Time burrows itself under his skin and smothers memory with its downy fog. The years slip through his fingers where Sorey’s had once fit—they’d grown into each other, and Mikleo’s left to patch holes as Sorey sleeps his sentence. Mikleo has never lived a life outside of Sorey’s reach and waiting, he finds, is more like learning to walk again, speak again, breathe again with something vestigial but inborn removed.
Distance like this does not scrape him raw. Instead, it itches in his lungs and feet. It’s a restless pining that pushes him into the inscrutable future. He spends his days pulling water from sea and sky, filling wells, correcting the flow of rivers so that spring floods do not take what cannot be replaced.
Night, when it falls, drapes an aching shroud around his shoulders that weighs heavy on his mind. His resolve stands tested and strong and by the flickering soft of candlelight, Mikleo pours what he’s seen into journals that always begin with for Sorey, when he wakes. He will wait as long as it takes but, until that which has gone comes back, there is a world to see, study, change.
“I’m waiting,” he says by way of explanation. The human across from him props her chin on calloused hands, squinting keen eyes against the morning’s glare. He’s amazed at her youth and oh, he realizes, were we like this? He is something like a hundred and twenty years old but has gained only a few centimeters of height and hair, a hundred-thousand memories sans-Sorey, a hundred-thousand different kinds of longing.
“For your shepherd?” She takes a sip from her coffee and grins—she’s enough like Rose, her great-grandmother, that Mikleo huffs.
“Does the whole world know?” He shakes his head and immediately has to tuck his hair back; it’s just long enough to fall into his eyes and he refuses to have it cut, must have something, at least, to mark centuries of suspension.
“You’re famous.” Mikleo looks out the window, scratching his flushed cheek. Her voice twists teasing and sweet when she tells him, “A love story for the ages. The water Seraph and his sleeping hero—ah, I’m so jealous-“
“I do not think it’s—something to envy,” he interrupts, turning back. Her eyes flash with quick shame that he hurries to remedy. “But. A love story, huh?”
He can’t pretend he hates the thought.
Mikleo likes tall mountains the most.
Thin grass and air clear his head. Even if he and Sorey’s dream had been realized, Seraphim and humans do not mix naturally. He serves as an ambassador, working behind the scenes to ease interactions, and when he’s tired of conferences and disputes, Mikleo leaves the city for the highlands.
When he is older still, he builds a home on the side of a wide slope near Izuchi. It’s not easy—he’s not inclined toward manual labor in the slightest and has to read and study for months before he starts, but in the summer of his two-hundred-and-seventieth year he begins to lay the foundation.
For walls, he chooses blue-green-gray stone from a ruins’ crumbling depths and stained wood felled in the sacred forest for floors. The house is lit by the sunlight that falls in through its many windows and tall, hardwood bookshelves line every room. He fills them with illustrated reference books, encyclopedias, atlases of lands they’d once thought far-off, choosing each based on his and Sorey’s tastes.
By now, his earliest journals are yellowed and so fragile he’s hesitant to open them. They live crowded together on the first successful shelf he’d ever made in a reading room built just for Sorey.
Once, when an earthquake shakes the entire mountain, the books fall from their places as their shelves rock hard on uneven feet. He wedges a hand-carved oak sliver beneath the shortest leg and thinks about balance and momentary solutions. The next day, he sends a letter to Edna asking for assistance.
“Fix it, please,” he says when she arrives. The small round of her mouth turns down, a tell that Mikleo only knows from years of experience. She’s amused.
“It’s already fixed.” She steps inside the house, eyes skimming the lit fireplace, the dirty bowls from Mikleo’s latest ice-cream experiment, and says, in her best deadpan, “Cozy.”
Mikleo waves to the table and they sit. “What do you mean, it’s fixed?”
“The earthquake was the mountain releasing its energy.” Her gaze catches on the open door of Sorey’s room. She says, “It shouldn’t happen again for a long time,” then stands and walks away.
“Edna,” he says in warning, but it’s too late. She parks herself in a pool of sunlight and surveys Mikleo’s journals, the dark shelves, the rough stone walls lit in irregular patches.
A tiny, curled smile is all the warning he gets before she lifts a foot and stomps. The room fills with dust and the clatter and rush of falling rock. When it settles, Mikleo lowers the arm he’d raised to protect his face and discovers the walls smooth and buffed and startlingly pretty.
“He’ll probably like this better,” she tells him, then turns on her heel and leaves. Mikleo chases after her, coughing on surprised splutters.
“I—“ He almost trips over his own feet at the front door. “Couldn’t you at least clean up after yourself?”
“Mikleo,” she chastises, popping open her umbrella, “the correct response is thank you, Edna-sama.”
He sighs. “Right,” he says, bitter sarcasm lengthening his vowels. “Thank you. You can stay, if you want,” he offers, unsure of the nature of the mischief in her eyes.
“It’s okay.” She turns her back and dips the umbrella. Above them, white clouds blow by on winds too high to reach the earth-bound. “Not much longer now, right?”
“Right.” Mikleo’s hand curls around the doorframe. He knows what she means—it’s never far from his thoughts—and his chest swells with anticipated gladness. Not much longer.
“Let me know when it happens,” she says, waving goodbye without looking back. “It’s nearly time for a haircut.”
Mikleo doesn’t know why he goes exploring—he’s been saving most ruins for Sorey’s return—but, as he tugs on boots and gloves, impatient energy hums and dances in his veins. He’s pent-up, dissatisfied with the month’s Seraphim-Human discussions, and the best solution he knows is to move.
He loses himself in the ruins, breathing long-motionless air with greedy gratitude. Ancient carvings rise and fall beneath his fingertips as he traces them, reassuring himself not much longer, now, as his heart coils in yearning.
The blue-white room’s blinding after hours in darkness. His footsteps echo as he crosses to the throne, bouncing and ringing between water and crystal and deep earth. The embedded jewel is cool to the touch and sprays glittering specks of light onto the back of his glove.
It’s strange enough that Mikleo’s too distracted recalling what he’s read on gemology to react when the floor falls out beneath him. Breathless weightlessness slams his heart to a stop and not much longer screams neon, not much longer, he cannot die now—
His arm yanks in its socket as his hand’s caught in a vice-grip that feels something like—
Mikleo’s gaze drags up against the bright glare. All that he’s forgotten rises to the surface, pushing past three-hundred-and-however-many years of waiting and watching and building, of for Sorey, when he wakes, of deep and rooted loneliness and now, finally, he closes his free hand around Sorey’s and smiles.
“Mikleo,” Sorey says, voice younger and kinder and better than Mikleo’d ever dared to imagine once he’d lost the sound of it to time. “Mikleo, your hair!”
Sorey’s sprawled under him on the ruins’ cold flagstones, face blanched and pinched. Mikleo chokes on a laugh that comes from the deepest part of him, too happy to truly mind the shock on Sorey’s face. He says, “I didn’t want to cut it—“
“It’s – so long?” Sorey grins and it cuts merciless and sweet. Mikleo’s crying all over the front of his shirt but he doesn’t seem to mind or notice, instead, he wraps his arms around Mikleo’s shoulders, crushing him closer. Mikleo feels more than hears, “It’s pretty, though.”
“I can’t believe that’s the first thing you say,“ he tells him, clearing his throat, laying his forehead on Sorey’s chest, “after all this time.”
“Ahh, my bad,” Sorey mumbles. Mikleo can feel his smile against his neck. “Then, let’s start over?”
“Too late.” Mikleo leans back, swiping at his eyes. Sorey follows him up, moving his hands to his waist. “You’ve already ruined the whole thing.”
“Mikleo…” And oh, how he’s missed this-
“Fine, fine,” he relents, brushing his fingers over the feathers hanging from Sorey’s ears. His cheeks hurt from smiling so wide. “Second chance.”
Sorey laughs and melts into him, whispers, “Hi, Mikleo.”
Mikleo presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth, breathes, “Hello, Sorey. Welcome back,” while his blood roars in his ears.
Sorey asks to see where Rose and Alisha are buried.
“It’s not far from here,” Mikleo says, retying his hair. He can’t seem to put any distance between them—he rests at Sorey’s side, realigning his gravity to recover orbit after so long away. “If we leave now, we can be there by sunset.”
Sorey nods, chewing on his lip. Mikleo’s told him about the letters they’d entrusted to him, explained that they had lived a fulfilling life together. Sorey leans into him when he puts a hand on his shoulder, murmuring, “I wish…” before trailing off.
And Mikleo wishes, too, that fate hadn’t set Sorey on a path that dropped from that of his friends. Three-hundred-odd years of sleep in the belly of an abyss has left Sorey unchanged and unprepared for this reality—his head knows the consequences, but his human heart’s mired itself in agonized loss.
Sorey flattens his palm over Rose’s name where it’s carved in weathered marble. Mikleo stands vigil behind him, recounting her life in all the detail to which he has clung just for this moment. The horizon’s a bruised fire bloom behind the reaching silhouettes of the cemetery’s tall trees—it burnishes Sorey’s hair bronze, breaks around him like water over stone, sparks infinitesimal starbursts in his tears as they fall.
“I didn’t notice at first,” Sorey says, sitting on their hotel bed later that evening, “But you got taller, didn’t you?” It’s the first thing he’s said in hours.
Mikleo looks up from the pack he’s putting together for Sorey and blinks. “Yes.” He folds a shirt and tucks it into the bag, smoothing its soft wrinkles as he considers his next words. “You’ve been gone a long time.”
“And I didn’t get any taller,” he muses, voice light, and falls back onto the pillows. “Hey, Mikleo?”
“What?” He crosses the room, kicking his boots off at the edge of the bed. Sorey grabs his hand and tows him until he’s on his side next to him.
“How are you?” His eyes search Mikleo’s, looking for some weakness, frailty, and Mikleo realizes that for Sorey, the centuries had felt the same as a night of sleep. Sorey has not forgotten him, and Mikleo is as good as bare before him.
He nudges his thumb against the wrinkle between Sorey’s eyebrows. “I’m well. Very happy,” he says, and knows the truth of it in his bones. Sorey grabs his hand and examines it closely.
“You have a new scar here.” His thumb skates across pale scar tissue. He is so warm. “Tell me about it?”
Mikleo understands—Sorey hasn’t forgotten him, but has woken to find someone newer, older in his best-friend’s skin. Mikleo’s hair lies in silver rivers around him, time’s crawling change manifested.
“There was a war,” Mikleo starts, threading his fingers through Sorey’s and marveling at how well they fit together. “And Lailah insisted we end it ourselves…”
Sorey falls asleep listening to the smooth rise and fall of Mikleo’s voice. Outside, gray clouds let loose a warm rain that streaks the windowpane. Mikleo watches rivulets snake through fogged condensation and listens to Sorey breathe.
He’s already become accustomed again to closeness in their short time back together and thinks he may crave it even more than before. He basks in the static-wrapped quietand warmth of the bed, pulls blankets over the both of them. Sorey’s hair is soft when he brushes it back to kiss his forehead.
“Seriously?” Sorey’s standing in front of the house, hands on his hips. “You built this?”
Mikleo hides his hands behind his back. “Yes,” he says. “What do you think?”
Sorey looks back at him, mouth hanging open just a bit. He grins slow, says, “You’re proud, aren’t you?”
“It’s a beautiful house,” Mikleo tells him, smiling.
“It is.” Sorey rolls his shoulders and walks to the front door. The sight of him here, a place Mikleo’d made around the shape of his ghost, pushes reality to a bend—the sky’s so blue it burns the high mountain grass pale, lends the breath in his lungs sharp teeth. He is too full of glad intent, too greedy to let this feeling leave again.
Later, after a slow-roasted dinner, they sit on Mikleo’s wide bed and talk.
“…and Edna told me it had fixed itself, so.”
“So.” Sorey’s playing with his hair, flipping it one way then the other, braiding it into sloppy ropes. Mikleo likes it much more than he’d ever thought. “When do I get to see them again? Lailah and Edna and Zaveid?”
“Soon, probably,” he says. “I sent letters before we left that last town.” Mikleo sighs, falls back onto the pillows. It’s almost too cold for the light cotton shirt and pants into which he’s changed, and Sorey seems to agree; he flops next to Mikleo, tangling their legs together.
“You should make some ice-cream when they come,” Sorey says, eager and soft. “Vanilla for me, of course.”
“’Of course,’” he echoes, raising his eyebrows. “Who says you deserve it?”
Sorey digs his hands into Mikleo’s hair and musses it so that Mikleo’s face’s covered. “You don’t think I do?”
“I think,” he begins, trying and failing to blow his hair from his eyes, “I may need to be persuaded.”
“Usually my cute face is enough by itself,” Sorey teases. He leans forward to press their foreheads together. “Have you changed that much?” Something flickers in his eyes, turns the corners of his mouth down. Mikleo’s breath catches in his throat.
“I’ve—tried not to,” he admits. The atmosphere’s suddenly turned on its side; tension trembles in his chest, wrenches at the strings of him. “I couldn’t imagine… I couldn’t handle you waking up and not recognizing me.”
Sorey’s eyebrows pull together. “Mikleo-“
“But you did.” He offers a watery smile and Sorey places a still-calloused hand on his cheek.
“I did.” He kisses his lips, wiggles closer. “I do.”
Mikleo sniffles, appalled at his own weakness, and laughs. “And you still want your ice-cream.”
“More than anything,” Sorey tells him, leaning in for another kiss. “That’s all I’ve been dreaming about for three-hundred years: you and ice-cream.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“I told you, Mibo,” Edna says. “It’s time for a haircut.”
Sorey’s eyes gleam just as much as the scissors in his hands. “Come on,” he begs, “I’ll do better this time!”
“No,” Mikleo says, hand clenched protectively over his ponytail. “I don’t trust you with those, Sorey.”
“I’m not going to cut you-“
“Mikleo,” Lailah interrupts, hands on her hips, the rims of her eyes red after crying over Sorey just minutes before. (“You look just the same! Oh, Sorey—“) “Let him. Look! He really wants to.”
Sorey uses puppy-eyes. It’s highly effective. Mikleo sits at the table and sighs, fixing Edna with a glare to which she’s long since grown impervious. She and Zaveid pretend to make themselves busy stirring pots of stew in the kitchen while Sorey snips away Mikleo’s mane.
“This side needs more,” Lailah tells Sorey. Mikleo isn’t sure he likes all of these hands on or around his head.
“Ha! Hey, Mikleo, what if I gave you a mullet?” Sorey leans over his shoulder, grinning at the look on Mikleo’s face. Lailah hides a smile behind her hand.
“I’d shave off all your hair while you sleep,” he threatens, putting into it all the lethal pressure he owns.
Sorey hums as if the thought weren’t really so bad. He runs a comb through Mikleo’s hair, returning to the task at hand. Mikleo sits at his hand-hewn table in the afternoon sun and basks in the sound and sight of friends home again, together again. Occasionally, Sorey’ll run his hand through Mikleo’s hair front to back and sigh. He knows it doesn’t bode well for his new hairstyle, but fondness settles into its roost in the core of him and tucks its beak beneath its wing.
“It’s not that bad,” Zaveid tries. Sorey’s forehead smacks the table hard enough to rattle the tableware.
Mikleo pats Sorey’s neck, says, “It’ll grow,” with the least amount of resentment he can dredge from a depleted well of patience.
“I’m almost jealous,” Edna says. “I’ve always wanted to look like a plucked hen.”
Sorey groans. “I really did think I’d be better at it.”
“Swords and scissors are very different blades.” Mikleo picks up his spoon, taps it against his bowl thoughtfully. “Too bad skill with one doesn’t translate to the other.”
“Sorey can afford it,” Lailah says, smiling as he finally raises his head to eat. “He’s already good at so many things.”
“Ah, yes.” Edna crosses her legs at her ankles and leans onto her elbows. “Like reading, hacking at things with a sword, sleeping, being completely and absolutely gay-“
“I resent that,” Sorey says, “It’s more slashing, not hacking.”
Mikleo chokes on his water, startling everyone at the table. His shoulders shake with laughter as he holds a hand over his mouth. “S-sorry,” he coughs out, “Don’t mind me-“
Edna turns to Sorey. “You killed him,” she tells him, face and voice flat. “You killed your water Seraph boyfriend by making him choke on water.”
“You okay?” he asks, patting Mikleo’s back.
“Fine,” he assures him, then smiles. “Thanks.”
The rest of the night passes in a warm blur that, when he tries to remember, tastes like iced sweet cream, looks like gold candlelight and flashing smiles, sounds like laughter. In this moment, pieces long apart finally snap together again.
“And tomorrow,” Mikleo’s saying, attention arrested by the book he’s placed in Sorey’s lap, “We can go here. I heard rumors of surviving tapestries about fifty years ago.” He has to speak quietly so their sleeping guests don’t wake.
Sorey yawns and marks their place with the book’s ribbon. “There are so many things to do,” he says, feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Mikleo smiles, grabs his hand and tows him to bed.
“Tomorrow,” he tells him, snuffing out candles the like of which he’s burned for centuries in waiting, “we can do whatever and go wherever you like.”
“As long as it’s with you,” Sorey says, half-asleep already. The house is quiet, the mountain still, and the stars above turn their celestial wheel just as easily as before.
“As long as it’s with you,” Mikleo agrees, and curls his hand around Sorey’s as he settles in for the night. Thoughts spiral and buzz in his mind, threatening to keep him above drowsiness. He comforts himself with the knowledge that he will wake to find Sorey beside him, sprawled and drooling into his pillow.
It will not be a long wait.