Dream entrusts the Corinthian’s skull to Lucienne, tells her to keep it safe for him, and that is what she does.
Dream does not think about what safe might mean to her. And, admittedly, he does not think of the Corinthian for some time. He is busy with other duties – the dreams and nightmares he has tasked himself with creating, the relationships he has recommitted himself to fostering. Death and Hob become faces he sees almost as often as Lucienne and Matthew’s, and while he does not forget about his wayward nightmare, he does not dwell on him, either.
And the Corinthian, for his part, is silent. He does not use his dreams to beg or to plead for mercy, to argue for the right to exist in the waking world. And Dream does not dip into the worlds the Corinthian constructs for himself, because there is no reason to – unmade, the nightmare is unable to walk through the dreams of others, unable to cause havoc even in the Dreaming.
And perhaps that is Dream’s mistake, leaving his nightmare alone, but it does not feel like one at the time. He knows the Corinthian holds no lost love for him, or, at least, that his anger and sense of betrayal outweigh his love and loyalty. Letting him sit and think, in peace and calm, unbothered, seems like the best of plans.
Until, one day, Dream hears his nightmare calling for him.
It’s quiet, soft, but it’s undoubtedly the Corinthian, the drawl of his voice wrapped around Dream’s name. Dream, he calls, not Lord, not King or master, but Dream. And Dream thinks, for one, brief moment, of ignoring the call, based solely on his nightmare’s continued audacity.
And before his imprisonment, before the changes he underwent after, perhaps he might have. But as the Endless he is now, he cannot make himself ignore one of his subjects reaching out, calling for him – even if it is the Corinthian.
He sets aside the nightmare he has half-crafted, a thing with horrifically long, spindly fingers, and makes his way back to the palace. As he heads towards the library, he listens attentively for the Corinthian, but he hears no more quiet calls. His nightmare is silent once again.
And something begins to churn uncomfortably in the back of Dream’s mind.
He finds Lucienne in the library, not at her desk, but out in the stacks. She ducks her head in greeting as he approaches, her smile small and refined, but present all the same. “My Lord,” she says, and Dream cannot help but return the gesture, happy to see his friend, even if anxiety still swirls in his mind.
“Lucienne.” Dream looks at the shelf next to her, half-bare, the books that once occupied it now piled carefully on a nearby table. “Do you have a moment?”
Lucienne looks pleasantly surprised at his asking, and Dream hears the echo of her voice in his mind. You’ve changed. He no longer doubts it, no longer takes offense at the suggestion, because he is no longer blind to his own faults. Or, rather, he is trying to no longer be blind to them.
“Of course.” Lucienne dusts off her hands, straightening one of the piles of books before turning entirely towards him. “Can I help you find something, my Lord?”
Dream smiles. “Not a book, I’m afraid,” he says. “Some time ago I gave you the Corinthian’s skull for safekeeping. I was wondering if you might show me where you stored it.”
Lucienne purses her lips for the briefest moment, disapproval clear on her face even as she struggles not to show it. “You’re… already remaking him?” she asks, tentatively, and Dream laughs quietly, shaking his head.
“No. Not quite.”
His librarian waits for him to explain himself, and when he doesn’t, she sighs. “Very well,” she says. “I suppose I couldn’t stop you even if you did want to.”
Dream raises an eyebrow as she turns, leading him away from the empty shelf. “Would you attempt to?” he asks, curious, and Lucienne flashes him a look over her shoulder, flat and unamused.
“I would merely remind my Lord that the Corinthian has been nothing but trouble for over a century, and that a little time being formless in the Dreaming could do a nightmare like him good.”
Dream chuckles under his breath. “I have no intention of remaking the Corinthian anytime soon,” he assures her. “Not until I can be sure that I won’t make the same mistakes with him that I did the last time.”
Something eases in Lucienne’s face, her shoulders, and Dream wonders how much she really worried. “Thank you,” she says, and then sniffs delicately. “And if he ever attempts to make a nuisance of himself like the last time, Matthew and I are more than willing to collect him ourselves. My Lord.”
“All the more reason to be sure I remake him correctly, then. I can’t unleash you both upon the waking world.”
Lucienne laughs, a startled sound, and when she looks back at Dream her eyes are appraising. She does not call him out on the new familiarity, though, and for that Dream is grateful. He is trying, and he knows she knows, but it’s not always easy. For either of them.
New rules for a new age.
Lucienne turns a corner and then comes to a halt, nodding up at one of the shelves. “There we are. I tucked him back here. This section doesn’t get a lot of traffic, and it’s close enough to my desk that I’d notice if anything were to happen.”
Dream looks up, and there he sees the Corinthian’s skull inside a cage.
It is a beautiful cage, all delicate glass and silver filigree, set up high on one of the shelves. The Corinthian’s skull sparkles inside it, glimmers of light dancing over the dips of bone and teeth, and Dream thinks it beautiful even as he feels the pit of his stomach drop out.
A beautiful cage is still a cage.
He knows Lucienne never saw his prison – even if she had, she does not favor this kind of cruelty, not even for the likes of the Corinthian. She would not have chosen this, not even for a nightmare such as him. Dream knows this, and he knows it well, and still he has to bite his tongue against the rage that flares within him, the anger that has nowhere to go.
The sorrow that threatens to overwhelm him.
No one is at fault here but him. Again.
Lucienne senses the shift in his mood and takes a half-step back. “My Lord?” she asks, hesitant, but Dream just shakes his head and turns his attention wholly to the Corinthian’s skull and its glass and metal cage.
“We’ll speak later,” he says, making sure to temper his voice, and then lifts one hand, causing the glass and silver to dissolve away into sand. The Corinthian’s skull sits on the tiny dune, unharmed, and Dream carefully picks it up, cradling it in his palms like it is something precious – for it is something precious. He should not have entrusted the heart of his nightmare to anyone else. Not even to Lucienne.
The arcana are his to care for, in all their forms.
Gently, he strokes his thumb over the skull’s forehead, and as he closes his eyes, he slips into the Corinthian’s dream.
He feels the Dreaming shift, feels the library melt away to be replaced with… something else. Something oddly familiar, something that plucks at his own memory in an uncomfortable way.
When he opens his eyes, he understands why.
In his dream, the Corinthian is still caged, imprisoned not behind filigree silver, but wrought iron. The glass between the bars of metal is thick, warped, curved into a faceted orb. And the Corinthian sits in the middle of it with his knees drawn up to his chest, stripped of his clothing, his glasses, his knife, bare and defenseless and alone.
Roderick Burgess’ basement is unpleasant to return to, even in the Dreaming.
It is a nightmare the Corinthian has conjured for himself, but a nightmare all the same, and the sight of it causes something to twist sharply in Dream’s chest. He never intended this time to be a punishment – he never intended to punish the Corinthian at all. The nightmare’s failings were Dream’s failings, his faults. Punishing him for acting in accordance with how he was created would just be cruel.
And Dream is many things, but he is not cruel. He is especially not so sadistic as to inflict on the Corinthian what had been forced upon him.
“My nightmare,” he murmurs as he steps out of the shadows, and the Corinthian’s head jerks up. His face is streaked with tears of blood, and Dream watches him hastily scrub them away with bare forearms, leaving blood smeared over golden skin. Trying to hide himself, even now.
He walks up to the cage, and the Corinthian tracks his movements, watching him with sightless eyes. When Dream pauses, one hand outstretched to drag fingertips over the thick glass, the Corinthian lunges, slamming his palms uselessly against the inside of his cage.
“Now who’s petty?” the Corinthian snarls, and curls his hand into a fist just so he can slam it against the glass again. “Is this supposed to change me? Teach me a lesson? I don’t need the reminder that you’re in charge down here, Dream. It’s the whole fucking reason I wanted to stay away.”
Dream can feel the Corinthian’s anger, hot and biting – but he can also feel that which lies underneath it, the undercurrent of panic, of despair, of a sorrow not unlike what Dream himself felt, seeing the Corinthian’s skull in its filigree cage. The anger is no more than a smokescreen, meant to hide the things the Corinthian really doesn’t want to Dream to see.
“You called for me,” Dream says, his own voice calm, even. “Did you only wish to snap your teeth, little one? Or did you call my name for a reason?”
The Corinthian’s lip curls up, though this time the snarl is silent. “I want out,” he demands, and Dream sees the way his hands tremble against the glass, the way his body curls towards his master, even in fright and anger.
Dream remembers his own imprisonment, and he aches for his nightmare.
“The Dreaming is my realm,” Dream says, as gently as he can, “but this is your nightmare. Your creation. You constructed this world for yourself, Corinthian. You have the power to destroy it.”
“No,” the Corinthian bites back, but his voice wavers, uncertain, suddenly, in the wake of Dream’s declaration. “I would’ve… I wouldn’t have done this to myself. This is your fault. You put me in a cage out there and stuffed me in a cage in here, and…”
His nightmare winces, ducking his head, and Dream sighs. “Break the glass,” he murmurs. “I don’t wish to see you suffer, little one. I never have.”
The Corinthian scoffs, but it’s quiet, weak. “Break the glass,” he repeats. “All right. All right.”
He draws his fist back, pausing for a moment to eye Dream uncertainly, and then punches the glass between them, hard.
This time, it shatters into a million little glittering pieces.
The Corinthian stumbles out of the iron framework, and Dream whisks the shards of glass away from under his feet a moment before his soles touch the floor. The Corinthian freezes when he realizes, looking down at his feet, and then up at his master, the smeared blood on his cheeks standing out in even sharper contrast on his skin now that the glass isn’t blurring its edges.
“It’s my nightmare,” the Corinthian says, barely audible in his confusion. “I… I made this.”
“A prison for yourself to mirror the one you helped Roderick Burgess create for me.”
The nightmare clutches at the iron framework behind him, his grip white-knuckled and desperate. “You – you know about that?”
Dream can’t help but smile, soft and gentle. “You were clever in the waking world, Corinthian, and good at keeping secrets from those around you, but you will never be able to hide from me. Not here.”
“And you’re still going to remake me?”
Oh. That same something twists in Dream’s chest, sharp and cutting, and he thinks about the viciousness with which he punished Gault, the way he tried to push Lucienne away, and he thinks it is no small wonder that his nightmare has doubts.
No matter. It is a new age for dreams and nightmares. The Corinthian will come to learn that, to believe it, with time.
And for now…
“When we last spoke, you accused me of not letting myself feel.” Dream shifts, holding out his arms. “Come here, my little nightmare, and let me show you all the things you think I do not feel.”
The Corinthian staggers forward, and Dream catches him, holding the nightmare close against him. Warm flesh trembles beneath his palms, and Dream feels the undercurrent of apprehension, of true fear, coursing through the Corinthian’s being. It’s not impossible to frighten a nightmare, to scare that which is meant to scare itself, but it’s not easy, either, and it’s not something Dream tries to do often. It’s not something he’s trying to do now. The Corinthian has worn himself down, locked himself in a nightmare of his own making, and he’s weak. Vulnerable.
Dream holds him, and causes the landscape around them to change. No longer are they in Roderick Burgess’ basement, surrounded by the shattered remains of the glass globe. Now they stand in the library, in the aisle Dream occupied with Lucienne before dipping into the Corinthian’s dream.
Only the filigree display with the Corinthian’s skull still stands on the shelf, back in place if only for a moment, only in memory. The Corinthian does not look up, however. He keeps his face hidden in Dream’s coat, in his chest, and Dream has to wonder, for a moment, what he’s expecting to see.
What sight he’s expecting to be tormented with.
“When you called for me, I came,” Dream murmurs, hesitating for only a moment before smoothing a palm down the bare plane of the Corinthian’s back. His other hand seeks out one of the nightmare’s, gently forcing his fingers to uncurl from the material of his coat before spreading them out over his chest, so that the Corinthian can feel the steady beat of his king’s heart. “Open your eyes, my nightmare, and let me show you what I found.”
The Corinthian turns his head as the Dream of memory approaches the shelf. Already, time has dulled the pang of emotion, enough that Dream only holds his nightmare a little closer, a little tighter, as the realization washes over them both, anger and sorrow and regret churning in a quiet hurt in his chest.
But it’s new for the Corinthian. In Dream’s memory, with his palm pressed firmly over his master’s heart, the emotion hits him hard, pierces him deep, crests over him with entirely more than he was created to feel.
Dream contains multitudes. The Corinthian is but one little nightmare.
A sound bubbles up out of his throat, something harsh and raw and broken, and the Corinthian trembles so violently that Dream has to tighten his hold, lest the nightmare fall. It’s easy, then, to duck his head, to put his mouth next to his nightmare’s ear and murmur, just loud enough to be heard:
“Do you see, now, little one, how much I feel? How much I care? Not for myself, my realm, my rules, but for you?”
The Corinthian’s shaking knees finally give way, and Dream is there to take his weight, to catch him, to guide him gently down to the ground. As he kneels, the nightmare clings to him, desperate, still gasping out choked-off sobs while bloody tears stream down his face.
“Please make it stop,” he manages to whisper after a moment. “My Lord, my master, fucking please make it stop.”
Even the memory of Dream’s emotion, dulled and tempered, is too much for him. It’s a lesson the Corinthian won’t soon forget, not with the way it’s been taught, and Dream thinks that, already, his nightmare will be better formed when made again.
“Hush now,” he replies, shifting to carefully lower the Corinthian to the ground. He stays close, always, cheek pressed to his nightmare’s short, soft hair, and when the Corinthian’s back encounters the library’s floor he lets his magic flare around them, whisking away the apparition of his memory.
Underneath the Corinthian’s back, the floor melts to sand and then to silk, to sheets the color of sunsets, vibrant and shifting, gold and orange and pink. The room around them shifts as well, the shelves and books and tables fading away, replaced not with a new set of walls, but with soft light and sky and open air.
The Corinthian sucks in a breath as the memory fades, and, slowly, he ceases to tremble, going still and calm under the canopy of Dream’s body and the gentle flare of his coat. And Dream takes a moment just to look at him. All the teeth in his head are bloody, the smaller ones from producing tears, and the larger ones, Dream realizes, from where his nightmare has bitten into his lip, hard, splitting the delicate pink flesh.
His lip is still trapped between his teeth, so Dream reaches up to free it, gently, smearing blood over his thumb as he eases the soft bit of muscle from the Corinthian’s mouth. At the touch, his nightmare whines, almost recoiling when the sound spills from his throat, like he can’t quite believe it came from him.
“You’re all right,” Dream tells him, brushing his thumb over the Corinthian’s lip, over his cheek and the cut of his jaw. “You’re safe now, little one. I won’t let you drag yourself into another nightmare.”
The Corinthian swallows, throat bobbing. “Where am I?” he asks. “Out there. In the palace. Where’s my skull?”
Dream smiles indulgently. “Right now? In my hands.” He cups the Corinthian’s cheek, as if to emphasize his words. “You needn’t fret, my nightmare. I’ll be keeping you with me.”
The Corinthian shivers and turns into his palm, seeking out his touch, and Dream thinks about the Corinthian’s activities in the waking world, the beds he crawled into even when he wasn’t collecting. And then he thinks about his nightmare’s body beneath his own, naked and blood-streaked, and the fingers that are curled so desperately into his coat, and the soft puff of breath against his palm, and clarity slots into place in his mind.
Dream’s clothes dissolve away into sand, whipped away by a gentle wind to melt into the landscape, leaving him bare atop his nightmare. The Corinthian jerks, his fingers closing around nothing, and the sound he makes is somehow hopeful and mournful all at once. His hands hover between them, and Dream waits for him to touch, but his fingers twitch and clench against his own palms, and they do not reach out for the bare chest in front of him.
“Corinthian,” Dream chides, though there’s no real disappointment in his voice. Still, underneath him, his nightmare sucks in a harsh, ragged breath. And, finally, he presses his palms to Dream’s chest.
He shudders, a full-body thing, and Dream feels another whine begin to crawl its way out of his nightmare’s throat. He doesn’t mind the sounds – if he cares to think about it, there’s perhaps even a part of him that likes this side of the Corinthian, this needy, open facet of him. But he knows just as much that it causes the Corinthian distress, and that’s not what he wants for his nightmare.
So he leans down and swallows the sound before it can escape the Corinthian’s mouth.
His nightmare moans into the kiss, fingers scrabbling at Dream’s chest, and Dream is unable to resist the urge to smile, his lips curving against the Corinthian’s. “Easy, little one,” he murmurs, and this time, the Corinthian’s hips buck up at the endearment, and Dream feels the hard line of his arousal, thick and hot, against his stomach.
Dream could make him come just like this, with little more than a thought and a flick of his fingers. He could give him an orgasm that lasts for hours, pleasure drawn out for so long it dips into pain. In the Dreaming, the possibilities are quite literally Endless.
But seeing the way his nightmare trembles at a simple touch, the way he falls apart at a kiss, Dream thinks all that might be a little much for him. For now, at least.
Dream lowers himself down onto his elbows, bracketing the Corinthian in and effectively forcing him to bring his arms up around Dream’s neck. It makes it easier to kiss his nightmare, so that’s what he does, first dragging his mouth along the sharp line of the Corinthian’s jaw, and then claiming his mouth with long, slow kisses. The Corinthian squirms underneath him, but trapped as he is by Dream’s body, caged in by his arms, his squirming does nothing more than rub his cock against the groove of Dream’s hip.
Judging by the noises the Corinthian makes into Dream’s mouth, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Dream is half-tempted to let him do just that, just because the sinuous roll of his body is beautiful, and it clearly brings him pleasure – he keens every time the head of his cock drags against the plane of Dream’s stomach, a sharp little sound that Dream traps with his own mouth. And he thinks that the Corinthian would be happy with that, with being allowed to get himself off against his master’s body, but Dream?
Dream wants more.
“I’m going to fuck you, little nightmare,” Dream says, dragging his lips across the Corinthian’s bloody cheek. “And I’m going to remind you who you belong to.”
The Corinthian claws at his back, pants into the crook of his neck, and Dream feels the way his nightmare tries to curl around him, tries to draw him in close, as if he thinks Dream would promise him that and then disappear. But they will not be parting again – not for some time. Dream will ensure it.
So he reaches into the Dreaming and finds his nightmare, his Corinthian, and reshapes the body he has created for himself, making space like one would with their fingers in the waking world. The Corinthian gasps and shudders underneath him, and, almost instinctively, his knees fall open.
It’s easy for Dream to shift his hips, then, to drag the Corinthian in a little closer, to push inside him in one smooth, inescapable stroke. The Dreaming makes the glide easy, painless, but the Corinthian still tosses his head back, still cries out and clings to Dream, overwhelmed in the best of ways.
Dream hides his smile in the Corinthian’s neck, hushing him softly, but he does not stop until his hips are flush with the nightmare’s ass, until he’s buried as deep within him as he can be. And the Corinthian only keens in pleasure, wrapping his arms tightly around Dream’s shoulders and locking his ankles against the small of his back.
Dream intended to fuck him, to make his nightmare’s pleasure build sharp and fast and unavoidable, but in the moment he finds himself slowing. He drags kisses over the column of the Corinthian’s neck, soft little whispers of his lips, and rolls his hips lazily, a long, slow movement that has the Corinthian arching against him.
And he doesn’t stop.
He scrapes his teeth over the shell of the Corinthian’s ear as he thrusts into him, enjoying the way his nightmare tightens and trembles every time Dream brushes over that spot inside him, the way his cock leaks between them, hot and flushed and heavy. And once again, the Corinthian hides his face in Dream’s neck, panting against his skin, clutching at him in that desperate, hungry way that has Dream wondering what his little nightmare was really seeking out there, in the waking world.
And if, next time, Dream can provide it himself.
Shifting, Dream slips one hand down between them, trailing fingertips slowly over the Corinthian’s chest, his stomach, so that by the time he wraps fingers around his nightmare’s cock, the Corinthian is wound tight with anticipation. The sound he makes when Dream touches him, finally, is wounded, raw and unsteady, and Dream doesn’t resist the urge to lean back and kiss the echoes of it from his lips.
He strokes the Corinthian slowly, and his nightmare moans against his mouth, hips jerking as he tries to chase every sensation at once. Dream thinks about holding him here, for hours, for days, right there on the edge but unable to tip over, just for the pleasure of seeing him like this for as long as possible, and perhaps a little of his train of thought bleeds over, because the Corinthian keens, low in his throat, and breaks the kiss to pant out a, “Please, my Lord, please,” against Dream’s cheek.
Dream turns his head and presses a soft kiss to the corner of the Corinthian’s eye-mouth, and as the nightmare jerks underneath him, surprised, Dream tightens his grip and strokes him, hard and purposeful. “Come for me, my beautiful nightmare,” he murmurs, and that’s all it takes.
His wayward nightmare chooses obedience for the first time in his existence and comes, hard, spasming around Dream’s cock as he spills over his master’s hand in hot, thick pulses. Dream strokes him through it, pressing kisses along the cut of his jaw, until his nightmare’s squirming is more from oversensitivity than from pleasure.
Dream hums, letting his approval carry through, and smooths his dirty hand up the Corinthian’s chest. He continues up his neck, over his jaw, and pauses to brush his thumb over his nightmare’s plush bottom lip, smearing it with his own spend. “Beautiful,” he murmurs, and to his delight, a soft pink flush rises to stain the Corinthian’s cheeks.
Carefully, Dream tilts his hips back and eases out of his nightmare’s body, hesitating only a moment when the Corinthian makes a soft sound of loss. “Hush now,” he says. “You’re all right, little one.”
The Corinthian looks up at him, nearly petulant. “But… my Lord. What about…”
What about you?
Dream smiles at the unspoken question. With a wave of his hand, the mess dripping off his hand and still smeared between them dissolves into nothing, and Dream drags his clean fingers over the dried tear-tracks on the Corinthian’s face. This was never about him. It was all about his nightmare, his Corinthian, his creation.
He leans down to brush a kiss over the Corinthian’s forehead. “Not like this,” he says. “Not yet.”
He sees the flicker of understanding in the Corinthian’s expression, the slow, shy smile that spreads over his face. “After you remake me,” he says, and it’s not a question, but Dream nods anyway, shifting to rise.
“When I make you again, my nightmare, you will be magnificent.”
The Corinthian clutches at Dream’s bare back, his grip weak, but his desire clear. Don’t leave me, he begs, not with his voice, but Dream doesn’t need to hear it to know, to understand. And so he slowly lowers himself back down, covering his nightmare’s body with his own once more. “Rest, now,” he murmurs, gently brushing the messy blond fringe away from the Corinthian’s forehead. “And when you dream, little one, dream of everything I know you will be.”