“Are you going to wake up soon?”
Yusaku opened his eyes to those words, spoken by a terribly quiet voice. Above him was the universe, an endless sky where dreams danced like stars across the black canvas of night, twirling soft tails around the moon before falling soft back to the dreamers of the earth. And between him and that sky was a messy-haired boy, backlit by the full moon.
“You’re not supposed to be out here,” Yusaku accused, though the words lacked any bite. The boy averted his eyes, looking somewhere amongst the pinkish clouds that rose up to cover Yusaku’s hand, dappled in the stardust from the galaxies spinning above.
“You always come to my world,” said the boy, and leaned down to extend him a frail hand. Yusaku accepted it, and let himself be pulled to his feet, standing amongst the softly glowing clouds. He sighed as he did, gaze drifting towards the doors perched at the edges of the world. There were six of them, spaced at regular intervals, each with their own unique frames- one of sleek modern steel, all black, sharp angles that reflected the planets in its surface, another arching and gothic, weaved together with vines whose blooms radiated a soft light, infused with the moonbeams. The one the boy tugged him to was markedly different than the rest. The door was old and worn, deep scratches carved into its wood and its frame in shambles. But it opened silent beneath the boy’s touch, and together they stepped into the the other world.
The nameplate rattled as the door shuddered shut behind them. Jin. Benevolence.
The new world formed itself up from hints of purple cloud and stardust plucked from the tails of stars falling down the the earth below. Jin’s world was small, but Yusaku’s always thought it comforting. One room, cozy wooden walls. A window out into the world beyond, where the wind danced in soft pastels to dye the darkness. Inside was a bed, carved of dark wood and draped with a dozen blankets, reds and blues and checkered squares. Jin crawled atop it and curled up in the corner, resting his back on the headboard and drawing his knees up to his chest.
A desk rested beside the wall near it, a chair with deep red cushion set atop it. Yusaku sat there, sideways in the chair to angle himself towards Jin. Together they sat in the treehouse, the little bedroom contained within- saying nothing, expecting nothing. It could have been peaceful, if not for the sour bite in the air, tainting Yusaku’s every breath.
The nightmare was a devastating thing, all phantom bites of electricity up and down Yusaku’s spine and the painful curl of hunger in his gut. He shuddered just thinking of it. No matter how many times he experienced it, Yusaku thought he’d never get used to it. He’d never want to.
In the palm of Yusaku’s hand, it was but a tiny black seed, pulsing with malevolent energy. The moment he showed it to Jin, the boy turned his head away, hugging his knees tighter and staring at the uneven floorboards.
“You should be able to do it, right?” Yusaku prompted, and Jin’s good mood promptly dissipated.
“I can’t,” Jin said, studying the floorboards quite intensely.
“You can,” Yusaku insisted gently- looking not for a fight, but just for an attempt. Jin made a soft noise of frustration and turned his back on Yusaku entirely. Yusaku imagined he’d gone to study the wall, instead.
“If you call on a Baku too many times, they’ll eat your future instead,” Jin said, and that ended the conversation then and there. Yusaku frowned, but slipped the nightmare into his pocket to deal with later. He was long since used to dealing with them on his own, after all. Yusaku glanced out the window, towards the stars melting down from the sky. Today they were all in red, the remnants of last night’s storm.
But eventually they all fell, and Yusaku lost count of how many he’d counted like tracing raindrops down the windshield of a moving car. He looked at the desk, instead, but there was only one thing on it.
A picture frame. Two people, a house in the background. Green grass. Blue sky. A remnant if a normal world in an abnormal place- or at least Yusaku thought.
“Who is that?” Yusaku asked, peering at the figure obscured by the glare on the glass. Jin glanced over at the photograph- or rather, seemed to glance straight through it, gaze more on Yusaku’s hand tilting the frame back and forth, trying without success to dissipate the glare.
“My brother,” Jin muttered. The answer was fond, if not a little complicated. Yusaku didn’t know how to read the rest of the emotion contained there, and didn’t know if he should try.
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Yusaku said. Unable to see the man’s face no matter what he did with the photo, he set it carefully back in its place on the nightstand. “I never see him here.”
“Why would he come here?” Jin muttered, and drew his knees closer to his chest. Yusaku didn’t know. The clouds melted into the sky.
(Before you go to sleep, call the baku three times. You don’t have to say it out loud. As long as you think it, the baku will come and eat your nightmares. Even if there’s no one there to comfort you, the baku will always be there, waiting for you to wake in the world of dreams.)
“What do you want to do today?” Jin asked as Yusaku blinked, Jin’s face going from blurry to clear in a moment as the tiredness faded from him.
“How many times has this been?” Yusaku asked, because even he was beginning to lose track of the nights.
Jin’s answer was prompt as ever. “Three thousand and twenty-four.”
Yusaku frowned. He didn’t think that was an answer he’d really wanted to hear. Jin, noticing his discontent, held out his hand and pulled Yusaku from his cradle in the clouds. Together they stepped light across the shifting landscape, feet always landing true.
Yusaku wasn’t sure, but he thought the flames of the torches set on either side of grand oak doors burned just a little bit warmer, that the sound of water trickling down the stone of the next was just that much more pleasant. He wondered if something had happened in the places he couldn’t reach. Only this door remained the same, battered and worn and opened most every night. The little bedroom stayed the same, too, down to every last detail.
The grandfather clock in the corner of the treehouse swung its pendulum back and forth in a soothing rhythm, but the hands never moved. Yusaku didn’t mind. Two in the morning was a peaceful sort of time, when the world moved slow and the meteor hanging in the sky above seemed faraway and harmless.
“What do you want to do?” Yusaku asked as Jin climbed back into his usual spot on the bed.
“Sleep,” Jin muttered. Yusaku frowned- that wouldn’t do. Their time was always limited, even if it didn’t flow. Forever was nice, but it was only a thought.
“Let’s go outside,” Yusaku suggested. Jin looked over at the door, warily regarding its scratches.
“If we go there, you’ll disappear,” Jin said.
Yusaku shook his head and lifted a finger to point to the corner of the room, towards the foot of the bed. “Not that door. That one.”
Slowly Jin turned his head- and his eyes went wide as he caught sight of the door.
“Why?” He turned back to Yusaku. “Did you do that?”
“No. I can’t change anything here. It’s not my world,” Yusaku replied. Jin didn’t seem entirely convinced, so he added- “I’m just visiting.”
Jin frowned, but rolled slowly off the bed, approaching the door in shuffling steps that slid soft over the wooden floors. It was a nice sound.
Jin reached for the handle, then stopped. Slowly he dropped his hand back to his side. Yusaku moved to stand beside him, steps silent. But Jin wasn’t startled- he never was. Yusaku nudged him gently on the shoulder. Jin set his hand on the handle, but didn’t turn it- instead staring at it intently a while before leaning back into Yusaku.
Jin didn’t have to ask. Yusaku rested his free hand over Jin’s, and slowly turned the handle.
Together they opened the door.
The world that greeted them was nothing special. Pink clouds, wafting and gentle as cotton candy. A black sky. A bright moon, glimmering silver and dreams danced across its surface.
“What’s that?” Jin asked, squinting up into the dazzling sky. Yusaku knew what had caught his eye. Jin squinted up at the meteor, trailing distant but bright, just a speck of blue against the radiance if the full moon. “I don’t want it to fall.”
“I don’t think anyone can stop it,” Yusaku replied, “Not even you.”
Jin frowned. Yusaku gently shuffled closer, letting their shoulders brush- trying to tell Jin he hadn’t meant it as an insult. Jin still frowned, but leaned slightly towards Yusaku, letting some of his weight rest against him. Yusaku thought he was understood.
(Baku-san, come eat my dreams.
Baku-san, come eat my dreams.
Baku-san, come eat my dreams.)
“Will you try?” Yusaku asked, holding that black seed out to Jin again. They sat amongst the clouds, having scooped out a sort of nest for themselves, trailing blankets from their shoulders and watching as blue stars leaked through the sky, rain dancing in whatever direction it pleased. He asked it expecting nothing- but it had been three thousand, two hundred and eighty-five times, and Jin turned to him with a soft look in his eyes.
“Okay,” Jin said, and took the seed of the nightmare carefully from Yusaku’s palm. He shuddered as he touched it. Yusaku wanted to tell him not to strain himself.
He held it between trembling fingers for a little while, then turned to Yusaku looking so impossibly brave and asked- “What do I do?”
“I don’t know,” Yusaku said honestly. Jin‘s frown only deepened. He turned back to the nightmare and stared at it with utmost concentration. If he looked lost, some nights, looked fearful most as the starlight reflected in his hollow eyes, then none of it showed now.
Between his fingers the seed began to glow with a gentle light- a different color than the rest of the world. Soothing and soft, unthreatening, restrained. Slowly it began to eat away at the dark aura surrounding the seed- and then Jin’s eyes went wide, his breath caught in his throat with an awful, choking gasp- and the dark surged again over the light. Even the moon in the sky seemed to dim, a momentary eclipse from a faraway, untouchable planet.
“I’m sorry,” Jin said, ducking his head into his knees and digging his fingers right into his hair. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. I’m useless.”
Yusaku leaned over towards Jin and gently pried his hands from his hair, pulling the seed from his palm. Some of the tension coiled tight in him loosened with distance from the nightmare and its phantom pains. “You’re not. You tried. You’re strong just for that.”
Yusaku’s words did nothing. Jin muttered to him softly, full or regret- “I can’t even help you.”
“Just being here is enough for me,” Yusaku said. Jin shifted, tucking his legs beneath him so he could lean his head forwards, resting it on Yusaku’s shoulder.
He muttered, softly, “Please don’t lie to me. Not like everyone else.”
“I’m not lying to you. I promise.”
“Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I make the nightmares go away? Why can’t you make them go away forever?”
Yusaku didn’t have that power. He couldn’t snap his fingers and count to three and vanish them all away so easily. But if he could, then he’d tear them to shreds if it would make Jin feel better.
“You’ve gotten better since I started visiting,” Yusaku said, then added- “At everything.”
“Progress is good,” Jin said, words dull. Parroting something he must have been told before. Yusaku didn’t know, but he wondered. He wondered and wondered, and in the sky above, someone bit away a chunk of the moon.
(You can call the baku to protect you, but you need to be careful. Because baku can eat the good dreams, too. And when a baku gains a sweet tooth, then they might just start to dream, too.)
For a while, they didn’t meet. It was as much a relief to Yusaku as it was a strange sort of disappointment. But if it spared him the horrid feeling of the nightmares crawling their roots into his skin, he supposed he wouldn’t protest. When they did meet again it was the same as ever- Jin hovering above him, backlit by the stars weaving stories in the heavens above and shrouded in the thin, shifting clouds like mist.
“I had a good dream,” Jin said, instead of his usual greeting.
“I didn’t know,” Yusaku replied, and meant a thousand different things. He wondered if Jin understood- he wanted Jin to understand.
“Oh,” said Jin. Yusaku didn’t know what that soft sound meant at all. He added, voice slipping back to a whisper, “I didn’t know I could do that. Dream.”
Yusaku thought about nightmares. Yusaku thought about the black seed clenched into his plan, reeking of all sorts of unpleasant things. He didn’t say any of that.
“I’m glad,” he said instead, and Jin smiled down at him. Behind him, the meteor in the sky was like a second moon, trailing fragments of dreams across its surface like fireworks.
(And if a baku eats your good dreams, then they eat all your future, too. So no matter what, you need to be careful.)
Yusaku opened his eyes to a feeling of strange discontent. Immediately he saw the sky, where someone had cut slivers off the moon- scooped it off neatly with a spoon until it was nothing but a thin crescent, a fishhook that would seize no prey. Jin wasn’t there waiting for him. That was unusual- Yusaku crossed the clouds towards the door, making fast across the empty space.
He opened the door carefully, searching for a trace of Jin in the treehouse bedroom inside. But he wasn’t there. Not in the bed, or in the chair, or curled up with a blanket over his head in the corner.
Yusaku pressed on, out into the world beyond. Jin sat hunched over in a fluffy patch of cloud, rolling white up over his shoulders and almost hiding him from Yusaku’s view. This was different. Yusaku approached with caution, trying to see over Jin’s shoulder. Something glowed about him, soft against the black of the starless sky, and Yusaku crouched down slowly beside him, asking wordlessly to see what Jin was protecting.
“I did it,” Jin said, cradling the flower softly in his palms, voice soft with a disbelieving pride. “Yusaku, I did it .”
“You did it,” Yusaku agreed, for the first time realizing- he hadn’t woken up with a seed in his pocket.
“What should I do with it?” Jin said, voice still soft with marvel. Yusaku glanced around. The treehouse was the only thing that broke the cloudscape. Some worlds had oceans whose waves broke quiet and rhythmic as the crests of them glowed bright in the darkness of storm clouds, and others had forests that bloomed with living plants and mischievous fae. This one was barren, and Yusaku had always thought it a shame. Yusaku looked out at the nothingness and said- “Let’s plant a garden.”
“Where?” Jin asked.
Yusaku just shrugged. “Anywhere.”
For a while Jin looked around, then stared at the patch of white clouds among the pink that they crouched in. “Then here.”
“Okay,” Yusaku said, “Then let’s start it here.”
But Jin seemed reluctant to let it from his hands. Yusaku gently reached out to trace a finger along one of the petals, white and soft as velvet. He’d almost expected it to be as the clouds, as the stars- forever slipping just through his grasp.
“It won’t die,” Yusaku said, “I promise.”
For a very long while, Jin just stared down at it- then he nodded. Jin slowly set the flower amongst the clouds. Its roots curled into them, the petals dimming just a moment before the bright aura burst like a halo around the flower.
It was beautiful, the way this world was supposed to be- and finally, finally, did Jin smile. Just a soft little thing, a curl of lips- and Yusaku was struck by it then, impossibly proud. He took a soft breath.
“It would be nice,” Yusaku said, then stopped. Jin tilted his head in silent question. “Nothing. This is nice.”
Jin squinted up at Yusaku but didn’t ask what he was surely thinking. Instead, they simply sat and watched as time trailed away from them, seconds melting down like rain to the earth below.
(It would be nice if this dream never ended. )
The meteor fell and fell, devouring the dreams that fluttered across the sky one by one. Even the moon began to pale in comparison, just a dull reflection of the meteor’s radiance. Its tail stretched on an eternity, out into distant planets and stars and galaxies that expanded on without any knowledge of them.
It had been so long since he’d eaten a dream. He didn’t miss the bitter taste, but oh how his failing strength whispered for him to devour. Hopes and dreams and all the beautiful things- surely to eat something sweet would be his reward. Surely, to devour the sweetest one of them all-
(So before you go to sleep, I want you to call a baku. But promise me you’ll be careful. Even if it takes many years…)
Together the two of them fell side by side into the garden they’d created, staring up at the dancing planets.
Jin’s hand crept softly across the flowerbed, through the shifting cloud to reach Yusaku’s, resting atop the roots of a little blue flower that Yusaku didn’t know the name of but loved most of all. At first it was just a brush of their pinkies, a ghost of a touch, the thin sense of warmth. Yusaku flipped his hand over, and Jin’s palm slowly came to rest above his, tentative. Yusaku glanced at Jin out of the corner of his eye, but his gaze was fixed firmly on the shooting stars tracing their way bright back down to the earth- and all the whole his hand hovered, not quite resting its weight on Yusaku’s. So Yusaku turned his gaze back to the stars and slowly laced their fingers together.
Jin let out a soft breath but said nothing- and together they stared up at the aether, eyelids slowly growing heavy as they lost their frozen time.
But before sleep took him entirely, he glanced over at Jin. Even through his blurry vision Yusaku saw with perfect clarity the small smile on Jin’s lips- the peace curled in the sweep of his lashes. Eyes closed, breathing steady and even- surely seeing a beautiful world, if one could still dream in a world made of them.
I want all your dreams to be like this , Yusaku thought, and squeezed Jin’s hand a final time before letting his eyes slip closed.
The dream was unpleasant. It was not a dream of pain, nor fear, nor even the sour pricks of anxiety. In the world his mind constructed for him, he walked in the places that he could not touch, the places he had seen only in the nightmares of others. Schools. Beaches. Hospitals.
People did not speak to him, but familiar faces haunted the spaces around him, passing him by without recognition. They smiled. They moved on. They would not see him again.
What a lonely existence, he thought, and woke with a gasp.
It tasted strange in Yusaku’s mouth- not the air, always fresh and thin in the world of dreams. It wasn’t the familiar flavor of Jin’s bitter nightmares, swallowed down with increasing sadness. It tasted like loneliness. Hollow, cardboard melting on his tongue. Anxiety, bitter and stale at the back of his throat. If this was what a nightmare felt like, Yusaku thought, then it was no wonder humans called upon the Baku to relieve them.
He hated it.
Today, too, Jin was not waiting for him. Today, too, there was a nightmare waiting in his pocket, familiar in its nasty lashes of electricity and hunger pains that Yusaku had grown all too used to in the past days-months-years. Yusaku stood with his failing strength and went towards Jin’s door.
The treehouse was as it always was, but Jin wasn’t there- instead he waited, standing at the very far edge of the overflowing garden. It sparkled in reds and blues and purples and yellows and every color Yusaku could have imagined. The flowers were all small, but each one was unique, sagiso and wasurenagusa and all sorts of flowers Yusaku had no hope of identifying. He went through them careful, stepping gently in the spaces between, ending at Jin’s side at the very edge of the world. One more steps and he’d fall, burning up like a fragment of meteor in the atmosphere, longing for the untouchable earth. They stared down at the world below, and knew.
“I don’t want to leave,” Jin said, clutching tight to Yusaku’s sleeve. “Don’t make me leave. It’s safe with you.
Yusaku took Jin’s grasping hands gently in his, pressing the seed of the nightmare into his palm. “You’ll be okay, Jin. I promise. You already know how to turn the nightmares into beautiful things.”
Yusaku cupped his hands around Jin’s and turned them upwards. From the dark seed of a nightmare did bloom a small but vibrant flower, glowing with the same silver as the crescent moon. It was the same that had first emerged. Jin had told him, once, that it was a camelia.
“But I want to stay with you,” Jin said. It was sort and quiet, and Yusaku wanted to agree. But he couldn’t. That wasn’t his purpose.
“You don’t belong here. You have someone waiting for you to come home, don’t you?”
Jin couldn’t disagree. Yusaku knew it, and Jin knew it too.
“If I say it, you’ll come, right? Three times before I go to sleep. Baku-san, baku-san, baku-san,” Jin said, and Yusaku felt the tug in his chest, the pull towards Jin- but they were already as close as they could be. One more step, and they’d fall together off the edge. One more wasted moment, and the moon would disappear.
“You don’t need me to protect you anymore. You’re strong enough to live on your own. You have been for a long time.”
Yusaku gently curled his hands back over Jin’s. The flower dissipated, sparkling down to pieces of fragrant dream that sunk down through the clouds. Yusaku hoped they’d become a sweet rain.
“But I want to see you again,” Jin replied, and clutched Yusaku’s hands tightly- palm against palm, slender fingers wrapped around his wrists.
I want to see you too- but there was no more time.
“Goodbye, Jin,” Yusaku said, and slowly let go of Jin’s hands. Jin scrambled for him, but their hands no longer reached- just slipped through each other as Jin faded from the dream.
He said, as he vanished, as the final moments melted away- but Yusaku could no longer hear.
Yusaku spared one final glance at the earth down below, then turned to walk through the crumbling world. Their garden, petals flying in a rainbow as he passed, brushed up in a storm by the wind at his feet. He wasn’t sad to see them go- for every petal that fell to the human world below would certainly become a wonderful dream for a sleeping someone who needed it most. He cast what he told himself was one last glance back as he reached the tree house door, watching the petals swirled up a storm- then stepped into the tree house, urging himself on. If he lingered, then even he wouldn’t be spared.
But he couldn’t quite stop himself inside. The photograph, the one he could never quite see- Yusaku picked it up, the frame dissolving down into stardust scattered across the palm of his hand. Without the glare of the frame, Yusaku could see clearly the family resemblance. Jin and his brother obviously got along well, Yusaku thought, the picture too dissolving down into the aether. If he’d ever had any worries, he found them vanished then, slipping away like the grandfather clock in the corner of the room, like the walls dissolving back down into wisps of cloud. At the door, the old, scratched-up thing that Yusaku had grown so fond of over the years, Yusaku stood on the threshold of nothingness. He’d forget, just as they had, one day in a life where he was no longer needed. But before that-
He said, quietly along with the falling stars, “I love you.”
And Yusaku stepped over the threshold, out of the empty world. As he pulled the door shut, the knob crumbled to dust, running like sand over his fingers.
Yusaku stared out into the dancing ether, at the world devoid of doors. More would arrive- or perhaps they wouldn’t, and Yusaku too would fade away- but he’d like to think they’d come. It had been three-thousand, six-hundred and fifty days since they’d first appeared, and finally did the last of them vanish. Slowly did Yusaku make his way back to his usual place, limbs heavy, eyes tired.
It was then that he saw it- two plumes of bluebell and aster, placed daintily in the place where Yusaku liked to rest his eyes and play at sleep.
How? he wondered, picking them gentle from the cloud- though he already knew the answer. Yusaku clutched them close to his chest, and thought that if he were ever to dream again, then it would surely be the kind of dream where goodbye became let’s meet again.
In the world of dreams, far from the earth below: the meteor fell, cutting through the clouds.
(Jin bolted awake to the sensation of falling, his heartbeat rushing in his ears- not from panic, not from pain-
Clutched in his palm was a small figure - a baku.
“Yusaku?” he called with a voice rough from disuse, without knowing why. The small figure didn’t reply. Of course it didn’t, Jin thought. The only sound in his room was the soft pattern of rain against the window, a gentle rhythm of an early spring shower. The morning light filtered through the waving branches of the tree outside his room, soft despite the storm- a sunshower at daybreak.
He set the figure softly on his bedside table, next to the framed photo of him and Shoichi, standing outside their childhood home. He couldn’t remember what he’d dreamed- something about the stars, about flowers, like the garden in the courtyard outside- but it had been important. Even if he never remembered, he’d never forget that.
He stared down at the figure a while, the words demanding to be said, though he knew not to who, and knew not why- but he could guess. And a single guess was enough.
“Thank you, Yusaku.”)