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Year's End, Year's Beginning

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                Snow was something relatively new to Sorey. While it’d gotten cold enough at times to snow on Elysia, it certainly hadn’t been to the extent he saw it now. It’d been a shock to see it start that first day, piling up on the cobbled roads of Ladylake. As the days wore on, he noticed an even larger change in the bustling capital.

                Almost like magic, lights had begun to spring up on the front of businesses and homes alike. Some of them were obviously mana-infused lights while others were more traditional with candles and lanterns. It wasn’t simply white lights, either. A veritable rainbow of colours reflected off the snow drifts that lined the streets, giving a shine to the city that reflected in the people.

                It’d taken an embarrassingly long time before Sorey asked his friends about what was going on. Assuming it had coincided with the snowfall, he didn’t think there was more to it than that.

                “This is the year-end festivities,” Edna had replied to Sorey’s question. “With the lasting peace and humans keeping their malevolence in check, they came up with new traditions.”

                Lailah had beamed brightly as she took a paper cone full of roasted nuts from a vendor. “It’s a celebration of happiness and joy!” she chimed, holding out the cone towards him. “At the height of the festival, friends and family get together for a feast and exchange gifts.”

                Taking one of the offered nuts, Sorey popped it into his mouth, humming at the spiced taste that went over his tongue. “When did Ladylake start getting snow? It could get cold before but not like this.”

                “Eh, it happens every couple of centuries. The weather patterns change, the whole world sees an upheaval, you change out short sleeves for badly knit shirts,” Zaveid said. He reached over Sorey’s shoulder, snatching one of the spiced nuts before Lailah could react. “Lohgrin used to be part of the wetlands, but you saw what it was like when we were there. Drier than a bone left to bleach in the sun for a thousand years.”

                “It took you so long to figure out something was weird,” Mikleo chided as he came back with two cones of the spiced nuts. He held one out to Sorey, a light smile on his face. “You’ve never been shy with asking questions. Don’t tell me the time you spent with Maotelus made you stop thinking about the changes of the world.”

                Sorey shook his head, taking the offered cone. “Of course not,” he huffed. “Sometimes I think all of you like watching me get confused.”

                As expected, Zaveid chuckled, stealing a few nuts from Sorey. “Have to admit, watching you bumble around is more fun than I thought it’d be.” The wind seraph’s grin only widened as he saw the glare from Sorey. “Guess now’s not the best time to tell you that the big party’s tonight, is it?”

                Lailah’s small noise of joy was all that Sorey needed to hear, telling him that Zaveid was right. Even so, he let out a soft breath and shrugged. “Why would now be a bad time?”

                “Lovers typically like spending the night together on their own,” Edna explained. “Meebo was likely going to surprise you with something and now Grampveid’s ruined it.”

                “I did not! You’re the one who just explained everything to him.” Zaveid grunted gently and put an arm around Sorey’s shoulders. “Just for that, I’m going to kidnap him and let him find something for Mikboy.”

                Mikleo opened his mouth then closed it again, shrugging with a soft chuckle. “I suppose it was a bit selfish to want to give a gift without getting one in return.” The water seraph moved closer to Sorey, leaning in for a brief kiss before looking up to Zaveid. “You know the traditions better than he does so explain them. We’ve got some preparations to make for dinner.”

                “Don’t you worry, Mickey. Not like he wouldn’t figure it out without me telling him, you know that.” Not giving Sorey a chance to complain or protest, Zaveid began guiding them away from the other three seraphs. “I’m expecting a really good feast this year. We’ve got our buddy Sorey here to impress so give it all you’ve got!”

                By now, Sorey knew a lot better than to complain about being swept up in whatever his friends got him caught up in. “So, what was Mikleo talking about?” he asked when they were sufficiently on their way to the markets.

                “Gifts given to friends and family are considered different from the ones you give to the one you love with all your heart. You know, it’s that whole romantic mushy crap kind of thing,” the wind seraph replied, reaching up to put his arms behind his head. “That goes double for the first year-end festival spent together. Usually means adding a personal touch to whatever you get.”

                Immediately, gears began turning in Sorey’s mind. It was quite short notice to find a gift of such importance, something that would likely take anyone weeks to plan. Sorey and Mikleo had knowledge of each other that most lovers wouldn’t have unless they had the same circumstances in life. Growing up as they had, the two had a relationship where they knew one another quite well. It didn’t take much to figure out Mikleo had likely chosen something with care.

                “Damn, if you think any louder, I might go deaf,” Zaveid teased, grinning at his friend. He motioned with his head as they arrived at the market stalls. “Better get to it, lover boy. You’re not the only one who waits to the last minute to get something. Might not be your fault but you’ve got some stiff competition out there.”

                Eager to get started, Sorey paused for a moment. “Where are we meeting for dinner?”

                “The usual hangout. I still think it’s Lailah’s and Edna’s place but it’s going to be all ours for tonight. You’ve got until the sun starts going down before we send out a search party.”

                The wind seraph saluted before he turned around to head back where they came from. However, he paused, looking over his shoulder with a playful grin. “Don’t think too hard about what you’re getting him. I’d bet he’d be happy with you just wrapping yourself up in a ribbon.”

                If he could have felt the cold, Sorey would have blamed it for the shiver that went through him. He laughed nervously, trying to ignore the amused laugh Zaveid let out as he left. No matter what, Zaveid still managed to catch him unaware and fluster him. It wasn’t as if the idea was tempting but the suggestion alone made more than one impure thought cross his mind. He wasn’t the type to kiss and tell about what he and Mikleo got up to behind closed doors, though he wondered if anyone would be surprised how many often thoughts of his lover in compromising positions went through his head.

                Shaking his head to clear it, he started by walking slowly through the market to see what was offered. Things were generally simple for both of them A personal touch wasn’t something monumental, overstated, or even the main gift being given. The latter was something practical and it took little thought for Sorey to know what to get.

                By the time the sun was starting to set, Sorey already had everything in order. Upon a shop keep’s suggestion, he had the gifts wrapped in a festive box which didn’t make what was inside obvious. Having gotten other gifts as well, he did the same to them so his friends could enjoy unwrapping them at their leisure. There was no doubt in Sorey’s mind that Mikleo would insist on waiting until they were alone to exchange gifts.

                He knocked before starting to enter the cozy home that they had enjoyed time together in prior during special days. Sorey made a noise as he felt something drop on his head, reaching up with his free hand to feel a large fabric hat having been placed there.

                “Told you he’d show up on time!” Zaveid crowed, pausing as he saw the bag Sorey carried. The wind seraph nudged up his own festive red hat that had white, fluffy trim on it. “With gifts, too. You didn’t have to get us a damn thing, Sorey.”

                Lailah came out of the kitchen, rubbing her hands on a towel. “Zaveid’s right. You are the best gift we could ever ask for this year.”

                “Speak for yourselves. Gimme,” Edna said, pushing her way between the other two seraphs.

                Sorey didn’t get the chance to protest as Mikleo came into the room, sidestepping all of their friends before leaning in to press his lips against Sorey’s. Grinning with satisfaction as Edna made a noise of irritation, Mikleo pulled away just enough to look over his shoulder. “Tradition states that gifts come after the feasting, you know that. Patience is a virtue.”

                “Damn right. You’ve all made a spread that’s going to make anyone’s mouth water.” Zaveid turned towards the kitchen before looking to Lailah. “Need some help with all that?”

                There was a different dynamic between them all for the night. It was impossible to avoid silly squabbles but, for the most part, all of them were about sharing pleasant stories and good cheer. Sorey was certain that some of it was due to his presence this time around. It truly felt like he was part of a family, something he hadn’t always felt during their journey when he was a Shepherd.

                Gift exchanges were organized chaos and Sorey couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult it’d get to find proper gifts through the centuries. He’d gone with a lot of things that had only first sprung to mind when he’d perused the market stalls. Fancy pendulums for Zaveid, a bracelet for Edna, and a toy of an armadillo-like creature that could roll in on itself for Lailah.

                As he’d expected, Mikleo refused to give his gift to Sorey then and there. Sorey didn’t insist and instead settled around the fire to enjoy some hot cocoa with everyone else. They reflected on their time together during the year with Sorey’s reappearance coming up as the biggest bright spot more than once. Time slipped away and drowsiness began to set in, though Edna was the first to curl up in the blankets and drift off.

                “Well, that’s a first,” Mikleo murmured sleepily, smiling as he looked over to Edna.

                “Not like we usually stay up so late,” Zaveid said. “Always end up wandering off to whatever corner of the home we want and call it a night. Can’t complain when breakfast is on the table, though.”

                A soft laugh came from Lailah who hummed as she pulled the blanket up a little more. “Breakfast will be made tomorrow and I hope you and Mikleo wake up early enough to join us,” she said, looking at Sorey.

                It was Zaveid’s turn to laugh, though he kept it at a low volume to prevent Edna from waking up. “It’s their first year’s end, let them enjoy things together.” He cast a quick glance to the clock on the wall and made a soft noise. “Speaking of, don’t you two have things to do before the bells ring? It’s bad luck if you trade gifts after the sanctuary bells ring in the new year.”

                To Sorey’s surprise, Mikleo was the one who hesitated, looking between the other three seraphs before glancing to Sorey. He smiled lightly and chuckled, nodding to Zaveid. “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll make sure we’re out of bed to join you for breakfast.”

                “Go on, get out of here. Don’t worry about us, we already stole enough time from you two today.” Zaveid made a shooing motion which encouraged them to get out of the tangle of blankets they were in. “Happy year’s end, boys.”

                “Yes, happy year’s end to you both.” Lailah beamed brightly at the two, getting up herself to follow them to the door. “Enjoy the rest of your night.”

                Taking Mikleo’s hand in his, the duo bid farewell to their friends before going into the snowy streets of Ladylake. There weren’t many others about and many of the homes were dark, suggesting that their occupants had already found sleep. Neither said a thing as they walked back to their cozy apartment, Sorey pausing as he noticed the lit-up tree which resembled the one they’d had where they shared dinner.

                “I wasn’t just helping to make up dinner.” Mikleo laughed softly, pulling off his boots and starting to make himself more at home. “You know, I was going to make the whole thing a surprise. Kind of another gift to show you how far the world’s come.”

                Setting aside the bag he’d brought gifts in, Sorey reached inside of it for the last one he had. Their apartment didn’t have a fireplace but it did have a potbellied stove which had also been lit, keeping the room warm. He didn’t need prompting to get settled into the cushions and blankets that were a comfortable distance from the tree and the stove.

                “Like I needed more proof. These past few months have shown me how different everything is and I’ve barely even seen the effects elsewhere,” Sorey said, shifting as Mikleo settled in beside him. “Thanks to you, I had to think quick to find presents at the last minute.”

                A box was held out to him, one that was red with a golden ribbon around it. “I’m sorry, okay? Maybe I wanted to be a little selfish.”

                Sorey took the box and held out the one he’d gotten for Mikleo, one with a snowy blue print and sealed with a green and white striped ribbon. “I forgive you, but only because I already had an idea of what to give you.”

                He set the box his lover had given him in his lap, gently tugging on the ribbon to let it fall away. Sorey was enthusiastic about a lot of things but there was something about the gift giving that made him want to take his time.

                The box contained a smaller case that clearly held some kind of jewellery as well as a book on the bottom. He went for the book first, taking it out to read the title on the cover. As he did, a smile crossed his face and he began flipping through the pages.

                “Oh wow, the history of Hyland and Rolance! It’s all recent, too!” Which meant he could get caught up on more than just the year end festival. Having so much more to read up on, Sorey was now eager to turn his attention to the years he’d missed. “Thanks, Mikleo.”

                “You’re welcome. That was actually hard to find since it’s so new and schools like to keep their textbooks current,” Mikleo said, reaching for the jewellery box. He snatched it before Sorey could, holding to it briefly before opening it.

                A new set of silver ear cuffs were inside, adorned with new feathers that better reflected Sorey’s seraphic status. They mirrored the sandy colour of his hair and even had darker tips to match his own. It’d been so long since he had given much thought to the decorations on his ears so it was surprising to see something to replace the old ones he still wore.

                Smiling softly, Sorey reached up to remove the cuffs he had on his ears, putting them aside. “Would you mind putting them on? They’re not leaving my ears once they’re secure.”

                The simple request made Mikleo smile in return and he nodded, shifting closer to his lover. He deftly set them in place, moving to pull away once he’d done so. Sorey caught him, pressing his lips against Mikleo’s in the one way he felt was an appropriate way to say “thank you” without words. Even as he pulled back, the water seraph chased him to get in yet another kiss. Mikleo was nothing if not eager to get the last word – or kiss – in during their exchanges.

                Reaching up with a hand, Sorey smiled softly as his fingers brushed over the feathers. Just as he looked to his lover, he smiled apologetically. “I hope the gifts are okay. You didn’t give me much time to work with.”

                “The real gift for me this year has been you, Sorey. You didn’t have to get me anything at all.”

                Where he’d once have been angrily embarrassed, Mikleo merely smiled and returned to opening his gift. He carefully removed the pot of ink and the quill which was white with a tint of light blue throughout it. “Where did you find this on such short notice?” he asked, weighing the quill in his fingers.

                “I’m as surprised as you are. People passed the whole thing over.” He watched as Mikleo pulled out the new book he’d gotten to go with the ink and quill. “You’ve got notes all over the place so I thought maybe you’d like a book to transfer them to. I know how much you like to write and I’d love to see what you come up with next.”

                Despite the fact that the gift had been chosen quickly, it still meant something to the water seraph. Encouraging Mikleo to follow his passions was important to Sorey. Having already lived his own dreams to an extent, he was eager to see where Mikleo’s dreams would take them next. It just so happened that one of their shared interests aligned together which made it easier to find a reason to follow Mikleo wherever he went.

                Not that he needed an excuse these days.

                “What’s this?”

                Mikleo’s voice made Sorey look up as the water seraph pulled out a silver ribbon with a worked metal clasp and feathers on it. Like the quill, the two long feathers were white with pale blue streaks through, clearly taken from the same bird. When he thought about it, Sorey had seen the birds when the snow began to fall, likely a new winter bird that had come from the northern areas.

                “You always have just a plain old ribbon to tie up your hair. I thought you could use something that’s more you,” Sorey said.

                He didn’t move as Mikleo moved things out of the way, almost sitting in Sorey’s lap as he held the ribbon up behind him. There didn’t need to be words said to know what his lover wanted.

                Reaching up, Sorey gently tugged the ribbon free from Mikleo’s hair. The soft tresses fell, cascading down the water seraph’s back. Fortunately, Sorey was used to tying up his lover’s hair so it was with practised ease that he gathered it up with the new ribbon. It was much easier and less of a hassle to clasp the tie in place, the feathers settling to one side and the ends of the ribbon draping subtly to either side.

                Suddenly, Mikleo turned around, pressing himself up against Sorey and kissing him deeply. It certainly hadn’t been coincidence that the bells ringing in the new year sounded only a brief moment later. Another tradition, perhaps? Whatever the case, Sorey returned the kiss with a soft chuckle, wrapping his arms around his lover and leaning into the pillows behind him. Mikleo only pulled away as the bells stopped, a contented smile on his face.

                “This has been the best year for me in a long, long time,” Mikleo admitted. “I wasn’t entirely unhappy, but having you here again has made me realize that I wasn’t happy, either.”

                Tipping his head to one side, Sorey smiled softly. “You and I won’t be separated again. I don’t think that I could do what I did now, not as a seraph.” He looked down as he saw his lover looking at him with a dubious expression. “A seraph would be easily corrupted and hellionized, you know that.”

                Letting out a noise of reluctant agreement, Mikleo moved to get much more comfortable. He let out a soft sigh as he lay on top of Sorey. “Let’s not focus on that again. I just want to think of the year ahead,” he murmured. “There’s so much to see and experience. Even I don’t know all of the changes everywhere.”

                “We’ll figure all of that out together. I can’t wait to see all of the changes and experience new things with you. This time, we won’t have a Lord of Calamity hanging over us,” Sorey pointed out.

                “Which means wen can actually enjoy going to a ruin instead of going there to look for something in particular.” Mikleo moved to rest his head in Sorey’s neck in just the right way. “And we won’t have a bunch of people who don’t get it along with us.”

                Sorey shifted a hand to start rubbing idly at Mikleo’s back with a chuckle. “You can’t tell me you didn’t have fun, Mikleo. Besides, I think some of them learned some things while we were excited over seeing what we’d only seen in books.”

                There was a drowsy noise of assent which told Sorey what he already knew. Mikleo had been sleepy before they’d left for home and now, he was more than ready for rest. “Spending more time with you is all I want this year,” Mikleo murmured.

                “You’re in luck then. That’s all I want, too.”

                Hearing the gentle sigh from Mikleo, Sorey’s lips quirked up into a smile. He looked outside at the snow falling, knowing that his lover was completely asleep by now. Resting his head on Mikleo’s, he closed his eyes and let the warmth around him carry him off to sleep as well.

                Sorey was looking forward to greeting the sun the next morning and the potential it brought with it. For once, he had everything he needed and he would never ask for anything more. A new year meant new experiences, ones that he and Mikleo would enjoy hand-in-hand.