*coughs* you should write something about 1389 hob and dream fucking nasty behind the white horse
Hob Gadling has had, to say the least, a bloody strange afternoon. At this point, he's more or less written it off as some sort of demented jest, the sort of thing you boast about when you've had a few too many tankards of ale and your mates about you to impress, and -- well, it was odd that the stranger knew his name without being told, but perhaps he's been in London longer than it seems, and learned it elsewhere. And the promise to meet a hundred years from now... well, they laughed. They all laughed. Hob laughed. It was only the stranger who kept looking at him as coolly and calmly as if he actually meant it. He's not a bad-looking bloke, if a bit pale, peaky and vaguely resembling an anchorite shut up in a church wall for years without seeing another living soul and becoming decidedly spooky as a result. Has he been shut up in a church wall? Seems like a waste.
Still, the others are making jokes about Hob's newfound immortal grandeur and aren't paying attention; they're pounding on the table and shouting at the wench to bring more wine, and for some reason, Hob feels anxious, as if he needs to run after them and double-check that he actually heard what he thought he did. So he gets to his feet, jostles through the trestle tables, the stools and chairs and boots and swords and stacks of logs for the great fire, past the spot where Chaucer is now explaining something about a lecherous miller, and out into the muddy forecourt, trampled with the hooves of horses and the paws of hounds, the footprints of the servants fetching more water and handing down arriving visitors, and spots the two of them about to vanish down the Thames towpath -- or somewhere else, though there's nowhere else to properly go, out here beyond the city walls. He doesn't have to say a word. He could just count it as some lighthearted tavern-banter and forget it.
Instead, never being one to do the sensible thing when the adventurous one could suffice, Hob bellows, "OY!"
The pale man and the dark lady stop in their tracks and glance 'round at him, and he waves in vigorous demonstration of the fact that he wants a word. The man seems unwilling to comply, but the lady gives him a smart shove in the ribs, and he huffs deeply and sweeps toward Hob. He still looks exactly like the Devil would in human form, as if he's strolled off the page of an illuminated manuscript depicting the temptation of Jesus Christ in the desert: dark hair, stormy eyes, a ruby like the fires of hell, that black robe and alabaster skin, something rare and strange and otherwordly that might burn Hob if he touched it. Sounding deeply impatient, he says, "Aye?"
"This way." Hob leads him around the corner of the White Horse, to the troughs and kailyards in the back, splattered in mud, rainwater, the midden-heap, and thick clumps of torn-up sod. Once they're alone, he says, "Were you just... having me on? Back there?"
The stranger stares at him icily, but with a hint of deliberate, goading challenge. "I don't understand."
"You knew my name. You said that we would meet again, one hundred years from now. How would you know that?"
"It is of no concern to you. Do you want it or not?"
"Oh," Hob says, leaning against the wattle-and-daub wall and flashing his most rakish and charming smile. "I do. If that's what's on the offering here, m'lord. But I just wanted to be clear on whether, if it was a bargain, some sort of boon was expected in exchange."
The stranger's eyes move down him slowly, taking him in from head to heel. Hob hasn't washed in a while, aye, and his hair is long and scruffy and his beard isn't much better, and his cloth is poor enough to make any bloody nobleman, besotted of their stupid sumptuary laws, to run away screaming and clutch his marten-trimmed cloak for comfort (no ermine, unless you're royalty). But he's tall and strong and straight-bodied, has a longsword strapped around his waist and walks with the confidence of a man who knows how to use it, has all his own white teeth and a smile that folk tend to melt for, the very smile he is employing now. The stranger's pale cheeks turn the faintest hint of pink, like the first flush of sunrise on Midwinter-morn. Then he says, "You need offer me nothing. The bargain is made, and will be kept."
"Certes, m'lord?" Hob takes another step, close enough that they're suddenly nose to nose, and the stranger flinches slightly. "Nothing?"
"Are you..." The stranger looks as if he cannot possibly comprehend this utterly bizarre behavior. "Do you think I want something?"
"You came to talk to me," Hob points out. "You were the one who seemed willing to act as if my fool wish was real. Why is that?"
The stranger's gaze drops deliberately to his lips. Then it flicks back up to his eyes. "Because," he says, "I'm interested."
"In whether you'll be begging for death in a hundred years' time." Again that oblique, goading look. "I think you will. My sister believes that you will yet surprise us."
"I'm a surprising man," Hob says smugly. "You'll lose."
"If you say so." The stranger folds his arms, either in petulance or in an attempt to stop Hob in his tracks. Either way, it doesn't work. "I say you've no idea what you're.... asking for."
There's an unmistakable seductive burr in that voice, so incongruously deep for a Devil who looks as if one strong gust might blow him away, and Hob feels it down to the toes of his battered boots. "What say," he murmurs, almost against the stranger's mouth, close enough to feel the other's breath on his cheek, "that I did?"
The pause that follows is even longer, crackling at the edge of potentiality and possibility, and -- Hob doesn't know exactly what he's doing, but it's not the first time he's pursued an assignation with a handsome gent out back, out of sight. His first meeting with Wat, may God assoil him, was, after all, almost like this, and for all his standoffishness and snobbery, the stranger hasn't bothered to actually step back. Lucifer was the most beautiful of the Almighty's angels, before he fell. Is this exactly what Hob is about to do? Sell his soul to the Devil out behind a tavern, as the bells are calling Vespers? Or sell something else, if it gave him the chance to live forever?
"I should go," the stranger murmurs. "My sister awaits."
"Sure you won't give me something to remember you by? A hundred years is a long time, m'lord. If I grow that old, I might forget."
"Oh." The stranger's eyes flick up to meet Hob's again, feral and thunderous and threatening to devour Hob altogether, body and mind and soul. "I don't think you will."
Another instant -- a frozen, endless instant -- and then it snaps. The stranger seizes Hob by his grimy tunic, shoves him back against the wall, and Hob, and it please you, does plenty of seizing and shoving in return. The kiss tastes like weak English wine, nothing so good since they lost Gascony and its lush vineyards (perhaps that is why the Black Prince, while he lived, sought so ceaselessly to retrieve it?), like woodsmoke and ash and wind and summer, like the blood where they've bitten each other's lips and are in fair danger of breaking each other's noses. Hob closes his eyes and pulls the stranger closer, wrapping his arms around him, making sure that there is no doubt, that when the time comes again (if indeed it should), they will know each other at once, by scent and sight and touch, by sense and speech and taste. Hob Gadling would do far worse than to kiss a beautiful man as if all the world was ending, if it gave him this gift of eternity. And for a moment, for a blinding, lightning-struck instant, he thinks, It's real. It's real.
They kiss in a grappling, struggling, stubborn ferocity, both of them trying to get the upper hand on the other, until Hob pulls his mouth back with a bit of a jerk and goes to his knees, pulling the frankly excessive flourishes of that black robe aside and fumbling to find if there are anything resembling breeches below it. He momentarily thinks the stranger is going to stop him, but he doesn't. He jerks at Hob's hair and growls something that sounds like do it if you dare -- and then Hob tugs the laces apart and draws his cock out, pale and hard and perfect as a Roman statue, of the kind that they still sometimes dig up in York. He takes it into his mouth, wraps his lips around the shaft and sucks slow and considering and deep, and the stranger utters a low, shivering whimper that Hob, once again, feels to the back of his spine. It is wet and raw and too fast and too slow at once, it is like a dream of the sort that wakes you arched and clutching and in need of changing the bedclothes -- Hob closes his eyes and licks, moves his tongue with a devilish little flick, and takes it deep, to the back of his throat, sucks down, and --
The stranger loses himself with another maddeningly deep half-growl, half-moan, tugging at Hob's hair again, almost losing his balance, shuddering from head to toe as his pleasure (or something like that) washes through him like a tidal wave. Then, slowly, as if neither of them are entirely sure what has just happened, he pulls back, as Hob turns his head and spits. The stranger laces himself up again, steps back, and says, desperately trying not to breathe too hard, "You -- you need not have done that. It was -- crude."
"What sort of thing is that to say to a man who's just made you forget your own name?" Hob cocks a dark eyebrow. "And by the way, I don't think I caught that myself?"
The stranger stares him dead in the eye for a full five heartbeats, just to make it very plain that he heard and does not intend to answer. Then he whirls around, cloak swirling, and takes his leave. Hob hears his footsteps striding away, fading, and he leans back against the wall, suddenly rather weak-kneed himself. Fuck. Well. Fuck.
This is going to be a very interesting century indeed.
"Well?" Death says, much too sweetly, as she is badly stifling a smile. "Did you go.... talk to Robert Gadling?"
"Yes," Dream says with tremendous, dogged dignity. "We spoke. That is what happened. Nothing else, by the way. Except for speaking. Which we did. Thank you very much."
(Death of the Endless smirks like a cat in cream all the way back home.)
(It is really terribly irritating.)
Cling Fast: Prologue
Read below, or read the updated/edited version over on AO3.
The Sandman (Netflix with some sprinkling of comics canon and Gaimanverse)
Dreamling (Hob Gadling x Dream of the Endless | Morpheus)
PG-13 (for now)
Hob Gadling is a clingy bastard, and he's not ashamed to admit it. He clings to life. He clings to hope. He clings to his love of humanity. He clings to his Stranger. He also, unfortunately, has a habit of clinging to his name.
Which means, when the BBC is looking for a new pet history expert to appear in their educational docudrama series "Elizabethan Manor," they're overjoyed to find a professor of domestic history who, according to their meticulous research, is actually descended from the Master of the National Trust building they're filming in - Gadlen House.
Only Hob knows how right they are.
Picks up a few hours after the end of Episode 6.
Author's Note: I don't know what I'm doing. New to this fandom, new to this ship, and this is the first fanfic I've written in over a year. I am just coming back from a creative burnout so bad that I ended up leaving my literary agent. I haven't written anything that isn't loosely connected drabbles in literally years. So, I don't know what's going to happen with this fic. It may get written, it may fizzle. I have the idea plotted out, but I'm trying to approach it cautiously, with my eyes averted, in case it spooks and bolts.
That's why I'm posting this here instead of AO3, I guess. I want to see if it's something that resonates with people, and me, before I commit to posting it there.
"One hundred years, then?" Hob's Stranger asks, hours later, when Hob's talked himself hoarse and his business partner is flipping chairs onto tables to mop. Hob's marking has been jammed unceremoniously into his briefcase and completely forgotten, and there are three empty pint glasses at his elbow. The wine glass in front of his Stranger is still full.
"2089 or 2122?" Hob asks, through disappointment like broken glass on his tongue. Hob's stomach sinks when his Stranger rises from his chair.
Hob's Stranger seems to mull this over. "'89," he says at length. "I believe it is customary for friends to meet more frequently than a century."
"Then why wait even that long?" Hob asks, both startled and completely unsurprised with how desperate he sounds. "Or is that some sort of… of supernatural law? That the terms of our bargain have to be adhered to and we can't… I don't know," he confesses helplessly. "Renegotiate?"
Yes, that's how he feels.
Helpless and desperate for his Stranger to stay, to not abandon him again, to not leave Hob wondering if he may miss another meeting on a whim. If his Stranger was getting tired of playing with his little mortal toy and Hob would be left to eternity with no friend, no through-line, no continuity, no foundation—
Unavoidably detained, what does that even mean? Hob thinks viciously, brain spinning in circles between despair and hurt, elation and greed. Is it an excuse? Did he even want to—
His Stranger frowns, a fearsome, dark expression that Hob's never seen on the man's face before. Hob flinches when his Stranger makes an abrupt flicking motion at Hob's shoulders, as if shooing off a housefly. All at once Hob's breathing eases, the panic and surging loneliness retreating.
"What?" Hob asks weakly, when he realizes that… that somehow that single gesture from his Stranger has banished decades worth of crushing loneliness and anxiety. Hob had grown so used to bearing the ever-grinding worry that he'd forgotten what it felt like to be without it.
"A waking nightmare," his Stranger says. "And a bold one, too, to cling to you so persistently in the face of its king's displeasure."
Hob had always figured that his Stranger had to be some sort of nobility. It was in the way he dressed at the peak of fashion each century, the softness of his skin and hands, the cleanliness of his hair, the way he spoke and held himself as if he'd never been denied anything his entire life. And the giant ruby of course, which, Hob had noticed a few hours ago, was nowhere to be seen this time around.
But a King.
"My friend," Hob whispers, mindful of the staff closing the New Inn around them. He swallows hard enough that his throat clicks. "Forgive my boldness, but… what are you? Who are you?"
"It… it is not important," his Stranger hedges, hesitating for the first time since Hob's known him.
That's a crack Hob can get his fingers into.
"It is, though," Hob says, rising to his own feet. He dares to reach out, to pinch the fabric of his Stranger's coat cuff between his fingers in an old-fashioned, petitioning plea. The way you would kiss a queen's hem, or a king's ring, Hob pinches the cuff and hopes his Stranger understands. "It is to me. You are important to me."
"Hob," his Stranger says, but it's not a rebuke or a dismissal. It sounds awed, and humbled. Mercury shimmers along his bottom lashes, mouth pulled tight, a display of emotion that Hob never thought to garner from his Stranger, and not one he's sure he knows how to read, just yet.
What has him so upset?
"When you didn't come, I waited," Hob whispers, daring to press closer, so the words are little more than a puff of air between them. "I waited hours. Days. I returned every day for weeks. Where were you?"
"Rest assured, I did not want to miss our appointment."
"Then why?" The Stranger hesitates again. "Please. Please, if you're really my friend, please don't…" Hob trails off, not sure what he's really trying to say here. Don't shut me out. Don't treat me like a servant who only needs to do as he's told. Don't run away from me all the time. "Please don't go without telling me how to reach you, at least. I couldn't bare it if you…"
Without his meaning it, Hob's grip on his Stranger's cuff slips, and his fingers brush the cool, smooth back of his Stranger's hand. The Stranger hisses as if he's been burned.
"Sorry, sorry," Hob says, jerking his hand away. "I'm—"
"That is the first kind touch I've had in…" his Stranger's eyes drop to where their hands meet. Slowly, he reaches out with one shaking finger to stroke it along Hob's knuckles.
Understanding and rage flash through Hob like a lightning strike. The little hints that his Stranger probably hadn't realized he was even dropping come together, all at once, into a horrible picture.
You can be hurt. Or captured.
Hob seizes his Stranger's hand in his own, enraged further when his Stranger gasps, cheeks flushing pink and lips parting in a soft 'oh' that might have sounded lewd if it wasn't so obviously overwhelmed.
"Who did this to you?" Hob growls, low and dangerous. "Where are they now? I'm going to kill them for—"
The Stranger jerks his head up so fast that one of the quicksilver tears shakes free and rolls down his gaunt cheek.
"Hob," his Stranger chokes, and Hob is sure he would have said more, maybe even leaned closer, except that Dennis at the bar shouts:
"Fuck's sake, Gadlen. Take your booty call upstairs. I wanna close!"
"Sorry!" Hob calls back, leaning to the side and modulating his volume so he doesn't shout in his Stranger's ear. "Sorry Dennis, right. We're going."
Hob tugs on his Stranger's hand, and is absurdly grateful when the man allows himself to be led toward the back of the bar. Hob snags his briefcase from the banquette as they pass, and heads straight for the door marked "Staff Only." He punches in the keycode and within a few quick moments, he's gently pulling his stranger over the threshold and into his flat.
"You live above the pub?" his Stranger asks, looking around with curiosity as Hob toes off his shoes and drops his briefcase by the door. The Stranger has neither released his hand, nor wiped the moisture from his own face. When Hob looks down to see if his Stranger has taken his boots off, Hob is startled to be met with a pair of bare, moon-pale and delicately arched bare feet.
Hob knew he wasn't human.
Apparently that includes vanishing clothing at will. Which probably means making it, too. Which definitely explains why his Stranger has always been in the pits of fashion.
Absolutely 100% not a Vampire, Hob adds to his mental List Of Things I Know About The Stranger. It's a very short list.
"Live above it, own it, built it," Hob says, pulling his Stranger gently into the living room and toward the sofa. "When I heard they were going to tear down the White Horse, I did some financial juggling, dug up a few treasure caches, and bought it. The building, the land… I mean, really, the whole area. I own most of this side of the river, all the green bits at least. I couldn't stand the thought of losing all the parks and the trees and… I wanted to save the White Horse itself, but the… well, the restoration is tricky. Time-consuming and costly. Cheaper to knock it down and start over but…" he shrugs as he encourages his Stranger to sit. "I'm not into bulldozing the past because it's cost efficient. Is it okay if I let go of your hand?"
His Stranger looks down at their entwined fingers and blinks as if he hadn't realized he was still holding onto Hob. "My apologies," he says softly, and lets go.
"Don't apologize," Hob says, even as he retrieves his arm. Touch starved, his brain screams, adding it to the list of sins that his Stranger's… captors must have perpetrated. "I'm making tea. Do you drink tea?"
"I could… I could drink tea, yes," his Stranger ventures, as if he's unsure if he actually can.
"I'll be right back."
You can still be hurt. Or captured, his Stranger in his memory says again, and Hob waits until he's turned away and headed to the kitchen before he lets his face transform into a scowl.
Behind him on the sofa, the real-life Stranger makes a wounded little noise, as if he'd heard the memory.
As he fills and sets the kettle to boil, Hob tries to dissipate the frisson of tenseness hanging between them with nonsense.
"The National Trust is both amazing and a huge pain in my arse," he laughs, but it sounds strained even to him. "It's half the reason I'm a history professor now. I wanted to preserve the White Horse right, you know? I spent so much time in historical architecture lectures, buried up to my eyebrows in library books and research grants and… well, when it came time to establish this identity I thought, why not? Fudged up an undergrad degree in Medieval History, breezed into University of York for a Masters and spent it focussing on the lives of the common folk, you know, hearth and home kind of archeology. Wattle-and-daub construction, wooden nails and cooking fires, sellswords and home remedies, the beautiful mundanity of the everyday. And now here I am. Professor Bob Gadlen, with a PhD in my own bloody life."
The kettle whistles and Hob leaps to pull it off the hob when his Stranger flinches at the sound.
I'm going to stab them through the earhole, Hob snarls to himself. When he tells me who they are, I'm going to—
"Justice has already been delivered, Hob Gadling," his Stranger says softly, as Hob pours the water into a teapot. There's not a lot of modern conveniences that Hob eschews—humanity invented new and exciting things all the time for a reason, and that reason is usually that it's better—but he has never managed to get on board with tea bags. Looseleaf all the way. "And revenge has been, as they say, dished out."
Hob sets up a tray with two mugs, some biscuits, and the teapot under its hand-knitted cozy from the 50s. He's done this so often over the last few hundred years that muscle memory takes over, even as his brain stutters to a fizzy halt as he registers what his Stranger has said.
And what it means.
"Oh," Hob says, setting down the tea tray on his coffee table. He drops into his armchair beside the sofa with a thud. "Uh. Can you... Can you read my mind?"
"Only your daydreams," his Stranger confesses. "And only those on the surface of your thoughts. You dream of doing violence to people who, I assure you, are already dead."
"My daydreams. And my waking nightmares," Hob echoes, feeling like his brain is slogging through molasses. There's a… there's a confession in there, somewhere. A truth that his Stranger is trusting him with, if he could only work it out.
And then he remembers, suddenly, what he had been daydreaming about in 1789 when he'd caught sight of his Stranger's extremely shapely calves in his silk hose, and Dear Lord above. Hob has a sudden and humiliating urge to be swallowed up by the ground. A glance at his Stranger makes it very clear, by the smug little microexpression around his eyes, that his Stranger also remembers Hob's fantasies from that particular evening.
"You're a King," Hob says slowly, pouring out a measure of tea for each of them to hide his blush.
Hob dollops milk into his own, and invites his Stranger to doctor his own to his liking with the sugar and milk he'd left on the tray. His Stranger only holds the mug between elegant pale hands, and simply inhales the steam instead.
"A King of… Dreams and Nightmares?" Hob ventures.
"Yes," his Stranger says.
"So you're a, a what… a god?" Hob asks, feeling both giddy and foolish to be saying it out loud. But then, he's been alive for six hundred and seventy-two years. That's a long time. He knows for certain that while his Stranger is not the Devil by his own admission, there are more things that walk the earth than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophies.
Hob scowls at himself for letting Shaxbeard's drivel cross his mind, and hides his pout in his mug.
"No," his Stranger says slowly. "And yes." He pauses.
Hob leans back, and lets his Stranger work through what he's trying to say. His Stranger sips his tea and seems to find it lacking, because he pauses to dump four cubes of sugar into it.
Sweet tooth, Hob files away, right under the entry on the list that says God.
"I am a being beyond gods," his Stranger goes on once he's tasted his tea again and found it satisfactory. "I am older. I am more powerful. I am… simply more. I have existed since the moment the first sentient being closed its eyes and sought its rest, and I will continue to exist until the final one slips away to the Sunless Lands in its sleep. And yet, the version of myself that you see before you was once worshiped as a god."
"That explains a lot," Hob says, redirecting the buzzing adrenaline from his lingering, now futile rage into sarcasm.
The Stranger blinks again, as if unused to being teased. Being a… whatever he is, he probably is.
"Endless," his Stranger corrects. "I am Dream of the Endless. I am…" he gestures in an elegant arc with his free hand. "Limitless. Everywhere. Unchanging and ever present. I am every Dream of every creature, across all of space and time. I am both master of all dreams, and I am the dreams themselves."
"Bit like a TARDIS," Hob says, trying to wrap his head around what his Stranger, Dream of the Endless, is saying.
Dream blinks, head tilting like a corvid, a far-away look in his pale eyes as if he's shuffling through a mental rolodex. His lips curl up into, what is for him, a very wide, expressive grin when he seems to hit on the right entry. His face brightens with mirth.
"Yes, Hob Gadling. I am indeed bigger on the inside."
Hob laughs, if maybe only to contain the slow creep of existential horror. He has some sort of cosmic entity sitting on his squashed, unhygienic sofa that he hasn't cleaned properly since the day he moved in thirty years ago. Yeah. Hob's totally fine.
What's the bigger leap of understanding, anyway? Illiterate peasant sellsword in 1389 to university professor who taught the last two years through Zoom in 2022, or normal boring human with a bit of an Immortality thing to God's teeth there is a celestial creature in my apartment, and he is my friend.
"But that is the… the whole of me," Dream goes on, seemingly amused by Hob's quiet panic. "And the facet that sits before you, this particular anthropomorphic personification, is the one born of a worship and naming on this world, several eras ago."
"Oookaaay…" Hob says slowly, not entirely sure what Dream is getting at.
"Humans create gods," Dream says, filching a biscuit and crunching on it delicately. "Not the other way around."
Even spilling crumbs across his black teeshirt like stardust looks deliberate and elegant when he does it. Hob shoves down a new daydream, as far as it will go. If Dream catches it, he doesn't let on.
"Didn't God create mankind and all the world in seven days, though?" Hob asks, dragging his treacherous brain back on topic.
"In one story," Dream allows. "And in others, Zeus sculpted humanity from clay, and sundered the pieces to create soulmates. In yet another, Skywoman fell through a hole she dug through the world, and landed upon the back of a turtle. There are as many origin stories as there are gods, and there are as many gods as there are humans to imagine them. This—" Deam gestures to himself, and only then seems to see the crumbs on his shirt. He whisks them away with a flick of his wrist. "This embodiment was thought into being by what you would call the Bronze age cultures of the Mediterranean. To them, I was the God of Sleep. I have other names, but the most appropriate and widely remembered in this day and age is Morpheus."
"Morpheus," replies flatly.
"Yes," the creature on the sofa says, preening. "I desire that you call me that, Hob Gadling."
"Not Dream of the Endless?"
"Dream of the Endless is… Dream belongs to all sentient beings, of all kinds, on every planet and plane of existence. That creature has as many names, and faces, and physical embodiments as there are species to sleep. But here, the man who sits before you, whose form and face you know—"
Thank god he said 'know' and not 'desire', Hob thinks frantically.
"--this is Morpheus."
"The God of Sleep," Hob repeats, because is bears repeating.
"And you built me a temple."
"I… what?" Morpheus flicks a look around the room. "The New Inn? No, I built it for you so you could find me." Hob clocks what he just said. Then he thinks about the libations, the singing on karaoke night, the offerings and toasts, the way everyone totters away to pass out after last call. "Fuck me, I built the god of sleep a temple."
"If that unsettles you, you may alternately call me The Prince of Stories. The Shaper of Forms. The King of Nightmares. The Sandman. The—"
"Okay, okay!" Hob laughs. "I ask for one name and I get a hundred. Careful what you wish for, eh?" Hob scratches his fingers through his stubble and heaves a sigh as Morpheus helps himself to another biscuit, munching peevishly. "So if I'm understanding this right, Dream is… is like a diamond. And Morpheus is just one facet. And there are hundreds of facets of you."
"Millions of millions," Morpheus agrees.
"And it's Morpheus I have my agreement with? And my… friendship?"
"Yes, Hob Gadling," Morpheus says fondly. "Though I can assure you that the whole of all I am considers you a friend, not just this facet."
Something in his posture that changes then, something that relaxes a little. Relief, that's what it is. Did he think Hob would be scared of him?
Overwhelmed, maybe. Confused, a little. Intrigued, definitely. Attracted to? Hob's mind shies away from that one. But scared? Never. Except for when he was worried he may have condemned his soul to Hell, Hob has never been frightened of Morpheus. And even that fear was of purgatory itself, not of the man-shaped thing that may end up dragging him there.
"Then it's Morpheus I'd like to… see more of," Hob decides on, tripping over confessing something maybe a little bit too intense for just now, and sidestepping it as politically as possible. "More than once a century. If that's okay."
Hob blanches. "Are you not allowed to? Or… or do you not want to?" Hob asks, wondering if he's completely misunderstood the point of Morpheus' confession.
"I did not say I was opposed to it," Morpheus says gently. "I simply wonder why my company is that which you would… choose."
Hob wonders, in turn, who it was that made Morpheus feel like his company was a burden, as he clearly thinks it is. He carefully does not daydream of doing them any violence. He wants to, though.
"Listen, I…" Hob says, and stops to lick his lips, wet his throat with tea, and choose his words carefully. "Before I explain, I want to make it clear that I don't regret, or rue, or am bitter about this… this gift you've given me."
"My sister gave you," Morpheus corrects him gently.
"Sister?" Hob asks, derailed. "It wasn't you who… made me like this?"
"You and I have but an agreement to meet every hundred years. No more, no less," Morpheus explains. "My sister is the one who granted your request to never die, and traded a boon with our father to ensure you that you and I could keep our appointments."
"Uh. And who is this sister of yours I need to thank, then?" Hob asks.
"The woman who accompanied me at the White Horse that first night, do you recall her?" Hob nods. "She is Death."
"Death," Hob warbles, heart kicking in his chest. "Oh. Okay. Yeah. Makes sense. Death. I called her stupid to her face."
"She thought it charming."
"Fuck. And… your father?"
"Time," Hob squeaks. The mug in his hand trembles and Hob sets it down before he sloshes on himself.
Morpheus frowns. "My sister did not think that the terms of the agreement between you and I would be fair if you continued to age, but did not die."
"No, no, makes sense," Hob says, heaving in a breath and trying not to freak out at the idea that Death and Time know who he is, and granted him his greatest wish simply because he was a loudmouth braggart in the right pub, on the right night.
"But you were speaking of the terms of our friendship," Morpheus prompts him.
It's a kindness, and Morpheus must know it, to be distracted from the existential crisis that is creeping up on Hob. Maybe Morpheus can see the waking nightmare hovering behind him, who knows.
"Yes, as I was saying, I don't regret being, uh, like this," Hob starts again, pointing at his own heart. "But it gets… well, it's hard. Maybe you know what I mean, being you know, Endless. Maybe you don't notice the passage of time, or maybe mortal lives are so fleeting that you don't care—"
"I care. And I notice."
Hob swallows hard again, and plows on, because if he stops to unpack the utter misery with which Morpheus just said that, he thinks he's going to have to get up right now, race out into the early morning dawn, and dig up whoever did this to his friend and kill them all over again.
"Right. Okay. Yes, you care, so you understand that… you have to let go. Do you know what I mean? You have to walk away. You have to… let things, let people, slip through your fingers. It doesn't matter how tightly you hang on to someone or something, change is inevitable. Time… ah, your father… has its… his way with us all. Except me. And you."
Morpheus watches him carefully, intensely, and Hob can't read what that expression means, hasn't seen it before. But if it was on a human, he'd call it intense and focussed affection.
"And I love life. I love humanity. I love the weird shit we come up with, and the ways we change, and grow, and at the same time stay exactly the same. I love people. I love love. But it can be…" he spreads his arms wide, clutching at the empty air, wishing he was better at putting thoughts into poetry. Then maybe he could explain himself better to the Prince of Stories.
Oh, so that's why that bitchy little twink Shaxbeard—no, focus, Gadling. Not right now.
Morpheus smirks at Hob's line of thought, but otherwise doesn't interrupt.
"The point of what I'm saying is that…" Hob takes a deep breath and plunges in. "You're my anchor. And you pull me through the years, and I follow along the tow line and… no, no, that sounds like you're dragging me down." Hob scrubs a hand through his hair, the beer and the adrenaline and the late hour catching up with him. He feels giddy and tongue-tied and stupid. "Maybe, you're a kite, then? And our meetings is the string, and when it's wound around my wrist, when I know what direction my life is being pulled by you and the wind, then it… it's full. It's taught. It's exciting. But when that string was… was slack… when you didn't come, when I thought I'd driven you away, I… I couldn't… there was no direction, and there was no point, and I—" Hob laughs flatly, false. "I had to build myself a fan, I guess. An Inn to fill the sail of the kite, and just hope that my breeze would come back and—"
And he doesn't talk about the years in the middle. The years between when he bought the White Horse, and before he threw himself into his schooling. The years when the misery of being forced to shut down the one place he needed more than air and food and water, because it tied him to his Stranger, the years when the White Horse continued to deteriorate and there was nothing he could do, except maybe sleep until 2089 and hope. The years when he put anything and everything down his throat, into his veins, up his nose just so that he didn't have to feel it, the wretched passage of time, the despair, the isolation and loneliness, the—
Morpheus' hand on his knee brings Hob back to himself. He huffs and wipes the moisture away from the corner of his eyes.
"What I'm saying is… I lost who I am, without you," he says slowly, covering that moon-pale hand with his own sun-browned and sword-calloused one. "And I'm not saying that you have to spend time with me. But I thought I ruined everything. And learning that instead you were captured and suffering, and I had no way of knowing and no way of helping, that's just so much worse. I need you, Morpheus. And more than that, I like you. These last few decades were awful without you, and I… I don't want to force you to spend time with me to keep me sane, that's not what I'm saying. I don't want to drown you in order to keep my own head above water."
Mixing metaphors again, Gadling. Get to the point.
"I guess what I'm saying is that I want to spend time with you. More than once a century. I want to be your friend, and I want to know when you're hurt, or in trouble. I want to be there for you, the way that you're there for me. I want to be the solution to your loneliness, the kind that only people like you and me know. The people who go on, and on, and on, when everything around you is always changing or withering away. Because you are the solution to mine. You're…" Hob decides that six hundred and seventy-two is too old to speak in euphemisms. "You're all that I get to keep. So, please. Can I keep you?"
"I too find that I thrive when I am seen," Morpheus says, summing up Hob's rambling with eloquence and sincerity. "And I am more than satisfied with your explanation. I find that I… share your sentiments. So yes, I shall give you a way to contact me, and a way to know if I am in distress. And I will be happy to meet with you more often."
"Once a week too much?" Hob asks, sniffling with pent up emotion and swift relief. "God's bones, I sound like such a clingy bastard. I guess I am. I won't be ashamed of it."
"If that is the case, then I find I am one as well. Will every Tuesday evening be acceptable?"
Hob didn't teach Tuesday afternoons, but Morpheous probably already knew that. "More than."
"Excellent. It is done."
Hob huffs out a weak laugh, flopping back into his chair and feeling like he's just gone a hundred rounds with a heavyweight champ. Or sold his soul to Morpheus all over again. Morpheus releases his hand and pours them both more tea, though when Hob takes a drink, he finds it's become a sweet, cool wine, the kind he'd once had in Greece, centuries ago.
After they sip for a few moments, Hob screws up his courage, and asks, "And was it Morpheus who was… 'unavoidably detained'," Hob says, putting the finger-quotes around the phrase.
Morpheus goes silent for long enough that Hob worries again that he's offended his friend again.
"We don't have to talk about it," Hob assures him. He reaches out his hand for Morpheus, offering support and understanding, just as his friend had offered it to Hob. He is relieved and flattered when Morpheus takes it again, without a moment's doubt.
"I… do not think I could bring myself to speak of this again, if I were not to unburden myself now. You have confessed so much this evening, and I feel I must honor your truth with my own, no matter how… infuriatingly painful and humiliating the confession may be. I was, as you surmised, captured."
"How can someone capture a… a concept?" Hob asks softly. "A literal, actual force of nature?"
"How indeed," Morpheus says, rueful and bitter. "While most magic is insubstantial nonsense," Morpheus begins slowly. He lifts his free hand and spreads his fingers wide, and on his palm a whirlwind of golden sand swirls into the shape of a small glass cage, with a tiny, prone man trapped inside. Hob's heart clenches when he realizes what he's looking at. "There are some immutable laws of existence that can be harnessed and twisted to entrap even one such as I. But it was not Dream of the Endless that Rodrick Burgess sought to enslave, nor even Morpheus the God of Sleep, but Death her very self…"