by Okamoto Shin (岡本辛)
illustrated by beili
“Are you even paying attention back there or are you just daydreaming?” the man snapped to the skinny and scruffy-looking barista standing behind the counter. “Are you all idiots here or is it just you?”
Harrison stepped forward, his hands moving in an abortive gesture towards the counter and then he stopped, uncertain.
“Sorry, sir,” the barista said smoothly, turning a smile on the customer. “What appears to be the problem?”
“I asked for a large cappuccino; this is a latte,” the man said. He turned out his cup in one angry gesture so that Jamie could see it.
Back off, Harrison wanted to say, but his mouth stayed closed, even as he tentatively moved closer to the pair.
“We’ll get that fixed for you right away,” the barista said, taking the cup. Within a few minutes the man and his cappuccino walked out of the café and the barista turned back to his other drinks.
“Harrison, Americano,” the barista said. Harrison awkwardly waved a hand and then scooted up to the counter.
“That’s me. Thanks, Jamie,” he said.
Jamie favored him with a bright smile. “Sorry about the wait, sir,” Jamie said. “Thanks for being so patient.”
Harrison steeled himself for the brief but best part of his morning—the moment where Jamie’s fingers touched his, sending little sparks up and down Harrison’s skin. Just like every other time, it left Harrison faintly breathless, like his lungs had forgotten how to work.
“That’s not a problem,” Harrison said when his mouth could move again, but Jamie had already moved onto the next drink, his broad back turned towards Harrison.
“Thanks,” Harrison said quietly to Jamie’s back and then headed out, neatly side-stepping a group of women hurrying in for a cup before work started.
When Harrison got outside, he took a deep breathing, closing his eyes. “Stupid,” he told himself. He allowed himself a little day dream—maybe tomorrow he would have the perfect witty thing to say to Jamie, making Jamie laugh.
Maybe then Jamie would remember his name. Maybe he’d start up a conversation with Harrison next time. Maybe? Maybe.
All just a pipe dream.
Harrison sighed and forced himself to move. Any more delaying and he’d be late for work anyways.
Work was a mess—the latest software update had been buggy, which meant that Harrison spent most of his day listening to people at the office complain at him that it was his fault that their documents and spreadsheets kept crashing. Harrison nodded and smiled politely at all of them and did his best to recover their work.
Harrison’s boss was also in a bad mood, snapping at Harrison as if Harrison had personally downloaded malware onto each of Zygatech’s computers. But Harrison put on his best smile, gritted his teeth and nodded along to each of his boss’s inane requests. By afternoon, it was even worse, his fellow colleagues irritable and everyone seeming to be constantly making underhanded remarks. If bad moods could catch, this one had caught fire and was currently setting a state record. In every office that Harrison went to, each person seemed to view the computer bugs as Harrison’s personal attack on their productively.
Frankly, it was exhausting—each interaction seeming to sap away at Harrison’s strength. Only as it got close to quitting time did Harrison realize he’d been feeling cold all day—as soon as he thought it, he brought his hand up to his forehead and almost groaned in annoyance when he realized that it was more than just a little warm. On top of everything, he was getting sick.
By the time that Harrison made his way home to his small apartment, the dull sense of exhaustion had deepened to a wave of fatigue. His entire body felt faintly tender, as if after a hard workout. He headed to his room, a small affair with a nice view of the nearby park, but Harrison could only focus on moving one foot in front of the other. When he could barely keep his eyes open, he abandoned all thoughts of making dinner, took off his shoes and sat on the bed.
He really shouldn’t sleep before dinner, he reminded himself. But just a small nap couldn’t hurt, right? His sheets were so comfortable and soft. They practically called his name. And that logic seemed sound, so decision made, he lay back on the bed, asleep almost as soon as he touched the covers.
Harrison woke up to a loud explosion, the air ringing as distant air raid sirens went off. Under attack—they must be under attack. There wasn’t even time to question it—it must have been a city-wide bombardment. He looked down—he wore hiking boots and had on his backpack slung around one shoulder. Good. He should get out of the city, right? One was supposed to evacuate when someone was bombing the city, right? Or should he stay? Was it safer to stay where he was and ride out the attack?
Harrison hesitated, unsure of which direction to take, when a shock of light briefly flooded the room before another explosion went off, this one closer and even louder, causing the floor to shudder beneath Harrison’s feet.
Leave. He definitely needed to leave.
Harrison ran down the stairs of his building and even before he reached the front doors, he could see the throngs of people running in the street before him. Outside, bursts of screams and noise (shells, his brain helpfully supplied) filled the air, and Harrison could only watch in shock as a mass of people ran down the street, away from the loudest of the noises, towards what—safety? Just away?
And then a terrible scream came up—people screaming together—and the crowd began to thin until it was almost gone completely, just a few stragglers sprinting down the street, their heads turning back to check behind them. Harrison turned to look as well, a heavy dull feeling in his stomach. But Harrison realized that there was no use trying to brush the horror away as down the street, a few blocks away, a thing turned the cover and came fully into Harrison’s vision.
The thing moved—no, galloped—down the street, as its bottom half was undoubtedly formed like a horse with four legs stretching at least ten feet tall and dark brown hoofs capable of crushing a person without even pausing. The top half was monstrous—a giant of a thing with a human-esque torso, but a face dominated by long brown and blue mottled snout and gnashing white teeth that dripped blood down the sides of the snout, red seeping lines that ran down the creature’s neck. Its arms were covered with thick, dark hair, and its hands ended in grasping sharp claws where its fingers should have been that shone like honed metal.
Harrison shrank against the side of the building. His mind filled with white, blank terror. It only increased when the creature opened its snout fully, letting forth a roiling dark cloud of fire that obscured his vision. Harrison felt like he was inside of an oven, despite the distance between them.
He barely kept himself upright as the creature kept galloping, coming closer and closer. Suddenly, it passed him by, grunting and snarling, and then it was gone just as it had come, leaving only silence and the rush of blood in his ears.
He had to run—he needed to get out of here before that thing came back. Or another one like it. That directive was the only one that Harrison knew with certainty. So, he took off, heading in the opposite direction that the creature had went. He easily marked the path of the creature by the charred bits of building where he could see that the flames had left dark, ugly marks and shattered windows.
The streets were wholly deserted now and Harrison tried not to let that thought panic him (although a little voice in the back of his head couldn’t help but speculate if that meant that everyone else was dead). When he finally saw a man crouching down after several blocks of running, Harrison couldn’t help but slow down in partial relief even as Harrison wondered why the man wasn’t running for his life like every other person that Harrison had seen since he’d first come out of his apartment.
The man didn’t even look up at Harrison’s approach—instead he was focused on a large blue backpack next to him and a flat, black disk on the ground that he poked at haphazardly.
Harrison debated interrupting the stranger or just letting him be, when he caught a glimpse of the man’s face and came to an abrupt stop.
“Jamie?” Harrison asked. Jamie didn’t look up, but now that Harrison was close, he could see that it was definitely him. “Ex-Excuse me, Jamie?” Harrison said. His voice was too quiet and Harrison sternly told himself that he did not have time to waste. “Jamie,” Harrison said more firmly and then raised his voice one more time. “Jamie! I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve got to get out of here now. It is not safe at all—I just saw this horrible thing. Monster. I don’t even know.”
Jamie finally looked up at that and his brows furrowed as he looked at Harrison, then down to his own body and back to Harrison.
“You can see me?” he said. His voice had changed somehow, deepening ever so slightly with a hint of a burr to it that Harrison couldn’t place.
“Yes? Um, Jamie, you remember me, right? From the café?” Harrison said. Was that too forward? Jamie must have had tons of customers that came in on a regular basis.
“Ah,” Jamie said. “I see. What is your name?”
“Harrison,” Harrison said. He tried to ignore the streak of hurt that flashed through him.
“Harrison,” Jamie said, as if he was testing out the weight of it and the burr was there again, even stronger. “Well, Harrison—sorry, excuse me one moment.” He looked back down to the ground and pressed a button on black disk that made a brief light flare up, then turned the disk a bright shade of red.
“Jamie, we’ve got to get out of here,” Harrison said a little more desperately. “You don’t understand about the monster back there, a giant horse, thing—I don’t know—but we need to move.”
Jamie stopped what he was doing and looked back at Harrison, cocking his head slightly. “Would you say that it resembled a large centaur?” He pressed another button that made the disk turn purple this time, then stood up.
“Only in my worst dreams,” Harrison said, his feet itching to move.
Jamie grabbed the bag. “Centaurs? So soon?” He didn’t seem to want an answer to his question because he immediately asked another one.
“Would you mind walking this way with me? Excellent,” he said as he propelled Harrison across the street and Harrison let himself be led, feeling more than a little off-kilter and numb. Jamie then proceeded to pull another black disk out of the backpack that he lay on the ground and pressed buttons. This one turned purple briefly and then flared out yellow on both sides. Harrison watched as one side of the yellow light reached back to the other disk and then spread out again from it, flaring when that presumably reached another of the disks in the distance.
“What—” Harrison started and then went white because he could see not just one or two, but five of the same horse beasts from earlier galloping towards them. “We’ve got to get out of here now—Jamie, are you listening, I saw one of those earlier—we need to leave!” He knew that he was babbling, but Jamie looked so calm and unaffected that Harrison reached out for one of his arms and started to pull him.
“No, no, it’ll be fine,” Jamie insisted even as Harrison tried to point out that it wouldn’t be. Those creatures were coming closer. There would be no hiding and Harrison and Jamie would absolutely be burned to a crisp or trampled.
Just when Harrison knew that they were done for, the creatures about to converge upon them, the disks all flared up as each of the horse beasts hit an invisible wall and fell back. Angry, each of them opened its mouth and Harrison ducked down, only to watch as once the smoke hit the invisible shield that the disks made, the smoke immediately turned into sparkles that rained down on them.
“What the fuck is going on,” Harrison said slowly. He rarely swore, but this situation most definitely called for it. Jamie’s attention snapped back to him, a slightly sheepish expression on his face. “This can’t be real.”
“I’m afraid not,” Jamie said. “Or maybe I’m afraid that it’s not real. I’m not really sure which is the correct answer here.”
“Jamie,” Harrison tried.
“First things first,” Jamie said. “I’m not your friend Jamie. This is just a dream. Your mind has just gifted his appearance to me temporarily.”
Harrison stared. “This can’t be a dream. I know what a dream feels like,” he said eventually. “This is too real. No dream has ever been this vivid.”
Not-Jamie pursed his lips. “Right now, we’re in False Awakening, which is why it feels like that.”
“It’s that space between a normal dream and when you get up—generally an inconsequential amount of time when you think that you’ve woken up and started your day, when really, you’ve just been dreaming,” Not-Jamie said. “I could explain more, but I’m a bit busy today, unfortunately, so—”
Not-Jamie would have continued but at that moment, a large and glowing rhinoceros—of course!—had appeared from beyond the disk-shield line and was charging at it. Not-Jamie began rummaging about in his backpack, his hands moving quickly as he looked for something.
Harrison watched the rhinoceros warily, expecting that it would be turned back by the shield as well, only to see the tip of its horn noisily tear what must have been an opening right through the shield and he watched as horror as the rhinoceros pushed its way through and picked up speed as it approached them.
“Come on,” Not-Jamie said to his backpack. “Where are you? I know that you’ve got to be in here.”
The rhinoceros was almost on them. Harrison brought up his arms instinctively to—what, protect him? ward the rhino off? But then, just as all seemed lost, he watched with shock as light burst out of his hands. It zipped towards the rhinoceros and knocked it back, slamming the the rhinoceros flat on the ground. Harrison stood in shock, but the rhinoceros didn’t get up. Instead, it began shimmering and then disappeared.
Harrison looked at his hands in faint horror. Eventually, when he glanced up, Not-Jamie was holding a small lighter looking device in his hands. Before either of them could say anything, another two rhinoceroses appeared in the distance, rapidly heading towards the breached area.
“Holy shit,” Harrison breathed out. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“No time,” Not-Jamie said. “You’ve got to distract them.”
“What?” Harrison could have laughed at the absurdity of it. “Me? You’ve got the magical device down there.”
But Not-Jamie had already turned away and so Harrison could only watch as the two impossibly large animals got closer and closer until the first one was barely half a block away and coming in hot. Harrison took a deep, shaky breath, flung his hands up, panic coursing through him and hoped for the best. Nothing. He pushed against the air again. Nothing. The crunching and squawking of metal was getting much closer, but Harrison’s hands refused to be anything more than simple hands. The panic was definitely back. Even if Harrison had miraculously performed magic, of course it made sense that he did so immediately before dying.
“Imagine it!” Not-Jamie called from behind Harrison. “Imagine what you want to happen!”
Harrison pictured pure energy stretching out from his hands, crackling through the air until it reached the rhinoceros where it would knock it out in one fell burst.
Not half a second later, Harrison gaped as a bolt of electricity ran through him—pure adrenaline—and shot out. The white power streaked out to the rhinoceros, hitting it hard and bursting loudly in the air as the rhinoceros stumbled, its legs going down suddenly and then it reared back wildly, hitting the side of a building, glass shattering everywhere.
A bolt of lightning flung itself from Harrison’s hands to the rhinoceros, knocking its head back and slamming it to the ground where it didn’t move.
Not-Jamie looked impressed. “Keep that up! I’ve got to set the shield—you take the creatures.”
“Wait,” Harrison said. Instantly, all triumph was gone. “Is that a good idea—whoa!” The second rhinoceros had picked up speed, its eyes glinting dangerously and focused entirely on Harrison. As if to underscore its point, this rhinoceros trampled over several city trash cans, flattening them like soda cans.
“Hey Jamie, Jamie!” Harrison said. Not-Jamie didn’t even look up from his series of devices, so Harrison squared his shoulders and brought his hands up and pushed. And then, somehow, for some reason, it actually happened, just like Harrison had imagined that it would. “Yes!” Harrison said triumphantly.
“Got it,” Not-Jamie said. Then he pressed down on the disk on the ground twice, and there was a zipping sound which Harrison somehow imagined to be the disk shield repairing itself. Not-Jamie did something to it with the lighter thing and the disk beeped loudly. Suddenly there was a faint purple shimmer surrounding them in the air where the shield would have been. “That should hold, at least for a little bit, and keep them out,” Not-Jamie said. “Come on.” And then he grabbed Harrison’s hand, made a little motion and pulled the two of them through thin air.
Everything whooshed past them, one big blur of light and color that Harrison’s stomach intensely disliked. When everything finally stopped, Harrison’s stomach rebelled, trying to force its way out. And of course, much to Harrison’s embarrassment, he began to tip over as well, his legs giving out of their own volition, until something stopped him. A warm weight pressed against Harrison and directed him to breathe in and out, which Harrison complied with until the fog in his brain began to clear.
Of course, Harrison then immediately realized that the press of firm muscle and faint smell of sweat and espresso against him was in fact Not-Jamie.
“Woah,” Harrison said. He tried to push himself up and away.
“Hold on there,” Not-Jamie said. His voice came next to Harrison’s ear, slow and a bit amused, and unsurprisingly, the slight accent combined with the warmth of Not-Jamie pressed up against him made certain parts of Harrison leap to attention.
Stop that, Harrison told himself. This time he managed to force his legs into compliance. He stood up even as his ears burned with embarrassment. Once they were separate, Harrison couldn’t even make eye contact with Not-Jamie.
“Who are you?” Harrison asked finally, directing his question to Not-Jamie’s right shoulder. His beautifully sculpted shoulder. Harrison traced the line of Not-Jamie’s collarbone right to the hollow of Not-Jamie’s neck and it wasn’t fair at all. He finally had Jamie’s attention except it wasn’t Jamie at all—Jamie had never been like this, ever. Of course, the only place that Jamie was likely to pay attention to him was in a dream. Harrison guessed that was one point to Not-Jamie’s theory.
“I know that this will come as a surprise, but I’m not your friend,” Not-Jamie said.
“The accent kind of gave you away,” Harrison pointed out. Not-Jamie smiled at that, and Harrison couldn’t help but be charmed by the fact that he had made Jamie smile—even if it wasn’t really Jamie.
“Yes, this tends to follow me around, no matter what my form,” Not-Jamie said. Then he paused. “Unless I try really hard.” He said the last part in Jamie’s exact voice and it sounded so much unlike his previous voice and so much like the real Jamie’s that Harrison couldn’t help take a step back.
“Sorry,” Not-Jamie said softly, correctly reading Harrison’s distress. “I won’t do that again.”
“Who are you?” Harrison said more insistently, his good humor from earlier gone.
“We are in a dream,” Not-Jamie said. “If you’ve got that, then the only thing that you really need to know about me is that I’m essentially a guardian.”
“A guardian of what?” Harrison asked slowly. “Magic? How did I do what I did back there?”
“You imagined it,” Not-Jamie said, smiling. “In fact, I would say you impressively imagined it—it took me ages to imagine even the simplest dream tools.”
“Really?” Harrison said. He couldn’t help but smile back, feeling flattered despite the absurdity of it.
“Yeah, really,” Not-Jamie said. They both smiled at each other until Harrison cleared his throat and looked at the ground.
“So, what do you guard?” he asked.
“Dream,” Not-Jamie said confidently. At Harrison’s confused look, he continued. “We are in the realms of Dream now, and my job is to protect her. Most of the time, I make sure it’s running smoothly. That all of her realms are in relative accordance. I solve small disputes when they come up. Reinforce infrastructure where needed. Occasionally, when there are big issues—like the attack on False Awakening by Fantastical—I normally work to stop the battle before it becomes too large or out of control.”
“That didn’t exactly look like it was in control back there,” Harrison said.
“No, it really didn’t,” Not-Jamie said. Both he and Harrison burst out laughing.
“I’m glad that I’m not the only one to think so,” Harrison said when they had both settled down. “So, if you’re a ranger and meant to stop what was going on back there, what happened?”
Not-Jamie made a frustrated sound. “Events got out of our control. It happens every so often, but normally I know about it—know to expect it and can act to prevent it. How to explain it?” He paused and thought. “Essentially, there are two modes of living—dreaming and waking. Much like your waking world is divided into countries, so is the dream world. We have a series of realms and for the most part, these get along as people such as yourself make their usual nocturnal visit. Lately, we’ve had some…discord, to put it mildly. There are those among us who do not feel satisfied with what they currently possess. Realms that wish to expand, not just through dream land, but onto wakening.”
“Is that possible?” Harrison asked.
“Possible?” Not-Jamie said. “Perhaps. It has been attempted before, with predictably disastrous results. Have you ever heard about the crying madness of Chalcis? The deafness of Çatalhöyük? The dancing plague of Strasbourg? The laughter epidemic of Tanganyika? Make no mistake, interests within Dream have breached Waking, but each of those cases were not intended to be permanent. More of a jaunty joyride. That’s what we assumed this was.”
“But…” Harrison said.
“But we were wrong. At least two rulers of Dream, the queens of Fantastical and Nostalgia, are looking to cross over permanently. Even if they manage to be successful, there will be chaos and insanity. At least for a significant portion of the population.”
“Encouraging,” Harrison said. At that, Not-Jamie smiled and Harrison tried to not feel proud of himself. “I take it that was an attack by the Fantastical realm back there?”
“You mean that you don’t often feel nostalgic for unrealistically large animals trampling your city?” Mete teased.
“Probably not as much,” Harrison said. “So, they attack and what do you do? Can you even stop it? It didn’t look great for the home team back there.”
Not-Jamie smiled broadly. “Absolutely not good for the home team—and that is why we are here.”
For the first time, Harrison really looked around. They stood on the front lawn of what appeared to be a summer camp—a large wooden lodge across the way and in the distance, cabins, volleyball nets, archery targets, kayaks and canoes. Harrison looked around again, trying to see what he’d missed. Unless a full army of magic creatures was about to burst out of the lodge, things didn’t look much better than when they’d left False Awakening.
“Jamie,” Harrison started, about to ask where exactly they were and how exactly this place would help when he saw Not-Jamie wince at the name. “Is there something else that I can call you?”
Not-Jamie thought for a second. “Meta—you can call me Meta.”
Harrison tried to pronounce it and must have mangled it horribly, because Not-Jamie laughed and said it again. “It’s spelled M-E-T-E, if that helps.” Surprisingly, it did and when Harrison said it again, Not-Jamie nodded approvingly.
“Mete, nice to meet you,” Harrison said.
Now Not-Jamie—no, Mete—looked serious and he took a step back and quirked his head, looking at Harrison. As if this was an evaluation, Mete took his time with it, not hurried, and Harrison found that he enjoyed being the sole focus of Mete’s attention. It was a heady thing and even though Harrison felt the coils of arousal circle in his center that he would almost certainly regret later, Harrison didn’t want to look away.
“Nice to meet you as well, Harrison,” Mete said eventually, and then held out his hand.
Harrison took it and they shook for a long time. Harrison didn’t particularly want to let go.
“So, is i
“Mete!” someone shouted, and Harrison sprang back, and then glanced around, trying to figure out where it had come from.
“Childhood,” Mete said loudly, his voice directed to the large wooden lodge in front of them. “Childhood, there you are!” he said as a young woman walked out of the lodge, dressed in standard summer camp attire—a white polo shirt and brown, high-waisted shorts—although she wore her shirt and shorts as elegantly as one might have worn a three-piece suit. On either side of the woman, two other counselors flanked her, each gripping giant bows with arrows slung across their back.
“How is False Awakening?” the woman asked.
“Breached by Fantastical. I’ve put up a containment from now, but my friend here saw at least one centaur in its confines and there were three rhinoceroses that charged the shield before we could get it up. I’m not sure how long the containment will hold.”
“Damn,” the girl said. “Have you heard from her?”
“She’s doing everything that she can, but it’s triage. She’ll stay until the last, but she’ll be overrun at some point.”
“Ah!” the girl said perking up. “Who is this?” She held out her hand to Harrison, which Harrison took, and tried not to be surprised that her handshake was so firm despite her youthful experience.
“Excuse my bad manners,” Mete said. “This is Harrison. He saved me back in False Awakening. Harrison, this is the Queen of Childhood, of whose realm we’re currently in.”
“Uh, nice to meet you,” Harrison said. The Queen of Childhood reached out a hand to Harrison and shook his firmly.
“Nice to meet you as well. Welcome to Childhood—I’m sorry that you arrived at such an inconvenient time. Hopefully, we’ll have this resolved before you wake up.” At this both Mete and Childhood chuckled, Childhood giggling in a way that made her seem her age for the first time yet. “Sorry, just a Dream joke. Ignore me. On a more serious note, we’ve sent some troops onto the border of False Awakening—hopefully they’ll be able to slow the forces down, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. The more urgent issue is Nostalgia.”
Mete swore softly under his breath. “So, she’s committed?”
“I am yours to command,” Mete said, his voice serious.
Childhood nodded. “Good.” Before she could say anything else, a preteen ran out of the lodge, her hair braided into tight French braids and eye blacks underneath her eyes. She went straight to Childhood and whispered something in her ear.
Childhood’s face went tight. “Old friends have been spotted near the border, not a good sign. I have to go. Can you help with Nightmare?”
“You always send me to do the dirty work,” Mete said. “But, absolutely. Let’s just hope that she’s in a more reasonable mood.”
“You may as well as ask pigs to stay on the ground, attached to their feet, in her realm,” Childhood said. “Good luck.”
She then turned and for the briefest second, she looked uncertain and exactly the age her body would have said she was. But then she drew a deep breath and it brought resolve and fortitude to her face. “Team Sasquatch!” Childhood said. Then she brought her fingers up to her mouth and whistled loudly enough that Harrison instinctively covered his ears.
“Hey,” Mete said. He pulled Harrison to the side, leaving Harrison wonderfully aware of where Mete’s hand rested against Harrison’s shoulder. “You don’t have to come with me to Nightmare. In fact, I would argue that you probably shouldn’t come with me to Nightmare. You’ve helped me out already and you’ll be safe here in Childhood. No one should go to that place who doesn’t have to.”
It was tempting—this felt like the safest places of his own childhood. Summer camp up in Wisconsin, long stretches of times where the most pressing concern had been who was pranking who and if he’d applied enough bug spray to keep the mosquitos away. Why would he want to leave this place?
Mete was focused on Harrison, his eyes tracking Harrison as he tried to sift through his thoughts. On the complete other hand, Harrison had never deliberately tried to get a nightmare. Or get into Nightmare, to be accurate. Either way, it sounded the opposite of what Harrison should want. But, even if this was all a dream, Harrison wanted to go where Mete went and see what happened. Harrison didn’t have much opportunity for courage in his regular life. If this was the only place that he could exhibit it, Mete made it worth doing.
“No,” Harrison said quietly. “If I can help, I’d like to. Or at least try to.”
Mete gently squeezed Harrison’s shoulder in gratitude. “Thank you.” He opened his mouth to say something else but was interrupted by the arrived of a huge ragtag group of teens, faces painted in absurd colors, who burst forth from the lodge yelling loudly only to stop and fall silent as soon as they saw Childhood.
“Assemble!” Childhood yelled. The group quickly moved out onto the lawn, placing themselves in orderly columns. “Who are you?”
“Team Sasquatch!” the group shouted.
“I can barely hear you,” she yelled. “Who are you?”
“Who who who?” Childhood screamed.
“Sasquatch! Sasquatch! Sasquatch!” the group screamed back, cheering loudly.
Childhood reached out and clasped Mete on the shoulder—a gesture that looked odd due to their ages—and then she and the other counselors began marching towards the forest, their group of campers following behind and whistling a song that Harrison could faintly remember from the movie Bridge on the River Kwai.
“Are you ready?” Mete asked.
“Probably not,” Harrison said. “But I’m not sure anyone should be ready to go visit nightmares.”
Mete smiled at Harrison’s joke but hesitated with his hand in his backpack. “Are you absolutely certain?”
“Absolutely certain,” Harrison said. Mete pulled the lighter from his backpack and pressed something on it and the air around them flared and them warped.
Too late, Harrison remembered what it had been like the last time that he had travelled this way, but when space stopped moving around them, his stomach only seemed unsettled but not overly angry about the trip. An improvement then.
The world popped abruptly into existence around him. Harrison took a few deep breaths to steady himself as he tried to get his bearings. It didn’t take him long to realize that his efforts were pointless—he was surrounded in nothing but perfect darkness.
“Mete?” Harrison said softly into the darkness. A horrifying thought leapt to the front of his mind—what if Mete wasn’t there? What if they had become separated—how would Harrison find Mete again? Maybe this wasn’t just Nightmare, but an actual nightmare, and Harrison was stuck in it forever?
He was panicking—definitely panicking. He just needed something—some light—something to feel a little better about the situation. Harrison would have given his apartment for one of those magic lights that wizards always had in fantasy books. And as soon as he thought of it, he felt something warm coming from his hand. He opened his hand slowly, curiosity winning over fear, and found a small ball of light. He gave a quiet whoop of joy and looked up to see Mete right next to him putting the lighter away.
Harrison had never been so happy to see anyone else before. “Mete!”
“Harrison!” Mete said. “Also, great idea.”
“Thank you,” Harrison said. By now the fear and panic had been replaced by enough of curiosity for Harrison to cautiously lift his hand up and direct the light around him to see where they were.
“It looks like we’re in—” Mete started.
“A cave,” Harrison said. That wasn’t that scary. Except as Harrison kept turning, the light started to catch on something in the air—some large somethings in the air—shimmering and throwing the light back. It was almost like—“Holy shit,” Harrison said. He stumbled back a step, straight into Mete’s chest, and felt himself begin to shiver.
“It’s ok,” Mete said soothingly. He ran his hand down Harrison’s arm as if he was trying to quiet a horse, and Harrison’s body, embarrassingly enough, deigned to stop trembling.
“How big is the spider that is on that web?” Harrison asked. “Because that is right out of the Hobbit.”
“It will be fine, trust me,” Mete said, his voice reassuring. He reached out and grabbed Harrison’s unused hand. His hand was warm against Harrison’s and even though Mete’s touch was casual, it sent off little sparks that Harrison wanted to lean into. Harrison wrapped his hand around Mete’s and all of his thoughts about the dark, the unknown and Nightmare quieted and faded away. They remained like that for a few seconds in companionable silence until Harrison heard some skittering like the sounds of bugs moving against the wall. Mete squeezed Harrison’s hand and Harrison squeezed Mete’s hand so hard, it was a wonder that no bones broke.
“I would speak with the queen,” Mete said loudly into the cave.
There was skittering again, but closer and so Harrison lifted his hand up and imagined the ball of light much brighter. The light flared reaching farther down the cave. Harrison desperately wished that he had kept the lighting low because it illuminated a host of human-sized spiders, their eyes and shells gleaming black in the light, and they were moving closer now, crawling on all sides of the cave towards Harrison and Mete, who were absolutely going to die a horrible and painful death.
“Who are you and what business do you have with our queen?” It was a terrible collection of voices, dark and insidious like a monster underneath the bed or crazed murderer standing outside a bedroom window, about to come inside and kill his prey.
“I am Mete,” Mete said. “And we come bearing information that your queen will want to know.”
The giant spiders chittered amongst themselves. Finally, they said, “You will follow us.” They swarmed around the pair, urging them forward. Harrison clutched desperately Mete’s hand as they allowed themselves to be led deeper into the cave.
They passed underneath some of the webs. Harrison could see bits of skeletons stuck in the webs, so h ordered the light to go low and only looked forward.
“Definitely a welcoming place,” Harrison said.
Mete tilted his head. “Nightmare is an inviting place and many visit her realm. But, probably not a welcoming one.”
Harrison couldn’t help but huff out a laugh at that.
“It’s largely all for effect,” Mete said. “What you’re seeing isn’t really Nightmare’s true form, just a glimpse at what are your nightmares.”
“I’m not sure that’s entirely reassuring,” Harrison. “I’ve had some bad nightmares over the years.”
Mete frowned. “Are you sure—”
“Yes, definitely,” Harrison said. “Didn’t you hear—I’ve got impressive super powers now.”
“Impressive imagination powers,” Mete said. “Although you make them super.”
Harrison laughed again and just like that, he was a little less scared. Mete made sure to keep him occupied as they walked, and even though Harrison should have been terrified out of his mind—surrounded by a cave with no entrance, giant spiders and dead humans—he found himself almost enjoying himself, especially when there was enough distance between the spiders and themselves for Harrison to tell himself that they were gone.
For a short while, the tunnel narrowed before the edges began to take on a more refined look, smoother and well chiseled. When the walls began to open up, Harrison noticed that there were torches placed alongside the cave walls.
“I take it that we’re almost there?” Harrison asked.
“Yep,” Mete said. “We’re about to see Nightmare herself.”
“Any words of wisdom?”
“Try not to be alarmed,” Mete said.
“Too late,” Harrison said. He meant it to come out as a joke, but there must have been a thread of fear in it. Mete rubbed his thumb reassuringly over Harrison’s hand. It gave Harrison a boost of courage that crazily made him think of facing this ten times over just to see what Mete would do then.
They stepped out into a large cavernous space, the ceiling studded with stalactites that Harrison glanced up at and then regretted. At the far end, there stood a giant stone throne, but it was too far for Harrison to make out the features of the person sitting on it.
“You will bow before our queen,” the legion of spiders said. Mete led Harrison and himself in a graceful bow.
When they stood back up, a gentle and calm voice, almost as light and deceptive as a spring breeze, called to them. “You may approach.”
Harrison and Mete walked forward. As they did, the queen of Nightmare began to take form before him. Harrison stumbled, only kept upright by Mete.
Nightmare’s skin, if it could be called that, was stretched tightly over her bones and had a faint blueish cast to it, as if it had begun rotting some time ago. Her white hair was only attached to her skull in clumps and her eyes had been sewn shut with bright red string. When she opened her mouth, her teeth were honed into fine points, and she moved in a jerky manner, as if her body had not been meant to fit within this skin
She was a nightmare and this was her realm.
“Lord Mete, this is an unexpected surprise,” Nightmare said. She smiled, giving Harrison goosebumps. “And who is your…friend?”
“This is Harrison, he is my guest,” Mete said. The way that he said it seemed almost territorial or possessive, as if he was laying a claim, which sent a different type of shiver down Harrison’s back.
Nightmare focused on Harrison for a second. “Interesting,” she said. “Very interesting. And just where are you from, Lord Mete’s guest?”
Mete cleared his throat. “We have more important business here today.”
Nightmare laughed, and it was a bloody, scraping gurgle, like a freshly cut throat. “Why, Lord Mete, have you come here today. It is unusual for a visit to be so unannounced. Perhaps you bring me a gift?”
Mete frowned. “Surely you can’t be ignorant of what is going on in the other realms.”
“You refer, of course, to the wayward Nostalgia and Fantastical? What they do is none of my business,” Nightmare said. She raised one decrepit hand in a clearly dismissive gesture.
“They have far surpassed any leniency of wayward, I’m afraid,” Mete said. “They have launched a full-scale invasion into Waking.”
Nightmare frowned at that. “Then they are bigger fools than I previously thought. I still fail to see how that is my or my subjects’ concern.” At their mention, the spiders began chittering from the sides of the hall, and Harrison moved in closer to Mete.
“We are all affected if they succeed. Or even if they fail, but do significant damage before we reign them in,” Mete said. “Need I remind you of previous mass crossings? And those were done with far less bad intent.”
Nightmare didn’t respond immediately, her closed eyes watching Mete.
“What if I agreed to give my assistance but under one condition?” Nightmare said finally.
“It would depend on the condition,” Mete said. “What is your condition?”
“That he stays.” Nightmare lifted a finger and pointed it directly at Harrison.
A white-hot panic flashed over Harrison at the thought of being left here—left among a rotting ruler and her nightmare subjects.
“Absolutely not,” Mete said firmly.
“You would give up the assistance of the strongest realm of Dream for him?” Nightmare asked and her voice was all harshness and winter.
“If you claim that as your only condition and you think he means so little, then by the same token, you should be willing regardless,” Mete said. “If you understand that he means a great deal more than that, you should know why I can’t agree.”
They both stared at each for a while longer and Harrison wondered what each of them were thinking. He didn’t believe that Mete would leave him behind—but what if the queen didn’t let them leave?
Eventually, Mete nodded his head forward. “Time is short, but thank you for the audience that you’ve given us today.”
The queen laughed. “Until we meet again, Lord Mete.”
“Until we meet again.” And then with no warning at all, they were hurtling through space and back to Childhood, the sturdy lodge a more than welcome sight.
“Are you okay?” Mete asked, and Harrison took a deep, gulping breath as he tried to shake off the feeling of Nightmare. Each itch on Harrison’s skin felt like a spiderweb, and Harrison resisted the urge to brush himself off.
“Yes,” Harrison said. It didn’t come out as strongly as he would have hoped. But at least it was still there. “Besides, she wasn’t really all that scary.”
“Absolutely not,” Mete agreed. “Merely of average horror.” Harrison found himself leaning in, closer to Mete. Mete moved closer, and Harrison caught the faint smell of soap and sweat, driving any flippant response from his lips. For one wild moment, Harrison could almost feel Mete’s lips on his own, the pressure just barely there. But of course, someone called Mete’s name.
A camper came hurrying towards them. “Lord Mete,” he said. “Queen Childhood has sent a message for you: She said that they have fought back Nostalgia and breached her capital.”
“Did they capture her?” Mete asked.
The camper shook his head. “She escaped to Fantastical’s protection. She and Fantastical are on the border of Lucid as we speak.”
“False Awakening?” Mete asked.
“Full breached,” the camper said. “And they are just barely keeping them out of Lucid. Childhood has gone directly even as she left forces to hold Nostalgia.”
Mete nodded, his face grim. “So, it’s come to that,” he said. The camper nodded. “Tell Childhood that we’re on our way.”
They arrived in the middle of a scene of battle carnage that Harrison had barely been able to fathom prior to this. The battle front extended on both sides farther than Harrison could see and the sounds of fighting and screaming filled the air.
Far off in the distance, a large gryphon screeched and from its talons dropped flaming objects that ignited when they struck the ground, sending fire spreading. On the other side of the battlefield, a group of people wielded heavy-duty artillery, bombarding the battlements protecting what was likely the encampments of Fantastical and Nostalgia.
Harrison didn’t even need to ask to know that this was the last stand—the last place to stop Fantastical and Nostalgia—and that each member of the realms united to prevent it was laying down their life in its defense just as Fantastical and Nostalgia’s realms appeared to do the same.
“What do we need to do?” Harrison asked. “Just tell me what to do and I will do it.”
“It’s not so easy,” Mete said. “We’ve got to find Nostalgia and Fantastical. That’s the only way to stop them.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Harrison said, with more conviction than he, personally, felt.
Someone must have noticed them, because before Mete could say anything, Childhood was there, some of her junior campers flanking her.
“How did it go?” she asked.
Mete gave a wry smile. “About as well as expected.”
Childhood shrugged. “Nightmare always does things her own way, I’m not sure that I expected it to be any different this time. But we’ll be fine without her.”
“We need someone to lead the final charge,” a woman in her thirties said. She wore a plain business suit, no frills. Harrison could have sworn that he’d met her before, and he tried to surreptitiously flip through his mental list of people he knew. Did she work in his building? That wasn’t it. “Nostalgia and Fantastical are running out of time. They’re going to make a push, but if we don’t get them now, we’ll be doing this again tomorrow. And the day after that.”
“Lucid,” Mete said. Lucid nodded at Mete in acknowledgement.
“Can you lead a force in?” she asked. “We will lead the defense.”
Mete nodded and let Lucid draw him away towards a group intermingled with soldiers, campers and regular people like Harrison. Harrison wasn’t sure he could have imagined a more dissimilar coalition fighting together in battle.
Harrison wondered what the extent of his powers were—after all, he’d summoned up the light as well as the electricity bolts earlier and that had just been his initial response. He imagined a sword—just a quick image of one that he’d seen while playing some video game or another. One second, there was nothing but air in his hand, but the next, a firm, leathery grip lay in it, and Harrison almost tipped over trying to balance against the sudden, heavy weight.
Cool, but not necessary helpful without knowledge of how to use it, so Harrison imagined it disappearing and then tried to think what would be most useful in a battle setting. He cycled through a host of ideas (rocket launcher, hand grenade, laser gun, proton pack) that seemed likely to do more damage to Harrison that anyone else.
Finally, Harrison settled on something to hide himself. He wasn’t likely to be especially useful in a fight, but at least this would allow him to stay with the group and out of everyone’s path.
When Mete returned, his face was grave. “I think that you should stay here,” he said.
“Wait—” Harrison started, but Mete shook his head.
“Hear me out,” Mete said quietly. “We have only one objective here—to get to Fantastical and Nostalgia and destroy them. Our lives don’t matter. For us here in Dream, we’ll come back in one form or another. You though, you may not. And I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Harrison couldn’t look away from Mete, his gaze intense and intoxicating. Only when someone cleared their throat behind Mete did he blink and look away from Harrison. A young man, dressed in casual sleepwear stood there.
“Okay, give us a minute,” Mete said. The man nodded and then turned back towards the group waiting.
“Thank you for saving me,” Mete said.
Harrison moved to brush it off, but Mete’s serious tone stopped him. “You’re welcome,” Harrison said finally, slowly. “Thank you for taking me on the best adventure of my life.”
“This is only the beginning of the adventure,” Mete said. Before Harrison could parse out his meaning, Mete leaned forward and gently kissed Harrison. Harrison stood shocked for a moment, taking it all in, the dizzyingly alluring smell of Mete so close, the way that Mete’s hands rested against Harrison’s shoulders, the electrifying press of Mete’s lips against Harrison’s. This was it—this was the moment of now or never. And Harrison wanted more than now, he wanted Mete to be there tomorrow, when he woke up, whenever that was. He wanted the day after that and the next day. So Harrison kissed back, hoping that his lips could say what his heart meant.
They separated a small eternity later when the same man from earlier made a series of increasingly loud noises before Mete and Harrison reluctantly moved apart. Harrison was immediately aware of everyone who was studiously not looking at the two of them, and Harrison awkwardly tucked his shirt back into his pants where it had slipped out.
Mete, on the other hand, seemed entirely unconcerned with their audience. He smiled broadly at Harrison and then back to the group.
“Until we see each other again,” Mete said. Harrison nodded dumbly as Mete turned to the group. When Mete’s back was turned, Harrison pulled his creation off the ground. It was as slip-sliding as it had been when it first appeared in his palms. With slightly trembling hands, Harrison pulled it around his shoulders and over his head. Just in time, because Mete turned back to look at Harrison—or where Harrison had been previously. Mete frowned slightly at Harrison’s absence. Before he could call attention to it, his group began assembling themselves into a loose formation. Mete sighed, but turned back around and began rummaging in his pack.
Darting over, careful to avoid contact with anyone, Harrison settled himself in the back of the group. This may have been the stupidest thing that Harrison had ever done and he was probably going to live to regret it, but for the moment, the only thing that pulsed through Harrison’s veins was determination.
Mete located his magic lighter, and the group seemed to collectively hold its breath. One second, they were in the busy camps on Lucid’s border, removed from the action, the next they were in a screaming and visceral mess as creatures and people fought all around them on the plains around them.
Harrison watched as a dragon appeared next to them, its scales brilliant red and white, and when it opened its mouth, white hot flames leaped out leaving a wake of devastation in its wake. The dragon turned to the assembled group and opened its mouth—Harrison preemptively cringed—and then one member of the group shot his hands up and a barrier formed between the dragon and the group, causing the flames to bounce harmlessly against it. Another of the group pulled out what looked to be a huge modified rocket launcher that sent forth three rockets simultaneously at the dragon.
They hit the dragon and the dragon dropped in the air, howling in rage as it threw flames on them again. Two members of the group were now working with the rocket launched and Mete began yelling to the group, “Go, go, go! You have your orders. They’ve got this covered.”
The group instantly disbursed. Harrison ran to keep up with Mete. Mete took out a large sword (one that he wielded quite well, Harrison couldn’t help thinking) and began to fight his way through the group in front of him, each fellow member of his coalition doing the same.
Eventually Mete and his group made their way outside of a stone wall that had barely managed to withstand repeated attacks. Behind the wall, a large castle rose up—its turrets and towers rising up wildly, as if their architect had drawn up the blueprints while on acid. The skyline looked equal parts ominous and impossible.
“The wall,” Mete said to two campers. One of the girl handed the other what looked like a large purple water gun, but when the girl aimed it out the wall, a purple charge attacked the wall, electricity zipping through the stones and making large crackling noises as the stones all disintegrated into sand in one quick motion.
Beyond the wall, a series of archers and artillery lay, which Mete’s group had failed to anticipate. Harrison watched as no small number of the group took casualties before they managed to get a shield up to protect themselves.
The ones who had taken non-fatal injuries patched themselves up, their movements efficient. The ones who had taken worse injuries— Harrison couldn’t look away. He wanted to bandage them up, stop the bleeding, but there was too much and it was everywhere.
“We need to go!” Mete yelled and the group surged forward, their counter attack now up and ready as they shelled their attackers and Harrison took a deep breath and followed, hoping that he was doing the right thing.
When the group made it past the wall’s defense, everything had devolved into chaos. Here, everything seemed to be crazy, weird colors and shapes everywhere Harrison looked, until his eyes almost hurt with the strangeness of it. Mete’s group was unphased, fighting their way through whatever it was without thinking twice.
A small group, including Mete, spun off from the main team, and Harrison had to hurry as they quickly moved through the courtyard. Once they were in the castle, it was a mad dash though the hallways, the floors and walls colors like bright orange or green, making it feel like a visit to Wonderland.
When the group approached what likely appeared to be the main hall, two people flung flash bombs into the room. Harrison didn’t manage to look away before the bombs went off, temporarily blinding him. By the time that he could see again, the group had moved on without him, and he carefully made his way into the hall to a scene of hand-to-hand fighting.
Up on a dais, two women stood, each shouting orders. It was easy to identify who was who. Nostalgia stood next to a gilded delicate chair. She was clad in a shimmering beaded dress, with kitten heels. A diamond-studded headpiece rested over her wavy black hair, giving her a regal air. Harrison heard her giving commands, her voice low and angry, and when she threw up her hands, buzzing electricity burst forth, sparking throughout the hall.
Fantastical had large blue fairy wings sprouting from her back, her skin pale green, and her hair seemed to be studded with sparkling lights. She wore a dress of purple and yellow rags, but she, like Nostalgia, was stunningly beautiful. As she uttered things under her breath, various creatures seemed to come into being, each one of them focused on the group that was attacking their queen.
It was clear to Harrison, if no one else, that whatever advantage Mete may have had outside the room, it had been lost. Many of the members of his group were just barely hanging off after wave and wave of attack.
If there was ever a time to fight, this was it, so Harrison took a deep breath and bent down, like he’d envisioned many times over since he’d come up with this plan. He imagined the floor to be like a sheet and he reached through the floor and grabbed it hard. He made a flicking motion with his hands and the floor shook, soldiers stumbling everywhere before falling off towards the sides of the room. Harrison did the same motion again, stronger this time, as if he was flicking off the sand for a towel after a long day on the beach.
The room became pure confusion, but Mete’s group reacted faster than Nostalgia’s and Fantastical’s, Mete throwing several grenades and then using his sword to fight through in order to get closer to the dais where Nostalgia and Fantastical’s screaming had taken a fever pitch.
They must have realized that the situation was looking grim, because they both paused and looked at each other. As if with one mind, they both began shimmering, their bodies going translucent. They were going to get away!
“Mete!” Harrison screamed as if there was any chance in hell of Mete hearing him in the chaos. “They’re leaving!”
But somehow Mete did hear, or maybe he just could sense it, because he looked up towards the dais, his face set. Harrison expected to see Nostalgia and Fantastical gone, but after a minute of shimmering, they stopped, their bodies exactly where they had been previously.
“What have you done?” Fantastical yelled to Mete and she jumped off the dais and pushed her way through the crowd, soldiers and creatures scattering at her strength. Mete raised his sword to her but she parried it easily with her arms and knocked it away before she grabbed Mete and raised him by the neck.
“You didn’t think that we would leave this battle to fate,” Mete said. “Did you—” His voice went up at the end as Fantastical squeezed tighter.
Before Harrison knew what he was doing, he ran towards the two of them, sending his electric charges at Fantastical and the surprise caused her to stumble, releasing Mete, who had picked up a gun and shot it at her. He missed anything vital, hitting her arm, but Fantastical hissed like a wounded cat and rushed Mete again. Harrison went to throw more charges, but a strong set of hands wrapped around his own and Harrison realized that the invisibility cloak had slipped off, leaving him exposed and vulnerable.
“Who do we have here?” a low voice asked. Harrison looked back to see Nostalgia behind him, cool and collected. “You should know that this is a very dangerous place for humans.”
Harrison gulped. In the background, he could hear Mete screaming, yelling for him, but there was nothing that either of them could do.
“I wish I could say that this was such a shame, but I’m afraid I can’t,” Nostalgia said. She brought up her hands to Harrison’s face. Harrison knew before it was going to happen that Nostalgia would break his neck and that would be it. He flicked a look over to Mete, who was staring at Harrison with an agonized look on his face.
Harrison closed his eyes and breathed in and then the most miraculous thing happened. The top of the room lifted up and a giant tarantula looked in, hissing, and everyone immediately stopped. Nightmare sat atop the tarantula’s back.
Nostalgia looked up in terror, her hands loosening on Harrison. Harrison closed his eyes and envisioned a small but deadly knife. When it appeared in his hand, he took a deep breath and then quickly thrust it into Nostalgia’s side. Her scream was lost in a room of screams as vicious looking raptors began to run into the room, screeching loudly before the dinosaurs began to literally tear the varied creatures comprising Nostalgia and Fantastical’s forces apart.
Nostalgia began to push herself back up and Harrison was about to say goodbye for the second time, when a trio of Mete’s group tackled Nostalgia back to the ground, quickly handcuffing her and subduing her. Across the room, a group of insects had overrun Fantastical, and Harrison watched in horror as the insects consumed her, leaving only behind her bones.
Harrison was still standing there in shock when Mete appeared next to him. “Harrison,” he said. Harrison could only reach out and wrap his arms around Mete, letting his face settle against Mete’s hair. They stood together for countless long minutes, until Harrison’s heart was back under his control, long enough for Harrison to stop seeing Fantastical’s body covered in insects and to start thinking about how close he was to Mete, how great Mete smelled, even in the thick of war, and how much Harrison wanted to turn his head slightly down and lick a stripe up Mete’s neck.
“I’m glad that you’re okay,” Harrison said when he pulled back.
Mete gave him a look of sheer disbelief. “Me? I’m glad that you’re okay! What were you thinking? How did you even get in here?”
“I made an invisibility cloak,” he said, a little sheepishly.
“An invisibility cloak?” Mete said.
“Yes?” Harrison said. He started to explain himself before Mete cut him off.
“That’s wonderful,” Mete said. His voice was all hushed approval, and Harrison felt like he stood ten feet tall even as his face went embarrassingly warm.
And then without any preamble, they were kissing again, Harrison brought his hand up and let his fingers run through Mete’s hair, the short hairs in the back tickling his palm ever so slightly. Mete cupped Harrison’s face and drew Harrison in until they were pressed up against each other and Harrison could feel just the strength and warmth of Mete’s chest.
Eventually, Mete drew back. “If only we weren’t here,” he said. His voice was low and husky and Harrison shuddered at the promise in them.
“Another time,” Harrison said.
“That’s a promise,” Mete said.
The remaining rulers of Dream assembled on the dais of Fantastical’s hall once the rest of her army had been subdued. Nostalgia’s forces had laid down their arms immediately after it had become clear that their ruler had been taken prisoner.
Nostalgia looked mutinous, handcuffed and tightly tied to her throne. Lucid and Childhood looked exhausted, Childhood’s eye blacks smudged slightly. Another woman who Harrison didn’t recognize but Mete pointed out as Normal stood just off to the side of the group, running through a checklist with a camper and an old woman in sleepwear. Nightmare was apart from their group, her gaze out into the hall, but if she was thinking anything in particular, she didn’t show it.
Childhood cleared her throat. “Normal has met with the Oracle. False Awakening’s second who showed great planning and bravery shall become the new Queen. Nostalgia shall be joined with my kingdom until Nostalgia’s punishment has been completed. As for Fantastical—”
“I do not want it,” Nightmare said. “I have no desire for it.”
“Which the oracle said,” Childhood said. “But you must appoint a regent for it until a new queen can be found.”
Nightmare sighed and pointed at one of the large spiders in the room. The spider began transforming, shrinking down until there was a young woman in its place with a bright pink mohawk and covered with variety of brightly colored tattoos that seemed to shift and move as she walked forward.
“Are we all agreed?” Childhood asked.
Someone shrieked loudly, emphatically screaming “No!” at the group. When Harrison turned towards the voice, he was surprised to see that where Nostalgia had once been, there was now a young girl wearing a party dress and gleaming Mary Janes.
“What happened to Nostalgia?” Harrison asked.
“That’s her,” Mete said. He gave Harrison a rueful smile. “She’ll be a subject of Childhood for quite some time as she grows up.”
The queens spoke for some time more, Mete interjecting upon occasion and Harrison began to feel his eyes droop. It had been a long day—no, night—and his body was starting to feel it.
“Hey, Harrison,” Mete said gently, shaking Harrison’s shoulder. Harrison’s eyes flew open. “It’s time for you to go.”
“Wait,” Harrison said. He wanted to ask what would happen once he woke up. Would he be able to come back? Would he see Mete again? But each word was so heavy in his mouth, it felt like lead, and the last thing he felt was Mete gently laying him down on some place soft and warm.
“Remember my promise,” Mete said softly next to Harrison’s ear. “I will definitely see you again.”
And then, there was only the bliss of full sleep.
When Harrison woke up, his first thought was to wonder where Mete was. His second was to wonder why everything felt so familiar. That’s when Harrison shot up, back in his bed at home, surrounded by his usual pillows and sheets. When everything stayed as it should, no sign of any apocalypse except an alarm clock going off, Harrison let out a scream of frustration and punched his pillow a few times.
Where was Mete? Had it all been a dream? It couldn’t have been—it had felt too real, too life-like to be just a usual dream. But it had to have been a dream—how else could Harrison have ended back up here?
Even though he knew what he would find, Harrison forced himself to the window, to look out. It was with a mixture of emotions that he saw the city park and street below his apartment unscathed, people milling about, chatting, as if nothing bad had ever happened there. Maybe it really hadn’t.
Before Harrison could stop himself, he grabbed around on his nightstand until he found a pen and he went for the first paper that he had, a half-completed sudoku book.
He wrote everything down that he could remember—the realms, the attacks, Childhood, Nightmare, fighting the final battle, and most importantly, Mete. But when his alarm went off for the third time, Harrison forced himself to get up. Maybe it had only been a dream, Harrison finally acknowledged. Something that his mind had cooked up. After all, wouldn’t it be like his mind to give him the very thing that he wanted and couldn’t ever possibly have? A dream.
Harrison debated whether or not to go to the coffee shop to see Jamie—what if Jamie knew about what Harrison had dreamed? What if he didn’t? But after ten minutes of hanging outside the coffee shop, Harrison took a deep breath and went inside. After the cashier rang him up, Harrison headed over to where Jamie made the drinks.
Jamie didn’t look up once as he made Harrison’s drink. And when he called out Harrison’s name, Harrison knew it wasn’t Mete just from the voice alone, Jamie’s voice slightly higher and with no accent. Jamie gave him a quick smile but turned back to his drinks like he always did, and it was surprisingly easy for Harrison to swallow down his question if Jamie had also had weird dreams last night.
Harrison could barely hide his disappointment as he turned away. So much for Mete’s promise.
Work was weird that day, everyone strangely subdued and quiet, and a couple people kept blinking owlishly at Harrison when he passed them, as if they were trying to reorient their eyes to the world again.
When Harrison got home, he didn’t quite feel like sitting up in his apartment, so he poured himself a thermos of iced tea and went to sit in the park. He’d been trying all day to keep the disappointment at bay, but he let it wash over him now, let himself fully feel the sadness and melancholy.
“Excuse me,” someone said, their shadow looming over Harrison. “Can I sit here?” And they had a deeper voice, with a hint of a burr that Harrison still couldn’t trace.
Harrison looked up, his brain working frantically. “Are you—are you Mete?”
The man that stood in front of him looked nothing like how Harrison had last seen Mete. Where Jamie was skinny and scruffy, this man was broad and clean-shaved, including his hair which was cut short and neat. But when he smiled, it was all Mete, the playfulness coming through instantly.
“So, you did remember,” Mete said. He looked proud of that fact.
“How could I forget?” Harrison asked. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Mete said. “Unless you think it’s one of my hobbies to roam amongst Waking parks and accost strange men.”
Harrison felt like he was about to overfill with happiness. “Would you like to come up to my apartment?” Harrison said. “I mean—”
“Absolutely,” Mete said. Harrison let himself drink Mete in as they made their way back to Harrison’s apartment building. Harrison knew that he must have discussed something with Mete, but he couldn’t have remembered a single word they spoke, because as soon as they made it to Harrison’s door, they both fell upon each other.
Harrison’s shirt went first, then Mete’s, and Harrison marveled at the sheer expanse of skin beneath him. Mete seemed pretty pleased with what he found as well, if the attention paid to Harrison’s chest gave any indication.
By the time that they made it to Harrison’s bedroom, their shoes had been kicked off, as well as their pants and socks, and they were both down to their boxers, which Harrison eagerly shed before laying back on the bed.
Mete lay over Harrison, resting his weight on his elbows until he and Harrison were barely a breath’s apart. Harrison felt wild, like he was drunk or high, that there was one singular purpose to his life and it had been to find Mete.
“Hey,” Mete said, his voice hushed.
“Hey,” Harrison said back and then he leaned up and kissed Mete.
Mete kissed back and only when Harrison began to feel light-headed did Mete pull back, the heat in Mete’s eyes an echo of Harrison’s. They kissed until Mete began to turn the kisses wild, bites here and there and Harrison couldn’t help but groan when Mete bit and kissed his way down to Harrison’s neck.
Harrison let his hands wind themselves in Mete’s hair—undoing all of the styling that had gone into it, teasing the strands apart, until he yanked Mete up for another round of kissing. This time when they pulled apart, Mete moved down and settled himself in between Harrison’s legs and looked down on Harrison’s cock, curving up towards his stomach.
“I’ve been wanting to do this since almost the first that I met you,” Mete said.
Harrison desperately wished for some witty repartee for his response. All that he managed was, “Yes, please.”
“So, I’ll take it that you don’t mind,” Mete said.
Harrison could have laughed at how little he minded. He hadn’t minded just about anything that Mete had done. And that included almost throwing Harrison to the wolves. Or rhinoceroses, in his case. But there wasn’t any time to ruminate as all of the air went out of the room as Mete leaned down and took Harrison’s cock into his mouth.
Mete took his time with Harrison, pulling off every so often to run his tongue along the underside of Harrison’s cock, and Harrison was fairly certain that the sounds coming out of his mouth had long since devolved into incoherence.
“Mete,” Harrison said beseechingly at one point, desperate for release.
Obligingly, Mete knelt back down and at that point, Harrison was so keyed up that it was over unsurprisingly quickly. Harrison lay flopped out on the bed as he tried to regain his breath.
“Oh my god,” Harrison said faintly, when the powers of speech had returned to him.
Mete smirked up at him and Harrison mustered up the energy to flip Mete over. “We’ll see about that smirk,” Harrison said.
Harrison wanted to get to know this version of Mete, so he gave in to the urge to map out the planes of Mete’s body, feeling where Mete’s neck met his shoulders, leaning in to kiss there as his hands brushed through the coarse hair on Mete’s chest. Mete’s body jerked when Harrison’s fingers found his nipples, so Harrison refocused his attention there, gently tugging on each one before following the trail of hair down with his mouth to the base of Mete’s cock. Once he was there, he ran his right hand up Mete’s leg, lingering just near Mete’s groin before firmly gripping Mete’s cock. Mete’s body tensed up and Harrison didn’t wait for further confirmation, taking Mete straight into his mouth.
As Harrison moved his head up and down, Mete groaned appreciatingly loud, and Harrison let himself get lost in the indefinable smell of Mete, the feel of Mete’s cock heavy on his tongue and the wild sounds that Mete made—the way Mete said Harrison’s name, as if it were the most precious thing in the world to him.
When Mete started getting close, Harrison took him deeper and Mete made an incoherent noise of pleasure and came with a long, drawn out moan like something had been shattered and then he lay still, panting.
Harrison lay back on the bed, curled towards Mete, and waited for Mete. “Wow,” Mete said.
“Yeah,” Harrison said.
“Is it always like this?” Mete asked and he curled towards Harrison as well, reaching out his hand until he could intertwine it with Harrison’s.
“No,” Harrison said honestly. “But with you, I think it might be.” Mete blushed at that which made Harrison blush in return.
Neither of them spoke for a long minute. “How did you get here?” Harrison asked. “I mean—you look—different.”
“Different?” Mete asked, lifting up an eyebrow.
“Not bad,” Harrison hastily clarified. “Just different than when we last met.”
“Since that was your imagination,” Mete said.
“Yes,” Harrison said.
“Yes,” Mete said smiling.
“Mete,” Harrison said, unable to stop smiling either.
“Ah well, I suppose my secret is out,” Mete said dramatically. “I’m a guardian of Dream, as you know. That also means that I’m a guardian of Waking. My form when I am in Dream is more malleable, subject to outside interpretation. My Waking form is a bit more concrete.”
“Your Waking form?” Harrison said. His heart started to speed up. “So, you’re here…for real?”
“Yes,” Mete said. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to stay a while here.”
If Harrison had been happy before, it was nothing to what he felt now—the sense of a home run, win the lottery, get a dream job offer.
“Yes,” Harrison said. He moved across the bed so that he could look down at Mete. “I mind that very much. Is there someone that I can file a complaint with?”
“I suppose that you will have to deliver your complaint to me,” Mete said, but he was smiling just as widely.
Leaning down, Harrison did his best to kiss Mete senseless and Mete did his best to comply.