seems so relaxed and he feels like he’s fucking drowning. It’s so so hot. Sweat trickles down the back of his collar.
It’s then that he realises Dream is actually asking him a question, but for some reason he can’t understand what’s being asked, can just feel the sudden weight of thousands of eyes on him.
And that’s it.
He can’t do this anymore.
Abruptly, he stands on shaky legs while Dream is still in the middle of speaking, and he just turns, ignores the confused faces of his friends, people shouting after him — they’re probably not shouting — and he very calmly walks backstage, his legs moving automatically. While his movements are relaxed and deliberate, it feels like his brain is short-circuiting, his body moving completely independently of thought.
Out of the public eye, he frantically rakes his hands through his hair over and over again, looking for somewhere he can hide. He stumbles past security, makes it far enough backstage that he’s alone, past cables that snake across the floor, blinking modems, walls of electrical outlets, tables of props, loose scripts, discarded coats and water bottles — and it’s then that it all just hits him at once. The light, and the sound, and all the people — and he can’t escape it. Everything in his body feels wrong.
Even when he finds himself in the green room he can’t manage to get himself to calm. The fluorescents — always fluorescents — overhead tick and flicker above his head, emitting a constant hum. And the wall of monitors, mirroring footage from the main stage, the audience, security cams are so outdated they’re still using old cathode ray tubing that emits that impossibly high-pitched 15kHz ringing that sounds like tinnitus.
He clenches and unclenches his fists, rakes his hands roughly through his curls again, leaving them in disarray. He hums, paces, grits his teeth and whines, shakes out his hands again and again. Everything hurts, hurts, hurts.
“Wilbur? Will? Are you okay back there?”
Phil’s voice. He freezes. Because he can’t face another person right now.
But before he knows it, the green room door’s already being pushed open and Phil’s stepping in, pausing in his tracks when he finally sees Wilbur. He probably looks like a complete mess, still pacing, still shaking out his hands.
“What’s going on?” Phil looks him up and down, quickly surveying. “… Panic attack?”
This doesn’t feel like a panic attack though. He isn’t dizzy or breathing too quick — and he also hasn’t happened to get himself into a weird hypochondria-induced spiral from being left alone with his thoughts too long, which is usually how he gets to that place. But his heart is racing. And he feels vaguely sick, out of control in his own body.
“Do I need to go get a paramedic? Drive you to hospital?”
“Phil. Seriously, I’m — fine.”
He’s amazed to find words coming out of his mouth when he’s in so much pain.
“You should — should go back to — the uh,” Wilbur waves around a hand, unable to even think in full sentences. “— the thing, yeah? This just happens. Sometimes.”
Phil sounds so concerned, it makes his heart ache, makes him want to say something to make it stop, but Wilbur can’t bring himself to reply anymore — he opens his mouth to speak, but there’s too much going on. No words come out.
Stop — stop, stop. Fucking — talking —
He winces and hunches his shoulders at the sound of Phil’s voice asking more questions. He’s saying so much and he can’t process any of what’s being asked of him. His hands move up to his ears, trying to block something, anything out and he squeezes his eyes shut.
The next time Phil speaks it’s quieter, barely audible. “Talk to me, mate. What are we dealing with right now?”
He’s too close, too close, too —
“It’s — really fucking bright,” Wilbur manages through grit teeth. “And the — the sound hurts. It’s too loud. My fucking skin hurts.”
Phil nods and breathes out.
“Okay. Okay, I can work with that.”
There’s a brief period of time when he leaves his side, followed by the sound of an iPhone typing, shooting off a text-message, of a backpack rustling and zipping. And then a hand gently comes to rest against his lower back, guiding him further backstage as they pass through winding corridors and double-doors.
The whole time Wilbur keeps a hand clamped over his eyes in an effort to shut out the daggers of light threatening to spill between his fingers, which is helpful, but means he’s unable to keep the nauseating barrage of sounds around him at bay. There’s absolutely no escape, and it makes panic coil in his chest. He can’t stop making vague, pained noises high in the back of his throat, the sound somehow grounding, like the humming he sometimes does.
Eventually, they manage to find an unoccupied dressing room where they can go in and turn the lights off, close the door behind them so it’s almost completely dark save for the faint glow that filters in from beneath it. Immediately a sense of relief washes over him, and he practically falls to his knees, legs giving out as he collapses to the floor against an old couch. Hugging his arms around himself like he’s going to float away, knees pressed to his ears, he finds deft hands helping him shrug out of his jacket and roll up the shirt sleeves as he tugs at them, willing the sensation of suffocation to go away.
The harsh sound of the backpack Phil had retrieved being unzipped is so loud, so sudden, that Wilbur flinches back. He cracks his eyes open ever so slightly, squinting into the dark to see Phil working as quietly as possible, spilling the bag’s contents out onto the floor. Immediately Phil picks up a pair of noise cancelling headphones, but there’s other there stuff too: sunglasses, a sleeping mask, a Rubik’s Cube, several of those tangle fidget toys, bottled water, a 2007 iPod Touch, a dog-eared Percy Jackson paperback for some reason. He presses his palms to his eyes again to make it darker.
“Here.” Phil nudges the headphones against the back of his hand. And Wilbur doesn’t even question it, just goes to put them on, hands shaking so hard that Phil has to help him lift them over his head. They muffle the sounds from stage, distant cheering and yelling, the general hiss of the building, so that everything’s muted like it’s underwater. Humming helps too, so he starts doing it again, not hearing it this time, just feeling the vibration in his chest.
Some part of his brain that cares about things like how people perceive him — and generally just wanting to be viewed as cool, whatever that constitutes — thinks that he should be embarrassed right now. That he should be more concerned with acting like a normal functioning twenty-four-year-old. But he’s so beyond giving a fuck — everything hurts so much. He just wants it to stop.
Eventually Phil’s hand lightly touches his shoulder where he still has his arms wrapped tightly around himself. “Do you need the pressure?” His voice is barely audible, but Wilbur can still hear it through the headphones.
Apparently he’s not just good during a crisis, but also some sort of mind reader.
He nods. “Yes, yeah. Actually —“
So Phil’s arms snake around his back and squeeze, constricting his shoulders, and Wilbur immediately feels himself relax, can just focus on breathing. The absence of light, and sound.
Gradually he feels himself calming down, the fabric of his shirt becoming more bearable and less like it’s got thousands of tiny little barbs woven into the material. He doesn’t take the headphones off, but he squints, blinks, letting his eyes slowly adjust to the faint light that’s trickling out from beneath the still-shut dressing room door until his eyes are open. He rolls his sleeves down again.
After that they just sit for a while, Phil shifting back to sit back against the opposite wall, silently using his phone, the brightness settings dragged right down. It’s nice. Wilbur doesn’t feel any pressure to have to move right this second, or rush back into the chaos of the convention just yet, can just take a moment to pause and gather himself.
Eventually, Phil speaks again, gaze roaming over him, checking him over. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I just had a breakdown backstage at the VidCon Q&A we should be participating in.” He lets out a hoarse, self-deprecating laugh.
“Christ, uh — Exhausted? I actually feel a lot better now, though, Phil. ‘Doesn’t hurt anymore. But if I’m being honest — ‘Not super enthusiastic about the idea of going back out there anytime soon. Having to engage with anymore people right now might break my brain again.”
Phil’s looking at him with this strange expression, like he’s suddenly piecing together several things all at once. And Wilbur doesn’t like it.
“Nothing. I just —“ He shrugs. “Surprised, I guess. I didn’t know you ever had sensory overloads. How often does that happen?”
Wilbur blinks. “I’m sorry?”
“You know, with the sound and the light and —” Phil suddenly frowns. “Will. Do you seriously not … ?”
“Oh. That … whole thing.” He rakes a hand through his fringe, shaking his curls back into position. “Maybe once every four months? It depends upon if I’m leaving my flat, uh. Typically, ‘not really one for crowded places. You know.”
There’s a pause.
“… I’m introverted,” he adds lamely.
Phil looks like he’s about to say something else, but then stops and thinks, rubbing at his chin. “Okay. Well, we should probably try to find a way to work around this so it doesn’t happen again.”
And Wilbur is so fucking embarrassed. He scrubs at his face with his hand, wants to disappear.
Suddenly he can’t stop thinking about how ridiculous he’s being. How he just had some sort of meltdown backstage at a convention centre in some random person’s room, needed Phil to take care of him because he couldn’t handle some yelling and bright lights.
“Man, I don’t — I’m not … You really shouldn’t have to do that. The idea that you guys would have to …” He grimaces. “Work around me being … Like this. It’s …”
“No, no. Not working around you. I’m sorry. I worded that poorly. What I’m trying to say is — that just seemed like it was a really fucking bad time. Of course I don’t want you having to go through that again, are you kidding me?”
“I don’t want to be a hassle. I — I’m not a child, Phil. I should be able to handle myself, yeah?”
To be honest, even when he was a kid, it still wasn’t acceptable for him to be acting like he just did. Wasn’t acceptable for him to act ‘not normal’.
Phil sighs, rubs the bridge of his nose. “All right, no. We’ll not be having any of that.”
He reaches across the floor, hooks his fingers around a strap the green backpack and tosses it to him. Wilbur catches it easily, a soft thud against his chest.
“Do you know whose stuff that is?”
Wilbur shakes his head mutely.
“Your twenty-one-year-old co-worker’s,” Phil says. “Clay literally came up to me before the show and he just goes, ‘Hey. Head’s up. This is what happens. It probably won’t, but if it does, here’s what we’ll do.’ No preamble. Just hands me this.”
“There are people here who get it, Will. I get it. You’re not an inconvenience. Where the hell did you even get that idea, mate?”
“I don’t know.”
He’s got a fair idea, actually. But he’s not ready to examine it too closely just this yet.
“And what about Tommy, huh? You think it’s a burden on us to be constantly carting around litre water bottles and blocking in time to sit down every ten minutes?”
Wilbur opens his mouth, but then closes it again when Phil shakes his head.
“No. It’s not. Because that’s just something we have to do. You wouldn’t call him an inconvenience.”
“Phil, he’s a kid.”
“Bloody hell, mate, you’re only twenty-four!” He cracks a smile. “And I love this implication that once Tom turns eighteen it’s just — Nah. Fuck off. You’ve got a medical condition? Suck it up, pal. Real men don’t get hypotension.”
Wilbur laughs. “Yes! Exactly. See, now you’re getting it. You’re learning.”
“Listen.” Phil sits forward, hands clasped in his lap. “I know it’s hard. But, you have to tell me what you need. I don’t know what that’s going to look like exactly, but we can sit closer to the exits for the rest of the con. We can take breaks in between to go and sit somewhere quiet for a bit. We can get you sunglasses or lend you Clay’s headphones. Whatever it is.”
Wilbur’s taken aback by an unusual surge of gratitude, one that makes his breath feel like it’s catching in his chest. He hasn’t experienced this feeling before — of not feeling like this side to him is a burden, but in fact something completely normal. Acceptable. That he’s okay. Hell, that he even has friends who would be willing to help him when he needs it. It’s something he never imagined anyone around him would ever be capable of dealing with, or even willing to bother with at all.
“At risk of coming across as even more of a prick than I already do, as much as I’d love to take up that offer I’m going to have to pass up on the wearing sunglasses indoors.”
Phil shoots him a stern look and raises his eyebrows.
“Sorry.” He clears his throat. “But — I … Yeah. Actually, the headphones thing sounds like a good idea.”
“Okay, good. Great.” He helps Wilbur to his feet. “You keep those on you. I’ll return this stuff backstage. ‘See if I can catch the end of the panel discussion.”
“Thank you. Seriously, mate, I’m … Just, thanks.”
A look of affection softens Phil’s features. “No problem.”
“Should we get going now?” Wilbur rolls his shoulders, stands up a bit straighter.
“You’re ready to get back out there?”
“It’s okay for you to say no.”
“Maybe I’ll just … Hang around backstage for a bit. Check up on the ol’ Hell Bird Site.”
* * *
Later, Dream actually compliments Wilbur on his superior taste in over-ear wear when they reconvene for drinks at a nearby restaurant and bar after all the skits and gameplay sessions have wrapped up, after the worst of the crowds have dispersed.
“See.” Dream says, arm slung around George’s shoulders as they sit around an enormous table, chatting over plates of food that have been thoroughly picked at, as well as about a lifetime supply of breadsticks. “Over-ear headphones. They’re clearly superior to air pods.”
“Oh, yeah?” George sounds incredulous, likely just for the sake of being incredulous.
“Do you see how fucking cool Will looks right now? Are you blind?”
“Are you making fun of me because I’m colourblind again? Dream, why do you hate me?”
“GEORGE! How the hell is that in any way related to —“ He sighs. “You know what? Never mind. You’re beyond reasoning with.”
Wilbur looks back and forth between them, faintly amused.
Dream jerks his head in his direction, indicating with his beer. “You look great, man.”
“Thanks.” Wilbur laughs and tosses back the last of his vodka tonic. “These are yours, though, dude.”
“Exactly. And I have great taste.”
“Aw, Dreamie’s sharing. Guys, he’s sharing!” George giggles, more than slightly drunk, and nudges Sapnap with his elbow.
It’s at that moment that Wilbur looks out at so many of his friends in one place, sitting around the table, gathered in the soft, warm glow of the restaurant, and is overcome with a sudden rush of affection.
He sees Dream practically draped over George at this point; Sapnap resting his head in his hand, watching them forlornly as he nibbles at a breadstick. Bad in fits of laughter as he argues with Skeppy about something dumb. Tommy and Tubbo literally hunched over colouring sheets like children, completely engrossed, with crayons they’d managed to convince the waiters to hand over. Phil and his wife sitting to his left, with the unspoken promise that if Wilbur ever needs to step out or ask for something he just … can. Niki sitting to his right, having stolen a crayon from Tommy and Tubbo’s basket — doodling silly little faces on his napkin just to make him laugh.
And for the first time in a long time he’s not worrying about acting ‘normal’ at all.