suddenly they arrived;
and you, goddess, a smile on your deathless face,
asked me what ailed me this time,
and why I called on you this time,
and what was the special wish of my love-crazed soul:
‘Whom shall I seduce back to your love
this time? Who is it, Sappho,
who flouts you?’
—Sappho, fragment 1, trans. Gillian Spraggs
After he found his way to her presence, the goddess said to him:
‘I will not have you be cruel to my boy. He’s been alone his whole life.’
‘So have I,’ said Viktor. He had drunk too much sweet wine; he swayed on his feet, overheated and dizzy. Still Minako’s expression did not change. He saw at once that she was not a woman of sympathy. She was a goddess of quick judgment and passions swift as a river. She fixed an image of you in her mind as soon as she laid eyes on you, and did not let it go. She was ferocious and warm. Viktor did not know what to do with her.
‘You’re only a mortal,’ Minako replied. ‘What would you know? What could any mortal know of us?’
Viktor thought that she was right. He had no answer to her words. She was not cruel, after all; she was only truthful. At her feet, he felt unmoored. There was so much he still did not know.
Minako lifted her cup to her lips and drank. She drank deeply, and wiped her lush mouth with the back of her hand. Her temple smelled of liquor and warm honey, and the faint scent of her sweat lingered in the perfumed air. When she looked back at him, her gaze was level and curious.
‘Speak, then,’ she said, ‘you who are so free with your charms.’
Viktor thought about what to say. He accepted without bitterness her assessment of him. He was free with his charms — the goddess must have observed him his whole life. He was beautiful, so his charms came cheap.
He wanted Yuuri back. No, he wanted to find his way back to Yuuri. He would find Yuuri and apologise. That was Viktor’s purpose now, and that was what he would do, even if he had to sprout wings and fly across the earth to do it.
How could he find Yuuri?
‘What can you tell me about Yuuri?’
Minako leaned a little to one side and studied him. ‘Oh, Viktor,’ she said. There was no malice in her voice, only mild bemusement at how ignorant a mortal could be. ‘You don’t get to have it that easy.’
Viktor woke with a start, his nose itching from the memory of Minako’s strong, sweet, pungent wine. He sneezed. Then he looked around himself. He was lying on the wooden floor of what appeared to be some kind of hut, clad only in a loose green robe. Slowly he blinked himself awake, clenching and opening his fists uselessly as the familiar feeling of dread settled in his chest. He squashed it down. Then the recollection of the past day came back to him. After losing Yuuri, Viktor had gone to the Katsuki winds, the kindly spirit-voices who had carried him to the foot of the mountain to be married to Yuuri. He had settled himself down in a hot spring and, when the Katsuki winds came sweeping over the surface of the steaming water, cheerfully announced that he was here to stay.
Now the Katsukis had taken the form of a grey-haired man and woman, plump, soft, cheeks the colour of cherry blossoms, one of them sweeping the little hut’s floor with a fragrant broom while the other hummed over the coals in the fireplace.
Viktor sat up and said, ‘I’m hungry,’ making his voice bright. He tilted his head and aimed his eyelashes at the two winds with the air of someone whose every wish had always been granted. ‘Do you have any food?’
‘Oh!’ said the wind who was called Hiroko. She puffed out her fat cheeks and blew on the coals, making a fire spring up. ‘Of course — of course, Vicchan, we’ll feed you. Wait a moment.’
Viktor pulled the folds of the robe a little closer around himself. He hadn’t realised how cold he was. The fire sang and whispered among the red-hot coals, and he listened to its wordless song, resting his head on his knees, letting his mind go blank.
Hiroko reached into the heart of the blazing fire with both hands, and when she withdrew them she was holding a clay bowl of something deliciously hot. Behind her, Toshiya stamped his feet twice, and a table appeared in the centre of the hut, with a pair of wooden chopsticks lying neatly on it. Viktor picked up the chopsticks and Hiroko brought the bowl to him and set it on the table. It held some softly steaming white rice and a few cutlets of pork. He ate, lustily, at a pace that surprised himself — he had forgotten how long it’d been since he’d had anything resembling an appetite. Toshiya sat down on a mat beside Viktor and began plaiting Viktor’s long hair to keep it out of the way.
‘What did Minako say to you in the dream?’ Hiroko asked.
The Katsuki winds had looked after Yuuri like their own child, even though he was Minako’s godling and her apprentice. They loved Yuuri, and they knew what made him tick. What hurt Yuuri probably hurt them as well. Viktor did not know how to say he was sorry. He didn’t know how to say anything.
‘She set me trials.’ He put a piece of pork into his mouth. It tasted amazing, and there was something in it that warmed him from the inside and gave him strength. God-food did that to you. ‘To prove myself.’ He chewed. Thought. Swallowed. Formed words. ‘To earn… to… to merit Yuuri by means of industry and diligence.’
Hiroko nodded. Toshiya continued to braid Viktor’s hair while he hummed a small, drowsy tune under his breath. Despite himself, Viktor felt calm.
He had never had to work for anything before.
Toshiya finished the braid, holding it in place between his calloused finger and thumb. It came down to Viktor’s waist. Then Toshiya plucked the tune from his own mouth. The humming continued, though Toshiya’s lips were no longer moving. The tune became a thin hair-ribbon that looked like it was made out of a piece of the sky. Toshiya used it to deftly tie off the end of the braid, and he blew a kiss towards the ribbon. The humming stopped. But the tune was in Viktor’s head now. He knew he could reach for it in his memory and find it if he wanted to.
‘Do you want to go through the trials, Vicchan?’ asked Hiroko.
Viktor had not asked her to call him Vicchan. He had not asked to be called Viktor when he came into the world. The world had given him his name and paid him homage for being beautiful, and in so doing had caused the wrath of a goddess to fall upon his head. Viktor had not wanted any of it because he hadn’t wanted anything in particular.
Now he understood what it was like to want.
‘Yes,’ Viktor said. ‘Yes, I do.’
Viktor left the dwelling-place of the Katsuki winds and climbed to the top of the mountain. It took him all day, and he was exhausted by the time he got there. He sat down on a large, protruding rock and looked over the realm of Minako and her godlings. Viktor knew every inch and secret corner of it. He had seen the sunsets that tasted of honey. He had explored the ruby-flushed valleys and drunk from the fountains of bitterness and youth in Minako’s garden. He had held the moon in his palm as it rose from earth’s breast to take its place among the stars, and he had fed the beasts of the forest with berries and blood from his own hand. He had even overcome his terror and descended into the snakelike caves, where an eternal fire burned and the air muttered with madness. He had combed every hillside and riverbank in search of Yuuri.
Viktor knew Yuuri’s homeland like he knew the lines in his own palm, and still he did not know where to find him. He had spent hours and nights of tearless frustration trying to figure out where Yuuri might have gone. He didn’t know Yuuri well enough. He was only mortal. He had not had many thousands of years to spend with Yuuri. He had only his instincts, his guesswork and his longing heart.
He went into the thick forests on the mountainside and found a small clearing. The trees dipped and made way for Viktor as he passed, swaying their apple branches in welcome. He sat on the grass and washed his feet in a young stream that appeared as soon as he stood still. He picked from his hair the dark and wine-red and fresh green leaves that fell onto him from the trees’ branches. They gave little cries of pain as he brushed them away, so Viktor gathered up the leaves again and took them into his lap. The stream bubbled over shining pebbles flecked with blue and filtered through the fallen twigs. A fish darted like silver between his ankles and nibbled at his toes.
He slept. When he woke, it was night, but the clearing was lit with a faint, pearly glow that Viktor recognised. The moon was bending over him.
‘Mila,’ he said.
‘Vitya,’ said the moon. She smiled, pushing a few strands of red hair behind her soft-tipped ears. ‘What would you have of me, gentle heart?’
Viktor thought about it for a long time. He had not been asked what he wanted to have for himself for many moons. He wasn’t sure he ever had been.
He knew what trials he had to pass because Minako had told him in his dream. He would go down into the underworld and bring her a box of something secret and terrible from the darkest caverns of the dead. Viktor was not afraid. He had always dealt with challenges by thinking his way around them. But he couldn’t think up a plan this time because he did not know what exactly awaited him. So he was frustrated, more than anything.
‘Guidance,’ he answered finally. ‘I need to know how to get on the road to the underworld.’
‘It’s not a road,’ Mila told him. ‘It’s a series of turns. You turn one way and then the other, to the east and to the west, downwards and then upwards, and as you gain you lose, and thus you walk in circles to your destination.’
Viktor wondered if all gods talked in circles like this.
‘Not all gods are so kind as I am,’ she said, reading his mind. ‘At each step of the way they will charge you a terrible price. They will take from you, and take again. That’s why these trials are called trials. But with courage and patience you shall pass them all.’
Viktor had plenty of both.
‘Now go,’ Mila said. She rose to her full height and touched the sky. With one long hand she pointed down the mountainside, and Viktor saw a route running straight down into the ground, on the other side of the mountain from the side he had climbed. ‘Go down this mountain, away from Minako’s kingdom, for to turn away from her is the path towards death. When you have reached the bottom it will be sunrise. Greet Phichit, the sun god, and do what he wills of you. Hurry now, or you will miss him! That is the first turn. Give my love to Sara. Farewell.’
And a cloud passed over the moon and hid her in its veil. Viktor got to his feet. His legs ached from the climb and he dreaded having to make it a second time, but he had to, and he had to do so quickly. The night was well into its last phase. He was alone again with the silent realm, though he wasn’t surprised; he had always known that he could not expect a companion on his journey.
Viktor ran. His feet bled and cracked open. He fell once, tumbling over and over and down, scratching his face and hands on sharp twigs. After that he was more careful. His breath came ragged and painful, and he thought his heart would leap from his chest with the fury of his speed. Above him, the night stars began to twinkle out, one by one.
Viktor sobbed in desperation. He tripped over a dead branch lying in his path, and grabbed handfuls of moss just in time to save himself. If he flung himself headlong down the mountainside he might get there in time. But he was mortal, and it would hurt, and he didn’t think he would survive the fall. In his birthplace Viktor had never been sure if he wanted to die. Now he was sure he didn’t.
Holding this truth in his mind, he hung on grimly to the side of the mountain and looked around. The stream from the clearing, the one Viktor had washed his feet in, had followed him down as he climbed. It flowed beside him, just out of the corners of his vision when he looked straight ahead, running steady and true. He was not as alone as he had thought.
Viktor took a deep breath. He walked over to the stream and stepped into it, onto the shallow bed. The water stung his battered soles, and he had to bite his lip and rub his knuckles into his eyes to stop himself from crying out. But when he opened his eyes again, he knew what to do. The stream was already responding to him, churning around his feet excitedly and picking up the pace. Viktor bent down and trailed his fingers in the pure water. ‘Go,’ he said to the stream, and it rose to the level of his waist and carried him down to the bottom of the mountain as swiftly as an arrow finds its target.
The sun god Phichit was harnessing his elephants to his chariot at the place where the sun met the horizon. It was precisely the place where the mountain sloped into the earth, where the boundaries of Minako and Yuuri’s realm ended. Viktor dragged himself out of the stream, which had become a river on its way down and choked his lungs with water at least twice in its enthusiasm. The sharp pebbles on the riverbank scraped his palms raw. He coughed up mud, river water, algae and a small fish, and wiped his bloody hands on the grass. Then Viktor remembered his manners. He turned back to the river and said, ‘Thank you.’ The river burbled with delight and disappeared.
The sun was a light-footed boy with a merry face, and brown skin that gleamed with his warmth. He was singing to himself in a golden voice and didn’t seem to notice Viktor. Viktor hauled himself upright just as Phichit clambered into the back of the chariot.
Viktor averted his eyes as the sun’s gaze alighted on him; he didn’t need to drive himself mad by looking into the face of a god. Phichit was brighter than Mila and not half as gentle. Viktor wanted to keep his sanity. He had things to do.
‘Viktor?’ said the boy’s golden voice, disbelieving, and Viktor tilted his face upwards without looking and shaped his mouth into a smile of acknowledgement. All the world knew Viktor by his beauty.
But Phichit surprised him. ‘You’re Yuuri’s husband! Of course.’ Phichit stepped down from his chariot and placed his hand flat against the lead elephant’s trunk. The lead elephant bent its knees with the rumble of thunder as it lowered itself into a resting position. The other elephants, too, knelt and rested.
‘Yes,’ said Viktor, frantic enough to skip preliminaries. ‘Have you seen him?’
Phichit hesitated. ‘That’s not for you to know.’ He let the weight of those words stretch out in the space between them. ‘Look at me,’ Phichit commanded, and Viktor raised his head without fear and met the god’s dark eyes. ‘Tell me: where are you headed?’
Viktor blinked. ‘The underworld.’
‘Ah. I don’t go there.’ Phichit glanced over his shoulder at the blossoming sky; he licked a fingertip and rubbed it over his painted eyelids, smearing kohl more deeply into the bed of his eyelashes. Even the sun god himself needed protection from his own brilliance. ‘We’re driving west towards the sunset. Do you want to come?’
The sunset lay in the opposite direction from where Viktor had to go. He pressed his tongue to the back of his teeth to calm his frustration, drawing it inwards and back into himself. Mila’s words resounded in his mind: to the east and to the west, upwards and then downwards. And thus you walk in circles to your destination.
He had gone downwards by descending from the top of the mountain. He had met Phichit in the east, where it was sunrise. Now he had to go west and upwards. He had to go round and around in circles. Like Yuuri, in the dark, pressing two fingers to his own sweet mouth and touching Viktor’s lips, an indirect form of a kiss.
‘I’ll come,’ he replied without hesitation.
Phichit’s eyebrows lifted: he was pleased with Viktor’s answer. ‘What’ll you give me in exchange?’
‘I don’t have any money,’ Viktor said, stricken. He had inherited half the treasures of his kingdom and not thought to bring them with him. How could he have been so stupid?
‘No, no.’ Phichit shook his head impatiently. Behind his halo-encircled head, a flock of doves took flight. Morning was here — Viktor was making Phichit late. ‘We don’t deal in silver and gold. Give me something that’s a part of you. Like… oh, your voice, one of your talents, or a piece of your soul. Not your soul, please. I don’t recommend going around giving that away to every stranger who demands something of you.’
‘My smile?’ Viktor offered. His smile was a precious thing. Others had told him it was his best quality.
‘Your smiles are false. I don’t want them.’ Phichit’s reply was sharp and immediate. ‘You can fool humans but not a god. It won’t serve.’
Despite himself Viktor felt a surge of relief. He had not known how much he wanted someone to see his falseness for what it was.
‘Look, I have to get the day started, so I’ll make things easier for you,’ Phichit told him. ‘Give me your tears — how’s that? Not so bad, right? Come now, a drop or two and we’ll be off.’
Viktor set his jaw and worked at squeezing out tears. He could not seem to find them. He called to mind images of death, wailing widows, battles lost, city walls crumbling. There was something wrong with a soul who could not weep. In his mouth he tasted revulsion at himself. He was not a complete soul like other people: Yuuri had made him whole.
Yuuri hadn’t wanted Viktor to light the candles at night. He had said, How could I look you in the face, you who are so much lovelier than I? Viktor had replied: With a voice like yours, how could you not be beautiful?
Besides, said Yuuri, I can’t see very well in the daytime to begin with. So the darkness is all right with me really. Could you please pass the nuts?
Viktor’s chest tightened with a tenderness that was almost painful. He would have set every lamp on earth burning to pay tribute to Yuuri. He would have shown Yuuri’s loveliness to the world, or he would have kissed and adored him in secret till Yuuri was ready to be seen. I would have held you in my heart, my love, if you had let me see you.
There was wetness on his face that he didn’t know what to do with. He raised a hand and brushed the tears from his eyelashes, then wiped them from his cheeks with his palm. Phichit stepped forward with his usual springy gait and clasped hands with Viktor. There was a faint burning sensation as Phichit’s palm pressed against Viktor’s, and then Phichit lifted his palm away damp. He nodded, satisfied.
‘There. You’re all right, aren’t you?’ He helped Viktor into the chariot and then walked over to the other side of the chariot and slapped the lead elephant’s flank. At once all the elephants rose to their feet, sleek and graceful and ancient as time. Their great ears flapped; they pawed at the ground and at the air. Phichit hopped into the back of the chariot as lightly as he’d done a thousand upon thousand times since the world began. His bare feet left scorch-marks on the ground behind him.
Phichit stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. An answering whistle came from the air behind and all around them, and Viktor knew that this was the Katsuki winds joining their voices together in song. With a great trumpeting and stamping of feet the elephants began to climb, their heavy flanks rippling with the effort, the winds causing their enormous ears to billow like sails. The sight should have been ridiculous. Instead it was majestic. Upwards and upwards they climbed, solid as marble and ten times as strong, powerful beasts ascending on the winds — and then they were flying, and the chariot wheels spun into fire, and all the sky was gold and violet and honey.
Viktor blinked against the stinging wind.
Phichit held the reins easily, yet with care. He turned his head and smiled at Viktor. ‘We’re a little late, so I’ve told my elephants to hurry. Hang on tight.’
‘What happens if you’re late?’
Phichit shrugged. ‘Flowers wake up late. Farmers rise from their beds later than they meant to, cursing at the dawn. The cows don’t get milked, the chickens don’t get fed. Kings wake from sleep having already lost a precious hour of the day. Every living thing the world over, from the humblest beggar to the loftiest prince, is affected.’
Viktor held on to the burnished sides of the chariot and watched the tiny earth tick by underneath them: fields, rivers, palaces.
‘Weren’t you prince of the kingdom of Nikephoros once?’ Phichit asked.
‘I had no interest in ruling,’ Viktor said. ‘Yuuri called me, so I left. I gave the kingdom to my cousin Yuri Plisetsky.’
Phichit made no response to that. He was staring ahead of him into the flush of the morning. ‘Ah,’ he said, quiet now, uneasy. ‘Firebirds.’
‘They’re pieces of the dawn that have taken shape.’ Phichit tugged on the reins, making the line of elephants veer a little to the left. ‘They’re savage and they burn. They won’t harm me — they won’t harm my elephants — but they’re coming for you because they sense you’re mortal. Don’t let them knock you from my chariot.’
‘How do I —’
Phichit tossed the reins down and ducked into the chariot, shielding his head. ‘Get down and stay down. They’re older than I am. As you love your life, hold on!’
Then a storm of blazing wings was upon them. Viktor had not heard or seen them approach. They came out of the rich flat tapestry of the dawn, directly in front of Phichit’s chariot, tearing open the sky with curved beaks and bursting through rips in the canvas. Their cries rent the air. Viktor got a mouthful of flame and spat it out instantly, retching and coughing as it seared his throat. They were upon him — they were all over him, screeching and raking his face and arms with their talons, beating their powerful wings. Every touch burned. Each firebird had many beaks, piled on top of one another, and each beak was open and noisy and terrible. Viktor had nothing to hold on to. The inside of the chariot was polished and smooth, and there wasn’t nearly enough room for both him and Phichit. He reached up — the elephants jerked sideways, trying to shake off the onslaught of birds — and the chariot tipped diagonally and sent him sliding towards the edge. He heard Phichit cry out but the sun god’s voice was lost amidst the carnage. Viktor’s fingers clamped over the top of the chariot’s side just in time. Savage beaks tore his hands to shreds, stripping skin from flesh and flesh from tendons, and he hid his face in his arm so they would not hear him screaming.
‘Enough! Enough!’ Phichit was shouting. ‘Leave him! He passed the test! Let him alone!’
Viktor fell back against the side of the chariot with a gasp. The firebirds were gone. As one they turned away from the chariot and rose, their wings lifting and extending, and flew away into the wreck of the dawn.
Phichit leaned forward. Viktor’s eyes and mouth were full of blood, but he felt Phichit’s fingers on his chin, tipping his face upwards. Phichit cupped his hands and blew softly, across his palms, onto Viktor’s face. His breath was not furnace-hot like the touch of the firebirds, but warm and healing. After a short time Viktor found that he was no longer shaking with pain.
‘I couldn’t warn you earlier that they were coming,’ Phichit said soberly. ‘It would have broken the rules. I’m sorry.’
Once again he cupped his palms, and in the heart-shaped curve of them was a pool of pure sunlight. It had no colour, and could not rightly be called liquid; but it was drinkable, and Phichit held his cupped hands to Viktor’s mouth and made Viktor drink. The sunlight tasted of nectar. Viktor opened his eyes, and he was healed — his burns seemed to have never been there, his wounds had closed over, his skin was smooth and without rawness.
‘There. Look at me. You’re all right.’ Phichit took Viktor’s hands in his own and gently pried open the once-ravaged fingers. Lying in the centre of Viktor’s milk-new palm was a single feather, longer than the span of his two hands put together, burning a bright, radiant crimson. ‘Look at the gift they left you. You did well, Viktor Nikiforov.’
Viktor closed his fingers over the feather again. He held it to his lips. It had a fragrance like incense, though stronger and pierced through with bitter notes. Separated from the firebird’s body, the feather held no heat. It could not harm him. He put it away in his belt.
‘See,’ said Phichit, ‘the day’s almost over.’
Viktor looked up. He hadn’t realised how much time had passed. Slowly, a little clumsily, he got to his feet and leaned over the side of the chariot to look down. The grassy meadows dimmed; the swollen rivers ran on. Below them, but rising fast, Mila was climbing the marble steps to her seat.
‘What was the use of my tears?’ he asked.
Phichit cocked an eyebrow. ‘What?’
‘What would a god do with some mortal’s tears?’
Phichit scratched his head, an odd boyish gesture. ‘It’s… hmm. How do I put this? Usefulness doesn’t matter. Not at all. It’s about the sacrifice. It’s not about what you give me, but what I take away.’
As you gain you lose, Mila had said. At each step of the way they will charge you a terrible price.
‘For love of Yuuri, and because of Yuuri’s love for you, I didn’t ask for too high a price,’ Phichit said. ‘Was I not kind to you? Now go: I will set you down in the west. There you will find the Nishigoris, who guard the crossings of the world, and you must ask them to let you cross the bridge that goes to the sea. Go with my blessing; don’t waste it.’
A very pretty, cheerful young woman greeted Viktor at the foot of the rainbow. She wore a clean white apron that turned out, upon closer inspection, to be less clean than it appeared at first glance; in fact it was spattered with white flour. Beside her was a black-haired man, also wearing a white apron, which was much larger than hers because of his size. He was dusted head to toe in flour and had a smudge of charcoal dust on his nose.
‘Hello!’ said the young woman. ‘Hello, hello! Welcome, Viktor Nikiforov! I’m Yuuko and this is my husband Takeshi! We’re very pleased to finally meet you!’
Being used to attention, Viktor smiled automatically. Yuuko clasped her hands in delight.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ said Takeshi, glancing down at his floury hands with an expression of mild embarrassment. ‘We were making pastries.’ And indeed the air was rich with savoury, delicious scents. Takeshi put his big hand on Viktor’s elbow and guided him under the arch of the rainbow, where jewel-coloured deer grazed at pasture. The deer raised their heads and fixed Viktor with curious — though uninterested — glances.
Viktor did not like being touched by strangers, but he had learned to endure it. They stood on a cliff which dropped sharply away at their feet. Grey-green patches of grass grew on the sandy clifftop, and these fed the deer. Each animal’s limb was as slender and delicate as glass. There was no horizon, or at least none that Viktor could see. The day had melted away into shades of evening, and the thick bank of cloud below them was bitterly blue, and though he strained his eyes he could see no end to the great ocean of the sky.
He didn’t see an oven or fire anywhere. He still smelled the aroma of baking bread. Viktor decided not to ask.
‘Is that my path?’
‘That is your path.’ Takeshi squeezed Viktor’s arm reassuringly. ‘What did Phichit make you give him?’
‘Oh, my,’ sighed Yuuko behind them. She came up to Viktor and peered over his shoulder. ‘Of all the bodily fluids… that’s not the worst he could have asked for, I guess.’
‘Yuuko,’ said Takeshi.
‘Sorry! Sorry!’ She held up her hands. ‘I’m excited, that’s all. I never thought we’d see this day! Takeshi, could you call the triplets over? Now, Viktor Nikiforov, there is your way forward — the bridge which seems to stretch away into nothing, the bridge that goes to the sea.’
But there was no bridge.
Viktor blinked hard, his dry eyes stinging. He couldn’t see a bridge. They were alone with the empty air. Was the bridge only visible to those who were worthy?
‘Don’t be distressed,’ said Takeshi, returning with three small children trailing after him. Viktor had not noticed them playing in the grass. They were identical in dress and feature, and all of them were pigtailed and rosy-cheeked. Had Viktor looked distressed?
‘The trick with the bridge is that there is no bridge,’ Yuuko explained, as though this cleared up anything at all. ‘It’ll come to you, I promise. You’ll be able to see it later. You’ll find it.’
Viktor walked towards the edge of the cliff and looked down. The sides of the cliff were cruel; it would be a hard fall. Birds and bats circled below, and treetops occasionally cut through the fog of cloud. There was life far, far beneath them.
He still did not see. He put his hand into his belt-pouch and closed his fingers around the firebird feather. It warmed to his touch but did not clear his vision.
Viktor was no longer in Yuuri’s realm, so the ground no longer responded to him. He could expect no help from friendly streams or rippling valleys. Birds and beasts and growing things would no longer bend at his touch. Fragrant clover would not spring up at his every footfall. Without such privileges, he wondered what chance he had at all.
‘What if —’ Viktor caught himself before he completed the question. But he had already spoken without thinking. So he pressed on: ‘What if I don’t find it?’
One of the children made as if to speak, then looked at her sisters for assistance. She barely came to Viktor’s knee. Her sisters nudged her forward, and Viktor got down on one knee so she could look him in the eye.
‘You can turn back at any time,’ the child told him. ‘It’s all right. Lots of people turn around and go home. You just won’t get there, that’s all.’
‘The end,’ she said simply.
Takeshi cupped the girl’s head in his hand, and she turned and hid her face in her father’s apron. ‘That bridge goes to the sea and the sea goes to the underworld. At every step of the way — every step you take, you see, is your own. You may choose to go forward or turn back. There’s no shame in either choice.’
Viktor had chosen before Takeshi had finished speaking. His feet would not carry him down any other path. He got to his feet and bit down on his lower lip until sensation returned to his body. He could not feel at the worst of times, but he could think, and was always thinking, in good times and in bad, and he knew that he would go forward.
It’s a long way down to the ground.
‘What should I pay you?’
‘Ah. Here’s the thing.’ Yuuko’s eyes sparkled: she loved explaining things. ‘When you offer something to the gods, it’s not payment any more, not really — it becomes a sacrifice. A sacrifice of your own choosing. And a god cannot turn away a sacrifice, no more than a mother can scorn her treasured child’s gift. You’ve not made a bargain, Viktor Nikiforov, you’ve bound the god to respond to your prayer.’
‘That knowledge will come in handy with the sea god,’ Takeshi muttered.
‘He’s the spirit of the sea that carries mortals to the underworld. You’ll have to ask him to let you have a boat, or you’ll never make it past Scylla and Charybdis.’
‘Yakov is a grouchy old man,’ Yuuko laughed, ‘but I’m sure you can charm him. Come, choose your sacrifice!’
It was too easy. Viktor mistrusted things that came easily.
‘What would you rather have?’
Yuuko looked at Takeshi, and then shrugged. ‘Your heart?’
‘You don’t want my heart,’ said Viktor. ‘It’s not worth much. Pick something else.’
‘Ah, well,’ Takeshi sighed. He and his wife conferred in whispers. Viktor waited patiently, watching the boundless heavens lap at the edges of the cliff.
At last Takeshi turned back to Viktor. ‘Can you dance?’
‘Yes. I’ve always been a good dancer,’ Viktor replied, unsurprised. ‘You can have my feet then. Leave me enough of them to walk the rest of the way to the underworld, please.’
Yuuko’s smile tugged at the edges of her mouth. She looked a little sad. Her daughters came forward and made Viktor sit on a boulder, and took his feet in their hands, and then they lifted his feet away from his ankles and carried them to their parents. There was no blood. Viktor felt no pain. He glanced down. His feet were still there — seeming heavier somehow, clumsier — and Takeshi held in his hands a pair of twin golden blades, finely wrought and pure.
That was fine. Viktor would be fine.
‘You’re very young,’ Yuuko told him in a low voice.
‘I’m mortal. We’re all young to you,’ Viktor said. ‘Which way do I go?’
Silently, Yuuko lifted one hand and pointed. She was still standing there, with her husband and their children, as Viktor walked away from them. Viktor looked back only once. Then he turned his face to the implacable sky.
His feet dragged on the ground. They did not feel like his feet any longer, and that was because they weren’t. He was losing all the parts of him that mattered. Soon they would all be gone and replaced with inferior things, and he wondered whether he’d then stop caring about Yuuri. Whether he would lose the will to go forward. He would not feel anything because he would have given up the parts of him that felt, and then — having been found wanting — though he had always known he was wanting — he would be unable to continue, and yet unable to turn back, and there he would stay forever — stationary —
He had reached the furthermost point of the cliff. He stood between earth and eternity.
Viktor told himself he shouldn’t look down, but he did. The fall would kill a giant. The fall would kill a dragon, if she were to be caught off guard. It would be as though he had never existed at all.
‘That’s fine,’ said Viktor, and he stepped off the cliff.
Intellectually he knew that he would keep going forward even when there was nothing left of him, for that was his nature; that was what Viktor did. He set a course and he followed it tirelessly till the end of his days, like a clock that could not stop ticking if it tried.
And he was standing on solid ground.
Viktor glanced down again. His breath came sharp in his ears. It was cold up here, it was so cold; ice gathered in his lungs; and the bridge was part of the sky that lay beneath him. The bridge was wide and it was boundless, and it had been completely invisible to the human eye before he stepped out into the air. It was camouflaged by the rest of the sky, like a pane of glass lying parallel to the ground and joined to a wall at the wall’s midway mark — like a shelf, actually, the bridge was a kind of shelf. It was a shelf flowing smoothly from the clifftop, concealed by the expanse of the heavens and by one’s own terror.
Viktor drew one deep breath, and then another. He was alive. His courage had not failed him. He walked forward, placing one foot steadily in front of the other. His footfalls were slow and graceless, and he did not feel that they came from himself — but Viktor kept going, and so he crossed the bridge.
The sky-bridge led him to a beach of pure white sand that was finer than gold. Foam licked at the turf, breathing in and out with the rhythm of the tides. Viktor looked up and searched for Mila as she pulled the tides to and fro, but he could not find her. The evening sky dipped into the waves so that there appeared to be no boundary between heaven and sea. It was beautiful.
Viktor went to the edge of the waves and dipped his hand into the sea foam. The water was salt, so he could not drink, although he was very thirsty. Instead he decided he might bathe. Leaving his clothes on the beach, and keeping only his belt (which held his knife and the firebird feather, both too valuable to leave his person), Viktor waded into the froth. The water was too alive in its motion to let Viktor see his reflection in the waves. That didn’t matter. Viktor knew what his own face looked like. Salt clung to his skin even as he scrubbed, and he sighed, but at least he might wash away the grime of his journey. He could lift up first one foot and then the other and scrub the dirt from between his toes. There was no wind up here — yet he was cold, so cold — mortals were not made to exist at this altitude. He would wash away all the insides of himself.
As the sea came up to his waist it began to grow warm around him. Viktor stopped, puzzled, and trailed his hand in the pale blue water. The bed of pebbles on which he stood shifted with the sands. Then he felt a fistful of heat growing at his hip. Quickly he rose out of the water and looked down at his belt-pouch. The firebird feather had been soaked through, and having made contact with water, it burned like a coal that spread heat throughout the surf. The froth was beginning to bubble like a soup kettle. A spark of flame appeared on the feather and crept dangerously close to the waves.
Viktor’d never moved so fast before. He hastened back to the beach and hauled himself onto dry land — his feet, new and unwieldy though they were, served him well enough once he willed himself to use them. Viktor plucked the sea-soaked feather from his pouch and dropped it on the sand. As the moisture leached from it, the feather ceased to be blazing-hot. Gentle warmth issued from it instead. Viktor caught his breath, inhaling the feather’s woody incense.
Now that he was no longer in fear of being boiled alive in burning water, Viktor sat down and held out his hands to the warmth. Within a few heartbeats, proximity to the feather had dried his whole body more thoroughly than any towel or fireplace. Viktor brushed the salt and sand from his skin and got dressed. The fragrance of incense was making him sleepy. Calmer now, and feeling strangely comforted, Viktor lay down on the silky white sand and curled himself around the feather like a serpent coiled in its nest. Couched in its seat of sand, the firebird feather warmed his bones. When the beach had sucked all the moisture from the feather, it would stop giving off heat, and Viktor would wake up because of the cold. He could sleep.
He didn’t feel any less empty. But Viktor pushed this from his mind. Some rest would do him good; he’d come too far to turn back now.
He woke up before he had intended to. A shadow had fallen over him, blotting out much of the sky. Viktor scrambled to his feet — scooping up the feather and returning it to his belt — and looked into the hoary and wrinkled face of the sea god.
‘What greater power has cursed me with your presence on this day of all days?’
‘You are the greater power,’ said Viktor, blinking.
‘Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t,’ said Yakov. He scowled down at Viktor. Draped in weeds and attended by a flurry of small sea-creatures, he towered far above Viktor, even though he was only visible above sea-level from the waist up. Yakov was like a great iceberg. Once Viktor had made this connection in his mind, he wasn’t afraid of Yakov.
He didn’t bother trying to clean off the sand, which had doubtless gotten into his hair and clothes while he slept. He had a feeling Yakov wouldn’t be impressed with his appearance no matter what he did. Viktor cocked his head to one side and gazed up at the sea god.
‘Don’t you want to know why I’m here?’
Yakov gave such a massively contemptuous sniff that Viktor admired him. ’Don’t waste your breath and mine. Whatever favour you ask of me, I shall not grant it. You’re too young and irresponsible.’
Viktor stared at him. ‘We’ve only just met.’
‘That’s what you think,’ Yakov snorted. ‘Foolish boy, would you underestimate me thus? I have eyes in every lagoon and bathing pool.’
Viktor considered this statement. He had done things near lagoons and bathing pools that he wasn’t sure he wanted other people to know about. He suspected his partners during those pleasurable encounters wouldn’t have liked witnesses either.
‘Well,’ he went on, brushing that off, ‘I need a boat to take me down into the underworld.’
‘Absolutely not!’ said Yakov. ‘The idea! The path is dangerous and the end deplorable! Alack, why must you cast your life away? That is what children do, they pass through and they break your heart and they leave you all alone —’
‘I’m not a child.’
‘You are to me,’ snapped Yakov. ‘Insouciant and incorrigible boy! How many thousands and tens of thousands of years have I aged since the world began? How many more grey hairs must you put on my head? I was old before your ancestors were born!’
‘Mmm,’ said Viktor, who was enjoying himself. ‘I can see that.’
Yakov snatched up a pebble from the beach and threw it at him. Viktor dodged.
‘I hear it can be done,’ Viktor continued, cheerful and persuasive. ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis, there is a way —’
‘Maybe if you had a ship and crew,’ Yakov interrupted, ‘you might get through and only lose a few men. For ship captains ought to steer closer to Scylla than Charybdis — Scylla would devour some of their crew, but Charybdis is the whirlpool that would swallow the entire ship, and it’s better that a few should perish if the rest may be saved. But you’re alone! I will not let you pass. This is a very bad idea!’
‘When have I ever had bad ideas?’ Viktor asked very reasonably. He held up his hands in surrender just as Yakov began to speak. ‘Fine, fine, I take your point. But you don’t understand, Yakov. I have to get to the underworld at any cost, because that’s the only way I can get Yuuri back. As for Scylla and Charybdis, I’ll figure something out —’
‘Yuuri?’ said Yakov in a voice of incomparable scorn. ‘Yuuri, Minako’s boy? The Katsukis’ boy? That failed excuse for a godling? His dog died and he fell to pieces? That Yuuri?’
Viktor gritted his teeth so that he would not speak too soon. He felt a slow tide of anger building inside him. ‘Mind your tongue.’
‘I thought you were smarter than this, Viktor Nikiforov!’ Yakov spluttered. ‘Clearly I gave you too much credit. You, a prince of the blood, with your whole life ahead of you — you’d risk everything for that one? You are mortal, and he is not. Do you think you’ll be together forever? Stop this foolishness and go home to your people. You’ve wasted too much time on such a weakling.’
‘That’s not for you to say.’
‘Oh?’ demanded Yakov. His greying face was mottled with rage. ‘You think so? Do I not know you, have I not watched over you from afar your whole life? And now you confront me with this nonsense? Gods of the underworld forgive me, I would not see you die for Yuuri Katsuki! You do not have my permission to go, and I would sooner kill you myself than grant it!’
‘Really, Yakov?’ said Viktor with all the poised disdain he could muster. He did not like to raise his voice. ‘What do you know?’
For a moment Yakov was actually speechless. Then he reddened even further. ‘This I know,’ he spat, his huge fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. Viktor looked on coldly; he knew, because Yuuko had told him, that if he made a great sacrifice of his own choosing when Yakov did not expect it, the god had no choice but to respond. ‘You were the best of your kind, and all the world admired you. Yet you did not value what you had. You threw away your position, you threw away your renown, you left the land of your fathers where you belonged and ran off on a whim! The riches of the earth lay in your lap! Yet you insist on losing your life for some worthless —’
Viktor pulled from his braid the hair-ribbon Toshiya had made for him, and tucked the ribbon carefully into his pouch along with the firebird feather. Then he drew his knife and sawed off his braid, savagely yanking the hair taut so that it hurt, tearing more than cutting as the knife-blade ripped the strands from his scalp. The braid came loose but Viktor kept going. He didn’t stop until most of his hair had been shorn. He flung all of it into the water where Yakov stood.
‘There,’ he hissed. ‘There’s your sacrifice! I give you my beauty, indeed I cast it at your feet, I don’t want it, it’s brought me nothing but sorrows! Take it and let me go!’
Yakov was silent for a long time. Several expressions passed rapidly over his face. When he looked up from the water at last and met Viktor’s gaze, his eyes were filled with dread.
‘Oh, child.’ Yakov’s voice trembled. ‘What have you done?’
Viktor had spent many years training himself not to show anger. He had sharpened into a fine art the technique of drawing turmoil back into himself, swallowing it, blending it with the insides of him, keeping his outsides pristine. He had melted down his anger until it no longer existed.
Now he didn’t feel better, not that, but he did feel — different. Strange. He couldn’t decide whether he felt strange in a good way or a bad way.
Without his long hair he wasn’t really the loveliest mortal alive any more. So many lovers, admirers and total strangers had run their hands covetously through Viktor’s hair that he had fixed it in his mind that this was his special beauty. His hair was the special part of him. It certainly wasn’t his spirit because nobody seemed to care about that. Viktor had given this much serious thought when he was very young and decided that he would never cut off his hair.
He hadn’t wanted it gone then. He just… he simply hadn’t known what life could be like without it. The thought had never crossed his mind. He had not thought it possible that he could ever stop being beautiful. And now he had stopped. As quick and as easy as that. He had chopped off most of his long hair in a fit of anger with a knife that wasn’t sharp enough. It was an ugly, ugly cut and Viktor knew that without having to look at himself in a mirror. He didn’t need a mirror to know how ugly his anger was, either. Yakov’s look of shock had told him that well enough. It was freeing to be ugly. He didn’t need to pretend to be beautiful. He could stop melting down parts of himself in a silence that was perfect and clean. He wasn’t charming. He wasn’t beautiful. Yuuri saw him as beautiful, but Yuuri would find beauty in Viktor no matter what Viktor did. Viktor could grow old and grey and balding and Yuuri would still love him. Minako was wrong. She’d been right once but now she was wrong. Viktor wasn’t free with his charms. He was tired of giving them away for free.
Yakov walked along the seabed beside him, staying in the water while Viktor walked along the beach. They journeyed in companionable silence. Yakov didn’t speak until they reached the boat.
‘Is there anything that will change your mind?’
In the interests of being fair to Yakov, Viktor thought this over. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
The boat bobbed among the waves in a gentle inlet of the beach. There was no rope or anchor; the boat stayed where it was, and stayed of its own volition. Yakov closed his eyes in resignation.
‘And what are you going to do if you even get there? Have you thought this through at all?’
‘You may die a horrible death.’
‘Yes,’ said Viktor, unfazed, ‘that’s one way to get to the underworld.’
Yakov reached out with one huge hand, gripped the side of the boat and pulled it towards Viktor. Viktor nodded his thanks and stepped into the boat, which rocked under his weight. He looked for a pair of oars in the bottom of the boat but there weren’t any. Questioningly, he turned to Yakov.
‘The boat steers itself.’
‘Oh.’ That made things a lot easier.
‘I don’t want to see you again,’ Yakov said. ‘Watching you do this makes me sick.’
Viktor reached into his belt-pouch and made sure the feather was still there. He clenched his fist around it so that the sharp quill dug painfully into his palm. ‘Brave words, Yakov! I’ve heard them before.’
‘You are still angry at me,’ said Yakov.
Yakov didn’t put any surprise into the words. He just said it. That was all. That was the truth.
Abruptly Viktor realised that they were speaking in Viktor’s own native tongue. He hadn’t had the energy to notice that before. That… that had been a surprisingly thoughtful gesture on Yakov’s part.
‘And you’re angry too. On that we can agree, yes?’ Viktor settled himself down in the boat, drawing his knees up to his chest. The boat wasn’t very large. Yakov’s heavy hand still rested on the side of the boat, but he didn’t touch Viktor, seeming to sense that Viktor did not like being touched without permission. So Viktor leaned over and kissed Yakov’s cheek. He was always kinder after he had gotten his own way. ‘Dasvidanya.’
Yakov gave the boat a hard shove, and it glided on its way.
Viktor cried after leaving Yakov. He didn’t really know why he was crying. There were a lot of things Viktor didn’t understand about himself. But he was on his way to figuring them out, with or without Yuuri. He’d had a late start, that was all.
He smelled Scylla before he saw her. Here the water was a deep green unflecked by foam, as thick and stagnant as oil, and things lurked in its brackish depths. Night had fallen. Viktor couldn’t see far ahead of him, nor did he dare lean over the side of the boat to peer into the sea — but he knew he was not alone in the darkness. Hands that were no human hands crept up the sides of the boat, clawing at it with fingers the colour of old milk. He caught a glimpse of many-eyed tentacles churning the waves. They did not threaten him, though. They pushed the boat onwards, forcing it over the water towards where Scylla and Charybdis lay in wait.
He smelled Scylla, and he heard Charybdis. The stench of rotting meat hit him in the face and roiled the contents of his stomach. On his right was the terrible rumbling of Charybdis, the whirlpool, preparing to suck half the sea into her parched mouth as she did three times a day. Desperately Viktor struck at the prow of the boat. ‘Go towards Scylla! Take me towards Scylla!’
The boat veered sharply to the left, and Viktor bent over the side with a lurching motion and vomited into the sea.
He gasped, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. He scooped up some of the oily water in his palm and swilled the foul taste of vomit from his mouth. The water tasted no better. Viktor fumbled at his belt, shaking his head to clear it. The death-stench grew stronger as he approached Scylla, nearly blinding him with the stink of blood and fear and the many, many people who had come this way before him and perished. Viktor fancied he saw their dead faces rising up to stare at him out of the darkness. No, he thought, no, no. No more. His fingers closed over the feather in his pouch.
Viktor held the feather to his lips and breathed in its incense. With the slow clarity it gave him, he was afraid no longer. So he was unprotected against the night’s horrors — so what? He’d been alone his whole life. He had survived. He would survive this, too. Viktor had no fear.
Well, he had some fear. Just a little. Enough to keep him alive. Only fools and dead men did not feel fear.
Viktor dipped the firebird feather into the sea. He held it up between his thumb and index finger, and, soaked through, the feather began to glow like a hot coal. Viktor thrust it forward. The feather was his torch: it lit the way in front of him, softly at first, then brighter and brighter still, and he saw Scylla.
Her waist was ringed with dogs’ heads which foamed and gnashed their teeth. Her heads — she had many heads — each perched on the end of a grisly neck, purpled with scales and stained with the gore of past victims. Strings of meat and sinew still dangled from her shark’s teeth. She saw him, and she hungered; she grew fat on human blood.
Viktor plunged his left arm into the sea again. He held on to the feather tightly, keeping it underwater even as it caught fire and scorched his fingertips. Viktor cried out in pain but he’d endured the pain before. He had been burned by a flock of firebirds and torn by their beaks — one feather was nothing to that.
The water was beginning to boil. Viktor drew his arm out, though he still pinched the burning feather between his fingers so that the feather stayed submerged, setting the water alight. Viktor looked up at Scylla waiting for him, her tentacles seething with bloodlust. In the depths of the sea around him, the milky and many-eyed creatures of the dark screamed with a thousand voices as the feather spread fire across the water’s surface. The boat rocked wildly with their agony, but the boat was Yakov’s boat — Viktor knew it wouldn’t steer him wrong. Straight and true it carried him down the channel towards Scylla’s yawning mouth.
A wall of flame had sprung up, growing taller with every breath Viktor drew. He had to grip his shoulder fiercely with his other hand to stop himself from losing hold of the feather. He’d long since lost all sensation in his fingertips, and he thought for sure that his left hand was lost for good; he didn’t know if he would find anybody willing to heal the burns. Phichit was far away. The underworld didn’t exactly have a reputation as a place of healing. Every muscle in his body screamed at Viktor to tear himself away from the agonising heat.
Viktor had lost his beauty and his temper. He’d given up the gift of dancing which had enchanted everybody around him. Now he was about to sacrifice the function of one limb as well. He’d never use his left arm again.
Viktor could afford to lose that. He was right-handed.
Viktor looked into Scylla’s eyes and in her eyes were reflected the blazes of a hundred blazing seas. The wall of fire was taller than palaces, taller than the tallest mountain. He saw Scylla only through the flickering smoke. The whole stretch of water between them burned with a fire that would never go out. She reached for him, and could not get at him. Screeching with thwarted rage she reared back — retreated — and the stink of death was overwhelmed by firebird incense.
The boat passed by, and left Scylla far behind. Viktor dropped the feather into the water and fell back into the bottom of the boat. He lay on his side, clutching his charred arm. He curled himself around the pain and let himself sob since there was no one to hear him. He thought he would pass out — yes — yes, he was on the verge of passing out. A steep waterfall lay ahead, but Viktor did not see it. The boat stayed its course as it swept on and on towards the plunge. Viktor was unconscious before he hit the water.
A goddess pulled him out.
‘Wake up.’ She slapped him, although the slap was without malice. ‘Viktor Nikiforov! Wake up.’
Viktor coughed himself awake. He still lay half in and half out of the plunge pool, and his sopping hair stuck to his neck. The goddess gazed down at him as though he were some curious sort of snail. ‘Hmm,’ she said, then picked him up by the scruff of his neck and flipped him over. Viktor retched again, emptying his stomach into the water.
The goddess’s hair was piled atop her head in a severe bun, and her cheekbones were stark and high. She had been beautiful once. Viktor could not imagine her ever being young. There was light behind her — she’d come out of a cavern beside the pool, and the cavern was filled with burning lamps.
Viktor found himself shaking. The memory of fire undid him. His arm hung dead at his side; his blackened fingers trailed in the foul water.
‘If it wasn’t infected before, it is now.’ The goddess pursed her lips. Her cold green eyes looked him over, top to toe. She nodded at his burned shoulder. ‘The arm will have to be taken off. Do you need to vomit again?’
Mutely, Viktor shook his head.
‘Good.’ She took hold of him again and dragged him onto dry ground. Viktor could not stop himself from crying out. She didn’t seem to despise him for that. ‘My name is Lilia. You may not call me Lilia, however. Madame Baranovskaya will do fine.’
Viktor said nothing.
‘The boat.’ Lilia looked over Viktor’s shoulder at the boat and snapped her fingers. ‘Go back to Yakov!’ she ordered, and the boat turned away obediently.
Viktor was on his hands and knees as he spat bile onto the limestone. Lilia’s gaze rested on him.
‘Can you walk?’
Viktor forced his lips to shape words. He tried once, twice, thrice before he got his voice back.
Viktor dared to raise his head and look her in the eye. She intimidated him more than any terror he’d seen. ‘Where to, madame?’
Arms folded, Lilia jerked her chin at the cavern behind her. Viktor pulled himself slowly to his feet, wincing at every movement. Lilia did not extend a hand to help him. Viktor walked into the cavern beside her and remained standing until she looked at him and said: ‘Sit.’
Viktor sat down on a kind of shelf which was jutting out of the rock wall, and closed his eyes. He couldn’t remember having ever been so cold in his life. Was all the underworld as chilly as this?
‘You will die if the infection spreads.’
‘I don’t care.’
Lilia slapped him again. This time she meant it. Viktor opened his eyes, shivering.
‘Sorry,’ he whispered.
‘You should be sorry. You do yourself harm by lying.’ Lilia was tearing his sleeve away from his ruined shoulder, her long fingernails slicing easily through the fabric. ‘You harm others, too. Do you think nobody cares whether you live or die?’
Viktor sat motionless as she washed his arm in cool water laced with a mixture of herbs. She wrapped it tightly in bandages cut from some strange cloth, the likes of which Viktor had never seen before. Viktor started and shifted only when she took a pair of silver scissors to his hair.
‘Stay still.’ Lilia’s cold hands cupped his face, holding his head in place with a startlingly gentle touch. ‘You, Viktor Nikiforov, are a terrible barber.’
Viktor let out a short huff of a laugh which sounded closer to a groan. ‘I’m terrible at a lot of things.’
‘Hmm.’ Lilia tipped his head this way and that as she trimmed his ill-used hair. ‘Well, if that’s what you want to call it.’
She worked quickly. When she was done, she brought Viktor a plate of burnished silver and held it up to him so that he could see his reflection in the metal. ‘How do you think you look?’
Viktor studied his smudged, tear-worn face. His eyes were ringed with bruises from lack of sleep, and his mouth hung slack. His cheekbones were sharply defined, his forehead high and wide. Yuuri would have recognised him without a moment’s hesitation. Viktor would have recognised himself.
‘Handsome,’ he muttered at last. ‘I guess.’
‘Yes.’ Lilia put the plate away. She sat down on the rock shelf beside him and smoothed his short hair out of his eyes. ‘Would you rather have your arm burned off or cut away?’
Viktor swallowed hard. He didn’t think he could take any more pain tonight. ‘Can it wait? I… I have to be somewhere.’
‘The Crispinos.’ Lilia’s eyebrows lifted. ‘King and queen of the underworld. You want to see them.’
‘Stay here,’ Lilia told him as she got up. Then she turned back to Viktor and tilted his face up with a finger under his chin. ‘Why are you hanging your head? Sit up straight and be proud. You’ve come a long way to get here.’
Viktor waited for what seemed like a long time. Then Lilia returned, carrying a paper bag that smelled hot and fragrant. She bent over him and put the bag in his lap. It was filled to the brim with steamed buns, fresh and white and delicately puffy.
‘You’re cold,’ she said when Viktor looked up. ‘These will keep you warm. Don’t eat them now. The underworld only gets colder as you go further down.’
‘Why are you being kind to me?’
‘Because you are strong,’ Lilia replied. ‘People who can throw themselves away and be reborn are the strongest ones of all.’
Viktor folded down the top of the bag and put it beside him on the seat. His bandaged arm didn’t hurt any more. The herbs had even covered the hot, sickening scent of burned flesh. In a few hours he might be hungry.
‘Tell me,’ said Lilia, ‘what will you give to the Crispinos as your sacrifice? The box, the precious thing that Minako’s asked you to bring back — they won’t let you have it easily.’
Viktor hadn’t thought about this at all. Though he kept his head up and his back straight, he felt the tears spring to his eyes, and he tipped his head backwards so that he would not have to look at Lilia directly. He watched stalactites drip water from the ceiling instead. He had nothing to offer to the underworld gods. He’d already sacrificed everything he had to give, every part of him that was worth something. No god in their right mind would want the rest of him. Even his body was damaged.
He thought he heard Lilia sigh.
‘Did Minako tell you what the box contains?’
Viktor exhaled in a sob. He didn’t care who heard him crying now. All of him was laid bare.
Lilia waited for him to respond, her expression neutral. Under the weight of that implacable gaze, Viktor shuddered. ‘No,’ he said finally. ‘She didn’t tell me.’
‘Yuuri’s heart,’ said Lilia. ‘That’s what it is. The Crispinos have guarded it ever since Yuuri lost his dog, his beloved creature, because — for thousands of years — the underworld was the safest place you could keep a heart. Nothing could come at it there. No one could hurt or break it. But… well, that’s no longer true. Now the underworld is only the second safest place to be, I suppose. You — you take it, and keep it safe. That is the quest Minako has set you. That’s the reason for all these trials. Win Yuuri’s heart and bear it safely to the world of the living, and it is yours forever and ever.’
Viktor turned up his gaze to meet Lilia’s.
‘Minako is an old friend of mine,’ she added. ‘She would not mind me telling you. Besides,’ and Lilia’s eyes sharpened in amusement, ‘I do what I want.’
Viktor’s tears were cold on his cheeks. He wiped them away with the back of his hand, smearing grime and ash down his chin. Even after paying Phichit in tears, Viktor could still cry. Even after hurting Yuuri, he still had Yuuri’s love — he had a way to make things right.
‘What about my heart?’ he asked. ‘It’s already his.’
‘I think he knows that.’
Viktor tasted the truth of this on his tongue. He savoured it.
‘Tell me, then,’ Lilia continued, ‘why did you choose those parts of yourself to give away? No, don’t — I know, I know you had to give something. But why those? Your tears, your dancing feet?’
‘You want them too?’
‘No! Well —’ She paused despite her irritation. ‘— you shall have to pay me for my help, of course. But I am not interested in that kind of sacrifice. I want to know why. Why you gave up those things.’
Viktor took a deep breath. He knew the answer. He had always known it, for it rose naturally to his lips. He had needed Lilia to pull the words out of him.
‘Because giving Phichit my tears doesn’t mean I’ve lost them all. Because… being a good dancer wasn’t all due to some talent I gained at birth. It was hard work, nine parts out of ten. I practised and learned, and I can do it again, feet or no feet. I will.’
Lilia’s lips moved in what was almost a smile. ‘And?’
‘And what else can you give that will be renewed? What do you have, Viktor Nikiforov?’
‘My life,’ he said. ‘My love.’
‘There you are,’ she said. ‘There. I shall not demand them of you, for as far as I’m concerned, they are yours to keep. I cannot answer for the other gods. I take from you only this truth, the truth that you now know, and which nourishes you as much as it pleases me, for that is the nature of sacrifice. A sacrifice should strengthen the giver even as it is surrendered. Go, then: this is the last test you shall have to endure.’
He walked knee-deep in brackish water. Soft things brushed his ankles as he walked, and he thought at first that they were lily-leaves, which floated on the stagnant surface of the stream; but then he felt fingers, and hands. Dead faces gazed up at him from the stream. Their eyes were mournful and their flesh bloated, discoloured — the skin had pulled back from their swollen eyeballs, which were as tender and juicy as grapes. Although the corpses’ faces were most clearly visible in the grey-green water, their bodies supported them as stalks support the heads of flowers. They were whole: each corpse was reverently preserved in its entirety. Their necks were bent at a stark angle to allow their faces to linger just under the surface, and their bodies seemed to extend much farther down than the stream’s shallow bed. Their eyes followed Viktor as he walked through the stream.
Looking up, Viktor took in the improbable sight of a stream flowing uphill.
Very well. Viktor began to climb. The bed sloped upwards and the water continued to flow. He had Lilia’s bag of steamed buns tucked under his arm, and his belt was strapped securely around his waist. Thick-rooted, ghastly trees with branches like spiders’ legs hung over him. Nothing moved. He couldn’t hear a sound. The silence seemed to go on forever.
He had not yet entered the underworld. He had not passed the fearsome gates. This wasn’t a place of death, not yet. It was simply a place where there was no life.
Viktor walked on. The climb was not arduous; the slope was gentle enough that he mightn’t have noticed he was going uphill if he hadn’t been paying attention. Anyone else might have felt the urge to fill the silence, to sing, to shout, to pray or curse aloud. Not Viktor. It wasn’t that he was frightened, not entirely. He had Toshiya’s ribbon — that song made into cloth — in his belt-pouch, which comforted him. Down here there was no day or night, and Viktor felt as one with the quiet flow of time.
He reached the summit of the hill. He looked out over the fields of the dead.
No. These weren’t the fields of the dead. The dead made their eternal home behind the gates, guarded by the three-headed Hound which slaughtered without mercy any stranger daring to trespass. These fields were packed with souls locked out of the underworld for some reason or another — their sins in life, the accursed manner of their death. Their piteous cries filled the air.
Viktor drew a shuddering breath. The rejected souls, neither living nor truly dead, were crowded so close together that he couldn’t see what lay on the other side of them. But they must be pressed up against the gates of the underworld, for weren’t they crying to be let in? He had to go through them, then. He had to make his way to the gates.
Viktor stepped out of the stream. His feet sank into damp soil. He didn’t need his new inferior feet to feel heavy here, to feel clumsy — the very ground sucked at him, holding him close. Viktor felt the familiar hopeless fog settling upon him. That sense of futility, of being almost too heavy to move. He had woken up feeling that way for many years.
It wasn’t a part of him. The heaviness and the lethargy and the grey, grey nothing. It wasn’t him. It settled on him, yes, and pressed him down. But it was something outside him, a sickness and a fog. He moved forward.
He didn’t know how long he took to make his way through the mass of souls. He might have taken hours, or he might have passed through in a matter of moments. The souls pushed and swayed together, their shadowy forms resisting his path for half a heartbeat before they gave way. They bore him no ill will. In fact they barely seemed to notice Viktor. They brushed up against him, though, and their weak cries clogged his ears; moving through the crowd was like fighting his way through a great tank of viscous liquid. He did not want to draw his knife on them. At last Viktor found himself standing before the underworld’s gates.
The gates were massive, and very firmly shut. He couldn’t tell what materials they were made of, or even what colour they were. There didn’t seem to be any colour in this world.
The Hound lay in front of the twin gates. Unexpectedly (to Viktor), it had only one head, which went against all the legends he’d heard. He felt a little disappointed. He’d been promised three heads.
The Hound flickered in dull shadow, blurry around the edges, as though its choice of physical form was as unstable and fleeting as everything else down here. Only its eyes glowed with astral fire. Viktor approached the Hound, tentative, and it bared its huge teeth and snarled.
Viktor came to a hasty halt. He held his hands up, palms outward, showing that he intended to go no further. The Hound’s eyes fixed upon him. Slowly, very slowly, Viktor bent down and withdrew Toshiya’s song-ribbon from his pouch. The Hound’s drawn-back lips trembled with the echo of its snarl.
Viktor held the ribbon in his palms. He could not remember the ribbon ever having had a colour. Was there any colour here in the underworld? Any music?
As he handled the ribbon and thought about Toshiya who had given it to him, Toshiya who had plaited Viktor’s hair without being asked, and Hiroko who had fed and warmed him, Viktor tasted the memory of that song. He reached into his mind and pulled it out. It fitted easily into his mouth. He explored its shape with his tongue. Then he began to hum.
He hummed the small, drowsy tune that Toshiya had hummed while plaiting Viktor’s hair at the dinner table. He stood before the Hound and hummed and hummed. The Hound’s eyes shimmered, seemed almost to fade. It was calmer than before, the Hound; it was growing sleepy. Viktor took a tiny step towards the Hound — then another, and another. The beast did not menace him. Gently and cautiously he approached until he stood between the Hound’s paws, and he reached out and looped the ribbon around the Hound’s neck, and tied a knot.
The Hound trembled as though with a sigh. It laid its head on its paws. Its great eyes still dwelt on Viktor. They were wet eyes, almost living eyes. Patient. Intelligent. They —
Brown. The Hound’s eyes were brown.
Viktor had not noticed that he’d stopped breathing. Nevertheless, he breathed again. He stretched out his hand, and his fingers brushed the Hound’s nose.
It bumped its nose against his palm.
Viktor gasped. He felt the warmth and life of contact. He turned his palm upwards and held it to the Hound’s mouth, and the Hound licked it. The Hound licked his palm.
He didn’t feel any teeth. The Hound had not even thought about biting Viktor.
Hardly daring to breathe, Viktor unfolded the top of his bag. Somehow the steamed buns were still as hot and fragrant as if they’d been freshly prepared. He took out a steamed bun and offered it to the Hound.
The Hound ate, and ate. It ate until the bag was nearly empty, and pushed its enormous head into the bag as it sniffed about for more. There was one bun left. It picked up the bun in its terrible, powerful jaws, but did not bite down. Instead it dropped the bun on the ground in front of Viktor and looked at Viktor expectantly.
‘No,’ said Viktor, who was on the ground now, sitting cross-legged as he watched the Hound eat. ‘No, you can have it.’
The Hound growled.
‘All right. All right.’ Viktor found himself laughing. ‘Here, look. I’ll eat, see? I’m eating.’ And indeed he ate the bun, dirt and all, stroking the Hound’s head as it lay in his lap. He didn’t want to hurt the Hound’s feelings.
‘You are a good dog,’ Viktor said to the Hound. ‘A fearsome sentry for the underworld, yes. But mostly you are a good dog.’
The Hound snuffled at Viktor’s palm. Its nose was quite cold and wet. Viktor scratched between its ears.
‘Do you have a name?’
The Hound whined.
‘Ah, I see,’ said Viktor. ‘That’s a shame. I’ll come back to you, shall I? I have to hurry somewhere now.’
The Hound scrambled to its feet and looked after Viktor longingly as he walked past it. A few of the souls behind Viktor tried to press past the gates as well, and at once the Hound thrust its head forward with a warning growl that shook the earth underneath them. The rumble of its voice chilled Viktor to the spine even as he entered through the gates.
He had not distracted the Hound, or put it to sleep. The Hound was awake and alert and fully committed to its duty. It had let him pass through.
Who was he to work such magic?
Beyond the gates lay the meadows of the ordinary dead, and Viktor was relieved to see colour and lush grasses and rich fruit swelling like bubbles on the trees. A brook murmured somewhere in the distance; little dead children splashed in and out of the water, their bare feet twinkling as they ran. Dying wasn’t so bad. He smelled sweet perfumes, tasted eternal sunlight. He could hear music.
Viktor drifted towards the music, winding his way past indifferent souls who ignored him. Mostly. A few turned their heads towards him as he passed, though he glimpsed no curiosity in their eyes. He was just a visitor, he was passing through, and he left no mark on the serene shadows of the dead. Or perhaps they left no mark on him? Yet the grass beneath his feet felt real enough.
He couldn’t tell what was real and what was transparent any more.
He wandered into a hut built of straw. No one stopped him, so Viktor supposed he could go in. Perhaps it was somebody’s home. But he walked and walked, and still could not seem to come to the end of the hut — it was much bigger than it had looked on the outside — and then he looked up and found himself in a palace.
Not a palace, not quite. Nothing like the palaces he had… had he lived in palaces? Had he had palaces of his own, once? He saw a high ceiling carved of stone. Strange monsters yearned towards him from the ceiling, their faces alien and twisted; then their features resolved into something Viktor knew. And suddenly they were not strange at all. Their carven faces were the faces of gods, of humans made immortal, even of mortals whom he had known and lost. Why had he thought them strange?
He was walking again.
He did not know how long he had been walking. After a time he became aware that sirens were following him. He recognised them as sirens because they were beautiful and naked, and by the dreamy calculation in their eyes.
Viktor ignored them. It was they who had been making music. Their singing had drawn him into the palace.
Why had he thought of the word palace? He didn’t know what a palace was.
The sirens followed at a distance, and then drew closer. Viktor continued to walk. He did not know where he was meant to go, only that he had to move forward.
‘Why are you here?’ the sirens whispered.
He did not answer them.
‘Where are you going?’
He kept walking.
One of the sirens crawled up a wall onto the ceiling. She hung from one of the stalactites and unfurled her batlike wings. ‘Who are you?’ she said into Viktor’s mouth. ‘You may not pass until you answer.’
Viktor stopped. He stared at her, at her upside-down exquisite face, and her sisters crept towards him from behind.
It took him a number of heartbeats to remember his own name. ‘Viktor,’ he replied. He felt the need to define himself further, so he added: ‘A prince.’ He frowned; he could not remember. ‘Of… of the kingdom of Nikephoros. My parents —’
‘Not any more,’ she said. She curled the upper half of her body up onto the ceiling and scuttled away from him.
He put one foot in front of the other. And again. And again. And — ‘Not any more?’
‘You gave it up,’ one of her sisters hissed into his ear. ‘You left your kingdom, and what are you without it? A name? A name with no meaning?’
He walked. And walked. He could not seem to see in front of him. He could not see where he was going. What kingdom?
‘Husband,’ he said at last, remembering. ‘I’m the husband of Yuuri.’
The sirens’ chattering laughter made it clear what they thought of that.
‘No?’ Now the uncertainty troubled him. As he walked, he worried at it like a bone. ‘But I am. I am, still.’
He was… he was what?
The response came as a snake’s rattle, the skitter of claws on a board: ‘Is that all?’
He knew. He knew that wasn’t all. But he couldn’t remember what else there was. Had he ever known?
‘Ask Yakov,’ he said desperately, seizing on the name (a name, a name) like the island it was — an island of solid rock in an ever-changing sea. ‘He knows. Yakov knows. So go and ask Yakov.’
‘Yakov?’ They took his newfound knowledge and mocked it and threw it back in his face with their many voices. ‘Yakov, you say? Who’s Yakov to you? He was the only one who ever loved you. And you didn’t even know him.’
‘You left him. Just like that.’
‘You’ll never see him again.’
He knew that wasn’t true. He set his feet on that truth as his anchor. ‘You lie. I’ll come back to him.’
‘And what makes you think he’ll have you back?’
‘He will,’ he said with a confidence he did not feel. ‘He… Yakov will.’ That was his name. No, not his name — never that — but somebody’s name. Yakov was somebody, somebody who had known him. Who was —
‘Viktor!’ said Viktor, remembering suddenly and with relief. ‘Viktor Nikiforov, that’s my name. And I’ve left the kingdom for good, so you can stop bothering me now. I left the kingdom to my cousin Yuri Plisetsky and I know he’ll take good care of it. Yura will.’
As the words left his mouth, memories flooded back into him. Viktor welcomed them, even the ones that filled him with shame anew. He knew who he was. He was here to find the underworld gods and make his sacrifice, and win back Yuuri’s heart, and then he would leave this place and return to the world of the living.
And it was as though a film had lifted from his eyes and he could see again, he could see the way forward. He stood in a great hall that stretched from one horizon to the other, and souls crawled and writhed on the unclean floor. The souls cast no shadows, and neither did the sirens when he looked at them head-on — though he saw the sirens mostly out of the corner of his eye. They came and went fleetingly.
At the other end of the hall was a great archway, and through the archway he saw only blackness. Viktor headed towards that archway. He did not look at the souls crawling on the floor on either side of him. They were illusions, he was sure of it, evil illusions cast by the sirens to trap and unnerve him. Death could not be so horrible. The gods would not allow it.
The archway was like a frame that shaped his vision and cut away all that was extraneous. He was like a moth drawn to the light, he thought, drifting steadily towards that point — except that the archway held no light, only an impenetrable darkness. A cavern, he thought, some cave so deep that no light could penetrate. Though what did the underworld gods care for light and darkness, day or night? This was their own territory. The laws of reality didn’t work here.
Until he had opened his mind to memories, he had been blind; he had not been able to see what lay before him. And then he had remembered who he was, and his sight had returned. Had the stream of dead faces really been as silent as he’d thought, or had his ears been stoppered?
So Viktor opened his ears and strained to listen.
And he heard someone calling his name.
Viktor didn’t stop walking. He couldn’t afford to stop. But he listened, a hot wave rising in his chest. He heard footsteps behind him, running footsteps. He heard the voice calling him again and again. He could not make sense of what he heard. And then he said, disbelieving:
The voice calling him was a mortal voice. A familiar voice, raised in familiar outrage. Viktor caught and held on to it like a tree branch blocking his fall. He turned, and right there at his side was a figure he had thought he’d never see again.
Yakov was not the only one who had ever loved Viktor.
‘You’ve grown taller,’ were the first words out of his mouth.
Yura’s first words were: ‘What the fuck did you do to your hair?’
Viktor’s laugh boiled up in him before he could become aware of it. He was so, so happy to see Yura. He had never imagined he’d feel that way about the boy. Though Yura was a boy no longer — there he was, hair long enough to be tied back now, his lips pressed together in a thin line and his eyebrows furrowed in a well-beloved scowl.
Yura noticed Viktor looking at him. ‘Well?’
A sudden cold fear struck Viktor.
‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded. ‘You’re…’ No, no, not Yura! ‘You’re not dead, are you?’
‘Yes. Leroy called me a fairy one too many times so I killed him and then myself,’ Yura snapped. ‘No! I’m still alive, idiot, what do you think? Do I look dead to you? I followed you here, old man! I’ve been chasing you across the fucking earth!’
‘You left the kingdom to rule itself? My goodness, Yura. Such dedication!’
‘Oh, shut your mouth.’ Yura kept pace with Viktor as they walked. His strides were longer now, nearly as long as Viktor’s. He wore a new-forged sword at his hip. ‘You know Leroy can keep the court together while I’m gone. Do I detest him with every drop of my blood? Yes. Does he do a good job? Unfortunately, yes. Besides, Georgi and Otabek would slap the shit out of him if he ever thought about usurping the throne.’
‘You shameless dog,’ Yura snorted. ‘Leroy served as one of our chief advisers for years, and you pretend not to know him! Unless… wait, you’re not talking about Georgi, are you?’
‘How could anyone ever forget Georgi?’
Yura slapped his back so hard that Viktor stumbled. Viktor spun around and grabbed his cousin by the chin, forcing Yura to look him in the eye. Yura was laughing merrily.
‘Now that’s the Viktor I know. Take your hands off me. Listen, I’m here to make you see sense. Unplug your ears and listen to me. How many trials are there? How many have you already undergone?’
Viktor tried to count in his mind. He refused to bait Yura’s sharp tongue by counting on his fingers. All the past trials blurred together in his mind. He couldn’t remember how many days had passed since he’d left Minako and the Katsukis. He had no way to tell.
‘You see,’ said Yura, triumphant.
Furious at himself, Viktor rubbed his knuckles into his eyes. He hadn’t forgotten anything. He hadn’t. This was just the way things always were with the gods. They made you doubt yourself. What was he supposed to do? He hadn’t forgotten something he’d meant to do, had he?
‘Yura…’ Viktor bit his lip. He was wretched enough to forgo his pride. ‘Did I forget some promise I made you before I left?’
‘Should I list them in alphabetical or chronological order?’
Fine. Viktor deserved that.
‘But that’s not why I’m here.’ Yura barrelled on inexorably. There was no stopping him once he’d gotten started. Viktor knew that through long experience. ‘For the love of every god there is, look at yourself. You haven’t eaten. You haven’t slept. You look like something I would scrape off the sole of my shoe. How many more fucking trials are there? How much more do you have to suffer, how much more will they make you do? And still you go on! Despite it all, like a fool, like the weak-hearted trampled mess you are, you go on! How much further are you going to go for this pig of a husband?’
‘As far as I have to,’ Viktor said through gritted teeth. He would not gratify Yura with his silence.
‘Wrong answer,’ said Yura more vehemently than Viktor had ever heard him speak. ‘You’ve ruined yourself. You’re ruining yourself as we speak! Look at what you once were, and look at yourself now! Have I got to stand by and watch you go into another spiral? Don’t do this to me, damn you!’
‘Keep your voice down,’ Viktor ordered, glancing around the hall. They were nearly at the archway, him and Yura both, and Viktor didn’t want to risk failure so close to what he wanted. ‘I don’t need you to anger the underworld gods.’
‘Oh, those.’ Yura’s disdainful sniff was a work of art. ‘I’ve had more than enough of those two. Don’t you worry about the king and queen of the underworld, Viktor. They can barely rule themselves.’
‘Are they married?’
‘They’re twin brother and sister. Trust me, you don’t want to know.’
Viktor smiled. He looked down at his own hands, and at Yura’s hands swinging freely at his sides. ‘I won’t be with them long. Just in and out, and back to Yuuri I go.’
‘And back to Yuuri he goes,’ Yura mocked. He grabbed Viktor’s arm and forced him over to a pool of black water set deep in the floor. ‘Your time is over, you fool! Look, idiot, look! Are you living or are you dead? You’ve become a ghost of yourself, Viktor!’
Viktor stared into the depths of the pool. The water was perfectly still and oil-black, and he saw — he saw now — Yura had a reflection. Viktor did not.
He looked down at his hands again.
They were thin shadows. He held them up. He turned them this way and that, curled his fingers. His hands were transparent.
‘No,’ said Viktor aloud, without knowing he had spoken. Yura shook him.
‘What have you done, Viktor?’
Viktor felt that he was floating outside his own body. He was high above himself, brushing past the ceiling, the dripping walls, the floor where souls seemed to twist and dissolve in their own juices; and he looked with clear eyes, and saw the great hall as it really was.
He had not noticed the pool of black water beforehand because the pool was part of the illusion. It came into being and vanished as it saw fit, just as the sirens came and went at the edges of Viktor’s vision. Even now, he saw another pool open up further away from him, and one of the poor, writhing, agonised souls nearby was reflected in the still black water. Here in the underworld, dead souls had reflections; Yura had a reflection; Viktor did not.
Yet Yura had said that he himself was not dead. Why, then, could Yura and the souls alike be seen in the underworld’s mirrors and pools? Why could Viktor not see his own reflection in the mirrors and pools of the dead?
Yura, at his side, looked solid and very real. But so had the siren when she had hung upside down from the stalactite and breathed into his face. This was the world of the dead and their gods. The laws of reality didn’t work here. Viktor was a thin shadow, here, because he was in the world of shadows and in this world only shadows themselves looked real.
He didn’t have a reflection in the pool because he was still one of the living. He didn’t belong here.
Which meant that Yura —
Yura shook Viktor again more roughly, making Viktor swing like a limp doll in his grip. ‘Do you hear me, old man? Viktor Nikiforov is dead! Your time is over and the future belongs to me now! You’ve let yourself go. You’ve let yourself die. Why don’t you just stay in the underworld and never return, huh?’
The sound of his laughter froze in the empty air. He held up one hand to say: wait. Wait, let me speak.
‘You have his voice exact,’ he said to the siren who wore Yura’s face. ‘Commendable work. But Yura hasn’t given up on me, not really. He wants me to come back. He wants me back in the world of the living. He’d love to win the crown from me in single combat.’
The illusion began to dissolve.
‘And he doesn’t usually call me Viktor,’ Viktor added as Yura’s features began to melt away. ‘Not all the time — well, not so frequently. It’s usually Vitya. Please, try a little harder next time.’
The siren threw back her head and screeched. Viktor moved his hand and his fingers went right through her — the laws of reality trembled, reversed, righted themselves. She was transparent; he was not. Her sisters scattered and hissed like spiders. Their illusions had made him feel unreal. They had made him doubt and forget himself. But they were the ones who were neither living nor dead, they were the ones with no shadows; and he was alive, and he was solid and real, and he knew who he was.
He stood in the archway at the end of the hall.
‘Say what you are.’ One last siren clung to the very arch itself, breathing and whispering in his ear. Her cobwebs trailed behind her on the ground. He could have batted her away like smoke. ‘Say who you are, or you shall not pass.’
Viktor took only a few moments to search himself. There was no name which penetrated deeper than the many faces he had worn: liar, truth-teller, traveller, prince, whore. There was no single word that could capture the truth of him. He was who he was.
‘I’m Viktor Nikiforov,’ he told her.
‘Is that all?’ the siren sneered.
‘Yes,’ said Viktor — calmly, knowing every word he said was true. ‘That is enough.’ And he stepped through the archway into the bottomless void.
> be a siren
> see viktor nikiforov
> immediately decide to go the negging route instead of trying to seduce him because he's just too fucking gay
Once he was through the archway, Viktor found himself falling. He couldn’t see a thing: all around him was blackness. But he was past fear, past every possible emotion except a fine and deadly calm, and he did not fear the fall as he plunged downwards to his end.
Only fools and dead men have no fear.
Viktor flinched away from himself. He’d only just discovered how to be a complete soul. He’d only just discovered how to be a real person; he would not fail now. He wouldn’t be found wanting. He would preserve himself and his will to live and every other part of him. In the never-ending dark, Viktor made inventory of his limbs: his legs, his damp and aching feet, his burned left arm hanging useless at his side. Imperfect as he was, he lived. He lived with all his fears, his forgotten promises and his loves. He was here for Yuuri and no other.
The fall had to end somewhere. He wasn’t dead. Under the laws of heaven and earth, the gods could not trap him here forever. He’d land somewhere, somehow, and figure out what to do from there. He had no room in his tired heart for doubt.
And Viktor landed on a bed of moss. It was so thick and springy that he bounced a few times upon landing. Then he struggled to his feet, trying his best not to sink into the obscenely soft and yielding moss. Standing up, blinking the dust from his eyes, Viktor looked around him.
The darkness had faded. Or, more likely, he had fallen right through the very heart of it and landed in the deepest parts of the underworld, where all was light and life after death. Viktor felt his mouth drop open in wonder. He stood in a great cavern three times as large as the fields outside the gates. Crystal formations blossomed on the glistening walls, reflecting hues of blue and lavender and dull rose — many-sided, yet all with the same soft pearlescent gleam. The cavern was damp, yes, and cold, and it smelled of mildew. Yet it was glorious all the same. He felt lost and very young.
The moss itself lay on the surface of an underground lake. The water, clear and emerald-green in places, flowed off into countless little streams and pooled in lower shelves of the cave, where it was black and smooth as obsidian. Most of the streams ran uphill. Viktor took a step forward, hardly daring to breathe; the moss did not give way under his weight. He walked across the lake, across the thick carpet of moss, and stepped onto chalky rock.
‘I’ve been waiting for you.’
Viktor jumped. He spun around, looking for the voice, and found himself face to face with the queen of the underworld. Her throne was cut into the cavern wall, carved from the same crystal-covered rock that dripped cool water onto the ground at a steady rate. Her brother sat on an identical throne at her side. They were twins (that was unmistakable even at this distance), but the queen had longer and darker hair, and her features were warmer, somehow sunnier. The mouths of tunnels, which doubtless served as hallways or corridors of some sort, yawned on either side of the twin thrones.
‘Forgive Sara,’ sighed the king from his seat. ‘She likes her dramatics.’
Briskly, Sara clapped her hands. It was a commanding gesture and there was no mistaking its meaning, so Viktor knelt before her.
‘Oh, get up!’ the king snapped. ‘You may dispense with formalities since we already know why you’re here. Come closer so we can see you.’ He rapped on the granite arm of his throne with one fist. ‘No, a little closer. Now you’re too close. Stand two arms’ length away from my sister. I am Michele Crispino and you’ll answer to me for any nonsense you try to pull.’
Now Michele cocked his head to one side, almost — not quite — challenging. Veins of lava ran swirling in the rock behind him, visible only as rich, oily gleams. The vaulted ceiling above their heads glowed with a faint greenish light. ‘No smiles for us, Nikiforov?’
Viktor said, ‘Where’s my husband’s heart?’
Michele’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Straight to the point. You have changed, I see.’
‘Mickey,’ Sara murmured, laying her hand on her brother’s wrist. His head whipped round and his gaze lingered on her as she spoke. ‘We have what you seek.’ Her deep-set eyes were kind, her voice almost tender. ‘We have it in a box closely guarded. I shall call for it and have it granted to you, although first you must pay.’
‘Mmm.’ Viktor glanced around him as he tried to stall for time. On the ceiling, the green light seemed to shift and twist within itself. His throat was dry. ‘Sara…’ Her name was Sara, wasn’t it? Viktor bit his lip. ‘Mila sends her love.’
The queen’s eyes went wide. She clasped her hands at her breast. ‘Mila! My darling Mila! You met her? Where was this? When was this? Did she look well?’
‘Yes,’ said Viktor, laughing. He considered for a moment and then answered her questions one by one. ‘In Minako’s kingdom, a long time ago.’ So much time had passed since he’d met Yuuri. Was he really the same person who had been brought to Minako’s realm — he, Viktor, who stood now in the secret depths of the underworld and spoke face-to-face with gods? ‘She looked well enough, I should think.’
‘Is she not beautiful?’
Viktor looked up at Sara on her throne and smiled genuinely for the first time. ‘Beautiful as always.’
‘Enough,’ interrupted Michele irritably. ‘Your sacrifice, Viktor. What do you mean to give us?’
Viktor’s mouth was so dry it hurt, and he licked his lips before trying to speak. The damp chill of the caves crept into his bones. He couldn’t… He was drained. He had no more of himself to offer.
‘What…’ He stopped, wrapped his arms around himself to keep warm, started again. He directed his next words at Sara. ‘What would you like me to give you?’
Michele bristled. ‘Stop flirting with my sister.’
‘Oh, you have got to be joking,’ Viktor snapped, finally exasperated beyond reason. Yura would’ve been proud. ‘I have no interest in your sister — no offense, my lady —’
‘None taken!’ Sara chirped.
‘Mickey, do be quiet and let me talk. Viktor,’ and Sara leaned forward, her eyes dark and earnest, ‘you must have learned something by now. We’d rather not choose, really. We don’t like to choose for you. It’s better if you make the sacrifice of your own free will.’
Viktor studied his own bare feet for a long moment before he spoke. He had lost his sandals at some point in his journey — he couldn’t remember when — and he didn’t care about those, anyway. His heart was as naked and exposed as the rest of him.
‘Yes,’ he said at last, feeling the weight of his exhaustion settle firmly on his back and shoulders. ‘I… I don’t know. I thought.’ And now he was losing his words. Resigned, Viktor tilted his head back and spoke to the softly lit ceiling. ‘I thought. You just…’ He struggled with the words before forcing them out; even then, they escaped from his lips in a sigh. ‘I thought you might make things a little easier for me.’
‘It doesn’t get easier, friend,’ Michele replied. ‘Sorry.’
The ceiling’s green glow came from fireflies. Hundreds of thousands of them. They moved and chattered among themselves, giving off their faint fire in ever-increasing brightness. Cool and unearthly though the light was, its source was very much alive. Even here — even in this place, the land of death itself, living things flickered and grew. Viktor swallowed.
‘I sacrifice my life,’ he said. Michele visibly started. ‘No… not in that way, no. I’m not giving you my death. I’m…’ Viktor closed his eyes. It hurt him physically to say the words. ‘I’ll go back to my old life. I will — I would, if Yuuri asked that of me. I’d… I’d give in to everybody’s begging, and return to my father’s kingdom and rule it well, and make the people happy.’
He opened his eyes and knew he could do it. His voice was so quiet that both Sara and Michele bent forward to hear him. ‘All this I would do for Yuuri. Without question. If Yuuri willed it. I would go back and live out the rest of my days as king, doing what I ought to do, and this I swear on my life and love.’
In the silence that followed, Viktor felt the great weight lift off his shoulders. He’d done what he had promised he would never do. Leaving in a hurry, swearing never to come back — well, he’d made that promise only to himself. And Viktor was not known for keeping promises.
He had embraced the worst future he could imagine, the future he’d sworn off in anger and tears, and come through. He was still here. He was all right. Anything was possible now.
Then Michele raised a sceptical eyebrow and Viktor thought he might despair at last. He had offered the greatest sacrifice he could make.
‘No?’ he asked, defeated.
‘You said “would”, not “will”.’ Michele looked dissatisfied, as though he didn’t care for the rules but had to follow them nonetheless. ‘So it’s conditional. Your sacrifice is dependent on Yuuri’s consent to the act. We don’t —’
‘Oh, let him be!’ Sara interrupted. ‘We’re the gods of the underworld. We make the rules, we can bend them. I accept your sacrifice.’
‘But Sara —’
‘We accept your sacrifice.’
Michele sighed, lifting his eyes to the ceiling. Sickly green light reflected off his face. ’We accept your sacrifice,’ he echoed.
Weary now, so weary he could barely speak, Viktor sank down onto the ground. He sat with his legs stretched out in front of him, at first; then he drew his knees up against his chest. He felt cold enough to waste away.
‘What now?’ he whispered.
Sara glanced at Michele, who nodded. She clapped her hands again. At once there was movement in one of the shadowy tunnels behind her, and light from a burning torch, held up high, came down the tunnel towards them. A moment later, a solemn dark boy emerged from the tunnel with a wooden box in his arms. Expression blank, he bowed low to his king and queen and laid the box at their feet.
‘Take it,’ said Sara. She dismissed the boy with an imperious wave of her hand. Viktor couldn’t tell if the boy was spirit or mortal. He slunk away into the tunnel he’d come from; neither his eyes nor his thick dark brows betrayed any emotion.
‘Take the box,’ Michele echoed when Viktor didn’t move. ‘It’s yours now. Take it and go.’
He had won. Weak and lonely and young as he was, he’d won. Now Viktor found himself so worn from the journey that it took all his remaining strength to drag himself to his feet. He took a step towards the box, and then another. His dead arm dangled limply as he moved. Once again, Viktor knelt.
The box was bare of carvings, and without ornamentation except a little trimming of gold leaf around the edges. To Viktor this felt right. Yuuri was simple and lovely. There was no jewel in the world which could add richness to Yuuri’s beauty.
He picked up the box. It was lighter than he’d expected — a firm weight, about as heavy as a good-sized bag of sand, resting in his arms. Viktor looked up at Sara and Michele.
‘You wouldn’t trick me?’
‘No,’ said Michele, offended. ‘This is Yuuri’s heart. This is what you’ve come for. Look at it, and tell me if you still think I lie.’
‘But don’t open the box!’ Sara added hastily. ‘It’s protected by a powerful spell that strikes trespassers with eternal sleep. I cast the spell myself. For your own sake, don’t.’
Viktor gazed down at the smooth, polished surface of the box. His left arm wasn’t strong enough to support the box on its own, so all he could do was run his fingertips over the sides of the box, exploring what little of the wood he could reach.
‘Yes.’ The box felt warm against his chest. ‘I believe you.’
Michele sat back on his throne. ‘Take it, then, and go.’
‘Where?’ Viktor hugged the box, keeping it close to him. ‘Back to Minako?’
‘Back to Minako.’ Though Sara’s voice was full of kindness, she didn’t flinch from passing judgment. ‘You must go back the way you came. Behind me,’ and she pointed to the tunnel on her other side, not the one the boy had emerged from, ‘is a road up to the surface of the underworld. Take that road, and it will lead you back to the gates — they’re not far. But the rest of the way, you must retrace your steps.’
Viktor thought he would collapse. He swayed on his feet, to be sure, clutching his precious cargo in his arms — yet after a terrible dizzying pause in which he really thought he would drop, Viktor had hold of himself again. He raised his eyes to meet Sara’s.
‘All the way back? Back the way I came?’ He didn’t even try to keep the exhaustion out of his voice.
‘I told you, Viktor,’ said Michele. ’It doesn’t get any easier.’
By the time Viktor reached the surface, his legs had given way underneath him twice.
He leaned against the wall of the tunnel and sobbed. No — no, he didn’t let himself sob. He could have, if he’d wanted to, for he still had his tears. He felt like a hopeless child.
It’d been a very long time since Viktor had let himself be a child.
He adjusted his grip on the box and took the last few steps to the mouth of the tunnel. Either the box had grown heavier while Viktor was carrying it, or his own weariness had overcome him. Most of the box’s weight rested on his right arm, for his left was practically useless. He’d had to prop the box on his knees as he rested.
At the end of the tunnel, soft earth rolled outwards and edged the rock floors with grass. Viktor emerged blinking into the sunlight. He’d arrived back in the meadows of the dead — yes, Sara and Michele had not lied even about this. The tunnel had led him back to the gates of the underworld.
Viktor was tired enough that he wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d lied. He wouldn’t even have been angry.
‘I’ve come so far,’ he said to himself, aloud, since nobody could hear him. ‘What does it matter if I have to travel further?’
To Viktor, shivering and unfed, one-armed and stumbling at every other step, the thought of having to cover more distance was unbearable.
The meadows were quiet. He couldn’t spot any of the dead souls he’d passed on his way here. Perhaps they’d gone to bed for the night. Was there night here? Did dead people sleep and wake just as the living did? What hour was it, up above in the living world? What month, what year?
He would soon find out, he told himself.
He couldn’t stop now. Not even to rest. If he sat down, even for a moment, he knew he would never have the strength to get up.
He could see the gates towering before him. They weren’t far away. Viktor took a step towards them, and the box began to pulse in his arms.
Viktor gasped. A soft hiss escaped from one corner of the box, even though he’d thought the lid was shut tight. Viktor wrapped his arms — one aching, one burned so badly it couldn’t even feel — around the box more tightly, trying to soothe it. Yuuri’s heart was in there. Yuuri’s heart was swelling and coming to life, and rejecting Viktor: it was saying he wasn’t fit to hold it.
No. Viktor refused to think that. He shifted the weight of the box — heavy, when had it grown so heavy? — and shifted his own weight from foot to foot, and began to move once again.
The box continued to pulse. Quiet at first, hesitant, then steadier and more assured. Viktor began to accustom himself to its rhythm. He kept his eyes on his feet, careful not to step on any twig or stone that might make him stumble. If he tripped and dropped the — Viktor’s eyes stung at the thought.
Slow colours were spreading throughout the box. He had not noticed what colour the box was before. Perhaps it hadn’t had any colour at all. Now, though, the wooden surface flushed with the beating of Yuuri’s heart. From the centre of the lid outwards, deep blues and reds and golds rippled like slow-building waves, flooding into the grain and patterns of the wood, dyeing it as vibrant as a sunset. Under Viktor’s palms, the box fluttered and grew warm. He held something alive. And as he stood still, enchanted, incredulous, a warm animal body rubbed against Viktor’s leg.
Viktor glanced down. A large dog was sitting beside him, its tail thumping vigorously on the grassy earth. When it’d gotten his attention, it sprang up, barking with joy. It wagged its tail so hard Viktor thought the tail might fall off. Jumping up on its hind legs, and then apparently thinking better of it (for its weight might knock Viktor over), the dog settled for pawing at Viktor’s ankles and licking as much of him as it could reach.
‘I,’ said Viktor, startled into speaking. ‘I… hello.’ He couldn’t pet the dog with his hands occupied like this, which it seemed to understand. Viktor looked into the dog’s large brown eyes. The form was different, the form was whatever form the Hound chose to take — but the eyes were the same, and the nose was as cold and wet as Viktor remembered, and a ribbon was tied around its neck.
Viktor said: ‘Wow.’
He gazed at the dog for a few moments. Then, remembering his task, he started walking again; the dog kept pace with him easily. He had forgotten his weariness. ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’
Viktor was close enough to the gates that he could see the spot where the Hound had once lain. The spot was empty.
‘Can you…’ Viktor cut himself off before he asked the Hound whether it could really leave its post. Up and leave, just like that. He had a feeling that any dog who loved Viktor wouldn’t care what other people told it to do. Instead he asked again, ‘What happened to all those people who were trying to get in, before?’
The Hound answered with a cheery yapping noise. Viktor decided he didn’t want to know.
He couldn’t really go on calling the Hound it. Viktor slid his left arm further towards the box’s centre, trying to support it better. ‘What’s your name?’
The Hound’s voice was the singing of the wind and the rumble of thunder and the gentle whisper of flowers shivering in the morning. It was like no living voice Viktor had ever heard. He did his best to translate what he heard into a human tongue.
‘Makkachin,’ he repeated. ‘Very well. Are you a girl? A boy?’
Makkachin licked his elbow.
‘A girl,’ said Viktor, guessing. Makkachin wagged her tail furiously and ran a little ahead of him, then back to his side. Her eyes said: come on, come, hurry.
The box was thumping steadily in Viktor’s arms. He clutched it tighter, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth till he drew blood. ‘I don’t have any more steamed buns for you,’ he told Makkachin, his voice so thin that he hardly recognised it. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t. I don’t have anything.’
Makkachin growled at him, not a reproachful growl but a fond, exasperated sound: are all humans so foolish? She stuck her nose into Viktor’s knee and nudged him forward, then ran around to his other side and bumped him again from behind. She was urging him onwards like a sheepdog herding sheep.
Obedient, Viktor quickened his strides. His new pace lasted only a few steps, for he was stumbling over himself, staggering under the weight of the box and his own failing body. He was drained, so drained. He felt hollowed out on the inside. He only had one good arm. He couldn’t make it back to Minako. Her realm was too far away. He couldn’t.
Why am I bringing her Yuuri’s heart? he wondered. Isn’t it mine to keep?
She hadn’t even told him it was Yuuri’s heart he was looking for. She must have known she had no right to it.
Viktor stopped. Makkachin barked at him. He ignored her, hugging the beloved, beating box to his chest. He had Yuuri’s heart within his grasp. He’d fought long and hard to get it. It was his.
Sara had warned him not to open the box.
Viktor sobbed aloud. He didn’t want to give the heart away. Not to Minako. Not to anyone. He had only just managed to touch it.
He hadn’t even touched the heart itself, only the wooden box that contained it.
No. No, he wouldn’t open the box. He was crying because he was overwrought, and overwrought because he was tired. He wasn’t in his right mind. Viktor had suffered and doubted and discovered himself anew, all for the sake of this. This moment. He had not been found wanting, up until this moment. He would not fail now.
The gates loomed closer now, yet only a little closer than before. His steps were too slow, too small — he was too weak. The box seemed to be growing bigger, too, and the swell and pulse of Yuuri’s heart flowed through Viktor all the way down into the soles of his feet. Colours swam and pooled in his vision. All the earth beat with that rhythm.
He couldn’t —
Makkachin nudged him forward. Viktor stumbled on, pressing his lips together to stop himself from crying. He’d cried enough. He’d slept enough, too. He was not going to be struck by Sara’s sleep spell.
And his left arm gave way. Viktor lost his grip on the box, caught it just in time — another quarter of a heartbeat and it’d have hit the ground. He collapsed onto the grass with the box held tight to his heart.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Viktor, ‘I’m so sorry.’ The box beat faster, faster, brighter; he had to fight to hold on to it even when he was sitting on the ground. Was the pounding of blood in his ears Viktor’s own heartbeat, or Yuuri’s? They were pressed close enough that he couldn’t tell them apart. He couldn’t breathe. He wasn’t strong enough. He had known that he wouldn’t be able to get up if he fell, and he had fallen all the same.
Makkachin was nuzzling and whimpering comfort in his lap. Yuuri’s heart was safe against his heart. Somehow he found himself saying, ‘Shhh, shhh,’ to the box, soothing it like a child, like a lover, like the most precious living thing he had ever held. He had to comfort it, he felt, even as Makkachin comforted him. He was reassuring Yuuri’s heart that he had still got hold of it, that he hadn’t lost it, he hadn’t failed, saying: ‘Shhh, I have you, I have you still, stay with me, stay close to me, stay close to me.’
Makkachin whined. She whined again, urgent. They were still so, so far away from the gates. Her paw found its way to Viktor’s face.
‘What?’ he said through his tears. ‘What is it?’
The lost souls pressing against the gates to the underworld had vanished as soon as Yuuri had come. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to scare them. He hadn’t meant to drive them away.
He slipped past the gates and looked around him. He’d been to the underworld before, under circumstances Yuuri preferred to forget. The souls of the ordinary dead fled as Yuuri approached — crossing the meadow, brushing past phantom figures who disappeared into spirals of mist — and Yuuri didn’t care, which surprised him. Normally it bothered him, the effect he had on people. He did not think of himself as a very frightening person.
Maybe frightening wasn’t the right word to use.
Viktor would have said devastatingly gorgeous. Yuuri and Viktor disagreed about a great many things.
Yuuri walked slowly, picking his way over narrow streams and flower-beds which burst into bloom when he came near them. He didn’t want to sneak up on Viktor. He was afraid of what Viktor might say, if Yuuri surprised a reaction out of him.
Yuuri had never been brave.
When he was a short distance away, Yuuri stopped and hid behind a tree to watch Viktor. He was prolonging the wait, he knew, putting off the fatal moment of recognition as long as he could. Yuuri had spent many millennia of his godhood doing his best not to know what could happen. Retreating as far away from possibility as he could.
What if Viktor didn’t want him back?
Yuuri probably deserved that. It would hurt, all the same.
He leaned against the trunk of the tree and looked at Viktor. Viktor was beautiful. Yuuri hurt, already, just looking at him. At this moment he was bent double over the wooden box, crooning to it, and his left arm was scorched black — Yuuri winced in sympathy — and he was thinner than Yuuri remembered and glassy-eyed, skin smeared with dirt, and Yuuri loved him.
Yuuri steeled himself. It had to be done. He’d walk over to Viktor and make himself known, and ask, very quietly, whether Viktor wanted him back, and he would take his rejection and leave. He wouldn’t be surprised when Viktor said no. He wouldn’t even blame him. Viktor had done nothing to deserve what Yuuri’d put him through.
Well, actually he had. A little bit. He’d done something. But not… not worthy of suffering on such a scale. Yuuri couldn’t think of a better word for it. Yuuri was not good with words. For it wasn’t a punishment, Minako had said. Minako did not punish. She tested.
Yuuri had been tested in ways that were different from the ways of mortals, and strange, and incomparable to anything Viktor had undergone. Viktor’s hair had been shorn off with a brutal hand, and the remaining length framed the delicate angles of his face in such a way that Yuuri ached to run his hands through the fine, soft strands. He thought: All my life prepared me for you. I did not meet you until I was ready.
It didn’t matter if Viktor was injured, if his left arm was beyond healing. Yuuri had the knife of immortality ready in his own hand. He’d bled and climbed mountains these past weeks to get it for Viktor.
If Viktor turned him away, hating the sight of him, Yuuri was prepared for that. He’d been preparing himself all his life. Raising someone to immortality would cure all their ills and wounds; but maybe Viktor wouldn’t want to be stuck with Yuuri forever. Yuuri wouldn’t want to be stuck with Yuuri forever. Back in Minako’s kingdom he had been counting down the days until Viktor inevitably left him.
I shouldn’t have left you.
He hadn’t expected things to be the other way around. To be the one leaving Viktor. That was all.
So there was no turning back. He was going to set things right. He’d walk up to Viktor, and see his face one last time, and ask —
Viktor looked up; the dog nuzzling at his side must have brought Yuuri to his attention. He saw Yuuri. His face changed, and changed in a manner Yuuri had not been expecting. Yuuri hadn’t dared. He hadn’t dared to hope.
The box lay in Viktor’s lap. Viktor had kept it secure. Fuck the box, thought Yuuri, he knew what was happening to his own heart. His breath was coming so fast he thought he could not bear to wait any longer, and then Viktor opened his arms.
Yuuri did not walk. He ran.
Thank you, my dear
You came, and you did well to come: I needed
you. You have made
love blaze up in
my breast — bless you!
Bless you as often
as the hours have
been endless to me
while you were gone
—Sappho, 46, trans. Mary Barnard
inspired by spirited away, alice in wonderland, the odyssey, and raiders of the lost ark. the official theme song of this fic is sea of voices by porter robinson. the unofficial theme song is i'm gonna be (500 miles) by the proclaimers. thanks for reading!