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fear in a handful of dust

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Hyunjin watched the same dream happen for the nth time.

A younger version of Jisung was sitting on the carpeted floor beside the weathered La-Z-Boy chair where an old woman sat in, her face scribbled out with black ink just like all the other faces in Jisung’s dreams. They were watching television together, the blocks of blue light flickering across their faces. Pixelated figures flashed before the screen but Hyunjin didn’t recognize them like he didn’t recognize anything remotely human anymore.

Hyunjin flexed his hand. Gathering courage through a sharp intake of breath, he lifted his arms and stripped the dream of its protection and embellished it. The atmosphere turned heavy and hard to breathe in; the lights flickered off and dragged all of them into a murky darkness; elongated shadows with deformed smiles haunted the frigid blue walls. The young Jisung whimpered and drew his knees to his chest before glancing up at the old woman who was stock-still in her chair.

Halmeoni,” he whispered, tugging at her cotton trousers. “I’m scared.”

The darkness was imbued with fear and anxiety and it heightened Hyunjin’s sense of hunger. But there was also dread that lingered in the pit of his empty stomach that made him hesitant from ingesting the wet cloths of fear surrounding Jisung’s heart. Fear smelled delicious and delectable and just right for a Nightmare’s greedy appetite, but Hyunjin -

Hyunjin watched the faceless old woman reach around the chair like she always did. She twisted her fragile body and returned with a semi-automatic in her feeble hands. Hyunjin forced himself to stay resolute - to maintain the nightmare, but the old woman was turning the gun around in her hands and Jisung was watching her with innocuous eyes, and Hyunjin couldn’t do it anymore.

He squeezed his eyes shut and tore the whole nightmare apart with his own shaky hands. The world disintegrated into white and with a jerk, he woke up.

Hyunjin gasped and wrenched away from Jisung’s forehead as though he was scalded by the human’s warmth, and staggered back.

Daylight dispersed across the sky. Hyunjin clutched his abdomen and gritted his teeth. He failed to eat again, all because of his craven of a heart.

He didn’t understand why hesitance was so deeply rooted into the core of his being when it came to Jisung. Hyunjin didn’t understand why he couldn’t watch that tedious dream drenched in blue until the very end. There was something crawling beneath his skin and he had to dig his nails into his arms before he could breathe properly.

Hyunjin glanced up at the window when he saw movement in his periphery. An amber-eyed calico cat was staring at him. It was perched on top of the window sill where a sea of sunlight poured through the glass and softly pooled over its figure. The cat’s uncanny gaze unnerved Hyunjin. He didn’t like the feeling of being seen by things that are still alive.

He flinched when Jisung began to stir from his sleep. Hyunjin hid in the corner, watching as Jisung reluctantly sat up from bed, threading his fingers through his messy brown hair. Shadows sat beneath his eyes like smears of ash, looking haggard and worse for wear.

“Fuck,” Jisung croaked, covering his face with a hand. “Same stupid dream all the time.”

With a sigh, he rolled his shoulders back and stretched his arms. He perked up when he heard a mewl. His expression immediately softened when the cat leapt off of the window sill and jumped onto Jisung’s bed, stepping into his lap over the blankets. Jisung huffed and scratched behind the cat’s ears. “You’re oddly nice today, shithead. Don’t attack me this time.”

Hyunjin blinked at the unexpectedly bright timbre of his voice. His eyes flickered towards the cat that was staring right at Hyunjin, its bright amber eyes looking liquid in the shifting light. The cat reeked of familiarity. Jisung too.

“Whatcha lookin’ at, Lix?” Jisung asked softly, following the cat’s gaze. Jisung looked straight past Hyunjin. He swallowed tightly and looked away. Jisung huffed at the lack of response from the cat and gently picked Lix up to deposit it to the side. “Fine, freeloader. Always me that’s paying the rent, anyway.”

Jisung shuffled out of bed, stifling a yawn behind a hand before he grabbed a change of clothes and trudged into the bathroom of his studio apartment. The cat was still staring at Hyunjin.

Lix,” Hyunjin mouthed. A sharp pain surged through his chest; Hyunjin blinked at the unexpected sensation. Familiarity should not have come to him, yet it did.

Hyunjin was supposed to be empty. He ate past vulnerability in order to survive. Every speck of humanity was supposed to have been scraped right out of his soul.

Hyunjin shook his head. He glanced at the bathroom door before he sunk below the floor and disappeared into the shadows - gone like a star at daybreak.

»»—★—««

The sky of his Gloaming, an enclosed orbit that was his rest place, was always at the state of midnight, framed by the murky afterglow of the moon thinly veiled by the purple clouds. Hyunjin lied down in the field of black tulips, letting the soft petals unfurl and stroke his skin as a gesture of detached comfort.

Hyunjin closed his eyes. He didn’t sleep. Didn’t dream either. He tried sometimes in secret when nobody else was looking and when Morpheus was occupied with His celestial symposiums. He imagined a sunny cornfield in the middle of nowhere, framed by hills of white and pink clovers and a sky emulating an impressionist painting. There would be sundogs burning bright in the sky and flickering like a flame choked to dust in the distance. A warm, summer day - as humans would say.

But it was just a film born of ignorance playing out in his head. Hyunjin could never dream. Funny that a Nightmare would want to dream at all.

He heard quiet footsteps crossing the threshold, a sound like a coin tossed at the surface of a puddle and ringing into the wisps of air. Hyunjin opened his eyes and found somebody dressed in the same all-black assemble and ornamentation towering over him, carrying a platter in his hands.

“Hyunjin,” Woojin said. “You didn’t eat again, did you?”

He sat up and the tulips behind him deflated at the loss of company. “How did you know?”

Woojin dropped down onto the ground beside him as the tulips made space for him. What was on top of the platter came into plain view and Hyunjin saw the tangible essences of fear hovering above the silver surface, oozing with inky tendrils with a slight shimmer of jet. “What makes you think I wouldn’t know with how you’ve been acting recently? You have to be more cautious. Iris has her eyes everywhere, reporting to Morpheus like the snitch she is.”

He handed the platter over to Hyunjin, who took it with ginger care and gratitude. Offhandedly, Woojin mentioned, “Morpheus is ill. It seems another one of us has left this life too.”

Hyunjin opened his mouth and inhaled the essences. He let its icy warmth sink into every pore until it settled pleasantly into the bottom of his stomach. Hyunjin flexed his hand, testing to see if most of his strength returned. “Do we know them?”

“He was a Dream Eater. One of Morpheus’ favourite creations,” he murmured. “I've forgotten his name.”

“It’s kinda hard to believe He cares when He can create another one by just the flick of a finger at the bridge of souls.”

“Yes, but I suppose there is some paternal intimacy he feels. We are his creations, after all, even if Nightmares seem to be less fancied.” Woojin took the platter from Hyunjin’s hands. “Was it enough?”

Hyunjin nodded. Woojin pursed his lips and added, “This cannot continue and you know that. You have to feed on that human’s fear one way or another. You know his trauma; use it."

I can’t. Hyunjin wasn’t like Woojin who, with nimble fingers and a morbid imagination, pieced together a colossus of night terrors that could haunt one for an eternity; who faded in and out of the shadows and drifted around the crystals of the world, calculating his next night terror to weave together.

The most Hyunjin had ever done was mold a nightmare after a little girl's mother, contorted and grotesque and mechanically detailed to the very last pore. The little girl never stopped crying even after Hyunjin left. She had lost her mother two nights ago.

To play with the monsters inside a human’s head - Hyunjin told himself it was for survival. But why did he have to make others suffer in order to live?

“I will,” Hyunjin murmured, the half-truth rinsing his palate with a bitter taste. He looked down at his lap. “I just need more time.”

Woojin regarded him with what could have been sympathy if it had not been for his default blankness. “Alright. I suppose you are still adjusting to this new life, considering you haven’t been a Nightmare for long. But keep in mind that Morpheus kept you around because He has faith in you.”

Hyunjin sucked in his teeth and curtly nodded. Sensing Hyunjin’s reluctance to keep the conversation going, Woojin sighed and stood up from his seat. He patted his trousers and said, “I will be returning to my Gloaming, then. Take care, Hyunjin.”

He watched as Woojin stepped into a rift through the space of his Gloaming, his body disappearing through the blurry ripple like he was pulled beneath the surface of the waters.

Hyunjin unclenched his fists and laid back down, welcomed by the tulips that clung to him like moths drawn to a flame and closed his eyes, pretending to dream until he could forget what he was.

»»—★—««

Halmeoni,” he whispered, “I’m scared.”

Hyunjin was trembling. He felt enervated and weak as though his stomach was about to bottom out despite its hunger pangs, and his legs were seconds from buckling. He watched as the young Jisung tugged at his grandmother’s cotton trousers - as she grabbed the gun and aimed it inside her mouth to reach the back of her throat. Jisung kept staring at her with wide, wide eyes, head tilted to the side as though he was curious rather than scared.

And Hyunjin, despite his standing as a person non grata among the Nightmares, was always careful in his work. He never let his presence be seen or felt. He was punctilious and never walked down a wayward path of rebellion and conspicuous misery.

But as Jisung watched his grandmother release the safety of the semi-automatic in awe like he was gaping at a jewel cut in askew angles that demanded his attention, like a circus act in the middle of a rural town, Hyunjin felt the sharp bolt of irritation lurch through him and couldn’t help the words from escaping his mouth, “Stop it.”

Jisung didn’t hear him. Her finger was minutely pressing the trigger, inch by inch, and all Hyunjin could feel was the hatred bubbling beneath his skin at how he had to witness Jisung’s misplaced innocence over and over and over again. Hyunjin snarled, “Look away!”

There was a brief moment of silence. Then like a toy winded up again, Jisung snapped his head around to meet Hyunjin’s eyes, limpid in the blue light, as his grandmother blasted her brains out.

Red dripped from the ceilings. Red was smeared across Jisung’s young face, but he never once took his eyes away from Hyunjin. Red imbued the room with rectangles of purple within the mixture of blue hues. Red swam in his vision.

Jisung didn’t blink. He tilted his head and asked hollowly, “Who are you?”

Everything fell askew. Hyunjin’s hands turned to murky claws and he tore the dream into shreds.

 

Hyunjin gasped awake and stumbled back. He whirled around, dropped to his knees, and threw up a congealed pool of black and red from his stomach.

Hyunjin dry-heaved and took in shaky breaths, clutching his stomach tightly. His brain felt like it would swell beyond the capacity of his skull, lathered in cold sweat, as bile and spit dribbled down his chin. He tasted blood that didn’t belong to him in his mouth and his stomach contracted violently again, but he forced everything down and clenched his jaw until his muscles locked. The pain was pulsing and twisting his chest as though he was the gruesome mother in that little girl’s nightmare receiving retribution.

He coughed and spat out residue of his vomit. The stars spun in his eyes and he didn’t quite regain his senses until he felt something soft brush against his thigh. Hyunjin blinked away the blurriness from his vision and glanced at the source.

Lix blinked up at him languidly before it licked a paw. Hyunjin felt his breath catch in his throat; he stiffened and didn’t dare to move.

“What’re you doing, shithead?”

Hyunjin almost toppled over when he turned around to face Jisung who was seated up in his bed, drenched in sweat with a look of bewilderment and confusion scrawled over his face. But he wasn’t looking at Hyunjin. He was looking down at Lix, pawing at Hyunjin’s thigh, but it must have seemed as though Lix was pawing at the air instead.

Gritting his teeth, Hyunjin sunk beneath the floor into the shadows and dispersed beyond the mountains of light.

»»—★—««

Hyunjin couldn’t breathe. He fucked up.

His hands were trembling as he drew himself into a fetal position among the field of black tulips. Underneath the icy cloudlight, the sky stippled with faint stars that surrounded the bitten moon, Hyunjin prayed for mercy and forgiveness as he waited for punishment to come.

He’d never heard of a Nightmare being caught by a human, nor had he ever thought of being that Nightmare before. Hyunjin was so, so stupid. Why did he step over the boundaries that were drawn conspicuously between him and the mortal realm? Why was he filled with such inexplicable anger, such inexplicable longing, that compelled him to call to Jisung?

Humans and Dream Matters co-existed on different planes within the same reality; they maintained anonymity and invisibility unseen by the human eye, fluttering in between the worlds like parasitic ghosts, like the mythical beings that humans passed down through oral and written fables no one could ever prove to be real. But most of all, they were to never make their presence be seen or felt in the dreams, lest they were found among the human’s consciousness.

But Jisung became lucid in that small fissure of time. Jisung had seen Hyunjin, had committed Hyunjin to memory, had talked to Hyunjin. Hyunjin knew that once his presence was detected, the human subconscious would become wary and make the chance of becoming lucid increase even more.

He could feel panic bubbling in his gut, clawing him from the inside out, grappling him in such a tight hold that he could see static in his vision.

And in a moment of utter weakness, Hyunjin turned his head to face the moon. His chest secretly ached with longing and he stared at a particular star in the sky he liked to think held the spirit of a long gone companion. “What should I do?”

The star dimmed. Then it flickered like a broken lamp, as if to say: Talk to the human again.

“But why?”

He’s familiar to you like an itch at a spot you can’t reach. Don’t you want to know?

“I’m not supposed to want anything.”

You’re a bad liar. You’re the only Nightmare that’s ever wanted anything at all.

Hyunjin pursed his lips. He couldn’t quite argue with that. Hyunjin was never a match against him. In the distance of his mind, he could hear the playful tilt of his gentle voice.

“But I’ve broken the rules. He is going to get rid of me because I’ve become a liability to the hidden harmonization of our worlds.”

Use your head a little, will you? He loves His creations too much to throw them away. He won’t interfere unless it’s life-threatening.

“Everything I do is life-threatening.”

That’s your fault, Mindless Hyunjin. Go back to him and find your answers.

Hyunjin felt his lips twitch at the familiar nickname. (Familiar, familiar, everything was so familiar). He stifled a smile from growing on his face by forcing the edges of his mouth down with his fingers. When the urge disappeared, Hyunjin lifted his index finger and pressed the star twice, whispering, “I hope you’ve finally obtained the happiness you so desired.”

The star beamed before it lost its shine and blended in with the rest of the stars spread across the sky. Hyunjin sucked in a deep breath and slowly sat up from his recline.

He looked down at his pale hands, shaking with fine tremors, and clenched them into fists.

»»—★—««

Hyunjin returned to Jisung’s apartment by gingerly appearing through the walls as he stepped above the floor rather than on it. It was midnight but Jisung wasn’t in his bed; Hyunjin found him leaning against the railing of his balcony, looking up at the sky while he blew a plume of smoke out of his mouth, holding a little white stick between his fingers. Hyunjin stared at his back for a bit.

Hyunjin took tentative steps forward. He noticed Lix sleeping by the foot of the bed, curled up in itself.

It was cold outside. The sharp glare of the moonlight glinted against the dewy grass so that it twinkled like a field of stars. Hyunjin saw the sparkling city lights across the horizon and the mountains, signaling life in the vast darkness that was cold as a sea of stone. Hyunjin held in a breath as he stepped beside Jisung, holding himself still.

Hyunjin leaned against the railing and pretended that it was a companionable silence between them - pretended to be just like Jisung, staring off into the sky like a human who revelled in the complacent in-between states of the world. But it merely amplified the feeling of familiarity that grated on his nerves.

Jisung waited for the city to sleep before he finally stubbed out his third cigarette. He trekked back into his apartment, got himself cleaned up, and climbed into bed. Hyunjin looked out at the distance for another hour or so until he trailed after Jisung.

He took a moment to look around the apartment. It was rather plain and lacked much of a personal flair to the bare-bones of the interior with nothing but white walls and cracked ceilings that accompanied the basic furniture. A stark reflection of the human’s mind.

Hyunjin observed the rise and fall of Jisung’s chest and the way his breaths came out steady. Stepping forward, he leaned in until their foreheads touched. With a sharp intake of breath, Hyunjin closed his eyes and pulled the hanging threads of that scattered memory together back into completion, and crossed the threshold of worlds.

Halmeoni, I’m scared.”

The same dream, the same colours. Hyunjin looked at the ghastly blue hue of Jisung’s face, carved out from the television light that fluttered across the old woman’s figure. He watched them carry out the same actions bearing the weight of an unchangeable end result.

Anxiety crept into his chest and pulled his lungs tight. Hyunjin could get this over with. He could just get this over with and move onto the next human. Curiosity only killed the cat and Hyunjin didn’t want to stick around long enough to find out what curiosity did to Nightmares.

At the sight of Jisung’s grandmother placing the semi-automatic into her mouth, Hyunjin lifted a hand and outstretched it towards them, only for his hand to collide with a transparent barrier. Bemused, Hyunjin placed his hands against the obstacle, before he slammed his fists against it that sent a faint ripple through the entirety of the invisible wall from the impact.

“What?” Hyunjin whispered.

He stepped back and suddenly, the view of the memory grew smaller and in clarity. Hyunjin realized somebody had trapped that memory within a clear, transparent box away from Hyunjin’s reach, like he was fixed behind a partition and was forced to watch the replay until the very end without being able to do anything at all.

This - this didn’t make sense. Hyunjin was no longer in control of Jisung’s dream and that wasn’t supposed to be possible, unless -

Hyunjin noticed another presence beside him. He met a pair of bright eyes unlike the cloudy night sky, and Hyunjin felt his breath hitch and stomach lurch.

“Who are you?” Jisung asked, tilting his head. Hyunjin felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.

The younger Jisung was staring up at his grandmother with her finger curled around the trigger. Hyunjin nearly cried out in frantic fear, “You’re not supposed to be here. You’re not supposed to - you can’t - you’re not supposed to be here!”

“The last time I checked, I’m not the one invading my own private mind.”

“Don’t look,” Hyunjin implored. “You can’t look.”

Jisung didn’t spare him a glance. He continued to watch his late grandmother exercise her own death in her rocking chair. “Hypocrite. Then why do you make me remember it?”

Hyunjin didn’t have an answer as a gunshot reverberated through the air. Blood splattered across the transparent walls in an exaggerated effect. He could hear the echo of flesh exploding in his ears. Jisung didn’t even flinch. His eyes were wide with a certain blankness like an empty void. Hyunjin didn’t like that look.

Jisung regarded the whole scene like he regarded the weather forecast. "She wasn't going to live past seventy, anyway."

The world beneath their feet started to rumble. Hyunjin watched the entire memory collapse into a heaping mess of sacrilege, breaking down into neat and tidy folds, stripping down the foundations until it was all drywall with holes in them and skeletons in their places. Everything became white and quiet until the world started to spin like the planet had reversed its rotation around its axis.

Then they were falling, falling, falling into blackness. Hyunjin could feel hands that did not belong to him smother his mouth until suddenly, there was light.

No, there was a sky.

A rose madder sky, in fact, with violet cumulus clouds descending beyond the mountains in dark blues.
Hyunjin became aware that he’d been lying down on concrete. When he sat up, he realized it was a rooftop that belonged to an eight storey building. He could see the large expanse of tall plexiglass skyscrapers stretch across the city landscape, reaching towards the far distance that blended in with the blinding afterglow of the sinking sun.

But in the middle of it all was a lone figure sitting at the ledge of the rooftop, expelling white clouds from chapped lips.

Hyunjin stepped forward into the unknown.

He took a seat beside Jisung with shaky legs, leaving an arm’s length worth of distance between them. His hands are clenched tightly. “You’re lucid.”

“And are you a figment of my imagination, the literal embodiment of my fucked up mind, or are you real?”

Hyunjin blinked down at his lap and the paleness of his angular hands. Real. The word circled around his head in an endless rotunda of self-doubt, dotted with a question and an intonation of uncertainty. He lacked the complexion, the warmth, the internal constitution of a human, so were Dream Matters real even though they thrived and interacted in dreams? Was he real?

He dug his nails into his palms until it left blotchy red marks. How futile it was to possess the superficial qualities of a human when he was anything but.

“I am as real as you want me to be,” he whispered.

Jisung slanted him an unimpressed look. “See, I wouldn’t say some stupid vague shit like that, and neither would my subconscious, so you’re definitely the latter.” He brought his cigarette to his lips and paused. “Also, I would never let any version of myself dress like a fan of Korn attending a niche Halloween party in the early two-thousands.”

Hyunjin was confused at all the human terminology he no longer understood. But he was more confused at Jisung’s complacent reaction. Hyunjin had been expecting something more explosive with concrete slabs of denial and anger than something so resigned at the revelation of a dream-infesting creature. But perhaps humans have changed over the years of Hyunjin’s manifestation of another life.

Jisung blew out a plume of smoke and finally looked at Hyunjin, his eyes burning bright against the darkening skylight. “So. This is my dream, and I’m conducting it. You, on the other hand, are an invader. And you are probably the reason why that memory has been resurfacing every night since last month, am I right?”

Hyunjin opened his mouth. Closed it. Then he opened it again. “Yes.”

“Wow. Straight for the jugular then.” Jisung said wryly, rolling the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb. He was clever. Astute. And eerily flippant. “Couldn’t you have taken me out to dinner first?”

Hyunjin looked at him blankly.

Jisung rolled his eyes. “Tell me this, then. What are you? A monster that gets off at my oh-so-tormented soul? Some kind of ghost that’s attached to me because of, what - my negative energy? Or are you the cuter version of The Bogeyman? Because you’re doing a poor job of trying to scare me.”

Hyunjin stiffened at the casual throwaway of the word monster. If Hyunjin was real, then he was a monster, wasn’t he? That was what they were for torturing humans so they could survive. Self-preservation in the grand scheme of things meant the long-lasting consequences of a human’s damaged psyche.

He closed his eyes. In the muted darkness, he could still hear the echoes of that little girl’s cry, who now could only remember the last of her mother as a grossly shaped cadaver with maggots pouring out of her orifices - all because of Hyunjin.

Hyunjin glanced up at the sky. Devoid of stars, Hyunjin could still see a tiny glimmer of gold rather than silver. A shiver went down his spine at the thought of Iris spying over him, listening in on their conversation and witnessing Hyunjin’s misplaced honesty and act of benign mutiny.

But it was too late to turn back now. (Find your answers.)

“I am a Nightmare,” Hyunjin said quietly, “one of the Dream Matters that exist to induce night terrors so that we may feed off feelings of fear and anxiety.”

“Dream Matters?”

“That is what we are all called, but there are three specific creatures within that group that are classified individually. Dreams, Nightmares, and Dream Eaters. Morpheus is the celestial overseer of all. We co-exist with you in secrecy. You - were not supposed to see me.”

Jisung didn’t say anything at first. He tapped the ash away from the butt of the cigarette as he looked ahead contemplatively. His hair looked gold in the light. “Then why did you show yourself to me?”

“I don’t know,” was all Hyunjin could say.

“So you know everything about my life?”

“Well. No. As Nightmares, we have the ability to latch onto only one memory that causes the human great distress, and we use that to our advantage. We survive off the feelings of immense fear, therefore we repeat it in the dreams so we are able to feed ourselves. We do not invade the dossier of your other memories. We have our scruples.” Hyunjin looked down at his hands tightly bunched into fists. “But I… lacked the resolve, I suppose, to follow the protocol.”

“So you made me go through that every night only for you to miss your dinner because you were too much of a pussy?”

“What is a pussy?”

“It means scaredy cat.” Jisung huffed. He had turned around, leaning an arm against a hiked knee as he pillowed his cheek with a palm. There was a faint glint of amusement in his eyes and Hyunjin looked away before he could stare. “From what I gathered, Nightmares are assholes. Got it. But if all you needed were my feelings of fear and anxiety, you could have just made me dream about spiders. I’m fucking terrified of spiders.”

“Spiders,” Hyunjin repeated in disbelief. “Spiders are able to emulate the levels of fear you experience during your dream of that memory? How could that ever be the same?”

“I highly doubt you’ll question when you’re starving. How about you save me the grief of going through one of my childhood traumas again and let me get chased by a man-eating spider instead?”

Hyunjin noticed his hands were unclenched. The tension had leaked out of his shoulders like a faucet. Perhaps Jisung’s flippant attitude had helped ease his apprehension, but such a level of comfort would not do anything for him against the presentiment of Morpheus’ punishment. “I can do that.”

“Cool. What next, then?” Jisung asked. “After you feed off of me, I mean.”

Hyunjin licked the front of his teeth as he searched for a proper answer. “Most often, we would move onto another prey, but…“ He glanced hesitantly at Jisung, pressing his fingers against his nails until they turned white. “I would like to come back, if it is okay.”

“Oh. Sure.” Jisung said easily. “It’s not everyday you get to meet an otherworldly creature.”

Hyunjin stared at him, puzzled. Humans were innately confusing, but Jisung was beyond that. “Are you not afraid or doubtful of me at all?”

“Why should I be afraid? I’ve gone through things no other kid should. Kinda toughens you up a bit whether you like it or not.” Jisung let go of the cigarette from his fingers and watched it fall into a sea of black at the bottom. Smooth-edged shadows started to eclipse them as the skyscrapers began to glitch like a blip in the system.

“Besides, Jesus slept for three days and started a religion. It shouldn’t be hard to believe that dream creatures exist. Rather, it’s the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to me in the entirety of my twenty-one years of life, sans the horrible childhood.”

“Your horrible childhood isn’t supposed to be interesting.”

“Yeah?” Jisung scoffed. His eyes were cold as he looked at Hyunjin. “What would you know?”

The buildings began to collapse and the sky turned grey. The world was rotating, flipping over, and Hyunjin was falling back down the black hole. What would you know?

Hyunjin was hoping Jisung would have the answers to that.

 

 

Startled awake, Hyunjin blinked away the dream haze before he came back to his senses. Their foreheads were still touching; Hyunjin didn’t pull away as he watched Jisung groggily opened his eyes. They were a deep, burnished brown - warm, if imaginative enough. Familiar.

Hyunjin finally stepped back. Jisung sat up from his bed and rubbed away the sleepiness in his eyes, grunting when he tried to look against a sharp bar of sunlight. And in the middle of the apartment, Hyunjin was being watched by the calico cat. Hyunjin stared back, wondering what it was about it that made its fierce eyes look so wistful.

“Lix,” Jisung called, planting his feet onto the floor. “What’re you always looking at?”

It didn’t move. Hyunjin glanced over at Jisung to find him following Lix’s gaze, his eyes going straight through Hyunjin once more. But there seemed to be a gleam of understanding in his eyes, as though he’d put the invisible pieces together about the unseen creature staying stagnant in one single spot of his home.

“I guess you’ve got special eyes, then,” Jisung mumbled. He left his bed and stretched his limbs. As he collected fresh clothes from his closet on his way to the bathroom, he called loudly, “Hey, Nightmare. Spiders, not grannies next time, alright?”

Hyunjin’s lips quirked up imperceptibly. Though Jisung couldn’t hear him, Hyunjin whispered a reply anyway, “Alright.”

He receded back into the shadows, and let himself go gently this time.

»»—★—««

The next time Hyunjin visited Jisung, he kept his word.

It was an odd sight to watch a desultory character such as Jisung be chased by a violent eight-legged creature with beady eyes and furry limbs, screaming for his life. Jisung wasn’t lying when he said he was terrified of them; his levels of fear spiked like a rocket through space. Hyunjin hadn’t had a full stomach in so long. It was rather entertaining.

Before the titan spider could eat the dream Jisung, Hyunjin flicked his finger and the spider monster disintegrated into dust like flecks of a dandelion being blown away by the wind. There was a moment of silence before the world around them was stripped bare of the dreamscape into a blank space, and when Hyunjin blinked, he found himself looking at a sky - orange and bleary this time, smearing the sky like brassy oils - from the rooftop.

“Motherfucker,” Jisung cursed while shaking his head. His fingers were trembling as he brought the cigarette to his mouth. “Assholes, the lot of you. I hate spiders! I hope you had a goddamn feast.”

“I was half-tempted to sprinkle in spider babies, but I suppose I’ve made you suffer enough,” Hyunjin piped up lightly, taking a seat beside him on the ledge. “Thank you.”

Jisung gave him an unamused look. Then he lifted his cigarette in question. “Want one?”

“We are physically incapable of doing that.”

“Right. As if I’d know,” Jisung muttered. “Well, it’s a dream. Nothing’s essentially real, other than you, so I can smoke as much as I want here without thinking about the consequences. What a perk.”

Hyunjin frowned. “But you do it outside of your dreams as well.”

“Call it my self-destructive streak.”

Hyunjin hummed in acknowledgement. He glanced down at his relaxed hands splayed across his lap. He felt more intuned with his body after he’d eaten and was less sensitive to his improper emotions.

Then again, Hyunjin wasn’t supposed to feel in such extreme degrees or feel at all. Woojin mentioned the possibility that something strange had happened to Hyunjin’s soul under Morpheus’ care, resulting in Hyunjin’s uncanny constitution that made him act and feel more like a human than a creature. Perhaps that was why he felt familiarity around Jisung.

They sat there in silence. It wasn’t until Hyunjin looked down at his lap again when he felt something cold and wet that he realized a green glass cup was in his hand with a scoop of ice-cream floating in the middle, topped with a striped straw.

“Oh,” Jisung said plainly. He was holding a baseball in his free hand. “That’s weird. I was just thinking about Little League. Didn’t think my mind would do that.”

“What is this?”

Jisung stared at him incredulously. “C’mon. You gotta be kidding me. You’re serious? You’re serious. That’s cream soda! You don’t know general human things like soft drinks?”

“We were humans, once,” Hyunjin said quietly, raising the glass up against the yolk-like sun lowering behind the mountains of buildings. “Morpheus removed all vestiges of our past life so that we could live our present life as a Nightmare. Maybe when I had been human, I would have known and understood the references you make. Cream soda is very new to me at the moment, however.”

Jisung exchanged the baseball for the cream soda. He looked intrigued as he asked, “So you had parents before, then? You had a life, then you died somehow, and instead of being whisked away to Heaven and have your soul put to rest, you became a Nightmare? And you don’t remember a single thing about your time as a human?”

“No.”

He let out a low whistle. “Are you never curious?”

Hyunjin bit the inside of his cheek until his mouth tasted like wet copper. He couldn’t quite lie, considering that wasn’t part of his scruples, but neither could he be straightforward about his reasons. It was too confusing to condense it all into a simple explanation. Defeated, he mumbled, “I don’t know.”

Jisung seemed to accept that answer without complaint. He shrugged and took a sip of the cream soda through the straw, kicking his feet back and forth like a semblance of an unbothered child. “I played baseball as a kid. Was part of the Little League as the catcher.”

Jisung glanced up at Hyunjin, studying his face. “There was something about you that reminded me of a friend I used to have in the team. Maybe it’s the eyes. Anyway, he was almost like a genius pitcher and we were a pretty damn good battery - carried the team, if I say so myself. Whenever we won a game, we’d sneak away from the team to this cheap parlor for pizza and cream soda to celebrate.” His expression turned sour. “He never liked to celebrate with the coach.”

“Coach,” Hyunjin repeated innocuously. “Did you not like the coach?”

“That’s an understatement, but I guess to put it nicely? Yeah. I did.” Jisung glared at the drink in his hand. He placed it on the ledge and dropped his cigarette into it, only to tip it over, letting it fall to its fragile demise at the unseeable bottom. “I hate his fucking guts.”

“Why?”

Jisung was quiet for a moment. The buildings rippled and pulsed. “I just do.”

Hyunjin nodded. He wondered if Jisung was still friends with the boy - perhaps in spirit. Jisung wore an indecipherable expression that struck Hyunjin as baffling. Jisung was all loud, brash words yet his movements had the oblong languor of a dream. His voice had the structure of a piece of torn, blue silk caught in the branches amidst July.

He looked up and found that the dream was starting to fall apart. Hyunjin looked at Jisung’s profile for the last time and the way his eyes wandered in a wistful search for something out of reach, reminding Hyunjin of the calico cat that did the same.

Hyunjin closed his eyes. His chest felt heavy.

»»—★—««

“We’ve lost another one.”

Woojin sat down beside him. This time, they lounged beneath a rowan tree among the tulips. The leaves were purple and the trunk was true black, shimmering like a cracked-open geode, everything sharp and glittering crystal inside that mirrored the infinite night sky.

“Another Dream Eater?” asked Hyunjin.

“No. One of us,” Woojin replied. “He was young. The human memory he latched onto broke him, I think. He couldn’t handle it. Morpheus put him to rest.”

“What kind of memory was it?”

“A very bad one, just like many of the other human memories we see and wield.” Woojin halted. He tugged at the collar of his black shirt, something he did as a habit but was never aware of. “Many believe that it is because the human’s memory suddenly reminded the young Nightmare of his past life, which was not supposed to happen. Morpheus must have been careless when He handled that young one’s soul. He did not properly store his memories away.”

Hyunjin looked up at the sky through the gaps of the sparkling foliage. “Are you never curious about your past life?”

“No,” was Woojin’s automatic reply. His demeanor abruptly shifted; he stared at Hyunjin with pitch black eyes bereft of any feeling, his tone sharp and cold like an ice pick ready to pierce. “And neither should you.”

Hyunjin felt his breath catch at the back of his throat. Woojin’s voice rattled his bones and his heart yanked in and out of his chest, pulling his veins from within. It was like he was hooked up on a cattle fence with the voltage not high enough to kill but enough to render him uncomfortable and weak.

Hyunjin sucked in a deep breath and felt the dizziness disappear as his lungs started to work again, and he stumbled over his words, “I’m - I’m sorry. I didn’t - I know. I don’t. I was - what I said was nonsense. I didn’t think I’m - I’m sorry.”

And at once, the hostility diffused among Hyunjin’s clumsy apologies. Woojin leaned forward and placed a hand atop of Hyunjin’s head, silencing him. “It is alright. But if you ever speak of such blasphemy, it would be unacceptable. You are lucky Iris is not listening as She is attending a symposium with Morpheus.”

“I understand. I would not attempt to do such a thing again.”

Hyunjin clenched his fists. What was he thinking? He shouldn’t announce his recalcitrant thoughts to the world; it was dangerous revealing how utterly different he was from the rest of them. He shouldn’t speak of such things - not even to Woojin, who was the next closest thing to a friend despite their interpersonal remoteness.

Hyunjin glanced up at the sky. The last Dream Matter he had truly called a friend was no longer here.

“I am glad you have eaten,” Woojin said gently this time. “I will let you be, then. Take care, Hyunjin.”

Hyunjin returned the wishes. As Woojin left his gloaming, Hyunjin rested his head against the trunk and wondered if he’d always felt this lonely.

»»—★—««

Jisung had become rather creative in his dream endeavors.

Hyunjin watched a pair of large koi fish glinting with their kaleidoscopic fins, like stained glass windows belonging to a cathedral, leap up into the air from a vast, deep puddle in the middle of the sidewalk. On his left was a gaudy bouncy castle with a bunch of cats jumping about, and to his left was a moss-covered gingerbread cottage overrun by glass rabbits and marble bears. Jisung stepped beside Hyunjin as they walked across a long and seemingly endless bridge over a sparkling body of turquoise.

“Man, I feel like an architect from the Inception movie," Jisung mused, folding his arms behind his head. "Mega-lucid dreaming is super fun."

Hyunjin pointed at a peculiar beast. "Why is there a striped dog eating circular grains by the alleyway?"

"That's just a fluffy raccoon eating Cheerios."

“Raccoon,” Hyunjin repeated.

Jisung rolled his eyes and shook his head at him.

They strolled silently. Hyunjin glanced up at the sky to see that it was divided into three colours: pink, white, and light green, with clouds lingering between the invisible borders. It was like a triptych, reminding Hyunjin of a tub of Neapolitan ice-cream.

Hyunjin stopped. He didn’t know where that came from when he didn’t even know what it was. “What is Neapolitan ice-cream?”

“It’s ice-cream that looks like the Italian flag,” Jisung deadpanned as he shook a cigarette out of the box, taking the sudden halt in stride. “Good choice. It’s a nice view here.”

Hyunjin frowned, still confused, but otherwise learned that Jisung didn’t like to humour him when Hyunjin brought up seemingly stupid questions. They rested their arms against the metal balustrade of the bridge. What seemed to be a standstill of the dream world immediately lifted when the air suddenly swarmed with butterflies.

They fluttered like drunken dancers, clumsy like novice ballerinas, shimmering where heaven collided with earth - these tiny white and yellow things. A butterfly parked like a tiny helicopter on the tip of Hyunjin’s nose.

He heard Jisung huff next to him. Hyunjin almost got dizzy from trying to look at the butterfly so close to his face. “Please take it off me.”

“Why? I’d take a picture if I could.”

“They could be fae folk,” Hyunjin mumbled. “Those tricksters are not to be trusted.”

As if on cue, the butterfly leapt up from his nose and fluttered back to the swarm in the air. Hyunjin faintly touched where the butterfly had been, imagining the butterfly to have pressed its little lips to his skin, but the picture he merely conjured was that of a winged creature donning a disproportionate human mouth. Hyunjin shuddered and shook away the disturbing image.

He wondered what the butterfly was thinking when it chose Hyunjin to land on. It was yellow and white, like a little angel spreading light wherever it touched; Hyunjin was the opposite. Everything on him was black - from his hair to his suit to his cloak to his cravat, and his eyes were inked and smudged with charcoal and violet hues that made him look ghastly. Perhaps the butterfly was attracted to dark things.

Hyunjin noticed something heavy pinned onto the side of his face. When he turned around, he realized that the heaviness was from Jisung’s thoughtful gaze. His eyes were the colour of the earth after a rainfall, or maybe the colour of an old copper penny that glistened near a fireplace. But perhaps a weathered barn door - so unexpectedly resilient despite the years of withstanding storms, still so much life.

“Can you tell me your name?” asked Jisung.

Hyunjin watched the smoke billow past Jisung’s lips and into the air, curling into thin weary shapes. Was this the first step in becoming real? Telling someone who you were? “My name is Hyunjin.”

Jisung blinked at him, faintly alert, before he turned to face the ocean again. “Hyunjin.” He said it in a way that sounded as though he was tasting it. The name rolled off his tongue wistfully, familiarly, regretfully. “Hyunjin.”

“Jisung,” Hyunjin reiterated.

He smiled a bit. “Your face pisses me off, you know that?”

Hyunjin frowned in confusion. But there didn’t seem to be any heat behind Jisung’s words. In fact, Jisung jumped straight into an idle tangent about his work. Hyunjin would have gotten whiplash from the sudden change in attitude if it weren’t for his predispositioned ability to quickly adjust.

He burrowed the anomaly into the back of his mind and focused on their current topic at hand. Hyunjin learned that Jisung worked full-time at a convenience store, and seemed to be overly fond of his co-workers despite his complaints about their impudence.

Jisung was also still in contact with his probation officer who acted more like a grumpy uncle than an actual proponent of the law, considering he helped Jisung land a job after he left the detention facility. Hyunjin didn’t understand those concepts, but he listened attentively anyway.

This was the life of a human. This was what made the life of a human real. There were complaints about other humans, fondness over humans, and an endless stream of trouble for humans. Jisung was neither happy or sad about where his life stood at the moment - just indifferent. Passive. Stagnant. Couldn’t care less. Didn’t aim for anything high but didn’t settle for the lowest of the lows. Going through the motions.

And as Hyunjin watched every subtle tilt of his brows and crinkle of his eyes while he spoke, something seemed to tingle beneath his fingertips, buzzing with an indecipherable urge to reach forward. His head pounded with a slight ache that had yet to blossom, and in that transitory moment of familiarity, all that might have been lived before deemed itself brand new.

Hyunjin still couldn’t place what it was about Jisung that made Hyunjin second-guess the simple facts of his reality, of his own lack of identity. Like a rose thorn stuck in between his rib cage, it felt both uncomfortable and painful. And for a split second, he felt angry. At who - he didn’t know. Just angry.

“It sounds lonely,” Hyunjin found himself interrupting, and he stiffened. Jisung raised his brows.

“I guess you would know what loneliness is, huh? Considering your profession,” Jisung said with a huff of amusement. His eyes softened in the pink skylight. “But yeah. Guess you could say I’m a loser like that.”

Hyunjin tilted his head in contemplation. Applying that particular concept to his own circumstances, Hyunjin concluded, “Then we are both losers.”

This time, Jisung grinned - big and genuine. “Guess it's fate.”

And he took one last puff from his cigarette before the dream dissolved into pouring white, and Hyunjin fell back with a single word echoing in his mind: “Fate,
fate,
fate.

»»—★—««

For a deity as powerful as Morpheus, many assume He would reign as a tyrant - one who wielded power and authority and rained terror upon His things. But all Hyunjin learned the moment he stepped foot as a Nightmare was that Morpheus was just as passive as His creations.

The true villain, the true antagonist was from within themselves; the locked up remains of their memories of their past human lives that threatened to spill over if their souls had not been weaved and strung intricately together in accuracy. The past was their weakness. Morpheus did not care enough to step in and prevent the undoing of the being. He watched, He lamented, but moved on to new souls. None of them were special in His eyes.

If the creations had any semblance of emotions, perhaps they would have felt abandoned or unloved. But Hyunjin supposed it was a good thing that they were so detached, because that meant his business with a human was overlooked in the eyes of their venerated God.

This time they were at a clock tower, sitting on a ledge at the very top in front of the clock twined in golden glass with stark black hands that never seemed to move. Here, in the crook of Jisung’s dream - time was ceaseless. Time was an abstraction. Time was a meaning imposed upon motion. Time did not exist.

The sun was lowering itself into the tepid waters, cut sharp like shards of glass in varying hues of blue and green and orange, surrounded by land of seashells and rocks. Jisung seemed to like the ocean a lot to have it in his dreams. The sky too, with all its brazen colours and delicate cirrus clouds that Hyunjin felt compelled to reach forward and pluck right out of its place to put it in his mouth. He would taste the orange, the blue, the pink of the sky in all its hours.

“Next time, you can make me dream about drowning,” Jisung said, “since I can’t swim.”

Hyunjin frowned. “Why do you feel such an affinity for water, then?”

“It’s freedom. It’s dangerous. It’s pretty. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel. I dunno. Do I need a reason?”

“If you do not fear death from drowning, then what do you fear of it?”

Jisung glanced at him with an eyebrow raised. “Hyunjin. You could show up with the Grim Reaper and I’d hug the shit outta them. Please. It’s the fact that I’ll be taking in a bunch of sea water and choking on it that scares me. My palate is very sensitive.”

“So you fear… the taste?”

“That just makes me sound like a haughty epicure.” Jisung rolled his eyes. “But no. I guess it’s the fact that I’ll be alone that scares me more.”

Alone. Hyunjin was the most familiar with that word too. He nodded mutely, uncertain of how to respond to that. The discomfort he felt was not the honesty Jisung showed him, but the familiarity of such openness and honesty that unsettled him like the constellations that were centuries and millennia old watching over him with starlight that drew his eyes heaven-bound. Bright and distinctive, but hardly placeable.

Jisung was that. He cradled brine in his open arms among the crashing waves and brought upon the earth a dewy light that had existed since the beginning of time, yet still unrecognizable to the eyes of the world - of Hyunjin’s world, at least.

“I will keep that in mind,” Hyunjin finally said.

Jisung smiled. Hyunjin didn’t like that smile. It was wry and empty.

He stared down at his open palms before a pack of cigarettes appeared, born out of his mind’s consciousness within the dream. He shook a cigarette out and held it in the air rather than to his mouth. Jisung looked at it thoughtfully, turning the cigarette over against the backdrop of the setting sun.

“My mom called these cancer sticks but she still smoked them anyways. One for the morning, one for the afternoon, and one at night. Then she stopped that regimen and started smoking every minute of the day after granny died.”

Hyunjin watched him bring the cigarette to his mouth, already lit aglow. But before he could inhale it, Hyunjin reached over and plucked the cigarette out from Jisung’s fingers, and blinked in surprise at his own actions. Jisung didn’t seem to mind though.

“ ‘Sometimes these things run in families’ was what I thought. I guess I still have that mindset. People strive so hard to not be their parents or their siblings, but they end up becoming like them anyway, but they’re so unaware of it.”

The smoke rose to the air in languid swirls. Jisung snatched the cigarette back from Hyunjin and took in a breath. “Sometimes these things run in families. An heirloom of addiction, funnily enough. I thought if I said it out loud with scorn and disgust, I’d be able to cleanse myself of that future. But look at the irony! Now I’m just working, smoking, and looking after a stupid cat I found as a stray that scratches up all my furniture. Maybe I’m on my way to being just like my grandmother.”

Hyunjin flinched. If Jisung had noticed, he didn’t comment on it as he continued, “You know, as a kid, I thought I’d make it big in baseball - we’d make it big; the unstoppable battery seizing victory after victory. We always talked about it and made up dumb headlines for the newspapers. But what a stupid dream, right?”

“No.” Hyunjin shook his head. “It’s admirable. It’s nice.”

“Well. He left town without a word right after my grandmother died, so that dream went out the window. I was so angry at him. I directed all my hatred towards him because I thought he wouldn’t leave me, but he was just the same as everybody else, and it was the only thing I knew how to do.” Jisung swallowed audibly. “Then I learned the truth of why he left, and redirected all that anger and hatred towards myself.”

Before Hyunjin could ask for the reason, Jisung continued on in his prattle, unaware of his quickening pace.

“You know, I was aiming too high. The least I could have been was maybe a gym teacher. Shit, even a coach. I could have been the best coach ever. The coach that supported all of his players and never did anything bad to them. The coach that didn’t exploit his players’ trust or goodwill. The coach that never laid a hand on his players like a sicko.“

Hyunjin looked up at the sky and found it glitching in static jerks. The sun was turning dark behind the waters - almost black. Jisung was shaking. Brought back to the memory of when Jisung first talked about his coach, Hyunjin could only assume the surface-level worst of it.

“What did your coach do to you?”

Jisung fell quiet and his eyes gathered clouds. Like summer rain on tarmac, the warmth of the dream evaporated into a stark, frigid whiteness, the silence holding him like protective permafrost.

Hyunjin was scared he had crossed an invisible boundary and had offended Jisung beyond oblivion, but before Hyunjin found himself tilting backwards into the momentum of a fall, he heard Jisung force his words out with such sharpness that it could have sliced flesh: “It wasn’t to me.”

Then everything vanished.

 

 

 

Hyunjin stood by the doorway as Jisung retched into the toilet, his hair sticking to his wan face laden with sweat. The sounds of his coughing echoed hollowly in the solitude of the apartment. Hyunjin felt the inexplicable urge to hold Jisung until he stopped trembling, but all he could do was watch in bewilderment after Jisung had woken up and abruptly stumbled into the bathroom.

He knew that Jisung’s friend was a mysterious yet painful subject to broach. It was something that brought him pain, anger, and regret, though what had happened to his friend was still not open for discussion. His words in the dream were still as ambivalent as ever, but it had brought an ache to Hyunjin’s head like no other. Now, it felt like there were pins between his eyes, poking and prodding like he was a lump of flesh to be vivisected.

Hyunjin faintly wondered if Jisung’s friend was still alive. If Hyunjin had any idea on who it was, then perhaps he could help Jisung; to give him closure and the opportunity to talk and move on. Hyunjin would want that too if he had a choice - a chance.

Jisung sat up and wiped his mouth with his palm. Then, he stood up on shaky legs and flushed the toilet. He spat into the sink and rinsed his mouth repeatedly with water and mint mouthwash. He looked up at his reflection in the mirror and croaked out, “Fuck. Shit, fuck. You stupid scaredy cat.”

He sounded small and weak, but like a key, Jisung’s familiar voice had opened up the space in his head for another voice - younger, smaller, but brighter - to appear immediately right after: “Let’s put these glow-in-the-dark stars up on your ceiling, since you’re such a scaredy cat.

The world around him spun until it felt as though something heavy had crushed against the side of his head. Hyunjin cried out and crumpled to the floor, blinded by flashing colorful spots, as pain violently throbbed around in his skull - enough that it could split open and bleed out into the ravine of dreams until he was but a corpse. He clutched his head with his tongue feeling too big for his mouth. The pain kept him its prisoner and he was salivating all over Jisung’s hardwood floor.

Then he was crying. It hurt so much.

Something soft brushed against his cheek. When he forced his eyes open, he saw that it was Lix through the blurriness of his vision, and the pain was suddenly subsiding, as though the cat’s touch had been enough to fend off the ferocious pain lancing through his head. Hyunjin stared at Lix, disoriented and unnerved at its innocuous gaze, before he heard Jisung click the bathroom light off and putter back to his bed. Jisung didn’t sleep though. He sat there hugging his knees.

Hyunjin felt the afterache pulse behind his movements. He knew there were black track Hyunjins on his cheeks when he glanced down at the floor where a small puddle of black had formed. Lix mewled, staring up at Hyunjin for another minute before it trekked towards Jisung. Hyunjin watched the cat jumped onto the bed and curl against Jisung’s side, pawing at his thigh, until Jisung finally reacted and started to scratch behind its ears. Hyunjin felt his heart stutter in his chest.

He took in a deep breath to try and compose himself. His headaches weren’t usually this violent. It felt as though the pain was trying to prevent him from remembering something - something that had to do with that unfamiliar young voice that had reverberated through his head out of the blue.

There was too much to unravel. His head was starting to hurt again.

Hyunjin pressed his eyes closed. Then he slipped through the shadows, unable to bring himself to look at Jisung as he did so.

»»—★—««

“Glow-in-the-dark stars,” Hyunjin murmured.

Tapping a finger against a particular star in the sky, he waited until the star seemed to have a life of its own. It was twinkling, perhaps in amusement like Hyunjin’s friend always did, an oddity that shared more humane qualities than the both of them. They were pariahs among the realm of Dream Matters, and it was the exclusion that led to their peculiar bond to grow.

But forever did not exist for creatures like them. The image of a secret smile had long been gone when he ripped his own soul to shreds.

Don’t think too much, the star gleamed. You’re going to hurt your head again.

“It’s never been that strong,” Hyunjin said. “The pains have been growing after that spell. Why? I don’t understand.”

Well. What did you learn so far?

Hyunjin chewed on his bottom lip. His hands are clenched into fists again, and he had to pry his locked fingers out from its curled state. “Nothing of particular significance, I think. I learn more about Jisung each time I visit him, and though the insatiable feeling of familiarity grows, I still cannot pin the reason as to why. There - there is something, some force of nature, that is keeping me from finding it, causing me pain when I am on the brink of discovery.”

You mustn't stop. You’re almost there! What would be unpleasant is if you were grasping at the seams, only for Them to snatch it out of your reach once again.

Hyunjin looked at the sequin-silver stars against black satin. The eternal midnight felt suffocating at most, but the presence of a friend winking down on him from above brought him a pretense of comfort. He spoke quietly, “I don’t know if I am talking to the real you, stuck in the sky among other lost souls, or I am talking to what I preserved of you in my mind.”

Mindless Hyunjin, the star flickered like a scattered, dying ember rekindled to life. I am as real as you want me to be.

There was a twinge in his chest. “What should I do now?”

Find your answers, the star had a warped light to it, as though it was smiling.

Then the gleam of the star disappeared among the siege of spangled glimmers. Underneath the cold glare of the moon, Hyunjin thought he saw a lone gold star - the saffron-winged Iris coming to watch him - but it was gone in a blink of an eye.

Hyunjin sucked in a deep breath. The gelid air coursed through his lungs and cleared his head. He looked down at his hands always, always shaking, trembling at an unknown trepidation, and he brought his cupped hands to his mouth.

He blew air into his palms, hoping he could pretend to warm up his body from the inside out.

»»—★—««

Jisung was smoking a lot more than usual.

Granted, it was a dream. But Hyunjin could tell Jisung was aiming for something with the packs of cigarettes he quickly went through, more agitated than usual with his restless fumbling and fidgeting.

Hyunjin had skipped out on constructing a nightmare for Jisung tonight. One glance at his peaceless sleep had warded Hyunjin from stringing together that drowning dream Jisung mentioned. Hyunjin didn’t mind not eating for the night - he wanted to know if Jisung was okay.

“Hey,” Jisung said for the first time since he became lucid. His voice was rough, his eyes pinned to the blurry motionless sun in the distance. “Tell me something. Anything.”

Hyunjin looked at him, how the wobbly light cascaded across the side of his face. He was the colour of the sunset disguised as dusk. “Okay.”

He told him about how they came to be.

Morpheus was but a disembodied star that plummeted down to earth, shaking it beneath the strip of thumping pistons, lava flowing and hardening into evidence of what inhabited the lonely planet before. Then, after eons of slumber, He came to life with horned wings and an ivory box from a poppy seed bestowed upon by His father, Hypnos; with Morpheus’ phantasmic mastery and intangible, humanoid form, He became known as the God of Dreams.

At that age, the foundation of faith laid within the significance behind the dreams humans saw, and their actions were easily influenced by them. From pleasant dreams that satiated carnal desire to horrendous nightmares that wrought them to hysterics, the humans considered their uncanny dreams as a message from Morpheus to do what they were shown in their sleep.

They blindly followed such illusions, believing that those dreams would guide them towards the path of Paradise, but happiness came with irreplaceable damage. The downfall of humans took form in the prosper of death and triumph over others.

The faith in dreams rapidly led to the corruption of human life, the annihilation of civilizations, the exploitation of the Pantheon and the birth of sinners. Morpheus did all He could to put an end to such corruption by relaying dreams of repentance and forgiveness, but His dreams were for nought as the emperors and kings, the grand heroes and fallen maidens, chose to ignore such virtues and raged wars.

And here was the part where different versions exist. In another universe, Morpheus spared His brothers - Phobetor, the God of Nightmares, and Phantasos, the God of Surreal Dreams - and worked alongside them to perpetuate goodwill in humanity, and granted punishments to those who deserved it.

But in this universe, Morpheus killed them.

He killed His own blood in order to gain all control and power over the branches of dreams, so that He was the sole God and ruler of such essences. He was devoid of empathy and remorse; the Erinyes had attempted to bring justice for the fallen brothers, but they lacked the power to do any damage than to exile Morpheus from ever stepping foot into Mount Olympus. Morpheus did not mind the abject isolation. He reworked His own fate and oversaw the dreamers of the human world.

Thus, Morpheus began His next creations. He liberated the souls of humans who have suffered monumental torment and an unconventional death, eliminated the essence of what made them human such as the range of their emotions and desires, kept all their memories in His box of dreams, and turned them into disarming creatures of different kinds to dispatch all across the planet - to balance good and evil, dreams and nightmares. It was so that humans were reminded to remain humble, to prevent excessive indulgence and avarice, to allow a transitory moment of peace to escape the dire foibles of the world.

With saffron-winged Iris as Morpheus’ faithful messenger, who helped establish this co-existing world with the humans, the Dream Matters were born.

“No single trace of our past life is to be present. All memory is cleanly wiped away,” Hyunjin said. “I have been told that if you remember something you have been predispositioned to be unable to, it causes enormous pain and extreme fluctuation of your mind’s constitution that it destroys you.”

Jisung looked more calm than before, though he had on a face of disapproval. “That’s seriously depressing.”

“I suppose so,” Hyunjin said, tilting his head to the side. “We are not very pretty like the ocean. Dreams are different than Dream Eaters, more so Nightmares, but we are all innately the same. We are passive creatures. We live, we die. We feel nothing. We are nothing.”

“But you’re different from the rest, aren’t you?”

Hyunjin met Jisung’s gaze, whose eyes cleared like the boughs of a tree, free of moss. “What makes you think that?”

“You feel things,” Jisung urged. Dropping his cigarettes to the bottomless depth, he moved closer on the rooftop ledge and reached forward as though he was about to touch Hyunjin, but he stopped before he could. Jisung let his outstretched arm hang between them, his splayed fingers inches away from Hyunjin’s chest.

Hyunjin felt his breath catch in his throat and his heart falter. He bunched the ends of his cloak with tight fists as he looked down at Jisung’s hand. Hyunjin darted his eyes up to find Jisung staring at him with an unspoken question hanging off the edge of his lips. Can I?

Exhaling slowly, Hyunjin turned slightly and shifted closer until Jisung’s hand finally met his chest with a light touch. He felt Jisung stiffen.

The press of Jisung’s hand was an unfamiliar yet wispy weight, a touch of the uncertain and impulsive, but concrete and tangible before him. Hyunjin blinked at the new sensation of his heart beating loudly in his ears.

“What do you feel?” Jisung asked quietly, voice cracking at the edges.

Hyunjin closed his eyes. He gently circled a hand around Jisung’s wrist. “Warm.” He opened his eyes again, finding Jisung’s face illuminated by the afterglow of the sun. “It’s warm here.”

“Then you’re warm, not nothing.”

Hyunjin’s eyes slightly widened. Then Jisung was slipping his hand away, retracting it back to his side; crimson coloured his face as he pointedly kept his gaze ahead. His breaths were shaky. But in the tower of dim shadows that brought out the glow of Jisung’s profile, making his eyes flicker like fire and brimstone, Hyunjin thought that he was beautiful.

Jisung was a scarf of light that disturbed the shadows.

Hyunjin glanced down at his chest where Jisung’s hand had imprinted itself upon. His heart kept beating erratically. It was warm. Very, very warm.

He wanted the warmth to last forever.