Yuuri remembers knowing what the crime was before knowing who committed it. He had a name, of course. “Sounds like yours,” Otabek had said idly as he handed the file over. And he remembers opening the door, resolved to do his duty until he saw the little blond kid in the bed, hunched over and eyes dim. He had a bowl cut; Yuuri never fully forgot that detail.
“You’re just a child,” Yuuri said, horrified. “You’re just—“
He stumbled back out of the room and tried to compose himself. When he went back in, the child was still dead-eyed and quiet. Trying to bring his mother back. A child.
“How could you—“ Yuuri couldn’t imagine a child doing that level of alchemy. “Did someone else—you couldn’t have—“
The child looked at the blankets and said nothing. Yuuri’s words hung in the silence.
“You’re right,” a new voice said. It had an odd cadence, like it was echoing from within a tin can. “He’s only a child. Whatever happens, I take full responsibility.”
Yuuri turned and startled at the suit of armor, which had moved from what Yuuri had originally—and justifiably—assumed was a permanent position against the wall to stand before him.
“I’m twelve,” the child spat. There were bandages on his shoulder where his arm once was; under the blankets, there was only one leg. It was the first Yuuri had heard him speak. “I was old enough to—to—“
“Only twelve,” the man in the suit of armor—and it had to be a man, judging by his voice—continued smoothly. “You can’t be held responsible. And you—“ he turned to Yuuri. “The Flame Alchemist. If you’ve come to burn whatever we called to the ground—it’s gone. I buried it. I can take you to the spot. If you’ve come for us—you may do what you like to me, but please leave Yura alone.”
“You can’t,” the kid spat. “You didn’t—it was my fault! You tried to stop me!”
“I joined you in the end,” the suit of armor said. “He is only a child. I should have known better.”
“You tried to save me,” Yuri shouted. It didn’t echo in the same way as the voice of the man in the armor but it was still too loud for the small room.
“I did a poor job at that,” he said. “And your arm was not a good trade.”
“For your fucking soul?” Yuri demanded. “Are you kidding?”
“I’m sorry,” Yuuri said, trying to tamp down the bewilderment. “Do you think you could take that off?” He gestured at the helmet.
“If you like,” he said, and then he removed the helmet and Yuuri stared, open-mouthed, at the emptiness inside. On the interior he could see, in some reddish-brown substance that Yuuri didn’t want to guess at, an alchemical seal.
“What are you?” Yuuri asked.
“Viktor Nikiforov,” the empty suit of armor said. “Or the soul of Viktor Nikiforov, tied to a suit of armor. Whichever you like.”
“You helped him,” Yuuri said. “You both did this.”
“Yes,” Viktor said.
“No,” Yuri said in the same moment. “It was my idea. I did it. He just—intervened.”
“I am as guilty as you,” the suit of armor—Viktor—said. It was strange to think that configuration of metal was a man, but now that Yuuri was looking for it he could see the life in the way he stood, how he occasionally shifted his weight out of habit rather than necessity.
“I’m not—“ the words tasted like ash in Yuuri’s mouth. “I’m not going to kill anyone. It seems you’ve been punished enough.”
Yuri’s eyes dimmed again. Yuuri felt guilty for it, and something compelled him to say, “You could have been a great State Alchemist, if you were capable of this.”
Those eyes flared back to life. “I can be!”
“If you recover,” Yuuri allowed. “There’s always automail, although I’m told it hurts.” He glanced at the bandaged stump of the boy’s arm again.
“I’ll get it,” Yuri said. “I’m going to—I’m going to become a State Alchemist. And I’m going to figure out how to get our bodies back!”
“I hope you do,” Yuuri said. In the coming years, he only regretted a little what he said next. “When you come to Central, you can ask for the Flame Alchemist.”
Yuri and Viktor had arrived eighteen months later, Yuri with his hair long enough to pull into a tiny ponytail, Viktor the same inscrutable suit of armor. Viktor had stood by while Yuri passed the State Alchemy exams.
“You don’t want to take them?” Yuuri asked him, once.
“It’s better that no one looks at me too closely,” Viktor replied. Yuuri wondered if he would have grimaced or smiled when he said, “There are many ways to lose a limb, but I am irrefutable proof of our crimes.”
Yuuri rolled that ‘our’ around in his mind for a long time, the steadfast way Viktor took responsibility. “Yuri isn’t lying, is he,” he said, eventually. “When he says it was his idea. That you tried to stop him.”
“I am responsible,” Viktor said. “His parents were gone. It was my duty to look after him.”
“You’re a good brother to him,” Yuuri finally said, quietly.
“Thank you,” Viktor replied after a brief pause. Yuuri thought he might have considered protesting; that a good brother would have done more, would have watched him, would have stopped him before it was too late. But Viktor had traded everything he had to protect Yuri as best as he could, Yuuri thought, and that was more than enough penance for anything else.
Besides, Yuuri knew all about penance. He hadn’t gotten the name “Flame Alchemist” for nothing. On better days, he thought nothing of it. On worse ones, he dreamt of the flames and the screaming.
In an inn halfway back to Central, he woke in a cold sweat one night and stumbled out of his room for fresh air.
"You ought to be asleep," Viktor said, from where he sat against the wall. A book rested at his feet.
"I was," Yuuri answered. "I had a bad dream."
"Ah," Viktor's tone was almost wistful. "I miss that."
"Nightmares?" Yuuri said, incredulous.
"Dreaming," Viktor said.
"You don't dream?"
"I don't sleep."
"You don't sleep?" Yuuri looked at him.
"How could I?" Viktor shrugged, a slow heave upward of the metal shoulders and then a careful relaxing of them, to avoid waking the rest of their party with the creaking metal. "I have no body."
"That's—" Yuuri shook his head. "What do you do?" All these nights, he’d never imagined that Viktor was simply sitting in silent vigil while Yuri slept.
"I read a lot," Viktor answered. Then he laughed softly. "Yura and I used to have a contest, who could read more books. I'll be ahead of him forever."
"You sit here and read?"
"That's—" Yuuri hesitated.
"A lot of time alone with my thoughts," Viktor said carefully. "Yes."
"That sounds lonely," Yuuri said, after a moment.
"Yes," Viktor answered.
"I could—" Yuuri wanted to offer to do something, to stay up with him, but it was impractical. "...I'm sorry."
"You've done a lot, you know," Viktor said. "So please don't worry."
"I haven't done anything,” Yuuri protested.
"It's been years since I felt anything," Viktor said. "I can't sleep, or eat of course. I couldn't taste anything, or touch it. I don't feel warmth. When someone hugs me, I don't feel that either. More than anything, I want—" he broke off. "It's...very empty, I suppose."
Yuuri stared at him. He couldn't find the words.
Viktor tilted his head to look at him, expressionless as ever, but when he spoke it sounded as though he was smiling. "But when I'm with you, Yuuri, it's like feeling something again. So please don't act as though you aren't important. Because you are, to me."
Yuuri looked at him. "...can I sit with you, for a minute?" he asked.
"Always," Viktor said. Yuuri settled against the wall next to him. It took a few moments to adjust and find a comfortable resting place leaning against the suit of armor. Once he did, Viktor flipped the book back open.
"What's it about?" Yuuri asked.
"Just fairy tales," Viktor said. "About alchemy, of course, but there's no science to it. They're just stories."
"Read to me?" Yuuri asked, then abruptly felt embarrassed. "You don't—"
"I'd like to," Viktor said. He began the story in a quiet voice, and Yuuri listened to it, and then merely to the rhythm of Viktor's words, before finally drifting into a blessedly dreamless sleep.
“I can’t believe—“ Yuri spat and sobbed in a single breath. “What the fuck! We came so fucking far and—“ he spun and punched the brick with his automail fist; Yuuri could only be grateful that he hadn’t used his flesh hand.
Viktor was uncharacteristically quiet; coupled with the typical inexpressiveness of the armor, it made him impossible to read. Yuuri touched his wrist in an attempt at comfort, and then remembered that he couldn’t feel it.
“We’ll find another way,” he said eventually.
“And if there isn’t another way?” Yuri shot back.
“There will be,” Viktor said.
Yuuri could never tell if he believed it. Yuri was easy to read—quick to anger, to fly into a rage, to give away whether he was thrilled or upset or infuriated with the glint in his eyes even before he opened his mouth. But seeing what a philosopher’s stone was, understanding that it was no longer an option for them—he couldn’t tell in the slightest what that meant to Viktor.
Yuri’s eyes were damp when they fell into step together on the way to the train. Yuuri pretended not to see as he surreptitiously wiped at his face.
“That fucking dog,” he finally said.
“My arm, my leg—I want them back, but fuck, whatever,” Yuri said. “Viktor has this stupid dog. I mean, she’s old now but he’s had her since she was a puppy. And after—she didn’t recognize him.”
Yuuri sucked in a little breath. “But she—she must know now.”
“How?” Yuri shot back. “He doesn’t look like Viktor. Doesn’t smell like Viktor. She’s a dog. She doesn’t fucking understand alchemy.”
The words hung in the air between them. Yuuri looked at Viktor walking ahead of them, still utterly unreadable.
“That’s awful,” Yuuri said finally, honestly.
“I fucking did that,” Yuri said. “But I can’t—we can’t burn up the lives of other people. Not for anything.”
“Viktor agrees with you,” Yuuri reminded him quietly.
“I know,” Yuri said.
They were silent the rest of the way home.
“He has the eyes of a soldier,” Otabek said from behind Yuuri. They’d fallen into old patterns automatically, back to back. “He’ll win.”
“I know,” Yuuri said. Another snap, another wall of fire spilling out at the ceaseless horde. Yuri and Viktor were two of the most talented alchemists Yuuri had ever met. They would be fine. They would be—
Snap . The familiar blaze of flame. And, out of his line of sight, the unmistakable helpless sound of Yuri’s roar of anger.
For a second, it felt like Yuuri’s heart stopped in his chest. Then Otabek said, “Sir!” and Yuuri pointed and there was more flame and he was still terribly, terribly afraid.
“What do you think that was?” he asked in the momentary quiet behind the recoil of Otabek’s pistol and the angry hiss of fire.
“I don’t know,” said Otabek, and fired again.
The drop from hope to fear in that moment when the world broke apart in an explosion was one of the most rapid shifts in emotion Yuuri had ever felt. The only other moment he could recall like it was that first day in that little house on the hill when he’d come looking for a necromancer and found a broken child.
And here, again, Yuri Plisetsky, older now, his hair longer, but still Yuuri was standing frozen, looking at the useless stump of his arm where the automail had been shattered away and thinking oh, God. He threw himself to his feet and tried to run, every bruised limb protesting, but he had been thrown too far by the explosion even if he didn’t account for the rubble that blocked his path.
“Sir,” Otabek said, voice pained, and stopped.
They’d come so far. So close to winning. And they were left with Yuri pinned by metal, one arm gone—God, Yuuri wished he’d thought to insist on a backup plan, on teaching Yuri to direct his alchemy one-handed as Yuuri did, but he’d never thought it would come down to something like this.
He ran anyway, knowing it was hopeless, and hauled himself to the top of a pile of rubble in time to have a good view of the metal of Guang Hong’s pointed blades slamming into the stone next to Yuri, in time to hear Yuri shout, “Viktor! Don’t!”
It was the perfect vantage point to watch as the suit of armor fell lifeless to the ground, as Yuri’s empty stump sprouted an arm, pale and thin but whole and flesh, and the perfect vantage point to hear Yuri’s scream of rage and grief as he clapped his hands together—his own hands, both of them—for the first time in four years and bent the earth to his will.
Yuuri had not been prepared to lose Yuri. He had always known it, long before he had watched that monster stalking towards him and realized there was nothing he could do. But he was equally ill-prepared to lose Viktor, and when the monster finally writhed and sputtered and shriveled into nothing but dust, he couldn’t bring himself to join in the cheer that rose up.
He crossed the field as quickly as he could, Otabek at his shoulder as always, and found Yuri on his knees, bent over the empty suit of armor.
“There has to be a way,” he muttered. “Think. There must be—“
He fell silent in a moment, before Yuuri could think of a thing to say. Everything that came to mind all felt like meaningless platitudes.
Yes, they had won. But Yuuri had lost too many people in this war to feel victorious.
“I’m sorry,” Yuuri said, and his voice broke, and Yuri sprang to his feet.
“Stop fucking apologizing! You and—and Viktor! You didn’t do this. He didn’t do this. Everything that happened—I did this. And I’m going to get him back, you stupid pig!”
Yuuri could only watch, somehow helpless and hopeful at the same time, as Yuri etched a circle in the earth and clapped his hands and the lines lit up around him.
Yuuri learned later that it did not feel instantaneous to Yuri and Viktor, but there was no waiting, no worrying. There was only Yuri’s hands on the earth and the brilliant light and then, in the circle, Yuri still, just as he’d left, smiling fiercely, and a man Yuuri had never seen before beside him, an arm slung around Yuri’s shoulder as though for support.
Subconsciously, Yuuri had always imagined Viktor was attractive. He’d never seen a photo—never thought to ask—but he had thought of Viktor as handsome. Part of it was his voice—the warmth of it, his easy charming nature. The other part was trying to picture an older brother to Yurio, what he might look like all grown up and wiser and calmer.
But the man kneeling in the dirt— Viktor , Yuuri’s heart sang—was nothing short of ethereally beautiful. His hair was long, spilling down around his elbows. It wasn’t blond like Yuri’s, but pale silver like moonlight. When he tipped his face up towards the light, he looked pale and exhausted, and still Yuuri’s heart skipped a beat. This man, Yuuri thought dumbly, is the most attractive man you’ve ever seen in your life.
Then Viktor looked at him. His eyes were blue like the sky, and when they made eye contact Viktor sang out, “Yuuri!” like he had a thousand times before, except this time Yuuri could see his eyes light up and watch his expression break into a smile as he said it, like seeing Yuuri was exactly what he wanted, like Viktor was also laying eyes on him for the first time.
They didn’t have much of a chance to speak on the way to the hospital; Viktor refused to let go of Yuri until they were forcibly separated to be examined, his thin fingers tightening on Yuri’s shoulder every time someone threatened to come between them. When they were finally drawn apart with the promise of medical attention, Viktor caught hold of Yuuri’s hand instead, drawing him to the edge of the hospital bed.
“It’s warm,” Viktor breathed, and then ducked his head, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. Of course your hand is warm. I just couldn’t feel it before.”
Yuuri had thought that he’d gotten to know Viktor well over the past few years, well enough to start to believe he could love him. He hadn’t thought about acting on it—not when Viktor and Yuri’s main priority was getting their bodies back, when the country was on the verge of collapse.
And he hadn’t thought that when it finally did seem like an opportune time, Viktor would be so devastatingly beautiful that Yuuri could barely put two words together and look at his face at the same time.
“I—“ he stammered and then he looked away for a second and heard Viktor sigh, the sound of it familiar even without the metallic echo. Suddenly he felt silly. He knew Viktor. He loved Viktor. Whatever he looked like now, he was the same person he’d always been, and the way he was clinging to Yuuri’s hand indicated a need far more important than Yuuri tripping over himself because of a stupid crush. “Do you need anything?”
It was Viktor’s turn to stammer. “I—would you—“ it finally came out almost ashamed. “Can I hug you?”
“Yes!” Yuuri winced when it came out too eager, but Viktor beamed at him. Yuuri was a hundred percent certain he’d never get used to Viktor’s smile, the brilliance of it, the way it lit up his whole face. It was strange to think that he’d ever thought of Viktor as inexpressive when every emotion now seemed to be written across his visage in block letters.
Viktor opened his arms. Yuuri at first tried to hug him from a standing position, but it proved awkward, and he ended up hopping onto the edge of the bed to wrap him more securely in his arms. Viktor melted into his touch, tucking his face into Yuuri’s shoulder, his long curtain of hair brushed to the side.
“I’d forgotten how nice this is,” Viktor murmured, and then he corrected. “No. I remembered that. I just didn’t remember exactly how it felt.”
Yuuri tightened his hold in response. He’d noticed immediately, of course, how thin Viktor was. Yuri’s long-missing arm was the same, withered by disuse, standing out in its thinness and pallor against the rest of his body. It was a little less stark on Viktor, if only because it was all of him. But it was impossible to ignore when he could feel every one of Viktor’s ribs as he hugged him.
“You’re so thin,” Yuuri whispered, and repeated it louder when the doctor arrived. “Can’t you…”
“We’ll deal with that,” the woman promised. Viktor ended up with two IVs, the skin bruising easily around the needles. “It’s always been like this,” Viktor dismissed when he caught Yuuri looking.
“You look like shit,” Yuri announced when they brought him back with a physical therapy regimen and an assortment of bandages. His other arm, it turned out, was the more immediate concern, since it had been impaled, but according to the doctor there was nothing critically wrong. He joined them on the bed on Viktor’s other side.
Yuuri started to go, but Viktor held on. “Please,” he said, his grip on Yuuri’s arm awkward, the way he had to twist to avoid dislodging the tubing. “Stay.”
He stayed all that night, curled against Viktor in the hospital bed. He couldn’t stay all the next day; the city had faced too much upheaval to abandon it quite yet, as ill-equipped as Yuuri felt to help in any leadership capacity. He turned down offers to join the new government, eventually accepting only a temporary position for the transitory period.
The doctor said Viktor would be well enough to travel in a few weeks, or maybe a month.
“Will you come home with us, Yuuri?” Viktor asked after she left, voice feather-soft.
“Would you like me to?” Yuuri replied, heart thumping too loud in his chest.
“Yes,” Viktor says bluntly. He’s stopped exclaiming every time there is something new—something warm, or soft, or something that tasted good, or a sensation he’s forgotten. But Yuuri still saw his eyes light up when he remembered all over again what he’d regained, and he held onto Yuuri and Yura any chance he got, like he still hardly remembered what it meant to touch people.
“Then I’ll come,” Yuuri promised. They hadn’t said it to each other, not yet. Yura was there constantly, and Otabek, Guang Hong and Leo and everyone else cycling in and out, and Yuuri never felt the sense of privacy they would need for that conversation. But every night Yuuri toed off his shoes and slid into bed next to Viktor and held him while he slept again after four years, and that felt like a promise enough.
Weeks later, in a house on a hillside, an old dog woke up to the sound of voices outside. She stood, slowly, and ambled into the yard to see a man standing there who she hadn’t seen in four years. His hair was long like it had been when he was a boy, and he leaned on a crutch, and his voice and smell was just what she remembered.
“She’s gotten old,” the older woman who cared for her now said.
“Hello, Makka,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
In answer, she tackled him to the ground.