That night, Hob Gadling dreamed of red flowers.
You saw them too, if you slept at all that night: red flowers spilling from a white hand, and falling into the grass. Maybe you saw them wither in the sun and went looking for a watering can, and walked through room after room that had never been in your house before, crying without knowing why. Maybe you reached down to pick one for your buttonhole, and then froze, because the wolf-- you knew the wolf was there, right behind you-- would see, if you moved. Maybe you dreamed of red streamers, or red cherries, or gold coins, but you knew they were flowers all the same.
Hob saw them drop, round and heavy and slow, taking root where they splashed against the grass and broke into petals. He plucked a handful, an armful, and inhaled their scent: they smelled of wine, of good wine, a heady bouquet he had known twice in waking life, and once before here, in dreams. He knew, then, as one knows in dreams, that the flowers, and the sorrow that poured down out of the bright sky, had somehow to do with the friend he had drunk it with.
The spill of flowers became a scatter, and then a trail; their red flags were blazed along the rocky coast of a sea that grew rougher and grayer, under a sky that turned to lowering cloud, and then to dismal dry mist. Hob followed, along shingles and skerries, past gates of horn and ivory, until he came, with his arms still full of flowers, to the castle, where three beasts guarded the doors.
The griffin raised his bronze head and stared, shaking himself out of grim thoughts. He had not known his master. The Dream Lord had returned, and, though only for a moment, he had not recognized him. The failure lay heavy on him. He watched the stranger's progress up the stairs, and wondered whether his eyes had deceived him again, whether he should know this man. But then the stranger's scent reached him-- he was of the waking world, had dwelt there long years. And, sweet though they smelled, the stench of death was heavy in the red flowers he carried.
"Go," said the griffin.
"Well, that's nice," said Hob. "Not even going to ask me why I'm here?"
The wyvern uncurled its long neck and peered down at him. "Why are you here, then?"
"Looking for someone. Tall, pale fellow, black eyes." The wyvern and the griffin exchanged a glance; Hob marked it. "Your boss, is he?"
"And if he is?" the wyvern asked. "What is he to you, that you seek him?"
"A friend." The griffin's eyes narrowed with suspicion; mountebanks came to this gate claiming friendship, but seldom any visitor with pure intentions. Hob marked this as well, and the worried look that passed between the wyvern and the hippogriff. "He's in trouble, isn't he?"
"What do you know of his troubles?" demanded the wyvern.
"Nothing at all. That's why I'm here, to find out," said Hob, growing impatient. "To help, if I can."
The hippogriff bent its head to sniff at the flowers in Hob's arms. He looked up. "You have come a long way, seeking him. It would be poor hospitality to turn you away. And yet, I know not what you would do if we admitted you. Our master has left no word of you, and I would not disturb his rest."
"Go," said the griffin. "Wake. You have no errand here."
For a moment Hob held back, as if about to turn and walk away. Then he dashed up the last few steps, past the griffin and the hippogriff and under the wyvern's weaving neck. He had one foot through the doors when the wyvern plucked him up by his collar, and with its tail slammed the door shut. The noise resounded through the castle. Far within, in the library, Lucien heard the clamor and began threading his way through the stacks toward the entrance hall. The raven Matthew lit on his shoulder.
"He's in bad shape," said Matthew.
Lucien said nothing. He had advised Matthew to let the Dream Lord be, but the bird had ignored him.
"He wouldn't talk to me. At all. I mean, he doesn't talk a lot at the best of times, but he wouldn't say anything."
"He is distracted." Lucien was distracted as well, and disturbed. The Dream Lord had returned from his travels alone, and with a quiet about him, his carriage straight, if weary, his voice even, if low. He had given no order for thunder or driving rain or darkness. Yet no sooner had he retired than rain had come, unsummoned, to the edges of the Dreaming, drowning its borders, churning them into formlessness and mud.
"He slammed the door in my face! That's not distracted, that's rude. He didn't even say anything." They emerged into the entrance hall. From without, they could hear raised voices.
"Matthew, he clearly wishes to be alone. Give him his solitude, if it is what he needs."
The raven clicked his beak. "Yeah, solitude. That'll cheer him right up. Just what he needs."
Privately, Lucien shared Matthew's doubts, but he kept them to himself. He opened the doors.
The wyvern hoisted Hob up with a claw in his jacket. "This human craves audience with the master."
"I don't bloody 'crave audience,' I just want to see the bastard!" Hob twisted in the wyvern's grasp until he could look Lucien in the face. "At the very least, I'd like to know he's all right. As soon as I got here, wherever 'here' is, I got it into my head that he was in some kind of trouble, and these bloody guard dogs won't tell me any different."
Many dreamers had come to the castle-- in time, they almost all came-- but seldom did a dreamer demand to see the Dream Lord himself. Lucien thought for a moment of sending him away, of assuring him that all was well and dismissing him. But the Dreaming itself would belie the easy words. The rain had come nearer, lashing at Cain's and Abel's houses, almost obscuring Eve's cave from view. Soon it would reach the castle; already a cold wind blew, tumbling the red flowers that had spilled at the threshold and spattering their petals over the stairs.
"Put the man down, wyvern," said Lucien. He did, none too gently. Hob straightened his collar. "And let him enter. I will take responsibility for him."
He took Hob to the library, Matthew eyeing him with suspicion all the way. Hob, for his part, took no notice of the raven and little of his guide; the castle itself was all he could take in. He knew that he was dreaming; he had already known that his friend had some power over dreams. Now, as they passed through impossibly high halls hung with mirrors, through which floating flames bobbed and wove and creatures-- scarecrows and rabbits, a plain woman in pink tatters and a beautiful woman in a wig that would have made Marie Antoinette's perruquier weep-- walked or ran on errands of their own, he began to grasp the true measure of that power. It impressed him, but did not awe him-- not, at least, until Lucien threw open the doors of the library.
If you have seen the library of the Dreaming-- and well you may have, for many dreamers come there, in time-- then you know how it fools the eye: through a gap between two volumes, what seems to be a bookcase in the next bay on second glance becomes a new gallery, each shelf a long corridor of a hundred bookcases, stacked tier upon tier, crosshatched with narrow iron-railed walkways and vertiginous ladders sliding in their tracks. Perspective lengthens, in that wilderness of straight lines, the vanishing point always retreating farther and farther away the longer you stare.
Hob had never seen the library. He had dreamed often of books. All the afternoons he had nodded over the type-setting table in Billy Caxton's shop, his dreams had been a hive of clacking presses, full of the scent of ink and calfskin, tallow and glue, and against that backdrop he had read books, and he had written them. Had sold them, new and crisp, with bindings stiff and shining, and discovered them again, worn soft with age, in dusty stacks on cobwebbed shelves. But his dreams had never compassed... this. Nothing like this. Hob craned his neck to see the laddered galleries fade into the vaulted ceiling, breathed deeply of mold and dust and old leather.
"I've been a printer." He trailed his fingers over the spines of a set of Chesterton volumes on the shelf nearest him. "It's the thing I keep coming back to. Out of everything I've done, it's the books I'm proudest of."
"I know. Robert Gadling, printer and binder."
Hob looked up in surprise. "How do you--"
"I am the Librarian, Mr. Gadling. I know every book in this collection-- yours among them. I knew you as soon as you set foot in the Library." He sketched a slight bow. "Lucien, at your service."
Matthew inclined his head. "And I'm Matthew. I'm the raven here. The raven; there's just me."
Hob nodded mechanically to the bird and spoke to Lucien: "You have some of my books here?"
Lucien drew himself up to his full height. "We have all of your books, Mr. Gadling." He gestured down a long corridor. "The 'G's are in the southwest gallery."
The two men walked down the hall, up stairs and then up ladders. Matthew followed, flapping from shelf to lintel to railing, beating the air savagely. Pages rustled in his wake.
Dream had slammed a door in his face.
Changed, the griffin had said. Disturbed, Lucien said. In bad shape, thought Matthew. That's what he was. In trouble. But no one else had gone to him, had tried to talk to him. No one else had tried to help.
No one else would have gotten more than a door in the face, Matthew knew. Still, he was angry-- at Dream for being so impossible to help, and at Lucien, for not even trying, for dawdling over musty books with a dreamer, staring at the man as though he were the most interesting visitor the castle had ever seen.
For his part, Lucien knew, as Matthew did not, that though the Dream Lord allowed the raven a familiarity he would brook from no other, in the end Matthew, and he, and all the subjects of the Dream Lord's realm were just that-- subjects, and servants, and not friends.
The dreamer, though. He had come to the gate seeking the Dream Lord, not to beg any boon, but out of concern. As Matthew did, he seemed to think himself entitled to a friend's liberties, but he was of the waking world. No subject of the Dream Lord, merely a traveler in his realm.
And then there were the books. Lucien knew them, of course, the long row of spines, cordovan and oxblood and thin lines of gilt. Within were the tales Gadling had never written-- wars fought on three continents, sea voyages to three more, romances on all of them, biography giving way seamlessly to invention-- and the volumes he had never printed, the folio Chaucer with its ornate rubricated initials, the lavish Rubaiyat with the marbled end-paper, the elegant set of clothbound Trollopes with the Edward Gorey sketches at each chapter head. They were all of them well-dreamed, and Gadling handled them with reverence, careful of their brittle spines and fragile leaves.
Matthew clacked his beak and paced the length of a deep shelf. Lucien watched Hob closely, taking books from his hands as he closed them again and carefully reshelving them. They could all hear thunder now, muffled by stone and rank upon rank of books, but still heavy with menace, and moving nearer.
Almost, Hob could forget his errand, could block out the thunder, lose himself in the feel of old linen paper and soft calf leather, the points and curves and sharp serifs of the letters. Almost-- if he let himself see beyond the letters to the words, his own words, never written but unmistakably his, that brought home, as nothing else yet had, the true measure of his friend's power. And with it, fear, for whatever could threaten this castle while its master was home was a fearsome power indeed-- and yet the floors trembled with the thunder, and Lucien and the raven trembled with them, and shot nervous glances at the far-off windows.
When the first flicker of lightening came, glinting off Lucien's glasses and Matthew's glossy wings, Hob let the volume in his hands fall shut. "What's going on?"
Lucien took the book from him, held it to his chest with crossed arms. "You understand, the Dream Lord has told me nothing."
"But you know."
Lucien shook his head. Matthew hopped down onto his shoulder. "Do you think this could still be about, you know, Whatsername? We got a lot of rain then." Matthew spoke as though trying to convince himself.
There had been storms, then. When the woman, Larissa, had left the Dreaming, the Dream Lord had stood out in the rain for hours each day, had let the chill winds blow his hair and his robes. But tonight the Dream Lord had shut himself away, isolated from the storm he had somehow called, while it slowly encroached on the castle, the Dreaming itself rippling and fraying in its wake. "I do not think so, Matthew."
Matthew looked up at the darkening window and shuddered. "Then what are we doing in here? We need to talk to him. Or you do; he obviously doesn't want to talk to me."
"No. Not I, Matthew." Lucien looked at Hob. "You need to speak to him. That is the reason you are here, Mr. Gadling."
The raven cocked its head, looking at Hob out of one eye, then out of the other. "Hah. Good luck. Why should the boss talk to him?" He fixed both eyes on Hob's. "Why should he talk to you?"
Hob shrugged. "He's my friend."
Matthew ruffled, his hackles rising. "And we're not?"
Lucien was silent. He could feel Matthew's talons digging into his shoulder as the raven tensed to fly. At length he said, "We are first and foremost his servants, Matthew."
Matthew gave an affronted squawk and launched himself to the nearest railing. "Well, fine, then! He can call me next time he needs a-- a spy, or a fucking driving instructor." He dropped from the railing and flew away, vanishing quickly into the library's shadows.
Lucien unclenched his hands from the book he still clasped. "Matthew has not dwelt long in the Dreaming," he said.
"Your-- the Dream Lord-- doesn't have a lot of friends."
It was not a question, but Lucien answered it, with a shake of his head: "He has many responsibilities." He replaced the book on its shelf. "Come. I will take you to him."
Lucien opened a door, and for a moment Hob expected to step out into his old bindery; but then the clack of presses and the rattle of type resolved itself into thunder and rain, and he followed Lucien into a long stone corridor where panes shook in the tall mullioned windows. Behind the glass, the sky was black.
Lucien led him down the hall, up stairs, past more dark rain-lashed windows, before coming at last to a simple wooden door. He knocked; the sound rang hollowly in the corridor, but no voice replied.
Hob tried the door.
Dream had never locked his own chambers. He trusted the castle staff, the guards at the gates, the protections woven into the Dreaming itself; nothing that could pass them would be stayed by a bar on the door.
He trusted them, as integral parts of the Dreaming, as extensions of himself. And after leaving Lucien and closing the door to his chambers, he had given no thought to any part of his realm outside of his own walls; had scarcely heard the gathering storm, had looked unseeing at Matthew's anxious black eyes before closing the door again.
Tomorrow, he would open the door; tomorrow he would work. For this night, a few bare rooms were all Dream's realm.
The door swung open-- silently, but Dream felt the intrusion. He looked up. Lucien hung back in the shadows; Hob stood on the threshold.
You may have met Dream of the Endless, in one of his many forms. If you have seen him in state, throned in the Dreaming-- and many have, for he is old, and his domain great-- then you will remember him as terrible and implacable. If you have passed him in the street, somewhere in the waking world, or spoken to him there, then you will remember his brusque courtesy-- perhaps lightened by amusement, if you were fortunate, if you pleased him. Perhaps not.
More likely, you have seen him in dreams. Think: can you remember him, in the background, his cloak blending into the shadows-- observing, searching, appraising? If you can, if you have watched him at his work, then you have seen him closer than any messenger or supplicant who has ever approached his throne; have seen his face soften in thought, seen his brow furrow, perhaps seen him smile, unconsciously, with pride, and woken with your night's dream still vivid before your eyes.
If you can, then, call to mind Dream's face. But know that your memory is an imperfect guide. You have not seen the face that Dream lifted to Lucien and Hob. Nor had they, until that moment; nor would they again.
Lucien cleared his throat. "My lord--" He broke off, not knowing whether to announce Hob or to apologize, or offer some unaccustomed words of empathy or concern; after a pause he simply nodded and withdrew. Hob, scarcely hearing him, was already across the threshold, reaching out to Dream and laying a hand on his arm. Dream froze at the touch.
Anger was all Dream had felt as the door had opened. Hob had sensed it, would have known, had he stopped to think, that he risked the same angry dismissal the raven had met. But Dream simply stood, staring at Hob, motionless. After a moment he looked down at Hob's hand on his sleeve.
The rain, that Dream had scarcely heard, was suddenly loud in his ears. A gust of wind slipped through the casements with a rattle of glass; it whipped at Dream's hair and around Hob's ankles, and blew the door shut with a bang.
Hob heard it slam behind him, and wished he knew better what to say. But as always with Dream, he fell back on plain honesty. "I'm afraid I'm a bit out of my depth, mate."
"Then you speak for us both, Hob Gadling."
"If there's anything--" Hob knew as he spoke what the answer could be, but still, he had to ask-- "is there anything I can do?"
"No. There is nothing you can do."
"Well." Hob released his arm, with a squeeze, but let his hand fall back onto Dream's shoulder. "Have you tried getting drunk?"
Dream stared down at him. Nothing, not even reflection, moved in his depthless eyes. "Is that traditional, under such circumstances?"
"It's a very old tradition."
And now some glint of presence returned to the Dream Lord's face. "So it is. Well, then--" Dream shook off Hob's hand and looked to either side, distracted, as if searching for something he'd mislaid. "Ah."
He crossed the room in a few strides; against the far wall was a wine rack that Hob was sure had not been there a moment ago, though the dust lay thick enough beneath it that it might have stood there for decades. Dream chose a bottle, blew the dust from it. "Please, sit." Hob did, on a long Grecian couch before a low table. Dream joined him, set down two glasses. "I believe you have a corkscrew in your pocket," he said, and Hob did.
The bottle was crusted in dust and cobwebs, the label unreadable, but the wine was as dark and bright as garnets in the glass, and its scent that of the red flowers. Hob raised his glass. He thought of making a toast, but no words came, and so he simply touched his glass to the Dream Lord's, and drank.
Not the same wine, after all. The Dream Lord's gift had been an 1828 Chateau Lafitte; this was every claret he had ever drunk, and every grape he had tasted, and his every memory of cherries and plums and new-turned loam, swimming heady and strong over his tongue.
Hob was used to the pull of memory. He shook his head to clear it, and set down the glass. "So. What are the circumstances?"
Dream stared into his glass. Reflected light rippled within it, the glints of white fracturing and bleeding into the red. He could see his own face, distorted by ripples and red-washed, hardly recognizable. He drank; the image shattered. "I killed my son."
Hob said nothing, but a gout of wine splashed over the rim of his glass and dripped down his hand. His mouth was too dry to speak; and when he set down the glass again it was half-empty. "Why?" How, he had meant to ask; would have asked, had this been anyone else. Had he been able to believe it mere accident.
The Dream Lord, face bowed and hidden by his hair, held the bowl of his wineglass between his hands like a crystal ball. Light rippled over the liquid within. "He asked me to." He tilted the glass, breaking the lamplight and scattering it over the table. "And I owed it to him."
Hob found his voice again. "If you gave him what he needed of you, then you did better by him than I ever did by my Robin."
Dream drank deep of the wine; at first draft, it had been nearly flavorless to him, but now Hob's memories had begun to leach into it, and Dream tasted currants and pepper and rain-beaten black earth. "If I had given him first what he most needed of me, he should never have had to ask me for his death."
"But you never can know, can you? What they needed, what you should have done. You can second-guess yourself forever, but it won't change things."
Dream said nothing. It was not a comfortable silence, not companionable. There were words waiting in it-- Hob could almost feel them massing like clouds: heavy words, and none of them his. He took a drink and spoke again. "I've lost children. Six of them, now. It doesn't get easier. Harder, really, each time.
"Robin, though-- somehow I'd never really believed he could die." Now Hob was the one staring into his glass; he could feel the Dream Lord's eyes on him. "All children think they're immortal. Their parents are supposed to know better. But I didn't. I'd never watched a child of my own grow up before.
"I taught him to fight, you know. I taught him to fight, and to boast, and to take stupid chances even I wouldn't take, because I couldn't believe that any creature so full of life could ever die.
"I'd lost people before that. I mean, I'd lived four lifetimes. But it was Robin's death that really drove it home to me, I think. That I was going to lose everyone.
"It was a long a time after that before I let myself love anyone again." Hob drained his glass. He reached, not quite steadily, for the bottle; Dream took it and poured. Hob nodded his thanks and drank again. "And I think I near scared Lisabet half to death sometimes, with the way I worried about her, about the children. Not that worrying ever did a bloody bit of good, but." Hob shrugged. "What else can you do?"
Silence again, though Hob knew the Dream Lord had been listening. In spite of himself, perhaps, but listening. "So," Hob said. "Your boy."
Dream swallowed dryly. "Orpheus." He drained his own glass at a draft.
Hob knew the name, of course, and the story. On his shelf in the Library of Dreams, there had been a pretty little book of Sir Orfeo and Dame Heurodis: it had woodcuts, and gilt initials, and a most unscholarly happy ending. That had been one of his first books, dreamed so long ago he had quite forgotten it until tonight, but almost all of Robert Gadling's books had happy endings, and the older he grew the more he preferred them; they were all too rare in life.
But Hob said none of this, merely filled Dream's glass. The bottle seemed no lighter. "Tell me about him?"
He was mortal, Dream thought.
"His courage shamed me, at the end," was what he said.
He told the tale, though he knew Hob had heard it: how Orpheus sought his beloved in the Underworld, and lost her; how the women of the frenzy tore him to pieces and tossed his head into the Hebrus; how the priests on Naxos had cared for him. The tale came easily; it had its own shape, its own history and momentum. Stories were his realm, and here in the Dreaming they demanded to be told, they welled up, unbidden, and found their own words.
His own role, though, in his own story: this was a harder thing; and wherever the tale touched him-- in Orpheus's flight from the Dreaming, their good-bye on the shore, the boon that, at last, his son had asked him for and he had granted-- his words came slowly or not at all. The wine flowed, though to Dream it had lost its taste, seeming to turn to rain on his tongue.
"He asked me to give him the death he had forsaken, when he went into the Underworld. He asked me for an ending. And he told me that he wished that things could have been otherwise." He turned the glass in his hands, staring down at them. "I am the king of what is otherwise. I should have-- it was in my power to give him more than his death."
"What would you have given him?" asked Hob. "You can't give what they won't take. And if he was as stubborn as you are, and he sounds like he was, what would he have taken, from you? Would you have saved his Heurodis?" Neither noticed Hob's reversion to the first name he'd learned for Eurydice. And he still poured the wine steadily enough.
"Calliope told me I should have."
"His mother?" Dream nodded. "Did she-- was that the end of that, then?"
"Things had been ending between us for a long time before that," said Dream. "She removed herself from my life quite completely. I have seen her once since that day; once only. I freed her from a mortal's prison." He held up his glass, studying his distorted reflection in its curve. "She was... surprised, that I would come to her aid."
"Why?" asked Hob. "Was she," he clarified. "I mean--" and he drank-- "It's not like you could have just left her to rot."
Dream slammed his glass to the table; wine spilled, collected into red beads, round and bright as berries. "Could I not?
"I seduced Titania more from love of intrigue than of her, and still I hated her for returning to Auberon. I bedeviled Alianora with my jealousy until she forsook both me and the waking world, when she was faultless. My last lover, I--" Dream shook his head, heavily and slowly; his body's inertia seemed hard to overcome. He was drunk, he realized. "I do not know how I drove her away, but there was no warmth in her eyes when she left me."
Hob patted Dream's shoulder absently. He refilled his glass and drank. The bottle was still no lighter, though this had long since ceased to surprise him. Dream's glass, cradled between his long hands, was still half full; Dream sat, elbows on his knees and head bowed, staring into his wine. "I failed them all," he murmured. "There's no one I've ever cared for whom I haven't made hate me."
Hob slid the bottle across the table, and let his head fall against the back of the couch. "I don't hate you."
His eyes were falling shut. If he had been watching Dream, had seen the face he turned to him, he would have remembered an evening in 1889, when Dream had stormed out of a pub at Hob's daring to call him friend. But Hob stared at the ceiling through half-shut eyes, while to himself, almost inaudibly, Dream muttered, "It is not given to mortals to love the endless."
"Not mortal," Hob said. He raised his head, finally feeling Dream's eyes on him. Dream stared.
And now Hob remembered their last-- no, next to last-- meeting; their last in the waking world. Dream had come, as Hob had not been sure he would; he had called them friends. But there had almost been a shadow around the word, the way he'd said it. A doubt. This was a man-- or close enough-- unused to friendship. Which, Hob thought, explained rather a lot about his romantic troubles. "You're so young," he said. And then by way of explanation: "All your mistakes... you make the mistakes of a seventeen-year-old."
Dream still stared at him as though he'd sprouted horns; Hob knew he'd left out some crucial steps of that argument, somewhere. He kept talking, about the youth-- the hundred years of youth, in retrospect-- that he'd almost forgotten, and the women he'd swived or worshipped or both, but never befriended and never understood; wakefulness returned as he spoke, and with it, slowly, a trace of sobriety.
And so Hob did see Dream lay aside his glass, begin to draw himself up straighter, saw Dream's face take on an expression that seemed familiar to him, though he had never seen Dream wear it. Much later, Hob would realize he must have worn it himself, in 1840, standing for the first time before the reds and ochres of Turner's Slave Ship and hearing a man behind him, the owner of a cotton-mill, dismiss it as 'sensationalist' and 'fanciful.'
But that was still to come; too late to prepare Hob for Dream's interruption. "Six hundred years you have known me," he hissed "and you still have no idea just what I am capable of.
"Ten thousand years ago I loved a mortal woman. Nada. And she loved me, as no mortal woman has ever loved. I would have made her my queen. I would have made her a goddess. But she refused me. Refused me, and took her own life. I followed her. I warned her-- I told her that if she spurned me again, I would condemn her soul to eternal torment. And she begged me not to ask her again.
"And I did. And she said no. And I sent Nada to Hell.
"She would be there still, if my siblings had not goaded me into releasing her. If they had not stung my pride. She hurt my pride, and I condemned her to untold suffering for ten thousand years. This is who I am; this is the man you call friend. This is what I do to those I love."
Dream looked at his hands, not looking up when Hob tentatively clasped his shoulder. "I told you. You're young. You can learn."
"I was not young ten thousand years ago when I condemned my lover to Hell. I was not young three thousand years ago when I disowned my son. I was not young five hundred years ago when I robbed a playwright of his. I have not learned. I have not changed."
"Two hundred years ago you told me it's a poor thing to enslave another. You freed Calliope. You freed Nada. And today you let your son go. You have changed."
Hob meant it, Dream knew, as reassurance. Hob did not know that Change's other name was Destruction, nor that Dream had sought him out.
And found him. Expecting to fail, expecting to come home untouched, unchanged, he had found what he sought. Dream put his head in his hands and laughed.
When he came to himself again, Hob was stroking his back and watching him, concern writ on his face. He opened his mouth to speak; Dream held up a hand, forestalling him.
"You're right, Hob Gadling." He let his hand fall to Hob's shoulder. "I have changed." And then he kissed him.
For one moment, Hob was too surprised to react; and in the next, he thought, fleetingly, of Audrey, in whose bed he slept even now. But then he felt Dream's lips tremble against his, felt Dream's hand shake against his neck, and knew he could refuse him nothing. He opened his mouth under Dream's, tangled his hands in Dream's hair.
Dream's throat was white and cool under his lips, though his pulse beat rapidly, loud enough for Hob to hear. Dream's hands were cool and strong, in his hair, against his chest. For a moment, Hob thought he was being pushed away, but Dream came with him, laid them down on the narrow couch and tangled their legs together, let his hair fall around their faces.
Hob thought, if he tried, he could make his clothes dissolve, as they do in dreams; but why should he, when Dream gave every button his full attention? Every button, and every inch of skin. His touch was cool and deliberate; Hob felt feverish and wanton, pressing back into his hand. Grabbing handfuls of his hair. Biting Dream's lip and tasting blood.
When he came to his senses, he was stroking Dream's back, slowly tracing the too-prominent ribs and vertebrae. Dream broke their kiss long enough to shrug his shirt off, and then covered him with his body. His skin was still cool, even as his breath came faster against Hob's mouth, even as Hob reached between them.
Here, at least, he was warm, smooth and hot in Hob's hand, and Hob wondered what he would taste like; craved to know, with an intensity that shocked him. But Dream would not surrender his mouth, nor pull away from his body, and so Hob simply drew him closer. Held him, and drank his kisses, while Dream shuddered in his arms. After, tangled a hand in Dream's black hair, and licked the blood from his lips.
Too soon, Dream lifted his head from Hob's chest, looked down at him. "Hob. This is... this isn't--"
"I know," said Hob.
Dream sat up, pulled his knees up to his chest. "You should go."
"I know." He touched Dream's cheek. "You'll be all right, on your own?"
Dream nodded, heavily; to Hob in that moment he seemed impossibly old and weary. "I have many responsibilities." But he caught Hob's hand, briefly, and pressed it. And then, "Wake," Dream said, and Hob did.
That night, you dreamed of red flowers, and woke with them bursting behind your eyes, so bright you knew they would be blazed on your memory forever. But men forget, in waking hours.
Maybe you caught your dreams of that night, held them fast, burned every detail into your memory in your first few waking moments. Or maybe they have faded, as dreams will, the flowers withering, their scent and their color lost to you now.
Hob Gadling woke up in Audrey's bed, her hair strewn across his pillow. He sat up and watched her sleep, watched the slow rise and fall of her breasts as she breathed.
He felt neither regret nor remorse; to have pushed his friend away in his grief and need would have been a worse sin by far, and in any case Audrey would never know. But it was Audrey's face, not his night's dream, that he drank in, that he willed into his memory.
It never got easier, he had told the Dream King. And it never had. He'd loved many women in his long lifetime; had lain with many more, and with a few men besides. He'd lost more friends and lovers than he cared to count.
So it was no surprise, really, that he should come to treasure the constants in his life. That after six hundred years, the familiar grace of a white hand, the familiar gleam of a depthless black eye, might gain to the power to move him, might stir him to more than friendship.
But even their friendship had been a long time growing. And if there were more to his feelings now-- well. In fifty years, in three-score-and-ten, in ninety-six-- all too soon, the woman beside him would be dust. But they, Hob and the Dream King, they had all the time in the world.
And so Hob watched Audrey's quiet sleep, as the day dawned, breathing in her scent and tracing her features, and let his dreams slip away. He let himself forget-- willed himself to forget-- the feel of Dream's hair, spilling out of his fists, as coarse and smooth as horsetail plumes. To forget his skin, as cool and fine as parchment, and his hands, hard and strong but unmarred by knot or scar or callus. To forget the tastes of wine and blood on the Dream King's mouth, and how by the end, he'd not known which was which.