Actions

Work Header

to map the world (in search of love)

Work Text:

Outside the window, rain falls softly to the ground. Far away, the streets are warmly lit with music and laughter, but here in the foreigner quarters of the city, the area is quiet. In the modest Western-style house at the end of the lane, only one window is lit; the servants have already been dismissed, and no one bothers with the locked gate.

Viktor Nikiforov, the first in his family to visit Japan, sighs and turns away from the idyllic picture. Japan is not Russia, no matter how much he tries to ignore the differences. The drizzle reminds him of home; and soon, home is where he will be, if his family has anything to do with it.

A letter rests on the table, signed by his uncle. A long litany of insults and disparaging words, designed to make Viktor feel guilty and contrite for wasting his uncle's resources. Never mind that his uncle was the one who hired a merchant ship that decided to make off with their goods instead of delivering them to Viktor, as was promised.

Not only must Viktor return home, but he must also be wed.

Viktor scoffs, tossing the letter into a drawer and closing it decisively.

He refuses to fall in line and settle down with the quiet Lidiya Seleznyova, no matter how much money his family has promised Lidiya's parents. They have long known that his inclinations will not devote him to the fairer sex, nor does Viktor wish to live under his uncle's strict control beyond his position in the company. He sees little need in obeying; he might have been raised by his extended family, but he is not their child, nor even the eldest. His uncle has two other children to use as collateral in their deal with the Seleznyov family.

No, better for Viktor to seek his fortune in the capital. The Emperor has moved to Tokyo, and all of the major trade will come and go through that city’s port. Perhaps he can even recover some of his uncle's lost merchandise, if the merchants who stole it come to Tokyo to sell.

With a small sigh, Viktor sets himself to packing. He has much to accomplish before he leaves, from acquiring a travel permit to finding a horse, and it will do him little good to fester in his own irritation.

A month of traveling alone as a foreigner in Japan... Viktor looks forward to it. At the very least, it should be entertaining.

~*~

The government official issuing travel permits for the Toukaidou laughs at him for wanting the permit, then authorizes it when Viktor puts on his prettiest smile. The grocer laughs at him, too, when he asks for food for the trip, but a little dumb charm gets him extra rations. His servants think him insane, but Viktor has already severed their contracts and sent them back to St. Petersburg or to other Russian households in the area.

The rain clears away, though it remains cold; all of Viktor's Japanese friends tell him not to go, that traveling in the winter in Japan is too dangerous. Viktor doesn't want to wait till spring, though, because by then his family will send someone after him.

Ah, if only Viktor had someone else he could trust... but Viktor has no one. Only the family who took him in yet does not want him, and the friends who want him but do not need him.

Viktor procures a map and a few letters of introduction, so that he may travel easily and establish himself in Tokyo immediately. He hires a horse and dresses himself in his warmest Russian cloak, alongside heavy boots and wool trousers, selling the rest of his belongings until his entire world is limited to two bags. With his fair hair and clothing, there is little chance that anybody will mistake him as anything but a foreigner.

At last, Viktor sets out to Tokyo, starting at dawn on the last Sunday of October. The brisk air revitalizes his lungs, and Viktor rides for several hours, until his legs ache from the hard saddle and his stomach rumbles with hunger. He stops at an inn an hour before sunset and gladly partakes in a hot bath, delighted by the narrow ofuro that is offered to him. The food is simple but tasty, and Viktor sleeps well.

So Viktor repeats, day after day. Many Japanese travelers marvel at him, and others shy away. Viktor cannot help how they react to him, so he simply smiles. Some even recognize him for his pale hair and name. Viktor had made it into the news a couple years back for a good bit of business with one of the minor lords in the area, and he became rather popular in Kyoto's social scene as a result.

Not that Viktor ever really enjoyed it.

At the inns and roadside restaurants where Viktor stops, he gets to talk to many people. Though few know either Russian or French, many are impressed with his knowledge of Japanese. Viktor's trip is progressing very nicely, and he is ever more delighted by Japan and its beauty.

He has come to like this place in his years working in Kyoto. Maybe he could live here permanently, if his uncle would leave him alone. It would be lovely to have a place that he can call home, in between his voyages and wanderings.

For Viktor, though, Japan seems empty. As much as he likes the people and the scenery, nothing binds him here -- and truly, he feels no real connection to St. Petersburg, either. He could leave Japan tomorrow and be perfectly content. Not even the seagulls call him home.

A map of Japan can lead him to another city and a new life, but it cannot show him the way to happiness. He has nothing and no one, at the end of the day. Would that he could find a map that would reveal the key to happiness -- but every man wishes for that, and no man has ever found it.

Not even Viktor, as extraordinary as the world thinks he is.

So he believes, until one day, the course of his life changes with a brush with death.

Two weeks into Viktor's trip, the day is overcast, threatening snow, and there are few people on the road. The day nears dusk, and Viktor is tired; he already passed one inn and found it to be full, so now he rides on in hopes of finding another town where he may sleep for the night. He nods off in his saddle for a while, the gentle plodding monotonous and quiet.

As such, Viktor misses the fact that his horse goes off road, onto a much thinner path through the trees. He also fails to notice the four men who surround him, until his horse stops suddenly and startles back a little.

"Eh?" Viktor starts, opening his eyes and noticing immediately that he has company. He narrows his eyes slightly. These men look like trouble, and Viktor only has a dagger that he keeps hidden in his boot. He does not carry a gun or sword, as they are illegal in Japan.

"Bandits," he sighs in Russian. "Just my luck."

The largest man steps forward, eyes narrowing at the foreign language. "Kind sir, it looks like your load is too heavy for our roads. Let us help you lighten your horse. Please, step down and let us assist."

Viktor sighs again, then gives the man a flat stare. "Kind sir, I'm afraid that my load is just the right weight for my horse. If I unpack it now, I may never repack it in time for nightfall. Please, you would assist me most by directing me to the closest inn."

The looks of astonishment at his formal Japanese make Viktor's lips twitch briefly. He keeps his mien placid, though, pasting on a polite smile.

The smallest and thinnest of the four scoffs. "Don't you get it, idiot? We're robbing you! Get down and give us all your coin."

Viktor's smile goes brittle. "Please, kind sir --"

"Don't 'kind sir' us," the smallest bandit shouts, unsheathing his knife. The appearance of the blade startles his horse, who rears back with a high shriek. Viktor grits his teeth and tries to hold on, tightening his knees around the horse's middle.

"Calm, Makka! Calm!"

"Get him!" shouts a bandit, and the next thing Viktor knows, he is flying through the air. He lands roughly on his side and gasps, then rolls onto his back and looks up to see his horse disappearing into the woods.

"Damn it, go after that horse," says the leader, then points at Viktor. "Empty your pockets, traveler!"

"Look what you did! You scared my Makka! She's named after my darling Makkachin, you know!" Viktor scowls, standing and pulling out his dagger. He didn't go through a decade of academy training just to lose to four bandits.

"Shut up!" shouts the bandit, rushing him. Viktor brings up his sheath to block the blow, kicking the man in his stomach and sending him flying. A fist catches him by surprise, his head snapping sideways, and Viktor staggers with a gasp. Something heavy hits his head, and Viktor falls, reeling at the pain. The bandits start kicking him, and Viktor rolls away, scrambling for his dagger.

As if from far away, Viktor hears a low growl, and he freezes. The bandits suddenly stop kicking him and look over to the bushes beside the road. Then they start screaming, and for a few minutes, Viktor hears mayhem. More screams, snarls, growls, and the vicious tearing of clothing and skin fill the air, holding Viktor still. He shudders, fearing for his life, hoping that this beast does not eat him, too.

Then, everything is quiet. Over the sound of his own heartbeat, Viktor hears soft noises, like the slithering of a snake, which doesn't make sense after hearing the terrifying snarling. Then something cold and wet touches his cheek, sniffing, and Viktor lets out a faint gasp.

"Please don't eat me," Viktor begs. A hot breath of air, smelling almost sulfuric, washes over him; then, the beast moves away from him.

After a moment, Viktor lifts his head cautiously, expecting a boar or some other wild beast. Instead, he sees scales of the deepest black bordering on blue. The beast's body is long like a snake's, but it has great clawed legs, and a silvery-blue underbelly. On its head are long, three-pointed horns, with silken whiskers around its mouth.

It turns to look at Viktor, blinking slitted amber eyes, and Viktor sucks in a breath.

"Oh, my," Viktor whispers. A dragon! A real dragon! His gaze catches on a nearby body, and Viktor pales when he realizes that the bandits are dead. The dragon stares at him, blinking those great eyes slowly, then turns away. Now that Viktor looks closely, the dragon doesn't seem interested in hurting him -- only the bandits, curiously.

Maybe it protects these woods? Are we in its territory?

Viktor shifts gingerly to his knees and bows low. "Thank you very much for saving me," he says in his most formal Japanese. The dragon stares at him for a moment, then huffs softly and curls around itself to lick at a spot on its leg where amber-red liquid stains the deep color of its scales.

Viktor gasps. "Oh, no, you're injured!" He looks around for his horse, then remembers that she ran away. He will have to go after her soon; hopefully she did not go far from the road. Finally Viktor untucks his shirt and tears off a strip from the bottom, then carefully climbs to his knees.

He sways a little when he stands, but forces himself to focus. The dragon eyes him curiously but doesn't seem hostile anymore, and this gives Viktor the courage to approach it slowly, holding out the strip of fabric as an offering. When the dragon doesn't snarl at him, Viktor kneels beside it and carefully ties the fabric around the wound, smiling a little.

"There," Viktor says quietly, looking up at the dragon and smiling. "Since you saved me, after all... oh..." The dragon is staring at him, amber eyes shining with a strange inner light, and Viktor feels that gaze sear through him all the way to his toes, observing everything that he is. He holds his breath, scarcely daring to move, though no longer from fear.

Suddenly Viktor hears movement behind him, and he turns to see one of the bandits step into the clearing, his eyes going wide at seeing his fallen comrades. Viktor stands to face the bandit, narrowing his gaze.

"Dead! They're all dead!" the bandit cries, then zeroes in on Viktor. His face twists with rage. "YOU!" The bandit grabs one of the daggers, and Viktor lunges for a sword lying nearby. He grasps it and falls into a formal stance. He is better with a gun, but in a life or death situation like this one, any weapon will do.

The bandit visibly hesitates, his eyes catching on what lies behind Viktor. "Dragon," the bandit breathes, and a growl sounds from the hurt beast. Viktor tightens his hand on the hilt of the katana, thinking hard.

The bandit wants to kill him. The dragon saved his life. In the end, it is an easy choice.

"You will not harm this creature," Viktor declares, then moves forward, fast. The bandit falls to his blade, blood spraying the ground in a dark, glistening arch. Viktor lowers the weapon and breathes out, then turns to look at the dragon.

Except it is no longer there. Viktor blinks, wondering if he had imagined it -- but there, on the ground, is a giant clawed footprint.

"I hope it's okay," Viktor mutters, breathing out. His head hurts. He needs to find his horse. He must...

He sways as dizziness hits him, and Viktor reaches up to his head. His fingers come away bloody. "Oh, dear," Viktor whispers, before everything fades to black.

~*~

When Viktor wakes, he is alive.

Someone is humming nearby. Viktor is lying on something soft and flat, a futon that is rather plush and comfortable, stuffed with downy feathers. It smells faintly of lavender, and Viktor breathes in slowly.

"Oh, are you awake?" asks a warm voice in Japanese, and Viktor opens his eyes, surprised. He turns his head to see an older Japanese woman kneeling beside him, a tray resting on the floor at her side. Her brown hair is pulled up in a pleasant knot with a small comb tucked into the side, glasses on her face. The room is spacious and bright, the late afternoon sun casting warm shadows, a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats and paper walls. Viktor blinks a few times, trying to recall how he might have reached an inn; he is certain that something is wrong...

Viktor notices that the comb has a dragon on it, and his eyes widen.

I saw a dragon last night.

Viktor gasps and sits up, the heavy futon blanket falling off him. He stops short and looks down at himself, realizing he is dressed in a Japanese-style sleeping robe. He blinks down at himself, then over at the woman, who smiles at him kindly and bows.

"Hello, my name is Katsuki Hiroko, and my husband and I own this onsen resort where you are staying. Please excuse us for our poor hospitality," she says, bowing again. "We did not expect you! My son found you on the road leading to our village, but you were unconscious and injured."

Viktor blinks at her several times, trying to make sense of her words. "I... um, thank you," Viktor finally says, bowing as best as he can. His head aches at the movement, and Viktor reaches up to touch his forehead, where a bandage rests. "I'm very sorry for the trouble. I was attacked last night, but my horse ran off... I must have fainted."

"Oh, you speak very good Japanese!" Hiroko says, beaming. "I took a look at your head and bandaged it for you. I believe your horse followed you here, too, because it turned up this morning! A pretty brown horse with white spots, right?"

"Yes, that's her," Viktor says, sighing with relief. "That's my Makka. I named her after my Makkachin, my dog, but she stayed in Russia."

"Oh, is that your country?" Hiroko asks, turning back to her tray and fiddling with it. Viktor peeks down and sees a bowl of water, bloody bandages, and paper packets of medicine.

"Yes, it is. I come from St. Petersburg," Viktor explains. "I was traveling from Kyoto to Tokyo when I was hurt... I'm very sorry for the trouble. Your son likely saved my life. Last night, I..."

Viktor hesitates before he says the words. Who would even believe him? Even in Russia, fantastic creatures like dragons do not simply appear in front of mortals for no reason. The dragon had saved his life, too; to betray it to the local villagers might endanger it.

"I was attacked by bandits," Viktor finishes, and Hiroko puts her hand to her mouth.

"Oh, my! I'd heard that bandits were attacking travelers, but... well! I'm glad that Yuuri was able to bring you back safely. Would you like to join us for our meal?" She smiles at him, and Viktor manages a smile back, relaxing at her inherent charm.

"I would love to, thank you."

Viktor is given a deep green kimono to wear, which suits him just fine. Hiroko explains that she is drying out his clothes, apologizing again as they walk, but Viktor shakes it off, charmed by her hospitable nature. Most of his money is in his pack, and if his horse has returned, then Viktor will be able to pay her. He hopes that his money remains safe.

Hiroko leads Viktor to a large room where there are several low tables, all empty. As Viktor sits down on the cushion Hiroko sets out for him, he notices one of the sliding doors opened slightly, dark eyes peering out at him from the hallway. Viktor smiles at the new person, and the door slides shut. A moment later, the door opens to reveal a smiling older Japanese man with glasses.

"This is my husband, Toshiya," Hiroko says, beaming, and Toshiya bows.

"Hello," Viktor greets, bowing back. "My name is Viktor Nikiforov. I am traveling from Kyoto to Tokyo for business. Thank you very much for looking after me."

"How polite! It is our pleasure, sir," Toshiya replies. His smile is just as warm and friendly as Hiroko's, reflecting an affable nature that Viktor finds sincere. "I think you will have a hard time traveling to Tokyo now, though."

Viktor blinks, raising his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"

"Why, it's snowing, of course! The roads are completely covered!" Toshiya affirms, laughing, and Viktor's stomach drops. He had hoped he would reach Tokyo before the snow started. Will he have to stay in this inn until spring?

"Don't worry, Vicchan! You can stay with us!" Hiroko says, kneeling beside him again and setting out tea. "Please, be sure to eat a lot. You slept for nearly a whole day, you know."

Viktor picks up the cup of tea, then pauses. "Um, thank you... wait, what did you call me?"

"Vicchan," Hiroko says, beaming. "Isn't it cute? It suits you!"

To his surprise, Viktor feels his face heat up. The Katsuki family is too nice for words. "Vicchan is too informal, though! Really, Katsuki-san, my family name is fine..."

"Oh, no, I think Vicchan will do. We are friends, after all," Hiroko says, her eyes twinkling. Viktor feels that there is something more to her insistence, though whatever it is, she never says. Instead she smiles at him, then stands up and walks to the sliding door, pushing it open. "Yuuri, Mari, please bring in dinner!" she calls, then returns to the table.

The door slides open again, and in walk two younger adults around Viktor's age carrying heavy trays. One is a woman wearing a working kimono like Hiroko, sharing many of her and Toshiya's features, her thick hair bound up beneath a handkerchief. Curiously, she has a cigarette in her mouth, and she nods to Viktor as she kneels and begins to set out bowls and plates.

The other person is a man with a round face and dark eyes, dressed in dark blue. Viktor forgets himself and stares. This must be Yuuri, the son who rescued him. He is shorter than Viktor, with long black hair that is tied back in a ponytail, and like his parents, he is wearing glasses. He glances briefly at Viktor and ducks his head, quickly looking away as he sets out the food. When he finishes, he sits down across from Viktor, his gaze lowered to his dinner.

Viktor doesn't think he has ever seen someone so beautiful.

Quickly Viktor forces himself to focus on his meal, not wanting to offend his hosts with his interest in their son. The meal is kaiseki, the sort of meal Viktor has enjoyed before at other inns. For this meal, everything has been arranged on the tray at one time, giving Viktor the chance to eat as much as he likes. Okra with ume sauce, miso soup, grilled mushrooms and leeks, a bowl of rice seasoned with sesame seeds and dried nori flakes, steamed crab meat, and hot pot made with potatoes and daikon radishes.

Viktor could cry, the food looks so good.

"Please, help yourself, Vicchan!"

"Vicchan?" Yuuri mumbles, peeking up at Viktor, who smiles at his confusion. He still feels much the same, but he is coming to accept the eccentricities of the Katsuki family. He finds he rather likes them.

"Viktor Nikiforov," Viktor explains, smiling. "Thank you for the meal!" Then he begins to eat. The food tastes heavenly, hot and filling, and Viktor just barely manages to hold onto his manners. Hiroko and Toshiya smile indulgently at him, while Mari, their daughter, watches him in bemusement.

"Vkusno! This is amazing, Katsuki-san!" Viktor gushes, and Toshiya laughs.

"Vicchan, we are all Katsuki-san here. You may call us by our given names," Toshiya replies. "Toshiya, Hiroko, Mari, and Yuuri."

"Toshiya," Viktor repeats, beaming. "Hiroko, Mari, and... Yuuri." He glances up through his eyelashes at the handsome man across from him, taking advantage of his status as a foreigner to drop the typical suffixes used in polite conversation. Toshiya and Hiroko don't seem to mind, and Mari doesn't seem to care.

Yuuri, interestingly, turns rather pink and busies himself with his food. Viktor notices then that under his sleeve, Yuuri's arm has been wrapped in a bandage. "Oh, dear! Have you injured yourself, Yuuri?"

Yuuri glances briefly at his parents, then away. "I made a mistake earlier. I'm fine, Viktor-san."

"Viktor is fine," Viktor says, his smile widening. "Or Vicchan, if you want."

Yuuri is silent for a long moment, his gaze on his meal. Then he looks up at Viktor, dark eyes almost sparkling, and Viktor feels a faint stirring in his heart. "Viktor, then."

Viktor cannot help a smile, delighted. His name has never sounded so good on somebody's lips before.

After dinner, Yuuri leads him to a small stable where his horse is staying, and Viktor spends quite some time fawning over poor Makka, who is overjoyed to see him. After a while of brushing Makka and making soothing noises in his throat, Viktor follows Yuuri outside and sees for himself that the world is covered in snow. While he slept from his wound, several feet of snow fell overnight, which should seem impossible. Viktor lived in Russia for several years, though, and knows well of how sneaky blizzards can be.

Besides, last night he saw a dragon. Viktor will believe anything now.

Yuutopia, as the Katsuki family calls their inn, rests upon a hill that overlooks a valley and a nearby river. The atmosphere is serene and beautiful; Viktor thinks he could sit here for hours, just gazing out at the scenery. Further down in the valley, Viktor can see the warm glow of a village. Beside him, Yuuri is quiet, his breath leaving puffs in the air.

After a moment, Viktor realizes that he can see steam rising in the air beyond the trees. "Hot springs? I heard that Japan has them, but I've never been to one."

"They're called onsen," Yuuri explains, picking up one of Viktor's bags to take back to the inn. Suddenly he gives a gasp and drops the bag, and Viktor dives to catch it, ending up sitting at Yuuri's feet with the bag in his hands. They blink at each other, and Yuuri turns red. "I am so sorry! Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Viktor says, his gaze cutting to Yuuri's arm, which Yuuri is clutching close to his chest. "You are hurt, correct? I can carry this."

Viktor stands up and gathers both of his bags, which makes Yuuri panic a little. Viktor finds it rather cute. "Oh, but you're injured, too! I can take care of that..." Yuuri flails, but Viktor shakes his head, mindful of Yuuri's injury.

"It's fine. It's my bag, after all. Besides, doesn't your arm hurt?" Viktor asks, worried that he has injured Yuuri further. Yuuri stares at him for a long moment before nodding cautiously.

After another flustered look, Yuuri begins to lead Viktor back to the inn, fidgeting nervously. "Um... thank you, then. As I was saying, we are a hot springs resort. Right now you are our only customer, but we will get more as the season goes on, from the nearby towns."

"Wow," Viktor says, impressed. "That sounds lovely. I've never sat in one before. Russia has banya which are steam houses, but I don't think they are the same."

"Well, now you'll have a chance to try it out," Yuuri says after a moment, peering up at him. "Since it doesn't look like you'll be going anywhere for some time."

"Definitely not," Viktor agrees, glancing over his shoulder at the snowy world beyond.

Once Viktor goes through his belongings, he and Toshiya settle into negotiation. Yuuri hovers in the background nervously while Toshiya calculates Viktor's cost of staying for the whole winter. Viktor disagrees with the total and pulls out his own abacus, wielding it like a fine blade. He is not the son of a diplomat for nothing.

The haggling takes almost an hour, and by the time Hiroko returns with another pot of tea, both Viktor and Toshiya are satisfied with the results. In exchange for Viktor staying the winter, Viktor will also take over some of Yuuri's duties around the inn, since Yuuri is injured and cannot do any heavy lifting or difficult chores. Viktor is very pleased by this result, as he likes being helpful.

Yuuri is not so pleased. He grabs his father and pulls him aside for a whispered argument, which Viktor nosily overhears.

"Otousan, please, you cannot ask a guest to do my work. Especially Viktor Nikiforov! He's very important in Kyoto, and he's not... he's not a laborer! He's a businessman! Besides, he was attacked within our lands. It's rude!"

Viktor blinks, interested in the fact that Yuuri seems to know more about him than Viktor has revealed. Perhaps Yuuri somehow got wind of his existence through one of the newspapers, which wouldn't be surprising. He wonders what Yuuri thinks of him.

"It's fine, Yuuri! Besides, look at him! Those big broad shoulders and strong legs! I can get a lot of work out of that boy!" Toshiya laughs, not bothering to lower his voice. Viktor smiles slightly, amused.

"Otousan!"

"It's fine, it's fine, Yuuri," Hiroko says, beginning to gather everybody's dishes. "Vicchan himself suggested it, after all! It will be nice, having someone new around the inn this winter. Besides, your injury will take a while to heal, so Vicchan will be very helpful! After he heals his head, though."

"Right," Yuuri mutters, frowning down at his empty tea cup. Viktor tilts his head curiously, wondering again how Yuuri injured his arm, but senses that it would be intrusive to ask.

"Now, why don't you show Vicchan to the onsen?" Hiroko suggests. "I think he will like it. But make sure he doesn't get his head wet!"

Yuuri looks between his parents, as if searching for a reason not to do this, then gives a heavy sigh and stands up. "This way, Viktor," Yuuri says, and Viktor happily rises to follow him, satisfied that his agreement with Toshiya went so well.

After returning his abacus and fetching his soap at Yuuri's direction, Viktor follows Yuuri down the hallway and down a series of stairs, into a separate building connected to the house by a covered walkway. The new building is colder than the rest of the house. Viktor soon realizes why, as there is a well built into the floor, where Yuuri shows Viktor how to draw up a heavy bucket of water, pleasantly warm. Viktor sets it down, and Yuuri bows low over the clean clothes he has gathered for Viktor.

"I am so sorry for making you do this..."

"It's fine," Viktor says, smiling at him. Yuuri straightens and blinks up at him, those beautiful dark eyes magnified by the crystal lenses in his glasses. "You are my saviors, and I wish to be as useful to you as I can. This pride of mine demands that I repay my debt. Even though I am paying you, your family has spoiled me very much already!"

Yuuri is quiet for a long moment. "You're not like many other foreigners that have visited us."

"Oh? What countries do they come from?"

Yuuri considers Viktor's question thoughtfully, holding the folded clothes closer to his chest. "Hmm... France, I think? And the Netherlands. Korea, too. Usually everyone is nice enough, but no one has gone out of their way to make things easier for us. I'm surprised my father allowed it with you. You are from Russia, right?"

Viktor nods, absently admiring the way Yuuri's hair falls neatly in his eyes. Unlike most men, Yuuri doesn't bother putting his hair up in a topknot, nor does he style it. Viktor likes the natural look of it. He reaches up to touch his own hair, wondering what Yuuri must think of him for the odd color. "I cannot say that Russia is any better or worse than them. Simply, my personal belief is to respect others how you want them to respect you. Perhaps that comes from my father, who was a diplomat. Who can really say? I wish to do things this way, though."

For a moment, Yuuri is quiet, watching him with a contemplative look. Then he nods and sets down the bundle of clothes on a small stool, before stepping over to the door that leads outside. He slides it open, and instead of a blast of cold air, Viktor is surprised by the rush of steam that invades the room. "Do you know how to bathe Japanese-style, Viktor?" Yuuri asks, reaching up to light a lantern hanging from the rafters.

"Oh, I do! I've been here for three years, after all..." Viktor steps up beside him and trails off, staring in awe.

Outside the building is a grand and beautiful array of hot springs, climbing the side of the hill, surrounded by deep grey stones that all but sparkle in the firelight. Snow falls gently over the picturesque world, covering the stones and making it look very cold, but for the steam rising from the springs. Heavy wooden flooring leads to the closest spring, and many of them are connected by natural stone landings or more wooden steps built into the sides. Thick logs run around the springs in a wide perimeter, blocking off the wildlife from sneaking into the property. At the lowest hot spring, a grand stone dragon watches over the steaming water, sending a shiver through Viktor.

It looks just like the dragon he saw.

Yuuri is watching him out of the corner of his eye. Viktor schools his expression to interest and steps out from under the awning, gasping softly when he turns and finds that the springs look over the whole of the valley. At the moment, he can hardly see the village through the lightly falling snow, but the glow of it brightens the darkness.

"It's so beautiful here," Viktor whispers, then starts when he hears Yuuri beside him.

"I'm glad," Yuuri says, and Viktor turns to see Yuuri smiling down at the ground, scratching his cheek. "Maybe it's my own pride or something... but I'm glad you like it here."

"I love it here," Viktor tells him, fervent in his honesty. If only he didn't have to go to Tokyo -- he wouldn't mind calling a place like this home. Yuuri starts slightly and looks up at him, his eyes widening, and for a moment, the flare of the lantern reflects in Yuuri's eyes, making them look amber.

Only for a moment, though.

Yuuri turns a little red. "U-um, well, this is the onsen. If you bathe inside, then you can sit in the spring... but if you feel dizzy at any time, please get out." He looks uncomfortable for a moment, then continues, glancing briefly up at Viktor. "Since you'll be helping me later, I'll show you how to clean the springs. But not right now. Um... please enjoy yourself."

To Viktor's dismay, Yuuri steps inside, and Viktor hastens to follow him. "Wait, you aren't going to join me? I thought Japanese bathing was a communal practice."

Yuuri pauses, his fingers resting lightly on the wooden panel of the door. "Maybe next time," he says vaguely, then quietly leaves the room. Viktor stares after him, wondering if he said something to offend Yuuri. Then he shakes his head. Maybe Yuuri has other chores to take care of, or perhaps he feels shy about bathing with a foreigner.

Viktor sulks a little, then heads inside to begin washing himself off. He'll just have to wait for next time.

~*~

Three days later, Hiroko pronounces Viktor ready to begin his duties. Yuuri is designated as Viktor's mentor and teacher, and he settles into the role reluctantly, visibly hesitant to give Viktor orders. Viktor takes to the new tasks with gusto, as he has been sitting bored in his room ever since he woke from his injury. He needs to do something other than sort through his belongings or calculate projections for his money.

First, Yuuri teaches him how to wax the floors, by pushing a cloth against the wood. Viktor is very slow at it, unfortunately, but he perseveres until all of the floors gleam.

"Never too much, otherwise people will slip," Yuuri explains, as he shows Viktor where to put the wax away. He hesitates, then adds a soft, "You did that well," which makes Viktor's heart swell with pride.

Viktor's second task is to clean the hot springs, which involves using a net to fish out leaves and sticks. Yuuri says they occasionally drain the springs as well, but that will not happen for a while.

"It's not so bad in the winter, but it's awful in the fall and spring," Yuuri says, watching Viktor nudge a stray rock out from the bottom of the onsen. "Really, the chores are very easy, I could do them myself..."

"Ah, but you are healing, aren't you, Yuuri?" Viktor replies, fishing the rock out of his net and clasping it between his hands, delighting in its warmth from sitting in the hot water. He grins at Yuuri and winks. "You saved my life, after all! I don't want you to make your injury worse!"

"You don't know the half of it," Yuuri mutters, and when Viktor looks at him askance, he only shakes his head with a sigh. "Well, that's it for today. Since your clothes are wet, you should go ahead and take your bath. There's some soap in the... uh..."

Viktor looks up from undoing his sash, the deep blue kimono he has been working in sliding down his shoulders, revealing his broad chest. "Hm? What's wrong, Yuuri?"

Yuuri's gaze snaps up, and his face flushes red. "N-n-n-nothing! Um, please excuse me!" By the time Viktor thinks to answer, Yuuri has already fled. Viktor sighs deeply, frowning down at his body and wondering how it could have offended Yuuri.

This is the fourth day in a row that Yuuri has refused to bathe with him. Toshiya has bathed with him twice already, telling Viktor interesting stories while they sat in the onsen. Hiroko and Mari have always bathed separately at an earlier time. Not once, though, has Yuuri ever bathed at the same time as Viktor.

He sighs to himself, gazing out at the gentle steam rising from the springs. If only he could tell what Yuuri is thinking.

~*~

Viktor keeps a tiny planner with him at all times that he uses to mark off the days and keep track of his chores and money. Time creeps up on him regardless, as Viktor is too busy getting to know the Katsuki family.

Mari is the same age as Viktor and has a sweetheart in the village, a man named Takao who visits her every day, even on the days when it is snowing so hard that nobody can see the village. She spends most of her time doing laundry, cleaning, and seeing to guests' needs; when she isn't working, she reads poetry and novels, sighing over the characters. Mari is delightfully sarcastic and doesn't care one bit if Viktor gets excited or bored. As far as Viktor can tell, her favorite pastime is teasing her brother.

Toshiya is a business man through and through, and he and Viktor have many conversations about commerce and trade. When Toshiya is not cheerfully haggling with the merchants who visit the inn, he is cooking, a chore he rather enjoys. To Viktor's delight, Toshiya also enjoys a good drink, often sitting with Viktor in the evenings and chatting over a bottle of sake.

Hiroko is just as kindly and cheerful as Toshiya, and she takes Viktor under her wing, teaching him ways to fold kimono and futon, as well as happily telling him stories about raising two children while running an inn. The whole village loves Hiroko; she receives many visitors, though her most frequent visitor is her friend Okukawa Minako, who dares Viktor into drinking contests and somehow wins every time, despite her tiny physique.

Viktor loves them all, though perhaps the person who most fascinates him is Yuuri, the youngest in the family and the most mysterious. Even with his injury, Yuuri often spends his days out in the woods, as well as making trips to the village to buy food and other supplies. Viktor gets to accompany him on some of these trips to help carry everything, which means more time alone with Yuuri.

Yuuri is a very interesting person to Viktor. At first he is shy, hardly speaking to Viktor except to explain his chores or give directions, but slowly he opens up, beginning to talk about himself. Viktor loves to listen to him talk, though he does his best to remain companionable, instead of acting on the more forward thoughts he continues to have in Yuuri's presence.

During one such discussion in November, Viktor finds out about Yuuri's dream to travel. They are sitting in a restaurant down in the village, where many people have been giggling at Viktor's presence. The local girls love him, often reaching out to touch his hair and admiring his Russian clothes, until Yuuri shoos them away. The restaurant is owned by the Nishigori family, who are close friends of Yuuri.

"When the borders opened up twenty years ago, my parents thought it was interesting, but they didn't intend to leave. I grew up meeting all sorts of foreign travelers and people from the capital, and... it was nice, hearing their stories." Yuuri falls quiet for a moment, tilting his sake cup a little. "I've never left this place except once. That trip didn't last long, though."

Viktor watches him over the top of his cup, sipping the heated drink slowly. It burns differently than vodka, a lovely treat. Viktor wonders what Yuuri would think of vodka and champagne; he could easily procure some in the capital, if he can get ahold of his contacts.

"What keeps you here?" Viktor asks finally, and Yuuri blinks a few times, glancing up at him.

"What? Oh... um, well, my family, they need help at the inn," Yuuri says, his gaze sliding away as he finishes his cupful.

Viktor's eyebrow twitches. A lie. But why is Yuuri lying? He doesn't press the issue, setting down his cup, and Yuuri obligingly picks up the sake bottle to pour them both some more. "Kyoto is quite large. I only visited Tokyo once, when I first came to Japan, but our company headquarters was in Kyoto, so I stayed there for three years. It is huge... the city stretches as far as the mountains, and the forest overlooks the valley. It is lovely in the fall... bright red leaves everywhere."

"Why did you leave?" Yuuri asks after a moment, picking up a soft rice cake and biting into it.

Viktor lowers his gaze to his cup, gazing into the milky sake for a long moment. "My uncle, who runs the business, hired a merchant ship to bring our next shipment here. The merchants betrayed him and ran off with our goods. My uncle holds me responsible for the loss."

Yuuri inhales softly. "He can't! That is unfair of him."

Snorting softly, Viktor lifts one shoulder in an elegant shrug. "My uncle likes to blame me for everything. Instead of returning home to be lectured and forced into marriage with a girl I don't love, I chose to seek my fortune in Tokyo. I can easily work as a translator or a diplomat at the Russian embassy. My father was a diplomat, so... they may still respect the Nikiforov name."

"Still, that's awful," Yuuri says quietly. He chews on his lip for a moment, then glances up at Viktor, his eyes flashing amber briefly as someone passes in front of the great lantern that hangs overhead. Viktor feels a faint shiver run down his spine. "So... are you engaged, then?"

Viktor raises an eyebrow, his lips twitching when Yuuri's cheeks turn a deeper red. "No, not so much. My uncle created a betrothal contract with one of his associates, but he has two children of his own that can wed the young lady. Though I was once his ward, I am a man now, and he cannot dictate my life any longer. Besides... I have little interest in marriage." He meets Yuuri's eyes, then looks down, wondering vaguely how Japanese men might show their interest in one another. In his years working in Japan, Viktor has never given into his proclivities, for fear of rumor getting back to his uncle.

He hears a soft inhalation, and for a little while, Yuuri is quiet, the only noise between them the soft clink of the sake bottle whenever Yuuri refills their cups. At last the alcohol is gone, and Yuuri pays their bill and rises, gathering their umbrellas and offering one to Viktor.

When Viktor takes the umbrella, his fingers brush Yuuri's, and he is shocked to see Yuuri blush a little. "Let's go home," Yuuri says quietly, and Viktor nods, a little nervous as he opens his umbrella and follows Yuuri into the snow, hefting the supplies they bought onto his back.

The wintry world is quiet around them, but the warmth of alcohol keeps the cold away. Darkness has long fallen, the snow crunching softly beneath their feet. Viktor still wears his boots, solid Russian leather that keeps out the cold and dampness, while Yuuri wears Japanese geta, keeping his feet aloft over the snow. Viktor has worn them before, but they never truly agreed with him.

"Ah, that reminds me," Viktor says, remembering looking at his planner this morning. "It's my birthday next month. I should like it to be like this... a nice night for a nice birthday, drinking with a friend."

"Birthday?" Yuuri repeats, blinking. "Oh... how old will you be?"

"Twenty-eight," Viktor says, then laughs a little. "Old enough to settle down and know what I want out of life, yet here I am, still adventuring. Such is life, though."

"Four years older than me, huh..." Yuuri is quiet for a moment, his geta clacking against the frozen ground. "I don't think it's a bad thing to travel and explore the world. I would, if I was in your place."

Viktor smiles a little, glancing over at Yuuri to admire him. The small lantern Yuuri carries brightens his face and adds an amber glow to his eyes, the flames flickering in the dark depths. Viktor's breath leaves him in a rush, and he is struck by how lovely Yuuri is.

"Wow," Viktor whispers, drawing Yuuri's attention.

"Hm?"

"Um, nothing!" Viktor laughs off the awkward air, instead allowing the peaceful quiet of before to return. His face must be pink, but Viktor hopes that if Yuuri notices, he attributes it to the cold.

He is attracted to Yuuri, and Viktor can never tell him. Surely Yuuri will not be interested, no matter how often his gaze lingers on Viktor. Abruptly Viktor hopes that Yuuri never joins him for bathing in the evening, because Viktor will certainly embarrass himself if he sees Yuuri nude.

When they reach the house, Yuuri directs Viktor to the storeroom to leave the supplies, then follows him upstairs, lost in his thoughts. When they reach his room, Yuuri pauses beside Viktor's door, his fingers lingering on the heavy wood. Viktor doesn't mind, as Yuuri seems to have something to say. He holds back the temptation to invite Yuuri in, believing it would be unwelcome.

Finally, Yuuri sighs a little. "Good night, Viktor."

Viktor smiles slightly, his gaze softening. Even if he can never have what he really wants, he is grateful for Yuuri's regard. "Good night, Yuuri."

Yuuri bows his head a little, then walks down the hall, carrying the lantern with him. Viktor watches him as he walks away, noticing the slight sway of his hips, the lope of a good night of drinking. As he slides open his door and steps into his room, Viktor pauses in contemplation, then leans back into the hallway, staring critically at the darkened stairs beyond.

Those stairs don't lead to the part of the inn that the Katsuki family sleeps in. In fact... Viktor doesn't think he has ever seen Yuuri on that side of the building, where Viktor is sometimes invited for meals and chores, except when he is eating and working.

The realization hits him suddenly. Yuuri must sleep in another part of the property... but where?

Viktor debates following him, but his bed beckons him in a tempting manner. At last Viktor shakes off the strange sensation and retires to his room. Another side to the mystery of Katsuki Yuuri... and one to entertain later, when he is not so tired and drunk.

~*~

When Viktor's birthday arrives, he does not go out drinking with his new friend, as Yuuri is clustered in the village helping a neighbor with a problem. Viktor isn't needed, so he retreats to the onsen after dinner, choosing the highest spring to enjoy, which grants him a lovely view of the village deep in the valley, brightly lit. Light flurries fill the air, not yet thick enough to chase Viktor back inside. The wonderful feeling of icy flakes landing on his skin amidst steam and deliciously heated water delights him.

Sitting in the onsen late at night, surrounded by snow and darkness, invigorates Viktor's imagination. Some nights, long after Toshiya has retired, Viktor stays in the springs, occasionally climbing up to sit in each spring and gain a new view of the surrounding scenery. The world is ethereal, snow falling from tree limbs in the distance, the soft noises of winter that Viktor has known since he was a child.

Toshiya did not join him tonight, which means Viktor is alone with his thoughts. He has been contemplating the past again, of the life he held before he was taken under his uncle's stern care. Happier times, and oh, how Viktor wishes he could return to those simple years of never knowing anguish or shame.

This wintry haven, so different from any part of Japan that Viktor has known for the past three years, seems far away from the rest of the world. Yet, Viktor is inexplicably reminded of his childhood, of his parents' manor outside the city, surrounded by deep, mysterious woods and icy streams. He would go on long walks with his parents in those woods, happily holding onto each of his parents' hands while they swung him between them. His mother's soft laughter, his father's heart-shaped smile -- memories Viktor holds dear, but which he had buried long ago, to save himself the pain.

The memories are not so bittersweet, now.

He spends too long in the water, daydreaming about sweet memories of years past, of long afternoons spent hiding under a table in the library, reading about dragons and knights, witches and princesses.

The dragon might be out there now. Viktor wonders if it has a den, or if it lives in another world, manifesting only to save hapless foreigners from being gutted in its woods. Viktor wishes he could see it again, to touch its smooth scales and comb his fingers through the soft-looking hair on its head. He wonders if it understood him -- surely it must have, for dragons are magical creatures.

Japanese dragons are unlike the dragons of Russia -- fat, lazy things with hefty wings, sometimes with more heads than they know what to do with, and quite violent against unsuspecting villages and their sheep. Viktor's great-great-grandmother wrote journals about dragons, ones that Viktor read extensively as a child. To his eternal sadness, dragons have not been sighted in Russia in over a hundred years, driven to persecution by hateful religious groups. His parents had chuckled over the stories, believing alongside the rest of the population that dragons are fanciful creatures, little more than imagination.

Viktor has always believed, though.

Ah, what he would do, if he could meet that dragon again...

"Viktor? Viktor!"

Viktor has his eyes closed when he hears Yuuri's voice, calling his name almost frantically. Viktor starts slightly, realizing he has drifted for some time in the peaceful atmosphere, and breathes in slowly. He is a little overheated; perhaps he should get out. Did Yuuri need him?

"Viktor, where are you?"

"Yuuri," Viktor murmurs, then pushes himself through the water to the edge of the spring, to where he can see the entrance to the bathhouse. Yuuri is standing barefoot in front of the door, looking around frantically, and Viktor lifts his arm to wave to him. Yuuri goes rigid when he sees him, then abruptly relaxes, putting a hand to his chest.

"There you are," Yuuri says, his voice carried up to Viktor. He walks over to a series of stone steps that lead up to each spring, climbing up to where Viktor is sitting. As the steam surrounds him, Yuuri pulls off his glasses, giving them a small frown before fixing his gaze on Viktor. "I was looking for you!"

Viktor stands slowly, pressing a hand to his heated forehead, not caring about his nudity. "I'm sorry... I must have dozed off. I was thinking..."

Yuuri's eyes go wide, a flush spilling across his cheeks as he takes in Viktor's naked body, before he seems to shake himself. "You've spent too long in the onsen. Come inside and cool off, okay?" He holds out his hand to Viktor, who takes it and helps himself up, water streaming down his body. Despite his thin limbs, Yuuri is surprisingly strong, lifting him from the water and pulling him to the steps. Viktor follows him back down the stairs, obedient in his overheated state.

"I'm sorry for worrying you," Viktor says quietly.

Yuuri shakes his head, his hand tightening on Viktor's fingers. Viktor finds it amazing that Yuuri has yet to let him go. "It's almost midnight. I didn't know where you were. You weren't in your room, and... I was afraid you had gotten lost, or..."

"I guess I did," Viktor says, smiling. He feels a little better now that he is out of the water. "Lost in my thoughts... I was thinking about dragons."

He notices Yuuri go tense for a moment, before taking a deep breath and relaxing. "Dragons?"

"You have them all over your inn," Viktor explains, nodding to the statue that guards the springs. Yuuri shoots it an irritated look, then pulls Viktor inside, shutting the door firmly and going to fetch some towels. "I used to read about them when I was a boy. The dragons in my country... they are lazy and rude, eating sheep and villagers. Japanese dragons are different, are they not?"

"Not so much," Yuuri mutters, then guides Viktor to sit down and dips a towel into the cold well water, laying it over Viktor's forehead. "Stay there. And dry off!"

"Okay," Viktor agrees amiably, taking one of the towels that Yuuri throws at him and rubbing it over his arms. Yuuri is a pretty pink color now, his hair sticking to his face from the steam outside. He wonders what Yuuri would do if Viktor reached out to brush it from his eyes.

Yuuri turns back around with a green kimono in his hands. "Stand up," he orders Viktor. When Viktor does, the towel dropping off his lap, Yuuri flails and turns red again. "Y-you're, um. Shit," he curses under his breath, making Viktor raise his eyebrows in bemusement.

Yuuri takes a deep breath, then unfolds the clothing and wraps it around Viktor's shoulders, stepping close to him to smooth out the soft linen. Viktor obligingly slides his arms into the sleeves when Yuuri holds them up, then does nothing else, a small smile touching his lips.

Yuuri notices and gives him a narrow-eyed look, to which Viktor replies by widening his gaze and looking very innocent. Yuuri scoffs, then pulls the sash around Viktor's waist tight, tugging the kimono into place. "You're not supposed to sit in the onsen for that long," he scolds, and Viktor finally realizes that Yuuri has been really worried.

"Oh, Yuuri," Viktor says quietly, reaching up to touch Yuuri's cheek. Yuuri goes still, staring at him with wide eyes, his hands pausing on Viktor's waist. "I'm alright, I promise. I'll be more careful next time."

"Okay," Yuuri breathes, his gaze dropping briefly to Viktor's lips, then back up to his eyes. "That's... good." A moment later, Yuuri seems to realize that he is standing very close to Viktor, in a reflection of an intimate embrace, and his face goes bright red. He pushes Viktor back to arm's length, and Viktor sighs, supposing that is the end of his fun.

"I should go to sleep," Viktor says, his hand dropping to his side. "Thank you for looking for me, and for taking care of me, Yuuri."

"O-o-of course," Yuuri says, not quite looking at him, his flush bright in the lantern light. "Um, drink some water before you sleep. I'll... um, just clean up in here."

"Alright." Viktor watches him for a moment, as Yuuri gathers towels to take to the laundry, then smiles a little. "Yuuri... do you believe in dragons?"

Yuuri jerks a little, his gaze flying up to Viktor's face. "Believe in..." He does not say anything else for a moment, holding the damp towels tightly, then breathes out. "For me, it isn't a matter of belief. You should go to bed, Viktor."

"Alright," Viktor says again, then bows his head and goes, his mind whirling. The mystery with Yuuri deepens ever further, and he looks forward to learning more.

~*~

Viktor has been at Yuutopia for a month and a half when New Years passes. Viktor has experienced Japan's New Years before, though his own country follows a different calendar. He finds it a restful experience to go to the shrine at midnight.

This he tells Toshiya, as Toshiya is straightening his obi. "Kyoto has a very big shrine up in the mountains, you know. You can walk up lots and lots of steps, and then you get to ring a big bell, and you clap your hands and pray! I like to pray to the Japanese gods to look after my friends and business partners. It's always a nice experience!"

"Fushimi Inari-taisha, right?" Toshiya asks, stepping around Viktor and looking at him critically. Viktor is wearing a light blue kimono with wave patterns along the edges, along with a gray and blue haori jacket. The jacket has the Katsuki family marque on it, though Viktor has never worn one with such a marque before, being a foreigner. Toshiya assured him that it was fine and and happily lent it for Viktor to wear.

One detail that Viktor noticed is that Yuuri's family marque includes a curling white dragon. Viktor finds himself curious about it, and about all the other dragon-related objects in Yuuri's home. He wonders if they are related to the dragon he saw in the woods, though all of the Katsukis brush him off whenever he asks about the symbol.

Very interesting.

"That's the one we go to!" Viktor beams. "What is the name of your shrine?"

"Oh, nothing so grand. We call it Ryouga-jinja," Toshiya explains.

"Wow, that's very pretty," Viktor says, smiling. "Are we ready to go? Where is Yuuri?"

"I believe we are. Yuuri won't be walking with us," Toshiya says, pushing up his glasses. Viktor pauses, because he has never heard of someone going to the shrine separately from their family. Toshiya catches his look and puts up his hands with a disarming smile.

"Don't worry! Yuuri will join us later. Come, come! We have a long night ahead of us!"

Viktor reluctantly lets Toshiya lead him away. They fetch their geta together and walk with Hiroko and Mari down the hill, and all the while, Viktor peeks over his shoulder for any sign of Yuuri. The night is fantastically cold, stars twinkling in a clear sky. If Viktor cranes his head back, he can see the Milky Way, curving a beautiful road through the dark abyss above.

The Katsukis and Viktor join a long line of travelers heading up into another hill that overlooks the village, large red torii arches spaced along the path. Lanterns light the way, and the trek is peaceful, most of the villagers quiet in their own thoughts or sharing intimate conversations. Viktor would have liked to walk close to Yuuri, listening to the cadence of his voice in the snow.

He wonders when Yuuri will join them. Surely Yuuri could have gotten ready by the time Viktor and his family left?

The path up the hill leads to a grand shrine, which is guarded by two great stone dragons, much the same as the one that overlooks the hot springs at Yuutopia, in place of the usual statues at other shrines. Viktor stares up at one as he walks past, a little discomforted by the way its eyes seem to follow the flow of the crowd. He has to look away before he unnerves himself any further.

They join the line to the shrine, and soon, Viktor is clapping his hands and bowing, the noise from the great metal bell ringing in his ears. He prays for good fortune for Yuuri and his family, who protected and cared for him, as well as the kind people he has met along his travels in Japan.

He also prays for the dragon who saved his life.

Please, let me see the dragon again. I want to thank it...

With a small sigh, Viktor straightens, glancing up at the wooden panels behind the bell. He starts slightly when he realizes that they are slightly open, and that the shrine inside is lit with candles. A shiver runs up his spine an instant later.

There is a figure sitting inside the shrine, silently watching the shrine-goers coming to worship. Viktor meets dark eyes through the window, then lowers his gaze, his heart beating fast. No one else has paid attention to the figure; is it one of the priests? Surely they would not sit in the spot that receives prayers, though...

Viktor realizes he is holding up the line and steps away, allowing the next person to ring the bell. He returns to the Katsuki family, who cajole him into picking out a slip of paper that will tell his fortune for the year. When he receives it after handing over a few coins, Viktor is nonplussed.

'Great blessing. You will find what you have been searching for all your life. Beware the shining moon.'

When Viktor turns the piece of paper over, another shiver runs through him. Painted along the entire back of the fortune paper is the symbol for dragon.

He notices that no one else has such a symbol on their papers. Viktor slides the fortune into his sleeve, wondering if he should keep it, or if he should tie it to a tree to ward off bad luck. He brushes off Hiroko's curiosity about his fortune, then decides to follow Mari over to a stand where someone is selling amazake.

"Now we settle in and wait," Mari says, sipping the steaming drink. Viktor normally wouldn't mind waiting, but he still has no idea where Yuuri is.

The night wears on. Eventually, Viktor gives the Katsuki family some space to spend time with each other and goes walking around the temple grounds, finding his way to a garden and enjoying the peaceful serenity. The snow has settled over the ground, while the deep pond that curls around the back of the garden and disappears into the woods has yet to freeze, likely connected to the hot springs nearby.

He pauses at the edge of the water and looks up at the night sky, absently tucking his arms close to his body. He misses his cloak, but Japanese clothing is oddly warm despite the frigid air.

He wonders why he is lingering here. He could have left or arranged a different deal with the Katsuki family, and yet... Viktor is curious, intrigued by the mythical creature he saw and the kind family that has taken him in. The work is easy enough, and the company...

"Viktor, what are you doing out here?" calls Yuuri from behind him.

Viktor cannot help a smile, turning to gaze at Yuuri. He nearly swallows his tongue when he lays eyes on Yuuri in formal kimono. The kimono is white fading to midnight blue with delicate swirls stitched into the silk, silver accents alongside the dark colors. Along the bottom hem is a dragon emblazoned in silver, matching the accents. Yuuri's hair has been combed into a rare top knot with a small silver comb pressed into his black locks. He looks utterly enchanting.

Viktor stops himself before he says beautiful. "You're here," he says instead, a little dumbly.

Yuuri smiles sheepishly. Something about him seems distant, as if he has been busy with a duty that he does not enjoy, but his dark eyes warm immediately upon landing on Viktor. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting. I had some chores to finish... Did you already pay your respects?"

Viktor wonders what chores could possibly be more important than the New Years shrine visit. As Yuuri moves closer, Viktor spots the exhaustion in his mien, and his irritation at being left alone for hours ebbs a little. Whatever it was, at least Yuuri is here now.

"I did," Viktor replies with a small smile. Yuuri stops beside him and looks across the darkened grounds, shoulder to shoulder with him. Viktor admires the line of his jaw for a moment, the lovely neck he rarely gets to see, then forces his gaze away. "My fortune was strange, though. But they're all a little vague, aren't they?"

"Oh?" Yuuri murmurs, glancing up at him. "May I see?"

Viktor hesitates. On one hand, he trusts Yuuri to a great extent, larger than he realized. On the other hand, Yuuri is part of the mystery that binds Viktor to this tiny village, and he wonders what Yuuri would even think of the strange symbol. Finally Viktor shakes his head. "It didn't seem very lucky, so..."

"Oh, did you tie it to the pine tree out front? That's a good spot," Yuuri comments, looking out at the pond again and missing Viktor's expression of relief. "Mine was odd, too... I guess the priests were bored this year."

Viktor laughs at the small joke, then subsides into companionable silence. Yuuri moves a little closer until their shoulders press together, and Viktor sighs at the warmth that seeps through the heavy brocade of his clothing.

"Cold?" Yuuri says, feeling Viktor shiver.

Viktor shakes his head. "I grew up in a region that is much further north than this country. This isn't cold to me. Still, the company is nice enough for any discomfort." He winks at Yuuri and finds delight in the small blush that touches Yuuri's cheeks.

"Incorrigible," Yuuri mutters, then clears his throat. "You know, it's tradition to stay up until the first sunrise of the year... would you like to join me?" He glances at Viktor again, almost nervously, though his dark eyes all but glitter in the starlight.

Viktor feels his own face heat up in response. "I'd love to. Though, sitting outside in this weather may be too much even for a Russian man..."

Yuuri laughs, to Viktor's amazement. "I know a place. We can head back without my family. I think they're going to a friend's house for a party."

"Then lead the way," Viktor murmurs, his heart beating a bit faster. Alone with Yuuri on New Years. What could happen?

Yuuri takes him back to Yuutopia. Viktor stays quiet as they walk, as Yuuri seems lost in his own thoughts. The silence between them remains companionable, though, and before Viktor can think to break it with soft flirtation, they have already reached the inn.

After leaving his geta in the entryway, Viktor follows Yuuri into the building, up the stairs to the hallway where Viktor sleeps. Instead of opening Viktor's door, Yuuri passes it to the stairwell at the end of the hall, the one Viktor has been curious about for days.

The only light is the lantern Yuuri carries. Viktor accompanies him in quiet fascination, climbing several stairs until they come to a large pair of doors. Yuuri slides it open, revealing a covered outdoor walkway like the one that leads to the onsen, built into the side of the hill and tracing a path up to a lone building half-hidden by the forest. Viktor stares up at the building in surprise; he has never seen it before, yet it looks over the entirety of Yuutopia and the hot springs. He can even see steam rising behind the building, lit by the moon.

"I live up here," Yuuri says, stepping onto the walkway with his tabi-covered feet. The wood is glossy and smooth, clean of snow and dirt, and yet Viktor has never been up here to clean. At the realization, Viktor narrows his eyes a little. Yuuri should not be doing such chores with his injury, even though it has all but healed now.

Then Yuuri's statement catches up to him, and Viktor inhales in surprise. "You don't have a room near your family?" Viktor asks, hurrying to follow Yuuri, who glances over his shoulder with a smile.

"No, I don't. Not since I was little, anyway. Apparently when I was a child, I found this building and decided it would be my home, and my mother couldn't get me to sleep anywhere else. So I've always stayed here."

"Wow..." Viktor wonders at that. His parents would never have allowed him to sleep alone in a drafty, distant house as a child; but perhaps Yuuri was too cute for anybody to resist, as a small child. At the back of his mind, suspicion dawns at the mysterious story. No parent would want to let their child sleep alone up here. He wonders if there is another reason that Yuuri does not wish to share.

He doesn't press, though. He feels lucky enough that Yuuri is inviting him into his private space.

To Viktor's surprise, the building isn't drafty at all -- instead the rooms are pleasantly warm. Yuuri grins a little at the look on his face.

"There is a spring behind the building. The heat from the ground keeps me warm through winter. It gets kind of hot in the summer, though... I have to keep all the doors open."

"It must be nice in the spring, when you get that lovely breeze," Viktor sighs, imagining the floor dusted with flower blossoms. Yuuri gives him a curious look, smiling slightly.

"It is."

Viktor moves to sit when Yuuri gestures him to a cushion resting in front of a round kotatsu on the floor, watching with interest as Yuuri disappears into the other room. Viktor takes off his outer robe while he waits and slips under the heavy blanket, sighing at the warmth from the smoldering coals beneath the table. Yuuri returns a few minutes later with a tray of several boxes, the sort that New Years treats and dinners would be served in, and a large jug of sake.

Two more jugs, a sake serving bottle, and two cups join the food. At last Yuuri sits down, opening the boxed dishes to reveal several tasty-looking foods, all traditional for the New Years. Viktor's mouth waters a little, though his attention returns to the alcohol.

"Oh, you want to get drunk," Viktor says a little blankly, staring at all the jugs. Yuuri flushes slightly.

"It's New Years, isn't it?" Yuuri mutters, then opens the jug to fill a sake bottle. He picks up one of the dainty white sake cups to begin pouring. "If you don't think you can handle it..."

"You should never challenge a Russian to a drinking contest," Viktor says solemnly, accepting the drink and winking. Yuuri turns a lovely shade of pink and narrows his eyes. "I would love to share this treat with you. Shall we toast?"

"Mm..." Yuuri pours his own cup, then sets the bottle aside and looks at Viktor. He has one leg propped up with his elbow resting on his knee, relaxed in a way that Viktor hasn't really seen before. "To new friends and a prosperous year. May we both get what we want," Yuuri finally says, lifting his cup.

Viktor smiles and reaches up to tap his cup against Yuuri's. "To new beginnings, and to hope for a brighter future."

"Kanpai!"

One drink quickly turns into more. The alcohol relaxes both of them, driving any awkwardness far from the cozy atmosphere between them. Together, Viktor and Yuuri polish off the delicious New Years meal, and Yuuri takes care to tell Viktor about each dish, pointing out every meat, vegetable, and sauce that is used. Though Viktor has eaten osechi ryori before, he gets to try many new versions of the traditional dishes. Best of all, he gets to watch Yuuri talk excitedly about his favorite foods.

He loves watching Yuuri.

At one point, the ceramic sake bottle is abandoned in favor of pouring directly from the jug, something that Viktor hasn't seen in polite society. Yuuri is clearly drinking to forget, though curiously, the alcohol doesn't affect him as strongly as Viktor would have thought, even though he imbibes quite a lot.

"It's my family secret," Yuuri giggles, leaning over the table to whisper confidentially to Viktor. "One of them. My dad and I, we can put away any alcohol, no matter what. Bet I won't get drunk before youuu." Yuuri's Japanese occasionally slips into the local dialect, but Viktor has heard it enough to understand most of what he says. Most importantly, Yuuri has lost his formality, which is a delight to Viktor, who can finally speak to him plainly.

Viktor beams and drinks another cup of sake like it is vodka. "Yuuri! You're already drunk, I think, but that's okay, because I am too!"

"Told you!" Yuuri crows, then brightens and opens another one of the bento boxes. "Ooh, Viktor, look! Mom and dad made us shrimp!"

"Vkusno!" Viktor cries. Yuuri pauses to blink at him in confusion.

"You said that before, once. V... vikusuno?" Yuuri repeats. Viktor inhales softly, charmed by Yuuri's attempt to say the Russian word, suddenly thinking he would like to hear Yuuri say everything in Russian.

"Vkusno," Viktor says for him, watching Yuuri repeat it, then leans forward to brush his finger against Yuuri's bottom lip as he is forming the 'v' sound. "With just a breath of air... like that."

"Vkusno," Yuuri breathes, staring up at him with wide eyes. His cheeks have flushed again, and Viktor feels an answering enthrallment inside his chest, urging him to lean forward and steal a kiss off those delicious lips.

Instead, Viktor lets Yuuri go, leaning back with a smile stronger than his quickly-beating heart. "Just so. Good job, Yuuri!"

Yuuri blinks a few times, reaching up to touch his lips where Viktor's finger had rested a moment ago. After a long moment, he pours himself an overly full cup of sake and drains it, then sets the cup down and meets Viktor's eyes. "Teach me more Russian."

Viktor smiles slowly, something hot running through him. "If you say so," he purrs.

An hour later, Yuuri has learned several new phrases, including one that Viktor employed often in his youth.

"Яков старый пердит!" Viktor and Yuuri shout together, swaying as they chant. Viktor laughs in delight and hugs Yuuri close to his side, rubbing his face against Yuuri's hair. Since they began drinking hours ago, Yuuri has taken the comb and binding out of his hair, shaking it out so that it hangs loose around his face. Viktor breathes in the scent of Yuuri, the metallic scent of the hot spring and something beautifully unique. Almost like fire, or gunpowder.

Yuuri is giggling. "Who is Yakov anyway?" he asks, leaning into Viktor's side. They have already finished off the New Years boxes, and Yuuri has been making noises about getting more snacks. So far, Viktor has resisted, wanting to spend as much time cuddled up under the kotatsu with Yuuri as possible.

"My grandfather," Viktor sighs. "He raised me after my parents died, until he became too old for the task. Then I was sent to my uncle's home, to study with his children. Pretentious bastards, all of them, though Yakov was okay."

"That's kind of sad," Yuuri says, drawing his finger along the rim of his half-empty cup. "Family... shouldn't be like that."

Viktor closes his eyes, a bittersweet feeling welling up in his throat. "It is what it is. My parents died on a voyage when I was a child. Ah, would that they could see me today... in Japan! They always wanted to come to Japan, but the borders were closed back then. Now I am here, living for them."

"You're a good son," Yuuri murmurs, then goes quiet. Viktor finishes off his cup of sake, absently stroking his fingers down Yuuri's arm, the soft linen the only barrier between him and Yuuri's skin. As dawn creeps ever closer, he and Yuuri have lost layers of clothing, leaving everything haphazardly piled by the wall. Much of the alcohol has been buried with good food and water, no longer slurring their words, but the warm flush from the sake has yet to leave Viktor's and Yuuri's cheeks.

Being this close to Yuuri feels very good. Viktor knows he should pull away. They are both drunk, and Yuuri likely doesn't even prefer men, despite his attention and sweet blushes. He will probably marry one of the nice girls in the village, and Viktor will have to go home and marry Lidiya...

"Then don't go home," Yuuri says drowsily, and Viktor starts.

"Did I say that out loud?" Viktor wonders, then sighs. "If my uncle sends people after me..."

"Don't go," Yuuri repeats, opening his eyes and sitting up to look at Viktor. He sways a little, his cheeks softly flushed from the alcohol, but his gaze is determined. "Don't marry someone just because your family wants you to. You shouldn't have to. They probably don't even want to marry you! It's fine, isn't it, to do what you want, right?"

Viktor wants to believe him. He imagines running away with Yuuri for a moment, escaping his family and going traveling wherever he wants, then sighs. "It isn't that easy, Yuuri..."

"It is. If I escaped, then you can, too."

Viktor blinks a few times, too drunk to comprehend Yuuri's words. Then it dawns on him what Yuuri means. His jaw drops, and Yuuri turns pink but doesn't look away from him.

"You... were engaged? But you aren't..."

Yuuri shakes his head. "I was engaged, but I never got married," Yuuri says, looking away. Viktor twists to stare at him in shock. "It was an old agreement... something my family promised many generations ago. I was the unlucky one who had to fulfill it. But... when they took me to meet my intended on my twentieth birthday, my intended refused me. I was free to go home and stay with my family."

Viktor can barely believe it. He wonders who would even think of turning down Yuuri, beautiful, sweet Yuuri who works so hard and deserves to be worshipped. That might be Viktor's own preference, of course, but... who wouldn't want to marry Yuuri?

Yuuri is turning a lovely shade of red. Viktor might be talking out loud again. He smiles a little, though his shock does not lessen. "I had no idea. I'm glad that you did not have to marry someone that you did not love, at least."

Yuuri twists his hands in his sleeves, as if he wants to say more, but the words have stopped in his throat, determined not to be heard. Finally Yuuri sighs deeply with exasperation and pours them both a hefty cup of sake. He and Viktor drink deeply, before Yuuri shifts to his knees and stands, wobbly.

"I want more snacks," Yuuri announces, holding his hand out to Viktor. "Let's go raid the kitchen."

Viktor brightens. Snacks, he can handle. "Okay!"

They pull on their haori and stumble from the building, giggling as the lantern knocks into the railing of the walkway. Yuuri shushes Viktor for his laughter, and Viktor shushes him back.

"Viktor, no, you must be quiet," Yuuri insists, but Viktor shakes his head.

"There aren't any guests but me! And I want to be loud!" Viktor cries, charging forward into the house.

Yuuri yelps and gives chase, laughing as they stumble through the halls and down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, Viktor pauses to catch his breath, winded with laughter. He turns to look up at Yuuri, only to see Yuuri trip himself on the last step and fall right into his arms. Viktor is quick to catch him.

So close. Viktor's gaze drops to Yuuri's lips, inches from his own. Yuuri is heavy and warm in his arms, as if he was made to fit perfectly against him, and he is so close that Viktor could kiss him. His body gives a little throb, sorely tempted, but at the last moment, Viktor pulls away, gently righting Yuuri and brushing his clothes off.

"Alright?" Viktor murmurs, and Yuuri nods wordlessly, eyes wide as he follows Viktor's mouth with his eyes. Viktor licks his lips without thinking, then has to turn away, reminding himself to be strong. Yuuri takes a deep breath, then walks ahead of him, heading for the kitchen.

Viktor watches him, his gaze dropping a little to admire the sway of his narrow hips, the line of his shoulders. He wants so badly, from weeks and weeks of getting to know Yuuri and working at his side. Yuuri's arm has healed nicely, but Viktor has continued to fill mild chores around the inn, particularly any chore involving heavy lifting. He could easily hand the rest of the chores back to Yuuri, but...

Viktor wants to stay at Yuuri's side. It is that simple.

Yuuri pauses at the entrance to the kitchen, peeking over his shoulder at Viktor. He puts a finger to his lips, then slides the door open and tiptoes in, looking much like a child about to steal treats. Too cute. Viktor covers his mouth briefly, then forces himself to focus, following in a similar sneaking manner.

Yuuri stops him with a hand against his chest. "You look out for people," Yuuri orders with a whisper, pushing lightly, and Viktor stumbles back, following the order without thinking. He kneels at the kitchen entrance and keeps one eye on the hallway, unable to help his excitement at their impromptu adventure.

After a few moments, Yuuri lets out a noise of triumph. "Mochi! I found mochi, Viktor!"

"Perfect, Yuuri! Hurry, we must get back to your room!" Viktor replies in an overly dramatic whisper, waving Yuuri to his side. Yuuri beams and grabs what he can carry, and they make their escape.

The mochi are delicious, even more so with sake. As Viktor gets steadily drunker, so does Yuuri, as if they have both decided to battle out the rest of the predawn hours with as much alcohol in their bodies as possible. Viktor is determined to stop thinking about Yuuri's tempting lips, though his decision does him little good; he can't stop looking at Yuuri. He can't stop imagining it. His frustration is made all the worse when Yuuri keeps looking at him with those beautiful dark eyes, hazy with drunkenness and mirth, the stress from earlier in the night all but gone.

At one point they end up snoozing the heavy flush of alcohol away, a couple hours that give them some sobriety back. Viktor wakes after Yuuri to find him pushing the eastern door open, revealing a pink horizon. Yuuri returns to huddling against Viktor, his gaze far away as he watches the sky slowly brighten. Viktor stays silent beside him, enjoying the peaceful air between them and the beautiful view of the sunrise.

At last the sun crests over the treeline, and Yuuri sighs lowly, leaning his head against Viktor's shoulder. Viktor peeks at him and breathes in softly to see Yuuri's eyes all but glowing with the light of the sun, giving him an ethereal look.

He wonders.

"You're looking at me," Yuuri says softly, glancing up at him, and Viktor cannot help smiling.

"Am not. You're looking at me," Viktor returns, his gaze soft. He leans over to pull the door closed again to ward off the chill, settling back at Yuuri's side.

Yuuri grins, and that otherworldly light in his eyes burns, flaring almost unnaturally bright despite the sunlight being gone, the same odd color that Viktor has seen many times now. Viktor sighs deeply, enchanted. "Your eyes are so pretty, Yuuri..."

"Liar! Your eyes are much prettier," Yuuri says, poking his finger into Viktor's cheek. Viktor tries to catch his hand, and Yuuri yelps and pulls away, laughing. When Viktor follows, he loses his balance and ends up tipping them both over.

A moment later, Viktor groans as his head stops spinning so badly, and he hears an answering whimper beneath him. Viktor opens his eyes to find Yuuri on the floor beneath him, his clothes askew and revealing far more of his chest than Viktor has ever seen, his cheeks flushed as he watches Viktor. Yuuri smiles when Viktor meets his eyes.

"You fell," Yuuri whispers. He makes no move to get away from Viktor or push him off.

Inhaling softly, Viktor tries desperately to force himself to move. Yuuri is soft and comfortable, his legs entwined with Viktor's, and his body is pressed against Viktor in all the right ways. He could spend the rest of his life here and be overwhelmingly happy. Ah, but to sink into Yuuri's warmth, to have him... Viktor wants, so badly.

"Yuuri," Viktor whispers, torn. "We can't..."

Yuuri's face falls. Viktor has never hated himself more than in this moment. If he wasn't sure of Yuuri's attraction before, he is now -- and his opposition to taking advantage of Yuuri is swiftly dwindling, the more it looks like Yuuri wants Viktor to take advantage of him.

"Is it because I'm a man?" Yuuri whispers, and something in Viktor's heart turns to fire. "I... I've seen the way you look at me. I've been looking, too. If it's... if it's because I'm not good enough... because of my failed engagement..." Yuuri trails off, and Viktor is alarmed to see tears in his eyes.

"No, no, sweetheart," Viktor says immediately, reaching up to cup Yuuri's face, gently stroking his thumbs over his cheeks to brush away the tears. "It is only because we are drunk, and such decisions should not be made while we are like this. How could I resist you? Beautiful Yuuri, sweet Yuuri, sexy Yuuri --"

"Sexy," Yuuri repeats blankly, his face turning red. Viktor laughs, joy swelling in his heart.

"Erotic Yuuri, darling Yuuri, Yuuri my sun, Yuuri my bunny, my darling Yuuri," Viktor continues, slipping into Russian. Yuuri turns even redder, the tips of his ears brightly colored now, despite not understanding the foreign words.

"Viktor, stop," Yuuri protests, covering his face. He looks utterly beautiful like that, embarrassed at Viktor's love for him, and it makes Viktor want to kiss more words of love into his skin, to find out what other reactions Yuuri might have.

Viktor grins, his heart full. "Make me, Yuuri," he starts to say, only to be cut off by Yuuri surging up to kiss him.

Viktor moans and sinks into Yuuri's arms, tilting his face to kiss him deeply. He can taste remnants of alcohol on Yuuri's lips, alongside the faint sweetness of the mochi they shared, and he yearns for more. Yuuri shivers beneath him, then arches boldly up into Viktor's body, hooking a leg around Viktor's thigh.

"Need you," Yuuri whispers against Viktor's lips, slowly gyrating against him. "Been thinking about you every night, about having you here."

Viktor groans, imagining Yuuri alone here, touching himself while thinking of him. Viktor is no more innocent, having indulged in several fantasies about Yuuri already, though he has resisted making advances toward him, out of respect for Yuuri's boundaries.

Those boundaries are all but annihilated, now.

"Me too, oh," Viktors breathes, then delves his tongue into Yuuri's hot mouth, a thrill of heat running through him when Yuuri starts in surprise. He wonders whether Yuuri has ever been with anybody before, then decides it doesn't matter; whatever his past, Viktor is Yuuri's present, and if he has his way, he will be Yuuri's future. If only he could be Yuuri's everything...

Yuuri is clutching onto his robe, making tiny little grinding motions against Viktor's hip, his cock heavy. Viktor groans, then has to force himself to pull away, before they go too far. "Not now," Viktor says, but his brain is left empty of reason when Yuuri leans up to mouth at Viktor's neck, sucking hot little marks into his skin with needy sighs. Viktor's entire body throbs with desire in response.

"Please, Viktor," Yuuri whispers between kisses, and Viktor shudders, his hands flying down to grasp Yuuri's hips to still them. Yuuri cries out, writhing beneath him. "No, no, please --"

"Hold on, darling," Viktor tells him gently, sitting up out of Yuuri's arms. He shifts to his knees and hikes Yuuri's legs up to rest on either side of his hips, sighing at the way Yuuri's robe spills open. Yuuri is watching him with wide eyes, his hair a dark halo around his head, his glasses long abandoned to the table. Viktor reaches for the sash at Yuuri's waist, then hesitates. "We are still somewhat drunk, and we may regret this tomorrow. I must ask... may I touch you?"

"Yes," Yuuri whispers, his eyes wide. "Please, Viktor. I won't regret it. I need you. I want... I want to be with you. I want you to look at me, to see me..."

"I will look at only you for the rest of our lives," Viktor promises, then tugs Yuuri's sash undone, pushing his robe open to reveal Yuuri's splendid naked body. Viktor sighs, drinking in the beautiful image of him, glowing beneath the light of the lamp and the sunlight beginning to brighten the walls. Yuuri is all hard lines and soft tones, yet his desire is obvious, leaking against his hip and making Viktor's mouth water.

"I would make love to you all day, if you'd only let me," Viktor says in Russian, leaning down to kiss Yuuri's shoulder, then his neck, tracing Yuuri's racing pulse with his tongue. Yuuri gasps softly, making Viktor smile. In between his words, he leaves marks all across Yuuri's skin, unable to resist the taste of him. "I would fuck you until you begged for it, suck you off, worship every inch of your body until you scream my name..."

"Viktor, please, I don't know what you're saying," Yuuri moans, as Viktor's lips trace down to his belly button. When Viktor dips his tongue into the soft crease, Yuuri gasps, his hips jolting. "Viktor!"

"Yes, just like that," Viktor murmurs, lying down on his stomach and groaning as his erection presses into the cushion. He reaches up to Yuuri's knees and pushes his legs back. "Hold your knees like this, Yuuri."

"Okay..." Yuuri does as Viktor says, his face turning red when he realizes the position it puts him in. Viktor admires him for a long moment, seeing so much of Yuuri's gorgeous flushed skin. His gaze drops to Yuuri's core, and above him, Yuuri lets out a little gasp. "Viktor, this is really embarrassing, please, can't we just --"

"You want me to look at you, don't you?" Viktor croons, glancing up at Yuuri and grinning when their eyes meet. "I want to see you. All of you... every part of you."

Yuuri shudders, but he doesn't pull away. His hands tighten over the skin of his thighs. "But that's so..."

"Beautiful," Viktor finishes for him, then spreads Yuuri's lower cheeks and ducks down to press a hot, wet kiss to his hole. Yuuri's entire body goes taut with shock, and his cock leaks even more pearly liquid out. Viktor reaches up to wrap his palm around Yuuri, sliding his fingers through the slickness, groaning softly. Yuuri is hot and tight around his tongue, sweetly clean from bathing earlier, and the noises Yuuri makes every time Viktor presses his tongue inside... Viktor could reach his own peak just listening to him.

Yuuri's hands fly to hold Viktor's head, his legs spreading wide. "Oh, oh, Viktor! That's so -- oh, please!"

After several long, blissful moments, Viktor draws away, causing Yuuri to scream in dismay, making him shudder. "Tell me what you want, Yuuri," Viktor whispers, his voice husky. He drags his hand down Yuuri's impressive length, his mouth watering slightly as he looks at it. Later, he promises himself.

Yuuri looks up at him, trembling. "Please, I want you, I want you in me," Yuuri begs, and Viktor turns to hide his face in Yuuri's thigh for a moment, kissing his damp skin.

"You will be the end of me," Viktor sighs, then sits up and leans down to kiss Yuuri. To his dismay, Yuuri evades his kiss, turning his head, and Viktor pouts, hurt. "Yuuri?"

"Your mouth was down there," Yuuri mutters, blushing red. "That's so..."

"Hmm," Viktor hums, considering. Then he reaches over to the sake bottle and pours the last cupful, picking it up and draining it. He grins at the wide-eyed look Yuuri gives him. "There, all clean. Kiss me now."

"Viktor," Yuuri gasps, then groans when Viktor leans down to capture his mouth again, stroking his hands down Yuuri's body. Yuuri scrambles to push Viktor's clothes off his shoulders, his sash long gone, his cock hanging heavy between them. Viktor sighs to feel Yuuri's hands on his body, learning him through touch. Were Yuuri not so frantic to be with him, Viktor would take his time; yet he is not immune to the rising lust between them, the urgency that demands he give Yuuri what he wants.

"Viktor, Viktor, I need," Yuuri moans, thrusting futilely against Viktor's stomach, and Viktor shudders, then sits up again. He does not have any ointment or salve to make their union easier, which means he must resort to other methods to give Yuuri the intimacy he craves.

"Yes. I have you, it's alright, darling," Viktor murmurs, laying his hands on Yuuri's thighs. "Here... push your legs together like this, and rest them here." He pats his shoulder, and after a moment, Yuuri obeys, whining in the back of his throat.

Viktor licks his palm, then reaches down to guide himself between Yuuri's thighs, sighing as the head of his cock bumps against Yuuri's entrance. Yuuri gasps, meeting his eyes, and Viktor holds his gaze as he slides closer, holding Yuuri's knees with one hand.

"Oh," Yuuri whispers, his breath coming in short sighs now. "I, I thought you would... inside me..."

"When we are better prepared," Viktor replies softly, turning his head to kiss Yuuri's leg. "Perhaps the other way, too. For now, I think this will do nicely." He punctuates the words with a long, slow thrust, a deep moan falling from his throat as Yuuri's thick, warm thighs squeeze his cock. Yuuri writhes, throwing his head back as Viktor drags against his entrance, bumping up against his leaking hardness as Viktor sinks home again.

"Viktor!"

"Yuuri," Viktor moans, thrusting harder and pushing them both across the floor. Yuuri grabs onto his arm for support, and Viktor shudders to feel Yuuri's nails dragging against his skin, leaving marks he hopes to bear with pride for many more days. He reaches down to wrap his fingers around Yuuri again, giving him a tight ring to press into every time Viktor thrusts between his thighs, which makes Yuuri scream.

Each time his cock drags against Yuuri's hole, Viktor imagines pressing himself inside. Yuuri is chanting softly under his breath, inside me inside me, dreaming of the same. Viktor wishes desperately to give Yuuri what he needs, but he must resist for now, lest he hurt Yuuri. He will have to find something later, perhaps from the pharmacist. Unless Yuuri knows what they could use.

Viktor realizes he is losing control, his thrusts becoming more erratic. Yuuri's thighs are slick now and burning hot, a welcome home for his aching cock. Viktor could lose himself in Yuuri forever like this, in the gasps and cries that fall from Yuuri's lips, that Viktor aches to catch with his mouth so that nobody else will hear them. He presses open-mouthed kisses to Yuuri's leg, wishing he was kissing Yuuri again, his desire thrumming in his ears.

Suddenly Yuuri goes rigid, his hips quivering as his release spills over his stomach and Viktor's hand, and Viktor moans at the sudden rush of heat. He pushes Yuuri's legs apart around him and lies down on top of him again, sliding his cock between Yuuri's thighs once more and thrusting hard, the blunt head of his cock scraping against Yuuri's wet hole. Viktor gasps as his cock presses inside a little, and Yuuri's fingers dig painfully deep.

"Yes, yes," Yuuri keens, throwing his arms around Viktor's neck and holding on tightly. Viktor catches his mouth to kiss him, pressing against him until his vision goes white with pleasure, his hips quivering as he spends himself over Yuuri's thighs and entrance.

Afterwards, they rest together, Yuuri stroking his fingers along the marks he left on Viktor's back and shoulders. Each little touch burns him a little, but the pain feels so good after such pleasure that Viktor does not mind.

"Beautiful Yuuri," Viktor whispers, kissing Yuuri's chest. He feels it when Yuuri breathes in, a faint tremble to his voice.

"I thought it would take all winter to convince you to bed me," Yuuri murmurs, blushing when Viktor looks up at him in surprise.

"I thought you didn't want me," Viktor says, blinking. "You never want to bathe with me..."

"It's not like that," Yuuri mumbles, shaking his head. "I mean... I know if I saw you in the bath, it would be all over. You're so... you, and I'm just me, and... well, there are some things I haven't told you, that I'd need to explain... if we saw each other naked properly..."

Viktor smiles slowly, reaching up to take Yuuri's hand and pressing his palm against his lips. "You have all winter to tell me, and beyond that, even. There is no rush on love, Yuuri."

"Love," Yuuri repeats, hushed and wide-eyed. "I... Viktor..."

Viktor entwines their fingers. "You need not say the words in return. It is simply how I feel. Please let me feel this for you... I beg you."

Yuuri takes a deep breath, his eyes glittering in the morning light. The lanterns have long dwindled to nearly nothing, and the quiet of the new year leaves an open ache in Viktor's heart. What the future may bring, he does not know. What he does know is that he doesn't want to give Yuuri up, and if he can have this little piece of happiness in the midst of his life going to hell, then he will hold onto it tightly for as long as he can, whether or not Yuuri returns his feelings. Lust is one thing, and Viktor welcomes it; but love is another world entirely.

He has no idea if Yuuri will ever return his feelings. Perhaps the emotion is as ephemeral as the sun's morning rays cusping over the horizon; yet it burns through Viktor, giving him strength to continue forward. Whatever secrets Yuuri has, Viktor will accept them all, whatever Yuuri wishes to share with him.

All he wants is this, right here.

Yuuri meets his gaze, that beautiful amber color flickering in his dark eyes. "Okay," Yuuri whispers finally, cupping Viktor's cheek, then combing his fingers back through his hair, sliding it away from his face. Viktor shivers at the expression on his face, feeling oddly vulnerable, reminded of another moment when he was caught under a similar stare. "I won't deny you that, Viktor."

"Yuuri," Viktor whispers, closing his eyes with relief.

~*~

Viktor wakes hours later to a soft touch to his face, fingers combing his hair back. He opens his eyes halfway to see Yuuri lying inches from him, and he smiles.

"I thought you were a New Years dream," Yuuri whispers. Viktor reaches up to take his hand, turning his head to press a kiss to Yuuri's palm.

"I'm not a dream, Yuuri," Viktor murmurs. Yuuri smiles slowly, the same warmth as the sun cusping over the horizon earlier, and Viktor sighs, leaning over to kiss him softly. Then he makes a face when he registers their breath and his aching head.

"What did we even drink last night?" Viktor sighs, and Yuuri laughs, turning to hide his face in Viktor's neck. Viktor realizes then that he is not wearing anything, while Yuuri is wearing fresh clothes. Viktor pouts, realizing that the room has since been cleaned, while he slept the morning away. "Unfair, Yuuri! I want to bathe with you, too."

"You can wash up," Yuuri says with a chuckle, sitting up. "If you go through the last door, there is a spring back there, and you can bathe for a little while. Just don't fall asleep."

Viktor sits up slowly, wincing slightly and rubbing his head. He wonders at how Yuuri seems to show no signs of their late night drinking. Yuuri gives him a little smile, absently reaching up to comb his hair back. Viktor sulks more when he realizes that, once again, he has missed seeing Yuuri completely naked.

"I've got to go help in the kitchen. Come down to the family room when you're done, okay?" Yuuri says, standing and heading for the door. Viktor catches his wrist as he passes and touches his finger to his lips, then reaches up to press the gifted kiss to Yuuri's lips. Yuuri stares down at him, then turns red.

"Y-you..."

"Me," Viktor says, smiling. "I wanted to ask... do you prefer to keep this private? Your family is very kind, but..."

"Oh!" Yuuri says, then bites down on his lip. "It's not... it's not like they don't know or mind, this sort of thing. It's just... it's private. I don't really want to share you with anyone."

Viktor blinks a few times, his face warming at Yuuri's last words. "Share me..."

"This! I mean this!" Yuuri hastens to explain, then groans and covers his face. "I really have to go. Um, I'll see you downstairs, Viktor." He hesitates, then leans down to kiss Viktor's cheek, before making his escape.

Viktor sighs, watching him go, reaching up to touch his warm cheek where Yuuri left him a kiss. He doesn't mind keeping their relationship private, and truly, here they seem to have a lot more freedom than Viktor would in his own home. He smiles, a little goofily, and stands to go clean himself off.

The spring behind Yuuri's building is a simple one, with layered stones wading deeper into the spring, the rocks surrounding the hot water covered in snow. A small well sits off to the side of the bathing area, which is open to the night air but warm enough from steam. Like the springs below, a wooden wall surrounds the spring and building, but if Viktor squints, he can make out a path leading away from the house, toward a gate that is locked closed.

Now he knows how Yuuri always sneaks into the woods while Viktor is downstairs, at least.

Viktor sighs and sets to cleaning himself, all the while thinking of Yuuri up here alone, with nobody to talk to him. He wonders if Yuuri's parents made him bathe with them when he was young, despite sleeping up here, or if Yuuri bathed alone. Perhaps Yuuri will let Viktor join him sometimes; it would be nice to sit here alone with him, nothing between them...

Viktor might lose himself in a daydream. Nobody is around judge him.

Finally Viktor deems himself ready to face Yuuri's family and stands. As he moves toward the steps, Viktor's toes press into something pointy, sharp enough to hurt but not enough to break the skin. Viktor quickly steps out of the way, frowning down into the murky water. He kneels down after a moment and feels around with his hand, not wanting Yuuri to get hurt, then finds a small, hard object. Viktor lifts his hand, and as the water drains from his palm, his eyes go wide.

In his hand is a large dragon scale, as dark as the night and gleaming with something otherworldly. Viktor runs his fingers over it carefully, then closes his hand, looking back at the house. At last he climbs out of the water.

When Viktor steps inside, he finds his messily folded clothes from last night alongside a clean kimono, and he carefully dresses, as best as he can alone. While he dresses, he peers around the second room, which seems to be Yuuri's bedroom. A dresser with deep red drawers sits against the wall, and in the middle of the floor is a futon, neatly made.

Viktor pauses when he notices a picture on the wall behind the dresser -- a drawing of him. He steps closer, staring down at the picture in surprise. He remembers sitting for it on a warm summer day, barely resisting the sun in his eyes while an artist drew him. The drawing had been featured alongside his article in the newspaper, which led to instant popularity.

Viktor smiles a little, a few of Yuuri's odd mannerisms suddenly making sense. Yuuri is his fan. It is only right that Viktor has found his way to him.

He shakes his head and returns to the front room to finish getting ready. Amidst gathering his belongings, Viktor notices that his forgotten fortune from last night has slipped out of his clothes, and he picks it up, hoping that Yuuri did not see.

He flips over the paper with a small frown. The dragon character is still painted on the back of the paper, but to Viktor's surprise, the fortune itself has changed.

'Great blessing. You will find what you have been searching for all your life. Beware the golden blade.'

Viktor's frown deepens slowly. After a long moment, he pockets the fortune along with the scale he found, glancing around the room once more but seeing nothing else. Then he leaves, heading downstairs to join the Katsuki family for their New Years meal.

The following weeks challenge Viktor's patience. Yuuri will only treat him politely in public, but the moment they are alone, Viktor can run his hands all over Yuuri without a single protest, unless Yuuri's family happens to be nearby. Yuuri has assured Viktor that his family knows about his predilections and do not mind, but he is still intensely private about their intimacy, not wanting anyone to see either of them lost in each other.

Viktor doesn't mind. He makes a game of it: stealing kisses when nobody can see them, catching Yuuri in the hallway outside a guest's room and squeezing his hand, or whispering Russian pet names into his ear when his family is in the room but cannot hear them. He loves seeing Yuuri flustered over his advances, now that he can be more open about them.

Yuuri has yet to bathe in the onsen with Viktor, though. He insists on not being ready, and Viktor has accepted that explanation so far, trusting Yuuri to know his own limitations. That does not stop him from seeking Yuuri out after his bath every night, only to make another mess of both of them, reaching new heights of pleasure each time they touch.

To his dismay, Yuuri refuses to sleep with him when the room is brightly lit. Viktor has his own suspicions about such a choice, but he respects Yuuri's wishes, taking the dim candlelight as a reason to do whatever he wants to Yuuri, who loves every single touch.

Viktor isn't the only one making advances. Yuuri likes to surprise him after long hours of work, when all of his family has gone to bed and both of them are free from responsibility. One night after his bath, Viktor steps into his room and finds Yuuri waiting for him. The second the door slides shut, Yuuri grabs him by the collar and hauls him in for a kiss, pressing Viktor up against the wooden panels.

"Viktor, let's do it," Yuuri whispers into his mouth, shifting against him. Viktor notices that he is already half-hard. "I got some stuff. Please, I've been thinking about it all day..."

A thrill runs through Viktor when Yuuri presses a small jar into his hand. Viktor closes his fingers around it, his thumb rubbing over the smooth stoneware, then flips them around and drags Yuuri's collar open to kiss his neck. "Thinking of me? Of the pleasure I could give you? Or of my..."

"Don't say it," Yuuri protests, choking on a moan when Viktor bites down on his shoulder. He reaches for Viktor's sash, determined to get them both naked as fast as possible. "Please, please..."

"For you, anything," Viktor whispers, kissing Yuuri again deeply. He tosses the jar on the futon and works to divest them both of their clothes, letting Yuuri tug him across the room and down to the blanket. Viktor breaks the kiss with a groan when Yuuri slides into his lap, rolling his hips.

"I need it," Yuuri tells him, leaning into Viktor and kissing his neck, then sucking on his ear. His hips make tiny gyrations that attempt to drive Viktor insane. "I need you so much..."

"Inside you?" Viktor asks, his fingers coasting down to rest on Yuuri's backside, squeezing his supple skin. "Do you need me that badly, darling?"

"Yes," Yuuri hisses, pulling away and glaring. "I've been carrying that in my pocket all day. It was hell, Viktor! My dad asked me if I was sick!"

Viktor has to look away, closing his mouth tightly before laughter bubbles up. Yuuri notices immediately and groans, then turns Viktor's face back towards him, leaning in to press their foreheads together.

"I've been dreaming of you, Viktor," Yuuri whispers, his lips brushing the corner of Viktor's mouth, teasing him. "Of all the things we could do together. The places we could go... the pleasure we could give each other. The love between us."

Viktor jolts slightly at the last words, meeting Yuuri's eyes in amazement. Yuuri gazes back steadily, his face flushed while his mouth is pursed into a little moue of determination. Viktor leans in to kiss him softly, not drawing away.

"You are a wonder, my dear Yuuri," Viktor whispers, breathing the words against Yuuri's lips. His fingers trace down Yuuri's back, spelling out words of love along his spine. "If we give ourselves to each other, I will not let go of you... I will mark you forever with my love."

"As long as I can have you," Yuuri breathes, his arms tightening around Viktor. "I want all of your love, Viktor. Please give it to me."

"As you wish, darling."

Yuuri is sunlight beneath his hands, glowing in his desire for Viktor. He opens up beautifully, with sweet moans and desperate, filthy words, ambrosia to Viktor's ears. Each touch draws him out of his shell, until Yuuri is all but screaming Viktor's name in need.

Later, when Viktor flips Yuuri onto his stomach and goes harder, just as Yuuri begs, he notices something on Yuuri's back. He touches the silvery lines, his eyes widening a bit, then leans down when Yuuri turns his head to look at him, drawing his lips down the tattoo that Yuuri has not let him see.

A silver dragon. So this is what Yuuri wishes to hide from him... but not even the low light of the lantern can conceal it from Viktor, who has set himself to learning every inch of Yuuri's body.

He never mentions it to Yuuri, who must want to keep it private for a reason. He thinks about it, though, alongside the other things Yuuri tries to hide, but ultimately doesn't consider it an issue.

No matter. Viktor loves Yuuri no matter how many secrets he has.

~*~

One night in late January, Viktor spends most of the day out in the village, assisting Okugawa Minako with some heavy lifting she needed done. She pays him handsomely in dinner, gifts for the Katsuki family, and a large bottle of homemade sake for his own stock, for which Viktor is rather grateful. He is disappointed when he gets home late that night, because the inn is already darkened, as everyone has retired to bed.

Viktor sighs and climbs the stairs up to his room, after leaving the gifts in the family room. His limbs are cold from the long walk back, and he would love to warm up in the springs. He noticed on his way inside that the lanterns around the springs were not lit, though, and he does not wish to bother anybody with his small desire. He can bathe in the morning.

Upon reaching his floor, Viktor pauses, noticing a light at the end of the hall. The stairs leading up to Yuuri's section of the inn have been lit with a lantern, flickering gently, beckoning Viktor with its warmth. Viktor glances at his room, then nods decisively and gathers a few of his belongings, before walking down the hall. If nothing else, he can go to sleep with Yuuri, who will welcome him.

Yuuri's building is lit from inside, and Viktor steps into warm air gladly, setting down the sake and his clothes. "Yuuri, I'm back," Viktor calls, then pauses when Yuuri does not answer. He steps over to the second room, where Yuuri usually sleeps, and finds it empty as well.

Then Viktor hears a splash. His heart skips a beat. Yuuri is bathing.

Viktor hesitates at the door that leads to the bathing area. Yuuri is intensely private about bathing, still refusing to soak with him in the springs. Viktor should not interrupt him when Yuuri has not given him permission to look upon him... and yet.

"Yuuri, I'm back," Viktor calls out again, louder than before. "May I come out? I'd like to bathe."

He hears another splash, before finally Yuuri answers. "V-Viktor? Um, okay... you can sit with me." Viktor swallows a little; Yuuri sounds nervous, which makes Viktor feel a little nervous, too. He shakes his head and steps outside.

A single lantern hangs over the bathing area, and beyond, Viktor can make out Yuuri's figure, sitting at the darkened end of the spring. He frowns a little. "Yuuri, you're so far away," Viktor whines, setting his bathing supplies down and beginning to pull off his clothes. Today he wore his Russian clothing, better for hard work, and now he peels off his shirt and trousers, sighing as his body is unveiled to the night.

And to Yuuri, who is watching him, his eyes gleaming in the shadows. "I like sitting here," Yuuri defends himself, and Viktor glances over his bare shoulder with a smile.

"Do you? Is that your favorite spot?"

"Sort of," Yuuri says, sinking into the water. Viktor allows himself to look for a moment, seeing Yuuri's long hair pulled up in a messy bun, his shoulders bare.

After a moment, Viktor forces himself to focus. If he wants to enjoy Yuuri in the bath, then he needs to join him properly. Viktor divests himself of the rest of his clothing, kneeling down nude and beginning to wash himself with soap. He hears a soft splash and glances over, noticing Yuuri moving a little closer, though he remains in the shadowy side of the spring.

Viktor's smile widens. "You can come closer, Yuuri. I have nothing to hide from you."

"That's not the problem," Yuuri mutters, but his voice carries, and Viktor raises an eyebrow at him. Yuuri looks away, and in the dim light, Viktor can see something on Yuuri's head, long and thin, arching up from his hair. It is too dark to see any other details. A shiver runs up his spine, and Viktor squints, wondering if it was a trick of his mind. "Just... wash yourself off. I'm fine here."

Viktor considers Yuuri for a moment, then nods and continues scrubbing his body, sighing at the feeling of finally being clean after a long day of hard, sweaty work. Minako had set him to building a hut to house her firewood, then filling it with said planks; not the hardest of tasks, but it took long enough that Viktor never wants to see another piece of wood again. He picks up a bucket of pleasantly cool spring water and pours it over his head, rinsing the soap off.

At last Viktor deems himself clean enough to enter the bath. "I'm coming to join you," Viktor calls out, stepping into the heated water with a sigh. At the sound of his voice, Yuuri turns his gaze from the horizon, where the moon is setting, and looks at him. Viktor moves through the water with a steady pace, away from the shine of the lantern and into the shadows, where Yuuri sits waiting quietly.

When he reaches Yuuri, Viktor lowers himself to kneel in front of him, and Yuuri reaches up to cover his eyes. "You can't look," Yuuri whispers. "Not yet. I... I can't let you see me like this yet."

Viktor closes his eyes, then reaches up to take Yuuri's hands and draw them down, kissing each of his fingers. "Yuuri... whatever you are hiding, you can trust me. I can be patient, if you do not wish to tell me now... but... perhaps it has something to do with the lovely dragon that saved me, the day you found me in the woods? Or rather... the day you saved me?"

"Lovely," Yuuri repeats, then sputters. "What -- how did you --"

Laughing softly, Viktor reaches up to the top of Yuuri's head, and though Yuuri reaches up to stop him, Viktor finds the horns first. "Oh, Yuuri," Viktor sighs, tracing the long curling bones with his hands, feeling their ridges. "I knew it was you who saved me."

Yuuri's hands still on his wrists, and Viktor hears him swallow. He wonders what Yuuri's expression must be like; he has yet to open his eyes, as Yuuri has not yet given him permission. "But... how did you know?" Yuuri whispers, his fingers tightening over Viktor's pulse. "I haven't... I've been so careful..."

Viktor smiles softly. "Many little things, coming together into one beautiful picture. The injury on your arm, in the same place as on the dragon I saw. Your family honors dragons... your village worships dragons. You went missing for New Years, and I saw a person... you, inside the shrine. Plus... Japanese dragons are creatures of water, are they not? You would not bathe with me, despite being intimate with me. I know by touching your body that you are hale and whole, so there should have been no reason to hide from me... unless the water changes you in some way. I was right, wasn't I?"

For a long moment, Yuuri is silent, his fingers twitching over Viktor's wrists. Then he lowers their hands together, breathing in sharply. "If you think you can handle it... you can look at me."

Viktor inhales softly, then opens his eyes to look. Yuuri will not look at him, his face lowered in shame. Viktor pauses, then turns his hands to capture Yuuri's in his grip, before sliding backwards to guide Yuuri toward the light of the lantern. After a brief moment of resisting, Yuuri follows him, holding himself tense as they leave the shadows.

The warm light spills over Yuuri's naked form, and Viktor gasps softly, enraptured. Yuuri has changed just as Viktor thought he had; he has long, curling horns that divide into three points, arching behind his head, and along his skin are dustings of dark scales, the color of the night. His ears have become pointed, and his nails are long and dark, with silver markings around his eyes. When Yuuri finally glances up at Viktor, the sight of his eyes punches through him, leaving him breathless.

Yuuri's eyes are amber, slitted like the dragon's eyes Viktor saw months ago.

Art by Amarok

"I knew it," Viktor breathes, then throws his arms around Yuuri in delight. "I knew it was you! You saved my life! Amazing Yuuri, wonderful Yuuri! Beautiful Yuuri," he croons, leaning back and cupping Yuuri's face, stroking his thumbs over the elegant scales that run along Yuuri's jaw and temples. "Look at you... my gorgeous Yuuri. My dragon."

Slowly, Yuuri lifts his hands to touch Viktor's wrists again, his eyes going wide. "You don't... hate me? This form..."

"You are beautiful like this, and you are beautiful like yourself," Viktor tells him, then leans down to capture Yuuri's lips in a kiss. Yuuri doesn't respond for a moment, then surges forward and kisses Viktor deeply, a needy noise escaping him. Viktor swallows the sweet cry, lowering his hands to wrap around Yuuri and embrace him tightly.

Yuuri breaks the kiss after a moment, hiding his face in Viktor's neck. "I'm sorry I hid it from you. I couldn't tell you, I wasn't allowed. I'm so sorry, Viktor."

Viktor smiles softly, turning his head a little and realizing that Yuuri's horn is inches from his lips. He leans into Yuuri, pressing a kiss to the golden bone, feeling Yuuri start in his arms. "You do not need to apologize, Yuuri. If I had a big secret like this, I would hide it from the world, too."

"No, I mean..." Yuuri pulls back slightly, resting his hands on Viktor's waist. Viktor reaches behind Yuuri to his back, running his fingers down his ridged spine with interest. Yuuri shivers, then continues speaking. "I mean, I wasn't allowed. This... part of me, it is a curse. I was never meant to tell anyone..."

"A curse?" Viktor draws away, reaching up to touch Yuuri's face, tilting his head up. Yuuri looks up at him solemnly, misery in his amber gaze, and Viktor softens, leaning in to kiss the scales along Yuuri's forehead. "How about you tell me about it?"

Yuuri stays silent for a long moment, then nods, catching Viktor's hand and pulling him over to the side of the spring to sit, leaning back against the heated stones. "Okay... I will tell you. But don't interrupt, okay?" He gives Viktor a stern look. "It's a long story."

Viktor nods, touching his lips with his finger, a promise. Underneath the otherworldly features, Yuuri is still Yuuri, and Viktor still loves him. He will do whatever Yuuri asks.

"Alright," Yuuri says, then takes a deep breath. "This begins a long time ago, with one of my ancestors. My family wasn't always known as the Katsuki family, but we always lived here. One day, my ancestor went on a journey and found a magical well in the woods, or so he said, and he wished upon it. A dragon appeared... a great silver dragon, taking up the entire sky. My ancestor pleaded with him, to grant his family great fortune. The dragon agreed to do so, in exchange for my ancestor's child."

"His child?" Viktor asks, unable to help himself, and Yuuri shoots him an irritated look. Viktor subsides with a smile, and Yuuri sighs again.

"Yes, his child. Now, my ancestor was a shrewd person, and he told the dragon that his firstborn was already engaged, but that his secondborn could become the dragon's intended, if the dragon would wait patiently. The dragon somehow agreed and returned to his well, and my ancestor returned home, finding good fortune awaiting him."

Yuuri makes a small face. "This is where he becomes deceitful. You see, my ancestor did not have a second child yet, and he convinced his wife not to have any more children. Instead, he made his firstborn swear to only have one child, and to have that child swear the same... and so on. So nobody would ever have more than one child per generation, and thus they would never have to pay the dragon."

"Wow," Viktor whispers, ignoring the exasperated look Yuuri gives him. Then he realizes what Yuuri must mean. "But you... you have an older sister."

"Yes," Yuuri says heavily, his gaze falling. "Somehow... my family forgot. The promise to the dragon, the vow to have one child per generation... they forgot, and when my father and mother married, they were blessed with two children. Mari-neechan, and me."

Yuuri falls quiet for a few long moments, and this time, Viktor does not interrupt. He squeezes Yuuri's hand in the water, entwining their fingers after a moment, and Yuuri glances up at him with a small smile.

"When I turned three, I turned into a dragon for the first time. My family was horrified. They were afraid that the gods had cursed us, or that a spirit had taken over our home... they called in priests and village elders, and that's when they learned about the old secret. A record of the promise with the dragon had been recorded at the temple, written down by one of my ancestors, who had married a priestess.

"I turned back into a boy three days later. My family... they loved me all the same for it, but the villagers treated me differently ever since. They thought I was blessed by the gods, and during celebrations and festivals, they would make me sit in the shrine to receive prayers. I found that I could change into a dragon whenever I wished, but that if I entered water, I would turn into this strange half-form."

Yuuri laughs softly, looking up at his home. "This building has been here for a long time, actually. Some ancestor had built it long ago as a special suite for very important guests. However... since we often had guests, and since I needed somewhere to bathe alone, my parents cleaned it out for me. I've lived here ever since I was six."

"Oh, Yuuri," Viktor whispers, lifting their hands out of the water and kissing the soft skin of Yuuri's palm. Yuuri blushes a little, then leans into him, taking a deep, unsteady breath. "I'm so sorry you had to go through that alone."

"It wasn't all bad," Yuuri says softly. "I got a big room to play in all by myself, and I could go play in the woods as a dragon whenever I wanted. The cold doesn't bother me when I'm transformed... and it's nice, having a big bath all to myself. It was just... a little lonely."

Viktor says nothing, turning to gather Yuuri into his arms and holding him tightly. Yuuri breathes in sharply, then hides his face against Viktor's hair, his arms tight around his waist. For a little while, they sit in silence like that, until Yuuri finally sighs and draws away again, though he does not leave the circle of Viktor's arms.

"When I turned twenty... after my coming of age ceremony, I was escorted to the dragon's home. I had been raised thinking I would have to marry him, and I was terrified. I didn't want to leave my family. I didn't want to be a dragon. But... it was a promise several hundred years overdue, so I had to go.

"However... the dragon didn't accept me. He arrived at the place where I waited, but when he saw me, he said that he did not need me and sent me away."

Viktor can hardly believe his ears. The fiancé who had turned Yuuri down... was a dragon? "How... could he do that? Why on earth did he reject you?"

Yuuri shakes his head slightly. "I don't know. Dragons live for a long time, and perhaps he forgot... or perhaps he grew tired of waiting. I was horrified. I had no idea what would become of me. I begged the dragon to reconsider, but he told me that I should go back to my family. Finally I transformed, and it shocked the dragon, but he said the same to me. He didn't want me."

"But... what about becoming a dragon? Surely he would not force you to remain a dragon, if he would not marry you?" Viktor asks, frowning.

Yuuri turns to rest his head on Viktor's shoulder, some of his hair resting against Viktor's cheek. "It was the price I had to pay for my family's deceit. A cursed existence... and now, I can never leave Yuutopia. How could I go anywhere looking like this when it rains? I can't bathe with other people, either. I can't even imagine it... being around other people, who wouldn't understand."

Viktor closes his eyes, an ache swelling in his chest. He understands the breadth of Yuuri's misery now, the pain that he has suffered in silence for years. Yuuri, who dreams of exploring the world, could never go further than the borders of his village, for fear of being caught or killed for his secret.

"You can go with me," Viktor says without thinking, opening his eyes. "I would take you anywhere. I would protect you, Yuuri."

Yuuri turns sharply to look at him. "You can't promise that, Viktor."

"Can't I?" Viktor reaches up to cup Yuuri's face, stroking his thumb over his scaled skin. "I have contacts all over the world. Though my uncle wishes me to return to his control, I have plenty of money in Russia, and here, even. I could take us anywhere. I would keep you safe from harm."

Yuuri's eyes are wide, the lantern light flickering in the brilliant color. "Viktor..."

"What was done to you was terrible," Viktor says quietly. "To force a child to marry a stranger, deity or not, is neither fair nor right. To deny you, after you were raised to be given away, is even worse. Would that I could talk to this dragon and have a few words with him..."

"Absolutely not," Yuuri says, then laughs, his cheeks turning the same red as Viktor often sees in his human form. "This... just this, being with you like this, it's enough. Before you, nobody has ever..."

Viktor inhales softly, a thrill running hot through his chest. "If I have my way, then nobody else ever will," he whispers, then leans in to kiss Yuuri deeply, catching his sigh with his lips. Yuuri melts into him, and for a time, they say little else on the matter.

~*~

"It's starting to get warmer, isn't it?" Viktor muses one day. Snow still covers the ground, but less so than during the long months he has spent in Yuutopia. Spring is around the corner, just weeks away, yet Viktor does not look forward to it. His days in Yuutopia are numbered, so long as spring approaches.

"Mm, a little," Yuuri replies vaguely, gazing into the woods. He and Viktor are walking along the road that connects to the nearest village, where they plan to trade coin for spices and other supplies, Viktor's horse ambling beside them at a comfortable pace. Normally, Yuutopia would have received a shipment already, but the trader skipped Yuuri's village for some reason. Some of the villagers blamed the snow, but others point to wild boars or even bandits.

Viktor does not know which it could be. All the same, when Yuuri volunteered for the trip, Viktor had quickly joined him. He has brought his dagger, tucked into his boot, and instead of the clothing he wears around Yuutopia, he has opted for his Russian traveling clothes. Viktor almost wishes he had the sword he had used against the bandits, but Yuuri told him that it was left behind.

So far, the journey has been absent of any danger, boars or otherwise. Having left early in the morning, Viktor and Yuuri made good time, reaching the village by midday and procuring the supplies with ease. Now they travel home, the bags slung over the back of Viktor's horse.

"It should be a beautiful spring, once the snow melts," Viktor comments. He loves Japan in springtime.

"I suppose," Yuuri answers, ducking under a tree branch and holding it out of the way. Viktor glances at him as he passes and notices an odd look on his face, which Yuuri quickly masks.

Not fast enough for Viktor to miss his sadness. The thought strikes him suddenly. At the end of winter, I will have to leave.

Yuuri has yet to agree to go with him.

"Perhaps it will remain cold for a while yet," Viktor offers, a small apology for bringing the subject up.

Yuuri sighs deeply, returning to Viktor's side, his wooden shoes crunching into the snow. The ground is still frozen, which means that Viktor has some time yet to convince him. "I'm not sure... winter set in early this year, so there is no telling when it will end. Still..." he glances up at Viktor, then away. "It would be nice if it lasted a long time."

After a moment, Viktor reaches out to take Yuuri's hand, relieved that no other travelers walk the road. As such, Yuuri doesn't pull away, even tightening his grip on Viktor's gloved fingers. "You can still come with me, you know," Viktor says, broaching the topic that they have been avoiding.

"It's not that simple," Yuuri replies, a little sharply, then looks horrified at his rudeness. "I, I mean..."

"It isn't, is it?" Viktor sighs, giving Yuuri half a smile before looking up into the snow-laden trees, empty of their leaves. Beyond the bare branches, the sky is heavy with dark clouds, promising more snow. They will have to hurry to get home before the weather worsens. "Do you believe that the curse binds you to your home?"

Yuuri is silent for a long moment. Somewhere in the woods, a bird takes flight, startling snow off a branch. The soft, muted sound of snow hitting the ground seems to echo in the quiet. "I can go to visiting villages without issue. I think, anyway. Once I stayed a week in another village without a problem, but... I felt the strong urge to go home at the end of it. Whether that was because of the curse, or because of my own mental weakness, I cannot say."

Viktor considers that for a moment. "When you met with that dragon, what did he say to you, exactly? Did he say anything about the curse?"

Yuuri shakes his head. "Nothing more than what I told you. Just that this was my fate, and I was not meant for him, and he was not meant for me. I didn't ask if there was a way to break the curse. I was too shocked."

"What if you visited the dragon again?" Viktor asks slowly, his heart beating faster. A legendary dragon of Japan. "Surely since this is the dragon's curse, he could give you advice, or a quest that you must fulfill to break it. That is the usual way in stories."

"Mm... I don't know. Maybe," Yuuri muses, then sighs. "The dragon lives far away, so it'd have to wait for the roads to clear."

"Oh, I see."

Silence falls between them, and for a while, they simply walk. After a while, Yuuri lets go of Viktor's hand to rub his arms, exhaling a small, visible cloud. Then he pauses, frowning at the road ahead of them. "Did you see something up ahead?"

Viktor looks forward, blinking. The road is empty of tracks or people, mostly covered in snow. Viktor narrows his eyes a little, glancing at the woods beyond the road, but the trees press too close together to see far. "No, I wasn't looking. What was it?"

"Hopefully not bandits," Yuuri says quietly, a small scowl touching his mouth.

"Oho, you found us out," says a voice from behind them. Yuuri and Viktor whirl around at once, to find a tall man with messy brown hair and a long sword at his hip, wearing deep red clothes. Yuuri inhales sharply, and Viktor steps between him and the bandit, glaring. Makka shuffles in worry, sensing danger. Viktor's grip tightens on her lead, before he lets her go. Makka rears back, then runs into the woods; Viktor knows she will return to him later.

"Who are you?" Viktor demands.

"Oh, he can talk," the man says with a small smirk. His cold eyes settle on Viktor, sending a shiver through him. "Call me Akita, head of my family. I also have a younger brother..." His smirk fades abruptly. "Whom you nearly killed."

Viktor inhales sharply, realizing that this man must be related to one of the bandits that attacked him. How on earth did they know? All four of the bandits had died that day, or so he had thought.

He hears movement behind him and throws a glance over his shoulder, gritting his teeth when he sees a dozen more men standing around him and Yuuri. Viktor reaches back to grab Yuuri's arm, pulling him closer, his gaze returning to Akita, who must be the leader.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Viktor says coldly. Another man steps up beside Akita, and a shock of recognition sparks in Viktor's mind. The second man has a scar across his face, like claw marks, and Viktor realizes he is one of the bandits who attacked him.

"That's the guy, big brother," the second man says, pointing at Viktor. "That's the guy we tried to rob! Then he summoned a dragon to kill us!"

Dragon. A shiver runs up Viktor's spine, and he tightens his grip on Yuuri's sleeve. He can feel Yuuri shaking behind him. "I did no such thing. You attacked me, intending to rob me, and I protected myself. What came after is no fault of mine. Let us pass!"

Akita clicks his tongue, shaking his head. "Not so fast, foreigner. You owe me and my brother for the injury you caused him, and I want to know more about this dragon. A foreigner who can control a dragon... that's a mighty weapon, there. So, you're coming with us." His gaze flicks to Yuuri over Viktor's shoulder. "We don't need the other one. Kill him."

"Absolutely not," Viktor seethes, as Yuuri jolts behind him. "If you harm him, I will kill you. I will make the wound you suffered look like child's play if you touch a hair on his head."

"Viktor," Yuuri whispers, his hand pressing against Viktor's back. "We can't fight them! There are too many!"

The odds do not favor them: fourteen bandits with weapons to Viktor and his lone dagger. Viktor doesn't even consider the possibility of Yuuri transforming -- he would reveal his curse, and then the bandits would try to capture him or even kill him. Better for them to focus on Viktor.

"Yuuri, when I give the word, run," Viktor says under his breath, tense.

"No!" Yuuri sounds horrified, his fingers clenching over the back of Viktor's shirt. "I'm not leaving you! Who knows what they'll do to you?"

"You should, pretty boy," Akita interjects, overhearing them. "We just want your foreign friend. You sound local, so we'll let you go, if you promise not to report us."

"I won't leave him," Yuuri says, glaring at Akita over Viktor's shoulder.

"Then you'll die," Akita says, then signals to one of the men closest to them. The bandit steps toward Yuuri, but quick as lightning, Viktor pulls out his dagger from his boot and throws it into the man's neck, sending blood across the snow. The rest of the bandits shout in surprise.

"You bastard," Akita curses, his hand reaching to his waist. Viktor glares back, then glances around for any other weapon he could use, noticing a sword lying beside the dead bandit. He lunges for the weapon as the other bandits begin to move, grabbing both it and his dagger and holding them in front of him, keeping Yuuri in his guard.

The sight of Viktor holding a sword makes the bandits pause. Viktor glares.

"One step closer, and you will meet the same end."

"Tch. Get them! Capture the foreigner alive!" shouts Akita, and the bandits rush forward again.

"Stay behind me, Yuuri," Viktor orders, then brings up his sword to catch the blow from the first bandit who attacks him. His dagger slices open the bandit's side, leaving him slumping to the ground, and the next one charges with a shout of rage. Viktor sends that one into the woods with a blow to his head, pressing Yuuri further back.

The sight of Viktor handling their attack with only a few quick movements makes the rest of the bandits pause in fear. Akita tells them to attack again, making Viktor grit his teeth. Viktor glowers at them, then strikes forward to bury his sword in the gut of the next bandit, who reaches for Yuuri instead of Viktor.

"I said don't touch him," Viktor snarls, the fury of battle surging through him. The importance of Yuuri's safety is paramount to Viktor, and Yuuri's refusal to leave him frustrates him beyond reason. Yet he knows he would do the same, were their roles reversed.

Viktor's first wound is from a glancing blade, making him hiss and drop his dagger as it slices into his arm. Viktor notices movement as blood drips down his hand and turns sharply, taking a heavy piece of wood to his shoulder, sending him reeling.

"Viktor!"

"Yuuri, run," Viktor gasps out, staggering. He catches the next blow with his sword, the blade biting into the wooden hilt. "Go!"

"No," Yuuri breathes behind him. "Viktor, no -- I can't let you do this alone."

Viktor's heart seizes with fear. Yuuri means to transform, and Viktor cannot allow that to happen. If these bandits see it, they will hunt him, capture him, use him for their own means. Yuuri must be kept safe. "No, Yuuri, you can't --"

"I will protect you, Viktor!"

Akita scoffs, not caring for their argument. He pulls his own katana out of its sheath, holding it upright and pointing at Viktor with the blade. "If you will not come quietly, foreigner, then I will fight you myself. A few injuries will keep you subdued."

Viktor feels the sizzle of energy a moment later, as the bandits suddenly stop and stare, something flashing in the whites of their eyes. Viktor looks over his shoulder, his jaw dropping to see Yuuri glowing, his eyes burning amber and narrowed in anger, focused on Akita.

"You will not have him," Yuuri seethes, scales appearing on his skin as an eerie miasma rises from his body. He steps forward, and the snow turns to ice beneath his feet. His nails elongate and turn black, and horns grow from his head, as the changes sweep over his body and leave the dragon that saved Viktor months ago in his place.

Art by Heidi Black

"Dragon," whispers Akita, echoed by the rest of the bandits. Their blades clatter as they tremble in fear. "I knew it. New plan, boys! Kill the foreigner and capture the dragon!"

Yuuri roars with fury, the sound rattling Viktor's very bones. Quick as lightning, Yuuri darts past Viktor and sinks his claws into the first bandit that moves, sending him flying into another and through a tree. Neither of them move, and the other bandits scream.

"Fuck this," cries out a bandit, turning to run. "I'm not fighting a dragon!" Yuuri's tail wraps around his leg a moment later and slams him down on the ground with a sickening crack.

Viktor can only watch as Yuuri makes quick work of the bandits. Anyone who tries to flee swiftly dies. His distraction earns him a nearly fatal mistake, as someone comes up behind him with a sword. Viktor notices the bandit a second later and turns to parry the blade, glaring fiercely.

"Worthless foreigner," Akita's brother spits in his face, and Viktor grins fiercely.

"You attacked me first, bandit," Viktor replies in Russian, just to piss him off. Then he ducks away and turns sharply, catching the bandit in the throat with his dagger, before kicking him over. He glances around; the road is filled with bodies. Their attackers have paid the price of their greed with their lives.

Viktor counts the bodies and comes up one short: the leader who threatened them.

An unearthly roar fills the air, and Viktor whirls to see Yuuri lying on the ground with Akita standing over him. Yuuri lashes out, and Akita stumbles back, sending amber blood across the snow. Viktor's blood freezes in his veins.

Yuuri is hurt.

He moves without thinking, burying the sword in Akita's side. Akita goes still, and a golden dagger falls from his limp fingers. Viktor tears out the sword, not caring when blood lands on his face and clothes. Akita falls at his feet, but Viktor no longer cares for him, his eyes on Yuuri's trembling body.

"No, no, no -- Yuuri, no, please be okay!"

He rushes to Yuuri's side, reaching up to touch black scales with careful fingers. The wound is in Yuuri's underbelly, larger and far worse than the wound Yuuri got on his leg when he protected Viktor the first time. Yuuri has curled in on himself, his amber eyes finding Viktor, and he lets out a low trill, as if to reassure Viktor that he is okay.

Yet Yuuri is hurt.

Rage returns, and Viktor turns to glare at Akita, who puts on a small smirk at the sight of Viktor's anger.

"Pity that I won't be able to use him," Akita says, then coughs, blood bubbling over his lips. A golden dagger lies by his hand, glistening with Yuuri's blood. Viktor goes still with horror, remembering.

'Beware the golden blade.'

"You bastard," Viktor breathes. "You worthless excuse for a man. How dare you hurt my beloved?" He rises, taking his dagger in his hand and glaring coldly down at Akita. "May your soul burn in hell for eternity and never find redemption."

With Yuuri's blood glistening on the snow, one more life means nothing to Viktor. Viktor leaves the sword buried in Akita's chest, a warning to anybody who finds the bodies.

He has more important things to worry about.

Quickly he checks the other bodies, but to his relief, all of the bandits have perished. The road is a bloodbath, the snow painted red. Viktor grimaces, then turns away to look at Yuuri, lying on the ground near a cluster of trees.

Before his eyes, Yuuri begins to glow again, the great black scales transforming back to pale skin, yet he remains in his half-transformed state, the same as when Viktor saw him in the bath. His skin is damp with perspiration, his gaze cloudy with pain.

"Hurts," Yuuri gasps, clutching his side, where a wound bleeds sluggishly, amber blood seeping through his clothes. Viktor quickly yanks off his cloak, oblivious to the cold, and carefully tears Yuuri's clothes open further to look at the wound. When Viktor peels back the cloth, he sees that the veins around the ruptured flesh have turned a dark color, a lurid green that speaks of poison. Viktor panics.

"Yuuri," Viktor whispers. He cannot bear the thought of Yuuri dying. He reaches for Yuuri's hand, gripping his fingers tightly, the tips reddened from the cold and blood. Yuuri lifts his gaze, giving Viktor a weak smile.

"It's okay, Viktor..."

"It's not," Viktor says quietly, tears coming to his eyes. Yuuri squeezes his fingers, then cries out as pain wracks his body, making Viktor's heart seize with fear. A moment later, Yuuri slips into a semi-conscious state, his breathing heavy with the effort to live.

Viktor looks up, his eyes wild. He has to get Yuuri back to Yuutopia. "Makka! Come!"

Viktor's horse peeks out of the woods. Viktor leans over to gather Yuuri into his arms, wrapping the cloak around him and holding him close to his chest, then stands and hurries to Makka. He settles Yuuri into the saddle, then pauses, glancing back at the bodies littering the road.

The golden dagger. Viktor ignores Akita's corpse and picks up the dagger, wrapping it carefully in a cloth. After securing the dagger with their bags, Viktor climbs up behind Yuuri and snaps the reins, holding Yuuri's feverish body close to him.

"Hold on for me, beloved," Viktor whispers, snow beginning to fall around them, covering the bodies and stinging Viktor's cheeks. Then he rides.

~*~

The wait outside Yuuri's room lasts for eternity. Hours before, Hiroko went to assist the doctor, the doors shut tight with little noise. Toshiya stayed for the first hour of surgery, listening patiently to Viktor's tale of what happened, then left to the village to "deal with it." Viktor wonders if they will involve the police, or if the villagers will handle the dead bodies themselves. He might be arrested when Toshiya returns.

He doesn't care.

Mari sits beside him, her third cigarette sitting between her fingers, idly smoking. She has not used it for ten minutes now, her stare focused on the floor. She was the first to find them, when Viktor stumbled into the inn with Yuuri in his arms, bleeding out. Her shriek had drawn her parents, who had quickly taken control to move Yuuri upstairs to see to him. That the guests in the inn had not been around to watch added little relief to the situation.

Viktor is hardly any better. He has not moved from his spot since Hiroko stepped into the room and closed the door. He only barely allowed himself to change and wash off the blood, while Hiroko bandaged the injuries he sustained.

At length, the doctor leaves the room, shaking her head as Hiroko leads her away to a room in the inn. When she returns, Hiroko sits at Viktor's other side, twisting her apron in her hands as Viktor and Mari watch her hopefully.

"The doctor cleaned his wound and stopped the bleeding, but she said Yuuri has been poisoned. Now we must wait," Hiroko explains, and Viktor sags, his fervent stare returning to Yuuri's room. He wants to go to Yuuri's side, but he is unsure if he would even be allowed.

A short while later, Viktor looks up, his heart in his throat, when the entrance to Yuuri's house opens, revealing Toshiya and a Shinto priest. No police are in sight.

Toshiya glances at the other room, then at Viktor, smiling kindly. "Vicchan, can you show the priest the dagger you told me about? He hopes it can tell us more about what happened to Yuuri."

"Ah... yes, sir," Viktor says quietly, reaching to his side where he has left the dagger, not daring to leave it unattended. He lays it on the floor as the priest and Toshiya sit down, carefully opening the cloth.

"A cursed blade," the priest says, touching his fingers to the black hilt, gilded with gold etched into mystifying scenes of monsters and battle. The most vivid image is of a dragon, gold with glowing eyes. "A weapon forged to harm powerful beasts."

"Yuuri's not a beast!" Viktor says sharply, and the priest glances at him with a frown.

"I did not say he was. He is of otherworldly power, though. Whatever this blade's origins, we do not know the effect it will have on him." The priest shakes his head, and Mari gasps in shock.

"You must do something!" Mari says.

"If we perform a purification ritual, it may harm him, because of his nature. I am sorry," the priest murmurs, bowing low. "The best we can do is make an offering to the gods."

"Damn the gods," Mari snaps, ignoring the priest's gasp. "It's their fault Yuuri is like this in the first place!"

"Mari," Toshiya says quietly, and Mari subsides, glaring. The priest leaves quickly after that, leaving Viktor staring down at the dagger, while Mari whispers furiously to her father.

"I'm sorry," Viktor whispers, stricken. He closes his eyes, bitterly regretting ever leaving Kyoto. If he hadn't run away from his problems like a coward, Yuuri never would have faced such trauma. Viktor bows as low as he can, squeezing his eyes shut against his tears. "This is my fault. I am so sorry. I brought this upon him... I..."

"Vicchan," Toshiya says quietly. "Vicchan, look at me." Viktor obeys reluctantly, meeting the eyes of the kind man who has taken him into his home and welcomed him as if he belonged to the family. Someone takes his hand, and Viktor notices Hiroko smiling warmly at him out of the corner of his eye. Toshiya catches and holds his gaze, and abruptly, Viktor realizes that Toshiya has the same clear color of eyes that Yuuri has.

"You saved my son's life, twice. The man who did this has paid with his life, and none of us blame you... you, who gave our son happiness. Please... raise your head."

"But, Toshiya...san..."

"No, none of that," Toshiya chides, his smile widening. "Haven't we asked you to call us by our names? You might as well be part of our family now, Vicchan."

Viktor sits up slowly, tears welling up in his eyes and spilling over his cheeks. He bows his head, unable to look upon Toshiya's kind face. A moment later, he feels a gentle hand on his back as Hiroko leans against his side, and another hand on his shoulder.

"It's okay, Vicchan," Hiroko murmurs, patting him. "You did the right thing."

"Are you not angry, though?" Viktor asks, his voice hitching on a sob. "I... I knew that Yuuri was a dragon. I figured it out, and yet I allowed him to risk himself like that... he transformed to protect me. What if the police find out? What if the public finds out? They'll kill him!"

"Don't worry about that either," Toshiya says, a bit of steel touching his tone. "Some of the young men went to take care of it. There will be no police... not when nobody saw it happen, right?" He smiles, and for a long moment, Viktor can only stare, tears trickling down his cheeks.

"Stop crying, you idiot," Mari mutters, sniffling. "You're one of us now. Yuuri is going to be fine. He has to be."

Viktor nods wordlessly, taking a small handkerchief from Hiroko and wiping his face. "Thank you," he whispers, then breathes out. "May... may I sit with Yuuri for a while? I just... I need..."

"Please do," Hiroko murmurs. "We must see to the doctor and the other guests. Will you stay with him? And let us know if he wakes up?"

Viktor nods again, watching both Hiroko and Toshiya rise, smiling softly at him before leaving. Mari gives him a look and breathes smoke out of the side of her mouth. "It'll be a long night, and you haven't eaten all day, looks like. You stay with Yuuri. I'll go make us food, and then I'll come sit with you."

"Alright," Viktor says quietly. He cannot bring himself to smile, but he manages a nod as Mari also leaves, before turning his gaze to Yuuri's door. He should go into Yuuri's room and see him, and yet a large part of Viktor hesitates, fearful. He does not wish to see Yuuri in such a state, which Viktor put him into, if indirectly. Even though Yuuri's own family insists that Viktor has no blame in this situation, Viktor cannot accept that.

He should have protected Yuuri. In this, he failed, and Viktor will never forgive himself for it.

With a heavy sigh, Viktor takes the dagger in hand and rises to his feet. As he slides open Yuuri's door, he falters when his gaze lands on Yuuri lying on the futon in the middle of the room. His forehead has a faint sheen of sweat over the pallor of his skin, and his face is twisted in pain, breathing a little heavily. Clean washcloths and water sit nearby, all that remains of the doctor's work. Everything else has been cleared away.

Yuuri looks close to death, and Viktor put him there.

Viktor clenches his hand around the dagger, resisting the urge to throw it. If those bandits still lived, Viktor would go hunt them down to make them pay for doing this to Yuuri. He wishes he could relive Akita's last moments and make him pay more -- but thinking like that will get him nowhere. Breathing slowly, Viktor kneels down beside Yuuri, after leaving the dagger at the edge of the room, not willing to bring it close to Yuuri in case it worsens his curse.

"Yuuri," Viktor whispers, reaching up to touch Yuuri's damp face. Yuuri gives a soft moan and leans into his hand. Swallowing, Viktor traces his thumb over Yuuri's cheek for a moment, his heart aching deeply in his chest. Then he picks up a washcloth to dip it in the bowl of water and begins to clean away the sweat on Yuuri's face and neck. The cool compress seems to help Yuuri, easing some of the tension in his expression.

Viktor sits beside him for a long time, holding a silent vigil. Every so often, he cleans Yuuri's face and neck of sweat and checks his bandages for spots of blood. Mari comes by at one point to make Viktor eat, but Viktor tastes very little of the food, only managing because he knows Yuuri would get upset with him if he didn't. Mari takes up her own watch at the back of the room with a cigarette, flicking her ashes through the cracked door.

Hiroko comes by in the middle of the night to check on Yuuri's injury. The wound itself has been stitched closed neatly, but the poisonous lines have spread further across Yuuri's body. Seeing the dark lines twisting around Yuuri's heart makes Viktor nauseous, and he has to go outside for a little while to get some air.

Viktor ends up sitting by the springs, staring out over the darkened water with a blank expression, snow falling heavily in the still night. The house is quiet behind him, as they wait the night out. Little else can be done, and yet Viktor burns with the need to do something, to try and save Yuuri's life. If the priest and doctor can do nothing... then what can Viktor do?

He remembers the dragon, the one who cursed Yuuri's family.

Viktor has no idea where it lives. Yuuri had made some vague motions to the west, saying that the dragon lived in an underground spring in a mountain somewhere, but he hadn't told Viktor where it was exactly. Viktor doubts anyone else would tell him, either. They would not want him to leave.

Truly, Viktor does not want to leave, either. If he went to the dragon, and during the journey, Yuuri...

No, Viktor cannot leave Yuuri now.

Viktor drifts off like that, his head resting against the pole that holds up the small awning over the bathing area, as the lamp flickers and casts wavering shadows across the water.

When Viktor opens his eyes later, the lamp has gone out, and the silver moon has risen, full and beautiful over the world. Viktor blinks a few times, staring up at the moon for a long moment. Hadn't it been waning the other night? Not only that, but it was snowing when he fell asleep.

The moon looks much larger than normal, shining brilliantly, and a shiver of unease runs through Viktor. This isn't natural.

'So you have already noticed, mortal.'

Viktor yelps and scrambles up as the moon moves, unwinding from its circle and floating down toward him in a long, shining line. Viktor freezes, his jaw dropping, as the great white figure becomes clear, filling up the entire sky above Yuutopia. White scales glowing with unnatural light, golden horns, and vivid blue eyes, as clear and deep as a pool of water.

A dragon.

"How," Viktor whispers, then whirls around. He throws the door open and finds Yuuri lying in the middle of the room, just as Viktor left him, though Mari and Hiroko are nowhere in sight. Yuuri's body is shining slightly with a faint golden light, but it looks oddly tarnished, tainted with edges of green. Yuuri's chest moves slightly with the effort to breathe.

Viktor allows himself a moment of relief, then turns on his heel to put himself between Yuuri and the dragon, glaring at the massive creature as it floats above them, undulating in the clear sky.

"Stay away from him," Viktor orders, glaring. A chuckle sounds in his ear, though Viktor hears no sound.

'Rest easily, mortal, for I will not harm him. He was once my intended, after all.'

Viktor's heart stops beating for a moment. This is the dragon that Yuuri was raised to marry -- and who rejected him. He clenches his fists, wishing for a weapon; how he would love to punish this dragon, for hurting Yuuri so deeply.

"He isn't yours anymore," Viktor says aloud.

'No, he is not. Yet he is tied to me regardless. I felt his waning life force and came to learn what ails him... and I find you, standing guard over him. A man not of these lands... I see now why he was never meant to be mine.'

Viktor is silent for a long moment, wary of trusting the dragon. Yet if the dragon is here... then maybe Viktor can appeal to him. He would give anything to save Yuuri. "I don't understand."

'Before the child was brought to me, I had a vision of his future. I saw him in foreign lands with a human who shone like me, yet I knew in the dream that the human was not me. I will not leave this land, and I will never become a human, not even for this child.' The dragon huffs, his long, twisting form moving sinuously through the air, his great slitted eyes fixed on Viktor. 'Now you have appeared. It must be fate.'

Viktor stares back, his eyes narrowing as his heart beats faster. If he trusts in the dragon's vision... then surely Yuuri must survive. He glances back at Yuuri, then up at the dragon, his countenance hardening with determination.

"Fate or not, I will never leave him." Viktor takes a deep breath, then meets the dragon's eyes. "Please save his life. He was injured by a cursed blade, and he is dying. Please... I will do anything if you save him."

'Yes... that blade.' A moment later, the golden dagger floats past Viktor, and he gasps, grabbing for it. It slips from his fingertips and floats up to the dragon, rotating slowly above the dragon's claw. 'This is a relic of an era long past. It was forged with the venom of one of our mightiest of warriors, killed by humans centuries ago. Why do you have it, mortal?'

"The bandits who hurt Yuuri had it," Viktor bites out. "Yuuri saved my life a few months ago, and someone saw him as a dragon. They had been preparing to capture him and use him. I don't know where they got it."

'Hm... no matter. It will not return to the hands of humans.' The dagger vanishes in a flash of white light, and Viktor gasps.

"Wait! We need that to save Yuuri! If we can counteract the poison --"

'No human-made creation can counteract this magic. It is of another world, and so his cure must be, too.' The dragon holds up a claw, and a bright light appears, coalescing into a crystal vial with a clear liquid inside. The vial floats down to Viktor, and after a moment's hesitation, he reaches out with shaking fingers to take the gift. The crystal is cool to the touch.

'Give this to him. It will wipe away the taint of venom. He will heal and wake in the morning.'

Viktor stares down at the crystal vial, then up at the dragon, his eyes wide. "What is the price? I will give you anything."

The dragon regards Viktor solemnly, then names his price. After a long moment, Viktor replies with his own requirements. The dragon considers his request, then agrees, and Viktor finally bows his head, accepting his fate. A white light flashes across the air between them and disappears into Viktor's chest, sealing the deal with finality. Then, a necklace appears in the void left, floating in front of Viktor, and he takes it gently. The dragon vanishes, and the world returns to normal, leaving Viktor standing alone by the spring, clenching the crystal vial and necklace in his hands.

Viktor stares out at the snowy world for a long moment, touching his chest, where something now burns. Then he turns and enters the house, returning to Yuuri's side. Hiroko and Mari are both dozing against the wall, and Viktor notices that Toshiya is in the other room as well.

Viktor ignores them and uncaps the vial, slipping his fingers under Yuuri's head and touching the vial to his lips, allowing the liquid to trickle into his mouth. To his eternal relief, Yuuri swallows the strange, glimmering potion, until the last drop has disappeared. Viktor tucks the empty vial into his pocket with the necklace and pulls back the blanket, watching as the green veins suddenly glow white, then begin to fade, Yuuri's normal skin color returning slowly.

Viktor lowers the blanket again, then takes Yuuri's hand and closes his eyes. Everything will be okay now.

Hiroko stirs a while later and looks at him. "Vicchan, is everything alright? You were outside for a long time."

Viktor gives her a small smile, his hand tightening on Yuuri's fingers. Already, Yuuri is breathing more easily, the tension draining out of his expression and body. "I'm fine now."

Yuuri suddenly gives a faint moan, turning his head toward Viktor, and a moment later, the scales on his skin fade away, the horns and claws vanishing slowly. When the transformation ends, Yuuri looks whole and human, a healthy flush to his skin. Hiroko lets out a shout of surprise as she notices that the green veins on Yuuri's neck have returned to normal, and Mari jolts awake.

"Toshiya! Toshiya, come quickly! Yuuri is healing!" Hiroko cries, hurrying to Yuuri's side and stroking back his hair. Toshiya runs in, his eyes widening, and Viktor obligingly moves out of the way, to let Toshiya take his place. For a long while, he watches the Katsuki family marvel over their child's survival, a smile touching his lips.

The doctor comes and checks over Yuuri, then pronounces him in perfect health; even the injury in his side has healed itself. The priest comes in the early morning and marvels at the curse's disappearance. He doesn't seem to believe it, going so far as to send for several more priests to look at the wound, much to Viktor's irritation.

"It's a miracle!" the priest keeps proclaiming, as Toshiya leads him away. Hiroko shakes her head, then pats Viktor's hand.

"Vicchan, you should sleep now," Hiroko says gently, and Viktor is about to protest when he catches his own yawn, then blushes.

"I want to be here when he wakes up," Viktor says quietly. Hiroko's answering smile is bright and warm.

"You're such a good boy, Vicchan. Let me go get another futon for you. You can sleep beside Yuuri," Hiroko replies, smoothing down her apron over her knees as she rises, crossing the room to the closet.

Viktor's eyes widen in shock. Surely Hiroko does not mean what she said? It is one thing to sneak around with Yuuri behind his family's backs -- and another thing for his lover's mother to suggest they sleep in the same room! "But -- wait! I couldn't! I mean, that would be..."

"It's fine, it's fine," Hiroko tuts, her smile widening. "You should stay with him. He would want you to be here." With ease, Hiroko takes out a futon and lays it on the floor beside Yuuri, smoothing it down flat before Viktor can even stand to help. She pats Viktor on the head, then quietly leaves the room, nudging Mari with her. Mari sways a little as she stands, then ambles after her mother. She pauses in the doorway.

"Hey, where did that dagger go?" Mari asks, glancing around the room. Viktor's heart beats faster. He has not told the Katsuki family about the dragon nor the cure it gave him.

"I don't know," Viktor replies honestly. The dragon sent it somewhere unreachable by humans, and Viktor doubts anybody will ever see it again. "Perhaps the priest took it?" Mari considers this, then nods, giving Viktor a small smile before she closes the door. Viktor breathes out in relief, his gaze returning to Yuuri, his heart aching at the peace in his face.

Gently Viktor takes Yuuri's hand again, lifting it to his face to kiss his palm. "Please forgive me, darling. I'm afraid I had no choice... and I am certain you will be cross with me for it."

Yuuri merely sleeps on, his face turned toward Viktor, peaceful for the first time in too long. He lays Yuuri's hand over his chest, tucking the futon blanket over him, then sinks down to lie prone on his own futon, never taking his eyes off Yuuri. For a little while, Viktor doubts he will ever sleep, turning the dragon's words over and over in his mind, until slumber sneaks up on him anyway.

Viktor wakes later with the light of morning and a hand running through his hair. His pillow is soft and warm, and Viktor realizes that it is not a pillow at all, but Yuuri's lap. He smiles softly and opens his eyes, looking up to see Yuuri gazing down at him, resplendent with his hair falling over his shoulders and his sleeping clothes askew. His gaze is very worried, and despite the bags under his eyes and the tired set to his shoulders, he looks beautiful to Viktor.

"Good morning, darling," Viktor murmurs, reaching up to touch Yuuri's face. "Should you be sitting up? You were badly injured." Yuuri says nothing for a moment, his eyes growing very sad.

"Viktor... what did you do?" Yuuri whispers, touching Viktor's chest, at the same spot where the light melted into his body last night. His fingers slip beneath the fabric, and Viktor glances down to see a white mark in his skin, in the shape of a star. He stares at it for a long moment, reaching up to touch it, before resting his hand over Yuuri's and looking back up at him.

"How did you know?" Viktor asks, bewildered. Yuuri had been asleep when the dragon came... hadn't he?

"I sensed it. Whatever this is," Yuuri says, his fingers pressing down into the white mark. He looks like he wants to cry, which makes Viktor panic. "And I spoke with him in my dream."

"Him... the dragon?" Viktor clarifies, and Yuuri droops a little, nodding.

"He said he felt me dying and came to understand why. He said he healed me in exchange for something from you. I, um, I might have yelled at him," Yuuri says, a little sheepishly, reaching up to scratch his cheek. "He wouldn't reverse whatever it was. He said it was your choice."

Viktor is silent for a long moment, feeling the faint tremble in Yuuri's fingers and the darkness in his gaze. Yuuri is angry, and Viktor finds it fascinating, as much as he hates that he has upset Yuuri this way. He sits up slowly and turns to face Yuuri, reaching into his pocket for the vial and necklace. With Yuuri staring at him, Viktor lays them out across the blanket between them, then meets Yuuri's eyes. Yuuri barely looks at the trinkets, his gaze fastened to Viktor's face.

"It was my choice, and I will live with it. Nothing has been done to me that was not by my will, Yuuri," Viktor explains quietly. "The dragon offered a cure for your wound, and I paid the price for it. Oh, don't look at me so," he says with a small smile, reaching up to cup Yuuri's face, drawing his thumb underneath Yuuri's wide gaze. "Everything is alright."

"You idiot," Yuuri whispers, reaching up to touch the star on Viktor's chest again. "This is... this is power, Viktor, this isn't anything human. The dragon did something to you. What did he want? What did you give him?"

"Hm..." Viktor looks down at his chest, considering the strange fire that now burns within him. "My presence, perhaps? He wished for a connection to the world beyond Japan. He has not left this island in thousands of years, and he wishes for knowledge. He wants to know if dragons still exist elsewhere, and what has become of the world. He cannot leave his realm, but he can send me in his stead."

"No," Yuuri whispers, covering his mouth. "Say he didn't make you like me. You can't be a dragon, too."

Viktor shakes his head, and Yuuri sags with relief. "No, Yuuri. I'm not quite like you, I doubt I can transform like you can, but... I have some of his power now. Wherever I go, I am linked to him, and I can do what he can do." He winces a little, reaching up to rub his head. "He left some knowledge in my head of how to do certain things... magic of some sort. None of it makes very much sense at the moment... oh!"

Remembering the other part of their bargain, Viktor picks up the vial and the necklace, holding them up for Yuuri to see. "This is the vial that he gave me that held your cure. It worked beautifully, didn't it? Your wound is gone! And this..."

Viktor sets the vial down and stretches out the necklace, which is lined with tiny, gleaming pearls and a curved green stone with a hole in its center. "I snuck this into our agreement. It's for you, Yuuri. You can wear it in the rain and while you're bathing, and it will hide the fact that you are a dragon. Isn't that wonderful? Now you can travel with me!"

A moment later, Viktor drops the necklace when his arms are suddenly filled with Yuuri, who holds onto him tightly. Viktor blinks a few times, then softens when he notices that Yuuri is trembling, wrapping his arms around him and holding him close. "Now, now, darling, there's no need to cry."

"I'm not crying," Yuuri lies into his shoulder, his voice wet with tears. "You idiot, you didn't have to do this for me, I never asked..."

"What else could I do, Yuuri?" Viktor says softly, smiling. "A world without you is not one I want to live in."

He hears a muffled gasp, before Yuuri lifts his head and kisses him deeply, tears shining on his cheeks. Viktor closes his eyes against his own tears, warmth welling in his chest where the dragon's fire burns, and kisses him back. He doesn't care who sees them now. Another dragon could waltz in and Viktor would never notice, because of the relief sweeping through him, that Yuuri is alive and safe.

Viktor will never let him go again.

~*~

"So we should be back by September, right?" Yuuri asks for the third time. He is sitting by the window to their compartment, paging through the book of maps that Viktor brought for their journey, though frequently he loses himself in staring out at the sunlit scenery. They are into their fourth day of riding by train back to St. Petersburg, where Viktor will be very quick to collect Makkachin and flee to Paris.

"October at the latest," Viktor confirms, sighing a little as Yuuri reaches up to his collar to fidget with his scarf. The deep blue and pale violet colors look stunning on him. "Then we will come home for the winter."

Yuuri, at Viktor's urging, is wearing Western-style clothes, and he looks gorgeous in them. Viktor cannot stop staring at him. The shirt and vest accentuate Yuuri's waist, and though Yuuri keeps frowning at the boots that reach to his shins, Viktor thinks they are very stylish. He had ordered them from a Russian cobbler in Tokyo as soon as they entered the city, determined to outfit them both for their journey ahead.

Instead of waiting around for his family to chase after him, Viktor sent a short letter to his uncle and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he would not marry Miss Seleznyova, and that he would return to accept his inheritance as is his due, as well as his beloved dog. If his uncle dares to protest, Viktor will have a few choice words with him.

Yuuri is coming with him, because finally, Yuuri is free to travel as he always wanted.

Viktor can't wait to show Yuuri France and Switzerland, and all of Europe. Next year, hopefully America, and once his family has calmed down, the rest of Russia. They will winter in Japan, of course, but the rest of the year... the world is theirs to explore. Oh, the places they will go... the sights he will show Yuuri...

They have a whole map of the world to explore.

Two months have flown by. Shortly after Yuuri's injury healed, winter seemed to melt away in a flash. While the sakura blossoms bloomed and floated across the heated springs, Viktor swept Yuuri away to see the world.

The Katsuki family let him go with smiling pride, all the while demanding postcards and souvenirs. Viktor had expected, in a way, that they would refuse to let Yuuri go, but Hiroko took him aside with a soft smile to explain their happiness.

"Our Yuuri has always wanted to travel the whole world. You've made his dream come true, Vicchan. I always knew you would be perfect for him. Thank you for taking care of our son."

The necklace around Yuuri's neck has held true. Despite rain, bathing in public baths, and a humorous moment of being splashed with sea water while on deck of their steam boat, Yuuri has remained completely human to the average gaze. Only Viktor can see him for what he truly is; another part of the dragon's gift.

Even now, the dragon's fire burns in his chest, reminding him of his promise. In due time. If a dragon can live a thousand years in the blink of an eye, then Viktor has time to show Yuuri the world he loves. He will not spend their travels idly, either; he intends to research as much as he intends to show Yuuri around.

His beautiful Yuuri. Viktor almost wants to cry at how amazing it feels to be with him like this.

"You're staring at me," Yuuri mumbles, holding his book up to cover his face.

Viktor laughs and leans over to kiss Yuuri's cheek, secure in the knowledge that no one can see them here. "How can I not? You look amazing. Ravishing," he teases, delighted when Yuuri's ears turn pink.

"Incorrigible." Yuuri shakes his head and sets down the maps, looking at Viktor with a small smile. He reaches up to Viktor's chest where the star remains, his eyes going a bit misty. "I can't believe we're here... all thanks to a golden dagger."

"Mm... I wouldn't thank it, per se," Viktor starts to complain, only to be interrupted by Yuuri kissing him on the lips. He melts a little and wraps his hand around the back of Yuuri's neck, holding him still as he tastes him, smiling as Yuuri leans into him.

After a moment, Viktor draws back, his lips twitching as he fights a grin. "So, Yuuri... would you like a painting of us when we get to Paris? I know a lovely artist who would be happy for a commission. It would look beautiful on your wall, next to the one you already have of me."

Yuuri stares blankly at him for a moment, before he turns bright red and covers his face, pushing at Viktor who starts laughing, joy in his heart.

Somewhere in one of his bags is a small piece of paper with the Japanese word for "dragon" painted on it. On the other side is a warning, one that Yuuri never heeded, nor Viktor when he thinks about it. Yet both of them survived, and still the words came true.

They have found what they have been searching for all their lives.