art & podfic over at lj masterlist. many thanks to Sei and Haru!

Inside the house of dreams, he sleeps.

From outside, he thinks he can hear the chime of bells with the slightest pull of the frayed rope, or through the rustle of the sign of the North wind. He strains to listen to the echo of footfalls as an errant prayer passes over him like the wine that spills from cups to brides' mouths, listens to the smooth slips of feet and the hems of cotton and silk brush against the polished wood and barren stone. A trail of water in the wake of rain, the crunch of leaves in the fall - all these he recounts, as if in some far off dream. Sometimes, the scent of incense and opium. Sometimes, the flash of a white wrist, faltering as it fastens the chimes together. His throat - it throbs and aches.

He measures the weight of his memories in the clang of copper and the width between the hemp and the handle, the grooves and impressions against the worn floor. In things he cannot eat, in dreams he should not know. When he cannot bear to think of these things, he counts, and counts, and counts again.

It takes fifteen hundred steps to cross the distance between the inner courtyard of the house of dreams and the hall. Only fifteen hundred, and this he cannot breach.

So he sleeps.

i. the fox

Once upon a time there was a fox that lived in a temple. He was born from a human father and a fox spirit, and so he was cast out from the spirit world to live with humankind.

He remembers being young.

Before he'd grown his second tail he was sent away into the temple. For luck, his grandfather said, as his daughter wept. His father, already lost to him for decades like all mortal men with achingly short lives, would offer no protest in the afterlife, if he'd known. Shintarou does not dare to ask, if his mother hears his voice. If she knows it like a familiar ache.

There is no place for halflings in his grandfather's castle, but there are less cruelties than willful negligence. Like a starved child, he'd eaten up his grandfather's paths to fortune, to providence. You were not wrong to be born, he'd whispered to his ear, close enough to smooth down the cowlicks of his hair. It is only that your mother was fated to be foolish.

He knows this story, he thinks. She tells him, as she rocks him to sleep, of how she'd met his father, the human. On the day of the spirits, his mother stole into a nearby village and fell in love with the elder's son, enticed him with plum wine and dimpled kisses, slow and deep, and held him close throughout the night. When he awoke and saw her, changed, he'd clutched at his throat and heaved bile from his mouth, wine from his belly. How impertinent, this man. How callous and quick to break her heart.

Shintarou must have inherited this from him, at least. He knows the softness of his mother's eyes, the slightest sheen across her eyelashes like tiny drops of dew, and he knows that this is a weakness he will never possess. She was so, so fond of him. He does not have a soul as weak as his mother's, and his father -

Let him not speak ill of the dead. He reminds himself everything is forgotten.

But the fox was proud, and cared little for men. He was more fascinated with the things they made with their hands, the stories they created out of air, and did nothing but watch from afar.

There was a family that tended to the temple, once.

No, before that -

There was a woman that lived in the village by the river, and she'd made the sweetest rice cakes Shintarou had ever eaten. She left them on a mound piled with stone, at the fringes of the temple. Her mother was a lesser dragon spirit that left her on the doorstep of a villager in her youth. Anything she touched flowed through her hands like water, penetrable, and malleable, even the sticky rice that made the village girls groan and shudder to touch. In some ways, she was fortunate. In others, she was not.

She was beautiful, too; the worst failing she possessed. Her eyes were dark like the pebbles in the deepest parts of the water, her hair as black as the dead of night. One day, the priest's son saw her with her head bowed in prayer and felt something inside him ache. It caught at his bones and squeezed at his neck. When he held fast at her arm, she did not scream; he kept her quiet with his mouth, and through the ache the rain fell until the river overflowed. Thunder and lightning, through her nerves. In the distance, someone wept with her.

It is - something Shintarou cannot understand, for all the years he has advanced. Half a century is the difference between his age and the head priest's, and so he can say little when the priest sighs over this through the tobacco in his gnarled fingers. Young men's hearts are so changeable, so quick to capture even when others are not so easily moved, so inclined to desire. It is so good it is a small village, so far off from the center, so rustic, that some things are forgivable.

And yet. And yet. No one is quick to forget that, even through the formal ceremony, with the bride's cheeks a pale white and her lip bitten paler, a son is born at the tail end of November, some months too shy of a full term.

Shintarou watches as the woman draws a fortune, for New Year's. The slip of paper, Shintarou already knows before he even sees it.

It is not good luck.

His youth, he spent absorbed in their tales. He neglected the supplications of pilgrims in favor of his small, selfish pleasures, all the words that he could glean from their pages, but not their hearts.

There is little for Shintarou to do but to observe, most days.

The temple is swept clean by the apprentices, the shrines and statues polished every day. Hearing prayers is more routine and can be done with half an ear and ignored in favor of pouring through the scrolls the priest leaves in his room. No one can see him steal away, except for the kodama in the courtyard, and perhaps the baby, if the way it stares at Shintarou sometimes is any indication of it; it is not like he has the power, or the time, to grant more wishes than he has patience for.

He knows her prayers, though, this woman. This, for her son, that he may grow old and untouched by evil. This, for her mother, that she might forgive. This, for her husband, that he would remember to be kind, that he would not be so tempted. This, for herself, that she would learn to forget. Shintarou has heard enough to know what kind of end she would seek, or how much success she would glean from her prayers. He knows her destiny.

Sometimes, when she touches her forehead to her son's, her head bent in supplication as she mouths his name over and over, he wishes he could change it. Sometimes.

And then he loses himself in his scrolls and the thought passes easily from his mind, like water and air.

His tail had numbered three when the temple burnt down. The fox, caring little for the humans, despaired over the loss of their knowledge, their legacy, but not of their lives.

They draw her body from the well, when the child turns three.

His first word is death, and the dragon spirit weeps and rails and curses until the lightning strikes at the trees, sparking fire and seeking blood as it razes the temple to ash, even as the snow falls.

Only one apprentice lives, and he takes the boy in his arms, his arms shaking, but not from his weight.

Shintarou purses his lips at the chaos, and thinks that the shrine is safe, at least.

The scrolls, not so.

No matter; he can find more, in time. He has eternity to wait.

And so the fox lived, without anyone in his heart.

ii. the boy

Not long after the fire, the fox met a little boy. The boy had a tinge of power from the spirit world, and was fascinated by the fox at first sight.

The humans do their best, to clean up the wreckage.

Masaaki, the surviving apprentice, does his best to divide his attention between the child and the temple, but sometimes it is easy to forget that children wander off into paths unknown. Shintarou wonders what becomes of him when he ends up trying to keep the boy alive, if only for his poor mother.

Shintarou perches on the remains of the stone steps and lets the boy gnaw at the tip of his tail; he seems to take delight in ruining more things than fixing them, and finds enjoyment in tormenting Shintarou with his fingers, dirty from charred wood and melted snow. It is only because Shintarou has nothing else to distract himself with that he even accompanies this boy. Shintarou, steadfast, ignores him.

No word comes from his grandfather, or from his mother. An errant cousin, ever lax and carefree, drops by sometimes to mourn the scenery with him. "Dragons are dragons," Ryouta consoles him. "Inari will understand that you're not neglecting her."

"There is no neglect," says Shintarou, crossly. He points at the sash around the human boy's waist, sparkling green when it hits the light, whatever little of it there is. "There's a reason it's there, to begin with."

"Oh," says Ryouta, dryly. "I see."

"Tomorrow, I'll have to find a sack of rice," says Shintarou. "It's disgraceful enough that my powers can't prevent a paltry fire."

"Paltry," Ryouta repeats, and looks at the sprawling grounds. "Well, the dragon will want the boy soon, maybe. Or one of them will try to kill it."

"I could only hope so," says Shintarou.

The human child gurgles and leaves water and spit all over Shintarou's robe. Shintarou prays for patience.

This does not come easy to him.

The fox was displeased with the boy's attentions, but the boy was open, and kind, and honest, and the fox found no fault in his naiveté. He was only a child.

The dragons do not come for the boy. Not yet. But Shintarou knows they watch him, as he sweeps the path and kicks at the leaves, his palms lined with dirt and grit. Sometimes the boy - Kazunari - talks to him, but he never expects a response. He keeps a steady stream of words that tumble out of his mouth like they mean nothing, even when they are not.

The boy, he has a reputation. One, for his terrible luck. Two, for his truths. In the seven years he has lived, he has seen and foretold five disasters before they appear; only two things become his worth: fear, and expectation.

"They're keeping me locked in again this spring," Kazunari drones on. "The daimyo is very persistent, and Masaaki-san says he'll never let me near him until I grow up, because - there are rumors, I think, that the daimyo never lets children leave, except when I ask for more no one will tell me anything."

He drops the broom in his hand, and the wooden handle clatters against the stone. Shintarou closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep, against the tree, where the tsubaki flowers have yet to bloom. Time waits for no stragglers, and Kazunari is a fool to waste it with his talk. Kazunari goes on.

"Masaaki-san's too nervous sometimes," he says, calmly. He picks up the fallen broom and studies it. "I can always lie and say something else and then everyone will stop looking at me like I'm crazy, but Masaaki-san never lets me. He says I shouldn't lie, even to save my life." He turns to Shintarou, curiously. "Have you ever lied, Shin-chan?"

The only reason he sticks close to the boy is because he cannot shake him off easily; that he can see the future, is only added value, but only slightly. Shintarou says nothing, hoping Kazunari emulates his silence.

Even this, is a form of lying. He does not need to know that yet.

The boy seemed to attract bad luck in droves, and it was only in the fox's company that he could breathe easily. The fox noticed, and brought him under his protection, despite his earlier reservations.

Harvest season offers no respite. The crops fall prey to a typhoon and hunger ravages the land, unmerciful.

Through the funeral pyres, Shintarou wonders how long this will go on. What more the gods need before they are satisfied, appeased. And Kazunari still lives, luckless when death would be a mercy.

The offerings are sparse and slim that year, and the ashes growing, still.

He thought he felt sorry for the boy, who had lost so many things.

He holds Kazunari's hand, when his caretaker dies in the fall of his ninth year.

He tumbled out of his horse, the villagers say. He was hurrying home from a trip to the capital, a bag of sweets in his pack for Kazunari. A snake bit the leg of his horse; it kicked in the air and tossed Masaaki to the ground, where the stones were sharpest. Shintarou knows exactly where the snake is from, and it is not from the wild.

It is like disaster trails after Kazunari, one by one. All things dear to him are lost, through no fault of his own save his existence, perhaps. The most respected boy in the village, and the most feared. How happy are those who are not him.

Kazunari watches the fire eat Masaaki's body, his bones. Shintarou holds his hand because Kazunari looks like he longs to follow, but mostly he holds it because Kazunari does not let him go. They watch the smoke disappear into the sky, until the grey bleeds into the dusk, and they stay even as the fire dwindles into a bare crackle of light in the pit.

"What do I do now?" Kazunari asks him, lost.

Shintarou stares at the ashes. He remembers many ghosts, and lightning that seemed to flash brighter than the sun. "You live," says Shintarou, simply. "It's what you're supposed to do."

"I'm scared, Shin-chan," Kazunari confesses. And he must be, when he realizes the fragility of his existence, the shortness of his tenure. We are, each of us, only taking up so much volume for the briefest of periods. Shintarou only holds his hand.

"Don't worry," Shintarou says. "I won't let you go."

Kazunari stays in the temple after that.

As the boy grew older, he grew more powerful. He could see glimpses of the future, but only in scattered scenes. The boy was driven further away from his kind, too strange by half with his innate power for the villagers, but still useful, and the fox slowly grew resentful of their treatment towards the boy and became fond of him all the more.

Kazunari wears layers and layers of cloth over his inner robes once a month. The outermost layer is stiff and heavy, a brocade of extravagance a display of imperiousness and extravagance. It makes Kazunari look far smaller and younger than he is, powerless and easy to quash at the bidding of a more whimsical god. His expression alternates between sobriety, and boredom. He searches for Shintarou, at the corner of his eye, and attempts to wink at him even through the curtained walls.

Kazunari is now eleven and his cheeks are beginning to shed excess fat. His height is the darkest stain in his life, so far, and he rails at Shintarou at every chance he gets. Seated like this, Shintarou wonders if he realizes that he is dwarfed by his clothing more than his regretful impertinence. If Shintarou were pettier, he would sidle over to his side and whisper this, in his ear, in front of all these people. Kazunari is fortunate Shintarou does not practice contemptible manners.

By the time the last human has stepped inside the hall, he grows quieter, more detached. When Kazunari whispers truth even through the daze of incense, his eyes are the color of stones awash and muddied, opaque and unfathomable to human eyes. In Shintarou's, on the other hand, sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.

Because this is what Shintarou knows: that Kazunari, for all his lapses of lucidity and the strange quality of his eyes, the wryness of his smile, will always be the curious, talkative brat that longs for little else than to pester even beyond the human realm. Sometimes he wonders if he has grown fond of the boy, if he has given in to his nattering, but the thought is easily dismissed as it comes. Mostly, what he feels for Kazunari is far worse than affection.

Empathy is not a quality Shintarou prizes. Like a curse, Shintarou dreads its fulfillment, its coming. Except when there are other things that get in the way, small reminders of their loneliness, the ill beginnings of their fates, Shintarou remembers what it is like, to be between worlds. They will never belong to one or the other, and the knowledge of it does not make Shintarou sad, not quite, but it will make Kazunari cry, if he realizes this.

So Shintarou says nothing and lets him play truth teller for as long as he has use for it.

"Shin-chan," says Kazunari, when the crowd of villagers has dwindled and the temple is empty, "why do you look so sad?"

He is not, of course. It is only the light, that makes Kazunari mistake indifference for it. Really, he is not.

It was easy to feel something like love for someone like yourself.

When summer comes with heat and shorter tempers, Kazunari plays in the shallow waters with the villagers' kids, keeping Shintarou away, where he cannot come near for fear of discovery. It is - something Kazunari does, sometimes, to spite him, when Shintarou's words run off course and are more denials than playfulness, when he becomes more serious and hurtful when he means it less.

He realizes, this: that he and Kazunari may be the same in some ways, but he can be so much more, without him. Shintarou watches them, bright eyed and sharp of mouth, the taller boy dark and indomitable in the sunlight, the shorter almost translucent in the shallow water. The girl fusses by the shore with food in hand, her fingers dipped with blackberries and crumbs. Kazunari eats it all, as he skips stones from atop the old, rickety bridge.

Sometimes when he reaches past the reeds and to the mouth of the lake, Kazunari opens his mouth to call to Shintarou, eager to boast, but Shintarou brings his hand to his mouth, forbidding, always forbidding, and Kazunari's shoulders seem to tense. This, too, is a secret, like all parts of Kazunari's life. It is one that he must keep.

When the ground is cooler and the grass less tortuous to trample on, the children say their goodbyes. Their hands raise, a farewell to new friends. The smaller boy's eyes linger, to Kazunari's shoulder, beyond him. Like he knows something he does not.

But the moment passes, quickly, as the sun melts into dusk. Kazunari takes his hand, and they go home together, anew.

As the boy grew older, he fell in love with his protector. The fox did not know what love was, but he felt that the boy was more important to him than anything else in the world.

Kazunari is fifteen and Shintarou has lost track of the years when he first kisses him.

An illness scatters throughout the village and leaves two children dead in its wake. Kazunari is feverish in his bed and calls for Shintarou, over and over again.

Shintarou presses the back of his hand against Kazunari's forehead and tells him idiots do not die so easily. His hand trembles when he soaks a piece of cloth in water and wrings it. This is not the first time Kazunari has fallen ill, and yet it does not keep the fear at bay. Sometimes Shintarou wonders if it is worth it to worry over him, when he will be dead when destiny dictates it. Kazunari coasts in and out of waking and plants kisses across Shintarou's arm, more daring now than in his more conscious moments. Shintarou strokes his hair back as Kazunari whispers his name over and over like a confession, and reads a letter from Ryouta.

When Kazunari's fever finally breaks, Shintarou sighs and picks up the bowl to change the water. He spends more time charting the stars than drawing water from the well. Kazunari peers at him from his blankets, hiding the rest of his face, like he feels some shame.

"Hey," Kazunari croaks out, as Shintarou sweeps his tails, all three of it, from under him as he takes a seat beside Kazunari's futon. Shintarou sighs, louder, this time, where Kazunari can hear it.

"You are the most irrepressible human I have ever had the misfortune of knowing," says Shintarou, even as Kazunari slowly tugs the blanket down. "And very needy, too."

"You're not mad, are you?" Kazunari asks. Shintarou frowns at him, and smoothes down his robe.

"Furious," says Shintarou. "Don't go dying before you even follow through with anything."

"Shin-chan," says Kazunari, voice small, "thank you."

Shintarou shakes his head, and reaches out to brush his hair out of his eyes. Kazunari catches his wrist, fingers strong against his skin. His eyes are bright, and dazed. Some things we inherit from our fathers, Shintarou thinks, and some scenes bear repeating for all the mistakes our parents must have made, a long time ago.

Shintarou cradles his jaw with his hand, and kisses him, this time, slow, and deep.

It was his only worth.

Through his heat, his impermanence, the shudder of his back and the tangling of their limbs, Kazunari's eyes outside of truth are the clearest Shintarou has ever seen.

And Shintarou breathes it all in.

And so the fox and the boy lived, together, for many, many years.

iii. the dragon

Slowly, the fox became less selfish, and more content with his lot in life. He came to know what love was, for the human boy, and they shared everything with each other, from their secrets, to their bed, to the smallest of stories, the tiniest of pleasures.

Winter passes and the snow begins to thaw on the cedars. Inside his room, Kazunari swims in the sea of cloth across his futon, kicking his legs in the air as he watches Shintarou loop a piece of thread into the eye of a needle. The tea he's prepared has grown bland and cool, at his side. A game of shogi, a gift from the daimyo, rests at his feet, Kazunari long grown bored of it, the inactivity of his legs thrumming in a restless energy. Shintarou brings the thread to his teeth, and pulls.

"I didn't know you can sew," says Kazunari, sleepily. His calf is white, against the blue shade of the outer robe, scattered with golden threads twisting into the shape of dragons, drowned in darker colors. Shintarou glowers, and pushes his leg back down.

"Don't make a mess," he scolds.

"I'm not," says Kazunari, furtive.

Shintarou opens his mouth to say more, only Kazunari sits up, alert. If he had Shintarou's ears, they might be pricked up to listen to something distant. Shintarou does not bother to strain himself, like this. He knows he will hear nothing, when Kazunari has his brief episodes of foresight.

"Is it another avalanche?" Shintarou asks. He holds out his hand, if only to soothe the prickle of Kazunari's flesh, at the back of his neck, like portents of misfortune that have yet to play out. Kazunari does not lean into his touch, but the shell of his ear turns red, aching. Shintarou draws away.

"Something is coming," says Kazunari, in a far off voice. Like he is trying to see beyond the closed doors. "Something is coming here soon."

It is irritating, sometimes, the way Kazunari is all vagueness and stilted phrases. Shintarou does him one better, and yanks the door open with his mind, as if to prove a point. Kazunari looks at him, surprised out of his trance, and Shintarou huffs, regretting the display already.

"So," says Kazunari, his eyes shining, "what else can you do?"

But one day the boy was cursed by a vengeful dragon that had grown old and embittered by the actions of humans.

Not all of Kazunari's visions come true.

There are things beyond the forces of nature that can be prevented: a child, lost at the fringes of the woods, before it is eaten by a wolf; a candle left lit too long amidst the hay. Kazunari tries his best, to stall the girl from wandering too deeply, to set the fire out, but there are also things he cannot do, and other futures he cannot live with.

His own future, though, is dark to him. If there is one thing human, inescapable, it is this: that he struggles through the shortness of his path, without knowledge of his end. Shintarou hopes whatever it is, he will be there, too, drinking him in.

Some things Kazunari sees, sometimes, in his mind's eye, make Shintarou's throat clench. A serpent in the water, a flash of lightning in the darkened shrine. All things Kazunari does not suspect, does not know, but Shintarou cannot shake off the chill in his heart. He knows these images. He knows their cause.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever know what will happen to me," Kazunari whispers, privately, as he leaves a kiss on Shintarou's shoulder. "I don't want to know if it means I'll have to leave you alone."

Shintarou holds his tongue.

But Kazunari never tells him what will happen to him, either. Only quiets him with a stray touch to his temple, and says, "You will find your peace, someday."

His smile. It is watery and not only out of love.

For every use of his power, he grew weaker, his life shorter. The fox worried and begged him not to exert himself, but the dragon sent wave after wave of disasters and forced the man to work harder.

Kazunari's voice is like wisp, as it echoes through the hall. His words are brittle in his tongue, and he keeps gasping for air like he can barely breathe. The incense, they'd had to snuff out, and the windows they parted open until the chill from outside numbed their bones.

December is the darkest month, the coldest, the last. The tail end of the year always makes Kazunari nervous, like he is afraid of coming full circle and starting off, once more, crippled with his uncertainty. Shintarou cannot offer him confidence, in this, except to ask him to stop.

He does not.

"What will they do without me," says Kazunari, as Shintarou holds his hair back, matted with sweat. The visions come in quicker succession, and Kazunari is only human. Shintarou bites back any words of disdain, but Kazunari sees it in his scowl, and turns away.

Even this, is a weakness. Wanting to offer aid, and receiving little in gratitude beyond a crippling, silent acceptance - no, toleration. Humans are greedy, fickle creatures, and Shintarou does not know what it is in Kazunari that prompts him to action.

By the end of the month, Kazunari is an exhausted mess, his limbs shaking from the effort. When he shuts his eyes, his dreams haunt him and jolt him awake. When he opens them, the days seem endless, limiting. Sometimes Shintarou has to keep him upright, or he forgets where he is.

And sometimes, when it is too much, when Kazunari has writhed more in his sleep than stayed at ease, he blanks out, shuts himself completely, desensitized even through the ache. Blood out of his nose, his mouth. Shintarou keeps his palms over Kazunari's lips like it will block everything out, but it doesn't. It doesn't.

Something is coming for his blood, and Shintarou is afraid.

The dragon, dissatisfied, grew more restless, more desperate. In the boy's sleep, one night, his spirit was snatched away by the dragon, long impatient for his death.

They find a dead snake, poisonous, in the water supply. Some die, through the fits, cursing the gods for their misfortune. Some pass away without a sound. Few survive, and the village is anxious, angry. They beat at the temple doors and cry out for something tangible beyond the delirious ramblings of a cryptic boy.

Tomorrow, a typhoon. The next, a wild animal loose. But Kazunari cannot tell them all this, without sounding like a madman. Whatever regality he'd donned in his youth is lost in the fever pitch of his tongue, absent. Through it all, Shintarou shuts all the doors, the windows, and snuffs out the light. He strokes Kazunari's back, through the worst of the storm.

The nights are worse, when Kazunari loses himself in his nightmares, the horror of knowing things to come. Shintarou hates the village and the spirits and the gods, but most of all he hates himself, because he is so powerless.

The only thing he can think of doing is to shut everything out, to keep their world confined to the two of them, like nothing else matters past the temple's gates. He keeps vigil by Kazunari's side and waits for the morning to come.

And one day, Kazunari does not wake at all.

Shintarou touches his wrist; it pulses, faintly, through his fingers. He strains to hear the wild beating of Kazunari's chest, the same tempo he'd memorized as he once bent to touch his lips to Kazunari's hip, his belly. Nothing but stutters, and stops. Until finally, he can hear no more.

The fox did not weep, but he raged, without direction, without consciousness.

And if it is not enough, of all the cruelties in the world, Kazunari's body disappears, in the morning, as Shintarou sleeps the sleep of the grieving.

Outside, the villagers grow desperate. They are out for Kazunari's blood, misguided by their fear, the fluttering pangs of panic and dread. What will they think of when they find no trace of Kazunari, lost in a limitless quality of sleep. Shintarou's heart cries because he cannot sense his soul.

More than this, he is furious, inexorable. The dam breaks, the storage house vanishes, the sleet pelts harder against the cracks of the walls, and it is not the dragon's fault, no. Shintarou haunts the village at night and he leaves illusions in his trail that cause the villagers to recoil. And even then, it is never enough.

So he runs. Past the old, abandoned hut, past the bamboo shoots coated in snow, past the wooden bridge over the river, he runs.

In the forest of the spirits, he loses himself.

And he was alone once more.

iv. the dragon prince

The fox wandered around the lakes and combed the mountains in search of the boy. He found no trace of him at all, and nature would not yield to his plight.

The frogs will not stop croaking, at night.

They weep for him as he calls for Kazunari, through the unending trees, the soil with no path save the marks his footsteps leave in the thicket. Through the darkness, Shintarou's steps are wild, and frantic, and his tail is a tangle of thorns and bramble weeds that he can barely feel.

Between two worlds, Kazunari must be afraid, Shintarou thinks. He must not know where to go. Did the dragon drive him away? Did it eat the last of his stain? Shintarou cannot rest, cannot find space to think properly. Everything is muted, sightless. The night revolves around him and trills.

Near the half-frozen lake, he collapses, finally. Through hunger, and cold, Shintarou does not know how he is alive. He only remembers thinking that even death must be a blessing, even scouring the earth for Kazunari is a curse. He hates his heart, for being weak. He hates his eyes for being unable to still his tears.

When he gives in to fatigue, he laughs at himself, brokenly. This, too, is fate. This is something he can no longer fight. You were born to be foolish, his grandfather whispers, just like your mother. Except this is not foolishness that drives him, that leads him closer to the place that drove him away. Except there is someone watching him and it is not -

"Get up," someone says, his hands clammy against Shintarou's cheek, and Shintarou passes out.

Soon he met the dragon prince who laughed at his foolishness and mocked the futility of his cause. But the dragon prince was soft of heart when it came to lost loves, and when he listened to the fox's story, he counseled him to seek the mercy of the dragon that lived in the house of dreams.

His savior's home lay in the deepest part of the mountain, beyond a cave behind a waterfall. He wakes to columns of red and walls paper thin even through the dampness of the air; a candle, hung low from the head of his futon, drips tallow to the floor. Shintarou watches it pool to the mat and congeal.

"There isn't anything fascinating about that," the stranger says, bent over a wooden board. His hair falls, dark and red, over his eyes that seem to flicker in the relative darkness. When he looks at Shintarou, Shintarou almost feels like he is being weighed and measured. "Or are you still confused?"

His skin ripples, partly with fear, and partly with resentment. "You're a dragon," Shintarou says, when he regains his voice. Something in him cannot contain his disgust.

The dragon smiles, but there is no kindness in it, only a detached sort of politeness, like he has already grown bored of his guest. His eyes seem to flash yellow, a trick of light. When he blinks, the color is gone. An illusion. Shintarou stares, unashamed.

"I am," he affirms. He picks up a wooden piece, and toys with it in his palm. "And you are a fox that is out of its mind."

It is - not inaccurate, but Shintarou balks at this, like he is insulted. Like the dragon is making light of him, even as he offers his aid, but at what price. "I am not," says Shintarou, heated. "I am only looking for something one of your kind has stolen from me."

The dragon tilts his head to the side. His mouth is a thin line, taut, worn thin. "Easily replaceable, no doubt," says the dragon. "Yet you foxes are always looking for excuses to get into more scrapes."

Shintarou makes to sit up. "You -"

"So tell me," says the dragon, pushing him back down with a flutter of his hands, and Shintarou is taken aback by the strength in the careless gesture, hard and unyielding. It makes the dragon chuckle, under his breath. "What is it that they took from you? Is it a highly important relic? A magic spell?" His eyes crinkle, slightly, amused. "A human pet?

Shintarou shudders, despite himself. The futon offers no warmth, no comfort. Instead, he feels repulsed. He keeps his fingers fisted, in his palm. "Don't talk about him like that."

"But it's true," says the dragon. "Humans have such short lives, and they make so much fuss." He lowers his gaze, to the tallow, as if it compares. "And they're more trouble than they're worth, the selfish things."

"Don't," Shintarou repeats. His eyes. They hurt from anger even as the water seeks to salve the ache.

The dragon ignores this. He cocks his head, to the side, and his horns gleam, as black as a dragon's heart, like coal from a leftover fire. "If only they didn't exist," he says, almost to himself. "If only they went away and left us alone."

"No," says Shintarou. His words tumble out of his mouth in a frustrated stream, but it is the closest to honesty he has come to in days. "He is the most important thing to me, the only thing that made me happy, and I have lost him."

The dragon looks surprised, at this. Something like pain crosses his face, but it passes so quickly Shintarou cannot say for sure. He folds his hands on his lap, and looks at him.

"I do not pretend to understand anything about you," says the dragon, quietly. "But I remember what it was like, to feel that way for somebody."

He swallows, in his throat. "And it is the worst thing in the world."

When the fox slept that night, he dreamt of the boy, who told him to turn back. The fox thought of all his fears, and his own dreams, and of their temple past the village, once burnt and now abandoned, and he strengthened his resolve.

Even in his lapses of decorum and lucidity, Shintarou realizes that his benefactor is not a normal dragon spirit. The wide arches of his halls, the towering columns of red and the fine tautness of his mats, they bespeak fortune and dignity.

It must be the dragon prince, he thinks. The dragon prince that hides away in his castle and favors no one save those that strike his interest. Lunatics and lovers alike, they flock to him. The only thing they share is loneliness, and Shintarou wonders what it is he looks like, in the dragon prince's eyes. If he sees him at all.

But the dragon prince leaves him alone, for the most part, and only comes to wish him well, to check for himself if he is still alive. Hours pass, and Shintarou has taken to moving the pieces across the wooden board the dragon prince leaves in his room. They answer to each other with their challenges that barely seem to result in more victories than losses, and it grates on Shintarou's nerves, that he cannot glean more from the dragon prince than what he already knows.

And at night, when Shintarou tires of it, when he grows restless, he climbs into his futon, and wonders where he will go from here. It is the only thought that haunts him, even in his dreams.

Kitsune have their illusions, their imaginings. Sometimes Shintarou wonders if Kazunari is only something he's imagined his entire life, if wishing is enough to create him out of nothing, except he knows the Kazunari in his imaginings is a paler shade of man, one of expectations and regrets and 9 by 9 squares, steps he could have taken, territories left unconquered and unmarked.

When Shintarou dreams, he dreams of Kazunari stretched out on the worn mat from the temple, always across him and never beside, the scant amount of space between them unbreachable with his own sluggish movements, the heavy immobility of his limbs until Kazunari comes to him, on his own.

"You're here," says Kazunari. "It's been a while."

Kazunari rests his hand against Shintarou's chest, to compensate for their distance; Shintarou's heart is a trecherous thing that responds to Kazunari's barest touch, his nearness, even through the heavy burden beneath his skin. Even in his sleep, he cannot win.

He stays silent.

"I was hoping you'd come," says Kazunari, conversationally. "It's really lonely here, without you."

Kazunari scratches the back of his head, and the inside of his wrist is white, from hours spent secluded. Shintarou's fingers encircle it; his pulse flutters, madly, in response. "You're not real," says Shintarou, accusing. He cannot help it, if he doubts. If he does not believe. It is what he is.

"It's never stopped you before," says Kazunari, with the slyest of smiles. He comes closer, trapping Shintarou with his mouth, briefly. "It's okay, though. I understand."

Like all kisses in Shintarou's mind, it is slow, and prone to linger, a pale imitation borne from expectation. "There's nothing to understand," says Shintarou, when Kazunari releases him; Kazunari's thumb stills, against Shintarou's jaw.

He laughs, always a cross between mockery and affection. He dares. How many lesser gods would stand for this, Shintarou wonders. How many would be satisfied with the slightest touch even through the sharpest gaze. "Ah, someday we really have to tame that smart mouth of yours," says Kazunari, ever better at giving Shintarou the falsest hopes, the kindest cruelties. "You love me best, though, don't you?"

Shintarou clenches his fist, over the ghost of Kazunari's fingers. His mind is a cruel thing. "That's -"

Kazunari hushes him, again. His mouth is already hot, his lips swollen, bitten red. "I was disappointed with what you did, though, when you left," says Kazunari, sadly.

Shintarou feels unhinged, from his disapproval. "They weren't real, though," he answers, defensive to the bitter end. "You know they're not,"

"Even if they were imagined," says Kazunari, "no one has to go through that."

"I'm sorry," Shintarou says. It is the only thing he can think of saying, to appease his guilt, manifest, in the worst of forms, the most malicious of men.

"At least you are," says Kazunari. "I always knew you were soft, under all that gruffness. Like this, you aren't like a fox at all."

Shintarou takes his fingers and kisses them, one by one. It feels real, and not. He knows this is only desire, come alive.

Kazunari's voice is somber, when he speaks again. Like nothing passes for truth as he vacillates between then and now. "But sometimes I wonder if this is good for you," he says. "You should turn back, while it's still early. While you still have time."

"I want to go home with you," says Shintarou, honest when it counts least, when only he can hear himself.

Kazunari laughs, short. A hushed sound, so different now. "Wanting impossible things has always been your greatest flaw," says Kazunari. "But it's why I like you so much, remember?"

He does; he does. He remembers it in the pretense of humanity, the part of himself he's turned his back on long ago. And still, time and time again -

He comes back to it, over and over.

"I'll tell you a secret, though," Kazunari continues.

"No lies," says Shintarou. Kazunari laughs, against his collarbone. It throbs. It aches.

"Did you know," says Kazunari, with a hand over Shintarou's heart, a smile to his throat, "if you wish enough, you could make everything go away. If you'd let it."

Shintarou swallows something in his throat. It sticks to his lungs like a poison he can't expel. "I don't want you to go away."

"I wish you did, though," says Kazunari. "Everything would be easier if you liked me less."

"I'll save you," says Shintarou, except it sounds like a confession. Something roars in his ears, like the fluttering of wings, and Shintarou knows it is almost time to go.

"You won't," says Kazunari, callous, but kind. "You can't."

Shintarou wakes, to the dragon prince peering at him, face blank. The shogi board is already wiped clean, calling to him. Shintarou rubs at his eyes, and makes a decision.

"If I win, this time," says Shintarou, "you have to tell me where the dragon I seek lives."

"If you win," the dragon prince acquiesces, and sets up a new game.

The fox journeyed for ten days and ten nights to the home of the dragon. When he arrived to beg for the boy's life, the dragon turned him away.

While the dragon prince's home is stark and intimidating for all its light and shadows, the dragon spirit's gate is worn down, unkempt. The wooden slats are rotted, its surface washed white and brown at turns. Like this, the temple looks majestic in comparison. No one lives in this place except for a dragon with a heart of ice.

Shintarou does not flinch, from the wards. How they wrap around his wrist and threaten to choke him. He braves the sting and raps at the door. It is cold, and not from the air.

Inside, it is not much different, except for a pretense at reception. And Shintarou only knows this because even foxes have their own tricks, their ways of getting into places where they should be kept out. If the dragon had her way, Shintarou would never come at all, but she must smell the dragon prince on him, he thinks. She must know his worth.

"I know you," she says. Her voice is like a ripple in the water, like a fracture on stone. "I have seen you before."

She touches a fan, to her ear. Keeps it held there as her gaze passes over him, and then at his tails. "You are not welcome here, kitsune," she spits out. "Leave, before I claw out your filthy tongue."

"I've come to ask for Kazunari's life," says Shintarou. He lowers his eyes, and kneels. With his head bent to the floor, all he can see is the unswept marble, how it gleams even in the absence of natural light.

When he looks at her, finally, he cannot see Kazunari in her yet. Her hair, silver and worn long, her eyes sharp and assessing. She looks no more than how Kazunari's mother looked like, when she died, the curse of immortals. Except she has none of her daughter's frailty, or her grandson's cheer. Their human hearts, soft, and weak-willed. Warm.

"I do not have it," she says. She looks at him like she despises him on sight. "And you are nothing but an intruder of the lowest birth."

A lifetime ago, he might have bristled at this. He might have turned away and never looked back, his pride wounded, his arrogance untamed. But now, he only feels pity for her. "Please," he says, bowing again. "Please let him go."

The dragon crosses her legs, in her seat. She touches the hem of her sleeve, unconsciously. She looks at him, and his bulk. How laughable it is to watch him surrender at her feet. How ridiculous. And yet it does not appease her soul.

"They ruined my daughter," she says, distantly, like she is trying to remember what she must have looked like. How she could hear nothing except for the railing of wind, seen nothing but the crack of lightning through the darkened sky. "And he looks so much like his father, I cannot feel anything for him but loathing."

"And yet he is your own," says Shintarou.

"Not by my choice," she says. This is something she has repeated for decades. "Not even hers. You would do better to go back. At least this way, he is serving his father's penance."

You should turn back, says Kazunari's ghost, Shintarou's fear. His inner demons. While you still have time.

He does not listen to the words of fools. "I would take his place," says Shintarou, unmoving.

The dragon looks at him, curiously. "Would you?"

In a heartbeat, Shintarou straightens. His tails curl around him, at peace despite the prickling of his skin. "Yes," he says, loud even through the pounding of his ear drums. "Yes, I will."

In the light of day, she looks like her daughter, like her grandson, with her eyes dark like rocks and unknowable. The curl of her lip, the furrow of her brow - they are nothing like theirs, though. It looks out of place on a face that should possess nothing but warmth.

"You foxes are all foolish," said the dragon, and sent him away.

The fox stayed unmoving outside the dragon's door for many nights, waiting for an audience. The days stretched on, long and miserable. But one day, the dragon finally allowed him to save the boy, as long as he would fulfill three tasks.

Spring comes, and Shintarou does not revel in it. The wisterias bloom, in shots and bursts of color, and Shintarou does not see this, nor the snow that melts across the soil. What he sees, is a closed door, indomitable. How it does not bend even as he attempts to glare at it to submission.

She must think that he will grow tired of it soon enough. That his affection runs shallowly like the tracks of water left by the snow. She is wrong, in this. He will wait, even for nothing at all.

The ice thaws; the lake ripples, with water. The branches of trees shake with weight, once more. A bird chirrups and pecks at the ground. It feeds him hope.

And finally, the door cracks open, a slant. Only a small slant, but it is enough for him.

"If you really wish to waste your life," she says, tersely, "come after him."

First, he must sneak into the dragon prince's chambers and swallow his dream in his stomach. Second, he must never let the dragon prince's dreams consume him as he journeyed back to the dragon's home. Third, he must enter the boy's dream and take his place for eternity.

And the fox said yes. It was the only thing he could do, to say yes.

When she finishes her list, she appears almost serene, assured of her victory. Do you dare, the set of her shoulders seems to say. Would you do all this, for him?

But she does not know what it is like, to watch over someone and not from a distance. To take them in your arms and never let go, without fear of the future or of consequence. She does not know the courage this can offer.

So Shintarou listens to all her commands, and he dares.

The dragon prince, upon hearing of his troubles, let the fox steal his dream. It was not because he was noble, or that he was kind, or that he pitied the fox of its plight. It was because he did not refuse anyone of anything they ever asked for.

The dragon prince's home is no longer dark, and shaded, when he arrives. Through the waterfall and the cave behind it, fireflies welcome him, like he is expected. Like the dragon prince knows he is coming for him. And Shintarou steps forward without hesitation at all.

He might have, once, years ago, still fresh from his exile and untrusting, embittered. Now all he can see is possibility, and it urges him on.

The gates are open and no charms stay his path. The doors open with the slightest push, and the lamps hanging from the pillars flare with life. On the dais, the dragon prince is moving something carelessly with his fingers. Shintarou keeps his silence, until the dragon prince beckons him closer.

"I was expecting you earlier," says the dragon prince, from his seat before a wooden board, one he despises with all his heart and leaves with an unsettling doubt of success. Even that, is a far off dream. He cannot remember how he won. "I thought she'd killed you where you stood."

"It took some time," Shintarou says, slowly, halting. "She is very temperamental, about her requests."

"Did you come to kill me for my head, then," says the dragon prince, entirely unaffected. "Or perhaps she sent you to steal my prized possessions?"

The dragon prince tips a cup over, with his hand. Sake spills onto the lacquered wood of the board, staining it darker.

"It's too bad," the dragon prince continues. "I have barely anything left that I love the most."

Shintarou watches the prince let pebbles fall from his hand to a bowl. He waits for the last stone to spill out before he speaks.

"I've come to ask something of you," says Shintarou. "Would you let me take your dreams tonight?"

The dragon prince falls silent, contemplating this. He brings a hand to his ear, like he is listening to something distant, someone beyond his reach. The seconds pass, tersely, but Shintarou reins his impatience.

"How convenient," says the dragon prince, flat against the silence, "and how regrettable at once."

Shintarou clenches his jaw, already expecting the rebuff. But the dragon prince continues to surprise him, over and over.

"But it is not very unexpected, when I reflect on it longer," says the dragon prince, with his golden eye shut. "Make no mistake; if you had come for my blood I would have killed you before you entered my gates. But because you asked this of me, and because you once defeated me, I will grant you a boon. I do not do this for you, kitsune. I do this to forget my sins.

"Come," he says, holding a hand out to Shintarou. "Let me show you what I dream of every day."

The dragon prince's dreams are the color of the sky in spring, unclouded and as blue as light across the surface of the shallowest of waters. Brother, someone calls, in the distance. Seijuro. A flash of an ankle, white and dripping wet on the carpeted floor. A plant in hand, poison. When Shintarou opens his mouth to eat it, it tastes like blood, like heartache. He could not breathe.

"Does it always hurt like this," Shintarou gasps out, touching his throat when the dragon prince opens his eyes. His lungs feel flooded with water, dammed up, like he is drowning in the water and can only coast along without aim, or salvation.

"You never asked for my nightmares," says the dragon prince, bitter even through his smile. "But it is always difficult to remember where they start and end."

It is a little like loving Kazunari, Shintarou thinks. Through the ache and the longing and the comfort of his dreams, everything coalesces and bleeds together in a painful, agonizing mess. His mind, it is full of him and wants nothing more than this.

Shintarou keeps the dragon prince's dream in his stomach, and fights the nausea that comes with it. He hopes, at least, that one of them will sleep better tonight.

And so the fox returned, with a curse in his stomach.

v. the house of dreams

The fox was torn by curiosity as he carried the dragon prince's dream in his belly. He suffered through many nights unwilling to fall asleep lest he open it with his desire.

On foot, the path before him seems like an eternity. He slips on crags of rock and broken twigs until his feet are sore and bruised, tender, aching. He soaks his legs in the water and does nothing but stare at the water as the fish mouth at his wounds.

He chews on herbs, and presses them to his skin to stall the sting. He stays close to the river, to drink. With his burden, he feels parched. Restless. His head aches until the fatigue in his bones dulls to a low throb. Everything is red, and there is no light, no end in sight.

He cannot sleep for fear that he will go insane. The damn dragon must have cursed him, for he itches to paw at his throat, to listen to his baser instinct. Open it, no, open it, no. He will die if he does not, if he does.

God, Shintarou thinks, digging his palms deeper into his temple. He wants to claw out his mind. How much farther do I have to go.

The blades of grass offer him no answers, nor the waves of water that trembled with the slightest disturbance, the gusts of air. Clouds over the mountains loom, foreboding; like this, the road is fraught with distress, but only a little more. Only a little more.

Else, he must live with this everyday.

Sleepless and sick at heart, he entered the house of dreams once more. The dragon said nothing to him at all, unmoved by love to the very end. Perhaps it was too late for her. Perhaps she had never known what love was. Perhaps she would never know at all.

This, he knows, as sure as he is of the blood caked along the pads of his feet, the way the dragon's face seems to shutter as he heaves and chokes out the dragon prince's dream at her feet, the way its tendrils seem to curl at her ankles in shame:

All mothers must love their children, in some ways. And they must love them through their suffering.

"I've lost," she says, through her fingers. Her cheeks are wet, and her voice, unsteady, from her conquest, smeared. "Go, take him away."

When darkness came, the dragon led him further inside the house of dreams, where the boy slept. Upon seeing the boy's face once more, unchanged, the fox sank to his knees and prayed honestly for the first time in his life.

The house of dreams is dilapidated, as forsaken as the dragon's heart. But Shintarou does not feel the cold anymore, as he runs past the hall, the wooden beams that quiver with each sign of his weight. Now empty, he feels light, like he can bear anything. There is no struggle, anymore, only expectation. At last.

At the heart of the house of dreams, something beats, wildly. It ripples and calls for him, and he obeys. In this, he has no fear, no hesitation, no pain. Only warmth. Only a fluttering hope. Come. Come.

The hall ends, to a single door, wood and decaying paper. Shintarou's hand quakes, as he touches it, reverently. Only a push, and it would fall apart. Is this what waits for him, he wonders. Is this what he will see in the future for days?

He slides it open, and enters.

And then, and then, and -

Inside, the thrumming comes to a slow halt. Shintarou opens his mouth, and cannot find his voice. In the center of the room, Kazunari's body sleeps, the sleep of the dead. Shintarou sinks, at his side. Touches his cheek, long cold. His fingers, stiff. His mouth robbed of color.

Time passes slowly, in the spirit realm, and time waits for no stragglers, not even for him. When they tell you that time is inflexible and that man is weak, none of it is a lie. Shintarou thinks of scrolls, burnt, from the temple. How they'd pondered the meaning of life.

"I told you not to come," says Kazunari, quietly, from behind him. Shintarou cradles his head. He thinks he is dreaming, distantly. Perhaps he never woke from the dragon prince's castle. Perhaps he was eaten and now he is only air.

"I didn't know," says Shintarou, unfocused. "I didn't. I didn't realize it had been so long."

"Shin-chan, I'm sorry," says Kazunari. "I couldn't hold on much longer." He looks at his hands, near transparent. He cannot fix anything anymore. "You have to know, she never meant to let me go."

I bowed my head for you, Shintarou thinks, I knelt at a dragon's feet and I ate a dream that did not kill me and I would do it all over again for you, if you would let me.

"It's time," says Kazunari. "You have to leave now, or else you can't go back."

Shintarou shakes his head. He curls up against Kazunari, closer. His throat burns, as he cries himself hoarse. Again. Again. He is so tired. He only wants to go home.

"Shin-chan," says Kazunari, for the first time since he was a child, since he held him close and made empty promises in his mind, again and again, to never let him go, "please."

It was never about fate.

He whispered a blessing into the boy's heart, now unmoving to the world. I would save you, a hundred times, a thousand times over, he said. I would find you even when you are lost.

He blew the candle out, and closed his eyes so he could sleep.

vi. the sleeping fox

The fox was too late, for he had not remembered that time passed slowly for spirits than for humans. A day was a month was a year, and many, many years had come and gone and the boy had died in his sleep, alone.

And after that, when the fox came away with nothing, the fox shut himself in the house of dreams, filled with heartache and loneliness after centuries of wandering, looking for the boy's soul.

Inside the house of dreams, he remembers Kazunari's voice, his bright laughter, his truths that sparked a war inside Shintarou's heart. He remembers fortune, and curses, and how Kazunari's eyes were sometimes clouded, and sometimes clearer than the sun. He remembers how his path began and ended with Kazunari's tragedies and the acceptance he'd struggled to live with, once. How not even he could change some parts of his destiny. He remembers his dreams.

And still, he sleeps.

He is still there, asleep in the house of dreams, if you looked for him. He is still waiting for something he does not have, except in his dreams.