Chapter 1: Prologue
Right now, he was dreaming.
With a creak and a shudder of bones, it lifted its neck, head flopping forward awkwardly and face concealed by lengths and lengths of tangled hair dark as an oil spill.
This wasn't reality.
A drawn-out creak. A sickening snap. Hands placed onto the ground as it attempted to crawl, fingers bending way too far back and snapping like twigs beneath the weight.
A dream. Not real. A dream.
Its shoulders shuddered in an attempt to support its weight, lifting it just enough from the ground so that its face became visible, matted hair parting to reveal just one wide, staring eye, bloodshot and yellowed, and a mouth stretched wide in a grimace.
Its mouth stretched further into a wider, nearly manic kind of smile, the gray flesh of its cheeks splitting open with a wet tearing sound as it did so. Dark, oily blood trickled down the sides of its face and landed with quiet drip sounds on the floor below.
The one visible eye widened to the point it seemed to nearly slip from its socket, bulging out. The creature clenched its teeth until they cracked, smile growing wider still until there was no flesh on its cheeks left to tear.
A thick, rotted tongue the color of old meat poked its way through the cracked teeth, shoving the pieces out of the way like useless debris. It hung there limply, the maggots that it was infested with squirming with desperation.
It continued crawling then, finger bones snapping with each movement and shoulders jerking upwards at impossible angles. It grew closer and closer, each drag of its body punctuated by a shudder. It reached out a mangled hand, broken fingers flopping over uselessly.
The hand froze, just inches from his face. He could see pieces of shattered bone poking out from the flesh of the hand and fingers.
'No,' he whispered, a tremor in his voice. 'This isn't real. It's just a dream. A bad dream.'
Its hand trembled for a moment before it pulled back, a single finger finally snapping off and falling to the ground as it did so. It made a sound, a quiet gurgle, before suddenly lunging at him, both hands outstretched, the gurgle becoming a piercing screech -
It was that moment Yuma woke with a gasp, blankets tangled and twisted around his legs like rope and arms flailing, knocking his pillow from the bed. He lay there breathlessly for a moment, covered in clammy sweat and chest heaving as though he'd run up a flight of stairs.
Again. Yet again, the same nightmare. The same nightmare he had every night.
A grotesque, ruined, corpse-like creature who filled him with an inexplicable amount of dread. Every time he had this dream, he somehow managed to ward it off by thinking to himself that it was only a dream, and that it wasn't real. And every time, he woke just before its mangled hands would have surely been around his throat.
Another sleepless night for him, in a long series of sleepless nights. Just another day in the week, really.
He kicked off the tangled, sweat-soaked blankets with some difficulty and sat up, eyes settling on the alarm clock with its dimly illuminated numbers.
4:32. In the morning.
And of course, he had to get up for work in about two hours.
Ah, this was his life now. Waking up at the crack of dawn to go to a job he hated (but needed) and nightmares. No, rather, violent night terrors and an average of maybe three restless hours of sleep a night to boot - if he was lucky.
Time to put on a pot of coffee and face the day, he guessed.
Chapter 2: Dream a Little Dream
I am sorry the first chapter took so long to get written and posted. I have several chunks of this fic already written and planned out, but somehow, figuring out how to write this first chapter has been a real challenge.
Nonetheless, I hope you all will enjoy! Finally, Astral appears.
His life hadn't always been this way. Somewhere along the line, everything he'd wanted to be and everything he'd always dreamed of as a kid sort of...evaporated into thin air.
He wanted to go out and see the world and all that it had to offer more than anything else, really - beyond that, he never had a clear goal in mind. But that was fine. Yuma had always wanted to become more than what he was, than what people saw him as, and be something great. His father had always taught him about kattobingu and what it really meant to never give up and create true bonds with people that were sure to last a lifetime.
It was probably around his third and final year of high school, though, that something about that mindset began to change.
He had his very first nightmare.
No, it wasn't like it was his first nightmare ever, so to speak. It was more like it was...the first nightmare. The first nightmare in a long series of nightmares that would plague him for years to come.
He really only had a vague memory of having that dream, but that was it. At the time it was dismissed as an ordinary nightmare, and he'd gone right back to sleep without remembering it much at all the next day.
And then he had that very same nightmare again about a year later. Which wouldn't have been too weird, because dreams sometimes recurred, right?
So he pushed it out of his mind for the second time.
When he started having that same dream every few months, it became harder to ignore. Yuma could somehow always tell when he was about to have that nightmare. There were shapes in the dark corners of his room, and he felt eyes on him. Eyes that he couldn't see, but whose gazes he felt.
He hoped maybe the dreams would just...go away or something, if he pretended they weren't a problem enough.
That hadn't been the right solution. He only had the dreams more and more often, and they became a weekly, and eventually nightly occurrence.
He was a second year in college when he dropped out. The workload was too much for him, he wasn't sleeping well, and he didn't feel any motivation anymore. Why had he even gone to college in the first place? It was as if there was a huge blank spot in his mind, and he couldn't quite remember his reasons.
So for the first time he remembered, he betrayed himself, his father's lessons, and his kattobingu lifestyle and actually gave up.
It was running away, and he knew it. And he never forgave himself for it.
He found a job at some half-rate office building - the pay was subpar and the work was dull and monotonous, but it was something. He managed to snag himself a small, crummy apartment on the east side of town that he just barely managed to make enough money for the monthly rent.
And his life had continued on in that fashion for about a year.
Then, the nightmares? Well, it was probably better to call those night terrors. He'd looked it up online, what those were, and -
Well, what else could they be?
That creature he saw lurking the dark corners of his room at night, just waiting for him to sleep, watching. He felt its eyes on him from the darkness always, and didn't have to see its gaunt face or painfully wide grimace to know that.
The very same creature had continued to relentlessly haunt his dreams for nearly four years.
"Oi, Tsukumo! Can ya hand those copies into Suzuki in about 20 minutes?"
Yuma lifted his chin out of his hand and blinked. He'd been spacing out yet again. "Oh, ah, yeah! Sure!" Suzuki was...who again? But the man that had asked for the favor had already waved and disappeared down the hall.
He sighed. Yeah, more menial tasks. Sure. Seemed like that was all he did these days. It was so, so boring.
The clock was probably moving backwards or something, because it seemed like it'd be forever until he actually finished with work for the day.
He dropped his head onto his folded arms with a quiet groan. He probably needed another cup of coffee or three.
Funnily enough, he actually used to really hate coffee. Weird how things changed out of necessity. He'd barely function now without it.
Well, probably should get those copies handed in before someone bit his head off for something that hadn't been his responsibility in the first place. That had happened a couple of times before, and it wasn't really something he wanted to relive. Being yelled at by his boss and being threatened to be laid off was always just the cherry on top of his day.
He stood aimlessly in front of the copier, watching it spit out page after page and tried not to be lulled to sleep as he was standing up by the continuous, repetitive sounds it made.
The first thing he did when he got home after setting up another pot of coffee to brew was open his laptop. Email was first on the list.
Junk mail, junk mail, and...ah.
A message from Kotori.
It looked like it had been sent three days ago, and he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Had it been that long since he last checked his personal email? He realized, with slowly dawning horror, that it probably had been.
He clicked open the message and muttered a string of curses under his breath.
She was asking about getting together with all of their old friends. And the date was scheduled for yesterday.
Yuma dropped his forehead on top of the kitchen counter with a sigh, barely even hearing the ding of the coffeepot that signaled his coffee was done.
He'd messed up a lot lately, regarding friends. He didn't see much of them anymore...Kotori was the only one who seemed to even want to keep in contact with him at all. He wondered how Tetsuo was doing? Or Shark?
The only people he talked to much were his own family members, and his coworkers. All in all, it wasn't a whole lot of communication.
Yeah, he wasn't going to lie, he missed his friends. He missed them a lot. He missed talking, laughing, and messing around. He didn't know what was up with him, avoiding contact like this. It was like...he barely had the energy to do anything other than go to work, and then straight to bed.
But going to bed? Seemed like it only wore him out more than revitalized him like sleeping was supposed to do.
Heart located somewhere in his stomach, he lifted his head up so he could type out a quick reply to Kotori, fraught with apologies that probably only sounded hollow.
He'd make it up to her, and to all of his friends, he told himself. He definitely would. He'd ask Kotori himself about getting together with everyone. Yuma would make the plans, figure out what they were going to do and where they would go. He'd even be well-rested and everything.
In the end, that thought was just self satisfaction, because Yuma closed his laptop without ever sending her that email.
It was around midnight when he decided to finally call it a night, hands shaking from caffeine crash. He'd lost count of how much coffee he'd drunk, but however much it was, he'd hit his limit.
Yuma would have no choice but to brave sleep, and hope that by some chance he didn't have the usual nightmare.
That was kinda too hopeful, though, wasn't it?
Didn't mean he wouldn't appreciate a full-night's sleep for once.
He flipped off the lights and waited until his vision adjusted to the darkness, staring at the dark shape of his bed and purposefully ignoring the shadowy corners of his room. If it was there, he really didn't want to look at it right now. Because if it really was, then he'd be seeing it soon enough in his dreams anyway.
Why look at it for any longer than he was inevitably going to have to?
The three steps he took to reach his bed somehow felt like a much greater distance than just that.
He flopped down on his bed and lied down atop the covers, arms flat at his sides and fingers curling into the sheets as he stared up at the ceiling. He kept his gaze carefully trained upwards, never once straying.
He had a vague memory of once accidentally letting his gaze stray down only to see it at the foot of his bed, broken, twisted hands clinging to the edge of his mattress as it watched him intently with that single, bulging eye.
It sensed when he was tired. That's what it felt like. It knew exactly when he was going to fall asleep, and it waited for him.
...That sounded so paranoid.
Was this what these dreams were doing to him, other than ruining his nightly sleep? Turning him into a distrustful, apathetic, paranoid sort of person?
He didn't want to be that guy. Not at all.
But how did he just stop letting these dreams influence his life?
He agonized over that for several more moments, feeling the heaviness in his eyelids yet refusing to give in to it. He was exhausted, utterly exhausted, but sleep was the less desirable option. It sucked, really sucked, being afraid to sleep like this. Dreams that had once been full of weird or silly things were now held nothing but dread for him.
It was a bitter kind of pain, really, that he slowly grew accustomed to as time passed. It was the fact that he'd grown so numb to the loss these dreams had caused him that bothered him the most. Did he even care anymore? It was as though he'd lost the capacity to do even that much.
He remembered seeing a therapist once. It had been two years ago, and he'd kept up with it for a little while, but nothing they tried seemed to work, so he'd dropped it. He didn't have the patience to deal with something that was only an even greater drain on his already limited energy reserves. He had to spare what energy he did have for going to work so that he wouldn't lose his apartment.
When did he become this kind of person, though? The kind of person who couldn't afford to spare a thought for anyone else on most days because he was too tired?
He barely even had the energy to hate himself for the thought.
That was the last thought he really had before finally drifting off.
A faint, scratchy wheezing sound was the first thing he heard.
No. No more.
He couldn't see anything in front of him through the pitch blackness.
The wheezing grew louder, and he distantly heard scraping sounds.
Scrape. Scraaape. Scritch scratch. Thump. Scrape.
The sound of something dragging itself along the floor.
A series of resounding cracks.
Yuma held his breath, the impenetrable darkness pressing down on his eyeballs like something heavy and tangible.
He heard a gargled gasp from just behind him.
He turned, but too late. It stood now, just in front of him, back hunched and hair falling over is face as always, eye nearly falling out of its socket as it slowly fixed its gaze on him.
They stared at one another for a moment, and it straightened up, hand reaching out to him, broken fingers curling uselessly. Ah, he could see the whites of its bones -
No. Stay back. Stay away.
His heart was pounding out of his chest, toes and fingers numb. Its hand was mere centimeters from his face, close enough that he could see the mottled texture of its skin, and it's cracked and broken-off fingernails.
I said...I said to GO. AWAY.
It flinched as though he'd yelled.
It was strange, because Yuma never once opened his mouth - all of these words came from directly within him.
Its hand only retracted the slightest bit, drooping as though with disappointment.
You're not going to get me. Not tonight, not ever.
It hissed quietly, a rough, crackling sound that broke off into a high pitched keening that made him want to clap his hands over his ears. It flopped backwards suddenly with a sickening crack.
It was quiet, literally bent over backwards, unmoving.
Yuma made no movements, only watching it.
Everything after that happened very quickly.
It snapped upright suddenly, back ramrod straight and face upturned. It made a sound again, a painfully high pitched wail that cut off in a gurgle. He took vague notice of a slimy, dark substance leaking from its open mouth and down the sides of its face, dripping down its shoulders and torso and to the floor.
It slowly, ever so slowly, lowered its head.
It pinned him with its gaze again, slimy black fluid dripping from its rotted, torn mouth that slowly curled into that familiar grimace.
It's just a dream. I can wake up. Just a dream. That's it.
It swayed as it stood again, neck flopping forward at an inhuman angle, and it made the same gurgling sound once again.
It reached up a hand, making the same gargled noise again that may have been an attempt at his name.
It fell silent for a moment before emitting a loud, piercing shriek that made his ears ring and his vision flash white.
And he heard it running, body tilted at an angle it couldn't possibly be as it made for him -
Yuma awoke with a choked scream, hands fisting in his sheets and back arching off his bed.
His clothes were plastered to him with a cold sweat and he sat up wildly, looking around. His ears were ringing, the darkness, he couldn't see, it was too dark, he -
He thumped a fist over his heart, willing himself to calm down. To breathe.
The ragged gasps that tore from his throat were not helping at all.
He hunched over for a moment, head between his knees as he tried to stop the ringing in his ears and catch his breath for a moment.
Something about that had been more intense than usual. His dreams had...normally been the same, with that creature creeping towards him and then leaping at him.
This time it had come from behind him, and somehow he was sure it had been even closer than ever before. Closer than it ever had been to...getting him. He didn't know how that was significant, or how he even knew that, but just somehow it was -
It took Yuma a moment to realize he wasn't alone in his room.
He almost didn't want to lift his head, but he did, cautiously peering over his arms.
There was someone else in his room.
Or...more likely something.
He swallowed hard.
There was someone or something in his room and they were just standing there and they were also glowing.
Was he still asleep?
He pinched himself until he gave a tiny yelp. Nope. Wide awake, unfortunately.
The sound he made attracted the attention of the...whatever it was and it looked at him.
...For an it, it looked oddly humanoid.
Moreso than the demon that haunted his nightmares.
Yuma stared at it with his mouth open stupidly.
It simply stared back at him, appraising him with a set of mismatched eyes.
Well, he had to admit, it was also a lot less menacing than what he usually dreamed about. If anything, it was...kinda pretty. Sort of fairy-like in appearance, almost; a tall, slim frame, flat chest and stomach, and, wow, those were wide hips -
He shook himself quickly. Obviously he was still kinda out of it.
"Can you...see me?"
He. Not it. He.
He spoke with a clear, cool voice that cut through Yuma's befuddled thoughts and somehow instantly made him feel more alert.
Without thinking about it much, he decided he sort of liked that voice.
Right now he had no idea what to make of any of this.
"I...uh..." He swallowed. "Yeah. I can...see you."
The creature hummed and he floated closer - floated - and crossed his ankles midair, observing Yuma with that piercing gaze.
"Unusual," He murmured, seemingly to himself. He leaned closer, as though examining him. "Most unusual."
Yuma felt himself lean away instinctively, and the creature pulled back with a hum and an appraising nod.
"Yeah, y'know, if you're a part of my dream too, I'd kinda just like to wake up now." Though he was still wondering if he even was dreaming, or if he'd lost his mind in reality too. He wouldn't be entirely surprised.
"I am not a part of your dreams, Tsukumo Yuma."
Yuma blinked. "How..?"
The creature shrugged. "Names are merely words humans seem to find a need for. Those of other worlds do not have a need for them. However, knowing one's name is of value to humans, thus I pay attention to these things."
Well. Okay then. That...didn't answer the question he was about to ask at all, actually.
"So...who or what are you, then?"
The creature folded his arms over his chest and straightened up.
"My name, I suppose, is Astral."
"Alright. Uh, Astral. Can you just...go, or whatever? I've had my fill of dreams for the night, so..."
Astral leaned closer to Yuma again.
"No, I do not think I can just 'go'."
Yuma found himself leaning back again.
"Can I ask why?"
Astral stared at him for a moment longer until Yuma cleared his throat, getting his attention.
"You...have it particularly bad," He murmured, tapping a finger to his chin thoughtfully. It was such an oddly human gesture that Yuma didn't expect it.
Yuma said nothing but furrowed his eyebrows. He was talking to this thing named Astral, he just had the worst nightmare of his life, and to boot, he was muttering things under his breath about Yuma.
"Something the matter?" His irritation was beginning to leak through.
"Something like that. Though, it is more your problem than mine."
Yuma hands twitched. Okay, yeah, annoying. That sealed it.
"Care to share at all?"
"Hm. I am not certain that someone of your...caliber could comprehend."
Yuma wanted nothing more than to roll his eyes. "Then dumb it down for stupid ol' me or something."
"Your nightmares. They are getting worse, correct?"
He felt his irritation vanish as though it had all been sucked right out of him.
Astral continued with a quiet sigh.
"There is only one way I can explain this."
Yuma remained quiet, finding his heart was racing again.
"Dreams are never mere dreams. And yours, Tsukumo Yuma, are especially unique." He crossed his legs now, still floating in midair, though his gaze was focused on something off in the distance rather than on Yuma. Yuma's hands curled into the fabric of his bedding.
"You have had these 'nightmares' frequently, have you not? And for quite a while now."
Astral barely gave Yuma time to nod before plowing on.
"As I said, dreams are never mere dreams. Thus, nightmares are never mere nightmares. And these 'nightmares' of yours are causing you to lose much more than just sleep as you seem to believe."
Yuma really had no idea why he was sitting here hearing this out. Something in Astral's voice made him want to sit and listen, though, and he found himself unable to stop.
"What...what are they taking from me?" His voice was low and hoarse.
Astral fixed him with his gaze now.
"The substance that powers your very existence - your life energy."
Thirty minutes later found Yuma at the kotatsu with a steaming mug of coffee, clutching the ceramic mug firmly between his hands like a lifeline.
Astral was still here, floating about the apartment and examining various things, as though he were fascinated by them.
Yuma was still fixated on the bomb he'd dropped, trying to wrap his head around it.
"When you say...the nightmares are taking my life energy. How? Or why? Why is this even happening to me?"
Astral floated to his side, close enough that he cast some of his light over Yuma's shoulder.
"It is difficult to say why it is happening to you in particular," He murmured, sounding deep in thought. "The how...well, that is something that happens to every human at least a few times in their lifetime."
Yuma started and turned to face Astral now. "Wait....wait a sec. Every human?"
"Dreams are not mere figments of the imagination as your human scientists would believe. Dreams exist in an alternate plain of existence. A...pocket dimension, of sorts."
Yuma returned his gaze to his coffee, watching the steam rise and curl in the air before vanishing.
"In this pocket dimension, the phenomena that humans refer to as 'dreams' are very much not figments of the imagination, but another reality in their own right. It is humans that produce the things that occur in their dreams, it is true, and some humans are even fully capable of events such as astral projection and what is referred to by humans as 'lucid dreaming'. But it is not as simple as that."
He laced his fingers together, seating himself on the edge of the table.
"Dreams are born from the energy produced by human souls. That is what feeds dreams, and keeps the pocket dimensions thriving. It is a peaceful symbiosis of sorts between humans and dreams - humans provide the means of existence for dreams, and the dreams, in turn, bring humans pleasure or entertainment on a nightly basis.
"But then, there are the Nightmares."
Astral's eyes slipped shut for a moment, and Yuma watched him, grip white-knuckling around his mug.
"What humans refer to as nightmares, or bad dreams, are just that - dreams that do not bring a human pleasure or anything of the sort. Rather, nightmares intend to terrify and unnerve the humans that see them. And their existence is fine, as there must be a balance between all things. But Nightmares...are different."
Something in the way Astral said the word the final time sent chills up and down his spine. Though the word sounded hardly any different, Astral seemed to say it with a hesitant sort of reverence.
"Unlike dreams, which are entirely produced by humans, Nightmares make dreams themselves. They are creatures of another world, incomprehensible to humans and only able to take shape in this world in the form of dreams. Whereas dreams are phenomena and not creatures, and lack a will of their own, Nightmares are different. Nightmares are beings with a will and a desire to live. Thus, they produce the 'nightmares' that you see every night. These nightmares are, like dreams, powered by human life energy - but the life energy is what the Nightmares absorb in order to thrive."
Yuma's gaze fell back to his hands.
"So, basically, you're saying that nightmares and dreams exist in an alternate dimension and there are creatures out there that feed off of human...life energy?"
"That is the purpose of those nightmares. To draw the energy from humans for the purpose of consumption. The existence of Nightmares is necessary to create balance between the worlds. However, in your case..."
Astral pinned Yuma with his gaze, and Yuma wilted a little under the intensity of it.
"They are doing something they are not supposed to."
"What would that be?" Did he even want to know?
"They are after your soul. That is the only explanation."
"Yes. I have only seen this happen once before. Nightmares become greedy, and they seek something more satisfying than mere life energy. They seek to devour an entire human soul, and that is what is most taboo."
This was all too much. He felt so far in over his head. The reason he was so tired and apathetic now was because nightmare creatures were stealing his life energy? And they were really after his soul?I
Having a soul or not wasn't something he'd really thought of before. Yet here it was, laid out bare before him, being presented to him as fact by a strange, glowing creature that seemed to hold infinite knowledge of the universe. Or universes, plural, as he'd also just found out.
"Astral. You still haven't told me what the heck you even are, anyway."
Astral started at that. "Ah. Did I not?"
Astral fixed him with that unblinking stare again.
"I am...I suppose the best term for it is...a dream entity."
"And that is..?"
"A mediator between the dream worlds and the waking human world. I exist to ensure that the Nightmare creatures do not become overly greedy, as I mentioned. Human souls are not to be harvested. Ever." His gaze seemed to harden.
Yuma frowned. "You're able to stop them from doing that?"
Astral bowed his head. "To an extent, yes."
"Few dreams are barred my entry. I can enter the dream myself, and prevent the taking of the soul."
Yuma fell silent, attempting to digest all of this new information. Though for all he knew he could still be dreaming, he felt like he should just trust Astral and was completely confused by the feeling. How did he know that Astral wasn't just a figment of his imagination?
"You are unique, however." Yuma hadn't expected Astral to speak up again.
"Firstly, you are able to see me. There has never been another human in the entirety of existence that has been able to see me. Secondly, your nightmares are the most vicious I have ever held witness to. The Nightmares are particularly aggressive when it comes to the desire to steal your soul, it seems. Why, I am not certain, but it must not be for any good reason."
Great. So he was special because he could see Astral (which didn't thrill him too much) and because he had lots of horrible nightmares that were slowly wrecking his life. Oh, and apparently now trying to take his soul on top of all that.
Couldn't he ever catch a break?
"So. I shall remain by your side for the time being. Until the Nightmares that plague you are eradicated, at the very least."
Yuma's thoughts skidded to an abrupt halt.
"You're doing what now?"
"I shall remain here. To prevent the Nightmares from removing your soul and devouring it."
No. No way.
"Is that really, I don't know, necessary?"
Astral stared at him unblinkingly.
"Yes. If you wish to keep your soul, it is."
Yuma dropped his head to the table with a groan.
Oh, good. Great.
So on top of having the pleasure of seeing Astral, he now had to put up with being around him for who-knew-how-long.
"This is gonna be such a pain."
There is no choice, Tsukumo Yuma.
Your soul is special.
It cannot be lost.
No, it must not be lost.
Chapter 3: To Dream of Better Things
I'm a poophead. Like, officially, a poophead. I haven't updated in months I am literally so awful I am sorryyyyy
I hope this update makes up for it...? This is the hardest thing for me to write for some reason even though I have so many things planned ahaha
Additionally, I made a crummy blueprint of Yuma's apartment in case anyone is curious about how I imagine his living situation
Also the last half is unedited due to sheer laziness, so if there are typos...I will find them later and be very upset with myself. Ehe.
About a week had passed since Astral the dream entity had declared that he was going to hang around Yuma for a while.
Well, he'd definitely kept true to his word. Astral stayed by Yuma's side from morning to night.
Yuma had managed to convince Astral not to follow him to work, too ("I do not see why that is necessary. No one but you can see me.") but was seemingly stuck with him at literally every other time of day in exchange.
Being with Astral was almost exactly how Yuma predicted it would be.
In a word: frustrating.
Astral was breathing down his neck practically at all times, and he asked so many questions.
Most of his questions were questions about little human things he'd never understood. He asked about food, about Yuma's work, about his family, about using the toilet (that had been awkward), about clothing, about bathing, and...the list went on and on.
He also seemingly had comments for just about everything about Yuma.
Astral's initial appraisal of his apartment received a turned up nose.
"Your living quarters are rather small and meager for an average human."
Yuma had only glared in response. He really didn't need some dream entity scoffing at his crappy apartment, too. He was well aware that it was crappy, thanks.
Astral had commented on Yuma making coffee one morning, peering over his shoulder as he watched him pour the dark, steaming liquid into a mug.
"Why do you drink that?"
"It's a drink that gives - " he yawned. " - gives humans energy."
Astral seemed to ponder that.
"That substance does not appear to be particularly nutritious."
He did not want to be talking about why people drank coffee with Astral this early in the morning.
"It just...it makes it so we don't have to sleep as much."
That had been the wrong thing to say.
"Incredible! So humans have been able to manufacture a substance such as this...then, Yuma, why do you require sleep at all if you have this?"
Exasperated, Yuma had gone to his laptop after that and pulled up Wikipedia pages about coffee and caffeine and let Astral read over his shoulder, who seemed to absorb the information with rapt attention.
Then, of course, he had to explain about how what his laptop was and how it worked, and then why Wikipedia had so much 'incredible information' on it.
Astral was literally going to drive him insane.
It seemed that the dream entity had been doing little more than observe his life for the past week. He simply hovered about, either observing things in Yuma's apartment or asking him questions about this and that.
He hadn't realized how silent his life had been before Astral appeared, and it was weird to think that it was the dream entity that had made him come to that realization.
His life was quiet. Way quieter than he'd ever wanted it to be.
One day, though, Astral's usual line of questions struck a little too close to home.
"Yuma. Why is it that you never leave your apartment other than to go to work?"
Yuma tensed as he made coffee, back to Astral, bag of coffee beans in one hand.
"I don't wanna talk about it." His tone was clipped, suggesting that was that and he wasn't going to share anything else on the subject.
Astral, however, pressed on.
"Is it not necessary for humans to sustain relationships with social interaction? According to my observations - "
"Just shut up, Astral!" He snapped. His voice had grown unintentionally loud, and he slammed the bag down onto the counter. Astral fell silent.
When Yuma spoke again, he lowered his voice slightly. "Please. I don't wanna talk about it."
A glimpse at Astral's face showed an odd sort of understanding there, which was not a look he'd expected or wanted. What could Astral possibly understand? Astral had dropped the subject after that and floated away, and speaking very little to him for the remainder of the day.
He couldn't explain why his heart felt so heavy after that.
Yuma heard no mention of dreams or nightmares again until another week had passed.
The second week had gone by similarly to the first, with Astral spending every waking moment with Yuma in his apartment. Oddly enough, Yuma had grown used to the dream entity's presence now.
And, admittedly, he didn't really mind Astral being around as much as he had at first. The strange being was sort of starting to grow on him, and though he was still sort of annoying and overly self-righteous, he really wasn't a bad person.
Or was that how desperate Yuma was for interaction that he'd take it even from something that could very well be a figment of his imagination?
He had little time to ponder further as Astral appeared in front of him, startling him out of his thoughts.
"Yeah?" He just managed to slow his heart, holding a hand over his chest and muttering under his breath about dream entities not being polite enough to announce themselves.
Astral easily ignored him, folding his arms across his chest and speaking up.
"I have been observing your life these past two weeks in order to gain a better understanding of you as a person. I was interested in how you slept, how you live your life, and how the Nightmares are managing to influence all of that."
So that was why...? Yuma said nothing, furrowing his eyebrows.
Astral was undeterred by his silence, and pressed on.
"Though it was clear from the beginning that they were after your soul, it seems that the extent to which they have invaded your life is severe. Do you hallucinate?"
"I believe the simplest way to put it is 'see things'. As in - "
"I know what 'hallucinate' means, I'm not that stupid." He muttered. "I meant, why is that important?"
"Have you been hallucinating, Yuma?"
Yuma's dropped his gaze, staring at the corner of the kotatsu.
"Sort of...I guess. I sometimes see that...that thing before I go to sleep. It used to be how I knew I'd have that nightmare. If I saw it, I was going to have that dream."
Astral made a sound like he was clicking his tongue, and shook his head.
"Not good. Not good at all."
"Why?" The sinking feeling in his stomach already told him he wasn’t going to like the answer.
"If you are seeing illusions of Nightmares in the waking world, it means that they are only that deeply ingrained in your consciousness. Indeed, they have marked you as prey and intend to steal your soul. The only question is...why has it not happened already?" Astral seemed to be talking to himself now, placing a finger to his chin in that familiar thoughtful gesture. "No, perhaps..." He trailed off, seemingly thinking hard.
Yuma dropped his cheek onto his hand, looking up at Astral. "Wanna fill me in?"
"It is odd that they have not yet stolen your soul. Typically, when a human begins to see Nightmares in the waking world as well, it means that they are coming for that human's soul very soon. Essentially, the boundary between that human's soul and the world of the Nightmares has thinned. It is easier for them to pass over into that human's consciousness and eat away at their soul.
"However, with you, it is different. You have been seeing these hallucinations for much longer than is typical, yet your soul is still whole. I can see it." He squinted, looking through Yuma as though he were looking at something far away. "Your soul is weary, but it is still whole and there. For whatever reason, they have not been able to take it, and I cannot understand why. Is there something special about you? Do you possess some sort of hidden connection with the other worlds? I cannot understand."
Yuma frowned again, straightening up.
"In my dreams," He began, gaze meeting Astral's now, "there's always this one creature. The same creature. It appears out of the darkness, and I get this feeling of dread. Like I know it's coming for me. I don't know how I know or why I know, but I do. And...it creeps towards me. Really slowly. But when it reaches for me, I kind of...scream 'no', in my head, and I wake up before it grabs me."
"Did you say you...'scream'?"
Yuma nodded. "Yeah, but not...with my mouth. I mean, not out loud. It's kinda hard to explain. It's more like the word just comes from inside of me. Why? Does that mean something?"
He watched as Astral considered his answer. Several moments passed in silence before he answered.
"That is...perhaps why they have not taken your soul yet. For reasons unknown to me, you are able to ward off the Nightmares with your own power. You are able to consciously prevent them from taking your soul. That feeling of 'dread' that you feel, that feeling that they are going to 'get' you, that is their will and desire to take your soul you are sensing. But somehow, you are able to prevent it." He shook his head, seemingly surprised.
"You are a very strange human, Tsukumo Yuma."
Though Astral sounded awed, Yuma didn’t feel like that statement was supposed to be a compliment. It felt more like he was a unique specimen being observed by a crazed, passionate scientist, who was eager to observe just how bizarre he could possibly be.
Here he was. Again.
The blackness that pressed on him from all around was familiar. Hated, but familiar.
The tiniest bubble of panic rose in his chest, and he had to use all of his willpower to squash it.
He was just...so, so tired. Couldn’t he sleep for one night? He swayed where he stood as he had that thought.
Was it...even possible to feel tired in a place like this?
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something scraping along the floor and a wheezing gasp.
No. No more. Please.
He could see it now, low to the floor, pulling itself along. He couldn’t even see its face. He didn’t want to.
He felt frozen in place despite the persistent exhaustion plaguing him. He couldn’t move, not even if he wanted to.
Where would he run to, anyway?
None of this was real to begin with.
Real enough that it’d kill him. Or, as good as kill him.
He couldn’t even see his own hands when he lifted them up, and nearly choked on his own breath.
Had it ever been this dark before…?
It was closer now, he could smell its rot.
It lifted itself up, but he still couldn’t see any more of its face than its wide, face-splitting grin, and heard the sound of teeth cracking.
“Yu...ma. Y...uma. Yuma…”
It was saying his name again. Like last time, it was speaking. Was its voice getting clearer?
It was trying to push itself up from the floor now, sitting on its haunches.
It tilted its head at him, flashing him a grin as dark, oily fluid dribble down its chin.
It was proud. It felt victorious.
Yuma could feel these actual emotions emanating from it like something physical, and he felt himself tremble.
No. Stop. Go away.
It inched closer still, its bones cracking and crunching as it moved towards him, gaining speed the closer it got, until it was only a foot from him.
It tilted its head to one side and then another, reaching impossible angles, the sound of bones grinding reaching his ears.
He wanted to scream, but no sound would leave him.
The creature was ready to leap, and this time, it seemed nothing Yuma did was going to fend it off.
Just as he was about to brace himself, cool hands were over his eyes, obscuring his vision with their soft glow.
‘It cannot reach you. Not so long as I am here.’
The voice seemed to surround him like a soft sheet of satin, wrapping around him with cool gentleness. The sleepy feeling recurred, and he wanted to sink into that voice and sleep forever.
‘You have done well. You may sleep once we are done.’
The voice did not answer him, though, and instead raised itself in volume, directing itself seemingly at the creature that was currently being obscured from his vision.
Now that he listened, he could hear it making wailing sounds, loud, pained screeches that echoed miserably.
It was very, very upset.
It gurgled and hissed, and he was sure he heard it pacing.
‘Begone. You will not have his soul. Not this night, and not ever.’
It whined again, the noise ending in a garbled hiss.
‘Unless you wish to incur my wrath, I suggest you flee this young man’s dreams and return to your homeworld. You will find that you will regret making me upset.’
There was silence, and then shuffling, and then nothing.
When he heard the voice again, it had returned to that soft, low pitch, engulfing him again in that cool, peaceful feeling. He felt his body grow heavy.
‘Sleep, Yuma. You will have peace this night if there is anything I can do about it.’
And with that, he really did.
When Yuma awoke, it was to his phone’s alarm, and he fumbled for it blearily, flipping it open and turning off the alarm.
Alarm…? Had he set one this early?
No. It was the alarm he normally set, for when he should be waking up. Which was...at 6:30 am.
He sat up in shock, eyes wide as the numbers on his phone were burned into his vision.
It was...6:30. He’d woken up...not from his nightmare, but…
He really just slept for about six straight hours without waking up once?
Now that he thought about it, the heavy cloak of exhaustion that normally hung over his shoulders was not quite as present today, and he stretched, feeling content for the first time in a long time.
Content, like he’d slept well.
It had been so long since he felt that way that he’d almost forgotten.
He could have sworn he had the usual nightmare, but then...then…
What had happened? He couldn’t remember.
He swung his legs over the side of his bed and stood stretching again, making a pleased sound when his back popped.
Yuma padded down the hall and glanced around the living room.
“Astral? You here?”
The dream entity did not materialize, so he guessed not. Well, he probably had...dream entity business, whatever that was.
He wanted to tell him about sleeping well for the first time in four years, but maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal. He couldn’t get too hopeful about it, not when creatures from another dimension were trying to steal his soul.
He had to remain cautious.
Work was as usual. He felt a little less like falling asleep at his desk, though, and that alone was something to be pleased about. Even a coworker had commented on the fact that he seemed to be in a good mood today, as he dashed about and completed all of his work with gusto.
He had to take advantage of a good day when he had one.
It was probably going to be his only day off from the Nightmares, so he had to do what he could while he could.
Even if it meant putting a little more energy into a job he hated, it was something. It was a step towards something, which was a whole lot better than his usual nothing.
He’d finished everything so quickly that he was able to leave a few minutes early that night.
And he left the shabby office building with a bit of a spring in his step.
He came home, almost expecting the apartment to be empty, but Astral greeted him, hovering before him in the entryway after he’d turned around from locking the door.
He jumped, clutching his chest and shooting Astral a look.
“Can’t you announce yourself or something like a normal person? Almost gave me a heart attack. Geez.”
Astral blinked, deadpan as usual. “I am not a ‘normal person’. I am - ”
“Yeah, yeah, dream entity, got it. I just meant - ” Yuma sighed, scratching the back of his head. “You know what, nevermind. Just...next time, don’t float behind me creepily and wait until I nearly pee myself to say hi, okay?”
The dream entity eyed him, as though wondering whether or not Yuma really would pee (so Yuma thought, at least), but assented nonetheless. “I understand.”
Yuma sighed and brushed past him. “So long as you do.”
Astral was unusually quiet as Yuma set about making something simple for dinner, humming a little to himself as he filled up the rice cooker.
“You seem to be in better spirits today.”
Yuma stopped humming and glanced over his shoulder to see the dream entity a few feet behind him, observing his actions with mild interest.
“More or less, I guess.”
He continued with what he was doing, closing the lid and turning on the rice cooker before turning away from it, folding his arms over his chest and leaning back against the counter.
“Y’know, I had that nightmare last night, like always. But it stopped halfway through, and I just can’t remember why. But for the first time ever, I actually slept all the way through the night. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, to be honest.” He rubbed the back of his neck.
“Doesn’t mean I’m not glad for it, though. I could really use more days like this.”
Astral simply nodded, expression carefully indifferent. Yuma figured he was hiding something with that kind of look on his face, but it probably wasn’t his business.
Dream entity business, or whatever.
“That is...good. I am glad you are sleeping better.”
Yuma moved around Astral, bustling about his small kitchen.
“Yeah, no more glad than I am, I bet.”
Astral watched Yuma for several more moments, voice very quiet then, almost quiet enough that Yuma wasn’t sure he even heard him right.
“Truly, I am happy for you, Yuma.”
It was a strange thing to be able to be seen by a human. Astral was still getting used to it, truth be told.
Astral had learned so much and yet so little about Tsukumo Yuma during his time observing the strange human. The more he watched, the less he felt he truly understood.
He could see exactly where the Nightmares had been eating away at him, and could see how weary he was each day. What he didn’t understand, though, was why Yuma was still here.
How was his soul still present? Was he fighting, somehow?
What Yuma told him about the situation was not enough. Astral would watch him sleep from time to time, noting the way he would thrash and groan in his sleep, but did not find it very informative.
So, he was left with one option, and it was one he was hesitant to take.
He could always enter Yuma’s nightmares himself.
He did not know what he would be risking for Yuma by doing so. And Yuma seemed to be very private about his innermost thoughts, seeming defensive over many things. Astral had learned to avoid speaking about certain subjects around him.
Being inside of his dreams, even for just a moment, would cause Astral to know him far better than Yuma surely wanted him to.
So, he was torn - could he learn more about Yuma by simply observing anymore? Was there anything left to be gained?
Then, there was the problem of the Nightmares growing ever closer to stealing Yuma’s soul…
And, he could not allow that.
For...a number of reasons.
There was something within him that very, very strongly believed Yuma’s soul should be spared else...else...what?
What would happen if Yuma’s soul was taken, and why did he feel this sense of dread so strongly?
For all of his wisdom, Astral did not know why Tsukumo Yuma mattered so much.
He only knew that he did. That his soul may very well be the most important in the entire universe.
Now, as he watched Yuma sleep, he knew he had to make his decision. He watched as Yuma’s expression strained, and his body tensed in his sleep.
At that moment, when he reached for Yuma, laying a hand over his forehead, his thoughts were not of understanding the importance of Yuma’s soul nor wanting to observe and learn more about him.
No, Astral wanted to save him, from the very innermost part of his being, he wanted this human to be saved.
At least this one.
He focused all of his energy onto the palm of his hand, eyes closing as he focused.
The demon was approaching Yuma. He could see it, through his closed eyes.
‘It cannot reach you. Not so long as I am here.’
He knew his voice had reached Yuma when he felt his confusion.
Yes, truthfully, Astral was just as confused.
The fierce protectiveness he felt towards Yuma surely held some meaning. Whether he would learn more about Yuma or not by doing this was meaningless. What was most important was that Yuma was saved.
He focused on that and made that his priority.
Scaring away the Nightmare was simple. It was a lower-ranking soldier, one that thrived off of cheap scares.
He was disgusted knowing that this was the thing that had plagued Yuma for so many years.
If he were to eradicate it -
But then he’d risk alerting Yuma to his presence.
He was certain Yuma would not take kindly to that.
Thus, the most he could do for now was to ward it off. He would do it again and again if he had to, if it meant Yuma’s soul would be saved.
‘I will not lose you, Tsukumo Yuma.’
He pulled his hand away, task completed.
‘Even if you would hate me for it were you to discover what I am doing...if I can save you, it must be done.’
Astral left then, deciding he had to leave Yuma’s presence in order to ponder for himself exactly what it was he hoped to accomplish, other than saving the balance of the worlds.
The question reverberated uselessly within him. He had no answers, no solutions. He did not even know what the purpose of any of this was.
For the first time ever, he questioned his reasons and his mission.
Only when he returned from his wanderings to see Yuma happy, Yuma in a good mood, did his doubts dissipate.
Yuma’s back was turned to him, but Astral was…
“Truly, I am happy for you Yuma.”
His voice was light enough that he hoped Yuma did not hear.
Watching Yuma hum to himself as he moved about was more than enough reason to convince Astral that protecting Yuma from the Nightmares would be worth it, even though he did not understand why yet.
I will protect you, Yuma.
With all that I have.