The young boy ought to have had nightmares. He had seen enough blood and fire in his comparatively few years, after all, to whiten the hairs of a hundred grown men. But after the first restless, sweat-soaked night at Shirasagi his sleep had been dark and dreamless. Each night he had slipped into unconsciousness like a stone sliding into a deep pool and woken up rested, though somehow not refreshed. He'd shrugged off the sensation of being drained as something that simply was and was to be born, giving it little thought. He had spared a moment once to be grateful for the lack of nightmares and focused more on growing well that he might once again grow strong.
He concentrated on recovering in his early days at the palace; holding himself still against pain and maddening itch, forcing himself to patience when rest and inactivity were prescribed, and drinking down every foul medicine that was brought him. Sometimes the herbal teas and bitter powders held him under longer than was normal of a night, only letting him wake well past dawn after what seemed like hours spent fighting his way slowly up out of pale visions that blurred and curled like smoke and vanished yet more quickly when he tried to grasp at them.
He fought his way free of the bandages and the drug-tinted hallucinations eventually, and sometimes woke early, chased out of sleep by happy memories that hurt him to remember. He won the right to walk around in the inner courtyards for exercise, and then to watch the soldiers on the training field for entertainment, and finally to join them. As his steps grew steadier, so did his dreams, both the ephemeral ones that came to him while he slept and the ones he held tightly to during the day.
When night fell he laid himself down to sleep with a grim determination such as one might bring to a reluctantly sworn duty. It seemed a waste of time to the boy in whom the restless energy of youth was now fully rejuvenated and yet he knew it to be for his own gain in the end. What others took eagerly to as a luxury he viewed as a chore, and he set himself to sleeping with even less enthusiasm than he did to scrubbing the floors of the massive training hall with the other junior trainees after the day's exercises were done. At least that was honest work, wringing from him clean sweat and a satisfying ache in his muscles.
He had no nightmares of bright blades and hot blood, of yellowed fangs and crunching bone. Instead he dreamt more and more of happier times now lost and always woke gasping and stinking of pain and loss and bitter tears. He came to spend the last hour or so of night pacing the walkways bordering the inner courtyards, bare feet silent on the polished planks and fingernails digging into his palms. Over the course of many mornings the boy drifted miles through gravel raked into swirls that mimicked gentle rivers, through rock and flower beds laid out in harmonious patterns promoting serenity, his teeth clenched and brow furrowed and a wish that he might dream no more burning in his chest.
As if his determination held sway over even that which could not be ruled, his sleep grew more dark and silent. Eventually he barely dreamt at all save for in fleeting glimpses of some washed out hue that left him impressions of weak sunlight or shallow water, a fragile blossom or damp fog, always vague and formless as if a curtain of mist had fallen across his mind to block out both nightmares and dreams. He slept until just before dawn now and sometimes woke with a sense of having been watched while he slept, though never was there any proof of someone having been in his room.
His nights were now barren but it gave him no unease. He still had the dreams he dreamed while the sun was high and that was enough for him. They were dreams he controlled as he controlled little else in his life; dreams that he'd formed with his own hands and held tight to with the fierce possessiveness of a dragon with its treasure. Dreams of growing strong as he had been and yet stronger still. Dreams of vengeance so simple that justice had no place in them and any notion of right was mere coincidence.
He held tight to these dreams and yet sometimes his grip seemed to slip despite himself. It was not anything so easily defined as laziness, fear or dejection, nor yet a brain fever or knock on the head picked up while training. Those things he could have grasped and grappled with. Rather it was that he seemed to wake of a morning now and again with his fierce focus gone briefly, as if in his sleep he'd forgotten what his goals were.
As his dreams in the sun sometimes faded from sight, his dreams under the moon solidified.
He did not struggle against visions of fire nor did he turn bitterly away from memories of love. Instead the blurry mists began to take on shape and sound, forming into waves of hair and eyes fixed on him with unnatural steadiness. The silvery mist settled about the strange figure like layered robes and what had been before impressions of pale blossoms became instead a hand making soothing motions. And he heard whispers.
There were no words but they were whispers all the same, not just the meaningless susurration of a breeze stirring the grass or silken robes sliding over wood. It was a voice that spoke directly into his understanding rather than giving him words to comprehend, telling him softly, softly, to give up his day-dreams as he had given up his nightmares and night-dreams. To stay as he was, where he was, who he was now and to have no ambitions of more.
The spirit had beauty if he'd been the sort to appreciate such a thing, but that was not the weapon it used most against him. Instead of commanding, it cast itself upon his mercy and begged him to stay, making him important. It played off against his honor and sense of right by reminding him that it had saved him from many a painful memory of the past and now only wished to feed upon his dreams of the future as well. It was owed a debt, it protested against being abandoned, it needed him, it loved him, it asked no sacrifice of mind or body or life and only desired him to stay.
Stay. Softly, softly, softly in his dreams, stay with me, stay with me, stay.
He was not a youth to be persuaded against his will with ease, or even at all. But stubborn and prideful and moreover silent because of it, it took many days of struggling with the matter all on his own before he even realized that he had been feeding a dream eater almost ever since he'd arrived at the palace. Once understanding his enemy he went straight to battle, looking forward to his bed for the once and throwing himself into it with a grim determination.
Stay, stay, stay. Stay here. Stay as you are.
He would not. He lived at the palace for now and would do his sworn duty, but to give up his dreams was to trade growth for stagnation, a life for mere existence, and he looked upon death as preferable to such an ignoble state of being. A normal life was not what he was meant for.
Stay, stay. Stay and repay the debt he had accrued. Stay and provide for one who had grown dependent upon him.
He would not. It was not a life he had willingly saved and therefore not a one he held himself responsible for. He had a duty already, promises made long before, and he would not give them up. He held himself no more honor bound to accede to these pleas than he did to let a river leech drain his blood away for as long as it would.
Stay. Stay and be safe.
He scoffed at the notion.
Stay with me.
There was someone out there he had to find. Someone he wanted to meet and test, someone whose strengths and weaknesses he wanted to understand. Someone he needed to cross blades with, whose blood was fated to run hot over his skin, perhaps even mingle with his own on some battlefield the gods only knew where. That was his dream, his future, his fate, and he would not stay here and let it slip away.
If the price for that was to have to endure nightmares and face down memories, so be it.
The visions faded fast after this night and dreams and nightmares alike rolled in like storm-driven waves to take their place. Sometimes he woke early, breathing hard and cursing under his breath. And sometimes sleep was sweet, and he woke up gently as night faded to dawn and lay a moment in bed, savoring the feeling of being well rested and ready to face what the day might bring.
Weeks went by and he began to lower his guard against the dream eater's return. Months passed and he forgot the spirit as his increasing duties and studies consumed more and more of his attention. The years turned and he grew strong, skilled, and frustrated at the way his search after vengeance bore no fruit.
At twenty one he went on a journey.
At twenty-seven he returned with a man at his side, one with long waves of hair and steady eyes, clad in flowing robes and who put a pale hand familiarly on his arm, who had promised to stay with him.
Author's Note: In the dream eater's defense, he wasn't attempting to simply feed off of Kurogane. He took pity on the boy who'd lost so much and protected him from his nightmares. He held himself back from eating the good dreams until he understood that Kurogane wished them gone too. And when he attempted to steal away the boy's ambitions he was only trying to save him from the bloody path that Kurogane seemed intent upon walking. In the end he withdrew, once Kurogane made it clear that he was determined to have his revenge if it was at all possible, respecting the boy's wishes. After that he went back to quietly lurking around the palace, eating children's nightmares to keep himself alive and not getting too greedy to the point where Tomoyo would have had to drive him out.