Once upon a time, there were two boys both named Yuri. Despite their shared name, they bore little enough resemblance to each other. One was a man grown, with dark hair and golden-brown eyes, and a beauty (especially when he danced) that everyone except he himself could see from miles away. The other teetered on the boundary of boy and man, with pale hair and green eyes, and although he could dance, if anyone called him beautiful he would shout at them until they stopped.
The boy Yuri grew up the foster brother of the man Yuri, and the two Yuris loved each other and shouted at each other as much as the man Yuri loved and was shouted at by his sister Mari. But eventually word came to the boy Yuri: "Your parents are dead, and your grandfather grows old and weak. It is time to return home."
At first the boy Yuri thought to return alone, but the family said, "No, our two Yuris will go together."
"I what?"" said the man Yuri.
"Well," said his sister, "after what happened at Obon --"
"Right, of course," the man Yuri said hastily, and that was that. When the day came, the two Yuris set off together.
They walked, and they walked, and sometimes they said nothing and sometimes they spoke. As is the way on long journeys, sometimes they talked of small silly things, and sometimes they talked of deeper questions. The man Yuri did not ask after the boy Yuri's grandfather, and the boy Yuri did not ask what happened at Obon.
Eventually they approached the city where the grandfather lived, but with each step closer, the man Yuri grew quieter and quieter, and smiled less and less. The boy Yuri did not noticed at first, then did not want to notice. At last, he could no longer pretend, and burst out with, "What the fuck is your problem?"
The man Yuri jumped, just as his flints struck together, and the spark flew well out of the fire circle. The two spent the next few minutes frantically dumping earth on the inappropriate fire and trying not to get dirt all over everything else.
Finally the fire was where it belonged, and their dinner cooking. That might, in an easier world, have been the end of it, but the boy Yuri never learned to let go. "You didn't answer me," he said gruffly. "What's your problem?"
"Nothing," the man Yuri said.
"Bullshit. You're here to help, not be a fucking idiot. You've gone all quiet like you're worried again. If you're going to be useless, why did you even fucking come?"
The older Yuri didn't answer. Instead, he pressed his lips together and looked away from his brother's angry gaze.
"Fine! Fucking be like that! See if I fucking try to --" the boy Yuri waved his hands and abandoned his sentence. He poked at the fire angrily, and checked the skewers of meat and mushroom angrily, and ate his half angrily (but still left the other half for his brother), and wrapped himself in blankets angrily. It took him a long time to fall asleep, but at last he did.
Some people are born with a whisper in their mind, like a malicious wind, telling them that at any moment, their fears will become reality. One kingdom blames these winds on witches, another on the fey, and a third holds it the fault of the parents of the afflicted, who must have done something awful to make their child suffer so.
The man Yuri grew up with such a whisper. He could quiet it with drinking, or with dancing, or with his family - sometimes. Try though he might, he had not yet learned to silence it on his own. By that fire, far away from home, with his foster brother's careless words ringing in his ears, the whisper seemed very loud and very close.
He ate his meal, banked the fire, and sat staring into the embers for what seemed a long time. Then he rose to his feet. "Just for a walk," he said out loud. "Just to clear my head."
The boy Yuri remained still, wrapped in his blankets, breathing heavy and regular with sleep.
The man Yuri turned, and walked away.
Step by step, with whispers of poison in his ears - fucking idiot - and shadows twisted beneath his feet - going to be useless - Yuri's walk became a jog, and his jog became a run. His head did not clear, because no one can outrun their own mind, no matter how fast they go. At last one foot caught a low branch, and Yuri fell sprawling across the ground, the breath knocked out of him.
He lay there for a moment, bruised and tired and cold and tangled in grass and fading fear. A heavy mist swirled around him, hiding any familiar stars. Then he laughed, a sharp, silent huff. He'd proved his brother right, hadn't he? He'd let the words of an impatient boy touch him, and gone running off like exactly the fucking idiot he'd been called. He pushed himself to hands and knees, with the intention of returning to his foster brother - if he could find the way in the dark and the fog and the unknown land.
A chill breeze swirled around him, and he heard, not far distant, the sound of music. Dance music, almost but not quite familiar.
Yuri stood, and walked in the direction of the music. The fog swirled around him. Off in the distance, a light like a candle gleamed invitingly. Yuri glanced at it, then looked away. It was a different direction than the music, coming clearer with each step despite the fog, and if he had to pick a mysterious, possibly-magical lure, he preferred music over bobbing lights.
He walked on, step by step. The whispers of his own fears had dulled, but so had everything else: his feet ached with cold until he could hardly feel the ground underneath them, the night and the fog left him half-blind, and something - perhaps the fog again - filled his nose so he couldn't even smell or taste properly. Only the music came clearly.
At last he stumbled over his numb feet, and fell to his knees again on the ground. Only it wasn't the dirt and grass he'd expected, that he'd thought he'd been walking on. It was smooth stone, polished as fine as glass, warm as a summer's evening to the touch.
Yuri sat back on his heels, and looked around. No fog, no wind. Instead, he knelt in what seemed to be the entryway of some fine house, with tall pillars and bright colored walls. He scrambled up, looking around for a door out. Either he'd hit his head when he fell earlier, and this was a dream, or else he'd stumbled into some place that he surely should not be.
Yuri jumped. Another young man, dressed in fine brocades and with an official-looking sash draped across his chest, had appeared from the shadows where there must be a door into the rest of the house. "I - I'm sorry, sir," Yuri stammered, bowing politely. "I shouldn't have--"
"You should," the young man said with a grin. "At least, if you're a dancer. Are you a dancer?"
"Ye-es?" Yuri's skin prickled with belated wariness. Where was he? What was going on?
"Oh, good!" the young man said, clapping his hands together. "We're always looking for new dancers. Tonight's the first of the great Autumn Dances, so His Majesty will be looking for a partner too - here, this way -"
To his own surprise, Yuri didn't move. He might be a fool, afraid of his own shadow, but he had danced for ghosts and kings before, and he had his pride. "Without even seeing me dance?" he said, and it came out a challenge.
The young man had extended one hand, as if to draw back the shadows like a curtain. He stayed there for a long, posed moment, studying Yuri. Then he smiled, showing teeth a little too sharp for a human mouth, and instead extended his other hand to Yuri. "If you insist," he said softly.
From a coldly objective point of view, it was not Yuri's best work. There was little space in the room, between the pillars, and the music that had drawn Yuri there had faded, leaving only the soft humming of his unexpected partner, when he remembered and wasn't looking down at his own feet, or up at Yuri with bright intense eyes. But Yuri had danced to silence and the memory of music before, in the tight space of his own room, and dream or not, he would not fail. At last, the young man dropped Yuri's hand, laughing, and bowed deeply to Yuri. "They call me Phichit," he said, still breathless from the laughter. "How shall I call you?"
"Excellent! Now, wait a moment."
Phichit ducked into the shadows, and returned the promised moment later, carrying ink and a brush. He took Yuri's wrists and painted signs on Yuri's skin that Yuri could almost, but not quite, read, then knelt and repeated the signs on Yuri's ankles. He paused there, head tilted to one side as if considering something, then rose to his feet and drew something silvery from where it had been tucked in his sash. "One last thing," he said, and before Yuri could do more than blink, dropped the silver chain around Yuri's neck.
Yuri shivered in a second of intense cold. It faded quickly, and he looked down at himself to find that wrists and ankles and chain were all invisible, hidden behind clothing as fine as Phichit's, though of darker color.
"Here," Phichit said softly. "This way. Welcome to the Autumn Dance."
Yuri wasn't sure if they moved through a curtain, or if the room dissolved around them and re-formed into some new place. Either way, he found himself suddenly surrounded, and swept off into a new dance, as the music he had heard before surged up, clean and clear and loud.
It went on for what felt like hours, although Yuri never felt himself grow tired. He danced sometimes with a group, sometimes with a partner; with men, with women, with people whose gender he didn't know, with people who did not appear human at all. Every so often the music paused, and Yuri found a glass of clear liquid in his hand. He told himself it was water, and drank it. He'd made that choice back in the antechamber, dancing with Phichit.
In the middle of a dance, someone grabbed Yuri's butt. He stumbled, nearly colliding with his current partner. By the time he regained his feet, the partner in question had vanished into the crowd. Yuri turned around to protest at being grabbed - and found a man of about Yuri's age, smirking at Yuri through his close-trimmed goatee and mustache. He wore bright clothing, as close-fitted as his own skin, and he reached out and stroked Yuri's sleeve as if he had the right.
"Sir?" Yuri glanced at the man's hand, then back up at the man. Was this the King who was looking for a partner?
"Phichit tells me you're a good dancer, so I came to try you out for myself," the man said, which neither explained who he was, nor why he hadn't just come and asked for a dance like a normal person. His hand slid up Yuri's arm.
Yuri did not stop to wonder why, or what the man intended. The dancing filled him with bubbling courage like strong wine. He clamped his other hand over the man's, pinning it in place. "If you would like to dance here, sir, then you need only ask."
The man eyed him in silence, long enough for the old familiar whispers in Yuri's mind to wake again and shriek that he'd mis-stepped, that any moment now he would blink and find himself alone in a night-cold field, with no way home. But at last the man smiled, as wide and pointed as Phichit, and said, "Then I'm asking."
The press of bodies around them eased, and Yuri looked around to find himself, and his new dance partner, alone in a sudden clear space. The music played on, though it slowed to something sinuous and breathless. Yuri looked back at the man, raised his chin, and stepped forward.
This man was a better dancer than Phichit, and not merely in the sense that he has better music and more space. He knew how to lead Yuri through the steps, and how to follow when the music shifted and Yuri took control. Whenever he had the chance, he leaned into Yuri, as if the dance would translate into a seduction. But Yuri looked away, and braced his arms to keep the man at a distance.
The dance ended with the music, and they held position, hands around each other's waists. The man studied Yuri thoughtfully, and Yuri stared back, defiant. He could feel the panic trying to well up again, but it subsided quickly - the dance, the room, the night were all too unreal for fear to take proper hold.
At last the man smiled, and shook his head with a rueful chickle. "An excellent dance and an excellent dancer," he said, releasing Yuri at last. He bowed slightly. "They call me Chris. I would like to introduce you to another dancer, better than I. Will you come?"
He didn't touch Yuri, but Yuri still found himself following Chris across the room. He expected to lose him in the crowd as the music resumed its familiar pulse, but the crowd never quite seemed to re-materialize. Either Chris had a magical sense for openings, the dancers were deliberately leaving them room, or both.
At last Chris stopped short, and Yuri did too, peering around Chris to see this other dancer.
They stood in front of a throne, tall and black, with only its size and the man sitting in it to prove it a throne. But the man - oh, this man Yuri had seen before. He'd danced with this man before. Last time, the man wasn't wearing a crown (now gleaming gold against his silver hair), and he wore different clothing (equally elegant), but he could not mistake the hair and the sky blue of his eyes and - though he only saw it once before - the smile on this man's lips as he looked up and saw them standing there.
"Your majesty!" Chris bowed, low and elaborate. "Allow me to introduce you to -"
Yuri opened his mouth to say Your Majesty, and what came out, as he walked forward - oh, this must be a dream - was, "Viktor."
Viktor took Yuri's hand and kissed them, one after another. He glanced over at Chris, then said, "Shall we dance?"
"Yes," Yuri said.
The music changed again - not to the self-conscious invitation that had accompanied the trial dance with Chris, but to something flowing and rippling like water. Viktor led Yuri away from the throne. The crowd of dancers had receded again, or perhaps vanished entirely - Yuri didn't know which, and didn't care, not in Viktor's arms. This wasn't a test. Viktor already knew Yuri could dance.
"You remember," Viktor murmured, hardly audible over the music.
"Yes," Yuri said again.
"I've been waiting."
He hadn't known. He hadn't been sure. But all Yuri said was, "I'm sorry."
Viktor swirled Yuri into a turn, and Yuri leaned into his arms. "You're here now," Viktor said, and smiled, voice deepening to something like a purr. "In my arms. At last."
He kissed Yuri. It felt real - not faint, or filtered, or dream-like, but sudden and vivid as red blood on winter snow. Yuri moaned despite himself.
Somewhere outside, a cock crowed, and everything went dark around them.
Miles and another world away, the boy Yuri rolled over and sat up. "What time is -"
He stopped. The fire had gone out, but he could see clearly enough in the faint light of dawn. Only one travel-pack sat near him, no sign of the second bed-roll that should have still been spread out on the other side of the fire, with his foster-brother on it. Instead, brightly colored autumn leaves lay scattered across the campsite, as if a wind passed through.
Yuri blinked. Blinked again. Then said, "Well, fuck."