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A Wisp of Smokeless Fire

Chapter Text

Yuuri’s hand fell open, knuckles brushing against the smooth ribbing of the tatami floor.

Rain poured outside, past the sliding fusuma door and the veranda—a droning ssshhha in Yuuri’s periphery. A similar sound whispered along his ear as Yuuri rubbed his head against the floor, allowing his long, loose hair to flow against the tatami. The rain, as dreary as it was, was welcome: peaceful, soothing, healing; a sign that the late-winter clouds were no longer cold enough to freeze their bounty before dropping it onto the earth below.

“Tell us another one,” one of the triplets said, voice a tint more demanding than pleading. The tone made Yuuri crinkle his nose. Each of the triplets seemed to know a bit too well that they were high-born children—that their whining would one day turn into imperial commands.

“Not if you ask like that, little brat,” Mari replied.

The girl sighed, but went silent. Yuuri’s nose uncrinkled.

“Please, Mari—please please please,” another triplet pled.

Mari chuckled. “No. Try again.”

Finally, the third triplet seemed to grow tired of the game; based on her sober tone, Yuuri guessed it was Akuseru—though it was difficult to tell sometimes, especially without looking. “Mari, may we please have another story?”

Mari smiled. “All right. But first, make me a cup of tea.”

Akuseru shuffled over to the kotatsu, where the girls’ mother sipped her own tea. As her daughter poured from the kettle, Yuuko brushed the girl’s hair back with one gentle hand, lips pursing at how the hairdressers’ work had been undone in so little time. The triplets were still rambunctious; it would be years yet until they learned how to live without disruption.

Yuuko noticed Yuuri watching them and smiled. “Come under the kotatsu,” she said.

Yuuri smiled back, light and sleepy, before shutting his eyes. His body felt too heavy to move. The dressers had taken pity on him that day—only six layers of fine cloth separated his form from the late winter’s chill—yet the swathes of dark silk still weighed heavy and slippery on his limbs.

And it was serene, lying alone and merely listening: to the rain, the triplets, his sister, his best friend.

“Good girl, Akuseru,” Mari said as she took the tea. Yuuri could envision his sister’s wink and smirk without looking. “Luupu, fetch a little rain. We need a refill.”

This request was met with a huff—but Yuuko’s soft “No fussing” had the little girl moving without real protest. Yuuri listened to the slithering slide of the fusuma, the sipped gasp as the girl’s face met with the cold air, and then a muted scuffle as Luupu donned outdoor slippers to patter out onto the veranda. The rain was much louder now, unmuffled by screens. Its unceasing patter lured Yuuri into a true doze.

“Don’t spill on the tatami. Good,” Mari said. There was the soft plip of rainwater hitting rainwater—Mari carefully refilling the wide, shallow basin she had placed atop a low, red lacquer table.

Though Yuuri kept his eyes drowsily closed, he knew how his sister must look right at that moment: her feet tucked under her many-layered burgundy kimono, its deep silk swirled with a rush of frost-covered branches and blushing plum blossoms; her long hair swept into a clean chignon and secured with a tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl comb.

Her black pupils blazing into yellow-white dots of light, illuminating her black-brown irises into shadowed amber.

Above her outstretched hand, a plume of fire manifested into existence.

Yuuri sensed the fire in his mind’s-eye. It danced from Mari’s fingers to the basin’s waterline—silent, hovering, and heatless. In its infancy, the flame shined crimson—such conjures almost always did—but as it aged, the kitsunebi flame would curl into hues of yellow, white, or even blue.

“Once,” Mari began. “There was a prince from a far-off land.”

Yuuri’s lips curled into a low smile as his mind bounded through the possibilities. It could be a galavanting adventurer from the arid, sandy Western deserts, battling giant eagles and hooded serpents—or perhaps a spoiled heir of a jungle kingdom, resplendent in swaths of jeweled silks, destined to find truth and wisdom away from the distraction of earthly delights.

“He was a conqueror,” Mari continued. From behind closed lids, Yuuri sensed her flame building, flickering from a red seed into an orange blaze. “A young general sworn to the service of an empress of ice. And his name was…. Viktor.”

Yuuri’s eyes snapped open. He cast a furtive glance over his shoulder.

His sister smirked at him. “I knew that would wake you up.”

Yuuri frowned, cheeks pinking.

The light of Mari’s fire-bright pupils was fond and mischievous. “Won’t you join us?”

An annoyed pause. Yuuri bit his lip, then looked askance towards the sound of rain.

Another moment of staring—then Mari’s star-bright gaze rolled away. “Suit yourself.”

Her attention flitted back to the triplets, whose silence had already donned an air of impatience. But they knew better than to test Mari’s concentration, whether that be on the story or teasing her own brother; disrupting Mari’s flow of thought could weaken her flame, which was still too young to be sustained without strict effort.

“Prince Viktor of Kiyev….” Mari’s pupils, golden pinpricks, focused upon the matching light in the basin’s center. “….is a son of the Nikiforov family, and a descendant of the Sa’ame Northern people. They say this heritage makes him look very strange, yet handsome—with blue eyes, pale skin, pink cheeks, and a head of hair as white as snow.”

Yuuri propped his head on one hand—taking care not to lie or tug on his long, loose hair—and gazed into the basin, where the kitsunebi and its reflection were melding into one. It gave off no smoke, only emanating a mesmerizing, undulating shimmer.

“His beauty is as famous as his bravery,” Mari continued. “Since swearing into the service of Empress Lilia, he has tripled her territory, widening Kiyev’s borders and influence into the East.”

One moment, the kitsunebi hovered over the basin; the next, it fell upon the water—and an image of Prince Viktor burst into Yuuri’s mind: smiling pink lips; light, short hair; eyes as blue and shocking as a cut of jade. He wore the beautiful, exotic, embroidered clothing Kiyev was known for; he clutched an ornate rogatina, the famous spear of the Kiyevsky warriors.

“Not so long ago, Prince Viktor and his loyal warriors advanced into the forests far east of Kiyev—north of where the Dalavchtai are ruled by their fearsome, warmongering Khan. Although Viktor did not raise a hand to the eagle-people, his presence made the Khan very nervous. He sent a general to approach Viktor with the force of a thousand riders and five hundred archers….”

The biting, vicious wind of the steppes. A yurt erected in the rosy darkness of dusk. A line of trees, farther north, where the Kiyevsky forces camped and cast wary sights to the star-speckled skies: shades of blue, orange, and purple—all dotted with evergreen branches, clouds, and the countless wings of golden eagles.

“What a welcome,” said Prince Viktor, his face breathtakingly beautiful, his lips pink and curled in cunning delight.

“Is he really so good-looking?” Akuseru asked, too skeptical to remain silent.

“I don’t know.” Mari shrugged; her flame was steady on the water, its base teetering into blue. “What do you say, Yuuri—is he ‘breathtakingly beautiful,’ or more of a ‘devastatingly handsome’?”

Yuuri pursed his lips together, resisting a blush. “Please return to the story.”

Prince Viktor walked forward into the general’s yurt, continuing until he’d reached the seat they’d prepared for him. It was draped in bear-fur, yet he sat down without a flinch—bow-shaped smile perfectly intact.

“To what do I owe this lovely greeting party?”

The yurt was large and full of witnesses. Six Dalavchtai warriors, dressed in their stiff linens and fur-lined leathers, held flank at their General’s side. Behind the prince, two of his trusted lieutenants and advisors stood quiet and at the ready.

The clear, elegant lines of Viktor’s cheekbones shimmered young and ravishing in the firelight. But where the young prince was radiant and new, the Khan’s general was weathered, wrinkly, and tense. He was a successful commander, but an old one; he had seen many wars on the steppes, and won almost as many.

His age and experience also meant that the General was not a man who dabbled in pleasantries. The first thing he said to Prince Viktor was: “The Khan orders that you proceed no further. Return north, bear-prince—back where your kind belongs. There is nothing for you out of the North except death, failure, and wasted time.”

Prince Viktor hummed, placing a single finger to the corner of his mouth. He considered the General’s words.

Finally, he said: “No.”

The wind groaned out a long, cold, dreary melody.

The General said, “I see,” his crisp tone slicing into the quiet. “Then by order of the Khan, I will ready my troops, and at sunup—”

Prince Viktor’s nose crinkled in a hurried, covered yawn.

“—We shall drive your forces north then west, cutting down all who resist.”

Viktor’s brows lifted in curiosity. “How do you think you’ll do that?”

The General sensed that speaking with the young bear-prince would only infuriate him, so he stood to leave—to ready his troops as he’d promised to do. He had his orders, and he meant to obey them.

“Will you send your riders?” Viktor asked with a smile. “I hope so. Medvedya don’t prefer to eat horse, but after all these days of traveling, with such strict rations…. Well. We’re not very picky.”

The General went absolutely still.

“What’s Medve—?” Lutsu loud-whispered.

“What the bear-people call themselves. Shh,” Yuuko whispered back.

“No… perhaps you’ll send your archers instead.” Viktor leaned back slightly, bringing one leg up and resting it atop the other. “But as renowned as they are, even they might have a difficult time hitting a shielded, moving target through a dense canopy of evergreens. Which reminds me—do you know how heavy and numerous a quiver must be to take down even one armored bear?” He took a moment to consider it, then shrugged. “Because I don’t. But I’m sure it’s too heavy to fly with.”

The General stood, unmoving, and eyed the prince with something like dreadful contempt.

“Perhaps another method,” the prince said, raising one finger as his eyes flitted up in thought. “A fire? But it’s not nearly hot or dry enough to keep, and the smoke would hamper your flight capacities for days at least—”

“Enough,” the General snapped. “I have my orders, bear-prince. And you waste your breath in some poor attempt to mock me.”

Viktor breathed in, as though to argue—but only sighed. “All right. If you absolutely must lose thousands of arrows, hundreds of horses, and as many lives, then I certainly don’t have the authority to stop you. Accompany us all the way to Ouyashima if it suits you.”

“That’s us!” The triplets chirped, each at a slightly different tone.

“Yes, yes. Quiet down,” Yuuko muttered.

“Does that mean he’s coming here?” Lutsu asked.

“I’m sure it’s just an expression. Hush.”

“Or,” Viktor said.

The General’s gaze was sharp and dark.

“We could find an alternative.”

Those eyes went even sharper. “I will not disobey my Khan.”

“Of course not,” Viktor said. His hands laced over his raised knee—long, elegant fingers couched in black leather. “But I believe that, together, we can agree on a new path. One that does not disobey your Khan’s orders.”

The General considered the prince. He was young, and he looked more like a pampered court dandy than a military leader. Yet the lives of his warriors were at stake. “I will listen to your proposal,” the General said slowly. “But if it’s stupid, I will leave.”

Viktor laughed, light and sudden. “Fair enough. Please, sit.”

Although the General was immensely displeased by the request—it was his yurt, after all—he did so, with a heavy, displeased drop.

“It’s a simple situation.” Viktor leaned forward, hand raised to his chin. “I will not turn back,” he said, then pointed to the General. “You will not yield. Rather than send out all of our warriors, gambling their fates—”

“A duel,” the General said.

Viktor grinned. “A duel.”

But the General’s eyes narrowed. “Neither I nor the Khan will agree to such a thing, if the stakes are an invasion.”

Viktor’s eyes widened. “Who said anything about an invasion?” He leaned back, uncrossing his leg and dropping his foot to the floor with a soft pat. “I certainly haven’t tried to invade. All we’ve been doing is going for a walk in the woods.”

The General’s eyes, already narrowed, lowered into slits.

“You seem to have some reservations,” Viktor said. “Why don’t we discuss terms? I’ll go first. If my representative wins the duel, I want my entire party to be left unbothered. The threats and annoyances stop, and we continue on our way.”

The General’s brow furrowed. “What ‘way’ is that?”

Viktor’s smile went tight. “Nowhere within the Khan’s influence. And so, none of your concern.”

That prickled at the General’s already-considerable irritation, but he cast it off. More important was to assert terms of his own.

“You and your party will turn back, return to the northern wastes, and never set foot in the Khan’s lands, nor the land of his allies, ever again—even those you have rightfully bested in combat.”

The General smirked. Surely that would teach the haughty prince to think before he flippantly challenged the best of the Dalavchtai to arms.

“All right,” Viktor said, pink lips lifting into another grin, “I agree.”

The General’s smirk flipped into a scowl.

Viktor opened his mouth to speak again; but, before he could, one of his advisors—a woman with flame-red hair—hurried forward to whisper in her prince’s ear.

While Viktor deliberated with his advisor, the General gathered his senses. He said, “Invasion is entirely forbidden from the terms. If you invade, we will defend ourselves accordingly, no matter the outcome of any duel.”

Viktor waved a hand distractedly, only half-listening. “Naturally.”

That long-fingered hand reminded the General, horrendously, of the prince’s second form—and that sent a slow, anxious dread dripping into his stomach.

“My second term,” the General said in a measured, careful voice. “The chosen warriors may not, under any circumstances, use their second forms.”

Viktor’s advisor ceased her whispers. Viktor’s eyes, blue and icy, slid to catch the General’s.

An amused smile perched upon his lips. “It’s not your turn.”

The General, enraged, jolted to a stand.

“By that, I meant,” Viktor hurriedly said, “listen to my term, then I can agree to yours, yes? My second term is: the duel will not be decided by death.” He shrugged. “Call it obvious, but I think avoiding needless loss of life is rather the point of this whole endeavor.”

The General frowned, fury momentarily put aside. “Then what will decide it?”

“Oh, are we jumping right to my third term? I agree to your second one, by the way. Boring as it may be.” He leaned to the side, listening to his advisor’s quiet words, then sat straight again. “Do you know how fights are decided among Medvedya?”

Instead of responding, the General just stared in bland, unimpressed silence.

Viktor tapped a fingertip against the end of his long, elegant nose. “First nose to touch the ground.”

The General scoffed. “This isn’t a friendly skirmish.”

“You’re right,” Viktor said, lifting one shoulder. “But I like to think that, in some years, we may look back on it as such.”

Certainly, the General’s demeanor did not allow for such silly imaginings. But he repeated, begrudgingly, “Nose to the ground. Fine.” But then a glimmer of an idea—a lovely one—flashed into the General’s mind, so he added: “Or death. Either will decide the winner.”

“Oh, now you’re making it exciting,” Viktor remarked, laughing under his breath. “And I can only guess why—”

“My third term,” the General cut in. “The Dalavchtai will decide the warriors. From both parties.”

Viktor tilted his head in amusement. “All right. Why not.” He glanced back at his advisors, smiling as though they shared a secret. “Though I do wonder who you’ll possibly choose….”

“Viktor!” Lutsu yelled, throwing her arms up in excitement. “He’ll choose Viktor!”

Mari laughed, her eyes glittering like synchronized fireflies. “Maybe. We’ll find out, if you sit quietly and listen.”

“Oh, no,” Yuuko said. She glanced out the slightly ajar fusuma screen; over the course of the tale, it had grown fully dark. “The story will have to wait. It’s time to get ready for bed.”

The triplets immediately burst into a chorus: “No!” “There’s no way!” “It’s impossible!”

Despite the triplets’ protests, Mari’s flame began to wane. “Sorry girls,” she said. The flame sputtered to a bare yellowy wisp. “Your mother says no, and that means—”

But just as Mari’s kitsunebi waned to the barest shallow gleam, a second flame sparked to life in the basin—its color flickering between sharp yellow and gentle silver.

At the sudden silence, Yuuri brought his outstretched hand back into his chest. His cheeks swarmed with pink. “I don’t want you to stop either,” he admitted. “Mari, let’s just—why don’t we skip to two days later, after the messenger brings back the Khan’s letter?” He shifted on his folded legs; toyed with the elegant excess of his many kimono sleeves. “That’s when all of the action is, anyway.”

“Wha— Yuuri,” Yuuko complained, “you, of all people, should support me in this.”

Yuuri shrugged—just barely holding back a mischievous little grin.

Seeing their chance, the twins again broke into a mess of pleading: “Yes!” “Show us the duel!” “Oh please please please please—”

“Pipe down, will you?” Mari grumbled. Her fingers twitched as she coaxed her flame awake, integrating Yuuri’s in order to bolster her own. “Let me concentrate for just a sec—”

The biting, vicious wind of the steppes.

Yurts erected against the brisk, sharp blue of the horizon—its vast expanse dotted with the countless wings of soaring golden eagles.

Prince Viktor held a hand up to protect his eyes. A small but sturdy shield was affixed to his forearm; in his other hand, he clutched his rogatina. The spear was longer than the prince was tall, and one-third of it made entirely of a steel blade the shape of a bay leaf. As it gleamed in the sun, the shining polish of the staff revealed a spiral of intricate, mysterious runes; like many elite Kiyevsky weapons, it had been charmed to recognize its owner.

Viktor flinched his gaze down and away from the sun, tsking under his breath. “I guess we’ll just be late.”

A winged man landed only a few paces in front of him, leather boots slamming into the ground with a wham.

“...Or right on time,” Viktor mumbled. Then he grinned. “Hello! What is your name?”

The Dalavchtai warrior raised his curved blade, pointed it at the prince—and nodded at him once, slowly. It was a strange way to impart a greeting, but not entirely impolite.

Viktor’s smile pinched tight. “Nice to meet you too.”

A horn blared loud and long along the steppes, signaling the official start of the duel.

For a few moments, both warriors only stood and stared at one another. Viktor let his rogatina drop slightly, then held one hand out. “Well, shall we start? Perhaps you could sheathe your wings first.”

But the Dalavchtai warrior did not. Instead, he sheathed his sword, withdrew his bow, and—slowly, steadily—began to beat his copper-shimmering wings.

“I have been ordered by the Khan to defeat you,” the man said, his blunt tone sounding almost… apologetic, or at least begrudging. “As soundly as possible. And by any means possible.”

Viktor was expressionless as he watched the man’s feet lift off the ground. “Right. Of course. And I suppose...having only your wings out isn’t really your second form.”

“That’s so rotten!” Akuseru hissed—but both her sisters shushed her immediately.

The Dalavchtai warrior slid an arrow from his quiver, notched it, and flew high.

Viktor raised a hand to shield his eyes as he watched the ascent. The sun shone bright and unyielding into his sightline, enveloping the warrior and making it impossible to track his movements clearly. What’s more, there were witnesses all around them—hollering and banging on shields and causing a ruckus. But to a sharp, focused ear, it was possible to catch the slight whump whump of beating wings—and then the pwing of an arrow being loosed.

The arrow snapped apart against Viktor’s shield.

He called up: “You know, if you do feel bad about it, you could always come back down.”

Another arrow broke on Viktor’s raised shield.

Then another. And another.

Viktor sighed. “How many is in a quiver again?”

Although many wings filled these skies, only one pair had to beat often and loud enough to support the weight of a fully-grown man. Viktor followed that sound and adjusted his shield accordingly. His legs and arms, however, were quite exposed; he flinched as one, then two arrows pierced and thudded into the muscle of his thighs. But despite the onslaught, the prince stood tall.

Finally, the barrage of arrows slowed. The warrior must be running low—and getting frustrated.

Viktor adjusted his hold on his rogatina. Although the warrior was practically invisible—sunlight shimmering mercilessly over his hovering form—it also meant that all Viktor had to do was throw at the sun.

Like a cracking whip, Viktor loosed his spear into the sky. Then, he stood patiently, head cocked to the side, as he waited to hear whether or not it hit the ground. When it did not fall, Viktor adjusted his hand’s grip again—as though wrapping his fingers in an imaginary, held-taut thread—and pulled with all the force he could muster.

Sending the Dalavchtai warrior, gripping the enchanted spear, plummeting into the earth.

All three of the triplets hollered with laughter and delight. But just as quickly as they’d celebrated, Akuseru gasped and asked: “Wait! Did his nose touch the ground?”

Mari smiled.

The entire witnessing crowd had fallen into a profound quiet. In that hush, Viktor pushed his hair away from his face, walked over to the grounded warrior, leaned down, and—taking delicate hold of both his spear and the man’s cheek—pressed the warrior’s nose ever-so-gently into the dirt beneath.

Lutsu threw both her hands up in over-exhausted glee. “I knew he would win!”

Luupu, apparently satisfied with the story, exhausted, and finished with the entire interaction, curled up with a little smile and shut her eyes. But Akuseru seemed wide-awake and sharp as her questions kept rolling: “What did Viktor do then? Is he coming here now? He said in the story that he would—”

“No, no,” Yuuko said, shifting to a graceful stand and herding the girls to get up as well. “That’s just a saying among Westerners.”

“He said, ‘follow us to Ouyashima’! So why wouldn’t he come?” Akuseru pressed, seeming more frustrated by the moment.

“Because we’re very far from Kiyev. Much too far for Viktor to make a visit.”

“Not so far that we don’t hear about him,” the girl mumbled.

“Yuuri,” Yuuko said, and nodded at her already-sleeping daughter. “Can you help me?”

Yuuri nodded back. In the hallway beyond the inner screen door, a hurried shuffle of footsteps perked all of their ears, but no one took much notice—Yuuko and Yuuri ushering the girls, and Mari composing herself after all the energy she expended to weave the story. Only when a rushed rap pap pap rattled against the doorframe did they all really pause and take notice.

With his arms full of dozing Luupu, Yuuri turned to face the door. “Yes?” He called out. “Open.”

The screens slid apart. The messenger, as expected, already had his forehead pressed firmly to the ground—not a chance of even an accidental glance at their kimonos’ hems. “Your Graces,” the man muttered frantically, “I beg forgiveness for my interruption; the hour is late—”

“Stop,” Yuuri ordered, though he hoped it wasn’t an unkind tone. “Gather yourself. Then lift your head.”

The man obeyed, but his eyes were shut tight as he did.

“The Tenko, may she reign forever, requests Your Grace's presence,” the messenger said.

Which surprised Yuuri, considering the time of year; but it did not shock him nearly as much as:

“A ship carrying the Crown Prince of Kiyev has just docked in Chouwa-Kyou harbor.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri’s hands clenched together in his lap, overlapping fingers rod-straight atop the thin material of his juban.

White paint hardened into an impassive mask on his face, neck, and ears. The red paint on his lips and at the edges of his eyes was pungent and cool as it dried. The whisper of silk slithered in the periphery of his awareness: layers of kimono being unfolded, smoothed, and readied for dressing.

A sudden, hard jolt of the comb sent his head flinching back. The hairdresser—the very same woman who had been combing Yuuri’s hair at court ever since he’d debuted; he’d never been allowed to learn her name—gave Yuuri a muffled tsk before shoving him back in place, fingertips rigid and insistent against the back of his neck.

None of the court attendants spoke to him. Not when they bustled him into the dressing room, and not as they hurried—at a near breakneck speed, literally—to wrench his pitch-black, floor-length hair into a heavy, ornate chignon. Normally Yuuri was so accustomed to this particular form of torture that he doesn’t so much as wince; today, however, the hairdresser must be venting her frustrations onto Yuuri’s poor scalp, because his head throbbed and ached as though his heartbeat were trying to punch straight through his skull.

They’d fetched him from his mother’s house in Hatsetsu two days ago. When a messenger bearing the seal of the Tenko bids you to come at once, then that is what you must do. Yuuri had a habit of doing exactly as he was expected to do. Sometimes, he was expected to be beautiful and artful in every thought and word and fluid motion of his wrists; other times, he was expected to shatter under the slightest pressure, like a paper crane under an unruly child’s palm.

Just then, he was expected to perform the dance of the first Tenko—an extremely complex and demanding piece that he had not practiced in eight months.

And that he only had about five more hours to prepare for.

Yuuri supposed he should be trying to remember the steps. Instead, he had been staring at a blank spot on the floor, unblinking, for some vague length of eternity.

The attendants finished his hair, securing a glittering hairpiece of carnelian, pearls, and gold to the top of his head. One of the attendants—an unfamiliar young woman with a low bun; Yuuri sorely wished that she, or anyone, just once, would touch his bare skin—finally broke him from his panicked reverie. “Your Grace?” She asked, eyes timidly and properly downcast towards the tatami.

Yuuri dragged his eyes away from that one specific spot on the floor. “Yes?”

“We would be grateful if Your Grace stood,” she said, loathe to make a direct request of a royal. The first layers of kimono, its white silk glittering with golden embroidery like white-hot fire and roiling smoke, caught the light and shimmered in her arms.

“Oh,” Yuuri replied—resisting a wince at how small his own voice sounded. “Yes, of course.”

The attendant thanked him with a deep bow of her head.

Yuuri sighed, ignored the temptation to lick his red-painted lips, and rose to a stand. The moment he was up, the attendants ushered him away from the black-lacquer cosmetics table and towards a ringed-cluster of cushions and step-stools, where yet more dressers awaited. This routine was familiar to Yuuri, who assumed the usual position automatically: standing in the middle of the group, squaring his shoulders, and holding out his arms.

The attendants began draping the silk, wrapping and crafting the kimono and its silhouette with precise yet harried movements. At Yuuri’s heels, the young woman who’d spoken before busied herself with laying the kimono’s train. “Please pardon the disrespect, Your Grace,” she said, tone drenched in even more reluctance.

Yuuri didn’t need elaboration to know what she meant: her grip, delicate as it was, plucked intrusively at the nine tails beneath his kimono’s train, adjusting them and the surrounding fabric as needed. His nine fox-tails, like that of the rest of the true-born royal family, were long enough to extend from his lower back to just past his heels; the kimono, once in place, would both complement and hide their shape into the ideal courtly silhouette.

As the attendants wrenched the obi tightly enough to force Yuuri’s breath out, his gasp very nearly morphed into the first of many sobs—but a familiar sound in the hallway helped him swallow it back down. “Open the damn door, please,” Minako said—then wrenched the screen door open herself, with enough fervency to render a whap. “Our revered Tenko decides to summon my precious student for a short-notice performance, yet in her eternal wisdom, she neglects to send any such summons to me. Why am I not surprised?”

“Minako,” Yuuri gasped out, relieved to see her and embarrassingly unable to hide it.

The moment she appeared, all the court attendants either kept purposefully turned away or fell to the floor in prostrating bows; their deference, which always made Yuuri uncomfortable, never seemed to ruffle Minako in the least. “Hello, Yuuri,” she replied, voice going sweeter, almost sing-song. “Look at you, all done up already! How long have you been here?”

“Oh…two hours? Maybe?” He guessed, expressionless. Once he donned the white keshou makeup, Yuuri had learned to avoid any sort of drastic expressions; it wouldn’t do to upset the paint.

“Two hours,” Minako repeated. “And I only received your message minutes ago.”

“I’m sorry! I tried sending for you earlier, but they couldn’t spare anyone—”

Minako waved it off. “No matter. I’m here now. And what a mess this is! You should see the rest of the palace; it’s like entering a hen-house in second form. I already hate this stupid foreign prince. If I didn’t know any better, I would say he was trying to catch us off-guard, don’t you think?”

Yuuri wanted to smile at her familiar, teasing tone so badly that he had to grit his teeth.

But Minako’s own smile fell away as she took in Yuuri’s appearance again. “Who did this to your hair? We do know what we’re dressing you for, yes? We have to take this out right away. A bit of a rush and suddenly all of our competence goes flying out the window!”

With that, the room’s oppressive hush was well and truly destroyed, and Yuuri couldn’t have been more grateful. It was a flurry of activity only kept ordered by Minako’s energy and strict stability: her usual lecturing in Yuuri’s ears; her gaze sharp on his form, ensuring he doesn’t look foolish or even slightly out of sorts.

It made Yuuri feel slightly more in-control. Slightly.

“Do you remember the steps?” Minako asked. No one would look at either of them, but Yuuri thought that might be okay, because at least they could look at each other.

“I don’t know,” Yuuri admitted, nerves cramping in his gut.

“Yes you do.”

“But I haven’t practiced it in—”

“I started teaching you this dance when you were five years old,” Minako interrupted. “You can do it in your sleep. Or am I wrong? Was I such a horrible teacher?”

“Huh?” Yuuri’s eyes went wide. “No! That’s not what I—!”

“Well? Do you remember or not?”

“I….do,” Yuuri said, probably lying, with his eyes flitting restlessly to the side.

“Ha! That’s my Yuuri. Stating the truth, all while not believing it.” Minako smoothed the fabric over Yuuri’s shoulders, then offered a hand to help him step down from his stool. “You look lovely in these colors, as always. A vision of regality, self-control, and poise.”

Yuuri snorted. Minako cracked a knowing grin.

“Well, my little Tenko,” Minako teased, “shall we go to your stage?”

A jerky nod; another deep breath. Yuuri gathered up his pure-white, knee-length sleeves with a practiced flick of his wrists. He desperately needed to run through the steps, so much so that he could already feel the sweat rolling down his skin amidst the heavy, stifling layers of kimono. Yet despite his nervousness, a hunger and excitement had begun to burn in his belly, buoying and setting him aflame for the challenge ahead.

But before they could leave, a messenger appeared at the open screen door. For the briefest moment, the messenger’s gaze latched onto Yuuri’s form—the man’s posture going stiff and his face staining dark—before he dropped into the deepest possible bow. His voice reverberated off the wooden floor of the hallway: “Your Grace, Your Holiness. The Tenko-Haika, may she reign forever, approaches.”

“The Tenko?” Minako repeated, painted brows rising. Then she grumbled to Yuuri under her breath: “Of course. As if we have the time to spare.”

The messenger did not move, so Yuuri figured he expected a response. “Yes, thank you. You may shut the door.”

Instantly, the man obeyed, sliding the door shut. Yuuri thought he saw the man steal one more quick, furtive glance—but that was so outrageous, such a hefty risk to take, that he must have been mistaken.

“What do you think she wants?” Yuuri wondered to Minako quietly, gripping his sleeves a little tighter. “To scare me into a good performance?”

They listened to the messenger’s footsteps shuffle away. Minako took both of Yuuri’s shoulders in hand, squaring his posture upright and leveling him with an unflinching stare. “Yuuri, tell me,” she said, steel in her voice. Her gaze flew to the attendants, tidying and packing up nearby; when it settled on Yuuri again, her eyes were full of unspoken urgency. “Have you spoken to Yuuko recently?”

As Yuuri’s eyes widened, he spared a quick worry for his freshly-painted brows. “Not for a few days, no. Why?”

Minako shrugged. “Nothing important.”

But if Minako would bring up Yuuko—who, other than Minako herself, was Yuuri’s highest-ranked ally at court—right before the Tenko was to meet with him, then Yuuri knew it must be important. So he said, tone a casual afterthought: “I’m sure I’ll catch up with her tonight, at the banquet.”

“Mhm,” Minako hummed—then moved on from the topic as though it hadn’t been said. “Now, remember. Around the Tenko, you must behave yourself.” One hand rose from Yuuri’s shoulder to jab an index finger in his face. “Keep quiet. Stay poised. Don’t speak back. And by that, I mean: don’t offer your own opinion on anything. At all.”

Yuuri couldn’t resist a frown. “I only did that once.”

“You’re doing it right now,” Minako pointed out.

“Oh, come on,” he huffed, rolling his eyes.

But she plowed over him, tone hardening: “Yuuri, you must focus. Remember your age. Your status. We both know you’re a court darling—”

“I am not; what are you even—”

“You’ve been chosen to dance for a foreign prince,” Minako reminded him, grinning fondly. “Hush and accept the compliment.”

But Yuuri only did one of those things, clenching his sleeves as his toes rolled against the tatami nervously.

After watching him squirm in silence, Minako dropped her hands and sighed. “Yuuri…you’re the greatest pupil I’ve ever had. That’s not a compliment; it’s the truth. But that doesn’t mean that the favor you’ve enjoyed from the Tenko will last forever. So just…be careful, all right? Don’t be any more petulant to her than you already have been.”

“I wasn’t planning on it, Sensei,” Yuuri retorted, allowing his tone to dip into teasing.

“You never do,” Minako replied, matching his wryness perfectly.

In true form—and out of true necessity—the deeper meanings of Minako’s words were buried under bland, harmless statements. Remember your age, your status. Very little about Yuuri’s position in court was secure. Yuuri was nine-tailed—like Minako, his sister, and his own mother—and therefore technically royal. But he wasn't the Tenko’s direct descendant. He was also male, childless, and unmarried at twenty-three, meaning that unless Yuuri became a future Tenko’s consort—a ludicrous impossibility—he would never be a member of her Council. The court had found use in him as their favored dancer, but otherwise, he’d avoided and outright missed any opportunities to secure his status as anything but true power’s passing fancy.

For the most part, that was how Yuuri and his family preferred to keep it. Yuuri’s mother could have assumed a role on the Council, like Minako had, and married for greater wealth and influence; instead, she had chosen a life with a lesser noble husband and a comfortable, yet comparatively humble home in their southern town away from the politics of Chouwa-Kyou. When Mari’s coming-of-age had required they reintegrate into court, Yuuri’s family had still rejected its norms: Yuuri’s mother had allowed Mari to make the final decision on who to marry; they even put off talk of Yuuri’s future betrothals, allowing him to determine when to acknowledge even the most polite of miai inquiries.

By now, the small Katsuki clan was known for their peculiarities and overly indulgent treatment of their children—oddities that were only tolerated, of course, insofar as they didn’t become bothersome to the Tenko.

A rap at the door sent both Minako and Yuuri rigid, their heads darting to face the closed screen. Restlessly, Yuuri’s tails flicked and writhed under the silky weight of the kimono’s train; Minako caught the movements immediately, as always, and reminded him in a hiss: “Five-three-one.”

Instantly, Yuuri compressed his tails into the neat, proper spread: five below, three middle, and one atop. It filled the kimono train neatly, creating the ideal courtly silhouette that Yuuri had been practicing ever since he began to wear clothes in the first place.

Once Yuuri seemed collected, Minako called out: “Enter.”

The door slid open. “Your Grace, Your Holiness,” the same messenger greeted, bowing deeply. His cheeks were pink, making a pale scar on his cheek shine in the light. “Her Majesty, Greatest Blessing of Ouyashima, the Tenko-Haika.”

As the messenger drifted lowly out of the way, allowing the Tenko to step forward, all the common-fox attendants in the room lowered themselves, knees and foreheads to the tatami. Yuuri and Minako, as fellow royals, did not need to sink quite so deeply, but they bowed nevertheless. They would never be so foolish as to slight her.

The Tenko was the highest-ranked of the nine-tailed fox-people. She was both the backbone of Ouyashima’s high society and the leader of its spiritual life: a keeper of ancient arts, the muse of virtuous wars, and a soothsayer of times to come. It was her leadership that ensured plentiful harvests, retained Ouyashima’s independence and dignity among international rivals, and kept the war-hunger of the shogunate in check. As the mother of an usually high number of nine-tailed children—four, three women and one man, all the first cousins of Yuuri’s grandmother—the Tenko also commanded a maternal power and feminine dignity that Yuuri was viciously aware he had no hope or ability to ever replicate.

As she walked forward, her gray hair flowed loose and riverlike behind her back, descending all the way to the floor and onto her elegantly-bumped train. A small hairpiece of ivory and pearls was perched just above her hairline and center-part, its shell-like shape and protruding spines alluding to the color of rice, the parchedness of bones, and a bundle of reeds in the ghostly light of the rising moon. Her kimono too was pure white; her obi was a vivid, glowing crimson.

Though they wore the same colors—the garb of the original Tenko, the fox-woman who descended from heaven and led their kind to Ouyashima—Yuuri’s chest ached with a sudden, hollow, vaguely shameful feeling: that he alone was grotesquely undeserving of them; that he, unlike her, was an imposter in fox clothing.

“Minako, leave us. I wish to speak to Yuuri alone,” said the Tenko, the order as simple and soft as it was unyielding.

Minako agreed with only a slight bow of her head, standing almost entirely upright. There were so few in court who had the age, ability, and security of status to get away with such a bold motion, even if they were in the Tenko’s Council; Minako was one of them. “As you wish it, Tenko-Haika.”

The room emptied. Throughout the bustle, Yuuri did not speak nor rise from his bend, waiting for the Tenko to permit it.

She left him in that position for quite awhile.

Yuuri didn’t count the moments, but it certainly felt like a long time, with only his own pulse and the swish of the Tenko’s silk a soft noise in his ears. As she glided ever closer, her perusal piercing the top of his head, Yuuri’s face flushed and his body strained to hold absolutely still in what he knew was a proper, elegant form.

“Stand straight, child,” the Tenko finally said, tone kinder than Yuuri expected. As he obeyed, Yuuri noticed—not for the first time—how jarringly short she was, her head only reaching about to Yuuri’s sternum. “Ah, look at you. You look just like your grandmother. She danced the same, many years ago.”

“I am honored, Obaa-sama,” Yuuri replied quietly, using the familial title permitted to him.

“Pour me some water,” she commanded, again with that effortless tone. Her hand flicked towards a nearby pitcher on the low, black-lacquered cosmetics table.

Yuuri hurried to obey, dropping onto his knees to fix her the drink.

She tutted at him. “Your grandmother even flitted about like you do, with those same frightened eyes. Like a rabbit with a loop around its foot. Don’t wrinkle the kimono now; or, gods forbid, spill on it. There’s no hurry.”

Yuuri nearly huffed through his nostrils at that. There absolutely was a hurry—they had mere hours until he must perform a dance he hadn’t touched in months—but he reined himself in. Then, he recalled his manners. “Please allow me to fetch you a proper cushion, Obaa-sama.”

“No, no. Getting back up is too much of a hassle nowadays. And I can’t stay long; there is a prince who has been waiting hours to greet me. Ah, thank you.” She took the water from his low, proffering hands, sipping for a moment before smiling serenely. “I came to wish you luck in your performance. Do you remember the steps?”

“Yes, Obaa-sama,” Yuuri responded. Whether or not it was a lie was irrelevant. He must remember.

“Good. Now, up with you. Goodness, how you want to crease that poor fabric. We are not equals, but you do have nine tails, yes? No need to lower yourself.” Yuuri acquiesced, rising to a stand again, and the Tenko continued, her tone as matter-of-fact as if she were speaking about the brisk early-spring weather. “I have consulted with the gods and considered our prospects for tonight’s banquet. If Kiyev continues on their current course, they will try to establish trading routes to the southern nations through our western sea. I assume they will do this regardless of our wishes, considering this Kiyev prince’s apparent idiocy. So before there’s any chance of friction, we must secure them as a close ally, lest they force our hand and become enemies. Do you understand?”

As the Tenko spoke, Yuuri shifted into proper, pleasing body language as easily as he breathed: eyes drifting to look down at the Tenko’s feet; both hands curling softly, concealed beneath his white sleeves; right hand rising to cover part of his lower face, modest and respectful. His gaze stuck on the shimmering hem of her kimono as he replied, annunciating delicately, “I understand, Obaa-sama.”

“I’m not sure you do. We must prove to this prince and his entourage that Ouyashima is no nation to cross. Now, you and I both know that this won’t be difficult; Kiyev is such a young empire, and made up entirely of brutes.” The Tenko’s mouth—painted like a small, unbroken flower-bud—quirked into a private, mischievous smile. “But beasts and men alike are disarmed by true beauty. As such, much of our success tonight will rely on your performance.”

The pressure descended onto Yuuri’s head much like a boulder, but still he managed to eke out: “As you wish it, Obaa-sama.”

“That tone of yours! So fatalistic,” she chided. “Calm yourself. I did not come here to terrify you. Your performance will be acceptable, if a bit rusty in the beginning. Does it comfort you to hear this? To hear from my own mouth that you will complete the dance without humiliation?”

Yuuri was startled at her bluntness, but covered it with a simple shift in posture, spine straightening and hand falling away from his face. Then he considered her question; the Tenko was, famously, adept at pyromancy.

“It does help,” Yuuri said, only slightly wide-eyed this time. “Thank you, Obaa-sama.”

“Yes, well. Consider strengthening your mind in the future, so that you don’t need such bothersome assurances in order to consistently perform at a high caliber. Your courage has always been so brittle.”

Yuuri was immensely grateful for the makeup hiding every shift of color on his face. “Of course, Obaa-sama. Your advice is most treasured.”

“Watch your insolence.” The Tenko sipped from her cup slowly, allowing Yuuri the proper time to steam in his embarrassment. “Now. Every so often, be sure to direct some of your attentions to the Kiyev part of the audience—the prince himself, if you can manage it. I’m sure he will be embarrassingly flattered. Bears are always weak to honey.”

“Yes, Obaa-sama. How will I know where to find them?”

The Tenko tsked at him, displeased to be asked a question she cannot easily answer. Not only would the entire audience be shielded from Yuuri by partly-translucent screens, but his eyesight in his primary form had always been notoriously poor. “Either summon your fox-eyes, or simply look for the shine of their hair. I hear this Kiyev fool has a head of hair even whiter than mine—an interesting color, considering the youthful arrogance he’s already inflicting upon us. A total lack of manners and wisdom.”

“Yes, Obaa-sama.”

“Be silent; I have no need for your confirmations. Now, after your performance, when you have freshened up to rejoin the banquet, be sure to remain throughout the entire event. I understand that you consider such engagements to be beneath you, but my court would very much enjoy your attendance.”

Regardless of Minako’s warnings, petulant annoyance churned low in Yuuri’s chest. He didn’t find courtly events beneath him so much as he found them exhausting, both an exercise in meaningless power-plays and a flimsy excuse for the court to wallow in its own self-obsession. But all Yuuri did was incline his head, as elegantly and obediently as he could muster.

The Tenko hummed at him, seeming to weigh her words. When she finally spoke, Yuuri wished she had weighed them further.

“Your skills at dancing are enough to distract those who are easily distracted. But do not think that I nor my Council have forgotten about the problem of your persistent childlessness—except Minako, of course, who has nearly spoiled you into utter ruin. But far more adept than you are at dancing, your sister is positively masterful at dodging inquiries into your current betrothal status; I dare say it’s her only artistic talent—” Yuuri’s irritation, like an iron kettle, whistled swiftly up to anger— “But I’m tired of hearing the complaints. After this banquet is over, I expect your sister to request an audience with me, so that we may discuss the plethora of miai that have undoubtedly been lying untouched in your mother’s correspondences.”

Feeling rather like his limbs have iced-over, Yuuri folded into another acquiescing bow. The only thing that allowed him to move at all was the red-hot fury roiling between ribs, warming his joints and straining to burst against the obi.

The Tenko continued, blithe and self-assured: “Your performance tonight will be just passable enough that at least one fortuitous proposal will come your way. I have long known that your unbecoming fixation on resisting marriages would prove profitable for us in the end; it’s the only reason I’ve allowed it for so long.” She finished her cup and handed it back, utterly oblivious or uncaring of Yuuri’s dark, stone-still manner as he received it. “But you’re too old to waste any more time. It’s far past due for you to perform your familial duty, and be fruitful.”

Yuuri’s face nearly twitched as he dipped low, placed the cup back onto the table, then rose again.

He didn’t resent the inevitability of marriage. Many of his loved ones currently lived in peaceful, arranged matches. But the notion that he were only some sort of pawn —that anyone else, even the matriarch of his country, would treat him as though Yuuri were just some sort of handy, submissive, unthinking prop

Well. That he loathed.

Yuuri mustered every lick of training in his repertoire to keep his poise slight, controlled, graceful. His tone was mild and his hands were neatly draped in his sleeves as he said, “If I may, Obaa-sama.”

She huffed a tired sigh. “If you must.”

“I pray you’ll excuse my boldness. However,” Yuuri said slowly, “I must object.”

He avoided creating anything close to eye contact, projecting a false sense of obedience with his head low and one sleeve raised towards the mouth. But still he delighted in the way the Tenko’s expression tensed in the periphery of his view: brows rising, eyes slivering, mouth tightening.

She said, warningly, “Object?”

“Yes,” Yuuri replied. “My performance tonight will be more than ‘passable.’ In fact, I will perform so beautifully, bringing such pride to your court, that by tomorrow all of Ouyashima will know of it.” He allowed the smallest smile—just a tiny curl of apple-red. “That, combined with my family’s insistence on delaying my next betrothal, will earn me more proposals than any other nine-tailed man in memory.”

In the ensuing silence, all Yuuri could do was hold his breath, maintain his poise, and struggle desperately not to fall to his knees and beg forgiveness.

After a few moments, the Tenko’s expression shifted—lifting from an annoyed, slivered glare into a sly, shrewd grin. “Is that so, little Yuuri?” She said, tone drenched in amusement and dark delight.

Yuuri said nothing. He didn’t think he could speak.

It was obvious that the Tenko knew. “I asked you a question.”

Her cruelty sparked another flame in his chest—but when he finally mustered the strength to respond, it was only: “Y-Yes.”

Under the white paint, Yuuri’s face blazed scarlet in abject humiliation. The Tenko laughed once—just the slightest, subtlest scoff. She must be acutely aware of how easily and completely she’d snatched the confidence right from under Yuuri’s white-socked feet, yet it was done so easily that it didn’t offer her much satisfaction.

“Well, then…to you, our Tenko of the hour, I humbly ask: keep your word.” She made an elegant turn, no unnecessary actions or steps wasted, and glided towards the hall. “‘All of Ouyashima’—why not the world? Next time, you should aim a little higher, hm?”

She reached the doorway, but made no move to touch the closed screen. Yuuri knew instantly what he must do: he rushed to the doorway himself, folded low, and slid the screen open so that she could pass unhindered.

As the door slid towards him with a sshh—the sound slow and mocking—the Tenko’s gaze slid towards him as well, so dark as to be almost black. “I look forward to seeing these countless miai for myself, when we meet again,” she said, leveling Yuuri with another small, richly amused grin. “Ganbatte.”

The moment she was gone, her kimono’s train disappearing with a hissing wisp down the hall, Yuuri trembled to a stand. He shut the door. At the black lacquer table, the water jug was mostly empty; into it, Yuuri vomited the meager contents of his stomach.

Then he shoved his way out onto the veranda, and—without plan or goal—fled into the serene garden beyond.

[-]

The country of Ouyashima was green.

The leaves, the tea, the seas—green, green, green, and so vivid that Yuri thought he’d be sick with it. His homeland of Kiyev, for all its faults and horrors, at least had a sense of grand simplicity in its colorations: the grays, light blues, and ever-glowing white of the frigid north. The only Kiyevsky greens to be seen were in the auroras, the pines of the taiga, and the eyes of its people.

But in this land—this tiny cluster of islands, nestled away from outsiders and menacing neighbors—the sheer boldness of the foliage seemed…gluttonous.

“It’s too damn bright here,” Yuri grumbled, squinting his pale eyes against relentless sunbeams. The rays twinkled through leaves of jade and emerald, incessant and extravagant; and not a single leaf out-of-place. All this lushness at their disposal, and the foxes have yoked and bridled it so tightly that it can only choke.

“Is this supposed to be a garden?” Yuri mumbled to Christophe in the Kiyevsky tongue. “It’s like they’ve taken nature and put it in a collar. With a little bell on its neck.”

Chris chuckled, black wings rustling with it. “That’s the Ouyashiman way,” he replied casually. As a Corvus, Christophe could mimic any voice and easily adopt any language he was exposed to; both Kiyevsky and Ouyashiman were no exceptions, making him an indispensable part of their diplomatic retinue. “They like their order here. Order, reserve, restraint—”

“Mutilated trees?” Yuri grumbled, glancing at some tiny potted trees growing in twisty-loops.

Mutilated, he says,” Mila retorted. Yuri could all but hear her eyes rolling. “So dramatic. I think it’s beautiful here.”

What it was was strange, all of it—from the palace’s massive stone-and-wood walls that block them from the city outside to the massive, heavily guarded, vivid crimson archway they passed under to get in. Yuri found it bizarre that the Ouyashimans used soil, wood, and gravel for walkways instead of just the ice-sturdy cobblestones of his home. It was strange that their homes were built of paper and kindling; it was strange that they flood their fields and separate their consonants and dedicate acres of excellent agricultural land just for their high-born to take walks, all while surrounded by manicured, perfectly-spherical, humiliated trees.

“You’re so afraid of the unfamiliar, Yuratchka,” Chris drawled, seeming ready to yawn. “So childish.”

A quick rage—common and familiar to Yuri; it kept him warm at night—flitted and danced through his veins. He tried to think of an insult to toss back, but all that came to mind were stale swears. So he glowered.

Chris ignored him happily, staring straight ahead—at Viktor.

Viktor. Their crown prince. Kiyev’s golden child and the Empress’s proclaimed heir, who strolled on the gravel path and chatted with an Ouyashiman dignitary as though he did this kind of thing every day. Who, of course, seemed simultaneously delighted and unruffled at all the bizarre, strange, and odd things surrounding them. Among all this green—a new land with an unfamiliar culture and all this water that isn’t frozen—Viktor easily adapted and absorbed it all with a serene, gallant, handsome smile on his face.

Yuri sent him a particularly toxic glance.

But Zhongwen continued to roll off Viktor’s tongue, utterly unaffected by Yuri’s projected curses. He even kept up with the Ouyashiman diplomat without a problem. Yuri glared at that too, how confidently Viktor leaped into a new language when Yuri knew better than anyone that they’d both only ever practiced the usual drills and learning games with their Zhongwen tutors.

The idea that, perhaps, Viktor had simply paid better attention and worked harder than Yuri in every single one of their lessons flew in and out of his mind—but that was a thought that only lead to complicated, muddy emotions, which Yuri found both obnoxious and uncomfortable.

He scowled a little deeper.

Their retinue approached a bridge, high and arched like a kettle-handle, and Yuri fully decided that he hated all of this. Viktor, their oh-so-perfect future emperor, speaking excellent Zhongwen and rattling about dreary pleasantries; Christophe stepping ahead to cut into their conversation, muttering something clarifying in swift Ouyashiman; Mila and the rest of Viktor’s Kiyevsky inner circle, pointing and ogling at everything like dumbstruck fools. Yuri had been traveling and walking and wearing a stupid feryaz kaftan and riding pants for hours now, and he was tired.

He slowed his steps, sliding to the back of the procession silently.

Mila noticed, turning a bit at his new pace. “Yura?”

“Fuck off,” he mumbled.

She gave him a brief, bemused look, like he was both young and pitiful. But she turned back around and kept walking.

Yuri slowed his pace even further. Everyone in the retinue ahead crossed the bridge—but there was a different path, one that veered to the right, offering Yuri a new, narrower route along an emerald-bordered pond.

Yuri went right.

He walked along the pond’s edge, slow and silent. Enough time passed that he began to calm down. He caught sight of a few colorful, marvelous fish, including the fattest and reddest carp he’d ever seen; an instinctual part of Yuri’s brain urged him to crouch onto the edge of the pond, one hand raised hungrily, but he just barely managed to talk himself out of it.

Further down the edge of the pond, a small building with an open porch hovered above the water. It was small enough that Yuri could call it a shack, yet obviously fine enough that the word didn’t fit in the least: its frame was fashioned of gorgeous, sturdy, burnt-auburn wood, and the walls were fashioned of a flimsy paperlike material. Yuri guessed, with the little knowledge of Ouyashiman architecture that he had, that the building was meant to be some sort of sheltered pond-viewing platform.

Then, while Yuri crouched by the pond—one hand poised to finally slap that fish ashore; the other pressed down upon a mattress of soft green moss—he heard something strange.

The soft, telltale snuffles of someone crying.

At the barely stifled sobs, a dreadful unease clamped onto Yuri’s bones. He even had the brief desire to flee back to his retinue. But the mental image of Viktor, smug and sugar-smiled, asking “Oh? Were you lost?” anchored Yuri’s feet to the ground and sent a shudder sliding down his spine.

So instead, Yuri shirked his discomfort and stepped forward.

The weeping sounds, louder then, were somehow…Organized. Collected. Almost as though, whoever it was, they were accustomed to slipping away and fitting a good, neat, planned cry into an otherwise hectic schedule. Something about that was so pathetic, so lonely, that Yuri let his footsteps strengthen into heavy stomps—

Before he yanked a screen door open with a thwack.

There, sitting on a woven floor amid a light scatter of wind-blown, pale-pink petals, was the most beautiful and strange creature Yuri had ever seen.

A pale face. Small, ruby-painted lips. A tiny, upturned nose; a defined jawline, yet with soft and supple cheeks. The stranger’s hair was fastened away from the face by a small golden disk perched just atop the forehead, rather like the rising sun—even Yuri recognized that as a motif associated with Ouyashiman royalty—and those eyes were wide, deep-brown, and accented by sweeps of black paint on the eyebrows and upper eyelids. But most of all, Yuri was stunned by the stranger’s hair, which flowed unbroken from that flawless moonlike face all the way down to the fanned-out train of a billowed kimono—a spill of ink upon layers and layers of soft-white silk. Amidst all that white, a belt and cascading tail of crimson silk shone and glowed in the sunlight, as dynamic and pulsing as fresh blood.

But that makeup, perfect on first glance, was imprinted with the tracks of fresh tears. Between the lips of that rosebud mouth, Yuri could see a dash of red on teeth—the sign of bitten, worried lips.

Astounded, frozen, and churning with an indescribable roil of emotions, Yuri said the first thing he could think of.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

The stranger’s eyes widened at the words, likely incomprehensible in Yuri’s Kiyevsky. Sleek, pure-white sleeves rose to bashfully shield that moonlike face; the effect speared Yuri right through the heart. “何?”

Yuri’s teeth ground together as his face contorted into a harsher scowl. He conjured whatever Zhongwen he could remember; then, he growled out, slowly for pronunciation: “What. Is wrong? With you.”

The stranger looked even paler then. Still, the replying Zhongwen was flawless. “Ah…. excuse me.”

That voice wasn’t what Yuri had expected. It was deeper, with the slightest hint of gravel in the throat—

“Are you a man?”

The stranger’s eyes couldn’t possibly go any wider. His mouth, however, could and did, revealing the slightest peek of a wet pink tongue within. His dark eyes flittered about, as though looking for an answer and coming up fresh out.

Only a fleeting gust gave warning before a pair of hands was shoving Yuri face-first into the dirt.

Yuri flailed and yelled, hands desperately scrabbling to push off his attacker. In panic, he thought that he’d really done it now—only in Ouyashima for a few days, and already mixed up in a brawl, or maybe some kind of assassination plot; Viktor would be terribly worried, or even worse, he’ll say: I told you so, Yura. You’re only a child in a game meant to be played by adults

A voice whispered in Kiyevsky: “Don’t struggle. For fuck’s sake, Yura, you idiot. Keep your head down.”

Christophe. The familiarity sent a begrudging relief washing through Yuri’s chest.

The Corvus’s voice was close when he spoke again, this time in Ouyashiman. His tone, normally so assured, dipped and wavered in flustered fits; with a creeping sense of dread, Yuri realized that Christophe must be bowing, groveling, with his face to the ground and earnest fear coloring his every word.

It was only as Yuri glanced left, then right—nose against dirt and rock, peering through the fluttering curtain of Christophe’s shining black wings—that he saw the line of guards surrounding them, their weapons drawn.

Then—because this was one of those awful moments, detached from time, that spurred your memory belatedly—Yuri recalled one of the many etiquette lessons Christophe had tried to force him through in the weeks before they landed on these green shores. The Ouyashiman royal family consists of twelve clans, Christophe had told him, though Yuri had insisted on loudly sharpening his rogatina during the entire lesson. Christophe hadn’t seemed to mind; he knew Yuri just liked something to fiddle with. They’re numerous enough to be more of an aristocracy than a true royal family. Despite that, you and I will probably never see a single one.

What, are they all ass-ugly? Yuri had asked, running his whetstone down the blade over and over.

I’m sure some of them are, Christophe had said, his grin sly as ever. But mostly, they’re considered holy.

Yuri smelled soil and his own nervous sweat. He kept his gaze to the ground, as Christophe had insisted—yet his ears couldn’t help following the sound of clinking weaponry and soft, hurried footsteps as yet more Ouyashiman guards arrived to surround them.

Even their own subjects can never look at them.

Yuri had frowned and scoffed at that. How fucking stupid, he’d said. What happens if you do?

Christophe had grimaced. Blinded, or executed. I guess it depends on the mood.

Christophe was silent then, his fount of entreatment finally run dry. For a few long moments, there was nothing said, and not a breath or step or twitch out of place.

Then, the soft rustle of fine silk.

As the stranger rose, Yuri struggled to tilt his head upright, somehow desperate to see the man again. In the mere moment it took to stand, the stranger had adopted an entirely new persona: his face was dry, makeup undisturbed; his expression was schooled to a cool, aloof perfection; as he stepped forward, his sleeves draped gracefully with every shift of his hands, subtly complementing and mirroring every glide of his feet. Even the glossy, raven-black hair that spilled down his back flowed perfectly above the dozens of layers of kimono—as though he controlled even his hair , from scalp to ends.

Compared to the messy authenticity of before, this new façade twisted sourly in Yuri’s stomach.

Those eyes were cold and that Zhongwen was perfect when the man said, “What is your name?”

The seconds dripped by. Yuri didn’t want to speak to this hollow mask of a man.

“He is Prince Yuri, second assumed heir of Empress Lilia,” Christophe cut in. “On behalf of the High Queen and her subjects, we humbly beg Your Grace for leniency. He’s only a child, ignorant and insolent, with little knowledge of Ouyashiman truths.”

Yuri continued to sneak glares up at the stranger. Those eyes were so inexplicably dark, obscure, and unreadable. When the man replied to Christophe, his voice was so detached and emotionless that Yuri almost wondered if he’d ever seen him cry at all. “Isn’t it your responsibility to make him less ignorant, Corvus?”

Christophe physically flinched at those words. Impossibly, he sunk even deeper to the ground, the nervous twitches of his wings sending little drafts grazing the back of Yuri’s neck. He finally noticed Yuri’s defiant head position and shoved his face into the ground again, this time really making sure to grind his nose in it; Yuri nearly swore and swatted up at him, political catastrophe be damned, but—

“Stop!” the man said—and Yuri couldn’t decide if that was true concern in his voice, or just sharp imperiality. “You’ll—that could hurt him. So… don’t.”

Silence fell again. Yuri sensed that the guards awaited the man’s whim; he wondered where they were looking, to avoid staring in open-mouthed shock at this odd and otherworldly being of white and red and black. Unease trickled along Yuri’s skin as he considered the simplest and likeliest answer: that they were all already blind.

“If I were anyone else,” the man said, nearly at a whisper—yet even the wind and the water seemed to hush for him. “If I were one of my aunts or cousins….you would be killed. Slaughtered right there, in the dirt. I want you both to understand that.”

Christophe’s breath went sharp with a hopeful gasp, drawn in right against Yuri’s ear. “Your Grace is generous and wise in mercy—”

“Please, stop,” the man said, tsking a little under his breath. “I know in some way you actually mean that. But all this flattery and pageantry… it gets exhausting. I can’t listen to it anymore.”

Silence again. Until:

“Corvus,” the man said. Christophe’s wings rustled. “Let him up. On my mother's house, I promise that you don’t have to shield him anymore.”

But Christophe hesitated, likely eyeing the guards surrounding them with weapons drawn. “Gladly, Your Grace,” he said—then dared a riskier tone, with his voice lower and blotted gently with his usual wryness. “Though surely I can’t be blamed for keeping him close.”

“If you had, this wouldn’t have happened,” the stranger said blandly—and again, Christophe flinched.

Once he was able, Yuri stood and locked eyes with the stranger. He thought, a little strangely, that he could stare at this man for a long time, just puzzling over the arch of his eyebrows and the shape of his mouth. His eyes, though, were a beautiful sight and dark terror of their own, pooled with unknowable depths and a sharpened focus.

“You’re not sorry at all, are you?” The man asked.

“No,” Yuri replied, blunt and riled in a way he couldn’t understand. The concoction of feelings in his chest—inexplicable and intense and stoked by the sound of this man’s voice and the sight of his moonlike face and his rosebud mouth and that very, very soft-looking hair—quickly congealed into something a little easier to digest: anger. He hated that this man held them all as a captive audience; he hated that he wasn’t even supposed to look at him. “I’m not sorry. If anything, I’m disgusted that someone of Ouyashima’s ruling class is so gutless and weak.”

Instantly, Yuri knew—whether it was then and there, or in the not-so-distant future—that Christophe was going to personally put his corpse in the ground.

But the man didn’t look outraged. One creamy sleeve rose to hide the sliver of his mouth, easy and elegant. And that look in his eye….Yuri had seen it before, in the way Mila let Yuri fall behind from the group, or the way Lilia tutted at his table manners, or the way Viktor’s features settled into an amused and knowing resignation when Yuri adamantly refused to practice dancing or gin-rummy or whatever other stupid courtly activity with him. It was a look that said: Oh. You really are a child, aren’t you?

It made Yuri want to fly at the stranger in a blind fury. On anyone else, that look was barely sufferable; on this face, Yuri knew he would never be able to tolerate it.

“Yuuri,” a woman’s voice called out—and Yuri was shocked to not only hear his own name, but at how silently she had approached. He hadn’t heard even a whisper of her robes. This woman too must be royal: a wide-brimmed parasol with a long, gossamer screen encompassed her entire form, shielding her both from the sunlight and any chance of onlookers.

The woman said something else to the stranger in the Ouyashiman tongue. The stranger replied curtly, likely some affirmative agreement.

The stranger approached the small building’s ledge. As he readied to step down onto the moss, two of the guards rushed over to lie and crouch atop the dirt, creating a pair of steps onto which the man could step down. Disgustingly—and without apology, hesitation, or even a hint of surprise—the man stepped onto their backs to reach the garden floor.

Yuri couldn’t speak past his choking rage.

With the barest rustle of those long, lily-petal sleeves, the man accepted a parasol presented by a low-bowing servant. He expertly spread the parasol open, draped the gossamer screen over his form, and tilted the parasol upright so he could pinch the yards of priceless fabric shut.

Then, once he was hidden from sight, the stranger followed the woman away—a royal pair shuffling in silence among a garden all abloom with a sickening array of greens.

Chapter Text

Yuuri walked with Mari in perfect silence.

Mari’s steps were light and soundless as they made their way towards the formal dance dais. Although she and Yuuri had taken such separate paths since childhood—partly due to their disparate sexes; partly for their distinct personalities and talents—Mari had never questioned Yuuri’s decisions or forced him to bend a certain way. The role of the Tenko was strictly female; as such, the mother and sister held far more power than the son in the nine-tailed family. But Yuuri trusted Mari to never wield her authority over him—or at least, never to his detriment.

If Yuuri had to guess, he would say his sister knew him better than anyone.

“Minako is angry with me,” Yuuri said—assuming as much.

“Absolutely furious. But she’s not surprised.”

Yuuri gritted his jaw. “The Tenko is….harsh. In her judgments.”

No one was nearby; still, Yuuri held back his true words, fearing perked ears and loose lips. Mari huffed a soft laugh. “Of course. She’s the Tenko. She doesn’t have to filter herself like the rest of us.”

Yuuri exhaled slowly through his nostrils. “I think she thrives off of tormenting me.”

Mari hummed. “She doesn’t care enough to do it on purpose. You just make it too easy.”

The parasol shuddered momentarily under Yuuri’s tightened grip, but he couldn’t truly take offense at Mari’s words, or even offer a rebuttal. That was what he found so frustrating about it all: he knew that so much of his mental distress stemmed from his own fearful, oft-overwhelmed mind.

“But that’s not important right now,” Mari said, tone going from casual to heavy in the span of a second. Yuuri tensed at from the sheer intensity of it.  “Just who.” Mari’s volume dropped as her step slowed, allowing Yuuri to get closer. “Was that boy?”

Yuuri blinked. Mari sounded almost… giddy. “Ah. The Corvus said he was… Prince Yuri of Kiyev.”

“His name is Yuri?” Mari repeated. “How weird. And I didn’t know Viktor had a little brother. Did you know that?”

“He doesn’t,” Yuuri said—then blushed at how quickly he answered. “I mean. Viktor and Yuri have both been accepted by Empress Lilia as heirs, but she didn’t mother them. I think adoption is far more commonplace in Kiyev than it is here.”

“Interesting.” But Yuuri wasn’t sure how interested Mari really was in Kiyev’s culture and internal affairs, because she immediately went on: “He was so cute. Don’t you think so? Didn’t you notice?"

Yuuri smiled wryly at his sister’s excitement. “I noticed he was a child.”

“Stuff it. That’s not what I meant and you know it.” As they approached the veranda leading to the performance dais, Mari’s pace slowed even further; her volume dropped even lower. “Yuuri. If the Tenko finds out what happened between you and that prince, it could be very bad for Viktor and his retinue. You know that.”

Yuuri’s throat tightened. He felt stupid for not thinking of it. After a moment to compose himself, he forced out a whisper: “What—what should I do?”

Even though his sister wasn’t visible, Yuuri somehow knew that her eyebrow was quirked up in curiosity. “Do you want Viktor to succeed?”

The question hit Yuuri like a splash to the face. Suddenly, it sunk in: Viktor was in Ouyashima. Viktor was probably greeting the Tenko (through three layers of screens) as they spoke. Viktor was not just the stuff of rainy day stories; he was here, now, and he would watch Yuuri dance, wearing twelve layers of decadent kimono and a mask to shield his face. Against all his wildest dreams, Crown Prince Viktor of Kiyev had gone from a mere fable to a player in the game ever-present and swirling around Yuuri’s own life—the courtly struggle and its cruel leading cast, who tugged Yuuri to and fro however they damn well pleased.

And somehow—if he were to be honest with himself—Yuuri wanted to see Viktor take them to task. Just a little.

“That little prince… Yuri. He’s only a boy,” Yuuri said, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t want an honest mistake to cause him any harm.”

Yuuri was not at all sure that it had been a mistake, and the boy’s honesty probably shouldn’t be considered a virtue. But the answer was enough for Mari to understand his intentions.

She turned and kept walking. Yuuri followed close behind, careful not to trip over the curtain cascading over his feet and shielding his visage. “Then I’m sure it will be fine,” Mari said. “Don’t think of it anymore.”

They reached the veranda that led to the dais inside. Yuuri climbed the steps, removed his outdoor shoes, and—before entering the building—turned to look back at his sister, completely hidden from view as she stood stock-still atop the gravel pathway below.

When she spoke, Mari’s voice was warm and a little wry, as it often was when she spoke to him. “Work hard, little brother.”

She departed. Yuuri watched her leave for a moment, then stepped out from the parasol, handed it off, and entered the building where a low-bowing servant had pushed the door aside.

Minako sat unmoving and regal at the center of the dais. Her long hair was streaked with wisps of gray and spun into a tight, elaborate chignon; her kimono, tasteful and lightweight at only nine layers, reflected the season in alternating shades of white, cream, green, and blush. She knew this stage well: prior to her induction into the Tenko’s Council, it had been her own.

She didn’t turn to look at Yuuri as she said: “If you got any dirt on that kimono, I will strangle you.”

[-]

Christophe sat, cross-legged and tense, in his new room.

Fresh after the fiasco with Yuri—and after filling Viktor in on the whole affair, his prince and longtime friend hmm-ing and I see-ing through the entire recounting—the Ouyashimans had finally allowed them to retire to their guest quarters, anticipating that they may need rest before the festivities continued that night. Christophe, of course, had immediately taken the opportunity to bathe and preen, running his fingers restlessly through his wings, straightening feathers, and plucking broken ones out from root.

As he preened, Christophe planned the various ways he could punish that little brat of a prince for his sheer stupidity. Who knew how long they would even be allowed to stay, once the Tenko caught wind of what had happened; they might have only a few hours left to enjoy all the luxuries Ouyashima had to offer.

Demanding he and Yuri swap rooms was one idea with some excellent potential.

Yuri, as a visiting royal—and, more importantly, as the Empress’s not-so-secret favorite—had been given a generous guest quarter, one that Christophe assumed the little brat wouldn’t even properly appreciate. Viktor had the largest setup, naturally, with a bonafide network of rooms and his own private baths. In sad contrast, Christophe’s room was comfortable, but modest, with a plush futon already spread out and a low table provided with water, a bowl of persimmons, and a brush with ink and paper. His room also had two points of access—from the hall, or from the veranda—so that he could be easily contacted by either the Kiyevsky retinue or Ouyashiman parties.

Which was why it was easy and unsurprising when a young Corvus landed on the outside veranda with a thunk, slid the door open with a clack—and laid eyes on Christophe with an eek.

“Maybe you should knock next time,” Christophe drawled, basically naked, his wings free and his bare legs splayed.

“Please close your kimono,” the young Corvus begged, shielding his face with both his hands and the curtain of his wings. They spoke to one another in the common Corvan language; unlike most other tongues, Corvan had few dialects and a firm grammar, so all Corvus born in any nation (and in any form) could speak and understand it. It was also impossible for anyone other than a Corvus to speak it properly—too many croaks and trills for non-Corvan vocal chords to handle.

Christophe rolled his eyes, but did as the boy requested. Or, well—he at least made an attempt to cover the bottom half of his body.

“Who are you, and what do you want?”

“I am Minami Kenjirou,” the young Corvus said, jabbing his thumb into his own chest. “And I’ve been instructed to bring you to my mistress right away. No time to waste.”

Christophe tucked his wings closer in, made an unimpressed face, and rolled away to recline on his stomach. For all that his room was basic, the futon was extremely comfortable, and he fully intended to shut his eyes on it for as long as he could. “Kenjirou, listen. It’s already been a very long day. So why don’t you just fly on back and tell to your mistress—”

“Her Grace said to tell you—” the boy interrupted, voice chirplike.

“—Her Grace?” Christophe cut back, raising one eyebrow and peeking over the curve of one wing.

The boy nodded. A moment later, he cleared his throat, raised one hand, and perfectly replicated a woman’s low and imperial voice—undoubtedly that of his mistress. “If you want the court to hear all about the little prince’s shitty attitude, then please, send Minami back alone. Accept my invitation, or don’t. I truly do not give a fuck.”

Christophe stared at the boy, his lifted eyebrow frozen in place.

Kenjirou nodded once, grinning, as though inwardly congratulating himself on nailing the mimic. Christophe couldn’t quite tell if he was sincerely sunny or just mischievous; considering that the boy was a Corvus, like him, it was probably a good dose of the latter.

“Who is your mistress?” Christophe asked, though he had his suspicions.

“Katsuki Mari, daughter of Katsuki Hiroko.”

Both of Christophe’s eyebrows perked up a little further. “Elder sister of Katsuki Yuuri?”

The younger Corvus went dewy-eyed. “The very same.”

Christophe turned back around, allowing his wings to shield his face. The Katsuki clan may be small, but it was well-established and had a reputation for being exceedingly powerful. Katsuki Hiroko was known to be kind, jovial, and not one for the spotlight; yet it was that precise disposition—as well as her excellent kitsunebi technique—that had long-ago earned her the undying devotion of her citizenry.

And that was to say nothing of her famous children.

Christophe wasn’t stupid. He remembered the woman calling out the name ‘Yuuri’ in the garden. He remembered the exceptional grace of that man, painted and wrapped in twelve layers of shining silk, each one the color of the Tenko. No one without the Tenko’s blessing could ever dress in such a way; no one without incredible ability, powerful allies, and clever advocates would have ever made it so deeply into the Tenko’s good graces.

“So now the protective big sister will threaten us into obedience. Is that it?” Christophe mumbled to himself in Chontash.

The younger Corvus made a confused noise. “Hm? I haven’t heard that one. Can you teach it to me later?”

“Maybe. If I feel like it.” Christophe rolled to a stand, stretched, fluffed his wings a little—and dropped his lounging kimono to the floor. “Well, let’s go then.”

Kenjirou squawked, turning around in a flutter. “Please get dressed. And hurry. Her Grace doesn't like to be kept waiting.”

“I’m sure she doesn’t.” Christophe grabbed one of the garments the Ouyashimans had prepared for him, simply because it was soft and available and a flattering color: deep blue, with a lovely shiny stitching on the lining.

“Do you even know how to put that on?”

“Vaguely.”

Kenjirou huffed and groaned at once, half-turning back around to say: “You have to retract your wings, put it on over your back, then draw out your wings again, but through the slits.”

Christophe made a face like the boy had requested he soil himself. “I have to what?”

[-]

“You said what?”

“I didn’t mean to!” Yuuri rushed out, face frozen in a rictus of guilt and horror. “I know you told me not to, Minako-sensei, but you should have heard her; she was being so cold to me and then she insulted Mari—”

“Of course she was being cold!” Minako interrupted, pressing one hand to her temple as though staving off a headache. “She’s the Tenko, Yuuri! She isn’t your friend! You can’t act shocked or utterly irrational every time she says something hurtful.”

“I…” Yuuri grimaced, recalling the conversation. “I don’t even think she was actually angry with me. She just seemed…amused.”

“Ah, well,” Minako sighed, rubbing her forehead in exasperation. “That’s good, I suppose. Just be grateful you’re seen as so little a threat.”

Though Yuuri shouldn’t, when he heard that—and recognized it to be true—a sulky, unruly part of him seethed.

“Here.” Minako handed him the parasol for the performance: a pitch-black piece that was heavier than it appeared, and so shimmering that it seemed wet with fresh ink. “What’s done is done. Let’s get to practicing, all right? From the beginning.”

Yuuri nodded, accepted the prop, and took position.

Waiting for the familiar strum of Minako’s shamisen, it was easy to think of nothing but that moment—his foot on the ground, his hand on the parasol’s handle, his fingers wrapped in silken sleeves.

The shamisen began.

[-]

If there was one thing Christophe had learned in the court of the Tenko, it was to keep his eyes on the ground.

Kenjirou led him to the Katsuki wing of the palace, a standalone mansion among many other mansions in a walled behemoth of a royal playground. Somewhere far in the distance, the city of Chouwa-Kyou buzzed with the hazy impression of normal life; in the nearer distance, but a phantom still, a shamisen strummed slow and haunting in the night. The Tenko’s palace was practically a city in itself; Christophe wasn’t sure how anyone got around efficiently without wings of their own.

As Kenjirou brought him into an inner hallway of the Katsuki wing—every wall a collage of thick screens, each unique in decoration, yet all glowing gold in the illumination of countless oil-lights—Christophe smelled a shocking scent: the sweet, heady perfume of tobacco. It took flyers like Christophe and Kenjirou weeks of island-hopping to make it to the western hemisphere, the only place where tobacco, especially of this quality, grew in expensive plenty. This scent, pungent, yet elegant and earthy, was as loud and clear a calling card for wealth as there could be—a prestige-good similar in value to Madynai spider-silk or the Kiyevsky golden eggs.

That scent had Christophe’s gaze affixed to the tatami floor long before Kenjirou opened a final, inner door.

As expected, within a room emblazoned with a richly painted and emerald-hazed mountain scene, Katsuki Mari lounged on a bed of silk and velvet cushions. Her pipe was ebony; her hair was loose and flowing, removed from its chignon and shining with the fresh application of subtle oils.

She blew a delicate, swirling cloud into the air over her head. “Good work, Minami.”

The young Corvus grinned and offered a salute—an unexpected gesture, since salutes weren’t exactly a cornerstone of Ouyashiman culture. Christophe nearly cracked a smile at how eager the boy was to mimic everything he’d seen or heard—a classic trait among young and budding Corvus—but he held it back, instead doing the proper thing and bending to the floor in greeting. Even as he sat upright, Christophe kept his gaze avoidant and low.

Katsuki Mari puffed another drag of her pipe, all the while staring at Christophe appraisingly.

“You know,” she said, tone so dry she sounded almost bored, “you don’t actually have to stare at the ground like that. There’s no one here to see.”

Christophe smiled winningly. “I would never dare such arrogance, Your Grace.”

From the corner of his gaze, he could see the woman roll her eyes. With a lazy finger, she pointed over Christophe’s left wing. “Minami is looking.”

Christophe peeked; the boy was, indeed, stupidly, glancing between the two of them like it was a normal conversation. Christophe simultaneously despised and envied that kind of childish trust. “That is his decision and risk to take, Your Grace.”

Smoke curled out from the woman’s smile. “Are you implying that I am some kind of dangerous creature?”

“I would never say such a thing.”

“Ah, so you’d never say it.”

“Your Grace,” Christophe said, hands clenching together atop his bent legs. “I was under the impression that… there was something I could do to be of service?”

He wanted to get back to his bed. Little Yuri had already given him enough premature wrinkles for one day; now all Christophe wanted was a damn nap.

“So impatient,” the woman mumbled. She finished her pipe and set it down on an elegant stand, perhaps made of marble; then she stretched her legs, her toes spreading a little beneath white socks. “Fine then. I’ll get right to it. How loyal are you to this Crown Prince?”

Ice washed through Christophe’s veins. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You? Isn’t it ‘Your Grace’?” The woman asked. She was teasing, but a bead of sweat slid down Christophe’s back regardless.

“Of—Of course; I beg Your Grace’s forgiveness—”

“Oh for fuck’s sake. Drop it. Your baby prince has already glared Yuuri into oblivion; what does it matter if you sneak in a few looks?” She grabbed a comb and a distant lock of hair and began easing the comb through the strands, apparently just to have something else to do. “Minami, wait outside.”

Kenjirou nodded, somehow always emphatic about it. “Yes, Your Grace!”

The boy left. Christophe raised an eyebrow.

Then, he decided: to hell with it.

“He looks directly at you, but still says ‘Your Grace’?”

Katsuki Mari shrugged. “Minami has his preferences. I won’t make him change, and it’s far safer for him to use that anyway.”

Finally, Christophe dragged his gaze up—locking eyes with the woman whose single word could likely save or destroy their entire endeavor into Ouyashiman lands.

“I am loyal to Kiyev.”

Somewhere, within the belly of the night, a shamisen halted its marching climb. But there and then, with tobacco smoke wafting through the oil-lit air, Katsuki Mari gave Christophe a bemused, disbelieving look. “Bullshit.”

Christophe wasn’t sure how to respond to that. So he shrugged.

“You’re a Corvus,” she said. “Since when does a crow swear to one nation? And actually mean it?”

He didn’t consider it impolite for her to call him a crow, strictly, but it also wasn’t the most professional way of doing things. Christophe let a little smile creep onto his lips. “It may be news to you, Your Grace,” he said, lifting both hands in placation, “but something is not true simply because you wish it to be so—”

“Does he know you’re here?”

Christophe twisted his mouth into a small, tight frown. Said nothing.

Instead of push the topic, Katsuki Mari just combed through the lengths of her own hair, slowly and methodically. Perhaps half a minute passed before she asked: “How handsome is your prince? I’ve heard some fantastic and, honestly, unbelievable things. Stories that have probably passed through you, now that I think about it.”

Christophe waited a beat. Then: “He’s all right.”

Another disbelieving look.

Christophe rolled eyes. “He’s beautiful.”

“Tell me about him,” she said. “And your little Yuri.”

“Well.” The mention of Yuri had Christophe frowning again; but on Viktor, he could easily waste some time. “Viktor was adopted by Empress Lilia at age twelve. By twenty-five, he’d tripled Kiyev’s territorial control—”

“Yes, thanks, I’ve read the basic debriefings.” She gave him a tired glare; then her gaze slid back to her hair. “Give me something else. Show me what he’s like. Something I haven’t heard before.”

“Oh.” Christophe cleared his throat. He didn’t particularly enjoy mimicking, but it was a crucial aspect to Corvan storytelling, and he was fairly good at it. He could even replicate Viktor’s mannerisms down to a twitch. “Have you heard about Viktor and the bandits?”

“Yes.”

“Viktor with the Dalavchtai?”

“Old news.”

Christophe’s wings rustled as he considered. “…Last week, Yuri tried to challenge Viktor for the future throne because he lost Yuri’s favorite pair of gloves.”

“Love it,” Katsuki Mari said. “Show it to me.”

[-]

The shamisen halted. “This isn’t good enough.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” Yuuri gasped out, long hair and spread hands splayed flat on the stage. “I can do it better—”

“I know you can,” Minako tossed back, pacing along where a portion of the audience would sit. She smacked a folded-shut fan against her palm with a series of taps. “Of course you can do better. It’s what you’ve been saying for the last hour—”

“I will! Let me try again!”

“Yuuri. This isn’t working.” Minako halted her pace. Considered. “Tell me again what you said to the Tenko.”

Yuuri’s hands scrunched into fists. “Why.”

“Just tell me again.”

“I’ll perform so well that I’ll get more proposals than any other—”

“And if you fail?” Minako interrupted, shifting on her heels to face him.

“I’ll be humiliated,” Yuuri said, low and sickened. “I’ll be a laughingstock. The Kiyev retinue will—”

“Oh, who gives a shit what they think?” Minako asked, rolling her entire head along with her eyes. “What do they know? You could down enough sake to go blind and your steps would still be enough to dazzle them.”

“But the Tenko—”

“Would find a new dancer to favor? Probably. And where would that leave you?”

Yuuri imagined it: someone else taking his position of pride; a rival dancer surpassing him, snatching his lauded reputation right from under his nose. The prospect made his stomach writhe and his blood boil.

But, if it were to truly happen… “I would go home,” Yuuri said, quiet, forehead close to the floor. “The Kiyev guests will leave, seasons will change, and… I’ll eventually go home.”

“Yes. You’ll go home. You’ll respond to some offers, attend one or a few miai, take whatever wife is given to you. It’s the same story, either way.” Minako crossed her arms, head tilting with a light, airy fondness. “So what are you so afraid of?”

“I…want to be the best,” Yuuri admitted—and something about saying it aloud, about admitting it to himself, made his face crumple, his voice crack, his bones shudder. With his fists pressed to the stage, his hair falling against his shoulders, and his costume beautifully undone—golden embroidery glittering in the lantern lights—Yuuri wanted more than ever before, a fire simmering red-black-white beneath the framing of his ribs and in the column of his throat.

When Minako next spoke, she was much closer, the tip of the fan pressed to her chin. “But why, Yuuri? Why does it matter to you?”

“Because I love dancing,” he said.

Minako squinted her eyes. “That can’t be all.”

“Because I love to perform,” Yuuri continued.

“No.” Minako tapped the fan against her jaw thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think that’s your whole truth. You’re just telling me something pleasant. And that kind of sterile, timid mindset is holding you back.” The fan fell forward, pointing at Yuuri directly; he saw it as slightly-blurred at the top of his vision, his human-eyes drawn towards the floor. “So, I ask you again. Why do you want to be the best?”

Yuuri raised his head. His hands tangled and wrenched into his sleeves tightly, grace and poise be damned. The fire in his chest and throat boiled down into his fingertips and up into his mouth, leeching as acid into his quiet, pulsing words.

“Because I hate them,” he whispered. “I hate them. I hate that they just see me as breeding stock. I hate that they make me feel weak, small, and ashamed of myself. But I know they’ll never leave me alone, or let me do what I want—so at the very least they should see me being the best, more beautiful and capable than anyone else, and they should choke on it.”

A hungry grin lit up Minako’s face. “That’s what I’m looking for.”

[-]

Katsuki Mari was laughing.

Christophe was sweating, doing his best reenactment of Yuri throwing a tantrum; all the while, he was melding Yuri’s voice and mannerisms with an Ouyashiman translation, not to mention thinking on-the-fly what he could even tell this woman without breaking Viktor’s trust. Having loyalties was such a trial; he wasn’t surprised so few Corvus even bothered with it.

Minami slid the door open carefully, seeming to have overheard the laughter and bashful at being left out. “Your Grace,” he said quietly, “we’ll be summoned shortly.”

“Ah. Fine,” Katsuki Mari said, and waved the boy away. She wiped one eye clean, fending off the risk of running her makeup; then she eased to a stand—anticipating the group of attendants who immediately swarmed in to dress and tidy her up.

Christophe sat still, unsure what to do or say. Wasn’t it usually polite to leave a woman in privacy as she dressed? Though this was Ouyashima, so unlike other nations in its sensibilities—

“I was having too much fun,” Katsuki Mari said. She didn’t turn, but Christophe knew he was being spoken to. “Your princes are so distracting, time flew by and I forgot to mention. Do you want me to keep your little Yuri’s indiscretion a secret? Even from the Tenko?”

Christophe’s jaw dropped. “That’s within your ability?”

From where he was sitting, Christophe could only see the farthest edge of her sharp frown. “Of course. And be careful how you speak to me; I did say it was fine in private, but don’t start any bad habits.”

“Of course, Your Grace.” Christophe bent his head modestly—half in truth, half out of sarcasm. He didn’t resent the reminder; he just couldn’t bring himself to show any more flagrant, ridiculous gestures of humility. It wasn’t in his nature. “I humbly thank Your Grace for such a generous, kind offer.”

“I didn’t offer it.” An attendant yanked some locks of hair back into a high, complex knot; it jolted Katsuki Mari’s head back and sent her breath out in a hiss. “I only asked if you wanted me to.”

“Well…yes,” Christophe said, keeping his tone serene and mild, despite his gritting teeth. “I would like that very much, Your Grace. As I’m sure the Crown Prince would as well.”

Katsuki Mari turned to face him, head high and imperial as the attendants wrapped an emerald-green sash and train around her waist. The green cascaded over a sea of blue and deep wine-red, down her legs and over a concealed yet pronounced bump by her ankles. Her expression was sly and assured as she shrugged. “I don’t care about the Crown Prince all that much.”

“I see.”

“From what I’ve heard, he doesn’t seem my type. Too aloof and high-maintenance.”

“Your Grace is not incorrect.”

“But you seem to care about him a lot.” As the attendants smoothed out the fabric of the woman’s kimono, hurrying to complete the finishing touches, Katsuki Mari grinned. “So what are you willing to do, to keep your little problem tucked away?”

Christophe matched her smile. “I’m still not sure that you’re truly able to offer that.”

Her smile soured. “Stupid,” she mumbled, then turned again, ushered into a new position by the hurrying attendants. “Why do you think your little Yuri hasn’t been apprehended already?”

It was a tad strange that Yuri had caused such a ruckus—an incident with easily the potential for a diplomatic scandal—and yet… nothing had happened. They hadn’t been confronted, sanctioned, or exiled. The palace was only as hectic and off-kilter as to be expected with last-minute, high-profile international guests. Though Christophe had wondered if Katsuki Yuuri’s clear forgiveness and dismissal had been conclusion enough to blow the whole thing over with minimal fuss.

“Because,” Christophe said, and remembered the words: On my mother, I promise…  “Katsuki Yuuri swore to me that—”

“Yuuri is my younger brother. He is insulted when I say he is, and forgives when I say he does.”

Of course: the persistent social and political peripherality of the nine-tailed man. Katsuki Mari did not say this out of malice or dominance; it was merely fact, irrefutable, that the sister or mother—or any other immediate, adult female relative—effectively spoke for and represented the men of her family in Ouyashiman royal proceedings.

But enough of this dawdling. “What may I offer, Your Grace?”

An attendant was painting red onto Katsuki Mari’s lips. Once it was finished, she said, quietly: “I think you know more important, consequential things about Kiyev than just tall tales and silly stories.”

The blood drained from Christophe’s face.

“I can either continue to keep your Yuri’s bad behavior a secret, or I can explode it into an international scandal. Both are easily within my power. And all I ask for this little favor is something that you have in plenty: information.” The attendants fixed a golden hairpiece onto the crown of her head, glittering and trembling with an array of tiny, hanging freshwater pearls; when she tilted her head slightly, considering him coldly, the hairpiece made a soft tinkling noise. “Well? What will it be, Corvus?”

Christophe’s thumping heart pounded the color back into his face. It was the first time anyone had so blatantly asked him to betray his charges, and the weight of the woman’s ultimatum bore heavy on his mind. He thought quickly, tossing answers back and forth through his brain, wondering, foolishly, what clever Viktor would do in this situation—lie, just for the moment, to pass the emergency on to another day; or counter-offer, with something the woman could mull over in a desperate bid for time—

Katsuki Mari’s laughter was loud and sharp, bright like a fox’s yip. “You’re sweating so much! Oh, it’s just too easy, too easy. Settle down. I was teasing.”

Christophe’s jaw dropped. “You weren’t serious?”

“I mean, if you’d agreed, I would have gone with it.”

His jaw clicked back into place so he could say: “That’s, that’s so—that isn’t kind, Your Grace—”

“No, it wasn’t. But it was fun,” she said, grinning in utmost satisfaction. “And speaking of fun. There’s something else I want you to do for me. Something much more mutually enjoyable.”

[-]

Absolute panic clouded the dressing room.

Yuuri’s eyes were closed. His hands were relaxed; his scalp was numb. The unceasing agony he’d endured today in having his hair combed, done up, undone, and then combed all over again had rendered every one of his hair follicles apathetic. Somewhere in the background, Minako’s orders were flying faster than arrows; the tatami scuffled and creaked with too many feet fluttering about, attendants rushing about like bumbling worker-bugs from a knocked-over anthill.

But in Yuuri’s head—in the steadiness of his breaths, the pulse at his wrists, and the beat of his fire-drenched heart—it was hushed. He’d cycled through every emotion possible already: fear, elation, dread, humiliation. Now, the only task left was gather them all close, breathe in time with his internal rhythm, and focus on every individual sensation on his skin.

He thought of the first Tenko. The first nine-tailed fox to live on earth, among the people and the land; a woman of bravery and beauty. Could Yuuri ever be her, or even hope to emulate her? No, of course not. But he thought, now, with his emotions crystallizing into a cauldron of flame in his chest, that he could hope to understand her. After all, she must have known his burdens: the duty and the rage; the unchangeability of what you are, pitted against the undeniability of what you long for.

“Yuuri,” Minako said, her hands falling to rest upon both of his shoulders. “Dear Yuuri. My greatest student. It’s time.”

Yuuri opened his fox-eyes. Everything was sharp, crisp, clear.

“I’m ready.”

Chapter Text

Viktor’s legs were falling asleep.

Soft chatter and the warmth of many bodies surrounded him, transforming the great room into a warm, buzzing hive. This great room, like all the others Viktor had seen in the Tenko’s palace thus far, was floored with tatami and bracketed with bones of singed-black wood. At the front of the crowd, a dais jutted up from the ground, obscured by a few semi-translucent woven screens; yet more screens framed and backed the stage.

Based on the amount of noise emanating from behind those screens, Viktor guessed that a crowd of equivalent size must be gathering behind the dais—the Tenko and her nine-tailed, hidden royal family.

Viktor took a deep, silent breath, scenting the room. First he took in the smells of his fellow Medvedya—the honeyed chamomile soaked into Mila’s red hair; Yuri’s nervous sweat—and then the farther, foremost fragrances of the Ouyashimans: silken garments, white paint on faces, and the traces of sake and jasmine. Deeper than that, hints of tobacco and opium underlied the Ouyashimans’ clothing and hair; the musty, earthy aromas of charcoal and dried grass wafted from the walls, the beams, the flooring. It was a heavy bouquet, burdened by the stuffy, oppressive weight of a thousand years of heritage.

In other words: Ouyashima smelled… old.

Though that was a main reason why Viktor was here—to help his east-expanding empire secure an already-established friend.

As Viktor gathered his surroundings, he kept his eyes straight forward and his head high. He sensed potently the gazes and attentions of the Ouyashimans all around him. Their eyes raked over his form, studying the set of his shoulders, the golden embroidery of his scarlet kaftan. Viktor and his Kiyevsky party were all seated in a row, among a crowd of highborn Ouyashiman commoners—one-tailed red foxes with enough favor, power, or connections to earn inclusion in the Tenko’s court, even if they weren’t permitted to see the ruler or her family directly.

Christophe, apparently, had wandered off. It was an affliction that overtook every Corvus once in awhile. Yuri, however, was present, and seated strictly between his Kiyevsky countrymen. The boy simply couldn’t be trusted in any other position.

That, and—Viktor just did not want to deal with him right now.

Viktor had taken a seat right next to a common-fox courtier: a woman in with teal kimono, delicate silver hairpiece, and dainty shawl of dark mink. She kept sneaking glances at him. Viktor imagined she thought herself quite brave, willingly sitting so close to a barbarian bear-prince of the frozen, brutal North. But Viktor was getting annoyed at the furtive looks.

Slowly, Viktor turned to face her. Offered a restrained, close-mouthed smile.

“Hello,” Viktor said. It was no strain or risk to utilize what little Zhongwen he had, with Christophe’s help or not; he was not in Ouyashima to be silent.

“Hello,” the fox-woman replied. Off to a good start.

A minute into their conversation, however, and Viktor already regretted opening his mouth.

The woman spoke quickly and seemed to love the sound of her own voice. Viktor wondered if her smugness could be so overwhelming as to threaten her health; surely it couldn’t be good for the heart.

“Don’t misunderstand, His Grace is a delight to watch,” she gushed, as though a royal dancer were just a cute poodle that had learned a great many tricks. “But delightful does not mean flawless. I’ve never seen Katsuki Yuuri be anything close to perfect, and I likely never will. A tragedy, really; a true waste of potential—especially considering the flawlessness that Okukawa Minako, may Her Holiness flourish for years to come, could already achieve in a similar stage of youth.”

The only tragedy Viktor could see was the splotchiness of her fading makeup. But he only hummed in reply.

As the woman opened her mouth again—probably to launch into another five minutes of monologue—a crow landed lightly on Viktor’s shoulder. Viktor whispered to the bird in Kiyevsky: “Where the hell have you been?”

In a strange, blackened blur of light and space, the crow shifted into the fully-clothed, black-winged Christophe. He settled easily into the spot left vacant at Viktor’s side, not a hair or garment out of place. Although Viktor knew that other shifters could somehow retain their clothing when they shifted, it never made sense to him how; the Medvedya never did.

Christophe grinned briskly, then winked. “I was just cleaning up. We have plans later, by the way.”

“Do we?”

“We do.”

Compared to Christophe’s easy grin, Viktor’s expression was strained. “Do I even want to ask for detail?”

“Oh, you definitely do. But for now, you should play nice. Your new friend looks very sour to have been interrupted.”

Indeed, Christophe was right: the common-fox woman at Viktor’s right side looked like she’d taken a large bite from a tiny lemon. Viktor grinned apologetically. “Pardon me,” he said, switching back to Zhongwen. “Won’t you tell me more about Katsuki Yuuri?”

Somehow, horribly, Yuri overheard that. Viktor’s gut dropped to see the little prince’s face pop out from down the row—probably to say something else half-thought-out, if his performance in Ouyashima thus far had been any indication.

“You’re talking about a Yuuri?” He interrupted loudly. There was a rushed and eager quality in his tone; it made Viktor frown in confusion.

“Not you, Yura,” he replied.

“I know that—”

“Yes,” the fox-woman replied. “Katsuki Yuuri. Though you must never address him as such, little bear. It is ‘His Grace’ for you; anything else simply will not do.”

Gosudar,” Viktor muttered.

“Hm?”

“Speaking of what will not do, lady,” Viktor explained, smile serene. “Just now, you addressed my Yuri as though he were an animal, rather than a Kiyevsky prince. I would not mind, if I thought you meant well. But I am not so naïve as to think your word choice is just an honest mistake, or that you are merely ignorant.” He tilted his head slightly; let his smile go tart. “Or am I mistaken? Shall I call you ‘little fox’ from now on? After all, you are very small, and the intricate nuances of language are so difficult for a bear to fathom.”

The white makeup on her face betrayed no flush, but Viktor saw the shock in her eyes.

“You may call him gosudar, by the way,” Viktor instructed, still smiling. “It means something like ‘my lord.’ That is how you address a prince of Kiyev.”

The woman’s nostrils flared and her eyes widened. After a few more moments of outraged glaring, she jerked her head away, turned to face the stage, and said nothing more.

Viktor turned to face forward as well. He took a moment to straighten his posture, roll his shoulders, and shift a little on his numb feet. Then he leaned towards Christophe and said, in his native tongue: “You’re doing a wonderful job.”

Christophe’s expression was unflappable, a bizarre mixture of pleased and exhausted. Even Viktor’s sugary insult didn’t seem to affect it. “Thank you, Vitenka. It’s been a trying day.”

“Has it?”

“It has.”

“You don’t have to tell me that Yura is a handful. I know that much.”

“I would not describe Yuri Lilianov as just a handful. But let’s not dwell it.”

Viktor hummed, annoyance lancing his tone. He was working up a bit of a mood and didn’t care if Christophe noticed. “We’re all gathered here to wait and sweat in this reeking sauna to watch something like theatre, yes?”

The Corvus cast Viktor a dry, sidelong look, like he was both hopeless and immeasurably stupid. “I suppose.”

“Well,” Viktor said, as though Christophe had missed his cue. “How does Ouyashiman theatre differ from Western styles?”

“Hmm…” Christophe gazed ahead as he collected his words. “The actors in Ouyashiman theatre wear exaggerated, stylized makeup. Costume changes are done on stage. It’s often set to traditional music, with narration delivered by singers.”

“I see. Will we be able to understand a thing? You know how restless Yura gets when he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.”

An unkind statement, since Yuri was a pubescent boy and therefore clueless at all times. But Viktor supposed he shouldn’t treat himself too charitably; he too could barely speak a lick of Ouyashiman, only versed in the building-blocks of simple conversation. A complex performance in Ouyashiman would be far beyond his ability to follow.

“Oh, you’ll be able to understand absolutely everything,” Christophe said.

Viktor frowned. “What do you—”

“You see,” Christophe interrupted, “what you actually wanted to ask me was, ‘What are we gathered here to watch?’ But you were too busy being cranky to do it.”

Viktor sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” He took a moment to gather himself, and to quash his poor mood. “Christophe, my dear friend. What are we gathered here to watch?”

Christophe smiled, then shrugged. “I don’t really know.”

Viktor frowned.

“I’ve only ever heard stories,” he explained. A distant look clouded his eyes as he turned to stare up at the dais, its platform cradled in many shining layers of woven screens. “And not the Corvan kind. We’ve never been permitted to witness this before.”

It always rung as strange when Christophe referred to his kind as we, as though all Corvus were somehow linked as one. Viktor opened his mouth to question further—

But before he could, all at once, every lantern snuffed out.

Night descended over the palace in a curtain of heavy silence.

The sound of a shamisen strummed promisingly in the dark. The slow, steady beat of it matched the occasionally whump of a drum or whistle of a flute. Although the oil-lights of the palace had all been smothered, a slight glow of silver-yellow-gold began to emanate in the air, eerie and unplaceable, like the light of a partial-moon on newly fallen snow.

It was in that light, pale and milky, that Viktor saw a figure materialize upon the dais: a dancer, clothed in white.

A black parasol obscured pitch-dark hair, a masked face, and a pale, smooth neck. The creamy silk of the kimono was only interrupted by a few vivid jolts of red. The dancer scarcely moved; but when they did, each slow step was graceful and silent, each twist of the wrist in precise control. The dancer seemed a mere specter of night: a heavenly, fleeting wisp of white-and-red.

It was only after many minutes of watching—taking in the smooth curve of the dancer’s fingers; marveling at how the silk about those silent, white-socked feet would sweep forward on a gentle swish —that Viktor realized the dancer was glowing.

The light was pale. Delicate. Shy, somehow.

Yet at every pluck of the shamisen’s string, it grew stronger. Bolder.

One moment, Viktor was in a dark room surrounded by strangers. The next, he blinked—and caught a glimpse of a forest path. He breathed the crisp scent of cold dirt and shriveled flora. The sun above was the same delicate, shy, gold-silver hue as the dancer’s light, and all was dusted in a light coating of early frost—the tender beginnings of winter twinkling under an open sky.

Viktor blinked again.

He was in the great room, watching a masked dancer who moved like snow melting from a sundrenched bough.

Shaken and doubting his own eyes, Viktor tried to focus on the dancer’s face. The mask was as white, unblemished, and unbroken as Kiyev’s midwinter rivers. Yet as that strange silver-gold glow pulsated from the dais and flooded into the audience, overcoming Viktor’s senses, he swore he could see the face of a maiden: her cheeks pink with cold and her eyes dark like twin dashes of coal.

Viktor stood alone on a quiet forest path.

His breath plumed visibly from his mouth. Fresh snowflakes, cast from only a few stray clouds, caught and melted upon his eyelashes. Bordering the path, a great oak loomed high, its branches bare; sleeping shrubs had caught the first of the season’s fluffy white snowdrifts.

And there was a maiden.

She was youthful and naive, on the cusp of womanhood. She had not strayed far from home—she was too young, too obedient to her mother and father—but there was something mischievous in the way she walked, and how she dropped her parasol, letting it swing at her side as the sun hit her face.

She glanced over her shoulder.

For a brief, breathless moment, Viktor’s gaze met hers. Viktor’s blue eyes widened; his lips dropped open and his face warmed with a giddy, speechless flush. A coy smile drifted onto the curves of the maiden’s face.

Over her head, a small, silver-gold flame puffed into existence.

The kitsunebi seemed carefree and joyous, an entity of light about the size of a sparrow. It bounced and pulsed with every shift of the maiden’s feet. As Viktor followed her like a puppy, he could see the maiden's likeness in perfect detail, from the slight curve of her lips to the sleek part of her high, midnight-black chignon. Her kimono was indigo, its color like the evening sea; foamy-white chrysanthemums were scattered in the dark silk, complementing the red obi.

As she stepped through the silent forest, silken hem sweeping over gravel and frost, her small hands undulated through the snowflakes in nimble waves. Past her heels, a few hidden tails flicked to raise the train for only a split-second—the only physical hint as to what she truly was.

The parasol rose again, gliding past her face and blocking out the light of the silver-golden sun. Its apex tapped the kitsunebi lightly.

The light broke into a thousand shards, flying in all directions in a glimmering rush.

Gasps flooded Viktor’s ears. He couldn’t see where they came from, nor could he bring himself to care. He was too busy watching the maiden, who played with a tiny fox-light as though it were a beetle landed on her fingers.

For a long while, the scene was serene and playful. More kitsunebi sparked at her sides, apparently just for the delight of it. Viktor saw that the maiden’s life was joyous, easy: she was fed and well clothed; she took walks in the forest to avoid her chores, gathered berries in high summer, and stole honeycomb from her father’s hives.

From overhead, Viktor heard a raven’s call. He smelled the scent of the maiden’s village nearby: its cooking fires, its livestock.

He heard the sudden shrieks.

The distant, ghostly strum of a shamisen marked the maiden’s alarm, and then her flight—back down the path, sprinting along the snow, abandoning her parasol and kitsunebi for the rising sounds of chaos and panic. Among the fox-people here, in this country, raids were as steady a threat as the bitter winter or the dark plague; yet never before had her people been struck. Their settlement was small and deep in the mountains, isolated from any others.

The maiden emerged from the forest, halting at the path’s end.

Her village was burning.

Women shrieked as their husbands were struck down, as their children were wrenched from their arms. The granaries, the coops, and the barns were all ablaze; horses and cows alike squealed and moaned their panic, their hooves clattering against their stalls. The ground was wet with the thick, steaming scent of fresh blood.

Viktor gritted his teeth in familiarity and disgust.

He stood at the maiden’s side—calm where she was disheveled, stoic where she was heartbroken. When she gathered up her long sleeves and ran into the fray, Viktor tried to grab hold of her arm—he knew there was nothing she could do; she should only think to flee, to return to the forest—but his touch was as immaterial as the smoke gushing from the rooves.

The moment his hand swept through her arm, Viktor recalled himself: he was in Ouyashima, in the palace of the Tenko. But it was like wading through mud. Vaguely, he registered the cries and flailing arms of his fellow audience members; they all wept and shrieked and ripped at their faces in horror, all witnessing and reliving the maiden’s plight within the confines of their own minds’-eyes.

Viktor tumbled back into the dancer’s illusion with all the grace of a man in deep fever.

The maiden fended off the grab of a raider, dodged the swing of a hand-axe, and fell away from the path of a stampeding mare before she could finally crawl to the threshold of her home. She peered through the door. Her home, like the others, was aflame; smoke flooded from the windows and the yawning doorway.

Her parents were not there.

She scrambled from the burning home. Her search from then on was blind, frantic—no clues, no plan, hardly even a sense of direction. The village she knew was being wrenched apart and swallowed and belched back out by a merciless, blood-thirsty god, one she had never known, nor had ever even dreamed could touch her—

A large, bruising hand seized her upper arm.

The maiden fought—gods, how she struggled, screaming and biting and kicking with all her might. But the man was much stronger and taller than she, and he bore a short-staffed scythe in one hand. Its blade did not open her flesh, but it sliced and disheveled her hair as his arms encompassed her writhing form. The maiden could only be still then, biding her time until the true fight came—when her kimono would be torn and her legs wrenched open.

He dragged her past more burning homes, towards the faint chorus of weeping girl-children—friends and neighbors of hers, only hours ago; now, fellow slaves. All around her, there were more raiders, moving busily with their faces covered and their hands full. But none of them bore stolen goods.

They were dragging the others.

The maiden saw them as though through a sheet of brittle ice. The strangers hauled them by their ankles. Trails of sticky crimson stained their wakes.

Superstition held that the only way to fully, truly kill a fox was when its body was destroyed. If the slain body remained, then the soul, untethered and deprived, would try to get back in—or find a new vessel to steal. Of course, none of that was true. But truth or not, reality or folktale, the raiders would want to burn the corpses.

They would not bother to build pyres.

As the maiden saw her kinsmen, her friends all stacked in a sloppy pile, their eyes and mouths lolled open and lifeless—as she saw the pile growing, one body larger at every passing moment—her face creaked open in a high, crackling scream. Her wails of grief seemed to echo and rebound off the walls of the burning buildings in a horrific litany. She fell to her knees, and Viktor fell at her side, tears pouring down his face.

The raider seized her arm. Shook her. When that didn’t work, the back of his hand struck her cheek, sending her sprawling into the ruby-stained dirt.

Over the maiden’s head, a small, silver-gold flame puffed into existence.

The raider’s leg flew at her, meaning to beat the screams from her lungs. Before his foot could swing down, the kitsunebi flitted to his chest; it sunk through his skin and into his the cavern of his ribs without a sound.

The raider paused. Held in perfect stillness.

As the silver-gold kitsunebi slid from his mouth, it dragged with it the man’s slow, final breath.

Sorrow ached in Viktor’s chest. A distant rhythm hurried, like shamisen and drumbeats cresting; more kitsunebi alit and bobbed in the smoke-choked air. As Viktor watched the swarm of lights bounce and twitch, fluttering their way into the chests and eyes and mouths of the violent strangers, yanking souls from bodies like late-spring petals drifting from trees, he tried to say:

Stop. Stop. You’ll never be the same.

The maiden’s neat kimono and chignon had fallen apart. Her pitch-black hair fell in uneven, frayed locks over her shoulders and down to her feet. The indigo silk of her kimono had torn to reveal a white juban beneath; her obi and train flashed brilliant crimson in the light of fires and kitsunebi both. It was as though her human disguise had been ripped away, cruelly destroyed and torn from her trembling form—leaving behind only the tattered remnants of a demigod.

Yet more kitsunebi manifested around her—a circle of overwhelming, frantic grief—and Viktor’s heart lodged in his throat. He and the maiden both struggled to their feet. For a long moment, the girl only staggered, unsure where to hide or how to run; she was alive, horribly, in a world all too eager to drag her to a fresh grave by the nine ends of her tails, a world uncaring of her agony and deaf to her screams of mourning.

But she was not alone. As ever, the fox-people would survive.

But they could not stay here.

The maiden fled. She was followed by her fellow survivors—mostly girls and children, those kept for their potential or the worth of their bodies. They did not die. As weeks passed, then years, they were joined by others. They fled and they fought. The raids and massacres, as Viktor knew too well, were not caused by a vengeful god of death; they were driven by the decisions of but a few greedy, malicious men.

Unlike gods, men could be defeated.

The maiden, now a woman, stood in a field. The grass under her feet was a vivid green. Though her followers hid and huddled in the lush tree-cover, the woman—the kyuubinokitsune, the nine-tailed, first daughter of heaven, Tenko-Haika—gazed up at an unbroken azure sky.

She watched the writhe of a serpentine dragon as it speared its way across the blue.

Viktor stood at her side, quiet and thoughtful. To him it was nostalgic, watching your enemy fly from afar. From his own experiences, he could guess what the woman was thinking: how close, how soon, how large; how do I down this creature, slay it quickly, cleanly, soundly—

But before long, the yellow dragon began its descent, whirling to a quiet landing across the clearing.

Even from a distance, the yellow dragon was the largest beast that Viktor or the fox-woman had ever seen. His body, smoothly scaled, shimmered a lustrous gold in the sunlight. His massive claws etched deep gouges into the ground. A fearsome rage and hunger shimmered from his large, glassy eyes—from two jewel-like irises and their two slitted, reptilian pupils.

Heavy breaths gusted from his open, snarling mouth; the resulting breeze rustled the fox-woman’s long black hair.

But he had not struck her without pretense. No dragon-flames leaked from his jagged teeth.

The yellow dragon, Holy Beast of Zhongwo, had meant to strike fear in her heart. He had wished and gambled, apparently, for a mere woman to catch a glance of the spittle shimmering off of his dripping fangs and cower, falling to her knees and screaming in terror. Yet while he was beautiful, and fearsome, the yellow dragon’s winding form was cumbersome on the ground. His limbs, sharply clawed but short, kept his belly close to the dirt.

He should have killed her quickly—if he could at all.

The yellow dragon approached, and the Tenko unveiled herself: a nine-tailed fox, growling, her white-furred body nearly the size and stature of a she-wolf. Each of her tails was longer than her spine; they fanned out behind her in unison like a peacock in full display, the pelt atop them rising and bristling with agitation.

The yellow dragon roared—one last warning, one last chance to beg for mercy. Blue-hot sparks finally began to crackle and seep from his open jaws.

The white fox snarled, her fox-voice kittering into a high scream. Where she stomped her foot, a gush of silver-gold burst on impact.

The dragon’s claws flung back great scoops of earth as he charged forward.

His lithe body squirmed and scuttled among the dotted kitsunebi like a centipede on the hunt. Where the lights did connect, they merely buzzed then glanced off his orpiment scales, as though gadflies on the flank of a stallion. If the fox was not quick enough, or wily enough, the yellow dragon would easily snap her between his jaws.

The fox darted to the side as the dragon dealt his first strike, gaping jaws flicking sparks of dragon-fire onto the grass. It reared back and forth like a snake, lunging at the dodging fox always a mere moment too late. The fox, for her part, sought openings to sink her own teeth into the dragon’s neck, or to perhaps slice open his stomach; the effectiveness of her kitsunebi was unclear, untested, especially against the yellow dragon’s seemingly impenetrable scales—

On another strike, the dragon’s mouth enclosed over a single spark of fox-fire.

The kitsunebi held, hovering—then sank through the dragon’s soft, forked tongue.

The yellow dragon reared back, leaping away to spit and cough dragon-fire onto the grass. As he vomited, his eyes bulged and tongue lolled. His gaze flitted between the other kitsunebi floating about with something like dread.

The white fox grinned, all her teeth shining in the light.

Kitsunebi began to flow from and about her like an endless fountain of molten metal. Each individual sparklet in the clearing pulsed, then danced inwards, scuttling towards the fox-woman like a horde of insects. They converged into one writhing, flaring mass around the fox's body, congealing with the flow of light from her smiling mouth.

Quick as a true fox, she leapt to the dragon—her paws somehow finding invisible footholds in the air—and fell upon his back, her jaws clamping onto the beast’s mane and into the hind of his neck. She clung on tight as he rumbled in agony, mouth gritted and teeth clenched shut. But beneath that vice of fire-dripping fangs, the dragon’s tongue and gums and throat were a soft pink, vulnerable, so long as she could wrench his mouth open and reach them

Viktor was in the great room.

As he gasped, glancing to and fro, white-blond hair fell over one eye. There was no sign of the audience. He was surrounded on all sides by a swarm of star-bright, floating, gold-silver kitsunebi—a single man in a sea of constellations.

But no. He was not alone.

Viktor turned to look up at the dais.

The dancer was there, watching him.

A black parasol in one hand. A white mask in the other. The dancer stared down at Viktor without a word, not a sound, and somehow all the screens framing and surrounding the stage had vanished. Even the kitsunebi faded from Viktor’s sight, blending in to the white-beige-black of the great room’s bones.

Viktor’s palms were damp as they pressed into the tatami. As he stood, he barely found his legs, and he still hadn’t found his breath; it was a near thing to get his hands to stop their trembling, or his eyes to halt their watering. His cheeks were still flushed and wet from his weeping before, in the fox-maiden’s burning village.

Yet all that was distant now. Truly, there existed so little: Viktor, the great room, the dancer.

The dancer.

“Katsuki,” Viktor whispered, seeking his voice. The words tumbled from his throat parched and broken.

Viktor stepped forward on clumsy feet, and the dancer only gazed down at him in perfect stillness. Those eyes—a fox’s eyes, amber and golden and struck with slitted pupils—should have been sharp and inhuman, the gaze of a beast; but they fell upon Viktor with a tender yearning, as though seeking or striving or begging for Viktor to do something.

What, Viktor did not know. But he nearly choked on the desire to deliver it.

Viktor found his voice as he called out: “Katsuki Yuuri.”

The man’s chest jolted, as though on a swift intake of breath. With only those few syllables, that pleading look in his eyes instantly settled. A feeble smile curled onto his beautiful painted face.

Was that all he’d wanted? Was that all he needed to be satisfied? To hear his name? That wasn’t nearly enough for Viktor.

“Katsuki Yuuri,” he said again, stumbling further forward, suddenly desperate to reach the stage—to see, to speak, to touch him in truth; not as a watcher, but as a fellow man.

The dancer took one shaky step back. The peace in his features disquieted, yielding to a new and uncertain fear. He bit his lip, amber-lit eyes glancing away. 

All the kitsunebi burst awake around them—and Viktor knew, somehow, what that meant.

“No!” He pled. Yet the fox-lights beckoned to him, began to submerge his mind yet again through the mud. “No! Wait! Yuuri—!”

The white fox, panting, silver-gold drenching her fur, had skewered the yellow dragon on a spear of fox-fire.

His body twitched—a wriggling fish on a stick—and his eyes were wide, his gaze scattered and terrified. Despite her success in prying open his jaws, her kitsunebi penetrated his flesh slowly; to gouge the yellow dragon was no easy feat, not like hollowing out the simple souls of those raiders so many years ago.

But the Tenko could wait. She could be patient.

A splatter of blood hit the grass as the yellow dragon coughed—gagged on malice and magic.

The dragon’s shining, golden claws dug into the spear of fire, sinking in and tearing like a cat into silk. But that was no matter; it wouldn’t be enough. Only, perhaps, would dragon-fire affect the Tenko’s kitsunebi, and the yellow dragon didn’t seem able to conjure more than a few flickers here and there—

Another splatter of coughed blood and bile—but this time, with blue-hot sparks mingled in.

The spear of fox-fire cracked.

The Tenko’s expression, merciless and confident in her power, did not alter. She was the smaller creature, but it was clear to all witnessing who the victor would be. The yellow dragon’s best chance, after breaking free, would be to launch back to the sky and flee back to his own lands. Any further attacks, whether landed or airborne, would not finish in his favor.

So it did not surprise Viktor in the slightest when that was what the dragon did: slam his clawed feet against the shattered kitsunebi, into the dirt, and fling himself headfirst into the clear azure sky.

As he squirmed clumsily into the abyss, the white fox blurred among her kitsunebi. Her teeth ground together on a snarl; her paws, narrow and pale on the pummeled grass, seemed to flicker and pulse like a wicked flame in the wind.

The yellow dragon would not escape like that. He would not leave here unscathed.

Viktor stood in the clearing like a ghost, untouched by flame or wind or claw. Yet he still trembled when the white fox bristled—her spine curving in a taut bow, forehead to the floor—and all her tails flicked straight out, spreading apart like a fan snapped open. The kitsunebi surrounding her body began to seep away.

Before Viktor’s eyes—impossibly; horrifically—the fox began to depart from her physical form.

Gasps of shock and awe rippled in Viktor’s ears; again, he neither saw nor cared. He only watched as a huge, throbbing tendril of flame, long enough to stretch from the fox’s body to the treetops, ascended from the white creature like a revelation. It squirmed and thrashed from the fox’s bones with an energy furious and unspeakable.

It clamored into the sky, leaving only lifeless flesh behind.

The yellow dragon shuddered in midair—as though in the grasp of some great, horrid vice—then plummeted, a single canary ribbon fluttering delicately to the earth.

Every light snuffed. Even the sun was blown dead in an instant.

Viktor was in the great room, surrounded by Ouyashimans and his Kiyevsky party. No one dared to move more than a twitch. They all sat in near-complete darkness, with only quiet sobs, whimpers, and tiny sips of trembling breaths escaping them.

A woman’s wail was the first thing to destroy the quiet.

“Yuuri!” The woman screamed, scrambling onto the stage in a panic. New and unfamiliar fox-lights blinked awake around her, red as apples. “No, no, no— Yuuri—”

As the woman’s kitsunebi lit the stage, Viktor saw that the dancer had collapsed. He also noticed that they had not been in true darkness at all—that silver-gold glow was still present, but fading swiftly, draining away like rainwater seeping into summer soil. While the red glimmers of fox-fire did not halt the dimming, they did seem to help; the silver-gold glow congealed into a few dim sparks, then eased back into the dancer’s body, as though returning home.

Gradually, the court awakened to propriety. Lanterns were relit. Servants dropped a thick layer of screens about the stage, entirely obscuring both royals from view. Around him, Viktor heard praise and weeping at all volumes—the audience remembering how to live within reality, their own bodies; awed and moved to inconsolable, ecstatic tears—and slowly, slowly, he heard the grounding sound of a familiar voice.

“Viktor,” someone said, and Viktor knew who it was, yet he also did not know.

“Viktor…” said the voice again. Viktor’s eyes were wide and unblinking, as though he could see through the screens and onto the dais if he only concentrated hard enough.

“Vitenka.”

Viktor blinked. Turned his head.

Christophe took in a deep breath, then exhaled deeply. His eyelids were pink and puffy; his face was still wet.

“Let’s leave,” Christophe said. “Let’s breathe the outside air.”

Viktor didn’t want to. Why should he? What kind of man would he be when he left this place?

“We must,” Christophe insisted. He stood on shaky legs; even his black wings twitched apart, displacing the air to help him stand. “Listen to me, Vitenka. Trust me.”

And Viktor supposed that was true. He did trust Christophe. The Corvus had been at his side for years now; he had not once lied or led Viktor astray. Perhaps he told the truth even now, when it seemed most wrong—when all Viktor wanted to do was run for the stage and rip all those disgusting screens apart with his clenched, shaking, tingling hands.

Somehow, Viktor was standing.

“Come, gosudar,” Christophe said, his tone gentle, teasing, easy. Viktor’s arm felt like cracked glass under his grip.

Before they crossed the threshold into the uncertain beyond, Viktor threw a long, piercing glance over his shoulder. He listened, desperately, for the sounds of shuffling and murmurs behind those horrid screens.

“Yuuri,” a woman’s voice said, tender and relieved.

Yuuri, Viktor thought—and left the room, the cool night air hitting his face like a kiss.

Chapter Text

As a messenger bearing the seal of the Tenko demanded an audience with Viktor of Kiyev, and the buzzing, almost frantic noise of the still-reeling banquet attendees swirled around them, Christophe thought: I knew this would be a long night.

The air was crisp and the garden was alit with lantern-light. Dinner had been a long and bizarre affair. No one had quite recovered from the performance earlier, including Christophe himself. Conversations had been hushed and cautious, most voices shaky and crackly from extensive weeping. But unlike the rest, Christophe was a Corvus, a witness of stories and purveyor of truths; illusions—falsehoods, no matter how beautifully executed—would never quite seize him like they did a fox or bear. 

The moment the performance was completed—and Christophe had returned to himself in a fit of sudden sobriety—he alone had realized just how vulnerable they had all become, their minds thoroughly exercised and whirled round and rung out to dry.

Especially Viktor’s.

While the Tenko’s messenger waited patiently, Christophe leaned close to his charge, muttering in Kiyevsky: “The Tenko has requested an audience.”

Requested, of course, was a generous term. It seemed obvious to Christophe that the Tenko was demanding to speak with Viktor now , fresh out of that thought-shattering performance, with the expectation that Viktor and his Kiyevsky party would be too awed and exhausted to have their wits about them. She was trying to take advantage of their compromised state to ease promises and political advantages from Viktor’s still-shaky grasp. Surely, Viktor saw through it too.

Or… perhaps he didn’t. Christophe didn’t know how many lanterns had been relit within the cavern of his prince’s head.

“Wonderful,” Viktor replied, and ran two palms down the front of his red kaftan, smoothing out the fine wool. “Let’s go, then.”

Christophe’s eyes narrowed. “Are you… well?”

Viktor’s face shifted from handsome and serene, to handsome and dryly agitated. “Of course. Why do you ask?”

Viktor did seem fine, conversing with the other guests well enough in the few hours since the performance. Though he had been relying to a much greater extent on Christophe’s translating than on his own Zhongwen. Christophe’s brow furrowed. “You were not… all there, earlier,” he admitted, mouth quirking with the hint of a smirk. “I wonder how much of the fresh air has actually penetrated your thick skull.”

At the teasing, Viktor huffed a soft laugh. “I appreciate your concern, my friend. But I promise I am quite clear-headed.”

“If you say so…” Christophe replied, and walked behind Viktor as he followed the messenger through the garden. Others along the way parted to allow them through; their glances were bold and lingering as they swept up and down Viktor’s form, studying his clothes and demeanor and every set of his tall yet delicate features. Christophe could guess what they were thinking— what a striking man, beautiful, but a brute, with a monster hidden beneath —and he didn’t think he was imagining the slight heaviness to Viktor’s footsteps, the barest hint of a burden in the prince’s normally elegant and light-footed movements.

“Should we find the others?” Christophe asked. After dinner, the Kiyevsky party had scattered a bit, some returning to their rooms. Little Yuri was probably long asleep by now.

“No,” Viktor said. “We two are enough.”

Christophe nodded hesitantly. Normally, he would agree without a second thought. But there was a bad feeling creeping under his skin. “Try not to use your sloppy Zhongwen,” he mumbled. The Tenko would eat that sort of weakness alive.

A quiet laugh rumbled ahead—Viktor hearing him easily, with those annoyingly sharp Medvedya senses. Viktor could probably even smell the floral Ouyashiman oils Christophe had preened with hours before. 

Sharp-blue caught Christophe’s gaze as Viktor glanced over his shoulder. “All right,” Viktor said, amusement in his tone. “I’ll only speak in Kiyevsky. Less room for error that way. But don’t forget, you won’t be the only Corvus there.”

That wasn’t so important. Christophe didn’t intend to filter or twist Viktor’s words to suit what he thought was best; he only wanted to ensure that their diplomatic proceedings began on a positive—or, at least, unscathed—foot.

While they walked, Christophe stared ahead, at the broad expanse of Viktor’s red-clad shoulders. He admired Viktor as both a friend and ally; the man was usually quite perceptive, never entering any interaction without a handful of excellent and thought-out plans. Yet as they approached a veranda—to remove their shoes, then follow the messenger to a grand meeting chamber within—Christophe remembered the tears in Viktor’s eyes as he’d stared at the stage and those closed screens, dumbstruck, desperately seeking the barest glance of a single man with the power to lead dozens of onlookers in and out of the limits of sanity. 

Not that Christophe shouldn’t have expected all that. After all, Katsuki Yuuri was known and lauded the world over as the epitome of Ouyashiman elegance and beauty.

They entered the building, walking ever closer towards the meeting room. Staring at Viktor’s back, Christophe thought—a bit woefully, and not for the first time: 

Please don’t do anything stupid.

[-]

When Yuuri became aware of himself again, he was in a futon, under the covers—and there was splashing. 

The noise was hushed, as though Yuuri heard it with his head held underwater. He breathed in slowly, just to make sure he could. His lungs filled with air. Above him, the ceiling was dark wood; below him, the futon was soft and clean. 

Yuuri blinked. Breathed deeply again. That splashing was coming through clearer now, crystalline against his ears. 

“You’re awake,” a high, sweet voice said.

Yuuri rolled his head to the side. Yuuko was smiling at him, ringing a wet cloth into a shallow basin.

Yuuri’s body was conformed a little too comfortably into the futon. It made him whisper: “How long?”

Yuuko gave the cloth one final squeeze. “You’ve almost entirely missed the banquet.” 

That wasn’t what he’d asked, but it did address his most pressing concern. Yuuri relaxed a little further into the futon. Perhaps if he were a more responsible, politically savvy person, he would have been horrified. But responsible or savvy he was not.

Yuuko folded the damp cloth into a neat rectangle, then placed it gingerly on Yuuri’s forehead. It was cool and refreshing on his skin.

“You succeeded,” she said, smoothing the cloth as though Yuuri were one of her girls, “if your goal, of course, was to push the limits of the possible. And mentally scar all those in attendance.”

Yuuri’s eyes flitted to catch hers; the shift gave him a headache, but he smiled anyway. “It was. Sort of.”

Yuuko held his eye in tense silence for a moment too long. But when she spoke, her voice remained light and relaxed. “Then, congratulations. I hear even Viktor walked out looking like a newborn fawn.”

Yuuri’s eyes slid shut on a loopy half-grin. That image—the great and handsome Viktor, Crown Prince of Kiyev, rendered an awed and trembling mess by something Yuuri did, of all people—was a lovely notion to fall asleep on.

“I can’t believe you can be so relaxed,” Yuuko snapped. Her voice, still quiet, finally bled out with the frustration she must’ve been hiding. “You were scattered, Yuuri. Minako had to rush to your side! She had to piece you back together! One of the very first things we learn about casting kitsunebi is not to overexert yourself, and yet here you are, finally awake and aware after hours in a catatonic state. How do you think I’ve felt, waiting by your side?”

Yuuri only lied there, half-listening to Yuuko in mild surprise. He could tell that she was serious, which meant he probably should be as well. But there was still a disconnect between his brain and reality that he couldn’t quite overcome.

“How do you think Minako feels, as our teacher? What would she have done if the worst had happened? How would she ever look at your mother again? And how do you think Mari feels, watching you collapse, unable to do anything? There were only two people in that room who could’ve brought you back, Minako and the Tenko, and Her Majesty would never move at a pace faster than a saunter, so you’re lucky Minako was even there—”

This must be how the triplets feel every day, Yuuri thought. Every time they misbehave. Which is every day.

“Don’t just stare at me! How well do you even remember the performance?”

Yuuri shut his mouth. He hadn’t realized, but he’d been mouth-breathing through all of Yuuko’s scolding. He opened his mouth a few more times as he considered her question. How much did he remember? The performance—or, more accurately, parts of it—felt like it had occurred in another lifetime, to another person. Yuuri remembered shattering fox-light at the well-timed poke of a parasol. He remembered screaming, sobbing, and a gaping hole of grief; he recalled conjuring the visage of a yellow dragon, gold-shimmering and larger than life.

“Not...all of it,” he finally replied. 

There was wetness gathering at the corners of Yuuko’s eyes. “You idiot,” she whispered—fighting to keep her composure. “Never do that again. You terrified me.”

Yuuri said nothing. He couldn’t promise her a thing, and he would not lie. Perhaps she knew that; perhaps she just thought he was out-of-sorts, his eyes swiftly losing focus with the passing of every quiet moment.

“Yuuri,” a high, feminine voice said. Who was it again?

Yuuri shut his eyes firmly. He didn’t want to talk anymore. 

“No, Yuuri—you can’t sleep. I’m sorry. You have to greet the Council tonight.”

A bare whimper escaped his throat. “Can’t I just—haven’t I done enough already?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” she replied. Her hands were gentle and caring as they blotted the damp cloth from his forehead. “What’s your name?”

Another whine, this one exhausted and petulant, leaked from his throat before he could swallow it down. “Katsuki Yuuri.”

“And your mother?”

“Katsuki Hiroko,” he replied. Droplets plopped into the basin as Yuuko rinsed and rerung the cloth. “Lady of Hasetsu. And my sister’s name is Katsuki Mari. My father is Katsuki Toshiya. I’m in the palace of the Tenko, in Chouwa-Kyou, talking to Nishigori Yuuko.”

“All right, all right,” Yuuko mumbled, wiping his flushed face with the cool cloth. “You know I had to check.”

Awareness, finally, that he was present, and someone he trusted was touching him tenderly, overtook Yuuri’s mind like a smoking smolder easing to full flame. He leaned into Yuuko’s touch, urging himself to feel more—and to calm the new patter of his heart.

“Was I really good?” He asked, because he needed to know.

“Good?” Yuuko repeated. “Yuuri, you—it was more than that. I’ll never forget how I felt during that performance, as long as I live.”

Good. That was good. That was—it was more than good. Yuuko had said so. And she had always been kind to him, yes, but she was also an excellent judge of skill. Yuuri’s eyes fluttered shut on the praise, another half-smile floating onto his face. 

No ,” Yuuko insisted, and began lifting Yuuri into an upright position from the armpits. “You can’t sleep! I’m going to call the dressers in.”

“No…” Yuuri moaned, wobbling in Yuuko’s dainty grip. “I don’t know if I can get up….”

“Yuuri, listen,” Yuuko whispered. Her mouth was much closer to his ear now, as she held him aloft. “Let’s get married.”

Yuuri’s eyes snapped open.

“I was already thinking this, even before your performance tonight,” she continued, “but now I’m convinced. I think they’re going to try and give you month-marriages. If Mari and I negotiate an engagement, we would be able to avoid that.”

Yuuko’s whispers fell into his stomach like a swallowed stone. While it was common for a marriage between a nine-tailed man and a common-fox to be dissolved after a year or so of fruitless coupling, month-marriages—those matches preordained to collapse after a few weeks, pregnancy or no—were exceedingly rare nowadays, when both the Tenko’s reign and the royal family’s population were stable. Mari and his mother would never agree to it, knowing the mental toll it would take on Yuuri; but it was always possible that their lack of approval could be overridden by imperial order.

Still, to marry Yuuko was another matter entirely. Of course, they were distant enough relations that the match wasn’t forbidden. And in childhood, certainly, Yuuri had harbored special feelings for her. But they weren’t children anymore, and Yuuko was currently married to a common-fox man she loved—a man, Yuuri noted, who had fathered a set of nine-tailed triplets. Even if no one in court could politely say anything about it, they would all think Yuuko insane for casting such a prosperous husband aside.

“I’ve already talked with Minako about it,” Yuuko said. She was close enough that no one could overhear them. “She’s prepared to be our advocate on the Council. I just want your consent on the plan before we move forward.”

As Yuuri braced himself with a deep breath, a light yet insistent tap resounded on the door.

“Your Graces,” a voice called out timidly. “May we enter?”

Yuuko moved away, but barely. She held Yuuri’s eye and did not turn her head as she responded: “You may.”

The dressers entered the room in near-silence. Yuuri did not have to look at them to know they all stared at the floor. He also did not need to guess to know that they all noticed how closely he and Yuuko were positioned, Yuuri almost entirely leaning into her grasp.

“But what about Takeshi?” He asked. To witnesses, the tremble in his voice could be mistaken for coyness.

Yuuko smiled. “I’m sure he’ll understand.”

In truth, her marriage to Takeshi would likely continue with minimal interruption—wife and husband in all ways except name. Yuuri bit his lip as she helped him stand. He didn’t have to fake the wobble of his ankles, or the reliance on her soft touch. “Then….” he muttered, voice breathy, eyes flitting away. “I suppose it’s something to consider.”

And there was his answer, as feather-light and tastefully coquettish as Yuuri could manage it. He felt nauseated and cowardly, yet he didn’t know what else to do.

Rumors of their impending betrothal would swallow the entire palace by morning light.

[-]

Okukawa Minako was in a terrible mood.

The first three layers of her kimono were drenched in her sweat. Her headdress, a heavy piece crafted of steel enrobed with gold, was leaving a crick in her neck. Worst of all, she had nearly witnessed the destruction of her most brilliant student—all for the sake of a stupid bet. 

The Tenko and her Council had already taken to drink, as though driving Yuuri to such extremes were something to celebrate. For them, it was: the Kiyevsky party had been reduced to blubbering messes, along with all the attending common-fox courtiers; there had even been some known Zhongwen and Siljin spies among them. That Minako had pieced Yuuri back together was irrelevant—no witnesses in the great room would remember, know, or care about the significance of his collapse. 

In full view of the world, the robust power of the Tenko and her family was resoundingly reaffirmed.

“Okukawa,” a man called out. Minako turned her head. He was Nishigori Toranosuke, the Tenko’s only sibling and right-hand man, as well as Nishigori Yuuko’s grandfather. “You seem lost in thought. Had too much already?”

Minako frowned. She drank just as much as her companions on the Council, yet kept sober; no one in court could surpass her drinking abilities. “Of course not,” she replied. “The sake isn’t to my taste tonight.”

“Minako acts responsibly,” the Tenko said, a serene, satisfied smile still plastered onto her wrinkled face. You old dog, Minako thought bitterly. Would you have let my Yuuri vanish, had I not gone to him? For your pride? For the drama of it all? “We mustn’t lose what advantage we have, before that prince comes to us.”

Toranosuke looked chastised, then angry, as though Minako had personally humiliated him. But that wasn’t her concern. She turned her head again, headdress tinkling as she looked ahead at the screens in front of them. The Council sat in a row, four on each side of an elevated pedestal; the Tenko sat in the middle, atop an even higher platform. As the head of a clan, one of those spots rightfully belonged to Katsuki Hiroko—Minako thought so often, and missed her friend’s calming presence just as much—but Hiroko had declined to pursue it. Although it hadn’t been her intention, Hiroko probably held more influence by keeping away from court; the people of Hasetsu loved her dearly.

The woven orange-beige screens splitting the room allowed some impressions and shadows to pass through. Over the heads of bowing servants and their lacquer trays full of sake and food, Minako could make out the magnificent painting of a crane in full flight on the back wall. They might even be able to see the lantern-lit shine of the Kiyevksy prince’s off-white hair, once he arrived.

A blindfolded Corvus—a small, quiet woman; Minako recognized her as a longtime servant of the Tenko—entered the room and maneuvered around the pedestal, her movements slow yet accurate from memory. She came to a stop over the Tenko’s shoulder, next to the edge of her higher platform. “Your Majesty,” she muttered; there was a slight, croaking tremble in her voice, appropriately deferential. “Viktor of Kiyev and his Corvus have arrived. They await your permission.”

“Ah,” the Tenko said, slow and relaxed. “Once we are finished with our sake, you may allow them in.”

Who knows how long that would take, the Tenko and her Council sipping slowly just for the fun of it. A servant even poured them all fresh cups. Minako resisted rolling her eyes at the stunt; waiting any longer would more likely allow Viktor to regain his wits than shake his composure.

Minako allowed herself to stare off at nothing for many minutes—she had no desire to celebrate or chat with the rest—until she overheard a name she held dear. “Katsuki Yuuri’s performance was indeed satisfactory,” said Toranosuke. High praise; he barely ever acknowledged the existence of other nine-tailed men, let alone remarked on their abilities.

“Yes,” the Tenko said. She huffed a laugh over her cup. “But then again, he was taught by Minako. Perhaps we should not have underestimated him.”

The mention of her own name offered an easy entrance to the conversation. “Yuuri is extremely talented,” Minako said, voice level and pace measured. “But, as his teacher, I would never allow him to repeat the reckless efforts of tonight. One time was more than adequate.”

“Oh, come now, Okukawa,” Toranosuke replied, frowning. “How much more can you spoil the boy? He lives, doesn’t he?” The Corvus near the platform whispered again, and the Tenko’s brother smiled. “In fact, he is already awake. He will come to properly greet and drink with us once he is dressed.”

Drink? What idiocy. Minako would see if she could steal Yuuri’s pours; she doubted he would be coherent after even two cupfuls. 

“See, Minako? You underestimate him still,” said the Tenko smugly. “Your pupil is no longer a child.”

Did I do good, Minako-sensei? The voice of Yuuri as a boy, his dark eyes glimmering and his smile radiant, was immortalized in Minako’s mind. She had never borne children—so many nine-tailed women could not—but that hadn’t mattered, not when she had students to carry on her legacy, who instilled their trust and admiration in her. She would do what it took to keep Yuuri safe, near, and protected, even when Hiroko could not.

“He’s not a child, yet has sired none,” Toranosuke said. Minako caught the edge of spite in his voice. “Tenko-Haika, how much longer can you possibly tolerate it?”

“You act as though Yuuri has not caught the right eyes already,” Minako snapped back. “Everyone will want him now. It’s only a matter of allowing his mother and sister to choose the right match.”

“Everyone wanted him already,” the Tenko drawled. “How many times have you sat right there, upon the Council’s pedestal, and listened to some poor souls begging for his hand?”

“Too many times,” Minako admitted. “And it was improper in each instance. They should have sought Hiroko’s permission.”

“You’re right, of course. Which is why I denied them every time,” the Tenko replied. She hummed. “But a sad state of affairs, wouldn’t you say—that prospective wives and their families would approach the Tenko rather than Yuuri’s own mother, thinking they’ll have better chances.”

Minako said nothing to that. It did reflect poorly on the Katsuki clan, for them to covet Yuuri so closely. It had been well over a year now since his last match.

Toranosuke clicked his tongue impatiently. “He is our kin, no matter how distant. Of course he is wanted. Yet here we are, and there he is, without a wife or any Katsuki heirs to speak of. At this pace, the clan will go extinct.”

“Then what do you propose?” Minako asked, reining in her frustration poorly. “You know Katsuki Hiroko will never accept the idea of month-marriages.”

“Even if it means her name will perish?” Toranosuke asked.

“Even then,” Minako said. She tipped back her cup, swallowing all the sake in one go. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Tenko said. She took another slow, easy sip. “The Katsuki line will not end. I will not allow it. And even month-marriages may prove another waste of time.”

Both Minako and Toranosuke stared at the Tenko for a few moments, cups in hand. Their sake cups were beautifully glazed, the color of the sea; streaks of gold blazed across their exteriors and shimmered like sunlight among the waves. But the Tenko said nothing more, allowing the silence and her relaxation to fill in the rest.

Nishigori Toranosuke was the first to catch on. No wonder: he was her confidante, the one who had been steadfast at her side when the Tenko had emerged victorious from the civil wars of her girlhood. He was the one who had feverishly taken wife after wife—many matches lasting all of one night, trysts not even lengthy enough to be considered month-marriages—and repopulated the decimated Nishigori clan single-handedly, all while his sister finished off their rivals and cemented her new reign. 

Minako’s jaw dropped, along with her stomach. “Tenko-Haika, you can’t mean—”

“Don’t work yourself into a frenzy. It would not be torturous.” 

“The Katsuki clan is not in such a dire position,” Minako insisted. “Katsuki Mari is still young enough, and her most recent marriage has been agreeable.”

“You allow your affections to get the best of you. Yet again.” The Tenko’s voice hardened, imparting a crawling sense of foreboding beneath Minako’s skin. “The one benefit of Katsuki Yuuri’s sex is that he can take multiple wives at once. He would only do so for however long it took for a first round of pregnancies, perhaps five or six; then, once he has performed adequately, and they have come to term, we may see how many are proper Katsuki children, and act from there.”

The sake threatened to crawl its way back up Minako’s throat. The idea of Yuuri, soft-spoken, shy, and gentle, hoisted upon a new woman—a new stranger—every night until he had performed adequately, creating who knows how many pregnancies would satisfy, made Minako want to scream until her voice went hoarse. 

“Tenko-Haika,” Minako said slowly, rasping, “I do not exaggerate when I say this: Yuuri would not survive.”

Toranosuke rolled his eyes; scoffed.

Minako ignored him. “He doesn’t have the mental strength. Please, Tenko-Haika; you know how he is.”

“By now, we have all seen the kind of willpower Katsuki Yuuri has,” the Tenko said patiently. “After tonight’s performance, do you really mean to convince me that Yuuri is not strong? That he cannot do what must be done?”

You don’t even care about the Katsukis, Minako wanted to scream. You see Hiroko as a thorn in your side. So why not let them languish?

“My Yuuko has borne three healthy girls,” the Tenko continued. “Perhaps one of them would take a liking to a Katsuki husband. It’s about time for our clans to join again.”

Of course, Minako thought. Disgust and resignation settled over her like a smothering blanket. You only care about breeding stock.

“If you wish for the clans to join again,” Minako said quietly, head held high, “why wait for the next generation?”

The Tenko tilted her head, considering.

Before she could respond, the door behind their backs slid open. 

“Your Majesty. Your Holinesses,” an attendant called out, his eyes gracefully shut. Minako noted the way his nostrils flared, as though trying to sneak even a sniff of royalty; it still shocked her sometimes, seeing the lengths to which loyalists would go. “His Grace, pride of Ouyashima, beloved nadeshiko: Katsuki Yuuri.”

Well. That was… a more ornate introduction than usual. Word of Yuuri’s glimmering success must already run rampant.

When Yuuri entered the room, he even had the gall to look perfect.

All of Minako’s lessons were observed: his kimono train and sleeves were flawlessly worn and maneuvered; his head was kept high, yet his gaze fluttered low as he shifted to face the Council. His hand did not even shake as he lifted one pale, green-pink-blush-silver sleeve to obscure his red-painted mouth. His post-performance ensemble was a tasteful homage to the earliest spring blossoms, including a veil perched above his head, held aloft by a delicate web of silver branches. The dressers had even had the wherewithal to comb his hair with the subtlest of petal-perfumed oils.

Nadeshiko, indeed. 

Yuuri walked in silence to bow before the Council’s pedestal, feet gliding before a smoothly swept train. While they watched him move, form held in unbroken elegance, the Tenko sent Minako an obnoxious smirk. “I’ll give you one concession,” she said, light and mocking. “Yuuri is always so distressed to learn more than he already knows.”

With that, the Tenko ended the entire conversation—allowing herself to bask in the full regard of Yuuri’s practiced bow.

Minako ground her teeth so harshly it may well have been audible. Every so often, she forgot how petty the Tenko could be. Yuuri had been plenty close enough to hear that last comment, and would probably ask for clarification—a problem, Minako thought, that must be set aside for later. 

Even before she spoke to Yuuri or Mari, she had to send swift word to Hiroko.

When Yuuri bowed, forehead to the floor, so did every common-fox in the room; none could hold themself above him. The Tenko left them all in that position for well over a minute, just enjoying her sake and slowly sipping.

“Oh,” she finally said, as though remembering he was there. “Do sit up, Yuuri. You must drink with us.”

Yuuri rose up, one sleeve dancing up to shield his lips and chin. “Thank you, Obaa-sama.”

The Tenko smiled. “You must be quite proud of yourself.”

Yuuri’s poise was so ironclad that Minako thought he must be half-asleep. “I only seek to honor your court, Obaa-sama,” he said. A spark came to his eye. “And keep my word.”

For a flash, the Tenko seemed shocked. Then she laughed—a more booming, delighted laugh than Minako had ever heard from her mouth. “Indeed! And so you did. Come, come; sit by Minako. She does adore you. We’ll drink to your success.”

Yuuri floated closer to Minako, settling between her and Toranosuke’s knees at the Tenko’s right side. As he moved, not a hair falling out of place—at least try to look a little more feeble! Minako wanted to yell—the bundle hidden beneath his train seemed stiff, his tails not nearly as graceful and fluid as he could normally bend them. The dressers must have fitted him for prosthetics; after all the kitsunebi he’d conjured that night, maintaining a half-form would be too taxing.

A servant brought more sake, pouring a cup for Yuuri. Then they all—the Tenko, Yuuri, and every member of the Council—lifted their cups. The Tenko drank first, then the rest, in swift order of age.

Yuuri swallowed his sake last, then shut his eyes. He was motionless and expressionless for a full three seconds before he could exhale and resume any semblance of normalcy. 

“Shall we have one more cup?” Toranosuke asked cheerfully—noticing Yuuri’s reaction to the alcohol and reveling in it. “Yuuri, you must have another—”

“Leave him alone,” Minako interrupted. 

“What do you mean?” The man asked, playing dumb. “He’s been invited to drink with the Council! It’s an honor. Wouldn’t you like another cup, Yuuri?”

Of course, Yuuri was unable to say anything but: “Thank you, Your Holiness.”

“No,” the Tenko said. “No more. Let us invite that foolish prince in.”

Taking that as their cue, most of the servants departed. For diplomatic proceedings, there would only be as many witnesses as needed—those who took records, translated, or strategized. 

Once the room had been mostly cleared, the door on the other side of the screens—that crane in full flight—slid open. 

He may be a military genius or an utter fool, but one thing was undeniable: Viktor Lilianov was beautiful.

Shocking blue—the kind in a tidepool’s shallows; the shade that sprawled, unending and unfathomable, above the depths of the sea—shined from the bear-prince’s eyes. His features were delicate, yet strong, and intolerably elegant: a cutting, level jawline; plush, full lips; the careless sweeps of his pale eyebrows. A dusting of pink sat atop a pale complexion. His nose and bone structure were high, prominent, and sharp. And while blond hair wasn’t so uncommon in the West, that shade must have been—a tint of silver to snowy white. 

Entering the meeting room, Viktor moved elegantly, yet immodestly, his chin high and his tidepool eyes locked straight ahead. His Kiyevsky clothing was striking, a bright crimson tailored well to his form and emblazoned with intricate golden embroidery. He even had no qualms looking directly at the screens, gaze scanning left and right; those eyes, ruthlessly bright, devoured the Council’s silhouettes like a wild creature stalking after shadows in the forest-night. 

A man like this, in the court of the Tenko, Minako thought, had better watch where he steps.

He made a quick face at the cushion set out for his comfort—the face of a man unaccustomed to sitting on floors. But Minako supposed that was the case for a lot of Westerners.

Finally, Viktor folded into a sloppy seiza, then smiled. Even his grin, to Minako, seemed maddeningly confident.

“Thank you, Your Majesty, Your Holinesses, for the warm welcome,” Viktor said in Zhongwen. He spoke rather suddenly, when technically he should not have; it was at the Tenko’s leisure to initiate such discussions. But his Zhongwen, for all its little mispronunciations, wasn’t too terrible. “I understand that my presence in your country was rushed. I apologize, and express my sincerest humility at your gracious hospitality.” 

Then the bear-prince bowed, his right arm rising while his chin lowered to his chest.

It may have been a gesture appropriate in Kiyev—but a proper Ouyashiman bow it was not.

The Council was struck into silence. Minako gave it fifty-fifty chances that the Tenko would end things right there. The Corvus at Viktor’s side looked positively horrified, with green eyes like saucers; even Yuuri, perched near Minako’s knee, kept eerily still.

Of all the outcomes for Viktor’s boldness, what Minako did not expect was for the Tenko to respond in kind.

“Tell me, Viktor of Kiyev,” she said, her Zhongwen perfect, “if you can string the words together. Why have I not tossed you back onto your ship already?”

Viktor hummed, one finger tapping upon his pink lips. That smile seemed ever-present. “At first, I thought it was curiosity,” he said, easily speaking to the Tenko as though she were a peer. “Or maybe it was fear. But that seemed less likely, since Ouyashima is a nation of islands, and Medvedya aren’t the best swimmers.” He took a beat, then chuckled. “Well. Except for the ones like me.”

At this point, Minako was just waiting for the Tenko to throw him out. No one had spoken to her with such callousness since perhaps the civil wars, and she had won those. What in hell was she waiting for?

“And then there’s the consideration of Zhongwo’s continued growth,” Viktor went on. The Corvus at his side appeared ready to shift into second form and just fly off for good. “As Your Majesty knows, they finally control the entire Siljian Peninsula. If they go any further north, they’ll be in the newest extent of the Kiyevsky empire; and if they stretch any further east, they’ll cross Ouyashiman waters. So we do share something of a common threat.”

Without moving her head, Minako snuck a glance at the Tenko. She appeared as unruffled and stony as ever—but still, she did not speak.

“But, after tonight,” Viktor said—and some element of his smile went soft. “After… Katsuki Yuuri. I know that the rumors are true. Ouyashima has magic-wielders of equivalent strength to the white foxes of legend, or the dragons of Zhongwo.” Viktor raised one hand loosely, palm up. “So it follows, then, that Your Majesty must be one of them—and if pyromancy is indeed your greatest power, as the rumors say, then maybe you saw a future that troubled you. One you’re trying to avoid.”

Silence descended again.

No one moved, still as stone. Except… something about Yuuri’s demeanor seemed off. Was he even breathing? 

Minako leaned forward slightly, sneaking a glimpse at her pupil’s face. His dressers deserved a scolding, if not an outright dismissal: Yuuri’s cheeks were alight with a blush, a glowing pink that was unsmothered by his white makeup. Even his mouth was agape, eyes wide and shining a suspicious shade of amber. 

Minako bristled with anger. The little idiot was using his fox-eyes to get a better look, when he could barely stay awake, let alone maintain a half-form!

Yuuri,” she breathed, tone sharp yet quiet enough to be all but imperceptible. Through the screens, the bear-prince’s head tilted oddly, as though maneuvering his ears to hone in on the sound; Minako frowned and wondered, in some mix of awe and horror: could he have possibly heard that?

Yuuri didn’t react. Either he hadn’t heard, or didn’t want to acknowledge. 

Minako pinched him—making Yuuri flinch with a gasp.

The bear-prince’s gaze snapped to the noise instantly.

“You’re finished?” The Tenko finally said, unimpressed. Minako should have known she wasn’t the type to be goaded easily into a fury, especially by those so much younger than herself. 

While the question was obviously rhetorical, Viktor’s eyes slid away from Yuuri and back towards her silhouette with all the intensity of a man possessed.

“I have been looking to marry.”

One quiet, slow moment passed—then the meeting room was ablaze in an unbroken, churning mass of blue-yellow fire.

Minako shuddered as the energy swept the room, beating against her skin and emanating rage in every direction. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Yuuri clap a trembling hand over his mouth, smothering a cry. Viktor remained seated, barely seeming to flinch; the only movement he had the chance to make was reaching one hand out, grasping the Corvus’s shoulder and holding him still—as though keeping the winged man from either fleeing or foolishly coming closer.

Although those tidepool eyes remained open, unblinking, and piercing, Minako saw the beads of sweat dotting Viktor’s forehead and glimmering in the light.

“You have entered my country without invitation,” the Tenko said. As she rose to a stand, the fox-fire roiled around them, filling the room to the brim. “You speak arrogantly to my Council, even though you have only managed, through brute force, to amass wide swaths of land that barely anyone lives in and no one wants—an empire which will fall apart mere moments after your gruesome death on some filthy, reeking battlefield. And now, you dare speak of marriage.”

It was the most idiotic thing Viktor could have possibly said. No foreigner had ever received a nine-tailed bride.

“The Kiyevsky empire could come to its end right here,” the Tenko continued, “if I didn’t find it so revolting to consume the soul of a beast.” 

Like a dense fog skittering over a placid sea, her fox-fire began to slowly, turbulently slither home. 

“You may take my mercy with you, when your ship departs in the morning.” 

With that, Tenko turned, ready to step from her pedestal. 

Viktor and his Corvus sat in immobile silence, the prince still clenching the man’s shoulder. After another moment, the Corvus lifted one hand and placed it over Viktor’s. Wordlessly, he bowed his head and touched his forehead to Viktor’s arm, as though in thanks.

At Minako’s knee, Yuuri watched the exchange—both his trembling, white-knuckled hands twisting harshly into the silk of his kimono.

Something was wrong. The Tenko’s kitsunebi had stirred a disquiet in Minako’s mind, like gold-blue ants scuttling all over her skin. This was wrong. The Tenko was leaving, Viktor was accepting, Yuuri was shaking, and this was wrong.

Minako shut her eyes. Under her lids, her fox-eyes blazed, taking anchor in the fire rushing through her own veins. She counted her breaths and calmed her mind. For decades now, she had been honing and practicing the prophetic instincts inherent to each kyuubinokitsune. She would allow the feelings to come and present as they wished, fully accepting of all.

Minako opened her eyes.

The meeting room was saturated with amber-gold. Flecks of blue dotted here and there, illuminating the peaceful, alabaster face of Viktor Lilianov. Atop the Council’s pedestal, a line of nine-tailed foxes stared or snarled or yipped at him in unison, barking creatures without coherence or thought. But the prince’s face was undisturbed. 

Once he grew tired of the noise, he stood and walked out. He left the door wide open.

A loud, hissing, heavy sound—the slide of scales upon tatami—grew louder and louder as the prince’s footsteps faded.

A dragon’s claw crunched onto the edge of the open threshold.

“—Minako-sensei?” Yuuri prompted, shaky hand landing upon her knee. “Are you all right?”

She looked at her pupil, fox-eyes fleeing and head tilting downwards. She lifted his chin with clammy fingers. “Go back to the Katsuki quarters,” she said. There must have been an alarming weight to her voice, because Yuuri’s eyes widened. “Don’t speak to anyone. Refuse all audiences. Only leave those rooms when your mother calls for you.”

Yuuri frowned in confusion. “My mother…?”

“Do as I say,” Minako snapped. She jolted to a stand.

She had to find the Tenko before it was too late.

[-]

Yuuri fell to his knees with a whump.

He had to try and sleep. He was beyond exhausted. But that meant calling for the dressers again, and having his hair combed and fussed with, and letting them skitter their impartial fingertips over all the areas of his body already covered by seven layers of fabric. 

So instead, Yuuri simply sat. 

He stared outside the open veranda, taking in the quiet noises of night: the crickets, the trickle of running water, and the wind through the new leaves. The moonlight set it all in a silvery glow—a hue not unlike a certain someone’s shade of hair.

Viktor Nikiforov. 

Viktor Lilianov. 

Viktor of Kiyev.

Oh, gods—Viktor had said his name.

Yuuri buried his face in his hands, muffling a scream. He couldn’t believe it! And it even seemed like Viktor had looked right at him, right through the barricade of two woven screens. Had he known Yuuri was there? How could he have possibly known?

But Yuuri knew that was stupid. Why would Viktor look, even if he could?

A deep laugh tinkled down the hallway. Maybe it was Minami, or just the noise from some servants shuffling about. Or Yuuri supposed it could be Mari's husband; gods knew that Yuuri didn’t see enough of that man to recognize his voice straight away. Besides, it was difficult for Yuuri to pay attention to anything but his racing thoughts, replaying over and over again what Viktor had said to the Council.

Viktor was so confident. Absolutely fearless. How was he so confident? Except, that was a stupid question, because he was Viktor, and he went where he wished when he pleased and said what he wanted to whomever. 

But then Yuuri remembered the rush of fox-fire—the moment he had nearly wailed, seeing Viktor encompassed in kitsunebi bolstered high with rage. Terror and jealousy had warred in his chest at the sight: the knowledge of what the Tenko could have done to him, and the idea that her fox-fire, not his, lapped at the very edges of that man’s soul. 

Yuuri blinked. What was he even thinking? Ridiculous. Exhaustion was making him silly.

More laughter emanated nearby, perhaps from the direction of Mari’s rooms. Yuuri stood up, waddling over to the open door. He stuck his head out and looked down the hallway.

He nearly screamed to see a small face grinning in the dark.

“Your Grace!” Minami chirped. Yuuri pressed a hand to his galloping chest. “I was about to call for you!”

“Minami,” he wheezed. That had woken him right up. “What is it?”

“Your sister asked for you.”

Yuuri took a moment to regain his breath. “N-Now? Can’t it—will it wait until tomorrow?”

“Nope!” Minami replied, cheery as ever. 

Yuuri finally gathered enough air to sigh. “All right,” he said, only a little wearily. “Lead on.”

The young Corvus skipped down the hallway, far too much energy in his steps for how late the hour was. Yuuri thought that it must be well past midnight. But if Mari said it couldn’t wait, then Yuuri had to believe her.

As they approached the threshold to Mari’s rooms, a warm light leaked from the open doorway. Yuuri could hear the clear sound of laughter, much of it deep and rich; every so often, the high clink of cups would burst above the melody of voices. 

Minami entered the room first, sing-song tone rising loud over the rest. “Your Grace, I’m back! I did as you asked!”

“Oh, Kenjirou!” A stranger said. Yuuri could hear the smile on his face.

Yuuri curled his fingertips onto the edge of the door as he turned into the threshold, elegantly maneuvering his sleeves out of habit. His head was heavy with the headdress and pinned veil; but he kept his face high, keen to see what kind of late-night mischief had his sister dragging him from his room.

At a low table packed high with snacks, games, and sake, there was what seemed to be the entire Kiyevsky party: the little prince Yuri, the green-eyed Corvus, a few strangers Yuuri had never seen, and—

Viktor.

For a split-second, their eyes met.

Yuuri all but yelped as he leapt right back out the door. 

In the darkness of the hallway, Yuuri scrambled a few steps away, then slid to the floor. He clutched his chest with both hands, frantically willing that thudding to just shut up already. He wasn’t ready. He hadn’t—prepared his heart. For this sort of thing. Oh no, oh no, if he went in there, and Viktor looked at him again, Yuuri really thought he might die. 

“Oh,” a soft, masculine voice said.

And—oh, no.

Viktor gazed down at him, one hand curled gently onto the edge of the doorway. 

Chapter Text

As Minako approached the Tenko’s quarters, the tiny Corvus—the one loyal only to the Tenko, who kept close to her mistress’s side—bowed deeply and blocked the door. 

“I am deeply sorry, Your Holiness, but Her Majesty wishes to take no visitors.”

“Move,” Minako said, threading fire and imperality into the single word. 

The Corvus scuttled out of the way.

Minako entered by her own hand, not bothering to wait for someone to open the door. She glided through the antechamber and towards the Tenko’s inner rooms. Within, a team of experienced, blind dressers was carefully peeling away the Tenko’s twelve layers of white-and-red kimono. None of them acknowledged Minako; they would not turn away from the Tenko, even to greet a Councilmember.

Before Minako could enter the room, a door of blue flame burst into her path.

“If this interruption is inconsequential,” the Tenko said slowly, her back to the doorway, “your seat on the Council will go to a dog.”

Minako did not flinch at the sudden burst of the Tenko’s kitsunebi. Her presence was justified. But instead of explaining herself, Minako only lifted one hand, hovering her open palm inches from the blue wall of flame; a robust red kitsunebi manifested atop her fingers.

“See for yourself, Tenko-Haika,” Minako said. She eased the red flame forward. The moment it came into contact with the Tenko’s kitsunebi, it was devoured—Minako’s prophecy, all its emotions and foreboding, offered freely for the Tenko’s absorption.

A few moments of quiet passed, the Tenko’s dressers working without pause.

Urgency made Minako speak first. “We dismiss the bear-prince at our own peril."

The Tenko’s kitsunebi died down gradually. When she replied, her voice was impassive, and Minako still could not see her face. “I have known these risks all along. Your portent changes very little.”

“I disagree,” Minako said. She stepped into the room, the doorway clear. “We know now, with certainty, what will happen if the Kiyevsky party is sent away tomorrow. It is too swift a dismissal.”

“I will not tolerate his insolence,” the Tenko said, a scoff barely hidden under her breath.

“And you should not,” Minako replied. “But you and I both know, Tenko-Haika, that a man like that—a conqueror and warrior as young and successful as Viktor of Kiyev—is merely testing the boundaries of what he can get away with.”

“No. He is not only testing us. It is something far more foolish than that. He believes himself our peer, a leader of equivalent strength on the world stage.” The Tenko really did scoff then. “What a child.”

“I caution Your Majesty to underestimate him.”

“There is not much to underestimate. His leadership is largely untested.”

Minako resisted rolling her eyes. “That hardly matters. He is not yet emperor.”

The Tenko glanced over her shoulder, giving Minako a slight glare. Her mood was still sour—a risky blend of enraged and tired—but she was listening. “Minako,” she drawled, her exhaustion bleeding into her tone, “please let us get to the point. I am an old woman. I wish to rest.”

Minako exhaled deeply. What she said next had little proof. She needed to make it as brief and feasible as she could.

“Viktor is not yet emperor,” she repeated. “But the fact remains that he has successfully led and amassed an army, one that marched with him all the way to the eastern shore. We do not know their precise locations and orders—”

“We do,” the Tenko interrupted. “They are bears. They’ll summer at the river-mouths for the duration of the salmon run. Come now, Minako; how do you think Viktor lured so many of them away from home?”

“—and Viktor has done an excellent job of distracting us,” Minako continued, plowing ahead, “by letting us think that Kiyev’s only, single-minded ambition is to woo our nation into friendship. But do we really think that Empress Lilia will risk a costly and time-consuming war with Zhongwo? When neither empire is actually interested in the other’s territories? I doubt it. Rather, I believe Viktor is here, testing the waters of our allyship—”

“And another Kiyevsky party is making its way to Zhongwo,” the Tenko said, finishing Minako’s trail of thought. “That would be sensible, on Lilia’s part. And we have not yet heard from our spies in the Zhongwen court….”

“Because it is too soon,” Minako replied. “As I said before. We need more time, Tenko-Haika, to discover the full truth and plan accordingly.”

The Tenko hummed. “But the fact still remains, Minako, that I do not wish to indulge this bear-prince’s impudence. And there is no consensus on whether or not we need this allyship at all. Ouyashima has always been able to flourish, with friends or without.”

“Then waste his time,” Minako said with a shrug. “Waste his, as he has wasted ours. He sees now how powerful we are; my Yuuri has made sure of that. Even if we do not become allies, Kiyev does not wish to make enemies of us. So as we work towards a better plan, we can allow Viktor to stay, and accept his audiences only when it pleases us.”

Again, the Tenko hummed in consideration. After a few moments, she waved a single hand over her shoulder.

“Leave now,” she ordered. “I am tired. You have said your piece. Let me rest, and think.”

Minako bowed. “As you wish it, Tenko-Haika.”

Just as she’d let herself in, Minako let herself out—walking into the darkened hallways of the palace with a new sense of calm determination.

[-]

The night carried with it layers. 

In Mari’s room, there was the Kiyevsky party, laughing and drinking in warm orange lamplight. Outside the Katsuki quarters, the crickets and garden emanated their soft songs. Beyond the palace walls, in the city of Chouwa-Kyou, there was light, energy, buzzing and bustling even in the deepest rungs of night.

Here, now, in this shadowed hallway, there was Yuuri: powerful yet powerless, head heavy with ornament, and staring, dumbfounded, at the jade-blue shine of Viktor’s eyes.

“Oh,” Viktor said. 

To Yuuri’s fatigued and silly mind, it sounded almost breathless. But Yuuri couldn’t say a word—a little mouse huddling on the floor in the dark. 

Viktor broke their stares, glancing down at the position of Yuuri’s body. “Are you all right?”

Yuuri didn’t know about that. But ah, this voice… Yuuri had always imagined it this way, smooth and lyrical, the Zhongwen tinted with that strange and charming Kiyevsky accent. He would like to hear it again, as soon as possible. For as long as he could.

Viktor obliged, stepping closer as he said: “Here. Let me.”

Now he was in front of Yuuri. Leaning down. His hands were callused yet smooth as they slid from Yuuri’s fabric-covered wrists to his bare hands, grasping Yuuri’s shaky fingers with the gentlest of touches—the skin of a lifelong warrior, worn and cut and healed countless times over. That gentle touch was plenty firm enough to guide Yuuri upright, a whisper of silk following the motion.

As they rose from the floor, Yuuri gasped to feel Viktor’s broad thumbs caress his knuckles. 

“Yuuri,” Viktor whispered, voice melodious, framing his name like a prayer. He smiled, quiet and soft, his lips like the curl of a young fern. “I must admit… I was hoping I would see you tonight.”

A buzzing began to rattle through Yuuri’s skull. His face was in flames. Viktor had said his given name. And something else. What had Viktor just said to him? 

“Of course, I had heard the stories. That Katsuki Yuuri was beautiful.” As Viktor eased closer, his breath was warm and sweet, like fine sake, and just as intoxicating. “But the truth is so much more than that.”

One thumb swept over Yuuri’s knuckles again, unbearably gentle. Another hand rose towards Yuuri’s face, curled fingers grazing and stroking the soft skin beneath his chin.

Yuuri blinked. His jaw dropped. What?

“Yuuri,” that silken voice rumbled. “I want—”

Yuuri shoved away from Viktor with inhuman speed.

At the push, Viktor flinched, then froze. Even as Yuuri scrambled back, tripping over his kimono train and the bundle of fake tails beneath—landing on his butt with a whump—Viktor only stared, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. 

Yuuri’s wide gaze fell to the floorboards. His heartbeat thumped, deafening, throughout his entire body. His kimono train was all tangled up and whirled about his feet. His makeup must be smudged and wearing away. His face was visible , his forehead crinkled, eyes bugged out, jaw clenched, cheeks chubby, inelegant, improper, ugly, messy, ugly

“Yuuri?” Viktor called out softly. “Why are you….”

But Viktor trailed off as he watched Yuuri’s face crumple.

Abruptly, Yuuri stood. Smoothed out his sloppy silhouette. With jerky steps, he went to the door opposite his sister’s—the nearest vacant room—and rushed inside, slamming the door behind him with a resounding fwap.

“Yuuri?” Viktor said again, gently, carefully—as though he knew Yuuri, and felt something for him, but that was stupid, stupid, stupid— “What’s the matter?”

Yuuri pressed both hands over his mouth, smothering any noise.

“Did I… have I said something wrong?” Viktor asked through the door.

Yuuri slid to the ground. His eyes stung. His face burned. He wondered, oddly distant, if some of the heat under his palm wasn’t just his flush, but from Viktor’s fingertips.

Perhaps Viktor stood at the door for a long while. Or didn’t. Yuuri wasn’t really sure. After a minute or so on the ground, Yuuri became only aware of his own roaring heartbeat, the tears gathering in his eyes, and the lump lodged in his throat. He didn’t want to know what happened beyond this room; he didn’t want to think of what had just transpired, in the fits of his shyness and terror and adoration.

“Yuuri,” a voice called out. 

It was his sister, easily cutting through the frantic, buzzing silence of Yuuri’s brain. 

“Open the door.”

With rickety motions, Yuuri shifted his weight onto his knees. He slid the door open with one open palm, fingers spread wide against the fusuma paper. The rustle of silk; the weight of socked-feet against the tatami—and then Mari stood at Yuuri’s front, her face bare and her hair hanging loose and long.

“What’s wrong,” she asked. No emotion inflected her voice, as though she had expected this and couldn’t be bothered to work up the concern.

Her bland demeanor sent anger lancing through Yuuri’s mortification. “How could you do this to me?”

His sister’s eyes darkened. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Why didn’t you—” Yuuri huffed; bit down his words. “Can they—the Kiyevsky party. Can they hear us?”

“I imagine so,” Mari replied. “But they can’t understand Ouyashiman. Only the Corvus can, and he’s too far.”

“Fine,” Yuuri said. “Then tell me: why didn’t you warn me?”

“Warn you,” Mari repeated. “Why should I?”

Because,” Yuuri bit out. His face flushed again; he couldn’t quite hold his sister’s gaze. “Vik—the prince, the one you know that I—he’s.”

Mari raised one eyebrow.

Yuuri curled in on himself a little more. “I could have… used a warning. That he would be here.”

“He’s a man, Yuuri,” Mari said dryly. “Not a god. Or a monster, or an epic hero.”

“I know that,” Yuuri mumbled.

“Do you?” Mari asked, head tilting. When Yuuri said nothing, she sighed. “I see that you’re upset. I’m sorry about that. But I hope you know, if I had sent Minami to you, and he’d explained things, you wouldn’t have come at all, and you would be even more upset with yourself.”

“I’m—I’m not,” Yuuri lied. “I’m not upset with myself.”

“Mm. Then you’re upset with me. I can live with that.”

Despite himself, Yuuri cracked a watery smile. But then he remembered how he’d acted in the hallway, with Viktor watching… 

He hid his burning face against his knees. “I’m so embarrassed,” Yuuri mumbled. “I made a fool of myself, Mari. I don’t think I can look at him again.”

“Raise your head.”

Yuuri obeyed without thinking. The moment he looked upwards, Mari rubbed a handkerchief under his eyes, picking up errant makeup and smudges; she folded the cloth to blot at his forehead and cheeks.

“Oi—” Yuuri whined, “stop it—Mari, I’m not a child anymore!”

“Sure, sure. Stand up.”

Yuuri sighed, but complied. 

She fixed his silhouette, tugging and straightening his kimono and train. Yuuri held still for her, only making one little breathy noise of exasperation. He couldn’t deny that he was a bit of a mess. 

Once Yuuri appeared suitable again, Mari reached a hand up to unpin the veil from his headpiece—the gossamer cloth from its silvery branches. “Try not to worry so much,” she said, pulling the veil down and coaxing out any unsightly folds. “What did he even do to you? Was it so horrible?”

“He—” Yuuri paused, blushed; tried to settle himself. “He held my hands.”

“Oh, my,” Mari said, dead-toned. “What a philanderer.”

Yuuri snorted. “Don’t make fun. It shocked me.”

But Yuuri supposed that that was a point: Viktor of Kiyev, in the stories, was always a bit of a flirt. Philanderer may be just the right term for him.

“All right,” Mari said, stepping back to look at her handiwork. “Now you don’t need to look at him again. Or anybody. Your face is perfectly covered.”

Yuuri gulped. “Mari….”

“Come on. Let’s go.”

“Mari, wait.” Even as Yuuri fussed, he followed her into the hallway. “I don’t know—”

“You’re shy,” Mari interrupted, patting her brother’s arm. “And proper. That’s all.”

Her words, her explanation, were delivered so plainly that it must have been for the Corvus to overhear—because Yuuri had, unthinkingly, followed his sister’s boldly forged path all the way into the party room.

Yuuri saw Viktor sitting at the table and despaired all over again.

“Bears and bird,” Mari said, switching to Zhongwen. “Meet my little brother, Katsuki Yuuri.”

For a long moment, the entire Kiyevsky party kept still as the grave. Yuuri’s attention was seized entirely by Viktor’s unblinking gaze. Although Yuuri tried, and stared, and stared some more, he couldn’t pin down the emotion gracing those pale features—was it interest? Boredom? Politeness? Disgust? Viktor’s head tilted slowly and his eyes narrowed as he seemed to study Yuuri in a charged silence. 

Then the moment passed, and Yuuri recalled his manners. He clasped his hands together at the front and bowed slightly. “It’s nice to meet you all.”

The sound of Yuuri’s voice seemed to break something in the Kiyevsky party: the Corvus leaned close to Viktor’s ear, whispering sly, teasing words in an odd language; Viktor shoved the Corvus away, as though shooing away a fly; the little prince Yuri asked loudly, “Why are you wearing that over your face?” before a red-haired woman kicked him, sending the blond boy snarling and sprawling onto the tatami—and Mari just chuckled, seeming to enjoy all the buzz and booze-filled action animating her rooms.

Yuuri wasn’t sure what to do. It was a lot of activity, pulled along by a bevy of strong personalities. He was only one man: decorated, soft-spoken, and timid in a bubble of ruckus. 

Mari settled back into a spot that must’ve been her seat before. Yuuri clenched his toes awkwardly.

“Your Grace,” the Corvus called out in Ouyashiman. He even waved a hand, beckoning Yuuri over; the motion was so unexpected that Yuuri didn’t respond at first. “Come sit here, please.”

The Corvus scooted over until the only vacant spot was between him and Viktor. Ah.

Only years of intensive training kept Yuuri’s form and poise intact. He eased into a sitting position with all the grace he could muster, sleeves and train and false tails in strict and harnessed control. Although part of it was automatic, much of it was spurred on by Viktor’s gaze— Look, look, I can be beautiful. I can be graceful. What you saw before wasn’t the real me.

Except it was. And now Yuuri was replaying it all again in his head. Vividly. The mortification sprung harsh and vicious into the forefront of his mind, almost drawing his attention away entirely as the Corvus spoke.

“My name is Christophe,” he said in Zhongwen, then winked. “But you can call me Chris.”

“Oh,” Yuuri muttered. Blinked. “I see.”  

Though Christophe was grinning at him, the Corvus also kept sending pleased glances off to the side—where Viktor sat, at Yuuri’s other side. Yuuri turned his head slightly. For a split-second, he saw a dark, icy glare gouged into Viktor’s pale features; it sent Yuuri tense, had him seizing a short gulp of air to compose himself.

As though he’d noticed Yuuri’s gaze—or his quiet gasp—Viktor looked at him, expression swiftly melting into a placid smile.

“I realize that I was… rude, before,” Viktor said. Yuuri was thankful for the veil as his cheeks lit aflame. “I didn’t properly introduce myself. I am Viktor Lilianov, Crown Prince of Kiyev.”

“Yes,” Yuuri mumbled. “I know.”

That placid smile wilted a bit—that was all right; it had seemed fake, empty at the edges—and Viktor’s head tilted, as though asking for detail.

“I mean,” Yuuri said hurriedly. “Well, that is—everyone knows who you are.” 

Viktor’s head tilted a little further.

Yuuri’s gut swooped. His mouth moved faster than his brain; he couldn’t halt the onrush as it poured forth. “I’ve heard all the stories about you. And your adventures. ‘Clever Viktor of Kiyev, brave-hearted and pale-haired’—”

“Ah, Your Grace is a fan?” The Corvus asked.

Yuuri shut his mouth. He couldn’t believe how much foolishness he’d already accomplished in one night.

The Corvus winked again. “Of me. A fan of me. Because those are my stories you’ve heard, and while I am dedicated to the truth, I am also quite accomplished in framing a narrative.”

Despite the veil over his face, Yuuri lifted a sleeve-covered hand to shield a chuckle. It was much easier to talk to this man; he didn’t inspire the same all-swallowing terror and giddiness that Viktor did. “Dedicated to truth? Your humility makes me wonder.”

“Ah, but that’s all according to plan,” Christophe said, waving a playful hand. “You may wonder all you like. I try to inspire a bit of mystery.”

He poured himself a cup of sake. Yuuri tsked. “No, no,” he said, chuckling under his breath. “Don’t pour for yourself, Corvus. Who taught you Ouyashiman manners?”

As Yuuri slid the sake out of Christophe’s grip, careful not to brush hands, both the Corvus and Viktor kept very, very still. It made Yuuri’s nerves coil again, though he tried to brush it off.

“Christophe,” the Corvus said belatedly. He watched intently as Yuuri adjusted to pour sake into Viktor’s cup.

“Hm?” Yuuri prompted.

“My name.”

“Oh,” Yuuri said, setting the sake back on the table gingerly. He considered, for a moment, asking Viktor to pour for him; the prospect seemed so insurmountably terrifying that Yuuri broke with propriety, turning away from Viktor entirely. “Now you, Corvus. Pour for me, please.”

“But Your Grace, I just told you,” the man whined, still playful. “It’s Christophe. Won’t you call me by my name?”

A half-smile curled up under Yuuri’s veil. “I’m not sure,” he said, watching Christophe pour the cup of sake. “Does that mean you’ll call me by mine?”

They both picked up their cups. After a beat, Viktor followed suit. Out of the corner of his eye, Yuuri noticed that the hand holding Viktor’s cup was clenched hard, the skin over his knuckles white and taut with pressure.

Maybe it was a bad idea for Yuuri to drink again. But it was too late to hesitate. And as he raised the sake to his lips, muttering “Kanpai,” Yuuri thought that the sake might help his head, filling it with tufted cotton so he needn’t remember the humiliations he’d undergone that night. 

As the cupful of alcohol trickled through his veins, turning his stomach warm and his bones buoyant, Yuuri thought that the drink had been a very good idea, actually. Before he could stop himself, he made a little noise of satisfaction at the feeling. The slight noise attracted Viktor’s gaze—though he hadn’t looked away, not really, the entire time that Yuuri had been in the same room. Those blue, breath-halting eyes flitted to where Yuuri’s throat was, then back up again, as though the man could see right through his veil. 

“Lovely,” he said, voice soft. Then, when he realized that Yuuri was staring at him: “The sake. It’s delicious.”

“Ah.” Yuuri turned to face forward, began fiddling with the ends of his sleeves—a childish habit Minako had mostly shamed him out of—and bit his lip. “Yes. It is. Mari has good taste.”

“Oh, your sister,” Christophe drawled. He was at least tipsy, if not drunk, though none of the Medvedya in the room seemed like they were; Yuuri wondered if it was a discrepancy of their races, or if the Corvus was simply a lush. “Your Grace, let me be honest with you, from one storyteller to another: your sister is frightening.”

“Mari?” Yuuri blinked; glanced at his sister across the way. “Is she?”

“Of course!” Christophe sprawled one hand out drastically, the sake visibly hitting him. “Not that I don’t admire it. Or that I didn’t anticipate it.” His tone went grandiose as he continued: “The powerful Katsuki clan, consisting of the sensible Katsuki Hiroko, her elegant son Yuuri, and the heiress Katsuki Mari, merciless  enforcer of Hasetsu—”

Chris,” Viktor hissed.

Mari’s voice cut from across the table: “Are you slandering me, Corvus? To my own brother?”

“Never, Your Grace! I wouldn’t dare subject such a bewitching, pure beauty to ugly words—”

Yuuri flinched as Viktor jolted to a stand. 

Without a word, Viktor took two long steps past Yuuri, grabbed Christophe by the fabric on his back, and yanked the Corvus up out of his seat. Yet even as he was hauled out of the room, Christophe’s spirits wouldn’t dim—obviously not afraid of Viktor or his wrath in the slightest. Stumbling in Viktor’s wake, he threw a hand over his own forehead and whined: “Oh no… now I’ll be scolded….” before they both were out in the hallway, the door sliding shut behind them.

It was difficult to ignore the harsh murmurings of an argument from the other side of that door. But Yuuri did his best.

“Hey.”

Yuuri wondered what they were talking about out there. They seemed so close. Christophe had been quite chatty and flamboyant, even teasing both Yuuri and Mari; Viktor was probably bothered by that. What exactly was their relationship? Yuuri wished, shamefully, that he could eavesdrop, but he doubted they were even speaking in a language he could understand.

Hey. You. Crybaby.”

Yuuri snapped out of his thoughts, turning towards the words.

“It is you under there, right?” Little Yuri asked sourly. His Zhongwen wasn’t very good; Yuuri had to fill in small gaps and errors in grammar and pronunciation, but he’d been learning the language since before he could remember, so it wasn’t too difficult to understand. “Why are you wearing that stupid thing on your head?”

A red-haired woman slid over, laughing tightly and throwing a heavy arm around the little prince’s shoulders. “Ah-ha, you’re so silly, Yura. I thought we’d talked about this.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense!” Yuri snapped. He shoved the woman’s arm off his shoulders. “His sister isn’t wearing anything over her face! So why—”

The red-haired woman stuffed some food in the boy’s mouth, then smiled. “I’m sorry he’s such a bother, Your Grace.”

“Oh. I don’t mind,” Yuuri replied. The sake was buzzing pleasantly through his brain; even his body felt light, a far cry from the heaviness and exhaustion he’d felt before. “I’m wearing a veil because, well….”

He grimaced. Blushed. Neither of his conversation partners alleviated the awkward silence, waiting for him to finish.

“.... It’s proper, I suppose? I’m not—it’s strange for me, you see, to have those outside my family see my face.”

Little Yuri swallowed the food. “So… it’s because you’re ugly.”

The red-haired woman slapped the boy upside the head. “I’m sure that’s not true, Your Grace.”

Yuuri sighed. Gazed at the sake on the table. Oh, to have someone pour him another cup…. “It sort of is,” he muttered, sighing again. “But that’s nice sometimes. To be ugly.”

Another quiet pause. Yuuri supposed it was difficult to respond to a statement like that.

“Then just be ugly,” Yuri finally said, shrugging. “Be ugly and have people see you. That’s better than hiding away in a dark corner like a coward your whole life.”

Yuuri’s brows lifted. He slid one hand beneath the veil, pressing a touch against his lips thoughtfully. 

“Your Grace?” The red-haired woman said, peering at Yuuri with her head cocked sideways.

Yuuri dropped his hand. “What is your name?”

“Mila,” she said. Her Zhongwen was fair—not as good as Viktor’s, but certainly better than Yuri’s. She must be clever, Yuuri thought, and diligent; perhaps she had taken the time to practice with the Corvus before they’d arrived. “My name is Mila Babicheva.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mila,” Yuuri said, smiling. He motioned at the sake on the table, and his empty cup. “If you wouldn’t mind…?”

“Oh! Sure.”

As she picked up the sake, little Yuri grabbed an empty cup off the table—it might have been Viktor’s, actually—and pulled it closer. “Me too.”

“Not a chance,” Mila scoffed. 

Yuri huffed dramatically. “Viktor said I could!” 

“Because Vitya wouldn’t be the one cleaning you up later,” Mila responded dully. She moved to pour herself a cup.

“Ah, wait.” Yuuri reached out to stop her, placing a gentle hand over hers; little Yuri’s eyeballs bulged at the sight. “Let me pour for you. And what was that name? ‘Vichya’…?”

As Yuuri poured her a cup, Mila watched in silence—then cleared her throat, as though remembering the question. “Yes, Vitya. It’s another name for Viktor.”

Yuuri smiled. He felt fantastic. “It’s cute.”

Mila grinned, a spark of mischief sharpening the curve of her lips. “Isn’t it? Why don’t you say it again. A little louder this time; I want to make sure you pronounce it properly.”

“All right,” Yuuri said. “Vitya.”

Mila shook her head. “No, no. That sounded like ‘Bitya.’ The ‘V’ is like this—” she brought her teeth to her lips and made an exaggerated buzzing noise; Yuuri giggled at it. “Vitya, Vvv-itya. Like that.”

“Vvv-itya,” Yuuri copied, laughing at how ridiculous he sounded.

There was a loud, sudden noise in the hallway. Yuuri stopped laughing. He hoped they weren’t fighting out there.

“Let’s drink,” Mila said, drawing Yuuri’s attention back. She lifted her sake cup in invitation.

Yuuri mirrored her gesture, then frowned. He didn’t want to slide the cup under his veil again; it was so troublesome to deal with. “Wait. Can you help me?”

“Hm?” Mila said—but Yuuri lifting the veil and haphazardly tossing it over his headdress seemed to answer her question.

“I can’t quite—pin it myself,” Yuuri explained, words hitching when he tried, in vain, to lay the veil a bit more elegantly.

“Oh, for the love of—” Little Yuri scoffed, rolled his eyes, and yanked the veil right off Yuuri’s head.

Mila’s jaw dropped. “Yura! What is wrong with you!” She started to scold him in Kiyevsky, but Yuri wasn’t much for taking punishments easily; he bickered right back, holding the veil far away from Mila’s frantic grabs.

Yuuri blinked. They seemed close too, like brother and sister. The Kiyevksy party was a lively bunch. 

After a few seconds of watching their squabbling, Yuuri chuckled, lifting his sleeve to cover his mouth. “It’s all right,” he forced out, words sprinkled with laughter. Both Mila and Yuri stared at him, frozen in place—Mila practically climbing over Yuri’s shoulders; Yuri holding the veil away from her grasp. “I don’t mind, really. I didn’t like that thing anyway. You can just toss it wherever. Mila, drink with me?”

“All right,” she said, crawling off of Yuri and ignoring the boy as he slapped at her in revenge. Out of the corner of his eye, Yuuri saw him stuff the veil into a pocket, a furtive frown on his face and his cheeks red.

Yuuri clacked his and Mila’s cups, beaming at the woman warmly. “Kanpai.”

Before he could lift the sake to his lips, a plume of orange-red fire manifested on the cup’s lip. 

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Mari asked gravely, peering at Yuuri from over her own cup across the table. “You’re very tired, little brother.”

Yuuri pouted. Glared. She was always doing this, treating him like a baby. Wasn’t it up to Yuuri to know his own body? His own mind?

As Christophe and Viktor stepped back into the room, Yuuri took a deep breath, glanced away from his sister, and tipped all the contents of the cup into his mouth—sake, kitsunebi and all. The mixture was warm and energizing as it slid down his throat.

“Holy—what did you just do?” Yuri yelled, smacking his hands on the table and looming forward. “That was awesome!”

Yuuri let out his deep, exhilarated breath, his head light and blood-flow thumping. Absorbing kitsunebi could be extremely dangerous, since its inherent power relied on the will of the user; but Mari’s kitsunebi was so similar to his own, and had never meant him any ill. Although she’d obviously been trying to dissuade him from drinking, Yuuri was plenty strong enough to repurpose her well-meaning kitsunebi for his own rejuvenation—even now, when his abilities were so thoroughly depleted. 

The energy granted by the kitsunebi planted a wide, giddy grin on Yuuri’s face; he didn’t even move to cover his teeth as he turned to face Yuri. “It’s not like real fire,” Yuuri explained. “Even you could touch fox-fire, if the conjurer let you.”

Yuri’s eyes glimmered at that; it was quite cute, revealing of his more pure childish side. “Could I eat it too?”

Yuuri’s smile fell. “No. Please do not ever try to do that.”

“Why not?” Little Yuri whined. 

Soul gouging. Memory consumption. Possession. “Just…” Yuuri half-smiled ruefully, then shook his head. “Believe me. You don’t want to try it.”

“But I could touch it,” Yuri insisted, eyes aflame at the possibility. “Make some for me. Let me touch it.”

Yuuri flushed; that was a tall order, after all he’d done that night. 

“Oh, come here, Yurio,” Mari drawled out tiredly. Little Yuri blinked at her. “I’ll make some for you. Even though kitsunebi is really not supposed to be a party trick.”

Yuri squinted. “What did you call me?”

“Yurio,” Mari said plainly. “If you have the same name as Yuuri, it’s too confusing.”

“Wow, the festivities are really in full swing in here,” Christophe said cheekily. “All we need is some fighting and dancing to make it a real party.”

Viktor stood a few steps behind him, just blinking and breathing in place. When Yuuri caught his stare—heart clenching in his chest; cheeks burning with heat—he wondered if his plain human eyes could be playing tricks on him, because it looked like Viktor’s face was colored to match.

And while Yuuri felt much better now, maintaining eye contact was still… a lot. He looked away in a flushed rush.

“My name isn’t Yurio,” Yuri growsed, complaining even as he scuttled along the floor to Mari’s side.

“Sit here, Yurio.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Viktor laughed. “You got a new nickname. Good for you, Yurio.”

“Stop calling me that!” He snapped, far more of the boy’s venom aimed at Viktor than at Mari—though that could just be because he wanted her to do something for him.

As Viktor took his seat next to Yuuri again—an absolutely terrifying and momentous event, despite the sake slowly drowning Yuuri’s senses—Yuuri peered up at Christophe. “Fighting?”

Christophe grinned brightly, though Yuuri thought it was a little less flirtatious than before. “And dancing. That’s what makes a real Kiyevsky party.”

Yuuri smiled softly, tightly, as he had a glimmer of an idea. But it was silly. He’d only look foolish again. He would turn so red. His face was visible, and his makeup was surely almost gone by now; he was certain he looked ridiculous—inelegant, clumsy, awkward, sloppy, ugly.

But that was nice sometimes. To be ugly.

“Can you show me?”

Christophe tilted his head, smile turning bemused. “How to fight?”

“No,” Yuuri said, glancing to the floor and flushing a bit. “Dancing. I would like to see a Kiyevsky dance.”

“Oh!” Christophe brightened. “Of course! It’s like this—” 

Without warning, the Corvus grabbed Yurio’s wrist, dragging him up from his seat next to Mari. The boy was immediately enraged, torn from the little dancing lights Mari had been indulging him with. 

“Hey!” Yurio yelled, struggling in vain to escape Christophe’s grasp and quickening steps. “Let go of me!”

Christophe leaned down towards Yuuri, head tilting entirely sideways. “He’s only a beginner too,” he whispered conspiratorially. “But that’s okay. You can both learn at once.”

“I am not…” Yurio gritted out, suddenly more infuriated at the implication of his inability than being forced to dance. He yanked Christophe’s hand away from his lower back and onto his shoulder. “Let me lead. I’ll show you who’s a beginner.”

“Oh, gosudar,” Christophe said breathily, eyes smoldering and mocking. “So forceful.”

Yurio stepped forward, and Christophe mirrored the steps without looking. They began slowly, then picked up speed, all while Christophe kept time out loud. Soon, the entire Kiyevsky party kept time with him, hands clapping and cups clanking a beat against the lacquer table. Yuuri clapped too, grinning, but he made sure to watch the steps carefully; lifelong training and a long career in dance had made him conscientious of it.

As the dancing pair got more and more carried away, their steps getting wider and faster and taking them around the room in a quick glide, Yuuri turned his head to follow them—and spotted, out of the corner of his gaze, Viktor looking at him, those blue eyes still and unblinking over the rim of his sake cup. 

Yuuri hurriedly jerked his eyes forward. His pulse roared. How long had he been staring? 

The pair finished their dance, Yurio spinning Christophe one last time before they took their bows. As they both turned to Yuuri again—Yurio looking flushed and smug—Christophe beamed and let out a brisk sigh. “Well, Your Grace? Did it live up to your expectations?”

Yuuri smirked slightly. Nodded. “I think I’ve got it.”

While Yuuri rose to a stand, Christophe’s smile went a little tense, confused. “I’m sure you do. You’re an excellent dancer, as we’ve all…”

Yuuri held out a hand, sleeve knocked higher than his wrist and hanging down to his knees. 

Christophe hesitated. “Your Grace?”

“Dance with me,” Yuuri said. Still, Christophe hesitated; so Yuuri slid his gaze over to Yurio. “Or, if you won’t, I’ll dance with him.” The statement almost rang like a threat—which was funny. Yuuri wanted to laugh. This whole situation was so funny

It took a beat, but Yurio scoffed, then looked up at the ceiling hurriedly. “As if I want to dance with you.”

The sake was a brutal yet liberating mistress, because Yuuri saw with ease the flush that decorated the boy’s face, and he no longer cared to ignore it. He coached his voice into something fluttering, soft, and asked: “You don’t?”

But before the glowing-red Yurio could respond—if he was going to at all—Christophe accepted Yuuri’s hand. He yanked Yuuri close, his hand falling onto Yuuri’s lower back in challenge. 

“Fine,” he muttered. “I will dance with you. On one condition.”

Yuuri, surprised at the sudden close contact, blushed reflexively. “What’s that?”

One of Christophe’s brows rose. “You can’t fall in love with me.”

For a long moment, Yuuri only stared. Then he broke into loud, inelegant, almost-snorting laughter. “All right,” he mumbled breathlessly, unable to stop giggling to save his life. “I promise, no falling in love—as long as you don’t step on my kimono.”

“Then I’d say we’re both in trouble,” Christophe joked, both his grasp and tone light. As they danced, Christophe knocked Yuuri’s foot once when he was too slow to follow; Yuuri glanced down, startled, to make sure his steps were correct. 

But he quickly got the hang of it. Christophe was a good partner, full of good humor and alcohol. The dance was repetitive and lively, more about anticipating and communicating with your partner than imparting some grand meaning. The lightness and ease and simplicity of it was intoxicating, sending Yuuri’s limbs buzzing even more than the sake had.

He was good at this. Yuuri realized it with a jolt, was shocked by his own skill, his previous willful ignorance. Of course he was good at this. He was the favored court dancer, what they called a one-in-a-generation talent; how could he have been so insecure? After all he had strived, trained, sweated, and cried for—why wouldn’t he be able to do this?

Christophe spun him, then reeled him back in, whirling Yuuri about for a little more until he finally lowered Yuuri into a dip. Oh, that was fun. He hadn’t done that with Yurio before. 

Yuuri could do that.

The moment the thought crossed his mind, Yuuri broke away from Christophe, imparting the man with one last pat to the shoulder. Christophe may have said something to him—but that didn’t matter to Yuuri anymore. He had his sights on one thing, one person: Viktor, who had been sitting and clapping along with the rest.

Yuuri offered him a hand.

Viktor stared up at him from the floor, wide-eyed and wordless.

Ah, Yuuri thought, grinning softly at the fresh memory. Just like our first meeting.

But that memory wasn’t painful anymore. If anything, it had given Yuuri direction. He leaned down to take Viktor’s hands in his own; pulled the man up into a stand. 

Yuuri kept his smile gentle as he guided Viktor’s hand onto his lower back—but when he spoke, his tone was anything but. “Show me what you can do,” he said, holding Viktor’s eye unflinchingly. “Then I’ll do it better.”

Viktor just stared down at him, open-mouthed. His face was vibrantly red.

“Well, get going!” Christophe said—and slapped Viktor on the back. 

It was like swatting a horse: immediately, they were off, Viktor leading. His hands were strong and warm. Yuuri found he loved the feel of them, cradling the shape of his body and easing him into place. Although truly, Yuuri always knew that he would adore this touch—had known it for a long time; had even known late at night, alone, when he’d allowed himself to fantasize about what it might be like. 

Viktor took Yuuri on a near-complete rotation of the table before he stumbled a bit on Yuuri’s kimono. “Careful,” Yuuri teased, leaning closer in and pressing a quick hand against Viktor’s chest so he could adjust the train, get it out of the way. As they settled back into the proper body positioning, Yuuri chuckled. “Are you always this clumsy?”

Some of the Kiyevsky party still clapped or stomped the beat; others were finally starting to fade with drink and exhaustion. Yuuri paid them no attention. He only watched Viktor, mirroring his movements effortlessly; holding that gaze for as long as it stayed on his face. 

“No,” Viktor said quietly. “I’ve never been like this before.”

Before Yuuri could reply, Viktor lifted him on the beat, two hands on either side of Yuuri’s waist. Laughter and yells of good-natured approval followed; Yuuri’s eyes went saucerlike in shock. The moment he was set down, Yuuri was too startled to mind his kimono train, stomping and stumbling on it immediately.

Viktor grinned, his broad hands bracketing Yuuri before he could trip. “Watch your step.”

Yuuri’s jaw dropped, speechless. Viktor was… so handsome. Funny. Clever. Kind.

Yuuri might die here. That would be okay.

But first, he had made a promise. Yuuri halted, tightened his grip on Viktor’s hand, and shifted their holds, guiding Viktor into place.

“Yuuri…?” Viktor whispered—and he was breathless too.

Yuuri beamed. “My turn.”

He nudged Viktor’s foot once before they were tracing their steps in reverse, Yuuri leading Viktor back around the table. Yuuri poured all he had into this dance—it was the only way he knew how to dance, as though he might as well drop dead at the end—and all he could see was Viktor’s eyes; all he could feel was Viktor’s hands, warm and gripping and slightly trembling, like he was terrified of Yuuri letting go.

At a burst in the clapped beat, Yuuri tossed Viktor’s hand out, then whirled him back in; he took Viktor’s hand with the man’s back pressed against his chest. Viktor caught his eye over his shoulder, mouth open in surprise. 

Yuuri spun him back out, and their steps continued at a ceaseless, quickened pace. 

While the beat clamored towards a crescendo—with Viktor’s blue eyes wide and sparkling; with his mouth lifted into a dazzling smile—Yuuri knew this was it. There was no greater joy than this. Perhaps his life had reached its pinnacle here; perhaps he would never see Viktor again, and this dance was their last—and if so, Yuuri wanted it to finish on the highest of notes, with neither quite able to walk away the same. 

He didn’t know how to do that. He didn’t know how to make Viktor fall in love.

But he did know how to dip. 

Yuuri’s hands splayed wide onto Viktor’s thigh and the small of his back as he lowered the man in his grip, holding Viktor’s tall and sturdy form mere inches from the tatami floor. In Yuuri’s hands, Viktor was flushed, smiling; he hardly seemed to breathe as he gazed up at Yuuri with his pink mouth open and an indescribable delight in his eyes.

Yuuri wished, more than anything, to let this moment last his entire life. But his drunken mind and fatigued muscles had other plans. 

Yuuri’s stomach swooped and a faint squeak escaped his mouth just before he dropped Viktor to the ground—then collapsed on top of him less than a second later.

A comforting pressure fell onto Yuuri’s back, and he realized it was Viktor’s hands; a lovely rumble vibrated against Yuuri’s chest, and he realized it was Viktor’s laughter. “That dip must have taken all of your effort, lisichka,” Viktor muttered into his ear, still chuckling. “I did not know I was so heavy.”

Yuuri shut his eyes as his head started spinning. He opened them quickly once the vertigo hit; the sake was getting its revenge. He mumbled into Viktor’s chest—not really saying anything, but happy to be there, pressed against the man’s warmth and enveloped in his arms. Viktor sat up with him slightly, which helped Yuuri’s vertigo immensely. Yes, this was good. Just like this.

Someone was talking. It wasn’t Viktor, so Yuuri found he didn’t really care. As the noises kept swirling around him, Yuuri burrowed his face against Viktor’s neck and shoulder, fingers splaying and gripping into the man’s red kaftan. This fabric seemed a slightly different shade than before. Had he changed since the meeting with the Tenko?

Oh, the Tenko. Before Yuuri could banish thought of her and her stupid, ridiculous court, a little inhuman growl emanated from his throat. But he quieted easily when Viktor patted his back.

“...get him to bed,” Mari said—Yuuri only picked up the tail end of it—and then there were other hands touching him, trying to lift him off of Viktor’s chest. 

Yuuri growled again, louder, teeth gritted and lips pursed shut. 

The strange hands retreated, and Yuuri quieted, turning to nuzzle into Viktor’s neck again.

“I can help,” Viktor said. With what? Yuuri couldn’t understand. They should all just shut up so he could fall asleep here. “I don’t mind, really. I know he must be exhausted.”

“No,” Mari replied, firm. “This is not your concern. He’s my brother, and I’m to blame for his—”

“Stop,” Yuuri muttered. His head spun; he could barely open his eyes. “Stop talking about me. I’m right here.”

A beat passed. Mari sighed sharply. “Fine. You need to go to bed, Yuuri.”

Yuuri groaned—not because that didn’t sound nice, but because it required movement.

“Minami and I will help you,” she said. 

Those strange hands returned again. As they slid around his torso, careful and efficient, Yuuri found that he hated them, could not tolerate anyone other than Viktor touching him—ever again, if possible. 

Except… Viktor would be leaving. Yuuri had seen for himself the Tenko’s dismissal. The moment those warm, broad hands left his back, his sides, they would never return. Yuuri would never again see the dazzling brilliance of Viktor’s smile, or inspire the shining surprise in those blue eyes.

Yuuri slapped the strange hands away. “No!”

Yuuri,” Mari said warningly.

“No!” Yuuri insisted. “Leave me alone! Let me do what I want, for once—”

Viktor’s grip on him shifted briefly before there was an abrupt, shocking change in altitude—Viktor lifting to a stand, Yuuri still tucked against his chest. It had been so easy for him, as though Yuuri weighed absolutely nothing. 

Yuuri found that he didn’t know how to speak anymore.

There was more noise. People talked. Viktor started walking, a gentle back-and-forth cradling motion. The lighting dimmed; Yuuri saw it from the tiny slits of his barely-open eyes. Wherever Viktor took him was fine. In fact, if Viktor kept carrying him, Yuuri would probably change his mind about that whole walking thing altogether.

Viktor set him down on something soft—it must be a futon. That was also fine. Excellent, even. The room was spinning quite a bit, but Yuuri was sure that would go away once he fell asleep.

Yuuri opened his eyes to see Viktor’s hand next to his face. Yuuri grinned as he pushed his face into the curve of that hand, inviting Viktor to caress his cheek.

“That’s nice, Yuuri,” Viktor said with a slight laugh, “but I am trying to get your headdress off.”

“Oh,” Yuuri mumbled. “Okay.”

Yuuri couldn’t get comfortable on his back. There was something bulky and cumbersome underneath him. He remembered, belatedly, that he’d been fitted for false tails earlier that night; he started rummaging into the folds of his kimono, seeking the ties that kept the prosthetics attached to his waste.

“Ah, no. Please don’t do that,” Viktor said, halting Yuuri with a gentle grip to his wrist. 

“Why not?” Yuuri asked. He tried to keep at it, but Viktor wouldn’t let him. “Let go of me.”

“That’s really not a good idea; you must stay clothed—”

“Let go,” Yuuri demanded. His voice was so harsh that Viktor stopped touching him immediately. Finally free of obstacles, Yuuri found the tie tucked under his obi and yanked it apart, loosening the false tails. He then sat up, bent down, reached up his own kimono, and grabbed hold of the bundle in one hand.

Yuuri saw Viktor’s eyes turn into perfect circles as he yanked the prosthetics right out of his kimono in one fell swoop.

Yuuri chucked the tails off into the vague distance. Somewhere, there was the sound of laughter; Yuuri agreed with it, chuckling to himself at the silliness of the situation. And he was much more comfortable now, which called for some celebration.

“Are those always fake?” Viktor asked thinly.

“Of course not,” Yuuri answered, stabilizing himself upright by crossing his legs. “Well. For some of us, they are. But not for me. Do you want to know why?”

Yuuri leaned towards Viktor as he asked, his hands splayed on the futon. Viktor was on his knees next to the futon; he looked at Yuuri with a strange expression, as though he wasn’t sure how to react. 

“...Why?” Viktor finally said.

Yuuri cracked a loopy, troublemaking smile. “I’m actually very powerful.”

Viktor didn’t seem nearly as entertained by this secret as Yuuri was. “I know that.”

Yuuri frowned. Something seemed strange here. Why was Viktor in his room? Did he—perhaps, somehow, miraculously— want to be there? Yuuri had never considered himself to be such a lucky person. But Viktor would be gone soon. Yuuri would never see him again. This truth brought tears to Yuuri’s eyes; he lifted one hand to cover his mouth, trying to quiet the sobs building in his throat. 

“What’s wrong? Are you going to be sick?”

Viktor was showing him concern. That was so—heartbreaking. Yuuri would never experience this tenderness again, never ever ever ever—

The first tears glimmered down Yuuri’s cheek, and all the color drained from Viktor’s face. His hands lifted, then fell, then lifted and fell again; his pale brow furrowed, at a complete loss. “Um. What…?”

Now Yuuri was annoyed. Didn’t Viktor know how to properly comfort someone? How useless of him. “Why are you even here.”

“You wouldn’t let anyone else touch you. And you wouldn’t walk on your own.”

Yuuri sniffled, then nodded. That sounded about right. 

“Why… why are you crying?” Viktor mumbled, his hands still hovering awkwardly in the air between them.

“We’ll never see each other again,” Yuuri whispered. “I don’t—I’m afraid to fall asleep. Because then you’ll be gone.”

Viktor’s look of confusion melted into an unbearable softness. His large, warm hand cradled the side of Yuuri’s wet face; a thumb swiped through the tear-tracks of Yuuri’s cheek. “Oh, lisichka.”

Gone. Viktor would be gone. And Yuuri would remain, a painted toy in a pretty dollhouse, inevitably passed around from woman to woman until he turned to ash.

Unless.

Yuuri’s heart quickened, a deafening thud in his ears. His tears ceased. There was no more time for that. There was so little time; Yuuri had to make the most of what remained, had to think quickly and convey his conviction properly.

Viktor tilted his head at the sudden change in Yuuri’s heart-rate. “What is it?”

Yuuri’s eyes snapped up, seizing Viktor’s gaze. “Take me with you.”

The shock on Viktor’s face was barely perceptible—only a swift locking of his features.

At Viktor’s silence, Yuuri leaned in, pushing into Viktor’s touch and shifting his weight onto his knees. “I can’t stay here. I’ll—they’ll—they will breed me, against my will, for the rest of my life, until I’m too feeble to even have sex. It doesn’t matter if I’m impotent. They’ll keep trying; I’m too powerful for them to just—give up.” As Yuuri spoke, he leaned closer and closer, hands grasping the front of Viktor’s kaftan. “I don’t want this life. I want adventure; I want to see more than painted walls and gardens. Please, Viktor…. Won’t you take me with you?”

While Viktor listened, his face did not shift in the slightest. He did not blink. As Yuuri finished, gasping frantically into the meager space between them—his grasp on Viktor shaking; his eyes gleaming and wet—Viktor still did not speak. 

“Yuuri,” he said—after some strange, vague stretch of silence. “I know you are drunk. And I know that you mean every word. But I need you to acknowledge: if I take you, our nations will go to war.”

A steady, dark, dripping dread began in Yuuri’s stomach. Seeped throughout his entire body.

“Are you willing to accept that?” Viktor asked. His tone allowed for no argument; his unblinking eyes gave Yuuri no mercy. “Is that the level of your conviction?”

They held each other’s gaze: Viktor firm and unyielding; Yuuri trembling, face wet and eyes swelling. Yuuri’s face crumpled as his hands twisted in the fabric of Viktor’s red kaftan. 

Finally, Yuuri’s forehead fell against Viktor’s chest. He began to sob in earnest.

“No,” he gasped out, “no, no—I can’t—”

“I know, lisichka.”

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri sobbed. “I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologize for.”

“But—” Yuuri tried to gather himself; it was impossible, his voice cracking and saturated with inconsolable sorrow. “Would you? If I were—stronger?”

“Yes,” Viktor said plainly. His hands rubbed Yuuri’s back, trying to ease his heaving breaths. “And I would still adore you, even if you weren’t brave enough to stay.”

Brave. Yuuri had never thought of himself as brave before. He was an anxious, self-doubting mess, always slipping away to cry, either gorging himself on rich foods or unable to keep meals down at all for the nerves wracking his mind. In the brief time they’d shared, Viktor had already seen Yuuri at his most authentic—fleeing from his touch, the mere sight of him, the curl of his pink smile or the shine of those jade-blue eyes. 

But even then—even after all that—Viktor had called him brave. He said he adored him.

Yuuri glanced up. Viktor’s face was close. His eyes were gentle, filled with warmth and comfort. It was easy to believe him; the adoration was right there, laid plain for Yuuri to see. 

Yuuri brought their faces closer, angling his head to catch Viktor’s lips—

Two fingers landed on his mouth. “Yuuri, no.”

His voice sounded gentle then too, when he rejected Yuuri without hesitation. The shame welled in Yuuri instantly, pounding in his head and his chest; he leaned out of Viktor’s space and looked away, his watering eyes staring aside at the floor.

“Ah, no—Yuuritchka, dear one, please don’t—don’t cry. Please don’t look so sad,” Viktor said, a frantic note in his tone. He took Yuuri’s head in both hands, forcing Yuuri to face him again. “Please understand. You are not well. And—we do not have the privacy you’d want, I think, for when I do kiss you.”

Yuuri blinked. Frowned. “What do you…?”

But then—out of the corner of his eye, in the corner of his bedroom—Yuuri spotted two figures. One taller than the other, leaning his head on his hand and elbow on his thigh; the other was in a near-perfect seiza, if it weren’t for all the trembling, gasping, and crying. 

Minami wiped both cheeks with the backs of his hands. “Your Grace,” he said, voice waterlogged, “I had no idea you—you were so—unhappy! I wish—I could—I promise I will be of more help to you—”

The boy cut off to cry some more. Christophe reached out to pat the boy on the back. 

Fear and mortification warred for space in Yuuri’s mind. Neither Corvus was hidden, yet Yuuri hadn’t even realized they were there. He began to doubt the soundness of his own mind, with the sake and exhaustion blurring his awareness; he began to take tiny sips of air, frightened of what else he didn’t notice or understand. And he had spoken to Viktor as though they’d been alone. He had made a fool of himself yet again, and even worse, they’d witnessed his secret shame: an attempt to abandon his duties, to cast off his birthright and responsibility to his people, as a member of the royal family—

“Please,” Yuuri muttered, hiding his face and body behind Viktor’s form, “tell them to go.”

“I can’t,” Viktor said. “I promised your sister we would not be alone.”

Slowly, Yuuri curled up on top of the futon. Mari should have dragged him away from Viktor, even if he had kicked and screamed. But then Viktor and the entire Kiyevsky party would have witnessed his tantrum. Perhaps there was simply no way for Yuuri to retain his dignity.

“I can’t go on,” Yuuri whispered. His eyes slid shut. “I’m tired. It’s… enough.”

Soft fingertips brushed hair away from Yuuri’s forehead. Viktor might have spoken—some gentle rumble or a whispered question—but Yuuri did not listen, and he would not answer.

He welcomed the embrace of nothingness like an old friend.

[-]

Yuuri slept through the next day. 

Mari knew, because she had Minami check on him frequently. She also had the Corvus retained indefinitely, waiting on Yuuri’s requests—when he would need water, tea, or food, or even just company. It was the least she could do, after all of her failures.

Yuuri finally awoke when the sun had dipped beneath the horizon and the nighttime insects were already beginning their songs. He didn’t turn from the open veranda when Mari entered his room. He seemed—at least on the surface—quite calm, perhaps even accepting, in a strange and passive way.

“Yuuri,” Mari said. He still did not turn. “I’m sorry. Really, I am. I should have… been more careful, for you.”

A moment passed. Yuuri faced her with a brittle smile forced onto his mouth. “It’s all right. You’re not my keeper. I am grown, you know. I make my own choices.”

Mari did know that. That was all the trouble.

“Did you just come here to apologize for my own mistakes?” Yuuri asked teasingly. 

“No,” Mari replied. “We’ve received a summons. Mom wants us back.”

“Oh.” Yuuri sighed, likely in relief. Then he looked back out onto the garden. “When can we leave?”

“Immediately.”

[-]

A long journey away—across many miles; past countless villages, mountains, forests, volcanoes, rivers and streams—Katsuki Hiroko decided to air out one of the futons. She had servants for this, of course, but there was much to be learned from honest work. It was soothing to care for your own house and clean your own messes. 

She hung the futon over a railing on the southern veranda. In her garden, new greens and herbs and flowers were showing some of their first sprouts. Even those she had planted herself, enjoying the truth of the dirt on her fingers and the promise of seeds in the ground.

With the futon hung, Hiroko placed both hands on her hips and sighed. It was time for some tea.

Before she could go inside, however, a fast-flying and very irate black bird landed clumsily on the railing. It held twine in its beak, which bound a rolled-up scroll of fine white paper. There was an odd blur of matter and light—and then a strange Corvus, green-eyed and exhausted, held the scroll tightly in his hand.

“I come bearing a message for Her Grace Katsuki Hiroko, from Viktor Lilianov, Crown Prince of Kiyev.”

Chapter Text

To the Architect of My Dearest One,

It is difficult to gather my thoughts in this time of great personal strife - for Katsuki Yuuri has departed from Chouwa-Kyou, and I remain, a lonesome and warmly welcomed stranger in a beautiful foreign land. But I find I cannot abide by these conditions. I cannot sleep. Even the richest and most exquisite food dissolves to ash in my mouth. I must express the agony and toil of my mind in as elegant and gracious of a language I can muster.

Your Grace is worthy of the highest gratitude and admiration that mortal hands can put to paper. Your Grace proves, in no uncertain terms, that Ouyashima is ruled by women of divine blood and ability - for Your Grace has created and reared a heavenly creature of unparalleled ability, unmatched charms, and beauty utterly unrivaled: the pride of Ouyashima, thief of my dreams, Katsuki Yuuri.

In Katsuki Yuuri’s blood are all the years of magic passed through Your Grace’s lineage. In Katsuki Yuuri’s dark eyes is the warmth of a fire in the night of winter, leading weary travelers back to strength, safety, and home. In Katsuki Yuuri’s every movement, there is an unheard song, like the distant beating of drums and the first melody of a robin in spring. And in Katsuki Yuuri’s hands, there is my heart, beating its every second of life for His pleasure -

“He can’t be serious,” Mari snapped, dropping the half-unrolled letter and her hands to the tatami. “This is… how long is this?”

Katsuki Hiroko chuckled under her breath. “Oh, it’s long. He spends many lines talking about how Yuuri would look in a garden.”

Mari gave her mother an incredulous stare. “Would look?”

“Yes,” Hiroko replied, sipping her tea and trying not to laugh. “Apparently, he hasn’t seen Yuuri in one yet.”

Mari rubbed her forehead and sighed. “Do I have to keep reading?” She grumbled. She had only arrived back in Hasetsu that day; the journey had been long and grueling, despite the luxurious accommodations. Mari couldn’t imagine making such an arduous trip without the resources her family was afforded as a matter of course. “I think I know the answer,” she mumbled, still rubbing her temple, “but just tell me. Did he ask for Yuuri’s hand?”

Hiroko set her teacup down on the lacquer table. “Yes.”

Mari stared at her for a few silent moments. “And you rejected it.”

“Yes,” Hiroko said. But her tone and demeanor was suspiciously light—like she was having too much fun.

It made Mari raise one troubled eyebrow. “But?” 

Hiroko sent her daughter a small, amused smile, then glanced out the open veranda. “No ‘but,’” she said, staring at the early-green garden below. “I rejected his proposal. It’s a terrible idea. The Tenko would be furious—not only because it would be a match without any potential for childbearing, but because he’s a foreigner.” She turned to look back to her daughter. “And, as you can see, that letter is… quite something. It makes me wonder if he really knows our Yuuri at all.”

Their Yuuri: a beautiful and elegant man, certainly, but a man all the same. Not a heavenly creature, and nothing rooted in hollow aesthetics or the ornamental; just a mortal, messy and doubting and made heavy by his duties and birthright. Either Viktor was entirely maddened by love, or he was just a droplet in the flood of masses who adored Yuuri for his blood and abilities alone.

Mari kept staring at her mother. “...But?”

“I have firmly rejected his proposal,” Hiroko repeated—then grinned widely, brightly. It was a smile she had passed on to Yuuri, one he wore when he was relaxed and carefree. “But, I told him that if it was such an agony to be far away… he could come to Hasetsu.”

Mari gaped. “You what?”

“What?” Hiroko muttered, seeming quite unbothered. “Is that such a bad idea?”

“Ugh… Mom,” Mari groused, rubbing her forehead in sheer exhaustion. “Even putting aside Viktor’s… mental state. Do you have any idea what the Kiyevsky are like? Do you have any idea how much work they are? Back in the Tenko’s court, I had to run clean-up for their constant mistakes. And they eat like horses.”

“Is that so?” Hiroko pressed a hand to her mouth thoughtfully. “Hm. I should double-check that the kitchen is well-stocked.”

“That’s not what I—” Again, Mari sighed. Her mother had a bad case of selective hearing, another trait she seemed to share with Mari’s impossible brother. “Don’t bother,” Mari replied, waving a hand at her mother’s concerns dismissively. With her other hand, she inelegantly leaned back on the tatami; the best part of coming home was the slow unwinding of courtly manners. “I doubt the Tenko would even let Viktor come.”

“Oh, she will.”

Mari’s brow quirked up as she rubbed a hand against her weary neck. “That so?”

“Yes,” Hiroko replied happily, nodding. “Because he’s already here.”

[-]

Hasetsu was a small southern city overlooking the Ouyashiman Sea. 

Its harbor was a bustling heart of commerce. The piers were busy with tradesfolk, sailors, and merchants loading and unloading a wide variety of goods: steel, porcelain, lacquer, and silk. In the seaside markets, Ouyashiman mingled with streaks of foreign tongues: Zhongwen from the central mainland, as well as some of her dialects; Ayudjayan, from a Zhongwen-satellite kingdom to the southwest; Siljin, from the peninsula across the sea; and even Ezo from the north, the language of the Medvedya indigenous to Ouyashima. Other than the harbor of Chouwa-Kyou, Hasetsu was the only regular receptacle for international trade ships; the deep turquoise waters there allowed local fishing boats, big-bellied spice ships, and even a single Kiyevsky-sponsored clipper to safely drop anchor. 

As Christophe flew over the docks, he watched the people of Hasetsu in their routines—merchants barking orders and prices, fisherwomen hawking the day’s catches, and sailors unloading their cargo. Among all the adults’ bustle and chatter, Christophe saw children—in both human and red fox forms—running underfoot, hiding behind crates, and play-fighting with their tiny red-furred claws and nipping jaws of sharp baby-teeth. He even spotted one daring child snag a fish from a stall and drag it back to her friends, hurriedly changing forms and giggling as the shopkeep spotted them and gave chase. 

Above it all, he heard the call of gulls—true birds would keep far away from a Corvus, of course, unless he had food in clutch—and the splish-splash of the harbor waters lapping at lichen-coated rocks. He smelled the brine of freshly shucked oysters; he breathed in the smoke and heat from active grills, Ouyashimans selling takoyaki, yakisoba, and okonomiyaki from their scattered seaside stalls.

But Hasetsu’s harbor was not the city’s true heart. That honor went to Katsuki Manor: the tall, garden-lined complex jutting high at the very top of Hasetsu’s green slopes. Its walls were white, like a whale’s sun-bleached and sand-beaten bones; its rooves and eaves were charcoal-black, like a bed for embers after a long night of burning. The manor was visible from any vantage point in the city. From there, springs of both cold and hot waters flowed down to sea, bathing and sustaining the city’s people.

Chris tilted his black wings towards the highest tip of the manor, soaring on an updraft which smelled of seawater and the tangles of kelp drying on the shore. The city was built on coastal land shaped like a half-bowl, from the manor at the rim to the harbor at the base. A long path lined with hundreds of crimson gates marked the way to the manor, and Christophe followed it from above. 

Based on what he had seen, the people here were not as wealthy as those in Chouwa-Kyou, but they were not as poor either. A sense of confidence and calm emanated from the face of every subject, from the way they carried on their lives—as though these times of peace and plenty would last forever. 

Hopefully, they would. The people of Hasetsu entrusted Katsuki Hiroko to make sure of it.

Chris landed on the very top of the manor. Feet clinging to the black-thatch roof, he stared down into the gardens, then onto the glimmer of rushing water as it flowed downslope through the metal bars of Katsuki Manor’s stone walls. For all Chris knew, it was waste-water; but even that was said to be blessed, touched by the divine powers and presence of the Katsuki clan.

With his sharp crow-eyes, Chris noticed new movement and activity in one of the gardens—a sudden burst of laughter, chatter, and even a few bearlike grunts. Then the gleam of pale, exposed skin. 

The Kiyevsky party must be stumbling into the courtyard to spar.

Chris fluffed himself, uninterested in watching or joining them just yet. If they were only just starting, they would be at it for hours yet. He turned his beak into his own wing, preening and weaving through his black feathers idly. Even those bird shifters who were not Corvus understood the occasional need to be high up, watchful, and alone.

But he was not alone for long.

Not four wingspans away, a smaller black bird landed atop the thatch roof with a quiet rustle. Christophe cast a lazy glance at the bird, his beak still buried within his own feathers. At the silent stare, the smaller bird hopped closer—once, then twice—and fluffed a bit, as though in excitement.

“Big brother!” The little bird croaked, wings flapping in greeting.

For a few moments, Christophe did not move. He only stared at the smaller bird in quiet, tired resignation—as his peaceful time alone had surely come to its premature end. 

“Hello, Kenjirou.”

“You’re here!” The young Corvus exclaimed. He seemed so pleased that a few feathers might molt from excitement alone.

“Of course I'm here,” Christophe said dryly. He flitted his head towards the garden, where the sound of colliding weapons, good-natured yelling, and bear-grunts rose into the sky. “You didn’t notice that?”

Minami hopped clumsily down the roof, trying to peer a bit closer at the Kiyevsky party below. “Oh!” A sudden, cracking blow was followed by a humanlike cry of pain; Minami cringed at it. “Oh. How scary. Will he be all right?”

Even while expressing a healthy, well-advised fear for the Medvedya second form, somehow Minami couldn’t help sounding cheerful. Christophe would have smiled, had he a mouth capable of it. “They’re only sparring.”

Minami glanced up at him. “So he’ll be okay?”

Christophe resisted rolling his eyes. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. Medvedya heal quickly.”

The young Corvus seemed comforted by this—he nodded once, then turned to keep watching. “Oh, there’s the lady Mila! And she’s—” The little bird squawked in shock; his wings fluttered restlessly, rising to cover his face. “She’s naked!”

Christophe laughed—an odd mixture of cawing and a human guffaw—and spread his wings to soar down and join Minami on the roof’s edge. “Of course,” he replied, his Corvan tinged with laughter. “The bear shifters aren’t like us. They don’t retain their clothes in shift.”

“Why not?” Minami wondered.

“Who knows,” Christophe said, shrugging. 

“How inconvenient,” Minami mumbled. But he lowered his wings, no longer scandalized, and kept watching the sparring below with rapt eyes. “So if they shift, their clothes just rip up?”

“Basically,” Christophe said.

“What are you doing up here, though?” Minami hopped and pointed down at the Kiyevsky party with his beak. “Shouldn’t you be down there with them?”

“No,” Christophe said. “I wanted to be alone.”

“Oh, I see, I see,” Minami responded. “I understand that. I want to be alone sometimes, too.”

Christophe stared at him dryly. “I’m so glad you understand.”

“Oh!” Minami cried, flapping his wings and fluttering into the air for a single joyful moment. “Look! Look! There he is! His Grace is finally back!”

Christophe followed the young Corvus’s gaze. At the formal entrance to the manor, in a courtyard just inside the gates, a veiled form stepped out from an ornate carriage. Beneath the carriage, a layer of various fabrics and articles of clothing covered the ground—offerings from the hands and backs of admirers, a crowd who had been permitted to enter the courtyard and bow in the dirt of its peripheries—and Katsuki Yuuri stepped down onto them silently, elegantly, in that strange way of his that did not seem quite mortal. 

“Mercy,” Christophe mumbled, voice dry at the sheer weight of the pomp and ritual emanating from what was, essentially, just a man leaving a carriage. “Can he go anywhere without being worshipped?”

“No,” Minami replied airily. “He can’t. But it’s because he’s just…  perfect. Isn’t he?”

Not quite, Christophe thought. But Minami’s eyes were sparkling, so he said: “Of course.”

At Christophe’s side, the little black bird sighed—a long, wistful noise of longing.

His eyes widened. “You’re… very devoted to him.”

Minami’s feathers fluffed—possibly in embarrassment. “Of course! I will serve His Grace for as long as he’ll have me.”

“How sweet,” Christophe quipped.

The little bird nodded. “I will serve him all my life, if I can.”

“Don’t be too hasty now.”

“You think I’m silly,” Minami said—sharper than Christophe had ever heard him before. “But you’re the same as me. Don’t you follow your bear-prince all over the world?”

The good humor drained from Christophe, leaving him reserved and sullen. His wings folded shut at his shoulders, and his eyes fell back down towards the ruckus in that inner courtyard, where the Kiyevsky party still sparred and cajoled one another. He heard Viktor’s voice rise above the rest—likely offering some instructions, or giving some sly response to a joke—and he recalled that voice in another setting, another time: when a boyish blue-eyed warrior had offered him a hand, helping Christophe stand on his own two feet when his black wings were clipped, gouged, and shredded by the talons of captors. 

“That’s different,” Christophe said, quiet and slow. 

He meant to impart a sense of finality on that thread of conversation. But Minami wasn’t the type to be discouraged. “How so?”

Christophe gave him a sharp look. “In a way that isn’t your business.”

Even as Christophe unfolded his wings, beat them, and took off, Minami called out: “Why not?”

But Christophe had already flown away. He swooped above the Kiyevsky party, easily dodging the holler and pebble that the little prince Yuri tossed up at him in jest. He soared to the outer courtyard, where the veiled Katsuki Yuuri hesitated at the sight of a winged shadow falling upon the earth below. 

[-]

When Yuuri stepped into the entryway of his ancestral home, an instant wave of relief swept through his sleep-starved brain. 

He and Mari had separated for the last leg of their journey. She went ahead to Hasetsu, to reunite with their mother and go over the affairs of their prefecture—she was the heiress and would eventually take their mother’s place—while Yuuri took the slower pace, visiting different shrines along the way to perform some of the spring revitalization rites. The kitsunebi were a product of the land; they drew from and fed its fertility. Thus, one of the responsibilities of the royal family was to foresee the rituals that supported the maintenance of the land, replenishing energy and nutrients to worked soil and promoting healthy harvests.

It also meant that Yuuri was bone-tired. The rituals alone were taxing; add to that the attention he received from subjects—the masses who neither saw nor knew Yuuri, but treated him as a proxy for his mother, or the Tenko, or whatever other lauded figure they felt devoted to—and Yuuri was ready to plunge into his family’s hot springs and simply drown there.

Yuuri expected to see a servant or two awaiting him in the entryway. But the first person he saw, mercifully, was his father, who helped remove the veil from Yuuri’s form with a fond and familiar smile.

“Okaeri,” Toshiya said. He offered a hand; Yuuri took it gladly, stabilizing himself as he removed his shoes. “You’ve worked hard.”

“Tadaima,” Yuuri replied. He let his father help him up from the genkan; his kimono, as usual, was heavy. 

“Why don’t you head over for a bath?” Toshiya said. Yuuri nodded gratefully, almost frantically. “Your mom and most of the staff are busy. We’ll have another big dinner tonight.”

Yuuri brushed some loose hair away from his face, then began moving towards the hallway, keen on reaching any free room where he could shed some of his horrible layers.  “Will we?”

“Mm-hm,” his father hummed. “We have to, to feed the guests.”

Yuuri paused mid-step. “...The who?”

“Your mother didn’t send word?” Toshiya asked. “We have guests who sailed down from Chouwa-Kyou. A bunch of tall and pale foreigners. They’re staying in the usual guest—”

Before his father could even finish, Yuuri was rushing down the hallway in a flutter of silk and pounding footsteps. 

It couldn’t be. It was ridiculous. Viktor and his party had been dismissed. Yuuri had witnessed that himself, just prior to getting mind-blankingly drunk and making an utter and complete fool of himself. There were so few events he remembered of that late night: sitting next to Viktor at a low lacquer table, too terrified to speak or even drink with him without a veil to separate them; the delicious, burning sensation of sake rushing down his throat; the excitement of watching the little prince and Christophe dance, before Yuuri could pluck up the courage to take the Corvus’s hand for himself. 

Then, past that—not much else.

In the morning, only a few burning spots managed to penetrate the deepest shadows of Yuuri’s exhausted and drunken mind. The tenderness of Viktor’s fingers swiping over his knuckles. The warmth of his blue eyes, crinkled as he looked down at Yuuri with a smile. Viktor’s laughter, melodious and soft in his ear. 

But he was gone now. He must be gone.

Yet Yuuri still rushed down the hallway, heading towards the guest quarters with a frantic urgency. It was on the opposite end of the manor from the main entryway, near the easternmost walls. A small gravel courtyard flanked the guest quarters to the south, and a lush green garden bordered it to the west; in his childhood, Yuuri had often played there, earning skinned knees on the gravel or crying when Mari, in second form, harassed the smaller koi in the pond. When the Tenko stayed in Hasestu—which she hadn’t in a very long time, not since before Yuuri was born—her advisors and higher ranked servants would be lodged there.

Rushing through the manor’s quiet halls, Yuuri passed an open veranda. A cool breeze wafted through—and with it, there came a nearby din of playful, rowdy, foreign words. 

Yuuri was light-headed to recognize the distinctive guttural sounds of Kiyevsky.  

He halted at the open veranda. The noise was coming from a farther courtyard—likely the one south-adjacent to the guest quarters, near the southeastern end of the manor’s complex. If he wished to go unnoticed, Yuuri realized, he would need to be sharper, quicker, and very, very quiet. 

Yuuri slid into his fox form without even a rustle of silk. 

With a longer, more sensitive nose, he scented the air, gathering an awareness of the smells nearby and the pattern of the wind. The aromas of saltwater, human sweat, dust, pollen, and bear musk filled his nostrils. As more foreign words tumbled together on the breeze—the Kiyevsky party livelier than ever—Yuuri’s pointed ears perked and swiveled to precisely source them. He considered the direction of the sound, the whims of the wind, and his own memory of his home, then began the gradual creep towards a certain room that he knew would be vacant. 

The Kiyevsky banter was loud as Yuuri slipped into a room on the western edge of the courtyard. He moved silently as beasts grunted, people laughed, and sticks hit and cracked against hard surfaces.

A southwesterly breeze buffeted against the shut door. He was downwind. But in this form, Yuuri couldn’t slide the door open.

His second transition was just as silent as the last—a simple, instinctual movement, like unfurling your hands or falling asleep. Kneeling by the shut door, in his human form, Yuuri waited until a particularly loud noise clattered in the courtyard; then he slid the fusuma door open by only a crack.

Yuuri summoned his fox-eyes to spy down into the courtyard below.

The first person he cared to see, of course, was Viktor. Yuuri braced himself to spot him—riveted and giddy with delight, yet fearful of sharp Medvedya senses should he let free even a single gasp. Viktor stood on the far side of the courtyard and spoke quietly to Yuri, who looked sullen with arms crossed and a deeply etched frown. Yet Yuuri hardly noticed that when Viktor was wearing a jinbei, poorly, with his shirt billowed open and pants barely clinging to his hips. A long wooden stick leaned against Viktor’s shoulder—Yuuri supposed it could be a dummy version of the rogatina, the famous Kiyevsky spear—and a relaxed, bored expression rested on his lovely face. Whatever he said to Yuri, it looked like it went unheeded, and Viktor fully expected it.

Once Yuuri had gotten his fill of looking at Viktor—which, truly, he wasn’t sure he ever could—he noticed the two bears fighting in the center of the courtyard. 

Each of their blows struck like thunderclaps. What Yuuri had thought was the sound of sticks breaking against stone was actually paws colliding with bone. As they grunted and groaned, looming onto their hind legs and ramming and swatting at one another, Yuuri was shocked at their size; each towered at perhaps twice his height, and their brown pelts alone were thicker than most armor Yuuri had ever seen.

When the sparring partners finished their duel, they switched forms and embraced one another like old friends, grinning and chatting and patting each other on the back. They were both entirely naked. Belatedly, Yuuri realized that there were quite a few people in the courtyard who had no clothes on; either he had been too captivated by Viktor or too horrified by the fight to take note any of it. 

Someone near his hiding place called out Viktor’s name—a woman, if Yuuri had to guess. Viktor looked up and across the courtyard. After the woman yelled something to him in Kiyevsky, he smiled, nodded, and adjusted the staff so it held straight in his grip.

Viktor walked towards the center of the courtyard, and Yuuri bit his lip to smother a sigh. That smile of his was… not quite dashing, Yuuri thought, but assured—sly, even, with a sense of self-assurance overlaying the shine of his eyes and the quirk of his brow. He was handsome, that much was obvious, but it wasn’t only that: Viktor was confident, casually and unshakably so, in a manner that Yuuri had always yearned to emulate but couldn’t fathom how to start.

Only when the bear entered the center of the courtyard, loping towards Viktor slowly, did Yuuri realize that Viktor was about to spar.

Viktor shrugged off his poorly-worn shirt and threw it aside. Briefly and shamefully, Yuuri wished that Viktor would transform. The stories said he was a white bear—like his mother, a Sa’ame woman of the North—and curiosity for that second form ate at Yuuri’s mind like mold. But Yuuri wasn’t so innocent or noble that he only wished to see Viktor’s second form. He also knew that the Medvedya lost their clothing upon transforming. 

At the thought, Yuuri had to turn away from the door, press his head against his knees, and stifle an embarrassed squeak.

Within moments, Viktor’s smooth voice had spurred him back to the door. He couldn’t comprehend what Viktor said, but Yuuri understood his tone: Viktor was egging the brown bear on, calling to her sweetly and drawing her closer with a waving hand. As he circled the center of the courtyard, Viktor’s staff dragged through the gravel, pebbles clattering and shifting under every footstep. Despite the invitations, the bear was in no apparent rush; her paws crunched into the gravel slowly, limbs moving at a sluggish, lazy pace.

She charged Viktor with such sudden and shocking speed that Yuuri couldn’t silence a yelp.

Her size and strength could have easily destroyed any normal man—but Viktor Lilianov, Yuuri thought, was not a normal man. He had heard that the Medvedya trained even in their human forms to become bear-killers, and Yuuri saw that it must be true: as the bear charged, Viktor dropped his staff, held firm and low—and lanced the bear right up into her throat.

Had Viktor wielded a rogatina, the long blade would have skewered through the bear’s pelt, severing her neck and possibly her spinal cord. But it was only a dummy. Instead of piercing the bear, Viktor only held her at bay; the power of her charge plummeted through the staff, sliding Viktor’s planted feet back in the gravel and dirt. 

Yuuri was so entranced by how the muscles of Viktor’s back tensed and shone in the sunlight that he completely forgot to feel bashful about it.

Peeved at the successful jab—small brown ears flicking in the light; upper lip lifting from shining teeth—the bear eased off, allowing Viktor to stabilize and drop his staff. Viktor spoke again, this time in lower, chiding tones. The bear snorted in annoyance.

Her second attempt was more cautious. She held her head lower and paid more attention to Viktor’s movements, tracking his footsteps and swiveling her ears to attune to his breathing, rustling movements, and heart-rate. Yuuri wondered what advantages one might claim on the battlefield, if you could perceive the slightest up-ticks in pulse or little hitches in breathing, when even a bracing gasp might betray your foe’s intentions.

As the bear again pushed forward, Viktor braced and planted his stance—staff lowered and readied to find its approaching target. Wisely, the bear hesitated, meeting Viktor’s jabbing lance with a well-timed swat of her paw. But before she could press any further, Viktor evaded in the direction of her blow, taking advantage of the bear’s weight and imbalance to grant himself a crucial moment to regroup. 

With each new attack, the bear always focused on Viktor’s staff. Fox-eyes sharp, hands pressed against the edge of the opened door, Yuuri recognized that she had shifted her priorities: rather than try to rush Viktor blindly, the bear sought to destroy his weapon, all while placing constant pressure on him to fight in too close of proximity or flee. She pursued Viktor calmly, yet consistently, swatting at his staff with a single wide paw and doggedly mirroring his swift evasions.

At each new approach, each quick swing of the claw, Viktor made small comments in Kiyevsky. 

It dawned on Yuuri that Viktor had been instructing her throughout the match.

The bear’s inability to land a true blow began to gnaw at her patience. Her swipes became more hurried and angry; grunts loosed from her mouth and snorted from her black nose. Soon, it was like she became possessed, eyes flashing and muscles jolting with every heavy step into the gravel. Yet the more she lost her cool, the more Viktor seemed to grow at ease, anticipating her movements with greater accuracy and efficiency; every so often he poked her with the end of the staff, apparently just to mess with her. 

Finally, the bear backed Viktor into a tighter space—towards the northern edge of the center sparring area. When Viktor stood his ground, the bear drew one massive paw up, lifting it nearly higher than her own head. Viktor kept the staff low, forward, and extended, its shaft in clear range of the bear’s mighty blow. But rather than lance her neck again, Viktor jabbed low and hard at the bear’s planted front leg, where all her forward weight rested.

The butt of the staff collided with the inside of the bear’s broad elbow, buckling her arm and toppling her front-side into the gravel. 

Under the bear’s incredible weight, Viktor’s staff snapped in two. Yet it seemed he had even anticipated that: without hesitation, he snatched the shorter, jagged-ended fragment out from beneath her, raised it high, then brought it down fast towards the base of the bear’s skull.

Viktor halted the point a hand’s-width above her head. He poked her like a child might bother an insect.

The bear’s body blurred and morphed in the sunlight—and then Mila lay in its place, her bare skin gleaming white and lightly coated in sweat and dust. “Vit-yaa,” she groaned, lengthening and enunciating each syllable in petulant displeasure. Above her, Viktor chuckled, then helped her up from the ground with his free hand. 

Once standing, Mila caught a robe that someone tossed her and put it on. Viktor threw the broken spear off to the side; it rolled away onto some distant gravel. A gentle, south-rushing breeze rustled through the courtyard, carrying sea-gusts and the saccharine hint of sweat. As Viktor pushed white-blond hair away from his damp face, Yuuri paralyzed to see those light-blue eyes flit across the veranda— his veranda—passing over Yuuri’s hiding place and the narrow slit of the open door.

Yet Viktor’s face did not change. The sun was already racing towards the horizon; Yuuri’s hiding spot was within shadow, dim beneath the broad sweep of a burnt-thatch awning. Even as Viktor walked closer, greeting his fellow Medvedya with small smiles and quick pats to the shoulder, Viktor’s expression looked much the same as ever. Someone offered him a clean linen, which Viktor draped over his shoulder; he turned his face aside to dab it with the cloth. When Viktor seemed so relaxed, it was easy for Yuuri to wind down the tenseness in his own form—to let his hands slide silently down the doorway, release his lip from between gritted teeth, and gladly forget himself, caught in the ways that Viktor smiled and spoke in these moments of friendly camaraderie.

Slowly, casually, Viktor walked up to the veranda. 

Yuuri held himself in utter stillness.

For a moment, Viktor stopped and stood in front of the lip of the raised walkway. Then he planted one hand onto the platform and hoisted himself up. Upon the veranda, Viktor settled into a relaxed and loose-limbed sprawl—one leg bent up, the other extended and hanging over the edge. 

Yuuri did not breathe. His lungs burned. He wasn’t sure how long he could hold it. If fate would have it, he’d simply die here, in the exact spot where his life’s anxieties and humiliations have reached their final apex.

He heard the slither of fabric as Viktor eased the linen off his shoulder. Then the low, satisfied breath as the man wiped the sweat from his brow, looking down onto the courtyard while new partners took center stage.

“How did I do?”

Yuuri’s heartbeat was deafening. It pounded through his skull like thunder.

“You saw the match,” Viktor said—voice a measured, pleased rumble. Yuuri could not move, not even to blink. “So, what did you think? Did my performance impress you?”

A helpless, muffled gasp escaped Yuuri’s mouth as he finally exhaled. To duller ears, it might have gone unnoticed—but not to Viktor’s. Yuuri knew better than that by now.

“I did not know you would be watching,” Viktor muttered, sounding almost conversational, “or I would have shown off a bit.”

Yuuri’s heartbeat was deafening, and his limbs were growing numb, and his childish game had been discovered—and yet, despite all that, he believed that Viktor must not know who he was speaking to. Yuuri’s face was hidden. His scent was downwind. Viktor must have heard his presence—Yuuri’s heartbeat was certainly loud enough to garner notice—and thought it would be fun to wander over and tease some nameless stranger for spying.

All of that must be true.

Fire burst through Yuuri’s bones and set his chest aflame as he heard a soft, pleading:

“Yuuri...”

His fox-eyes widened; his toes curled and his hands clenched into fists in his sleeves. Yet as he tensed, one sleeve bore resistance. Breathlessly, Yuuri saw that one of his long kimono sleeves had slipped through the crevice of the open door—its fabric shining vivid crimson in the last wisps of sunlight illuminating the courtyard.

And that Viktor stroked it between his fingers, pulling the silk with slow, gentle tugs. 

“Even if I cannot see you,” Viktor whispered, “won’t you speak to me?”

Yuuri jolted his arm away from the door.

The silk slipped hesitantly from Viktor’s grasp.

Slamming the door shut with a clack, Yuuri scrambled to a stand. His chest throbbed and his face scorched. Both hands rose to cover his gasping mouth. As he backed away from the door, stumbling over his kimono train, Yuuri stared at the shut door with fox-eyes unblinking. 

Viktor had caught him. He had known him. 

Yuuri half-wished he could wrench the door open and face the man shamelessly, calling his boldness with a courage of his own. But that was not who Yuuri was. He was a man of royalty, propriety, and timidness; he was a favored dancer and a conductor of rituals and a painted creature never to be seen. Even if Viktor teased him—or gave him tenderness, speaking his name in a voice that bore the weight of an inexplicable longing—Yuuri did not think he had the ability or daring to match it. 

So instead, Yuuri fled to his rooms.

He did not attend dinner that night.

[-]

Mere hours later, Yuuri sat alone by his futon, fresh from a long bath and combing oils through his long hair. A single lamp illuminated his bedroom; the fusuma doors shone gold, and the garden outside rung soft and pure with the song of crickets and a spatter of light rain.

“Your Grace?” Minami’s voice called out, hushed, on the other side of the inner screen door.

Yuuri set down his comb. “Yes?”

“I have… I brought something for you,” the young Corvus said bashfully. Yuuri had not heard that tone from him before. He frowned in confusion as he shuffled over to the door and slid it open.

Minami kneeled upon the floor of the hallway. Next to him, there was a large wooden box.

The box was wrapped in a broad, pure piece of uncut linen, almost like a bento. Right away, Yuuri wondered how heavy it was. From what he could see of the material exposed at the box’s top corners, it was built of a dark, rich, red-tinted wood; within, Yuuri spied intriguing hints of a pattern peeking through the linen covering.

As Yuuri studied the box in silence, Minami mumbled, “May I…?” and reached for the linen knot at the top of the box.

“Oh! Of course; bring it inside,” Yuuri said, hurrying to get out of the boy’s way. 

Minami bowed, then hoisted the box up. It seemed sturdy, though not so heavy that he couldn’t lift it. Perhaps if he had to lug the thing around for a long time—which, Yuuri realized, he might have—a beading of sweat would develop on the boy’s forehead. 

“Here is the note with it,” Minami muttered, cheeks flushing and eyes cast aside restlessly. 

Yuuri took the folded note from Minami’s proffering hands. “Thank you,” he said, then gave the boy a light, grateful smile. “Good night, Minami. I hope you rest well.”

Minami smiled back with a tight, closed-mouth expression. He bowed one final time, then excused himself, closing the door behind him.

For a moment, Yuuri only blinked at the shut door. He’d never seen Minami act so reserved before. He wondered what could have possibly spurred this, or what changed within him to cause such an altering of behavior. Perhaps, Yuuri thought, it had nothing to do with him; Minami was entitled to his own privacies and secret struggles. 

Yuuri glanced down at the box. Curious, he unraveled the knot, allowing the linen to rest flat onto the tatami below. 

The box was beautiful. Carvings of forests, rivers, blizzards, and joyful or raging animals rushed in hectic lines along its rows. Yuuri saw antlered bucks, snapping wolves, whirling ravens, and rearing bears, all caught mid-motion in a flurry and precisely carved likeness. Once he had studied the exterior of the wooden box thoroughly—running his fingers over its lovingly melded bumps, points, and crannies—Yuuri recalled the note. He unfolded the paper as carefully as he could.

My Dearest Yuuri, the letter began. 

With only that single line, Yuuri had to lower the paper and close his eyes. He knew instantly who the author was—even if he scarcely dared to believe.

Enclosed in this box, yours to keep, you will find a few humble offerings. 

With slow, shaky movements, Yuuri reached down to unlock the box’s small metal latch. As he pushed up the hinged lid, the prancing bucks and snarling bears felt animated and giddy under his fingers—a raucous yet silent festivity in a faraway, firelit forest. 

Within, Yuuri saw the first gift: a scroll of smooth, unblemished paper, tied up with a pale lace ribbon.

My first gift to you is paper.

Beneath the scroll, Yuuri found a collection of Western implements: a pair of steel scissors embellished with flowering vine motifs; an inkwell, carved of a cloudy charcoal-gray stone; and a feathered, metallic-tipped quill—something Yuuri had seen before in collections of Western curio, but never tried to utilize himself. 

With the scissors, you may trim the paper. With the ink and quill, you may write to me - scolding me for my presumptions, while I cherish your every word as a treasured horde. 

Yuuri set the gifts onto the splayed cloth with utmost care. Just to look upon these gifts, knowing they came from Viktor—were touched by him; set within the box by his gentle, pale, long-fingered hands—made tears well in Yuuri’s eyes and sweat gather at his palms.

Set under those gifts, there was another box: this one smaller, gilded in silver, and imprinted with the scene of a frozen lake nestled within snow-capped mountains.

In the second box, you will find a pair of cups.

Yuuri lifted the smaller box from the larger. He set it on his lap, placing Viktor’s letter to the side. Inside, the cups—two of them, about the same size as a typical sake cup—were crafted of a sort of multifaceted glass; but when Yuuri held one to the golden light, it sparkled and glimmered with a thousand prisms. 

In one of those cups, the letter read, you will find something that I made. Or, that I tried to make. Your mother showed me how.

Yuuri had to swallow down a sob of adoration as he lifted the final gift from its crystalline cradle: a tiny, clumsily made origami fox.

I do not always get things right, Viktor wrote, but I will do the best I can. For you, Yuuri, I desperately wish to try.

Yuuri balanced the delicate fox on his palm carefully, gingerly, even as his hand shook and his lip trembled. With his other hand, he clenched a sleeve and made sure his face was dry; it certainly felt like he would cry any moment now, with his eyes full and his heart dancing in his chest.

I pray that you will give me one of the cups someday, so that we may drink together again. But I know you have your pace. I will be patient, even as I await your reply with bated breath. 

As he finished the letter, tears trickled down Yuuri’s smiling face.

With love,

Viktor.