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There had never been a time Vasily had not known for themselves what they were, only the time before they had the words to describe it, and the time before they knew that not every person’s flesh was a puzzle left behind by Selene, interlocking parts and nestled valleys into which a soul almost, but did not quite entirely fit. Even when their psychic gift had begun to manifest, they had not, not really, fully comprehended that not everyone was trailed by fairies that made colorful commentary on the outfits of those around them.

At ten years old, two things had happened. One, their uncle had asked, awkward and desperately trying to navigate the topic, if they had wanted the name on their official records changed–”Vasileios” was their father’s name and precious memento, after all, but was typically a boy’s name. After a moment of thought, they had agreed that they didn’t mind carrying something of their father’s, but it might be confusing to others, as they were not a boy. Their Uncle had then suggested that ‘Vasilisa” would be the comparable name for a girl. They had wrinkled their nose with such disgusted confusion at the suggestion, that Uncle had immediately wilted and decided to keep using the same diminutive form they always had–Vasily. In the end, the paperwork was left alone, forgotten.

The other thing that happened was that Vasily met a boy so lonely it created a sort of void in him, something greedy and desperately grabbing at everyone around it. He hadn’t looked like a void, he’d looked like a young boy with slightly shaggy black hair and stunning lavender-colored eyes, who smiled politely at Uncle and at Vasily, even though Vasily thought he should be crying, with a hole in him so large. Uncle and the Boy’s parents had walked into another room, and while dimly Vasily could hear Uncle’s voice raise and crack with anger, they hadn’t paid much attention to it. But the Boy had tilted his head to hear it, just a little, and that snarled tangled void seemed to gain teeth, and the fairies went on and on about how dark it was, all of which annoyed Vasily. So they marched past him and reached up into the flowering tree Uncle kept in the entrance way and pulled down one of the large red flowers, larger than Vasily’s own hand, and thrust the branch at the Boy. “Here. Now you can have something to smile about for real.” The Boy had actually stopped smiling, startled and confused, and stared uncomprehendingly at the flower for a full twenty seconds, as though concerned it would bite him if he took it. Vasily was strongly considering throwing it at him, but he did finally reach out and take the flower with careful fingers, and lift it to his face, before a soft smile grew there, awkward and unpracticed, entirely unlike the polite mask he’d shown to Uncle. In that moment, something brilliant bloomed in that boy’s heart, and Vasily became aware without knowing that they’d never let him be lonely again.

Luca Albrecht–for he did turn out to have an actual name, for all he’d rather placidly accepted Vasily calling him “Boy” all afternoon–would stay with them in Uncle’s house for eleven months, and was placed in the same schoolroom as Vasily as a precautionary method, for already the two of them would escape any class the other wasn’t in to go join back with the other, so persistently that their teachers and even their classmates gave up trying to entice Luca to do anything that didn’t involve Vasily. Vasily, who disliked anything that involved sweating, came to the compromise: they'd come watch Luca play ball and other sports, and would watch (from a safe, tall distance–horses could not climb trees) the riding lessons they routinely escaped. Come the spring, Luca’s parents returned, having purchased a townhome that they could live together with their son, and were a little disconcerted when both children began bawling, as Luca had not thrown any sort of tantrum since infancy, and Vasily never raised their voice for anything. Still, they had insisted. Luca was their son and they were sure they’d be in Aldis more permanently, wouldn’t it be better if they raised him themselves? Three months later, Luca was entrusted to the care of a different family friend, and both of the elder Albrechts were gone before Uncle could track them down. It was the angriest Vasily had ever seen him, and when the fury in his eyes blazed down to embers, he had asked a favor of a friend of a friend, and the next week Luca would meet a fencing instructor. Vasily was ever invading Luca’s lessons, and Luca was ever at Uncle’s mansion after them, and Uncle and Uncle’s old friend came and planted more apple trees that summer they turned 11, ones bred to fruit all year round, even if the apples in the fall were still the largest and most delicious.

The year they both turned thirteen, things began to grow difficult. Children had no ability to conceive of change, and the pixies and sprites that still followed Vasily everywhere they went couldn’t understand mortal people well enough to give any warning. The changes came to Vasily first, with red dots on their breeches that sent both Vasily and Luca into a panic, as they’d been roughhousing over a book and Luca had grown despondent at the idea he might have hurt Vasily, until The Lady had intervened. She had taken Vasily to gently get cleaned up, and explain this particular function of a human’s body, for vata’sha were in this truly no different, and Vasily had been so horrified it had made them ill. The Lady had patiently coaxed answers out from between the sobbing, and gone quiet, but the next day she’d returned with a box of tea leaves, with Selene’s symbol engraved in the wood. To Vasily she spoke, telling them that if they chose to tell Luca, that was not one Naeva would make for them. “You will find other teas and tinctures that can change your body more completely. This will simply stop your cycle. Drink a cup of this in the morning, the first three days of the month.” She had hesitated, and then crouched down to be at eye level to Vasily, concern easy to read in her face and her heart. “Do you want to change your body?” Vasily had not. Their body was theirs, even when it had such weird and horrible capabilities. Their body did quite a lot of other things Vasily found gross, didn’t it? This one thing was more horrific than most, but it was still the same.

The Lady nodded once, and handed over the box, which she said contained one year’s worth of tea. Every year from then on, she would come and refill the box, which lived in a specific place in Vasily’s kitchen, a place of reverence directly under the calendar, as a balm against forgetting. But it would not be the last change Vasily’s body went through that year. Their chest swelled and they shot up in height like some kind of weed, towering over Luca and lording it over him until he picked a fight, a perennial game they never tired of. Vasily’s voice didn’t change much but grew a little sweeter and richer, a dark, honey-colored voice that was nothing like their Uncle’s. They rather liked these things, even if their body seemed strange and distant to them, for their body had always been strange and distant, but Vasily had come to believe the mystery of their body was a gift from Selene, and something sacred. The other boy they played with was angry and fiery, a passionate young man who also bore a dark hole of loneliness in him, and Vasily thought that the priests who tried to tell him about Maurenna and Goia were reaching for the wrong lights. But Uncle had laughed and said Vasily had an unfair advantage, and Luca had wondered if Selene had made Vasily smarter than most people, too, if She’d made Vasily’s body and soul such mysteries. The problem with this was not everyone knew, or saw that. Vasily was growing into the living ghost of their mother, Uncle said, and while Vasily saw it as a gift from a woman long gone, Uncle had wondered aloud if this wouldn’t cause them more pain later. Vasily had not, then, understood his meaning. At school, children’s games grew cruel and exclusive. Vasily had Luca, and Luca had Vasily, so the two of them turned away from their crueler peers without much care for it, but Vasily’s arcane abilities were growing far faster than their teachers could contain. The jealousy and confusion, the misplaced rage of bodies awakening to adult things before the mind had become ready, the first hints of young hunters sharpening their fangs, all these things came flooding into Vasily’s mind. At first, they tried to hide it from Luca, and from Leon (When Vasily had told Luca that Leon was angry–and lonely–all the time, Luca had taken the next opportunity to harass Leon into eating lunch with the two of them.), but this had not proven successful. Vasily could not adequately explain it, though, the growing disease and discomfort of knowing they were being perceived, and how–the twisted knot in their stomach every time thought of strangers passed over them and saw a young girl who’d grow up to be beautiful, what a shame, what a lovely voice, she’ll be a star like her uncle, for certain. Like knives, they came, without the poison of malice but the sting of wrongness that rattled Vasily’s bones. They could not find the words, and so they didn’t try, spending more and more time in the safety of Luca, and his teachers, and their Uncle, who all knew. The Lady’s children all were informed, but were much the same shrieking mass of unquiet hearts, aside from the eldest son, who had set his feet on the Royal Road like his father had before him, and thus the stillness of his heart was rarely there to seek protection in. For a little while, it was enough, those days hidden behind a shield of people who knew, and the Lady’s husband was powerful, and could help Vasily tame their power, until they need not fear the well-meaning sentiments of people who could only see and not perceive. That summer, after they had turned fifteen and Vasily had for the second year running made fun of Luca for being shorter than them (though they had curiously noted that Luca was no longer someone they could look down on, his eyes at level with Vasily’s mouth and, for a moment, lingering there), the Lady announced Luca was at a point in his lessons they would be going on a trip to train. She had done this with her own father, and for her youngest brother, and for her eldest son–she would likely do so again for her younger son in a year or two. It was tradition, and none but student and master could go–she had said so very firmly while looking directly at Vasily, who found this rude and uncalled for and absolutely warranted. Vasily had not liked the idea of being separated from Luca for a full fortnight, and knew Luca didn’t either, for all it didn’t show on his face, but there was no other choice. “Besides, you’d have to ride a horse to get there,” Luca had commented while packing, and Vasily had thrown the blueberries they were eating at him until he laughed and threw a shirt back at them. He had been right, and there was nothing to be done, but he hadn’t needed to say so. For two weeks, it was unnervingly quiet, for Leon had also quietly been slinking off to something he was not yet ready to tell Vasily about, and Vasily had no one to really tell when they realized it was the longest they’d hadn’t seen Luca since they had met, not counting the month last summer they had been confined to their room after breaking their leg falling out of a tree, as Luca had snuck into Vasily’s bedroom nearly every day to leave books and flowers and every blueberry he could find to lay hands on. Two weeks, then, passed in uncomfortable silence, and Vasily counted out the days on the header of the journal Uncle had suggested they start keeping. They knew, roughly, the hour that the Lady and Luca were meant to return, and the Lady’s husband laughed and let Vasily in at dawn anyway, and made them sandwiches too, for he missed his wife almost as keenly as Vasily was missing Luca, and it was easier to wait on a full stomach, besides. But it was a stranger who came home with the Lady that evening, the summer sun threatening to refuse to set for several more hours, horses as sweaty as the people who dismounted them. Vasily watched transfixed from the veranda as the young man with the Lady came up the steps. Luca–their senses told them it had to have been Luca–had grown nearly a full head in those two weeks, and in doing so his thin body had filled out with the overdue muscles his training owed him. Sweat and road dust made his thin shirt stick and cling to him, slightly transparent in the merciless heat, and his hair had been pulled back into an unfortunate tail out of his face, meaning nothing shielded Vasily from the exhausted, brilliant smile on his face when he caught sight of Vasily. It hit like a thunderbolt and set Vasily’s soul aflame–Selene had gifted them many mysteries in their life, but this one required no solving, just instead the sensation that the floor had fallen out from under them.

They were in love with Luca. Most likely, they always had been. And Luca, too tired to be perceptive, had easily loped up the front steps three at a time and hugged them, tighter than he meant to with new strength, and Vasily immediately discovered that while they never had quite fit entirely into their body, the extra parts of them snapped into place when that body filled Luca’s arms. Shakily they had inhaled the sweat from Luca’s neck and shoulder, told him they were tired and he was late when he’d wondered aloud why Vasily was shaking, and then crankily announced they were going to make dinner, and would the Mister please come help them when he was done kissing his wife right in front of Maurenna and everybody? They knew they could not hide this. The thought of doing so, as they had hid their brief infatuation with the Mister, filled Vasily’s heart with such a rending grief they thought their chest would rattle apart. So, then, they reasoned they must find a way to make sure Luca knew, and would come to see Vasily romantically as well as his closest friend, for Vasily could not bear to trade one for the other. But how were they to do so? They knew no other Laevvel, and was not about to trust a strange adult with their deepest heart, but they also knew very little of romance. In a panic, Vasily opened their mind to the hearts of Aldis, and searched, desperately, for how to turn a boy’s head. The panic worsened as the week dragged on, as they were among their classmates once more and they all noticed the change in Luca, all of them hungry and wanting hunters, and Luca, hungry himself, had seemed to quite enjoy the attention he was getting. The most viciously pretty girls and boys saw Vasily as just an obstacle between them and Luca, or worse yet, a childish habit they could talk Luca out of, and Vasily’s mind grew dizzy and sick with the thought that anyone could. They had come to a conclusion when they’d seen the pretty inamoratas out in the high ward, and thought that they too could use such beauty. The dress had been a light, summery thing, in a pale lavender the shopkeeper had mentioned would be lovely on a vata’sha and other such platitudes Vasily had interrupted to pay for. They had brushed their hair and braided it like the Lady did, for the Lady was the most beautiful woman they knew, pretty like the paintings she breathed life into, and looked at themselves in the mirror. They had not meant to break it, but it had fallen off the wall when they’d recoiled so hard they fell, and their hands cut on the shards when they tried to frantically scoop them up. It would not work. This would not work. Defeated, they’d crawled under the blankets on their bed without changing out of the spattered dress, nor bandaged their mangled hands, and refused to unlock the door when Uncle came to ask what had happened. Nor when Luca, who had been supposed to come over for dinner anyway, had come to the door to demand to know why they had locked their uncle out. Fifteen minutes after Vasily had not responded, their window opened with a thunk, startling the blanket lump into looking up as Luca casually slid in through the window. They weren’t sure what was more startling, the fact that Luca had inexplicably dressed quite formally, or that he was visibly angry, but Vasily didn’t have any time to process that before Luca had, after carefully stepping over the broken glass of the mirror, marched over to Vasily, spun them around to face him, and yanked the blankets open to look at them. Vasily’s hair was rough and messy from where they’d torn it out of the braid in a frenzy, hiding their face under a shaggy mop with red stains in it, and by now the bleeding in their hands had slowed to a crawling ooze. Luca clicked his tongue, and pulled a kerchief out of his breast pocket, holding out his other hand. “Give me your hands.” “Luca–I, but–” “Your hands.” Vasily did not object again, and Luca turned their palms upward, carefully plucking the few shards of glass remaining out of their palms before tearing the kerchief in half to wrap around them. He didn’t say a word, but fury and anxiety roiled off him in stormy surf, and Vasily began to quietly weep, finally too overwhelmed to choke it back. Luca’s hands froze when a tear fell on them. “...Is the bandage too tight?” Vasily laughed, almost hysterically, and shook their heads. The words were too much, too heavy for their insufficient voice, too large for their unremarkable body, and to say them was irrevocable, wasn’t it? But to not say them, to Luca, felt worse than lying. “...I…I-I’m not…not a girl.” “...I know, Vas?” Luca had remained still, holding Vasily’s upturned hands cradled in his, but the confusion was clear in his voice–Vas had been loud and insistent about this since they were eleven, and so this information likely was a poor explanation. “I am…not a boy, either.” “Vasily–?” “So.” Vasily’s voice cracked, and they slumped a little forward, head almost touching Luca’s shoulder. They could not bear to look up, to look into his eyes and see for themselves his reaction, now. “So I don’t know…how to make you look at me.” The silence unraveled into aeons, each tick of the small clock on Vasily’s desk an endless toll for their inevitable death, for if Luca had not understood, then surely that would be the death of their own heart. And then, Luca huffed a little bit and pushed Vasily back upwards, tipped their face up and kissed them, confidence pushing aside the clumsiness of what was suddenly clearly both of their first kiss. Once more, Vasily felt their soul catch ablaze, gleaming with sparks that seemed bright as stars, and then Luca let them go and reached up to pinch the tip of their ear between his thumb and bloodstained forefinger.

You absolutely ridiculous nearsighted featherwitted dust-for-brains!” Vasily tried in vain to protest or at least get Luca to let go of their ear, but Luca’s righteous fury would not be in any fashion deterred. “You dolt! Snowy-haired ass! What good are all those books if you are going to be this stupid!” “Hey–!” Vasily protested more loudly at the insult to their beloved collection, and Luca finally let go of their ear, only to grab them by the face with both hands, squishing their cheeks a little with frustration. “Vasily. You are psychic. You can literally read my heart.” Luca had begun smiling again, but the smile on his face seemed more like a knife being brandished, and Vasily wished very much to crawl back into their blankets. “Why wouldn’t you look there, first?”

“I–I, that was–” Vasily flailed for an excuse, and failed to find one, and Luca hissed between his teeth and leaned forward, letting his forehead thunk against Vasily’s. “Do it now, Vas.” Any protest the vata’sha might have had died in their throat at the look in Luca’s eyes, angry and so painfully hopeful, and they let their mind furl out to create a link between the two of them, sinking their mind into Luca’s, where they found only love and painful wanting, so powerful it left them dazed. This too flowed into the strange maze at the heart of Vasily, and they looked at Luca in such wonderment that he laughed, in spite of his irritation. “...You’re so daft. Of course…” Luca tipped his head a little, so his words murmured against Vasily’s lips like a prayer. “You are all the answers I’m seeking.” They did not come down from Vasily’s room for several hours, and when they did, the accursed dress had been so badly torn that Luca had forced his shirt on them, and then taken one of the slightly-too-small ones he’d forgotten there, over time. Uncle had laughed until he cried and slowly sank to the kitchen floor and continued laughing, until even Vasily’s indignance melted away into laughter, too.