Hob Gadling dreamed that night of a many-storied mansion connected from floor to floor not by grand stairs and echoing hallways, but nestled spiral steps and cedar-smelling ladders, layers of attics and bedrooms and lofts and spa-like baths, furnished with bunk beds and canopy beds and beds tucked into floors and alcoves. As he wandered through, the air scented with roast pumpkin seeds and the crumpled yellow of old paper, he could hear laughing and talking a few doors away. Never ran into the people, though. It was as if they carefully vacated each room before he could reach them.
Until he saw the man curled up on an oversize, padded windowsill, gazing out at a night sky, a volume of poems dangling in idle hands. He was wisp-thin with eyes full of starlight, but Hob's throat tightened when he saw the white hair and the white jeans and the white shirt with an emerald hanging around the porcelain neck.
"You're not him," he muttered.
Dream bit his lip, something Morpheus would never have done. "Please let me speak to you," he said, almost as quietly.
"Fine. It's not like you won't be able to find me if I hide." Hob sat in a round, nest-like chair, lush in its comfort despite his unease.
"I would not pursue you if it was not your wish to meet. You did accept my invitation, though, and I thank you for it." Dream closes the book and puts it to the side; Hob glimpses the tome's spine, The Dervish's Reply by Shams i Tabriz.
"This isn't my dream, then? You made this?"
When Dream shook his head, his fluffy white hair puffed everywhere like a dandelion, and Hob fought back the urge to smile, angry at the impulse. "A young writer built this place to have a home in her dreams, having so seldom felt like she had one in waking life, and I find it restful."
"It's pretty nice, yeah. Bit dull."
"When she is here there are a few scores of friends about as well, all perfectly amiable though without memorable faces or names. And there is music spilling forth freely from lips and fingers, and the banquets…" If Hob had not found this too bizarre a conclusion, he would have thought that this not-a-god was nervously babbling. "Would you like anything to eat or drink?"
Dream sighed and twined his fingers about the emerald. "I am not who I was."
"You're not who he was, mate, and that's how it is from where I'm standing."
"Our statements are both correct, Hob Gadling." Thought his volume was precisely what it previously had been, his speech seemed to come from much further away.
An odd, but very real, momentary vision of a young tree cutting struggling in the shadow of the stump of its parent flashed across Hob's mind.
Before he had time to analyze it, Hob reached out and touched Dream's shoulder. "I'm sure you're a noble and capable and honest anthropomorphic personification or whatever it is your family prefers to be called. I'm not rejecting that notion. Hell, you may even be better than Morpheus at what you do. But when you have a relationship of any kind with someone, it's not just whether you think they're a good person. It's the time that you've spent together and helped each other, the memories –"
Catching Hob's wrist, Dream spoke still quietly but with great depth of feeling. "I have the memories, friend. I recollect every meeting every century, the slow build of trust and respect, that need for a constant in a rapidly changing but still continuing onward life. And I remember the night very close to my transfiguration where none but you could…"
Hob twisted out of his grip and looked away. "Stop."
"The Queen of England today is not the one who knighted you. Do you follow her no more?"
It started to hesitantly rain outside, a spring rain. "You know that's not even remotely the same."
He cast his gaze to the candlelit bookshelf against the wall, filled not only with books but curios and oddments – a small wooden dragonfly that balanced on its "nose", a picture made of woven grass, a wind-up brass pocket watch, a miniature paper octopus wearing a monocle and top hat, a chubby fist-sized robot used to clean up crumbs - that would gladden both his eldest and youngest sisters.
"That is not the only life I remember. I also remember having heartbeat and breath, innocence and simplicity, knowing the Dreaming as a place to play and learn rather than a kingdom and soul-shard. It was my destiny to be him, but that does not make it any less lonely."
Their eyes met, and Hob saw that deep within Dream's pools of black with sparks a-shining, far, far into their recesses of infinity, were the tiny (oh so tiny) candle flames of humanity, guttering and struggling against the expanse. He found himself drawing fingers to Dream's cool cheek. "You…You're so young…to be so old."
"I have few friends; and only one human…" Dream took Hob's errant hands in both of his, a gentle yielding pressure. "I know you feel like I left you. But everything that could last, everything that cared for you, that is still here. And I need you more than I ever did."
"Hmph. You still talk about love like an eloquent seventeen-year-old."
Dream's smile was the same as it had been, but given more easily, filled with wonder and peace.
As naturally and matter-of-factly as every action in dreams, the kiss that followed was without artifice. It was not without misgivings. This did not mean it was anything other than implicitly the correct thing to do.
It was sensible that there followed hands in hands and hands in hair, and the softest of touches and sounds. When Dream lightly rose to his feet and pulled Hob to another room, Hob did not resist.
Tiny, warmly yellow lamps hung in garlands about the frame of the bed, clean and white and coolly scented with mint. "S'lot cozier than the castle," Hob murmured, dazed because Dream was nestled with him, slowly unfastening Hob's clothes with tender care.
"They were supposed to finish the fires…but they were…cut short…"
"You're not very good with zippers, I see." He would never have said that to Morpheus, but he implicitly knew this was all right now.
"My hands shake a little. No matter." Then all of a sudden Dream was unclothed, and he was holding Hob like he was the most precious thing in the universe, using both arms and legs to awkwardly cling like a starfish.
Hob stroked Dream's hair. "You seem uncertain."
"I…" Dream looked into his eyes and swallowed. "You were the last I loved before I was…this…and I find I am not…I know not…"
"What is it?"
"This body had never loved. I wish for that kinship, want it so greatly. I am older than suns, older than gods, but this is the first time, and I am afraid. So I thought you…"
"A familiar face."
"Yes." A sparrow-whisper.
Hob drew him in with his own strength, and did what he could for what he had left.
There was a night, many, many centuries ago, full of passion and fire. It made everyone that dreamed dream of forbidden love. And soon after, the dreams were just as stark, barren, and dry, with the only sparks of color conjured by the dreamers themselves rather than their bereft Lord.
On this night, all that could dream instead dreamed of hearths, of home, of safety and forgiveness. They dreamed of hands in hands and hands in hair, and a dawn only metaphysically related to Sol's (or any other star's) rise.