Mikleo walked slowly along the walkway atop the wall around Ladylake, barely taking note of where he set his feet. The sun was setting over the water to the west, casting a long trail of golden ripples where the light met. He didn’t pay the beautiful sight any notice, lacking both the focus and interest to do much more than watch where he put one foot in front of the other.
A month. Mikleo didn’t think he had ever kept time so closely, but it was hard not to when it had been a full month since Sorey went to sleep. He could hardly remember if they had ever been apart for more than a day before, and now it had been thirty, all counted in agonizing detail. Even this moment, as he selected a space on the stone wall along the walkway and sat, that was seconds, minutes he’d never thought to log against his time.
That wasn’t to say he hadn’t kept busy. There was plenty to do. Political tensions were still high between Hyland and Rolance even as the peace talks began to get underway. And although the Age of Calamity met its official end, recovery would be slow, and until then desperate people would keep generating malevolence.
But it was impossible to stay busy all the time. And each moment where he wasn’t busy, he found himself like this – counting seconds and feeling the exhaustion of his sorrow catching up to him. It felt as if his head weighed a hundred pounds on his neck as he lifted it to finally look out over the lake.
Objectively, part of Mikleo recognized that the sunset on the water was beautiful. The rest of him was grateful only for the fact that being surrounded by his element gave him back a bit of energy. He watched the sun dip further, until it looked as if it was partially submerged in the water.
“Water you doing up here all by yourself?”
Mikleo could hardly muster more than an eye roll in response, which Lailah couldn’t even see from behind him. “Looking,” he said.
“It is a lovely place to look,” Lailah replied, and then said no more. Mikleo could hear the rustle of her skirts, see a glimpse of her from the corner of his eye as she sat next to him. He risked a glance toward her face; it was angled out over the water as well, and cast in the fiery glow of the setting sun.
“Yes,” he said, turning his head back, too.
It would be dark soon. All the light and sparkle and warm colors sucked down below the horizon with the sun. All that would be left was greys and blacks and dark blues, in the white light of the moon. In Sorey’s white light, which he had so intentionally positioned out of his sight.
He had the sudden irrational urge to try to reach up into the sky and catch the fluffy pink and gold clouds. ‘Don’t go yet,’ he wanted to say. ‘Stay and let me sleep in your soft warmth.’
But the he shook the fanciful notion out of his head, and let the edges of the light slip away in silence. He must be truly exhausted to think like that.
It was a moment more before he blurted, “Lailah, do you ever sleep?”
She looked confused by the question for a moment before replying, “I have. I can’t remember when I did last, though. Why do you ask?”
Mikleo looked away, as if not seeing her face could disguise the unsteadiness in his voice. “Because I’m tired. But the bed is so cold and empty. I know this is a strange, probably out-of-line thing to ask, but…” He trailed off, partially because it did feel like a strange thing to ask aloud, but also because he was worried that she would say no. Even if his body didn’t require sleep, his mind and his heart were begging for it, just a bit of rest to build up his stamina and his will again.
“Oh, Mikleo,” Lailah said, and scooted closer along the wall so she could pull him into a hug and guide his head to her shoulder. “If that’s what you need, I can sleep tonight.”
It felt like Mikleo drew relief into his body on his next breath. “Thank you.”
“Of course. It’s gotten quite dark, would you like to head back?”
Lailah stood and offered a hand to help Mikleo up. Once he was standing, she left her palm out and summoned a small flame to light their way down the wall. Mikleo couldn’t help himself if he stepped just a bit closer.
“Alright, I’m ready!” Lailah called in a singsong voice. “Is it safe to come out?”
“Yes, it’s fine,” Mikleo told her.
They’d returned to the inn, where Lailah had stopped in the front room to speak with Rose briefly while Mikleo headed to their room to collect his sleep clothes. She’d joined him after a few moments, and immediately stepped behind the wood and paper screen in the corner of the room so they could both change.
Now, she emerged from behind the screen in a pair of loose-fitting red pants and a white shirt. Her hair had been let down from its tight, high ponytail and pulled instead into a relaxed braid up to the nape of her neck. Mikleo blinked at her for a moment, trying to think if there had ever been a time he’d seen her without her customary dress. He didn’t think there had been.
“Well, how do I look?” Lailah asked, and gave a small twirl. It didn’t have quite the same effect without the flowing skirt. The small smile on her face said that she was more interested in lifting the tension than in looking for compliments.
“Much more suited for sleep,” Mikleo replied. “But I didn’t even think you owned sleep clothes.”
“Ah, no I didn’t. But Rose got some for me from the Sparrowfeathers in town.” A look of worry crossed her face then and she held up her hands quickly. “I didn’t tell her anything about why. But, I thought this would be more comfortable.”
“Yes, that’s probably true.”
Lailah made her way over to the bed and sat on the edge. There had been a comb left on the nightstand, and she picked it up before scooting back and beckoning Mikleo to come sit in the space she’d left in front of her.
Mikleo’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion, but she was looking at him with such a hopeful expression that he didn’t have the heart to refuse. He plopped down in front of Lailah with a sigh. Almost immediately, the comb was in his hair. “What’s this for?” He asked. “Does it look like I’ve been neglecting my personal hygiene?”
“No, nothing of the sort,” she said, with a small laugh. Her hands remained steady and gentle as she brushed, and Mikleo couldn’t resist the urge for his head to lean just a bit into her hands. “It’s just,” she continued, “I know that Sorey always touched you with such gentleness. You must miss it.”
Mikleo stayed silent, biting down on his lower lip to keep the knot in his throat from rising up any further. Lailah didn’t seem to mind; she kept brushing, even though by now she must have brushed through all of his hair.
“You know, you should grow this out. Then I could brush it longer, and braid it, and –”
Mikleo slapped a hand over his mouth, surprised by the vehemence of his own outburst. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled into his palm, “I j-just don’t think I should.”
“Why not?” Lailah asked with a little inquiring hum. “Plenty of seraph men wear their hair long. Just look at Zaveid. And it would look gorgeous on you, I think.”
He looked down at his lap, and then squeezed his eyes shut. His hands twisted together and held on tight. There was a growing bubble of anxiety in his stomach, and he was so tired of it. “What if he doesn’t recognize me?”
Behind him, Mikleo heard the click of the comb being set down again on the nightstand, as if it was from somewhere far away. He felt an arm around his chest, and one reaching down to catch him under his knees, to pull him up so he was sitting sideways in Lailah’s lap. “Oh, Mikleo,” she said, while resituating her arms so one could still hug him close and the other cup the back of his head where he’d immediately buried it in her shoulder. He could feel the little hiccoughs of repressed tears pressing themselves up from his chest. He’d barely noticed that his vision was blurring but his eyes felt wet.
“Shhh, it’s okay,” Lailah murmured, rocking them gently back and forth. “You’re his One and Only. I don’t think a little hair will get in the way of that, hm?”
Mikleo was surprised; he didn’t think Sorey had ever told anyone of that name. But it’s always possible she had heard it sometime in his head. He let that thought pass and tried to nod confidently.
They sat in relative silence for a moment, Mikleo trying to calm his tears. Neither of them said anything of the other worry, that maybe it wouldn’t just be the hair. How long would Sorey sleep? Would he become a seraph? Would he remember Mikleo? He knew Lailah had no answers for him either, and was grateful that she didn’t try.
When the last stutters in Mikleo’s breath had smoothed out, and the tears in his eyes stopped flowing, Lailah moved back so she could look at him. He knew his face must be a red, puffy-eyed mess by the way her mouth and brows crinkled with sympathy. “Why don’t you lie down and get ready to sleep? I’ll be back in a moment.”
Mikleo moved to the side so Lailah could stand. She headed towards the basin and pitcher of water set on the room’s desk while he climbed under the covers. She returned with a wet cloth, and used it to carefully wipe down his face. He closed his eyes and let her do it without protest.
Soft footsteps retreated across the room and returned a moment later. Mikleo felt the blankets shift and the mattress dip as Lailah climbed in beside him. He started just a bit as an unexpected hand carefully brushed back his bangs, and then, just as he’d begun to relax again, there were fingers lifting the weight of his circlet away from his forehead.
He froze again, joints locked up with everything he was keeping tucked away deep inside them. It wasn’t enough this time. Not when the person who had taken the circlet from his head every night before bed for nearly as long as he could remember had been Sorey. The tears came once more, and this time he didn’t try to stop them.
He’d not had the chance to cry yet.
Not between their duties, and trying to stand strong, and trying to fill every moment with some task that moved toward their goal.
Not tears like this. The kind that moved quickly from a trickle to a flood, made of harsh wails that made his stomach clench and tore the breath from his lungs. He knew it was unsightly but he couldn’t stop.
Lailah’s hands came up to his back. Mikleo tried to focus on that, on the way that her palms felt warmer than normal. They worked gently against the tightness in his shoulders, keeping his muscles from clenching too hard as his whole body tried to curl in on itself. It couldn’t stop his head from throbbing with tension and his sorrow.
He’d poured such effort into filling the hole in his chest, with work and rationalizations of purpose, and now it yawned wide.
Mikleo took a breath and shoved it down, past the spot where it felt as if his throat was closing in on itself. Then another, and another.
His smile, his laugh, his touch. Days of ruin exploring and debates and poring over books together. The way it had felt the first time his true name fell from Sorey’s lips, whispered like a prayer as they sat in the dim light of a dying fire.
He uncurled his hands where his nails had been beginning to dig into his palms, and wound them tight into the blankets if only for something he could hold onto.
All of it gone, lost to the flows of time. They’d only been promised so much time to begin with, and now?
He cried until his tears dried up, until the sobs turned to choked gasps for breath that even then wouldn’t stop. He shook all over as if he was cold, even though Lailah was warm, warmer even than Sorey had been.
When his breath began to slow, he was able to hear that Lailah was humming. He thought he recognized the tune, but couldn’t place it until she began to sing softly.
“Hush little seraph, don’t you cry, the water’s dark at night but it holds stars’ light; the fire may burn low, but it still burns bright. Hush little seraph, don’t you cry, the earth can weather the tests of time, and the lonely wind carries songs as it flies on high.”
The older seraphim in Elysia had sung that song to him and Sorey when they were upset as children. Seraph children were so rare he’d never thought it was a lullaby that others might know. He wondered how it had been passed along, and if it had ever been written down. He suspected not, given the fact that the tune Lailah sang was ever so slightly different from how he remembered.
Wondering on the origins of the song gave him a moment to breathe. He could quietly collect in his pieces while Lailah sang, until he felt only exhausted and empty instead of quite so broken.
Lailah stopped singing when Mikleo finally moved a hand to wipe at his eyes and nose. She smiled at him carefully, and only paused the regular motions of her hands on his back to give him a clean cloth from the nightstand for his face. “He’ll be back one day,” she reassured. “And until then we will be there next to you, alright?”
Mikleo nodded, and cleared his raw throat. It hurt as he spoke, and it came out as a hoarse whisper. “I can do this. I will get better at it.”
“Of course you will. But it’s alright if that takes some time,” Lailah said. She pulled Mikleo in closer, so that his head was tucked under her chin, and he felt wrapped in a blanket of her heat.
He would have to thank her in the morning. But for now he could feel the welcoming draw of sleep. Hopefully it would give him the strength he needed to stand. And if not, he would learn to lean on those around him, until the day he wouldn’t need to.