Kakyou smiled. He was quiet, but it was the quiet anticipation of a little boy holding his breath before he blew out the candles on his birthday cake. Aya could not help but smile back at him.
“The Taj Mahal?” Aya said uncertainly.
Kakyou grinned. A crescent-tipped spire broke through the black water they were standing on and an onion dome slowly rose up.
Aya laughed as she felt the ridges of the lotus atop the highest dome beneath her bare feet. She reached out and held on tightly to Kakyou. She knew that she didn’t need to be scared. It was only a dream, and even if it wasn’t, Kakyou would never let her get hurt. His arms wrapped around her and he held her close. Kakyou would never let her get hurt if he could help it, Aya amended.
Aya closed her eyes. She pressed her cheek against his chest. The silk of his kimono was warm with him. It took her a moment to notice that they had stopped moving, and longer before she opened her eyes. The crystals that lit Kakyou’s dream shone like stars around the white palace.
Kakyou stroked his fingers through her hair. His lips brushed against her ear when he whispered, “Do you like it?”
Too breathless to answer, Aya only nodded. Kakyou squeezed her tighter for a moment, grateful for her pleasure.
Aya was not the first woman here. Kakyou had walked along the mountainsides of dreams for years before a coma brought Aya to him. There had been other women in Kakyou’s dreams, but they had left him lonely. Aya could still feel them. The women who had come and gone were as much a part of Kakyou’s dreams as the crystals that lit the darkness or the shadows they cast. They felt as present as Aya herself, sometimes more.
Aya tried not to think about them – the woman who chose to leave him and the woman who never had a choice. Kakyou’s kindness made it both easier and more difficult to forget them. He was always so pleased to please her. Aya tried not to wonder if Kakyou was like this with the women who had come before, if he would have reshaped his world to satisfy their every changing mood or if he rewarded their smiles with his own gentle touches.
The world of dreams was his to command, and he was hers. Kakyou enjoyed nothing more than making Aya whatever she could ask for. The times that Aya had insisted that Kakyou should make something for himself, he had searched her face as if looking for some hint as to what might make her happy. Kakyou as much as told her that the most pleasure he could take from anything was making Aya smile. So Aya smiled. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that Kakyou was not in love with her; that he had told her he could not love her, and his heart was long dead.
Aya focused on the feeling of his warmth against her side. She could have the dream of anything she wanted, but nothing real. Nothing that mattered. It ached. Sometimes, it made her feel reckless.
“Tigers,” Aya said. “I want to see tigers.”
Their eyes aglow, the orange and black beasts prowled out of the darkness. Kakyou worked some magic, because even as high up as they were, Aya could clearly see the muscles and sinew in their powerful bodies as they prowled. The orange and cream of their fur was striking while their black stripes bled into the blackness of the dream and made it seem like they were painted with pieces of sky. The two tigers moved toward each other. Their low, rumbling roars were soft as thunder. Aya held her breath when they got close together, only to let it out in a laugh as the great cats sniffed at each other’s faces, and then nuzzled.
“Are they in love?” Aya asked.
“I think so,” Kakyou answered. He rubbed her arm. “This seems like the place for love, doesn’t it?”
Hope was a warm ball of light in Aya’s belly.
“Yeah,” she said faintly. Aya put more courage into her voice and added, “Yes, it is. I think it’s the most beautiful palace in the world.”
“Tomb,” Kakyou corrected.
“It’s a tomb,” Kakyou said, his voice taking on the know-it-all tone he sometimes had. “Shah Jahan had it built for his favorite wife after she died.”
A palace for dead love. The lights seemed to dim. Hope tasted bitter.
“Make it go away,” Aya spat. “Make it all go away.”
“Aya?” The worry in Kakyou’s voice made Aya feel guilty, but there was nothing that she could say to comfort him now.
She pulled away from him, and eventually, he let her go. There was no gradual disappearance of the building. It was simply gone. The tigers were gone too. Aya turned her back on Kakyou and closed her eyes, but she could not shut him out. She could hear him holding his breath, waiting for her to break the silence.
Kakyou’s gentle hand on her shoulder surprised her. Aya was not expecting him to reach out. “I’m sorry…” Kakyou said haltingly. Aya could tell he did not know what to be sorry for. “…we don’t have to go anywhere. I thought you’d like… I’m happy just being with you. Wherever we are. Whatever we’re doing. When you go, I’ll—”
Kakyou bit back whatever he was going to say. Aya waking up was something they avoided talking about the way people who had been burned avoided fire.
“Why put yourself through all of this for someone who’s dead?” Aya demanded. She turned around so quickly that she accidentally dislodged his hand.
“Shah Jahan?” Kakyou asked, but Aya could see it was a feint. He understood.
“You!” Aya exploded. “I am here and I’m real—”
Kakyou grabbed hold of her arms, holding tight enough to hurt. “The ‘real’ you is in a hospital bed, and you’ll wake up someday. And I’ll—”
“—and I love you,” Aya finished. Her voice was a rough whisper. She sank with grief, folding in on herself. Aya went to Kakyou on her own. She was so used to seeking comfort in Kakyou that she did it without thinking. His arms wrapped around her. Her arms wrapped around him. Her hands clenched to fists in the back of his kimono.
The silence spread like a ripple on the water.
“Aren’t you tired of dreams?” Aya asked. “And you never have to be alone again, not as long as I can dream of you. You don’t even have to stop loving her. You just have to let yourself love me too. I just want something real. I just want you.”
It was Kakyou who pulled away this time. Aya’s heart beat fast with terror. She searched his face for any sign of anger or rejection, but she saw only her own reflection and kindness in his golden eyes. Kakyou’s fingers lightly brushed her hair. His thumb caressed her jaw. He slowly leaned close to her to give Aya a kiss, and every last thing she desired.