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The Cost of Valour

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Keladry of Mindelan was seeing a ghost.  That was the only possible explanation for the figure that had just walked into the mess hall.

She elbowed Nealan of Queenscove, who was seated beside her currently engaged in a long-winded explanation of some philosophical principle.  His frown was more mock indignation than anything with any real heat, and he raised one brow into his usual sardonic expression.

“Yes, my lady knight?”

Normally Kel might have told her best friend exactly what he could do with his tone, but at that moment she couldn’t think much beyond marking the path of the tall, blonde man who was currently walking through the hall.  She would recognize the sharply beautiful features anywhere—and last time she had seen them had been when Joren of Stonemountain’s body was removed from the Chamber of the Ordeal. The bully who had tormented her throughout her early days as a page, and gone so far as to hire thugs to kidnap her maid, had proved too rigid and brittle for the ordeal and had not survived.

“Neal, what am I seeing?  Please tell me I’m not having a hallucination.”  It was only years of experience that kept her tone light and her face impassive.  After the year they’d had, and the dark magic they’d seen, Kel half expected to find that someone had summoned Joren’s spirit just so that he could continue his torment of her; there were certainly enough people in Corus alone that would pay good money if they thought that was a possibility.

“Oh,” Neal said as he found the focus of Kel’s attention, “Nikiforov’s back.”

“Stonemountain now,” Owen quickly corrected him around a mouthful of food.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Kel admonished him automatically.  Some habits were hard to break after her years spent corralling her friends during their time as pages, and then at Fort Haven.  “And what do you mean? Who is that?”

Owen gave her a look of surprise, quickly turning into one of excitement.

“Didn’t you see him on the progress?  He competed in the sword competitions—“

“There were sword fighting competitions?” Kel asked, trying to think back to when the court had been traveling around the country to show the prince’s Yamani bride, and her retinue, the country that would become her own.  She couldn’t recall anything of competitions other than the jousts, of course that may have been because she was almost constantly being challenged to enter the lists.

Kel couldn’t help but feel that she had somehow disappointed Owen.  Even having just completed his vigil and ordeal, finally a full knight, nothing had been quite able to repress Owen’s love of ‘jolly fights’. Neal just rolled his eyes at the younger man, slinging one arm about his shoulder.

“Remember, our dear lady knight was in service to the great shirker—the Lord Commander did everything he could to avoid the pomp of progress.  And when she was there, she was far too busy making grown men fly off their horses to make note of any other competitions.”

Kel allowed a small smile to steal across her face, though as she caught a glimpse of the man again it turned icy.

“So, you called him Stonemountain?  What was he to Joren?” she asked.

As she looked on, she was able to start noticing differences between the man and the memory.  For one, while they had the same beauty, the same icy colouring, the man’s hair was more silver than the almost white blonde she remembered of Joren.  And while his expression looked guarded, from the smiles he exchanged with the other knights in the room, Kel saw a genuine friendliness. He also appeared to be ten years older than Joren would have been when he died. There was also the matter of the large dog that was bouncing along behind him.  While many of the nobility favoured hounds, beasts of equally noble lineage, this particular dog seemed to be a cloud of brown fluff, tongue lolling out, tail wagging wildly.

“I don’t know how I still forget that you don’t know all of the—“ Neal started before Kel cut him off with a raised hand.

“Don’t start with that talk of court.  Just tell me.”

“Your Yamani training is cracking, Kel.  I feel as though you practically yelled at me, in public,” Neal said in mock shock.

Behind him, Owen was struggling to contain his laughter.

She glared at the two.

“And here I thought it was good that both of us could leave New Hope at the same time.  Little did I know it was the trickster’s doing.”

Neal had the audacity to wink at her.

“Nikiforov—Viktor—was a cousin to Joren.  He would have started as a page a year or two before I started my courses at the university.”

So not a ghost, Kel thought, but a relative.  In light of her past interactions with those of Stonemountain, she wasn’t sure if she’d prefer the ghost.

Kel waited patiently for Neal to continue; if there was one thing that could be counted on, it was Neal’s love of talking.

“I think his mother was sister to Joren’s father.  There used to be talk, back when Nikiforov was first sent down to the palace.”

“Oh?”

Neal shrugged, “I was too young to be paying much attention, and you remember what that lot was like.  They were all about the family name—I think they went to great lengths to keep the stories down.”

“And yet,” Owen chipped in, “he’s managed to make a name for himself.  How didn’t you know about him, Kel? I think he’s probably better than you with a sword.”

Slowly Kel took a sip of her juice, as she tried to sort through what she had heard.

“After Joren died, he was made the heir to Stonemountain.  I suspect that the family wasn’t happy about it, but I think it was just him and Joren for the next generation,” Neal continued.

Nikiforov glanced up, his blue eyes locking onto the table where the three sat as if he knew that they were talking about him.  He said something—a quick word of goodbye it appeared—and gave a half wave, resuming his progress through the room and crossing over to Kel’s table.

“Queenscove,” said a voice that was more accented than Kel expected.  It had the low roughness that she would have expected to hear from the common folk up in the Northern Mountains, or along the Scanra border, rather than in the palace.

Neal nodded to the man, and his smile was almost pleasant though Kel could feel how tense her friend was.  Kel just braced herself for what might come next.

“Nikiforov—well, I understand it’s Stonemountain now.”

Neal was met with a quick grimace.

“I suppose, though it’s only if I must.  And I’m not sure that my uncle won’t find some way to…” Nikiforov seemed to cut himself off, as if he realized he was saying too much, and gave them a smile.  He turned towards Kel with a smile that could charm a statue. “Is this the illustrious lady knight I’ve been hearing about? I saw some of your jousts on the progress.”

The jousts, Kel thought a little bitterly, that had been a result of Nikiforov’s cousin’s machinations.  It was largely Joren’s friends, intent on proving she was unworthy of earning her shield who had challenged her anytime she and her knight-master had been with the progress.

“Lady Keladry of Mindelan, Sir Viktor of Stonemountain,” Neal said by way of introduction.

Kel wasn’t sure, but she thought that again she saw that faint grimace at the use of his name.

“What can we do for you, Sir Viktor?” Kel asked her tone mild, and her eyes watchful.

“I actually came in search of you my lady.”

He made a gesture towards the empty seat opposite her, with an inquiring raise of one silvery eyebrow.  Before even waiting for a response he sat, the movement managing to be oddly graceful. As soon as he was seated, the dog bounded forward paws rising up to his lap and warm brown eyes begging for something from the table.

“Makkachin!” he scolded, before giving the three a sheepish look.  Kel didn’t miss the way his hand dropped to the dog’s head to give it a quick pat.

Owen seemed a little starstruck by the silver-haired knight.  If Kel wasn’t still waiting for an insult to be hurled at her, or some challenge offered, she might have been amused.

“What is it you need from Kel?” Neal asked, his gaze narrowed.

Nikiforov smiled easily.

“Yakov—my cherished former knight master—has offered me up for the envoy headed to the Yamani Islands for the progress there, and I was hoping to gain some information prior to departure.  I understand, my lady, that having lived there as a child you are something of an expert.”

 

***

 

If it wasn’t that it was yet another reminder of his place at court, Viktor would have laughed at the lady knight’s perplexed expression.  The young woman had remarkable control over her emotions, but as someone who had been guarding every reaction, and learning the signs of which way his world was going to slide, he considered himself something of an expert.

Once he had been able to flee Stonemountain for Corus to begin his training towards knighthood, it was no longer a method of survival, but it had allowed him to carve out a place for himself despite the stories and rumours that had followed him south.  He had become a player, taking on whatever role would allow him to succeed; to be liked.

And still, he somehow seemed to run afoul.  Mindelan might have had a remarkable reserve, but Queenscove was as easy to read as ever, and right now, he looked suspicious.  It was just another reminder that no matter how hard Viktor tried, his family would always would always be a barrier.

“You’re going with the envoy?” Mindelan repeated.

Viktor nodded.

“And you would like my help?”

From her tone, Viktor wondered if he had been ill advised in seeking her out.  When he had seen the woman in the mess hall, it had seemed like a good opportunity to get a little knowledge of what he might expect on his travels.  And if he was honest, it was also a good chance for him to rile his uncle. Word was certain to circle back to his family that he had been talking—pleasantly even—with the ‘Mindelan bitch’.

Maybe it was the prospect of the trip, knowing he would be absent from Tortall for some time, but the fear, the sensation of walking on eggshells, that had followed Viktor around most of his life when it came to his family had vanished.

But, like a lot of his plans, Viktor had been a little over eager.  If only everything could go as smoothly as when he had a sword in his hand.

“I understand my lady, if you are busy,” he said hurriedly.  “Some other time perhaps?”

“VITYA!”

Viktor’s head jerked in response to the bellow, as much as to the nickname.  Most people in the room glanced over at the tall, heavy-set man who was bearing down on the table.

Smiling apologetically at the others, Viktor turned towards the man.

“Yakov!”

As ever the older man was straight into a lecture.

“I’ve been looking for you for a half hour, Vitya!  A HALF HOUR! And what excuses do you have for me this time?”

Viktor didn’t even bother to address the man who had been his former knight-master during his days as a squire.  Instead he turned towards the three who were staring at the looming figure with slightly stunned expressions.

“Don’t mind him,” Viktor said, “he’s always like this.”

Despite the lightness of his tone, he did rise up from his seat.

“If you would be so kind, my lady.  I, understand that you are not going to be here long—if you could even suggest a book I might refer to, I would be much obliged.”

The young woman nodded, and Viktor smiled, before turning his attention to Yakov.  The older man rolled his eyes and gestured with a wave of his arm for Viktor to lead the way.

As they walked between the rows of tables, Yakov leaned close.

“What were you doing, Vitya?  You must know how your family will react when they learn that you were talking to that woman,” Yakov hissed.

Normally that reminder would have been enough for the flutters of dread, or the age old need to plaster on a brighter smile, to be even better, to rise up.  But Viktor was pleasantly surprised to feel nothing.

“Let them find out.  I’ll be gone soon.”

“And when you come back?  You can’t run off forever.”

Viktor wasn’t so sure Yakov was right.



Chapter Text

The hallways in this part of the palace were quiet, especially after the crush of the mess hall.  It was, Viktor supposed, to be expected. They were several days into the Midwinter festivities, and while many had returned to the capital, there were numerous parties taking place all around Corus for the next week or so.  Thinking back to his own days when this corridor had been his home as a squire, Viktor had always tried to find somewhere to be. The alternative was to sit alone in his room, with nothing to distract himself from the inevitable thoughts that always returned at this time of year.

“How have you been, Vitya?” Yakov asked gruffly.

Viktor glanced over at the old knight, a flippant and charming response ready.  Instead, under the man’s steady gaze he felt his facade crumble; just a bit. He shrugged and looked away.

“I’ve been alright.”

“You returned from Scanra?” pushed Yakov.

Nodding, Viktor could feel a whole host of implied questions but chose to ignore them.  While he was grateful for everything the knight had done for him—Viktor wasn’t sure that he would have survived if he hadn’t ended up serving with a knight as understanding and as tolerant of  Viktor’s bullshit as Yakov—there were times Viktor wished Yakov didn’t know him quite so well.

Mercifully, Yakov seemed willing to let the questioning drop.

“You need a squire.”

“Do I though?  Because I’m fairly certain that I’ve managed for nearly ten years without one,” Viktor replied, tone light.

“That was off on the borders, dealing with bandits and the odd Immortal.  If you’re to join the envoy, you’ll need a squire to help you,” Yakov insisted.

Viktor couldn’t help his eyeroll; there was something about walking past his old room, with Yakov, that made him feel like a rebellious teen.

“I didn’t have one on the last progress; didn’t do me any harm.”

The grinding of Yakov’s teeth was almost audible, and frustration was coming off him in waves.  This was definitely turning into a flashback to when Viktor was fifteen.

“Don’t be so selfish, Vitya.  Taking a squire isn’t just about you —it’s your chance to contribute towards the process of educating knights.”

Viktor stopped walking to turn on Yakov.  Hands on hips, he looked at the other man, trying to really see what was going on.  It was so easy for him to just see Yakov as he had always been to Viktor—his appearance hadn’t changed that much—but there were small differences that betrayed his age.  New lines had formed on the older man’s face, his habitual frown lines even deeper now—though that might have just been from dealing with Viktor—and while he had been balding so long as Viktor had known him, the fringe of hair that traced Yakov’s temples seemed to be even thinner.  Certainly Yakov still held an aura of vitality and strength, but Viktor hadn’t missed the slight halt in his gait as they’d walked, or the way that Yakov’s hands flexed and clenched, as if he was trying to work pain out of his fingers and joints.

“What’s this about Yakov?”

The man seemed to deflate; it was a little unnerving for Viktor to see some of the bluster gone.

“At the start of fall I took on a new squire, but I’m not sure that I’ll be able to continue with him,” Yakov grumbled.

“What’s happened? Is there some problem with the boy?”  Viktor wondered what Yakov was trying to foist off onto him.

“No, nothing like that.  Yuri is a good boy—“ Yakov seemed to think better of his phrasing, before adding, “He’s a lot like you were.  I’m just old, and some difficulty with Georgi has come up. The boy needs more…management than I can provide.”

Viktor couldn’t help the laugh of surprise.  “Georgi? What’s happened to him?”

Even without a response, Viktor was able to imagine a half a dozen reasons that Yakov’s adult son would need some manner of intervention.  At twenty-seven, the same age as Viktor, Georgi should have been past the need for this level of parental concern; of course, Viktor should also have been past the need for his mentor tell him what to do; and yet when he had received Yakov’s letter, urging him to volunteer to join the envoy to the Yamani Islands, Viktor had clung to it with the desperation of a drowning man.

“Nothing more serious than it ever is, but it will take time and money.  It was one thing when I thought I would be traveling with the progress—the boy would have the chance to compete, to improve his fighting, to learn how to mix with the other nobles in a way that’s less...it would be a waste of his training time, to have him follow me to deal with my reprobate son.”

With the full weight of Yakov’s look—half desperation and half signature grimace—Viktor didn’t have the heart to say no.  And so he smiled, and nodded, and hoped that he hadn’t gotten in too deep.

Maybe he would like having a squire.

 

***

 

“Who is this joker?”

Viktor could only stare mildly at the blonde teenager, who seemed to resemble a wet cat more than anything else.  Silently he cursed Yakov, wondering just how obnoxious he himself had been for Yakov to describe the squire bristling in front of them as being anything like Viktor.

“As I told you, Yura,” Yakov explained, his rough voice forceful enough to indicate that there would be no arguments.  “Events have…transpired, and I can’t fulfill my commitment to you, but I have found an…adequate replacement.”

A smile spread across Viktor’s face at Yakov’s faint praise.  Some things would never change.

Yuri had apparently not yet learned to read Yakov well enough to know this was a decision already made, and no amount of protests would change anything.  Viktor almost had to admire the spirit of the lad as he watched the teenager square off against the much older knight.

“You promised! You said that you would take me on as squire!  That I would get to train as—“

Yakov’s glower put an end to Yuri’s complaints, though the boy’s face stayed set in its surly expression.

“Viktor was one of my former squires, one of my brightest—“ Viktor was pretty sure giving that amount of praise must have physically hurt Yakov. “—And more importantly, he at least knew how to interact at court.  If you’re to be a true knight, Yura, it will take more than skill with a sword.  To get through the chamber, you will need…malleability.”

“And this fool will allow me to get that?” Yuri snarled.

Viktor knew it was ill-advised, but he couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up out of his chest.  The lad was such a contradiction. Between his attitude, the insults that came almost as quickly as breath, and the boy’s almost elfin daintiness , it was a little like seeing a lady’s lap dog trying to take on a wolf.

Yuri rounded on him, green eyes narrowed with a look of visible disgust.

Nothing new , Viktor thought, though the boy could have taken lessons from his family on how to deliver the look with the right words to crush a spirit.

“How do we go about making him my squire?” Viktor asked Yakov, though his gaze didn’t shift from Yuri.

The boy might have been slight, perhaps a little short for his age, but he hadn’t been able to make it through four years of training as a page without developing some muscle.  Just thinking of his own days running about the training grounds in weighted harnesses, and all of the constant drills, made Viktor exhausted.

Yakov chuckled, and Viktor caught the flash of a victorious smile.

“Already done.  As soon as I heard word from Georgi, I wrote to the training master.  He’s yours now.”

“And if I hadn’t come south?” Viktor asked.

Yakov’s look said it all.  Of course Viktor was always going to come.  Whether it was the Gift or just the bond that came from having trained Viktor, Yakov always seemed to know what Viktor would do.  It had never stopped him from trying to nag Viktor along different paths, but he was generally unsurprised by anything Viktor did.  It had certainly taken the fun out of any attempts at rebellion.

Turning back to Yuri, Viktor tried to think of what he should say.  He should definitely try to say something encouraging, right? Or maybe inspirational?  Though maybe he should just do as Yakov would, and give the boy a lecture?

While Viktor struggled to think of the fitting words to give to his new student, the lad in question seemed to have reigned in some of his anger, though there was still a wariness about him.  That, more than anything, felt all too familiar to Viktor, and he wondered what had led this waif-like boy to have the eyes of a hardened soldier.

“I have a cat.”

Viktor blinked and tried to figure out if he had heard right.

“You have a cat?” he asked carefully, trying to figure out what test had just been flung his way.  Viktor glanced at Yakov, but he had already turned to leave the small chamber.

“I’m not leaving him behind,” Yuri said in a tone that managed to skate the border between petulant and outright aggressive.

Viktor just shrugged and smiled.  It was hardly a concession to allow Yuri to keep a pet.  And, he thought with some satisfaction, it wouldn’t be terrible for the boy to have something for which he was responsible.

“And if that…beast hurts Potya—“ Yuri pointed accusingly to where Makkachin was currently rolling on the ground, sending plaintive looks for belly rubs.

Reaching forward to ruffle Yuri’s hair, Viktor was surprised the lad let him keep the hand.

“Don’t worry about Makkachin.  Now, how are you equipped for gear?”

 

***

 

After the two knights had left his room, Yuri finally felt able to breathe for the first time in months.

The moment he had slammed the door after Nikiforov, Yuri had just enough energy left to cross weak-legged back to his bed, collapsing there.  A moment later, Potya had padded his way across the blankets to shove his head against Yuri’s palm. Automatically the boy’s fingers moved to scratch underneath the cat’s cream coloured chin.

“We’ve got a new master,” Yuri told the cat, trying out the sound of the words.

For months, Yuri had known it was coming.  Truth be told, he had known since the beginning--when Yakov had first taken him on as a squire--that something would go wrong.  That was the story of Yuri’s fifteen years, and particularly his time since he had come down to the capital. When he’d first arrived, Yuri had discovered quite quickly that the children of nobility, and their parents, didn’t think much of Northern lords’ illegitimate sons being educated alongside the proper heirs.  And he hadn’t been allowed to forget it; not that his position had ever been unclear to him. His father may have acknowledged him, promised some small settlement for him once he had earned his shield, but there were no illusions that there was any sort of paternal affection tied up in that offer. Even Yuri’s mother had treated him more like a weight around her neck or a bargaining chip, depending on which suited her.

Yakov had found Yuri at the end of the summer, in one of the indoor practise halls working with his sword.  Glancing up, with sweat dripping into his eyes, finally feeling exhausted enough that the constant thoughts that dogged him had started to dim, Yuri had seen the old man watching him with a thoughtful expression; as soon as he realized Yuri had seen him, the expression had become more of a glower.

Yakov had told Yuri that he was looking for a squire, and that he would shape him into one of the best swordsmen of their time.  All Yuri had been able to do was accept gratefully, if not gracefully—no one had even approached Yuri about taking him on as a squire since he’d passed his big tests.  And part of Yuri had started to hope that this might signal some change for him.

He’d known about Yakov, known of the man’s reputation.  The fact that there were rumours of Yakov having Scanra blood and that he spoke with the rough accent of the Northern mountains were in his favour so far as Yuri was concerned.  He would never have admitted it, but there were days when Yakov’s accent was enough to make Yuri feel like he was back home, sitting with grandfather eating pierozki, the potato dumplings that were a staple of the region.  But Yuri wasn’t an idiot. Yakov may not have stopped Yuri’s brutal training regimen, but there always seemed to be letters arriving and going, and ever-familiar assessing looks.

“Sir Viktor will be taking us with him,” he told the indifferent cat.

Potya gave him a feline look of disdain, making it clear that he had little interest in anything Yuri had to say that didn’t directly relate to scratches behind the ears.  Still, the cat did lean forward to give Yuri’s hand the most fleeting of licks, quickly followed by a a prod to the thigh—nails out.

Knowing that Viktor would let him keep Potya had been something at least.  At home, Yuri always had some sort of pet around, animals that needed care or scruffy strays that he and his grandfather took in— the menagerie as his grandfather had referred to it.  It was one of the harder adjustments when he’d first arrived in Corus—pages weren’t allowed pets.  But as soon as he’d passed his exams, he had found Potya. It was his first act as a squire—something to mark the transition for himself, even if he had to spend the next four years training under the masters who taught the pages, just delivering messages and learning manners.  So long as he could keep Potya, Yuri was reclaiming some part of himself.

And, if truth be told, Yuri thought as he settled back on his bed, pushing back the hair that always seemed to slide forward to cover his face, there might be some advantages.  Yes, the man was far too…charming. Viktor had the sort of manners that marked him as a part of the court, as a part of Yuri’s father’s world. But, Yuri had been surprised when the man spoke.  The accent, like his own and Yakov’s, was more of the mountains. If anything, it was stronger—Yuri made a note to look up where exactly Stonemountain was on a map.

He also wasn’t entirely unaware of who Viktor Nikiforov was, even before the knight had become the heir to Stonemountain.  Towards the beginning of his time as a page, Yuri had been swept along with the rest of the court on the Royal Progress. When the pages weren’t required to practice their courtly skills, serve at banquets, or continue their lessons, they’d been encouraged to go and watch the competitions of skill.  Most of the other pages had been drawn to the thunder and crash of the jousts, but Yuri had always chosen the finesse of the sword fights.

The first time he had seen Nikiforov fight, he had been in awe.  The way the blade had been an extension of the man’s body, his movements fierce and sinuous, it had the same enthralling feel of watching a snake about to strike.  After that, Yuri may have put the required amount of practise into his staff, lance, and bow, but all the rest of it went to the sword. He had vowed that someday he would face off against Nikiforov in a tournament, and Yuri would be able to show everyone just what a bastard could achieve.

And, if he had Nikiforov himself responsible for his training, Yuri might just have a chance of achieving that goal.



Chapter Text

By the time Viktor had nearly finished his morning practice, pale light had started to stream in through the high windows of the training hall, casting a golden glow to the otherwise plain room.  His muscles felt warm, and his mind had the sort of heady buzz that only came when he had the chance to properly work with his sword.

Up along the northern borders, routing out bandits on the Stonemountain land or going after Scanra raiding parties, Viktor might have had many opportunities for combat, but it wasn’t what he liked.  That was all the brutal efficiency of pikes and bows, and when it did call for close quarter combat there was nothing of the drama or artistry of a really good match. Most of the fights were against people driven to desperation—long winters and poor soil driving them to do what was needful to feed their children.  There was no glory or honour in the work Viktor did up north, just a brutal necessity.

He grabbed a cloth he’d brought with him to wipe the sweat off his face.  Plucking at the loose tunic that clung damply to his chest, he couldn’t help but think longingly of the cold garrison that had been his home base for some time now.  Every room here felt stuffy, the air stale and overheated, like everyone at the palace was terrified of letting even the smallest breath of cold in.

Tossing the cloth to the side, Viktor readied himself into a fighting stance.  On the progress, Viktor had seen the Yamanis practising with their glaives—pattern dances he’d heard them called, the progression of movement through a whole series of responses to an invisible attacker.  There was one young man with such artistry that each sweep and cut had the effortless beauty of petals on a breeze, and the deadliness of a viper. Viktor had been captivated, and had started to piece together his own routines.  It meant that he was able to practice regardless of where he was or whether his usual training partners were free, with a little more variation than sticking to drills.

Today however, the usual rhythm wouldn’t come.  As Viktor slid forward into a thrust, it was like something was missing.  Continuing the arc of the blade up into a parry, it just didn’t feel quite right.

As he moved, the movements automatic at this point, he worked through a mental checklist trying to figure out what he was doing wrong.  His form was fine; certainly it wasn’t his grip; and while he felt off kilter, his actual balance and movement was spot-on.  Normally when Viktor did these solo practices, he was able to visualize his enemy, so that each movement felt full of purpose as if battling spectral foes, but today he was just a man swinging a sword about.

With a grunt, he finished the last of the movements in the sequence before dropping the practice weapon to the ground.

It was probably just all that transpired last night , he reassured himself.  Anyone who suddenly found themselves responsible for a surly teenager would find their thoughts occupied, and Viktor always struggled when he had to return to the court. In addition to his family and the rest of the kingdom’s conservatives being unwilling to do anything more than tolerate him, the progressive set had little acceptance for him either.  It almost had a brutal comedic quality that both groups disliked him for the same reason—his family—though it was different sections of that family that each objected to.

As he returned the practice sword to the side of the room and gathered up his belongings, he discarded that thought.  The intricacies of his place were nothing new. It was part of the reason Viktor had learned to be so easygoing. It had been a lot easier to side-step confrontations if people just thought of him as a buffoon, or nothing more than a courtly dilettante.

As for the squire, Viktor had found himself warming to the idea.  It would be good to have someone to help with managing the gear for the progress, and if there were going to be tournaments it was certainly easier to have someone to take over all the care that his armour would require.  There was also something about the boy that spoke to Viktor. Yuri had just seemed so raw , desperate to prove that he was invulnerable while appearing as one open wound.  It had been a little like seeing himself, though Viktor had needed to learn how to project a mask of indifference long before he’d come to court.

Truth be told, Viktor knew exactly what was distracting him from practice that morning.  He could feel it pulling, a nagging sensation that couldn’t be ignored, like a sore tooth.  It wasn’t until he was already out of the training hall and halfway down the quiet hallway that he realized where he was heading.

With each step, Viktor kept hoping he would run into someone.  Christophe would find him and insist that they go for a fashionably late breakfast, or Yakov would show up yelling and demanding to know why Viktor hadn’t done some super important business as knight-master to Yuri—Viktor reminded himself to find out what he should be doing with the squire—or he’d even just see enough of a crowd that he would have to stop and turn back.

But the halls were empty.  It was still early, especially considering all of the parties that would have been running late around the city.  And outside of the time when squires underwent their ordeals, it was rare to find anyone in this part of the palace.  No one liked to be near the chamber if they didn’t have to.

It was understandable.  The greatest mages in the realm hadn’t been able to figure out how it worked, and it had a vicious way of testing those who would become knights.  It was the chamber’s test that had killed his cousin Joren, though Viktor had heard much from his family about how Mindelan had somehow had a hand in it.  And with the last squire finished two nights ago, the hallway had resumed its usual tomblike feel.

Entering the final stretch of hallway, Viktor’s unsettled feeling continued to grow.  And as he closed the distance between himself and the doors to the chapel, which lead to the chamber, it was like he was returning to that morning when he had finally stumbled free, wild-eyed and drenched with sweat, but finally a knight.

He paused before the large doors, refusing to step into the chapel, not even daring to touch the heavy door handles.  But he also found that he couldn’t bring himself to leave.

Mostly it was the guilt.

For nine years, Viktor had tried to fashion himself into a model knight.  He had gone where he was needed, tried to help those he could, earned himself renown in the tournaments; he’d aimed for perfection and he had achieved something that looked an awful lot like it.  It was Viktor’s dirty secret that for the entirety of those nine years he had been ignoring what he’d seen in the chamber during his ordeal.

Occasionally it worked its way into his dreams; he would wake up, heart racing, knowing that he wasn’t where he needed to be, but the longer he was away from Corus and the chamber, the less it haunted him.  And, he had reassured himself, it wasn’t like he even knew how to begin, or that it was some sort of task being presented.

Standing right in front of the doorway though was all the invitation the chamber needed.  Images of foreign buildings made of timber frames and paper walls flooded his mind’s eye; of mountains that weren’t his own; a breeze, heavy with the crisp scent of brine, tugged at his hair and clothes; he could feel the searing heat of one of the buildings burning, a woman wailing; surrounding it all was the crackle and buzz of power, the emerald surge of magic threading it all together.  And there was always the face. Every time Viktor saw the same soft brown eyes, the curves of the cheekbones, the dark tumble of hair, he knew it was a face he would tear through armies for; that without having seen anything more, Viktor’s heart wasn’t his own anymore.

I’m going , Viktor tried to tell the chamber as tears slid down his cheeks, I know where I need to go now.  I can do it now.

And that was the truth.  It wasn’t until the arrival of Prince Roald’s Yamani bride, when it had suddenly become the height of fashion to know all about the exotic princess’s home land, that Viktor had finally realized where he had been seeing.  But by that time, he wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it.  When Yakov’s letter had arrived, for the first time in nine years Viktor had felt some small amount of the stranglehold the chamber had kept on him ease.  He could only hope that he hadn’t left it too late.



Chapter Text

The sun might have only just shifted from the pearly light of dawn into the warm gold of day, but Yuuri Katsuki had already been up for hours.  Of course, that would imply that he had actually slept at all.

Glancing down at the letter still clutched in his hand, Yuuri couldn’t help but read it again.  He didn’t know why he bothered—he had memorized all of it after reading it for the tenth time, and much of the night had been spent trying to figure out what was being said behind the words.  By the time he had given up on sleep, sliding out of the house and seeking the solace of the waves, he could have found ambiguity in a shopping list.

Still, he couldn’t help but return to the missive from Phichit, looking for something he had missed.

The letter was brief and friendly in the way his friend had always managed.  Phichit was the only person Yuuri knew who could be so comfortable with allowing his emotions to bubble up to the surface, completely at odds with everything that was prized and considered acceptable in the Yamani Islands.  When they had been training together at the Emperor’s court, Yuuri had marvelled at and envied the way his friend just acted, saying what was on his mind. If Yuuri ever voiced his shock in the privacy of the room they shared, Phichit would just smile and shrug, pointing out that he wasn’t Yamani. And when the two had been sent to Tortall as part of the princess’s envoy—meant to demonstrate the excellence of Yamani-trained warriors—and Yuuri had found the openness of the society there to be almost dizzying, Phichit had been delighted.

Yuuri took a deep breath, closing his eyes and breathing out to a count of four, trying to find his calm centre.  There was no point in thinking about that voyage, not if he wanted… Yuuri didn’t even know what he wanted.

Weeks ago, he had been sent home to Hasetsu. It wasn’t quite a banishment, but it also wasn’t a holiday.  Mostly, he felt it seemed to be somewhere in the realm of a time-out. The training mistress had felt he’d acquitted himself tolerably during their time in Tortall, but upon their return Yuuri had found his focus slipping.  He had trained harder than ever, spending long evenings and early mornings working through his pattern dances with the glaive and practicing throws with Phichit, yet somehow he had still found himself struggling to to manage the simplest sparring skirmishes.

Two years he had struggled, trying to find the key to becoming the perfect warrior they demanded.  And for chunks of time, weeks or months, Yuuri would manage; but then something would happen. It was like all of the thoughts that circled through his head, all of the fears, would rise up at once, and Yuuri would feel like he was drowning.  He was able to maintain his calm demeanour, but that usually took up the rest of whatever energy he might have, leaving his kicks and punches without any power and his throws of the sort that even a novice could shrug free of.

Yuuri had done everything he could to rid his body of its nervous tension, to get excise his weakness.  And so far as anyone--except for Phichit--knew, Yuuri’s own failure was nothing to him. He had met every criticism, every smack with the mistress’s bamboo sword, with not a word of complaint.  But each day he had found himself getting worse and worse, until he was at the point that the training mistress was threatening to put him in with the beginners—children of four.

By the time he had finally been told that he should return to his parents’ home further up the coast, Yuuri couldn’t even muster the energy to feel anything other than a miserable relief that at least it was over.  All of his fault lines had been discovered, and he had been sent home as pieces of rubble.

Of course, none of that was reflected in Phichit’s letter.  His friend had just asked if Yuuri had heard about the tour of the islands the Emperor was to be making in the summer, excitement over the prospect evident in every word.  Nobles from Tortall, Phichit had explained, would be arriving shortly prior and would be a part of the Imperial entourage. There would be competitions, and the Imperial mage had promised a feat of magic unheard of for the final banquet.

Glancing out to the waves, Yuuri tried to allow his mind to be consumed by the steady crash and pull of the water.  He tried to find some peace in the way the small stones glistened wetly each time the water retreated; in the familiar scent of salt and seaweed drying further up the beach.

Thoughts kept intruding.  No, not thoughts, memories; one specific memory from his time in Tortall.

For most of the progress, he had found his time taken up with diplomatic parties, exhibitions of skill, and practice—Yuri’s life seemed to be built around practice.  When they had free time, Yuuri had usually found himself dragged by Phichit to watch the jousts. He did enjoy seeing Keladry tilt—she was some years younger than Yuuri, but as someone who always seemed to take longer to learn skills, he was frequently put with the younger children to practice.  They hadn’t ever talked much—Yuuri was too shy—but he had liked her calm manner, and had enjoyed seeing the swaggering knights taken down by the girl. Beyond that, he didn’t much care for the sport. That was how he had discovered the silver knight.

From the first moment Yuuri had seen the man walk out onto the field, he had found himself captivated.  Each blow was a marriage of force and grace, and Yuuri had been in awe of the knight’s footwork, of how he could dance in close to strike a blow, lunging forward, and just as quickly be in a retreat with an elegant block before he was off to the side and going for the inevitable opening.  If that wasn’t enough, the man had hair the exact shade of moonlight on a midsummer’s evening, and eyes the colour of the water Yuuri was staring off into now.

It had been with great embarrassment that Yuri’s poetry to the knight had been found by Phichit.  Hearing his friend read his clumsy verses had been almost as heart-stoppingly alarming as the moment following when Phichit, bright eyed and grinning, had suggested that Yuuri go and talk to the knight.

Would the silver-haired knight be among the nobles from Tortall?

Of course, that was irrelevant to Yuuri.  He had been sent away, and even if he had the chance, would he really want to return?

Taking a deep breath, Yuuri forced himself to stand up, doing what he could to smooth his windswept black hair out of his face and hoping his sleeplessness didn’t show too badly.  His parents might not say it, but he had been able to feel their worry ever since he had returned home.

Their questions about when he might be returning to the court had only just started to die down.  With Phichit’s news and the possibility of tournaments, Yuuri could already feel his chest tightening up and his throat itching at the thought that those questions would resume.  But just maybe, today, he could still have breakfast without having to be told what a failure he had turned out to be.

 

***

 

By the time Yuuri had walked back up to the house, one of the outside partition walls had been slid open and Yuuri could see his family seated at the low table, breakfast spread out before them.

“Yuuri, you have a guest,” his mother called out.

Quickly his gaze snapped to the faces that were seated, though he already knew who it would be.  

Seated beside his sister, Mari, Yuuri saw Minako.  Much like his family, he saw the familiar look of concern flash across her face, before her eyes narrowed to look him over.  Yuuri had the unnerving sense that not only was she able to see every one of his faults, but that she was cataloguing them to discuss later.

Reluctantly, he slipped off his shoes and stepped up into the room, pausing to bow quickly to Minako -- an honour required for the woman who had trained him before he’d been sent off to the court.

“Yuuri, I was just telling your parents about the upcoming progress the Emperor plans to make with the foreign guests,” Minako said.

Somehow her words felt both like a test and a challenge.  Yuuri just knelt down in front of the table, nodding his thanks as his mother put a bowl of steamed rice topped with fermented beans in front of him.  Before, anything phrased as an actual question could be directed at him, Yuuri started to shovel food into his mouth.

It wasn’t until he was about halfway through his bowl that he finally looked up, only to see four sets of eyes bearing down on him with varying degrees of concern.

Minako, of course, was the first one to speak.  The woman might have had the sort of elegance of movement that a generation of warriors craved, but she was shockingly frank.  Her saving grace was that it was always well meaning, but Yuuri had alternately dreaded and craved the brutal assessments of his skills back when he had still been learning under her.

“Hiroko, you weren’t joking, Yuuri has become positively plump!  Soon, people will start to mistake him for one of the pigs!”

Yuuri felt frozen, helpless as his face grew hot, suddenly aware of every single inch of space that his body took up, of how his skin pressed against the cloth of clothes.  His breakfast felt like lead in his belly as he lowered his chopsticks to the table, leaving the rest of the food untouched.

Minako continued as if she hadn’t just ground what was left of Yuuri’s sense of self down to dust.

“How will you be able to compete for the tournaments if you’re too heavy to be nimble?  You’re not big enough to win a match on strength,” Minako drawled. “Your parents tell me you’ve been home for weeks now!  If you won’t be returning right away, you must come to see me—at least I can allow you to—“

“Thank you for your counsel,” Hiroko said, cutting off the younger woman.  Her round face was calm and gentle, but there was a soft steel that made it clear that she was to be heard.  “Yuuri will certainly take you up on your offer, though it has been nice to see him looking more himself. You were so gaunt, Yuuri; I can’t help but wonder what they fed you.”

Yuuri dropped his gaze to where his hands rested in his lap, trying to ignore the soft laughter around him, the words little more than noise.

“So will you be going back?”

That was from Mari.  He couldn’t help but sneak a glance at his older sister’s face.  She lifted one eyebrow expectantly, making it clear that she actually expected an answer.

“No.”

“Why not?” his father asked.

Clearly they had all been waiting for someone to ask the question first, and now that the dam had been breached, they all wanted answers.

Words formed in his mind only to get clogged up on his tongue, refusing to come out.  All he could do was shrug helplessly, suddenly longing for his bed and wishing he could just disappear into sleep.  

When Yuuri was in Tortall, he and Phichit had come across one of their storytellers weaving a tale for a group of rapt children.  Yuuri’s grasp of Common might not have been more than passable, but even he had been captivated. The story had involved a princess sent into a magic sleep for a hundred years, and while Yuuri knew it was supposed to be a horrifying punishment, he had found himself envying the princess.  Now that silly story was all he could think of; he wondered if a hundred years would be enough for everything to be different.

No , he thought, of course it wouldn’t be.  The world would change, but he wouldn’t.

“I couldn’t…I was too weak,” he finally managed, head lowered and hair swinging forward so he wouldn’t have to see any of their faces.

“Don’t be silly, Yuuri,” Minako finally said with a snarl that made him look up.  “My students are not weak. I don’t know how things have changed since my time at court, but all you need is to put down whatever weight you brought home with you, and come see me for practice.”

Yuuri wasn’t sure if it was the shock or years of practice at holding back emotions that stopped him from crying, but Minako’s words burned through him.  It wasn’t enough to destroy all of the chains that had been wrapped around Yuuri for the past two years—longer, if he was honest—but it was enough that he felt able to actually breathe.

He bowed to his old teacher.

“When would you like me to come?”

“How about now?”

And like that, Yuuri found himself swept along, not entirely sure what had happened but grateful nonetheless.  By the time he was standing in the courtyard of Minako’s home and training hall, glaive in hand, and working through the first of the pattern dances—Minako prodding his knee into a deeper stance with her bamboo sword, adjusting his grip on the wooden pole of the weapon—Yuuri felt more like himself than he had in ages.


Chapter Text

One of the closely guarded secrets of Viktor’s life was that he was generally pretty terrible at most things.  He considered it a sign that the gods did have a hand in the lives of mortals that he had managed to be any good at being a knight.  When he had first been handed a practice sword and discovered that it was something he could actually do, Viktor had felt some great shift in his life.

Up until that time, he had just been the scrawny half-Scanran boy, too pretty by half and his silver hair distinctive and unusual enough to make him an easy target.

But the muscles he had built through training, finally gaining some height, and the total focus he had when he was facing off against an opponent had soon meant that the older pages had looked for someone else to torture.

From then on, Viktor had started to cultivate the image of the untouchable knight.  In all things he would always appear to be perfect and beyond reproach. No one would be able to report back to his family that the weak seed had done anything other than grow up strong.

So, two days into their voyage, it was a particular kind of torture Viktor found himself experiencing. Viktor lay prone on the small bunk of the ship, his stomach roiling, and the burn of vomit pressing against the back of his throat.  And while that indignity was pretty bad, it wasn’t any surprise to him that he would be terrible at sea travel. Viktor hated to admit it, but if he wasn’t careful, being on horseback could make him motion sick.  He had managed to find his peace with those beasts enough to be able to man a mounted patrol, but he was always happiest on his own feet. The thing that made the whole situation nigh on intolerable was the surly green gaze from across the room.

“Are you going to stay down here the whole voyage?” Yuri demanded with the sort of haughty tone and lack of empathy that only someone of fifteen could muster.

Clearly Mithros had sent Yuri as a test.

No , Viktor decided as the cabin lifted on another swell leaving him to retch over the side of the bed.   Yuri was a punishment from the chamber.  That was the only explanation.

“Ugh, this is disgusting,” Yuri complained.

With only the energy to drop back against the bed, Viktor ignored his squire’s complaints, trying to curl in on himself.  Every inch of him felt drenched in sweat, his clothes clinging to him coldly and his hair plastered to his forehead. At least he had stopped wearing his hair long some years ago, he thought darkly.  He could only imagine what sort of mess he would look like now.

There was a frustrated sigh from the other bunk.

“You’ll never get better if you stay down here.”

It took Viktor a moment to realize that, even though the tone was hostile, the words almost sounded…helpful?

“Yura,” Viktor said thickly, his throat raw, “I don’t know what you think is possible, but there’s a chance I may never leave this bunk.”

A sudden pain burst between Viktor’s shoulder blades.  Had the little shit just kicked him? If Viktor hadn’t been sure that he was going to need to be buried at sea, he would have given the brat a thrashing.

“I thought you were supposed to be a knight , not some weak-stomached…” there was a pause as the boy seemed to be searching his vast repertoire for an appropriate epithet.

Before Viktor could find out exactly what his squire thought he was, Viktor pushed himself up so that he was propped up against one of the walls that ran alongside the bed.  He managed to find a glare to send Yuri’s way, though Viktor was sure that its effectiveness had been undercut when he’d had to shut his eyes against the nausea as the ship had lurched some more.

“Have you checked on Makkachin?”

When they had first departed, Viktor had protested on being told Makkachin would need to travel in the area with the other animals.  As he had led her down to that part of the hold, he had whispered into her ear that he would come find her as soon as they were out of harbour and find a way to sneak her into the cabin.  She had just given him a look of doggy understanding and licked his face.

That had been two whole days, and when he wasn’t waiting to die, he felt wracked by guilt that he hadn’t even so much as gone to visit her.

“She was fine when I saw Potya this morning.”

Of course the squire had gone to visit his cat.  Viktor’s protests had been nothing next to the curses and snarls that Yuri had thrown about after discovering that, like Makkachin, the cat wouldn’t be able to travel in their cabin.  The only reason Yuri hadn’t already smuggled the cat into the room, Viktor figured, was partly the lack of opportunity with Viktor confined to his bed, and partly because, after two days of being cooped up with Viktor’s vomiting, the squire must have been looking for any excuse to leave his master.

“Can you just—go explore or something,” Viktor said weakly.

A moment later there was the sound of the cabin door slamming.  It seemed entirely possible to Viktor that Yuri didn’t know doors could be closed without slamming them.

In the quiet, Viktor felt some manner of relief.  Having anyone see him so vulnerable, seeing beyond his facade, had been worse than any of the actual symptoms.  At least on his own, he could succumb to self-pity rather than having to alternate indifferent stoicism with his retching.

With his head still pressed against the wall, Viktor let his eyes close in exhaustion.  But as he started to drift off into something approaching sleep, as had happened every time since he had returned to the chamber, he was besieged by visions.

It was as if the chamber, finally having sunk its teeth back into him after being ignored for so long, was refusing to let go.  

“I'm on my way.  I’m doing what I can,” Viktor whispered, but still the same things flashed before him.  All Viktor could do was try to wait it out.

When he was finally left with just the smell of charred timber and that desperate need to be somewhere clawing up through his chest, Viktor was able to fall into some semblance of sleep.

 

***

 

The next thing Viktor knew, there was a glass being pressed against his lips and water sliding into his mouth.  The liquid might have been warm, and with the slightly stale taste of having been in a cask—another one of the miseries of traveling by sea—but after the taste of his own vomit, it was a welcome relief.

Opening his eyes, he saw the familiar delicate features and wicked grin of Christophe.

Feeling as though someone had removed all of the bones from his arms, Viktor took the glass from Chris’s hand, and mustered up a weak smile.

“Come to see if reports of my death were unfounded?”

Chris laughed, and pushed Viktor’s feet out of the way so he could perch on the bunk.

“Well, when that squire of yours—who’s a vicious piece of work by the way—came to tell us that you were down here, one breath away from death, we decided someone had better come take a look.  If only to know if we could start dividing up your belongings.”

“Ah, I assume you claimed Makkachin” Viktor said. “And how many people did the brat see fit to share that information with?”

As he shifted, trying to find a more comfortable spot, he decided he would have to have a chat with the boy about what sort of information should stay between the two of them.

Christophe, always more aware of people’s emotions than he let on, seemed to sense the direction of Viktor’s thoughts.

“It was just me and Otabek—who I’m not sure even knows how to speak,” Chris reassured him.  “And I have to say, deep down under all of the disgusted descriptions, I think the brat might have actually been concerned.”

Viktor shut his eyes and grimaced.

“I'm not sure I need, or want, his concern if it’s going to be like that.”

Chris just laughed, the sound booming around the small cabin.  While it didn’t help the headache that had been following close behind the nausea, it did take Viktor back.

If there was anyone that he might describe as his closest friend, Chris was that.  Two years older, Viktor had been the one to sponsor Chris when he’d started as a page.  What had begun as just one of the obligations expected of more senior pages--acting as a mentor and guide to those just starting their training--had blossomed into a genuine friendship.  How could it not? Chris was so artless and open, completely unafraid of displaying exactly how he felt, that it was impossible not to be swept along. And, in Chris, he had found someone as fascinated with the art of sword fighting as himself.  For the remaining two years of Viktor’s time at the palace, until he had become Yakov’s squire, the two would always be found together, struggling through written assignments or more often in an empty hall practicing.

When they had encountered each other at the tournaments, Viktor had been relieved to find that the bond was still there.  And of all the opponents, Chris was the closest to offering a challenge for Viktor.

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think that he has been rather devoted to the care of Makkachin during your…confinement.”

Viktor gave his friend a weak punch to the shoulder and groaned.

“Don’t describe it like that.  You make me sound like…”

“Like some sort of overly dramatic ass?”

Viktor rolled his eyes but he didn’t argue; instead he just took another sip of water, swishing the liquid around his mouth and trying to rid himself of the last of the bitter taste.  Idly he wondered if he had the energy to dig out his tooth cleaning sticks and powder.

“Do you think you can manage to walk?” Chris prompted.

Viktor considered the question before nodding.

“Good, because you need to start seeing to that brat.  If he’s left to run free, I’m sure that someone will murder him before we even set foot on Yamani soil.”

“And how much longer is the journey?”  Viktor couldn’t decide whether he wanted the journey to be over soon to be rid of his suffering, or if he wanted it to extend indefinitely while he tried to think of how he could follow the chamber’s task.

Chris arched an eyebrow and gave him a curious look, but didn’t say anything.  Instead he patted Viktor on the leg, before pushing himself up to his feet.

“Talk is that—so long as the winds hold—we could be there in another few weeks.”

At that news, Viktor definitely decided that an extended journey was by far the worse option.  He genuinely wasn’t sure he could survive weeks of feeling like this.

“C’mon,” Chris said with ruthless cheerfulness.  “I’ve been told that the worst part is heading out, and that in a few days everyone adjusts to sea.  And the fresh air, not to mention a horizon line, might do you some good.”

Viktor just nodded, and allowed his friend to help him up.  Once he was standing, he reached for his pack, pulling out a fresh shirt.  He paused in his actions to glance over towards where Chris still stood, waiting.

“Don’t stop on my account.”

Chris had the audacity to wink, his grin having shifted into the spectrum of lascivious.  Viktor just shook his head, muttering about how a dying man deserved some privacy as he exchanged his sweat-stained shirt for the fresh one.

He had to admit that between the water and the fresh clothes, he was feeling a bit better.  If only it could all dispel the visions. The only possible remedy he had for that was the small book that he fished out of his pack.

Before leaving Corus, Viktor had returned to his rooms to find the book on his bed, a note tucked between the cover and the first page.

Viktor

May this book be useful to you in your travels.

Kel

As he had flipped through the pages he had found himself looking at a book that seemed to be comprised of the history, protocol, and general useful information about the Yamani Islands, written by the Lady Knight’s father himself.  And, more precious than Viktor could have said, in the same straightforward hand that had penned the note were annotations in the margins. It might have been a small gesture, but from someone that had no call to give Viktor any help, and could have understandably told him to drop dead, the gesture meant the world.

For so long, Viktor had given up on being able to find any place for himself outside of the icy shadow of his family, but between Mindelan’s offering and leaving Tortall, Viktor felt the stirrings of hope.

“Are you coming?” Chris asked, his voice impatient even as he was halfway out the door.

Viktor rolled his eyes and followed the other knight out of the cabin in search of his squire.



Chapter Text

“What do you call that stance?!”

Yuuri didn’t even bother to glance in the direction the barked question had come from, just automatically bending his knee, driving his weight further into his left heel.

Each day since that first visit, Yuuri had been wondering if this would be the day he didn’t go back.  As he got dressed and made the short trip up the hill, his unease would return with a vengeance. But the moment he had crossed into the courtyard and found a glaive pushed into his hand, it was like all of the time, and doubts, had fallen away.  Minako was a brutal teacher, but this time with her was exactly what Yuuri had needed.

As one week slipped into another, he found himself sliding into the routine that had defined his early life.  He would be up early, working through the floor exercises needed to maintain enough strength and muscle to wield the heavy weapons, and then he would run the entire way, through the village and up the steeper of the two paths that led up the mountainside, to Minako’s.  For the first week, he would arrive face red, breath a raspy saw in his chest and his calves already tight; with her unerring timing, Minako would manage to come out just as Yuuri started to teeter on the edge of doubts that always seemed to be there. With one glare, she made it clear that there was no way Yuuri would be retreating until she said so, regardless of what state his stamina and strength were at.

By the second week, the run was just that much easier, and Yuuri had started to rely on the easy way he could shut all of his thoughts off when he was practicing.  Even Minako’s criticism had been welcome. Yuuri had trained under her long enough to know that she was going to push him right to the edge; if he managed to get any span of time where she just circled silently, gaze intent on his form, he must have done something right.

“Adjust your grip!”

Automatically Yuuri glanced down to where his hands gripped the wooden shaft of the glaive, repositioning them.

“And strike!” Minako barked, followed by Yuuri surging forward to swing the heavy blade down at his imaginary foe.

“Do you feel the difference in balance?” Minako asked, waiting for Yuuri to respond.

Yuuri nodded.

“How did they let one of their students get such sloppy technique at the Imperial palace?  When I sent you off, you were flawless.”

Ducking his head into an apologetic bow, his hair swinging forward, Yuuri hoped that Minako couldn’t see the blush that he could feel heating up his cheeks.  He didn’t have any response that felt acceptable.

He had left Hasetsu and his parents’ inn for the Imperial school at age eighteen, determined to become a great warrior.  For years, he had spent all of his time working towards that one goal. While it was common—almost mandatory with the frequent raids along the coast—for Yamani children to receive some training, Yuuri had found most of the other children in the village indifferent students at best.  Mari, a few years older than Yuuri, had done enough for their parents to feel that she could look after herself if any problems arose at the inn, and promptly stopped any further training. Yuuri had never been able to comprehend his sisters’ lack of interest. He and Yuuko—a village girl only two years older, and someone who shared his interest—had spent hours practicing holds and throws on each other.  One day, when the village boys had found the two practising, walking in just as Yuuko had managed an impressive maneuver where she had levered Yuuri’s body over her shoulder and knocked him prone on the straw mats of Minako’s training hall, they had been delighted.

“Of course he has to practice with a girl,” one had sneered.  “He’s too small to take on anyone better. And he still can’t best her.”

Yuuko, all politeness forgotten, had turned on her heels, stomping across the room until she was glaring up at the largest boy.

“Try saying that to Minako!  I dare you!” she had said, and then with a fluid grace she had reached out one hand, grabbed the boy, and handily threw him just as easily as she had Yuuri.

When the boys had stormed off, shame-faced, both Yuuri and Yuuko had sworn that they would never reveal just how long it had taken for the two of them to master that move.  But if they were each to get one of the handful of places at the Imperial court to train when they turned eighteen, they would need to be proficient in all types of combat—and so they had both happily put in the time.

A few years later, Yuuko had lost their shared dream, exchanging it for something else, but by that point Yuuri was too enamoured to turn back.  He loved the way practise could tame all of his thoughts, and that he could lose himself to the exhaustion of physical work.  Even at that age, he had been quick to get lost in the tangle of thoughts, fears and insecurities that pricked like thorns; for everyone, the fact that Yuuri would come home from Minako’s that little bit more centered had been a relief.

By the time he was ten, and Minako was finally starting to talk about letting him progress from the solo practices of pattern dances with the glaive to sparring, he had found another reason to want to keep surging forward.  The year before, news had spread throughout the islands of the foreigner—Ilane of Mindelan, the wife of the Tortallan ambassador—who had single-handedly fought off Scanran raiders from a temple.  After the treaty her bravery had secured, tales of the distant land had started to become all the rage; that was the first time he had heard about their knights.

Up until that point, Yuuri had started to have the vague hope of eventually getting to be good enough to go to the Imperial court where the very best could receive the next level of training in combat.  While it was mostly just the children of wealthy families who attended, a chance for them to gain some polish before they took over the duties of protecting their lands, it was open to anyone who had the talent and could find the fees.  Most of Yuuri’s daydreams had involved arriving at the school and being heralded as some sort of savant, despite his family’s modest background, and eventually being able to earn a position with the palace’s elite guards or as the sworn protector of a temple.  But then a guest had come through Hasetsu, staying at his parents’ inn and bringing stories of Tortall from court. He had talked about how the distant land had knights , sworn protectors of the realm who were required to adhere to a code of chivalry.

Yuuri had only half understood what he was hearing, but something about it had lodged inside his heart.  Honour was something he understood well, and it was certainly considered an important lesson to all who wanted to continue to learn martial skills on the islands, but to Yuuri this seemed impossibly romantic.  He craved having a life with that sort of dedication, and had sworn to himself with half-formed images of giants on horseback that he would become a knight.  He might not be able to become one in the same sense, but Yuuri would become the best warrior and would make his own pledge to defend the weak, and to never ignore a cry for help.

“YUURI!” Minako yelled, startling Yuuri out of his memories and causing him to slam the base of the pole against his knee.  “Where were you? You know better! A warrior who allows his mind to wander…”

Yuuri blushed, quickly trying to correct his positioning, Minako’s words drowned out by the usual rising thoughts.   He should know better; he should be better. If he was any kind of warrior, he would never—

Gently, he felt the glaive being pulled from his hands and a hand pushing on his shoulders until he had stepped back out of the fighting stance.  Surprise managed to pull Yuuri out of the familiar loop for now.

“Where were you Yuuri?” Minako asked, her expression intent as if she was searching Yuuri’s face for clues.  “What happened for you to come home?”

Tears burned behind his eyes, and the familiar tug of shame, thick and greasy, threatened to pull him under again.  He tried to make his face impassive—he needed to be like stone. But the emotion kept rising until it threatened to spill over the walls he had been building piece by piece for two years.

Suddenly, Yuuri felt like a rope had been tied around his chest and someone had started to pull the loop closed.  Everything constricted, his vision starting to narrow and grow dim. Vaguely he was aware of the sound of his own breathing, and with each gasp he felt like he was getting less and less air.

Cool fingers gripped Yuri’s face, forcing him to look down, to meet Minako’s gaze.  Somehow the pity that he saw there made it all so much worse. At least when Minako was yelling at him—reminding him to fix the positioning of his feet, to put more power behind a swing, to increase the speed on a thrust—he felt like life was as it had been before; that she didn’t seem him as weak.  Clearly that wasn’t the case.

“It’s okay Yuuri.”

Her voice was low and soft, as if she expected him to break.

Yuuri pulled himself away, fixing his eyes firmly on the smooth paving stones under foot.  Even with trying to will the emotion away to where he had kept it hidden, he could feel a tear snaking its way down the side of his face, tracing the roundness of his cheeks.  He took a breath, his shoulders shaking with the effort, but the next one was a little easier.

Gradually, he was able to claw himself back, though only so that he was back on the precipice.  He could feel the despair and loathing waiting for him, like a black ocean foaming and churning below.

Carefully turning, he tried to gauge Minako’s expression, how disgusted she was at his display of weakness.  She smiled gently at him, her mouth moving to speak but something stopping her. He wondered what it was that she felt she couldn’t say to him.

He bent forward at the waist into a deep bow.

“I’m sorry Minako.  I know a warrior must be like stone, allowing all to roll off them.  I let you down—“

“Yuuri! Even the best warriors are sometimes overcome, by opponents of all types.  You don’t have to be perfect—not here.”

He slowly stood up, nodding at her words though he could feel how hollow they were.  Minako might mean them, but Yuuri knew better.  He knew that there was never a time for him to let his guard down.  Not completely.

“Are you…shall we move on to unarmed combat?”

Yuuri hated how hesitant her words were, though at his nod he could see her expression shifting back to that of the training mistress.

“Good, because I want to see more speed in your snap kicks.  Ready position!”

Mercifully, Minako didn’t hold back for the rest of the training session.  She took Yuuri through his paces, drilling him on different techniques until she was satisfied and his muscles felt like warm honey.  And then, she had him spar with her. Each time he would start to feel the usual fears rise up, she seemed to sense it, and he would be met with a flurry of fists and kicks so that all thoughts but how to defend himself were pushed away.

By the time she sent him on his way back down the mountain, Yuuri had the sort of exhaustion that came from a satisfying workout.  And he actually felt accomplished, like he had achieved something that day, and over the past few weeks. It was enough that as he neared the inn, he went straight to his room and the pile of belongings that he hadn’t bothered to go through since his return from court.  From the pile he pulled free a long lacquered box.

Although he knew he was all alone, he still couldn’t help the habit of checking to make sure the room was otherwise empty.  He flipped the latches on the box, lifting the lid. Nestled into a velvet padding was the single most precious item Yuuri owned.

He had always loved the finesse of swordwork, but after he’d had the chance to go to Tortall and see what the knights there were capable of, he had become obsessed.  After the first tournament, and the first time he had seen the silver knight slicing his great sword through the air like it was a part of his body, like he was wielding light and fury, Yuuri had sought out one of the Yamani armourers that was a part of their group.  It had taken all of the money Yuuri had saved, but he had bought himself one of the blades; it wasn’t the same as what the knights had been using, but Yuuri had loved it all the same.

Because the glaive was usually considered the superior weapon, swords having fallen out of favour with the Emperor and his court sometime before, Yuuri had only ever been given a cursory instruction.  That hadn’t stopped him from sneaking free of the tent he and Phichit had shared so that he could wander out past the encampment until he had found a space in the dark where he could practice. Really, it was less practicing than just trying to mimic the movements he had seen that afternoon, but it had left him feeling exhilarated.

Night after night, whenever he wasn’t required to be in attendance for some function, he would find some space to work.  He had kept it up for months, until…

Yuuri closed the lid, just as he tried to close off the memories.  He rose to his feet and started to make his way towards where his family would be eating.  It was late and they were likely wondering where he was.

As he let himself into the room, quickly kneeling at the table and thanking his mother as she put a bowl of rice and pork cutlet in front of him, he couldn’t help but think about his sword.

Maybe after supper, he would return to the training hall—Minako had never minded when he used the space at all hours to practice—and try to work through some paces with his sword.



Chapter Text

Somehow Viktor managed to survive the voyage, though it had felt a little touch and go at times.  The sickness had faded somewhat as he had adjusted to life at sea, enough that he was able to make a start on Yuri’s training.

Slowly a routine had developed between the two of them.  The brat was usually the first of them up, and so Viktor would wake up to Yuri’s cursing and stomping, quickly followed by a visit to the hold where Makkachin and Potya were kept.  Meals were always quick, and for Viktor they tended to be bland and simple in case the seas turned rough, and the rest of the time was spent doing what training could be managed with the limited space.

At first the constantly swaying surface had been a challenge for Viktor, but of all the challenges at sea he had adjusted to that most quickly—at least when there was a sword in his hand.  By the time they arrived in the Yamani Islands, Viktor had grown to appreciate the challenge to his footwork and balance. He had also been pleased to see how Yuri had adjusted. While the boy’s frame was still a bit slender and short for anything approaching an even match, Viktor was impressed with the speed and assurance of Yuri’s movements.  When the boy moved to strike it was with total focus and an absolute commitment. Viktor had half a mind to put Yuri into the tournaments right away; at the very least, it would be a necessary check to the boy’s almost reckless confidence.

Once the sun had dipped below the horizon, evenings tended to be spent with the other knights.  At first, Viktor had tried to conduct evening lessons—talking about strategy, or tactics, or supply chains.  During Viktor’s own days as a squire, Yakov had always insisted that evenings were for trying to drill book lessons into the dense skulls of stubborn squires, but Viktor had quickly learned that in the time that had passed since his own days as a page, the breadth of lessons had extended to cover a great many more subjects--there was little he could add to what Yuri had already been taught.  So instead, they would sit in the small galley; Yuri always seemed to gravitate towards the quiet Otabek, though neither actually spoke much to the other. Some nights Viktor would sit with Chris, the two catching up on all they had missed in the two years since the tournaments, but often Viktor would pull out a glowstone and read.

It was this routine, as simple as it was, that softened the nightly return of the visions.  It allowed his mind to rest during the day, or at least feel like he was doing something about his task.  The routine also gave him a distraction from what was coming to be the most painful part of the visions. Viktor was no stranger to death and destruction; it had been a long time since he’d had to go throw up after a battle, and while the chamber made sure that he felt the loss every time, Viktor had long ago developed the capacity to live with loss.  But it was that fiercely determined face, and the intense surge of emotion that Viktor felt every time he saw it, that Viktor couldn’t adjust to.

All he could do was helplessly devour the sight, each night noticing a new detail—the fullness of the man’s lips, the way hair drifted across his forehead, the depth to his brown eyes—feeling more and more like this person, this man, was somehow the most important person in the world.  And each morning, when he awoke, Viktor felt shattered by how desperately he needed to find him.

For so many years, Viktor had told himself that he didn’t need anyone.  He’d allowed a small group into his life—Yakov, Christophe, and now Yuri—but Viktor had always steeled himself for the possibility that they would leave him, keeping back a bit of himself.  The way he needed this man, without ever having met him, terrified Viktor to his core, but he was helpless to do anything but follow the chamber’s clues and look.

At long last the ship docked in the Imperial city, and it was time for Viktor and Yuri to ride out to where the first of the encampments of the royal progress would be.

The encampment was to be just beyond the city—one of the Imperial stewards who’d come aboard to greet them had assured the foreign guests that it would be no more than a half hour ride—but it appeared that no one had taken into account the crush of visitors to the city.  After twenty minutes of trying to follow their local guide out of the city, the ship was still in easy view. Viktor had half a mind to just get off his horse and walk the beast until they had moved beyond the congested dockyards; certainly that wouldn’t be any slower.

Corus, as the capital of Tortall and the seat of the monarchy, was a large city, but it was nothing compared to this.  There was the sort of hum that only came from the organized chaos of so many people living in close proximity. If Viktor could have described the one sort of place worse than being at sea, this would be it.  While it would still be winter in Tortall, the weather here seemed to be some sort of fusion between the sticky humidity of summer and the chill wind of early winter. Viktor thought longingly of his room at the mountain garrison.  He craved the crisp freshness of the mountain air, and the merciful quiet—when he’d been out on patrols or hunting, he would sometimes go whole days without talking to anyone.

His squire, on the other hand, seemed to be drinking in the city with an enthusiasm Viktor had only seen reserved for cursing and his cat.

As they continued along a street that seemed to be all stalls, a long stretch of colours and smells with all sorts of items on display, Viktor heard a gasp from somewhere behind him.  He turned in the saddle to where Yuri’s horse had stopped short, the boy’s face fixed on one stall in particular.

“Wha—Mithros!  That’s great fashion!” Yuri exclaimed with a sort of childish delight that Viktor wouldn’t have thought the boy was capable of.

The stall in question sold a range of shirts and tunics, all of them painted with bold prints.  Most of the prints were motifs of flowers or leaves, but Viktor could see one tunic in black decorated with golden snarling cats.

Of course that would be the one , he thought with a shake of his head, though he did try to make note of where the stall was.  Once they were settled he might come back later.

A gap in the crowd opened up, and they surged forward.  It was slow work, but eventually the throng started to thin and Viktor realized that they had actually reached the edge of the city.  From there on, the ride was a quick one, and Viktor finally felt himself loosening up.

Without the crush and bustle, Viktor was able to get his first proper look at the country they would be traveling through.  In some ways it reminded him a lot of home. This area seemed to be mostly mountains—fewer trees than he was used to,but it was enough to ease some of the first feelings of being adrift.  Even so, it was with great relief that he finally started to see the peaks of tents, the rise of their poles and canvas like a mimicry of the harbour they had only just left.

Viktor slowed his horse to a walk as they reached the outskirts, starting to think through what would need to come next.  The obvious first task was to find the tents assigned to him and Yuri, followed closely with seeing to the horses—a task for his squire he decided—and after weeks at sea Makkachin could do with a run.  He would also have to find out what the schedule for banquets and tournaments was to be. Threaded throughout that list though was his quest, like some hard to reach itch.

But that was easier said than done, Viktor realized as he swung down from the saddle, and led the horse towards what appeared to be a makeshift stable.  For all the time he’d had to think about his quest, he still didn’t have the faintest idea how to begin.

“Yura, make sure both horses get a good rubdown.  And the tack should get a good clean—the salt air can’t have done it any good,” he said as he handed over the reins.

Blonde hair falling in front of his face, Yuri’s expression looked stormy.

“Beka was going to show me how to get more momentum—” the squire started before Viktor cut him off.

“Otabek will be looking after his own mount.  I’m sure he won’t have a problem waiting for you to finish your chores.” Viktor’s voice was calm and even, but he had to bite back a smile.  He wasn’t trying to rile the boy, but he couldn’t deny that it was entertaining to see how long Yuri could hold back his curses.

With a mumble that sounded an awful lot like ‘asshole’, Yuri led the horses into the stable, leaving Viktor and Makkachin outside.  Looking down into the happy gaze of his dog, Viktor couldn’t help but respond to her pleading expression, reaching forward to scratch her behind her floppy ears.  The dog made a noise of approval, body shaking with the happy wag of her tail. Viktor wished everything could be so easy.

“He’s probably going to cut up all my clothes, isn’t he Makka?” Viktor asked the dog, who by now had shut her eyes and was leaning into the scratches.  “Or he’s going to let that fur ball throw up in my bed.”

“I can hear you!” Yuri’s bellow carried out through the flaps of the tent.  “And don’t think I won’t!”

Viktor couldn’t help the laugh that burst forward as he started to walk, the dog bounding along beside him.  Soon he was standing in front of his tent, pushing aside the heavy flap, and making a quick appraisal. It wasn’t much more than a cot, a table, and a couple of chairs, but it would be fine. They would be moving frequently enough that anything more permanent wasn’t feasible, and at least there might be some locations that would arrange for guests to be billeted in inns along the way.

For weeks, he had been telling himself that it was just a matter of reaching port; that once he’d arrived he would know what to do, how to appease the chamber.  But now that he was actually on Yamani soil, Viktor was starting to realize just how vast this task would be. He didn’t even know what the next step was.

Viktor flung himself down onto the cot, the bed creaking and shaking with the sudden weight. Makkachin was quick to  join him, her fuzzy body warm along his side and her doggy breath damp against his neck.

“I think we’re just going to have to wait, Makka,” he whispered.  “Wait and hope that I get some idea of what I need to do.”



Chapter Text

The inside of the stables was a little dim, but it smelled pleasantly of horses; leather, hay, and sweat.  Towards the end of the aisle, Yuri could see two empty stalls with signs identifying them as being for his and Viktor’s horses.  Quickly he walked the horses down, first leading his chestnut gelding, Psycho, into one stall, and then Viktor’s silvery stallion, Socks, into the other.

Soon he had stripped both horses of their saddles and tack, and was halfway through giving Psycho his rubdown.  With Potya twining between his and the horse’s feet, and the warm sleepy feel of the stables, Yuri was about as close to happy as he could get.

He would rather die than admit it to Viktor, but he actually enjoyed the chores that related to the horses.  The horses’ needs were simple, and they were usually happy to see him; he was even starting to come to an understanding with the high-strung stallion.  Yuri suspected that there was probably some lesson to be learned there, but he’d much rather just enjoy the chance to escape, and not think too hard about it.

“All done,” he said to his horse, giving it a final pat to the withers.

He let himself out of the stall, making sure that Potya had followed him out, and then slipped into the other.

Eyeing up Socks— a stupid name , he had thought when Viktor had first introduced him to the horse, but it wasn’t the horse’s fault—Yuri reached into his pocket for the apple he had kept from their rushed breakfast back on the boat.

“Are we going to have a problem today?” Yuri asked, his voice icy and making it clear to the horse that there would be no treats if he got bitten again.

The stallion glared at him, but either the apple or just finally being off the ship seemed to do the trick, and he could feel the horse relax.  Yuri held out the apple, the horse delicately lipping it out of his hand, and started to brush the horse’s coat.

“Of course that moron would somehow have a horse to match himself,” Yuri muttered.  “Do you know he takes longer to do his hair than it takes to brush both of you?”

The horse didn’t make any indication of understanding, or caring, but Yuri liked to imagine that even Socks thought that was a bit much.

“And why would he name you Socks?  You don’t have socks!”

When Yuri had tried to ask Viktor about it, the knight had just shrugged, saying he wasn’t the one who had chosen the name.  Yuri, however, was convinced that it must have been Viktor, and that it was further evidence of what a flake the knight was.

The sound of talking and heavy footsteps pulled Yuri out of his thoughts, and he stepped back towards the stall door to see who was there.  Part of him hoped it might be Otabek. Of all the knights who’d been with them on the ship, Otabek was the least awful. There was something about how somber the man was that appealed to Yuri.  Otabek didn’t feel the need to fill space with empty conversations, and when he did speak, he had a way of treating Yuri like they were equals.

Sadly there was no sign of Otabek, or any of the others--the stables were still as empty of any humans as when he’d entered.  With a shrug. he turned back to Socks.

“We getting supplies tonight?”

This time Yuri startled at the voices, his jerk enough to make Socks grumble and give him a stink eye.  Yuri frowned back at the horse before trying to figure out where the words were coming from, particularly since he could now actually make out what was being said.

“No,” the second voice replied, the word short and clipped.  “He said not to start until the progress had started to move.  It’s too near the palace. Don’t want any blowback.”

Yuri stepped around the back of the horse, walking to the outside wall in hopes of figuring out what the men were talking about.  There was something about the voices that wasn’t quite familiar, but seemed to stand out as something he should know. It wasn’t until the first voice grumbled some low response that Yuri realized what it was.  The men weren’t speaking Common.

In the area of the encampment reserved for the Tortallan guests, Yuri would have expected to hear exclusively Common with maybe a smattering of the unintelligible Yamani, but he couldn’t figure out why anyone would be speaking Scanran.

Few people in Tortall knew it, Common being used most everywhere.  It was only recently, the raiding parties of the Northern land having started to coalesce into an army, that any of the Tortallan nobles had bothered to learn even basic phrases.  The only reason Yuri was able to recognize and understand it was because of his grandfather. His mother, in an attempt to make herself less like the barbarian the Tortallans thought her, had insisted that they only ever speak Common, but sitting in front of his grandfather’s fireplace and listening to elaborate stories that were spun just for him, Yuri had picked up the language.

What were Scanrans doing here? Yuri wondered, pressing his ear to the heavy canvas that made up the wall in an effort to hear more.  But despite holding his breath and trying to minimize any sounds he was making, he couldn’t hear anything beyond the crunch of boots.

A nudge between his shoulder blades reminded Yuri where he was, and that he still had to finish up with the horses.  Quickly, he finished grooming Socks, made sure both horses had fresh grain and water, and slipped out of the stable.

Working his way through the maze of tents, trying to find where their billet was, Yuri soon found the mystery of what he’d overheard pushed to the side in favour of mounting irritation.  All of the tents looked the same, and with Viktor having just left him at the stables, Yuri had no clue where to go.  He just knew that somewhere around here, his lazy teacher was probably busy either reading that damn book of his or flirting with that other idiot, Christophe.

“VIKTOR!” Yuri bellowed, hoping that he was at least close enough that the jerk would be able to hear him and come out.  Yuri damned his fair colouring, sure that his face was going red even as he tried to ignore the odd looks.

Potya leapt up lightly to Yuri’s shoulder, draping himself around the boy’s neck.

Yuri glared at the cat, who just blinked lazily.

“Couldn’t you help? You should be able to find that flea-infested slobber-monster that Viktor calls a dog.”

Potya’s response was just to shut his eyes, purring into Yuri’s neck.  Yuri shook his head, trying to hold on to his indignation. It was easier once he started walking again, calling out for Viktor and still having no luck.

At long last, after Yuri had been walking for ten minutes, an old man—someone Yuri recognized vaguely as another of the knights from their ship—stuck his head out of a doorway.

“Oh, are you looking for Viktor?”

Yuri had to bite back a snarl, instead settling for a tight nod.  The man just smiled with the sort of bemused expression that made Yuri’s rage soar even higher.

“Viktor—and I guess you as well, lad—are two rows over to the south.  You should find the tents towards the end of the line.”

Without even bothering to thank the man, Yuri stormed off to find the tent.  A few minutes walk later he found the two tents with the Stonemountain device displayed out front.  Peering into the first of the tents he saw Viktor stretched out on the cot inside taking a nap.

For the briefest of moments, Yuri felt a flash of sympathy.  After sharing a cabin with the man for weeks, Yuri was well aware that Viktor was unable to sleep through the night.  Every night, at some point, Viktor always seemed to wake up with wild eyes and a sheen of sweat on his face, though you wouldn’t have known it to see him any other time.  Still, Yuri thought as he scrambled back to the easiness of his anger, Viktor had left him.  With the size of the encampment it could have taken him ages to find the tent, and Viktor clearly hadn’t been too worried about whether Yuri just wanted to get settled.

Briefly Yuri considered storming in, maybe kicking over the cot, but instead he walked quietly backed away from the tent, heading into the second tent.  Rummaging through one of the packs that had been delivered while he was seeing to the horses, Yuri found a small packet of incense. He knelt on the ground and started to pray to Mithros that Viktor would wake up bald.



Chapter Text

With the last dregs of daylight, Viktor woke up.  It was the sort of gradual return to consciousness that he hadn’t experienced since the chamber had started to send him dreams.

Sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he heard the creak of the flimsy frame and was immediately confronted with the washed out blue of canvas walls surrounding him; it took Viktor a moment to remind himself where he was.  He glanced towards the door of the tent, where the flap was still pulled to the side and he could just make out the start of sunset over the roofs and poles of the tents opposite.

“Shit!”

He surged to his feet, knocking Makkachin onto the ground.  The dog gave him an indignant look before quickly claiming the spot he had just vacated.  Viktor could only mutter a quick apology as he rushed over to the table that held a pitcher and basin, praying to the goddess that there was water there. Finding it full, Viktor uttered a quick word of thanks before filling the bowl.

After travelling for so long, all Viktor wanted was a proper bath.  With space so tight on board the ship, not to mention the need to conserve water, the closest he had been able to manage at sea either involved a quick wipe down with a washcloth, or sea water.  In Mindelan’s book he had seen something about bath houses being common enough throughout the islands, and Viktor had planned to ride back to the city to seek one out before the banquet that night.  But that plan had not included falling asleep--for hours, if the light was anything to go by.

Quickly Viktor splashed some water on his face and grabbed a washcloth that had been left out with the basin, doing his best to scrub away what grime he could.  Then he was diving into his pack, seeking out something that would be suitable to wear. Most of his clothes were in need of a wash—another task he had meant to see to—but at least there had been little call for anything formal aboard the boat.  In short order he found a tunic in the icy blue of Stonemountain and a pair of hose, though as far as the shirts were concerned it was to be a matter of choosing whatever looked and smelled cleanest. He could only hope that Yuri was already dressed and ready…

Oh for Mithros’ sake, Viktor thought, dropping his face into his hands.  He had planned on going back to the stables after he’d found the tents—Yuri wouldn’t have known where to go after seeing to the horses.

Viktor had known he was going to mess this whole squire training ordeal up.  He could only hope that someone had helped the boy out.

It’s not like there aren’t camp staff all around, or other knights who would know where to get answers, Viktor guiltily reassured himself as he threw on the fresh clothes.  Really, the boy was fifteen, and was always going on about how he’s an adult.

Still, none of that changed the fact that Viktor had forgotten the teenager in his care, and on their first day on foreign soil.  He might not know much about Yuri’s home life, but he suspected that it was similar enough to his own childhood that Viktor’s lapse might be a big deal.

At long last he had his fussy clothing on, and was able to dart out into the deepening shadows.  Frantically he glanced to either side, noting the lack of people.

Everyone must already be on their way to the banquet, he thought .

“Idiot, what took you so long?”

Viktor had never been so happy to hear such a surly greeting.

He whipped around to find his petite blonde squire glowering at him from beneath a curtain of hair, his arms folded across the Stonemountain blue tunic that matched Viktor’s own.

“Yuri!”

“Yeah?”

“You found our tents okay?!”

The teenager rolled his eyes like it was no big deal, but Viktor could recognize the tightness in Yuri’s frame that said it wasn’t okay.

“Hours ago, old man.  I was starting to wonder if you’d died in there.”

Viktor smiled apologetically, waving in what he assumed was the vague direction of the tent arranged for the evening’s banquet.

“I didn’t mean to fall asleep, you should have woken me.”

Again there was that eye roll, though the tension seemed to be leaving Yuri’s body.

As they walked, Viktor realized how late it had grown.  There was almost no one moving amongst the tents; Viktor was sure that he was going to get more than an earful from the master of ceremonies for arriving so late.  He could only hope that their seats would be at some table near the edge where they could slip in unnoticed.

Viktor couldn’t help the sigh that escaped him.  Christophe was never going to let him live this down.

What certainly didn’t help was that the camp was an absolute rabbit warren.  It was a dense network of streets and small alleys formed by the rows of tents.  While they had clearly chosen the best site they could, the terrain was steep, so that Viktor and Yuri were having to hurry up hill.  Viktor could only be grateful he wasn’t having to make the dash in his heavy plate armour.

Rounding the corner of one tent into what they assumed had to be the main avenue—Yuri had claimed that he recognized the deep purple of the tents from when he’d walked back from the stables—Viktor found himself slamming into the very solid body of another person.

Off balance, it was only luck and the reflexes of a lifetime of sword fighting that kept Viktor upright.  The person Viktor had run into didn’t fare so well. The man, only slightly taller than Yuri and with none of the teen’s muscle, was splayed out on the grass.

“Sorry,” Viktor said, reaching one hand forward to help the other man up.

Instead, with an expression like ice, the man slowly pushed himself back up to his feet.  Carefully he checked the long robe that he wore, clearly looking to see what damage Viktor had done to his finery.

“I don’t see any stains or tears,” Viktor offered in what he hoped was a conciliatory tone, quickly adding, “Though of course if any repairs are needed, you must send the bill to me.”

The man still didn’t say anything.  His gaze seemed to shift constantly between the Stonemountain device on the shoulder of Viktor’s tunic and Viktor’s face.  Briefly, Viktor wondered if the man even spoke Common. The man’s almost white-blonde colouring, so similar to Yuri and Viktor, was enough for Viktor to have assumed that the man was part of the Tortallan envoy, but as Viktor waited for the man to speak he realized that the man was wearing one of the robes favoured by the Yamani.

Please goddess, let me not have started a diplomatic incident on my first night here.

Despite his uncertainty, Viktor couldn’t just walk away.  He had always tried to live up to the code of chivalry, and with Yuri still standing just off to the side Viktor felt the need to behave was even more pressing.

“If anything is required, I am Sir Viktor of Stonemountain,” he said.  The taste of those words still felt bitter in his mouth; for years he had lived unclaimed by his extended family, using the last name of his peasant-born Scanra father, but when dealing with delicate situations Viktor had realized that it was easier not to have to explain why he would rather just be plain Viktor Nikiforov.

At the sound of Viktor’s name, the man’s expression seemed to drop several degrees in coldness.

“I know who you are,” the man said finally, before stalking off.

All Viktor could do was look after him in confusion.

“What did you do to him?  Other than getting your klutzy ass in his way,” Yuri said.

A quick glance down at Yuri’s face, and Viktor could see that the little bastard had the gall to laugh.  At least that was better than the combination of anger and hurt that had been there before.

“Never seen him before,” was Viktor’s thoughtful response as he watched the retreating figure turn off down one of the tent-lined streets.

That sort of reaction wasn’t actually uncommon for him.  There were so many people that thought that they knew Viktor Nikiforov, having heard all of the stories and made him into whatever monster suited them most.

He let out a heavy breath, trying to remind himself that there was nothing further he could do.  Right now, there was the more pressing need to find the damn banquet.

“Come on, Yura,” he said quietly.  “That looks like the tent right there.”

 

***

 

As Viktor feared, the banquet was well underway by the time he and Yuri slipped inside the vast tent.  One of the stewards frowned at him, rushing over.

“You’re late,” the man hissed, gesturing to where all of the other guests appeared to be into the second course at least.

Telling himself that he was definitely going to need to find that stall near the harbour to get Yuri the damn cat print tunic, Viktor tried to shrug off the steward’s grim expression like it was nothing to him.

“I got caught up seeing to my squire—a matter of training.”

While that didn’t make the fusty man happy, at least it shut down whatever further complaints he seemed ready to give.  The squire in question, however, was currently looking at Viktor like he was going to set fire to the tent while Viktor slept.

“I’m sorry,” he mouthed when the steward’s back was turned.

The one small moment of luck was that the table assigned to them was indeed near to the edge.  Braziers had been placed around the room, as well as a great number of the paper lanterns the Yamanis seemed to favour, but the inside of the tent was still dim enough that Viktor and Yuri were able to slip into their seats with only a few people noticing.

One of those people, of course, was Christophe, who arched one eyebrow.

“Late, Nikiforov, tsk tsk.”

“The old man didn’t wake up from his nap until everyone had already gone,” Yuri chipped in with a vicious look that made it clear this was his revenge for Viktor’s comment to the steward.

Chris’s laugh was hearty and unrestrained, causing a few people from nearby tables to glance over.

“Finally starting to slow down?  Are the rest of us going to have a chance at winning in the tournaments this time?”

Another one of the knights seated at their table, a dark-haired youth who looked as though he had only just earned his shield, leaned forward with a sneer on his sharp features.

“Speak for yourself, Chris.  I fully intend to be the undisputed champion of this progress.”

Yuri’s look was coldly assessing, and Viktor was equally amused and afraid wondering what was going to come out of the squire’s mouth.  Before the boy could start anything resembling a challenge that would have to be settled in the lists, Viktor smiled at the knight, though he knew his expression looked cold.

“JJ, I look forward to the opportunity to face you,” Viktor said raising his glass.

Poor JJ seemed confused between the genial words and the iciness of Viktor’s voice.  Viktor thought of it as his classic defence; when in doubt keep them off balance, and if all else has failed, don’t let them think that anything could land.

As plates from the previous course were cleared away and the next one brought in, the general flow of conversation resumed.  Yuri, seated between Viktor and Chris, just dug into the plate of roasted fowl in some sort of pepper gravy, content to ignore the two of them.  Viktor found himself pulled into speculation about what entertainments could be expected, and what manner of tournaments and demonstrations of skill the Yamanis might provide.

The knight seated beside Viktor, Mickey, was nice enough, though much like the others he was barely past his ordeal and made Viktor feel old.  Most of the lad’s conversation revolved around a twin sister that was still in Tortall. When Mickey described Sara—how she had joined the Queen’s Riders, was the most amazing rider, and only second to Queen Thayet for sheer ferocity—Viktor noticed that the other man’s violet eyes almost seemed to glow.

“That does sound like Sara is quite accomplished, Mickey,” Viktor said politely.  He had to avoid making eye contact with Chris to restrain the laugh that threatened to come out.  Desperately, Viktor tried to think of some other topic. “What about sights? Do you think we will have a chance to see any of the temples dedicated to Yama?”

Mickey’s expression was blank and uncomprehending.  He merely shrugged his broad shoulders before turning to talk to the person seated on his other side.

“Who is Yama?”

Viktor glanced over in surprise to see Yuri looking at him, an expression of interest on the boy’s face.  Behind the squire, Viktor could see a mirror of his own shock on Chris’s face.

“Yama is the patron goddess of the Yamani Islands,” Viktor quickly replied.  “They believe that she created the islands.”

“Oh,” Yuri said slowly, a frown working its way across his face.  “I had thought maybe it would be something more interesting.”

“Like what, Yura?  No wait, let me guess, it isn’t bloodthirsty enough?”

A small smile lurked around the corners of the squire’s mouth, though he appeared quick to rein it in.

“Maybe.”

“What if I was to tell you that the temples to Yama are supposed to rival the Imperial palace?  And that each temple has its own order of elite guards, hand chosen to protect the treasures within?”

Yuri shrugged, the perfect picture of indifference, but the fact that he still appeared to be listening was enough to show his interest.

“You know that it’s because of the temples that the treaty between Tortall and the Yamani Islands exists at all, right?  Scanra raiders were about to sack one of the great temples when the Lady Ilane of Mindelan held them back, armed only with a Yamani glaive.”

At the mention of the raiders, a curious look crossed Yuri’s face, but in an instant he was back to his habitual expression of boredom.

“Do Scanrans come to the islands often?” Yuri asked.

It was Chris who jumped in, answering Yuri.  “Yes and no. I think that raids are frequent, but people from Scanra aren’t likely to come for a visit or for trade.”

“That’s changing,” JJ cut in.

The three looked over to the other knight.  JJ all but preened at being the source of some previously unknown information.

“While I was a squire, the knight I served with frequently had us joining the Riders for various tasks—it gave me the chance to hear a lot about what has been happening to the North… our North.”

“Yes, yes, we get it, you’re connected. What did you hear?” Chris said peevishly.

JJ sat back, his smile dimming, and Viktor thought for a moment that he wouldn’t continue.  But he did finally say, “Rumour had it that Scanra was reaching out to different countries, that their new king was trying to create treaties of his own.”

“But they’re at war with us, Yuri snarled.  “They can’t make treaties with our allies while we’re fighting.  Can they?”

The last was directed towards Viktor.  Viktor could only shrug as he tried to think through this piece of information.  Maybe it was a first step towards Scanra and Tortall eventually being able to find some peace, but it was more likely that it was an attempt to isolate Tortall.  Whatever the case, it was certainly not going to improve relations along their northern border for some time.

As servers brought out another course—this one some sort of game encased in golden pastry—Viktor caught movement up near the high table, another person who had apparently arrived late trying to sneak in unobtrusively. This person was not so lucky as Viktor and Yuri.  Where the lighting was softer and more spare towards the outer edges, someone had clearly gone to great effort to make sure that anyone would be able to see the high table clearly. It made it easy for Viktor to recognize the man as the one from just outside the tent.

Idly, Viktor mused over who the man might be that he was sliding into a seat only a few spaces down from the emperor himself.  Even Prince Roald and his Yamani bride—arguably the guests of honour and the purpose of the whole progress—were a little further away.  But from the way the man’s eyes darted about, and the other guests ignored his presence, he must be a recent addition to the emperor’s inner circle, and an unwelcome one at that.

There was also the other question of why the man had been headed away from the banquet earlier, and what had kept him quite so long.

As if sensing Viktor’s attention, the man looked up from his dinner, the same glare from outside present.  If Viktor had been anyone else, he might have looked away hurriedly, but as it was he made sure that their eyes met before he turned away as if he was responding to something Chris had just said.  Without knowing anything about the man, Viktor’s instincts screamed that there was something off and that he needed to watch himself.

“A friend?” Chris asked, glancing over towards where the man was still frowning at Viktor.  Even from their spot so far away, it was plain to see that the man’s fingers were clenched around the stem of his glass.

“Viktor hit him,” Yuri chipped in.

“I didn’t hit him.”  Viktor was starting to feel less and less guilty about not collecting the boy earlier from the stable.  In fact, the idea of losing him again held a certain appeal.

Yuri’s grin was savage.  “No, you ran into him. Like a klutz.  Looks like he hates you.”

Chris was chortling, apparently delighted by Yuri when he wasn’t on the receiving end of the squire’s sharp tongue.  Viktor could only sigh.

What have I done , he asked the goddess, that I should be saddled with people like this?

Eventually the meal concluded, and they were able to head back towards their tents.  Even with the rest he had gotten that afternoon, Viktor’s head felt heavy with exhaustion, and all he wanted was to lie down.

When he was finally back in his tent, it was all he could do to strip out of his clothes from the banquet before he dropped down onto the cot.  Makkachin, who had gone to investigate the items flung to the floor, padded over to give his face a quick lick, her expression pleading for scratches.

“Sorry,” Viktor mumbled, his eyes already drifting shut.  “Tomorrow. All the cuddles you want.”

Already he could feel himself being pulled into the soft blankness of sleep, his body growing heavy until it just melted away.  That was when the dreams came.

Viktor had hoped that his vision free nap of that afternoon had been a sign the chamber understood he was where he needed to be, but apparently it had only been a temporary reprieve.  If anything, now that he was in the islands the visions took on a vividness that had been lacking before, and new sights and sensations were added to the ones he knew.

The first image to flash before him was the face of the man from the banquet.  His expression was much the same as the one he’d directed at Viktor that evening, but there was also an added aura of triumph and haughtiness.  Viktor watched as the man lifted one hand, an acid green fire twining around his skeletal fingers. Reaching forward, the man grabbed Viktor’s arm and he felt it like a brand, the fingers searing into his flesh and sending shock waves of agony up through the limb.

Before Viktor could even cry out, the vision shifted and he was seeing a mound of bodies.  They had been flung into a pile in a careless fashion, like they were little more than broken toys, though the smell of rot and blood filled Viktor’s head and caught at the back of his throat.

It was almost a relief to return to the familiar image of the burning buildings, though even this was subtly changed.  Where before he’d seen just enough detail to know that the delicate walls and heavy beams were unlike anything found in Tortall, he now had a sense of the place.  It was large—vast—and with the sort of careful refinement that spoke of money. As Viktor helplessly watched the flames lick up the paper walls, smoke pouring off the building, the air acrid, he had the bone deep knowledge that there was something deeply wrong about this, something that spoke of sacrilege.

Viktor tried to brace himself for the scene to shift to the face that had become so familiar to him, but it didn’t happen.  Instead, he heard something to the side, words spoken though he couldn't say what they were. The face—the man—was standing beside Viktor, his expression mirroring everything Viktor was feeling about the fire.  And then, the man was racing forward, into the inferno, and all Viktor could do was look on helplessly as he tried to will himself to run after the man, to stop him, to help him.

When Viktor awoke, he could still feel the heat of the blaze, his throat still raw from the smoke.  Makkachin who must have heard him thrashing in his sleep, had woken up. It was only as she carefully licked his cheeks that he realized they were damp with tears.  Forcing himself up, he took a shaky breath and allowed himself to sink his fingers into her fur, trying to let her steady heartbeat calm his own.

Finally, his legs felt steady enough to walk over to the pitcher and pour himself a glass of water.  After he had topped off Makkachin’s water bowl as well, he pulled out a glow stone and a book on Immortal Morphology—something Yakov had been telling him to read for ages—and settled himself in for a long night.



Chapter Text

News that the Imperial progress would eventually be within a couple hours ride of Hasetsu had been all people at Yutopia Katsuki could talk about.  Everyone, from the visitors traveling through to go see the tournaments, to the villagers, to his family wanted to speculate about what entertainment the Emperor would provide, what the foreign knights would be like, and whether it would be possible to catch a glimpse of the Princess Shinkokami and her new husband.  Whenever the discussions started up, Yuuri usually found a reason to be somewhere else; he would go out to the hot springs that were adjacent to the inn, to Minako’s to practice, or even just to wander the mountains. Somehow, the conversations still found him.

Much to his horror, Yuuri discovered that he was considered something of a local expert on the topic of Tortall.

“Who do you think will be part of the Tortallan party?” Minako had wanted to know.

“Do you think the Lioness will come?” Mari had asked with eyes alight.

Even with responses that consisted of little more than yes, no, and shrugs, Yuuri still found himself pressed for information.  After the date of the first tournament was announced, suddenly it wasn’t just questions, it was urging.

“You’ll go to compete, right?” Yuuko had said when she’d caught Yuuri on his morning run to Minako’s.

He had felt his face flush, and he’d shrugged, hoping that Yuuko would just drop it.

Instead she had smiled, saying, “We would all enjoy seeing you fight, Yuuri.  It was so exciting when you went off to the school, everyone was so proud…it would be fun to have the chance to cheer you on.”

Yuuri felt as though every muscle in his body had fossilized, and any sort of movement would leave him shattered into a million pieces on the side of the mountain.  All he could do was listen and wish himself anywhere else.

When Yuuko had finally left and enough numbness had fled that he could move, he made it only so far as one of the boulders that was along the path.  Legs shaking, he had to sit down as he tried to will his heartbeat to stop racing. He shut his eyes against the piercing morning light, wondering if it was possible for him to just slink back to his room and disappear into his bed for the rest of the day, or maybe even the next few weeks…until the progress had moved on, and people might return to just leaving him alone.

But shame quickly settled over Yuuri, its presence like a familiar blanket.  It was one thing for him to know he had this weakness, but it was another to have everyone see it quite so clearly.  His parents had worked hard for Yuuri to be able to attend the Imperial school, and he still hadn’t found a way to explain to them that it had all been a waste.  That he was a waste.

The shame felt hot and sickly, but it was enough to drive him to his feet so he could finish his run and push through his training.

For days Yuuri seemed to exist in that cycle, caught between wanting to just find some numb peace and the quest for some sort of redemption.  It took Minako finally finding him in the grey hours of the morning, dripping with sweat and muscles about to give out after having pushed himself all night, to bring him some clarity.  For the first time ever, Minako had kicked Yuuri out of the hall and told him not to come back for at least one whole day. With the sun starting to rise, Yuuri had walked back down to the inn, wondering what he would do without the oblivion and exhaustion of training.  Sleep wasn’t an option; his mind was moving too fast for that.

As he turned the last bend in the path, the inn rising up in front of him, Yuuri wasn’t any closer to deciding what to do.  And by the time he was near enough for his sister to catch sight of him from where she sat under the large rowan tree in the yard, Yuuri had resigned himself to the idea of family breakfast.

“What have you been up to?” Mari asked, raising one hand to her eyes to block out the sun as she looked up.

Yuuri shrugged, hoping that she wouldn’t notice the fresh blisters on his palms, or how rumpled his clothes were from the hours of training.

“At Minako’s?” Mari persisted.

As Yuuri neared her, he could see the way her eyes were narrowed, clearly taking in every detail of his appearance.  There were times he wished his sister wasn’t so perceptive.

Instead of responding, Yuuri just sat down on the grass beside her, resting his back against the rough bark.  His abused muscles protested a bit sitting on the cool ground, but the discomfort was quickly followed by the heady relief of just being still.  With the sun warm on his face, if he shut his eyes he might just be able to forget everything.

“So does that mean you are going to fight in the tournaments?”

Mari’s words cut through what little peace he had found.  Suddenly the sunshine felt too bright, the chill of the ground seeping up through his legs until his whole body felt frozen through.

“Yuuri?” Mari persisted.  “Are you going?”

Yuuri took one slow breath, and then another, as he tried to pull together a response.

Finally, he just shrugged.  “I don’t know. Do you think I should?”

Mari twisted around so that she was facing Yuuri, her expression unexpectedly intense.

“Of course!  It was all you wanted to do for so long!  Why wouldn’t you want to try and earn glory for our islands?  For Hasetsu?”

Yuuri nodded, his face blank, though he could feel his breath starting to catch in his chest.  It took a concerted effort to keep his breathing silent, for his struggle not to become obvious.

“And if I failed?” was all he could manage to speak.

He kept his attention on the grass in front of him, not daring to see Mari’s face.

“Is that what happened?  Is that why you came home?  Because you failed?” whispered Mari.

Tears burned at the corner of Yuuri’s eyes, and he quickly tried to blink them away.  He forced out a ragged breath, and looked over at his sister.

Her brown eyes, the colour a mirror of his own, were fixed on him with a look of sympathy that was almost more than Yuuri could bear.  He could feel a flush rising in his cheeks, and he quickly looked away.

“What if it was?”

His voice was soft, and he half hoped that she had missed the words.  But nothing seemed to get past Mari.

“Yuuri,” she said on a heavy sigh.  “There’s no way that you could have failed.”

Pushing himself up to his feet, Yuuri glared down at her, feeling like he was at breaking point.

“How would you know? You don’t know what it was like!  They may let people like…like us…into the school, but everybody else was younger, had been training longer and harder.  I started and…I was…behind…I had to work so hard to catch up…”

“But they chose you to go to Tortall! They didn’t take all of the students as part of the envoy!”

Mari rose to her knees, reaching out to grab one of Yuuri’s wrists.  It was only when she forced him to stop moving that he realized that he had been pacing.  He looked down to where her slim fingers pressed against his skin; anything to not have to see more of that sympathy, to know that Mari thought of him as a weakling.

His laugh at her words was a little bitter, a short bark that he instantly wished he could take back when her fingers tightened on his wrist.

“What happened to you?”

“I finally had to realize that I would never be good enough.  That no matter how hard I worked, I was always going to be…that I would always fail.”

“Yuuri, don’t be stupid!” Mari said, her voice taking on a note of frustration.  “Of course you’re not always going to fail. And so what? Does that mean you get to stop trying?  Do you see the rest of us just giving up?”

Shoulders tightening, Yuuri nodded, wishing himself a million miles away.  He could hear a soft swish of fabric as Mari stood up and started to tow him along.

“I know that none of that got through to you,” Mari said as they walked, “but I still want you to know that you’re going to have to put down whatever happened.  You’re going to have to make peace with it, and find some way to…move on. Until you do, you should know that none of us care if you win or lose; I mean, a win would be really great in one of those tournaments, think of the renown that could bring the inn!”

At Yuuri’s grimace, Mari smiled weakly.

“Sorry, too much?  Anyways, why not just go…just go watch?  You have friends, from school, who will be fighting?  Go see them, and maybe you’ll find some of what drove you to leave Hasetsu in the first place.”

“Friend,” Yuuri clarified grudgingly.  When he had arrived at the school, feeling so slow, so hopelessly provincial, among all of the students that had started with the Emperor’s training mistresses years earlier, it was only the pathologically friendly Phichit that had managed to burn through Yuuri’s natural shyness.

“Okay, friend.  Go see him. If you want company, I would go with you,” Mari added hopefully.

Yuuri’s gaze darted over to Mari, and he couldn’t help but smile at her dreamy expression.  He had heard enough of his older sister’s questions about the knights to know that she had drifted off into some sort of fantasy involving a handsome foreigner.

“I think I’ll be fine.”

“But you’ll go?”

It took Yuuri a moment to actually think through his response, before he finally said, “I’ll consider it.”

“Good,” Mari said, “Now, let’s go get breakfast going.  Don’t think I haven’t noticed how all your practice at Minako’s meant you were able to avoid chores!”



Chapter Text

“What is your damned problem, Vitya?”

Viktor threw down the practice sword and glared at Chris, who was giving him a look of incredulity to match the furious tone of his words.

“What are you talking about?” Viktor asked. He pushed one hand through his hair, trying to shove the sweaty strands off his face.

“What am I talking about? I’m talking about the fact that you’ve become an asshole!  What was that move?!”

Rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck, Viktor looked away from his friend, instead turning his attention to where the grass had been scuffed down to the dirt from two weeks of the knights using it for practice.  He could only imagine what state the ground needed for the jousts was in.

“Viktor,” Chris yelled as he stalked forward, his own sword forgotten in his hand.  “I’m talking to you.”

Pushing out a heavy breath and bringing down the familiar iciness, Viktor finally looked back up at Chris.

“I don’t know what you’ve been doing since the last set of tournaments, but don’t get mad at me that you can’t keep up,” Viktor sneered.

He almost winced at his own words.  Two weeks of the new visions, and with the encampment yet to progress, had made Viktor mean in a way he had never wanted to be.  So many memories from his childhood had involved the same look he knew he was giving to Chris, words flaying at what fragile hopes he had, and if there was one thing Viktor had never wanted to be it was one of them .  When his uncle had declared that some Stonemountain was better than none and made him heir following Joren’s death, Viktor had only accepted knowing that to do otherwise would have been to damn all the common people depending on a steady hand to manage the land; and yet here he was, becoming just like them .

Chris didn’t stop walking until he was only a foot away.  Eyes burning with anger and mouth tight, he started to say something and then stopped.  With a shake of his head, he glanced away, before turning back to meet Viktor’s gaze. The sadness Viktor saw there was so much worse.

Chris’s voice was raw as he spoke, the words barely carrying to Viktor.  “I’m going to ignore your little tantrum, Vitya, because I know something is going on and that you’d rather be hated than thought weak.  But just know, this isn’t over. At some point, you’re going to have to let someone in. It doesn’t have to be me, but whatever it is that’s going on—whatever was tormenting you the whole voyage—you’re going to have to talk to someone .”

Viktor could feel his throat tighten, the burn of stomach acid rising up, but he held his ground, refusing to break.

“Think what you want, Chris,” Viktor said, making the words as easy and free as he could manage.

Only then did he lean down to retrieve the practice sword and saunter off towards one of the aisles.  Yuri sidled up beside him and Viktor could feel the teen’s gaze on him, uncomfortably assessing.

“That was a pretty brutal strike.  The way you got under his guard—poor bastard’s going to be bruised for a week.”

If ever there was a sign that Viktor should feel guilty about how he’d just treated Chris, it was a reproving look from Yuri .  Still, he just shrugged and walked faster towards his tent, not that he knew what he would do once he was back there.

Two weeks they had been in the same spot.   Two weeks and Viktor hadn’t seen any more of the country; hadn’t had a chance to do anything that might feel like he was working towards his task.  Caught between exhaustion and the dread of the visions, practice had been his only distraction. Even then, that could only fill so many hours.  Gradually, his mood had soured and the other knights had become less and less interested in sparring with him; Viktor was certain that a great number of them were counting down until the tournaments began properly so they could try to exact some revenge.

There had also been Yuri’s training.  The boy was keen, willing to spend far longer at drills than most boys his age, but even Yuri had his limits.  And Viktor wasn’t so far gone on self-pity that he couldn’t recognize when it was time to stop.

After that banquet when they had first arrived, Viktor had expected the camp to move along any day.  Then, when it hadn’t, he had consoled himself with the fact that at least he now had some idea who the man—a mage, if the visions were anything to go by—was, and that finding out more might be enough to get the visions to stop.  But after that evening, Viktor hadn’t been able to find the man anywhere, and nobody seemed to know who he was talking about. If it wasn’t that Yuri had been with him and could remember the mage, Viktor might have thought him a hallucination from his visions bleeding into his waking hours.

Sailing through the entrance to his tent, Viktor gave the tie holding back the flap a vicious tug, plunging the tent into a murky darkness.  He sat heavily on one of the chairs, peeling off his sweaty shirt and dropping it at his feet.

There was a soft whine, followed by the weight of Makkachin’s face as she pressed it against his thigh.

“It’s not my fault,” Viktor protested.

Makka gave him a look, making it clear what she thought of his excuses.  He just leaned over, dropping his face into his hands, scrubbing at his skin.

“What’s wrong with me?” he asked softly.  “I’m not this person.  But I don’t know how much longer I can keep trying…”

Viktor didn’t even know how to finish the thought; all he knew was that he needed to be doing something.  For so long he had felt as though he’d been waiting for his life to begin, and he’d finally reached the point where he couldn’t tread water any longer.  With the chamber making it clear that he needed to finally meet this challenge, each day trapped in the same routine felt like someone had a dagger in him and was twisting it further and further.

“Oi, geezer!” Yuri called through the flap that connected their two tents.

Viktor forced himself to stand, trying to pull his thoughts together, to find his mask.  

“What do you want Yuri?”

The boy pulled aside the flap, glancing in cautiously as if to see what state Viktor was in.  Frowning at the blue shirt that Viktor was just pulling over his shoulders, Yuri shook his head.

“You and your clothes—I’ve never known anyone to change so often!  And the amount of time you spend on your hair, there’s so many other things you could be doing.”

Viktor was grateful for the familiar patter of Yuri’s complaining.  He reached forward to ruffle the boy’s hair, laughing when Yuri reared back, his expression like a hissing cat.

“Was there something you wanted? Other than to make me wonder whether we should pick up our lessons on what’s expected at court?”

Yuri stalked in, flinging himself down on Viktor’s cot and glaring up at the canvas ceiling.

“Why bother?  Once I’m a knight, no one will expect me at court.  No one will want me at court.”  The boy’s voice sounded so gloomy, his words dripping a bitterness that spoke of ages, that Viktor had to remind himself he wasn’t the only one with difficulties.

“Yura, you know that’s not true,” Viktor said softly, desperately stumbling for the right thing to say.

The boy just turned away so that he was facing the wall. Still, Viktor could see where Yuri had his hands clenched together on his chest, the pale skin tight over the tendons and bones.

“Do you want to take the horses out?” Viktor offered.

While Yuri wasn’t fond of jousting—with his small size, it was difficult for him to retain his seat against any of the heavier, more skilled knights—the boy did seem to like the horses and the freedom of being beyond the camp.  Viktor prepared himself for having to chase after Yuri at some breakneck speed; it would be his punishment for being so terrible to Chris.

Yuri tilted his head back towards Viktor, his blonde eyebrows lowered in an expression that seemed far too menacing for someone so young. His green eyes were calculating.

“Can we go to the market?”

“Which market?  There’s one in the camp.”

Yuri gave an exasperated sigh, and Viktor nodded, biting back a reply.

“Yes, we can go back to the market by the harbour.”

Launching himself up, the squire raced back across the tent and into his own, rummaging around as he gathered what he would need for the ride.  Viktor just exchanged a look of misery with the always sympathetic Makkachin.

“You want to go?” he asked her.

She just blinked, and then climbed up onto his bed, curling into a fuzzy brown ball.

“Thanks, Makka.”

Moments later he and Yuri were outside, walking towards the stables.  Passing Chris’s tent, Viktor reminded himself that he would have to apologize to his friend.  He would actually have to apologize to most of the people in his circle.

And he would have to do better.  Viktor had spent the better part of his life trying to make sure that people only saw him somewhere between skilled and harmlessly charming.  All it would take was one story getting back to Tortall, and so many vicious gossips would be talking about how they had been right, that they had always known, that blood would always show.

“…So do you think I’ll be ready?”

Yuri was giving Viktor an expectant look, and it was with some surprise that he realized the squire had been talking to him.

Forcing his thoughts back down, Viktor tried to figure out what Yuri was on about.

“Ready for what?”

“The first match of the tournament.” There was an implied addition of idiot at the end of the boy’s words.

“We’ll have to see—it will depend on how long we have until they start to schedule matches.”

Yuri glared at him.  “But I just told you ; when you were sulking they posted a notice.  The camp is packing up and moving to the next location tomorrow—somewhere near the coast—and they set the first tournament for four days time.”

For the first time in two weeks, Viktor finally felt something approaching happiness break through the swirl of numbness and frustration.



Chapter Text

There was something about the camp that was unsettlingly familiar to Yuuri.  Walking through the corridor of tents and stalls that had been set up as a market, he felt like he had wandered two years into the past.  There was more of a mix of people than the last progress, the sounds of Common and Yamani layering over top of each other, the Yamani robes appearing almost as frequently as the Tortallan breeches and shirt.

Pausing in front of one stall that was giving off the aroma of hot fat and cooking meat, Yuuri examined the display of golden pastry haphazardly piled up on plates across the large table.

“Yuuri!”

He had just enough time to look up before he was pulled into a crushing hug.  When his assaulter pulled back, he was greeted with the infectious smile of his best friend.

“Phichit!” Yuuri said, a smile sneaking across his own face.

“Are you going to get one?” Phichit asked, and it took Yuuri a moment to realize that his friend was referring to the pies on the table.

Yuuri just shook his head.  As tempting as they smelled, and he remembered that they tasted even better, he wasn’t sure that he would be able to keep anything down.

For days—weeks even—he had been trying to decide whether he would go to see the progress. It was only on a whim, after hearing that the camp had finally reached their stop near Hasetsu only days before, that Yuuri had decided to go.  Even then he had made sure to go the day before the tournaments were scheduled to start. The next day, if the progress in Tortall was anything to go by, he knew the grounds would be heaving with excited crowds; Yuuri was not sure how much he could take.

Even as he had wandered around waiting for Phichit, his anxiety had started to rise--he felt a constant need to check over his shoulder, to be aware of who was around him at all times.

Phichit just grabbed Yuuri’s arm and started to tow him through the small crowd, leaving it up to Yuuri to mumble blushing apologies for the way his over-exuberant friend seemed to bump every possible person.

“We’ll have to come back here!” Phichit said over his shoulder as he continued walking.  Actually, Yuuri realized, walking didn’t even begin to describe it. His friend was filled with so much energy that he was practically skipping.

“Oh?”

“Yeah!  There is some food I don’t remember from before—the seller told me it’s only really popular in the North.  It’s priorz—” Phichit seemed to struggle with the foreign word for a moment, before he just shrugged. “They’re really good.  We’ll get some after.”

“After what?”

Every one of Yuuri’s senses was on high alert, and he stopped walking abruptly, digging his heels in as Phichit tried to continue.  Glancing back, Phichit tugged at Yuuri’s arm.

“Come on!”

“Not until you tell me where we’re going,” Yuuri said, his even tone a false front to the race of his heart.

“Well,” Phichit said, drawing out the word, his eyes twinkling.  Yuuri knew that to be a very bad sign. Phichit’s eyes only twinkled when he thought he had an amazing idea, which never ended well.  “I thought we could start by heading over to the practice field.”

“No.”

“We have to though!  You won’t believe who’s here—I think it’s time you started on that second volume of poetry.”  Phichit’s words were followed by a laugh.

“No.”

“But don’t you want to watch the knights?” pouted Phichit.

“No.”

Phichit’s eyes narrowed and the look he gave Yuuri had far more depth and knowledge than people might have expected of the young man.

“Yuuri,” he said softly.  “I know that what happened was…it was pretty awful, but it wasn’t your fault.  And even if you don’t want to fight, you used to love watching the fighting, and you loved all the stories about the knights, about their code…shouldn't you be allowed to find that enjoyment again?”

Furiously, Yuuri glanced around to see who might be listening, but they had moved far enough away from the main area of the market that there were only a few people around and none of them showed any signs of listening to the young men’s discussion.  Still, Yuuri stalked off to one of the narrow alleys, dragging Phichit after him.

“I don’t want anything to do with the knights and their…their supposed code,” Yuuri hissed.

This time it was Phichit digging his heels in that stopped Yuuri’s retreat.

“So that’s all it took?  One…one asshole to beat you up, and you’re done?”

It took effort for Yuuri to stop the riptide of emotion from appearing across his face.  As it was, he had to make a point of unclenching his fists, of trying to make his body loosen up as he found himself flung back into that memory.

“It wasn’t just the one time.”  Yuuri’s words were so soft that even he could barely hear them.

Phichit’s face crumpled, his eyes going watery.

“What?  Why didn’t you tell me?”  And as if pieces were starting to slide into place, Phichit’s eyes grew wide.  “All those bruises—you said those were from practice!”

Yuuri couldn't meet the accusing stare of his friend, and instead turned his attention down to the ground below.  He tried to focus on the trampled grass, the bite of cold in the air, but in his mind it was two and a half years ago and he was back in Tortall.

By that point he and Phichit had been with the other chosen students in Tortall for a few months.  To his great relief, Yuuri’s normal anxiety had been held in check for once by the excitement and the novelty that they experienced each day.  And, if he was honest with himself, it had also been greatly helped by the fact that he had been chosen to go.  Of all the students, the training mistress had selected Yuuri as one of the worthy.  Suddenly, he had started to wonder if maybe he was actually good at fighting, if the dreams he had harboured for so long weren’t so far-fetched.  

Finally getting to see the knights fight—those figures he had been building up in his head for so long that he couldn't quite think of them as mere men—had been everything Yuuri had dreamt of.

The beginning of the progress had been thrilling and terrifying, and Yuuri had tried to soak up every experience he could. A couple months in, the progress had relocated several times, each move creating a different configuration of the camp. After trying to watch the tournaments, Yuuri had found himself lost.  His Common was good enough that he could mostly follow a conversation—the Imperial school had been thorough with more than just their instruction in combat—but on finding himself outside of the areas where the Yamani tended to stay, he had suddenly felt very alone, and very visible.

As he had walked, hoping for some sign that might lead him back to an area he recognized, or at least a glimpse of someone he knew, he’d started to feel the prickle on the back of his neck that let him know that he was being watched; that he was being followed.  It had felt as though he had become prey.

Yuuri had tried to remind himself that he was not some child to be spooked, that he was a trained warrior; tried to keep his pace even rather than scurrying away.  But when the boy had stepped out from between two tents right in the middle of Yuuri’s path, he’d frozen.

The boy’d had the sort of wintry features that Yuuri thought of as so particular to this region: hair so pale as to be white; eyes the blue of glacier-fed lakes, and near as cold.  From the sword that had been casually belted at the boy’s hip, one hand resting against the hilt—not to mention the boy’s casual aura of unyielding strength—Yuuri had known this to be an apprentice knight. A squire, he had to remind himself.

What happened next was little more than a blur in Yuuri’s memory.  He could recall a fist coming out of nowhere—he’d later realized that there had been friends of the squire behind him—before his vision had exploded with shapes, blackness lurking at the edges as words that he couldn’t quite recognize were flung at him with a venom he didn’t understand.

Yuuri had tried to fight back, had tried to retain his honour.  After the first blow had sent him sideways, years of being drilled on throws and falls the only thing to keep him on his feet at all, he had tried to regroup.  When the next fist had come his way, an aim at the solar plexus from a heavy-set boy, Yuuri had managed to raise his right arm in time to block it, immediately lunging into his attacker’s space with a jab to the face before darting back and trying to return to some semblance of a ready position.  It was with some pleasure that he’d seem blood streaming from the nose of the would-be attacker, but that was short-lived. Yuuri may have had the skill, and he may even have had the stamina, but the other boys had shown a ruthless intensity, and with their training in heavy arms each blow from them was like being hit by a building.

It was only when Yuuri was on the ground, dazed and battered, that the pale one had flung out some final insult before sweeping away.

Still not understanding what had happened, Yuuri had managed to drag himself to his feet and stagger back to the tent that he and Phichit had shared.  When he’d encountered his friend and the inevitable questions about what had happened, Yuuri had obviously lied How could he admit that he had just been destroyed in a fight?  He was supposed to be good at this; he was supposed to be one of the best .  The mere fact that there had been three of them wasn’t even a consolation; sparring against multiple opponents had been a regular occurrence at the school.

After that, everywhere he went, Yuuri saw that boy and his friends.  Occasionally the boy would notice him, the fine features twisting into a sneer as he’d say something to one of the others, but even then he’d look at Yuuri as though he were nothing. Less than nothing, even.  And any time Yuuri had found himself alone outside of the Yamani areas of the camp, some group of squires and knights would find him. Alongside the ribs and fingers they had broken, they’d also managed to smash all of Yuuri’s illusions about what being a knight meant.  He didn’t know which hurt more.

With each attack Yuuri’s tenuous confidence had continued to fray until he couldn’t even manage the friendly competitions with his classmates.  It got to the point where they stopped scheduling him for any fights, so that Yuuri had to sit on the sidelines wearing his shame like a cloak.

It was only after Phichit had come across Yuuri being held down, one of the squires slamming punch after punch into his gut, that he’d learned anything about it.  Even then Yuuri had tried to brush off the bullying as a one-time thing, though the sight had been enough for Phichit to declare that they would only ever go places in pairs after that.  As much as it had reminded him just how weak he was, Yuuri had also felt a desperate gratitude for Phichit in that moment.

“Yuuri…”

Blinking away the visions of the past, it took Yuuri a moment to remember that the camp he saw around him was not that same one from so many years ago.  He glanced over to where Phichit was giving him a solemn look.

“I wish…” Phichit didn’t seem to know what to say.  Even in his shaken state, Yuuri was able to recognize that for the rarity it was and smile softly. “I wish you had told me.  You know that it wasn’t your fault, right?  And that it’s not some statement on your abilities.  There were two of them—two mountains —the time I found you.  You shouldn’t let that— them —keep you away.”

Yuuri blinked furiously as his vision started to swim.  He was not going to cry; he needed something to distract himself, something that would get Phichit to just leave everything in the past and let him be.

“Do you want to go practice?” he asked, hating the slight waver in his voice.

“Are you sure?” Phichit replied carefully.

“Maybe we should find a practice area where there aren’t going to be so many…people.”  Yuuri meant their classmates. He couldn’t bear the idea of them coming, seeing his sloppy form and weak efforts and knowing that the decision for him to be sent home was a good one.

“Of course!  Though you should be careful—without you there to keep me company, I’ve had nothing better to do than practice.  I’ve got really good.”

Yuuri smiled tentatively, feeling the faintest rising of some abandoned feeling.  He had forgotten what it was like to be with his friend, and to have the opportunity to just…have fun.

“Alright, show me what you’ve got.  But don’t think I’ve just been sitting on my ass in Hasetsu,” he warned.



Chapter Text

For the first time in a great long while, Viktor was almost awestruck with fear.

“What did you do?” He whispered to Yuri as he tried to peer through the crack of the tent door.

“Shhhh!” Yuri hissed desperately, sheer panic all over the boy.  “If they know I’m in here…”

Turning his attention back to the young Yamani girls that had staked out the area near the opening of his squire’s tent, Viktor didn’t blame Yuri.  Viktor was no stranger to his share of admiration, but the glint of determination—and devotion—in these girls’ eyes was something else. If he hadn’t seen the way they had run the boy to ground like hounds after a fox, he might have been amused.  As it was, he could only feel grateful that for whatever reason, it was Yuri they were after.

“They’ve ruined my day,” Yuri moaned quietly from where he had flung himself on the ground.  “Beka was supposed to help me practice jousting today.”

Viktor almost let loose a laugh before he remembered that they were trying to hide.  He clapped a hand over his mouth, even as his shoulders started to shake.

Yuri raised his head to glare at Viktor.  “Aren’t you supposed to be encouraging me? And training me?  Instead of laughing you should realize that this is a reflection of how deeply shit you are as a knight master that someone else is having to pick up your slack.”

“Let’s just work through that line of thought, shall we?” Viktor said as he stepped away from the door, going to sit down near where the squire was still prone.  “You and I both know that I’m only adequate with a lance—you want instruction to joust, we’ll have to find you someone else.  Second, since when did you care for anything but the sword?  And third, you’re going to practice with Otabek? He’s a deadly combination of skilled and solidly built, you’ll spend most of your time flying off your horse.  Better to wait until you’ve had a chance to fill out a bit more—I think Yakov had planned for you to do more combat like that once the progress was over.”

From the stormy look in Yuri’s eyes, Viktor could tell that he had probably said the exact opposite of what was needed.  Yuri dropped his head back down to his folded arms. Despite the boy’s angry bravado, he managed to look oddly vulnerable.

“I’m sure that Beka will be willing to joust with you another time,” Viktor offered.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Or, you could just head out there now.  The girls haven’t done anything more than follow you around, right?”

“I can’t go.”

“Why not?” Viktor pressed, suddenly worrying that there was something more that he wasn’t seeing; some other way that he was failing to look out for his squire.

“Because I don’t want Beka to see.  It’s embarrassing. They follow me everywhere, and they keep trying to give me gifts.  And the jousting grounds are so open…”

Viktor had a small sigh of relief.  He still might not know how to handle the teen’s awkward embarrassment, but it was better than a host of alternatives.

Trying to channel Yakov, Viktor thumped one hand against the table decisively and gave his squire a stern look.

“Do you know what you need? You need some training time.”

Yuri’s panicked gaze darted towards the door, as if one of his admirers would burst in.

“I told you, I can’t.”

Viktor stood up, and poked Yuri in the ribs with his toe.

“Get up.  Think of it this way, I could do with the practice.  Some of us have to fight tomorrow, for glory and honour, or whatever else it says on the posters.  There’s a practice area that’s out of the way—I think some of the Yamani fighters use it—no one will think to look for you there.”

Yuri pushed himself up off the ground, his expression that of a scolded toddler, but he did nod.

“Alright, old man.  But only because if you lose tomorrow that’s going to reflect badly on me.”

After they had quickly grabbed their swords and shields, Yuri started to head towards the doorway.  Viktor couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Doesn’t he know anything ?

“Forget that way,” he whispered before heading to the back end of the tent.  Dropping his sword and shield to the ground, he crouched down until he was lying alongside the wall of the tent.  With the practised moves of someone who had learned early that finding alternative entrances and exits was always a good idea, Viktor shimmied out under it, pulling his sword and shield out after him.  A moment later, Yuri followed. Both had bits of grass stuck to their shirts and breeches, and Viktor knew he had a few grass stains, but it was worth it for the look of relief that was growing on Yuri’s face as they snuck away.

Because they couldn’t just take the main paths, instead having to seek out empty alleys, their route took them a great deal longer than it should have.  When they finally approached the area, which was really little more than a grassy spot left empty in the midst of some supply tents, Viktor could hear the sounds of fighting; there was the ring of metal on metal, and the occasional jubilant laugh.

Rounding the corner of one of the supply tents, they were finally able to catch a glimpse of who was already there.  Two boys—men, Viktor corrected himself—were sparring with the Yamani glaive. Each was wielding the massive blade like it weighed nothing, the curved metal glinting and flashing in the late afternoon sun.

Viktor could feel his steps slow as he became more absorbed in watching the fight, his practised eye automatically assessing what he was seeing.  One of the men—the smaller one—was fighting with the sort of intense abandon that spoke of joy. Every move was maximized for showiness, attacks and blocks merely the end points of elaborate arcs through the air.  The other man, only slightly bigger, didn’t seem to have quite the same drive; there was a hesitancy about how he moved, giving up ground against the other’s assault, sticking more to defence. But then…

After managing to block a particularly brutal downward swing of the glaive, the man pressed forward, so that he was almost right beside his opponent, the butt of the pole swinging up.  The man was like a force of nature, the lines all brutal, relentless elegance that took Viktor’s breath away.

For five minutes, he and Yuri watched the match.  It was exhilarating in a way that Viktor hadn’t experienced since the first time he was allowed to start sparring outside the rigidly choreographed drills of weapons training as a page.

“Ugh, this is boring,” Yuri finally complained, his voice carrying across the open area.

“Yuri,” Viktor scolded, torn between glaring at the teen and wanting to continue watching the match, “Don’t be rude.  You don’t want to be here, go find your fan club.”

Glancing back up, Viktor had just a fraction of a second to feel disappointed that the fighters had stopped before he was slammed with the realization that he was staring at a very familiar face.  The second fighter, the one who alternated between hesitancy and brilliance, was the man from his visions! His face was perhaps a little rounder, softer, his hair a sweaty tangle, but Viktor felt as though those brown eyes had been seared into him.  Was it possible that the chamber had started to send him waking visions? Or was this just a hallucination—the wish fulfillment of his sleep-deprived brain?

The man stared at Viktor, his eyes wide and with something approaching alarm written into every line of his body.  Viktor had the sudden realization that the man was going to bolt, and he started to move. As soon as he took the first step, however, that seemed to free the man from whatever had held him frozen, and he turned on his heel, racing away.  The other fighter paused to give both Viktor and Yuri an angry glare before he ran off in the direction of his friend.

And just like that it was Viktor and Yuri, alone in the space.  For a moment, Viktor had to wonder if the others had even been there, but mercifully he had the tangible evidence of the two glaives lying on the ground where they had been dropped.

“What did you do?” Yuri asked as he stomped over to inspect the weapons.

Viktor could only shrug helplessly.  Why hadn’t he run after the man?

“Why do you assume it’s me?  Maybe they heard your comment, or they were worried about your admirers.”

“That one—who ran off first—”

“The beautiful one?” Viktor asked automatically, before he realized what he had said.

Yuri rolled his eyes.  “The one who ran off first—that one—he was looking at you .  Looking at you like he knew you were a piece of shit.  So, what did you do?”

“You know, some knights don’t tolerate impudence from their squires,” Viktor said icily.

The boy shrugged it off.  “Do you think they would mind if we tried out their weapons?”

And like that, the whole matter seemed over for Yuri.  It was just some strange, random moment to be forgotten or mined into another insult for later, like it hadn’t meant anything; like it hadn’t left Viktor standing there feeling, inexplicably, like his heart had just been pulled from his chest.

“Well?” Yuri prompted.  “Or do you just want me to give you a thrashing with the swords?”

Viktor had to pull himself back, trying to remember how to breathe.  He had seen the man once now; that meant he was probably part of the camp and that Viktor could find him again.  He would deal with Yuri, and then he would start looking; Viktor would tear the whole camp apart if he had to, later.

Still feeling too unsettled to speak, worried about how much of his emotion would show in his voice, Viktor just readied his heavy practice sword. Hefting his shield on one arm, he gestured for Yuri to take his place.

“Smells like snow,” the squire observed as he settled into a ready position.

After the mildness of the Yamani winter, Viktor hoped that wasn’t some portent of what was to come.

 

***

 

Yuuri felt as though his lungs had been torn out.  It was the only explanation for why his chest ached so badly, why his racing breaths weren’t making any difference to the lightheadedness that had descended as soon as he’d looked over to the edge of the training ground.

Hearing his name, he had glanced over expecting—dreading—to see some of the other students from his time at the school.  Yuuri hadn’t entirely figured out what he would say to anyone, what answers he would give for the inevitable questions that would arise from him being seen not only on the progress grounds, but sparring with Phichit; Yuuri could only imagine what they would have to say about how sloppy his technique had grown since he’d returned to Hasetsu.

When he had looked up, the the late sun in his eyes, Yuuri had quickly realized that the sound of his name hadn’t actually been for him.  That thought was followed by every part of his body dropping into panic mode as he recognized one of the men. With the golden corona that surrounded the two observers, Yuuri couldn’t distinguish much about them, but it had been enough.  He was able to make out pale, wintry hair and blue eyes, as well as the sort of sharply beautiful features that Yuuri knew to be at odds with the man’s nature. After spending so long trying to move on, to forget, seeing the face of his attacker was more than Yuuri could handle.  And so with little more than a glance that he hoped conveyed his apology to Phichit, he fled.

Racing through the grounds without any direction in mind, just knowing that he wanted to be gone , Yuuri couldn’t stop the flood of bitter thoughts.

He had just started to wonder if maybe people were right, that he wasn’t weak or a coward, and then…proof that he was exactly who he feared.

If he’d had any honour, he would have stood his ground and challenged the man, particularly since he hadn’t been surrounded by his usual crowd.  Yuuri should have been able to find the courage to face one man, and yet here he was, fleeing like some small creature before a fire.

“Yuuri!”

The sound of his name caused his heart to race even faster, and Yuuri felt certain it too would fly free of his chest.

“Yuuri!” This time the call was closer, and Yuuri had enough sense to recognize the voice.  He glanced over his shoulder to see Phichit, face red and breath coming in gasps as he tried to catch up with Yuuri.

Still, Yuuri couldn’t bring himself to actually stop, merely to slow down.  That, at least, allowed him to finally take a look around and figure out where he might be.

“Yuuri,” Phichit panted, grabbing hold of Yuuri’s arm.

Yuuri tried to pull free, but Phichit’s fingers tightened, forcing him to stop.

“Phichit,” Yuuri whispered, hoping that his friend heard the pleading note in his voice, and that he wouldn’t have to actually say anything more.

“Was that him?”

Most people encountering Phichit tended to wonder how it was that he could be considered one of the better students at the school, that he could have been a skilled enough fighter to have been sent to Tortall; between his bubbly personality and his predilection for making friends with small, fuzzy animals, people had often made the mistake of thinking that Phichit was incapable of violence.  What they didn’t get was that attached to his boundless friendship was a deep well of protectiveness and a terrifyingly creative mind. From the hard glint in Phichit’s brown eyes and the set of his jaw, Yuuri was pretty sure that in that moment Phichit was capable of anything.

“Just leave it…”

“That’s not what I asked.  Was that him ?”

Along with his missing heart and lungs, Yuuri could now feel his throat closing; it was like his body was intent on betraying him, on making him as weak and vulnerable as he knew himself to be.  Yuuri could only manage a vague nod, his gaze darting away from Phichit toward anything else.

“So let’s go back—we’ll confront him!”

Panic soared like lightning through his blood stream, searing his flesh and jolting his gaze back to his friend’s face. He could feel his head shaking.

“No!”

Already, he could all but see that last time in Tortall, hear the indecipherable sneers and the sound of something some part of his body crunching.

“Why not?” Phichit asked, though after scrutinizing Yuuri’s face he seemed to relent.  “Okay, so we don’t go back.  But let’s get someone else…we could go to the training mistress, or one of the stewards…someone who would make that piece of shit pay.”

Yuuri tried to find the air to speak, to tame his thoughts into something that sounded coherent.

“And what do we report him for?  It was over two years ago that anything happened, and in another country.  He wasn’t doing anything today .  All it would do would…antagonize him…and whoever we told would know…

Because that was one of the few mercies, and something that Yuuri couldn’t quite figure out how to put into words; the fact that it had been his secret shame and embarrassment, that others didn’t have to know, was the only thing that had allowed Yuuri to push through as long as he had.

Phichit’s eyes softened, his fingers relaxing enough that Yuuri was able to yank his arm free and start walking again.

In his blind run, clearly through the grace of Yama, he had worked his way back to one of the main markets.  From there, he knew how to find the stables. It was just a short walk and then he could be headed home.

“Yuuri, you can’t just keep running from this!” Phichit said as he jogged along beside Yuuri.

Turning at a table selling the intricate fans used by ladies in the isles, Yuuri headed into the broad thoroughfare that led to the edges of the encampment and the stables.  The light of day was fading fast, and a chill wind was rising up.

“I’ve got to go,” Yuuri mumbled.

Finally reaching the large stables, he let himself in, quickly finding the inn’s nag. He let himself into the stall, starting the process of putting on her bridle and saddle.  She gave him a weary look as if asking why he was forcing her out of the warm stall and away from the oats. Gently, he stroked her neck and promised her that he would make sure she got a long rubdown once they were home.

When he had finished cinching the saddle, he glanced up to find his friend still there.

“So you’re not going to do anything?”

“I’m going home, that’s what,” Yuuri said, opening the door and starting to lead Katsudon out.

“At least let me talk to my squirrels—they still miss you by the way, and going after some jerk is the type of thing they would love to do.” Phichit’s eyes seemed to sparkle with malevolent glee in the dim light.

Yuuri felt a small smile tug at his lips.  As outgoing as he was, there were a lot of layers to Phichit that few people knew, including the fact that he was what the Tortallans called a Wild Mage.  He didn’t have a lot of magic, but it was enough that he could have conversations with some animals. Whether it was just a natural inclination or a reflection of his skill, the animals seemed to be exclusively small rodents, with the occasional cat or dog.

“It’s been nice to see you,” Yuuri said, stepping back out into the cold.  The temperature had dropped several degrees since he had set out that morning, and if experience with the changeable weather had taught him anything, it felt like it could get even colder.  On a whim, he added, “If you have the chance, you should come visit. You’d be welcome at the inn anytime.”

Phichit nodded, a smile on his face, though even Yuuri could tell that his friend was still seething with anger.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Phichit offered. “The first tournament starts tomorrow.  Maybe once it’s finished I can get away for a little while.”

Yuuri smiled, and for the first time since he had seen the knight he felt something ease inside his chest.

“The weather is going to change; I should try to get back before it gets much worse.”

With a quick wave, Yuuri swung up into the saddle and headed out into the dusk.  As he rode, the warmth that had extended over the isles since before mid-winter seemed to collapse, and by the time he and Katsudon rode into the inn’s yard, it was sleeting.  With limbs trembling from the cold and from the remnants of the run-in earlier, he groomed Katsudon, making sure she was warm and fed before he slipped inside the inn. Briefly he wondered whether he should go to the hot springs to try to warm up, but immediately discarded that idea.  Right now, all he wanted was to disappear into the oblivion of sleep.



Chapter Text

Viktor was experienced enough as a knight that he had seen his fair share of sword fights; through training, practice, and battle he’d had certain habits burned into every line of muscle.  So when he had a sword, albeit a dulled practice one, swinging for his neck, he should have known not to let his thoughts wander. It was only Yuri’s shocked cry as the squire found his wild swing being unblocked that had Viktor realizing what was going to happen.  He threw his body backwards, only just managing to avoid being hit.

“What was that?!” Yuri snarled, lowering his sword.

Viktor didn’t know what to say.  It had only been fifteen minutes at the most since the two Yamani men had run off, and all he could think of was what he had seen on that one man’s face.

In his visions, the man had been beautiful, but somehow  they hadn’t managed to compare to the real thing. Viktor had been capable of little more than stunned excitement, but the man had seemed to recognize him—not even just recognize, if the expressions of fear and anger had been anything to go by.

As much as Viktor knew he should be focusing on getting ready for his first match tomorrow and making sure Yuri hadn’t picked up too many of Chris’s bad habits on the field, he couldn’t let that look of devastation go.  

What had he done to earn it?  Viktor liked to think of himself as someone who was cautious about his words and behaviour, but thinking back to his fight with Chris just days before, he knew that wasn’t always the case.  But surely Viktor would have remembered meeting the man; there was no way he could have forgotten that face.

“Are you still thinking about that man who ran off?” Yuri asked in a rare moment of insight.

Viktor didn’t bother to respond.  He walked over to where a large log had been left as a boundary marker for the space and sat down heavily.

“I don’t know why you care,” Yuri continued, trailing after Viktor until he was standing in front of him and glaring down.

Finally Viktor snapped.  “Why I care that I may have done something to hurt someone else?  Why I care that someone might feel like they’d want to be anywhere but near me?”  

His voice felt as though it was shaking, and it was only when he saw the teen taking a step back that Viktor realized how raw and angry it had sounded.

“Yuri, what instruction did you receive on chivalry?”

Viktor suddenly felt weary in a way that went beyond the exhaustion he’d been living with since his visit to the chamber.

Yuri shrugged, the movement tight and jerky, his mouth caught on the verge of a pout.  Viktor tried to take a breath and remind himself that this wasn’t Yuri’s fault; that the boy was only fifteen, and that he was with Viktor to be trained.

“You must have been told something, or forced to write about it?” Viktor prompted.

Yuri rolled his eyes.  “Yeah, I guess. It’s that bullshit about being nice to people—helping them out.”

Forearms braced against his knees, Viktor leaned forward, trying to will the boy to understand what it was he was about to say.

“It’s not bullshit, it’s the bedrock of what it means to be a knight of the realm.  All that separates us from mercenaries, or from well-trained thugs, is the bond that we accept.  It’s easy to think of being a knight as a life of excitement or adventure, especially when we’re somewhere like here, just going to feasts and playing at fighting, but it’s…it’s a life of service.  We make a vow that we won’t turn down a cry for help, that we will protect those in our care, and that we will do whatever we can for the betterment of our kingdom. Some nobles may take those ideals lightly, but for anyone who completes their vigil and goes into the chamber…you need to see that to break those vows, even unknowingly, is a grave offence.”  Viktor’s voice was low and urgent, and he could only hope that something about it all would sink in.  As an afterthought, Viktor added,  “How much do you know about my family?”

Yuri just shrugged, though his green eyes stayed fixed on Viktor.  Viktor could only hope that was a sign that the boy was still listening.

“The people of Stonemountain…my family…my cousin was everything my family seemed to prize.  He was a good number of years younger than me, for which I am eternally grateful. My childhood wasn’t…easy…but with him of an age it could have been so much worse.  Even with our infrequent meetings, I was able to see that he was cold and vicious, and that chivalry meant absolutely nothing to him. Life was all about what he could get away with.”

Viktor didn’t know where this spill of words was coming from, and to Yuri of all people, but he felt like the boy needed to hear it.  And in a strange way, Viktor felt like he needed to tell it.

“When it finally came time for his ordeal…well, no one can know for sure what happened to him in the chamber, and we can’t talk much about our ordeals anyway—“

“Why not?”

Viktor smiled at the curious expression on Yuri’s face.

“It’s just how it is.”

“That’s dumb,” Yuri said, some of his usual hostility giving heat to the words.

Viktor just shrugged.  “That’s how it’s always been.  When you take your own ordeal, I think you’ll be able to understand.”

Rolling his eyes, Yuri said, “So your cousin…”

“In the morning when everyone went to see him emerge as a knight, they found his body instead.  Another squire of that year had a similar fate--he emerged alive, but tormented by past abuses he had committed.”

Yuri nodded slowly, his gaze distant, and the two settled into a quiet peace, each off in their own thoughts.

“There you are!”

Viktor’s attention snapped to the figure that had come up on the training area.

“Chris!” Viktor called with a laugh and a wave, trying to pull back a familiar easy mask.   It was only at Chris’s wary look that Viktor remembered things were still a little tense between them.

“I’ve been looking for you two everywhere—why did you come here?”  Chris had the wild-eyed look of someone reaching the end of their patience.

“Yuri needed an outing, and his angels would have found us at the combat fields.”

Viktor could practically hear Yuri’s teeth grind, and his eyes had darkened in rage.

“Stop using me as an excuse for your idiot decisions!”

Winking at the teen, Viktor reached out for Chris to help pull him up from his seat, groaning a bit as his knees popped with the movement.  When had he started to get old?

“What’s going on?” he asked, turning his attention back to Chris.

“Weather is about to change.  You can feel it getting colder, but some of the weather workers have said their spells are telling them snow; lots of it.”

“But what about the tournament?!” Yuri demanded.  “It’ll still happen.”

Chris ignored the squire and continued speaking.  “Apparently it’s going to be enough that they’ve decided to strip the camp down to basics.  They can manage with the staff and servants—most of them are staying in communal spaces that will be easy enough to heat, but for all of us who are on our own they’re going to billet us in nearby inns.”

“So they’re canceling it?!” persisted Yuri, his gaze darting between the two knights.

Viktor was too caught up in his own thoughts to bother much with his squire’s disappointment.  The one thing that had made the sighting and sudden disappearance of the man from his vision bearable was the thought that Viktor would be able to go and scour the camp looking for him later.  But with the weather scattering everyone across the countryside, any hopes of answers had been set back to square one. He pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to hold back the heavy thud that had risen up in his temples and was creeping around to the base of his skull.

“Alright,” he said, hoping the defeat didn’t sound in his voice.  “We’re going to a local inn. How long do we have?”

“Mages said sleet in as little as a half hour, forty five minutes, and snow to start up sometime after.  Most of the other knights have already left—I offered to find you, but it took me ages. I tried to get you assigned to the same inn—“

Viktor had a brief flash of gratitude that, despite what had happened between them, Chris could always be counted on to be a good friend.

“—But those are already out of space.  They’ve got the two of you assigned to a place that’s a little further away, right on the coast.”

Viktor nodded, smiling his thanks.

“Okay, Yuri, you start getting the horses ready, I’ll go grab Makkachin—“

“And Potya!”

“Yes, and your cat.  Once the horses are saddled bring them to the tent.”

The three headed off, Yuri and Chris peeling off towards the stables and Viktor headed back to the tent.  In quick order, he had thrown some supplies into a saddlebag and grabbed some of the colder weather clothes that had been needed for the start of their journey; depending on how long the ride to the inn would take, they might very well need the heavy cloaks and woollen gloves that had been essential back in Tortall.  Viktor debated whether he should be putting on armour for the ride. After a long moment of contemplation, he pulled on a quilted vest and a chainmail shirt, buckling his sword and scabbard around his hips. For such a short journey, and not knowing how soon they would be able to come back or whether their belongings would be sent on, it seemed wise to take at least some precautions, and it would still be a great deal lighter than riding in full plate armour.  Viktor got the sense that speed was going to be key.

After that it was a matter of having to grab the brat’s equally bratty cat—which took more lunging and racing around Yuri’s tent than Viktor would ever admit.  With the cat clutched firmly under one arm, yowls coming from its small body, Viktor was very grateful for the protection of the mail against the savage beast’s claws and teeth.

“Makka, you ready?” he asked with a glance towards his dog.

She looked up from where she was curled up on his cot, with a delicate sniff towards the cold that was swirling in from outside.

“I know,” Viktor mumbled apologetically, trying to get a better grip on Potya.  “But it’s only going to get worse. Better a little cold now, and then you’ll get to be indoors for a while.”

With a sigh the dog heaved herself off the bed and joined him.

By the time Yuri had brought Socks and Psycho round and the two had managed to force Potya into a carrying perch as well as get their saddlebags arranged, a miserable sleet had started.  Gritting his teeth, Viktor tried to force a smile out; it was his responsibility to show Yuri that not every challenge needed to be met with rage. Of course if he’d been on his own, the ride would likely have been a steady stream of profanity.

They set off into the dark and wet.  Unfamiliar with the terrain and the route, not to mention the steadily declining visibility, it took them hours.  For the first hour Yuri had kept up a steady stream of complaints, but after that the boy had been too cold and miserable for even that.  Eventually, just as Viktor was starting to wonder if this was how he died, they had seen the lights of a town in the distance. The path, now under snow, had led them down the mountain until they were practically at the water, and Viktor saw a sight only second in beauty to that face he had seen earlier in the day—it was the inn.

Reaching the yard, Viktor slid off Socks’s back and hobbled into the stable.  It was only the deeply ingrained lesson that a knight always sees to his horse before resting that had Viktor giving the horse a rubdown.  He did catch himself trying to rush it, and guiltily he forced himself to take extra care and attention. When he had finished, he saw that Yuri, who looked very young and very exhausted, had only managed about half of his own horse.  

Gently Viktor took the brush out of Yuri’s hand and pushed him towards the door.

“Take Makka and Potya inside, and let them know we’re here.”

Yuri just nodded, leaving Viktor to the horses.

At long last he was finished, and with a final pat for each of the horses, he slipped back out into the whirling snow, darting across to the inn.

Inside there was a short woman, her colouring marking her clearly as someone from the isles.  Bowing, she smiled at Viktor and beckoned him in, before turning to a young woman standing beside her.

The woman, who looked to be within a couple of years of Viktor’s age, was dressed plainly, particularly compared to the young Yamani women that Viktor had gotten used to seeing around the camp.  While her smile held the same reserve that he had come to expect, there was a genuine feeling of welcome to it.

“I’m Mari, and this is my mother Hiroko.  She welcomes you to our inn,” the girl said in remarkably good Common.

Viktor smiled gratefully.  This far from the bustling port, he had wondered if language would be a challenge.

“Thank her for me, and let her know that my squire and I are grateful that we could be accommodated so quickly.”

At the mention of Yuri, the younger woman’s eyes seemed to brighten.  Viktor was going to have to find out what made Yuri so popular, particularly since that popularity seemed to vex him so much.

Hiroko gave Viktor an assessing look, then said something to Mari.  The younger woman nodded before turning back to him.

“Your…squire?…he mentioned that you had a long ride.  He has gone to the room we made ready, but my mother said we can show you to your room, or if you would like, there is a hot spring.  Many guests find that it is helpful after having been in the cold. Afterwards she could bring you supper.”

As exhausted as he was from the ride, he wasn’t quite ready to try to sleep.  After having failed to seize that moment for the chamber’s task earlier, Viktor could only imagine what sort of dreams would come to him tonight.  The idea of being able to delay that a little longer eased something inside of him.

He nodded, smiling gratefully at the older woman.  In short order, he found his saddlebags whisked off to his room and was being led out to a small stone building by a friendly older man. There, he was patiently stripped of his soiled clothes, and pointed towards another door.

Soon, Viktor was sitting up to his chest in blissfully hot water as he watched the snow above him.



Chapter Text

Yuuri blinked awake to the heavy press of darkness.  Slowly he sat up on the mattress, the covers sliding down and cool air creeping in.  With a shiver, he pulled the blanket back up.

His thoughts felt soft and fuzzy from sleep, and he had the sort of confusion that came with waking up in the dark of winter where he had no idea of whether it was still night or early morning.

There was a tap at the door to his room, followed by a soft slide as it was pulled open.  A moment later, Mari’s face appeared.

“Yuuri, we need your help with the inn.”  Mari’s voice may have been low, but the sound carried easily through the still dark.

Blearily, Yuuri asked, “What time is it?”

There was a flicker of wry amusement in Mari’s eyes.

“It’s evening.  Most of the guests are starting to go off to bed, but what with the snow, we’ve had a few late arrivals.  I need to go help in the kitchen, so mother wants you to go out to the hot springs.”

Yuuri tried to piece together that information.  The days had been getting steadily longer since mid-winter, but the light still didn’t typically last long.  Yuuri might have arrived home around the time that the family would have been sitting down to an early supper—something he had forgotten in his panic.  Now, he was suddenly aware that his stomach felt empty.

At the sound of a rumble, Mari laughed softly, one hand rising to hide her mouth.

“If you get up and go check on that guest, there’s katsudon waiting in the dining room.”

Yuuri scrambled up to his feet, following Mari out and down to the lower level.  After the day he’d had, the idea of trying to drown out all of the lingering feelings with a bowl of his mother’s pork cutlet dish was all he wanted.  Since he was little, that dish had been something of a touchstone for Yuuri. When he was young and in need of cheering up, he would always find a bowl of it put in front of him, and later, when he had tired of the relentless teasing about the childhood weight he hadn’t quite shed, it had become the special treat he reserved for himself when he did well in the local competitions Minako pressed him to attending.  When the family had gotten a new horse fifteen years before, it was Yuuri who had won the debate over what name would be chosen; at the time he had felt like naming the horse after his favourite thing in the world would be a good omen.

Passing through the hallway that led in the direction of the hot springs, Yuuri paused at the sound of an unfamiliar noise.   Was that a bark?

A moment later he was flying backwards, his vision filled with a cloud of brown fur.  Before he had even hit the ground, Yuuri’s face was under assault from a gigantic pink tongue.

Slightly stunned, he laid there looking up at the happily wriggling body, the dog’s tail wagging enough that it was  struggling to keep its hind quarters in one place.

“Vicchan?” Yuri asked softly, his hands rising up to drift through the dog’s coat.  Was he being visited by the ghost of his childhood pet? But that was ridiculous, if only because this dog was easily three times the size, though they shared the same fuzzy curled coat and colouring.

“I know, just like him, right?” Mari said from somewhere behind.  “The dog, and a pretty awful cat, arrived with the foreigners—our late arrivals.”

All warmth drained out of Yuuri, and he gently pushed the dog off his chest.

“Foreigners?”

Mari nodded, and Yuuri could see her eyes light up.  “They decided the weather was going to be bad enough that they would have the foreign nobles stay at inns.”

“But we must be too far away!” Yuuri protested.

Shrugging, Mari said, “Apparently not.  There weren’t enough places closer to the camp, so they had to send two here.  And that’s on top of all of the travellers that stopped because of the cold. While you were off, we got busy!”

“What do they look like?” Yuuri asked with a desperate hope.  Maybe he would be lucky, and the guests would turn out to be nothing more than some fancy aristocrats--diplomats or dilettantes rather than a knight.

A smile curved across Mari’s face.  “The younger of the two—oh, you should see him!  He’s gorgeous, and he looks just like the temple images of the kitten god, Yurio.”

Mari sighed a little, as Yuuri tried to remember what Yurio was supposed to look like.  The kitten god was one of a hundred minor deities, only remarkable for the fact that he was always described as handsome with delicate features and pale hair.

There were two of them that afternoon .  In recognizing the one, and then in his mad dash away, it had been easy to forget, but there had definitely been someone else there.  With the glare of the sun that day, it was impossible for him to have seen whether the other Tortallan had the fine features that Mari seemed to be describing, but from his short height and thin frame, Yuuri wouldn’t be surprised.  And his hair had definitely been pale blonde.

Maybe that’s a common hair colour in Tortall?  Yuuri hoped desperately, even as his stomach shrivelled to nothing, his neck thumping with each pulse.  Yuuri clenched his hands, trying to hide them in the folds of his wide-legged trousers in the hope that Mari wouldn’t notice how they’d started to tremble.

“You should hurry out and let the other one know that food is ready,” Mari said, shoving Yuuri towards the door.

In a fog of total numbness he let himself outside, not bothering with the small building where guests could change and bathe before their soak.  Going around via the outside might have been colder, but it was less direct. When he’d finally reached the edge of the building, where the pool of water was faintly lit by a small lantern, it took him a moment to even find the figure.

Steam from the hot water rose up in great billows into the frosty night, and snowflakes were swirling down.  If it had been any other night Yuuri might have paused to admire the beauty of it, the way everything felt dimmed to a subtle black and white.  Even the man in the pool, his pale hair and paler shoulders showing above the water, seemed so natural. But all Yuuri could feel was the heavy thud of his heartbeat, anxiety bitter in his mouth.

He took another step, a buzz building in the back of his head, making him almost dizzy with the urge to turn around and disappear into the relative safety of his room.

Instead he took a step.  The snow might have muffled most of the sound, but not enough.  The man looked up from the pool, turning toward him.

For a moment, all Yuuri could see was pale hair and blue eyes, dimly aware that he was hearing an almost familiar voice—the sound of Common with some sort of twist that made the vowels shift.

Yuuri’s heart stopped, every fibre of his being simultaneously shrinking into nothingness while screaming that he needed to get out of there.  And then, the man smiled.

The way that the man’s face went from polite surprise to an unadulterated joy did something to Yuuri’s heart.  It was like a lightning strike, leaving him breathless and stunned.

“Hello,” the man said wading towards the edge of the pool, slowly rising up until he was just standing waist deep.

Yuuri’s mouth went dry, and he didn’t know where to look.  The man’s chest had the look of a statue; all lean, pale muscle with the occasional scar like veins through marble.  Yuuri had to force himself not to let his gaze drift any lower, the water hiding very little, and instead focussed on that face.

“Were you billeted here as well?”

Yuuri was struggling to reconcile the man’s voice with his memories.  There were notes to it that were the same, but where the voice he remembered had an icy, cultured quality, this man’s voice was lower and rougher.  There was a pleasant rasp to it that Yuuri was trying hard to ignore.

Face carefully blank, Yuuri examined the man, trying to figure out why he was being so friendly.  Was it possible he didn’t remember Yuuri? Were there so many people he had been casually cruel to that he couldn’t remember them all?

But there was something different.  Without thinking, Yuuri stepped forward, trying to get a better look.  And that was when he realized that this man wasn’t the bully from so long ago.  There were enough similarities that Yuuri could only assume there must be some connection, but where the man of his nightmares had blonde hair that had almost looked white, this one had hair like spun silver.  And while the man certainly wasn’t old , he was definitely older than the bully.

“My mother sent me to tell you that supper is ready,” Yuuri finally said, realizing that the man was still expecting him to say something.

There was the faintest look of confusion in the man’s expression before his smile returned.  When he rose up out of the water, Yuuri had to quickly look away. Feeling a flush burning through his face, Yuuri grabbed the towel that had been left nearby, blindly thrusting it towards the other man.  Their fingers met for the briefest moment, and Yuuri had to wonder if this man was some sort of mage for the effect he was having on stopping and starting Yuuri’s heart.

“Have we met?”

Yuuri could feel his blush deepen and hoped the man would just mistake it for the cold.  How did he answer? Did earlier that day count, if this was the same man he’d seen then?

At the risk of replying with some answer that would be more rambling deluge than anything coherent, Yuuri settled for a simple, “No.”

Behind him, there was the sound of cloth against skin, and a moment later the man was standing beside him wearing the robe that had been left out.  Yuuri had to stop his eyes from being drawn down to where the deep V of the neckline was gaping over the man’s muscled chest.

“You said there was food?” the man asked gently.

Yuuri cursed himself for a distracted idiot, a new blush rising up. This man certainly thought he was some sort of country simpleton.

“Yes, this way.”

Trying to move as quickly as possible, Yuuri led the way back to the inn and through to the dining room.  His mother had already placed the bowls of katsudon on the table, and was hovering nervously.

“Ask him if that will be alright?” Hiroko asked him in Yamani, her voice low.

The man had already knelt down in front of the table and was examining the bowl.  Looking up with a smile he asked in Common, “What’s this?”

“Katsudon,” Yuuri replied quickly. At the man’s look of polite confusion, he added, “it’s rice and pork cutlet.  My mother makes the best katsudon in all of the Isles.”

“And are you joining me?” The man gestured towards the other bowl.

Yuuri stared at the bowl for a long moment.  He needed to eat, and it had been so long since he had allowed himself to indulge in this particular dish, but that fact was warring with the urge to bolt back to his room.

Not the same man , he told himself, though a part of his brain protested that his panic was for a whole different reason.  Finally, he nodded slowly, trying to gauge the man’s reaction.

“Excellent!” The man said with another smile.  “I hate eating alone, and Yuri has already abandoned me.”

“Yuuri?”

The man nodded, starting to dig in.  “My squire. The blonde brat I arrived with.”

“Oh, I thought…” Yuuri didn’t even know what he had thought, just that hearing the man say his name had been…life altering.  Feeling more than a little awkward, he said, “My name is Yuuri. Also.”

“I’m Viktor.”

Yuuri nodded, managing a nervous smile.

“Well?” Hiroko asked Yuuri, interrupting his swirl of thoughts as she looked pointedly at the food.

Yuuri sighed, before muttering, “My mother would like to know if the food is okay.”

Viktor who was halfway through a gigantic spoonful, directed his smile towards Hiroko.  Yuuri could all but see his mother swoon, not that he blamed her. After only minutes in the Tortallan’s company, it was difficult for him to remember why he needed to be so wary under the onslaught of charm.

“Delicious!” Viktor declared.

Hiroko clearly didn’t need Yuuri to translate, as she nodded her head and smiled.  Turning back to Yuuri, her expression dimmed.

“Is there a problem?” she asked, gesturing to where his bowl was still untouched.

Viktor looked up questioningly, and Yuuri felt himself blush yet again.

“My mother…she just wants to know…why I haven’t started yet.”

“Ah.”

Yuuri was uncomfortable with the way Viktor could make that one syllable response have a whole world of meaning.  Instead he tried to distract himself with the food, and with the hope that as soon as he was finished he could disappear.



Chapter Text

Viktor didn’t know which gods to thank, but when he’d heard the soft sound of steps in the dark and glanced up to see the man from his visions—Yuuri—he had silently sworn to all those he could think of to make offerings at their temples as soon as he got home.

In that single moment, Viktor had felt more hope than he had in years.  Finally he had found one of the pieces of his vision, and after seeing Yuuri for so long in his dreams, of waking up missing him, it had taken Viktor a moment to realize that he didn’t actually know him.  Where the Yuuri of his dreams was fierce and sharp, always darting forward into the blaze, this Yuuri seemed softer, more hesitant. And with little interest in even talking to Viktor.

They had just about finished their meal and Viktor had only managed to learn Yuuri’s name; it seemed like if he’d even broached the topic of anything more heavy than the weather, Yuuri would bolt, never mind how he would feel about being called to some desperate quest.

How do you even tell someone that you’ve been dreaming about them for weeks ?

“Are you going back for the tournaments?” Viktor asked, hoping to find some way to prolong whatever this encounter was.

The question, however, appeared to be the wrong thing to ask.  Yuuri’s face blanched, his eyes darting away towards the door.

“No,” Yuuri mumbled, as he started to eat even faster.

Viktor figured that he had maybe one or two minutes before Yuuri would finish, and then he would vanish. Again.

“But you are trained in combat?”

Yuuri’s response was barely more than a tight nod.

“Yuuri is just being modest,” said Mari, who had wandered into the room with a jug of water.  She filled up each of their glasses before turning to Viktor. “He studied at the Imperial School—he went to your country as part of the official envoy back when the princess was sent over.”

Viktor felt slightly stunned at that piece of information, that Yuuri had been in Tortall.  Of course Yuuri must have studied somewhere—the skill that Viktor had seen would have meant anything else was unlikely—but if Yuuri had been in Tortall, surely Viktor would have known?  The idea that they could have been so close…

“Did you participate in the tournaments then?”

Yuuri set down his chopsticks, appetite apparently gone.  While the glare he gave his sister might have been tame by Tortallan standards, Viktor got the impression that it was skirting irredeemably rude in this part of the world.

“We just did expositions on Yamani methods.  The tournaments were all just the same small group, and were meant for fun and training.”

Searching his memory, Viktor tried to recall if he’d seen Yuuri at any of the exhibitions he’d been able to catch.  Nothing from the matches came to mind, but there was one day that he’d been heading back to his tent far later than he should have—it was so late that for some, it must have crossed over into very early—and in the half light of dawn, he had seen the flash of steel.

Viktor had found himself propelled forward until he was standing on the edge of one of the large yards, watching a young man carve up the air around him.  He had found the flow of the movements then hypnotic; how he hadn’t recognized that same fluid grace when he had seen Yuuri earlier Viktor didn’t know.

“I remember you,” Viktor murmured.

As with all of his actions, the words seemed to startle Yuuri, bringing down that guarded stare.

“I think I saw you practicing…when you were in Tortall.  I’m always a little envious of those who can manage that sort of elegance with a polearm; I’m afraid my work with lances and spears was only ever deemed satisfactory, and even then my knight master during my days as a squire assured me that the only reason I had passed that part of the big exams was because my sword work managed to mask my other deficiencies.”

Yuuri just nodded, his face polite.  With a brief nod, Yuuri rose up from the table.

“I hope that you enjoy your time in our country,” Yuuri said, with a polite formality that made it clear that he had no intention of spending any time near Viktor again.

Desperately, Viktor tried to think of some excuse to have him stay, some reason that he would at least have to see him again tomorrow.

“With the weather the way it is the tournament will almost assuredly be cancelled, or postponed until they can get the camp rebuilt.  My squire and I will be here for a day or two yet, and I’m going to need to resume his training. Normally when we’re at the camp I can get one of the other knights to work with him on polearms, but since we’re the only to be billeted here…would you mind giving him some instruction?”  Viktor held his breath waiting for Yuuri’s response.

Again there was that dusting of pink across the bridge of the Yamani’s nose and cheeks, making Viktor desperate to know just what thoughts were going through his head.

“Why?”

Viktor tried to give his best winning smile, the one Chris had once said could gain him anything; Yuuri just took a step back, looking unsettled.

Cool it, Nikiforov , Viktor tried to remind himself, but he only knew how to do things at two paces—not at all and full speed ahead.  Now that he had found Yuuri it was impossible for him to hold back.

“Like I said, I’ve seen you fight—back in Tortall and this afternoon.  I’d be a poor teacher if I ignored whole parts of a knight’s training, or even worse tried to teach him myself.  Plus, I think the boy would appreciate having someone else to complain to.”

Yuuri looked at him for a long moment, his eyes searching and intense before he finally nodded.  Viktor had to work hard to keep his joy to himself, though from the widening of Yuuri’s eyes, Viktor was pretty sure he hadn’t done that good a job.

“There’s a hall that we can use, up the mountain.  What time will you start?”

It took everything in Viktor’s meagre store of self-control to keep his smile tight, and not to start offering any time Yuuri wanted.  For all Viktor cared he’d happily drag his squire out of bed to start training now if it meant he could start trying to find out why the chamber thought Yuuri was important to him; why some part of Viktor already knew Yuuri was important.

“Dawn?”

Yuuri grimaced.

“Too early?” Viktor quickly asked, “We could start later!”

“No!  I just…dawn will be fine.  I will meet you outside of the inn, near the mountain path.”

 

***

 

“Explain to me again why you’re getting some random country bumpkin to give me lessons in combat?” Yuri snarled.

Since Viktor had woken the squire a little before dawn, the boy had been doing nothing but complaining.    Mostly he seemed to be complaining about how they were stuck in the middle of nowhere, but Viktor suspected it was more that Yuri was missing the routine he had built up.  In the mornings, the squire would visit the stall that sold some of the favourite foods of the North mountains, then try to seek out a certain quiet knight under the guise of getting tips on jousting.  With all of that upended, Yuri was clearly determined to make a fuss; it didn’t stop him from inhaling his food that morning though, Viktor noted.

Mari was floating around the room, occasionally sneaking glances at the squire as he shovelled food into his face.  Viktor didn’t think it was particularly picturesque, but she still seemed a little enamoured with Yuri.

“Mari,” Viktor called over, and she bounded forward.  “Can you help us with something?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve been trying to figure something out.  For some reason Yuri seems to be getting a lot of attention from the local girls at the camp; I was wondering if you might know why.”  Viktor bit back a laugh as the squire almost choked on a mouthful.

“Yuuri?” Mari asked, confusion across her face until understanding dawned.  “Oh. The little one is also a Yuuri?” At that she started to giggle.

Angry green eyes locked onto her, and Viktor was sure that the spoon in Yuri’s hand was going to snap any moment.

“WHAT’S SO FUNNY?” Yuri demanded.

“My brother is also called, Yuuri.  This could get confusing, I think we should start calling you Yurio,” Mari said, her words disappearing into a fit of giggles.

Viktor still had no idea why the girl seemed to find the nickname quite so funny, but he found himself caught up in the laughter.  “Yurio it is!”

Yuri—Yurio—gave him a look that spoke of betrayal and revenge.

“Come on, Yurio.  We have plans to go do some training.  Have you finished your breakfast?”

“…I’ll finish your breakfast…” Yurio mumbled.

He just smiled sunnily at Mari, thanking her for the food and having gotten it ready so early, and then ushered the squire out into the rising light.

The snow looked a great deal less bleak in the dawn light, but it was still rather daunting.  The yard was a crisp white blanket; even their tracks from the stables the night before had been filled in.  Stepping out, Viktor sank up to his ankles, each step sliding a bit in the fresh snow.

“So, where is he?  Where’s my new teacher ?”

Viktor gave Yurio a disapproving frown.  With how shy Yuuri was, he did not need his squire’s salty attitude making things worse.

“Remember that we’re guests in this country, Yurio .”

“Don’t call me that!”

Viktor just laughed and ruffled the boy’s hair.

“Why don’t you go check on the horses while we wait?”

His answer was yet another glare, but Yuri did make his way to the stables.

As Viktor waited, he allowed himself to enjoy the view that surrounded him.  The area chosen for the camp might have been relatively flat, but this village was all rise and fall, and cloaked in the snow it felt enough like Stonemountain that Viktor felt an unlikely surge of homesickness.  After training, he promised himself, he would take Makkachin out for a walk. Yesterday’s hard journey to the inn had left her unwilling to do much more than blink sleepily at him this morning when he got up, and then quickly steal his spot. He hadn’t the heart to force her to join him and Yuri, particularly since he didn’t know if a dog would even be allowed in the training hall.

“Good morning,” a soft voice said from behind Viktor.

Turning, Viktor couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face.

“Hi.”

Yuuri shifted his feet a little nervously, glancing around the yard.

“Are you ready? You said your squire…?” The words trailed off as if Yuuri wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“Oh, Yuri—or, I think Yurio as your sister has dubbed him—is just checking on the horses.  He should be back in a moment,” Viktor said with a wave.

Nodding, Yuuri wandered through the yard towards what Viktor could only assume was normally the path leading up the mountain.

Yuuri’s voice was quiet enough that it took Viktor a second to realize the other man was speaking. “Normally I try to run the path up to Minako’s hall.  Will the two of you be able to manage?”

A second after he had spoken, Yuuri seemed to think about what he had said, and again a blush rose up as he twisted his mouth into an anxious grimace.

“Sorry, not that I’m implying that the two of you can’t run, but I wasn’t sure if you have much to bring with you for training, or if you’ve had to do much in snow, and the path is quite steep, or—”

Viktor had thought the blush was endearing, but the rapid flow of mumbled apology was downright adorable. Still, he felt like he should put Yuuri out of his misery.

“Yuuri, it’s fine.  As any of my friends can tell you, I don’t offend easily, and Yurio’s skin is so thin everything offends him so it’s not worth worrying where he’s concerned.  If your regular routine is to start with a run, then we would certainly be happy to go with that.”

The tension in Yuuri’s frame didn’t quite disappear, but it did ease.

A minute or two later, Yurio slouched out of the stables, wiping his hands on his cloak and scowling.

“Viktor, your idiot stallion slobbered on me!”

“Were you feeding him sugar again?”

Yurio’s gaze darted away in a silent admission of guilt.

“Well, you get what you deserve.  He knows you’re a soft touch now.”

“I only use the sugar because you chose to have the meanest horse.  Who even uses stallions anymore?”

Viktor smiled apologetically at Yuuri.

“Sorry, my squire’s manner leaves something to be desired—“

“—Hey! I’m right here!—” Yuri interrupted.

“Yurio,” Viktor said with a silencing glare, “this is Yuuri.  Yuuri, this is Yuri—Yurio.”

Yuuri looked the fuming squire over, a small smile sneaking onto his face.

“You said Mari decided that you should be called Yurio?” Yuuri asked, and Viktor felt like there was some joke that he and the teen were missing.

“I don’t know what she was called, it was the hag—“

The teen was finally close enough that Viktor could elbow him; he really was going to have to try to break Yurio of his habit of casual insults.

Rolling his eyes, Yurio continued, “The hag who brought us breakfast called me that.  And this idiot seems to have embraced it.” There was a brief pause as Yurio seemed to catch on that there was something funny, and he added, “What’s so amusing?!”

“It’s not really funny , it’s just that Mari—and likely other girls in the islands—think that you look like a small deity, who is called Yurio.”

It was only seeing the indignant fury in Yurio’s eyes that stopped Viktor from laughing out loud.  He did, however, decide that his squire was definitely only going to be known as Yurio from then on.

“Is he at least the god of something good?” Yurio demanded.

“Some think so.  We should get going, it feels like the wind is going to pick up soon and going up the mountain in blowing snow could be unpleasant.”

“Lead the way,” replied Viktor.

Yuuri gave him an assessing look, that guarded quality still evident in every movement.   But there’s no fear , Viktor consoled himself.  That at least had to count as some progress.

He watched as Yuuri started up the path, his heels sending up sprays of snow as he ran.  The man made it look easy, Viktor thought a few minutes later. It was only his own rigorous training regime that kept Viktor’s breathing even and his muscles continuing despite the burn that had started up.  Running through snow was a pain, and running with gear—even the little that he had—was even worse. He made a mental note to see if he could find a weighted harness, like what pages used for their training, for runs…and then to get back into a routine of daily runs.

Yurio, slight as he was, seemed to have little problem with the snow, though his movements lacked Yuuri’s easy grace.

Focus Nikiforov , Viktor scolded himself as he tried to come up with a plan for how he could get Yuuri to open up, or at least find a window of opportunity to mention what the chamber had told him.

Of course, by the time they had reached the squat stone building that Yuuri directed them into, Viktor’s plan still didn’t amount to much more than being friendly and shamelessly using his squire as an excuse.

The interior of the building was just one large hall with what appeared to be some of the paper wall partitions common to the isles on the far end.  The floor was sanded and lacquered wood, and a brazier glowed warmly in one corner. There was the soft sound of one of the wall panels sliding open and then a woman’s face was poking through, long dark hair falling around her delicate features.  She narrowed her eyes at the sight of Viktor and Yurio before saying something to Yuuri.

Responding in Common, Yuuri said, “These are some guests of the inn—they’re supposed to be in the upcoming tournaments and needed somewhere to train while they wait for the snow to clear.”

The woman pushed the panel back further and stepped into the room, her light, graceful steps telling Viktor two things: one, that regardless of how slim and delicate she looked, she moved like she could do some damage; and two, that she had to have been Yuuri’s own instructor.

“And you volunteered my space?” Her voice had an edge to it like a keen blade, and Yuuri flushed, though his gaze was remarkably direct as he nodded.

“It was my fault,” Viktor said, offering her a smile.  “I had the opportunity to see Yuuri fight with a glaive, and well…normally one of the other knights we’re traveling with would help with my squire’s training since I have little skill with that manner of weapon…and so I pressed Yuuri into giving Yurio a lesson while we’re here.”

The woman glanced over at Yurio where he stood, legs braced and arms across his chest.  She gave a snort of laughter.

“Yurio?” she said with a chuckle and an eye roll.

It could only have been Mithros’s interference that prevented Yurio from screaming something at the woman.

“Alright,” she said slowly, eyeing Viktor and Yurio up with more care.  “You’re the one that’s competing?”

Viktor nodded, wondering where this line of questioning was going to go.

“So you must be good at something?”

“Minako!” Yuuri hissed, his gaze darting anxiously between the woman and Viktor.  Viktor tried to smile reassuringly at Yuuri.

“The sword.”

At that, Minako’s eyes lit up and she shot a devilish look at Yuuri, though it seemed to get locked down behind a mild expression a heartbeat later.

“Excellent!  Yuuri could do with some practice.  You two will stay in here and work with swords.  Come along, little cat, we’re going to train outside.”  All of that was said in the sort of firm tone that brooked no argument.  Even Yurio just nodded, shooting Viktor a look that was equal parts rage and desperation before trailing after her.

Trying not to look too eager, Viktor turned to Yuuri and gestured towards the practice swords that Yurio had left in a pile near the door.

“Shall we begin?”



Chapter Text

Minako was going to hell, of that much Yuuri was sure.  Yama would make sure that his former teacher was going to go somewhere truly terrible, meant for all of the murderers, blasphemers, and teachers who forced their students into terrible, awful situations.

“Shall we begin?” Viktor had asked him, like it was no big deal.

Stomach roiling and palms already clammy, Yuuri looked down at the practice swords that Yurio had left behind.  Why couldn’t they have been working with glaives? Though even that would be sure to show just how outclassed Yuuri was; however much Viktor claimed to be competent with little more than the sword, Yuuri knew that the training for knights was no joke.  Yurio had also been mentioning the tournaments—if Viktor was here to compete in those, then surely he must be one of the best warriors in Tortall.

“I…” Yuuri’s mouth felt dry, and he struggled to get the words out.  “Swords are less common here, and we use a different type. I’m…afraid I won’t be much of a match for you.”

The knight smiled at him, the very picture of ease and charm, and even winked at Yuri.

“Don’t worry about it—I’ve seen you move, you’ll pick it up quickly.  And it’ll make it a fair swap if you have to see me with one of those glaives,” Viktor said, eyes crinkling and smile broad.

Yuuri wanted to trust that openness, so desperately did he want to trust that…friendship…that seemed to be on offer.  Instead, he just nodded, leaning over to pick up one of the swords.

It was heavy—not quite so bad as his glaive, but certainly a good deal heavier than the bamboo swords he’d mostly used during his instruction at school.  This blade was dulled, but Yuuri could see how the real thing was meant to be sharp on both sides of the blade, a contrast to the one sided blades favoured on the islands.  Feeling the weight of Viktor’s attention, Yuuri glanced up to see those blue eyes on him, assessing. Looking for my weaknesses. Seeing my faults.

“Have you used a longsword at all?” Viktor asked.

Embarrassed, Yuuri had to shake his head.  Already he was certain that the knight must be regretting their arrangement.  Fighters of his caliber didn’t usually want to waste their time working with novices.  But you wouldn’t know it to look at him—Viktor just smiled and nodded.

“Okay, let’s start with basics, and go from there.  Show me your grip.”

Viktor made a few adjustments, but otherwise nodded approvingly.

The next hour was a blur of instruction.  The footwork was easy enough for Yuuri to grasp—the dance of lunges, pivots and shifting weight familiar from his other training—but there was something about the strikes that eluded him.

Here on the islands, the favoured weapon was almost exclusively the glaive, and it was only the small number of warriors who guarded shrines and temples that learned how to wield a sword. Even then, it was for ceremonial purposes more than anything.  When the sword was used, it was always meant for finishing a fight; attacks were aimed with precision, to end a fight in the most economical way. Yuuri found that his instinct was to aim for the targets drilled into his head: going for the space near the thumb that would make an opponent unable to hold their sword; following up an overhead attack with a move into the opponent’s space.  But none of these accounted for the heavy armour worn by the knights, and the Yamani technique of finesse and restraint certainly didn’t fit with the heavier, unwieldy longsword.

“Again!” Viktor called, and Yuuri surged forward, trying to move a little to the right as he brought the blade down in an overhead strike towards Viktor’s neck.

In a flash of motion, Viktor had easily sidestepped the blow, his own sword coming down to block Yuuri’s blade in a clash of steel against steel.

“Trust the guard,” Viktor reminded him, and Yuuri wondered which of his tells had betrayed his nervousness.  Even with the dulled blade, there was something about seeing it moving towards his fingers, only blocked by the crossways guard at the top of the sword, that made him a little nervous.

Yuuri shifted his weight, altering his grip as Viktor had shown him so that the angle of the blade adjusted and he was able to press the attack forward.

“Nicely done!”

Despite himself, Yuuri couldn’t help but feel a glow of pride, though  it was quickly doused by Viktor’s follow up of “Next time, more drive. You need to want to hit me.”

Viktor stepped back, lowering his sword and glancing over towards the door.   Probably wondering when Minako will be finished with Yurio so he can stop this farce , Yuuri thought.

“Do you want a break?” Viktor asked, using his free hand to shove the damp curtain of silvery hair off his forehead.

“I’m fine to keep going,” Yuuri protested.

“Oh to be young again,” Viktor said with a smile.  “I think I need a couple of minutes.  It’s been a long time since I’ve gone this long.”

“Oh, okay.”

Without the pretext of instruction and sparring, an awkward silence quickly settled between them.  Yuuri could feel Viktor’s eyes on him, and it took all of his willpower to keep his own attention on the floor.  He couldn’t bear the idea of looking up and seeing something in the other man’s eyes that confirmed all his fears.

“You know,” Viktor said slowly, “for someone who hasn’t trained with the sword you’re doing quite well.”

That had Yuuri glancing up, half expecting to see a mocking smile or some other sign that this was just an opening for Viktor to ridicule Yuuri.  But the man’s expression was as open as ever, the words genuinely meant even if they weren’t entirely accurate.

“Thank you,” Yuuri said.

Viktor stepped forward and placed a hand on Yuuri’s shoulder.  The small gesture seared through Yuuri’s practice shirt, and again he had the curious feeling that something had been plucked out of his chest.

“Really.  You have the footwork—you have the sort of footwork the sword master at the palace would kill to see in any of the pages.  Getting them—us—to learn how to step out of the path of the blade was one of the longest lessons. And you have a way of…the movements are…”

Yuuri glanced up at Viktor’s face, only to realize just how close the knight was.  From here he could see the silvery fan of Viktor’s eyelashes surrounding the blue depths of his eyes--at that moment they were the same blue as the waves down near the inn in the midst of a tempest.  Viktor worried at his lip before his lips pursed into a pout, frustration clear on his face.

“Sorry, I’m normally better with words than this…you have a way of moving where, if you could just get some power—a bit more purpose—you would be unstoppable with more training.”

The words echoed through Yuuri’s head, careening off of each other and pulling him out of whatever stupor Viktor’s touch had thrown him into.

“I’ve always been told I lack fighting vigour.”

“Fighting vigour?” Viktor’s head tilted at the unfamiliar term.

Trying to figure out how to elaborate was its own special agony, finding the words to put his own inadequacies on display.

“The necessary spirit for combat. To be able to first strike a blow to the opponent’s confidence before arms are even taken.”

Viktor raised one pale hand to his face, tapping his index finger against his lips. His eyes were thoughtful.  When he didn’t say anything, Yuuri wished he could take back his own words, or find some excuse to leave the hall.

Yama at least seemed to be looking out for him.  The sound of voices filtered through the doorway, quickly followed by Minako and Yurio coming in from the cold.  Their faces were pink and there was a light dusting of snow on their hair and shoulders.

“Finished already?” Viktor asked.  “Yurio, I thought you were going to be able to impress our Yamani hosts.”

The pale boy’s shoulders shook with anger, his face going red.

“THE SNOW STARTED AGAIN! WE CAN’T SEE ANYTHING OUT THERE!”

The boy’s words rang out sharply around the room, but Viktor didn’t look phased at all.  Instead, he just winked at Yuuri before arching an eyebrow at his squire.

“A good knight is prepared to fight in all weather.”

“And what about in here?  Did you decide this idiot was hopeless?”

In a flash Viktor had moved towards the teen so that he was just inches away, looming over him.

“Do not mistake my forbearance of your attitude towards me as an open invitation to say what you like.  You are a guest in this country, and an emissary of King Jonathon.”

Yuuri heard the soft pad of footsteps, letting him know that Minako had moved up beside him to watch the unfolding scene.

In Yamani, she said to Yuuri, “I like this one.  Most of these foreign warriors know nothing of honour, but this one…he has a destiny.”

“We all have destinies.”

Minako just smiled at him, her expression a little sly.  Yuuri couldn’t help but wonder what it was that she had seen.  The woman’s gift of the sight was not enough for her to be claimed for the Emperor’s court, but just enough for her words to make Yuuri feel uneasy.

“Bring him back here tomorrow.  You will need to continue your training.  And bring the kitten—the knight is right, he does need the help.  His handling of a polearm is atrocious.”

Yuuri nodded, only just realizing that the fight between knight and student had passed and they were looking at him and Minako.  Yuuri flushed, wondering how much of the conversation the others had heard.

“What would the training mistress like?” Viktor asked with a slight bow to Minako.

Of course , they wouldn’t have understood any of it .

Minako lifted an eyebrow and smirked at Yuuri, clearly waiting to see what he would say.

“She has suggested that we go back to the inn before it gets much worse,” Yuuri said, hoping all the while that Minako would not contradict him.

He wasn’t sure, but he thought she might have rolled her eyes at his lie.  “I also said that you will come back tomorrow.”



Chapter Text

The walk back was bitterly cold, and by the time they arrived at the inn all three were shivering.  Gratefully, Viktor followed Yuuri inside.

Maybe, he thought, I should take advantage of the hot springs again.   After all, they had helped quite a bit after the gruelling ride of the night before.

Wondering if he could convince Yuuri to join him, Viktor turned to the man only to discover a small puddle of melted snow where he had once stood.  Viktor scoured the hall—how had he missed Yuuri disappearing? For all Yuuri’s surprising lack of confidence he had an almost preternatural speed, with reflexes to match.  Watching him move had been an unexpected pleasure of the morning.

“He’s gone,” Yurio sneered.

“Did you see where he went?” It was a struggle to keep the edge out of his voice.

Yurio just shrugged, pulling at the fastening of his cloak and letting the damp wool fall to the floor.

“Make sure you pick that up.”

The boy might have sighed like Viktor had just asked him to go sleep in the stables, but he did pick up the garment.  Viktor was definitely going to have to work a bit harder at refining Yurio’s manners, though not right now. Right now, he needed to find Yuuri.

An hour of sparring had not been nearly enough for him.  By the end, Viktor had felt like he’d started to make some small dent in the reserve that Yuuri wrapped around himself so tightly; if they’d had just a bit longer…

His lack of visions the previous night could only lead Viktor to assume that he was on the right track, that he was where he needed to be, but he didn’t know how long that would hold true.  What if he was called back to the camp never having exchanged anything more than polite conversation and training talk with Yuuri?

There was a clenching feeling in his chest at the very suggestion.

It’s just that he’s been in my dreams for so long; of course I’m fascinated , Viktor tried to tell himself.  

“What are we doing for the rest of the day?” Yurio’s question cut through Viktor’s thoughts, pulling his gaze down to his squire.

We’re going to tear apart the inn to find Yuuri , Viktor desperately wanted to say.   We’re going to sit him down and force him to tell me why he gets that far away look on his face, and why he seems so defeated.

Instead, he straightened his shoulders and gave Yurio his best knight-master look.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve let your reading slide since we’ve been in the isles.  Come on—a day like this is perfect for a lesson on supply.”

Viktor sent Yurio off to fetch his books and some paper, and settled himself in at the table in the dining room.  Hopefully, from here he would be able to see if Yuuri came out of hiding.

 

***

 

It wasn’t until well into the evening that Viktor caught even a glimpse of Yuuri.  Dinner had long since passed, and all of the other guests had disappeared back to their rooms for the night.  Viktor had decided to stick around in the dining room under the pretense that the light was better. With Mindelan’s book open before him, Viktor had pretended to read, jumping at every sound and always glancing towards the door.

“Ugh, I can’t take it anymore,” Yurio had finally grumbled, slamming his own book shut.  “You’re not fooling anyone you know.”

The squire had then stomped off to his own bed, leaving Viktor and Makkachin on their own.  As he read, Viktor had one hand buried in her fur, appreciating the soft rise and fall of her breathing as she dozed in and out of sleep.

At the soft sound of footsteps, Viktor looked up automatically, though without much hope.  Framed in the doorway was Yuuri, looking sheepish and rumpled. From the fading creases in his face, Viktor guessed that Yuuri must have been sleeping for the last while.  Another one of the small details Viktor’s mind filed away.

When Yuuri hesitated on the threshold, Viktor could feel his small window of opportunity closing.

“Have you eaten?  You should eat.”

Where did that come from? Viktor wanted to know.  How was it that he was starting to sound like someone’s mother, or worse, Yakov?

Yuuri was still clearly weighing the decision of whether he would come in, hunger winning out over reluctance.  He padded softly into the room, leaving Viktor to marvel over how Yuuri’s walk alone was something to behold.  Viktor couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see Yuuri in the more form-fitting Tortallan style of dress.  The thought of Yuuri in breeches, or better yet hose, was enough for Viktor to hope that his thoughts didn’t show on his face.

“Mari thought you might come down eventually, so she left some of this for you,” Viktor said, gesturing to the collection of bowls on the table.

“Oh, thanks,” Yuuri said quietly, sitting down opposite.  He pulled a bowl of rice over and started to add some items from the surrounding bowls.

Ever the one to be aware of an opportunity for food, Makkachin was instantly awake.  She rolled up onto her feet and raced over to Yuuri, her head dropping down onto his arm and her liquid eyes darting between Yuuri and the food.

“Makka,” Viktor scolded, starting to rise.

“It’s fine.”

Viktor paused, and looked uncertainly at Yuuri.

“No, she should be better behaved than that.  I’m afraid that her training has been as haphazard as my squire’s—she’s as unruly, but at least she doesn’t have his bite.”

A smile stretched across Yuuri’s face, lighting up his eyes, and Viktor felt as though he’d just witnessed something precious.

“She’s fine.  I actually used to have a dog, sometime ago, that was quite similar.  He was like a smaller version of...“

“Makkachin.”

“Of Makkachin.”  There was another smile, and this time Yuuri’s gaze tentatively sought out Viktor’s.

Viktor quickly shut his book, tossing it on the floor beside him and turning so that he faced Yuuri across the table.

“What was your dog called?”  Viktor asked.

A shadow crossed Yuuri’s face, though unlike the times before, this seemed less complex—sadness without the bitterness of whatever else haunted Yuuri.

“Vicchan.”

Viktor was desperate to know the story behind the blush that accompanied Yuuri’s answer.  “Was there a story behind the name?”

Yuuri shrugged, focusing down on the bowl in front of him and starting to eat.  Viktor smiled at the avoidance tactic; he could wait.

When Yuuri finally had to come up for air, Viktor repeated his question.

Yuri’s slender fingers toyed with the utensils before him, a soft sigh managing to escape.

“It’s not so much a story.  When we got Vicchan, it was a…difficult time for me.  I had started to have nightmares—I could never remember much about them, just that they were vivid and dark.  My parents thought a dog would help. The name was one of the few parts of my dream that I could remember.”

“And so you named your dog after the dreams that had been tormenting you?”

For the first time since he had actually seen Yuuri in the flesh, his gaze was like steel, his nod sharp.

“Yes.  It was partly just a reminder for me of…” he trailed off.  “It’s not nearly so dark as you think. With what little I did recall, the name…for some reason the name didn’t feel like it was a part of the dark.  It was the beacon that kept everything else at bay, and so I thought it might help Vicchan be a little like that.”

Yuuri seemed to suddenly realize just how much he had shared; his blush had risen again, and he looked a little lost.  More than anything, he looked like he needed a hug. If Viktor hadn’t thought it would upset Yuuri even more, he would have been out of his seat and around the table in a flash.  Instead, he had to content himself with being envious of his own dog, who had leaned in against Yuuri and was burrowing her head into his shoulder.

“Sorry.”

The word was so quiet that Viktor almost didn’t catch it.

“What do you have to be sorry about?   I’m sorry for bringing up something so upsetting.”

“I—A warrior should be like stone.  Emotions should never be allowed—“

Viktor decided that it was worth being a little rude if it meant cutting off Yuuri’s descent into self-flagellating talk.

“Yuuri,” Viktor drawled, pulling out the first syllable, “Don’t feel like you need to apologize for emotion to me.  I have certainly been known to do my fair share of weeping and wailing. And as you’ve seen, my squire doesn’t know the meaning of restraint.  And we’re considered fairly even tempered for a great number of knights—you should see what meal time is like in Corus at the mess hall.”

That managed to provoke another one of Yuuri’s smiles.  It was enough to make Viktor’s heart to race.

Focus , he chided himself.  The chamber had brought Viktor to Yuuri and he had to remember that, had to set aside these uncharacteristic flights of fancy.

“I should go to bed,” Yuuri finally said, rising up.

Makkachin grumbled, nose drifting towards the bowls that were nearest the edge and pink tongue darting out.  Yuuri just gently pulled her back from the table and collected up the bowls.

Viktor knew he was staring, but he couldn’t help but track Yuuri’s movement to the doorway.  There, Yuuri paused and glanced back over his shoulder. His eyes widened for the smallest fraction of a moment at finding Viktor still looking at him.  He seemed to think something over for a minute, his teeth pulling at his bottom lip in a way that had Viktor wondering why he hadn’t given much thought to Yuuri’s lips before.

“I’ll see you again tomorrow?”

Viktor nodded; he knew full well that he probably looked like a small child that had just been asked if they wanted another piece of cake, but Yuuri appeared pleased enough with the response.  With a nod that seemed to say something —though what it was, Viktor wasn’t sure—Yuuri slipped out of the room.

All Viktor could do was gather up his things and head back to his room, looking forward to sleep hurrying along the dawn.



Chapter Text

Wind whistled along the avenue, in between the tents.  Unsecured flaps snapped and cracked in the storm, ropes creaking, and the normally bustling network of paths was empty. Snow covered the whole of the camp only marred by the occasional set of footprints from some hapless servant; a servant like Marcus.

Since the nobles had been sent off and most of the merchants had decided to follow suit, the camp had shrunk down to just those servants needed to look after what was left.  Thank the goddess most of that was confined to a smaller part of the camp, but just as supper had been about to be served, a letter had arrived saying that someone was needed to check on storage near the south perimeter.

Who had sent the note no one could say, and the person to deliver it might as well have been a sprite for all anyone could remember them, but with the crest of the royal event master at the top no one was willing to risk leaving the order unfollowed.  As the newest to palace service, it had fallen to Marcus to put down his spoon, step away from his bowl of stew, and head out into the cold.

“Getting to go on an adventure, they said,” Marcus grumbled as his feet sank through the banks of drifting snow.  “Some great honour.”

The walk from the servants’ dining area out to the south perimeter took at least twenty minutes when the weather was fine.  In the snow, with the wind driving against him, it had taken thirty five; he could only imagine what it would have been like without the tents to block the worst of the wind.  The banks were deep enough that snow had gotten into the top of his boot, the melt sinking down to surround his toes.

At least he could finally see his destination.  The tent was just a few yards more, and then he would be out of the wind for a little while at least.  Carefully he unsecured the ties holding the flap down, though the wind ripped the canvas out of his hands.  Marcus had to lunge after it, hoping that the flurry of snow that got in wouldn’t do too much harm to whatever was stored inside.

Once he had the edge in hand, he quickly darted in, pulling the door after him and fastening the ties as quickly as his numb fingers would allow.  Once that was done, he let out a shaky breath and turned around to see what needed to be done.

He froze as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior and he finally saw what was inside the tent.  To describe it as storage was nothing short of generous. There were boxes piled around the outside edges, almost like some sort of interior wall, but the centre of the tent was dominated by a large table.  The table itself was crowded with an assortment of items: piles of thick books, flasks and flagons with liquids of various hues, rocks and precious stones spilling out from a small pouch, and a couple of heavily ornamented daggers.

Marcus may not have had the gift himself, but he had spent enough time at the palace in Corus that he could recognize a mage’s worktable when he saw it.

Just what have I been sent for ? he had time to wonder before he felt his limbs lock.  Marcus could just move his eyes enough to see a blaze of acid green fire twining around his body.

A man stepped into his line of vision.  He had the sort of bearing that Marcus had only seen in nobles—people who knew exactly what their place was, and who had expectations for what that would mean.  What little was left of his hair was white-blonde, marking him as someone likely from the North.

Marcus searched his memory for who this man might be, but came up with a blank.  Like all of the servants who had accompanied the envoy, he had been drilled extensively on which nobles would be with them; this man was not from the Tortallan court.

The man’s eyes narrowed into an appraising look, a sneer twisting his mouth.

“This is what they send?” the man asked.

A voice behind Marcus replied, the tone light and bored, as though they didn’t have a servant magically bound between them.  “Do you know how difficult it is to get anyone out this far when the weather is like this?”

The man looked Marcus up and down, and if he hadn’t been completely paralyzed he would have shivered.  There was something about the way the man looked at him that made Marcus feel like a chicken being sized up by a butcher.

“I suppose he will do…for now.  But if our work is to continue, I’m going to need better specimens.”

Marcus could feel something cold on his face, and it took him a moment to realize it was his own tears.  Desperately he tried to form his lips into words, to ask what they were doing, why they were doing it, to beg them to stop, but the green flames were forcing his own body to betray him.

The man grabbed hold of one of the knives, his hands revealing a practiced ease.  Robe swishing around his feet, he sidled up to Marcus, leaning close.

“This won’t be quick,” the man whispered.

And then Marcus’s world exploded into pain.



Chapter Text

Life around the inn had managed to settle into a routine of sorts.  Many of the guests who had arrived with the weather had ended up continuing on once the worst of it was over, but without any word on when the progress would be ready for the nobles to return, the Tortallans had stuck around.

Slowly, Yuuri had found himself pulled more and more into Viktor’s orbit.  After their late night meal, Yuuri had felt as though there had been some shift.  He was still a little ashamed when he thought of how he had revealed so much of his weakness, but there was something about Viktor that had Yuuri feeling as though he could—or even that he should—open up.  Despite his easy charm, there was a solemness about the man that seemed to understand Yuuri, better even than his own family.

The next day, against the screaming voice of experience, Yuuri had gone down to join the two for breakfast before training.  As he had entered the room, just like the night before, he had been greeted with that devastating smile before Viktor had turned his attention back to the book in front of him.  It was exactly what Yuuri had needed—to start his day with a little quiet contemplation. Even Viktor’s squire was content to eat in silence, occasionally sneaking bits of food to Makkachin and the cat.

Days became divided up into two categories in Yuuri’s mind: time spent with Viktor, and time spent without.  After breakfast, the three would make the trip up to Minako’s, where they would split off. While Yuuri’s swordwork was still painfully amateurish, Viktor had proven to be a good teacher.

Viktor didn’t have Minako’s patience, or even her way of breaking instructions down.  With so much talent, Viktor sometimes struggled to realize when techniques were well above what a beginner should be attempting, never mind how to break them up into a process, but that was part of what Yuuri found himself thriving on.  When Viktor was training him there was never an expectation that Yuuri wouldn’t do it, or couldn’t; Viktor’s assumption was that Yuuri would always prevail, even when what Viktor was asking was likely impossible. The need to match Viktor’s expectations felt something like a burden, but it also seemed to have been taking all of the places where Yuuri had felt brittle and weak for so long and making them stronger.

There was also something about being able to watch Viktor that often left Yuuri more than a little tongue-tied.  Even with such a poor partner as Yuuri, it was easy to tell that he was a master at this, and Yuuri wasn’t above noticing that the man appeared to be almost entirely muscle.

After a midday break, the squire and knight would return to the inn to see to their horses and whatever else needed doing.  That left Yuuri back under Minako’s tutelage until it was time to return home for supper. As odd as it was, he found himself missing Viktor during the afternoons, and it was only Minako’s sharp eye and unrelenting drive that kept him focussed on the drills and practice of unarmed combat.

By the time he had returned home, dusk starting to settle, he was usually in time to join both Viktor and Yurio for the evening meal.  Even when he happened to arrive a little late, he could usually still count on Viktor to be sitting at the table, a book out in front of him.  The rest of the evening usually involved the three of them making their way out to the hot springs, where Yuuri spent most of the time that should have been quiet contemplation trying to convince himself that he wasn’t sneaking peeks at Viktor.  At least there, it was easy for him to pass off his blushes as a result of the springs themselves. After they had all finished soaking, the rest of the evening was spent back in the dining room. Viktor would pull out some book or other—for a man who claimed not to read much, he certainly seemed to do quite a lot of it—and would have Yurio working on some academic task.  Once the two had discovered that Yuuri had received a comprehensive instruction in the field of strategy and tactics, he had found himself pressed into helping the boy with some of his lessons.

For the first time in a very long while, Yuuri felt his usual nervousness ease.  It was just the routine, he tried to tell himself—he always did better with a routine—but part of him knew better.  The Imperial school had been nothing but routines, and even when things had still been going well, he had never felt this grounded.  It was hard for him to believe that it had only been a week; and worse, it was hard for him to start to imagine what it would be like once it ended.

Returning home from Minako’s, the sun starting to sink down into the ocean, Yuuri was pulled out of his thoughts by a rider racing away from the inn.  A quick look was more than enough for him to know that it must have been a messenger for the Tortallans.

It would seem that whatever these last few days had been, they were done.

As he entered the yard of the inn, the sight of the hoof prints in the snow soured any appetite that Yuuri had.  Part of him felt like he should go in, find out what the news was, and try to enjoy the Tortallan’s companionship while it was still there, but another part just wanted to pretend that nothing would change.  So, instead of supper, Yuuri headed towards the stables.

Inside the stables it was pleasantly dark; Yuuri could feel as though he was just disappearing.  He headed over towards Katsudon’s stall.

Reaching over the low door, he ran his hand along Katsudon’s neck, laughing a little as the horse nosed his shoulders gently.  Mari or his father would have looked after the horse’s needs earlier that day, but Katsudon was always happy to have a visitor.

The faint scrape of the door was the only warning Yuuri had that someone was coming in before a slight figure was backlit against the sunset.

“Hey, Katsudon,” said the blonde squire as he entered the stable.

Yuuri wasn’t entirely sure if Yurio was talking to him or the horse.  Mari, who’s infatuation with the teen had only seemed to grow, had taken to sitting with them for parts of the evenings, telling Yurio all sorts of stories about life in Hasetsu.  One of these stories happened to be about the time Yuuri had named the horse.

Yurio had almost choked on his water, liquid spraying from his mouth as he’d dissolved into laughter.  After that, the boy had decided that if he was going to have a nickname, then Yuuri would too.

“Hi, Yurio.  A bit late for you to be out here, isn’t it?” Yuuri said, still facing into Katsudon’s stall while trying to watch for Yurio’s reaction.

“You’re telling me!  You should have been inside a while ago—you know that Viktor won’t let us eat until he’s given up on the possibility that you might be back in time.  I’ve had to start hiding food out here so I don’t starve!”

The squire paused on his way towards the back of the stable to plant his hands on his hips, his green eyes focused on Yuuri in an intense glare.

“What?!  Are you sure?  I don’t think that’s likely,” Yuuri protested.  

Yurio rolled his eyes and stalked off to his own horse’s stall.  Leaning forward over the door, his feet dangled as he reached to pluck something off the floor—a saddle bag.  Prize claimed, he dropped back to his feet, pulling out some very dry looking cheese. He made a bit of a face, but still took a bite.  Glancing up to see Yuuri watching him, the squire held out the food.

“Want some?” Yurio asked, his voice making it clear that he’d probably try to stab Yuuri if he said yes.

“No, thanks.”

There were a couple minutes where the only sounds were the shuffle of the horses and Yurio’s surprisingly noisy eating.  Eventually, the squire did turn his attention back to Yuuri.

“So?  What are you doing out here?  What was so important that you needed to hold up my dinner?  And make that big dumb dope miserable?”

“I don’t think my presence, or lack of it, is likely to have any effect on your teacher.”

“How is it that I’m surrounded by such idiots?  Anyways, you didn’t answer my question,” Yurio pressed.

Yuuri tried to decide whether he should laugh or be offended.  He still hadn’t quite been able to figure out what to make of Viktor’s squire.  In some ways, Yurio was exactly what Yuuri had come to expect from the knights after his time in Tortall.  The boy had a vicious streak a mile wide, and yet it hadn’t escaped Yuuri’s notice that Katsudon was currently eyeing up Yurio with an expectancy that suggested the boy must have been bringing him treats.

“I just…needed to gather my thoughts.”

“Have you heard that we’ve been given a date for returning to the camp?”

Suddenly the stables felt far too confining for Yuuri, and he needed to be somewhere else.  Yurio, completely oblivious with his attention on his horse, just continued to chatter.

“The mages have said that the weather will have completely changed in another day, and that the camp will be suitable for the tournaments a few days after that.”

Yuuri wasn’t certain if it was better or worse to know that he still had a few days left.   Unless… a wild thought started to occur, setting his heart racing and his hand trembling where he was still stroking Katsudon’s neck.  Instantly he dismissed the idea as madness.

But why should it be so wild? Everyone here kept telling him that he should go to the tournaments, and Phichit had been asking even longer…

What would he even do though?  The camp of the progress would be a completely different world, and the pieces of the last few days he had come to treasure wouldn’t exist.  What reason would Viktor have to continue to train him? Viktor already had a pupil, and would need to worry about his own competitions.

“Can we please head in?” Yurio pouted, drawing Yuuri out of his tangle of thoughts.

Yuuri nodded, leading the way out, the whole time wondering what if .



Chapter Text

“You should go with us.  To the camp. For the tournament,” Viktor said, stumbling his way through the words.

All evening he had been trying to think of the perfect way to suggest the possibility that Yuuri travel with them.  Ever since the messenger had come, bringing an end to his time in Hasetsu, Viktor had been looking for a way to hold onto what he had found here.

At first, he had planned on just running away.  It would be simple, he figured, since it wouldn’t actually even involve travel.  He could just stay here in the inn and build a life around training Yuuri, going to the hot springs, eating katsudon.  But logic had eventually forced him to give that up as just a fantasy for some other Viktor and Yuuri. He may have found Yuuri, but Viktor knew that the chamber wasn’t done with him yet.

While he had waited for Yuuri to return for supper, Viktor had wandered around the dining room trying to think of a solution.  The obvious one was to just convince Yuuri to join the progress, though the how for that scenario still eluded him.

Over the last week he had seen Yuuri’s confidence grow, and Viktor more than suspected that the Yamani man could be formidable with his main weapon in a match, but convincing him of that fact was the challenge.  Somehow , Yuuri had convinced himself that he was nothing more than a moderately skilled amateur.  Every evening, after Yurio had disappeared off to bed leaving Viktor and Yuuri to their companionable silence, Viktor thought about finally asking what had happened to Yuuri.  And each evening, he could never bring himself to ask. And so Viktor had been left to puzzle over the few pieces that Yuuri allowed him to see, and treasure what confidences he received.

Supper had been quiet.  Not even quiet— solemn .  Even Yurio seemed to sense it, the boy keeping his comments to himself and wolfing down supper before he vanished with a quick mumble about taking Makkachin for a walk.  Viktor was grateful for the chance to be alone with Yuuri, though he had no idea how to broach the questions that had been burning through him. How could he ask Yuuri to stay with him?  How could he ask and have a shred of hope that Yuuri would say yes?

And that was why, when Yuuri pushed himself up to his feet and seemed set to walk out of the room and off to bed, Viktor panicked a little.

Yuuri just looked stunned by the option.  His eyes went wide, his jaw clenching.

“What do you mean?”  Yuuri asked, each word measured.

Viktor’s gaze darted around the room for something that could tell him what to say next.  

“Well, it’s just you still have so far to go in your training.  I would hate to leave you…without having turned you into an adequate swordsman.”  Again, Viktor didn’t know where the words were coming from, and he silently cursed himself for a fool.

Already he could see something in Yuuri’s face start to crumple.  It wasn’t even an expression, but a change in the eyes, behind his walls. Viktor was pretty sure his clumsy words had just shattered whatever frail connection he’d built with Yuuri.

“Ah.”

That answer felt like a knife sliding between his ribs, but Viktor didn’t know how to make it better; he wasn’t bred for making things better, just for tearing them apart.  In the calm of the week, Viktor had forgotten that.

Still, he couldn’t help but try again.

“Yurio would also be glad of the company, and he’s only just started to get a handle on the glaive—if you went with us, you could take up where Minako left off.”

Viktor wondered how it was all coming out so wrong.  In his head it sounded like, I want you to join us. I’m going to miss the time we spent together if you stay , instead of this indifferent nonsense that he was actually saying.

Yuuri’s nod was short, and he started to make a retreat.

“Will you come?” Viktor pressed.

Yuuri flinched at the question, pausing before turning back to Viktor

“No.  I shouldn’t have even gone to visit Phichit last week.  It’s best for me to stay far away from the progress.” There was a slight catch in Yuuri’s voice, and Viktor wished that the other man would turn around so he could see his eyes.  As it was he could only stare at the rigid line of Yuuri’s shoulders. “It took me years, but I did finally learn my lesson from the last.”

Viktor watched the door long after Yuuri had vanished, hoping the man might reappear by the sheer force of Viktor’s will alone.  Eventually, he had to accept that Yuuri wasn’t going to return to the room to him and he went back to his own room.

For the first time since his arrival in Hasetsu, Viktor woke up to the visions.

 

***

 

Two days later and Viktor was ready to ride out.  He and Yuuri still hadn’t spoken after his offer, though it wasn’t for lack of trying on Viktor’s part.

The morning after their conversation, Yuuri had been absent from breakfast, and when it came time to make their run to Minako’s Yuuri had yet to appear.  Standing in the yard, Viktor had insisted that he and Yurio wait—maybe Viktor wasn’t the only one plagued by poor sleep, and Yuuri had just slept late—but by the time dawn had started in earnest, there was still no sign of him.  The only thing that had stopped Viktor from panicking was the possibility that they had somehow missed Yuuri, and that he was already at Minako’s waiting for them. The path up the mountain had never felt so long as it had that morning.

But when they’d arrived, they had found only a furious Minako, demanding to know why they were late.  Without Yuuri there to practice with, Viktor had been left on his own to try to get into some semblance of shape for the upcoming matches.

The rest of the day, and the next, Yuuri was just as ghost-like.  On the few occasions Viktor did see him, it was only in passing—Yuuri darting off to do some task, or slipping out of a room just as Viktor had entered.  More than anything, Viktor missed having someone to talk to.

Everyone always seemed to have their own Viktor Nikiforov built up in their heads.  For most of the nobles at court, he was some manner of cautionary tale—his mother’s sins made manifest—while for others, he was little more than an easy-going drinking buddy, or the skills he displayed on the field. Even those closest to him—Yakov, Chris, even Yurio—still mostly seemed to see him through a filter of expectations.  But with Yuuri, it had been different. For all that Yuuri had been holding something back in their interactions, something Viktor felt like he needed to know to fully understand the other man, Yuuri had actually seen Viktor , mess that he was.

Or , Viktor thought bleakly as he led Socks out into the yard and took a final look at the inn, maybe not.

The Katsuki family had come out to say goodbye to their guests.  Viktor walked over to the entryway where they were waiting, dropping into a bow.  When he stood back up he had to remind himself to have a smile in place, trying to ignore Yuuri’s absence.

“Thank-you for all of your care during our stay,” Viktor said.

Hiroko’s smile was unreserved.

“You will have to come back to Hasetsu.”

Viktor nodded and wished that there was some way that could come to pass, but he suspected that the chamber had other plans for him.  He turned to Mari, and before he could think better of it he handed her a folded piece of paper.

One eyebrow rose up, the only sign of her surprise as she glanced down to her hand.

“If…if Yuuri changes his mind, he need only present that to the Tortallan Master of Events and he will be taken straight to me.  It also says that he should be given accommodation under the Stonemountain name.”

Mari nodded, tucking the slip into her sash.

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” she said quietly.  “He’s been told so many times that he just needs to find some fire, but…I don’t know that he has it in him.”

Somewhere deep in his chest, Viktor felt a swell of indignation.  Why did people seem to keep telling Yuuri what he needed? That he was lacking something? Viktor may have only had a week to work with Yuuri, but in that time he’d shown plenty of fire.  He just needed to learn how to develop stamina for it, so that it could last as long as his physical ability.

“Just tell him that I look forward to resuming our training, and that I fully expect to see him out on the tournament field.”

With that, Viktor returned to Socks and hoisted himself up into the saddle.  He pressed his heels into Socks’s side, and the horse started off. As they walked up the mountain road, Viktor had to force himself to keep his eyes front.

“Do you think Katsudon’s going to join us?” Yurio asked, riding up alongside him.

Viktor couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with Yurio.  Everything felt a little too raw, and he wasn’t sure how well his polished mask was holding up.

Instead he just said softly, “I don’t know.  I hope so.”



Chapter Text

Because Yuuri was a coward in all things, he couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to Viktor.  How he had come to rely on it in such a short amount of time, he didn’t know, but he’d hoped that ending it on his own terms would make it easier. Because if there was anything that Yuuri had learned how to do, it was to end things and walk away before someone else could.  Even with the school—they might have sent him away, but in his mind he had already left months before.

But this time there wasn’t even that cold satisfaction. A hundred times over the final two days--a thousand times-- Yuuri had wondered if he was making a mistake.  It wasn’t even just the company he missed; his body craved the familiar patterns of training. Yuuri had forgotten just how much a good fight could stir the blood—the anticipation of the next strike, the exhilaration of sweeping through someone’s guard.  The only thing that stopped him was the possibility that Viktor might ask him to leave with them again, and weak as he was, Yuuri didn’t think that he could say no a second time.

And so he’d slept and read, finding tasks around the inn where he could be on the move without a chance to talk, until the day had arrived for the knight and squire to leave.

After their departure, Yuuri had gone to his room and tried to disappear into sleep.  Every few hours he would wake up, only to retreat back into sleep with the hopes that the next time he woke, all of the complicated messy emotions would have passed.

After a full day had passed with Yuuri doing little more than sleep, it was Mari who finally pulled him out of his bed.

“Yuuri,” she scolded, tugging him upright from the mattress.  “This is ridiculous. You’ve had a day for wallowing in…whatever this is.  Today, you’re either helping me with chores around the inn or you’re going to see Minako.”

It took a moment for Yuuri to pull his thoughts together, and he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids.

“Mari, just leave me be.”

“No!  On this you don’t get to be so damned mopey.  You had a chance to go with them—you still have a chance—and it was only your own thoughts that got in the way.”

Yuuri had to bite back a retort, giving his sister an icy glare.  What did she know? How could she ever understand? Yuuri couldn’t quite put into words why he knew he couldn’t go; he just knew that the idea of being some tag-along, the pathetic amateur, made something inside his chest hurt.  There was also the matter of all of his old classmates—the idea of having to see them again with all of them knowing he hadn’t been good enough…

And yet, part of him couldn’t help but hope that there was some truth to her words.

“What’s it going to be?”  Mari’s voice was like the steel of a glaive, slicing through his thoughts in one swift strike.  “Me or Minako?”

It didn’t take much more than a moment for Yuuri to realize there was no way Mari was letting him drift back to sleep, so he settled for the lesser of the two evils.  At least in training, Yuuri could find a way of turning off some of his thoughts, and after three days confined to the inn it was almost a giddy relief to know that he could return to the comfort of the blade.

“I’ll go to Minako’s.”

“Good!”

Mari took a step back, though she still didn’t leave the room.  When Yuuri made no move to get up, she said with a wave of her hand, “Well?  Come on, you need to get ready.”

“Could I have some privacy?” Yuuri groaned.

Stare still flinty, Mari just crossed her arms over her chest.

“So you can just go back to sleep?  I’m wise to your tricks little brother.  You may have been gone for some time, but an older sister doesn’t forget.  I’ll step outside, but you have three minutes, exactly , to get dressed.  If you’re not out by then, I’m coming back in.”

Mari walked out the door, sliding it closed after herself.  Yuuri quickly flung back the blankets and scrambled to find some clothes for practice.  He was fastening the ties of his shirt when, true to her word, Mari opened the door again.

Her nod was pure satisfaction as she saw him dressed.

“Don’t come back until Minako has talked some sense into you.”

 * * *

It wasn’t until he was stepping into the stone courtyard of Minako’s hall that Yuuri realized he should have stayed at the inn and suffered through Mari’s chores.  Even just standing outside, all he could think of was the last time he had been here.

The door slid open and Minako appeared, hands crossed over her chest and  chin thrust at an angle that let him know how unimpressed she was with him.

“So, Mari finally got you up did she?” Minako said.

Yuuri blushed and ducked his head, trying to avoid eye contact.

“I’m sorry I’ve stayed away.”

Minako’s tone was icy.  “And why would you be sorry, Yuuri?  After all, you’ve given up on your dreams.  You don’t want to do anything other than stay in Hasetsu, right?  Why should it matter if you miss a day or two of training?  You could just go back home now for all it matters.”

“I haven’t given up on my dreams!” Yuuri exclaimed, looking up.

“No?”  That single word held a world of significance.  And while it seemed to hang heavy and harsh between them, Minako’s eyes weren’t unkind.

“I haven’t!”

“You’ve certainly been acting like it.  For a brief time, I thought maybe…when you were training with that silver knight, that you had found some spark and that you were going to resume your quest.  But you proved me wrong. After all, what did you think would happen if you just came back to Hasetsu?”

There was a pressure building up in Yuuri’s skull, and he could feel his throat tightening.

“I didn’t come back—they sent me away!”

The words came out of Yuuri as a hoarse rasp, like they were tearing his throat as they escaped.  He also heard how hollow they sounded; the school had given him so many chances, and he had never been able to rise up to meet any of them.

Minako stepped outside to join Yuuri where he still stood on the stone pavers, putting a hand on his shoulder and giving it a squeeze.

“Yuuri, it’s times like that you have to make a choice.  If you truly wanted to become a great warrior—to find some noble calling for those skills—you could find a way to fight.  From what your family told me, you were offered the chance to continue to study with Stonemountain.  Why wouldn’t you take him up on that? Build your skills and show all those entitled fools at the school that they were wrong?

Her hand gripped Yuuri’s chin, forcing him to make eye contact with her as if she was trying to drive all the words in.  And they all hit their mark.

What had he been expecting to do? Ever since he had returned, he had just been drifting.  He might have found some semblance of a routine in his training with Minako, but even that had been little more than avoidance of the question of the future.

Yuuri shut his eyes, trying to force away the prickling feeling of tears building up.  Shame felt like leaden weights on his limbs, and his stomach had started to churn.

What am I doing?  What have I given up?

Minako leaned into him, putting her arms around him and pulling him close.  Yuuri knew that it was weak of him, but he couldn’t help but lean into the embrace.

“It’s not too late,” Minako whispered against his ear, and for the first time in years Yuuri felt something that was alarmingly like hope.

Letting him go, she took a step back, and Yuuri thought he might have caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes.

Voice on the verge of a sob, Yuuri asked, “What do I do?”

“You’re going to go home, pack up your gear, and you’re going to go to the tournaments.”

Yuuri was halfway through turning to race back home when Minako grabbed hold of his arm.

“First we’re going to make sure what skills you have are as sharp as we can make them.  No sense in sending you off looking like you’ve been left to pasture too long.”


Chapter Text

“What’s with the mood about camp?” Viktor asked as he took a long pull from his wine goblet.

A second later, a bony elbow drove into his side.  He didn’t need to look over to know that the elbow belonged to Yurio.  After Viktor’s moping for the last few days, and with the fights to begin the next morning, the squire had made it his personal mission to keep Viktor to the straight and narrow.  He wasn’t entirely sure whether it was out of concern for him, or the boy’s own embarrassment—Viktor had a habit of losing clothes when he drank too much, something which Chris was usually happy to encourage.

“That’s your only glass tonight, so you may as well slow down,” Yurio snarled under his breath.  “You’re fighting tomorrow.”

So maybe he is concerned? Viktor thought.  It was sort of nice to think that someone cared about his best interest, even if it was a belligerent teenager.  Still, he thought morosely, it would have been nicer to know that Yuuri cared.

“And,” Yurio added, eyes darting about that table, “I don’t want a repeat of last night.”

Nope, apparently just embarrassment.  Viktor wondered what it was that he might have done, but all memory of the night before was gone in a haze of alcohol.  As soon as they had arrived back at the camp, Viktor had ordered a servant to start bringing him wine, and had kept it up until…well, until he couldn’t remember anything at all.

His hope had been that it might help him forget a certain black-haired fighter, stop him from running their last conversation through his head over and over again wondering what he could have done differently to convince Yuuri to join them.  He had also hoped that this time, if he got drunk enough, the visions would stop.

Of course he had no such luck.  If anything, his drunken brain had been more receptive to the visions, as if the chamber were punishing him for trying to block them out.  Where normally he only saw vignettes of heartbreak and destruction, this time when he’d seen the burning temple and Yuuri racing toward the flames, Viktor had turned to catch a glimpse of figures moving in the smoke towards them.  Their armour and clothes marked them as Tortallan, despite the apparent setting, but even in his vision Viktor had known there was something off about them.

He’d had just enough time to notice blank eyes and greying skin before there was a flash of movement in the corner of his eye, and he was watching the small frame of his squire surge forward to attack.

Viktor had woken up with the image of Yurio being surrounded, blades coming down towards him.  Heart racing, he’d had just enough strength to haul himself up to his feet and over to the basin on the table before he’d thrown up.  Then, he had collapsed to the ground, lacking the energy to even pull out a chair. It was only with Makkachin’s help, leaning heavily on her, that he had been able to crawl back to his cot and lay his pounding head back onto the pillow.  She had licked the tears off his face and jumped up to lay alongside him, and he’d wrapped his arms around her soft warmth gratefully.

With that vision still fresh in his mind, not to mention his hangover, dragging himself through a day of practice had been absolute hell.  Viktor knew that he must have looked awful when even JJ had sought him out on the field that afternoon to ask if he was alright.

By the time the evening meal came around, Viktor was feeling slightly more himself—or at least, enough to realize that the somber mood around the camp wasn’t limited to him.

Putting his cup down, Viktor turned his attention back to Chris.

“So?”

Chris mopped some bread through the gravy on his plate before taking a bite.

“What do you mean?”

Viktor rolled his eyes, feeling like Yurio was starting to rub off on him.  “Don’t give me that. You know everything going on around here. You always seem to know everything going on.  The servants that I’ve seen for our side of the camp have looked…skittish. They have the look of mountain villagers during raiding season.  And when we cut through the Yamani marketplace—I’ve never seen such dirty looks.”

“I’m surprised you noticed,” Chris said archly before turning back to his supper.  “After all, I thought that you were…I’m trying to think of what wording you used last night…”

Viktor pressed his face into his hands, groaning.

“…something about how you had met the most gorgeous person ever, and how were you going to manage to save the world without him?  I didn’t realize you had such a hero complex, Viktor.”

Heat rose in Viktor’s cheeks.

“Don’t be an asshole, Chris.  Or should I start talking about the time you had to negotiate with the centaurs and you—”

Chris whipped his head around to see who at their table might have heard, reaching over to clap hands over Yurio’s ears.

“Not in front of the baby!” Chris hissed, the panic only partly feigned.  Viktor always knew exactly where to aim, particularly when it came to those near and dear.

“So tell me what’s going on around the camp.”

Chris had to deal with Yurio, who was swatting away his hands and cursing at him in a stream of fluent Scanran, before he could answer.  With one final wary look at the squire after snatching away hiss knife, Chris turned his attention back to Viktor.

“You mean you really haven’t heard anything?”

Wrath at being called a baby momentarily forgotten with the chance to mock Viktor, Yurio snorted in derision.  “He’s an idiot, of course he hasn’t heard anything.”

“Well…” Chris drawled, settling back in his chair, legs spread and one arm carelessly draped over the back of his chair.

Why had Viktor become friends with such a drama queen?

Yurio threw up his hands and made a noise of exasperation.  “Can’t this meal just end? I have places to be you know?!” The blonde snarled at Chris, before turning to Viktor.  “If you had bothered to talk to any of the servants ferrying you wine all of yesterday, you would know that a whole bunch have gone missing.  During the storm they just vanished; no sign anywhere. They’re convinced that some raiders must have come ashore and taken them, though that’s obviously wrong .  Why would raiders come and steal a couple of servants, but leave an all but abandoned camp unlooted?”

It was Chris’s turn to glare at the squire, having had his gossip stolen.

“Interesting, Yurio , but did you happen to hear about the nobles who still haven’t returned?  There were a few of the knights that set out into the storm and apparently never made it to the locations that they were billeted.  At the time everyone just assumed that they must have found somewhere else, or got lost…but they never came back, and there have been some search parties sent…”

“Knights went missing?” Viktor asked intently.  Was it possible this might have a connection to his latest vision? Certainly the people he’d seen  had been wearing armour, but between the smoke and the fuzziness that always arrived after he woke up, he wasn’t sure.

Chris nodded, his smile smugly satisfied at having one-upped Yurio, though a half-second later he seemed to think better of it.

“When you were a bit late getting back, I was worried that maybe you two were going to end up among the missing.”

And there was Viktor’s answer to his earlier question.  He stayed friends with Chris through everything because deep down, under all of the drama and preening, he really was a good friend.

What about the Yamanis—surely they can’t be mad at us about that ?” Viktor asked.

“No, that’s another matter.  There was some destruction of stalls run by Yamani merchants.”

It was Yurio who protested, with his usual belligerence. “But they can’t blame us for what their stupid storm did!”

“No, but they can blame us for what appeared to be deliberate damage done when only those from Tortall were around.  And…there have been messengers arriving…while nobles and merchants were staying all over the countryside, apparently there was some damage.  There hasn’t been enough to prove that it wasn’t raiders, but…”

Even that information was enough to shut Yurio up.  The three sat in a heavy silence contemplating what it all might mean.  In the scheme of things, the treaty with the Yamani Islands was still so new—barely older than a decade—and hadn’t yet had to weather much in the way of interaction between the two countries.

It was Yurio who asked the question that they were all thinking.

“What will that mean for the peace?”

Chris’s face looked unusually grim, all twinkle gone from his eyes.

“Nothing good.”



Chapter Text

Between getting packed and finishing the training session Minako had insisted on, Yuuri wasn’t able to leave until the next day—two whole days after Viktor and Yurio had left.  After racing back down the mountain to the inn, he’d tried to throw some things together in time to set off that afternoon, but both his mother and sister had insisted that at least some thought would need to go into packing.  There had been clothes to gather and pieces to mend as the two women had tried to make sure Yuuri would be outfitted in a way that would do credit to Hasetsu.

Normally for something like this he would have just been wearing the garb of the Imperial school, but since he had been sent home, that no longer felt appropriate.  Where the simplicity and austerity of the school’s clothes had felt like a statement, Yuuri was suddenly very aware of how shabby all of his personal items were. He could only hope that once he had reached the grounds he could find some merchants selling something more appropriate, and that his meagre funds would stretch to cover the cost.

At long last, all had deemed him ready, and Yuuri would have happily set off into the dark, but all three of his family members had been adamant that he wait until sunup at least.  And so he had tossed and turned all night, not sure what to expect the next day.

But when dawn had broken over the mountains, gilding everything, Yuuri still rose, got dressed, and headed out to the stable.

Never great with goodbyes, Yuuri had made those the night before, and so all he had to do was set off.  Normally the trip would have been about an hour by horse, but with Katsudon’s age and all of the gear Yuuri was taking, he knew that he needed to allow the horse to go at a slower pace.  Each minute of the journey was agony, every single doubt returning, and he doubted that he’d manage to go longer than five minutes without thinking of turning round.

About halfway there, as he was riding, his heart started to race and his limbs began to feel numb.

What was he doing?  What in Yama’s name did he think he was going to achieve? If he went to the grounds, to Viktor, people would see him. Viktor had proven that at least some of the knights did adhere to the ideals of chivalry—mostly—but what about the others?  Would this just be another chance for some knight to destroy him more thoroughly than the last? Yuuri still didn’t know that the icy boy of so many years ago wasn’t with the progress; he could only imagine what sort of damage he was capable of doing with time and training.

And there would also be all of the people from the school.  Even if Yuuri found things among the Tortallans to be fine, he would still have to see people who knew him, who knew that he had already been deemed lacking.

And what if Viktor didn’t truly mean it? Yuuri thought with a sinking in his stomach.  

Pulling on Katsudon’s reins, Yuuri circled the nag around so that they were pointed back towards Hasetsu.  But the feeling didn’t go away. If anything, it got worse as he thought about what would happen once he rode back through the village and into the yard of the inn.  His parents would be kind, almost guaranteed, but they would know just how broken he was.

What about what I want? A small voice in his head cried.  Because until that moment, despite everything that people had said to him, everything  he himself had said, Yuuri hadn’t truly realized that what he wanted was to go and try to find some way back onto the path that he had worked towards for so long.

Yuuri turned the horse around again.

His newfound resolve lasted until he had reached the outskirts of the camp, and by then it certainly felt like he was too far gone to turn back.  Still, that didn’t stop his stomach from beginning to churn or his skin from crawling. Yuuri had been so caught up on the hurdle of just going that he hadn’t quite thought through the logistics of what would happen after he’d arrived.

Trying to take a deep breath, forcing himself to let the air slowly out of his lungs, Yuuri thought through his options.

He’d arrived sometime around mid-morning, when the whole world had appeared to be up and moving around.  What’s more, from the snatches of conversation he’d overheard as he walked slowly forward, the first of the matches had already begun.  Even with the letter from Viktor that Mari had handed Yuuri the night before, Yuuri doubted he would be able to find anyone that could help.  And would the letter be enough?

The idea of having to go wandering around that part of the camp had Yuuri feeling a little nauseous.  Without knowing anyone other than Viktor and Yurio, Yuuri felt like that was too much too soon in testing his determination.  He was already well aware of what sort of a target he could make, and he’d rather not have to face that quite yet.

An obvious solution was to find Phichit.  At the very least, Yuuri was sure that he’d be able to convince Phichit to accompany him through the camp, and with his friend by his side he’d feel safer.  But that still brought up the question: where was his friend?

Yuuri paused where he was, watching the crowd surge about him.  Over and over again, one word threading through all the chatter; tournament.  It seemed that everyone was planning on making their way there at some point, and Yuuri felt confident Phichit would be no different.  Normally he’d try the jousts, knowing Phichit’s preference, but from the schedule he’d seen posted around since he’d arrived, it appeared that there would only be sword fighting today.

Quickly, Yuuri found the stable from the last time he had visited the progress, leaving Katsudon to one of the ostlers and slipping someone a coin to hold onto his bags until he could come back for them.  He then headed back out and let the crowd pull him towards the arena.

The crowd was so thick that it was impossible to see much beyond the bodies immediately surrounding him, and it took Yuuri a few minutes to realize he had reached the tournament field.  Yuuri didn’t have a hope of being able to find Phichit in this crush. He was about to turn around and try to work his way back to one of the roads when something caught his eye.

Just off to one side of the arena, up above the heads of the spectators, stood a sign with two shields mounted to it:the participants of the current match.  Normally Yuuri might not have bothered to pay much attention—at school, before the journey to Tortall, they had all been forced to learn a bit about the heraldry of the foreign land, and it was one of the few things regarding knights to which Yuuri had been indifferent —but the field of blue with the peaks of a mountain and the silhouette of a bear caught his attention.  From the gear he had seen Viktor and Yurio wearing, Yuuri knew that it was the Stonemountain device; Viktor was one of the combatants.

Yuuri didn’t even need to think; he just forced his way through the crowd, ignoring mutters and dirty looks.  All he could focus on was getting close enough so that he could see. This is what I came here  for , he rationalized . And if it gave him the opportunity to secretly observe and appreciate the other man’s lithe grace, then that was just a reward for having to be surrounded by such a crowd.

Finally he was through, having reached the wooden fence that ran around the perimeter, and could see the packed dirt of the arena.  He whipped his head around, looking for the knights, and found his breath catching.

He had known that Viktor was good with a sword.  The way that Viktor had spoken when he was instructing Yuuri; his ease as he demonstrated moves. But Yuuri hadn’t realized that he was in fact an artist.  At some point since the fight had started, helmets had been cast aside. From where he stood, Yuuri could see Viktor’s face in profile,, the morning sun catching the pale strands of Viktor’s hair and making it glint.

Viktor lunged forward, blade sweeping down, and Yuuri momentarily felt disappointed that his lean frame and muscles were obscured by his heavy plate armour.  As Viktor whirled around, lifting his sword up to block a counter attack—the twist of the blade easily throwing the other man off balance—Yuuri had a chance to actually take note of the armour itself.

He knew that armour; he had written poetry about that armour.  His eyes scanned the pieces of steel, the inlay of gold-coloured enamel in the shape of a bear.

How had he not known?

Attention snapping back to Viktor’s movements, Yuuri’s brain struggled to keep up with his racing thoughts.  All he could do,, watching as Viktor managed to outclass his opponent with the deadly beauty of a stormy sea, was accept that he was an idiot.  The man who had been training him, who had seen what a pitiful novice Yuuri was; the manYuuri had come to find so he could continue his training,whom he had known as Viktor of Stonemountain; was Viktor Nikiforov —only the silver haired knight that Yuuri had been all but in love with during his time in Tortall.

Through the numb shock, he could only try to console himself that it wasn’t really his fault for not recognizing the other man.  At the previous tournaments, Yuuri had only ever seen him from afar, and he had always gone by Nikiforov, though Yuuri should have recognized the movements.  But then again, during their time in Hasetsu he’d never seen Viktor matched up against an opponent anywhere near his equal.

It made a certain sick sense.  The first time Yuuri had felt inspired to strive beyond  merely a mastery of the glaive and unarmed fighting, to try the sword and aim for a position among guard elites, it had been because of Viktor.  Watching Viktor move, the effortlessness of it, the way the fight became exquisite, had built up a fire in Yuuri. And then when Yuuri was at his lowest, it was Viktor again who had given him back that fire.

The match was all exhilarating momentum as Viktor handily destroyed his opponent.  The man—a little younger than Yuuri, with pale skin and short dark hair—looked like he was giving it his all, but Yuuri could see when he gave up.  He might have continued moving, swinging for attacks and trying to block, but there was no power or energy behind it. When the match ended and Viktor was declared the winner, there was a roar of cheers from the crowd—everyone was clearly a fan of the handsome hero.

If Yuuri was to go talk to Viktor, now was likely his best chance before the knight disappeared into the crowd.  But he was unable to move, his hands locked around the rough wood of the fence. He had thought the idea of Viktor wanting—or being willing—to train him when Viktor was just a skilled knight to be an unlikely dream, but now that Yuuri knew who Viktor was?  There was no way the great Viktor Nikiforov had actually ever been serious.  The best thing Yuuri could do was just to slink back to the stables and ride home.

Quietly, he slipped through the press of bodies, aiming for the road that would lead him out.  Each step felt heavy, like he was being pulled down into the earth, and Yuuri found that he was almost deaf to the noise around him. All of his attention was on the swirl of his thoughts.

Oy! Katsudon!”

A voice carried over the hum of conversation and Yuuri’s feeling of hopelessness, causing him to glance up.  He swung his head around, trying to figure out where it had come from.

“OVER HERE YOU MORON!”

Yuuri looked back over his shoulder to see Yurio, standing just the other side of the fence, arms resting on the top rail.  Freezing in place, Yuuri tried to decide what to do.

“I DON’T HAVE ALL DAY!  GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE!” the blond yelled.  How a voice that loud came out of a frame that small, Yuuri had no idea, but he automatically jerked back toward the direction of the field until he was standing just opposite the squire across the fence

“You took your time,” Yurio snarled, turning on his heel and setting off towards a tent that was at the far end of the field.  When he realized that Yuuri hadn’t moved, he waved his hands in front of him, sneering. “Well? Come on, I’m never going to hear the end of it it if I don’t take you straight to the old man.”

Yurio gave a half wave to the man who had been standing with him and then started walking again, his legs eating up the ground despite his size.  Yuuri had a half-second to wonder what was happening, a sort of buoyant hope filling his chest until it hurt, and then he was clambering over the fence and scrambling after Yurio.

The squire didn’t bother to stop until he was standing in front of the tent, giving Yuuri—who was a little red in the face— a quick once over before rolling his eyes.

“Hey!  Viktor, you decent?” Yurio called out, leaning towards the doorway.

Viktor’s voice filtered out, muffled a bit from the canvas.

“If you mean do I need help with my armour , then yes.”

Yurio’s grin in response was practically feral.  The boy grabbed hold of Yuuri’s wrist and walked into the tent, dragging Yuuri with him.

“Look who I found!” Yurio said.

If Yuuri had thought the sight of Viktor on the field was enough to take his breath away, this image was enough to stop his heart.  Viktor was seated on a chair, still wearing his armour, his face flushed from the fight and hair damp. Yuuri tried to pull his attention away from the bead of sweat that was tracing the line of Viktor’s neck.

You’ve seen him like this before , Yuuri chided himself, though that didn’t stop his face from growing warm.  

Viktor’s blue eyes lit up and his mouth formed that heart-shaped smile that Yuuri had found so charming during their time at the inn.

“YUURI!”

Yuuri could feel a blush rising to his cheeks, but now was the time for courage if he was ever going to have it.

“I…I thought about what you had said, and I’m sure that you probably didn’t mean it, but if you did, and you still want to—but it’s fine if you don’t—I’d like to continue to train with you.”

An instant later, Yuuri found himself being crushed against Viktor’s chest.  With the armour between them it wasn’t terribly comfortable, but even so, Yuuri had the strangest sensation in his stomach.  It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to the churning of his anxiety, but this one was significantly less unpleasant.

With a laugh, Viktor stepped back, raising one hand to brush against the back of his neck as pink dusted across his cheeks.

Was Viktor blushing?

“Sorry, I got a little carried away.”

There was a snort behind Yuuri that let him know that the squire was still there, and clearly not impressed.

Viktor glared in Yurio’s direction before fixing his attention back on Yuuri.

“Of course I meant my offer!  After…I didn’t think you’d come,” Viktor said quietly, before quickly adding, “but I’m glad you did.”

“And what about my training, you idiot?” Yurio drawled.  “I’m your actual squire.  Just because I don’t fancy you doesn’t mean you can forget that shit.”

Yuuri felt the blood drain from his face before it rose back up in what he was sure would be a blush visible for miles.

“No!  I don’t want to replace…I’d never…and I don’t…”  Yuuri had to fight the urge to hide his face in his hands. He was trying to be brave, but somehow this seemed like an odd moment to be tested.

Viktor appeared to be studying Yuuri’s face intently. Evidently seeing whatever it was he was looking for, he smiled softly.

“Don’t worry, Yurio .  I haven’t forgotten about your training, but as you like to remind me constantly you’re still better getting practice from the other knights for any arms that aren’t the sword.  That gives me lots of time to work with Yuuri.

And, Yuuri, have you made arrangements for somewhere to stay yet?”

Yuuri could only shake his head no, as things seemed to be unfolding at the pace of his racing heartbeat.

“Excellent!  You’ll stay with us of course!”

“Not in my tent!” Yurio grumbled.

“No, of course not.  Of the two mine is the bigger; we’ll get them to put an extra cot in there and you’ll stay with me.”

Yuuri’s mouth went dry at the thought, and he had to remind himself that this was just Viktor being nice.  Because there was no way Viktor Nikiforov had any interest in him.



Chapter Text

Viktor knew he looked like an idiot, and his squire certainly kept informing him of that fact in not so quiet whispers, but he didn’t care.  How could he care that he was ‘smiling like a moron,’ to quote Yurio, when Yuuri had just walked into the tent?

It was only concern about spooking Yuuri that had Viktor making any attempt to bite back his grin.  To think people used to call him an icy bastard.

But it wasn’t just him.  Yurio might have been grumbling and putting up token protests as they’d started to figure out sleeping arrangements, but Viktor could see the small smile lurking around the corners of the teen’s mouth.

“So, if Katsudon is going to be joining us, and training…that makes him sort of like another squire, right?” Yurio asked.  His voice had gone alarmingly soft, his tone sly as he looked between Viktor and Yuuri.

Yuuri shook his head, hands rising as if to fend off the suggestion, but Viktor just narrowed his gaze on his squire and nodded.

“I suppose.”

“Well…” Yurio said, pausing with the air of someone who was about to move in for a strike.  “Then that means he should probably be helping with my squire chores?”

“Absolutely not,” Viktor said.

At the same time, Yuuri had stammered, “Of course, Yurio.”

Viktor had given both of the younger men exasperated looks.

“Don’t encourage him,” Viktor groaned at Yuuri.  “If you give into his demands now, I’ll never get him back under control.”

Yurio’s face went red.  “I’m not your fucking dog, you old fuck!”

“See what I mean?” Viktor said, ignoring the outburst to speak to Yuuri.  Truth be told, it was hard for him to look at much else.

With a quick look of sympathy for Yurio, Yuuri frowned at Viktor, his full bottom lip pursed.  Viktor couldn’t help but find thoughts of that lip driving all sorts of rational thoughts from his mind.

“I really don’t mind, Viktor.  I should help.”

Yurio shot Viktor a look of triumph, the evil little bastard, before turning back to Yuuri.

“Great.  No time like the present.  Beka has a fight coming up and needs some help getting ready, so you can help the old man here get out of his armour,” the squire said, before he was nothing but a blond blur darting out of the tent, leaving Yuuri and Viktor behind.

Viktor glanced over to Yuuri, noting the flush on the other man’s face.

“You don’t have to,” Viktor said softly.  “Despite what Yurio thinks, I can actually manage on my own.”

“No!” Yuuri protested, a hand raising up, before his blush deepened even further and his brown eyes got a slightly panicked look.  “I’m not sure how much help I’ll be, but…I’d like to…be useful?”

Nodding, Viktor gestured for Yuuri to come closer and proceeded to talk him through the dismantling of all the pieces of the plate armour.  As with the sword, Yuuri was quick to learn, and unlike Yurio who grumbled through the whole process, Yuuri worked quietly. But that proved to be its own challenge.

As Yuuri worked, Viktor could occasionally feel the brush of Yuuri’s fingers; each time it happened, Viktor had to fight back slight shivers.  There was also the fact that Yuuri smelled so good, and every time he had to lean in close Viktor would find himself struggling not to close the gap, to try to bury his nose into the man’s neck.

When Viktor was down to just his sweat-soaked padded shirt and breeches, he felt as though he needed to put an end to the torture.  Yuuri might have come after him, but he was clearly still nervous, and Viktor didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize whatever this was; if any clothes started to come off, he couldn’t guarantee that he would be able to keep to that plan.

What is wrong with you? Viktor asked himself, shutting his eyes for a moment and trying to find some semblance of calm.  They had seen each other naked before in the hot springs, and they’d had to touch a lot more in Minako’s training hall—why was this so different?

But Viktor knew why.  This time, Yuuri had come after him.

“Vitya, you could at least have left JJ some dignity,” was the only warning before Chris barged into the tent.

His friend took one look at Viktor, Yuuri still so close, and a knowing smirk lit up his face.  Seeing the way Chris’s gaze drifted up and down Yuuri and his smirk shifted into a more lascivious smile set Viktor’s teeth on edge.

“Sampling the local culture?” Chris drawled.

Yuuri looked uncertainly at the other knight, wariness all but screaming from his frame.  Viktor could see his shoulders tighten, fists clenching as if he expected trouble.

“Chris, this is Yuuri Katsuki—the brilliant fighter I told you about.” Viktor’s tone might have been pleasant, but the look he sent his friend was one that let the other man know to back off.

Hearing the name, Chris blinked before he suddenly got a knowing look.

“Oh, you’re Yuuri!  We heard a lot about you the other day—this one wouldn’t—“

Reminding himself that he needed to find better friends, Viktor cut him off.

“Yuuri has agreed to continue his training with me.  He’s going to be joining Yurio and I for the progress.”

“Well,” Chris said, sweeping forward into a bow, “I welcome you to our miserable company.  I think you’ll find that most of us—especially this one—are a sad lot, but we do have our fun.”

Viktor decided he definitely needed new friends since he was going to murder Chris when the other knight’s  roguish wink managed to coax a hesitant smile out of Yuuri.

“Thank you.  I’m looking forward to learning more about your style of combat, and life as a knight,” Yuuri said.

“Interested in knights are you?”  The words were accompanied with a smirk.  Viktor thought he was showing great restraint in not punching his former friend.

Yuuri appeared to contemplate the question for a moment before replying, “I used to love hearing stories about knights.  It all seemed very exciting.”

“Used to?” Viktor heard himself ask.

Yuuri’s attention turned back to him, and Viktor was close enough to see the way his eyes went cloudy, the brightness that Yuuri hid so well dimming.  But a moment later, he had recovered.

“I suppose I still am.  After all, here I am helping the great Viktor Nikiforov with his armour.”

There was a laugh that reminded Viktor that Chris was still there.

“Is that what they’re calling it?”

A blush flooded Yuuri’s cheeks, and it was only years of practice that kept Viktor from reacting to Chris’s words.  He was definitely going to have to think of some punishment, maybe one that involved setting Yurio loose on him—that boy would love the chance to mess with Chris, and he could be very inventive in his torment.

“Well, I came to see if you wanted to go grab some food and celebrate the thrashing you gave that arrogant son of a bitch, but…”

A grumble from his stomach reminded Viktor that he hadn’t actually eaten that morning. He never had much of an appetite on tournament days—a habit Yakov had always complained about as foolhardy.  He had been hoping to get Yuuri settled into the tent, though with the way things had been around the camp since he had returned, that might take longer than expected. It was tempting to try to keep Yuuri to himself just for a little bit longer, but introductions would need to be made eventually.  Better to get it done now.

“Have you eaten?” he asked Yuuri.

The other man bit at his lip, looking a little sheepish, and shook his head.

“I was…I wanted to make sure I didn’t talk myself out of coming, and so I…forgot.”

“Well, let’s go introduce you to the other miserable lot masquerading as knights of the realm, shall we?”

Again there was that tension that darted through Yuuri’s frame, but his recovery seemed quicker this time.  He nodded slowly.

“Are you sure?” Viktor asked quickly, his voice low and his eyes fixed on Yuuri’s.  “If you’re too tired, I can show you where the brat and I have our tents.”

“No, food sounds good.”

Viktor smiled at Yuuri, reaching out to squeeze the man’s shoulder.  Quickly he let his hand drop, though he may have allowed his fingers to graze the other man’s arm on his way down.

He had to wrench his focus away from Yuuri to look at Chris.  His friend’s smile was far too broad, and far too pleased.

“Let’s go.”



Chapter Text

By the time evening had fallen, Yuuri felt more than a little wrung out.

The events of the morning alone—realizing who Viktor was and that he’d been serious in his intention to train Yuuri—would have been enough to have him feeling more than a little dazed, but then he had been asked to help Viktor get out of his armour.  Yuuri was sure that he’d had more chances to touch Viktor that morning than during their whole week in Hasetsu, and it was a little intoxicating. He’d found his fingers fumbling, and he would occasionally get closer than might have been strictly needed, but how could he not?  Even sweaty from his fight, there was something irresistible about Viktor; the warmth that he radiated, the smell of his skin. Yuuri was sure that his face must have been a vibrant crimson with all of the thoughts going through his mind. As he worked, he hoped that Viktor would assume his blush was embarrassment over the poor job he was surely doing.

And then the moment had been interrupted by the other knight.  Yuuri had frozen, the familiar fear returning. But while the man—clearly a friend of Viktor’s—had been rather bawdy, he didn’t seem like a threat.  

When Yuuri had been led off to join the knights for the midday meal, he had wondered if he would be able to manage.  What if the knight was there?  What if Yuuri recognized some of the knights from the last progress as a part of the gangs that had sought him out?  What if they recognized him ?  Standing in the tent, he had felt his muscles lock with panic before a single thought had managed to filter through.   Viktor will be there.

Yuuri cursed himself for trying to draw strength and courage from someone else.  He was a warrior, joining these men to be trained; he couldn’t expect Viktor to be there all the time.  Yuuri should be able to stand on his own, and this seemed like it would be the first test.

The meal proved to be surprisingly pleasant.  Most of the knights at the table were quite young, many having only recently finished their training.  While they had greeted Yuuri’s presence with some questioning looks, after a quick word of explanation from Viktor they all seemed happy to welcome him.

Despite his lack of breakfast, Yuuri still had little appetite, feeling as though he had to be on his guard. Listening to the rapid fire banter that darted back and forth among the knights, ribald jokes being swapped for tips on better footwork, he did eventually feel the pressure in his chest loosen incrementally.

When the dark-haired man from Viktor’s fight that morning arrived, Yuuri felt himself tense up again, his eyes darting around the table to assess the reaction.  Yuuri was sure that some sort of confrontation was going to ensue. But the man just threw himself down into an empty seat, the brown-haired knight with the purple eyes patting his shoulder in a sympathetic way.

“We warned you, JJ,” a dark haired knight said. “That’s what happens when you go up against Nikiforov.”

The man didn’t look pleased , but he also didn’t seem angry.

“Next time, Stonemountain,” JJ promised.

Viktor only smiled sunnily before turning his attention back to whatever it was Chris had been saying to him.

In the end, the meal left Yuuri trying to make sense of all of his different assumptions about the knights.  As a child he had thought of them as near mythical creatures of good—riding off to save the weak and destroy monsters—and then when he’d been in Tortall they had become thugs who used their skills to prey on the helpless.  But listening to the chatter that reminded him so much of the meal times at school, he realized that the answer very obviously fell somewhere in the middle.

After lunch, the rest of the day was less emotionally taxing, but it was certainly exhausting.  Yurio had joined up with them towards the end of the meal, demanding that Yuuri help him with some moves that Minako hadn’t finished explaining before they had left.

Part of Yuuri had hoped that he would be able to spend some more time with Viktor, but feeling like this was an offer of acceptance from the teen, he had followed him out to the practice area.  Everything else from then on was a blur of training, touring the camp, and meeting more and more people.

Each time Yuuri was introduced, he braced himself for the inevitable sizing up;, the speculative looks as the person tried to figure out why Viktor would be willing to take him on. By the time supper was finished and the three of them were walking back to the tents, he had at least developed a certain numbness to it.  Though maybe that was the effect of the meal—Yuuri had forgotten just how long the Tortallans’ evening meals could go, and this hadn’t even been one of the formal banquets.

Reaching the tents marked with Viktor’s device, Yuuri was more than ready to go to bed.  Viktor pushed aside the flap of the larger of the two tents and stepped inside, gesturing for Yuuri to follow.

Inside, Yuuri was greeted by a happy bark as Makkachin scrambled off one of the cots and threw herself at him.  Laughing, he crouched down to let her lick his face.

“Sorry, she’s missed you.”

Yuuri glanced up at Viktor, smiling as the dog’s cold nose pressed against his neck.

“It’s fine.  I actually…missed her too.”

Attention consumed by the needy dog who had decided Yuuri was not giving her enough scratches, it took Yuuri a little while to realize that Viktor was in the process of getting ready for bed; that Viktor’s shirt was off.

With the soft light of the lantern on the table illuminating the inside of the tent, Viktor’s chest and shoulders appeared almost golden, and Yuuri could see the faint marks of old scars.  

Viktor pulled a soft, loose shirt out of a trunk on the floor, the movement allowing Yuuri to admire the flex and play of the muscles in the man’s back, as well as the way the breeches conformed to his ass.  Yuuri felt a blush rising up, and a strange feeling of…need. He buried his face into the dog’s neck and hoped Viktor couldn’t tell the direction that his thoughts had gone. All he needed now, when things seemed to be going so well, was for Viktor to realize that Yuuri was interested in more than just sword fighting.

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve had something of a long day, and I’m afraid it will be an early start tomorrow.  If you want to stay up, I can—“

Yuuri allowed himself to look back to Viktor, both saddened and grateful that he had put on the shirt, allowing himself a fleeting moment to appreciate the way the deep neck fell, framing Viktor’s collar bones.  Briefly Yuuri wondered if collarbones were even supposed to be considered erotic, but then everything about Viktor was beautiful.

“No, I’m actually quite tired,” Yuuri said, cutting Viktor off.  “Going to sleep sounds like a good idea.”

Viktor’s nod seemed oddly sharp, and he was looking at Yuuri with an intensity that Yuuri wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret.

“Do you need…” Viktor paused mid-sentence, his voice thick, “do you need something to change into?”

Despite having just watched Viktor change, the fact that sharing a tent meant that Yuuri would be changing in front of him had totally been forgotten.  His blush felt as though it extended to his ears—since when could ears feel flushed?—and his mouth went dry.

Not a big deal , he lied to himself.  They had been in the hot springs together; what was this compared to that? But somehow, like when he had helped Viktor with his armour earlier, this felt more intimate.

“I have my sleeping clothes in my bag,” Yuuri mumbled.

Again there was that quick nod, and Viktor’s gaze seemed to drift restlessly around the tent.

“I should go have a quick word with Yurio about tomorrow.”

And then Viktor walked out of the tent and into the night, leaving Yuuri to stare after him.

Had he done something wrong?  Why had Viktor looked so tense?

Limbs suddenly a bit shaky, Yuuri had pushed himself up from the floor and decided that at least he could make use of Viktor’s absence.  Quickly, he got changed out of the clothes he had been wearing since that morning, pulling out a pair of soft trousers and a shirt and slipping them on.

By the time he was finished, Viktor still wasn’t back.  Yuuri sat down hesitantly on the bed where his bags had been left, trying to decide what to do.  Was he expected to wait up?

But when a few minutes had passed and there was still no sign of the knight, Yuuri decided that he may as well try to sleep.  He pulled back the rough wool blanket and slipped underneath. A second later, Makkachin had hopped up onto the bed and was pressed along his side.

Despite his exhaustion, Yuuri wasn’t entirely sure that he would be able to sleep. Eventually, though, he found the soft sounds of the camp outside and Makka’s warmth lulling him off.

 

***

 

A soft cry through the night was what pulled Yuuri out of his sleep.  Lying in his cot, he tried to still his suddenly racing heart, listening for the noise that had filtered into his dreams and pulled him awake.

Again, there was a faint sound from the far side of the room—where Viktor’s bed was.

Yuuri sat straight up, the frame of his bed creaking.He swung his legs over the side, ready to hurry over, and was halfway out of bed before he caught himself.

What was he going to do?  He still didn’t know Viktor, not really.  And surely it would make the other man feel worse to know that someone else had been aware of his bad dreams.

Gazing across the tent, Yuuri could just about make out the shape of Viktor’s form on his bed.  There was a soft thump, and a moment later Yuuri felt Makka’s nose nudging against his knee; she must have abandoned Yuuri once Viktor had returned. He glanced down, and even in the dark he could see her doggy look of disapproval, as if she was asking why he hadn’t already gone to look after her master.

“I can’t,” he whispered to the dog, though he couldn’t help but steal another look over towards Viktor.  “It would only make him uncomfortable.”

But Makka appeared to be having none of his excuses.  She gently grabbed hold of Yuuri’s hand with her mouth, giving an insistent tug.

He was all set to pull himself free of the dog’s hold and lay back down when he heard another, hoarser cry, halfway between a sob and a groan of pain.

Stumbling through the dark, Yuuri slammed one foot into the leg of a chair before he had cleared the space between the cots and was kneeling down beside where Viktor lay.  Whatever dreams had been tormenting the knight had led him to toss and turn until his blankets were down by his hips. The shirt that Viktor had put on earlier was now gone, and Yuuri could see the pale contours of muscle.  Tentatively, he reached one hand out and tried to gently shake Viktor awake.

When there was no response, Yuuri tried harder. He leaned over Viktor, calling softly, “Viktor!  Viktor, you need to wake up!”

How he knew the exact moment that Viktor’s eyes had opened when the tent was so dark, Yuuri had no idea; all he knew was that he could suddenly feel the weight of Viktor’s gaze on him.

“Yuuri?” Viktor’s voice was a raw whisper that barely reached to Yuuri’s ears.

“You were having a dream,” Yuuri whispered.

There was the harsh sawing of ragged breaths, and Yuuri could feel Viktor’s chest still heaving under his palm.

“I saw you…” Viktor whispered, the words sounding incredibly bleak.  “I saw you run into the flames, and I couldn’t go after…”

Yuuri could feel the shudder that wracked through Viktor.

“Viktor, it’s okay.  I’m here. I’m fine. It was just a dream.”

“So many times.  I’ve seen you go into the flames so many times, and I’ve never been able to stop it.”

Yuuri had no idea what Viktor was talking about; all he knew was that every word seemed to be laced with pain.  Acting on instinct, he pulled the other man up so that he was sitting, and then pulled him in close.

Pressed together, Yuuri could feel the faint shudders still rippling through Viktor and the rapid rise and fall of his chest with each shallow breath.  He tightened his arms, wishing there was something more he could do.

When Viktor pressed his face into Yuuri’s shoulder, Yuuri had the briefest of moments to notice how soft Viktor’s hair was as it brushed against his neck, and then he was trying to reign back those thoughts.  This was not the time for him to be thinking about the feelings that Viktor always seemed to stir up, or how Viktor’s body felt pressed against his own. Instead, he tried to focus on Viktor’s breathing as it evened out, and the way that the shudders had tapered down to the occasional shiver.

It may have been a handful of minutes, but time seemed to unwind in the dark as Yuuri waited for Viktor to recover, feeling helpless and inadequate.  He just hoped that when the grip of the dreams had passed, Viktor wouldn’t regret that it was Yuuri who had seen him like this.

Eventually, Yuuri’s body started to protest the awkward position he held, still half-kneeling on the ground, and he started to lower his arms and retreat.  He thought there might have been the faintest resistance—Viktor’s arms tightening where they had been around his waist— but then they dropped down.

Sitting back on his heels, Yuuri looked at Viktor’s face, at the sweep of silver hair obscuring the man’s eyes, and tried to decide if he should ask what had happened. Do I even have that right?

“Are you okay?” Yuuri asked instead.

Viktor’s exhale was heavy, his shoulders shaking a bit, but he did nod.  Yuuri’s fingers twitched with the urge to push back that silver hair and look into Viktor’s eyes.  He had felt the man’s tears against his shoulder.

“Do you…do you want to talk about it?” Yuuri pressed.  He didn’t know where this persistence—this bravery—was coming from.

Raising his chin, one watery blue eye locking with Yuuri’s gaze, Viktor managed a weak smile.  Having seen a whole range of Viktor’s smiles, this sad attempt more than anything was a sign that Viktor was not okay.

“I’m sorry to have woken you,” Viktor said, his light tone at odds with all that had passed.  “I sometimes get bad dreams—Yurio sleeps like the dead, so I had forgotten that it might be inconvenient for—“

“Viktor,” Yuuri said, cutting him off.  “That seemed like more than just a bad dream—you said…”

Yuuri could feel his courage faltering, and he wondered if he should just retreat back to his bed.  They could leave this interlude to the dark and try to pretend it had never happened come morning, hoping that it would take on the feel of something from a dream.  But Yuuri was pretty sure that he had gone too far; he wasn’t sure he knew how to pretend this hadn’t happened.

He tried again. “You said that you saw me going into flames…that you had seen it so many times…” And then a thought occurred to Yuuri along with a horrible sinking feeling in his gut, his face growing warm with embarrassment.  “Or…you must have meant Yurio?”

Yuuri suddenly found himself incredibly fascinated by the dry grass that was the floor, unable to bear seeing Viktor’s response.

“No, it was you.” Gone was the light tone, and instead the words were hoarse.  “I…I don’t know quite how to explain, or even if I can…but…”

The hesitancy as Viktor spoke made Yuuri glance up once again.

“Don’t feel like you need to tell me anything,” Yuuri said.  He was going to reach out, but held back the urge.

“I think maybe I should.”

Silence descended between the two as Yuuri waited for Viktor to continue.  When there was no sign of the knight starting, Yuuri shifted his weight, trying to get comfortable.  Instantly he felt Viktor’s hand at his shoulder, pulling him up.

“You should…you should join me, I’m not sure how long this might take.”

Yuuri nodded, rising up and joining Viktor on the cot.  Sitting side by side, he could only see Viktor in profile, but they were close enough—mere inches apart—that he could feel the heat pouring off of Viktor’s body.

They sat like that for another long while, and then Viktor took a deep breath and began.

“What do you know about the ordeal that squires undergo to become knights?”

Glancing quickly at the sharp planes of Viktor’s face, Yuuri tried to figure out if this was some sort of test.

He decided to answer truthfully. “Not much.  Not anything really.”

Viktor nodded.  “The ordeal has been the same one used for…well, as long as people in Tortall can remember.  Squires serve a vigil where they are supposed to think about what being a knight will mean—about the code of chivalry that they are accepting—and then, at dawn, they go into the chamber of the ordeal.

I’m not sure that I should be saying this much; one of the strongest rules about the ordeal is that you are not supposed to talk about it after.  But…well, let’s just say that the chamber has a power of its own, and a way of forcing squires to realize what being a knight will mean. When I went through my own ordeal, I left not only as a knight, but with the sense that I had some purpose.  And like an idiot, I ignored it. I decided it was inconvenient, that it was impossible.

At midwinter, when I was summoned back to Corus, I went to see the chamber again…it was a…compulsion.  And I was reminded of my purpose. Since then, the chamber has been sending me visions on a nightly basis.  I keep hoping that if I can do something, I might finally be free of them, but I never seem to make any progress.  The closest I’ve come was finding you.”

Yuuri felt slightly stunned by the speech, his thoughts tripping over all that Viktor had said.

“So, I’m in your visions?”

Finally Viktor turned to look at Yuuri and nodded.

“And…what do I do?”

Viktor blinked rapidly, his throat working, as if the words that followed were hard.

“At first it was just a glimpse of your face—you don’t know how shocked I was when I finally saw you here— and then I started to see us standing in front of a building on flames, and you always go forward into them.”

Fear settled like an icy pressure along his spine.  What if Viktor had the sight? Had Yuuri stepped on some sort of path that would lead to his own end?

Yuuri was swatted the thoughts away.  Of all the anxieties and fears that plagued him, the possibility of death--a death where he might finally find the bravery he had always craved--felt almost insignificant.  And he had talked enough with Minako to know that it was impossible for the sight to truly be of any use for the future. It was more like hints and suggestions, provoking responses to guide rather than a look at what was to come.

A more pressing thought was occurring to Yuuri.

“Was—were the visions the reason why you wanted me to join you?  Why you offered to train me?” Yuuri whispered, half hoping that Viktor wouldn’t hear the question.

A moment later Yuuri could feel Viktor gripping his forearm, each finger like a brand against his skin.  Viktor was looking straight at him, and for the first time since he had awoken Viktor’s gaze looked clear and intense.

“I came to the Islands because of the visions.  And when I saw you that day, I knew that I had to find you.  But…the training, well, it was actually Minako that first started it.  And as for having you join us…yes, part of that was because I know that you’re important to what has to come, but also…” Viktor’s sigh was short and frustrated.  “I enjoyed the time I was able to spend with you in Hasetsu.  I come from a…complicated…family, and talking with you, it was the first time in ages that I wasn’t constantly reminded of all of that.  And you know that when you fight…once you lose the fear…it’s like music.”

Yuuri was absolutely stunned.  If he had been hearing these things in the light of day, he wasn’t sure that he would have been able to listen, or that they would have meant anything to him, but in the quiet darkness of Viktor’s tent they somehow managed to find their mark.  He could feel his throat tightening and had to blink back tears. Forcing himself to take a slow breath in, Yuuri reminded himself that right now, Viktor was the one that needed help.

“Have you been able to get anyone to help with the visions?”  Yuuri felt as though the words came out thick and rough.

“Like I said, no one talks about their ordeals.  I’m not sure if it’s because the chamber doesn’t allow it, or just tradition.”

“And you haven’t been able to figure out what you need to do?”

“No.  I keep seeing places, people, but none of it means anything to me.  I’ve seen so little of this country, and so I can’t even figure out where to go or who to protect.”

Yuuri’s heart ached at the desperation that was threaded through Viktor’s words.

“Maybe you could tell me about the visions?  I might be able to give you a better idea of what you’re seeing here, or maybe just talking to someone, getting it all out of your head, will help?”

The rest of the night passed with Yuuri listening as Viktor told him about the visions and the progression that had been taking place.  Every so often Yuuri would interrupt to ask a question or get more details, but mostly he just let Viktor speak.

When the noise of the camp starting to stir filtered through the canvas walls, Viktor made a face, though he looked much easier than he had earlier.

“You have a fight today?” Yuuri asked.

Viktor nodded, swiping a hand over his exhausted face.

“This morning, and it’s against Mickey.  The kid might be a bit sloppy, but he has a recklessness that will make him dangerous.  And then another this afternoon.”

Yuuri smiled and rose up from the bed.

“Then you should try to get at least a little more sleep.  It would be a shame for the great Viktor Nikiforov to be defeated.”

In a couple steps, Yuuri was back in his own bed, trying to tell himself he was an idiot for feeling lonely.

As he settled back into the cold blankets, he heard Viktor calling out softly.

“Yuuri?”

“Yes, Viktor?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Viktor,” Yuuri whispered.

As he listened to the sound of Viktor’s breathing turning deep and even, Yuuri turned his thoughts to all that he had just learned.



Chapter Text

“Yuuri, watch your footing!  And—yes!—use the momentum…”

Viktor’s instructions rang out across the field, but Yuuri barely had time to pay attention, never mind do much with them.  Even after two weeks of steady training, he was little more than a competent beginner with the sword; as soon as he was matched up against someone—usually one of the squires—all thoughts of technique and strategy vanished.

At least Yuuri had a few things working in his favour.  He might not be great with the sword, but a lifetime of instruction in the art of war had honed his instincts so that they were sharper than the average squire.  Occasionally those same instincts would let him down, when he would forget that he wasn't using a weapon with more reach or fail to account for the heavy armour protecting his opponent, but mostly it allowed him that crucial half second to catch a hole in the other person’s defence; not that he could make much use of it with his still raw technique.

Another thing Yuuri had realized was that he had better stamina.  While the knights and squires needed to be in excellent condition, they tended to favour a short and brutal attack, using up a lot of strength and power early.  If he could make it past the first ten minutes of a fight, Yuuri discovered that he was much more likely to score a few clean hits.

Most of all, though, Yuuri was being trained by one of the best swordsmen of his generation.  Viktor might not have had a natural ability as a teacher, but there was something about his focus and the way that he always assumed that everything was within Yuuri’s capability that pushed Yuuri farther and faster than he had ever gone in training.

Today, however, was not one of his good days.  All of the squires had been busy, and the only person willing to work with Viktor’s pet project had been Yurio’s friend Otabek.  Yuuri had been a bit concerned about having to go up against a blooded knight, but Viktor had just smiled at him with that stupid heart-shaped grin that managed to both tear at Yuuri’s heart and infuriate him.

“Don’t worry, Beka’s strength is more towards the joust.  You’ll be fine,” Viktor had said.

And Yuuri hadn’t had the heart to say no.  So there he was, standing on the dusty field, sweat making his shirt cling to his his chest and back, his arms trembling with the effort to keep his guard up.

Yuuri had a half second warning before Otabek lunged forward, and while he brought his own blade down in time to block the blow, he could feel the clash reverberating up through his tired muscles.  The young knight might have been short—shorter than Yuuri, who was used to thinking of himself as weaker and smaller—but he was stocky, and each blow hit like Yuuri was fencing with a building.

“Nice job, Beka!  Tear him apart!” Yurio bellowed from the edge, where he sat sprawled out beside Viktor.

Yuuri wasn’t sure, but he thought that he heard the slightest snort of laughter from Otabek at the squire’s encouragement, though there was little change to his expression.

They continued to circle each other, lunging and feinting, the crash of steel against steel and the harsh rasp of his own breath all that Yuuri could hear.  And then Otabek made a move like he was going to attack, forcing Yuuri to counter, and while Yuuri was off balance he found a foot suddenly driving into his chest.  He hit the ground hard.

For a moment he just laid there, staring up at the blue sky and wondering if, when he looked down, there would be a foot-sized impression in his chest. It certainly felt like there should be.  

A hand appeared in Yuuri’s field of vision, followed by Otabek’s gruff voice. “Well done.”

Grabbing hold of the offered hand, Yuuri managed to get upright, though his body ached.  It was all he could do to lift his gaze up to meet Otabek’s eyes, never mind to glance over to where Viktor had gone silent.

Yuuri could feel the shame creeping up his neck, hot and prickly.  He might not have mastered the sword, but he had slowly been getting better; to be defeated so handily…

“Are you alright, Yuuri?” Viktor asked, his tone almost nonchalant in the way that it seemed to get when he was teaching.  

At least he doesn’t sound disgusted, Yuuri thought . Unless Viktor hadn’t expected much from him to begin with.

Pressing his eyes shut, Yuuri took a breath and tried to centre himself, to find some way to push out the thoughts that hounded him.  Ever since that night when Viktor had told him about the visions, Yuuri had found himself feeling both closer to the knight and even more distant.  

The progress was filled with a seemingly endless list of tasks and duties, other people almost constantly around, but in their infrequent moments of privacy Viktor and Yuuri had tried to tease some meaning out of the visions.  Being taken so firmly into Viktor’s confidences had made Yuuri feel as though his chest had swollen up and that at any moment, that thrill of emotion would break through his otherwise neutral mask.. Yuuri felt certain that someone must have caught him grinning at some point.  

Yet despite that…Yuuri couldn’t help but wonder if the closeness that they had—that he was starting to rely on—was only a product of the visions.  Viktor had said otherwise, and he probably believed it, but in Yuuri’s heart of hearts, he was certain that he was just some piece of a cosmic puzzle that Viktor had needed to collect.  Once everything was over—the problem solved, the battle done—Viktor would return home to Tortall to resume his regular duties, and Yuuri…well, Yuuri could only hope that he would learn enough during whatever time he’d have with Viktor to try to make something of his life once Viktor left. Though, he was starting to wonder how many pieces he would be left in when that happened.

“Yuuri!” Viktor urged, a little more concern in his voice.

Guiltily, Yuuri’s eyes snapped open and he did his best to smile at Viktor.  His body ached, but he managed to push himself up so that he was at least on his feet.

“I’m fine, really.  Just a little…embarrassed.”

“Embarrassed?” Viktor asked, an eyebrow quirking up.

Yuuri’s face felt hot, and more than anything he just wanted to find somewhere quiet to sit where he could try to shove all of the familiar feelings of shame and loathing back down to where he normally kept them buried.  He waved towards the patch of dirt where the faint scuff of his heels and the impression from the impact of his body were still visible.

Viktor’s lips twitched into a half smile, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

Good to see someone’s getting some enjoyment out of this , Yuuri thought a little bitterly.

“Yuuri, I know that you’re really quite competitive, but…this was the first time since we started your training that you fought with a knight rather than a squire.”

The implications of the sentence reverberated through his head.  Viktor had expected him to fail. And why not; that seemed to be what Yuuri did.

Somehow Viktor was oblivious to the way Yuuri’s world was shrinking down to that one essential fact—Viktor didn’t believe in him—and just patted Yuuri’s back.  Through the haze of his misery, Yuuri wondered if he had just felt Viktor caress his shoulder blade.  It actually took him a moment to realize that Viktor was still talking.

“…so I had to start pairing you up with some of the knights—the squires aren’t enough of a challenge anymore.  And for you to go that long with with Otabek—Yuuri, are you listening?”

Yuuri nodded as Viktor glared at him with a reproachful look.

“Do you get what I’m saying?” Viktor insisted, and at Yuuri’s blank look he sighed, glancing up.  “How has Mithros seen fit to bless me with two students who don’t listen?”

There was a laugh and the sound of approaching steps.  Glancing over, Yuuri saw the familiar smirking face of Chris.  The lanky knight paused once he had reached the group.

“I’m pretty sure that Yakov would say it was just rewards—do you remember how you were?”

It was Viktor’s turn to blush, his cheeks going a pale pink.  There was something about it, so at odds with his usual charming and assured persona, that had Yuuri’s heart thudding inside his already tender chest.

“Let’s maybe save some of those stories for another time, Chris,” Viktor said.

Chris responded with a wink at Yuuri and an easy smile spreading across his tan face for Viktor.

“Sure.   Whatever you say .  So what were you talking about?”

The slight blush hadn’t completely fled, but Viktor’s voice was instantly back to that of the teacher.

“I was trying to tell Yuuri that for him to have fought Otabek for—”

Eyes wide, Chris turned on Yuuri.  Much like in their first encounter, Chris looked him over with an assessing gaze, but where that first time it had felt lascivious, this one felt more speculative—an assessment.

“You fought Otabek?  Ugh, you couldn’t pay me to practice with him—sorry Beka—but a hit from him is like being hit by a brick shithouse.”

“Hey!” Yurio snarled from his spot on the sidelines where he was still sprawled out.

Chris just shrugged, glancing over at Viktor.

“True, no?  That’s the problem with those bastards who joust.  They don’t treat the sword like a finesse weapon; just hack away with all the damn force they can muster.”  Chris turned his attention back to Yuuri. “It’s all about strategy with opponents like this one. If you don’t disarm them quickly—and you have to focus more on getting through the guard; piercing, not hacking—then you’re just in a battle of strength.  Last time I got conned into fighting this bastard—Yurio’s idea—I may have managed to hold my own, but damned if I wasn’t aching for days after. And it was a near thing.”

Yuuri felt slightly stunned at Chris’s speech, both by the words themselves and the ease and comfort Chris had shown in describing how he had been bested.

“So some of that got through?” Viktor grumbled, his mouth pulling into a pout.

Yuuri’s gaze was drawn to Viktor’s lips before he snapped them up to the knight’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri stuttered, “I should have been listening when you were giving me instruction, and I’m—”

His rush of words was only cut off when Viktor stepped in close, one hand pressing against the small of Yuuri’s back, and Viktor leaning in so that those lips Yuuri had tried so hard not to notice were practically touching his ear.

“It’s okay, Yuuri.  You fought well. I think we’ll be able to make a swordsman of you yet…” There was a short pause in which Yuuri could feel Viktor’s breath against his neck, and then the man continued speaking.“With all this training on the sword though, I can’t help but think it’s a shame.  You with the glaive is a pretty magnificent sight.”

Yuuri felt as though his body had caught fire, and all that remained were the charred ashes.  But no, he was definitely still there, otherwise he wouldn’t feel the press of Viktor’s hand like a brand through the thin cotton of his shirt.  Yuuri couldn’t help the shiver that ran through his body, his breath coming out in a soft sigh.

“Ugh, can we go?” Yurio whined, breaking whatever spell Yuuri had become ensnared in.  He could have equally cursed and thanked the squire.

Viktor was the one to move away, his hand finally retreating from Yuuri as he turned to give the teen a cool look.

“What have I said about manners, you impudent pup?”

Yurio just levelled him with an icy look, his green eyes like stone as he crossed his arms against his narrow chest.

“If you and Katsudon are going to flirt out here, then I should be allowed to go.”

It was like Yuuri’s throat seized up, panic setting in at the squire’s words.  Frantically, he snuck a look at Viktor to gauge the man’s reaction—to see him protesting Yurio’s words, something that might confirm all of Yuuri’s fears—but Viktor just held Yurio’s gaze.

“And where is that you’re so desperate to go?” Viktor asked.

“Around.”

The petulant response was followed up with a world weary sigh that only a teenager could manage.

“Not without supervision—you know that.  After the way things have gone around the camp—“ Viktor started.

Yurio cut him off.  “Beka could be my supervision.  Right, Beka?”

Otabek, who had moved off a little ways from the group to start gathering up his belongings, looked up and nodded solemnly.

Viktor shook his head. “Nope.  If you’re going to wander around beyond the Tortallan part of camp you either need to be with me or Yuuri.  Things have grown too tense—“

Again the squire cut him off.

“That’s ridiculous!  There hasn’t been an incident since the camp moved!  The fact that they’re trying to blame a few tents being destroyed on one of us is bullshit.  And what’s Katsudon going to do to help that Otabek can’t?”

Yuuri spoke before thinking, “Yurio, it was more than a few tents.  Phichit told me that it was everything within them that was destroyed—people’s livelihoods—and some of the nearby villages said they had problems with foreign guests harassing locals.”

The glare he received from the teen made Yuuri wish he hadn’t spoken.

“You almost sound like you think it was one of us too!” Yurio said.  “ We’re the ones who’ve had people disappearing from the camp—probably for whatever creepy rituals you lot do here.”

“Yuri,” Viktor hissed.  “That was unacceptable.”

Shrugging his narrow shoulders, Yurio didn’t even flinch under Viktor’s glare.

“Can I go?”

And without waiting for an answer Yurio sauntered off, leaving the others to just watch in stunned silence.

Viktor was the first to react, turning to Yuuri with his brows lowered and jaw tight.

“I’m so sorry about that.  I forget how gods-cursed ignorant he can be—but that’s no excuse.  He is going to apologize.”

The words didn’t entirely ease the tension that had crept into Yuuri’s limbs, but it helped.  He hadn’t realized quite how much the boy’s rage had triggered something in him.

“He’ll come around,” Yuuri said with a confidence he didn’t feel, just going on hope.

“All well and good,” Chris said with his usual saucy smile, breaking the mood.  “But I think that Yuuri has earned a bit of a reward for managing to go a few rounds against our resident brick wall.  This calls for wine!”



Chapter Text

Viktor wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought that slightly drunk Yuuri might be his new favourite side to the man.

Walking back to the tent with Yuuri’s dark head resting on his shoulder, his arm slung around Viktor’s waist, and the smell of spiced wine like a cloud around them, Viktor felt as though he was a little drunk himself though he’d had no more than a glass or two.

“Vitya,” Yuuri sighed, his body leaning heavily into Viktor’s.

Viktor couldn’t stop the slight shudder that rippled through him at the diminutive on Yuuri’s lips; he just wished that it hadn’t taken several bottles of wine for that final veil of reserve to drop.  His hands tightened their grip on Yuuri’s shoulders.

“I won, I won so much,” Yuuri slurred, and when Viktor glanced down at the man’s soft, flushed features, he saw a broad smile and an impish glint to his glassy brown eyes.

“You did great, Yuuri.”

And Viktor had to admit, Yuuri had been in pretty fine form.  After they had left the practice field, they had gone to one of the tents that acted as a sort of tavern, with Chris ordering several bottles of wine for the table.

While the Imperial visit of the Yamanis to Tortall had served to bring the two nations together, this progress seemed to be on the constant verge of tearing down what accord existed.  The vandalism among the Yamani side of the camp and tales of destruction floating back from nearby villages had meant that walking anywhere outside of the visiting country’s area of the camp, Viktor was on edge, aware of the looks of suspicion and frustration.  While many of those from Tortall tried to be understanding, there were still a good number that were frustrated at the treatment, at feeling as though they were confined to their small section of tents and practice fields. And of course, Yuuri ended up having to take the brunt of that frustration.  He handled it well, but over their time together, Viktor had learned to read the man’s tells well enough to know that at the best of times, any large grouping of Tortallans—particularly knights—made him anxious. That afternoon had been no different; the moment they had stepped inside the tavern and felt the attention of the other patrons land on Yuuri, their expressions turning from curious to disgruntled or outright hostile, Viktor had seen the way Yuuri’s jaw had clenched, his shoulders going rigid.  Viktor had been half a second away from suggesting that they go somewhere else, but Yuuri had already sat down at the table claimed by Chris.

Viktor didn’t know what idea had possessed Yuuri—whether it was an attempt to forget the mood that still circulated through the tent, or lingering hurt at Yurio’s words—but Yuuri seemed in the mood to drink.  He had steadily worked his way through glass after glass, until it was time for everyone to go to dinner. Viktor had hoped that a change of venue and some food might allow Yuuri a chance to sober up, but Yuuri had gone straight for the wine with dinner, leaving his supper largely untouched.  By the time the meal was done, Yuuri had had the whole table rather entranced—both with the sheer quantity he was able to drink and with the uncharacteristically bold proposals he continued to make. Among his brilliant ideas had been the enthusiastic suggestion of arm wrestling at the table—Yurio, who had finally turned up sometime into the second course, had been thoroughly defeated. Halfway through the final course, snatching the bottle from the table, Yuuri had wandered off.  The usual crowd from supper, more than a little drunk themselves, had caught up with Yuuri back at the practice field, where it had been declared that they were going to have a competition for unarmed fighting.

At first Viktor had been worried about how Yuuri would be able to handle himself and whether or not he was going to have to run for a healer, but his fears had instantly been set aside.  It was like the alcohol had merely dampened the uncertainty that Yuuri normally held in his fights—whatever it was that held him back, that had him pulling punches and not driving into an attack when he had the window—but all of the coordination and grace were still there. Even fighting drunk Yuuri’s movements were beautiful-- Yuuri was beautiful-- and Viktor’s mouth went dry as he watched the flex of Yuuri’s thighs and the elegant lines of each fierce attack.  After Yuuri had worked his way through the crowd, effortlessly throwing opponents and landing hits with a speed that would have been astonishing when he was sober, Yuuri had grabbed the front of Viktor’s shirt and dragged him out to the field.

In short order, Viktor was lying on his back with Yuuri straddling his waist and pinning his arms down.  While Viktor had always thought of unarmed combat as a last resort for when you couldn’t get to your sword in time, he thought he might need to change his mind, particularly if it was with Yuuri.  Lying there against the cold ground, with the stars spread out behind Yuuri and the other man’s thumbs brushing against the sensitive skin of Viktor’s inner wrists as he leaned down, Viktor had almost been able to forget everything.  And when Yuuri’s full lips appeared as though they were heading for Viktor’s, Viktor had a desperate moment of wanting nothing more than to let that kiss happen.

But the rich smell of the wine on Yuuri’s breath had been enough to remind Viktor that, as much as he might want this, Yuuri was long past being able to make sensible choices that he could live with in the morning.  And so Viktor had pulled himself free—easier said than done—and escorted Yuuri back to the safety of his own bed.

At least, thank the Goddess, the others had wandered off at some point, so it was just Viktor and Yuuri staggering through the dark.

A few yards out from the tent, Yuuri leaned in and Viktor could feel the man’s lips ghost-like against his neck.  And between the damp warmth of Yuuri’s breath and the tentative kiss that followed, Viktor felt as though lightning had passed through his body.  When he felt the faintest hint of teeth against his skin Viktor had to fight back a whimper. He felt hot and tight, and all he wanted to do was pull Yuuri closer or, better yet, pull him into their tent and give into all of the urges and desires that he’d tried to repress for fear of spooking Yuuri.

Instead, he’d just sighed shakily, saying, “Yuuri, we’re almost back.  Can you manage the last little bit on your own?”

Viktor wasn’t a saint and he wasn’t sure how many more of Yuuri’s advances he could ignore until he gave in or exploded.  His body combusting was a very real possibility at that moment.

Yuuri took a step back, his gaze bleary but still managing to look absurdly frustrated.  Tentatively he took a couple of shaky steps towards the tent; how is it that he can fight so damn well like this, but barely walk straight? Then Yuuri stopped, turned around and frowned at Viktor.

“Vitya,” Yuuri sighed, “I know that I’m just here because of the visions, but will you stay my teacher until you go back? Until you leave?”

With those brown eyes looking so plaintive and the way Yuuri’s lip seemed to tremble a bit with his words, Viktor felt as though he was shattering into pieces.

“Of course!”

So many other thoughts swirled around through his head, and Viktor tried to grab hold of them.  He wanted to tell Yuuri that, if he wanted, Viktor would never go back; that while the visions may have directed him towards Yuuri, it was Yuuri himself that had made him fall in love.  But Viktor, who had never expected to find love—his family had certainly made it clear that he was unlovable—couldn’t find a way to get the thoughts out. Instead he just watched mutely as Yuuri started towards the tent.

Viktor trailed after Yuuri, helping him into the tent.  Gently, he pushed a glass of water into Yuuri’s hands, making sure that all of it was finished before he let Yuuri settle down into his bed with Makkachin pressed along his body.  Retreating across the tent to his own bed, Viktor sat down, though sleep was the furthest thing from his mind.

Over the last few weeks, since that first night that he and Yuuri had shared a tent and he had woken up to Yuuri comforting him, they had been trying to chip away at what the dreams might mean.  The basics seemed obvious enough—some sort of destruction was coming, tied up in magic that felt wrong —but for the first time Viktor started to think about what the visions actually meant , what they would mean for him.  Even as the visions would shift and change, new details emerging, there was one constant: death. Every time he emerged from the dreams he could feel death heavy around him, like it had clung to his skin and followed him out of sleep. It filled his nose with the smell of ashes and rot, with the image of Yurio looking so small against the hordes and the flames reaching out for Yuuri.

The visions had been barely manageable when Yuuri was just some abstract ideal yet to find, when Viktor didn't know that the tiny fierce squire would be pulled in, but now that Viktor understood the price, he didn’t know if he was strong enough to see this quest out; certainly not if it meant sacrificing the two people who had inexplicably managed to worm their way past all of the stone and ice he kept around his heart.

Lying down, staring up at the shadows of the canvas ceiling, one thought seemed to snake through everything until it had a stranglehold on his chest.

What makes you think you have a choice?



Chapter Text

Otabek knew it was a stupid idea to venture out beyond the safety of his usual routine.  For weeks he had been hearing about the troubles cropping up around the camp—he had certainly seen the way their hosts had gone from curious and welcoming to suspicious with ill-concealed hostility—but somehow he was still wandering out to one of the aisles of tents where Yamani food vendors plied their trade.

Hunching down further into his cloak, Otabek wished that he was a little less conspicuous.  As he walked down the row, he could feel the weight of the gazes upon him, his neck prickling and every sense of self-preservation telling him that he needed to be gone.  He might be a trained knight, but there were only so many opponents he could hope to take on at once before he became overwhelmed, and if there was anything Otabek had learned in watching Viktor’s Yamani student train—especially after his drunken display of effortless throws and takedowns—it was not to underestimate the fighting skill of the people in this country.

And yet, Otabek still slouched his way along the row, scanning the different offerings on display until he saw what he was looking for.

Beside the Yamani characters spelling out the different food for sale, Otabek saw the item that he wanted listed in Common lettering; katsudon.

Of everyone in their circle, Yuri had been taking the restrictions the hardest.  Otabek knew the teen would never admit it, but there was something about being confined—feeling like the whole world was just a few steps away and not being allowed to go and see it—that had been eating away at Yuri.  

Otabek could still remember when Yuri had first started as a page. Otabek had been going into his final year, desperately trying to do well enough that he could pass his big exams and become a squire.  This tiny blonde moppet with eyes like a soldier and a thick northern accent had shown up, scoffing at the very notion that he would need a sponsor, and of course he hadn’t. His manners may have stayed rough, but by the end of the year everyone could see that Yuri would be one to watch.  But even with his ferocity, it was understood that as a bastard child, he was there on little more than sufferance, destined to have his world shrink back down to the mountains of his home the minute he finished his training. This journey meant more to the squire than it could to almost anyone else there, and Otabek had felt for the angry teen who had somehow managed to become his friend.

So like an idiot, Otabek had gone on a quest to find something to make Yura happy, something small that would make him feel like his world hadn’t shrunk away to nothing.  After the storm had scattered them all and Yuri had returned, Otabek remembered hearing the squire gush about the food they had been eating in Hasetsu—safely out of earshot of both Viktor and Yuuri.  Again and again, Otabek had to listen to Yuri’s almost reverential description of the katsudon.

Otabek knew that his task was a thankless one—he was just as likely to get a sneer or some sarcastic reply for his efforts—but he couldn’t quite stop himself from trying.  There was something about being able to elicit one of Yura’s rare genuine smiles, getting to see that brittle exterior that he wore crack, that meant that Otabek would happily face a hundred hostile vendors.

The seller in question glared at Otabek the whole time he ordered, his only response being a sharp nod and to snatch away the coins that Otabek had offered.  But a small earthenware container was shoved across the table, and Otabek was able to set off with something that admittedly did smell pretty amazing.

The return walk was even worse; his instincts telling him that he needed to get out of there.  The crowd in the direction he had come from was too thick, though, so he had to continue further along.  He had a moment of gratitude when the crowd started to precipitously thin, but when he saw why, he started to look for any sign of a break in the tents for him to circle back in the direction of the relative safety.  This far into the food market, the tents had been shredded, and there were still pieces of broken wood remaining from tables and displays that had been smashed. Otabek had heard that the vandalism at the last site of the progress had been bad, but this was something else.  This felt malicious and dangerous, and made every one of the looks he had received understandable. The progress had moved a whole two weeks early from their last site in an effort to fix the problem, but from what Otabek was seeing it might have actually grown worse.

Otabek felt the presence of someone behind him before he heard the angry yell.

“What are you doing here?”

Carefully, trying to keep his movements slow and non-threatening, Otabek turned.  The man was a well-built Yamani, at least a half foot taller than Otabek, and while he didn’t have the look of one of the Imperial School students that were sometimes seen wandering around the grounds, he had the sort of brawn that spoke of someone hauling about heavy items on a regular basis.  Otabek knew not to underestimate strength over skill.

“I’m just trying to make my way back to my friends,” Otabek said, trying to keep his voice even and calm.

“That’s the other direction,” the man had growled back.

Another figure stepped out from between two of the tents.  The second man was more wiry than the first, and dressed in one of the ornate robes that were favoured on the Islands he looked more like local gentry, but his expression was no less venomous.

“Probably came back to take a look at his handiwork,” the second man spat out.

Otabek felt as though the situation was spinning out of his control.  He felt as helpless to stop the fight coming as if it were a wave about to crash on the beach.  If he’d been anywhere else, that would have been less of a problem; Otabek didn’t like to seek violence, but he had no problem holding his own.  Here though, he was very aware that the people who were eyeing him up angrily, their hands clenching into fists, were civilians; and what’s more, they—along with the crowd of onlookers that was growing by the minute—were of the Islands.  The one thing that managed to keep some semblance of peace throughout the camp was the fact that no knights had yet been caught in any acts of destruction, despite all of the whispers; if Otabek actually fought the men, then suddenly all of the stories would seem a lot more credible.

Desperately, hoping that he could just quietly slink off, Otabek tried reason again.  “This wasn’t me, or anyone that I know. I just came to get some food; let me pass and this doesn’t have to go any further.”

The first man’s face was a mask of anger.

“You think you can just wander through here with no consequences and threaten us?”

Sighing, Otabek shook his head, even as he started to shift his footing to find a steadier stance.  He glanced down at the earthenware container still in his hands, wondering what the chances were that he would be able to leave with the item that had brought him into this situation in the first place.

“It was not meant as a threat.”

The words did little to stop the man’s anger though, and Otabek could feel his stomach drop as the man took a step forward.  There wasn’t going to be any way to acquit himself from the situation with honour and not allow himself to be beaten to a pulp.

When the man’s fist flew through the air, aimed squarely at Otabek’s jaw, it was easy for Otabek to pivot and step to the side, but his lack of response seemed to enrage his opponent even more.  The man followed up with a brutal punch to the gut that Otabek was only able to partially block.

Even as his lungs were still trying to pull air back in, Otabek was trying to maneuver himself into a better position for defence, the need to return with a right hook that would catch the man in the jaw feeling like an itch.  But he fought the urge, trying to duck and weave around what he could and suffering through the occasional hit. He could only hope that the man’s anger would burn out quickly and that he could leave soon; though with the noise of the crowd’s grumbling increasing it seemed that he might have to give in and try to find a way of his own to end this.

Distracted by a flash of blond appearing in the crowd, Otabek didn’t see the fist until it hit him in the eye.  Pain exploded out through his skull, and his mind went blank.

“Beka!” A voice called out through the crowd, and Otabek finally felt a moment of fear.

“Yura!  You need to get out of here!”

Yuri wasn’t supposed to be here. Otabek knew how to take a beating—you got used to it in the joust—and could hold back when it came to his own safety, but he wasn’t sure he could stand by if Yuri was in danger.

Wielding pointy elbows and curses in equal measure, Yuri quickly pushed his way through the crowd until he made his way to Otabek.  For the time being, the man who had attacked Otabek was standing with a look of confusion layered over his anger.

“What’s going on?” Yuri had asked, a deadly glare levelled at the man.

“It’s nothing,” Otabek said quickly, his attention now divided between watching his opponent for signs of another attack and having to make sure Yuri wouldn’t do something rash.

“I was just showing this one,” the man said, throwing Otabek a look of disgust, “how we feel about you lot coming here—destroying businesses, attacking honest people, and then coming back to taunt us.”

Northern accent thicker than Otabek had ever heard it, Yuri snarled back, “You have exactly one minute to get out of my face before I show you what I think of your honesty .”

The man, who towered over the squire and probably outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds, took one look at Yuri and laughed.  Otabek could feel his blood running cold; this was not going to be good. Already, Yuri’s face had gone red, his eyes narrowed until they were just chips of emerald and his fists rising up into a ready position.  Looking as threatened as if it were a kitten before him, the man just sneered.

Otabek tried to grab hold of Yuri, but he was shaken off.

“Yura, ignore him, we need to go,” Otabek whispered, getting a firmer hold on the squire’s shirt and desperately looking for an exit.

In the time since the fight had started, the crowd had surged forward to surround them, and Otabek could feel all hopes of a mess-free getaway vanish.  There would only be one way that this would end, and it was going to be messy.

Otabek stepped in front of the squire, at least trying to put himself between Yurio and the man. He passed the earthenware container that he somehow still held into Yuri’s hand, and prepared himself to fight.

Focussed as he was on watching the man for any sign of movement, he didn’t notice the shift in the crowd.  It wasn’t until he felt Yuri’s fingers gripping his shoulder, tugging at him, that he looked away.

A few feet to the side of where they stood was a small rodent; a squirrel .  The beast sat back on its hind legs, beady eyes fixed on the two of them, chattering angrily before it dashed backwards.  The beast leapt up towards a short man that had emerged from the crowd, racing up the simple black sleeve of his shirt and joining another squirrel that was perched on the man’s shoulder.

People in the crowd shuffled around to get some distance from the man.  Otabek could well understand it. Though he had a round face that seemed more inclined towards a sweet friendliness, he walked with the easy ranginess of someone trained in fighting, and the embroidered insignia of a glaive on his shirt was all the warning people would get that this was one of the Imperial students, brought to compete in their own tournaments of skill.

The man’s brown eyes seemed intent on Yuri, and Otabek took a half step forward, just hoping that he could hold off the man long enough for Yuri to get away.

“You’re the other Yuri?” the man asked.

“What do you mean the other Yuri?” Yuri snarled.

Otabek could have cursed him; did he have no sense of self-preservation?

There was a quick smile that darted across the man’s face.

“Yuuri said you had a temper.  You’re the squire?”

“Who are you?

The man ignored the question, instead turning to look sternly at the surrounding crowd.  The squirrel on his shoulder chittered something, drawing the man’s attention back to the two Tortallans.

“I think it’s best if you went straight back to your side of the camp.  Do you need me to accompany you?”

The words were said in a kindly enough tone, but Otabek couldn’t help but feel like it was a blow to his pride.  Face tight, he shook his head. Yuri, on the other hand, had a look of incredulity on his face.

“Are you kidding?  Why would we need help from you?  Beka and I could take on anyone who might come after us.”

Gritting his teeth, Otabek just grabbed the squire by the back of his neck and started to lead him away through the gap that had opened up in the crowd.

After a moment’s thought he glanced back over his shoulder to look at the man.

“Thanks…?”

Again there was a smile, this time a little mischievous, and Otabek could swear that the squirrel had an almost identical expression on it’s grey furry face.

“Tell Yuuri, Phichit sends his regards.  And that he should bring his handsome new teacher around to see his old friends.”

The walk out of the Yamani part of the camp remained tense, and it wasn’t until they had passed well within their own side that Otabek felt anything approaching relief.  Even so, his eye felt tender from the blow, and he could feel a few other twinges where he hadn’t been able to completely block attacks.

“What were you doing over there?” Otabek finally asked, though he couldn’t bring himself to look at the squire.  “You could have been hurt!”

He could feel Yuri’s pout.

“I went after you!  And you did get hurt!  What if I hadn’t been there?”

Otabek’s breath came out in a rush of frustration.

“If you hadn’t shown up, I would have been fine.  And now, I’m going to have to explain to Viktor how I let his squire get into a fight, stirring up trouble around the camp.”

Yuri dashed in front of him.  He might have been tiny, but he had enough force of will to stop a Stormwing in its tracks, and Otabek was no different.  He looked down at the blond.

“And what were you doing over there?” Yuri accused.

Otabek could feel a flush of embarrassment rise up his neck.  All he could manage was to point to the container that Yuri still held in his hands.  With a look of confusion, Yuri glanced down, opening it up. As soon as he saw the contents, his eyes darted between the food and Otabek’s face.

“Katsudon?”

More than anything Otabek wished that he could have just died back there in the brawl.  It would have been less miserable than having to admit that he’d risked the state of the peace for nothing more than some food and bringing a brief smile to the surly squire’s face.

“Was…was this for me?” Yuri asked as understanding dawned on his face.

Otabek gave a sharp nod, trying to break the eye contact.

“Come on, we need to go find somebody and let them know what happened.”

As they walked, Otabek couldn’t help but catch sight of the broad smile that lit up Yuri’s face.



Chapter Text

Yuuri didn’t know what had happened the night that he’d gotten drunk, but he could only assume that it must have been bad.  Two days later and the quiet intimacy between him and Viktor had been shattered. Where before their evenings had been a time for them to discuss the visions, to speculate and try to come up with a plan, that had vanished.  Now Viktor would change the topic, instead talking about meals, the weather, any number of subjects that all seemed to say the same thing: he didn’t trust Yuuri anymore.

Even the routine that had developed for the middle of the night had changed.  Normally Yuuri would wake up to Viktor’s cries and would sit with him until the worst of the pain from the visions had fled, but even for that, Viktor seemed to be absent.  The night after the incident, when Yuuri had shaken him awake, Viktor had sat up and burrowed his head into Yuuri’s shoulder at first, his arms twining around Yuuri and one hand grabbing hold of Yuuri’s shirt at the small of his back while the other tangled in his hair.  For a brief moment, as Yuuri had felt Viktor’s fingers dragging against his scalp and the heat of Viktor pressed against him, he had felt like as long as he had this , he could push on and face anything. Knowing that he still had some way of being useful, of being important to Viktor, meant that he could accept Viktor drawing away from him during the day.

And then, with the last taste of the visions fading, Viktor had seemed to come back to himself.  Yuuri had felt the exact moment that Viktor had realized he was draped across Yuuri, his chest and shoulders going stiff and his breath stuttering.  It was the half laugh as Viktor pulled back though—the abashed grin—that broke Yuuri’s heart; like this hadn’t happened before, and Viktor wished that Yuuri hadn’t been the one to give him comfort.  

After that, Viktor found an excuse to be away from Yuuri more and more.  During the day, Yuuri and Yurio were tasked with working on the glaive, and Yuuri found that a great number of the knights had started coming to him for instruction on how to improve their unarmed fighting skills.  And at night, Viktor had started to stay up late—Yuuri often went to sleep to the soft light of a glow stone as Viktor read, and when he woke up in the middle of the night he would find that he was alone in the tent, Viktor’s bed untouched.

Yuuri wanted to ask Viktor what had happened, what he had done wrong, but he could never quite work up the courage.  As awful as it was to wonder, the idea of actually having to hear whatever terrible thing he had said or done was worse.  From the lascivious winks that Chris had started to send him and the odd comment directed his way, Yuuri had a horrible suspicion that the worst might have happened and he had somehow let Viktor know how he felt.

Even with the new tasks that had arisen, Yuuri’s afternoons felt empty—not to mention lonely—without his training. When he was finally able to catch a moment with Viktor at lunch only to be told that, yet again, Viktor was going to be too busy to train him that afternoon, Yuuri retreated to their tent.  Flinging himself down onto his bed, he was trying to remember when he’d last felt quite so alone. Even Makkachin had wandered off; for a brief moment Yurio’s cat had poked his head inside the tent, but he had just hissed at Yuuri before running away.

Lying on his front with his head pressed into his pillow, Yuuri wanted nothing more than to drift off to sleep.  But his usual refuge eluded him. The sounds of the camp outside the tent were too loud, the sliver of afternoon sunshine coming through the gap in the doorway too bright, and his mind wouldn’t let the puzzle of Viktor’s visions drop.

And so, when Yuuri heard the sound of Otabek and Yurio outside the tent, he had eagerly gotten up and padded outside.

The two froze when they saw him, Otabek looking almost guilty and Yurio’s face caught somewhere between guilt and defiance.

“Do you know where Viktor is?” Otabek had asked.

Yuuri tried to ignore the pain that accompanied Viktor’s name, shaking his head and looking between the two.  Both looked flushed, and the skin surrounding Otabek’s eye had a red cast that suggested it was going to bloom into a spectacular bruise.

“Is everything alright?”

“It’s fine,” Yurio snapped.

“It doesn’t look fine.”

“What do you know?”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Yuuri did his best to channel the no prisoners attitude that Mari used to take with him when he was going through his own rocky adolescence.

“Yurio, I don’t know what is going on with you, but I refuse to be some straw man for you.  Something clearly happened. Unless you want me to go straight to Viktor, you need to tell me exactly what, so we can figure out how to fix it.”

A tremble started through the squire’s frame, but his expression stayed intractable.

“How are you going to fix it?  Beka got attacked! And a whole crowd of your people were just going to watch—but somehow we’re the bad guys?  And no one seems to care that no one has seen Eren or Roy since the camp moved; why would a knight and squire who’ve traveled all this way just suddenly decide to leave?  Or the servants that have vanished?” By the time Yurio finished, he looked exhausted and close to tears.

Otabek stood just behind with a pained expression on his face, his hand extended halfway towards the teen as if to try to comfort him but clearly not sure that Yurio would let him. Yuuri couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for Otabek.

Yuuri took a deep breath, reminding himself that he just needed to stay calm and assertive with the teen, though Yurio’s words had set something off inside of him.  This progress did have a different feel than the last. Yuuri was convinced that all of it must be connected to Viktor’s visions, but neither had been able to figure out how.  If there was some pattern to it all, they might have stood a chance, but up to that point it had all just been random and senseless.

“Where did you get attacked?” Yuuri finally asked, deciding to stick to the simpler issues at hand.

Otabek looked away, his cheeks a little pink under his tan.

“I went to the food vendor row, on the Yamani side.”

Yuuri couldn’t help the frustrated exhale of air.

“Why?”

He could feel the squire step forward until he was mere inches away, glaring up at Yuuri.  Yurio raised a hand, managing to make a pointed finger look astonishingly menacing.

“Lay off—Beka was just trying to be nice.  And what’s the point in us being here and having a treaty if we can’t even go to get food?”

If it wasn’t for the very real possibility that Yurio would have a go at him, Yuuri might have smiled at the idea of the tiny teen stepping in to defend the knight.

“You’re probably right, but you’ve been told to stay put for now.  The fight certainly isn’t going to do much for relations,” Yuuri said on a sigh as he tried to think about what they would have to do next.  He definitely needed to find Viktor and let him know what had happened for a start, though that was clearly easier said than done with the state of things.

Otabek’s gravelly voice cut off his train of thoughts.  “There wasn’t much of a fight to speak of. I didn’t throw any punches, and one of the Imperial students intervened before it could get too serious.”

“One of the students?  Do you know which one?” he asked automatically.

It was Yurio who answered.  “He seemed to know you—said that you should take Viktor around to see him.  He had these animals as well…”

Phichit , Yuuri’s brain supplied.

He felt an immediate surge of guilt.  Since he had joined Viktor he hadn’t had the chance to have more than a brief conversation with Phichit a couple of weeks ago.  Yuuri had been meaning to go see his friend since then, but had never quite had the time; truth be told, when his day was filled with spending time with Viktor, Yuuri had been reluctant to surrender his time to anything else.

“I’ll go and see Phichit today,” Yuuri decided.  “I can ask a bit about what’s going on—see if whatever happened today caused enough of a stir that we need to tell anyone about it.”

Otabek shot him a grateful look, and Yurio at least looked a little less angry.  Yuuri gave them his best encouraging smile before he started off.

He saw no reason to delay the visit, and an even guiltier part of him had suddenly realized that Phichit was exactly what he needed.  After years together at the Imperial school, Phichit was one of the few people Yuuri truly trusted. His friend had a way about him that put everyone at ease, and had a gift for advice.  If there was anyone who would be able to help Yuuri figure out what he had done wrong and how to fix it, it would be Phichit.

 

***

 

After having spent so much of the last few weeks in the company of the knights, Yuuri found it a little odd to be on his own while walking through the rows of tents that housed the vendors and merchants of his country.  There was something about the familiar scents of the food wafting up and the hum of chatter in Yamani rather than Common that put Yuuri at ease in a way that he hadn’t felt since he had left home.

Even with his current state of misery at Viktor’s withdrawal, Yuuri had enjoyed his time with the knights, and he wasn’t sure how he would be able to retreat back to life at the inn once they all left to return to Tortall, but this was a well-needed break.  Walking through the crowds, Yuuri could feel unremarkable and invisible in a way that being with Viktor didn’t allow. Most of the people that Yuuri had cause to interact with, particularly in Viktor’s immediate circle, were nothing other than friendly—or at least cordial—but as tensions around the camp had increased, Yuuri had felt himself the subject of more and more dirty looks and whispered conversations.  Now, though, he was just like any other local out to see the sights; he wondered why he hadn’t done this before.

Another flood of guilt washed over him, chased closely by shame.  It had been so much easier to avoid visiting Phichit, because that meant he didn’t have to go to the area where the Imperial students would be training and risk running into his former classmates.  Already, Yuuri could hear the questions they would ask and imagine the looks he would receive.

Steeling himself, and trying to remember that at the very least, someone had to thank Phichit for helping Otabek and Yurio, Yuuri picked up the pace.  If he didn’t get this first meeting with everyone over with soon, he knew he would definitely lose his nerve.

At last, he was able to see the flag of the school flying over one of the larger tents.  The familiar field of black with its stylized glaive set off an odd feeling in Yuuri. For five years, that symbol had been all around him, and he’d expected that seeing it again would bring back at least some of that same pain he’d felt when he’d been sent home, but oddly it was just a sort of soft-edged ache.  It might have been painful at the time, but if he hadn’t gone back to Hasetsu, Yuuri wasn’t sure that he would have been able to meet Viktor—certainly he wouldn’t have been able to train with him.

As he passed the open doorway to the tent, Yuuri took a quick peek inside.  From the previous progress he knew that it would be set up as a sort of mess hall and common area for the students; it was still a little early in the afternoon for people to be going for supper, but many would be finished with mandatory training and chores for the day and the tent tended to be where people ended up when they had time to kill.  A quick glance revealed that Phichit wasn’t inside, though Yuuri saw more than a few faces he recognized, many of which wore a similar look of surprise at having caught a glimpse of him.

Pressing on, Yuuri headed towards the open area just past the tent.  From a distance, he could make out a slight figure working through a pattern dance with an exuberance that no master had been able to beat out of him yet.

Once he had reached the edge of the area, he waited until Phichit had twirled and sliced his way to facing in Yuuri’s direction.  At the sight of his friend, Phichit let the blade drop and a gigantic smile spread across his face.

“Yuuri!  I was just thinking I was in need of someone who could keep up with me for training!” In one fluid motion, he raised the length of the glaive up so that it was crossways to his chest and launched it towards Yuuri.

Without even thinking, Yuuri reached out, grabbing hold of the wooden base.

“When are you going to realize you can’t just fling something like this about?” Yuuri chided, though he couldn’t stop his answering smile.

Phichit just scoffed.

“I don’t know what those foreigners have been doing to you, but the Yuuri I know would never have any issues with the glaive.”

“Would that were true.”

Yuuri watched as Phichit crossed to a nearby rack of practice weapons to grab another glaive for himself.  Crossing back to the middle of the ring, Phichit jerked his chin towards the space in front of him.

“Come on, let’s see what the great Nikiforov has done to your technique.”

It took Yuuri a few minutes to fall into the rhythm of sparring—he was a little chagrined to discover that he was having some trouble stepping back into the fighting style needed—but soon the world fell away, narrowing down to the feel of the glaive in his hands and the glint of steel in the sunlight.  By the time Phichit called it to an end, Yuuri’s muscles felt warm and loose and he was saddened to see his friend putting away the weapon.

Taking the second glaive from Yuuri, Phichit added it to the rack and then shot his friend an appraising look.

“Whatever you’ve been doing, it’s been good for you.”

Yuuri’s laugh was automatic, more shock then any actual amusement.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

Eyes narrowed and focussed on Yuuri, it was as though Phichit was able to see something that Yuuri couldn’t; of course with the magic gifts that Phichit had, Yuuri wouldn’t entirely rule that out.

“You seem…more free.  And I haven’t seen you quite that aggressive with your attacks since…well, actually, ever.”

Panic pulled Yuuri’s throat closed and had him driving fingernails into his palms.

“I’m sorry!” he said in a rush.  “I shouldn’t have…I didn’t mean to—“

“Yuuri, it’s okay.  I meant it as a good thing,” Phichit said, and he reached forward to grip his friend’s arm.  “Really. I’m just so pleased to see you so confident in your skills—if the masters could see you like this, I’m sure they’d be desperate to have you come back.”

That thought caught Yuuri short.  When he had left for Hasetsu, he’d never imagined that there might be some way of returning to his life at school, but hearing Phichit voice that possibility he felt his heart lurch.

That’s not what you want , a voice in the back of his head murmured, but Yuuri tried to shove it back down.  What he wanted wasn’t possible—Viktor’s retreat had made that pretty clear—but to know that he might be able to return to his old life after the progress was finished felt like something , even if it rang a little hollow.

“Do you think so?” Yuuri asked.

Phichit nodded, walking over to the bench that divided the field up into different training areas.  He sat down—more sprawled out than anything— and within moments one of his squirrels had jumped onto his leg.  Yuuri watched as his friend absently stroked the small creature’s back.

Yuuri joined him on the bench, and the two sat in a companionable silence as they watched the sun lower over the peaks of the tents.

With a sigh, Phichit murmured, “With visions like that, I almost wish I had your way with poetry.”  And then a wicked smile stole across Phichit’s face as he turned to face Yuuri. “Speaking of poetry—when are you going to bring your handsome knight to meet me?  After having to listen to so many drafts in honour of the man’s speed and stamina, and the glint of light off of his silver and gold armour, I feel as though I need to actually see this paragon in person.”

Since reuniting with Phichit, Yuuri had been able to forget about what had driven him to make the visit in the first place, but that one comment had his good mood plummeting.  Phichit, with his prescient grasp of Yuuri’s moods, instantly felt the shift, his own smile dropping.

“What?  Is something wrong?  Do I need to send Acorn to go do my dark bidding?”

His friend’s tone may have been light, but there was just enough menace in it to let Yuuri know that Phichit was a hundred percent serious.

“No! No, it’s nothing.  I just…I think I may have done something.  We were…” Suddenly given the opportunity to seek his friend’s advice, Yuuri struggled to find the words.  It certainly didn’t help that he barely knew what was going on, or even what he wanted ; he just knew that the distance that had started to grow between him and Viktor hurt more than almost anything he’d ever experienced.  He was also realizing that he couldn’t mention the matter of the visions to Phichit; those weren’t Yuuri’s to share, and however miserable Yuuri might be, he couldn’t bring himself to break Viktor’s confidence.

Deciding to keep things as simple as possible, Yuuri said, “I think that I want…more…than Viktor is willing to offer.”

Phichit gave Yuuri a long look with that uncanny stare before he said, “You’re in love with him.”

Yuuri could feel a blush rising up in his cheeks with a furious intensity, but he didn’t have the heart to try to deny Phichit’s words.  Instead he nodded miserably.

“How could I not be?  He’s handsome and charming and talented, and when I got to know him he manages to be even more…”

“Are you sure that he doesn’t share any of the same feelings?”

Tilting his head back to stare up at the indigo sky, Yuuri was suddenly glad that the deepening dusk could mask the tears that were burning at the corners of his eyes.

“I don’t know.  There were times…it seemed like he might at least have some interest, but I think I must have said something the other day that let him know, and now he doesn’t want to be anywhere near me.”

“You think you said something?”

Yuuri leant forward, pressing his hot face into his hands.

“We went to one of the taverns on the other side of camp.  My memory stops somewhere around the end of the second bottle of wine.”

At Phichit’s laugh, Yuuri glanced over with a glare.

“Sorry,” Phichit said between giggles.  “I just…well, I know what you’re like when you drink.  I can only imagine what all of those knights thought to see you like that.”  At Yuuri’s moan of distress, Phichit quickly added, “Sorry, I’m not laughing at you.  Was no one able to tell you what you did or said?”

Yuuri shook his head and buried his face back in his hands.

“No, but the next day, it was like everything that had been developing with Viktor just vanished.”

“But he never actually said anything?” Phichit prompted.

“Because he’s too nice.  Or he was too mortified.”

“And you don’t know for a fact that you actually said anything?”

“What else could it be?”

Phichit’s hand started to rub Yuuri’s back in soothing circles.

“Yuuri, I think you’re going to have to actually go and talk to Viktor.  It might be painful, and I’m sure it’s going to be awkward, but can it really be any worse than what’s going on now?  At least with the air cleared, the two of you might be able to find a new equilibrium.”

Nodding, Yuuri tilted his head to the side to peer over at his friend.

“And how do I do it?  How do I tell him…how I feel?  And what if it was something else, but now he knows how I feel about him and he doesn’t return the feelings and it makes everything so much worse—“

Cutting Yuuri off, Phichit stood up,  grabbing one of Yuuri’s arms to yank him up as well.

“Come on.  I’m taking you to dinner.  We’ll talk strategy, and maybe with some katsudon and liquid courage, we can get you brave enough to go talk some sense into your knight.”

 

***

 

It might have been his favourite meal, the half a bottle of rice wine, or just an evening spent in Phichit’s company, but by the time Yuuri was walking back to his tent, his mood was much better.

Ever the cheerful pragmatist, Phichit had a way of framing even the most terrifying problems in such a way that they felt manageable.  Over the course of the meal, Phichit had managed to talk down every one of Yuuri’s fears, and by the time the two had finished the bottle of wine between them, his friend had declared that Yuuri was ready to go find Viktor and sort out their problems.  Yuuri had agreed, if only because Phichit—a bit of a light weight—had also started to suggest all manner of actions Yuuri could add to his confrontation, most of which had left Yuuri blushing furiously.

As he had walked back, he couldn’t help but appreciate the silence.  The crowds had long since dispersed, the locals retreating back to their villages and the denizens of the camp either off at meals or sensibly in bed.  The night air was cool in a way that just felt crisp and refreshing, particularly after the overly warm tent that had housed the tavern Phichit had chosen, and Yuuri could see the stars twinkling above.  He chose to see all of these as good omens.

The walk, or perhaps Phichit’s suggestions that wouldn’t quite leave Yuuri’s thoughts, lulled him into a sense of peace and security, and it took him some time to realize that he was being followed.

Don’t panic .  

For the first week with Viktor and Yurio, he’d been skittish as a puppy whenever he’d had to wander around the camp on his own, but he had eventually realized that he had little to fear.  He would feel like a fool in a minute when he discovered that it was nothing more than a servant on their way somewhere, or someone just like himself headed to their bed.

Still, Yuuri picked up the pace, suddenly very aware of just how dark the camp was.  From behind, he could hear the person picking up their speed as well.

Yuuri forced himself to take a breath.  He needed to stay calm. Eyes darting around, he looked for something that would be of any use as a weapon, but this stretch of the camp was shuttered and dark.  While the lack of light made the stars all the more brilliant, Yuuri felt increasingly aware of how easy an attack would be.

Up ahead, he saw the opening for the path that would lead him back towards his own tent.  As he neared it, he couldn’t help but notice how dark and narrow the route looked. The path followed behind the back of a series of merchant tents, all shut for the night, and once Yuuri was into that stretch there would be no going back.  He turned his gaze forward, seeking out the lights that should have been up ahead where the taverns were setup, but all he saw were the dark smears of the tents against the night sky.

Cursing himself for a fool, Yuuri wondered how he could have let his guard slip so much.  He had known that there had been hostility in the camp, particularly toward the Yamani, and yet he had still stayed out drinking and talking with his friend until after the safety of the crowds was gone.  He had a quick struggle over which route to take before turning down the lane that would at least get him back quicker.

As he started along the row, trying to go as fast as he could around the ropes and pegs of the tents, he held his breath.  Maybe he had been all wrong.

There was a thump as someone stepped against one of the ties, the canvas shivering in response.

Yuuri didn’t look back.  He kept his eyes locked firmly on where he knew the aisle would open up to a larger artery.  That one would be just as empty, but there would be enough room to maneuver.

With each step his speed increased until he was all but running, avoiding the tangle of ropes just on memory.  And then he felt his foot catch. It was like something out of a nightmare; time seemed to slow down as his balance shifted, until he was flying forward.

He had just enough time to raise his arms to protect his face before he slammed into the ground.  Pain radiated from his elbows up his forearms, and his breath came out in a heave.

It was only instinct and training that had Yuuri gritting his teeth against the pain and forcing himself up.  Turning to look back, there was just enough light from the moon and the stars to see the figure who had all but caught up.  Yuuri had a temporary moment of relief to see that it wasn’t the blond from so many years ago, but it didn’t last long.

The man’s short brown hair and square features might not have been indelibly burned into his memory, but Yuuri recognized him.  It would have been hard not to remember the face of someone who had participated in his thrashings more than a few times.

Bracing himself for the insults, Yuuri was unnerved to find the man staring at him silently.  He had just a moment to wonder why this felt different than before, and then a fist was flying towards him.

His arm swung up into a block. As he connected with the other man’s arm, Yuuri could feel a spark of pain from his fresh bruises.  Quickly he tried to counter with a jab to the man’s solar plexus. Yuuri could feel the hit, but the man acted like it was nothing.

When the man threw a wild haymaker, Yuuri tried to dodge, but the damned ropes tripped him up and he felt the blow to the side of his head.  He crashed down to the ground, head ringing and vision blurry.

From there, he was an easy target. He blocked what he could, but it was like being back two years ago.  Panic was starting to rise, and Yuuri could feel it making his body jittery. Hits that he should have been able to block were sailing through.  Each time his attacker landed another kick or punch, Yuuri could feel whatever courage he’d started to develop shrinking back to nothing. Still on the ground, he felt small and vulnerable.

With a dawning horror, Yuuri realized that if he didn’t get up, he might not actually survive the fight.  

His abused body struggled, but eventually he was upright.  His mouth had the metallic taste of blood, and he already knew that his fists were a mess of blood and bruises.

The other man didn’t look phased by the attack whatsoever.  Yuuri had been used to seeing rage or a cruel pleasure on his attackers’ faces, but this blankness was far more terrifying.  The absolute emptiness in the man’s eyes told Yuuri he wouldn’t stop until Yuuri was dead.

He spared a look over his shoulder towards the exit.  With his brain tripping over tactics, all Yuuri could tell was that if he stayed here, penned in with an enemy that wouldn’t stop and couldn’t be incapacitated, he was finished.  If he could just make it out, get somewhere where he could move and find something to use as a weapon, or maybe someone to help, he might stand a chance.

Yuuri dashed for the exit.

It wasn’t more than two or three yards, but his legs felt heavy and clumsy.

Within half a yard of his goal, he felt a pull on the back of his shirt and a weight slamming into his back forced him into the ground.  This time, he didn’t have the chance to protect his face and his nose crunched as it hit the ground, pain exploding through his face and his eyes watering.

Yuuri used what remaining energy he had to twist over.  Desperately he fumbled around, trying to wrap his legs around the man.  If he could just get him into a hold, or get some leverage where he could throw him…

But the man was over top of Yuuri, fists flying through the dark, blow after blow landing.

Fight , Yuuri tried to command himself, even as he could feel his will dying.   What would Viktor do?  

The thought of Viktor was enough for Yuuri to remember at least some of his training.  Viktor was always telling him to stay on the offensive and not to give up—to fight to the very end.

Yuuri grappled around in the dark.  He could feel the cold grass against his palms, and cold metal brushing against his fingertips.

With a lurch to the side, he grabbed hold of the metal tent peg.  With an almighty jerk he was able to free it, revealing a wicked spike.  Yuuri didn’t even think, just reacted. He rammed the spike up into the man’s chest, aiming for just under the rib cage.  Feeling a terrible give as the spike went in, Yuuri used the man’s surprise and pain to gain the needed leverage to throw him off.

Scrambling up, Yuuri didn’t bother to look back.  He just ran until he was out of the alley and into the larger row.  Even then, he didn’t stop. It wasn’t until he was in sight of his own tent, his body heaving and chest aching with the effort to breathe, that he finally allowed himself to slow down.  And then all of the thoughts that he had been ignoring came back.

Yuuri had just stabbed a knight.  He had very likely killed a member of a royal envoy.

The possibilities of what that might mean barely registered, coming somewhere below the throbs and pulses of pain.  Ahead of it all was a single desperate thought: please let Viktor be back.

Somehow Yuuri knew that if he could just see Viktor, this would all be okay.

Pushing aside the tent flap, Yuuri could feel tears finally starting down his cheeks as he saw Viktor, who was seated at the table with a book open on his lap.  The knight closed the book with a snap and glanced up at Yuuri, only to freeze.

Yuuri felt his legs finally give way as he collapsed to the floor of the tent.  An instant later, Viktor was beside him, arms wrapped around him and a hand cradling the back of Yuuri’s head, whispering curses and endearments in equal measure as he looked Yuuri over.

“Who did this?” Viktor asked. His blue eyes looked colder than Yuuri had ever seen them.

Helplessly, Yuuri shrugged, collapsing further into Viktor’s arms.  His face pressed into the crook of Viktor’s shoulder, tears soaking the other man’s soft shirt.

“Yura,” Viktor called out.

A moment later, there was the sound of the flap between the tents opening.

“What do you want, old man?  I was trying to sl—“ the squire’s words ended sharply.  “What happened?”

Yuuri tried to calm the tempest of emotions that were swirling through him, or at least to stem the flow of tears.  Pulling away from Viktor, he could feel the man’s resistance before he let Yuuri sit back up.

“Are you okay to get up?  Can you get to your bed on your own?” Viktor asked.

Trying to raise himself up, Yuuri found that his legs wouldn’t cooperate and he finally had to whisper a quiet, “No.”

Gently, Viktor picked him up, quickly crossing to Yuuri’s bed and placing him down on top of the blankets.  The knight then turned to Yurio.

“Go!  Get Chris, and then go fetch one of the healers.  Tell them that if they aren’t here in five minutes, they will feel the full might of Stonemountain.”

Yurio, eyes wide and face pale, nodded and darted out into the night.

“It’s going to be alright,” Viktor murmured as he knelt down in front of Yuuri.  “Now, you need to tell me exactly what happened.”

Yuuri pressed his eyes shut and nodded.  He wasn’t sure that even Viktor could fix this, but for right now, he wanted to pretend.



Chapter Text

Stalking between the dark tents, Viktor couldn’t quite breathe.  There was a fine mist of red hanging over all of his thoughts, and all he could really see was the way that Yuuri had looked when he had returned to the tent.

He had finally been able to get Yuuri to tell him exactly what had happened, and Viktor had been suffused with rage in a way that he didn’t know was possible.  It was like he had been some hollow vessel until that point, and now every part of him was full to bursting from the sheer fact that someone had gone after Yuuri.  No small part of that rage was directed inwards. It was Viktor’s fault that Yuuri had been on his own. After that night when he’d started to grasp the scope of his feelings for the other man and the danger that he was pulling Yuuri into, Viktor had hoped that he might be able to shield Yuuri from what was to come.  What little he knew about visions and predictions was that they were in no way the only possibility for the future; he had hoped that by putting some distance between them, at least until everything had been resolved, he might be able to alter Yuuri’s path. Instead, all he’d done was leave Yuuri vulnerable in a different way.

“Viktor, please take a breath.”

Chris’s voice was soft and concerned as he trailed after Viktor.

“I know you are somehow finding a way to shoulder the blame,” Chris continued, grabbing hold of Viktor’s arm and forcing him to turn until their eyes met.  “But you are no more to blame for this than…well, than Yuuri.”

A bitter swell of self-loathing was rising up, and Viktor could feel it pressing at the back of his throat.  He tried to swallow, but felt as though he might choke.

Finally he was able to tear loose a reply.

“You don’t understand—I should have been with him.  He shouldn’t have had to walk back alone. And now…did you see him, Chris?”

“It’s okay, Viktor.   He’s okay.  You heard what the healer said.  You need to take a step back. What if it had been me who got attacked, or JJ, or Mickey?  Would you be feeling guilty then too?”

Viktor’s thoughts had gone sluggish, and all he could feel was frustration.  They shouldn’t be wasting time, they needed to go find where Yuuri said he’d left the body of his attacker.

But still Chris wouldn’t stop.

“Viktor, Yuuri is trained to fight.  You’ve been trying to push him and train him.  If you suddenly start taking on the responsibility for what happened, isn’t that you telling Yuuri that you never trusted his ability, that you always thought he’d lose?”

“What?  How could you say that?”

Chris just ignored the question and kept talking, “And if the attack is because Yuuri was walking alone, doesn’t that…it’s like it absolves the piece of shit who did it.”

Viktor didn’t know what to think.  He could see the the logic behind Chris’s words, and maybe later he’d even be able to agree with them, but right now all he knew was that he needed to find whoever had hurt Yuuri and make sure they never did it again.

“Can we just hurry?  Yuuri thought…it sounds like it would be best if we found the person before the Watch can.”

Quietly the two men slipped through the night, tracing the route Yuuri had described until they were peering into the alley where the fight occurred.  Eyes narrowed, Viktor squinted into the shadows looking for any sign of a body.

When he couldn’t see anything, he took a cautious step forward, one hand rising to the dagger on his hip.  As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he started to see the signs of a fight; the ground had the same scuffed look as the practice field and one of the ropes had been pulled free, the heavy peg that should have held it down lying on the ground.  But there was no body.

“He’s gone,” Viktor said, more curse than anything.

“Did someone find him, do you think?  Or maybe Yuuri just stunned him more than anything?”

Reaching down, Viktor picked up the spike.  The metal had a faint tackiness to it, and when he glanced down he could see blood across his palm and fingers.

“Maybe,” Viktor replied, doubt echoing through the word.  Yuuri may have been in shock, but he was good enough in a fight to know if he’d managed to land a serious blow.  And judging from the spike, someone had been seriously hurt.

“So what now?  Do we go get the Watch?  Or start to check in with the healers and see if anyone else has come to them tonight?” Chris pressed.

Viktor just stared down at the piece of metal in his hand as he tried to push his thoughts towards some semblance of order.  As sensible as it seemed to go to the Watch, Viktor had a suspicion that might not go so well. With the way things stood, all they had was Yuuri’s story—and if a body did turn up, then there was a very real possibility that Yuuri could find himself in trouble.  As much as Viktor wanted to believe in law and justice, he had seen too often the way that power and prejudice had a way of twisting truth.

Above all, at that moment, Viktor wanted to be back with Yuuri.  With nothing further to do here, he needed to be by Yuuri’s side, seeing that his friend was okay.

He could still see that first glimpse of Yuuri as he had staggered into the tent; the crooked tilt to his nose, blood thick beneath it; his eyes ringed with what would become some deep bruising; the red blush of another fresh bruise on his jaw.  Then there had been the look in Yuuri’s eyes, somewhere between defeat and desperation.  It had been all that Viktor could do to let Yuuri go when the healer had arrived, and only the thought of finding Yuuri’s attacker and exacting some justice had propelled him through the night.

Turning on his heel, he hurried back.  He didn’t bother to say anything to Chris; all of Viktor’s thoughts were with Yuuri, and he couldn’t stop until he was back with him.  The sound of Chris’s breathing, a little laboured as he jogged to keep up with Viktor, let him know that his friend was following along.

As they reached the tent, the flap opened and a young man emerged.  Viktor recognized the soft-eyed expression and longish chestnut hair as those of the healer.

“How is he?” Viktor asked in a rush.

The healer looked tired, but not terribly concerned.  His smile had the sort of gentleness of someone used to dealing with anxious family over the beds of injured loved ones.

“He took quite a beating; broken nose, cracked ribs, a lot of cuts and bruises. I was able to fix a lot of it, but he’ll be tender for a day or two.  And he’ll definitely be exhausted for some time.”

Viktor nodded, only half listening.  He’d heard enough to know that Yuuri would be okay, and now he just needed to be with him .

There was a pressure against his shoulder and Viktor looked up to see Chris nudging him towards the tent.

“Go, I’ll take care of this.  You go see Yuuri.”

Giving his friend a brief smile of gratitude, Viktor dashed inside.  Instantly his eyes found Yuuri, who was stretched out on his bed. The younger man looked pale—washed out, Viktor decided—and there were still signs of a fight, small bruises and raw knuckles, but at least he looked better.

Sensing Viktor’s presence, Yuuri opened his eyes to look at him.

“Viktor,” Yuuri said, so softly that it sounded more like a breath or a sigh.

Completely helpless to do otherwise, Viktor crossed the room, not stopping until he was standing beside Yuuri.

“Are you…”  Viktor trailed off, not sure what to say.  Somehow ‘are you okay’ felt both unnecessary and absurd.  The worst of Yuuri’s injuries might have been healed, but he was clearly far from okay; Viktor was far from okay.  Just seeing Yuuri lying there, his eyelashes like inky fans against his cheeks and the bruises marring the face Viktor had come to care so much about, Viktor felt like he might do something reckless.

Yuuri struggled to sit up, the blanket that had been draped over him, sliding down to his waist.  Normally, Viktor would have taken at least a moment to appreciate the lean strength of Yuuri’s chest and shoulders, but all he could see were the red marks starting to purple that spread across Yuuri’s skin.  He could hear his own intake of breath at the sight.

“That bad, huh?” Yuuri said with a weak laugh, though he refused to meet Viktor’s eyes.

“The healer didn’t…should I bring him back?” Viktor murmured, his attention torn between Yuuri’s injury and desperately needing to see Yuuri’s eyes.  If he could just catch a glimpse, he might actually know how Yuuri was feeling.

It was Yurio who replied, the usual edge absent from his voice.  “There was a lot for the healer to fix…I think that it took all he had to do this much.”

Viktor’s head snapped around to look over at the table where Yurio sat with Otabek.  He should have realized that there were other people here—how had he not realized that they were here?  And then Yurio’s words actually registered.

“What do you mean?  I’ve seen men on the battlefield, bleeding out and about to die, and a healer has been able to pull them back.  But that…incompetent…can’t manage—“

It was Yuuri’s hand grabbing his that cut Viktor off.  He glanced down, finally finding Yuuri’s brown eyes looking up at him.

“It’s okay.  I’m…I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine.  Yuuri,” Viktor needed to take a breath to try to steady himself before he could continue, “You were…I thought…I just want to make sure you won’t hurt any more.”

Viktor felt as though he had said way too much, that he’d allowed some sort of truth to be spoken that should have been held back, or at least been saved for him to whisper in the dark while Yuuri slept.  But he couldn’t find it in himself to regret it.

He could feel Yurio’s gaze boring into his back, but Yuuri seemed oblivious, his eyes glazed with exhaustion, pain, and fear.

“It’s alright, Viktor.  The healer, Leo, I think he was a student.  He did the best that he could, and I’m a lot better than I was.”

There was a snort from Yurio.  Viktor glared at him.

“Why did you get one of the students?  You should have got a proper mage.”

Yurio met his gaze without batting an eye.

“Because it’s bloody late, and everybody else was either drunk or vanished.  I thought that it was better to get someone to see him right away than waste time searching.”

“It was my idea,” Otabek added, his gaze impassive.

Viktor glanced between the two, feeling as though he still needed to yell at someone but knowing that he was being unreasonable.  There was a small movement against his hand, and glancing down, he realized that Yuuri still had hold of him. The feel of Yuuri’s fingers surrounding his wrist was just enough for him to hold back the tide of emotions.

“Were you…is there anything we have to do now?  Anyone I need to talk to? About the body?” Yuuri said.  Each word sounded as though it held some vast weight, and Viktor didn’t miss the flicker of anxiety in Yuuri’s eyes or how tight the man’s  mouth was.

Viktor didn’t know whether the news he had to share was good or bad.

“Maybe we should save this for the morning?” he said, opting for the coward’s way out.  “A healing can take a bit of time to get over—you need to sleep.”

Despite the nervous way Yuuri’s teeth worried at his bottom lip, a gesture that made Viktor want to reach out, Yuuri shook his head.

“No.  I…this should be done now.”

Stalling for more time, Viktor sat down beside Yuuri, absentmindedly tugging the hand that still gripped his wrist until he held it encased in his own hands.  He glanced over at Yurio and Otabek, who were silently watching the scene before them. It was a testament to just how injured Yuuri had been that the squire hadn’t said a single snotty thing since he had been sent out to get help.  Instead, Yurio was hunched over, his eyes wide and watchful. Even Otabek looked more grim than usual.

“Chris and I went back to where the fight was,” Viktor said slowly, trying to choose his words with care.  He let his thumb drift back and forth over the curve of Yuuri’s wrist, pretty sure he needed the comfort of that caress more than Yuuri.  “We found signs that a fight had happened, but…there was no body.”

He could hear Yuuri’s inhale, and could feel the way Yuuri’s arm had gone rigid.

“What does that mean?” Yuuri whispered.

“It means that we’re going to find the bastard,” Yurio chipped in.

Yuuri just pressed his eyes shut, and Viktor caught the glimmer of tears trembling along those beautiful lashes.

“Can we just…let it go?”

Viktor thought for a moment that he had imagined the words.  He stared intently at Yuuri, trying to figure out what he had missed.

What?”

As always it was Yurio who voiced the group’s confusion in his usual tactless way.

Glaring at them with teary eyes, Yuuri’s face was flushed, though Viktor wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or anger.

“I just want to forget about it.  I’m so tired of feeling weak. After the last time, I just…”

Viktor felt as though his brain couldn’t move fast enough to process what he’d just heard.

Last time? ” he asked, all of his effort going towards keeping his tone even.

At the same time, Yurio had said, “Weak?”

Yuuri yanked his hand free, burying his face into his palms, his shoulders shaking.  Desperately Viktor glanced over at the other two, wishing someone would tell him how he could make this better.

“Yuuri, we can’t just let this go.  The way you looked when you got back here--that man tried to kill you.”

Viktor gave in to the pressure that had been slowly winding around his chest and grabbed hold of Yuuri, forcing him to sit up as he pulled him into his arms.  Wrapped around Yuuri, breathing in his scent and feeling his heartbeat against his own, some of the tension that had been threatening to drown Viktor finally eased.  A moment later, Makkachin wandered over from where she had been sleeping through the excitement to press her muzzle against Yuuri’s thigh.

“Can you tell us about who did this?” Viktor whispered into Yuuri’s ear, even as he wished that he could just pretend that nothing had ever happened.

He felt shudders ripple through Yuuri as the man tried to breathe, and then Yuuri’s face was nodding against his shoulder.  Reluctantly, he drew back.

Yuuri’s eyes darted up to meet Viktor’s, and then he looked down at Makka.

Hands diving into the dog’s fur, pale fingers pulling at her floppy brown ears, Yuuri finally started to speak.

“I had seen him before.”

“When?  Do you have a name?” Viktor asked.

Yuuri glanced up at him, and Viktor could have cried at the pain he saw.

“I—I’m not sure that I’ll be able to talk if I can’t do this all in one go.”

Viktor nodded quickly.

“I saw the man before, though not during this progress.  I was a part of the Yamani envoy when the princess was first sent to Tortall.  They had sent some of us students to do some displays and demonstrations. It was fun for a while—I’d never been outside of the Islands until then—but…”

Yuuri broke off speaking as he took a moment to collect his thoughts, hands toying with the dog’s corkscrew curls.

“I didn’t know why it happened—still don’t, other than to assume it was easy and entertaining—but some of the Tortallans started to harass me; to attack me.  I want to say it started small, but I was left bruised and limping after the first encounter. Every time it happened, I tried to fight back—I tried so hard. But…I was always too weak, and…well, by the time we left to return home, I knew that I was…that I wasn’t…that I was weak .  And eventually they realized that at the school.  That’s why I was back at my parents’ inn in Hasetsu rather than with Phichit and the others for the progress.  They had decided that I wasn’t good enough and I had been sent home in disgrace.” There was a brief pause, as Yuuri struggled to fight back a sob.  “There was one person who was always involved in the attacks then, but a few others grew to be familiar faces. The man that attacked me this evening was one of those.”

Viktor wasn’t sure if he had been turned to ice or to fire, just that it took everything in him to stay calm while he’d heard Yuuri’s story.  A hundred different thoughts chased after each other, a million things that he felt he needed to say to Yuuri right at that moment, and all he could do was sit there quietly, nothing actually coming out of his mouth.

It was Otabek who finally spoke. Again, Viktor wondered how he could have forgotten the presence of the knight and squire sitting at his table.

“Who was it that attacked you?  Can you describe them?” Otabek asked, leaning forward, arms braced on his knees.

Yuuri didn’t even look up, his eyes locked on Makkachin.

“The one from…before?”

There was a quiver in Yuuri’s voice that had Viktor sliding over until their thighs were side by side and he was again pulling Yuuri close.

“You don’t have to do this now,” Viktor told him, though he knew it to be a lie.  Since their first encounter, Viktor had known that there was something that had happened to Yuuri.  In all their interactions, as they had trained, as Yuuri had become a part of his life here, he had seen that there was something haunting Yuuri, something holding him back.  The wound had been allowed to fester too long, and now it needed to be drained. He only hoped that Yuuri would let him help afterwards.

Yuuri shook his head.  “The man tonight was big, with brown hair; his tunic was red with gold.  At first when I saw him…I was so grateful that it wasn’t the other one. But…he looked different than before…he acted different than before, there was something so… wrong about him.  It was like nothing I did made any difference, like my attacks meant nothing; I was useless.”

There was a hiss of air as Otabek exhaled, sitting up abruptly.  Viktor looked over, surprised to see something other than the knight’s usual impassive expression.  In fact Otabek looked almost like he was facing the shadow of Yuuri’s own demons.

“The other one,” Otabek said, his tone sharp, “did he look a little like Viktor?”

Yuuri automatically looked at Viktor, before turning back to Otabek and nodding.

“The first time…when I came to visit Phichit, and Viktor and Yurio surprised us, I thought it was him.”

But his hair was more of a white blonde, right?  And he would have been young? The age of a squire during the progress?”

At each of Otabek’s questions and Yuuri’s answering nods, Viktor could feel where this was headed as a dull ache in his stomach and a roaring in his ears.

Joren ,” he whispered.

Otabek didn’t need to nod for Viktor to know he was right.  Just knowing that Yuuri had been hurt before, and that someone had tried to break him, was bad enough, but to know that it had been his own family was so much worse.

Yurio looked between the three, clearly trying to make sense of it all.

“Was that—that was your cousin, right?” Yurio asked, voice unnaturally soft.  

Viktor nodded, unable to meet anyone else’s eyes.

“Yuuri,” Otabek said, “I need you to know that you aren’t weak for getting beaten up by Joren and whatever gang he had with him.  If that was the bar for weakness, and being unworthy…well, let’s just say there’s quite a few of us who should never have earned our shields.”

“Beka, what?” Yurio exclaimed.

Otabek didn’t look at the teen or Viktor, but instead kept his solemn gaze on Yuuri.

“Joren of Stonemountain was infamous as a bully during his time as a page.  We didn’t overlap by much—he was in his final year when I started my first—but it was enough.  He used to stalk the halls in the evenings looking for first years to torment—painful humiliation was his specialty.  It was only when Kel and her friends started to stand up to him that he stopped, and I think that group took a good many thrashings for the cause.”

“But I should have fought harder, done better.”  Yuuri’s voice was hoarse.

Viktor pressed his eyes shut as the words cut through.  It wasn’t hearing about his cousin’s misdeeds—those stories had long since circulated through court—but feeling somehow connected to the pain that had been inflicted on people he had come to care about.

“Yuuri,” Viktor said, “I don’t know where you got this idea that you’re weak, or even what it means to be weak.  But how I was trained, continuing on despite knowing that pain is coming your way is considered brave. Continuing on when you know you can’t win is brave.  Coming back when you know there’s a good chance you’ll have to face everything you fear is brave. My cousin ,” Viktor all but spat out the word, the idea of having any sort of connection to Joren sour in his mouth, “ was the weak one.  He was brittle in a way that so many try to pretend is strong or brave.”

Finally, Yuuri turned, his brown eyes meeting Viktor’s.  Viktor could see that Yuuri was still unconvinced, but he was pretty sure there might have been the faintest glimmer of hope mixed in with all of the other emotions.

For a long moment they sat there, staring into each other’s eyes, until Viktor realized how desperately tired Yuuri looked.  The fight and healing alone would have been enough to drain him, but the evening’s revelations had pushed him over the edge.

“You need to sleep,” Viktor said, standing up.

He couldn’t help the feeling of satisfaction at the small noise Yuuri made once Viktor was no longer pressed along his side, arm wrapped around him.

Glancing over at the other two, Viktor wondered if he should feel awkward or uncomfortable at all that had transpired.  He felt raw in a way that he’d tried so hard, and for so long, to never let people know he could feel. But looking between Otabek and Yurio, Viktor felt none of the usual panic.  Maybe it was his exhaustion, or maybe Yuuri wasn’t the only addition to his life that felt like a step towards family.

Otabek rose up from his chair, nudging Yurio’s leg with one booted foot.

“Come on.  You wanted a jousting lesson tomorrow—well, today.  If you’re going to stay in the saddle, you’re going to need some rest.”

Nodding, Yurio got up, and the two walked towards the flap that led to his tent.  As he passed by Yuuri, the squire reached out to pat the man’s shoulder. It might not have been much, but from him it was practically akin to a soppy emotional display.

Once they were out, Viktor turned back to Yuuri.

“Here, let me help you,” he said.  

As gently as he could, trying to be mindful of the bruises and scrapes left unhealed, he helped ease Yuuri back onto the bed.  Viktor might have paused for a moment as he had pulled the blanket across Yuuri’s chest, but he quickly stepped back. With brisk motions, he walked over to the glow stone that was still giving off light, putting it away and plunging the tent into darkness; he could just make out Yuuri’s shape on the bed, Makka sitting watch by his side.

“Viktor.”

The sound of his name whispered quietly felt somehow more intimate now that it was dark, now that they were alone.

“Yes, Yuuri?”

There was a pause and Viktor tried to peer through the dark, wishing he could still see Yuuri’s face.

“I don’t want…that is to say…”  Yuuri apparently got tangled up in his own thoughts.

“Whatever you want, Yuuri, the answer is yes.”  Viktor paused for a moment. And then, because he felt as though he may as well, he quickly said, “I’d do whatever you wanted.”

“Can you just…I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep…”

Viktor hardly dared to hope that Yuuri was asking what he thought Yuuri was asking.  In a couple of steps, he was back beside Yuuri’s bed.

“I—the visions seem to be easier when you’re near.  Is it alright if I sleep here, with you?”

He could just about see the shadow that was Yuuri’s nod, followed by a soft “yes.”

Quickly Viktor joined Yuuri on the bed, the cot protesting their weight with a faint groan.  It really wasn’t big enough for both of them, but Viktor couldn’t find it in himself to care.  He gently pulled Yuuri close so that Yuuri was half draped across his chest, his head resting on Viktor’s shoulder.  A moment later, he could feel Yuuri’s breath evening out into sleep.

Viktor wasn’t sure what would happen come the morning, but in that moment, with Yuuri so close and knowing that he was safe, Viktor could allow himself a brief moment of peace.  Soon, he felt himself being pulled under into sleep.



Chapter Text

Yuuri always woke slowly, but this morning he felt as though he was waist deep wading through water.  As he lay on his bed, feeling warm like he hadn’t felt in ages, he tried to stretch. The movement pulled his thoughts up through the fog of sleep, and Yuuri was hit with two abrupt realizations.

The first was that he hurt .  His whole body ached and there were sparks of deeper pain like constellations across his muscles.  As he tried to shift to his side, something pressed against a part of his chest, and his mind went blank for a moment as pain exploded out.  It took a moment for him to remember the fight; it had the quality of a dream—a nightmare—but clearly it had been real.

The second was that Yuuri was currently draped over a sleeping Viktor. There was something about the soft memory of trying to go to sleep after…after everything, where Yuuri couldn’t quite figure out if it was a true memory or just his exhaustion and infatuation trying to tell him that the fantasy was real.  But somehow, Yuuri had ended up with Viktor in his bed. Not just in his bed, but with one of Viktor’s arms flung around Yuuri, gently pressing him close. Yuuri could feel the heat of Viktor’s body underneath him, the steady thump of his heartbeat. If it hadn’t taken one of the most desperate fights of his life to make it happen, Yuuri would have thought it the most exquisite way to wake up.

Careful not to wake Viktor, knowing how little and precious sleep was to the knight, Yuuri tried to raise himself up.  Instead, he nearly fell off the narrow cot. It was only the nearness of the canvas wall, and some maneuvering that had his vision wavering in pain, that allowed him to stay on the bed.

Yama was clearly telling him that he should just stay where he was.  Who was Yuuri to disagree with the goddess? So, he let himself drift back down, trying to keep his movements as gentle as he could so as not to wake Viktor.  With his head resting on Viktor’s shoulder and the front of his body pressed along Viktor’s side, Yuuri again felt the pull of sleep. Eyelids weighted, he matched his breathing to the slow rise and fall of Viktor’s chest.

As Yuuri started to feel his body relax, his brain kicked in.  When he had gone to sleep, he had been so grateful that whatever had come between he and Viktor was gone, but now all Yuuri could do was wonder if that was even the case.  Between the state Yuuri had been in when he returned to the tent and all of the confessions that followed—Yuuri’s neck felt prickly and hot just thinking about it all—Viktor could hardly have just walked out.  For all Yuuri knew, the man had just been… nice , taking pity on him.  It had been so easy last night, when Viktor had held him and been saying all the right things, for Yuuri to believe that maybe he might mean even a fraction of what Viktor meant to him.  But with the night past, Yuuri was left remembering that Viktor was a noble, a knight, someone with a purpose and a destiny, and Yuuri…Yuuri was just someone who—yet again—hadn’t been able to look after himself.

Yuuri ,” the sound of his name in Viktor’s sleep roughened voice sent a shiver down his spine, heat pooling in his belly.  It was truly unfair the effect Viktor could have.

“Sorry, I…I woke you up?  You should go back to sleep—I’ll just go—“

Yuuri was cut off as Viktor shifted in the bed.  For a moment Yuuri thought that Viktor was going to get up, to finally go back to his own bed, but instead he moved his arm back around Yuuri and pressed him close.  There was the faintest movement, the lightest of touches against his head, and Yuuri—who hardly dared breathe, never mind look—thought that Viktor might have just brushed a kiss against his temples.

“What’s wrong?” Viktor mumbled. Yuuri could feel the rumble of the words through Viktor’s chest.

In all of his movement, Yuuri’s shirt had ridden up, exposing an inch or two of his back and side; he could feel where Viktor’s hand was pressed against his side, just above his hip, fingers absentmindedly drifting across the stretch of bare skin.  Each drag of the fingers elicited a thrill, and Yuuri wanted Viktor to move his hand—really he just wanted more.  

All the more reason to get up.   After last night especially, when Viktor had managed for a brief window to make Yuuri feel like he wasn’t a failure, Yuuri was dangerously close to relying on him; the prospect of returning home after Viktor’s departure was going to hurt in a way that nothing had before.

Ignoring Viktor’s question still hanging between them, Yuuri grit his teeth against the pain that he knew was coming and pushed himself up.  His muscles protested each movement, but he was carefully able to navigate his way off the bed. Already weary from the effort, he sat down on one of the chairs and turned his attention to Makkachin.

“Poor girl had her spot taken last night,” Viktor said.

Yuuri couldn’t help himself from glancing at Viktor.  It was indecently unfair how good Viktor looked in the morning.  Silver hair mussed just enough that it made Yuuri want to go and smooth it, or mess it up some more, with a soft smile on his face. And with those blue eyes locked on him in a way that made Yuuri feel like he was the only person in the world, it was more than he could handle. Yuuri tried to burn the image into his memory.  

Quickly, he turned his attention back to Makkachin.  She hummed in delight when he found the exact right spot behind her ear for scratches.

The bed creaked, letting him know that Viktor had risen, and a moment later the knight had joined Yuuri at the table.

“Are you okay?” Viktor asked.

Yuuri kept his gaze focussed on the dog’s soft coat, the way she pressed her eyes shut and wriggled.  He nodded.

Viktor clearly didn’t believe him. “You seemed a bit stiff getting up?  Should we get a healer back?”

All Yuuri could manage was a shake of the head.  If he started talking he was sure he would lose his composure, and then he would be back to a blubbering mess.  

Why won’t Viktor just leave so that I can break down in peace?

“Is it…” Viktor’s voice was hesitant, “Is it about what was said last night?”

Yuuri couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath, his gaze darting to Viktor for a split second.  The knight, while normally pale, was looking washed out, his mouth set in a grim line and his eyes bleak.

Quickly pressing his face into Makka’s neck, Yuuri hoped to hide the evidence of the tears that were starting to form.  His head ached with the effort of holding back all of his emotions, and knowing that his confessions had pained Viktor so much—presumably as he’d realized what sort of a student he’d been saddled with—made it all worse.

“I know…I understand…” There was a soft sigh of frustration, and through his eyelashes and the dog’s fur he was able to see Viktor rubbing his hands against the thighs of his trousers.  “If you don’t want to train with me anymore, now that you know of my…of my connection to Joren…to what happened to you, I want you to know that’s okay.”

What?! Yuuri exclaimed, finally turning to look at Viktor properly.

“I just…I wonder…this morning, it’s like you don’t want to be…near me.  I’m assuming it’s because you know that I come from the same tainted family as someone who was so terrible…and you said yourself...I remind you of him.”

Yuuri could only stare in shock as Viktor’s shoulders rounded, almost against an anticipated response, the knight’s eyes closing.  He looked so alone, and vulnerable in a way that Yuuri didn’t think was possible. It took Yuuri a moment, but in Viktor’s obvious pain, he was finally able to see his own loneliness and uncertainty reflected back at him.

“You don’t.”

Viktor didn’t respond; Yuuri wasn’t even sure that his quiet words had been heard.

“Viktor, you don’t remind me of him…you did at first, but after…it didn’t take me long to wonder how I ever could have seen him in you.  He was…like winter formed into a person, and you’re…” Yuuri could feel his anxiety flare with every word, wishing he could take them back but knowing that they had to be said.  “I’m not sure I could walk away from you if I tried. I’m with you until…until this is over.”

Viktor’s eyes snapped open, their blue depths swimming with unshed tears as a slight tremor went through his frame. He glared at Yuuri.  “ Until this is over?  Yuuri, I don’t want you to stay with me for the visions—that’s my burden, and mine alone.”

In Yuuri’s head, he countered that with things like, what if I stayed for you?  But instead of voicing those thoughts, he just nodded blankly.  Desperately he wanted to cross the small distance between their chairs; Viktor looked so alone, and Yuuri felt a bone deep need to show him that wasn’t the case.

Instead he just said, “Tell me about your family.  I know that you used to go by a different name—I remembered seeing you fight before…”  Yuuri could feel a blush rise at the admission.

“You saw me?” Viktor asked, and for a brief moment he appeared to be pulled out of his own morass of thoughts.

Yuuri nodded.  “Phichit always wanted to watch the jousts, but I…I liked to watch the sword fights.  I liked to watch you. ”  For a moment Yuuri wondered if he dared voice the next thought, but he summoned what courage he could.  “I started to study the sword after watching you. You were so…I wanted to be like you.”

Hesitantly, Yuuri placed one palm on the table, feeling the grain of the wood as he slid his hand forward.  As far as gestures went, Yuuri knew it wasn’t much, but to him it was like he had cut his heart out and put it down for Viktor to take—or not.  When Viktor’s hand reached for his, squeezing him tight, Yuuri felt a full body relief.

“I don’t know what to say about my family.”  As Viktor spoke, Yuuri could feel the man’s fingers moving against his in small caresses.

Nothing more than nervous energy , Yuuri told himself.

“My mother and Joren’s father were siblings.  Even then, Stonemountain was a cold place. And likely long before.  I’m pretty sure, as a family, that we were hewn from the rock that makes up so much of that land.  My mother longed for…something different, but at that time, and with that family, she didn’t really have any options, so she ran away.  I don’t know much about what happened after, the telling has always come from my mother’s family, but I do know that she fell in love with a Scanran raider, and fell pregnant.  After he was killed, she did the only thing she could think of to survive—return home—but died in childbirth.

I should be grateful—I am grateful—that the family were willing to raise me.  Funds have never been a problem in Stonemountain, and I was always outfitted as befitted the family station.  But it was also always made clear that I…I was my mother’s transgression, to be hidden, to be ignored, to be…well, I went by my father’s name for a reason.

When Joren died, I suppose between my success in tournaments that had at least made me…fashionable among polite society, and desperation for a male heir, I was named to be my uncle’s successor to Stonemountain.  Suddenly I felt as though my identity was not my own, and so I took a post at one of the garrisons on the Northern border and did what I could to pretend that nothing had changed.”

Yuuri couldn’t look away as Viktor spoke, and when at last he seemed to have finished, Yuuri entwined his fingers with Viktor’s, pressing their palms together.

“That sounds…” Yuuri tried to imagine the strong knight in front of him as a small, silver-haired child with a family that would rather forget his existence.  “That sounds lonely.”

Viktor’s breath came out in a shudder, followed by a nod.

“Most of my life seems to have been spent living for my family.  I was either doing things because I thought it would upset them—for a while I thought their anger was better than nothing—or trying to make them pleased with me.  I think the decision to come to the Islands was…” Viktor trailed off, a sheepish expression on his face.

“What?” Yuuri prompted, needing to know what Viktor was about to say.

There was the faintest blush of pink across Viktor’s cheeks.

“It’s going to sound overly dramatic.”

Yuuri couldn’t contain the laugh that ripped through him.

“What?” Viktor said with a look of confusion.

“Viktor, you’re a living legend when it comes to the sword.  You first saw me in visions given to you by a mystical chamber.  I’m not sure there’s anything you could say that could be more dramatic than that.”

“Well, I just…the decision to come on this journey was the first decision I made for myself…ever?”

“That sounds like a question—didn’t the chamber send you here?  All of your visions have involved the Islands.”

Viktor shrugged, though at least there was less weariness to the gesture.  He looked less frail, and more like the knight Yuuri had come to know and love.

“It’s hard to say.  The first time…it’s not something I’m comfortable admitting considering it shows how long I can shirk my duty, but the first time I received any semblance of the visions was when I went through my ordeal.  I probably shouldn’t talk about it…but…well, I don’t feel as though it counts when it’s with you.”

A part of Yuuri desperately hoped that was meant as a sign of how close their bond was, of how intertwined they were, but he felt certain that it was likely more a matter of how insignificant Yuuri was.

“But when Yakov wrote me, urging me to join the envoy, the chamber was a distant memory.  All I knew was that my life had taken on a…every day had become about living for someone else.  When it was in service to the crown and country, I could find some justification. But with it having to become for Stonemountain…I couldn’t breathe.  I wasn’t entirely sure how I could go on, and the chance at escape…After my decision, arriving in Corus…that’s when the chamber decided to remind me of my charge.”

They settled into silence, Yuuri still holding fast to Viktor’s hand. At long last, as the rising din from the outside world let them know that the rest of the camp was fully up and moving, he felt as though something should be said.

“What do we do now?”

“Now?” Viktor asked with a curious look.  The knight’s eyes lowered to where their hands were still joined, before his usual genial, assured mask was back in place.  All of the vulnerability of the previous Viktor was gone. As much as Yuuri found strength in the confident knight, there was something about seeing just how uncertain Viktor could be that made Yuuri feel lessashamed of his own weakness.

“Well, we…don’t we need to go talk to the watch?  About what happened? About what I did?”

Rising up from his seat, hand still locked with Yuuri’s, Viktor pulled Yuuri up.

“There will be no repercussions for you from last night, not when you were trying to defend yourself, but…well, we should let the watch know who attacked you.  It’s likely that he was involved in at least some of the other acts that have been plaguing the camp.”

At that, Viktor finally pulled his hand away.  It was silly, but Yuuri felt the loss keenly. There had been something about the contact that had kept him grounded.  But all he could do was nod and follow Viktor out of the tent.

 

***

 

They hadn’t walked far beyond the tent before Yuuri and Viktor encountered the grim faces of Chris, Otabek, and Yurio.  The three appeared to be returning, and they stopped short when they noticed the other two. As all three pairs of eyes turned to him, Yuuri was suddenly aware of all of the bruises still left from the night before.  He didn’t look nearly as bad as he should thanks to the healer, but he still wished that he could suddenly be somewhere--anywhere--very far away.

In his time around the knights, they had started to treat him with a certain camaraderie, but after all that had transpired all he had told them thinking about how much they knew made Yuuri’s skin crawl, filling him with the urge to run.

“Oi, Katsudon,” Yurio called out, and Yuuri had never been so grateful to see the squire’s glower.  “Did you two lazy asses just get up?”

Yuuri had to fight to hide a smile in response.  If Yurio could still find a way to be rude to Yuuri, then maybe things would be okay.

“I think that Yuuri might have earned a chance to sleep late this morning,” Viktor scolded with a frown of his own.

Yurio just rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Are you kidding me?  I’ve got hurt worse practicing with Beka—actually I think I got hurt worse as a page.”  The squire pointed a finger at Yuuri. “Don’t think an injury makes you special. I still need my training this morning, or what’s left of the morning.”

Before Viktor could respond, Yuuri nodded.

“Of course.  Considering how appalling your hand positioning is and the fact that you still can’t make a clean block, we should have been working since sun-up.”

Yuuri wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought he saw a glimmer of satisfaction in Yurio’s eyes--even a faint twitch of the lips that suggested a smile--before his expression was back to stony boredom.

It was as if Yuuri’s response had eased something amongst the others, Otabek and Chris realizing that they could actually treat Yuuri just the same.

“You’re still looking a little worse for the wear, Yuuri.  I’d offer to take you back to bed for a little healing,” Chris purred, sauntering closer, “but I think there’s a few things we should discuss.”

All definitely seemed as right with the world as it could be when Yuuri was faced with the prospect of a belligerent Yurio, a flirty Chris, and Otabek as silent as ever.

Viktor’s eyes had narrowed, and he levelled a look of exasperation at his friend.

“What needs discussing?”

There was an edge to Viktor’s words; if Yuuri didn’t know better, he might have thought that it was jealousy that made him sharp with Chris.

Chris’s expression dimmed somewhat, his gaze flickering between Yuuri and Viktor.  So much for being treated like normal. Still, Yuuri tried to straighten his spine and shoulders, and keep eye contact with Chris.  He wasn’t fine, but he also didn’t want to be treated like he was broken.  Taking a deep breath, he tried to remind himself that it was up to him to show them that he was strong enough for it.

“Did you find him?”  Yuuri’s voice was soft but steady.

Shaking his head, Chris glanced around.  Over in this part of the camp it tended not to be very busy, but well towards mid-morning there was enough movement that their spot would not be private.

“Should we find somewhere more quiet to talk?” Viktor asked when Chris still hadn’t elaborated on his answer.

Otabek, Yurio and Chris shared a look that had Yuuri bracing himself for what they might have learned.  While the two knights both seemed to be hesitant, in typical fashion it was the squire who ended up rolling his eyes and turning to Yuuri.

“Vinson has vanished.  And not just after the fight last night.  No one has seen him since the previous camp.  He just rode off and never rejoined the group.  All of his belongings are still here—they set-up a tent for him—but he hasn’t been seen in weeks.”

Yuuri tried to think through what that might mean, but Viktor was a step ahead.

“So, we have no way of finding him and making sure that he doesn’t go after anyone else?”

It was Chris who jumped in.

“No.  And all of it has been starting to add some support to the stories that it was someone from Tortall wreaking havoc around the Yamani side of the camp.”

Shit,” Viktor hissed.  “That can’t be good.  All we need is for the Yamanis to have a name, and the perception that we’re not doing anything to stop it, and the treaty could be in pieces.”

Chest tightening, Yuuri felt an icy dread.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the others, as he tried to think through what could be done.  If he hadn’t been attacked, then things might have been able to stay as they had been around the camp.  But now, it seemed like Yuuri walking home late and tipsy on his own was going to cause—

“Don’t,” Viktor hissed in his ear.

Startled, Yuuri turned and was surprised to see Viktor’s jaw clenched and brows lowered.

“Don’t you dare apologize, or try to accept any part of the responsibility.   You didn’t do this.  I don’t care what you’re about to say, this is entirely on the piece of shit who attacked you.  Something was going to be the tipping point, and if this is it, well…we just need to make sure that the watch and the prince don’t let his deeds go unpunished.”

Each word was said like Viktor was trying to drive them into Yuuri; like he was trying to say something else, but Yuuri couldn’t quite figure out what.

Yuuri had to remind himself to breathe, and his lungs ached as the air flooded in.  After a slow exhale, he turned to Yurio.

“You mentioned training.  Shall we go?” Yuuri asked.  What he wanted more than anything at that moment was to disappear into movement.  He needed to be able to let his brain turn off for a while.

“Are you sure you’ll be—“ Viktor had started to say, before he finished abruptly.  “Be careful. You have a habit of pushing yourself beyond the point where us mere mortals would be begging off for a break.”

His body did ache, but at the school it was common for students to train through all manner of injuries.  As long as nothing was broken, the attitude was that a warrior should learn to fight through pain. He would need to be careful to warm-up and to stretch, but the more he thought about it, the more necessary the idea of being able to burn off the nervous hum of energy surrounding him felt.

Soon, they had grabbed practice glaives, and Yuuri was following Yurio out to one of the practice areas.  Quickly they fell into the familiar routine. Yuuri had to make a few minor adjustments to Yurio’s grip, but the boy had been picking up the weapon with relative ease.  They started to work through a few drills, partly to warm up their muscles, but also for Yuuri to try to feel out his body and see if he was in fact pushing himself too far.  By the end of ten minutes, Yuuri’s body was starting to feel warm, and while there was definitely that twist of pain lurking on the edge, the healer last night had done his job well and it was nothing that he couldn’t push through.

The rest of the practice went well, though Yuuri found that as memories of the evening before would flare up, he would either falter in his attacks, fail to block an easy sweep of Yurio’s, or he would suddenly press too aggressively.  His fighting, like his emotions, was all over the map, and held none of the control that Yuuri should be demonstrating as a teacher.

When Viktor arrived at the clearing, hanging back along the edge, Yuuri was ready to call it quits.  Pride be damned, he was tired, and aching, and all of these swings in emotion had given him a terrible ache in his temples and at the base of his skull.

Yuuri bowed to Yurio to signal the end of their sparring match, and then walked over to Viktor.  One glance at the knight’s face and Yuuri knew that something was wrong. Viktor didn’t look nervous exactly, but he seemed tense.  Still, he managed one of his heart-shaped smiles as Yuuri reached his side.

“You were looking good!”

Yuuri ducked his head, his cheeks heating at the obvious lie.

“No,   Yurio was doing well.  I’m afraid that I was a poor partner today.”

There was a bark of laughter, and a slightly incredulous look on Viktor’s face when Yuuri glanced up.

“You really don’t get it?  Yeah, that was an off day for you , but Yuuri…when you fight…a poor showing from you is better than many in top form.”

Yuuri could only blink and shake his head at those words.  

“Really, Yuuri,” Viktor persisted at Yuuri’s obvious disbelief.  “You had me pinned in minutes when you were drunk.”

“What?”

There was a long-suffering sigh as Yurio joined them.  The teen was trying to shove his blond hair back into a knot, but was struggling with his tie.  Yuuri might have offered to help if he didn’t think he would get yelled at. Instead, he just watched as Yurio struggled until he gave up and let the hair slide back around his face.

“You reminding katsudon about his disgusting display?”

“You’re just mad that you spent so much time flying through the air.”

Yuuri glanced between the two, trying to figure out what they were talking about.  Was it possible he had fought with people that night he had got drunk and didn’t remember? Surely not.  And there was no way he had been able to defeat Viktor; Yuuri wasn’t sure that he could defeat Viktor sober.

As if reading his thoughts, Yurio said, “I don’t know what was worse.  Seeing you all over Viktor, or the old man enjoying it quite so much.”

Gaze snapping to Viktor, desperately hoping to hear some sort of denial, the deep blush on Viktor’s face sent a healthy flood of mortification running through Yuuri.

“It wasn’t like that!” Viktor quickly assured him.  “Well…nothing happened! I mean…I was hardly going to let anything happen.”

Yuuri knew that he should feel pleased, that Viktor was saying all the right things, but all Yuuri could hear was that last bit—Viktor didn’t want anything to happen.

“Uh, thanks,” Yuuri mumbled, desperately trying to find something else they could talk about.

“It’s not that I didn’t want…but…”  Viktor seemed almost as flustered and distressed as Yuuri as he tried to speak.  “You were drunk is all.”

Heart stuttering, Yuuri hardly dared to think about what Viktor might be trying to say to him.

“Gross.  Whatever this is, maybe save it for when I’m not right here,” Yurio growled.

Viktor looked as though he were about to say something in response, but he just sighed, looking between Yuuri and Yurio.

“I’ve just heard that the camp is going to move day after tomorrow.”

What ?” sputtered Yurio.  “But we’ve barely been here longer than…well, we were supposed to be here a lot longer.  We were supposed to have some exhibition fights in two days time.”

The knight shrugged wearily.

“I think that with the way things have gone they just want to speed up the pace.  If they can keep us on the move, then they likely hope people won’t have time to cause any more problems.  And if not, they can dissolve the whole enterprise and get us out of the country sooner.”

“But what about that bastard, Vinson.  How is he going to be found if we pull up camp again?  It was the moving that’s allowed people to disappear in the first place.”  Yurio looked as though he wanted to hit something with every word.

Viktor’s sigh was heavy.

“You’re not telling me anything new.  All I can do is let you know what has been decided.  We’ll be moving on to Komiya in two days time.”

Yuuri had just been listening quietly to the exchange until he heard the next location.  Something about it set off some memory in him, which was funny because he had never actually been that far south in the Islands.  Between the inn being busy and the expense of traveling so far, Yuuri hadn’t had much opportunity for going anywhere beyond a day’s ride from Hasetsu.  And after he had gone to the Imperial city, his time had been consumed with studies. Yuuri had always had a dream of going to Komiya.

When he had still been at the school, he and Phichit had come up with a plan—more of a fantasy really—where they would travel there one day.  While the Imperial city had the most ornate temple to Yama in all the Islands, Komiya had what was considered to be the oldest and most sacred.  The two had promised each other that when they finished their training, taking up posts that were sufficiently noble and steeped in honour, they would go to the temple and sit a vigil.

It wasn’t a common practice in the Yamani Islands, but Yuuri, still in a phase where he had scavenged for any scrap of information about the romantic tales of the foreign knights, had liked the idea of taking that part of a knight’s training.  The thought of dedicating himself to something--some code beyond himself--had been part of what had driven him that far. The temple there seemed the obvious place to go. Everyone in the Islands knew of it, knew what it looked like—any market would invariably have some traveling artist selling cheap watercolours of the temple—and it was said that if you were quiet there long enough you would be able to feel the spirit of Yama.

Thinking of the small painting that even now was pressed between the pages of a book somewhere amongst his things in the tent, Yuuri felt like it should mean something.

With a gasp, he could feel the thoughts click into place.

Yuuri didn’t even say anything; he just dropped the glaive to the grass and started running.  He didn’t stop until he was back at the tent, kneeling in front of his bags and pulling out all of his belongings.  There was the sound of Viktor’s footsteps as he soon joined Yuuri, and a moment later the softer sound of Yurio, but Yuuri didn’t look up.

Yuuri, what’s wrong?” Viktor asked between pants.

Hands shaking, Yuuri found the book.  Carefully he flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for.  He pulled out the piece of heavy paper, taking a long look at the image of the painted timbers and scrollwork; he then passed it on to Viktor.

He could feel Viktor’s shock as the knight stared down at the image.  The fear that Yuuri felt was keen. He didn’t even need to ask Viktor if that was the temple from his visions; the man’s reaction spoke volumes.  They were that much closer to Viktor’s visions coming to pass.



Chapter Text

Yuri was at loose ends.  After Katsudon had shown Viktor that stupid picture, the two had grown quiet, giving Yuri looks that made it clear he wasn’t currently wanted around.  Yuri, not a stranger to the idea that people would prefer him to be elsewhere, had quickly mumbled about how he needed to go check on Psycho and Socks.

After he had stepped back into the sunshine, Yuri had a brief moment of hanging back and trying to listen in.  For weeks he had known that there was something going on between the other two, and not just Viktor’s flirting, to which Katsudon seemed willfully oblivious; Yuri was too familiar with the feeling of walking into a room and hearing conversations stop, seeing furtive looks, not to recognize it now.

Glancing up one end of the row of tents and then the other, Yuri tried to decide what to do.  Normally, when Yuuri and Viktor got cagey and secretive he would go find Otabek; the knight might not say a lot, but Yuri always felt he knew where he stood with Beka.  But he already knew that Beka would be with JJ, Emil, and Mickey practicing their tilts. For time spent with his friend, Yuri was willing to suffer the indignities of jousting, and his skills had improved…somewhat…but he was still loathe to spend time with the other three knights.  There was something about willingly participating in any activity where JJ might be better than him that set Yuri’s teeth on edge.

His only option for now was to actually go and see to the horses.  Truth be told, Yuri had gone to check in on them that morning. The hostlers that had charge of the camp’s stable did a good enough job that there tended not to be a lot for him to actually do, but Yuri found the routine soothing.  So, he struck out in the direction of the stables.

Just past noon, the paths were relatively clear, most people off for their mid-day meal or somewhere with more action, and Yuri was able to reach the stables in good time. Maybe he should have gone slower, tried to take longer.   He had no interest in having to head back to the tent before he was ready, before Viktor and Yuuri might actually start to mark his absence.

Yuri tried to make it a point to never need anyone more than they needed him.  It was another one of those lessons he had learned hard and fast. Viktor might have been good to him, but Yuri knew that when it came down to it…he was expendable.  Barely a couple months into having Yuri as a squire and Viktor had found another student, foisting Yuri off onto others. The worst part was that Yuri couldn’t even find it in him to blame Viktor, not really.  Katsudon might still be terrible with the sword, but there was something about him, not to mention the fact that he was infuriatingly nice.  Meanwhile Yuri was just some Northern brat with a bad temper, the one that no one had wanted to take on as a squire.  It had taken months after his big tests for Yakov to finally take pity on him, and then he too had dumped Yuri on Viktor.

With a half-sneer at his own thoughts—he wasn’t normally this weak , he had learned to be better—he slipped inside the stables.  A few moments of the darkness, filled with the quiet sounds of horses and the smell of sweat and hay, and Yuri could feel something easing.

Passing Socks, he reached over the stall door, giving the stallion a quick pat and a murmured promise of more later, and headed over to Psycho.  The horse lifted up its head, ears pricking forward.

“Hey,” he said, leaning into the door and reaching forward.

The horse softly lipped his hand expectantly, and finding nothing to eat, blew a gentle noise of reproof.

“Sorry, I had to make a quick getaway from the tent before Viktor and Katsudon started to do something I couldn’t unsee.”

At the sound of his name, there was a soft whinny from Yuuri’s horse.

Yuri glanced over his shoulder.

“Not you,” he said, before a laugh bubbled up through his chest at the idea of Viktor and this Katsudon .  He could just picture Viktor slinking around the stables, making eyes at the nag all while thinking he was incredibly subtle.  There was nothing subtle about the man, it just seemed that Yuuri was the only one that didn’t know that.

Yuri gave Psycho a final pat, promising to bring a treat later.  He had been driven off driven off too quickly to grab anything for the horses—not that Yuri cared that they had something important they wanted to talk about without him, it’s not like he needed or wanted Viktor’s trust.  About to head back towards Socks, Yuri caught a familiar sound.

Just like the first day in the camp, he could hear the familiar slide of vowels and cut consonants of Scanran.  That first day he had marked it as an oddity, but being so close to a port town he had been able to brush it off as just some merchants.  This far from the main port, where the only people around the camp were either Tortallan or Yamani, it was unnerving. Yuri automatically stepped forward, trying to keep his footfalls as silent as possible.

Foolish!  You should have known better!”

“You wanted me to to stir up trouble!  What better way than to have someone killed on this side of the camp.”

“Then maybe you should have made sure he was killed.  Instead all you did was get the watch—“

“No, we gave incontrovertible proof that those bastard knights are not as…”

Yuri could feel a sort of dawning shock as his ear adjusted back to the language he hadn’t used in so long.  They were talking about what had happened to Yuuri. Someone deliberately planned to go after Yuuri.

He struggled to keep up with the pace of the words, his thoughts starting to race in a jumbled panic, but within moments the men appeared to have moved too far for him to hear much beyond the occasional word.

Frantically, Yuri tried to think of what he needed to do.  Did he go get Viktor? That was probably the right action, the thing that his training masters would have recommended, but Yuri could only think of the cautious, secretive looks Viktor and Yuuri had given him.  There was something that they had been keeping from him beyond all of the longing looks that they either thought he didn’t see, or was too young to understand; like everything else, it seemed just another reminder that he wasn’t good enough to be trusted with whatever was going on. But if he could come back with the identity of whoever had attacked Yuuri…

Yuri had to force himself not to race out of the stable, instead trying to move swiftly and silently.  When he finally emerged, he blinked quickly against the light, trying to see where the men might have gone.  He had heard them along the south wall, so they should have been going towards the west, but when he reached that row, he couldn’t see anyone.  Frustration and panic mounting, he circled the stables as quickly as he could while still walking, looking for any sign of the Scanrans. He saw a few servants, but nobody that seemed to match what Yuri was looking for. Not that he even knew what that was.

Back to the southwest corner of the stables with nothing to show for his hunt, Yuri could feel anger bubbling just under his skin.  He had wanted to find something so badly; wanted to show them all that he was more than just a bratty kid. And, a small voice under the screaming of his anger insisted, he wanted to be able to get some sort of justice for Yuuri.  As frustrating as Katsudon could be, taking Yuri’s name and his knight master, Yuuri was one of the few people who didn’t treat Yuri like a burden or worse, like he was barely worth acknowledging.  It was easy for Yuri to write that off as the Yamani man’s uselessness, but considering the gods-cursed gossips some of the knights could be—especially Chris— he might very well know it all.

Seeing Katsudon so beaten the previous evening had shaken something in Yuri.  For all the man’s confessions about being weak, Yuri knew otherwise. He had fought against Yuuri, could still feel the burn of humiliation at how thoroughly he’d been bested in unarmed combat when Yuuri was drunk. Seeing the extent of Yuuri’s injuries had been terrifying.

A flash of movement caught Yuri’s attention.  It took him a moment to even realize what he was seeing.  Licking along the bottom of one of the tents were acid green flames.  From what little Yuri remembered of the lessons forced upon the gift-less at the palace, someone was casting some deep magic.  He had almost reached the tent before he even realized he’d been moving forwards.

With a furtive glance around, Yuri walked as close as he dared, hoping he might hear something.  This far out in the sprawl of the camp, all of the tents were mostly just for supplies and gear; the only reason Yuri could imagine someone staking out a spot here was if they didn’t want to be found.  But all was silent around the tent; dead and muffled, like all he could hear was the sound of blood pumping through his own body.

A dampening spell, he decided. A memory rose up from his second year classes, when Master Numair had insisted that all of the pages should experience what it felt like when various spells had been used for clandestine purpose.  It was intended to help them pick up when an enemy might be using a spell to sneak through, but all it had done was made Yuri aware of how few people in Corus seemed to trust each other.

This was where the smart decision was definitely to return to Viktor and Yuuri, or JJ be damned go seek out Otabek; even finding Chris probably ranked higher on a list of sensible actions than what his brain was clamouring to do.  He had the incredible urge to burst in and...well, his plans went blank around there, likely because he knew his chances of walking away from a fight with a mage, particularly if it was a strong one, were low.  So, deciding that some caution was the better part of valour, he quickly turned to check out the other tents nearby. He just needed to find somewhere close where he could be out of sight and keep watch.

There , he thought.  Just across the way was another tent.  From there, he would be able to get a decent angle for viewing while being able to hide himself behind the flap.  

Path decided, Yuri didn’t hesitate, the possibility that there might be people in any of the tents never occurring to him, or pushed off as a problem to handle when encountered.  He just pulled back the tent and slipped into the dark. Stepping behind the flap of the door, he checked his sightlines through the gap: as perfect as he had first thought.

With one eye fixed on the entrance to the other tent, Yuri glanced around at his surroundings.  While it certainly had the boxes and crates he expected, he was surprised to see a large table covered with books and papers, along with a few objects that he couldn’t quite make out.

Uncertainly, he looked towards the other tent and then back at the table, trying to decide what to do.  

Maybe if I just took a quick look . I should have enough time to get back and see anyone leaving the other tent before they could disappear.

He dashed across to the table, already trying to take stock of what he was seeing.  Mostly it just looked like the desks of many of the more academic masters at the palace, a jumble of messy pages and ink—lists, half-written letters, and notes.  But all of it was in Scanran.

He picked up a page and started to skim, his breath faltering as he began to understand what he was seeing.

…Have finally found a method that manages to maintain the integrity of the body while sidestepping issues of compliance…hopeful that now that we have the opportunity for a better class of subject, tests will continue in positive direction…

…Pleased to discover that a side effect is invulnerability—to be expected for vassal whose impulses are nothing more than an extension of my magic…

Yuri blinked as he stared down at the page, then quickly rummaged through the rest.  He found what appeared to be the workings of a spell, but mostly he found notes on months worth of trials.  A mage’s trials at…his brain struggled to fully accept it…reanimating the dead.

After the stories that had come out of the north at the end of the summer, he had known that there were mages trying to use necromancy for Scanra’s ends, but he still couldn’t quite believe it.  Yuri had partly assumed that most of what he’d heard were tall-tales—war stories embroidered for the fireside; he knew people from Scanra, had it running through his own veins, so the possibility that the country would use children , never mind dead ones, to fuel their terrible war machines had been hard for him to reconcile.  But here he could see that someone had decided to pick up, or continue, at least a portion of that work.

As he rifled through the pages, the urge to be sick pressed heavily against his throat. He wanted to wipe the evil of the papers off his hands, but he couldn’t stop reading.  When he discovered the labelled diagrams, Yuri did retch, and he knew that those pictures—what they meant—were going to haunt him, but he tried to memorize as much as he could.  He felt as though it was his duty to try to learn as much as possible; it might have been over cautious, but Yuri had a feeling that returning to the tent wouldn’t be an option.

I just need to grab one of the stones from my desk, and then I’ll be right with you.”

The gravelly voice speaking Scanran was the first, and only, warning that someone was coming into the tent.

Wild-eyed, Yuri threw the pages back down on the table, trying to gauge whether or not the surface looked disturbed from when he had entered, before he glanced around in hopes that there might be somewhere he could hide.  The table, little more than a large piece of wood stretched over two sawhorses, was large enough for him to hide under, but it would also take a blind man not to see him. The rest of the immediate area—really anywhere near the exit—was similarly discarded.  But a few yards into the tent, where Yuri had originally assumed there was just a stack of boxes, he could make out the darker shadow of a gap. It was large enough to create something of a corridor, the boxes high enough that they created a partition effect.

Praying to any god that might be listening, he darted forward.  From the crunch of boots entering the tent, he managed to slip into the shadows just in time.  He could hear the sound of someone crossing to the table, the whisper of paper as they rummaged through what was there.  Yuri could feel his heartbeat thudding in a hundred different places in his body, his wrists seemed to shake with it, and it was taking all of his concentration to keep his breathing steady and silent.

This far into the tent, and with the boxes blocking what dim light might have come from the door, it took Yuri a moment to be able to see what else was in the small nook.  As the shadows started to take shape, he could feel his heart give a lurch and everything in him lock. Slumped on the ground, propped against the boxes, the floor, each other, were bodies.  Even in the dark, with forms and features blurred down to nothing more than grey shapes, Yuri could tell they were bodies and not people—not living people.  It had the look of the pits the village had had to dig one summer when an illness had swept through, leaving no time for anything other than mass graves.  It had taken Yuri years to forget the smell of rotting meat, but all he could think of now was to wonder why that smell seemed absent?

Everything in him screamed to turn around and run for the exit, but with the possibility of a mage— the mage—lurking only yards away, Yuri had to stay where he was.  From his spot there was no exit, or none that he could see. The boxes enclosed the space, creating the effect of a small room.

Something seems off.”

It was one of the voices he’d heard from the stable that replied, “ What?”

“My papers…”

Yuri couldn’t be certain, but he almost would have sworn that the second voice had a thread of fear laced through it in talking to the first man—to the mage—though maybe that was just him projecting his own terror.  Master Numair had made sure that all of the pages had a healthy respect for any mage, particularly those with a flair for creative thinking, and from what he’d seen the man out there had plenty of cold-blooded creativity.

“Do you think someone has seen…?”

“The stones haven’t been touched—I have spellwork that would tell me that much—but the pages feel…off.”   There was a deadly calm to that voice, in a way that spoke to iron control over a well-spring of rage.

“But it’s all in Scanran, right?” the second voice asked, wavering under the evident fury of the first.

Nikiforov would be able to understand Scanran,” the mage said, words clicking.  “ And his brat—the bastard boy—he’s from the north as well.  There are a few here who could present some problems. All it would take is even a curious servant, taking one of the pages to some noble—“ the last word was spat out as though it were foul, “— and we could find our carefully laid plans unravelling.”

It was the animal part of Yuri’s brain that knew he needed to get out of the tent, fast.  He looked at the tangle of limbs for a moment, his thoughts slowing at the sheer revulsion of what he needed to do, and then he got to work.  Carefully, trying to stay as silent as he could and still trying to listen for any indication the men were going to search the tent, he started to trace the line of the boxes.  He swept his hands along the wooden sides, feeling for where there might be some sort of gap; it didn’t have to be like the passage, he’d take anything that he could squeeze through.

Within a few feet, he had reached where the bodies were.  At first Yuri was hesitant as he tried to reach around them to continue his search.  He tried to let his fingers only touch clothing as he pushed them aside, but occasionally he would feel the still flesh.  

In short order he had rounded the space, realizing that it was something like a pen.  Desperately, he turned his attention upward. The boxes didn’t quite reach to the top of the tent, and if he could get up and over that might at least get him to one of the canvas sides where he could crawl out.  Of course that required that he actually find a way to climb up to the top of the stack, and silently.

It was with a churning twist to his guts, his fingernails driving into his palms that he realized the only way he would be able to scale the wall: he was going to need to create something of a step, and the only thing around that might be remotely useable for that were the bodies.

Yuri didn’t allow himself to think; he just started to push, shove and drag what bodies he could into some semblance of a pile.  All he needed was an extra foot or two, and then he could hope training and muscle would take care of the rest. This time, he felt very much aware of how unnatural the bodies felt.  There was clearly no life to them—eyes dull and unblinking, faces slack, skin cool—but there was still something…off. There was something expectant about them, like at any moment someone would come along and breathe life back into them and they would take up just where they were.

He couldn’t help but think back to the notes he had only just been skimming.  Yuri could only hope that the mage hadn’t been nearly so successful with his necromancy as his writing seemed to suggest.

The first step up onto the bodies was the hardest.  He knew they couldn’t feel it, but it still felt…disrespectful, wrong in a way that he couldn’t describe, but just knew.  With a quick exhale, trying to stay light on his feet, he scaled the pile, launching himself up. He managed to get his elbows secured over the edge of the top box, grateful that whatever was inside it was heavy enough that it didn’t move with his weight; however, the sound of the thump carried clearly through the tent.

Shit shit shit shit

Desperately he tried to press down onto his forearms and leverage his shoulders and chest up over the edge.  He could feel the edge of the box pressing into his chest, his toes scrabbling against the side for purchase so he could push his way up.

I told you!” cried the the mage, his eerie calm giving way to vicious.  The words were followed by a swirl of something too quick for Yuri to catch, but from the green cast to the tent, he knew instantly it was bad.

He flung one leg up, not caring about staying quiet anymore, and tried to hook his heel over the edge.  In short order, he’d managed to get himself almost entirely up, just one leg hanging down.

A tug at his ankle threatened to pull him off completely.

On pure instinct Yuri kicked.  He put all of his weight into the movement, trying to shake free, and swung around so that he was finally entirely up on the wall.  From there, he could see the pile below starting to stir, one or two of the bodies now upright and reaching for him. Just beyond that was the small frame of a man in robes, face lit by the green flames that twitched in his hands.

Yuri didn’t stay up there long enough to find out what spell the man was preparing. He just checked that the other side of the boxes was near an outside wall, and then flung himself down.  

He felt the landing as a dull ache in his ankles and knees, his teeth clicking together at the impact.  But with no time for thinking, never mind pain, he just dropped. On his belly, he scrambled under the edge of the tent.  He clawed at the ground, his feet working as he tried to just move .  And then he was free.

His breathing came in stuttering gasps, and he quickly looked around, trying to figure out where to go.  He knew with a deadly certainty that this decision was likely to determine whether he lived or died. He would like to think that there was some clever choice, a reason that showed how capable he was of strategic thinking, that had him darting to the left, but really at that point all he knew was that it was a slightly more direct path back to the safety of the others.

Legs already like jelly, his body trembling with fear and exertion, he ran.  He was dimly aware of the quick Scanran shouts that followed and the fact that someone—something—was following him, but he didn’t dare stop.  All he could think of was finding Viktor and Yuuri.

A stitch had started in his side by the time he was a few rows over and he felt as though his heartbeat was going to shake his body apart, but he still couldn’t stop.  He made the mistake of glancing over his shoulder, and in the light of day he was able to recognize the figure following him.  It was Vinson.

That moment of surprise cost Yuri dearly, as he found himself tripping over one of the lines of a tent.  He was able to stay upright, but it cost him some much needed distance, and a hand grabbed hold of his shirt.

Thinking back to his time with Minako, Yuri sidestepped and twisted.  He could hear his shirt rending, but he didn’t care. He was free at least.

Almost straight away, there was a fist barreling towards him.

Yuri yelped and ducked.

He reached for the dagger at his belt and lunged forward in a series of strikes.  With each hit, he could feel the way the blade pulled through the man’s flesh, but Vinson didn’t seem to notice.

Instead, he slammed a fist into Yuri’s gut that forced all the air out of his chest.  It was a stumble rather than a deliberate movement that put Yuri out of the swing of the next punch.

From where he stood, he could see the gash from his dagger running vicious and deep across the man’s forearm, but it may as well have been absolutely nothing.

Of course it’s nothing.  The mage has created invulnerable thralls out of the dead, Yuri thought, hysteria creeping in.

All of a sudden it became very clear to Yuri that he was going to die here.  At the age of fifteen, never having done anything worthwhile, he was going to die.  And more than that, he was just going to become one of the many missing. He was going to vanish and his body was probably going to become part of a necromancer’s collection.

It took a moment for him to realize that the cold feeling against his face was tears.  He had thought that he’d long since left crying behind, back when he’d learned that it got him nothing but an icy indifference from his father and his father’s family.  But here he was, breaking down like he was ten years old again and being dragged away from his grandfather to go live a life at court in the south.

Squaring his shoulders, Yuri decided that he was going to die with more dignity than that.  If today was the day Mithros had chosen, he was going to die like a warrior.

And then blows were raining down on him.  It took every scrap of training he’d ever had just to block them.

“YURI!”

Hearing his name, Yuri thought that it might actually be a sign of some sort of brain damage.  One of the punches had knocked something loose and he was just imagining the sound. He shoved back the urge to look, and just kept ducking and weaving.

Like some sort of hero from a tale—or the obnoxious glory hog that he was—Viktor appeared in his line of sight.  Yuri could see the knight’s silver hair glinting in the sun, those blue eyes narrowed with a murderous intent. Viktor slammed into Vinson from the side, sending the man sprawling.

“GET BACK!” Viktor roared at Yuri.

Yuri could only blink, standing unsteadily as he tried to figure out if this was real.  He felt a pressure at his back, and when he glanced up Yuuri was there, tugging him away.  Yuri knew he should watch Viktor finish this, but instead he turned into the other man’s chest, shaking, and buried his face against Yuuri’s shoulder.

He didn’t know how long they stood like that, one of Yuuri’s arms pressed loosely against his shoulders, his tears making a mess of Yuuri’s shirt.

“Yura, are you okay?”

Breathing shakily, Yuri turned to look at Viktor.

“What are you doing here?” was all Yuri could think to ask.

“What? What do you mean, what are we doing here?  We came to find you!”

Yuri shook his head.

“But…why?”  For some reason, as he stood there looking into Viktor’s stunned gaze, his hand still half-clutching Yuuri’s shirt, that felt like the most important thing he needed to know.

“Why would we go looking for you?!” Viktor repeated, his voice half-hysterical as he kept shooting plaintive looks between Yuri and Yuuri.

It was the somber-eyed Yuuri who seemed to understand what Yuri was asking.

“Yurio, after what happened…you were gone long enough that we started to worry.”

With rough hands, Viktor pulled him close, wrapping his arms around him.

“Look, you little shit.  Of course I’m going to go looking for you.  Who else is going to call me old? Or tell me when I’m being ridiculous.  After what happened to Yuuri, we thought…are you okay?”

After a great deal of protesting, Yuri was walked straight to the healers to be looked over, his mind whirling all the while with everything that had just happened, and the terrifying prospect that there might actually be people that meant something to him.

It was only after he was finally freed from the healers’ tent and allowed to leave—though even then, it was only to go straight back to his own bed— that he finally thought to ask how the fight had ended.

Viktor’s face went grim, his lips pressed together in a thin line.

“As soon as I neared the bastard he just… went limp.  It was like all of a sudden he went from living to dead.”

“That’s because he was.  Dead. I think.” The healing had taken its toll on Yuri, and he couldn’t quite seem to remember what he needed to say.  He knew there was something important, but it all felt a little fuzzy.

He had walked a few steps before he realized that Viktor had stopped, and was staring at him.

“Yura, what do you mean, he was dead .”

“Necro—necromancy.  Scanrans. I found a workroom.  That’s why I—that’s how I…” his tongue felt thick in his mouth.

Viktor nodded and gently nudged Yuri’s shoulder.

“Come on.  You need to get some rest.  But you’re going to tell me all about what in the gods’ names you were doing when you wake up.”

Chapter Text

For the second time in two days, Viktor felt as though his world was coming apart.  From his seat at the small table in Yurio’s tent, Viktor watched the rise and fall of the squire’s chest. It was easy to forget just how young Yurio was; he had the sort of stare more typical of a knight who had done some time on the battlefield, and the boy surrounded himself in so many layers of anger and belligerence—really a generally shitty attitude—demanding that people forget that he was closer to his time as a page than when he would become a knight. But in sleep, with his too-long hair spilling across his face and one hand curled into the fur of his damned cat, all Viktor could see was just how young Yuri was.

The fact that his squire—this child —had nearly died was something Viktor wasn’t quite sure how to process.  The worst part though, and something that had Viktor’s chest aching still, was the shock he had seen when Viktor and Yuuri had arrived in time to help.  Yurio hadn’t expected Viktor to come for him. Faced with the prospect of death, Yurio had just accepted it, assuming that Viktor wouldn’t even notice. Somehow, with two tasks entrusted to him—following the visions and looking after his squire—Viktor had managed to be terrible at both of them.

A dart of light from the entryway speared inside, and Viktor glanced up to see Yuuri and Makkachin entering.  Makka padded over to the bed, snuffling the boy before giving his face a quick lick. She then dropped down to her belly, stretching out on the ground beside the bed and giving Viktor what felt like the doggy look equivalent of ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this.’

A gentle touch at his shoulder let him know that Yuuri was standing beside him.

“How is he?”  Yuuri’s voice was soft and quiet, barely carrying to Viktor’s ears.

Viktor had to take a deep breath in, trying to hold it for a moment, before he let it out.  He had hoped it might steady him, but glancing up to where Yuuri’s brown eyes were looking down with so much…care, Viktor still felt as though he was on the edge of falling into some sort of emotional abyss. He was not prepared for this.  The only emotions allowed for the men of Stonemountain—the people of Stonemountain—were anger and contempt.  These feelings of need and desperation terrified him in a way that he couldn’t hope to understand and explain.

“His sleep seemed a little unsettled at first, but I think he’ll be fine.”

He could hear how hollow his words were, his mind back to seeing the tiny figure of his bruised squire struggling to fight so valiantly in a situation where most grown men would have just given up.

“He will be,” Yuuri said, his fingers squeezing Viktor’s shoulder reassuringly.

Viktor wasn’t so sure.  He could feel the chamber’s visions snapping at his heels, a looming storm finally set to break. It wouldn’t take long for the mage to be able to identify Yurio if he hadn’t already. The boy tended to avoid wearing the colours of his knight master whenever he could, so at least he’d just been in a simple shirt and breeches, but there weren’t many blond, petite squires among the camp, and anyone seeing Yurio move and fight would know that he had to be a squire.

“I’m not sure that I can keep him safe,” Viktor said, more to himself than Yuuri.  Paired with that was rising horror that he might not be able to keep Yuuri safe either.

“You don’t have to do it al—“

Viktor shook his head before Yuuri could finish.

“It’s my duty ,” he said, though silently he added that he would rather let the world burn than live in a world without Yuuri.  He could feel guilt claw at his throat at that thought. As a knight, he should be better—his oath was to protect all— but he knew that he’d rather be forsworn than to ever again see Yuuri in the state he’d been the previous night.

At Viktor’s words, Yuuri went tense, some of the ease leaving him.

“I know it’s your duty, but…I…we can help.  You don’t have to do it alone. I don’t want you to fight alone.”

And that right there was the problem.  Viktor felt as though his way forward was stretched out before him, and despite all that had led up to this point, there was only one way forward.

Something inside him clamoured against the plan that was forming, knowing that it was going to break Yuuri’s heart, but he knew it was the only way.  For him to have any hope of keeping Yuuri and Yurio alive, he would have to leave them both behind.

“Can you keep an eye on Yurio?” Viktor asked, his tone sharper than it needed to be.

Yuuri nodded, his eyes locked on Viktor.

“What…what is it that you have planned?”

With a shake of his head, Viktor pushed himself up to his feet.

“Nothing. I just need…there’s something I need to talk to Chris about.  You’ll be fine here?”

While Yuuri nodded, Viktor could feel his hesitation.  But all he could think of were the few facts. There was a mage, trying to cause trouble, who had led attacks against both Yuuri and Yurio already, and that mage knew he had been found out.  If ever there was a time the man was going to spring some final plan, now was it. The man knew that Viktor would be able to understand what was going on, and that he had enough clout amongst the court to convince them of what had been discovered if it was done before something irreparable happened.  If the devastation was big enough, severe enough, it wouldn’t matter what Viktor was saying; the harm would be done.

In the same way he knew that Yuuri had irretrievably claimed his heart, he knew that the visions would come to pass that night.  He could only hope that by leaving both Yuuri and Yurio behind, he could eliminate the parts that had haunted him most.  He would happily face whatever unnatural thralls Yurio had found in the workshop if it meant that he could know that the two people he cared most about would never come to harm; that he would never have to see those particular visions come to pass.

Viktor paused for a moment before leaving the tent.  Glancing at the sleeping squire, Yuuri hunched over him looking so solemn, he tried to burn those images into his memory.  Not that he would need them for long. With everything that the chamber had shown him, he was quite sure that this night would be his last.

For a moment, he wondered what would happen if he crossed over to Yuuri, threading his fingers through the other man’s hair and pulling him close for a kiss.  He felt like with the taste of Yuuri on his lips he could face anything. But Yuuri was also sensitive enough, smart enough, that he would recognize it for the goodbye that it was.  So instead, he just walked out.

He was able to find Chris relatively quickly.

“Can you look after Yurio’s tent for me?  Make sure that he and Yuuri don’t go out tonight?” It took everything in Viktor’s power to keep the question sounding light.

Chris smiled, though his eyes were watchful.  His friend always seemed to see more than he should.

“Why?  Can’t you look after them yourself?”

“There’s something I need to do tonight.  I just..I just need to know that they’ll stay inside.  Please.”

Chris’s smile dimmed, but he nodded.

“Of course.  But…are you going to be okay?”

Viktor summoned up the most convincing smile he could.

“I’m Viktor bloody Nikiforov.  Why wouldn’t I be?”

Chapter Text

Yuuri knew something was off before Viktor had left the tent.  He could feel the change in the knight, just like the time before, Viktor holding himself at a distance.

Screwing up all of his courage, Yuuri had tried to find some way to stop it.  He had hoped that Viktor might have heard the desperate plea in his words, in the way he couldn’t stop himself reaching out for Viktor.  Instead, the knight had walked out. Again.

All he could do was stare blankly at where Yurio still slept, two thoughts careening around his brain on a loop. Viktor thinks I’m too weak to help .   Viktor is going to get hurt.

A headache had risen up like a heavy band pressed against his forehead.  It was, he thought darkly, a fitting match to the aches that still lingered in his body.  Gingerly he leaned back in his chair, one hand worrying at the rough edge of the wooden table.

“Are you doing okay?” The low rumble of Chris’s voice pulled him out of his numb reverie.

Bleakly Yuuri glanced over, hating the look of sympathetic concern on Chris’s face and what the man’s presence meant.  If Chris was here, it meant that Viktor wasn’t coming back.

“Viktor sent you?”  Yuuri didn’t even know why he was asking; he knew what the answer would be. Maybe he just needed to twist the knife a little.

Chris nodded before adding, “He wanted me to make sure that you two were alright while he went off to do something.”

Yuuri laughed sharply, his laughter continuing at Chris’s look of confusion.  Yuuri felt so unsettled, like his body was about to implode, and all he could think of was Viktor riding off alone to meet the events that had haunted him for so long.

“Did he tell you what he was going to do?” Yuuri asked after his laughter had subsided somewhat.

“No.”

“You shouldn’t have let him go.”

Crossing his arms against his chest and peering down his nose at Yuuri, Chris’s mouth was in a tight frown.

“He’s an adult, and a knight.  Why wouldn’t I let him go?”

Jaw snapping shut with a click, Yuuri let his features go icy and distant before he turned his attention back to Yurio.  The squire had just shifted a bit in his sleep, forcing his cat to move as well. It was probably a testament to the bond between the teen and his pet that the cat just huffed softly and moved primly into a new spot; any other person would have been pulled out of sleep with a brutal rake of claws.

“Yuuri, what am I missing?  Do you know where Viktor was intending to go?”  

Yuuri shouldn’t have taken any pleasure at the concern that had crept into Chris’s voice, but he was feeling scared and petty enough that he felt some small amount of satisfaction.   How could Chris have just let Viktor ride off?

With a sharp nod, Yuuri still refused to look at the knight.

“Where did he go?”

“What does it matter?  He’s gone. And…and…” Yuuri couldn’t even think of what it was that he wanted to say, what he needed to say, never mind find a way to express it in functional Common.

He turned his gaze down to where his hands rested in his lap, focusing his attention inward.   What am I going to do?  

He knew what he wanted to do.  Despite being left behind again, of seeing how little value he held for Viktor, he wanted to storm out of the tent and go after him.  Viktor might have had a head start to the temple, but Yuuri had the advantage of being from the Islands.

In his mind’s eye, he could see himself managing to catch up with Viktor; Yuuri would tell Viktor just how wrong he was about Yuuri and demand that he be allowed to help.  Viktor would admit that he’d been wrong, that he needed Yuuri, and together they would ride off to face whatever might await them at the temple. But he knew he couldn’t do any of that.

Why not?

He tried to ignore the question that slithered in and out of all his thoughts.  Instead, he focused on the tightness in his left calf muscle, the sound of Yurio’s breathing, the feel of a slight draft that was slipping through the tent flap where Chris hadn’t pulled it closed properly.

Why not?  Why couldn’t he just go?

Yuuri had been trying so hard to regain any sense of determination and drive that he might once have had, desperate to have Viktor take him seriously, for Viktor to want Yuuri by his side for all things, and yet now that it was all getting serious, here he was cowering where it was safe, where he didn’t have to worry about Viktor hurting him any further.  Yuuri needed to go.

Decision made, he rose up and started for the door of the tent.

“Where are you going?” Chris rumbled, stepping between Yuuri and his goal.

“I’m leaving.  Viktor…Viktor needs help.”

“And you can give it?”

Taking a deep breath, Yuuri nodded.

“I promised him that I would look after the two of you,” Chris said, with a jerk of his head towards Yurio.  “I can’t let you leave. And can you really just leave Yurio?”

Yuuri flinched at the last part of the question, his determination faltering.  He knew exactly what it was like to be left behind, to be written off as of little use, more handicap than anything; the idea of Yurio waking up on his own made Yuuri hurt, but knowing what Viktor was going off to face, he couldn’t stay.

He worried at his bottom lip for a moment as he tried to find the best path.  Finally, he turned to meet Chris’s hazel eyes. He was pretty sure that what he was about to do next was going to break the fragile trust that existed between him and Viktor, but he found a certain calm acceptance knowing that this was the only way he could see to keep the man alive.

“Viktor has been having visions.”

Chris’s response was a sharp inhale of breath.  “ What ?!  That’s ridiculous.  He would tell me—“

“Since mid-winter he’s been having some variation of the same visions.  He said that they were being given to him by…a chamber…the chamber where he…where you…took your ordeal.  I only found out about it because I woke up to him in the midst of one, and he was too…the vision took too much out of him that I think the story was out before he had a chance to realize that he shouldn’t tell me.”

For the first time since Yuuri had met the knight, all trace of the usual edge to the man had vanished.  Chris was just staring at him, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape.

Yuuri could only press forward.

“We’ve— he’s —been trying to figure out what they mean.  For months now, every night, he’s had to watch destruction and death, with no idea of how to prevent it.”  Yuuri could hear the waver in his voice, despite his best efforts to make it like iron. “We were only just able to realize that with the grand temple so close…that the mage was going to destroy it…”  He felt the words escaping from him like water from cupped hands, and pushed his fingers through his hair in frustration.

Chris waved his hands, his head shaking slightly.  “What do you mean? Viktor told you about what happened during his ordeal? No one is allowed to talk about that.”

“No!  Or…well, I don’t know.  I think the visions he started to get were new.”

“And they’re definitely visions?” Chris said.  Already Yuuri could see the way the other man was trying to find some way to explain away what he was being told, lips starting to curve back into their habitual smirk and eyebrow raising.  “It’s not uncommon for elements of the ordeal to…linger. And with some of the combat Viktor has seen, I’d be surprised if he didn’t have the occasional bad dream.”

Both men were surprised when Yurio’s voice cut through the night.

“Occasional dreams shouldn’t be every night,” the teen said.

Yurio was sitting up on the cot, the blankets pooled around his lap and his blond hair a messy cloud around his face.  The boy’s eyes still appeared heavy with sleep, the effects of the healing not fully out of his system, but underneath it was a knowing look that seemed beyond his years.

“You knew?” was the only think Yuuri could think to ask.

Lifting one shoulder in a shrug and fighting back a yawn, Yurio swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“We shared a cabin for the crossing.  I didn’t want to say anything because…well, I…if it was me, I would have hated someone asking like they had the right to know.  I thought that if he wanted me to know—if he trusted me—he would choose to tell me, but then you came…He seemed better once you were here.”

Chris looked less certain, but he still shook his head and his voice held the tone of someone who had stopped listening to logic.

“Sometimes the dreams can be more frequent.”

Both Yuuri and Yurio shared a look of frustration, before Yuuri snapped at Chris, “He has seen the destruction of the temple, a mage’s flames eating up everything, and…he saw me.  Before we’d ever met, he somehow saw me. It’s why he wanted me to join him and Yurio—because I was in his visions.”

“You’re an idiot,” Yurio hissed under his breath, as he stood up.

“What?”

“I said that you are an idiot,” Yurio repeated, enunciating each word.  “Viktor wanted you to join us because he fancies you. It’s actually kind of disgusting—especially after than night that you were all over him.  He’s like his damn dog, desperate to follow you anywhere.”

“But,” Yuuri protested, “He’s Viktor Nikiforov—a living legend.  And I’m…I’m a…I’m a dime a dozen fighter, without anything to—“

Yurio cut him off with a pointed finger to the chest.  The squire had stomped over and was glaring up into Yuuri’s face.

“Let’s get a few things straight.  Viktor might be something of a legend, but he’s from a country that has lots of them.  And against that list…Viktor is just some guy who’s good with a sword. How does that even compare against the Lioness?  Viktor’s won some tournaments; she’s the king’s champion and the one who found the dominion jewel, and a mage in her own right,” Yurio snarled.

“He’s so much more than that!” Yuuri protested.

“To you.”

Yuuri could barely process what Yurio was trying to tell him.   Was it possible Viktor actually felt something approaching Yuuri’s own feelings?

Chris had crossed over so that he was standing beside them, looking like he half-expected one of them to throw a punch.

“You,” he said pointing at Yurio, “need to get back to bed.  And you should probably do the same.” The last was clearly directed at Yuuri.

Yurio just rolled his eyes and crossed back to his bed, where he grabbed his belt.  With quick, practiced movements, he had fastened it around his waist, settling his sheathed dagger at his hip.  He then sat down on the ground and started to pull on his boots. Makkachin, who had joined Potya in the warmth of the abandoned bed, just watched the undertaking with a solemn doggy expression.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Chris asked with a sigh.

Boots on, Yurio stood up.

“You heard Yuuri.  Viktor’s decided that his visions are happening now—we’ve got to go help him.  You can stay if you want, but I’m going.  You didn’t see what the mage…he’s doing necromancy , Chris.  Because I was bored and curious, and stirred up trouble, Viktor has ridden off to face a necromancer on his own.”

Chris’s face went pale.  Even Yuuri, already knowing all the details, felt a sort of sick shock at hearing the words out loud.

“The necromancer has been working with Scanrans.  I don’t know why…but they seem intent to break the treaty between Tortall and the Yamani Islands.  I think all of the chaos around here has been them, and as a final grand strike they’re going to destroy some temple,” Yurio said.

“The grand temple,” Yuuri corrected automatically. He shrugged apologetically at Yurio’s glare.

“So, are you stopping us, Chris?” the squire pressed.  “Or are you going to come too?”

Chris’s throat worked for a moment, and Yuuri was suddenly aware of how young Chris was.  Really, he wasn’t much older than Yuuri himself. But a moment later the softness and fear were gone, and they were seeing the hard-eyed gaze of a knight of Tortall.

“Let’s go.”



Chapter Text

Viktor tensed at the sound of hooves rushing up along the road.  With a press of his heels to Socks’s side he had the horse turning, his gaze scouring the patch of road and making a quick assessment of the terrain.

He hadn’t made the time he had expected or hoped—as a single rider rather than the cumbersome progress, the relatively close distance should have been little problem for him.  The broad road that had swept away from the camp had certainly been easy enough for Viktor to follow, even with his barely adequate navigation skills, but after an hour or so it had given way to increasingly smaller, serpentine roads that curled over the hills.  Uncertain about both the route and the increasingly rough quality of the smaller roads, Viktor had to go much slower than he would have liked.

Carving through the mountains, there was little cover on the road.  Off to the side and up the steep incline there was a small copse of trees, but there would be no way to clear the distance in time, and it wasn’t obvious to him that it would actually allow much cover.  Instead, all he could do was ready his sword, hand tightening on the grip, reins lightly looped around the horn of his saddle, and ready himself for battle.

Viktor glared into the gathering dark at the shadowy silhouette of people galloping forward.  From the jingle of bit and bridle and mail, he knew they weren’t Yamanis.  He could only hope that in setting off, he had been able to sidestep the visions.  Here he could have that long awaited confrontation, and if he died so be it; Viktor could die happily knowing that he’d found a way to avoid pulling Yuuri into further danger.

One of the mounted figures surged forward.  Socks flared his nostrils, the stallion scenting something, and then the horse cried out a greeting.  Viktor felt his own moment of dawning recognition; it seemed his heart knew who was on the horse before his eyes did.

He drank in the sight as the rider neared close enough for him to start to discern details—inky hair shoved back from a too-solemn face, messy from the ride; brown eyes that were dark pools in the dusk.

“Yuuri,” Viktor breathed, trying to tell himself that excitement and relief at seeing the other man was not what he should be feeling.

Yuuri didn’t stop until his horse was nose-to-nose with Socks, then finally pulled back on the reins.

“What are you doing here?”

There was a long moment of silence, filled with the sound of the other riders closing in, where Yuuri just stared at Viktor with his mouth twisted and eyes unblinking.  Finally, something in him seemed to snap, and those eyes that had always told Viktor so much—his one steady glimpse into Yuuri’s emotions—started to swim.

“That’s what you want to say?!” Yuuri’s voice was somewhere between a yell and a sob, and Viktor felt as though his heart was cracking.

He wanted to reach forward, to pull Yuuri close, to thread his fingers through Yuuri’s hair and wipe away the tear tracks on his face.  Instead, he turned his attention to returning his sword to its sheath.

“I…” Viktor didn’t even know what to say.  All he could think of was the fact that this close to the temple, he was that much closer to having to live through everything he had come to fear.  “You were supposed to stay at the camp.”

Yuuri made a noise of frustration, brushing a knuckle against his face to wipe away the tears.

“Damn you, Viktor Nikiforov.   How dare you leave me behind!”

Viktor was taken aback by the anger that radiated off of Yuuri.  He gave Socks a light kick with his heels, urging him forward until he was almost side by side with Yuuri.  Desperately he tried to get the other man to meet his eyes, to see everything that Viktor wanted to say and didn’t know how.

“I couldn’t bring you.”

“Because…” Yuuri’s voice faltered a bit, the anger giving way to something else.  It was almost the same expression from the previous evening when Yuuri had been talking about the events of his past.  Suddenly, it all clicked for Viktor.

Yuuri ,” he pleaded, “I couldn’t bring you, because…I can’t…it’s not because of you .  It’s because I’m weak—“

Yuuri gasped in response, head shaking furiously.

“—I thought that I would be prepared for anything, to face anything.  But…I don’t know if I can go forward, knowing what will happen to you.”  Viktor’s voice was a hoarse whisper, breaking on the last word.

“And so you would do the same to me?  Leaving me with the certainty that you likely wouldn’t be coming back, and without even the comfort that I’d been able to offer some help—make some effort?”

Another rider walked their horse, a large bay stallion, forward.  Viktor glanced over, seeing Chris in the saddle.

“What are you doing here?” he asked gaze darting between Yuuri and Chris.  Only then did he notice the other riders just a ways behind. He could make out Yurio astride Psycho, the squire looking oddly vulnerable and yet angry enough to kill; behind him was Otabek and at least another two knights.

“I believe you already asked that,” Chris said with a wry twist of his mouth.  “And I think the more significant question is why you would go haring off without some help?”

Viktor could feel his eyes burning, and he blinked furiously.

“I have something I need to do.”

“To fight? Or to die?”

“Either.  Both, if necessary.”

Chris exhaled harshly as his horse took some antsy steps, evidently feeling the tense mood of its rider.

“Damn you, Nikiforov.  You should have told us.  I understand why you didn’t tell us about the visions—“

Viktor glared at Yuuri who stared back unblinking, his level gaze a challenge.

“—But you should have told us something .  You may have been given a task, but you were given it to complete . To succeed. I don’t think the chamber, or the gods, want you to die failing.  Now, at least tell me you have a plan.”

Taking a shaky breath, the air thick with the smell of brine this close to the ocean, Viktor tried to tell himself he was grateful and not scared completely shitless about the prospect of what might happen to those closest to him.

“I just…after what Yurio learned, and finally knowing where the temple is…I kind of lost it.”  Viktor laughed softly, bitterly. He really was an idiot.  For all he knew, there was a good chance he would arrive at the temple and discover that he was early.  But when he had been traveling, there was something about it that had felt right. It was the same sense of certainty, of things falling into place as they needed to, that he had felt when he’d first seen Yuuri.

Ever the one to be able to move on after he had said his piece, Chris just nodded.

“Okay.  So, we go to the temple.  And…you have no idea if the…who are they?”

Viktor shrugged helplessly.  It was Yurio who called out the answer.

“Scanrans.  There were at least a few thugs, and there was the mage—the necromancer.  And his thralls.”

There was a collective shiver amongst the group at the mention of the necromancer.  Just the threat of a relatively competent war mage was enough to have most knights carefully rethinking their strategy, but someone who controlled the dead was a whole other beast.  Even Tortall’s strongest, most feared mage wouldn’t touch that sort of magic.

“So we don’t know if the Scanrans are there yet?” Chris continued.  “I think…we should go forward as if we might encounter them—approach with caution.  That way we can keep some element of surprise. Maybe. If they’re not there, we take it as a gift from Mithros, and we ready the temple for a siege.”

Viktor found himself nodding gratefully at his oldest friend.

With some semblance of a plan, the party set off.

 

***

 

The ride was quiet, none of the riders more so than Yuuri, who was at the lead.  Other than the occasional instruction called back to the group, the man was silent.  At least a hundred times Viktor had tried to think of something to say, but as always, words failed him.  He couldn’t even ride up ahead to be closer to Yuuri. Somehow a loose order to the horses had been struck, and with the narrow road and the stone walls that ran along either side there wasn’t the space for Viktor to force his way forward.  So instead, he was stuck near the back with JJ to his right and Yurio and Otabek immediately in front. Beyond that he could see Emil, and then Chris, with Yuuri little more than a shadow up front in the dark.

Viktor was pretty sure that the arrangement was some sort of punishment, forcing him to ride alongside JJ.  Though...maybe he should start to reassess his opinion of JJ. Despite Viktor never more than tolerating the younger knight’s presence—and he knew he often wasn’t subtle about who he didn’t like—JJ had still joined the party.

He glanced over to where the man in question was slouched easily in his saddle.  As if sensing Viktor’s scrutiny, JJ glanced over, raising an eyebrow and smirking.

“You want something, Stonemountain?”

Grinding his teeth at that name, Viktor let his expression go icy.  It was gratifying to see the way that the other man seemed to twitch a bit under the long stare, his smug exterior cracking enough for Viktor to see the scared young man beneath.

With some shock, Viktor realized that he was the oldest , and that other than Chris and himself there was no one amongst the group who had earned their spurs farther than a year back.

“Why did you all come?” Viktor asked wearily.

Again JJ managed a smirk, his bravado pulled back around him.

“Why wouldn’t we, Stonemountain?  Just think of the reaction when we return home and can tell the story of defeating a sinister plot and saving the realm!”

Viktor could feel himself bristling at JJ’s tone, wondering when it was that knights had learned to be so cavalier about their own danger.

“Don’t listen to that idiot,” Yurio said, the fifteen year old squire managing to sound far more grounded and cognizant of what they were riding into than the eighteen year old knight.  “We’re doing this because…because chivalry.”

“Chivalry?” Viktor repeated.

He had turned his head to focus on the small figure ahead of him, blond hair catching what little light there was.

“Tell us all about what you think of chivalry,” JJ crowed.

Yurio twisted around in the saddle to send a murderous glare back at the knight, then turned back to face the path.

“Shut up, asshole!  Just because you’re an awful glory-hog doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t actually care that the Scanrans have been hurting people.  That’s what we’re supposed to stop, right?  Our very reason for being is to help those that need it, and to protect the realm.  Well, this feels like a time for both of those.”

Viktor felt a stirring of pride at his squire’s words.

“Thank you,” Viktor said softly.  He still couldn’t help but wish that Yurio was still back at the camp, but he couldn’t deny the boy’s sentiments.  At the same age, as Yakov’s squire, Viktor had felt all the same determination to do the work, take the same risks, of a knight.  In fact, the country had been at war with the Immortals at the time, and when Yakov had been sent out to deal with Spidrens plaguing the Northern forests, or Hurrocks attacking villages, Viktor had insisted that he be alongside his knight master.  Suddenly, Viktor had a much deeper appreciation for all the times Yakov had cursed him out.

“Don’t think I’m doing this for you, old man.  You…you just left me and Katsudon behind, like we were inconvenient, without even a word. You could have had the decency to say something.  I’m doing this because those people… nobody deserves to be used that way after death .”

Viktor could hear shadows clinging to the squire’s words.  Mithros, Yurio hadn’t even had more than a few hours to deal with all that he had seen earlier.  To come off that experience and then ride off knowing exactly what he might face—Viktor couldn’t help but marvel at the core of steel in the squire. Goddess help anyone who tried to cross him when he earned his shield; as a man grown, Yurio would be a formidable opponent.

There was the sound of someone up ahead calling for the others to halt.  Pulling back on the reins, Viktor brought Socks to a standstill. He leaned forward in the saddle to see what had them halting.

Up ahead, he could see where the road opened up to little more than a track leading down the mountainside.  Off to the side was an inky, churning blackness, filled with the sigh and crash of the sea. At the rise of a hill peak opposite, Viktor could just make out curved beams of the temple gate, and beyond it torches illuminating the rise of the temple itself.

Breath catching in his throat, Viktor felt as though he had been thrown back into his visions.  It was exactly like what he had seen so many times before, from the way the red timbers almost seemed to smoulder in the light of the torches, to the way the points and curves on each of the different roofs made the building seem like it was about to take flight.  Even the flicker of the torches felt entirely too similar to the flames Viktor had seen licking up the walls over and over.

But the building isn’t on fire now, and there’s no sign of the enemy yet , Viktor reminded himself.  

Still, as he swung himself down from the saddle, he couldn’t help but feel that weight of expectation.  It was the same feeling he got right before a battle, like there was a dark energy building up that would only be appeased with blood.

Viktor passed the reins over to JJ and slipped through the ranks until he stood at the front of the group, beside Yuuri.  Glancing over, Viktor could see the tension etched into every line of Yuuri’s body. Without thinking he reached for Yuuri’s hand, just needing the contact.  Brushing his thumb over Yuuri’s knuckles, he couldn’t help but wish for more, cursing the gods, the chamber, or both for gifting him with the amazing perfection that was Yuuri and then making their time so limited.

When Yuuri looked back, it was with the smallest of smiles on his lips, his hand twisting in Viktor’s until he had threaded their fingers together. Pressing the flesh of their palms tight, Viktor swore to any god who might be listening that so long as they lived through that night, he would never let Yuuri go.

A half step to the side and their shoulders were brushing; Viktor had to remind himself that not only were they very much not alone, but it was possible that an enemy waited for them up ahead.

“How do we go forward?” Viktor asked, hearing how hoarse his voice had gone.

Yuuri shrugged helplessly.  “It would be best if we could approach any other way than the main path, but…there isn’t really an option.  Part of the reason this location was chosen is that you can easily limit how people gain access.”

“Or how they escape.”

A scream suddenly ripped through the night, crashing off the rocks and soaring above the steady thud of the waves.  Without time to think, the party surged forward. It seemed their battle had begun.


Chapter Text

They were already halfway down the hill before Viktor saw the figures emerging from the dark below.  To even start the ascent up to the temple, they were going to have to go through some of the Scanrans.  At the panicked whinny of one of the horses and the sounds of the heavy bodies shying, Viktor quickly amended that; they were going to have to fight their way through the dead.

“Leave the horses,” Viktor called back, pulling his sword free and pressing forward.

He could feel Yuuri by his side, and he spared a quick glance at the other man.  So many words crowded his head, practically tripping off his tongue, needing to be said.  Instead, he swallowed them back and tried to give a reassuring smile. He was sure it had too much teeth and the stink of fear.

“You’ll be fine,” he said to Yuuri.

The man’s eyes flashed with…annoyance?

“Viktor—I love you, but you’re terrible at being that sort of leader.  Don’t try to start now.”

Everything, every thought in Viktor’s head, disappeared at those three words that Yuuri had thrown out so casually.  He should have made some sort of glib reply, but instead—certain that this might be his one and only chance—he just reacted.  Reaching forward, he threaded his fingers through Yuuri’s dark hair, tugging the other man forward and taking Yuuri’s lips with his own.  Viktor had wanted so much for their first kiss; he’d imagined something sweet and chaste, but that was when he’d assumed there would be the luxury of a future. This was more like being devoured.  When Yuuri captured Viktor’s lower lip between his teeth, Viktor felt an arrow of lust tracing the path from his heart to his groin, his fingers tightening in that silky hair.

It took the strength of Mithros for Viktor to step back. He let his hand fall from Yuuri’s hair, though he couldn’t help but allow his fingers to drift along the gorgeous curve of Yuuri’s neck.  In another life he would spend days worshipping that stretch of skin alone.

The sound of a whistle cutting through the dark pulled Viktor back to his senses, making his face warm.

“I know I’ve said that there’s always time for a bit of flirting, or more, but I’m afraid you’ve proved me wrong,” Chris said.

Viktor let out an unsteady breath.

“Just…now is the time for you to find that spirit.  Hold it close, and just…make sure that you don’t die.”  That last bit came out closer to a plea than anything, but Yuuri nodded.

Raising his sword and trying to ready himself as best he could, Viktor ran forward into the melee.

It was always a surprise, even after so many years, how quickly the calm blank space of battle overrode all of Viktor’s thoughts.  Some part of him had seen the numbers swarming up towards them, and he was sure that later , if they made it through this, he would feel shaky and weak at the idea of how hopeless it felt, but right at that moment everything had narrowed down to his blade and whatever enemy was closest.

With a roar, Viktor swung his sword down, the strike of the blade hitting the man in front of him reverberating up through his arm.  And still, he tugged the sword free from where it had lodged in the shoulder of the man—a knight, someone Viktor recognized —about to lunge forward for a strike that would disembowel anyone without some sort of armour.  But the blow to his shoulder had little effect on the thrall, and he dodged easily.

Memory of what both Yuuri and Yurio had told him flooded back.  The thralls would feel no pain, there would be no chance to merely incapacitate and rely on the enemy to be too injured to continue the fight.  

A sword swung toward him.  Viktor stepped to the right, lifting his own blade into a block.  From there, he tried to shove as much weight behind where the blades were locked and force the thrall back.  With a twist of his blade, Viktor shifted further to his front foot, whirling and bringing his sword arm around in a deadly flourish.  There was the feel of its sharp edge sliding through meat and crunching through bone, and he watched as the head of the thrall went sliding away from the rest of the body.

The relief he felt as he watched the body drop like a sack of flour was almost dizzying.

All around him was the harsh ring of steel against steel, and the heavy breathing and grunts of his companions in fights of their own.

“The heads,” he called out, even as he was already moving to block a blow from the next thrall who had stepped unblinkingly over the body of its fallen horror to take up its place.  “If you can take the head, it breaks the spell.”

There was no response, but Viktor couldn’t check to make sure that the others had heard.  The second thrall, a woman in her mid-forties, no taller than Yurio, was proving more of a challenge than the first.  He didn’t recognize her, but from the way she handled the massive cleaver in her hand, he assumed that she was one of the missing servants—someone from the kitchens.  Where the first thrall had brute strength, this one was fast, and with her small frame she was nimble; with zero fear of the sword that was coming at her, she just side-stepped and ducked, her own blade managing to nick Viktor’s bicep.  Any time Viktor stepped back, trying to get a better angle on her—something where he could get the necessary speed and force to remove her head—she was back up close.

The cleaver swung.  Viktor twisted to the side, managing to turn her attack into a glancing blow. He could feel the sting of a cut on his cheek, and resisted the urge to reach up and poke at it, to feel how deep it was.  At least it was below his eye, so he wouldn’t have to worry about the blood obscuring his vision; anything else could be dealt with later.

While she was still off balance from her own attack, Viktor slammed his foot into her midsection, shoving her back.  The swing of his sword was far from elegant, but it was effective.

There was a brief moment where Viktor could see a gap through the horde, and the steps to the temple rising up ahead.

“Viktor!”

Chris’s shout pulled Viktor’s attention over to where his friend was circling a thrall.  Eyes flashing, Chris jerked his head towards the glow of the temple above them.

If you can get the chance to get through, you and Yuuri, do it.”

“I can’t leave you all behind!” Viktor protested, even as he had to dodge a blow from another one of the thralls.

“Don’t be an idiot .  The goal is, and has always been, to get you to the temple and to kill that bastard.”  There was a pause as Chris’s blade soared through the air, almost splitting one of the thralls in half.  “And maybe, if the mage is dead, the spells will end too. If you can get to the mage fast enough, you might save all of us.”

Viktor was pulled back into the crash of steel, his body lunging and shifting as he tried to stay alive.  But it was like he was suddenly able to see everything else around him. His gaze was caught by the sight of Yurio, sword a blur with the sort of finesse that most knights would toil a lifetime for, against a thrall that had the broad shoulders and massive size of a blacksmith.  Even with all of his speed and skill, Yurio was struggling.

Viktor felt as though one piece of his visions had just been overlaid onto the present, and more than anything he just wanted to wake up.  But if Chris was right…Viktor had never hoped for something so hard in his life.

He sought out Yuuri, working his way through the throng until he was side by side with the Yamani.

“We need to get through,” he said in a rush of air before he had to block the swing from a vicious looking axe.

Yuuri nodded, though his attention didn’t leave the woman lunging at him with a twin pair of deadly daggers.

Side by side, they fought, until their moment came.  With a gap opening up, Viktor ran, sending an apology to the men he was leaving behind and grabbing Yuuri by the wrist to pull him along.  As he ran, he could feel fingers grasping at his clothes and the chainmail over his chest, fists and nails flying out through the dark to land, but he kept moving.

It was only once he was at the gate, calves burning and a deep ache settled into the centre of his chest as he tried to get air, with Yuuri panting softly beside him, that he stopped.  He allowed himself one glance back down. From their vantage point, the melee was blurred into a crowd of writhing shadows, the deadly fight almost softened.

Vitya ,” Yuuri’s use of the diminutive pulled his attention away.  “We need to keep going. People live in the temple—not just the priests, but servants…families.”

Children.

Viktor shuddered at the thought of a child being turned into one of the monsters they had just faced.  And then he remembered the stories he’d heard coming out of some of the refugee camps in Tortall, of what a necromancer had been doing with children in the name of Scanra.  He nodded sharply and turned to face the temple.

As many times as he had seen it in his dreams, it was still a shock to see the acid green flames starting to creep up the sides of the building.  This time, he could just make out the way that the paper walls were charring and peeling, and the smell of smoke was so much more overwhelming; it had come to be the smell of fear.

With a dreamlike turn, he glanced over at Yuuri, at the way the planes and angles of the man’s face were lit by the flames; the sight so familiar that Viktor wanted to scream and rage.  As he knew would happen—as it always happened—Yuuri turned to him, eyes sad but determination written all over him.

“You need to go find the mage. I’ll get people to safety.”

And then he was watching Yuuri dash off down the path, sprinting up into the building.  Heart like ash, all Viktor could do was turn away and try to keep going. If his friends below were going to have a chance to live, if Yuuri was going to be able to get people to safety, Viktor needed to kill the mage. Fast.



Chapter Text

Yuuri’s world condensed to just fire.  It overwhelmed him, the pop and roar drowning out everything, the acrid smell of smoke twining around him and making his lungs hurt, the air too warm and too thick, and all around him the dancing shiver and lick of the flames.  His first step inside and every instinct inside was screaming to retreat. This was not a world for man, the animal part of his brain raged; continuing on would mean death. The other thought that twisted through him, urging him to leave, was the fact that Yuuri had left Viktor outside.  Viktor was on his own , about to go after a necromancer who had wrought enough destruction at a distance that to get close seemed like inevitable death.

Pushing out his breath, Yuuri tried to find his calm centre.   A warrior needs to be like stone .  And right now, more than ever, Yuuri needed to rid himself of all of the fear and anxiety, everything that had ever held him back, and just hold one idea close to himself: there was a task that needed doing.

He quickly started forward.  Desperately he tried to think back on everything he knew about the temple, trying to think of where anybody might be, but he was drawing a complete blank.  At that moment, Yuuri couldn’t even have guessed where the sacred articles dedicated to Yama might be.  Through the haze of smoke and flame he could see two doors veering off from the chamber he was in.   Which way?

Eyes pressed shut for a moment, needing to fight off another wave of panic and fear, Yuuri sought for the right choice.  Blearily he wondered how it was that he of all people was tasked with something so grave and important—any other person would already be on their way.  And that, he realized, was because they would just make a decision and accept the consequences. Snapping his eyes back open, Yuuri headed towards the left.  It might turn out to be the wrong decision, but chances were he wouldn’t actually have long to regret it.

The door hadn’t caught fire yet, but the wood of the frame felt dry and hot against his fingers, and when he tried to slide it open he found that the track had warped in the heat.  Still, he had been able to move it a couple feet, enough to squeeze through.

Past the door was a corridor.  The fire was concentrated towards the front of the building, and while smoke made the dark space hazy, for now it was at least a little cooler.  Yuuri headed down the corridor, trying to keep an eye out for any doors that might open off it.

A shriek echoed out from the far end—abruptly cut off.  This time Yuuri didn’t need to think himself out of his panic or indecision, he just flew in that direction.  He didn’t pause until he found himself stumbling into what appeared to be a large kitchen. There were three women in the room. Two were huddled together against one of the walls, one clutching an arm to her chest, both with bruises and cuts across their faces and their clothes torn.  The third was in the grip of a large, blond man, his hand pulled back as if to strike her. From her black eye and puffy lower lip, blood smeared at the corner of her mouth, it was obvious that it wouldn’t be the first time.

There was a single moment once Yuuri was in the room where the man—he must have been one of the Scanrans that Yurio had followed—just stared at Yuuri in surprise.  And then a feral smile had twisted the man’s face, his brows lowering and a laugh booming out. He flung the woman down like she was nothing, and Yuuri watched as she crumpled to a heap before his gaze snapped back to the man.

The man called out something in words that Yuuri didn’t understand, though the sounds reminded him a little of the cadence of Yurio and Viktor’s speech.  When Yuuri didn’t respond, the man repeated the words, his tone sharper like he was spitting out the words and expecting them to hit Yuuri like blades.

Instead, Yuuri decided he had wasted enough time.  Raising up the sword in his hand, he attacked.

Within a moment, the Scanran had retrieved his own weapon from the large kitchen table, and the two were engaged in a deadly exchange of blows.  It was all Yuuri could do to keep up. The man didn’t have the finesse or skill of Viktor and the other Tortallans Yuuri had been training with, but he made up for it with sheer savagery and brute strength.  Every time their blades connected, Yuuri could feel it up through his shoulder, and he found that the man didn’t waste a second to go on the attack.

Rounding the table, Yuuri tried to force the man to follow him towards the other end of the kitchen, away from the women.

“Get out of here!” Yuuri called to them in Yamani, sparing the most fleeting of glances to make sure that they had understood.

One of the women, at least—the one with the injured arm—nodded sharply.  With her good hand pressed against the wall, she was able to rise, though Yuuri didn’t like how wobbly she looked.

His loss of focus on his enemy was a mistake, and he could feel the burn of the blade tearing through the meat of his left thigh.  A stream of curses bubbled from his lips, but Yuuri used the man’s nearness to go in for a counter attack, managing to strike a blow to the man’s arm.  He wasn’t sure how deep it had been, but he could at least see the tell-tale sign of blood on the man’s sleeve. It was Yuuri’s turn to smile, baring his teeth.  And then he pressed forward.

His limbs ached, and the cut to his thigh burned in a way that he immediately knew wasn’t good, but it was like the pain was burning away all of his hesitancy, igniting whatever fighting spirit Yuuri had always sought.  Spinning and lunging, he was able to get through the man’s guard to land several strikes; finally, with a lunge that made him hiss out in pain as it pulled at his own wound, he was able to launch the blade forward into the Scanran’s gut.

The man dropped to his knees, still smiling that wolf’s smile though blood was pooling up around his teeth.

Yuuri didn’t hesitate.  He just swept the blade around and let it sail through the meat of the man’s neck.  Later, he would probably worry about how satisfying he had found it to see the man slump to the side, the light out of his unseeing eyes, but at that moment Yuuri had more pressing concerns.

Turning to check the kitchen, he saw that two of the women had fled as he had ordered, but the third was still huddled on the floor.  Yuuri limped over, wincing as he knelt down beside her.

“Are you okay?” he asked, feeling like the question was hopelessly inadequate.

The woman pushed the fall of dark hair out of her face, her eyes brimming with tears.

“You need to get out of here, the temple is in flames,” Yuuri said, trying again.

Nodding, the woman struggled to push herself up.

“The children…” she said, her voice raw.

Despite the increasing warmth as the fire continued its path, Yuuri could feel a chill at her words.

“Where are the others?  The priests?”

A sob that seemed torn from some dark place wracked through the woman’s slight frame.

“Dead.  They…they killed them all.  I think they were about to…about to kill us…And they took all of the children.”

Where ?  Do you know where they took them?”

She shook her head, her sobs turning to more of a keening sound.

“The…the one with the green flames, he took them.  I…we…we were back here preparing the evening meal…we didn’t know what was happening until…” her words trailed off into tears.  “I just saw him and another brute, start carrying off… they took Minami.

The woman clutched her hands around her midsection, her shoulders shaking.  More than anything Yuuri wanted to reassure her, to tell her that it would all be okay, but he didn’t have the time.  Even in the short while that he’d been back in this part of the building, he had seen the blue haze of the smoke build, and it wouldn’t be long before there would be no moving forward.

I’ll find him,” Yuuri promised, “But you need to get out.  Now.”

He helped the woman up, pushing her towards the corridor, and then he was moving.  At the far end of the kitchen was another door that opened onto a stone staircase. Yuuri started up.

By the time he had reached the second floor, his body was already protesting, but the closest thing he could allow himself to a rest was to head in and to check for any survivors.

The second floor was just a large open room with straw mats covering the floor.  At one end was a low table—a small altar—and spread out across the floor were a half dozen lifeless bodies, all of them Yamani.  Yuuri tried to fight the tightening of his chest at the sight of the torn robes and blood smeared all over. He didn’t have time for grief or rage.  All he had time to do was note that all of the bodies were adults, and he was back out to the staircase and going up to the final floor.

Mindful of the woman’s words and the possibility of another Scanran awaiting him, Yuuri readied his sword before forcing open the door.

The first thing Yuuri noticed were the flames—the room was like a furnace against his face.  The second was the huddle of children, bound up in rope, the flames creeping up on them. But at least there was no one else.

Yuuri raced across the room, praying that he wasn’t too late.  The tiny bodies of the children looked so still, and with the smoke swirling around, it was a miracle that anyone could breathe.  Dropping down in front of them, he struggled to maneuver his sword to cut through the thick rope without hurting the children further.  He swore to Yama that if he lived through this night, he would always keep a dagger strapped to his body in the fashion of the knights.

There was the soft rasp of a cough, and one of those faces turned to Yuuri.  It was a boy, certainly no older than Yurio, though he had the sort of softness Yuuri had only caught glimpses of in the squire.  

“The little ones…” the boy said, before coughing prevented him from being able to speak any further.

“Don’t worry,” Yuuri said, continuing to work at the ropes.  “I’m going to get you free, and we’re getting out of here.

There was the soft sound of stirring and whimpers as some of the other children started to realize that help had finally come.  Slowly, he was able to free one child at a time, until he had a small crowd of nine small souls, with just one left to free.

But the flames had been creeping higher, the sound more fierce and terrible.  Yuuri wasn’t sure how much longer escape was going to be an option. He sought out the eyes of the oldest boy.

“What’s your name?” Yuuri asked.

Despite the soot and tears streaking his face, the boy had a fierce quality about him.

“Minami.”

“Minami, your mother is waiting for you downstairs, but…I’m going to need you to help the others get out.  Do you know a quick way from here to the outside? To get away from the temple?”

The boy nodded, though Yuuri could see a fine tremble to his thin frame.

“Okay.  I need you to take them.  Hurry. I’ll be right behind you.”

Again the boy nodded, and then he was ushering the other children out into the stairwell.  Yuuri turned back to the little girl lying on the ground. He could see the rise and fall of her chest, but he hadn’t been able to wake her.  It wouldn’t matter if the flames destroyed the building around them; if he couldn’t get her out of the smoke, she wouldn’t last long.

With renewed determination, Yuuri worked on the ropes, cursing the Scanrans for not only tying the children up, but for fastening the binding to a spike that had been driven into the floor.

Finally, he could feel the last threads of the rope fray and give way, and then he was pulling the girl free.  He clutched her close to his chest and started to run for the stairs, even as the building groaned and creaked around him.  The flames surged, and Yuuri suddenly knew this was where it was all going to end.

He was pretty sure it was just Yama looking out for Yuuri and the child that allowed him to stumble into the stone stairwell.  The air was still hot in there, his lungs struggling to pull in the air that he needed, but at least he didn’t have to worry about about the floor giving way beneath him.  Pulling the child close to his chest, Yuuri raced down the steps as fast as he could manage.

Approaching the second floor, Yuuri was able to see something of the back part of the hill through a series of small windows cut into the wall.  Lighting up the night was the flash of green flames flying at some human-shaped smudge. Viktor.  Viktor is in danger.

With renewed vigour, an old prayer to Yama running on an endless loop through his head, Yuri flew down the stairs.  At the bottom however, as he faced the flames of the room opening up in front of him, Yuuri realized that this still might be where he died.

“Over here,” a thin high voice called over the crackle.

In what looked like a small alcove, barely more than a few feet square and all but lost in the dark and shadows, Yuuri could see Minami.

“I told you to get out!” Yuuri said with despair.

The boy just gestured Yuuri forward with one hand.  As he neared the alcove he could suddenly feel cooler air, the smell of brine competing with the smoke.   An exit.

On the other side, Yuuri could see one of the women waiting.  He quickly passed the child in his arms out to her. He was about to try to squeeze through, ready to go join Viktor when he realized he’d left his blade behind in the inferno of the top floor.  Trying not to think about what he was going to do and bracing himself for pain, Yuuri turned back towards the room. He had seen a glaive abandoned on the floor. If he could just get it, he might have a chance to help Viktor.

Gritting his teeth, Yuuri ran forward.



Chapter Text

Going on instinct, trying to trace the pull of the visions, Viktor followed around the temple to the side that overlooked the water below.  He was grateful to see that at least the fire hadn’t spread to the back side of the building yet—that should give Yuuri some time to work.

Rounding the corner, Viktor immediately caught sight of the flame-wreathed figure standing on the stretch of windswept grass that extended towards the cliff edge.

Viktor knew immediately that his presence had been noticed.  He didn’t know how, but he could feel the animosity pouring off the man like steam along with his magic.  Standing with only a matter of yards between them, Viktor could feel the bonds of the vision sharpen with a dizzying wave of inevitability.  This moment had been coming for years. Ever since his ordeal Viktor had been trying to ignore and delay getting here, but now that it was happening he felt…relief.

“Are you ready to end this?” Viktor called out across the dark.

The mage didn’t bother to look away from the spot on the building where his attention was fixed, his lips moving in a mumble of words as flames spilled out of his hand.

Viktor rushed forward, sword at the ready.  As he neared the mage, he could feel the magic spilling off, thick and unpleasant.  Still, he pressed forward into an overhead attack, lifting the heavy sword up.

With an easy side-step the mage dodged the attack, though his gaze was angry.  He had the look of a parent being interrupted in the middle of a task.

“Are you so eager to greet your death, Nikiforov?” the mage said, and Viktor found himself taken aback by the sheer hatred in the man’s eyes.

“So long as you’re there to show me the way into the realm of the dead,” Viktor tossed back, bringing the sword back around for another attack.

Again, the mage side-stepped, like Viktor’s swings were nothing more than the clumsy attempts of a child.  Raising one eyebrow, mouth grim, the mage lifted a hand and flicked his fingers.

“I’m afraid that isn’t the plan.”

It was too late before Viktor realized what was happening.  He felt the blow of the spell against his chest and slammed into the ground.  Viktor could taste the hot copper of blood as starbursts of pain exploded through him.

Aching, he scrabbled to right himself, though in that time the mage had turned back to the temple.

“Is that all you’ve got?  A few cheap tricks? I don’t know about Scanra, but in Tortall we’re used to a better class of mage,” Viktor taunted, desperate to pull the mage’s attention away from the building.  He didn’t know what the spell was, but he knew that it wouldn’t bode well for Yuuri and whoever else might still be inside.

The insult caught where Viktor’s sword hadn’t, and the mage turned to him.

“Your pitiful, snivelling country wouldn’t know power if it had you all by the throat.”

“Is that why the last Scanran mage was bested by a knight barely past her ordeal?”

At that the mage’s eyes flashed.

“You know, Nikiforov.  I thought that I might give you an easy death, something so that I could find a use for you after.  But now…now, I think I have a better use, something more fitting.”

There was a flick of fingers, and then a ball of green flame was flying towards Viktor.  As he dropped down to a crouch, barely escaping its path, he could feel scorched air and smell burning hair.  Another flick, and a second fireball was headed towards him. Viktor threw himself forward. Years of training, along with the hand-to-hand he had been doing with Yuuri, allowed him to roll and rise back up to his feet in a relatively smooth motion, but they didn’t stop the third fireball from slamming into his shoulder.

He could feel his chainmail shirt heating up, searing the flesh of his upper arm.  Viktor was grateful for the padded vest across his chest that stopped the damage from being worse.

“You,” the mage sneered, “of all the useless garbage to come out of Tortall, I would think someone like you would know better.  Your blood may be tainted by that southern trash, but you have the blood of true warriors in your veins, Nikiforov. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard tell.  But I find myself wondering if the stories are talking about the right man. All that I see before me is someone who is… weak.”

Viktor ground his teeth, trying to steady his sword arm.

“Don’t talk about me...about my family...like you know anything,” Viktor snarled.  “I am not my family.  Not either side.  I am my own person.”

“It’s sweet that you can think that,” the mage said.  “Just like how you don’t even realize you’ve already lost--Tortall has already lost. Tomorrow  the great Viktor Nikiforov will be found, apparently consumed in a dark magic ritual, sacrificing Yamani children and destroying the most sacred of temples in the isles; the flimsy treaty will be shattered.  I’d be surprised if they let the Prince return home; certainly, I know that a close advisor to the Emperor will recommend that the prince be put to the death immediately.”

The man gave a tight lipped smile, and with his green flames reflected in his eyes, Viktor saw a rabid creature.  Just like with the thralls below, there would be no chance to give quarter, and none to be taken.

“Is that what this is about?  Shattering the treaty?”

“So much more than that.  Tortall is going to know the isolation and fear that have haunted Scanra for too long.  It’s not enough for you to no longer have friends or trade partners, you’re going to be at war with the world.”

“People will find out what happened here.  You won’t get away with this,” Viktor said,  hoping the shakiness of his voice didn’t show.

“So what if I don’t?  Do you think I’m the only one?  This is just one move in the game.”

Viktor edged closer, hoping that the mage didn’t notice.  So long as the mage was speaking, he wasn’t sending off another attack.  All Viktor needed was one good opening and he could take the man down; the mage wasn’t even armed with a weapon or wearing chainmail, just relying on spells and confidence.

“And the necromancy?” Viktor took a half step forward, his hand tightening on the grip of his sword.  A few more steps, and Mithros on his side, Viktor might just be able to finish this.

“You want all my secrets, knight ?” The last word was spat out like it was dirty.  “What if I told you that was because it was fun? Or that the power that can be unlocked once you dig into the world of the dead is the most heady feeling?”

Another step, and Viktor could see the way the man’s slight frame was shaking.   He’s laughing , Viktor realized with some horror.  The mage’s eyes locked on Viktor and he shook his head, tongue clicking.

“Nice try.”

He started to mumble out a steady stream of spells, fireballs and force spells flying fast.  Viktor could only dodge and weave, occasionally getting close enough to try to swing for the man, but each attack was easily avoided.  It was like moving through water each time Viktor attacked, his limbs dragging heavily and everything so much slower. From the mage’s smirk each time Viktor moved, he was certain that it was another one of the man’s spells.

Finally, after Viktor had narrowly escaped yet another fireball, the mage narrowed his eyes and pushed back the sleeves of his robe.  From the way his lips moved rapidly, his hands churning and twisting as though he were shaping something in the palm of his hands, Viktor knew that something bad was coming.

A moment later, a blast came from the mage’s outstretched hand, its width too great for Viktor to escape.  Again, he was thrown backwards. He tried to push himself back up, but found that his body refused to do much more than let his fingers claw at the grass beneath him.

“Good isn’t it?  Most mages are so afraid of creating their own spells—or mixing and matching—but not me.  I like the artistry of combining spells to create something so elegant as a concussion blast with a paralysis spell,” the mage said, stalking forward.

He didn’t stop until he was leaning over Viktor, his eyes still overly bright.  One booted foot dropped onto the wrist of Viktor’s sword arm, grinding down. Viktor was pretty sure he heard the crunch of something snapping.

“Now, if you’ll just wait here, I have a spell to finish and then we can see about—“

The mage cut off with a noise of surprise and pain, blood blossoming from his mouth.  With a look of shock, the mage twisted around, Viktor trying to see beyond him. There was a flash of firelight on steel, arching through the night, and Viktor watched as something slit the mage from navel to throat.  Even as the mage fell with a thump to the grass, Viktor could feel the paralysis lift. His wrist exploded with pain as he pushed himself up,, but he shoved that aside as he tried to see who—what—could have taken down the mage.

Backlit against the flames, face streaked with dirt and clothes charred, was Yuuri, a glaive in his hands and the most beautiful, fierce expression on his face.

Vitya ,” Yuuri cried, and a second later, the wrathful warrior was gone and Viktor had Yuuri pressed against him.  “Vitya, are you…are you…”

“I’m fine,” Viktor said.  He leaned heavily against Yuuri, resting his face against the other man’s shoulder.

“I saw you on the ground…and…I thought you might be…”

Blinking, Viktor could see tears rising up unbidden, sliding down Yuuri’s face to his shoulder.  A second later, Yuuri’s hands were tangled in Viktor’s hair, and Viktor felt the press of lips against his jaw.  He shuddered, closing his eyes, just giving himself a moment to revel in the fact that Yuuri was alive. Yuuri had saved him.

“Can you get up?” Yuuri finally asked after a few moments of sitting like that, entwined, as their hearts slowed.  “We need to go check on the others, and I need to find the children.”

Viktor flushed at how easily he had set aside his duties.  His limbs were shaky now that the battle had passed, and he felt as though his stomach might heave at any moment, but for now there were things to be done.

“Did you get…were there any survivors?”  Viktor said with a catch at his throat. “The mage, he said that there were children inside.  He was…he was trying to do some spell.”

Yuuri nodded, his smile shyly triumphant.

“The priests, and the other men—we were too late, but I found the women and children.”

Together they walked around the side of the building—or rather the charred frame of the building.  Viktor couldn’t help but glance around at their surroundings, marvelling at how it was still full night.  With all that they had been through, he felt as though it should be dawn.

A little ways from the building, he saw a small crowd of children.  They surged forward on seeing Yuuri, whimpering and trying to get closer.  Viktor couldn’t help his smile, feeling as though he very much understood what the children were feeling.  He reached over, allowing his hand to caress Yuuri’s neck, his fingers trailing through the silky hair at his nape.  Yuuri glanced down apologetically at the kids still clamouring for attention from their rescuer.

“Stay with them,” Viktor said.  “I’ll be right back.”

He left Yuuri, walking faster now, both needing to see what had happened to his friends and wanting to return to Yuuri.

At the gate, Viktor tried to see down the hill, but between the angle and the dark he didn’t have much luck.  Legs protesting with each step, certain his knees were going to give out, Viktor started down.

When he finally caught sight of a familiar blond mop, Viktor felt the last of his fear ease.

“Yurio, you doing okay?” he called down.

“What else do you expect old man?” the squire called back.

“You need some help down there?”

“Well, some of these lazy asses could probably do with a hand getting themselves up that hill.  Be a shame for them to have come all this way and not see such a famous temple, right? Though I hope the Yamanis don’t mind if they bleed on it.”

Viktor couldn’t help his laughter, desperate and grateful.  Within a few minutes he was down at the bottom where the knights waited.  It was a scene of absolute carnage. All around were the hacked apart bodies of their foes, many more only lifeless with the death of the necromancer, and spread throughout were the knights, all bloody but at least upright.

Quickly Viktor was in front of his squire, and he pulled him close into a hug.  They both ignored the tremble of the teen’s shoulders and the sniffle of tears.

“Yura,” Viktor said, forcing the squire to meet his gaze.  “I want you to know that…that I could not have been more proud—“

Yurio cut him off with a grimace.

“Ugh, don’t even start.  You’re going to make me hurl.  I’m going to assume that because you’re down here with us miserable bastards, Katsudon’s okay?”  The question might have been phrased with his usual snark, but Viktor caught the way that Yurio pressed his teeth against his bottom lip and scanned the hillside for Yuuri.

“Yuuri’s waiting for us up top.”

The squire nodded, the smallest of smiles on his face and tension creeping out of his shoulders.

“Well, then, let’s go.”

Chapter Text

As much as Yuri knew the battle was over, that Viktor and Katsudon had destroyed the mage--that they had won--he found himself unable to rest.  Even battle weary, he felt as though he needed to keep on doing something. The few times he allowed the others to convince him to sit and rest, he saw those hands reaching forward, images of the dull gaze of the thralls rising up unbidden.  And so he found himself pushing.

At least there were things that needed to be done.  Once all of the knights had joined the women and children up by the smouldering ruin of the temple, they had started doing what they could to treat the injuries.  Between the seven of them, they had received an impressive array of wounds. Yuri and the others who had stayed below to fight the thralls were bloody with scratches and gashes, the blood already going dry and itchy on their skin and covering up what would be a nasty assortment of bruises.  Those, at least, they could deal with quickly. The women had shown the knights where the well was, taking their rescuers in hand and helping to wash off the gore. Somehow, someone had been able to salvage a sewing basket from the wreckage of the temple, and the women had helped them stitch up the worst of the wounds.

Eyeing up the wound that bloomed across JJ’s shoulder, Yuri turned to Viktor.

“He can’t wait for sun-up.  That’s far too deep, and he looks like he’s lost a lot of blood,” Yuri whispered.

Viktor nodded tightly, though his gaze strayed to the women and children that were huddled and draped around Yuuri.

“We won’t be able to take them with us though.”

The unspoken addition was that they couldn’t be left behind.

“So we send JJ back—we need someone to get help anyway.”

“He won’t be able to ride—not on his own.  It’s only a matter of time until he passes out.”

Yuri worried at his bottom lip, turning an assessing look on each of the other knights.   Nobody looked to be in great condition, but of the others, Otabek seemed to have held up the best.

He drank in the sight of his friend, eyes roaming over the knight’s compact form.  There was a gash along one of the shaved sides of Otabek’s head, the normally combed-back longer pieces sliding down to partly obscure the blood that stretched across the dark stubble, and his face was smeared with blood—whether it was from an injury or an enemy Yuri couldn’t be certain.  The knight was looking around, not stopping until his gaze rested on Yuri. He walked over, eyes darting up and down as he looked Yuri over.

Of all the times for Yuri to feel the start of a blush, this seemed the dumbest, but under the weight of that attention, he couldn’t help it.

Stupid , he told himself, even as he found his head filling with all sorts of strange wants.  More than anything, he wanted to ignore what needed to happen.

“How are you?” Viktor asked, cutting through Yuri’s confused thoughts.

Otabek grimaced, twisting his shoulders into a stretch.

“Gotten worse jousting,” Otabek said in that rumble of his, economical as ever with his words.

“Can you ride?” Viktor pressed, and Yuri wanted to slap him.  Instead, he clenched his hands, nails biting into his palms.

Nodding, Otabek made a point of looking at JJ.

“He needs a healer—soon.  And Emile might look alright now, but…I saw some of the blows that he took.  They both need to get somewhere with a healer, fast.”

Both Otabek and Yuri watched as Viktor raised a hand to his chin, one finger tapping at his lips.

“There was a village or two not far off from the main road on the way back.  That will likely be a lot faster than going all the way back to the camp. They should at least have someone who can get them stabilized, and can send a rider on to let the Prince know what happened and get some people to help us out here.

“If it’s both Emile and JJ, someone else should go with you…”

Viktor turned to Yuri, his look clearly asking if the squire was fit to ride.  Yuri found himself looking between his knight master and his friend. He didn’t want to let Otabek out of his sight, but he also knew that he needed to stay at the temple.  Hoping that Otabek would understand, Yuri shook his head.

“Chris has some sprains, but he should be able to make it to one of those villages at least.  You should probably take Socks, Psycho, and Katsudon with you. I’m not sure how many more times I can manage this hill, and there’s no way to get the horses over here—certainly not in the dark.”

The decision made, Viktor’s attention strayed back to Yuuri.

“You should probably make sure that your Katsudon is doing okay with those kids,” Yuri said gruffly.

Viktor smiled gratefully, not needing anything more to be said before he was joining the Yamani man.  Yuri was pretty sure he could see something like a pout on the knight’s face when he realized the children weren’t going to allow him to get any closer than a few feet away.

There was a pressure at his shoulder, and Yuri felt the warmth of fingertips through the cotton of his shirt.  Otabek was smiling at him, his normally solemn eyes looking oddly bright.

“Yura,” the knight started.  “I was…I am…I’m glad that you’re okay.”

Yuri felt as though he was going to capsize under unfamiliar emotions, certain that he would drown and equally certain that if he just gave in and let it happen he wouldn’t mind.

“You too, Beka.”

Silence settled between the two, and Yuri listened to the wind sweeping across the hilltop and the sound of the waves below, wondering if he would find some answer as to how he moved forward from here.

“I should be setting off,” Otabek finally said.

“Do you need help getting the others ready?”

The offer didn’t mean much, not really; Yuri would struggle to do anything much with either of the taller, heavier knights, but he couldn’t just let Otabek leave.  

And so, he followed them down the steps and back up to the horses.  While Otabek and Chris got their horses ready, Yuri moved through the other three that were to be lead.  Quickly he got the horses ready, pulling off the saddle bags he and Yuuri had hastily prepared before going after Viktor, softly whispering to them them that all was well and they needed to follow Otabek and the others.  He wasn’t sure if the horses could understand him, but it made him feel a little better.

Once the group was ready, Yuri took a step to the side and watched them head off, Chris in the lead and Otabek following up at the back.  As Otabek and his horse were just starting to blur with the dark, Yuri stepped forward, calling out, “Good luck!”

He could see Otabek twist in the saddle to look behind him, and even though he couldn’t see for certain he somehow knew that Otabek had given him one of those enigmatic smiles that Yuri had come to prize.

Walking back was so much worse.  At least on the way to the horses, he’d had company and a reason to be stoic.  This time, all on his own, Yuri just felt sore , and he felt as though he was going to cry.  Nearing the base of the hill and seeing the bodies, Yuri couldn’t stop the tears that started to slide down his face.

Looking at the shapes and the dark smears that he knew to be blood, Yuri couldn’t help but think of the people that these thralls had been.  Yes, some of them had genuinely been pieces of shit, like the bastard that had gone after Yuuri in life and death, but most of them…Yuri could only think about what might have happened if he had died, or any of his friends.  Would they have become just another amongst the horde?

He felt his legs give way underneath him, and he slid bonelessly to the ground, ignoring the damp of the ocean spray and the blood.

It was Yuuri who finally found him, still sitting there, eyes locked on the face of a woman—one of the number that had dropped with the end of the mage before they’d had to take her down.  She had the sort of worn look that spoke of someone who had led a hard life, and she reminded him so fiercely of the women of his grandfather’s village. Those women had always been quick to scold, and yet they were constantly pulling him into their kitchens, dropping plates full of food in front of him.

“Yura,” Yuuri said gently, “You should come back up.  We were able to salvage a few blankets.”

“I’m fine.”

“At least come and get some water.”

Yuri could feel it as Yuuri closed the distance, and he felt the change in the man when he noticed the tears on the squire’s face.  Angrily Yuri tried to brush them away, though he was sure that he had just made it worse. At least Katsudon had the good sense not to try to pull him into a hug; at that moment Yuri wasn’t sure that he could bear to be touched.  Instead, they just sat there quietly.

“You know that silver-haired idiot is going to be in a panic waiting for you to come back?” Yuri mumbled.

“He’ll be fine.”

They settled into quiet, and again Yuri felt the weight of all those bodies.  Suddenly, he knew what he needed to do—why he couldn’t leave.

“We need to bury them.”

Yuuri didn’t say anything, he just turned those eyes that always seemed to see too much on Yuri, then nodded.

“Now,” Yuri added.  He needed to know that these people, what remained of them, would be safe and free from ever being desecrated again.

“Okay.  I think we might be able to find some tools up by the temple.”

The work was grim, and with their muscles already pushed to the limit it took far longer than it should have, but eventually they had dug something that was large enough for all the bodies.  When Viktor and Yuuri saw that Yuri’s hands were bloody, they’d forced him to sit and rest, but not long after, they started the task of moving the bodies into the grave.

With Viktor’s wrist shattered, it fell to Yuuri and Yuri to do the work, and it wasn’t until dawn was rising up over the ocean that they pushed the last handful of dirt into the grave, all of the bodies finally laid to rest.

Viktor had sat vigil over the work, and with the task done Yuuri had dropped down beside him, fitting his head to the man’s shoulder as the knight’s arm slipped around him.  A second later, Viktor was reaching forward, toward Yuri.

For a moment, Yuri tried to tell himself that he needed his space; that he wasn’t some child in need of comfort.  And then he felt the fight die, and he joined the two. Sitting on Viktor’s other side, one arm wrapped loosely around him, Yuri finally felt as though he could rest.

“It’s over,” Viktor muttered, his voice holding the shock of someone who had never thought that would happen; who clearly never thought to live beyond it.

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

Looking around the camp, Yuuri felt as though he was seeing more than just the tearing down of a few tents.

It had been no more than a few days since that long night at the temple, and Yuuri supposed that he should be impressed at how quickly the progress had been cancelled.  For an event where it would have taken months just to choose a single site, it was remarkable to see the speed with which various powers decided to call it off.

He didn’t blame them.  After Prince Roald himself and one of the sons of the Emperor had arrived at the temple—along with a host of knights and warriors—and seen the destruction, it did seem prudent to end the progress.  There was at least one of the Scanrans still unaccounted for, and Viktor’s account of the mage’s words had given everyone a too-pale, drawn look. Even with the immediate threat having passed, it seemed wrong for them to try to resume feasting and playing at battles when there was now a mass grave beside the ruined temple.

Still, sitting in a patch of late afternoon sunshine and watching as people scurried around dismantling another tent, Yuuri couldn’t help but wish that they had been a little slower.  

The camp itself had lost its feel of some great canvas town, now that there were more gaps than tents.  Where there used to be a feeling of bustling movement, there was just a hollow emptiness. Many of the merchants had already moved on, the Yamanis returning to their homes and shops while those from Tortall had decided in favour of returning to the Imperial City, preferring to wait at a harbourside inn than stay at the encampment.

Yuuri supposed that there wouldn’t be much more than a day left before everyone would be gone, and then he wouldn’t be able to find any more excuses to linger.  One more day with Viktor before the knight would leave, and Yuuri would return to Hasetsu. He just wished that they could have made more use of the time they had.  Instead, they’d spent the better part of a day with healers. Yuuri had mostly suffered from smoke inhalation and a few nasty burns, but nothing that was too taxing.  Viktor had been another story. As soon as the healers had got to work, they’d discovered that in addition to the break in his wrist and the vicious slice to his thigh, all of the blasts he’d sustained had done a great deal of internal damage.

It had taken hours for Viktor to be slowly mended, and then even more of him sleeping off the effects of the healing spells before he had finally opened his blue eyes, mumbling Yuuri’s name.

After that the days had become a blur of getting called in to talk to various officials, both of the Yamani and Tortallan variety, to explain over and over again what had happened.  Leaving one tent, Yuuri might be able to catch a glimpse of Viktor being led off to another. The only time they were able to see each other was at meals, which were gulped down, as invariably someone would arrive to summon one or both of them.  Only at night were they able to steal a few precious hours of closeness. The second night, Yuuri had wearily pushed back the the flap of the tent and been greeted by a sleepy bark from Makkachin. Viktor, who had been stretched out on top of the bed clothes, had risen up, the collar of his shirt dipping to reveal the curve of collar bones, his blue eyes weary but still managing to light up on seeing Yuuri.  He had reached out with one hand towards Yuuri.

Crossing the tent, Yuuri had shucked layers of clothes until he’d reached Viktor’s side clad in just his shirt and breeches.  He’d reached out to entwine his fingers with Viktor’s before allowing the knight to pull him down beside him, the front of Yuuri’s body pressing against Viktor’s side and his head resting on Viktor’s ’s chest.

Yuuri had indulged himself, allowing his lips to trace the line of Viktor’s collarbones and looking up through his eyelashes to watch the knight’s reaction.  Viktor had shivered, raising their linked hands to his own lips and pressing a kiss to Yuuri’s knuckles. But knowing that Yurio was in the tent beside them, and with exhaustion still like a smudge across his thoughts, Yuuri had quickly fallen asleep to the steady thump of Viktor’s heart.

In the morning, he had woken slowly to find that the warm presence of Viktor had been replaced by Makkachin, and that he had yet another official—this time one of the masters from the Imperial school—wanting to hear the story again.  Quickly splashing water on his face and doing his best to make his hair behave, Yuuri had once again had to set off.

It had been two days of that, and while Yuuri at least knew that Viktor cared for him, he still had no idea what the future would hold.  They hadn’t exactly had time to discuss what would happen, and their arrangement had only ever been that Yuuri would train with Viktor for the duration of the progress.  Now, with the progress about to end…in the fleeting moments they had together, Yuuri hadn’t quite had the heart to ask. He preferred uncertainty to the heartbreak of knowing.

A shadow fell across Yuuri’s face and he automatically turned, expecting to see Yurio.  He and the squire had made tentative plans to work through some pattern dances for the glaive; Yuuri had hoped to set him up to continue his training as best he could once he had returned home.  Instead he saw the glint of silver hair and a heart-shaped smile.

Vitya ,” Yuuri said on a exhale, a smile of his own rising up.  He had no idea how he was going to be fit for polite society after spending so much time around the knights—around this knight.  With all of the roiling emotions just under his skin, he’d fallen into the far-too-easy habit of letting them occasionally shine through.

The knight joined Yuuri on the ground, a hand automatically going around Yuuri’s shoulders to pull him flush against Viktor’s side.  Yuuri allowed himself to just enjoy the warmth of the man, his scent headier than any wine.

I wish this would never end.

“Hmm?” Viktor asked.

Yuuri flushed, realizing that he had actually spoken the words aloud, though he wasn’t entirely sure what language he had said them in.

“I’m supposed to meet Yurio,” Yuuri finally said after a minute or two, though he still couldn’t bring himself to move.  Viktor’s cheek was resting against the top of his head, and he had grabbed hold of one of Yuuri’s hands, his pale fingers rubbing languorous circles on the sensitive skin of Yuuri’s wrist.

“I suppose I should let you go,” Viktor sighed, though Yuuri noted that the man didn’t actually let go of him.

“Yeah, I want to go through his glaive techniques with him one last time before you leave.  It would be a shame for him to have made such progress and to lose it all.”

Yuuri could feel where Viktor’s arm around him tightened, his fingers digging into Yuuri’s arm, before it dropped away a moment later.

“What do you mean?”

The words were said with a detached sort of calm, and then Viktor was pulling away.  Yuuri could feel bitter tears pricking at his eyes, knowing that this was the end.

“I…you’re going to be leaving soon.  The camp is almost packed up—a servant was telling me that there will be nothing left by tomorrow.  You’ll need to leave for the Imperial City, and I’ll be on my way back to Hasetsu.”

It cost Yuuri so much to say those words without any emotion.

“Is that what you want?”  The question was asked so quietly that Yuuri wasn’t even sure that he had heard it right.  He had to resist the impulse to look at Viktor, knowing that it would send him into tears.

“When you asked me to join you, it was to allow me to improve my skill with the sword while you were in the Islands, on progress.  You have no reason to stay—”

Is that what you want?” Viktor repeated, an odd quiver in his voice.

Yuuri couldn’t help but look up, shocked to find tears on Viktor’s silvery lashes.

“You’re crying?” Yuuri blurted out, shocked.

Viktor grimaced, pulling even farther away.

“Of course I’m…damn it, can you just tell me what you want?”

Exhaling harshly, Yuuri tried to think about what Viktor was asking; a fragile hope bloomed in his chest even as he wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to follow through on it.  But seeing this beautiful, stoic knight—who seemed so impervious to everything—crying…Yuuri knew he needed to try.

“I want…” The words were struggling to come out.  “I want to stay with you.”

A smile lit up Viktor’s face and he dropped his forehead to Yuuri’s chest, fingers rising back up to grip his arms.

Yuuri continued talking; now that the first words were out, he felt himself starting to babble, flinging out all of his anxieties and fears like they were cheap trinkets at a parade.

“I know that you need to go home, and I don’t understand why of all people, you’ve chosen me, and I’m not sure—“

Yuuri,” Viktor said in that way he had where he seemed to make a meal of the vowels.  Yuuri couldn’t help but shiver; he would die happy if he could hear Viktor saying his name that way for the rest of his life.  “There is nothing for me in Tortall, not if you’re here—if you want to stay here. So far as I’m concerned the only place worth being is where you are.  If you want to return to Hasetsu, I would happily start a new life as an innkeeper.”

“Making food for the guests? And changing linens?”

“Whatever it takes to make you happy.”

Yuuri laughed a little at the idea of Viktor trying to run an inn.  The man had the charm, certainly, but in sharing a tent Yuuri had become all too aware that Viktor was barely contained chaos.  And what was more, life in a sleepy oceanside inn would be a waste of everything Viktor had to offer. The chamber had seen what Viktor could manage, and with the possibility that others like the mage could be setting similar plans in play, Yuuri knew that Tortall needed Viktor.

“You need to go home.”

“Nope.”

“Viktor,” Yuuri sighed.  “You’re a knight of the realm in a country at war.  You’d be forsworn.”

“So?”

So? What about Stonemountain?  Aren’t you supposed to take over the running of that?  Don’t those people need you?”

That, at least, seemed to land, and Viktor’s eyes were contemplative as he nodded.

“So come with me.  Come with me back to Tortall, and to Stonemountain.”

Yuuri had never wanted so desperately to say yes to something than in that moment.  Sensing his chance, Viktor leaned forward until his lips were nearly brushing Yuuri’s ear.  Yuuri could feel Viktor’s breath hot and damp against his skin, and when the knight spoke, it drove out everything that wasn’t the rise and fall of that voice.

Come with me .  I know that you…that things were terrible for you before, but Tortall as a nation is generally grateful for any warriors who want to turn their hearts to our cause.  With your skills, you’d easily find a position in the King’s Own, or the Queen’s Riders…or you could come with me up into the mountains. I’m sure it’s time Stonemountain had a new man at arms—someone who’s as beautiful with a weapon as he is—“

Gross .”

The two startled, looking up at the flashing green eyes that were glaring out from behind the curtain of blond hair.  Hands on his hips, Yurio had a slightly horrified look.

“I suppose this means you’re coming with us?” Yurio said, managing to make each word sound like a long-suffering sigh.

Yuuri glanced between the two, feeling oddly like both were waiting with a sense of expectancy, Viktor’s eyes still bright from his tears and Yurio looking…well, looking belligerent, but Yuuri had spent enough time with him to know that was just his resting expression.  Hesitantly, he nodded.

Instantly, Viktor pulled him close into a hug.  Over Viktor’s shoulder, Yuuri could see Yurio rolling his eyes.

“Good,” the squire said simply.  “That means I won’t have to share a cabin with this one on the voyage back.  Now if you’ve had enough of this lovey dovey bullshit, can we get to practicing?”

Trailing after Yurio, hand in hand with Viktor, Yuuri felt a sense of rightness.  He didn’t know what was to come, but for the first time in a long time—with Viktor by his side—Yuuri found himself excited to meet the challenge.