I would like to sing someone to sleep
By someone to sit and be.
I would like to rock you and croon you to sleep
And attend you in slumber and out.
I would like to be the only one in the house
Who would know; The night was cold.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Mr. Lang was not well, though the average sheltered soul wouldn't be able to say why. He bore no battle scars, sported no bandages, and his limbs were straight and true as a soldier's ought to be; yet he carried himself carefully, as if mindful of a hurt hidden from watchful eyes. He would slip away even while he sat beside you and look at the walls like he could see through them, see the Hun on the other side. He had his body intact, which was more than many of his brothers in arms had, but one couldn't say that he was truly whole.
No, Mr. Lang was not well at all.
It wasn't easy to tell; one had to know what to look for. Sarah O'Brien, who felt the absence of a brother every hour of every day, knew the look and sound of shell shock. She saw the tremors, she saw the way Lang twitched at sudden sounds, and she saw how quickly he could anger, and it was like having Michael home again, a trembling wreck of the man he once was.
She knew what to look for, but looking and seeing did little good. The bloody doctors didn't know what to do for men like Lang and Michael O'Brien, and there was little more that a lady's maid could do. It hurt to look at him, sometimes, but Sarah O'Brien wasn't one to be content with helplessness, not when there was something she might do. And she would do something this time, even if she had to pour out her own blood in doing it.
She owed it to him.
There wasn't much to be done in the daylight hours, with prying eyes on all sides and not an ounce of understanding to go around, but then he likely wouldn't welcome any real help during the day anyway. Lang had only been in Downton for a month or so, but already Sarah knew he would take her overtures as pity, or worse, flirtation, and a man of his sort would tolerate neither. But at night, when the house was silent and there was nothing to occupy the mind or hands…he couldn't even keep his pride, then.
Nearly every night after that first nightmare Mr. Lang would wake them all with his screaming, and something of a routine had developed where Carson would lumber out of bed, rouse Lang from his night terror, and then leave him to his own devices afterward. It was clear the poor bastard never went back to sleep; he looked like a damned corpse nowadays, with his eyes ringed with dark circles and his skin pale as chalk. No one seemed to pay his condition any mind, all of them being too dense to notice or too wrapped up in themselves to care. It was clear that the others thought of Mr. Lang as yet another duty to be seen to, nothing more, and it made Sarah sick to see it.
And so one night she lay awake and waited, straining her ears for the sound of Lang's shouts from the men's hall. The screaming began shortly after one in the morning, and was soon silenced. No one else in the hall stirred from their beds, and slowly Sarah got up from her bed and slipped out of her room. She approached the door separating the women's hall from the domain of the men and carefully knelt down to feel for the lock. She pressed her thumb against the cool metal of the door-handle to mark the place, reached into her robe's pocket and slipped out a few spindly slivers of steel that had served her well over the years. By feel alone she slid the picks into the lock and began to work, pausing now and again to glance at Mrs. Hughes' door.
With a final deft twist the lock clicked and the doorknob turned under her hand, and all remained silent in the housekeeper's room. With a smile of professional pride Sarah opened the door and stepped into forbidden territory, closing the way behind her before padding down the corridor. Four doors down, on the left, a sliver of light spilled across the floorboards; Mr. Lang was awake now, and she could hear the creak of restless feet pacing the length of the room. Sarah raised her hand to knock and hesitated, biting the inside of her cheek as she reconsidered.
What, exactly, would Mr. Lang think of her showing up uninvited to his room? It was strange, almost ghoulish, to come knocking in the wee hours of the morning. He'd surely think she was mad, or trying to take advantage, or something equally terrible and degrading, and the risk of being caught in here with a thief's tools in her pocket was uncomfortably high…
Sarah's thoughts were interrupted by a soft sound, stifled so that one could barley catch it. It may have been a sigh, or a sob, but she made up her mind and opened the door to Lang's room. She found him leaning against the far wall, haggard and drenched in sweat, and he staggered upright at her approach. He looked at her as though not sure if she were friend or enemy, his eyes sunken and wary. She stayed very still, her hands where he could see them, and waited.
"What are you doing up at this hour?" he demanded, shifting his weight from foot to foot in agitation.
"I might ask the same." Sarah returned, and for the first time she realized he was shaking. Her hands began to reach out- to touch, to soothe- but she got hold of herself before he could take note. Lang, however, didn't seem to be paying any mind to her; he was back at pacing, moving in the space between his bed and the closet in a way that reminded her of an animal locked up in a cage, his head carried low and his hands clenching.
"How long d'you manage to sleep most nights, Mr. Lang? After the dreams."
Lang glanced at her, and God, had Mikey ever looked half so exhausted as this? It made Sarah wonder how long Mr. Lang had been at the front, and what he had done there. Or what had been done to him.
"An hour or two, sometimes a bit more."Lang mumbled, running a shaking hand over his face. A moment later he tried at a smile, his mouth struggling with the near-forgotten expression.
"You shouldn't be here, Miss O'Brien. If you're found, they'll make assumptions. I won't have you losing your job over me."
"You can't just be left on your own like this." Sarah stated firmly, and her tone brooked no argument. "A 'andful of restful hours of sleep isn't enough t'keep a person runnin', not in a house like this. You'll compromise your 'ealth, if you carry on like this."
Mr. Lang gave a great shuddering sigh and shuffled over to his bed, moving like he was a century old. He sat down and put his head in his hands, his shoulders sloping down in defeat.
"I'd give whatever's left of my soul for just one night of decent sleep, Miss O'Brien, but my mind works against me. Every time I close my eyes…"
"You're back there." She finished softly.
"An' nothing 'elps."
"Nothing save work, and there's nothing to keep me busy so late." He said wearily. Sarah was caught in the wake of a memory, then; she was eighteen years old and sitting out behind her childhood home, the stars wheeling overhead and Mikey pressed close on one side while Joe dozed on the other, with Brendan hovering disapprovingly behind them all.
There's Orion- a 'unter, he is, with a great bow. D'you see 'im, Mikey?
"Come along, Mr. Lang."
He stared up at her, still caught in that distant country between waking and dreaming, but put up no resistance when she closed her hands around his tense bicep and hauled him to his feet. He staggered, leaned against her for a moment, and his feverish skin seared hers through her nightgown.
"Don't be. Now hush, else Hughes will be leapin' down our throats faster than thought."
She led them from his room and gently towed the door shut behind them, all too aware of his tremors, his uncertain steps. Both paused a moment, not daring to draw breath as they listened for the sounds of disturbance from the other rooms. Without question being caught together in their nightclothes would get them sacked, no matter how artfully Sarah might lie, or how innocent the truth was. Yet no one stirred behind the featureless bedroom doors, and Sarah cast Lang a brief smile before leading him out of the men's hall on silent feet. Over a decade of service had taught her how to travel like a ghost through these halls, unnoticed to the point of invisibility, and for once she was glad of it.
Sarah and Lang reached the stairs, and they moved down through the dark with care, her hand on his sleeve to guide him over creaking boards. He followed her with a gosling's trust, neither questioning nor protesting when they reached the bottom and she towed him towards one of the servants' doors. Out into the kitchen yard, through another door, and at last they found themselves out beyond Downton, the grass wet underfoot and darkness pressing in all around. Sarah sighed, relaxing slightly now that they were out of the house, and glanced over at Lang; she could make out his silhouette, shoulders back and head tilted up towards the sky.
The stars burned so brightly overhead, and she thought again of those nights, so long ago, with the night stretching infinitely above her and her brothers, all of them whole and innocent still.
Sarah tasted copper in her mouth, realized she was biting the inside of her cheek hard enough to draw blood. Shaking her head, she tugged at Lang's sleeve and urged him to walk beside her.
"Come, Mr. Lang. Let's walk. How much d'you know about stars an' the like?"
As it turned out, quite a bit. She still knew more.
Their nighttime walks became yet another routine for them; Sarah would wait until Carson had woken Lang up and everything had settled again, then pick the lock on the door parting the male and female quarters and steal into his room to escort him outside. Out in the moonlit world they'd do as they liked, smoking and walking over the lawns like they owned them, speaking of Orion or some story they'd been told as children. Most nights, Lang would eventually be calm and tired and ready to sleep again.
Most nights, but not always.
Sometimes the stars were not enough, and the shaking would persist long after they'd left the servants' quarters behind. He would stare at Sarah then, slipping off into his own mental landscape without warning and losing himself there. She was at a loss until one night, almost a month into their bizarre arrangement, when she saw that he was taking one his bad turns again; an odd idea came to her, and she forced down her misgivings long enough to take a drag of her cigarette and say,
"D'you dance, Mr. Lang?"
He started, blinked slowly at her, as if unsure that he heard her correctly.
"Dance. Any skill at it?"
"None worth speaking of," he admitted. "There were a few country dances when I was younger, but nothing worthy of a ballroom."
Sarah nodded as if in thought, sucked in another lungful of smoke. She glanced up at Lang.
"I could teach you." She said, fighting to keep her voice steady. She had Lang's full attention now, confused though it was, and to her horror she felt herself blushing slightly.
"Don't mistake me, Mr. Lang; I've no improper intentions toward you."
"I think we've both left improper behind a few weeks ago, don't you?" Lang said, and he gave her an honest-to-god smile then, one she couldn't help but return. He moved closer, and Sarah did her best to quell the odd fluttering in her stomach.
"I take it this is a yes?"
"Yes. What are we learning?" he inquired, meeting her gaze unwaveringly. He was staying, thank God, though she knew he was still shaking some. Taking a final drag, Sarah threw her fag on the grass, ground it out under her heel and gently grasped Lang's wrist.
"What do you say to a waltz? Nice and simple."
He nodded, shuffled closer still and grasped her hand in his; Sarah swallowed hard, wondering at herself and the sudden sensitivity of her skin. She shivered when Lang rested a paw of a hand on her hip and spoke sharply,
"Hand a bit higher, Mr. Lang. We don't know each other that well."
"Apologies, Miss O'Brien."
She waited for him to settle his hand, warm and solid between her shoulder blades. He seemed afraid of her somehow, or maybe afraid for her; he was at least two heads taller than her, and quite a bit broader besides, and bloody hell but his feet were big.
"Steady, I'm not made of porcelain. Now, you follow me, understood? Move your feet like this…"
Sarah started them off, her hand on his shoulder steering him gently into the proper steps, humming slightly as she tried to recall was Lady Grantham had taught her all those years ago. Lang wasn't bad for a novice, she'd give him that, though he seemed so worried about stepping on her that he was tripping himself up. She only shook her head and gently corrected him, careful to maintain the space between them. After a few minutes, Lang relaxed a little and asked,
"Did you ever dance with your brother?"
Sarah nearly stumbled at that, but held herself steady and darted a quick glance up at him. He was smiling a bit, and she realized he was trying to tease her. Somehow it was encouraging instead of irritating.
"I'd have never lived it down if I had." She snorted, and he chuckled at that, the sound rattling dryly in his mouth as though it had not been used in a long while. Sarah couldn't explain her sudden surge of pride –in herself for causing the laugh, in him for finding it again- but she wouldn't question it for now.
"Pick your feet up, Mr. Lang- you're a gentleman, not a corpse."
Mr. Lang progressed fairly quickly, moving with more ease and confidence as the minutes passed them by. He lost himself in the steps, the silent music they moved by, leaving everything else behind. The night wind cooled him, and dimly Sarah noticed that the shaking had stopped. It couldn't last, however; soon they both stumbled from tiredness, and the wind began to pick up.
"Time to 'ead in, I think. We'll likely freeze otherwise." Sarah observed, drawing her robe tightly around herself. Lang nodded and yawned hugely, like a child might. Without much more ado they both turned and headed back towards the towering Abbey in a companionable silence, too tired to think much on their situation. Lang held the door to the kitchen yard open for Sarah, and when she passed by him with a mumble of thanks he caught her hand.
"Thank you." He whispered, squeezing her fingers gently and smiling. Sarah stared at their linked hands for a moment, her body warming curiously. After a few perilous seconds she shook her head and smiled back.
"There's nothin' to thank me for, Mr. Lang. Let's 'ead in before we drop."
She led the way back into the house and up the winding stairs to the attics with Mr. Lang close behind. He held her hand the whole way, and she let him.