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A Thread of Silver

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It was a warm midsummer night. A bright full moon shined upon a small child slowly picking his way through the crisp dusting of pine needles on the forest floor. He rubbed his grumbling stomach miserably, biting his lips at the sour, gnawing pain. His feet hurt from hours of directionless wandering, but he struggled onwards, desperately hoping to find his way home. When a knotted stump caught his tattered shoe, he couldn’t even attempt to hold back a sharp cry at the sting of a scraped chin and chaffed palms. His wails quickly turned into silent sniffles, however. He didn’t want to attract the attention of the beasties and monsters that his mother always told him about during their bedtime stories.

Thinking of his mother and the warmth of his bed stirred up a fresh wave of tears. The boy curled into a ball on the offensive stump and harshly rubbed the dirty, ripped cloth of his shirt across his dripping nose.

“I c-can’t just s-s-sit here crying,” he whispered to himself like a prayer. “I-I have to… find my way b-back home!”

A warm gust of wind blew across his face, tousling his messy bangs and freeing a few leaves from the black tangles. He jumped at the howl of a lone wolf in the distance and tried to swallow his tears.

But… Where am I?

—Chiiiiiingg

The light chime of a bell ghosted across his ear, catching his attention. He raised his face and quieted his sniffles, listening warily. His heart sped up in anticipation.

Is there someone here?

—Chiiing!

The bell chimed again. This time, the boy could tell that it came from somewhere to his right. He unsteadily pushed himself up and began blindly following the sound.

Maybe they can help me?

He clawed his way through several clumps of bushes, wound around a dense, maze-like collection of saplings, and crossed a twinkling stream, following the increasingly clear peal of the bell. Sweat combined with the humidity of the forest to cling to his skin and drip from the tips of his hair. When he saw the hot radiance of a bonfire up ahead, his limbs buzzed with renewed vigor. The light bathed the trunks and mulchy earth with a warm, orange glow and blew a feather of hope aflutter in his chest. The child’s muddy, sweat-stained face broke into a smile—he could just barely make out the sounds of laughter and music past the line of trees in front of him. He roughly propelled his legs forward, pushing past the soreness in his muscles.

When he broke into the clearing, he gasped, spellbound at the sight before him.

An ethereal gathering of fairies laughed and danced under the light of the moon, their gossamer wings and shimmering clothes catching the glow of firelight as they spun gracefully on the ground and in the treetops. The boy’s eyes widened when he realized that the orange glow he saw in the distance hadn’t come from any bonfires, but from dozens of small fire sprites, flickering and twirling in between and above the ever-fluid bodies of the larger dancers. A ragtag group of sprites played enthralling music at the center of the circle—a woodland pixie with a white flower atop his head passionately pulled a spider-threaded bow across a violin, an opossum-like creature joyfully pounded the drums, and it looked like a set of pipes were playing themselves… Wait… The boy gasped again when his eyes caught the near-invisible form of several wind spirits giggling and flitting along the hollow, wooden tubes.

“Wooow,” he breathed.

“Well hello there, little one…” A soft, lulling voice called out from behind the boy. The child turned to see who had spoken, but nobody was in sight.

He heard a light, bubbling laughter.

“Up here!”

When the boy looked up, he was stunned into a stupor by the beautiful being sitting on a tree branch above him. A tall, slender man smiled down, his warm green-blue eyes twinkling with curiosity. He had long, silver hair that shined and glowed as it spilled across his shoulders. A nearly transparent outfit of gossamer hung loosely on his frame. The boy felt his mouth go dry as his heart sped up. Although the creature didn’t seem to have wings on his back, he was far too pretty to be human.

A fairy?                 

The fairy held an ethereal beauty that left the boy entranced. He couldn’t help but stare in wonder...

—Gggrrumble!

The harsh protest of the child’s empty stomach startled them both. The boy blushed to the tips of his ears and ducked his head as the fairy let out a surprised chuckle.

“Ahh… I-I’m r-really sorry!” The boy squeaked, waving his hands in the air in embarrassment. “It’s just that I… I umm—“

“It looks like you wandered into my party just in time!” The fairy interrupted his stammering, gracefully floating down in front of the child. He knelt to the ground, coming face to face with the small figure, and placed one cool finger below the boy’s chin. He gently pushed the boy’s blushing face up to meet amused emerald eyes.

Ba-dump! Ba-dump!

The boy felt his heart speed up again.

T-Too close!

He bit his lip and blinked, flustered.

The fairy just laughed and took the child by his hand, pulling him towards the bright circle of otherworldly dancers.

“Come! Tonight we shall eat, drink, and be merry!”

The boy followed obediently, eyes wide, still in a daze.

The chatter of voices and the peals of laughter crescendoed when the silver-haired fairy entered the circle.

“You’re finally here, your majesty!—”

“—Dance with me!”  

“—My king!”

The boy blushed anew, nervous from all the attention directed their way. He sped up to close the gap between them and hid behind the silver fairy, holding onto his cool hand tightly. It seemed that every sprite and creature in the meadow was bowing or curtseying to them, while the fairy leading the boy simply smiled and waved in response.

They stopped at the center of the circle, where a bed of soft green moss covered a giant tree stump. The fairy sat down and pulled the boy into his lap. With a commanding wave of his hand, golden baskets with intricate designs of vines and flowers floated in the air towards them, carried by buzzing clusters of sprites with fluffy dresses reminiscent of bumblebees.

The boy’s mouth started to water in time with his growling stomach as the baskets drifted closer. He could see overflowing piles of perfectly ripened fruit decorated with colorful flowers. Their pleasantly sweet fragrance teased his tongue.

The fairy giggled at the boy’s shining eyes and plucked a bunch of grapes from a nearby basket. He pulled off a single ruby-red grape and held it to the boy’s lips.

“Try these, I’m sure you’ll like them…”

The boy shyly, albeit eagerly accepted the fruit. His small tongue curled against the smooth, cool skin of the hard orb. When he bit into the plump flesh, a burst of rich, almost achingly-sweet juice filled his mouth. His eyes brightened in delight as he let out a small moan of pleasure. The fairy hummed, his face melting into a warm smile.

“So, what’s your name?”

In his dreamy, food-induced haze, the boy failed to recall his mother’s warning that he should never give a fairy his name.

“Mm… Yuuri, I’m Katsuki Yuuri,” the boy said with his mouth still full, some of the sticky juice dripping down his chin.

The fairy beamed down at him, pleased, and continued to feed him the rest of the grapes one-by-one. As the night went on, he kept picking new and increasingly stranger selections from the baskets for the boy to try.

“—Umm, is that a flower??”

“Yep! It’s one of my favorites… Say ahhhh…”

 “So hold it in your palm like this… And just slurp… No, no, you have to do it harder… Yes, that’s it Yuuri!”

“That’s a really pretty shell”

“Isn’t it? Now we have to drink it all at once, ok? One, two, three!”

“Vkusno!”

Yuuri couldn’t tell how many hours had passed, but the fairies and woodland creatures showed no hint of ending their festivities. His body felt warm and his head felt light and fuzzy, as if the aches and stresses of the day had just melted away. He sluggishly ran his fingers through the long locks of smooth, silver hair within reaching distance of his perch in the fairy’s lap and grinned drunkenly up into playful green-blue eyes. The silver-haired fairy petted the boy’s head fondly, chattering lightly.

Yuuri looked out dreamily into the crowd around them as his face relaxed into a smile.

Everyone looks like they’re having so much fun!

His belly was comfortably satiated and the music made him feel light and full of energy. His fingers and feet started tapping in time with the drums, moving with excitement and anticipation as though they had a will of their own. When the violin sang out a particularly high trill, Yuuri hopped to his feet, surprising the fairy by spinning in a neat, cute circle, the bewitching music guiding the swing of his arms and the bounce of his toes.

“Wow!” The fairy exclaimed, clapping enthusiastically.

“Let’s dance!” Yuuri declared. He held out a chubby, inviting hand, his shyness having been chased away quite a while ago by the food and drink. The fairy grasped the boy’s tiny fingers with a twinkle in his eye and gracefully stood to twirl him around, guiding him across the clearing in an impromptu waltz.

Yuuri danced and danced as the night went on. Perhaps it was due to the magic of the fairy circle, or maybe it was because of the captivating smiles and warm touches of the fairy that had so enchanted him, but Yuuri didn’t get even a little bit fatigued.

Eventually, the moon began to fall and the other fairies disappeared, one-by-one, until only Yuuri and his silver-haired friend were left, dancing to a soundless tune that only the two of them could hear. The fairy swung the child into a final twirl, released his hand, and bowed. Yuuri, dizzy from the spin, did his best attempt at a bow in response, earning him a chortle and a light tousle of his hair. “Well, Yuuri Katsuki, I never expected to have so much fun tonight!”

Yuuri grinned in return. He wholeheartedly agreed. Tonight had been the best night of his life!

“But, alas, all things must come to an end…” The fairy looked at the boy with a pleased expression and a fond smile. “…Unless…” The fairy’s eyelids drifted half-closed enticingly as he slowly leaned down.

“…How would you like to stay with me… Forever?” He whispered conspiratorially into the boy’s ear. After several heartbeats, he stretched out his hand, palm up, and winked at the boy.

Yuuri found himself nodding dreamily, drawn in by the glowing smile and misty blue eyes…

It would be so wonderful to always be with such a beautiful person, eat such delicious food, and have so much fun all the time!

Yuuri leaned forward. Right before he was about to grasp the fairy’s hand, images of his mother, father, and sister suddenly flashed through his mind. Yuuri’s hand jolted, hovering over the fairy’s palm.

They would be really sad right?

His eyes widened. The thought of his crying mother painfully wrenched at his heart.

They’re probably really, really worried right now!

He slowly dropped his hand and glanced apologetically at his new friend.

“I’m really sorry… But I think my family would be really sad… If I didn’t go home.”

The fairy’s eyes widened in surprise.

Tears began to well up in Yuuri’s soft, brown eyes as his mind cleared. “I’ve never been away from home at night… and…” Yuuri looked down guiltily, his lip starting to quiver. “…They wouldn’t think that I r-ran a-away, right…?”

What if… they don’t want me anymore?

Yuuri’s eyes and nose started to sting, the dripping, salty wetness blurring his vision. He squeezed his clammy hands into fists, growing more and more anxious with the pound of each heartbeat.

What if they forgot about me?

“Of course not, dear Yuuri!” The fairy interrupted the boy’s panicked thoughts, trying to project calmness through his soft, soothing voice. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home soon.”

Warm hands came up to wipe away the boy’s tears and snot, lightly pinching his rosy cheeks. When his sniffles finally receded, Yuuri looked up to see a small, reassuring smile, tinged with a hint of sadness.

“Now, let’s get you something really nice as a souvenir so your family won’t think that you ran away, ok?”

Yuuri nodded, rubbing at his slightly sticky face one last time.

“Great! Let’s go!”

The fairy clapped in excitement and pulled on the boy’s hand. In the blink of an eye, their surroundings changed from the earthy tones of the forest to the glitz and glamour of what looked to be an extremely opulent treasure room. Yuuri’s jaw dropped in awe. After several confused blinks, he rubbed his eyes.

Where am I? How did we get here?

The high ceiling of the room was coated in gold leaf and studded with glowing pieces of amber. A large crystal chandelier drooped from its center, lighting the room with the glow of hundreds of tiny slumbering light fairies. All sorts of shiny treasures cluttered the chamber, piled into several small hills. Yuuri had never seen most of these items in his life, but thought that he recognized a few from the picture books that the traveling merchants had sold to his family. He could tell that they were all quite precious. Chests overflowed with sparkling gold coins, rubies, diamonds, and pearls; a pile of bejeweled crowns of all shapes and sizes were piled haphazardly atop a throne of pure silver; terrifyingly sharp weapons and goblets of all shapes and sizes were littered across the floor. There were also many mysterious items that Yuuri did not recognize. It was overwhelming.

The fairy looked down at the boy, gesturing towards the room of treasure with a flourish of his arm and a cock of his hip. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Yuuri nodded, still too astonished for words.

The fairy grinned. “You can pick out anything you want in this room. Just say the word and it’s yours!”

Yuuri’s eyes widened. After a few blinks of disbelief, he smiled shyly and blushed.

“So?” The fairy leaned down, encouraging the boy to pick out a gift.

Not sparing a single additional glance at the multitude of valuables around him, Yuuri pointed a small, wavering finger up at the fairy.

“Me?” The fairy pointed at himself, flabbergasted. “Well, that’s—“

“No, no! Of course not!” Yuuri shook his head furiously, blushing to the tips of his ears again. “You can’t own a person!”

The fairy’s eyes widened in surprise.

“O-or a fairy, I mean! You can’t own a fairy either!”

Embarrassed by his own outburst, Yuuri looked down and poked his fingers together before shyly mumbling in a voice that the fairy could barely hear.

“I thought that… It would be really nice if I could… have… a little bit of your hair?” He gazed admiringly up at the silver wall of silk. “It’s so smooth and pretty and I really like touching it… So…” The boy glanced up shyly, unsure.

The fairy let out a delighted gasp, a tinge of pink dusting his cheeks.

“Of course, Yuuri! I’d be happy to…” He plucked a single strand of silver from his head and handed it to the boy.

“Now don’t you lose it, ok? Since it’s a very special gift from me!”

Yuuri nodded with vigor, biting his lips in happiness and cradling the silver strand in his hands like it was the most delicate and precious thing in the world. The fairy sighed and knelt down to give the boy a warm hug, inciting another light blush.

“I think it’s about time we get you home, Yuuri,” he whispered. After a lingering pause, he lightly pressed a pair of cool lips against the boy’s forehead.

Yuuri saw a flash of light and heard the bright chime of a bell as his eyelids drifted closed. Before he was fully pulled into the velveteen folds of sleep, however, he thought he heard someone whisper into his ear.

“I’ve got you, Yuuri.”

 


 

“…ri!!!”

A loud voice…

Yuuri furrowed his brow in annoyance and snuggled up into a tighter ball.

So happy… So warm…

“YUURI!!”

A really nice dream…

“Oh my gosh… Dear boy, please, please wake up! Yuuri!”

That voice sounded familiar. And maybe a little desperate…? Yuuri’s fingers twitched.

He squinted as he cracked opened his eyes against the too-bright light of day. He could tell that he was lying on the ground, with a soft bed of crisp-smelling pine needles cushioning his back. The cheerfully cacophonous chirping of birds told him it was early morning. The sunlight filtered through the foliage of the towering oaks, pines, and birches, scattering a kaleidoscope of golds and emeralds onto the soft earth below.

“Yuuri, thank god you’re awake!” His eyes focused on the face of a woman who was peering down at him with a terrified expression and pinched lips. Her long brown hair tickled his forehead.

Hmm… That reminds me of… something?

“Are you ok?” The woman lightly slapped his cheeks, jostling him fully awake. He sat up and blinked his eyes in recognition.

“Auntie Minako?”

The next thing he knew, Yuuri was knocked back onto the ground in a fierce tackle of a hug. He could feel a warm wetness soaking through his shirt.

“I’m so glad you’re ok!” Minako pushed herself away and proceeded to pat him down and analyze every inch of his small body, tears of relief filling her eyes. “You are ok right? You’re not hurt anywhere?”

“I think so?”

Minako squeezed him in a tight hug again, peppering wet kisses across his face.

“Auntie Minako…”

“Yes, Yuuri?” The woman looked at Yuuri with a joyful smile.

“I need to… apologize to mama for playing for too long in the woods last night…” He shrunk in on himself guiltily. “I hope they don’t think I ran away…”

“What do you mean?” Minako looked at the boy with a confused wrinkle in her delicately arched eyebrows. “You went missing in the forest almost a week ago.”

Yuuri’s face fell.

But… But I remember playing in the forest last night…

Minako held his shoulders tightly and directed a piercing stare at him, her brown eyes hardening with an almost-scary intensity. “What happened to you?”

“I was just… I… I…” Yuuri trailed off.

I was playing in the forest. And then… And then it was night? And I was running…?

Minako waited in silence, her gaze not leaving Yuuri’s confused face.

After a long pause, Yuuri replied carefully, his quiet voice small and unsure. “I don’t remember.”

Minako’s grip on his arms loosened.

“I can’t remember anything!” Thinking back to last night–or was it last week?–felt like trying to walk through a wall of wool. The more he pulled at his memories, the more lost and tangled and confused he became. Yuuri frowned and worried at his lip.

After a long, considering look, Minako sighed and patted Yuuri’s head. “Well in any case, I’m glad you’re ok.” Minako gave Yuuri one last hug, more gently this time. “Let’s get you home. The Katsukis have been worried sick! Can you walk?”

Yuuri nodded and stood up.

After Minako patted off the pine needles and mud that Yuuri had rolled all over himself in his slumber, she took his hand and led him home. As they followed the small dirt path to Hasetsu Village, Yuuri stopped several times to turn and look back at the looming wall of trees.

He had the nagging feeling that he was missing something very important.

 

Chapter Text

The small village of Hasetsu sat snugly in the middle of Saga Forest, cocooned in miles of vast, dense woods. Its inhabitants led quiet lives tending the fields, raising livestock, and taking what they needed from the bountiful nature around them. As he looked out of his bedroom window, nose squishing against the icy glass, 10-year-old Yuuri decided that winter was his favorite time of the year. A grin lit up his rosy cheeks, red nose, and sparkling eyes as he marveled at the world just beyond his back yard. He loved the way the soft whiteness draped across the hills and valleys, casting a blanket of tranquility as far as his eyes could see and melting into the bright blue sky in the far-off distance. Every minute or so, the small puffs of breath from Yuuri’s mouth would completely fog up the window once again, forcing the boy to rub a glove-clad hand squeakily across the glass with a pout. His ire never lasted for more than a few seconds, however. The hush of winter brought with it a certain otherwise-unobtainable kind of peace.

Yuuri was also fond of the annual exchange of gifts between family and friends that came with winter. This year, he had made ornaments out of pine cones for his parents, sister, Auntie Minako, and Takeshi. He had spent extra effort on Yuuko’s gift, dragging along an unenthusiastic Mari for several hours to hunt for the perfect bough of holly.

But it was worth it!

Thinking back to Yuuko’s delighted gasp and tight hug, Yuuri couldn’t help the embarrassed grin that overtook his face. He brought his hands up to his cheeks, attempting to cool down his growing blush.

She had sewn everyone small drawstring pouches in return—Yuuri’s was a deep navy with a white “Y” stitched to the front. Although the cloth was rough and the embroidery uneven, he was still quite touched to have been given something Yuuko had made herself, toiling over every detail while thinking of him…

“Hehe…” Yuuri giggled quietly, squeezing his eyes shut at the thought.

When his blush finally receded, Yuuri reached into his coat pocket to pull out the pouch. He took it with him everywhere these days, having decided to use it to collect any small valuables he could find. It only contained one item so far, a single glistening silver thread.

He had discovered it in the pocket of his shorts a few years ago. It was soft and smooth like silk but strong as steel—it refused to fray or break no matter how hard he had tried to pull it apart. Yuuri had no idea what it was… Perhaps a strand from a spider’s web? But cobwebs are more sticky and springy… Or maybe some rare material from a traveling merchant’s cart? It could’ve been blown loose from its bundle and somehow wriggled its way into Yuuri’s pocket…

In any case, Yuuri knew from the moment he had found it that the mysterious thread was very special. He had hid it away as something of a secret good luck charm, not even showing his parents or Yuuko. Whenever he felt sad or anxious, he would reach into his pocket and rub the thread between his fingers. Its satiny texture was always comforting and oddly familiar…

Knock-knock!

Yuuri jumped and stuffed the pouch back into his pocket.

“Yuuri, your friends are here!” Hiroko called out, her round face and cheerful eyes peeking through the doorway.

“Ok!” Yuuri beamed, hopping off his perch by the windowsill. He hurriedly grabbed the thick blue parka hanging on his door and sloppily pulled it on as he sprinted past his chuckling mother. He could hear Yuuko and Takeshi’s voices coming from the living room down below.

“…not to do that!” Yuuri caught Yuuko saying from the stairs. Her arms were crossed over her chest, puffing out her fluffy white coat and pulling on her bright pink scarf. Yuuri thought that she looked like an adorable snowman. However, her delicate eyebrows were drawn into a steep frown and her cheeks were puffed in annoyance. She scowled at Takeshi, who was clad in a similar ensemble in black. 

“What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s not like—”

“Oh, hi Yuuri!” Yuuko interrupted when she saw the shorter boy, turning to face him with a cute swish of her long, brown ponytail. Her face softened into a cheerful smile. Takeshi shot a flinty glare at Yuuri, his spiky black hair making the tall boy look even more intimidating.

“Hi Yuuko! And…Takeshi,” Yuuri greeted the pair, giving a small, unsure wave.

I wonder what’s up with them?

He felt a bit awkward about interrupting what looked to be an argument. Their bickering had become increasingly frequent over the past few weeks.

“Are you ready to go?” Yuuko chirped. “I heard from Hikari that the pond by the apothecary has totally frozen over!” Her light-brown eyes sparkled in excitement. “Maybe we’ll even get to walk on it! I wonder if we’ll be able to see any fish under the ice…”

Takeshi snorted. “The fish are all dead, idiot! There’s no way they’re still swimmin’ around in there when it’s this cold out.”

“You don’t know that!” Yuuko retorted. “If they die every winter, then where do all the fish come from in the spring?”

“Well—that’s…” Takeshi sputtered. “Maybe Minako dumps in some new ones every year or something, how would I know?”

Yuuri really doubted that Auntie Minako cared enough to go through all that effort… And anyways, that begged the question: Where would she get her fish from?

A hearty chuckle came from the kitchen. “I guess you kids will just have to go and ask her yourselves, then!” Toshiya walked into the living room, carrying a steaming plate of biscuits with a shiny glaze of honey-gold syrup melted over the top. “Before you head out though, why don’t you give these a taste?”

“Oooh, thank you Mr. Katsuki! They look delicious!”

Takeshi grunted his thanks as well and they pulled off their gloves, each grabbing a hot pastry. Toshiya smiled at them indulgingly and proceeded to walk up the stairs. “Mari! Hiroko! Try some, too!”

“Oh my gosh, Yuuri. Your parents make the best food!” Yuuko sighed dreamily, a few small flakes from the biscuit sticking to her lips. “I wish I could live with you guys!”

“W-well, you’re always welcome to come over for dinner.” Yuuri slowly nibbled the pastry, a pleased blush tinging his cheeks pink. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind. Especially since there aren’t any guests at the inn this time of y—”

“Oy! Are you guys done yet? Let’s go!” Takeshi had wolfed everything down in record time and was pacing by the door with a frown etched on his face.

“Geez… You’re going to get a stomachache one of these days,” Yuuko chided, finishing up the last few bites and licking the sugary glaze off of her fingers. She then turned and shouted up the stairs. “Mari! Do you want to come too?”

“Nah, I’m good,” came the monotone reply.

Yuuri shrugged. Although he had never been particularly adventurous, his sister had always been even more of a homebody.

“Ok, then we’re heading out, Mister and Missus Katsuki! Thanks for the food!” The trio opened the door and made their way outside.

“—Wait, don’t forget your hat, Yuuri!” Hiroko ran to the doorway and tossed her son a knitted grey cap. Yuuri caught it with a quick thank you and pulled it over his head.

“Have fun now! And make sure you don’t go into the forest after sunset again…”

They started treading through the knee-high layer of snow in Yuuri’s front yard, scrambling to get to the already-shoveled village streets. He was thankful for the warm hat that covered his head and ears. He could already feel the tip of his nose growing numb from the icy nips of the wind. The sparkly white powder crunched satisfyingly under his boots.

“Ha! What a kid!” Takeshi scoffed. “You can’t even put on clothes without your mommy’s help, huh?”

Yuuri’s face burned with humiliation as he stole a glance at Yuuko. “That’s not it!” he said forcefully, catching the bigger boy by surprise. “I just… forgot my hat!”

Yuuko pushed herself between the two squabbling boys as they trudged past the frozen sign of “Hasetsu Inn”. They finally broke through to the thankfully snow-free street and turned to start walking in the opposite direction of town.

“Stop being such a bully, Takeshi! It’s not like you remembered to wear a hat either!” She turned to Yuuri with a supportive smile, which helped soothe his somewhat-battered pride. “I think it’s sweet that you get along so well with your parents, Yuuri.”

She gave the taller boy a hard look. “Mr. Nishigori here fights with his folks all the time.”

“Hey! You’re not supposed to mention that!”

“Well then maybe you shouldn’t be so mean to everyone!”

Yuuri was content to let his friends fight it out. When he had asked his mother about their odd behavior, she had told him that he would understand once he got a bit older.

I wonder if I’ll start arguing with all my friends in two years, too.

Yuuri wrinkled his nose.

I hope not… It seems like such a waste! You could be spending that time doing all sorts of fun things together instead.

He absentmindedly kicked an icy gray pebble down the road. Although the dirt path was clear of snow, a layer of ice had already been pounded into the ground by the crush of hooves and feet, creating a hard gray-brown surface. The pebble struck with a light plink! as it bounced and rolled forward. They still had a ways to go, but he could now faintly see Minako’s shop far ahead in the distance.

The apothecary lived alone in a small hut near the edge of town. Her close proximity to the forest made it easy for her to obtain herbs and other supplies to make her medicines and balms with, and she would often venture out alone in the early mornings to gather ingredients. When Yuuri was younger, his parents had frequently asked Minako to watch him and Mari when they were too busy running the inn or working on the farm. She would take them out into the woods or to the large pond behind her house and tell them all about the plants they saw. Yuuri smiled to himself at the fond memories. I hope she didn’t go out there today though, everything’s frozen over!

The other villagers often expressed concern for her safety as well—she was a petite, single woman living right next to the forest after all—but Minako had always insisted that she could take care of herself just fine. As they got closer, Yuuri saw a small wisp of white smoke curling out of the chimney, signaling that Minako was home.

When they got close enough to see the opaque reflection of the surrounding trees on the frozen surface of the pond, Takeshi grinned at Yuuri with a competitive glint in his eye.

“Hey, race ya to the pond, Yuuri! The loser has to do whatever the winner wants!”

“H-hey! Wait—!”

“One, two,—“

“I didn’t agree t—“

“—Three!”

Takeshi took off, sprinting to the side of the road with a free-spirited laugh and starting to trudge through knee-deep snow once more.

“You’re gonna lose, Yuuri!”

“Wait up!”

Yuuri sprinted after him. When he got to the edge of the street, he started following the trail in the snow that Takeshi had already made. He caught up to the older boy quickly.

“Hey! That’s cheating!”

“It’s not!” Yuuri threw a cheeky grin over his shoulder as he split off and began to make his own path at a slightly faster pace. When he reached the edge of the pond, he heard a hard oof! followed by a snowy thump from behind him.

“I… I… Won!” Yuuri panted, wiping off a thin sheen of sweat that had gathered on his eyebrows right below the line of his cap. He turned around to see Takeshi on his knees, glowering at him with a face caked in ice. He couldn’t hold back a small snicker at the pattern of white all around his friend’s chin.

“You look like Santa Claus, Takeshi!”

“Sh-shut up!” Blood rushed to the older boy’s tan cheeks. He roughly scrubbed at his face with his forearm and elbow. “I would’ve won if that darn tree root hadn’t been in the way.” Takeshi glared up at the skeletal frame of the willow as if he had a personal vendetta.

“You know Yuuri’s always been light on his feet. He probably would’ve won anyway.” Yuuko picked her way forward from behind Takeshi with a smile, looking unruffled. Apparently, she hadn’t felt the need to race along with them.

“Next time, I’ll beat you for sure!” Takeshi stood up with a pout. He tugged off his gloves and rapidly rubbed his bare hands over his face and ears, hastily trying to return some feeling to his numb skin after his fall.

“So… What are you going to make him do, Yuuri?” Yuuko had a mischievous twinkle in her warm, brown eyes.

Yuuri blushed and scratched his head. “I don’t really have anything in mind…”

“Hmph!” Takeshi stood up straight and puffed out his chest, his face set with determination. “I’m a man of my word! Hit me with anything you want!”

“You’re not a man yet!” Yuuko giggled.

That earned her a dirty look.

Yuuri pursed his lips and then lightly shook his head, waving his hands in front of him. “It’s really okay…”

“What? You don’t think I can handle it?”

“Umm… Then… How about you do ten push-ups?”

“Ugh, that’s so lame.”

“I think it’ll be pretty interesting in all this!” Yuuko gestured towards the ground. “Maybe you’ll get snow all over your face again too! I didn’t get to see it the first time since you wiped it off so quickly, but—”

“No!” Takeshi crossed his arms in a huff and stepped forward. “That’s it! Since you two wimps can’t think of a good dare for me to do, I’m going to take matters into my own hands!” He stared out onto the frozen expanse in front of him, brow furrowed and lips pressed in thought. Suddenly, his eyes lit up.

“I’m going to walk all the way across the pond!” Takeshi declared victoriously.

“Ehh?! You can’t! That’s way too dangerous!”

“W-wait! Takeshi! We don’t know if the ice is thick enough yet…”

Takeshi put a single foot onto the ice. When it seemed to hold without complaint, he smirked and slowly dragged his back foot forward as well.

“…We haven’t tested it out or asked Auntie Minako—S-stop!” The faint web of white lines throughout the frozen pond suddenly looked terrifying to Yuuri, like it would suddenly fracture, collapse in on itself, and swallow his friend whole.

How deep is the water? It has to be pretty deep since it’s such a big pond, right?

Yuuri gulped. He couldn’t remember ever being able to see to the bottom during the warmer months, when the water was sparkly and clear. He recalled little glittery fish darting around for maybe a few feet below the surface, but beyond that was only a dark murkiness, sometimes hinting at undulating seaweed when the sunlight was particularly bright…

Takeshi steadily took a few more steps forward.

“See? I told you I could do it!”

 “Ohmygosh, ohmygosh…” Yuuko whispered to herself on a loop. Her hands were clasped tightly in front of her chest as she watched Takeshi, completely riveted on the tiniest of movements. Yuuri could see that tears were starting to well up, casting a glassy sheen over her wide eyes.

“That’s e-enough, Takeshi! Uhh… I d-dare you to come back!” Yuuri shouted after his friend, whose steps were becoming faster and more confident. Takeshi was quickly approaching the center of the pond. It was a slightly darker blue compared to the more opaque outer edges… The ice looked the thinnest there.

“No way! I’m a man of my word and I’ll prove it to you!”

Please!! TAKESHI!” Yuuko screamed, tears pouring down her cheeks. Something in her voice must’ve caught his attention. He paused and looked over his shoulder.

“…Okay, okay. I’m coming back. No need to cry and make such a big deal out of it… Geesh!”

Yuuri let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. His heart pounded furiously in his chest.

As Takeshi turned to walk back, his foot slipped on the ice, flying out from under him.

“Woah!” He swung out his arms just in time to catch himself and landed on his elbows with a heavy thud.

Kru-crack!

Everyone froze.

Was that a crack? In the ice?

Yuuri could make out two white hairline fractures around his friend.

“Oh no…” Yuuko breathed.

The taller boy’s bravado had suddenly been replaced by a fixed panic. He was rooted to the ice, too petrified of making the cracks spread to speak or move a single muscle.

A million images fast-forwarded through Yuuri’s head. Takeshi falling into the cracks… Takeshi getting dragged away by the underwater currents… Takeshi drowning while pounding on the unyielding layer of ice above him… fishing out Takeshi’s frozen, blue corpse as his family and Yuuko cried on the shore…

“Ok, ok…” Yuuko closed her eyes and took a shaky deep breath. Her lips were still trembling when she finally opened her mouth to speak, but her voice was strong and steady. “You’re going to be ok, Takeshi. Just don’t move.” She held out her hands in front of her in a placating manner. His desperate gaze was fixed on her like her words were his last lifeline.

“Yuuri’s going to get Ms. Minako and I’m going to stay here with you, alright?”

Takeshi’s chin dipped in a slight nod.

Yuuri gulped. A nervous sweat broke out over his brow. He curled his right hand around the pouch in his pocket, trying to squeeze out even a drop of courage from his good luck charm.

I can do that… Just need to… Just need to get Auntie Minako and… She’ll know what to do…

—CRA-rack! CRAAAACK!

Yuuri’s mind went blank as a surge of fear shot through his entire being. Time stopped. He couldn’t breathe. All sound faded away into a dull muted note, ringing through his skull. As his vision blurred and refocused over and over again in a dizzying loop, he vaguely noted that he couldn’t feel his limbs, let alone move them.

Ba-dump! Ba-dump! Badump! Badump! Badump…

His heart raced painfully, pounding against his eardrums and trying to escape the cage of his chest. He felt like he was floating in a dark, dark void…

An abrupt jostle tugged at his scattered thoughts. Yuuri blinked hard.

“...go! You have to go, Yuuri!” When his eyes started to focus, Yuuri could blearily make out Yuuko tensely looking back and forth between him and the still-frozen Takeshi.

Takeshi’s still here…

Yuuko’s face was really close.

Ba-dump-ba-dump-badump

He thought he could feel her shaking him by the shoulders.

Ba-dump-ba-dump-badump!

“…You have to get Ms. Minako now!”

A thunderous crack pierced through the miasma of Yuuri’s mind. His eyes widened in horror as he watched the ice under Takeshi split open across several gaping chasms, revealing the inky water beneath. Everything seemed to happen in a blur. Takeshi’s legs dipped into the pond for a quick second before he managed to flounder onto the floating chunk of ice behind him. Yuuko lunged forward, yanking her bright pink scarf over her head. She unsteadily stepped onto the edge of the pond. Yuuri’s heart leapt.

No! He wanted to reach out, to stop her, but he couldn’t move a muscle.

When the surface didn’t crack in protest, she started carefully shuffling towards a shaking Takeshi.

I need to help!

Yuuri’s arm jerked forward.

But what if the two of us are too heavy for the ice?

He froze again.

Yuuko said to get Auntie Minako…

But what if they both fall in when I’m gone?

Suddenly, there was not enough air in his lungs.

What if… what if…

Yuuri wheezed, sinking to his knees. His hands came up to cradle his head.

This isn’t real. I don’t know what to do.

—Crack!

A sharp yelp was punctuated by a splash. Yuuri slowly lifted his face, a feeling of impending doom looming over him.

When he saw Yuuko and Takeshi lying on the section of ice attached to the shore, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Takeshi looked even more soaked than before. One end of Yuuko’s scarf was wrapped around his arms, also drenched. She held the other end tightly in her grip.

They’re… They’re ok.

Takeshi was shivering wildly, his eyes boring into the girl with shock. Yuuko released a pained groan and began crawling to shore. The scarf seemed to lengthen behind her, pooling around her ankles while darkening into a deep red.

Red scarf… No…

…Blood.

He belatedly noticed the long slash across her leg. Yuuko’s eyes were pinched together and her mouth was set in a hard grimace. It looked like the color had been drained from her face.

For the first time in his life, Yuuri saw Takeshi cry.

The shock finally jolted Yuuri forward. He ran unsteadily towards his two friends, face crumpling. “I-I’m so sorry,” he sobbed. “I couldn’t—I didn’t know…”

Takeshi cut him off with a shout. “She’s bleeding!” His face shone with snot and tears. “What do we do?!”

Yuuri fell to his knees at Yuuko’s side, starting to hyperventilate at the state of her leg. The cut was roughly jagged and deep across the entire length of her left shin and calf. The cloth of her pants had been torn to shreds and a massive amount of blood was steadily pouring out of the wound, pooling and beginning to congeal on the cool ice under her.

We have to stop the bleeding. There’s too much blood!

“Ah—Auntie Mi-minako told me that you should put p-pressure on cuts to s-stop the b-bleeding.”

Yuuko gave a small nod, pain glazing her eyes as she bit down hard on her lips. The muscles in her neck were tense and her whole body was stiff, hovered over her injury.

Takeshi’s hands shook as he offered Yuuri the now blood-and-water-soaked scarf, an unsure look in his wide eyes.

“I think that’ll h-help. It’s kinda like a bandage, r-right?”

When the two boys pressed the cloth tightly over her wound, she hissed.

“I-i-it’s c-c-cold-d!” Yuuko’s teeth chattered. Her lips were starting to turn white and he could see dark circles forming under her eyes. They desperately held the scarf down hard for several more seconds.

“She’s still bleeding! I don’t think it’s stopping it at all!” Takeshi barked, still thrusting his weight on her leg as pink liquid seeped all over his hands and knees. He looked towards Yuuri in panic.

Yuuri’s own fingers were trembling. His vision was starting to swim again. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to control his unsteady breathing.

What do I do what do I do what do I do…

“Ah! Tourniquet!” Yuuri’s eyes flashed. “Takeshi, t-tie your belt tight above her knee. I’ll keep holding this down.”

As Takeshi shakily moved to follow his instructions, he could see that Yuuko was beginning to subtly sway back and forth. She looked like she was losing the strength to hold herself up.

Please, please, stop bleeding! Yuuri prayed, pressing the hilt of his palms as hard as he could into the cold, hard muscle. His entire arm trembled from the force. His gloves and sleeves were already soaked completely through with the dark red liquid and yet he could still feel a sickly warm wetness continue to pulse forth with each slowing beat of her heart.

This is all my fault.

Tears fell, swirling in the blood that had saturated his gloves.

If only I had lost the race, if only I had stopped Takeshi, if only I had run to get Auntie Minako sooner, if only I went out onto the ice instead of Yuuko…

“I-I’m so s-sorry…” Yuuri sobbed.

“s…top… stop it,” Yuuko whispered weakly, her eyes serious through the glaze of pain. “It’s not your fault, Yuuri…”

He could barely see the rise and fall of her chest as she took small, halting breaths.

No… I could’ve done something…

This wouldn’t have happened…

Please, please, please!

Yuuri squeezed his eyes shut and willed with all of his being for the blood to stop flowing out of her so freely, for the cut to disappear, for her mangled skin to mend itself back together.

Yuuko

Can’t

Die!

He felt a tingle of warmth in his hands. It slowly spread up his arms and across his whole body.

I need to keep applying pressure… Harder...!

Blood rushed to his ears. His hearing was fading now, but he thought that he heard Yuuko take in a soft gasp. The thick wetness bathing his gloves felt like it was gradually cooling down… and perhaps no longer being constantly replenished…

Did Takeshi manage to stop the bleeding?

When Yuuri opened his eyes to check, the ice flew up to meet him.

 


 

Yuuri drifted awake to the familiar wooden panels on the ceiling of his room. The shadows on his walls were accented by the orange glow of candlelight. His head ached, his eyelids felt puffy, and his throat was reminiscent of sandpaper. “Uugh…”

A chair creaked.

“I think he’s awake!”

He could hear feet pounding up the stairs.

“Mari?” he croaked, turning to see his sister sitting by his bed.

“Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah, I think so. Um, can I have some water?”

Mari sighed. “Give me a minute.” She walked to his bedroom door just as it burst open.

“Yuuri! You’re finally up, thank goodness!” Minako, Toshiya, and Hiroko burst into the room, wearing mirroring looks of relief. Yuuri blinked, slightly overwhelmed by the sudden attention.

“Err… What happened? I remember I…” Yuuri’s eyes widened as his brain finally caught up. “Is she alright?”

“Yes, Yuuko’s completely fine aside from a bit of blood loss. But that won’t be a problem after a few days of rest.” Minako beamed down at him with an unfamiliar mixture of pride and amazement. “What you did was a miracle, Yuuri.”

Yuuri blinked awkwardly. He wasn’t used to this kind of treatment. Minako almost looked like she was… in awe?

“You most likely saved her life.”

Yuuri furrowed his brow.

But I barely did anything… It didn’t really work.

“Minako heard you kids yelling and decided to come see what was going on,” Toshiya added with a gentle smile. “Good thing she did too, or Takeshi would’ve had to carry you both back himself! He’s a strong boy and all, but that would’ve been too much even for him!”

“So, I passed out…” Yuuri hung his head as he connected the gap in his memories.

I couldn’t do anything to help… and I ended up causing even more trouble for everyone.

“After what you did, you deserved some rest, dear.” Hiroko sat down on his bed and pulled her son into a soft, warm hug. Yuuri tried to return the squeeze, but couldn’t muster up the strength in his arms.

He shook his head and bit his lip. “Takeshi did most of the work really, I just remembered what Auntie Minako taught us about treating wounds and tol—”

“You don’t remember, Yuuri?” Minako peered at him curiously.

“There was a lot of blood and I was trying to apply pressure to her leg and… And I just blacked out… I think.”

The three adults paused and stared at each other wordlessly. The room was so quiet that Yuuri could hear the tenuous howl of a wolf from the distant mountains.

“W-what?” He broke the silence.

“Yuuri.” Minako’s face was serious. “When I got there, there was a pool of blood. But no cut.”

His eyes widened.

“What do you mean? I saw it… Takeshi saw… It was really deep! There was blood everywhere!”

“Yuuko said that she felt it through your hands. Like a warm feeling or something.” A pause. “You somehow… made the cut disappear, Yuuri.” Minako took his small hands in hers and gave his fingers a warm squeeze. She continued in a hushed voice. “Her flesh was completely healed and her skin didn’t even have a scar.”

Yuuri blinked, uncomprehending.

“…Uh…”

Mari chose that moment to come back in with a mug of water.

“Here.” She handed it to her brother, casually brushing aside the tension in the room.

Yuuri slowly swallowed a large gulp of the cold water, not making any eye contact. Then he took another gulp. And another.

“You should rest, Yuuri,” Hiroko said with a smile. She tenderly stroked the mop of black hair tufting on his head. “It’s getting late and you’ve had a long day.”

“Well, since you’re fine, I guess it’s time for me to get back home.” Minako scratched her head. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Minako, Mari, and Toshiya quickly bid their good nights. When Hiroko tried to stand up, Yuuri lightly tugged on her sleeve. She smiled understandingly and sat back down on the bed, cradling Yuuri’s head against her chest.

“Mom… I…” Yuuri closed his eyes. He couldn’t make sense of the confused emotions buzzing around in his head.

“Yuuko’s so strong and Takeshi’s brave, but I…” His grip tightened on his mother’s sweater and his lips began to quiver.

“I… I couldn’t stop them from getting hurt!” A sob tore out of Yuuri’s heaving chest. “I c-could only t-try to help a-after… I couldn’t keep them from feeling scared and being in so much pain…” The memory of Yuuko’s face, twisted with agony, was burned onto the back of Yuuri’s eyelids.

“I was so, so scared! I c-couldn’t even move! I couldn’t do anything to help when they actually needed me!”

“Shh… shhh…” Hiroko soothingly stroked her son’s hair. “What you did today was amazing, Yuuri.” She smiled at him gently, her round face radiating warmth and a bit of wonder.

“…And sometimes, you can’t stop people you love from doing things that you know will hurt them.”

Her eyes were deep with understanding.

“Being there afterwards to help them make the pain go away is just as important.”

Yuuri quieted and considered her words for a long moment.

“How did I do it?”

“Hmm?”

“How did I make that cut, you know, go away, mom? That’s not normal is it?”

Hiroko shook her head. “I don’t know, Yuuri.” She looked out his window and pondered at the starlit sky and the dark forest. “Maybe it’s a gift,” she said with an odd quirk to her lips.

“You know, your grandma once told me that the fairies of the forest would give people they liked all sorts of wonderful surprises. Maybe you were really, really blessed that night…”

Yuuri chewed at the corners of his mouth.

I wish I could just remember…

“Mom?”

“Mm…?”

“Do you think I could do it again?”

“Hmm… I wonder about that…” Hiroko’s voice had drifted down to a whisper. “It seems like it would be a really important thing to be able to do when the need arises though, doesn’t it?”

Overwhelmed by the fatigue of the day, Yuuri nodded off to sleep snuggled in his mother’s warm embrace, tears drying and eventually crusting on his cheeks.

He slept deeply and surprisingly well that night, dreaming of laughing aquamarine eyes and the silvery chime of bells.

 

Chapter Text

The Katsukis ran the only inn in town, and despite there being just one small dirt path into the village, their business had never fallen upon hard times. Although infrequent, visitors always seemed to leave a much larger tip than politeness dictated, and one time, a traveler even left them an entire cart, saying that it was too much weight for his ailing horse to pull. Yuuri chalked their customers’ generosity up to his parents’ exquisite cooking and cordial hospitality, but his mother was convinced that their good fortune was due to the blessings of the forest.

There were no guests in the inn today and no dire tasks to be completed on the farm, so Yuuri was sent out to help Minako. He strolled down the familiar road to her house, admiring the robin’s egg blue of the morning sky with a content smile. The faintly musty scent in the air signaled the end of summer. He wore a dark green shirt, black pants, and a light brown jacket threadbare at the hems from years of tilling the fields.

After they had first discovered his “gift”, his parents had made an arrangement of sorts with the apothecary. She would teach him what she knew and in exchange, Yuuri would provide her free labor whenever he had time. Over the last eight years, Minako had gone to great lengths to instruct him on the contents of all the medical books she owned. She was a great teacher, detail-oriented and relentless, even when Yuuri himself was ready to give up. He had grown to enjoy the time that they spent together making medicines and seeing the occasional patient.

He shivered as a cool breeze blew past and pulled the jacket tighter around him, quickening his steps to Minako’s house.

He called out as he opened her front door.

“Aunt Minako! I’m here for the rest of the day.”

There was a beat of silence. Yuuri welcomed himself in and closed her door.

“Aunt Minako?”

He passed through her messy living room and kitchen, wrinkling his nose at the sour, rotten smell wafting from the stove.

Yuuri sighed. I’ll have to clean that up for her later.

After another unanswered call, he ventured into her bedroom-turned-makeshift-workshop. It wouldn’t be unusual for her to be so engrossed in making balms or studying an old tome to miss someone coming in. When he entered the room, his nose was immediately assaulted by the pungent mixture of odors. Yuuri squeezed his watering eyes shut and blinked back a sneeze.

Minako wasn’t in this room either.

Unlike the rest of her house, the apothecary’s workspace was always clean and well-organized. Bundles of drying herbs hung in neat rows from the ceiling. The walls were covered with sturdy oak shelves on all four sides, each labeled with small paper tags and supporting a variety of bottles and jars. A selection of potted plants bathed in the sunlight on the work table by the window.

Yuuri noticed that a mortar and pestle had been left on the table.

That’s unusual. She’s usually very strict about putting her tools away.

When he walked closer, the spicy-sweet scent of fresh ginger sliced through the air. It seemed that the apothecary had been in the process of crushing the root into paste. Clumps of golden fibers stuck to the bottom of the bowl. He could see that the pale juices of the ginger had already crusted on the white stone, leaving behind dark yellow stains where the liquid had once splattered.  

Yuuri furrowed his brow in worry. He only recalled one prior instance when Minako had just up and abandoned everything.

She must have been called out for an emergency…

I hope everyone’s alright. Maybe I should go into town and try to see if I can help? …But I don’t even know where she went.

He chewed the inside of his mouth.

…And since Aunt Minako is there, they wouldn’t need me anyway.

He glanced back at the white stone bowl.

This has been sitting here for at least an hour and I didn’t see her on my way here, so she must have been gone for a while… She’ll probably be back soon, right?

With an unsure shrug, Yuuri pulled out a bench and sat down at the table. He picked up the cool, smooth pestle to pound away at the mush anew.

Splish! Splish!

As always, the dull rhythmic cadence of his work and the fresh scent of ginger slowly relaxed Yuuri. He finished grinding after a few minutes.

“Ngh…” He stood, stretching his taunt shoulders. He languidly combed a hand through his hair, acknowledging that it was due for a trim soon, and walked over to grab an empty glass jar from a nearby shelf. Yuuri poured in the fine yellow paste and shook the container, nodding in satisfaction when there were no leaks or spills.

Hmm… I think ginger goes next to the sage on the third row?

He squatted to scan the lists of labels on the shelf. When he found the faded, yellowing piece of paper that he was looking for, he reached back and set the new jar of ginger paste behind two identical ones. He noticed that the container at the very front was almost completely used up.

I think Aunt Minako said something last week about making muscle ointments since the harvest is coming up. Maybe I’ll get a head start since she’s not back yet.

Yuuri grabbed the first two jars of ginger and stood up to scan the shelves for the other ingredients that he needed.

Camphor oil… Some peppermint and clove…

He pulled the bottles from the shelves one-by-one.

Cayenne pepper—no, where’s the powdered version? ...Ah, we should really put those next to each other.

I’ve been meaning to reorganize everything alphabetically for a while. Hopefully I’ll actually get to it by the end of the year.

And of course we’re almost out of beeswax again…

“—HELLO?! Is anyone there?”

Yuuri jumped, almost dropping an armful of fragile glassware.

BAM! Bam-bam! Bam!

The raw voice of a young man rang out from the front of the house, followed by a vehement banging. “Someone, please help!!

Another emergency? …Aunt Minako isn’t even back yet!

Yuuri’s heart raced as he frantically tried to set down all the bottles and jars that he was holding. A flask of peppermint slowly rolled off the table.

“Woah!”

Yuuri quickly snatched it out of the air, breathing a sigh of relief.

The banging suddenly stopped.

Please, sir! I’m not anyone suspicious or dangerous, I promise! I just really, really need some help!”

 “Y-yes! Coming! Just give me one second!”

Yuuri scampered to the doorway, almost tripping over a stray basket on his rush there.

I don’t think I recognize his voice. Is it someone from out of town? A traveler?

When he yanked open the door, the first thing that caught his attention was a pair of desperate obsidian eyes. Choppy coal-black bangs stuck to the stranger’s forehead and his heart-shaped face was smeared with soot and sweat. The acrid stench of smoke clung to the young man… He could taste the metallic bite of blood in the air.

Yuuri’s eyes widened when he took in the injuries on the stranger’s body. His brown skin was caked all over with ash—except for his right forearm, where an entire patch had been seared off to expose the blistering bright pink layer underneath. Blackened tatters of a once steel-blue tunic clung on there, sticky with blood. He was barefoot and his dark pants were soaked in sweat.

“I’m sorry for bothering you,” the young man panted, dragging Yuuri’s eyes back to his face, “but could you tell me if there’s a doctor around here?”

At this distance, Yuuri could hear the rasp in his throat.

He’s breathed in a lot of smoke. There must have been a terrible fire…

“T-this is actually the town apothecary,” Yuuri stammered, sparing a worried glance at the forest. There’s no smoke coming from the woods…at least not yet.

The stranger’s eyes instantly brightened. “Oh! That’s great!”

He quickly grasped both of Yuuri’s hands, surprising him into letting out a small yelp. Yuuri flushed at the sudden contact, but his face immediately fell when he noticed that the young man’s skin was unnaturally feverish and his hands were trembling.

“Uh, w—“

“I don’t have any money right now,” the stranger quickly interjected, “But in terms of payment, please accept these.” Yuuri felt something hard and smooth being pressed into his palms.

He looked down and saw two honey-golden rings.

His mouth dropped open.

“Nonono,” Yuuri fervently shook his head, forcing the rings back into the stranger’s hands. “This is too much. P-please just come in, and we’ll figure out the payment after we’ve taken care of you.” Yuuri opened the door wider and tried to pull the stranger in.

I need to focus! Be professional! Aunt Minako isn’t here right now so I have to manage the shop myself… Ahh, I really hope she comes back soon…

“Wait!” The young man shouted, standing steadfast on the stone steps of the house and shaking his head. “No, that’s not it! I’m fine!”

Yuuri knitted his brows in confusion. “But you’re c—“

“—My sister’s the one who needs your help! Sh-she…” His voice began to shake. He took a deep, wheezing breath, and then continued.

“…The roof of our caravan burned down on top of her!”

The stranger suddenly threw himself to the ground and kneeled at Yuuri’s feet. His voice broke. “Please come help! She’s lost consciousness and we don’t know what else we can do!”

“A-uh,” Yuuri choked, eyes wide. He could feel his stomach knot up as a rush of anxiety made his knees weak. His palms were getting clammy. “I-I’m just the apothecary’s s-student. Maybe we should wait for—“

“No, please! There’s no time! We have to go now!

“I don’t know wh—“

“I’m begging you! I’ll do anything! Please save her!

Yuuri’s face twisted as he stared down into the young man’s eyes, dark with desperate resolve.

I’m the only one here. I don’t know when Aunt Minako will be back or where she went.

His heart was pounding into his stomach and he felt like he was going to vomit.

…If her burns are even worse than his… She could die.

Yuuri squeezed his eyes shut and gripped his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms hard enough to draw blood. 

 

I have to try.

 

When he opened his eyes, his heart was still racing, his face felt hot, and his voice quivered, but his mouth was set in a grim, determined line.

“O-okay. I’ll do my best. Let me just get a few things.”

Yuuri spun around and pulled a thick canvas bag off a hook on the wall before running to the workshop.

“Thank you so much!” He heard the young man shout from the doorway.

Yuuri grabbed an empty glass jar from the shelves and walked to the window, where a large, spikey aloe vera sat under the shade of several taller, more sun-loving plants. He winced as he snapped off five fleshy leaves, leaving strands of sap dripping from the sticky, gaping wounds.

“Sorry,” he whispered as he capped the jar.

And I’ll bring some bandages, just in case.

He nabbed a thick roll along with a pair of scissors from the box under Minako’s bed. He stood up to look around the room and tried to think of anything else he might need.

Hmm… Vinegar might also be good since it disinfects and helps with inflammation.

Yuuri raced back to the kitchens and rummaged through the cupboards until he found a bottle of the clear liquid.

“Alright,” he took a quiet breath and hoisted the bag onto his shoulder. The young man was waiting with an eager almost-smile at the steps of the house.

“I’m ready.”

“Great! Thank you! Um, and do you think you can run?”


 

A horse whinnied up ahead. Yuuri could smell traces of smoke even before they reached the encampment by the stream. His lungs and muscles burned from the long trek here and sweat flung out from the spikey strands of hair bouncing above his forehead.

When they got close enough to see a man and a woman hovered over a makeshift cot, a wave of nausea abruptly struck his gut. A putrid, sickly sweet stench emanated through the air, forcing its way inside his throat and lungs.

Burnt human flesh…

Yuuri swallowed a reflexive gag and slowed down to a fast walk. A small, petite body laid chest-down on a layer of blankets and quilts stained with blood, soot, and other unrecognizable bodily fluids. Her long, black hair was tucked to the side and her torso had been stripped bare.

Yuuri’s stomach did an uncomfortable flip when he saw the girl’s mangled back. The burn extended from the nape of her neck all the way down to her hips. The destroyed, swollen flesh was glossy with pus and mottled in a grisly pattern of yellow, white, and red. Pieces of blackened skin curled upwards at the charred edges of the wound. 

Yuuri had only ever seen a burn this bad when the butcher tripped over an entire cauldron of boiling water a few years ago. Yuuri and Minako had heard the man howling from down the street... Yet this girl was deathly silent.

She’s still breathing, but she’s unconscious… Her body went into shock?

“I…I found someone,” the young man wheezed, out of breath and sweaty from sprinting through the woods.

Yuuri barely had the chance to catch his breath before a tall, similarly dark-skinned man with a tense square jaw ran up to them.

He grasped Yuuri’s arms with agony in his eyes—his grip was strong to the point of being painful. “Doctor, please, you have to save our daughter!”

Yuuri’s heart pounded. He tried to channel as much reassurance as he could into his words.

“I-I’ll do my best,” he panted, wiping a splattering of sweat from his face, “and please call me Yuuri… I’m just an apothecary’s s-student.”

He winced at his own stutter. With a quiet cough to clear his throat, Yuuri continued in a steadier tone. “How long ago did this happen? And when did she become unconscious?”

The man gritted his teeth.

“It’s been about two hours. She was crying at the beginning but we had to keep running… And…I think she lost consciousness about an hour ago… Is she going to be alright?”

Yuuri bit his lip, his heart palpitating for a different reason entirely now.

This is really bad. With burns that severe, she should’ve received treatment right away! If only Aunt Minako were here…

He tried to shake away the rush of negative thoughts clouding his head and discreetly brushed a clammy hand over the good luck charm he kept in his right pocket.

I can’t think like that. I’m all these people can depend on right now. I’ve done this before… I know how to treat a burn.

A beautiful, petite woman with wide, fawn-brown eyes came up and pulled him to the girl’s side. She was probably the siblings’ mother. “We tried to wash her back with cold water from the stream, but her skin started coming off…” A cry tore from her chest. “We didn’t know what else to do!”

Yuuri took a shaky breath, starting to feel a bit lightheaded.

Okay… I need to calm down and just think.

“Um, I think washing her back was a good thing to do. It probably helped cool the area.” Yuuri chewed on his lips, mind reeling over what to do next.

…Right now the most important thing is making sure she doesn’t get an infection. There’s so much pus…

I hope I’m not too late.

He got on his knees, reached into his bag, and dug out the glass bottle with shaky fingers. “I’m going to pour vinegar on the burned area to sterilize it and help reduce the inflammation. Can you hold her down if she starts moving too much?”

All three of them nodded as he screwed open the cap. Yuuri gingerly braced himself on the ground. With surprisingly steady hands, he methodically poured out the acidic, clear liquid starting from the more elevated areas of her shoulders down to the dip of her waist. The sour smell of vinegar morphed into an acrid, stomach-curdling stink as it hit her ruined flesh. The girl barely twitched.

The nerves on her back may have been burned off… This is terrible… But at least it doesn’t seem to be causing her any additional pain.

Yuuri could feel a drop of sweat slowly roll down his neck. After emptying the bottle, he set it beside him on the ground.

That’s the most we can do at this point to prevent an infection. Now we just need to put on the aloe…

His nerves were more controlled when he pulled out the jar of plump leaves. He tried to direct a small smile at the family members swarmed around the girl but felt that it probably made him look mentally unstable at best. “Can you help me peel these and cover her skin with the stuff inside?”

To demonstrate, Yuuri started pulling out little chunks of the leathery green skin with his fingernails, strip by strip. “It should make her feel a lot better.”

When the young man reached over to grab a piece of aloe, his mother lightly slapped his hand away with a stern look. “Phichit, you need to rest your arm too! We can handle this.”

The young man—Phichit?—hesitated, then nodded. He sat back down on the ground and rested his chin on his knees. “Don’t worry mom, I’ll be fine,” his eyes were hopeful as he gazed into his little sister’s face. “Chada’s going to be okay too,” he murmured.

Yuuri froze for a second and mentally berated himself. I totally forgot about the burn on his forearm! I’m such an idiot.

“Um, if you don’t mind, I think you should go and wash your arm with some water.” Although the injury wasn’t nearly as large or as deep as his sister’s, it was still very serious. “I’d like to take a look after, if that’s okay?”

Phichit nodded. “Okay, yeah, I can do that.” He rose to his feet, eyes lingering on his sister with worry before he turned to walk towards the stream.

Once Yuuri finished removing an entire side of the aloe leaf, he began rubbing it into the girl’s maimed back. He frowned as he smeared the clear, gelatinous pulp over her slippery wounds. She was too hot. Her flesh quickly broiled the once-cool peel, turning it soft and limp. The feverish heat radiated into the air. He could even feel it more than a hand’s length away from her back. Blood mixed with plant juices and vinegar, dripping down the girl’s side.

Once there was no more pulp on the leaf, Yuuri tossed it to the ground and reached out for another.

Suddenly, the girl began to tremble. Yuuri stiffened, staring wide-eyed as light shivers quickly turned into violent, full-body convulsions. Her parents rushed to her side.

“Chatchada! Chatchada, wake up!” Her father pleaded, firmly holding her shoulders and trying to stop her shaking. Her mother was crying now, her fist in her mouth.

A seizure? Did she get blood poisoning?

Yuuri’s stomach tightened. He curled his hands into fists as thoughts frantically buzzed in his head.

What’s going on? What am I supposed to do?

Think… Think…                             

“What’s happening?! Her back is burning hot but her arms are so cold!”

 

…Cold.

 

Yuuri snapped his head up to look at the unconscious girl’s face.

Her lips were a dark blue.

His eyes widened in realization and the blood froze in his veins.

I should have noticed it sooner!

I was too focused on the burn and forgot to pay attention to her body temperature. She’s probably lost too many fluids and too much heat…

What am I supposed to do now? Um…We need to cover her up and warm her body!

—No…I can’t wrap her back when it’s in this state!

His breathing sped up and his heart pounded red behind his eyes.

There’s no time!

I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t…

His hand subconsciously found the worn cloth of the old pouch in his pocket.

 

Ba-dump! Ba-dump! Ba-dump!

Ba-dump! Ba-dump!

Ba-dump

Ba-dump

 

…But she’s going to die if I don’t.

 

Something unfurled in his chest.

 

I can’t just do nothing.

 

He ran a hand through his hair to brush long, sweaty bangs out of his eyes. With a deep breath, he grabbed the father’s wrists and pulled him away from his daughter’s side.

“Don’t worry,” he held the man’s terrified gaze, eyes hardening, “She’s going to be fine.”

A muscle in the man’s neck twitched, but he nodded and stepped back.

I’m sorry, Aunt Minako. I know I promised, but I have to try.

I would never be able to live with myself, even if…

He looked down at the fragile body below him and bit his lip.

 

I’m sorry…

 

Yuuri sucked in another deep breath, pushed his hands down into the sticky warm wetness of the girl’s back to hold her still, and closed his eyes.

Ah…

Once he started to concentrate, it was surprisingly easy to find that feeling again. The rough staccato of his heart faded into the background as warmth tickled at his fingertips and thousands of tiny tendrils of electricity tingled up his spine.

More…

Yuuri sunk deeper and deeper into the once-familiar sensation.

 

 

The blankets were too heavy… They were smothering him.

How many hours has it been? Days?

…Weeks?

He was sure that he had never felt so weak.

With a tremendous about of effort, Yuuri forced his eyelids open just a crack. He immediately regretted it, squinting at the painfully harsh beam of sunlight on his face.

This was better than the last time he regained consciousness though. He vaguely remembered thinking that he had died. He had been a prisoner inside his own body, unable to see, hear, move, feel…

“It’s been five days, Minako. Do you think he’ll wake up soon?”

Yuuri slowly turned his head. His eyes blearily focused on his mother and Minako standing by his bed.

“I’m so sorry, Hiroko. It’s all my fault—I pushed him too hard. I never imagined that he would end up like this!”

“Please stop blaming yourself.” His mother squeezed Minako’s hand kindly. “Toshiya and I… We’re at fault too. We just thought that it was such a wonderful gift and didn’t even think about what consequences it could have on him…”

Yuuri concentrated on lifting an arm. His muscles shrieked in protest but he managed to bat at his mother’s thigh.

“Mom?” he breathed.

“Yuuri! You’re awake! Oh, we were so…”

Her excited expression dimmed when she saw his face. “How do you feel?”

“…Did the calf make it?” His voice was small.

His mother looked at Minako with a fathomless expression. There was a sudden pang in Yuuri’s chest.

The apothecary slowly walked to the other side of his bed. When she sat down, Yuuri noticed the heavyset bags under her usually lively amber eyes. Her brown hair hung limply past the tired slope of her shoulders. She brushed her cool hands over his forehead, not meeting his anxious stare.

“I’m sorry, Yuuri. We couldn’t manage to save it.”

He felt a knife stab into his heart and feebly pushed himself up, arms quavering from weakness. “I-I have to apologize to…”

“Stop moving, Yuuri!” Minako pushed him back to lean against the headboard.

Yuuri found that he didn’t have the strength to resist.

“You have to stay in bed! Your fever just broke last night and you haven’t eaten anything for five days!”

“But I failed… I tried my best to make him better but… B-but he still died.” Yuuri’s face twisted into a sob. “I… I—”

He groaned into the sheets. His eyes and nose stung but his body couldn’t summon enough water for any tears. Everything ached. His arms, his head, his throat, his heart…

“There was nothing either of us could do, Yuuri.” Minako’s eyes were so terribly sad, echoing a battered, time-worn pain. In that instant, Yuuri was hit with the thought that she suddenly looked much, much older.

Hiroko offered her son a shallow wooden bowl. “Here, why don’t you try drinking this?”

Yuuri attempted to whisper a thank you, but his throat felt too tight.

His chapped lips bled when he put his mouth to the rim of the bowl. When he tried to swallow a small mouthful, the muscles of his dry throat spasmed and the lukewarm soup burned down his windpipe. Yuuri choked and wheezed, too weak to properly cough.

Hiroko slowly rubbed his back. “Take it easy, dear. Just try to drink a little bit at a time.”

Yuuri pushed away the bowl after his third sip. Although the pain of hunger cramped at his stomach, he felt like he would be sick if he drank any more.

“Yuuri.” Minako put her hand on his shoulder. Her grip was hard enough to bruise.

Yuuri winced but bit back his words the second he met her dark, tempestuous eyes.

“Yuuri,” she repeated. “I’ve spend a long time thinking about this over the past few days, and I need you to promise me… You won’t use that power again.”

“Minako! There’s no—“

“Hiroko, this is my fault,” she said grimly, her face hard as stone. “Yuuri is my student, so this is my responsibility. I couldn’t bear the guilt if…if anything happened to him again. He almost died!”

“What if I—“

“No, Yuuri! Don’t you understand? Your gift… When you put your mind to healing something, it just takes and takes from you until there’s enough. But what if you don’t have enough next time? If I hadn’t pulled you away when I did, you could have died!”

“It doesn’t matter! Even if I—“

“Yuuri!” Minako’s eyes flashed. She looked furious. “How can you be so selfish?”

Seeing his hurt expression, she sighed and shook her head.

Her voice quieted. “How will you become somebody others can rely on when they’re sick or injured if they can’t even trust you to take care of your own health?”

“I…”

He didn’t have a response to that.

“You have to promise me…” Her lips trembled. “…Or I won’t be your teacher anymore.”

Yuuri’s mouth fell open in horror.

“No, Aunt Minako!”

“Then I need you to promise me…” Her eyes shone with pain. “Please.”

“…Okay, I promise. I-I won’t do it anymore.”

“Thank you,” She sobbed as she cradled him delicately, as if he would break. “Thank you, Yuuri… I can’t lose you too.”

 

 

The tantalizing aroma of roasting meat tickled Yuuri’s nose.

Mmm…

Something cool and slippery rolled down his chin and he immediately jolted awake with a small snort.

The sky was now lilac with twilight. Yuuri blinked owlishly at the three pairs of eyes that were peering at him, mind still groggy with sleep.

A light laugh broke the silence.

“Erm, there’s a bit of…” The young man from before spoke with an amused voice, gesturing to his chin.

“Eh?!” Yuuri quickly ducked his head and wiped the sleeve of his jacket over the drool under his mouth. He could feel his face going scarlet.

The young man’s eyes were dancing with mirth as he walked over to offer a hand. Yuuri gratefully took it and pulled himself up from the pile of warm furs that he had been laying on.

“Did you sleep well? You looked like you were having an interesting dream.”

Yuuri scratched the back of his head and nodded, the embarrassment at having been seen in such a humiliating state slightly subsiding along with the warmth in his cheeks.

“Yes, thank you for the furs…”

He blinked the rest of the grogginess out of his eyes and surveyed the clearing. The boy’s mother and father were sitting around a bonfire, roasting several sticks of what looked to be rabbit. They were grinning widely up at him… But their daughter was nowhere to be seen.

“Um, is your sister…” Yuuri glanced around searchingly, a trace of worry wriggling in his chest. “…Where is she?”

“Ah, Chada’s sleeping in the caravan!”

The young man grabbed Yuuri’s shoulders and slowly turned him around. A large wooden cart on iron-spoked wheels loomed in front of him. Blackened wooden shafts curled up from its sides like the gnarled ribcage of some giant beast and a holey blanket stretched over the top.

“O-oh! I didn’t realize…”

An actual beast—a stout brown hose—appeared from behind the caravan and gave a loud snort, nostrils vibrating. Yuuri saw that it was tied to a tree several paces back.

The young man skipped up and stroked the animal’s neck in greeting. “You doing okay, Frederico? Don’t worry, everyone here’s a friend.”

The horse flared his nostrils and spared a sideways glance at Yuuri before blowing a puff of air in their direction.

“Grumpy old fella…”

The horse ignored him in favor of a clump of grass.

The young man gave a final, affectionate pat to the beast’s flank and then looked back at Yuuri, tilting his head towards the far side of the caravan. “Come on, she’s right back here.”

Yuuri followed, chest tightening with each step. When they reached the open side of the cart, he wiped his clammy palms on his pants and peered inside.

The girl was lying peacefully in the middle of the wooden floor, covered in several colorful quilts. Dozens of overflowing baskets and crates crowded around her, heaping on top of each other—they looked like they had been hastily shoved aside to make room. Her long, dark lashes fluttered against her cheeks as she steadily puffed out small, unhurried breaths.

She’s alive… I did it.

A small knot of tension released in his chest. Although it was easy to infer that she was all right from the cheerful expressions of her family members, he had to confirm it with his own eyes.

“Chada’s okay,” the young man had lowered his bright voice to a whisper, “all thanks to you!”

“I-I’m glad…” Yuuri smiled shyly, melting with relief. “Um… Has she woken up yet?”

“Yeah! It was just for a few seconds after you healed her, but she fell asleep right away!”

Yuuri nodded. “That’s probably to be expected, I think. Her body has been through a lot of stress and she’s lost a lot of fluids, so she needs plenty of rest.”

“Roger that, doctor!”

Yuuri waved his hands in front of him. “P-please just call me Yuuri! We’re about the same age, I think?”

“Oh!” The boy gasped in realization. “I’m so sorry, I never introduced myself!” He held out a hand, shooting Yuuri an apologetic grin. “I’m Phichit Chulanont!”

Yuuri shook his hand with a small smile. “I’m Yuuri Katsuki. It’s nice to meet you, Phichit.”

Phichit beamed back. “My little sister is Chatchada.” He looked at her dotingly. “But, you can call her Chada if you want.”

…Grrrooowwwwwwll-gurgle

Yuuri’s stomach chose that moment to make its presence known.

“Ex-excuse me!” He stammered. This was turning into a very embarrassing day for him.

“Oh! You must be starving,” Phichit clapped his hands, “since you’ve been asleep since late this morning.”

Yuuri found himself being pulled back into the clearing.

“Here! We trapped a few rabbits and squirrels, so if you don’t mind, please help yourself!”

Yuuri was pushed down to sit by the fire, where Phichit’s father handed him a plump rabbit on a stick.

“Try this!” The man bellowed.

As the earthy tang of spices assaulted his nose, Yuuri saw that the juicy meat was browned to perfection. His mouth started watering again. Yuuri swallowed, making sure not to drool in front of these people for the second time tonight. “Ah, thank you, Mr. Chulanont.”

“Please, no need to be so formal! You just saved our daughter, after all! I’m Kukrit, and this is my wife, Isra.”

Yuuri blushed and nodded. “Then, please call me Yuuri.”

Isra smiled and gestured towards the rabbit in his hands. “Please, go ahead and eat. We’ve already had dinner.”

“I’ll go set up a few more traps!” Phichit gave a small wave and jumped up.

Yuuri thanked them again and bit into a juicy thigh. He almost moaned in happiness at the salty, smoky taste of the meat. He practically inhaled the rabbit in a matter of minutes and was quickly passed a second and a third. When Kukrit tried to hand him a fourth, Yuuri reluctantly rejected his offer. Although the food was delicious and he would’ve gladly devoured more, he knew he was a bit of a glutton and didn’t want to impose even more than he already had.

“I set up a few traps near the two mulberry bushes across the stream.” Yuuri turned to see Phichit walking back into the clearing, the bottom of his pants a bit wet.

“Oh, and Yuuri,” Phichit rolled up his sleeves and plopped down next to him by the fire. “I forgot to tell you earlier, but I put some of the leftover aloe on my arm. I hope that was okay?”

Yuuri mentally scolded himself.

I almost forgot about his arm again! Aunt Minako would be disappointed…

His heart skipped a beat in sudden realization. He could feel his back breaking into a cold sweat.

…She’s going to be so mad at me for everything that happened today.

“Ah! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have used it without asking first!” Phichit put his hands together in front of him, an apologetic expression on his face. “I can pay you back!”

“Oh, um, wait, sorry I was thinking of something else…” Yuuri gulped and ignored the feeling of impending doom for now. He would have plenty of time to reflect later, he was sure… “It’s fine, you don’t need to pay me anything. It would have gone bad anyway.”

“Speaking of payment, though…”

Phichit reached into his pocket and pulled out the two golden rings that he had tried to give Yuuri this morning.

“I believe these are yours now!”

Isra walked up, Kukrit right behind her, and spoke with utmost sincerity. “Thank you so much for coming out here all this way and saving Chada, Yuuri. I don’t know how we’ll ever repay you.”

Kukrit nodded with a genuine smile and put an arm around his wife’s shoulder.

“Wait, no!” Yuuri shook his head and backed away. “I told you I can’t accept this, it’s too much! And…and I didn’t do my job properly either… It was my fault that your daughter’s condition got so bad in the first place! I should have noticed that she was getting too cold right away, so I should apologize for that really, it wa—“

“Even if you say that, Yuuri, we still have to do something to repay you!” Kukrit boomed, a frown starting to mar his handsome face.

“Y-you’ve done plenty! Really!” Yuuri shuffled uncomfortably. “You guys even had to take care of me when I collapsed for the entire day…and…and I ate so much of your food!”

“That’s not a fair trade at all!” Phichit pouted. “It’ll ruin our reputation as merchants if this gets out, you know. You should just take them! At least one?” He thrusted the rings at Yuuri again.

“…Or why don’t you go look in the caravan and see if there’s anything you like?” Isra offered. “Most of our wares were in the other cart so we don’t have much anymore, but there are still some pretty valuable enchanted trinkets and such, so if you don’t mind them being a little dirty…”

“No, no… I can’t accept anything when I’ve caused you so much trouble…”

Yuuri felt a stab of guilt at how bothered they all looked.

“Um… I would just like to see how Phichit’s arm is, if that’s okay?”

The Chulanonts looked at each other, clearly still distressed. A few moments later, Phichit finally gave a small huff and resigned to sitting down and showing Yuuri his arm.

Phichit had clearly taken Yuuri’s advice to heart. His forearm was still hot-pink and blistery, but it looked like all the blood and dirt from before had been meticulously cleaned off.

Yuuri nodded in satisfaction. “I think it’ll heal nicely.”

“Yeah, it barely stings anymore.”

A thought popped into Yuuri’s head and he felt a tiny spark of excitement in his spine.

…I might as well, since I’m already going to get into trouble for it anyway. This can’t be worse than that huge burn on Chatchada’s back and I got through that. So this should be fine, right?

He glanced up at Phichit.

“I could just…er, fix it for you now if you want?”

“Nope! No way!” Phichit pulled his arm back with an impish grin. “It’s not anywhere as bad as Chada’s so there’s no need.”

“B-but, it—“

He raised an eyebrow cheekily. “And you won’t even take anything for payment, sooo…”

Yuuri shook his head, unwilling to budge on that particular subject.

“Then nope means nope!”

Phichit’s voice took on a more serious tone. “Also, you were out for most of the day after healing Chada. The magic you do… It’s really tiring, right? I don’t want you to have to overexert yourself again when it’s really not that big of a deal.”

Yuuri tried to quash the flicker of disappointment in his chest.

Aunt Minako was right... People really don’t trust me to take care of myself…

Yuuri slumped over and gave up trying to convince Phichit. “I don’t know if it’s really magic… A wizard came into town once. He was looking to take on an apprentice so he tested all the kids in the village.” Yuuri scratched his head with a wry smile. “He said that I didn’t have a single ounce of magical potential.”

“Really?! That’s hard to believe! …Then how do you do it?”

Yuuri gave a noncommittal shrug. “My mom thinks it was because I was blessed by a fairy or something. Apparently I went missing in the forest for a week when I was little, but I don’t remember it at all.”

“Huh,” Phichit looked thoughtful.

“Anyways, for your arm… I’d like to disinfect it at the very least. Do you happen to have any more vinegar or alcohol?”

Phichit tilted his head and looked to his father.

Kukrit shook his head, eyes turning desolate. “That would’ve been in the other cart like most of our cargo, but that was all destroyed.”

I’ve been wondering for a while… There doesn’t seem to have been a fire in the forest anywhere close to here…

Yuuri gulped and succumbed to his curiosity. “W-what happened? If you don’t mind me asking? You are Romani right? The caravan troupes don’t usually come by Hasetsu until late fall when they’re on their way to the capital… And I haven’t seen any other caravans around…”

Phichit’s normally cheerful demeanor had turned dark. “Our troupe was camped out in North Saga forest last night. I don’t know how it happened, but several hours before dawn, there was suddenly fire everywhere. We usually have people rotating on watch to prevent robbers and the like, but there was no alarm or any warning at all.” His brow furrowed. “When we woke up, everything was already on fire and people were screaming and…” Phichit swallowed, eyes wide and hollow. Isra wrapped him a tight hug, her face also twisted in pain.

“Were you the only ones…?” Yuuri whispered.

Kukrit looked down and shook his head. “Frederico spooked and just started galloping down the road. We couldn’t get him to stop until he tired himself out, and by then we’d lost track of everyone else…”

“I’m not sure what it was,” Isra spoke cautiously. “If it had been a normal forest fire, we should have seen it before it got so close to camp. And everyone in the troupe knew the rules about keeping fires at night, so it shouldn’t have originated from us either.”

“I-I’m sorry this happened…” Yuuri didn’t know quite what to say. “Maybe more people will come in to Hasetsu over the next few days?”

“Maybe…” Isra’s lips twitched in an almost-smile. “We were much closer to the capitol of the Leroy Kingdom though. Anyone who made it out of that fire would probably have gone north. If Frederico hadn’t been so spooked, we would have led him there too.”

“Right…”

The northern borders of the Ji kingdom had been peaceful for several generations now, and unlike the southern borders, there were never any conflicts that required military force, so it was easy to forget that Saga forest was at the border between the two kingdoms. If the Chulanonts had been in North Saga forest, there would’ve been towns surrounding the Leroyan capitol much closer than Hasetsu.

Isra furrowed her brow and stared at their horse grazing in the trees. “I wonder why he acted that way. He’s been such a calm and reliable steed ever since we got him.”

“I think there was something chasing us,” Phichit muttered. “I felt something.”

“Well, it’s widely known that there are lots of wolves in the area,” Kukrit shrugged. “It wouldn’t have been odd if they were running away from the fire, too. Did you see anything?”

Phichit shook his head. “It was too dark. But…” He frowned, then shook his head again. “Nah, it was probably nothing.”

“Uh, speaking of it getting dark,” Yuuri looked up at the night sky, beginning to get a bit worried. The bruised lilac of twilight had long since darkened to a deep navy. There was no moon tonight, and a smattering of stars shone brightly, peeking through between the branches and foliage. “I think I should head home soon. I can come back tomorrow with some vinegar for Phichit’s arm and check up on Chatchada.”

“It’s so late, though! Why don’t you stay here for the night?” Isra offered. “We have plenty of extra furs and blankets.”

Phichit nodded enthusiastically.

“Ah, thank you, but I should really get home.” Yuuri stood up with a smile. “My family is probably getting really worried. I didn’t have a chance to tell anyone where I went for the day.”

I really should’ve left a note or something. Mom’s probably terrified right now…

Ever since the incident from Yuuri’s childhood, Hiroko had become particularly anxious when her kids weren’t home before dark. She wasn’t a strict person by nature, quite the opposite in fact, but Yuuri didn’t like to disappoint her or cause her any distress. Mari was a bit looser with the unofficial curfew, but Yuuri had never stayed out in the woods after dark until now.

I need to get home soon. I’ll have a long day tomorrow, too…

Yuuri started feeling jitters in his stomach again thinking about what Minako would do when he told her what had happened.

“Well, in that case, be careful!” Kukrit got up and shook his hand. He held Yuuri’s gaze for a long moment after. “I can’t express how thankful we are, Yuuri. Please let us know if you need anything, anytime in the future.”

Yuuri flushed. He wasn’t used to dealing with this kind of attention. “I-it’s not a big deal, Kukrit, really. Thank you all for taking such good care of me and giving me such good food.”

Then it was Phichit’s turn to spring up and surprise Yuuri with a tight hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Yuuri! Get home safe!”

“Y-yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow!” Yuuri responded with a small blush and a genuine smile. Phichit seemed like such a kind and cheerful person. He was actually really looking forward to spending more time with him.

As Yuuri left the warmth of the Chulanonts’ camp and headed in what he hoped was the direction of the road, he thought he heard Isra commenting on the suspiciously large grin on Phichit’s face.


 

Is the road really this far out from camp?

Yuuri thought the path he was on looked familiar, but even though he knew the woods near Hasetsu fairly well, he hadn’t been out at night in recent memory. He could barely see the ground in front of him, the moonless obscurity of evening giving him little guidance.

He was starting to regret not taking up the Chluanonts’ offer of staying the night. When he was little, the village elders would tell the children stories about Saga forest. It was always portrayed as being especially treacherous after dark, rustling with all manners of wild beasts and malignant specters. Their stories were starting to get to him again. Whenever he heard a rustle in the undergrowth or a flutter above his head, he would freeze, wide-eyed, until he was sure it wasn’t anything dangerous.

Every few steps, Yuuri would rub his hands together to generate some extra heat. He was grateful for his jacket. The nights were beginning to get cold even though summer hadn’t yet ended.

Maybe I didn’t turn far enough?

If he recalled correctly, he would have been able to hit the road back to the village if he just walked away from the stream at a slight angle.

Even if I miss the road, I should get to the village eventually if I’m going in this direction, right?

Yuuri peered ahead, trying to find any hint of civilization to no avail.

 

A few minutes later, he thought he heard a voice.

Yaaa…

“H-hello?” He treaded carefully, slowly moving forward. Dried leaves and branches lightly crackled beneath his feet. If there was someone nearby, the village should be close. Nobody wandered much farther beyond the edge of the forest when it was this late.

“…yyaaaaaa—” Someone was definitely speaking… More like sighing? Or groaning?

“I-is someone there?”

A light shone through the shrubbery up ahead. It was a bright, pale azure, like a flame from a gas lamp.

yaa…” The moaning continued. Yuuri was closer now and could make out the deep timbre of a man’s voice. Whoever it was sounded in pain.

“Um, are you okay?” Yuuri called out.

The light flickered. Yuuri could see it beginning to recede, gradually fading in between the tree trunks ahead.

“W-wait! I can help if you’re hurt!” Yuuri nearly slipped on a stretch of muddy, uneven ground as he chased the light. “My name is Yuuri, and I’m from Hasetsu Village right around here!”

The blue flame was dancing now, bouncing up and down as it floated further and further away. It looked like the man had started to flee.

“Hey! Wait!” Yuuri picked up his pace and broke into a run, stumbling a bit through the dense trees.

“…Yaaaa!

“You don’t need to be afraid of me! I’m actually a bit lost too…” The stranger was leading them up an increasingly steep slope. “It-it would be nice if you could let me share your lamp. I-I’m fairly sure I can find our way back to the village if I could just see a little better,” he called out.

The man slowed to a stop, the blue fire of his light flickering hesitantly. Yuuri stopped too, thankful for the chance to catch his breath. He was still weak from the events of the day and the hill was getting dangerously rocky and precipitous.

“Um, is it okay if I come up? I’m not going to do anything to you.”

The flame bobbed up and down in acceptance.

Yuuri sighed in relief and started ascending the hill at a more careful pace, thankful that the man had decided to trust him.

“Do you mind if I ask you your name, sir?”

 

The fire hovered up above, silent and still.

“Er, I’m Yuuri. Yuuri Katsuki from Hasetsu Village,” he repeated after a few awkward beats.

Annnyyaaaa…” The man abruptly let out a deep, intense cry, his voice quaking.

“A-are you oka—“

—Where are you? Why are you leaving me?!

It sounded like something was very wrong. Yuuri chewed the inside of his cheek in worry and sped up, grasping urgently at branches and rocks to pull himself higher.

“I’m almost—ow!” The sharp edge of a boulder dug into his palm. Yuuri rubbed it, felt no blood, and continued climbing, nearly slipping several times.

It was a wonder that the man had made it up there so quickly while holding a lamp.

He could see the fire clearly now, a bright, ghostly incandescence. The man holding the lantern must be just a few paces ahead through the final clump of dark vegetation…

Yuuri~!” A silky voice rang out from close behind him.

Yuuri jumped and lost his grip, letting out a startled, high-pitched yelp. He quickly tried to scramble for a handhold or foothold, but was unable to find purchase on the loose dirt and gravel of the slope. He lurched backward, his body twisting in the void. He squeezed his eyes closed and tucked in his head, bracing for impact as his stomach dropped beneath him…

Suddenly, something sturdy materialized under his shoulders and knees and Yuuri found himself being hoisted into the air.

His eyes flew open to meet stormy turquoise pools.

His heart stuttered. They were quite possibly the most striking eyes he’d ever seen.

Almost as if in a trance, he took in the ethereal face that was barely a hands-breadth away from his. Even in the near-darkness of the moonless night, Yuuri could tell that the man’s skin was as pale and smooth as porcelain. A wide forehead and delicate wisps of silver eyebrows framed his deep-set eyes. He had elven cheekbones and a sculpted jaw, softened by long tresses of satiny silver hair. A perfectly straight nose turned up in a small point, casting a slight shadow over pink, soft-looking lips…

“You need to be more careful, Yuuri!” The enchanting man chided with a small pout, his voice smooth like molten silver. “I almost lost you there!”

Realization hit like a shock of lightning. His heart raced as heat seared across his side, where he was being held flush against the man’s broad chest. He drew in a sharp gasp, unintentionally filling his lungs with the scent of spice and storm clouds.

“Now, don’t you think I deserve a little reward for catching you?”

When the man threw him a sultry wink, Yuuri was helpless to stop the dark blush that burned out to his ears and all the way down his neck.

 

Chapter Text

What in the world is happening?

Yuuri’s head was foggy with heady perfume and the air between him and the man felt charged, like the woods right before a thunderstorm. His heartbeat fluttered like a hummingbird trapped inside his ribcage as he strived to make sense of his current situation.

A man—a very gorgeous man!—had appeared out of nowhere and was holding him close—way too close!

He attempted to pull his jumbled thoughts back in order.

What was I supposed to be doing right now?

…Oh that’s right, I have to get home as soon as I can and there was a stranger with a lantern who needed my help…

“Yuuri?” The way the Adonis spoke his name, firm with an undercurrent of tenderness, did strange things to his belly. “Are you alright? Are you hurt somewhere?” His graceful eyebrows were beginning to draw together into something like worry.

“Er, hi, yes—I mean no? Er, I mean I’m fine, I think?” Yuuri managed to force out stiffly, voice pitching a bit on the last syllable.

“Are you sure?” The man’s electric blue eyes bore down on him as his arms curled more tightly around his body, pulling him in even closer. Yuuri’s cheek was now flush against his sternum. He could feel the man’s heartbeat, the strong pounding of a deep drum.

“…You look a little too red. You can tell me if anything’s wrong, you know. No need to be shy.” He accentuated that last sentence with a tilt of his head, revealing the pale, smooth expanse of his long neck and sending a few stray strands of silver falling to tickle at Yuuri’s nose.

A delayed surge of mortification flooded Yuuri’s entire being. He flailed, trying to put a bit of distance between himself and this ridiculously attractive man before he spontaneously combusted.

“Oh! Be careful, Yuuri!” The man managed to hold on to the thrashing boy, keeping his grip firm. “We’re a bit high up.”

“W-what do you…”

Yuuri froze when he looked over his shoulder.

They seemed to be floating more than twenty feet off of the ground.

A chill ran through his spine that had nothing to do with the cool autumn air. His mouth went dry with a small whimper as his arms instinctively flew up to wrap tightly around his captor’s neck. Through the sheen of terror, he distractedly noticed that his actions made the silver-haired man’s face glow with delight.

From this vantage point, he could see the slope that he had climbed up below them. His eyes bulged open when his gaze wandered to the top of the hill and saw that, on the other side, a sheer cliff dropped into an inky abyss.

“C-c-can you p-please p-put me down?”

“Of course, Yuuri!”

A serene wind began to swell across them as the man slowly descended in between the treetops to the bottom of the hill. Although Yuuri had never been particularly afraid of heights, the thought of being in the air with absolutely nothing supporting him had his heart in his mouth. Whatever temporary suspension to the laws of physics that allowed him to float in the air like a dust mote would surely realize its mistake any second now… He prayed that his feet would be on something steady and grounded before that happened.

What seemed like an eternity later, but was probably just the span of a few heartbeats, his captor’s bare toes gently tapped the earth. Yuuri breathed out in relief when the man finally bent at the waist to let him down, lowering his legs first.

“Oh, careful there!”

He fell into a stumble the moment his feet touched the ground, his weight only held up by a strong, supportive arm across his upper back. After Yuuri managed to steady himself with an apologetic stammer, the man slowly relinquished his grasp, arm lingering on the cloth of his jacket for a brief moment, as if unsure, before falling away slowly and leaving a trail of tiny sparks in its wake.

His entire body was trembling and his legs in particular felt like jelly. Yuuri didn’t think his heart was handling all the overtime it’s had to clock in today very well.

He dared a glance up and met cheerful blue eyes.

Once he had regained some control over his dry throat, he ventured forth to ask the question that had been plaguing him for the past few minutes.

“Who-who are you?”

The man’s mouth pursed up in a slight pout.

“You don’t remember me, Yuuri?”

When Yuuri shook his head hesitantly, the man lifted his eyebrows, gaze dark with flirtatious mischief and a hint of something akin to sadness.

“Even after that long night we spent together?”

Yuuri sputtered, face heating up once again at the insinuation.

I’m sure I would remember meeting someone this gorgeous!

“You break my heart!” The man wailed dramatically.

Yuuri blinked, his brain finally taking in the near-translucent silver outfit, the way he seemed to glow under the starlight, the whole floating through the air thing, and came to the realization that…

“…You’re a fairy!”

The words spilled out as a thrill of wonder made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He gripped his hands to his sides, wide-eyed.

“That’s right, Yuuri!” the man exclaimed, his mouth stretched in a delighted, heart-shaped smile. He seemed to have recovered from his small bout of gloom rather quickly.

“B-but don’t fairies have wings?”

Yuuri snuck another glance at his back just to make sure.

“Ah, that’s another common misconception humans seem to have.” A cool breeze rustled the dry leaves and pine needles under the fairy’s bare feet, blowing them in a playful circle. “I’m an air fairy, you see?” The man gracefully hovered into the air with a small smile. “My wings are the winds themselves.”

Yuuri was rendered speechless.

He never would’ve imagined that he would wake up today in Hasetsu to meet a family that had barely escaped a perilous fire, use his powers for the first time in years, and come face to face with a mythical being straight out of the storybooks that night. He shook his head, awestruck.

Mari and mom and dad are not going to believe this… When I get home…

Then he remembered the man with the gas lamp.

Oh my god, is he still here? Did he see everything? I don’t think he knew that there was a huge cliff up there… What if he—

Yuuri violently spun around to peer back up the hill. The fairy cocked his head and gave him a questioning look.

Thankfully, the blue light remained floating at the top, flickering ever so slightly.

Phew, he still seems to be okay.

Yuuri looked back to the fairy, who was still suspended in the air and eyeing him curiously.

“Er,” he nervously poked his fingers together, “I was following someone and we were trying to get back home… I think he’s still at the top of the cliff.” Yuuri gestured upwards. “D-do you think you could help him down too?”

There was a long beat of silence as the edges of the fairy’s smile slowly dropped and the playful shine left his eyes.

He crossed his arms, put a hand under his chin, and gave Yuuri a long, considering look.

“That’s not a person, Yuuri. I believe it’s what humans refer to as a will-o-wisp.”

A sick feeling twisted in Yuuri’s gut as he stared at the blueish light still hovering in the distance. He never did see the shape of a man near that lantern… It was always just a cold, blue flame.

His face paled as a sense of comprehension dawned.

His breath abandoned him in a shocked whisper. “You mean, it was trying to… It was trying to lead me over that cliff…”

Yuuri’s heart stuttered and his knees suddenly felt very weak.

I could have…

He took a wavering step back to lean on the trunk of a nearby oak. He could feel the fairy’s eyes tracing his unsteady movements.

When Yuuri looked up, he saw that the fairy’s bright orbs had dimmed into a timeworn, mournful grey that belied his youthful appearance.

“You shouldn’t be so harsh on that poor soul,” his voice descended into a soft murmur. “He was a fairy once, too.”

Yuuri’s eyes widened as he glanced back and forth between the man standing in front of him and the flickering fire up above.

How?

Seeing his stunned expression, the fairy continued with a bitter sigh.

“He fell in love with a mortal woman who ended up leaving him. It broke his heart and he’s haunted the forest where they met ever since, cursing mortals to wander astray at night in the hopes that one day his lover will come back to him.”

“Oh, um…”

He lightly shook his head, unsure of what to say as he felt a complicated pang in his chest.

That’s terribly sad… But still…

After several seconds of pensive silence, he finally settled on a simple “thank you for saving me.”

An affectionate, oddly familiar smile warmed the fairy’s eyes in response. It made something he couldn’t quite name quiver in Yuuri’s chest. When the fairy spoke again, his voice was low and somewhat tender.

“Well, of course.”

Yuuri quickly averted his eyes, trying to stop the vivid flashback of how the man had held him so protectively with firm hands and muscular arms. The tips of his ears went a bit pink.

This is really not the appropriate time to be thinking about that! It could have been really dangerous! If this happens to someone else…

He faintly frowned in worry when he thought about another unwitting individual chancing upon the will-o-wisp at night.

“Erm… Is there anything we can do to, uh, help it? If we just leave it here…”

What if Phichit thought it was someone in trouble like he had? The friendly young man seemed like the type to chase it and try to offer help… And what if the village children stayed out a bit too late while playing?

His stomach churned.

But what can I do?

“That’s very kind of you, Yuuri.” The fairy had drifted to the ground, just a step away from where the boy was leaning against the tree. “But there’s no need to worry. I was just about to take him back when I ran into you. He won’t be a problem after tonight.”

“O-oh, okay…”

The fairy was leaning in now, his increasing closeness forcing Yuuri’s heart to catch in his throat again. Any and all additional worries he may have had about the will-o-wisp were tossed far out of his head. The silver-haired man stopped when their noses were barely an inch apart, the corners of his lips sliding upwards in a vexing smile.

“…Although, there’s someone else I’d much rather take back with me instead…”

Their breaths would’ve been close enough to mingle, if it were not for Yuuri suddenly finding that he had lost the capacity to actually breathe.

The world spun and focused in on the man’s hooded gaze—he felt like he was drowning in those hypnotic blue pools. The fairy reached out, agonizingly slowly, and gently brushed a few dark wisps of matted hair from Yuuri’s forehead, his fingertips lingering feathery and positively chilling against flushed skin. Yuuri’s lips parted, about to surrender that if you mean me, then yes, please, when—

The fairy took a step back, dropping his hand.

And just like that, the spell was broken.

“Now,” the fairy huffed a small, almost regretful sigh, “As lovely as it was to see you tonight, I believe you have to get home?”

Yuuri thought he saw a nostalgic, almost wistful look briefly pass through his face, but it was gone after a blink, replaced by the now-familiar charming smile.

“Would you like me to help you get back, Yuuri?”

…Of course it had been a joke!

“W-well, u-um,” Yuuri blinked furiously, mind still reeling from the sudden loss of body heat and heart still trying to settle its flustered self down to a normal pace.

…And he’s right, I need to get home where I belong, instead of standing out here in the middle of the woods making a fool out of myself. It’s awfully nice of him to offer help, but…

Yuuri bit his bottom lip. Although he had no idea where he was right now and it was probably dangerous to attempt to blindly stumble through the woods for the second time that night—look at how far that’s gotten me!—he knew from the stories that fairies didn’t just grant humans favors for free. There was always a price, one that Yuuri with his ratty clothes and meager satchel was sure he wouldn’t be able to afford.

I don’t really have any intentions of giving up something like my firstborn child or my soul either…

“I-I don’t want to trouble you any further…” He tried to decline diplomatically.

“Oh, it wouldn’t be for free, of course!” The fairy clapped his hands and hopped even closer, his eyes sparkling joyfully.

Yuuri’s stomach dropped.

“B-but I don’t have anything I could repay you with…?”

“Of course you do!” The fairy exclaimed, arm darting out to lightly tap the left breast pocket of Yuuri’s jacket.

With a slight furrow in his brow, Yuuri reached in.

I didn’t put anything in there today, did I?

His mouth fell open when he pulled out two familiar golden rings.

The fairy looked on in amusement as Yuuri stammered in shock. “Wh-what? How did that…?”

His eyes widened in realization.

Ahh, Pichit must have slipped it in that time he hugged me goodbye… That trickster.

“Fairies love gold, you know. You give me one and we’ll call it even, okay?”

“Th-that’s what you want?” Yuuri asked in bewilderment.

The fairy nodded enthusiastically and held out an expectant hand.

With a slightly hesitant nibble of his bottom lip, Yuuri dropped one of the rings into the man’s palm.

He immediately slipped it onto his right ring finger, eyes crinkling at the edges when he realized that it was a perfect fit.

“Spasibo, Yuuri!”

The fairy admired the ring with a look of pure, almost childlike happiness lighting up his face. The warm band of metal gleamed lustrously on his finger, contrasting the pale cream skin and the cool silver of his hair and clothes. It fit snugly, as if it were made for him.

“What does that mean?”

“Hmm?”

“S-spasibo? I think you said?”

“Oh! It means thank you,” the fairy beamed at him. “Thank you for such a lovely present, Yuuri!”

The boy felt a small, answering smile tug at his lips.

“Well, I suppose it’s time that we send you along, now.”

The fairy gave him a long, fond look…as if Yuuri were an old friend instead of some hapless stranger he had just met. It made something itch at the back of his mind. What was so familiar about him? He almost felt like they knew each other somehow…

“We wouldn’t want your family to worry again, would we?”

With an elegant wave that looked like some kind of signal, an unnaturally strong gust suddenly blew through them. Yuuri shielded his face with his arms as the wind playful tugged on his clothes and pulled on his hair.

Ching!

The bright peal of a bell rang through the air as the breeze died down. Yuuri warily lowered his arms and peered through his newly tangled bangs.

He gaped.

A giant creature with dewy, curious eyes sat on its hind legs in front of him, wagging its tail next to the comparatively small fairy. It was distinctly dog-shaped, easily larger than Yuuri’s bed back home, and had a fluffy, cumulous cloud-like appearance. Small tufts of white vapor gathered and dispersed around its entire body in little balls, evaporating and condensing in an undulating pattern.

Suddenly, the creature pounced forward onto Yuuri and stuck out what must have been a huge tongue to lick at his face. Yuuri fell back with a sharp gasp, but less than a second later, he couldn’t help but release a small giggle at the tickling feeling as dewy wisps of fog curled blithely over his cheeks and neck. The creature’s breath smelled cool and pleasant, like the morning mist over a meadow of flowers in the spring.

“Wait, Makkachin! Stop it, boy! You’re going to scare Yuuri!”

With a disappointed whimper, the dog-like creature sat back down and laid his huge, woolly head on puffy paws, tail still flopping up and down behind him, leaving threads of white wafting in the air.

“Sorry about that, Yuuri.”

The fairy had gotten down on his knees next to the cloud-dog, his face buried in a fluffy ear and his arms ruffling around the creature’s neck in a loose hug. “I’m sure Makkachin was just excited to see you again.”

Makkachin barked playfully in agreement, wagging his tail just a bit faster.

“Oh, I don’t mind at all!” Yuuri shook his head quickly, a smile lighting up his face. “I was just a little surprised, that’s all… I actually really love…dogs?”

The fairy turned back to face him with a happy look of approval.

“Just, erm, what is Makkachin, exactly?”

The fairy draped himself on top of the giant beast as Makkachin let out a happy squeal.

“Makkachin is an air sprite! My favorite air sprite, in fact!”

“I-it’s my first time seeing one… He’s really adorable.”

“I know! He really is, isn’t he?”

The silver-haired man spared the creature a few more pats on its rump and a final doting look before standing back up.

“Makkachin here is going to take you back home!” The fairy declared, holding a hand out to Yuuri.

“Oh, okay…”

When Yuuri grasped the proffered arm and moved to stand up, the fairy swiftly pulled him forward without warning.

“…Woah!”

All at once, Yuuri found himself in the fairy’s arms, his lungs filling up with the intoxicatingly sharp spice of lightning for the second time that night. The silver-haired man had shifted their hands so that their fingers were now laced together. His other arm was at the small of Yuuri’s back, deliberately pressing their chests firmly against each other.

Yuuri’s eyes went wide, body tense and lips trembling with a shaky inhale as he peeked up into roguish periwinkle pools. He swallowed thickly, too terrified to move, even to breathe. He was sure that the fairy could feel his heart furiously hammering in his chest through the three measly layers of cloth between them.

“Seeing you tonight was a lovely surprise, Yuuri.” A velvety voice ghosted from shining lips against the burning shell of Yuuri’s ear. “Let’s meet again soon, okay?”

And with that, the fairy lifted him into the air and onto Makkachin’s back.

The air sprite’s body was surprisingly firm, Yuuri realized after he shook off the rather distracting effects of the fairy’s touches. The fluffy clouds that made up his fur were cool, wet, and immaterial to the touch, but didn’t seem to give in under the not insignificant weight of his body.

“You can hold onto his neck here if you want,” the fairy patted around the sprite’s shoulders. “But I’m sure Makkachin would never drop you anyway. Isn’t that right, boy?”

Makkachin whined agreeably.

I’ll be riding an…air sprite?!

This day was just getting more and more unbelievable.

“A-ah, thanks a lot, Makkachin…”

Yuuri gulped and gripped his thighs around the air sprite’s flanks.

This shouldn’t be that much different than riding a horse, right?

When he had confirmed that Yuuri was securely settled in, the fairy whispered something into Makkachin’s muzzle and stepped back.

“Dasvidanya, Yuuri!” He kissed the ring on his finger, a smile flickering over his lips.

Yuuri was about to reply when his stomach suddenly plummeted and the ground collapsed below him. He felt Makkachin lift them into the air, paws dashing across the winds with a quiet whistle. His vision swam dizzyingly as he tried to catch his breath and not freak out over the quickly shrinking boulders and treetops underneath.

A million questions were trapped on the tip of his tongue, but Yuuri focused on trying to breathe steadily in harsh pants. He anchored himself to the fairy’s warm gaze, which remained locked on his as he floated further and further away. Right before they left earshot, he only had the courage to blurt out the most pressing one into the wind.

“H-how do you know my name?”

The fairy’s bell-like laughter echoed through the mountains, carried by the wind.

“How could I ever forget your name, Yuuri?”

 


  

When Yuuri arrived home, he found his family and teacher waiting up for him even though the night had grown old. He watched their eyes grow wider and wider as he told them all the events that had happened during the day. Afterwards, to his surprise, he only received a short lecture from Minako before being quickly sent to bed.

Yuuri woke up late the next morning, head groggy and eyes puffy. The sun was beaming into his bedroom at full force, showcasing the golden particles of dust floating through the air and heating up his covers to an almost uncomfortably warm temperature. Yuuri threw off his blankets, pulled on a light black ensemble, and padded his way to the bathroom to freshen up.

When he walked downstairs to the kitchen, he was greeted with the rich smell of ham and eggs.

“What’s the occasion?” He asked Hiroko as she piled a fried egg and a few greasy slices of pork onto a plate of toast.

Meat was hard to come by in the small village of Hasetsu. They usually only indulged in it on birthdays and holidays.

“It’s a special day, dear! It’s a miracle that you made it home safely yesterday! We also have to visit Minako to thank her for all her trouble last night…” She put the full plate on the dining table as Yuuri took a seat. “…And I thought she would appreciate it if we brought her some lunch, too.”

Yuuri hummed noncommittally as he attacked his breakfast. He hadn’t realized how famished he would be when he had first woken up. It was probably due to all of the hiking he did last night coupled with getting out of bed so late this morning.

After he cleaned off his plate, Yuuri got up to rinse his fork and dishes in the sink. He grabbed a worn yellow cloth on the counter to wipe away the cool water and then set everything aside to dry.

“Where are Mari and dad?”

“They went out pretty early this morning to make sure all the plows and carts are in working condition for the harvest.” Hiroko’s hands stilled in filling up the basket of food for Minako as she turned to look at Yuuri with a small smile. “Takeshi also dropped by this morning to help out with some things. He mentioned that he and Yuuko haven’t seen you in a while. They’re wondering how you are, you know. You should pay them a visit sometime.”

Yuuri scratched his head and turned away from his mother to put on a pair of shoes.

“It’s okay… I don’t want to disturb them. They’re newlyweds after all, and I’m sure they’re busy with the new house and everything.”

“Yuuri… You know they’re not the only ones worried about you…”

He could tell that his mother’s soft voice was tinged with a bit of uncertainty.

“Minako and I… We were talking last night about how you’ve become a lot more…withdrawn over the last few years.” She paused for a few seconds, as if trying to find the right words, and then slowly continued in a more careful tone. “I think it would be good for you to spend more time with other people your age instead of just working all the time. Not that your father and Minako and I don’t appreciate it, but we want you to be happy too.”

Yuuri was glad that his back was still turned so that his mother wouldn’t be able to see the wince on his face.

His family and Minako often hinted that they thought he wasn’t social enough. Ever since he was a little boy, he had trouble getting along with other children his age and preferred to spend his time in the company of his two closest friends instead. Unlike the bubbly, outgoing Yuuko or the boisterously confident Takeshi however, Yuuri had always been introverted and painfully shy by nature.

He had retreated even further into his shell after his gift was discovered. Secrets spread like wildfire in a town as small as Hasetsu, and soon after, the other villagers began treating him with an odd kind of respect that could almost be described as reverence. The distance that went along with those wide-eyed glances and hushed whispers was sometimes too suffocating and always too embarrassing, so Yuuri preferred to stay in, work on the farm, or help the apothecary instead of joining the other young adults when they had their dances or cookouts. He sometimes thought that he would’ve preferred growing up as invisible as he had been before that fateful day on the ice, when he was just another kid in Hasetsu.

After Yuuko and Takeshi started dating a few years back, he had consequently committed more and more of his time to studying under Minako and helping out with the farm and inn. No matter how much they denied it and invited him along, Yuuri knew that the dynamic between the three of them had changed. They would surely appreciate more couple time and he didn’t want to be the third wheel in his two best friends’ budding romance.

He wasn’t bitter about it, though. Yuuko always had a glowing smile on her face whenever he saw her in passing these days and Takeshi was shaping up to be a very dependable man.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes village chief someday…

“Yuuri?” Hiroko delicately prodded.

He chewed on his top lip for a few more seconds before turning back towards his mother with a slightly wavering smile.

“I…I’ll try, mom… Are you ready to go to Aunt Minako’s? I can help carry the basket or anything else.”

Hiroko shook her head, the slight lift of her eyebrow indicating that she had noticed his attempt at diverting the conversation but had decided not to pursue it any further.

“No, it’s alright, honey. We should get going before the food gets cold.”

Hiroko grabbed a thin blue shawl from a hook by the dining room table and wrapped it around herself as Yuuri patiently held open the door. When she was ready, they set off down the road towards the apothecary’s abode at the edge of the forest.

The clear, end-of-summer morning was warmer than it had been the previous day and Yuuri found that he was beginning to sweat under his long black shirt. He rolled up his sleeves to his elbows and took a small sip out of a waterskin that Hiroko suddenly procured out of her basket.

“It’s a beautiful day out,” his mother chirped happily.

“Yeah. Although it’s unusually warm for this time of year, isn’t it?”

“Maybe the harvest will get pushed back this year… You know what they say about long summers though. Hopefully, the gods will be merciful and bless us with a mild winter.”

Yuuri nodded in agreement and fell into companionable step alongside his mother.

When they arrived outside the apothecary’s familiar wooden door, Yuuri heard a sudden burst of laughter erupt from inside the house. His eyes widened in surprise. It was rare for Minako to host guests outside of the Katsuki household and even rarer for the normally refined woman to be laughing so raucously.

“Minako?” Hiroko knocked a bit more sharply than usual to make sure that they could be heard over the din of conversation.

“Oh, come in!” Minako called out in between bursts of giggles.

Yuuri and Hiroko shared a look of interest before they opened the apothecary’s door. They quickly followed Minako’s laughter through her house and into her workshop, where Yuuri saw his teacher sitting across her worktable from a handsome, dark-skinned young man.

“Phichit?!” Yuuri gawked. “What are you doing here?”

The man just waved at him with a bright smile.

“Phichit was just telling me about all the different countries he’s been to.” Minako walked over to give Hiroko a hug. “I used to travel quite a lot when I was younger, you know. It’s making me nostalgic hearing about how all those places have changed over the years.”

“I wanted to come and thank you in person today, Yuuri.”

Phichit stood up, his face glowing. He absentmindedly scratched at his forearm, which was wrapped in clean, white bandages.

Aunt Minako must’ve treated him already.

“I didn’t know where you lived though, so I ended up coming back here. But this time, I actually managed to meet Minako.”

He chuckled and smiled at the woman warmly.

“I’m glad that you did, too! It’s been so long since we’ve gotten some interesting new blood in this place! You really brightened my day, boy!”

Phichit grinned at that, a pleased sparkle in his eye.

“I’m glad to hear that!”

Yuuri blinked, still a little astounded at how his new friend and his normally crabby teacher seemed to get along like a house on fire. “Sorry I couldn’t come out to see you earlier, Phichit. I got a bit lost last night and ended up sleeping in this morning.”

“Oh!” Phichit’s eyes seemed to light up as he suddenly grabbed Yuuri’s hands. “Minako told me all about how you met a fairy last night!” Yuuri shot his teacher a startled look and received an arched eyebrow in response. “That’s awesome, Yuuri! You’ll have to tell me more! I can’t believe you gave him one of our gold rings! I told you it was high quality, didn’t I? Do you think you’ll be able to see him again? Maybe I can meet him too?”

Yuuri could feel his cheeks reddening as he got increasingly flustered at the sudden onslaught of questions.

“Erm, I-I don’t know? …An-and now that you mention it, I need to return the other ring to you at the very least! I can’t believe you just snuck it into my pocket like that after I told you I couldn’t accept it…”

“Hehe,” Phichit had a guilty grin on his face. “Sorry about that, Yuuri! But I definitely can’t take it back now.” He stuck out the tip of his tongue sheepishly. “It was made to be a pair with the one that fairy took, so you have to keep it as a good luck charm!”

“But—“

“And if I do take it back, who knows? I might even get cursed or something!  Fairy magic is so unpredictable, after all…”

Yuuri blanched.

“Y-you really think?”

Hiroko walked forward and put a warm hand on his arm.

“You should just accept it, Yuuri.”

“Oh, you must be Mrs. Katsuki!” Phichit bounced forward and held out a hand. “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier, I’m Phichit!”

Hiroko shook his hand with a pleased smile and a small blush.

“It’s nice to meet you in person. Please just call me Hiroko.”

Yuuri wryly noted that the Romani boy really seemed to have a way with people.

“If it hadn’t been for Yuuri, my sister…” Phichit’s eyes shone with sincerity. “He really saved her life yesterday! My parents are still working on patching up our caravan and making sure that she’s recovering okay, but we’re planning on coming into Hasetsu as soon as we’ve fixed up camp so that we can thank you all.”

“Oh, there’s no need to trouble yourselves,” Hiroko shook her head. “It’s enough that you’re all safe. It sounded like a really terrible fire.”

“Do you need any help with rebuilding your caravan?” Minako asked with a small scowl. “I can’t imagine that it’s easy with just four people.”

“Ah, we should be fine! It’s pretty warm right now so there’s not really a rush to get everything done immediately…” Phichit paused thoughtfully. “I was hoping to buy some supplies while I was in town, though. Do you know if there’s anyone who can sell me a few large pieces of canvas, some nails, and maybe some saws and such?”

“Hmm…” Hiroko pursed her lips. “I’m sure the stable master has a ton of nails to spare, and people should have tools and extra sheets of canvas if you ask around.”

“Um, I can take you around town and help you carry everything back if that would be helpful?” Yuuri offered hesitantly.

“That would be great! Are there other things you need to do, though? I can definitely manage by myself and I don’t want to cause you any more trouble.”

“I…” Yuuri looked towards his mother and Minako.

“We won’t be busy until the harvest, dear.”

“And I’m suspending you for the rest of this year so that you can reflect on your actions.”

Yuuri was a little shocked and just a tad bit hurt.

But I thought the lecture last night was going to be it?

“I expect that you’ll do everything you can to make sure Phichit and his family are able to get back on their feet and feel welcome in Hasetsu until they leave for the capitol. Is that clear?”

“…O-okay, Aunt Minako.”

Yuuri still felt a stab of guilt at breaking his promise to his teacher, but he had the sneaking suspicion that this was some kind of ploy to get him to spend more time with someone his age. He knew he would miss working in the apothecary’s shop, but he found that he didn’t really mind the idea of getting to know Phichit and his family better. Unlike most people, the Chulanonts hadn’t treated him any differently after they saw how he used his powers, for which Yuuri was grateful. They also made him feel at ease, even though he was usually terribly shy and awkward around strangers.

“Well, what are you waiting for?”

Minako crossed her arms and finally sent a small smirk Yuuri’s way.

He relaxed a little, knowing that this meant he had been mostly forgiven.

“The day’s almost half done and I’m sure Phichit’s family can use those materials sooner rather than later.”

“There’s no rush, really!” Phichit shrugged good-naturedly. “I’m just happy to hear that we’ll probably be able to get most of the supplies we still need!”

“Oh, uh, yes!” Yuuri jumped to attention and led the way to the door. “Then, I guess we can head out now? The village stables are just down this street and to the left…”

“Thanks for having me, Minako!” Phichit bid the two women goodbye with a bright smile and a small bow. “And it was really nice to meet you, Hiroko!”

“Have fun, now! And don’t come back too late!”

Phichit started peppering Yuuri with questions about the fairy again as soon as they started down the dirt path into town.

“What did he look like? How tall was he? Was he as pretty as the stories all say?”

“Um, he was about…this tall and he was all silver and shimmery… And y-yeah…”

“Are you going to start wearing the other ring? I think you should! Maybe you can find out if it really is a good luck charm!”

“Ah, I think it’s a bit too precious for me to take around everywhere. I don’t want to lose it or get it dirty or anything. I think I’ll probably just keep it in my room.”

“Aww... That’s kind of a waste, but farm work must be pretty tough, huh?”

“You know, I always heard that you shouldn’t accept help from the Fae so easily. They’re always trying to trick or play pranks on humans.”

“I know that, but…”

Yuuri tried his best to come up with an appropriate response. However, his feelings clashed so strongly with what the stories told that he had the bizarre desire to defend the silver-haired man.

“…I just felt really safe, I guess. I think he felt really familiar or something? He even knew my name somehow.”

Yuuri swallowed down the sudden fluttering sensation that tickled at his chest when he recalled how the fairy had whispered Yuuri so silkily into his ear.

“I kind of had this gut feeling that I could trust him and nothing bad ended up happening so…”

At that, Phichit stared at him for a few heartbeats of silence.

“Hnn… That’s really interesting. I’m glad you’re okay though.”  

The boy hummed thoughtfully for a bit, his brown eyes bright and curious. He looked like he was about to say something before he lightly shook his head and started on a series of fascinating tales about his summer spent in the Leroy kingdom.

Chapter Text

The harvest always held a certain excitement for Yuuri. This was the week when all the people of Hasetsu came together to finally reap the fruits of their yearlong labor (although they mostly farmed wheat, corn, and potatoes instead of any actual fruit). The able-bodied men and women of the village would gather in the fields from dawn to dusk while the others prepared meals and worked on equipment that needed fixing.

Yuuri loved the energy in the air. This was one of the few times he felt comfortable around so many people all at once, for the dirt, sweat, and hard work quickly melted away the need for any forced chitchat.

With a quiet grunt, he hacked off an ear of corn and dropped it into the large wicker basket on his back. As he began sawing away at the stem of another piece lower down on the cornstalk, he turned to the brunette woman working next to him.

“Are you sure you should be out here, Yuuko?” Yuuri glanced worriedly at his friend’s small but beginning to be noticeable baby bump. “Do you think it’d be, uh, safer for you to help sort the crops or fix the plows this year?”

Yuuko rolled her eyes as she dropped a piece of corn into her basket, moving on to another stalk.

“Geez, you’re almost as bad as Takeshi!” She smiled fondly. “I’ll be fine Yuuri. The baby’s not due ‘til next spring.” Another ear of corn went into her basket. “I feel like I need the exercise after being cooped up and fussed over all the time and Minako said that I should be okay for a few more months anyways.”

“If you say so…”

He watched Yuuko saw furiously away at a particularly hardy stem near the bottom of a stalk, sweat beading on her wide forehead and lips flattened in concentration.

“…Just be careful not to overdo it, okay?”

“Yes, yes.”

After severing the final piece of corn from the plant with a victorious umph, Yuuko patted the dust off of her knees and stood up with a satisfied sigh. She gazed down at her belly with a warm light in her chocolate eyes and placed a small, delicate hand over the slight swell.

“You better pay attention, little one. You’re going to be doing this too someday,” she whispered, a grin slowly stretching across her lips.

Yuuri’s heart melted as he took in her peaceful, glowing face in the bright daylight.

She’s going to be a great mother.

“You worry too much, Yuuri!” Phichit’s voice rang out from behind them, making Yuuri jump. “I feel like Yuuko’s the type of person who can take care of herself just fine.”

Yuuri turned to see his friend approach, a basket nearly overflowing with corn on his back. The tanned boy’s pearly white teeth sparkled blindingly under the bright midday sun. Despite not being a citizen of Hasetsu, he was wearing a loose beige tunic and dark pants like everyone else working the fields, collar left wide open. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, revealing toned arms and a dark scab that was healing up nicely.

“Why, thank you Phichit!” Yuuko threw a pointed look at Yuuri. “I’m glad someone here understands!”

“He’s just trying to butter you up…” Yuuri grumbled, lightly elbowing his friend in the ribs.

Phichit feigned a shocked gasp, dramatically clutching his side where Yuuri had nudged him.

“That’s so mean, Yuuri! Why would I need to do something like that?!”

Yuuri could hear Yuuko giggling by his side.

“Because you’ve been trying to get everyone to join you in nagging me about going to the harvest festival since you heard about it last week!”

“Well, you really should!” Phichit whined, throwing a heavy arm over Yuuri’s shoulders.

“Hey! You’re too sweaty!”

“—I mean, why wouldn’t you want to go? It sounds like there’s going to be great music and dancing and so much food! Doesn’t that sound like fun, Yuuri?”

The village always held a large celebration on the last day of the harvest. Yuuri hadn’t needed to go in years, since the only thing he was particularly interested in was trying all the food, and Mari would just bring platefuls of the most delicious dishes back home for him anyways.

“You should’ve told me earlier, Phichit!” Yuuko laughed, a playful spark in her eye. “I’ve been telling Yuuri that he needs to go for years now, but he always has some excuse or another!” She shook her head with a nostalgic look. “I think the last time I saw him come to one…I was still taller than him.”

Phichit laughed. Yuuri’s face was gradually turning tomato-red as his lips puckered in a small pout.

“No…” he protested, “I also went two years ago.”

“Oh?” Yuuko arched an eyebrow. “Then I’m sure you just snuck in the through the back of the town hall, grabbed some food, and snuck back out immediately.”

“Haha,” Phichit ruffled his friend’s hair. “That sounds just like you!”

Yuuri blushed and sputtered indignantly, wriggling out from under the shorter boy’s arm. But he didn’t exactly have a comeback, since it was all true.

“…I-I think it’s almost time for lunch.”

Yuuri spun away from his two traitorous friends, his lengthy dark bangs swishing in a quick flip, and began walking back along the tall, golden rows of corn. “We should head to the barn before all the food gets eaten.”

“Oh, you’re right!” Phichit hopped into step beside him. “All this work has gotten me pretty hungry!”

“I wonder what they made for today…” Yuuko immediately followed suit.

“I think my mom mentioned that they were going to roast a few chickens with some of the extra potato and carrot duds from yesterday.”

“Mmm…”

Yuuri sighed in relief, glad that his friends seemed too distracted by the prospect of lunch to pester him anymore. After a few minutes of blissful silence trekking through the fields, Phichit broke the peace.

“…Hey Yuuri,” his tone was teasing, “you know what’s even better than eating good food?”

“Phiiichit,” Yuuri groaned. “Stop—“

“Eating good food next to a nice warm bonfire while listening to great music! And maybe you’ll even get to dance with a pretty girl!” Phichit waggled his eyebrows suggestively as his friend turned tomato-red.

Yuuko giggled at the boys’ antics and leaned in between them. “You know,” she whispered, eyes darting back and forth conspiratorially, “I heard that Tazusa has a thing for you.”

Phichit’s onyx eyes lit up at that juicy piece of gossip.

Yuuri groaned and hung his head.

Oh boy…

“Is that the girl who always has her hair in those pigtails?”

“Yep! You have a really good memory, Phichit!”

“Nah, it’s just that everyone in Hasetsu is so nice and friendly!”

Yuuri just shook his head in resignation.

Phichit stared into the sky with a thoughtful look. A few moments later, he turned and smirked at Yuuri.

“I think Chada might get a little jealous if she found out, you know.”

“Phiiiiichit…” Yuuri could feel his face turning a mortifying shade of fuchsia.

“She told me the other day that she was hoping to get a dance with you.”

“Oh my!” Yuuko gasped, clapping her hands. “You’ve become so popular, Yuuri!”

“G-guys…”

The Romani boy edged closer to Yuuko and pretended to whisper to the brunette.

“Do you think he’ll go if we get a cute girl to ask him?”

“You know I can hear you…“

“Maybe,” Yuuko stage-whispered back, “but I think it’ll be more effective if we get Mari and his parents to not bring any food back for him.”

“Hey! They’ve already tried that!” Yuuri scowled. That was the reason he had to sneak in to the festival two years back. “And it’s not like I’m that easily baited by food…”

“Well, your childhood nickname was katsudon…”

“Y-Yuuko!”

“Katsudon?” Phichit cocked his head. “What’s that?”

“It’s this amazing pork cutlet bowl that Yuuri’s mom and dad make! Ahh… I’m drooling thinking about it already.” Yuuko smiled dreamily. “You’ll have to try it sometime, Phichit! It’s the Hasetsu Inn’s specialty!”

“I think I would like that!” Phichit said with a smile.

A deep voice suddenly called out from the rows of corn in front of the trio.

“Oy! Yuuko!”

Takeshi’s large, hulking form stepped through the yellow stalks, rustling the long leaves of the plants with a dry, rasping sound. The worn fabric of his sweaty shirt clung to his skin tight around his torso. Patches of dirt were smudged all over his pants and arms.

“Hey,” Yuuko greeted her husband with a wave. “You guys finished up the wheat fields early?”

“Yeah,” Takeshi hurried to Yuuko’s side and grabbed her basket. “Here, let me get that.”

“I’m fine, Takeshi!” Yuuko gripped the straps around her arms more tightly as her husband tried to tug the basket away. “I’m not an invalid!”

“C’mon… Please? Let me help?”

Phichit and Yuuri just stood aside to let the couple bicker it out. The Romani boy turned and smiled at his friend.

“He really loves her, huh?”

“Yeah,” Yuuri replied, eyes a little wistful. “They’ve been like this since we were kids.”

Takeshi finally got Yuuko to relinquish her basket and the four continued walking through the fields.

“Knowing someone since you were a kid must be nice.” Phichit remarked.

“You don’t have anyone like that?” Yuuko asked in surprise.

The boy shook his head. “It’s always been just my parents and Chada…” When he saw the others’ pitying looks, he immediately elaborated to correct the misunderstanding. “Oh, it’s not bad or anything! We’re constantly on the road and meeting lots of new people in new places, so it’s a lot of fun! But we just don’t really get to know many people our whole lives like you do in Hasetsu. I thought it was nice, is all.”

“Huh…” Yuuri wondered aloud. “Don’t you usually travel with lots of other caravans though?”

“Yeah, we like to join larger groups when we’re going through a long stretch of forest or wilderness since it’s a lot safer, but families are always joining up and leaving. Sometimes people like to stay in a place for longer or want to split off and go somewhere else. So it’s not really a fixed thing.”

“Man… I can’t imagine living like that.” Takeshi’s brow was furrowed in thought as he put an arm around Yuuko’s waist. “Don’t you get homesick? Or tired of traveling all the time?”

Phichit shrugged. “Not really. It’s always been this way so I wouldn’t know what it felt like to not be on the move, you know? Our caravan is my home.” He looked towards the horizon as they neared the edge of the corn fields, a light smile glittering in his eyes. “I actually really love seeing new lands and meeting all sorts of new people. There’s always something unexpected or amazing that I never could’ve imagined before, and I always have my family by my side, so it doesn’t get scary or anything…” His bright grin faltered a bit. “…Usually.”

He must be thinking about the fire…

Yuuri brushed against Phichit’s arm sympathetically and received a grateful nod.

It must be pretty dangerous to camp in the forest all the time… There are all sorts of monsters and robbers. I wonder if anything like that has ever happened to them before.

…But I guess now’s probably not the time to ask.

Then, as it often did these days, Yuuri’s mind drifted to that night in the woods. He thought of the beautiful fairy with azure eyes and silver hair, recalling the strength in his shoulders and the poise in the upwards tilt of his chin. He still felt the same thrill of amazement whenever he remembered how the being had lingered in the air and bent the wind to his will.

Mari frequently remarked that Yuuri had become jumpier and more out of it than usual for the past two weeks. Ever since that night, he would startle at the tinkling of a bell. If he saw a puffy white cloud when he looked up at the sky, his heart would skitter as he squinted to try and make out if it was at all dog-shaped.

Yuuri would always be disappointed, however. The white puffs up above were always just regular clouds and the sounds that startled him were simply the mundane noises of everyday life in the village.

He often caught the worried glances and whispers of his family and friends—they thought that he had been shaken up by his near-death experience, he supposed—but in reality, Yuuri just felt eagerness and excitement. The fairy had told him that he’d like to meet again soon, and Yuuri couldn’t help but wonder if he really meant it.

I hope so…

Yuuri looked up at the clear pale-blue sky, sighing at the lack of clouds in sight.

 


 

 

The large barn that served as the town hall sat on top of the gentle swell of a hill, conveniently located between the village fields and the town square. Yuuri, Phichit, and the Nishigoris trekked up and approached the two large doors propped open by crates of produce, greeting the trickle of people leaving the barn. Most of the village was gathered inside the expansive structure. Family and friends were chatting animatedly and tucking away at plates of food. Several large crates of freshly harvested produce were proudly displayed in the center. There would usually be groups of people cleaning, sorting, and preparing the harvest to dry, but now everyone was taking a break for lunch. Towards the back, a group of children and the elderly were washing dirty dishware.

“Yuuri! Phichit! Yuuko!” Hiroko’s voice carried over the din and Yuuri swiveled to see his parents at a long table to their right. A few villagers who looked like they had just returned from the fields were lined up for food. His father was waving a ladle in the air, gesturing for them to come over.

Once the four friends unloaded their corn into the appropriate crates, Takeshi put an arm around his wife and started pushing her towards the serving tables.

“You need to get something to eat, Yuuko. I tried a bit of the chicken before I came to get you and it’s really good.”

“Okay, okay, stop rushing me.” Yuuko chided exasperatedly, though a smile lingered on her face. “You’re acting like I’ll die of starvation if I don’t get food right this second.”

Phichit and Yuuri shared an amused glance and then got in line behind the couple.

“Takeshi was worrying over you all morning,” Toshiya teased Yuuko as he ladled a generous scooping of gravy over a few pieces of chicken.

Yuuko shook her head. “I keep telling him that I’ll be fine, but he just won’t listen!”

Hiroko chuckled, taking the plate from her husband and placing three lumps of bread next to the chicken.

“Weren’t you just like that when I was pregnant with Mari, dear?” Hiroko handed the plate to Yuuko, who thanked them with a smile and was quickly whisked away by her husband to sit on a bale of hay.

“Ah…” The wrinkles around Toshiya’s brow crinkled as his eyes misted over. “It seems like it was just yesterday…”

“And then we had Yuuri…”

Yuuri groaned as his parents gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes.

“Mom, dad, please stop.”

“Don’t be so shy, dear. You’ll find the perfect person for you too, someday.”

Phichit nodded sagely in agreement while trying to stifle his snickering.

Yuuri blushed at that and shot a betrayed look at his friend.

Hiroko handed the boys their plates of food and pushed them along. “Now go eat! And there’s plenty left so make sure to come back for seconds!"

“Thanks…” Yuuri turned and glanced around the barn. It looked pretty packed. Some of the villagers were sitting on piles of hay or a few of the sturdier farming tools that were still under repair, but most were sprawled across the floor of the barn. There was still a bit of open floor space near the Nishigoris, but given how much Takeshi had been fretting this morning, Yuuri figured that he would appreciate some time alone with Yuuko. He also spotted a half-hidden Mari crouched in a corner, leaning against a broken plow with her eyes closed.

It’s probably best not to bother her. She looks like she’s taking a break from serving lunch.

“Where do you want to sit?” Phichit asked, lips pursed. He probably saw the same predicament.

“Want to go outside?” Yuuri suggested with a shrug. “We can sit in the shade of the barn.”

“Sure!”

They quickly found a scratchy clump of uncut grass nearby and sat down with their backs against the wooden panels of the wall. The boys devoured their lunch in companionable silence, too starved to make conversation over their plates of food.

“Have you ever been outside of Hasetsu, Yuuri?” Phichit asked when he had finished eating.

Yuuri was still wiping the last of his bread against his plate, trying to soak up as much of the gravy as he could.

“Well,” he popped a piece into his mouth. “I’ve gone pretty far into Saga Forest before, I think. Almost to the northern border once. But I’ve never really had to go beyond that.”

“What about other villages? There are a few to the west, right? On the road to the capitol?”

Yuuri shook his head. “They’re too far away. Mari and I can’t really afford to be gone for too long. Now that they’re getting older, mom and dad need all the help they can get running the inn and taking care of the farm.”

“I see…” Phichit quirked his lips and paused for a thoughtful second. “Well, have you ever wanted to?”

“Hm?” Yuuri asked distractedly as he finished his bread. “To what?”

“Travel! See the world!”

“I mean, I can’t really leave—“

“Just pretend that you could! If you could visit any place in the world,” Phichit swept his arm in front of them, gesturing towards the grand expanse of golden fields and forest that stretched under the turquoise sky from their vantage point at the top of the hill. “Where would you want to go?”

“I… I never really thought about it…” Phichit shot him an unconvinced expression, one eyebrow raised. “I mean… I wouldn’t know where would be safe outside of Hasetsu or the forest. And I wouldn’t know how to get there or what to do.”

“Ah, I could take you to all of these amazing places! It would be so much fun!” Phichit’s eyes lit up.

As they finished their lunch and worked in the corn fields throughout the afternoon, Yuuri listened, enraptured, as Phichit regaled his friend with tales of his travels. The Romani boy’s words painted visions of sand dunes under a burnt-orange sun, of a city centered around a single intricate marble palace that was larger than Hasetsu, of strange and beautiful creatures with impossibly long necks and patchwork skins, of a floating village in the sea that was entirely constructed of reeds.

“…Ooh, there’s also this huuuuge hedge maze right outside of the Leroy kingdom capital. I hear that it spans ten whole acres and the hedges are almost as tall as this barn! It’s supposed to be impossible to get through.”

“Really?” Yuuri’s eyes widened. “What do they need that for?”

“There’s supposed to be a beast of some sort trapped in there…” Phichit lowered his voice. “My parents wouldn’t let me get close, but one night, Chada and I snuck out of camp to check it out.”

Yuuri gulped.

“…And we heard a man scream from inside the maze.”

“W-what did you do?”

“We freaked out and ended up running back to camp.” Phichit scratched his head with a sheepish grin. “We got too scared to sleep that night. Mom and dad got pretty upset at us for being so out of it while manning the wares the next day.”

“D-did you go back?”

“Nope!”

Seeing Yuuri’s frightened expression, Phichit tried to reassure him. “But I’m sure it’s safe. The Leroy kingdom would’ve posted some soldiers or knights around if it was actually dangerous since it’s so close to the palace.”

“Y-yeah, that makes sense.”

“Oh!” Phichit’s eyes lit up. “There’s a really famous school for physicians in the Leroy kingdom too!”

Yuuri vaguely recalled a customer at the inn mentioning the school to him a few years back after he had healed the man’s broken arm.

He nodded at Phichit. “I’ve heard of it, I think.”

“The apprentices at the school set up this huge tent in the city plaza every Sunday to help the townspeople. And they’re really good. My dad had this terrible cough one time that wouldn’t go away for weeks so he went there to see if they could help. They gave him this bottle of medicine that he had to drink every night and the cough went away in a few days! I bet you would have a blast if you went there sometime!”

“That sounds amazing…” Yuuri was in awe.

It must be great having an entire school with all those physicians. You could probably learn a lot from everyone…

“Also, I was wondering,” Phichit furrowed his brow and tapped a finger to his lip. “Who did Minako apprentice under? She really knows her stuff for a village apothecary. Someone of her skill could easily open up shop in a big city.”

“I’m not really sure.” Yuuri tilted his head. This was something he had wondered about for years too. “I’ve asked her about it in the past, but she’s pretty vague about what she did before she came to Hasetsu.”

“You mean, she’s not from here originally?”

Yuuri shook his head. “My parents told me that she came to town around the time Mari was born. The midwife from the next village over had just passed away so everyone was really worried about mom, but then Aunt Minako said that she could help since she had some medical training. Apparently, the village chief back then asked her to stay after that and she’s been here ever since.”

“Oh, I’d always thought she was your real aunt.”

Yuuri shook his head. “Even though she’s not a blood relative, she’s like family to me.”

“I can see why. After all that, no wonder you’re all so close,” Phichit smiled. “I wonder what she did before. I’ve talked with her about all her travels and,” Phichit shook his head almost reverently, “she’s been everywhere!”

Yuuri pursed his lips. “I don’t know… She’s told me that she wasn’t always an apothecary, but she doesn’t like to talk about her past much… I-I feel like it’s painful for her.”

Phichit’s eyes softened. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t pry.”

Yuuri quickly shook his head. “I think she has a lot of fun talking with you about all the places she’s been to. She told me that every time she visited a new country, she would buy a book somewhere along the way as a souvenir. That’s also how she has so many rare books.”

“I wonder if she was a wealthy merchant’s daughter or something. It’s rare for commoners to be able to afford books—let alone know how to read!”

“Maybe?” Yuuri had some trouble imagining his tough mentor in fancy dresses, however.

“Alright!” Phichit leaned forward and stretched his arms. “I think we should probably wrap up here! Let’s head back to the barn?”

Yuuri nodded and stood up from his crouch, brushing a few stray hairs from his forehead. He noticed that the sun had already fallen low, bathing the sky in oranges, golds, and lilacs from its hiding place behind the dark blue mountains. They probably still had about an hour of daylight left, but Phichit needed to hurry back to his family’s caravan in the forest before sundown. The wolves were beginning to become more active at night as the first signs of winter approached.

“Thanks a lot for helping out, Phichit.” Yuuri said a bit abashedly as they carried the corn to the barn. “I know there’s a lot of work you guys still need to do to fix your caravan.”

“Yuuri! I told you to stop thanking me!” Phichit thumped him on the back. “This is the least I can do in return after everything your village has done to help us get back on our feet.”

“But still…”

“I’ve never had the chance to try any farming since we’re always on the road, so I’m learning a lot too!”

Yuuri smiled. Phichit’s constant positivity was one of the things that he admired the most about him.

“It’s also a lot of fun hanging out with you, Yuuri.” His face broke out into a grin. “I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to get to know you.”

“Yeah, me too.” A light, pleased blush dusted his cheeks as they walked through the fields.

Yuuri usually took a long time—years, even—to warm up to people, and Phichit was the first person he’d become so comfortable with in such a short span of time. He felt like he could just be himself with the Romani boy and had willingly told his new friend all about his childhood and growing up in Hasetsu over the past few weeks. Phichit was one of the most accepting people he had ever met and the kindness and warmth with which he treated everyone made Yuuri feel like he could talk to him about anything. There were no expectations or judgement, and despite knowing about his powers, Phichit still treated him like anyone else.

However, Yuuri felt guilty every time Phichit chose to do something with him instead of the others their age or declined an invitation because Yuuri didn’t want to join. Since the Romani boy was so sociable, Yuuri couldn’t help but think that he would prefer to be in a larger crowd.

“Um…” Yuuri ventured, biting his lip a bit. “I don’t want you to feel like you need to stay with me all the time just because I helped Chada. You can do other things too if you want.”

Phichit stopped and stared at him. Yuuri swallowed, his throat suddenly dry.

When Phichit spoke, his voice sounded a little hurt. “That’s what you think?”

Yuuri awkwardly shuffled his feet. “I mean, everyone in the village loves you and I know I’m a pretty boring person, so…”

Phichit’s shoulders fell as he turned to face Yuuri, pinning him with fierce onyx eyes.

Yuuri winced.

I definitely should’ve phrased that better. It probably sounded really petty.

“You need to have more confidence in yourself, Yuuri. You’re a great person, and—don’t get me wrong, your powers are amazing—but I’d still like you even if you didn’t have them. I’m not just spending time with you because I feel indebted or obliged to.”

Yuuri curled in on himself, trying to quash the coarse, queasy feeling slithering around in his gut as his face burned in shame. “O-okay…”

“Unless…” Phichit furrowed his brow and licked his lips. “Am I being a bother?”

“No!” Yuuri’s voice shot up, surprising them both.

“Um,” he cleared his throat, avoiding Phichit’s bewildered stare. “That’s not what I was… I just thought that, uh…” He flailed for the right words, his voice wavering. “You seemed like you would prefer talking to more people. And I’m kind of…” Phichit shot him a look, making him bite his tongue.

Yuuri’s habit of making self-deprecating remarks clearly upset his friend, and he felt like he’d already surpassed his quota for the day.

“Er…I don’t really like crowds, I guess. And I don’t want to make everyone uncomfortable because people aren’t really comfortable around me because… I can… I’m, well… you know.” Yuuri finished his awkward almost-apology, eyes drifting down to bore into a gray pebble buried in the ground, fingers plucking at the seams of his trousers.

“…Yuuri.” Phichit’s voice had a confusing air of hurt mixed with sadness or maybe even anger.

Yuuri couldn’t bring himself to meet the other boy’s eyes, but he could tell that Phichit was shaking his head.

Yuuri opened and closed his mouth again, his heart lurching sickeningly, churning up his stomach. “Sorry,” he finally managed to force out, albeit weakly.

A few coarse beats of silence passed.

Phichit sighed.

When Yuuri dared to look up, his friend’s mouth was quirked in a genuine but slightly bitter smile.

“I guess we can call it even if you promise to come to the harvest festival.”

And just like that, the tension dissipated.

Yuuri’s eyes widened as he gaped at the now-grinning Phichit. “I can’t believe you…! I… I was… O-okay.”

“Hehe, I knew you’d come around!”

Yuuri’s face broke into an embarrassed but relieved smile as they continued walking, arms bumping companionably.

 


 

 

The fairy realm had never seemed so boring before. Victor had no desire to walk the homey halls of his palace in the millennia-old grove, to frolic in the meadows and lakes with the beautiful creatures that lived there, or even to dance and sing with his friends.

“Makkachiiiinnnnn, why is the Seelie Council always so slow and tedious?” Victor hugged the fluffy air sprite from his position on its back, burying his face into the creature’s cool, cloud-like fur. “They’re going to accept my sentence for Georgi in the end anyway, so what’s the point of debating over it for so long?”

Makkachin whined in sympathy, lifting his head from where it had been resting on his paws to nudge his nose comfortingly at Victor’s face.

“Yeah, I’m glad Georgi’s going to be alright too.” Victor patted Makkachin’s flank. “We should go visit Mila and the rest of the healers after they’re done to thank them.”

Makkachin’s tail thumped in agreement.

“He’s going to be angry with me, but I think I gave a fair sentence.” Victor combed through the puffy clouds of Makkachin’s body, creating thin streaks with his fingers that were quickly filled up again by the magical condensation. “Even if he still wants to go back to the mortal realm after his confinement is over, that woman will be long dead and she won’t be able to hurt him.”

Victor turned to lie on his back with a furious—almost frighteningly cold—glint in his eyes. His gaze was fixed upwards at the ceiling of the Seelie Court’s palace, a large mosaic reflecting the night sky of the mortal realm, magicked to twinkle with small studs of starlight.

His long silver hair slowly fell, strand-by-strand, over the curves of Makkachin’s sides. “Humans are all either fickle, selfish, or boring anyway, he’s not missing out on much.”

At that, Makkachin suddenly got up, throwing Victor off balance and consequently off of its back, sending small tufts of white moisture scattering into the air. As Victor looked up in surprise at his usually calm and gentle friend, the air sprite whimpered anxiously at the fairy, a trace of desperation in its bright, round eyes.

“Ah, of course I didn’t mean Yuuri!” Victor quickly stood up to reassure Makkachin with a hug, his arms stroking the back of the air sprite’s neck in a soothing motion. His face gradually relaxed into a smile at the memories of the mortal boy. “Yuuri’s not like the rest of them. He’s as kind and sweet as he’s always been.”

Apparently pleased by the fairy’s correction, Makkachin laid back down, tail wagging happily.

“I had such a shock when I saw him again, Makkachin!” Victor put his hands on either side of the dog’s cheeks and nuzzled his nose excitedly. “I’d totally forgotten how fast time passes in the mortal realm! All of a sudden he’s now all grown up!” Makkachin made a happy noise at the back of his throat and his tail wagged even harder. “I had wanted to visit him more often but you know how I was so busy working on those treaties with the Unseelie Court…” Makkachin whined and shifted to curl around him consolingly.

“Those were some terrible times…” Victor winced just thinking about all the political manipulations and the cloak-and-dagger intrigue that he had to deal with due to neither side having any trust in the other.

“But Yakov’s face when everyone signed it was spectacular, Makkachin! For the longest time, he was all like,” the fairy furrowed his brow and dropped his voice a few octaves in a gruff impression, “‘Vitya, no matter how great you think you are you’re never going to make those barbarians see any sense!’ Just because he couldn’t do it when he was king!”

Victor’s face suddenly fell as his tone became irritated once again. “…But now there’s that missing selkie knight… Can you believe they accused us of doing something to him? No matter how strong he is or how uncharacteristic they claim it to be for him to be so careless, I bet he just had his pelt stolen by some human. It’s always like that with them.” Seeing that Makkachin was starting to become confused by all of his complaints, Victor shook his head clear of those thoughts. His hands were tied regarding that particular issue anyway.

He let out a sigh, mind drifting back to his favorite human. “I don’t think Yuuri remembered me though… That was a little disappointing.”

Makkachin cocked his head, a question in his eyes.

“Ah, you weren’t corporeal yet so you couldn’t leave the fairy realm. But remember that great party we had on the midsummer night of my coronation?”

Makkachin panted happily, a little bit of watery drool starting to drip from his mouth.

Victor chuckled. “Yeah, we had lots of delicious food that day, didn’t we? Well, Yuuri somehow found his way into our party and we danced together all night long!”

With a dramatic jump, he twirled away from the air sprite, starting up a graceful dance with an invisible partner that only he could see, stepping to the rhythm of a song that only he could hear. When the silent music ended, he dropped his arms and turned back towards Makkachin.

“You miss him too, don’t you?”

Makkachin let out a soft whimper.

Victor flopped back onto the ground with a sad sigh and a small pout.

If only…

Suddenly, the fairy’s eyes lit up, shining with excitement and mischief.

Well, the entire council is going to be stuck in that room for a while and everyone else is busy with Georgi or that matter with the Unseelie Court…

Victor leaned forward and buried his face into one of Makkachin’s floppy ears. “How about we sneak out and visit him, then? At the rate they’re going, we’ll be there and back before the council is finished!”

The air sprite let out an enthusiastic woof of agreement that had the fairy enveloping him in another hug.

“Good boy!”

Without further ado, Victor closed his eyes and let his body fade and become one with the wind. He followed the flow of the palace, quickly drifting down corridors, into the open sky, and towards the heart of the fairies’ sacred grove, Makkachin close on his heels. As they approached the ancient tree guarded by two armor-clad fairy knights, Victor whispered the spell that would render him undetectable as he passed into the mortal realm.

The guards spared Makkachin a curious glance but let the air sprite through without any motion to stop him. Victor took the opportunity to slip by, the extra breath of wind barely noticeable considering the substantial volume of air that Makkachin moved with his large body.

As he reached the shimmering, opalescent surface of the broad trunk, Victor only felt a small nudge of guilt… He recalled the long lectures that Yakov had given him before passing on the crown.

The powers and privileges of the Fae King were probably not meant to be used like this.

Oh well, Victor shrugged, inadvertently causing the wind to rustle the lowest branches of the ancient tree. It’s not like he was hurting anyone and he definitely deserved a break after all of his hard work with the Unseelie Court and Georgi.

The odd sensation of nothingness seeped into his skin as he drifted through the portal. In the blink of an eye, he was staring out into the night sky of the mortal realm—the real one much more vivid than the likeness on the ceiling of his home. The stars formed a large glowing band that cut across the canvas of the heavens, their light spilling ever outwards and dyeing the inky darkness a royal blue.

“Makkachin, are you ready to go see Yuuri again?”

Woof, woof!

Nobody would even notice. The guards sure hadn’t.