If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
’Til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you
If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I'd save every day like a treasure and then,
Again, I would spend them with you
But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with
Jim Croce, Time in a Bottle
Gifts from the gods can come in strange wrappings.
They can also be mixed blessings, as Victor will discover in time.
Rosy-fingered dawn is bathing the pale sands of the beach in the fires from the forge of a new day. The fair hair of the beachcomber in his white chiton, adorned at the bottom with a thick maroon stripe that billows around his thighs, are screens that reflect the pastel glow back into the sky. His wicker basket of gritty mussels, draining salt water, is cast momentarily to the side while he scans the fringe of scrub for samphire, his silver knife poised to cut. The sea lapping gently at the shores, emerging from the shadows of night, is an aquamarine that mirrors the depths in the luminous pair of eyes.
Victor is used to the empty organic background draped around him. The rhythmic shushing of the waters. Cries of awakening gulls. The tendrils of the zephyr that whispers in his ear, lifts the long bangs that hang down the left side of his face to his nose, and tickles the bare expanse of the nape of his neck. The sigh of the reeds. If no other voice calls out to deepen the texture of the sounds, then that is how he has purposed it.
But when he stands to stretch his back, he wonders how he did not see the shape on the sand when his glance alit there not a moment before, or so it seems. Quickly sheathing his knife in his leather belt, he dashes over to it, his bare toes struggling for purchase in the shifting grains, and finds himself looking down at one of the strangest sights he’s ever seen.
It’s a man, perhaps in his mid-twenties, a few years younger than himself. Splayed on his back, unconscious, perhaps not even alive. Victor takes in few other details, focusing for now on determining what, if anything, can be done for this casualty from the sea, who for all intents and purposes might have plunged from the sky like Icarus, so incongruous is his sudden appearance. There is no boat of any kind in sight, and there has been no storm to sink any that might attempt to approach; no coral or cove to offer hazard.
Victor checks a limp wrist for a pulse and feels a faint unexpected flutter. Judging from the gouges in his flesh, he has been mauled by some fanged creature; though the heavy bloodstained iron sword resting next to an open palm indicates that he attempted to give as good as he received. His muscular body hints that he might at least be capable of it. But there are no wild beasts here to attest to such a duel.
Like Victor, he wears a chiton, or something simpler and tighter that would better be called a tunic, made out of a pale earth-colored woven fabric – hemp, perhaps – secured around the waist with a rope. His feet are bare and calloused. A carved trinket that looks like an antler horn hangs from a knot in his belt, and a pendant of some kind of seaweed-green stone Victor has never seen before is on a leather thong around his neck. Long hair the color of the bark of the olive trees on the island is gathered into a tight bun at the back of his head, and he sports a trimmed beard and mustache. But the most striking thing about him is the odd blue patterns painted or tattooed on his pale skin. They zigzag over his upper thighs and curve sinuously over the tops of his arms; and there are clusters of lines across his cheeks and forehead that could be mistaken for claw marks if not for their twilight color.
Greek he certainly is not. Where he has come from, Victor cannot begin to guess. That he needs help is, at least, one certainty that can be interpreted from the situation.
It is the first moment that Victor regrets his self-imposed exile. His own healing skills are rudimentary, but he never expected to be injured here to the point where he would need them. Less still, be visited with someone who does. The only thing he can think to do is lift the man in his arms and carry him back to his hut, leaving his basket and the sword to be collected later. There is no one else here to come across them.
He decides he will be surprised if the pulse is still there by the time he arrives, if the scarlet that has stained the pristine sands and his own clothing is any indication. The sadness that pulls at him in response to this thought is unexpected, given the circumstances. But there is something of the tragic about this young man, Victor muses, gazing down at his exotic face. He is reminiscent of a bird that has flown dramatically off course and lost the struggle to return, his reserves depleted at the last. Both beautiful and broken.
Like a sparrow.
Though he still trains every day, the path back to the hut seems twice as long with the weight he is carrying, and he feels the strain as he arrives, slings a rough blanket across his bed, and gently deposits the man on top. The fluttering pulse is still there, though as yet there is no twin flutter of eyelashes; no obvious sign of breath.
Victor fills a wooden bucket with water from the nearby stream, takes a cloth and a roll of cotton bandages, and sets about his work. He prays that no bones are broken. A simple splint is the extent of his expertise. It is impossible to dress every wound, but some will heal by themselves, given time.
He ponders again on what might have caused the injuries. What this man was fighting, and why. How he came here.
Whether he will turn out to be friend or foe when – if – he awakens.
It is another day before he does, and the lids open to reveal large questioning eyes, warm cinnamon but wary, flitting keenly about. There is intelligence behind them, this much is clear; but comprehension is questionable. Victor speaks to him but receives no answer apart from the stare; his mouth is set in an enigmatic line, blankly framed by the rough thatch of brown arcing over it.
He partakes of the food and drink Victor offers him, lifting some of it up for inspection beforehand, even sniffing at it curiously, though he tries it all eventually and leaves nothing behind. Victor feels oddly pleased, and moreso when his visitor is able to pull himself out of bed and walk, inspecting the bare wooden furnishings in the hut; discovering the stream outside and splashing water on his face and hands – the ethereal blue has disappeared from his features now, Victor having discovered in the course of his nursing efforts that it had been some kind of paint – and accompanying Victor to the beach. There he discovers his sword and grabs it with a satisfied cry, swinging it in a loop through the air – and then buckling over, the effort too great for his injuries to bear. Victor allows him to lean against him as they return to the hut, bleeding freely into one of his bandages, and carries the sword in one hand. Clunky, primitive piece of work that it is, he nevertheless rinses the blood off the blade, wipes it clean, and hands it back; and the man sits with it across his lap with an appreciative nod.
The next few days pass in a similar fashion. Victor talks. The soft eyes follow him. Apparently more confident in his surroundings now, the man explores and perches. Sometimes he wanders back out to the beach, seemingly for no purpose but to walk along the sands, gazing out to the sea with a troubled expression; and sometimes Victor silently follows, watching from a distance. There is of course no guarantee that when he leaves the hut, he will not somehow simply fly back to whatever distant land he came from. Victor finds himself hoping that this will not happen; dreading that it will.
Wonders what, if anything, he can do, that he hasn’t already attempted, to facilitate communication. Receives the ghost of a grin sometimes now, though what it’s for is not always obvious. Decides it’s both better and worse than being alone here.
Yuuri doesn’t know where he is. Just that it’s very far from home. Not that home has a great deal of meaning for him now, anyway; his heart was heavy before he even left. But he doesn’t want to think about that.
Though this wooden abode seems to have been built for one person, more skill shows in its craftsmanship, and it is more spacious, than the huts in his village, consisting as it does of one main room with a large bed set in an alcove under a window, and what appears to be a storeroom, though Yuuri has not had the opportunity to peer inside. A fragrant blend of aromas lingers in the air from bulbs of garlic plaited together in ropes and nailed to the wall, along with bunches of dried herbs; fish drying on wooden frames near the small wood-burning hearth; sliced citrus fruits. Small rough-textured undecorated earthen vessels, which function as oil-burning lamps, are scattered around the surfaces. Ceramic jugs rest on and under a long wooden counter, of a make Yuuri is unfamiliar with. The people in his tribe make pots out of coils; how is it that these are so smooth, round, perfect?
Two vases, far finer than the other pottery, sit on a shelf, clearly decorative rather than functional. When Yuuri’s gaze falls upon them, he gasps and instinctively reaches out a hand, then pulls it away as he inspects more closely. The vessels are made of a rich red clay, with fine, delicate black handles and feet. They depict, in the same lustrous black color, exquisitely detailed scenes of nude young men running or throwing spears, their plaited manes flowing behind them.
What land is this, Yuuri thinks, whose people can produce such things? Then he notices Victor watching him, seemingly pleased, and turns away, wondering what else there is to discover.
Odd things grow here. Trees with fruit that Victor calls olives. No rice. And he’s never heard of this tribe Victor calls the Greeks, though sometimes he calls them Atticans too, unless they’re someone different. It gets confusing at times.
He knows that this strange and beautiful man with fair hair (his tribe has sometimes been visited by people from the north and west like this) is called Victor because that was one of the first things he said. He’s said many other things since, even though he appears to have decided that Yuuri can’t understand, which is a little amusing. Though Yuuri is not toying with him; he has reason to be cautious. Why is Victor on this island, seemingly by himself? Is he a criminal? An exile? Yuuri wants to gather information before he decides what to do, and so he waits; and Victor is patient.
That decision is made more difficult by the fact that he doesn’t know how he got here, and whether Victor had any part in that. He doesn’t think so, now, because Victor has asked that question himself, with a genuine look of curiosity, unless he is a master of deception.
He has been tending to Yuuri, healing his wounds. He seems kind. The cadence of his voice and his mild yet penetrating gaze attest to this, as well as his words and his generosity. He continues to sleep on the wooden floor, refusing to be allowed to return to the comfort of his own bed, no matter how often Yuuri gestures that he should do so.
Victor hands him a stack of clothing, his own that he shares. Yuuri removes his bandages and bathes in a nearby stream, the last of the blue paint swirling away with the current after a bit of scrubbing with a pumice stone, and dons a white tunic-like garment. It caresses his skin like nothing ever has. He hugs his arms to himself in delight, notices that Victor has seen him do this, and gives him a smile that is returned while he rolls and wraps new bandages.
It no longer feels necessary to keep his sword close, just in case. It didn’t feel necessary before, either; but trust comes in degrees. He trusts a little more when he hears Victor call him ‘Sparrow’ on occasion. A warm dart travels through him when he realizes he’s been given a nickname for the first time in his life; and Victor says it in a way that makes it light and soft.
Yuuri makes his decision.
When the words “Good morning” spill from his visitor’s lips as he sits up in the bed, Victor is certain for a moment that the world has shifted underneath his feet. He turns from stirring the pot of porridge over the cooking fire, and can’t help but stare. The sunlight glows on his bare skin where it is not wrapped in bandages or the perizoma around his loins, and his unbound locks flow in tousled waves to his shoulders. Surely this is an unearthly vision sent to me, he thinks.
“Victor.” His voice is like his eyes, quiet and wondering. It carries the hint of an accent that Victor has never heard, the ‘r’ at the end of his name rolled just a little. He likes the sound.
Finding words at last, he says, “You…speak Greek.”
There is no instant explanation for why he has not been doing this since he first regained consciousness. Victor decides he is not going to demand one, and continues to stir the porridge.
“My name is Yuuri.”
Not looking away from his work this time, Victor manages a smile. “Then welcome, Yuuri.”
The rest of the day passes in this way. Yuuri asks questions about what he’s seen in the hut, the things they’ve eaten, the doings of daily life here; some of them are so basic that Victor struggles to suppress the fire of curiosity burning within him. Where are you from? How did you get here? But the sparrow is perching on his finger, and he is afraid that if he moves, it will flit away. He can afford to wait. Time is immaterial in this place.
That night, when Yuuri removes his bandages, they discover that his wounds have healed completely. There is no sign of a scar anywhere on the smooth curves and planes of his skin; his body is unblemished, without even a freckle, apart from a mulberry-colored mark just above his left hip. Again with a sense of unreality about the man sitting on the bed next to him, Victor observes that it is shaped like a swan with its neck extended, and asks if it’s some kind of scar. A birthmark, Yuuri says.
“You seem in remarkable health, though I can’t take credit for the fact,” Victor murmurs.
“That’s how it is with me, in body at least,” Yuuri replies. “Though not yet in my heart.”
Victor’s face is a question, but he does not speak.
“You’ve been very patient with me. Forgive me; the time you’ve afforded me has been valuable while I…have considered things. But tomorrow I’ll be happy to satisfy your curiosity.”
Victor grins, relief etched into his features. “I look forward to it.”
He invites Yuuri to accompany him to the olive grove the next morning; each carries a capacious wicker basket slung over his shoulder to fill. Victor shows him an outbuilding on the edge of the grove where the fruit is crushed and pressed to extract its oil, which is filtered and poured into large ceramic amphorae that taper to a tip on the bottom and are propped against the wall in a sand pile. Selling it earns some money on the mainland, though Victor has enough of his own for this not to be necessary too often, he explains; most of the work he does here is to please himself.
“Why are you here on your own?” Yuuri asks him as they busy themselves in the grove. “Is it not a lonely existence?”
“Ah,” Victor says with a raised eyebrow, “you made me a promise. It’s your turn to talk to me, my sparrow. I’ve been wanting to hear your voice, and you must know I have questions.”
“You’ve been a kind host, and it’s your right to ask.”
“Only if it pleases you to tell me. You’re under no obligations here.”
The corners of Yuuri’s mouth turn up, and he looks at Victor warmly. “Would that the people in my tribe were as understanding as you.”
“Your tribe?” Victor prompts.
Yuuri takes a deep breath and begins. As he tells Victor his story, they continue to pick under the strengthening sun, a glaring white disc in an azure sky. The breeze dries their skin and throats, and they sip at a ceramic jug of water as they work.
He is the only son of a humble fisherman, Yuuri explains; their tribe calls itself the Azumi. His mother has never been present in his life, and his father Toshiya always refused to tell him who she was, though she’d clearly been special to him. Not long ago, Toshiya died of a sudden illness. It was a heavy blow to take; the two of them had been very close. Yuuri felt as though he’d been left on his own, with no direction in life other than to do that which he’d been trained to do, which was fish. But he’d realized some time ago that this held little interest for him, and it was especially true now that he no longer had Toshiya’s company. His tribe expected him to marry, but it was never his wish to live with a woman in that way.
So, grieving and feeling that his life was without purpose, he passed his days wondering what to do next, and finally alighted on a grand and foolhardy gesture. He would either spectacularly succeed or fail; both outcomes were acceptable to him.
“I succeeded, or I wouldn’t be here with you now,” he says to Victor. “My deed would be considered noble by my tribe, but I’m no warrior. While my body may be able, I don’t have the confidence or the courage. It was simple recklessness that drove me.”
Victor finds it difficult to link recklessness with the quiet man next to him, who measures his words before speaking and keeps things close to his chest. It is also refreshingly unusual to hear such a person talk so plainly about himself. Yuuri seems to be a study in contradictions. “Tell me, what was this noble deed?” he asks. “How did you receive your injuries?”
Yuuri explains that a dragon had claimed part of his tribe’s land as its territory, which was bad enough; but through that land flowed a stream that served as their main water supply, which was very much a problem. For the past year they’d been going out of their way to find alternate sources. Several men had attempted to slay the dragon but none had returned, and so the presence of the despised creature had been grudgingly accepted as inevitable.
“You mean to tell me you fought a dragon?” Victor blurts in undisguised surprise.
“I slew it,” Yuuri returns with a shrug, his busy fingers picking olives without pause. “Who knows – maybe the lucky charms and the body paint helped, after all.” He lightly touches the antler-horn trinket attached to his belt and the green pendant around his neck. “The paint is supposed to be pink or red; it’s meant to protect you from large fish when you dive. I decided to make mine blue, because that was the color of the dragon.”
Victor nods, taking all of this in.
“I was going to cut off the dragon’s head and bring it back as a trophy,” Yuuri continues in the same matter-of-fact way, “but I ended up badly injured, as you know. And its dying words proved that what I’d done was even more foolish than I’d realized. It said that its lord and master, Susanowo – the god of sea and storms – would seek vengeance upon me. He’s known for having a fierce temper. And no sooner had the dragon breathed its last than the sky overhead darkened to an ominous shade, almost black, and I saw the wrathful face of the god himself.”
Victor stops his movements altogether and stares with wide eyes. He is ashamed to feel a frisson move through him at Yuuri’s words, as if he is a young boy listening to the storytelling entertainment after dinner; but as Yuuri is here safe and sound, he reminds himself that it’s a tale with a happy ending…of sorts.
“He shouted abuse at me for slaying such a noble creature, as he called it, and then hurled a thunderbolt. It travelled straight and true, and I was in no doubt that my life was at an end.” He pauses.
“A-And then – ?” Victor can’t resist prompting.
Yuuri shakes his head and huffs a small laugh. “The next thing I knew, I had awakened in your bed. And I could understand and speak your language. Yet the only one I’ve ever learned is my own.”
They both regard each other in silence. When Victor finds his voice again, he tells Yuuri about discovering him on the beach and bringing him back to the hut. Given what he’s been through, on top of his father’s death, he says he can understand how Yuuri must have been in turmoil all this time. At his words, some of the tension appears to drain out of Yuuri’s posture, and he nods.
“I still don’t know what to make of it,” Yuuri says. “You didn’t find any clue to tell you how I might have gotten here?”
“No. I’m sorry. Truly. I was hoping you could tell me.”
Yuuri looks down and toes the dirt. “What language did you say we’re speaking? Greek?”
“So now I speak Greek. I couldn’t speak it before I came here. I’d never even heard the word before. Your people are unknown to mine.”
Victor lets out a breath and shakes his head. “Then I’d have to say the gods work in mysterious ways.”
They return to their task, but Yuuri darts little glances at Victor, and then finally repeats his earlier question: “Why are you here on your own?”
“Nothing I could say would be of much consequence compared to the story you’ve just told me.”
“But I know so little about you. Please,” Yuuri wheedles softly, and Victor knows it’s impossible for him to resist.
This little island, off the mainland coast of Greece, is called Fleves, he says. He’s lived here by himself for the past year. He grew up in slavery in Athens, a large city nearby. Most Greeks have dark hair, he adds; his fair appearance is unusual here. His parents were from a land to the north called Hyperborea, though he was separated from them when he was young.
When he looks into Yuuri’s eyes as he talks – it is now his turn to be matter-of-fact about events that have affected him deeply – the sympathy he sees there threatens to muddle his thoughts. He steels himself and moves forward in time, away from a past he would rather not dwell on.
His athletic abilities eventually enabled him to buy his freedom after he’d won several competitions, he tells Yuuri. From then on, he spent most of his time training. He is an Olympic champion several times over, as well as having won at other athletic competitions throughout Greece; while wrestling is his specialty, he has also done well in races and discus-throwing events. As Yuuri is only familiar with running and has never heard of the Olympics, he takes some time to explain these to the young man’s satisfaction, and cannot stifle the bubble of pleasure that rises inside of him when he sees growing understanding and admiration in his eyes.
“You’re a hero to your people,” Yuuri says quietly.
A faint blush stains Victor’s cheeks. He wasn’t even aware that could happen to him anymore. “They celebrate successful athletes here, yes. Those vases in the hut that you like are trophies, though most of the prizes are financial, or honors given by the city the athlete is from.”
Yuuri pauses in thought. “So…how did you come to be here on this island, living like you do?”
Victor sighs. “It’s embarrassing to talk about it, if I’m honest.” Again those imploring brown eyes. He wonders what, if anything, he’ll ever be able to refuse this man when he looks at him in that way. “I was…defeated, very soundly and publicly.”
Yuuri is watching him expectantly. When Victor offers nothing further, he says, “That’s all?”
“What do you mean, ‘That’s all’? Isn’t it enough?”
“Hadn’t you been defeated before? No one can win all the time.”
“I did. Every major wrestling competition I entered for the past…three years. Or is it four? Until then.”
Yuuri sucks in a breath.
“I’m not getting any younger,” Victor continues, though the words bite him as they come out. “I think maybe I should have quit while I was ahead. The man who defeated me was quicker; he had more stamina. Those used to by my weapons against the big muscle-bound brutes who had a pea for a brain and thought their strength alone would get them an easy win.” Yuuri laughs at this. “If I carried on, there would probably be more…humiliations. That’s the problem with being so celebrated, Yuuri – once you’re knocked off your pedestal, it’s a long way to fall, and no one cares because they’re busy putting the new masterpiece in your place.”
“So you…exiled yourself?”
Victor examines an olive between finger and thumb. “I wouldn’t put it like that. I wanted to get away from everything, find time to think. To decide what to do next.”
“And have you? Decided?”
Yuuri appears to be contemplating something. Then he steps forward so that he is standing directly next to Victor. “This jade pendant I wear…if it’s as lucky as my people believe, then maybe it was apt that I was wearing it during my adventure. Maybe it even brought me here – who can say?” He lifts it from around his neck and drapes it over Victor’s. “It’s yours now, and long may it be a blessing to you.” Then he steps back and bows deeply. “Thank you, Victor, for saving my life and looking after me.”
Victor fingers the pendant. It might just as well be an arrow sent to pierce his heart.
In the coming days, Yuuri brightens and seems to somehow fill the space in the hut more, as if he’s given himself permission to inhabit it without fear or hesitation. He continues his walks along the beach; sometimes in a somber mood, requesting that Victor allow him to be alone, and sometimes asking if Victor would like to join him, to which he always accedes.
Knowing now that Yuuri is grieving for his father – and probably his home, Victor thinks, though he hasn’t said as much – he attempts to find things that will keep him interested or amused. He teaches Yuuri the names of plants and fish, many of which are unfamiliar to him. There are metal objects and implements in the hut and the outbuilding where olive oil is pressed that are puzzling to him as well, and to Victor’s shock he does not even know what bronze is, though he thinks it’s pretty. They go on walks around the island, which is small enough to take the rowboat around as well. Victor admits there’s not much to see, but Yuuri expresses admiration at the cliffs, caves, and expanses of sun-bleached beaches. He examines Victor’s fishing equipment, declares he can improve it and does, and they make trips out to sea where Yuuri teaches him techniques that result in good meals for them both; though Victor is not sure if simply being in his visitor’s company is even better.
He clears out the storeroom in the hut and finds new places to stash the jars and amphorae, then fashions a bed and mattress for Yuuri to fit the space. He reclaims his own bed; finds he misses sleeping next to the young man, even if the hard wooden floor had been doing his back no favors. One morning Yuuri asks to borrow his bronze razor and mirror, and proceeds to take them outside, where he shaves off his beard and cuts his hair short, like Victor has told him is the fashion for Greek men; he says he likes it better that way himself, too. Now that the full aspect of his countenance is revealed in every expression he makes, no longer hidden behind a bush of whiskers, Victor is quick to silently agree that he does also.
When they have filled a few amphorae full of olive oil, they prop them in the rowboat and visit the mainland. The oil is soon sold at the little port where they dock, and they travel to Athens to buy supplies and because Victor wants Yuuri to get a taste of something more than their solitary existence on the island. The amazed, mystified, and delighted expressions that constantly chase each other across Yuuri’s face are humorous, but Victor maintains a passive façade, appreciating that the newness of it all must be daunting. Yuuri stares unabashedly at everything: the people, the buildings, the statues, the wares on sale, the beasts of burden being led down the streets – horses, donkeys, mules. When he stops and then approaches a public building with great pillars of marble, he strokes the cool smooth stone, and Victor can’t help but comment on this.
“What buildings are there where you come from – mud huts?” he says with a chuckle, unable to hide a touch of the arrogance that comes naturally to one who has grown up in a dominant culture of the world, even if he has been a slave to it. Though he regrets his words instantly.
The tone appears to be lost to Yuuri, or ignored, however; and he replies simply, “No, wooden ones. But not as nice as yours.”
Yuuri asks Victor to show him the place where the athletic competitions are held, and is as awestruck by the great stone stadium as he is by the other buildings in the city. They pass a white marble monument nearby, on which is inscribed the names of winners of past competitions. Victor discovers Yuuri needs him to point out where his name appears in the lists, because while he can speak Greek, he is unable to read or write it. He confesses he is illiterate in his native language as well, as indeed most of his people are.
Before they leave to return to the port and their rowboat, Victor buys them a meal at a restaurant, where they share wine and eat their fill. He suggests afterward that they visit the agora, inside of which is a large market. As well as purchasing the supplies they need, Victor buys Yuuri a bronze mirror and razor of his own, a pair of sandals which he puts on straight away, and some clothing. Yuuri has appeared to be content so far with wearing Victor’s chitons and his own hemp tunic, which he has mended; but these new garments will keep him warm when it’s cool at night – and, Victor thinks with quiet satisfaction, they give him a princely look. Yuuri drapes the chlamys over himself with Victor’s assistance, secured with a bronze brooch shaped like a shield. The heavy white fabric falls to his ankles in folds, adorned with a bright blue stripe across the bottom.
Yuuri fingers the soft material, his eyes shining. And when Victor declares he would rival the gods for beauty dressed like this, he smiles, his eyes flicking downward.
Victor has fallen steadily more quiet on their way back to the island. His thoughts cloud his brow. He knows Yuuri can see this, but he does not press for an explanation, seemingly content to wait until Victor is ready to talk.
When they step inside the hut, Victor turns to him suddenly and says, “Yuuri. You’ve seen, now, something of what this country has to offer you. Surely you have no desire to be sequestered in this little place. I don’t know if there’s a way to get you home, but…would you not prefer to remove to the mainland?”
Understanding flashes across Yuuri’s face. “What about you? Are you staying here?”
“For now, yes. At least, until I decide what I want for my future.”
Yuuri does not hesitate. “Then I’ll stay too, if you’ll have me.”
Victor knows he wears his heart on his sleeve, but he can’t help it. Surprise is followed by delight. His sparrow does not intend to fly just yet, though he has opened the door of the cage and invited him to do so. Yuuri is unaware of what it cost him in the asking, though Victor knows he could do nothing less and still claim to have any respect for this man.
“But, Victor…” Yuuri adds, “…I’d like you to show me what you can do, if you’ve a mind. The athletics. Would you? I think…maybe I’d be good at some of it.” He laughs quietly. “I did slay a dragon.”
Victor is taken aback. This is not something he expected Yuuri to have an interest in, and he has never trained anyone other than himself. “Oh…”
“But if you don’t want to,” Yuuri quickly continues after Victor’s hesitation, “I understand. It was just an idea.”
“It’s…an interesting one, I must confess.” Something in his chest begins to flutter. Possibilities begin to present themselves in his mind. Yes, yes…maybe he could do it; maybe the confidence is there inside of him somewhere to be found. Teaching Yuuri. Training with him. Come to think of it…that idea is appealing. What a stroke of genius, in fact, for Yuuri to think of such a thing.
Victor’s smile stretches from ear to ear, and is returned. “So when do we start?”
The first thing Victor does, however, is – after Yuuri’s enthusiastic assent – arrange for a tutor from the mainland to visit them a few times a week. Anytus is a retired teacher from a school in Athens, and teaches Yuuri to read and write on papyrus scrolls using stylus pens made of pointed reeds. When Anytus isn’t there, sometimes the two of them practice writing together; having grown up a slave, Victor only learned himself a few years back, when he could afford to hire the same tutor. They also read scrolls to each other; at first Yuuri is clearly embarrassed by his stuttering grasp of basic written Greek, but over time he turns out to be more adept than Victor.
During Anytus’s visits, Victor tends to leave him and Yuuri in privacy, though sometimes he hovers, gathering information about how Yuuri learns. He is easily frustrated, he decides, and hard on himself for making trifling mistakes. But he also dedicates himself to his task, spending hours on it sometimes until he seems satisfied that he’s achieved something acceptable. There is no reason to believe these habits won’t transfer themselves to training with Victor, and he’s glad to have some forewarning of what to expect.
Victor is still looking deep to find the confidence to start; but when Yuuri gently reminds him that he’s eager to learn, he decides the time has come. He chooses running to begin with, as Yuuri is familiar with it and it requires no equipment. There is little to be taught in this area apart from strategy, however, and a knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Yuuri is a better distance runner than sprinter, though he works on both, perfecting one and honing the other. Victor isn’t sure if he is swift enough to win races at prestigious competitions, but he’s a natural athlete, and he thinks to himself that it might be possible given time.
On a trip to Athens, Victor leaves Yuuri to look at the sights while he himself visits the gymnasium. There is equipment he needs that cannot be fashioned from what the island can offer naturally, and he is hoping to find someone who will lend it to him. Most of the athletes he meets there remember him, and the place is soon buzzing with questions about whether he intends to return to competition, and whether anyone there can beat him. It seems they would all like to try. Victor understands this, and to his dismay feels quietly intimidated by it after having lived on the island for a year. If he does return to compete, he will have to cultivate a hunger for it again that is at least as fierce as theirs.
“Victor!” shouts a voice that tugs at long-held memories. It can only belong to one person: Yakov, his old trainer. The man who begged him not to go; to persevere and fight and win again. Never blinded by Victor’s successes, he always believed there was room for improvement, and would not mince his words in telling him what he needed to do. Victor knows that he will be modeling what he does with Yuuri on his past experiences with him, and is prepared to greet him warmly.
“Have you decided to come back?” Yakov asks him as he strolls forward, the folds of his scarlet himation billowing out in his wake.
“Yakov! I…no, not as such.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I wanted to ask if I could borrow some equipment.”
“You’re training, then, to get fit for competition?”
“No. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I’m working with a man who wants to compete – ”
“You’ve set yourself up as a trainer?”
Yakov’s brow is thunderous, and part of Victor shrinks inside. There is no reason why he should allow himself to be intimidated by this man, but he is. He looks up to him too much not to be. “I’m training one person.”
“That’s being a trainer.”
“Come back to me when he’s sick of your amateur play-acting, Victor. I have no time for this.” Without waiting for a response, he strides away down the hall.
Victor emerges from the gymnasium with a discus, some spears, and some hand weights in large sacks, courtesy of a more amenable colleague eager to lend them to what he calls a living legend. But it’s Yakov’s approval Victor wants, and he knows he’s going to have to come to terms with the fact that it will not be forthcoming.
I’ll show you that I can do this. I will earn your respect once more.
He can feel the hunger returning.
Victor has yet to work with Yuuri in his own specialty area. Wrestling is going to be challenging to teach, with the variety of holds and strategies involved. And there is no one else on the island to help him demonstrate. He has had to admit to himself that there are deeper waters here as well. Elite wrestlers participate in their sport in the nude, their bodies slicked with olive oil and covered in a fine screen of dust or sand. If Yuuri wants to compete at the highest level, that is how he must train, so that he knows how to grip and hold his opponent. The very thought of this is distracting enough. Victor is a professional, however; and moreover, he would never take advantage of Yuuri in such a way, he tells himself.
When Yuuri seems to have a grasp of the rules that Victor has taught him, they go to the beach. Their beginning sessions are focused on basic moves, and so they remain clothed in their usual chitons. But training Yuuri has meant bringing the young man down to earth from a heavenly height. No more is he merely a feast for the eyes, like a fine marble statue, to be appreciated at a distance. His perfect skin is smooth and warm, flexing over corded muscles. Victor has touched it, for the first time since bandaging his wounds, while teaching him to aim a javelin and throw a discus. Instructing him in wrestling holds is, however, a new level of sweet torture, especially when they eventually dispense with their clothing and oil up. If he allows himself to think too much about it, he knows he will be lost. Of all the mental tricks he plays on himself, the one that works best is silently pretending while they are sparring that Yuuri is Deon, the man who defeated him last year. This is not difficult, because what Yuuri lacks in height and strength he makes up for in cunning and dexterity; the very qualities Deon used so effectively. To his surprise, Victor discovers that the more skilled Yuuri becomes, and the more of a challenge he presents, the fiercer his own determination grows to overcome and win.
Yuuri seems to sense this one hot afternoon while their arms are locked, fingers sliding across grit and oil. His toes are digging into the soft sands, looking for purchase. Their faces are so close; but Victor clenches his teeth and presses forward, seeking a route through Yuuri’s defenses. Deciding it’s a stalemate for now, he quickly breaks apart, and they both train keen eyes on each other, arms poised at the ready.
“You seem to be taking this very seriously,” Yuuri pants. Victor lunges forward and Yuuri ducks, then grabs him around the waist and attempts to pull him to the ground.
“Arm strength on its own isn’t enough,” Victor says, having managed to anchor himself in a position that enables him to draw reserves of energy through his entire body and flip Yuuri so that he is leaning over him, pinning him securely to the sand, almost before Yuuri realizes what has happened. Victor’s fine bangs hang from his forehead and his eyes glitter.
He gives a low chuckle. That was unfair of him, really; but Yuuri is gaining on him, and he knows he can take it. He is about to speak when he looks into those cinnamon eyes, gazing placidly back at him, and the words die in his throat. Fingers ghost up his arm, alighting on his shoulder. Dark eyelashes flick. This challenge that Yuuri presents is an altogether different one that Victor isn’t sure he can handle: So what are you going to do?
Victor draws away, willing the warmth pooling in his abdomen to disappear. He stands, removes a towel and strigil from the leather bag of supplies he’s brought, and commences scraping the bronze instrument carefully down a leg.
After a moment, Yuuri rises quietly and does the same. “Victor…” he begins hesitantly, “…do you want to start competing again?”
Blue eyes look to him, then back down at their task. Victor considers his response. It’s so simple and obvious, the way Yuuri says it. But is it, in reality? “I don’t know,” he replies.
“That’s what you always say.”
“Because it’s true,” he responds with a stab of annoyance.
“I think you do. Why else would you be training with me? You don’t have to do all the things I’m doing if you’re just teaching.”
“Maybe I’m keeping my options open.”
“Then maybe it’s time to commit to something.”
Victor’s brow wrinkles. He pauses and readies a reply.
Yuuri adds, before he can speak, “I wouldn’t seek to tell you what to do. That choice is yours. But…we could compete together, could we not?”
“Is there any reason why that wouldn’t be possible?” Yuuri’s face is animated, his eyes full of promise. “You’re already competing with me now. What difference would there be?”
In that moment, Victor feels like he’s found a piece of himself that has been lost. He thought it had disappeared, disintegrated, after his defeat and self-imposed isolation; and he has lived with that emptiness inside of him, drifting from day to day like a rudderless ship. Waiting for he knew not what to give him an indication of what he should do; which direction to follow.
This stranger from a distant land has shown him that the answer was within himself all along; has helped tease it to the surface. The act of teaching what he knows to someone else has stoked the fire that was dying inside, and all that was left for him to do was acknowledge it. As he does now.
“No reason.” He says it in a low, firm voice that creaks from disuse.
Yuuri’s eyes dance. “You will? You’ll go to the games with me and compete?”
Victor has been half-heartedly committed to a personal training regime for some time. Now all he has to do is make it official, and work in the necessary discipline if he is to make a serious effort. Yuuri continues to force him to drag dusty boxes from their hiding places in his memory, open them, and give their contents the airing they need. Victor tells him everything he knows; passes on all the secrets he learned over the years, trusting that Yuuri will shape them to his own ends, and maybe even surprise him. He finds himself anticipating their first competition, though he wants to give them both the time they require to be fully prepared. A month or two more, perhaps.
During that time, their training is intense. As is the experience of being near Yuuri. Victor is sure he can feel their body heat when they stand side by side, and there is no doubt about it when they wrestle. He curses the maddening thoughts that spring unbidden into his mind; the fevered dreams that sometimes wake him. Yuuri is still his sparrow; and sparrows have wings to fly.
So when Yuuri finds his bed one night by the light of the moon, his body bathed in silver, Victor is certain at first that it’s simply another dream – until the slide of his warm skin and his hungry mouth upon his own convince him that this is reality, and it’s even better. He welcomes Yuuri with open arms; their first encounter is brief and frenzied, a flood of desire freed from its confines. Others follow, shattering the stillness of the night.
The morning is the peace after a storm, tensions released and dissipated. There’s a certain raw directness to Yuuri’s lovemaking that Victor finds exhilarating – a natural consequence, perhaps, of the uncivilized culture from which he emerged. But as time passes, and week follows day, under Victor’s tutelage he shows himself to be capable of surprising tenderness as well.
The real beauty of it all, Victor decides, is that the love he now realizes he feels, which they breathe into each other most nights, came first…and that makes it all the sweeter.
At first, Yuuri asks to be trained because he can see that it would please Victor, and it seems to be something the fair man needs; something that awakens part of his spirit that has hidden itself away in slumber. But as spark after spark leaps between them while they compete against each other, each always presenting the most honest challenge he can in whatever discipline they are practicing, Yuuri is surprised to discover the thrill of it in his own bones as well. He wants to find out how much his body is capable of achieving. How this will measure up against other men. He knows he is learning from one of the best; and Yuuri sets himself the goal of equaling him, if he can, in some way. He is becoming aware that he will never be as accomplished a wrestler, but Victor’s shining example gives him something to chase. And when they have raced over long distances, Yuuri has beaten him on occasion. They follow a four-day training regime Victor learned from his time at the gymnasium, incorporating workouts and exercises of varying intensity designed to make their bodies strong and whole, as well as specific training drills for the events in which they intend to compete.
In addition to taking delight in the new strength and vigor he feels in his own veins, Yuuri is continually struck by the talent and grace of the man who trains him. He makes the most aggressive and physically demanding activities look like a dance. Yuuri traces out the steps with him when they wrestle; it feels to him as if they are finding ways to synchronize their energies and movements until they achieve a harmony so deep that there’s more of heaven than earth to it.
He finds the beauty of it almost unbearable at times, and is hard put to it to restrain himself from reaching out to physically complete the union as he aches to do. He needs to be certain that this is what Victor wants; that he will not decide his student and guest has behaved inappropriately, and turn him away from the island. It is doubtful that this would be the case, he thinks; but this new culture can be confusing and intimidating in turns, and it would not be the first time he has misjudged due to his unfamiliarity with it. Nevertheless, in the passage of time, the growing needs of his spirit and body are like a wave that swells until there is nothing that can withstand them, and it is with hardly a conscious thought that he finds himself joining Victor in his bed one night and making love to him with a passion he hardly realized he was capable of. The days afterward are heady with the physicality of training and sex, exhaustion and rest, pleasure and burning intensity. Yuuri feels truly alive like he never has before.
It is difficult, sometimes, to strike a balance between all of these things. Even Victor confesses he is not certain where the tradition of athletes competing nude and covering themselves with olive oil originated, but Yuuri admits to himself that it can be so very distracting. There is no shortage of the substance on this island, and one afternoon Victor suggests with a gleam in his eye that they take turns oiling each other up before they practice wrestling on the solid scrubby ground near the beach. Victor’s fingertips leave trails of fire across Yuuri’s skin, and Yuuri makes sure he gives as good as he gets, noticing with satisfaction how a tremor passes through Victor’s body as he kneads the oil into his mentor’s shoulders and then slowly slicks it across his arms and chest. When Yuuri glances down, he notices that Victor is half hard, and swallows and quickly looks away. They are here to train, after all.
By tacit agreement, they have dispensed with throwing dust or sand over themselves today, which makes the holds they practice a challenge, their skin sliding easily out of the other’s grasp. Yuuri puts forth his best effort, but is slowly being driven mad by Victor’s arms wrapping around him, his body heat, the glide of oiled muscles against his own. His gasping breaths, he knows, are not entirely due to exertion; nor do the prolonged holds or exploring caresses he indulges in have anything to do with wrestling. Heat is racing through his veins. His cock grows heavy and swollen between his legs, and it is impossible to conceal this in such a situation; he sometimes fears it with other athletes, male bodies occasionally betraying themselves as they do. He is tantalizingly poised between feeling ashamed of it while Victor is trying to work seriously with him, and wanting Victor to drink in the sight of him, proudly aroused, before Yuuri grabs him and pulls him apart. Victor has him in a hold now, his arms around his waist, and finally Yuuri can no longer resist giving over to instinct.
“Victor,” he whispers silkily against his shoulder, skating his fingers slowly up and down his arms, pressing firmly into his skin before reversing direction.
“That’s not a wrestling move,” Victor laughs quietly, though there is a hitch in his voice. His hands ease their hold on Yuuri’s back and begin their own slow caresses, and Yuuri hears him take a shuddering breath. In the space where his thoughts have been, there is now a smoldering need that impels him. He moves to stand fully against Victor, and a whimper escapes him when he discovers that Victor is hard too.
Victor tilts his head back, his eyes closed, and gives a small cry. When he comes back to look at Yuuri, his blue-rimmed pupils blown wide, Yuuri is waiting for him. Yuuri hovers for a moment, heavy-lidded, savoring the moment of teetering on the brink, energy coiled and waiting to spring; their quick breaths, lips not quite touching, hands still. Then the distance remaining between them evaporates as he presses his lips to Victor’s. The soft noises they both make spur him to demand more, and Victor gives him ready access, their tongues touching and tangling.
Yuuri is not sure which of them initially pulls the other downward, but as their arms reach and grasp and their kisses deepen, he feels them sinking to the ground together until they are both on their knees; and then they are grinding against each other with a delicious slick pressure, undulating gently to a lascivious rhythm.
“Yuuri…fuck,” Victor pauses to gasp out. Yuuri groans in response, kneading his ass and pulling him closer still.
Losing himself to the growing urgency between them, drowning willingly in waves of desire, Yuuri is hardly aware of the sudden wrestling hold until he finds himself lying on the ground, blinking up at Victor, whose fine fair bangs are hanging down. His chest is rising and falling as his gaze burns into Yuuri’s – and without warning he is lowering himself and pushing in, slowly but firmly. Neither of them needs much if any preparation, as used to this as their bodies are; and of course they are coated in as much olive oil as they require. But Yuuri is taken by surprise by the impetuousness of it; at how Victor can slide into him like this. He lets out a loud moan, digs his fingers into Victor’s back, and bucks his hips.
Victor mouths his name against his neck as his thrusts quicken. He folds Yuuri’s legs further; Yuuri is only dimly aware of his muscles stretching and the scrub underneath him digging into his back. “Yuuri…you feel so good,” Victor breathes. “Want you so much.”
“Then take me,” Yuuri answers in a voice hazed with desire. “Yes…just like that…don’t stop.”
He is surrounded by Victor, filled with him, driven relentlessly toward a peak of almost unbearable pleasure. Cries spill from his lips; they might be in his native language or Greek, or a mixture – he doesn’t know and doesn’t care. He hears answers from Victor, makes no sense of them; the broken voice on the verge of ecstasy and the lips planting wet kisses in the hollow of his neck are what propel him over the edge. As he throws his head back and shouts, the spasms of his climax shaking him to the core, Victor makes several hard, quick thrusts and soon joins him, his limp body sagging on top of his own afterward.
The only sound is that of their calming breaths. Yuuri is wrapped in an intimate cocoon that is both soft and raw, Victor and bliss mixed with what their bodies share: olive oil, sweat, the seed of their release. This moment of being this close to someone in so many ways fills him with awe.
“Victor. My Victor,” he whispers, lifting the silken bangs aside fondly, a smile flickering across his face.
“My sparrow,” comes the soft reply, and Victor dips down for a slow kiss, stoking the embers of their spent passion.
“Maybe we ought to wrestle with our clothes on – most of the time, at least,” Yuuri says playfully when they pull apart. “Otherwise it will be too tempting to continue to end up like this.”
Victor just laughs. “I wouldn’t complain.”
One night as they lay in each other’s arms in the bed they now share, the storeroom having been returned to its original function, Victor whispers into Yuuri’s hair, “You know, my love, I think it’s time we made use of all these things we’ve been practicing. Do you feel ready to put them to the test?”
Yuuri turns to look at him, shot through with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. “When?”
“In Athens, next month.”
Part of Yuuri would rather stay here, in the safety of the little island with Victor, and live out their days as they have been. But he also knows they cannot remain in stasis forever. He’s right: it’s time.
“I’m…still lacking confidence, Victor,” he confesses.
“You’ll find it,” Victor says with a gentle kiss on his temple. “After all, you did slay a dragon.”
However, Yuuri discovers that the process is less straightforward than this. They must travel together to Athens and announce their intention to compete; and while Victor is accepted unconditionally, Yuuri is required to prove that he is worthy of the honor. He attends the gymnasium with Victor and meets Yakov, with thinning gray hair and sharply discerning eyes, who tells him to perform various drills and exercises, and has him race and spar against other athletes. This has the unexpected effect of boosting Yuuri’s confidence when he finds that he appears to be a match for anyone else there, though he knows Victor is in a league of his own.
Yakov turns to Victor, who has been watching keenly with barely concealed pride. The older man’s bushy eyebrows knit together. “He’ll do,” he growls.
They return to the island to train intensively in the final weeks before the competition, then travel again to a much-changed city in the middle of a great religious celebration called the Panathenaic Festival, of which the Games are a part, that Victor explains takes place every four years in honor of its patron goddess, Athena. Yuuri expected to simply compete inside the stadium before an audience, and Victor did nothing to correct this misconception, though Yuuri suspects it is because he likes surprises and is looking forward to his reaction upon arrival.
He trusts he does not disappoint. The population of the city seems to have swollen, with entertainments and food and drink and merchants selling a bewildering variety of wares filling the streets. There are musical and equestrian competitions as well as the athletic ones, and a series of age divisions for all. Yuuri is drawn to the sound of instruments he’s never seen or heard until now, and Victor obliges him, saying they’re in no hurry. In fact, he seems to be more intent on observing Yuuri than the chaotic panoply of people and events surrounding them, which makes Yuuri wonder how many times he’s seen these things before, and if his enjoyment is springing rather from the pleasure his charge is taking in the strange novelty of it all.
He also has not expected to be a member of a parade of athletes through the stadium before the adult men’s athletic competitions begin, but it seems this is a well-established tradition. When they enter the vast arena, it is to the roar of a capacity crowd. Yuuri is not a good judge of these things, but the thinks there must be forty or fifty thousand people cheering them on; and the athletes drink in the praise, many of them strutting like peacocks in front of their audience. Yuuri wants to melt into Victor’s side, but Victor merely laughs and invites him to wave. When Victor does so himself, the noise in the stadium doubles in volume, and Yuuri hears cries of Victor’s name ringing out. He stares at the man next to him in awe, but Victor simply acknowledges him with the same warm smile that he gives when they are alone together on the island, and Yuuri is left with the impression that they have somehow shared a private moment in front of this sea of people.
Yuuri competes in the discus and javelin throws, and does respectably well in these, but can see he will need practice and more weight-lifting exercise before he can truly challenge the best athletes in these disciplines. Victor achieves third place in the discus, though there is no acknowledgement for any position other than first and second, and Yuuri has been told that even a second-place prize is unusual to receive in organized games like these. He is on more familiar ground during the dolichos race, having been fleet of foot since he was a young boy, though the fact that he is required to compete in the nude in front of thousands of spectators is a little disconcerting. Victor is racing with him. As they run back and forth across the arena, making 180-degree turns at each end until they have covered the required distance, the world narrows for Yuuri until it feels as if they are the only two competitors there, and they are back on the island, laughing and daring each other to catch up.
Soon Yuuri does catch up. Then he’s ahead. Then he discovers to his shock that he’s beaten Victor – and every other competitor apart from one. The magistrate announces him as Yuuri of Athens; and his second-place finish earns him a bag of gold coins and a cheer from the crowd. His eyes flit around the countless faces on all sides, his throat hitches, and a tear springs to his eye. When he returns to the athletes’ area, it is to a firm, warm hug from Victor, who is bubbling over with praise. The other athletes from the city offer their congratulations and want to know more about him, though it appears Victor has already been boasting about him to them, which brings a stain of pink to his cheeks.
Later they stand side by side, watching athletes compete in the middle of the arena in a sport Victor tells him is called pankration. Yuuri feels instant relief that this is not something Victor has ever had the desire to compete in, and therefore he himself has never had to consider it, for there are hardly any rules, and it is brutal. The crowd grows more frenzied as the injuries mount and the nude athletes are streaked with scarlet, which drips down their noses and out of their mouths. Victor tells him men have died in the arena doing this, and Yuuri says he is certain his own tribe would never allow such a thing. He finds it a struggle to understand how it’s admired in a society that is full of such knowledge and marvels.
“The wrestling is yet to come,” Yuuri observes when the winner is acknowledged. He gives Victor’s arm a quick squeeze. “Good luck.”
“To us both. Though I fear I may need it more than you, after all the time I’ve been away.”
“Nonsense. Go show them.”
Yuuri does not make it to the last rounds of wrestling, but he is pleased with his performance, and is learning from his opponents and other athletes who are competing. Victor, however, fights his way to the final round, where he faces an opponent called Geleon who is reminiscent of a mountain. Yuuri has a good view from where he stands, among other Athenian athletes, and they all cheer Victor on, while Geleon’s supporters do the same. How someone as lithe as Victor could defeat such a colossus, Yuuri cannot imagine; but he ensures his voice is the loudest of all as he shouts encouragement.
Victor seems to need it; he has not made a good start, and appears uncertain. There is a wild light in Geleon’s features, and he eyes Victor as if he is a feast he wants to devour. It occurs to Yuuri that this is perhaps a consequence of achieving the kind of stature in a sport that Victor has: everyone sets their eyes on him as the man to be beaten. And beaten Victor is, at first, as he lands face up on the ground and a fall is declared. Yuuri knows that three falls constitute a victory.
This is Victor’s comeback; Yuuri wants him to succeed more than anything he’s ever wanted in his life. His heart in his chest, he cups his hands to his mouth as both wrestlers stand ready to re-engage and shouts, “Victor, ganbatte!” Yuuri has explained that it’s a word of encouragement in his native language. Victor sets his mouth in a firm line and returns his opponent’s cool stare.
It is a long match, and witnessing the determined effort Victor makes as he endures Geleon’s onslaught is both inspiring and unbearable for Yuuri. Victor seems to have taken the measure of him and is employing strategies that attack his weak areas and play to his own strengths, as he has taught Yuuri to do. The shuffle of his feet becomes a dance. He anticipates holds, and slips around them before they are secure. His own movements seem to disconcert his opponent, who appears not to be able to anticipate them well.
The final surprise comes when they grapple and Victor suddenly whips his body around, grabs his opponent from behind, and flips him with a grunt of effort so that he lands on his back. It is the third fall he has scored against him.
The crowd erupts. Yuuri jumps and shakes his fist, though he knows the noises he is making are drowned out by chants of “Vic-tor, Vic-tor.” Their hero has returned, and he raises his arms in acknowledgement. Then he turns to where Yuuri is standing and sends him the warm, private smile he knows so well.
“You’re a lucky man to be trained by him,” the athlete by his side comments.
“Indeed I am,” Yuuri agrees.
During the prize-giving ceremony shortly afterward, which is accompanied by another roar from the audience, Victor is crowned with a laurel of olive leaves. He steps up on a podium, a long white himation now draped around him, his oiled and dusted chest and arm muscles rippling as he salutes the crowd once again. Yuuri wants to freeze this moment in his memory forever, for he is certain he has never seen a more magnificent vision.
When Victor rejoins the Athenian athletes, he and Yuuri reach for each other at the same time, each holding tight. “I’m so happy for you,” Yuuri breathes into his neck. Victor smiles softly, runs a hand through Yuuri’s hair, and kisses his head. There is nothing of the triumphant about his manner, Yuuri notes; he is more like a man who believes he is blessed to be partaking of goodness in life again, after having known its loss.
“Yakov,” Yuuri hears him say, and he turns to see the older man looking back at them from nearby.
“Victor,” he returns, walking toward them. His voice is softer and smoother than Yuuri remembers it from a few weeks back, though there is a low wariness about it too. “Congratulations on your win.” Now his tone switches back to the abrasiveness that Yuuri is more familiar with. “But you were damn lucky if you ask me, after the way you started. If that muscle-bound idiot hadn’t – ”
“Yes,” Victor interrupts with a laugh. He adds more soberly, “I’ve always valued your advice, and I know I have things to work on. How would you feel if I came to the gymnasium once a week to train under you again?”
Yakov makes a humming noise, considering – or giving the impression of doing so; Yuuri notes with amusement the sparkle in his eyes at the prospect. This is not something Victor has mentioned before to himself, but he realizes the decision probably hung on how he performed today.
“Yuuri as well, of course,” Victor adds, and then he turns to him. “If that would be acceptable to you?”
Yuuri gasps. “Of course.”
“You’ve added ten years to my life today,” Yakov mutters. “Well, I suppose I could find time for you both. But do not disappoint me – I expect to see hard work and impressive results.”
Victor beams at him. “Have I ever given you anything less?”
He and Yuuri continue to train – with Yakov; with each other. It takes up the majority of their time that is not spent in other daily pursuits like hunting, fishing, gathering, making olive oil or taking trips in the rowboat to the mainland.
Victor asks Yuuri if he would prefer to leave the island and take up residence near the gymnasium. It requires some time, and delicate questioning, for Yuuri to establish that this is not something Victor particularly desires for himself; rather, he is concerned about Yuuri feeling isolated. Touched by this, Yuuri reassures him that he’s happy here, and sees enough of other people when they visit the mainland and attend competitions. He had been raised to be a fisherman, after all, and has no wish to be forever lost amid bustling crowds and strange buildings. Everything he wants, all that he needs, is here. He holds Victor’s gaze as he tells him this, and can see that he understands.
Once Yuuri is satisfied with his degree of literacy, he dispenses with his tutor, after deep thanks for his services. Occasionally thoughts of his late father still trouble him, though he finds solace in many years of treasured memories. He wonders what Toshiya would have made of Victor; wishes the two of them could have met. And if he continues to walk the beach on his own now and then, examining the area where Victor says he appeared that day and wondering what really happened, he decides he can afford himself that indulgence.
As months and years pass, he and Victor attend many athletic competitions throughout this loose agglomeration of city-states whose collective identity is Greek. The most prestigious is the Olympics, and it is here that Victor has a rematch against Deon, the man who made him feel ashamed enough to banish himself to an island. This time he wins decisively, though the two go on to have a rivalry that becomes the stuff of legends. By age alone, Victor was right to consider himself past his prime when Yuuri first met him; though the talent he possesses means that he poses a challenge to all comers for years yet.
“Just promise me you won’t disappear to another island when you lose again,” Yuuri says one day as they eat their evening meal in the hut.
Victor clearly finds this amusing. “As if I would do such a thing. Besides,” he adds quietly, “I’m not going anywhere without you.”
Yuuri smiles, then says, “I know how it bothered you. How hard it was for you to decide to give it another try.”
“I’ve changed since then, Yuuri. You’ve helped me in more ways than I can name. I know what’s important in life. It isn’t winning. It’s the experience, and the challenges we put ourselves through. And…the love we have for each other.”
Yuuri gazes at him silently, and nods. “Then in defeat, you learned wisdom.”
“And there will be more defeats to come. When they outweigh the victories, I think I’ll have to consider my future. But until then, I’d like to try to make myself a more well-rounded athlete; see if I can do better with the discus or in races, for example. Though I would be hard put to it to beat this man sitting across from me, who has the wings of Hermes on his feet.”
Yuuri laughs. “Be assured, I’d fight you as well as you fight me when we wrestle.”
“I wouldn’t expect otherwise. But…I’m glad I have something other than athletics to focus on now, too. For a long time, that and very little else was my life.” He reaches out and grasps Yuuri’s hands across the table. “I’m so glad you came to me, Yuuri. I never knew it was possible to love someone so much. Nothing…nothing will ever be more important to me than that.”
Yuuri strokes Victor’s skin, smooth and dry and warm. He has long fingers, more like an artist’s than an athlete’s. They entwine with his own now. Yuuri lifts a hand and kisses it softly, meeting Victor’s steady gaze.
“I feel the same,” he says simply, and his heart swells with the truth of it.
Yuuri’s own athletic career is not as prestigious as Victor’s, though he never expected it to be. He still achieves successes, however, particularly in racing. At one competition, he surprises himself by winning the javelin throw. Contests that are more reliant on strength pose a difficult challenge, as he does not have Victor’s tall elegant build, let alone one like Geleon’s that would enable him to crush and grind his opponents into the dirt. One advantage he has instead is that he has learned from Victor how to expertly shift and utilize his body weight, as well as how to catch or force his opponent off balance, particularly when wrestling. When he does this, it feels like he is opening and facilitating the flow of life energy his tribe calls ki, which he knows is what their warriors have always been trained to do; and it takes him further in competitions than most people seem to expect of him. He tells Victor about this concept, and enjoys watching his enthusiastic attempts to work it more consciously into his own moves.
Yuuri never manages to beat Victor himself when he wrestles him in competitions, though they don’t often encounter each other. This at least tells Yuuri that Victor respects him enough to always do his best, even if he has to admit to himself that the losses mounted up can be frustrating.
When they travel to Delphi to compete in the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo, Yuuri enters the pentathlon. He’s been training with Yakov for the long jump, an event that never held much interest for Victor. Yuuri knows he must not only learn how to do this, but excel at it, if he is to have a chance at winning. Here, at least, his slighter build, combined with his muscular legs, is an advantage. He does not win the individual long jump competition, or the sprint, javelin toss or discus throw, but places so well in all four events that he qualifies for the final one, which is wrestling. Victor himself does not make it to the final rounds, having not completely recovered from a recent illness; though he has nevertheless put forward his full effort, as he always does. This introduces Yuuri to the novel experience of competing in the wrestling competition while Victor cheers him on from the side, where he stands with other athletes from Athens, and Yakov.
Never has Yuuri thrown himself into his task as completely as he does here, with perhaps the exception of his fight with the dragon. His life is not at stake now; but he has the feeling that if he doesn’t win at wrestling this time, it is likely to remain forever beyond his grasp. He attunes himself to Victor’s voice; feels it wrapping around him, both a loving comfort and a spur to action. Channels ki into each move, as he has been teaching himself to do. The bout feels like a stalemate, the other man’s strength overcoming Yuuri’s strategies often enough for them to be tied at two falls each.
And then his opponent makes a tactical error which Yuuri pounces on. He wraps his arms around his torso like an octopus and yanks him to the ground with all the strength he can muster. The man breathes out explosively as his back hits the ground…and Yuuri realizes he has won.
He straightens slowly and looks around in a daze until he spots Victor, who is jumping and hugging the other Athenians – and even Yakov; his fine blond bangs flopping across his face. He’s like a puppy who sees its master arriving home, Yuuri thinks amusedly, and then wonders idly where such an idea has come from. The world continues to happen around him while he stands and thinks and realizes – Victor has been pulled off another pedestal, this one inside of Yuuri himself. It is perhaps the first time he has seen him as the person he truly is, rather than the hero who saved his life or the impossibly accomplished athlete. He is not a star by whose reflected light Yuuri navigates. He is not the blinding sun. He is Victor, no more, no less…and the man Yuuri loves with every fiber of his being. The warmth in his heart is almost palpable as it radiates out to him, and he feels a drunken smile cross his face.
When he stands on the podium, a laurel crown on his brow, waving to a cheering crowd of thousands as Yuuri of Athens, he wonders what they would make of this in his village, and laughs to himself. Do not give yourself airs, Yuuri no Azumi. You are but a man as well.
He has hardly set foot in the athletes’ area when Victor is upon him, wrapping his arms around him and giving him a long enthusiastic kiss, which draws laughs and whistles from their compatriots.
“Yuuri, I’m so proud of you!” he gushes. “You were fantastic!”
“Thanks to you,” Yuuri says softly, stroking Victor’s chin. Then over Victor’s shoulder he sees the man who has helped train them both. “And Yakov,” he adds deferentially.
Yakov congratulates him and immediately attempts to reel off a list of things he needs to improve upon, but Victor is having none of it just now, and instead steers Yuuri toward the banqueting hall, where he will have a place of honor at the winners’ table.
But Yuuri knows that no feast, no ceremony, no prize is more precious than Victor’s overflowing joy. He has eyes for no one else as he sits at the table, and Victor’s hardly leave his own. They are so wrapped up in each other that night, in their rented room in the city, that sleep is all but out of the question. The next day, Yuuri is not entirely sure what is real and what has been a dream.
No games that they subsequently compete in have quite the same impact on him, and he wins no more pentathlons; but he continues to do well in races, and usually achieves respectable finishes in other events. He knows enough about this culture now to be aware that he would be feted more himself if he lived closer to Athens, if he walked the streets daily as a citizen; and if he were not so strongly connected with Victor, who has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest athletes the region has ever produced. None of this bothers him, however. He continues to compete for the experience – for himself, and for Victor. And his body holds up surprisingly well as the years pass; if he has reached his peak, it feels as if he has perched upon it for a long time without danger of toppling off.
Never in his wildest dreams, in the village where he grew up, could he have imagined living such a life; and he is content to watch it unfold as it will.
“Victor, it’s beautiful.”
Yuuri is at his side, princely in his robes as always, his head tilted up to gaze at the larger-than-life bronze statue of Victor that has just been publicly unveiled to applause from the crowd gathered outside the stadium. Victor casts a critical eye over it himself. It is the most popular material for statues, but it seems odd that they have chosen to immortalize him so darkly when he himself is so fair. Despite this, however, the artist has captured a good likeness – as well he should, for all the time Victor spent posing for him – and it is lifelike as well; one foot slightly forward of the other, his arms relaxed at his sides, a victory wreath upon his brow, his expression serene. He is also nude, but well, he has nothing to be ashamed of in that respect.
“In the much-seen precinct of Zeus, ruler on high, I stand, dedicated at public expense by the Athenians,” Yuuri reads from the inscription on the plinth. “Deathless glory by thy achievements, for fatherland and for Yuuri, Victor, hast thou won, and art famed for valor. You…you asked for my name to be included?”
“Of course,” Victor replies with a little smile.
There is a banquet in Victor’s honor after the ceremony of dedication, laid on by the city magistrates in their great marble hall. Voices and the clanking metal of plates and cups are echoed and amplified. Victor sits placidly through official speeches; and Yuuri, to his right, copies his demeanor, though he seems to be unsure what to make of all these grand words scrolling from the silver tongues of politicians about the might of Athens and the prestige its athletes have brought. Little of it is about Victor himself.
But then Victor gives his own short speech, which he has written with the intention of cutting to the heart of the matter. He thanks Yakov and his fellow athletes for their support over the years. The people of the city for cheering him on. The magistrates for the subsidies that enabled him to train in his early days. He concludes, “And most important of all, I want to thank Yuuri.”
He reaches a hand out, palm up, and Yuuri automatically places his own on top. Victor lifts it and Yuuri stands up next to him, blinking at the rainbows of expensive robes and elaborate coiffures that fill the hall in front of the table of honor. He listens in silent dignity while Victor says, “It’s because of Yuuri that I found the faith I needed in myself to return to athletic competition. He made me remember how much I loved it, and inspired me to carry on. And he has proved himself to be a gifted athlete in his own right. I ask you to honor him as you honor me tonight, for without him I would not be here with you now.”
There is a round of applause, and Victor sits back down, as does Yuuri. A hand grabs his own under the table and squeezes it.
“That is the most…I don’t know what…” Yuuri splutters, and his eyes are moist.
“Each word was true,” Victor says softly. “Thank you, Yuuri. For everything.”
Victor continues to enter competitions for a few years more, and still achieves some success; but he must eventually admit to himself that, now into his forties, he is in the twilight of his career. He feels his age creeping steadily up on him in the way he is a step slower when he runs; a second behind in his reaction time; unable to summon the strength his body used to hold in reserve. A full day of hard training is exhausting in a way it never used to be. But this comes as no surprise, being a natural part of life that he knows all athletes must face, whether they attempt to fight it or hide from it or accept it and move on. He would like to think he has the wisdom and maturity for the latter, but the two former options are the ones his instinct hurtles him toward.
He and Yuuri are fishing in the rowboat when he decides he can no longer put the subject off. They are sitting side by side on a sun-baked wooden plank, each tending to a simple rod and line as the craft bobs gently and the waves lap. “Yuuri, I’ve been thinking…with the athletics, it’s starting to feel like I’ve accomplished everything I set out to do. Winning isn’t the excitement it once was, and my victories are becoming few and far between. I like to think I’ve learned to make the best of my losses, but there’s no denying that…I’m getting old.”
Yuuri turns to look at him as if he has said something outrageous. “You’re not old, Victor.”
“I am for an athlete. I’ve competed longer than most. And it’s been a good career. But nothing can last forever.”
“I know. But I wish it could. Competing with you…has been the joy of my life.” He turns his face back to the boundless expanse of turquoise sea shining around the boat like a great mirror to the cloudless sky. Flecks of sunlight dance on its surface.
“I can still be your trainer. I would accompany you to competitions. You can carry on working with Yakov as well. Little would change for you.”
This time Yuuri’s entire body whips around to face him. “Of course it would change. Competing with you makes all the difference to me, Victor. It’s been my main motivation for some time now. I…I don’t think I have the same drive as you to succeed at this. Your own desire to do so has fueled mine. Without that…” He leaves the rest unsaid.
“I can’t turn back time, Yuuri.” Victor is striving to remain patient. This is difficult enough for him without Yuuri making it worse. “I have to think about my future…our future.”
There is a struggle taking place inside Yuuri, Victor can see that. He says quietly, taking Yuuri’s hand, “I wouldn’t want you to end your career when there may yet be years left of it. Can you not see that training you and sharing your successes would still bring me joy? Your happiness is my own.”
A smile crosses Yuuri’s face at this, but he is still hesitant. “And can you not see that what’s made it so special for me is that we’ve been doing it together?”
Victor knows that arguing with Yuuri is like trying to uproot a tree by wrapping his arms around it and tugging. So instead he pulls out and dusts off another idea that has lain idle in the back of his mind. It always seemed selfish to share it with Yuuri until his sparrow grew tired of soaring and desired to land. But as Victor must do so first, perhaps soaring on his own holds no appeal for Yuuri. It is difficult for Victor to accept this, but he tosses the suggestion out to see what Yuuri will make of it.
“I’ve thought sometimes,” he says, “that when we both want to retire, this island might be a good place to start a gymnasium.” The words tumble from him uncertainly, like a trail of crumbs. He’s hopeful they will attract Yuuri’s interest; afraid he will scorn them. His gaze drops to rest on the fishing rod he has shifted back to holding with both hands and he turns slightly away, as if to say, I know it’s a stupid idea, born of the desperation of an aging athlete. You may laugh if you wish.
“Victor…” comes the soft voice in response, “…that sounds wonderful. Let’s do it.”
As if awakened from a dream, he jerks his head up and looks at Yuuri, who is beaming; and a warm wave of relief washes through him. “Really?”
“Really. I thought perhaps the natural next step for us both would be to become trainers – but I hadn’t thought about having our own gymnasium right here.” He laughs. “What an inspired notion.”
Victor simply returns his smile for a moment, basking in the praise. All the accolades of the Athenian officials and the cheers of thousands of spectators do not have the power to undo him that this man sitting next to him possesses. He drops his fishing rod to the floor of the boat and grabs Yuuri with both arms in an enthusiastic hug, and Yuuri’s laughter ripples out again and bounces across the sea.
“I love you,” Victor declares, kissing his cheek.
Yuuri’s lips find his, and for a moment there may as well be no world beyond the unbroken blue horizon surrounding them.
“Where do we start?” Yuuri asks, his eyes flashing in anticipation.
Much of their talk in the coming days centers on how to make this happen. Yuuri knows that while he can contribute a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, the necessary practical knowledge must come from Victor. Even a simple coin is new to Yuuri, his tribe having traded for everything they needed which they could not obtain themselves. Victor says they should be able to borrow the money they require, which they would pay back. New buildings will be necessary, and of course students. Yuuri thinks they would both make good teachers.
However, they also agree that it would be prudent to speak with Yakov first, with whom they do not want to set themselves up in competition. When they arrive at the gymnasium for their next scheduled training session with him, they tell him they intend to retire after the next competition they attend, and then Yuuri leaves it to Victor to explain to his old mentor as tactfully as he can about their plans for establishing their own gymnasium. As Yuuri watches and listens, to his surprise Yakov’s reaction is not the hostile one he has been dreading.
“Tell me more,” he says simply, his arms folded across his himation, which today is deep blue trimmed with gold at the bottom.
Victor’s eyes are wide and dancing; Yuuri knows he had also been expecting Yakov to take the news badly. “Well, we would need to have a xystos built for general training purposes, naturally. And a palaestra for wrestling. Plus equipment. The island is a good place for outdoor exercise; we could have a track made…”
“Fine, fine. Have you thought about what kinds of students you want?”
Victor’s gaze strays briefly to Yuuri, who nods in encouragement, and then he looks back at Yakov. “Adult men and women, for a start. If things go well, we could include younger athletes too, maybe even some who would stay on the island. We only have a rowboat for travel right now; we’d need to get a ferryboat to take people back and forth. And – ”
“Where is all the money for this going to come from?”
“We have a little of our own, but I was going to take out a loan. People know who I am here. I’m sure they would oblige.”
“Hmmm.” Yakov strokes his chin with a finger. The thumps and bangs of punch bags and weights and other equipment echo around them in the vast hall, along with the soft pad of bare toes on marble, huffs and grunts, the brisk slap of skin on skin. The familiar smells of sweat, leather, and soot from the torches used to light the hall in the evenings tinge the air, and Yuuri imagines for a moment how it would feel to be in a place like this on the island that he and Victor would call theirs, training a new generation of athletes. He finds it difficult to imagine that such a thing could be real.
“The biggest advantage you both have, of course,” Yakov eventually says, “is that you are well known and esteemed. Yes, even you, Yuuri,” he adds, and Yuuri cannot help but feel a puff of pride. Victor grins at him. “Being former champions, I have no doubt you would have no problem attracting students. Some of them from here, I expect.”
Victor prepares to say something about this, but Yakov talks over him. “So naturally I would expect an invitation. It’s rude of you, in fact, not to have offered it yet.”
“Invitation?” Victor echoes; and as Yuuri realizes what Yakov means, his heart leaps.
“Neither of you has much experience in training. You’ll need my help, don’t you think?”
Victor gives a cry that attracts the attention of the other men in the room, who watch bemusedly as he throws his arms around the older man and gushes his thanks. Yakov waves him away, though Yuuri spies the half-smile tugging at his mouth.
Not only is Yakov as good as his word, but he invests a considerable sum in the venture as well. Once they have a building on the island that can function as a training facility, they begin working with their first students while construction is underway on the rest of the complex. Yakov’s wife Lilia, a former athlete herself, arrives to take charge of the female athletes, though Yuuri and Victor work with them also. Yuuri can hardly contain the gratitude he feels toward the couple, and reminds Yakov of this one day as the two of them stand side by side in the wooden hall and watch Victor teach a student how to improve his wrestling holds.
“I’m making money out of this too, you know,” Yakov replies in his usual stoical tone.
Yuuri simply smiles and nods, his eyes following Victor’s brutally graceful movements as he pins his student to the floor.
“I’m surprised you wanted to do this now,” Yakov adds. Then he gives Yuuri a long, searching look that feels like it is searing off layers. “You could easily be competing still. You’re young yet.”
“Just a few years younger than Victor. He was ready to retire, so I thought I – ”
Yakov shakes his head. “If there’s one thing I appreciate, it’s honesty.” He eyes Yuuri pointedly.
Yuuri wrinkles his brow at the enigmatic comment, but before he can speak Yakov says, “You’ve been good for Victor. Very good. I don’t know what he would have done with himself if he hadn’t met you.”
Yuuri’s eyes drift back over to Victor, who is deep in conversation with his pupil and gesturing emphatically as he explains something to him. I don’t know what I would have done with myself either, he thinks, with a warm glow in his chest.
Though the gymnasium in Athens is still among the largest and most well-funded in Greece, it is widely acknowledged that the best trainers are to be found on the Island of Fleves. It gains a reputation for producing the most accomplished athletes, and is never short of students. Everyone, trainers and students alike, shares out day-to-day tasks, including cooking and rowing the ferryboat – a teambuilding strategy Yuuri and Victor agreed upon that seems to work well. They now find themselves part of a small community, with most students and trainers boarding in dormitories.
Victor is lying next to Yuuri in bed one night, admiring the soft contours of his face as the dim orange light flickers across them from the little oil lamp on the window ledge. It moves him deeply to reflect upon what the two of them have experienced together over the years; and yet for all that, it’s moments like these that are his favorites. He thinks Yuuri has fallen asleep until he drapes an arm across Victor’s chest and nestles closer.
“Victor,” Yuuri mumbles against his skin.
“I’m here, my love.” He watches Yuuri drag himself back to consciousness by degrees.
“While that builder was here today…to do the roof repairs on the palaestra…he said we should have a house for ourselves made of stone…Do you want one?” he finishes sleepily.
Victor chuckles. “Why?” He thinks about the changes they’ve already made to their residence. The hut has more than doubled in size now, with a sitting room, guest bedroom and bathroom.
“What I thought.”
He runs the backs of his fingers down Yuuri’s smooth cheek.
“He said we could have a hypo…whatever that’s called, too, for when the nights are cold.”
“A hypocaust? That’s quite a luxury. Is…is it something you’d like?”
“If it’s for keeping warm, everything I need is right here.”
Victor just smiles and continues to gaze at Yuuri’s taut, flawless planes and curves. As taut and flawless as the day he appeared on the beach, minus his injuries.
The creeping feeling that runs through Victor’s gut when he thinks about this is as familiar as it is unwelcome.
It has been years now. How many? Victor wonders. It must be more than fifteen, though he’s never kept strict count. His concern about this has for some time been an increasingly insistent knocking on a door that he refuses to open; because if he did, he is not sure what kind of visitor would be standing there to challenge him. Yet merely wishing it away or telling himself he’s imagining things has had no effect, fool that he is to hope that those could ever be answers.
“Yuuri…” he says in a husk of a breath, his lips heavy like clay, unwilling to shape words he has hidden from speech until now.
“Hmm?” Yuuri’s eyelids are closed, and Victor feels his warm breaths softly fanning his chest.
“I was just wondering if…if an extended youthful cast is a feature of your tribe.”
An eye peeks up at him. “No…no, they’re just…ordinary people.” He sighs and the lid droops shut again. “It must be because someone’s taking care of me so well.”
A smile crosses Victor’s face, but his eyes tell a different story.
The next time Yuuri is with Victor in Athens, it is to sell olive oil. They have hired a mule and cart to haul it to the agora, where they can get a good price, and enjoy some of the entertainments the city has to offer. Yuuri always seems to come across new foods here as well that he has never tried before. Today he samples a sweet perfumed porridge flavored with an aromatic spice called cardamom, and he buys some of this because it smells as fragrant as it tastes. He sniffs at a vial of something called garum, which is anything but fragrant, and recoils, insisting that whatever was inside must have rotted long ago. Victor explains amusedly that he is partially correct – that this is a fermented fish sauce; but if you can ignore the odor, it’s healthy and very tasty. He insists on buying the vial so that they can both enjoy it sprinkled on a meat dish back at their house, though Yuuri continues to eye it dubiously.
As they stroll through the city, having sold their oil and eaten a pleasant lunch at a restaurant, Yuuri spots a shining temple that appears to be fashioned from limestone and marble, set back in its own grounds, with red roses and myrtle painting the blank palette of the building they adorn. An intense curiosity seizes him, and he turns to Victor.
“What is this place, do you know?”
“It’s a temple of Aphrodite.”
Yuuri tries to remember. Victor has taught him about the gods who are worshipped by this culture. No one knows better than himself that such beings exist and have the power to shape mortal ends. But they also appear to keep their distance, unless they are angered – and then vengeance can be swift. Yuuri stares at this place of dazzling beauty and can’t imagine any such temperament belonging to the deity to whom it is dedicated.
“The goddess of love,” Victor explains.
Yuuri’s eyes light up. “Oh. We should go inside. To…give thanks.”
Victor looks taken aback for a moment, then smiles and nods. Yuuri grabs his hand, and the two of them practically run to the pillared portico of the temple, where merchants are selling goods that visitors can buy as gifts to leave within. They buy red roses, which they are told are sacred to the goddess, and a flask of wine to pour over the altar as a libation. One merchant asks them if they would care to have curse tablets inscribed, which they can toss into the pool inside with prayers that the goddess intercede on their behalf against their enemies; but they both agree that this seems to be contrary to the ethos of the place, and swiftly decline.
The interior is white marble, but dim, and the pillars and walls loom like phantoms. Yuuri and Victor easily find their way to the main altar, along with other visitors, though the place is not crowded. Ribbons of cloud-gray smoke are curling lazily up from braziers of incense on either side. Victor pours the wine over the altar while mumbling a prayer to the goddess, giving thanks for bringing Yuuri to him. The mulberry streaks down into the narrow band of earth that surrounds the altar and is clearly there for the purpose of absorbing the liquid. Then Victor hands the small stack of roses he has been carrying to Yuuri. Yuuri places them on the altar next to the many other bunches of flowers that others have left, turns, grabs Victor, and gives him a searing kiss that leaves them both gasping. When he pulls away, he smiles to see Victor’s pink flustered face, though his blue eyes brighten the dark.
“That seemed a suitable thing to do here,” Yuuri says, rearranging his chlamys, which has gone askew.
Victor is doing the same to his own garment, and is about to reply, when a young woman in a plain white peplos, dark hair plaited around her head and crowned with a delicate band of woven purple and white flowers, approaches them. Her large brown eyes are fixed on Yuuri. She stops before him and says in a quiet but clear voice, “Please come with me. The sibyl wishes to speak with you.”
“What is a sibyl, and why do they want to speak with me?” Yuuri asks the woman as he follows her down silent marble corridors, their robes softly swishing as they move. Sometimes people recognize him from athletic competitions he has won, though the last one was several years ago, and Victor is still the celebrity. For his part, he has agreed to wait for Yuuri outside in the temple grounds, where he said he would take a stroll and admire the flowers, though Yuuri could see the curiosity in his face.
“She is a soothsayer, the mouthpiece of Aphrodite, the Goddess of the temple. She described to me what you looked like, and said you would be here with a fair man of striking appearance.” They stop outside the rectangular entrance to a dark room. “You may call her Madam. But mostly you should listen.” She gives him a secret smile. “There is no need to be afraid, Yuuri of Athens.” Then she turns and strides silently back down the hall.
Her final words have the opposite effect on him, and he feels his stomach drop. He might as well be standing in a mausoleum, and the yawning doorway before him does not reveal what is inside. The only noise he can detect is his own uneasy breathing.
“Come,” calls a strident voice out of the dark.
Yuuri reminds himself of his past deeds that would be considered heroic by most standards: slaying a dragon, winning prestigious athletic contests. If he can do those things, he can do this, he tells himself; though he knows courage is a slippery thing that can be almost impossible to grasp and hold just when it is needed most.
He stands straight and strides into the room. It is warm inside, and if he extended his arms, he gets the feeling he would be able to swim. There is an oddly scented mist suspended in the air that is both stultifying and calming. Yuuri’s mind settles to a mirror, as if it is waiting to reflect fantastic images that are just out of reach.
“So you’ve come at last. You are welcome here.” It is the voice of an old woman, but surprisingly strong, with an unnatural tone at the bottom like the bass string of a lyre that is not quite in tune. He understands now why the woman who escorted him here described her as a mouthpiece, because it seems as if she has given over her frail mortal speech to something that is transported from elsewhere, impossibly distant, which has been obscured and twisted in the traveling. Speaking with a spirit would, he thinks, perhaps be a similar experience.
“Thank you…Madam,” he replies for lack of better words to use, and his voice is small and thin. His eyes are adjusting to the gloom now, and he can make out the woman sitting on a rectangular marble dais, with long unkempt white locks flowing down to mingle with her thick white robes. Her hands are folded in her lap. It is too dark to be able to discern her features clearly, which Yuuri finds disconcerting, especially when more of the strange speech emerges from the black cavern of her mouth.
“Our most holy and beloved Goddess has information to impart to you. Would you have it?”
Yuuri nods, then doubts whether she can see this, so he punches his voice into the thick air. “Yes,” he says simply, though he wonders what this information is and whether it is something he truly does want to discover.
“Come kneel in front of me.”
Yuuri obeys, feeling the cold hard marble against his shins through his chlamys. He realizes that the feeble light in the room comes from tiny clay oil lamps set in a row along the wall behind the sibyl. There are more braziers in here, on either side of the dais; though the scent of the mist is what dominates the room. In front of him there is a large shallow bronze bowl on some kind of low iron stand with a concealed heat source that causes the liquid inside to steam without boiling. It rises up before the sibyl’s features, and seeing it from this angle is like trying to discern someone just below the surface of clear water, focusing and wavering from moment to moment.
“Lean forward and breathe deep.”
A shiver runs through Yuuri’s body, and he is filled with the urge to get up and leave this haunting place and its otherworldly denizen. But then he remembers Victor, who is just outside in the sunlight, and grasps his courage, refusing this time to let go. The sibyl makes a humming moan of approval as he again does as he is told, taking the steam in through his nostrils and filling his lungs – once, twice, three times. It smells of menthol, liquorice, and something sickly sweet he cannot place, and the wet warmth beads on his face. You can’t intimidate me, he thinks defiantly – before the whole world tilts on its axis.
There seems to be a chuckle as of dry leaves, but he might be imagining it. His head feels like it’s been smothered by a heavy cloth, though his consciousness somehow separates from this, floating, drifting. He is not aware of listing forward until his palms land flat on the clammy floor, steadying himself from a fall. The rustle of the leaves again; the sibyl is amused. The muscles of his mouth will not function to form words, but there are none to speak; his thoughts and fears have been left behind in some other realm, while here he simply…is. His heart beats and he breathes in, out, in, and he is inside all of it, a silent seeing eye.
In a corner of his mind, images flicker to life like the memory of dreams upon waking. They leak into his awareness, gradually stronger and more vivid, until he is no longer sure of what or where the boundary is between within and without. It has been stretched unnaturally thin and made permeable, translucent. His mind is shunted into darkness, cold and empty – but then pinpricks of white fire ignite, as if a glittering cloak has been pulled across his view. He instinctively homes in on a blue dot that suddenly whizzes toward him – or is it he who is moving? – and the next thing he knows is a brilliant white temple atop a lush cloud-wreathed mountain.
There is a Consciousness here that beckons, willing Yuuri to share its experience for a small moment of time: it is but a grain of sand tumbling at the bottom of the river of time to the sea, but Yuuri is made to feel that it is a privilege all the same. This Consciousness is fixed on a mortal in a distant land. It is not one she and the other Essences surrounding her usually focus upon, and she is unknown there. But she is curious. It would of course be frowned upon if she had doings with mortals in such a place – but who would, or could, stop her?
Yuuri fights to achieve a vision of her; she is wise and reckless, terrible and kind, powerful but not infinitely so. The only image that comes to him, however, is that which her own roving mind sees; and it now skims across the world to an island where there are cherry blossoms, dragons, and men who cover their skin with strange bright patterns.
Yuuri takes a mental step back and watches as the Consciousness coalesces into the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, with her thick glimmering dark hair pinned elegantly in a soft bun, a noble porcelain nose, full red lips, long-lashed brown eyes, smooth marble skin. An enigmatic smile plays across her face as she locates whom she seeks, and goes to him…
Suddenly Yuuri feels himself flailing like he’s fallen backwards into water; he does not know which way is up, or how to breathe. The origin of these visions is surely within his own mind, for how else could they be showing him his own home village…and his father? His father as he must have looked when he was young, like Yuuri.
These are lies. Imaginings. He challenges anyone to claim otherwise.
This woman – an immortal Consciousness diminishing itself to put on the disguise of a mortal woman’s body, though this in itself is almost too much for true mortals to bear – reveals herself to Toshiya, and he is stricken, as any man would be. But she is gentle and kind, and wants to learn about him…and discover what it is like to love him. Though he has a handsome cast himself, it is his spirit that has shone bright enough to attract her Eye; for though she is the Goddess of physical love, she equally presides over the many other forms, and it is their mixture which creates the harmonious whole that delights her.
No, Yuuri throws out, willing these things he is seeing to shatter like glass, so that the truth behind them is plain.
Your visions are my own, comes the dry voice from a distance, though whether it is a sound or a thought in his head, there is no telling. The Goddess is sharing her experiences with you. You should be honored.
That’s my father. You are mocking me.
You are seeing what was.
The angry fire inside of Yuuri is growing, but it is temporarily forgotten as dreams of embraces and whispered words of love glide through his mind. Then the woman returns with a babe wrapped in fine white cloth, and Toshiya stares in wonder. Yuuri ventures within the sphere of the woman again, close enough to catch her Consciousness like distant echoes in a cavern. She is grieved that mortal lives are so fragile and brief, but is grateful for this taste of one so new and delightful. She has eternity in the palm of her hand, and other children to share it with. Toshiya has hoped for a child of his own one day; this is her gift to him. He accepts it with eyes full of love and gratitude.
When Yuuri ventures too close, he is burned with the light of knowledge, and feels himself falling, scattered.
Your heart knows this to be true.
No, Yuuri insists again.
There is sound now, and he realizes the voice is outside of him, and that he is in a room. Dreams bleed away, and he is surrounded and infused with the strangely scented vapors.
“Why do you deny it? Most people would be overjoyed by such a revelation. We who serve the holy Goddess here at the temple could never hope for such a connection as you have with her.”
Yuuri is grappling for something to say; his mouth – he feels it there now, his body, the floor – refuses to move.
“The visions are fading, but they have perhaps spoken more to me than to you,” says the husk. “She is the one who brought you to this place when your life was in danger. She gave you the gift of language.”
Yuuri’s head hangs. Inside there is a swirl that refuses to collect itself into any kind of firm shape.
“Do you still doubt?” There is a sharpness now; a sliver of condescension. “You will bear one of her symbols, in some way. A tortoise, a swan, a globe, for instance.”
Yuuri’s head jerks up.
There is a shadowed nod from the figure before him. “A birthmark. I see. But something else will set you apart from other mortals as well, for there is divine blood in your veins. The ability to visit other realms, fantastic or spiritual, in body or spirit…” When Yuuri doesn’t react, she probes more directly. “Can you be harmed? Do you bleed? Are you inhumanly strong? Is your third eye open? Do your wounds heal unusually quickly?” Yuuri blenches, and she pauses. He cannot see her cracked-lipped smile in the murky light, but he knows its presence.
“Do you age?”
Yuuri sucks in a breath, and he can feel the smile stretch in pleasure at his discomfiture.
“You truly are blessed.” There is awe in the tone now.
“No.” Yuuri forces himself to shape the word; to line his thoughts up and direct them despite the haze in which they have been lost. “I don’t want this. If…if I am her son, can…I not ask her to…take it away? Make me fully mortal?”
There is a long, quiet moment, and the shadow limned by the tiny candles seems to have become immobile like the dais on which it sits, a sculpture inside benighted marble halls. Then the voice returns, like a whisper on the wind: “It is extremely unwise to attempt to reject a divine gift – no good has ever come to anyone who has expressed such a wish.”
“Then what about Victor being…made to be like me? Or, or being given a longer lifespan? Surely – ”
“Ah. The man you came with. It’s clear to me now.” Another quiet pause, and then a chuckle, laced again with scorn. “Are you under the impression that you are the first to ask? That you have the best claim? Many have tried. Hades is the brother of Zeus himself. You cannot cheat death.”
Yuuri’s voice chokes in his throat, and despair flows out of his heart to taint every vein.
“If you are wondering what to do,” says the sibyl with more gentleness than she has heretofore expressed, “then be who you are, a child of Aphrodite. Love well, Yuuri no Azumi. That is all there is to be said on the matter.”
Helpless acceptance does not last long. White walls ghost by. The incandescent outrage inside of him is brighter.
Why didn’t you tell me? All those years? Your silent smile whenever someone asked – even me. I thought we were so close.
How could you.
No wonder you never married. Who would, when he has consorted with the goddess of love herself?
His feet are moving. There are echoing conversations around him. Then sunlight. It burns; he feels like he is trying to emerge from deep underground.
The light pulls him toward understanding.
A goddess of a faraway land and a fisherman from my tribe…Would I have believed him if he had told me? Would anyone?
There may be sense to be had somewhere in the splash of color surrounding him, but he sees none.
As he strolls around the manicured grounds, Victor wonders idly what Yuuri is doing inside the temple. The cynical side of him thinks they will tell his fortune and then demand to be paid. The part of him that believes in gods is curious to discover what he might be learning. He’s never had much to do with religion himself, being content to offer the requisite praises to the patron gods of whichever festivals or competitions he has attended.
When he circles back around to the pillars at the front, he spots Yuuri standing at the top of the wide steps, looking unutterably lost; and Victor worries that he might trip and fall if he tries to make his way down.
“Yuuri – are you all right?” he asks quickly as he reaches him. Yuuri turns a pair of glazed eyes toward him and sways; Victor takes hold of an arm to steady him, huffing a puzzled laugh.
“Victor…I…they said…I don’t know how…I’m sorry…” His speech is slurred, and Victor thinks he understands something of what has transpired at least.
“What did they give you in there, a whole flagon of wine?” He smiles. “Come on, my love. Let’s get you back to the boat. If you can walk.”
They usually rent horses to travel between the port and Athens, but now it’s the one horse carrying them both; Yuuri sits in front of Victor, who holds him steady as he guides the reins. When Victor helps him into the ferryboat, he allows him to sit on the floor so that he can lean back against the bench. He is a little more lucid now, but still seems partially lost in some kind of dream world. Since meeting him outside the temple, Victor has changed his mind about the nature of Yuuri’s condition; he seems to be under the influence of some befuddling drug rather than alcohol. If whoever has done this to him were standing in front of Victor now, he would make his disapproval clear to them in no uncertain terms. At least Yuuri has not been robbed; as far as Victor can tell, he still has all his money and possessions.
And the things he has been muttering…well, perhaps they’re only to be expected, given where they have just been. The most outrageous one is something about being the son of Aphrodite. If he and Yuuri had been drinking together – which, as athletes and now trainers, they have done seldom but when circumstances allow – Victor would have laughed heartily. Now, however, as he rows them back to the island while the golden sun dips low on the horizon and spills across the sea, his stomach feels oddly unsettled.
“You don’t believe me,” he hears Yuuri mumble from where he half-sits, half-lies on the floor. The words trail out fuzzily, but they are more distinct than before. He is looking at Victor from under heavy lids.
“What did happen to you in the temple?” Victor asks, not for the first time, wondering if there might be a clear drop of truth to be gleaned amid the ramblings.
“Took me to the sibyl…I saw things…my father, the goddess…she visited him…”
“You mean they gave you a drug and you had wild dreams,” Victor says, settling into the rhythmic flex of his muscles as he rows; he still enjoys the vigor of a good workout.
“Just rest, my love. We’ll be home soon, and you can sleep this off.”
“Aphrodite…when I was dying, she brought me here…made it so that I could speak Greek.” His voice has dropped to a murmur again, his eyes shuttered.
Victor wants to shake his head and laugh. But it’s not what he feels at all.
Because what other explanation is there for Yuuri – the things that have happened to him; who he is? The pieces slot together too conveniently. And yet it’s fantastically, ridiculously improbable.
It’s also entirely possible.
A shiver passes through him, though the evening breeze is warm on his skin.
When Yuuri is sober, he repeats to Victor what he can remember of his experience. He was convinced at the time that it was real; but now that the effects of the drug have worn off, they admit to each other that nothing can be certain. There is no hard evidence that the visions Yuuri saw were anything other than waking dreams, created by his own mind and magnified by his surroundings.
No hard evidence…That is not completely true, but the threads appearing to link it all are still gossamer-thin, and that is how Victor prefers them to be. Yuuri, however, seems to be more open to the idea, which rubs at Victor like a blister that never heals because the insult keeps repeating itself. The latest one being that the parents who accompanied a new young athlete to their gymnasium mistook Victor for Yuuri’s father. As if any such physical resemblance existed between them anyway.
It’s undeniable that Yuuri’s athletic performance has never been better, though he should be long past his peak, if chronological age is anything to go by; which, Victor is forced to admit to himself, it isn’t where Yuuri is concerned.
“Are you sure you don’t want to keep competing?” Victor asks him, several times. “You could still win. We attend the competitions with our students anyway.”
“I’m happy with what we’re doing together,” Yuuri always answers. And he’s always convincingly sincere, which in a way makes it worse, because Victor can sense a small but growing tension lurking inside himself between what Yuuri could or would do, and what he is holding him back from doing. And if…if…the situation between them (for want of a better word) continues, this tension will grow, along with other problems.
Sometimes he tries to make light of it. How many mortals are lucky enough to have a child of Aphrodite as their lover? he says. Yuuri laughs and then begs to be allowed to practice his charms on him, though he well knows he will never have to beg Victor for such a thing. But even that makes it worse, because Victor wonders how long his body will be able to keep up with Yuuri’s own, and when he will seek to hide it rather than put it on display.
Yuuri has clearly given this some thought, because one evening after they have finished at the gymnasium for the day and are walking side by side down the scrub-lined path to their house – slowly, because Victor has pulled something in his back and it still niggles – he says, “Victor, I love what we do here. I want to keep doing it, as long as we can. Watching our students improve, gain personal victories as well as winning competitions…and we’re one of the only places outside of Sparta that train women. I…hope you’re happy too?”
“As long as I can, you mean. You stopped competing because of me as well.”
Yuuri sighs. “I thought I explained that. What’s important to me is what we do together.”
“And when there’s nothing left that we can do together?” Victor says flatly, staring straight ahead. The blister is back, and Yuuri’s words are rubbing it raw.
Yuuri is silent for a moment. Then he says, “I love what we do here and I love you. But love is more than your accomplishments or your body; youth and beauty. Though beauty is something you yourself will never be short of, if you live to be a hundred.”
Victor decides he would be touched by the sentiment if it hadn’t come from someone who is not in a position to personally understand all the jagged edges of it. “That’s easy for you to say, Yuuri. But I’m a former athlete; I’ve built my life on what I’ve done with my body. And…I like what we do with ours together.” He slides a knowing glance, and Yuuri looks down with a soft grin; if the shadows of twilight were not falling around them, Victor is sure he’d see that blush across his cheeks. “It’s not easy to come to terms with the best of your days slipping into the past, while the present moves on. You get to choose the changes you want. I don’t – they come after me regardless of how I feel about it.”
“My choice is to stay by your side,” Yuuri says quietly, and Victor feels the warmth of his fingers as they curl around his own and squeeze. “I’d never want anything else.”
I wonder how true that will continue to be, Victor thinks, but what he says is, “Well I’m not the first athlete to face growing older. I’ll do my best to deal with it, I promise.” Though it’s getting harder rather than easier. I don’t know if you can understand.
Victor considers whether it would do any good to choose a god to pray to on a regular basis; then rejects the idea, as it is allegedly the fault of a deity that this is happening to them in the first place.
One year, the Gymnasium at Fleves produces three athletes who score victories at the Heraean Games, an all-female competition that has been dominated by Spartans as long as anyone can remember, and Athens holds a triumphal celebration for them. Yakov and Lilia have announced their retirement at the same time, and so they are feted for the many years they have dedicated to producing outstanding athletes for the city.
Victor seems to have an understanding with them, but Yuuri tries to talk them into staying on a while longer. They give the students constant challenges tailored expertly to their skill levels, always pushing them further at a pace they can handle, instilling in them a desire to earn their respect. Yuuri has seen it when Yakov has worked with Victor as well as with himself; and while he has tried to learn from it, he knows it is a style he can never personally replicate. He will feel their loss as trainers, colleagues, and perhaps even friends of a kind. Victor’s relationship with them stretches further and deeper still, and Yuuri wonders at the quiet acceptance that has been his response to their news.
“They don’t exercise with the athletes,” Yuuri says to him. “Training is not strenuous in that way. Surely they have years ahead of them – ”
“Yuuri, please try to understand,” Victor explains gently. “It may not be strenuous for you. But…the simplest things can become difficult for people, in time. I think they want to get some enjoyment out of their retirement before that happens to them.”
Feeling abashed that Victor has had to point this out to him when it should have been simple to grasp, he nevertheless insists on speaking directly to Yakov – who merely repeats a version of what Victor has already said.
“Lilia and I are getting too old for this kind of thing. I was training Victor before hair grew on his face. Besides, this gymnasium has been a good investment, and we’ll be able to live handsomely back in Athens.” He adds, grudgingly it seems, “If you two are in the area, you can always stop by, I suppose.”
Yuuri has never had the knack for arguing with him that Victor does, and he knows Victor will pose no argument this time. With a heavy heart, he says, “I don’t know what we’ll do without you. You…you both are the best trainers in Athens.”
Yakov gives him a good-natured slap on his shoulder. “The rest of you do well enough here. And there’s that energy technique you use – keep teaching that. They like it, you know, whether it actually works or not.”
Yuuri nods, unsure if he has been complimented or insulted. He decides it doesn’t matter.
The concept of ki is unfamiliar to this society, but the idea of linking mind, body and spirit seems to have great appeal, and the athletes tend to believe it helps their performance. Yuuri does not tell them that his own knowledge of it is only basic, and he wishes he had absorbed more in his early years. But it is also something that can be intuitively put to use; and people who live their lives with such physicality seem to be talented at it.
Victor, however, is still the celebrity name that draws the most students to them, even though they have been training long enough that the records of their past students speak for themselves; and indeed, they now constitute the majority of the other trainers who assist them. While he is also famed as a strategist, and for devising individual exercise programs with astuteness and care, Victor no longer wrestles with his own students or seriously attempts to beat them in races. These things come as easily to Yuuri as they ever did, however; and he can see no reason why he should cease if they give his students more drive to compete, as they once did for himself when Victor was training him. He is not ostentatious about it, but something quietly abrasive always seems to come between them when Victor is there to watch.
They spend part of one afternoon on the beach making repairs to the ferryboat together; rotting planks have been replaced, and Yuuri is pounding hemp oakum into the seams while Victor waterproofs with pitch, mumbling from time to time that “this stuff smells terrible”; and when his words begin to sound sharp, Yuuri swaps tasks. They work together quietly, used to doing such things and appreciating the break from the noise and demands of the gymnasium for a while.
It is unusually cool and cloudy today; a gentle breeze tugs at Yuuri’s bangs as he looks up briefly to watch Victor. They are both wearing white himations trimmed with a swatch of color at the bottom – blue for Yuuri, maroon for Victor; and their leather sandals are strapped to their feet, more for the warmth than for any protection required from them. The material of their robes is gathered on the left shoulder and draped under the right; and while Yuuri wears nothing underneath, baring his chest as he usually does, Victor wears his chiton under his own. He has started doing this recently, Yuuri has noticed with a twinge of concern, even if the extra clothing causes sweat to bead on his brow. There hardly seems any necessity for it, in Yuuri’s opinion; though he suspects Victor does not feel the same, and is perhaps ashamed of pectorals that are no longer as hard and taut as they once were. Yuuri has also noticed him looking into the mirror or still waters with an uncharacteristic frown, leaning forward and feeling at hairs that are thinning and whitening, though they are hardly distinguishable from the pale blond ones still surrounding them.
You are beautiful. You always have been, and you always will be. Yuuri still tells him this regularly – or has done until recently. Victor no longer seems to be flattered by the praise. Instead he looks away as if to say, Don’t lie to me.
But it isn’t a lie. The fact that Victor believes it to be so, and will not be convinced otherwise, makes Yuuri’s heart feel heavy.
His own prolonged youth, and the reason for it, are openly accepted now – by himself and Victor; by the athletes and trainers; by everyone who has ever heard of him; for what other explanation is there, when Victor is now thirty years older than him in appearance? They rarely allude to it between themselves, however, as Yuuri knows how unsettled Victor becomes when they do.
Once Victor asked him lightheartedly if he possessed any other superhuman qualities.
“Not that I know of,” he’d replied honestly, “apart from perhaps my wounds healing quickly, but that’s no surprise to either of us.”
Victor laughed, though the ironic tone gave it a bitter ring. “I should feel honored to be a divine consort.” Before Yuuri could reply, however, Victor looked at him intensely and added, “In all truth, that’s how I felt from the moment I first set eyes on you. The circumstances of your birth make no difference, as far as I’m concerned. I just wish…” But he never finished the thought, and Yuuri did not press him to do so.
Now Yuuri runs the tips of his fingers along the rough wooden planks of the boat and the hairs protruding from the hemp; digs his sandals and toes into the fine cool sand. It is jarring to be so grounded in this reality of objects, the five senses, and fragile life when he has one foot in some other world. For a moment he thinks that if this were also a concrete metaphor, an object that could be touched, he would chop the foot off and be rid of it, for all the good it is doing him. He shakes the thought away, but then looks up as he hears Victor’s voice break through the soughing of the waves on the shore.
“What do you think happens when you die?”
Yuuri’s breath hitches and his brow clouds. Victor continues, across from him, to pound the hemp into the seams of the boat without looking up, and Yuuri wonders for a moment if he has but heard a continuation of his own thoughts aloud. When he makes no reply, however, Victor glances at him expectantly.
He wants to ask, why this question? Wants to chastize Victor for being morbid. But in the end he decides to respect Victor’s wish to discuss this particular topic for whatever reason he has.
“Well…I can tell you what my people taught me. In heaven, they said, you get what you desired in life: warriors in a feasting hall with other warriors, royalty in a palace, fishermen making bountiful catches. Though if I’d been nothing but a fisherman all my life, I think I’d be ready for a change by then.” They both laugh. “And now that I’ve learned about Greek philosophy?” He pauses. “I still don’t know.”
Victor’s chuckles trail off, and his expression becomes somber. “Some believe,” he says quietly, “that the universe itself gets old and dies, and Aion, the God of Eternity, renews it. That it goes through endless cycles that mortals can’t begin to comprehend.”
Yuuri, who has been slathering pitch over the wood of the boat, now returns the paintbrush he’s holding to the pungent bucket and stares. Victor holds his eyes for a moment, then straightens from his stooped position and turns to look out toward the sea, flat and dark under the iron-gray sky.
“I wonder, if that’s true,” he continues, “if there’s any part of us that lasts through it – striving, despairing, loving.”
Yuuri moves silently over the sand until he is standing at Victor’s side, slides an arm around his waist, and kisses his shoulder. “These are beautiful but ponderous things you speak of. I wonder why. You’re not old.”
There is melancholy in the blue depths of Victor’s eyes as they gaze at him. “Many would say so, and I confess I feel it, Yuuri. Sometimes it seems natural to think about such things.”
“But I’m the same age as you, almost,” Yuuri insists, though the words are hollow.
“It’s different for you. You know that.”
Yuuri tightens his arm around Victor but makes no reply.
Yuuri expects to have to help calm Victor’s anxieties about the unusual nature of their relationship as time passes.
What he does not expect is for Victor to make attempts to push him away.
In the daytime, they focus on their established routines at the gymnasium, and these keep them busy. It is usually in the evenings and at night, when there is space for the quiet stillness of reflective thoughts, that Yuuri receives the impact of Victor’s words like punches to the gut. They land without warning, reminding him of an unequal boxing match of the kind their students sometimes partake in but they themselves do not teach. The tactics vary, as well – you would expect no less from Victor, Yuuri muses in frustration: sometimes barbed in their implication that Yuuri does not love him, sometimes honeyed with the promise of things Victor cannot give him, and sometimes aimed inward like a despairing soldier falling upon his sword.
Yuuri, you owe me nothing. If you’re staying just to repay me for taking care of you when you arrived that day on the beach, and training you…
You’re isolated here. Why not go to the mainland, further your education, discover if you have talents you never knew you had? You could learn so much more than what I could ever teach you.
I know you’re too polite to ever suggest it, so I will: we can sleep in separate beds, if you want. I’m old. I snore sometimes – don’t deny it. I…don’t have the stamina to pleasure you like I used to. Nor do I have the same body.
Yuuri is at a loss for how to respond. Victor is tearing off pieces of his heart, but he knows Victor is hurting too, and Yuuri does not seek heated arguments that will make their circumstances worse. On some level he thinks perhaps Victor is attempting to allow him to fly free, as if the scope of Victor’s existence has narrowed to a cage in which Yuuri is trapped. But simply gainsaying Victor’s suggestions is futile; Yuuri knows this because he has tried it in desperation. He wishes he could open his heart in front of Victor somehow and make him see the bright love that is truly there. But Victor only seems to want to turn his head away and close his eyes.
Sometimes when he’s awake in the night and he looks at Victor next to him – Victor who will always be next to him, and not in a separate bed – he longs for the serene expression that sleep has smoothed over his features to find some kind of anchor there in his waking hours as well.
I wish you could just accept how I feel about you, he thinks, and sometimes a drop of moisture slides down his cheek. No matter how old you are. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Just…be with me. Please.
While they are selling their olive oil at the port one day, Victor notices a man near the little market who has a sleek white dog with a long tail in a tight curl. She is lying on the ground, a box of puppies beside her. He gasps in delighted surprise and hears Yuuri chuckle next to him.
“They’re cute,” Yuuri remarks.
“They’re adorable,” Victor enthuses, walking over to the middle-aged man in a knee-length chiton who is clearly the owner; he is sitting on a wooden stool with a parasol attached to the back, a table full of farm produce on display next to him.
“Are these puppies for sale?” Victor asks him.
“You can take one if you want,” the man replies nonchalantly, waving at the box. “She’s whelped yet again, and we cannot keep them all. Please, help yourself.”
“Thank you.” Victor scurries over and squats down beside the box. “Yuuri, how do I choose? Look at them all.” He pauses and glances up. “You…you’re OK with having one?”
“Of course I am,” Yuuri replies with a smile. “It’s a wonderful idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before myself.”
“Well…most people only keep dogs for hunting or to watch over their property,” Victor says as he eyes the wriggling balls of fluff in front of him. “Keeping them for companionship isn’t so common. But – these are Cretan Hounds, are they not?” he says, addressing the owner, who nods. “In that case, they should have a gentle nature. I think…I like the one in the corner there, that looks like it’s been rolling in the sand. You see the brown dusting over its back?”
The owner comes over quickly and picks it up by the scruff of the neck, to Victor’s consternation, and scans its underside. “It’s a bitch. That all right with you?”
“It makes no difference to me,” Victor replies, standing.
“Good. Here you go, then. Many happy returns of the day to you.”
Victor names the puppy Aspra. Her tail curls tightly around to feather the fur on her back, her ears are floppy, and her little body, though pudgy, is already showing signs of being streamlined for running. She is magnificently camouflaged when he and Yuuri take her to the beach, and on several occasions Victor has already begun to panic that they’ve lost her before they are able to spot her lying on the sand, napping or watching the seagulls in the sky. He takes her everywhere else he goes too, including the gymnasium. He has only recently had to bow to the inevitable again, and cut down the hours he spends here – semi-retirement, he and Yuuri officially call it – because the long days of training tire him. It was done with a heavy heart, and he has not decided what he will do with the extra time, especially when Yuuri cannot spend it with him. But now he has Aspra; and his new warm, furry friend gives him the illusion of being young again, at least sometimes. Until she is better trained, he finds himself bounding after her inside the gymnasium, around the equipment and bemused athletes, muttering apologies and hoping he can grab the little mischief-maker before some terrible accident occurs.
“Maybe you should put her on a leash,” Yuuri muses one day with a smirk, his hands on his hips as Victor walks over to him with the puppy in his arms, who is squirming to get free.
“She’ll learn,” Victor insists. “Won’t you, my lovely? Say hi to Yuuri.” He takes a little paw and lifts it in a wave.
Yuuri laughs and shakes his head. “Oh Victor,” he sighs, but his eyes sparkle.
Yuuri is not as pleased about the cushions in the house that have been torn by sharp teeth, or the chair and bed legs that have been nibbled, surrounded by piles of tiny brown splinters on the floor.
“How do you think I feel?” Victor says as Yuuri stares at the latest casualty, a dining-room chair that is now scored with light razor-thin trails. “I sit more than you do, and I need those cushions.” He gives Yuuri a sheepish look. “She’ll learn.”
To his relief, Yuuri never seems angered by this. “Why don’t you take her to the olive grove with you? If she must have something to chew on, there’s plenty of wood there.”
“That’s a good idea. Come on, Aspra,” he calls, “I have something to show you.”
Two positive things come of this, Victor decides. One is that Yuuri is right, and Aspra can be as destructive as she pleases in the olive grove, and there is no harm in it; though when she is older and has lost her puppy teeth, the desire to chew soon fades. The second thing is that he and Yuuri have never been able to devote a great deal of time to tending the trees here and making oil. At first it was a supplementary income; though as that became trifling compared to what they earned from the gymnasium, it dwindled to a hobby, the two of them making oil for their own use, and selling it only rarely. With the spare time he has now, however, Victor begins to consider the possibilities for doing something more. He talks to the students and trainers about what they know, and goes to the mainland with Yuuri to visit experts who make a living from the products of their own groves. He returns to the island with saplings and a flurry of ideas. New varieties. Mixing flavors. Different ways of curing; picking at different times of year. And Yuuri seems to be more at his ease to see that Victor has found things that interest him.
One morning, he is up with the dawn to go on a jog, Aspra loping alongside him; they make their way to the olive grove, where Victor finds a good sharp knife in the outbuilding and hunts for branches that need pruning. A gentle breeze ruffles his hair – what there is left of it; and he listens to birdsong until an enthusiastic Aspra flushes them out of the bushes. She has been bred as a hunting dog, after all, though Victor has never encouraged this.
“I was wondering if this was where I’d find you,” comes the voice he knows so well, and he turns to see Yuuri walking slowly toward him, glancing around the grove. It is a breathtaking morning; the silver-brown wrinkled bark of the trees reaches up like bony fingers crowned with blade-like fluttering leaves, the sunlight filtering through and dappling the light earth in bright pools streaked with intricately twined shadows. The sparkle and the shade play across Yuuri as he moves – his hair, his chlamys, his pink cheeks; and Victor is struck once again by his princely beauty. He realizes he is staring, and shift his gaze to seek out Aspra.
“Stop that!” he says to her in mock outrage as she jumps and snaps at flittering blue butterflies. “They’re pretty – you shouldn’t eat them.”
“This whole place is amazing,” Yuuri says as he comes to stand next to him. “I don’t think I ever really noticed before. You’re taking good care of it, Victor.”
Victor cuts a branch and pulls it away, then with a sudden thought holds it up so that Aspra can see it, and tosses it a fair distance across the grove; she scampers after it but prefers to shake and gnaw it rather than bring it back. Victor smirks. “Don’t you have to be at the gymnasium?” he says.
“I woke up earlier than usual. I was curious about what you were doing.”
“I’m sorry – I didn’t cook breakfast today.”
“I can live without that once in a while, you know. I had smoked mackerel with some bread dipped in oil and vinegar.”
“Ah! Speaking of which, do you see those over there?” He points to a cluster of saplings. “Those are what I brought from the mainland. They seem to like it here.”
“A new kind of olive?” Yuuri asks, looking.
“Cretan olives. I’m told they will be small, but full of oil. I think we can look forward to a good crop.”
Yuuri turns to him and smiles. It never fails to pierce Victor’s heart, no matter how many times he does it. “I’m glad you’ve decided to do this, here,” he says. “Something you enjoy. And it will benefit us both. I can’t wait to taste the results.”
Victor finds himself staring again. Admiring. Wanting. Time was, he would have no second thoughts about Yuuri wanting him back. These two sides are increasingly at war within himself these days: desire versus fear – no, a growing certainty, rather – that Yuuri will be repulsed as his body continues to age. Though he’s never given any obvious indication of it. Well, Victor thinks, he would be too polite to say, wouldn’t he? He wonders if it would be different if Yuuri’s body had aged naturally too. Would they still be attracted to each other? Or would sex grow to be a memory, to be taken out on occasion for pale nostalgic reminiscences, like paying a visit to an elderly relative?
Victor is tired, so tired of these churning thoughts. He comes to a kind of instinctive compromise by taking Yuuri’s hand, lifting it, and brushing a lingering kiss across the knuckles – so smooth, so perfect; flicking his eyes down at what he is doing and then looking back up with an intent gaze into deep cinnamon eyes. His heart flutters when Yuuri returns the heated look and comes close for a kiss. The hard heat of his body, the honey of his mouth – Victor luxuriates in them; feels guilty that this is all he has to offer in return.
But as always, desire cuts through his fevered thoughts, especially when Yuuri sighs his name; he still rolls the ‘r’ at the end slightly, and it is still endearing…and alluring. Victor blazes a trail of kisses along the throbbing vein in Yuuri’s neck, and Yuuri closes his eyes and gives a small cry. Soon their hands are everywhere – searching, caressing, kneading; then they are shoving swaths of cloth aside and taking each other in hand, mouthing encouragements and praise as their lips brush and they nuzzle and kiss between breaths. Some part of Victor that can still think in this moment is gratified that at least he is so familiar with Yuuri’s body and preferences by now that he can touch him just so, with the right pressure and pace, to tip him over the edge quickly if that’s what he wants; or hold off just enough to draw it out until Yuuri is begging to be allowed to climax. And the same, of course, is true in reverse.
If he still enjoys making love like that, why are you tying yourself in knots about it? he asks himself. Bodies don’t lie, not men’s at least; the evidence of their arousal and climax being so very physical.
But at some point Victor won’t be able to do this anymore; might even lose the desire to before that. And no one, no matter how much in love, is attracted to an old man, surely.
His thoughts are shunted aside as he feels Yuuri’s fingers digging into his shoulder and clutching, a sign that he is close. The needy whimpers he’s making as his lips feather Victor’s jaw are erotic; usually just what Victor needs to come undone, though today his body is stubbornly teetering without pushing itself that little bit further. Then Yuuri is moaning against him and Victor feels his release on his fist. He milks Yuuri through it, listening and watching as if he were a precious work of art.
Yuuri’s own hand doesn’t stop, and Victor faces an awkward choice of asking him to do so, allowing for Yuuri to be satisfied if not himself for the moment; or asking him to go faster, harder, whatever it takes to give his body what it needs. It’s not the first time this has happened, either; often Yuuri comes first, and though Victor is full of heat, his responses lag behind. The frustration threatens to ruin the moment for him, whether he wills it to or no – but then Yuuri flashes him a knowing smile and drops down to his knees, taking Victor’s cock deep into his mouth, and all Victor can do is groan and lean against the tree trunk behind him.
He absently cleans his hand on his robe and glances down, feeling his cock twitch deliciously in Yuuri’s mouth at the sight of him bobbing back and forth. Yuuri slants a sultry glance up at him. “You don’t have to do this,” Victor says, though he knows it lacks conviction.
“I want to,” Yuuri pauses to respond, and Victor gives no further argument. He twines his fingers in Yuuri’s soft brown hair, feeling selfish on some level, but enjoying this too much to pay attention. It feels exquisite, and Yuuri is so good at this, though it still takes some time for Victor to reach his climax. When he does, he rests bonelessly against the tree, his blood pounding in his veins, warm and replete.
“Yuuri,” he breathes, picking up the scattered pieces of himself and rearranging his robes as Yuuri stands in front of him, running a finger lasciviously over the corner of his mouth. What he has ever done to deserve such a divine gift as this man is, Victor cannot fathom. But then a dart of shame runs up his spine, and he says quietly, “I’m sorry for making you work so hard.”
Yuuri quirks a smile and touches his palm to Victor’s cheek. “Don’t worry, it’s good practice. How would I get better if it was too easy all the time?”
Victor wants to laugh and cry at this. A small choking noise is the result.
“I ought to get to the gymnasium before they miss me.” Yuuri tilts his head up and gives Victor a fond kiss. “I’ll see you there this afternoon?”
“Of course, my love.”
Victor watches silently as Yuuri walks away. Then he is startled to hear a series of yips coming from the bushes nearby, and Aspra darts out from the undergrowth, snapping at the birds she has flushed out, but too hopelessly slow to catch any. He shakes his head, feeling his heart lighten.
“I’ve told you, girl,” he says in playful admonishment, “you mustn’t try to eat the wildlife. What harm are they doing you, hey?”
The sun is sinking low over the horizon, the clear sky a blaze of pink and orange and gold that glints off the sea, which can just be seen in the distance through the open front door of the house. The cool evening breeze creeps in, curling around Victor’s ankles as he rests his elbows on the wooden table and idly pushes the food around on his plate with his fingertips. When he came in a few minutes ago after mending fishing nets, he served himself a light meal of feta, figs, pickled cabbage, and bread drizzled with the olive oil he now proudly mixes himself. He knows it will taste good, but he has belatedly realized that his appetite has deserted him, in its stead a pulsing pain in his right thigh that is making him slightly nauseous.
Aspra is lying on the floor nearby, her eyes never leaving Victor’s plate. “I’d give you some,” he says, “but I don’t suppose any of this is good for you.” He sighs and stares at his food for a moment, then changes his mind, tears off a hunk of bread, and tosses it to Aspra, who catches it expertly in her jaws, chews, and then settles back down to look at him hungrily again. He huffs a laugh. “Anyone would think you never get fed.” He reaches over and runs a hand affectionately through the soft brown sleek of short fur over her back.
“Victor,” he hears, calling from outside and drawing nearer. It is and it isn’t Yuuri’s voice. He knows the sound, but not the tone, which is sharp.
Ah. That means he’s found out. Even though they promised they wouldn’t tell, someone has. Not that he really believed he could conceal such a thing for long from Yuuri anyway.
Victor didn’t know that bare feet could make such a stomping sound on wooden floorboards until now. Yuuri strides into the room, his eyes finding Victor. He reads concern, confusion, and yes, definitely something like anger there. Shit. He pushes his plate away and rests his forehead in a hand.
“Let me see.”
“There’s nothing to see,” Victor mumbles, looking down at the table. “It’s an internal injury.”
“Please.” The word is quiet but firm, brooking no argument.
Victor pushes his chair away from the table and draws his long himation up to the tops of his thighs. The right one is swathed in a tight white bandage. “I told you, there’s nothing to see.”
Yuuri moves forward, leans over and skates his fingertips over the bandage, then pulls his hand away and looks accusingly at Victor, who tugs the edge of the material back down. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Knowing he is behaving like a petulant child, but uncertain how else to approach the situation, Victor folds his arms across his chest and watches Aspra, whose large brown eyes gaze placidly back. “I didn’t want you to know.”
“You think I wouldn’t have found out? That I wouldn’t have seen the bandage? Are you limping? Can you even walk?”
“Of course I can walk. I got back here, didn’t I?” He pauses as Yuuri continues to eye him. “Just a bit of a limp, is all. And it hurts, some. I’m supposed to take it easy for a few weeks.”
Yuuri sighs, sounding exasperated as he stands up. He places a hand on the table next to him, as if needing its support. Victor can feel his eyes trying to dig into him. “They said you were demonstrating wresting holds to one of the students. I thought you’d stopped doing that years ago.”
“He didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him. I thought it would be easier to show him. We weren’t wrestling for real.”
“And on top of that,” Yuuri continues as if Victor has not spoken, “you had a trainer fetch a doctor from the port. That must have taken hours. All the time, I was just at the track – you could have sent someone to fetch me, Victor. But instead you told people not to tell me what had happened. Did you honestly think that was what they’d do? You put them in a difficult situation.”
Suddenly Victor’s eyes jerk up to meet Yuuri’s with fire. “I’m sorry my body is so fragile, Yuuri,” he snaps. “I’ll try to take better care of it in the future.”
Yuuri takes a step back with a small gasp, then considers for a moment as Victor’s gaze drops back down. “That…that’s not what I was trying to say at all. I’m…just hurt that you wanted to keep this from me. I would have thought I’d be the first person you’d come to for help.” When Victor doesn’t respond, he sits down in a chair next to Aspra and strokes the back of Victor’s hand, resting flat on the table top. “You should eat,” he comments, observing the food on the plate.
“You have it.”
There is another moment of silence. Then Yuuri says softly, “I’m trying to understand why you wanted so badly to hide your injury from me. What – ”
“Can you honestly not see?” Victor pulls his hand away and immediately regrets it, seeing the hurt in Yuuri’s eyes. “Your life has shrunk to being a nursemaid for a withering old man.”
Yuuri stares with parted lips but says nothing. He never does seem to know what to say when Victor hurls barbs like these – but, painful or not, they are real and true. It is as if Yuuri goes through life denying this; as if he has blinded himself to Victor’s changing appearance and wants to pretend that he is as hale and whole as himself. Victor hates feeling responsible for tethering him down – and yet every time he tries to remove the tether, Yuuri behaves as if it is still there. A wave of anger rushes through him at the thought now, and the poisonous words are out of his mouth before he knows it.
“You deserve better, Yuuri. Surely you yearn to have it. All the lovers you could choose from…” Yuuri’s jaw is dropping further with each sentence, his eyes growing wider. “You wrestle daily with handsome young men, slicked up with oil, usually in the nude. That must have an appeal.” Before Yuuri can think of a reply, he adds, “What if I gave you my permission?”
Yuuri looks stunned. Suddenly tears spring from his eyes and wash down his cheeks. He continues to sit in silence as they fall, staring at Victor in disbelief; and Victor realizes that whatever logic his own words may have possessed for him, they were the wrong ones to say. Yuuri has never been reduced to this state before, because of him, and he feels like the lowest vermin for what he’s just done.
“Yuuri – ” he begins in an apologetic tone.
“How can you say that?” Yuuri’s voice is quiet; incredulous. “They’re our students, Victor!”
“You were my student, for a while,” Victor can’t help but point out, and then he wants to kick himself. He is making a mess of everything he says or does today, like the Midas touch in reverse.
“I…I’m offended you would suggest such a thing,” Yuuri replies, his words stilted. “T-That you think I would want to…have relations with a student – that you would want me to find other men at all. These things you’re saying…they’re hurtful.” He kicks his chair back, rousing Aspra, who leaps up and backs away. Then he stands, wipes at his face with the back of his hand, gives Victor a glance that burns him like a brand, and marches out the door.
“Yuuri – wait! Where are you going?” Victor dashes to the door – wincing as his thigh twinges – and watches as Yuuri hurries away down the path to the sea. He calls after him, but Yuuri either does not hear or chooses not to acknowledge him.
Yuuri does not return that night, though Victor stays awake, waiting, long after his eyelids begin to droop. They have never argued like this before, nor has Yuuri ever disappeared like this. Victor lies fully clothed on top of the bedsheets, Aspra curled up at his side while he runs his hand distractedly through her fur.
He’s finally decided to leave. That is what you wanted, is it not?
His entire being resounds with the answer to this: No.
Yes, he wants Yuuri to live a full life. Victor knows it would be wrong of him to try to hold him back. It appears he has never done a good job of attempting to explain this to him; the clumsy words he uses just end up causing offense, which is never what he intends.
And no, he does not want to lose Yuuri. It is the very thing that would drive a knife through his heart.
“What am I going to do?” he whispers to Aspra, who perks her ears up. He continues to stroke her as the dark small hours pass, and tears slip down his cheek and dry against his neck.
Victor wakes with the sun, despite having slept little. He knows there are bags under his eyes; he can feel them. They are also stinging and dry from the tears he has shed. Aspra is still lying next to him. There is no sign of Yuuri, and a spike of fear shoots through him. Perhaps he really has flown at last. And the battle within him resumes.
“This is ridiculous,” he mutters, watching Aspra open an eye as his voice breaks the stillness. “I really am being a silly old man, aren’t I? Would the Yuuri I know suddenly leave everything on the island like that? Would he leave things as they are between us?” Aspra makes a little whine, and he ruffles her fur. “No, I don’t believe he would. He’ll be somewhere on the island. We…I have to find him, and apologize.”
He must consider carefully, he realizes, because he cannot walk far with his thigh in this state. Yuuri would be expected at the gymnasium, so Victor arrives when it usually opens for the day and spends an hour there, waiting to see if Yuuri will come, and assisting the trainers and students as best as he is able, considering his injury. He receives apologies for Yuuri having been informed of it despite the wishes he expressed, but he brushes them off as unnecessary. Yuuri was right; he should never have asked that of them. And he should have sent for him straight away. Pride and shame, he decides, can be a toxic mix that entices one into making poor choices.
“Where would he go?” he asks Aspra as he leaves. She barks a response. “That doesn’t help, girl, but thank you anyway.”
Could he have gone to the mainland in the ferryboat? Not last night in the dark, but perhaps this morning. If that were the case, Victor might not see him for days. But when he arrives at its usual mooring place, it is tethered there as always, floating empty on the lapping waves.
He sits down for a while until the shooting pains in his thigh subside. Aspra capers up and down the shore, puffs of pale sand exploding around her paws. Yuuri likes the beach, too. Suddenly a memory emerges of days long past when he would insist on going there by himself, to reflect or brood. When he was mourning his father, or wondering about how he came to be on this island. Perhaps he has found a stretch of beach for such a purpose. It would be difficult, Victor knows, to circle the edges of the island with his injured thigh; it is small from an athlete’s perspective, but impossibly large from his own. Yet…he still possesses upper body strength. He can row a boat; and even if he cannot go as far as he used to, he feels sure he could row it in a circle around the island.
“Come on, girl,” he shouts to Aspra. He untethers the ferryboat and they get in together. Then he picks up the oar, relishing the stretch of disused muscles. It’s almost possible, for a while, to imagine he is forty years younger.
The illusion does not last long, though it is pleasant. His arms are burning with each stroke, his breaths deep and strained, when he spots a lone figure sitting on a large gray rock where scrub meets sand, tossing pebbles into the waves. The white of his chiton glows in the sun, contrasting with his dark hair. With gladness in his heart, Victor moors the boat on the beach a distance away, hoping to maintain some element of surprise, though eventually Yuuri turns his head to see him and Aspra approaching across the sands. He simply sits still and watches. Victor is unable to read his expression; “stoical” is not a look Yuuri practices often, but he is succeeding with it today.
Victor displays what he hopes is a suitably sheepish expression, and Yuuri silently shifts over to make room for him. He sits down on the smooth stone as Aspra romps along the washing waves, chasing gulls.
Being near Yuuri again is warmth. It is home. Victor longs to take him in his arms, but he must somehow mend the breach between them first. He feels he is not very good at this kind of thing, but knows he has to try.
“I’m sorry, Yuuri.”
The measured brown eyes continue to regard him. “Did you row all the way here?”
“Yes,” Victor answers, taken aback.
“How is your thigh?”
“Fine,” he says distractedly. “Yuuri, I’m trying to apologize. I never meant to hurt you with what I said, but I can see now how…callous I must have sounded.”
Yuuri looks down and remains silent.
“I can tell how upset I made you. I…missed you last night. I was worried.”
Yuuri’s gaze shifts to the sea, the sunlight fragmenting into sparkles as the breeze ripples the surface of the water. “I slept out here. I was thinking about coming back soon. I suppose I just…needed some time, and some space.” He flicks a glance at Victor. “I was angry.”
“I feel calmer now, though I’m still finding it difficult to understand why you said what you did. But…I want to work this out with you. And I don’t intend to walk away this time.”
Yuuri is giving him his chance, Victor decides, and now it is up to him to use it. “I just want you to be happy.”
Yuuri’s initial reaction is to bristle at this, but then he sighs and settles. “And…those things you suggested I do…you think they would make me happy?” Victor reads the implication as well: Do you not know me better than that?
Victor has tried many ways of expressing the point he wants to get across, all of them falling wide of the mark. He’s not sure he will ever succeed, but he attempts to do so now, for what other option is open to him? “What kind of selfish person would I be if I insisted on a beautiful, sensual young man like yourself denying all your natural instincts? I may no longer be young, but I have a memory of it. I – ”
“Victor,” Yuuri says firmly, “listen to me. When you’ve pledged your heart to someone, it doesn’t matter if you feel attracted to other people occasionally – it happens, but it’s just your body reacting. You still stand by the one you love. I always have, and I do not intend to change that now.”
“Such a life might be acceptable to priests or philosophers, Yuuri, but you are neither. I cannot ask that of you.”
Yuuri’s eyes spark and his jaw sets. “Why will you not believe me, no matter how many times I tell you? Can you not see that I love you as much as I ever did? More? Do you think I sit here and tell lies for my own amusement?”
Victor can see he is almost as angry as he was the night before, but true to his word, he has not gotten up to leave. And yet he himself feels pinned to this rock, forced to make these blundering attempts to communicate. He knows he is not doing well.
“Yuuri, I’m sorry,” he says again, for want of anything else. And he is, at least for the pain they are both enduring now. “Please understand, I just want to make good decisions for us.”
A mirthless smile spreads across Yuuri’s face. Victor decides it does not suit him at all. “It’s not working very well in that case. Do you not agree?” He pauses. “Would you love me any the less if I were aging in body?”
“No, of course not,” is the instant answer. Victor does not have to think to know the truth of it, which means he can anticipate Yuuri’s subsequent words.
“Then why should the case be any different the other way around?”
Victor gropes for a response. He begins to wonder if none is possible apart from, Indeed. But before he can ponder this further, Yuuri, clearly still agitated, throws out something altogether new.
“Sometimes I wonder if your intransigence simply comes from being jealous.”
Now it is Victor’s turn to bristle. And yet if he gives in to the urge, he feels he might destroy any fragile bridges they have so far managed to build. He reaches deep for the patience he needs, and the love that will fuel it.
“Well that’s honest,” he says. “And I’ll be honest in return. Am I jealous? Yes. Who wouldn’t be? Though I admit it is not an attitude that does me credit. Maybe there’s some vanity involved, but mainly…it’s because I feel our relationship is unequal, in the sense that I can’t fulfil my side of it as I used to, in many ways; and that will only get worse with the passage of time. Have you tried to imagine what it’s like from my point of view?”
Yuuri’s expression softens. “Frequently. But…what can I do?”
“You can listen to me now.” Victor sighs as Yuuri watches him with searching eyes. “We’ve had many good years together,” he says, his voice warm. “I feel blessed to have been able to experience them.” A soft breath escapes Yuuri, and Victor feels him take his hand. It is both reassuring and distracting. “I’ve been trying to tell you for a long time that you must not let me hold you here. Not because I want to be rid of you – but because I love you. I…I don’t think you realize how it pains me every time I make a suggestion that would break my heart if you followed it through, because I know it’s the right thing, and to do anything less would be a disservice to you.” He blinks back tears, and Yuuri cups his cheek with his palm. Victor takes his hand, kisses it, and then lets it drop. “Do you think I want to see you take other lovers? To leave the island, and me? But there are so many more things for you to do, and be. You cannot be shackled to a failing old man, Yuuri. Don’t you see – I’m trying to set you free?” His throat hitches.
A silent moment stretches between them. Then Yuuri says quietly, “I’m beginning to understand better, I think. And I have an apology of my own to make. I misunderstood your motives at times. You’ve always done what you believe is best for…well for me, at least.”
Victor gives him a small crooked smile. “I try.”
“But you need to know how it makes me feel when you suggest I do things that would hurt us both.”
He stops and waits, and Victor realizes he is hoping for a response. He nods.
“I can see this is something you’ve thought about a great deal,” Yuuri continues. “You’ve tried to put yourself in someone else’s shoes…but the ones you’ve chosen are not mine. Maybe other people in similar circumstances would…would want to leave, see new people, go elsewhere.” He raises a hand to hold Victor’s chin with his fingertips; the gesture is gentle, but at the same time seems to say, Look at me and don’t you dare look away. His voice is low and insistent. “But not me, Victor. Not me.”
Victor feels lost within that bright, intense gaze. He can only sit, and listen, and experience.
“I’m not as limited as you seem to think. Have you ever considered that the way I live my life is my own choice to make, and perhaps this is the way I want it to be?” He lifts an eyebrow.
Victor shakes his head, though the movement is arrested by Yuuri’s fingers on his chin. “I can’t see why.”
Yuuri stares a moment longer before saying, “Then you’re a fool.” And he leans in and captures his lips in a kiss.
Victor announces that the next Panathenaic Games will be his last as a trainer. He puts all the effort he can into the few hours a day he spends at the gymnasium, but is aware that even this tires him now; and traveling to the mainland for competitions has begun to demand reserves from him that he no longer possesses. He would like to be able to say that he is one of the lucky few who age well; who continue to run great distances until they are a hundred, and still sport beautiful rippling muscles. Who, it is said, have more vitality than people half their age. In spirit he may in truth say so, especially with Yuuri and Aspra as his companions. But for whatever reason, his body is slowing down, like a pendulum that loses energy with every stroke. He knows he has no choice but to accept it, just as Yakov and Lilia did, abandoning their busy lives at the gymnasium in order to live out their remaining years in peace and contentment; which indeed they did, as Victor and Yuuri observed upon visiting them in Athens when they could, until their days were at an end. But that doesn’t mean it is easy.
He has also promised himself to be careful what he proposes to Yuuri, aware now of how such gestures might be received. It is always in the forefront of his mind to ensure, as far as he is able, that he is as little of a hindrance to him as possible. And if Yuuri insists that living like this with him is what he wants, Victor is prepared to accept his word, while forcing down the squirming mass of his own instinctive fear that Yuuri will be repulsed by him, reject him and leave. And yet there is a part of him that never ceases to grieve that Yuuri does not choose to do exactly this, and allow himself to partake more fully in all the richness life has to offer him.
Victor suspects that he will do this eventually…after he himself is no longer here to give him any reason not to. It seems sometimes as if this particular horizon is coming closer, or he is moving closer to it, a little at a time, like a vision that gradually sharpens into focus, or fog burning away in the sun. But the part of him that has always simply been Victor at age ten or twenty or fifty or seventy wants to carry on playing and experiencing, and loving, yet a while longer.
So he travels one final time to Athens, along with Yuuri and the athletes and other trainers, and Aspra at his side. There are always successes and challenges at competitions, and this one is no exception. Victor watches Yuuri encourage their students and cheer them on with no less pride than he takes in what they themselves accomplish. And between events, Yuuri takes him into the city, where they listen to musicians play, sample exotic foods, buy new clothes. When Victor confesses that the crowds at this festival feel a little overwhelming this year, Yuuri just laughs and says he has always felt the same, and is looking forward to going home with him when they are done.
But Victor discovers that there is a surprise awaiting him first. At the winners’ banquet, he is asked to sit at a separate table at the front, along with a number of other men and women his age, most of whom he recognizes as former athletes of renown. Intrigued, he nevertheless insists that he will not join them unless Yuuri is at his side. “You were a victorious athlete too, after all, and have worked just as hard as me to train our students. Harder. So if anyone tries to stop you from sitting next to me, I really will wrestle them to the ground.” Yuuri finally huffs in acquiescence, muttering something about Victor’s stubbornness, though he is grinning.
The winners of this year’s Games are lauded and toasted, and then the magistrate turns the attention of the assembly in the large marble hall to Victor and Yuuri’s table. This year, he says, the city has deemed it prudent to thank the fine athletes and trainers here who have contributed to its greatness. They are treasures indeed; and to that end, each will be gifted a fine vase with a personalized message, and their name will be inscribed on a stone stele outside the stadium.
Victor finds that he is the last at the table to be acknowledged, and is shocked to hear that he is the guest of honor, having won more competitions than any other athlete in the history of the city, and subsequently spending many years training new generations of champions. The magistrate gestures for him to stand as he is given his magnificent vase, and he pulls out and dusts off old platitudes that he knows such audiences appreciate, not having had time to think of anything more original.
But then he takes Yuuri’s hand and raises it so that Yuuri is standing next to him as well. He recalls having done this before, no doubt more gracefully and eloquently. At his current age, however, he figures he will be forgiven for plain, simple speech.
“Any awards I am given are no less deserved by Yuuri, my tireless partner through long years,” he says, glancing at the man by his side, who looks both surprised and pleased. “Who has supported me, as well as the athletes and trainers on our island, with enthusiasm and joy.” His voice quietens, and this time his eyes stray back from the audience to rest firmly on Yuuri. “I love him with all my heart, and thank the gods for the day they brought him to me.”
“Victor,” Yuuri whispers in wonderment, returning his gaze. Then a round of applause erupts, and they remain standing to acknowledge it before again being seated for the meal.
Victor ignores Yuuri’s continuing stare, though he feels the warmth of it suffusing him, and smiles as he runs a finger over the elegant wrestlers glazed in black on the vase in front of him, their muscles and expressions etched in fine detail. To Victor of Athens, it reads, a most aptly named athlete, and glorious champion; may the gods forever smile upon you. “Did you know this was all planned?” he asks.
He laughs. “You know I like surprises.”
“You’re never short of them yourself, it seems.”
“I meant what I said just now.” He slants a glance at Yuuri.
“Thank you,” Yuuri says, taking Victor’s hand and squeezes it.
It strikes Victor, during the banquet and the flow of wine and swapping of personal stories afterward – none of which are in short supply from the elders at this table – just how long it has been since he and Yuuri have done something like this. How much he has missed the company of people with whom he has many things in common, despite the fact that he of course receives more attention from Yuuri than he feels is warranted. Laughter bubbles up from them both, and animates Aspra as well, who is beside Victor’s chair wagging her tail and eagerly snaffling up the scraps he surreptitiously drops to the floor for her. When the evening is far advanced, Victor cannot decide which he wants to do more – joke with the other guests, hug Yuuri, or sleep. He sits in a quiet daze for a moment, idly running his fingers over Aspra’s head, savoring the fizzing feeling in his veins that is so unfamiliar to him now.
“It seems, from what I hear, that you had more than a passive role in organizing these…lifetime achievement awards, as they’re calling them, tonight,” he says to Yuuri in mock accusation.
After a pause, Yuuri sips the last of the wine in his goblet and replies, “If I have, are they any the less deserved? The city is rightly grateful for what all of you have done. You ought to be remembered for it.”
Victor’s grin takes on a rueful tinge. “It’s still difficult sometimes to understand why you would want to go to so much trouble for an ol – ”
“Because you’re you,” Yuuri cuts him off, placing his own hand on top of his. “You shine as bright as any star, no matter what your age…and I love you for it.”
Victor nods quietly. I feel the same about you.
On the island, Victor tends the olive grove as long as he is able, though as time passes he finds that he tires easily, and sometimes his fingers refuse to grip the paring knife and it slips out of his grasp. Yuuri tries to be there to help when he can, and eventually takes over most of the work while Victor sits in a wooden chair and watches and they talk. Aspra joins them, though she sleeps almost as much as Victor now, content to watch the birds and butterflies with a casually interested eye rather than attempting to chase and eat them. Victor has gone back to wearing a himation that bares his chest, declaring that there’s no shame in trying to keep cool. Chitons are for the young, he says. Yuuri finds himself caught between wishing Victor would put up more of a fight against the march of time, and feeling relieved that he seems to be more accepting of things that, after all, perhaps cannot be changed. He himself faces a continual struggle to accept them; wants to fight the Fates just like he fought the dragon, and prevail. And knows this is impossible.
Eventually he decides that he is being pulled in too many directions at once, with Victor needing more help with things, and he closes the gymnasium. At first Victor is distraught at the very thought of it; though after much discussion, Yuuri agrees to a compromise: as he still enjoys working with athletes, he will accept a longstanding open invitation from the gymnasium in Athens to travel and train there a couple of days a week. The remaining time that is left to him will be spent here on the island with Victor. Victor’s response to this is so enthusiastic that Yuuri wishes he’d thought of it before; clearly Victor is pleased that he is pursuing his own interests, and Yuuri surmises that he no longer feels so selfish for holding him back, or chaining him down, or the dozen other ways he’s phrased it over the years.
While he is on his trips to the mainland, a middle-aged woman called Agathe comes to the island and cook and care for Victor; and to Yuuri’s gratification the two of them get along well, developing a warm and teasing repartee that makes him smile when he sees them together. He indulges in other quiet activities that feel welcome after the decades he has spent toiling in the gymnasium: fishing, cultivating a small garden. Victor often joins him and helps where he can, and their conversations range far and wide. Yuuri is surprised at how deep the quiet joy runs of having such a close friend; someone with whom he has such an easy understanding. In their busy past lives, he realizes, they never had the chance to develop this and allow it to grow, as it does now. It is a form of love that glows long and strong and steadily, he decides; like an ember, rather than a wild and fickle leaping flame.
Now that things seem to have settled into a kind of equilibrium, Yuuri finds himself wishing they could stay that way, which makes the changes when they do occur all the more jarring. Aspra comes to the natural end of her life, lying down one day in a corner for a nap and never waking. Yuuri is the one who discovers this, and is poised to deal with it when Victor enters the house and learns what has occurred, despite Yuuri’s attempts to spare his feelings, as he phrases it.
“Nonsense,” Victor says, kneeling down and giving Aspra’s fur a stroke. There are tears in his eyes. “If you’d tried to hide this from me, it would have hurt worse, Yuuri.” He turns his head to glance up at him. “This was coming for a while; surely you knew.”
“It’s just…I know how much you…cared about her.”
Victor sniffles. “I’ll miss her, but she lived a long, full life. Would you stop me from saying goodbye?”
“I’m sorry,” Yuuri says quietly, laying a hand gently on his shoulder.
They share the pain and the memories together; though it feels to Yuuri like some youthful part of Victor that had been encouraged and tended by his beloved pet has broken away and vanished, and he is at a loss for what he can do to help Victor mend it.
No, nothing does stay the same, Yuuri muses. He knows that Victor will soon follow Aspra to his fate, though the reality of it is a constant ache that slowly intensifies, an iron band tightening around his heart. Sometimes he feels like a spectator standing on the edge of the world, watching the things in it pass into and out of existence. Even the rocks themselves are ground down by wind and wave. And as it all flows through time, Yuuri realizes that it is somehow in tune, and meant to be. Yet he himself is a discordant note that ruins the harmony; makes it ugly. He wonders sometimes how many years he is fated to walk the earth, and what he could possibly make of them. He has led a full life already, and does not feel a hunger for more; certainly not without Victor.
Eternal youth, if that is what this is, is not a divine gift.
It is a curse.
He makes the most he can of the time the two of them have left together. Victor seems to have achieved a kind of quiet contentment in his company. When Yuuri returns from the mainland, he always asks how the journey and training have gone, though he also looks to the sea more often with a contemplative look, as if there is something out there only he is aware of.
He is in his chair watching Yuuri pick olives one day when he suddenly asks Yuuri if he has thought of trying to find a way home.
“This is my home,” he answers, pausing to look at him. “What do you mean?”
Victor sighs. “You must be thinking about what the future holds for you. What you want to do. Where you want to be. This isn’t me trying to push you away anymore, Yuuri. I…I need to know you’ll be all right when I’m gone.”
It hits Yuuri like a blow to the gut; he flinches and chokes back a sob, resting a hand on the tree trunk next to him. For a moment he is unable to speak. “You don’t have to say it like that,” he whispers, looking down at the ground.
“I want to talk about it. We both know it’s going to happen.”
“How can you be so calm?” Yuuri suddenly cries, tears streaming down his cheeks, and he is surprised by the vehemence of his own reaction.
“Yuuri,” Victor says softly, concern etched across his brow, “we can ignore this, or we can face it. Maybe…maybe I can be calm because this is a battle I lost long ago; one I had to admit I could never win. One you’ve never had to fight for yourself. I know this is hard for you – ”
“Hard?” Yuuri approaches and kneels on the ground in front of him, taking both of his hands in his own. “Is that all you can say – that it’s hard?”
Victor’s blue eyes are steady as they gaze back at him. “Well it’s hard for me too, despite everything I’ve said. But please, think about what you want to do next. Let me know. Talk to me. I may be in my winter, but it’s still springtime for you. Don’t limit the possibilities before you.”
Yuuri shakes his head and clenches his teeth, then looks at Victor with blazing eyes. “I’m never going to leave you, Victor.”
“But I will have to leave you,” Victor replies with sadness in his voice. “And…soon, I think. I have no choice in the matter.” Now a tear slides down his own cheek. “I’m sorry, Yuuri.”
The next time Yuuri walks toward the beach for his weekly trip to the mainland, his heart is moved in a way it has never been before. Perhaps, he thinks, it is because he is taking in his surroundings with a keener eye now; one that has dared, thanks to Victor, to open a little more to what truly is.
The shells of the past lay scattered around him. The wooden gymnasium, boarded up and ghostly in its silence; once the vibrant center of life on the island. The ferryboat that was full of laughing, chattering passengers, or sometimes just himself and Victor; but Victor will not be traveling in it again. The spot on the beach where Victor said he’d found Yuuri bleeding into the sand all those long years ago. Victor, tall and proud and strong, his fair hair flopping across his eye. Everything new, and theirs to experience together.
Yuuri’s eyes well up with tears as he contemplates the passing of it all. Strange, now, to be standing on this opposite end of the thread, looking back rather than forward. And yet it could all have happened yesterday, as tangible as it still seems. It hits him suddenly that this is the result of his age, rather than his youthful body. His mind and spirit have experienced much. Is this how Victor feels, too?
He wants to cling to these memories; to keep hold of them, if he cannot relive the moments themselves. If the years slip by him, into time immemorial, will he still be able to dig deeply enough into the past to even remember these places and people; the essences of what he has been and done and known? Will he still remember Victor a hundred years from now? A thousand?
A small cry wells up in his throat, and he wills his thoughts to cease as he climbs into the ferryboat, his face toward the sun.
Nimble calloused fingers worry at fabric and thread. The young master should be back soon. Yuuri; that’s what he wants her to call him. But it is difficult to use such a familiar address with the immortal son of a goddess. He goes about life as if he is but an ordinary man, remaining here on this island to see out the final years of the one who is currently in her charge. She quails to think of his reaction when he arrives, because despite all her healing powers, his condition is deteriorating rapidly. Apparently in fine health two days ago when the master set out, Victor has fallen ill and been in and out of a fever. She has placed a cool wet cloth on his forehead and is sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, keeping half an eye on him, wondering when or if he will regain consciousness.
Unable to concentrate on the darning in her lap, she lays it on the floor and goes over to him. “Victor, can you hear me?” she asks as she picks up the cloth, warm now with his heat. She has no problem calling him by his first name. He’s friendly and kind, stubborn and cantankerous, bright and funny, and she looks forward to seeing him every week. Or has been, until now. A ripple of sorrow runs through her as she realizes she may have spoken her last with him. There is no response to her question as she rinses the cloth in the bucket of water near the bed and replaces it on his burning forehead.
It is at this moment when the young master walks in through the door; he drops a large leather bag on the floor and unpins his chlamys, then removes the material, hanging it on a wooden peg on the wall. “Agathe, how – ” he begins, then takes in the scene before him and dashes to Victor’s side, kneeling down. Agathe steps quietly away.
“What happened, when?” Yuuri stabs the questions out, glancing up at her, then runs a hand across Victor’s face.
She explains about the sudden illness. “I’m sorry, sir. There has been little I could do. I’ve tried to keep him cool, though seeing as how he was shivering so, I thought it best to put him under the covers.”
“Has he said anything?”
“Not recently, I’m afraid.”
“Victor,” Yuuri says in a quiet but urgent voice, his hand caressing his cheek. Not for the first time, Agathe feels herself touched by his affection toward this man, though the two of them have been known to be close-knit for decades. She prides herself on being good at what she does, but she has never seen one person look after another with such tender devotion. The distress on the young master’s face is hard to bear.
“Victor,” Yuuri says again, his voice breaking as tears course down his cheeks. “Not yet, please…We haven’t even said goodbye.”
Agathe stands quietly, clasping her hands in front of her as Yuuri bends over so that his face lies atop Victor’s chest beneath the sheets. She feels a tugging response in her abdomen at his soft sobs, and her own eyes begin to well up. Eventually she wonders if she should quietly give her apologies and leave, but then Yuuri sits up straight in one swift movement, his hands clutching at the sides of the bed.
“No,” she hears him say flatly. His dark eyes are burning now as he stands and hastily packs items into a small leather purse, which he then straps over his shoulder and across his chest.
“Sir?” she asks in confusion, for he has only just returned.
“Agathe, can…will you look after Victor for a while longer?” The agitation in his demeanor is worrying, and he seems to purpose leaving the house in just his chiton and sandals. Perhaps the shock of finding Victor in such a condition has unhinged him.
“Yes, sir, but where – ”
He simply gives her a curt nod and hurries out the door. She watches in concern as he dashes down the path back to the beach, his feet fairly flying.
He may be old, but there is still some fight left in him. Victor forces his eyes to open. The sun is a blinding shock at first, but as his pupils adjust, he takes in familiar surroundings.
Agathe looks up from her chair, dumps the white robe she is darning from her lap to the floor, and darts over to him. “There now,” she says soothingly, removing something clammy from his forehead, “let’s have a look at you.”
Victor wants to say something clever or playfully insulting, like he usually does, but he cannot summon the energy, and his thoughts are sluggish. His tongue is clumsy and thick in a dry mouth as he manages one word: “Yuuri…?”
“He…he returned from the mainland,” she answers evasively, replacing the clammy thing, which is now wet and cold. He flinches.
“Want to see him.”
“He’s not here just now.” She looks away. “He went out again.”
He wrinkles his brow. “Why? Where?”
“I…don’t know. He would not say.”
Victor makes an attempt to get up, which amounts to little more than the slight lifting of limbs before they drop back down, and he lets out a sigh of frustration.
“Don’t be getting yourself worked up, my lovely,” Agathe says, giving his shoulder a quick affectionate rub. “I’m sure he’ll be back.” Though her voice belies the worry in her eyes. She returns to her chair. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Victor already feels himself drifting again, his eyelids impossibly heavy.
Perhaps Yuuri has gone for good, now that I am at death’s door. I can feel it.
No. He would come to see me.
Perhaps he did already. Then he left. He doesn’t like goodbyes.
“Yuuri…” he mumbles. He tries more words, but they are slurred, and tail away with his thoughts.
I don’t blame you. But…I’m sad.
Consciousness flickers in and out. Sometimes he feels as if he is pulling himself up from a great depth, only to sink back down. The scattered pieces of his thoughts are impossible to gather up and put in any kind of order. He is certain he has heard Agathe’s voice on several occasions, though it is difficult to know what is a dream and what is not. But underneath it all is a desire to see the man he loves, just one last time before the darkness takes him completely. They cannot part like this, without…
There is a snicking sound, as of a door opening. And then a voice he knows well, though not speaking to him. It comes as if from a great distance.
“He lives. But not for long, I fear.”
He moans and tries to make his eyes open. The lids feel as if they are glued shut.
“You’re free to go; there’s a manned ferryboat on the beach. And thank you for your help.”
The door opening and closing. Then a hand on his chest. “Victor, can you hear me? Can you sit up?”
Another moan, blast it. He has to try to form words; has to open his eyes and see Yuuri. With a supreme effort, he heaves himself upward a bit, leaning against the wall behind him, cushioned by a stack of pillows. Then he lifts a leaden hand, rubs his eyes, and pries them open.
“Yuuri,” he whispers. “You came back.”
“Of course I did. Here – drink this.” He holds a metal cup to Victor’s lips, and the cool water is heavenly. He sips until it is all gone, and gives Yuuri the ghost of a smile.
“Where did you go?” he asks in a voice that sounds so thin and weak that it startles him. He coughs, and Yuuri fetches more water, which he again drinks down.
“It doesn’t matter. But look.” He reaches into the leather purse strapped to his side and pulls out something glittering and bright with its own internal fire. As Yuuri holds it up to the light so that Victor can get a clear view, the crystal facets of the little vial explode the sun into rainbow fragments that sprinkle onto the white sheets. The liquid inside is a milky blue iridescent color, like an opal; but then Victor decides it’s more like a container of glow-worms, for it is indeed spilling some kind of luminescence of its own onto Yuuri’s hand as he grasps it.
“I have this to give you,” Yuuri says. “And a choice.”
As Yuuri holds the sparkling vial, hanging the moment on a thread before he tells Victor what he needs to know, he gives thanks again that he has arrived back in time; that Victor is still here with him. Though that may not be for long…but all hope is not lost, yet.
He thinks back to a few days ago, when he returned from his trip to the mainland only to find that Victor had been taken seriously ill. Instinctively he wanted to berate himself for leaving him like that; but then it was something he and Victor had both agreed upon, and how could he have known what would happen in his absence? Victor does not need – does not want – Yuuri around to coddle him twenty-four hours a day. And yet it was difficult not to heap blame on himself. Finally coming face to face with the real possibility of losing Victor, with him lying there unconscious…it was hardly to be borne.
Especially since it also struck Yuuri in that moment how easily he had accepted the sibyl’s words in the temple all those years ago. She’d drugged him and then proceeded to sap him of the determination he might otherwise have had to look for some creative solution to the problem. Yes, she knew things about him that she could not have known by normal means. She had been . . . frightening, he had to admit. He’d been under the impression that her words were being guided by the Goddess.
But sibyls are human, he decides – and being the son of a deity, he ought to have had the upper hand, had he but known. They caught him by surprise; told him things that shook him deeply. It is different now, however, and there will be a different sibyl at the temple.
He decides he is going to travel straight back to the city and find the information he needs; something he should have done a long time ago. He only hopes he is not too late. With Agathe’s reassurance that she will look after Victor, he races back to the ferryboat, wishing he really did have the wings of Hermes on his heels.
If this doesn’t work, I don’t know how I will live with myself.
It is evening when he finds himself running up the stairs of the great marble temple. The setting sun spreads a wash of mauve and pinks across the sky, reflected in pale shadowy hues in the milky stone. When Yuuri enters, he breathes in the aroma of frankincense. The hall is virtually deserted, the footfalls of the few visitors echoing softly. Votive candles line a rack of shelves along one wall. When Yuuri’s eyes grow accustomed to the dim light, he glances around until he spots a young woman in a peplos who is holding a taper and lighting more candles, and trots over to her.
“Excuse me,” he says, deciding that however much in a hurry he is, he will have a better chance of obtaining the results he wants if he is polite. “Are you…” What do they do here? Does she have some kind of official title? “Do you serve the Goddess?”
She turns to look at him, dark hair piled on top of her head and spilling down over her ears in spirals. Looks into his eyes and gasps. “You,” she breathes.
“You are her son. I can see it in your eyes.”
No one has ever said this to him before. The women here clearly have the gift of preternatural knowledge. He resolves again not to allow himself to be daunted by this and says, “I must speak with the sibyl.” She knows who I am, and looks…she’s looking at me the way I used to see people looking at Victor, when they recognized him. Surely that gives me an advantage I can press. He adds in a more commanding tone, “Tell her to leave her cave of intoxicating vapors and meet me outside in the garden. I need facts, not fanciful visions.”
She curtseys and hurries to the corridor Yuuri remembers being naively led down himself once before. Trusting that they will oblige him, he finds his way back outside and strolls across the grass near the temple entrance, trying to appear as if he is at his leisure, though his heart is hammering with the urgency of his mission. Eventually an ancient woman swathed in white robes, her hair in a plait down her back, is led to him by the one he spoke to in the temple. Her feet shuffle across the grass as she grasps the young woman’s arm. Though her physical eyes are unseeing, Yuuri knows better than to underestimate her abilities.
“Good evening, Madam,” he greets her.
“Yuuri of Athens, son of our beloved Goddess, all hail to thee.”
Robbed of the stultifying perfumed darkness of the marble halls, she sounds like nothing more than a feeble old woman, bent over before him now. Yuuri tries to take courage from this. Deciding that direct honesty may be the quickest path to learning what he seeks, he says, “I need your help.”
“And how can one such as I help you, an immortal?”
So they don’t know everything after all. “My…partner is old and ill, while I’m still young and whole. I want to petition the Goddess for…for her aid in the situation.”
The sibyl bows her head further forward, mumbling and musing for a moment. Then she looks up at him with glazed white eyes and says, “And what do you expect her to do about this?”
“I…” He pauses. “I don’t know,” he answers truthfully. “I thought, in her wisdom, she might have an answer. Be able to perform some miracle.” He adds, “I spoke to your predecessor long ago. Or one of them. She made me think that anything I tried to do would be futile. With all due respect, I believe that was wrong of her. If I am the Goddess’s son, surely I have the right to put a petition to her, especially as it regards the…the realm over which she rules.”
The young woman continues to stand in silent fascination, while the sibyl contemplates Yuuri as if he is a particularly exotic dish that she is unsure whether or not to sample, causing him to wonder how blind she really is. Then she appears to come to a decision. “None here can answer your questions. If you have the courage, you may seek an audience with the Goddess herself. Though if it is not granted, you risk losing your life in the attempt.” A grin cracks across her withered face. “Is this acceptable to you?”
Yuuri’s heart leaps and he stops breathing for a moment. Victor. Think of Victor. Who is, after all, at the natural end of his life. That makes no difference to me, he quickly decides, and gives the woman a somber nod.
There is too much amusement for his comfort in the papery laugh she releases in response. “Very well. You must pass through the Cleft of the World to the Other Side. If you succeed, your petition may be heard, if the Goddess desires to speak with you. If not…” Her voice trails off, and she grins at him again.
“Where is it? How – ”
“There is a deep lake several dolichi hence. Like the race you run. Run it now, Yuuri of Athens, for the time left to you is short.”
Despite this, he knows there is little he can do while darkness is upon the land. He buys a lantern from a merchant in the agora – a tin box with holes and a handle that contains a small beeswax candle; but it will serve the purpose and light his way. Then he sets out upon the winding dirt road leading into the hills that the sibyl told him to take. The chill evening breeze sends a shiver through him, and he regrets not having paused to fasten on his chlamys before he left the house. Then thoughts of home lead to more thoughts of Victor, and he rues the brevity of days; that he must pass the night before the dawn illuminates his task.
The Cleft of the World is a thing more of myth than reality; a cavern whose mouth lies at the bottom of a lake. Yuuri has heard it mentioned by people who want to tell a good tale. It is said that it leads to enchanted lands, and some have supposedly traveled through it, but not in living memory. Many have drowned trying. The idea of attempting to do so himself stabs him with fear; for while he is both an athlete and a fisherman, he does not often swim, let alone dive. How he, a novice, has any chance of succeeding when so many others have not, is something he prefers not to dwell upon.
When he arrives at the lake, its dark waters quietly lapping and the pale moon glimmering on its glassy surface, he finds shelter of a kind under a woody shrub, regretting once more his haste in leaving the house with nothing more than his purse. Yet some instinct told him that wherever he ended up traveling, there would be few possessions he would be able to take with him. He curls his arms around himself, trying to imagine he is in bed snuggled up next to Victor, and eventually falls into a fitful doze.
Morning dawns chill and bright; and when the sun is high enough to clear the trees and light his surroundings, Yuuri strides to the edge of the lake. Its depths are an endless cobalt blue, fringed by rocky shores, reeds, oaks and cypress. It’s no good; he needs to see what he will be aiming for, and climbs to the top of the tallest hill nearby to avail himself of a better view.
When he gets it, he blenches. The cleft lies deep; and deeper still is the passage through it to the Other Side. It cannot be humanly possible to perform such a feat. And while he may be youthful, Yuuri knows well enough that he can be injured, or killed, as easily as any mortal.
He slumps onto a boulder, hot tears of frustration rolling down his cheeks. Why should it be so difficult for him to contact his own mother? Must he die trying?
“I have to do this,” he says aloud to himself. And what does he have to lose? Victor is near the end of his own life; might have found it already. Yuuri feels he has little reason to carry on himself, the weight of years stacking upon his shoulders until he is crushed with it; or, like Atlas, condemned to an eternal struggle to hold it above himself.
It sounds to him like a swear word; not something he wants to become intimately acquainted with. He will do this foolish deed, and if he perishes in the attempt, at least it will be a release of a kind.
He studies the lake until he is certain he can remember where the ideal diving spot appears to be, then climbs back down the hill. As he makes his way, he has a meal of dried fruit, cheese and bread that he wrapped in paper and tucked into his purse just before he left the house. The gesture seems laughable, but…he is hungry. And he needs energy for swimming. It is as well to make an effort, at least.
When he is on a level with the lake once again, he finds the large flat rock that juts from the shore like a finger. It is as close to the cleft as he will be able to get before entering the water. The air does not stir, not even the breath of a breeze; and it seems to Yuuri as if time is in suspension, waiting. Feeling like a man on a scaffold, he nevertheless steels himself to make the most determined exertion of his life.
He fills his lungs and dives.
The water is surprisingly cold, and sends a shock through him as he knifes downward. The blue depths envelop him, loom over him, and he is aware of putting ever more distance between himself and the precious air and light above. He spots the opening of the cleft and swims straight into the black cavernous maw, knowing that if this passage is anything but short, he is doomed. Nor is there a glimmer of light to show him which way to go, where water ends and rock begins; he only knows he is near a wall when his fingertips brush against it. Soon his chest is on fire, the compulsion to take a gasping breath almost overwhelming. There is no going back; he will never make it in time.
Darkness prevails. Suffocating, cold, wet. Yuuri feels his limbs begin to flail helplessly, instinctively seeking a way out that does not exist. Then his mouth is open, pulling at the water in a desperate attempt to fill his lungs, though the substance they imbue will bring death rather than life. He feels his thoughts begin to detach and drift even as his body continues to struggle.
Victor, I’ve failed…I’ve failed us both.
Then even this is smothered, and he knows nothing more.
There is only the overpowering need to rid himself of the fluid he has taken into areas where it is not supposed to go. Choking, heaving, it surges out of his mouth onto the dark, moist earth. His shoulders shake and his stomach is pained with the effort, and then he is gasping for air.
The next thing he knows is that his fingers are clutching at soft green grass. Coughing, he lifts his head and registers that he is on the edge of a lake like the one he dove into minutes before. But it clearly is not the same one, for its surroundings are more lush and verdant. Yuuri has never seen anything like it.
He hauls himself to a sitting position, dusting crumbling dark soil off his clothing and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The sky is nearly the same cobalt-blue as the lake, though a scintillating white sun hangs above, bathing everything in a brilliance that is somehow more intense than what it ordinarily ought to be. The grass and the leaves on the trees are impossibly green, the wildflowers sprinkled throughout the sedges impossibly pink and mauve and butter-yellow. Yuuri feels like he has walked into a painting, experiencing it through its pure swatches of color. When he glances down at his hands, his dripping sandaled feet, the blue stripe across the bottom of his sodden chiton, they look pale and shadowed in this strange world.
Only now does it strike him that he is alive.
He should by all rights not be.
What happened? He had been lost for sure. There was no way he could have continued to swim in the correct direction and then pulled himself out of the water onto the shore, unknowing, having run out of air and sucked in the water. He should have died.
Perhaps he did, he muses, wondering what this place is; if it is anywhere on earth, or in heaven. The ground, though soft, feels real enough under his feet. A breeze blows cool on his wet head. There is birdsong from a tree, and he glances up into jasper-green leaves wide and flat like fans, spying the small noisy creature painted every color of the rainbow and perhaps more besides, a tail many times its body length drooping down from its branch like a feathery plait. He stares in awe.
He hitches his clammy leather purse back around his chest and reminds himself of his purpose. Wherever he is, he must hope that he can find what he seeks here. His eyes scan the landscape as he turns slowly around. No dwellings nearby that he can see; no sign that people have been here at all. There are hills not far away, undulating glowing and green across the horizon. Then he gives a start as he spies something white and shining on top of one. It looks like a temple.
For lack of any other clue, Yuuri decides that is where he will go, though it will be a hike. The exertion he does not mind, but the knowledge of the time it will take burrows into him and worries at him. There is no way of knowing whether Victor is still alive, but he must make every second count. He sets off for the distant hill at a lope, conserving his energy rather than wasting it in a wild sprint that will avail him little.
The part of him that likes an adventure cannot help but marvel at the things he sees as he travels. There are numerous little furry creatures that he is unable to identify, some of them with fur as green as the bushes they scuttle out of, or brightly mottled like the flowers that surround them. An animal reminiscent of a fox, but black and white with mask-like markings on its face, glances at him with clear, piercing eyes as it trots across Yuuri’s way.
Thankfully there is not much vegetation to hinder his progress; he finds himself crossing through meadows, the soughing grasses tickling at his shins and thighs. Then as he reaches the foot of the hills, he spots a dirt path winding up and around the curves of the earth like a golden ribbon. It is odd to find something so well-tended in this land that seems otherwise devoid of human presence, but it will make his progress quicker, and for that he is thankful. He steps up his pace, gazing in wonder at the outcrops he passes; some kind of blood-red sandstone in erose layers, topped with mats of fir-green grass. And yet the path is the same sandy yellow color it was when he started upon it. Whatever rules of nature apply here, Yuuri is at a loss to understand them; but it makes no difference. He is here for one reason alone, and that is what impels him now, no matter how fanciful his surroundings.
His patience is finite, however, and eventually he is racing up the path, taking brief pauses to recover his breath. The green land, dappled with vivid hues of all descriptions, stretches as far as he can see, when the trees and cliffs surrounding him afford a view. There appears to be a blue river shimmering a long way off. And then, of course, the hills here; what lies beyond them is yet a mystery. Yuuri’s sandals make soft plodding noises across the ground as he lopes along; it is hard-packed here, with gray and tan pebbles.
Eventually, when he crests another rise, he discovers to his relief that it is the final one, and he spies a plateau covered with thick grass and a chalky white path leading straight to the temple itself. Like everything else here, it is somehow more than it should be: dazzling in the sun to the point where Yuuri finds it necessary to shield his eyes; impossibly white; impossibly large. He jogs up to columns thicker than any tree trunks he has ever seen, which line the portico. An enormous pediment caps their expanse; and Yuuri, overwhelmingly curious, pauses to examine it.
It seems to be a group portrait of every major god and goddess in the Greek pantheon. He recognizes Zeus, with his flowing beard; Poseidon, with his trident; Athena, with her sword and shield. There appears to be a likeness of Aphrodite as well; any icons that would depict her as such are absent, but her features are strikingly similar to those of the woman in the sibyl’s visions who visited Yuuri’s father. He takes an amazed breath. She is flanked by two small winged figures whom he recognizes from the mythology he has learned as Eros and Himeros, Love and Desire, her sons and constant companions from her birth.
Yuuri huffs a laugh and shakes his head. Can he really be related to these beings? He is tempted to wonder if he never truly awakened from the sibyl’s visions, and will come awake unexpectedly to discover that he is still in the temple in Athens, with Victor waiting for him outside.
This place is as intoxicating as those accursed fumes he’d breathed in as well, for it continually distracts him. He hurries through the gaping marble entrance and enters a vast hall with high rectangular windows that throw dazzling shafts of sunlight so bright and strong that they almost look solid. But the most striking thing about the interior is that it is sloped, the gleaming white floor consisting of a series of wide steps leading up to the far wall, where a chute empties a constant stream of clear water that spills into a shallow pool, then flows down a carved channel to disappear through some kind of subterranean passage below the temple entrance. Yuuri had noticed that the back of the edifice was built into the hillside, so this seems to be a natural stream that has been directed through the marble hall for reasons unknown.
Unusually for a temple, there is no altar of any kind to be seen. But the most puzzling thing – though it seems to fit well with this entire land – is that there is no organic feel to this place. The hall is devoid of statues or carvings, unlike outside; a series of friezes also runs along the top of the walls there, though Yuuri does not have the time to stroll around and appreciate them. There is a sense that if humans ever carved the blocks that form these walls; if they ever turned their hands to forcing the stream into these confines, then they left no trace behind them, and no one came after. The edges of the steps are as sharp as if they have been newly fashioned. Yuuri’s stomach drops when he looks more closely at the stream trickling across its marble bed and realizes that if it has been flowing under the sunlight for any appreciable length of time, there should be a green slick of algae at the bottom and around the edges; but there is nothing but white stone and clear water.
Fighting the feeling that this is not a place where he belongs, he makes his way up the steps until he is standing next to the waterfall. The splash it makes as it lands in the pool is like laughter, and the spume from it coats and cools his face and arms. Yuuri realizes that after his journey here, he is thirsty – though the thought of drinking momentarily pulls the horror of his near-drowning back to his consciousness, and he blenches. Still, ironically enough, water is what he needs right now. He reaches his hands out to cup a little and then bows his head down to sip.
“The polite thing to do is ask first,” comes a woman’s voice from the waterfall, and Yuuri yanks his arms away and gasps. The sound reminds him of red wine, smooth and deep and soporific. When he takes a step back, he notices a shimmer within the cascade that had not been there a moment ago. It gives the illusion that someone is standing behind it; but when he leans over to look, he can see nothing there. And yet from the front, there is the hint of a beautiful young woman wearing a white peplos pinned to each shoulder, luxuriant dark hair piled on top of her head, with thick-lashed dark eyes, and skin whose color reflects the gleaming pale marble of the hall.
“My son,” she says simply, and it sounds as if the words drift to him through the water from a long way away. He feels the eyes upon him, probing.
Now that he is here, and he’s found her, Yuuri discovers he doesn’t know what to say. He didn’t think to rehearse this moment; wasn’t sure it would even arrive. “You brought me here,” he says simply.
“Yes. It is impossible for living, breathing mortals to cross that barrier unaided without drowning. The cleft is too long and deep.”
“They need divine help to get across?”
He thinks for a moment. “So…the gods decide who they will help across and who will be left to die?”
“Yes. It is a fair way of ensuring no one dares approach without good cause, do you not agree?”
No. “Why can’t I see you plainly?”
“This is an in-between place, not Mount Olympus itself. The gods do not live here. It is not even real in the sense you would understand it. But it…facilitates conversation, at least on your part, when you desire it.”
“As long as I have something to say that’s worth risking my life for.”
“Yes.” She sounds amused. “You are full of questions.”
Yuuri pauses, sifting through words. She is his mother. She is a goddess. How should he speak to her; what can he say?
“They told you to address the sibyl as Madam. That…would be acceptable, I think.”
Yuuri’s breath hitches in his throat. The gods are aware of what is in the hearts of men, they say. He wonders what she already knows, and what is necessary for him to speak aloud.
“Please, let me hear your voice,” she continues in a somewhat playful tone. “Ask your questions. I may answer.”
He feels like the bone a dog is toying with, and wants to work out what the nature of their relationship is, because clearly it is not, and never has been, like that of a mortal woman and child. He decides all he can do is follow her guidance and discover where it leads.
There is one thing he has been burning to know all his life, and he cannot resist putting it to her now. “Madam…why my father? He wasn’t a warrior or a leader. Did…did he amuse you?”
There is a quiet laugh from within the flowing water. “So little credit you give me. I loved him at first from afar, Yuuri, before I ever set foot in his land. One does not need superior status in mortal society to possess a pure heart. And I continued to return, until I bore him a child, because that was what he desired – a wife, of a kind, and a son. I visited him a few times afterward as well, though you will not remember it. But I do not…entangle myself too far in the affairs of any one mortal. For reasons you yourself are discovering.”
“Victor…” he says quietly.
“Is coming to the end of his natural life. But the Fates have much in store for you. Mourn him and then embrace it.” As Yuuri gasps, she adds, again in the playful voice, “Isandros of Rhodes, for example – ”
“I neither know nor care who that is,” Yuuri states firmly, and then flinches, wondering where the courage to speak so plainly is coming from. But he is both disappointed and angry at hearing her words. “I…I thought you would understand. I came to ask you for your help; to…intervene in some way, before Victor dies.”
“Intervene? What miracle is this that you want me to perform?”
Now, he thinks, he must say what is in his heart, however foolish it sounds. “Make him young, like me. Or…just young. Or…give us more time together somehow, at least.”
“With him as a failing old man and you in your prime? Is that what you want?”
Yuuri falls silent, thinking. Then he answers, “If that’s all you can give me. I don’t want to be parted from him.”
The image in the water shimmers. The eyes continue to stare, unblinking. “Mortals are as mayflies. They can love with a passion as fierce as their lives are short. A bright spark that can burn if you allow it to. You’ve been burned deeply, my son, but there is healing to be had. In time, Victor will be a memory, among many others.”
“No!” Yuuri shouts, the anger surging back. “If you can see so much, then look at me now, and you’ll understand how I feel. I don’t want eternal life. I don’t want other men. Victor is all I’ve ever wanted.” He takes a breath and continues to glare at her with fiery eyes. “I know I’m not the first person to mourn for a partner who is dying, wishing to have more time with them. But…our relationship has been unusual. And whatever I am, I’m not mortal, am I? My mother is the Goddess of Love. Do you feel nothing for…for our plight? Or have you been on Mount Olympus for so long that such things no longer move you?”
Yuuri swallows. If the wrath of Susanowo was terrible to behold, he is certain it will be nothing compared to what will shortly be visited upon him for his rash words.
There is a long silence. He will not apologize, however, for he meant what he said. So strike me down.
“Such insolence,” she laughs. “If a mortal spoke to me thus, I would do so. Or…perhaps curse them with a lifetime of unrequited desire.” But her voice is soft. “However, you must forgive my gentle testing of you. Truly you are my son – you have proved that in mind, body and spirit with Victor. It was a good place to deposit you after your encounter with the fiery-tempered god of your people, was it not?”
Yuuri manages a faint smile and a nod.
“And you will perhaps not be surprised to hear that I was expecting you, and had already thought upon this matter. I am unfortunately not all-powerful, as you are aware; but I am not without my own resources, either. Look behind you, on the steps.”
Curious, Yuuri turns around to see a small crystal vial sitting where moments before there was but empty space. A faint blue glow radiates from within. He goes to it and picks it up, the eldritch light spilling onto his skin and white clothing. Despite the fire inside, it is cool.
He returns to the waterfall, holding the vial. The Goddess is there, waiting. “It is less than what you desire, and more than nothing at all.” And then she explains its purpose as Yuuri’s eyes widen. “Now there are choices before you – yours to offer this to Victor, and his to accept. Choose wisely.”
“Thank you, Madam,” he says solemnly, knowing without hesitation that he will take the vial with him. He tucks it carefully into his purse – and suddenly wonders if he will be expected to leave the way he came. His throat constricts at the thought of almost drowning again.
The Goddess begins to fade before him; then he realizes the entire waterfall is fading. And the temple…everything around him. But no – he himself is the one who is fading. This strange world dissolves into a fog, and slowly begins to re-emerge; resolidify…though his surroundings have changed, now, and these are familiar.
He is standing outside his own house.
Despite the urgency to return to Victor, he cannot help but think to himself that if he had to accept a gift as the son of a goddess, instead of eternal youth he would much rather have preferred the power to effect this mode of transport.
There is a faraway echo as of tinkling bells, or glass; from the world he has just left, or in his head, he is uncertain. Aphrodite is amused.
Victor stares at the vial in Yuuri’s hand. As he looks down at him, Yuuri notices he is wearing the jade pendant he gave him long ago. He must have asked Agathe to take it out and put it around his neck, because he only wears it on special occasions. Yuuri’s voice does not want to come, but he forces it out; it has perhaps never been so important to speak in his life.
“Victor…this is an elixir that would return you to youth and vigor – but it won’t stop you from aging again.” Strange, how those blue eyes mirror the color within the vial almost exactly. They are staring at him now, in shock. Yuuri rests his free hand lightly on the coverlet over Victor’s chest. His tone of voice is as sincere, as full of feeling as he can make it. “You can choose to take it, or…or not. But I want to tell you that I would willingly spend another lifetime with you.”
Victor lifts a hand, his fingertips brushing over the vial. Then it drops and he looks steadily at Yuuri for a long moment. In a quiet, weak voice he says something that nevertheless has the strength to pierce Yuuri’s heart like a poison dart. “Do you realize how selfish you’re asking me to be? To…to put you through watching me…disintegrate over decades again, just for another quick snatch at youth?” He sighs. “Maybe…all good things are meant to come to an end, eventually.”
Yuuri breathes a small cry and shakes his head. “No…please, Victor, no. Listen…” He is struggling to get his voice under control; it is shaking, the words tumbling out seemingly of their own accord. “Do you hear me?” A tear slips down his face. He ignores it. “I have loved you every step of the way. Every. Step.” He strokes his hand down Victor’s cheek. Say something. Say yes, you will do this. I want to beg you. But I can’t. “We both are who we are. That’s never changed.” He chokes back a sob, the tears flowing freely now. “It never will. If there’s ever been a chance that you could believe me when I say this, after all the times I’ve tried to tell you…believe it now. Because it’s the last chance we have.” He sniffs, trying and failing to stop his voice from wavering. “I love you and I want to be with you. Always.” Please…
“And it’s because I love you that I’ve tried to set you free, my sparrow. Even though it hurt me every time. I…guess…we’re just both stubborn like that.”
Yuuri continues to stroke Victor’s cheek, his tears dripping onto the coverlet. He bites his lip, desiring to say more, knowing there is little or nothing more to be said. Aphrodite told him it was important that both he and Victor freely accepted her gift – as if Yuuri would try to force anything on Victor anyway. But he doesn’t know what he will do if Victor refuses. The terror of it creeps through him now, and he shivers.
“I – I’m going to leave this on the table here, next to the bed,” he says in what he hopes is a neutral tone as he puts the vial down, though he knows his voice is still quaking. “And…and I’m going outside, for a while. So you can think, and…and make your decision.” He gives Victor a small smile, then kisses his forehead, knowing this could be the last time he sees him alive; then stands and walks out the door, silence trailing behind him.
The sky is pinking into sunset over the olive trees as Yuuri walks through the grove. The bladed leaves rustle in the cooling breeze. He thinks of the many times he came here with Victor over the years, picking the fruit and paring the branches and making the oil that has always been almost as precious to them as water. How Aspra would bound along beside them, her curly tail wagging, chasing the sticks that Victor threw; snapping at insects. It seems so quiet and still here now.
Don’t leave me, Victor.
And yet they always knew it would happen.
He considers whether Victor has a point; if it is worth turning back time for a short while, only to allow the inevitable to occur once more. And then Yuuri might find himself doing exactly what he is doing this moment, minus any potion that will work a small miracle. He may simply have to learn to let go, now or later. And yet the thought of it is tearing his heart in two.
He ought to go back and find out what Victor has decided to do.
A wave of fear surges through him. Courage, he tells himself. But it was easier to dive into the Cleft of the World, easier to slay a dragon, than it is now to march back to the house and discover what awaits him there. His stomach aches and his feet are leaden as he turns and walks back along the path, yellow and orange and violet now filling the sky to the west as the sun sinks behind the trees.
The house is in the deepening shadows ahead of him, and it is with a trembling hand that he pulls the door open and steps inside, briefly shutting his eyes against what he might see. “Victor?” he whispers.
He forces them open and looks over to their bed, then gasps as tears spring again onto his cheeks and his hands fly up to cover his mouth. A sob escapes his throat. It is the only noise he can make.
“Did you miss me?”
Victor is standing next to the bed, placing a lit oil lamp on the table next to the empty vial. A soft grin plays across his smooth face and his eyes peek out at Yuuri from behind full long blond bangs, their gaze knowing and mischievous. The sunset colors spilling through the window and the light from the lamp play over the hard planes and curves of muscle barely concealed by his chiton.
“Now Yuuri, it’s not like you to stand there speechless. Or is it? I seem to remember, a long time ago…”
“Victor!” Yuuri cries, springing forward and flinging his arms around him.
Victor’s laughter is clear and bright as he returns Yuuri’s embrace. “I was going to tell you to be careful with an old man, but – ”
Yuuri silences him with a long, hard kiss.
When they pull back, Victor’s eyes are somber. “I thought, if you wanted to go through all that again with me…maybe you were telling the truth when you said how much you loved me.” When Yuuri can only huff a laugh, he adds, “It took me a lifetime to realize, but…at least I got there in the end. And I love you enough to trust that you won’t regret it.” Though his sentence tilts up at the end as a question.
“Of course I won’t.” Yuuri strokes his cheek again, the feel of it so very different now.
“In that case,” Victor says, the lighthearted tone returning as he suddenly sweeps a laughing Yuuri up in his arms, “I want to do things I haven’t been able to do with you in years, and start making up for lost time. And I’d like to know how you got that vial. Then we can talk about what else we want to do with our lives. Is that pleasing to you?”
“Very pleasing,” Yuuri murmurs, draping his arms around Victor’s neck and nuzzling against him as he is carried to the bed.
There is no longer any hurry to make decisions, however, and Yuuri is too wrapped up in how they are rediscovering each other’s bodies to care; there will be plenty of time later. There is still the out-of-tune feeling of having lived a lifetime in a young man’s body, but now Victor shares it too; and the largely unspoken understanding between them is something warm and precious.
They are bathing together in a pool one day, the sunlight glancing off the water in shards, their clothes carelessly discarded on the shore, when Yuuri catches a glimmer out of the corner of his eye. The pool is fed by a bubbling stream that pours over the lip of a small smooth cliff, and there is a little grotto behind it, amplifying the noise of the waterfall. Yuuri is reminded of his meeting with the Goddess at the temple, and he wades closer in chest-high water, Victor waiting and watching curiously behind.
Yes – there is a shifting movement of white cloth and skin, and dark hair and eyes, like a reflection in fog. The biting gnat of a thought briefly flits through his mind about the unfairness of gods being able to do as they please, while people such as himself who seek an audience with them must risk their lives to do so. But then it is gone, and he is left to wonder why she has chosen to appear to him now.
“Madam?” he says.
“My son. And Victor.”
Yuuri casts a glance over his shoulder and notices him approaching tentatively, to stand behind him. “Is…is this your mother?” Victor whispers in his ear.
“Yes,” Yuuri whispers back, knowing it is absurd because of course she can hear, “but it’s all right…I think.”
“I see you have used my gift well,” comes the distant voice.
“Thank you, Madam, for the blessing you’ve given us,” Victor says, and Yuuri instinctively reaches back to clasp his hand, their fingers weaving together.
“Well spoken, but I do not appear to you merely to bask in your gratitude. Yuuri…” Her tone is softer now. “…the gods have been so touched by the deep, abiding, selfless love the two of you share that they have permitted me to offer you another gift.”
Yuuri looks at Victor again, and sees mirrored in his face the surprise and confusion he himself feels. Turning back to the waterfall, he says, “I hardly expected anything of the kind, but please – what is it?”
“They are willing to grant you a normal human lifespan from this day forward, if you so desire. You would age as an ordinary man would, and be mortal.”
Yuuri and Victor both take in a breath. But while Yuuri does so in delight, Victor’s reaction is utterly different, and he jerks his hand away.
“Yuuri, no – why would you want that?” he says, with more agitation than Yuuri can remember hearing from him before. Vicotr’s eyes are wide in horror.
“Can you not understand?” he says with a sad smile, the relief at his mother’s offer washing through him, bringing a sense of peace he realizes he has not felt since the day he learned of his parentage. “After everything we’ve been through? Did you believe I wanted to stay young while I watched you grow old before my eyes?”
“I…” Victor looks taken aback. “I just assumed…Growing old in years while your body itself stays young – most people would treasure such a gift.”
Yuuri fixes him with an earnest look. “With every day that passed, I felt as if we were drawing away from each other, a little bit at a time. Not…not that I didn’t love you any the less. But you were going on a journey that I wasn’t able to undertake myself. I could only observe, and try to understand. But this time we can experience it together. It’s…what I’ve wanted, more than anything else, for a very long time.”
Victor shakes his head and looks at him in awe. “I never knew. All this time. I felt so ashamed of how my body was changing, I never thought…I couldn’t have imagined you would want such a thing for yourself.”
“Imagine it now, then,” Yuuri says, and his voice lifts on a little laugh. He looks back at the waterfall, and thinks he can see a bright smile in response to his own.
“Your wish is granted, my son. Live, and die, in peace and love.” And the glimmer slowly fades until there is only the clear ceaseless rush of the water into the pool.
“Yuuri,” Victor whispers.
Yuuri turns to him, gently cupping his cheeks and looking into eyes as blue as the pool. His heart is the flutter of bird’s wings. “I’m happy,” he says. “Be happy for me, too, if you can. We’re going on a journey together.”
Victor slips his arms around Yuuri’s waist under the water. He holds his gaze, wondering, then seems to come to a decision. “Together,” he echoes softly, and tilts his head down for a kiss.
In the flush of youth, the choice is before them to remain on the island, to seek renown as athletes once again, or to pursue some altogether different path. But no matter what they decide upon, or when, they do it together, in love and gratitude.
One event that many would consider of little or no importance to themselves – or a cause of consternation, even – is, however, the inspiration for a joyous celebration.
As if the fine laugh lines around his eyes are not proof enough, Yuuri finds his first gray hair, and there can no longer be any doubt that Aphrodite has been true to her word.
After a second full lifetime, Victor is the first to face journey’s end once more. There will be no frantic quest this time, however; no petitioning for divine intervention. Yuuri is prepared to grieve and then join him in Hades when his own time comes.
But the gods have one last surprise in store, as Aphrodite explains when she appears to them both in physical form. As they have been a shining example in life of how to love one another, so shall they be to all, now and always. Instead of traveling to Hades, one after the other, they are placed among the stars in heaven as the constellation of The Lovers. And if its precise name and origin have been obscured by a few passing millennia, the two of them care not, their love a white fire that endures long after the seas run dry and time itself is but a memory.
Then at the last, when the cloth of this universe is old and faded, and Aion initiates a new cycle of rebirth, they may meet again on the shores of some faraway land, and life will be theirs once more – for striving, despairing, and loving…together, to their hearts’ content.
May it please the gods.