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The Thirst for Adventure

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“What are you doing?”

Yuri is standing in the doorway of his room. The door bangs against the wall, making the young man inside jump. It’s actually quite evident what’s going on, but Yuri has never been one for dealing with situations subtly.

One of the servants is going through his wardrobe.

“I’m sorry, sire, but Yakov sent me to retrieve your old armour, and I...”

“Out.”

The poor boy stumbles. Afterwards, when Lilia lectures him on his treatment of the servants, Yuri will maintain that even if it had been his grandfather doing it, he would have had exactly the same reaction. It doesn’t help his cause.

“I’m sorry, sire, I don’t...”

“OUT.”

Yuri stamps across the room. He wrestles the armful of tunics back from the servant and dumps them on the floor so he can grab his lapels and hiss right at his face.

“If any of my stuff is missing I will personally make sure that no kingdom on this side of the Assissian Ocean will ever hire you again, is that clear?”

The servant nods, and runs for it. Yuri follows him out, and yells down the corridor.

“And send me Georgi! Now!”

By the time his half-brother arrives, Yuri has calmed down somewhat. He’s had time to go through all of his armour, plate by plate, tunic by tunic, chain by chain. Even the feathers on his stupid ceremonial helm are accounted for.

“Yuri?”

Georgi’s tap on the door is tentative, and his voice equally so. Evidently the servant had passed on the message in full.

“Come in.” He knows he sounds tight, but he is. Everything is tense, now. When was the last time he properly relaxed?

 

-

 

“Have you ever wanted to travel, Yuri?” His voice is soft. Gone is all the decisiveness, the authority, of just minutes before. Yuri sometimes forgets that Otabek isn’t actually a king. It takes moments like this, questions like this, to remind him. For some reason, his brain chooses this moment to notice that from the side, it’s possible to see how strangely long his eyelashes are.

Yuri stares down the hallway. It’s a familiar one, because he has to use it to get from his room to the hospital, the library and the main hall. It’s not elaborately decorated like some of the others, because visitors rarely see this part of the castle. No elaborate torches are mounted on the walls, just basic lighting. Nor are there any weapons or shields on display, and there’s certainly not a carpet. The tapestries, however, are unique. They were made by Lilia’s sisters as a goodbye present, and depict scenes from all across the four continents. Not the kind of scenes with dragons and knights on horseback hunting down deer, but actual scenery.

He chooses one in particular to point out. They stop in front of it, and Yuri’s reminded of the first time he asked about the paintings.

Lilia had named all of the peaks, the forests at the foot of the mountains, and the animals and wildlife that could be found there. It had been one of the only Geography lessons that stuck without forced repetition.

“This one is of the mountains to the east,” he says, “the ones you can see from the battlements on a clear day. It’s what the range looks like from the other side. I always assumed, until last year, that one day I’d see this for myself.”

“Perhaps you will, someday.” Yuri laughs, without humour, and doesn’t bother to respond. He turns to go, but Otabek stops him, taking his hand. “Yuri.”

It’s not often that Otabek demands his attention like this.

“Stop thinking that the rest of your life is empty, and start looking for ways to fill it. We might be stuck here for now because of my injury, but you no longer have your life dictated for you. You have no responsibilities to hold you here if you do not wish to stay.”

Yuri sighs, and looks away. Otabek’s attention is too intense, too severe.

“But it’s not my choice, is it?”

“I really don’t understand why you think I would ever force you to do anything against your will.” He reaches out, and with a gentle pressure, asks Yuri to turn his face. For a moment, he doesn’t respond, and Otabek goes to withdraw his hand. Then Yuri turns, meeting his gaze. Otabek’s breath, when he talks, is sweet and warm and close. They had sticky buns for breakfast again. Yuri sighs, his eyes flickering shut for half a second.

“Yura,” Otabek says, quiet and firm. Opening his eyes again, Yuri finds him closer than he remembered. He didn’t move, he doesn’t think. Closing his eyes for half a second just gave him perspective. They’ve not been this close before. “If I win, I do not want to rule you. If I lose, I do not want to follow you. I am your friend, first and foremost, and despite the fact that you have been forced to accept that against your will, I will not abuse it.”

His hands are warm and dry - the one in Yuri’s, the one on his face - soldier’s hands, thick fingers and a circular palm. They would be softer, Yuri thinks, if he didn’t spend so much of his life handling weaponry. After months of inactivity, however, they are much less calloused and coarse than when they first met.

Yuri lifts his free hand to his face, forcing himself to maintain eye contact. His discomfort is kind of secondary to the point he’s trying to make. He curls his fingers around the back of Otabek’s, so that their thumbs cross. Gripping tightly, he holds their hands up between them as if they’re making some kind of pact. In a way, he supposes, they are.

“I really don’t understand why you think I’m being forced to be your friend.” He says, refusing to let his voice waver. It doesn’t come out as a yell, thankfully, but there’s definitely some force behind it. “If I didn’t want to be here, then you wouldn’t have seen me since the tournament.”

There’s that little smile, the one he does when nobody but Yuri is looking. It softens his entire face, just this tiny curl of his lip. It’s such a small thing, but it makes so much difference. Otabek relaxes, into a version of himself that is becoming more familiar. Yuri likes this Otabek.

“Then would you mind showing me your maps?”

All the gravity of the moment has dissipated. Something sweet stays, though, even when he lets go. He hasn’t felt this light in months.

They turn down the hall. Otabek walks beside him, and even though he always does, Yuri seems aware of him differently now. As if exposing himself like that has somehow released everything. He wasn’t scared, because he hadn’t ever thought about the possibility it might happen – but having that level of acceptance is new. He takes a deep breath through his nose – it still smells slightly smoky, not just from last night’s torches, but years of them, permeating the fabric of the tapestries.

“Sure. You still owe me for skipping the courtyard, though.”

“We can spar tomorrow, if you want. It doesn’t look like rain.”

It’s funny - if they’re sitting or standing, he’ll always look directly at Yuri when he’s talking, and when they’re walking, he’ll try and look at him more often than he’ll look where he’s walking. It’s a strange habit, and Yuri’s not entirely sure why he’s noticed it. He swallows.

“Yeah. Yeah, that would be good.”

“Aisulu will need a ride, too.”

Yuri snorts through his nose.

“Yes, sir.”

“I still don’t know how you can roll your eyes that hard without giving yourself a headache.”

“Practice.”

Lilia finds them a few hours later, pawing over a map of the Assissian Ocean.

“This land bridge here is the safest crossing, but it takes nearly two months longer than by ship. We had to bring all the birds to hunt. One or two wouldn’t have been enough somewhere as remote as that.”

Yuri is leaning over Otabek’s shoulder. Well, on his shoulders, actually. Initially they’d both been sat down, but following the smaller details had been harder whilst further away and at a slightly different angle. Then Yuri had just been lazy. Otabek doesn’t seem to mind.

“You really do get seasick, huh?” Otabek shrugs, and turns his head to look at him. Yuri is stacked - resting his chin on his elbow, which is resting on Otabek’s shoulder. He’s just a bit too close to focus on properly. Otabek turns back to the map, following his gaze.

“It’s one of the reasons I only ever went to the Americas once.”

“Mmm,” Yuri hums, his eyes following Otabek’s fingers as he traces across the routes. “Once is more than never.”

“True. How well do you know the kingdoms there?”

There’s a cough behind them. Yuri jumps back immediately and Otabek stands up, bowing in greeting.

“Please, Otabek, sit down.” Lilia waves a hand at him, “We’ve known each other for long enough now, don’t you think?” He nods, but his easiness is gone. “Yakov said you wanted to know more about our map collection.”

The next few hours are pleasant enough. Yuri had no idea that Lilia was so well-travelled, although she moved mainly in Europia, which is to the west rather than the east.

She is as eager to hear about Otabek’s travels as Yuri, however, and between them they tease out more information about him than Yuri has heard the whole time he’s known him.

They are nearly late for dinner.

 

-

 

Yuri dismounts Aisulu, breathing heavily. The quintain is spinning still with the force of his hit.

Otabek hobbles forward to take her reins as Yuri goes to retrieve the dropped jousting lance.

“I think she needs more,” Otabek is saying thoughtfully as he returns, his attention focused on Aisulu as he runs his hands over her legs. “She’s still losing shape.”

Yuri grumbles, sticking the lance back on the stand with the others.

“Believe me, if I could take her out of the castle I would.”

Otabek nods slowly.

“I’m not sure whether anything we do would equal six or seven hours of walking a day.” He’s referring to the journey, but it takes Yuri a minute to catch up.

“Yeah no, I’m not riding around in circles for that long, it’s boring enough already.” Otabek concedes the point, moving away so that Yuri can lead Aisulu to the fence. As he ties her, Otabek leans against the wooden posts, resting his leg.

“I can’t ask you to do any more time,” he says, “especially not with Karzhau’s training as well.”

Yuri is already untacking her, resting the saddle on the fence with a grunt. Otabek remains silent, thinking, as Yuri throws her bridle over the fence and moves on to wiping her down with a wet rag. Aisulu, evidently bored, nudges Beka with her nose. Tolerating her attentions, he rubs the side of her face with one hand until she mumbles her lips at his neck.

“No,” he pushes her away, rescuing his hair from her mouth. “Hair is not for horses, not matter how hungry you are.” It’s only a gentle scolding, but Aisulu apparently takes offense. She shoves her head into his side, hard. He stumbles, tries to grab the fence, misses, and lands in the dust.

“Ouch,” he says, without much feeling. “That was rude.”

Yuri, laughing, gives her a little smack with the cloth, and she tosses her head. If he’d been paying attention, he might have seen that coming, but honestly, with Aisulu and Karzhau he’s never found his influence necessary at all. Besides, seeing Otabek sprawling in the dirt is priceless.

“You can’t blame her. Breakfast was hours ago.” He offers Otabek a hand, and helps to haul him to his feet. Otabek winces slightly as he moves. Grin fading, Yuri steps forward and grabs his elbow, taking more weight.

“This will be a lot easier when Georgi lets me ride.” He comments, wiping the dust off his knees. Yuri walks back to the box and fishes out a brush.

“You can’t even walk properly yet,” Yuri points out.

“I can sit, though.” Otabek rebuts, ignoring Aisulu’s attempts to lean her head on his shoulder. She’s the most affectionate horse Yuri’s ever known, but it’s only with Otabek. Not for want of trying, but she’s never reacted in the same way to him. Mind you, it’s not always endearing. Not that Beka’s actively annoyed, but she is making a nuisance of herself.

“You’ve spent half your life in saddle. Why do I have to explain to you that riding is a big step up from sitting?” Yuri teases, dragging the brush across the patch of saddle sweat on Aisulu’s back. He’s covered in horse dust already, a little hair and sweat isn’t going to make any difference now.

“Because I’m a terrible patient and Georgi keeps trying to confine me to the hospital for my own safety?” Otabek suggests, quirking a smile.

“The more you escape, the more determined he is to keep you in there.” Yuri grumbles, good-humouredly. “At this rate, I’ll be going to the damn wedding on my own.”

After the escapade at the feast (for which Otabek apparently both ran away from the hospital and also stole a crutch), he’s been allowed out much less often.

He blinks at Yuri, caught off-guard.

“What?”

“Victor and Katsudon. What did you think I meant?”

Otabek just stares. Slowly, it dawns on Yuri.

“Oh, right.”

That sours it somewhat.

 

-

 

The days are at last, inevitably, shortening. The sunbeams that usually light the hall during lunch are lower, casting yellow squares on the flagstones. It has been a long time since the hall has been full of the bustle and laughter of a banquet, but the season isn’t over yet. Winter won’t be upon them for a few weeks, and there’s still time to travel.

Even so, the hall is quieter than usual. It was just him and the servers until Victor arrived.

“Otabek! Is it just you today? Where is everyone?” He turns to a servant, “I’m sorry, it looks like Yuri and I won’t have time to break from training today. Would you mind wrapping something up for us?”

That accounts for three of the usual eight of them. Otabek, having just had his plate removed, stands to leave.

“The king and queen were called to counsel.” That’s all he knows.

“Hmmm,” That left Mila, who was known to be both absent-minded and an unabashed kitchen-raider, Georgi, who often had meals delivered to his study, and Yuri. Victor is giving him an odd look. For the vast majority of the last two months, finding one had meant finding both.

“What about Yuiro?” Otabek half-shrugs, moving towards the door.

“Well,” Victor starts. Otabek immediately stops and turns to give him his full attention. “If you aren’t busy, would you like to come down to the training grounds with Yuri and I? My Yuri, I mean,” a small conscientious smile graced his lips. “I’m afraid I haven’t seen Yurio since yesterday.”

If he sees the slight crease of Otabek’s brow, he doesn’t say anything. He considers the offer – he had hoped to find Yuri at lunch. He’d ridden Aisulu on his own that morning, and finding himself with nothing to do afterwards, had ended up in the library. Checking back before lunch he found that Yuri had taken Karzhau mid-morning. It was outside of their usual pattern, but he didn’t question it. Yuri had a life here, after all. Otabek wasn’t his responsibility.

“We could always use another eye. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make something click.” Victor’s smile is undiminished.

Otabek has never been much of a teacher, and his constant moving around hasn’t leant itself well to having squires long enough to build real working relationships with them. However, after a morning amongst the dust and books of the library, the offer of an afternoon out in the last of the summer sun is far from unwelcome.

“Thank you,” he says with a slight bow. “I confess, I find myself with little else to occupy me.”

If Victor suspected as much, he says nothing, simply smiling.

“Great!” The servant comes back with a large wrapped bundle of food. “Ah, wonderful. Thank you. Now,” he turns back to Otabek. “This way!”

Otabek follows his up to the battlements as best as he can. Thankfully, Victor is hampered by the size of the bundle, and doesn’t walk too fast for fear of tripping over his own feet.

“Do you need a hand with that?” Otabek offers when they reach the top of the stairs.

“Ah,” Victor pokes his head around the bundle to smile at him. It’s rather a lot for two people. “Thank you, but I’m fine. It’s awkward, not heavy. Besides, we don’t want to take any risks with your leg, do we?”

Victor has a bad habit of sounding patronising when he’s trying to be nice. Thankfully, Otabek is not in the habit of taking offense at such things. For a prince, he’s remarkably used to being talked down to. Court tends to do that to most people, he’s discovered. Holding it against them is pointless, really. Victor means well.

He concedes the point with a slight nod. No longer limping, he has been healing fine, but going back to spending two or three hours in the saddle every morning has taken him a while to work up to, and he still finds that it exhausts him for the remainder of the day. It will improve with time, he knows.

As they cross the battlements, the sound from the training ground below has become clearer.

“Aha!” Victor says, cheerfully. “So that’s where Yura went!” his relief doesn’t escape Otabek. If Yuri hadn’t told him that Victor was only his half-brother, he never would have known. Victor seems unbothered. It’s admirable, even though his affection sometimes manifests itself in odd ways.

Sure enough, two figures moving around the courtyard below are unmistakeable. One dark haired, one blond, their conversation is indiscernible from here, only so much noise in the clatter of squires training. Victor stops to lean over the wall for a better look, and Otabek joins him.

Katsuki seems to be supervising a rotating stations set-up. Wandering around, he corrects positions, gives encouragement, shares tips, and occasionally waves people around between stations. It’s the most comfortable Otabek has seen him in a long while. Even though his face is turned away, he moves with an easy grace that he never carries around the rest of the castle.

Yuri, as always, is angry about something. He stalks Katsuki from station to station, and Otabek would think he was trailing him if his gesticulating hadn’t suggested some kind of conversation. It seems to be fairly one-sided, going by the amount of attention Katsuki is paying him.

Victor chuckles lightly.

“Looks like Yuri needs rescuing. Coming?”

Otabek shakes his head as Victor steps away from the wall.

“I’ll watch from here for now.”

Victor’s eyes sweep from the way he’s leaning against the wall to his injured leg. He’s not putting any weight on it.

“Of course. Well, shout if you need anything. The whole castle will be able to hear you from up here!”

 

-

 

“I am so bored.”

Katsuki sighs.

If Yuri was hoping for a sympathetic ear, he’s not going to get one. Apparently, Katsuki hasn’t actually been sitting around doing nothing for the past year. Even more frustratingly, he actually seems to be good at this.

Inspecting a slice of bamboo, he beckons to the young squire, and bring his fingers to the cut.

“What can you feel?”

The squire looks wildly at Yuri, and then back at his trainer. His fingers are shaking.

“Um... it’s... curved? Sir?”

Katsuki smiles.

“Exactly! This is the next thing we have to work on. You’ve made great progress today, and this,” he brandishes the bamboo cane, “is proof of that. Here,” he hands it over. “Keep it. In a few months’ time, we’ll compare it to a more recent one, and you’ll be able to see your improvement.”

The squire takes it in his shaky grasp and bows deeply.

“Thank you, Sir Katsuki sir, I shall do my best, sir.”

Yuri watches him go. He vaguely recognises him.

“Isn’t that one of Victor’s squires?”

Yuri sighs, picking up the basket of uncut bamboo and setting them all out of the stands again. Pretending not to watch, Yuri crosses his arms.

“He is.”

“Don’t you have better things to do than look after Victor’s cast-offs?”

Katsuki places perhaps six or seven short sections of bamboo upright on the poles. Each one has a small platform at the top, at about chest height. Having never seen him train before, Yuri actually doesn’t know what it’s for.

“I am actually quite busy, Yurio.” Turning, he shoos Yuri out of the way, and draws his Katana. The sound of steel against the wooden scabbard rings out across the courtyard. It’s as fluid a motion as ever. Evidently Yuri was wrong about him not training since the tournament.

A small crowd of young squires has gathered, perhaps seven or eight of them. They’re all young, barely even teenagers, but they keep a silent and respectful distance from the set up.

“Unless you want to learn how to use a Katana?” Katsuki smiles, and before Yuri has a chance to reply, lifts his blade, swings, and slices the first piece of bamboo in half. Inadvertently, Yuri takes a few more steps back. Picking up the two halves of the bamboo, Katsuki hands them to the squire standing closest to him.

“Take a look at those. We train with Bamboo because it is thought to have the same resistance as human bone.” The squires pass it around, reverently, inspecting the edge of the cut. For some reason, it occurs to Yuri for the first time that Katsuki, despite his royal blood, was taught to fight to kill too. Not that it’s unheard of – they are knights, after all – but very few royals are allowed to the front line. Even Victor, being firstborn and expected to lead a charge (should the occasion arise) had focused his training more on the skills he would need for tournaments and championships. It was a time of peace in Rusiki, but it was a disconcerting thought all the same. Perhaps having Katsuki train some of the squires wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Moving back towards the targets, Katsuki raises his blade again, and slices another. The two sections of bamboo clatter to the floor with a hollow echo.

“The bamboo is balanced on these poles, not fixed.” He says, already moving onto the next. The squires are watching him carefully, hanging off every word. “The slightest miscalculation in speed, force or angle will ruin the cut.”

Lining up, he balances the katana carefully between his two hands. His hair is swept back off his forehead, out of the way of his eyes. Narrowed with focus, he doesn’t even blink at his target. For a moment, he’s almost a rock; irrepressible. The wind has stopped blowing too, and even the material of his Kimono is still.

Again, he swings. The katana flashes, the sun catching the blade. Again, the bamboo slices perfectly.

Leaving two bamboo poles still standing, Katsuki sheathes his weapon.

“The cut must be perfect. A decapitation is supposed to be quick, but incorrect balance will cause your opponent considerable pain.” He walks along the line, picking up the sliced section of bamboo, and placing them in an empty basket. The untouched ones go back in the other basket, presumably to be used another time.

“We will focus first on the movement and technique with a wooden katana, as you may be used to with swords, and then move on to balance and weighting with a steel one.”

He turns to face them all, Yuri included.

“You will need both a blunt and a sharp katana for training. If you see Minako within a week, she will be able to make you all a suitable weapon before the end of the month. You should then have plenty of time to adjust length and grip with her before we use them for training.”

They are dismissed. The courtyard is suddenly full of excited chatter, the squires chatting about the new weapons, and trying to mimic the technique already. Katsuki is pulling the poles out of the ground, moving them away for whatever he wants to use the courtyard for next.

“Sorry, Yurio, what did you want me for again?”

“How would you like to be beaten in a duel with your own weapon?”

Katsuki’s smile is slow to form.

“We train on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sunrise to sunset.”

“Whatever. It’s not like I’ve got anything else to do.”

Humming, Katsuki hands him the bundle of poles. Unable to refuse, Yuri takes them and follows Katsuki with his two baskets into some kind of storeroom. They shrug off their shoes at the door, for some reason.

“Hey, I’m not your servant, Katsudon.”

Of course, this goes ignored. He almost misses the days when almost anything he said would cause Katsuki great embarrassment.

“Have you ever used a naginata?” He’s saying, inspecting the racks of weapons on the walls.

“A what?”

“I suppose it’s not dissimilar to a spear. It’s more for a wide, sweeping cut than a stabbing motion, though.” He takes one down, and hands it to him. It’s a long pole with a curved, flattened blade on the end. It does look like it could do some fairly severe damage. Yuri feels its weight, carefully. “It’s usually favoured by smaller, lighter fighters.”

“Yuri! Yurio!” A voice calls from the courtyard.

“In here, Victor!” Katsuki yells back, taking the weapon back and hanging it on the wall. “Here,” he says to Yuri, digging in a barrel and handing him out a wooden Katana. “You’ll need one of these.”

Victor’s shadow appears in the doorway.

“I didn’t think Yurio was supposed to be training?” He smiles, gesturing to the bundle in his arms. “I brought lunch.”

“If you’d given me literally anything else to do, I wouldn’t be this desperate,” Yuri grumbles, sticking the Katana in his belt. It’s not a particularly solid hold, but for the time being it will do. Victor’s doing that thing where he pretends he’s got no idea what’s going on. His eyebrows are halfway up his forehead.

“Don’t you have lessons with Lilia?”

Yuri pushes past him, marching out into the courtyard. There’s a small table set up to the side of the jousting rink, and he makes a beeline for it. Victor and Katsuki follow, apparently content with his choice of picnic spot.

“Finished before the tournament.” He drags one of the rickety old stools out from under the equally dilapidated table, and settles himself on it as comfortably as possible.

“What about hunting?” Victor says, putting his bundle down on the table and starting to untie it.

“Can’t go out without an escort.” Not that he hasn’t tried, but the guards know their orders and they know him. It’s quite hard to sneak out with a horse and a falcon.

“No official duties?”

“I’m not even supposed to be in Rusiki. You think Yakov saved me any jobs just in case? Now are we eating or what?”

Victor hands him a bread roll and some lemon curd. Holy shit, Yuri’s glad Mila’s friends with Sara now. She sends them the best gifts. Sweet edibles are about all it takes to convince him that somebody is worth knowing. Rare treats that they can’t make in Rusiki, even more so.

He takes a huge bite just as Katsuki turns to him to ask;

“What about Otabek?”

Victor pats Yuri on the back as he chokes, thoroughly ruining all chances at passing that one off casually.

“What about him?” He grumbles as soon as he’s recovered his breath. His dignity is going to take a little longer.

“Oh!” Victor suddenly remembers, “Yuri, darling, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind helping out with training this afternoon?”

“You did what?” Yuri demands, incensed.

“Well!” Katsudon stutters, obviously surprised by the intrusion. For half a second Yuri thinks he’s going to be rescued, but then he collects himself. “Of course not. It’s always useful to have another perspective on something.” He smiles, a slight colour to his cheeks. “I’d be quite honoured, in truth.”

“Good,” Victor plants a kiss on his forehead.

“Ugh,” Yuri tries to ignore them, but his lunch isn’t anywhere near as attention grabbing as it was about a minute ago. God, trust Katsudon to ruin his lemon curd. Asshole.

 

-

 

“Yuri, would you mind watching Minami for me for a moment?”

Yuri rolls his eyes. He knew that sticking around after lunch was a mistake. Lowering his sword from the stance he’d been holding, he leaves the straw dummy spinning and looking more the worse for wear.

“Which one’s that?” He grouses. Katsuki points across the courtyard to where a small boy with blond hair is struggling with a bow that’s obviously too big for him.

“You’ve met him before. He came with me from home.”

Oh God, Yuri does remember him.

“Not that one, Katsudon, he nearly killed me last time!”

He might be exaggerating slightly, but only slightly. Minami has a tendency to get overexcited about things. They’re working on it, but it’s well on its way to becoming a major issue.

“It was an accident,” Katsuki protests, as if that makes any difference at all to whether or not Yuri ended up on the floor with a sword in his forehead. “Besides, he needs a new angle. There’s not much I can do for his motivation at the moment.”

Yuri goes to point out that Minami’s motivation is the least of his problems, but as he does so, the young squire looses an arrow that lands just shy of the centre.

“He would have hit that if...” he starts, and catches himself. Katsuki is already smiling at him. “Shut up.” He grumbles, but sheathes his sword and heads over to check Minami’s grip.

Predictably, as soon as he turns up, Minami’s concentration is completely lost and he doesn’t even hit the hay bale. Yuri represses a sigh.

“Again,” he demands. Minami raises the bow, trembling. “Hold it,” his hands skim over the boy’s correcting his grip and his stance. “Now breathe. You’re in no hurry, the target isn’t going anywhere.”

Minami looses another almost immediately. It misses by miles, and Yuri resists the urge to smack him. Going by Minami’s tiny little squeak of fear as the arrow buried itself into the ground, he’s still remembering the sword incident.

“Again,” Yuri commands, “And listen, this time. Now, breathe. In for six, hold for four, out for eight. Got it? Do that at least three time before you shoot.” He corrects his shoulders, pulling his arm back a little further. “Look straight at the target, not me.”

Minami counts too fast, but at least he does it this time.

“Mm,” Yuri hums, as the arrow shudders into the target. “Better. You don’t need to put so much force into it at this distance though.”

“Right,” Minami bows, and goes to fetch his arrows. Yuri watches him, eyes narrowed. When he gets back, Yuri stops him from setting up again.

“How long have you been using this bow?” he asks, taking it from him and setting the bottom point it in the dirt, measuring how high up his body it reaches.

“Um, only today.” Yuri looks up at him, shocked. Minami squeaks, and rushes to explain. “I don’t have one of my own because we never did archery before we got here and there aren’t enough training bows for everyone to have one of their own and...”

“Right.” Yuri picks the bow up again and slings the quiver over his shoulder. “Watch this.”

In quick succession, the three arrows thud into the target.

“Wow,” Minami gasps. They’re clustered in the tiny space right at the centre, so that the colour of it isn’t even visible.

“That’s because this bow is my size, not yours. There’s no point in you learning with one that’s wrong, or you’ll never master it.” He turns, beckoning Minami to follow. The squire falls in, his feet scurrying to keep up.

“That was incredible! Do you really think I’d be able to do that with my own bow?” Yuri swallows, his annoyance at Katsuki for giving his squires inadequate equipment slightly dampened by the compliment. It’s been a while since anyone has been impressed by his archery. The rest of them are just used to be him being incredible.

“If you practice enough, you can do more.” He says, truthfully. Minami’s not half bad, considering he’s only been doing it for just over a year.

“Wow!”

“Katsuki!” Yuri yells, striding ahead. “Minami needs a new bow.”

Katsuki turns from where he’s watching a squire line up to the quintain.

“A new bow?” He queries, brow creased as he looks between them. Minami’s practically bouncing at the prospect. Crossing his arms over his chest, Yuri glares him down.

“You expect him to learn properly when he has a different size every time he practices?”

“Ah,” Comprehension dawns. “I’m sorry about that, but Minako has so much work on her hands at the moment...”

“Oh my god,” Yuri interrupts. “It doesn’t take a blacksmith to make a bow. There’s an armourer in the town, Victor could have told you that. Where do you think we got all of ours from?”

Katsuki smiles.

“Oh! I didn’t think to ask. That’s wonderful news!”

“Yes!” Minami cries, punching the air. Yuri allows himself a small smile, however exasperated it is.

“I’ll get Victor to send a messenger tonight...” his attention turns to something behind Yuri.

Yuri turns just in time to see Victor and Otabek greet each other.

“Ah, Otabek!” Victor’s voice carries loud and clear across the courtyard from the next station. “There you are! I was beginning to wonder.” Yuri winces so hard he nearly drops the bow.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” Otabek is saying as he and Victor approach the rest of them.

“Not at all!” Katsuki greets him with a polite smile and a slight bow. “We’re very grateful to have your help.”

Oh fuck. There’s no way he’s dealing with this for the next two hours. Throwing the bow down, and shrugging the quiver off his shoulder, he glowers at Otabek.

“Good afternoon, Yuri,” Beka says, perfectly cordially, with a slight inclination of his head. Yuri is already turning on his heel, not even bothering to respond.

“Yurio! Where are you going?” Victor’s voice chases him, too surprised to scold him for his rudeness.

“Away,” he grumbles to himself, knowing that they won’t her him. Instead, he throws his voice over his shoulder, refusing to turn and watch their faces.

“To fly Ariya.”

Alone, he doesn’t say, and doesn’t need to.

Otabek’s expression has barely changed, but he’s still watching Yuri’s retreating back, even as he disappears from the courtyard completely.

Katsuki turns to him, concerned.

“Did something happen?”

Victor puts his arm around his fiancé’s shoulder, dropping a quick kiss on his cheek. Otabek looks away, politely. Such overt displays of affection still feel almost embarrassingly intimate to him, no matter how many years he spends outside of Assissia.

“I’m sure Yurio just needs time. He likes to ignore problems until they go away.” Victor explains. It’s probably supposed to be reassuring. “Ah,” he sighs, tuning back to his station. “I sometimes wonder whether father made the right decision keeping he and Mila from going on diplomatic visits. They’ve been very sheltered.”

 

-

 

“This feels familiar,” Yuri says.

The wind is pushing his hair into his face, but he doesn’t brush it away. The feeling is still new, and he still revels in it.

The battlements are fast becoming his favourite place. Very few people know of it, besides Otabek, but he rarely bothers him there. Today is an exception, and Yuri allows that. His presence makes his statement ring all the more true. The trees are thick with colour, darkening with autumn’s encroachment. The snow will come soon, and once it does, it will stay.

He gathers his cloak around him more fully, and refuses to shiver.

“You’ll be participating this time.”

“I thought I would be last time.”

The date of the duel was set last month, when Otabek was formally invited to take part in the Rusiki Kingdom Championship, and Georgi declared him fit to compete.

Otabek’s hand hovers close to Yuri’s. It’s been there since he got here, when the sun was still high in mid-afternoon; an unanswered question. Yuri stubbornly rests his head on his arms, leaning out on the grey stone that has grown warm under him.

“It’s been a while since we had a banquet. Is Georgi letting you dance?”

“Your father already invited me to open it with you.”

Yuri huffs, watching his breath cloud in the air in front of him. It billows out over the wall, and for a moment, he can imagine it reaching all the way to the edge of the forest. The trail to the mountains disappears under the foliage, clearer with the dieback of the overgrowth with the season.

He’s been going out a lot less recently.

“He didn’t bother to ask me.”

“The expectation was that I would.”

“Of course it was.” He’s not snapping, not really, but there is a certain bitterness to his tone. Yakov has hardly spoken to him since the tournament, and not at all since the announcement that he’d be staying in Rusiki.

“Are you going to dance with me, or not?”

From Yuri, it would have been sharp. Otabek, though, is as calm as ever. His unaffectedness is almost infuriating. There’s not even the slightest warmth of anger to his tone. He sighs, slumping over into his posture.

“Fine. I suppose we have three months of standing on ceremony to catch up on.”

He moves to leave, but Otabek stops him.

“Yura,”

He hasn’t called him that for weeks.

“You don’t have to.”

The direction of the wind, no longer behind him, sweeps his hair to one side so that the back of his neck prickles with goosebumps. It’s so fucking cold. Always so quickly, winter pushes out summer, and he wonders whether it still counts as autumn, or whether he missed the in-between completely. There’s nothing to pin down the change between the two seasons except the snow, and it’s not snowing yet, not in the south. But it’s so cold. Always so cold.

He’s got his back to Otabek, and his eyes are closed, but he can still see him as if they were stood face to face.

The fabric of his tunic flaps about his legs. It feels solid, real, in a way that nothing has for a while.

“I know,” he says quietly.

Otabek comes to stand beside him. His steps are so quiet that Yuri didn’t hear him, accustomed to the thump of the crutch as he moves, even though he hasn’t had it for several weeks now.

“Will you dance will me, Yuri?”

Yuri opens his eyes, finds Otabek’s body as close as his voice. He can’t meet his eyes, has to turn away again, arching his body over the walls, towards the sky.

“Do you want to win?” Yuri asks eventually, still looking out over the forest. The sun is setting, bright and clear, to the west. It will be dusk soon.

“The honour is in the fight. The end result is besides the point.”

“And yet,” Yuri starts, but doesn’t finish.

He wonders too often what Otabek left behind. He wonders, most of all, how Otabek feels about all of this. They’ve been teetering on the edge of a decision that is months overdue and which, despite their best efforts, still holds so much power over both of them.

Apart from Yuri’s staying in Rusiki, they haven’t discussed what happens afterwards. It’s stressful, and it’s a relief. He doesn’t have to decide, yet, which side he’s fighting for.

“What are you asking me for, Yuri?”

Otabek says his name so often. It’s almost as if he feels like he has to constantly draw Yuri’s attention to him. It couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a reason Yuri constantly finds himself turning away from him, is constantly closing his eyes so that he doesn’t have to see him.

He doesn’t know how to stop it happening. Finding an end, when you don’t know where the beginning was, is like trying to shoot an arrow without a bow.

Freedom, Yuri thinks, and can’t say it. How? Asking Otabek to walk away from this duel, knowing that he probably would, is impossible. It would ruin both of them.

Yuri fucking hates being a prince.

“I don’t want you to go easy on me.”

Otabek has tilted his head ever so slightly. It’s the first time there’s been a hint of softness to him today, something other than his public face. Yuri, so used to his openness now, hates the increasing bustle of guests around the castle for burying it away. He relaxes into it immediately, finding himself smiling before he knows what he’s doing.

Otabek looks very confused. Honestly, Yuri doesn’t blame him. He’s been the living embodiment of mixed signals for the last month, if not more.

“I would prefer this duel to have no stakes to it.” Otabek replies, “and despite the fact that we both know that this isn’t possible, I also want to remind you that each arrangement is a partnership that, once cemented, we both have full control over. In name only, we can be connected. We are both entirely free from expectation or contract.”

“Beka,” Yuri sighs through his nose. “You’ve told me that a thousand times. I know.”

“Do you?”

Yuri tilts his head back, growling with frustration.

“Look, I know I’m being an asshole, but it doesn’t have to be about you.” He snaps.

Otabek is too good with silence. It stretches between them, expectant, until Yuri gives up.

“I didn’t mean that.”

“I know.”

They are not good at communicating. Yuri knows this, but knowing that there is a problem and being able to fix it are two entirely different things. It’s been too long since he’s been able to think of Otabek as just a friend, without the pressure of expectation weighing over him.

“I just don’t know what I’m doing,” he tries, and stops. It’s true, in a sense, and yet simultaneously not at all what he means. “I mean, next. I wanted to stay in Rusiki with my family, but I’m slowly going mad here. Last time I asked myself this question, I was going to be knighted, and that was easy enough, because I’d just go wherever I was needed. After that I was fighting for my freedom, which, you’ve given me as much as you can. Only now I don’t feel like I’m needed anywhere. Not that I’m not grateful, obviously, I’m... shit.”

He never did say thank you. Part of him, despite everything, still resents that it needed to be done at all.

“Do you want to leave?” Otabek asks, steady as ever. He’s always been more than capable, and apparently willing, to weather Yuri’s storms. That’s all it takes, he’s discovered – somebody’s who’s willing to wait it out until he can dig under the anger and extract whatever the source of the problem is. He can’t imagine it working with anyone but Otabek.

“Yes, and no.” It’s not really an answer, but it’s all he’s got. Otabek seems to understand, to some degree. There’s space for them both in the gap on the battlements, and he joins Yuri, his dark cloak sliding across his arms and fluttering slightly in the breeze.

“If you left, you wouldn’t know where to go, and you don’t want to leave your grandpa.” He states, looking out across the forest. Yuri nods, watching him. It’s not all there is to it, but it’s a solid chuck of the issue.

“But if I go...” he stops. Otabek turns to him, his brown eyes settling as he waits for a finish. Yuri hasn’t got one. He clenches his teeth inside his jaw until it hurts.

Why does he want to go? What’s out there for him?

“You can always come back.” Otabek drops one shoulder slightly, leaning towards him.

“I’ll feel trapped anyway. Wherever I go I’ll be followed by my title, and everyone’s expectations.”

And yet the idea of staying is a heavy, unwelcome sickness in his stomach.

Yuri feels like this is very one-sided. He gives up trying to chase his own thoughts. It might help, to ground himself in Otabek’s certainty.

“Where are you going to go?” He asks, forcing himself not to move again. This is fine, he can do this. They’re just standing next to each other.

Otabek takes a minute over the question, and Yuri forgot that he does this. When was the last time they actually spent time together?

“You were right about it being too long since I’ve seen Roza.”

“Home?”

It’s not wholly unexpected, he supposes, but it does go against what he’d said when he first got here. People change, though.

Otabek has turned away again, but he’s not looking at the forest. Beyond, the mountains are still visible in the receding light, and the sunset casts long shadows across them. On the other side, Yuri knows, at a distance he can’t even imagine, is Otabek’s family. They’re probably waiting for him.

“I don’t know if it’s home anymore, but yes. My last visit was cut short, and I would like to pay my respects to Alyona properly.”

Yuri doesn’t dissect that. He doesn’t even know what Otabek’s idea of home even is.

“How long will you be gone?”

Otabek turns and gives him an indiscernible look. It’s one that he doesn’t quite recognise, like he’s trying to maintain something, but there’s too much tightness to it.

“I wasn’t intending to come back.”

Yuri stands up. Otabek mirrors the movement, but Yuri pushes past him without allowing him to follow. He breaks into a sprint from a standstill, long strides carrying him along the battlements in seconds. Immediately breathless, legs burning, he feels like he’s running on the last sprint at the end of a marathon.

The dark cold of the stairwell receives him with open arms, and he charges down the spiralling steps thoughtlessly, chasing the end of a moment that he hadn’t realised was happening, his balance constantly on the edge of tipping him over and tumbling him onto the ground below.

He hits the courtyard running, and bumps straight into Isabella, of all people.

“Yuri!” She cries, extracting herself from him, “There you are! We just arrived and Victor said...oh my god, Yuri, what happened?”

Beka arrives behind him at a run, and nearly sends them both flying all over again. His hands automatically go to steady Yuri, but the pressure on his shoulders couldn’t be more unwelcome.

“Get off!” He practically screams, and Otabek lets go so suddenly that he might have been burned.

All three of them stand in shock, the bustle of the courtyard quietening around them as people stop to watch.

“Um...” Isabella starts, looking between them.

Yuri turns on his heel and flat out runs. He doesn’t look back, even as Isabella yells his name.

 

-

 

He dresses silently. He’s sticking with a tunic tonight, which means no corset, and he’s been wearing his hair down so often that Lilia keeps forgetting to even ask whether he wants it braided.

Tonight, he’s not sure whether he’s grateful for the time alone or not. There’s supposed to be something to work through, something to think about, but his head feels as blank as a fresh snowfall.

There is no dramatic entrance to make tonight. The opening banquets are calmer, as a rule, because people want to save their strength for the first day.

He and Otabek sit side by side in silence. This is not unusual, but there must be something about it, because Victor and Katsudon are both giving them worried looks. At one point even Mila checks in on him. Word spreads fast, even in a castle this big.

They get away with it until after the final course.

As the servants are removing the plates, Yakov turns to Yuri.

“Are you two opening the dancing tonight?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

He turns and glares at Otabek.

“Yes.” He insists.

The prince levels his gaze, unmoved by the simmering of Yuri’s temper.

“I’m sure Victor and Yuri will be happy to...”

“Shut up,” Yuri interrupts, and grabs his wrist. He’s two steps along the table by the time he realises that Otabek is not only resisting being dragged along, but that Yuri has actually turned his chair with the force of said resistance. He remains immovably seated until Yuri stops. Only then, does he bow his head, and stand. Yuri lets him go, more from shock than anything. Only the royal table seem to have noticed what’s happening, for now, but people will be looking soon. Jesus Christ why must so much of his life take place in front of an audience?

Otabek offers Yuri his hand. The same one that he just let go of.

Yuri looks at him, incredulously.

“Seriously?” he demands. Otabek doesn’t respond, just inclines his head the smallest fraction. He doesn’t look pissed, as such. Just... sad.

Fuck, Yuri hates him for that.

“You don’t have to.” Otabek repeats. He means the dancing, of course he does, but Yuri knows they’re both thinking about the conversation earlier.

You don’t have to. Whether that means travelling, staying, being anything more than his husband or his bodyguard in name only. It’s not just that he doesn’t have to, it’s that he can do, if he chooses.

Yuri sometimes forgets that all that Otabek wanted from this was a fair fight. Everything else was... unplanned. To say the least.

Christ, he doesn’t even know if there is anything else for Otabek.

“Neither do you.” Yuri replies, and he doesn’t mean the dancing. Otabek knows he doesn’t, because his voice cracks slightly, and he didn’t mean it to. There’s a flash of something in Otabek’s face, before he catches it and smoothes it over. Yesterday, he wouldn’t have done that. If it were just the two of them, he wouldn’t have done that. Victor and Yuuri are watching. Fuck, everyone’s watching.

“Will you dance with me?” It’s the third time he’s had to ask. It’s not an answer. It’s not an anything. But it might just be the last time they get the chance.

“Don’t step on my toes.” Yuri grumbles, and takes the offered hand.

Otabek’s hands are softer than he remembers. Too many months of inactivity, too long spent playing chess in a hospital bed instead of wielding his sword in the training grounds. His grip, however, is as firm and sure as ever.

They don’t talk.

For the fucking entirety of the fucking first dance, nobody fucking joins them. If Yuri had thought it was going to be weird dancing with a newly-recovered and still slightly clumsy Otabek after months of not-quite-friendship, it’s nothing to what actually happens.

The first time, Yuri had conceded the lead and allowed it to flow almost immediately, and Otabek, equally, hadn’t taken control unless it was to sidestep somebody clumsier.

This is different. For a start, the steps aren’t choreographed beforehand, which means that one of them definitely has to be leading. Beka, damn him, is being an asshole about it. Yuri tries to yank him into a move, only to find himself blocked and dragged off sideways into something completely different. This happens a few times, and so to regain his balance and figure out his next move, he concedes for a few steps. Only then, Otabek fucking stops leading, and Yuri has to pick up the slack or they’ll end up standing in the middle of the hall doing fuck all. He slips into it almost by accident, and for a few steps, Otabek goes with him, but as soon as Yuri gains confidence to pull, he fights back. And wins. If Yuri wasn’t so quick on his feet, it would look like an absolute mess to any onlookers. Lilia is probably despairing at his posture, but honestly if he doesn’t focus 100% of his feet, they’re both going to fall over.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Yuri demands, but the only response he gets is Otabek sweeping him down into a drop.

“Dancing.”

This is not dancing. Otabek is fucking playing with him. He goes along with it for a few more steps, and once again, he stops, leaving Yuri to fill the space. He does so more cautiously this time, suggesting rather than leading. Otabek apparently takes no offense at this, and it lasts a few bars. Okay, he thinks he’s getting it. Just to test, he leads a little forcefully, and yes. Otabek pushes back.

“What point are you trying to make here?” He hisses, back to facing him. To his absolute astonishment, Beka smiles.

“I think you’ve got it.”

Yuri stops dead. Otabek simply raises an eyebrow, takes the lead, and runs with it. At some point Yuri realises that Otabek’s dancing style is more than a little different than the upright, staunch steps he’s been taught. Everything is close, pulled in, and every step is either pulling him round so that they’re pressed close together, or puts a foot between Yuri’s, or even worse, puts their faces right next to each other, to the point where Yuri thinks he can feel his own radiating warmth reflecting back at himself from Otabek’s cheek.

They spend the rest of the dance parleying, Otabek leading for a few steps, then Yuri for a few, until, thank god, Victor drags his fiancé out and they aren’t the centre of attention.

They dance another anyway, mostly because Yuri refuses to let go of Beka until he’s either answered some questions, apologised, or both. They’ve both relaxed now, and all of the tension has gone out of the dance. They step smoothly, and Yuri would revel in it if he wasn’t still silently fuming.

“That was humiliating,” he growls. Otabek pulls him in and murmurs in his ear.

“I’m glad it wasn’t just me that thought so. Not that I think anyone else could tell what we were doing.”

“What the fuck were we doing?” Yuri keeps his voice low, as other couples now surround them. “Apart from fighting for control?”

Otabek’s voice prickles at his neck, and okay there is no way he sounds like this normally. Is there? Do people usually get deeper and huskier voices when they whisper? Shit, he’s shivering.

“I would like you to do me the courtesy of listening to what I have to say.”

Yuri doesn’t know whether he feels like a scolded child or an extremely horny teenager right now. Possibly both. It’s a very, very weird combination.

“And you couldn’t have just asked me like a normal person?” He hisses.

Otabek moves, so that he can actually see his face. He’s smiling, damn him.

“Would you have listened?”

Right. That does, actually, kind of make sense.

The last thing Yuri wanted was for Otabek think that he didn’t respect him, but apparently he’s managed exactly that. Still, he doesn’t much appreciate the method. Just fucking talking about it wouldn’t have wounded his pride or his ego nearly so much.

“Besides,” Beka says, before Yuri can snap at him. “You seemed to be enjoying yourself.”

Yuri goes bright pink.

“If it wouldn’t get me into more trouble than it was worth, I would stab you with my sword right here and now.” He threatens. Otabek, apparently uncowed, leans into his shoulder and laughs. “Asshole,” Yuri tries to snap, but can’t stop the warmth leaking into it; half-embarrassed, half-amused.

“Have I got your attention now?” Beka asks, catching his eye. Yuri sighs.

“Fine.” He tightens his grip on Beka’s hands, as if that will somehow convince him that he’s committed to having this conversation. “Talk.”

Otabek’s hand slips from his shoulder to his waist, pulling him around into a spin.

“We’re not so dissimilar, Yuri. If you force me into something, I’ll push back. But if you ask me nicely,” he spins Yuri out and then bring him back again so that their chests are touching, “I’m open to persuasion.” There’s a very, very familiar hand pressing into the small of his back. The last time they’d been this close was...

Shit, this should not be allowed. Beka is definitely shorter than him. Is he wearing heels? He’s grinning – no scratch that, he’s smirking. How can a goddamn smile look dirty? That should be illegal. Holy shit, has he been drinking already or something?

This is not a Beka that Yuri has ever met before. What the actual fuck.

Yuri’s brain should probably be doing something other than silent screaming right now, but that appears to be all that he’s capable of.

“What exactly do you mean by that?” He tries, carefully, not fully trusting his voice.

“I’ve been trying to guess what you wanted from me for months,” Otabek says. “But every time I tried to ask you pushed me away.”

Oh, god.

Yuri’s been dreading this. It was inevitable, of course it was, because Beka doesn’t do anything without fully understanding the situation first, and there’s no way he’d be willing to duel Yuri tomorrow without knowing, for sure, what Yuri wanted. He’s stopped playing around now, although his hand remains firmly in place. His focus is dead set on Yuri.

“So now it’s my turn.”

Unwilling to reply, Yuri simply waits for Otabek to find the right words. They spin a few more times, brushing past the other couples. Yuri takes a certain pride in noticing that they’re easily one of the most elegant pairs – at least now that there are steps to stick to.

“I think it’s fairly obvious that you don’t want to marry me. Until this afternoon, I wasn’t even entirely sure if you liked me very much, whatever you said to the contrary.” Okay, yeah, Yuri’s been an asshole. Such an asshole. “I believe my confusion in light of your reaction to my going away is understandable, in the circumstances.”

What the hell is he supposed to say to that?

“So.” Otabek continues, expression stoic. “Don’t force me to make a choice without knowing what it will mean to you.”

Fuck.

“Can’t you make that choice on your own?” He bites, defensive.

“I am,” Otabek says. “You’re informing my decision, not taking it from me.”

“Well, I wish I could say the same about literally any part of my life right now.”

It comes out all in one desperate breath. Otabek’s expression smoothes somewhat as he mulls that over.

“I believe it was you that said if you didn’t want to be my friend I wouldn’t have seen you since the tournament. What is that, if not choice?”

Fuck.

Otabek’s working his way towards extracting a very, very uncomfortable admission from him.

“That’s not all there is to it.”

“Evidently.”

Fuck, he’s bad at explanations. He shuts his mouth and ducks his head, staring very firmly at Otabek’s shoulder instead of his face.

“If you could choose,” Otabek says eventually, “If you really felt like there was nothing else influencing your decision, what would you do?”

That’s a question and a half. It’s obviously not lightly asked either, if Otabek’s grip on him is anything to go by. Yuri stares over his shoulder, watching without seeing as the bright cloaks of the other dancers whirl past.

“I don’t know,” he admits, turning his gaze to meet the one already set on him. “Do you?”

“Yes.” Otabek answers immediately. Yuri’s almost relieved. Of course he does, he’s Beka. “I’d walk away from the duel and ask you to come with me to Khazakistannas.” Yuri gasps. Actually, audibly, gasps. It completely involuntary but that single sentence completely hotwired his brain. “It’s a long journey, and a dangerous one, and I’d like to have somebody as trustworthy and skilled as you fighting alongside me should it come to it.” Otabek continues. “And once we got there, there’d be plenty to do. There’s no shortage of demand for well-trained knights in Assissia.”

Yuri tries to form words, and gives up, simply tightening his grip on Beka’s hand.

“That bad?” Otabek lifts the corner of his mouth.

“No,” Yuri rushes to explain, “not at all. The exact... I can’t believe I hadn’t even thought of that.”

Otabek is smiling more widely now.

“Really?”

“Really. Shit, that’s... can I change my answer? Because I’d definitely do that. Does Assissia have dragons?”

Otabek’s forgotten it’s not just the two of them. He must have – Yuri’s never seen him this expressive in company.

“I’ve not seen any personally, but there’s generally believed to be.”

“I want to know what a dragon’s mind feels like.” He grins, imagining it. A real quest! A journey to the north; they’d need a small group of travellers and supplies, hunting during the day and camping at night. Pursuing tales and legends until they were close enough to track the beast itself. Perhaps they’d even see it flying, and be able to trace it to its lair.

“But,” he says, hating himself for it. Otabek’s smile fades slightly. Yuri understands. As nice as it is to know that their hypothetical futures line up, there’s no way that’s actually going to happen. Never in a million years. He has Nikolai to worry about, and Otabek carries not only his own reputation, but that of his kingdom, and it’s fragile at best. Yuri would be lying if he said it hadn’t occurred to him that Otabek’s travels are not entirely just for personal improvement. “Even if we can’t do that, can you at least come back someday?”

Otabek sighs, stepping away slightly as the song finishes, transitioning into something more cheerful. Yuri, not really feeling like dancing anymore, takes Otabek’s hand and pulls him back towards the royal table. The others have cleared off, and they’ll be able to talk in peace.

“I can’t promise that I will,” Otabek says, his hand still in Yuri’s. “But I can promise that I will try.”

“No thanks, let’s talk about literally anything except the possibility of you being mauled to death by bandits.”

“Actually, the only near-death experience I’ve ever had was an accident.”

“Still don’t want to know.”

Isabella comes to his rescue, dragging his attention off Otabek before the conversation becomes embarrassing.

“Yuri!” Her eyes are brighter than when he last saw her, her skin glowing. She grabs his hand. “Sorry, Beka, I’ve got to steal your pretty little thing for a dance.”

“He’s not mine,” Otabek protests, almost in the same breath that Yuri grumbles,

“I don’t belong to anyone.”

Isabella just laughs.

“Peas in a pod.” Yuri, unable to protest further, lets her lead him off the raised platform. He hopes Beka doesn’t mind being abandoned too much.

“Oh good God, engagement suits you.” He grumbles. She just smiles at him.

“I think it’s knighthood actually, to be honest. No offense to JJ.”

It’s a thank you, of sorts. He doesn’t reply, concentrating instead on where the hell Otabek went. He’d chanced a glance over Isabella’s shoulder when they set up for the dance, only to find the top table deserted. Otabek’s completely vanished.

“So, looks like you’re having an interesting night.” Their step sequence flounders under Yuri’s disbelief.

“Did you know he was going to do that?” He is utterly failing to hide the fact that he doesn’t even have a response to what the fuck Otabek just did with him. He’s still reeling.

Yuri deliberately steps on her toe in protest. It’s so below him, but it also makes him feel so much better. It also doesn’t hurt at all. He’s not that much of an asshole.

“Oh man. You guys really don’t know each other.”

Yuri is so, so lost.

“What?”

Isabella throws her head back and laughs. Yuri resists the urge to kick her in the shins and waits for her to finish as patiently as he’s able. Which isn’t very.

“Yuri, we all saw how you reacted to his injury. When I came back today I wasn’t the only one expecting you to be more than friends. And Beka’s not exactly known for.... holding back.”

Yuri doesn’t actually have a response to that. He’s doing a very quick rewrite about what he knows of Otabek in his head. Because this... oh, this is entirely new. He’s not sure he likes it that much. Isabella’s blue eyes bore into him, waiting for an answer he doesn’t have.

“Yuri?” She prompts. They’ve been spinning in silent circles for a while. She’s wearing a tunic too, this time, marked with the colours of Candis. Too much red would wash her out, but she’s balanced it, again, with a black cloak. They’re all wearing cloaks now, trying to keep out the harshness of encroaching winter.

This will be the last event of the season. After this, the weather will be too bad to travel.

“Are things working out with JJ?”

He’s deflecting, but he does also want to know. Although he considers her a friend, he’s also aware that the only thing they have in common is a situation that she has resolved, and he hasn’t. Apart from that, he doesn’t really know anything about her. It’s the same with Otabek. There’s been no time to actually get to know either of them. Everything has been spiralling around this unfought duel for months. His frustration, he knows, is partially at himself. Most of it is being pushed out onto Otabek. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to rectify.

It’s his inability to choose.

This whole time, all he’s wanted is autonomy, to have full control over his own life. Yes, at least he’s not going to be forced to spend the rest of his life sewing in a tower or bowing to courtiers or whatever, but he’s not going to be a knight either. He can’t actually travel on his own, not even now he has a horse, and honestly he’s not sure that Otabek won’t take Karzhau with him when he goes.

He lets Isabella tell him about her new life in Candis, about the fact that they spend even less time together now because he’s always travelling and she’s always training, and wonders at this.

“You don’t seem really upset,” he points out, which makes Isabella smile.

“No. We have the rest of our lives together. It would be greedy of me to expect him to throw aside his duties just because we’re engaged now. We’re planning a long honeymoon, though.”

“Oh? Where?”

Yuri does know how to make small talk. It’s even slightly less painful than usual with Isabella.

It’s not unpleasant, actually. JJ is busy doing some networking (looks like arse-licking to me, Yuri says, and Isabella laughs), so they spend the evening doing a strange mixture of catching up and getting to know each other.

There’s a lot less public pressure on him now that it’s not his tournament, but there’s still a certain amount of whispering going on. Officially, he and Otabek haven’t been recognised yet, even if their connection in undeniable now. This is simply the settlement of terms. He gets a few cursory looks, but no more than the other competitors.

“I wish they’d stop seizing me up. It’s not like I’m competing properly.” He grumbles at one point. Isabella turns to him, surprised.

“Aren’t you?”

Yuri slumps back in his chair, staring out at the room. It’s a veritable riot of colour, the dancing now in full swing and the alcohol flowing. There are more than a few couples doing some steps that even Beka didn’t try on him.

Where is he?

The night stretches ahead of him like an open question. Isabella will eventually be whisked away by her fiancé, and then he has nobody. The rest of his family are dancing or consorting with allies, and that’s it, really.

“Of course not. What, you think Beka magically knighted me or something while you were gone?”

“Should I have done?”

The question surprises both of them. Twisting in his chair, Yuri nearly sprains his neck trying to find the source of the question.

“How long have you been standing there, you snoop?” Isabella teases, eyes sparkling.

“About five seconds,” Otabek deadpans, already turning his attention to Yuri. Who is – having a moment. The last time he was in Otabek’s company he was very thoroughly swept off his feet and his brain is very kindly reminding him exactly how Otabek’s black leather cloak felt pushed up against his chest. Also the fact that Isabella implied that he’d been wanting to do that for a while was... bothering him.

“Don’t be an idiot,” He gripes, trying to swallow down the rising blush. He’s not looking at him. He’s not. “Yakov would kill us both, and probably start a war with your parents in the process. There’s a reason I haven’t already asked you to.”

He’s being serious, but both of them just smile at him as if he’s told some kind of hilarious joke.

“I’m not kidding,” he adds, “he tried to throw out my armour.”

Isabella blinks, her smile vanishing.

“Wait, really?”

Otabek nods slowly.

“Georgi mentioned that. Nikolai has it now, correct?” Yuri turns to him, dumbfounded. His confusion must be evident, because Otabek elaborates. “He missed a check up to help you move it.”

Oh, crap.

He opens his mouth to issue some kind of apology, but Otabek raises a hand slightly, waving him off.

“But you want to compete in the championship, if you can?”

Yuri rolls his eyes.

“Have you even met me? I’ve spent my whole life wanting to compete in championships.”

Otabek’s doing that smirk again. Yuri thinks his heart might actually stop.

“I have an idea,” he says.

Chapter Text

It’s considerably easier to sneak out this time.

Otabek’s “I have an idea” also apparently translates as “follow me, let’s get out of here”, because he vanishes through a side door immediately after saying it.

Yuri’s out of his chair before he even thinks to check who’s watching.

Lilia might kill him afterwards. His track record of attendance for these things has only got worse since Otabek arrived, and it wasn’t great to begin with. This gives them a running streak; they’ve officially escaped every single banquet, feast and festival since they met. At least Otabek had an excuse for one of them, although Yuri’s beginning to think he’d have found one anyway. 

“Where are we going?” Isabella hisses as they sneak down a side passage.

Yuri already has something of an idea, but asking the question feels too much like tempting fate. They don’t get a response anyway. Otabek, walking ahead of them, simply flings a tiny smile in their direction, his eyes glittering with that spark of mischief that Yuri is starting to get very, very mixed feeling about.

They cut around the main courtyard, between the training ground and the stables, emerging at the corner of the main entrance.

Isabella stops in the archway, looking confused.

“A blacksmith?”

The furnace is casting a warm, yellow light through the open corridor separating the two areas. It’s a bright spark in the otherwise darkened courtyard.

“Minako is working late tonight,” Yuri realises, “Making the Katanas for Yuuri... you knew she’d be here.”

Otabek nods. They’ve all stopped now.

“You have very relaxed rules about tournament participation in Rusiki,” he says. Yuri’s eyes widen.

“Any passing Knight can enter, as long as they have weapons and a horse.”

“So all we need to do is disguise you,” Otabek grins. “Minako has a complete set of armour waiting for a squire, but she can adapt it for you. We can cover Karzhau’s colouring with coal, and you can borrow a tunic from Isabella or myself, whichever fits better.”

“What about a flag?” Isabella has crossed her arms and leans against a pillar, eyeing them both through suspiciously narrowed eyes. Yuri is beaming. It pulls at his cheeks, almost painfully wide. Otabek shakes his head.

“There aren’t any. It’s only a kingdom tournament.”

“What if you two get found out?”

“It won’t matter,” Yuri rushes in, practically bouncing on his toes. “The only thing you can be disqualified for after the meleé is death, injury or breaking the rules. Squires are allowed to participate in kingdom tournaments, it’s supposed to be good practice, and technically I’m still a squire. I won’t have done anything wrong.”

“We just have to hide it from Yakov for long enough for you to qualify.” Otabek confirms.

Isabella still looks doubtful.

“Is it really worth all the hassle? What do you even get out of this, Yuri?”

He blinks at her, dumbfounded.

“What to you mean, what do I get out of it? I get a chance to compete. I get a chance to prove myself, and change my father’s mind.”

“He didn’t change his mind after your tournament duels. Why would this be any different?”

There’s a certain brittleness in her voice, a harshness that he wasn’t expecting.

“Because it’s official,” he spits, surprised into anger. “I’d expect you, of all people, to understand what this is like for me.”

“Right,” Isabella snaps back, “Because you risk being thrown out on the streets if you don’t get knighted, being left to starve. Poor Prince, you’re so unfortunate, having to suffer though an arranged marriage like the rest of the nobility.”

There’s a moment of stunned silence.

Yuri is not used to anyone other than Yakov shouting back.

“Isabella, why are you so upset?” Otabek asks. Of course he's that considerate, the mad bastard. “Is something wrong?”

Yuri’s instinctual, defensive anger dissipates. He’d been too busy being shocked by her words to consider where they’d come from.

“I know that I’m not exactly facing the same situation as you,” Yuri says, into the ensuing silence, “but it still sucks. I don’t know if this is going to help, but it certainly can’t make my situation any worse. Dad already hates me, after all,” he’d meant it to come out as a grumble, but it cracks, just a little. Otabek’s hand finds it way to his shoulder, a reassuring weight. He keeps going, trying not to be too embarrassed by that. “And Beka won’t be implicated, this way. I’m not damaging his reputation. It seems like a risk worth taking, to me.”

Isabella sighs, runs a hand through her hair.

“I should have known that you’d come up with some kind of mad scheme like this,” she directs it at Otabek. “You have some very weird ideas about problem-solving, you know. Roza’s been telling me stories.”

“You two still write?” Otabek seems surprised. “I didn’t realise....”

He trails off. There’s a commotion in the courtyard behind Isabella. Clocking on to the raised voices, she turns around.

Somebody’s raising the gate. The creaking of metal and the squealing of the wood across the cobbles silences whatever any of them could have said in surprise.

The few servants trekking the path between the kitchen and the main hall scatter as the horse and rider arrive through the main gate at full speed. They only just manage the halt. The horse’s flanks are slick with sweat, and both horse and rider are visibly heaving as they gasp for breath.

“Roza?” Otabek’s disbelief draws Yuri’s attention. Oblivious, Otabek takes two steps into a run from complete standstill, cutting across the courtyard towards the rider. Yuri and Isabella stand in his dust, gaping. “Roza!” Otabek’s shout echoes around the whole area.

The rider dismounts, stumbling into a run almost before her feet hit the ground. She’s tall, dark haired and stockily built, her travellers cloak flapping behind her, wind sweeping it off her broad shoulders. The horse, abandoned behind her, is trembling.

They meet halfway across the courtyard. Otabek sweeps his sister into a tight hug that she returns with equal ferocity. Half a second too late, Yuri takes off after Isabella to catch up with them. They’re talking rapidly in a language he doesn’t understand – their mother tongue, he would assume. Roza is touching his face, which is so weird, because Beka is never that tactile, but he’s gripping her shoulders in return. Whatever they’re saying, it must be important. They’re talking over each other, even when Roza presses her forehead to his and closes her eyes. She’s shaking.

Isabella arrives before he does, greeting Roza in the common tongue even as she puts an anxious hand on her shoulder. Yuri keeps his distance, wary of intruding on what appears to be a very private moment. As he approaches, however, the siblings break apart and Otabek turns to address them, expression firmly fixed in place.

“Isabella, Yuri, this is Princess Roza of Khazakistannas, my sister. Roza, you know Isabella, though I should introduce her as Lady Yang and the future Queen of Candis.”

“Isabella!” Roza smiles, evidently summoning as much energy as she can to be delighted. It falls a little flat, but Isabella smiles back anyway. “Finally!”

“And this is Prince Yuri of Rusiki, who we have to thank for that.” Otabek finishes. If it sounds somewhat strained, Yuri pretends not to notice. He’s trying not to make any judgments until he finds out exactly why half the royal family of Khazakistannas are in Rusiki.

Roza lets go of Isabella to bow to Yuri, giving him a second to take in her appearance as he returns the motion. She is built like a warrior, broad-shouldered and dark-eyed. The spear and shield strapped across her back confirms it, rather than being the first indicator. With her brother’s dark hair and sharp jaw, she is a striking young woman, but seems much more expressive than him. Her expression is more open, if not naturally cheerful then at least politely welcoming. Even so, her exhaustion is evident in the way she holds herself and the colour of her face, though it’s disguised in her manner. She lacks anything that would identify her as royal – no crown, no fine robes, and what looks like a common stable horse.

Otabek keeps an arm around her. Gone is the relaxed mischievousness that Yuri was just beginning to enjoy, replaced with a sharpness that he hasn’t seen since the tournament.

“Change of plan,” he announces, “Isabella, I need you to go and get Yakov, and three more witnesses, preferably of royal birth. Bring them to the chapel, as soon as they can come. I must also inform him that I will be withdrawing from the championship.”

Isabella nods briefly, immediately understanding the weight of whatever is happening by his attitude. Otabek’s tone brokers no argument. She excuses herself with a quick bow, and he turns to Yuri.

“Yura,” his voice softens slightly over the name. The next moment, however, Yuri can’t help but wonder whether he imagined it, and all the sharpness is back. “I have a favour to ask of you.”

He turns, beckoning Yuri to follow as he leads Roza towards the chapel. It’s three domes, whilst a familiar part of his life, are part of the castle he’s rarely given much thought to outside of duty. He wonders how Otabek knows that this is the church. The bell in the central tower has been broken for years.

Whatever energy was holding the princess up seems to have collapsed in on itself. An arm slung over her brother’s shoulders holds most of her weight.

“You have wished to travel, correct?”

“Yes,” Yuri replies, shortly. This is less of a conversation as it is an interrogation.

“And you want a chance to exercise your skill outside of tournaments?”

His heart is hammering in his chest.

“Yes.”

Roza is giving him an indiscernible look. Perhaps she looks more like Otabek than he’d first thought.

They reach the chapel, and Yuri pushes the door open to allow the others through.

There is none of the bright light in the chapel that he has come to expect from their usual ceremonies here. The room itself is mostly dark, lit only by the torches along the pillared walls. Even the warmth of the fire cannot make the cut grey flagstones and stone pews look any more comfortable. Without the curling smoke and incense that usually fills the space, or the people that crowd the benches and fill the standing room by the door, it seems bigger, emptier now than he remembers it ever being before.

The frescoes on the walls are barely visible in this light, their riotous colours dimmed to only dull reds and browns and beiges. It’s bare, with only the white cloth covering the altar at the far end of the aisle, raised from the rest of the room by two stone steps. Even the aisle carpet is gone. Their footsteps echo on the cold stone as they walk.

“I’m going to knight you,” Otabek states, matter-of-fact, as if he hasn’t just taken Yuri’s entire upside-down world and set it back the right way.

“Okay,” he breathes, trying to hold down the enthusiasm so he doesn’t embarrass himself. It doesn’t work, going by the smile that cracks Otabek’s stiff command. Then the frown – and it is a frown, not his usual neutral which just happens to be downturned – is back.

“Then I’m going to invite you to come with us.”

Roza responds before Yuri can.

“What? Beka, you can’t just steal a prince from Rusiki!”

Otabek turns into her and helps steady her as they reach the altar, but she steps back from him, sitting on one of the front row pews. A single candlestick stands, unlit, on the cloth. Yuri picks it up and lights the exposed wicks from the nearest torch. Setting it back on the cloth requires a little care to avoid spilling any of the hot wax. It casts a little more light on their small party, at least, though it does little to help the atmosphere of the place. Yuri feels like he’s walked into a brand new church, not a place he’d been hundreds of times before. It’s just never been quite like this.

“We need as many allies as we can get,” Otabek explains, “and Yuri is the best fighter I know. He’ll be the best knight in a minute, too.”

Pink-cheeked at the compliment, Yuri adds;

“Besides, it’s hardly stealing if I want to go. I’m only third-born anyway.”

That draws both of their gazes to him. Roza’s eyebrows have shot up her face, her mouth slightly open. Yuri wonders for half a second at her surprise, and then realizes that as he’d spoken, he’d stepped forward to take Otabek’s hand. Beka is smiling, squeezing Yuri’s fingers.

“Thank you, Yura,” he tilts his head towards the altar. “But I have one more thing to ask of you,”

“The king is coming,” Isabella interrupts from the doorway, striding down the aisle as the door slams shut behind her. “And he’s bringing the royal table.”

“Then I’ll knight you first.” Drawing his sword, Otabek nods for Yuri to drop to his knees. He does so immediately, placing his hand over his heart and bending his head. “I can only do it in my mother tongue,” Otabek warns, the sword already resting on Yuri’s shoulder.

“Beka, I don’t give a shit,” Yuri nearly snaps. “Just get on with it before my father gets here and exiles us both forever.”

“He made mine up on the spot,” Isabella reminds them, taking a seat on the front row pew. “I don’t think we need worry too much about accuracy.”

Otabek’s words, when he speaks, are warm with amusement, though Yuri understands nothing of the syllables. The sword passes above his head, coming to rest on his other shoulder just as the door bursts open again.

Undeterred, Otabek withdraws the sword and offers Yuri his hand.

“Arise, sir...”

“Plisetsky.” Yuri interrupts before Otabek can say his father’s name. Beka takes it in his stride.

“Sir Plisetsky,” he echoes, not even stumbling over the pronunciation. Yuri takes the offered hand and allows Otabek to help him to his feet.

When he turns around, he finds both the King and Queen, as well as Victor, Katsuki, and for some god-forsaken reason, JJ. They don’t seem to have got much further than the door, leaving the whole chapel empty right up to the four of them at the altar.

Victor is the first to start clapping, walking up the aisle as he does so. Otabek touches Yuri’s shoulder, claiming his attention.

Roza is holding a crown.

“We have the witnesses we need, now.” He says. His voice is heavy, not just with the gravity of ceremony but with what Yuri suspects might be sadness. No, not that – Otabek could never be so open. Resignation, perhaps, is what he means. “May I please ask for King Nikiforov of Rusiki, King Leroy of Candis and Prince Katsuki of Nihan to join Princess Roza of Khazakistannas and Prince Yuri of Rusiki to assist in this coronation.”

Yuri’s attention is frozen on the crown. It’s gold, not unlike the one Otabek usually wears, but much more ornate, and inlaid with stones.

“Beka, what...” He can’t manage any more than that.

“Roza brought bad news.” Is all the explanation he gets.

“Oh,” Isabella’s voice wavers. “Oh, Roza.”

“I know all the words for the ceremony,” Roza says, turning away from her friend and standing, “but we’re a crossroads kingdom, and by tradition we need representatives from other kingdoms to recognize the passing on of power.”

Yuri looks between them, their expressions both carefully schooled.

“Your parents,” he starts, but Roza cuts him off with the tiniest shake of her head.

Everything hits Yuri at once. His gaze stutters from Roza to Beka and back his mind overrun by the understanding of the situation: of the news that she’s been forced to bring her brother; of the desperation of the journey, necessitating that she not only come alone, but carrying the crown jewels of her country concealed with her.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, unable to say anything more.

“I can only offer my condolences,” Katsuki echoes behind him, as genuinely feeling as only he can manage, “I have heard great things about the King and Queen.” Yuri turns as Katsuki steps up beside him to stand by the altar.

Victor nods, somber.

“They will be sorely missed, but I have every confidence that you will support their proud legacy.”

Otabek bows to them both, even as Yakov steps forward, for once every inch the king he is supposed to be.

“Out of respect for both yourself and the late monarchs, I am honored to be able assist in the ceremony,” he says.

“If there’s anything else we can do for you during this difficult time, please, don’t hesitate to ask.” Lilia adds, with a graceful bow. “It’s the least we can do for you both, as our honoured guests and our friends.”

If Yuri is a little surprised at both his family’s level of decorum, it’s nothing compared to the fact that exactly none of them have mentioned anything about the fact that he’s a knight now. No threats or shouting; but no congratulations, either. Perhaps it will come later. But for now, everything has been forgotten.

This is more important.

“Tell us what we need to do, Otabek.” JJ’s voice is firm, and for the first time, Yuri recognizes a hint that they might once have been friends. It’s only confirmed when JJ gives Otabek’s shoulder a quick squeeze as he passes. For both their sakes, Yuri pretends not to notice the flash of surprise in Beka’s eyes.

Otabek takes his place, kneeling where Yuri had just seconds before. Under direction, the five of them he’d asked for fan out around Roza.

Thankfully, Katsuki places himself between Yuri and Yakov, and with Roza to his right side, he is also protected from JJ. Each of them rests a hand on one of the five points of the crown.

Even so, they all seem to be seeking his gaze. Resolutely, he focuses on their hands. His are easily the smallest, and the palest too. Roza’s hands are tanned with the marks of outdoor work, her fingers long, like Katsuki’s, and her palms equally as abused at theirs by overuse and weaponry. JJ’s are the only ones missing the marks of slipped blades and old wars – he had worn gauntlets religiously in training, regardless of whether they were sparring with wood or steel. Even Yakov, though his scars are healed into the leather-like thickness of age, bears his marks.

Each, as they let the crown go, pass their hands over Otabek’s head before moving on. Then it is only Roza and he, and to Yuri’s great surprise, Roza follows the motion, leaving him with the crown. After her own pass over, she smiles back at him, as if reassuring him.

It is heavy in his hands. Otabek’s head remains bowed, one hand upon his heart and one upon his sword hilt.

Roza’s voice, as she speaks, is imbued with reverence. It rings out in the church with an echo, the walls designed to carry the sound to a whole congregation, rather than a gathering of less than ten people. The place feels even emptier with so little space filled by so many people.

He watches Roza carefully, anticipating his signal. When it comes, he steps forward, raises the crown, and places it carefully on Otabek’s head. His hair is warm under Yuri’s fingers and he takes care to settle the crown gently, aware of its weight. It fits him almost perfectly.

Yuri steps back to allow Roza to finish. As his sister stops speaking, Otabek stands. And apparently, that’s it. It’s over.

JJ begins to clap, Victor picking it up immediately, until the two little group of them, either side of the altar, are applauding the new King of Khazakistannas. It manages to sound a lot more reverent than the very simple ceremony seemed to deserve.

It’s hard for Yuri to get his head around. They stand in front of the altar together, two princes who are now, whether by choice or fate, a knight and a king. It hangs heavy in his chest, the knowledge that Otabek hadn’t wanted this, had given Yuri his own freedom in almost the same breath as revoking his own.

He understands, though.

At least, he thinks he does. Roza, only seventeen as he remembers it – he had spoken of her becoming Queen much later in life, when she had had time to travel herself, and learn more about the inner workings of the court and council.

Otabek looks at Roza like she’s the only star in his sky. With his parents...

Yuri doesn’t know whether or not to be glad he didn’t understand what had happened when Roza first arrived.

She’s too young. She stands there, wearing her spear and her desperate ride like a true warrior, and her inexperience shines. Knowing that Otabek had not wanted to be the king, she had ridden for him in the wake of god knows what, to ask it of him. She hadn’t been ready.

Yuri would resent her for it, for the look on Beka’s face right now, but he can’t.

He wonders if she was there when it happened.

One of the worst forfeits of being royalty, the one he has never been willing to pay, is being politicians before being a family. Otabek is living proof that whether or not you pay into that system, it’s a fact of their existence. Their lives, charmed by wealth and affluence, things his grandfather had never let him forget, are also cursed with power, greed, jealousy, and other human flaws that inevitably emerged when there was time for something other than simply scraping to get the next meal on the table.

Otabek has taken the crown off before the applause has even died down.

“We have preparations to make.” Otabek says, and turns, only to find his way blocked. Bending into the bow of a man meeting someone once his equal and now ranked above him, Victor offers both his condolences and congratulations with utmost sincerity.

Lilia, pushing past him, has already started to question Yuri when Otabek speaks. Technically, he’s replying to Victor only. Falling that half-tone in depth as it always does when he raises it, however, his voice carries the attention of their small gathering at once.

“I must return to my kingdom immediately. My sister Princess Roza,” Victor bows again, in greeting this time, “and I will ride out at dawn. Sir Plisetsky has agreed to accompany us, as a travelling companion, and an ally.”

Yuri sneaks a glance at his father. Yakov doesn’t look angry. Surprised yes, shocked even, but nothing more.

“You’re postponing the duel?” Lilia demands, her hand on Yuri’s shoulder. Otabek inclines his head, politely, in response.

“It is necessary. This is an emergency.”

“Then I insists that it does not take place until you have both returned to Rusiki. In the grounds of this castle, and only this castle, will the outcome be decided.” Yuri is surprised by her priorities, unable to discern her case, until she explains it herself. “Only come back when Khazakistannas is safe,” she says to Yuri, and turns to Otabek, “and bring him back alive. Or I will never forgive you.”

Yuri blinks.

Lilia: the woman who has been a mother to him, who taught him to shoot and ride; who fought the man she loved for the freedom of a boy who wasn’t even her own son; who so carefully gave him the tools to do this in the first place; Lilia is making them both promise to return safely to her.

“I would never forgive myself either,” Otabek says solemnly, “but I would not have asked for his company if I did not honestly believe he was fully capable of defending himself, and being valuable addition to our party. I have you to thank for that.”

“Oh my god, shut up, both of you,” Yuri rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to die,” he grabs Otabek’s hand, squeezing firmly, “and neither is anybody else, if I have anything to say about it.”

Chapter Text

The rest of the night is rushed. Although the sun has been set for hours, sleep is hours away yet. He barely sees Otabek or Roza. Packing takes too long, interspersed with so many unexpected goodbyes.

Yuri didn’t realise quite how much he’d be missed.

Lilia helps him pack in silence, and Victor insists on accompanying him, which means Katsuki ends up trailing too. Mila and Georgi both find out about the quest very quickly, presumably when Yakov returns to the banquet, and arrive within the hour.

His room is more crowded than he can ever remember it being, and it’s certainly got more people in it than it’s designed for. They are all, very resolutely, chatting about anything other than the fact that Yuri is leaving. He’d be ignorant to realise that it wasn’t preying on all of their minds though. Victor and Katsuki are talking to – or at, really – Lilia, about their own travels and what they’ve seen of the world. It’s not a particularly subtle way of trying to get Yuri to listen to all of their advice. Georgi is fretting, as usual, though Yuri’s not really sure what over. Mila is just kind of... hovering. She’s tried hugging him a few times, but when he’s trying to get around his room and prevent Lilia from packing three times as many clothes as he needs (”we’re travelling light, Lilia,” he says, and takes the spare cloak out for the second time), it’s quite hard to let her limpet him.

Finally, they all start to trail off to bed. Victor and Katsuki go first, yawning their apologies.

“Always preserve spare meat as you go,” Victor says, uselessly, for something like the third time. Yuri rolls his eyes, exasperated. It’s one of the first lessons of travelling, even he knows this, but everyone knows the story of the time when Victor was fourteen and accidentally dropped their bag of rations in the river.

“Stay out of the midday sun, too,” Katsuki fusses. Yuri would have almost taken it as solid advice if he hadn’t given himself away by clinging onto Victor’s hand. Katsudon’s nervous. “It might not always be warmer, but the sun is stronger over the ranges, and it can make people pass out. Stop in the shade every hour or so, if you can, and make sure you’ve got something covering your head.”

“I know, okay? I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.”

“It’s just... different, in practice.”

“No duh.”

“Oh, and don’t....”

“Go to bed.”

He finally manages to shove them out the door, promising as they leave that he’ll be back in six months anyway, they’ll hardly even miss him.

“I’m glad he has so much faith in Otabek,” Katsuki starts, as they head down the corridor, but Yuri’s shutting the door, and the rest of the sentence is lost to Mila’s exuberance.

“Hey!” He chokes, trying to force her off, “let go, baba, ugh...”

“I’ve got to go to bed.” She says, stepping back. She’s not even trying to smile.

“Okay?”

Yuri’s never had to say goodbye before. He’s beginning to suspect that he’s not very good at it.

Mila nods, briefly, and moves to go.

“Hey,” She stops, arrested by his voice. “Look after Ariya for me? She’s gonna be pissy when I get back if nobody’s let her out for months.”

She nods, once, quickly, her hair falling in her face as she turns away.

Then it’s just Lilia and Georgi.

“Yura,” his half-brother starts, “I take it you’d like to say goodbye to...”

“Yes. Yes, please.”

He has to collect his armour.

Nikolai is asleep. Of course he is, it’s late, and he doesn’t always have the firewood to stay up in the dark hours.

Yuri stands outside his house, thankful that the moonlight got him this far, and wonders if it will be the last time. The knowledge, sharp like a knife in his chest, isn’t made any better by his grandpa’s awkward shuffle to the door to let him in. He can hear him stumbling and cursing, and it’s not because of the dark. Not anymore.

“Yurotchka?”

It’s the first goodbye hug Yuri’s willingly instigated all evening.

Nikolai knows immediately that something’s up. Of course he does. Yuri never visits him in the middle of the night.

“Sir Plisetsky, eh?” He smiles through his gruffness and his beard. As proud as he is to hear it, it opens up the difference between them. Yuri the Knight is different from Yuri the Prince. It makes him independent, a young man. His grandfather had been the only person he’d felt comfortable still being childish around; playing the silly games they’d always played together and gossiping about the goings-on at the castle like he used to with mother. Now he’s standing in this little mud and straw hut where he used to think he belonged, holding a sword and a title, and it feels so much smaller than it used to.

“I couldn’t have been anything else,” he says, truthfully. It is, after all, his name. Yakov never married his mother. It means he’s being true to himself in a way that matters so much more than getting his own way.

“I’m so proud of you.”

Nikolai hands him his helmet, smiling. Something cracks, right where Yuri’s heart should be. He drops the helmet, stepping forward to bury his face in Nikolai’s shoulder. 

“You better be here when I get back.” He whispers it, but Nikolai isn’t deaf yet. He tightens his grip. Yuri didn’t ask him to promise. He knows better than that. But he wishes he could have done.

When Georgi’s magic pulls him back, he lands with a stumble for the first time in years.

Thankfully, Georgi knows better than to ask. Skipping the melodramatic tears and wailing that he was expecting, his brother simply gives him a pat on the shoulder, and wishes him good luck.

Lilia is the last to go. She and Yuri hash out the last of the packing, bundling only his lightest and most necessary armour into a sack over his back, and strapping his bow, quiver and shield on over the top. His spare clothes go in the saddlebag, and his dagger and sword are sheathed and waiting on his belt. Lilia has set out his travelling cloak, tunic and belt on the end of the bed.

They don’t exchange words while they do it, simply working in familiar silence. At last, there is nothing left to do.

“Don’t forget what I taught you.”

Lilia doesn’t hug. She’s always been too sharp, much more of a teacher than a nurturer. But she has made Yuri who he is, and as she reaches out to touch his cheek, he can’t help but wonder what she saw in him, in both he and Mila, that made her piece out the parts of her heart that were left to them.

He doesn’t know how to say thank you.

She’s already gone.

It leaves him unstrung. There’s something not quite right yet, something inside him that hasn’t quite settled into the idea of leaving. Even with his bags packed, he’s been here before and had it go nowhere. He went nowhere.

Not ready to sleep, he heads out. There are questions still unasked, burning on his tongue.

 

-

 

Otabek stares at the crown. It’s incredible that Roza managed to escape with it at all, and he knows he should be glad that she did. But it’s hard not to hate the heavy weight of it in his hands. Mother had told him what it was, when he’d asked. He knows that it was made of stolen gold, not mined or traded. The crown belonged to the herders and farmers of the northern territories – not to their war chiefs, not to their knights, and certainly not to him. And yet Roza had asked him to fix the fractures in their broken kingdom with it, as if it were an emblem of peace and kindness, not greed and death.

Otabek’s lessons in history, geography and politics had been a separate world from his reality for most of his childhood. When he had recited the short list of relative’s names and their progression from tribal leader to king, he had been allowed out to play with Alyona in the green valleys and mountain lakes afterwards, as if so many dead names hadn’t trodden that very ground before him.

The royal family had established themselves in the south, away from the nomad tribes that could not be ruled, and when the war came anyway, away from the fluctuating border. It had only been when mother came home with a fractured elbow and three missing fingers that the two worlds had clicked together – the stupid gluttony of his grandfather’s war, and the price that his family were paying for it. He had been told that no member of the royal family had died of old age or natural causes for over a century; seven generations. It had occurred to him then that he wasn’t even the eighth – he was the ninth. And history had not disappointed.

He had been twelve when he had asked to go on his first delegation. Twelve, when he discovered that the war his parents inherited had become to protect the south, and there had not been a charge led on the northern front for over a decade. Thirteen, when he found out that the Mongols considered revenge debts hereditary. Fourteen, when they somehow got word that the young prince was at the border, and Otabek killed for the first time.

Wars meant countless deaths; instead, Otabek blamed his grandfather for the ones he had felt. His grandmother, though before he was even born; he had wanted to know her. His sister, forced to marry in an attempt to forge an allegiance that should have saved their people. Every face he had met at the end of his sword, though he never knew their names, and the children left without food because their mothers and fathers had been bullied, blackmailed or bullshitted into fighting a pointless war.

And now, his parents.

The knock on the door startles him.

“Beka?” Roza’s voice floats through the door.

“I’m here.”

It’s a relief to see his sister again. He has always loved the stability of the western continents, allowing him to think of borders as trading posts and crossings rather than... anything else. That doesn’t change the fact that he misses his family. The easiness of knowing someone inside out; being able to guess their thoughts and understand their actions without having to analyse everything to avoid making a social faux-pas. Especially when the Europians have such different expectations of royalty and knighthood.

At least Katsuki had been able to relate to that, although the conversation had somehow turned to tea-making rituals. Which, while he finds interesting, isn’t exactly an area he considers himself an expert on. Otabek likes it here, likes the people here, but he still feels uncomfortable sitting on chairs all the time, and it is little things like that which make the most difference.

Roza shuts the door behind her and toes off her shoes, gaze flickering to the crown and back.

“So what do you think of Rusiki?” He asks, putting the crown down beside him. Roza approaches and settles on his other side, resting her head on his shoulder. The contact is more than welcome. Otabek has barely touched a human being for the entire thee months he’s been here. He puts his arm around her shoulder. It’s not as easy as it used to be. She’s grown.

“I’ve barely seen any of it.” She says, “But what I have has been bitterly cold, mostly flat and snowy, and covered in those tiny domes that they seem to like so much. You can see a town from miles away when there’s no forest.”

Otabek hums, thoughtfully.

“Not an interesting journey, then?” Roza smells considerably cleaner now than she had when she first arrived, but he’s hoping that was a result of the speed and urgency of the ride rather than any difficulty. Roza knows him well enough to know what he’s really asking, anyway. He knows her well enough to know that she’s going to ignore the subtext.

Are you okay?

Shut up I’m fine.

Or the sibling equivalent.

“Not a single bandit.” She sighs, “I’m very out of practice now, you know.” Otabek smiles, thankful at least that she seems to be holding it together a little better now. No doubt hot food and a shower have helped with that.

“Then you can start building your strength up again by helping me pack.”

Roza sighs, already standing and brushing the dust off her thighs.

“Fine, but if I help you’ll let me cut your hair afterwards.”

“I don’t need a haircut.”

“It took me several seconds to realise that the madman running across the courtyard yelling at me was you.”

Roza.”

“What? You’re evidently still not married, I think you need some help.”

Some things never change.

 

-

 

“Come in,” Roza’s voice answers Yuri’s knock.

The room is sparse. Otabek had moved here from the hospital only a month or so into his rehabilitation, but Yuri has never been in before. A few saddlebags, already full, are set near the door. Apart from that, there is only the bed, the chair and Otabek’s travelling cloak slung over the corner or the door.

Roza is standing over Otabek, forcing him to bend his head over a basin with one hand. In the other, she is holding a razor, which she is manoeuvring carefully around her brother’s ears.

“Oh,” Roza lets go, bending quickly into a polite bow. “Sir Plisetsky.”

“Yuri,” he corrects, trying not to give into the little thrill it gives him to be greeted like that. “I think if we’re going to travel together, using titles is a little over the top.” Released, Otabek looks up, rubbing his neck. “Huh. That’s um... huh.”

“This is what he usually looks like,” Roza says. “Beka, you’re so terrible at cutting your hair when you travel. I’m amazed you shave at all.”

It’s a lot shorter on top now, revealing the short crop underneath that Yuri had basically forgotten was there. The curling is practically invisible, at this length.

“It’s nearly winter,” Otabek protests, only for Roza to shove his head back down.

“You’ve been here all summer, you slob,” she scolds, filling a jug from the basin and pouring it over his head, washing away the last of the shavings.

Yuri doesn’t point out that her own hair, even braided, reaches nearly to her waist. It would be asking for trouble – his is slowly inching past his shoulders now that he’s allowing it to grow.

“There you go,” Roza says, passing her brother a towel. “You’re done.”

“Thanks,” Beka’s grumble sounds fairly insincere, but Roza just pats his arm. Yuri’s attention slips. Beka’s chest is exposed, and all the evidence of his training with it.

His eyes snap back up to the hair as Otabek finishes towelling and brushes it back from his face.

“Hm?” He raises an eyebrow at Yuri’s stare.

“...I’ll get used to it.” Yuri decides. For some reason, Otabek seems amused by that.

“Hey,” Roza picks up the favour that has been put out of use. “What do you want me to do with this?”

“Here,” Otabek holds out his hand for it, and loops it around his wrist. “Tie it for me?” She does so, smiling.

“Not just any old scrap of fabric then?”

“Perceptive,” is all that Otabek offers, already moving away. Roza’s curiosity is piqued.

“Oh? What is it then?” She grabs his arm back to have another look.

“My favour,” Yuri surprises them both with his statement. Roza blinks at him, then turns to Otabek with a grin. To Yuri’s surprise, even delight, his cheeks are dusted a slight pink. He’s never seen that before.

“Roza, don’t...”

“Beka, are you blushing?”

“Yura, please,” Otabek pleads, but Roza’s laughter is already ringing through the room.

“Look at you, you sap. Who’d have thought it? I didn’t think you bought into that tradition.”

“Roza,” Otabek seems exasperated. “I’m not stealing him, I asked him to accompany us.”

Yuri tilts his head to one side.

“I think Beka knows that trying to kidnap me wouldn’t go down very well, either.”

They both look at him in silence, for a second.

“What?” Roza seems confused. “It’s not kidnapping, it’s...”

“Not the same in Rusiki.” Otabek interrupts. Comprehension dawns for Roza.

“Oh,” she says. “Right. That explains a lot.”

“Explains what?” Yuri is very confused. For all that they’re using the common tongue, he’s not getting much from this conversation. Roza glances at her brother, evidently unsure of whether explaining is going to be down to her or him.

“Roza’s teasing me.” Otabek says, somewhat reluctantly, “about a custom of stealing brides when the families are opposed to the wedding.” He’s watching Yuri warily, as if he’s expecting him to run away again.

Yuri smiles. It spreads, slowly at first, from a little twitch in his cheek to a full-blown grin.

“I think it’s pretty much the opposite,” he says. “Technically, Beka’s stealing me away from a wedding that my family are desperate to happen.”

“Well,” Roza shrugs, smiling at Beka. “It would be odd for him to become a traditionalist now, I suppose.”

Otabek tilts his head at her.

“I would never ask to bring someone who I didn’t genuinely believe would be of use.” He says, deadpan. “Yuri’s good at what he does. We are safer with him by our side, and I’m proud to ride with him.”

Okay, wow, Yuri’s turn to blush. Apparently any compliment from Otabek wrecks him now. That’s going to be inconvenient.

“So what are we actually doing?” He says, trying to draw the conversation away. “I seem to have missed a lot of explanations.”

Both of their expressions have darkened, and he regrets asking immediately.

“Mongols from the north,” Otaken supplies. “Villages burnt, tenuous peace treaty broken, and the king and queen caught in the crossfire. The people are in need of a leader.”

There’s always more to it than that, but Yuri doesn’t need to ask. The fact that Otabek called them the king and queen and not his parents speaks volumes. The rest of it is still raw. He’s not sure how they’re holding it together this well as it is, and he doesn’t want to make it any harder for them.

“Plan of action?”

It’s directed at Otabek, but Roza is the one who responds.

“We get back, reunite our side, and fight back. The call for allies is already out.”

“I just need to be there when they arrive.” Otabek supplies. Yuri seats himself on the end of the bed. Roza has busied herself with the basin, and makes to leave with it.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Beka.” She turns to Yuri with a nod, and a small smile. “Try and get some sleep. We ride hard.”

Yuri turns to Otabek.

“Will your leg be able to cope with that?”

“It will have to. Georgi packed me some salves and potions.”

Roza has paused in the doorway.

“Your leg?”

Uh oh. Yuri glances between them, not innocent to the accusatory tone of Roza’s question, nor the awkwardness he seems to have caused by it.

“Ah, I forgot to mention,” Otabek says. “It’s why I’m still in Rusiki.” Roza’s gaze flickers from her brother to Yuri and back. Yuri pretends not to have noticed. “It’s nearly fully healed.”

“Show me.” She demands.

“Tomorrow.” It’s a compromise. She takes a second to consider, but then, with a curt nod, departs.

Otabek slumps, like his strings have been dropped. Yuri watches him. It’s like he was holding something up, a façade to save Roza from something. It’s strange to know that Yuri is allowed to see a part of Beka that he was hiding from his own sister. He swallows the thought.

“Are you sure she’s your younger sister?” He asks when she’s out of earshot. Otabek, occupied with pulling on an undershirt, huffs.

“She doesn’t always see my decisions the way I do, and mistrusts my judgement as a result.”

Yuri hums, mind already elsewhere.

“How long will it take to get there?” He asks, watching as Otabek moves around the room, moving his cloak to the chair, and pulling the screen across the window. The fire in the hearth is already beginning to die down, but there are thick furs on the bed. He won’t be cold until the morning.

“A month, at most. Two weeks by road, through the mountains, one or two weeks at sea. Once we get there, we go where we’re needed. How long it will take us to get to the border depends entirely on how well the defenses have managed without a leader.”

The bed creaks as Otabek sits down. He breathes out heavily through his nose. Yuri can guess what he’s thinking. He reaches across the covers, puts his hand on top of Otabek’s.

“I’m sorry,” he says, quietly. Otabek just closes his eyes.

Everyone deals with grief in different ways. Yuri knows his is dangerous, but when the anger comes, as it always does, he never feels better until it is all out. This is different. He’d hardly know that anything was wrong if he hadn’t witnessed it.

He doesn’t know what else he can do. So he just sits, and waits.

“Will you stay?” Otabek asks at last, opening his eyes and looking for Yuri.

“Here? Tonight?”

“Roza has been given another room.” Yuri had guessed that, but it’s not what Otabek is saying, not really. Perhaps it’s another coping mechanism. Yuri shouts and isolates himself; Otabek goes quiet, and seeks company. That’s okay. He can do this much.

“Alright. Do you want me to get a sleeping mat?”

Otabek fixes him with a look that is part confusion, part... something else.

“If you want. I just don’t want to be alone.”

The way he states it, so matter-of-fact and completely flat - that’s what stings. Yuri clutches his hand tighter.

“Look, I know it’s not the same, but when my mum...” Otabek looks away. It’s something that he almost never does, and the movement is so sudden, unexpected, that Yuri cuts himself off. “We don’t have to talk about it.”

He wishes he hadn’t pushed, now. There’s something incredibly disconcerting about seeing adults cry. Really cry, not the overly loud and dramatic tears that Georgi was prone to, or the watery-eyed look that Katsuki sometimes gets. No, not like that. This is like the first time that he saw Nikolai cry. Quiet, an endless gut-wrenching grief that words will never do justice to.

Otabek has folded in on himself, his chin tucked towards his chest, leaning his elbow on his knees. Eyes closed, jaw clenched, the pattern of his breathing has barely changed.

 

-

 

Otabek isn’t surprised when he cries. He owes it to them.

He knows that Yuri doesn’t know much about his parents, but Otabek did tell him that he respected them equally as much as he loved them; a concept that he knows Yuri both envies and does not.

Otabek knows that Yuri’s mother had been his world, for the simple fact that she had been the first, and one of the only, people who ever made him feel truly worthwhile. Yuri had told him that, though not in so many words. But she had not taught him to shoot, like Otabek’s father had. And unlike Lilia, when Otabek had expressed an interest in other areas than his father’s greatest passion, his father had allowed it happily, and simply taken him out hawking instead. Yuri had not been trusted enough to be brought to court or on diplomatic visits as a teenager, and had not had a mother with a sense of mischief and fun to escape with him to the forest to ride when it got boring, like Otabek had. They had allowed him to make his own mistakes, and had never scolded him for them, rather instead letting him learn from it himself. Yuri, in short, had not been brought up by parents who considered his personal growth and happiness to be just as important, if not more so, than his ability to be a good leader.

Where Yuri had been forced into a role that he had always rebelled against, sometimes simply on principle, Otabek had grown into himself as if the fact that he had become a young man on whom the crown rested easily was a second thought. Whether he had wanted it was different – his parents had anticipated his decision to abdicate after Alyona’s death before he’d even told them, and had been completely fine with it as long as Roza was.

Otabek cries because his parents were his parents before they were his monarchs, and he doesn’t know whether he pities Yuri for being denied that upbringing or whether he is grateful that Yuri will never know this grief.

Otabek cries because his parents had been the people that made him who he is, because he is proud to call himself their son, and because he will miss them as much as he will miss their influence on him.

Otabek cries because at least, he owes them that. And he cries as if he will never heal from this.

 

-

 

Otabek is one of the best warriors Yuri has ever known. He has championship titles, he’s travelled more of the world than Yuri could even dream of, his older sister and mentor died when he was miles away from her, he’s recovered from a life-threatening injury right here in this castle, and now he’s a king.

All of that fades as the tears slide down his cheeks, wetting his dark eyelashes together, and Yuri sees... something else. Himself, maybe. Not just Otabek’s accomplishments, but what it took him to be here, as the person he is – as a king of a kingdom that he didn’t think he was worthy of.

She’ll make a better queen than I ever would be a king,” he had said, and Yuri had never asked why.

He’s not sure he believes it anymore. For some reason, seeing Otabek cry has reminded him of exactly what he’s capable of. Not just defeating everyone else in the tournament, but for standing up for Isabella when he felt like JJ was mistreating her, even though it cost him their friendship. For taking so much time when working with his animals, a labour of love that he undertakes for their sake rather than his. For helping train the squires. For agreeing to take the crown instead of Roza. For trying to give Yuri his freedom, and for dealing with all of his bullshit in the ensuing months.

Especially that.

When he was younger, Yuri had imagined himself into a hero that never cried – he defeated dragons, battled with skill and daring, and won everyone’s admiration. He had wanted to be strong. But that’s not all there is to it. He’s beginning to understand that, now.

If only he knew what to do. They’re supposed to be friends, for the love of god, and he’s just sat here watching him cry.

Eventually, he shuffles closer, resting his head on Beka’s shoulder. It’s harder than with Victor, who’s got an extra few inches on Beka, but it’s not uncomfortable. The warm weight of his body is, he hopes, somewhat reassuring. There’s not much else he knows how to do.

Otabek cries for a long time. Yuri just waits it out. Not wanting to talk or move, but there if Beka wants to. It’s something he’s never let anyone do for him, but now he wishes he had. It would have been easier, perhaps, than being alone.

“Thank you,” Beka says eventually. Yuri nearly sighs aloud with relief. For all of his reasoning, he hadn’t actually been sure whether he was doing the right thing.

“’s’okay. Come on, idiot. We need sleep.” He stands, but Otabek sits up, finally meeting his gaze.

“Yura?”

“Mmmm?” It’s too late to go wandering around the castle now, the servants will have put out all the torches and this room only has a fire. He’ll just have to sleep in his undershirt.

“I want to apologise for asking you to leave your grandfather behind.” Yuri pauses, tunic halfway up his chest. It’s not his most dignified moment, but apparently this is a conversation they’re having now.

“Oh, shut up,” he grumbles, pulling the thing off. “If I didn’t want to come, I would’ve said no.”

It’s not something that he considered at the time. To be honest, he hadn’t thought at all. But that says a lot about his state of mind; he agreed so readily and happily, what could have been holding him back obviously wasn’t as big of an issue as he thought it had been.

He’s not an idiot. He knows that Nikolai might not be here when he gets back. He knows that Otabek is thinking, even through his own grief, about causing Yuri the same pain.

It’s weirdly thoughtful.

Yuri is really going to have to get out of the habit of being a little shit when he’s angry or upset. He still hasn’t forgiven himself for messing around with Beka, and he probably won’t for a while. Beka is more than a little bit better at dealing with this kind of crap than he is. God knows Yakov probably even thinks he’s a good influence on Yuri. Lilia definitely does, and that had been an embarrassing enough conversation all by itself – two sentences of absolute mortification, in all honesty.

“I know what I’m doing.” He snipes, dumping the tunic on the chair for lack of anywhere else to put it and yanking his trousers off.

“Good.”

Yuri turns around, catching a glimpse of the moon shining from behind the curtains. Otabek rubs one hand across his face. Yuri doesn’t think he’s ever seen him so open before. He can only wish it was for a better reason. He wonders if he’s ever cried with laughter – when his smile softens everything about him, and the skin at the corners of his eyes wrinkles.

He doesn’t get a mat. He doesn’t want to leave Beka alone.

When they’re finally lying down face to face, he voices it.

“Next time this happens, it’ll be because of something good.”

Beka looks at him across the sheets. The redness around his eyes is already almost faded. Although his expression is back to neutral, there’s something softer about it; raw and open. It makes Yuri feel weirdly protective, even though Beka could probably throw him in a fight if he really wanted to.

It’s just that, though – that’s not all there is to him. He’s more than just a warrior.

“Does it have to be for something at all?” He asks, softly. Yuri reaches out for his wrist, thumbs the green band of fabric.

“No. No, it doesn’t.”

They fall asleep like that; facing each other, Yuri’s hand around Beka’s wrist, and the favour trapped between their skin.

Chapter Text

Otabek wakes first.

Yuri hasn’t moved at all. His fingers are still tucked around Otabek’s wrist, though his grip is loose, the brush of his fingers barely there. His hair, splayed out around his head, catches the earliest rays of dawn filtering through the window.

Yuri.

His face is peaceful in sleep, something he rarely manages in his waking hours. His hair has been swept off his face, revealing more of him than Otabek has ever seen before. For some reason, the thing he notices first is that Yuri has really, really small ears. They’re usually buried under his hair, even when it’s braided. His neck, too, is rarely this exposed. He can see his heartbeat, steady and slow, under his pale skin.

Otabek can’t help but admire him. There is so much fire in Yuri, a determination that has enveloped the little shard of bitterness.

Yuri, who was always so sure of himself except when it came to this mess of theirs; it was always push and pull with him. Some days he acted like he couldn’t possibly be anywhere but with Otabek – and some days he acted like he couldn’t stand the sight of him. He’d be lying to himself if he didn’t say that part of the reason he wanted to leave was to spare himself some of the heartburn of that treatment. They had almost been friends – Yuri had let him in fast, but then he’d pushed back with just as much sudden force.

Otabek thinks he might finally understand what he has been doing wrong.

Because Yuri is a pusher; he forces himself back against his father’s constraints, and surges forward into his training; Yuri pushes like he’s looking for limits, like he’s trying to carve the perfect space to slot his life into. It’s not just general avarice. It’s more than that. It’s about identity.

Yuri pushes at everything. When he’d pushed at Otabek, he’d allowed it, stepped back. But none of Yuri’s family do that. At first, it seemed odd to him, that they allow him so much. After observation, however, a pattern has become clear. Yuri is never hurtful, not really. And, if tolerated, he relaxes into himself and the snapping, if not completely ceases, dies down. It’s like a line of self-defence. They let him snap because they know it’s not really him; they know that eventually, he will stop. The only reason it had taken Otabek so long to realise that was because Yuri had been so open with him immediately, and it went against everything else he’d seen.

Yuri sleeps on. Otabek doesn't know how deep a sleeper he is, but he daren't move. They will have to get up soon, but for now, they have this quiet moment to themselves. And Otabek is grateful - for the chance to reflect, and for the chance to simply enjoy the moment. He had not expected, or even dared to hope, for this. 

Everything about Yuri is tied to choice. Finding his equilibrium has proved impossible. What is right one day is wrong the next. His reactions are always and inevitably tied to something else – and so Otabek had waited. Everything that Yuri wanted, he asked for. Or demanded. If he wanted to be a knight this badly, then there must have been something holding him back from asking for it when it was within Otabek’s power to give it to him. And he’d been right. It wasn’t just Yuri – it was Nikolai, and Yakov, and Otabek hates how Yuri is so desperate to be independent but so tied into the system he’s been brought up in, all at once.

Life in Rusiki makes him feel like a fly caught in a spider’s web. In whichever direction he moves, the thread will tug, and something else will be offset. It was impossible to predict. Somehow, just going about his day-to-day life had changed everything around him. He had been taught to plan, to anticipate, but Yuri is un-guessable, fascinating and dangerous.

Yuri pushes back, but he pushes like he expects resistance. Yuri pushes like Roza had, before he left; but Yuri didn’t ever want to be alone. Not really. Independence and solitude are not the same thing. Otabek has begun to wonder whether Roza had pushed him away because she expected him to leave, rather than because she wanted him to.

Yuri, who threw off what he saw as pointless responsibility whilst shouldering such a strong sense of what was right; Yuri, who stayed for his grandfather, even when it was slowly killing his spirit – when Yuri had admitted that he was afraid to leave Rusiki because of his family, that had been when Otabek had changed his mind for good. That was when he’d decided to return home. His own family, who he’d neglected from his own grief when they needed him most, deserved that much.

Otabek aches. His eyes are raw and dry, and his head pounds, but more than that, there’s a hollowness in his chest that is back too soon. Alyona’s death, though never forgotten, had become something that he’d learned to live with. But this – like when Georgi re-opened his thigh after sealing it – is worse than he could have imagined.

It’s the only thing that could possibly be worse than missing them from the wrong side of the mountains; missing them forever. Homesickness become heartsickness.

All he’d ever wanted was to protect his family and his people. It was painfully ironic that he couldn’t do that without leaving them. When he chose to take a longer route, stay another month, or travel straight on without returning, he thought of them. Injured and stuck in Rusiki, he’d thought of them. He’d missed them, missed them as much as he worried about them.

But leaving had seemed the right thing to do at the time.

But now, as with Alyona, he could only wish that he’d been there at the end. It was the same mistake. He’d made the same mistake twice. And he hadn’t been able to protect them at all.

He’d known that, as soon as he’d set out for Rusiki, he was risking losing them for good. It had always been a possibility. From the very first time he’d left the castle, he’d known how precarious their rule was. But the kingdom had always been unstable, was no more so than usual, and it had been so easy to promise himself that he’d be back. They had been fighting without him for years.

It had taken a little longer to realise that he didn’t have the urge to travel anymore. He wanted to stay; he had no intention of being king, and never had, but there was only so much he could do from across the continent. The only way to help his motherland was to be there. He really had been intending to stay, this time. He’d been away for too long, had learnt everything that he thought he could, or that was necessary. Travelling could do no more for him.

And leaving Rusiki had seemed like the best for all of them.

The decision had centred him, given him a purpose that made the confines and confusions of Rusiki more bearable. It had been a long time coming, something he’d been working towards for years - only to find that he’d been too late all along. The whole time he’d been looking forward to seeing them again, they’d already been dead.

He doesn’t know what to do with the grief. It’s like a lump of clay in his abdomen; a heavy sickness that he will carry for the rest of his life.

At least he has a duty now. Something to keep him busy. Whether he wants it or not is irrelevant. He is needed.

Though he can’t see beyond the thin material blocking the window, Otabek has the view memorised. The little square of sky, sometimes blue, sometimes grey, looks out across the side of one of the towers. From the bed, that’s all he can see, but if he were to stand and make his way over, he’d be able to see all the places he spent most of his time in Rusiki; the edge of the training courtyard to the left of the tower, the stables and aviary beyond that, the sprawling expanse of domed building that is the great hall on one side and the library on the other. And beyond the castle walls, the hospital. It’s familiar - full of well-trodden hallways, and he has mostly memorised the layout - but it’s not home.

The knock on the door stirs them both, but Otabek is the only one awake enough to recognise the danger.

“I’m coming in!” Roza yells, already opening the door.

“No!” He shouts back, the volume and proximity of his voice making Yuri jump. Otabek tries to roll over, as if he can somehow get to the door before Roza finishes opening it. Instead, she walks in just in time to see Otabek fall off the bed, taking all the blankets with him, leaving Yuri in his undershirt and not much else.

“Uh...” Yuri just about manages, bleary-eyed and disorientated, just before Roza starts shouting.

In fairness to Roza, she is shouting actual words, but seeing as they’re in her mothertongue, Yuri has no idea what she’s saying. Otabek, unfortunately, does. The door slams behind her, leaving a ringing silence, into which Otabek says ‘ow’, slightly forlornly.

He was expecting the shouting to resume as soon as Yuri was coherent enough to understand what had just happened. He lies on his face, nose stinging, arms tangled in his blankets, waiting for the bomb to go off.

He does not expect the giggle. Trying to lift himself up off the floor not only proves impossible, but also prompts the giggle into a laugh. He just about manages to struggle onto his side, but apparently Yuri has been leaning off the side of the bed to watch his endeavours, and this proves to be too much. With Yuri rendered utterly insensible by helpless, hysterical laughter, Otabek has to rescue himself.

Struggling to his feet reveals Yuri, lying on the bed with his arms wrapped around his stomach, real tears of laughter at the corners of his eyes. Hair a mess, undershirt hanging off one shoulder, he is utterly, breathtakingly beautiful.

He takes one look at Otabek’s expression, and it only sets him off again.

 

-

 

“I was expecting there to be more stuff,” Yuri says. Six saddlebags and a back pack each is not a lot for a month’s worth of travelling.

“Lighter is faster,” Roza reminds him, patting her horse’s flank. Whatever she’d had to say about her wake-up call, it seems to be directed entirely at her brother. Yuri tries not to be too disappointed at the loss of opportunity to tease Beka. They are supposed to be being serious now, after all. It’s just that the morning had been a massive improvement on the evening, mood-wise. If teasing is what it takes to get Beka to smile, he’s pretty sure it’ll be easy to enlist Roza’s help.

“What’s her name?” Roza is asking the stable boy who brought the horse over. It’s not the same one she rode in on last night, pretty much confirming Yuri’s theory that she had been switching horses on her ride here. He recognises this one from their stable, but he’s never ridden the mare. She’s a bay, not as true a thoroughbred as most of theirs, but crossed with something a little sturdier. She won’t be as suited to the journey as the steppe ponies, but she’ll do.

“Anastasia,” the boy stumbles, “your majesty.”

“That’s a hell of a mouthful for a horse,” Roza comments, going over the mare with her hands, down to the hocks and across the flanks.

“The short form is Nastya,” Yuri offers. Roza nods.

“She looks more like a Nastya than an Anastasia to me,”

“It’s the same...” Yuri starts, then sighs. “Nevermind.” Roza seems much less adjusted to adapting to new cultures than her brother is. He can explain it properly later. She shrugs, and turns to mount, taking Nastya for a little lap around the courtyard.

“A tent and blankets for the weather on the mountains and emergency rations are all we need to bring with us for now.” Otabek says, watching his sister as she weaves her way around the open arches into the training courtyard. He seems supremely unbothered by her immediate mastery of her new mount. Evidently he hadn’t been kidding about them learning to ride before they could walk. “Across the plains it won’t be hard to find food, especially with your bow, and firewood is abundant. It shouldn’t rain for at least a week. At the base of the ranges we’ll pick up guides and equipment from one of the local villages. They’re used to travellers.”

Yuri doesn’t know enough about travelling to be able to weigh in on the plan, but he appreciates Otabek telling him anyway. As he talks, he checks the straps on the saddlebags and Aisulu’s girth, taking time to assure her as he does so. Apparently satisfied, he turns to them just as Roza arrives back by Yuri’s side.

“Ready?”

Yuri looks behind him, back towards the doors of the castle. To his surprise, most of his family are gathered on the steps. Victor’s bright purple flash, flanked by Katsuki’s slightly more muted blue, and then Georgi again in his flamboyant mage’s robes. Mila, thankfully, has a little more sense, her long brown fur-lined coat thrown over her shoulders. And then behind them, his parents. Not just Lilia, but most surprisingly of all, Yakov. For once, even though they are stiffly shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed and equal frowns set firmly in place, he doesn’t see them immediately as the king and queen. They’re not here on court business, after all. They’re here for him.

It arrests him, even as Otabek mounts. He hadn’t expected the turnout at all, not at such an antisocial hour. All he can do is stand, and gape.

He thought they’d already said goodbye.

“You should go,” Otabek says, and for a minute Yuri thinks he means leave. “Say goodbye properly.” When he turns, looks up at his friend, he knows exactly what he means.

For a moment, the sharp retort is ready on his tongue, but it fizzles away at Otabek’s expression. He’s right. If anything happened while he was away... Yuri’s family is different from Otabek’s, but they’re still his family. Even Yakov.

Turns out he doesn’t need to be good at goodbyes. His family do it for him. He doesn’t even make it halfway across the courtyard before Mila is off the step, heading for him at a dead run. Yuri finds himself at the centre of a group hug, Mila’s arms around him and Victor’s around hers, and Georgi crying on his shoulder again, and even Katsuki’s hand on his shoulder as he holds onto Victor. Lilia remains on the step by Yakov. For her sake, Yuri pretends not to see her quickly brush a tear from her cheek. But when his siblings let him go, and he finally turns to walk away, he nods at her.

Yuri is not into the whole ‘and he never looked back’ thing. He wants to remember them clearly, hold onto the idea of them for when he gets homesick. And he will. It’s not something he’s going to try and deny from himself. He’s never been away from home before. So he tries to burn the image into his mind, the strange little collection of people on the step, almost shining in the morning light. With the gate open, the front gate is the only part of the courtyard not cast in morning shadow. It outlines them, like a painting.

Now he’s a knight, this is the kind of thing he’s expected to do. Victor and Katsuki both had, after all, and they could both be pressed for their many stories of quests and battles. Even then, it had seemed strangely fantastical. The world beyond the castle bounds could be completely made-up, and Yuri would have been none the wiser.

Looking back across at them from the bridge, Yuri realises that he’d never felt sheltered before. Trapped, yes, bored a lot of the time, but the beat of his excited heart is edged by something just short of real anxiety.

He raises a hand, just as the gate begins to close. Six hands are raised in response.

The last time he turns back is when they reach the edge of the forest, and the castle is about to vanish for good. The sunrise is behind the mountains, but it casts the sky in pink and blue, the castle standing out against the sky almost like a silhouette.

“Yuri?” Otabek turns to him.

“I was just thinking,” Yuri starts, then his eyes flick to Roza. “This is probably the most peaceful bride stealing ever.”

Otabek’s shock and Roza’s laughter are well worth the cheek of it.

 

-

 

Travelling, it turns out, is much less exciting than Yuri had hoped it would be. Their first day consists mainly of establishing habits.

 

-

 

The first thing that becomes clear is that Yuri will be doing the hunting. The deer darts out in front of them and freezes.

Yuri’s bow is already in his hand, the arrow loosed and landed before the creature can even move. Even so, Yuri’s not exactly fast about it. He steadies the shot for precious fractions of a second before it flies. But the deer – a doe, by the shape of her – never even flinched.

The arrow, instead of piercing the jugular as Otabek had expected, lands squarely between its eyes. A shot that was only possible because the creature had been looking at them. It crumples immediately.

Yuri is already dismounting. Whether the deer is dead or stunned isn’t clear, but Yuri ensures it with a quick slice of his knife. The head lolls, and Yuri retrieves his arrow, wiping it off on his tunic before putting it back in his quiver. Otabek dismounts as Yuri hefts the body up over his shoulder.

“Shouldn’t we skin her here?” Roza asks, watching the blood dribble down the front of Yuri’s tunic with evident surprise.

“Nah,” Yuri carries the corpse easily. “There’s been a bear in this area recently. I’ll wrap her neck so we don’t leave a trail as we can do it at camp tonight. Then we can burn the remains and the ground where we do it.”

Otabek stands next to Karzhau as Yuri does exactly as he’d suggested, tearing off part of the fabric of his tunic to staunch the wound.

“Bear?” He repeats. Roza turns to him, worried.

“I haven’t seen any signs,” she says.

“The doe told me,” Yuri shrugs.

That gives both of them pause. Yuri is already lifting the body of the back of Karzhau’s saddle, hooves hanging limp. The mare seems unbothered by both the blood and the extra weight.

“You can talk to animals?” Roza asks, dumbfounded.

“Nope,” Yuri says, helpfully, hauling himself back up into the saddle.

“We call it ‘mind-melding’,” Otabek supplies the last in their mother tongue.

“I’ve literally never heard of that before.” She shakes her head.

“I have no idea what that word means,” Yuri grins, “but it is pretty rare. We call it influencing. I can feel the shape of their minds.” He nudges Karzhau into a walk, and the others fall in without either of their riders asking them to. Roza looks considerably more disconcerted by that than Otabek.

“So you... ‘influenced’ her?” Roza asks, testing the pronunciation.

“Of course,” Yuri says. “I always take the fear away before I kill them. That’s the worst bit. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather not see my own death coming.”

He says it so matter-of-factly that Otabek doesn’t have time to come up with a response before Roza does.

“How can you do that?”

“It’s like magic,” Yuri says, with a shrug. “You’re either born with it, or you aren’t. There’s not exactly an instruction manual though, so learning to use it was very trial and error.”

“No, I mean,” Roza’s eyes are fixed on the doe, her body bouncing in the saddle. “How can you kill it after being inside its head like that?”

Yuri gives that some thought. Seeing as he doesn’t immediately snap at her, Otabek thinks he might not answer at all.

“We eat a lot of meat at the castle,” he says, eventually. Even though is Otabek is riding alongside him, watching him as he speaks, his gaze remains resolutely forward. “Some of it raised, but most of it hunted. Whether I go with them or not makes no difference to the hunters, but it does to the animals. This doe is the third we came across today, but the first two were younger, and one had a fawn this year.”

“You chose her?” Otabek clarifies.

“Yes.” Yuri turns to him. “We cannot afford to go without meat. In the winter, it is hard enough to feed ourselves, let alone the people. The animals will die anyway, but I can take the fear away and make it as quick and as painless as possible, as well as making sure that none of their young are left without being provided for.” His green eyes flash. Does he expect to be teased for this?

“That’s brave,” Otabek says, honestly. Yuri, his eyes widening in shock, blushes.

“What?” He demands sharply. “How?”

Otabek considers his response.

“I don’t think I could ever do it,” Roza, this time, is more eloquent than he ever could have been. She can be a little blunt, but then so is Yuri. They are none of them naturally tactful people. Otabek knows that he’s at least a little better at pretending. “I don’t really want to eat her now.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Yuri snaps. “She’s already dead. Don’t waste it.” He’s bristling, the full force of his glare on Roza.

“You’ll need the energy,” Otabek reminds her, trying to diffuse the tension. “Especially now it’s getting colder.”

His input seems to settle the matter. They ride in silence for a while, until all of their thoughts have moved on to other things.

 

-

 

The second thing that they establish is sleeping arrangements.

“Roza, he can just have your tent and we’ll share the yurt,” Otabek protests, wearily. It’s been along day. Yuri and Roza have been bickering for hours.

“Why so shy all of a sudden?” She grins, throwing her canvas across the ground, ready to set up. Otabek really wishes he’d seen this coming.

“It’s not like that. It would be more comfortable for Yuri to have his own space.”

“What about my comfort? You snore, Beka!”

“Are you guys talking about me?” Yuri interjects, snippily. He’s been skinning the doe while they set up camp, and has wandered over to the stream to wash his hands. “I may not recognise a single word, but names are pretty universal.”

“Sleeping arrangements,” Otabek explains. “We only have two tents, and Roza wants her own.”

“You snore,” Roza repeats determinedly.

“The only time we’ve ever shared a room was when we both had the flu. Everybody snores when their nose is blocked.” Otabek points out. “You snored.”

“Well, I don’t care,” Yuri shrugs, shaking the water off his hands. “We’ll all be able to hear each other through the tents anyway.”

Roza takes that as permission. Otabek tries not to be too pleased about losing.

 

-

 

The final thing they establish is cooking duties. Roza bemoans the fact that she’s been doing all of it for weeks, and Beka gives in mostly just to shut her up. Yuri pieces out a little of the meat and bone to him, and starts the process of preserving the rest of it while Otabek boils the bones into stock, then sorts through, washes and chops the few vegetables they’ve foraged during the day. Mostly, it’s beetroot, but as the landscape changes there’ll be a little more variation. Roza banks the fire, then goes to burn the patch of ground where Yuri had been working. It’s all done in companionable silence, and even though the evening comes in early, they’re tired not long after the sun sets.

Roza is the first to yawn.

“We should sleep,” Otabek suggests, but Roza shakes her head.

“You still haven’t shown me your leg.”

With a sigh, Otabek hikes up his trousers to show her the scar. It is completely healed now, the skin scarred into a proper seal. The skin is still new, however, and it’s a clean slice.

“Impressive,” Roza says, kneeling by him to inspect it more closely. “Does it still pull?”

“Only a little. Today’s riding was less taxing than I expected.”

“Hmm,” She seems somewhat placated. “No wonder you ended up stuck in this place though. Who gave it to you?”

“JJ.”

Yuri doesn’t miss Roza’s shock.

“Huh. Guess you guys really did fall out.”

“Roza,” Otabek warns. She shrugs, pulling away.

“I’m not interfering. Your business is your business. Anyway, if you’re sending me to bed you guys had better go too. Otherwise you’ll keep me up anyway and I’ll be pissed at you tomorrow.”

Yuri is amenable to that. After such a long day, sleep comes easily to both of them. Yuri doesn’t even have the energy to ask about the unusual shape of the tent, choosing a bundle of blankets and crawling into it without much more than a half-mumbled “’night.”

They don’t sleep for long.

Yuri wakes with a nightmare, the kind that has him thrashing, and Otabek scrambling to wake him. In the dark of the tent, Yuri’s hands grope for him, fixing firmly around his wrists.

“Beka?” The tremble in his voice is entirely unwelcome.

“I’m here.” He whispers back, hoping they haven’t woken Roza.

“I’ve got...” Yuri swears under his breath, something in his mother tongue that Otabek recognises by repetition rather than by meaning. “This is going to sting.”

A sudden spark crackles between them, ignited where their skin touches. Like a fire, it burns through Otabek’s veins, right up his arms, to his chest, up his neck...

 

“Yurotchka,” Nikolai looks solemn. There’s a hammer in his hand. “You don’t have to watch this.”

He stays, clutching tightly at his too-long sleeves, the ones that hang into the palms of his hands.

“I want to say goodbye,” he insists. “Mum would have wanted to.”

Nikolai nods.

The cow is distressed. It’s an illness of some kind, and he’s trying so hard to help, but he’s not very strong yet. Georgi says that pain isn’t something he can help with anyway.

Fear, though. Fear is easy. The hammer isn’t scary. No, not at all. It’s just a hammer. See those all the time. The problem is keeping it that was as it swings towards her, when her mind knows this is DANGER, DANGER, and he has to throw so much effort into it’s okay, it’s just a hammer, it’s fine, it’s fine, calm... calm... calm...

When the blow takes her, it takes him too.

“Yurotchka!” Nikolai’s voice is so very, very far away.

 

“Beka?”

Otabek has wrapped himself around Yuri, somehow. The solid weight of him against his chest is reassuring.

“What...” Yuri’s hands are soothing along his back, hesitant but there. “Beka, you’re trembling.”

“I think I got your dream,” he manages, somewhat strangled. No wonder Yuri had been thrashing. He’d died.

“Oh,” Yuri’s soft gasp is somewhat muffled. “That doesn’t usually happen, I use Mila to blunt that sometimes and it’s never actually, well... worked, I suppose.”

“That was your influence?” Otabek clarifies, though it can’t have been anything else. He tries to calm his heartbeat.

“I think?” Otabek can’t help but wish he could see Yuri’s face. He presses his nose into his hair instead, breathing in the scent of him. Yuri’s breath is ghosting across his collarbone. “What did you get?”

“A scene,” Otabek starts, “You, but much younger. Very small. Nikolai was going to kill your mother’s cow. She was sick, dying anyway. You were trying to soothe her, but you... died?”

Yuri huffs into his chest, dipping his head into a slight laugh.

“Yeah, you got me. I’m secretly a ghost. S’why I’m always so cold.”

It’s not the reaction Otabek was expecting.

“It was just a dream, then?” He wants reassurance.

“Oh, no,” Yuri is still strangely calm. “It was a memory. I didn’t die though. I was just out for a while. I think my body got confused about where my consciousness was and just shut down until it came back.”

“How long did it take?”

“A day or two.” Otabek doesn’t know how to respond to that. It’s a frightening thought. “That’s how grandpa found out I was an influencer too.” Yuri continues.

“Too?”

“Got it from my mum. There haven’t been any in the royal family in years.”

They are quiet for a moment, while they both process what just happened.

“You know what I also got?” Otabek whispers, eventually.

“Mmm?”

“A headache.”

He’s not kidding. The initial burn of the thing had been overshadowed by the dream itself, but his head is thudding now, like someone’s knocking on the inside of his skull with a hammer.

“Crap,” Yuri says, pulling back as if that’s somehow going to help him see better in the dark. “I don’t know whether that’s normal.”

Otabek closes his eyes. It doesn’t make much difference, but it does feel a little more comfortable.

“I think it’s okay. If we could just be quiet, that would help.”

They were whispering anyway, but absolute silence does seem to help somewhat. Yuri’s fingers ghost over his forehead. He allows it, though it has little effect on the severity of the pounding.

Eventually, Yuri’s breathing slows, and Otabek guesses he’s fallen asleep. His hand rests somewhere around his collarbone. Otabek holds him for a while longer. He intends to roll over at some point, but it never quite happens.

“I don’t think this counts as having no reason,” He whispers into Yuri’s hair, some time later, but he’s already asleep. The headache fades with time, and Otabek finally drifts off.

He wakes up to Yuri’s face pressed into his chest, their sleeping blankets in disarray, and Roza standing in the tent flap.

“Ha!” She says triumphantly. “Knew it.” And she’s gone. Yuri, woken by her proclamation, presses his forehead to Otabek’s sternum with a groan.

“Is she going to do that every time?”

Otabek yawns, and pulls away, reluctantly.

“I hope not. It’s far too early to be that smug.”

Yuri snorts into the blanket.

“How’s your headache?”

“Gone.”

“Good.”

Chapter Text

The second day is a little more eventful than the first. By mid-morning, it becomes clear that they will be doing more than simply riding.

The little group ahead of them have not picked a good spot to set up. The bridge is visible from nearly half an hour’s ride away across the plain that has hosted them for most of the day, and their swords glitter in the autumn sun.

“A pas d’armes.” Yuri says, sounding surprised.

“It doesn’t bode well for a peaceful journey to come across them so soon.” Otabek says, “Is there another place to cross the river?”

Yuri shakes his head, embarrassed.

“I... don’t know. I’ve never been this far out, and my study of maps has been based on more general knowledge.”

It’s not something he’d been keen to admit, but at least he understands the same basics of navigation that has driven them so far. Which side of the tree the moss grew on and which direction the sun rose from was easy enough to remember, especially with the mountains directly East of them.

“It’s probably a better idea to just meet them.” Roza shrugs. “It won’t be the last time we have to fight.”

“It’s not ideal.” Otabek states, shifting a little in his saddle. It suddenly occurs to Yuri that Otabek hasn’t fought properly on his leg since the injury, and his training has only picked back up to his usual pace very recently. “Do you know how open knights are to negotiation in these parts, Yura?”

“I don’t think they’re knights, actually,” Yuri squints. “Or if they are, they’re none of ours. There’s supposed to be a ban against it in the winter months. Wasting too much energy when it’s getting cold is dangerous.”

“And this doesn’t exactly seem to be a busy road.” Roza puts in. “It’s an unusual place to practice, to say the least.”

“Perhaps they don’t want a fight,” Otabek offers, picking Aisulu’s pace up a little. Yuri and Roza follow his lead, eager now to see what’s going on. Or at least get a better view of the bridge. It’s one of the flat wooden ones, two horses wide, and occasionally prone to being washed away in the spring floods.

“The bridge could be broken?” Roza suggests. “Or maybe one of them is injured?” Yuri keeps quiet, his own suspicions raised, but hoping to be proved wrong. It becomes increasingly obvious, as they approach, that none of Roza’s suggestions are plausible.

They are, at the very least, evenly matched. The three women stand, shoulder to shoulder, blocking the bridge. Their three swords are black, as are their cloaks. They do not carry shields.

“Oh, no.” Yuri says, knowing that he sounds terrified, but unable to keep it from his voice. “Widows.”

“Who?” Roza blinks, but Yuri shakes his head, pulling Karzhau to a stop. He’d hoped that the others would know what they are, but if not, he’ll just have to work with that.

“Stay here, unless I call you. Whatever happens, don’t move until they’re all gone. Their quarrel is with me, and they won’t take kindly to interruption.”

He pretends to ignore the look that the siblings share over his head. He would stay and explain, but can’t risk causing the widows any offense. Delaying to explain who they are and what is about to happen would definitely do that. He can only hope that Otabek trusts him enough not only to stay put, but to restrain Roza too. So far he’s been surprisingly, if not somewhat foolhardily trusting of Yuri. It’s one of the things that Yuri likes about him, and because of that, it’s not something he’d ever wanted to test.

Now he doesn’t have a choice.

Dismounting, he makes his way towards them. It’s an easy situation to learn about, but a dangerous one if you forget. Lilia had made him commit it to memory. Strangely, it’s one of the only things that nobody had mentioned on his last night at the castle. He can’t remember any personal stories about it either. Perhaps Victor had simply never encountered any. If that was the case, Yuri is extremely unlucky.

As he approaches, it becomes more obvious that he’d guessed right. The three women all have wet black hair, and despite the chill, they do not shiver. Their eyes follow him, but they do not move. Their limbs are so white that they’re almost blue, the veins standing out on their naked arms.

He plants his sword in the ground in front of them.

“My name is Yuri Plisetsky,” he says, “third born and illegitimate son of King Yakov Nikiforov of Rusiki, born of the northern tribes, and a knight in my own right. Who are you, and what would you have with me?”

The first woman steps forward, dripping.

“I have greater pride than to fight an illegitimate son. I deserve a better vengeance.”

“I can only offer myself,” Yuri replies.

He is not shaking. The woman sneers at him anyway, her lip curling back to expose a mouth only half-full of teeth. Then, right before his eyes, her head opens up. A wound; the scar left by a sword. Stretching from the top of her head almost to her eye, it splits her face and exposes her brain, but does not bleed. The skin is ripped, raw white and bloodless, and what he can only guess is the remaining mess of brain tissue is grey, like a carcass left to hang.

“Does this,” she hisses, moving closer, “deserve a half-blood’s revenge?”

If Yuri is shivering now, it is because she has chilled him to the bone. Standing this close to her is like being immersed in the winter lake. It knocks all the breath out of him.

“I can only offer myself,” he repeats, choking it out as best he can, through what feels like lungs full of water.

“Not enough,” the woman spits, and steps back, sheathing her sword. “I will wait for someone better.”

Yuri tries not to breathe a sigh of relief as the sensation dissipates. He coughs a little, trying to clear his lungs of something that was never really there. The chill, however, does not fade. The second widow steps forward.

“What was your mother’s name?” She asks, hair whipping in the wind that wasn’t there the moment before. It drags at the edge of his cloak, snatching it away from his fingers and throwing his hair in his face. It stings, cold, like tiny barbs of nettles.

“Larisa Nikolayevna Plisetsky.” Yuri has to shout it above the churning and roiling air, and only hope that she can hear. To his great surprise, the woman steps back immediately, and the wind drops to a breeze. “I know her name. She was a good woman. Your debt with me is balanced. I will not challenge you.” And the second sword is sheathed.

Lilia had told him that he might be in a better position than either of his brothers, upon meeting the widows, but he hadn’t anticipated by quite how much.

Unfortunately, his good luck cannot last.

The moment the third woman steps forward, she introduces herself by name, and Yuri knows that he will have to fight.

“I was Véra Savvichna Ivanova. I fought and died for your ancestors over a hundred years ago, only for my body to be tossed into the water as if I were nothing to them. We will fight for my honour.”

“I accept your challenge.” Yuri does not take his sword. The nature of the challenge is always the choice of the challenger.

Véra steps forward and picks his sword from the ground, passing it to him.

“Sheathe it.” He does so, silently. “My body lies at the bottom of this river. You will swim down and retrieve it. If the river claims you, my debt is repaid. If you survive,” her eyes, dark and bloodshot, bore into him, “bury me properly.”

Yuri looks at the water. The river has been by their side since they left the castle. It is fed by the mountain, from glacial streams, and this is not the season for melt. The level of the water is well below the bridge and the bank, settled into the rocky hollow it has carved for itself. All the same, it is deep, cold, and blue. He cannot see the bottom. Backing out now, however, is as sure a death as drowning.

He has no choice.

The three women move back as he takes off his sword, and boots, then most of his layers of clothing. As unwilling as he is to get his undershirt wet, and as much as it may hold him back in the water, he decides to keep it on. Diving naked into a mountain river in autumn is only barely worse than diving in half-dressed, but he’ll take it. They move aside, allowing him to walk across to the halfway point of the bridge. Chancing a glance over his shoulder, Yuri notices that Otabek and Roza have edged closer. With a sharp shake of his head, he warns them as best he can. The fact that they’ve held off this long already is surprising. He can’t say he would do the same if it looked like Otabek was about to jump into freezing water of his own volition.

Especially as neither of them will have any idea what is going on.

He takes a deep breath.

“Ready.” The two women who did not name themselves nod, and with matching smiles, jump, vanishing back into the water. The river does not splash.

He faces the river. Takes a deep breath.

“Good luck,” Véra says, and pushes.

“YURI!”

The shout is too late.

He just about manages to turn the fall into a dive before he hits the surface of the water, trying to push himself down as far as possible. The water is freezing. It knocks the breath out of him as effectively as a hit to the stomach. He burps out the bubbles before he can stop himself, but there’s no point in going up to the surface for breath. The current snatches him immediately, rolling him over and over until he’s no longer sure which way is up. He swims anyway, as strongly as he can.

Then a hand, cold and strong, grabs his arm and drags him down, down, through the current and the swirling water until he’s at the very bottom of the river, under the undertow. The water stings at his eyes, and his lungs tremble under the weight of holding his breath.

It’s one of the widows. He can’t tell which – the water blurs his vision, and she is simply a black shape, with a head and hands, still dragging him relentlessly onwards. Yuri kicks, kicks, kicks to keep up. His lungs are burning now, aching, pressed flat by the weight of the water and their emptiness.

Lilia had been so emphatic about that – the widows do not want to kill you. They want you to win. They want to be buried properly. Yuri trusts that this is Véra, and tries not to think too hard about how exactly he’s going to carry her body up to the surface if she’s been dead for several decades.

They seem to be swimming towards some kind of glow. Abruptly, the shadow of the widow vanishes, drawn into the yellow light, her hand with it. Without her support, Yuri swims at less than half the speed. Already weak from lack of air, his whole body is screaming at him to open his mouth, breathe, breathe, breathe. With every pang of pain, he kicks. Forward, again and again, until his vision is black at the edges.

Then the hand is back. It’s not black, this time, but yellow, almost gold – the glow. He can’t see enough of anything, but as his hands brush the very bottom of the river, the stones grazing the back of his wrists, something suddenly yanks him upwards. The surface seems so very far away, darker by the moment, and his kicking is barely even more than a twitch of his ankle now. He kicks, and kicks, but it’s black. So very, very black.

 

-

 

Roza curses herself the moment Otabek shouts. She should have protested more. Instead, she grabs Aisulu’s bridle as she passes, pushing Nastya into a gallop. It’s enough to get Beka to follow her. They race along the riverbank, trying to keep up with the churning current. It’s marshy ground, this close to the river on the flats, but by some providence of God, there is no bog. The horses’ hooves splash, and they cannot run at full pelt, but they chase the two darting figures over the water – two black shapes that can’t possibly be women. She hopes to God that they mark wherever Yuri is. If they hit a slower, wider part of the river soon, one of them could go in after him.

But the longer they gallop, the further behind they fall, and the longer Yuri spends underwater. They are approaching a bend, the next stretch of river hidden behind the forest of the far side. They are a good distance behind now. The two shadows vanish.

She daren’t look at her brother, concentrating too intensely on keeping Nastya on a safe footing, and following the river. Otabek is matching her stride for stride now, bending down into Aisulu’s neck.

At last, they round the corner, and the two figures above the water are gone.

But there are two bodies on the bank.

 

-

Otabek nearly falls off Aisulu. He can’t bring himself to care.

“Yuri!”

Yuri’s eyes are closed, his lips blue, skin pale and clammy to the touch. Otabek hopes to any god that might be listening that it’s just a result of being in the water for so long. His hair, wet and matted, is stuck to his face. His wrists are bleeding.

“Come on, Yura,” Otabek shakes him, but to no avail. Rolling him over, he lifts his limp form and braces Yuri’s body against his chest, wraps his arms around him, and squeezes – hard.

The water comes out in one big cough, and Yuri falls away from him, landing on his hands and knees. Unable to hold himself up, he collapses onto one side, still coughing, and thank every god that ever existed, gasping for air.

Otabek closes his eyes, allowing himself a single moment of relief. Then he drags his cloak off, lifting Yuri up and pulling it around his shoulders before bringing him right up against his chest.

Roza, just a few seconds behind, kneels down on Yuri’s other side and does the same, pressing the warmth of her body against him to stabilise him as quickly as possible. Otabek can feel her trembling too. With adrenalin or relief, he can’t tell.

“I am never doing that again,” Yuri croaks vehemently, the moment he’s got his breath back enough to talk. He is shivering violently now, even with two very effective human blankets. They need to get him out of his undershirt and by a fire as quickly as possible. “You hear that Véra?” He yells, over the water. “Fucking... widows. God, people are assholes.”

“Did nobody ever tell you not to swim in the river?” Roza chides, and it really, really sounds like mother. Otabek can’t help but laugh, the relief bubbling up inside him like something wild. Roza looks at him like he’s mad. He can’t actually see Yuri’s face, but he makes a noise of surprise.

“Do you usually laugh when your friends nearly die?” He protests, somewhat acerbically. Otabek tightens his grip, the chuckle dying in his throat.

“Sorry. I’m just relieved.”

The other body turns out to be that of the widow. Yuri explains the whole thing as Roza picks the body up, including the bit where Véra has supposedly spent several decades at the bottom of the river. Looking down at the woman’s face, which seems to be glowing with health, Otabek finds that hard to believe. She could almost be asleep.

However, until this morning, he’d have had a hard time believing that the spirits of soldiers killed in battle would hunt down the ancestors of their warlords and try to kill them in recompense.

And apparently now they are going to find a church and bury the body. He’d given up trying to understand Yuri a while ago, but Roza also seems to think that this is a perfectly sensible idea.

Having left Karzhau, and in fact all of Yuri’s belongings, at the bridge, Otabek allows Yuri to ride Aisulu, taking up the position of ‘human blanket’ instead. Trying to keep Yuri from freezing to death involves wrapping as much of himself around Yuri as possible. It also involves a strange arrangement by which Yuri has the reins, but has tucked his knees up to his chin so that his legs are under the cloak, and therefore Otabek is technically doing most of the riding. Balancing them both to Aisulu’s swaying gait requires holding on with his thighs without pushing her forward. It’s... a little complicated. Especially with Yuri talking most of the time, and being such a dynamic speaker.

“Well, otherwise she’ll just come back and kill me properly for not doing my duty,” Yuri shrugs, nearly bumping Otabek’s chin with his shoulder. “Besides, I would’ve died if it wasn’t for her. She basically did all the swimming for me.”

“I think you mean you nearly died because of her,” Otabek corrects, but Yuri is already shaking his head.

“No, it’s not like that. They never want to kill you. They always want you to win. It’s the least I can do. She’s dead because of my ancestors.”

“So it’s your fault for having dumbass ancestors?” Roza protests. The body is slung as carefully as they could manage across the front of her saddle. She rides with one hand steading it, and one hand on the reins.

“No,” Yuri rolls his eyes. “Of course not. But it is my responsibility to try and fix their mistakes. Otherwise we’ll just end up going round in circles. And that really would be dumb.” If Otabek is surprised by how mature that statement is, he tries not to show it. Sure, Yuri is hot-headed and sharp-tongued, but years of living with JJ should have taught him that that doesn’t make someone an idiot. Not that Yuri would appreciate the comparison.

Also, Yuri has been training for knighthood all his life. Just because Otabek had mostly experienced his rebellious side didn’t mean that he wasn’t strongly instilled with a sense of honour.

He tucks his chin onto Yuri’s shoulder, fondly.

“Dumber than jumping in a river because a ghost told you to?”

“Oh, shut up.”

 

-

 

They reach a church by mid-afternoon.

It’s not really much more than a chapel, but it has a graveyard. Yuri, though now fully dressed, had elected to ride behind Otabek anyway. He’s not shivering anymore, and his weight pressed against his back is warm, but Otabek is hoping that this village is big enough to have an inn, or somewhere other than the tent to sleep.

He lets Yuri slip off first. He goes immediately to Roza, who hands down Véra’s body to him.

They make a strange little party. Yuri may have dried out, but his hair is in disarray and he is bone-tired, slumping as he walks with Véra’s weight. Roza and Otabek are more obviously foreigners in a rural place like this. They’ve begun to meet people on the road who do not speak the common tongue, and Otabek finds himself thinking, once again, how grateful he is that Yuri decided to come with them.

A young man answers their knocking. Upon seeing the body, he lets them into the church wordlessly. Yuri seems to know what he’s doing, carefully laying the body down in front of the altar. Otabek feels a little useless, just watching from the doorway, but even though Yuri’s talking, he’s not talking to them. Actually, he’s using his mother tongue. It’s most likely that he’s actually talking to Véra. The young man, who doesn’t seem to be wearing priest’s clothes, but rather a long brown cloak, comes hurrying back with a vial of water. Pouring some over his fingers, he makes the sign of the cross on Yuri, and then again over Véra with fresh water. Then he hurries away again, leaving Yuri to kneel by the altar and bend his head, as if praying.

Otabek has never seen Yuri pray before, or in fact show any sign of being religious at all. He attended all the necessary ceremonies and, to a point, complied with the generally accepted role of religion in defining the Knight’s code of conduct, but that was it. Before he can really wonder at it, the young man in the brown is tapping his shoulder and handing him a shovel.

Which is how Roza and he find themselves digging a grave while Yuri prays.

“This is not how I was expecting this journey to go,” Roza grumbles, rubbing dust into her cheek instead of wiping it away. Otabek smiles.

“No,” he says, “Yura’s a little like that.”

“You think they would have attacked us if he wasn’t there?”

“I think they were waiting for him.”

Roza stops shovelling dirt, and rests her arms on the handle of her shovel.

“I didn’t think that travelling with a prince was supposed to mean we attracted supernatural beings. I might have been slightly more reluctant to bring him along.”

Otabek looks up from his own side of the hole.

“I’ve never found it an issue. I’d blame bad luck and coincidence.” He digs his shovel back into the dirt, trying to signal that the conversation is over.

“Doesn’t he have magic in his family?” Roza presses, even as she swings her own shovel back towards the ground.

“A lot of the Europian royal families do, and consequently a lot of the nobility too. It’s not enough to single him out.”

Caution isn’t necessarily a bad thing, on the road. In this case, however, it seems unfounded.

Roza snorts, her ever-ungraceful way of showing her derision.

“I’m pretty sure they’re all inbred at this point anyway. Have you read the histories? They marry their own cousins, sometimes!”

“It’s a much older line than ours. There are different priorities.”

“Otabek.” He looks up, surprised by the force in her tone. “Don’t be an idiot.” He stands up, leaning his shovel against the side of the hole. It’s deep, now, past his waist.

“Yuri is not to blame for his ancestry. You said as much yourself. The fact that he’s taking responsibility for their mistakes is admirable. I’m trying to do the same.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Otabek closes his eyes at Roza’s crossed arms. Of all places to be having this conversation...

“Roza, I’ve told you, this is difficult. I don’t want him to feel like he owes me anything. He already resents me for this.”

“What, rescuing him?” Roza snorts. “From you?”

“Exactly.”

“Usually people are pleased when they fall in love with their arranged marriages. It’s lucky.”

“Please don’t try and decide Yuri’s feelings for him,” Otabek sighs, “Also, we still haven’t settled the terms.”

“So it’s going to hang over your head for the next few months?”

“You can’t deny that he’s useful.”

“But you’re going to turn him into a liability, if you’re not careful.”

Mild annoyance has become real snapping. Otabek closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath.

“Roza, we have a grave to dig.”

“You know, I always forget how annoying you are when you leave.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

Otabek never means to argue with Roza. He can relate to Yuri’s frustration in this case, though. Nobody likes having decisions made for them, and Roza has not only decided both of their feelings, but also all of their mistakes in the past few months. If anything, Yuri has been more himself since they left than Otabek is used to. The laughter comes more easily, and he’s more open with his conversation. It’s like living in the castle had been putting some kind of dampener on him, and now he’s finally free to flourish. The influence of years of indoctrination has left him with an internalised sense of duty, despite his determination to be rogue, but it would be hypocritical of Otabek to criticise that. At the very least, it means he can trust Yuri to always play fair. Although he could do without the sharpness of Yuri’s tongue, which constantly aggravates Roza. He wonders whether the two of them are just a little bit too similar to get along well, or whether it’s something to do with him.

Only time will tell.

They finish digging the grave in silence. Yuri joins them halfway through, evidently having finished praying, and that speeds the process a little. By dark, they have lowered the body into the ground. The little brown man apparently is a priest after all, because he says the last rites.

It’s an odd experience. The body is still glowing, somewhat, and it’s more obvious as night begins to fall. But as the priest talks, the glow begins to fade. It’s not like a slow degeneration, but more a switch of perspective – the woman becomes a body, little more than bones and dust. They didn’t watch it happen. It was like that all along, but they weren’t seeing it.

Otabek suspects that the glow may have been Vera’s spirit. Either way, it’s a relief to know that whatever Yuri did was ‘the proper way’, and that they won’t be dealing with supernatural vengeance on their own generation as well as the previous ones.

They fill the grave in in silence.

 

-

 

The village does have an inn, and at first Otabek thinks that it’s a surprisingly large one, until he remembers that it marks the crossroads of a much larger trade route towards the south from the herders in the north. Yuri, exhausted and a little grumpy, snaps at the man at the counter for a bit until he ushers them to three separate rooms, throwing their keys at them with a huff of disproval as he vanishes back down the stairs.

Yuri vanishes into his room immediately. Otabek goes to do the same, but finds himself stopped by Roza’s hand on his shoulder.

“Hey,” she says. “Sorry about earlier. There are better ways to tell you I’m worried.”

Otabek beckons her in, shutting the door behind them.

“It’s not just Yuri,” he states. She nods, tiredly.

“It is, partially. I don’t trust him yet, and he put us all in danger earlier.”

“He didn’t have much of a choice.”

“I know. It’s just...” he sits down, waiting. Roza has never been a talker. “We only have each other, now. This is it. We’re all that the kingdom has left.”

They sit in silence, for a moment.

It’s nothing that Otabek can deny. It weighs on his shoulders, too, the knowledge of what this journey means to so many people.

Roza, too, he realises, is very much alone. She has never moved much beyond the circles at court, and there were no squires to train with. Their castle was a home, and their kingdom a battlefront. Their training had been down to their parents alone, and unlike Otabek, Roza had never travelled to be trained by experience and with other cultures.

With their parents gone, he is all Roza has.

He is also Yuri’s first real friend, and his only tie to home.

No wonder they are prickly towards each other.

“Do you trust him?” Roza asks, quietly.

“Yuri?”

“Yes.” She fixes him with a glare, as if she could have possibly meant anyone else. Otabek nods.

“With my life.”

Chapter Text

Yuri catches a cold. It makes him immensely grumpy, and for all intents and purposes, unapproachable, unless they want to be snapped at. At least Yuri’s slightly nicer to him – Roza suffers the worst of it, mostly because she’s more likely to insist that he do his fare share of jobs despite the fact that he keeps having to stop to sneeze. She also gets peeved at Beka when he does Yuri’s jobs for him anyway, even when Yuri then falls asleep so early that he has to be woken for dinner.

“You were a lot more sympathetic when Alyona got the flu,” Beka tries to argue, to which Roza only huffs, practically throwing a bundle of firewood at him.

“Yuri does not have the flu. He has a cold, and it was self-inflicted. We’re supposed to be travelling fast, we can’t afford to pandering to his every whim just because he’s used to luxury treatment.”

Beka refrains from pointing out that they also grew up in a castle, and gives up arguing. Yuri’s not exactly being co-operative either, so he simply resigns himself to being the only sane one for a bit.

Roza is happy to leave Yuri to sulk once she’s got her way, and tries to persuade Otabek to be so too. He’s not, but there’s also not a lot he can do about it. They ride together, mostly, with Yuri trailing unhappily. Making sure that Yuri gets an extra cloak and a little more than his fair share of meat is worth the small sacrifices. Roza notices, and rolls her eyes at him. Yuri does not.

Despite his grumbling, the cold isn’t serious. Considering that Beka knows a couple of people who have lost lives to pneumonia, it could be a lot worse. The symptoms never get worse than a runny nose and a sore throat, thankfully. He keeps a close eye to ensure that it remains that way, but it seems unnecessary, and Roza only grumbles at him for it. Even so, Otabek wakes up more than once to Yuri coughing in the middle of the night.

“Beka?” He whispers, three days after his stint in the river. It’s the middle of the night, but he’s just coughed Otabek awake.

“Are you okay?”

“Cold. Come here.”

It’s not a request, not really, but it would never occur to Yuri that Otabek might refuse. In fairness, it doesn’t occur to Otabek until afterwards that he could have done.

Yuri drags his blankets over so that they’re on top of Otabek’s, and they knot together underneath, Yuri pushing up against his chest and wrapping all of his long limbs around him. He is, true enough, quite cold. With double the blankets and Otabek’s warmth, however, he soon heats up a little.

“I still count this as having a reason,” Otabek says quietly, into his hair. It takes Yuri a minute to catch up.

“I don’t know whether being too lazy to get up and re-start the fire counts as an actual reason.” He grumbles. The worst of the hoarseness seems to have gone, and so has the throat pain, if the length of that sentence is anything to go by. “I would have done it earlier, but I didn’t want to get you ill, too.”

“I could have coped.”

They’re quiet for a minute.

“I really worried you.” Yuri says, eventually.

“I understand you didn’t really have a choice, but minimal jumping in rivers would definitely be preferable.”

Yuri smiles. He can feel it, though he can’t see it.

“That definitely still counts as a reason.”

 

-

 

The next morning, Yuri is less pissy. He helps pack the tents away instead of sitting in a growling heap of blankets.

Otabek takes it as a good omen, right up until the thieves drop out of the trees on top of them. There are many, many more of them, but they have also taken them to be three travelling knights, not a royal delegation. He knocks the first one out with the pommel of his sword before she can even land, and takes her companion out with a boot to the head. The third tries to drop onto Aisulu, but that just makes her easier to throw. Otabek grabs her around the waist and sends her skittering down the path, taking the fourth out under the knees as she goes. He falls towards the ground head-first, and gets promptly knocked unconscious.

Otabek turns around to see if the others need help.

They don’t. The remaining thieves are all equally unconscious, or in some cases, dead. Roza is shaking, her spear hanging uselessly in her left hand, but nods to him, letting him know she’s okay. Yuri does not meet his gaze. He is panting, standing over a body with blood on his sword and fire in his eyes.

“Yuri?”

He shakes his head, sheathing his sword and remounting.

“Let’s go.”

Otabek hesitates, but Yuri has already started forward, pushing Karzhau past Aisulu and not looking back. Well, there were plenty of them. It is unlike him to leave their bodies in the road, but either they will be found by the next people to pass through, or they will wake in time, and have to bury their own dead. He turns Aisulu and follows.

Roza tells him about it afterwards, at camp, when Yuri is washing his blade and the stream runs pink.

“He had a knife to my throat,” she says, touching it, as if remembering, “but Yuri ran him through before he had a chance to kill me.”

Something has changed about the way she talks about him now. He watches her carefully as she patches a cut on one of the saddlebags. Usually, he’d find her inattention to him whilst addressing him somewhat rude, but he thinks he understands. She’s embarrassed by her hostility and mistrust of a man who just killed for her without a second thought. It had just taken actual fight to prove it.

It’s only when Yuri tries to go to bed without eating that Otabek remembers that he’s never actually killed someone before. He curses, under his breath, and Roza looks up at him in surprise, just in time to see Yuri vanish into the yurt.

She sighs.

“Alright, fine. I’m going to go and sit by that tree, over there.” She points to a tree a little way down the stream, well out of earshot. “See? Come get me when you’re done.”

It’s said with a lot less venom than Otabek had anticipated. Then again, she has her own thoughts to reflect on. He makes his way over to the tent once she has settled by the tree with her bowl. He fills another two, and carries them into their tent.

Yuri has buried himself under his pile of blankets. Only the very top of his head is visible – a few strands of blonde. He puts one bowl down by the pile, and sits next to it with his own. For a minute or so, he waits to see if Yuri has anything to say. He doesn’t.

“Roza’s gone for a walk,” he says, taking a sip of broth from his bowl and hoping that it will prompt something. It doesn’t.

Alright then, Plan B.

“The fist time I killed someone, I was fourteen,” he says, conversationally. That, at least, inspires a response.

“Good for you.” The pile of blankets doesn’t move. From this angle, it looks suspiciously like Yuri has buried himself face-first.

“Not really, no.” Silence. “I brought you dinner.”

The pile sighs, and finally shifts, revealing two green eyes and a furrowed browline.

“Alright, I get it, you’re trying to help. Will you go away if I promise to eat?”

Otabek contemplates this.

“Probably not.”

Yuri sighs, but extracts his upper half from the blankets anyway, reaching for the food. Otabek waits, again, but this is apparently going to be a conversation that requires more input on his side than a few little prods.

“It was on the northern border,” he starts, “I was supposed to be rebuilding some defences, but somebody told them I’d be there. They attacked because I was trying to help.”

Yuri puts down his bowl, dragging the blankets back up over his shoulders.

“Look, talking about killing people is literally the last thing I want to do right now,” he growls.

Ah. Then he had guessed right. Whether fourteen or forty, the first time is always... difficult.

“Then don’t talk.”

“Beka, I...”

“Ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away.” He deliberately turns away from Yuri, letting him splutter and spit, to take another sip from his bowl.

“What makes you an expert on how my brain works all of a sudden?”

Now that’s a thought. Otabek puts his dinner down, and shifts, turning his whole body towards Yuri.

“I think we should try again.” Yuri blinks at him, for a second. It’s one of those things he likes about him; Yuri always takes the time to figure out what he’s referring to, even if he skips forwards and backwards across several days’ worth of conversation. Their minds seem to work on the same lines of logic, and follow the same paths of reasoning.

“The mind melding thing that gave you a headache?”

“Yes.”

“And that’s supposed to what, distract me from the fact I just killed someone?” Yuri flinches as he says it. Otabek holds his gaze, steady and quiet. This is something he understands. Something he went through. Something that mother had helped him with.

“I want to try and show you something.”

“Oh, for...” Yuri rolls his eyes. “Fine. Don’t blame me if it doesn’t work.”

 

-

 

It might simply be an attempt to distract him. It doesn’t really matter that much. If it gets Beka to shut up and leave him alone, he’ll try it.

“Get over here.”

Otabek doesn’t move, simply offering Yuri his hand from where he is sat, cross-legged, to eat his dinner. It’s weirdly impersonal. He takes it anyway, dredging up the sharp edge of the influence.

“Keep your mind open,” he orders, and releases it.

It’s his first attempt since the failed one, and he’s been turning it over ever since, forming a few ideas. Obviously Beka had been in too much of a state after the botched attempt for Yuri to even think about asking to try again, but the thought had undeniably occurred to him. Having Otabek ask was the perfect work-around.

It’s not the ideal moment to try it, but at least the fact that he’s more than mildly pissed is helping to channel it properly. This time, it doesn’t fizzle out as it moves through him, sustaining its heat and urgency. Beka seems to have noticed the difference. His eyes follow the exact path of it as it travels up his arm, invisibility be damned.

“It’s stronger than last time,” he confirms, but Yuri’s concentrating too hard to reply. The shape of him is there already, the presence of his mind almost tactile. Beka closes his eyes as it approaches, evidently concentrating on Yuri’s instruction.

Wary of the backlash from last time, Yuri takes his time working his way in. It’s different, now. He’s in it, this time, not at the end of it. To his incredible surprise, he begins to get a little feedback. At least, that’s what he thinks it is. It’s nothing so obviously separate from his own consciousness in the way that animals are. The feeling, however, definitely isn’t his own.

His are easy, familiar and obvious, but there’s an undercurrent of something else. Not exactly unfamiliar, but with a different flavour to it. The tint of a different personality; Otabek. Focusing on it, he tries to bring it to the surface for scrutiny.

It feels like...

 

“Just once more,” Lilia says, steadying his hand. Yuri sighs in frustration, but steadies it. “Come on, don’t let your last shot of the day be that one.” He narrows his eyes, focuses. The weight of the bow, the balance of the arrow, the line of the shot...

“Perfect!” Lilia pats him on the shoulder. “That’s what I was looking for. Let’s finish on that.”

The success is sweet on his tongue, sitting high in his chest, like the pride is beating out of him. Lilia’s compliments are rare, and heard-earned. It’s the first time she’s called his archery perfect.

“Thanks mum,” Yuri says, moving forward to take his arrows from the target. It’s not until he turns that he sees Lilia’s face, and realises what he’s said.

It’s not often that Lilia smiles.

 

The scent of food wakes him, he thinks. Then perhaps it’s the hand on his arm, smoothing up and down. It’s a quiet way to be woken, but it’s an immediate reminder of everything awful, ever. He coughs, weakly, and groans.

“I brought you some soup, Yura,” Victor’s face is bleary, but on his level. He must be bending down beside the bed. “Georgi helped me make it, and he put some special herbs in it to help you get better. I promise, we tasted it already, it’s good.”

His limbs are heavy with the sickness, but Victor has always been so much older than him, so much taller, and lifts him easily so that he can sit.

Victor feeds him the soup, spoonful by spoonful. He hadn’t realised how hungry he was, until the warmth of it sunk through to his bones.

 

“Are you sure you want me to do it?” He grumbles. He’s trying to sound put-upon, but Mila sees right through him.

“You’ll be fine, Yura,” she smiles, nudging his shoulder. The tang of the plant is heavy in the air. The mixture she’s handed him is hot, almost scalding. What if he burns her? “Besides, it’s only you and Lilia that know I do this, and you can imagine all the hair she’s pulled out of my scalp over the years.” She shudders. “You can’t possibly be worse than her.”

Yuri sighs, and picks up the cloth.

“Well duh.”

Mila’s laugh is bright, cheerful.

“Hey, if this goes well, you can help me every time! It can be a sibling bonding thing. Maybe one day I can do yours too!”

 

The falcon is soft and warm. They are standing in a field, the castle just below them, cradled in the curve of the meadow. She has been flying all morning, glowing and gorgeous, responding to him as if they’ve been working together for years, not days. He buries his hand in her feathers. She picks at his fingers, happily, unbothered by the fact that he ran out of meat scraps hours ago.

“Ariya,” he says, suddenly. The bird ignores him, until he says it again, with a little press of influence. “Ariya.”

She cocks her head at him, to the left, then the right. There’s a little flicker of recognition there. Yuri smiles.

“I was going to change it, but you like it, don’t you?”

She flaps at him, wanting to be up again, and he lets her, willing to be following the curve of her take-off and the lift under her feathers.

“Well, I guess this is a meeting rather than a naming, then.”

She calls, loud and long, almost triumphant. She doesn’t understand what he’s saying, but she understands what it means.

 

The wind whips through his hair. It stings his neck, but he likes it. It’s loose. It’s long. The wind has come all the way from the mountains, and it touches him, like this, like he belongs up there. He can almost believe it when it bites cold at the nape of his neck. The battlements have always been safe, and here, with Otabek...

 

“Ugh!”

The sudden collapse of the connection is like a punch to the gut, sending him reeling.

“Careful.” Beka’s hands catch him, steady and firm. Yuri’s head is spinning. Partially, it’s the rebound of whatever just hit him, but it’s also a reaction to the memories. Some of them, he hadn’t thought about in years. He blinks, trying to dispel the stars in his peripheral vision.

“Fuck, that hurt. Didn’t it get you?” He rubs his eyes, but it only makes the dizzy specks worse.

“Not this time.” Beka’s voice is as calm as ever, even as Yuri pulls away from him.

“Well, congratulations,” He tries to dredge up the residual anger, and mostly fails. “Will you go away now?”

“Actually,” Otabek does at least give him a little more space, sitting back to his former position. “I have a better sense of what’s going wrong.”

“Oh, great.” The sarcasm isn’t necessary. Beka ignores it anyway.

“It’s not just a one-way connection.”

“Well, obviously,” Yuri huffs, suffering under the scrutiny of Otabek’s gaze. The implications of what just happened are busy bouncing around in the forefront of his mind, begging for the attention that he is very unwilling to give them. “Thank you for noticing that I have a brain.”

“Yura.” If Beka is getting exasperated, then he’s being particularly prickly. “Please listen.”

“I don’t have to shut up to listen.”

“I can’t talk if you keep interrupting.”

“Fucking... fine. Shutting up.” Yuri pulls the fallen blankets back up over his shoulders, and hunches over, crossing his arms. Beka studies him for a second before continuing.

“You called it a meld. I need to consciously let you in, but there was some kind of wall in the way that blocked you, and I don’t think it was mine.”

“You think I’m blocking it?” If he sounds disbelieving, it’s because he feels like he’s just been accused. Otabek just nods.

“You were projecting, just now,” He says. Yuri blinks. None of what he’d been doing had been conscious. It had just... happened. “You were trying to figure out what I was feeling, and applying your own memories to it.”

Oh, hell, Yuri thinks, I wasn’t imagining it. That was really...

“I was experiencing you do it, like when you projected your dream.” Otabek continues. Alarm bells start sounding in Yuri’s head. This is not how he had expected this to go. Of course he’d been planning to do something about it eventually, but more in the vague ‘waiting for a good moment and knowing exactly how Beka feels about this’ kind of way. That... might be exactly what’s happening, actaully.

Holy shit, this might just be happening.

Oh, god, he might not be ready for this to happen.

Beka, oblivious to Yuri’s mental turmoil, continues.

“But the moment you touched something particular, something went wrong.” He pauses, then, “I think there was something that you didn’t want me to see.”

Yuri frowns, unwilling to confirm or deny.

“What did you get?”

“Calling Lilia mum. Victor making you soup when you were ill. Dying Mila’s hair. Meeting Ariya.”

Yuri, if he manages to disguise his relief at all, probably does a poor job of it.

“It’s not a bad idea.” He says, contemplating. Goddammit, this is an adult conversation, the least he can do is pay Beka the attention he deserves rather than freaking out about his feelings. “Georgi always said that the recipient needed to be fully willing, but he never mentioned me. I hadn’t considered that there might be stuff in my brain I’d rather you didn’t know.”

And isn’t that a revelation and a half. Yuri is completely and utterly fucked.

Otabek nods slowly.

“I think we should try again. If you think you can, that is.”

“Of course I can,” Yuri bristles. “It only hurt for a little bit, I’m not that weak.”

Otabek smiles, then. He always seems to do that at the strangest of times.

“That’s not what I meant.” Oh. That would be why. “Do you think you can keep your mind open to me?”

Okay, yeah, when Yuri signed up to the whole mind-reading deal, this had not been part of the agreement.

“I have no idea,” he says, honestly. God only knows what his brain is doing right now, but it doesn’t seem to be entirely under his conscious control. Otabek doesn’t seem offended, much to his relief.

“It seemed to work anyway,” he says, “Perhaps if you don’t concentrate on that one thought, I would be able to project to you instead?”

Yuri considers that. It had worked, right up until the point they’d hit something wrong. If Otabek was projecting, there was no reason to think they’d encounter the same block. That is, if he is capable of doing it. They won’t know that unless they test it. So.

“Alright.”

Otabek shuffles closer, this time, to take Yuri’s hand.

The fire has gone out of it, but it doesn’t take much to bring it back, and there it is again, burning at the front of his mind. This isn’t a good time to be thinking about that anyway – he killed a man today. The sharpness of whatever that does to him is much easier to control, to channel and guide. He pushes it through, seeking the connection, but trying to hold back and not follow it through. It takes a little longer, but careful is fine. Otabek is patient anyway. He lets the connection establish thoroughly, before taking a deep breath.

It feels stupid, communicating out loud when their minds are so clearly connected, but this is much less complicated.

“Okay. When you’re ready.”

There’s something there almost immediately. It’s a feeling, at first, something warm at first, then cold and sharp...

 

“Beka,” the arms wrapped around him are firm, grounding. “My Otabek, my prince, my darling,” his mother croons, half-song, half-speech. She’s been doing that for a while now, but he’s still shaking. It’s been years since he was small enough to fit on her lap, years since she’s rocked him like this, but he can’t protest. He can’t do anything. He just... shakes. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Take as long as you need.”

They are curled in the corner of a room. A hospital room. It had been instinctual, to curl up behind the bed with his back in the corner, and mother had found him there. Shaking.

“Who were they?” He asks, as soon as he can trust his voice.

“We don’t know.”

Mother smells of home, but they both smell of blood and steel. Some of the blood is his. Most of it is not.

“Do they know who we are?”

Mother runs a hand over his hair, then sits back, looking him in the eye.

“They know we are Altins.” They know that his ancestors raped them, murdered them, burned their villages to the ground, left their children and animals to starve, stole from them, scattered them, took their lands...

“I need to wash.” He pulls away, but staggers a little trying to stand.

“Otabek.” Mother stands too, steadies him with careful hands. “We are not our ancestors. You are not your grandfather. You came here to protect the south, and the northern tribes came to attack us. We have tried peace treaties and apologies, and they have refused them. You are not responsible for her death.”

He takes a hand, wipes it across his arm, shows her the blood.

“Look. This isn’t mine.”

Mother brings a basin. They sit on the end of the bed, and she helps him wash, slowly and thoroughly.

“Why did you ask to come to the border?” She asks, quietly.

“To help,” he replies, “To stop the raids and the burnings.”

“Do you know what that group would have done if we hadn’t been here to stop them?” The water is cold, but mother brought a dry rag, and he dries his arm once she’s finished washing it.

“No.”

“There are three hundred people in this village. There were thirty attackers. We can’t know how many innocent people would have died if we hadn’t been here.”

It’s easier, with help, to avoid the bandages. Even so, the water is soon pink, and they have to get a clean basin to do his face. He’s not shaking anymore, but he lets her do it anyway. Closes his eyes so that she can wet his forehead.

“What will we do with them?” He asks, eventually.

“There will be a funeral pyre tomorrow.” She pulls the cloth away from his face, touches his chin. “Do you want to go?”

 

He finds her face in the line. Somebody’s closed her eyes. They’ve washed the bodies, too, redressed them, regardless of whose side they fought on.

“I don’t want to stay.”

“Otabek,” She says, but he’s already trying to pull away. She lets him let go of her hand, only to take his face in her hands, press their foreheads together. “Otabek, stop. Listen. These people have families, they have homes that they were supposed to go back to.” That stings, that’s the reason he can’t stay. He can’t see what he’s done. But mother’s voice softens. “If you really can’t stay, I won’t make you. But please, remember that they deserve our respect. Their families cannot honour them here. It is least we can do for them.”

The pyre smells awful – it’s a smell he never forgets. The smoke rises well above the village, taints the streets for days, like a shadow of what could have been.

Afterwards, mother takes him down the streets, walks about the village with him. They meet the people, talk to them about the raid. Otabek learns how to milk a cow from one particularly enthusiastic girl.

And the people thank him. They don’t blame him for being his grandson. They talk about his fighting like it was a good thing.

They stay an extra day, just to do that. Mother’s doing, he knows. She had wanted to show him both sides of it, had wanted to help alleviate the guilt, and whether it helped or not, she had tried.

“It will be okay,” she said, wrapping her arms around him like a shield. “I’m sorry we kept this away from you for so long.”

 

... god, it hurts.

“Yura?”

He hadn’t meant to close his eyes, but it had seemed easier to. When he opens them, Beka is watching him, carefully.

“You may have killed someone, but you also saved my sister’s life. If we choose to fight to protect, not to endanger, then we are simply doing our duty.” He reaches out, touches Yuri’s knee. It’s sort of tender, and not what Yuri was expecting at all. “There are many ways to avoid death unless it is absolutely necessary. You were unlucky, in this case, that it was the only option. I would have made the same choice.”

“I...” Yuri closes his eyes again. He hadn’t untangled himself properly, and there’s something else in his head. He swallows the words, unable to find a response to Otabek’s statement. It hurts, to know that all the things he hated the monarchy for, he still has to face now. It hurts that he had been trying to ignore that. But there’s something else, too. Something worse. “I think you projected some of your grief.”

Otabek’s grip tightens, just slightly.

“Sorry. It was impossible not to, thinking about my mother.”

“Don’t apologise, you...” he stops himself before he says something really insulting. Not the moment for it. Yuri takes a deep breath. “I just didn’t realise it was this bad. You’ve just been getting on with stuff, and I guess I didn’t...” he grunts, frustrated. “Ugh. Come on, get your ass over here.”

He grabs Beka’s hand and pulls him in, dragging the blankets over both of them until Otabek is firmly cocooned in his little den.

“You can tell me this shit, you know. We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Otabek relaxes a little, resting his head on Yuri’s shoulder. They sit like that for a while.

It’s nice.

“I would do it again.” Yuri says, eventually, drawing Otabek’s attention back to him. “I used to think I didn’t have any friends, but the worst thing was, after I killed him, the first thing I thought was that I’d do it again.” He is looking at his knees, like telling him this to his face would be too much like a confession. “For Roza, or for you, or for anyone at home. Even dad. But I’d run away. He was somebody’s son, or brother, or father or maybe all of those, and I didn’t even bury him. What if he comes back as a widow and tries to kill Victor and Yuri’s grandchildren or something?”

Otabek leans away from his shoulder, looks up at him.

“Nobody gets anything right first time, Yura.”

The sun has been slowly setting as they talked. It’s a little darker inside the tent, and Yuri can’t see all of his face. It’s more of an impression of shape; the curve of his shoulder to his neck, the cut of his jaw, the slight movement of his hair as he talks.

“You’d kill for me too,” Yuri says. Otabek’s face doesn’t move. Yuri can’t see his expression. He’s not sure it would matter anyway.

“I’d die for you.” He says, and Yuri stops breathing. Just for a second. “That’s why Roza didn’t trust you at first.”

He takes a deep, slow breath.

“She thought I would endanger you.” It’s not a statement that requires confirmation. Yuri has noticed Roza’s coolness towards him. Otabek nods anyway, just the once.

Yuri stands up, all at once, letting the blankets fall. It’s too dark, and he wants to add more fuel to the fire. Otabek watches him work in silence, banking up the fire from ember to flame, until it’s lighter and warmer in the tent and Yuri can see his face. The sparks crackle again, burning out the sap from the fresher wood. The tiny lights look like stars, floating towards the almost-black roof of the tent.

“Will Roza be back yet?” Yuri asks, walking back towards him. Otabek’s face is lit orange by the firelight, his features cut more sharply when lit from below. The fire reflects in his eyes.

“Not until I ask her to come.” He says.

“Then you’ll have to tell her,” Yuri says, sitting down, “that she shouldn’t worry too much.” He takes Otabek’s chin in one hand, rests his weight on the other. The fire is warm on his back, like he’s sat just slightly too close to it. “Because,” he watches his own shadow block out the fire in the reflection in Beka’s eyes, “I wouldn’t fucking let you.”

Then Yuri kisses him.

It is a moment of culmination. The idea had been sidling along at a dawdle, a gentle push at his subconscious mind, like the ripples of a stone skipping along the top of a deep pool. They’d been wide apart at first, the stone arching high into the air before bouncing again; until the ripples were more frequent and closer together; until he couldn’t ignore them even if he’d tried; until tonight.

Yuri closes his eyes.

The stone drops. The weight of it, all at once, the inevitable conclusion of the arc, is in the surprising softness of Beka’s lips, the hand immediately in his hair as Beka pulls him closer.

He should have noticed the ripples sooner, but all he can concentrate now is the splash.

 

-

 

He might have been wrong when he told Roza that Yuri wasn’t in love with him.

Because Yuri kisses like there will never be another. Like this is the first, the last, the everything. Otabek pulls him into it, digging his hand into the hair at the base of Yuri’s neck. It is not a slow kiss. Yuri kisses greedily, like he’s happy to suffocate if it means dying with his lips on Otabek’s.

He tilts Beka’s head back, and breathes into him, half a second of just resting their lips together and sharing the air. Otabek has to open his eyes, to check that this is really happening.

Then Yuri pushes back into him, shifting his weight forward so that he has both hands free, and Otabek welcomes him, wrapping both hands around his torso. Yuri’s hands tuck under his ears, the pads of his fingers in the short crop at the back of his head and his palms tilting Otabek’s head. Strands of his hair fall against Otabek’s cheek, warm from his body heat and the fire. He closes his eyes and pushes up, chasing the heat of it, wanting to kiss Yuri until he forgets about everything else.

 

-

 

Beka pulls away very suddenly, forcing Yuri’s hands to fall away from his face, though he refuses to let go completely, twisting his fists into the front of Beka’s tunic.

“Yura,” he says, lips pink and flush. His tongue flickers out at the end of the word, tracing the edge of his lower lip. “Yura,” he says again, taking his chin and forcing his gaze upwards, looking him straight in the eye. “Can you still feel my grief?”

The urgency of the question registers somewhere in Yuri’s distracted mind.

“A little,” he says, blinking slowly. Then, “Wait, what? Why?”

Otabek lets him go, pulls back properly. Yuri sits back too, confused and a little upset.

“We should wait.” His gaze is as steady as ever, but there’s definitely something off in the tone of his statement.

“What?” Yuri glares, trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

“My projecting affected you,” Otabek explains, “and we’ve established I had little control over what came through.”

Yuri doesn’t have words to tell him exactly how fucking stupid he’s being, so instead he simply closes the gap between them as quickly as possible, before Otabek can doubt it, and pushes.

The moment their lips touch, the spark hisses between them.

 

The wind whips through his hair. It stings his neck, but he likes it. It’s loose. It’s long. The wind has come all the way from the mountains, and it touches him, like this, like he belongs up there. He can almost believe it when it bites cold at the nape of his neck. The battlements have always been safe, and here, with Otabek, it’s not so hard to believe that he can do all of that, and more.

He turns, watches as Otabek limps towards him, the crutch thumping against the stone. The pace of Yuri’s heartbeat has picked up, just slightly, as it always does when Otabek appears. Even when Yuri’s just thinking about him, sometimes. Behind him, the towers of the castle are silhouetted by the sunset, the domed caps pointing towards the early moon in the still-light sky. It’s slightly warm, the last lingering heat of a summer day, and Yuri smiles.

Otabek smiles back, that slight curve of his mouth that makes Yuri want to kiss him, just to know what it feels like. It would be perfect, he thinks. The sunset, the mountains, the forest, and the absolute certainty that nobody else would ever know where they were, or what they were doing.

“Yura,” Otabek says, in the tone that Yuri has never heard him use for anybody else, and for half a second, his conviction wavers. He looks so beautiful, in the last of the light, his skin glowing and his eyes shining. It would be so easy to confess everything, to apologise for everything too.

It would be so easy to fall in love with him, he thinks.

Yuri turns back to the mountains, watching as the last few lines of pink fade into orange.

Perhaps he already has.

 

Otabek is looking at him.

“That was what you stopped me from seeing earlier,” he says. Yuri shrugs one shoulder. The blankets are long abandoned, and he'd much rather leave his hands on Beka's shoulders than go to get them again. The fire is gradually warming him anyway, but he does shiver, just slightly.

Beka wraps his arms around him and tugs him forward until he can throw part of his cloak around them both. Yuri tucks his arms in willingly, welcoming both the warmth and proximity. It would be easier if they didn't have their knees to contest with, but asking Beka to lie down with him at this point might just be slightly premature. Even if he is currently straddling his lap.

“Yeah, well. I’ve been hiding it for a while, it wasn’t exactly natural to let you in.” Okay, this is not a position he's going to revert to often. It's nice, but Beka's shorter than him anyway, and when Yuri's sitting on his legs as well, bending down to kiss him requires too much spine-bending to be really comfortable. Not that he has any intention of moving, at this point. That would require letting go, and it's taken him more than enough time to get to this point, thank you very much.

“Why?” Otabek’s fingers are skimming across his skin now, just under his ribs, and Yuri knows it worked, knows he’s made his point. Not that Beka seems to realise what he's doing with his hands. He hasn't looked away from Yuri's face even once, though his eyes flicker across his features, from his eyes to his lips and back again. For once, Yuri can revel in the absolute concentration of Beka's gaze, and he's not getting it. He craves that unblinking attention, as if there is nothing that Beka could possibly want to pay attention to other than Yuri. Who wouldn't  like that? “Why did you hide it?”

“Wrong question. Ask me why I showed you it instead.” It’s not exactly how he’d intended to confess, but whatever. Just because he can, Yuri presses his lips to the corner of Beka’s mouth, lingering just a little longer than he’d intended to.

“Why?” Beka asks, obediently, even as he turns his head, asking the question directly into Yuri’s mouth.

Bastard.

It takes a minute to get the answer out because he has to pull away, and he really, really doesn’t want to.

“I wanted you to know,” he says, “I’m not being forced into this, not because of the duel, not because you somehow put the thought in my brain.” He nudges against his cheek, plants another kiss just below his ear, and Otabek turns his head into him, lips at the corner of Yuri’s eye, just where it wrinkles when he smiles. “I choose this,” Yuri whispers into his ear, “I choose you.”

 

-

 

With Yuri, it’s always about choice.

Chapter Text

“I once met a man who’d been hit by lightning.”

Yuri had taken to questioning Otabek about his travels on their very first day, and he’s begun to offer up anecdotes of his own without prompting. Mostly when Yuri and Roza start to bicker, but Yuri’s not protesting. It’s more interesting than trying to reason with a seventeen year old.

“No way, really?”

It has been raining for the best part of the day, but now that it looks like the worst of the storm had passed to the East of them, they have relaxed somewhat. The rain has gradually petered out too.

Yuri shakes off his cloak, again, trying to get it to dry faster. The crisp sunlight isn’t doing much to keep him warm, but at least the garment is thick enough to stop the dampness seeping through it. There are still droplets trickling down his cheek from where his hair hangs over his face. He’d been meaning to tie it up, but it’s too late now. It’s already wet anyway, and it dries faster down than up.

“It was a miracle that he survived. You can see the scarring on his skin. Shaped like a fork of lightning, all the way across his face and down one shoulder. The people consider it a mark of providence. He’s a very highly regarded elder.”

Roza snorts, derisively.

“Yeah. It’s a shame that it turned him deaf and fried his brain, too.”

Her input doesn’t do much to curb Yuri’s interest.

“Where did you meet him?”

“On my way to a consort with Leo,” That’s another thing he’s started doing; identifying people that he’s mentioned before by name rather than title. It’s weird how familiar he seems to be with such a scattering of royal families. Yuri already knows Leo, though, so at least he doesn’t have to pretend to know who Beka’s talking about this time. “We travelled through the glass deserts.”

“The... what?”

Lilia’s geography lessons are almost hilariously sub-par in comparison to Otabek’s wealth of experience - in the last few days, Yuri’s learnt almost enough about the world to write a whole new book for Rusiki’s library. It’s a much more interesting way to learn about the world, too.

“Here,” Roza takes the necklace from around her neck and hands it over to him, leaning down Nastya’s neck to pass it across the gap between their horses. “It’s called thunderglass. Beka brought it back for me.”

“It’s supposed to bring good luck to the wearer.” Otabek adds, as Yuri inspects the pendant with one hand. Karzhau doesn’t require much direction, but he prefers to have a hand on her reins anyway.

It’s almost a perfect square of clear, slightly yellow glass. The most extraordinary thing about it is the veins running through it. They branch from a point slightly off-centre, and seem to have melted part of the glass into a different shape. It looks almost like the roots of a tree, sprawling from the base of a trunk, but jagged. Its grainy silver lustre catches the dappled forest light beautifully. The pendant isn’t large, sitting dwarfed by the palm of his hand, but the detail in it is so intricate that it looks bigger than it is.

“How do they get the lightning pattern into it?” He lifts it up, letting the sun’s rays shine through the clear part of the glass. A slight yellow spot falls on the side of Beka’s face as he responds, steering Aisulu through the trees.

“With lightning,” he says with a slight smile, as Yuri hands it back over his shoulder to Roza. “The glass deserts are a hotspot for lightning storms. There must be something in the sand that draws them. The heat of the strike melts the sand into stones, which the locals often go and collect. Over the years they have been able to harness furnaces to make glass from the sand themselves, clearer and cleaner than the lightning does. If you leave that glass out in the deserts, though, the lightning is even more drawn to them than the sand, and that’s what happens when the lightning strikes the glass.” He gestures to the pendant as Roza ties it back around her neck.

“I’d love to see it someday,” she says, “It’s supposed to be an incredible sight. The whole ground lights up – of course, it’s dangerous, too. Hundreds of people have died from lightning strikes over the centuries. It’s one of the things that makes thunderglass even more valuable, as well as rare.”

“Why is it called thunderglass, though?” Yuri ponders, thoughtfully. “Surely it should be lightningglass?”

“Sssh,” Otabek says, suddenly pulling Aisulu to a halt.

Yuri blinks, confused.

“What? I just think it makes more....” Otabek turns around and glares at him, putting one hand forcibly over his own mouth in an undeniable gesture to shut up.

Yuri snaps his mouth closed. He and Roza fall in behind Beka, already pulled to a halt. At first, he can’t figure out why they’ve stopped. They can’t see very far ahead in trees and foliage as thick as this, but he can’t see anything in what is visible. He tilts his head back, listening. There’s a slight wind rustling in the trees, and the sound of birds calling, occasionally accompanied by the flutter of wings. But nothing else.

Until...

Beka turns to look at him.

Yuri nods, once. Yes, he heard it. A shout, perhaps, or a scream. Definitely human.

Otabek dismounts immediately, his hand already on his sword as he lands, softly, in the dirt track. Inspecting the road ahead of him reveals nothing more than they’ve been following for the past few days – a few half-smudged footprints. Occasionally human, but mostly horses, and the occasional wheels of a cart.

Otabek gestures for Yuri to stay put even as he beckons Roza to dismount. She does so, already drawing her shield and spear from the strap across her back. A quick flick of his fingers between himself and Karzhau explains to Yuri why he needs to stay put; the horses are too loud to follow. He can hold all three of them mentally without having to move them to stand together.

They’re going to sneak up on the situation to get a better idea of what’s going on before doing anything, knowing Beka.

Yuri already has his suspicions. Carts usually mean merchants, and they don’t often fight among themselves.

Otabek and Roza have already disappeared off into the undergrowth. Aisulu, Karzhau and Nastya all stand perfectly still under his quiet influence. Any anxiety is kept carefully away from the bond – prey animals have fled on him all to often from him to allow any of it to affect them.

The forest is silent again, but for the birdsong and the wind.

 

-

 

Otabek steers towards the noise cautiously. He was not built for stealth – he might be small, but there is weight behind his footsteps. The closer they draw, however, the clearer it becomes that he has no need to avoid the dead leaves and twigs. Whatever is going on, they’re making quite a racket.

Roza stays close behind him, but as they finally get close enough to see, she veers left around the other side.

Yuri’s guess was correct – and Otabek had suspected a similar situation. A group of bandits, dressed, of course, all in black, are a holding a group of merchants at swordpoint. Very little of them is recognisable – they wear the squared-off hats that Otabek has never seen outside of Rusiki, and their fur collars are pulled well up to cover their chins.

There aren’t very many of them, only three to the merchant’s six or seven, but the merchants are unarmed. They stand in a small group, clustered together directly in front of their horses, holding onto each other.

Otabek turns to Roza. Already analysing the situation, she points to the far side of the road. The track is in a kind of depression, leading through a furrow a good deal lower than the surrounding forest. It leaves the merchants entirely fenced in, which was no doubt the bandits’ plan.

The two of them, amongst the trees, look down on the little group from a vantage point. Roza moving around to take position on the other side would easily hem them in. If she could get behind them before anything happened, they’d be blocked in.

Otabek edges forward, trying to hear exactly what is being said. Their voices have died down somewhat, and they seem to be cajoling the merchants, either taunting them or trying to bargain with them. They are speaking their own language, however, not the common tongue, and it is heavily accented. What little he knows is useless. Perhaps he should have brought Yuri after all.

Roza has vanished into the foliage. There will be no signal from the other side once she reaches her position – he would simply have to judge that she had made it by the time he chose to move. It is risky, but bandits tend to be panicky fighters and rather badly trained.

Then one of the party – slightly taller than the others, bearded and wielding a rusty sword – steps forward, as if to grab one of the merchants.

Otabek moves before his brain can register it.

The jump, thankfully, isn’t as high as it appeared. He lands on two feet, bending right into the ground, but balanced enough to draw his sword.

The merchant steps back immediately, pushing back into her group of friends. The bandit turns to Otabek with a sneer.

Otabek, ever the gentleman, bows.

“Greetings,” he says, in common tongue. Before he can get any further, the man leans over and spits in the dust in front of him.

“Piss off,” he growls. “This is our business.”

Otabek surveys the scene, steadily. His gaze flickers from the bandits, to the merchants, to the horses and carts lined up behind them. His gaze settles on their swords for several seconds before he once again looks at their leader, an eyebrow raised in question.

“The business of stealing from merchants?”

He is stalling. Roza has yet to appear. The bandit shuffles his feet, betraying his unease with a quick glance to his companions, even as he growls out his responses.

“What’s it to you? A knight can hardly care for a few peasants.”

“On the contrary,” Otabek nods to the merchants, as pleasantly as he can manage, “It is my duty to protect the kingdom, and what is it a kingdom without its people?”

“Hah!” the man tips his head back, a rough laugh, fake and mocking, echoing through the little hollow. “Such misplaced honour. I bet you’ve never missed a meal in your life. There’s no honour in desperation, sir knight,” the man spits, advancing with a raised sword, “and there will be none in this fight. How does three on one sound to you?”

The two lackeys fall in behind him.

“I’ve done it before,” Otabek replies, calmly, “but if you’re here for food, then the fight is unnecessary. We can provide you with what you need without issue.”

“No backing out of it now, you coward!” the bandit cries, and raises his sword, just as Roza lands in the dust behind them.

“Coward!” One of his lackeys echoes, but Otabek has already swung. After all, they’d promised an unfair fight.

The merchants scatter, heading back towards their horses and carts to get away from the swinging blades.

One of the bandits attempts to hit him, but the poorly made weapon just bounces off his shoulder plate. Otabek thanks whatever gods might be listening for the decision to wear their armour whilst travelling after the incident with the thieves. By the time the man recovers from the bounce, Otabek has already knocked the first bandit’s sword away, and pushed him to his knees. Casually, in a manner that suggests he’s somewhat used to doing so, he kicks him in the head. It knocks the man out, possibly hard enough to stop him getting up for a few minutes. Hopefully it won’t do him any permanent damage. Roza’s spear has found it’s mark too, and she is far less forgiving. The woman writhes on the ground, her arms clutched around her bleeding chest.

“Roza,” Otabek barks. “Don’t kill them, it’s not necessary.”

He is already turning, intending to chase after the third bandit, who is attempting to follow the merchants towards the only route for escape.

“But it’s so much more efficient!” Roza protests, but Otabek isn’t listening. He sheathes his sword and draws his dagger, then sets off in pursuit.

The bandit is already a few crucial steps ahead.

Otabek could gain easily, but it’s easier to try and stop him. The dagger isn’t designed for throwing, but it will do the job. Slightly curved, the blade scythes trough the air, a sharp glitter of light. Unfortunately, his aim at a run is off. It bounces off the man’s spurred boot instead of incapacitating him, and goes skidding into the side of the road, uselessly.

The runaway ducks under a horse’s head and yanks one of the merchants out of the way with a hand on his neck, dropping him heavily in the dirt in his hurry to get away from the knights. Otabek stops to help, unwilling to step over him to get to the escapee.

Despite his efforts, however, the bandit isn’t getting away. As he attempts to squeeze past the next horse, the animal rears. A flailing hoof knocks him solidly back to the ground, winded and possibly with a few broken ribs. He tries to scramble out of the way of the prancing animal, but the horse is already calm. It stands over him, a hoof on either side of his body, and refuses to let him up.

Otabek helps the merchant to his feet, allowing himself to relax a little, but the man’s eyes are still urgent with fear.

“The carts! They’re going through the carts!” He whispers, gesturing wildly to the covered vehicles behind the horses.

Otabek turns around, just in time to see a fourth black-clad figure emerge from underneath a canvas. He raises his hand for his sword – and an arrow plants itself in the woman’s shoulder. She falls back with a cry, collapsing in the dust at his feet.

Yuri drops down next to him, with his bow slung over his shoulder.

“There are two more, one in each cart.” He says, “They’re not going anywhere fast though. One’s got an arrow in the knee, and one in her ankle, and the horses are blocking the road.” Otabek leans back to see past the carts, are sure enough, the three of them – Aisulu, Karzhau and Nastya – stand shoulder to shoulder, blocking the far end of the gap. The only way out now is through Roza, or up the sides.

Otabek looks upwards. The sun is low in the sky now. They’d wanted to make a few more miles before nightfall, but plans change.

“Let’s make camp nearby,” he says. “The merchants will want to check their stock, and we can talk to the bandits.”

Yuri blinks.

“Talk to them? What the hell do you want to talk to them for?”

Roza wanders up behind them her spear slung over her shoulder.

“Beka doesn’t like killing people. He’s probably going to lick all their wounds for them, give them some bread and cheese and then send them packing to the local monastery.”

“Roza,” Otabek protests. “They’re not out to make mischief. Like the man said, it’s out of desperation.”

Roza is smiling as she nudges him in the ribs, and turns to Yuri.

“He’s responsible for at least half of the population of monks in Khazakistannas.”

Otabek sheaths his sword.

“It’s a useful profession,” he defends, “The monks can expand their farmland with the extra help, and the food goes to their families. It keeps them busy and gives them purpose. The standard of living is better, too.”

“You’re hopeless,” Roza says, fondly, even as Otabek leans down and helps one of the bandits out from under the horse. Yuri pats the animal, happily.

“I’m not even a little bit surprised,” he says, smiling softly at the creature.

“Um,” a voice interrupts them. Otabek turns to the merchant he helped to his feet. The man bows, deep and siffly polite. “Thank you for helping us. If we’re talking about making camp, there’s a small clearing nearby where we had intended to spend the evening. You are more than welcome to join us. We would very much like to offer you food as thanks for what you did for us. We would do more, but our journey is nearly at its end, and there is nothing more to give.”

Otabek nods his thanks as best he can whilst holding a struggling man’s arms behind his back.

“We would be very grateful to accept. I don’t suppose, however, that we could also trouble you for some rope?”

 

-

 

They make for a strange little procession. The bandits, tied and blindfolded, are helped up into the last of the carts after a little re-arranging. The three of them re-mount, and follow the merchants to the promised camping spot.

It turns out that the merchants are actually nearly home, planning to winter in a town less than a day’s ride from their current position. The roads are dangerous for them at this time of the year – the bandits are more desperate than usual, running low on supplies and trying to stock up for winter at the same time. That, at least, explains that fact that they have now encountered two separate groups along the same stretch of road. With the promise of protection for their final leg, not to mention being so close to home, the tarvellers’ spirits are high.

True to Roza’s prediction, Otabek spends a good twenty minutes talking to the bandits. What exactly comes of it, Yuri’s not sure. One of the merchants agrees to show him some of the stuff they’re carrying, and he gets thoroughly distracted by a small, notched device that turns by itself. The only reason they haven’t managed to sell it is they don’t actually know what it is, and they haven’t been able to find a buyer who does. Yuri can’t help, but he enjoys investigating it anyway.

They’re also carrying several musical instruments, and promise to play for a dance later in the evening. There’s even an instrument that Yuri hasn’t seen before.

He picks up the strange thing, deeper than a fiddle and with only two strings.

“Oh, a Dombra!” Roza sounds surprised. “We have those. Dad tried to teach me once, but Beka was always the musical one.” She grins, looking over her shoulder just as Otabek approaches, sweeping his hair out of his face.

“No way, Beka! You’re a musician?”

The quick flash of surprise is quickly directed into a look of exasperation at Roza. She just grins, smugly.

“I used to be,” he concedes. “I didn’t have an instrument of my own, so I stopped playing when I started travelling.”

“Show me.” Yuri shoves the instrument at him.

“Uh...”

“Come on, Beka,” Roza nudges him in the ribs. “It can’t have been that long.”

“It really has,” he defends, refusing to take the instrument.

“Oh, come on. I chased off more than half a group of bandits for you today, you owe me one.” It’s total bullshit, and they all know it, but Yuri’s best shit-eating grin is firmly in place, and Beka finally gives in.

“Perhaps later.” He says, but takes the instrument anyway.

That’s an acceptable compromise for Yuri. Otabek isn’t shy, exactly, but he’s also not a natural show-off. It takes a certain situation to get him to step up, and this probably isn’t one of them.

The dinner the other travellers offer them is incredible – they’re carrying herbs and spices from all over the continent with them, and flour too. The variation feels like luxury after the heavy meat-and-veg diet of the past two weeks.

One of them shows Yuri how to bake the bread on a hot stone, and he’s so enthusiastic about the results that she laughingly gifts him the rest of the bag of flour. Yuri promptly swears that he will ride one-handed for the rest of the journey if there’s no space for it in the saddlebags.

The beer and cider they carry isn’t much more than the usual fare, but they’re generous with it, celebrating their narrow escape and the knight’s help. The singing starts even before the sun has fully set, and the dancing goes on for much longer. Roza definitely has something to do with that, much to Yuri’s amusement, dragging he and Beka into the circle by the fire several times. At one point it basically dissolves into a competition, which Yuri very thoroughly wins by pure tenacity and better stamina, although nobody seems to actually care. Yuri doesn’t either, really. It’s worth it just to see his companions smiling so freely, to have Beka spin with him triumphantly around the flames, and to have laughter echoing in his ears.

Despite their high spirits, however, it has been a long day. Eventually the reveling begins to die down, and people peel away from the party, back to their separate tents and trailers to bed down for the night. By the time there’s just the two of them left, the fire has been banked down to just embers.

In the darkness of the clearing, the moon has no way through the trees, but the small patch of sky above them is speckled with constellations. Yuri finds a torch, lighting it from the remnant of the bonfire. It’s not much, but it’s enough.

Beka still has the instrument. In the noisy intervals of the evening, he has been plucking away at it, familiarising himself with the shape of it without his stumblings being overheard. Now, it’s the only sound in the clearing besides the gentle wind rustling the trees and the flickering of the flame in Yuri’s hand.

He seats himself close by, using the log that Beka is sat on as a backrest, preferring to sit on the ground. Otabek doesn’t pay him much heed, absorbed in his simple melody.

As Yuri closes his eyes, the better to listen, Beka starts to sing. It starts as more of a hum than a song, a baseline that gradually develops into something with words, but it’s meaningless to him. With only the sound of it, he buries himself in Beka’s deep, soft voice. His quiet song, counteracted by a few simple notes from the strings, is understated. It’s almost as much a part of the evening as the night birds calling and bugs chattering.

Eventually, he lets it fade; the low hum of his voice until his breath runs out, unaccompanied.

“Who taught you to sing?” Yuri asks, opening his eyes and turning his head so that he can watch Otabek’s response.

“My father,” he says, fingers already moving over the strings again; a different pattern, slightly more developed, but not seeming to require much concentration. “That was the first one he taught me.”

That explains its simplicity. Yuri liked it, regardless. It suited Beka’s voice.

“What is it?”

“A lullaby.”

The song he’s currently playing doesn’t seem to have a vocal part. Yuri’s fine with that. As much as he wants Otabek to sing again, he wants to find out about this more.

“What does it mean?”

Otabek thinks about that one for a minute. Yuri allows him the time to translate.

“It’s less poignant in the common tongue.”

Yuri just waits. Seemingly giving in, Otabek releases the slightly more complex melody and resumes the lullaby. When he sings now, Yuri pays attention to the words.

It’s not as smooth, and the syllabic pattern sometimes doesn’t fit, but he likes being able to understand.

 

With the forests and the mountains and the seas

travelled between us, we are family.

Our blood runs in the rivers, our tears water the grasslands,

and however far we travel, wherever we go,

the land holds our family, and our family is home.”

 

“I like it,” Yuri says, watching the stars. “Where’s it from?”

“It’s so old I’m not sure anybody knows anymore. But the people in the south villages sing it, so it must be from the time they were nomads too, like the northeners.”

“Do the northerners sing it too?”

“I don’t know.”

“That would be sad, wouldn’t it?” Yuri asks, reaching one hand towards the stars. “If the people on either side of the war had the same folk songs.”

Otabek does not respond. The pattern of the lullaby continues.

“Will you teach me?” Yuri asks, shifting around to face him. It’s getting cold now, so he plants the torch in the ground and folds his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them.

“It makes more sense in my mother tongue,” Otabek warns. The flames are casting what look like shadows on his hands – shadows of light. Dancing, like they’re trying to be sunbeams.

“Then teach me in that,” Yuri returns, determination unwavering.

So Beka does. Yuri’s pronunciation needs endless correcting, and even though Beka explains the careful nuances and connotations of each word and line several times, including their cultural significance, Yuri can’t quite remember what it all adds up to.

“So it’s like... as far away as we are from each other, we’re still family?”

“Kind of. But also that because we have travelled together, we are family, regardless of blood. Travelling together for months and even years at a time means trust and reliance are necessary, and calling your group a family helps to remind people how closely they are tied to each other and the land.”

“You can say all of that in one sentence?”

“It’s more by implication.”

Eventually, however, Otabek must deem him up to standard, because he stops correcting and starts singing.

Their voices couldn’t be more different. Yuri, having never sung before, finds the pitch and sweetness of tone in his voice somewhat strange. But he doesn’t seem to have an issue getting the tune, and not a single note falls flat.

It really doesn’t sound too bad; a counterpart, if not quite in harmony, with Otabek. They stop eventually. It’s nothing more than that one refrain, repeated, presumably, until the child being sung to has fallen asleep. Yuri settles into the silence, even as Otabek puts the instrument down.

“Yura, we should sleep.”

“Mmm.”

“Yura.” He opens his eyes to find Beka standing over him, holding out his hand.

 

-

 

“You’re blocking the stars,” he complains. “I can sleep here.” The protest is token only. He’s already taken the hand.

“In the dirt and the cold,” Otabek agrees, hauling him to his feet. “Sounds comfortable.”

Yuri stumbles against him, laughing, and leans into his shoulder. It’s a fair way down, and requires a bit of a slump. It’s a miracle that Otabek doesn’t stumble under his sudden weight.

“Sssh. People are asleep.” He says. Yuri only sighs, and doesn’t move, just swaying slightly. “Are you drunk?” Otabek steadies him, trying to avoid kicking over the torch.

Yuri shakes his head into the fabric of Beka’s cloak, thoroughly crumpling it and only really succeeding in rubbing his forehead against the leather.

“I was bored of beer, and everyone else was drinking cider, so.” Resigning himself to being a leaning post, Otabek shuffles Yuri over so that he can get an arm under his shoulders and lead him back towards the tent.

“That wasn’t cider,” he corrects, Yuri’s condition suddenly making a hell of a lot of sense. Yuri blinks at him, drunken confusion evident.

“It tasted of apples!”

“Quietly,” Otabek scolds, and Yuri pulls a face at him. Laughing will wake everybody else up, but Beka has a hard time holding it in. Keeping a straight face is a lost cause. “They make scrumpy out of apples too, you know.”

“Then what’s the difference?”

“Alcohol content.”

Chapter Text

Although Yuri got up without protest at dawn (beyond the usual moaning and groaning which Otabek had begun to suspect was more habit than actual ire), he’s been quiet ever since. Roza had, very tactfully, not mentioned that it took him three attempts to mount Karzhau instead of the usual one. She and Beka had ridden up front most of the morning, leading the little procession of carts through the forest while Yuri kept up the rear. Technically, he was supposed to be making sure that they didn’t lose anyone or get snuck up on, but mostly he was just recovering. Yuri didn’t mind that. He actually quite appreciated their tact. Mila would have never let him off so easily. It’s not that he misses it – his head is eternally thankful at being allowed to recover peacefully – it’s just different.

He’s feeling better now though, and Roza had volunteered to ride at the back when they’d stopped, leaving him to lead with Otabek. And he’s been looking for a way to wrangle Beka into this chat for ages.

“You fight differently when there’s more than one opponent,” Yuri says.

“How so?”

He considers that, watching Beka manoeuvre Aisulu around a stray tree root.

“Technique. Your dueling is much more thoughtful. You were just leading with brute strength yesterday. I recognised the moves, but you hadn’t actually considered what you were going to do. Right?”

Aisulu has slightly longer strides than Karzhau, but they’ve adjusted to it. They’ve had more than enough time to work that out in the past week or so. It’s a little different, less easy than when it was just the three of them, but Otabek had insisted on accompanying the travellers.

Yuri doesn’t mind too much. There are ways around it; Roza and Beka had chatted for most of the morning in their mother tongue. They have been riding in comfortable silence up until now.

“There’s less time to think when you’re being attacked on multiple sides,” Otabek points out. It’s a fairly obvious statement, but in fairness, Yuri is asking obvious questions.

“But it looks natural. Like you’ve done a lot of it.” He says. Otabek is looking at him, and yeah, okay, that’s not the most subtle way to ask, but he’s not exactly a subtle person.

“I have,” he replies, and turns to watch the road.

Well, crap.

“Is there a big training camp at your castle?” he persists. It’s unlike Beka to be quite so quiet. Unresponsive, even. Usually, he’s just a bit short.

“No.”

That said, this is not unlike the treatment Yuri first got when he arrived in Rusiki. Perhaps it’s the presence of the merchants, though he seemed comfortable enough with them last night.

He’s not sure how to proceed. Otabek isn’t exactly being forthcoming.

“Was there just a lot of focus on it in training?” He wonders aloud, following Otabek’s lead and watching the road rather than his face.

“No.”

Formulating another question takes Yuri a little while. Into the silence, after a good portion of time has passed, Otabek finally elaborates.

“It’s not something I learned in training.”

Ah. Perhaps that explains his reluctance to talk about it.

“But can you teach it?”

The track has opened out onto a meadow. The plains stretch for several miles from the edge of the woodland to the bend in the river, vanishing into the next valley. Autumn’s chill hasn’t sapped the green from the grass in the same way it bled the tress into reds and browns. Animals still graze, muddy though the ground is.

By the smoke rising from behind the notch in the valley, they aren’t too far from the town now. Barely even twenty minutes, if he had to hazard a guess. That gave them the whole afternoon to prepare for moving on the next dawn. Perhaps the detour wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“I could,” Beka says. Something about his stance has changed. He’s poised now, not settled into the day’s ride as he had been before. Anticipation, sweet and thick, settles on Yuri’s tongue. “But only if you can beat me to the town.”

Beka delivers one swift kick to Aisulu’s flank, and she leaps forwards into a gallop. They’re several strides ahead before Yuri even has a chance to react.

“Oh, you are on,” and they’re off, chasing the smirk that Beka had flashed them in the half-second before the challenge.

He’s always been competitive. And fuck, does he want this. He’s been wanting to spar with Beka since the day they met. Well, no, perhaps the day after. Perhaps since Beka landed JJ in the dust, cut a scar across his perfect cheek, and winked at Yuri as he walked away.

Karzhau is fast. The steppe ponies are suited to his build; smaller but sturdier, built for stamina. The saddlebags, a little loosened from the morning’s ride, thump against the back of his thighs. The wind whips by, slapping the long grass against her forelegs.

It’s going to take more than a couple of strides to catch up with Otabek, but Karzhau had surged into his command, picking up the gallop from almost a standstill. Yuri might be at a disadvantage here, but despite his extra height he knows that he’s a good deal lighter than Beka. Karzhau is younger than Aisulu too, and she’s eager, urging forward at every nudge of his thighs. Aisulu is just metres away now. Beka’s back taunts him.

“Come on girl,” Yuri urges, already breathless, and Karzhau tosses her head. Beka glances over his shoulder, and grins when he sees Yuri bearing down on him. Aisulu leans into the gallop more, extending her stride, and like hell is Yuri going to let him get away with that.

They’re both in a flat-out gallop now.

Whoever told him that riding a horse was like flying had been completely and utterly wrong. It’s almost the exact opposite. Perhaps to someone who didn’t know better, the wind in his hair and the speed of the ground disappearing below them would seem like flight. Yuri leans low over Karzhau’s neck, their bodies smooth and streamlined.

No, it’s nothing like flying. The heartbeat rhythm of her hooves on the ground thrums in his veins, the steady thud of the earth like an anchor. It’s too loud, too heavy, thundering through the undergrowth.

A flight is silent but for the ruffling of feathers, and sometimes not even that. It’s almost unbearably light; completely untied, edging the gap between soaring and falling. It’s a freedom confined by gravity and possibility.

“Eat my dust, Beka!” Yuri yells over the wind and the heavy hooves, eyes wild with the excitement of it, hair streaming out behind him, body rocking with the rhythm of the gallop.

“You have to get ahead of me first!” Beka yells back, his voice carrying over the wind.

“Ha!” Yuri shouts, a formless noise, pushing the sound deep from his chest out into the field and revelling in the carelessness of it.

The rest of the travellers must think they’re mad.

They take the bend of the river at full speed, the horses’ hooves scrabbling for purchase in the mud. By the time they reach the bridge, they’re neck and neck. The town looms suddenly ahead of them, released from the protection of the valley. The gate is open, beckoning.

Yuri glances sideways. Otabek’s gaze is focused straight ahead, his eyes narrowed, body leaning into Aisulu. They get closer, and closer. Beka’s legs remain clamped to Aisulu’s flank, and Yuri mirrors, unwilling to concede his chance at this. The meadow has become a track, the dirt easier under the horses’ feet.

Holy shit, they’re not going to slow down.

If he relents even slightly at this point, he’s going to lose.

Yuri does not lose.

Ever.

The guard at the gate sees them coming, and doesn’t even try and stop them. She simply dives out of the way as they thunder past. They hit it at a gallop, Yuri only just, but undeniably, half a length ahead. He drags Karzhau to a stumbling halt, sending a woman stumbling into the side of a stall, but avoiding knocking the stall itself over. Thankfully the streets are quiet, but Beka pulls up close anyway, letting Aisulu trot a little circle to apologise to the woman. Yuri gives Karzhau her head, grinning triumphantly.

“I win,” he says, the moment Beka is close enough, and pulls him across the gap to kiss him, quick and sharp, pushing just a little hit of adrenalin and smugness through it.

Otabek rolls his eyes at him and dismounts.

“Hey, that’s my thing.” Yuri grins, doing the same. He’s already spotted a stable towards the end of the square.

“It’s the only appropriate response to your bullshit.” Beka sighs, “I can only imagine what your childhood was like to make you so prone to doing it.”

“You’ve met my siblings.” Yuri points out. “Hurry up, the sooner we get sorted out the sooner we can spar.”

“Shouldn't we wait for Roza?”

“If I fight you both at once it’ll be too demoralising. I have to leave at least one of you with your dignity intact.”

 

-

 

Yuri’s true parentage has always been A Problem. Blood is everything. Blood disputes have started wars and toppled kingdoms. It’s the reason Yakov was so determined to pretend that he and Mila were Lilia’s, to the point of sending Lilia away for years at a time to hide the fact that she wasn’t pregnant.

Yuri still doesn’t know who he hates more for that; Lilia for allowing it, his mother for eventually giving in and sending her children to the castle to grow up without her, or Yakov for starting the thing in the first place. Probably Yakov. His mother and Lilia had been forgiven years ago, but most of Yuri’s issues tend to boil down to Yakov being more concerned with his public image and personal gains than his family’s happiness. That isn’t going away anytime soon.

His heritage has been a much-argued and tumultuous part of his life for as long as he can remember, and considering that, it has been amazingly easy to forget about it since the incident with the widows.

Until now.

Having galloped into town and risked the lives of several townspeople doing it, Yuri was expecting the colour of his hair to be the least of his problems.

Apparently, he was wrong.

“So it’s true,” the blacksmith leans on her anvil nonchalantly enough. “The prince is a bastard.” Wiping her hands on her apron, she stands up. The bucket of water is by her knee, and Yuri knows what she’s going to do. He’s halfway out the door as the fire spits and dies behind him, surrendering itself to smoke and ashes. There’s no way he’s giving her the satisfaction of refusing to serve him.

Otabek seems more confused than anything when Yuri throws down his broken dagger and spits out the reason it won’t be getting replaced.

“That’s half a day’s work,” he says, looking up, as if to check that the sun is still only halfway across the sky and hasn’t suddenly decided to set without warning.

Roza seems equally perplexed, although more excusably so. Otabek should be well versed in the traditions of the western continents.

“Why do they hate half-bloods?” She asks, and Yuri rolls his eyes, helping to unroll the tents from the saddlebags. They are camping a little way out of town; there had been no space at the inn with the merchant’s arrival. The horses, however, have all already been washed and bedded down in the town’s stable.

“We are, historically, the number one culprit for starting uprisings. Plus I don’t exactly get on with my father, and haven’t tried to hide it. Nobody in a town like this wants a war. The economy is unstable enough as it is without all the farmers being killed off fighting for a king they’ve never even met.” Roza blinks at him, somewhat surprised. “What? I spent years in court, I’m not completely ignorant. I still resent being blamed for my dumbass father not being able to keep it in his pants, though.”

Roza snorts out a laugh, even as Beka tries to hide his smirk.

“So what do we do?” She asks, retaining some of her dignity. Yuri shrugs.

“Wait it out. Eventually we’ll get far enough away that people either won’t know or won’t care.”

He didn’t even think to bring his hood with him. Honestly, he hadn’t given it a second thought, but even if he had, he would have thought that leaving the crown behind would have been enough, especially this far out. Public appearances have never been high on his agenda.

“We can’t move on until we’re properly armed,” Otabek protests, as stubborn as ever. “Are you alright doing this on your own Roza?”

“Sure. Go ahead, practice your diplomacy.”

“This shouldn’t take too long.” And he’s off, striding towards the town as if his companion doesn’t have a little ‘hate me’ banner trailing above his head. Yuri rushes to catch up.

“Are you crazy?” he says, “It’s obvious we’re travelling together. She won’t serve you either.” Beka doesn’t respond. “Seriously? Alright, fine, feel free to make a fool of yourself. I’ll just watch and laugh.”

Still nothing. Beka marches down the street in silence. Not knowing what else to do, Yuri follows him, wondering exactly what the plan is. It sure as hell isn’t giving up, that much is obvious.

There is no smoke billowing out of the chimney of the blacksmith’s hut, but the door is still open.

Beka walks straight in.

“Good afternoon,” Otabek addresses the blacksmith with perfect cordiality. “I was hoping we would be able to get this dagger fixed.”

The woman has clocked Yuri already, and her eyes flicker between the two of them, calculating.

“Not today, I’m afraid sir.”

Otabek dips his head, acknowledging the formality, just as it occurs to Yuri that Beka, without his crown, looks just like any other knight Yuri might be travelling with. He doesn’t correct the blacksmith’s address, though.

Odd.

Yakov relies on his title, and Yuri has watched Victor pull rank to get his own way for most of his life. It makes getting things done a hell of a lot easier.

Beka seems oblivious to this.

“That’s a shame. You see, we broke this one protecting a group of travellers from bandits on the way here.”

Otabek is not a natural conversationalist, especially not with strangers. Yuri’s not even sure that Beka knew what small talk was, let alone be able to indulge in it.

What is he doing?

The blacksmith seems equally confused.

“You... did?”

“I believe that without our protection, they may have been seriously injured. Killed, even.”

There’s something steady about his voice. Even when there’s a hint of threat to it, it’s quiet and low, like he and the blacksmith are close friends already. She clears her throat, and evidently decides to err on the side of politeness for now. Yuri wonders which of them is going to figure out what is going on first.

“That would have been terrible.”

“I’m glad you agree,” he nods, solemnly. “It’s not the first time we’ve been attacked. I’m sure it won’t be the last, either. Ours is a long journey. Going on without being properly armed would be incredibly dangerous. Some might even say fatal.”

He’s still not smiling, and Yuri had forgotten how disconcerting that can be when you’re not used to it.

The silence stretches between them. The woman is still standing defiantly, her arms crossed across her chest, the hammer in one hand resting against her hip. The weight of carrying it for an extended period of time doesn’t seem to bother her much. Even so, her attention is wholly and unbreakably focused on Otabek. She barely even moves but for her eyes.

“But it’s an important journey,” he continues, at last. “People are depending on us. My sister’s children, for example.”

Yuri thinks he might be beginning to see where Beka is going with this, and holy crap. It’s dirty.

“Are you manipulating me?” She splutters.

“Yes,” Beka shrugs. “But if it makes you feel any better, I’m telling the truth. They are relying on us to make this journey safely. We cannot abandon them, or our quest. But will you allow us to attempt this passing unprotected?”

There it is.

The smith opens her mouth to retort, but even before she can, Otabek adds;

“I know what people look like when they’ve killed someone. You don’t have it. I think we’d all prefer you keep it that way.”

Yuri watches her, carefully.

The anger rose fast, she opened her mouth to snap, and then Beka silenced her before she could even speak. He’d be pretty pissed on her side of things. As her mouth curls into a snarl, he sees the accusation and it’s sting.

That said, Beka has a point. It flickers under the surface, and she doesn’t spit out the refusal that she so obviously wants to. But she doesn’t acquiesce either.

“Who are you?” She demands, uncrossing her arms. The hammer dangles threateningly by her side, clenched tightly in her fist.

“Otabek Altin, King of Khazakistannas. I imagine you’re aware of the civil war.”

Yuri nearly chokes. Of all possible moments to pull rank, that was not when he was expecting it to happen. The smith appears equally flabbergasted. She recovers herself quickly.

“Prove it.”

Otabek sighs, and for a moment Yuri thinks he’s going to refuse on principle (he would, at a demand from a peasant). But then he puts his hand on his sword, and holy shit, that is NOT where Yuri thought this was going to go.

The smith tenses, raising the hammer ever so slightly.

But Beka doesn’t point the blade towards her. Instead he turns it, and offers her the hilt for inspection. It doesn’t get the smith to relax at all. She does, however, lean forward slightly to look at the giltwork.

“You can take it, if you want to test the authenticity.” Otabek says, coolly. She looks at him, straight-faced and honest, and then at the blade.

Yuri genuinely doesn’t know if it means anything to her, but she picks it up anyway, handling it with the dexterity of someone used to weighing them rather than swinging them. She spends so long looking at it that Yuri begins to get curious about what exactly it is about Beka’s sword that’s so interesting. His own handle is just a generic lattice-work designed for a firmer grip, but he’s no stranger to fancy heirlooms. What’s weirder is that Beka, of all people, should have one.

“It’s been repaired several times,” she sniffs, derisively. “And it’s well overdue another.”

“It’s had over a century of heavy use,” Beka says.

Well, at least that explains the notch in the blade. Yuri can’t believe that he never thought to ask.

It seems to be enough for the smith. The sword is handed back, not without a certain amount of reverence and reluctance that makes Yuri think that her sniffing was more from annoyance at them than her actual feelings about the weapon itself. Beka sheathes it, casually, and settles against the wall to wait. Silently, the smith turns, and begins to clear out the ashes of the fire in order to build a new one.

“That was dirty,” Yuri whispers, gleefully, the moment the blacksmith starts hammering away at the forge and he can get away with it.

Otabek tilts his head.

“I thought the word for it was diplomacy.”

The little flash of humour is entirely unexpected, and all the worse for it. Yuri tries to withhold the snicker, he really does, but it’s pointless. The snort of laughter escapes through his fingers, and only barely escapes the blacksmith’s attention.

She’s upset enough with both of them already, and if she heard him laughing it will be, absolutely, the last straw. Unfortunately, knowing that he shouldn’t laugh only makes him giggle harder.

Beka kicks him out.

In fairness, it's entirely justified, but it really just makes Yuri want to laugh harder. He stands outside the shack, trying not to look too smug. There’s not much going on to watch, but there’s not anything else he needs to do either, so he ends up waiting. He doesn’t mind. He’s still tickled by Beka’s comment.

Diplomacy.

He kicks at the wall, still smirking.

The dagger doesn’t take long to fix. He waits, listening as Beka pays and makes his thanks, and joins him as he exits the shop.

“So,” Yuri says, “Can I see this sword that's apparently so impressive?”

Otabek draws the weapon for him, handing it over with about as much grandeur as he did before. Which is to say, none at all.

“It’s not really mine.”

“Yeah I guessed that much.” Upon closer inspection, the blade isn’t in as bad a condition as it looks from afar. It’s badly scratched, but polished and sharp. There’s only one really noticeable notch in the blade’s edge. He presses his fingers to it, cautiously, and feels the sharp hollow of it. He’s not sure what could have caused it, but it’s been there a while if it’s also been sharpened down. It’s shallow, but wide, which explains why it looks dramatic but doesn’t seem to make the blade any weaker.

There’s nothing extraordinary about the sword itself. The handle, on the other hand, is something else. The pommel isn’t round, like his, but sharpened to a useable point. Blunt force with this could crack a skull, easily. The grip is latticed, but the raised lines are actually the curled form of two dragons, winding around the grip. An eagle, head pointing down towards the blade, spreads its wings across the crossbar. Its tail-feathers are just shy of one dragon’s open mouth. The entire thing is gold-plated, though not recently so. The handle shows obvious wear, the shine tarnished. The most intricate details are beginning to rub off – some of the dragons’ scales are etched more thinly under the hardest wear, the underside edge of the eagle’s wings beginning to rub away where they would rest against the top of Beka’s hand.

“How old is it?” Yuri asks, turning it to see the head of the second dragon, and weighing it carefully in his hands. It’s a little on the heavy side for his preference. Possibly the weight of the gold handle requires a longer blade to balance it. He’d probably only be able to use it effectively with a two-handed grip, although the pattern of wear clearly indicates that it is also often used as a single handed weapon, or with a shield, both of which he has seen Otabek do without apparently suffering for it.

Not that he’d have trouble lifting anything, considering the size of his biceps.

“Nobody’s exactly sure.” Beka says, watching as Yuri turns it over, his fingers slipping over the bird’s beak and onto the flat face of the blade. “It was forged before we started writing things down, by the first clan leader to unite the kingdom under a common rule. When the north dissented and refused to settle, he went to war with it.”

Yuri turns his attention away from the sword, surprised.

“The war’s been going on for that long?”

“No continuously, no.” He holds his hand out, and Yuri reluctantly passes the sword back. He would have liked to have had a go at swinging it. “But I’m the ninth generation to carry it and none of the rest of them saw peace for more than twenty years.” Beka sheathes it, without any of the care or attention that that information suggests it should deserve.

“That’s one hell of a legacy. Is it real gold?”

“It’s only plating, but yes. Altin means gold, so it's something of a family joke.”

“You’re shitting me. No wonder your crowns are so fucking flashy.”

Yuri grins, watching the light catch the handle protruding from the scabbard at Beka’s waist. It bounces a little as he walks, the blade stretching well past Beka’s knee. Perhaps the ancestor it was originally forged for was somewhat taller, if not stronger.

There is a lot about Beka that Yuri doesn’t know, he realises. Not that either of the Altin siblings know much about Yuri’s family history, but it’s not exactly as important. The whole mess with Yakov, Lilia and his mother is about the only factor of it that actually affects his day to day life. Roza and Beka are not so lucky.

And neither are their family.

Beka is quiet. He walks with his head tipped slightly forward, watching the ground in front of him rather than where he’s going. It doesn’t take a genius to guess what he’s thinking about.

“What are their names?” Yuri asks, trying not to be too gentle. It catches Beka’s attention, drawing him out of his own head. His attention settles on Yuri with a slow blink.

“Who?”

“Your niece and nephew.”

He looks away, line of sight on the mountains. Yuri doubts that he’s seeing them.

“I don’t know.”

“What?”

“We’ve never met them.”

Yuri stops walking. This is not a conversation that he wants Roza’s input in.

“Did Alyona...”

Beka turns.

Yuri hates this – hates the way his expression collapses into stoicism, and he won’t even allow himself to frown. Hates that he has to ask this, that Beka won’t just tell him. Hates, most of all, that this is more than just the harmless quest he has been thinking of it as.

They are going to a war. But Beka makes it so easy to forget, sometimes.

“She married the leader of the northerner warlords. It did not solve everything, but it was the closest we have had to peace in living memory.”

Yuri just stares at him.

And he thought that his family history was fucked up.

“Your brother in law killed your parents?”

Otabek turns away, and Yuri immediately regrets his bluntness.

“We’re still not sure exactly what happened.”

“That bastard,” Yuri growls, “I swear to god, when we get there I’m gonna...”

“I don’t want to fight any more than I have to.” Beka interrupts. Yuri’s mouth snaps shut, halfway through the threat to disembowel him slowly in front of his children. “I have lost more than enough to this war.”

“So what, you’re just going to let them win?” He huffs, indignantly.

“There was a peace treaty before. I can only hope that this has been a misunderstanding. I refuse to attack until we know exactly what happened.”

Beka’s always been a bit of a stubborn bastard, but usually he’s a lot more subtle about it. Standing in front of Yuri, quite literally blocking his path, is not subtle. Neither is the glare. And Beka could probably glare a dragon into submission if he wanted to. It’s something to do with the eyebrows. Yuri has the strange urge to put his hand on his sword, even though Otabek’s are nowhere near his. It’s not even that he’s issuing a challenge, really. At least not a physical one. It’s just Beka expressing a point of view on a subject that, in fairness, Yuri doesn’t know a hell of a lot about. A week is not really enough to fill him in on the generations of history that have got the Altins to this point.

“That’s not what Roza seems to think is going to happen,” Yuri tries, cautiously.

To his surprise, Beka softens. His shoulders drop, his attention flickering to the camp and back before he answers.

“I know. Roza thinks I’m soft, and we should kill them all.”

Yuri takes a deep breath. This conversation seems like a minefield, but if Beka’s not used to his lack of subtlety by this point then he never will be.

And he can see Beka’s point. He understands Roza’s more, perhaps; if somebody had stormed his home, and killed Lilia or Mila or even Yakov, he’d want to swear revenge too. Hell, he certainly wouldn’t have gone and asked for Victor’s help, or trusted his judgement. He would have torn a hole across the country before he’d given it a second thought.

The problem with that being that he hadn’t considered that it would be putting whoever might have remained in danger. All wars are driven by counterstrikes. That much he knows. Beka does too. And Yuri, the only other person on the planet who has truly felt his grief – no, even he couldn’t ask him to risk what was left of his family in a foolhardy strike of revenge. Not when protecting Roza, and his country, was an option. However unlikely an option. Anything, at this point, would be worth trying.

“Hasn’t she lost enough already?” He says, quietly.

The response is slow to come, and all the worse for it.

“Roza has nothing left to lose.”

“What about you?” Yuri snaps, bristling. “You’re trying to protect her. Why isn’t she willing to protect you?”

For someone so far from inclined towards expression, Beka’s voice says it all. His tone, though usually fairly soft, is almost unbearably pained.

“When they killed our parents, she was there.” The statement knocks all of Yuri’s breath out of him. “They forced her to watch. The only reason they left her alive was to pass the message on.” He stops, for a moment, but Yuri has no response. What can possibly say to that? “It’s too obvious an incentive for us to attack. It’s very likely that they were acting independently.”

“Is she...” he trails off. Asking whether she’s okay seems pointless. Of course she’s not.

“She won’t tell me about it.”

Yuri’s not surprised.

“I thought she was alright.” He says, then, realising how stupid it sounds, “I mean both of you are obviously not okay, but she wasn’t, I don’t know... she’s more expressive than you are.”

“You’ve never chosen to be angry instead of upset?”

Yuri opens his mouth to protest, because no, of course he hadn’t chosen to be angry, but... well.

“Point taken.”

Beka starts walking again, and Yuri takes that as a hint that the conversation is over. Offering a hollow apology would be pointless, as would attempting to extend sympathy. The words do not formulate easily in his head, and he will not insult Otabek by trying to comfort him with anything less than he deserves.

Instead, he walks close, so that their arms almost brush. It’s not far, to the tributary where they have camped, but in silence the walk seems infinitely longer than it had before.

The meadows and their respective farms spread for several miles down the valley, but their campsite is at the edge, by the forest and the river, on the flattest and clearest land they could see from the town. The path they will follow tomorrow curves around the next lump in the foothills, and then snakes back on itself, finally beginning the ascent into the mountains.

When they are just metres away, Beka finally speaks.

“There’s something else,” and Yuri’s heart drops, because Beka stops, and turns, fixing Yuri as the centre of his attention. His tone is heavy. It takes a few moments for him to formulate the words. “I have changed my mind several times in the past few months.” There is a slight wind blowing. It catches Yuri’s fringe, blowing it just slightly over his face, obscuring his vision for a moment. Impatiently, he brushes it out of the way, tucking it behind one ear.

Yuri takes a deep breath.

“If you’re going to say you wanted to marry me before the tournament, I might actually hit you.”

That, for some reason, makes Otabek smile.

“No, not that. I wanted to thank you.”

“What?”

“For changing my mind. About coming home.” The wind snatches Yuri’s hair from behind his ear. Before he can tuck it back, Beka reaches out and does it for him. His fingers are rough, dry from riding, but his touch is gentle. “You are more of a warrior than I’ve ever been. You told me to be sure of myself. You told me to stop running away and start fighting.”

Yuri doesn’t believe that for a second. Beka grew up in a war, has seen the front lines, has killed people. Yuri had been cooped up on the inside of a forty-foot wall for his whole life, and has still barely seen real conflict.

“I didn’t think yelling at my dad for being an asshole would have inspired you to come back and fight a war.”

And he never said any of those things. Especially not in Rusiki – not when even he didn’t know what he was doing, or what he wanted. Not when he was lashing out in any direction rather with any point in mind.

“No,” Beka says, softly. “You stood up for what you believed, and you believed that you were a better knight than you were a prince. You didn’t have to be as dedicated to your country as Victor or your father, but even so, it was never as selfish as you would have had the rest of us believe. I watched you jump in the river for Vera, didn’t I?”

Yuri doesn’t have a response to that.

Only Beka would have put the time and thought into being able to see past that. And not only that, but to be inspired by him, when he felt at his lowest and least like himself. Beka had somehow seen the person that he wanted to be as if it was him. As if Yuri was worth all of the sheer effort that Beka seems willing to sacrifice for whatever this is between them.

“My people do not deserve to die in this war any more than my family did,” Beka says, suddenly fierce, “but I never would have acted on it if it wasn’t for you. Let me thank you for that. On behalf of my country, as well as myself.”

Yuri grimaces, although it sort of flops on one side as his mouth tries to pull itself into a smile instead.

“Well, I’d like to meet your niece and nephew too.” Beka’s seriousness has always surprised him, but thanking Yuri for his influence, especially on a war still unresolved, is more than a little premature. “I hope you’re not expecting any deep, dark confessions of mine to surface because of this though.” He says, half-joking. The intensity of Beka’s stare, his earnest sincerity, is more than he knows how to cope with. “I don’t think I have any left.”

Beka smiles.

“Was being in love with me a deep, dark confession, Yura?” He teases.

“It might have been a secret.”

“Not a particularly good one,” Beka says. “Roza had us both sussed from the first day.”

“Your sister,” Yuri sighs, “Is a menace. She’s also probably watching us and formulating a series of insults for you right now.”

Beka pulls back, amused.

“You think she’s insulting me when she yells at me?”

Yuri blinks.

“Yes?”

Beka bends his head, letting out a short breath of laughter. When he looks up again, his mouth is tilted into the tiniest of smiles.

“She’s yelling at me to marry you already and get it over with so she doesn’t have to deal with our ‘honeymoon phase’ for any longer than necessary.”

Yuri bites his tongue, and completely fails to hide the snicker.

“That’s really not any better.”

“Tell me about it.”

 

Chapter Text

This is not what he’d had in mind when he’d suggested they spar.

“It’s all about balance,” Roza offers, without elaborating.

“Great, thanks,” Yuri snaps. “Very helpful.”

His voice is a little strained with the effort of keeping his leg stuck out in front of him. It’s supposed to be so that Beka can check his balance, but mostly he just feels like a bit of an idiot. He’s lucky he’s naturally flexible, otherwise it would be a hell of a lot harder to maintain this position. And apparently he’s supposed to be aiming higher.

“You need to watch where you’re planting your supporting foot.” Beka lets go, demonstrating the correct position for the third time. Yuri doesn’t see any difference from the first two kicks they’ve done, but he doesn’t say that.

Beka’s explaining the flow of the movement again, in his calm way, reminding Yuri to flex his toes out of the way. If they were actually practicing properly, he’d be at risk of breaking them. Fortunately, kicking at trees is not a good idea, and they don’t have much else in terms of available targets.

“Alright,” he says, satisfied at last. “Go ahead.”

Yuri takes a deep breath, raises his leg – and falls over.

Roza bursts out laughing.

“The thing about practicing,” Beka says, helping him to his feet, “is learning the importance of control over power.”

“Right.” Yuri narrows his eyes, setting his position again. “If I kick too hard, I’ll just overbalance.”

“Exactly.” Beka nods.

“Good leg height though.” Roza concedes, rolling onto her stomach. “Especially for a beginner.”

Yuri sighs. There’s something vaguely smug about the compliment. He knows that they’re both better at him than this. They’ve had years of practice, and he started this less than an hour ago. That doesn’t mean her smugness is any less patronising.

“Again?” Beka says.

Yuri nods, determined, pulling his fists in to his body.

Falling over twice is only marginally more embarrassing than once, but three times is really pushing it.

“What am I doing wrong?” He huffs, hauling himself to his feet and waving away the hand that Beka offers him.

“You’re concentrating too hard on the swing,” Beka says. “You need the stability to support it. Concentrate on the position of your left leg.”

“Basically you’re kicking too high and overbalancing yourself.” Roza adds, and Yuri rolls his eyes at her.

“What happened to ‘good height’?” he grumbles. She shrugs, tucking her chin on the palms of her hands, elbows in the dirt.

“No point in kicking that high if you’re just going to fall on your ass doing it. Why do you think we started with the ones at waist height?”

Yuri steels himself, and takes up position again.

“Alright.” He moves again...

“Left!”

“Lower!”

He falls over.

“Fucking...” Even Beka is smiling now. Yuri sighs. “Is there a way of doing this that will make tomorrow’s ride less painful?”

“Not really.” Roza grins. “But I don’t think I’ve seen someone fall over quite so many times before.”

“Fine,” Yuri huffs. “Your turn then. My butt hurts.”

Roza shrugs, already standing.

“Suits me. Watching you fail repeatedly was getting boring anyway. You up for a quick round, Beka?”

The smile flickers across his face as she walks towards him, brief but true.

“Always.”

Yuri sits himself down – carefully – and watches as they set up. Beka shrugs his cloak off, which apparently wasn’t necessary to teach, and Roza removes her belt, dagger and all. They are similarly built, neither of them having an obvious advantage.

They bow, and take their stances. Fists up, blocking their bodies, they mirror each other. Like this, their similarities are more obvious; the dark hair, obviously, but more than that. They way they hold themselves, too, the set of their shoulders, the tendency to give their full attention, and most of all, the single-minded focus in a fight.

Yuri’s not seen much of Roza’s fighting, but the parallels are undeniable. The moment they step towards each other, and the first kick is thrown, Yuri loses track of what’s going on. It’s as fast as it is brutal. He recognises the blocks and dodges, the moves that required so much concentration for him, flowing into the whole seamlessly. The level of judgement and analysis required to respond so fast to such complex moves is definitely an advantage the Altins have over him.

Soon enough, though, it becomes actual wrestling, and all the rules are apparently out of the window.

There is a lot of shouting. None of it in any language that he understands. Roza lands on the floor first, but she drags Beka down with her. 

Either way, the precise movement that Beka was teaching him definitely doesn’t apply when they’re rolling in the dirt. Beka has a long stripe of brown across his cheek, and half of Roza’s usually neat hair has come out of its plait.

Apparently this time sibling rivalry has got the better of both of them. Yuri doesn’t mind. It’s actually pretty fun to watch. Especially Beka, who’s usually so composed, and who can fight dirty when he wants to. Elbowing his own sister in the stomach definitely counts as cheating. Roza gets her own back though, eventually pinning him to the ground with nothing but one foot in a particularly threatening place.

Yuri’s never seen Beka squirm. The word for ‘no’, at least, he recognises, though really he’s more amused by something that Roza says; a word that sounds suspiciously like ‘surrender’.

For half a second, he thinks she’s won – and then one of Beka’s feet whips around her ankle, sending her crashing to the ground, foot removed from crotch with no damage done.

“Whoah, okay, I think now might be a good time to stop.” Yuri says, when she grabs her brother and starts trying to wrangle him into a headlock. “I’m calling referee’s privileges, and you’re both disqualified for foul play.”

“Oh come on,” Roza whines, letting Beka go. “He started it!”

Beka is laughing, brushing off the worst of the dirt as he stands. It’s mostly dry, but the streak on his cheek remains stubborn, and he only succeeds in rubbing it further along his jaw.

“You can’t prove anything,” he says.

Roza elbows him, a little too hard, in the ribs. Before Yuri can berate her, Beka tackles her around the waist and they both go flying, straight into the stream.

“Oh my god,” Yuri bursts out laughing. They’re both completely soaked, sitting waist-deep in freezing water. “That was not the wash I was going to suggest, but you did both need it.”

For his trouble, he gets very thoroughly splashed. By both of them.

“You little shit!” Roza shrieks, echoed only by Yuri’s own shocked screams. The water is fucking cold. As soon as he’s out of splashing distance, Beka is chasing him down, spraying water across the fire as he runs.

“No no no!” Yuri attempts to hide behind a tree. “I have had more than my fair share of bullying today, you dickhead, I am nAAAAARGH!”

Beka is a lot stronger than him. And, apparently, sneakier. The moment Yuri’s feet go out from underneath him, Beka lands on top of him, pinning him down. He is wet, cold, and unbearably smug.

“I thought you could do with a shower too. You’ve been doing more exercise than usual.”

“And whose fault is that?” Yuri protests, trying and failing to wriggle free.

“Do you really want me to answer that question?”

Then Roza dumps a cauldron of cold water over both of their heads.

They let her win for that, partly because it makes them too cold to want to fight back, and partly because it’s the dirtiest move of the entire debacle. Thankfully, none of their stuff gets wet, so it’s easy enough to change and settle in front of the fire, the warmth returning before the sun has even set. It’s the liveliest they’ve been over dinner for a while, not counting the run-in with the merchants.

Sparring is easily incorporated into the daily routine. Although it never devolves in quite the same way as it did that night, Yuri begins to spend his days looking forward to the evenings.

For a while, at least, it’s a good distraction.

Chapter Text

Otabek should have guessed that Yuri was going to love the mountains. He’s been gradually getting more cheerful over the last day or so anyway, obviously enjoying the chance to spar again, and Otabek can’t say he blames him. There’s something refreshing about stretching out properly and using all of their muscles again after a long day’s riding. It makes him feel more prepared, too, in case anything else goes wrong. They’ve had unusually bad luck on the trip so far, but he’s hoping that they’ve had their fair share of misfortunes now.

They sleep heavily, despite the cold, tired and well-exercised, and fending off the worst of the chill with shared blankets and human warmth. The shared dreams are an odd experience, and more than a little unprecedented, but one that neither of them is really bothered by. It’s an interesting mix. Otabek is actually beginning to enjoy it. He particularly remembers one where Yuri was dreaming of flying with Ariya, and he’d finally been able to understand what it was like. Yuri, in his turn, heard the lullaby that Otabek taught him in the native tongue whilst being able to understand it. Once he woke up, the words were just syllables again, but the meaning remained. He’s been better at singing it since. Even Roza was impressed.

The variation in food sources is better here too, more types of grains and vegetables growing where the plains and the foothills meet. Otabek doesn’t actually like oats, as such, but in a bone broth with potatoes and carrots, he can cope. They bulk it out, making the soup more filling. Yuri has been hoarding the flour, but occasionally they have bread too.

In the mornings, they wake in the shadows of the mountains to a hearty, warm breakfast, the prospect of a beautiful view, and interesting conversation or comfortable silence.

It’s hard not to be cheerful. Yuri even hums as he clears the ground around the campfire of its light coating of snow, rolling a few nearby fallen trees in to sit on.

The sunset from this high up is incredible. The scattered clouds, sitting low across the horizon, pick up the last rays of the sun’s light, outlining them in gold against the swirling oranges and pinks behind. A bird of prey wheels across the sky, calling, silhouetted against the canvas of colours. They’ll be in the clouds tomorrow, and eventually the plains and forests of Rusiki will vanish for good.

That said, it’s not perfect.

Yuri stands at the edge of the campsite, staring out. As the bird turns into a sudden dive, Beka joins him, easily slipping an arm around his waist. Yuri leans back lifting his own arm to rest it around Beka’s shoulders, warm on the back of his neck.

They stand in silence for a moment, the meld allowed to develop slowly. Yuri’s mind is unusually quiet – the usual hum of energy is gone.

“Is it what you expected?” Otabek asks, purely out of curiosity.

“Knighthood?” Yuri’s happiness, when it comes, is as heady as ever. “Better.”

Beka can’t stop the little surge of affection, but has no reason to anyway.

Yuri sighs, laughs at him, and pulls him closer to revel in it. Otabek doesn’t mind. This time, however, it is met with sadness, and that – that he doesn’t like.

“Yura?”

“Do you think that’s the castle?”

He turns, pointing out across the plains, and that’s what that is – the little tug towards his family; missing Victor’s wedding, leaving Lilia with Yakov, and Nikolai. That little edge of fear, whenever he thinks about his grandfather.

It’s not as simple as homesickness, but that’s where it starts.

“It could be,” Beka concedes. It’s little more than a dot on the landscape at this point, but the direction is right. So is the layout; at the point where the river curls around the wood to another blot, which could be a town. The difference between meadow and forest is marked by a slight change in colour, and from there the plains begin to rise into hills. It’s the only height advantage for miles around, apart from the mountains themselves.

“We promised Lilia we’d be back,” Otabek reminds him. “We have a duel to fight.”

It’s the first time they’ve spoken about it since they left. Yuri’s feedback colours into the myriad of confusion that Otabek has no chance of unpicking. He doesn’t respond.

“I changed my mind again.” Beka says. Yuri blinks, and turns to him, wary. “I lied, when you asked me whether I wanted to win. I wanted to lose, so you could choose to marry me, if it ever came to it. But I would not have fought any less than my best, out of respect for you.”

It’s the first time Yuri has kissed him in front of Roza.

“Otabek Altin!” She yells, from the campfire, “You disgust me!”

Beka refrains from pointing out that he didn’t technically start it. Nothing, however, can stop him from grinning at Yuri as he slips away, and saying;

“Now that sounds familiar.”

Yuri gapes.

“You did NOT just compare me to Victor.”

It works, for a while. As they make dinner, Yuri tells Roza about the various ridiculous escapades of his siblings. It’s evident enough that the pang of homesickness is still there, but Yuri smiles for a good portion of the early evening.

It’s only when he goes to relieve himself that the distraction stops working. He doesn’t come back immediately, stopping by the edge of the clearing to look out over the plain again. There’s barely anything visible now that night has fallen, but there are a few specs of light where the closest villages are, and it’s not inconceivable that he can see the tiny, flickering light that the castle projects into the darkness of the winter evening.

The sky above them is clear, scattered with the stars that are so reassuringly familiar. The shadow of the bird is almost invisible against such a background, little more than a passing shape that flitters through the lights. He wouldn’t have known it was there if he hadn’t been able to hear it calling. It’s only then that Beka realises what he’s doing.

He leaves Yuri to it for as long as he can, but it’s not long until the meat is cooked, and Roza sends him to fetch him back. Yuri notices him coming, has turned back and is heading towards him before he’s even halfway there.

They stop, half a length apart.

“I could have brought Ariya.”

He’s not facing Beka. His chest is turned towards him, but he’s twisted his face away. The way the firelight reflects off his cheek presents him in silhouette against the stars. He’s watching the bird over his shoulder, one fist clenched. It hitches, calling, and twists into a dive, before vanishing over the edge.

Yuri turns to him.

“I could have brought Kutken.” Beka says. “I wanted to. But it would have endangered him.”

“I can control Ariya better than you can control Kutken.”

Yuri snaps a lot.

Beka looks up at the stars, allowing him a moment to cool off. It’s not worth arguing about. He doubts Yuri’s bothered by that anyway. Alyona used to do this; lash out about inconsequential things when there was something else bothering her.

Sure enough, when he looks back at Yuri, he’s grimacing.

“There are two birds, on a mountain near my home.” Beka says, to save him the discomfort of apologising. “Eagles. They’re supposed to be descended from the hunting eagle of first ancestor to settle. He released her when the last stone of the castle was laid, and with it, gave up the travelling lifestyle forever.”

Roza loves this story; Alyona used to tell it to her when their parents were away. She’d probably scold him for shortening it if she could hear them. Yuri is watching; listening. Otabek goes on.

“There have been eagles nesting on the mountain ever since. They have become sacred; they are a premonition. You must pass the mountain to leave the valley. If they fly high above the peak as you pass, you will have good luck. If they fly low, you should turn back. Your journey is doomed.”

Yuri’s eyes are flickering across his face, as if trying to read him.

“Why did you tell me that story? Why now?” He asks. Not angrily, but not without edge to it. Beka has to resist the smile. For all his wildfire, Yuri can be very predictable sometimes.

“You’re unhappy. You like birds. You like my stories.”

Yuri opens his mouth, then closes it again, just to smile. It’s just a touch of a thing, the smallest twitch of his lips. It’s what he was looking for.

“Sap,” Yuri says, “Dinner?” His hand brushes Beka’s elbow as he passes. The contact is just enough for the little flash of influence, and for a moment Yuri’s homesickness lurches, sick and sad, in Beka’s stomach.

“Dinner.” Beka confirms, turning to walk back with him as Yuri’s hand slips away.

He blinks, disoriented.

 

-

 

“Yura...”

When he turns, Otabek is still looking at him. The sentence is unfinished, but Yuri finds himself waiting for the second part. Otabek obviously wants to say something. There’s something indiscernible about his expression, and Yuri would be lost without the edge of his confusion he can...

Oh.

Holy shit.

He takes a few steps back. It makes no difference. Otabek is still there, in the back of his head, even though they’re several lengths apart.

“I didn’t do that,” Yuri says, already prodding at the hum in his brain. It’s small, only a faded version of what he’s used to, but it’s undeniably there. He pushes at it, but there’s no movement. Wrapping the influence he can still control around it, he pushes again, looking for leverage, but it remains firm. Almost like a solid mass in his mind, it is no more removable than his own consciousness is.

No.

No, no, no.

“Yura,” Otabek says, again. Yuri ignores him. There must be something he can do. It formed without intent, surely it can’t be that strong? Surely he can get rid of it somehow?

“Yuri, stop.”

He closes his eyes. There is, there is something, just on the edge of what he can detect, but it’s moving. If he can just get a hold on it...

“STOP!” Yuri’s eyes snap open. Otabek never shouts. Not like this. The clearing reverberates with it, not just the volume of the shout but the sheer force behind it.

Beka is on his knees in the snow. It takes Yuri a moment to realise that the anger in his head isn’t his. Beka’s head is in his hands, his breathing heavy. And it hurts. Whatever Yuri has done, Beka’s pain is throbbing through the new link, insistent and unforgiving.

“What did you do to him?” Roza’s voice is hard. She’s already moving past Yuri, going straight to her brother.

“I don’t know,” Yuri says, then, “I didn’t mean to.” As if that will somehow fix this.

“That... hurt,” Beka grits out, the words tight between his teeth. Roza moves his hands away, and touches his forehead, gingerly – Beka flinches away.

Completely at a loss, Yuri can do nothing but stand there and watch what he’s done.

Worst of all, it hadn’t worked. Beka’s anger, like a sting in the back of his head, aches like something septic.

“Didn’t you hear him telling you to stop?” Roza snaps, turning the full force of her fury on Yuri. He doesn’t have an answer – of course he did. She knows he did.

“It’s okay, Roza,” Otabek is getting to his feet, blinking unsteadily as if trying to dispel something. “It was an accident.”

Was it?

Yuri can feel the pain, now. He could before, too, he thinks. But he’s used to ignoring pain, and perhaps, peripherally, he’d thought it was his. And he was willing to hurt himself to kick out the connection he hadn’t asked for.

Beka had asked him to stop. He should have known. He shouldn’t have kept pushing. He should have paid attention to something other than his own feelings, for once.

“I’m sorry,” he says. The words come out small, not insincere but scared. “I’m so sorry.”

 

-

 

It’s not a fun evening.

Although Otabek’s anger was quick to pass, Roza is still majorly pissed at Yuri. There’s not much he can do about that. And to be honest, with a significant part of his head now sharing Beka’s headache, he can’t bring himself to want to. It’s not like she’s not justified.

It’s supposed to be Otabek’s turn to wash up, but Roza won’t let him.

“You need to go to bed,” she says, taking his bowl from him.

“You did it yesterday,” Otabek protests, but she ignores him. When Roza goes to add Yuri’s bowl to her pile, he stops her, taking their two from her instead.

“I’ll do it,” he says. “We can just swap turns.”

Providing that Otabek is better by tomorrow. Yuri doesn’t know how bad the reaction was the first time he messed up his influence with Beka, but it can’t have been anything like this.

He goes before either of them can protest. Hopefully, by the time he’s finished, Otabek will be asleep.

 

-

 

The stream is a little distance from camp. Otabek watches Yuri’s pale form, passing the water from bowl to bowl in the moonlight.

To say that the evening’s events had been unprecedented would be an understatement. He’s still not entirely sure what happened, but the headache isn’t helping. Concentrating is so much harder with the constant pounding in his head.

“You’ve forgiven him already, haven’t you?” Roza growls. “He deliberately hurt you, Beka. I don’t know how, but he did.”

Otabek’s not entirely sure how true that statement is. The level of guilt that has been filtering through from Yuri ever since is almost as loud as the headache. Otabek’s head feels busier than he can reasonably cope with. Paying attention to not only his own thoughts, but also trying to decipher what Yuri is feeling and find the line between the two is complicated, to say the least. It feels like too much work for one brain to cope with. Yuri’s been doing this for years, albeit with animals rather than humans, but Beka is entirely new to it.

“I don’t think he realised he was hurting me,” he says, quiet. “He was...”

...too busy trying to break a bond that had formed by accident. It stings, knowing that the first thing Yuri had done was to try and get rid of it. It was easy to be angry, to be hurt, but harder to remember that Yuri was coming from a life over which he had no control, and had only just escaped from the immediate pressure of the last connection he’d had forced on him. Just when Otabek had begun to think that Yuri could look at him without resenting him, not for who he was but for what he stood for, he’d somehow taken the choice out of his hands again. And knowing Yuri’s motivations makes it hard for the anger to stick. It’s what he was missing last time, after all.

But there’s no way he can explain that to Roza.

“Yuri has never been free before,” he settles on, and knows it’s inadequate. Roza has her own opinions about Yuri already, not all of them favourable.

As he expected, she doesn’t understand the explanation. She sighs, standing and walking towards her tent.

“Perhaps if he could be grateful about it rather than whining and sulking all the time, it would be a bit easier for the rest of us,” she snaps.

Otabek lets her go. There’s not much else he can do.

 

-

 

Otabek is still awake when he gets back.

When Yuri lifts the tent flap, his step falters, before he drops it closed behind him, and stops. There is silence for a moment.

Otabek has been waiting for him. He is facing towards the entrance, still sat upright, although he has adopted Yuri’s habit of wrapping the blankets around his shoulders. It smells, like always, of smoke, animal skins, and them. With a week of lived-in time, it is neither distinctly Otabek’s scent nor his own, but some familiar mix of the two. Yuri likes it, usually. He still does, even with the little stab of guilt that seeing Otabek serves him. It’s only made worse by the wave of affection and relief through the link.

Yeah, Beka has definitely been waiting for him.

“Do you need anything?” Yuri asks, trying to think what would help with the headache. His is mostly faded, but Beka undoubtedly has it worse. “Would water help?”

“I’ll pass,” Beka says, quietly, and Yuri suddenly remembers that Roza is probably asleep already. “But thank you.”

Yuri hovers. He doesn’t feel comfortable approaching Beka like this; as if they’re going to share a bed like they usually do; as if Yuri hadn’t just hurt him.

“Are you still homesick?” Beka asks, and Yuri can’t help the little flare of anger at that. It’s not that he wants to hide it from him – it’s just that he should be able to. It’s not even at the front of his mind, and the fact that he still knows is uncomfortable. Having somebody else inside his head, reading him so easily – it’s wrong. Even if it’s just Beka.

He forces it down.

“A little. Amongst other things.” It doesn’t feel like much of an admission. Beka probably already knows.

Otabek is so easily open to him now, too. The slight softness in his eyes is now accompanied by a clear reading of the feeling behind it: a little sad, a little hopeful. Yuri knows that Beka is not as unaffected as he can appear, but having it laid open before him, however muted, is weird. It feels like an invasion. Like voyeurism. Otabek hadn’t asked for this either.

“I don’t know if I can help with that,” he says. “But I’ve forgiven you. Perhaps you should forgive yourself too.”

Yuri sits down. The tent is pretty small anyway, they aren’t that far away from each other. He can’t stand forever.

“I hate being homesick.” He says, settling into the warmth of the fire’s glow. It’s an obvious change of subject, but Beka allows it.

“I know,” he says.

“Do you?”

Yuri’s not being intentionally pissy, but he’s not happy either, and he’s never been one for pretending.

“I started travelling young.”

“You got homesick too?” Yuri blinks at him, as if surprised.

“Of course.”

Beka respects the distance he’s established, reaching out a hand instead of moving into his space.

Yuri can’t help but wonder if this is the way they’re going to do things now. When things get complicated, they’ll just share thoughts and memories until they feel more like themselves.

It’s a weird way to address the issue.

“You’re going to show me?” he guesses, shuffling a little closer. He can hardly complain – he’s intrigued to learn more about Beka, wanting to draw on their similarities the more he notices their differences. And it’s good, not just to be able to relate to someone, but to know that not only are his issues reasonable, they can be dealt with.

“Partly,” Otabek smirks, the wicked little glint back in his eye. “I think you’ll enjoy this one.”

Intrigued, Yuri gathers his influence, reaches forward, and takes Beka’s hand.

 

Nobody in Candis does martial arts. In fact, nobody in any of the Americas ever has. Otabek attempts to train anyway. There’s only so much he can do on his own, but it’s important to keep his strength up, and practicing his positions helps.

Which is what JJ finds him doing in the middle of the night, closer to morning than evening, when the homesickness is too strong to allow him to sleep. It helps him feel a little more like himself, if nothing else. A little more centred.

“What are you doing up?”

He’s young – he wouldn’t be able to grow a beard if he wanted to, and his hair is long and floppy, the undercut still in the future. His face has yet to sharpen, although his body is filling out. Late teens, Yuri would guess, and Otabek too. Only a little younger than Yuri is now.

 

“Can you not,” Beka pulls back, “think inside my memory, please? It makes it hard to concentrate.”

“Huh?” Yuri hadn’t realised he was doing it. “Oh, right.”

“We were both eighteen.” Otabek confirms, before taking his hand back.

 

“What are you doing up?” Otabek echoes back. It is, after all, an unholy hour. He had tossed and turned for several hours before giving up on sleep.

“You’ve been very quiet,” JJ says. Otabek stops throwing punches at the hanging sack of straw, if only to glare at him. JJ just grins. “Okay, I mean quieter than usual. I was just beginning to think that you could be quite talkative sometimes.”

Otabek ignores that, turning back to his position.

He can’t go home, and there’s nothing JJ can do to make him feel better anyway. His new friend watches him land a few more hits before interrupting again.

“What are you doing?” He sound genuinely interested.

“Training.”

“Can you teach me?”

He’s wandered over, and is trying to mimic Beka’s position. Badly. It’s easily corrected though, and he does it without thinking.

JJ is not a natural. He gets frustrated quickly and needs correcting on the same points multiple times, but he’s determined. By the time the sun has risen, he’s already begging to learn how to throw someone.

Otabek settles back.

“I should go to bed,” he says. He hasn’t slept a wink, but thankfully his life in Candis is largely self-regulated training, and he did spend most of the night practicing. The exhaustion is beginning to hit now, though. “You should too,” he adds, but JJ shakes his head.

“Nah,” he beams, proudly. “I’ve got to be at court this morning.”

It’s the first time of many. When Otabek is homesick, JJ or Isabella always seem to know. They go out of their way to distract him, keeping him busy until the feeling has settled, or simply exhausting him so that he drops into bed without having time to think about it. It’s not a feeling he enjoys, but eventually he gets used to it, and it doesn’t hit so hard.

JJ, on the other hand, is only twice as eager to have Otabek teach him. It goes on for several months, until one day, JJ challenges him.

Otabek has been teaching him a certain hold, letting JJ land him in the dust multiple times until he gets it just right.

“Can we actually fight?” JJ whines as Beka gets up, brushing off the sand. “I want to throw you properly, not because you let me.”

Otabek had guessed this was coming. Isabella is watching, and JJ wants her to think that the sun shines out of his arsehole.

Unfortunately, Otabek suspects that she already does.

“No,” he says simply, “I have trained for sixteen years, you have trained for one.”

“So?” JJ’s grinning, sizing him up. “I recon you should at least let me try. I...”

Beka kicks him in the face.

In fairness, it’s not exactly what he intends to do. He expected JJ’s instincts to kick in and for him to block it. Instead, the ball of his foot lands squarely between his eyes. JJ goes down like a felled tree, with a high-pitched squeal.

Otabek blinks at the young prince sprawled on the floor, clutching his nose.

“What were the first two things you learned?” He asks, answering himself when JJ simply stares at him, wide-eyed, between his fingers. “How to block, and...”

“Never let your guard down!” Isabella finishes, and bursts out laughing. Otabek can’t help but smile with her. JJ goes bright pink, but pulls himself to his feet and bows to Beka, as he’s been taught.

“Um,” Isabella says, her giggles subsiding somewhat. “JJ, your nose...”

Otabek finishes for her.

“You’re bleeding.”

 

“Beka, you didn’t,” Yuri’s eyes are sparkling with mirth. “Did you actually? Break his nose? Please tell me you broke his nose.”

Beka sighs.

“Yes, I broke his nose.” Yuri collapses into giggles, dragging Otabek down with him and pulling the blankets over them both. “It healed well, thankfully.”

“I never would have known,” Yuri grins. The bond, almost completely forgotten in the wake of the story, is now pleasantly thrumming with their happiness. It’s a relief to have it, like this, rather than a strain. Otabek is more amused by this story than he’s letting on, and for some reason the fact that he’s trying not to laugh, even when Yuri can read him so clearly, makes it even funnier.

He tucks his smile against Beka’s collarbone. The warmth of his amusement floods them both. The lines are blurred, and if some of his own joy is merged with Beka’s, he neither notices nor minds.

“You can’t tell him that you know,” Beka warns. “He swore both Isabella and I to secrecy. His father still thinks it was a jousting accident.”

“Oh my god,” Yuri is still giggling, somewhat helplessly. “You have to teach me to kick like that tomorrow. That was so badass. Have you ever used it on anyone?”

“Other than JJ? Not that I can remember. But he got it several times.”

Beka,”

And so they chat, quiet and contented, until Yuri eventually falls asleep, still fully dressed, in Otabek’s arms.

It’s more than he could have possibly hoped for.

Chapter Text

Yuri tries to get used to it, he really does. It’s not so different. It just makes everything a lot more intense to feel it twice over – happiness is ecstatic, sadness is despair.

Beka happens to notice the sunrise at the same time that Yuri says good morning to Karzhau, who bestows her usual fond nuzzle on him. It’s a strange moment; to experience something that is quite so intense in response to such small stimuli. The last time his heart soared like this was... well, not so very long ago. But for a situation much more deserving.

And he is confused, too. Their different reactions can be very disorienting. God knows when Beka is tacking up Aisulu, humming gently, and Yuri is by the stream trying to scrub some bird shit off the tent canvas, he shouldn’t be bloody happy about it. Aisulu seems to notice too, because she makes a point of stepping on Beka’s foot at one point.

Whatever he says to her in response must have been rude – it startles Roza into almost helpless laughter. Otabek stands with his hand over his mouth, shocked by his own outburst. It only makes her laugh harder, and pat Aisulu on the neck.

“Nice one, girl. I couldn’t even get him to do that when I was trying.”

“Perhaps you just weren’t heavy enough,” Yuri says. Roza grins at him, then catches herself, as if remembering that she’s still annoyed.

It’s a pretty shitty situation for all of them.

There’s still no control, and he’s completely open all the time, but it’s fine.

Most of the time it’s fine.

He’s watching Beka throwing snow over the still-warm ashes of last night’s fire. It occurs to him how easily Beka had responded to him the night before, how he’d gone from guilty and unhappy to laughing within minutes. Nobody had been able to do that for years. Beka is kneeling in the snow, head bent into the task, barely paying attention.

Yuri has a moment – an ‘oh god, I am so in love with him’ moment. It’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s the first time Beka can actually hear.

He looks up, the connection suddenly flooded by his reaction.

“Yura?”

Yuri blushes, furiously.

“Shut up.”

Beka just smiles.

Embarrassing, but fine.

Roza, obviously, is more than a little confused. Usually she would demand information, but last night she was distracted by Beka’s pain, and now they seem to have reached a silent agreement not to tell her exactly what’s happened.

Yuri has his own reasons; he suspects Beka’s wish to keep their relationship mostly private is a hell of a lot simpler, as motivations go. Obviously, Roza already has mixed feelings about their situation. No need to make it any worse for any of them by bringing her into it.

The thing is, Beka is so calm. The connection betrays him, in that his emotions are livelier than his expressions. But while his feelings are undoubtedly potent, they are steady. They tend to grow, slowly, so that Yuri almost doesn’t notice. He may react temporarily, but the more immediate emotions are shallower, on the surface of whatever is underneath. It’s nothing like Yuri’s ever-fluctuating rollercoaster.

And knowing that he’s projecting makes him hyper-aware of everything. Unlike Otabek, he only ever feels things whole-heartedly. It’s something he’d noticed before; Otabek, on a good day, can be mildly disappointed and still have a good day. Yuri, if mildly disappointed, is immediately having a shit day. It can be pulled back just as quickly by something as simple as a good meal, but the point stands.

The flashes of anger, especially, are strong enough to make Otabek physically wince. He controls it quickly, but not before Yuri notices. It’s... not good. Every time it happens, he can feel the shockwaves echoing back at him.

Worst of all, it’s affecting Beka’s behaviour.

Packing the tents away wet from the snow is unpleasant for everyone. Yuri thinks nothing of his irritation, grumbling away to himself about how fucking cold his fingers are and how holding the reins is going to be painful as all hell, and the snow is so unpleasant and sluggish to ride through.

But when Roza tries to take Beka’s pack from him, he snaps at her.

“I can do it.”

Roza steps back immediately, trying to mask the hurt with anger of her own.

“Alright, fine, don’t let me help you.” Beka just blinks at her. Only Yuri is privy to the dawning guilt and shock. Beka never snaps. Until then, he’d been going about his morning routine as usual, perfectly calmly.

That had been Yuri’s fault.

 

-

 

And now Roza’s dead weight of a brother is sulking. Sulking. He’s twenty four.

To think, that he’s supposed to be the sensible one. Technically, she’d be forced to admit that the king being married (and to a prince of Rusiki, no less) would have been a brilliant political move. The problem is, they’re not married. They’re in love (ugh). Which is a hell of a lot more complicated, even before you introduce Yuri’s bratiness, and whatever the hell his weird animal magic is. Because it is magic, whatever Beka says to the contrary. It’s just not healing magic.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, as much as Roza loves her brother, she’s beginning to question his priorities.

Which is how they ended up here. Because Roza is done with Yuri’s shit, and she is done with Beka being ‘understanding’ (i.e fucking stupid) about it. If she’s the only one who remembers why they’re here in the first place, then so be it.

“I can find Yuri just fine,” Roza sighs, impervious to Beka’s attempts to discourage her. “God knows, I might even do a better job than you would because I’m not so insistent on being nice to him.”

Beka frowns.

“You are not persuading me that this is a good idea.”

Roza sighs, loudly, and puts the saddlebag down on the table.

“You,” she prods one finger at Beka’s chest, “have more important things to be worrying about than your boyfriend’s next tantrum.”

Beka blinks at her, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him.

It’s infuriating. Roza would hit him with the bag if she hadn’t already put it down.

“You. Are. The. King.” Each word punctuated by a solid poke to the sternum. Maybe if she bruises him, the sting will be a more permanent reminder and he won’t forget it every time Yuri walks into a room. “I did not come all this way for you to be a useless, lovelorn teenager the entire goddamn time.”

It takes him a minute to process that. Roza, taking his silence as acquiescence, moves towards the door. Honestly, she missed most of her brother’s teenage years. He spent so many of them abroad, and they had never written to each other like he and Alyona did. But if he was anything like this, she’s almost glad she missed it. The stubbornness is a family trait that she has her own fair share of, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with.

“Roza...”

He’s going to try and apologise. She can hear it coming. Their father used to take exactly the same tone – it’s the one he used on her every time he came home, as if a few words could make up for the months of absence. At least mother had never patronised her with empty words.

“Just... find us a guide.”

Roza leaves him standing, alone, in the centre of her room, and goes to find their burden.

 

-

 

Yuri is not coping.

In his defence, Otabek isn’t either, but he’s a little better at hiding it. From Roza, at least. He’d apologised for the incident, but she’d shrugged him off, and he gets the feeling he’s being given the cold shoulder rather than forgiven. Which is fair enough, but it doesn’t make it any easier. He can’t hide the guilt from Yuri, either, and the two of them are caught in what feels like a self-perpetuating cycle of feeling like shit.

It’s no surprise that he’d vanished the moment they’d found rooms.

Otabek wants to go after him, after Roza, but has serious doubts about whether it would do any good at this point. It’s strange, though – the separation seems to be putting a strain on the link. Nothing serious. It doesn’t hurt. At least, not yet. He suspects it might start to if left too long.

There is very little for him to do now besides wait. It’s too early for the tavern to be particularly busy, and the bartender is out back, having his own lunch. It leaves Otabek plenty of time to sit and stew.

He doesn’t particularly want to.

Once he’s resolved on going out and finding a guide instead, it actually doesn’t take long. The only problem is, as he walks in circles about the town, tracing suggestions from the two shopkeepers and various passers-by, he has time to let thing swirl around and around in his head.

It’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with this when Yuri’s there. It’s a hell of a lot easier to cope when he’s concentrating on solving Yuri’s issues instead of his own.

Otabek is angry, and he’s not been really angry for a very long time.

 

-

 

It’s been a long time since Roza has seen someone arch. The only person she’s ever watched doing it was Alyona. Perhaps that’s why, catching a glimpse of the figure through the trees, her first thought is of her sister. It’s the lithe curves – the bow, they call it, like the wood is bowing to the will of the archer. And that incredible stillness; the deliberate silence of a hunter in a dead lock. She could have been a standing stone, for all Alyona moved as she braced herself against the pull, the power in the string, weighted carefully, for the sharp bite of the shot landing true.

It’s the slight flash of hair that dulls the moment; the movement of it catches the light, shining, not dark and thick like an Altins’, not tucked away into a braid like her sister always wore it.

She misses Alyona. Yuri is not just a poor replacement – he is almost everything that Alyona was not. She was grounded, thoughtful, careful. Yuri is flightly, wild, powerful too but differently so; volatile. At first, Roza had wondered what Beka saw in him. At face value, he was a perfect fit; they were short of an archer, and Yuri was apparently one of the best. Not just on the continent, but in the world. But he was so painfully naïve.

Roza had puzzled for days over why Beka had chosen Yuri, of all people, to lead Alyona’s cohort. She waited for her first impressions to pass; they didn’t. Yuri had killed to save her life, but it changed nothing. She didn’t trust him. She couldn’t. He was so unsuited to leading an army. But what other reason would Beka possibly have had for bringing him along? You were supposed to protect the people you loved, not drag them into a war with you.

I don’t want to fight alongside him,” she’d said, at last, when she could wait no longer. “He’s too thoughtless. He doesn’t listen. He won’t take orders. He’ll act on his own initiative, and I don’t trust his judgement. He could cost us the war.”

Beka had said nothing. Well, nothing that could disprove her, or change her mind. He had simply insisted that they didn’t need to talk about the war yet. Not until it became imminent. Not until they knew exactly what was going on.

You haven’t told him, have you?” Roza had guessed. “Why you chose him?”

At the time, she still hadn’t been completely disillusioned. Otabek and Alyona had both always been so much calmer, so much more sensible than she was. They’d had a much more stable childhood. Roza was supposed to be the brash, irrational one.

Perhaps all she’s succeeded in doing is wasting two months trying to get help when she’d have been better off tackling it on her own.

He definitely should have told Yuri from the start. Hell, he’s going to be catatonic if he finds out they’ve been hiding things from him. It’s whether she should tell him now that’s bugging her. It’s a perfect opportunity. Beka can’t stop her.

But...

The heavy thud of an arrow landing in wood shakes her out of her thoughts.

Right. They’ve wasted enough time.

“Yuri.” She steps forward just as he turns around.

“What are you doing here?” He snaps.

Roza, never brilliant at controlling her temper, is already on the edge of her limit. The tone of it is just enough to push her over.

“Stop running away. It doesn’t solve anything, and you’re only upsetting Beka more and making life difficult for all of us.”

Yuri rolls his eyes in trademark annoyance, turning his back and threading the next arrow.

“If I wanted another lecture I would have stayed at the inn.”

Well, tackling him head-on has never been the most effective way to get him to do something. Time for Plan B.

Roza doesn’t have much experience with children, but she does have a fairly clear idea of how mother had controlled her as a child. She’s not below using bribery, manipulation or blackmail, either. Reasoning takes too much effort.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while,” she starts, slowly, because she hasn’t. Letting Yuri find out for himself would have been funnier, but she has a different agenda now. Adaptability is an important survival skill.

Yuri doesn’t reply. He gives no indication of having heard, let alone of listening.

“I don’t know whether you’d noticed, but Beka got all the luck when it comes to looks.” She leans back against a tree, crossing her arms across her stomach. “And he started travelling pretty young – before he really grew into it. So when he came back, he was suddenly this handsome, well-travelled and mysterious guy, who was strong enough to fight off an ox, and was set to inherit a pretty lucrative title. Apparently, that makes him irresistible.”

“Not that you’re jealous or anything,” Yuri mutters into his arrow, one eye closed, before loosing it. It lands, dead centre, in the crude charcoal target he’s drawn on the tree.

Roza snorts with laughter, almost surprising herself.

“Are you kidding?” She grins, “I’m not the one who’s going to have to fend off the swarms of people begging him to dump you for them the moment he gets back. Actually, no, they’re not that dumb. They’re more likely to try and turn him against you slowly, by pointing out all of your flaws one by one.”

Yuri lowers his bow, and turns to her.

“Are you... threatening me?”

Roza shrugs one shoulder.

“He’s not just a pretty face. He’s a good guy. But you make him an idiot. I’m warning you not to make him regret it.”

Yuri is staring at her, in open-mouthed indignation.

Good. It’s more than she’s managed to get out of him all day. She’s happy enough to count that as a win.

After all, it’s true. They might not have much of a court, but Beka could choose nearly any of the people in the castle if he wanted. Hell, she’d caught the servants arguing over who got to help him dress more than once – even after Beka reminded them, perfectly cordially, that he could do it just fine on his own. Most of them would be godawful to him, infatuated for all the wrong reasons, but Yuri doesn’t need to know that. Yuri needs to stop treating her brother like shit. Because Yuri is a taker, and Beka will give himself away if he’s not careful.

Roza doesn’t trust Yuri with her brother’s heart any more than she trusts him with an army.

“You have no idea how boring blizzards can be,” Yuri says. The smile that cocks at the corner of his mouth is more than a little unexpected. “You think I haven’t dealt with a little drama before?”

Roza blinks at him, slowly.

Yuri snaps. A lot. What is this?

 

-

 

Roza looks confused.

Perhaps she was expecting him to be annoyed. Actually, it’s kind of reassuring. To know that she’s worried about her brother. Or him. Potentially both.

He tries to keep the smile going, and eventually she relaxes into it, though tentatively.

“Thank God. Talking about how attractive my brother is was kinda gross.”

Yuri huffs, moving to collect his arrows from the tree.

“Tell me about it. Honestly I don’t see what Victor’s appeal is, but good luck getting his fiancé to shut up about it.”

“Ugh,” Roza mock-shudders. “Please promise you will never do that to me.”

“I think you’re safe,” Yuri says, trying not to remember Otabek comparing him to Victor the day before. He’s not that much of a sap, goddammit. “The only person who need to hear how gorgeous Beka is is Beka.”

He turns around to find Roza staring at him, expression indeterminable.

“What?”

“I think... I should tell you something.”

This is more serious than he’s ever seen her.

“Okay?”

“Alyona was an archer too.”

Yuri waits. She put so much weight in the words, gave them so much importance, but it means nothing to him.

“She was?” He prompts, eventually. Roza turns her gaze back to him.

“It was intentional, I think. Father taught her. Beka never showed much interest anyway, but even if I had I doubt he’d have taught me.”

She pauses.

“I didn’t get much of a choice either.” The words are out before he can consider them. Roza tilts her head at him, just slightly. “I don’t think my father cared what I did as long as it kept me busy though.”

“Oh, my father cared,” Roza assures, “Alyona was the heir. They didn’t want her on the front lines.”

Yuri takes a deep breath.

“So you...” he stops. There is no good way to ask that question, and of the two of them, Roza is the far less forgiving of his fumbled attempts at civility.

“Third-born,” she answers the silence, “like you. Most expendable. The pikemen usually lead the charge.”

This is... insane.

Otabek speaks of his parents with such fondness. All the memories he’s shared with Yuri have been family scenes. Not even of training together, but of playing in the lake, rolling in snow, being allowed to win board games. Being loved. Roza talks about their parents like they’re barely people at all.

“You were all trained for battle?”

“Weren’t you?” She retorts.

No. He wasn’t. Not really. He was taught to hunt and compete. Travelling with the Altins has taught him that much.

“We were each primed to lead a separate cohort of the army. And then Alyona died.”

And they were short one archer.

The breath hitches in his throat.

God.

Is that really why...?

No. Hang on.

“I can’t arch on horseback. It’s one of the first things Beka ever learnt about me.”

That makes much so much more sense. He knows that Beka can’t hide anything from him. They’d never have been able to connect through his influence in the first place, and even if he had, there’s no way he’s have been able to hide it with the link.

“But...” Roza blinks. “When I tried to talk to him about it, he wouldn’t. I thought he was trying to hide it from you.”

“Roza,” Yuri is not good at gentle. But he tries. Roza is wild-eyed, barely paying him any heed, all of her thoughts focused inwards. “Roza? I don’t think he knows.”

“Neither of them really understood.” She sits down abruptly, sliding to the bottom of the tree. Sitting among its roots should be serene, but she looks smaller, somehow. The trunk is wider than she is. Yuri takes half a step forward, and hesitates. “They’d been kept away from it for too long. They... my parents didn’t make the same mistake with me.”

Yuri does move then, sitting down in front of her so he’s not bending to hear.

“I mean,” she looks up, lip trembling. Her eyes are watering. Oh god, Yuri does not know how to deal with people crying. “He spent his childhood in denial and his adolescence abroad. He ran away from the war. He never faced it.”

“Until now,” Yuri reminds her. It seems a valid point to make. They are about to cross some of the most treacherous terrain on the continent for this, after all.

“What changed?” She wonders aloud. Yuri tries not to blush.

“Perhaps you should ask him?” He suggests.

She’s eyeing him, suspiciously.

“So he really didn’t have a good reason for bringing you. He just wanted you here.”

Okay yeah, the blush is failing to go away. Clearly Roza is annoyed about this, but honestly, Yuri’s trying not to be flattered. It would have been so easy for him to believe that Beka had an ulterior motive. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d considered the possibility. He’s been almost exceptionally, unfairly good to Yuri, with no real reason. Even his own sister can’t believe it.

Yuri certainly doesn’t feel deserving. This is irrefutable proof, though. He hadn’t though about it like this before. And knowing that Beka’s intentions are pure is...

Really something.

It’s good.

“I mean...” he starts, but Roza interrupts, hauling herself to her feet.

“Don’t you dare try and defend him. I swear to god, that moron. I’m going to kill him, I...” She stops, and sighs. “Swearing is deeply unsatisfying in the common tongue.”

Then she walks away, shouting what Yuri can only assume are expletives at the trees.

Christ.

“I’ll follow you in a minute then,” he says to the empty air, ruefully. “Not that you specifically came to get me or anything.”

The trees do not bother to reply. Perhaps Roza yelling at them put them off.

 

Chapter Text

Yuri had intended to follow Roza immediately, but he has a few arrows left in his quiver, and he slips back into the rhythm of it almost accidentally, his mind already wandering.

Why had Roza come to find him instead of Beka? Her dislike wasn’t something she’d ever tried to hide. At first he’d assumed it was because of him. Now he can’t help but wonder if it’s because he’s threatening her idea of ‘family’. The more he gets to know her, the more he’s begun to think of everything that she does in terms of her family. But then so does she. He’s an outsider, a threat. It seems unlikely that she’d willingly come and speak to him, let alone tell him to come back.

Not that he wants to ask Beka if he’s avoiding him. He’s the kind of person who’d say yes, and then keep doing it.

Space is fine. It’s the reason he’s come out here in the first place, so if Beka needs space too, that’s fine. Yuri can...

Beka’s anger blooms, like blood in water. Suddenly staining the tranquillity of the moment. Yuri re-focuses on the arrow strung into his bow, as if he hasn’t been looking at it the entire time.

Shit, he was supposed to be leaving.

Yuri doesn’t stop via his room, going straight to the tavern and stomping the snow off his boots with the bow still slung over his back. He’s aware of the barman’s glare, but ignores it. They’re all carrying daggers anyway.

The others are waiting for him. He’s not looking forward to joining them. At least whatever argument they have had is over.

Otabek’s mouth is set in a thin, hard line. Roza’s eyes are red-rimmed, though she’s trying to hide it. Her head is bent to her chest, strands of her hair loose around her face. She catches Yuri looking, and abruptly sits up, sticking her chin in the air.

“There you are. Thank you for your promptness.” Yuri inclines his head, partly because it’s a reaction to a voice of authority that he is completely incapable of training himself out of doing, and partly because yeah. Okay. She’s justified. “This is our guide.”

The young man sat with them smiles, awkwardly. Yuri gives him one look up and down, and immediately distrusts him. He hunches over his hands, shoulders curled into himself. Although broadly built, probably a farmer, he looks far from confident. Not the kind of person he’d be willing to lead them across the mountains and make potentially life-changing decisions for them.

Yuri bows, though barely, and doesn’t say anything. The man nods his head back, tapping his fingers on the table.

“Hi. Um. My name’s Pelayo.”

Yuri tilts his head and crosses his arms over his chest.

“That’s not a very common name.”

The man’s eyes dart from him, to Beka, to Roza, and back again before answering.

“Yeah, um. My parents aren’t from here.”

“So how come you’re qualified to cross the mountains safely?”

Pelayo twitches, still rapping his fingers on the table. It’s not a very busy tavern. Apart from the barman, there’s only two more patrons, both sat by the bar in silence. Their voices echo slightly off the stone tiles.

“Oh, uh, I’ve lived here all my, um... all my life.” He seems unable to meet Yuri’s eyes for an entire sentence, focusing either on the table or at a point slightly past his ear. He speaks with his chin tilted towards the table, looking up through his lashes when he does actually raise his gaze. “We used to um, used to be merchants, and um, take people ac-uh-across the pass to um, to the port. I’ve been doing it since I was, um. Since I was pretty young.”

Roza sighs.

“Yuri, sit down. If you’re going to interrogate him, at least do it civilly.”

“No, no,” the man waves his hand. If he’d been a more confident man it would be dismissive, but mostly it just looks like he’s having a one-handed wrestling match with a wet fish. And losing. “It’s fine, I mean, uh, it’s late in the year, people always assume I have b- bad reasons for wanting to, um... to lead a trek when nobody else in the... um, in the... um, the village will agree to.”

Yuri sits down, not at all reassured.

“Do you?” He demands. Pelayo looks up at him through his lashes, then back at his hands. He’s given up the monotonous table tapping in favour of knotting his fingers together. It’s only marginally less annoying.

“Uh, no. I mean, the others have the luxury, of, um, of being able to take the winter off, but um. My parents, they lost my little sister, and now it’s just me. Doing, uh, doing the treks, I mean. And we don’t ha- have a farm. It’s more dangerous in winter, but um... only if you don’t know what you’re doing. Which, I... well, uh. I do.”

He tries a smile, but gives up the moment his teeth show. The accompanying chuckle dies in his throat. If Pelayo was trying to be reassuring, he is failing. Utterly.

“Lost?” Yuri presses.

“We don’t need to torture him.” Beka’s reprimand is sharp, and stings all the more for it.

“Don’t we?” he snaps, whipping around. “If she died on this crossing then I want to know.”

Pelayo looks, if possible, even more stricken than before.

“No! I... no!” His eyes skitter back and forth, unable to focus on any one spot for more than two seconds at a time. “She was too young to make the crossing! I would never have taken her!”

Yuri tilts his head, leaning forward across the table.

“Oh? Then what happened?”

“Yuri!” Beka tries to grab his shoulder, pulling him away.

Yanking his cloak out of his grip, Yuri hisses, “He stopped stuttering when I suggested it. Don’t you think that’s suspicious?”

Beka’s eyes bore into him, but he doesn’t respond. His displeasure and disagreement are evident enough already. Yuri sits down slowly.

“Hey!” One of the women at the bar has turned around. “Stop it! Pelayo’s got enough to deal with already without you bullying him. Let him do his job.”

The barman, too, has put down his cloth and is moving around the tables.

“No fighting!” He shouts, much too loudly for such a small space, “I will not tolerate fighting!”

They aren’t apparently bothering with common anymore either.

“What’s he saying?” Roza hisses to Yuri. Before he can translate for her, Beka grabs him and hauls him to his feet. He stumbles, more surprised that Beka would manhandle him than by the show of strength. He wasn’t exactly poised to resist, but Otabek’s grip suggested that he had been prepared for him to.

“Nothing good,” Beka says, low and threatening. “We’re leaving.” Yuri tries to yank away, but his grip only tightens to the point of pain.

“Oh no, you...” Roza’s eyes flicker to the barman and back, and she leans over the table, talking hurriedly in her mothertongue.

Beka doesn’t even respond, only letting her finish before turning to drag Yuri out of the pub.

“Let go, you’re hurting me.” Yuri shakes him off, hissing. “I’m coming anyway.”

Beka only stares at him, and then steps in behind, as if to steer him towards the door.

“And stay out!” The barman yells after them, as if he kicked them out by himself.

Yuri stomps out into the snow and immediately rounds on Beka.

“What the fuck was that about? I can fucking walk, you know.”

Otabek stands, quiet and firm, without responding. Yuri waits for a few seconds, then gives up.

If Otabek’s waiting for him to calm down, it’s not happening. He turns to walk away, barely registering that Beka follows him, footsteps crunching in the snow. That hurt. He touches his arm gingerly, feeling the shape that the bruises are going to take. There’s a tiny little change, somewhere in the back of his head. He realises that Otabek is probably watching, and drops his hand away immediately. Guilt or not, he’s not letting Beka’s stupid fucking feelings influence him anymore than they already have. It’s enough of a problem that...

 

“Good afternoon, Yuri,” he says, as politely as he can. It doesn’t seem to matter. Yuri looks nothing short of horrified to see him. Victor is smiling beside him, and the other Yuri immediately turns to make his greetings, but Otabek only has eyes for Yura. Even as he throws down the bow he’s carrying at his friend’s feet, and shrugs the quiver off his shoulder to land in the dust.

Otabek watches him walk away, careful to school his expression so that the others don’t know quite how much that hurt.

He’s not even sure what he said this time. Perhaps he didn’t. The anger isn’t always directed at him, so much as what he stands for. That doesn’t make it any easier to see Yuri’s hair falling over his shoulder as he turns away without even bothering to make eye contact.

“Yurio! Where are you going?” Victor sounds so surprised that Otabek has the sudden urge to apologise to him for Yuri’s behaviour.

“To fly Ariya.” Yuri spits the words over his shoulder.

“Did something happen?” Katsuki’s voice, so concerned, draws Victor’s attention. He puts his arm around his fiancé, and drops a quick kiss on his cheek, as if in reassurance. Otabek looks away, partly out of politeness, partly because he simply doesn’t want to see.

“I’m sure Yurio just needs time. He likes to ignore problems until they go away.”

 

Yuri stumbles to a stop.

“How?” He turns, disbelief dripping from the word. “How did... what gave you the right?” He demands.

“I am not a problem,” Beka says, eyes burning. Yuri almost steps backwards with surprise. “And I’m not going away.”

There is silence for a moment.

Yuri is still processing.

What the fuck was that?

“Don’t you dare fucking manipulate me.” It comes out as a snarl, curling his lip, and much more bitter than he’d expected it to. Beka takes it, standing as still as a statue. Disconcerted by the glare, Yuri turns around and goes to walk away again. Let Beka have to speak to his back. They’re nearly at the treeline outside the village now anyway. He draws his bow and selects an arrow.

“I’m not manipulating you. I’m showing you my point of view. Seeing as you don’t listen to me now.” Beka is always short, but this is more. This is snapping. There’s venom in it.

Yuri stops, sticking the arrow back in his quiver. To be honest, it would be more satisfying to shoot at the tree right now, but he’s shaking. There’s no way he can make a shot like this. Closing his eyes, he takes a deep breath.

“Jesus, Beka. Tell me how you really feel.”

“Apparently it’s necessary.”

Yuri knows that he’s an angry person, knows that he can be difficult to deal with and that some people really hate confrontation. Until now, Beka has rarely let it get to this point. He’s too reasonable – and weirdly open-minded. Yuri had honestly begun to wonder if he’s actually impossible to argue with. He won’t stand by his guns if Yuri’s got an actual point, provided that he’s made that point eloquently or calmly enough. And if they still disagree, well. They disagree. Beka’s never been one to disrespect either Yuri or his opinions simply for not aligning with his. They’ve had enough conversations about Rusiki’s politics for him to know that, at least. Beka doesn’t take personal offense over a disagreement.

This is different. This is cold. It’s wrong. All the softness in his voice is gone, all the quiet thoughtfulness. The dignity in it, though – that’s all his. Yuri’s anger is wild, and sometimes embarrassing. Beka’s is, somehow, still restrained.

It kills all of the fire in him.

He doesn’t want to fight with Beka. He doesn’t want to argue. He just wants to fix it. If he could just go back to yesterday, right before he started feeling homesick...

It’s a pointless train of thought. They’re stuck with this now.

“I already said I’m sorry.” He says, at last. “I can’t undo it. What else do you want from me?”

Beka’s footsteps crunch in the snow, approaching. He finally steps into Yuri’s field of vision, lifting one hand to Yuri’s cheek and pressing their foreheads together. Yuri closes his eyes, and allows it. Beka’s voice is his again, the sharpness gone.

“Listen to me. Please.” He says it so unbearably gently that Yuri hates himself for forcing him to ask. “Whatever we end up doing about this, it’s not just your choice.”

Yuri sighs, frustrated. Of course it’s not just his choice, but he doesn’t know how to co-operate. They don’t exactly teach you how to make friends as a prince. How to pretend to be nice to people, sure, but when the rest of his training revolved around protecting himself on a battlefield, or in a tournament, or against a court, even against assassins... well. There’s not much time for ‘how to manage fulfilling relationships’ classes. Not dying is generally considered a little more important.

He has no idea how Victor manages it.

“That’s the fucking problem.” He says, pulling back slightly. Beka’s hand slips away, and he has to resist the urge to grab it back.

“No, that’s how relationships work.” The tone is hard, again, like he’s still angry. Goddammit, Yuri thought the arguing was over. “I thought you wanted this.”

Yuri blinks.

Ouch.

“I want to be with you.” It would be so easy to grab Beka again, to force the full power of it on him, but it would also be pointless. He already knows exactly how Yuri feels. About literally everything. “I don’t want to have to deal with all this bullshit!” He snaps. “And don’t you dare say that that’s how relationships work, because it’s fucking not. Have you ever known literally anyone else who has a weird telepathic link with their partner?”

Beka studies him, thoughtfully.

“...I think we’re looking at this differently.” He says, eventually, when Yuri’s just about ready to combust.

“No shit.”

For a moment, he thinks that Beka’s going to snap again, but he doesn’t.

Instead, he turns away, walks over to a tree stump, and sits down.

“Why did...” Yuri stops, takes a breath, and tries again. “Why did you follow me? Why didn’t you just go back in and help Roza? I’m assuming she yelled at you for neglecting your duty or whatever when she came back.”

“Running away from this is not going to fix it. Running away from me is not going to fix it. We have time to work this out before we get back, but she’s right. If we don’t, it’s going to get in the way. And I can’t allow you to be a priority if that happens.”

Yuri doesn’t have an answer to that.

Beka settles into silence.

It’s only marginally better than the yelling, to be honest, and Yuri doesn’t know exactly what he’s supposed to do about it. Beka is studying him, quietly.

He raises his bow, calls on the calmness and focus that he needs, and tries to push it all back.

The first few shots land well, and he doesn’t have to adjust for wind, so once he’s settled into the rhythm of it, it begins to feel more natural. String the arrow, step back and pull the bow, breathe and look down the arrow, and release. The occasional ‘thud’ of the arrows hitting the target is all there is for several minutes.

 

-

 

Watching Yuri arch is like watching a work of art in progress. Each time he raises the bow, it seems to become part of him. His arms, taught with the effort of drawing back the string, are perfectly aligned with the arrow. His skin runs tight against the rise and fall of his biceps. His body balances the weight of it, aligned from his back foot all the way to his head. From the side, his strength is more evident – his tunic pulls tight against the gentle ridges under his ribs, the slight and graceful curve of his spine, the prominence of the muscle in his thighs. He stands with his legs slightly apart, one foot turned towards the target, one towards Beka.

Otabek has seen artists drawing archers again and again, and now he can see why. Yuri has no spare weight, but that doesn’t mean he’s not shaped like a warrior.

The bow itself, curving away from his body, is a perfect semicircle. Yuri, with his head slightly bent to get the sight on the arrow, is as still as the grave. His hair slips out from behind his ear, falling down his cheek, but he doesn’t move it back. The only movement at all is the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathes.

Every time, Beka forgets that he’s not going to stand there forever. The moment Yuri straightens his fingers and the arrow is loosed, the thud of the metal landing in the tree echoes around the small clearing. And every time, Yuri leaves his two fingers straight and the bow raised for another second or so after the arrow lands.

He doesn’t want to interrupt, not really. Yuri’s focus is narrowed down to a sharp point, all of the swirling emotions reduced down into his single-minded focus. He’s probably aware of Otabek’s gradual change of heart.

He had been angry, of course he had. It had been thrumming away under the surface, and Yuri had released it.

That didn’t mean that he wanted an argument. Lashing out was far from the most constructive way to solve an issue, and mostly he just felt hypocritical now. Especially because he knew that arguing with Yuri was very unlikely to get him to listen.

He hadn’t actually expected to get this far. The impulsiveness is particularly unlike him, but it’s done now. He will apologise, but it’s not over yet.

Taking a step back had been necessary. He is not a fast thinker, and this is not the kind of situation that he wants to be making rushed decisions on.

“Can you think of a way of getting rid of this that doesn’t hurt either one of us?” He says, eventually. Lowering his bow, Yuri turns to him, and takes a deep breath. It feels like waking up – everything comes back slowly from the point of focus, billowing out to fill what Beka has begun to think of as his space. Yuri is calmer, now. More receptive.

“No.”

He can’t either.

“Then I think our best way of dealing with it is to try and make it work.”

Yuri’s bow hands by his side, the tension gone from the string, the arrow pointing towards the ground, unloosed.

“I don’t know how,” he admits.

Yuri is so very rarely vulnerable, so very rarely open. It’s not surprising, given his situation, but it means that every time he allows Beka to see just a little of it, he can’t help but notice.

But it’s so, so much better than snapping. Even though Yuri’s head is bowed and his shoulders are slumped, even though his voice is small and he sounds so heartbreakingly lost, he can’t wish for anger instead. As familiar as the anger is, as much as seeing Yuri so unlike himself hurts, it feels like a gift too. How few people have seen this side of him? How few people has Yuri let in like this?

“Me neither.” He says, then pauses. “But I imagine it’s not so different from training.”

“Training?” Yuri looks up, his surprise bringing back the familiar edge in his voice. Beka smiles, despite himself.

“When you begin, nothing seems to work perfectly. It’s easy to give up, when it doesn’t. But you never get really good at anything without trying. And that means getting through the stages of failure first. The difference between people who get really good at, say, archery,” he gestures at Yuri’s bow, “And those who don’t, is the ability to stick to it and work through the setbacks.”

Yuri tilts his head, the hint of a smirk at the edge of his mouth.

“Beka, you can’t shoot to save your life.”

He nearly lets himself be drawn into it. He wants to tease Yuri back, wants to laugh with him, but not yet. Not until they’ve resolved this. For once, Yuri’s not actively trying to run away. Turning it into a joke isn’t so dissimilar a tactic, but at least he’s here. At least he’s listening.

“There’s no one way to become a good knight. Just like there’s no one way to have a relationship. Ours might be different, and new, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.” The smirk is gone, but it’s not been replaced by a scowl. Yuri is just staring at him, waiting. Beka’s mind goes back, to the first time they really spoke, to the way Yuri had looked at him on the battlements when he told him about Alyona. It’s the same look. “Your influence makes you a better hawker than most people. You could have given up on using it after it knocked you out for two days, but you didn’t. You’ve never given up on anything. And it might be selfish, but I don’t want you to give up on this, either.”

Finally, he stands, allowing himself to walk back towards Yuri like he’s been wanting to this whole time. Yuri still hasn’t said anything, but his relief is thrumming, heady and happy, through the connection.

“Okay.”

He’d been so entirely unable to cope with the situation. If only either of them had known how to deal with what had happened...

Yuri drops his bow and grabs him, burying his nose in Beka’s hair.

“Let’s not do that again,” he says, at Beka’s noise of surprise. “That was shit.”

Otabek tucks his chin over Yuri’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around him and pulling him close.

“It was,” he says, voice muffled by Yuri’s hair. He smells of tree bark, of outdoors, and the slight tang of sweat from the archery. It’s heady, like good wine. Like a luxury. “I’m sorry.”

“Fuck, me too,” Yuri says, earnestly, and pulls back, turning his head to kiss him without bothering to let go.

It’s so unlike any possible way he could have imagined this conversation going. Even just a few days ago, Yuri wouldn’t have reacted like this. Especially not to Beka actively attacking him.

For the first time, it occurs to Otabek that Yuri’s anger is not the only thing that the bond might have changed. Yuri had been changing anyway, his tendency to both throw things and yell without warning far diminished in favour of unexpected laughter and a hint of mischievousness. But this – this is too fast to be believable.

He’s not sorry. Perhaps if he’d been less volatile and Yuri more so, they would have ended up here anyway, pressed slightly too close for kissing and unperturbed by the fact (Yura is not picky about kissing - messy is fine - and Beka would be lying if he said he wasn’t learning to enjoy that too). Perhaps because they weren’t, they balanced each other out anyway. It’s hard to say.

Either way, the knowledge that Yuri is different because of him... was it Yuri apologising at all? The kind of power that suggests he has over Yuri’s thoughts is... he hadn’t even noticed it until now, but all day, Yuri’s behaviour has been off. Ever since the bond was established. It’s not a wholly pleasant thought, and evidently it’s potent enough for Yuri to notice, because he pulls away.

“What was that?” He’s slightly breathless, unsurprisingly.

Beka stares shamelessly; at the way his eyes look almost blue from this angle, with the snow reflecting in them; the tiniest dusting of freckles that the sun has brought out across his nose, so slight that they’re barely even visible; the few strands of his hair, so light and soft, just slipping out from being tucked behind his ear, something he has only started doing now that it’s grown past his shoulders; the way his mouth is pink and wet where Beka had kissed him; the incredible balance of beauty and brutality that he contains in every ounce of himself.

“I don’t want to lose you.” Otabek says, truthfully.

 

-

 

Having his own space is nice, for a while. There’s not much to unpack, but he does it anyway. The mess makes the room feel a little less empty, and a little more like home. But then the maid comes and takes his dirty clothes for washing, and once he’s washed and dressed in his only remaining clean tunic, it’s empty again but for his light armour, which barely takes up the chair he’s put it on.

He doesn’t exactly have anything to do, either. Usually there’d be plenty of jobs; lighting the fire, making dinner, tending to the horses. It’s all being done by the staff here.

They could spar. It’s either that or spend the rest of the evening sitting on the bed, staring at the wall, and waiting for dinner.

He goes to find the others.

Roza’s room is closer.

“Yuri.” She sounds surprised when she opens the door. “What do you want?”

He hesitates, suddenly. Roza’s tone wasn’t brusque, exactly, but it also wasn’t very welcoming. He’d actually sort of forgotten that she’d be upset with him. Talking to Beka had settled him again. She waits, leaning on the doorframe, one eyebrow raised. Not hostile, not exactly. But not friendly.

It only occurs to him now that he considers Roza a friend. Sure, they bicker a lot, but so do he and Mila, and it doesn’t matter. Roza might not be his sister, but at this point, she may as well be.

God only knows what she’d make of that.

“Are you busy?”

“A little. I’m going down to meet the guide before dinner so we can arrange details.”

Okay... no sparring then. But perhaps he can try and make amends for earlier. And the last few days, actually.

“Do you need help?”

“I think you’ve helped enough.”

He blinks. That wasn’t angry, her tone was calm, but the words themselves...

“Right.”

Has being able to read Beka so easily made him unable to read other people all of a sudden?

“Is there anything else?” Roza asks, standing and moving back into her room. Yuri steps forwards, unwilling to concede defeat.

“Would an apology...”

“Too little too late.”

“I am trying...”

“Try harder.”

She shuts the door in his face.

Alright then. That hadn’t gone to plan.

He’s used to people being angry with him, but he’s not used to caring about it, let alone wanting to apologise for it. But until now, he’s only had family; and Lilia might not technically count, but she’s included. There’s something different about arguing with his family.

Roza doesn’t have to forgive him. Sure, it’ll make the rest of the journey a bit miserable, and it’ll be awkward for Beka, but he can’t see her being the type of person to care about that. And worse, she definitely holds grudges. That much, he knows for sure.

He stands, looking at the wooden slats on the inn door, and reeling in the unfamiliar sensation. It just feels... bad. And it’s definitely him, because Beka is calm and quiet on the other side of the link.

Perhaps he should go and talk to Beka instead. At least he’s willing to forgive and forget.

He tries to leave the bad feeling at Roza’s door as he walks away. It’s not entirely successful, but at least he manages to convince himself that she just needs time. Maybe Beka will be able to convince her that he’s really, genuinely sorry.

The hallway isn’t long, and Beka’s room is only two doors down, even though it’s at the other end of the hallway. Yuri wonders whether Roza did that deliberately. There doesn’t seem to be any other guests at the inn.

“Come in, Yura. It’s not locked.” Beka’s voice, from inside, is muffled through the wood.

He’s standing over the chair, rolling his clean clothes up and packing them back into his saddlebags. His hair is wet, water beading over his bare shoulders. Yuri shuts the door behind him with just slightly more force than he’d intended to, and winces as the slam.

“Didn’t mean to do that.”

Otabek seems unperturbed.

“You don’t have to knock,” He says over his shoulder, still dedicated to his task. “We consider it rude. You’re questioning the host’s hospitality.”

Yuri considers that statement for a moment. Coming from Mila, it would be passive-aggressive. From Beka, it’s just that – a statement. Something that he thinks Yuri should, or would be interested to, know.

“Is that why Roza keeps walking in on us?” He asks.

“I’m more used to western customs than she is. It’s something you’ll need to know when we get home.” It’s an interesting thought, but it’s a conversation for another time. In his silence, Otabek turns around, fixing Yuri with his steady gaze. “I wasn’t sure why I was so unhappy. But it’s not me.”

Yuri drags his gaze away from Beka’s bare chest. It’s not an appropriate place to be looking for this conversation.

“I tried to talk to Roza.”

“Ah.”

He puts his clothes down, and moves over to the bed, sitting down.

“You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to talk to me.”

“No, I don’t.” The affirmation is calm, but he doesn’t move. It would be much easier to stomach that if Yuri wasn’t so hyper-aware of the fact that Beka has a vested interest in making sure that he’s in a good mood all the time. “Come here?”

It’s a question, not an order, and Yuri appreciates that. For some reason, it’s always the little things that Beka does that mean the most to him. He joins him, curling his legs up onto the bed. Their thighs sit together, a warm weight of assurance.

He doesn’t really want to talk about it, but Beka will probably tease it out of him anyway. He waits, quietly, knowing that Beka is watching him but unable to meet his gaze.

“Can you tell us apart easily?” He says, eventually. Yuri looks up, wrong-footed. They’d evidently been thinking about completely different things.

“Huh?”

“In your head.” Beka elaborates. “Can you tell which of us is feeling what?”

“Usually. Why, can’t you?”

“Only sometimes. Do you think you can teach me?”

Oh, right. He’s trying to distract him instead. It might have worked if he was in a better mood.

“I’m not sure.” Yuri shrugs. “It’s something that I worked out for myself.”

“True.”

Yuri puts his head on Beka’s shoulder, breathes in the scent of him. It’s less evident, like this, without the musk of it in his clothes, but at the same time, it’s not marred by the dirt and the wild scent of outdoors. And horse. He definitely likes the way Beka smells better when he doesn’t also smell of Aisulu.

“I think it’s that you feel things differently.” He says, quietly. “Well, no, I mean... it’s the same emotions, but kind of like a different flavour. Like your personality affects it.”

Beka is quiet for a moment.

“I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t think I can tell.”

Yuri sits back a little, wanting to study his expression.

“So how are you distinguishing?” he asks, suddenly concerned.

“Logic, mostly. Why would I be upset whilst folding clothes?”

Yuri sighs, looking at his knees.

“This is a mess.”

They are both silent, now. It’s preferable to shouting, but it’s still not exactly what Yuri was hoping for. Even when he was first starting as a squire, none of his training was as complicated as this. He doesn’t feel like they’re making any progress at all.

“Is there anything else you need to do before dinner?” He asks, eventually.

“No,” Beka shakes his head. “Why?” Yuri grabs him and drags him down onto the bed, pressing their foreheads together and tucking his arms under Beka’s, pulling their chests close. “Oh.”

Beka lifts his hand up, touching Yuri’s cheek.

It’s familiar, reassuring. He does it a lot. Yuri closes his eyes, trying to think of nothing but Beka’s presence, his warmth and his wet hair on the pillow... oh. Whoops.

“Yura,” he opens his eyes, “it’ll be okay.”

“I really want to believe you.”

Beka brushes his hair out of his face, his steady gaze almost reassuring now. It used to be so disconcerting. Strange, how things change.

It might be the first time that Otabek has been the one to instigate a kiss, and it’s immediately different. He’s soft, gentle about it, barely more than the slight press of their lips together. Yuri doesn’t even have time to close his eyes.

He blinks, suddenly noticing the little drop of water now running down his forehead. Beka catches it with another kiss, but then he just gets water on his cheek instead.

“Oh well now I’m wet,” Yuri says, smiling. “Thank you.”

“And my pillow’s wet too,” Beka responds, poker-faced, but amused. “Your loss.”

Yuri tucks into him, happy to share the damp patch for this.

“Is that an invitation?”

“Mmm,” the vibrations of his voice through Yuri’s chest set his heart racing. “Just because we have two rooms doesn’t mean we have to use them.”

The sharp knock on the door startles them both.

“They’re serving,” Roza’s voice comes through the wood.

“Thank you.” Beka raises his voice just slightly, and they both listen as her footsteps echo away down the hallway.

“Perhaps she’s adapting better than you thought she was,” Yuri says, smirking slightly. Beka shrugs one shoulder.

“She picks things up fast. And we did scare her very effectively.”

Yeah, okay, that’s definitely something Yuri would have yelled at Victor for doing to him. And has, actually.

“You should put a shirt on.” He sits up, extracting himself. “As gorgeous as you are half-naked, I don’t think it’s acceptable dinner wear.”

Beka rolls his eyes as he stands, pulling his tunic off the back of the chair and over his head.

“No, I think Roza’s dealt with enough of us today.”

“Are you kidding?” Yuri grins, already opening the door, “That was going to be my argument for doing it anyway.”

 

-

 

There’s a different person sitting with Roza when they make it back down to the tavern. Pelayo is nowhere to be seen, and the woman who sits in his place looks suspiciously like the one who yelled at them earlier. Actually, she is. He recognises her startling blue-grey eyes. It’s an unusual contrast to her black hair. It might be more common at court, but it’s likely to be dyed there. Either it’s an unusual and natural combination, or she’s richer than most of the other people they’ve met in this town.

“Where’s Pelayo?” Yuri asks, eyeing the woman up and down. Her feet are on the table, but the barman seems unperturbed.

“Gone home,” she says. Her tone is brittle; her voice gravelled, lower than he was expecting. “I think you terrorised him more than enough. I’m Eudoxia Romanova. I’m going to be your guide instead.”

Ah. They left Roza in more of a mess than he’d thought they had.

Eudoxia’s eyes are narrowed at him. Her arms are crossed over her chest. Like a challenge; good luck scaring me away.

“We’re lucky she happened to be passing through,” Roza interjects. “Otherwise Pelayo is the only winter guide. We’d have been stuck here until spring.”

Beka’s alarm flares in the back of his head, but settles quickly. It was a possibility, not actualised. Nevertheless, Yuri sets himself for the only form of diplomacy he knows: silence. Keeping his mouth firmly closed, he bows his greeting.

Roza introduces them.

“Yuri Ni... Plisetsky, and my brother, Otabek Altin.”

Dinner is awkward.

Eudoxia watches Yuri so relentlessly that it makes him uncomfortable eating. It’s the best they’ve had for days, though, and he refuses to waste that on some hag with an attitude problem. It’s harder to focus his attention away from the urge to snap at her when they finish eating, but none of them are feeling sociable, and thankfully they disband early.

 

-

 

“Yura, I... will you allow me to apologise?”

Yuri brushes his fingers over the edge of the bruise, surprised by it’s ferocity. It’s come up purple already, not even hours from when they left the tavern. Honestly, until he’s started undressing, he’d forgotten about it. The rest of the afternoon had been so rushed and confused.

And he didn’t think it had hurt that much at the time. It looks like he’s been kicked by a horse, not grabbed by someone who doesn’t apparently know their own strength.

“Sure, if it’ll make you feel better.”

Otabek approaches slowly. Yuri is considering putting his shirt back on, but decides against it when Beka’s fingers ghost over his elbow. Not quite touching. Not yet.

“It’s more important to me that you know I’m truly sorry that I hurt you.” He says, voice so soft that Yuri would barely have been able to hear him from across the room. “Not just this, but... everything I said today. I would never willingly or intentionally cause you pain, and I made a mistake. Your trust is so important to me, and I’m sorry I abused that. I know I can’t go back and change it, but I can promise that I will never do it again. I swear on my mother’s name.”

“Beka, you lost your temper. It happens.” Yuri says, trying not to squirm.

“No, that’s not an excuse. Whether I was angry or not makes no difference. I shouldn’t have grabbed you without asking, and I should have realised I might hurt you. I was in the wrong.”

Yuri stares at him. Beka’s so genuinely upset by this. Mila and he bruised each other all the time in training, and sometimes out of it to. The level of sincerity and effort in the apology is... honestly, Yuri’s not sure he’s ever been treated like this before.

Goddammit, Otabek makes him want to be able to apologise like this. Properly. Instead of a muttered ‘sorry’ in passing, or trying to make it up to him by being less of a dickhead or whatever, to make him know that he’s loved and appreciated and that Yuri hates himself for hurting him.

“You make me want to be a better person,” he says, almost without thinking. Fuck, he must be tired. “I mean, uh... it doesn’t hurt that much. And I don’t mind you touching me. I’m fine. You’re fine.”

Otabek takes his hand.

“Will you let me rub some oil into it? It might help.”

“Yeah, okay.” Yuri sits on the bed as Beka goes downstairs to get some oil. When he comes back, he sits beside him, and the bed sinks under their combined weight.

“Tell me if I hurt you at all, and I’ll stop.” He says.

“Of course.”

He warms the oil up in his hands before starting. He’s incredibly gentle with Yuri’s skin, and though he can feel the shape of the bruise, it doesn’t hurt. The room begins to smell of the oil, and whatever fragrance has been put in it. Something sweet, but heavy. Like honey, but not quite as thick.

Otabek stops moving his hand over Yuri’s skin and rests it over the mark he made. Yuri looks down. His skin is a little tinted blue, now, too. Beka’s hand fits over the bruise perfectly, though his touch is so light that Yuri can barely feel it.

“I’ve been a dick to you too,” Yuri says, eventually. “And there was definitely no oil involved. And you don’t have to keep asking me to forgive you, either. If we did that I’d never fucking shut up.”

“You’re easy to forgive,” Beka says, resting his head against Yuri’s. There’s no real weight to it, just presence. “I know you don’t mean it. And you always, always try not to do it again.”

“I didn’t at first.”

“You’re trying now.”

“So are you.”

Otabek stands up and walks over to the basin to wash the oil off his hands. He brings the towel back when he’s done and wipes the excess off Yuri’s arm. The he leans down and kisses the bruise, just slightly. It doesn’t look so bad now. Maybe the light’s changed as the sun set, or many the lamp’s dying, but the colours aren’t quite as bright as they were before. The oil might have helped too, although it seems a bit soon for that.

“What did you do that for?” Yuri asks, lying back down on the bed. Beka joins him, putting an arm over his shoulder.

Yuri yawns, suddenly tired. When he opens his eyes again, Beka is watching him.

“You forgave me.” He states, and Yuri rolls his eyes.

“Well duh.”

“You’re still unhappy.”

“Yes. Yes, annoyingly, getting to share a bed with you doesn’t magically solve all of my problems.” Yuri huffs, burying his head in Beka’s shoulder. Beka tucks his head against the arm Yuri’s dumped over his neck, pressing his lips to the inside of his elbow. He can feel the smile.

“What are you smiling about?” He grumbles, but the annoyance is already fading. Whatever it is, something is making Beka ridiculously, deliriously happy. It’s pretty hard to fight against that, especially when he doesn’t particularly want to.

“That was a very Yuri thing to say.”

“And?”

The smile is gone, but he’s not closed off. He’s relaxed, his hand heavy in Yuri’s, like he’s on the verge of dropping off into a doze.

“What do you want?” He says, softly.

“Want?”

Beka has to pause to yawn. It’s something Yuri’s never seen him do before. His nose wrinkles, right at the top. It’s... weirdly cute. Which is not a word he has associated with Beka before.

“You were so angry with your father for taking your freedom from you, but it’s not as simple as that.”

Yuri blinks, trying to get his head back on an intelligent level. He has years to witness Beka’s nose wrinkles, he doesn’t need to commit it to memory just yet. Even if he desperately wants to.

“I’ve only ever done what I’ve had to.” He shrugs one shoulder – the one not trapped by his body and the bed. “Lilia is an archer, and none of my other siblings took to it, so I learnt archery. I was born with the influence, so I became a hawker. I was a prince, so I learned to joust and duel. I had to cover my hair for years, and even my mum sent me away to the castle when I didn’t want to go. When you asked me to come travelling with you... it was something that I wanted to do.”

It’s not something he’s considered in a while. He rolls onto his back, stretching his arms above his head and arching his spine.

“So it’s about being yourself as much as it is getting to choose for yourself.” Pulling the blankets back from where Yuri’s dragged them away from him, he yawns again.

“I guess. It doesn’t really seem to be something that you’ve had a problem with.”

“Not until recently. I think I had the problem in reverse.”

“You were busy being yourself and not doing your duty? I thought you were travelling for a reason.”

“I was. Just not the right one. My heritage is as much a part of me as my personality. I don’t think I had the right to shun that just because I didn’t like it.”

Up until now, it had been a quiet, thoughtful conversation. Suited to the hour. But that... that’s a direction that Yuri doesn’t like all that much.

“So what, this is a part of me that I should just learn to deal with?” He says, a slight hint of a growl to it. Beka turns his head to study him better before replying.

“You were born with it.”

Yuri sits up, too agitated to have this conversation lying down.

“I didn’t ask to be.” He spits. Beka sits up, puts a hand out, and touches his shoulder. It’s not a pull, he’s not putting any weight into it, but it’s an invitation. His voice is soft still, like they’re not arguing again.

“None of us have perfect lives or perfect stories. That would be unrealistic.”

Yuri sighs, pulls away from him, standing up and walking to the other side of the room.

“So what if some of the stuff is shitty? We just accept that we’re shitty people because of it?”

“We don’t have to let it be like that.” He’s trying so hard to be calm. Yuri can see it, as easily as if it were something he could read in the back of his head. It’s not; Beka is surprised, frustrated, not angry yet but getting there. His expression is still, though. His voice doesn’t have an edge to it yet. Like he’s trying to be reassuring. It’s kind of patronising, actually. Lilia also has a habit of remaining quietly reasonable when all Yuri wants to do is shout. Generally all it does is make him more annoyed. Why not be reasonable and emotional? Why is that such a hard concept to grasp? Just because he’s yelling about it doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a point, and it doesn’t mean that Beka is somehow better than him for trying to be mature about it.

Hell, he’s not even yelling yet.

“I dunno, I think fighting a war you disagree with is a pretty bad deal.” He snaps, going to put his shirt on. It’s cold when he doesn’t have Beka’s body tucked up against him.

“Perhaps. But I also get a chance to end it.”

“Well you’re doing one better than me then.”

Beka sighs, and Yuri knows he’s getting there. At some point, he’s going to snap.

“I don’t think getting rid of the link is the only possible way this can end well.”

Okay, there’s no way Yuri can stay here tonight. He grabs his trousers and starts pulling those on too, because really, arguing in their underwear is a new low that he’d rather not think too hard about.

“Yeah because this is going so well right now. We’ve never argued before and now we’re shouting at each other every few hours.” He snaps, wrestling with his belt.

“Just because you disagree with me doesn’t mean...”

Yuri reels around, glaring at him.

“Doesn’t mean what? That I get to do anything about it? Because as long as we sit here doing fucking nothing then you’re getting your way.”

Beka sits there and takes it. He’s properly angry now, and yet he’s still restraining it. Still not ‘descending’ to Yuri’s level. Although his shoulders are tense, his hands clamped on the edge of the bed like a vice, his voice remains steady and calm.

“It’s not about who’s getting their way.” Beka says. Then something does change, and it’s not the way Yuri thought was going to. It’s not a snap. It’s a crack. He looks directly at Yuri. “I don’t want to think that you’re willing to hurt me.”

Is he being wilfully blind?

“I already am.” Yuri turns towards the door.

“Change is natural.”

Yuri closes his eyes, tipping his head back towards the ceiling. Breathing out through his nose doesn’t make him feel any better, but Beka will have heard. Yuri doesn’t even need to tell him that he’s pissed. He knows. It’s natural, though. Taking the expression out of it would be taking himself out of it. His hair touches his neck, warm from the nape of his neck, but prickling sharply. It’s an anchor point, of sorts.

This is pointless. They’re just going to go around and around in circles for the rest of their lives unless they figure something out.

“Do you like it?”

“What?”

He turns. Beka, even readably distressed, is unfairly beautiful. Sitting on the edge of the bed, the light from the lamp highlights the sharp edges of his collarbone, the soft curve of his shoulder, the bright light scar across his thigh. The scar that’s there because of Yuri. If only the rest of the damage he’s done was as easily visible. Maybe then Beka would believe it was there.

“Are you enjoying getting all of my shitty moods? Snapping at Roza? Arguing with me? Being rude to strangers?”

Yuri’s supposed to be angry, dammit. He’s supposed to be shouting. Instead, there’s a crack in his voice. He couldn’t hide it if he tried. Hell, he did try. But before he’s even finished the sentence, Beka is up, off the bed, halfway across the room before Yuri can even react.

It’s such a stupid thing, the small hesitation before he touches Yuri’s face. It’s as if they’ve gone right back to the start, when he would ask silent permission every time he reached for Yuri. It would be easy to pull back, to snap, to do exactly what Beka’s anticipating. He doesn’t. He leans into it, allows the comfort of Beka’s familiar touch.

Otabek is not a naturally tactile person. Yuri has watched him flinch away from physical contact more than once, wince at Victor clapping him on the back, or swiftly sidestep a handshake by turning it into a bow. This is something that is Yuri’s and Yuri’s alone – Beka’s need to touch him, and his hesitation to do so. As if Yuri’s skin will burn his fingertips.

“There is nothing partial about this, Yuri,” he says. His voice is firm, earnest, and so terribly soft. “I don’t just love the parts of you that you seem to think are ‘good’. And I do not love you despite the traits that you seem to think are ‘bad’.”

Yuri’s eyes snap open, seeking his. There is no smile; just his incredible softness, always so unexpected, and so vulnerable.

Otabek has always been a man of opposites: a kind man who has killed in cold blood; a mischievous and light-hearted man who bears the heavy responsibility of a King; so quiet with his words, as if they are unassuming, and not the kind of statements that would have poets swoon.

“If I didn’t love all of you, then I wouldn’t dare to call it love at all.”

Yuri doesn’t swoon. But it is, he realises, probably the first time either of them have said this out loud. And Beka has now said that he loves him four times in less than a minute. Well, nearly four times. He said the word ‘love’ four times. They should probably be kissing or something, but Yuri hasn’t moved. Beka hasn’t either. His gaze has Yuri fixed, more effectively than he’d ever pinned him with physical strength. There’s something weird about having it confirmed out loud, as if it’s somehow consummating the realisation they shared...

God, it feels so long ago.

If only Yuri was free to revel in that. But he doesn’t even feel like he’s the same person anymore. He definitely doesn’t feel like the person Beka’s in love with.

“But this isn’t me.” He steps back, pushing Beka’s hand away. “It’s you.” Unable to hold his gaze, his eyes drop to the floor. “Can you honestly say that you like the person you’ve become because of me?”

The silence is all the more painful because he didn’t expect it. Beka has an answer for everything. Even if it takes him time...

The seconds tick past.

Yuri turns without looking up, opens the door, and walks back down the hallway to his own room.

Otabek does not call after him.

 

Chapter Text

 Okay, yeah. It’s official. Mountains suck.

The snow just... never stops. Not that it’s snowing, they’ve been spared that at least. No, it’s that the snow-covered ground blends so unremarkably seamlessly into the white mist that there is no horizon. No landmarks; no goal; no sense of purpose. Just endless, endless snow, and the crunching of it under their feet.

Roza tries and fails to put her feet in Eudoxia’s footsteps. They’re not even really footprints, they’re just holes. Holes that are several inches too deep for her to be able to lift her feet out of properly.

There’s been no fresh snow either, which means that the top layer has frozen into ice. Ice that shatters under Eudoxia’s feet, and scratches at Roza’s shins as she tries to keep pace.

Next time, they’re going around the goddamn mountains, speed be damned. At least then she’d be able to spend the day on horseback. Her feet are not used to this.

“I’ll go behind Guide Romanova tomorrow,” Beka says that evening, watching Yuri trying to bandage Roza’s shins with what little fabric they’d been able to scrape together. “And Yuri can do it the day after.”

Yuri snorts.

“Oh, so you do have a voice,” he says. “Thanks for volunteering me.”

“Don’t call me Romanova like that. It’s not my surname.”

Eudoxia flicks the edge of her knife off a carrot, removing its slightly wilted leaves.

She’s doing a pretty shitty job of cooking, but none of the rest of them have the effort to protest. Not when the meat is all so heavily salted that there’s barely any flavour anyway.

Yuri tried protesting against taking the path on foot instead of on horseback – it hadn’t lasted long. Going by the tightness of his bandaging, he’s still pissed about it.

“I can’t feel my toes,” Roza says, “and before you smart-mouth me, it’s not because of the cold.”

Yuri leaves her sitting in the snow and moves over to Nastya.

“I’d hope that if it was because of the cold you’d have already mentioned it,” he snipes. The horse stands absolutely still, even as he runs his fingers within a feather's width of the lacerations on her forelegs. His head is right next to Nastya's hooves. If she kicked now, he'd be killed instantly. “If the blood can get out, then anything else can get in, whether it’s demons or infections or whatever you want to believe in. I can’t do anything about it then. That’s mage’s work.”

Roza has nothing to say to that. Which brings their only conversation of the day to an end.

The fire doesn’t do much for warmth when it’s this cold. Yuri, having taken his gloves off to treat her and Nastya, is risking the black-blood. He sits by the fire before dinner, trying to rub the warmth back into his fingers. Roza watches him from the opening of her tent; his palms are pink, but his fingers are all white. He tries to flex them, but they don’t bend.

“Here,” Beka bends down beside him, removing his own gloves and takes Yuri’s hands between his own, trying to share some of his warmth.

“You’re a sap,” Roza says to him, and him alone. Beka replies in common, because he’s an idiot.

“He can’t ride or arch without fingers.”

Yuri must be really tired – he doesn’t immediately snap at Roza to translate.

“You’re allowed to care about people.” She sticks, stubbornly, to her mothertongue.

“That’s a new opinion.” Beka says, calmly. Yuri’s eyes flick between them, as if trying to figure out what Roza’s saying.

“Aкmaк.” She growls, resisting the urge to throw a snowball at her brother. “Just kiss and make up already, this silence going to kill me.”

Rolling back her tent flap and burying herself in her blankets, she can still hear Beka quietly translating for Yuri, and then explaining why exactly being called a piece of wood is considered offensive. She falls asleep to their gentle murmuring, long after she can be bothered to really listen to what they’re saying.

But the next morning, the silence persists. The only thing that breaks it is Eudoxia’s occasional command to keep left or steer clear of weak ice.

Roza is suffering.

Yuri had insisted on lending her his snow boots. The idea was to stop the ice getting to her shins again (Beka had offered first, but he’s taken her position as promised, so he needs his). Unfortunately, Yuri’s feet are smaller than Roza’s. Which means that her shins are rubbing against the fur lining, and the bandages are wearing loose and rubbing against her cuts. It stings like a bitch. Also, the tips of her toes are rubbing against the boots, and because they’re all cramped too close together, they’re rubbing against each other with every step. There will be blisters. There might already be blisters. Her nose is red, raw, and beginning to peel. Fighting through the snow for a second day is draining all her strength. She is falling further and further behind.

But they’re all struggling. Yuri, when they stop for a break, has to brush the ice off his eyelashes. His fairer skin is suffering much worse than she and Beka’s too, despite his efforts to keep out of the sun and the sharp wind. Only a few minutes after they move on again, she can hear his laboured breathing. If she had time to be bothered by anything but her own pain, she might have been slightly reassured that she wasn’t alone.

In actuality, all she notices is his uncharacteristic silence. It’s extremely disconcerting in itself, but combined with the mildly threatening attitude that Eudoxia carries with her, and the fact that the mountains are actively trying to fucking kill them...

Beka stops at the distant rumble of falling snow.

Winter isn't avalanche season. And yet it’s the fifth time today that Roza has been immediately launched into full panic mode. It’s ridiculous, quite frankly, that such a small noise can immediately induce such breath-stealing, gut-wrenching fear. God, what she wouldn’t give for even an hour’s walking without the sweat on her neck suddenly going cold and her heartbeat pounding in her ears like an altar drum.

Eventually the rumbling fades, and they move on again.

The temporary relief from the rubbing at her legs and toes only makes starting again more agonising.

Roza tries to slow her breathing, and keeps close to Nastya’s comforting bulk. She really, really hates the mountains. All the folk tales Pelayo had been telling her about the belief that the mountains are alive had been charming and interesting last month, when the view had been clear and the snow less unforgiving. Now, it’s just another thing that she can’t help but think about.

Especially as some of the noises she thinks she’s hearing go completely unnoticed by the others. Spooking at nothing is stupid and dangerous. The second time it had happened, they’d been passing within stepping distance of a bottomless chasm, yawning deep and blue like the open mouth of some kind of mountain god, waiting for careless travellers. And not all of the crevasses are visible. A single wrong step or slipped foot off the path that Eudoxia is carving could plunge any of them into one.

Pelayo had seen it happen – and the man hadn’t been whole at the bottom. There’s no time to scream, either. Just shock, and instant death. Roza’s all too aware that she’s at the back of their little caravan now. They probably wouldn’t even notice she was gone straight away.

That’s not even what scares her the most. No, it’s the fact that the fall might not be far enough to kill her on impact. That she’d be stranded, injured, starving and freezing, her body dying before her brain caught up. It would take days for her to finally die.

If only someone would start a conversation, she wouldn’t have so much time to think about it.

“Why are you all being so quiet?” She demands at dinner, unable to take it any longer. “You don’t even have the excuse of being out of breath now that we’ve stopped!”

Eudoxia stands up, bowl in hand.

“We passed the peak of the path today,” she says. Roza bites back the retort that she knows. She did the route less than a month ago, even with the fog this bad she recognises at least some of the trek. “It will be easier tomorrow. The snow will start thinning. We may even reach the edge of the peaks by dusk.”

Roza goes to bed in silence, accompanied by the fear of being buried in snow as she sleeps.

Her dreams are not pleasant.

-

“Tell me if I hurt you at all, and I’ll stop.” He says. Yuri brushes his fingers over the edge of the bruise.

“Sure, if it’ll make you feel better. You lost your temper. It happens.”

“I was in the wrong.”

“You make me want to be a better person.”

Otabek takes his hand.

“Will you let me rub some oil into it? It might help.”

He wraps his oiled hands around Yuri’s arm, slotting his fingers over the bruise. It vanishes under his touch. He leans down and kisses him where the mark had been, gently. Then he takes it back in his palm, squeezes, hard, until the bruise is back, and the skin welded and red and swollen, and Yuri pulls away easily, like water falling through his fingers, like he hadn’t been trying before. Beka’s hand closes on itself.

“What did you do that for?”

“My heritage is part of me. I don’t think I had the right to turn away from that.”

“This is a part of me that I should just learn to deal with?” He says, looking at the bruise. It’s blistered now, starting to bleed. Otabek can see his fingerprints in it.

The floor is gone. They hang in mid-air, above the mountains. The cold breeze lifts them from below. Yuri’s hair hangs in the air, light, floating around his face. He is holding a knife.

“I don’t want to think that you’re willing to hurt me.” Beka says, kneeling, his hands guarding his face.

“I already am hurting you.” Yuri says, walking away and dropping the knife. It plummets into a glacier below, swallowed by the ice. “Do you like it? Are you enjoying my anger? Enjoying being an asshole?”

“I love you.” Beka says.

“But I’m not me.”

“Yura, I love you.”

“And you aren’t you.”

“Please. I love you.”

“Love is not enough.” It’s not Yuri anymore. Beka is alone. It’s just his voice. “Can you honestly say that you like the person you’ve become because of me?”

“I...”

Otabek wakes with a start, unable to take a breath. Panic engulfs him. He can’t move. His lungs won’t work. The air around him is somehow unreachable, like there’s a layer of glass between him and the real world.

He sits up with a shuddering gasp, hand pressed to his chest. He’s not short of breath at all. Whatever had been stopping him is over. Whatever he’d been dreaming about is long gone. Whatever had happened, all it’s left is a sick kind of ache, and the lurch of terror from the moment of paralysis when he woke.

And Yuri is awake too.

The fire is long burned out and the yurt dark beyond distinction. His hand lands on the flooring, the winter-hardened ground underneath crunching softly.

“Yura?”

No response.

He fumbles carefully for the spot he usually leaves the lamp, and finds it gone. Outside, the frost crunches in a steady rhythm under a horse’s hooves. By the time he manages to find his way outside, Yuri is nearly out of view. His very active discontent is jarring, like pins and needles.

There is no wind tonight. The forest around the campsite is as quiet and still as the mountain had been. A single misjudged sound could wake the others instantly, and this is not a conversation that Otabek wants to have publicly.

He takes a deep breath, concentrates, and pushes.

Where are you going?”

Karzhau pulls to a halt, hooves steading on the hard ground. Horse and rider are out of sight now. Under the trees, they are hidden from the weak moonlight.

It takes a minute for Yuri to reply. This is still new – Otabek tells himself that it’s because of that, and not because he’s reluctant to answer the question.

Go back to sleep.”

Strange, how even in Beka’s head, Yuri’s words are unmistakeable. His voice is unchanged, even the tone and inflection is the same. The only difference is that they’re not speaking aloud.

“If you go too far it will hurt us both.”

“It might only hurt me if you’re asleep. Go back to bed.”

“Do you have any evidence for that?”

“Please, Beka. It’s tearing you apart. Let me at least try to fix it.”

"We are not broken. There is nothing to fix."

There is a slight rustle in the forest, and Yuri steps out into the moonlight. He has dismounted, but he’s dressed to travel; his cloak is slung around his shoulders, his sword and dagger at his belt, his bow and quiver over his back.

Beka isn’t shivering yet. He will be soon; he hadn’t bothered to put his cloak on, and standing in the early morning frost in only his shirt wasn’t the most sensible idea.

Yuri projects nothing back. His hair is loose, his head bent so that it covers not one, but both of his eyes. Beka can read nothing in his expression. His mind, though, is alive with feeling. Desperation, and every thread of discontent and determination that comes with it. Whatever he’s thinking, it seems deliberate. He is dragging up the worst of the last few days’ emotions, and letting them stew. Letting Otabek feel it, as if he could possibly have forgotten.

Beka waits for a second before continuing.

“You don’t know if distance can break this bond. You only know it strains it. Are you willing to deliberately hurt me anyway?”

Yuri looks up, sharply.

“I don’t want to hurt you, but it’s the only way.”

Yuri closes his eyes, reels the sharpness of it back. He’s changing. It’s heartbreaking. When he opens them again, his gaze is as steady as the voice in Beka’s head.

“I wasn’t kidding when I told you I would kill for you. I have chosen to fight for you. This is a fulfilment of that promise.”

“I asked you to fight for my country. Not for me. With me. Come back, Yura.”

“I’ve never been to your country. I...”

He stops. Otabek feels it coming, the welling up of an emotion that he still doesn’t fully understand. Of all the things they’ve shared since this strange bond was established, it has always been the strongest.

“Don’t.”

He hadn’t intended to interrupt. Yuri breathes, quietly, waiting. The moonlight makes him look strangely ethereal. Shining in the white light, in full armour, his hair down like a wraith, the horse standing behind him. He could be a figure from the many local myths they have heard along the way. A ghost.

“I won’t believe you.”

“You’ve felt it. Otabek, you know.”

How often does Yura call him by anything but Beka? Almost never. There’s a hint of anger to it now, his desperation giving way to frustration.

“Love isn’t just a feeling, Yura. That’s only where it begins.”

Yuri takes two steps forward, then stops. He turns back and puts his hand on Karzhau’s flank, as if going to mount.

“Is this your last effort? It’s not making me want to stay.”

“I’m not trying to change your mind.”

Otabek had intended to do this looking at Yuri, but he can’t. It’s incredibly rude, but he drops his eyes to the ground. He has to; otherwise the words will never come.

“I’m telling you not to come back.”

Yuri’s little gasp is the first sound either of them has made since the start of the conversation. Otabek looks up, inadvertently, and immediately wishes he hadn’t. He’s never seen this expression before. He continues anyway. He has to.

“You’re right. I asked you to fight with me. I thought I had made it clear that I would lay down my life to protect you from any harm. Perhaps it was foolish of me to assume that you would do the same. To fight together, I have to be able to trust you. I have a duty to my country first. You have become a liability to the success of this quest. Even if I want to put you first, I can’t. You understand.”

Yuri stands completely still. His hand is still on Karzhau. Otabek is almost shuddering with the effort of standing still. Yuri can see that; see how painful it is for him to have to say this. It’s a choice that Yuri has forced on him.

“I understand.” Yuri says.

He throws himself up into the saddle, and vanishes into the woods.

Chapter Text

Yuri hates crying. It makes him feel grungy, sticky, and so fucking young. But for once, even the anger can’t keep the tears at bay.

Fuck Beka. Fuck Beka and his stupid... goddammit, he didn’t even want to be king! And Yuri wasn’t trying to get in the way, he was trying to help. But apparently he’s a nuisance to Beka now too, as well as Yakov and Lilia and mother and Victor and Roza and even fucking Katsuki, and....

Karzhau stumbles, regaining her footing a second too late to stop Yuri plunging over her head.

“Fuck!”

He lands in the dust with a heavy grunt. Stars swim across the edge of his vision.

Going so fast in the dark with his sight blurred by tears and no clear sense of direction was stupid, of course it was. But having it proved doesn’t fucking help. Falling off a horse for the first time in living memory does not make him feel any better either. Especially not now that both his shoulder and his hip are stinging. That’s going to be a bad bruise tomorrow.

It would be all too easy to curl up in a ball, tuck his head into his knees, and scream. He wants to. God, he wants to so badly. But he can't. Karzhau is loose and nervous and she's more important than getting angry about shit that he can't change. 

Stumbling to his feet, he makes a grab for Karzhau’s reins. Using the influence now would be a bad idea. She skitters away, just out of reach. Yuri forces himself to take a deep breath, and buries the frustration. Not now.

“I know, I know, I’m an idiot. Hey, come here.”

She calms a little at the soothing tone of voice, but she’s still wary. It must be his temper. He’d never take it out on her, but she’s sensitive to his moods. Prey animals always are.

“Come on, I need to make sure I didn’t hurt you,” he clucks. Finally, she approaches, and allows him to smooth careful hands along her neck, over her shoulders, and down her legs. By the time he’s finished checking her, she’s stopped breathing with the heavy exertion of exercise. Yuri presses his forehead to her shoulder, looping his arms around her neck.

“Sorry. I won’t do that again.”

She snickers at him, softly, nudging at his belt with her muzzle.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve forgiven me so easily,” he sighs, brushing horsehair from his nose and salt from his eyes. It’s already crusting over, making the skin around his eyes uncomfortably tight. He sniffs, trying to clear his nose and get a proper breath of air. Mostly it just makes him feel even more pathetic. 

God, he fucking hates this.

What’s he even supposed to do now? Go home?

 

-

 

Otabek immediately regrets his decision. He knew he was going to, and he knows that it’s still the right choice. That doesn’t make it any easier.

Yuri is one person. There are a thousand and more waiting for his return. A king has a duty to his people first, and to himself second. If he’s learnt anything travelling, it’s that. And he will not make the same mistake as all of his ancestors. This is a beginning, not an end; he’s forging new footsteps, proving that he is willing to make sacrifices to lead the way he’s chosen to. Acting for personal interest, whether it be for love, or pride, or simple greed, has only ever started wars. Otabek has committed himself to finishing one. There will be no more instability. No more fear. Even if he has to do it alone.

Otabek watches the dark edge of the forest anyway, even as he tells himself this. Perhaps he’s expecting something other than an unwavering shadow. But there is nothing.

He turns back to his tent.

He is a king. He has a duty. Yuri was a complication. He was clouding Beka’s judgement, distracting him from a greater purpose. Yuri understands that. Yuri had said that he understood that.

It’s not even close to dawn, but there’s no chance that he’ll sleep again tonight. Instead he busies himself with relighting the fire.

Perhaps it’s the light, perhaps it’s the noise, but something wakes Roza too. He can hear her bedding rustling for a few minutes before she speaks.

“Beka? Why have you lit the fire?”

He wonders for a second whether he should tell the truth. But how would he hide Yuri’s disappearance from her?

“Yuri’s gone.”

There’s a pause.

“Gone... where, exactly?”

“The town, I think.”

“You think?”

He can guess where Yuri’s aiming for. Eudoxia had told them at dinner that now they’d reached the forests it was less than an hour’s travel to the closest town. It is still bitingly cold after sunset, though, so they hadn’t pushed for it. But trying to find it in the dark, where there is no clear path...

“You didn’t think to ask where he was going when he fucked off in the middle of the night, in the dark, without a clear path and without a guide?”

The fact that Roza’s voice is muffled by two layers of canvas and a whisper doesn’t disguise her tone. Beka watches the flames take hold of the wood, and tries to come up with an answer that won’t make her any more pissed off.

He fails.

“He didn’t wake me.”

“Oh great.” Roza’s bedding rustles again. “You’ve gone and picked a defector. Great choice, Beka, really. He’s going to be so useful. If we ever get him back, I’m kicking him off this journey myself. We’re better without an archer at all than one with commitment issues, cold feet and a fucking longbow.”

“Are you finished?”

“I could go on until morning.”

“Please don’t.”

There is silence for a moment. Then Roza’s tent rustling becomes footsteps. She appears in the opening of the yurt accompanied by a gust of wind.

Beka blinks at her as she fastens the entrance shut behind her and makes herself comfortable in Yuri’s spot by the fire.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but...”

Beka pokes the fire with a stray piece of tinder.

“Please stop giving me advice. I think I’m managing to fuck this up just fine on my own.”

Roza winces at him swearing. He almost smiles at that, and then remembers that he might not have done it if it weren’t for Yuri’s influence.

“Yeah, well.” She shrugs. “You couldn’t have chosen anyone more different from Alyona. It’s not like he was going to fit in easily.”

Beka sighs.

“Roza, again...”

“He’s not her replacement, I know. He just should be.”

“I can’t ask him...”

“You can’t ask him anything if he’s not here.”

Beka’s head is starting to hurt.

“Please stop doing that.”

“What?”

“Answering my sentences before I’ve finished saying them.”

She doesn’t respond to that. He takes it as acquiescence.

“We talked. Last night. Yuri and I.”

Roza stares at him, the firelight licking along her cheekbone.

“I didn’t hear you.”

“I know.”

They still haven’t told her about the bond. He doesn’t know how to, now. It’s getting more and more complicated by the day. And like all lies, white or otherwise, the more elaborate the deception becomes, the more angered she will be by the revelation. He can’t deal with any more of her anger right now. It might be more manageable in the morning. But not right now.

Roza’s brow is furrowed. Then, all at once, she seems to collapse. Her shoulders slump, and she finally allows the yawn that he’s been watching her bite back for the last two minutes. She folds over, and puts her head in his lap. For a second, all he can do is blink at her. Then she looks up at him, and he remembers.

The three of them are piled in front of the fireplace. They are waiting for their parents to return. Alyona’s arm is around him, and he rests his head on her shoulder. Roza is sprawled across his lap, half-asleep in the warmth of the embers, her short hair pillowed on his thigh. Her eyelashes flicker on cheeks still filled out with baby fat. He rests a hand on her shoulder, monitoring her breathing. Her nightmares are too common for her age.

She can’t have been more than four. Mother and father had been delayed by weeks, and Roza had cried all her tears out. Too old for nannies, too young to be left with just her siblings. It had been to comfort her, that position. It became too common, and yet despite how often it had happened, he’d forgotten.

Roza hadn’t. Why she’s doing it now, he doesn’t know. But she’s here. The absence of Alyona’s arm is heavy. He puts his hand on Roza’s shoulder. Her warm weight is more of a comfort than the meagre fire.

She’s watching him; waiting, expectantly.

Beka takes a deep breath.

“He said...”

 

-

 

“So what if you didn’t intend it? You invited me to fight with you. Sure, leading a ‘Jaghun’ or whatever isn’t what either of us had in mind, and I definitely don’t want to go with Roza’s whole ‘killing everyone and razing the fields’ thing, but fighting might be necessary. And I’m here now. I want to help end this.”

Yuri opens his eyes. The stars greet him, bright and blinking, in the first clear sky of the week. The meadow grass is wet under his back.

It’s a relief, at last, to have space to himself. Like taking a breath again after a deep dive. Yuri knows he’s not good with people. Beka has never been quite so wearing a presence as most people he knows, but sharing a head with him has been. Arguing with him has been.

God, Otabek. Yuri closes his eyes and takes a deep breath of cold, fresh air. It burns, slightly. He hadn’t intended to wake Beka. It’s this thing that he does, forcing Yuri to face himself in uncomfortable ways. He kind of hates it, really. And he doesn’t know what he’s doing right now either, never mind how to vocalise it.

The slight nagging of Beka’s mind, still awake, still agitated, doesn’t throb with distance as he’d expected it to. He’d have to go further for that, perhaps. He had intended to. Right up until Beka told him not to come back.

Yuri doesn’t know what he wants. Well, no, he does. He wants to stop arguing with Beka, to go back to being normal and to be able to be completely on his own again; to be able to think straight. To be able to be himself without worrying about anyone else. To go back, basically, to last week. Before they hit the mountains, before whatever the fuck his influence did ruined everything.

But he doesn’t know how to go about doing that. It’s looking increasingly like neither of them will ever be completely alone ever again. But at least it’s Beka. If it were anyone else...

No. Nobody else would have put their country ahead of their personal gain. Well, not anyone Yuri knows. If only that wasn’t something the he likes about Otabek. It would be a hell of a lot easier to be annoyed at him for being noble about it. Is it too much to ask to be somebody’s number one priority for the first time in his life? He might have been doing it badly, but everything he’s done has been for Beka’s sake. He’s been trying to get out of his way, to be supportive instead of a nuisance.

Yuri throws his arms over his face and groans. Fuck, no wonder Victor and Katsudon are so fucking annoying. This is fucking unbearable. It aches.

“You didn’t say anything Beka! What was I supposed to think?”

“I didn’t have anything else to say. I told you, I love you. It’s a privilege to be able to share so much with you. I’m more worried that you seem to dislike yourself so much that you assumed I would too.”

“That’s not... ugh. Beka. God.” 

“I’m sorry, should I have kept that to myself?”

It’s a lot easier to fix mistakes like that when there’s somebody to help. Well, not help, exactly. More like... driving. Providing the motivation.

“Don’t you care how much this has fucked things up for you?”

“Would caring change anything?”

“Huh. You sound like my dad.”

“Yura, why regret what’s already happened? Better to learn from it.”

It’s not like either of them know what they’re doing. But Beka makes him want to try. And Yuri desperately wants to be by his side. Whether it’s at court, running negotiations, on the battlefield, leading a charge, or just there. Just... with him. When Beka’s had a shit day, and he can drag him out to the hawks or the stables and distract him for a bit. Tire him out so he sleeps properly. Make sure he doesn’t kill himself by trying to spread himself too thin. He can never replace Alyona – fuck, he doesn’t want to – but Beka doesn’t deserve any of this crap. The very least Yuri can do is try and fucking help.

Karzhau steps a little closer and snuffles at him, rubbing her lips against his hip and wiping green slobber all over his tunic in the process.

“Ugh, get off!” He grumbles, pushing her nose away gently. She shakes her head at him, fluffing her mane up.

“I’m fine, you stupid thing,” he says, rubbing at the sweet spot behind her ears. “I knew I shouldn’t have brought you. You’re going to get fat on all this meadow grass, and then Beka’s going to tell me off for spoiling...” he catches himself smiling, and forces it down. 

No.

He might not ever see Beka again. If he chooses to listen to him, properly, like Beka’s been asking him to all along...

He hauls himself to his feet, then. The sky is beginning to grow lighter now, and wherever he chooses to go, he needs to go soon. Beka is calmer now. So is he. Perhaps after living on top of each other for so long, all they needed was a little space. It seems a little too late for such a simple fix, though.

“What are we going to do?” He says. The sky, predictably, has no answer for him. He keeps talking anyway. For once, nobody is going to hear him. It's safe. “I don’t even know what I’d do on my own. I don’t know this side of the mountains. And nobody knows me here, either. I...” He pauses. “Nobody knows me here.”

He’s just another faceless knight here. He could do anything, and nobody would be any the wiser.

Travelling knights are becoming rarer. They used to be regular passers-through when he was newly squired. Then several had simply stopped and settled under Yakov, trading their services for safety and stability. After that there haven’t been any for years, but that doesn’t mean they’re not needed. It’s doable; he can’t re-cross the mountains until spring, but he only needs to support himself through one season. There should be enough small tasks that need doing in an area as remote as this. They don’t have much money, but he can work for board and food. It’s been a long time since he lived so simply, but he grew up like this. At first, anyway. He can adapt back.

It’s not an appealing plan. If the distance doesn’t hurt now, he might be stuck with the bond forever. Or it might strain without breaking, condemning them both to constant pain. Or he could be severed completely and utterly from Beka forever. He has no way of knowing. There are bigger issues too, long-term ones; they have the unresolved contract hanging over their heads still, and the only way that could be settled without meeting again would be...

Oh. 

Will he be able to tell if Otabek dies?

The thought is sickening, suddenly, like somebody's dropped a rock into the pit of his stomach.

No. It's...no different. Surely, if he never sees Beka again, what difference does it make to him? He's basically dead to Yuri already, especially if they do break the bond. They're not together anymore. And it's a war. It might happen.

At least he won't have to see it if he does.

But he won't be able to stop it, either. 

Karzhau nudges him, suddenly, and a little stronger than he’s used to. He stumbles, grabbing her saddle for stability.

"Hey."

He closes his eyes. It takes a little effort to dispel the thought, but he can do it. It's not about what he wants, now. Besides, it's not like Beka needs protecting. He'll be just fine on his own. Hell, Beka fucking kicked him out, there's no way he can go back.

As goodbyes go, it's pretty shit. He presses his fist to his sternum, and growls. I'm better than this, he thinks, forcefully. The feeling doesn't go away. 

“Well, fuck it." Karzhau eyes him warily as he reaches to pull himself onto her back. "I guess we’d better...”

He freezes. Panic, sudden and consuming, seizes him. In the flash of adrenalin, it takes him a minute to realise that it’s not his.

It’s Otabek.

Chapter Text

“I said stay down.”

Otabek’s knees hit the ground with a solid crack. The hands restraining him - four, five, maybe six – they’re all faceless. There’s one forcing his chin against his chest, straining his neck, limiting his vision to his knees and a small patch of the floor. Another has his wrists crushed together, his fingers throbbing. His ankles have been grappled too. He struggles anyway, but someone is pressing down, heavy, into his shoulders.

“Get over here!” A voice yells, and the grip on his ankles is released.

They’ve underestimated Roza. Somebody’s legs come skidding into his vision. Their ankle is broken. The bone is too far to the left, sticking much further out from the joint than is natural. They struggle up, limping back to the fight.

Otabek tries to kick, and gets a solid whack over the head for it. It’s a futile effort; they were braced for him. No point in making it easy for them, though. The slight dizziness isn’t enough of a dissuader to stop him from trying again – until someone yanks his head back by the hair, and holds the knife to his throat.

He freezes.

Finally, he can see what’s going on. Completely bare-handed, Roza is doing a hell of a lot of damage. There’s a woman hanging onto her waist, trying to trap her arms. A kick lands heavily in another attacker’s face, sending him over on his back, hand clutched to his eye. Roza elbows her hanger-on, solid and square, in the forehead, and follows it up by kneeing another one in the stomach.

But now there’s six on her. With one on her leg and one on her arm, they overbalance her before she has a chance to shake them off. The moment she hits the floor, they pin her.

It still takes four of them to get her subdued – one on each limb. Eudoxia stands up, flicking her sweat-clumped hair out of her face, breathing heavily.

“Alright,” she draws her sword, and points it directly at Roza’s throat. Beka starts, and is immediately dragged back at knife-point.

“Where’s the other one?” Eudoxia is smiling, humourlessly. “You could be valuable too, princess. I don’t want to have to hurt you. Damaged goods don’t sell well. But believe me, if I don’t get what I want, I will make every remaining day of your life a living hell.”

Roza tilts her head back as far as it will go, breathing shallowly against the tip of the blade.

“Where is he?” Eudoxia presses, leaning down. Roza closes her eyes, and keeps her mouth firmly shut.

“Alright,” she gestures with a flick of her head. “Everybody off. They’re not going anywhere.” Eudoxia keeps her word pressed to Roza’s neck. “I don’t even need to threaten you any more than this. You know what will happen if you or your brother so much as flinch. I don’t even need to cut your head off. All I need to do is push, just a little bit, right here,” Roza’s feet are trembling. Beka is barely breathing. “And the job’s done. Much faster, much less mess. Now...”

She yanks Roza to her feet by her hair, then drags her over and shoves her to the ground in front of Otabek. Roza’s eyes are wet with the sting of having her hair pulled so viciously.

“Perhaps you have a better idea?” Eudoxia suggests. She’s definitely not smiling now. She looks stressed; there’s a twitch in her left eye. “His life can’t be more important to you than your sister’s, surely?” Otabek does not respond. Eudoxia sighs. “I promise, I’m not going to kill him. He’s far too valuable to be wasted like that.”

Roza is watching him.

“If you’re looking for Yuri...” one of the guards knees him, hard, in the small of his back. It winds him, completely.

“Who else?” Eudoxia growls.

It takes Beka a minute to get his breath back. When he does speak, his voice is thick with the lack of air.

“He left in the middle of the night.” He wheezes, with as much dignity as he can muster. “I don’t know where he went.”

Eudoxia sneers.

“Not helpful. Do you need some persuasion?”

She grabs Roza’s hand, and holds it out over a tree stump. Her sword is poised to swing.

“I don’t know,” Otabek repeats, a little louder. His voice is stronger now. “If I did, I would have kept my mouth shut.”

“Beka, please,” Roza glances up at Eudoxia and back at her brother, the whites of her eyes flashing. She switches to her mothertongue. “It’s my spear arm, just tell her, please, just...”

Eudoxia smacks her around the face with the pommel of the sword.

“Speak common, or regret it!”

There’s blood on Roza’s cheek now, her skin split over her cheekbone.

“I swear on my honour.” Trying to keep his voice steady is useless. It comes out as pleading. It is – he’s begging. “He didn’t say. I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to.”

The knife is pressing too closely to his neck. It’s not even particularly sharp. That’s worse though – it’ll hurt more if they follow through.

Eudoxia glares for a second, then barks an instruction to her lackeys that he doesn’t understand. The one holding the knife takes over the grip on his hands, and the rest of them scatter towards the edge of the clearing, and vanish out of sight into the trees.

Eudoxia turns back to him.

“If he comes back, they’ll get him before he can help you,” she growls. “As for you two... I’ll believe you if you can prove it.”

Beka’s attention flickers to Roza and back. She’s bent almost over on her shoulder, twisted awkwardly against the tree stump.

“Prove it how?”

“If I cut both her hands off, and you still don’t tell me where he is, I’ll believe you.”

Roza gasps, and starts to struggle, pulling against Eudoxia’s hold. A hand in her hair, so tight that Eudoxia’s knuckles are white, still doesn’t stop her from striving to escape. But Eudoxia is either stronger, or simply better positioned. Roza’s wild swings don’t land. She pummels Eudoxia’s arm, her fist bouncing off. Her fingers scrabble uselessly against her clenched fist. Her wrist in Eudoxia’s grip is rubbed raw with her wild tugging.

“I don’t know!” Otabek shouts, lowering his eyes to the ground. “Please. I don’t know. Don’t hurt her, please. She doesn’t deserve it. It’s not her fault.”

The guard pulls his head up again, forcing him to look at Eudoxia. Her sword is raised above her head. Roza’s feet scrabble uselessly against the tree stump.

“Lie!” She screams at Beka in their language, despite the warning. “Just lie!”

“I will ask one more time,” Eudoxia says, ignoring her and glaring straight at Beka. “Where is Yuri?”

Beka opens his mouth, and shuts it again.

“So be it.”

Roza screams.

Beka closes his eyes, but cannot block out the thunk of metal landing in wood, or the sharp scrape of metal on bone.

He looks up again almost immediately, ashamed of himself for trying to block it out. But it’s a gruesome sight.

Roza’s hand lands under Eudoxia’s feet, thrown by the force of the swing, and rolls to a stop. The end of the bone is shattered, jagged skin fluttering. It twitches where it lies. The warm brown of the tree stump is tainted by bright crimson, like sap, dribbling down through the thick grooves of bark.

Roza falls backward on her heels, still screaming.

There’s a short scuffle in the treeline. A shout, a thump, and then a voice.

“That was a mistake.”

Yuri steps out of the trees, bow raised, eyes narrowed.

Eudoxia turns, slowly, releasing Roza. She tumbles to the floor, incoherent, gripping her wrist and shouting her pain in sharp, heavy breaths, meaningless noises that crumble into sobs.

“There you are.”

Yuri’s watches the guide down the shaft of his arrow, the bow pulled back and taught, aiming directly at her face.

“I have no idea what you wanted me for, but if you expect me to co-operate now then you have underestimated me.” He says.

“I think you’ll find yourself a little outnumbered.” Eudoxia smirks, kicking Roza’s dead hand out of the way and taking two more steps towards Yuri.

It would be a callout of his bluff, if he had been bluffing.

“Will I?”

Yuri changes the direction of aim, loosing an arrow without even looking at where it’s going. Beka clocks the direction, the flash of metal, and closes his eyes. Yuri’s aim is true.

The guard cries out as the arrow lands its mark. The soft ‘thunk’ of metal in flesh signals Otabek’s release; the knife drops away, the harsh grip on his wrists abandoned. The body lands in the dust behind him.

Yuri has drawn, restrung and aimed another arrow before Eudoxia can take another step. She stops, bloodied sword in hand, arrow aimed at her face.

“I think that was everybody,” Yuri says, nonchalant. “Any further protests?”

Beka is already up and scrambling towards Roza before Eudoxia has finished looking around and realising that she is, in fact, completely alone.

Roza’s in agony. It’s all he can do to get her to hold still, and to keep her from writhing further as he tries to wrap the stump of her wrist tightly enough to stop it from bleeding more. She can’t talk. Eyes wild and cheeks streaked with tears, she grabs him with her good hand, clawing at his legs. He can’t help. Pulling her close he tries to talk to her, distract her from the pain. Her blood soaks both of them now, hot and sticky on his skin, the tang of metal in his mouth.

“What did you do to the others?” Eudoxia is demanding. Beka looks up, over Roza’s head where she has curled into his lap as he kneels. Neither of them are watching anything but each other. If the power wasn’t so obviously on Yuri’s side it would be a stand-off.

Yuri refuses to respond to the question. Instead, he simply signals with a slight jerk of his bow that Eudoxia should sheathe her sword. She does so silently.

“I don’t think you’re in a position to be asking questions right now, do you?” Yuri snarls, his last attempt at being casual dissipating. Roza whimpers, and for half a second Yuri’s attention wavers, flickering to the two of them on the floor by the stump.

It can’t be a pretty sight. The blood is already leaking through the section of his tunic Beka had wrapped around her wrist. It has stained his hands, and where he’s holding onto his sister, her tunic too. Both of their legs are soaked. He doesn’t know what else to do.

Roza is crying, rocking back and forth against his chest, her good hand clutching blow the stump of her wrist, skittering up to her elbow and back as she clenches her fingers in pain, clawing at her severed arm again and again and again. Beka tries to soothe a hand through her hair, but she barely even notices him.

Yuri’s eyes flash.

He turns back to the guide.

“Tell me what you wanted me for.” He snaps. Eudoxia only sneers.

“Or what? You’ll kill me?”

“You were dead the moment you hurt my friends.” There is steel in Yuri’s voice. Not just anger, but assurance. A promise. “But if you tell me why you’re here I might just shoot you in the heart instead of the stomach.”

There is absolute silence for a second. Eudoxia is hesitating. She’s not trying to make a decision – her eyes are too active, roaming over the clearing. She’s looking for an escape route.

Then Roza whimpers again.

Yuri’s eyes narrow.

“Time’s up.”

He shoots.

Staggering, Eudoxia opens her mouth. No sound emerges. Her eyes are wide. It’s an inappropriate thought, but to Beka she looks almost comically disbelieving. She closes her fingers around the shaft of the arrow. The point is protruding from her back.

Yuri is by Roza’s side before Eudoxia even makes it to her knees. Beka tunes out her gentle whimpers as best he can, focusing on what Yuri is saying to him.

“We need to stop the bleeding immediately.” His voice is almost devastatingly calm. Beka nods, numbly. The tunic is barely recognisable now. The tips of Yuri’s fingers are stained red. “Wait here.”

He dashes into the forest, throwing his bow over his back and drawing his sword. Somewhat helplessly, Beka tries to shift Roza into a more comfortable position. Without paying much attention to what he’s saying, he continues talking to her, trying to keep her awake. When Yuri comes running back, holding a ragged pile of fabric, Eudoxia has started groaning. Otabek tries not to wonder how long it’s going to take her to die.

Yuri unrolls the fabric. It’s a tunic, but it’s been cut through on one side so that it hangs flat, in a single sheet. Yuri raises his sword and starts to slit it into strips.

“Can you recognise nettles?” He asks, focused on the task.

“I know the name. They sting?”

“That’s them. I need you to collect me some.” His hands are trembling. It’s the only indication that he is not as calm as he seems. Otherwise, his voice is steady, his demeanour confident, though urgent.

Beka doesn’t want to go. There’s a base, desperate instinct that says he can’t leave Roza. Not like this. She’s suffering – she needs him. If he leaves, she might not be here when he gets back.

His grip on her shoulder tightens.

“What the fuck do you need nettles for?” Roza gasps, between heavy breaths.

“Medicine.” Is Yuri’s curt reply. “Letting you die is not on my list of things I want to do today.”

Roza snorts. It’s almost a laugh.

Otabek is flooded with ridiculous, heart-wrenching relief. Yuri knows what to do. Yuri came back. Roza’s going to be okay. The rest can wait.

Yuri looks up, surprised, from laying the fabric strips out across his lap.

“Yes,” Otabek says. “Okay. How many?”

Yuri nods.

“A few stalks should do. There’s a trick for not getting stung, too, you need to grab the leaves straight on, no hesitating. It only works sometimes though.”

“I’ll get my gloves.”

“That works too.”

Beka shuffles Roza off his lap as carefully as possible. She is looking considerably sallower than she should do. Reaching out to help, Yuri takes some of her weight and helps settle her on the ground. Then he raises her severed arm by the elbow. With surprising gentleness, he prises her fingers away.

“I need you to talk to me, Roza,” he says, while he works at pulling her sleeve down and out of the way. “Anything. Doesn’t matter if I understand. Just talk until you’re physically incapable of talking. Shouldn’t be too hard, for you.”

Roza takes two deep breaths, and starts to mumble. Otabek is already heading towards the forest, so he can’t discern what she’s saying. Yuri’s voice carries a little further.

“Nah, I’ve seen worse than this. We’ll have you back on your feet by lunchtime.”

A pause.

“Yeah, I know your feet aren’t the problem, it’s a figure of speech...”

His voice fades beyond hearing. But if Roza can tease him, then she’s fine. For now. She’ll be okay with Yuri.

Otabek steps over a body with an arrow protruding from its neck, and pushes deeper into the forest.

 

-

 

The moment Yuri touches the first bandage to the wound, Roza goes silent.

“Swear at me,” Yuri commands.

“Swear?” Roza chokes, through ragged breaths.

“It’s what Georgi used to have us do. It’ll give you something to concentrate on other than what I’m doing, and it means I know you’re still conscious without having to waste time checking.”

“Oh, god.”

Yuri sighs.

“That’s tame. Simple blasphemy isn’t that impressive when half the country is pagan, you know.”

“Ha ha.” Roza attempts to smile at him. It’s... really not very reassuring. Then she takes a deep breath, and as firmly as possible, says; “I will fuck 77 of your mother’s mothers.”

There’s still a slight wobble to her voice. Yuri grins at it anyway, and is about to make a comment, but when he tries to apply pressure her conviction becomes a string of ‘fuck’s, breaking on a sob.

“That was about six, not seventy seven.” He says, as calmly as he can manage. The blood is thick on his fingers, and becoming slippery.

“I will rip your ass and poke out your eyes,” Roza says, with slightly unwarranted relish. Then she scrunches her eyes shut, and lets out a sound that starts out as a groan and finishes as a scream. Her back arches off the ground, and he has to clench at her elbow to keep her arm in place. As gentle as he’s trying to be, the next string of syllables are practically screamed, and definitely not in common.

“What was that?” He says, trying to rub the worst of the blood off on the edge of his tunic. It’s beyond salvageable at this point anyway.

“Stop sucking grandpa’s dick,” Roza pants, looking at the sky. “Fuck your mother, eat shit and die... more of the same. Mostly about fucking people’s mothers.”

“There is something very satisfying about being rude to people’s mothers.” Yuri concedes, tying off the last scrap of bandage. “But mine’s dead, and you’re done for now, so you should probably stop.”

Roza closes her eyes, breathing heavily.

“Kiss my ass, Yuri Plisetsky.”

“Ugh, no thanks. Do you want to sit up?”

Roza doesn’t respond, but tries to get up by herself.

“Yeah, no, don’t do that.” Yuri grabs her shoulders, holding her upright when she closes her eyes and groans. “The world spinning a bit?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s upside down.” Roza says, going to put her head in her hands and promptly hitting herself in the shoulder with the freshly bandaged stump. She lets out a yelp of pain, and a string of unrecognisable curses.

Yuri waits for her to finish.

“Satisfying, isn’t it?” he says, when she’s done. “Can you sit by yourself for a moment? I can roll that log up for you to lean against then.”

Roza considers it.

“Not sure. Let go?”

Yuri releases her shoulders, moving his hands barely an inch from her body in case she overbalances immediately. The last thing they need to add to this debacle is a head wound. But she stays upright.

“I think I’m okay.”

Yuri steps away warily, then runs to fetch the log as quickly as possible.

“Alright?”

“Alright.” Roza takes a few deep breaths. “Thanks, Yuri.”

He sits back, studying her carefully. She’s lost a lot of blood, and she’s the wrong colour, but she’s not shaking and she doesn’t seem to be having any trouble responding to him. He takes his cloak off anyway, draping it over her shoulders as firmly as possibly while avoiding her arm.

“I’m sorry I was too late,” he says, suddenly. It all comes out in a rush, quieter than he’d intended and mostly mumbled at the floor. Roza looks up, eyebrows raised. “To save your hand,” Yuri clarifies. “I misjudged the last guard...”

“Aқmaқ.” Roza interrupts, rolling her eyes to the sky. Yuri stops, surprised. “Seriously, that’s what you’re apologising for? Someone else cutting my hand off? Unless you knew they’d been after you this whole time and put us in danger deliberately...?”

“Excuse you?” Yuri bristles. “Do you really think, having just spent the last five minutes trying to save your life, that I would?”

Roza levels her gaze at him.

“You were the one that left.”

Yuri takes a deep breath.

“And Beka told me not to come back, yes. And then you got hurt, and here I am. I’m not a monster, Roza. I just... fucked up.”

Roza seems to relax.

“There you go then. I’ll blame you for leaving, but not for this.” She points at the stump. “Don’t consider yourself forgiven or anything though. Just because our guide was more of an asshole than you are doesn’t get you off the hook.”

Yuri sits on his heels, and shrugs.

“Fair.” There’s silence for a short moment. “I am sorry about that, then.” Yuri says, awkwardly. “I promised to protect you both. And I didn’t.”

Roza is watching him, carefully. Her response is not immediate; she gives Yuri enough time to get really, really uncomfortable before sighing.

“I mean, I guess you did probably just save our lives. Maybe.”

“Maybe.” Yuri smiles. It fades quickly when Roza winces, accidentally rubbing the stump against her chest.

“Hold on,” he says, and goes to fetch another scrap of fabric. They manage to fashion a strange kind of sling. It’s not particularly fancy, but it does stop Roza from being able to move her arm too much. She’s still dizzy, but feeding her might just maker her throw up, so he gets some water instead. She sips it, carefully, holding the bowl in her left hand.

She looks okay for now. She should be okay. Sitting back on his heels, Yuri allows himself to consider the next step. He’s stopped the bleeding. Now they need to start the healing.

He closes his eyes. Beka isn’t too far away, but they haven’t tried it over this distance before.

Roza’s fine,” he tries. There’s no reaction. Beka doesn’t respond, not even emotionally. Yuri concentrates, trying to push the message more strongly, right into the part of his mind where Beka is.

Roza’s okay.”

There – there’s a moment of surprise, and then relief.

“Thank you.” Beka responds, then. “I haven’t found any yet.”

“There’s a meadow to the west, and some marshland. Try there.”

He still seems to be some distance away. It’s strange. His voice isn’t quieter than usual, that’s not quite how it works. It’s more like it’s... not as strong? Yuri shakes his head, and focuses on the present.

“That’s all I can do until Beka gets back,” He says.

Eudoxia moans, reminding them both of her presence. She’s lying on the floor now, her body turned towards them. There is blood leaking from the corner of her mouth. A strand of hair is caught in the dribble. Her eyes are still wide, bright with life. Yuri swallows, thickly. He did that to her.

“Need help interrogating the guide?” Roza says, still watching Eudoxia with an unfathomable expression. Her calmness is actually slightly disconcerting. It sounds like a threat. Yuri nudges her foot, trying to get her attention away from the woman slowly bleeding out on the ground.

“For once, I don’t think you’re going to be much help.” He says.

“I can kick.” Roza is adamant.

“You can’t stand.” Yuri points out.

“... fine. I’ll just sit here and listen then.”

Yuri takes a deep breath, and stands up. Eudoxia watches him approach, her eyes flashing like ice catching the sunlight. Her blood is leaking into the ground beneath her, the grass dark and wet underneath her body.

“Just kill me quickly.” She gasps, haltingly. Yuri shudders. A fresh wave of blood pulses between Eudoxia’s fingers and she forces the words out. The arrow is lodged underneath her ribs, but the flow is slow. The worst of the damage will be internal. By the spasming of her muscles, he can tell that she’s already in intense pain. There’s no way to save her now. But her death is hours away yet.

“Yeah, not gonna happen,” he shrugs, trying to seem unbothered. “At least not until you’ve answered a few questions. Like why you wanted me.”

Through her pain. Eudoxia sneers.

“You don’t know?”

Yuri shurgs. He’d assumed she would rather ransom him than kill him, but he’d wanted confirmation. There are holes in that explanation.

“Third borns are fairly expendable in times of peace. Especially now I’m known to be illegitimate. You had a King and a Princess. How much do you really think I’m worth in comparison to that?”

Eudoxia’s fingers twitch. She’s breathing so heavily that the arrow in her gut is moving. Her eyelids flutter.

“Who pays a King’s ransom?”

Yuri considers that. It’s a fair point. As far as he knows, there’s nobody directly related to Otabek, or waiting for his return. At least nobody personally or emotionally invested in his safety. Politically is a different situation; the demand would be measured against more logical factors.

But...

“You threatened to kill two people for me. Two internationally important people. And there were at least fourteen people in your party to share the spoils with.”

“Still think it’s not worth it?” Eudoxia huffs. The laugh becomes a cough, splattering thick, dark blood across the ground. “You’re more of a prize than you think you are. A member of a royal family, with white skin, blonde hair, and green eyes...” she reaches up, brushing his hair out from behind his ear. He flinches away, but not before she catches a glimpse of what she was looking for. “You even have the ears. A perfect specimen. You’d turn a pretty penny. Even if...” she wheezes, even as Yuri leans closer. Her voice is barely more than a whisper now. “Even if you aren’t as powerful as they say could have been.”

Yuri’s mind is racing.

“Powerful?”

Eudoxia spits blood at him. It spatters against his cheek. He wipes it off, hurriedly, and says a quick blessing, just in case. Eudoxia laughs at him, drawing heavy, shallow breaths that rasp in the back of her throat.

“Think I’m cursed? I swore my secrecy before God, and survived.”

“Secrecy?” He pushes. Eudoxia grins. Her teeth are tipped with blood.

“You think I’d break an oath made before God in my dying breath? I value my soul more than that.”

“You were willing to kill people.” Yuri reminds her.

“I never killed anybody.” Eudoxia lets her head fall back, closing her eyes. “Only threatened. Unlike you.” Yuri flinches, surprised by her brazenness. “So this should be easy enough for you. Now, spare my suffering. I have nothing more to tell you.”

“I’m not done asking questions,” Yuri says, standing up. “Who did you swear secrecy to? Some kind of organisation? And why does the colour of my hair make me more valuable? And to who?”

Eudoxia ignores him. Her laboured breathing fills the silence.

Yuri draws his sword, and points it at her neck. At the feeling of the point of it touching her skin, Eudoxia opens her eyes.

“What are you going to do, Yuri? Kill me?” Yuri stays silent. Eudoxia closes her eyes again, calmly. “Don’t waste my time. Be done with it.”

Yuri hesitates. Eudoxia’s neck is bared, her teeth clenched together in pain. She is suffering; suffering because of him.

I’ve found some,” Beka’s voice comes, suddenly, in the back of his head. “I’ll be back soon.”

Yuri starts, and then forces himself to calm down.

“Okay.”

“Roza?”

Yuri checks over his shoulder. Roza is watching him, still perched upright against the log. Evidently thinking he’s double checking with her, she gives a curt nod. Eudoxia’s death sentence.

“Still fine.”

Eudoxia is watching him through one eye, vaguely intrigued.

Yuri takes a deep breath.

“Are you a praying woman?”

“No. Go ahead.”

“Last words?”

Eudoxia smiles, slowly. A drop of blood dribbles from her nose onto her lip. She licks it off. Her fingers wrap around the arrow, and with one sharp yank, she pulls it out. It drops to the floor with her hand. The metal point shines under the crimson coat of blood. She closes her fingers over the ragged wound, and rolls onto her back.

“Stop stalling.”

Yuri nods, once. Then, drawing his sword, he plunges it into her chest. The aim is true; it meets no resistance but her skin. Her body spasms, once, twice. She gasps, a deep, hoarse noise. It rattles through her body as he pulls his sword out. Then she is still.

Yuri steps back, wiping the bloodied sword on his tunic. Then he bends down and picks the arrow up. It’s not barbed – it probably slid out smoothly enough. Even so, the gaping hole in Eudoxia’s stomach is still leaking fluid – not just red now, but dark, and gunky. There are pieces of flesh in it.

With both weapons cleaned and returned to their correct places, he leans down. Death-blind eyes stare skyward, reflecting the blue emptily. With two fingers, Yuri closes them, and folds Eudoxia’s hands over her chest. They are heavy already. Lifeless as the ground beneath his feet.

“Freedom in death,” he says, quietly, and then says a quick prayer.

When he returns to Roza, she gives him a quizzical look.

“What did you do that for?”

“The prayer?”

“Yeah.”

Yuri shrugs.

“Remember Véra?”

“The Widow?”

He looks up, towards the rest of the forest.

“Yeah. I should go and do it for the rest of them too.”

Roza sighs.

“Sure, whatever. Go do your thing. I’ll just sit here. In pain. Alone.”

Yuri looks back at her, and grins.

“If you can complain about it, you’re probably fine.”

 

-

 

When Beka returns, Roza greets him with a shout.

She’s propped up against a log, looking considerably more cheerful than she had before. Yuri has wrapped her wrist tightly, and slung it across her chest. There’s no blood leaking through it. Even so, there’s a small pile of fabric next to her, already cut into strips. And, Otabek assumes, several naked bodies in the wood. Eudoxia is silent. He doesn’t know whether that means she’s dead or not. She’s not a priority.

Yuri takes the nettles immediately, and without gauntlets.

“How does it feel?” Otabek asks, urgently, squatting down beside Roza to inspect the bandaging. She taps his chest, fondly, with her good arm.

“Shove off, I’m fine. Yuri...” she stops, her mouth dropping open. “... is apparently insane.”

Otabek looks up, to see Yuri pick up a nettle leaf, and put it into his mouth. He hums, chewing, apparently unbothered by the fact that the inside of his mouth is being subjected to multiple stinging barbs at once. When he spits the chewed pulp out into a bowl, he turns to Beka.

“Beka, do you know what Patsushya Sumka is?” Otabek shakes his head. Yuri puts another few leaves in his mouth, thinking as he chews. “Shephard’s Purse?” He tries, after spitting.

“No. Sorry.”

“Nettles will have to do then.” He turns to Roza. “Calendula is out of season, and Angelica is too easily confused with several poisonous flowers. And it only grows near rivers anyway.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” She asks, still partially horrified by Yuri’s treatment of the nettles. Settling next to her, Beka allows himself to relax. They won’t be going anywhere for a while.

Yuri is mashing the already-chewed leaf into a further pulp with a little stone. He doesn’t seem to be suffering from being stung at all.

“Georgi,” he says. “He might be a mage, but he’s still a pessimist. His wife died in childbirth. So did the baby. And Georgi wasn’t there. After that, he made us all learn some basic herbal medicine. It’s supposed to be exclusive knowledge for students of magical lore, but there’s no magic required at this level. Georgi says everyone should know it, anyway. Just in case it ever happens again, I suppose.”

He continues mashing the leaves, occasionally chewing a few more and adding them to the mix. His entire posture is completely relaxed, his tone calm.

“I didn’t know that.” Beka says. Yuri shrugs, laying out more stips of cloth across his lap.

“It was a while ago now. I’d only just been squired.” His tone is still startlingly conversational. It’s a tragic story. Perhaps by growing up with it, he’s become desensitised. “None of the Nikiforovs do anything by halves, you know.” He continues. “Georgi threw himself completely into being a husband, and when Anya died, he threw himself back into magic. And now everyone knows him as the best mage in over a century. They’ve all forgotten why.”

“Did he never forgive himself for not being able to save her?” Beka asks, quietly. Yuri starts applying the nettle mixture to the bandages without looking up.

“Oh, it was Yakov’s fault.” Beka almost misses the hardness in Yuri’s voice, but he can feel it - the little shard of bitterness there. He wonders whether Yuri will ever forgive his father. Or whether there is anything redeemable about Yakov. “Called Georgi to court when the whole castle knew that the baby was due. And good mages are few are far between, even in a castle.”

There’s silence for a moment as they digest this.

“Anya’s a pretty name.” Roza says, eventually. “What does it mean?”

“Just ‘grace’. Or ‘gracious’. Depends on how religious her parents were, I suppose.”

He finishes laying out the scraps.

“Okay, storytime’s over. Time to replace your bandages.” Roza stifles a sound that could have been a whimper. Otabek finds himself tensing in sympathy.

“Georgi can take the pain out of things,” Yuri says, conversationally. His voice is steady, reassuring. Like there’s nothing to be worried about. It’s at completely odds to what he’s really feeling – it must be for Roza’s sake. Otabek knows that Yuri can be quiet like this. Open in conversation; thoughtful; calm. Even though it’s been a while (too long, perhaps), it’s not unfamiliar. But he’s never seen it with anyone but himself.

He makes a surprisingly good doctor.

No, not surprisingly. Yuri has always cared a lot; he feels thins strongly. That much, Beka can prove. This is just a channel for it that he hasn’t seen before. Roza seems completely accepting of it, too. This is the calmest he’s seen them interact since they met.

“Discovered that himself,” Yuri continues. “He’s a pretty great mage. Not that I’d ever tell him that, his ego would be unbearable. Not such a great brother, but he means well. Most of the time.”

Roza smirks, despite Yuri pressing the nettle-salved bandages tightly around her wrist.

“Sounds familiar.”

It takes Beka a minute to catch up with the conversation.

“Roza!” He sputters. They both laugh, bright and unexpected. The smile in response can’t be held back.

Everything will be okay, he thinks.

 

-

“Yuri?” Roza says later, when they’ve decided to keep camp for the night.

The day has not been empty; Beka and Yuri had dug graves for and buried the bodies as far down as they could manage. Yuri had filled Otabek in on what Eudoxia had said, but then they’d both run out of breath, and they had not picked up mentally where they’d left off verbally. Not an uncomfortable silence, exactly, but a very present one. It had been hard work though, and by now, the sun is setting.

Yuri looks up from where he’s stirring the broth over the fire.

“Yeah?”

“Why did you come back?”

Yuri taps the spoon on the side of the pot. It’s not an issue they’ve addressed yet. He was actually expecting Beka to ask the question, but he hasn’t. He hasn’t even mentioned it, despite the fact that they’ve spend most of the day working together, and they now have a form of communication that is consistently private from Roza. Not that he’s raised it either, in fairness. It just seems a bit... unimportant. Beka was clearly relieved, even happy that he was back. And so was Yuri. They should probably talk about it. Maybe not with Roza, but. Yeah.

“You were in trouble,” he says, truthfully.

“But how did you know?” Roza presses.

Yuri opens his mouth, and closes it again. Shit, he can’t think of a lie.

“Ah, you’re still covered in blood,” he says, awkwardly, standing up. “There’s a stream over by...”

“Nuh-uh,” Roza interrupts. “That’s suspicious. Something’s up.”

“You do probably need a wash, Roza.” Beka pitches in. “I can help, if you like?”

Roza sighs.

“Okay, so there’s definitely something going on between you two. And I don’t just mean the fucking.” Otabek sputters, and Yuri sniggers at him. “If you don’t tell me what’s going on, I will refuse to recover out of sheer spite.”

“The greatest of all motivators,” Otabek comments, dryly. Roza just glares at him.

“Baiting me is an obvious distraction. I’m not that dumb. Come on, out with it.”

Beka inclines his head.

We should probably tell her, Yura.”

Yuri grins. The idea sidles up to him, sideways, like it knows it might be aggressively rejected.

“What, while she can’t strangle us both at the same time?”

Roza blinks, before her confusion at his apparently unprompted statement is overtaken by her reaction.

“You did not just...”

Yuri can’t help but laugh at her shocked offense. It’s more mocked than anything.

Do you think she’ll guess if we keep doing this?” Beka received the message with the slightest smirk. Yuri’s playing into his sense of humour, he knows he is. He’s complicit already.

“Close your eyes.” Beka’s command is definitely tinted with humour. Yuri obeys, covering his eyes completely with his hands.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” Beka asks, then, “Four.”

Grinning, Yuri responds.

“Four.”

Roza growls.

“What are you two playing at?”

Beka ignores her.

“And now?” He’s enjoying this immensely. “Two.”

“Two,” Yuri repeats.

“And now?” “Seven.”

“Seven.”

Roza laughs then.

“I have no idea what you’re trying to prove. Yuri’s probably just looking under his hands.” She protests. Yuri opens his eyes to find her half-smiling, half-confused.

“Cover my eyes for me then,” he challenges. Roza shakes her head.

“No. Sit back to back.”

Yuri shrugs.

“Nah, you don’t have to believe us.”

Roza frowns, leaning forward.

“Believe what? That you two can talk to each other without speaking?”

On the count of three,” Otabek’s voice is sudden, but welcome. “Clap your hands. Ready? One, two, three.”

The sound reverberates around the clearing, absolutely synchronised.

Yuri bursts out laughing at the look on Roza’s face.

“I’m sure there are less childish ways to prove it, but you didn’t exactly give us much time to prepare.” Otabek says, the smile evident in his voice.

Roza is frowning now, completely disbelieving.

“There’s no fucking way. Absolutely not. You’re kidding me.”

“We’re really not.”

 

-

 

It takes nearly an hour to convince Roza. Most of it includes recounting what had really happened over the past few days, which Beka finds more than a little bit uncomfortable. He lets Yuri do most of the talking. Once dinner is over, there is little left to say.

After a while, Roza simply sits back, shaking her head.

“I think I need some sleep. This is... I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

“Would you have believed us?” Otabek points out. Roza opens her mouth, and then closes it again.

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

She vanishes into her tent without another word.

One of us should sit with her.”

Beka opens his mouth to respond, then realises that that hadn’t been out loud.

Is she not...?” He doesn’t quite finish the sentence. Yuri shuffles a little closer.

There’s always a chance that when she goes to sleep, her body will just... stop trying to heal. It’s not very common, but I have seen it happen before.”

Beka looks up, shocked. Yuri shrugs one shoulder, going back to his dinner. The bowl is tipped just a little further than necessary. Like Yuri’s trying to hide his face behind it.

My mother. Why do you think I was so adamant about staying with you the night after the tournament?”

Beka takes a slow breath.

What am I looking for?”

“Unusually shallow or uneven breathing. If it goes on for too long, call me. If she stops breathing completely, wake her up immediately.”

With a brief nod, Otabek stands up and ducks into Roza’s tent.

 

-

 

Yuri can hear them talking, briefly. It settles quickly, and Roza apparently allows the intrusion, because Beka doesn’t come back out.

The rest of the evening’s tasks are carried out easily enough alone. Before long, Yuri finds himself with nothing else to do but go to bed. He tucks himself in under the blankets, and stokes the fire, keeping warm as best he can. It’s strange. After the argument, he and Beka had slept separately. But they’d still been in the same tent. It feels too empty without him. Even though he’s slept alone for most of his life, suddenly being so again makes it harder to settle.

Wake me when the fire burns out,” he pushes to Beka, half-hoping that it will inspire a conversation.

Okay.”

Yuri stares at the canvas covering of the tent for a while. He must have been thinking, but the moment he realises he’s awake, whatever had been running though his head vanishes. Almost like a dream. Beka will be able to tell that he’s still awake.

Yuri gives up.

“You’re not angry with me.”

Beka is surprised, then fond. Yuri remembers how relieved he had been earlier. None of it makes much sense. It’s too easy a forgiveness. He hasn’t warranted this. He hasn’t even said sorry yet. Well, not to Beka.

I refuse to hold your mistakes against you. Not when you’re willing to learn because of me.”

Yuri’s heart clenches.

Training,” he remembers.

“Training,” Beka echoes. “You have to make mistakes to learn from them, I suppose. I won’t ask you to leave next time. Not knowing that you’d kill fifteen people to save my sister.”

Was it really fifteen? Yuri closes his eyes, and tries not to think about it.

“You should be at least a little upset, regardless.”

“People do not love regardless. They love because.”

“Because what?”

“Because you came back. Because you chose me when I couldn’t choose you. Because you didn’t blame me for my decision. Because of how relived I was when you did come back, and not just because you saved us. Because you were angry that they’d hurt Roza, and not on my behalf. Because you care more than you want to, and you protect the people you love. Because you begrudgingly respect your brother, and you’re angry on his behalf. Because...”

“Okay, you can stop now. Dumbass.”

Damn Otabek and his absolute shamelessness. Yuri just... doesn’t know how to deal with affection when it’s laid quite so bare and unrestricted. It’s never been like that before. It feels like something tight and happy in his chest, right where his heart is, even as his cheeks flame with a blush.

Love you too, I guess.”

Otabek’s response is tinted with amusement.

“Ever the romantic.”

“You’re enough of a sap for both of us.”

“It’s a burden I’m willing to bear.”

Yuri rolls over, tucking his smile into the blanket. He feels much more settled now. Yesterday, this had seemed an impossible dream. Now, he appreciates it that much more for being real. Not a lost hope or imagined scenario. They can fix this.

It’s probably inappropriate to be quite so happy. He’s just killed several people, Roza is in a lot of pain, and they still have a war to face. The thought doesn’t make much difference. Otabek, too, is practically glowing with contentment, although the edge of anxiety for Roza is much more present.

They’re not done. But this might not be as impossible as Yuri thought it was. They could be facing much, much worse.

Beka?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry.”

It might be the fire that’s warm, or it might be the overwhelming, almost tidal wave of emotion that flows over him.

“I’ll wake you when the fire goes out,” Beka promises.

The blankets are warm now, from his body heat and the fire. The nest, though still empty, is more comfortable. Closing his eyes, Yuri relaxes.

Then a thought occurs to him.

Is there anything odd about my ears?”

It takes a moment for Beka to reply.

In what way?”

“I don’t know. Anything.”

“They’re quite small, I suppose. Why do you ask?”

“One of the things Eudoxia mentioned when she was telling me why I was valuable. She said I had perfect ears.”

“I mean it’s not the first thing I’d say when telling people what you look like. But it is a distinguishing feature.”

“Huh, well. Thanks anyway.”

“You do have lovely ears.”

“Beka.”

“Everything about you is lovely.”

“Beka, ssssh. I’m trying to sleep.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, was I flustering you?”

“SHUT. UP.”

He’s smiling anyway. It’s silly, but it’s nice. Contentment curls in him, tucking itself in like it hadn’t before. Like he’s starting to believe Beka. Like it’s here to stay.

Moments later, Yuri is asleep.

Chapter Text

Roza does not sleep well. She’s in too much pain to do so. Yuri listens to her tossing and turning until dawn. Occasionally, she dozes, but it’s interrupted. More than once he has a scare over her breathing, only to realise that she’s dreaming. Finally, when the sky begins to lighten in preparation to welcome the sun, Roza sighs, and opens her eyes.

Yuri is watching her.

“Morning,” he says, quietly. Beka is soundly and deservedly asleep in the next tent, and ideally Yuri doesn’t want to wake him until his breakfast is waiting for him.

Roza doesn’t say anything. Making a mental note to keep a watchful eye on her today, Yuri shuffles closer.

“How much pain are you in? More or less than yesterday?”

“I don’t know,” Roza whispers, and closes her eyes. The stump of her wrist remains buried under the blankets.

“Show me.”

Reluctantly, she withdraws her arm from the bedding, and places her elbow in Yuri’s outstretched palm. Still she refuses to look at it, or at him, keeping her eyes determinedly towards the ground.

“We’ll need to wash it again,” Yuri says, “but it looks like the bleeding’s stopped. We’ll do that before breakfast so I have time to wash and dry the old bandages.”

Roza nods, once, curtly.

“Get out so I can get dressed.”

The rest of the morning goes to plan. Roza is understandably subdued, but she does at least make an effort. She washes by herself, out of view but not hearing on the campsite, a compromise reached in whispered argument. Occasionally Yuri hears her hiss in pain, but nothing more. When she comes back, he has already washed and strung up the old bandages to dry, and prepared the nettle mixture fresh. There are oats boiling in a pot over the fire. Roza does not comment on how much longer than usual the simple task had taken her, but he sees her glare at him as he stirs the pot. It’s nothing he is willing to address. 

Re-bandaging is a smoother process than yesterday, partially because he can see what he’s doing more clearly, and partially because Roza flinches much less. It still hurts – he can still see the shard of bone in the wound, and he’s not deaf to her sharp inhales when he tightens the wrapping – but she’s quiet enough not to wake Beka.

She does also attempt to eat breakfast. At first, Yuri considers offering to help, but it only takes one hand to lift the bowl, and she steadies it against the inside of her right elbow. It’s awkward, at first, but it’s a good sign that she’s adapting so quickly. The deep, furrowed frown that looks almost like she’s trying not to hold back tears of frustration, less so. Not knowing what else do to, Yuri leaves her to her silence, and goes to wake Beka.

 

-

 

Otabek tends not to think of Yuri as a tender person. He cares a lot. But it usually manifests itself in different ways. Not necessarily shouting. It is quite often shouting, but what he really means is that Yuri’s passionate. Nothing is ever half-hearted. Which is why, swimming up towards consciousness, it takes him several seconds to realise that Yuri has just woken him by kissing his forehead.

He must seem shocked, because Yuri turns his head, the frown hiding the blush.

You looked... I should’ve just shaken you.

Beka sits up, and leans in to kiss his cheek. He would have kissed his temple, but he can’t reach.

“Good morning to you too,” he says. Yuri relaxes. Otabek very carefully doesn’t mention remembering seeing Yuri’s mother do that in his memories. He doesn’t need much looking after, but he’s grateful for Yuri’s unexpected gentleness, especially after yesterday. Grateful enough not to mention it to Yuri and potentially get himself kicked. Or for it to never happen again. There are many, many worse awakenings.

He’d like to take Yuri in his arms, and hold him there for a long time. They hardly had time to reassure themselves, last night, that Yuri is back to stay. Otabek had been acutely aware of the emptiness of the tent, just as Yuri had been. He knows when not to push it, though. And Yuri has more important things to do, this morning.

“Breakfast’s ready."  With a brief smile, Yuri vanishes out of the yurt, leaving Beka to get dressed.

Otabek does not ask how Roza is doing. If there had been anything wrong, Yuri would have mentioned it.

 

-

 

Roza is recovered enough to be grumpy, and Yuri’s regretting insisting that she sit up on Karzhau with him rather than with Beka.

“It’s not reassuring when you check my bandages for infection every few hours,” Roza informs him, the next time they stop to do exactly that.

“Would you rather I didn’t check and let an infection fester?” He snaps.

It takes them nearly half a day to reach the town. Thankfully, though there isn’t an inn, there is a small farmstead willing to let them stay in a room in exchange for some hard labour. It’s a stupidly cheap exchange, especially considering that even though all three of them have to squish into one room, the children who usually occupy it are having to share with their parents to accommodate them. They’re not doing badly for themselves, though – none of the huts in Nikolai’s village have more than one room.

It’s only once they’ve settled the horses in and he’s started to change Roza’s bandages again that the mother comes to them and suggests calling the medicine man. Then Yuri realises why they’re being treated with such kindness. He’s thankful that the family only speak a smattering of common, and since inviting them in, have resorted to translating through Yuri. If Roza knew she was getting more special treatment, she’s been even more upset.

Yuri’s not an idiot. Perhaps he wouldn’t be paying this much attention to her state of mind if she wasn’t his ‘patient’, but now that he is, he sees it. Every wince when they had to slow the horses for her, her face when Yuri had forbidden her from riding Nastya alone... she hates having special allowances made for her. He can’t help but wonder why.

He turns the woman’s offer down as politely as he can. The medicine man will not be necessary. She bows out, taking Beka with her to chop some firewood.

Roza seems relived that they’re gone.

“How is it?” Yuri asks, as he has done every time they’ve changed the bandages today, and a hundred times in between.

“Fine,” Roza says, dully, looking over her shoulder at the wall instead of at what Yuri’s doing, as she has every time he’s asked. Then, out of pattern, she adds; “Unbearable.”

Yuri snorts out a laugh.

“Pretty sure it can’t be both.”

Roza doesn’t smile. Unable to fill the silence, Yuri lets it run, stretching out between them as he prepares the paste and lays the bandages out again.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Roza says, abruptly, as he starts re-wrapping the bandages.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to.” Yuri says, “Why?”

“I can still feel my hand. My right hand.”

She tips her head back against the wall. Yuri, one hand around her wrist, feels her sudden movement – under her skin, all her muscles tighten, and she hisses in pain.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Yuri counters.

“Not until today.”

They’re quiet for a moment.

“Maybe your body’s just confused,” Yuri says. “It’s not like you had any time to prepare for this.”

“What, like the pain isn’t enough to make me realise I’m missing a part?”

She tries to make it sound aggressive, but her voice wobbles. He doesn’t comment on it.

“There’s a strand of paganism that says people that die too early leave an imprint on the world until their natural death day.” Yuri says, “If that’s what you mean by ghosts.”

“So I wasn’t supposed to lose my hand?”

Yuri shakes his head.

“No. It holds that all forms of death, like starvation, disease, or especially murder, are before your intended death day. So nobody’s supposed to die of anything but old age.”

“And people who don’t end up as... Zalozhyne?” She stumbles over the pronunciation a little, but it’s definitely the right word. Yuri looks up, impressed, though a little surprised.

“Where’d you learn that?”

“It’s what you called the Widows.”

Yuri doesn’t have an answer to that. He finishes the bandages, and then stands up. Roza turns away from him. Her hair is a mess – she hasn’t re-braided it since last night, and it’s obviously slept on. There are bags under her eyes, and her skin is pale, her forehead constantly creased into a frown.

Yuri wonders if he looks just as bad.

“You haven’t brushed your hair,” he says.

“Neither have you,” she retorts, not bothering to look at him.

“I did. The wind just hates me.”

She doesn’t bother to respond.

“I can re-do your braid if you’re too tired.” He offers, quietly.

She turns to him, full attention on him for the first time since they started this conversation. He braces himself, but the shouting doesn't come. She's acerbic, but she doesn't raise her voice. 

“You know how to plait? I thought you just wore your hair down because you were used to servants doing it for you.”

Yuri resists the urge to roll his eyes. Roza has made a lot of assumptions about him.

Everyone knows how to plait. I just like having it loose. Especially since that woman in the village started yelling about me being a vengeful spirit.”

Roza blinks.

“Wait, that was because of the hair? I thought it was because you made her dog bite her.”

Yuri grins. That woman had been an asshole. All he’d done was give the dog a bit of courage to do what it had wanted to do its whole life anyway.

“That too. So?”

“So?” Roza echoes.

“Do you want my help? Or shall I go and stand on the other side of this very, very small room and pretend I have something better to do?”

Roza’s hair is thicker than his, and coarser. It holds together better, but the tangles are almost impossible to get out. He teases at it slowly, like Lilia used to, and tries not to pull.

Roza doesn’t complain. She’s actually almost completely silent, staring at the wall as Yuri works his fingers through her hair. He’s not one for making small talk unless absolutely necessary, but Roza’s not a quiet person. It’s more disconcerting than Beka’s thoughtful silences, because it’s so unusual.

And thinking about Beka makes him wonder. They'll have put him to work by now.

“How’s it going, farmer?”

Beka’s reply is instantaneous.

“This is a very cheap room.”

Yuri smiles, and leaves Beka to it. He can’t exactly get out of breath talking like this, but it’s better not to distract somebody doing heavy work with an axe. One casualty is more than enough.

His heart stutters a little at the thought of Otabek being injured again. He forces the thought down. It’s occurred to him several times already today; what would have happened if he’d arrived any later, or not at all. He hadn’t turned Karzhau around immediately, that moment in the meadow when he’d realised something was wrong. He’d hesitated, wondered whether he should have left them to deal with it themselves, like he’d promised he would. That had cost Roza her hand. And if he had waited any longer...

Death by apathy.

They’ve been through this before. Yuri had known the risks when he signed up for this, although he might not have considered them fully. But it was different then. Yuri hadn’t been quite so... aware of his feelings. And certainly he was nowhere near as accepting of them. Beka had helped a lot with that. Beka has helped a lot with everything.

“Will you bite my head off if I ask how your hand is again?” He asks Roza, eventually.

“Assuming you mean my missing one, and not the one right here, it’s somewhere on a mountain,” Roza says, dryly, “probably buried under a number of dead bodies and slowly rotting.”

“Well thank you for answering my next question for me.”

“Which was?”

“Are you coping?”

Roza is silent for a moment. Yuri begins the plait, twisting the hair together. She is silent for so long that when she speaks again, he nearly jumps.

“I don’t know what we’re going back for, anymore.” She says, quietly. Yuri stops, and lowers his hands.

“What do you mean?”

Roza runs her hand along the edge of the table, watching her fingers finding all the knots in the wood.

“The army has three cohorts, all mounted. You can’t ride and shoot, so we have nobody to lead the archers. I can’t carry a spear anymore, so we don’t have an infantry. That’s two out of three Jaghuns, leaderless. Even if we change tactics, we’ll be relying on people who don’t know what they’re doing, and who we don’t know if we can trust.”

Yuri undoes all of his plait progress so far, and starts from the top again. He pulls, this time, and it forms neater and tighter.

“Ow,” Roza complains.

“We might not have to go to war.” Yuri says, giving up on finding a better way to broach the subject.

“Are you kidding?” Roza exclaims, trying to turn her head to look at him.

“Hold still!” Yuri grabs her head and turning it back to the wall. “No, I’m not. Enough people have died already. There’s got to be another way to stop this without killing any more.”

“We tried,” Roza hisses, “And Alyona died. My parents died. It was a more deadly peace treaty than nearly two decades of actual fighting.”

“We might not have a choice.” Yuri says, and tugs the final few strands of hair into place. Roza is silent, but tries to stand up as he ties the braid.

“Hold still,” Yuri repeats, and starts winding the plait up into the bottom of her head.

“What are you doing?”

“Putting it out of the way.” He says.

Roza has been the voice of reason this whole trip. She’s been a driving force; she was the one who came to get them in the first place. It starts and ends with her. Yuri doesn’t know what will happen if she loses purpose, but he’s not about to let her just give up. Not now. Not when they’ve got this far.

“Of what? My spear?”

“Yes.”

He lets go.

Roza finally turns to face him, her expression caught between disgusted and disbelieving.

“It’s a one-handed weapon. You have one hand.” He says.

Comprehension dawns. Roza frowns, poking him in the chest.

“The wrong hand.” She reminds him, demonstrably.

“You weren’t born wielding a weapon. You learned once. You can learn again.”

He thought it was going to take more convincing than that. But Roza looks down at her left hand – spreads her palm, wiggles her fingers – and says,

“Okay.”

Surprised, Yuri doesn’t opens his mouth to respond, but find he has nothing to say.

“Well. Good.” He settles on eventually, trying to sound encouraging.

“But not today,” Roza says, standing up. “Maybe tomorrow, or the day after. Tonight, let’s just... relax.”

Yuri nods, slowly. Putting too much strain on her right now, mentally or physically, is a bad idea. Having a goal, though, will help. He hopes.

“Beka’s probably done with the firewood,” Yuri agrees. “Maybe he’s waiting for us in the kitchen?”

 

-

 

Evidently Yuri hadn’t been emphatic enough about them not needing the medicine man. A middle-aged man with an unwashed beard and a well-meaning smile sits at the kitchen table. Otabek is trying and failing to tell the man that he doesn’t speak a word of his language – he seems unbothered, chatting away regardless.

Their host stands and introduces them, and he’s immediately distracted. The man comes towards them with a hobbling gait, which Yuri never takes as a good sign in a doctor. Georgi is always fighting fit, and when he’s not, he refuses to practice in case his judgement is impaired.

He doesn’t realise that he’s put himself inbetween the man and Roza, however, until Otabek calls him out on it.

“What are you doing, Yura?”

Of course, it’s incredibly rude not to trust a medicine man, but Yuri doesn’t trust this one. His teeth are falling out.

“Ah, let me see the young lady,” the man smiles. To his credit, he seems perfectly lucid. Yuri has met too many of these men over the years who do nothing but drink and throw random herbs at people. “I’m sure I can help her! And you, too. Your nose is...”

“I’m already doing everything I can,” Yuri cuts him off, and then because none of them will know any better, lies through his teeth. “I’ve just begun training as a mage.”

The man seems unperturbed. He leans on the table, looking past Yuri at Roza.

“Training? I’ve had nearly twenty years of experience. This knowledge has been passed down through generations! My grandmother knew what she was doing. Never lost a baby in her life.”

Yuri blinks, slowly, and processes that.

“Good for her. Thankfully, my friend is missing a hand, not a birth assistant.”

The man shrugs.

“Nothing a good bit of poultice won’t fix. I recommend a blend of hot chicken blood and excrement, applied...”  

“No.” Yuri hates these people. Absolutely hates them. The man, already bristling at having his previously unquestioned authority challenged, and by an outsider no less, loses the last of his easy demeanour.

“If you’re one of God’s men, we have no truck with that here. Praying never solved anything.”

 

-

 

Otabek has no idea what’s going on, but it’s escalating fast. The two of them barely even have time to raise their voices before Yuri has practically picked the man up by his belt, and dragged him to the door. Their hosts are looking horrified – their children are giggling behind their parents' legs. The medicine man is blustering, red in the face and helpless against Yuri’s brute strength and unyielding stubbornness.

Otabek coughs, just the once, and stands up.

“Sorry to interrupt.” He doesn’t even have to ask. Yuri turns to him, not bothering to let the man go first, and points to Roza.

“He wants to rub chicken shit on her arm.” Otabek tilts his head, considering. It is, undeniably, a truly awful idea. Trying to persuade Roza to allow it would keep the man busy for several hours, and also potentially end in injury. But their hosts are pleading. The words might be lost, but the meaning is clear enough. 

“Can we agree to let him stay without,” he pauses, “‘treating’ her? I’d rather not offend our hosts.”

There's a moment of hesitation. A weighting up, as Yuri looks from their hosts faces, to Roza, and back. Then he growls, and turns to hiss something very threatening in the man’s face. And, reluctantly, he lets him go.

The man’s name is Dmitriy, apparently, and he stays for dinner. Yuri fumes the whole time, but at least Roza seems a little more with it. She might only be paying attention because of Yuri’s temper, but after the day’s mood, Beka will take anything. There’s a horrible mix of relief and anxiety settled in his stomach that even Yuri’s reassurances can’t shift. It helps that Yuri seems largely unbothered, though. Beka’s felt his panic now, knows what it would be like if something was wrong. Well, worse.

“Peasants,” Yuri grumbles. “They’re so fucking...” he kicks the table leg.

Beka picks up his beer before it can slosh everywhere. Thankfully, their table is actually an appropriated workbench, because there’s too many of them to fit around the family’s usual table, so nothing else is disturbed.

“It’s not their fault, Yura.” He tries, carefully. He speaks lowly, quiet, despite the fact that nobody besides Roza can tell what he’s saying. Yuri’s frustration is fizzing away underneath the surface, and on more than one occasion Beka has attempted reason only to be met with it.

“I know,” Yura growls, “It was the same in my grandpa’s village. Like sure, they don’t exactly have libraries, but come on. Who thinks rubbing actual shit in a wound is a good idea? And you can explain otherwise until you’re blue in the face, but they’ll never fucking listen.”

He tries anyway. After they’ve had a few beers, and the man tries to insist on getting a look at Roza’s arm, Yuri lays into him. Unfortunately, Otabek has no idea what’s going on and is denied most of the entertainment of it, until Yuri collapses back onto the benches, practically screaming with frustration.

“I was trying to explain monthly cycles, Roza, and now he thinks you’re a fucking werewolf. A WEREWOLF. He’s got a wife! And two kids! He must be living in complete denial!”

Dmitriy, apparently taking this as a victory, wanders off home, looking pleased with himself. And, somehow, completely unbothered by his own diagnosis.

“Roza the Werewolf is free to run another day.” Otabek observes, watching him go. Roza elbows him in the side, but she’s smiling.

“They’re all going to be dead before Christmas,” Yuri buries his palms in his eyes and moans.

“Buck up,” Roza nudges him in the shoulder with her knee. “They’ve made it this far.”

 

-

 

Yuri remains despondent, and mildly pissed off, for most of the evening. Otabek would have tried to do something about it, but Roza had been very emphatic about sleeping between them when all three of them shared a room. Which also does not improve Yuri’s mood.

He keeps rubbing his nose.

“Can we do anything about the sunburn?” Beka asks, when Roza goes to relieve herself. Yuri is trying to wash his face, and wincing every time the warm water touches his nose.

“Not at the moment. Better to leave it, now.”

“Do you want to use my water? It’s cooled off.”

Yuri snorts.

“Depends how clean it is.”

He lets Beka clean it for him anyway, resting his chin in Beka’s hand and keeping his eyes closed as he pads gently at the worst of the peeling skin with a wad of cloth, dripping cold water onto the worst of it.

Roza walks back in on them, and sighs, very pointedly lying down on the middle mat. There is no bed, only a chair, a table, and rush mats on the floor, to which they have added their own blankets.

Beka kisses Yuri’s forehead when he’s done, just because he can. When Yuri is this close, the temptation is always there. His eyes fly open, the shock quickly passing into embarrassment. Roza, however, has very determinedly turned her back on them. Beka had been paying attention; the kiss was for Yuri only.

“Sap.”

There’s a sight shine to Yuri’s eyes. Otabek doesn’t mention it.

“I know.”

He goes back to his own bed.

 

-

 

At the very least, the next morning Roza insists that she feels considerably better, and true to her word, adapts easily enough to riding one-handed. She used to ride without reins, so it’s not so far a leap. The accomplishment is more that she’s well enough to sit upright on her own. If she notices that Yuri and Beka are flanking her a little more closely than they usually would, she doesn’t mention it. Thankfully, she seems steady enough. While the ride is a little more subdued than Otabek is used to, it’s uneventful, too. And he can’t be ungrateful for that after the nightmare that has been the past few days.

They’re descending through the foothills now, towards the sea. They had entered the forest before the cloud rose, but it doesn’t occur to Otabek that they haven’t seen the view yet. It’s Yuri who stops first. They’re in the path of an avalanche. A gap in the woods, cleared by rockfall, exposes the sky for the first time, along with the land stretching away below them into the sea. It’s a gorgeous view – this side of the mountains hasn’t seen any snowfall yet, and the oranges and browns of autumn are bright, shining like embers in the weak sunlight. The mountains above them reflect, grey and white, in the deep, dark blue of the sea, cut across by the sun catching the waves, making the ocean sparkle.

“What is...” Yuri trails off, then his eyes widen in recognition. “Is that the ocean? Is that what the ocean looks like?” He demands.

Otabek could kiss him. The completely undisguised wonder, the eager curiosity, will not last. Yuri, for all his vigour and venom, is innocent of the wider world. He will not be so forever. Otabek wishes he could still see such everyday things with such enthusiasm. For a while, at least, though Yuri, he can.

“You’ve never seen it before?” Roza asks, only passingly curious. Even so, it’s enough to make Yuri close off immediately, snapping;

“Well duh. I’ve barely left the castle grounds.”

Roza doesn’t snap back like she usually would. She just smiles.

“Wait until you see the beach then. Oh, and the waves. And the ship! Nothing can describe it. And once we get out onto the actual sea...” she grins, “Ah, you’re going to love it!”

And Beka remembers that Roza, too, barely left their castle in her childhood, and probably clearly remembers the first time she saw the ocean.

Yuri slowly, visibly, relaxes. The frown fades, his eyebrows lift, his shoulders sit back a bit. He’s not quite smiling, but there’s a tentative hopefulness there.

“Yeah?” His tone is still wary.

“I hope we see doplhins!” Roza says, happily. “Or whales! We saw one the size of the boat last time, and it had a baby too! They swam alongside us for miles. They’re so beautiful. Even if you’ve seen drawings... oh, they’ll never do them justice.”

Unwilling to interrupt, Beka simply listens. They move on from the view, much to Yuri’s reluctance, but their conversation continues. It’s hard not to be too pleased by this development. Yuri and Roza are both easily aggravated; quick to snap. Quick to pull up barriers, pull back into themselves. It’s like an overactive defence tactic; to attack first. To lash out at anything even mildly threatening. It’s not a trait he triggers very often himself, perhaps. But together, they’re a storm waiting to happen.

Underneath that, they’re both people he not only respects and admires, but loves. It’s a relief to be spared the bickering, but it’s more than that. It’s a blessing to be able to watch them discover the best of each other.

Roza tips her head back, throwing her plait over her shoulder as she laughs. Yuri’s eyes are sparkling. In the dappled sun, he is radiant. Otabek could watch them forever.

“...could run in the family. He saved his whole boat from sirens, once. Right, Beka?” Roza turns and grins at him, then turns back to Yuri. “Isabella told me about it.”

Otabek blinks at her. Somewhere along the way, he’d stopped listening to the conversation.

“Ah, sorry. I wasn’t listening.”

“What?” Roza feigns indignation. “As punishment, I suppose I’ll have to tell Yuri exactly how you did it.”

Otabek hesitates.

“What did Isabella tell you?”

Roza shrugs.

“That she heard some kind of song, and the next thing she knew, she was hanging over the edge of the boat and Jean-Jacques was holding on to her ankle.” The day Yuri finds out that Roza only calls JJ that to annoy him is the day Beka writes to the King of Candis and warns him against ever visiting them again. “And that the siren under her was looking a little worse for wear.”

Otabek can feel the blush rising under his skin.

“Ah. That one.” Roza is smirking, ominously. Otabek coughs. “It’s the most... unusual way I’ve ever defended anyone.”

Yuri is enjoying Beka’s discomfort far too much. He’s smirking, now, although his curiosity is piqued.

“Wait, so what happened? What did you do?”

turning his eyes to the sky, Otaben surrenders to his fate.

“I put them off their dinner. By throwing up on them.”

Roza bursts out laughing. Yuri’s eyes widen.

“Beka you didn’t.”

Otabek sighs.

“I didn’t intend to. Seasickness. Isabella’s never let me forget it.”

Yuri is laughing now too. The smile, against his will, tickles Beka’s cheek. It’s hard not to. It’s a very silly story. Sirens are a known danger of the sea, however. The situation could have ended very differently.

“We were lucky I was immune to the song,” he says, more seriously, when the laughter dies down. “I may not have been much use with a sword, but at least I didn’t try and throw myself overboard.”

Roza shrugs.

“Yeah, well, Yuri’s probably going to be safe. They didn’t get me either.”

Otabek processes that. He hadn’t known that Roza has encountered sirens too. Before he can ask about it, however, Yuri poses a question.

“I didn’t know you could be immune to things like that.” His tone is considered, but intrigued.

Otabek shrugs.

“The pod we encountered was all female. Until just now, I assumed it was a sexual thrall, and therefore I was discounted based on preferences.”

Yuri nods, slowly, but Roza disagrees.

“No, I think our lot were mixed. Some of them definitely didn’t have tits, but I don’t know how fish gender works. Maybe they have in-betweens like we do, too. I’ve always just thought of them as animals. If not, then it’s probably a family thing. We’re just lucky.”

“Animals who speak common,” Beka hums. “It’s a shame they kill so many people. They’d be fascinating to study.”

Roza sighs.

“You have a death wish.” She says, “Anyway, Yuri, if we do see any, it looks like you have at least one person to defend you. Although they do throw people back sometimes. Usually the ugly ones. Maybe you’d be safe after all.”

She’s teasing, of course she is, but for a moment, Otabek tenses. Yuri, however, has to qualms about giving as good as he gets.

“Maybe that’s why they didn’t affect you, then.”

Roza mock-gasps, and goes to shove him. Yuri dodges easily, sidestepping Karzhau out of the way, with a grin.

“I thought you liked my face!” Otabek protests, mostly to exasperate Roza. She rolls her eyes. Even though Yuri laughs, he doesn’t bite.

“I am not stroking your ego just because the sirens don’t want to eat you.” He declares.

Anyway,” Roza interrupts, before it can go any further. “Dolphins are friendlier.” She launches into a monologue about her favourite sea creatures. Yuri watches her, pretending to listen, but his voice is in Otabek’s head.

“I like more than just your face.”

“The highest of compliments. Also, I know. I was teasing.”

“I know. But, you know. I’m trying.”

Otabek smiles. He loves Yuri so much. This cautious affection, the openness... everything. Everything that Yuri is, everything he has shown him so far. Everything.

He doesn’t say that. He doesn’t need to.

“Perhaps you should listen to Roza. She might quiz you on this later.”

 

-

 

Otabek was not aware that Yuri had agreed to help Roza start training again. He doesn’t really mind; he’s quite happy to watch. They are taking shorter days, now, so they finish eating and setting up before sunset. For once, he has a chance to get the dombra out again. The travellers, seeing how attached to the instrument he became, had gifted it to him in thanks. It had waited in a saddlebag ever since.

It takes a little while to adjust it back to the right pitch, but even though he’s out of practice, he’s got the ear for it. He strings through a few half-remembered songs as Roza and Yuri set up a rough target and practice the stances. Eventually, he gets around to Yuri’s song. No, not Yuri’s, his father taught him first. When did it become Yuri’s?

Slightly surprised at himself, he starts paying a little more attention to what they’re doing. It’s an odd sort of setup. Yuri doesn’t seem to know much about how to use a spear. His capacity is one of moral support only; Roza explains to him the various components of the stance, talks through the adaptations for her new balance, and practices her grip and thrust.

Whenever she seems frustrated by her lack of strength or dexterity in her left arm, Yuri has an answer. He devises some new stretches and exercises, spares a few choice words of encouragement, and even, once, makes a very bad joke about being able to take on the world single-handedly. Something in it works, though, even if Roza laughs out of surprise rather than any real amusement.

Even so, she tires eventually. Wandering back towards the fire, she flips the spear just as easily with her left hand as she used to with her right, and plants it in the ground beside her tent.

Otabek looks up, surprised, and wondering if she realises what she just did. Going by her easy smile, she does.

“Your turn then,” she says, dumping herself down next to him.

“Oh come on,” Yuri follows her, standing on the far side of the fire and crossing his arms. “I thought I was finished.”

“You’re barely done anything, actually.” Roza points out. Yuri sighs, but Otabek has an idea.

“We haven’t duelled yet, Yura. This meadow is perfect for it.” He stands up. “And I think we might be able to use this.”

Yuri, having opened his mouth to protest, shuts it again.

“Oh? How?”

“Draw your sword, and I’ll show you.”

That is, apparently, all it takes. Neither of them is wearing armour, but that’s fine. Otabek has no intention of hurting him. Just... demonstrating.

Standing opposite Yuri, preparing to duel, is more exhilarating than he expected it to be. Of course, this was all he’d wanted at first, but it’s become so much more. Now he knows Yuri properly. He’d expected to be less affected by duelling in so casual a setting, but it’s done the opposite. It’s focused everything down to just the two of them. There are no stakes here, nobody watching or judging them. They’re not even going to fight properly.

And Otabek’s heart is racing.

Yuri has tied his hair up for the first time in weeks, sweeping blonde strands out of his eyes. He narrows them at Otabek, drawing his sword, setting his stance. His tunic ripples in the slight breeze. His determination is unwavering, a solid presence in Beka’s head.

“Would you do the honours, Roza?” He requests, politely.

“Sure,” she yawns. “Ready?” Yuri nods, just once, just barely. His eyes flicker over Otabek’s body, taking in his stance, analysing him. It makes the hairs on the back of Beka’s neck stand up. He smiles, and nods back.

“Begin!”

Yuri swings immediately, but Beka is dodging first, already out of the way of the blade before it comes anywhere near him, and dancing back with his own. Yuri responds easily, his movements fluid and graceful. Otabek had remembered how elegant Yuri’s fighting was, but he hadn’t remembered what he looked like; only what he’d thought of it.

Yuri is beautiful. His eyes flash behind his blade, his body moving as if dancing, not fighting. Light-footed, strong, and fast. But not as fast as Beka. He parries, dodges, and makes an effort not to attack. His sword is just always exactly where it needs to be, just half a second before Yuri’s gets there.

“How are you doing this?”

Yuri’s frustration is beginning to show, if not in his fighting, then in his concentration.

“Listen,” Beka responds, and dodges another thrust just a second too fast.

Yuri stops, suddenly.

“Are you... reading what I’m going to do next?” He’s disbelieving.

Otabek smiles.

“Listen,” he repeats, and very carefully thinks about exactly what he’s going to do next. It’s not a projection, it’s just a thought. He swings, and Yuri steps out of the way, just a second too fast.

His grin spreads, slowly. It just shows his teeth. Yuri is a warrior; a whirlwind; a forest fire; and Beka’s just given away his secret.

“Huh,” Yuri says, titling his head on one side. His hair, coming loose, falls over one eye. “Interesting.”

He swings. Otabek responds by ducking, rolling away. It’s an unnecessarily energetic dodge, but Yuri is following him before he’s even moved.

Aha.

After that, everything blurs. Otabek has no time to focus on anything but the fight. The block, parry, thrust pattern, the sheer adrenalin that is carrying him through. Occasionally, he catches a glimpse of Yuri behind the sword, but mostly, it’s steel, the clash and scrape of steel in his ears, the sunset catching in the blade, the warmth of the handle and it’s hard bite and he swings again, again. Neither of them can get a lead. Every swing is pre-guessed, already reacted to, they’re already moving on. There is no gap to find. Swing melds into swing, a never-ending dance, like this has been choreographed.

And then one of them stumbles. Afterwards, Otabek isn’t sure which of them it is. A rough patch under their feet, a trip, and the shock of it jars them both out of it.

Yuri steps back, breathing heavily. His eyes are wild with adrenalin. His hair is a mess, his sunburn even brighter in the evening light.

Otabek wants to kiss him.

He smiles.

“What the hell was that?” Roza says. She’s standing up, her eyes wide with shock. “Holy shit, was that magic?”

Yuri laughs, suddenly, sheathing his sword.

“I’m not a mage, Roza,” he shrugs. “But being able to read someone’s mind definitely has its benefits.”

“No shit,” Roza shakes her head. “Remind me to stand behind you both if we ever end up in battle together.”

“If?” Otabek asks, trepidation creeping up on him. She shrugs one shoulder, dismissive.

“Well, you never know. Maybe we won’t have to fight. But if we do.”

She walks back to the fire, and sits back down. Yuri follows, letting his hair down. The statement, however, has left Otabek stranded.

The evening has been full of surprises.

 

-

 

Despite the exercise, none of them are particularly tired. They sit around the fire as the sun sets, sometimes talking, sometimes silent. It’s comfortable.

Yuri is partway through a sentence when he stops, suddenly, distracted. He holds his hand up in front on his face. There’s a tiny little bug on his finger.

“Fireflies!”

Yuri smiles. The little bug on his finger flickers, as if in recognition. Yes, it glows. Yes, I am a firefly, tiny wings fluttering.

The meadow grass is thick and deep. Though the sharp, fresh green has leaked with the sunset, it’s not fully dark yet. It will be, soon, away from the campfire. But Yuri has an idea.

They have hashed themselves a flat clearing in the long grass in which to camp. He stands, walks to the edge of the thick grass, and turns. The firefly alights from his finger, wandering up towards the sky.

Spreading his arms, Yuri takes one step backwards, and falls.

Otabek jumps up. But Yuri does not hit the ground. He vanishes. One firefly has suddenly become a thousand. The meadow is awash with light, and Yuri is invisible, in the centre of the cloud. Beka can hear him laughing, and relaxes.

Roza, beside him, breathes a gasp of disbelief.

“Did he summon those?”

Beka watches the cloud of tiny insects for a moment, contemplating. Yuri’s connection is fuzzy, somehow, like there’s a mist between them. He’s visible now though, the fireflies gathered above him, rather than around him. Their light shines down on his upturned face, casting his features in a warm, flickering glow. He’s smiling. Watching them dance.

And dance they do. Otabek has never seen animals move like this. Like a flock of birds at sunset, they move as one, and yet there is more of a pattern to it than that. They are an almost perfect circle, like a cartwheel, with Yuri as the hub.

“I don’t know,” Beka says, honestly, not wanting to look away, “He’s definitely controlling them.”

The circle becomes a spiral, descending towards Yuri’s outstretched hand. They hang, still, and for a second they could be stars in the sky. The far edge of the forest is forgotten. Yuri is touching the universe. Then he moves, and the spell is broken.

“I thought he said he wasn’t a mage!” Roza hisses to him, over the whirring of a thousand tiny wings.

“He’s not.” Otabek keeps his voice quiet. The last thing he wants to do is interrupt. Yuri seems to have forgotten that they’re there completely. His eyes are closed. Flowing from his outstretched hand, the fireflies wrap themselves around him like a blanket. Collecting on his legs, his stomach, his chest, until it looks like his lower body is glowing. Otabek is focusing on that so single-mindedly, he doesn’t notice until Roza actually grabs his arm, and shakes him, that’s Yuri’s feet are visible above the grass.

“Is he...?” She leaves her sentence unfinished.

Yuri is using the fireflies to fly.

“If that’s not magic,” Roza whispers, “his standards are terrifying.”

Otabek just watches and thinks... No. Dangerous, perhaps. Wild. But terrifying? No. This is too beautiful to be anything else.

Chapter Text

Yuri has a vague idea of what ships look like. There are boats that pass on the river by the castle, and illustrations in the castle library’s books. They’re actually pretty much everywhere. One of the knights has a ship on his crest. They’d been drawn onto the ocean sections of the maps he’d looked at with Lilia and Otabek. There’s even a tapestry in the west wing that has a ship on it, although going by the fact that it took Yuri until he was at least seven to realise that some of the shapes in that particular tapestry were supposed to be people, he hadn’t given it much credit for accuracy. And Victor had attempted to describe one to him once, when he was still young and stupid enough to think that his big brother was worth admiring.

As it turns out, none of them have prepared him for the reality. Of the several vessels gathered along the shoreline of the town below them, one overshadows all the rest. It is the length of several houses, floating at twice the height of the little fishing boats around it. The mast, with its square sail, stretches to at least twice the height of all the trees in the forest.

For a moment he is fascinated; in awe of this great hulking mass of a thing that is still, somehow, graceful. And despite what must be an incredibly weight, it floats, steadily, on the water. It’s incredible.

Otabek is half a stride behind him, sees the ship just half a second later. Yuri’s stomach drops, and he remembers.

Beka hates sailing.

 

-

 

They dismount before they reach the town. It’s a great sprawling mass of a thing. There are no huts here; all of the buildings are made of stone, like the castle, but supported with huge beams of wood. They are clustered together, almost leaning on each other, hunched over the dirt-track roads. And there are people everywhere.

“For a city literally called Archangel, this place is grimy.” Roza wrinkles her nose, and sidesteps a little boy selling half-rotten oranges out of a crude sack.

“Before it was Arkhangelsk, it was just called ‘God’.” Otabek replies, easily weaving his way through the crowd. “They changed it when they build the monastery. Presumably so that there wouldn’t be any confusion over whose God it referred to.”

Yuri is only half-listening to their conversation. Just walking along the road is taking most of his concentration. There is horseshit in the street, great steaming piles of it, and something putrid running through the puddles. He catches sight of a man with his trousers down, pissing on a wall, and makes a slightly more consolidated effort to stick to the higher parts of the track. A dog skitters along, three-legged, and splashes something disgusting halfway up his leg anyway. Yuri cringes, and tries to concentrate.

There’s so much to take in. He’s never been anywhere this big. The whole place smells like dead fish and leather tanners. There is no wind between the buildings, and it hangs in the air like campfire smoke on a still day, only thicker and dirtier. He feels like he’s wading through the air.

The people are speaking a mixture of common and a language that isn’t his, but which he recognises parts of. Somebody barges past him, elbowing him solidly in the ribs, making him stumble, and shouts something that is immediately lost as a woman thrusts her basket in his face. It’s some kind of shellfish, in a poorly made wicker basket. Her teeth are falling out. Some of the things in her basket are moving. They smell like an infection. He stumbles back instinctively, straight into Karzhau. Prancing back, tossing her head, she knocks into someone carrying a pile of freshly skinned reindeer pelts. He promptly drops them all, and starts yelling at Yuri.

Yuri has no idea what he’s saying.

It’s warm. Really warm. Breathing is hard.

Otabek is there, suddenly. Talking to the man. Helping him pick up the skins. Pressing money into his hand. Yuri stands and watches, listening, not understanding.

He jumps. Roza’s hand is on his shoulder. She’s talking to him. He can only blink.

Karzahu is calm, now.

Roza has hold of his wrist. They’re walking through the streets. Then Yuri is looking at the sea. The town is behind them, the noise fading. There is space around him. He takes a deep breath.

“Waves!” Roza says, smiling.

Is that what they are?

The sea is rolling back and forth, rising and crashing, curving up and throwing down again on the pebbled shore. The water makes a strange swishing sound, like rain without the skittering drops; just the background roar of the storm, but gentler. The stones clatter together as the sea tosses them, rolling them back and forth, back and forth. Birds call, overhead, wheeling in the sky. The wind rushes over his skin, bringing him out in goosebumps. The smell isn’t so bad, here.

“Huh.” He says, quietly.

He feels much better, now. Like he’s standing in his own body again.

Over the water, there are domes visible on the horizon; they are golden, whether by nature of just reflecting in the afternoon sun, he doesn’t know. Several small boats, rowers, are working their way to and from them, bobbing up and down on the fluctuating sea.

“Is that the monastery?” Yuri asks, working his fingers into the warm, greasy, dusty crevices of Karzhau’s mane. She sniffles at his belt, nudging his hip with the snick of white on her nose.

“The fortified one, yes.” Beka’s voice is low, quiet. He’s closer than Yuri had realised, standing right behind his shoulder. “Monks and mages from all over the world.”

“Georgi studied there for a while.” Yuri says, absent-minded. Otabek’s hand is at his elbow, a steading weight. His palm is warm.

“Are you alright now?”

“I’m fine. Just never been to a town this big before.”

“This place is more of a city now.” Yuri nods, slowly, as wishes that Beka would stand a little closer so that he could lean against his shoulder. “Has this happened before?”

He’s worried. Yuri swallows the urge to snap. He feels fine, but even if he didn’t, Beka would know. He’s not prying deliberately. He’s just... assessing the situation.

“Not since I was much younger. I’d forgotten it happened at all. There’s no after effects or anything. Just another weird thing.”

“You are far from ordinary, Yura.” He pauses. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

Roza has wandered to the water’s edge. She’s choosing stones from the beach, and then chucking them into the water as hard as she can, taking great glee in every ‘plop’.

There’s something familiar in the air. Cocking his head, Yuri listens more closely.

“Reindeer!” Turning, he finds a small herd of them penned in by the dock, overseen by a woman wearing a red-rimmed dress and fringed shawl.

He must have walked right past her.

 

-

 

Otabek takes Karzhau’s reins almost by accident when Yuri presses them into his hand, but even so, he doesn’t stop Yuri approaching the woman. There’s a hint of excitement in him, something like nostalgia.

Beka takes a deep breath.

That was new. And scary. Yuri seems fine now, and completely unbothered by the experience now it’s over. Otabek can’t forget so easily. All of Yuri’s thoughts had suddenly gone blank, as if he’d fallen asleep. But he’d been standing right there. Now it’s back, like nothing has happened. Yuri is greeting the woman, leaning over the fence to get a better look at her herd.

“Is he alright?” Roza asks, quietly. Otabek tears himself away from watching Yuri to answer.

“Seems fine now.” They stand, for a second, in silence. “Thanks for getting him out.”

Roza shrugs one shoulder, wiping her wet hands off on her tunic.

“I knew something was up when he didn’t start yelling back. And the sea was closer than the forest, so.”

Yuri is happily letting one of the reindeer nibble his fingers, oblivious.

“We should find a ship.” He shakes his head, as if it will shake the lingering feeling off. It doesn’t. “If we’re lucky, the cob will be going to Atil-Khazaran.”

“Well,” Roza grins, playfully shoving him forward, “Yuri’s already made a friend, why don’t we start by asking her?”

 

-

 

Not only is the cob going to Atil-Khazaran, they’re going tonight, and they are very keen to have extra passengers. Especially paying passengers.

The ship has put down anchor further along the shore, in deeper water, so they will have to take a smaller boat to get to it. They haven’t finished loading the cargo yet, though, so they tie the horses up, and wait.

Yuri thanks the Sami woman, and she, having caught on to who he is, promises to send word back to his grandfather that they have reached the coast safely through several deep bows. Nikolai is well known among the herders and Sami of the northern tundra. They’re closer to the grazing ground here than they were in the castle, too.

If only Georgi had been able to send them here with magic. In fairness, Yuri had asked. He just hadn’t listened to much of the explanation beyond ‘no’. His half-brother has an annoying tendency to use technical terms from his studies without explaining what they mean.

It’s odd, trying to imagine Georgi here. Yuri can’t see it. The place is all brown and grey. He’d shine like a bruise in all his robes and regalia. But he has been here. And so has Victor, complete with crown and purple cloak. Katsuki, too, although he’d probably done a better job of fitting in. Even Yakov, maybe even Lilia, have passed through this port. The thought somehow makes him feel even further away from his family, not closer.

This is the port to the next continent.

“Yura?” Otabek is carrying some kind of food. “Come eat on the beach with us.” It’s framed softly, like a suggestion.

“What is it?”

It smells... odd.

“Some kind of sausage.” Yuri raises an eyebrow. “Horse, if we’re lucky. Reindeer, if we’re not.”

Standing up, Yuri takes his portion and poke at it with a finger. At least it’s hot.

“I prefer reindeer, actually. Grandpa usually puts it in his pirozhki.”

“We only ever had it imported, so it was probably poorer quality.”

They chat about food as they make their way down the jetty to sit on the stones above the beach.

Yuri is fully aware that this is small talk, something that they don’t usually do. But if Beka notices that Yuri is trying to distract him, to keep his mind busy, he doesn’t mention it.

And Yuri doesn’t mind doing it. Otabek speaks about his culture, his world, with a sort of reverent passion. Although he never raises his voice, never speaks at more than a steady, measured pace, he is more animated. Yuri wishes he was always like this; comfortable in his own expressiveness, his eyes bright and happy between his smiles.

The food isn’t too terrible, either.

“Camel is much less common,” Beka is saying. The meat is still unidentified, too heavily salted and spiced.

“What actually is a camel?” Yuri wonders, completely unable to picture one.

“Grumpy as shit,” Roza says behind them, making them both jump. “I think the sausages were mutton, though.” She squats down and slides herself between them, carefully balancing some crudely carved wooden cups between her left hand and her right elbow. “I found a place selling tea, at long damn last. I am fed up of beer, and I can guarantee they won’t have anything else on the ship.”

Yuri sniffs the offering with trepidation. It’s warm, the heat leaking through the cup to his fingers, steam rising from the liquid within. It’s dark, but clear.

He takes a careful sip.

It takes mostly of water, but slightly bitter. He pulls a face.

“Eurgh. I don’t hate beer enough to drink this yet.”

“Hmm,” Otabek says, and then diplomatically sips his tea in silence. Roza sighs.

“It’s better than nothing. You can’t expect much on this continent.”

“Hey,” Yuri reminds her, pouring the tea into a crack between the boulders, “This is my continent.”

“Well, I’m sorry you have to live with bad tea and no camels.” Roza grins. She tips her head back, downing her tea all in one go, and dropping the cup behind her. “Now are we going to show you the beach properly or not?”

She wrestles off her boots, and Beka starts doing the same. It takes Yuri a moment to catch on, but apparently this is something you do barefoot.

Okay.

Hopping off the rocks and onto the beach itself, Roza digs her toes into the beach, gleefully, and wriggles. Yuri plops down beside her, and immediately wishes he hadn’t.

“Ugh!”

“Weird, isn’t it?” Beka smiles, “You’ll get used to it.”

It feels very unstable. He wobbles a little, trying to get his balance, and then works out the natural give of it. Taking a few steps isn’t so hard. He doesn’t leave prints behind him though, like he thought he would. Just kind of triangular impressions in the... what’s this stuff even called? It’s like tiny granules of something hard, but together it feels soft. He rubs some grains between his fingers. It’s brittle.

“What is it?”

Roza tips her head back and laughs.

“You really were sheltered. Even I knew what it was called before I got to see it.”

“It’s sand,” Otabek supplies, much more helpfully than his sister. He’s smiling, though it doesn’t feel like contempt. It’s that soft little smile he does when he doesn’t realise he’s doing it.

“Surely some of your rivers have sand?” Roza prods.

Too intrigued by the new substance to bother teasing back, Yuri digs his toes into the ‘sand’, gently. Now he’s slightly more prepared for the sensation, it’s less weird. It’s actually kind of nice. He watches the tiny grains slide off his toenails as he raises them out of the beach. It’s like a little waterfall.

“First one in the water is mucking the horses for the next week!” Roza yells suddenly, rushing past him so fast that he almost falls over. Her strides throw sand at his legs.

He and Beka realise the danger of the threat in exactly the same moment.

Otabek takes off just a second before Yuri.

“Hey!”

Running on sand is really, really difficult. Like, stupidly difficult. Beka has obviously done it before, which is so not fair. But he only gets two steps ahead anyway. Yuri misjudges his stride, stumbles, attempts to grab at Beka for support, and sends them both crashing into the beach.

Beka comes up spitting sand. Yuri takes one look at his face – there’s sand in his eyebrows - and scrambles to his feet as fast as he can. If playing dirty means he doesn’t have to handle horseshit for a week, he’ll do it.

Roza is already at the water’s edge, standing in the sea up to her calves, and bent over double in laughter. Yuri speeds right past her, and gets promptly splashed by a wave.

Oh fuck, it’s cold. He yelps, and skitters backwards, although he’s already wet nearly up to his waist. At least he’s not wearing his cloak. Taking their boots off now makes a lot more sense.

“You lose, Beka!” Roza is yelling, still laughing.

Otabek smiles, rubbing a hand through his hair and showering sand everywhere.

“I’m going to be washing sand out of my hair for weeks,” he says, with no real venom.

“Oh, we can help with that!”

There is just enough time for Beka to realise what that means, but not enough time to stop it. Yuri gets a solid hold on the back of his knees and topples them both into the waves.

They go down with a splash.

He gets a mouthful of seawater for his trouble, and immediately regrets everything. Sitting up, kneeling in the sand, and trying to cough it out does not get rid of the taste. Otabek is sitting in the water, laughing. His hair is wet, sticking to his face. Despite the very thorough wash, he still has sand in his eyebrows. And his hair. He doesn’t look like he minds all that much.

“You deserved that,” Roza crows, watching Yuri shaking his head, disgustedly.

“What the fuck is this?” Yuri demands, “Why does it taste of tears?”

He hauls himself out of the water, already shivering. Somehow he ended up wetter than Beka, which is entirely unfair. He offers him a hand. Beka takes his wrist, his grip as firm as ever, even though the water makes their skin slip a little, and allows Yuri to help lift him to his feet.

“Tears?” He asks, and reaches over, wiping Yuri’s wet fringe off his forehead, out of his eyes.

“Salt! Why is it salty?”

Stepping away, Beka tries to shake some of the wet sand off his cloak. It’s a futile effort. The sand stuff really does get everywhere. Especially when it’s wet.

“And tears was the first salty thing you could think of?” Roza grins, “How tragic is your life?”

Yuri rolls his eyes.

“Wet salt, tears, same thing.”

Otabek drapes his half-wet cloak around his shoulders, and grimaces.

“It’s the sea.” He says, “Sand and salt are the staples. And now I am covered in both.”

“Well, you lost twice,” Yuri teases. Beka grins slightly, but it fades quickly. Honestly, Yuri was expecting to be pushed back into the water for that, but instead Beka turns back to the shore.

“I’ll get you back later,” he warns, the last of the humour fading, “but we need to sort out the ship now. I said we’d load the horses after we ate.”

Yuri suddenly realises quite how cold he is now. They’ll have to change pretty soon, or they’ll all be miserable by the time they set sail. Well, more miserable in Beka’s case. There’s definitely something bothering him.

“You’re a drag sometimes, you know,” Roza sighs, mostly teasing. Beka frowns at her.

“You were complaining that I wasn’t being responsible enough,” he snaps. “Make your mind up.”

And he leaves then standing in the surf. Roza kicks at the water, grumpily. It sends a spray of water directly up the beach, but misses her brother by a few inches. Whether or not he notices it, he ignores it. Yuri can read the tension in him. Apprehension for this, something he’d been pushing back since they left the castle, is no longer ignorable.

Otabek really, really hates ships.

“Is it just me, or is he getting really bad tempered recently?” Roza grumbles.

Yuri buries his first thought at the back of his head. It’s not his fault. Not this time.

“He’s going to be ill for the next week at least.” He reminds her.

“I’m missing a hand,” she says, which, yeah, fair enough. “I still know when to loosen up a little.” She sighs, and starts trudging up the beach. It’s not fun anymore. They’re just wet and cold, now. “All I wanted him to do was pay more attention to the fact that we’re, you know, going to war.” It’s a lament, but she’s managed to get a growl in there too. Honestly she sounds a little bit like Victor when he doesn’t get his way.

As if you’d let us forget, Yuri thinks, but walks away before he can say it. He probably should help Otabek load the horses. They might need calming.

 

-

 

They stay up on deck at first. The captain has given them a quick tour already, shown them their bunks (designed for lying down in, not standing in), and the mess hall, and their hammocks. It has to be quick, on a vessel this size, because it feels much smaller than it looks when you’re on it with twenty other people, three horses and a full hold of cargo. Roza is settling the horses in, and they get out of the way, up on deck.

It’s been a surprisingly quiet journey so far. There was some yelling amongst the sailors and they hauled up the anchor and hoisted the sail, but now most of them are below deck. The only sounds are of the sail flapping gently behind them, and the water running along the boat below them. There’s an occasional splash as the oarman adjusts his course, and that’s it.

The smell of the sea is strong and sharp in Yuri’s nose, but tempered by Beka’s familiar musk. They are leaning on the ships railing, shoulder to shoulder, watching the sunset behind the mountains as they pull away. From here, they look toweringly high. It’s almost impossible to believe that they were up there only a few days ago. Beyond them, too, not even a week ago.

The sky stays a warm, light orange for a long time after the sun has disappeared. The town of Arkhangelsk lights up, bit by bit, as night falls, casting yellow light over the water. They pass close to the island monastery. Past it’s high walls are the seven golden domes; all that’s visible of the thriving community inside.

Otabek’s head has come to rest on Yuri’s shoulder. Yuri rests his head, too, and tried to get used to the steady rocking of the boat.

Perhaps it’s just the night that makes him seem paler than usual, or perhaps Otabek is feeling the sickness of the ocean already. He shivers, just slightly. Feeling guilty for the wet cloak, Yuri shuffles his hand out from between them and tucks it around Beka’s shoulders, throwing his still warm, still dry cloak around him as he does so.

“Thank you.”

“It’s fine. My fault anyway. You feeling okay?”

“Just dizzy.”

“You’re sweating a little.”

“Sorry.” He tries to pull away, but Yuri refuses to let him, pulling him back.

“I didn’t say I minded.”

“You might mind if I throw up on you.”

“Nah. I’m not squeamish. I’ll hold your hair out of the way.”

“Perhaps we should have cut it again before we left the continent.”

“Perhaps.”

Yuri turns his head slightly, watching the last view of the lights of civilisation slowly vanish over the horizon.

This is his first time off the continent in his whole life. Surely it should feel stranger than this?

They watch until the stars come out, and the horizon is no longer visible.

 

-

 

Beka doesn’t wake up the next morning. When he doesn’t even stir in time for breakfast, Yuri goes to get him. The captain had very kindly allowed Otabek the first mate’s cabin, complete with actual bunk instead of hammock, upon hearing about his aversion to the sea.

“The steady headrest will be more comfortable for you, I hope, your majesty.”

Yuri wasn’t aware that they’d explicitly told the captain who they were, but by that point Otabek had thrown up three times and just wanted to go to bed. Not the time to chase the point.

Ducking into the tiny room, Yuri finds Otabek in exactly the same position he’d left him in. The blankets haven’t even been disturbed. The bucket he’d left by the bunk, at least, is blessedly empty.

“Hey.” He touches Beka’s arm, gently. “You should probably get some breakfast in you. Even if you throw it straight back up again, it’s better than retching on an empty stomach.”

Otabek does not respond.

Yuri’s back hurts already. He kneels, giving up on keeping his head away from the ceiling, and kisses the part of Beka’s forehead that is visible.

Still no response. There’s no feedback from him, either, or Yuri would think he was being deliberately ignored. How heavily asleep is he?

“Oi, Beka.” He shakes him a little. “Come on, wake up.”

Still nothing.

Yuri shakes a little harder, and then, suddenly seized by panic, pulls the cover down and leans over his face, listening.

He’s still breathing. But his face is pale, so much paler than it should be. Yuri presses a palm to his forehead. He’s cool, so not a fever. He shakes him again, by the shoulders, harder again. His head flops, limply, and Yuri stops, suddenly worried that he’s going to hurt him.

“Beka? Beka. Come on, Otabek, please. This isn’t...”

This isn’t funny. Like it’s some kind of trick.

Shit.

Yuri takes a deep breath, gathers his strength, and slaps Otabek, hard, in the face.

Nothing. His breathing continues, deep and even, despite the hand-shaped mark on his cheek.

Yuri stares at it.

“Oh, fuck.”

Chapter Text

Otabek is still asleep.

If this even counts as sleep.

“What do you mean he won’t wake up?”

Roza goes through exactly the same routine as Yuri had – checking for breathing, shaking his shoulders, shouting. It elicits exactly the same response;

Nothing.

She slumps at her brother’s bedside, defeated. 

“What’s wrong with him?”

Yuri was expecting a demand. Instead, her voice is hollow. Lost.

“I don’t know.” He leans his head against the doorframe and breathes. The ship rocks him, gently. His limbs are lethargic. “Georgi’s mentioned this happening, but only after a head injury. I’ve checked him all over. There’s nothing wrong with him. He doesn’t even have symptoms of seasickness anymore.”

Roza sits up, suddenly intent.

“What else did Georgi say?”

Yuri sighs.

“I don’t remember much.”

Before he can continue, Roza throws her fist against the floor.The movement is so sudden that it makes Yuri jump. 

“Some help you are,” she snaps.

Yuri sits up, snarling.

“I’m a knight, not a mage. You’re lucky I know what I do.”

Roza rounds on him. Her eyes are flashing.

“I’m lucky? Otabek could be dying here, and all you can...”

She chokes on her words. Suddenly she wants to look anywhere but at him.

“Excuse me?” The voice behind him makes him jump. “I was told to bring the soup?” The sailor is trying to get a good look in the room. Chances are he was listening to the whole conversation. Yuri takes the bowl off him and chases him away. The last thing they need is more people trying to get into the already-crowded berth.

“What the hell is that for?” Roza is trying to wipe the brimming tears away and sound annoyed at the same time. Yuri sighs at her.

“Shut up and help.” Passing the bowl to her, her squeezes past. It sloshes a little on her fingers, causing her to hiss in pain. Thankfully, she keeps hold of the bowl. Can’t have been that hot.

Ignoring her, Yuri carefully lifts Otabek’s torso from the bed. He carefully settles himself in behind him, back to the cabin wall, and rests Beka’s body against his chest. Tipping his head back onto his shoulder, he tries to get comfortable. Beka is lax with the weight of sleep, and Yuri squirms, resigning himself to crushed lungs.

“Is it still hot?” He asks. Roza only passes him the bowl in sullen silence.

It’s really not that hot at all. Yuri blows on it anyway, until the steam has stopped rising, and the liquid is safely lukewarm. As requested, there’s no chunks in it. To be honest, there’s probably nothing in it besides bone broth and maybe some barley. It doesn’t matter. It’s better than nothing. If Beka’s going to need to be fed, he’s not exactly going to be using much energy anyway.

The bowl is not deigned for pouring. He manages not to splash too much, keeping Beka’s mouth open, his back straight, and his throat clear. At this point, Yuri doesn’t even know if Beka’s capable of coughing by himself. He’s taking no risks.

“Keep the bucket close,” he instructs Roza, dripping another sip into Beka’s mouth. “I don’t know whether he’ll be able to keep down.”

God only knows if he’s doing this right. He does know one thing, though; if this doesn’t wake Beka up, then nothing he can do will. And if he doesn’t wake up soon, then they’ll just have to look after him until he does.

And if he doesn’t...

They’ll find a better healer. A proper mage, or a monk if there isn’t one. If Atil-Khazaran is half the size that they’ve made it out to be, they shouldn’t have an issue. It’ll be fine. It will have to be fine.

Yuri gets through most of the soup before Roza speaks up again.

“So what do you know about this?”

Yuri doesn’t look up. Keeping Beka balanced requires all of his concentration.

“The patient woke up by themselves after a few weeks, presumably despite the best attempts of several mages. Though apparently that was... they were lucky.”

Georgi had been surprised that they woke up at all. Yuri tries not to think too hard about that. The fact that they did gives him hope. And when they woke, they remembered everything that had happened while they’d been in a stupor, as if they’d been conscious the entire time.

Yuri keeps that to himself. Beka’s consciousness is as absent in Yuri’s head as it has been since he woke up. His mind is blank. His body is an empty shell.

 

-

 

The second day passes into a third. Nothing changes. They have found no reason for his strange and sudden state.

Now the initial panic has settled into dull acceptance, they’ve established a routine, of sorts. So they feed Otabek soup, and warm oats with sour curd, meals that do not need to be chewed. It’s easy enough to move him, because he offers no resistance.

Yuri and Roza sit with him for an hour or so after every meal in case his throws it up again, though he hasn’t yet. They have cut his hair now, with a pair of scissors lent to them by a sympathetic sailor. They’ve spread a tarpaulin under the sheets, and change it after every meal. They sponge his body down with water drawn from the ocean and warmed on the galley stove.

Even when there’s nothing left to do, and Otabek lies boneless on a clean bed, they check back every ten minutes or so, and sometimes stop to sit with him a while. Yuri holds his hand. Just in case.

But he cannot sit there forever. It’s stifling.

Besides, there’s the horses to look after. Mucking out is bad enough anyway, but when the three of them are sharing a space not much bigger than a single stable, it’s almost unbearable. Yuri cleans as best he can for them, but he spends most of his time having to soothe them with his influence. It’s too small a space, and they’re prey animals. Nastya, especially, has never been on a boat before. Her panic spreads to Aisulu and Karzahu. There’s not much Yuri can do except talk to them, groom them, and keep them as clean as possible.

There’s only so much time he can spend below deck. He understands the horses’ restlessness; he needs to escape from the stale air and stress of the hold too. If only he could take them with him.

Often, he finds Roza above decks too, equally restless, leaning over the rail and watching the horizon pass.

“You can’t see the mountains,” he says, one day, when they’re trying not to talk about what might be wrong with Beka. Their conversations have become scattered, barely following a thread of thought.

Roza runs her fingers over the wood, listlessly. She’s not really watching the view.

“We’re getting closer to home.”

Right. This is a homeward journey for her. Roza’s home is... a war.

He can see it in her face. They have been practicing with her spear every day, and she’s betting better. Much better. The sailors give them nervous looks whenever they train.

“You’re in good form. You’ll be fit to fight, and fight well.”

Roza closes her eyes, and turns her face to the sky.

“I know.” There is silence. “I just don’t even know if I want to fight anymore.”

The ocean stares back, apathetic. The slight breeze has pulled loose thread of hair from her plait. At least she’s washing properly now, although Yuri still does her hair. Plaiting one-handed is not a priority on her list of things she’s adjusting to. They’ve discussed cutting it, for practicality, but haven’t got round to it. Otabek is distracting them.

Roza’s voice snaps Yuri out of his thoughts. She’s not talking to him, not really.

“Going straight back to fighting is stupid. We don’t have the resources. It’ll be the end. Not just of us, but of the country. The northerners aren’t known for being merciful. They’ll just raze all the southern towns, people and all.”

Her voice is flat. Then she sighs, and turns around, fixing him with a glare.

“I hate negotiations. If we don’t fight for it, we will be forced to sacrifice too much. Beka’s...” she pauses, swallowing the words. “If he’s... he’ll be safe. That just leaves me.”

Yuri opens his mouth, and then closes it again. He might be misunderstanding something.

“Safe?” Does she mean his illness? Or something else?

“He’s got you.” He’s not sure whether that’s accusatory or not. “Whether you’re properly engaged or not, you have a legally binding agreement. Even a peace treaty this big can’t mess with that.”

She slumps down, back to the rail.

Yuri is completely lost.

“What?”

Roza rolls her eyes.

“You really don’t understand?” She demands. Yuri just waits. Eventually, she concedes, slumping back into herself. She turns her head across the deck, as if unable to meet his gaze. Her dark eyes are turned towards the deck of the boat. She looks younger in profile. Or perhaps it’s the tone of her voice. Roza doesn’t do vulnerable. Well, she hasn’t until now. Yuri misses her teasing. “He’ll want to marry me, Yuri.”

That... wait, what?

“But there are already children!” Roza snorts at him, scornful.

“Oh yeah, that’s a great idea. Put two kids less than a year old on the throne. That’ll go so well.”

“Right, of course...”

“What shall we tell the troops, your highness? Goo goo gah? Perfect, we’ll slaughter them all directly.”

“Yes, alright...”

Oh wait, you meant we should give them all dummies? I’m sorry your highness, the orders have already been carried out.”

Yuri sighs.

“You’re incredibly morbid sometimes.” Roza grins, humourlessly. “Fine, I get it. They’re the future. You’d be the present.”

He can’t see it going well. Roza is not keen on compromise, and even less keen on giving the northerners literally anything they want.

“He can’t rule on his own, not without a representative of the southern kingdom’s interests.” Case in point, Yuri thinks. There’s familiar fire in her eyes, now. The listlessness is gone. Cold fury isn’t much better, but it’s something. He finds her tendency to shut down under stress somewhat unnerving. “And he can’t bring up the kids alone, either. He’d have political control over them, and then the whole thing’s pointless.”

 

-

 

“So, peace means you... is there no other way?”

Roza resists the urge to hit him, but doesn’t bother reining in the tone of her voice.

Yuri’s always been ignorant, and Roza should not be as surprised as she is by this. Even so, it angers her. The worst of it is that he’s blundering, stuttering. He’s usually so sure of himself, even when he’s wrong. The idea that this is what Beka’s affliction is doing to him is horrifying. He needs to be stronger than this.

“We’re talking about reuniting the North and the South after centuries of war! There are no half-measures.” She sits up, suddenly, not wanting to look at him anymore. His face is weirdly blank, like none of this is really reaching him. The wind has blown his hair over his face, and he hasn’t bothered to brush it back out of the way. For some reason, this makes her want to strangle him even more. It’s just so fucking annoying. “I’ve sat through all of these talks before when it was Alyona’s turn. It has to be symbolic as well as political. So the people know we mean it.”

“Even though he might have killed your parents.”

Yuri is still sitting with his back to the mast, his legs crossed. He looks peaceful, almost like he’s meditating. How fucking dare he?

“Why do you think I wanted to fight?” She spits, and turns on her heel.

Fucking Yuri and his fucking ignorance. They’ve been travelling for weeks and he still hasn’t asked the most obvious questions, shit that she thought he knew.

They’re so unprepared. They’re utterly useless. There’s not a single Jaghun leader now, and without that, they don’t have the power on their side to push for negotiations. The risk will be calculated. Roza would be stupid to think that the northerners will agree on a compromise when they could take an easy win.

“I’m sorry.” Taking a deep breath, Roza looks over her shoulder. Yuri is standing, as if to follow her. She turns, stopping him in his tracks, and crosses her arms over her chest.

Yuri shouts. Yuri snipes. Yuri attacks when provoked, even when there’s no real risk. She hates him calm, because...

Because he reminds her of Beka.

God fucking dammit.

“What for?” She’s breathing heavily now, the only thing that’s stopping her from bursting into tears. “Rubbing your happiness in my face? You’re an obnoxious twat, Yuri, that’s nothing new. At least I’m getting a break from it with Beka...”

She can’t go there.

Fuck, she wants to. She wants to fling the words at his face, knowing that they’ll hurt him more than anything, but it’s suddenly too difficult to breathe, let alone talk.

She wants him to fight back.

“No.” Fuck his gentleness. Fuck this. Fuck Yuri for not being able to help, but most of all, fuck Yuri for not shouting. For not yelling back. For not making this easy. “I meant I’m sorry that you don’t get a choice.”

Roza spits at his feet.

“We’re royalty. The only choice we have is whether or not to walk away from it or face it. And unfortunately for me, my parents made sure that I was fully aware of the consequences of both.”

She turns, and goes to her brother. There is nothing else she can do.

 

-

 

As much as Yuri would like to avoid Roza right now, and as much as he suspects that the feeling is mutual, she’s going to need his help.

She’s waiting for him below deck, but they work in silence. In his head, Yuri keeps up a steady patter of thoughts anyway, projecting them towards Beka. It’s unlikely he can hear anything, but it’s...

It’s very easy, when he’s so unresponsive, to forget. What Beka’s voice sounds like. The way his eyes glimmer when he’s about to smile. How his nose wrinkles when he yawns. Yuri talks to Otabek mostly for his own benefit; so that he doesn’t forget that it’s Beka. Otherwise the motions become as meaningless as scrubbing the floors. And even though Beka doesn’t respond, he’s still not sure. There’s the slightest chance that he can still hear. In which case, his existence must be both mind-numbingly boring and unspeakably frustrating right now.

They finish quickly. They’ve had plenty of practice. Yuri pulls the blankets back over Beka’s body, and touches his forehead. He’s still cool. Not hot, not cold. His breathing is steady. Stable, he supposes. Leaning forward, he presses his lips to Beka’s brow. It’s a habit, now.

“How can you do that?”

He nearly jumps. He’s forgotten Roza was there.

“Do what?”

She’s sitting in the doorway, next to the pile of dirty sheets.

“Be so tender about it. You just spent the last ten minutes cleaning up his piss.”

Yuri snorts. He hadn’t thought of it that way before.

“I bet he wiped your arse a fair few times when you were a kid, too. You don’t really love someone unless you love them through the worst times as well as the best.”

Roza raises an eyebrow. She is failing to disguise a smirk. The fight – if it can be called that - seems to have cleared the air between them somewhat. Like venting has released some of the tension they’d been carrying with them.

“For better or for worse?”

Oh, shit. Did he really just say that?

The blush creeps up his cheeks. He ducks his head, covering it with his hair and picking up the sheets.

“Yeah, well.”

Roza shrugs, standing and moving out of the way.

“I think he’s rubbing off on you,” she teases, and Yuri rolls his eyes to the sky. Apparently, you should be careful what you wish for. Although this is, admittedly, better than the yelling.

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“Eh. Maybe not.” He dumps the dirty sheets by the hot water. The sailor on laundry duty gives him a disruntled look, which Yuri pointedly ignores. “I’m going to set up a target on deck. Coming?”

 

-

 

Yuri’s shooting is fine, though he can only practice short distance. Roza’s making good progress with her spear now too. She’s nothing on what she used to be, but she knows all the techniques. Needing Yuri’s help is out of the question – he’s generally useless now, apart from as moral support. It’s probably in his best interests to stay out of the way anyway. While Roza is getting better, she is constantly frustrated by her sudden lack of ability. Largely, they train in silence, take turns checking on Beka.

The fourth or fifth time Roza comes back, she’s dumped her spear in favour of clean bandages. Yuri’s been teaching her how to treat herself. They’ve run out of nettles, so Yuri goes and fetches Roza some water and some of the rum, and watches her re-bandage her wrist.

“So.” Yuri leans back against the pile of rope, settling as comfortably as possible. “How is he?”

They’ve agreed to stop doing this in the mess hall, if only because the sailors kept yelling at them. Something to do with a superstition of blood below deck and causing mutiny. As if they wouldn’t mutiny anyway if they wanted to, whether anyone spilt blood below deck or not. Honestly, Yuri’s a little tired of making way for all of these beliefs that have no real founding, especially when they have actual issues to be worried about, but life is so much easier for all of them if they concede.

Perhaps he’s beginning to learn how to choose his battles. God, Roza’s right. Lilia wouldn’t recognise him.

Roza sighs, carefully splashing the alcohol over her arm before rinsing it in salt water. She winces less now; perhaps because she’s used to the sting, or perhaps because it’s beginning to heal.

Yuri tries not to look. He’s seen enough of Georgi’s work over the years to not be squeamish about the blood, but he still has random nightmares of picking the bloodied shards of shattered bone out of her torn flesh.

“I would already have told you if anything changed.” She says, testily.

It’s odd, this. Despite the fact that he’s technically responsible for an injury that has robbed her of her purpose, and made her, by her own admission, ‘a dead weight’, she’s more upset when he questions her about Beka’s sickness than whether she’s okay.

“I know.” He turns his eyes to the sky. It’s comfortingly endless, whereas the sea is disconcertingly so. He misses the mountains. “But any details could be a clue. I’m the one with a healer for a brother, not you.”

Roza stops re-wrapping her clean bandages to glare at him.

“As you keep telling me. But I don’t know what I’m looking for, and despite all your preaching, neither do you. You don’t even know what seasickness looks like in the first place.”

Yesterday, this would have been snapping. Today, Roza’s voice is tight, not with frustration, but with tears. Yuri pretends not to notice. They both know that something is seriously wrong, and neither of them are used to being helpless. They’re warriors, not healers.

Yuri turns his eyes towards the deck, and lowers his voice.

“I know it’s not like this.”

Roza cares so much. She cares so much about Otabek that she’s forgotten her own quite literal pain, consumed by her compulsion to care for him. Perhaps that too is an Altin trait.

“He told me about you, you know.” Yuri says, watching her pulling the fabric tight. “In Rusiki.”

“Am I what you expected?” She looks up, tone rueful. Yuri shrugs one shoulder.

“I didn’t think about it too much. He was injured at the time. I was... preoccupied.”

Roza sits back, eyeing him slowly.

Yuri doesn’t know exactly where he’s going with this. ‘I care about your brother too’ seems a bit like an obvious statement at this point. Perhaps ‘I’ve done this before’ is a little less on the nose.

“He never told me about that, really. How bad was it?”

The ship isn’t large. Their ankles overlap, Yuri with his elbows resting on his knees, Roza resting her chin on hers. It’s a fairly cramped spot, between the rail and the mast, but it’s the only place they’ve managed to find where they aren’t in the way every ten minutes.

“Not as bad as yours,” Yuri smiles, despite himself, when Roza rolls her eyes.

“Duh.”

“He was unconscious for hours though.” Yuri pauses, thinking. The court of Rusiki seems so long ago now, though in reality he and Otabek spent more time there than they have travelling. “I skipped the banquet as soon as he woke up, but then Georgi forced me to go back once we knew he was okay. Only then he wasn’t,” he smiles at the memory, “a messenger came to tell me, and I dumped the party again and ran the whole way to the hospital. Took a shortcut through the forest, too, and almost completely ruined a new robe doing it. Lilia nearly shot me. And then when I got there he was fine after all. Well, a little magic fever, but Georgi stitched him up. He had crutches for a few weeks after that, but honestly, considering that JJ got him all the way down to the bone, he healed well.”

Roza is watching him, thoughtfully.

“I can’t imagine you running for anyone.”

Yuri opens his mouth, and then closes it again.

Does he really come across as that heartless?

But... well.

“I don’t think I would have done before Beka.” He looks at his fingers. “I’d told myself I wouldn’t care about anyone after my mother died. I mean, I know I was a kid, but I was such a mess. I ran into court, sobbing, and shouted at my father for killing her in front of maybe thirty people. And he told me...”

He stops.

No, Yakov hadn’t told him anything. He hadn’t said a word. He’d just grabbed his arm, and picked him up, carrying him out. Yuri had beaten his fists against Yakov’s chest, over and over, screaming to be let down. But Yakov had carried him all the way to his room, put him in bed, and waited there until Yuri had finally sobbed himself to sleep. He’d even asked a servant for hot milk, though Yuri had thrown it back in his face.

He’d forgotten that.

In hindsight, that must have been how Yakov found out that she was dead. Yuri doesn’t remember what he’d looked like. He’d been too consumed by his own grief. Had his father even been upset?

They sit in silence for a moment. There are some things that Yuri is willing to tell Roza now that he wouldn’t have been before, but that’s not one of them. Not today.

“You know,” Roza says, eventually, a slight curl to her lip and a teasing glint in her eye, “If someone had told me the day I met you that you were even more of a dick before you met my brother, I never would have believed them.”

“Hey!” Yuri kicks her, with no real force. Roza kicks back, just slightly harder.

“I’m not rising to that.” Yuri says, mimicking Beka’s voice as best he can. It’s pretty terrible in all honesty, but Roza cracks up anyway.

“Oh my god,” she giggles, “Did he give you a stirring lecture about being a better person or something? Is that what made you fall for him?”

“Good god, no.” Yuri feigns disgust.

Nothing of the sort. It was much simpler than that – Beka just believed in him. Saw the good in him when everybody else only saw his flaws. And then he’d loved those too.

Oh god, he really is turning into Victor.

“Wait, did he do that to you?” He asks, trying to save the situation. Roza grins.

“Only the once. I kicked him in the shins until he shut up.”

“You know, that never came up when he talked about you.”

“It’s below his dignity to admit to being bullied by his baby sister.”

“Hold on, is that the real reason he let you name all his animals?”

She sits up, suddenly eager.

“Yes! I can’t believe we never talked about this! What does your name mean, Yuri?”

Yuri blinks, slowly. Shit, he should have seen this coming.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Don’t you think it’s interesting?” Roza’s eyes sparkle. “It’s not like my parents put much thought into naming me, I guess, but obviously ‘Altin’ being ‘gold’ is pretty important to our family, so I got interested in the meanings behind other people’s names instead. And if I don’t die before I get a chance to have kids, I’d like to have a good range of ideas, you know. Make it actually mean something.”

That’s an interesting thought.

God though, talking to Roza can be depressing sometimes. Even when she’s enthusiastic and cheerful, there’s the constant reminder of how shitty her childhood was, and how shitty and short she expects her adulthood to be.

Otabek might have some rivalry in the ‘people who want to end this goddamn war so his family can have a real life’ category. If Roza wants to have children, and be a better parent than her parents were to her, Yuri is willing to kill whoever he needs to to give her an opportunity to make it happen. Although to be honest, Roza probably wouldn’t need help killing anyone in her way. Even now.

“Well,” he tries to remember, “It was my mother who named me. I think Yuri means ‘earth worker’, and I guess we were a farming family.”

Roza contemplates that for a second.

“Well, that does makes sense. It’s not very interesting though.”

She sits back again, and Yuri shrugs.

“I don’t think she chose it for the meaning. It was her grandfather’s name. Although it’s more appropriate for me than it seems at first.”

“You mean more appropriate than calling an illegitimate prince ‘farmer’?” She teases.

Yuri grins, swinging his knees underneath him to kneel on the deck.

“Not farmer. Earth worker. Here,” he peels a splinter from the deck and holds it up. Roza watches him, one eyebrow raised.

“That’s not earth, you know. Wood doesn’t count as.... oh my god.” She blinks, mouth dropping open, eyes wide with wonder. She reaches towards his hand. Yuri hands her the tiny sapling triumphantly. He hasn’t done that for years. Plants have always been so much harder than animals because they don’t have a consciousness as such, but his mother had told him stories about his ancestors rebuilding entire forests from the ashes of great fires.

One of his clearest memories of her isn’t of her at all; she’s there, a warm weight against his body where she rests him on her hip, but he’s not looking at her. He’s watching the boggy field before him, stripped and trodden into dirt by the winter herds of reindeer. It blooms into a meadow in front of his eyes; the bright green grass threading together the riot of spring colour.

The herds have been getting smaller and smaller ever since she died. Nikolai didn’t need to tell Yuri that it was happening; he wasn’t that blind.

Roza balances the tiny tree in her hand as it finishes blossoming. The roots have spread out flat, resting almost perfectly on the palm of her hand. Her breath rustles the tiny leaves of its canopy.

“It’s an oak,” she says wonderingly. Just for the hell of it, Yuri has a little acorn drop off the tree. It’s barely bigger than a grain of beach sand. She pokes it, slightly, with one finger. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“It’s not as easy as the animals, and I’m not very strong. I can mend broken arrows, take the sting out of nettles, and make tiny trees. Nothing more useful than that.”

Roza looks up, frowning.

“Are you kidding? You could grow fresh grass for the horses! You could... grow hemp for new bandages! Or extra food!” Yuri is shaking his head.

“I told you, I’m not strong enough to do anything useful.”

With utmost care, Roza puts the little tree down on the deck. Then she leans over, and slaps his arm. Hard.

“Ow!” He yelps, “What the fuck?”

“You’re a dumbass.” Roza says, as Yuri rubs at his arm. That hurt. “Have you, or have you not, spent the entirety of the last week helping me learn to fight left-handed, despite the fact that I’ve never raised a weapon in my left hand in my life?”

“What the fuck has that got to do with anything? You hit me!”

“I’ll hit you again if you don’t shut up and listen,” she threatens, grabbing his arm. “You aren’t strong? Then get stronger. Practice. Every day, like me. By the time we get off this ship, I’ll be able to kill single-handedly, and you’ll be able to turn this boat back into a forest. Deal?”

She holds her hand out for him to shake.

Yuri stares at it.

Get stronger. Holy shit, it had never occurred to him that he could be better. Plants had been mother’s speciality, and animals were his. But that hadn’t come naturally either. It had taken time, and practice. And if there’s one thing they’ve got time to do, it’s practice.

He grins, slowly.

“Alright. Deal.”

-

Yuri wakes slowly at first. The usual gradual, growing awareness of the world. 

The hammock is swaying. No more than usual, but he's still unfamiliar enough with it to notice. It's cool, fresh on his cheek and warmer under the blanket. 

Somebody is playing a dombra. 

Yuri is immediately awake. Struggling from the hammock in a rush is a bad idea, but he doesn't care. He arrives at Beka's cabin with a new bruise on his shoulder and the blanket still trailing. His nightshirt is unbuttoned. 

The lamp is lit. 

Yuri's heart surges. He stumbles through the door.

Roza is sitting on the floor, plucking at the instrument. 

Unable to quite process the desperate hope crashing down through him, Yuri just stands there. The sight of Beka on the bed, still asleep, after allowing himself to imagine him standing, greeting him, saying his name...

"Yuri?" Roza, oblivious, seems surprised. "Ah, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake... Yuri? Are you okay?"

Dropping the instrument, she approaches. His breaths are shuddering through him, tearing at his lungs, as if he'd forgotten how and is having to learn from birth. 

"I didn't know you played the dombra." His voice is surprisingly steady. Part of him thought there was a chance that the words would have just come out as a scream. Or maybe that he wasn't capable of words at all. 

"Oh," Roza shrugs, "I don't really. I just figured it would help me improve my control over my fingers." 

"Oh." Yuri swallows. Fuck, he's tearing up. He doesn't know what else to say. He don't know if he can. Roza gasps, slaps a hand over her mouth. Her eyes are wide. 

"Did you think it was Beka?" 

Yuri nods, silently, and fuck he can't hold back the tears any longer. A tiny, tiny little sob is all he intends to allow, but suddenly it becomes a flood. All the tension of the last few days, all the nightmares and worries and stress of it, the emptiness of his head, the constant fear that there will be no waking up, it all returns tenfold. As if to punish him for daring to hope. 

He covers his face with his hands and drops to his knees, unable to hold himself. 

It was supposed to be okay. He came back, dammit. He came back, and Otabek had said everything would be fine. 

Yuri is not fucking fine. 

Roza is apologising, again and again, and suddenly there's an arm around him. She presses their foreheads together, then pulls him in properly.  

"I'm so sorry, Yuri, I didn't think," she's saying, "I didn't think. I didn't think." 

She's warm and solid, and Yuri has been hugged by enough people in his life to know that she means it. He puts his arm around her good shoulder and hugs back, letting her tuck her head into his shoulder and cry her own tears. Because they're here now, and they've been forced to realise that this might really, truly be it. And they will have nobody to steady them. Nobody to put things into perspective. Nobody to play pranks on them at the worst possible times. Nobody to always, always reassure them that it will be okay. 

Oh, god, he knows how much he misses Otabek already. His head feels so weirdly empty, now. This isn't normal anymore, and fuck, he doesn't want it to be. He wants Beka back. 

No warm hands, no rough stubble in the mornings, no soft voice in Yuri's head when he needs it. No strange conversations about unknown places and cultures. No slight smiles at the fire, as if Yuri won't catch him doing it. No stupidly annoying moral compass. No more duels. No more martial arts lessons. Nobody who, for once, needed Yuri as much as he needed them. 

Yuri doesn't want to go back to who he was before Otabek. He doesn't even know if he can. 

Chapter Text

Time passes unnoticed.

Yuri knows that he got up in the middle of the night, presumably quite early if Roza was still awake. Now it is dawn, and he has little to no memory of the hours in between.

The shift is changing outside; the sailor who has been the oarman for most of the night surrenders the position to her replacement. Somebody else has turned the stove on. The fire is crackling. Something is bubbling in a pot. The first deck is beginning to warm up.

A low level of chatter hovers in the air, as the sailors begin the process of stringing their hammocks up and pulling the mess tables out for breakfast. Metal spoons clack against wooden bowls, a gentle percussion to the shuffling footsteps up and down the galley. It’s a strangely peaceful moment.

Roza has fallen asleep, her head pillowed on his knee. Her body is turned upwards, her bandaged wrist held carefully off the floor and resting against her chest. It can’t be a particularly comfortable position. Yuri’s leg is numb. She’s exhausted; even the first shouts of the sailors hoisting the sail into the morning breeze hasn’t woken her.

Sitting with his back against the berth, Yuri can feel Roza’s breath on his thigh, and Beka’s on the back of his neck. He feels heavier, as though the realisation of everything crashing down on him has made their situation harder to deny.

Despite everything, he still feel awkward about crying in front of Roza. With her, really. He still, at least in part, thinks of her as he first saw her – bent low over the horse’s flank, her hair whipping over her shoulder, determination set in the line of her brow. It’s too easy to imagine her with her spear in her hand rather than strapped across her back. Leading a charge. On her own.

And yet here she is. Asleep, it’s more obvious that she is still young; younger than she acts, younger than he acts. Younger than he feels anyone should be, with her history on her shoulders. There is no flash of a frown, no trace of her laughter. None of her energy or spirit to hold her up. She is just Roza. An orphan who is badly injured, and has barely begun recovering. Whose brother is sick. Whose country is at war, and who grew up knowing nothing but to fight. Roza, who curled up like a child to sleep, never thinking that either of them would leave Beka’s side.

She isn’t at all like he imagined when Beka described her. And yet she is exactly – strong, intelligent, and stubborn. Her hair is falling across her face, slipping out of the plait that it looks like she attempted to tie by herself. For once, she looks at peace.

They really should cut her hair.

 

-

 

Roza doesn’t feel like she’s slept at all. For whatever reason, Yuri has brought them both breakfast in Beka’s room.

They’re quiet.

Not that Roza has anything to say that Yuri wants to hear. Last night was more of a shock to her than she’s realised at first, but now she’s reeling in it.

Firstly, she simply hadn’t realised quite how much Yuri cares. Perhaps because Beka is more traditionally or comfortably affectionate, or perhaps because the only violent emotion she associates with Yuri is anger, she’d assumed that he cared less. Although she hadn’t been looking that closely. Watching her brother and his lover interact is not exactly something she enjoys.

Watching him now, despite the fact that he looks no different from yesterday, is like looking at entirely different person. Not that Yuri hasn’t shown any kind of vulnerability in front of her before, because he has done. Increasingly so since he chose to come back for them, too. Just... not like that. Not with such wild abandon. It’s...

Not that it changes anything, obviously. Roza has bigger issues than whether or not she trusts Yuri with Beka’s heart. She hasn’t really considered that since the mountain.

No.

There’s something worse bothering her. Like a sick, sinking feeling in her chest, in her stomach. The morning is heavy with the knowledge of what she’s begun to think of as their imminent failure.

Have any of them really considered what they’re doing?

Hell, admitting it to herself sucks, but she hadn’t. She hadn’t considered it at all. As much as an obvious choice as it seemed at the time, it hadn’t been. Why not send a messenger? It would have been faster and less dangerous.

She knows, really.

Because some part of her didn’t want to deal with the fallout on her own. Easier to run. Easier to leave it in the hands of their military officers. Easier to find the last of her family and cling, tight, to someone who could share the weight of her loss with her. It was unthinkable to do this alone. Not even an option. She’d thought she’d needed him.

Now, without his reassurance and diversion, the doubt is beginning to seep in. No, not seep. Flood. What did she really think the two of them would be able to achieve that their parents and grandparents hadn’t? They have the same resources, the same troupes, even the same commanders. The only difference is that they are in a much, much weaker position.

Whether or not Beka is with her doesn’t change that.

Fuck. Whatever Yuri had said to alleviate this feeling yesterday, it hadn’t stuck. She’s forgotten it, and the feeling is back with a vengeance. And it burns, like failure. Like this is her mistake, and if she doesn’t own up to it, they’ll keep along this same stupid path and be stuck with the consequences.

“What are we doing?”

Yuri looks up from his breakfast at her words. He looks as tired as she feels. Although the sunburn is mostly gone, there are dark bags under his eyes that make him look paler than ever.

Roza would like to go back to sleep. To escape all of this for just a little longer. Or to live in the barest second between sleeping and waking, when she can barely remember who she is, let alone know the crushing pressure of her country collapsing around her.

And despite everything, she still misses her mother. Her warm hugs. Though they had never been there when she needed them most anyway. That is nothing new.

“What would you do, if you weren’t a princess?” Yuri asks, eventually, when Roza’s forgotten that he hasn’t answered her question.

“Don’t be an ass,” she snaps. “What’s the point in thinking about that?”

Yuri stands up with his empty bowl.

“I’m going to muck the horses.”

“Rather you than me.” She responds without thinking. The question has confused her. She puts her own bowl down, and shuffles up to Beka. “Sometimes,” she says to him, quietly, “He doesn’t seem so bad. And sometimes I want to stab him in the gut.”

Beka’s only response is his steady breathing. Pressing her forehead to his arm, she squeezes her eyes shut and tries not to cry.

She didn’t know she’d had any tears left.

 

-

 

The horses are restless. Yuri descends into the hold slowly, distracted by the sound of knocking. It’s still dark down here, and it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust. Only then does he realise that it’s Aisulu making the noise. She’s kicking the side of the wall, again and again.

“Hey, hey.” Yuri makes his way over, careful to keep his feet out of the way of their hooves even as he reaches to stroke her neck. “Come on, what are you doing? You’re going to hurt yourself.”

Yuri soothes her as best he can, but she’s spooked the others, and three frightened horses in such a small space is a recipe for disaster.

He gives up, and uses his influence.

They calm immediately. Yuri, however, is on edge. Something is... different. It felt odd. Holding the connection for a little longer than he usually would, he pays careful attention for a minute or so, but finds nothing. Nothing more than a bad feeling. Brushing it off, he turns to the horses.

Thankfully, there hadn’t been time for it to escalate. Aisulu’s hoof is fine, though there might be some bruising tomorrow. He checks them over anyway, getting grey horse dust in the grooves of his fingerprints.

When he’s checking Karzhau’s hooves, Aisulu starts kicking again.

“Hey!” Scrambling around the other two to get to her, he strokes her neck and her nose, but to no avail. She dips her head against his stomach, pushing him away, and swinging from side to side.

Now that, he’s seen before.

“Right, I know you’re bored,” he takes a sterner tone, “We all are. But take it from me, kicking shit isn’t going to help.”

Her feeds her some hay from a flat palm, gently persuading her away from the wall. The moment he lets her slip, however, she goes right back to it.

“Oh come on!”

Something cracks. Aisulu has broken one of the boards.

“Whoah, stop that!” He pulls her back immediately, out of the way of any potential splinters.

The moment she moves, he forgets completely about splinters.

There’s a hole in the wall. From it, a cloud of something thick and yellow is billowing forth. It hangs, deep and thick in the air. Then it slowly dissipates, spreading from one bright block into a thousand tiny dots, through which the disturbed air marks its movement in intricate coils and swirling vortexes, which spin themselves to nothing.

Yuri watches it; dumbfounded; wary. Then, from the hole, comes a noise. With it, a slight puff of air that blows through the particles, unsettling them again, and pushing more through the edges of the gap. It is so dense inside that it comes out with clear-cut edges, shaped by the sharp wood, only softening once given space.

The sound is human.

It takes Yuri a moment to react. A moment to understand the situation. A moment in which the noise comes again; a whimper. A child’s whimper.

Then he is on his knees by the hole, pulling back the boards. They bite his fingers with splinters, but snap too easily, against too little pressure, thin and badly made. The more he pulls away, the more he widens the hole, and the yellow dust comes billowing out. It settles everywhere. The floor and the wood is coated with it.

He gets a mouthful, and coughs. It’s pollen. It stings his eyes and clogs his throat, but he doesn’t stop to give it thought. Not besides the realisation that if it’s hard for him to breathe it once it dilutes, whoever is in there must be suffocating.

At last, the hole is big enough to let in a little light, and the pollen has cleared just enough for him to see inside. The space is tiny. Barely the width of his elbow to his wrist, the length of it is a third of that of the stable. And yet crammed inside is a shape. A human shape.

There’s a foot, tucked curled awkwardly up against the wall. Legs, tucked up into a chest; and yet it is not skin. A thick, putrid layer of yellow blooms, presumably the source of the pollen, lie so thickly not just on the shape, but partway up the walls. They creep, like vines. Swatting at the pollen, he coughs, uncontrollably. In trying to wipe the tears from his eyes he only succeeds in rubbing the pollen into them. He gasps at the sudden pain of it.

Then the child whimpers again, and Yuri abandons his eyes. Instead, he rips out the rest of the boards as fast as he can. Each one releases a fresh wave of pollen, and an agony of coughing and wheezing. He has to pull away, to get a fresh breath, and rushes to open the door to let some air in, for the horses as much as himself. They are prancing, tossing their heads, nervous. Yuri does his best to keep them calm whilst focusing on his task.

Finally, he manages to get a hand into the gap – and he pulls at the flowers around where he finds the shape of a head.

It’s a child. Their eyes are closed. It’s all he can see of them, besides a sliver of hair falling over their face. Blonde, but dirty; unwashed and unbrushed. He tears the rest of the flowers from the child’s face, exposing their nose and mouth. They are still breathing. But only barely.

Yuri drags the vines off in swathes. The plants are not strong. They knot together, tangling, but snapping just as easily, exposing pale skin to the cold air. They’re like a blanket. He can’t tell where they’re coming from. Their skin? Their clothes? The flowers and the child are inseparable from each other until he tears them away, finds the edge and restores them to separate entities.

The young adults in the village used to weave flowers though their hair, for celebrations and fertility festivals. This isn’t like that. They’re like parasites. They stem from the body, growing outwards. Underneath them, the child is pale and sallow. Like they have been the nutrients. The soil.

The child does not stir. Within moments, Yuri has dragged off most of the flowers, and manages to get his arms around them. He pulls them out of the wall as gently as possible. The last of the flowers slip away. Some of them remain in place, over the hollow where the child had been. Marking the imprint she had made.

She isn’t heavy. In fact, she’s desperately light. And so young. She can’t be more than ten. He lifts her easily – too easily. Now they’re out, he can see the shape of her ribs in her chest, her swollen stomach, even the joints of her elbows. Her head drops back, and he catches it, worried that she will break her neck in such a simple act.

 

-

 

Yuri erupts onto the desk in a cloud of yellow pollen, the girl in his arms. She flops against him, no strength left in her to even lift her limbs.

The shout goes up not a second after he bursts into the light. There are people running from all directions, all suddenly from nowhere. Yuri looks up, squinting.

Roza is the first person he sees. She is staring at him, mouth open, as if arrested mid-sentence by his appearance.

“Get Beka out of that room.” He says. “Now.” He can’t keep the tremble of anger out of his voice. Roza doesn’t even question him. There must be something in his manner that conveyed the urgency of it. As she vanishes below deck, Yuri turns to the sailors. There are several of them gathered already. Not too closely, and huddled, as if wary.

“You,” Yuri says to the closest one. “Get some water.” He kneels down to the wood, preparing to lie the girl down. “And someone else get the horses above deck. I don’t know what this pollen does, and I don’t want anyone hurt.”

The sailors take a noticeable step back, the murmur rising. Yuri doesn’t care, as long as someone does what he says.

He had managed to pull most of the plants off before, but he rids her of the last of it now he can see clearly, picking the vines out from between her toes and brushing the fallen petals from her ears and eyelashes.

“She needs food,” he commands, “But nothing strong. Boiled oats will do, or some biscuits. And someone get some warm blankets.” A few sailors detach themselves from the back of the crowd and disappear below deck. Yuri ignores them, pulling his own cloak from his shoulders and wrapping it around the girl as carefully as he can. He will check her for injuries later. Right now, getting her warm, fed and watered is far more important.

The man he sent for water comes back with a bowl of it. He practically throws it down next to Yuri in his hurry to be rid of it, and scuttles back to the crowd. Most of the water splashes over Yuri’s leg. Supressing the shiver, Yuri lifts the child’s neck carefully, and dribbles a few sips of water into her mouth. Her lips are covered with the yellow pollen. It marks the edge of the bowl like lip-stain.

Roza emerges from below deck, with Otabek slung across her shoulders. She bends a little under his weight, but her steps are steady and careful. The sailors move back to allow her through, and she puts him down as carefully as possible, alongside the girl.

“I think she’s dying.” Yuri says. The girl is not responding to the water. Her body is twitching, her wrist on his knee rolling. Her eyes remain closed. Roza leans over, reaching a hand towards the girl.

“Where... what?”

“I found her in a gap between the stable and the main hold. Right underneath Beka’s room. The flowers were growing all over her. I don’t know how she got there, and I don’t know what they are. But I think they’re killing her.”

As Yuri finishes speaking, the lower deck door bangs open. The horses emerge on deck, led by a sailor who is holding her hand over her mouth and nose. Aisulu’s flanks are touched with a light dusting of yellow.

Roza turns back to Yuri almost immediately.

“Give me the bowl. Hold her head up.”

Together, they feed the girl a few sips of water. Then a sailor brings the food, and they feed her that too, and finally wrap her in the blankets. By the time they’re finished, both of them are covered in the yellow pollen. The girl, too, remains tinted by patches of yellow.

Yuri stands up, leaving the girl cradled in Roza’s arms. Still, her eyes are closed. She has not whimpered since Yuri found her.

The sailors have fallen silent. Without them manning the rigging or the sail, the boat has stopped sailing, and simply floats. It is deathly quiet.

“Who is she?”

Yuri’s question rings out, sharp and loud, across the ship. There is silence for a moment. Then, finally, the captain steps forth.

“She is the figurehead.” Yuri stares at him for a moment.

“Explain.”

The captain meets his stare, unwavering.

“The figurehead is the good luck charm of the ship. She wards away evil spirits. Without her, the journey is doomed.”

“So you built her into the ship?” Roza’s voice, behind him, beats him to it. Her tone is incredulous. The captain nods his head, just once. He seems unbothered by the venom in her tone, or the fire in Yuri’s eyes.

“She was unchained. Only the chained Fae are safe to release.” There is silence for a moment. Yuri doesn’t know where to start.

He wants to scream at them. She’s dying. Whoever this girl is, wherever they came from, their stupid superstition is killing her.

Before he can formulate anything coherent, say anything in her defense, the first mate adds her piece.

“Sir, you must return her. It’s a noble sacrifice. Otherwise we will all die.” Her voice is steady, as if this is somehow a perfectly reasonable statement. Yuri sees red.

Roza growls, audibly.

“Return her? She’s dying! She...”

Yuri interrupts her by punching the captain in the face. Caught completely off-guard, he stumbles back, sending the first mate flying. They collapse on the deck, and somebody shouts.

 

-

 

Roza hasn’t got a fucking clue what’s going on. Somebody had hit Yuri back, and now it’s just chaos. She drags the girl as far away from the brawl as she can get her, and then goes back for Beka.

Only he’s not there.

 

-

 

Yuri hasn’t had many near-death experiences. There was a bad fall off a horse, once, and an illness when he was very young. Both accidents. The stint in the river at Vera’s hands had been the closest he’d ever got.

But nobody’s actively tried to murder him before.

This woman is strong enough to hold him against the ship mast with just the one hand around his neck. It’s like being underwater, but worse. He can’t get his fingers underneath hers, his flailing feet only scraping her shins. His lungs are screaming, desperately empty. Instinct has his mouth open, but he can’t even gasp. It burns, the press of his neck against her hand, the weight of his empty lungs, his muscles attempting to strain against her. It only takes seconds for him to weaken, his kicks little more than spasms.

Somebody is yelling. The captain?

“Don’t kill him! We need him!”

The sailor’s grip remains firm.

Panic, wild and stuttering, wells up. Shit, nobody had thought to tell him that dying fucking hurts.

The sword passes right in front of his eyes. Jerking away, he bashes his head on the mast behind him. The woman screams. Yuri drops.

Collapsing to the floor, he scrabbles for breath. The air scorches his lungs, but the relief is desperately welcome. The woman’s body lands next to him. He doesn’t check to see if she’s dead. Nobody else approaches. Looking up, it takes Yuri a minute to realise what exactly is going on.

Somebody is standing over him, protecting him. Holding a sword.

“Would somebody like to explain to me why you were trying to kill Yuri?” Otabek says, calmly.

Yuri opens his mouth, and tries to stand up. Everything goes black.

Chapter Text

“Grandmama! Grandmama!” She runs, calling, keeping her hands cupped carefully in front of her. Pollo runs beside her, flapping like she’s trying to fly, and squawking. She is a loud bird, but Elvira loves her anyway. She’s fat and fluffy and silly and she’ll do anything Elvira wants her to for food.

Grandmama is by the back door of the cottage. She’s chopping wood, but mother isn’t home, so the axe rests against the wall. She turns to see her granddaughter come running, and smiles. Elvira loves Grandmama’s smiles.

“Look! I made a flower!”

Grandmama leans down, and inspects the flower solemnly. She’s silent for too long. Elvira starts to droop, but then Grandmama nods. She cups her hands underneath Elvira’s. They are both soft and sandpapery. Pelayo doesn’t like it when Grandmama touches him, but Elvira loves it. Grandmama’s hands are always kind, and they can do wonderful, beautiful things. Like hers will too, someday.

“It’s my favourite! How did you know?” Elvira giggles, relived. Grandmama takes the flower, carefully, and looks more closely. She has to squint a little. It makes her eyebrows crease and wriggle, like caterpillars. Only caterpillars that are losing their hair. Bald caterpillars. “These petals are perfect, my soul. Would you like it to be this beautiful forever?”

Of course she does!

Grandma teaches her. They bury the flower in soil, together. Her hands are so small and pink, not like Grandmama’s. Hers are big, grey and blue and kind of spotty, especially in the wrinkles. They both end up as brown as Pelayo when they get covered in soil, though.

Pollo scratches at the dirt, curious, her little head tipping from side to side as she clucks.

“It’s a forever flower,” Elvira tells her, seriously. She pats her feathers, lightly, like Grandmama told her. You must pat all animals lightly, otherwise they think you’re hitting them, and nobody likes to be told off with a smack. And you don’t hit people that you love.

The chicken stretches her neck forward, and steals one of the petals off the flower.

“Pollo!” Elvira cries, upset. Grandmama is laughing.

“Silly thing,” she says. “It’s alright. Let her have it. You can practice now.”

So Elvira gives it another petal, and the forever flower is whole again.

“I can’t wait to show Pelayo!”

Elvira hops on one leg all the way back to the house. Grandmama walks slowly, even in the garden. Like a snail. But a soft snail, not a slimy one. With a fluffy head, like a dandelion.

“You’re a dandelion snail!” She tells Grandmama, happily. Grandmama frowns, and Elvira stops skipping.

“Were you listening to me, Elvira?”

She hangs her head.

“Sorry, Grandmama.”

Grandmama hugs her, and kisses her forehead. And Elvira understands. Grandmama is scared, and Elvira is scared too.

“I swear, I won’t tell,” she promises, “I’ll just show him. It’s so pretty!”

“Why don’t you make your brother something else? I’m sure he has a different favourite flower to me.”

Elvira wrinkles her nose.

“Yes. He’s a tree person. But I can’t do trees yet.”

“Well, we have plenty of time to learn before he gets back from the mountains. Would you like to try?”

“Yes! Yes! Please Grandmama, please!” Elvira jumps up and down, happily. Pollo runs circles around them both, clucking with excitement. Elvira picks her up, and buries her nose in Pollo’s feathers.

 

-

 

“Elvira! Elvira!” Mother is calling. She is desperate. There will be tears soon. Mother has been doing a lot of crying recently.

Elvira squeezes her eyes shut, and does not call back. Instead, she digs herself deeper into the hole under the tree. Pollo clucks, annoyed at being squeezed in tighter, but Elvira shushes her.

She doesn’t want to be found. It’s all wrong. Her head is empty, like she has a headache, but worse.

Grandmama would know what to do. Grandmama would call Elvira her soul, and use the forever flower to help her go to sleep, and when she woke up, she would be all better. But the forever flower went all limp and floppy when Grandmama went to sleep, and Elvira can’t bring it back on her own.

She buries her face in Pollo’s feathers, and cries.

 

-

 

Somebody finds her, days later, in a cocoon of flowers she has made for herself. She’s been asleep.

It’s a woman, she thinks. The person tries to talk to her, but Elvira would rather be asleep. She’s still empty. She wants to sleep until she’s not empty.

The person lifts her, and Elvira does not protest. Pollo is clucking, screaming, but Elvira makes her stop. She’d had enough of being cold and hungry. Maybe this person will take her back to mother.

 

-

 

They think she’s somebody else.

Elvira is more awake now. Awake enough to be scared. The woman who picked her up doesn’t seem to know the way back to Elvira’s house. They’re going the wrong way. And they keep calling her a different name.

“I’m not Fae.” She says, but none of the others speak her tongue. “My name’s Elvira. My name’s not Fae.”

They aren’t listening.

Elvira just wants to go home.

 

-

 

Yuri touches his head, tenderly. He's lying on a hard floor, his head throbbing. It's too bright for a second, and he squints, trying to get his bearings. 

The girl is still unconscious, but he can feel her. Somehow, she’s in his head.

The rest of it takes a little longer to process. Everyone is still in exactly the position they were when he collapsed. Or fainted, maybe. He feels like he’s just woken up from a deep sleep. Initially, he doesn’t notice the stillness. Or the silence.

Then, all at once, he realises what he’s looking at.

The ship is growing. The planks of wood that used to be the top deck are no longer lying flat and regular. The sound of wood creaking and buckling, twigs snapping and leaves rustling, is... Yuri’s never seen anything like it before. The deck is bursting into leaf, like the upper canopy of a forest. And the branches, thick, strong and unstoppable, have wrapped themselves around every person’s legs, anchoring them in place.

Everyone except he and Elvira.

He rolls over immediately, placing his hands on the wood before he can actually think about what he’s doing. Abruptly, the growth stops. He can feel it – like a consciousness, alive in his mind.

Holy shit. Did he do this?

“Yuri?” Roza’s voice is strained.

Looking up, he sees her pinned to the deck next to Elvira, almost completely covered in branches and leaves.

“Hold on.” His voice comes out as more of a rasp than a word. It stings like a bitch, too, like somebody is rubbing sandpaper down his throat.

It takes a moment to find her. Amongst the bodies on the deck, two are immediately familiar. One is Otabek – and fuck, if Yuri could just have a moment to concentrate on that he’d be fucking ecstatic – and the other is Elvira.

Roza takes a little more finding.

“Yuri? Whatever you’re doing, if you could hurry up...”

“HOLD ON.” He snaps, trying to concentrate. Christ, it’s not like he’s ever done this before. Finally, he manages to place her, and one by one, releases the branches pinning her down. Then he does the same for Beka. The plants obey his influence immediately. It barely takes more effort than Roza's tiny tree had. It is him. He can feel his influence in the trees, his strength in their nutrients, but there’s something else too. He hadn’t known he could do this, but the girl had. And somehow, she’d tapped into it. he hadn't even realised that he'd let her in. 

“Okay,” he says, slowly, getting to his feet. He’s still a little shaky. His throat burns with the words, and he swallows. It doesn’t help much. The sailors are all staring at him, frozen. Terrified. Well, having the boat you're standing on nearly ripped apart under you feet, and then finding said boat under the control of a person you just tried to kill, must be a particularly nerve-wracking position to be in. He doesn't envy them. “Okay,” he repeats, as if that will somehow make this situation make a lot more sense.

“Are you alright?”

And Otabek – fuck, he’s back. Filling Yuri’s head with his words, his voice, standing right in front of him, staring at him with his unreadable expression, and his beautiful, beautiful eyes. Jesus, why hadn’t he noticed that before?

“Hi,” Yuri says, because what the fuck else can he say? 'Thank God you’re not dead'? 'Thanks for waking up just in time to save my life'? 

“I think I missed something.” Beka's voice is calm, considered, and Yuri nearly cries at the familiarity of it. Instead, somehow, he ends up laughing. It's a stupid, controllable reaction. The release of desperation is so strong that it pitches him right over the line into utterly absurd ecstasy. Otabek laughing when they fished Yuri out of the river suddenly makes a lot more sense. He's just so, so, fucking grateful. That Otabek is standing right in front of him, still smiling, still okay. Everything else can wait. Just for now, he wants to revel in this. 

Two steps away is too much. He crosses the distance, and grabs Beka, wraps his arms around him, holding onto him so tightly that he might actually be preventing his breathing. Otabek doesn't seem to mind, if the way he holds Yuri is anything to go by. 

“No shit.” Yuri says, at last, when he can speak. 

“How long was I out?” It’s tinted with surprise. Yuri presses his nose into Beka’s hair and tries to figure out why it felt like four years, when in reality it had only been about four days. Less, really.

“Too long.”

Otabek’s arms tighten around him, just slightly, as some of the sheer panic of it bleeds through to him. And then, without even waiting for him to properly move out of the way, Roza launches herself at her brother, nearly knocking them both over with the force of it. The three of them end up wrapped up together, arms all around each other, sharing the moment. 

“I swear to whatever god you happen to follow," Roza swears, low and threatening, "If you ever do that to us again, I will personally make sure that you are incapable of sleeping comfortably for the rest of your life.” Despite the venom in her tone, Beka smiles. Yuri can't help but join in. It's such a very Roza way to show that she cares. 

“A little drastic, but whatever it takes, I suppose,” he says. Beka glares at him, though he's amused. It nearly melts him. God, Yuri's missed this. Beka has already turned back to his sister. 

“I promise, it wasn’t intentional.” Beka swears, tone low and reassuring. He will always be gentler with his sister than Yuri has ever seen him be towards anyone, including himself. Finally, Roza lets them both go. 

“Not that I’m not completely ecstatic that nobody seems to be dying or killing each other anymore,” She says, stepping back and brushing herself off, “But would somebody like to explain what the fuck is going on?”

Yuri snorts. 

"Which part?"

There are an awful lot of questions to be answered. 

"Can we start with why I have apparently been unconscious?" Otabek asks. 

"Okay," Roza frowns. "You're going to have to lower your standards on the answers you're executing here, because I don't think we have much more of an idea than you do right now."

“Actually," Yuri points to Elvira, still wrapped in her pile of blankets, "The flower she’s growing seems to have some kind of sedative quality, and she was right below your room." He pauses, then adds; "But that doesn’t explain why it affected you and not us. We slept there too. And the horses were next door the whole time, and they’re fine.” He sighs, and kicks some of the leaves out of the way. “I didn’t even know I could do this. I’m pretty convinced she helped. I just don’t know how.”

“It’s Fae magic! She’s dangerous!” The shout makes them all jump. They'd been so involved in their reunion, and the sailors so silent, that it had been easy to fade them into insignificance. 

It’s the captain. And his words seem to have broken the rest of the crew’s silence too. Some of them exchange panicked glances, and the captain gestures at the roots and branches holding them in place.

"She got inside your mind! She's controlling you! She's going to kill us all!"

Yuri sighs, and rolls his eyes. He seriously doubts that a girl whose influence was so weak that he couldn't even detect it in Aisulu, and whose control was so easily overridden that he hadn't even noticed he'd done it, would be capable of controlling him. Projecting to him, sure, but now he's got used to doing it, it doesn't exactly take much effort. Not that he has time to explain the complexities of their bonds and communications to the captain. It would take too long, and he's too stupid. 

“Oh, shut up." He snaps,  "She's just a kid. All she wants to do is go home to her family. She just happens to have some unusual skills, but so do I, and I can promise you, she's far less dangerous to you right now than I am.”

“She tried to kill me!” The captain squawks, apparently possessing the self-preservation instincts of a... well, a man provoking the person currently incapacitating him. "Through you! I saw it in your eyes!" 

“I did not,” Yuri snarls, stalking over to him, “try to kill you. And neither did she. I was just trying to knock some sense into you. As far as I remember, you were the one willing to ‘sacrifice’ Elvira to your imaginary sea monsters, and you were the ones that tried to strangle me.”

He pokes at the man’s chest, a little more sharply that entirely necessary to make his point. The captain overbalances, and unable to move his feet, ends up landing, hard, on the deck. Something cracks. Yuri opens his mouth, his piece far from said, but Roza interrupts. 

“Wait, her name is Elvira? The girl?”

She’s looking at her. She’s so tiny, so pale, she looks nothing like...

“Pelayo’s little sister.” Yuri confirms, and has the grace to look at least slightly ashamed of himself. Roza isn’t paying him any attention anyway.

“How the hell do you know that?” She demands, as if expecting him to say that he’s making it up. Why would be making this up?

He shrugs with one shoulder, leaving the Captain groaning on the floor.

“She told me.”

Rosa's eyes flash. 

“When?” She demands. 

“Just now.”

 

-

 

Otabek gets it before Roza does.

“She’s like you?”

Otabek hadn't even considered that Yuri would be able to communicate with people other than himself. In all honesty, he hadn't really considered that people with Yuri's abilities existed. Yuri is so consuming, so fiercely himself, it had been impossible to consider anyone else. But now he's listening, properly, and he can hear her. Well, not her voice. But there's something slightly different about Yuri's mind. It's not just the turmoil of emotion, but... something else. Like a flavour to it, a taint that's slightly different. 

Oh. That's exactly how Yuri had described it to him. 

Elvira. He knows almost nothing about this girl, and yet, however tenuous, he's sharing a connection with her. A connection that, until now, he had considered incredibly intimate. 

It seems that they might never stop learning about who Yuri really is, and what he's capable of. 

Yuri nods at him. 

"Yes. She has the influence." 

A whisper goes up among the sailors.

“Ha!” The first mate cries. “I knew it!” She yanks at her bonds, ineffectually, but still somehow manages to sound smug. “You looked too alike for it to be a coincidence.”

Otabek has barely looked at the girl. He does now.

She definitely looks more like Yuri than she does her brother. Though the shape of her face is different, her lips and her nose her own, her defining features are unmistakeable. The pale skin, the skinny frame, the blonde hair. Even the ears, equally and unusually small. The most condemning thing by far, however, is that where her right hand lies, open-palmed, on the deck, a small patch of yellow flowers are growing.

Otabek has watched Yuri fixing his arrows enough times to know what that means.

Yuri's a Fae. 

Chapter Text

“Lilia.”

Mila freezes at the sound of her father’s voice. She’d been on her way to the aviary to get Ariya for Yuri, but...

Yakov is supposed to be hearing from an important messenger in the throne room right now. An important, top secret messenger. With news from Assissia. And possibly, just possibly, news of Yuri.

Mila stops walking. She’s just behind a wall, just out of view, but within clear hearing distance. She can't believe her luck. 

“Yakov.”

The greeting is as cool and dignified as ever. As far as Mila knows, Lilia has had the training courtyard to herself all morning. Anyone interrupting, even Yakov, is unheard of. But Lilia isn’t even angry with him. Well, no more than usual. What is going on?

Oh, Mila wouldn’t miss this for the world. She ducks down and shuffles a little further down the corridor, to crouch under a window slightly closer to the action. There’s no way she’ll risk spying, but she settles in to eavesdrop at close quarters.

The courtyard is otherwise deserted, but it is open. The King and Queen have reason to be quiet, and Mila doesn’t want to miss anything.

Yakov’s voice is low, tense with urgency.

“The disappearances have increased again. Several of my scouts have not reported back and we are led to assumed they have been killed. The... activity in the north prevails, and worse, they now know that we are aware of their presence. If we don’t act fast, we will lose the benefit of surprise.”

It means nothing to Mila, but it sounds big. And her heart is immediately thumping. North of Rusiki? There’s hardly anybody out there, besides the herders. But that’s where Nikolai is...

“We should have told Yuri before he left.”

Lilia’s tone is biting.

“Not here,” Yakov growls. “I stand by my decision. Unless we hear otherwise, we assume he crossed safely. My scouts in the area have been able to confirm that the messenger King Altin sent ahead of himself at the tournament matched the description of the missing people so far. It’s safe to call it a viable reason that she never arrived.”

Oh God – Mila remembers that. How could she not? Otabek arriving so unexpectedly and completely unannounced had caused quite a stir. But what had happened to the messenger? What does disappeared mean - kidnapped, or dead? And how does Yakov know about it?

This is big. All she’d wanted was to hear news of her little brother. But it’s too late to sneak away now. She’s invested. She has to know everything she can. So she stays exactly where she is, her back pressed to the wall, her muscles so tense that it begins to ache.

“That was months ago.” Lilia is angry now. Mila knows the ice in her tone well, and fears it more than Yakov has ever done. “How long will it be before we have news of Yuri?”

“You trained him well. He is perfectly capable of defending himself.”

“And how is he supposed to fight when you didn’t warn him what he was up against?”

“He wouldn’t have listened to me. You know that.”

“That’s not my problem. He would have listened to me.”

There is silence for a moment. Mila’s trying to keep her breathing as quiet as possible, but the sudden panic, the realisation of the weight of the situation she’s just put herself in, is making it difficult.

Yakov’s voice is cold.

“I have more news.”

“Then inform me and go.”

Mila knows that her father and his wife do not get on. It’s common knowledge, really. But even with family, they at least uphold the same pretence at civility that they maintain in public. This is different. This is what it must be like for them, day in, day out. Sharing a bed, a role, a life. And hating each other, so openly.

She thinks of her own impending Marriage Tournament, and says a small prayer.

“The situation in Khazakistannis is worsening. Without stable leadership, the garrison is having trouble keeping the attackers from the north at bay. There have been at least two attacks on Atil-Khazaran since the Princess left. The damage is not yet known, but there are reports of widespread fires. Traders are already beginning to avoid the port.”

Mila slaps her hand over her mouth to prevent the gasp.

Is this what they sent Yuri to? Knowingly and willingly? She’d known about the civil war, of course, but it had only been so much background noise. It hadn’t even come up while Otabek had been at court. He’d just never talked about it.

But this...

Attacks on the capital – successful attacks – is a development that can only mean an escalation. Mila has never been to Atil-Khazaran, but Sara has. And what it city it sounds to be. She is upset, too, that a place she had so looked forward to seeing for herself may be destroyed. It’s selfish, but she can’t help the reaction.

“There have been troop dispatches from both the De Iglesia and Leroy courts,” Yakov continues, solemnly. “King Altin is calling on his allies. For now, it is not common knowledge, which buys him some time, but as soon as they land in Assissia and their presence is known, he will also be mustering his allies on the continent. It will force a retaliation. War is imminent.”

Mila remembers Otabek clearly. How could she not? He’d been striking, and the tournament had embedded him firmly in court life at Rusiki.

Hell, she liked him. The fact that he was handsome helped, of course, but he was also a genuinely likeable person. A little stoic at first, perhaps, but he had perfect manners, like any gentleman should. And Mila had met enough high-climbing spoofs to know when it was genuine. He was interesting. He danced like you were supposed to enjoy it, not like it was a staple of a social function. And she’d discovered that he had a wicked sense of humour. Honestly, if Yuri didn’t have dibs, Mila would have been perfectly happy to get to know Otabek more than a little better.

It’s a shock, having to reconcile his gentle manner and heart-stopping smirk with the knowledge that he is amassing an army.

“Otabek has made it quite clear that he has no intention of fighting.” Lilia’s voice is calm. Mila is startled by the assurance of her statement. How does she know that? “Don’t jump to conclusions. He will still need that power to be able to hold sway in negotiations. You know that as they stand, the northerners have no incentive to cease their attacks.”

“If Atil-Khazaran falls, we lose all trade with Assissia.” Yakov is getting agitated. He had begun to raise his voice. Behind the wall, Mila recoils by instinct. “The only other route is over the land bridge, and the unrest in the north has made that impassable! It is on our land, and we will be held accountable by the rest of the continent if we do not act!”

Lilia, Mila imagines, does not recoil. Most likely, she stands ramrod-straight, her nose in the air and her arms crossed.

“I am aware of the situation. The important question is, what do you propose to do about it?”

There is a small moment of silence.

When Yakov speaks again, it is lowly, like he has remembered that they are not in the court rooms, with their thick walls and multiple doors. Nevertheless, Mila catches every word with eager ears.

“The time has come to acknowledge the situation in the north. We will call it civil unrest, and send a small delegation to tackle the issue. There will also be reinforcements sent to King Altin. With Yuri’s connection, it is an acceptable move to make. If either plan fails, the other might save the worst of Rusiki’s losses.”

“I will lead the knights to Atil-Khazaran.” It is not a question, but a statement. Nevertheless, Yakov disagrees.

“I need you at court in my absence.”

“You cannot lead a delegation to the north.” Lilia’s tone is less harsh than it could be. After all, the last time he went north was when he met Mila and Yuri’s mother. “Let Victor go, and Yuri. They fight well together, and it will be a symbol of their unity. A failure, too, would be more forgivable for less experienced men. And I shall go to Assissia.”

“And so I sit around here and do nothing?”

“Isn’t that what you would have had me do?” Then, once again, the sharpness in Lilia’s voice softens. “You are not the warrior you used to be. Do not let pride lead you on a suicide mission. Rusiki would suffer without you.”

Again, there is quiet. There seems to be no hurry in this conversation, despite its apparent urgency. Putting their personal feelings aside, the King and the Queen must consider this from all angles. Mila has seen it happen in court, seen them both act against their own interests for the sake of Rusiki, but never has she known their emotions to be so openly on the table at the same time.

“Victor knows nothing of the Fae.” Yakov says, at last.

Mila blinks. Everything else she has followed so far with relative ease, able to fill the gaps with what little news she has from outside. But this is new. What are the Fae? How do they come into this?

“Then tell him. You cannot hide it forever, and now is the best time. He will understand your motives, the reason for your silence. Wait any longer and it becomes deception.”

It seems that Yakov is running out of arguments. Mila understands his position. It’s the same place she always seems to end up in when opposing Lilia.

“I cannot have you away from court for so long. Losing you is too big a risk.”

For a moment, Mila wonders if there is a hint of tenderness in his voice. Lilia, however, allows him no peace.

“I was away from court for five years, and you coped. Victor and I are the fittest fighters, and the most familiar with both court procedures and military tactics, whichever the situation should call for.”

“Alright. But Georgi and Mila don’t need to know yet.”

She’s so engaged in the conversation that Mila nearly spooks at her own name. For a moment, she thinks she’s been found. She hasn’t, of course. But this is such an unexpected revelation that she hadn’t yet had time to think herself affected by it. Of course it does, though. It affects all of them. “Not until Victor can confirm our suspicions.”

“Will you be able to swear him to secrecy?”

“I’ll explain Yuri’s situation to him. He’ll understand.”

Lilia sighs.

“He will. He was always too like you.”

Mila wonders what that means. That Victor will be willing to use any means to justify the ends? That he will prioritise the kingdom over his brother? Because if they’re going to trust him to that, Mila’s not sure whether it’s a safe bet. Yuri Katsuki has changed Victor more than either the King or Queen seem to realise.

A decision, however, has been reached.

“There will be a cohort assembled by the end of the week. You will take the mountain pass.”

“Obviously.” Lilia’s tone is acerbic. “Keep me informed. I would like to be present when you break the news to Victor and Yuri.”

“Obviously,” Yakov echoes. “Finish your training, then meet us in the throne room. I will send a servant to fetch them. The sooner we get this started, the better.”

And the conversation is over. Mila recognises the pattern of Yakov’s footsteps, and for a moment, she panics. But he moves in the opposite direction, and she remains hidden.

For a moment, all she can do is stare at the wall on the other side of the corridor. Behind her, the rapid thumping of arrows landing in quick succession is easily ignored.

What is she supposed to do with this information? Obviously she’s not supposed to know, but what could she do about it anyway? She doesn’t know enough about whatever the situation in the north is to be able to weigh in, and sending reinforcements to Atil-Khazaran seems like a fairly sensible idea from what little information Yakov had provided. Keeping that to herself for now is an obvious choice too, lest Otabek lose his advantage of having time to assemble troops before the northerners launch the worst of their attack.

But what about Yuri? What have they not told him that Otabek wouldn’t have been able to fill him in on? It’s far more likely to be whatever is happening in the north of Rusiki, or along the landbridge. But what could that be? Mila has heard nothing of any unusual disappearances until today. And she certainly hasn’t got a clue what a Fae is.

Actually, that’s a good starting point. It’s something that she might be able to find information on in the library. And if not, then she could probably risk asking Georgi and hoping that he doesn’t get suspicious.

Ariya forgotten, Mila scuttles back the way she came, making an effort to keep her footsteps quiet even as she hurries.

Left alone in the courtyard, Lilia takes a running jump, and lands five fatal blows through the slitted visors of five helmeted practice dummies. Satisfied, she retrieves the arrows and packs them back into her quiver. Then, bow still slung over her shoulder, she makes her way towards the throne room. The time has come to end Rusiki's years of peace.