(F came REALLY close to stand for f*$%&^ing writer’s block, but I finally decided to throw this up. It’s a piece I wrote a while ago. It doesn’t fit anywhere and I wrote it for myself, but I thought someone might like it.)
Leon was dying.
It was the best time to accept it. After all, life in the Valley was good. Their lives were peaceful, their trade agreements with their neighbours both solid and lucrative. They’d expanded their borders, spreading from the original Valley and far out into the Shale Plains, replacing the dead ground that used to exist with rich, living farmlands. Humans and sylphs happily worked together, no one caring if a person was a man, a woman, or a sylph.
Eighty-one years old and tired, Leon Petrule looked up as the door to his office opened. He’d been working on reports, a half finished mug of willow tea steaming beside him. Five years or so earlier, he’d needed the tea only once a week. Now, as his hands cramped painfully around his writing quill, he needed to sip it all the time. He’d hidden the arthritis from his family, though he suspected Betha knew and he was pretty sure Lizzy did, if only because there was one person he couldn’t hide it from at all, and he would have told her.
His battle sylph Ril came in, glaring at his master while he did. Ril knew about Leon’s pain. He knew about the weakness and the weariness, the recurring pains in his chest and his arm. There was simply no way for Leon to hide it from him, but neither of them had spoken about it. If anything, the battle sylph had begun avoiding his master, though distance hadn’t been enough to stop Leon from feeling his tumult of emotions, both the rage and the worry. Forty-two years it had been since Ril was freed, another fifteen before that since Leon became his master, and even after fifty-seven years in the world, Ril looked the same as he had the day he first took human form. For him, looking at Leon must have been a constant reminder that his master’s health was failing. Leon missed having him around, but he hadn’t been surprised. Sylphs handled the mortality of their masters poorly and Ril needed to come to grips with the reality of Leon’s eventual passing on his own. Besides, Leon had known that Ril would come to him again when he was ready.
He’d also suspected that Ril wouldn’t come alone when he did, and Leon smiled, setting down his pen as the battler was followed by another sylph, this one female, her hair short against her head, her body beautiful and sleek. Where Ril was dressed in his formal uniform, she was garbed like any normal woman, choosing a dress with an embroidered apron over it.
"Good morning, Autumn," Leon said to her, rising painfully to greet the healer sylph. He couldn’t hide the pain he felt from her any more than he could from Ril, but he could stop himself from wincing when it hit him, crawling though his joints and up his left arm to his chest. "It's good to see you again. I'm afraid I don't have much time to give you today though. I'm quite busy."
"I cleared your schedule," Ril told him. "No one's coming."
Leon blinked, turning to him. Bringing the healer wasn’t a surprise, but Leon didn’t think it would take that long for her to block his pain. He’d seen her do it for others and in fact should have gone to her himself, if he hadn’t been so stubborn, as well as worried it would get back to his wife Betha. Autumn’s master Gabralina was a bit of a gossip and she often spent time at the house with Leon’s wife. More, on a very real level, Leon hadn’t wanted to see the healer. He knew he was dying. He didn’t need the look in Autumn’s eyes to confirm it. Nor did he want the temptation to ask her how long he had left. "You did?"
Ril nodded and started clearing away the items on Leon's desk, setting them on one of the side tables.
"What are you doing?" Leon asked. His battler’s emotions felt angry now, tense with fear. Ril moved a half dozen items, but when Leon took a step towards him, his hips throbbing from the arthritis, Ril snarled and swept the rest of them off the dark wood, letting them crash to the ground. The mug Leon had been sipping from shattered, spraying liquid everywhere. "Ril!"
"I need you to sleep now, Chancellor."
Leon had put Autumn out of his mind when Ril started clearing his desk. Once she spoke, he spun back towards her in surprise, just in time for her to lay her hand against his bearded cheek.
His legs went out from under him. His head sagged, his arms suddenly dead weights, and Leon fell towards the ground, only to feel Ril catch him, his arms warm around his body. "It's okay, Leon," Ril whispered. "Just let go."
Leon really didn't want to do that. His first thought was to tell them to stop whatever they were doing, but he couldn’t get an order out, desperately though he tried. He’d been hit too fast to do anything, and he realized that stopping him from giving an order had been part of their plan. All of the anger and stress Ril had been feeling over the last few weeks turned into sudden contentment and a very real sense of relief. Leon certainly didn’t share the emotion. His body was completely limp and his vision blurred, his mind fuzzing into sleep. He fought it desperately, using all of his fading will to hang onto consciousness, even as his battle sylph put his arms underneath him and lifted him up, cradling him as gently as a child before he laid him down on his own desk and Autumn started unbuttoning his tunic.
"Go to sleep," Ril whispered. "Trust me."
Skin was bared, Autumn laying her hands on his chest, and where she touched him, Leon started to burn. He still couldn't move, only a thread of consciousness hanging on, terrified and struggling, but Ril was still whispering for him to let go, massaging his temples now, and he felt the battle sylph lean over and kiss his forehead just before Leon gave in and did what he wanted.
A long, dreamless time later, Leon woke up lying on the padded bench in the corner of his office, Ril's coat rolled up under his head and a blanket laid over him. His boots had been taken off and his feet rested on top of the arm.
He felt weak, barely able to open his eyes and sore everywhere. He felt in fact as if someone had been beating him and it took a long minute to remember what happened. Before he could, Ril was there, whispering reassurances as he lifted him up enough to sit behind him. Leon found himself elevated, his upper body resting against Ril's chest while the battler held a mug of lukewarm soup to his mouth. "Drink this."
Leon did, swallowing the soup in tiny sips. It was bland but good, mild in a mouth that seemed to have been shocked to absolute dryness. Never had Leon been so utterly exhausted and his eyes slid shut again while he drank, his hands lax in his lap.
"It was as hard as she said it would be," Ril groused. "You’re too old. Lizzy only took two hours. She had to work on you for more than sixteen. She says you'll be tired for a while." He paused, both of them realizing he was babbling. "We'll have to tell Betha you came down sick or something."
She said? Who? What? "What did you do to me?" Leon gasped. The rest of the words sank in and he struggled to sit up. "What did you do to Lizzy?"
Ril's free arm looped around him, holding him firm against the battler while he lifted the mug to his lips again. "Drink."
Leon drank, unable to resist, and a bit more strength flowed into him. He was remembering now, remembering Autumn and his own battle sylph attacking him.
"What have you done?" he demanded, with more than just a hint of command in his voice. A feeling of betrayal flickered in the back of his heart and Ril's arm tightened around him.
"I did what I had to," the battler told him. "Autumn's been studying humans for decades now. She started with her own master, wanting to keep her alive as long as she could.” He paused. “She’s made it so you won't get older. She can even make all the old parts get younger again, to a degree. It’s not easy and I don’t think a healer who isn’t half queen could manage it. She had to exhaust herself for you, you old idiot."
Leon froze, the implications of that too great for him to absorb yet as more than a sudden panic. Ril waited him out, holding the soup ready. "She can make everyone live forever?"
"Not everyone," Ril told him. "She won’t. Says it will mess up the balance. The queen agrees. But she did it for you, and for Lizzy. A few of the other sylph masters too. The ones who were young enough for her to be able to and who had souls flexible enough to accept the change, and where Autumn was worried the bond was too strong and their sylph wouldn't be able to deal with them... with them dying." He barely said the last word.
Leon's mind reeled again at the realization of just how worried his battler had been and Ril took the opportunity to feed him a bit more of the soup. Leon didn't even taste it. Why had he never sat the creature down and talked about this? He'd known he'd be outlived by Ril and his increasing pain during the last few months had only made it obvious that his life was slowing to an end. Yet they'd never talked about it and the feeling of betrayal vanished into the horror at the thought of how Ril would take losing him, especially if Autumn was willing to go to these lengths to prevent it. "Am I going to live forever?" he whispered.
"No." Ril sounded resentful. "We don't know yet how long any of you will live." He hesitated. "You didn't have enough time left for us to find out first."
Leon groaned, pain starting to stab through his back, and Ril adjusted himself behind him. Leon forced his eyes to open and stared at the pattern on the blanket covering him. He felt as if he’d been pummeled, but his joints no longer ached and his heart beat strongly and well. The reality of that hit him. He was going to live a lot longer than he’d thought when he dragged himself out of bed this morning. Would it be for decades? Centuries? Longer?
Betha! his mind screamed.
"How many," he swallowed. "How many are like this?"
"A dozen. Maybe a few more. Autumn only felt she knew enough to actually do it recently, but as I said, she won’t do many. It took a long time to convince her to save both you and Lizzy. Lizzy yes, but I had to fight for you. Your soul is flexible enough, but she was afraid you were already too old." He sounded like he felt a certain amount of resentment towards the healer for that. “Gabralina finally had to order her to do it.”
His eldest daughter would live. Leon felt joy at that, but what about his other daughters? Their children? His beautiful wife Betha? Was he supposed to watch them all grow old and die? "Why didn't you ask me?" he whispered, his eyes stinging and already knowing the answer. Why knock him out and just do it without even giving him the chance to protest? Why? Because if they hadn’t, he wouldn't have given up his human life. He wouldn't have agreed. He would have loved Ril to his dying breath, and he would have wanted to die in his arms, but he still would have died. Humans weren't meant to be immortal.
Ril was quiet for a moment before he set the soup down, and when he brought his hand back up, he wiped away the tears Leon hadn't realized he was shedding.
"You killed my queen," he said, and Leon shuddered as he deliberately tore an old wound wide open, flooding them both with an ancient pain. It came from both of them, born in the memory of a terrified young woman, tied down to an altar and staring up pleadingly at Leon before he plunged a dagger deep into her heart. Leon had thought that old regret long since put to rest, but it wasn't. Not for either of them. "You made her helpless and you killed her to force me to be your slave."
"I'm so sorry," he whispered.
"You owe me a life," Ril told him. "Hers is gone, so I take yours. As much life as I can wring out of you, and I’ll keep you with me forever, until the stars fall out of the sky and this whole world dies around us both!"
Leon was crying, too weak to lift his hands to cover his face. He'd known battlers were possessive, for decades he'd known...
"Never leave me," Ril whispered in his ear, his breath tickling hair that had been thinning but would eventually regain its thickness and colour. "You and Lizzy both. I belong to you."
Just as Leon belonged to him, and yes, he did owe him a life. He’d owed him for a very long time now, and given the man he’d become, the only life he could ever consent to give in payment for his crimes was his own.
“It’ll be all right,” Ril told him. “I promise you it will.”
Ril carried him home then, wrapped in the blanket and going down back streets in the darkness so that no one in the Valley would see the Chancellor being carried in his battle sylph's arms and weeping most of the way like a child.
Betha was there when Ril carried him into the house, of course, and he proclaimed in the face of her dismay that Leon was sick and needed to rest. Both Betha and their youngest daughter Mia had been worried, frantically preparing the master bedroom for him while Ril carried him upstairs, but Lizzy had been there as well, so ageless and beautiful – as she always would be now - and she'd smiled knowingly at her father before he'd needed to close his eyes, too tired to speak.
Ril laid him down, brushing his lips over his forehead again when Betha wasn’t looking and straightening up, calm and collected once more, his aura happy. Of course he was. He didn't have to worry now about his oldest master leaving him. He nodded and left.
Betha bent over Leon, muttering to herself as she got his shirt and pants off and helped him into a pair of pajamas. "Foolish man," she told him. "If you felt yourself getting sick, why didn't you come home sooner? You're going to work yourself to death!"
She was still so beautiful, even with her face covered in wrinkles and her hair a pale grey. Leon reached up to cup her cheek and then pull her to him, wrapping her in a hug.
"What?" she gasped.
"Just let me hold you for a while," he whispered and after a moment she relented, lying down on the bed beside him and patiently letting him hold her for as long as he could.