Standard disclaimers apply. I don't own, etc. Title line comes from Poe's "Dream Within a Dream," and the poem used in the fic is Shelley's "Ozymandias."

Dream Within a Dream

The dreams were getting easier to understand, Watanuki mused.

Well. Perhaps understand was too strong a word. What he meant was, it was far easier now to slip into a dream and realize that he was dreaming, rather than believe he was living his day-to-day (he refused absolutely to term it 'normal') life. In any case, Watanuki thought that perhaps he was becoming more and more used to the frequency with which he wandered through dreams.

But this—this dream simply baffled him all around.

For instance, he was surrounded by nothingness, whereas usually he at least had a setting of some sort: a city street, the schoolyard, Yuuko-san's shop… Here he was encompassed by white, engulfed by it; it stretched on all around him, and he could not see where it began nor where it ended. He blinked, and it did not dissipate. He frowned, but it did not shift.

A strange dream indeed. Why in the world would he be stuck on an empty canvas?

"Ah. Watanuki-san. I've been expecting you, my lad."

He blinked again and looked over his shoulder. A man stood there who most certainly had not been standing there before. The man smiled at him and did not move otherwise.

(i met a Traveler from an antique land,)

"Oh," said Watanuki blankly, turning around to face the man. "Hello. Is this your dream?"

The man merely continued to smile, and Watanuki could not say why he felt slightly uneasy at the sight of it.

"You could say that," the man agreed vaguely. "I welcome you here, Watanuki-san. As I said, I've waited long for your arrival. I've been hoping for a chance to…meet you at last."

Bemused, Watanuki tilted his head and regarded the stranger with a faintly puzzled stare. He did not move from his spot. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he thought that if Doumeki had been here, the archer would have planted himself right between Watanuki and the stranger.

"To meet me?" he repeated doubtfully. "Why?"

The man's smile did not waver, and his body did not move, but something in the air between them grew denser.

(who said, "two vast and trunkless legs of stone

stand in the desert. near them, on the sand,

half sunk, a shattered visage lies)

"Of course," said the man, "I am burning with curiosity about you. You are a very rare existence indeed, my friend, and a scholar such as I would naturally be laden with questions as to the extent of your…powers."

Watanuki did not think he had any particular powers, unless you included cooking (and despite Doumeki's constant lack of gratitude, Watanuki was aware of his own skill in that area), but he was sure that such a power was not the sort to which the man was making a reference. He also did not really like being called 'my friend' by some stranger whose smile, quite frankly, was beginning to wear on Watanuki's nerves just a little bit—a remarkable feat, since he'd long since resigned himself to enduring Yuuko-san's ever-present smirk of superiority, and this smile had no such air about it; it was far more sinister in a silent, harmless, who-me sort of way.

"Who are you?" Watanuki said politely. "You know my name, but I don't have any idea who you might be."

The smile seemed to widen just a bit, and the man chuckled a bit. "You may address me as Reed," he said.

And with a start, Watanuki realized that the man's lips weren't moving at all when he was speaking.

"Pleased to meet you, Reed-san," he said with a slight bow. He blinked up at the man, who, despite the introduction, still hadn't moved closer. "Ah…what exactly are you curious to know?" he said, not offering any answers—years of exposure to the elements that made up most B-class horror films had taught him, if nothing else, three simple rules to live by when the supernatural, unnatural, paranormal, abnormal, or even just plain weird were involved.

Swear to nothing. Admit to nothing. Agree to nothing.

The man smiled his close-lipped, motionless smile. "Everything," he said, and the air seemed to chill from a wind that Watanuki did not feel.

"Oh," said Watanuki carefully. "Well. I'm not sure I can tell you that."

"Oh, but I think you can," said Reed-san, his mouth still locked onto that tight, unmoving smile. It was extremely unnerving to be speaking with a man whose mouth did not move in the least; it was like speaking to a puppet, only one with some hidden, malicious intent.

"I think," continued Reed-san, "you can tell me everything I want to know about you, Watanuki-san. I am, after all, very interested in you."

That…could not possibly lead down a good path.

"No," said Watanuki, forcing himself not to back away. "No, I…I really don't think I can tell you anything. I have a feeling that you knowing my name is already a bit too much information." After all, Yuuko-san had been able to divine a lot of very private things about him with only his name and a pocket watch; who knew what this man might discover?

"But you will," whispered Reed-san, and the air shivered with the force of his hushed words. "I will know more than anyone what keeps you alive, Watanuki-san, and what it will take to change that."

(whose frown,

and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

tell that its sculptor well those passions read)

"Who are you?" Watanuki managed through numbed lips. "Why—why are you here?"

Reed-san's eyes seemed to intensify behind the glasses he wore.

"I am here," he said simply, "to tell you that you have chosen a losing side."

(that yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed)

Watanuki stared at him, his eyes wide with fear and confusion.

"A losing side?" he repeated. "What are you talking about?"

"Watanuki-san," said Reed-san with a small sigh (which was truly odd, considering neither the man's mouth, nor his chest, nor any other part of him besides, moved with the force of the sigh), "you are being deliberately obtuse, I fear."

"Maybe," said Watanuki, surprising himself. "But you're being vague. That's not helpful either," he accused.

Reed-san was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, it was with a trace of amusement.

"Agreed, Watanuki-san. Well played. All right, allow me to explain myself." He paused again, then continued, "You and I are opposing forces in the war to end all wars, Watanuki-san."

"World War One was over a long time ago," Watanuki blurted without thinking.

Reed-san chuckled again.

"No, no, Watanuki-san. That epithet, while charming in its own right, is entirely inappropriate in application to that silly skirmish your world called 'world war.' I use the term in complete seriousness—the battle in which we two are embroiled, Watanuki-san, is the deciding match in a struggle that has fueled all things since the conception of time."

Watanuki thought for a moment. "Good and evil, you mean?"

He wasn't sure how he got the feeling that Reed-san was applauding him; after all, the man never moved. He may as well have been a statue, for all the motion Watanuki had detected.

"Very good, Watanuki-san. It is so much more enjoyable when you don't pretend ignorance." The approval in Reed-san's voice became something more dangerous, like the murmured seduction of a siren. "What I speak of is the struggle between, for lack of a better description, light and dark. Good and evil, as you say. Or, as I like to see it, the strong and the weak. The powerful and the pawns. The predators, if you will, and the prey." The man paused again, then added, "You and I, Watanuki-san, are predators, you see."

"Wow," said Watanuki after a moment. "That's a little bit egotistical of you."

"Hmm," said Reed-san indifferently. "I must admit, Watanuki-san, that though I term you 'predator' out of respect for the sheer amount of influence you hold over the destiny of worlds unnumbered, I am…disappointed in you."

Watanuki waited. When it became clear that Reed-san, too, was waiting, Watanuki just barely suppressed a sigh of impatience. "Why are you disappointed in me, Reed-san?" he asked gamely.

"With all the power at your disposal," explained Reed-san with very real censure in his voice, "it is a lost cause you aid, Watanuki-san."

Politely, Watanuki waited again for him elaborate. Serenely, Reed-san waited again for him to ask the inevitable question. Watanuki was quickly growing tired of the game, and the boredom made him a little more reckless than was probably advisable.

"Which cause might that be, Reed-san?" he obediently recited.

"Why, that woman's cause, of course, Watanuki-san."

Watanuki blinked. Though there had been no name mentioned and by the end of the sentence Reed-san had resumed his air of civility, the words that woman had rung with a venom far more potent than acid, an emotion far more stirring than hatred.

(and on the pedestal, these words appear:

"My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!")

"You mean—" Watanuki stopped himself just before uttering the name Yuuko-san. Her voice flashed through his head—

Names have power.

You'd give your name to a complete stranger?

Of course, that is an assumed name.

Something like warning tingled in his mind. He knew that Yuuko Ichihara was probably not her real name, but he had a strange feeling that the name held power anyway. Why would Yuuko-san choose to go by a name that held no power?

"—the Witch of the Dimensions?" he finished without missing a beat.

Reed-san laughed motionlessly again. His glasses glinted, but Watanuki was not sure what light was reflecting off of them, or where it was coming from.

"Odd how many different languages will interpret a title many different ways," he mused. "Yes, yes, the Witch of the Dimensions is her name in your world. The Conductor of Time and Space, in another. The Mage of the Nexus. The Portalmaster..."

He trailed off and left the impression that if he were to move at all, he'd be shaking his head at himself.

"To quote your world's Shakespeare, 'What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'" Reed-san's voice lowered ever so slightly, became sibilant, saccharine. "Poor, sweet little Juliet. To die so tragically, along with her man…"

The man's voice became steely now. "How shameful that your Witch of Dimensions should share Juliet's fate."

"She won't die," said Watanuki stoutly.

Reed-san radiated patient amusement. "Watanuki-san," he said with a hint of condescension, "of course she will. I am going to ensure it is so."

"I am going to ensure it is not," retorted Watanuki hotly. He was, in some distant corner of his mind, aware that he was being very bold in speaking to the man like this. But in another corner of his mind, he thought fiercely, Yuuko-san is sort of like a mother to me, in some really weird, twisted, antithesis-of-normal way. Nobody threatens to kill my mother and gets away with it.

"You will have no choice in the matter, I'm afraid." Reed-san's voice was now scornful and sneering. "You see, I intend to create a new reality, over which I alone will reign supreme. Power such as hers—and yours—must be eliminated, especially when it opposes my vision.

Watanuki lifted an eyebrow—a trick, he refused to admit even to himself, he'd learned from Doumeki. He wondered if it made him look as casually indifferent as Doumeki did.

"At what price?"

Reed-san paused. His body had yet to make a single movement, but Watanuki could tell he'd suddenly become very guarded at Watanuki's words.

"What?" Reed-san finally barked.

"Well," said Watanuki with deliberate carelessness, "that's a really big wish you have, Reed-san. It must come with a heavy price."

Reed-san let out a sound like a growl. "Nothing too devastating," he said with impatience in his tone. "A few universes' worth of blood spilled and a few eons' worth of evolution destroyed."

Watanuki tilted his head to one side and regarded Reed-san quizzically.

"Has anyone ever told you," he asked conversationally, "that you're a lunatic?"

Now fury simply emanated from the man's still, statuesque figure. Watanuki took a small step backward before forcing himself to stop retreating. He'd invited the anger, after all, with his flippant remark. He should face the consequences like—

Like Yuuko-san would.

"You!" Reed-san snapped. The absolute rage in his voice was sort of surreal when taken into context with the serene smile that remained on his unmoving face. "You and that blasted, wretched woman—you're both alike, the pair of you."

"Thank you." Watanuki smiled because he knew it would make Reed-san even angrier.

He was right. A black aura began to enshroud Reed-san's motionless body.

"Fools," he hissed, as the black cloud grew thicker, "with no regard for the possibilities that come with such power!"

"Corruption, if history is any kind of example," said Watanuki thoughtfully, his eyes on the black cloud as it swelled with every word he spoke. "Rebellion, too, probably. And most likely total anarchy in the end." He shrugged elaborately, then smiled a little.

"You'll fall from power," he said softly, warningly, "and your name will be forgotten, Reed-san."

Reed-san's black cloud almost completely obscured the man's figure now. "Insolent boy—!"

Watanuki held up both hands in a calm-down gesture. "Just being honest, Reed-san. The precedent's been set, you understand. You'll fail, and you'll fall. It's history. And—" he tilted his head. "It's hitsuzen."

And with a roar like a wounded lion, Reed-san, cloud and all, sprang at him.

Watanuki came out of the dream and found himself, inexplicably, standing in front of Yuuko-san in her parlor. She was stretched across her Throne of Laziness, her rather revealing kimono slipping off her shoulders and legs, her hair spread out in web-like precision, a pipe between her fingers, smoke curling around her like mist, a smile just barely curving her lips.

It was, he realized, exactly the scenario from the day they'd met one another.

"Good evening, Yuuko-san," he said automatically.

"Good evening, Watanuki-kun," she replied in her soft, musical voice. "Did you have a pleasant dream?"

Watanuki blinked at her. He opened his mouth to answer—and knew without a doubt that she knew without a doubt what he'd just been through.

"Did you pull me from the dream?" he asked curiously.

"Hmm," she said, her eyelashes fluttering. "I wonder."

"Oh," he said helplessly. "Well. Thank you, Yuuko-san."

"I seem to recall thinking," she went on, her eyes opening and fixing on a point somewhere above his head, "that you, my dear boy, are sort of like a son to me." Her eyes met his, and there was something besides amusement in them, something warmer and sweeter. "In some really weird, twisted, antithesis-of-normal way." She took a slow drag from her pipe and blew out a snaking trail of smoke. "No one," she whispered, and her voice held a hint of power in it—her eyes, more than a hint. "No one threatens to kill my son and gets away with it."

Watanuki felt a lump rise in his throat. He only nodded once, and looked away.

He could feel Yuuko-san's eyes lingering on him, though.

"How did Reed-san get into my dream?" he asked to distract her.

"Hmm," she said, and looked up at the ceiling again. This was not her usual hmm of I-know-but-I'm-not-teeeellling-tee-hee. This was a hmm of I-should-not-tell-you-this-but-you-need-to-know-in-order-to-survive.

"Fei Wong Reed," she began, "is a lunatic."

"I told him that," Watanuki said before he could stop himself.

Yuuko-san smiled at him. "I know," she said with a wicked grin. "Being a lunatic, Fei Wong Reed likes to experiment with magic. Unfortunately, in his experimentations, he often likes to draw in people to be some type of test subject. You," she said with a gesture at Watanuki, "are his test subject for dreamwalking. As such, he will continue to draw you into confrontations in an attempt to—" She broke off and looked at him.

Watanuki, unable to understand anything she was talking about, waited for her to make sense.

Yuuko-san studied him a moment, then laughed softly to herself.

"Don't worry about it for now, Watanuki-kun," she told him. "Just continue to be yourself, and he will continue to meet with as much failure in his future endeavors as he has tonight." She winked at him. "I will ensure it is so," she said officiously, and laughed at her own joke. "How foolish of you," she murmured, and it was unclear whether she meant Reed-san, herself, or Watanuki.

(no thing besides remains. 'round the decay

of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

the lone and level sands stretch far away.)

Watanuki frowned as he looked at Yuuko-san. She looked just as smug and self-absorbed as she always did, but he could sense something underneath it all: a hint of exhaustion, of desperation. Of fear?

He said slowly, "He said that you were a fool, Yuuko-san." When she only rolled her eyes expressively and smoked her pipe, he went on with a little laugh, "But at least you're not trying to take over the world." He stopped, stared at her. "Uh. Are you?"

Instead of her usual "Hmm. I wonder," Yuuko-san gave him a slight smile.

"No, Watanuki," she said gently, and he blinked at the blatant weariness in her tone. "Being responsible for a single wish is already an almost crushing burden. Being responsible for an entire world is far more frightening, far more hellish, than it is possible to imagine."

Watanuki blinked.

"I wonder why the forces of evil never seem to realize that," he muttered.

Yuuko-san chuckled. "Why indeed." She sighed then, and beckoned him with an imperious gesture he was familiar with. "Some brandy, please, Watanuki. I need to sleep tonight."

He was struck once again by the tired tone, and the vulnerability that was beginning to creep into her self-assured demeanor.

"Tea, Yuuko-san," he decided on the spot, and turned to go to the kitchen. "Chamomile," he added over his shoulder. "You'll sleep better, and wake up lighter."

"Hmm," she murmured. "Thank you, Watanuki."

He stopped, shocked that she hadn't tried to argue. She really must be exhausted. He turned around in the doorway.


She looked up at him. "Hmm?"

Watanuki hesitated. "He said…he said I'm like you." He knew he wouldn't have to explain who he was.

Yuuko-san, to his surprise, laughed a little bit. "Did he? Perhaps he's not such a foolish being after all."

Watanuki, cautious now, asked, "Am I?" Again, he knew she'd understand what he meant by that.

She sighed again, and the utter bone-weariness in the sound tore at his heart. "Oh, Watanuki," she said, both exasperated and amused. "I look at you—so young, so headstrong, so stubborn and proud, so jaded and yet endearingly innocent—and see myself, when I was the same."

Watanuki blinked.

"That's…well." He cleared his throat. "When he said I was like you…I thanked him for it because I thought it would piss him off if I took it as a compliment." He paused. "But when you say it, it—it really does sound like one." He looked away, blushing.

Yuuko-san smiled. "Oh, does it?" She chuckled again, then abruptly sat up with a serious look in her eyes. "Do you know what else I see, Watanuki, that is the same?" she asked him.

He was almost afraid to ask. "What?"

Her smile became sad. "I see a young, headstrong, stubborn, proud person who is helplessly, hopelessly, and grudgingly in love with the only man in the entire world who understands you completely and loves you back all the same."

For half a second, Watanuki was tempted to fall back into his usual shouting, screaming retreat into his kitchen sanctuary. Anything rather than dealing with this truth, suddenly shoved into his face by the only person he couldn't get away with lying to.

He opened his mouth to yell at her, and was shocked when he heard himself ask, "Was yours as much of a creep as mine is?"

Oh. Oh my God. Is that an acknowledgment? Is that an agreement? Oh, damn it. Why does my subconscious do things I don't necessarily think are good ideas, like taunting psycho wizards and falling in love with monosyllabic morons?

Yuuko-san, seemingly aware of his internal fit of petulance, laughed again. "Much more, I'm afraid. Doumeki-kun, at least, doesn't have the irritating habit of getting you drunk and charming your deepest secrets and worst fears out of you with a smile, just so that he can pretend he knows nothing about them when you're sober and hung over and can't remember what you told him."

Watanuki considered that. "That's…creepy, yeah," he decided. "I'd probably kill him for that."

Yuuko-san smiled up at him, and it didn't quite reach the grave shadows in her eyes. "Hmm. But Doumeki-kun, also, is still alive, Watanuki," she said quietly. "He is still together with you, by your side, to protect you and assist you and to love you unconditionally in return. That makes him much less of a creep than my own lost love." She closed her eyes, and suddenly her voice was naked with pain, with regret, with…love and anger and sorrow.

"You see, nothing makes the man I love more of a creep than him not being here with me when I need him the most, especially when it's something as foolish and mundane and…insurmountable as death that keeps him apart from me, and when something as inadequate and intangible and," she drew in a breath, "addictive as a dream…that keeps him with me."

There was a long, pregnant silence.

"My tea, please, Watanuki," Yuuko-san murmured at last, and her Dimension Witch persona was back in the imperial tone she used, though she kept her eyes closed.

Watanuki, unsure of himself, backed out the doorway. "Yes, Yuuko-san." He made to turn, then paused again and turned back to her. "Maybe just a little brandy," he said gently. "For the dreams."

Her eyes opened and met his, gold-and-blue effortlessly boring into claret.

"Yes," she whispered. "For the dreams."