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the heart in pilgrimage

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Before, Victor

The fall that Victor decides to take a break from the city and retreat to his aunt and uncle’s dacha is unseasonably cold. Usually it stays mild well into autumn, but this year the leaves break like glass beneath Victor’s fingers and he finds himself unsettled by the transience all around him. He feels as stuck as ever.

One night, a month into his stay, a thick frost blows in, winter’s icy fingers claw at the shingles and the cold creeps in through the house’s seams. Victor imagines them like bony tendrils, reaching out to tickle at the side of his neck and sending a shiver up his spine.

A knock sounds — three sharp raps on the door. For fear of letting the cold in no one answers. Victor tries to needle Yuri into answering, but ends up having to open it himself. Yuri smiles; he’s never looked more like his cat than he does now, mouth curled in smug pleasure. When Victor pries the door open, a huge black wolf sits at the door, dusted in fresh snow. The wolf begins to speak and the how and why of his request blurs together under the need mounting under Victor’s skin. All that lingers is the desperation, the isolation, the pleas that could have fallen from Victor’s very own lips. The years of spilling out his emotions in front of an audience, giving them to others for the sake of his art while feeling himself grow hollow, have caught up with him. He did what he could to escape. He could have done without his cousin Yuri’s abrasive attitude, but took the retreat regardless.

But this. This is something different.This is more than just an escape. This is an adventure.

He goes.

They trek for days, and the wolf never seems to tire, never seems to need sleep. He keeps watch over Victor when they pause every so often to eat and to rest. After three days, they arrive at a mountain. The trees here are still green. We must have gone south.

“We’re here,” the wolf says. Victor slides off his back and the wolf gives the same three sharp raps upon the door. The side of the mountain seems to cave inward, and dissolve into nothing.

“Wait,” Victor says.

“Are you having second thoughts,” the wolf says. It is not a question. It seems to be exactly what the wolf expected would happen, as though he has followed this exact pattern many times before.

“No. But if I’m going to live with you, then I’d like to at least know your name,” Victor says.

The wolf pauses. For a moment, Victor expects him to say that he does not have a name, or at least none that he can remember.

“Yuuri. My name is Yuuri.”

Yuuri leaves him alone to explore almost as soon as they’ve arrived, only re-joining him for dinner. He sits at the other end of the table with Victor while he eats, although he refuses to eat in front of Victor himself. The food is incredible; Victor merely has to think of what he’d like to eat and it appears on the table. So far, it seems that the castle will give him anything that he asks for, aside from its secrets.

That’s fine. Victor knows how to play that game, too. He’s made his name and his career out of his ability to conjure and give emotion to others. He won’t be bested by some amateur.

It doesn’t work.

Victor starts with all of his tried and tested tactics; the leading questions, the bits of flattery he scatters throughout their conversation like a trail of breadcrumbs. But Yuuri seems as averse to gathering those as he is to eating the food on the table in front of them.

Who are you?  Victor wonders. The castle, burrowed into the mountainside, refuses to unveil its secrets. But this is adventure, this is excitement. In the silence after dinner, Yuuri leads him through the castle’s tangle of hallways. They dip in and out of the flickering shadows cast by the globes fixed to the castle walls, each one full of manufactured lighting. Yuuri pads ahead of Victor on silent feet, the lamplight pulling out the gold and red undertones in his fur. He stops at a wide doorway, the massive oak door stands half ajar. A small beam of light spills into the hallway, the same warm gold as the hall but brighter, more inviting. Yuuri hangs back, waiting for Victor’s cue.

It reminds Victor of the moments right before he played a piece of music, the anticipation, the crowd’s collective breath and silence; the emotion. How many times has Victor emptied himself in front of a crowd?

When Victor pries the door open, he finds the room is soft and warm with an oversized bed sitting at the center. He notices a desk against one of the walls — right below where a window might be if they weren’t living inside of a mountain. Victor expects Yuuri to follow him in, but when he looks the hallway is empty and silent. He waits a little longer but ends up going to bed alone, sliding into the cool sheets as the room goes dark.

But.

Later; later he feels someone pull the covers down, the groan of the mattress beside him as it gives way under the press of someone else’s body. A human body. It’s another surprise, another piece of a puzzle he half expects will never come together.

“Yuuri?”

“Hello, Victor.”

Victor’s never slept in a room this dark before, all pitch black inky darkness. He feels as though he were at the center of a dying star, constantly pulled in despite himself. He turns over. Yuuri’s voice comes from the pillow beside him.

“I didn’t realize that this was part of the arrangement,” Victor says, purposefully keeping his tone light.

“Well.”

“Yes?”

“This was never meant to house two,” Yuuri says.

“I’m beginning to believe you’ve never seen your own home,” says Victor.

“There’s only one bedroom.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Company wasn’t the point of being here.” A long pause, then— ”I’m sorry.”

Victor falls asleep, desperately wishing he could see Yuuri’s face.

After that, time passes in fits and starts, assuming its own tempo now that it’s clear of prying eyes. Victor spends most of his days discovering the sensation of physical solitude. In the din of the city, and even in the ever present hum of the country, there’d always been the sense that there was something or someone close by. Here, Victor can traverse whole swaths of the castle without ever hearing the echo of anyone. Still, Yuuri always manages to find Victor in time for dinner, leading him through the maze of halls that Victor’s slowly beginning to memorize, to a small, worn oak table that stands in the center of a room that’s far too large for its size.

A few weeks in to his stay in the castle, after a frustrating breakfast during which he futilely attempts to chip away at Yuuri’s secrets, Victor sets off to explore. He wanders into a new knot of hallways, winding his way along their contours, marking whatever distinguishing features he finds. Somehow, despite the labyrinth, he always manages arrive precisely where he needs to be. Without any warning, Victor ends up in a room full of instruments, a grand piano waiting at its center. He feels an itch in his fingers like he hasn’t in months; years.

When he sits down at the keyboard, he braces his palms over the keys and begins to play. It’s something he’s never heard before, but it feels familiar, comfortable, warm. It washes over him like a tide that slowly creeps up the shore; licking at his toes, folding around his ankles, swelling up until he’s submerged mid thigh. He doesn’t lose himself to the music, but it’s a close thing.  It becomes his routine, making his way to the music room each day, to carve a new song out of his loneliness, his longing, his burgeoning hope.

One day, it changes. In the fading echoes of dying chords, Victor turns to find that Yuuri’s crept in on silent feet. Startled, Victor plays a few discordant notes.

“That was beautiful. The song, not… that last part.”

“You startled me.”

“I’m sorry, what were you playing?”

“It’s— it’s new. I’m not sure yet. You’ll probably find out at the same time I do.”

“An adventure then. I’d like that.”

Victor smiles; they’re more similar than he’d realized. “Do you play?” Victor asks, pauses, then corrects himself, “or did you?”

“Sometimes. But I preferred dancing.”

It’s the most Yuuri’s shared with him about his life before— before. “Do you miss it?”

“I miss parts of it. The feeling of flying, the rush of adrenaline. But I always had trouble when I was too aware that I was being watched.”

“That’s a shame. I would have loved to have seen you dance.”

“I think… I think I would have liked that, too.”

The moment breaks the dam between them. Their conversation that night flows fast and fluid, the steady and unthinking rush of a river current rippling over the bed of rocks below. Victor tells Yuuri about his earlier years performing, when the ember of energy within him felt bright and burning — yearning to be shared. He tells Yuuri about the audience; receptive but hungry and wanting, always asking for more until Victor found himself standing beneath the glare of the stage lights, a bead of sweat winding its way down his brow, the smell of ozone sharp in his nose, with nothing left to give. Yuuri’s never spoken so much or so freely before. He feels his face grow hot, though whether it’s from the wine or from the attention, he can’t be sure.

That night, when Yuuri pads alongside him on the way to their bedroom. Tonight, he lingers.

“Yuuri?”

“I— do you trust me?”

Do I? Victor thinks. But he hesitates just a moment too long, “y—”

“I see. Goodnight, Victor.” One step forward, two steps back, and however many steps sideways — some days every interaction with Yuuri feels like a dance whose rhythm keeps eluding him. He leaves before Victor has a chance to say another word and Victor expects to spend the night alone. He doesn’t. Later —  though how much later Victor can’t say — Yuuri slips into bed beside him, warm and smooth-skinned. Victor turns towards him in the dark, wishing he could see his face.

“Earlier. I— I didn’t mean that… I do trust you,” he says, inching closer. The words slide around in his mouth, struggling to arrange themselves before they tumble out. “You surprised me. And, truthfully, it’s been a long time since anything, or anyone, has.” Victor waits for a response, but only more silence follows. He pushes forward, “But I’m glad you did. I’d started believing that nothing could surprise me anymore. But here you are, proving me wrong at every turn.”  Victor wiggles closer in the dark, the soft silk sheets sliding against his thighs. Yuuri doesn’t pull away, and Victor feels the heat of both of their bodies blending together, filling the space between them.

___________________________

It’s weeks and weeks of the same. Victor spills himself over the keyboard day after day, submerging himself in all his messy, imperfect perfection, coaxing himself into something that feels like his original shape.  Most days, Yuuri stands at the edges of the room, inching his way closer and closer as Victor plays, magnetized. Victor pours all of his frustrations, all of his questions into the music, weaving Yuuri into the chords — his warmth, his kindness, his mystery. And then he stops, arriving at the last part he’s written, still conflicted as to how it will end.

“It’s different today.”

Victor turns to see Yuuri lingering in the doorway. He’s unsurprised, some part of him had expected it. “It does that, sometimes.”

“Is it finished?”

“No, still a work in progress.”

“You keep playing this song,” Yuuri says, pretending to examine a violin, “is it your favorite?”

Victor laughs, though it’s more of a bark — dry and hoarse. “It might be. I’ll tell you when I’ve finished it.”

That night, Yuuri offers him a blindfold. It’s already laid out on the bed when Victor enters the bedroom. With embarrassment coloring his voice, Yuuri asks, “would you put that on for me? I’d… I’d like to try something.”

“You trust me not to peek?”

“I trust you.”

Victor preens even as Yuuri draws the sash across his eyes. Yuuri lets out a low laugh and Victor immediately abandons his illusions that he’d landed within a meter of subtle.

“Thank you, Yuuri.”

“I should be thanking you.”

“Why?”

“For trusting me.”

“I think you overestimate the difficulty.”

“I’d say the opposite,” Yuuri says, before falling silent.  and starting to run his hands through Victor’s hair. Victor sighs, leaning into the feel of Yuuri’s nails, his very human fingertips, scratching against his scalp. Victor whines when Yuuri stops, pouts at Yuuri’s answering chuckle. He doesn’t expect to feel Yuuri lace his fingers through his, tugs him up, ask Victor to stand with his actions.  That night, they dance together for the first time. Victor commits the sensations to memory: the heat of Yuuri’s hands, the way his long, slender fingers burn through the thin silk of Victor’s nightshirt; the brush of Yuur’s feet against his own as he guides Victor around the room; the way that Yuuri pauses to tuck an errant strand of hair behind Victor’s ear.

“How long have you been a wolf?” Victor asks. He thinks of the shape of Yuuri’s body lying beside him at night in bed. How it would feel to trace his fingertips over Yuuri’s face.

“I’m not sure. I only know that it’s been long enough that there are things that I’ve forgotten. Like memories I can see out of the corner of my eye, but whenever I turn to look at them there’s nothing there.”

“But you’re human at night.”

“Yes, well…” Yuuri trails off,  “the rules are different when I can’t be seen.”

“What do you mean?”

“A long time ago I made a deal, one I’ve come to regret. But,” Yuuri says, voice thick, “I think I may be close to finding a way out.”

___________________________

Victor finds his way to the end of the song faster than he ever expects. It’s like he’s managed to gather all the moments that have come before; to shape them into a culmination rather than revelation. Still. It feels like the later to Victor. Like this has been building within him, at the borders of his awareness, deftly dodging his expertise at self sabotage. When the final chords ring out, they carry a realization that Victor’s been trying to avoid at every turn. He has to leave. It’s a simple realization followed by tangled comprehension.  He agonizes over it, turns it over and over in his palms, flips it in on its head and inside out as though that will give him a different answer. He can only imagine how silent the castle is when it houses one, the humid oppressive silence hanging over every step. But; the truth expands in in his chest, pressing against his ribs until containing it is no longer an option. It spills out in the worst way. Yuuri’s grown bolder in the ensuing weeks; he’s pressed flush against Victor’s back, his line a line of heat tracing the curve of Victor’s spine in the deep dark of their bedroom.

“I need to leave.”

The rush of cool air against Victor’s back is damning; like ice tickling the knobs of his spine.

“I see.”

Does he? Victor wonders. “I… this… I need everyone to hear this.” To hear you, Victor does not say. He wants the world to hear the pieces of Yuuri that have made a home out of his heart. “It’s not forever. Just for a week — and then I’ll come back. I promise.” Like a magnet repelled and then pulled back towards its opposite, Victor knows with utter certainty that he’ll find his way back to Yuuri.

All in due time.

It happens faster than Victor expects; Yuuri begins preparing for his departure the following morning. And although it was Victor’s choice to leave, he can’t help feeling that there’s some part of Yuuri that’s pushing him out the door. It stings. He doesn’t join Victor in the music room or in the garden. At dinner, Victor makes meaningless conversation, flashing variants from his catalogue of smiles like he hasn’t in months. But still, nothing. His heart sinks. That night, he brushes his own hair in the dim light of their bedroom. Yuuri pads in and Victor drops the comb. He’s still not used to all the ways that Yuuri manages to surprise him; he hope he never gets there.

“You’re here,” Victor says. He can’t keep the surprise out of his voice.

“Can I—”

“Yes.”

Yuuri dims the lights, makes Victor turn away from him, and fastens the blindfold over his eyes.  They dance together again but even the heat from Yuuri’s body isn’t enough of a distraction to keep Victor from wishing he could see Yuuri’s face, to get a glimpse of what he’s thinking, how he’s feeling.

It ends too soon; Yuuri leads Victor to bed, leaving Victor to remove his blindfold to reveal total darkness. Yuuri, arms wrapped tight around Victor’s waist, holds him close as though it’s the last time.

As though he expects that Victor will never return.

___________________________

“He what? You what ?” Yuri says, all brash, brassy words and unmodulated volume.

“Yura.” Coming home was a mistake. Telling Yuri what had happened at the castle was an even bigger one.

“No, fuckhead, you don’t get to do that. You’re sleeping beside some stranger whose face you can never see and who keeps you trapped in a goddamn magic castle where it’s just the two of you! I knew you were dumb but this is a new record.”

“It’s not—”

“He blindfolds you! Every night!’

Victor regrets telling Yuri anything. That was his first mistake. “It’s my concern, not yours,” Victor says, folding a pair of soft flannel trousers into his valise.

“You can’t go back there. Even you can’t be that dumb.”

“I am going back there, and thankfully this isn’t up to you.”

Yuri continues yelling but since it’s all at the same volume it just turns into noise that slides past Victor’s ears as he slips things into his bag. He flees for the city the first chance he gets — Yuri may be his cousin, but while blood may be thicker than water, it’s certainly not thicker than patience. Letting time soften the edges of his annoyance is the greatest gift he can give to Yuri.

The dacha is only an hour outside of the city, and Victor makes good time. But after months of silence that hovered close to his skin the smoky city streets — full of half recognizable smells and the press of warm bodies — shock his system. He remembers, sharply, all the reasons he left in the first place. Still, he has his reasons for coming. Tucked between a broad ivory sprie and a squared off building that intermittently emits sparks, Euterpe is easy to miss. Carved from the dark wood of a tree older than the city itself, it’s been dwarfed by shadows of the buildings on either side; Victor has no doubt that it’ll outlast all of them. The bell above the door chimes as he enters; the smell of wood and resin, the dim, buttery lighting — the space feels like something entirely other. Victor walks up to the counter where a petite, bent man stands, eyes focused on the strings of the violin he’s tuning.

“Excuse me,” Victor asks, smile curling over his lips, “ do you make music boxes?”

___________________________

The week drags on longer than Victor ever expected. He never expected that the hollow space beside him in bed would gnaw at his heart. But it does. The night before Yuuri is due to return, Victor makes his way back to the dacha. Yuri is waiting, arms folded over his chest, mouth crumpled into a frown, eyes narrowed.

“I didn’t think you’d show your face again,” he says. “You’re an idiot.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Here,” Yuri says, pushing something cool and sharp into his palm.

“What—”

“If you ever decide to stop being a dumbass, use this. It’s magic flint, it’ll light no matter what.” When Victor starts to protest, Yuri closes his fist around it and shoves his hand away. “Just take it,” he says, stalking away before Victor has a chance to return it. He slips it into his pocket and strolls over to the gate; Yuuri arrives to get him before he has a chance to change his mind.

___________________________

Upon his return, Yuuri keeps his distance and Victor is newly aware of the castle’s silence. His footsteps echo in the halls, there’s no low hum of conversation in nearby room, there are parts of the castle that are closed off and dark — as though there were too much space for any one person to use all the rooms. Yuuri disappears for hours at a time, to some place Victor has yet to reach. Last night, Yuuri had waited until Victor was already asleep to slip into bed, and in their ink-dark bedroom, Victor felt the weight of more than just Yuuri’s body beside him.

Victor lingers over his dinner the next night. He takes his time picking apart and savoring the dishes that seem to magically appear from the kitchens. He does not want to go to bed. He’s afraid, but he goes anyways. Victor places the music box in his hands and waits. It’s several long moments before he hears the tap of Yuuri’s footsteps against the cool stone floor.

“Victor?”

“I brought you something,” he says, palming the smooth carved wood beneath his fingertips. He feels for the lid and lifts it back, smiling into the swell of sound that follows.

“Is that—?”

“Yes. I had to get it recorded and I— I thought you might like it.” Victor has no way of knowing but he hopes that it means as much to Yuuri as it does to him.

“You had this made for me?”

“Yes,” Victor says, grateful that this blindfold obscures part of the blush he feels blooming across the top of his cheeks.

“Dance with me?” Yuuri asks, plucking the music box from Victor’s hands to place it somewhere nearby before lacing his fingers through Victor’s and pulling him to his feet. When they dance, they’re closer than usual, two parallel lines that have come together in defiance of their natural course. The song comes to a close, the music having wound down to its final notes, and Yuuri leads Victor to his usual chair before beginning to brush his hair. All throughout, Victor wonders what Yuuri’s fingers would feel like, look like. He keeps the blindfold on as Yuuri guides him to the bed; he can hear Yuuri moving about the room before returning to slip Victor’s blindfold from his eyes and reveal the ink-dark room. Victor does not sleep. He feels the weight pressed into the bed beside him, desperately tries to conjure the shape to match it, then wishes he weren’t so desperate about it. It is not in his nature to yearn for things beyond his grasp — then again, in the past there are few things that ever were.

It takes weeks of this, weeks of half sleepless nights, of tossing and turning in their bed. Victor feels the urge to reach for the magic flint in his bag like the new pink skin just under a scab. An itch that’s struck too deep to soothe.

There are nights where Yuuri lets Victor hold him, curls around him like a vine. Victor tries to lie still and fall asleep as his mind travels down a million potential versions of what lies on the other side of the darkness. A few weeks after Victor’s returned, he feels Yuuri’s palms quivering against the side of his face as he goes to drape the blindfold over Victor’s eyes.

“I… I thought of something while you were gone,” he says, voice soft and uneven, shot through with uncertainty. Victor feels Yuuri tug it tight, can hear the rustle of Yuuri moving towards him, can feel the heat of Yuuri’s hands in his. But instead of using them to guide Victor to his feet as he usually does he places them against the soft, smooth skin of his face. Victor feels the curve of Yuuri’s cheek under his hand, the plush swell of his mouth, the thick fringe of his lashes.

“I hoped it might help,” Yuuri says, as they slide into bed beside one another. But it hasn’t. If anything it’s stoked the embers of want — of the curiosity burning deep within Victor’s chest — into a raging inferno. Victor has touched and now every part of him screams that he needs to see .

The next night, Victor slips the flint and a small white wax candle beneath his pillow with shaking hands. When all he can hear are Yuuri’s soft sighs in the all consuming dark, he grips it tighter, the sharp edges of the flint biting into his palm, the candle wax warm and pliant beneath his finger tips. He pulls it out and strikes. (Later, he’ll realize that the spark set fire to more than just the candle.)

A soft, buttery glow fills the room as he places the flint at the tip of the wick. Victor breathes, the inhale catching in his throat as he finally — finally lays his eyes on Yuuri’s face.  Soft and slack in sleep, with a thick fringe of dark lashes kissing the soft round curve of his cheek — Yuuri is beautiful. It doesn’t last. Yuuri’s eyelids flicker in time with the candle light before three fat drops of wax fall,  landing on the soft blue fabric of Yuuri’s nightshirt; his eyelids flutter open.

“Victor?” Yuuri asks, face soft and pleased for just a moment before he registers the candle the wax burning through his shirt, and realizes what they mean. His eyes grow wide, panicked, searching.

A thick biting wind emerges out of nowhere, sweeping through the room, snuffing out the candle’s flame. By the time Victor finds the flint again, Yuuri is gone.  The flickering candlelight haunts the room’s empty spaces.

“Yuuri?” he calls. But he already knows that he’s alone; and he knows that he has to find him.

___________________________

After, Yuuri

Yuuri takes his leave of the hall, from the crowded press of bodies, the vacant confused eyes, the feeling that despite the fact that there are people all around him, part of him is missing. As always, the garden is waiting for him; the bright, stained glass windows filter jewel toned light onto the garden floor, scatter it into patterns over Yuuri’s skin. He waits. He sits here every day, thinking that someone — the right someone — might come.  He’s still not sure who, exactly, he’s waiting for.

The garden, always his refuge for as far back as his memory reaches, seems brighter, full of deeper and more complex fragrances than it had before. He wanders the paths his feet have carved through the flower beds, through the thick layer of leaves the orchard trees have wept over the years — over the centuries. It’s not long before he catches sight of a flash of silver, feels his heartbeat speed up in response.

“Good morning, Yuuri,” a man says, hands concealed in the pockets of his cloak.

The sound of his voice frightens the mirage of birds that the Snow Queen has spelled into the trees. For a moment, Yuuri sees a spill of silver hair trailing down the man’s back, like liquid starlight, the feeling of familiarity tickling at the back of his neck, before both disappear for good, and the man’s hair is short once more, cropped to just below his chin.

“How do you know my name?”

“We knew each other once. I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

He moves closer, withdrawing his hand from the pockets of his cloak. Cupped in his palms is a bright cream box, carved from beechwood. “I have something for you,” he continues, before prying open the lid and letting a swell of piano and violin fill the garden.

A name finds its way into his mind, as though emerging from a vault whose key continues to elude his grasp.

Victor .