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Skrei and Songbird

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Year 1484, Summer 30 -I have resolved to study this mysterious phenomenon known as 'Anima'. I hope my findings prove useful.-

"Thank you one and all! Come inside and feast your eyes on our troupe's most exquisite rarity! You won't find this anywhere else!"

A portly man, donned in a gaudy red dress suit and a fake moustache, beckoned the passers-by to his tent. It was a bright, warm day and his troupe members had just finished their street performance. Adults handed them coins as children tried to imitate the acrobatics and magic acts. Many of them clamored for a chance to talk with the star of the show, a teenager of around 16 years. He had earthy brown eyes, ebony hair, and a cherubic smile, but his most striking feature was the angelic white wings draped over his back. The performer nervously greeted his fans, who quickly exclaimed their praises before hurrying into the flashy tent.

The inside was pleasantly shady and stuffy in the mid-Spring heat. The soft glow of the lanterns illuminated the room’s center, where stood a fish bowl that could hold two grown humans. Stones and aquatic weeds adorned the bottom of the tank, as well as a barely convincing plastic treasure chest. Fake gold coins and cheap imitations of precious stones and gems spilled over the chest’s chipping paint. Among this staged scenery, the main attraction roamed the exhibit. Long silvery blond hair dressed in strings of gems floated alluringly in the water. Azure eyes charmed the crowd under their gaze. Ruby and sapphire jewelry hung over a pale, well defined torso. A glittering silver tail swished through the water as the beautiful creature preened himself, ever the crowd pleaser. The extra fins on the side of his tail made him quite the exotic and realistic merman, and his beauty usually managed to convince people that he was a real mermaid.

"Everyone, From deep within the far Western sea, I present the merman, Victor!” the troupe master entered the tent. "He is 17 years old and wishes to find himself a beautiful bride someday. Anyone interested?" he teased. Several women swooned when the man in the tank flashed a seductive smile. The master glanced at the collection box as he continued selling his show.

~~~

"Great job today!" the troupe master hoisted the earnings as the troupe gathered all the props and hoops and costumes into the convoys. When the last audience member left the tent, the man in the fish bowl hoisted himself out, his tail immediately returned to being two human legs and the slits on his neck abandoned their form. He grabbed a towel from the corner and quickly dried himself, then dressed himself to regain his decency and body heat. He tore off the jewelry from his body, and jumped when the entrance cracked open. He relaxed as soon as he saw the winged man slip in, silhouetted by the early evening sky.

"Yuuri!"

"Victor, you have some pearls stuck in your hair," he laughed and walked over and started combing through the silver locks.

"Oh, thanks," Victor smiled, then gestured to the still full bowl. Yuuri nodded, lifted his shirt over his head, and spread his wings. Within seconds he was perched on the rim of the tank. Victor climbed up the ladder, a pail in his hands. He carefully filled it with water and gently poured it over Yuuri's wings. It was cold and unpleasant but not nearly as unpleasant as the stuff he was forced to put on himself. Yuuri grimaced as the white paint turned slimy, then dripped off to reveal black feathers, with a single row of white on the underside of each wing. Thankfully the tank was big enough that master would not notice any contamination for a while. He felt bad that Victor had to swim in such filthy water.

Once back on the ground, Yuuri gave his wings one last shake before allowing them to disappear.

"I hate this," he said bitterly as Victor handed him his shirt.

"I know, I hate this too," Victor sighed, "But not much longer", he squeezed Yuuri's hand.

"I'll try and get it tonight," Victor said.

"... Alright. I think we've planned enough, " Yuuri said, "And I saw a good place to escape to when we first got here. Just be careful, please."

"You two!" the troupe master barged in. They flinched, but he didn't seem to have overheard them.

"Go get some dinner," he grinned, then turned back to order everyone else around.

"On the bright side, we're never obliged to help clean," Victor mused, even though they always helped anyway. Over the past few weeks, he had come to appreciate the other troupe members. Unlike Yuuri and Victor, most of them genuinely enjoyed performing. One of them, Stephane, was even like Yuuri and Victor, and rather liked to show off his unique abilities. He had a lot of fun playing the devil opposite Yuuri's angel, and his bat wings naturally looked the part, unlike Yuuri. Also everyone agreed that the new master Barras was pretty slimy and greedy.

Dinner passed uneventfully, with some hushed discussion of the troupe's plans to rid themselves of Barras. Some of the schemes they overheard sounded promising. Their former leader was a kind man who loved writing plays and dances. He always let them keep as much of the earnings as possible, and agreed to a year long contract with Yuuri. One day, Barras approached him with a mysterious gift that turned out to be a 'mermaid' that he had netted while fishing. Not long after that, their leader disappeared, and Barras made himself the new leader before anyone could do anything.

"If we steal the earnings box, we could negotiate with him," offered one of the fire dancers as she picked at her broccoli.

"That shouldn't be too hard for me," Stephane agreed, "But that doesn't really get rid of him."

"Could we pay him to leave?" asked one of the acrobats between mouthfuls of rice.

Unfortunately, Yuuri and Victor were planning on being gone before that. Thankfully the others, especially Stephane, understood their dilemma. As evening turned to night, everyone turned in for the day. Yuuri made sure to sleep by Victor's side and as close to the exit as possible. Once they were sure everyone was soundly asleep, Victor nodded to Yuuri and crept out towards the master's room. When he was sure the other had successfully made it out, Yuuri carefully climbed to his knees and tiptoed out himself. Safely outside, he revealed his wings, allowing himself to blend with the darkness. He hid himself outside Barras's room and peeked into the window. Stephane's night vision would be helpful right now, he thought to himself, but he would have to make do.

Surprisingly, Victor had little trouble entering Barras's room. But even with only the moonlight as guidance, he could tell that the place was a mess. Barras had stuffed several chests and drawers full of petty treasures. The bastard even sleeps with his money, Victor frowned when he noticed the coinpurse next to Barras's head. Then he wondered...

He gingerly sidestepped the clutter on the floor, and noticed that Yuuri was in place outside. His common sense then reminded him that he should examine the coinpurse last. He scanned the room as best as he could for any sign of a book. Next to the bed was a night stand with a small drawer. It seemed to be the only one not completely overflowing with junk. He grasped the handle and inched it open, hoping the squeaking would not reveal his presence. There was still plenty of junk in the drawer ranging from cheap bracelets to plastic trinkets, but beneath them was a brown leather book. The cover was plain and worn, but he knew that Yuuri would not leave without this. He carefully picked it up and placed it on top of the table. He then turned his attention to the coinpurse and slowly lifted it off of the bed. It was rather light, which was a fortunate sign. He snapped it open and was pleased to see a pair of pearl earrings and a round, golden band snuggled in the lining.

He snapped the purse closed, figuring he would just steal it for convenience. Before he could turn to pick up the book, he felt a vice grip close on his wrist. The coinpurse was yanked out of his trapped hand, his heart froze in his chest as he met eyes with the now very awake master. Forgetting to restrain himself, he checked the window. His motion had not gone unnoticed, and Barras turned to check the window. To Victor's relief, Yuuri had disappeared from sight and was making his way back to bed. Even though they had planned for this, Victor still panicked when he thought of what punishments Barras might give him. He probably wouldn't kill him. He brought in too much money for that. But he could make his life miserable. He barely registered that Barras was dragging him into the show tent until he met icy cold water. It was too dark to see, but Victor was sure that Barras was going check to make sure Yuuri was properly asleep.

~~~

The next morning, Yuuri woke early after a fitful nap that was not worthy of being called sleep. On a day off, he would normally sleep in, but their brush with terror the previous night made it impossible. He hastily freshened up and stepped outside to see a small crowd gathered around the show tent. He also heard Barras's rough and thundering voice as if he were selling a product. Yuuri seized the opportunity and ran towards Barras's room, only to find it locked. He cursed and made his way to the tent.

He opened the curtains to find Victor thrashing around in his watery prison, his hands tied behind his back. The master was spewing some nonsense about him being visited by an angel of death that wanted the merman for herself and to come back tomorrow to hear more story. Yuuri wanted to choke him, then got an idea. He jumped when someone tapped his shoulder from behind. He sighed in relief when he realized it was Stephane pulling him aside.

"Are you alright?" he asked. Yuuri nodded.

"Good. Best of luck," Stephane handed a cloth backpack to Yuuri and winked, "You know, you could have just asked me for help."

Through the cloth, Yuuri could feel his book and Victor's items and realized Stephane must have followed them last night. Stephane liked it here, so as far as Yuuri knew nothing was taken from him to chain him to Barras.

"Thank you," he bowed, said a quick goodbye, and hung the bag on his shoulder.

He returned his attention to the farce inside. He waited until Barras said something about angels of death and forced himself not to roll his eyes. He stretched his wings as far as they would go and stowed his glasses in the bag. He rose to the highest opening in the tent, and dramatically intruded on the show. He immediately had the audience's attention as all the necks in the room craned to see him.

"But you haven't heard the whole story!" he grinned cheekily at the audience, hoping his black clothes made him look the part enough. "You see, the handsome merman was also deeply in love with the angel." He swooped down and posed alluringly on the rim of the bowl. Taking the cue, Victor swam to the surface, desire in his eyes.

"But his family would not allow it, so they confined him and forbade him from visiting the surface," Yuuri untied Victor's ropes and attempted to discreetly show him the bag on his back. Yuuri held Victor's chin and brought his lips close to his own to tease a romantic kiss. The audience cheered as Yuuri licked his lips erotically,

"So one day, they secretly met, and the angel whisked his lover away and they lived happily ever after!"

Victor flailed about quite ungracefully as Yuuri hoisted him out of the water. The troupe master was red-faced and livid, cursing as much as he could with small children in the audience. With much effort, Yuuri flew through an opening in the roof and frantically searched for a place to land. They glided over their former troupe mates, fondly waving their goodbye from the ground.

A few minutes later, Yuuri dropped unceremoniously onto a plateau they had found on the outskirts of the desert town. Victor, still dripping wet, was shirtless, but thanked the gods that Barras hadn't bothered to remove his pants the night before. Even with his impressive stamina, Yuuri was panting heavily after carrying an entire person. He splayed out on the ground and smiled at Victor. Victor wasted no time hugging him, then opened the backpack and handed Yuuri his book. He sat up and checked the contents, sighing in relief when he read the first page: Year 1484, Summer 30 - I have resolved to study this mysterious phenomenon known as 'Anima'. I hope my findings prove useful.-

Victor slipped the gold band onto his finger, immediately feeling more at ease than he had since this whole thing had started. Stephane had not risked taking the coinpurse, so he slipped the earrings and his mermaid jewelry back into the bag. The sun was fully risen, so Victor slipped off his trousers, soaked with dirty water, and laid them out to dry. Yuuri could not help but stare, fantasizing about what was beneath those white boxers -

"There's a town not far that way," Yuuri pointed in the direction he was pretty sure was northwest, "We'll have to get a map and some clothes. Especially you," he eyed Victor's muscled arms and chest. Victor nodded as he laid down to rest, letting the sun warm him up after a frigid night.

Chapter Text

Year 1484, Autumn 2

-In my observances, Anima occurs almost exclusively in children aged 8 to 17. Some adults keep their shapeshifting abilities and any associated abilities, but they all report to have received them during their childhood.-

After half a day's trek in the desert, the two young men arrived at their destination. It looked largely the same as the last desert town, with sandy streets and clay buildings. The townspeoples' clothing was light and flowy, shading their skin from the sun's rays. As they'd hoped, there was a small shopping district with fresh fruits and clothing stores. Yuuri used some of his cash to purchase two water containers, two blankets for sleeping, and some fresh fruit. Seeing as he was still shirtless, Victor handed Yuuri one of his pearl earrings and sent him into a pawn shop. Unfortunately, the gems on his show accessories were faked with monetarily worthless plastic. The woman at the counter was wide eyed when she examined the bundle of colorful pearls.

"It's a shame you don't have the other one, but I can still give you a lot for these," she said with slight suspicion.

"It's actually his," Yuuri pointed to the other man outside the shop window. Even shirtless and disheveled, Victor somehow held the appearance of someone wealthy enough to own such an item. Two shopping trips later, Victor emerged wearing a mildly fashionable new shirt and a practical bag over his shoulder.

"Looking good," Yuuri grinned, "The innkeeper over there offered us a free night if we do some chores for him."

"Fishing?" Victor guessed from the spear in Yuuri's hand.

"There's an oasis on the other side of town. They need four for dinner tonight," Yuuri confirmed, "And I've got a few packages to deliver."

"Well, at least we save our money," Victor was glad he'd bought some swimming clothes.

"I'll meet you later," Yuuri tossed him the spear and took flight.

Victor had not told Yuuri that he had no idea how to spearfish. He carefully ran his finger on the tip. The pole felt comfortable enough in his hands. How hard could it be? He figured he'd just look for species he had eaten before and stab them. He then thought about his home country and what might happen when he returned, but shook the idea out of his head.

He had no trouble finding the oasis. As promised, it was right outside the town border. He looked around and admired the isolated greenery and deep blue lake, then changed into his new swimsuit. He waded until he was waist deep, and his legs involuntarily changed into their silver, scaly form. Gills painlessly opened on his neck. Out of habit, he took a deep breath even though he didn't need to and dove into the water. None of the fish noticed any danger, which made his job surprisingly easy. At first he thought he might feel a little guilty, considering he was kinda sorta part fish now, but he quickly got over it.

Meanwhile, Yuuri's chores we going... not quite as well. He tried to memorize the delivery addresses on all the letters and packaged, but often found himself backtracking. The town was built to have plenty of wind tunnels so there was always a slight breeze, and it tired him if he had to fly against the wind. Also he had not bothered to hide his wings when he knocked on the first door. The man had basically refused to touch him and the mail he brought, calling him a 'feral monster'. The door slammed in his face so he sheepishly tucked it in the door and left. After that, he made sure to not reveal himself.

Yuuri returned to the inn hot and sticky. He was honestly a bit surprised that Victor had beat him there, judging by the smell of cooking fish. The innkeeper greeted him and thanked him with a room key.

"Welcome back Yuuri!" Victor greeted with his devastating heart shaped smile. "Let's take a bath together."

Yuuri's already flushed complexion turned three shades redder. He waved his arms in protest.

"So that's a no?" Victor pouted, "After all those days of me helping you clean up." Victor collapsed dramatically onto the bed, "You wound me!"

Yuuri ran a hand through the hair matted to his forehead, unable to resist the puppy dog eyes. It's not as though he'd never fantasized about seeing Victor naked…

...

"Ah... that's perfect," Yuuri sighed as Victor poured cool water over him. He resisted the temptation to turn around and say the same thing while gazing upon naked Victor.

"Do your shoulders get tense from flying?" Victor asked curiously.

"Um, maybe a little, but I'm fine," Yuuri waved his hands, but Victor was already massaging his upper back. He had to admit it felt like the hands of a god were easing every last bit of tension out of him. Victor admired the tattoo-like markings on his back, the shape of his wings, they were a dead giveaway of Yuuri's abilities. The mark of Anima. They finished scrubbing the grime and sweat off of themselves and climbed into the bathtub. Their worries almost floated away with the steam.

"By the way, I got us a map while I was shopping," Victor said. "We're really close to the border. If we travel about five days west we'll be in good shape."

"Sounds good. Are you sure you'll find them there?"

"Hopefully they made it to the capital," Victor said pensively.

"Yuri and Mila, right? We'll need a nickname for him," he grinned.

"Yeah," Victor replied, "We'll have to camp for a night or two before reaching any town."

"Alright, sounds good. I trust you on this."

Yuuri was oddly unfazed by the vague plans. He wondered where Victor had gotten these survival skills. Victor was not about to tell Yuuri that he was following the ancient wisdom of 'fake it 'til you make it'.

~~~

"It would be nice if we had a horse or mule," Yuuri studied the map, "But even on foot, we should be out of this desert in a few hours. Then there's a river to cross and Russkaya is on the other side. We'll figure that out when we get there."

"Okay," Victor double checked that he packed everything, "You can ride?"

"Yeah. My parents are retired military researchers. A family friend taught me," he said nonchalantly. He was suddenly reminded of how far from home he was. He had sent them a letter after he joined that performance group, reassuring them that his journey was still safe, but he had left out most of the details. Nihon was a whole ocean away and not even pictured on this map. Going west took him even further away, but he could not argue that Victor's problem was more immediate.

The sun had just begun its arc across the daytime sky and the air still held its nighttime chill. Yuuri groaned inwardly about how early he had to wake up. They said their thanks to the innkeeper and headed out.

~~~

"Victor," Yuuri asked nervously, "I was wondering... what that ring is for?" he stared at the gold band on Victor’s finger, hoping it wasn't what he thought it was.

"This? It's a rather ingrained tradition where fathers make rings for their sons to give to their beloved someday," he slipped the ring off his finger and held it for Yuuri to see. Engraved on the inside was a symbol that was likely a family crest. It was a bit small, but it looked like there were two bears on it.

"Do most people wear it until they give it away?"

"Yeah. A lot of them are adjustable to fit the next person, but some people just reforge it," he explained.

"I see," Yuuri noticed that the ring would fit perfectly on his finger without any adjustments, then abandoned the thought.

"By the way, Yuuri. Do you know about Russkaya and... people like us?" Victor changed the subject.

"Um. No. Russkaya is pretty secretive with Nihon," Yuuri replied.

"Yeah, we're pretty secretive with everyone I guess." It made enough sense to Victor. They were isolated from nearly every other nation by oceans. Their only neighbor, Almaty, was separated by a long river and they mostly ignored each other. Russkaya was pretty self sufficient too, so their overseas trading was never a priority.

"Just promise me that you won't reveal your wings to anyone," Victor looked Yuuri in the eyes and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Um. Okay?" Yuuri tilted his head. Victor willed himself not to melt at the adorable gesture. "Why?"

Victor wondered how much trouble he might get in for telling him, then decided he really didn't care. Like with Barras, he could probably get away with it.

"Because..." he started.

"In Russkaya, Anima are kept as slaves." Yuuri lifted a hand to his mouth.

"They're treated exceptionally well compared to regular slaves, but still..."

"As long as I don't fly around or take off my shirt, I'll be okay," Yuuri observed, "But you'll have to keep yourself covered," he pulled down the neck of Victor's shirt as his fingers brushed against the gill-shaped markings. Victor wanted to turn to dust at Yuuri's touch and could not hold back the blush that appeared beneath his eyes. He did not particularly like having fabric touching his neck, but he had chosen this shirt to serve that purpose. In a pinch, he thought, he could just let his hair down.

They spent the rest of the morning mentally planning how they could be careful once they crossed the river. Before they knew it, they had arrived at said river. Across the serene blue-green currents, the valleys and lush forests of Russkaya were clearly visible.

"It doesn't look too far," Yuuri squinted in the sunlight, trying to estimate the distance, "The current might be pretty strong. Let me carry you."

"Yuuri, I can swim!" Victor insisted, "If it gets too strong, you can help me." He didn't like the idea of separated too far, but this should be alright.

"Alright. But first, let's eat a quick lunch."

~~~

Don't turn around, don't turn around

Yuuri fought every urge in his mind to peek at Victor while he changed into swimwear. He gave in and whipped around, only to see that he had just finished. He laughed nervously. Yuuri secured both bags on himself and took flight as Victor tested the waters. The surface looked innocent enough, but below that was risking it.

"We'll go in a straight line that way. Watch me so you don't get lost. Ready?" Yuuri called from above. Victor shielded his eyes to look up.

"Yup. Keep an eye on me too," he winked. Yuuri nearly tripped in the air, if that was possible.

...

In 20 minutes, they were nearly across, and it wasn't so bad. A small flock of desert birds got a little too curious about Yuuri, which Victor found hilarious and adorable. Victor was thankful that the river flowed gently and he admired the school of blue fish beneath him. These new abilities continued to amaze him. Even after all that swimming, he felt very little fatigue. He had yet to test it, but he doubted that salt water would sting his eyes. He supposed it was the same for Yuuri, since his eyes were never red or watery after flying.

He thought back to the last Winter, how the icy water filled his lungs and how hopeless he had felt. The current viciously sweeping him away, he reached towards the two figures yelling at him from the surface as his vision blacked out. It was no small shock when he realized that he was suddenly not starving for oxygen. His legs had disappeared, replaced by something that almost looked like a mermaid's tail. There were openings on his neck, and his only instinct was to swim and stay alive.

A face full of sand threw him out of his memories. Victor realized that his stomach was scraping solid ground. Yuuri barely tried to hide his grin as he watched from shore, wings hidden. Victor scanned the area and saw no one but a handsome dark-haired man. Thank goodness, he thought as he got up and walked normally. Yuuri handed him his bag as he walked over to some shrubbery to dry off and change. He wrung his hair out and brushed it. That alone took a few minutes. He wanted to wait until his hair was dry before putting on his shirt, but that was risking it.

Meanwhile, Yuuri ventured into the nearby grove. Starkly contrasting the arid desert, this place was lush and green and shady. He listened to the songs of birds he had only studied in books. He tried to remember which plants were edible and tasty, and which ones would put them in the ground. There was a clearing where they could build a fire for cooking. They still had plenty of time until evening, but he supposed it would not hurt to call it a day here. He laid down a blanket and pulled out his notebook. He wrote down every detail Victor had told him about himself. Most people he had talked to had mammal Anima. A few had avian or reptilian abilities, but Victor was the first fish he had ever seen. He realized that he had never met someone with insect or spider abilities. He noted that fish-Victor had appreciable tolerance for cold water, but would be shivering as soon as he changed back. He also noted some things he had observed about himself. He started a section in the book dedicated to the relationship between society and Anima, thinking about the innkeeper, the rude man during his deliveries, and of course the slavery issue in Russkaya. He thought about the research his parents were involved in back in Nihon. His concentration broke when he heard rustling from a nearby shrub. He closed his book and placed it back in the bag as he slowly stood up.

"Victor?" he cautiously stepped forward. He heard something moving behind him.

Before he could think, he was on the ground trapped beneath a heavy net. He readjusted his glasses to see two large men running towards him, more chains in hand. He struggled, but could not get out fast enough. He screamed for help, but was dragged away and silenced before it came. Four rough hands grabbed him, his arms were yanked behind his back and metal shackles slapped onto his wrists. He landed unceremoniously on hard wood when the men tossed him into the back of a wagon. He tried to take flight, but was stopped in his tracks by the weight clamped on his right leg. He caught a glimpse of one other prisoner before the doors closed behind him, leaving them in the dark.

Chapter Text

Year 1484, Winter 15

-Every situation has been different, but there are a few details connecting each experience. First, the person becoming an Anima is alone, or there is no one that can/will lend aid. Second, the person is always facing a near death situation.-

Victor had just finished dressing when he heard a sharp cry. He raced towards the sound, shoving branches out of his way. The next scream confirmed that it was Yuuri, which spurred him even more. He arrived at a clearing and noticed Yuuri's belongings lying on the ground. On the other side, he heard the rolling of wheels and the stomping of horse hooves running at full speed. He cursed, knowing that he would never catch up to them. He started to panic.

Is Yuuri alone?

Those were probably slave traders. Where might they take him?

He's fit, young, and handsome. And he can fly. They find those traits valuable.

Okay, I can guess where they're headed. I can beat them there.

He sat down and tried to compose himself and plan his actions.

"Victor?" a voice called from behind him. He snapped around, and relaxed when he saw familiar locks of red hair and turquoise eyes.

"Mila!" 

~~~

Yuuri was awakened by the blinding light that flooded in as his captors opened the door. The person next to him stirred and hissed as if the rays burned them. The two prisoners were pulled out. The tall, thin man with a beard pointed to some trees and told them to do their business there. "And don't even think about running away." It did not seem worth the risk to try. Once his eyes adjusted to the sunlight, Yuuri made out the face of his cellmate. It was another boy, perhaps a bit younger than himself, with chin length blond hair and striking green eyes. His slight frame was dressed in white, giving him a rather noble look, a bit like a younger Victor. Black tiger stripes curled around his forearms. The tall, muscular man with no beard studied them. He grabbed the other boy by the chin and tilted his head. He eyed the diamonds glittering on the boy's earlobes.

"We've got a real fancy one here. He'll fetch a good price," the non-bearded one said as the boy hissed in the man's face, baring an impressive set of canines. Razor sharp claws had replaced his fingernails.

"A feisty feline, eh?" the man mocked, petting the white ears that had sprouted from the boy's head.

"I'LL KILL YOU!" the boy snapped, "DIDN'T YOUR PARENTS TEACH YOU IT'S RUDE TO TIE PEOPLE UP? LOSERS!" Yuuri could not help but laugh as the other man swatted the white tail attached to the boy's lower back.

"This one is also quite the catch," the muscular man remarked, "Looks like he's straight from Nihon. Take off these glasses and fix his hair, he'll be quite delicious don't you think." Oh come on, glasses don't make people ugly. Also I need them, Yuuri wanted to retort.

"And with those wings of his, we can charge a lot," the bearded one replied.

Damn, they must have seen me flying over the river. I should have been more careful. Are there more? Is Victor safe? He felt waves of panic creeping over him.

They walked over to do their business. The younger boy noticed Yuuri's distress.

"Hey, if you're worried about someone else. I have a friend back there. If they find each other they'll be okay." It wasn't much but it helped. Yuuri thanked him.

"My name's Yuuri, by the way," he said as they headed back. The other eyed him oddly.

"Really? Well one of us is gonna have to change," he frowned unconvincingly.

"Oh, so you're Yuri! I've been traveling with Victor!" Yuuri hoped this wasn't just a coincidence. The wide eyed expression on Yuri's face confirmed that it was not.

"You two, get back in!" the tall, muscular man yelled.

"Do you think we could make it?" Yuuri asked.

"Not with these damn weights on our feet. And they've got some nasty sedative on them," Yuri shuddered. That answered a lot of Yuuri's questions.

Back inside, they continued.

"So you were with Mila?" Yuuri asked.

"Yeah. And you've been traveling with the geezer. How did you meet?"

"Um. Long story," Yuuri thought to spare Victor the embarrassment.

"It involved him dressing like a mermaid," so much for sparing him the embarrassment. Yuri was on his back in hysterics.

"Anyway," Yuri would have wiped the tears from his eyes if he could, "The three of us were traveling to Moskva for some business, but we got separated. More accurately, we were attacked by some petty bandits. Mila and I were lucky enough to end up with supplies and whatnot, but Victor..." he trailed off, biting his lip.

"Victor is okay now," Yuuri said gently.

"We thought he was gone." His voice quivered, "He's lucky he made it into Almaty."

"After this," he gestured to himself, "Mila and I tried to get there ourselves. We were all the way to the west, so it took a while."

"Yeah. I got pretty lucky too, meeting him." Yuuri figured they had time to kill, so he relayed the whole story.

"So, the first time I saw Victor, he was completely naked..."

~~~

"And that is how I met the most beautiful man in the world," Victor finished.

"Wow," Mila deadpanned, "I could listen to that all day. For real though, I'm happy for you. I thought I'd never see you again." She embraced him, then stroked the markings on his neck.

"Are you worried about your father?" Victor didn't answer.

"Back to the issue," he redirected the conversation. "We need to get to the capital as soon as possible. Yuuri and Yurio will definitely be taken there."

"Yurio?"

"Yuri's new name," he clarified, "I just made it up."

"Right. I'm pretty sure Yurio was their only catch until they got to you guys," she already liked the nickname.

"So they'll try and pick up another one on their way," Victor confirmed. That would buy them a few more hours. And Mila was in possession of the supplies that had gotten away from the bandits.

"They didn't take you, does that mean?" Victor searched for any obvious new tattoos on Mila.

"No. I was lucky enough to avoid any trouble. Once we found a place to camp, Yurio went to look around. He didn't come back after a few hours so I went out to look for him. I couldn't find him so I went back for the night and hoped he would get back himself. The next morning, he came back and he looked so awful, but he was alive. He didn't tell me exactly what happened, but he was," she gestured to Victor.

"Anyway, we've been more careful since then. We made our way east just like you two did. We were so close to getting away too...," she looked down.

"Victor, it's my fault! I couldn't protect him," she buried her face in her hands.

"Mila," he placed a hand on her shoulder, "It's not your fault. It's no one's fault. We're going to meet them in Moskva. Try to picture their faces when they see that we're there to help them." He thought back to when Yuuri had rescued him, and now he would return the favor.

Victor and Mila spent the evening planning the fastest route to Moscva. Luckily, the capital was much closer to the Eastern border than the West. If they walked from dawn to dusk, they would make it in three and a half days.

"So do you have a plan for after this?" Mila asked as they laid down for the night.

"Well, I don't plan on being anyone's slave. That's a given," Victor pulled the tie out of his hair and combed it with his fingers. "If Yuuri still wants me around, I've rather enjoyed our time together so far. I'm more worried about you and Yurio."

"Well," she paused, "I'll just go back to Yakov and keep training. What Yurio does is his decision. You've decided not to stay with him?" Victor trusted that Yakov would not sell him to anyone. It was an option, but he had other ideas now.

"That would be a wise decision," he gazed up. The stars were hidden and the moon was blurred behind clouds.

He mulled it over until he drifted into fitful sleep.

~~~

Mila and Victor woke the next morning to gray skies. After of quick breakfast of berries, they headed out.

"Take this," Mila handed him a long wooden pole, a few simple designs were nicely carved onto it. Victor immediately recognized it as the quarterstaff Yakov had gifted him.

They made satisfactory progress until the spring showers began. Once out of the forest, it was a short walk to the nearest town, where they found a place to avoid the rain and eat a refreshing meal.

"By the way, Victor," Mila swirled the spoon in her tea, "did you have enough money on you?"

"Yeah. I sold one of the earrings," Victor replied.

"Won't he be angry?"

"Not if he never finds out," Victor rested his head on his palm.

"Are you going to tell him? About... what happened?"

Victor shrugged, "Why not? Father already suspects that I don't care for princesses. How much worse could I make it?"

"You say that while laughing, but I know you're terrified," Mila wagged a finger at him.

"Well, it's not as if I need him," Victor stared at his plate, "I have Makka and Yakov and you two. And of course Yuuri."

He smiled. Through the window, he noticed the clouds had parted and the rain had ceased.

"Yeah, I'll be okay."

~~~

"I don't want anyone else to get caught," Yuuri said dejectedly. Even in broad daylight, not much of it made it through to the inside of their vehicle. The pleasant drum of a sunshower calmed them ever so slightly.

"Yeah," Yuri said, "But there's not a whole lot we can do."

The ball and chains were becoming increasingly irritating, and Yuuri wanted nothing more than a tasty bowl of fried pork and rice. He had been missing the dish ever since he left home. It had been perhaps a whole day since they were captured, and the two traders had left a while ago to hunt down another poor soul.

"I hope they get eaten by a tiger, or mauled by a bear," Yuri said through clenched teeth.

"There are tigers here?" Yuuri flinched in surprise.

"Yup. White tigers in the west, orange ones in the east. I saw one myself. Back when..." he stared at the floor.

"There's nothing to be ashamed of," Yuuri comforted him.

"I know, and I'm thankful that I'm alive," his voice lowered to a strangled whisper, "They were gonna kill me, or torture me and then kill me. I made Mila worry so much."

"And she forgave you."

"Don't you feel the same way? Your country is safe. Why didn't you just go home?" he asked.

"There's some business I'd like to take care of," he left it at that.

Before they could break the silence, the doors opened. To their relief, they were met with two aggravated men and no new prisoner, they were sure to give their most fatal of death glares. The men released their handcuffs and gave them their routine 'break'. As they dragged themselves back, the men faced them.

"Alright, kids," the tall skinny one crossed his arms. "We're heading straight for Moscva. I suggest you get some rest in the next few hours."

"When we get there, you're gonna stand up on a stage and people are gonna bid on you. The better you present yourself, the more you'll sell for. The more you sell for, the richer your owner is. The richer your owner is, the happier everyone will be," the muscular man instructed in his deep, rough voice.

"LIKE HELL I WILL! I'M GONNA LOWER MY PRICE TO ZERO! AND AS SOON AS I GET OUT OF THESE I'LL TURN YOU INTO BORSCHT!"

A feral scream ripped from Yuri's throat as he lunged at the men, who easily sidestepped the advance. The bearded one easily overtook the young boy and slapped the cuffs around his wrists. The other promptly shoved a needle in Yuri's thigh. He fell limp as they tossed him back into the wagon. In one last fit of desperation, Yuuri yanked himself up. He didn't have deadly fangs or claws like Yuri, but he could run like hell. He could fly to Moscva before they got there and steal Yuri back.

His wings struggled and his back was on fire. His hip felt like it would dislocate from the mass on his ankle. He was off the ground, but it was no good. The muscular one dragged him down and got right in his face.

"You seem to have a good head on your shoulders," he threatened, "I suggest you keep up your good behavior unless you wanna end up like your friend."

Yuuri glanced over to Yuri, out cold on the floor. He yielded and let them re-cuff him.

After the horses were fed, their captors shut the doors one last time. Since Yuri was not going to be much for conversation this time, Yuuri took the advice and laid down to rest.

Victor, please be there.

Chapter Text

Year 1484, Autumn 71

-This troupe of performers has allowed me to meet many people willing to tell me their stories. In every instance, the Anima they receive is that of a species living in that area. I would like to investigate whether that animal must be present at the scene when someone becomes an Anima.-

"I'd forgotten just how huuuge Moscva is," Mila said dramatically. They had arrived that morning after an early start, and it had taken them a full hour to reach the city center. All around, the city bustled with natives and tourists alike. Salespeople advertised their overpriced souvenirs and artists mounted their canvasses. The aroma of some of their favorite comfort foods drifted from the street vendors. Even their home city, the second-largest in the country, paled in comparison to the towering palaces and advanced aqueducts of Russkaya's capital. Victor wondered how a city barely twice the size of Nyenschantz could fit three times the population.

"And Yurio probably thinks Nyenschantz is miniscule," he remarked. Although Yuri had been living with Yakov and Lilia in Nyenschantz for years, his beloved grandfather was Moscva born and bred.

"Great idea Victor!" Mila clapped her hands. "Do you know where to find Nikolai?" Unfortunately he did not. He'd only spoken to the old man a few times. It wasn't much use, anyway. Several traders were beginning to line up their wares, explaining the auctioning process to some miserable looking people.

Mila pushed and shoved her way through the swarm crowding the auction catalog. The sales were spread throughout the day. She scanned until she found the entries she was looking for.

 

11:00

Ж318 - M 14- Caspian Tiger

Hair: Blond

Eyes: Green

Height: 159 cm

Description: Agile and graceful. Has a slight temper, but an infinite well of energy.

 

There was no mistaking that one.

 

13:30

Ж323 - M 16- Ryukyu Minivet

Hair: Black

Eyes: Brown

Height: 167 cm

Description: Athletic and intelligent. Impressive stamina for flying and exercise. Wears glasses. Proficient in Common and Nihon-Go languages.

 

She couldn't be positive this was Yuuri, but it was the only entry left by elimination. She ducked out of the crowd and checked the clock tower at the end of the square. Atop the magnificent piece of architecture, Moscva's most prized work of art held the nation's largest timepiece.

 

"Victor, Yurio is up in 8 minutes! " Mila waved to catch his attention.

 

Well that was not enough time to do anything. They listed all their belongings that they could sell and counted their hard cash. Even if they still had the valuables the bandits had stolen, the most they could have afforded was a dog. Not an Anima, a regular dog. They were going to have to leave this one to luck, which they had been short on lately.

 

"We'll have to figure out who becomes Yurio's master. We have time to figure out how to get to Yuuri, and then we can plan a mission to get Yurio." Mila reasoned. Victor had no issue with that and focused on a scheme to get Yuuri.

"Good morning everyone!" The auctioneer greeted the crowd. "We have a fantastic selection for you today. Whether you need someone to cook or do your shopping you will find a servant with the abilities you seek." Victor scoffed. This guy was worse than Barras.

"Without further delay, allow me to present our first item." Mila made a gagging motion at his usage of 'item'. He swept an arm towards the center of the stage. He grinned nervously during an awkward delay, then cringed at the sound of claws scraping across the wood. A tall, clean-shaven, muscular man was dragging Yuri onstage by the underarms. Parents covered their childrens' ears as the boy screamed obscenities at the auctioneer. Under other circumstances, Victor would have burst into laughter and teased Yuri that his lifelong dream of become a cat had come true. He mentally noted to do that later.

 

The guy handling Yuri forcefully whispered something in his ear. His kicking ceased and he calmed himself down to a scowl. Another swift knock to Yuri's shin erased the sour expression. The auctioneer cleared his throat.

 

"Um. This is the Caspian tiger Anima, Yuri. He is 14 years old as of Spring 1. As you can see he is strong-willed and with his excellent night vision, he will make a fierce guardian for your home. Starting at 9000 Rubli." He was clearly grasping at straws in his advertisement. To retaliate, Yuri softened his expression and gave the audience a deadpan stare.

"He's awfully pretty," someone loudly commented from behind Victor, "But there are better options for a house guard or really anything else useful." Her friend nodded in agreement.

"9100!" A man shouted from Victor's left. The voice sounded elderly, yet strong. He stood on tiptoe and craned his neck to try and see who it was. Next thing he knew, Mila was lifting him up, acrobat style. Without looking down, he could picture the cheeky grin on her face. When he got an adequate look at the man's face, he thanked all the lucky stars in the world.

"9700!" A woman shouted from the opposite side of the square.

"9850!" Nikolai's arm shot in the air again.

"11,000!"

"12,000"

"14,000!"

Nikolai clenched his fist.

"16,500!" he yelled.

"20,000!" Mystery Woman raised her hand.

Nikolai cursed.

"20,000! Going once... twice?" The auctioneer looked around.

"Sold!"

 

Furious, Nikolai started towards the platform, but stopped when a hand gently gripped his shoulder. He turned around to meet Victor.

 

"Vitya!" his eyes widened.

"Long time no see, Nikolai," Victor smiled politely.

"Do you know who that woman is?" Mila asked. "My name's Mila by the way, pleased to make your acquaintance," she shook his hand.

 

Nikolai studied the woman as she walked up to collect her purchase.

 

"I don't know her name, but I recognize the face," he said. "I believe she frequents the artists' guild."

"Then we'll talk to them later," Mila assured him. They noted every detail of her features. She dressed nobly, yet practically. Her nails were unpainted and short, and her wavy black hair framed cherry red lips. She handed over her gold as Yuri was pulled off stage to be delivered.

"Thank you everyone. Please come back in 20 minutes for our doe Anima. She is quite the rarity, you won't be disappointed!" the auctioneer waved and stepped down.

 

Nikolai guided Victor and Mila out of the square.

 

"Vitya, you've grown so much since I last saw you," he measured from the top of Victor's head to his own forehead.

"Indeed," Victor laughed, "And how are you? Still in good health?"

"Except for a stubborn back, I've been great," Nikolai patted him on the shoulder.

"More importantly, did you know that your father is here?"

~~~

Much to Yuri's irritation, he did not get to turn his captors into borscht.

The man with the beard escorted him to his new owner's house. More accurately, it was a giant mansion with extravagant indoor gardens and at least one pool worthy of royalty. He felt immeasurably small in the echoing hallways lined with dozens of portraits. Countesses and kings stared down at him from the vibrant canvasses. Yuri decided that he had learned his lesson and did not put up a fight as the woman led him to a towering, intricately carved door. The kind that was split down the middle to make two doors, like Yuri could be bothered to know the name of it. The man took his leave without a word.

 

"So Yuri," the woman showed him the room, "I had this room prepared just for you. If there's anything you want, ask one of the servants."

He nodded curtly. Wait, so I'm not one of the servants?

"My name is Anya. I paint the royal portraits, among other things," the hallway paintings now made a lot of sense. "You're going to be my next inspiration."

Yuri flinched.

"Don't worry, I won't make you do anything indecent," her laugh rang off of the walls. Yuri had to crane his neck as far as it would go just to see the ceiling. And of course there was a ridiculous chandelier hanging from it, made even more ridiculous by the fact that there were perfectly good windows surrounding it to let in sunlight. Someone other than Anya must have designed this mansion, he concluded.

“Is this really a bedroom?” he asked stupidly, considering there was a huge four poster bed right in front of them.

“Yes, every room in this hallway is a bedroom for servants and models,” she stepped over to a mahogany wardrobe that could comfortably fit five of him. Anya swiped through the scores of colorful and elegant fabrics until she pulled out two full body outfits. The first was translucent and white, with sparkling sequins and feather accents. The second was black and magenta, with flame accents. Yuri made a gagging motion with his finger and stuck out his tongue. Anya ignored him.

“I’ve been wanting to use these for a long time. Yuri gawked at the ridiculous ensemble.

“This is for a piece I’d like to name ‘Agape’,” she lifted the white feathery outfit. “Unconditional love.”

“What? That’s nothing like me,” Yuri scowled and put his hands to his hips.

“We’ll see about that,” she winked. “To contrast, I’ll have you wear this other piece to symbolize Joyful Passion”. He still wasn’t impressed.

“Also, back on stage I could see that you’re quite flexible,” she smiled at the memory of him writhing around while being dragged around. “How much of a dancer are you?”

“I know a bit,” he replied.

“Then I would like you to show me what you can do. After tomorrow’s breakfast, I would like you to show me what you can do, and bring the Agape outfit with you. You can meet me in the gardens.” She hung the atrocious clothing items back in the wardrobe.

“And feel free to take a bath,” she pointed to a door as she left.

Yuri flopped onto the bed and sunk straight into the duvet. It felt more luxurious than anything he had ever felt in his life, and Yakov’s estate was nothing to scoff at. He thought about ways he might be able to sneak out. Or at least get in contact with his grandpa. He couldn’t fly like Yuuri, and he did not want to think what might happen if he tried navigating the underground aqueduct. He rolled over and decided to take his thoughts to the bath.

To no one’s surprise, the bathroom turned out to be just as ridiculous as the bedroom. The white, sanded stone floor was cold beneath his feet. The bathtub was more like a swimming pool, built into the floor itself. It was also the size of a children’s swimming pool. He lowered himself into the water, allowing it to soothe his aches. After some pondering, he decided his only option was brute force. He would make sure to get lost tomorrow night and find an escape route.

When he noticed the wrinkles on his fingertips, he figured it was time to get out. He noticed a fluffy white bathrobe hanging nearby. After drying off, he searched his closet, throwing anything that wasn’t of interest on the floor, for the blackest outfit in the wardrobe. To his relief, she had put some casual clothes in there, probably for dancing. He set aside a pair of loose leggings and a black athletic shirt, then stuffed the rest back in.

Once he was dressed, he walked over to the nightstand near his bed and practiced some leg lifts. A few minutes later he worked some core stretches and splits before moving onto leaps and spins. If he was going to be stuck here for a while, he figured he may as well show the other models a thing or two about the beauty and power of spite.

~~~

Victor wouldn’t say that he hated his father. He wouldn’t even say that he disliked his father. Although he might admit that he was just a little bit scared of his father. He fully expected a nice disciplinary session from his father. He had not expected to walk into Nikolai’s humble home to see his coach having brunch with his father.

 

“Mila, Vitya!” Yakov dropped his utensil when they crossed the threshold.

“Hello Coach Yakov,” Victor grinned as though he wasn’t in trouble the size of Mount Elbrus.

“YOU TWO!” he jumped up and shouted. “WHY DIDN’T YOU TRY AND FIND ME? WE’VE BEEN WORRIED SICK. AND THE OTHER ATTENDANTS WERE NOT HAPPY TO SEE YOU WERE SKIPPING.”

Victor wiped the spit that landed on his face. “There were some... complications,” he said sheepishly.

“The royal family does not care about your excuses, Victor,” the other man at the table put down his drink and looked up from his reading. Except for his silver hair, he looked nothing like Victor. His features were harsher, his shoulders broader, the ideal image of masculinity.

“Father, I - ,“ Victor choked on his words.

 

Yakov pulled Victor and Mila outside.

“Care to explain?” His stare pierced them like the pointy end of his spear.

“First of all, what were we going for?” Victor cocked his head as he tried to recall.

“DID YOU HIT YOUR HEAD SOMEWHERE?” Yakov smacked his palm to his forehead.

“Oh, I remember!” Victor exclaimed. “We were going to the annual banquet, I was supposed to dance around and find a lover!”

Yakov pinched the bridge of his nose and counted to five.

“Vitya,” he began, “You were supposed to stand presentably and wait for one of the princesses to dance with you.”

“With the way he flirts with the princes, I don’t think he would have had any takers,” Mila choked out through tears of laughter. Yakov sighed in defeat, too exhausted to give Mila the same lecture.

“More importantly, where is Yurochka?”

 

With Nikolai, they explained the events of that morning, and how they would pay a visit to the artist’s guild for more information on Yuri’s owner.

 

“There’s no need for that,” Yakov said. “That sounds like Anya. She used to date one of my older students.” He shuddered at the memories of their breakup.

“The problem is, she’s not one to part with her servants so easily. I doubt we’ll be able to buy him off of her,” Yakov frowned. He stared at Victor and Mila. They had become separated the morning of Winter 65. He tried to imagine what kind of absurd plan they had been trying to pull off for the past half-season. He was not about to tell them that he had pretty much given up any hope of ever seeing his ridiculous students ever again and it was taking a lot of willpower not to burst into tears right now.

“But Anya will treat him well until we can come to an agreement?” Nikolai asked.

“Of course,” Yakov assured him.

 

Pangs of jealousy washed over Victor, like tiny, shadowy needles pricking his mind. Would his father be this accepting and supportive if he knew about his son? He would much rather be honest with Father, and he was used to the criticism over his hair and his preference for Yakov’s and Lilia’s dance lessons over weapons. Unfortunately, he needed to be on his father’s good side for what he was about to ask of him. He tugged at the neck of his shirt before heading back inside.

 

“Father, may I ask what you’re doing in Moscva?” he sat down across the table from him.

“Victor, a son should apologize to his father after disappearing for weeks,” he scolded.

“Yes. I am very sorry,” silver strands fell over Victor’s face as he bowed his head. “I should have sought you out sooner.”

...

“Very well, I accept your apology,” Victor slowly looked back up.

“I came because Yakov wanted to discuss matters such as search parties for you three. Also, I was thinking of getting a new servant. They truly bring the best of the crop here.”

“About that, Father,” Victor chose his words carefully. “I was wondering if you would help me bid on one of the items today.” The words left a bitter taste on his tongue. “I could use someone to watch Makkachin for me while I’m away.”

“And what have you done to deserve my help?” his father glared down on him.

“What if I cut my hair?” he offered. If he didn’t like it, it would grow back.

“That’s a start.”

“I will … stop taking dance classes with Lilia,” Victor said. Considering he would be running off anyway it seemed fair.

“I will accept that,” his father replied. “And one more thing.”

Victor tensed.

“You will stop showing interest in anyone other than females of royalty.”

“What about transgender females?” Victor asked even though he knew the answer.

“What? No,” his father said firmly.

“Transgender males?” he asked with a bit more enthusiasm.

“Definitely not.”

 

Victor didn’t really want to make a promise he couldn’t keep, but for Yuuri’s sake, he swallowed his guilt.

 

“Alright, Father,” he lied through his teeth.

Chapter Text

Year 1485, Spring 5

-When an Anima is received, tattoo like markings appear on the person’s skin. They are usually indicative of the species. People whose Anima has disappeared report that the markings also leave. If I am correct that Anima is gained under life threatening situations, perhaps it leaves the user once it is no longer needed to survive.- 

“28,000! Going once, twice, sold!” the auctioneer finished orchestrating the bidding war over a stoic-faced girl. The auction catalog claimed she was an 18 year old black bear Anima with top notch survival skills. It had been a nail-biting twenty minutes of bidding, Victor could practically see the money signs in her traders’ eyes. She was collected by two men who looked like they had been hiking in the woods all morning.

“8200, 8300, 8400,” Victor handed his father the remaining money from the earring, hoping he wouldn’t question where he got it.

“This one, Father,” Victor pointed to the stage as Yuuri was escorted to its center.

“Are you sure?” he asked, reading through the catalog. “There’s a dog Anima for sale later today. You don’t want a female servant?” Victor bit his lip in frustration.

“I’m sure of this one,” he said.

“Fine,” his father shrugged.

 

“Moving right along,” the auctioneer announced, “I present our most exotic choice of the day. From the mountains of Nihon, Yuuri is a Ryukyu minivet Anima. The species is endemic to Nihon. He is bilingual, making him an excellent translator during your travels. Of course, he is also a strong flier and has carried people across rivers.”

No he hasn’t you moron. Victor restrained himself not to shout.

Yuuri’s eyes darted back and forth like a mouse in front of a cat, he fidgeted in his handcuffs and shifted his feet.

“Let’s start the bidding at 18,000.”

“Victor, this is quite the expensive dog sitter.”

“Father, please.” he pleaded. It felt rather pathetic, but it seemed to work.

“18,100!” he shouted.

“19,000!” a woman shouted from behind them.

“21,000” a young man offered in front of them.

“22,000,” yet another person bid.

“24,000” Victor’s father said. Victor doubted he would go much higher. The woman huffed in defeat.

“26,500!” Damnit Yuuri, why do you have to be so popular?

“30,000!”

“34,000!”

“I’m sorry Victor, you’ll have to choose another,” Victor clenched his fists.

“34,000 going once, twice-”

 

“45,000!” Victor ran towards the stage before his father could restrain him.

 

“45,000! Going once… twice… ” Victor’s breath caught in his throat.

“Sold for 45,000!”

“Victor!” Yuuri jumped in surprise.

“Victor!” Victor’s father started running up to the platform. He was already onstage, panting as though he had just run across the entire city, rather than the city square.

“Sir, please give me your payment,” the auctioneer held out his hand.

Victor did some quick number crunching and mentally crossed his fingers.

“My father will pay the 30,000 he bid earlier,” he indicated the frustrated man following him from the crowd.

“Here’s 3000,” he counted it from Yuuri’s bag, assuming he wouldn’t mind.

“And this sells at the pawn shop for 12,000” He reached into his bag and pulled out the second pearl earring.

“Wait, son. You’ve gotta pay in gold.”

“Really? Is that a hard rule?” Victor demanded.

“Well… I suppose not. But you can’t have him until we get the money for it,” Victor mumbled a hasty agreement. He didn’t look behind him but he knew that his father was glaring daggers at him right now. The auctioneer took the earring, a bit too overwhelmed to really argue, then handed it to Yuuri’s trader.

“My son will meet you at the shop,” he said sternly, barely taking his eyes off of Victor. He promptly dragged Victor to a quieter street as the crowd stared awkwardly at the dysfunctional family.

“Care to explain?”

Victor went through the story he had planned out

“Well, when I was separated from the other three, I ran into some trouble and he-”

“Not him,” his father spat, “those earrings! How could you sell your mother’s earrings?”

“I didn’t want to, but I figured she would rather I sold them and put the money to good use, instead of keeping them around just to look at.”

“Do you feel that little sentimentality for her?” he expression turned from angry to pained.

“No, of course not, Father. And we have other things to remember her by.”

It seemed pretty cliche that their argument stemmed from such a matter, but it had been less than a year. Of course it was still fresh in his father’s mind.

“I miss her so much, Father. I’m sorry we couldn’t keep them.”

“No, you’re right,” he ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. “I can understand why you sold one of them.”

 

Victor needed a moment to process the fact that his father was sympathizing with him.

 

“But I still don’t understand why you would sell the other one just to help that boy.”

“Because he helped me before,” Victor said truthfully. “I ran into some trouble and was separated from Yakov and Yuri. He saved me. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I ever would have seen you again.”

“Are you telling me that you, Nyenschantz’s most eligible royal bachelor, needed the help of a beast like him?” His words held more disappointment than spite.

“Maybe, maybe not. But I definitely needed his company,” Victor shrugged.

“You’re too much like her for your own good, you know that?”

~~~

Yuuri’s trader counted up his money as they exited the pawn shop. As Victor promised, it just covered the rest of his fee. Yuuri wondered what Victor had promised his father in return for such a sum of money.

 

“Yuuri!”

 

He felt the shackles on his wrists loosen and the weight from his ankle disappear. He started running towards Victor’s open arms, ready to return the embrace. Time slowed as Victor’s face drew closer to his. The trader’s eyes widened as Victor leapt towards Yuuri, their gazes locked onto each other. He savored the softness of Victor’s lips on his own. Next thing he knew, he was flat on his back, with Victor staring at him lovingly.

 

“I thought I would surprise you,” he smiled.

“Mhm,” the trader cleared his throat as they picked themselves up. “You might want to consider marking him as yours, Sir. Wouldn’t want him to get stolen again”

“Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?” Victor’s face was smiling, but his tone was nothing but serious.

“Take care,” the man power walked away.

 

“Yuuuuri, I don’t want you to get stolen again,” Victor whined and hugged him from the side. “Ah, I know!”

Victor twisted the ring off of his finger.

“If anyone tries to anything, show them the inside of this,” he slid the ring onto Yuuri’s right hand.

“But Victor!” Yuuri’s blood rushed to his face and maybe a little bit somewhere else.

“Yuuri, I want to give this to you,” he said honestly. “Perhaps I wanted to wait a bit longer, but I definitely wanted to give it to you.”

 

Yuuri stared at the ring as though it were more valuable than all the stars in the sky.

 

“Alright. Thank you,” he breathed. It was a little loose on him, but he found that squeezing it allowed it to be adjusted.

 

“Oh, but could you do me a small favor and hide it from my father? Just until we find Yurio,” Victor added.

“Sure. And how are we going to do that?” Yuuri stared at his new accessory.

“Mila and I have talked it over with Yakov,” Victor explained.

“Your coach, right?” Victor nodded.

“Yurio’s grandfather knows the woman who bought him. It sounds like it will take more than money to get him back.”

“Let’s not spend any more money,” Yuuri insisted, feeling guilty about what Victor and his father had to pay for him.

“And brute force should be a last resort,” Victor imagined a daring rescue in the middle of the night.

 

“Well, what if we found a way in,” Yuuri suggested, “just to talk with Yurio. We could find out the situation and work with it. Oh, but the adults won’t be happy about that.”

 

“Let’s do it!” Victor beamed, his mouth spreading to a heart shaped grin. Yuuri hit his palm to his forehead.

~~~

Yuri woke the next morning feeling more rested than he had in weeks. Then he remembered that he was someone’s slave. He mustered all of the petty spite he could and set about his day. After a light and admittedly divine breakfast, he threw on the clothes he had picked out and did some warm ups. He draped the white costume over his shoulder before heading to the indoor gardens. From the hallway of bedrooms, he found himself on the balcony that encircled the room. Looking down, he admired the pleasant symmetry of the stone paths webbing throughout the room. Someone was flying around pruning the shrubbery to perfection. She appeared to be a swan Anima, a bit like an angel. She gave Yuri a friendly wave and hid her face in embarrassment when he returned the greeting. In the center of the room was a stone fountain, where Anya was sitting patiently.

 

“Good morning, Yuri,” she beckoned him down the stairs to his right. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, it was great,” he replied truthfully, but with the most annoyed expression he could manage.

“Aw, you’ll get wrinkles if you keep making faces like that,” she pinched his cheek.

“So what do you want me to do today?” he asked while rubbing his cheek.

“Well first, let’s see some dancing. We can go in that room,” she pointed to a door behind Yuri.

 

To Yuri, it appeared that they had entered the back door of a small ballroom. The ceilings were made almost entirely of glass, letting the morning sunlight in. Richly colored banners hung from all four walls, bearing all kinds of family crests and sigils. In the middle of the ceiling was another gaudy chandelier, somehow even fancier than the one in his bedroom.

“If you think this is big, you should see the one in the King’s castle,” Anya’s voice echoed throughout the empty hall. Yuri had in fact been to the Royal Ballroom on two occasions. He was not particularly sorry that he had missed his most recent opportunity. Yuri stared at the floor, shinier than Yakov’s forehead. It was the type that was friendly to ballroom and ballet dancers alike.

“I’m mostly interested in grace and poise,” Anya sat down in a simple wooden chair that someone had brought for her. “Feel free to keep things simple.”

Yuri picked up his chin and lifted his shoulders back as he walked to his starting position. He began playing some music in his head, imagining that Lilia’s pianist was just a few meters away. The actual piece was filled out with passionate strings and woodwinds, so the punishing waltz sounded much tamer when simplified into an Etude for everyday practice. He lifted himself into an arabesque, stepped into a simple turn, then a sweeping tour jeté. Lilia had crammed the first section full of challenging leaps and footwork. It was pretty modern, with interesting arm motions and unconventional positions, but maintained a deeply classical beauty. The B section consisted of mainly strings and woodwinds, offering him a short respite from the frenzied beginning. Lilia used this part to show off his grace and control. The motions were simpler, but more drawn out. He swayed back and forth on his tiptoes and bounded across the floor in grand jetés. Towards the end, the music would pick up again to the A section theme. In one final burst of energy, Yuuri performed some of his most demanding combinations, ending with a string of fouetté en tournant and increasingly fast pirouettes. He struck his ending pose, arms spread, palms upwards as if he were presenting himself to the gods. He dropped to his knees, gasping for breath after a dance beyond his limits.

 

“Wow,” Anya breathed, “I said to keep it simple.” Yuri smirked. His only regret was that no one else was here to see it.

“I see you’re quite the show off,” she remarked teasingly. “The guy I used to date was a pretty talented dancer too. Very dramatic, er, melodramatic. When we broke up he made me watch him dance to Carabosse.” Yuri did not give two damns. The description reminded him of an older student named Georgi who did such ridiculous things when -

 

Wait a minute...

~~~

After a long day of holding a single pose while Anya sketched things onto a canvas, Yuri practically bellyflopped into the extravagant bathtub. He sat on the bench on the edge, leaned back and let his legs float lazily towards the center. He closed his eyes and steadied his breathing. He had fully drifted off when he felt something brush against his foot. His inner feline compelled him to leap out of the water, cat-style. He could have sworn he saw a giant fish in his bathtub. Then he remembered that he, a tiger, could easily kill it. He crouched down on all fours, ready to grab it in his claws.

 

“Hi, Yurio!” Victor’s idiotic face popped out of the water. Yuri slammed into the wall behind him in surprise.

 

“YOU IDIOT!!” he yelled, rubbing the back of his head.

“Wow, Yurio,” Victor did a 360° viewing of the room, “You have a luxurious life here.”

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? HOW DID YOU GET HERE?”

“Easy, I used the Moscva underground water system,” he said as if he had simply waltzed down a yellow brick road to the front entrance, rather than navigated a stunningly complex system of aqueducts. He pointed to a sizeable opening at the bottom of the pool.

 

“What?! Are you insane?? You’re lucky you didn’t get lost forever!” Yuri shouted as he threw a towel on himself.

“I wouldn’t get lost. Because unlike somebody, I study.”

“That’s not something you can study.” Yuri rolled his eyes, only to see a second unwelcome person.

 

Yuuri, wings fully out, waved down from outside a window and mouthed a stupidly innocent ‘Hello’. Yuri smacked his forehead.

The window was too high for anyone to reach, which had Victor seriously doubting the skill of the architect that designed this mansion. Yuri drew the curtains on one of the lower windows and motioned for Yuuri to enter that way.

 

“Nice to see you, Yurio-kun,” he smiled.

“That’s not my name,” Yuri crossed his arms and pouted.

“By the way, I really enjoyed your dance earlier.”

“What?” Yuri flinched. “You saw that?”

“Yeah. There are a lot of ceiling windows here. And a couple ceilings made entirely of glass,” Yuuri said. “This home designer wasn’t very creative, if you ask me.”

“Yeah, yeah we all figured that out,” Yuri dismissed him with a wave. “Seriously though, what are you two doing here?”

“We’re here to discuss your escape plans! Why else?” Victor lifted himself out of the pool and wrung out his hair.

 

Yuri let out a long sigh. “While I appreciate you coming for me. Did you really have to watch me dance?”

“I’ve seen you dance lots of times!”

“I’m ignoring you. Besides, there’s this other thing to consider. It’s called the law,” Yuri rubbed a towel over his hair.

“Of course,” Yuuri agreed. “Which is why she needs to give you up willingly.”

“No one is going to find you two threatening. I promise,” Yuri smirked.

“What? No! Not that way,” Yuuri put his hands up in defense.

“So what is your plan?”

“We don’t have one yet,” Victor explained. “That’s why we came to talk with you.”

“Is there some way you could make yourself less of an inspiration to Anya?” Yuuri asked.

“You saw the painting session too?” Yuri groaned.

“Ceiling windows,” he deadpanned.

“Ugh. Anyway, I’m sure I could but do you really think she’d buy it?” They agreed he had a point. But, this gave Victor an idea. It was a risky and over the top idea, but an idea nonetheless.

 

“What if,” he said carefully, “we made a deal with her?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“It’s rather embarrassing, but I ended up getting caught by some bastard who sold me as a showpiece.”

“Right, they made you into a mermaid exhibit.” Yuri finished for him.

“Yuuri! You told him? Such betrayal!” Victor collapsed dramatically to the ground.

“Sorry Victor,” Yuuri admitted. “But how is that relevant?”

“Because, here’s what we’re gonna do…”

~~~

“You want to do what now?” Anya did not seem to recognize Victor from her days with Georgi, which he was thankful for.

Victor was sitting on the water fountain inside Anya’s indoor garden, in full shirtless merman form. He wore a crown of blue roses in his hair that the swan girl had picked for him at Yuri’s request. Apparently she was now calling herself ‘Yuri’s Angel’. His hair, which he had not yet cut, cascaded down his body.

“I’ll allow you to paint me and Yuri in exchange for his freedom afterwards,” he shifted his charm level to maximum overdrive.

“You break into my home, threaten to steal one of my models, and then expect me to make a deal with you?” she put her hands to her hips. “I should have summoned the guards!”

“I thought you might say that,” Victor winked. “Would this convince you?”

 

“Ahmhm,” Victor coughed not so subtly and glanced up to the balcony.

Anya heard what sounded like flapping birds. From the balcony, a young black-haired man with coal black wings took flight. He flew a small circle around the fountain before lowering himself to Victor’s side. She recognized his outfit from one of her more erotic pieces with black, skintight fabric, silver sequins, and half a skirt on the waist. His hair was slicked back and he squinted slightly as though he needed glasses. His hip jutted outwards as he struck a seductive pose and licked his lips. Victor whistled.

“Umm…” Anya was speechless.

“Will this change your mind?” Victor put his arm around Yuuri’s waist as they teased a romantic kiss. From the balcony, Yuri choked on his spit.

 

“Ngh…” Anya bit her thumbnail. “Okay!” She threw her hands up in defeat.

 

I cannot believe those two, Yuri facepalmed for what felt like the hundredth time since yesterday.

~~~

Anya finished Yuri’s ‘Agape’ painting within two days. Over the next four, the three ridiculous children suffered through hours of holding the same position. Victor had it easier since all he had to do was sit elegantly. Yuuri held a standing position with his arms crossed in front of his chest, as if he had just thrown away a suitor and was now embracing the man he had just seduced. Yuri was forced to hold his knees in a slight bend and crane his neck backwards to look at Anya, while shrugging a jacket halfway down his arms. It was the most absurd painting she had ever attempted, but at least she had three impeccable subjects. When they weren’t posing for the picture, they savored the free meals and soaked in the baths and buried themselves in the luxurious bedsheets.

As promised, Anya let them go once she was satisfied with her work and felt that she had gotten her money’s worth. Before leaving, Victor quietly slipped Yuuri’s costume into his bag while no one was looking. For posterity. They said their final goodbyes and strolled back to Nikolai’s.

 

“WHERE HAVE YOU TWO BEEN?” Yakov demanded as soon as Yuuri opened the front door.

“We told you that we might be out for a few days,” Victor reminded him.

“No, Mila told us. After you had been gone for a day,” Yakov retorted.

 

“Gramps!” Yuri ran inside and latched himself onto the old man.

“Yura!” Yakov and Nikolai shouted in unison.

“Vitya, explain!” Yakov yelled.

“Why do you always point to me?” Victor whined playfully.

 

“Victor, explain,” his father slipped himself into the conversation. Without missing a beat, Victor dropped his theatrics.

 

“We made a deal with Anya. Yuuri and I did her some favors and now Yura is back,” he said nonchalantly.

“What kind of deal?” Yakov asked calmly.

“We modeled for one of her pieces,” Yuuri explained.

“Were you decent?” Yakov started worrying he’d have to plan an art heist.

“Of course! Anya’s not into that stuff. Get your mind out of the gutter, Yakov,” he teased.

“Fine. I would ask for more details, but I don’t have a lot of hair left to lose,” Yakov looked over to Victor’s father, who seemed pretty checked out at that point.

 

“For one day,” Yakov lectured, “try and stay out of trouble. We’ll leave for Nyenschantz first thing tomorrow.”

 

“About that…” Victor began.

 

“Vitya,” Yakov’s pulse increased a few beats per minute.

 

“I’m going to stay with Yuuri for a while!”

 

“Victor,” his father stepped closer to him. “Is there any reason Yuuri can’t go with you? You technically own him.”

 

“First of all, I don’t want to be his owner,” Victor said earnestly. “Second, I’d like to travel with him. There’s so much outside of Russkaya that I don’t know about.”

 

“You can’t just ignore your duties like that, Victor,” his voice rose slightly. “We can help him out of Russkaya, but after that you must return.”

 

“I’m sorry, Father, but I want to leave Russkaya too.”

“You have a responsibility to your country! You would just abandon it?” his voice now rapidly crescendoing to a yell.

 

“…”

 

“Victor, is there something you’re not telling me?”

 

“…”

 

“VICTOR!”

 

Victor yanked the collar of his shirt down, letting everyone get a full view of what was hidden beneath it.

 

“Vitya…”

 

For added effect, his legs had transformed into the increasingly familiar silver tail. He was seated on the floor, gazing determinedly at the three adults.

 

“After we were attacked, I fell into the Yaik. I became an Anima,” he declared. “That’s why I’m still alive!”

 

Not a word was spoken by anyone. Yuri cautiously reached for one of the pirozhki sitting on the table. Mila walked in on the scene and silently sunk back into the other room.

 

“More importantly,” Victor decided he would either go big or go home, “I like being with Yuuri. I want to stay by his side and never leave.”

 

“Is that why your ring is missing?” So he had noticed.

 

“I suppose so,” Victor smiled wryly.

 

 

“Victor, you know that is a crime in this country,” Victor hung his head.

“It’s an unpopular law, but yes I know, Father.”

“Slavery would be the easy way out for you.”

“I know, Father,” he stood back up to face him properly.

 

“As promised, I will cut my hair. And I will stop taking dance with Lilia,” he said sincerely. “But I cannot keep that last one. I hope you’ll forgive me someday.”

 

~~~

 

“Are you sure about this?” Yuuri held the scissors as if they had hidden thorns on them.

“Yes. I did promise my father. And it’s a more practical style,” he nodded resolutely.

“And you’re sure you want me to do it?”

“Yes.”

“Alright. Let me know when to stop.”

 

As he laid down blankets in the next room, Yuri heard every snip of hair, every utterance of “Is this length okay?” and “Does this look even?”. He combed a hand through his own hair, grown nearly to his shoulders through neglect. A few minutes later, he heard the sweeping of several years worth of silver locks being swept into the garbage. Victor nervously walked into the room, trying to fidget with hair that was no longer on his head.

 

“You look good. More mature,” Yuuri placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah. It’s about time you started looking like the old man you are,” Yuri teased.

“Go to bed Yurio, you’re like five,” Victor retorted. Yuuri laughed knowing Victor would never act his age. Even with only a fraction of his previous hair, Victor still managed to be the most beautiful person in the world.

“Will your old man be okay?” Yuri asked seriously.

“He’ll get used to it. I think he needs time to think.”

“If he doesn’t, I’ll kick him for you,” Yuri promised. Victor laughed softly and turned out the light.

 

“Good night, Yurio.”

“That’s not my name.”

~~~

“So where are we going Yuuri?” Victor asked excitedly as they double checked their belongings.

“My original plan was to go west, but we can’t really travel through Russkaya,” Yuuri pulled out a new, bigger map. He had managed to convince one of Anya’s servants to give it to him. “If we travel south for about eight days, we’ll reach Zhetysu. I’d like to spend a few days researching there. We’ll have to find transport across the sea to Sayam… It basically reverses the order of the places I was going to visit,” he explained. It also made the journey a bit more cumbersome, but he didn’t really mind as long as Victor was there with him. “You won’t be going home anytime soon. Is that okay with you?”

“It’s more than okay, Yuuri,” Victor kissed the ring on his hand.

“Victor please restrain your displays of affection until no one is around to turn you in,” his father stood in the doorway.

“Good morning, Father,” Victor smiled cheerfully despite how much he craved a more affectionate greeting.

“Take this,” Nikolai handed Victor a brown cotton scarf. “It’s gotten a bit too warm for it, but you should wear it in crowded areas.”

“Thank you,” Victor bowed his head graciously.

“Visit us in Nyenschantz some time!” Mila embraced him. “Yuuri, it was nice to meet you. Take good care of Vitya for us.” Yakov gave them a curt goodbye because he was trying to hold back tears because Victor was leaving.

 

They were about to head out the door behind them when Victor felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see the stoic face of his father.

 

“Stay safe,” Victor could almost see a hint of caring in his deep gray eyes.

“Yes, Father.”

 

He shut the door behind him. 0.5 seconds later, it swung open with the force of a small boulder rolling down a hill.

 

“YOU TWO! YOU WERE GONNA LEAVE ME BEHIND!” Victor, who had fallen flat on his face, turned over to see an angry blond teenager glaring down at him.

“Yurio? You’re coming too?” he sat up and rubbed the back of his head.

“Of course I am you moron!” he hitched up the straps of his backpack.

“What about Yakov and Lilia?”

“I’ll go back to them later. Unlike you, only half of my family does that snooty noble thing. Grandpa is fine with me going.”

“We’d be happy to have you along, Yurio-kun.” Yuuri held his hand out to Victor, who gratefully took it and hoisted himself up.

 

As they set off, Yuuri’s mind wandered to the markings on his back, then to his family and friends and teachers back home.

 

“You alright, Yuuri?” the sight of Victor’s concerned face snapped him out of his thoughts.

“Just wondering when I'll get back to Nihon.”

“Are you in a rush?” Victor gave him a serious look.

 

He thought for a second.

 

“I thought I might want to turn back when things got tough, because I felt so lonely until I met you,” he said. “But now I know that I’m not going to do this alone.”

 

Victor’s mouth widened into his signature heart-shaped smile as he jumped forward to embrace Yuuri.

 

“Alright, let’s go!”

Chapter Text

Year 1485, Spring 39

-The attitude towards Anima in Russkaya is overwhelmingly negative. They are seen as less human, and hunted and sold in a legal slave trade. On the other end, they are considered “exotic”, specialized servants. Both sides of the problem are dehumanizing, but this is not the place for arguments of morality. Russkaya’s self isolation from the rest of the world, apart from language, might be explained by this business.-

When Victor first began his task, he had thought, How hard can it be?

The answer was very. For Victor, it was a task as monumental as negotiating a diplomatic relationship between Russkaya and, well, any other nation. He took a tentative bite of the fish he had attempted to cook over Yuuri’s campfire. It crumbled to dust as soon as it touched his lips. There was a village nearby, but Yuuri had insisted that they save their money for more important matters than lunch. Victor pouted when he remembered Yuuri wagging his finger and asking him to go fishing.

“Old man,” Yuri walked up with a freshly hunted rabbit, “Move your useless self over so I can cook this.” The unfortunate creature was utterly mangled, its flesh excessively torn apart by a superbly overexcited tiger Anima. Yuri, still getting used to his strength, had a habit of tearing his catches to shreds.

“What? We don’t need both fish and rabbit,” Victor scolded.

“Katsudon told me to.”

“Katsudon?”

“Yeah, he said it’s his favorite meal. And I’m not calling him Yuuri because that is my name,” he proclaimed.

“When did he tell you to catch a rabbit?”

“After you insisted on cooking the fish.”

Victor started crying fake tears over Yuuri’s lack of faith in him.

“We can’t make that either, Yurio-kun,” an exasperated Yuuri walked towards their campsite with a napkin full of berries. “There’s hardly anything left to cook,” he gestured towards the pitiful lump of fur in Yuri’s fist.

“And what have you been doing?” Yuri threw the carcass on the ground.

“I’ve been picking the fruits that won’t have us vomiting our guts out or otherwise suffering a feverish death,” Yuuri retorted.

“Okay but we still need something to eat. Do we want fish or rabbit? I want fish.”

“I’m partial to fish,” Yuuri answered.

“If Yuuri wants fish, I’ll go catch some more,” Victor picked up the fishing spear that was lying next to the quarterstaff.

“One each?”

They nodded their agreement.

“Alright, see you in a bit,” Victor headed off towards the pond. For the sake of morality, Yuuri decided that regular meat was off limits until Yuri learned some control.

 

They had crossed the border into Zhetysu that morning, which meant they could use their abilities without any reservations. There was no need to hide themselves anymore. Victor had never felt so free in his life. He stepped into the pond, which was really more of a glorified puddle, and dove in head first. A second later, something sharp stabbed into his left ear. He winced and pressed his fingers to the space between his jaw and earlobe. The sand below his feet was soft and slimy as he stood up. After a minute of throbbing, the pain was gone, so he carefully went back under. Sure enough, as soon as water entered his ears, it was back. He was able to ignore it for twelve seconds before giving up. He settled for three fish that he assumed were the less intelligent species, since they came close enough to the shore that he could stab them from where he was standing.

~~~

“These have no flavor,” Yuri complained as he struggled to chew the tough meat. Yuuri didn’t want to admit that he was having a hard time eating it too.

“Sorry. If you want the good ones you’ll have to get them yourself.” The sharp throbbing above his jaw and below his ear was starting to irritate him.

“Is something wrong?” Yuuri asked nervously.

“I think it’s just a small ear infection,” Victor waved off his concern. “I could only get the ones in the shallow end.”

Yuuri placed a hand on his forehead. “You’re a little warm,” he commented. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll buy some medicine from the village. Is that okay, O Frugal One?” Yuuri rolled his eyes.

“I didn’t think I could get an ear infection. Shouldn’t I have fish ears?” Victor pondered out loud.

“Fish don’t have ears,” Yuri informed him monotonically.

“You sure?”

“Katsudon, do fish have ears?” Yuri demanded.

“Umm… Can’t say I ever studied them enough to know,” Yuuri admitted.

“Well then I guess we’ll never know, Yurio.”

“More importantly, let’s head to that village,” Yuuri reminded them. “There's no inn there, so we’re coming back for the night.”

 

Within 20 minutes, they were approaching the outskirts of a quaint little village. It was comprised mainly of small cottages, with one low but huge building Yuuri assumed was for public events. It was slightly isolated from the rest of the region by the valley, but their path down was well worn. Sizeable fields of vegetables surrounded the village. A few villagers were tilling the soil, while others harvested the fruits of their labor. One of them paused to wipe his brow when he noticed their visitors. With a stoic expression, he walked over to greet them.

 

“⏁, ⏃⍬⍫⍤⍬⍦⍦⑃ ⌀ help ⍃ ⍀ ⍓ ⍍ ⍔⌖. Zhetysu ⍇⌽⌼⍉⍃. ⌘ ⌹ ⍐ ⍓ ⌚ ⌑?.” Despite his scary looks, he seemed friendly. But all Victor and Yuri heard was gibberish.

“⏃⍃ Yuuri. ⌘⌓⌚ ⌬ Zhetysu ⌭⌽⍄ ⍦ ⍇ ⍬ ⍁ ⍀⌿. Common ⌓⌓⌒ ⌖⍎⍗⍙⍜⍦?” Yuuri responded.

“Oh, yes,” he said apologetically. “You’re quite good though.”

“Thank you,” Yuuri shook his hand. “But I only know survival phrases.”

“We still appreciate the effort. My name is Otabek.”

“Pleasure to meet you. My name’s Victor, and this is Yurio.”

“That’s not my name,” Yuri shook his hand, “It’s also Yuri. You can call him Katsudon.”

“We’re travelers,” Yuuri explained. “We were wondering if we could buy some medicine here.”

“We have a doctor. Is someone hurt?” he looked for any obvious signs of injury.

“Just a small infection from swimming,” Victor assured him.

“That’s good to hear,” Otabek lead him to one of the small cottages. A wooden sign hung from the front door. Victor could read the writing, but did not understand the word. He assumed it meant “doctor” or something.

 

“Hey, Bro,” Otabek opened the door. “Are you free?”

A young man looked up from a thick book. Except for his eye color and hairstyle, he looked just like an older Otabek. He pushed up the rectangular, thin-framed glasses that had slid down his nose while engrossed in his literature. He also wore the same serious expression as he approached Victor and shook his hand.

“The name’s Denis. How can I help you?” he motioned for Victor to site on the doctor’s table. He told him what was bothering him while Otabek left them to their privacy.

 

“Yup, this is infected,” Denis was examining deep inside Victor’s ear when he gently nudged something aside. All the pressure that had built up near his skull was instantly alleviated. Denis stood up and took something off of the shelf behind him.

“Use three drops of this inside your ear twice a day for the next two weeks,” he handed him a glass bottle of clear liquid. A few lines of instructions were scrawled on the tag.

“Thank you, Doctor,” he accepted it graciously. “How much do I owe you?”

“We rarely use money in Zhetysu,” he smiled. So he wasn’t completely like his brother, Victor thought.

“My services contribute to the village, and other people’s services allow me to live comfortably. If you find an opportunity to help out somewhere, that is payment enough.”

“Wow, that’s really nice. That kind of thing probably works well when you’ve a small nation,” Victor remarked.

“It does work well for us. Baikonur provides a lot of fresh vegetables and herbs to the region, and other towns give us things like clothing and tools.” Denis said proudly as Victor stood up.

“If it’s still bothering you in two weeks, please talk to me again,” he waved goodbye.

 

Yuuri must have been waiting outside for him to finish.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yup. I’m all set.”

“Thank goodness,” Yuuri felt a weight lift off his chest.

“Hey guys!” Yuri ran up, with Otabek jogging behind him.

“Otabek said they’re gonna have a festival tonight. We’re invited!” he said excitedly. “Can we go?”

“I don’t know, Yurio-kun” Yuuri thought. “Wouldn’t we be intruding?”

“Of course not,” Otabek assured him. “It’s the celebration of Spring Harvest. We do it on the 50th day of every season.”

“Also, we should get back to our campsite before dark,” he explained.

“Stay with me and my brother,” Otabek insisted.

“Are you sure?” Yuuri became more flustered.

“Yeah. Our parents are gone traveling for another two weeks. We could use the company.” Yuri was clearly growing impatient with the excuses.

“Alright then. Please treat us well, we'll be on our best behavior,” he bowed habitually. "Thank you."

Otabek led them back into the house and up the stairs. It was a cozy place, not unlike Yuri’s grandfather’s. It had a modest kitchen, stocked with fresh ingredients and interesting spices, and a rather large bedroom. Otabek pulled out some fresh sheets for his guests, then went to wash up after working the soil. The three travelers followed suit and scrubbed the grime of travel off of them.

~~~

“You can borrow some of my clothes, Yuuri,” Otabek handed him some festive garments. “Yurio, I have some old things that should fit.”

“And you’d fit into my older things too,” Denis walked into the bedroom. “But first-” he pointed to the unopened bottle sitting next to Victor’s bag.

“Yes, Doctor,” he grinned nervously. He read the tag and followed the Doctor’s Orders.

“So where did you study to become a doctor?” Yuuri asked as he laced up the blouse.

“Well, I’m not really a doctor yet. Don’t worry Victor,” he added. “Our mom is the real doctor, and she learned from her father.” Victor was lying on his side, somewhat oblivious to the conversation due to the liquid in his ear.

“I see, so she’s been teaching you?”

“Yup,” he said. “It’s a good thing I like it, since Beka can’t medicine his way out of a scraped elbow.” Denis laughed.

“Hey, I’m not that inept,” A slight blush appeared beneath Otabek’s tan skin. He was now fully dressed in a white blouse, with brown pants that ended just below his knees. His vest was mainly sky blue, with a bit of brown on the shoulders and decorative laces and accents. The rest of his legs were covered in long white stockings. The rest of them were dressed similarly, in various colors and accents.

“Yuuri, I never got a chance to ask,” Denis ran a brush through his dark, shoulder length hair, “What are you three doing in Zhetysu? Let alone Baikonur?”

“Hmm. I suppose we each have our own reasons,” he answered. “I left Nihon Summer of last year to research.”

“By yourself? What are you researching,” he asked with genuine admiration and interest.

“Um, I was with my supervisor, Celestino Cialdini, for a while. Something came up on his end, and I asked to continue alone,” he shrugged. “That's really it.”

“Oh, and I’m studying Anima,” he added. “I want to understand the details of how it works. I’ve also become interested in social attitudes towards people who have Anima.”

“Is that why you came here? What have you heard about us?” Otabek joined in.

“A lot of things,” he admitted. “So many of them conflicted that I ignored most of them,” he scratched his head. “But it's on our way and I've always wanted to visit. Your culture is so different from Almaty's.”

“Heh, you could say that,” Denis agreed. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow?”

“I would be very grateful for that,” Yuuri lowered into a slight bow.

 

Once they had finished dressing and otherwise making themselves festive, Otabek and Denis lead them to that huge building in the village center. It was even larger in person, and the doors were wide enough to allow a small crowd through at any given time.

“There are roughly 350 people in this village, this place fits all of us pretty comfortably,” Denis said as though he were a tour guide.

He wasn’t lying. The inside was filled with long dining tables, one of which was dedicated to all sorts of dishes waiting to be enjoyed. It looked as though most of the village was already here. At the opposite end of the room, there was an area where people casually danced or otherwise conversed while a small ensemble of musicians provided upbeat accompaniment. One of the woodwind players waved across the room. Otabek returned the gesture with a thumbs up and showed her the case he had picked up on his way out.

“Bro, did you bring our entries?”

“Of course,” Denis held up two objects wrapped separately in cloth. “Don’t think you’re beating me again.”

“Oh, during the Harvest Festivals, there’s a contest to see who grew the nicest crop that season,” Denis explained to his puzzled guests. “There are probably 100 or so entries each time.”

“I ranked fourth last time,” Otabek casually mentioned. “He didn’t rank.”

“Winter crops are tough to grow,’ Denis complained. “I’m best with Spring seasonals,” he revealed a hearty looking carrot inside one of the cloths.

“So everyone here farms?” Victor asked.

“Yeah, each family is assigned a few plots, and most of them divide those among themselves,” Denis informed them. “It really helps split the work. As long as we agree on who grows what.”

“Make sure he doesn’t hand in my radish as his own,” Otabek told Yuri before heading off to join the band.

“Katsudon, make sure Denis doesn’t hand in Beka’s radish as his own,” Yuri repeated before heading off to watch Otabek.

“Yuuri, dance with me!” Victor tried to hug him close while he dragged him to the open floor. As he stumbled across the room, Yuuri eyed the platters and bowls of exquisite looking dinner that several dozen volunteers were setting out. He noticed a platter of the pirozhki that he had tasted at Nikolai’s and wondered if he could invent a fusion between a pirozhok and katsudon.

 

From the smell of freshly baked bread, it was no wonder these people were so happy to call this place home. Various dishes made of seasonal potatoes and cabbage and carrots made his mouth water. One table off to the side was quickly being stocked with labeled crops ranging from strawberries to turnips to parsley. Denis went up to an older man who handed him tags for their entries. Otabek paused while tuning his fiddle in order to give Denis a threatening stare.

To no one’s surprise, Victor was a talented dancer. Their styles didn’t quite match that of the native villagers, but the rowdy tavern waltzes and lively jigs weren’t picky about how you danced to them. Yuuri tripped over himself for a few steps before picking up on Victor’s graceful, clean movements. After that, they were more or less in sync.

“You caught on quickly,” Victor commented.

“I have a dance teacher in Nihon. She’s my mom’s friend.”

 

Yuuri was suddenly aware they he was a very foreign looking person, wearing traditional clothes of someone else’s culture, and that he was clearly dancing with another male.

“Victor,” he asked nervously. “Do you think people will get upset about this?”

“No one minds, I promise,” Victor assured him. Yuuri knew that Zhetysu culture and the rest of the Almaty was like sun and moon, but he honestly had not expected them to act like he and Victor were completely normal.

 

Two songs later, the tables were filling fast with people trying to figure out which friends they wanted to dine with. Younger children ran around the emptying dance floor, resisting their parents’ pleas to sit down for five whole seconds. A trio of elderly women began examining each item on the contest table, checking for blemishes and proper firmness and ripeness. The group found a place to sit off to the side. Yuuri nervously scanned the room to see if it was appropriate to start eating. He noticed Otabek and Denis serving their chosen dishes onto their plates. After painful deliberation, he narrowed his choices down to steamed carrots with a savory glaze and a pirozhok with tiny clouds of mashed potatoes, browned onions, and ground beef. He noticed some of the fish that Victor had been catching from the pond, which he was frankly a bit tired of.

 

“◷ ⍙⍐⍆⍊ ⍊⍥⍦⍚ ⍜⍙⍛,” Otabek and Denis said almost in unison, then took their first bites of feast.

“That’s something we usually say before eating. I believe Yuuri’s equivalent would be ‘I-ta-daki-masu’?” Denis explained with surprisingly accurate pronunciation.

“We’re more or less thanking nature for the nourishment, and that we promise to keep respecting it and protecting it,” Otabek added.

With some help, the other three imitated the phrase and sentiment before digging in. Each bite tasted as heavenly as it looked, and everyone ignored their guilt as they helped themselves to seconds and thirds. To every decision they made for the next 20 minutes, their stomachs said ‘no’ but their tongues said ‘yes’. They only just remembered to leave some space for the dessert that would arrive soon.

 

While another set of volunteers cleared the tables, Otabek and the other musicians hurried back to their seats. A few of the wind players grimaced at the taste of their instruments after eating. Despite their heavy stomachs, plenty of people were back up and moving. Yuri made use of the short breaks in between pieces to interrogate Otabek on his interests and talents. As it turned out, Otabek’s parents spent a fair bit of time traveling outside as foreign diplomats, occasionally making trade deals. As a result, they often returned with bits of other cultures like songs and foods and the books Denis was always buried in.

Several casual dances later, the two brothers kindly taught their guests the steps to the final group dance which apparently roughly translated to ‘Hole in the Wall’. It was a simple number involving two couples. Once they figured out how to coordinate, the moderate waltz came quite easily to the seasoned dancers. To Yuri’s disappointment, Otabek had to play the melody in the piece, so he settled for being Denis’s partner. Otabek promised that he only played the Spring festival. If they came back next season he would dance with Yuri.

Within a few minutes, people who wished to dance were lined up in two rows, each person standing across from their partner. Yuuri and Victor began with Denis and Yuri. After an eight bar intro, Yuuri and Victor bowed to each other, casted around Yuri and Denis, then stepped in between the other couple, like threading through a hole in the wall. Yuri and Denis repeated these movements, noticing that their group had one of the better senses of rhythm. Over the course of the dance, Yuuri and Victor weaved their way down the line, while the other two waited for the next couple. Once he was used to the switching aspect, Yuri paid more attention to the joyful strings, their notes doing their own dance throughout the hall. He even had a few opportunities to watch Otabek’s fingers skillfully shifting from string to string. About halfway through the dance, an elderly man snuck up behind him and gently shoved him out of the crossover. The man grinned mischievously. Yuri was too stunned to yell back, but soon noticed that quite a few people were attempting to do this. Denis himself was out a few steps later.

 

“Sorry, I forgot to mention that part of the dance is trying to take someone else’s place. Kind of like kidnapping,” he said apologetically.

“I can show you how to get back in,” he offered.

In no time, Yuri had taken his revenge on the giggling old man.

 

It had not taken long for the villagers to notice an eye-pleasing foreign couple casting through the hall. When the orchestra decided they’d had enough and drew their final cadence, several people came up to them to compliment them on their dancing and welcome them to Baikonur. Naturally, Victor showed off the ring Yuuri still kept on his finger, despite not needing it anymore.

By the time dessert was out, dusk had turned to night and they now relied on the fireplace and lanterns for light. People finished the last of their conversations over carrot cake and strawberry shortcake. There was even a little ice cream to go around. To end the night, the winners of the crop growing contest were announced. The leftovers were distributed as people trickled out of the hall. Otabek carried an additional loaf of bread and a new pair of gardening gloves as a prize for his 5th place radish.

 

“Thank you so much for today,” Yuuri bowed. “It’s an understatement to say this was the most fun we’ve had in a long time.” Victor and Yuri nodded their agreement.

“Is it just me, or did people sort of disappear and reappear throughout that dance?” Victor mentioned.

“Are you saying no one tried to kidnap either of you?” Denis asked in amazement.

“It’s because people ended up planning their kidnappings so they could be in your group,” Otabek pointed out. Yuri facepalmed.

 

“That’s it I am so done with you two.”

 

Chapter Text


Year 1484, Autumn 15
-I recently met a bat Anima named Stephane who is traveling with this group of performers. He sometimes uses his striking appearance on stage. He has kindly shared the details of when he became an Anima. Until now, everyone I’d talked to was homeless or on extended travel when it happened, but Stephane was at home with his mother. They lived in a cabin in the woods of southwestern Roma. It was well after dark and he was helping her prepare dinner. His father came in after an evening of drinking, slurring and swaggering. He shouted at his wife, terrifying his ten year old son. When he raised a hand against her, Stephane jumped between his parents. Instead of his wife, the man’s hand fell on the kitchen knife Stephane had been holding. The boy dropped the knife and sprinted out of the house towards the darkest corner of the forest as his father chased after him. Just as he thought he was safe, the light of his pursuant fell on him from behind. With nowhere to hide, Stephane had all but given up, until he felt that tug on his back, an unfamiliar vision filled his eyes, and he could hear the high-pitched sounds of the forest. He followed an instinct that he had never possessed before. He flew away. Later, he did go back to check on his mother, but he never truly returned home.-

Otabek woke up the next morning to someone banging on the front door. He stretched the stiffness out of his muscles and slowly made his way downstairs. The door opened to an irritated looking man. He was wearing leather armor and gloves, riding shoes, and a white cloak around his neck.

“Can I help you?” Otabek threw away all manner of politeness.
“We’d like to speak to an official,” he commanded.
“What for?” Denis asked as he descended the stairs.
“If you’re not a village representative I’ve no reason to tell you,” the man lifted his broad shoulders to full height.
“You could go there.” Otabek stepped out and pointed, “Or there…
Or there …
or there
… …
or there,” he said while rotating in one place, still half asleep.
“But they might be asleep,” Denis added.
“Asleep? At 8 in the morning?” he showed them a golden pocketwatch. The brothers glanced over at the simple clock on their wall, then remembered that it had stopped the other day and they hadn’t bothered to wind it up again.
“It's a day off,” Otabek shrugged. “If it’s that urgent, you could just ask us.”
“Tch, you’re quite the brat,” he crossed his arms and scowled. “What are you? 13?”
“15.”

“What is going on?” a middle aged woman walked up behind the man. “Is this soldier disturbing you?”
“Yes, very much so,” Otabek replied with his usual deadpan.
“Good morning, Aliya,” Denis waved politely.
“Are you a village official?” the soldier asked impatiently.
“How rude,” she scowled. “At least introduce yourself before demanding things from people.”
He hastily introduced himself as Arman.
“Arman, you may call me Aliya,” she replied. “And you could call me a village official.”
“Very well, would you please give me a few moments of your time?” Arman’s manners did a complete 180 as he gave her a firm handshake and a professional smile. He held the door open for her to step inside and up the stairs.
“Why our house?” Otabek cocked his head to the side.

Yuuri, who had slept through the initial encounter, awoke to two adults yelling at the kitchen table. Rubbing his eyes, he cautiously stepped out of the bedroom. Denis and Otabek were leaning on the kitchen counter while two strangers argued at their table. The one with light brown hair was dressed like an Almaty soldier. The badge on his chest bore the bronze and blue seal of the capital, Taldy-Kurgan. The woman had shoulder length, graying blond hair, and laugh lines around cloudy blue eyes. Yuuri recalled dancing with her and her husband the previous night. She slapped her palms on the table and leaned towards the man.

“Zhetysu is not governed by Almaty. You have no authority to do this,” she said calmly and firmly.
“I will mention that Almaty still offers you proper statehood. It is yours any time you wish,”
“That is not my decision to make,” she replied. “And we are doing fine on our own.”
“With that gold mine beneath your fields, you would have no trouble fully joining our economy.”
“You have no proof that exists, and we have some perfectly nice trade agreements to import things that we can’t make ourselves.” she rebutted.
“Even if it doesn’t exist, your crops would be valuable exports, among the other things Zhetysu produces,” he reasoned.
“We are not letting that happen again!” she raised her voice. “That famine is the main reason we seceded.”
“We were at war with Huaxia back then,” he reminded her. “We asked you to serve your country by feeding the soldiers.” She wasn’t buying it.
“We’d work out an agreement beforehand,” he offered. “Think about it, people wouldn’t be forced to do a chore they don’t like. You would have much more flexibility in your jobs.”
“I will talk about it with the other diplomats,” she said sternly, “but for now you will not touch a single plot.”
“Of course, Ma’am,” he promised. “There are three of us here, so we will set up camp outside the village while you think.” They stood up, shook hands, and let themselves out.

“That was Aliya,” Otabek turned towards Yuuri. “She’s one of the people who represents our village in regional meetings.”
“Those soldiers think there is a literal gold mine beneath our fields.” Denis added.

“Really, a gold mine?!” Victor and Yuri walked out of the bedroom, stretching the stiffness from their shoulders.
“Maybe…” Denis thought. “But checking would destroy a substantial part of the fields.”
“But they have no right to do so. This is Zhetysu’s land, right?” Yuuri asked,
“Correct, so they took the opportunity to bring that up.” Otabek said.
“Do you think it’s really worth the risk?” Yuri rubbed the sleep from his eye.
“They bother us about it every few seasons,” Denis mentioned. “We always politely decline.”
“We have a peace treaty with them, so they can’t just throw an army at us without repercussions, but I’m worried they might do as they please with the fields,” Denis pushed his glasses back.
“And it’s the same argument every time,” Otabek noted. “More freedom of jobs, more trading power and whatnot. I’ll admit farming isn’t my favorite thing, but it’s a chore we do out of habit. We’ve made it more fun.”

Yuuri knew all about the war between Almaty and Huaxia, when Zhetysu was still a state of Almaty. It was dutifully described in all reputable modern texts in an attempt to prevent people from repeating history. It had ended about 30 years ago, but the bitter devastation was still fresh in some people’s minds. They assumed Yuri and Victor wouldn’t need a history lesson either.

“So you’ll let Aliya and your other diplomats handle it?” Yuuri asked.
“Of course. We have lives to get on with,” Otabek flicked his hand and left to get ready for the day.

“That’s right, we do,” Victor perked up. “Yurio, I think today is a beautiful day for some training!
“Ugh,” Yuri’s shoulders slumped dramatically, but he had no reasonable arguments against it.
“Yuuri, join us for dance practice?” Victor asked with stars in his eyes.
“Um. If Denis isn’t busy I’d like to talk with him,” Victor hung his head. “Next time, I promise.”

~~~

Denis had insisted they have their conversation while walking around the village. It made writing things down a bit trickier, but it was such a sunny day Yuuri couldn’t complain. Since Denis and Otabek lived right near the main entrance, they caught a glimpse of the three soldiers pitching an impressively sized tent just on the outskirts. They recognized Arman from before, and two women who looked identical down to the freckles that decorated their tanned faces.

“Yuuri, you’ve probably noticed it’s slightly windy here,” Denis began.
“Yes, because of the valley, naturally,” Yuuri nodded, slightly puzzled at the statement’s relevance.
“It happens to be incredibly useful for me in particular. Watch this,” Yuuri stood, eyes and pen at ready.

Denis placed himself between Yuuri and the Almaty soldiers, with Yuuri on his left and the soldiers on his right. The pages of Yuuri’s notebook flipped themselves a few pages forward as a gentle breeze tickled his face. He was glad he didn’t blink, because Denis now sported pointed wolf ears, sharpened claws and teeth like Yuri, and the tip of his nose had turned a shiny black. His sternum also gained a patch of gray fur. Also like Yuri, a tail had sprouted from his back, only Denis’s was gray and bushy. Keeping his eyes on the soldiers, he took a deep breath, allowing the air to fill his lungs completely. As quickly as he had changed, Denis was back to normal.

“I can now track their scents to make sure they stay out of trouble,” he said calmly. He presented his left palm to Yuuri. There was no mistaking the jagged lines marked on his skin.

“You’re probably wondering how this is possible,” he smiled at a wide-mouthed Yuuri.
“I thought that only…” he uttered.
“In Zhetysu, we’re a little different,” Denis winked and motioned for Yuuri to walk by his side.
“Remember that line we recited before eating?”
“Yeah.”
“So you probably noticed Zhetysu takes nature very seriously. And Baikonur is particularly serious,” he gestured to the rolling greens of their fields.
“Mhm,” Yuuri acknowledged him as he wrote furiously in his notebook.
“To us, Anima is a relationship with a spirit,” Denis recited as he’d read it in an ancient text..
“Like an agreement or contract?” Yuuri fidgeted with his pen.
“Um, not really. It’s not as if we go up to a wild animal and sign a prenuptial,” he explained. “It’s more like the animal’s soul chooses you to represent it. Or that it deems you worthy of sharing its life. You’ve probably noticed we don’t do fancy rituals or anything. It’s just part of our everyday lives.”
“So are there more Anima here than normal?”
“I wouldn’t say that. It seems that you have to be exceptionally in tune with yourself and your environment,” Denis counted in his head the number of Anima he knew. “And people who have it are rather respected by society. Not to the point of veneration or worship, but they are seen as ‘lucky’ I guess,” he made small air quotes.
“Wow, that’s amazing,” Yuuri said earnestly. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to record all this?”
“Of course,” he smiled. “Maybe people will listen to you more than they do for us.”
“Maybe. Nihon is still a fledgeling in Academia,” Yuuri laughed nervously.
“Then you have to tell our story. For both of us.”
“Alright,” he nodded determinedly.

After a few minutes more of indulging in the weather, they retired to the doctor’s office. Denis resumed his novel, which Yuuri recognized as a fairytale he'd been entertained with in the cradle. Yuuri frantically wrote every thought that ran through his mind, trying to keep up with everything he had just learned.

~~~

“Parry, parry, thrust!” Victor recited as he sparred with his temporary student. Metallic clangs rang throughout the village square, right outside the town hall.
“Shut up, you’re not my real teacher,” Yuri growled through clenched teeth. “And that’s way too basic for me!” He squeezed one eye shut as a drop of salty sweat trickled into it. Without missing a beat, Victor noticed his opponent’s momentary weakness of eyesight and pinned him squarely.
“Not bad for someone who hardly ever takes sabre lessons,” Victor proudly wiped the sweat from his brow while Yuri glared daggers at him, gasping for breath. For the sake of traveling light, they had only taken their preferred weapons, meaning Yakov expected them to return as experts in their respective martial arts.
“You’re also way bigger than me,” Yuri complained.
“I’ve had enough sabre for today, let’s stretch,” Victor gently tossed his sword aside.

“How much longer do you think we’ll be here?” Yuri’s chin was resting on his right knee as he rocked his hips in a full split.
“Until Yuuri is satisfied, I suppose,” Victor reached over his ear towards his ankle in a nearly 180 degree straddle. “And there is no way you’ve made it to splits yet. Don’t skip stretches,” he lectured.
“It’s not my fault I’m ten times more flexible than you,” Yuri stuck out his tongue.“So we’re just going to follow him wherever he wants?” he scowled.
“For starters, there’s safety in numbers, Yurio. You haven’t learned that yet? Besides, he’s also the most beautiful and kindest and smartest man in the world,” Victor swooned.

“Ah, to be young again,” Aliya walked up to the two visitors. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Aliya, the one dealing with those soldiers,” she shook their hands. “Would you care for some water?” she held a jug out to the two perspiring boys.
“Thank you,” Victor accepted it in both hands.
“Have you told them to beat it yet?” Yuri asked.
“I need to talk to it over with the other representatives,” she said. “This isn’t your problem, so please just enjoy your stay here.”
“Do you think they believe a gold mine will bring them joy?” Victor handed the water jug to Yuri, who practically overturned it above his mouth.
“They’re smarter than that,” she said with slight disapproval in her voice. “You should know that gold can buy safety and comfort. It’s much easier to be happy when you’ve those things.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Victor leaned forward into a middle split.
“Also it’s not as though they want gold for themselves. They serve their people.”
“But why can’t everyone else be like Zhetysu?” Yuri stood, satisfied with his stretching session. “You hardly ever need real money and everyone is so happy.”
“Young man, think about it this way,” she said sternly. “We’ve no issues maintaining a comfortable lifestyle, but we’re also restricted. If you hate farming here, you’re out of luck. You either grin and bear it, or you move to a town that has something for you. Every trade is a compromise on both sides, and if the quality of an item drops everyone suffers. Not to mention that importing only the things we need puts us at a huge trade disadvantage. Sayam or Koryo can charge whatever they want, even threaten us into behaving a certain way.”

Yuri crossed his arms and thought about her words. Last night Denis had mentioned that he hated farming with the passion of a thousand suns. He would much prefer to research ways to improve soil quality than to put sickle to stem. The harvest festivals offered some condolence, but not enough to do more than his fair share. At 23, he could certainly just go out on his own, but family loyalty was not taken lightly here.

“And on the issue of safety, our greatest potential ally is Almaty, and we keep trying to burn that bridge. We don’t have a formal military so we’re sitting ducks for a place like Huaxia.”
“Then why did you storm off this morning? Didn’t the subject of statehood come up?” Victor sat up from his split.
“I wouldn’t go so far as advocating statehood, but my opinion is still unpopular,” she admitted. “Sometimes I think I should step down as a representative.”
“You can’t do that,” Victor clenched his fist as he stood up. “You have to fight for what you believe in!”
“But I represent my people. If my ideas don’t reflect theirs, then I can’t be their voice,” she shrugged. “I can’t make deals that the people of Baikonur wouldn’t agree to.”

Before Victor could think of an argument, Aliya accepted the empty jug from Yuri and bid them good day. Just as she disappeared behind the building, Otabek approached them from the same direction.

“So you’ll join us?” Yuri asked excitedly.
“I said I would,” he answered in his usual monotone.
“I wish Yuuri could join us too,” Victor pouted. “So, Otabek, how much classical dance experience do you have?”
“None.”

Yuri and Victor realized that they really shouldn’t have expected much. In Zhetysu, any interest greater than a hobby was not exactly viable. You could paint, but you would likely never be a professional painter. You could dance, but you would almost certainly never be a world-renowned dancer. Unless your hobby was practical like sewing or farming or mining, your did it on your own time. They realized this now that Aliya had lectured them. And instead of their previous jealousy, they felt slightly bad for their new friends.

“That’s okay, we’ll teach you the basics. Can you show us some stretches?” Victor said encouragingly. “Yurio, do them with him.” To Victor’s surprise, there was no protest or glaring this time.

“Let’s start with some basic arm and shoulder stretches,” Victor instructed. Otabek observed Yuri grasping his elbow from behind his head. His own arms were broader and more muscular than the fairy-like Yuri, but he held the position with no issue. But the positions soon became rather embarrassing. In the classic ‘touch your toes’ stretch, Yuri’s palms were effortlessly flat on the ground and his elbows were slightly bent, while Otabek struggled to reach his ankles. The former could even reach behind his legs, which were straight and stiff as a board. Even worse were their bridges. Yuri’s legs stayed glued together as they straightened fully, his head and chest shifting well ahead of his shoulders. He then inched his hands towards the back of his feet, maintaining the form of a dancer. Otabek pushed up from the ground - Yuri had stood up and bent backwards - and promptly slid back down when he realized his body, unlike his mind, refused to be anything but straight.

“That’s okay, it takes a lot of practice to get where we are,” Victor said considerately. “It’s better and easier to stretch after working out, so we can try again in a bit.”

For some reason that idea did not thrill Otabek, but they did not even get to the workout part because of a deafening BOOM from the village entrance. Victor and Yuri grabbed their staff and sword, then ran after Otabek towards his house. Among several more explosions, they could hear some incoherent yelling and screaming. Otabek coughed and his eyes teared up when he entered a cloud of smoke rising from the fields.

“Is that enough?” someone shouted over the detonating explosives, as if they were separated by all of Zhetysu rather than a few meters.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” Otabek yelled. He distinctly remembered the agreement made that morning. There had to be some kind of consequence for this, he hoped.
A forceful wind cleared most of the smoke, leaving Otabek and the three soldiers staring at each other.
“Explain yourselves!” Otabek demanded over the ringing in his ears.
“We’re checking for gold,” Arman answered with the same condescending, cross-armed look as earlier.
Otabek lunged toward him with the same claws and fangs as his brother. Yuri had been wondering about the marks on his right palm.
“You’ll regret this!” Otabek growled as he lashed at Arman’s face. He easily dodged the attack and responded with an elementary swipe of his broadsword.
Once he had gotten over the surprise, Yuri pounced toward the two women looking into the gaping hole they’d put in the earth. The one wearing ruby earrings easily parried his forearm with the the flat edge of her shortsword.
“You’ve a perfectly nice sword over there,” the one with sapphire earrings taunted him. “Why not fight like a civilized person?” She jabbed at Yuri with her own sword, slowly enough that she wouldn’t hurt him, but enough that he would back off.

"Everybody, cease this at once!" Victor commanded in his most princely demeanor. "We shall not stoop to petty violence!"

“What is going on?” Denis ran over and yanked his brother away from Arman. Yuuri and Aliya followed him from behind.

“I gave them permission!” Aliya announced. “I allowed them to use my land and your land, Otabek.” He immediately quit his struggle, allowing Denis to loosen his grip.

“I see something shiny!” the woman with sapphire earrings said as she ducked into the hole.

“Aliya, why?” Otabek frowned.
“Because I thought we should take the risk,” she explained. “My family has a lot of land, and Denis agreed to shoulder any excess damage.” It was true that Aliya’s and Denis’s plots were adjacent to one another due to them being neighbors.
“Did you get permission from everyone else?”
“I am formally stepping down as a village representative,” she said calmly. “As of now, I will speak my own beliefs.”

“Someone look at this!” the woman with ruby earrings shouted. In her hands, she held a lump of shimmering metal.
Yuuri picked it up and immediately shook his head.
“This is pyrite,” he explained. “Fool’s gold.”
“What? How do you know?” Arman demanded.
“First of all, it’s too hard to be gold.” he ran the edge of a stone over it to reveal a scratch. “Second, the edges are too sharp, and it only shines at certain angles. Real gold would shine at any angle,” he demonstrated by rotating it in the sunlight.
“Wow, Yuuri. Amazing!” Victor applauded.
“Stop clapping,” Otabek snapped. “So now we know this was a bust. Are we done here?”

“Otabek, you didn’t hear what Aliya told us earlier, did you?” Victor asked. He shook his head in response. By now, several other people had left their houses and were staring at the wreckage. Their expressions ranged from confused to furious, mostly directed towards the three travelers and Aliya. The crowd hushed when Aliya raised her hand.

“Everyone, I understand you must be confused and upset. You might even feel betrayed,” she said apologetically. “Please understand that I volunteered my own livelihood on this. None of you will be affected.” The last part appeased most of them.
“As I said before, I am officially resigning as your representative. I want you to know that I acted on my conscience today and not on your desires, so I will step down.”

“What were you hoping to achieve with this?” Otabek asked calmly.
“Well, finding gold would have presented some interesting opportunities,” she began. “But I wanted to show that we can cooperate with Almaty again. That we can rebuild our alliance after all these years.” Many of the older crowd members whispered to each other.
“You heard those explosions? Almaty gets them from Huaxia. If Huaxia and Almaty have agreements by now, we should take steps to do the same,” she scanned the audience for signs of disagreement.
“Almaty and Huaxia have been making great strides in technology,” she continued. “It will make farming much easier for us. If you don’t like farming, you can go into a career that you truly enjoy.” Denis was particularly enthusiastic at this statement., but Aliya knew she was threading a narrow needle with this impromptu speech.
“I’m not advocating that we recklessly enter any major agreements, but we need to start somewhere. Since I am no longer your diplomat, I will let you decide what you think. Thank you.” She bowed and calmly walked back home, leaving an awkward silence.

“So…” Arman said tentatively. “Should we leave?” They discreetly backed into their tent, and within minutes they were packed and heading back to the forest. When they realized the show was over, the villagers continued on with their day.

“I didn’t realize Otabek was an Anima too,” Yuuri said excitedly.
“Yeah, the wolves were also brothers,” Denis held up their hands.
“We should go see Aliya,” he told Otabek. “The two of us.”

~~~

The sun had finally disappeared behind the western valley when Yuuri placed his journal into his bag. Victor had packed the weapons and supplies, while Yuri crammed their clothes and blankets into another bag. Yuuri had to dig out the clothes they needed to change into the next morning, then repack the entire thing.

“You’re welcome to stay a few more days,” Otabek walked up the stairs, followed by Denis.
“Thank you,” Yuuri bowed, “But we need to get going. I’m glad we met you.”
“Katsudon, can’t we stay longer?” Yuri whined.
“Sorry, Yurio-kun. I’d like to reach Sa Luang before Celestino leaves. He always spends the Spring at Academy Ayutthaya. My friend Phichit should be there too. He’ll be excited to meet you,” he offered.

“About that,” Denis interrupted. “Aliya and some other representatives are leaving for Verny tomorrow. I assume you’re headed there and sailing down the Ili towards Sayam?”
“That is correct,” Yuuri nodded.
“They’re going to talk about opening up more trading with Almaty and Huaxia. Turns out Aliya’s reputation is good enough that people are taking her seriously.”
“That’s good to hear,” Victor smiled.
“They said you are welcome to travel with them by horse. It would only take half a day.”
“That’s very kind of them. We’d appreciate it very much,” Yuuri said. “Will you be going too?”
“We’re not the diplomat types, and the village needs their doctor.”
“What will you do Otabek?” Yuuri asked, since his farm plots had been collateral damage.
“I think I’ll do more traveling with Mom and Dad,” he shrugged. “I could also go to the capital with you.”
“Yes you should do that!” Yuri jumped toward him excitedly. Victor giggled.
“And if you want to send me anything, send it here,” he motioned for Yuuri to hand him pen and paper, then wrote down the location of Yakov’s place in Nyenschantz. He tore it in half and wrote Otabek’s place down for his own reference.

“It’ll get pretty lonely here,” Denis admitted. “But you’ll always come back,” he patted his brother on the shoulder.
“Of course, Bro,” he assured him. “This is our home after all.”

Chapter Text


Year 1484, Winter 2
-A small majority of Anima appear to be quadruped mammals. I have met a few others with avian abilities, two people with reptile Anima, and one aquatic. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that Anima only involves species in the Kingdom Animalia. This would also allow for insect Anima, but I have yet to see one.-

“Ugh...” Victor groaned as he clutched his stomach and leaned over the side of their boat.
“Seriously? How can you, a fish, get seasick?” Yuri said as he tacked towards port.
“Swimming and sailing are very different things,” he replied defensively. “And shouldn’t you, a cat, be scared of the water?”
“Actually, tigers usually like the water,” Yuuri said as he adjusted the tiller.

Their morning trip to Verny had gone off without a hitch. As it turned out, Verny was only Zhetysu’s capital for its central location. It had looked nearly identical to Baikonur minus the fields plus a modest setup of docks on the River Ili. They had wasted no time saying their goodbyes and boarding a one way ship to Sayam. Luckily for them, Sa Luang was a port town directly across Huaxia Sea, so borrowing a boat had not posed a challenge.

“We’ll reach the estuary by tonight,” Yuuri informed them, “Then if Victor navigates correctly we’ll reach Sayam in 15 days.”

“Aye aye, Captain” Victor saluted weakly as he swallowed a dose of the seasickness medicine Denis had given him. This time, he’d accepted money as payment.

“And you both brought warm clothes?” Yuuri asked. “We’ll be crossing the equator soon, it’s gonna get chilly.”
“Katsudon, we are from Russkaya. Yakov takes us on the Baltic year round.”
“Yeah it’s the worst,” Victor shuddered. “I was never a good swimmer. Until now.”

Yuri wondered why the potential princes of Russkaya would need to know sailing, but didn’t complain since this was going to be a tough journey. With only three people they would have to drop anchor every night and hope they didn’t get too disoriented. The boat was just big enough to store two weeks of food and water. If something went wrong they were destined for watery graves. Now that he thought about it, this was a fool’s errand.

~~~

Miraculously, the first three days of their journey did not end in complete disaster. They were making their way in what was probably the correct direction when they saw another vessel on the horizon. The crew must have noticed them too, because it was turning toward them rapidly. Being a much bigger ship, it did not take long for it to catch up to the boat Yuri had named “Puma”. When it was close enough to get an adequate look at The Puma’s crew, something jumped overboard. Rather, something flew off of the other ship straight towards the Puma. The thing turned out to be a person that could fly. He had dark brown, neatly combed hair and leathery black wings. A religious person might think they were being visited by a henchman of the Devil.

“Stephane!”
“Long time no see. Yuuri, Victor,” he waved from above. “And I don’t believe we’ve met,” he directed at Yuri.
“Yuri. The real Yuri,” he smirked.
“That’s Yurio,” Victor corrected.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yurio,” Stephane landed and shook his hand.
“What are you doing out here?” Yuuri asked incredulously.
“To perform overseas,” the rest of the troupe members waved cheerfully from the taller boat. “The only place to go around here is Sa Luang. I reckon that’s where you’re headed?”
“Correct,” Yuuri answered.
“You should join us, then. This looks dangerous,” Stephane studied their precarious setup of three waterlogged kids and an undersized sailboat.

Yuuri might have felt embarrassed in any other situation, but in this case he was figuratively on his knees thanking his lucky stars. To save the need for a ladder, Yuuri delivered his crewmates up to their new ship, then hauled their food and water over. Stephane lowered the sails of the tiny boat and tied it to its new big sister.

“Thank you, Stephane,” Yuuri bowed deeply.
“We’re happy to have you. We should get there in 10 days.”

Several other troupe members ran up to greet their former troupe mates. To Victor’s relief, Barras was nowhere to be seen.

“So what’s your next show?” Yuuri asked.
Stephane grinned with childish excitement.
“The King and the Skater!"
"We’ve built a special set with fancy harnesses and we bought skates and everything!”
“We set it up so that a frozen surface becomes part of the stage!” the troupe’s best technician said proudly as she showed off some sketches of her work.
“That’s fantastic!” Yuuri praised them. “If we’re lucky with the weather, you could perform it in Sa Luang. It’s my friend’s absolute favorite play.”
“Definitely!” Stephane said.

“Oh, but would you mind not telling anyone I used to be in your group?” Yuuri remembered. “I haven’t told anyone about it yet,” he made sure to emphasize the ‘yet’.
“Sure,” Stephane promised. “On that note, you never told us why you joined in the first place.”
A pang of guilt crept over Yuuri. Although he had rather enjoyed it, his reason for joining was purely selfish.
“I was alone, I needed some money, and I enjoyed the work,” he said truthfully. “Until Barras came along of course.”
“True. And we got rid of him!” Stephane tousled Yuuri’s hair. “Turned out to be pretty easy once we’d mustered the courage to just leave him behind.”
“I’m happy for you,” Yuuri patted him on the shoulder.

The next ten days rushed by in a delightful blur of laughter and camaraderie. Victor and Yuri gave the actor’s a few pointers for theatrical fight scenes, and Yuuri assisted two new members with set building. He learned the brother and sister were squirrel Anima from Nihon. They were even allowed a sneak peak of the play during one of the rehearsals. By the fourth day, the air was noticeably frigid. By the eighth, the occasional snowflake melted as it dropped onto the water’s surface. Also Yuri named the boat “Tiger”.

It was nearly dark when they finally approached the bustling town of Sa Luang. In front of Sayam’s majestic, snowcapped mountains were the city’s stone buildings and signature cobblestone streets. Academy Ayutthaya, Sa Luang’s pride, stood on the southwest hill overlooking the entire city. Even in the chill of late Spring, trading ships were docking from every corner of world. The ocean breeze and salty air reminded Yuuri of his hometown. He had spent the last hour writing a lengthy letter to send from the Academy to Hasetsu. They said one last thank you to Stephane and promised to watch their performance.

After dropping their things off at the inn, Yuuri asked Victor to see the city with him. He sent Yuri into a pet shop to look at cats, which he later regretted when he had to explain why he couldn’t buy a kitten. Meanwhile, he and Victor walked around as he searched for the shop he had in mind like a dowsing rod. Victor let himself become mesmerized by the sparkle in Yuuri’s eyes that he got when he was searching for an answer. When he found it, he dragged Victor inside, counted his money, and made his purchase. He then marched Victor down to the city’s finest church and up the stairs. Yuuri held his hand tenderly and reached into his pocket.

“I know it’s not the same as the one you gave me, but I… I couldn’t think of something better,” he confessed, his breath visible in the frigid air.

“Thank you for everything so far.”

~~~

The campus had not changed much since Yuuri last visited, except for the numerous new buildings that were being planned and built. This meant that the normal, direct path from the front gates to Celestino’s office was roped off for the construction of a new building. It was apparently a replacement for the physics department’s aging offices. About 15 meters away from the entrance of their desired destination, they were forced to circumvent it around the left, then take another detour due to some other construction, before reaching the back door of said building.

“Ah, campus construction,” Yuuri recalled his parents complaining about it during their time at the Academy in Edo. They had arrived at one of the smaller buildings of the campus, but what it lacked in volume it made up for in design and status. The white brick walls and stained glass windows marked the halls of an esteemed institution of learning. Right next to it was a towering library, built in the same style only bigger and more castle-shaped. It housed a vast collection of texts ranging from introductory mathematics to esoteric dead languages.

“Yuuri?”

Someone ran up behind him. Yuuri turned to see his old friend coming back from a library trip, an oversized stack of books filled his arms.

“Phichit! How have you been?” Yuuri hoisted a few of the books from the tower while Victor held the door for everyone.
“Pretty good,” he sighed. “Ciao Ciao still has me doing more reading than real work. Two weeks ago, he got me a slide rule for my birthday. Which is really cool and hip technology and all, but still...”
“That never really changes,” Yuuri reminded him as they walked up two flights of stairs. “And he’s taken you with him on his travels. That means a lot.”
“And now that you’re not around I’ve pretty much got his undivided attention,” Phichit stuck his tongue out.
“Yeah, yeah. By the way, these are my friends Victor and Yurio.” They did their usual introductions, feeling slightly left out.

They reached Celestino’s office at the end of the hallway. His door was cracked open, and he’d left a note on his desk saying “Out to lunch back in an hour”. In Professor language that meant they wouldn’t be seeing him until tomorrow. They ungracefully dropped the books onto an uncluttered space on the desk. Victor skimmed through the titles on the spines. Biostatistics, Plant Ecology, Biochemistry… Was this guy really a year younger than Yuuri?

“Are you really gonna read all these?” Yuuri furrowed his brow as he picked up Differential Equations for Scientists and Engineers.
“Oh god no,” Phichit slapped a hand on his chest. “Ciao Ciao is making his volunteer researchers survey them.”
“I thought you had his full attention,” Yuuri recalled.
“Because I’m easily his best student,” Phichit winked. Yuuri’s hand was on his forehead faster than the growth of an exponential.

While Yuuri and Phichit caught up and discussed research and the exploitation of students in academia, Yuri and Victor perused the library shelves for anything of interest. Despite his misgivings Yuri found a volume titled Felines of Koryo and Nihon and was soon engrossed. Victor scanned the shelves of the foreign language section and pulled out Nihon-Go: A Gentle Introduction. Yuuri had to turn away to hide his blushing when he saw Victor open the dusty textbook at their table.

Yuuri flinched when something slapped down on the table beside him. It was a large tome with the words Elementary Fluid Dynamics in gold letters. A pale skinned black haired guy sat in front of it.

“Hey, Seung-gil!” Phichit looked up from a book no one else could read because the script looked like squiggly art rather than letters. Seung-gil nodded in acknowledgement, not looking away from his notes.

“This is Seung-gil. We met last Spring. He likes math,” Phichit introduced everyone.

“Hi,” Seung-gil said with the enthusiasm of plain brown rice. His thick accent and Hanguk-Mal - Common dictionary immediately gave him away as an international student..

“So what do you study?” Yuuri asked curiously. “Applied math”?
“As if I would dedicate myself to anything but pure mathematics. Professor Park is making me take this because apparently I need to ‘understand how complex analysis is used by engineers’,” he rolled his eyes and made air quotes.

“Who knows? Maybe someday residue calculus will help us communicate across continents instantaneously. No need for a clunky mail system that takes weeks to carry a letter,” Phichit joked.
“As if,” Seung-gil groaned.
“She just wants you to be well rounded before you start researching with her seriously,” Phichit explained from his own experience.
“Whatever.”

“Sounds like you need a break, come see a play with us!” Phichit leaned back in his chair. “It’s supposed to reach freezing tomorrow. You’ve heard of King and the Skater, right?”
“... Fine.” Seung-gil closed his book, abandoning the assumption that no one would interrupt his studying.
“Who are these guys?” he pointed to Victor and Yuri, who had been understandably absent from their conversation about academia. Yuri, unamused by Seung-gil’s attitude, shot him a short glare. Victor gave his usual friendly wave. At that moment, Phichit thought he saw something sparkle in the sunlight. It was on Victor’s right ring finger. He also noticed that same glimmer on Yuuri’s hand, cupping his chin as his elbow rested on the table. Phichit stared in awe until he eventually realized his best friend and this handsome companion were wearing matching gold rings….

“CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR MARRIAGE!” he stood up and applauded. Yuri cursed when he noticed the new accessories.
“EVERYONE! MY FRIEND HERE JUST GOT MARRIED!!!” he turned and shouted at some positively scandalized students and librarians.

“Phichit, quiet down,” a tough looking man with long brown hair ran up to their table. “And what’s this about getting married, Yuuri?” he crossed his arms.

“Ciao Ciao! It’s been a while,” Yuuri stood up and bowed to his advisor. “And these…” he fidgeted with the band on his finger.
“They’re engagement rings,” Victor held up his own for everyone to see. “We’ll get married when Yuuri finished his mission.”
“Victor we’re too young to get married,” Yuuri buried his increasingly red face.

“I see,” Celestino grinned supportively. “And have you been studying for your quals?”
“A bit,” Yuuri admitted. “I only have my own notes to work with.”
“Hey Katsudon, if you’re such a genius how did you get caught by slave traders?”
“I’m not a genius,” Yuuri said defensively. “And they caught me by surprise.”
“Caught? Slave traders?” Celestino started to anger. “Yuuri, we’re discussing this in my office. Now.” Yuuri but his lip in nervousness, and quietly followed his teacher out.

“Okay see you,” Seung-gil picked up his book and migrated to a floor where people actually studied quietly.
“So tell us about Yuuri and yourself,” Victor leaned his elbows on the table, watching Phichit with expectation.
“Well, Yuuri and I have been researching under Ciao Ciao. This is my first year of real research, and Yuuri’s second,” Phichit explained. “Yuuri’s more into field work but I like being in the lab.”
“So you met last year?”
“We did our early studies together too,” Phichit corrected. “We’ve known each other since we started at the Academy in Edo. Did he ever tell you he was the youngest in his year and the valedictorian?”

“So you’re pretty close,” Victor scrutinized the doe-eyed kid.
“We’re best friends!” Phichit declared. “Oh but don’t worry he totally likes you.”

Phichit continued yapping for a few more minutes about things like Yuuri’s papers and older projects, but Victor’s mind had drifted to thoughts of how wonderful and smart and kind and humble his love was.
“Old man, are you paying attention?” Yuri barked.
“Yuuri is so amazing!” he wiped the tears of joy that were now flowing freely down his face.

They were all promptly thrown out of the library.

Chapter Text


Year 1485, Spring 53
-Regarding the kinds of abilities that come with an Anima, some people seem to receive some very rare talents such as night vision, acute senses of smell or hearing, or the ability to breathe underwater. While others gain strength and fighting prowess, but nothing incredibly specialized. Will two people with same or similar Anima have the same abilities or is it a case by case issue?-

“So let me get this straight.” Celestino sighed in frustration and relief before rattling off a summary of every event Yuuri had described in the past ten minutes. At least he hadn’t died or directly interfered with anyone’s politics. The Academy’s PR would not be happy if that were the case.

“And what do your parents know?” he combed his fingers through the length of his hair.
“They’ve been busy with the opening of their onsen,” Yuuri replied guiltily. “I just told them that I was making progress. I didn’t tell them about falling off a cliff and becoming an Anima and losing all my money, or that I joined a performing troupe.”

“And how did you fall off that cliff,” Celestino asked suspiciously.
“It kind of just broke beneath me,” Yuuri shrugged. He hadn’t told a single lie to Celestino so far.
“And what were you doing there?”
“I…” he trailed off. He didn’t really have a good explanation for it. “I suppose I was just wandering aimlessly that day. Somehow I ended up there,” Yuuri squirmed in his chair, unable to look his teacher straight in the eye. “I was careless. I’m sorry,” he cast his gaze to the floor. He had no delusions that he could slip anything past Celestino, nor did he want to. Yuuri’s nurturing mentor knew him well enough to be confident he wasn’t suicidal, but Celestino was aware of Yuuri’s tendency to get trapped in his own self-doubt and anxiety.

“I’m sorry,” Celestino covered his face, “I shouldn’t have let you go off on your own. I should have insisted you come back with me”
"No, it's alright. Your colleague needed you," Yuuri shook his head. “And I wanted to make my own way as a researcher. Besides, I have Victor now, so it’s not lonely.”
“I’m glad, Yuuri. So tell me about this Victor?”
“Well, I met him in the troupe. He’s also an Anima, Baltic cod I believe. He grew up kind of isolated because Russkaya nobility is like that, so he wants to travel around for a while. I assume when I’m finished he’ll go back to his teacher. But maybe not?”
“That’s nice and all, but what is he like?” Celestino asked more aggressively than usual.
“Um, he’s supportive and strong, but also emotionally needy...” Yuuri listed as many qualities he could think of.
“Heh. Sounds like a fairly typical Russkaya noble,” Celestino said.
“Most importantly,” he leaned forward with his hands folded under his chin.
“What will you do?”

~~~

“Ciao Ciao, I can’t do it!” Phichit sobbed.
“Phichit, you’re not castrating them, you’re making them run through a maze,” Celestino tried to encourage his student.
“But I don’t think they want to!” he wailed, snot dripping from his nose. “Can’t we use the mice instead?”
“They’re studying the mice next door,” Celestino rubbed his temples. It was mid afternoon and he was already exhausted from dealing with his melodramatic students.
“Maybe if I take care of them at home, they’ll trust me,” Phichit sniffed.
“Ugh. Fine. Do what you want. I’m going home.”

“And that’s how I got to take home these guys!” Phichit gestured grandly to the cage housing three hamsters. One was curled up sleeping in the corner, one was nibbling at its food, and the third was relieving itself in the center of the cage.

“And they let you keep them in the dorms?” Yuuri leaned in for a closer look.
“Umm... Not exactly,” Phichit grinned nervously. “Help me hide them?”

Celestino had talked with some people and found some beds for the visitors to sleep in. It was preferable to paying for a room at the inn, and Phichit’s room was just large enough to fit three more.

“I’m surprised there had anything left over,” Victor remarked.
“Of course they would,” Phichit said. “Why would they accept more students than they could house? That’d be a bad decision.”

There was a sturdy knock on the door.
“Hello? We’re here to bring in some beds,” the person on the other side announced.

Everyone except Phichit dashed toward the cage, scooping up the first hamster they could get their grips on. Phichit shoved the cage in the closet.

“Everything okay in there? Did something fall?”
“Everything’s fine,” Phichit opened the door, definitely not looking like a guilty idiot.

They stepped out of the room to give the workers their space. Two of them bunked a bed on top of Phichit’s, while the others set up another set in the space they’d cleared. Yuri’s hamster began squirming, as though it could sense the presence of a murderous kitten. He gripped it a bit tighter, which only made it struggle more.

“Hey, calm down!” Phichit reached towards the wayward hamster. He tried to move it from Yuri to him, but instead it slipped out of all four hands and scurried down the hallway. The other two saw the humans’ confusion and seized their chance, following their friend.
“What? They never do that to me!” Phichit’s mouth dropped in disbelief.
“After them! Yurio-kun stay here,” Yuuri gritted his teeth and sprinted off.
“Why is this my fault?!” the angry kitten yelled, shaking a fist at his friends.
“Is everything okay?” one of the workers asked him.
“Everything’s fine!” Yuri snapped at the befuddled man.

It took five minutes of chasing the hamsters through the labyrinth of hallways. On more than one occasion they found themselves in the same place they’d started. Hallways branched off in seemingly arbitrary places like a recursive nightmare. They finally cornered them into a crevice between the wall and floor.
“*Huff*, why is this place such a maze?” Yuuri breathed.
“Bad architects,” Phichit shrugged. “If there’s ever an undead uprising, this is the place to be. Some rooms don’t even have windows.”
“Come here,” Victor smiled sweetly at the cowering rodents.

“What are you morons doing?” Seung-gil walked up to the door beside them, about to put key in lock.
“Hamsters,” Victor pointed into the crevice.
Seung-gil sighed and knelt down, pushing Victor aside. In three seconds, he had all three hamsters willingly nestled in his palms.
“They’re probably put off by your impulsiveness and drama,” he deadpanned as he handed them back to Phichit. “See you tomorrow.”

Before he closed the door, Victor could have sworn he saw a dog lying on the bed.

~~~

As predicted, the next morning brought a mantle of glittering snow to the town. Despite it only being late Spring, Sayam tended to freeze earlier than normal. The campus had a tiny pond that suited the performers perfectly. Celestino was an avid skating hobbyist and always insisted on teaching the basics to his students. Unfortunately skates were a little hard to come by. Very few leathercrafters or blacksmiths advertised them in their repertoire, and Yuuri had left his pair at home. More importantly, Stephane probably would not appreciate them scratching up the ice before the show.

Yuuri and Phichit volunteered to set out some wooden benches for the audience, courtesy of Celestino’s influence with the campus planners. They all helped themselves to front row seats before anyone else came, with Phichit in between Yuuri and Seung-gil. Victor of course sat between the two Yuris, head resting on one’s shoulder. Despite only having advertised for a day, the troupe drew an appreciable crowd. Each bench had at least a dozen people on it, with adequate personal space for everyone.

“Victor have you seen this?” Yuuri held his hand and rested them on his lap.
“I’ve heard of it, but never seen it. Yakov sometimes teaches us skating as part of training, so I’ve been wanting to. Skating is a lot of fun. Much more than weapons.”
“Really? We should skate together then,” they beamed at each other. Yakov must have been some kind of superhuman to be able to teach all these things, Yuuri thought.
“Quiet, it’s starting,” Seung-gil shot them a look.

The stage was even more amazing when it was on the ice. Most of the front half was regular wood, with a ledge on the end of stage left leading to the shining, frozen water. The back half was entirely ice, and an frosty blue curtain was stationed in between the two halves. The backdrop of the first scene was expertly painted to be unrealistically futuristic, with strange metal contraptions on every corner of streets that were lined with impossibly tall, oddly shaped buildings. The musicians set the story in motion with a mournful tune. Arthur - Stephane - glided out onto the ice, drawing simple figures with the enthusiasm of a student who just failed an exam. His costume looked like it could have been designed by Anya, with its ultra modern colors and general flashiness. A few lackluster gestures later, he hastily exited and re-entered without skates, then sat at a small round table, laying out colorful cards. Arthur’s day played out for another minute, which mostly consisted of actors jumping out, portraying the characters of the card game. When he climbed into the bed beside his desk, the music shifted to mesmerizing harps and chimes as stagehands switched the backdrop to modern day Sayam.

Before long, Arthur met the king, played by a man Yuuri and Victor recognized as Yuzuru. After some time, Arthur was accepted by the royal family and performed a touching number for the king. After some diplomacy and a play within a play, they were skating as a pair to a catchy tune with vibrant strings and … odd … lyrics. Also at some point Arthur gained magical powers from his card game, which he used to help save the city from a raging fire. With the fate of the monarchy hanging on a thread, and no way for Arthur to return to the future, the play ended on nail-biting cliffhanger.

The troupe received a standing ovation during their final bows, and Stephane and Yuzuru even returned for an encore pair skate. The crowd went wild. Victor didn’t quite understand why they would put figure skating and a weird fantasy card game in the same story, but the romantic in him found the relationship enchanting. He pictured himself doing a pair skate with Yuuri with complementing outfits and a romantic foreign language song.

“That was… the coolest play ever written,” Yuri stared at the stage, utterly starstruck. He was definitely going to push Yakov to teach him more figures.

“So based on Arthur’s description of the futuristic sport, each jump and element has a base score, with extra points given for variations and entries and where it is. He could have increased his score with that one piece by seven points if he had moved that one combination to the second half.” Seung-gil lectured Phichit and Yuuri.
“Wow, you got all that from that one scene?” Phichit said in awe.
“I got more from the card game scenes,” he admitted.

“He had exactly 60 cards in his deck, which consisted of magical creatures and spells and enchantments. He had to put down specific lands as sources of power for those creatures and spells, like in that fire scene where he used the island card to summon a water spirit. The deck would need approximately 20 of those lands to support the average arsenal of attack and defense spells, and he had exactly four of most other cards, never more. So you would need to balance your deck appropriately to ensure you always have favorable odds to play spells that keep you alive and attack your opponent. Even if he wanted more cards in his deck, it would be inadvisable since every extra card decreases your chance of drawing one you need to win,” Seung-gil recited.
“It’s first year combinatorics,” he said flippantly as they headed over to congratulate the performers.
“Who knew they put so much thought into their card game,” Phichit remarked.

“Yeah it’s as if the writers are trying to predict an exciting future, although some of the details were a bit grim,” Yuuri added.
“It would be pretty neat if someday people could compete on a huge stage of ice, but why would anyone try to jump and spin around four times? That’d be scary.”
“Yeah, and he mentioned that his school was really expensive and most people were only there to get jobs. Why would their academies also be trade schools?” Yuuri added.
“Who knows, but what are the chances any of it will come true?”

~~~

“Good afternoon, Ciao Ciao!” Phichit and Yuuri waved as they intruded on his meeting with a fresh faced volunteer. She was clearly still full of wonder and not a cynical academic just yet, but just experienced enough to fear her advisor. She hastily wrapped up their conversation and hurried out, clutching a textbook to her chest.

“We didn’t see you at the play, I thought you wanted to come,” Phichit stood in the doorway looking rather disappointed.

“I’m your mentor, not your friend,” Celestino frowned. “I wanted to go, but something came up. Yuuri, can you read this? It’s from a professor at Huaxia Academy. We met briefly last time I was there. He must not have realized that my Huawen is purely survival.” He handed him a letter, marked “華夏大學” in red ink. He was able to guess some words based on familiar characters and words, but had no way to string them into a coherent thought. He recognized the words for ‘meet’, ‘discuss’, and ‘human’, and a handful of characters that in general had troublesome meanings.

“Sorry, Celestino. I only recognize a few things, but it seems normal” He handed it back.
“That’s fine. I asked Min-so to take a look. I don’t know why he wants me in particular, and he’s vague on the details. But apparently he wants to collaborate on a project.” he showed them Professor Park’s neatly written translation.
“Will you two come with me? I can arrange for your friends to go home.”
“Victor will want to stay, I’ll ask Yurio-kun,” he panicked for a second at the thought of Victor being forced to end his journey prematurely.
“Very well,” Celestino leaned back in his chair. “Phichit, are you interested?”
“Of course, Professor,” he responded with determination.

“Of course I’m going!” Yuri declared while upside down in a bridge. He and Victor had spent the last hour training in the campus arena. Nothing interesting happened.
“Are you sure? It might be boring.”
“I don’t care,” Yuri asserted.
“Alright then, we leave tomorrow first thing,” Yuuri left them to their business.