Chapter 1: Malice and Mystery
As per usual, it is a quiet morning. A lone, hooded figure stands in the center of a large field. Taking a deep breath in, they still, and watch as the cool air condenses around them when they let out their hot breath. It is a cold, dark morning, with nothing but the sound of a small breeze rustling the trees surrounding the clearing. Dew drops are glistening on the lush green grass as dark clouds pass by overhead. Anyone with the right sense of mind can tell that the scene gives off some ominous foreboding of a storm yet to come and would head home, but for one individual, they feel at peace. Another normal day following the same normal routine, but what is normal for some is extraordinary to others. That is the sole reason only one person stands in the field, for if anyone was to witness the events that follow, who knows what would happen.
The once gentle wind suddenly picks up to dangerous speeds, and the trees are bending and swaying under the pressure of the invisible force. The clouds darken as they start rotating around the center of the field, and the lone being has not moved an inch. Just like the eye of a storm, it is eerily calm in a small radius around the figure, and the cloak falling gracefully from their shoulders barely shifts as the sudden storm worsens. Finally, as if waiting for the wind to reach a specific speed, the individual starts raising their arms in an outward arc from their body, palms facing the sky. As their arms draw higher, so do the little drops of dew. In an amazing spectacle, the once peaceful beads of water littering the ground now rise to the occasion, whirling around the epicenter and joining together to form a wall of rushing water. The hooded figure stops with their arms out in a T and takes a breath. Next they move to open their stance, placing their left foot behind them firmly on the ground, and at the same time bringing both arms to their front palms facing out. As if connected to the mysterious person's body, the water shifts simultaneously, moving from its protective wall into a concentrated sphere directly in front of them.
As the ball of water settles into its designated place, the wind starts to slow, and as if starting a performance, the figure and the water begin to dance. Deliberate and intricate movements create a routine, almost like a bond, connecting the human to the water. As the graceful body maneuvers around the empty field, the water follows, twisting, turning and contorting its shape to the will of its master. Soon the movements become faster, and the water shifts violently in return. The dance turns into a series of quick, measured positions, and the liquid rapidly accommodates the changes. The individual spins on a dime while spreading their arms apart, creating a ring of small clusters of water, each no bigger than a baseball. With a quick flick of the wrist, the water shoots outwards at tremendous speeds, straight into the trees lining the forest. Each projectile hits the center of a solid, wooden trunk, with enough force to crack and dent each and every one.
Silence echoes in the clearing. The wind returns to its gentle breeze, and the clouds continue to move on across the sky. Harsh, panting breaths create a constant stream of mist from the figure, now slightly hunched forward as exhaustion starts to settle in. The dance lasted longer than expected, and the big burst for the finale pushed their limits for the moment. As they stretch back and push out their arms, the hood finally slips from the top of their head, revealing short, messy, black hair, and an old pair of blue rimmed glasses. Face tilted up towards the sky and eyes closed, the man takes a few more deep breaths before a slow smile creeps onto his face.
It feels good to be able to let loose for once. Due to certain laws forbidding magic, he has spent his life in hiding, staying on the down-low, but curiosity had eventually killed the cat. He always knew he could practice magic if he really wanted to learn, his mother told him as much, but it is a dangerous game to play considering the risks if he is caught. When he was young and impressionable, he was scared off by the horror stories that circled around his village. Old tales from years long ago, depicted magicians as something miraculous and awe inspiring, until a certain rebellious group tried to overthrow the rest of humanity, claiming magicians as a superior race. Villages were burned down, homes ransacked, and innocent families died at the hands of these monstrous beings. There were no survivors from any of the cities the group pillaged, and stories of the newly appointed ‘Cursed Ones’, spread quickly across the land. Rumors and accusations that all magic users were a threat to ordinary humans grew out of control, and soon a global ban of magic and a man-hunt for all magicians was underway.
A lot of innocent people died trying to protect their families on both sides of the conflict. Non-magical people were informed of the danger and soldiers were bombarded with propaganda to gain their loyalty to the kingdom. Fear and mayhem spread quickly as the first ones to attack had the advantage. The Cursed Ones dropped off the radar when everyone was spiraling into a state of panic, but the uncertainty of whether or not other magicians were involved spread the bloodshed to those who believed they were safe. Some families were lucky enough to gain a smidgeon of warning before the raids started, and so they had to make the choice to either stand up and prove themselves, or run.
Any magicians who lived through those horrible times went into hiding. There weren't many of them left, and contact between the families became nonexistent to keep each other safe. Magic users went completely off the grid, and an eerie sense of calm settled over the lands. For years no one even uttered the word magic, too scared that the mere mention of the forbidden art would cast suspicion on them and their families.
This history explains why a young girl named Hiroko was only four years old when her family was persecuted for being magicians. Fortunately the majority of her family escaped, with the exception of her father, as he stayed behind to buy them time to run. After fleeing and wandering through the lands, they eventually settled in the small, far away village of Hasu. Soon after settling, they opened a small restaurant to avoid suspicion, where they lived for years with their heads down, always on the lookout for any pieces of information regarding magic. As she grew up, Hiroko met a young boy named Toshiya, and they fell madly in love. Gathering her resolve, she put all her faith in him the day she told him she was a magician, and thankfully, he loved her more than any law could change. With that, the two married, and soon they had a beautiful young girl and a newborn baby boy.
It has been almost 50 years since the magic prohibition began, and Yuuri Katsuki still can't comprehend that his mother lived through the horrors of her family being hunted. Hiroko taught both him, and his sister Mari, all of the magical information she learned herself when she was a young girl on the run, if not for the sake of historical family events and knowledge, then for the purpose of protection. Not all magic is the same, and learning to control your own is essential when in hiding in order to ensure that you avoid any sudden outbursts that could occur from inexperience.
So that is why Yuuri has found himself in the middle of an isolated field, hidden in the depths of a forest. Far away from prying eyes and exhausted from practicing this sacred forbidden magic. Life spent hiding his true nature is hard, but the tingle of magic at his fingertips and the sheer beauty and power that magic can create, is worth these secret early morning escapades.
Chapter 2: Everyday Life
The morning sun begins to break through the gloomy skies and peak through the trees. As Yuuri is walking through the forest, he takes his time to appreciate the small, warm, flecks of light, shimmering through the leaves above and onto his face. It’s not often that he gets much free time to himself, and so he plans to appreciate the slow meandering back home, enjoying the peaceful feeling of being alone. The breeze gently rushes through the empty spaces, and makes his cloak sway around him while his worn down, brown satchel, sits comfortably on his shoulder.
Cutting through the bushes isn’t the preferable way of travel through the forest, but that’s what he gets for trying to keep his practice field a secret. As he traverses through another dense thicket, he finally stumbles upon the dirt road that connects Hasu to the far away cities. Taking a quick glance both ways, he doesn’t spot anyone as far as the eye can see, and so he begins heading west.
The sun is starting to get a little higher, and it must be getting close to noon by now. Mari is probably helping their mother cook, clean, and run the restaurant, and here Yuuri is strolling along, feeling a little guilty that he snuck off for some peace and quiet. Thinking he could at least do something to help out, he starts looking along the sides of the road and picking up any useful berries or mushrooms he can find, placing them carefully in his bag.
After another half hour, he finally makes it back to the edge of town. The people here are always so warm and welcoming to his family, and Yuuri feels a sense of home as he walks through the minimal hustle and bustle of shops and families, running around to start their day. There is not much Hasu is known for other than it’s friendly atmosphere and the small group of hot-spring pools just north of town, but keeping a low profile is exactly what they need. Every now and again, some travelers or a caravan might stop in the village to resupply and take a nice relaxing bath, but otherwise, the simple village life never really changes.
Passing by the all the little stores, the decadent aromas of freshly baked bread and confectionaries assault Yuuri’s nose. As tempting as it is to stop and grab one for the road, he’s already been gone far too long, and showing up four hours late with baked goods is not how he would like to die. Turning down a small side road, he heads towards the southeast corner of town when he finally spots home. Yutopia is a popular establishment in the town, running out of a large, traditional building, and nestled in between the trees at the edge of the forest. For his family, Yutopia is many things, a business, a livelihood, the product of years of hard work, but first and foremost, it is a sanctuary.
As he steps through the threshold, the restaurant seems to be in a state of orderly chaos. He lithely maneuvers through customers having a lively brunch at each of the tables, and as he nears the back, he catches the eye of his sister, who immediately gives him a death glare. Guiltily giving a shy smile back, he quickly steps into the kitchen for reprieve. There he takes a deep breath in, letting all the familiar smells settle into his bones. Glancing to his left, he finds his mother, humming happily as she effortlessly organizes six new dishes ready to be served. Sparing a moment to eye the new intruder in her kitchen, her face breaks out into a wide grin.
“Yuuri! Welcome home!”
Hiroko’s smile is infectious, and Yuuri effortlessly smiles back.
“Sorry for not being here this morning to help with the rush. I didn’t expect it to be this busy.”
“Oh don’t worry yourself with such trivial things, we all survived a few hours without you.” Her bright eyes and calm demeanor put any concerns he might have to rest. “Although Mari might be a tad grumpy, she’s not actually mad. To be honest I never expected it to be this busy either, but it seems we have a couple of new caravans in town.”
Yuuri’s interest peaks at the mention of new people. He may be shy and a little bit awkward when forced into unwanted social situations, but he loves hearing news from outside of town, not to mention some of the crazy stories people bring with them.
“Do you know how long they’re here for?”
Placing the last few garnishes on the remaining plates, Hiroko wipes her hands on her apron as she turns to her son.
“I’m not sure. I think Mari overheard something about one or two staying for a few days or a week. If previous experience has anything to say about it, they’ve probably come a long way from where they started, and so they’ll likely take some time to rest before moving on.”
Yuuri hums thoughtfully as he starts unpacking his pickings from earlier. If they are staying for a few days, he’ll have more opportunity to meet some of them, and maybe he’ll learn something new or interesting about far away cities or get the chance to listen to epic tales of exaggerated proportions. Before he becomes too carried away in his own thoughts, the lack of a certain family member suddenly draws his attention and he quickly turns back towards his mother.
“I believe he went out to gather some more firewood so that we can stock up. With winter coming soon, we need as much as we can get in order to keep the house and restaurant running comfortably. He went down the back path into the forest early this morning if you wanted to go check up on him.”
“Alright. I also found some nice berries when I was out earlier and thought maybe you could bake them into a pie or tart as a special treat for everyone.”
“That’s a wonderful idea Yuuri! Since Mari hasn’t brought any new orders back it seems to be slowing down for the moment, so there’s no need for you to stay if you’d rather go help your dad.”
Yuuri smiles at his thoughtful mother, she always knew he isn’t much of a people person.
“I think I will. Sorry again for leaving, I’ll make sure between the two of us, dad and I bring back a good share of firewood.”
“Excellent! Oh! And take this to your father, he’s been working out there all morning and needs a break.”
The older woman grabs a small, bundled up meal off the counter and hands the lunch to Yuuri. He nods and tucks it into his bag for safe keeping as he heads towards the back door.
Yuuri can’t help the small smile that falls into place after hearing her concern.
“I will!” He replies, stepping out of the kitchen.
The noise of the rowdy guests from the front gradually becomes muffled as he nears the back door, and as soon as he steps outside, it seems to fade away entirely. One of the nice things about living in a house backing the woods, is that it is easy to pop out and immediately feel completely secluded, that and it makes for a quick escape if they ever need it. A dirt path begins at their back door, lined on both sides by their large garden, and it leads straight into the forest. Yuuri quickly steps onto the trail and starts walking, feeling ready for another workout, but this time without the magic.
Not too far into the woods, Yuuri comes across the normal area that he can usually find his father when they need to gather some wood. He takes a look around and sees a familiar satchel and wagon, but no sign of any person. He also spots an axe leaning against a far tree, ready for work but no one to use it. The scene is unusual. His dad has never strayed from his work before, but maybe something made him travel further in today. Shrugging off the oddity, he continues down the path that leads deeper into the woods.
The farther into the forest he walks, the more isolated Yuuri feels. He can no longer see any trace of the village, and only the sounds of the trees and the birds remain. It is strange to think his father went so far in just for some firewood, but maybe he had a good reason to stray from the usual spot. Determined that there is some logical answer, he presses on, at least thankful for the clouds clearing out and the sun shining brightly to illuminate his surroundings. There has to be some clue laying around, so he keeps his eyes peeled and his mind focused, hoping that at some point it will all come together.
It has to be nearing 2 o’clock in the afternoon now, and Yuuri still doesn’t have any inkling as to where his father wandered off to. Nerves begin to eat away at his resilience, and he can feel the panic start to prickle through his body next to the pleasant tingle of magic. The soothing bird song and sunshine creates a false sense of security as the worry settles in. To keep himself in check, Yuuri starts actively identifying the facts of the situation in his head.
‘Dad was at home this morning before I left. Mom knows he went to go chop some wood for the stock. He was not at his usual spot, but his axe, bag, and wagon were all accounted for, which means at one point he was here. Just because I haven’t found him yet, doesn’t mean I will never find him. The sun is still up and I have lots of daylight left to work with. My father is intelligent, strong, knows the area well, and can handle himself.’
Pairing his inner thoughts with some measured breathing, he continues on his way, repeating his thoughts as he walks.
Another half an hour goes by, and now Yuuri knows something is absolutely wrong. There is no way his father would walk almost two hours just for firewood, or for any other good reason without telling his family. Yuuri’s mind starts running through a million different scenarios, trying to come up with some reasonable explanation, but there are none that make sense. Allowing his resolve to falter gives his anxiety a proper chance to sneak in, and with it, all the ‘what if’ scenarios come rushing forth.
‘What if he was attacked? What if some wild animal thought he was some kind of prey? What if he fell, twisted his ankle, or broke his leg?’
Each suggestion comes faster than the last.
‘Does he have water? I know he doesn’t have any food so what if he goes hungry? What if he dies because I can’t find him? What if he’s already dead!?’
Yuuri’s breathing is becoming labored as there is still no sign, hint, clue, or heavenly message, to reassure him otherwise. He is quickly looking around, rapidly surveying the woods for any movement while his senses are in overdrive, and he’s listening for anything out of the ordinary when he hears it. Yuuri stills. The noise was too quick to be identified but then it happens again. It’s better than nothing, and much better than he anticipated, but it sounds like someone is grunting up ahead.
Yuuri quickly makes his way around the bend in the path and sees two men. One he quickly identifies as his father, sitting hunched over on a stump holding his leg, while the other man seems to be crouching next to him and examining his foot. The tension rushes out of his body at the sight of his father, and he hurries over, praising the gods that he’s alright. As he approaches, both men turn to face him, and as soon as their eyes connect his father smiles. Quick strides take him right up to his dad, and he kneels in front of him placing his hands on his legs.
“Thank god you’re alright! I was getting worried sick! Mom said you went to go stock up on firewood and I’ve been walking around looking for you for over two hours! What happened? Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“It’s okay, I’m alright.”
Toshiya’s gentle smile and calm demeanor puts Yuuri at ease for the moment.
“There’s no need to make such a fuss.”
“But how did you end up so far away from home? And did you hurt your leg? I saw you wincing as I was walking up the path.”
A warm smile spreads across his fathers face, and the man is obviously touched at the concern over his wellbeing.
“I didn’t plan on coming this far, but just as I reached my normal spot to start harvesting some wood, a large buck came wandering through the clearing. I figured we also need some hearty meat to keep the business going and the trees weren’t going anywhere, so I stepped away to hunt. I was too focused on being stealthy that I didn’t realize the cheeky bugger led me so far off the trail. At one point I took a bad step, tripped, and the buck got away. When I tried to get back up I could barely stand, plus I had no clue which way I came from. I’m lucky this gentleman found me struggling and led me back to the path, otherwise it might have taken a turn for the worse.”
Yuuri suddenly remembers the second man he blatantly ignored due to concern for his father, and he quickly whirls around to thank the stranger. Apparently the man had backed up when he approached, giving the two of them some space, so he stands up in order to meet the man face to face. As soon as he stands to his full height, he can’t even get any words out before he is pinned down by piercing green eyes, the colour practically matching the lush forest surrounding them. Giving a quick once over, he quickly assesses the rest of the man standing before him, two toned, brown and blonde hair, strong build, well maintained appearance, and a look that screams foreigner. Realizing he’s just standing there like an idiot, he quickly stammers out a line thanking him for finding his father, and just as quickly looks away from the heavy eye contact.
The man finally smiles and lets out a light chuckle, breaking some of the tension.
“No need to thank me, I’d like to think that anyone would have done the same.”
His deep baritone voice and the way he holds himself, gives off a sense of confidence constructed from the essence of maturity.
Yuuri gives a polite smile. “I’d like to think that too, but some people can be rather selfish.”
An indiscernible flash of emotion crosses the strangers face, but just as fast as it appears, it is gone. Thinking nothing of it, Yuuri reaches into his bag, pulling out the packaged lunch his mother made earlier and handing it to his father.
“I assume you’re pretty hungry so here’s what should have been your lunch.”
A fond laugh escapes the older man’s lips as he opens it up.
“Your mother knows me too well it seems.”
Yuuri watches his father as he begins to nibble on the food, grateful that he’s alright, but soon he turns back towards the strange man whose smile has yet to falter.
“I’m sorry, it seems we haven’t been properly introduced. Who might you be?”
“My apologies. My name is Christophe Giacometti, but you can just call me Chris. I’ve had the great fortune of meeting your father Toshiya, be it under mildly unpleasant circumstances, but I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m Yuuri Katsuki, but just Yuuri is fine.”
The older man gives another friendly smile, “Alright, just Yuuri.”
Chris adds a wink to the end of his words, and the young man quickly diverts his gaze away to hide the flush of embarrassment filling his cheeks. The blonde is definitely confident and comfortable with himself, and he obviously knows he’s good looking, but that is unexplored territory for Yuuri. Clearing his throat, he diverts his train of thought by considering all of the worries that plagued his mind earlier. The situation could have been a lot worse, and he is eternally grateful to the handsome stranger that was kind enough to help a man lost in the woods, although, it is quite odd that a foreigner would be found so deep in the forest in the first place.
Skeptically eyeing Chris’ form, Yuuri scans the man in front of him once more.
“So Chris, why were you wandering around the woods so far in anyway? I know you’re not from our village, and as soon as the sun goes down it can be a dangerous place for someone who doesn’t know the area well.”
“I am actually part of one of the caravans that has stopped in your little town for a few days. We arrived early this morning, and after breakfast I decided to get better acquainted with the area. First I wandered around the shops, then I found myself circumnavigating the whole village, and next thing I know, I found a quaint path through the woods that enticed me all the way here.” He gives off another pleasant smile, trying to ease some of the noticeable scrutiny.
“You get around pretty quickly.” Yuuri retorts.
“You could say I’m motivated to explore and find new things.”
“A traveler interested in taking in the sights before you leave then?”
“Perhaps more of a traveler looking to meet some new people.”
Something about the exchange makes Yuuri question the man’s true motives. The answers he is giving seem too calculated to be casual conversation, almost like they’re rehearsed. His body language hasn’t changed, but the atmosphere definitely has, making it feel like he is alluding to something other than a leisurely visit. Reluctantly accepting the off-putting feeling, he glances towards the sky to judge the time.
“We should probably start heading back. We can save hunting for later and I’ll go out to grab some firewood after we get home.”
Yuuri quickly looks back to his father who has already eaten a good portion of his lunch, but any more and they might be walking back in the dark. Packing everything up, he helps the older man to his feet and tucks himself under one arm, attempting to take more weight off of the injured leg.
Toshiya gives him a warm smile and Yuuri starts feeling much better, with everything he was worrying about earlier fading into a distant memory at least for the time being. His number one priority is getting his father home safe and sound, and he’ll worry about this suspicious group of travelers once he’s had more time to think. As the sun continues its journey across the afternoon sky, the trio starts heading off on their long walk back towards the town.
Chapter 4: Home
With one injured man hobbling along, the trip home is taking much longer than the frantic walk out. By the time the three of them reach the back door of Yutopia, the sun is starting to slip behind the mountains, making the available light quickly fade from the sky. Breathing a sigh of relief, Yuuri is glad the returning trip didn’t have any other unexpected setbacks, and Chris helpfully holds the large door open as the two family members wiggle their way through the entrance.
Once inside, the trio heads straight up a set of stairs immediately to their right, entering the family’s personal living space above the restaurant so that Toshiya can finally sit down on a couch. The modest sitting area at the top of the stairs is warm and welcoming, with deep red walls and dark wooden floors providing a cozy and aesthetically pleasing atmosphere. After gently lowering the man onto the soft couch, Yuuri quickly leaves to fetch one of the first aid kits they keep around the house, returning only to settle on the lush, ornate, rug, in front of his father. Cautiously grabbing the older man’s foot, he gently pushes, pulls, and twists in different directions, testing the limits before his father starts feeling any pain.
Chris is standing patiently nearby waiting for the verdict, as he promised to stay and make sure they were alright before taking his leave. Passing the time, the man starts to look around the quaint room he is currently standing in, taking particular interest in the three large bookcases lining the western wall before moving to stare out the enormous bay window overlooking the forest.
After a few grunts and faces of displeasure from his father, Yuuri concludes that nothing is broken, no muscles are torn, and thankfully, the injury can be easily treated at home. He shuffles his position on the floor, being careful not to bump into the coffee table centered between the two, old couches that face each other in the middle of the room. Grabbing a simple piece of fabric from the kit, he begins to wrap Toshiya’s ankle, and as he works, he finds himself squinting as the last traces of natural light disappear from the space. Noticing the dramatic change in light, Chris helpfully takes out some matches in order to light the lamps located on two round, dark, wooden side tables on either end of the couch.
“Thanks…” Yuuri mumbles as he carefully pins the band of fabric into place.
“I don’t think it’s too bad, is it?” Toshiya asks optimistically.
Yuuri smiles reassuringly, “No, I think it’s just a mild ankle sprain. It should be fine with some good, old fashioned RICE.”
Confusion washes over Chris’ face.
“Rice? How will that help?”
Both father and son laugh before Yuuri replies.
“RICE is an acronym. It stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. It makes it easy to remember and it’s shorter to say, but it’s the best way to treat mild sprains and they happen more often than you’d think out here.”
Impressed by the neat, new tidbit, Chris hums and nods his head.
“Is there anything you might need before I get going? I should probably go meet up with my group since they were expecting me to get back a while ago, but if there is anything you might want help with, I won’t leave you hanging.”
Chris’ smile and words seem genuine, and so Yuuri and Toshiya both smile back.
“Thank you for your offer but we should be alright. Now that we’re home and I know he won’t be wandering off anytime soon,” Yuuri says, shooting a glance over at his dad, “we’ll be able to manage on our own.”
Finally standing up and taking a few steps forward, he holds out his hand and stares straight into cool, green, eyes.
“I am extremely grateful to you for finding my father. If there is anything we can do for you during your stay, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
A warm smile settles on both of the men’s faces as his offered hand is taken in a firm hold.
“I am just glad he is alright. There is no need for such formal offerings, but I may stop by with some friends for a good meal before we leave.”
“Then we will have a table ready and waiting for you.”
With another firm squeeze, the man finally lets go and takes a step back, glancing at both father and son before taking his leave.
“Take care you two!”
With a final wave, Chris heads back down the stairs and the two family members are finally alone. Yuuri turns his attention back to his father, and sees the man already maneuvering himself on the couch to be lying down, with his injured leg propped up on some decorative pillows. Deciding he’ll be okay for the moment, Yuuri hastily heads back downstairs to retrieve some ice and to fill in his family on what happened.
The dinner rush is in full swing when he walks into the kitchen. Hiroko looks like she hasn’t moved an inch from where he left her this morning, and Mari is once again busy attending to the tables out front. As always, as soon as someone enters her space, Yuuri’s mother glances over to see who it is, and upon recognizing her son, she immediately spins around with a look mixed between worry, relief, and happiness.
“Yuuri! My god, what happened to you? And where’s your father? I expected you both back hours ago!”
“Sorry mom, there was an accident.”
Yuuri quickly summarizes the events while discretely filling a bowl with water. Taking a quick peak to make sure no one is looking, he brings his fist to his mouth, taking a deep breath in and exhaling, watching as the water in front of him gradually hardens into a solid chunk. His magic comes in handy for some of the little jobs around the house, but with a restaurant full of customers, splitting the water before freezing it would be too much of a spectacle, and so he resigns himself to chipping the ice out of the bowl with a blunt wedge and packing it into a dish towel to bring upstairs.
“I’ll come down and help once I give this to dad and make sure he’s okay to be left alone for a while.”
Hiroko nods and turns back to her work, finishing off several plates only to start compiling four more. Yuuri quickly ascends the set of stairs once again, handing over the ice to his father before promptly making his way back down to help out. The evening passes by quickly, with the surplus of patrons guaranteeing that there is never a dull moment. Mari gives him a questioning look a couple of times before he lets her know that he will explain everything later, and true to his word, as soon as the last customer heads out for the night, they hold a little family meeting upstairs. After another, more detailed recollection of the day’s events told by Toshiya, everyone is just about to get ready for bed before Mari pipes up.
“Considering everything that has been going on today, I almost forgot that I wanted to tell you all about something I overheard in the restaurant, as well as something I didn’t hear.”
For any other family, eavesdropping and town gossip is just some silly pass time, but for the Katsuki’s, they all immediately sober up at the mention of new information, and the mood changes to accommodate a heavier topic.
“As we all know, there is a few new caravans in town. From what I can tell, two of them seem to be run of the mill traders heading to the big cities, but as for the third, their group seems to be a bit more suspicious. Their leader is apparently out running business, and the small group is staying here for a few days until he gets back. No one has outright stated their intentions or what their jobs may entail, which is unusual since people who gossip tend to state the arrival of the new party and immediately follow with amazing tales about the intriguing lives they lead.”
She pauses for a moment to look at each individual family member before pressing on.
“We are all well aware of the dangerous reality of our situation. If someone has even an inkling of suspicion towards us, they might take it as an opportunity to make some quick money, and we will not, let that happen. We may have a better sense of the people around town and what they’re involved with, but these are strangers. Keep your heads down, act normal, and absolutely under no circumstances, are you to use magic while they are here.”
The room is silent as the weight of the situation sinks in, and Yuuri immediately feels guilty for the trick he pulled with the ice earlier. Mari’s blunt approach always cuts deep when it comes to safety, and she makes sure to drill it into everyone’s head with every word, but the temporary ban on their magic also introduces other complications.
Yuuri sighs. “I guess that means mom can’t heal dad’s ankle…”
Since Toshiya was spotted injured in the woods by a stranger, they all know Hiroko can’t perform any healing magic without arousing suspicion, but that also means he is going to be on strict rest for the next few days as well. Yuuri, Mari, or Hiroko can be taken away without a moment’s notice if they aren’t constantly on their guard, and so the three of them will simply have to work extra hard in order to ensure that everything they need for the house is completed on time, and unfortunately they will have to manage without any helpful tricks.
Chapter 5: Work Hard, then, Work Harder
The last few days have been rough. Hiroko and Mari have teamed up to run the restaurant during the peak hours, and they even enlisted Toshiya to sit in the back and chop vegetables while everyone else does all the running around. During the down times, Mari heads out back to chop the wood that is constantly being delivered by Yuuri, because all morning and into the early afternoon, his job is to make regular trips in and out of the forest, hauling giant piles of logs back to the house each time. The work load is brutal, but as soon as the sun starts dipping down lower in the sky, Yuuri makes his way home with his last load of the day, taking a short break for some rest and a quick meal before packing up his bag with water, wire, and a knife. Slinging his bow and quiver over his shoulder, the afternoons are reserved for hunting and trapping their next meal, while simultaneously providing enough meat for the restaurant.
While the rest of the family is handling the dinner prep, he walks out back and straight into the woods, hoping to see something finally caught in his snares that he set up two mornings ago, and if he’s lucky, maybe he’ll find a nice deer or boar that he could take home along the way. After fifteen minutes, he finally sees the strip of fabric that he tied to a tree, marking the spot of the game trail he was following. Stepping into the bushes, he continues moving until he is a respectable distance away from the path, and along the way, he starts to check the snares that he placed in ideal, sparse thickets in the forest. To his dismay, after checking all six traps, he finds that the majority are empty, with only one yielding results. He was hoping to catch a few rabbits or even a squirrel so it could be used to make a stew, but the odds don’t seem to be in his favor. Quickly packing up the decently sized, single rabbit, he resets the trap, and prays that in the morning he might find more.
As the sun continues its descent, the warmth of its light fades along with it. There is a significant chill in the air now, and even though the leaves of the forest are just beginning to change, it is easy to tell that autumn is well on its way. Attempting to prevent the slight breeze from reaching his skin, Yuuri flips up the collar of his worn, leather jacket, but he finds the small strip of material is practically useless. Accepting his icy fate, he continues to tread lightly, trying not to scare off any potential animals in the area.
After following the trail for an hour, it is starting to get much darker, and Yuuri still hasn’t come across any wildlife. It is as if the animals are sensing the change of seasons, securing their dens and nesting ahead of time in order to beat the cold snap that is inevitably moving in. The sun has already passed below the mountain range, and the drastic change in light shows that it is most likely setting on the other side. Soon the pitch black, dark of night will be moving in very quickly, and so he needs to head home before he can’t see where he’s going. Cutting his losses and very disappointed, Yuuri lets out a deep breath, turning around in order to head back.
The return journey takes significantly less time than the walk out, and he makes quick work of steering himself through the thick underbrush now that he isn’t actively hunting and trying to silence his movements. By the time he returns, the dinner service is over, and the rest of his family looks exhausted. He doesn’t blame them, but he knows he needs to get more food on the table if they are going to run any kind of business. They are all working so hard, and he feels useless when he’s basically just going for a walk in the woods with nothing to show for it. Closing up shop for the day, his family chats about trivial things as they go through the routine motions, and Mari states that she has heard no new information other than the leader of the one group still being out on business. They all quickly eat dinner, and Yuuri decides to turn in early in order to get a head start the next morning.
Waking up before anyone else in the house is easier said than done. Groaning, and practically rolling out of his single bed, Yuuri stumbles across his room to start his day before the sun comes up. He begins by dressing in a fresh shirt and clean trousers, then grabs his satchel along with his gear, dons his jacket, and heads out to check his snares. Once again, they produce little results, this time only nabbing two small squirrels, and he begins to feel the frustration rising inside him.
‘What kind of son am I when I can’t even hunt properly? We can’t keep buying meat from town because we’ll never earn enough money to cover the cost... But apparently I’m not good enough to provide for my family… I’m useless to them. They can all manage pulling their fair share of weight while I’m barely doing anything to help… At least the one thing I can’t screw up is chopping wood...’
Taking a few measured breaths, he forcibly pushes down the lump in his throat and blinks away the tears he can feel pricking at the corners of his eyes. Moving around, he attempts to physically shake off the self-deprecating thoughts for now, and he quickly resets the traps and decides he’ll get a head start on more firewood after he drops the tiny morsels off at home.
The walk back goes much faster than he wants it to. Not that he isn’t eager to move on to his next job so that he can make a larger contribution, but turning in his minimal results to his mother makes him feel like a disappointment. Hastily moving inside, he places the squirrels on the kitchen counter, trying not to disturb Hiroko who is now awake and washing vegetables in the sink.
‘Dad should be doing this… Not me... My family deserves better... All I can do is chop wood.’
The familiar watery sensation rushes back into his eyes, but as he turns to head back out, a light touch on his shoulder makes him turn around. His mother has moved to stand in front of him, a warm smile spread across her face as she places both hands on his shoulders and gives a reassuring squeeze. Yuuri’s mother has always known him too well, and as soon as he looks into her warm, cinnamon eyes, he feels all the frustration and disappointment come surging forward once more.
Trying to control himself, he balls his hands into fists, keeping his arms rigid by his side as he lets his mother wrap her arms around him. He valiantly attempts to hold back his tears that are starting to form by closing his eyes and taking deep breathes, but as soon as he returns the embrace, he ends up practically breathing out all of his pent up emotions onto his mother’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry mom.”
Yuuri’s voice is barely above a whisper, and yet it still manages to crack. He hates himself for letting the pressure get to him, but he should have expected that the last few days would be more stressful than he anticipated. Briefly squeezing him tighter, she pushes him back to see his face and wipes the fallen tears from his cheeks.
“It’s okay, baby boy. No one expects you to be a master of everything, especially when you take on a job that you don’t have much practice in. Your father may have taught you how to hunt, but he has years of experience that you have yet to acquire. There is no rush to be perfect, and you don’t need to be perfect. You just need to be you, and you’re great at that.”
Providing his mother with the best watery smile he can muster, he gives her a shaky nod of his head. Hiroko is a godsend, and he can’t imagine a life without her and her uncanny sixth sense towards other people’s thoughts. He closes his eyes, takes another deep breath, and relaxes his body for just a moment, enough to ease the tension that he has been building up for days.
Once he feels more centered than before, he blinks his eyes open and sees his mother still standing before him, waiting patiently with a gentle smile. He gives a small smile back, more confident than the last one, and readjusts the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
“I’ll go gather some more wood for today, and then maybe I’ll head out earlier to the forest on the far side of town to try my luck hunting over there.”
His words are more to reassure himself than his mother, but she simply nods along with her reply.
“I think that sounds like a good plan.”
After letting everything out, Yuuri feels vaguely more relaxed and has regained a little more confidence than he had earlier. Giving his mother another smile, he finally backs away to prepare for his next job. Thankfully, cutting down some trees should at least give his mind a break by simply following the monotonous routine and keeping up with physical exertion that is required, and hopefully, he’ll bring back enough wood to last them the whole winter. Making sure he fills up his canteen before setting out, he spends the rest of the morning working harder than he has ever worked before.
Chapter 6: A Helping Hand
It feels like Yuuri has cut down half the forest by now. Of course that is completely impossible, but the way his lungs are burning, muscles are aching, and the amount of sweat he’s been wiping off with his now discarded shirt, seems to say otherwise. Considering the cool fall weather that has been settling in lately, the day seems to be surprisingly warm. Bright beams of sunlight are shining down through the trees, fading in and out as the few scattered clouds pass by overhead, but still providing ample light and warmth for the days work. Chopping down his last tree into its final segments, Yuuri wipes the sweat off his brow and shades his eyes as he looks toward the sky. Judging by the position of the sun, it should be about time for the lunch rush at Yutopia, and that also means he should probably head back so that he can try out the new hunting location across town. Utilizing their old wagon, he lugs his next giant pile of wood back to the house, and quickly unloads it onto his neat stack that has grown almost as tall as himself.
Satisfied with his hefty workload so far, he steps inside for a quick reprieve, immediately greeting his mother in the kitchen as she loads up several different dishes for Mari to serve. Not wanting to hinder her work during the rush hour, he quickly fills up his canteen and tucks himself into the corner so that he is out of the way, grabbing some bread, potatoes, and sliced meat from the butcher to munch on for his own lunch. The constant roar of rowdy patrons filters through the doorway as Mari comes and goes with new orders, and Yuuri makes sure to eat his food quickly so that he can get back to contributing to the family as soon as possible. Swallowing down the last chunk of bread and taking a big gulp of water, he tops up his canteen one last time.
“I’m off to hunt!” He says to his mother as he places his dishes in the sink. “I’ll probably be back a little later than normal since I’m trying a new spot but hopefully I’ll find something worthwhile.”
Yuuri can see Hiroko smiling at his words as she continues to concentrate on her work.
“Alright, just be careful!”
With no time to waste, he grabs his bag, bow, and quiver, and heads out the back door. It is easier to go around the house rather than cut through the customers out front, but as soon as he makes his way over to the central hub of Hasu, he finds himself in the middle of a crowd anyway.
Since it is already noon, the town is in full swing. The beautiful weather is encouraging people to come out and enjoy it while it lasts, and Yuuri spots several groups of children running around giggling without a care in the world. Their laughter is quickly swallowed by the shouts of vendors and people trying to haggle down prices on items that have outrageous costs, and it is weird to think that for such a small town, Hasu’s marketplace never seems to have a dull moment.
Ducking and dodging his way through the crowds, he can almost see the edge of town when someone suddenly steps out in front of him, forcing him to run head first into a large, muscular, chest. Dazed and stumbling back, a firm grip appears on his arm to help steady him from running into anyone else, but unexpectedly, the man then pulls them close together so that they’re chest to chest. Yuuri quickly regains his balance, awkwardly trying to take a step back as he stammers out an apology and looks up at the stranger, but instead of a local, he is greeted with a familiar grin.
“We seem to have quite the knack of running into each other, now don’t we Yuuri?”
Chris practically purrs his name, and it makes the young man start to blush at both the tone and at how the older man is still keeping them pressed close together. Stumbling over his words once more, Yuuri has no idea how to reply, but the other man starts chuckling at the flustered mess that he is before he can think of what to say. Chris finally takes a step back, relaxing his stance and letting his hand fall back to his side while Yuuri remembers how to breathe, but the older man takes one glance from his head to his toes before he cocks an eyebrow.
“You look like you’re ready to go on a hunting trip dressed like that. Mind if I join you? There’s only so much one can do when visiting such a small town, and it would be nice to get some practice in.”
“You know how to hunt?”
Yuuri’s brain finally catches up to his mouth, and of course the first thing he says is something as stupid as that.
‘Of course he knows how to hunt. What kind of traveler doesn’t know how to hunt? They need to eat something on the road you imbecile.’
The sound of Chris’ deep laughter pulls him from his thoughts.
‘Oh god, he must think I’m an idiot.’
“Well of course, chéri. I didn’t get these beautiful muscles by simply walking around all day, a man’s gotta eat!”
His sentence makes Yuuri realize two things. One, Chris is obnoxiously narcissistic when it’s not some kind of serious situation, and two, the man who is wearing a simple, skin tight, T-shirt, does have extremely toned muscles. Another laugh once again echoes from the buff man.
‘God damn it, you were too busy gawking and saying nothing again.’
Yuuri’s blush returns full force as he looks away. Trying to regain what little dignity he has left, he clears his throat and turns back to the man who is now wearing a shit-eating, ‘I know what you were thinking’, grin.
“So you want to come hunting with me?” He spits out as fast as he can.
His attempt at turning the conversation into safer territory is a feeble attempt at best, but when Chris’ smug look fades back into something more genuine, he breathes a sigh of relief.
“Only if you’ll have me.”
This time the older man’s words are said with a wink, but before Yuuri can make a fool of himself even further, he actually considers the man’s offer.
‘It would be nice to have someone come with me that actually goes out to hunt all the time... Maybe he can even give me some pointers or teach me something new. Then maybe I can gain some experience...’
Without giving Chris another opportunity to poke fun at his easily embarrassed self, he gives him a nod.
“When would you be ready to go?”
“Just give me five minutes to grab some essentials from my lodging and I can meet you back here.”
“Alright, I’ll wait for you at the road leading out of town, right over there.” Yuuri quickly motions behind the other man, pointing to where the forest is split in half by the dirt road just past the busy crowd. “Just so I can avoid bumping into anyone else.”
The man smiles. “Excellent. I’ll be back soon!”
With a wave, Chris runs off, and Yuuri makes his way through the last of the busy street, careful not to run into any other busy people. As soon as he is finally free of the commotion, he picks out a nice shady spot under a large tree, and sits down to start watching the fluffy, white clouds float by overhead to pass the time.
‘The weather really has been lovely the past few days… it’s a shame I can’t use some of this time to practice my magic before the winter sets in and I’m cooped up in the house all day... But once the caravan leaves and dad’s ankle recovers, maybe I can find some time to slip away again.’
Closing his eyes, Yuuri does a quick assessment of his magic in order to stay attuned to his body, and he can feel the energy thrumming beneath his skin, ready to burst out from its lack of use over the past few days. He lets the feeling wash over him, enjoying the pleasant tingle and obvious sensation of power that comes with it. Suddenly, he feels the wind start to pick up and his eyes snap open, and he quickly reins in his power, feeling like a fool for letting himself slip so easily.
As he is silently berating himself, he notices Chris walking back with a bow and quiver slung over his shoulder, and a knife strapped to his belt. He has an odd look of confusion briefly on his face, but it quickly washes away once they’re together.
“All ready to go?” Yuuri asks.
“All finished your nap?” Chris quickly replies.
Yuuri huffs out a laugh and gets to his feet. Without another word, he turns and starts making his way east out of town, eventually engaging in friendly chit-chat as they walk. Chris questions Yuuri about his life growing up in such a small village while Yuuri asks about Chris’ life on the road, but both men seem to give simple answers without delving into much detail. The vagueness alludes to information left unsaid, but neither man speaks up about it, both of them content to just enjoy the others company for the short time they have together. He may not know him that well and there are obviously secrets between the two of them, but Yuuri takes a liking to Chris. The man is nice, funny, and seems like a good guy, even if he is a bit forward and an insatiable flirt. They may still be more or less strangers, but he finds comfort in knowing he is making a new friend.
Getting farther away from town, Yuuri consciously avoids the area on the north side of the road where his practice field resides, and instead he turns south once they find a suitable game trail. Making their way into the woods, they let the easy conversation between them die now that they are officially hunting, and neither utters a word unless absolutely necessary. The odd pair start off by setting some snares along the way, each picking out a few prime spots in the underbrush as they move along.
Thankfully, the heavy canopy above effectively blocks out the harsh sun, leaving the forest mildly cool but also making it hard to tell that the once dispersed clouds are starting to clump together. Yuuri can feel the shift in the weather as they continue on, aware that his elemental magic is reaching out to greet the change but making sure that he suppresses the restless feeling inside of him. Thinking ahead, he decides to quickly mention to Chris that they may have to retreat if it starts to rain, and the other man agrees without complaint.
An hour and a half later, the skies are getting dark but the two men have a worthwhile prize in their sights. Fresh droppings along the trail encourage them onward, and they are treading slowly, carefully, and quietly along the path when they suddenly hear some movement up ahead. Both men freeze as the sound of twigs snapping is accompanied by a few snorts, and they ready their bows hoping to successfully catch their prey.
Peeking around a dense thicket, they spot a large, mature boar, rooting around a nearby bush. Gently, Yuuri pulls back the string of his weapon and takes aim, waiting for the animal to come back around so that he can take a clear shot. Meanwhile, Chris is watching quietly from behind, feet planted on the ground and not making a sound, trying to ensure that the pig does not pick up on their presence. Luckily, the boar continues on its path around the bush, and Yuuri takes a deep breath in before readjusting his aim and releasing his arrow. The next thing they hear is a loud squeal from the beast before it promptly crashes into the ground, with only a wooden shaft with a few feathers sticking out of its chest.
Letting out the breath he was holding, Yuuri straightens, only to be clapped on the back by an excited Chris.
“Way to go Yuuri! You don’t seem like the type to be a professional hunter, but damn! That was an amazing shot.”
The man walks past him, already moving in to investigate the kill. Nervously rubbing his neck, Yuuri can’t help but disagree.
“It’s not much really. I’ve practiced my aim in the backyard at home, but when it comes to actually applying that expertise during a hunt, my skill isn’t nearly as good.”
“You’re too modest Yuuri. It took me months to get my first proper kill on my own.”
Not wanting to invalidate the opinion, Yuuri just nods, walking over to kneel beside him as Chris yanks out the arrow. The boar is an impressive size, and it will be a great contribution to the restaurant when they get back.
“Thank you for coming along by the way. I really appreciate the help.”
“Ah, I didn’t contribute much at all. You’re the one who did all the hard work, I just set up some snares. Speaking of which, now that we caught our bounty I guess we can start heading back.”
“Ya, that sounds good to me. I can carry this if you don’t mind checking the traps on the return trip.”
“Are you sure?”
Yuuri simply mumbles his assent as he starts to maneuver the pig so that he can heave it onto his shoulders. With a big pull and a little grunt, he manages to settle the beast in a comfortable position with both hands holding onto its feet to stabilize it. The muscles in his legs burn as he pushes himself and the extra weight up off the ground, but as soon as he is standing upright, he notices the odd look on his new friends face.
Chris is staring, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. He probably never expected someone that weighs half as much as himself to be able to carry a catch that huge, but Yuuri easily proves him wrong. After a moment of gawking, the man closes his mouth and nods, obviously impressed by the young man.
“I guess I’ll lead the way.”
Yuuri gives the man a smile and they both turn to begin making their way back down the trail, with the extra weight slowing them down only a little but they are definitely moving faster than their journey into the woods. Unfortunately, their luck with the weather runs out after only a few minutes into their walk back, and the rain Yuuri has been anticipating finally starts to come down. It begins as a light drizzle, and the dense forest canopy protects them from the brunt of it for the time being, but now, the area falls into an eerie silence. The only noise that can be heard over their footsteps is the patter of droplets echoing through the quiet forest, and all of the birds must have retreated to their nests to wait out the storm.
Not long after the drizzling begins, it suddenly takes a turn for the worse, with the wind picking up as it really starts to pour. Soon Chris starts veering off to gather up the traps and anything they may have caught, and what started off as a frustratingly disappointing day, has now turned into something quite successful.
An hour after their kill, they emerge from the woods soaking wet, but they are one boar and five rabbits heavier than when they started. Riding the high of such a fruitful hunt, Yuuri is beaming, and he would be sauntering down the path if it wasn’t for the large pig weighing him down. He looks around to orient himself as they exit the woods and quickly directs them towards home.
The heavy rain is still pouring from the sky, considerably harsher now that they are out of the safety of the trees, and the puddles forming on the road are quickly turning some parts of the trail into mud. However, it only takes five minutes of walking before the hairs on the back of Yuuri’s next begin to prickle, and he can feel it in his gut that something is wrong.
Before he can even think of mentioning it to Chris, a man in run down, dark clothing, steps out of the woods and directly into the middle of the path, forcing both Yuuri and Chris stop in their tracks and take in the man before them.
He is big, practically twice the size of Chris, and the man is built with enough muscle that in his left hand he effortlessly holds a sledgehammer, easily maneuvering it to rest the giant tool against his shoulder. The next thing they know they hear the rustle of bushes behind them, and they angle their bodies between both directions, not letting their guard down as they look behind them. Two more men are walking out of the woods, both significantly smaller than the giant in front of them, but one is brandishing a short sword while the other is wielding two daggers. A fourth man then joins the big guy in front, cracking his knuckles as he casually takes his spot like this is just another normal routine for them. All four men are wearing cocky smirks, and none of them look like they have much to lose.
“Shit.” Chris mutters underneath his breath, and Yuuri can’t agree more.
The young man is absolutely terrified. He unconsciously tightens his grip around the boar’s legs and glances over at Chris, trying to gain some kind of clue as to what they should do. The blonde seems almost calm on the outside, but his green eyes are rapidly moving and assessing the situation, and it’s obvious that he is desperately trying to figure out a plan during the little time they have left before whatever comes next. Meanwhile, Yuuri is frozen with fear as his heart threatens to beat right out of his chest. He has no idea what to do, and the only thing he does know is that he has never been in a real fight before. He can imagine that Chris must have dealt with his fair share of thugs on the road or ended up in a bar fight or two, but not him.
‘We’re gonna die.’
Before he can even start thinking rationally, the first man holding the short sword steps closer, and Chris quickly turns to face the first opponent head on, dropping his bag by his side and spreading his feet into a secure stance. Since they weren’t expecting to hunt anything else for the rest of the day, they had already secured their bows around their torsos as soon as they killed the pig, and now they don’t have enough time to utilize their primary weapon as the first man continues to move towards them. Yuuri prays that Chris knows what he is doing, and as the seconds tick by, he ends up taking a step back as he watches the thug rush at his new friend.
Chapter 7: Fight for Your Life
Yuuri almost closes his eyes reflexively when the fight begins, but he strengthens his resolve at the last moment, the necessity of being aware of his surroundings overriding his want to cower away in fear. He watches as the man possessing the sword, lifts it above his head and brings it down swiftly upon his friend. At the last moment, Chris unsheathes his small hunting knife from around his belt, using it to effectively parry the attack and catch the enemy off guard. The brief moment of surprise gives him a small opening to quickly side step around the man, using the minuscule opening to his advantage. As he spins, the blonde uses the opportunity to grab the attackers extended arm and twists it behind the man’s back, forcing out an agonizing scream that fills the otherwise excruciating silence. Without a second of hesitation, Chris rapidly raises his blade and slits the man’s throat in one fluid motion, abruptly silencing the pained cries and replacing them with a faint gurgle. Letting the dead weight go, the body hits the ground with a hard thud and a small splash as Chris returns to his original position in the center, ready for the next attack. Meanwhile, everyone else is still standing frozen in place, shocked with how easily the foreigner completed the kill.
Yuuri is traumatized. He started holding his breath as soon as the sword was swung and hasn’t exhaled since. Staring wide eyed at the now dead body, he watches as it creates a pool of blood in front of his companion, the red fluid artfully mixing with the clear liquid. For a moment, his senses begin to block everything out, preventing him from hearing the storm whirling around him or feeling the rain still beating against his skin, and the only thing he sees is the first murder he’s ever witnessed. The muddy puddles on the road are slowly starting to turn completely pink, and the recently deceased individual lay perfectly still, one cheek pressed into the mud and eyes wide open. Blinking a few times, Yuuri regains his composure enough so that his tunnel vision on the corpse fades away, and it happens just in time for all hell to break loose.
The other three bandits begin to close in. Yuuri immediately drops the boar off of his shoulders and looks around for a weapon. If he can gain a sliver of a moment he can whip out his bow, but before he is able to make his move, he receives a sharp blow to his left cheek. He would like to say he put up a good fight, but he hits the ground hard, falling over into a puddle and struggling to remain upright in the mud. Rapidly, he starts stumbling back closer to the tree line, the coppery taste of blood filling his mouth as he tries to distance himself from his attacker. The pain in his jaw finally registers as he is scrambling away, and he can feel the rush of blood pounding in his head as he tries to spit out the bitter tang that keeps coming back.
He barely manages to get back on his feet and shove his glasses back into place when another blow comes from the opposite side, nailing him just below the ribs and causing him to yell out as he falls back into the woods, wincing in pain. Groaning, he quickly rolls over onto his stomach in order to push himself back up, but as he opens his eyes, he mercifully discovers that he has conveniently landed in front of a large tree branch. Thanking the gods, he wraps his hands around the thick, heavy, wood, and takes a blind swing behind him as he stands and whirls around as fast as he can.
Yuuri feels the branch resist before following through, and it is accompanied by a loud crack and a scream, which causes the man to collapse. Through sheer dumb luck, it turns out he nailed the unarmed assailant directly in the temple, and the man is currently struggling to regain his bearings on the ground. Yuuri then seizes the opportunity to look towards Chris and see how he is handling himself, but unfortunately when the biggest brute saw Yuuri get taken down with a single punch, he obviously left to pursue the more dangerous threat. This means it is two on one, but the giant man’s sledgehammer is keeping Chris at a distance as he is trying to dodge the heavy blows, while lackey number three is getting a little too close with his daggers.
Before he can think of a plan, his own personal thug stands back up wearing a nasty snarl. The harsh glare combined with a steady stream of blood dripping down the side of his head sends a spark of fear through the young man’s body, but he quickly shakes off the feeling as more adrenaline pumps through his veins. Yuuri readies himself as the man lunges, using his limber body to recreate Chris’ earlier footwork and side stepping just in time to throw off his dazed attacker. He quickly spins around to face him from behind, raising the branch as high as he can before bringing it down with as much force as he can muster. This time, his aim lands the hit directly on the crown of the man’s head, making him plummet back toward the ground and slump into the bushes. Breathing heavily, Yuuri determines that the man is out for the count, and quickly turns back to help Chris.
His friend is obviously struggling. There is fresh blood dripping out of a deep cut on his arm, and his heavy panting from taking on two assailants at once is easily visible from far away. Meanwhile, the two bandits look relatively unscathed, and their offense is continuously coordinated in order to prevent any attempts at a retaliation as they continue their brutal assault. Finally with a brief moment to prepare, Yuuri reaches back to arm himself with his bow and an arrow, but as he grasps at his quiver, he finds all of his arrows are missing.
They must have fallen into the woods when he was knocked down earlier, and as he turns to check, he spots the thug he had dealt with crumpled over top of the same spot. Yuuri looks back up at the three men still ducking and dodging around each other’s attacks, mildly annoyed that the fight managed to separate them a good thirty feet down the road from each other. With no other choice, he brandishes his trusty branch once again, and he quickly begins to head towards the skirmish in hopes that he can somehow help fight off the last two attackers.
Not even five steps closer, Chris all of a sudden takes a heavy blow from the sledgehammer straight to his left shoulder. He obviously tried to dodge the attack, and he did manage to avoid his head, but the weapon still comes down hard, forcing Chris to his knees as he lets out a guttural cry. Yuuri knows exactly what is going to happen next as the other assailant registers the sudden break in the man’s defense, and he can see the thug step forward with his daggers ready to take Chris' life.
He knows he can’t let it happen, but he is still too far away and without any arrows to shoot. In a final act of desperation, he reflexively lifts his free hand straight out in front of him and closes his open palm to form a fist. The rest of the battle seems to happen in slow motion, as all of the rain pouring down around them suddenly rushes from all directions towards the man wielding the daggers. Yuuri drops the branch and brings both of his hands to his chin, clenching his fists tightly before he rapidly opens his hands, palms facing the ground, and forces his arms in a harsh descent, stopping when his hands are level with his belly button. As he moves, all of the water that surrounds the man restricts his movements before violently throwing him to the ground.
The young magician then proceeds to lean back, whirling his arms in an arc above his body and taking a deep breath in, and simultaneously a large block of ice forms above the brute who was knocked to the ground. On the exhale, he quickly stands upright and brings both hands straight down from above his head with his palms touching, acting as if he is swinging an imaginary sword. In response, the giant block of ice crashes into the man’s struggling body, leaving the assailant crushed under its weight and effectively taken care of.
Continuing his offense, Yuuri then focuses his attention on the last bandit, already moving his arms and shifting his weight as he begins to conjure more ice in a form similar to what he practiced only a few mornings ago. Thankfully, it is easy to see that the last attacker hesitates, unsure of what he just saw, but this gives Chris a chance to quickly dive into a right handed shoulder roll, getting him out of any immediate danger. The blonde takes a chance to glance back at the man he thought was going to slit his throat, and he finally sees him lying on the ground, bleeding out under a giant cube of ice.
That is all Chris is able to say before he is interrupted by the giant attacker screaming out in pain. His sharp green eyes quickly dart over to the noise, and he is immediately met with the horrifying sight of the large man punctured with half a dozen icicles. The circumference of each shard of ice must be close to that of a melon, and it doesn’t take long before the man’s blood begins gushing out of his wounds as he falls to the ground.
With the last enemy defeated, everything becomes silent once again, with the only exception being the constant patter of rain still attempting to wash away the evidence. As the downpour continues falling on the two men left standing, the sight of the gruesome battle around them starts to sink in. Finally lifting his gaze from the two newest kills, Chris spots Yuuri, still twenty feet away and panting deeply, with his left arm raised straight above his head and the other holding on to the opposite elbow. The young man slowly relaxes his stance, and turns his stare to meet Chris’, but neither of the men speak a word.
Yuuri’s lip is split open and bleeding as he tenderly holds his right side, and he can see Chris’ gash is now profusely coating his clothes in blood as he reaches across his body to cradle his shoulder.
“Are you okay?” Yuuri manages to finally ask.
“Okay? Yuuri from what I just saw – “
“Please!” He cries. “Please don’t tell anyone!” Taking a frantic step forward, the realization of what just happened sinks in, and unrestrained panic starts to fill his eyes. “I’m begging you, I never wanted anyone to find out… and I would never hurt anyone! I’ve never done something like this before you have to believe me. If I had any other choice I wouldn’t have, but you were about to die and I couldn’t just stand by and let that happen-” His words are abruptly choked off by another wave of dread.
Yuuri can tell that Chris is hesitating, obviously trying to think through his options.
“Does this mean… your family…?”
“Only my mother and sister…” Yuuri quietly replies. “But please Chris, I will do anything for you if you promise to keep this a secret.”
Desperation and terror fills his face and coats his voice as he begs for his family to be spared, but all he can do is wait with bated breath to find out what he has to offer in order to keep this between themselves. The look on Chris’ face is hard to read, and the man almost looks surprised at the sudden turn of events as he stares at Yuuri before once again examining the carnage surrounding them. After a few agonizing seconds, bright green eyes finally connect with his once more, but this time, the man is wearing a small smirk on his face.
“So… you’re a magician?”
Unsure of what the underlying motive might be, Yuuri just sighs and looks him straight in the eyes, pleading with the blonde to get to the point.
“Yes, I’m a magician.”
Chris’ grin widens.
Chapter 8: The More You Know
‘Oh god I’ve made a mistake. I’ve made a terrible mistake. Chris seemed like an okay guy, I never thought he might be a bounty hunter. Gods how could I be so stupid… Mari was right. Now it all makes sense why we didn’t know about why their group was in town… And now he knows about me and the others… Maybe I should just kill him. I’ve already downed three men, what difference does a fourth make?’
Yuuri is standing frozen in place as he eyes Chris’ form, attentively watching the eerie smirk remain older man’s face and cataloguing each miniscule movement that could potentially lead to something more. There is nothing he can do to stop the pulsating fear coursing through his blood, and his heart responds by running a mile a minute as his fingers begin to twitch in anticipation of his next move. Just as the silence is beginning to become crippling, he is seriously debating adding another murder to his repertoire when Chris starts to laugh.
‘Well that’s fucking reassuring.’
The blonde’s posture relaxes ever so slightly as he chuckles, and Yuuri watches as Chris runs his right hand back through his hair, pushing the mangled, wet mop out of his eyes before pointlessly shaking off the moisture on his hand. The tight ball of tension that is building inside him is ready to snap like a twig with every wasted second, but he forcibly holds the feeling back as he waits for a sign on how he should proceed.
“You know Yuuri,” Chris finally begins, with a cadence so casual it could be mistaken for pleasant conversation. “When I was a young boy, my parents told me stories about how the world used to be. A kingdom filled with beautiful magic and peaceful harmony seems like such a far-fetched idea these days, but apparently there was a time when everything was sunshine and rainbows, and numerous different types of magic were more than common across the land. People never seemed too concerned about where, when, why, or even how magic came to be, but magicians were so kind and were always ready to lend a hand to those who weren’t as fortunate or blessed as themselves that it didn’t really mater. But of course, that era of tranquility only lasted until the Cursed Ones rose up, and in one fell swoop they destroyed the peaceful world humanity had strived to create.”
Yuuri furrows his brow. He isn’t sure why he is suddenly receiving a history lesson, much less a lesson that as a magician he knows quite intimately, but he doesn’t have enough time to think about it as Chris slowly starts walking towards him.
“Doesn’t it seem odd, Yuuri? For people who had lived side by side with magicians for centuries to suddenly disregard every one of their past experiences and relationships, just to back an incredibly demanding proposal from the council? One telling them to betray their friends and family because the world suddenly deemed them a legitimate threat. It seems like a pretty extreme move if you ask me… And the only way a motion like that would have been accepted is if the non-magic users were convinced that they had no other choice.”
The blonde continues his nonchalant walk, but as he approaches Yuuri begins to shift his stance so that if he needs to he can quickly move away. He needs to keep his guard up, but now the man has already closed roughly half of the distance between them and he’s not certain as to where this conversation is going.
“We all know that the Cursed Ones were allegedly represented by only a small gathering of magicians, only a dozen or so when you read the reports, and so I ask you to consider the following. How does such a small terrorist group manage to bombard six separate villages, all a day’s ride or more from each other, in a single night?”
Chris finally stops walking forward when he is only a few paces from Yuuri, but the underlying feeling pulling at the young man’s gut forces him to take a few cautionary steps back.
“Get to the point.” Yuuri bites out, his voice sounding surprisingly more confident than he feels. “What are you implying Chris?”
“I’m implying, that someone fed us some bullshit story in order to segregate the two races.”
Yuuri hardens his stare, tilting his head to the side in order to emphasize his skepticism.
“Why would anyone want to banish magic from the day to day world? It coexisted peacefully up until that point, and magicians even lent their talents to help others in need. Others that you even said yourself also included non-magic users as well. There would be no point for someone to ruin it all when everyone would suffer in the end, regardless of race.”
“And what if there is a reason?”
The blunt question makes Yuuri pause.
“What kind of reason would make someone disregard the rest of humanity?”
“A very selfish one.” Chris simply replies.
Yuuri can barely comprehend what he is hearing. After everything that has happened today his mind isn’t ready for critical thinking when his body is still hopped up on adrenaline. What he does know for sure is that he is cold, wet, and tired. He would like to go home and pretend none of this ever happened, but he can’t leave until he is sure Chris doesn’t pose a threat, and if he does, then a decision will have to be made. But until then, he is forced to carefully consider every option with what little information he has received, and he quickly resigns himself to cautiously assessing the situation.
Yuuri has the upper hand with his magic. This, he is sure of. Even if Chris were to lunge at him from a few feet away, he would still have time to create a quick defense with the sheer amount of water still raining down around them. There is also only one person between them who knows the true extent of power he has at his disposal, and hopefully Chris would consider that before he tries anything. Next he chooses to analyze the man’s body language. It doesn’t seem like Chris’ muscles are tensing in preparation for anything, and he is openly standing in front of him with his hunting knife back in its sheath and both hands in view as if he has nothing to hide. The older man’s voice didn’t waver at all during his little speech either, but that could potentially mean the words belong to an experienced bounty hunter’s frequently rehearsed dialogue.
Only knowing the man for a few days and only interacting for several hours isn’t helping his decision process either. For all Yuuri knows, he could be a pathological liar, he could be a cocky bastard, or he could be telling the truth. Taking a deep breath in, he continues to watch the man with a heavy, critical eye as he finally responds.
“I admit your theory may have some merit, but there is no proof before my eyes that can back up your claim.”
“Would you be willing to join me for a meeting back in town then? I have all the proof I need for you in my current dwelling.”
The raven haired man simply scoffs.
“If you think I’m stupid enough to willingly go back to your little gang all on my own after this, then you are foolishly mistaken.”
Yuuri’s words hold a threatening air, and he notices the effect they have on the other man as Chris tries to relax his posture even further and gives an almost pleading look.
“Then how about I come to you. Allow the opportunity for me and one of my men to explain. We can come by your house later tonight, and you and your family can hear us out.” Chris pauses, changing his tone from a serious note to one that is much gentler. “I mean you no harm Yuuri, but the truth about our past is far from well known, and you of all people deserve to know.”
It’s risky. He knows that. But he would be lying to himself if he said that the topic of conversation did not peak his curiosity. All of the information he has received about the past has come from his mother, but even then, her knowledge is limited, and publicly talking about the rebellion is considered taboo, not to mention a death sentence if the wrong people become suspicious. But to top it all off, despite everything that has transpired, Yuuri still feels a small inkling in the back of his mind urging him to trust the man.
“Fine.” He spits out. “As soon as we get back to town I expect you to arrive at my house within ten minutes. If you aren’t there with your acquaintance by then, I will assume you mean my family harm and I will not hesitate to come and kill you myself.”
A smirk grows on Chris’ face.
“Deal. I never expected you of all people to be so intense Yuuri, the small town boy is a fitting look for you.”
Yuuri glares at him, almost offended by his statement. No one knows how much of a threat he can be if he wanted to, but before his thoughts start running head first into some kind of power complex, Chris is closing the last of the distance between them, hand reaching forward in an act of solidarity. Their eyes connect once more, and it is easy to feel that the atmosphere has completely changed since earlier today. Yuuri slowly extends his hand to reciprocate, but before they touch, Chris clarifies.
“Truce? At least until we get back to town.”
Yuuri nods. “Truce.”
Finally their hands come together in a firm shake, and both parties take a deep breath to ease some of the tension.
“So… what do we do with the bodies?” The young man immediately inquires after looking around the area once more.
Another lopsided grin creeps onto Chris’ face, but this time his expression almost seems sheepish.
“Well, it’s not the best idea, but…”
Over an hour later, the pair has successfully looted the bandits and are dragging them through the mud, rain, and dense thickets, a good ways into the forest. Since everything is too wet, they can’t burn the bodies, which would have been preferable, and instead they leave them for some wild animals to scavenge and to naturally decompose. Heading back to the road, they quickly collect their gear, bags, and of course the boar, because they can’t just leave their kill when it is the reason they came out here in the first place, and to leave it would be a dreadful waste.
Walking back to town is done in complete silence. Their amiable chatting from earlier abruptly came to a stop after the attack, and it only makes the journey back feel that much longer. As soon as they arrive at the edge of town, Chris veers off to gather what he needs from his place, with a sullen reminder of ten minutes leaving Yuuri’s mouth before he is out of ear shot.
By now, it is way past the time his family expected him to be back, and the lack of sunshine combined with a rough estimate of the hunting trip makes Yuuri guess that it must be somewhere around seven or eight in the evening. Trudging the last half a mile or so to his house, the young man finally pushes through the front door and immediately collapses to his knees, forcing the boar to slide off his shoulders and topple to the floor. The lack of dead weight pushing down on him feels like the sweetest relief, and he hears someone shout as footsteps come rushing towards him, but the exhaustion is starting to catch up to him.
A little groggy, he lifts up his head and tries to look around, seeing his mother and sister kneeling in front of him and gently checking over his body. He winces as his mother touches his left cheek, making him remember the hard punch he received earlier, but as soon as he comes to terms with the pain, a bright, green, glow begins to radiate in front of his face. A fuzzy warm sensation tickles its way around his cheek and lip, and it only takes a moment for him to register that his mother is using her magic. Small sparks sizzle and jump across his skin, heating and healing each and every area that has even the most superficial scrapes until there is no more aches residing in his body. He wonders exactly how beat up he must look to his family, but as the colourful light fades away, they begin to look a lot less concerned.
Without a moment’s notice, they are attempting to help him stand, and it takes them a couple of minutes to guide him to the back and settle him on the couch upstairs. His mother and sister leave the room quickly in order for Mari to fetch a blanket, wrapping it around him at the same time that his mother returns with some tea. As he gratefully accepts the cup and takes his first tentative sip, he is already starting to feel much better, but the moment of silence is hastily broken.
“Yuuri, what in the gods name happened to you?”
Hiroko sounds like she’s on the verge of tears, but he briefly takes another sip before clearing his throat and starting to talk. All three members of his family are settled on the two couches in the room, listening patiently to every word that spills from his mouth. By the time he reaches the recollection of the ambush, their faces turn from concerned to absolute horror. He recalls everything that he can remember, and when he admits to using his magic they are all wearing different expressions. His father seems to be in quiet contemplation, and his mother looks like she can understand and accepts what happened, but Mari wears the physical manifestation of absolute betrayal.
“How could you do such a stupid thing!?” She interrupts, shouting at the top of her lungs.
“I couldn’t just leave him, Mari.” Yuuri firmly states.
“You don’t know him. He’s an outsider to this town. And no one would have even bat an eye at a foreigner being robbed and killed in the woods. You should have walked away when you had the chance and left him to die.”
“He saved dad’s life, Mari. If it all happened again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
She sighs and huffs out a laugh of frustration. “So what did he say once you saved him? Thanks for giving me an opportunity to get rich quick?”
“Well…” Yuuri hesitates. “That’s where it gets complicated.”
A sudden knocking coming from downstairs pulls everyone’s attention towards the staircase. Mari, Hiroko, and Toshiya, all snap their heads back to look at Yuuri, who gives them an innocent smile in return.
“Before anyone answers that,” Yuuri begins, “just know that Chris has important information about the rebellion that he wanted to share with us. I want to say that I trust him, but be on your guard. He should only be here to explain a few things with one of his friends, and if after everything you still don’t trust him, well, I’ll leave that up to you.”
Everyone then gives Yuuri a pointed look, stunned into silence after everything they’ve been told in such a short amount of time. Another loud round of knocking starts, and the sound causes both Yuuri and Hiroko to stand. They share a glance before the two calmly walk back down the stairs, and before turning towards the front, a shadowy figure outside the back door catches their attention. His mother steps forward in order to peak through the window, and from what Yuuri can see, two men, both wearing long, dark cloaks with the hoods up, stand outside in the rain. Trusting her son, Hiroko reluctantly unlocks the door, only opening it partially as she assess the strangers.
“Good evening ma’am.” A deep voice addresses her, coming from the large man in front. “My name is Christophe Giacometti. I believe your son has informed you about our visit?”
Looking back and forth between the pair, she hesitates before opening the door all the way and allowing them inside. Quickly stepping out of the way, Yuuri begins to head back upstairs as the men thank Hiroko. He can hear them being ushered to take off their boots and coats, and not before long they are headed upstairs. Once the family is back together and all settled on one couch, the foreign men take a seat on the only other available option. Chris immediately starts extracting papers from a satchel and placing them on the coffee table, neatly organizing and deliberately placing a series of worn down parchments depicting letters, pictures, and maps, before being the first to speak up.
“Now, I’m sure Yuuri has informed you of the situation, and I would like to reiterate that I am not here with any ill will or alternative motives. I am here solely for the spread of information, and me and my colleague will be happy to answer any questions you might have. Speaking of which, Katsuki family, please meet my friend, Phichit Chulanont. Phichit, meet the Katsuki’s.”
Yuuri turns his attention to the dark haired boy, quietly assessing him along with the rest of his family. He is young, probably around his own age, but his skin holds a darker tan than his own, and his bright, brown eyes portray a constant feeling of warmth and happiness. The man doesn’t seem to fold under any of the scrutiny he is being held under, and he continues to simply smile at the family as they look him over. After a moment, he finally speaks up.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you all! It’s not often that I come across new magicians.”
Mari is quick to reply. “You’ve met others?”
“You bet!” Phichit’s enthusiasm is almost too much given the situation. “I believe I’ve met a total of five if I include you three. Eight if I include my family.”
The simple statement makes everyone’s ears perk up.
“D-did you just say your family?” Yuuri stutters.
The young man lets out a bright laugh.
“That’s right! I’m a magician too!”
Chapter 9: Rewrite Your Life
As always, Mari is blunt.
“Sure!” The young man exclaims.
Phichit seems way too excited about everything as he gives the family another huge smile.
‘Doesn’t he know that magicians are supposed to be in discrete if they value their lives?’ Yuuri thinks, as he watches the man quickly unclip a small, metal keychain from his belt.
Lifting the piece up, the foreign man showcases the item so that everyone can see a silver statue shaped like an elephant. All eyes are on the little figurine, and when Phichit believes he has everyone’s rapt attention, it starts to shimmer and give off a bright white light. Someone lets out a small gasp, but Yuuri is too focused on the demonstration to pay any mind as to who it came from. The magic only lasts a few seconds, and when the glowing subsides, a metal hamster is now being held in the palm of the young man’s hand.
“That’s incredible.” Yuuri breathes.
Phichit beams before clasping the figure back onto his belt.
“I can do it with any sort of object too. I have the ability to perform transmutation. I can’t make anything less turn into more or vice versa, but I can take any object and manipulate it into something else made out of the same material.”
Yuuri, Mari, and Toshiya, are in awe over what they’ve just witnessed, the three of them having never observed magic outside of their own family. To them, other magic users were merely a myth, something that could not be proven no matter how much they wanted it because it would be too dangerous. Meanwhile, Hiroko is just smiling happily. She is the only member of their family that has seen strangers performing magic before, and even though it was a long time ago, she seems quite pleased to watch the event once again. Yuuri looks back over to Chris who is wearing a familiar smug grin, but being friends with a magician hasn’t backed up any of his other claims.
“So,” Yuuri begins, “you are indeed acquainted with another magician, but you said that you have information?” He says, as he skeptically eyes the documents that have been distributed on the table.
Chris clears his throat and readjusts his posture on the couch.
“Of course. First let me begin by explaining the business of our caravan. Our group is an underground movement, exclusively known only by our members and the few magicians we meet along the way. We do not have a collective name in order to reduce the chances of the wrong people finding us, but we have been operating for the past four years. Normally this type of meeting is handled by our captain, but since he is still out of town, the second in command, yours truly, is filling the position for the time being.”
Chris pauses to assess the family. Everyone has fallen into a serious mood, patiently waiting, straight faced, and intently watching each of the older man’s movements. After another few seconds of silence, he must receive their soundless observation as an indication to continue.
“As you all probably know, information regarding magicians is few and far between. Locations of any survivors are either rumors or non-existent, and so coming across a family like yourselves is truly extraordinary. Originally, there was only three of us. The trio came together because we noticed an anomaly in some of the information we were receiving from friends, family, and historical records. In all honesty, it was almost a fluke that we realized something was wrong. What started off as an argument between friends over who was right, quickly turned into the discovery of what could very well be the biggest cover up in history.”
Chris then takes a moment to point out one of the pages on the far left of the table. All the documents are facing the family so that they can easily read the information, and the one that the man is motioning to is definitely recognizable.
“You can probably already tell that this is an original copy of the official statement given to citizens, declaring the state of emergency when the Cursed Ones began to terrorize the land. It explains that a small, fascist, magical group had formed, and that their goal is to take control over society and cement the idea that magicians are superior to non-magic users. Along the bottom, they encouraged people to submit any information they might have on the group or report any suspicious magical behaviour.”
Chris moves to point a finger at the adjacent black and white print to the right of the declaration. A quick look shows a family cowering in fear from a large, silhouetted, stereotypical, magician, with lightening shooting out from their fingertips as they tower over a town.
“This, is a piece of propaganda that we found. It was distributed alongside other similar posters to all soldiers, and they were also posted in public areas as the man-hunt for the Cursed Ones continued. By this point, everyone knew of the radical group, but they weren’t specifically targeting them anymore, rather moving to suggest all magicians, just in case.”
The last few words are said with a sarcastic tone and dramatic air quotes, and Yuuri can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the man’s nonchalant behaviour over such a serious topic. His family is all too familiar with the information so far, but the sheer amount of papers still left on the table only confirms that Chris’ story must be building up to something.
“After about six months, there wasn’t much change in society. Sure people might have been suspicious of strangers, but they still trusted their friends, and this is where things got messy. On the night of April 13th, fifty years ago, six different villages were brutally attacked. These locations have been marked on our map over here.” The man says as he slides a large map over to the left half of the coffee table, revealing even more, smaller notes and papers on the right. “It would take at least a day’s ride on horseback between any of these places, and the census reports for each spot averaged to have at least one magician for every two or three non-magic users. This in itself is suspicious, because how could such a small radical movement, successfully overthrow six villages in one night, when there had to be at least fifty to one hundred magicians in each town. That statistic is preposterous. Any able bodied individual would have fought back against their attackers, and although small, the villages shouldn’t have been so easily overrun with magicians on both sides. However, at the end of the raids, each village was burned to the ground, and all reports claimed that the party responsible was solely comprised of magicians belonging to the Cursed Ones. Now, as we all know, this night is where most of the fear of magicians was drawn from, and that is exactly what somebody wanted.”
“How could you be so sure that the group didn’t just multiply over time and build their forces?” Mari interrupts. “They could have easily used those six months to recruit more allies, and then execute their plan.” The young woman raises her eyebrow and crosses her arms, making her skepticism known.
“Very good question Mari, and to answer it I have a spearhead to prove it.”
Chris proceeds to take out an old, badly burned, relic, less than a foot long. The wooden stick is snapped at one end, and at the other sits a sharp, steel point, embedded into the wood with a short, decorative mount. In this day and age it isn’t exactly uncommon to see spears used as a hunting weapon even when archery is usually the method of choice, but the engraved stars and flourishing swirls are easily recognizable as a distinct feature of the capital. It is well known that the weapons and armor equipped by soldiers is famously decorated with the Kingdom’s official insignia, and a military presence milling around town is far from odd, but Mari just gives the blonde man another pointed look, as if telling Chris to explain the objects relevance.
“This piece was recovered from the first of the six towns our group visited. There isn’t much left in any of the locations other than piles of rubble and burnt wood, but we all know some things don’t burn as well as others.” Chris states, as he wiggles the piece in his hand. “Swords, spears, shields, and armor, were found in the hundreds at each spot, and no small town would be so heavily equipped for battle, let alone be using high grade materials such as steel. Only the capital city of Amherst could supply this much gear with such high quality, and to say that there was hundreds of soldiers already residing in each of the six towns is outrageous. If it were truly a battle consisting of a rebellious magician group, then they would have little use of such trivial weapons as I’m sure some of you can attest to.”
Silence falls over the room as Chris takes another brief pause, and the man glances over at Yuuri as he says the last few words as if emphasizing his point. It is easy to tell that the gears are slowly turning in each of their heads, as all of them are wearing similar contemplative expressions, looking on with squinted eyes as they scrutinize the documents laid before them. The sheer amount of information they are receiving rewrites everything they may have thought about the revolution, and it doesn’t help that Chris is able to answer any questions they might have as he continues his explanation.
“And how do we know that the armor and weapons you have supposedly witnessed is true?” Toshiya speaks up.
“I can answer that.” Phichit chimes in. “My family is actually from the village of Trent, one of the six places that was burned to the ground.”
Everyone snaps their gaze to stare wide eyed at the innocent looking young man in front of them.
“Obviously I wasn’t alive yet,” he quickly continues, “but my mother and father were both born and raised there for a short time until the night of the attack. They were only eight and eleven when it happened, but their families were good friends before it all went south. That night, they were awakened by screaming. Their parents forced them out of bed, and fearing for their lives, they immediately tried to escape. My grandmother is the one who is solely responsible for my being here today, as her magic gave her the ability to alter the awareness of others. They watched, practically invisible to any passerby, as their homes were pillaged and sacked by an army of soldiers from the capital, but they managed to make their way out of town before obviously going into hiding.”
Chris takes this as his cue to speak up once again, pointing at a letter at the right end of the table.
“It was the day after the attacks that another official statement was released. Using the six villages as an example, it insists that all magicians are a threat, and states that no individual should be trusted. It was easy to ramp up the horrible destruction that occurred, as the people who created the notice relied heavily on graphic descriptions of the violence, easily swaying the non-magic users so that they became scared for their lives. This is also when they requested that any and all magicians or magical activity was to be reported to the giant surplus of guards now roaming the kingdom, and of course that is when the raids on magical homes started, and I’m sure you all know the rest.”
Shock. That is the only thing Yuuri can comprehend at the moment. Someone had actively tried to wipe out every single magical person and no one even knows about it. The rest of his family looks equally disturbed, and his mother raises her hand in order to gently wipe a few tears off her cheeks. Toshiya quickly wraps an arm around her shoulders, trying to provide some sort of comfort as she is forced to relive everything her family had suffered through. This time, however, her harsh memories are now accompanied with the realization that her father was killed just because someone wanted them out of the picture.
Naturally, Mari is the first one to speak up, but this time her voice is barely more than a breath, and much more vulnerable than before.
“Why? Who would do such a horrible thing?”
“That’s something we have yet to figure out.” Chris calmly replies, sympathetically looking at each family member. “Over the past four years, our group has traveled around in order to find out the truth, and along the way, we meet people like Phichit. People who hold little bits and pieces of the puzzle that we’re working on putting together.”
More silence follows as they let the information sink in. Yuuri looks at all of the papers spread before him once more, and mulls it over in his head. With everything Chris and Phichit described, and each letter, declaration, and shred of proof they had compiled on the table before them, it is getting hard to deny the horrible possibility that this is the real truth. But the longer he thinks about it all, the more plausible it seems. Lifting his head to meet Chris’ eyes, he stares straight into the deep green colour before speaking up.
“Why does your group want to find out what really happened?”
Chris eagerly meets his gaze, focusing all of his attention on him and giving him a warm smile.
“Because we want to see the day where magic can be reunited with society. Not just for our benefit, but so that my friends, like Phichit, and people like your family, can stop living like they might be killed if they dare show who they really are. I told you that I just want to help, and everyone in our group has their own personal reasons for joining our cause as well, but personally, I believe that maybe one day we’ll all be free, and magic could very well be the answer that can heal the scars created by so much madness.”
Yuuri blinks. He wasn’t expecting such a genuine answer, but now he knows he made the right decision earlier when he saved the man’s life. Thinking everything over, he realizes that deep down he has always hoped that one day things might get better, that one day he won’t have to hike an hour out of town just to make the wind pick up and the rain flow around him in a dance. There could be a time where his family doesn’t have to hide anymore, where his mother could become the village healer and even Mari could probably find a way to utilize her abilities. But Chris’ group is out in the world trying to do exactly that. Actively working together to make things better rather than sitting around and waiting for someone else to make a change. That thought is all it takes for Yuuri to decide, and he rapidly stands up only to hastily bend into a deep bow.
“Please, let me join your group until magic can finally return to the kingdom.”
Chapter 10: Katsuki Love
The words have barely left his mouth before a crushing silence fills the room. Out of all the ways he expected his life to go, let alone the past twenty four hours, this was definitely an unexpected turn of events. As Yuuri remains standing in a deep bow, the lack of response is beginning to make a lump form in his throat. The sudden burst of confidence and determination has rapidly died as his mind finally comprehends all of the repercussions of his actions, and yet he can’t bring himself to move a muscle, waiting for someone else to break the tension.
“It might take years Yuuri. Are you prepared to leave your family behind to join our cause?” Chris asks.
There is a moment of hesitation.
“Yes.” He breathes out.
“Are you sure?” The older man questions once again. “We don’t stay in one place for too long and we don’t exactly come back to visit. You need to be dedicated, willing to live on the road. Not only that but you are a magician, the chances of your discovery will significantly increase when you leave the safety of your home. Just like Phichit, your life will be in jeopardy out in the open, and considering the rumors, it’s a dangerous risk.”
“Rumors?” Yuuri inquires, finally straightening his posture and staring at Chris with a confused look on his face.
“Nasty rumors.” Phichit adds with a grim expression. “People claim that any magicians discovered by the guards are immediately arrested and taken into custody. Not only that, but if a citizen reports one, they pay a bounty for turning them in, and sadly that motivates the wrong kind of people. As far as I know, no one has ever heard from any one of them ever again, but people still talk. They say that magicians who are captured are taken away to be experimented on with horrible, inhumane methods, and according to some it’s practically torture. Of course no one has ever supplied proof for these claims, but myths always seem to have some shred of truth that they are based off of.”
The Katsuki family knows all too well of the bounty hunters that make their way from town to town trying to make some easy money, but thankfully they’ve never had anyone cause any trouble in Hasu. That being said, it still doesn’t stop the word of mouth that travels around as well, and Phichit is right when he mentioned that no one knows for sure what happens after the arrest. Everyone is staring expectantly at Yuuri now. Chris and Phichit seem to be patiently waiting for his response, but his family is wearing similarly shocked expressions at the sudden development. After he still doesn’t speak up for another lengthy minute, Mari finally stands up beside him.
“You can’t seriously be considering this Yuuri. It’s practically a suicide mission! There’s no point in you going if it costs you your life.”
Something about his older sister’s words stings. Half of him thinks that maybe it is because he is just too stubborn to admit she’s right, but the other half is screaming at him to defend his decision and prove himself to be more than capable of making his own choices.
“But there is a reason. If we can find out why everything happened the way it did, then maybe one day we can finally live the lives we all wanted in the first place. We wouldn’t be hiding anymore, and we wouldn’t have to worry about one of us leaving the house and never coming back.”
“But we do Yuuri!” She firmly states as her voice begins to grow louder. “You! You may never come back!”
It only takes a few seconds before angry tears start sliding down Mari’s cheeks. It is not often that she lets her emotions show so easily, but Yuuri knows for a fact that when it comes to her family she defends them without restraint. He also knows that she is just trying to protect him, and seeing his sister cry pulls at his heart strings, making his earlier conviction waiver.
‘Maybe I should just stay. Let Chris and his team finish the work they’ve started while I help take care of my family... But if I leave and we can finally be magicians again, then we wouldn’t need to be struggling so much anyway…’
Yuuri finally takes a moment to look over at his parents who are still sitting next to each other on the couch. Based off of their sullen features and hunched shoulders, it is obvious that they are disheartened to hear the current debate, but he knows that in the end they will support him no matter what. Especially his mother. Everything that she had to go through in her life isn’t fair, and leaving his family will be another hard step for them all, but if he has the chance to make things right for her and every other magician in the kingdom and didn’t do anything to help, he knows that he will regret it until the day he dies. Taking a deep breath in, he turns back to his sister and strengthens his resolve.
“I’m sorry Mari. Just know that I want to do this. I want to do this so that you, mom, and dad, can be safe. There is no guarantee that once I leave I’m never coming back, and as soon as this is over, I will come back, I promise you that.”
His decision is a heavy weight filling the space, and it feels like ages before someone acknowledges his choice, but the next thing he knows Mari is crushing him in a bruising hug. He quickly wraps his arms around her and leans into the embrace, relishing in the familiar contact between siblings and ignoring the growing wet patch he can feel on his shoulder. But between the tears and sobbing breaths, Mari eventually manages to mumble a few words into his shirt.
“You better keep that promise.”
Hearing her sound so broken makes him squeeze her even tighter, and the sentimentality of it all makes his eyes water. Both Toshiya and Hiroko take the opportunity to stand, joining in on the hug without a care in the world that their guests are quietly watching the whole scene unfold. Then, just like a twig snapping, Yuuri finally starts crying, and they all find comfort in each other’s presence as they hold on to the moment for a little bit longer.
A minute or two passes by, and a throat clearing brings them all back to reality as they proceed to separate and sit back down on the couch with red rimmed eyes. Yuuri looks over to see Chris standing now, looking apologetic for having to break up the beautiful moment, but the man apparently needs to wrap things up. He looks over his shoulder and nods to Phichit, and without any questions, the young man immediately starts packing up their papers. The blonde quickly turns back to address the family, and a small smile graces his features as he notices that they have moved to sit together as close as they possibly can on the couch.
“Sorry to interrupt but we need to be heading back for the night. Our captain should be returning either tonight or tomorrow morning, and we will be heading out before noon. Yuuri, please bring your personal effects to the hostel at 10:00 a.m. the latest. We have horses and covered carriages, so pack anything you might want to bring with you on the road.”
Yuuri quickly nods his understanding and the man promptly continues.
“I assume you all know to keep the existence of our group to yourselves. Thank you for trusting me and hearing me out. I hope to bring you good news the next time we meet.”
With that, Chris offers a slight bow to the family before he accepts his satchel from Phichit and the pair head back down the stairs. The family can hear them grabbing their boots and jackets, followed by the well-known sound of the back door opening and closing shortly after, but they all remain seated. So much has happened in one day that changes their lives forever, and the quiet contemplation is eventually broken by the sound of Yuuri’s soft voice.
“I’m going to miss all of you so much.”
He feels another round of tears already threatening to spill from his eyes, and as he is taking another deep breath his mother is the first to reply.
“And we’re going to miss you even more. Just promise that you’ll be careful out there. I know you might want to believe that there are still good people in the world, but please, do not let people use that against you.”
The serious tone can only imply that her life of experience has taught her some valuable lessons, and Yuuri takes her words to heart before his sister speaks up.
“As soon as you get home safe and sound I’m going to kick your ass for leaving.”
Mari’s attempt at lightening the mood works, and her loving threat only makes Yuuri smile as the tension between them fades into a sense of sibling solidarity. The next thing he knows, the familiar low tone of his father’s voice is joining in on the giant ball of sappy commentary.
“As you know, I don’t know how any of you might feel when you speak about magic, but I do know one thing, that the atrocities that were committed fifty years ago didn’t stop at the magicians. Every single person alive during that time has walked away with a scar if they survived, be it physical or emotional. My only wish is that you go out there and make a difference in this world Yuuri, not just for us, but for everyone.”
Generally Toshiya is a man of few words, but when he does speak, it usually contains a certain wisdom that can only be attained by a person far beyond his years. Yuuri takes each and every sentence they spoke and locks them away in his mind for later, preferring to cherish the time that they have together now before his choice takes him away for gods knows how long. But right now he has his family, and he appreciates every second he gets with them.
“I love you guys.” He whispers.
Opening up his arms, everyone cuddles back together as they all voice their feelings as well. It has been an extraordinarily long day and a surprisingly late night. Everyone is exhausted, and it is not long until they all decide that they need to get some rest. Untangling themselves from each other’s limbs, they say their goodnights before retreating to their rooms while Hiroko quickly runs downstairs to lock up.
As soon as his bedroom door clicks closed behind him, Yuuri takes a moment to lean back against the wood and let everything sink in. Finally alone, a cold chill sweeps over his body, and he quickly strips out of his still damp clothes and hangs them over the foot of his bed. He can’t help but shiver now that he isn’t surrounded by a warm blanket or even warmer family members, and so he pulls on a pair of clean boxers and slides under the covers, desperately conserving his only heat source. As his body eventually relaxes into the soft mattress, he finds himself staring up at the ceiling as he begins to ruminate on what’s to come.
‘This may be the last time I get to sleep in my own bed… and this will be the first time I ever leave town in my life... I wonder how long it will take to complete the mission… or if we ever will… I guess if we never get to the bottom of everything I would probably be allowed to come back and die of old age at least... But I know that one day things will eventually work out one way or another, and if we can finally live happy and free in my lifetime it would be even better… And yet, even if I believe that, it is still going to be so hard being so far away from my family… It’s not like I want to leave them for no reason… but I love them… and I will do anything to keep them safe, and hopefully, make their lives better.’
Yuuri’s thoughts drift around in his head as he lays still, patiently waiting and yet silently begging for sleep to claim him. It is always hard to fully relax when he is thinking so much, but soon, the quiet settles around him, and he mercifully slips into a dreamless sleep before he leaves his childhood home forever.
Chapter 11: The New Recruit
As the morning sun begins to rise, the Katsuki’s begin to stir. Yuuri shifts in his sleep as the sunlight starts to stream through his window, but he refuses to move for the moment, perfectly content with trying to avoid the day for as long as he possibly can. A solid beam of light slowly crawls across his room until it finally rests directly on his face, but he quickly pulls the covers over his head, attempting to cling to what little darkness he has left. It’s not long before it becomes too hot and uncomfortable, and so resigning to his fate, he throws off the sheets and sits up with a groan, gently rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he arches his back and stretches his limbs. He can hear the birds begin to sing out in the forest, and the familiar surroundings ground him to the peaceful moment. Breathing in the familiar scent of home, he takes his time looking around his minimalistic room and thinking about everything that has happened in his life that led him to this point.
The few minutes of silence are suddenly broken when a soft knock raps on his door. Before he can respond, the door is slowly pushed open and his mother peaks inside. She gives Yuuri a small smile and he returns the gesture.
"Good morning baby boy.” She softly says.
“Good morning mom.”
“You should come down and eat something before you head out.”
He solemnly nods. “I will.”
With another lengthy glance at her son, Hiroko eventually retreats back through the door and heads downstairs, and Yuuri is left to himself once again. With a sigh, he stands up and heads over to the lone cabinet in the small room, taking out his only backpack and laying it on his bed. Leisurely, he changes into some fresh clothes, attempts to comb his hair with his fingers, and starts packing the rest of his belongings into the bag. Several shirts, a couple pants, some socks, underwear, two sweaters, his long cloak, and a heavy jacket. Neatly folding and inserting them into the knapsack, he finishes all of his packing in a matter of minutes, but all the while he wonders if he should bring something to remind him of home as well. If he had the option, he would pack up and move a single hot spring wherever he went, but unfortunately, that’s one comfort he will have to live without. Looking towards his bedside table, Yuuri considers a potential contender as he eyes his most prized possession.
When he was only ten years old, there was a caravan that came into the village. They were a troupe of entertainers that travelled from town to town, hosting a fair for a few nights before moving on. His family was lucky enough to gain their business while they were in town, and a young Yuuri managed to befriend some of the members during their stay. One night, a woman that was as kind as Hiroko, decided to repay the Katsuki’s hospitality by sketching a picture of their family, dedicating it to a sweet little boy that never failed to make her smile.
Yuuri moves to pick up the now framed, old paper from the table and gently smiles, carefully running his finger along the edges as he reminisces over his youth. It’s time for a new chapter in his life, but not a day will go by that he won’t miss his family. Taking a moment to think, he carefully removes the worn parchment out of the bulky frame, and quickly takes the drawing out into the sitting area. Pulling a small book from one of the shelves, he flips it open and carefully places the picture inside before shutting the novel and moving back into his room. He tucks the small book into his bag, closes the latch, and takes one last look around, trying to think if there is anything else he might need. When nothing comes to mind, he shoulders his backpack, heads to the door, and glances back one last time before he heads downstairs.
The rest of his family is busy in the kitchen, prepping for their day. Toshiya is back on his feet, Mari is making some porridge for breakfast, and Hiroko is already cutting up vegetables. As soon as they notice Yuuri leaning against the doorframe watching them, they all take a break from their work to eat together. There is an underlying tension among the family this morning, and although it is not hostile, it is still strong enough to create a sense of unease that permeates the air. A weak attempt to keep up some light conversation is made by the four family members, but they all know they are just trying to avoid the heavy topic of what’s to come.
When breakfast is completed, the time finally arrives for Yuuri to leave, and everyone groups together in a big hug as they stand in the middle of the kitchen. Tears are shed by them all, but no one attempts to move away, as they all choose to relish in the final moments that they have together for the foreseeable future. Finally, Mari takes a deep breath before taking a step back, and the others follow.
“We’re all going to miss you.” Mari states, voice wavering slightly.
“I know. And I’m going to miss all of you just as much.” Yuuri manages to say, fighting to force out his voice past the rapidly growing lump in his throat.
“Please be careful baby boy. Even if you never figure out the truth, you can always come back home, no matter what.” Hiroko reminds him, smiling at her son.
“And remember, we will always love you and we’ll be waiting for you to come home.” Toshiya quickly adds.
Yuuri has to hold back more tears as he watches his family give him their blessings. He quickly nods when he realizes that no more words are able to leave his mouth without him breaking down, and so he gives them the most encouraging smile he can muster before taking a deep breath and grabbing his backpack. Heading towards the front door, they say their goodbyes one final time and Yuuri steps outside. If he looks back now, he might not be able to leave, and so he strengthens his resolve, stares straight ahead, and keeps walking away from his home and towards the center of town.
The farther he goes, the easier he finds it is to breathe again. The fresh air is helping calm his nerves, while focusing on his walking and his expectations of what’s to come occupies his thoughts just enough to avoid thinking too much about his family. His feet expertly take him farther into town, and not even five minutes later, he finds himself staring at the hustle and bustle happening in front of the lodge.
The normally relaxing and calm atmosphere, has been replaced with dozens of men moving back and forth between the housing and several stationary carriages sitting nearby. They are all carrying out large boxes, backpacks, and duffle bags, and loading them into the limited space. A constant thrumming of murmurs and movement of both the caravans and curious townsfolk fills the area, and Yuuri looks around to see if he can find a familiar face. He slowly walks forward, scanning the crowd for the two people he actually knows, when he suddenly locks eyes with an excited young man whose answering smile is surprisingly reassuring. Phichit quickly drops off the box he was carrying at one of the wagons and immediately runs over to greet him.
“Yuuri! I am so glad you came!” Phichit exclaims with a big smile plastered on his face as he lifts Yuuri up in a big hug.
“U-uh, yeah.” Yuuri giggles as he is swung around in a large circle like a ragdoll.
It is hard to refrain from laughing when the bubbly person in front of him produces enough joy for a whole city, and once his feet are back on the ground, he finds himself with a smile on his face and a much lighter heart.
“Mind giving me some help figuring out what to do? I just got here and I don’t want to get in the way.”
Another thousand watt smile is thrown at Yuuri before he is grabbed by the wrist and led towards the wagons. They carefully make their way through the commotion, and as they approach, he examines three covered carriages grouped together, two of which are already filled with an assortment of gear. In the third, he sees a man arranging the luggage to make sure everything fits, and when they walk up to the back, he stops his work to stare at the odd pair.
“Hey Phichit! Who’s your friend?”
The strangers happy tone is a stark contrast to his deep blue iris’ that rove over the young man, scrutinizing every inch of his body. As he stands to his full height in the back of the wagon, Yuuri can tell the man is muscular but lean. His pale skin, dark black hair, and narrow face, easily peg him as another foreigner, but denote that his origins are from a location separate from Phichit and Chris.
“This is my new friend Yuuri!” Phichit enthusiastically begins. “He lives in the village over at Yutopia. He’s the one Chris told us about, and now he has decided he wants to come with us!”
Apparently that is all the explanation the other man needs before he smiles. “It’s nice to meet you Yuuri. My name is Georgi Popovich, but of course you can just call me Georgi. Any friend of Phichit’s is a friend of mine.”
Yuuri gives the man a polite smile. “It’s nice to meet you too.”
“You can leave your bag here with him and he’ll store it for you.” Phichit supplies, and Yuuri quickly follows the advice given by his companion and hands over his backpack. “In the meantime, we can go introduce you to some of the other members of our group!”
Before Yuuri can register Phichit’s sentence, a firm hand slips down his back and gropes his ass. He lets out an undignified squeak and jumps away from the touch, spinning around to face the person behind him. Chris’ laugh fills his ears as he tries to calm down and control the colour rushing to his cheeks, and soon any attempt is thwarted as the older man sends him a cheeky wink.
“Well, well, well. Yuuri, I must say I’m glad you came.”
The emphasis on his greeting and the smirk makes Yuuri stutter.
“H-hi Chris. Phichit was just about to introduce me to some of the others.”
“That would be wonderful, but it will have to wait. I want to introduce you to our captain, and Phichit has to help with the last few duties before we head out.”
A strong pout fills the tanned man’s face before he reluctantly accepts his fate. “Fine… We’ll talk again soon Yuuri!” With that, Phichit quickly turns and hurries off towards some grazing horses that still needed to be saddled up.
Yuuri looks back to Chris, who gives his head a little tilt backwards, suggesting that the younger man should follow. As they proceed walk over to the front entrance of the hostel, Yuuri can’t help but feel a little nervous about meeting the mysterious captain, and he silently hopes that the man isn’t as stone cold and strict as some of the captains he’s heard about over the years from other caravans. The pair quickly walk through the front door, and as Yuuri looks around, he can see the inside is a simple set up with a plain, old, front desk in the center of the foyer, and hallways on either side that immediately lead to the rooms. Chris smoothly guides them down one of the corridors to a room in the back corner, and when they finally enter, Yuuri’s breath is taken away.
Inside the room, a tall, slender man is standing, hunched over a desk and looking at a map. He is dressed in a simple white button down and brown pants, with a longsword sitting in its sheath on his hips. The man’s clothing accents the lithe, muscular build underneath, and as Yuuri’s eyes trail upwards, he notices that he has the most unusual, yet oddly fitting, short platinum hair, with a fringe that hangs across his left eye. Speaking of eyes, the moment they fully enter, the man looks up to acknowledge his visitors, and the morning sun that sprinkles through the window is making his eyes light up like a crystal clear sky in the middle of summer, with a colour just as blue. Upon seeing Chris, the man gives him a huge open mouthed smile, eyes gently crinkling at the corners as the grin expands across the man’s flawless face, and Yuuri finds himself frozen to the spot, mouth slightly agape as he takes in the sight before him. Once the man is done greeting his friend, his attention turns to Yuuri, and something odd flashes in his eyes but it is quickly replaced by a warm, sincere smile.
'I don't think I've ever seen anyone as beautiful as him...' Yuuri's sudden intrusive thought surprises himself.
“Captain,” Chris begins, “may I introduce you to Yuuri Katsuki, the man I informed you about earlier this morning.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you Yuuri.” The man walks closer and he reaches out to grab Yuuri’s hand that is still hanging loosely by his side. “We’re all happy to have you joining our little band of misfits.” With those few words, he gently grasps and raises the young man’s hand, placing a brief kiss to the back of it with a wink, and if that wasn’t enough, another heart stopping smile is aimed in Yuuri’s direction.
Red crashes over his entire face and he is left gaping at the man before him.
‘Is everyone in this group so forward?’
The thought is interrupted when he realizes he is going to need to speak like a normal human being, and he fumbles for a moment before responding.
“T-the honor is all mine Captain.”
The man laughs, the sweet sound enticing Yuuri even further into his own rabbit hole.
“Just Victor is fine. Chris just likes to be formal with newbies around.”
“Oh. Okay then. It’s nice to meet you, Victor.” He surprises himself again with how normal he sounds.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Yuuri.”
Another look passes across the man’s face as Yuuri’s name effortlessly rolls off of Victor’s tongue, but he quickly turns back to the map he was examining on the table before anything else occurs.
“Have you decided on where to go next?” Chris asks.
Welcoming the change of topic, Yuuri starts to focus on gathering his thoughts and breathing normally again while the two group members talk.
“I think we should just head out east towards Luften. We’ll keep our heads down as per usual, but maybe we’ll pick up some useful info along the way.” Victor pauses and looks back towards the two men with a contemplative expression worrying his face. “Do you know how to ride a horse Yuuri?”
Another sudden blush quickly rises as a sense of embarrassment fills the young man. Despite growing up in a small village and spending his life working and helping his family, he never needed to learn how to ride, in fact he’s never even touched a horse before. The redness claiming his cheeks and the hesitation seem to be the only answer the others need.
“It’s alright, I’m sure you’ll learn in no time.” Victor says without an ounce of judgment, his tone putting Yuuri at ease. “But until then, we’ll just let you sit in the front of one of the wagons with someone. Chris, can you introduce him to Mila and explain that Yuuri will be riding along with her?”
“Of course. I believe Georgi was just finishing loading up the rest of the gear when we came inside, so we should be ready to head out in a few minutes.”
“Excellent. I’ll be out in a moment and we can get a move on.” Victor throws one last glance at Yuuri and smiles. “I look forward to getting to know you Yuuri.”
It takes everything Yuuri has to swallow and nod before Victor turns back towards the last few items in the room in order to finish gathering his belongings. Chris chuckles to himself and seems to take this as a dismissal, motioning once again for Yuuri to follow him as he turns to head back outside. He sets a brisk pace but Yuuri is hot on his heels, not wanting to be left on his own as they make their way back to the carriages, and this time, they are all packed to the brim and each hooked up to two horses. Yuuri sees Phichit and Georgi leading some of the single horses out from the back, all saddled up and ready to go, and a few people are climbing onto wagons and hopping into place atop horses, but in total, Yuuri counts only seven people.
“Where did everyone go?” Yuuri asks, confused at the significant decrease in people from earlier.
“Oh, they were just people from a different caravan. There was a few groups coming and going through the town during our stay, so it’s not unusual that we ended up leaving on the same day as some others.”
“So, that means your group only has seven people?”
Chris stops walking and looks back at Yuuri. “Yes, is that a problem?”
“N-no! Of course not. I just expected there to be more of you I guess…”
Chris laughs. “Like I said last night, it’s better if not too many people know about us, and it’s because of that, that we keep our numbers to a reasonable amount.”
Yuuri nods as they continue walking back to the small gathering of people. Chris walks straight up to one of the three people he has yet to meet and strikes up some friendly conversation. Trailing behind, he catches up just as Chris turns to present him to his companion.
“Yuuri, I’d like you to meet Mila Babicheva. You’ll be riding with her for the time being.”
Yuuri quickly observes the woman standing in front of them. She has bright red, wavy hair, which is cut short just above her shoulders. She has a small build and is quite thin, but her face is round and fills with a welcoming smile.
“It’s nice to meet you.” He says once again, as if it is the only way he knows how to greet new people.
Despite what he believes to be a very monotonous response, her blue eyes sparkle and her smile grows bigger as she looks Yuuri over.
“Likewise! We’re a pretty cheery bunch so I hope you’re ready to make some new friends, considering we’re gonna be stuck together for the time being. You especially have to watch out for Phichit, because there is no way to resist his natural charm.”
This makes Yuuri laugh. ”Believe me, I already know I don’t stand a chance against him.”
Mila’s grin becomes wider once again. “And if you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer any you might have along the way. I hear it’s your first time out on the road so don’t hesitate to ask if you want clarification on anything.”
“Thank you, I’ll probably take you up on that.”
Chris takes this moment to interrupt their conversation. “Victor said he was going to be out in a minute so get settled, we’ll be leaving momentarily. I have to go and spread the word, but I trust you’ll be in good hands Yuuri. Good luck!”
Chris gives a final wink at the pair and walks off, and Yuuri finds himself staring at the man’s back before Mila lightly touches his shoulder. He turns his attention toward her as she gives him another warm smile, probably sensing the tension building in his body as their departure gets closer. Giving his arm a squeeze, she turns her body to lead Yuuri to their wagon, and he follows almost mechanically as everything settles in his mind.
‘I’m about to leave. I don’t know where I’m going or where I’ll end up, hell I barely know the group I’m going to be living with for the foreseeable future.’ He tries to take some deep breaths as Mila settles herself on the bench at the front of a carriage, motioning for Yuuri to sit next to her. ‘At least everyone seems to be nice, and if they are truly fighting to save the lives of magicians, then I have no reason to question them, right?’ He climbs up next to Mila, taking a seat and clenching his fists in his lap. ‘Is this really what I want to do? I don’t have any obligation to help these people, even if they want to make things better. But I want to make the world a better place too, and I’m not doing this for them. I’m doing it for me and my family, and that’s what matters.’
“Yuuri? Are you alright?”
Mila’s voice breaks his concentration, and he looks over to see her brow furrowed and concern written across her face.
“I-I’m alright. Just nervous I guess.”
Yuuri doesn’t even notice that he’s wringing his hands together until Mila reaches over and places her small hands over his.
“It’s ok.” Mila says, the cadence of her voice so soft that Yuuri feels compelled to look into her eyes where he can only see a genuine resolve. “I know it is scary leaving home, but you can always come back if you really want to. We’re not kidnapping you, and we’re not cruel. It probably doesn’t help that you don’t really know any of us, and that’s understandable, however, I must say that we are all good people once you get to know us. You know the reason why we’re doing this, so please, promise me you’ll at least try to get to know everyone, and overtime you’ll feel more comfortable and less like an outsider. As of right now, you are already considered a part of our little ragtag family, so if you ever want to consider us a part of yours, then we’ll be happy to have you.”
Her words have a strange calming effect over him, and he feels as if he doesn’t have any other option but to agree, and so he gently nods. She gives him a small smile, and as he smiles back, he hears a loud voice cut through the surrounding noise.
“Alright everyone, now that we’re all ready to go, we will be heading out east towards the next town. We will spend a few days on the road so don’t work the horses too hard. If there’s no objections, let’s get going!”
Victor’s voice rings clear in Yuuri’s mind. This is it. Mila engages the reins, and starts coercing the horses into a slow but steady walk out of town. The rest of the caravan falls into an orderly arrangement, with two single riders in the front, two in the back, and the three carriages sandwiched in between. Chris and Victor are riding up front, followed by Yuuri and Mila’s wagon, then Georgi’s, then another woman with long, dark hair that Yuuri has yet to meet, and then another unknown man is bringing up the rear with Phichit. The group looks as if they have done this a million times. They all easily match speeds and find a comfortable pace for everyone, and it isn’t long until the small village of Hasu disappears behind the trees.
Chapter 12: Rocky Road
Yuuri is fascinated. As soon as they leave, it doesn’t take long for them to roll past the farthest point he has ever travelled before. The cart rattles down the dirt road, and Mila looks like she is surprisingly comfortable on the hard, wooden bench as they bounce along. Yuuri on the other hand, feels as if his butt already wants to die, and it has barely been half an hour. He shifts around on the seat, trying to get a little more comfortable when he hears Mila laugh.
“It’ll be a rough ride for a few days until you get used to it, but we take breaks every few hours for the horses, so at least you have something to look forward to.”
She gives him an amused smile as she readjusts her hold on the reins and turns her attention back to the road. Yuuri finds himself wishing that the next two hours could go by faster, but to pass the time, he decides that he should maybe try making a new friend.
“So, how long have you been with the group?” He manages to ask.
“About three years.” Mila replies easily. “I joined when it was still just Victor, Chris, and Phichit. After that, we met Georgi, Seung-gil, and Sara, all fairly close together during the past two years.”
Yuuri envies how effortlessly the redhead seems to be able to accommodate open conversation, and he tries his best to keep the ball rolling.
“I haven’t met Sara and Seung-gil yet, are they as nice as everyone else?”
A smile creeps onto Mila’s face. “Seung-gil is more of the tsundere, silent type, but Sara, well, she’s the light of my life.”
The woman’s explanation takes Yuuri off guard, and he looks over only to find a lovesick expression plastered on Mila’s face.
“So, you two are together?”
She lets out a fond chuckle. “If we weren’t, I think I would’ve gone crazy by now. We met in a small town similar to yours, and as soon as we saw each other things just fell into place. We were only staying for a few days, but when the time came for me to leave, she packed up her bags and came with me.”
“Wow... Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“What is she like?”
The question makes Mila slip into another dopey grin. “She’s beautiful, kind, bubbly, generous, smart, and the sweetest woman on the face of the earth. I’m sure you’ll like her a lot. Me and her are fairly similar when it comes to personality, so hopefully that means you like me as well.”
“Everyone has been so kind to me so far, there’s no way I couldn’t like you guys. I just hope I’m worth the trouble. After what happened with Chris, I guess I’m still worried that everyone might be scared of me…” Yuuri can’t help but look down, and the young man begins fiddling with his hands in his lap as he waits for a response.
“Yuuri. Please look at me.”
Mila’s words are so soft and gentle, that for a moment he is surprised that he even heard them at all. After a few more seconds of struggling with his self-worth, he reluctantly raises his head, and as their eyes connect, he feels a familiar sense of calm wash over him.
“Do you believe that all people are still scared of magicians?”
“Maybe not everyone…” Yuuri admits. “But Mila, I killed three people, two of them with my magic. There is no way that anyone could look at me and think I’m not a threat once they know what I did.”
“But what you did was in the name of self-defense, plus you saved Chris’ life. We were all informed of the situation this morning, and no one considers you a threat. Please don’t beat yourself up over trying to survive. Do you think any of us are dangerous?”
The question takes Yuuri by surprise. “N-no!” He stammers out. “Of course not!”
“Even after you saw Chris slit a man’s throat?” Mila continues. “When he’s as good as a stranger to you since you’ve only known him for a few days? Scratch that, a few hours?”
Yuuri admits she has a fair point. “Well I was shocked in the beginning… Terrified when it was happening… And after everything was over we were both being very cautious around each other… But we both killed people… After that, he told me about what you guys are doing, and although I’m still a little skeptical, I’ve never felt uncomfortable around him… I know it sounds kind of weird or crazy, but the only reason those men died was because it was either them or us, so in a way we didn’t have a choice… Once I realized that, I never felt like I needed to consider him a potential threat anymore.”
“And I’m sure he felt the same way.”
“But he’s not a magician.” He points out with a sigh. “These days humanity is still convinced that people like me should be arrested or killed because of what we might do. I wouldn’t blame any of you if you still held onto some of those judgments...”
“Yuuri…” Mila sighs. “Do you think I’m dangerous?” She asks, as her voice takes on a somber tone.
“What? I already told you no. Why would I think that?”
“Because I’m a magician too.”
Yuuri’s eyes widen. “What? Really?”
“Yup. My father was one as well but he passed away when I was still young. I learned enough from my mother to understand who and what I am, even though my magic is very subtle.”
“I never realized… If you don’t mind my asking, what are you able to do?”
Mila hums. “It’s kind of hard to describe… I assume Phichit told you about his grandmother?”
Yuuri nods. “A little bit.”
“Well, it’s kind of like that, except for instead of tampering with people’s awareness, I have the ability to calm people down more or less. I can vary the strength of it as well, ranging from relaxing people when they are angry or stressed, to soothing someone so completely that they fall asleep for a short duration of time.”
Blinking, the young man considers how he suddenly felt calmer after they were getting ready to leave. “Did you use your magic on me earlier? Back in Hasu?”
Mila gives him a shy smile. “Yeah… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but you looked like you were about to panic before we left… And when you were being so hard on yourself a few minutes ago I just couldn’t help myself…”
“Is that why Victor told me to ride with you?”
“Maybe? I can’t give you an honest answer since I don’t know how to read minds, but it would be a smart move for settling any newcomer’s nerves.”
“It’s almost like you can control other people’s emotions…” Yuuri mumbles, almost to himself as he attempts to wrap his head around this new, unseen, magic.
His statement however doesn’t go unnoticed, and Mila quickly looks away, a frown settling on her face.
“Yeah… it may not pose any physical danger to others, but people hate you even more if you can manipulate their minds…”
The seemingly cheery woman doesn’t say any more on the topic, and Yuuri doesn’t push. There is obviously a painful history behind her words, and he doesn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable when he is trying to make a friend. Although he has never given much thought about having a different type of magic, he knows that no matter what, being a magician in this day and age isn’t easy.
“I’m sorry. I know how hard it can be sometimes…”
Her attention is drawn back to him at his words, and a small reassuring smile pulls at her lips. “It’s okay, but now that you know, does that make you feel scared of me?”
Yuuri considers her question, and eventually starts shaking his head. “No. You still seem like a very nice individual.”
Mila’s smile grows a little bigger. “Good. Now you can stop beating yourself up over what we might think of you. The majority of people in this group haven’t had an easy life, and we’ve all done things we may not be proud of, but we survived. Just like you did. Learning to trust each other is a priority, and now that we’re together we have to let all the regret, anger, and bitterness go, because none of those are going to help us in the long run. Once you do that, you’ll fit right in.”
Yuuri can’t think of any words he could say to respond, and so he simply takes some time to let the woman’s words sink in. If she didn’t tell him, he would have never expected there to be more magicians in the small group, but it would make sense if they found them and told them about their cause. Just like himself, he can understand how any magician that is given a chance to change their oppression would almost feel compelled to jump on the opportunity.
The next few hours fly by, and Yuuri spends his time mulling over the reality of what the group is working towards and where they might end up. Every now and again, he breaks the silence and asks Mila any questions that come to mind, some of which are related to his new life and others are simply pure curiosity. He is so focused on his thoughts, that he doesn’t even notice the time passing, and soon Victor and Chris come to a stop in front of them, hopping off their horses and casually continuing their conversation as they wait for the others to follow their lead. Mila pulls the wagon off to the side of the road and eases the carriage to a stop. The others behind them follow suit, and Yuuri takes that as his cue to get up and stretch his legs. The moment he tries to stand up however, he realizes just how much pain and numbness he ignored, and before he can even get up, he begins to teeter precariously close to the edge of the small platform as his legs collapse beneath him. Luckily, someone is already by his side, grabbing his hand to steady him as he regains his balance.
“Be careful, your legs aren’t going to be used to long periods of travel for at least a few days.”
The deep, silky smooth voice is easily recognizable, and Yuuri looks toward the man still holding his hand, giving him an awkward but grateful smile.
“Thanks Victor... I should’ve thought that through before I stood up so quickly.”
Victor responds with a cheesy smile. “Well then, allow me to be a gentleman and help you down.”
Embarrassed by the gesture, Yuuri reluctantly agrees, and as soon as he is back on solid ground, Victor lets go of his hand. He tries not to miss the small, fleeting, warmth so much, but there is something about the man that is captivating in every way. He is so focused on the kind action that he almost misses the small, shy, smile that the silver haired man throws his way as they stand next to each other, and he can’t help but fixate on the odd feeling creeping up in his throat. Before he can think too much about the weird sensation, Victor clears his throat and turns to face the rest of the group, as everyone has already dismounted and gathered around Mila’s wagon at the front.
“We’ll rest here for half an hour. Detach the horses from the carriage rigs and let them wander close to the grass and stream for a little while.”
Without any further instruction, Mila, Georgi, and Sara, all go about helping the horses, while the others begin finding shady spots to hide from the mid-day sun. Yuuri takes this as an opportunity to work out the kinks in his legs, and he starts making his way over to the small stream lining the road, stretching and shaking out his muscles until they finally start to feel at least somewhat normal. The unusually warm fall weather seems to be both a blessing and a curse for their journey, and as brown eyes watch the clear, trickling, brook slither through the woods, he finds it impossible to resist. Bending down to splash some water on his face, his attempt to cool down and drown out the regret of not bringing a hat is exactly the kind of refreshment he needs.
Once he finishes wiping away the excess droplets from his brow, Yuuri settles himself underneath a large, leafy tree, leaning back into the trunk and enjoying the shade. Closing his eyes, he focuses on hearing the songs of birds and wind blowing through the trees, and the familiar sounds lull him into a sense of security, surrounding him with the comforting feeling of home. However, it seems his quiet time is doomed to be interrupted, as someone unceremoniously plops down in front of him and waits to be acknowledged. Cracking open a single eye, he finds himself almost glaring at a smug looking Phichit.
“Can I help you?” He asks, a little more bluntly than he means to.
“Don’t be like that Yuuri!” Phichit whines. “If we’re going to be best friends we have to bond! That’s why we’re going to play twenty questions!”
Yuuri sighs and lets out a chuckle. Sitting up, he resigns himself to his new friend’s whims, and as soon as he is ready, he begins answering all the stereotypical questions thrown his direction. The pair cover favorite food, colour, music, and hobbies, and eventually they move on to describing family members, friends, age, life goals, and even start talking about magic.
“I already showed you mine the other day.” The tan man says, practically pouting about not being able to see Yuuri and Chris’ epic battle. “Transmutation, whoop-de-doo, but what about you!? Chris said you were able to manipulate water?”
Yuuri nods, a slight smile tugging at his lips at his new friend’s enthusiasm. “Yeah but that’s not the only thing.”
“Wait, what?” Phichit asks, looking mildly shocked.
Yuuri simply shrugs at the question. “Chris only saw me controlling water and turning it into ice, but my magic actually encompasses all four of the natural elements. Water, air, earth, and fire.”
Phichit’s eyes are blown wide, and his jaw is practically glued to the floor. “You can do more than one type of magic!?”
“I guess technically yes.” Yuuri replies, but his friend’s expression makes him furrow his brow. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“I’ve never met, or even heard of a magician capable of more than one type. I know that certain subcategories can be encompassed by a similar umbrella magic, like water manipulation applying to ice, but never different types. Especially things that could be considered polar opposites like fire and water.”
“Well, I’ve never met any other magicians outside of my family so I wouldn’t know.”
“What about your sister and mother?” Phichit quickly inquires.
“Um, I guess they would be what you consider normal? My mother is able to perform healing magic, and my sister is able to conjure protection spells.”
Phichit seems to consider the new information before nodding his acceptance. “Well, I guess that means you’re one special magician.”
The man’s smile is blindingly bright, but the statement doesn’t sit well with Yuuri. Before he can protest, a broad shouldered Chris drops down beside him, casually wrapping an arm around his shoulders as he slides his back down the tree to join them on the ground.
“What are you two doing over here all alone? Anything interesting?” The older man says raising an eyebrow.
“We were just talking about how special Yuuri is!” Phichit wastes no time exclaiming. “No time like the present to learn his deepest darkest secrets! I’d like to think I’m doing pretty well considering we’ve only been talking for the past twenty minutes.”
“Oh?” Chris’ first eyebrow is now joined by its twin, both of them now raised as he looks back and forth between the pair. “I must say you’ve caught my interest. And what would the sweet, innocent Yuuri be hiding? Other than the fact that he’s a wonderful magician. Any juicy secrets floating around in that head?”
Before he can respond normally, stating that he doesn’t really think of anything special, his mind finds that it is the perfect time to supply an unusual thought.
‘I do think of Victor a lot…’
The young man gives a nervous laugh before directing his attention towards the ground.
“Nothing really. I’m just plain ol’ Yuuri. Not much running through my mind.”
‘Aside from a certain Captain…’
By now he knows that a blush is beginning to creep up his neck, and the strange tingle in his throat from earlier is beginning to come back at his brazen ruminations. Unsure of where these outrageous thoughts are coming from, another nervous chuckle slips out, and the two men interrogating him suddenly develop shit-eating grins.
Eying him suspiciously, Phichit starts to push with a smirk and a sing song voice. “What haven’t you told me Yuuri? I’m your best friend now, you have to tell me everything.”
“And I’m a friend who wants to learn more about you.” Chris happily chirps, letting his arm fall back to his side so that he can face Yuuri directly.
“Nope. I refuse to talk to either of you any longer.” He responds.
“Come on Yuuri.” Phichit prods, leaning in closer. “Is it something dirty?”
“N-no!” He squeaks out.
“Is it something romantic?” Chris purrs.
“I-I don’t know…”
“That wasn’t a no, Yuuri.” Phichit coos triumphantly as he looks over at his partner in crime, no doubt encouraging Chris to continue.
Every time they say his name they make the vowels spread out even longer, adding a lilt only to tease him as much as they can while they have the chance. He doesn’t dare take his eyes off of the dirt in front of him as Yuuri starts to sink lower back towards the tree trunk, praying that he could melt into bark if only to remove himself from the awkward situation. However, as he continues to retreat, the other two men shuffle in their spots until they are much closer and fully facing his direction, leaving him no escape. Chris effortlessly continues the interrogation.
“So, do you like someone Yuuri?”
“What!? No!” He practically screeches.
“Are you sure about that? That was a pretty strong denial.” Phichit quickly responds.
“N-no! I’ve never liked anyone before.”
“Ah, so it’s puppy love? You are still as young and innocent as I thought.” Chris says, way too pleased with himself. “If you need any advice, pointers, or practice, I’d be happy to assist you chéri.”
Yuuri wants to die of embarrassment, and as a last resort, he resigns himself to hiding his face in his hands.
“Oh Yuuri, you don’t have to be shy around me! I would love to learn about all the little things that make you so… unique.”
The tone Chris is using easily gives away his smug grin, and the young man just curls his legs up and rolls onto his side. The other two men immediately start laughing at his dramatics, clearly making a mental note to tease Yuuri as much as they possibly can if only for their own amusement.
“Are you guys giving him a hard time already?” Victor’s voice stands out among the giggling. “We’re barely three hours in and it looks like you already broke him.”
Yuuri groans while the others continue to laugh even harder at his misery.
“The young man was just revealing his secret crush, now weren’t you Yuuri?” Chris impishly offers, prodding at Yuuri’s side.
If only to defend the last thread of dignity he has left, Yuuri rapidly scrambles back up against the tree, face beet red. “No! No I was not! I do not have a crush!”
“Is it one of the girls?” Phichit prods, picking up right where they left off.
Yuuri shuts his mouth. Determined not to let anything else come spilling out.
“Or maybe it’s one of the guys?” Chris considers. “I could see him being quite the power bott–”
Yuuri squeals and clamps his hand over Chris’ mouth. They all stare wide eyed as his face burns like molten lava and his stare never lifts from his own two hands. Unable to think of any other option, he quickly stands up and walks away, not trusting himself around those two shit-disturbers any longer, with or without talking. He doesn’t dare look over his shoulder as he makes his way back to the stream, and once he is behind the wagons and a few paces into the woods, safe from the claws of Phichit and Chris if only for the moment, he lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
Plopping down beside the water, he hangs his head between his knees, taking a few deep breaths to make sure his heart is physically capable of beating normally again. As he begins to calm down, his thoughts start to drift over the previous conversation, cheeks faintly tingling from the blood rush that is still mildly present.
‘I don’t like anyone. That’s just ridiculous. Especially someone from the group. I’ve known most of them for only a few hours. Mila and Sara are together so I would never come between them. As for the guys, I’ve never thought of men that way. It was always taboo in the village since you can’t really start a family. Besides, how would I even know? I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted to anyone before. I haven’t even met Seung-gil, and I definitely don’t feel anything special for Chris and Phichit, those assholes can go get lost in the woods for all I care... As for Victor, he does make a good leader, and there’s just something about him that I can’t put my finger on…’’
The quiet trickle of water is relaxing, and he almost feels normal before he hears someone making their way over to him, interrupting his train of thought. He quickly looks up to find Victor standing five feet away.
‘Victor…’ His mind redundantly supplies, before he once again turns a little red and starts scrutinizing the grass.
“I’m sorry if the other two went too far, they can be real dicks sometimes.” The older man begins, looking apologetic as he maintains his distance. “I hope you’re not angry with them, they really are good guys.”
“N-no!” Yuuri exclaims, quickly looking Victor in the eyes for a few seconds before diverting his gaze once again. “I’m not mad… I’m just not used to everyone being so forward I guess… Not that it’s in a bad way, and not that I mind, I mean, I do, but, I guess I don’t really know how to respond? I’m okay with socializing, I’ve just never talked to anyone so openly before. That, and Chris is a little handsy…”
Victor is staring now, mouth slightly agape as he raises a questioning eyebrow, making Yuuri realize what he just said.
“But, o-oh gosh not like that! Never like that!” His brown eyes go wide and his blush comes back full force as he waves his hands frantically in between them, trying to get his point across. “It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, but I-I don’t! Not with you guys! Not to say that you all aren’t wonderful people, and I’m sure you’re all great but we just met!” Yuuri is rambling now, and a nervous bubble of laughter comes out before he can stop it. “I-I guess I’m just saying that the whole touchy feely deal will just take some getting used to. And Chris is just so…. Chris... it’s just more of an embarrassment thing because I don’t think anyone has ever grabbed my ass before. B-but I’m not saying that I hate it, I mean, someone touching me that is, just not my ass though, I just, oh god…” He stops himself before the hole he is digging for himself becomes his grave. Sighing in defeat, he drops his head and stares intently at the ground, barely managing to utter out a few final words. “I’d just like to be friends.”
Yuuri might be mistaken, but he can’t help but think that he hears a little disappointment in the man’s tone.
“Well, I for one would love to be your friend.” Victor quickly adds with a genuine smile, but Yuuri notices that it wavers for just a second.
All of sudden, Sara jogs over from the direction of the road and interrupts the unusual moment between the two men.
“We’ve brought all the horses back to the road Victor, Mila is just connecting the carriages and we’ll be good to go!” She says with a grin, her bubbly personality and friendly cadence not divulging if she overheard any of their conversation.
“Thanks Sara.” The older man replies, giving her a nod before she heads back over to the path. The silver haired man turns his attention back to Yuuri, and as blue eyes meet brown once again, he gives the younger man a small smile. “It seems our break time is over, we should start getting everyone back on the road.”
It is painstakingly obvious that Victor is acting different from before their little talk in the forest. His usual relaxed posture is more rigid, and the friendly smile that draws the attention of everyone around doesn’t reach his eyes. Conflicted between wanting to ask if something is wrong but not wanting to turn back into a babbling idiot, Yuuri just nods.
“Right…” He says, adding an inaudible sigh to release some of the tension he can feel building in his chest.
Victor quickly turns and walks away, heading out to double check their belongings, leaving Yuuri to stand alone in the middle of the woods before he finally makes his own way back out towards the road. He immediately sees Victor heading toward Mila and the others at the rear of the convoy, and so he unconsciously starts heading back towards his spot on Mila’s carriage. However, before he can make it to his seat, he comes across Chris and Phichit gossiping in hushed tones.
“What did he say to you? And what did you say to him?” Chris asks. “You both look so serious now.”
Yuuri just sighs and looks at the two men with a jumbled expression. “To be honest, I don’t know… I think I’m just an idiot.” The other two exchange a quick glance between them before looking back at Yuuri. “He says we should get back on the road though, so I guess it’s time to leave.”
Without anything more to add, Yuuri turns away, hoping that maybe Mila can teach him how to hook up the horses in order to take his mind off of everything that just happened.
Chapter 13: Put on a Show
As their journey continues, the scenery starts to change, and the forest slowly drifts away as the vast plains come into view. Mila and Yuuri exchange pleasant conversation the whole ride, making the time pass a lot quicker than earlier. He notices that Victor and Chris are riding a little further ahead than before, just out of earshot. If they need to pass on any information, Chris is always the one sent back to act as a middle man, while Victor continues on ahead at the same pace. Yuuri thinks it is a little odd, but since he is the newbie, he just accepts it and assumes it to be normal. Neither Chris nor Mila share anything more than a quick glance the first time it occurs, so he figures it’s probably nothing.
After nine hours of riding, with breaks every three hours, the group finds themselves in the middle of the prairies. The sun is starting to get closer to the horizon, and Victor stops to announce that it is time to set up camp for the night. Yuuri quickly dismounts to stretch once again, and when he turns to see what the others are doing, he notices that they are all busy unloading equipment to set up for the evening. It is only then that he realizes his family doesn’t own anything for camping, and so he didn’t think to pack any shelter to use overnight.
A mild panic starts to settle in as he quickly scans the group for the person he has spent the most time with, and as soon as he spots her, he heads straight over to Mila. As he briskly walks the short distance to the redhead, he silently thanks Victor for pairing them up in the first place, as the entire day that they spent chatting and getting to know one another made him feel a lot more comfortable with at least one member of the group so far. When he finally reaches his newest friend, he doesn’t even need to speak as she immediately notices his tense behaviour.
“Hey Yuuri, what’s wrong?”
“I just realized that don’t have any camping supplies with me… My family didn’t need them so I don’t have a tent or anything to use…”
He feels ashamed that he is already so unprepared, but Mila just gives him a warm, reassuring smile.
“That’s alright! Sara and I actually share a tent so we have some extra supplies that you can use.”
Yuuri lets out a breath of relief as the woman quickly turns to grab a small bundle of supplies from the back of the wagon.
“Thank you so much, Mila. I’m sorry I’m so much trouble.”
“Nonsense!” She replies, offering him the extra camping gear. “I’m always happy to help!”
Yuuri quickly gives the woman a small smile as he reaches out to accept the bundle that is placed in his arms, but his grin rapidly turns into a slight frown as he stares down at the assortment of materials with confusion.
“Um, I actually don’t know how to set one up either…” He quietly admits.
Mila only gives him an apologetic look. “Sorry Yuuri, but Sara and I are on cooking duty tonight, so we don’t have time to help you right away. Maybe ask one of the guys to show you?”
“Oh. Okay, I’ll figure something out… Thanks for the tent though, I really do appreciate it.”
The redhead gives him another bright smile before she turns back to unpacking cooking equipment from the back of her wagon. Yuuri understands that Mila can’t dedicate all of her time to helping him, and so he leaves to see what everyone else is up to.
Turns out, they are all busy with their own jobs. Phichit and Seung-gil are off to fetch whatever firewood they can find, Chris and Georgi are out hunting any birds or mammals in the area, and Mila and Sara are already busy selecting a spot to cook and setting up. Looking like a lost puppy, Yuuri just watches from a distance as everyone smoothly transitions into their assigned jobs for the evening. He shifts back and forth on his feet for a few moments before looking down to the neatly wrapped bundle still cradled in his arms. Sighing, he debates on attempting to set it up on his own, but in the end he knows it would be a disaster.
“Are you okay?”
The sudden voice beside him takes Yuuri by surprise. He poorly suppresses his reflex to jump away and a small yelp is forced out of his mouth before he can stop it. In his haste to escape from the small fright, he ends up dropping his new tent and one hand quickly comes up to cover his poor heart as he steadies his breathing.
“Oh I’m sorry!” Victor quickly exclaims. “You looked kind of out of it and I thought something might be wrong...” The man’s voice shifts to a something gentler, almost timid as he addresses Yuuri.
“No, it’s okay, you just startled me is all.” The young man says, relaxing his stance before he once again looks down at his sad pile of what should be a shelter and frowns. “I was just trying to figure out how to build a tent…”
“Would–” Victor suddenly stops, his voice becoming even quieter as he continues. “…Would you like some help?”
Yuuri looks up to meet Victor’s eyes. The older man looks oddly worried, and he sounds significantly less confident than earlier today. The two of them haven’t talked since things became awkward on the first break, but the raven haired man is still unsure what exactly caused the sudden change in behaviour.
“I could teach you…” He offers, practically mumbling. “O-only if you want my help of course.”
Mildly confused, Yuuri quickly dismisses the odd feeling in favor of receiving some help.
“Yes please... I don’t think I’ll get anywhere on my own.”
Victor finally gives the young man a smile. “Alright, listen carefully...”
They spend the next half hour attempting to build a tent together, and by together, Yuuri quickly learns that his teacher is not one to pursue a hands on learning experience. This just means he is stuck listening to questionable instructions, given by a man who is criticizing his mess from a distance and doing little to actually provide any physical help. Somehow, he ends up with some kind of suspended roof, with one closed end, and a comfortable bed roll tucked underneath, and all he can think is that it is as good as it is going to get.
“Perfect!” Victor exclaims, clapping his hands together.
Yuuri glares at the older man. “Perfect? Maybe you need to take some lessons on how to teach people how to build tents.”
Victor gasps and covers his chest with one hand. “Yuuri! I help you build your very first tent and this is the thanks I get!?”
Yuuri just rolls his eyes. Apart from his odd behaviour earlier, it did not take long to realize Victor was a huge dork.
“I wouldn’t give yourself too much credit, you were my only option when everyone left to work on setting up for the evening.”
Victor gasps once again as his mock offense grows. “Yuuri! How could you!?”
The silver haired man’s dramatics make him laugh, and he turns to face him with a shrug. “Sorry not sorry?” He says with an innocent smile before relaxing into something more genuine. “But thank you for all your help, Victor.”
The man’s face brightens in an instant. “It was my pleasure, Yuuri.”
“Dinner is ready!”
Mila’s voice suddenly cuts through the moment, echoing across the open field as she yells and draws the men’s attention back toward the rest of the camp.
After a moment, Victor lets his eyes fall back to Yuuri and the man gives him another cheerful smile. “Come on, it’s time to eat.”
The older man turns towards the small gathering that is now occurring around the fire and starts walking away, and Yuuri quickly follows. He sees that Phichit and Seung-gil have returned with a decent pile of firewood considering their location, and set up their own tents near Yuuri’s in their spare time. The girls built a fire away from the wagons, and they set up some stacks of rocks to hold a large pot above the burning wood. It is easy to tell that Chris and Georgi managed to catch a couple of rabbits in the field as well, as the animal skins are left drying on a rack next to the flames. When Yuuri and Victor approach, everyone is already pulling out boxes from the carts to use as makeshift stools, and Sara and Mila dish out and pass around the stew they made as people begin to sit down, serving themselves last and then joining the group’s circle around the fire.
Dinner is a quiet affair, as everyone simply enjoys the good food with a little company. However, as soon as Phichit finishes his bowl, he decides that it is time to liven up the non-existent conversation.
“So everyone, did you guys know that Yuuri’s magic can manipulate all four elements?”
The surprising statement catches everyone off guard. Mila chokes on her stew, Sara does a spit take with her water, Chris snaps his head toward Yuuri, and Victor is heard loudly asking “What!?” The only members not affected by the information are a smiling Phichit alongside a straight faced Seung-gil. Even Yuuri stares shocked at his new friend, silently asking why he had to bring this up now.
“You can do what?” Victor quietly asks, as the rest of the group remains deadly silent.
Yuuri sends a glare at Phichit, he would have preferred not to make this such a big deal after they addressed the oddity earlier, but lo and behold, here they are.
With a sigh, he eventually responds. “Like Phichit said, my magic encompasses all four elements.”
“No way…” Chris breathes out.
“Why don’t you show us Yuuri!?” His supposed new best friend happily suggests.
At this rate, he knows he is going to kill Phichit. Gritting his teeth, he takes a deep breath, trying to think of a way to remove himself from being the center of everyone’s attention.
“I don’t know if that is such a good idea…” He ends up mumbling.
Sara immediately pipes up. “Awe, why not?”
Yeah,” Mila joins in, “it’s not like there’s anyone around, considering we can see for miles out here.”
Yuuri can’t think of any solid reason to say no.
“I just don’t want to cause a scene...” He offers.
His feeble attempt is quickly shot down as Chris starts adding logic to the debate. “Everyone here wants to see Yuuri, and it’s beneficial if we all have an idea of what you might be capable of.”
Looking around the group, he knows he’s lost. Letting out another sigh, he finally agrees, and Phichit excitedly claps his approval as everyone gives him their undivided attention. He places his empty bowl on the ground next to his seat and stands up, moving a few paces away from the fire as he starts focusing on the feeling of magic in his core. When he finally reaches a suitable distance, he closes his eyes and takes some deep breaths to center himself, focusing on how this demonstration should be more about showing his control and less about power. Opening his eyes, he looks back at everyone sitting on the edges on their seats around the fire, and they all seem to be patiently waiting with bated breath for whatever is about to happen. With no other reason to prolong the group’s obvious anticipation, he begins.
Yuuri starts by placing both of his arms straight down by his side, with his palms facing the group in front of him. He raises his arms up and out in an arc until they become level with his shoulders, and as he does, a sudden breeze sweeps across the open plain. Twisting his right wrist so that his palm now faces the ground, he brings his right arm across the space in front of his body, making a circular motion much like stirring a pot. As his movements become faster, the wind starts to pick up as well, and soon a small tornado forms around the group, with everyone safely seated in the center. They all wear stunned expressions, and they don’t pay any mind to how their clothes are whipping around in the strong winds, as everyone’s eyes are locked on Yuuri’s form.
Satisfied with the speed of the wind, he then rapidly moves his left arm in a sharp diagonal, cutting down towards the center of his body and taking a step out with his right leg. He wastes no time as he then shoves his left hand straight up and brings his right hand straight down, causing the fire in the middle of the group to shoot upwards towards the sky, successfully creating a pillar of flames in the center of his tornado. Yuuri hears Sara shriek at the sudden fiery explosion, but he’s not done yet. It’s not often that he gets the chance to practice his fire magic, and so he wants to make the most of it. He arcs his left hand down and around to the center of his body, simultaneously mimicking the movement with his right as he brings it up and around to his middle. His hands stop a few inches apart with his palms curved in, as if he was cupping a small ball in front of him. The movement causes the spire of fire to separate from the original bonfire, now floating above the group as a separate entity and morphing into the shape of a sphere.
The wind is still rushing around them, and the glowing orb of fire floating ten feet off the ground holds everyone’s attention. Yuuri performs a familiar move next, spreading his arms straight out towards his sides and making the ball of fire split into seven smaller glowing spheres. He softly lowers his arms with his palms up, making the balls descend towards each individual in the group, and they are all captivated as the fire floats a foot and a half in front of each member. Clenching his fists, all the fireballs are quickly extinguished, but before anyone can make a move, Yuuri shoots both hands straight up while bringing his legs back together and opening his palms to the sky. His sudden movement makes all the water sitting in their cups shoot up into the sky, and he rapidly moves his arms straight out to his sides and back in, touching his palms together in front of his chest. All of the wind that was raging around them suddenly dies, and Yuuri takes a deep breath in before lifting his hands in front of his mouth in order to exhale into his open palms.
The group rapidly looks around. All of them are wearing confused expressions now that that nothing is happening, and they must be wondering if that was the end, when suddenly, a gentle descent of snow starts dusting their campsite. There are a couple gasps and giggles from the group which makes Yuuri smile, and he takes a moment to let everyone enjoy watching the fragments of ice drift gently to the ground. Finally reaching his finale, he takes one last step back with his left foot to open his stance. He bends his knees as he sharply brings his arms to his sides, elbows bent ninety degrees and both fists clenched tightly. The stance makes a loud crack sound through the empty field, and everyone’s attention snaps towards him once more. He takes both hands and rigidly transfers them one at a time in quick succession, moving them from the outside of his body to in between his legs. With his hands still firmly closed, he brings them tight to his chest with a simple but strong bicep curl, and he suddenly rockets upward as the ground beneath him shoots up, creating a column of rock with Yuuri on top.
Everyone gasps and stares in awe at the spectacle. Yuuri gives himself a moment before he slowly brings his arms back down, reversing the previous movement. Once he is back to ground level, he relaxes his stance and quietly pants in front of the deathly silent group. It wasn’t a particularly difficult performance, but any magic expenditure is a good workout when you can’t practice that often in the first place. No one moves as he walks back to his spot and sits down, and he quickly grabs some water and takes a long sip while everyone continues blatantly staring at him. Seung-gil seems to be the only one able to move, as he sits slightly nodding his head in what could only be an impressed or approving manner, but their silence is starting to make Yuuri worry.
“Um… was that okay?” He timidly asks.
Of course, Phichit is the first one to jump on the question. “Okay!? Okay!? Yuuri that was fucking phenomenal!! Like, what the fuck!? Why didn’t you tell us earlier that you could do crazy shit like that!?”
“It’s just magic…” Yuuri bashfully replies with a shrug, wishing that he could stop being the focal point already.
“Just magic?” Chris jumps into the conversation now. “Yuuri, I wouldn’t even describe what happened the other day as ‘just magic’. This is next level.”
“Yeah!” Sara exclaims. “Mila and I couldn’t take our eyes off of you!”
“It really wasn’t much...” He tries again.
“Yuuri!” Phichit is using his whiny voice now. “You have to stop underselling your talents! Everyone here thinks what you just did was incredible, just accept it. When I said you were special earlier I wasn’t lying.”
He doesn’t know how to respond anymore without getting called out, and so he chooses to just remain quiet and give a shy smile. After that, everyone begins chatting among themselves, continuing their awe-filled analysis of what they just witnessed. Yuuri looks around the group and sees that everyone has a smile on their face as they delve deeper into conversation, but as he surveys each member, he eventually locks eyes with Victor. The man hasn’t said a word since he showed them his magic, and his eyes are burning with an intensity equivalent to the blazing fire they are gathered around. Yuuri isn’t sure what to make of his concentrated stare and muddled expression, and soon he finds himself needing to look away. He tries to focus back on the conversation which has moved on to lighter topics, but every now and again his attention wanders back over to Victor. The man is now looking at the other group members, but his lack of contribution to the discussion and spaced out expression shows that he is still deep in thought. Yuuri isn’t sure what is going through the older man’s mind, but his silence is a little unnerving.
It doesn’t take long for night to fully settle over the camp, and soon everyone retreats to their tents once the fire is put out. Yuuri climbs into his bed roll and curls in on himself, trying to concentrate his body heat in one area as he pulls his blanket up to his shoulders. He thinks back to everyone’s high praise of his magic, and for a brief moment, he feels a sense of pride wash over him and bring a smile to his lips. However, he still can’t get Victor’s lack of a reaction out of his head, and eventually he drifts off to sleep with a mix of emotions and thoughts running through his mind.
Chapter 14: Morning Sun
After a fitful first sleep away from home and his warm bed, Yuuri wakes up much earlier than he ever wants to, and no matter how much tossing or turning he does, there is no more rest coming his way. Slipping out of his mangled sleeping arrangement, he stumbles outside, taking a moment to stretch his limbs and back as he is finally able to stand to his full height in the open space. The air still holds onto the cold chill of the night and the sun has yet to rise, but daybreak must be approaching fairly quickly since the sky is already starting to lighten up. Wispy clouds are scattered above the plains, a few flocks of small birds are flitting around, and everything seems ready to start the day. Taking a deep breath in, he enjoys the peace and quiet that has settled over the camp overnight, appreciating the tranquility before the inevitable noise comes filtering in.
Looking around, Yuuri notices that none of the other group members have emerged from their slumber quite so early, and so he decides that the solitude is a good opportunity to get in a morning stretching session while he still can. Turning away from the tents, he walks a good thirty feet away from the camp site until he finds a nice flat area to do some light exercise, narrowly avoiding tripping over a large root camouflaged by the grass on his way out.
Waking up in the morning is never an easy thing as is, and when you’ve been sleeping on the cold hard ground all night, it feels good to get up and start moving around. Yuuri works out some of the knots in his back that formed overnight, and begins to move and extend his muscles, gaining back more of his mobility as time goes on. Thinking about the horrid bumpy ride that will soon begin, he relishes in the freedom he has for the moment, slowly moving from pose to pose and closing his eyes. Everything feels so serene when you’re the only one around for miles, and with the others still sleeping, Yuuri feels like he is back in his practice field, ready to let the magic flow from his body.
Thinking about his magic, he starts to recall the events of the previous evening as he continues to lean into his movements, feeling the familiar prickle of energy running towards his fingertips. Last night had been interesting, and he never expected everyone to be so open and supportive of his magic when he was told his entire life that strangers would never be so kind.
‘I guess the group does have Phichit and Mila, so they might be used to the strange and unusual by now. I wonder if anyone else might be a magician… It seems odd to have so many of us all in one place when we’re not family, but I guess in their own way they made their own family.’
Feeling warmed up and more limber from his impromptu yoga session, he opens his eyes to take in his surroundings. The sun is getting close to rising, but it’s still not quite there. Glancing towards all of the tents, no one else seems to be getting up any time soon, and so Yuuri remains all alone in the middle of nowhere. With nothing better to do, he decides to practice his magic once again, but this time he’ll gladly do it without making a big scene.
Feeling that a meditative session would be the best, Yuuri finds a nice spot to sit down in the grass and faces away from the camp and towards the rising sun. He crosses his legs, places his palms face up on his knees, and closes his eyes. His magic has always been more powerful when he can move his entire body, but he challenges himself every now and again by remaining completely stationary. As he starts to take deep breaths, he focuses on one element at a time, aiming to produce a small representation of each one and maintain it throughout the duration of his exercise.
First he starts with air. He has always found it the easiest element to control out of the four, and being outdoors immediately brings forth his inner control of the state. It is easy for anyone to imagine the feeling of a nice breeze rushing past their face, and to Yuuri it is almost second nature, but out in the open he has no reason to conjure up the sensation in his mind when the real thing is already flowing past his fingertips. From the fresh air being sucked back into his lungs, to the way his skin prickles at the sudden chill that tickles his neck, he thinks of all of the different ways he is connected to the air around him. He imagines the calm, gaseous, element condensing to form two small balls swirling in both hands, and without peaking, he knows he has succeeded. The familiar brush of wind against his palms is refreshing, and he silently appreciates the opportunity to exercise his magic twice in such a short amount of time.
Levitating the first two balls, he moves on to water next. The liquid element is a bit trickier for him to fully control, but it has to be his favorite category hands down. The smooth and precise movements he normally executes to control the liquid remind him of a dance, with each step and shift in his weight allowing him to be able to push and pull the water that is busy rushing around him like a partner. Sending his concentration deep underground, he attempts to draw up the water from beneath him, concentrating on the liquid’s presence in underground wells, along with the large amounts that have been absorbed by the soil. Only a few moments pass before he feels the water defying gravity and trickling around in his hands, and he patiently waits as the water pools together and eventually takes shape into two more balls. Deep in concentration, he focuses on the new element churning in his hands, and after a deep breath, he exhales, slowly turning the water into ice.
A small smile creeps onto his face as he sends the frozen water to float next to his swirling air, and he quickly moves on in order to start concentrating on the earth itself. Earth was difficult to learn when he first started, and it’s the only element that needs a strong, firm, and unwavering devotion, as solid as the earth itself. Gathering his resolve, he focuses as much of his magic as he can on the abundant source of dirt that lies only a few inches underneath his open hands. Without moving his body, manipulating the earth is ungodly difficult, and it feels as though a giant weight is attempting to force him down into the ground himself before he can bring anything up. Sweat begins to form on Yuuri’s brow as he continues his exercise, and slowly but surely, he manages to accumulate enough dirt particles above his hands to compress into a tight, compacted, globe. He can feel the heavy weight of the objects even though he is not physically holding them, and he takes a moment to wipe away his perspiration as he shoves the two forms away to join the others.
Now comes what he believes to be the hardest part of his training. Manipulating fire from a source is quite similar to controlling air or water, with the only difference being that the movement is a little less fluid and focuses more on the energy you put into the moves themselves. However, creating it out of thin air is a different story, and it’s even harder when you already have to divert enough focus to the six floating elemental bodies still in front of you.
It is no surprise that Yuuri chooses to take his time. Dividing his attention between the different tasks, it takes a while to find the proper distribution of magic power, but steadily, he begins to imagine a crackling fire. Focusing all of those thoughts towards the space above his hands, he thinks about the intense heat of the fire and the raw power it represents. Sparks begin to crackle along the tips of his fingers and he knows he is getting close, but he doesn’t let that disrupt his focus. Feeding more magic into the exercise, he lets the sensation grow until it almost feels like he reaches a breaking point. His magic flares up all at once, and he has to quickly rein in the excess energy now that he has finally reached the ignition point. Feeling heat emanating from a new source, Yuuri takes a deep breath in, marginally relaxing now that he only has to think about maintaining the fire along with the other elements.
All of a sudden, a loud thump and a yell behind him shatters his intense concentration. His eyes shoot open in fear as he rapidly extinguishes his magic, but he is able to watch the few miniscule milliseconds that it takes for the fire and air quickly vanish while the rocks and ice fall back towards the ground. Yuuri immediately looks around trying to find the source of the noise, and he ends up hearing a muffled groan coming from a few feet away. He twists around in order to look back towards the camp where the sound came from, but the only thing he can make out in the tall, golden grass, is the dark clothing of someone face down in the dirt ten feet away.
That is the only answer he needs before his moment of terror turns into one of amusement. Stifling a laugh in his hand, he finally collects himself enough to ask if they are okay, to which he gets a less than satisfactory, mumbled reply.
This time he doesn’t try to cover up his laugh. “Sorry, I can’t hear you when you’re busy eating shit. Are you hurt anywhere at all?”
Suddenly, a head of silver hair pops out of the field. “Only my dignity.”
Yuuri lets another laugh ring out as the man stands up and brushes the dirt off his clothes. He turns back to see how high the sun has risen, and notices it is just about the break over the horizon. It only takes a few seconds before he is joined by the clumsy man sitting down next to him, and together they both stare out over the open grasslands.
“Sorry for disrupting your practice. It looked amazing.”
“Thanks.” He quietly replies, giving the man a small smile. “And that’s alright, I was pretty much finished anyways. What brings you falling this way?”
Victor lets out a light chuckle. “Usually I’m the first one awake, so when I saw you over here I figured I would come make sure you were okay. I didn’t notice what you were doing until I was halfway here, and once I did, I was kind of distracted…” The older man admits. “I didn’t notice the huge root sticking up out of the ground until it was too late, and well, you know the rest.”
Yuuri laughs once again. “Well thank you for worrying about me, but I’m alright. Sleep didn’t come easily for me last night so I ended up getting up early and practicing a little bit more.”
He shrugs. “You could say that. I guess I’m just not used to being away from home. That and the lack of a bed really puts a damper on things.”
Victor smiles knowingly. “Just like riding for hours each day, you’ll get used to it.”
Yuuri’s amusement comes out as a loud exhale from his nose, and he continues to stare out at the horizon as the two settle into a companionable silence. The pair watches the sky begin to shift in colour, content to bask in the memorable sight before the silver haired man eventually breaks the quiet atmosphere.
“How long have you been practicing your magic for?”
“I assume you’re asking about my life and not just this morning, correct?”
Victor simply hums in agreement.
“Probably since I was ten.” He answers, eyes unmoving from the horizon. “I was always scared something bad might happen if I did, so I held off for a while. When Chris found out the other day I thought I was a goner.”
Victor seems to mull over the information before continuing his inquiry. “What did you think was going to happen? I know Chris would never do anything to reveal who you are, but just hypothetically.”
“Honestly?” Yuuri asks, turning to face the older man who mimics his position with a nod. “My first thought was that I was about to die. The way Chris looked at me once it happened, he was shocked. And after seeing what he did to the first bandit, I was scared he might try to do the same to me.” The previous lighthearted conversation has rapidly turned into something more serious, and Yuuri tries his best to explain his thoughts on the pivotal moment that changed his life forever. “Once I actually started thinking things through, my second assumption was that Chris might be a bounty hunter, and that me and my family were about to be exposed and sold off to the highest bidder. I had never heard any of the rumors about torture or experiments at that point, Phichit was the one to fill us in during our meeting, but since Chris had already met my family prior to that incident, I could only assume he would go after them once he dealt with me. No one in town knew what your caravan did for a living, and I could only assume that the worst was going to happen.” The young man pauses, taking a shaky breath as he imagines the horrible scenario, but suddenly, a hollow chuckle slips from the man’s lips as he thinks about his next words. “For a moment, I almost made the decision to kill Chris with the rest of them, just to keep my family safe.”
Victor doesn’t respond right away, apparently perfectly alright to let the heavy words settle around them along with a mildly unnerving sensation. Yuuri attempts to take his mind off of the conversation and ‘what ifs’ that he would rather not dwell on, if only for a moment, and he chooses instead to focus on the shifting view in front of them. The colours of the sky have begun turning shades of blue, orange, and red, painting the clouds a stunning pink. The beautiful scenery is a stark contrast to the dark conversation, and as the sun finally pops up past the horizon, the two men continue to watch silently with rapt attention as it brings everything to life. The movement of the grass in the wind is more pronounced now that it is contrasted by the dark shadows, and flocks of birds start to sing and welcome the new day, blissfully unaware of the troubles of the world around them.
“Yuuri?” The older man gently prods.
Of course the peaceful moment is broken by the innocent sound of his name falling from the other man’s lips. He takes a deep breath in as he is forcefully dragged back into the depths of things he would rather avoid, but he finds it impossible to suppress the shudder that runs through him at the thought of everything he’s ignored up until now. Not trusting his voice for the moment, he simply responds with a questioning hum, eyes still staring straight ahead, and Victor takes that as permission to continue.
“Are you scared?”
Once again, the man sitting so calmly beside him breaks the breathtaking scene and comfortable silence with a weighted question. Yuuri opens his mouth to immediately deny the absurd idea, but with each passing second he struggles to get the words out of his mouth. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches as the silver haired man patiently waits for a response, but when Yuuri doesn’t say anything, the older man turns to face him. He wants to say no. With every fiber of his being he wants to be able to say it. But every nerve in his body is pushing him to say yes.
He has to remind himself that the people he is with now are accepting of magicians, and that with them he is safe, but his entire life has been spent in hiding. Every time he walked outside in the past twenty three years has been a risk, and no matter how much he would like to believe that he can just be himself around other people, he knows that will never be possible, at least for now.
After a minute or so has passed, Yuuri takes another deep breath in, trying to quell the raging storm inside his heart and mind at the conflict he was inevitably faced with since his birth. With his eyes still glued to the sunrise, he finally builds up the courage and momentum in order to give his answer.
“Terrified.” He breathes out, unable to contain the rush of emotions that stumble out with the word.
Silently, Yuuri curses the morning light that is steadily rising higher in the sky, because he is certain that the older man is simply watching him as the telltale shimmer of tears begins to build up in his eyes, threatening to spill over at any second. All of a sudden, he catches a glimpse of Victor shifting beside him before feeling a warm hand slide into his own. He welcomes the simple gesture easily, threading their fingers together, returning the tight squeeze, and eagerly clinging to the small reassurance that he secretly needs.
“Don’t worry…” Victor whispers, quietly enough that his voice can just barely be heard above the white noise of the small breeze and he rustle of the grass. “I promise I’ll always be here protect you.”
Yuuri can’t help himself as a single tear trickles down his cheek. The conviction and dedication of Victor’s words forces his mind and body to accept the gravity of the situation, and as much as he feels comforted by the sentiment, it also fills him with a looming sense of dangerous uncertainty.
‘I could die. I could actually die. Or I could be taken away and be used as a guinee pig for god knows what. My family may never find out if something happens to me, and I’ll never get to see them again, or tell them how much I love them…’
The next thing that comes into his mind is that he needs to stop his train of thought right now before his anxiety makes him panic. Another tear follows the first and he quickly wipes them away, effectively removing himself from Victor’s grasp in the process before placing both his hands back in his lap. Meanwhile, the older man continues to stare at him, concern written across his face as plain as day. Shaking off the dark feelings that were quick to overwhelm him, Yuuri finally looks Victor in the eyes, his own brown eyes still shimmering with unshed tears as the coldest blue stares right back.
He knows he can’t get any more words out without choking on a sob, and so he just hopes that Victor can understand all the words he has left unspoken.
‘Thank you. It means so much to me. I don’t want you to be afraid of me. I don’t want anyone to be afraid of me. I don’t want to be taken away. I want to live. I want my family to be safe. I want to see this through. I trust you with my life. Please don’t leave me.’
Victor’s eyes never leave his as he tries to will his emotions through their unwavering gaze. After a moment, a determination settles on the older man’s face, and he gives Yuuri a nod as if he understood everything Yuuri was trying to say. With nothing more to discuss, the two of them both turn their attention to look back over the prairie land, the sun fully risen, and a new day ready to begin.
Chapter 15: Learning the Ropes
Yuuri is slowly getting the hang of living on the road, and his butt is either accommodating the heavy travel very well, or he has simply lost any and all feeling by now. Their second long day moving across the plains finally leads them to a split in the road, and they follow the path that takes them in a northeasterly direction. The skies are clear and the sun is bright, and he thanks the gods they have such nice weather after the storm two days ago. He easily falls into conversation with Mila as they move along, both of them keeping up the friendly banter since the only source of entertainment that they have on the road is each other. When the time comes for their first break, Yuuri continues talking to Mila and Sara, the latter happily telling Yuuri about her life before joining the group. As it turns out, her background is similar to his own experience in Hasu, and he quickly learns that she used to work with her mother and father running their bakery in a city to the south called Tompan.
It is not long before the first break ends, and everyone is back on the road. The scenery hasn’t changed much since they entered the prairies, but Yuuri believes the number of lone trees they pass to be slowly increasing. As the day wears on, the sun continues to move across the sky, illuminating the tall stalks of yellow grass that roll in the wind and making the young man curse himself once again for not bringing a hat. An hour into the ride, Chris and Victor slow their pace to match Mila’s carriage, and the four of them engage in some pleasant conversation, telling stories and jokes to pass the time.
During their second stop, Yuuri hangs out with Phichit and Chris. Thankfully the two men must be giving him a break from their antics at least for the day, as they spend the short reprieve indulging in friendly chatter rather than picking apart his nonexistent love life. The other five members end up joining in the conversation halfway through, and they all sit around under a single tree to hide from the shade, laughing and talking about whatever comes to mind. It is during this down time that Yuuri finally begins to feel comfortable around each member of the group, even Seung-gil. The dark haired man may not be much of a talker, but he seems content to sit and listen to the idle chatter that surrounds him, and Yuuri knows that feeling all too well.
The final leg of the day seems to last the longest. Everyone is starting to become tired, and conversing seems like too much of a hassle when a fully cooked meal is within their sights. Eventually the bright sun begins to dip down lower in the sky, casting everything its light touches in a warm orange glow as it inches closer to the horizon with every passing second. As soon as they pull over for the night, Yuuri tries his best to contribute to the duties for the evening, and so he attempts to help the girls setup the cooking station. Mila teaches him how to start a fire without using any magic, and Sara shows him the proper way to skin a rabbit. They indulge in some more friendly small talk while preparing dinner, and soon everyone is sitting down to eat around the fire.
By the time a few people finish their bowls, Victor stands and begins grabbing dishes to wash before heading over to the back of one of the wagons. Yuuri watches as the older man steps away from the rest of the group in order to complete his task, and the young man takes the opportunity to lean over and quietly address the man sitting next to him.
“Are you able to help me set up my tent?” He whispers, eyes constantly trained to the back of Victor’s head just in case.
Chris smirks as a rush of air is pushed out of his nose, successfully containing the boisterous laugh that would usually follow.
“Sure.” The man chuckles.
Breathing out a mild sigh of relief, the two men place their bowls on the ground before they slip away to start the job.
It turns out that the blonde is a wonderful teacher, and Yuuri is effectively learning the right way to assemble a tent and why certain shelters work better than others for different circumstances. After successfully setting up one, Chris offers for Yuuri to set up his as well for extra practice, and as they are almost finished with the second, they hear a shocked gasp behind them. Both men shoot straight up and whip around at the noise, only to see Victor with the same dramatic look that he was wearing last night when Yuuri criticized his teaching skills, hand over his chest and mouth wide open.
“How could you!? With my own best friend?!” The silver haired man exclaims.
Chris barks out a laugh, and Yuuri can’t help but smile with a light blush dusting his cheeks.
“You snooze you lose, mon chéri. To the best teacher goes the spoils.”
“And what exactly would the ‘spoils’ be?” Yuuri finds himself asking, giving Chris a sidelong look.
“Why quality time with you of course!”
“And you consider yourself a better teacher than me?” Victor interjects. “Tell him how mistaken he is Yuuri.”
For a moment the young man doesn’t say a word. He looks over to Chris who is wearing a knowing smirk before turning to Victor with an apologetic smile.
“Sorry Victor…” He mumbles, trying his best to hide his amusement at the older man’s look of betrayal.
Another loud gasp echoes around the camp, and Chris laughs once more.
“He needs a teacher that gives more hands on guidance with the technique, my dear Victor. After all, he doesn’t have any experience with this type of thing.” Chris smoothly purrs, his classic shit-eating grin spreading across his face.
Yuuri quickly turns away to continue setting up the second tent, hoping that the others didn’t catch sight of his rosy cheeks in the dim light. It is hard to ignore the double entendres that come spilling out of the blonde’s mouth almost constantly, but Yuuri has already been exposed to a lifetime’s worth of sexual innuendos in the past two days, and he would be more than happy to have a little break. A moment passes before Chris finally turns back and helps with the assembly, and after readjusting the tarp and securing the ropes, they are done.
Straightening and turning to angle himself between both men, Chris smirks and nods. “See, guidance.” He states, sending a wink to the silver haired man still standing a few feet away.
Yuuri looks over to see Victor’s response, and the man is wearing a mixed expression, bordering between sad and angry. His arms are crossed over his chest while his shoulders are slightly hunched over, completing the look by wearing a huge pout on his face like a petulant child. Yuuri is about to giggle at the childish display, but it only takes a second before the older man stands up straight and aims a deadly glare at his best friend. The young man looks back and forth between the two older men once more, confused at the unspoken conversation that is obviously occurring, but obviously not willing to intrude on whatever it might be about. As time passes with nothing being said, Yuuri starts to feel awkward.
“Um… Thanks for the help Chris… I think I’m gonna turn in for the night… Have a good night you two.” He almost mumbles, trying to escape the growing tension in the air.
“Good night Yuuri!” Both men chime, practically in synch with each other. They spare a quick glance and a smile at the raven haired man before turning to face each other once more.
After casting another look between the two friends, Yuuri quickly walks back over to his tent, glad to escape whatever it was that manifested between the pair. He crawls inside and curls up into his bedroll, taking a few deep breaths to calm his heart beat before the exhaustion of a long day of travel catches up to him and he falls fast asleep.
The third day comes after another rough night sleeping on the cold hard ground. Waking up early again, Yuuri engages in an impromptu yoga session once more, but this time, he is joined halfway through by a familiar presence. Victor remains quiet as he takes up a spot nearby, sending a small smile his way before mimicking the movements of the younger man without saying a word. The men move together, silently stretching, bending, and meditating, for a good portion of the morning. After their little chat at dawn yesterday, there seems to be some sort of deeper bond between the two of them when no one else is around, and both of them are content to simply hold onto the sense of comfort that only exists in the other’s company.
Once the rest of the gang is up and milling about, they start packing up to leave, and Yuuri receives a surprise lesson from Seung-gil, as he demonstrates the correct way to tack a horse. Considering the man is known for being the silent type, Yuuri is grateful for the information, and he believes that it is the man’s own way of accepting him into the group.
The grasslands seem to go on forever, and he is sure they would have been lost by now if there weren’t markers or a dirt road to follow. It has been three days since he left home, and it is easy to admit that things seem to be going much better than he expected. During their first break of the day, Phichit offers to help him begin learning how to ride a horse, and the only thing he thinks is that there’s no time like the present. Nervous but ready for the challenge, Yuuri listens closely, and Phichit explains the fundamentals while giving him a small demonstration.
When it becomes his turn to try, his first task is merely getting up and seating himself on the saddle. It takes a couple of tries as the horse moves around, but it doesn’t take long for him to be sitting on top. Next, he has to slowly guide the horse into a walk. Phichit is standing at the head of the horse, lightly holding onto one of the reins near the bit and instructing Yuuri to gently tap his heels against the mare’s sides, and as soon as he completes the small action, the horse immediately begins to move forward. Yuuri can’t help but beam at his small success, and Phichit is just as enthusiastic as he practically shouts his accolades out of pure excitement. After a few minutes of being led around the camp and listening to more instructions, Phichit eventually lets go completely, stepping back in order to watch him do it all on his own.
Yuuri takes the mare for a couple of small loops around the open area, carefully pulling on the reins to indicate his desired direction just like his best friend taught him. It doesn’t take long before he is returning to Phichit with a huge smile on his face, and his friend congratulates him on his first successful riding lesson as he holds the horse steady so that he can disembark. With nothing better to do, the other members of the group have gathered nearby to watch, and as soon as Yuuri’s feet are back on the ground, they give him a round of applause. Embarrassed, he ducks his head and turns his body away from all of the attention, but his mile wide smile doesn’t dare leave his face.
“Good job Yuuri!” Chris cheers as he stands up from his seat on the ground, smiling and walking towards the young man. “That was pretty good for your first time!”
“Thanks Chris. I was pretty nervous but I think it went much better than I expected it to.”
All of a sudden Victor is beside him as well, casually throwing an arm around his shoulder as he gives him a little squeeze. “You did so well Yuuri! You’ll be riding like a pro in no time!”
Chris glances back and forth between the pair, and it only takes a few seconds before his infamous trouble-making grin is falling into place once again. “Oh Victor, I’m sure everyone already knows that you’d love for Yuuri to be able to ride like a pro.”
As soon as the words leave the blonde’s mouth, Yuuri’s face feels like it is going to explode. He tries his best to shrivel up and make himself as small as possible, inching away from the older man while directing his gaze toward the grass. Meanwhile, Victor’s jaw drops, and his eyes are practically bulging out of his head as he stares appalled at his friend. The silver haired man quickly removes the arm that he draped over his shoulders like it has been burned, and the only thing that comes out of his mouth as a response is a pile of incoherent stuttering like an absolute moron. Both of them are left absolutely speechless, and have no clue how to reply to the obviously intentional scandalous statement, but Chris takes one look at the pair and keels over, laughing so hard he starts to cry.
“What’s so funny?” Phichit asks, approaching from behind Yuuri and Victor, only bearing witness to Chris’ hysteria.
The two men whip around to face Phichit, faces filled with a mix of embarrassment and horror as they yell “Nothing!” at the same time.
Confused, Phichit stares past them to try and get something out of Chris, but the man is now laughing even harder, bent over with one hand clutching his stomach and looking like he might end up flat on the ground any second. The tan man brings his gaze back to the scandalized pair in front of him and raises an eyebrow, but Yuuri quickly looks away while Victor attempts to clear his throat.
“We should start heading out.” The older man’s voice cracks slightly before he clears it again and continues. “It should only be an hour or two from the next city, and hopefully we can make it there sometime in the early afternoon.”
That being said, he turns around and briskly walks away to gather up the others, and at the same time, Yuuri turns and starts heading over to the carriages. Cheeks still on fire, he works on hitching up the wagon, taking deep breaths as he focuses on his work.
‘I can’t believe Chris would say that. I understand if he’s teasing me but bringing Victor into it too? Who doesn’t that man terrorize?’
“All ready to go Yuuri?”
Mila’s chipper voice startles him from his thoughts, almost making him jump at her sudden appearance, but he is very much open to a welcome distraction at the moment and eagerly responds.
“Yup! I just finished with the hitch so we’re good to go.”
They both clamber onto the bench once more, and within a few minutes, everyone is ready to move out. As they head down the road, Yuuri occasionally hears Chris start to laugh again, and it only reminds him of his utter shame and embarrassment from earlier, but he is always quick to distract himself with more conversation with Mila, which she happily indulges in.
As they continue to move across the open plains, the dirt road takes them up a short hill, and once at the top, they are greeted with a stunning scenic vista. The prairie land continues for a dozen miles more, leading straight across the land until it is abruptly cut off from going any further north by an enormous lake. The water is as blue as the ocean, and the bright light sparkling on the small waves makes it look absolutely breathtaking now that the sun is close to the group’s zenith. Contemplating the view, Yuuri figures that the sheer size of the body of water is enough to encompass hundreds of Hasu villages within its circumference, and on the northeastern shore of the lake he spots a large city. It is easy to follow the winding road that leads through the grass straight up to the southern gates of the town, but the northern border is crowded with a dense, coniferous forest that continues on in every direction past the prairies. Overall, the city only takes up a space that is about a quarter of the size of the lake, but it is still much larger than the small town he grew up in, and Yuuri can’t wait to see what it is like.
True to Victor’s word, they arrive at the edge of Karnic an hour later, and Yuuri is constantly looking around at all the new things to see. It doesn’t take long before he readily admits that his village is miniscule compared to this town. There are people everywhere, families are rushing around, corralling children and carrying grocery bags, vendors line the streets selling all sorts of food and confectionaries, and fancy trinkets are being shoved in the faces of those just passing by. The buildings here are much taller as well, boasting up to six stories with some even lavished in ornate detail, and Yuuri cranes his neck to take in all of the details while they ride through the streets.
As the caravan moves further into the city, the busier things seem to get, but thankfully, they turn off and start heading down a quieter road leading to the northwest corner of town. When they finally find a hostel with some available space for both them and their wagons, the entire group lets out a sigh of relief, and they quickly make arrangements to spend the next few days at the inn. Luckily the hotel borders the edge of town, giving them a nice secluded spot to rest and providing just enough room in the back to store their carriages between the building and the forest. While Victor is inside negotiating with the owner, everyone else begins unpacking the wagons, bringing their necessary gear inside and securing the rest with tarps and ropes. In the end they manage to secure two large rooms on the second floor, each with four single beds and a couple of small dressers. Victor, Chris, Georgi, and Seung-gil, start hauling their equipment into the first room, leaving Yuuri, Phichit, Mila, and Sara to take the other one.
“Shouldn’t the girls have their own room?” Yuuri asks, following Phichit as they head upstairs to their new home for the next few days.
The man in front is about to respond but Sara pops up beside him, matching his pace. “It’s okay Yuuri. As long as you two wait outside or turn around while we change we’re okay with it.”
“And maybe give us a little privacy at some point and we’ll be good!” Mila happily adds, walking a few steps behind the pair.
“Mila!” Sara exclaims, turning to give her girlfriend a pointed look, but Mila just laughs.
Yuuri lightly blushes but nods with a smile. “Good to know.”
The four of them quickly get set up in their room, each claiming a bed and organizing their belongings, but it doesn’t take long for Yuuri to finish, and as he watches the others, he is not sure what exactly comes next. Phichit seems to sense Yuuri’s unease, and the man quickly comes over to join him on his own bed while they wait.
“You’re probably wondering what we do now right?”
Yuuri simply nods.
“Well, once those two lovesick morons stop canoodling,” Phichit begins, casting a dramatic look over his shoulder, “the group will have a meeting to discuss what the plan is while we’re here.”
“That sounds simple enough…”
“Sure is!” His best friend replies before turning to address the two ladies in the room. “So are you two done over there or should we just leave so you guys can just bang already?”
“Phichit!” Sara squeals.
“Please leave!” Mila quickly adds.
Yuuri and Phichit laugh at their new roommates before Sara stomps across the room towards the door. Mila giggles before following her partner out into the hall and the two men take that as their cue and are hot on their heels. The four of them quickly head over to the captain’s room to make a game plan, and everyone grabs a seat on each of the four beds. Phichit plops down next to Seung-gil, Chris is busy talking with Georgi on another, and of course Mila and Sara are inseparable. This leaves Yuuri with one option, and he quietly walks over to sit next to Victor, the man giving him a warm smile as he lowers himself onto the bed.
“Alright everyone, welcome to the city of Karnic!” Victor cheerily says, starting the meeting. “As you can see, it’s a busy town with a lot going on, and if we’re lucky, we might be able to scrounge up some information over the next few days, but we’ll play it by ear and change our plans accordingly. As expected, for the magicians among us, no using magic. Period. Since this is Yuuri’s first time out and about, I want everyone to keep an eye on him just in case, and as always, go out and gather your basic reports and meet back here by dinner.”
Everyone around the room nods and Yuuri just looks around confused.
“Reports?” He timidly asks.
Victor turns his attention towards the young man and gives him a reassuring smile. “Everyone here has a certain job to do when we’re in a new town.” He explains. “Mila and Sara are responsible for getting a feel for the town’s views on magicians, most places are fairly tight lipped about the topic, but there’s usually at least a handful of people ready to share their opinion. Phichit and Seung-gil go out to busy streets and bars, keeping an ear out for any passing gossip and attempting to approach potential informants. Chris and Georgi are our security detail, they walk around and learn the ins and outs of each street just in case we need to move quickly, and they’ll also give us an idea of how many soldiers are present in the area or if there is anything we need to be concerned about. If you haven’t already noticed, each pair is formed of a mix just to be on the safe side, with one magician coupled with one non-magician.”
Yuuri’s brow furrows as he turns to assess the group. “What about Chris and Georgi?”
The next thing he knows, Georgi has disappeared off of the bed he was just sitting on with Chris, and simultaneously reappears standing in front of Yuuri. The young man flinches and jumps back across the bed with a yell.
“Surprise?” Georgi says, giving him an apologetic smile.
Taking a moment to calm his racing heart, Yuuri closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Opening them, he looks around the room and sees everyone staring at him, smirking at his reaction.
The young man huffs and glares around the room. “Is there any other magicians I should know about?”
They all laugh before Phichit pipes up. “Nope! It’s just you, me, Georgi, and Mila!”
Casting one last look around the room, he returns his attention to Victor. “Okay, so if everyone is paired up and has a job, what do I do?”
“You’ll be with me!” Victor cheerfully supplies.
“And what do we do?”
The man’s smile only grows larger at the question. “We get to go sightseeing!”
Chapter 16: Hit the Town
“So, what’s our job again?”
Yuuri and Victor are strolling around the busy streets of Karnic, observing the hustle and bustle of busy people rushing around them. It is already late afternoon and the sun is starting its descent, slowly but surely adding a slight chill to the air, and the group has separated into their pairings in order to carry out their missions, grabbing coats and cloaks to ward off the cold. Victor has a smile plastered on his face and a skip in his step, as he happily walks down the road, comfy in his large, brown, leather jacket, looking like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Yuuri on the other hand, is trying to keep up his pace to stay next to the ridiculous man, his long, black, cloak fluttering around him as he moves, carefully ducking and dodging through the throngs of people.
Responding to his question, Victor spins on the spot and stops to face the young man. “We’re sightseeing!”
Yuuri sighs. “I get it, we’re walking around town and looking around, but isn’t there something else we need to do? This is just seems so mundane compared to everyone else’s jobs…” He finally takes the last few steps to catch up to the older man, who is patiently waiting off to the side of the busy street with an excited smile.
“Don’t think of it like that!” The older man whines. “Picture it more as a combination of all the jobs rolled into one. This way we can cover more ground and increase our chances of learning something useful.”
Yuuri hates to admit it but Victor does have a point. Being the new member of the group he doesn’t have enough experience to say otherwise, and so he chooses to simply go with the flow for the time being.
‘The group has been doing this for four years…’ Yuuri tries to reassure himself. ‘Obviously they have to have a method to their madness, so I might as well just go along with it until I learn more about how things work.’
“Alright then Captain, where to first?” He asks, curious if his companion has any sort of plan.
The use of the man’s unofficial title seems to spark something dark in Victor’s deep blue eyes, but the fiery glimmer is blinked away quickly as he swiftly moves to link his arm through Yuuri’s. Gently, the older man starts guiding them back into the flow of pedestrians, pulling the young man closer with every step.
“Well, I was thinking we could make our way over to the town square, and we could see if they have a notice board announcing anything special going on over the next few days.”
Yuuri tilts his head up to give Victor a small smile. “Sounds good, lead the way!”
Victor beams at him for a brief moment before he begins to expertly maneuver them through the crowds, as if he already knows the layout of the city like the back of his hand. They remain silent as they walk arm in arm, keeping their ears open for any tidbits of information, but it is hard to hear anything worthwhile as a jumbled murmur resonates from the people. Loud shouts from vendors and business advertisers ring clear above all of the white noise, but from what Yuuri can tell, no one is saying anything at all about magic. All of the small kiosks are selling a wide array of goods, including typical housewares, garden vegetables, jewelry, carpentry tools, and fresh fish, and the young man can’t spot anything that seems out of the ordinary.
An hour later, they finally arrive at the open court in the center of town, and slowly, as if reluctant to do so, Victor lets go of Yuuri’s arm. Similar to before, there are still people running around in every direction and market stalls lining the edges of the surrounding buildings, but the open plaza allows them a little more room to breathe.
Looking around, Yuuri takes in his surroundings, making mental notes of things that may be important. First, he notices that the area is less of a town square and more of a town circle. He sees that there is one large notice board for every direction, North, East, South, and West, and as they take an initial walk to circumnavigate the space, he notices that each board is also identical, with the same information posted on each one. His eyes roam over the crowd as he continues his surveillance, and in the very center of the hub, he spots a large, circular, wooden platform. The stage is elevated three feet off the ground, and it is most likely used for announcements or festival performances, but at the moment, it remains empty.
Groups of people and individuals are crammed into every nook and cranny in the large space, browsing the shops, chatting, or rushing from one spot to another as if their lives depend on it. Among the large conglomeration of people, it is hard to ignore the sketchier individuals that are poking around in the narrow alleyways branching off in every direction from the plaza. With their torn clothes and hoods covering their faces, the brief glances that they send his way from the shadows makes a shiver run down Yuuri’s spine. Crime is practically nonexistent in Hasu, and the sight of suspicious figures lurking in the distance only reminds him of the time when he and Chris were attacked, and needless to say, it is not a pleasant memory.
Yuuri finally stops in front of one of the message boards and takes his time scrutinizing the announcements posted for all to see. As his eyes rove over the writing on each paper, he quickly spots a familiar wanted poster, listing the bounty for any magicians that are reported to the kingdom. He can’t help himself as he clenches his hands into fists by his sides, and as he glares at the poster with an immense amount of hatred, he has to stop himself from just lighting the damn thing on fire.
As if sensing the fury radiating off of him in waves, Victor places a gentle hand on the young man’s shoulder and squeezes, grounding him in the present and providing a small source of comfort through the touch. Focusing on the feeling of the weight and pressure of the older man’s hand, Yuuri takes a deep breath before he drops his gaze to the ground, ashamed that he is getting so wound up over a poster.
“It’s okay.” Victor whispers. “I don’t blame you.”
He nods and looks back at the other ads pinned on display. Nothing else catches his eye as suspicious or useful in any way, and he tells Victor as much once he’s sure he hasn’t missed anything.
“I agree.” The older man states with a sigh, disappointment evident in his tone. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot going on around here at the moment, and the people aren’t talking either... We should probably start making our way back to the hostel, maybe the others had better luck than we did.”
“Yeah… At least we’re staying in an inn this time though. That way I don’t have to listen to your shitty excuse for a tent lesson again.”
Yuuri’s attempt at lightening the mood works, and he watches as Victor’s face drops into a dramatic pout.
“Yuuri!” The older man pathetically cries his name as he turns to walk away.
The raven haired man laughs as he begins to head back, with Victor jogging to catch up to him as he continues to call out the young man’s name with enough emotion to convey his broken heart. The small moment is happy, light, and quick enough to be easily forgotten, but at the same time, it is enough to distract the two men from paying any attention to a shadowy figure that slips farther back into an alley that they quickly pass by.
The pair takes their time walking back, slowly making their way to the far corner of town where they are staying while still keeping an eye out for anything unusual. It is starting to get late, and the light of day quickly diminishes as the sun sets over the city. The loud crowds from earlier dissipate, shops begin to close up for the night, and soon, there are only a few stragglers wandering the streets alongside the two men. As they keep up a steady pace, Yuuri is continuously scanning the area for anything that might help them or provide any useful information, and a few times he notices people standing just far enough back in the small alleys to avoid their faces being seen, but this is his first time in a big city, and so he just assumes that there are more bums hanging around than he is used to. Another shadowy figure catches his eye as they pass yet another alley, but this one seems significantly closer, and for some odd reason, slightly more menacing than the others, and he instinctively moves closer to Victor as they continue walking.
The sudden sound beside him makes him jump, and he quickly snaps his head up to look at the taller man.
Victor is looking down into his shimmering brown eyes, concern etched across his face. “Are you alright?”
Casting another rapid glance around them as they continue walking, he gives a shaky nod. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
The older man doesn’t look convinced. “Are you sure? You seem a little freaked out…”
“It’s nothing… I think I’m just not used to being in such a big city…”
“That’s understandable. Being in a new place for the first time in your life is always a little nerve racking.”
Victor attempts to give him a reassuring smile, but the best thing the young man can respond with is a wavering attempt in return. Yuuri looks back in front of them, focusing on absorbing every detail and cataloging each movement he can see around them just in case something happens. The uneasy feeling in his gut coils even tighter as the dark of night truly begins to settle in, and he unconsciously starts taking deep breaths and clenching his fists in order to release some of the tension.
All of a sudden, Yuuri feels the gentle tap of Victor’s hand against his, light enough to be brushed off as a coincidence but persistent enough to be considered an offering, and it only takes him a moment to relax and welcome the warm, comforting touch. Looking down, he stares at where the two of them now connect, threading his fingers completely through Victor’s and giving a soft squeeze, thankful for the contact once again. His gaze rises to meet azure eyes once more, and the older man tightens his grip in return, an easy smile falling into place as neither says a word.
They continue to walk down the street hand in hand, neither of them willing to let go of the soothing interaction. A few townsfolk start wandering from streetlamp to streetlamp, igniting the small fire within each one, and the improved lighting makes Yuuri feel vaguely more comfortable. They finally make it back to the hostel just as their stomachs start to rumble, and they reluctantly let go of each other as they walk through the front door.
The inn is packed full of people as the pair walks into a cacophony of music, laughter, and boisterous chatter. There are a dozen or so bodies filling the foyer, and an even louder ruckus coming from the dining room in the back. They quickly maneuver through the crowded lobby and step into the banquet hall, taking in three large, long tables that fill the entire room, and a wide variety of people are sitting along the wooden benches that line each one. Everyone seems happy and ready to have a good time, as they raise their glasses for a drink and shovel food into their gaping mouths.
The scent of a freshly prepared dinner assaults their nostrils as they take in their surroundings, and they quickly glance around until they find a familiar crowd at the far end of the middle table. Negotiating the busy restaurant, they make their way over to their group, and Yuuri counts the number of familiar faces and is glad to see that everyone is accounted for. Chris, Phichit, Georgi, and Seung-gil, are seated on one side of the table facing away from the door, while Mila and Sara are busy giggling to themselves on the other side. He is also thankful to see that their friends have saved them enough room for two at the end of the bench, and as they step up to the end of the table, everyone looks up to see who it is resulting in an enthusiastic round of cheers erupting from the party.
“You guys made it! We were starting to worry that you might have disappeared or something.” Phichit yells over the noise of the room.
“Obviously, you guys look absolutely distraught.” Yuuri replies, rolling his eyes.
“Well, we wouldn’t blame you two if you wanted some time alone.” Chris purrs.
Mila and Sara scooch over to make a little more room for the two men, and Yuuri and Victor slide in on the end of the bench, blatantly ignoring Chris’ comment.
“How’s the food?” Victor asks. “I’m starving.”
“Actually, you’re just in time. We were just about to order.” Georgi replies.
The rest of dinner flies by in a flurry of good food and warm conversation, but as soon as everyone finishes their meal, they pay the tab and make their way upstairs to regroup. Once they are all back inside the captain’s room, everyone returns to the same seats they occupied earlier that afternoon, with the door locked and windows shut in order to give them the utmost privacy that they can manage.
“Alright everyone,” Victor begins, “let’s recap. Chris and Georgi, what did you find out?”
Chris clears his throat. “The city follows a very basic concentric zone model with a standard grid plan. The farther out from the center of the city you move, the less populated it seems to be, regardless of the time of day.”
“As for the military presence,” Georgi continues, “there is a small group of two dozen men rotating shifts to watch over the entire city. To keep the guard running twenty-four seven, they work in pairs, each making rounds in different districts, and they have eighteen of the men working during the day, and the other six on the night shift.”
“Speaking of soldiers,” Chris speaks up again, “they seem to be on the lookout for someone. From what I could tell, it’s just a simple thief terrorizing the city, but they’ve made some powerful enemies and people have started to take an interest in finding them. The only catch is that they don’t know what the thief looks like because they are always wearing a long, dark cloak to keep themselves anonymous. But the funny part is, is that they say his name is Yuri.”
Phichit huffs a laugh. “Why Yuuri, I didn’t know you took up robbery in your spare time.”
Yuuri just rolls his eyes and doesn’t bother with a reply.
“Alright then.” Victor nods. “Mila, Sara, how did you two fare?”
Mila shifts in her spot. “Well, it’s not the best…” She begins, pleadingly looking over to the woman sitting beside her.
Sara notices Mila’s discomfort and immediately takes over. “Every single lead we have points to the city being strongly against magicians. If you haven’t already noticed, there is a good amount of wanted posters displayed in busy locations, such as in bars or around the farmers market. And on top of that, whenever we were able to broach the topic and put out feelers with some of the locals, they all responded with some kind of retort about wishing they could get their hands on one to earn a nice chunk of money…”
The grim news settles over the group, and they all look around the room, quietly assessing the reactions of the other members. Chris and Georgi both have their lips pressed in a firm line and their arms crossed over their chests. Sara is gently rubbing circles on Mila’s back, comforting her as she stares down at the floor with her hands clasped together. Phichit is trying to put on a reassuring smile, but it is easily transparent, showing all of the worry he has bottled up underneath. As always, Seung-gil is straight faced, but his eyes are set, staring across the room with a silent determination. Yuuri has his hands balled into fists and sitting on his lap, and he doesn’t say a word as he feels a hand gently rest against the small of his back. He looks up into Victor’s big blue eyes, and the man tries his best to send comfort through the small gesture.
After a few moments of silence, Victor continues. “What about Phichit and Seung-gil?”
Phichit glances over to Seung-gil before turning his attention back to the group. “On the bright side, we didn’t hear of any magicians being reported recently, but on the downside, we couldn’t find a single trace of any magicians around town at all. From gossip to weird stories, the best we could come up with is the mention of some healer that lives just outside of town in the forest to the north. But when we followed up, we found that he just uses some herbs for medicine. Nothing magical.”
“Okay. Does anyone else have any questions or additional information?” Victor prods.
A quick glance around the room reveals everyone shaking their heads.
“Excellent. We’ll take the rest of the night to rest, and in the morning we’ll continue our search. Since it doesn’t look too promising, we’ll probably head out in another day or two just in case.”
Everyone nods and begins to stand, calling it a night and heading back to their own beds. Yuuri shifts his weight back onto his feet as he hops off the bed, and he turns to Victor with a small smile.
“Goodnight Yuuri.” The man fondly smiles back.
Their eyes stay locked for a brief moment before Yuuri finally turns to leave, but for some reason, the raven haired man can’t wipe the stupid grin off of his face during the quick walk back to his room. However, as soon as he walks inside, he sees Phichit already busy tearing his bed and bags apart, and his smile quickly fades into a mild frown. At the other end of the room, the girls are sitting with their legs crossed on one of their beds, facing each other and chatting, paying no mind to the frantic demeanor of their friend.
“What’s wrong Phichit?” Yuuri asks, as he walks to the foot of the man’s bed.
The tan man’s dark mop of hair pops up from rifling through his backpack at the sound his name.
“I can’t find my keychain!”
Done with emptying his bag, the man shoves it away and then dives underneath the bed before anything else can be said.
Yuuri tilts his head. “You mean the metal one that you changed from an elephant into a hamster back in Hasu?”
A muffled “Yeah!” echoes from beneath the furniture.
“Do you think it might have fallen off when we were unloading all of our stuff from the wagons earlier?”
Out of breath, Phichit comes back out and plops his face and arms onto the bed. “I don’t know… Maybe?”
“Well keep looking in here and I’ll quickly go take a look around outside.”
“No problem.” He easily replies, happy that he can finally be helpful.
Before he steps back out of the room, Phichit is already frantically tearing off the bed sheets to continue his search.
‘I wonder what’s so special about it…’ Yuuri thinks, as he makes his way downstairs.
It is already pitch black outside, so he grabs a torch from its holster in front of the inn, and makes his way around back to the wagons. The three transports look untouched from where they left them earlier, lined up adjacent to each other and just small enough to fit in between the hostel and the edge of the woods. Carefully, he makes his way around each carriage in the dark, bending over and relying on the light of the fire, hoping to catch the glimmer of something metal lying on the ground before peeking into the back of each cart.
By the time he circles the last wagon, he hasn’t found anything, and so he stands up ready to go back and deliver the bad news. He shuffles along the side of the last carriage, being cautious not to snag his cloak on the wagon or the trees, when suddenly, he feels a strong, firm hand wrap around his mouth, muffling his yell with a steady grasp. Simultaneously, he feels two pairs of hands grab him by his arms and yank him back into the tree line. The harsh movement causes him to drop his torch, but another assailant must immediately stomp it out because the light quickly disappears and plunges him and his attackers into complete darkness. He thrashes and tries to wrestle his arms free in a state of panic, but they are securely twisted behind his back as he is forced to his knees. A heavy blow against the back of his head makes his vision blur, and the last thing Yuuri is aware of are the strong hands releasing him as he collapses to the ground.
Chapter 17: Search Party
“And she was so confused about why we couldn’t be together anymore! I don’t blame her, but I couldn’t exactly come right out and say ‘I’m a magician’ after she talked about bounty hunting the day before. I still feel bad I couldn’t give her proper closure, but what else was I supposed to do?”
Georgi looks around the room, reaching out to the others for some kind of reassurance that his ranting about his previous girlfriend Anya is not going unheard, but every member has already heard the story a million times. Even though they are all friends, Victor, Chris, and Seung-gil, wait rather impatiently for Georgi to finish his longwinded speech, and silently, Victor prays that they can move on to a new topic already. Finding greater interest in the examination of his cuticles, the silver haired man lets his mind wander as his friend continues to bore his audience with his never ending tale of sorrow.
‘My hands are so dry…’ He thinks, as his eyes rove over the cracks, callouses, and dead skin, that taint his otherwise unblemished exterior. ‘At least that can be easily fixed with some lotion, unlike this desiccated conversation. Would it be rude to just get up and leave? Chris would never forgive me if I just abandon him… It’s too bad Yuuri isn’t here… At least then this situation might actually be bearable.’
“Maybe you should take some time for yourself?” Chris pipes up, much to Victor’s chagrin. “Stop thinking about the past and feeling guilty and just move on and focus on you.”
He knows that his friend is just trying to be nice and humor their fellow group member while attempting to dissolve the conversation, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Georgi’s love life is a constant loop of complaining and needing feedback. Sighing, Victor flips his fringe out of his eyes and falls backwards onto his bed, mildly annoyed that they have to go through all of this again. Unwilling to spend the rest of his night talking about Georgi’s problems, the older man interrupts as he begins to longingly examine the ceiling, wishing that he could be in the presence of much more preferable company.
“Chris is right, Georgi, however, it sounds like you’re not giving yourself any closure by thinking about it all the time either. She has probably already moved on considering this was two years ago…” He blatantly points out, disinterest saturating his voice. “You should really just get over it.”
“But you guys don’t understand!”
Victor groans and shoves his hands over his eyes.
“We would have been perfect for each other if she–”
The dark haired man is cut off when a series of loud knocks comes pounding at the door. All of the men in the room become dead silent as they look at one another, trying to assess who might be interested in visiting them at such a late hour. Another round of rapid knocking occurs before they hear a muffled voice speak up on the other side.
“Guys, I know you’re in there. I can hear Georgi crying over his ex-girlfriend from down the hall.”
A smirk spreads across each of their faces except Georgi's, but they all release the breaths they were holding and relax. Victor rapidly welcomes the distraction from his own personal hell as he quickly stands and moves to the door, and with a snap of the lock, he opens it to see a concerned Phichit standing on the other side, fiddling with his small silver hamster and attempting to look past the older man and into the room.
“Hey, is Yuuri here with you guys?”
Victor furrows his brow. “Yuuri? Why would he be here? He’s staying in your room.”
Phichit almost looks guilty as the next words come out of his mouth. “Well, when we got back to the room earlier I noticed that I lost my figurine,” he begins, slightly raising the hamster as if it will corroborate his story, “and I started to look for it in my bag and around my bed. Once Yuuri walked in the room he offered to help me find it, and then he went outside to check by the wagons… But that was twenty minutes ago… and now I can’t find him anywhere…”
It takes a second for the silver haired man to fully comprehend the situation, and Victor’s heart stops when he realizes what Phichit might be insinuating. Without thinking, he automatically holds his breath once again, as if it will save him from the tidal wave of panic beginning to crash into him as he grips the open door to hold himself steady. The short conversation easily catches the attention of the three other men as well, and they all stand to join Victor at the door while he remains as still as a statue.
“Are you sure?” He manages to whisper, hand clenching tighter around the solid wood with every second.
“Positive…” Phichit responds, slightly nodding as he directs his gaze towards the wooden floorboards. “He never came back to the room, and after ten minutes I went to go look for him. I checked the foyer, around the whole building outside, the dining hall, all of the hallways indoors, our room once more, and now here.”
Victor swallows. A huge lump in his throat is restricting his breathing even further and preventing him from saying anything, but it only takes a second before a strong, reassuring, hand comes to rest on his shoulder from behind. He turns his head to see Chris standing directly behind him, the man wearing a sympathetic look mixed with unease. Unsure of what to say, he intently looks at his best friend hoping that the blonde will know what to do, and thankfully, his second in command pulls through.
“We need to start looking for him.” Chris calmly states. “Phichit, go back to your room and tell the girls Yuuri is missing, they can meet us out back, but you and Georgi will stay here in case he returns. Victor, Seung-gil, and I, will start looking outside to see if we can find any evidence of where he went, and we’ll send someone back if we find anything.”
Everyone nods and Phichit quickly turns to go back down the hall in order to inform the girls of the situation. Chris and Seung-gil move back into their room to grab their coats and boots, but Victor remains frozen, staring out the door at the now empty hallway.
He knows that Chris is calling out to him, but he can’t seem to respond. Right now, his only thought is about shimmering brown eyes, a bright smile, messy hair, and the sound of someone else calling his name. The image of a blazing sunrise flashes through his mind, and the millisecond that it takes to see the vision is more than enough to bring up a whole new layer of emotions churning in his stomach. Once again, he thinks that he hears his name in the back of his mind, but there is something different about the voice. It is deep, gravelly, and it isn’t who he wants it to be. It isn’t a charming, small town boy, who takes his breath away with every giggle and steals his heart with every look. Suddenly, a gentle hand finds its way back onto the older man’s shoulder, slowly coercing him to turn around and meet the gaze of piercing green eyes.
“I told him that I would protect him…” He mumbles, his normally optimistic and composed demeanor crumbling in front of his best friend.
“It’s okay.” Chris quickly responds, firm and confident in his advice. “I’m sure that we’ll find him. But he needs you right now, and if you want to continue to protect him then we have to go.”
The blonde has always possessed the ability to remain calm in stressful situations, a personality trait that Victor is deeply envious of. He gives a shaky nod and manages to walk quickly over to his bed in order to pull on his shoes and don his leather jacket. At the last moment, he remembers his sword, and quickly unpacks the weapon from its case at the foot of his bed, securing it in its sheath on the belt around his waist. He has rarely ever needed it for an actual fight, and as soon as they got into town he stowed it away just in case, fearing that he may get reported if he makes some of the locals uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Georgi takes a seat, slipping into his duty as a watchman seamlessly, and Seung-gil, Chris, and Victor, all make their way outside, grabbing some torches as they go to give them some light in the dark of night.
“One of the torches is missing.” Seung-gil points out.
“At least we know he came outside like Phichit said… I don’t see why anyone else would need to borrow a torch when the streets are all lit up with lamps.” Chris muses.
They briefly take a look around the front of the hostel, and with no indication of any oddities, they move on, heading straight to the carriages. They take a quick look around for anything obvious, but when everything seems to be normal, they split up to survey the immediate area more closely. Seung-gil looks around near the house, Chris walks the perimeter of the property, and Victor navigates himself around the wagons. A few minutes pass, but it isn’t long before Chris gives a shout.
The other two men quickly rush over to see what their companion has found, and they end up in a small, open clearing just a few feet inside the forest. Chris is kneeling on the ground, his own torch illuminating the space as he picks up a burnt out torch off of the ground.
“This would explain the missing torch out front.” Chris bluntly states.
“But then where is Yuuri?” Victor quickly asks, fearing the worst.
“That would be Seung-gil’s area of expertise.”
The two men rapidly turn their attention to look towards the one among them who rarely speaks. Seung-gil is a few feet further into the woods, bent over and holding his torch close to the ground as he stares intently at the minute details offered by the dirt beneath their feet. He walks around the area, judging the patterns of the earth and looking around the trees, shrubs, and bushes, before he stands up and addresses them both.
“Someone took him.” He calmly states.
“Can you tell how many?” Chris inquires.
“I can’t be certain. But I can say there were at least five people here, not including Yuuri.”
“Five?!” Victor repeats in utter shock. “That seems a little excessive to take on one man.”
“I guess that depends what kind of man they were expecting to take…” Chris adds.
The possibility is not unlikely, and they all knew the risks going into this line of work, but it doesn’t make the thought any less appalling. The three men let a short period of heavy silence pass, unable to control their thoughts about all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what comes next’, and Victor feels his stomach turn at the mere suggestion that he has to consider the worst case scenario.
“How would anyone know though?” Victor whispers. “It’s not like we’re advertising his status…”
“Did you say anything when you two were out earlier? Anything that could be misinterpreted?”
Victor thinks back to his day with Yuuri, but soon begins shaking his head. “N-no… Nothing…”
“Then we plan for the worst and hope for the best. Seung-gil, are you able to track where they went?”
The man nods. “It is hard to see in the dark, but the trail is still fresh. We can either slowly follow it tonight or pick it up in the morning.”
“Tonight.” Victor immediately interjects. “We are not waiting around for nature or humans to erase the only chance we have of finding him.”
A rustle in the bushes makes them all whip around to face towards the inn. Sara and Mila step into the small area and look around at the group.
“Well?” Mila asks.
“He’s gone.” Victor grimly states, barely holding back the raging fear and anger thundering through his body, but as soon as the words leave his mouth, the women’s hopeful expressions fall. Unwilling to succumb to the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, Victor steels his resolve, straightens his posture, and slips back into his persona as a captain. “But we are going to go after him, right now.”
Sara almost looks surprised. “In the dead of night?”
“Yes.” He responds, leaving no room for an argument. “And we don’t have any more time to lose.”
Victor’s determination holds an air of finality, and everyone willingly agrees. Seung-gil immediately turns back towards his work, scrutinizing the forest floor, and as he begins to take slow steps further into the woods, the others fall into a line behind him. No one dares to make a sound as they head into the dark territory of the forest, fearing that they may throw off the tracker's concentration or alert anyone still remaining in the vicinity of their presence, but of course Victor is the first person behind Seung-gil, with an unwavering conviction that he will find Yuuri and keep his promise, no matter what.