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The Bridge To You

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Part One: The Lord of the Lake and the Lonely King

[   Wherein Victor realises that he has made a grave mistake.   ]

 

 

On the morning after Victor breaks Yuuri’s heart, he is awoken by a bright beam of orange light.

It’s a rude awakening, to be sure. The light is punishing, sharp and gleaming, but when Victor turns his face he’s met with another flash: this time a wild, undulating blue. When he opens his eyes, he thinks perhaps he has lost his mind. All around him, the floor of the lake is scattered with glittering colours. They sparkle and shine in every direction, from shore to pine-ringed shore.

Once, one of the lovers that came to break the curse of the Rosengarten brought along a gift for the king the likes of which Victor had never seen before: a stained glass window, thin as a finger, bright as the setting sun. Yet even that prince’s bauble cannot compare to this. It is like he is living inside a cauldron of light.

“Undine, what unearthly magic have you wrought?” Georgi’s voice calls from the shore. Purple velvet edged in ermine spills over his shoulders, a bright silver crown topping his sweep of black hair.

“It wasn’t me,” Victor says, baffled. He swipes wet fingers over his eyes, disbelieving. “It was Yuuri.”

“Your mage did this for you?” the king asks. His voice is hard to read, but Victor does not need to parse his tone to know his heart. He knows well that jealousy is all Georgi feels for the love of others.

“Well,” Victor says, remembering the night before. A hot blush dusts his cheeks. “I don’t think he intended this, specifically…”

The king holds up a hand. “Say no more,” he says, turning his face away. “I cannot bear it.”

He leaves Victor to his bafflement, which is just as well. Victor doesn’t know how else he might explain what had passed between them the night before. He remembers how Yuuri looked: so beautiful he hardly seemed human, his pale cheeks dusted red with drink and exertion, his fawn-dark eyes wide in his face. He remembers the graceful motion of his arms, the way he moved as he wove the spell, like he was making music with his body.

Something had happened to Victor, watching him. He’d become overwhelmed. He’d felt frightened.

He isn’t sure he understands it, himself.

-*-

The second day after Victor breaks Yuuri’s heart, Victor is awoken by sobbing.

It is a familiar sound, so close to the Rosengarten. Victor thinks that perhaps that some would laugh to know how many of them came so close to breaking the curse, only to give up hope at the very end. This is, he knows, part of Georgi’s plan; all of the trials and tribulations to make it to the hidden lake, the tricks they must pull, the toil on the body to climb the sheer rock, the fata they must bribe for directions, only to find nothing here? It breaks something in the humans, to pull free of the thick ridge of the pine tree line and come upon…nothing. No castle, no garden, no ensorcelled lover walking peacefully amongst the flowers. Only this lake, and Victor, and the cliffs skirling up behind them.

Victor pities the ones who cry, especially the men. Human men are never allowed to cry, and so he has always taken it to mean that the situation is dire.

It’s not even morning, truly. The sun will rise soon, brightening the tips of the mountains and spilling pink down their faces, but for now there is nothing but the purple, starlit sky.

On the banks of Victor’s lake kneels a prince, crying fat tears into his reflection. His clothes are fine, bright green silk and black trim, with a gaudiness to them that offends Victor’s sensibilities. Still, he cannot help but swim closer, his tail propelling him slowly through the water until he is no more than a stone’s throw from the man.

“Good evening,” Victor says.

The man startles, rearing back. His eyes are bloodshot, even under the pale glow of the stars. “The Lady of the Lake!”

“Wrong lake,” Victor says easily, smiling. He shifts until his torso is out of the water, sweeping his silver hair back over his shoulders to reveal his face. “Are you here to break the curse?”

“Have you seen my Isabella?” the man asks. He clenches his fists before him, tears still streaming down his face. He could be handsome, if he wasn’t crying so. He is not a pretty crier. “Please, I’ll give you anything.”

“Well, that’s a foolish promise,” Victor tells him. “That’s the first rule of bargaining with the fair folk; never promise more than we demand.”

Astonishment flickers over the man’s face, until finally it is broken by laughter. He looks as though this, too, surprises him. “A good rule for any bargain. How wise you are, spirit.”

“I’m not a spirit either,” Victor says. He keeps his smile firmly affixed to his face. “You may call me Viktor Yakovlevich.”

“I am Jean-Jacques, le Prince de Navarre, Champion of Versailles, son of Alain le Roi and Nathalie le Reine de Navarre.” Victor does not know how humans can manage to remember all of their names. The prince tilts his head up at an angle, holding his hand out as if expecting Victor to kiss it. “I seek news of Isabella Yang, Comtesse de Champagne, the Pearl of the West.”

“I know no Isabella, but if you seek the Rosengarten, you have come to the right place,” Victor tells him, ignoring his hand. “If you have brought a blessing for the king, and your love is true, you will be reunited with your lover by the break of dawn.”

“My love is pure!” the prince tells him, standing. He points an imperious finger at Victor. “How dare you question my love for the Comtesse?”

Victor tilts his head to the side, amused. “Your lover would never have been taken if the King of the Rosengarten did not see fit to test your love,” he explains patiently.

“And who is he, to test the love of another?” Prince Jean-Jacques demands. “Is he the arbiter of truth, then? Who is he to interfere?”

Victor opens his mouth, then closes it again. He presses one finger to his lips in thought.

He does not have an answer. He has often thought this himself, and frequently argued with Georgi about his methods. He certainly knows what Yuuri thinks about it.

“You will see,” the prince tells him. He nods, once, as though he has decided. “I’m going to give this king of yours a piece of my mind.”

“He’s not my king,” Victor huffs. “No one is the king of me.”

Prince Jean-Jacques favours him with the strangest of looks, then. He frowns, tipping his head to the side. Then he laughs. It’s a small, bitter thing, much less brash than Victor might have expected from a man such as this.

“How nice for you,” he says, and he sounds like he means it. “What a life that must be, to be bound by nothing.”

“You are to be king in your land,” Victor says, confused. “What are you bound by?”

“Everything,” Prince Jean-Jacques tells him. He takes a seat on the shore once again, leaning back on his hands. Dark blue eyes trace the veins of the sky. “I am bound by duty to my people. I am bound by the law of the land. I am bound to my position.”

“And by love,” Victor adds, but the prince shakes his head. He turns to look at Victor, and for a moment, he is almost beautiful. His smile is bright, and real, and wide.

“Not at all, Victor Yakovlevich,” he tells him, and his eyes are strangely kind. “Isabella is the only thing in the world that makes me feel free.”

 


 

On the third day, Yuuri still does not come.

Victor waits. He brushes his hair out on the rocks, watching the setting sun fade slowly over the mountains. He listens for the sound of footsteps, a sweet voice calling to him over the water, the shine of bark-brown eyes behind thick glass spectacles. He lets the water lap at his waist as he sings, the sweet song that always called his mage to him. He hears the howling from the pine woods in answer, but the wolves that sing his song back to him are nothing like Makkachin’s barking cry.

Under the water, colours like Victor has never seen dance, shifting kaleidoscopic over the scales of roving fish as the sun moves through the sky. At sunset, the whole lake springs alight with the sheen of the gems scattered in the water; bright reds, solid golds, deep blues.

Over the ridge, the Rosengarten appears, and Georgi waves a hand from beyond the blooms.

“Victor,” he calls. “Where is your suitor? I have seen hide nor hair of him for many days, now.”

“I do not know,” Victor tells him.

“Perhaps he grew tired of chasing you,” the king says, and Victor frowns.

“Any gentleman knows he must work for love.”

“I have watched him work, and overwork,” Georgi replies, eyes crinkled with sorrow. “A true gentleman does not go where he does not believe he is wanted.”

“You are one to talk,” Victor snaps, “trying to keep lovers apart with your nasty glamours.”

“And how many times have you turned the magus away?” Georgi asks him. “I called out to the capercaillie and the lammergeier, and they have sung into my ear. I have heard of the bridge he built for you, and how you spurned him. I have always said that your impetuous heart will cost you.”

Victor does not want to talk to Georgi anymore. Instead he dives beneath the water, swimming low enough to the lake floor that he can hold his hands out to the sides. He imagines the light is Yuuri’s magic, twining over him, into him, through him.

Vitya, he hears, and he closes his eyes, listening. Vitya, you’re all I ever wanted.

Tomorrow Yuuri will come. He is sure of it.

-*-

“It must be nice, living in a lake.”

Victor shrugs. He is watching Prince Jean-Jacques try to weave a shirt from stinging nettles. This is a favoured task of Georgi’s, often given to the most handsome of men. Victor suspects that he hopes that their blistering, calloused fingers will somehow make them less appealing. To his knowledge, this has never worked.

Victor likes this human, though, because he is clever. He spent the afternoon oiling his gloves, lighting a small fire. He applied wax to the fingertips, like thimbles, then melted it into a fine, even coat. Now he wears them as he weaves the stems together, tighter and more uniform after Victor’s careful instructions. It’s ugly, but it will pass muster, Victor thinks.

If only the prince was less arrogant.

“No one can bother you here,” Prince Jean-Jacques says. He scrunches his nose up, trying to resist a sneeze. “I think I am allergic to these plants.”

“You’re here,” Victor points out.

The prince winces. “Yes, well.” He clears his throat. “You’re looking for a mage, aren’t you?”

“Have you seen him?” Victor asks, curious now. “He is shorter than you, with a pale, round face. Like the moon.”

“Spectacles?” Prince Jean-Jacques asks, and Victor blinks, nodding eagerly. “Yes, I passed him actually, on the path. He was heading the other way.” He frowns, fiddling with a particularly difficult knot. Then he glances up at Victor from between his furrowed brows. “Were you expecting him here soon?”

“Why do you ask?” Victor asks. Something pained flutters in his chest, unlike anything he ever felt before he met Yuuri. It’s the feeling he gets when he sees Yuuri cry.

“Well,” the prince says carefully, “he seemed to be leaving, is all.”

Victor stares at him. His tail lashes fitfully in the shallow water. “What do you mean, leaving?”

“He had his horse, and a pack mule, and a dog. They were pretty well laden down. They were heading down that terrifying path to the south.”

“What?” Victor says. He sits up, curling his tail under him. “What do you mean? Where was he going? What did he say?”

Prince Jean-Jacques’ hands still. The shirt falls into his lap, his eyes crinkling at the corners with kindness. “Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry. It isn’t nice at all, is it?”

“What do you mean?” Victor says again. He is beginning to get very impatient, now. “Explain yourself.”

Price Jean-Jacques pulls his gloves off his hands, then stands. He slips one shoe off, then the other. He rolls up his pants. Then he approaches Victor like he is a skittish horse, hands out.

“Do you need a hug?” he asks,

“Why would I need a hug?” Victor asks. He plasters his best smile on his face, trying to disguise the shaking of his hands. “Did he tell you where he was going, or not?”

The prince should look very silly, standing in water up to his knees, his hands spread out as though he is trying to capture the sky. Instead, he just looks pitying.

“You love him,” he says with that irritating confidence of his, “and you are trapped here, whilst he moves on.”

“That’s not true,” Victor stammers. He slithers back, into the safety of deeper waters. “You humans, you always lie.”

“It is no lie, Victor Yakovlevich,” the prince says. His voice is so pitying. Victor wants to scream. “I saw a mage travelling down the mountain. His tent was with him. His pots and pans. Everything one would need to make camp was on his mule’s back.”

“No,” Victor says. It is that simple. It cannot be true. “No. Yuuri will come.”

-*-

A week passes, and Prince Jean-Jacques finishes weaving his nettle shirt by starlight. Victor sings, and sings, and does not once hear the barking of a dog. He does not see Yuuri, does not hear his sweet laugh, does not smell his scent on the wind.

“I would offer to take you with me, but how would you travel?” the prince muses.

Victor ignores him, as he always does when he tries to bring up Yuuri. Yuuri will come back. He knows he will.

You are marvellous, Yuuri had told him. Surely, if he was marvellous, Yuuri would come back.

But two more weeks pass, and Yuuri does not come back. Prince Jean-Jacques stitches what must surely be a hundred thousand fish scales into an impossible, gleaming cloak of velvet, making starlight out of nothing but a scrap of fabric and what they could find at the bottom of the lake.

“That’s not how I would have done it,” Victor muses, “but I suppose it will do.”

“Why, thank you,” Prince Jean-Jacques says, grinning. He holds the cloak up to the light. “It will look beautiful on Isabella.”

Victor cannot disagree. He has never seen the Comtesse Isabella, but he cannot imagine such an extraordinary garment would look bad on anyone.

“Why do you think he does it?” the prince asks him.

“Who?”

“King Popovich. Why does he force lovers apart like this?” Prince Jean-Jacques sounds less angry than he did at the start. Instead, he seems confused. “He’s not unkind. I came ready to duel with him, but he’s not cruel. I can’t understand him.”

“I think he’s lonely,” Victor admits, pressing a finger to his mouth in thought. “He’s been like this since we were children.”

“It must be lonely, living so long without someone to love,” Prince Jean-Jacques says, nodding. “That is sad.”

“Is it sad?” Victor doesn’t know. After all, he’s only ever lived as he is now.

The prince turns to look at him, expression soft in the way it has been since they first spoke of Yuuri. “You have lived in this lake all your life. We mortals come and go. What of friends? What of lovers? The faces change, the times, the fashions, and yet you remain.”

“I have friends,” Victor says, smiling widely. He thinks of the king, of Yura and the witch Babicheva. He thinks of Yuuri’s smile.

He thinks of the tears leaking in fat tracks over Yuuri’s beautiful pale cheeks. He thinks of the deafening sound of the bridge shattering above him as he fled from Yuuri’s outstretched hands.

He thinks of Yuuri walking away from him, riding a horse far away, where Victor cannot go.

Oh, he thinks. I love him.

And then, Damn.

Damn.

He thinks of Yuuri watching him run away, time and time again.

“He gave up,” he realises, and the sound of the words echoes inside of him. “He gave up on me, because I hurt him.”

His eyes sting. It feels as though a rock has lodged itself in his throat, and all Victor can think is, Not here. Not like this.

“I hurt him,” he says. “I hurt him, and so he left me.”

He glances up at Prince Jean-Jacques through unfocussed eyes. Before he can speak, the man has rolled up his pants, slipped off his shoes. He splashes into the water, and this time Victor holds still as he draws Victor into his chest with a soft sigh. He smells like oil, and human musk, and conditioning wax. It’s a strangely humble scent for such an ostentatious man, and Victor presses his face into the prince’s chest and lets out a shaking breath. Only for a moment. Please, just give me this one moment of weakness.

“I’m sorry,” Victor tells him, when he pulls back enough to speak. He offers him his best smile. “That was silly of me.”

“No,” the prince says, “Isabella always tells me that it’s alright to cry. She says that it’s healthy to express the full range of emotion, and not to bottle it all up inside.”

“She sounds very wise,” Victor laughs, pulling away, and Prince Jean-Jacques smiles dreamily.

“She is,” he says. “And beautiful, and smart, and so graceful.”

Victor listens to the prince wax poetic about his intended with half an ear. He tips backwards in the water to float on his back and stare at the bright blue sky, the slow progression of the clouds.

What a fool I am, he thinks, watching the clouds change shape. I’m no better than my father, after all.

 

Chapter Text

Interlude: Once Upon A Time

[   Wherein Victor’s origins are illuminated.   ]

 

There are two ways that any fairy tale can end.

In the first, the girl dies. These are the stories that mortals do not like to tell their children, anymore. They like to give them hope, to make them think that magic is a wonderful dream and that anything is possible. Mortal children need these stories. They are weak that way.

A fata, of course, knows better. She knows that sometimes, beauty is a curse cast on a woman to make her life a difficult misery. She knows that sometimes, men like to hurt beautiful things. Only sometimes.

Sometimes, once is enough.

-*-

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful rusalka: the most beautiful in all of Ruthenia. She was known by her long, silver hair, and her voice, which was so sweet it could make the hardest of hearts weep with tears of joy.

But you know this story, already. It is the story of every fata and selkie and húlíjīng from the river of Cathures to the mountains of Toisan. In one telling, a prince, or a lord, or a powerful merchant sees a beautiful creature. He wishes to possess it. In another, an immortal beauty sees a single, ordinary mortal, and she loves him on sight. The secret is in the telling. Who decides which story is true?

But we are not concerned with truth, in this story. What matters in this tale is this: in this story, the rusalka dies of heartbreak, and leaves behind a child.

This is his story, now. His name is Victor, and his heartbreak is yet to come.

Chapter Text

Part Two: The Fearsome Shifter and the Flame-haired Witch

[   Wherein Victor must ask for help from some old friends.   ]

 

Victor cannot leave the lake.

He has never left the lake. A lake, you see, has a border on all sides. It is nothing like a river, which flows like a road. A lake is a place to trap a beautiful fish and keep it forever, ever circling, ever moving.

This has never bothered Victor before. After all, the lake is breathtakingly gorgeous, every moment of every day. All around, the Dolomites rise like jagged shark’s teeth, many-ridged and shining. In the noon sun, the light looks like liquid gold melting down the sheer cliff faces. At high moon, the lake becomes a perfect mirror, mother of pearl and winking diamonds scattered across its face. And at sunset and sunrise, the sheer rock is bathed with golds and reds, and the lake becomes a smooth stone, and over the crest of the hill, the Rosengarten appears in all its velvet-petalled glory.

For too long, Victor has been a stupid fish, caught by glittering, shiny things. Now, he knows better; no matter how gilded, a cage is still a cage. His lake has kept him safe by keeping him trapped, but no longer.

Victor cannot leave the lake, but he knows one who can.

“Yura,” he calls, cupping his hand over his mouth. He sings out, long, mournful notes that he knows will carry far over the mountain. His eyes scan the sky, searching. “Yura, pozhaluysta. Yura, pomogite. Yura. Yura. Yura.

Victor does not know how long he sings. Long enough for his limbs to grow heavy, his eyes drooping. Long enough for the sun to inch its way across the sky. It is long enough that he begins to wonder if his calling is a waste of time, or if perhaps he should try to coax the Rosengarten’s king into helping him. Georgi and Victor have never been close. The young king was always jealous of Victor’s relationship with Yakov, and he does not like that Victor is always thwarting his plans now. But still, Victor thinks Georgi might help him. Surely he would do that much, at least.

A white bird crests over the trees, its long neck bowed down towards the lake’s surface. The sun gleams bright over one shoulder, silver and gold shimmering over the elegant s-curve of the swan’s neck. It dips down, spiralling, and then makes its landing: skidding across the surface of the water and sending gleaming streams of water arcing through the golden sunlight.

“You are always so dramatic,” Victor tells the swan with a huff.

Yura squawks, offended. “Look who’s talking, old man.” He flaps his wings once, twice, to rid himself of excess water. He stretches his long, white neck side to side. “What have you called me all the way out here, for?”

“I need to speak to the witch Babicheva,” Victor tells him.

Yura cannot really gape in this form, but his beak drops open regardless. The expression he fixes Victor with is beady-eyed and stern.

“What do you want with the old hag?” he asks flatly.

Victor sniffs, turning onto his back and staring up at the clouds. “I require legs.”

“You what?”

Victor does not repeat himself. He knows his friend heard him.

“What do you need legs for?” Yura demands.

“I need to travel.”

“Travel where?”

“Anywhere I need to go,” Victor tells him. He smiles, thinking of Yuuri’s blush. He knows it will infuriate Yura more than anything.

“Don’t pull that elusive fae bullshit with me, Victor,” Yura snaps. “What is going on?”

“I’ve never left the lake,” Victor says, shrugging. He turns back over and offers Yura a bright grin. “I want to go exploring! It’ll be interesting. I’m sure I’ll learn many things.”

“That’s the most blatant half-truth I’ve ever heard,” Yura sneers. He’s incensed, now. “I’ve told you for years you should come exploring with me. Get out. See the world. Now you’re just going to go on your own, for no reason other than it’ll be interesting? You’re a horrible liar.”

“Well, that would be because I can’t lie,” Victor deadpans, and Yura squawks angrily. He sweeps a wing forward, splashing Victor in the face.

“Don’t forget you called for my help!” Yura shouts at him. “Ungrateful old bastard! See if I help you!”

“That is very unkind of you,” Victor simpers, and Yura snarls at him. His feathers shift to a bright, alarming orange. “Don’t forget you’re in the water.”

Yura shudders, his whole body twitching. His feathers bleed back to white. “You’re an ass.”

“Incomparable,” Victor agrees, and Yura ruffles his feathers in pique. “Will you speak to the witch Babicheva for me?”

Yura is silent for a long time. His blue eyes are narrow in his small, white face. He tilts his head, wings rustling.

“She’ll require a price,” Yura warns him, and Victor nods. “Victor. What are you doing?”

“Learning something new,” Victor says. It sounds strange, in his mouth. After all these years, he hadn’t thought there was more to learn.

And yet. He thinks of Prince Jean-Jacques: his strange amalgamation of kind earnestness and oblivious arrogance. He thinks of everything he’s learned from all of the lovers that have come through these woods to reach the Rosengarten.

“You’re playing the fool,” Yura tells him. He opens his wings wide. “It will take me two days to fetch her.”

“Plenty of time to plan my trip, then,” Victor says brightly. He offers Yura a grin. “See you soon!”

“Batty old man,” Yura snarls at him. He flaps his wings once, twice, lifting off from the surface of the lake and disappearing into the hot glare of the sun. “Consider what your legs are worth!”

Victor smiles thinly, shaking his head. He slips under the water, until only his eyes sit above the line, the gleam of light off the surface near-blinding.

Whatever the cost, he is willing to pay it. He will not fail Yuuri again.

 


 

It takes Yura three days to return with the witch Babicheva.

In the interim, Victor settles his heart by assisting the prince in his quest.

“Please, call me JJ,” the prince tells him one night.

He’s drunk, mostly. It’s not the first time Victor has seen a human drunk. (He remembers Yuuri, flushed pink and laughing, his eyes gleaming like topaz in the bright firelight. It sends a shiver of something hot and sweet careening through him, curling into his stomach like an eel.) It is, however, impressive how much alcohol the prince had put away before reaching this point.

The third task, Victor knows, is always the hardest. He himself has not quite picked apart the riddle of Georgi’s newest quest, which was not eminently comforting to the prince. Thus, here they are: one drunk human prince, and one pining rusalka who has never quite found the pleasure of drink.

“It doesn’t taste very good,” Victor explains to him, slowly. His tongue feels like lead in his mouth.

“You’d like mead, I think,” the prince tells him. “It is sweet, like the juice of ripe fruit.”

“That sounds better,” Victor agrees. Despite this, he takes another swig of the bracing liquid that sloshes within the prince’s canteen. “Names are important to us, you know.”

“I know,” he says. “But you have helped me in my quest to recover my love, and so you should call me as my friends do.”

“Friends,” Victor says. He rolls over onto his back in the shallow water that kisses the lakeshore. He’s mostly sitting on the bank, only the very tip of his tail submerged. In the moonlight, his scales gleam an arresting silver.

You’re like a star fallen to earth, Yuuri had told him, wide-eyed and beaming. All silver and shining.

“You seem like you need friends,” the prince tells him, serious and slow. He furrows his dark brows at Victor. “You seem…lonely.”

“Do I?” Victor asks. He presses one finger to his mouth, considering. “I suppose this life is all I’ve known.”

“So you’ve been lonely all your life,” JJ tells him, sadly enough.

Victor contemplates this. “How do I know if I’ve been lonely?” he asks.

JJ hums softly: a surprisingly sweet, thinking sound. He pokes at his fire, sending sparks of gold floating up into the starry sky. “Well,” he says. He glances sideways at Victor. “How did you feel, when your mage was beside you? And how do you feel, now that he has gone? Did you feel like there was something missing, or that you ached but you could not understand why? And then, when your mage was with you, did you feel whole?” He smiles: a small, shy kind of thing. “That is how Isabella makes me feel.”

Talking about Yuuri is still hard, for Victor, but JJ has grown on him. Like a fungus, he can hear something that sounds unaccountably like Yura hiss in his mind’s ear. He smiles, and pushes it aside.

Victor considers Yuuri’s small smile, and the way his eyes crinkle at the edges when he laughs. He remembers the way his fingers felt in Victor’s, skin soft and wrinkled after too long in the water.

He considers his childhood: long days alone in the lake, waiting desperately for dusk to come so that Yakov could come to the water’s edge and see to his crying. He considers the howling gale of grief that had lived inside of him in those days, thinking of how it had dulled over the years into a small ache in his chest. He thinks of how Yuuri’s smile felt like a balm on a wound, like kelp packed soothing and cool against a jagged tear in his scaled hide.

“Lonely,” Victor says, trying the word out. He nods, once. “Yes.”

The prince nods back, as though something has been settled between them. “If you have need,” he says, “you are welcome in Versailles. You would like it there, I think. We have gardens so magnificent that kings and emperors have come the world over to see them. We have a hall that is only mirrors, so that it looks as though it goes on forever. And there is a forest, too, and a great, man-made lake.”

“Could you be happy there, without your lover?” Victor asks him, and JJ smiles ruefully at him. The shape of it feels wrong on his face, so often brash and joyful.

“Ah,” he says, “you’re learning.”

 


 

The witch Babicheva is the most irreverent creature Victor has ever met, which is most of why he likes her. She takes one look at him, tosses her flame-coloured hair out of her face with a huff, and then plops herself down on the bank.

“You’re a fool, Vitya,” she tells him.

“Perhaps,” he agrees.

Yura is sitting on the bank in his little cat form, his long black tail swishing angrily. Incongruously, beside him sits JJ, a wet cloth pressed to his forehead. He’s a bit hung over, which Victor has never witnessed. The new knowledge makes him question the wisdom of all humans. Why drink something that tastes terrible if it makes you look like death has come to press a kiss to your brow in the night?

“You’re in love,” she observes, and Yura lets out a sound like he has been stepped on. “How did that happen?”

Victor smiles, and does not answer. He knows precisely how mysterious most humans find this. It does not work on the witch Babicheva, of course, but it will certainly annoy Yura.

“You’re doing this for love?” Yura skirls. JJ winces at the timbre of his voice. “You- you liar! I would have never helped you with something so stupid!”

“Now, Yura,” Victor says, turning his smile to his friend, “don’t tell me you didn’t suspect.”

Yura hisses, all the fur pricking up on his back. He looks angry, and all the more uncommonly beautiful for it.

“What do you need from me?” Victor asks the witch. She has never been anything other than direct, which is precisely what he needs, now. “What will be the price?”

For a moment, all she does is study him. Her eyes narrow, green as the new spring stalks that sprout from the trees. Her ageless, beautiful face shifts in the bright sun, becoming lined and gnarled. She looks old, and strangely tired.

“If I give you this,” she tells him, “you cannot undo it. The price you must pay to me will always be paid.”

“What is the price?” Victor asks. He is glad the water carries him: the better to disguise the shaking of his hands. “Tell me, what is the price?”

From the folds of her dark gown, the witch withdraws a long pair of silver shears. She holds them up to the light, and for a moment, the near-violent flash of them across his eyes reminds Victor of waking up that first day without Yuuri.

“My hair,” he says, and the witch purses her lips.

Victor nods, once. He takes a slow breath, closing his eyes, letting the air fill his lungs to the brim. He tips onto his back, feels the water draw his long hair around him one last time, the way it tingles against his scalp, makes him feel safe and held.

Then he laughs, turning over and swimming to the bank.

“Well,” he says brightly, winking at JJ, “I thought it would be my voice. This is much better!”

“Victor,” JJ says quietly. He rubs a hand over his face.

Yura turns around and leaves without a word.

“Do you consent to the exchange?” the witch Babicheva asks him.

Victor turns, smiles at her. He swims as close as he can, then turns so that she may reach the back of his head.

“I do,” Victor says.

“It will not grow back.”

“Are you stalling for time?” Victor asks. “Perhaps you cannot grant me legs, after all.”

There is a sound, then, like the wind through rushes. Victor, who has never once been cold in his life, feels the breeze prickle across his arms like gooseflesh. Still, he has never been more grateful for the witch’s stern, quietly amused bearing.

There are no more words, then: only the sound as the witch braids his hair, loose and gentle. She secures the end of the wet braid with twine. She murmurs words Victor has never heard, words that chill him to the bone; some of them sound like the screeching of crows, some the creak of old trees in strong winds. Finally, the cool metal brushes the thin skin at the back of his neck as the witch makes the first cut.

-*-

Afterwards, Victor lays on his back in the water. He watches the clouds pass by overhead, letting the cauldron of the valley hold him close. This may well be the last time he ever feels this peace again.

“I’m going to the castle,” JJ tells him, and Victor raises his head. He flips his body over in the cool water. The prince stands on the shore, clad in the starlight cloak. He looks determined, but his eyes shine bright with something Victor is beginning to suspect is love. He wonders if his own eyes have looked like that. He knows for certain he’s seen such a look on Yuuri. “I’ve cracked the last riddle.”

“Congratulations!” Victor crows, eyes wide. He’s happy for his new friend, truly. “Wow!”

“Thank you,” JJ preens, and Victor laughs at him. “I…I wanted you to know, I meant what I said.”

“Oh?”

“We can take you with us, when we leave,” the prince says impatiently. He rubs at the back of his neck, awkward. “You…something might happen to you, travelling alone.”

“Ah,” Victor says. Warmth blooms in his chest, bright and shining as the midday sun. “I…that would be good. Yes.”

“Good,” JJ says gruffly. He glances down at Victor’s tail, his mouth curling. Then he pulls his hands out from under his cloak, and tosses a pair of trousers on one of the flat rocks that line the banks of the lake. “For when you come out. You should practice walking. I think we are about the same size.”

“I’m taller,” Victor says, and JJ huffs.

“Unfairly,” he says, which doesn’t make any sense to Victor. What is unfair about his height? “Look, it doesn’t matter once you get the boots on. Just…try the trousers. If we’re going to travel together… I’ll be back by morning.”

“Okay,” Victor says softly. He offers the prince a small smile, then. This part he remembers well. For a moment, every other lover that has come to this lake flashes to mind, layering over the silhouette of the prince in the shrinking sunlight like an echo. “I wish you the best of luck, Prince Jean-Jacques. May you be reunited with your love.”

JJ laughs: a loud, startled bark of sound that echoes eerily over the lake. “Those that follow me will be much poorer for want of your guidance.”

Victor takes a breath, because he has thought of that. “I must go,” he tells him.

“I know,” JJ says simply. He nods. “I shall see you soon, my friend.”

Victor watches him walk away, up and up, smaller and smaller, until he crests the hill where the sun touches the land at dusk and dawn. There, the Rosengarten unfolds before him, roses revealed by the play of sunlight on pink stone, stems curling down in shadow to kiss the ground. The castle rises up out of invisible mist, as though the shift of colour revealed what had once been obscured by a trick of the light.

“King Popovich!” JJ shouts, loud enough to echo across the lake, and Victor smiles. “I have come to free my love!”

The gates swing open. A path appears, the rose-thorns parting to reveal a slender trail down which the prince might reach the castle.

JJ takes one last look over his shoulder. He raises a hand. Then he turns, and disappears into the Rosengarten.

Chapter Text

Part Three: The Prince and His Lady

[   Wherein Victor receives help from those he helped before.   ]

 

They do not speak as JJ helps Victor pack. The moment is fragile, filled with hope and trepidation, and so silence rings the mirrored lake as they fold and wind, nestle and tuck away. Overhead, the sun is just beginning to touch the tops of the mountains, painting the sheer stone a pale gold. The trees bow to the wind, and Victor pauses for a moment with his long, pale fingers wrapped around a pair of warm woollen socks. He will miss this place, which has been his home since before JJ’s great-grandfather first held court over the lands to the west. He does not know if he will ever return to it.

Many of these things Victor has never seen before, and must learn the names of: climbing rope, tent pole, compass. Some, like the small camp stove and flint box, he has seen held in the hands of humans, but never himself used.

“We can only take you as far as Trento,” Comtesse Isabella says, her voice clear as a bell. It rings out across the water, breaking the silence of the morning, and startles a sedge of bitterns off the water. Victor turns his head to her and nods. “We must return to our people.”

“Be glad we’re taking you,” JJ says, grumpy in the early hour. Victor pays no attention to his posturing. He cannot lie to Victor with his words. Victor has seen him on his knees, sobbing for Comtesse Isabella. He has felt JJ embrace him when he was on the verge of tears. He knows that JJ believes in true love. Without such a belief, he never would have been able to circumvent the curse. That has always been the way of the Rosengarten.

Still, Victor does not remind JJ that he is owed a debt. Victor is learning the power that his words hold.

“You must take the gems left for you by your lover,” JJ says, and Victor blinks at him. “They are yours, and you will need them in your travels. You have no money, Victor. How else are you to walk amongst men?”

“People will be kind, because he is pretty,” Comtesse Isabella teases, her eyes gleaming. She thinks she is being witty, Victor knows, but instead he just feels quietly ashamed.

“They will be unkind, because he is pretty, too,” JJ tells her, and there is the crux of it. That is nothing if not the truth Victor knows in his bones. “Can you ride?”

“I have only donned legs yesterday,” Victor reminds him, and Comtesse Isabella covers her mouth with one fine, gloved hand. It is less to hide the laugh than it is to provide some semblance of pretence that she is not laughing at her fiancé. JJ frowns at Victor, but his expression when he looks at Comtesse Isabella is nothing if not sweet, doting.

Victor remembers warm brown eyes staring at him from across the gleaming waters of the lake, and feels a curl of bitterness settle deep in his gut.

“We will have to teach you, then,” he says, and Victor shrugs.

“I can speak to all my brothers and sisters, of wind or wood or water,” he says, easily. “How difficult can it be?”

-*-

Victor is not very good at riding, as it turns out.

By the end of the day, his entire body aches. His legs feel like they are going to burn up and die with bright, moaning pain. His back is one long line of fire, his eyes squeezed shut as he climbs off of his horse and settles onto his wobbling, aching feet.

“What part of the body is this?” Victor asks, thumbs digging into the top of a slab of muscle that has been screaming at him for the past four hours. It hurts more than almost anything has ever hurt in Victor’s long life.

“That’s called a thigh,” Comtesse Isabella tells him, eyes dancing with laughter. She points to her own legs, leaning down to demonstrate. “Below that is your shin. Then your calf. Ankles. Feet. Toes.”

“I know those last ones,” Victor tells her, snappish.

Food. Mela whinnies at him, and Victor pets her nose, contrite. It’s not anyone’s fault but his own that he’s here, now. Warm. Dry. Food.

“How do I take care of her?” Victor asks, and so while JJ sets to making camp, Comtesse Isabella shows him how to brush Mela’s fur free of sweat and dust, how to remove her saddle, how to tie her up loose enough that she has space to graze. Victor takes her to drink in the nearby river, and afterwards he calls for some time alone. He strips off his new clothes, glad to be free of their unfamiliar itching and scratching, and instead slips into the cool balm of the river.

Under the water, his legs disappear from beneath him. He does not truly know how the witch Babacheva’s spell shifts him from one form to the other, but his hair was a fine price to pay to be able to travel. Victor would have paid much more.

Still, he misses the pure, clear water of his lake. Here, the current distorts the rocks below, changing them. The swiftness of it is something Victor must swim against, and he misses the feeling of lying on his back in still water, the clouds drifting by above him, everything perfect and still.

“Ah, a painting never changes,” he tells Mela. She nickers at him, but otherwise does not seem interested in his statements. Victor supposes that horses do not think on immortality, much. It is beyond her concern. “A painting is less beautiful than the real thing, no? Trees grow and live and slumber. They die, too.” He smiles thinly. “It is me, truly, who is the unnatural one.”

Eventually, the water becomes cold, which has never happened to Victor before. He supposes it is a result of the magic, but it just serves as another reminder that this body is not as he meant it to be.

He does not know how he feels about this new body. He knows that he is still beautiful, despite everything. He knows that his mouth, his eyes, his nose still hold the same shape. He knows that the way his voice sounds is still pleasing. Still, he cannot quite reconcile the way his head feels weightless as it moves. He is used to the heavy drag of water through its long silver strands. He is used to the way it felt in his fingers when he combed it. Every so often, he moves to work his fingers through and startles when the slip of it across his skin ends earlier than expected. He feels…cheated, perhaps. Wrong.

He pulls himself out of the water and stretches, drying himself with the cloth JJ had provided him with for just such a purpose. He pulls his clothes back on, fiddling with the straps a little, then returns with Mela to the campsite.

There, Comtesse Isabella sits with her weaving, letting the rich threads fall over her fingers. She turns and offers him a small smile.

“Feel better?” she asks, and Victor nods.

“Something about the water,” he says, shrugging. “It is like my legs are new again.”

“Handy,” JJ says, sounding a little gruff. He stirs the pot that hangs over the fire with an uncommon viciousness. Victor turns to him, curious.

“Why have you been so cross all day?” Victor asks him. “Have I done something to displease you?” He doesn’t quite understand; they got along so well, these past few weeks.

The Comtesse laughs: a small, tinkling sound. “He’s a little jealous,” she says, “and feeling insecure. You are very beautiful, Victor Yakovlevich.”

“Why be jealous now?” Victor wonders, and JJ huffs, frowning.

“I’m not jealous,” he mutters. It is not very convincing.

“Well,” Comtesse Isabella says, her eyes gleaming with mischief, “I wasn’t there, before.”

“I don’t understand,” Victor confesses, and the Comtesse offers him a sparkling grin.

“He’s jealous because, foolishly, he is worried that I will think you are more beautiful than him. And he loves me. See?” Her voice is patient, which is very good, because Victor feels incredibly foolish.

“No,” he admits. “I love Yuuri. That’s why I’m here. And you love JJ, or he couldn’t have broken the curse. What cause does he have to be jealous?”

“Feelings aren’t rational,” the Comtesse says, giggling as though Victor has said something unbelievably naïve. He likely has. He is not good at this sort of thing. If he was, he would have never broken Yuuri’s trust.

“I can hear you both, you know,” JJ snipes, and the Comtesse laughs again. “I’m not jealous.”

“Maybe he’s also a little jealous because I like you, and you were his friend first,” Comtesse Isabella adds helpfully, and JJ throws up his hands.

“I’m not jealous!” he roars, and both Victor and the Comtesse break out into giggling. For a moment, JJ glares at both of them. Then his mouth quirks, and then he, too is laughing: great big bales of it, loud enough to startle a parliament of pygmy owls into the purpling dusk light.

He remembers, suddenly, his conversation with JJ about loneliness. Laughter had never been a frequent part of his days. How strange, to realise so late that one’s life had been without regular gleanings of joy.

That evening, JJ rolls out Victor’s bedding for him, and helps him to be as comfortable as possible. He even tucks Victor in. It is the closest approximation of an apology that he thinks the prince can manage. Victor knows that this might bother someone else, but he doesn’t mind; he’s always been one for action over word.

 


 

It takes several long days to get to Trento. Mostly, they follow the snaking path of the river. The narrow path that tracks through the mountainside is slow going, and difficult terrain for the horses. In many places, all three of them dismount, picking carefully over narrow and rocky ledges. Once, the path shifts so steep that the river becomes something of a waterfall, the trail doubling back on itself in zig-zagging lines so as to create a passable incline. Here, they pause while Victor strips down to his skin, the Comtesse Isabella’s face hidden in JJ’s shoulder. He dives into the river with abandon, following the rush of water over the edge and down to the bottom with something like joy curling in his stomach. His heart flies into his mouth with the shock of it. It’s the most exhilarating thing he’s ever felt in his life.

They take lunch at the base of the waterfall, that day. It’s as much to give the horses time to recover from the descent as it is to breathe, to let Victor dry some, and to take in the beauty of their surroundings. JJ and the Comtesse join Victor in the water, too, their smallclothes clinging to them as they splash each other and give chase through the river. The waterfall has created a deep pool over time, the descent of the water beating the rock into a wide, yawning bowl. Victor ducks down into the deepest part of it, trailing his fingers over the rocks he finds: they’ve been worn completely smooth, beautiful and polished under his fingertips. Some of them are striated and veined as the rocks that line his lake, and he gathers a few for his friends before turning towards the surface.

Above him, he can see two figures entwined into one shape, legs brushing against each other. The prince’s arm is wrapped around the Comtesse’s waist, fingers splayed low over her back. A high laugh travels through the water, distorted by the thundering rush of the waterfall.

Victor is no blushing virgin. He has lived a long time, and met many a lover who was swayed by his beauty after coming upon the tests of the Rosengarten. Still, something about the entwined figures makes his face heat. He feels as though he is intruding on something private.

He spends a long time at the bottom of the lake, sifting through the rocks and sand there. He picks out the prettiest ones, thinking of his satchel filled with gleaming stones: the shards of the bridge Yuuri built to win his heart. How funny humans were, with their too-honest symbologies. How foolish he had been, not to see Yuuri’s overtures for what they were.

Eventually, the shadowy shape above him shifts, becomes two again. JJ and the Comtesse retreat to the shore, and Victor gathers all the beautiful things he can and swims up, up, into the light.

Chapter Text

Interlude: The Shy Scholar

[   Wherein Victor first meets his love.   ]

 

Years from now, Victor will still remember the moment he met Yuuri with the kind of crystal clarity that is reserved for Grand Life Events. He remembers the day that Yakov died and Georgi took the throne in this way. On long nights when he is feeling lonely, he can see his adoptive father’s broad, square palms folded over each other across his chest. He remembers the waxy, sunken skin of his face like a nightmare on days when the sky is grey. Even still, he wishes for those dreams. Immortality means that he has long forgotten the equine, patrician lines of his mother’s face. He sees nothing but the silver curtain of her hair now, less a memory of her and more that of his own reflection. Now that his hair is gone, he wonders how long it will take until all he holds is her shape, long and graceful, like the tall grass swaying in the wind.

His first impression of Yuuri was that his face was like the moon: a fine, warm cream, ringed by sharp spikes of black, shining spectacles perched on the edge of his nose. Dark eyed and graceful, he’d reminded Victor of the great, golden-winged barn owls that swept over the tall grasses. He was beautiful and strange at once, and Victor couldn’t help but be drawn closer to him. He’d never seen a human that looked like Yuuri before.

“Hello,” he’d called out over the water, waving a hand. Yuuri had turned, wide-eyed. He’d frozen like a startled fawn, all knock-kneed and trembling. “Are you here to break the curse?”

Yuuri had blinked at him: two slow, sooty-eyed sweeps of his lashes, dipping over warm brown eyes. Then he had scrambled to his feet and ran straight back into the wood, too fast for Victor to track him.

Victor stared at the place he had been sitting, astonished. He’d never had a human fear him before. Sometimes, the lovers that came to this place to break the curse were not so faithful as they claimed. In some ways, Victor too was part of the test of the Rosengarten. If a mortal could be tempted away from saving his true love, then they must not be his true love at all. But Victor had never seen a human be frightened of him, before.

Something glinted in the light, then: a single silver-capped inkwell, clearly something cherished. It was perfectly polished, old, well-cared for. Victor could feel the love and affection that it held for its owner as he swam closer. Old, cherished objects held their own kind of magic. From the way his fingertips trembled when they brushed the surface of the cool glass, he could tell too that Yuuri was a mage. He was strong.

Victor had quickly retreated back into the centre of the lake, then. Magus were dangerous; any fae knew this. Whatever the mage was here for, he would be gone soon enough. It was foolish to endanger himself for a stranger.

-*-

In the morning, the inkwell was gone.

Victor wasn’t looking for it, really. He’d just been swimming around the edge of the lake, keeping an eye out for wandering lovers. Georgi was a crueller king than Yakov had ever been, and he took his duties far too seriously. Victor pitied the mortals that could not find their way, sobbing and crying by the riverbank. He tried to help them, if he felt that they were worthy of help.

A sound he had not heard in years called to him over the water: a loud barking, impatient and excited. “Hello?” Victor called.

Friend? The dog barked, excited. Water. Friend.

“Hello,” Victor called again. He hummed a few bars, coaxing, gentle. “Come on out. I won’t hurt you.”

“Makka, no,” a second voice called, and Victor froze. “Whatever you’re chasing, leave it-”

There was a comical moment, then, like in one of the many stories Victor heard from the passing bards. A fluffy brown dog tumbled out of the brush and bounded full-tilt towards the water, hitting the mirrored surface of the lake with a resounding splash. Behind him, his owner followed, leaves caught in his clothes. His glasses were askew on his face, and he squinted out at the water, adjusting, even as Victor remained frozen. Here, again, was the beautiful mage, and a dog. It was, in fact, the cutest dog Victor had ever seen.

Friend! The dog was an excellent swimmer, almost as if she was born to the water. Water friend.

“Please, don’t hurt her,” the mage called, his voice high-pitched and frightened. His dark eyes were huge in the pale circle of his face. “Please, I- I can do many things for you, I’m a- well, I am alright, with magic, I mean, just please-”

“I wouldn’t hurt a dog,” Victor said, affronted now, and the mage stared at him, gapemouthed. “Who do you think I am?”

The mage squinted out at the water, apprehension still lining his small frame. He was wearing nothing like the fine clothes the princes wore to save their ladies, but he wasn’t quite as scruffy as the local peasant boys here for their childhood sweethearts, either. He wasn’t dressed like a knight, or a warrior. Instead he wore boots and a cloak, dark neutral earth tones, all good wool and leather in rich colours, but nothing fancy. He looked like he’d been travelling for some time, the leather creased and well-oiled under the splatters of dirt that marred it. He took good care of his things.

“You’re not human,” Yuuri said, with a small shrug. A blush overtook his face, painting his wide, round cheekbones like rosy apples. “You’re too pretty to be human.”

“And you’re a mage,” Victor retorted, and Yuuri nodded. “You’re dangerous.”

“I am,” Yuuri said, startlingly blunt, and Victor gaped at him. Water from the dog’s splashing landed in his open mouth, and he spluttered for a moment, startled. Yuuri was laughing at him, he could see. He huffed. “That is my familiar, Makkachin. I call her Makka.”

“Makka,” Victor repeated. The dog barked, delighted. She swam around Victor in a wide circle, yipping and splashing as she went. “She’s very sweet.” He smiled, faintly. “She loves you very much, so you must not be so terrible, after all.”

“I try,” Yuuri said dryly, and it was then that Victor had realised that he did not know the mage’s name. Not yet.

It’s hard, now, to imagine that there was ever a time that he did not know Yuuri’s name.

“And who are you?” Victor had asked him, brushing his hair out of his face. Long, silver tendrils of it floated all around him in the water, gleaming bright in the morning sun. He was preening, he knows now. He would never have admitted it then, but Yuuri was a beautiful stranger, and he was interesting. So little had interested Victor anymore, in those days.

“I am Yuuri Katuski,” the mage had told him, sweeping into a strange kind of bow that Victor had never seen before. “Second heir of the Katsuki Clan, successor to Artificer Hiroko Katsuki, ten-year magus, and apprentice to the Grand Sorcerer Celestino of Venice, soon to be a Sorcerer myself.”

Humans and their titles, Victor had thought with a small laugh. All these princes and knights and ladies always had so many titles. What a mouthful.

“Of where?” Victor asked, curious. There were no openings for Sorcerers for the next hundred miles in any direction.

“I come from a land very far from here,” Yuuri told him. “You may know it as Nihon, the Empire of the Rising Sun. When my apprenticeship is completed, I will become…well, it is best described as the Sorcerer of Kyushu.”

Kyushu. Victor mouthed the word, feeling the way the world moved over his tongue. Yuuri. Kyushu.

“Things are different, where you come from,” Victor noted, and Yuuri had nodded again. “You may call me Viktor Yakovlevich.”

“You’re from Ruthenia,” Yuuri had said then, surprised. Victor blinked at him with matching astonishment. “How did you end up here?”

Victor’s chest tightened, cold fury overtaking him. “Not by choice,” he told Yuuri shortly. “Goodbye, Makka. It was very nice to meet you.”

And then he had slipped beneath the water, because he was furious, and a coward. He’d forgotten, for a moment, how dangerous mortals were. Yuuri was dangerous; he’d said so himself.

Victor resolved in that moment not to forget so easily again.

Chapter Text

Part Four: The Dioscuri and the Sorcerer of Venice

[   Wherein Victor meets a powerful fata and a strange pair of siblings.   ]

 

If you had asked Victor what a city was, he would have told you with words: a collection of buildings where humans live, and work, and trade all in one place. If you had asked Victor if he was knowledgeable about human culture, and the ways humans lived, he would have told you: yes, of course.

No amount of late night conversations over dying embers could have prepared him for the reality of Trento.

Out of the forest, the first few buildings spring up like weeds amongst the tall pines. Then, slowly, they gather: a cluster here, a ring there, until suddenly the houses are so close together that they rise up on all sides, crowding the roads like hungry vultures over a carcass. Along the river, the orange roofs tessellate out in undulating lines, strange and beautifully irregular in the golden pre-dusk light. Long skeins of grape trees unravel over the hills like ribbons. On the water, the sun gleams off of boats; fishermen, and pleasure-crafts, and even some children swimming. The whole of it is like a dream, bright and shining and full of humans, all bustling back and forth like squirrels before the winter.

“Incredible,” Victor breathes. He covers his hand with his mouth, some strange, unnameable emotion burgeoning up from his chest like a creeping vine. “It’s beautiful.”

“If only you could see Versailles,” JJ hums, sounding strangely pleased at Victor’s shocked appreciation. “Or Paris, perhaps. Now that is a city.”

“Trento is plenty beautiful, too,” Isabella chides.

“This is where you leave me?” Victor asks, interrupting their unsubtle flirtations. He wants nothing less than to be left alone in this wondrous, terrifying place.

“Eventually,” JJ says.

“Don’t worry, we have friends here,” the Comtesse explains.

Sure enough, JJ rides his horse straight into town with the kind of gravitas that Victor has only seen from the royal and the very arrogant. He is not sure which of these two traits leads JJ to such bearing, but it is effective in gathering a crowd. Children run before them, chittering to each other like dormice. Shutters fly open, startling swallows from their roosts.

JJ leads their caravan to a stable for the horses, offering coins in exchange for care. Victor presses a small kiss to Mela’s nose, promising to return to say his final goodbyes before he departs. Then he follows the prince and the Comtesse Isabella as they move through the town, pausing to speak in soft tones to the adoring children, to buy a silk scarf from a vendor for the lady’s neck, to purchase a ripe apple for Victor’s watering mouth.

The wall of sound washes over Victor like water. Everywhere, sensation pulls at him: voices, flashes of colour, grinning faces. More than once, Victor catches a fine-boned wrist as they move too close to his purse strings, trading in charming smiles to soothe their wide-eyed, startled faces.

"You look like a mark," JJ tells him, and the Comtesse laughs.

The ground is hard, here, paved with stones. The sensation is new to Victor, and his feet ache in their boots sooner than he expected. He feels pain in muscles he didn’t even know he had.

“Where are we going?” Victor asks, when his feet finally begin to protest.

“Trento is built on a Roman ruin,” the Comtesse Isabella says, rolling her eyes when JJ scowls at her.

“Don’t ruin the surprise,” he grumbles.

“So dramatic,” the Comtesse teases in reply.

“I would like to see the ruin,” Victor offers, and JJ snorts. “Is that where we are going?”

“It’s more than a sightseeing trip,” JJ says, clearly aiming for mysterious intrigue. He lands somewhere in the realm of comical posturing instead. “We have a friend who may be able to help you.”

Victor sighs, and resigns himself to being led. He wonders if this is how humans feel when the fae lead them on merry chases. He does not think he likes it much.

He does not have to wait long. Eventually, JJ leads them to a large, pearwood door. On all sides, strange markings ring the stone that cradles the wood. Magic sings from the whole, loud as the scream of an owl, and Victor cannot help but take an involuntary step back at the force of it. Thousands of bodies have passed through this door, many of them magical. Victor does not know what it does, but he can tell that it is powerful: far too powerful to have been made by anyone but a Grand Sorcerer.

JJ, fool that he is, walks right up to the door. He raps on it, twice, then twice again, then one last time for good measure. Then he takes a few dancing steps back, mirth evident in every line of him.

Awareness begins as a prickle. All the hair on Victor’s arms stands on end, startling and peculiar. Then, the door begins to light up. Starting from the bottom, the runes light themselves blue as a soaring star, each symbol flickering to life in turn until the whole door is ringed with an intricate lattice of gleaming geometry. It’s alien, and beautiful, and terrifying.

“Who goes there?” a voice calls from behind the door.

“Oh, give it up, Emil.”

A crackle of laughter, then, before the door swings open wide. “Welcome, then, Prince Jean-Jacques.”

What stands beyond, in the foyer, is something Victor has only witnessed twice in his life: a lightning elemental, more light than flesh. Bright blue eyes gleam in a smiling face, that strange blue energy streaming outwards and into the door, into the floor, into the walls around them. The staircase down into the bowels of the city is lit with running lines of sparkling lightning light.

“Merry meet, bright storm.” Victor murmurs the traditional fae greeting in Fatato before he can think to do otherwise. He sweeps into a low bow, letting the vestiges of his hair obscure his eyes. “Victor Yakovlevich. It is an honour.”

“Oh.” The elemental—Emil, JJ had said—takes a startled half-step back. “Victor Yakovlevich? Of the Rosengarten?”

“My reputation precedes me,” Victor murmurs, his eyes still trained on the ground.

“The finest voice outside of the vast chambers of the ocean,” the elemental says. Victor offers him his best smile. “What is it you seek, rusalka?”

Victor glances sideways at his wide-eyed companions: just a darting glance before his eyes are once more trained on the floor. It is enough to read the bright satisfaction in JJ’s face, as well as the carefully concealed fear in Comtesse Isabella’s.

“I seek the magus Yuuri Katsuki, acolyte of the Grand Sorcerer Celestino of Venice.”

“Yuuri.” Emil mouths the word, feeling it out in their mouth. Lightning falls from their chin as they speak, branches over their top lip. They tilt their head to the side, considering. “What business do you have with him?”

Victor considers this. “He sought a contract with me. I wish to discuss the matter in person.”

Emil sucks in a breath. “You wish to contract with Yuuri Katsuki?”

Victor looks away, demure. He knows how to make himself shy, and wanting. It is enough to convince Emil, at the very least.

Emil glances at JJ. “Mickey and Sara are here, in fact,” the elemental says, switching to the regional human tongue, and JJ beams at him. “You wish for them to escort your friend to Venice?”

“That would be great!” JJ says, grinning. “Thank you so much, Emil.”

“Wait,” Emil says, looking bewildered. “I have to-”

“Where are Mickey and Sara, now? Are they inside? Can we go in?”

“They’re working, but-”

“Alright, we’ll come back tonight. When are they leaving?”

Emil stares at JJ for a moment, rolling his eyes to the heavens. Then he laughs, shortly, with no little amount of resignation. “You haven’t changed at all, your highness.”

“Ought I have changed?” JJ asks. Comtesse Isabella snickers delicately behind her hand. That was not a sound Victor knew could be produced delicately, but it seemed that there was little the Comtesse did not know how to do with refinement. “Are they leaving soon?”

“Two days hence,” Emil says, huffing a laugh. JJ beams at him.

“Then we shall secure rooms for tonight. Victor will wait in front of Piazza del Duomo in two days, by the Fountain of Neptune.” JJ winks at Victor. “Seems fitting, no?”

“JJ,” Victor tries.

“What?”

Victor turns to Emil, perturbed. “You let him treat you thus?” Victor demands of him in Fatato. JJ’s eyes narrow, but he does not say anything.

“I am the Crispino family’s ariel,” Emil says. Victor raises his brows. “JJ’s family have been close to the Crispino’s for many generations. I have known JJ since he was a boy, when I was new.”

“I didn’t know an ariel could be bound to a family.”

“I am bound to the patriarch and/or matriarch. Their will supersedes any other, but my service is to the family as a whole. It is a traditional methodology of service here, dating back to antiquity.”

“When your kind were first bridled by the Sorcerer-King Aiolos.”

Emil tips their head, a small smile playing about their sparkling mouth. “Your language betrays your bitterness, rusalka. Careful that you do not let your biases sully your friendships.”

Emil tips their head to the right, then. It’s a subtle signal, but just enough to draw Victor’s eye to the Comtesse. She looks deathly pale, her hands white-knuckled and clutched together. Her shoulders shake with the smallest of tremors as she leans into the shelter of JJ’s body.

Victor stares long enough to catch her notice. She spares him the smallest smile, then, as though that is as much as she can stomach. Her eyes flutter closed, breath filling her lungs.

“Comtesse?” Victor asks, slipping back into Italian.

“Just tired,” she says. It is a lie transparent as bubbles in a stream.

“You have nothing to fear,” Victor tries uncertainly. He blinks when JJ steps between them, his bright eyes piercing.

“She’s just tired from her trip,” JJ repeats.

Victor takes a slow breath in. He considers the conversation he had with Emil. “I’m sorry,” he says, tipping his head to peer over JJ’s shoulder. “That was rude of me, to speak in a language you did not understand.”

“I would like to retire for the night,” the Comtesse says, soft.

JJ nods. He turns to Emil and bows, deep enough that the crown of his head clears Emil’s chest. “We shall entrust Victor into your care,” he says. “Victor is a dear friend, and was integral to Bella’s release. I will be very deeply disappointed, should anything happen to him in your beautiful country.”

“Or out of it, I should hope,” Victor says lightly. He offers JJ a bright smile when the man glances at him, wryness limning his mouth. He is beautiful, Victor decides, for all his arrogance. There is a strange kind of nobility in him, beneath the false shine. He does not understand why JJ would hide it with bravado, but then again, Victor does not understand how he could have hurt someone he loves so thoroughly that they would rather flee than see his face again. Perhaps it is in the nature of all living creatures to err so.

“Just so,” JJ says, a familiar kindness flickering over his face. It’s quickly eclipsed by his usual cavorting charm. “We’ll be off, then.”

“Best of luck to you, rusalka,” Emil says gravely.

Victor inclines his head to the elemental. “Long life to the heart wherein you make your home,” he murmurs. Then he turns to the Comtesse, making sure to keep his face bright and encouraging. “That is a traditional fate farewell to those who are bound.”

The Comtesse Isabella is a strange, incredible woman. Victor does not know if he has ever met someone quite as complex. He does not understand how she always retains her composure, even in the face of something overwhelming and strange. He wonders how it was that she conducted herself when Georgi’s chitinous minions came for her in the night. Somehow, he cannot imagine her screaming, or fighting. Instead, he imagines silent tears, a woman walking to her inevitable capture with dignity and grace and faith. He wonders what it is, to believe so completely in something as ethereal as love. He wonders what it means to trust someone so much, to trust them to catch you when life pushes you off a cliff and into the anodyne embrace of the air as it roars, wild and terrifying in your ears.

He watches JJ take her by the arm, and the way she leans ever so slightly into his warmth. He reconsiders the way JJ’s body seems to orbit around her, like a snowbell arcing towards the sun. He thinks of the way her soft laughter had settled his jealousy like moss packed into a bleeding wound.

He spares a last, small wave for Emil before scrambling after the couple.

Yuuri, he thinks, I am learning new things about humans every day.

-*-

“The castle…it’s hard to explain,” the Comtesse says to them quietly, later.

They’ve taken rooms in the Crispino manor. The towering opulence might have startled Victor if he hadn’t grown up in the shadow of the Rosengarten. Instead, it felt almost familiar: like a half-remembered dream of an aunt or uncle’s home.

Before them, a great, roaring fireplace eats away at three logs, spurred by a sizeable bed of coals. The nights are still slightly too cold for the average human, especially so close to the mountains. The heat of the fire makes his skin itch, but the Comtesse sits on the rug before the flames, wrapped in a pale fox fur. It is the first time Victor has seen her hands utterly still in hours. He cannot bring himself to begrudge her whatever comfort she desires.

“It was like I ceased to exist, outside of the hours where you would visit me,” she says. She glances at JJ, then Victor, her gaze turned odonate by virtue of her discomfort. “I would be speaking to you, and then…images, perhaps. Half-remembered things. A song. A flash of purple. Shivering. An eye painted dark as a bruise, peering down at me over an aquiline nose…”

“And our language,” Victor says, when the Comtesse seems to run out of words.

She nods, silent as the lake before a storm. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” Victor tells her, but the Comtesse only shakes her head. “Comtesse-”

“Isabella, please.”

Victor sighs. “Isabella, then. And you may call me Victor.”

The Comtesse smiles at him, soft and beautiful as the first moment Victor laid eyes on her, slightly dishevelled and beaming in the nascent light of dawn.

“Do you know how long I had been there, in that lake?” Victor asks, closing his eyes. He hears the Comtesse shake her head. “I don’t either. Years are…human. Counting the seasons is a futile exercise when you are immortal. After long enough, the moons blur together. One lover is much the same as another.

“I always thought I was helping people, and that Georgi was…harmless, I suppose. He wasn’t a redcap, after all. No one ever died. The sleeping lovers whose heroes and heroines had failed them were released, unburdened by the sticky emotions that had birthed such weakness within them.”

The Comtesse sucks in a horrified breath. Victor cannot quite contain his wince.

“Georgi and I grew up together,” he tries to explain.

“You made allowances for his behaviour, because he is family,” JJ murmurs. Victor wonders at the knowledge of that statement. He wonders if JJ knows what it’s like to struggle uselessly against the few ties one has in the world.

“I am sorry, for the part I have played in his quest for unmitigated unhappiness,” Victor tries, instead. “He has brought nothing but pain to your life.”

“You are not your brother’s keeper,” JJ says, shaking his head. “You owe us no apologies, Victor.”

“Not so,” Victor says. He ducks his head, so as best to meet the Comtesse’s eye. “I upset you, today. I was thoughtless, and rude.”

“You had no way of knowing,” Isabella tells him. She places the gentlest of hands on his elbow.

“But I did, didn’t I?” Victor huffs, frustrated. “All those years, all those lovers, and I thought, what? Foolishly, I thought that the joy, their gratitude, was…was folly? Now I know, though. That’s the true twist of the Moirai, for me to finally know the misery of losing the one you love, of never knowing, of searching for days, or months, or years, with no guarantee of their safe return. To know that your lover is mortal. To know that he might die before you ever even reach him, before you might tell him again what he means to you, before-”

“Hush,” the Comtesse says, drawing his face to her shoulder. His eyes are stinging, he realises. A lump builds in his throat, and Victor closes his eyes to the first roll of tears over his cheeks. He feels the way the moisture crystallises, listening to the soft patter of gems as they fall to the carpet, the susurrus of them bouncing off of Isabella’s beautiful blue dress.

“Victor,” JJ says, abruptly, and Victor swallows and wipes ineffectually at his eyes. They come away coated in shimmering gem dust. “Victor, your tears.”

“Yes,” Victor says. He hiccoughs, once. He swipes long fingers over his eyes.

“Do you cry diamonds?”

“So I’ve been told,” Victor tells him. He grins, false and gleaming at JJ’s poleaxed expression. “It’s only out of water.”

“Victor,” JJ says urgently. His hands begin skimming over the carpet, catching up whatever shards of sorrow he can find. “Jesus, Victor, you can’t tell people that. Do you have any idea-?”

“How they’d torture me, for money?” Victor says mildly, and JJ’s mouth snaps shut. “Little late for that, my friend. My hair gives me away.”

“If that’s so, then perhaps it’s best that the witch cut it,” JJ says sharply. It hurts more than it has any right to. “Jesus.”

Victor shrugs. He has seen many religions come and go, and the new god holds no more sway over him than any other. “I trust you,” he tells JJ.

The sentence seems to have about the same effect as hitting JJ in the face with a wet fish. His mouth gapes open, halfway between confusion and disgust.

“You-!” He points one finger at Victor, using his other hand to press a handful of diamonds into Victor’s palms. “Take this, and cry in private next time. You are in a magus’ house. The Celestino family has been magical for generations-”

“I trust you not to bring me to a place where I would be endangered for the facts of my existence,” Victor tells him patiently. He opens his purse and pours the diamonds in.

JJ throws his hands up in the air, but Victor contents himself with the sound of the Comtesse’s laugh. He’s grown accustomed to the sound, of late; he can’t imagine what he’ll do without it once they part.

-*-

Victor rises with dawn. It’s a habit formed by long years living alongside the Rosengarten, but it’s not one he sees fit to change. On the road, it’s mostly meant quiet hours by himself, watching the sun rise up over the mountains. In the morning mist, the sunlight fractures into a million beautiful purple shards, and Victor steps out into the Crispino’s gardens to better appreciate the sight.

In some respects, the Crispino’s gardens are exactly what Victor might expect from a wealthy human family. The land is huge, and perfectly manicured. Plots of green and damp earth sprawl out in strange, tessellating geometric patterns. Still, there’s a kind of order to it when Victor walks along a random path here, a small rock-paved trail under a willow’s bowing branches there. One whole section is dedicated to plants that might poison most humans. Another is filled entirely with herbs for cooking. One dark, moist place fit with its own little waterfall tumbling the rocks seems to be built for mycelium, and Victor breaks off a piece of a familiar bright red cap before he can think, placing the sweet, soft meat of it into his mouth.

“That’s poisonous to humans,” a voice says, and Victor startles, turning. Above him, a young magus with richly tanned skin and an expressive, intelligent face peers down at him. Dark hair falls over her shoulder like a silk curtain, and Victor feels a quiet pang of loss. He remembers the weight of his hair for a moment, closes his eyes, lets the pain flood his chest and leave him bare and gasping.

“Hello,” the mage says, waving a hand. Her eyes are the strangest shade of amethyst, unlike anything Victor has ever seen on a human. “I’m Sara.”

“Hello,” Victor tries, offering his most charming smile. “Victor Yakovlevich.”

Sara puts out a hand, and Victor takes it, letting the mage help him up the small cliff wall and back onto the beaten path. Her smile is blinding, and Victor glances down at the heavy, almost militaristic leather accoutrements she wears. She’s dressed as well as any fine human lady might be, except for a slit up the side of her understated dress on either side. Rather than enticing, the look seems entirely practical; hardy, thigh-high riding boots are revealed when she moves.

“Sara Crispino?” Victor asks her, and she nods. “Ah. I’ve been-”

Above, a bloodcurdling cry sounds: a flash of white feathers. For a moment, Victor thinks perhaps it’s Yura, but then the creature comes into swiftly-approaching focus: huge, violet eyes in a feathered face, claws extended. It swoops at Victor, almost close enough to cut him. Victor ducks too late, shivering, his hands over his face. Through the cage of his fingers, he can see the creature pulling away, circling back.

“Mickey! Stop that this instant.”

“A strix,” Victor breathes, frightened. “You…know it?”

Sara turns to look at him, a small, strange smile on her face. She holds her arm out, her thick leather vambraces suddenly making sense as the bird swoops down, landing on her arm with an audible scratch of talons against the leather.

“This is Michele,” she says, huffing a sigh. She flicks the strix with one finger, completely unaffected by its screeching. “My ariel, and my twin brother.”

Victor blinks at her. “Your…ariel?”

“You, too, are a cambion, aren’t you?” Sara asks, and Victor opens his mouth, then closes it again. “Some children become fate. Some human. We are fraternal twins, so…”

“That’s horrible,” Victor says, before he can stop himself. He covers his mouth with his fingers. “Ah. I mean…eventually, you will…”

Sara smiles and nods. “Yes. I’ll die.”

Michele screams again, sorrow so thick in his voice it makes Victor close his eyes.

“He’s very overprotective,” Sara explains. “You can perhaps see why.”

“I can,” Victor says. He turns to Michele. “I mean your sister no harm, signore.”

“He’s not concerned with harm,” Sara says wryly, and like a stone sinking to the lake bed, Victor understands.

“I love another,” Victor tells him. He smiles. “I believe you know Yuuri?”

“Oh, Yuuri!” Sara chirps. Her eyes crinkle sweetly at the corners. “Such a sweetheart!”

“Yes,” Victor says, remembering Yuuri’s pinkening cheeks whenever someone compliments him. He thinks of Yuuri’s sweet smile, then swallows down the pain that swamps his chest at the memory of Yuuri running from him, tears streaming from his eyes. “I’m looking for him. I thought perhaps to find him in Venice, with your teacher.”

Sara studies him for a few breaths, her eyes roving over Victor’s face as if to test his veracity. Eventually, she huffs a small laugh.

“Yuuri runs away from things he’s afraid of,” she says, matter-of-fact, “whether or not he should be afraid.”

Victor likes her, he thinks. Her refreshing bluntness reminds him powerfully of the witch Babicheva. He nods.

“I know,” he tells her. “That’s why I’m going after him.”

“How romantic,” Sara coos. She clucks at Michele. “Isn’t that sweet, Mickey?”

Michele squawks, but he seems much calmer now that he knows Victor is not a threat. His feathers settle. As he calms, his colour brightens from a stormy grey to purest white.

“You said he was your ariel,” Victor says, and Sara nods.

“Mickey is terrified of losing me,” she says plainly. “This way, we’ll be together until the end.”

Victor supposes he can see the sense in that, however bleak. The thought of being bound to your dying sibling is equal parts romantic and horrific. Victor isn’t sure what he would have done, had his mother birthed a child that took after his father instead.

They’d be dead twice over, that little voice in his head that sounds like Yura sneers. It’s enough to make him shiver.

“What of Emil, then?” Victor asks, taking a deep breath. He shakes his shoulders out a little, stretching his arms over his head.

“He’ll likely go to our cousin,” Sara says. Her eyes flick away from him, roving over the shrubbery. “We’re training to replace Celestino, so eventually…”

“You’ll be committed to Venice,” Victor says, nodding. “I see.”

Sara smiles at him. “We can take you to Venice,” she says. “It’d be nice to see Yuuri again.”

“I don’t know if he’s there.”

“Well,” Sara says philosophically, shrugging, “if he isn’t, I’m sure Celestino will know what to do.”

-*-

As soon as Isabella falls into Sara Crispino’s arms, she begins to cry. It’s just as Victor imagined: silent, steady tears that leak down her beautiful face, barely marring her composure. If Victor didn’t know what to look for, he might think that they were simply embracing.

“Hush,” Sara murmurs, rocking her back and forth. “Shhh, you’re safe now. It’s alright.”

Victor didn’t know how much the Comtesse had been carrying until she finally set it down. The idea that he might have contributed to that burden in some way is nothing short of abhorrent.

JJ pulls him aside, then and presses something into his hands. It’s a match tin, Victor realises as he examines it. It keeps matches dry in the rain.

“Ingenious,” Victor tells him.

JJ nods. “Keep it,” he tells him. “There’s a pack alongside it, and you should keep Mela, too. The Crispinos can stable her in Venice for us. It’s not the first time we’ve traded horses due to travel plans, and it certainly won’t be the last.”

“JJ.” Victor doesn’t know what else to say.

“Be careful of who you reveal your nature to,” JJ tells him. “Not everyone is so kind as us.”

“I know that.”

Remember it,” JJ stresses. “You’ll be amongst people now, for the rest of the time you are travelling. This isn’t the three of us moving through the forest. You’ll be taking the main roads, going through cities bigger than Trento. You’ll see some unsavoury things, things even one so old as you might not know of.”

“I’ll be careful,” Victor promises. His heart thunders in his ears. “I’ll be very careful, I promise.”

JJ stares at him for a few long moments. Then he sighs, and straightens up. “You’d better,” he tells him, sniffing. “You’re the only one who can make Isabella laugh half as much as I can. You must visit us, and bring your magus.”

Victor considers this. Then he reaches down and opens up his belt purse. Inside, deep as his elbow, lies every single shard of the bridge that Victor could find lying at the bottom of the lakebed.

It’s a simple spell, Yuuri had told him, when he presented Victor with the seemingly bottomless bag. Almost any good mage knows how to do it.

Victor had already begun to doubt Yuuri’s opinions on himself and his magic, but he had let it go. It had been the most incredible gift anyone had ever given him.

“What’s your favourite colour?” Victor asks JJ.

“Victor. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” Victor says patiently. He reaches in, and plucks out a piece that shines a deep, cedar green. “This one. Take it. It’s yours.”

JJ frowns, but he allows Victor to place the shard of the bridge in his palm.

“Consider it a promise,” Victor tells him. “I’ll be back with Yuuri soon.”

“Alright,” his friend says. He hesitates, then opens his arms, and Victor steps into the circle of them. They hug for the space of a few deep, steady breaths. The prince still smells like leather, and oil, and human musk. There’s something comforting in that scent, still. “Stay safe, undine.”

“You, too.”

Chapter Text

Part Five: The Sorcerer of Venice and the Amemasu

[ Wherein Victor meets his lover’s teacher, and makes a promise. ]

 

It would be too easy, if Yuuri was in Venice.

“He’s gone to Bangkok,” the Sorcerer Celestino tells them when they reach the floating city. “Krung Thep.”

“To visit Phichit!” Sara chirps, and Celestino nods.

Victor has heard this name, before. It is the name of Yuuri’s closest friend. He was Celestino’s student, before he went on to become the Sorcerer of Bangkok, or Krung Thep Maha Nakhon. Yuuri had always just said Krung Thep. It was a lot fewer syllables, he’d said.

Celestino looks at Victor for a long time. He stares long enough that Victor does not know what to do with his hands. He forgets his own body. He forgets the proper way to move so as not to look awkward, the way to open his mouth without gawking, how to say anything in his defence. Worst of all is that he finds nothing, only more silence waiting in his throat. It’s enough to make Victor squirm.

Eventually, Celestino sighs. “I told him you were trouble,” he says, which…makes no sense. Doesn’t it?

“What?” Victor croaks.

“I told him he should pick an easier fae for an ariel,” Celestino explains, “but perhaps you know how stubborn Yuuri is, considering…well.”

Victor is floored. Shocked is too mild a word. He feels, in fact, a little faint.

“You want to finish what you started?”

“I have to talk to him,” Victor replies, steadily. This is the one place where he will not obfuscate. “I need to see him.”

“I won’t help you, if you’re going to hurt him,” Celestino warns him. “He’s the best student I’ve ever had.”

Sara rolls her eyes, but she’s clearly not offended. “Because he’s too boring to have any fun.”

“When fun means terrorizing the city, then yes, you’re right; generally Yuuri is very well behaved.” Celestino sighs. "It's when you get him drunk that he becomes a problem." Sara sticks her tongue out at him, and for a moment Victor can imagine them here, all together. The idea makes something in him ache.

They’re in a large four story house that Celestino trains his acolytes in. It’s beautiful, painted in bright pinks, with a small collection of boats tied to the dock that juts off of the ground-level doorway. All the windows are open, the curtains moving in the breeze.

Victor does not know how he feels about the ocean. All that salt makes his skin itch.

Celestino’s golem had greeted them at the front door and taken their coats, which had already been a strange enough interlude. It was a strange thing, full of tiny moving pieces. Now, Celestino is telling him that his whole time with Yuuri was a lie.

“What do you mean, about him picking an easier ariel?” Victor says, trying hard to keep himself calm. “Yuuri told me he was there to study the Rosengarten.”

Celestino frowns at Victor. “You know what distinguishes a sorcerer from a mage, and a magus from a Sorcerer, correct?”

“Mage is a general term,” Victor says, feeling as though this is a trap. “A magus is one who has studied for many years. It is a term that implies a certain level of mastery. And a Sorcerer is a government position. You are the steward of magic for this region of Italy. Those ranges can vary, but often it is for a province, or a larger area. A major city, like Venice and the surrounding towns.”

Celestino hums. “A Sorcerer is the most powerful kind of magic-wielder there is. Do you know why?”

“Because of their ariels.”

“Yes.” Celestino steeples his fingers under his chin. His heavy brow furrows. “Yuuri is ready. There is nothing more that this old creature can teach him, without an ariel. Finding and binding an ariel was his last assignment from me.”

“I was…an assignment,” Victor says stiffly, but Celestino shakes his head.

“He wanted to meet you,” Celestino tells him, “to see if you were compatible.”

“But. Our whole friendship... He lied.” Victor can feel panic spiralling over him in waves. “How-… I don’t understand…”

“Obviously,” Celestino snaps, and something in the sharpness of his tone snaps Victor out of his haze. “A contract is a lifelong bond to another being. If you pass, they, too pass. If they are harmed, you share that pain. Of course Yuuri wished to meet you and get to know you before asking for a contract.”

“But I don’t… why? How did he even know of me?”

Celestino huffs, a short snort puffing from his flaring nostrils. He tips his head back and stares at the ceiling. “Ah. Well, we have been housing some prior guests of yours. They only had good things to say about you. Eventually, Yuuri got curious. He wasn’t lying; he truly was interested in studying the Rosengarten. But as you may know, Yuuri never has just one reason for doing anything.”

“Guests?” Victor repeats. He frowns, because he can’t think of what the man might mean. “What do you mean, guests?”

“There will be time enough for that,” Celestino says, maddeningly. “It is late, and you are all exhausted. Let us retire to bed.”

Victor turns imploring eyes on Sara, but the magus simply offers a commiserating shrug. She reaches up and chucks Michele under the chin.

“Are you staying like that, tonight?”

Michele squawks, flapping his wings for balance as she rises from the table. His eyes are sharp as he turns on Victor.

Victor wants to tell him that he’s not a danger to his family. He wants to tell him that he would never hurt Sara, and that what happened with Yuuri was an accident, and that he plans to fix everything. But Victor is a fae, and so he cannot lie.

Sometimes, the inability to lie is a blessing. Sometimes it illuminates truths within that a fata might not know herself.

I am dangerous, Victor remembers. He offers Michele a nod. It is all he can manage to do.

 

 


 

Victor wakes with the dawn.

Outside, the city still sleeps. Only the sound of the gulls calling to one another betrays the trappings of life. There are no boats on the canals, no sounds of laughter from the balconies. Venice is not the kind of city that is filled with action at this hour, but that’s alright. Victor enjoys the quiet. It gives him time and space to consider his situation, and wonder what it is that he is doing here.

If Yuuri was pursuing him all along, does that change things? Victor can see, with the benefit of hindsight, that part of what encouraged him to become close to Yuuri was that he never asked anything of Victor. He wasn’t a lover in need of advice, and he didn’t seem particularly focussed on Victor’s beauty. He was his own creature, discrete from the tired script of the Rosengarten’s curse breaking. He was…refreshing, maybe.

Victor realises that he does not know Yuuri well enough to know if such machinations are possible. What does it mean, to not understand one’s own love?

A strangely familiar sound floats down through the window, then. Victor frowns, trying to place it. It’s something almost like a violin, but deeper, more haunting. He knows that sound. How does he know it?

“Det var två ädla konungabarn som lova varandra sin tro,” a familiar voice trills. “Och den som då skulle svika skulle leva i stor oro.”

Victor’s mouth falls open in shock. A small, disbelieving laugh tumbles from his throat.

He opens the door to his room, dashing up the stairs towards the sound. He takes the steps two at a time. Up and up he goes, until he pushes open the door at the very top, and then he is standing on the roof. Here, a mage’s garden blooms in wild sprays of sorrel and tightly-fisted moonflower. The sun rises over the roofs of Venice, gold glinting off the water in the distance. The light paints the entire city in rich oranges and pinks, and there, lounging in a blanket of dewy clover, sits Christophe Giacometti.

“It’s you!” Victor crows, gaping.

Chris turns, a broad grin on his dearly familiar face. His mouth does not stop moving, and Victor watches him as he continues to draw his bow across his nyckelharpa.

It’s a hauntingly sad song. Victor does not speak this human tongue, but music often does not require understanding of anything but the feeling. Victor knows this, as easy as breathing. He knows what it is to let something fill you up from the inside, until you are bursting with song.

He hums low under Chris’ voice, harmonising, simply for the joy of it. He does not need words for this. He kneels in the grass, the nyckelharpa between them, and lets the sound wash over him in waves.

Chris is an easy musician to sing with, and switches seamlessly to a few songs that he and Victor have played before. Victor sets a high, lilting harmony over Chris’ rougher, impassioned melody. They cycle through some Russian folk songs, then some Italian brindisi just for fun. Eventually, Chris slips back into the sad, keening mountain music he’d been playing when Victor arrived. Victor leans back on his hands, content to hum along and listen. He’s never happier than he is when he’s listening to music.

Time passes. The clouds slip by overhead. Victor stops singing, and allows himself to fall back in the clover, closing his eyes and letting the sound skim over him. He imagines he can feel the notes slipping down his cheeks like tears, over his nose, his chin.

Chris ends his song, and does not start another.

“You’ve made me look bad,” he says, lightly.

His deep voice is rough from all that singing. Victor listens to him withdraw his water skin, uncap it, take a long drink. He wets his lips.

“You were playing matchmaker.”

“You can’t tell me I didn’t have good instincts,” Chris counters, which…is a fair point, if Victor was inclined to be fair.

“I helped save you from Georgi’s castle, and you thank me by betraying my trust?”

“I thank you by coming to visit you all the way up in your godforsaken lake,” Chris says, sounding a little hurt, and Victor sits up with a frown. He crosses his legs, brushing his hair out of his face so as to better study Christophe’s moue. “Victor. How long have we been friends?”

“Eleven years,” Victor answers readily. “Which is why, maybe, one might think they could trust you.”

“Yes,” Chris agrees, “I trusted you to be kind to my friend, and instead you broke his heart.”

Victor flinches. “Ouch.”

“Mm.” Chris plays a little flourish for good measure. “Victor. What happened?”

Victor lets out a slow breath. He thinks of Yuuri’s small smile, and the way he brushes his hair out of his face when he’s feeling a little anxious about being understood. He feels, suddenly, very old.

“Oh, Krzysiek.” Victor smiles thinly. He tosses his hair out of his face. “You set him up to fail.”

 -*-

Victor’s first impression of Chris was that he didn’t understand what Masumi had gone through all the trouble for.

As soon as Chris was free from the curse of the Rosengarten, he began flirting with Victor. It was unlike anything Victor had ever seen before. There were those, of course, that Victor had seduced and bedded before they made it to the castle. Some of them even went on to complete the test, which was baffling to Victor. One of the knights had told him that the sexual mores of court were often somewhat loose; meaningless sex was just meaningless sex, he’d explained to Victor, and could not compare to courtly love. Victor still suspects this to be a weak justification for iniquitous behaviour.

Whether or not Victor believes that particular line of reasoning, however, he had never had someone so blatantly flirt with him while their lover looked on with benevolent amusement.

How can you stand it? Victor had wanted to ask Masumi. How is this not eating you up inside?

Victor had been a great deal more naïve, then. Now, he thinks perhaps he understands their relationship a little better.

“Chris always returns to you,” Victor observes that night.

He and Chris had come to a kind of chilly armistice. Mostly, this meant that they were fine as long as they avoided the topic of Yuuri altogether. This was not, strictly speaking, very easy. Victor is meant to be planning a trip to Krung Thep, which seems unaccountably difficult due to the long journey. Apparently, Celestino was speaking to Phichit about coordinating their contacts. Victor was sure they were also talking about how unfit he was for Yuuri. He would be lucky, he thinks bitterly, not to end up thrown out to sea like chum.

“Of course.”

Masumi is a man of few words. Shockingly, Victor had discovered that he and Yuuri were some kind of countrymen. His mother was from Nihon, he’d explained, and his father was Swiss. They’d met in Ruthenia, which delights Victor for reasons he cannot explain.

“The Comtesse Isabella’s father is from Toisan, which is somewhat close to Nihon,” Sara offers. “Their languages share written characters.”

Victor nods, because he had thought that her face was something like Yuuri’s, too. Something about the roundness, and the clean black lines of her hair. Still, it had seemed rude to inquire about her parentage in such a way. “I am surprised, that JJ’s family would allow someone who is not of France’s royal blood to marry into the royal line.”

“Prince Jean-Jacques is very stubborn, and his parents very forgiving,” Sara explains, eyes gleaming with mirth. “There is little they do not let him do, or have.”

Michele chitters quietly in agreement, shifting his head in a way that speaks to his disdain. Victor chances a small smile at him.

“Perhaps we are lucky, then, that our friend is not more unreasonable,” he murmurs.

There is a small silence while the group contemplates this. Sara’s face sours. Masumi’s eyebrow twitches, ever so slightly. Michele squawks with alarm.

“I never thought of it like that,” Sara admits, and then begins to laugh.

Victor glances out over the rooftops, eyes lighting on the sinking sun. These moments are when he misses home the most. He wonders if he ought to have paid Georgi a proper goodbye. He imagines the man coming out of his garden and calling for Victor, only to find the lake empty.

He sucks in a slow breath.

“The thing I don’t understand,” Victor admits, “is why didn’t Yuuri tell me that he knew Chris? That he was there to meet me? That…” He breaks off, something sharp solidifying in his chest. Pain, he thinks. So this is heartbreak.

“Would it have changed your behaviour?” Masumi asks, and Victor considers this. Masumi has a way of getting to the heart of things, like this. He supposes it is likely a side-effect of growing up with Chris. Sometimes a plain-spoken sentence thrown like a dagger was the only way to cut through such dramatics. He and Chris were lovers for a reason, after all.

“Yes,” Victor decides, “but I am not sure if it would have been better or worse for Yuuri. I suppose it depends on how he raised the topic.”

He remembers how frightened Yuuri was, in those first moments. What did Chris tell you? he wonders.

“He was only doing what he thought was best,” Masumi says, but in his mouth it is not an excuse. It is only an explanation, the way an alchemist might explain how to distill dirty water into something fine to drink. “You know Chris.”

Victor does.

 


 

“I’ll take you as far as Sarkatvelo,” Chris says over breakfast the next morning. “I’ve been meaning to go to Persia. I want to learn some of their ghazals. Masumi, do you want to come to Persia?”

Masumi tilts his head to the side, considering. He offers Chris a small smile, the one that Victor knows belongs solely to Chris. “I should be getting back,” he says. “Barbegazi and the sheep will be missing us.”

Sara’s eyes flash with curiosity. “You have made friends with a barbegazi?” she asks.

“Their cat,” Victor clarifies, sighing. Sara’s eyebrows raise practically to her hairline.

“You named your cat Barbegazi?” Her voice is even more incredulous, and Victor shares a glance of commiseration with her.

“No respect,” he says mournfully.

Chris throws his napkin at him. “You could say thank you.”

“I’m still upset with you,” Victor sniffs. “Masha, will you really leave me with him?”

“I must,” Masumi sighs, eyes gleaming with laughter. Victor shifts to dig his shoulder into his. “Elias is good with the animals, but he does not love them the way we do.”

“Love makes for the happiest sheep, and happy sheep make the best wool,” Victor recites, because he has heard this argument from Masumi and Chris many times over. “I know.”

Masumi nods. Victor takes another handful of raspberries from the bowl and pops them into his mouth.

“I will take you to Tbilisi. We will secure you transport to Baku. From there, you can take a ship across the Caspian.”

Victor swallows, imaging a long journey alone over poison water. “Yes,” he says. “I will appreciate the company.”

Chris’ eyes are shrewd as he takes in Victor’s pale expression, but he does not venture his opinion. Instead he stands, brushing his fingers clean and heading over to his rebec. “How about a song?”

“Has that offer ever been refused?” Sara teases, and Chris offers her a rakish grin. It’s enough to make Michele shriek at him, only for the man to be brought up short when Chris blows him an exaggerated kiss. Sara laughs outright, flicking Michele on the beak with one finger. “Hush, brother.”

“Victor, I want your help for this one.”

“What are we singing?” Victor asks, standing as well. He sucks the last of the berry juices from his fingers, and Chris eyes him with a grin.

“Kalinka?”

Victor huffs a laugh. “Ah. On theme, hmm?”

“Just so.”

Chris gathers up the rebec, tuning it a little. He glances over at Victor to check his tone, laughing when Victor makes a face at him. It’s a familiar routine, and one they’ve been through many a time. It settles something in Victor, and he closes his eyes when Chris sets the rebec on his knee and begins the familiar refrain.

He lets Chris take the melody from him, only slipping in to buoy his rough chanting on the choruses. Chris’ voice is much better at conveying emotion, he thinks. A hoarse creak in a mournful dirge, or the low rasp over a sultry drinking song were often more evocative than Victor’s perfect, clear bell tones. Sometimes, human songs require a little bit of what Chris liked to call “dirt” in order to feel right. “Kalinka” was certainly one of those songs. It was meant to be a tumbling refrain, a desperate plea to a lover. Victor could do aching, ethereal sadness very well, but desperation was something else. He is not sure that he could sing “Kalinka” as well as Chris.

When they are finished, the roof bursts into polite applause. There is one more set of hands clapping than Victor expects, and when he opens his eyes, the Sorcerer Celestino is standing in the doorway. His eyes on Victor are as sharp as an eagle’s, and Victor rises with the ease of a puppet when he crooks his finger at him.

“Undine, I would speak with you,” he says.

Victor nods, once. He has been waiting for this moment. Celestino was like family to Yuuri. For the past six years, he has been his guardian. It is only right that he punish Victor for his transgression.

But what of his lies? part of him says.

Hush, Yura, he thinks fiercely.

“Come with me.”

Victor goes.

-*-

Celestino takes him down, and down, and down. He takes him down past the front door, down a smaller staircase hidden in what Victor had thought was a closet. The steps are steep here, the walls startlingly cold. He does not understand how such a thing is possible.

“Yuuri built this,” the sorcerer tells him, and Victor blinks in shock. “Venice is sinking, you know this? Always rotting, eaten away by the water. Yuuri designed all of this.”

“He’s brilliant.” A voice echoes in the darkness, and Victor startles badly. He nearly loses his grip on the rail, and for a moment he thinks he will fall. He did not realise quite how dark the passage was becoming. Now, he can barely see anything.

Distantly, he thinks he hears the sound of water. He can hear the soft sound it makes when something very, very large shifts in it. A soft huff, like a wet breath.

Celestino does something with his hands, and all along the wall, soft light begins to glow. Captured in orbs of blown glass, small sparks of light birth and die and birth again.

The steps, Victor can see now, go straight into the water. There, something huge and dark moves. Small flashes of white spots on smooth, grey skin. A single, dark fin cuts the water. Opalescent eyes large as dinner plates blink out of a wide face.

“Victor Yakovlevich, this is my ariel; the Amemasu, Muramoto Satsuki.”

“You may call me Muramoto-Ue,” she says.

“Merry meet, earth-shaker.” Victor sketches a bow, his eyes wide in his face. “I must confess: I had only heard of your kind from Yuuri.”

“I am far from home,” Muramoto-Ue allows. Her voice is soft, and rich as cream. She is absolutely beautiful.

She swims closer to the steps, then a little further, her wide mouth alone certainly too large for the small space. Then, something strange happens. She seems to shrink, the bulk of her cetaceous body pouring into a smaller shape, like water into a glass vessel. Her entire body writhes, wet, flesh sounds filling the small cavern, and then an arm lashes out: pale, human-looking, slapping down onto the wet stone and curling around the edge of a step.

Celestino shifts to block Victor’s view, then. He lifts a white robe from a hook on the wall, holding it out in front of him. From around his bulk, Victor can see one arm, then two flicker out from either side of the man.

When he steps back, a beautiful, black-eyed woman stands on the steps. The robe is touched with fur at the collar, an off-white shot through with blue. It curves around her wet body like a second skin, and Victor glances between her and Celestino with a kind of morbid curiosity. Muramoto-Ue pays him no mind, instead tipping her head to the side and wringing out her hair. A stream of water seeps out, tripping down the steps and into the dark depths she’d crawled from. She looks, Victor realises, something a little like Yuuri in this form. He is beginning to suspect how it is that Yuuri came to study in Venice, so far from home.

“My best friend is a shapeshifter,” Victor says shakily, “and when he shifts, it looks nothing like that.”

“I’ve been told it is frightening,” Muramoto-Ue admits, “but it does not hurt. It is just…disorienting, perhaps, is the best word for it. Like being squeezed through a buttonhole and into a teacup.”

“That sounds painful,” Victor points out, but regrets it immediately when she turns her unfathomable black eyes upon him.

“I suppose it does,” she muses. “I wanted to see the Ningyo who stole Yuu-chan’s heart.”

Victor bows, deeply. “I am guilty of that charge,” he says. “I seek to make amends.”

“Do you, still?” she asks. She brushes her hair out of her face, black eyes narrow and assessing. “I heard that you felt lied to.”

Victor shrugs. “I love him,” he says. He hopes that will be enough.

“If you go to Yuuri, you must offer him a contract,” she says. She takes a step forwards, and Victor cannot help but step back. His back bumps against the wall, and Muramoto-Ue brushes past him effortlessly. Victor stumbles to follow her up the stairs. “His mentor in Hatsetsu is a very close friend of mine. She will be displeased, that he has come to harm whilst under my care. You must make amends for me.”

“I…”

“There is no negotiating on this,” Muramoto-Ue tells him. She does not turn around. “Either you do this, or we will not help you.”

“Satsuki-chan…”

“We spoke about this,” she says, and Celestino subsides.

Victor glances back at Yuuri’s mentor, then back up to Muramoto-Ue’s retreating form. He stumbles up after her. “You ask me to pledge my eternal life to him,” he tries to explain.

“Yes,” Muramoto-Ue says shortly. “I do.”

She pushes the door at the top of the stairs open, and the three of them spill into the foyer of the house. On one wall, a scroll of Nihongo calligraphy hangs. Victor wonders if it is her work.

He follows her through the living room, past the dining room, into the kitchen. There, she fills a pot with water and puts it on the stove.

“Yuuri is good at pretending to be fine,” she says. “Part of this is cultural. We are not so expressive as the Italians.”

Celestino snorts, and settles at the table with an apple and a small paring knife. He begins to cut slices out, offering every other piece out to Victor and Matsumoto-Ue.

“Some might say we’re less repressed,” Celestino offers. Matsumoto-Ue spares him a glare, but it’s clearly fond.

“How long have you been bound?”

“Since I was sixteen,” Celestino says proudly. He spares Matsumoto-Ue a besotted look. “I had read about the Amemasu in a Chinese bestiary. I thought, what better ariel to have, when my territory will be a sinking city that sits on the water? Satsuki was more than I could have ever dreamed.”

“I wanted to travel,” Matsumoto-Ue explains. “For a long time, we were hunted by the humans. We retreated into ourselves, and kept separate from all others. We were worried that our kind would die out. Now, we are hundreds strong once more. I wanted more than my home lake could offer me.”

The look she spares Victor now is knowing, and sharp. It feels as though her black eyes are rooting through his chest, seeking his intentions.

“You wish to have everything, while paying nothing,” she says. “It is the way of the fate. But I think you are beginning to know that this is not how the world truly is, no?”

Victor nods, slowly. “Mortal life is…difficult.”

“What is Yuuri worth to you, then?” She glances over him, calculating. “Just your hair? It’s only until the end of his life, you know. We are immortal. A contract does worse for the human than us. If we die, they die. When they pass by natural means, we are released.”

“I was taught that a contract was slavery,” Victor says, sharper than he means to. “I see that you and Michele and Emil are happy enough in your contracts. Emil, it seems, is happy to renew his contract every time his magus dies. But it is much to ask. You must understand that.”

“It is much to ask, to have Yuuri forgive you after breaking his heart,” Matsumoto-Ue counters.

The kettle whistles, and Victor watches her as she removes it from the fire. She spoons two servings of leaves into a teapot, sets out three cups. She glances at the clock in the corner, then pours the steaming water over the leaves.

She turns back to Victor, folding her hands over the kitchen island. “I will not condone your selfishness,” she tells him. “Give me your word, as a fata, that you will contract with Yuuri.”

“He must agree to it,” Victor says weakly.

“Then give me your word that you will do your best to convince him,” she counters. “If you will not do this, then there is no point to your travelling all the way to Krung Thep.”

There are many things that Victor could say, to try to convince her. He could attempt a half-truth. He is very good at those. Still, something in her dark eyes stops him. Within, he can see the power to capsize ships. He can see the power to shake the earth. He can see the power to hold up a sinking city.

“Oh,” he says, quiet. “Can you break a contract?”

There is a deadly silence in the kitchen. Celestino has stopped slicing his apple.

“Only,” he says, pressing a finger to the corner of his mouth, “Michele is not strong enough, for Sara to become the Sorcerer of Venice. But Emil is.”

Matsumoto-Ue sucks in a sharp breath. “Clever,” she hisses. It is not, strictly speaking, a compliment. “You can, with the consent of both halves of the bond.”

“Sara,” Victor says, and nods. “You have discussed this with Sara, and she agreed. That is why she is constantly testing Michele. She is waiting for him to be ready.”

“And in the meantime, she is able to perform much more powerful magic, while Emil is bound to her grandfather, and then her mother,” Celestino adds. Victor turns to him, but his expression is nothing but placid. “You won’t say anything to him.”

“No,” Victor agrees. He tilts his head to the side. “I think he is foolish, to spend his scant time with Sara mourning her before she is lost. It is a waste of something precious.”

“You could try telling him that,” Matsumoto-Ue says, amused. She turns back to the teapot, and pours out three cups. She passes them down along the island. “You have not given me my promise.”

“This is extortion,” Victor says, but it’s a mild rebuke.

“You should be lucky that we would let you see Yuuri ever again,” she says, and Victor nods, because he can agree with that. “The promise, rusalka.”

Victor takes a deep breath. He closes his eyes. “I promise that I will offer Yuuri a contract,” he says. The words tighten around his throat like a rope.

“And that you’ll try to convince him to take it,” Matsumoto-Ue prompts.

“I promise that I will do my best to convince Yuuri to contract with me,” Victor says dutifully.

“Excellent,” Matsumoto-Ue says. She picks up her tea, blowing gently across the top. Then she smiles, her teeth too sharp to be human. “Then we have a bargain, Victor Yakovlevich. You will leave in two days’ time.”

 

Chapter Text

Part Six: The Impassioned Bard

[   Wherein Victor learns new things about music from an old friend.   ]

 

They take a boat from Venice to Batumi, and it is…awkward.

Chris is not very good at apologising, and Victor has never had occasion to try. Regardless, Yuuri is the one he owes his apologies to, not Chris. It is Chris’ own fault that he sent a sweet, shy boy to romance Victor.

“What were you thinking?” Victor asks him, propping his chin on his hand. They are standing at the rail, watching the Greecian countryside roll by on the shore.

“I was thinking it would do you some good, to have some companionship. See the world.” He shrugs. “You are a strong fata. Yuuri doesn’t need something as catastrophically powerful as an amemasu. He is one of the most powerful mages born in the last century, all on his own. He augments his magic with his creations: technology to buoy his raw power, and direct it.”

“That’s not a good enough reason.”

“I thought you’d like him!” Chris says, throwing his hands up in the air. “What more do you want from me?”

“You weren’t really thinking, were you,” Victor observes, and Chris crosses his arms. The boat hits a wave, and he stumbles back, one hand grabbing for the railing. It isn’t enough, and he falls straight on his ass. “Well done.”

Chris glares at him, and Victor can’t help it: he bursts into laughter, clutching at his side. On the deck, Chris pulls at his coat, fingers crinkling in the purple velvet. He looks…tired, maybe.

“I just wanted you both to be happy,” Chris says, finally. He takes Victor’s hand, offering him a small smile as he’s pulled to his feet. “Is that not enough of a reason?”

“You are a fool, Christophe Giacometti,” Victor says. He shakes his head. “Come, let us sit down before you hurt yourself and your rebec.”

“Fine,” Chris pouts, but he follows Victor anyway.

The wine on the ship is exactly as good as one might expect it to be, travelling between Venice and Sakartvelo as it is. Victor had never particularly liked alcohol, but the Sakartvelan wines are sweet, rich as berries, with a heady kind of effect that Victor has only ever heard about. He and Chris make their way through a whole bottle together, catching up on the months they’ve been apart. They talk about Yuuri: his studies, and his achievements, and the way his brow furrows so cutely when he is set on something or concentrating. Victor, half-drunk and maudlin, confesses that he has long wished to smooth his thumbs over Yuuri’s brows.

“Scandalous,” Chris drawls, and Victor smacks him with the back of his hand. “God, you two are disgusting. What is this courtly love nonsense? The Victor I know was always two gold pieces away from a-”

“Shhh!” Victor hisses, glancing around. A few patrons of the ship’s commissary raise their eyebrows at them. “Chris!”

Chris rolls his eyes. “Okay, but tell me he didn’t get into the water with you,” he says. “All that creamy skin, dripping wet…”

Victor buries his face in his hands and begs the sun for patience.

 


 

In Constantinople, the ship stops to restock.

“Land!” Chris crows, jumping off the plank and onto the pier. He leans down to touch his toes, then stretches his arms above his head. “What do you think? Food? They’ve got an amazing breakfast tradition here, Victor, you’ll love it.”

Victor lets Chris lead him through the city, feeling a little like a bemused duckling. The city is bright, and loud, and filled with people. At one point, it becomes so crowded that Victor grips his hand. Chris ducks into a street market and buys Masumi a hair clip, then a shirt. Then he drags Victor up a set of rickety stairs, higher, until they’re standing on a rooftop surrounded by tables.

Chris holds up two fingers, then gestures between himself and Victor. The man at the desk nods, and leads them to a table at the far edge. From here, Victor can see the whole city, and the strait through which the boat will pass.

Chris says a few words to the man in the local human tongue, and the man nods. He comes back with two glasses full of water, and Chris nods at him before standing and pulling out his nyckelharpa. He stands and bows to the other patrons, then takes up residence in the space that has been cleared at the centre of the rooftop. Then he closes his eyes, and begins to play.

The first few songs are wordless; just beautiful, aching things that make Victor’s chest twist up in knots. There is something special about Chris’ playing, Victor thinks. Perhaps it is the expressiveness in his face. When his bow slides across the strings, his eyebrows curve up in a quiet, pleading expression. He looks heartbreakingly sad, and Victor watches him with his chin on his hand. Overhead, the sun beats down bright and hot. It’s a beautiful day, and Chris is talented as ever. It’s enough to make Victor glad of this journey, in a strange kind of way.

JJ had been right: Constantinople is huge. It is the biggest city that Victor has ever seen, and the pulse of it is overwhelming. At every angle, there are people stumbling over one another. People on the street shout and hawk their wares. The docks had been a level of chaos that Victor had not been prepared for. All over, people were moving back and forth, unloading crates and loading bodies, dragging great bales of fish down wooden planks and tossing some big as human children down to each other in a line. It was strange, and fabulous, and incredible. Victor had never seen anything like it.

A man appears at his elbow and unfolds a small wooden apparatus, on which he places a huge tray laden down with what must be thirty different plates. Different meats, cheeses, and jams are laid out before him, alongside tiny fish, eggs, whole honeycomb. Victor blinks at the spread, his mouth opening as he stares down at the food. The man looks at him expectantly, and Victor offers him a small nod. The man nods back, then walks away.

“Oh, good,” Chris says, grinning. He takes the seat across from Victor, propping his nyckelharpa on the chair beside him. “This is exactly what I wanted. Here, try this.”

He then proceeds to stuff Victor with every kind of jam the establishment has to offer.

“You eat fish, right?”

Victor studies the small plate of little fish dubiously. “I have never eaten a cooked fish,” he admits, “but I will try it.”

“Oh, Vitya. You’re going to love Nihon.”

The fish is salty, the meat of it flaking apart in his mouth. It is not unpleasant, but Victor decides that he much prefers his fish raw. Still, the bread is good, and the preserves are some of the best he’s had. He leaves the meat and cheese to Chris.

“Do you want to see anything?” Chris asks. “Perhaps the Hagia Sofia? The Blue Mosque?”

“Do their religious buildings allow my kind?” Victor asks, and Chris hums, thinking.

“The Hagia Sofia definitely does,” he says.

Victor considers this. He did want to travel, and see new things. “You’ll keep close to me?”

“Of course,” Chris says, and Victor nods.

“Then yes,” he says, “let’s go.”

-*-

Victor has never really understood human religion, but he can hear how beautiful the call to prayer is. He stands under the dome of the mosque and lets the spiralling drone of it wash over him, eyes tracing the figures and shapes up above.

“It’s interesting,” he murmurs, leaning over to speak directly into Chris’ ear, “I feel…something.”

“You don’t need to believe in their God to feel their faith,” Chris replies, and Victor nods, because that is it entirely. “Good music is like that. When we do it well, our audience feels what we wish them to feel.”

Victor thinks of Yuuri, and a lilting, eerie song floating over his lake. He remembers crying, great fat tears splashing into the lake, clumping his eyelashes together.

What is it, he wonders, that Yuuri wanted him to feel?