Dream knows Hob Gadling before he ever lays eyes on him. That’s why it makes very little sense to him, what his sister wants him to do – walk amongst the common folk, she says, see how they live, delight in them, when Dream already knows that the man staring redly from the corner thirsts only for blood and screaming, that the maid behind the bar is visited by inhuman specters whenever she sleeps, that the drunk now dozing in a puddle of his own drool is adrift in happier imaginings, his little babe giggling at his knee, his girl who he never properly married carding fingers through his hair, singing something soft and Gaelic, both of them lost five years hence to plague. Dream knows humans – he suspects better than any of his siblings, observing as he does the sum total of the rest of their machinations, delirium and desire and death and fear of it all ground like millet in the mortar of the slumbering skull; You need to get out more, Death says, teasing, and Dream does not know how to tell her he is rarely ever in.
“One hundred years’ time,” he says to Hob, already knowing his name and the shape of him under those filthy ragged clothes and that when he dreams he dreams of blood and screaming but is afraid of both. Hob’s eyes are on him, an oddly heavy, earthy sensation, to look at a man and see him looking back, both of them tethered down briefly to the moment by their shared gaze, Hob’s warm delighted face and rounded eyebrows like they’re sharing a secret already, and in a way they are. Dream knows that when Hob was a boy his mother beat him with a switch but his father always soothed the hurt by sneaking him out to the fields and whispering bawdy jokes he wasn’t supposed to let Hob know; he knows that Hob was thinking of giving himself over to the monastery before he got drafted into his lord’s army, because he wanted to learn how to read; he knows that at the first castle the army stormed Hob saw a lad he’d been marching and sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder with for nearly a month run through with a pike, because he had nightmares about it for weeks after, the clang of metal ringing in the stone stairwells, the gurgles of dying, hotblooded men, the multicolored grasping confusion of the looting afterwards, when Hob was too shellshocked to do anything but sit with his head in his hands, rasping for breath – Dream knows all this, but to Hob, he is a stranger.
And still, knowing nothing of him, Hob says yes.
Six hundred years later, give or take a few decades, Hob wakes to find a baby in his flat.
He stops dead in the open door to his bedroom, hand still on the knob. The baby is swaddled in a familiar coat. Black, herringbone, the deep dramatic collar tucked up around the child’s head like a hood.
Hob feels distantly like he’s been struck, or dunked in a bucket of ice water, or like he’s still in bed, dreaming. He’s barefoot. He hasn’t got a bloody shirt on. He hasn’t even called enough brain cells to muster to think about making coffee yet.
“Uh,” says the raven perched by the baby’s head. “Dream says hi? And also – Can you babysit?”
“Babysit,” Hob says flatly. He barely registers the fact that he’s said anything. His gaze is locked on the baby. Eyes closed, face twitching peacefully in sleep, one tiny hand tucked up under a pink chin wrinkled like a walnut. “And whose baby am I babysitting? If it’s not too much to ask.”
“Well. About that.” The raven – Matthew, Hob remembers he’s called, from the last time Dream came skulking around the Inn and brought the bird along. He’d spent the whole night guzzling pints quite happily in the corner of the bar, clacking his beak at anyone who tried to pet him and scraping Hob’s glassware to high heaven. “She’s actually – ”
At that moment, the baby decides to wake up and start crying.
Hob swears under his breath, slurred with sleep, some ancient long-buried parental instinct driving him across the room to pick her up before he can consciously decide to do so. She barely weighs anything, nestled in the crook of his arm, her hand curled against his bare chest, already quieting even before he starts to rock her – Hob is overcome with a sudden sense-memory of holding another baby, what would be nearly five centuries ago now, floorboards in an old dark house creaking under his weight, bouncing and humming his way down the musty upstairs corridor while his wife slept tangled up with their footman in the other room. Robyn had been a fussy baby, always whining even in sleep, so that Hob had gotten in the habit of sleeping upright in a chair in his nursery, dozing fitfully with his son’s peaceful, baby-hot body tucked up on his chest like a frog; the baby in his arms now smacks him once with a loose fist, calms herself, and goes right back to sleep.
“What’s her name?” he asks the raven, not looking away from her face. She is – he’s not sure what adjective to use, but looking at her makes something fragile and luminous balloon up in his chest, like trying to hold a firefly in a cupped hand.
“Andy,” Matthew says.
Hob’s heart twinges. “Andy,” he echoes, a little wondrous.
“Hey,” he says after a second, turning to Matthew with a thought, “when’s Dream going to – ”
Come and get her, he means to finish, but he can’t because the damn bird’s already gone. He looks back down at the baby – Andy – with her lick of dark hair and her splotchy pink skin. Even though she can’t be more than a month old, probably not even, the resemblance to her father – to Hob’s friend – is already uncanny. She looks imperious, a little disapproving, like she’ll nap in his arms if she has to since she doesn’t want to be rude, but privately she thinks the conditions aren’t quite befitting an infant of her station.
Hob loves her instantly, instinctively, in a way that he thinks is going to be nearly impossible to get over. He presses his thumb gently between her eyebrows, smiling at the teensy motion he can feel as she scrunches up her nose.
“Suppose it’s just you and me for now, love,” he murmurs, soft enough not to disturb her. He swore to himself, after Robyn, that he would never do this again, and yet here he is – not doing it exactly, not truly a parent, but feeling like one already inside the space of five minutes.
He sighs out through his nose, allowing himself a moment to feel it – that old leaden sorrow, the anticipatory stab of loss, the breathless fear he feels about all of it.
Then he packs it all away, smiles, and says to Andy, “Best call for reinforcements.”
Reinforcements being: his grad student and assistant lecturer Odette, who’s got a wonderful affinity for Middle English and a terrible habit of answering no matter when he calls. Hob mostly tries not to take advantage – he’s been getting better, lately, at putting down the phone when he thoughtlessly picks it up to call and ask her to remind him about a student’s last paper when he’s doling out grades at two in the morning – but in this instance he feels no shame whatsoever in texting her SOS MY PLACE ASAP, because the logistics of suddenly having a baby dropped on him are harrowing.
In the 16th century it would’ve been fine, but in the 21st the experts have figured out enough about raising children that Hob is very aware just how much sheer dumb luck factored into him keeping Robyn alive to adulthood, and that he can’t just throw the kid in the back seat of the car and hope for the best while he drives to the shops. Odette, thankfully, is a champion worrier and frightfully prepared because of it, so she always has a baby carseat in the back of her Volvo in case her sister needs her to take her nephew in an emergency.
But it's clear as soon as Odette knocks and Hob answers this isn’t the sort of emergency she’s expecting from him today – probably thinks his red pen’s kipped out on him again, which was what had happened the last time he texted an SOS, though in his defense it had been past eight and all the office supply stores had been closed, sleepy little area that it is. Odette’s eyes lock on the baby, going wide behind her thick bifocal lenses, and Hob can see the furious and alarmed mathematics she’s doing in her head, trying to figure out when he had time in the busy schedule she keeps for him to knock someone up.
“I’m looking after her for a friend,” he tells her, before she can strain something. “Odette, meet Andy. Andy, Odette.”
Andy, who blinked awake at the knock on the door and has been smacking Hob’s chest with a spitty hand and wiggling in his arms ever since, trying to get a good look at the newcomer, lets out a happy babble.
Odette stares at her for another second, brain still lagging, then breaks out that zany, slightly awkward smile she uses on the first years when she’s trying to remind them she’s a young person as well. “Hello, Andy,” she says. “Charmed,” then holds out her finger for the baby to wrap her fist around like a handshake.
“Look, this sort of got sprung on me last-minute.” Hob shuffles Andy around in his arms to accommodate for the wiggling, and wonders if her mother is maybe part snake, because she’s turning out to be quite tricky to hold onto. “I haven’t got any baby stuff here, and I remembered you’ve got that car seat – ”
“Right!” Odette says, catching up all at once. “Of course, yeah, no trouble at all. We’ll just pop round to the shops, shall we?”
Hob grins. “I knew there was a reason I hired you.”
“You didn’t hire me, professor,” she reminds him. “The school stuck you with me.”
“Sure, well. I knew there was a reason I didn’t fight it too hard.”
Odette could say something here about how she can scan Old English meter at a rate that makes his eyes water or how Folger are already banging down the door to get her to contribute linguistic commentary on Measure for Measure, but instead she just says, “You may want to put on a shirt before we go out. Professor.”
Hob looks down at himself, then back up at her. “See? This is why they pay you the big bucks.”
“Very small bucks,” Odette corrects, but she’s smiling.
She takes the baby from him while he goes to get dressed, and Hob rushes so much that he cracks his shin against the foot of his bed getting into his trousers, because it’s the first time in the last hour or so since she appeared that he hasn’t had Andy in his arms and he feels bereft – acutely bereft, like he’s missing a piece of himself or forgotten something important.
Surely it’s too soon for these sorts of feelings. Surely this is some sort of early warning sign of mental collapse, surely six hundred and thirty-one years have finally proven enough to do him in, in terms of sanity. But then again, he fell in love with Dream the moment he saw him, the same way men sometimes fell in love with beautiful women on the street, not really knowing anything about them but driven to frenzies of imagination by their very sight. Now, knowing Dream as he does, it makes a painful sort of sense he would fall in love with his daughter too.
In the bathroom he splashes cold water on his face and gives himself a hard look in the mirror, as if he can somehow set himself straight.
“This is not your baby,” he says sternly to his own reflection. “You do not get to keep this baby. You do not want to keep this baby. Do not under any circumstances get attached to this baby.”
But then he emerges, and Andy reaches for him the second she sees him, excited enough that she almost takes a tumble out of Odette’s arms, and Hob steps quickly forward to catch her, his heart stuttering in his chest, and he knows that it’s no use. It’s too late. He’s already fucked.
The first order of business is clothes, because whether Andy is some sort of godling or Endless or what, a men’s coat is not proper attire for an infant.
Luckily there’s a baby boutique in the town center, right next to a café where Odette decamps to get them both enormous coffees with way too much espresso, anticipating that they’re going to need it. While she’s gone, Hob bounces Andy up and down the baby clothes aisle, trying to estimate how old she is by holding up onesies until one of the women who works in the shop takes pity on him and sends him to the 3-6 month rack. Hob lets Andy squeeze her sticky hand on the sleeves of the clothes, so she can decide for herself what she wants, and ends up with a whole pile of bright yellow onesies in the cart, quietly delighted by the idea that the most brooding man he’s ever met has somehow sired a child who wants nothing but primary colors.
Hob’s not exactly kept up with the most recent trends in parenting, but he’s seen Raising Arizona a few times and he feels like he’s got the basics. Binkies, bottles, teething toys, diapers, a mobile with tiny birds on it because he knows Dream likes birds.
Odette finds him again while he’s standing in front of the cribs, staring at the £200 price tags and starting to do some very sobering math in his head. “How long are you watching her for?” she asks, handing over his coffee.
Hob takes a long, scalding draught. “No idea,” he admits.
Odette’s kind enough not to inquire further.
Later, alone in his flat above the Inn, a bit frayed from all the wailing Andy did before she would take a bottle and go down properly, Hob sits down in the dim of the kitchen and opens his laptop. Odette took the stack of papers he was meant to mark this weekend off his hands, but he’s still got about three dozen unread emails from students and other faculty, which for now he elects to ignore in favor of logging in to check his online bank statement.
He assumes that most men in his position, having had nearly seven centuries to accrue a fortune, would have accrued a considerable one, but Hob’s always had an unfortunate habit of getting in at the ground floor of things a few decades too early – the printing press, for example – and he spent the first half of the 20th century dodging the draft and taking himself on a morose and self-pitying tour of the world’s shadiest gambling establishments, so since then he’s been largely broke. His job at the university and his ownership of the New Inn make him enough to live on, comfortably if not lavishly, but last month he spent £20,000 he’d been saving up on his own 1476 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the one he’d pawned off for almost nothing back in 1688, and after the bill he just paid at the baby shop he’s expecting that his balance will be something like ten pounds.
Instead, it’s ten million.
Hob stares for a long minute at more zeroes than he’s ever seen, thinks fucking hell, Dream, then bursts into laughter so hysterical that it wakes the baby.
Desire’s blood red lips curl into a smile so knowing and devious that Dream’s heart drops into his stomach. “I know,” they say, nearly purring. “As an apology, dear brother, I’ll give you the one thing you want most in the universe. The thing you don’t even know you’re yearning for.”
Dream stares them down. “No,” he says.
But his younger sibling, as usual, is not to be deterred. “Look,” they say, slinking up from their smooth, nearly organic perch, “I feel terrible, brother, you have to understand. This whole thing has just reminded me of the importance of family.”
“Desire,” Dream warns.
“Oh, please. There’s no need to thank me.” They shoot him a saucy wink, already on their way out of the throne room. “Your apology will be waiting for you back in your own realm.”
Dream knows that Desire cannot use their powers within the bounds of his domain, and so he knows where the so-called apology will be – he doesn’t waste a second lingering in his sibling’s palace, something in his chest going tight and panicked at the idea of a babe left alone on that desolate shore outside his gates.
There is no question in his mind, despite what his sibling believes, what it is that he wants most in the universe. No matter how deeply Dream has fallen into this habit of lying to himself – his recent personal growth, as Death calls it, aside – he has never not been aware what he was lying about. He finds the child in the sand on the edge of the surf, wailing plaintively, cold and alone, and takes off his coat to swaddle her.
She has Hob’s eyes.
Some context, perhaps, is required.
In the year 1595, the queen of the fey folk decides that she wants Dream of the Endless for her lover, and becomes difficult when he rejects her. Am I not beautiful? she demands, face cracking at the head of her royal table; Dream at the far end, the guest of honor, already composing his I told you so speech to Lucienne in his head. He hadn’t wanted to come, but his librarian insisted. It’s not often the Endless are invited to venture underhill – possibly because whenever they do, international incidents tend to occur. In this instance, Titania, mouth full of bloody fangs where a moment ago there were perfect white teeth, screeching, Do I not entice you???
Dream has never been one for diplomacy, so he feels no need to make excuses. He simply says, “You do not,” and stands from the table, departing in a swirl of sand.
Lucienne has a field day chewing him out about that one, in her underhanded and respectful way. Dream mostly ignores her; Titania is a very small fish in the universal sea of nonhuman entities, and he’s so unconcerned with any reprisal that it only takes him a few days once Lucienne lets it go to forget that anything happened at all.
And then, a month after the banquet, a messenger from Faerie arrives on his doorstep. A flitting, impetuous thing called Puck, who grins with sharp teeth at Dream while he relays his message – that Queen Titania has decided to console herself by taking a human lover, a unique specimen, a man who has lived two hundred and fifty years without dying.
“Hob Gadling is not a changeling,” Dream says darkly. “The fey folk have no right to claim that which is not theirs.”
“Ah, but he’s not quite of the mortal realm either, is he?” Puck muses, striking a faux-thoughtful pose that makes Dream want to smack him out of the air. “Not quite a subject of any realm at all, your Robert Gadling. Which makes him fair game!”
With a cackle, the imp departs.
Dream spends a moment staring at the spot where Puck just was, hot, ugly rage stewing in his chest the way molten magma stews beneath the earth – unseen, smoldering, incredibly ancient.
Then he follows him down to Faerie.
He finds Hob at Titania’s knee, eating grapes out of her hand.
The throne room heaves with her subjects, with their deranged merriment, fae folk whose faces he can’t quite make out even when he’s looking directly at them, smears of laughing mouths and leering eyes and skin like melting wax, long needle-nailed hands dragging at his coat as he stalks past. He is still king of dreams, still Endless, but the sovereign of this realm has not invited him to come here. Not directly, at least. As such he is not a guest, and enjoys none of the diplomatic protection afforded to him on his last visit – Titania’s subjects can touch him, and meet his eyes, and as he pushes through them like wading through a thick jungle they do.
Titania’s eyes slide to him as he approaches the throne, a knife sliding through flesh. “Ah,” she trills, sickly-sweet. “Look at this. The Dream King himself deigns to pay me a visit. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Dream glowers. “You know very well why I’m here, Titania.”
Her grin sharpens, though she tries to hide it. “I’m afraid I don’t,” she says, innocent. “I’ve done nothing but give an orphan a home, after all. This poor, dear man. Left to wander among mortals, where he no longer truly belongs…”
The points of her nails dig into Hob’s jaw, forcing his face up. His back is to Dream, but it’s clear enough from the swaying lines of his spine that he’s under some sort of enchantment. The grapes, probably. One of the few truths to have made it back to humans about the faerie realm is never to accept their food. Dream’s blood boils; he can hear it rushing furiously in his veins, his every instinct roaring that this is his human Titania is touching, that she has no right, that only he can lay claim, and before he can consider the repercussions or slow down long enough to come up with a better idea, he says, “Robert Gadling is mine by compact.”
Titania’s smug air of victory shatters like a dropped glass. “By compact,” she echoes, flat.
Dream’s mind is racing, but he doesn’t take it back. To rescind his claim would be to leave Hob here for eternity, and he cannot do that. Titania’s nails dig into his face so hard that blood runs down her wrist, dripping on the hem of her robes. Dream resolves then and there that for the rest of her life he shall personally preside over her nightmares.
Titania’s grin is gone. All mirth is gone. What remains is cold and defiant. “Are you prepared to prove this compact, before me and my court?”
Dream’s heart flips up in his throat like a frog, but he doesn’t let himself waver. “I am,” he says.
“Very well.” Lips curled in disgust, Titania releases Hob with a hard shove. Dream’s friend scrambles to get his feet underneath him, swearing while he crashes out of her spell. “Prove it.”
Under normal circumstances, Dream has no patience for the archaic laws that govern behavior in lesser courts, but these are not normal circumstances and he’s glad for the five-minute reprieve required before the re-sealing of a formal compact. It’s intended to give both parties a chance to consult with their advisors, to consider one last time the dangers and benefits of such a union, but Dream has not come with advisors, and he has no alternatives left – a compact is the only way.
Still, the reprieve gives him time to seek consent in private, for which he is eminently grateful.
“What the bloody fuck!” Hob exclaims when they’re alone, pacing fast away from the chamber doors, sleeve pressed to his bleeding face. “What is this? What are these people? Is this what you are? Some sort of – sort of – ”
“No,” Dream interrupts. “I am not of the fair folk.”
Hob looks at him – incandescently angry at first, still coming down in an uncontrolled slide from the fear, then calming as he seems to remember to breathe. “What are you, then?”
Dream doesn’t answer.
For a moment it looks like Hob will push further, uncaring of the danger that comes with challenging one of the Endless. Then his shoulders slump, and he asks instead, “Whatever you are, can you get me out of here?”
“Yes,” Dream promises. “Though you may not appreciate my methods.”
Hob smiles ruefully. “Why don’t you tell me what they are, and let me decide.”
“A compact,” Dream says, “when sealed, will make you a subject of my realm, if not in practice then enough to earn protection from the old laws. I tried to claim that we were already bound, but Titania has demanded that we prove the compact so she may bear witness.”
“Bound,” Hob says, frowning. “Tell me, my friend – What’s a compact, exactly?”
Dream holds his gaze. He will not shy away from this – he got Hob into this trap, and he intends to get him out, no matter the personal cost. “The closest human equivalent would be marriage.”
“Marriage.” Hob swallows hard; Dream watches the motion of his throat. “I’m already married.”
“Not under the old laws.”
Hob’s eyes are on his face, pinched at the corners, searching for something. “And you aren’t either? Married under the old laws.”
“But you would marry me.”
“I would,” Dream allows. “If you agree to it, I will.”
“Why?” Hob shakes his head a little, bewildered. “We meet one night every hundred years, you listen to me talk, but I’ve never gotten the sense you particularly enjoyed it – why would you do this for me? Bind yourself to me, forever?”
It is not necessarily forever, Dream could say, and explain about Calliope. He could tell him that Lucienne once likened him to Dream’s favorite book, carried about under one arm, left eternally beneath a candle at the bedside table, never truly finished, or that the first time he spotted him through the yellow crush of that crowded tavern and recognized his voice and the shape of his hands and the way he set his feet under the table it was very much like gazing upon an old friend after too long apart, warmth and relief at the mere sight of him. He could say I have loved you for centuries, Hob Gadling, but he does not, because Hob barely knows him at all. To Hob he is a shadow, barely more than a myth, a pale specter who appears once every hundred years, a half-remembered lightning strike in the long dark storm of time. I remember your father, he could tell him. I remember how well you loved him. I was there when you lost your first wife to plague, when you killed your first man barehanded because otherwise he would have killed you. I have seen the horrors that shock you awake in the middle of the night, and I have been the thing that eases you back to sleep. There is no part of you that I have not called beloved. Of course I would bind my heart to yours, of course, of course –
Instead he says, “If you wish to leave this place, there is no other way.”
“Right.” Hob breathes out like he’s psyching himself up. “I already know I’m going to regret asking, but what does proving entail?”
“Consummation,” Dream answers, after a pause. “I must have you. Or you must have me.”
Hob’s gaze burns.
A knock at the door. A moment later Titania’s attendant enters. “My lord,” she says to Dream, inclining her head. “The reprieve time is elapsed. They’re waiting for you in the throne room.”
“My lord?” Hob echoes behind him, but Dream doesn’t have time to address his confusion – he has need of a more pressing answer.
“Will you agree to this, Hob Gadling? ”
Hob meets his eyes in the dim threshold of the open door, and for a moment Dream can see a frisson of panic in his face, but then he softens. “Yes,” he says. “Of course I will. Of course.”
Later, Dream will find the consummation difficult to think on, the way it eventually becomes unbearable to look into a very bright light.
Isolated moments, which centuries later still stir something in him. The first touch of Hob’s eyes on his naked body. Hob’s pupils dilating darkly when Dream’s fingers dig into the side of his neck, forcing his head back. The shallow, heaving breath, pressed chest to chest. The small private curve of Hob’s smile, like Well? Go on, then; that same smile melting into a hot moan as Dream bites into Hob’s mouth, Hob’s fingers digging bruises into Dream’s hips. A spike of pain as they fall to their knees on the stone dais – nothing but a thin cloth to dress their unfortunate wedding bed, nowhere for them to hide from their rapt audience. Hob spread underneath him, eager and shaking, clinging to Dream like he’s the only thing keeping him from flying apart. His laugh vibrating on Dream’s tongue, breathy and nervous; his body dragging at Dream’s fingers as he opens him, trying to pull him back in, the earthy human smell of him and the pinpricks of sweat in the small of his back, sticky on Dream’s lips. The scalding heat of that first thrust, the broken noise Hob makes, face-down on the cloth with Dream plastered to his back, every inch of him touching every inch of Hob, elbow tucked to elbow, thigh to thigh, his palms braced on the back of Hob’s hands, their fingers wound white-knuckled together.
Hob bites off his noises before he can truly make them, probably uncomfortable with how they echo in the cavernous space, but Dream still secrets them greedily away for later, so that he can imagine what Hob sounds like when he’s not holding back, when he’s truly given himself over to pleasure. Dream knows he should not, that the position he’s put Hob in is already violation enough, but he cannot control that he wants nothing more than to possess this man, body and soul, and so he lets himself look into Hob’s mind, to see what he’s thinking about while Dream takes him – and he is astonishingly, sickeningly pleased to find only himself. Hob, he rumbles, trying to cover as much of him as he can with his body, to shield him, ducking his head to mouth wetly at the side of Hob’s face. You are mine, Robert Gadling. I claim you as my husband, and Hob laughs the way people laugh after a fire, standing among the embers, awash with gratitude to still be alive. He arches his back like a cat, pressing even closer to Dream’s body, dislodging him enough that he can reach back with one hand and get a grip on his hair.
“That makes you mine too, then,” he gasps.
Dream comes so brutally and so suddenly that he can do nothing to stop it.
He buries his face in the crook of Hob’s neck, trying to hide the vulnerability of his orgasm from Titania’s court, and Hob lets him – encourages him, even, his hand on the eggshell of Dream’s skull to hold him there, murmuring nothing-words, There you are and fucking hell and I have you, duck, the last of his voice lost in a ragged groan as he follows Dream over the edge.
There’s applause, jeering; later, Dream will remember the cold shock of it, like stepping out of a warm tavern into a winter’s night. He pulls away from Hob, too dumb with humiliation in that moment to realize that his friend is reaching for him, and in a maelstrom of sand – the compact sealed and proven, the faerie queen’s claim dissolved – they’re gone.
Dream returns Hob to his bed, and himself to his own realm. They do not speak of it again.
Shortly thereafter, Will Shakespeare has a vivid and wondrous dream, and thenceforth on stages across the world the queen of the fair folk falls in love with an ass.
The difficulty is, of course, that Dream cannot forget. Try as he might, for centuries upon centuries he can find nothing potent enough to erase the brand of Hob’s touch; he descends into the inferno, bearing witness to the nine circles of carnal depravity, the lustful fantasies of cloistered priests and the dreams of oversexed Borgias, lets a troupe of virgin wood nymphs tempt him to despoil them all at once and later eavesdrops on their memories of him, hazy and pleasure-soaked and worshipful, and feels nothing but a dull, distant sort of pride. He looks in on Calliope, wringing her hair dry on the banks of a babbling brook, laughing with her sisters in sunlight that hasn’t been so gold since before Rome fell, and feels none of that old desire to slip into her bed, to join her in sleep. He loves her still, the way a wound that’s scarred over is always a wound, the way a man can never forget the pain of it, but he does not ache for her. He does not yearn for her. He yearns only for his husband.
For other things, as well, though he will not let himself dwell on them.
(She has Hob’s eyes.)
Truly, the advances in parenting that have been made in the last half-millennium are a sight to behold. Hob doesn’t have to chew up food to feed to the baby anymore, once Andy graduates from the bottle – the market down the street from the Inn’s got a whole aisle of little jars of mashed carrots and peas and, slightly alarmingly, blended cottage pie. Hob and Andy work their way steadily through all the flavors, fueled by the absurd amount of money in Hob’s bank account and Hob’s own morbid curiosity; it becomes quickly apparent that while mashed banana goes down like cough syrup – cough syrup the way it used to be, before they took all the morphine out – creamy chicken is bound to end up splattered over his walls.
Someone in the 1970s invented something ingenious called a baby björn, which allows Andy to ride along quite happily strapped to his front. In this manner she accompanies him to his lectures, to his office hours, on lovely afternoon strolls through the park, to coffee shops where he gets swarmed with cooing middle-aged women, and to Time Travel Night at the pub every Thursday.
It started back during the early days of the pandemic, when Hob was forced to learn how to use Zoom to teach his classes online and he’d started to notice how his students seemed to be steadily deteriorating inside their tiny one-bedroom flats, growing more and more detached from the material as the semester wore on. He wasn’t, technically, allowed to gather them in person – he ran the risk of losing his professorship to even suggest it, not that it would have been much of a hardship in the grand scheme of things – but he’d started getting those who wanted to together in the park once a week, ostensibly for a bonus lecture but really just to check in on them. Masks mandatory, of course – Hob lived through enough of these things before germ theory to know what a wonderful boon science has been – but they at least got to look at each other’s faces without a chat window around them.
Crosslegged on the grass, he’d started to tell stories about his life, looser and more anecdotal than formal lectures, framed as A day in the life of an Elizabethan merchant, A day in the life of a Jacobean vagrant, A day in the life of an Edwardian lush…
By far his biggest hit was A day in the life of a Victorian brothel owner, which he was lucky didn’t earn him a summons to HR. Even once his lectures shifted slowly back to in-person, once-stuffed halls populated by a smattering of nervous learners seated six feet apart, there was still demand for what the students had come to call “Time Travel Night,” so Hob had moved it to the patio outside the Inn, and then inside the pub itself once it was safe. He’d even started to get some students who’d graduated or transferred coming back, which filled him with fond pride in a way that even marking a paper with a perfect score couldn’t do. He hasn’t missed a Thursday night since, not even when he had to argue with the university to move one of his scheduled classes to Wednesday evening instead – and not when the kitchen caught fire and they had to do A day in the life of a pikeman in the War of the Roses out on the curb, Hob’s voice shaky with adrenaline, red lights from the fire engines flashing.
Anyway, the point is – Andy is a hit at Time Travel Night.
Odette takes her more often than not, so Hob has room to gesticulate wildly without running the risk of hitting his – Dream’s – baby in the face, but the baby has always got a contingent of tipsy and enamored girls gathered around, playing peekaboo and sticking bows in her wispy hair and trying to get her to laugh.
It’s no small task. For all that Andy’s the most placid, peaceful baby Hob’s ever seen – her tantrums an extreme rarity reserved for truly distressing events, like getting her shots or seeing a dog she doesn’t like the looks of – she’s not really one for smiles, or giggling. It hurts Hob’s soul a bit, that she doesn’t smile at him much, but he suspects it’s got something to do with her father, who’s the same way, and when he thinks of it like that he doesn’t mind at all.
Matthew hangs around a lot – half for the free beer, Hob thinks, and half because his master tasked him with watching over them. He’s there on the Thursday that Odette’s incorrigible girlfriend Nahla demands, “Yaaaa khara, who’d you convince to let you knock them up? Snow bloody White, from the looks of things. Or Morticia Adams.”
On the sill of an open window, Matthew snorts into his beer. Andy blinks at Nahla with her big brown doe eyes and sticks a handful of beer nuts in her mouth.
“Oh, no,” Odette lunges to fish them out with her fingers, making a disgusted face.
Hob’s grateful for her quick reflexes, because he’s just been clobbered over the head by the suggestion that Andy might be both of theirs, his and Dream’s, and suddenly he wants that more than he’s ever wanted anything.
“Professor Gadling?” he realizes someone’s saying, after a minute – Odette, with Nahla frowning at her shoulder. “Is something wrong?”
Hob musters a smile. “Nothing. Sorry.” He ducks to drop a kiss on Andy’s head, lingering for a moment, grief twinging in his chest for no reason he can figure, then goes to tell his stories.
Later, when his students have filtered out and the pub’s quieted down and Andy’s asleep in her crib after what Hob wouldn’t hesitate to term his greatest rendition of Mr. Sandman yet, Hob puts the kettle on and cracks the window for Matthew.
For a second there’s nothing, no flap of wings out in the dark, but then Hob calls softly, “I’ll put some scotch in yours,” and moment later the raven is there.
“That better not be chamomile,” Matthew says, settling on the kitchen table as Hob pours over the tea bags. “I can’t fucking stand chamomile.”
“English breakfast,” Hob tells him.
Matthew somehow manages to raise his eyebrows without having any eyebrows. “Not planning on sleeping tonight?”
Hob gives him a tired smile. “Somehow I just don’t think it’s in the cards.”
“Uh-oh,” Matthew says, while Hob slides him his mug. “Are we about to have a heart-to-heart?”
“Tell me something.” Hob cups his hands around his mug – it’s just this side of too hot, painful against his palms, but he doesn’t let go. “How long until he comes back to take her?”
Matthew stops with his beak in his tea, then draws it out slowly, like he's surprised. “He’s not gonna do that,” he says. He sounds gentler than Hob’s ever heard him. “He wouldn’t do that to you.”
Hob laughs a little, mirthless. “We were married once, you know,” he says. It feels like a knife through the ribs to say it out loud. “I don’t even think he remembers.”
“Hob – ”
“I suppose that sort of thing happens all the time to gods. Like Star Trek, or something. Always having to marry your humans to save them from the queen of bloody faeries.”
If it’s possible for a raven to look stricken, that’s how Matthew looks.
Hob puts on an apologetic expression – it’s not the bird’s fault, after all, there’s no reason for Hob to take it out on him. “Nevermind,” he says. “Just, if you see him…let him know that if he leaves her here any longer he’s going to have to fight me to get her back.”
If Matthew tries to say anything else, Hob doesn’t hear it. He goes into the bedroom, dark and warm and close, like crawling into bed with someone you love, and sits down hard on the edge of the bed, looking at Andy in her crib.
He tries to make himself think, for a moment, what it’s going to be like to live alone in the flat again, to go back to having a regular adult sleep schedule, nothing to keep him company but the noise from the pub downstairs – and gets hit with a memory so old that for a single suspended second it doesn’t even feel like one of his. The cold front that settled over his parents’ house, that winter his little sister fell through the ice. How for months he kept listening for the sound of her feet scrambling too fast up the ladder to their loft. How the quiet was louder than the howling wind outside.
It’s 1666, and all of London is burning. Smoke so thick in the air it feels like trying to breathe sand, his eyes on fire, stinging, tears running down his cheeks; he’s the end man in a bucket brigade, heaving water over and over onto a blazing church, people who ran from the flames in search of divine protection screaming inside, the hellish orange light turning the street bright as day, towering into the heavens above them, a beam separates from the skeletal structure with a noise like the ocean crashing into the shore and the man next to Hob goes down under it, his hair on fire, screaming. Hob reaches back for another bucket but there’s no one there, they’ve all gone and he’s alone, no living person in sight, nothing but the roaring of the firestorm and the heat of the flames cooking his skin on his bones, cooking his organs, and he says oh God please God, weeping, driven to his knees by the hopelessness of it all, because this is it, this must be it, judgement day has come and he’s going to be the only survivor, and he suddenly doesn’t know if he’s strong enough, if he wants it, and the flames leap onto his back and the heat is too much, it’s excruciating, the devil itself trying to claw out his spine, and Hob cries out like a lost babe crying for its mother, wordless and afraid –
A cool touch on his face, pinprick eyes shining through the opaque wall of smoke. “Do not fear, Robert Gadling,” says a calm voice, out of the darkness. “This is only memory. The pain is past.”
Hob wakes choking on a sob.
Distantly, he’s aware that there should be a crying baby in the room with him – Andy always gets distressed when he has a nightmare, he can’t figure out if it’s because she can see what he’s dreaming or if she’s just sensitive to his moods – but it’s quiet. And before he has time to freak out about that, he realizes there’s someone else here.
Those same fingers that touched his face in the dream, carding his hair away from his forehead here in reality. Hob rolls over onto his back, not enough to dislodge him but enough to look up at him. Andy’s nestled in the crook of his arm, still fast asleep.
What are you doing here? Hob wants to ask – feels the question on the tip of his tongue. Where have you been? Can you please stay with me for more than one fucking night? – but he doesn’t, because he’s got a feeling like if he does it will break some spell. Send his friend running.
Instead he reaches out and runs his finger oh-so-gently over the shell of Andy’s ear, soothed to be touching both of them at once, and asks, “Why’d you name her Andy?”
Dream’s eyes snap to him – like a cornered animal at first, caught, then easing. He presses his thumb harder against Hob’s temple, like he’s trying to mark him. “Your father’s name was Andrew," he says. "I thought…it was something you might have chosen.”
Hob’s heart stops in his chest. “But she’s not…She’s yours.”
“Yes.” Dream shifts; his folded knee jabs Hob in the side. “Mine, and yours.”
It’s the pain of that pointy knee, more than anything, that tells Hob he’s not still asleep. For all the hours he’s spent dreaming of this man, he’s never conjured up bony knees. “That’s not possible,” he says, rough with terrible want. “That’s not – she can’t be. How could she be?”
Dream’s lips twitch, not quite a smile. Not quite happy. “Some of my siblings can be quite cruel, when they want to be. She was gifted to me by Desire.”
“I don’t – ” Hob sits up, so they’re face-to-face. “I don’t understand.”
“That which I desire most in the universe,” Dream says faintly, eyes locked on the baby in his arms, “and that which terrifies me most. It is a blessing and a curse, to love what can die.”
“What are you saying?” Hob’s eyes strain to read his face in the dark. “The thing you want most in the universe is a child with me?”
Dream stares back at him, unwavering, and says nothing.
Still floating in that forgiving middle-of-the-night headspace where nothing is wrong, where there are no consequences, Hob runs his hand up the side of Dream’s arm, over his shoulder, to hold the side of his neck. He can see in Dream’s eyes that he remembers as well as Hob does – Dream’s hand on Hob’s neck just like this, forcing his head back, his thumb pressed to Hob’s lower lip. Slipping into his mouth.
Now, Hob’s thumb soothes over the skin behind Dream’s ear, the knob of bone. “What do babies dream about?” he asks.
Dream’s mouth quirks, charmed by something he’s remembering. “Their parents, mostly,” he answers. “Right now, Andy is dreaming of her father.”
“You?” Hob guesses.
“No,” Dream says. “You.”
It knocks the breath right out of him. He sways forward before he can think about it, wanting to get closer, to press their foreheads together, to kiss him, but he’s not sure what he’s allowed to do even now, so he chickens out at the last moment, hovering there, sharing his friend’s breath while their baby – their baby – sleeps soundly between them.
Dream’s the one to close the gap, bumping their brows together, clumsy, like he’s not used to this sort of intimacy. It’s been four centuries since Hob was close enough to smell him, but he smells just the same – like walking on wet grass at night, like the early morning in winter, when icy fog hangs in the air, burning off with the sunrise.
“You were mine once,” Dream tells him. “Under the old laws, you still are.”
Hob laughs, wrung out. “I always was,” he admits. “Laws or not.”
“Hob,” Dream says, rough, but Hob doesn’t let him finish – he takes Dream’s head in his hands, desperate and grateful and so, so in love, and draws him into what he hopes is the last first kiss he’ll ever have.
(Well. The last second first kiss he’ll ever have.)
There are, unsurprisingly, a lot of strange things about raising a baby with the king of dreams.
For reasons mystifying and unknowable, Dream doesn’t much care for the baby björn; more often than not he floats Andy along beside him in a cloud of glittering sand, which on several occasions alarms the neighbors and the first few times nearly kills Hob. There are a lot of father-daughter staring contests, through which Hob eventually figures out Dream is imparting ancient and cosmic wisdom, tending to the part of their child which is very much more than human; Hob sometimes lingers in the doorway without announcing his presence just to watch them, these two otherworldly beings that have for some reason decided to make themselves at home in his life, caught between deep blue wistfulness that he’ll never know what’s going on inside their heads and an overwhelming relief that he doesn’t have to figure this out alone, that Dream is here and that he knows what he’s doing.
More than once, he looks up from dancing Andy around the kitchen while he has his coffee – Mozart, usually, because he still remembers the first concert he ever attended, 1775, Salzburg, that breathless moment before the composer let fall his baton and called the symphony to action, how after that it was like the whole world opened itself up at his feet, how at the same time that he was in a stuffy parlor in Austria he was watching the sun rise at the coast in 1411, the first time he’d ever taken himself to look at the sea, and by the time the piece had finished his cheeks were wet with tears he had no memory of crying – anyway, the point being, he gets in the habit of bouncing Andy around the kitchen to Mozart in the dappled morning light, and more than once he looks up to find Dream standing in the doorway, never leaning against it, as if the idea of leaning never even crossed his mind, something so tender on his face that it splits Hob’s heart like a ripe peach.
Dream doesn’t ever sleep, that Hob sees, which for the first few nights made Hob feel a bit awkward when he did, but he’s gotten used to the rhythms of it, to drifting off with those long witchy fingers in his hair, to the weighted-blanket calm of having someone watch over him. Hob sometimes turns his face into Dream’s thin stomach, hiding away; sometimes runs his fingers over the geometric lines of Dream’s bare feet, his ankles, asking nonsense questions just to hear him talk, What does a rhinoceros dream and Remember when you ditched me for Will Shakespeare – and more serious ones, questions he can only stand to ask in the dark, like Tell me about your son.
His friend is quiet for a long moment, eyes still trained on their baby across the room. Then he says, in a voice that makes Hob think he hasn’t said the name in a long time, “Orpheus. I am sure you know how he died. I hear that mortals teach the story in schools.”
“No,” Hob says, swallowing hard. “No, I mean – What was he like?”
Dream looks at him, startled. Not in a bad way, Hob thinks. Dream’s light touch runs over his upper lip, the shell of his ear. Hob’s always had big ears. Andy’s starting to have big ears too.
“I would ask you a question first, Hob Gadling,” Dream says softly.
“Why do you love me?” It hits Hob like a blow, but Dream doesn’t seem to notice. “I am barely known to you. Barely knowable. I am well accustomed to loving you, of course, but I do not understand why you hold me in the same regard.”
Hob sits up. “Duck.” He bullies Dream into his arms, not caring that he’s pointy and oblong and currently regarding Hob from point-blank range with a curious expression. “Do you remember the first time we met? It was the year of our lord 1389, I hadn’t had a bath in nearly a month – ”
“I remember,” Dream says. It sounds like he’s holding back a bemused smile.
“Right, well, when I laid eyes on you in that bloody fire hazard of a pub, I had this…I don’t know, this feeling in my chest. Like I’d been walking for years and years with no idea where I was supposed to be going, and I’d finally gotten there. Like I came over a hill, cold and aching and weary, and looked down into the valley ahead, and there it was.”
“There what was?” Dream asks.
Hob huffs, dropping his eyes. “Don’t make me say it. If you wanted love poetry then you should’ve made that playwright of yours immortal – ”
“Husband,” Dream says, chastening.
And, well. That effectively silences all of Hob’s arguments.
“Home,” he says. “There was home. Warm light in the windows, the door thrown open, someone standing there waiting for me. I don’t – I can’t account for it any more than you, but that’s how I felt. Every time I saw you. Every time I see you.”
Dream holds his gaze for a long moment, staring straight into him. It would be disquieting if Hob didn’t love him so much, if he weren’t so far gone that he would do anything Dream asked, but he does, and he is.
At last, his voice like a rusted hinge, Dream says, “I was not kind to him. My son. But I loved him very much. And I couldn’t save him. That is what scares me.”
And there’s nothing Hob can say to that, really, because he’s just as scared. So he doesn’t use words.
Hob’s twenty pages deep in a forum thread on a mommy blog having a knock-down drag-out argument with some bitch called MomsTheWord when there’s a gentle knock on his office door.
It’s Dream. He’s wearing the baby björn – he finally capitulated to Hob’s demands of no more floating the baby on campus – and there’s a look on his face of fond amusement. It’s all behind the eyes, invisible to anyone who doesn’t know him, but Hob does. Hob knows his husband very well.
“You were starting to have visions of bloodshed,” Dream informs him.
Hob laughs, taking off his glasses to rub at his eyes. “Yeah, well. MomsTheWord is damn well asking for it. Come here, love, let me hold my daughter.”
He doesn’t miss the way Dream’s eyes darken at that – or the way he leans over to kiss him hello, slow and deep and just this side of too filthy for public – while he hands Andy over.
Hob settles her on the edge of the desk, her feet kicking his stomach, and initiates one of their father-daughter staring contests. He hasn’t got any cosmic knowledge to impart, but he does feel that he’s getting better at not blinking. “And what did you two do today, while I was out bringing home the bacon?”
Dream makes a noise that’s almost a laugh. “We went for a walk in the park,” he informs Hob, “and visited the dreams of a flock of geese. Andy enjoys flying.”
“She’d best master walking first,” Hob warns, but he’s smiling. Andy sticks her pudgy fingers in his mouth. She’s got that impulse in common with her father, too.
“Ya Allah,” says a voice from the open door – Nahla, tagging along after Odette, who’s meant to be delivering Hob a stack of second year papers. “I was so fucking right! Morticia fucking Adams!”
Dream raises an imperious eyebrow.
Hob snorts a laugh, too happy to think why he shouldn’t, and – improbably, miraculously – their stoic unflappable businessman of a baby starts to laugh too. She’s mine, Hob thinks, while he comes down, his chest full of champagne bubbles. They’re mine. I get to keep both of them. It’s almost too incredible to believe.
But then, Hob supposes he could say that about his very existence, too.
Dream lets himself look into a very bright light. Hob’s graduate student Odette and her dreadful girlfriend are babysitting Andy, so they have the flat to themselves; Dream lays his husband out on the rug in the living room and fucks him slow and languorous the way he’s been wanting to since 1595, the way he can tell Hob has been wanting as well. He takes his time with it, the way he sometimes spends several days with the same thought, brings Hob right to the edge and then slows down, lets up, over and over until Hob is cursing him, clawing at his back, calling him names no one’s used since the 17th century; Dream nuzzles his cheek, smiling, and does not have to guard his heart against the way Hob softens at once, strung out and covered in sweat but still willing to be tender, here, when Dream asks for it. His hands are everywhere, wrapped around Dream’s bicep, spread over his ass, reaching down to try to get a grip on his thigh and force him to go harder, deeper, more.
You know, Hob jokes, sometime during round three – they managed to migrate halfway to their bedroom before they collapsed in the archway of the open door, and Hob is trembling helplessly, folded up and half-straddling Dream’s lap – backdoor sex has gotten a lot more pleasant since I started out. Lube’s a lot better than olive oil – exhausted but still laughing as Dream cranes his neck forward to kiss him.
Later, when they’ve given up the athletic fucking and retreated finally to bed, Dream rolls over to mouth over the bare planes of Hob’s chest, the cooling sweat and the chest hair, and confesses, “I have loved you since the moment I saw you, Hob Gadling.”
“Dream,” Hob says, choked. "It was the same for me. You know it was the same for me."
As always, his voice twists Dream’s heart. He turns his lips to Hob’s sternum, wanting to feel his husband’s heart beat in return. And there it is, omnipresent. Strong and steady, like a drum.
Their daughter never dreams of fire. They both make sure of it.