Chapter 1: to have no yesterday, and no tomorrow
[[ -222.04.05 12:14:47 ]]
This story begins with the blood moon hanging low in the sky. At the edge of the forest, where frozen ground yields to deathless evergreens, a young boy gapes as the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen removes her veil. Her eyes sparkle with laughter and promise him eternity.
[[ -228.04.05 20:32:07 ]]
No -- perhaps this story truly begins six winters ago, four days after the solstice, when the Nikiforov clan welcomes a baby boy.
“Viktor,” his mother gasps out when they ask her for a name. That the stars might smile on his path, and the earth might bow to his will.
Later, the midwife hands her the baby swaddled in a blanket, and comments, “His eyes are like water.”
“All of our eyes are like water.”
“Not like this.”
She is right. They look nothing like the signature pale, icy blue this family is blessed with -- his father, his mother, all five of his sisters -- evoking images of frost, and of the morning sky at winter. Viktor’s eyes are warm, kissed with green, and remind her of the open ocean: vast, fathomless, and free.
“What do you suppose it means?”
She holds the child close to her chest, hiding his face into her shoulder. Like other magical clans all over the world, the Nikiforovs’ history has always been steeped in equal parts certainty and superstition. “It means nothing.”
“It always means something,” the midwife insists. “Water is destructive and unpredictable. Because of the way it flows, it knows no master.” She pauses, considering her words carefully. “My lady would be wise not to ignore so clear a sign.”
“Hmmm.” She holds him closer, until she can feel the beat from his tiny heart through the layers of wool. She doesn’t say: water also gives life, does it not? “Be that as it may, he will achieve greatness. I promise you that.”
[[ -224.10.00 01:17:52 ]]
Viktor’s earliest clear memory is of him playing in the grass near the line of giant Siberian pines that marks the end of the Nikiforov estate, because he loves the smell of the air here. Summers don’t last for very long where his family lives, he’s learned by then, but what summer they do have is magnificent, with nights that seem like endless day.
This was one of those nights. His mother watched him from close by while he collected interesting-looking pine cones from the ground. He would hold each one up for her approval, and depending on which way her lips turned, he would then either place it in his bag, or toss it back into the forest.
He was in the middle of appraising a particularly large cone when he felt water tickling him from above. “Mama, look!” he gasped. “Rain!” But the sky was so clear! He laughed and danced and dropped his pine cones, spreading his arms to catch more of the rainfall.
Mama grabbed his wrist. He’ll never forget how pale she looked as her gaze darted to the forest. She switched places with him, almost violently, pushing him behind her so that he could no longer see the trees. “Go inside the house, Vitya.”
“But Mama - ”
“Now, Vitya. Inside.” She never raised her voice to him before that day. She must have realized it, because soon she was smoothing down her skirts and forcing a smile. “Come on, don’t delay. I’ll be right behind you. Okay?”
Later that night, long after the rain had stopped -- and indeed, it hadn’t lasted for very long at all, because he was dry by the time he reached the house -- Mama sat him down in the middle of her bed, muted all of the flames from the candles in the room, and told him about the Wanderers: powerful beings that walked the earth who knew neither how to age nor how to die. They were ‘blighted’, she said, because although magic could bend the laws of nature to its caster’s will, there were still lines that you were not supposed to cross, and Wanderers were those who willfully did so. They could only be sensed by humans with magical abilities, or at least, a latent affinity for magic, and they always came heralded by something uncanny: strangely-shaped clouds that would appear out of nowhere and vanish in a blink; bursts of aurorae in the skies too close to the center of the world; sudden, short-lived showers of rain on a bright, clear day.
“They will offer to make a contract with you,” she murmured. “That is what they do: they wander the earth offering to grant whatever it is that people wish for the most.”
“Anything I wish for? Anything?” Viktor bounced in excitement, jostling the hand she was using to run a comb through his hair. One hundred strokes in three hundred seconds, every night: that was their little ritual, Mama with the comb and her gentle hands, Viktor with her golden watch and its chain that Viktor liked to wind around his wrist, so he would never drop it. “They must be so powerful then!”
“Only the Goddess herself has more power. But these creatures are abominations; they are accidents in Her perfect creation. They cannot be trusted.”
Viktor tilted his head. “Hmmm? But you said a while ago that they’re not evil.”
“I did say that. You are such a bright child.” She put the comb away, ignored Viktor’s protest that they still had seventy-eight seconds to go, and wrapped her arms around him. “Promise me that if you ever cross paths with one of them, you will be careful. And remember what we talked about today.”
He nodded. Mama’s embrace cocooned him in warmth, and he could smell the rose oil in her hair. “How will I know, though? That it’s one of them.”
“You will know. And then, you must make the more difficult choice: to walk away.”
[[ -222.04.05 12:03:14 ]]
Viktor isn’t as much of a natural talent in magic as his family wishes he could be. Where his sisters can already freeze the surface of the pond on their property with a single glance, Viktor can barely get tendrils of frost to manifest with his hand submerged in the water. He tries hard, he really does. But work and willpower don’t prove potent enough to overcome whatever keeps blocking him from actually casting the spells he’s memorized thrice over.
“You might be focusing too much on the theory.” His mother has the patience of a true saint. “There is more to magic than just that.” But whenever he asks her what, she can never seem to put it into words either.
Near the end of his sixth year, rumors abound of a war that might be brewing among Russia’s magical families. Viktor learns about this completely by accident; he’s been studying by candlelight late into the night to compensate without telling anyone, and that’s why all of the adults probably think he’s sleeping when they discuss this in the other room.
“...If the worst comes to pass, you need to take the children… the girls are not to be caught in the front lines, that was the agreement.”
“But what about Viktor? He is far too young -- ”
“It does not matter. Even if he were older, he…”
He hates being a disappointment. It cuts into his heart more than he will ever admit, and what kills him the most is that he’s powerless to do anything about it. When your biggest problem is that you lack power and talent, how can you hope to fix that?
All he’s ever wanted is to make his family happy, to win their approval and earn their pride. So when he sees the moon outside his window dripping red on the night of his sixth birthday, he considers it a gift from the universe. He takes Mama’s watch from the table and stuffs it into his pocket, because he might need something to ground himself, and time is one of the few constants there is. Then he slips out the bedroom window, casts a floating spell that sets him down gently onto the grass below, and runs to the boundary of the forest.
He doesn’t know what to do when he gets there; no-one ever mentioned any spell to cast, or an incantation meant to summon a Wanderer, and nothing comes to mind. When he’s older, he will learn that it’s because no such spell exists -- Wanderers cannot be summoned; they come to you, which is exactly what happens tonight.
“Hello there, pretty child. Would you like to make a wish?”
Viktor swallows hard. Words fail him for what feels like an eternity. “Are… are you one of them? A Wanderer?”
Her laughter reminds him of a ringing bell. “I did just offer to grant you your heart’s desire, did I not?”
“You’re not…” Viktor squints. “You’re not how I imagined Wanderers would look like.”
“Oho? And what did you imagine Wanderers would look like?”
“Hmmmm… I thought you would look scarier.” Her hair is as red as the blood moon, and flows to her shoulders in wild waves. The dark robes she’s wearing aren’t marked by any family crest, at least none that he can see, and he almost wants to ask how long she’s been alive. And also: is it true, everything Mama said? He can’t see any blight on her face or hands. “Can you really do it? Grant a wish for me, no matter what it is?”
She nods. “Anything you desire. I only ask for one tiny thing in return.”
Viktor is old enough to understand the implied condition there. “What if I can’t give it to you? You’re not going to grant my wish then?”
“Oh, not to worry. I always honor my end of the bargain.”
Huh? That doesn’t make sense to him at all. If she’s going to give him what he wants either way, what incentive is there for him to grant her wish?
She reaches down and ruffles his hair, which pulls apart his tangled trains of thought and releases them into the wind. “You are such a pretty child! Well, go on, then.” She crouches down so that she can face him. Her eyes glitter with something that looks like starlight. “Tell me. What do you wish for?”
“I wish…” He thinks about his failures in his studies, spells that are too slow to start and drain too much energy, the increasingly strained smiles on his teachers’ faces when they tell him to try again. He thinks of portents of war, and how so much can change in two years. “I wish I could become as powerful as you!”
She pauses, before letting out another laugh, incredulous this time. “You want to become a Wanderer like me?”
Viktor nods vigorously. “I want to be able to grant everybody’s wishes!” He imagines all the people -- so many people, not just his family, but everyone -- who might stand to have their deepest wishes granted. And if that happens, his naive, childish mind reasons, wouldn’t that be perfect? Wouldn’t that mean no more conflict, no more sadness?
“So precious.” The Wanderer’s hand finds his cheek; her touch is so cold, he realizes now. Colder than winter itself. He reaches up to close a small hand around her wrist, almost instinctively, and realizes she doesn’t seem to have a pulse. “Do you know what will be asked of you? To walk the path of the Wanderer is to set out to make the Universe tremble.”
Viktor has felt sure of many things in his short life thus far, not all of which proved to be right. Still, the longer he stands here, at the edge of the forest which has always smelled of pine and frost and felt like the gateway to another world, the surer he feels. This is it, his heart’s desire. With the blood moon as their only witness, he doesn’t even have to say anything.
“Then this contract is sealed.” For a moment, just a moment as she shakes his hand, he feels something burning into his palm -- and then, all of a sudden, it’s over. “In return, Viktor Nikiforov, all I ask is that you live.”
[[ -222.04.05 11:22:53 ]]
It does not take very long at all for Viktor’s contract to be discovered. He can’t have been gone even an hour; the sky outside is still dark, although the blood moon has given way to its usual bright, holy white. Still, by the time he sneaks back into the house, Mama is already waiting for him.
“Oh, Vitya…” Her eyes are pools that glimmer in the soft yellow glow of the candles’ flames. “I warned you.”
It’s Papa who grabs him by the shoulder, tugs down his collar, and pulls his hair back to expose the skin on his face and neck, demanding to ‘see’. His large hand grips like a vise around Viktor’s wrist, but Papa stops before he can tear off the sleeve.
Because he doesn’t have to: the crescent moon etched into Viktor’s palm is the same dark, bloody shade of red as the Wanderer’s hair, but it looks almost black by candlelight. “You have brought damnation into this house,” his father spits out, throwing him to the floor. Mama shrieks. When Viktor opens his eyes, he sees his sisters in their nightgowns, huddled in the doorway.
“But nothing even happened!” he cries. “I don’t even feel any different, I swear! I - I’ll never go out there again!”
Viktor tries to pick himself up off the floor, only to yield when an invisible force slams him back down. He gasps and tries again, but this time he can’t even move: his body feels as though it’s anchored to the floorboards, and when he dares to look, he sees a circle of bluish-white light under each of his ankles and wrists.
Bluish-white circles circumscribing a twelve-sided snowflake, the Nikiforov family crest.
A binding spell.
“P-Papa?” he chokes out. The temperature of the air around him plunges, and he feels his heart hammering in his chest.
“To bring such disgrace into our house when we are about to go to war… you are a stupid, stupid child!”
In the end, his life is spared, but it still takes his sisters’ screams and all of Mama’s tears. Which is the best he could have hoped for, he eventually learns -- he’s ‘tainted’ the pristine Nikiforov name with his foolishness, and for that crime, abandonment is the closest thing to mercy.
It doesn’t feel that way. Not even a little bit.
[[ -222.03.29 01:14:17 ]]
This is what the elders always say:
Once upon a time, long, long ago, no magic existed in the world. Man had to strive for whatever he desired by either the sweat of his brow or the machinations of his mind. But most of the universe was beyond his reach. All of man’s effort and cunning could do little to move mountains, or guide the winds and the tides. The anguish and hopelessness that this caused lent wings to a prayer, and the Goddess of this universe, taking pity on Man, shared with him a portion of her power.
Viktor wonders now if She ever regrets that, what with humans taking that precious gift and twisting it into something ugly, by using magic to hurt and kill one another.
When the war finally starts, he’s shivering, curled up into himself in the tiny space under an upturned tree, while a blizzard howls all around him. Mama, Papa, his sisters and the rest of the Nikiforov household -- they all just left him here, alone. He hasn’t eaten in days. Near death, and stranded in the cold, he finds himself thinking of how prayers aren’t different from wishes, and how man’s request to the Goddess long ago was somewhat like his contract with that Wanderer.
He wants to laugh, but that seems like it would be too much effort.
Viktor doesn’t notice when the blizzard eventually dies down. Though he clutches Mama’s watch to his chest, the numbers and hands stopped making sense to him a few sunsets and sunrises ago. So he doesn’t realize how much time has passed when he hears rustling in the trees, yips and barks and a gruff voice giving an order to ‘calm down’. More seconds and minutes tick by, uncounted in his head, before a skulk of white foxes comes into view -- they’ve sniffed and all but circled him when a man appears in the corner of Viktor’s eye, dressed in heavy furs and carrying a walking staff.
“My name is Yakov Feltsman,” the man says. “What is yours, boy?”
Viktor’s too weak to respond. He feels so at peace right now, like he could just…let go.
He barely notices the magic seal underneath him before he drifts off.
[[ -222.03.28 20:02:25 ]]
Viktor wakes up on a warm wooden floor, over a ratty wool blanket that has seen better days. He’s been placed in the center of a circle of white light that shines brightly through the weave. A candle and a chalice sit on either side of him; a cluster of pebbles at his feet, a bundle of dried white sage at his head. In his hands, he’s clutching a small globe of glass, enclosing a tiny butterfly.
A healing spell.
“Do not leave the circle just yet, Viktor.” The man called Yakov is sitting at a desk in a darkened corner of the room, and hasn’t even turned to face him. “How are you feeling?”
“Better. Thank you.” Viktor tightens his grip on the glass. He stares at the butterfly as it flutters its wings. “How do you know my name?”
“Two days ago, the Nikiforov estate was attacked in the middle of the night. But when raiders entered the property to gather the spoils, none of the family was in sight.”
“Ah.” Viktor tries to decode the strange ache in his chest that feels too much like a twisted mix of betrayal and relief. “They escaped.”
“Most of them. They seem to be missing one member.”
Yakov shifts in his seat to pet one of the foxes curled up at his feet, which gives Viktor a glimpse of what’s on the man’s desk: an active crystal ball, watching several figures cross a snowy mountain pass. He can’t make out their faces from here, but he doesn’t have to: he recognizes the long, silvery white of Mama’s hair, and the family crest proudly embroidered on the back of Papa’s cloak.
“Do you want to see?” Yakov asks him in a gruff voice.
“No.” Swallowing hard, he tears his eyes away. “If you're thinking of using me as ransom, it won't work.”
“You misunderstand me,” Yakov snorts. “I have no interest in tossing my hat into a war, or any of this nonsense which is about to break.”
“Then why?” Viktor sets the globe with the butterfly down and wraps his arms around himself. “I'm grateful, but… I don't have anything to give you in return. I don't have anything at all.”
“You have your life, do you not?”
Life, indeed. He thinks about the wish he made, so childish in just a few days’ hindsight, so naïve. He remembers the Wanderer standing at the border of the forest, the turn of her lips when she ordered -- no, requested -- that he ‘live’. Is that all that’s left for him now?
Yakov rises to his feet. The crystal ball is now dead. “Are you hungry?”
[[ -222.01.14 06:33:10 ]]
After being nursed back to health, Viktor convinces Yakov to take him on as an apprentice. It doesn’t take much, to his surprise; he just tells Yakov in short, blunt words that he has nowhere else to go, and that if Yakov were to turn him away now he’d surely die… but, if Yakov could find it in his heart to let Viktor stay, Viktor would want to at least be of use to him.
Come to think of it, Viktor isn’t sure which part of his little spiel worked in the end. But Yakov opens up his home to him, and after ascertaining that he’s back to full strength, he starts teaching Viktor what he can.They start off simple: healing spells, location spells, augmentation. He learns how to talk to the foxes, and very soon Yakov puts him in charge of taking care of them, which he loves.
He feels much less love for their sparring sessions, of which Yakov insists on having many. “Your clan’s magical signature is domain over ice and snow,” Yakov says after a fifth disastrous attempt at redirecting an ice spell. “Yet you seem to have no desire to take advantage of it.”
Viktor shrugs. He traces out a pattern that leaves trails of frost curling along the aged bark of the old tree beside him. He’s always been told to take pride in it, his family’s specialty -- but he’s only ever seen this magic be used to hurt others, so he’s not that interested.
He tells Yakov this much today, which makes him switch tactics during their next lesson, and try to teach Viktor how to make barriers instead.
“The concept is not complicated. You define the two spaces first, and then use your will to force their separation. Later you will learn the nuances of it, and even later you will learn how to summon multiple barriers at once, but for now, let us start small.”
Yakov shows him a simple, straight barrier that cuts a line through the snow on the ground; a large, curved barrier hanging over their heads like a giant umbrella; a spherical barrier that he casts over a mound of snow, shrinking it until a snowball is formed.
Viktor frantically tries to throw up a barrier of his own when the snowball comes flying his way. He fails horribly.
Yakov is not very forgiving during these sparring sessions, because ‘you cannot expect real enemies to be forgiving’ and so, especially in this time of war, he has to train for this cruel reality. He throws ice spells at Viktor with a careless flick of his wrist, and while they lack the power and bravado of Papa’s hailstorms, they come at him fast and unrelenting, and shatter through all of his barriers.
“Your self-preservation is appalling!”
He grits his teeth. He’s soaking wet and freezing, and he can’t feel his fingers and toes. “I can’t… I can’t see it.”
“See what? The spaces?”
“I’m sorry.” He’s so tired. He just wants to take a long, hot bath, and then curl up in his bed, preferably against two or more of the foxes, and sleep.
Yakov finally lets up on his assault, the glow of bluish light from half-formed spells on his hands dissolving into the air. Stepping back, he regards Viktor for what feels like an eternity.
“What did you wish for, when you made your contract with that Wanderer?”
Viktor gapes at him. “What?”
“I know you heard me. That said, it is none of my business, so do not think that you have to answer.”
It’s fine; how long has it been, anyway? How long since the night he ran into that forest, and made a foolish choice that doomed himself to exile from his own family? He doesn’t really know. He can’t sense Mama’s magic from here anymore, which means she’s either very far away, or… he doesn’t want to consider the other, worse option. “It was stupid. I wished I could be as powerful as her.”
“I didn’t want to be weak anymore. And I didn’t want anyone from my family to have to go to war. I thought, if I could give everyone their heart’s desire, then…”
He trails off because Yakov is no longer looking at him, but staring at something on the ground a few feet or so away from where Viktor is standing. When Viktor follows his gaze, he almost misses the tiny white rabbit against the endless expanse of snow.
A blue glow surrounds Yakov’s hands again. Wait… is he -- ?
Viktor throws up a barrier at the last second. He doesn’t even realize that he’s done it until he already sees it, huge and bright, and almost blinding -- a perfect circle of light tracing out the familiar twelve-sided snowflake in the air in front of the rabbit. All of the spells he’d fired dissolve upon contact, but Yakov simply smiles with a satisfied nod.
“I think I am starting to understand you a little bit more.”
[[ -220.02.23 10:40:00 ]]
The Nikiforov family does not make it through the war, which is something to lament.
When the dust clears and all of the blood has dried, miles and miles away, Yakov knocks on Viktor’s door just before midnight, and says a few short words. He asks if Viktor needs time, then takes back his question completely. He tells Viktor to take all the time he needs, instead.
In the morning, after the sun rises, he finds Viktor waiting at the table with breakfast ready, just as always.
[[ -207.11.28 09:38:17 ]]
Viktor flourishes under Yakov’s tutelage, which he credits to the man’s boundless patience and his own dogged determination. But all good things must come to an end, and so when Viktor comes of age, he tells Yakov that he can no longer in good conscience keep being a burden on him.
This doesn’t surprise Yakov. What does surprise him is what Viktor says next, when he answers the obvious question that follows. “A mercenary? You?”
It’s snowing. Viktor waves his hand, bends the flow of the falling snow near him and lets the snowflakes dance until they form the shape of a fox, before releasing it. “I’m going to need a way to support myself somehow. Magic is all I know.”
“What about your contract?”
“I don’t know.” Viktor stares at the mark of the moon, still visible on his palm. Truth be told, he hasn’t given it much thought for quite some time now. “What happens to a contract if it’s left unfulfilled?”
“I would imagine it remains open,” Yakov muses, “but I do not possess any firsthand knowledge of how these things are supposed to work.”
“Right. Well, I suppose I’ll just have to figure it out then.” Viktor stuffs his hands into his coat pockets, flashing him a cheerful smile. As far as he knows, there is no magical law or mandate which demands that all goodbyes have to be sad. “Thank you for everything. I mean it, really. You were the best teacher I ever knew.”
“Stop talking like I’m already dead!”
Viktor laughs. “I didn’t mean that. I just… you are the best teacher I’ve ever had, and I need you to know that now.” Because fifteen years ago, an ignorant and wide-eyed young child lost his family in a single night; who knows if he and Yakov will ever see each other again?
“Vitya. If there is one final gift of wisdom that I can leave you, it is this: never forget that the universe is always smaller than we imagine it to be.”
[[ -201.08.23 15:46:02 ]]
Life as a mercenary is… comfortable, if he had to put it in a word. It’s easier than he expects to detach himself from people’s motivations and, to an extent, the consequences of those motivations when he abstracts them away as ‘clients’, and every spell to be cast is just another job to be done. He thinks nothing of charms and love potions, of loading crucial dice rolls and enchanting swords with indestructibility. He thinks nothing of bringing forth rain over a parched field just as he thinks nothing of summoning pestilence to that very same field halfway through the season -- different clients, different payouts.
He thinks nothing of it all when, in the middle of a darkened, empty bar in a sleepy town close to the Equator, a witch makes him an offer that seems too good to be true.
“Say that again? You’re offering how much?”
The witch names her figure again, a ridiculous price. Viktor laughs and pays for his drink, ready to make a quick exit and call it a night, but as he gets up, she stops him by yanking on his sleeve. Her hand finds his, and a second later he feels the weight of a very heavy purse pressing into his palm.
“Half now. Half when the job is done.”
He needs to use a bit of enchantment to count it quickly, and without having to pour the contents of the purse out onto the bar counter for everyone to see. But it really is all there, just like she said. “And all you want is an augmentation?”
Augmentation is one of the first spells Mama taught to him. All it really is is a channeling of one’s energy to another party. It’s a way to share one’s power with another mage, either to cast a spell so complicated that it requires more energy than one person can handle, or to double the potency of a simpler one. “Are you going to tell me what the main spell is going to be?”
The witch turns over his hand in hers, and inspects the mark of the moon on his palm with a detached sort of curiosity. “If the money is good, then what does that matter?”
Viktor finds himself considering that. What does it matter, really? It would be easy money, likely the easiest he’ll ever have for a simple, relatively boring job. If she makes good on her promise, by the time this is over he won’t have to work for the rest of the year. It might be nice to have a vacation for once.
His acceptance finds them travelling for three weeks, to a seaside town on the southern coast of the southernmost state of Brazil. From there, they waste no time in finding a boat, and immediately set sail that very night. The witch has coordinates written down on a scrap of paper with some complex-looking calculations, and she obsessively checks and rechecks a worn map that she keeps in her sleeve every hour, even though there’s nothing but open ocean for miles.
When they finally stop, it’s been a little over sixty-two hours by Viktor’s count, as there hasn’t been much to do besides tracking the time on Mama’s watch -- although now it’s really his watch, he supposes. The witch waves away all of his offers to help as she sets up her summoning circle on the main deck: sulfur, ash, and black candles; sprigs of barberry and asafoetida; an iron knife whose blade drinks the blood from her arm, before it is painstakingly placed in the center of the circle.
“You’re not conjuring up a storm, are you?” he asks, half-joking.
She shares none of his mirth. “Are you familiar with antipodes, mercenary?”
Viktor nods. “Opposite ends of the world.”
“You have been taught well.” She checks her measurements, which were already perfect from the very start, one last time. “Some spells, as you must know, can have their potency magnified a hundredfold by adjusting simple parameters. Distance is one of the simplest of them.”
He remembers as much, from his lessons with Yakov. But what she described only works if the caster and the target are already linked in some way. And he can imagine very few cases where the potency scales with distance, not against it.
In fact, given this knowledge, and all of the materials she’s laid out on the deck, he can imagine only one. “This is a curse… isn’t it?”
On the exact opposite side of the world, he learns, stands a castle built on a plane, home to the feudal lord of the Hasetsu domain. The locals call it Maizuru-jō -- ‘Dancing Crane Castle’ -- in part because of the maidens who protect it: priestesses of a revered local clan who channel their unique brand of magic almost exclusively through the use of sacred ceremonial dance. The entire family is the target of her curse: for the next boy born from this bloodline to be born ‘with tragedy as his shadow’, and bring nothing but misfortune to those close to him.
Just the way she describes it makes Viktor start to feel sick. “A curse like this,” he breathes, “would require a tremendous amount of magic.”
The witch nods. “More than a single person can provide. Hence my need for your augmentation.” She seems to pick up on his sudden change of temperament. “Are you going to insult us both by asking for my motivations, mercenary?”
Viktor sets his lips into a thin line. “I have been a consummate professional until now, have I not?”
It looks like that satisfies her, because she lets the conversation die and continues with her preparations. She lights the candles all at once, and squeezes around her wrist to give a little more blood. She pulls the tiny receptacle she wears as a pendant around her neck over the summoning circle, letting a single drop of mercury slide down to make its way around and through the summoning circle, until it shines silver.
He’s not going to ask her. It is far too late for that, and it’s not his place. Still, he can’t help but wonder: what happened? What cracked and broke and festered, and for how long, to give birth to such hatred?
It doesn’t matter, he ends up telling himself. He was hired to do a job, that’s all. That his client’s plans happen to be… a lot less than benevolent… should be inconsequential, cold as it might feel, at least to him. At least in the long term. At the end of the day, he will walk away from this, and life will go on.
“A curse of this kind requires an exit clause,” she announces as though by afterthought. “A limitation imposed in the very fabric of the spell itself. But there’s nothing stopping us from designing the clause so that it’s something that will never happen.” She pauses to think. “What is impossible to happen to a boy who brings nothing but misfortune, I wonder.”
Viktor is still too stunned by what she is about to do that he doesn’t even think of how to reply; he just lets go of the words that are already sitting on the tip of his tongue. “It must be ‘love’ then,” he says weakly.
“Love,” she echoes. “Of course. That is excellent.”
With another iron dagger, more ash, and a very careful hand, Viktor draws out a line tangent to the summoning circle, going the opposite way from where the sun is starting to set in the horizon. It was Mama who taught him the theory, and the short incantation he mutters under his breath, unheard against the wind. But it was Yakov who taught him control, Yakov who showed him how to steady every fiber of his being -- this is the only reason, Viktor is convinced, that his hand doesn’t shake when he crouches down and presses it flat against the end of the line, and the entire intricate path sketched in ash begins to glow.
He isn’t sure how much time passes before the glow turns blinding. The sea roils, and waves crash into the side of their boat, spraying over onto the deck, washing away the ash and sulfur and everything else.
Viktor doesn’t know what any of this means. Did it work? Did it fail? Which is it?
When he dares to look, he’s shocked to find that the Goddess Herself has appeared in a burst of light, the tips of her toes barely skimming the surface. The robes that cloak her form are of seafoam and spray, her eyes the ominous green of the sky before a tornado.
He stares, unable to look away.
This does not feel like a victory at all.
“We did it, mercenary!” The witch breaks the silence with a shout, and joyous laughter that sounds too loud, far too loud against the eerie calmness that has overtaken the ocean. Saltwater from the wave pushed her hair down over her face, but between the drenched strands clinging to her cheeks, he can see the crazed look in her eyes. “It is done! The hour of my reckoning has come, so swift, so furious. But this is just another sign that it is done.”
“Reckoning?” he echoes.
“You really don’t know? Silly boy.” Her lips curl up into something crooked. “For the sin of cursing an entire bloodline, there is only one fitting price.”
No. He can’t have heard that right. No. “You… you knew about this?” Viktor staggers backwards, slipping on the soaked deck, until his back is pressed against the mast. “But… but why? This wasn’t worth it!!”
“You know nothing! I would do it a thousand times again, and die a thousand times more.” When the witch raises her head again, she meets the Goddess’ eyes with something that might have resembled dignity, if only it were not so cruel. “Death is the fastest and least of punishments. Goodbye, mercenary. I am sorry I deceived you.”
For all of the ceremony required for humans to cast even the easiest spells, the root of all magic executes with simplicity: the Goddess strikes her dead with a single look, a bolt of lighting that tears a hole into the boat and leaves not a single trace of the caster’s existence behind.
And when it’s over, and his ears have stopped ringing and the spots have cleared from eyes, Viktor forgets to feel fear when the Goddess turns to him.
“I… I will accept whatever punishment You see fit,” he whispers. It might as well be death, he thinks, since this rapidly-sinking boat means the ocean will swallow him in minutes anyway, and by then it will matter little if what it finds is already a corpse. Oddly enough, as the water rises in the boat, he remembers -- oh, he must be the last living member of the Nikiforov clan by now, isn’t he? Perhaps this is the only tragedy, then: that a once proud, formidable bloodline die with him. Pity there’s not much of a legacy left behind with the name besides wars and curses… but in two, three generations, will any of it really matter?
He only wishes he could have said goodbye to Yakov.
“You have sold your magic for profit and spat upon the pride of the honorable mages who walked before you.” The Goddess’ lips do not move, but he hears her voice everywhere at once. “You did not seek to do evil, but you did nothing to stop it and without your aid, an innocent would not have been cursed on this day.”
Viktor presses his back further against the mast as she floats onto the boat, approaching him. He squeezes his eyes shut when she reaches out a hand, but by the time he feels the pain blooming from his chest, he wonders if it would have made a difference; if he would have been able to see anything anyway, when it feels like a thousand daggers gutting him all at once.
“Your punishment, then, is this: you shall roam and repent, and roam and repent. The only people who can walk this earth without a shred of dignity are those who are willing to be reborn as many times as necessary, in order to regain it.”
[[ -201.08.21 02:09:13 ]]
The blue sky takes a while to come into focus. Waves lap up against his legs; the tide comes in to his waist. An apology?
No. Viktor lurches to a sitting position, only to double over. He vomits seawater onto the sand, and it never seems to end. He can hear the cries of birds soaring overhead. Seagulls. Or -- he tries to remember where he is -- ring-billed gulls, perhaps.
He glances around him: nothing but beach and water. There’s no longer any sign of the Goddess, or of the boat She sank with Her righteous fury.
Viktor has no idea what day it is -- after the first dozen or so, he lost count of how many times he drowned, only to revive and drown again, and revive and drown yet again. And again, until the current brought him to shore.
He pushes himself up off the sand, and blinks when he catches sight of his left hand, the one he used for the augmentation; it’s all blighted now, splotches of black and purple marring the pale skin. Gingerly, he places it over his chest.
His heart isn’t beating anymore.
This is when he realizes the truth behind his mother’s old words: being a Wanderer is not a gift. It is a curse. So this is the price for those who make the Universe tremble, he thinks, recalling the words from that beautiful, wild-haired stranger he met under the blood moon twenty-one years ago. How vexing -- that it took all this time, and a winding, convoluted path of choice and circumstance, but she wound up fulfilling her end of the contract anyway.
Death is the fastest and least of punishments. Those were the witch’s last words. Indeed -- if he had only known.
[[ -200.11.03 17:29:10 ]]
Older versions of the creation myth claim that the very first dance was the one the Goddess performed at the beginning of time. The pure magic flowing from her hands and feet created matter: the stars, galaxies, universes, and beyond.
This is what the priestesses of the Okukawa clan believe, and this is why most of the magic they cast is through dance. Healing, purification, prayers for good fortune and safe-keeping -- all of these are wishes that can be channeled through dance.
The clan practices other forms of magic, though not as frequently. The magical wards placed in certain arteries of the city are their handiwork, as are divination rituals during important milestones of the citizens’ lives.
But they are not strangers to other lands’ magic as well. As proof of this, when the High Priestess senses a surge of dark magic in the vicinity of the castle, it doesn’t take very long at all for some of the more experienced clan members to trace back not only the source of the magic, but the actual contents of the spell.
None of the knowledge that they gain is of any comfort to those concerned.
“Who among you,” the High Priestess demands, “has taken upon herself such contempt that she allowed this scourge to enter our house?!”
The women gathered around the table lower their gazes. Nobody knows, or nobody admits to it.
“Is there no way at all to break this curse?” one of the younger priestesses asks her. “Perhaps, with a powerful enough purification ritual -- ”
“This is a curse for which the caster paid with their life,” she snaps. “Make no mistake about it. The only chance we have of breaking it is if someone is willing to match that price.”
There is another way, of course, to handle this. It is something that the High Priestess would normally be loath to even consider -- and she still is, to some extent. When she looks around at the faces of the women around her, she sees shock and despair, a hopeless dread that settles over the room.
This angers her. If they give in, then that mage who cursed their family will have won. To let them have that victory, when they carried out an act so heinous and unspeakable against these women, some of them mere girls, who deserve none of it… this, the High Priestess can not allow.
If only on principle, then… “But we should not have to.”
[[ -198.05.28 16:38:04 ]]
Because there are spells that can foretell the sex of a baby while it is still in the womb, and there are other spells that can verify those predictions.
Because there are other spells still: spells that exist long before mankind will eventually come up with medicines and procedures -- and countless debates about those same medicines and procedures -- to end a life before it can fully begin.
Because the family must be protected, above all else, and its members who are alive today deserve to be shielded from this curse through whatever means necessary.
“We are damned. We are damned.” A young attendant clutches at a blood-soaked rag, her eyes wide but dry. She is too numb for tears. “Surely, there must be some other way?”
The High Priestess says nothing, simply smoothing out the pleats in her skirt as she stands. The red that slips beneath her fingers looks the same as the blood on the attendant’s rag, and the blood now seeping into the mat in the center of the room. The would-be mother wails and wails.
It is all over.
[[ -196.10.02 20:17:38 ]]
It is all over until the next boy is conceived. And the next.
[[ -195.05.11 07:21:32 ]]
The intricacies of being a Wanderer need to be learned on the fly. But it’s alright. Viktor has all the time in the world.
He learns, for example, that being deathless does not actually stop him from dying; rather, he simply keeps being reborn, again and again, ‘as many times as necessary’ as the Goddess said, but as time goes on he starts to think that there really might be no end at all. Being deathless also does not spare him from pain, as he learns when, in the middle of his travels, he’s caught practicing a healing spell in a country of people fearful of magical folk, and is promptly burned at the stake as a ‘witch’. He learns this repeatedly, when the blight on his hand throbs on bad days, and when he tries to end it all himself on worse days.
He learns this when a reclusive alchemist promises he can ‘cure’ him, and Viktor is stupid enough to believe him. What follows is the longest winter he’s ever known, chained by his wrists and ankles to the basement floor, over a permanent seal that drains him of his magic -- but it’s alright, the alchemist says, because ‘your life force is infinite, so you will survive anything!’
(And: ‘you are so beautiful’. Indeed, Viktor finds, he can survive anything.)
It’s tragedy that eventually saves him, when the alchemist’s own hubris and carelessness lead to an experiment gone wrong, and a gruesome end. The same spilled, corrosive byproduct of yet another failed attempt to create gold eats through the iron of his shackles just as well as it eats through bone; Viktor watches his arm painstakingly recreate itself, from an almost-cellular level, and that is when he gives up, and stops fighting. This is his lot, then. This is forever.
When he finally gets out of that place, he cuts his hair, finds a respectable-looking suit that paints him as a man of repute, and keeps nothing save for Mama’s watch that he wears on a chain. Not long after, he meets a woman ready to hang herself from a tree branch; through tears, she tells him that she’s been given an ultimatum, to either marry a wizard to whom she was promised from the womb, or bring death and damnation to her mother who made that promise.
But perhaps there’s another option: “Would you like to make a wish?”
[[ -102.09.08 14:39:25 ]]
For all that Wanderers and their ilk are supposedly ‘despised’, Viktor sees no shortage of mages eager to make contracts with him. They wish for many things in equally many words, but at the end of the day, he finds he can distill most wishes into the same things: more knowledge, more wealth, more time.
His one wish is unchanging. If I am cursed to live forever, then: show me something that will make life worth living.
A hundred contracts lead to a hundred disappointments.
Viktor eventually gets tired of granting all of the same, mostly selfish treaties without a whit of creativity. He figures, if he’s going to be walking around for all of eternity to ‘atone’, well, he might as well try saving people, no?
So he learns, with time, to focus his presence and hone in on only the most desperate of contractees, thinking perhaps he can do the most good this way. He learns that, much like the augmentation that left his hand blighted, every contract he forges leaves a mark too. He doesn’t know if it’s the same for each Wanderer, but for him it’s roses: blue roses, sprouting along his back, one for each contract he’s ever made. Their hue is too bright for bruises, but somehow not bright enough for life.
Lastly -- and this is the most important part -- he learns that all of the great and limitless magic supposedly available to his kind can only be tapped into when making a contract. At the moment a contract is forged, he sees the threads: hundreds, sometimes thousands of them, criss-crossing and tangling and extending to forever. These are the threads that hold the universe together and keep it all from decaying into chaos, and by pulling on one he can shift the fabric of space and time itself. It’s a brief shift, to be sure, but the reach is vast.
(“How boring,” Christophe Giacometti tells him, as he gently coaxes a climbing vine to wind around his finger. They meet in a Swiss meadow on a sleepy summer day, when Chris has just forged a contract with a young shepherd for… something, Viktor doesn’t actually ask. Nor does Viktor ever learn what the other Wanderer’s eternal wish is, as it seems rude to pry. What he does learn is that while he sees threads, Chris sees butterflies: tiny little projections of light in the shape of them, suspended in the air around him, their wings frozen in space and time. And where Viktor would pull a thread, Chris touches a butterfly to send it flying, off to alter the course of destiny. Threads of fate, butterflies and cyclones; all the same in the end.)
He sees the threads when, in the midst of global tensions threatening to boil over, and the threat of a much larger war hanging in the air, someone makes an unusual wish. A man who is not a mage has been marked for death, and yet through a series of mishaps that are starting to look less and less like coincidences, has survived. The wish is simple: just let the plan succeed.
Viktor opens his eyes to see the threads glistening in the sunlight. He has to squint to spot the thread that’s tinged gold, and when he gives it the slightest tug, an archduke’s motorcade abruptly makes a wrong turn off the Appel Quay, and stops in front of a food shop where a man with a pistol is waiting.
[[ -71.08.06 12:59:13 ]]
And the next time Viktor sees that same thread again, still gleaming gold as a testament to his contract, it cuts right across the center of the mushroom cloud that explodes over Hiroshima.
That’s not fair, he wants to say. He’s nowhere near the blast zone when it goes off, but he might as well have been. Because death is the fastest and least of punishments, and that’s not fucking fair.
[[ -71.08.03 23:31:01 ]]
But Viktor accepts it anyway. And he keeps wandering.
[[ -25.08.22 04:11:27 ]]
Two magical bloodlines start their paths to convergence when, one stormy night, a traveling mage from the Katsuki clan seeks refuge in Hasetsu Castle.
What follows after is not necessarily earth-shattering, but it is something to celebrate. Toshiya and Hiroko exchange wedding vows beneath a shower of sakura petals, and young Okukawa priestesses-in-training dance in a circle around the happy couple to bind them for eternity.
But eternity is not stagnant; it flows and bends and twists, in constant flux that sometimes dips into the deeper end of chaos. And so it comes to pass that in the deep of winter, Katsuki Hiroko falls unexpectedly pregnant with twins: a baby boy and a baby girl.
“You know what needs to be done,” they all tell her. “Get it over with as soon as you can, before you grow attached.”
She stalls. She takes her time weighing the choice between her heart and her head, because she can’t simply rush into this. And when she does make her decision -- with only days to spare before it becomes too late -- it’s not what the clan would have liked to hear.
“What about the curse?” They turn to her older sister, the highest of this generation’s priestesses. “Tell her, talk some sense into her!”
But the graceful lift of Minako’s shoulders tells them she won’t be following the clan’s charted course either. “They are not my children to bear.”
Hiroko turns to her husband, who only offers her a wordless, comforting smile. His grasp on her hand makes her feel grounded. The Katsuki clan’s magical strengths lie in the earth, in sand and mountains and the rich, enchanted soil of their homeland, and Toshiya has always been a solid presence by her side. His magic makes her feel protected, and he himself always feels like home.
You are safe, she reads in the warmth of his gaze. Perhaps this, in the end, is what pushes her: to defy 200 years of tradition, and let the boy live.
[[ -24.06.14 18:38:39 ]]
But the curse is relentless, and wastes no time. A healthy baby boy is born to the world heralded by a snowstorm in November, but his sister comes out stillborn.
“His eyes…” The mood of the house is somber, one of mourning, and the baby’s grandfather doesn’t dare disturb the silence too much when he passes the boy back to her. “Have a look.”
Hiroko does. Unlike the brown eyes she and her husband share, the boy’s irises have a slightly reddish tint to them. “They look like wine,” she whispers.
“Or like blood.”
Into the skin just above his heart, his father carves a tiny character: 禍, for calamity. Toshiya uses the pure silver in the knife’s blade as a catalyst for his healing magic, so that by the time he’s finished, there’s no blood left behind.
Not just that -- there’s something more. “Will this really help him?” Hiroko asks.
“If nothing else, it will be his reminder that his fate, and the fates of those around him, were decided long before his time.” Toshiya shakes his head sadly. “But whether it helps him or not… that is up to him, in the end.”
They name him Yuuri. A life in which one’s only destiny is to cause misfortune is likely to have few victories, and he will need to draw all of his courage to pursue them all.
[[ -16.08.22 05:09:13 ]]
“Okaasan … is it true, what they say? That I’m cursed for as long as I live?”
The older Yuuri gets, the harder it becomes to shield him from the truth. Hiroko smooths out the creases on his robes and softly murmurs something that’s meant to be comforting, but only ends up ringing hollow in her ears.
“But why? I thought that curses only happen to evil people.”
“A long, long time ago,” she tells him, “one of our ancestors angered a witch of another magical clan, from the Northwest.”
Yuuri tilts his head. His face scrunches up as he tries to remember the name of that island. “Tsushima?”
“No, further than that. Further still.”
“Ohh.” Yuuri’s shoulders sag. He's still so young, and he doesn’t know much about the world outside of Japan just yet. “Do -- do you know what happened?”
“They say that the witch was envious. The Okukawa family has always felt that we were close to the Goddess, since the universe was created from a dance. She hated our family for that, so…”
After she trails off, Yuuri sits quiet, mulling it over. Then, he hesitates. “Is that the truth?”
Perhaps in some respects, he's not too young after all. “I suppose we will never know for sure.” The mood has shifted. She injects some cheer into her tone. “Come now, let’s go inside, Okaasan needs to start making dinner. How do you feel about katsudon tonight?”
“...It would have been better,” he whispers, “if I was never born.”
Hiroko stands up so fast that Yuuri winces, as though almost expecting a strike that never comes. Not that she’s ever hurt him; she’s always been gentle and kind, patient in both her actions and her words. It's the least she can do, for the life to which she's doomed him. She pulls him into a hug, so tight and desperate, and hopes that Yuuri can feel her love pouring out of her.
“Never say that, Yuuri. Please… never say that again.”
[[ -09.01.06 06:46:00 ]]
In the summer, Yuuri meets a boy. His skin is like bronze because he hails from across the ocean. Or maybe, it's the other way around? He has hamsters that he hides in his wide sleeves -- he was born in the Year of the Rat, you see, and so it's always been easy for him to communicate with them, and with other animals of the same family. He introduces them by name, but Yuuri finds them hard to pronounce, and so he forgets them, and he's too embarrassed to ask again.
The boy carries around a small digital camera that's got scuffs and scratches from where it's been dropped -- too many times to count, his mentor laments, complete with frantic arm gestures -- but it's otherwise well-loved. He takes pictures of everything: temples, flowers, waterfalls (but also: insects, onigiri, cracks in the old sidewalks, stray cats, and Yuuri).
His presence is the warmth of the sun; his laughter makes the mountain sing. Yuuri is older now: old enough to have been burnt before, old enough to warn him to stay away. But how is he supposed to do that? Say, for example, ‘My name is Katsuki Yuuri, I’m a dime-a-dozen mage who was cursed to live with calamity as my shadow’?
“Don’t worry about it!” Phichit grins, after Yuuri ends up going with something along those lines. He's composing a shot of a knot in the wood of one of the floorboards in Yuuri’s room, because it ‘looks like a face, doesn't it??’ “You’re not even close to being the scariest person I know, honestly. And besides, we're friends! You won’t hurt me.”
[[ -08.04.11 08:05:56 ]]
But he does, in the end. Friendship is its own brand of magic, pure and, with luck, everlasting… but even it cannot hope to overcome a curse purchased with blood.
“Hey.” Phichit’s smile has not changed; it can still light up this dreary hospital room effortlessly. “You know what this means, though? This means I’m immune to your curse now, doesn’t it? So you don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
Yuuri lowers his gaze. He can't bear to look, because Phichit has bandages wrapped all around the top half of his face, and he'll never take another picture again. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Phichit, I never wanted -- ”
“I know.” He laughs softly. “I’m not mad at you or anything… you know that, right? You warned me, but I was the one who didn’t stay away.”
Yuuri clenches his hands into fists over his lap, fighting back tears. Why is he not being punished? This isn't fair! Why did the freak accident that took Phichit’s eyes spare Yuuri, and leave him unscathed?
The scar left by the character carved into his skin at birth burns. He knows why.
He hates it.
Later, when Phichit is healed and has to go back to Thailand, he reaches for Yuuri’s hand across the table after breakfast. Outside, a horn honks; a loud voice yells that Mr. Cialdini’s taxi is waiting. “We’ll always be friends, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Yuuri looks at the blindfold Phichit will have to wear for life, and forces a smile into his voice. “Always be friends.”
[[ -06.11.03 07:05:50 ]]
From that day on, he makes a conscious effort to push people away. If he ends up coming off as standoffish, or mean, to his peers, that's fine. If they think he's a loner, or that his shyness is crippling or borders on some sort of personality disorder, that's fine. If it saves people, and if it spares them from the calamity he wears like a shroud, let them believe whatever they want.
But in the end, it’s not enough. There are classmates and teachers and regular guests at the inn, and his father's students -- any of those can turn into friends, which is where it always starts to take a turn for the worst.
“It’s because of me… it’s all because of me.” Yuuri grips at his phone so hard he imagines the screen might crack, but he doesn't care. Hell, let it happen, if that means it will take away the words in the message on his screen, reverse the wretched events that just came to pass. “Yuuko-san probably hates me now. And those girls -- ”
“Will grow up in a safe, loving environment, with the Okukawa clan’s full protection.” Minako-sensei pries the phone out of his hands and forces him to look at her. “You should not try to shoulder the misfortunes of the world alone, Yuuri. Not everything is your fault.”
“But this is.” Surely, nobody believes this is just a coincidence too, right? What are the odds, anyway? For all three of Yuuko and Takeshi’s daughters to be born with a defect that none of their spells or any of the doctors’ ultrasounds managed to catch? One deaf, one blind, one mute -- the whole damn set, he thinks bitterly, a mockery of the ancient icon of wisdom sitting on top of Yuuri’s desk at home: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It was a graduation gift from the Nishigoris themselves.
He never should have let himself step into the orbit of their lives.
“Does it hurt today?” Yuuri doesn't realize he's been pressing the flat of his hands into his mark until she points it out. He stops. “Come on, let’s take you to the beach. We’ll run a purification, just like last time.”
Minako-sensei nods, and does a cheerful little twirl. “None of my other siblings have any children, and your mother has you. Who else am I going to pass my secrets to?”
Yuuri gapes at her. “B-but… the Okukawa clan has never had a male priest before.”
“Who said anything about making you a priest?” She laughs like he's just being silly, so silly. “Learning a few dances won’t kill you. Just try it, and if you end up hating it, I’ll take you out for ramen. Okay?”
[[ -00.00.00 04:47:18 ]]
She doesn’t make it seven years before she ends up paying the price of showing him kindness.
Yuuri isn’t with her when it happens, but when he learns about it, he imagines it just the same: a screech of brakes, the frantic blare of a car horn, all of it useless in the end. The universe has many measurables independent of magic that can be ruthless in their own regard, and inertia is one of them.
Minako-sensei’s car was just half the size of the other party’s van, and so.
“With time, they say… she might be capable of standing on her own again. Maybe walk, too.”
“But will she be able to dance?”
Yuuri doesn’t need to see the faces of the doctors and the priestesses to know that no answer is the same as a bad one. And he doesn’t need to wait for her to wake up from her surgery, to lie to him like everyone else has and say it’s ‘not your fault, not your sin’ to understand.
Understand: that there is really only one way to end this after all.
Chapter 2: to forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace
It’s when Yuuri sees the mark that he understands. It’s small but stark against his skin, more purplish than red, on the back of his hand where the man in the suit kissed it: a twelve-sided snowflake, likely a feature of his own magical crest. A seal binding him, albeit indirectly, to another house; Minako-sensei would be livid.
What was the term she used to describe them? Restless, ageless mages that roam from place to place, making sweet promises and forging contracts with mortals -- either out of boredom, or for their own amusement, because what higher purpose can one seek once they’ve been granted countless lifetimes to idle and roam? Oh, that’s it: Wanderers, she called them, but the exact wording she’d used was closer to ‘vagrants’ and ‘vagabonds’. She was nothing if not clear with her dislike of them. But then again, Yuuri supposes he’s lost any hope of gaining her approval ever since the accident, so perhaps that doesn’t matter; desperate times, desperate measures, that’s all it really is.
He’s never made a contract like this before, since neither side of his family has ever particularly dabbled in magic that could be commodified. Gifts were always welcome, and from those who viewed the Okukawa priestesses as near-divine, offerings were accepted. But the only exposure he’s had to actual contracts between mages have always been the stuff of fiction and folklore: a creature helps a maiden to spin gold in exchange for her firstborn child; a vain man forfeits his soul so that he will never have to age; a scholar arranges for the devil to serve him in life, and promises in turn to serve the devil in hell.
Yuuri has never made a contract like this before, so he doesn’t know what else to expect -- a flash of light, or a dramatic ring of flames, or perhaps the earth opening up at his feet to swallow him whole. But he certainly doesn’t expect gunfire: a series of bullets flying into the clearing from somewhere in the thick of the forest, all violently deflected by a barrier of light.
The shield must be the Wanderer’s doing. Yuuri guesses as much, because there’s no-one else here, and because the Wanderer has turned his gaze intently to the forest, where the bullets are coming from. “Are you expecting any company?”
The next attack isn’t another volley of bullets, as they both must have expected. It comes with a high whistle through the frigid air: a single golden arrow from somewhere within the forest. There’s something else attached to the side of its head, something tiny that catches the light as it flies, shines a brilliant green when it hits the barrier -- and pierces a hole right through it.
“How -- ”
The Wanderer pushes him away, and takes the arrow to his leg. The shot knocks him off his balance, and before Yuuri can even realize what’s happening, he’s already disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
Yuuri starts to go after him, but a movement in the trees catches his eye, making him freeze. A man steps out from behind the trees and into the clearing, holding a longbow that’s as tall as he is. He can’t see them clearly from where he is, but when the man comes closer he sees carvings on the limbs of the bow; it doesn’t take much to guess that they’ll match the elaborate designs on the fletch of the arrow he just saw. Underneath the black leather of his jacket, left open in the wind, Yuuri sees golden mesh matching the greaves he’s wearing above his boots. At his waist, where a gun holster rests, there’s also a sheath for a curved sword; two others join the quiver of arrows he wears on his back.
Yuuri has never seen one of these men before. But he’s heard about them, through hushed and awe-filled whispers from a handful of old visitors to his family’s inn, a fortunate few who’d survived being hunted by them. “W-what business does a mage-killer have in this place?”
“I’ve been contracted by a group of individuals on behalf of the city of Hasetsu.” The assassin tosses the bow aside once he’s in close range, before reaching into his jacket and tossing a rolled-up parchment Yuuri’s way. “I assure you it’s nothing of a personal nature.”
The parchment feels warm to the touch, warmer than is possible from just body heat, with glowing characters that shift from Japanese to Cyrillic and back every few seconds. The gist of it is that yes, it does seem like people want him dead, and were willing to pay a professional to make it happen. He forces himself to compartmentalize, because despairing about it now won’t help his survival, but he allows himself one moment of weakness and scans to the bottom, where there are seals and signatures of the parties concerned. He recognizes some of the families he’s acquainted with -- thankfully, he doesn’t read ‘Okukawa’ or ‘Nishigori’ anywhere on the parchment, which is some small comfort.
On the other side lies a single signature, scrawled over a name: “Otabek Altin?”
“My soul has been blessed by Archura of the forest in Almaty. Magical spells anchored to their target’s name will not work on me.” He says this all nonchalantly, as though he were offering Yuuri a small courtesy in the face of his impending death. He withdraws a dagger from a holster around his thigh and throws it onto the ground near Yuuri’s feet, still in its sheath.
He has a moment’s reprieve to think about how ludicrous this is -- but no more than that, because in the next second, Otabek is already charging towards him.
Yuuri isn't a fighter. He never was. He’s fast enough on his feet to avoid the first few probing thrusts of the blade, and he’s strong enough that when he finally figures out how to get the dagger out of the sheath, Otabek’s strikes don’t immediately knock it out of his hands. But a dancer’s conditioning is very different from a warrior’s, and with every strike, it’s becoming more and more obvious to him just how much he’s outmatched. He can’t cast any spells like this, either, because it’s taking all of his concentration just to dodge Otabek’s blade. It’s only a matter of time.
It’s strange, Yuuri thinks: just a few minutes ago, he was so sure that he wanted to die, and now here he is fighting for his life. Reeling from a blow that leaves him gasping for air on the ground, he finds a part of him thinking that maybe he should just let this happen -- if not for his own sake, then for everyone else’s. This is what he came here for in the first place.
But on the other hand, there’s hope now... right? The contract he forged with that Wanderer must still be active, because he still sees the twelve-sided snowflake on the back of his hand, reminding him that this is still real.
He wants to hope; he wants to live . But he’s sprawled on his back on the snow, and Otabek is standing over him with his sword raised over his head, ready to end this. Tragic, but appropriate: that the final victim of his own curse is himself. He’s going to die.
Somehow, he doesn’t. Not yet. Yuuri knows he’s saved when the Wanderer calmly walks up from behind -- Yuuri has no idea how he even got back up here -- and throws up a huge, blinding barrier that curves around them both. There’s a dark stain on his pant leg, but his gait makes it seem like he isn’t injured at all.
“I’ll ask you kindly not to interfere,” he says airily. He pulls away small clumps of snow clinging to his clothes and hair from the fall, teasing them to form a single, elaborate giant snowflake in his hand, which he stares at with a pensive sort of chagrin. “I’ve just forged a contract with this man, and it would be unfortunate if he dies before I get the chance to grant his wish.”
Otabek doesn’t respond. He’s staring in shock at the barrier of bluish-white light that just shattered the blade of his sword into hundreds of pieces.
“Ah, is he not a mage?” The Wanderer laughs. “Then he can’t see or hear me. Oh, well.”
He pushes the shield forward, until it slams into Otabek and sends him flying. The Wanderer crouches down and blocks his view before Yuuri can see where he might have landed, offering his hand. “Come on. Can you stand?”
It takes Yuuri a while to process the question; he’s still too busy trying to make sense of everything that just happened before now. “Where are we going?”
“Where else?” The Wanderer smiles when Yuuri gingerly accepts his hand, and throws him a wink that is probably supposed to make him feel better. It doesn’t. “We’re setting out to grant your heart’s desire.”
They find a motorcycle not too far from the clearing, and it takes about thirty seconds of inspection to determine that it’s the assassin’s. Or, it used to be, since Viktor’s already decided to steal it. The best way to have his new contractee not die would be to find a faster way down the mountain, and put as much distance between them and Otabek as possible. He’s positive the assassin is still alive.
By the time they reach the bottom of the mountain, it’s already getting dark, and the snow has only gotten stronger. They gather what wood they can find that isn’t hopelessly waterlogged from the snow, and take shelter in a cave at the edge of the forest for the night.
Viktor fiddles with a lighter over the wood pile, too exhausted from the day’s excitement to use proper magic. He’s about to give up when he hears a voice saying, “Here, let me.”
Yuuri Katsuki, Viktor learns, can start tiny little sparks from his fingertips, from which they get the beginnings of a fire going. He watches, intrigued. “I notice you didn’t need an incantation for that.” He tosses into the fire a few twigs that happen to be lying near him on the cave floor, coaxing it to burn stronger. “Or any other kind of preparation, really.”
“Ah… yeah.” Yuuri looks down at the ground, embarrassed. “It’s, um -- I was born with it. Fire magic.”
“Fire magic,” he repeats, slowly.
“Just a little bit. I can do things like this. Nothing really fancy, like…” Yuuri runs out of words and just waves his arms in front of his face. Viktor can’t help but notice the flames dancing as he moves; he wonders if that’s a coincidence.
“Your father’s clan has more of an affinity for earth though, no?”
“Yeah.” Yuuri blinks. “Wait, how did you know that?”
“Notes stored in the assassin’s bike. He did his research.” Viktor realizes now that he probably should have brought that up much earlier, but it’s too late for that now. “Do you want to see them? There wasn’t anything damning there.”
“No, it’s fine.”
He can sense Yuuri withdrawing into himself more, though. He’s not sure if it’s anything he said, or if the stress from this afternoon is finally starting to get to him, now that the adrenaline must have worn off. Since he’ll probably benefit from being given some space, Viktor stands up and steps out for a bit, claiming he wants to ‘Get more wood’.
What really happens is this: he hikes back up the mountain for a few minutes, to the closest area where the ground is reasonably flat, and there’s a healthy layer of snow. He drops to his knees and bites off his left glove, wincing.
His hand looks terrible today. The blight seems darker than usual, and it’s crept closer to his wrist than he’d have liked. No wonder it’s been hurting like hell.
He traces out a simple pattern in the snow in front of him using his finger from his good hand: a large circle, markers for the quadrants, and tiny sigils where the lines intersect. It’s a sorry attempt at a healing spell, he thinks to himself with a chuckle, and he can vividly imagine Yakov’s choice words of disapproval if he were here. But this should be enough until tomorrow.
Viktor sighs and closes his eyes as the pain starts to abate. Once upon a time, he only had to do this once a month or so. Now it’s an everyday chore.
His eyes snap open. Yuuri’s standing there in front of him, holding a stick that he’s turned into a makeshift torch. The sky is also a bit darker than he remembers -- how long has he been here?
“Oh, I never introduced myself?” He chuckles, offering a limp shrug for an apology. “How terribly rude of me. I’m Viktor.”
“Yuuri.” He nods once, distractedly looking at Viktor’s hand. “Um, but you probably knew that already. From the files, and… anyway, um, do you need a hand with that?”
Viktor weighs the merits of commenting on that pun, before deciding that it would be too much effort. “I can manage a simple healing spell just fine,” he says lightly.
“That’s not really what I’m offering.” Yuuri kneels down beside him, careful not to disrupt the snow in or around Viktor’s healing circle. “I was thinking of a cleansing spell. It’s, ah, something my mother’s family specializes in.” He plants the torch upright into a nearby pile of snow, then hesitates, before raising his hand. “May I?”
Viktor stops the healing spell and places his hand in Yuuri’s, wary… but also curious.
“Okay, so.” Yuuri takes a deep breath. “Let’s see, um. We’ll need a catalyst.”
He makes a puddle of water by melting some of the snow from the ground next to his feet. Then, using his free hand, he takes a tiny piece of rectangular paper from inside his robe, and etches out some characters with his fingernail: 純度.
Viktor doesn’t ask what they mean when Yuuri gently places them in his palm, over the mark of the moon. The soft murmur of Yuuri’s voice distracts him as he gently scoops the water over it, and to his surprise, the pain abates.
Yuuri repeats the last part of the ritual a few more times, before he abruptly stops halfway through the last. Viktor notices that his breathing is somewhat labored. “Everything alright?”
Yuuri nods with a smile. “I’m fine. I haven’t been doing these rituals for a long time, and they require a lot more magic than I’m used to. I forget to pace myself sometimes.”
“Maybe we should call it a day.” Viktor places his hand gently over Yuuri’s and pushes it away. “This has helped immensely. Thank you.”
They walk in relative silence back to the cave, and Viktor watches Yuuri as he leads the way back to their hideout. There’s something intriguing about this boy, an intangible quality in the slight hunch of his shoulders, his quiet presence, his searching eyes. He’s unassuming at first glance, but a boy who casts fire spells when he was born to no fire mages, and performs ‘purification’ rituals with jerry-rigged materials and impure catalysts that end up several times more potent than a proper healing spell -- certainly, he must have a multitude of stories to tell.
But something about him is also terrifying. Because, for the first time since he became a Wanderer, when he made a contract with Yuuri, Viktor didn’t see any threads at all.
“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it -- all it means is that you can grant whatever your contractee’s wish is by using your own power.”
Viktor has to squint to focus on the fuzzy projection of Chris, made of dust and light, that’s staring back at him from the cave wall. Magical circuits like this aren’t his favorite method of communication; he would have greatly preferred a normal phone. But he doesn’t pick up any signal all the way out here, so he has to make do.
“I somehow doubt that a barrier, or a binding spell, or a fox made of snowflakes would grant his heart’s desire.”
“You never know,” Chris says in a drawl. “Besides, it’s not like that’s all you can do now, is it?”
Viktor thinks about what else he might be able to offer using his abilities alone. Before becoming a Wanderer, he had to dabble in a wide range of magic as a mercenary, but nothing he’s ever done has ever felt worth forging a contract for.
“What did you have to do? When it happened to you?”
“The first time? My contractee fancied a princess from another kingdom, and wanted to taste the fruit of her love.” He laughs. “I’d like to say he was a very happy customer, but it was child’s play.”
Ah, of course. Chris has always been a master of charms, so it makes sense that that kind of request wouldn’t pose any problem for him.
“Have you talked about it? You and your contractee? ...Is that him in the corner?”
Viktor glances back with a fond smile. Yuuri’s rolled over onto his back and is mumbling something in Japanese. “We haven’t talked about it, no. We were… ah… interrupted by an assassin.”
Viktor shakes his head. “In any case, I think I can imagine what he wants.” It’s not hard to put it together, from Otabek’s notes and the sheer desperation he felt while Yuuri stood on that cliff, contemplating death. It was the same potent desperation that all but summoned Viktor to Yuuri’s side.
He doesn’t have the whole picture, but he knows enough, he thinks. A young man who was born cursed, is it? He wonders if...
No, there’s no way. Besides, that was so long ago. And it may be a small world, but it’s not that small.
“Viktor?” When he glances back, Yuuri is already stirring, and blinking up at him. “Don’t you sleep?”
“On occasion,” Viktor says with a smile. Chris has already cut off the channel, so he focuses all of his attention on his contractee. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. Were we too loud?”
Yuuri shakes his head. “It’s okay. So tell me.” He takes a deep breath. “Tell me, how does this work?”
Good question. “Well, we’re going to have to set out to get you that desire you hold deep in your heart. You know what they say about those whom heaven helps.”
It’s a half-baked lie he has to tell through his teeth, through a smile. No matter how much he focuses, the threads still won’t reveal themselves to him. But Chris claims to have done this before, and Chris is the only other Wanderer he knows, so if that’s true then Viktor decides he can do it too. Besides, if he thinks about this as just another job, albeit without payment, then what difference does it make?
Later, he’s filling up the bike with gas, and Yuuri has just come out of the convenience store with tiny bags of chips and vending machine coffee. Viktor looks past him, at the road; from here, it’s not too late to drive back into the city. “Yuuri. Is there anything else you need from here? Anyone you want to say goodbye to? Once we set out, we might be away for a very long time.”
Yuuri considers it for a moment before he simply shakes his head. “When you found me, I was already dead. And besides, you remember what happened yesterday, right? Someone’s put a price on my head… makes me think I’m not exactly welcome here anymore.” He lets out a weak little laugh. “But I don’t blame them. So I don’t want to come back home, or face my family, until my curse is broken.”
Just as he thought. “That’s what I like to hear.” Viktor is very happy with Yuuri’s decision, and after checking the air in the bike’s tires, they set out to take their leave.
Now, all he has to do is figure out how to break a curse.
Viktor remembers, way back in his childhood, that Papa mentioned a Russian magic family who produced the very best healers of the time. He’s not sure if that’s still true now -- he isn’t even sure if the family line is still going, as he can’t remember all of the clans that joined that war 200-odd years ago. Still, he figures as a first step, he can take Yuuri to see whoever the head of the family is now. Worst-case scenario, if they can’t help him, perhaps they can at least point him in the right direction.
It takes him about half a day’s worth of research to find out that the family he’s thinking of is indeed still going strong, and that they still mostly live in Moscow. He isn’t the biggest fan of very long flights, and Yuuri isn’t in any particular hurry -- that, or he’s just making himself agreeable to everything Viktor suggests. He proposes a flight from Fukuoka to Vladivostok, where they can take the train and be in Moscow in a little less than a week. “Think of it as doing a bit of sightseeing on the side. I want to show off my home country to you. Have you ever been?”
“Ah, no.” Yuuri smiles. “I haven’t really been outside of Japan, actually.”
“My family didn’t think it was worth the risk.”
Viktor wants to ask, ‘What risk? ’, but stops himself at the last second. He doesn’t know much about the specificities of the curse, but Yuuri hasn’t seemed too eager to talk about them. He also figures that he’ll find out eventually, once they get to the healer they seek. Or maybe it won’t even matter in the end; there isn’t a need to manage or worry about the symptoms of a disease once it’s been cured, after all. “Do you have any concerns about it?”
Yuuri shakes his head vigorously. “No, I want to go!”
Viktor grins. “That’s the spirit.”
He makes all the travel arrangements in the business center of the hotel they stay at near the airport in Fukuoka. While the documents take their sweet time to print out, Viktor sighs, and rubs at his eyes. This would have been so much easier if he had the threads to guide him. In fact, he’d be long gone by now, off to forge more contracts with strangers, wondering when he’ll run into the one who can grant his wish.
His hand is hurting. But he doesn’t want to disturb Yuuri tonight, so he does his best.
That night, Viktor dreams that he drowns. The Goddess appears on the wing and cleaves the plane neatly in two without even speaking a word. Screams and chaos reign all around him as they plunge down, but when he hits the ocean, all he’s thinking of is how this can’t be right, because Yuuri isn’t the one who cursed an entire bloodline, and from what little Viktor knows of him in the time they’ve spent together, he doesn’t think Yuuri deserves this kind of ending.
Then he drowns again, and again.
The actual flight is the exact opposite; it’s uneventful, actually, and very smooth. Yet the dream weighs heavily on Viktor’s mind, and he finds himself lost in thought more often that not, even through the hour-long drive in a rented car to the train station.
By the time they arrive, the sun is on its way down. They still have an hour or so to burn before the train is scheduled to depart. Yuuri excuses himself for a bit, telling Viktor that he’ll come find him when it’s time to board.
“Where are you going?”
“Just need to get some air…” Yuuri trails off, but flashes him a reassuring smile. “I’m not going to get lost, don’t worry.”
Viktor watches him go and stares at the empty spot where he was standing for a few minutes. He wonders if it was because he was distant, or maybe it seemed that way to Yuuri.
Guiltily, he gets up and goes to follow him.
He finds him not very far off, in an open area that’s been cordoned off by orange construction dividers. Yuuri’s picked up a long, slightly rusty piece of rebar that’s a tiny bit crooked and is just a bit taller than he is.
When Viktor calls out his name, he jumps, and his ears turn an adorable shade of red.
“Do I need to keep my distance?” he jokes.
“Ah, n-no! This isn’t -- ” The flush spreads sweetly through the rest of Yuuri’s face. “I don’t have my staff, and I don’t know where to get one here. This is the best replacement I can think of.”
Staff? Viktor can think of a few places off the top of his head where they can get staves and rods in Moscow, but he wonders if they will have whatever it is Yuuri seems to be looking for. “What do you need a staff for?”
“I guess I don’t really need one… Minako-sensei danced just fine without one.” His grip tightens on the rebar, and he regards the rusted length of it with a sad smile. “I’m just going to do a quick ritual dance. For safe travels.”
Ohhh… how fascinating. “Can I see?” bubbles out of his lips before he can help it. He catches himself at the end of it, and hastily adds, “Or, if you’d prefer to do it in private, I can go.” Maybe this is the reason Yuuri wanted to be away from him after all.
“No, it’s fine. It’s fine, I just…” Yuuri bites on his lip. “I might bore you. But... you can watch, if you like.”
He takes a deep breath, and swings the bar once in a circle over his head, as though testing its weight.
And then --
A thousand and one stories are told in the way he moves. How he lifts his arms, and how he spins; how he sweeps his leg, and even how he curls the fingers of his free hand. The wind picks up speed as he dances, teasing at wisps of his hair and the soft, fluttery fabric of his sleeves. And as it whistles through cracks in the concrete and blows through the trees and the iron bars, Viktor swears he can almost hear a melody forming.
That’s it exactly: Yuuri is making music with his body, and this song is a prayer for protection. Deliver us from harm. Grant safe harbor to our souls.
(Later, Yuuri will do this at every stop that takes them more than a day to get to, and Viktor will watch, transfixed, every time.)
The tickets Viktor bought give them two beds in a sleeper car that holds four, but the other two have stayed empty so far. Viktor’s lying in the bottom bunk, staring up into the near-darkness with his coat draped over his legs, a second blanket of sorts.
Has it really been two full days since they set off? He thinks so, but there’s always a hint of doubt -- after all these years, time has started to lose a bit of it’s meaning, and it’s hard to tell for sure.
He doesn’t want to ask Yuuri, in any case.Viktor hasn’t heard a sound from the top bunk for what must have been… an hour, or more? (Again, time is a fluid and perplexing creature.) That, and he put away quite a bit of wine from the dining car earlier in the night, so Yuuri must surely be fast asleep by now.
He’s just started to drift off when a voice from above pulls him right back to the world of the wakeful. “How long have you been alive?”
“A little over 200 years or so… give or take.” Viktor hasn’t felt any real motivation to keep track for some time now.
“And you can’t die. Is that right?”
“All evidence seems to suggest as much.” He chuckles softly. “Does that frighten you?”
Yuuri's face suddenly appears when he leans over the edge of the top bunk, his cheeks visibly flushed from the wine even in the low moonlight.
When Viktor closes his eyes, he gets a faint whiff of the wine and a sweetness that he can’t quite describe.
In the end, Yuuri falls asleep right there, and Viktor, after carefully easing himself away, takes the top bunk for himself. The thought of staying there does cross his mind -- he’s comfortable, and Yuuri is so warm, the temptation is strong -- but he’s not sure Yuuri would have wanted this if he were sober, so he errs on the side of caution.
He doesn’t really sleep after that anyway; he thinks of how he might condense 200 years’ worth of magical knowledge into a single six-day trip. He wonders if it might be possible that, by teaching Yuuri everything he knows, Yuuri could break the curse on his own.
It doesn’t matter that Yuuri doesn’t remember anything the next day. That morning, immediately after breakfast, Viktor teaches him how to make barriers during the half-hour stopover at Irkutsk.
“First, you define two spaces in your mind.” Viktor pauses, and bites back a wry smile as he wonders if he sounds very much like Yakov right now. “Then, you use your will to force their separation.”
Yuuri looks uncertain. He also looks hungover, but more than that, he looks like he’s not quite sure he believes what Viktor’s saying. That, or he’s not sure why they’re doing this at all.
Perhaps talking about magic has always been the least effective way of teaching it. “Here, I’ll make one right now.” It takes him a split-second by now, because he must have cast thousands of these barriers over his lifetime. He goes for a quick, invisible barrier, so it looks as though all that happened was that he just waved his hand. “Okay, now try to hit me.”
Yuuri balks. “Hit you?”
“Okay, no hitting then,” he laughs. “Touch me? Just try it.”
He isn’t entirely sure why Yuuri looks so tense, or why there’s a tinge of red creeping up on his cheeks; there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Yuuri’s hand goes for his face, and is stopped by the barrier. His eyes widen. “Wow.”
“I don’t even see it.” He lays his palm flat against the barrier, and Viktor sees ripples in the air where his hand makes contact. “Isn’t it more effort? To keep it invisible?”
“It is,” Viktor agrees. “But I’ve gotten used to doing it this way, I suppose.” But he doesn’t elaborate why. “Do you want to try?”
Yuuri’s first few attempts are… good, passable, but they all consistently fail at the last second. He’s able to form them just fine -- Yuuri’s family crest is a circle with two intersecting triangles in the center, evoking a pair of mountains, and Viktor sees the shape clearly in the reddish glow that materializes in front of him. Still, Viktor that finds he’s able to break the barrier quite easily, poking a finger through it and making it collapse without even trying.
“Hmmm, this isn’t quite working.” He taps a finger against his chin. He’s trying to think of what Yakov might say if he were in this situation, while Yuuri’s hunched over with his hands braced against his knees, catching his breath. “I struggled with it too, at the beginning. Visualizing it is key… in my case, it helped to think of something I wanted to protect, and then turn that inwards.”
“Back home,” Yuuri pants, “we have magical wards placed all around the city. The priestesses from my mother’s family are in charge of keeping those wards active.”
“Ah, but we’re very far from your city.”
“I know. And there’s an assassin out to get me, so.” He raises his head. “Again, please.”
While his resolve is admirable, it sadly doesn’t produce any results.
Perhaps a shift in paradigm is needed. “How about this: think of it less as a protective element, and more of an isolating one. As though you have your personal space that people keep trying to step into, and you want them to stop.”
Yuuri lowers his gaze, and his throat seems to jerk.
When the barrier materializes again, it’s brighter and larger than anything Yuuri has ever cast before, and physically pushes Viktor back a few inches. “Wow,” he breathes. “Amazing!”
Yuuri gives him a weak smile. “Yeah, I’m used to pushing people away… at least that turned out good for something, I guess?”
Viktor studies him closely, the sadness he wears on his shoulders, the resignation in the way he bows his head. Yuuri is younger than he is, and has known the pain of being damned for hundreds of years less. And yet, he’s had to bear that burden his whole life; Viktor, at least, was lucky enough to live twenty-seven years before accepting his, and he deserved it too.
He isn’t sure which is worse.
“Is that so?” Stuffing his hand into his pocket, he takes the out the gold pocket watch he wears on a chain, and disconnects the watch itself. Gold is one of the metals most forgiving of transfiguration; with a flick of his wrist the chain’s links come apart, and as he curls his fingers into his palm, the loops collapse into tiny little spheres that hover in the air in front of him. “In that case, I won’t go easy on you.”
Yuuri gapes at him. “Are you going to teach me how to do that after this?”
“I can be persuaded.” He grins. “For now? Let’s see that barrier again.”
Perhaps it’s inevitable, in the end, that Yuuri’s new knowledge ends up being tested almost straight away. When the train pulls in for its half-hour stopover in Yekaterinburg, at the border between continents, Viktor thinks he sees a very familiar man waiting at the rear of the platform.
The same man tails them as they disembark, all the way to the empty field on a hill next to the station where Yuuri insists they go, to avoid dragging any of the other passengers into whatever mess might follow. Viktor doesn't comment on the wisdom in that course of action, though he does suggest that Yuuri might be better off not engaging the man at all, if he can help it.
Yuuri doesn't listen. “Otabek?” he calls out anyway. “That’s you, right?”
It is indeed. He’s carrying a hefty sack which falls open when he tosses it onto the ground between them, and Viktor sees that it’s full of weapons: mostly sheathed blades of various lengths and types, but there are a few maces and other blunt weapons thrown into the mix.
“You know,” Yuuri ventures, “not that I’m complaining, but if you’re going to kill me, you probably shouldn’t be letting me have these.”
Or even showing yourself to us at all, Viktor doesn’t add.
“You misunderstand. Pride is one of the few treasures a warrior has. If I stoop to using underhanded tactics, the shame will only dull my blade.” Otabek draws the sword he’s wearing on his back. “I hope you will extend the same courtesy as well.”
Viktor feels the hair on the back of his neck standing on end before either of them can answer. The air feels charged, all of a sudden, thick with a looming, crackling energy that threatens to burst.
He barely realizes what it means before it’s too late. By then, he only has time to bring up a haphazard barrier, enough to push Yuuri away from him so that when the bolt of lightning hits, it misses them both.
The force of it is still enough to knock him off his feet. He rolls down the hill, cursing when he sees there’s a circle of pale yellow light already waiting for him at the bottom.
Lightning floods the magic circle from above, relentless, and he doesn’t even bother counting how many times he’s shocked. It hurts like hell, and it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t even die once throughout the whole ordeal. You can’t stop a heart that’s already not beating.
When the lightning finally stops, and the elaborate lines and designs in the magic circle fade, Viktor forces himself to his hands and knees. From above, he hears a voice call out, “You survived all of that? I guess Beka was right after all.”
Viktor doesn’t say anything to that. His limbs jerk, and his hands have a palsied tremble to them that he hopes will go away soon.
“It’s inconvenient to have a Wanderer protecting his target,” the voice goes on. “So I’m going to keep your hands full while he finishes the job.”
This isn’t good. They’ve been separated, and Yuuri is alone with that assassin -- he needs to get back to Yuuri somehow.
But something in his mind finally clicks, and he remembers that this isn’t the first time he’s seen this magical seal: a pair of angel’s wings, traced in yellowish-white light. “You’re quite a long way from home, aren’t you?” He looks up. “Or is Sochi no longer the stronghold of the Plisetsky family?”
The mage hovering above him, supported by a pair of energy wings that matches his crest, looks so young -- he can’t possibly be older than sixteen. “I’m here because I want to be. And because I’m curious about something.”
The Plisetsky mage brings his hands together, building up for something big. Viktor feels the air crackling worse than before.
He doesn’t have time to dodge, so he throws up the most powerful barrier he can. Unfortunately, that means throwing all of his magic into the barrier itself -- he spares no energy into hiding it, so after it’s done its job and the lightning dissolves, a huge image of the twelve-sided snowflake remains.
“I didn’t want to believe it.” The shock on the younger mage’s face shifts into anger. “So the legends are true after all? The last member of the Nikiforov clan did survive the war, but he made a deal with the devil to do it.”
He doesn’t know which part of that declaration to tackle first. He’s been away from Russia for so long, he didn't know there were even still legends being told about his family. And he has no idea why anyone from the Plisetsky house, much less someone so young, would have even suspected him at all. Did Otabek get new intelligence? Or was that something the young mage had inferred on his own?
But he has no time to deal with this right now. Stealing Otabek’s bike earlier had given him a mode of transport as well as information about Yuuri, but that wasn’t all he’d gotten from it. He pulls out a few of the gems from his pocket -- the same small, concentrated quanta of anti-magic that all reputable mage-killers carry around with them.
“I’m sorry,” Viktor calls out, before flinging them up into the air, one at a time.
His opponent tries to dodge them, which is not unexpected. But the Plisetsky family is an ancient one, and Viktor is familiar, if only in theory, with the magic they favor. Those wings, huge and elaborate, the family's signature enchantment evoking images of angels on earth -- quite appropriately paired with the lightning bolts they hurl, heaven’s ‘crushing force of righteousness’ -- they're half material, half magic. And it's because of the latter that the gems leave holes in them as they make contact.
“You fucking dirty cheat!”
He has to draw on his magic to replace them, or else he’ll fall. A moment’s reprieve is really all that Viktor needs: three seconds without imminent threat of a lightning storm, so he can cast a binding spell that anchors the young mage to a tree.
“I really am sorry,” he says again. “There is no honor in this, I know. If you struggle, it will only make it worse. The magic should dissolve in about an hour.” He brushes the snow from his coat. “Do svidanya,” he calls out, before jogging back up the hill.
“Fuck you! You spineless piece of shit! I’m going to hunt you down if it’s the last thing I ever do!”
He doesn’t have time for this. Yuuri isn’t where he was earlier. Where -- ?
The moment Otabek comes into view, he doesn’t even hesitate anymore, just throws another binding spell that lashes Otabek’s arms around the nearest tree and keeps him there.
Finally, finally, he spots Yuuri, who is bleeding from a gash on his arm, but it’s nothing that looks too serious. Viktor grabs him by the wrist of his good arm, and pulls him towards the platform. “Come on, let’s go!”
They barely make it in time to board the train.
They reach Moscow a few days before the head of the Popovich family can grant them an audience. With the extra time, since there’s really nothing else to do, they decide to stay in the city and live as tourists while they wait. Or rather, Yuuri lives as a tourist, and Viktor shows him around: to the Kremlin, and the Lenin mausoleum, and St. Basil’s Cathedral. They watch a ballet at the Bolshoi theater pass through halls of art in the State Tretyakov Gallery. Viktor teaches him how to freeze and thaw ice using one of the many pretty water features in Alexander’s Gardens, and they watch the city go to bed from the top of Sparrow Hill.
The night before they’re supposed to meet with Georgi, Viktor’s got his left hand submerged in ice water in the sink. He can’t be bothered to use magic tonight, so he just tries to dull the pain.
A knock on his hotel room door pulls him out of his musings. Shaking the excess water from his hand, he opens the door to find Yuuri there, standing in the hallway, looking like he was just about to bolt.
“Hi.” Curious, he pulls out his watch and glances at the time. “Trouble sleeping?”
“N-no, not really. I’ll turn in after this.” Yuuri’s shifting his weight from one foot to another.
“Is something wrong?”
“I was just thinking… well, we’ve been attacked twice so far, because of me.” Yuuri rubs at the back of his neck. He looks more sheepish than anything -- not nearly as afraid or anxious as Viktor would have expected. “Um. I know we’re almost done at this point, but I thought, well, just in case they come back again…”
He retrieves and holds out another one of those small pieces of enchanted paper Viktor has seen him use. The character 安 is etched on, and Viktor asks to be sure. “For me?”
“For protection.” Yuuri takes Viktor’s hand and places the sheet onto his palm. “You can keep it anywhere you like, so long as it’s close to you. It won’t throw up a barrier or anything fancy like that, but it will serve as a warning. Give you a headstart, at least.”
Viktor stares at the paper, which fits nicely in his palm. He can feel the magic radiating from it, but the energy is opaque to him. “You recall I’m not in any danger of death, right?”
“But you still get hurt… don’t you?”
The concern in Yuuri’s tone takes him by surprise. Before he can form an answer, though, Yuuri’s already bowed low, staring at the floor, a slight flush on his cheeks as he stammers out an apology for disturbing him. He wishes Viktor good night, and runs back across the hall to his room.
They don’t speak about that exchange the next day, when they finally enter the Popovich ancestral home to meet with the current head of the family. As they’re led through lavish hallways, the apprentice leading them tells stories of the clan’s history, how they came to establish themselves in Moscow, and how they’ve always been a family of healers and pacifists.
Georgi Popovich is waiting for them in the largest room of the house, a sprawling study built below ground level. He’s slowly pacing the room, which has walls lined floor to ceiling with books, scrolls, and hundreds of vials of ingredients and half-filled potions. A small, gorgeous firebird, with a tail like a comet’s and plumage like the sun, follows him everywhere he goes. Yuuri eyes the licks of fire it leaves in its wake, as well as all the paper and chemicals surrounding them, and has a moment of trepidation.
“Welcome.” Georgi motions for them to come in, and Viktor has to give Yuuri a slight nudge on the shoulder to stop him from gawking at all the books. “How can I help you?”
“U-umm.” Yuuri fidgets in place, like his shyness is its own barrier stopping him from going forward. Viktor gives him another, solid push, and he stumbles forward. “Ah, here! I come bearing gifts.”
Yuuri bows at the waist, and holds the small, wrapped talisman out with both hands. He made it himself, last night, smoothing out a small piece of carving wood by the light of the hotel’s desk lamp. The question of the night was: What do you offer a man who already has wealth, and wisdom, and fame?
“It’s for ‘love’, if you want it,” Yuuri says softly. “That is, um, I hope this isn’t presumptuous, and uh, I can’t promise any results right away. It’s meant to be slow-acting, but if you always keep it on you -- ”
He yelps as he’s suddenly faced with the flapping of red and gold wings, scarcely a foot away from his face. Georgi’s firebird closes its beak over the top of the pouch and plucks the offering from Yuuri’s hands. It then flies over to its master to drop the talisman into his waiting palm.
Georgi regards the charm with something that looks like melancholy, before shaking his head with a smile. “Ah, love.” He places it into his pocket, and beckons Yuuri closer. “Most of my visitors who are strangers come to me for one thing only. What can you tell me about yourself, traveler?”
“Um, well, my name is Katsuki Yuuri. I was born between the Okukawa and Katsuki magical clans. And I am cursed,” Yuuri whispers. “I’ve been cursed since before the day I was born. Can you help me?”
“I can certainly try. A good number of curses are written as ailments of the soul.”
There’s already a magic circle permanently traced onto the floor, etched deep into the wood. It circumscribes a triangle instead of the usual diamond, which is the first time Viktor’s ever seen something like this: healing circles usually require four points, he recalls, one for each of the classical elements. It makes sense, though, when the firebird -- signifying both fire and air -- takes its place at the top corner of the triangle, opposite the chalice and the handful of sand already waiting there.
“This configuration allows for less focal points, and thus a tighter focus of the magic that gets used.” Georgi guides Yuuri to the center of the circle, where he makes him kneel facing the firebird. He murmurs an apology before plucking one of the soft, golden down feathers that don’t burn like the rest, and hands it to Yuuri for him to hold. “Let this be your symbol for rebirth.”
It looks like he’s doing this the old-fashioned way, Viktor thinks, as Georgi sprinkles salt and something that looks like gold dust around the magical circle. He traverses the loop seven times, finally coming to a stop behind the firebird. When he starts chanting, the circle glows.
“To seek true, absolute healing is to allow oneself to be reborn; to reject one’s past, tainted existence.” Georgi’s voice booms with the certainty of someone who’s spoken these same words a thousand times, but it rings with the same zeal Viktor would have imagined, had it been his first. “And with the Goddess bearing witness, accept and believe that he can be made new.”
“I do accept,” Yuuri whispers.
“Then tell me what ails you.”
He cups the firebird down in his hands gingerly, as though it were made of glass. When he glances up, Viktor offers him what he hopes is a reassuring smile.
Yuuri takes a deep breath, and closes his eyes. “I have been cursed,” he says again. “It’s a curse I was born with -- no. A curse cast on the bloodline of my ancestors, two hundred years ago.”
Two hundred years? Otabek’s notes said nothing about the curse being on Yuuri’s bloodline; he supposes he’s always assumed that the curse on Yuuri was cast on him specifically, and Yuuri himself never said or did anything to challenge that assumption. Or rather, Viktor slowly comes to realize, it’s simply a conversation they’ve never had.
Should they? Should he have asked? Yuuri never seemed to want to dwell on it. But learning about this now … there’s a pit forming in his stomach that Viktor can’t will away, and he doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to believe.
“The first boy to be born into my mother’s family in those two hundred years… me …”
No. It can’t be. There are billions of people walking the earth today, and billions more that have come in gone in two centuries. What are the odds?
“I was cursed to live with calamity as my shadow.”
Every word feels like a condemnation.
Viktor remembers now, how he stood in the middle of that loud, sweltering bar, with the witch’s promising smile and the weight of the gold tantalizing in his hand -- he had so many opportunities to walk away. Even when they were already out in the middle of the ocean, when he knew what kind of spell was coming, he could have done something. He could have stopped her, somehow, or he could have tried. But he didn’t, and he wasted all of those chances.
And time only ever marches forward, and so…
Georgi starts praying: “Dear Mother, kindly bless this soul…” But it’s Yakov’s voice, and the man’s last words to him, that Viktor hears in his head, drowning out the rest of it: “Never forget that the universe is always smaller than we imagine it to be.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, shell-shocked, at the floor. “I am so sorry.”
He knows that this spell is going to fail before he sees the signs: Georgi’s firebird flapping its wings, agitated, crying out in distress; the perfectly conical pile of sand on the second corner of the triangle eroding into something amorphous, blown into chaos by a wind that never actually comes. Perhaps the beating of the bird’s wings could have explained that, but it could not explain the chalice shattering into pieces. Or the glow of the magical circle dying abruptly.
“What…” Yuuri opens his hands to find that the feather is gone. The token for rebirth being consumed is a bad outcome for a healing spell, and the look on his face tells Viktor that he knows. He knows. “What just happened?”
Georgi walks to the center of the circle, and places a gentle hand on Yuuri’s shoulder. “There are… remnants of magical energy tied to the curse that was cast upon you, still lingering as we speak.”
“So… so that means…?”
“I am truly sorry. For a spell so strong, purchased with so high a price… I’m afraid I cannot reverse it, unless the source of all these remnants of energy is destroyed completely.”
Yuuri looks despondent. “But… but they told me that the witch died planting that curse!”
“Indeed, and I believe that she did. But I also believe that she had someone to assist her that day. It would explain why the curse is so strong.” He tightens his grip on Yuuri’s shoulder. “I can sense it, in the curse that plagues you… in their presence.”
Viktor realizes that Georgi has been looking at him for some time. He wants to be swallowed up by the ground underneath them, forever, when Yuuri finally lifts his head to meet his eyes.
Yet the worst tragedy of all is that even that wouldn’t help him. Because Viktor would still be alive, and all the damnation he could wish upon himself in this very moment wouldn’t erase this one, cruel truth:
Either Yuuri stays cursed forever... or, somehow, Viktor needs to be destroyed.
Chapter 3: open for me the portals of death's house
Later that night, Viktor dreams that he’s drowning again. But something is different.
Usually, when he has dreams like this, he’s remembering that day, 200-and-some years ago, when the Goddess cursed him. But tonight it’s dark, and the water is inky black all around him. And on the rare, precious moments that his head breaks the surface in his struggle, he sees the red moon hanging low in the sky.
Viktor wakes with a start to find that it’s three in the morning, and that he’s tossed and turned so much that the sheets are tangled in his limbs. He rubs at his eyes.
He’s not sure which he would have rather chosen: drowning all over again, or the unfortunately very real fact that he was the source of Yuuri’s curse all this time, as well as the only remaining obstacle to having that curse broken, which is his heart’s desire. After all, this curse is what has kept Yuuri from happiness his whole life, isn’t it?
He still remembers every miniscule detail of when they found out, which feels like another punishment on its own. He remembers Yuuri, the way he couldn’t manage to move from the middle of the healing circle for entirely too long, his hands balled into tight fists on top of his knees. His wide eyes, the frozen, stunned look on his face that didn’t even shift when the tears first started to fall.
Viktor curses. He kicks off the sheets, pulls on the hotel bathrobe hanging from a hook in the closet, and heads out the door.
They haven’t exchanged any words since leaving Georgi’s because Viktor is a coward, and he hates himself. What was he supposed to have said? What could he have said? Words felt cheap and empty after everything that had just come to light. It wasn’t as though Yuuri seemed to have any plans of talking to him either.
But they can’t go on like this. His contract with Yuuri is still open -- that hasn’t changed, despite all this.
Is that it, though? He wonders if he feels so invested in granting this wish because he’s been tasked to do it with his own power. Pulling a glowing string has always felt too… easy? But he sorely wishes it were an option now.
He finds himself in front of Yuuri’s door and knocks. “Yuuri? Are you awake?”
Stupid question. Stupid, stupid. But Yuuri probably hates him already now, no? Might as well have this conversation as soon as possible.
He knocks again. Still no reply.
Viktor heads back to his own room, swaps out his robe for a proper shirt and pants, and heads outside. He sees footprints in the snow -- fresh ones, from the looks of it. He follows what he assumes must be Yuuri’s trail, because he can’t imagine anyone else willingly going outside at this time, in this weather. He wonders where he could have gone; back to Georgi’s, perhaps? But the Popovich manor is miles away, and the main road is on the other side of the hotel.
The footprints eventually lead him to the river -- and to Yuuri, who is currently walking on the thin ice above it.
“Yuuri!” He breaks into a run. “What are you doing?!”
“Don’t you dare come any closer!!”
Viktor stops in his tracks. Yuuri hasn’t really gone all that far, and he’s probably less than twenty paces from the shore. But winter is well on its way out, and the air is warmer than he’d like; he knows, he can feel the raging of the river under the ice.
“My whole life, I -- I knew I could never be close to anyone. Because of this curse. I tried to stay away. I kept people at arm’s length, because when I didn’t…”
Yuuri trails off. His voice is quivering, and hoarse from too many tears. He’s wrapped his arms around himself tight.
“So this -- this has to be a joke, right?” He manages a horrible excuse for a laugh. “It’s not fair. Of all the billions of people in this world, the one person who had a hand in all my suffering, has to be the same one that I thought I…” He swallows hard. “That I wanted to…”
He trails off. Viktor wishes he could take it all back, undo the curse somehow or, hell, transfer it to himself -- anything, anything at all to stop Yuuri’s pain. Chris said he could grant this wish with his own power, didn’t he? Was that a lie? Because he has no idea where to go from here.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Without thinking, he takes a step onto the ice, needing to be closer to Yuuri somehow. “I was involved, it’s true. I performed an augmentation to the main spell.” It’s all just semantics now, he might as well have cast the damn curse himself for all the difference it would have made to Yuuri. “But I never meant to -- ”
The pure anguish in that scream stops him in his tracks. He’s only a few feet away by now, and he can see Yuuri’s eyes, swollen and red-rimmed from crying.
“Hey.” Viktor slowly, ever so slowly, makes his way to Yuuri. He doesn’t want to risk using any magic here, because there’s a chance that any spell he tries might break the ice before it can finish. “Did you forget? I still have a wish of yours to grant. But if you keep pushing your luck like this, I might not get a chance to.” Finally, after forever, he reaches Yuuri and places his hands on his shoulders. “Don’t give up on me just yet, alright?”
Yuuri sniffs, shaking his head furiously. “It’s impossible. To break the curse, you would have to -- ”
“We’ll figure something out together. But to do that, I need you to come back with me to the shore.”
“I -- I should hate you.” Yuuri looks like he’s stopped crying, and is now just exhausted. “I should. But... “ He lifts his head. “The price you’ll have to pay -- ”
“Is irrelevant. You are the most important person to me right now.”
The declaration surprises them both.
“You are the most important person to me right now,” Viktor says again. “We made a contract together, and I intend to see that through to the end. But even without that, even if you dying here meant that I could be free, I don’t want that. Because… you’re someone I want to hold onto. So please… come back with me. I’m begging you. Give me a chance to make this right.”
There’s a whole story in the way Yuuri’s face changes, the furrow of his brows to the widening of his eyes, the way they fill with tears once more. He blinks them back before they can fall, and nods with a slightly crooked smile. “O-okay,” he whispers. “I’ll go with you.”
Viktor lets out a sigh of relief. Placing his hand against the small of Yuuri’s back, he guides him back to the shore. One step at a time. He can worry about the bigger problems once they’re free and clear.
By the time they’re about ten paces to the shore, and he’s convinced that Yuuri will no longer do anything stupid like run back towards the center of the river, he lets his hand drop to his side.
Five paces later, his foot sinks into a fragile patch of ice.
And then he’s drowning again. The water’s frigid and dark and this feels familiar -- he just had this dream.
But he feels the burning in his chest and the panic starting to take over. Shit. Shit. This is real.
Viktor fights, but the river’s current is too strong, and pulls him every which way so that by the time he finally has a reprieve, he’s under an endless sheet of white, with no idea where he came from. He bangs his palms against the ice. He can’t break it; there’s too much, and any magic he could hope to cast demands far more concentration, far more air in his lungs, than he has now.
He thinks of how this is the worst possible non-death; he hates drowning, it hurts like hell, and reminds him of traumatic times. But also: Yuuri’s curse can’t be broken, because they’re both still alive. What a tragic twist that is. He’d laugh, if his vision weren’t already starting to dim.
He’s resigned to it when an extremely bright white-orange glow blinds him through the ice. All of a sudden he breaks through the surface; the ice has been flash-melted with smaller chunks of it floating in the water. A few of the wooden posts on the pier are burning, and Yuuri is catching his breath from having cast what is probably the most powerful fire spell Viktor has ever seen.
“Viktor, I… I want to hold onto you too.”
Viktor can no longer pinpoint the exact moment he made up his mind. It could have been while they walked back to the hotel -- sometime between Yuuri pulling him out of the water and Viktor making sure Yuuri was safe in bed, before heading back to his own room. It could have been before that, either when he saw Yuuri crying on the ice, or in those terrible moments he spent trapped underneath it. Or maybe it was even earlier still: the moment Georgi locked eyes with him and confirmed the worst, because there’s really no other way now, is there?
He can’t remember when exactly he decided to die. But the more time passes by, the more certain he feels. The doubts chip away by the second, but he doesn’t imagine that they shatter when they do -- they just dissolve, vanish from the space of his mind, until he’s wondering if they were ever there at all, and if he was just so blind all this time.
A husky voice cuts through his musings. Oh, that’s right -- he was in the middle of a conversation. “You’re really serious about this, then.”
There is just enough ambiguity in the way the tone lifted at the end of that sentence, so that Viktor doesn’t know if it was meant to be posed as a question or not. He shrugs. “You think it’s a terrible idea.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think.” Chris takes a drag from a cigarette he must have started smoking in Switzerland, because Viktor remembers that it was already lit by the time he’d teleported into the hotel room. “I just don’t know if it’s possible to begin with. You know how it goes, right? Part and parcel of our punishment is that we’re not allowed to die.”
“I’m aware of that.” A cold breeze blows past, usually the kind he would ignore, but tonight it makes Viktor flinch because his clothes have been hung to dry in the bathroom, and he’s standing on the balcony wrapped in the sheet from the bed. It couldn’t be helped; the classical teleportation spell Chris knows requires two spaces bounded by a physical door, and it was either this, or having Chris suddenly materialize in the hallway and potentially spook a member of the hotel’s staff. Viktor’s kept his gloves on though, just because.
“Something tells me you’ve already made up your mind either way, though.” When Chris taps his cigarette over the edge of the balustrade, the embers don’t fall straight down, but rather dance in chaotic little circles until they vanish into the sky. “It suits you, you know? To find the one thing in the world that we can’t do, and deliberately make that your new goal. Being ‘technically’ all-powerful, ‘conditions apply’ wasn’t enough for you, was it?”
“That’s not why I’m doing this.”
“So I gather. This is for your latest contractee, poor cursed soul on a precipice. Something like that?” At Viktor’s nod, he continues, “Did you have any idea, though? Before Popovich revealed it?”
“I probably should have suspected it. When I didn’t see any threads.” Viktor pulls the sheet tighter around himself, trying to pretend that the inexplicable chill he can’t chase away isn’t coming from within. “It feels as though I’ve been the butt of some grand, cosmic joke, two hundred years in the making. As if the original punishment just wasn’t enough.”
“Was it ever? It’s always reminded me of a mother sending her disobedient child up to his room, where all his books and toys and games are. Not that I question Her infinite wisdom.” Chris tacks on that last ‘disclaimer’ with a distracted wave of his hand. “How many people, both living and dead, would have sold their souls to get a fraction of the power you and I have?”
“It’s not -- we can’t -- ” Viktor remembers a golden thread that ended in a mushroom cloud, and others -- some, he never even found again. Which can either be better or worse, but his mind has been wired to extrapolate in one direction, it seems. This latest twist with Yuuri only strengthens that. “We don’t control the ripples from the wishes that we grant. We don’t see them until it’s too late.”
“You’ve always taken that harder than most, I think. We’re meant to be numb to it, after a while. To be like lotus leaves; guilt rolling off of us like water, or something to that effect. You can’t make everyone happy when the contracts you forge happen one at a time. Sometimes, prices have to be paid.”
Viktor grits his teeth. “You have no idea what I’ve done.”
“You have no idea what I’ve done.”
The careless remark catches him off-guard. He and Chris were fast friends from the very start, but with the intimate details of each other's work as a Wanderer, they've always kept a careful distance. It was an unspoken agreement of theirs, and he never bothered to question it. It isn't far-fetched to think that Chris might have ended up causing calamities of his own.
But this isn't about Chris's transgressions; it never was.
“I’m tired,” Viktor finally admits. “I’ve been tired for a long time now. I want out.”
“That’s not your call to make.”
“I know that. But if there’s a chance…” He trails off, shaking his head. “Besides, it can’t be right that I get to keep going on, when I’ve done so much that should have damned me.” At the end of the day, he realizes that every calamity that was caused by Yuuri’s curse is on him as well. “Let this be the one, purely good thing that I do, then. Yuuri has lived all his years in the shadow of his curse, which I helped to bring about. If I can undo that… give him back his life, his happiness…” That would be worth something, wouldn't it? “I’ve already had so much time, several lifetimes too much, to find that happiness.”
“But did you?” Chris presses. “Find happiness?”
The silence stretches for uncomfortably long. Viktor decides not to say it out loud, but he doesn’t have an answer to that. Maybe, on some level, Chris knows that already.
But it seems he also knows that this won’t change Viktor’s mind. “The only way I can think of that might have even a sliver of a chance of working,” he murmurs, “is if you think of death less as something that happens to you, and more as something you seek out.”
“From what I understand, death isn’t so much a destination as it is a process. A mortal takes their last breath, and is escorted to an everlasting party on the other side. You and I are blacklisted from that party, of course, but if you can find a way to get to the middleman, plead your case, maybe you’ll get lucky.” He finally crushes the cigarette underfoot, but he’s looking at Viktor when he does so. “Is that why you called me here after all? This isn’t a discussion, or even you seeking by blessing -- this is ‘goodbye’, isn’t it?”
Viktor offers him a sad smile.
“So it is.” Chris sighs. “What am I going to do once you’re gone?”
“There are still others like us, I’m sure.”
“Maybe, but I’ve gotten used to you being a spell or a phone call away. You were always just there.”
Chris heaves one final, dramatic sigh as he places a hand on Viktor’s shoulder. When his other hand touches the doorknob, a muted white glow shines through the spaces between the door and the jamb.
He doesn’t actually say ‘goodbye’, though. “If you manage to pull this off, save me a spot on the other side. Or once the boredom becomes unbearable, I may just drag you back to the world of the living with me.”
Over dinner the next day, with Viktor having ordered entirely too much food, they discuss the implications of Viktor being the source of Yuuri’s curse, and where they stand. At the end of the day, the simple conclusion is that their journey’s not over after all, but now they have a new goal: basically, they have to find a way for Viktor to die.
Viktor’s so cheerful when he says this. Yuuri himself isn’t quite certain how he feels about it. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
“Of course.” Viktor polishes off a fourth cup of coffee, and smiles when he gets a refill. “I promised I would grant your wish, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but…” Now that the anger and adrenaline from last night have worn off, the implications are a lot clearer in Yuuri’s head. “That means that you…”
“Don’t do that.”
Yuuri glances up, surprised. Viktor’s still smiling though, so he’s confused. “What?”
“Don’t look so sad. Like you’re mourning me already.” He laughs. “Aside from the fact that I can see no other way, you shouldn’t feel bad. I’ve had a good run; if anything, death might be something of a relief. It’s been far too long.”
Yuuri isn’t sure he believes that. True, Viktor has been alive for a long time, and at the end of the day, Viktor is still indirectly the source of his curse. He should feel happy. “I guess.”
“Look alive, Yuuri! As soon as we figure out the logistics of it, you’ll be free from your curse forever.”
He isn’t sure why he isn’t as happy as he’d have expected to be.
Viktor looks sure, though. Even in the elevator ride on the way down to check out of the hotel, he’s casually talking about searching for an avatar of Death. “Though, I don’t really have much of a clue of how to go about that,” he muses. “It’s not as though Death and I have ever been acquainted, as you know.”
Yuuri stares at the numbers lighting up one after another. If Viktor himself is all in for this plan, then he should be too. “I might have an idea.”
Bangkok is sweltering in these last few days of April, but the upper floors of the Wat Pho, with narrow windows that channel in the summer breeze and cool it through pressure, feel like an oasis in the desert.
“Phichit,” Yuuri calls out, once he finally spots the only familiar face in the room. “Sawatdee krap. ”
“Yuuri!” Phichit ditches the textured scroll he was reading with his fingers, bounds across the room, and envelopes Yuuri in a bear hug that seems to be borne out of nigh-impossible accuracy. “Hisashiburi! Wait, why are you being so formal? Come in, come in, oh gosh how long’s it been?” He pauses, cocking his head in Viktor’s general direction. “Oh, someone else? Hello!”
“This is Viktor.” Yuuri takes him by the hand, and pulls him in front of Phichit. “He’s, ah -- he’s been travelling with me for the past month. We’re… um -- ”
“We made promises to one another, and now we’re setting out to see them through.” Before Yuuri can protest, he’s already bowing to Phichit. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Welcome!” Phichit returns his bow, with his palms pressed together.
Later, he ushers them into a corner near the windows, where the warm breeze helps to cool the piping hot tea that gets brought to the table. Yuuri and Phichit spend a little while catching up -- what’s new with him, when did he get all those tattoos that climb up and down his arms and back, and how does Celestino manage his hair in this heat? Once, when Phichit reaches over to refill his cup, Yuuri sees a hamster scurrying out of the buckled belt he wears around his triple robe, and breaks into a grin. “Do your superiors here know about those, or is this going to be like that time I had to lie to Celestino when they got loose around the onsen?”
Phichit shakes his head with a laugh. “They’re fine, trust me. I’ve even trained them to the point where I can outsource half of the small stuff I need to do from day to day.” True to his words, the hamster that just crawled onto the table watches intently as Phichit pours his tea, and nudges at his free hand when the tea nears the top of the cup. Phichit stops pouring. “See?”
“Amazing!” Viktor exclaims.
“I know, right?” Phichit laughs and lays his hand flat on the table, giving the hamster a clear path to crawl to his shoulder, before disappearing back into his robes. “They help me a lot. And on that note, I don’t think you just came here to have tea and talk about my former teacher’s hair.” He turns to face Yuuri. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
He listens with rapt attention as they explain what they’re here for. Rather, Yuuri does most of the talking, mostly because whenever he turns to Viktor to back him up, Viktor just smiles or twirls his hand in the air, urging him to continue. It doesn’t take very long in the end, though; you don’t really need all that many words to tell someone you’re looking for an avatar of death.
“Well, I mean… sure, but you’re kind of making this a bit more complicated than it has to be, aren’t you? I guess what I’m asking is, is there a reason that any of the, shall we say, old-fashioned ways wouldn’t work?”
Yuuri trades an uncomfortable look with Viktor. “Um…”
“The intended target is, for one reason or another,” Viktor dances around the word, “unable to die a traditional death.”
“Okay…” Phichit looks like he’s not sure he believes that. He turns back to Yuuri, and although he’s still wearing a blindfold as he always has since the accident, the worry is evident in the crease of his brows, and the depth of his frown. “Yuuri, this doesn’t have anything to do with… with that, does it?”
“Not directly, no. But…” Yuuri shakes his head, momentarily forgetting that Phichit can’t see him. “Please trust me on this. This is…” He takes a deep breath. “This is us trying to make things right.”
The words leave a bitter taste in his mouth. But this is what he’s wanted all his life, isn’t it? A chance to escape the curse that’s had him in its clutches since before he was born?
Viktor’s hand finds his under the table, and gives it a reassuring squeeze. The gesture should help him feel better, Yuuri knows, but it doesn’t really succeed.
Phichit performs the ritual with them that very night. He takes them to a tiny, secluded room on the top floor of the temple, where thick curtains block out the moonlight, and candlesticks of every possible height line the walls from end to end. He smiles sweetly at Yuuri, who gets the hint and lights them all with a snap of his fingers.
“It’s a simple location spell, nothing too fancy.” He pours out a circle of sand from a small sack onto the floor. When it’s done, he starts pouring sand in the circle, forming outlines of countries: here, where they are, in the center; there an island, there another, there the coast of the mainland. All three of his hamsters have jumped out of his robes and are now scurrying across the floor, chittering, nudging sand this way and that, perfecting Phichit’s lines.
“What happens now?” Yuuri asks.
Phichit takes a seat on the floor, in lotus position, in front of the sand map. Yuuri and Viktor follow suit. “Now I just have to think about it.”
“Death.” He lets out the word like he’s dropping the name of an old friend. “This might take a while. Get comfortable if you like.” He chuckles. “But you can’t open the door, or put out any of the candles. And most importantly: please don’t disturb the sand.”
Phichit is so flippant about everything else that when he does get serious, it feels like it has twice the weight.
Yuuri isn’t sure how long they end up waiting -- he zones out once or twice, and he feels a dull tingling in his legs. But then the sand starts to glow, lighting up the floor, and all errant thoughts of katsudon and barrier spells go out the window.
“Is it working?” Phichit asks. The hamsters run along the circumference of the circle, and he strains to hear their tiny little footsteps; when he does, he lets out a triumphant cheer. “It’s working, isn’t it?”
Bit by bit, sections of the sand map stop glowing. The circle itself is the first to go dark; then it’s the borders of the countries, the light dying from the outside in, until only certain, discrete spots on the sand map remain lit. The now-isolated dots of light furthest from the center start to die one by one, until in the end, only the three closest to the center remain.
Phichit’s hamsters scurry over to remaining lights, where they start squeaking at him.
“This is the most adorable spell I’ve ever seen,” Viktor comments.
Yuuri can’t help but agree. The closest hamster to the very center is a gray one, and it’s right on the periphery of the big dot of sand in the middle of the map. “There’s one very close to here,” he murmurs. “Maybe in the city?”
But the hamster that Phichit picks up is different. Fat, golden in color, and squeaking the loudest and most incessantly at him, Phichit brings it to his ear, where it chitters for about half a minute. When it’s done, Phichit laughs. “Really? Wow. I had no idea he was working so close by!”
Viktor shoots Yuuri a questioning look.
Yuuri shrugs, echoes, “‘He’?”
Phichit’s grinning at them as his hamsters return to their home somewhere inside his robes. “Take your pick: 90-minute flight, or 17-hour drive?”
The drive wins in the end, because Phichit wouldn’t be able to take his hamsters on a plane, and they need his help to find who they’re looking for. They take a rented car across the border, through provinces with houses that line the highway and elsewhere, green for miles. Yuuri gives up the wheel halfway through the trip, and as he stares out the passenger window at lush trees and quirky rock formations, he tries not to think of how, in another life, this trip would take three times as long with Phichit’s penchant for pictures.
They cross another border, and from there it’s a few more hours before they hit the city. The place Phichit is looking for lies on the outskirts: a family-run inn near some kind of theme park. Phichit strides right up to the counter and asks if it’s possible for the three of them to rent a room for the least possible amount of money.
“We do have one room that we can offer you at a steep discount, if you’ll take it,” the woman at the counter finally says. “Although, I have to disclose to you that someone died there two days ago.” Which is exactly what they’re looking for, because she’s still in the middle of stressing that these were natural causes, okay, no foul play when Phichit declares that they’ll take it.
The room looks like it’s been scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and smells like a mix of disinfectant and incense. Phichit pulls an iron plate and three peaches from his bag, and has Yuuri set them out onto the balcony attached to the room. “An offering?” he guesses.
“A bribe,” Phichit answers.
They switch off the lights in the room and hide behind the bed.
Yuuri thinks he might have drifted off at some point. The next thing he knows, he’s being jostled awake by Phichit, and the sky outside is inky.
Most importantly, perhaps, there’s a large Siberian husky nosing at the peaches.
“Shhh. Be very quiet, we don’t want to -- ”
“What a lovely dog!”
Despite all of Phichit’s warnings, it turns out Viktor’s already on the balcony, kneeling, beckoning the dog closer with a huge smile that lights up his eyes. The dog sniffs at him, curious like it’s unsure what to make of this tall creature in black cooing at him in Russian.
“Viktor!” Yuuri hisses. “Get back here, that’s dangerous!”
“Is it? But he’s so adorable! What a beautiful dog. Can we adopt him?”
They’re startled by the new voice that suddenly joined their conversation. Yuuri realizes that they were so fixated on Viktor and the husky that they somehow didn’t notice the second person in the balcony. A young man dressed in an orange sweater and purple skinny jeans leans against the railing, chewing slowly with a half-eaten peach in his right hand.
“Are you… an avatar of death, by any chance?” Viktor outright asks him.
He takes another bite out of the peach, and fixes Viktor with a bored look. “That dog is usually not friendly to strangers. You are an anomaly.”
“That actually worked,” Yuuri whispers in disbelief. “Why did that work?”
“There’s this myth about a general who tried to cheat death,” Phichit explains. “There was a reaper who was after him, so he had orange trees planted all around his property, because these were supposed to ward the reaper off.”
“But they didn’t?”
“Oh no, they did. But after going in circles around the house for four days, the reaper found a peach tree, and was able to enter through there.” Phichit takes that as his cue to pop his head out the balcony door, turn in the vague direction where their voices are coming from, and wave. “Hi, Seung-gil! Remember me?”
Seung-gil stops chewing long enough to look. A beat passes, before he murmurs, “Speaking of anomalies - ” But he doesn’t finish his sentence.
Yuuri shows himself after this, because at this point he might as well. The balcony is crowded with four people and a dog, but they manage. It’s mostly Viktor who explains, calmly -- like he’s engaging in a business transaction -- what they’re there for.
When asked if he can do it, Seung-gil’s answer is neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’, but rather, “Do I get any benefit from helping you?”
Viktor shrugs. “Novelty? How often do you get to escort a Wanderer to your master, after all?”
“Death is not interested in interfering with any judgments decided by the Goddess,” Seung-gil says, before taking another bite out of his peach.
“Seung-gil,” Phichit sings out, a smile in his voice as he ambles over to where he's standing. He pulls another peach out of his backpack and offers that too. “I remember you being a lot more reasonable and willing to bend the rules! What happened?”
He gets a scowl in response, which obviously goes wasted. “Appointments follow a strict, predefined schedule. Of course, individual appeals are handled on a case by case basis.”
“But the agent of death can make exceptions at his discretion, isn't that right?” Phichit prods.
“Please do not make me regret having spared you that one time.” He takes the peach from Phichit's hand anyway.
It's not hard to imagine what they're talking about. Yuuri still remembers that night in the hospital, the longest night he's ever known, waiting with a white-knuckled Celestino in the emergency room. Death, and the prospect of death, seemed so terrifying then; Yuuri recalled imagining them as sinister, shadowy figures of the night. But now… “Death runs on bureaucracy,” he murmurs. “Unbelievable.”
“Well, of course it does,” Seung-gil says over a mouthful of peach. “Worldwide, 151,600 die each day. That’s 105 every minute. Such a massive system would collapse without order.”
“But will you help us?” Viktor presses.
“Hmmm.” Seung-gil places a hand on his chin, and weighs that question for an entirely long time. Finally, he levels Yuuri with an unreadable stare. “You are an anomaly too, in a way,” he comments. “I remember you -- you were marked for death, once upon a time.”
“I was?” Yuuri doesn’t know how to react to that. He tries to think of how many near-misses he’s had in his life, and how many more he might not even know about. He wonders what saved him. “I guess I was lucky, then?”
Seung-gil doesn’t respond. He’s already withdrawn a small, dog-eared black notebook from his pocket, as well as a pen that looks like it might have once been bone. The scribbles on the page he tears out and hands to Viktor run a deep, dark red. “Coordinates. Be at this location at dawn, local time -- that would be two hundred and fifty-one days, and roughly eight hours from now, with some tolerance for error. I’ll send a messenger to fetch you.”
Phichit starts counting on his fingers, probably converting into months. Yuuri guesses as much because he does the same thing, until he stops trying two months in and just asks, “Why is there a long delay?”
“Discrepancies in the records are more likely to be overlooked at the boundaries between years. If flagged, they will be easier to explain as well.”
Viktor looks at the paper in his hand. “So that’s still technically a ‘yes’, right?”
“Provided you respect the conditions I laid out, it’s a strong ‘maybe’. Which is the closest to an affirmative that I can give.” He vaults over the balcony to land on the soft grass below, and when he rounds his lips for a soundless whistle, the husky untangles itself from between Viktor’s legs and dutifully jumps down after its master. “Two hundred and fifty-one days,” he reminds them tonelessly. “Don’t be late.”
[[ -00.08.09 05:05:40 ]]
Another countdown starts. Later, long after Seung-gil and his dog have left, Yuuri counts the cars that pass through the road outside by watching the light filtering in through the window and projecting, shifting across the ceiling, before vanishing.
There isn’t much else he can think of to do. They let Phichit have the bed, and unrolled mats for Yuuri and Viktor on the floor of the room. From the sheer silence on his side of the room, Yuuri figures Phichit must have been asleep for some time now. He thought that fixating on something mundane like counting cars -- he’s up to seven, by now -- might have helped, but it hasn’t. He can’t seem to quiet his mind.
“Viktor,” he whispers up into the darkness. “Are you awake?”
There’s a shuffling sound beside him, and a shadow blocking the meager glow of moonlight from the window as Viktor sits up. Although his eyes should have adjusted to the darkness by now, Viktor is still just a moving, fuzzy shade without his glasses. He imagines Viktor’s stare piercing into him when he asks, “What’s on your mind?”
What, indeed. Yuuri licks his lips and sets his eyes on the ceiling once more. “Do you think this will really work?”
“Requesting to be escorted to death?” Viktor chuckles. “There’s no way to be sure, unfortunately. I have no reason to doubt him, but until the actual day comes…”
He trails off. Yuuri doesn’t need either of them to fill in the silence that follows -- words give spells weight, and there are promises that can bind for lifetimes, for eternity, but until the magic has actually come to pass, words themselves are empty.
Still, ironically, he feels a compulsion to say something anyway. “It’s a little over eight months to go.”
“Right. I know it’s not the result either of us anticipated, or wanted. Are you upset by it?”
“N-no.” He isn’t, really. Of course, it would have been better if he could have his curse broken without this delay -- at least, that’s what Yuuri imagines he would have thought in the past. But now, he’s not so sure anymore. Eight months isn’t an insignificant amount of time -- it’s eight more months of being chased by that assassin, eight months of being unable to go home.
And yet, it’s eight more months of Viktor being alive, and that’s… comforting, in its own way. Yuuri isn’t entirely sure why. “I was just thinking, it’s… kind of a long time to wait.”
“Is it?” Viktor sounds like he’s genuinely surprised by that. The spell of silence that follows suggests to Yuuri that he’s considering it carefully. “I suppose so.”
“But I mean, it’s not necessarily a bad thing? You could use the time to cross things off your bucket list, at least.”
Right. He should have figured that an ageless, immortal mage wouldn’t appreciate the concept of drawing up a list of things to see and do before they die. In a hushed whisper, Yuuri ends up explaining to him what a bucket list is -- and no, he doesn’t know why it’s called that, it’s something from a figure of speech that he isn’t all that familiar with, but that’s how the name stuck.
“Well, I don’t really have anything like that.” Silence follows, which Yuuri is willing to accept as the end of this somewhat-awkward conversation, but Viktor starts speaking again. “What’s on your list, Yuuri?”
“I’ve been taking this life and existence for granted, thinking it would never end. But as a mortal, you would have some ideas, right?”
Is he offering what Yuuri thinks he’s offering? “I’ve… got a few things in mind, I guess.”
“Perfect! Then it’s settled, you decide where we go and what we do for the rest of the year. I’d like to experience what you would like to experience, if it were your last eight months to walk the earth.”
Yuuri clenches and unclenches his fists over the soft cotton of the thick sheets he’d pulled up to his chin, replaying Viktor’s words in his mind and trying to make sure there’s no way he could have misinterpreted them. But he can’t; Viktor really is suggesting that they spend the rest of his life together.
He doesn’t know how he feels about that. Or no, maybe that’s a lie -- he just isn’t sure how he’s supposed to feel about that.
Viktor must have mistaken his silence for something else, though. “I understand if you’d prefer not to. If you’d rather we part ways now and wait for the end of the year separately, then that’s -- ”
“No!” Yuuri clamps his mouth shut, cursing and bracing himself for a pillow to be lobbed at him from Phichit’s side of the room. When thankfully nothing comes, he lets out a breath and continues in a whisper again. “I mean, n-no, it’s fine. I’d be happy to help. And… I’d be honored. To spend your last months here on earth with you, if you’ll have me.”
A soft thump follows after Viktor lies back down on his mat. Yuuri thinks he hears a smile in his voice when he murmurs, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
[[ -00.07.06 22:57:17 ]]
There’s a certain degree of liberty granted by the impossible perfect storm of a past lucrative career, a lack of any particular love of opulent things for opulence’s sake, and the mathematics of a lump sum having gone through about two hundred years’ worth of compound interest. When Yuuri hesitantly mentions, in the interest of being completely honest, that quite a few of his bucket list items involve travelling to other countries, Viktor doesn’t even bat an eyelid.
Yuuri doesn’t complain, although in the beginning he finds himself having to fight down some very strong unease that feels like it might be bordering on panic. More than the fact that he doesn’t want to feel like a charity case, it’s been practically conditioned in him to be leery of people showing kindness, because he’s seen what his curse can do to repay them. Although, come to think of it, would Viktor even be affected by a curse that he had a part in casting?
Silly thought. Yuuri pushes it to the back of his mind, and eventually forgets about it.
There’s an interesting addendum that Viktor makes to Yuuri’s ‘See a fjord’ item on his bucket list. The time of the year aligns just right with the tilt of the earth and their closeness to the pole so that, with Viktor timing his driving just right, they end up managing to ‘keep’ the sun in the sky as they drive across the region.
They end up chasing the sun this way for a lot longer than they initially planned, because Viktor makes a challenge of it and takes it way more seriously than he should, claiming he’ll ‘sleep when he’s dead’. Yuuri gamely indulges his madness for the first 72 hours, but after that he ends up stealing naps whenever he can, and actively wishing for Viktor to miscalculate just once so that the game can be over.
Today is one of those days. He jerks awake with the side of his head numb from the cold, having been pressed against the passenger seat window of their rented car. He has no idea what day it is -- it’s been impossible to keep track, with the sun rarely even touching the horizon. But that was the whole point to begin with, so he probably shouldn’t complain.
The car’s stopped, and the driver’s seat is empty. When he rubs at the glass of the window to clear some of the condensation that had built up there, he sees that they’re parked at a gas station. He doesn’t see Viktor at the pumps, though.
He’s only just starting to panic when the door to the nearby convenience store swings open. He sees Viktor walking briskly back to the car, carrying two paper cups and several bags’ worth of stuff… trailed by a smaller, irate man sporting some kind of uniform.
“But you have to do it! You’re a Wanderer, aren’t you?” The man knows better than to touch Viktor, much less pull him aside or stop him in his tracks. But he shakes his fists as he follows, and yells so loudly that people from inside the store and around the gas station all stare at him. “I’ll pay you, whatever you want!”
Viktor laughs. “Where I’m going, I don’t need money anymore.”
When Viktor gets back in the car, Yuuri considers pretending that he wasn’t eavesdropping. But the smile Viktor flashes him is warm and inviting, and he ends up blurting out, “What did he want?”
“Ah, that person.” Yuuri gestures lamely out the window. “I assume he wanted to make a contract?”
“He did.” Viktor shrugs as he starts the engine. “Something about a rival who’d cursed his business, or some such thing. He wanted revenge.” He sets one of the cups into the holder next to the gearshift, and offers Yuuri the other one. “Coffee?”
“But you declined?”
“I told him that I’m unavailable to enter any other contracts until I complete my current one.”
Yuuri watches him fiddle with the radio with his free hand. “That’s… that’s not true. Is it?”
“It is as far as he knows.” Viktor stares at the man quite calmly through the windshield, until he runs out of expletives and gives up to head back to the store. “Coffee?” he offers again.
[[ -00.06.12 20:31:39 ]]
Something Yuuri didn’t know about Viktor in the beginning is that before he became a Wanderer -- and even after it, to some extent -- all he did was work. Part of the reason he’s so good and so efficient at the magic that he favors is because, for the longest time, he didn’t have anything else going on in his life besides that.
It explains a few things, here and there. Viktor gets excited at random things, like service dogs and windmill farms and theme park rides. He has yet to meet an art installation that he doesn’t immediately like. Everything new that he tastes so far is vkusno; the ‘wow ’ elicited by the stunning, layered rock formations at Zhangye Danxia is less enthralled than the ‘wow’ Viktor breathes out when plates of crab and duck blood and other foods slowly fill up their table.
“You should try some, Yuuri. It’s so good!” And then he makes a jingle out of the names of the dishes in front of him, because drunken shrimp and baijiu make for a potent cocktail for someone who doesn’t sleep very much, and starved himself in anticipation of tonight’s culinary hedonism.
But Yuuri would have been fine with the singing, if he had known what Viktor was going to come up with next. “What are you doing?!”
“It is entirely too hot in here.” Viktor says it like it’s the most natural thing in the world, all while proceeding to strip in the middle of the busy restaurant. The coat, tie, and suit jacket have already come off, and now he’s working on his shirt. Yuuri thinks he spies a glimpse of blue on his skin, peeking out from behind his hands as he struggles with the buttons -- and then promptly decides that’s not the most important thing right now, pays the bill, and drags him outside.
“You’re lucky we’re right across the street.” Yuuri adjusts Viktor’s arm over his shoulders while they wait for the light to change. He’s all dead weight, draped over Yuuri like this, and he’s heavier than he looks. “New rule: you don’t get to drink so much if you’re both hungry and sleep-deprived, okay?”
“Yuuri,” Viktor whines. Before this eight-month adventure of sorts, Yuuri never would have imagined this great and immortal Wanderer to be capable of whining, but he is. “That’s cruel.”
“Well, you deserve it for nearly giving that server a heart attack.”
“But it was hot.” Viktor slumps further against Yuuri, until his face is practically buried in the crook of Yuuri’s neck. He heaves a long, tired sigh. “Still hot.”
The light changes. It takes a few seconds for Yuuri to notice, because his mind is too preoccupied: yes, it’s agreeing. It is rather hot.
The rooms they got at this hotel are right next to each other, but they aren’t adjoining ones. Yuuri doesn’t know where Viktor keeps his key card, and doesn’t have the energy to guess. So he ends up having to wrangle Viktor into his own room just so they don’t both spend the night in the hallway while he thinks of something better. Viktor lands face-down on the bed with absolutely no grace in his limbs, and whimpers something into the pillow -- something that sounds like a sad, muffled ‘hot’.
Yuuri tries his very best not to panic. “Sleep it off for now. I’m going to take a shower.”
He takes twice the time he usually does in that shower, a part of him hoping that the longer he puts off dealing with the current problem of having a very drunk Viktor in his room, the more likely it will be that said problem will have resolved itself by the time he's finished. The universe does nothing to reward his procrastination, because by the time he does come out, Viktor is still lying face-down on the bed, clinging to the pillow underneath his head with both arms. It looks like he’s finally won the battle he started at the hot pot restaurant against his clothes. And at least he kept his pants on, a choice that Yuuri notes with something that must be relief.
But he doesn’t get to dwell on that too much, because finds himself staring at the roses on Viktor’s back.
There are so many of them, in various sizes and shades of blue, covering the skin of his back so that Yuuri can barely see any flesh in the gaps between the roses. Up close like this, they don’t look like tattoos, which would have been his first guess. And he can’t tell if the faint trace of magic he senses from them is coming from them specifically, or just from Viktor in general.
It doesn’t matter, he tells himself. It’s not his business. He reaches out to touch Viktor’s shoulder, to shake him awake.
Or rather, that’s what he means to do. It really is. But his hand ends up betraying him, and drifting down to one of the darker roses, high up on his back and centered on his spine, almost at the nape of his neck. Yuuri has no idea why -- the skin doesn’t feel any different under his hand, and it’s not as though he expected it to. But it’s warm where he traces out the outlines of the petals, grazes his fingertips over the inexplicably rich blue.
Viktor mumbles something unintelligible into the pillow. Yuuri jerks his hand back. “S-sorry! I didn’t mean to! I just -- ”
“It’s alright.” Viktor lifts his head barely enough to turn it, so that he’s resting his cheek against the pillow, instead of continuing to talk into the cotton. “I said ‘that was my first one’. A young woman was betrothed to a wizard from birth, and it was about time for him to collect. She was about to do something drastic otherwise.”
Viktor doesn’t elaborate on what that ‘drastic’ thing was, but Yuuri remembers his own experience, and makes his own conclusions from there. Is it a rule, he wants to ask, or some compulsion that makes the Wanderer drawn to people who are about to forfeit their lives?
He eventually decides not to lend a voice to the question in his head. But Viktor’s casual acceptance of his curiosity emboldens him, and he drags his finger down, along Viktor’s spine, until it comes to a stop in the center of a huge, elaborate rose dead-center in the middle of his back. “This one?”
“I started a war. Or, I rushed it along -- it depends on who you ask. It’s all semantics in the end.”
Yuuri waits for him to elaborate. He doesn’t. “So they’re all markers of the contracts you’ve made, then?” he asks instead. Viktor nods. “Why blue roses?”
Viktor lifts his shoulders. “It wasn’t by choice, it was just always the way it was. They don’t appear in nature, though. Maybe there’s some meaning to be drawn from that?”
Yuuri considers the map of blue on Viktor’s skin. “Do you remember them all?”
“Not all of them. If you ask, I can try.”
Yuuri accepts that invitation, perhaps a bit more eagerly than he should. His finger traces out the roses one by one, and Viktor tells him about those he recognizes. History is rife with stories, both told and untold, of mages who hungered for more knowledge than their lifetimes could contain, or sought whatever was the holy grail of their era, or were simply willing to barter their souls and humanities for more power. The somber, pensive manner in which Viktor relays these stories makes it clear that he’s a bit less drunk than he was when they left the restaurant. Yuuri can’t help but wonder, though, if they’d be having this conversation at all, had Viktor been completely sober.
It’s almost midnight when Yuuri finishes asking about all the roses on Viktor’s back. He’s about ready to call it a night -- and he’s sure Viktor is, too -- when he remembers that he saw a flash of blue on his chest in the restaurant. Before he realizes what he’s doing, Yuuri’s already grasped Viktor’s shoulder to turn him over, and Viktor actually just lets him do this, until he’s lying on his back.
He wasn’t imagining it. There really is one last blue rose on Viktor’s chest, larger even than the one in the middle of his back, right over his heart. “And this one?” Yuuri whispers, almost in reverence when he dares to touch it.
He doesn’t understand the smile that Viktor breaks into, or the incredibly soft look in his half-hooded eyes as he places his hand over Yuuri’s. He doesn’t understand until Viktor says, “This one is yours.”
That takes a while to sink in, even though it really shouldn’t have.
And when it does, Yuuri pulls away, jumping to his feet. His cheeks feel like they’re on fire, because of course -- how is it possible that he could have completely forgotten about their contract, even for a moment? It doesn’t take long for the surprise that shifted into embarrassment to turn inward, into something that feels like loathing: why is this affecting him so much? Maybe it’s because these past few months of his life have been completely entwined with Viktor, the man behind his curse, and the man who’s going to die for him. Where is he supposed to stand?
He can’t. He can’t deal with these thoughts, not tonight. “C-can I borrow your key card, please?”
“Your key card, where is it?”
Viktor looks hopelessly confused. “What?”
Yuuri ends up rifling through the pockets of Viktor’s coat until he finds it. He ignores Viktor calling out his name as he leaves his room completely, and takes two steps in the hallway before letting himself into Viktor’s instead.
For what it’s worth, Viktor doesn’t follow him, because Yuuri doesn’t hear any knocks on the door after that, and he waits a good five minutes with his back pressed against it just in case.
He finally pushes himself away from the door and crawls onto the bed, because today is a wash and he’ll have to deal with the aftermath of what just happened tomorrow. He needs distance. And he needs to make sure he doesn’t allow himself to feel anything too deep for a man who’s already scheduled to die.
But the sheets smell like Viktor when he curls up underneath them, and his heart races in his chest because wow -- it might already be too late for that.
[[ -00.05.21 03:08:55 ]]
And Viktor is extremely forgiving, and never brings it up, so they never end up having the conversation that they ought to have.
But they get closer, after that. No; maybe distance is a trivial thing to measure when they’re always together, but it’s the wall that Yuuri built between them -- rather, between himself and everyone else, with Viktor being no exception -- coming down, brick by brick, that accompanies the passing of time. Summer accelerates it, he thinks: something about the thick heat and the sea breeze, shared cocktails served in coconuts and watermelon kegs, intoxicating. It’s standing in the middle of an airport and staring at the departures board, and playing a silly numbers game to choose their next destination. It’s Yuuri getting too much sand in his shoes, and Viktor running across the boardwalk with stick-fireworks in both hands, leaving streams of light and fire and laughter and ‘wow!’ in his wake.
It’s watching the sea from a special beach on Vaadhoo Island at night. Viktor stays on the shore, saying something vague about the open ocean not ‘agreeing’ with him, whatever that means. Yuuri lets him be and wades into the water up to his ankles, venturing into the soft waves glowing a bright, mesmerizing blue.
He knows the secret of this place: phytoplankton, he thinks they’re called, bioluminescent -- tiny, glowing gods that bless this little island with stars in both the sea and the sky. Yuuri swirls some of the the water gently with a slow twist of his foot, and thinks that knowing the secret doesn’t make it feel any less magical at all.
There’s some kind of event being held in the resort huts further up on the island. It’s something happy, maybe a wedding reception, or a reunion, or some other celebration. Yuuri thinks as much because he can see the lights, and hear the happy, upbeat music from here.
“Can you teach me how to dance?”
Yuuri stills. It turns out he was doing more than just moving his feet to watch the blue dots dance in the ripples, and he didn’t even notice. “What?”
“You do it so well. The earth and sky make music with the way you move.” Viktor stands up from where he was sitting on the beach, and brushes sand off of his pant legs. “I’m not asking you to divulge the secrets of your family’s magic, or anything like that. I’d be happy with just the dance for dance’s sake.”
Yuuri walks back to the shore. Sand clings to his wet feet the moment he steps on the beach. He tilts his head to listen. “The music that’s playing in the huts right now, it’s… um.” He squints, and counts out the beats. “It’s a waltz.” He glances up. “Are you familiar with it?”
Viktor only smiles. “Could you teach me as though I’m not at all?”
So Yuuri laughs, and teaches him from the top. How to count in his head against the music, one-two-three, and then later how to anticipate that second beat, so that the third feels like it’s floating. Viktor is an eager student who laughs too much when he makes a mistake, and keeps his hands on Yuuri’s shoulder a half-beat too long every time.
They don’t stop dancing until the sun rises -- long after Viktor has stopped pretending, and long after the music from the huts has stopped.
[[ -00.04.03 23:42:09 ]]
Cappadocia finds them in a hot air balloon soaring over fairy chimneys, which crosses off two items on Yuuri’s bucket list at once. Viktor decides to put them up at a cave hotel which is built right into the mountain, with rooms of wood, stone, and raw cave wall. Unfortunately, the same alluring features that draw Viktor to the place also turn it into a pretty popular tourist haunt; because the hotel’s otherwise fully booked, this is the first time they don’t get separate rooms, but rather two beds in the same room.
Something about the cave hotel’s layout triggers something in Viktor’s memory. That night, he dreams he’s in the alchemist’s basement with the draining spell under him, but for some reason, instead of the alchemist, the witch is there. He can’t move, so he can only watch while the witch casts her curse.
And then saltwater starts flooding the basement.
He wakes up with a jolt when he feels Yuuri shaking him awake. He glances at the clock on the bedside table; it's just past midnight.
Yuuri waits until he's calmed down, and then asks the obvious question.
“I dream about drowning,” Viktor admits quietly. He stares at the sheets that have been all twisted around his legs. “I dream about it a lot… especially more so since meeting you, come to think of it.”
“Yeah?” Yuuri flashes a hint of a smile, and jokes, “Are you saying it's my fault?”
Viktor shakes his head. He doesn't say anything, but it's probably the guilt forcing him to relive those painful, terrifying moments.
Yuuri doesn’t say anything for awhile either, but he does push himself off of Viktor’s bed. Viktor stares at the ceiling while he hears the water run in the bathroom. A little over four months to go.
Yuuri comes back with a bowl of warm water which he places on top of the bedside table, next to the clock. He then climbs into Viktor’s bed, albeit after some hesitation, and flushes at Viktor’s wide eyes. “Don't get the wrong idea! It's -- it’s just another purification.”
“Well… sort of.”
Viktor jokingly asks if Yuuri is going to try to cleanse his subconscious, which gets him an adorable flush, and Yuuri telling him to shut up and close his eyes. He doesn’t understand the incantation that Yuuri half-whispers, half-sings as he strokes Viktor’s head, running his fingers and the water through his hair, because it’s in Japanese. But it sounds like a lullaby, and it’s soothing.
Viktor grabs Yuuri’s wrist when he feels him start to leave the bed, and asks him to stay. “You don’t have to do anything else... just stay by my side.”
They push the beds together that night, and Yuuri stays with him until morning.
[[ -00.00.14 21:45:10 ]]
They spend two weeks in Reykjavík, because Yuuri’s bucket list has always included seeing the Northern Lights one day, and the last time they were up on this high of a latitude, it was too close to summer to see them. They were warned, by both well-meaning fellow travelers and Yuuri’s own nervous Googling, that the Lights have been finicky this year, and may or may not show up at all. So Viktor rents a jeep that he parks outside the huge bay window of an artsy flat he already booked sight unseen before they even bought plane tickets, so that they can drive out at a moment’s notice if the Lights do decide to cooperate.
Yuuri doesn’t protest, but he does catch a glimpse of the receipt. Everything is expensive in this country. If he had to guess, he’d say Viktor completely stopped caring about money a couple of months ago.
It’s still gorgeous here despite the cold, and the moody five-minute snowstorms and lazy, hours-long sunrises and sunsets give the place a peculiar character of its own. Darkness reigns for much of the day, sometimes leaving only a quarter for daylight. But this is good, Viktor tells him, because long darkness means a better backdrop for the Lights.
If they ever decide to show up, that is. The first week disappoints, and Yuuri tries to distract himself by availing himself of the island’s other offerings: glaciers and frozen waterfalls, networks of blue ice caves that Viktor navigates like an old haunt though he’s never seen them before; adorable Icelandic horses with their thick winter coats, friendly and eager for scratches behind the ears; hot springs that would have reminded Yuuri of home, if not for the salt in the water, and the surrounding lava fields.
When he closes his eyes, he thinks: just a few days more, and you can finally go home. When he opens them, he sees mountains of ice in the distance, and feels nothing worth celebrating.
“You know what they say about the Lights?” Viktor asks, out of nowhere, on the night of their thirteenth day.
“Depends on who ‘they’ are,” Yuuri says. “I hear people say it’s just chemistry -- something about the sun, and gases in the atmosphere.”
“Wow, that sounds incredibly dull.”
“Mmm.” Yuuri feels it when Viktor tries to subtly kick off his socks under the covers, because they’ve pushed the apartment’s two single beds together, and passed over the separate blankets in favor of a huge fleece one meant for a king-sized bed that Viktor bought on the first day without thinking. The arrangement isn’t one they’ve talked about much, but it’s something they’ve been doing since their stay at the cave hotel in Turkey. It’s… comfortable. It makes Yuuri feel somewhat safer at night, given the hitman still probably lurking out there, seeking his head. And though they don’t really touch all that much, at least not consciously anyway, he doesn’t mind the extra warmth Viktor provides by just being there.
“There are a ton of other explanations people tried to come up with for them. Some actually believed that if you saw them anywhere that was too far from the poles, it meant a Wanderer was nearby.”
“Really? Is that true?”
“No idea. I only ever heard that explanation once, and…” Viktor trails off there, but when he picks it back up, the rest of his sentence has nothing to do with that fragment of a thought. “Anyway, others say they’re portents of war, or famine. Or that they’re blessings from spirits of the dead.”
“That’s kind of dark, isn’t it?” Yuuri mumbles. “Given how pretty they are.”
“Those are not mutually exclusive things.” Viktor lets out a thoughtful hum, addressing the ceiling. “If that last one is true -- if the Lights are, indeed, a message from the other side -- I’ll send them to you next year. I’ll make sure of it.”
Yuuri doesn’t trust himself to speak. He pretends to be asleep for the rest of the night.
The Lights actually do show up on the very last day. Within minutes, they drive off to find a quiet spot at the edge of a lake, near a mountain and far away from the city lights, to watch the show in its purity.
The cold is blistering tonight, though. Yuuri’s had to bundle up in a scarf and the thickest coat that he owns, and he still has to alternate between sitting on his gloved hands and blowing on his bare fingers with some light fire magic to keep them warm. Viktor, somewhat infuriatingly, seems perfectly comfortable as he always is, in his suit and that flimsy coat of his that really doesn’t look all that warm.
And it doesn’t even matter if it is, because Viktor takes it off once they choose their spot anyway. So when they finally cross off the Northern Lights from their shared bucket list, it’s with Viktor lying with his head on Yuuri’s lap, on top of his coat laid out on the snow, and Yuuri tilting his head up to watch the lights.
About half an hour into the show, he looks down for a bit to give his neck some relief. He finds himself meeting Viktor’s eyes instead.
A beat passes. “Are you happy?” he finds himself asking.
Viktor smiles. “I'm content. I feel as though I've seen more of the world in the past six months, than I have in the 200 years I've lived before.”
Silence reclaims their haunt easily. The sky dances above them, rich, mellow greens and fiery purples and reds, all against a backdrop of stars. It’s breathtaking, and more wondrous than anything he’s ever dreamed of.
“Yuuri. What's on your mind?”
“I'm wondering how you're so… okay with this.” He swallows back a lump in his throat. “Knowing that you'll -- that this will all come to an end, soon.”
“Your curse will come to an end soon, too,” Viktor reminds him. “This is something to celebrate.”
Yuuri doesn't reply. He trains his head up again, and stares resolutely at a patch of purple that looks almost blue. The lights keep swirling, shifting, and he wants them to stop -- he wants it all to stop. He wants to freeze this moment and extend it forever.
“I regret what I did very much,” Viktor continues, in a much softer tone. “Not just to you. At that time, I would have done almost anything, if the price was right. Magic was just a means to an end, a paycheck to me. I was so fixated on pleasing the people who hired me, that I didn't dwell too much on what the consequences were, and how far they would reach.”
His curse. Yes. Viktor made a choice a long time ago that ended up causing all of Yuuri’s misfortune, and it should have been so easy -- so easy to hate him, and to rejoice when he decided to die to undo it. But it’s hard, and his feelings are a complicated mess that changes composition every few seconds. Is he happy that his curse will be broken soon, relieved that the target on his back will be lifted, and that he can go home at the end of the year? Of course he is, these are all objectively good things, so of course…
“The witch who cursed your bloodline paid for that spell with her life. She knew that price from the start. Sometimes I wonder why this was my punishment, instead of joining her.”
“Would you have preferred that?” Yuuri asks the sky.
“It would have been quicker. More painless, maybe.” Viktor lets out a soft chuckle that sounds like it was meant to salvage a sigh. “But no. I used to think that, but not anymore.”
In a way, Yuuri gets his wish. The wind stills, and for a moment, he no longer feels or remembers the cold. The Lights, dancing in the sky, unseen, could stop and fade and die in a blink, and he’d miss it all.
His world stops in the shimmering of Viktor’s eyes, and when that moment passes, he doesn’t realize that he’s already crying.
“I -- I’m sorry, I don’t know -- I can’t -- ” The tears come fast and unrelenting, sobs from his throat and his chest and his everywhere. He buries his face into the balls of his hands at the last second, so he doesn’t drench Viktor’s face with his tears. “You don’t have to -- it’s not like you were the one... ” Come on, he begs himself. Say the words. They’re just words. “You don’t have to die, if you don’t want to. Let’s break the contract. Let’s end this!”
“Yuuri…” He almost doesn’t hear it. “Look at me. Please?”
He doesn’t want to. But the touch of a Viktor’s glove against his face, gingerly wiping off some of the tears that made it past his hands to stream down his cheeks, coaxes him out of hiding. Viktor is a blurry swirl of flesh and blue and silver, but when Yuuri blinks, he’s greeted with the most tender smile.
“If I can be remembered for accomplishing one good thing in my life… then that’s fine. That’s enough.” Viktor wipes off more tears, gathering up Yuuri’s hands in his free one and squeezing them. “Will you let me?”
As they watch the rest of the show in silence, Yuuri thinks he finally realizes something. Long has he wondered: if his curse meant bringing calamity to those close to him, and if -- despite his best efforts -- he found himself drawing closer and closer to Viktor, when would calamity come for the Wanderer? Was he immune to it, somehow, because he was indirectly involved in Yuuri’s curse coming to be? Or did magic like this simply not affect immortals and Wanderers alike?
No. He understands it now: Viktor’s calamity -- it’s him. It’s been him all along.
[[ -00.00.09 03:59:04 ]]
Viktor’s alone in the pool on the rooftop of their hotel in Barcelona. He’d rather have Yuuri up here, but apparently he still hasn’t quite shaken off all of the jet lag from their flight earlier this week, and he’s sleeping the last of it off in the hotel room. Viktor eventually got bored of watching TV with the sound off, but he didn’t want to stray too far from Yuuri either. So here he is.
He hasn’t left the shallow end of the pool, and has no plans to. Floating lazily on his back, he stares up at the full moon, so bright against the sky. Old fears die hard -- hence, the shallow end -- and a part of him is afraid that if he blinks for too long, when next opens his eyes, the moon will no longer be white.
A sneeze comes and goes. He sniffles, mumbles “Excuse me” out of habit, and thinks it’s about time to leave the pool. If he stays here for much longer, he might catch a cold.
He replays that thought once more in his head, and chuckles to himself.
Very soon, it won’t even matter.
He reflects on these past few months with Yuuri: sights he’s seen, places he’s been. He’s been walking the earth for 200-odd years, but so much of that time was spent and burned forging contracts, fulfilling them, then finding the next contract; rinse and repeat. He’s no longer sure how much of these past two centuries were shaped by remorse, by what he felt was his obligation as a Wanderer, or the other side of that same coin: his desperate desire to get his wish granted. But in wanting so badly to be shown how life -- this life he was cursed to, forever -- was worth living, somehow along the way, it was like he forgot how to live.
These past few months haven’t been like that at all. Since he met Yuuri, he hasn’t forged a single other contract with anyone, and there were times when he was enjoying himself so much that he even forgot about their contract.
He wishes he could keep doing that.
He smells the smoke before he can see it. At first he thinks it might be from a cigar, but he didn’t hear anyone light up. And this smoke is different, it smells… sweet?
Viktor turns his head to find the source of the smoke. It’s coming from the pile of his clothes at the side of the pool: the paper talisman for protection that Yuuri gave him before their meeting with Georgi, the one he’s kept wrapped around his watch, is on fire.
It’s all but turned to ash when he realizes what it means, and hurriedly swims to the ladder. Get out of the pool get out of the pool get out of the pool get out of the pool -
His foot barely clears the water when the lightning hits.
“I was going to use magic to find you, but I didn’t need to. When I heard there was someone up here, I thought, there was no way any normal person would come to an outdoor pool at this time of year. Looks like I was right.”
Viktor throws on his coat. He keeps a neutral expression as he watches the young Plisetsky mage circle the pool like a hawk. “Where’s Otabek?”
“Probably back in Almaty by now. I bought out his contract.”
He tosses the rolled-up parchment at him, which Viktor catches. After unrolling it, he sees that nothing in the wording has changed. The only alteration made was at the bottom, where the assassin’s name had been scratched out, and in its place scribbled ‘Юрий Плисецкий’ in angry red ink.
Wait. “Your name is ‘Yuri’ too?” He can’t help but laugh.
“That was your takeaway from this?” Yuri snarls.
“Well, he’s not here.” Viktor wonders how much time he has, and if he can get to Yuuri before Yuri does. “So, sorry I’m not the target you wanted.”
“No, things are going pretty much exactly as I wanted them.” He smirks. “You see, you’ve always been getting the way of the job. Always. If I get rid of you first…”
Viktor feels static in the air again. Picking up his watch, he disengages the chain and throws it against the knob of the single door leading back down into the hotel. The gold fuses with the knob and seeps into the space between the jamb, locking it.
“Noble.” Yuri sneers, before attacking.
The first onslaught of lightning isn’t too destructive, but the bolts come blindingly fast one after another. Viktor blocks the first few with a barrier and just barely manages to avoid the rest of them, though he has to rely on magic to hasten his sprint.
“I’ve done a bit of research about you over these past few months, you know,” Yuri calls out. “Viktor Nikiforov was the runt of the litter -- had about as much magical talent in his whole body as any one of his sisters had in her pinky finger, or so they say.”
Bolts rain down on him like punctuation marks. He dives behind one of the larger, fake potted trees lining the poolside, only to flee once it’s blasted to bits. He wishes he had more of Otabek's anti-magic on him.
“So the war comes along. Viktor Nikiforov makes a deal with a Wanderer. Whatever it was he asked for, it wasn’t nearly enough to save his family from the war -- making deals with the devil will screw you over like that.” Yuri laughs, but it’s a hollow, humorless sound. “The weirdest thing of all is that, in the official list of casualties taken after the war finally ended, the Nikiforov clan was one short.”
Where is he going with this? Viktor doesn’t get to ask, because it’s taking a surprising amount of his concentration to block and avoid all of Yuri’s strikes, and he can’t afford to think of much else. No matter. He just needs one good, clean shot to land a binding spell in, and then this will all be over.
“Now, 200-odd years later, he appears: Viktor Nikiforov, in the flesh, a Wanderer himself now, hopping from place to place like a goddamn tourist on an extended vacation.” Yuri spits out the words with fire in his eyes, his fists curled so tightly at his sides that they begin to shake. “Where does a fucking coward like you get off, still slinging spells with your family’s crest on them? You could have at least done the decent thing and died fighting by their side! That way at least the House of Nikiforov could finally rest! Instead, it fucking weeps in shame because of you!”
Was that what it was? What the stories said? Did everyone think that the deal he made with the Wanderer… was to escape?
“At least fucking fight back!” Yuri shouts. “You piss me off! Why do you look so happy to be following that damn loser around? What’s he got on you?!”
That final blast ends up knocking Viktor into the pool. When his head breaks the surface, Yuri is flying above him, his wings eclipsing the moon.
“Viktor Nikiforov is dead,” he declares. “Did you think you could actually protect him, actually do something good with your life? Maybe I should have ended him first -- just to show how useless promises are, when they come out of the mouth of an honorless mage like you.”
When the lightning comes for him from above, Viktor sees red. He finally abandons his plan to use strictly defensive magic and freezes all of the water in the pool around him into icicles, which he then sends flying up. The icicles shred Yuri’s wings to bits, because half-magic and half-material means sharing the weaknesses of both.
Yuri crashes down hard into the benches next to the pool, breaking one of them completely. By the time he scrambles to his feet, there’s one last icicle looming above him like the Sword of Damocles.
He lowers his head. “Kill me,” he mutters. His hair hides his eyes, but there’s a small, defiant smile on his face. “Go on. You’ve earned it.”
Viktor doesn’t take his eyes off the younger mage for even a second as he exits the pool. “Did you really want to fight against me so badly?”
“Don’t fucking flatter yourself, old man. Nobody looks up to you. As far as everyone’s concerned, you’re either dead, a coward, or a demon. Nothing more.”
One of the very first spells Papa taught him was like this: take an ice formation that’s ready and waiting, and move it with your mind. Icicles directed this way would be particularly potent weapons, he explained, arrows that ran clear and true, and left no trace behind once they melted. This -- pulling it straight down, to end it all -- would be child’s play.
At the very last second, he changes his mind, and instead of being impaled from the top of his head, Yuri ends up drenched in freezing water.
Viktor binds his wrists and ankles to the concrete before Yuri can recover from his shock. “Six hours,” he says. “You’ve been very troublesome this time. Don’t try to fight it with magic, because every time you try, the spell will re-cast itself, and the countdown will start all over again.”
Yuri spits out a curse. But there’s no real venom behind it.
“Yuuri and I -- Yuuri Katsuki and I,” he amends, “we have a plan. There’s something he and I need to do. If our plan works, then before the week is out, he should no longer be cursed. That would invalidate the terms of your hit job.”
Yuri glares at him. “And if it doesn’t work?”
“Then you are free to come after your bounty again. But you’ll have to be prepared to face me. Every single time.”
As he's walking away, the promise he just made weighing heavily on his mind, Yuri yells something after him that he really should have seen coming.
“Unfortunately,” he sighs, “I’m unavailable to enter any other contracts until I complete my current one.”
“We both know that’s fucking bullshit!”
So it is. Viktor bites back a smile and continues on, not bothering to dispute that. Yuri is simply too young, and he’s not about to let history repeat itself.
It’s about time this damnation ends with him.
[[ -00.00.06 07:10:12 ]]
It's unavoidable that they leave the hotel after that. But they fly out tomorrow night, and Yuuri doesn’t want to leave the city anymore. It’s hard to find an available room on the same day during the holiday season like this, and the one that they find charges three times the normal amount. Viktor pays it anyway, because he’s not going to have need for money much longer.
Strolling through the Christmas market, with its feast for the spirit and the senses, puts him at ease. Yuuri’s hand is a source of warmth, comforting. Viktor takes in all the colors, the sights and sounds of the chaos, the aromas from the food stalls. Despite the bustle of activity, everyone is in good cheer -- the season will do that to you, he’s been told.
For his part, Yuuri seems to be anxious about something. He’s walking at Viktor’s same, leisurely pace, but his eyes keep darting from side to side, like he’s searching for something.
“Do you want some hot wine?”
“Ah… no thanks.” Yuuri smiles politely. “I try to avoid alcohol if I’m flying soon. Doesn’t help the jet lag, you know?”
“Oh, I see.” Viktor drinks quietly. There’s so much he still doesn’t know about Yuuri, so much he won’t have the privilege to know.
He wonders how Yuuri will fare, once he’s gone. When the curse is lifted… will he return to his family, will they welcome him back? Will his hometown, which tried to kill him several times, try to do right by him? Will he allow himself to be close to people, and will he let them in? But he worries about the little things too: when he’s gone, who will wake him up in the mornings when he’s hit ‘snooze’ on his alarm five times in a row, and who will gently pester him to go to sleep when he’s still mesmerized by that phone with five hours to go before the alarm? His floating spells could use some work, his fire magic is under-developed, and there are so many things that Viktor hasn’t even shown him; who will pick up on teaching him, and on making sure he turns out the best mage he can be?
He smiles into his wine when he realizes that the answer to all of those is the same: it doesn’t matter. Yuuri will find someone, he’s sure. And he’ll find happiness -- happiness that Viktor can’t give him, because…
Yuuri abruptly stops walking. Viktor glances at him out of curiosity, and finds that his entire face and parts of his ears are red. “Yuuri?”
“I -- I’ll be right back!” Yuuri drops his hand like a hot potato, and jets off across the street, into… is that a jewelry store?
He’s back out in less than ten minutes. Viktor opens his mouth to speak, but Yuuri’s already grabbed his hand, pulling him through narrow, winding streets between shops and tents. Viktor doesn’t ask about the bag in Yuuri’s hands, or where they’re going. He simply lets Yuuri lead him along, wondering what he might have planned. Wondering why, the more they run, the more he hears bells.
“Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir
We will lend a coat of fur…”
Smoky yellow lights cast a warm glow over the front of the Sagrada Família. Bells chime high above them, and the sound seems sent from heaven. There’s a choir assembled on the lowermost steps of the church, practicing Christmas carols.
Yuuri pulls out a box that is much smaller than the bag he was given from the store. His hand trembles as he reaches out, and strips off the glove from Viktor’s right hand.
“We will rock you, rock you, rock you
We will rock you, rock you, rock you…”
“I… this is… I couldn’t think of anything else,” he stammers, as he slides the single gold ring onto Viktor’s ring finger. He takes a deep, shuddering breath that sends a trail of white up to the sky, to the sound of the bells. “It’s, um… omamori. I don’t know -- it’s hard to translate perfectly.”
Viktor barely remembers how to speak. “Is this… similar to the charm that you gave Georgi?”
“Yes. No. This isn’t… that.” Yuuri swallows hard.
“See the fur to keep you warm…”
“Something round and gold; it’s a prayer, to bind us.” Yuuri’s voice catches in his throat, and drops to a whisper. “Bind us together, even beyond death.”
“Snugly round your tiny form.”
Viktor stares at the ring on his finger for what feels like far too long, stunned. Yuuri, for all his mild-mannered affections and soft-spoken tone, his sad eyes, and the way he carries himself with a calmness and grace that is half-regal, half-meek, has often been able to surprise him when he least expects it. But this -- this is too much.
Yuuri’s fidgeting, and Viktor knows he’s making him feel terrible by not responding. But he doesn’t know how. Words are failing him, utterly, completely. He’s amassed two hundred years’ worth of knowledge and memories and experiences, but now, at this very moment, he has no idea what to say.
Perhaps that’s it, then, says a tiny voice that he hears not in his head, but somewhere else -- somewhere closer to his core. Words are the shallowest of responses, especially now. All he has left is honesty, and honesty is what drives him to take out his old pocketwatch -- his longest companion in this bitter life -- and cast a transfiguration spell on the golden chain for this one final time.
“Mary's little baby, sleep, sweetly sleep
Sleep in comfort, slumber deep…”
“Then let this be something simpler: a token to remember me by,” he murmurs as he places the newly-formed golden ring on Yuuri’s own finger. “As I take a part of you with me when I go to walk with death, so I leave a part of myself with you, for safekeeping.”
“We will rock you, rock you, rock you
We will rock you, rock you, rock you…”
Yuuri throws his arms around Viktor, pressing his face into his shoulder. Viktor closes his eyes and hones in on the sounds of the bells and the choir, and the soft winter breeze. This is the only thing he can do, to avoid dwelling on the way Yuuri is shaking, the desperation in how he clings to him, the sob he stifles into Viktor’s coat.
Chapter 4: for love is always with you...
[[ -00.00.00 20:48:42 ]]
On the last day of the year, they make their way to the city closest to the coordinates Seung-gil provided: remnants of a mountain fortress, about twenty-five kilometers away from the capital, and almost half a kilometer above sea level. It’s sparsely populated, and when they arrive, it’s just recovered from the battering of a recent snowstorm, making it feel quieter and even more surreal.
Few words are spoken between them that day, and those that are feel like pittances. Viktor will ask if Yuuri wants to turn up the heat in the flat they’re renting above a souvenir shop, and Yuuri will quietly answer that he’s fine with it either way. Yuuri will then ask what Viktor would like to eat, and when Viktor says he’s not very hungry, Yuuri will say he’s the same. And so on. They dance around each other, and they share the same space but always end up… distanced, somehow.
Viktor knows why this is happening, but he doesn’t know how to make it better. He just wants to spare them both the pain. “We’re not that far from here, are we? From your hometown, I mean.” He fiddles with the tuning knob of the old radio, the only source of entertainment in the tiny living room. All he gets is static. “You don’t have to stay with me here. You can go ahead, if you like. Get a headstart, you know? By the time you get there -- ”
“It’s fine,” Yuuri cuts in. “I -- I want to stay. If that’s alright with you.”
It means the world to him. But Viktor doesn’t say that out loud, because somehow he thinks it’s not going to help.
[[ -00.00.00 12:12:17 ]]
Sunset finds Viktor standing near one of the gates of the old fortress for which this mountain is known, breathing in the thin, frigid air. Gusts of wind tease the mountain, picking up some of the light, loose snow left behind by the storm and blowing it gently towards him.
He checks the numbers displayed on his phone, and matches them against the numbers written in a similar fashion on the wrinkled scrap of notebook paper he received a little over eight months ago. This is it, he confirms.
Tomorrow, this is where Death will take him.
From the flat they're renting, it's just a bit under twenty minutes on foot, and that's with the slow, meandering walk Viktor used to get here today. There's something to be said about this place, and how it reminds him of things: the long, unhurried sunsets, the familiar bite of winter on his skin. There's a forest here, but it isn't green, the trunks and branches of sleeping trees like strokes of black and gray against the canvas of snow.
He always thought that Seung-gil chose this place because he hailed from these lands, once upon a time. He never actually asked, but it seemed trivial and obvious at the time, so he never bothered. Phichit seemed to think the same, anyway. But now, he's not so sure.
Sliding off his right glove, he extends his arm in front of him and holds up his hand, eclipsing the sun. The ring that Yuuri gave him shines, and sets off tiny flares of white and gold when he moves his hand just so. ‘Something to bind them together’... that's what Yuuri said, right? A bond to persist even beyond death itself -- he feels magic in the ring, a quiet undercurrent of enchantment that reminds him of protective charms, and dances, and quiet nights watching lights in the sky.
He wants so badly to believe.
By the time he returns to the flat, the sun is still only halfway through its descent. The sky outside mimics the fire now burning merrily in the fireplace.
“Thank -- wow.” Yuuri’s dressed in a navy suit that Viktor had tailored for him in Barcelona, and the sight of him in it is enough to make Viktor forget his words. He swallows. “You look nice. Good. You look good in that.” And then he clamps his mouth shut, or else this verbal deluge will just keep on going.
“Thank you.” A light flush, adorable, spreads across Yuuri’s cheeks. “Um, so I -- I managed to fix the radio.”
Viktor tilts his head. “That you did.” It explains the soft strains of music filling the room, something that he only notices now. He doesn’t recognize the song that’s playing, but it’s slow and dreamy, a sweet melody of strings and flutes lifting him up to the stratosphere.
‘Whenever I see you, stars in your eyes
Brighten up the skies for me…’
Yuuri takes a breath, like he’s gathering up his resolve. He offers his hand. “Dance with me?”
Viktor feels a soft chuckle bubbling from his throat before he can help it. “Now?”
“You doing anything else?” There's a teasing note in Yuuri’s voice as he curls his fingers in invitation. “Only if you want to, though. We don't have to -- ”
“I'd love to.”
It's so easy to allow himself to get lost -- in the music, in the slow steps they take in sync around the room, and the warmth of Yuuri’s hand around his. The glow from the fireplace casts flickers of light in Yuuri’s eyes, and Viktor finds that he can't look away.
This is it. If he has to pick only one memory from this life, to cling to as he crosses to the other side… this is it.
‘Maybe I’m foolish
Enough to want you to love me
For only tonight
Will you be the one for me…?’
“What are you thinking about?”
“Binding spells,” Viktor lies without thinking. With a laugh, he adds, “And how bad you are at them.”
“Hey!” Yuuri pulls back, indignant. “Cut me some slack, I only started learning them this year.”
“I know.” Viktor squeezes Yuuri’s shoulder with a smile. “It’s an easy spell to learn, but difficult to master. With practice, you’ll get there someday.”
That seems to placate Yuuri for a bit. He fixes his gaze onto the knot of Viktor’s tie, his brows furrowed slightly in thought. “Why were you thinking of binding spells, anyway?”
“Just… this.” Viktor tilts his head just so, indicating how they’ve got their arms wrapped around each other as they move. “When my teacher first introduced the concept to me, he told me to envision something I wanted to hold close to myself, and never let go. It didn’t matter if the actual object or entity I would bind my target to wasn’t myself; so long as the spirit was there, it was all the same in the end. ‘Make them stay close to me’. That was the foundation.”
Yuuri frowns. “That’s not how you introduced binding spells to me. You said to think of it as a barrier spell in reverse: define two entities, force them together.”
“I did.” Viktor nods. “But I thought it would be easier for you that way. Your barrier spells were always strongest when you envisioned pushing the target away, because it was a mindset you were familiar with keenly. I imagined the opposite would not have been nearly as effective.”
“Hmmm. You were probably right.” Yuuri hums in thought, letting his gaze drift over to the open window. The sky outside still holds the last remnants of daylight. “Do you want me to try? One last time?”
Viktor lets go of Yuuri’s hand and shoulder, stepping back to regard him with amusement. “Of all the times that we’ve sparred, none of your binding spells have ever succeeded in tying me down for more than five seconds,” he reminds him.
Yuuri’s eyes gleam. “Then let me see if I can make it a minute,” he says with a smirk.
In the end, he doesn't succeed… but he does come very, very close to it. By the time the sun goes down, their sparring session turns into a free-for-all: binding spells, barrier spells, and pure, unenchanted snowballs flying between them, until Yuuri gets hungry and forfeits.
It's too bad. Viktor can't remember the last time he's had this much fun.
[[ -00.00.00 06:10:35 ]]
They head to bed not too long after dinner. Viktor insists on it, because Yuuri has a long journey home in the morning, and he’ll need to be well-rested for that. Secretly, he's hoping to get some sleep too -- if nothing, it will make this wait for the morning go by faster.
It doesn't work, unfortunately. Viktor ends up spending a considerable amount of time lying awake, staring at the ceiling.
Next to him, on the other of the two single beds that they pushed together like always, Yuuri is having the same problem. He tries not to make it too obvious as he shifts and squirms. But Viktor is completely, woefully alert, and he feels absolutely everything.
“Can’t sleep?” he finally calls out.
Yuuri fidgets. He kicks off his blanket. “No,” he admits with a miserable sigh. “And you? You can’t sleep either?”
“No, but I don’t have to.” Viktor lifts his head, and tries to find Yuuri's eyes in the darkness. “Is it me? Would it be better if I stayed on the couch?”
“No, that’s not it.” Yuuri turns over on his side of the beds. When he next speaks, Viktor realizes that Yuuri is now facing him. “Talk to me? Anything. I need a distraction.”
Viktor thinks about that for awhile. What can he talk about that would help Yuuri relax, help him sleep? They've already shared a lot of themselves with one another over the past eight months; their stories, hopes, and dreams. But people are composed of uncountable facets, and there's always something left to know.
“Have you ever had a dog?” he finally asks.
“Uh… we got a poodle when I was sixteen. He died last year, though.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thanks. You’re fond of dogs, aren’t you?”
“I love them.” Viktor can’t stop the smile from leaking into his voice. “My teacher kept foxes as pets, and I think that’s where the love began. I’ve had a few dogs myself, but…” he chuckles sadly, “none of them were immortal, unfortunately. And losing them never got easier, so I stopped.”
“I see. That makes a lot of sense.”
It’s one of the few things that have made a lot of sense in his life, he supposes. “Your turn.”
“Ask me a question. Anything you want to know.” At Yuuri’s questioning hum, he shrugs. “Neither of us is getting any sleep, so you might as well. With any luck, I might bore you enough for you to drift off.”
Yuuri laughs. “Nothing about you could ever be boring, Viktor.” Before he can respond to that, Yuuri shifts some more, until he’s lying on his stomach with his arms folded over the pillow, and his chin resting on top of his hand. “Uh, let’s see. Will you tell me about your family?”
Ah. He should have seen this coming.
Still, he’s not one to deny Yuuri anything. In a soft, constant murmur, barely above a whisper, Viktor regales Yuuri with tales of the once-esteemed Nikiforov clan, stewards of the taiga lowlands near the Baltic and children of its bitter winters, masters of ice and snow. He talks about his sisters, how they fawned over his hair and liked to braid it with flowers and ribbons, and how the older ones would sneak him some sweets whenever his lessons ran for too long. Yuuri listens with rapt attention while he describes Papa’s hailstorms, but also the sheer presence he commanded in his household, the reverence with which the servants treated him, following him blindly into war -- and, regrettably, into death.
He talks about Mama: fair, gentle Mama who loved him so much and just wanted to protect him from the world, from its ugliness, from everything. Had Viktor listened to her, she might have succeeded.
By the time it’s his turn to ask again, Viktor’s eyes have adjusted enough to the darkness to make out the shape of Yuuri through the shadows. He looks at where the collar of Yuuri’s shirt might be, and remembers something curious that he’s seen glimpses of here and there in the past few months, but never found the right time to ask about. “That character on your chest… who did that to you?”
“Oh, you saw that, huh?” Yuuri’s laugh comes out self-conscious, and he tucks his chin down behind his hand. “My father did it, the day I was born. It was supposed to encapsulate the curse -- give it a corporeal form, in a way. I think he meant for it to remind me that I was cursed, and that if certain things happened because of it, those things weren’t my fault. But…”
“But it didn’t work?” Viktor prompts. “I think I’ve heard of that spell, the one your father used. The mark is tethered to the curse, so once the curse is broken, it should vanish. Right?”
“I guess so? I… haven’t really thought much about it. About the possibility.”
Of course. “This is good. That way, you’ll know right away once it’s done.”
A spell of silence settles over the room for quite some time. Yuuri scoots down a bit and rolls over again until he’s facing the ceiling. He’s close enough to Viktor now that their hands just barely touch each other. It’s comfortable, but it feels like limbo; Viktor isn’t sure if he’s meant to pull back and give Yuuri some more space, or forget all about the gap between their beds and take Yuuri’s hand in his.
It’s Yuuri who winds up making the decision for him. “What should I do?” he asks, once their hands are intertwined. “Once it’s done?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if there’s -- ” Yuuri trails off, and seems to struggle with how put whatever he wants to say into words. “I don’t know how this works, if it’s supposed to… leave something behind. You know.”
He really doesn’t. “What are you talking about?”
“Do you want to be buried?” Yuuri finally blurts out. “Do you want to be brought somewhere else? Do you want a ceremony, or… or…” His voice drops to a thick, helpless whisper. “I don’t know what to do.”
Viktor feels an inexplicable warmth start to spread throughout his chest. He brings Yuuri's hand to his lips, kissing the mark of the snowflake that he knows is there. “Thank you. That’s very kind. But you don’t need to worry about it.”
“But if I did anyway?” Yuuri props himself up on one elbow. Viktor suddenly feels Yuuri's eyes on him, very keenly. “What would you want?”
What would he want? It's a good question. He never thought to make arrangements in case there might be anything left behind on this plane once all is said and done; he supposes he always assumed that death would consume him whole. He’s not sure it even really matters to him either way. To have these mountains as his final resting place, to be reclaimed by the snow and the earth in this land so far from home… it’s enough. It’s palatable.
But his mind lingers on that word it conjured up in passing: ‘home’. If he’s being completely honest with himself, ‘home’ right now is everywhere -- it’s here, it’s a train across the desert and into Moscow, it’s a hot pot restaurant in Beijing, and it’s a cave hotel with whispers that were powerful enough to chase away nightmares. It’s a beach where they first waltzed in the midst of stars. It’s an eternity of black lava and snow, and the Northern Lights shining above.
Home is wherever Yuuri is. But he can’t take Yuuri with him forever.
“Burn me,” he finally says, thinking of what he would have considered to be home before he made the contract that started this all. “Use your magic. Burn me until there’s nothing left but ashes.” In a few soft, murmured words, Viktor paints a picture for him: a dense forest of evergreens a few miles from what is called Saint Petersburg today, where Mama watched over him as he played, and where he once knew happiness as a child. “Would you do that for me? Would you take me there?”
Before Viktor can thank him, Yuuri is already moving again, scooting closer until he’s moved completely to Viktor’s side of the beds, and finally breaching the barrier that neither of them has ever crossed before. He wraps his arms around Viktor’s waist and ducks his head under Viktor’s arm, so he can rest it on his shoulder.
He’s warm. He’s so, so warm. Viktor doesn’t dare to move. “Yuuri?”
“Don’t.” The word comes out strained, and Yuuri half-smothers the next ones into Viktor’s collar. “Don’t, just -- you don’t have to say anything.”
Viktor obeys, and returns his embrace. He takes in the smell of Yuuri’s hair, and the heat of Yuuri’s breath against his neck. His vision blurs.
He must be; he is. He didn’t even know he’s still capable of it, because he hasn’t cried in decades. Or maybe even more -- how long has it been, really? He can’t even remember the last time it happened.
Viktor doesn’t know for sure if this is the reason for his tears, but for the briefest of moments, he thinks: maybe I don’t want to die after all.
But he has promises to keep. He holds onto Yuuri tighter, closes his eyes, and waits for morning.
[[ -00.00.00 03:09:14 ]]
Some time later -- he doesn’t know how long, or why -- Viktor wakes up to the sound of Yuuri’s voice.
He’s sitting up in bed now, still pressed up against Viktor and with a hand resting on the top of his head. He’s holding his phone in his other hand, and the screen casts a faint glow over Yuuri’s face.
Viktor watches the way his lips move as he speaks in low, whispered Japanese. He tries, but he can’t quite make out the tone of the conversation, not from the half that he’s privy to anyway.
“Yuuri? What’s going on?”
Yuuri stops mid-sentence, but he doesn’t end the call just yet. He rests the phone down on his pillow, then places his hands one over another, gently over Viktor’s eyes. “Shhh. It’s okay,” he murmurs in a low, soothing voice. “Go back to sleep, Viktor Nikiforov.”
The sudden darkness pulls him back, inviting. The warmth of Yuuri’s hand feels the same as the warmth of the bed and the blankets over him. Before Viktor drifts off again, he tries to object: magic is cheating.
But he’s out before he can form the words.
[[ -00.00.00 00:30:00 ]]
The next time Viktor awakens, it’s to a much lighter sky, and something warm nudging the hand he’s got dangling over the edge of the bed. He cracks open an eye to see a very familiar Siberian husky sitting on the floor next to the end table, sniffing at his palm.
“Hey there,” he whispers. “Come to take me away already?”
The dog wags its tail, but doesn’t make a sound.
It’s a good thing that it doesn’t, because Yuuri is still fast asleep. Curled up against Viktor with one arm over his chest, and his head tucked in the space just above Viktor’s shoulder, Yuuri looks completely at peace. Viktor doesn’t have the heart to wake him.
He dresses carefully, each piece of his suit coming on with deliberation, until he's fussing with the knot of his tie and the dog nudges at his shoe. Time to go. Viktor hooks an arm through one of the sleeves of his coat, before stopping himself with a laugh. He's not going to be needing that.
So he lays it gently over Yuuri instead. A second blanket, if he will. Let it wrap him in an embrace, now that Viktor can't.
He leaves everything that he can't take with him on the bedside table, as well as other things Yuuri might need: a card with the address of the Popovich estate, the last packets of those crab chips he hadn't been able to get enough of since landing in this country, and all of his cash save for a 10-won coin he keeps in his pocket -- an insurance policy, just in case those old tales of a river and a ferryman turn out to be true.
And then… there's nothing quite left to do. Except, maybe, to say goodbye.
He should have written a note in advance, Viktor realizes when he finds himself staring at the blank stationery pad in front of him, unsure of what to say. How does one condense the past eight months into a single note, much less one that can fit in this paper, and be finished before Seung-gil’s messenger gets too impatient? How can anything he writes hope to capture the wonder of everything he and Yuuri saw together, the sounds of seagulls in the morning and the taste of wine at night, every laugh and tear, every whisper, every caress?
But he remembers the ring around his finger, the unspoken promise forged in gold. So with a smile, he writes down his truth in eleven words, and places it carefully on top of his pillow.
Seung-gil’s dog whines softly. “I know, I know,” he murmurs. “I’m ready now… lead the way.”
[[ -00.00.00 00:00:59 ]]
Viktor takes the scenic route up the mountain again. He bides his time, stopping to inspect some curious rocks and defiant patches of dry earth here and there. Every so often, the dog barks once, and Viktor knows it wants him to stop dithering. After all, its master must have a schedule to keep.
The aforementioned master is waiting for him right at the mouth of the West gate, as he promised in his coordinates. This is only the second time Viktor has seen him, and he looks starkly different, havine eschewed his earlier casual attire with the unfortunate color scheme in favor of a black hanbok, paired with a black gat of horsehair and bamboo atop his head. If there was any doubt that he was here for business, this sight of him killed it.
“You really came.” Seung-gil looks neither surprised nor particularly pleased about this.
“It looks that way, yes.”
“I trust that you’ve concluded any business that ties you to this mortal realm?”
“I’ve made the most of the time I was given.” He can’t help the smile that spreads across his face when the dog jogs up to be pet. He remembers Yakov’s foxes, and hopes he might at least get a chance to run into any of his old dogs on the other side. “Speaking of time, here: a gift of good will, if it pleases Death.”
He moves to hand it to him, but Seung-gil motions for him to toss it instead. “Magic of this caliber always requires a catalyst, as I’m sure you know, once all of the preparations have been made. If you touch me now…”
Ah. He gets it. Once Viktor touches him, that’s it. That’s the end.
So he tosses his gift instead. Seung-gil catches the gold watch and turns it over and over in his hands, inspecting the elaborate designs of the numbers and hands, the scuffs on the face of the watch.
“Witness to two centuries of acts and memories, regrets and lifetimes.” Viktor lets out a rueful chuckle. “Several lifetimes too many.”
“Accepted.” Seung-gil slides the watch into his robes. Then, without further ado, he steps closer and extends his hand. “Whenever you are ready.”
Just like that, then? Viktor swallows back a laugh. Casting a glance over the valley, he recalls that he can’t see the flat they rented from here. But he supposes that’s for the best; his resolve is as solid as it’s ever been, but it helps to not have anything in sight to anchor him to this plane.
Viktor lifts his arm and moves to accept the hand offered to him. He has no regrets.
A loud, frantic voice shatters the relative stillness. Viktor freezes, his hand hovering two inches above the reaper’s, if that. He knows that voice too well. “Yuuri?”
Yuuri is running towards them as fast as he can. The cold and exertion have dusted his cheeks red, even though he’s wearing Viktor’s coat; for reasons Viktor doesn’t know, he’s got his hair slicked back, and he’s not wearing his glasses anymore.
Also, he’s carrying a long staff, and what looks like a heavy paper bag against his chest -- one that he promptly throws at Seung-gil, who catches it out of sheer reflex. He frowns. “What is this?”
“A bribe!” Yuuri pushes himself between them and stops, hunching over with his hands braced against his knees, panting hard. “Five minutes’ reprieve is all I ask. Please. Can you give me that?”
Seung-gil’s face doesn’t change even as he pulls a peach out of the bag, which must contain about a dozen of them. He tilts his head.
“Five minutes,” he finally says, after what feels like an eternity.
“Thank you.” Yuuri sinks to his knees, lays the staff on the ground and bows low, his head touching the snow.
“Yuuri,” Viktor starts hesitantly, kneeling onto the snow beside him. He has no idea what’s going on. “What are you doing? I thought you agreed to stay -- ”
“I changed my mind.” Yuuri jumps to his feet, and pulls Viktor up with him. “There’s one last thing I want to do. I don’t know if it’s going to work… but I want to try!”
Viktor looks up at Seung-gil, who simply shrugs. He hasn’t got the faintest idea what Yuuri is talking about. “Yuuri, I don’t understand… we talked about this, so many times. I need to do this so that your curse will be lifted. We agreed.”
“But do you want it? Do you want to die?”
Yuuri’s eyes search his, desperate. Pleading.
And he finds that when Yuuri is looking at him like this, he can’t answer that question -- not with the same resolve that he thought he had, anyway. He can’t say the words. “I want you to be happy,” is what he ends up saying. “I want you to be free.”
Yuuri pushes him back until he’s an arm’s length away, but he doesn’t let go of his shoulders. “Wanderer, when we made our pact, you promised you would give me my heart’s desire. Will you grant me this one, final request?”
Viktor finds himself captivated by the fire in Yuuri’s eyes. Maybe he never had a choice to begin with. He glances one last time at the reaper, who’s already halfway through his first peach.
He smiles. “Your wish is my command.”
[[ +00.00.00 00:05:00 ]]
Yuuri’s final wish is this, it seems: to run across the mountain with the wind whipping through their clothes and hair, errant gusts of snow blowing into their faces. With his hand that isn’t holding the staff, he keeps a tight grip on Viktor’s the entire time, and Viktor doesn’t dream of letting go.
They dash through a small clump of trees, past a few empty benches, hills, and bushes silently watching them. By the time they finally stop, Viktor recognizes the columns and sloping roof of one of the lookout points. Looking back, he sees that Seung-gil hasn’t bothered to follow them. Maybe this was an unspoken agreement between them; has it not already been five minutes?
“Yuuri,” he finally asks again, “what is this all about?”
Yuuri steps out of his coat, letting it fall in billowing folds to the snow. Like Seung-gil, he’s also wearing ceremonial attire: some kind of wide, bluish-purple trousers that flare as he strides, and a white kimono-like jacket with customized, looser stitching around the shoulders and ribbons stitched along the ends of the sleeves. “This isn’t ‘officially’ right,” Yuuri admits when he catches Viktor staring. “But I didn’t have much time and, well, these were the best replacements I could find on short notice.”
Viktor doesn’t understand. “For what?”
Yuuri gives him a soft smile as he plants his staff into a thick mound of snow.
Then he raises his hand, and a brilliant circle of red light manifests between them. Viktor recognizes the mountains in the crest just as he’s flung back and up, until he’s shoved against one of the posts of the lookout point. He tries to brace for the inevitable fall, but it doesn’t come: his arms have been wrapped around the post, with his wrists bound behind him.
“A binding spell?” he murmurs in disbelief. He knows better than to counter this with magic, so he tries struggling physically against the bonds instead. But that gets him nowhere; unlike just yesterday, this spell is entirely too strong. “Yuuri, what are you doing??”
Yuuri’s smile turns apologetic. He casts a floating spell to bring himself up the hill, to where Viktor is, and by that time the smile is gone -- only steel remains, when he presses his forehead against Viktor’s.
“Watch me, Viktor… don’t ever take your eyes off me.”
Because there are gambles to be made, and there are miracles to wish for. Yuuri knows, as he floats back down to the clearing below the lookout point, coming to a rest near his staff, that he can’t expect anything from this; all he can do is hope, but there are no guarantees with what he’s about to try.
Minako-sensei warned him as much, over a hushed, hurried phone call at three in the morning. ‘What you’re asking for,’ she told him then, ‘isn’t technically impossible. But I don’t know if it’s ever been done. People have tried, but…’
The very first dance was the one the Goddess performed at the beginning of time. With dance she created the stars, galaxies, universes, and beyond. This is what the priestesses of the Okukawa clan believe, and this is why most of the magic they cast is through dance… because this brings them closest to the Goddess herself.
My name is Katsuki Yuuri. I’m a dime-a-dozen mage born between the Okukawa and Katsuki magical clans. I was cursed to live with calamity as my shadow.
He draws his hands together from his sides and slowly raises them up. Lifting his head, he turns to the sky before spreading his arms, sweeping his leg around, starting his dance.
My whole life, I’ve been living with this curse like a shackle around my neck. It was always there, holding me back, suffocating me. Dragging everyone down with me.
I wanted to end it all if that meant I could be free.
He catches sight of Viktor, still watching him, as he builds up speed. Good. He extends an arm to him, reaching out -- he wants to keep reaching out, but he has to pull his arm back in when he jumps.
The winds rise up to meet him, and the snow trails his path. He gets four spins in the air before gravity beckons him down, and a burst of blue light erupts from the ground when he lands.
This shackle is yours, too. But it’s never felt lighter than in the time I’ve spent with you.
I can’t thank you enough for that.
He grabs the staff and twirls it in time as he dances. Flashes of light blaze from the end whenever he swings it, and from beneath his feet whenever he jumps. Snowflakes rise up from the ground, attracted to the brass, and join him.
When he turns to glide across a patch of ice on the ground, he sees Viktor watching him with wide eyes. The binding spell is still holding strong, then -- all he had to do was focus on this feeling, of not wanting to let Viktor go. It was almost too easy.
For a moment, their eyes meet, and Yuuri wonders if he understands.
But of course he does. Viktor has watched him perform similar dances before, first during their journey by train into Moscow. He must recognize what this is by now.
The look in his eyes confirms that for him. But they also seem to be asking: why?
For you… one last time.
The falling snow hangs suspended in mid-air. Yuuri spreads out his arms and tilts his head back, gliding along the wind. He’s getting exhausted -- he chooses to believe that’s a good thing.
He wouldn’t be this tired if there wasn’t any magic being taken from him.
I know it’s shooting the moon. And my performance here has to be more than perfect to have a chance for this spell to work. But if the only other option is killing you, then I have to at least try.
I don’t want our story to end here…
If this is the last thing I ever do, then… I have no regrets.
His lungs burn as he comes down from another jump. He can feel the magic swirling thick in the air of the clearing, and how heavy the energy is where it condenses around the tip of his staff. It takes all of the strength in his arms to keep it contained.
The ritual is starting to take its toll; it’s time to end this. Yuuri lets out a breath and tilts his head up to the sky.
I’ve forgiven him.
Please, forgive him too?
The next sweep of the staff scrapes against the ground, sending snow and ice chips and clumps of earth spraying every which way, along with all of the magical energy Yuuri had built up from the ritual. Viktor ends up caught in the ensuing shower, and squeezes his eyes shut, biting back a curse when one of the ice chips nicks him on the cheek.
Yuuri finishes the purification spell with one arm raising the staff in the air and the other extended in Viktor’s direction, as though reaching out to him from afar. He’s gasping for air, and sending trails of white towards the sky with every breath.
His expression falters when he glances up and dares to meet Viktor’s eyes. “Did it…” He swallows hard. “Did it work?”
Did it? Viktor doesn’t know.
It’s only a matter of time before exhaustion takes over, and Yuuri can no longer keep the binding spell around Viktor’s wrists intact. Viktor pulls his arms apart as he drops to the snowy ground, wincing as he touches the wound on his cheek.
“Viktor?” Yuuri calls out again. “Talk to me, please!”
But he has no words, because he pulls back his hand to find red smeared on his glove, and that’s when he realizes.
The wound on his cheek -- it’s not healing.
And when he yanks off his glove and wipes some of the blood off on his palm, feeling how warm and real it is, he sees that the blight on his left hand is gone.
So is the mark of the moon on his palm.
(A lifetime ago, Mama sat him down in the middle of her bed, muted all of the flames from the candles in the room, and told him about the Wanderers: powerful beings that walked the earth who knew neither how to age nor how to die. They were ‘blighted’, she said, because although magic can bend the laws of nature to its caster’s will, there are still lines you are not supposed to cross, and Wanderers are those who willfully do so.)
He feels so foolish, all of a sudden. If the price of the choice he made on a boat in the middle of the ocean was blight on his body and soul, a punishment from the Goddess herself… then of course, of course, why would the best remedy not be a purification -- an entreaty directly to the Goddess herself, through the medium She herself has favored since the beginning of time?
If that’s the case… then he knows how to break Yuuri’s curse, now.
And in fact, after these past eight months together, perhaps… perhaps he even already has.
But what was it Seung-gil just said? The most potent and sophisticated kinds of magic often require a catalyst -- an incantation, a seal, an offering of blood. Viktor doesn’t even register that he’s been running down the hill until he sees Yuuri moving in turn, dropping his staff, rushing across the clearing to meet him.
(“A curse of this kind requires an exit clause -- a limitation imposed in the very fabric of the spell itself. What is impossible to happen to a boy who brings nothing but misfortune, I wonder.”)
How could he have forgotten?
(“It must be ‘love’ then.”)
He can think of only one catalyst appropriate for that. Stopping at the very edge of the clearing, Viktor pauses for a breath, and to gather his nerves.
When he finally makes the leap, and their lips meet -- that’s when he feels his heart skip a beat, for the first time in two hundred years.
And by the time they both hit the barrier that Viktor hastily puts up between Yuuri and the ground, to cushion the fall, Yuuri is already clinging to him, and kissing him back.
Now he has no more regrets.
[[ ∞ ]]
This story does not have an ending yet.
All stories will come to an end, sometime in the future. Someday, long after an infinite number of eternities have passed, and long after Man has run out of words to describe time, the Goddess will do one final dance. The stewards of Death will bear witness as she seals the universe behind her, and finally unlocks paradise.
Many eternities before this, as the sun sinks into the horizon beneath a frozen river in Hasetsu, an old man who has long since stopped dancing will press a kiss against the eyelids of his beloved whom he holds in his arms. He will whisper, ‘Go… it’s okay. Thank you for taking care of me until now. I love you so much.’
And, as the final words dry on a story spanning almost three hundred years, he will say: ‘I’ll see you soon.’ It is a promise he will fulfill before spring returns.
For now, though, this story remains incomplete. And nothing is more compelling than a story that has yet to end.
So it goes on, written in the warm clasp of hands and hurried footprints left in snow, the desperate locking of lips and the zenith of eight months of longing. Touches and kisses are tiny prayers, the first of thousands, offered unto skin no longer marred by the blight of the Goddess’s wrath, or the sigil of calamity which has now ceased to be. That night, a new year begins; fireworks burst in the sky over the capital, visible from the mountain. Death’s accounts remain balanced and undoctored, and that is to be celebrated by those who know better.
“Do you want to go home?” Viktor asks in the morning.
“I’m already home,” comes Yuuri’s answer. “Home is… wherever you are, from now on.”
The story continues in the enchanted hot springs of Yuuri’s homeland, its temples and waterfalls, the smell of the sea, and the warm smile from his mother who looks so much like him. It then goes on in the enchanted walls enclosing the Popovich estate in Moscow; while Viktor holds formal classes in the main house, instructing this generation of healers in defensive magic, Yuuri teaches dance in the studio above the flat they share near the edge of the estate, overlooking the river where he first told Viktor that he wanted to hold on to him, but left out the word ‘forever’.
And they come back to each other, every night.
They carve out a quiet life from this routine, though not all days are the same -- sometimes a blind monk will cheerfully pop in unannounced with a tray of layered Thai coffee jelly as a gift, and sometimes a familiar avatar of Death will tag along, though he’s thankfully never dressed for ‘work’ when he does. On his third year of teaching, Viktor spots a very familiar blond head in his classroom, one that spits fire and tells him in the hallway that he ‘better not make this weird, old man’. Clearly that means that he and Yuuri invite him over for dinner that very night, and they learn that for all of Yuri Plisetsky’s bluster, three years does a lot to erase hate and resentment, and maturity wears well on Yuri’s shoulders.
They adopt an older dog from a shelter, a poodle that Viktor falls in love with at first sight. Another puppy follows in less than a year, because Viktor wants to rebuild his ‘pack’, and Yuuri is only too happy to oblige him.
On special days -- mostly birthdays and holidays, when the flat is already packed with dogs and monks and other mages, one of the random doors inside will randomly glow. Then, it will open to reveal Chris, waving away the smoke from the spell and his own cigarette, lamenting to Viktor about how bored he is, and teasing him when he spots another gray hair -- ‘not silver, there’s a difference, darling’ -- on his head.
Which is perfectly fine. Because Viktor finally understands, after far too long, that it’s the fact that these breaths are numbered, that this life will end someday, that makes it all count. Every moment of this now-borrowed life that he spends with Yuuri is precious, and this makes every sky brighter, every kiss sweeter. He imagines being offered the chance to trade these limited years to grasp eternity again, and knows that he would turn it down every single time.
“Are you happy?”
Yuuri asks him that question again, out of the blue on a sleepy Saturday morning. Viktor answers him with a smile, and in the best way he knows how -- words are the least of responses, after all. And the truth he distilled from a mere eleven of those words, written lovingly on a page of stationery on the day he should have died, now hangs framed on the wall of their bedroom, where it is the first and last thing Yuuri sees everyday:
Thank you for granting my wish.
You made life worth living.
[[ ...and love is stronger than death is. ]]