The king of the fairies has fallen in love with a mortal, and the weather is completely fucked up.
The latter half of that statement is obvious to anyone; the first half, and the fact that the two are related, Otabek only learns when his own rather more human king summons him to try and hang the problem around Otabek's neck like an unwanted medal. Medals, in fact, are mentioned. Bags of gold. Marriage to the king's daughter.
"You haven't got any daughters," Otabek tells the king.
"I know that," says JJ, who is lounging on his throne as though waiting for someone to leap out from behind a pillar and paint his portrait. This is not beyond the realms of possibility. There are a lot of portraits of JJ in the palace. "I meant it metaphorically."
"I see," Otabek says. "No."
"Sorry. Find someone else."
"This is your job!" JJ says.
Which is more or less true, but being a hero pays well and Otabek is very good at it, so it's not like he doesn't have savings. Five years ago he had his sisters to think of; now one of them is apprenticed to the palace falconer and the other has opened a potions shop and is making a killing selling health tonics and luck charms, so Otabek feels fine about picking and choosing his adventures.
"I don't mess with the fae," Otabek says.
"I'm not asking you to mess with them," JJ flat-out lies. "But their ambassador laughed in my face, and our ambassador to the fairy court seems to think that the whole thing is hilarious and has been less than firm in conveying to Victor how completely inconvenient the results have been for us."
This is JJ's own fault for appointing Christophe, who is a good friend of Victor's but would not be a responsible ambassador to the inside of a hollow log. Otabek does not point this out.
"I'm not interested," he says. "Good luck. Maybe Victor will get bored of the mortal and move on."
"Here's hoping," says JJ.
Otabek hears the voice dimly, because it blends into the sound of the lake lapping with tiny, lazy motions at its own gravel edge. He pauses on the road and looks towards the water, stretching out a cramp in his leg. Otabek owns a horse, obviously, but he tends to save Tazagul for days when he has a lot of ground to cover, or when he's not expecting to run into much magic. The man who sold her to Otabek wasn't lying about her magical sensitivity, but he was lying about her usual response to it, which is to freak the fuck out and gallop in the direction of home.
She's less than ideal, as a hero's horse. But Otabek's attached to her now.
A lot of the time he hitches rides. It's useful. People like to complain; often, what they complain about are things that someone will be willing to pay Otabek to deal with.
And this is a small kingdom. It doesn't hurt to walk.
The voice is a mutter, rising and falling. Otabek hears, "I'm going to die, I'm going to die," and then a muffled sound like someone hoping that if they inhale forcefully enough, they'll kill the sob that's trying to form in their throat.
Otabek leaves the road, lifts aside a half-snapped tree branch sagging from a trunk--a victim of the violent storm that passed through here yesterday, he'd guess--and pushes through another few yards of dense shrubbery before he comes up at the water's edge.
Sitting on a log is a small figure with a fall of pale blond hair, dressed in a red tunic, and with its face buried in its hands. It looks up, as Otabek lets a twig crack underfoot, and Otabek has a disorienting moment of being able to discern neither gender nor age before his brain makes an effort and the features fall into coherence. It's a boy, or a young man, with tears brimming in green eyes and a mouth like the last kiss of sunset on the horizon.
"Oh, thank everything," this person says at once. "Can you swim?"
"Everyone can swim," says Otabek.
"Hah!" the boy explodes, unhappily. He swipes at his eyes and then flings that arm out, with more drama than Otabek feels is necessary, to point at the bleached skeleton of a dead tree near the centre of the lake. "I can't. And my master sent me to fetch the gold necklace he had made by the best jeweller in town, for his daughter's birthday, and I was halfway home when a magpie swooped down and stole it. I heard," he adds darkly, "that there's a swamp-witch around here, who uses magpies as her servants. Anyway, I panicked and chased the bird here and threw stones at it, and it dropped the necklace into the lake near that tree. And now either I drown myself trying to fetch the silly thing, or I'll have to tell my master I lost it, and he won't believe me, and he'll beat me half to death!"
"You can't swim?" Otabek says, sticking with what seems important. "Did you grow up in a desert?"
A loud sniff. "I had an older brother who drowned. My mother wouldn't let me near water when I was growing up, and then...I guess I never bothered to learn."
Otabek wanders closer to the edge of the lake and peers out at the dead tree in question. "You were carrying an expensive necklace out in the open? That seems unwise. What if brigands saw you?"
"I--no, it was in a sack."
"Then how did the magpie spot it?" Otabek asks, patiently.
"Well...maybe I took it out to have a proper look. Usually he never lets us touch the valuables!"
"But he trusted you to pick it up from the city, and carry it all the way back?"
"Look," says the boy, now sounding distinctly annoyed, "are you going to help me, or not?"
Otabek takes two firm steps away from the water. "I don't think so. I'd have to take half my clothes off, and the rest of them would get wet. And there's a breeze picking up."
"Did you hear me say I was going to be beaten?" the boy demands, voice rising. "Are you completely heartless?"
"No. Though I killed a sorcerer who was, once."
The blond head goes very still.
Otabek says, "I've also killed plenty of bagienniks and at least one rusalka. I'm not going to dive into a body of water just because a stranger tells me to. Besides, this is Willow Lake. Everyone knows it attracts enchantments."
The young man stands slowly, lifting that pair of stunning eyes--now entirely dry--to bore into Otabek's. He has a very impressive glare for his size. It's not the glare of a young boy, either.
"I liked the part about the older brother who died," Otabek says. "That was a nice touch."
The next thing to emerge from the pert mouth is a word in an an unfamiliar language, a sound with angry edges like the cries of young birds, or the crack of leaves in a fire. Its meaning is fairly obvious.
"I'm sure someone else will be along soon," Otabek says encouragingly.
"I know your face now, mortal," the fairy snaps. "I don't forgive. And I never give up."
Otabek nods. "Have a nice day."
The skin of Otabek's neck prickles as he walks back to the road, but he manages not to reach up and touch it, or to look around.
A group of children playing in the top fields runs screaming back to town, full of hysterical stories about a huge beast prowling up there. Otabek is visiting to have lunch with the blacksmith, who's an old friend, and he offers to go and check things out.
Really, Otabek is only half-convinced he'll find anything--he's been sent on enough useless chases grown from the fertile soil of a child's imagination--but in fact he sees the beast almost as soon as he gets up there.
It's a tiger. Otabek has only ever seen pictures of them, in books, and these illustrations did not do the creature justice. It's a sleekly enormous bulk, richly coloured, and it moves with a startling grace. When it catches sight of Otabek its ears go back and it lowers its body half into the grass, prowling, making a sound like thunder that seems to come from everywhere at once.
Warily, Otabek reaches into a pouch at his belt and pulls on a set of heavy grey rings, which lie snug behind his knuckles. Then he draws his sword.
When the tiger leaps at him, he rolls, managing a poorly-angled slice that probably doesn't do more than trim the beast's fur. But he shoves his other hand in close, getting the iron rings into contact with the tiger's neck, and that makes it yelp and flinch wildly away. The sigils on those rings were acid-etched by Otabek's sister. The first time they saved his life in a fight against a wild dew-spirit, he bought Zarina two new dresses and paid for someone to paint gilding onto the sign outside her shop.
The tiger is shaking its head as though confused.
"You didn't like that, did you?" Otabek says.
The tiger's eyes, set like slanted emeralds in the clean pattern of its fur, lock back onto him. It growls, and Otabek directs a warning parry in response to a swipe of a paw as large as Otabek's face. His stomach tenses as he looks at those claws and imagines the damage they could do. They would sink into flesh like butter.
"Tigers are really not native to this region," Otabek points out.
The tiger stays back, circling him warily. It bares its enormous, cloud-white teeth. The thunder-growl doubles in volume.
Otabek says, "You might as well turn back into yourself."
After a pause, there's an inrushing of air and a sound like a stone dropped into water, and the blond young man is standing in front of Otabek again. His tunic is striped in the same fashion as the tiger's fur, and his legs and feet are bare and smudged with dirt. He looks exactly as lovely as he did the first time, and exactly as pissed off.
"Come on," Otabek says. "You've already tried that shape. It's beautiful, but I already know it's not real, so it's not going to work."
"This is my true shape," the fairy hisses.
Otabek looks more closely. Compared to the first time they met, perhaps the ears are a bit more pointed. And the green eyes aren't humanly green, but like sparks of light behind glass, shading towards gold. Otabek pockets the rings, sheathes his sword and lets his hand linger on the hilt, uneasy. He had assumed it was a glamour, something thrown up to appeal to his tastes. To slide under his guard.
"Beautiful?" the fairy demands.
Otabek smiles a bit. "Are you fishing for compliments now?"
Colour spills over the pale cheeks. It's hard to tell if it's due to embarrassment or yet more anger; either way, it's charming enough that Otabek makes a fist and draws it to his own chest in the gesture of introduction.
"Otabek Altin," he says.
The fairy's eyes narrow. "Otabek Altin," he echoes, and Otabek feels a tug at his mind like the wind pulling at laundry pegged on the line; a shiver of surrender in his breath as it leaves his lungs.
"I have a few more names," he says helpfully, "that lie in between those two." As if he were idiotic enough to hand any member of the fae his full true name.
The fairy seems willing to take the part-truth in the spirit with which it was meant. He exhales noisily and then nods and touches his own collarbone with slender, impatient fingers.
"Yuri," he says.
After that, Otabek doesn't see the fairy again for a week.
He's trudging back towards the city after a fruitless attempt to coax a noctnitsa from her forest cave during daylight. He'll have to head back at dusk on another day, and probably see if he can talk Seung-gil into coming along with him for backup. Otabek fucking hates night-spirits.
The white raven is sitting on a bare branch that stretches partway across the road. It's silhouetted against the sky, difficult to miss, and it lets out a soft croak to draw even more attention to itself. Otabek pulls to a halt and doesn't flinch as the raven flies down and lands on his shoulder, with a quick adjusting flutter of wings that sends feathers sliding against Otabek's cheek like the soft collar of his best shirt.
For lack of anything else to do, Otabek keeps walking. The raven seems content to stay where it is.
Otabek has glimpsed albino ravens before, once or twice in his life, and seen the jar of white feathers that Zarina keeps locked in the cabinet where she stores her rarest and most precious ingredients. He's never seen one up close like this. Its beak is a pale pink. He has the idea that its eyes should be red.
"Someone's going to think I'm a sorcerer with a familiar, at this rate," he says.
The raven nips at his ear, though not hard enough to hurt, and flies away again. After a few minutes it returns. In its beak is a small bunch of wine-dark cherries which, once it has perched again on Otabek's shoulder, it drops. Otabek's hand opens and moves to catch them with years of ingrained reflexes. The fruit is taut with the promise of juice, and smells delicious. The raven nudges the side of his head encouragingly.
"How sweet," Otabek says. He turns his palm over, lets the cherries fall, and steps on them, the solid sole of his boot grinding them into the dirt.
The raven makes a harsh noise and digs its claws in enough that Otabek can feel their points through his coat. It pushes off his shoulder and flaps a little way ahead, and turns into Yuri midair.
Otabek has never noticed before that Yuri's fair hair has the vaguest look of feathers. Or perhaps he's imagining it.
Yuri falls the rest of the way to the ground, but his feet are a bit too slow to touch down, as though it takes them that moment to remember that it's something that feet are supposed to do.
"Food?" Otabek says. "Surely you don't think I'm that stupid."
Yuri gives an unapologetic shrug. His mouth, the same pink as the raven's beak, seems to be fighting a smile.
"Why do you want so badly to trap me, anyway?" Otabek asks.
"Why do you care?" Yuri shoots back.
"I care," Otabek says dryly.
Yuri falls into step beside him. He's silent for almost a full minute. Then he says, quiet and abrupt, "I want your strength. I saw you kill a dragon, last year. You're the best."
Otabek digests this. "You knew who I was, when we met."
Again, Yuri distinctly fails to look apologetic. "I need the best," he says. "I'm going to challenge Victor for the throne."
Otabek eyes Yuri's slim form and closes his mouth on: You? Really?
Instead he asks, "Why?"
Yuri turns on him, eyes flashing. "Because he doesn't deserve it! He used to be brilliant, and now he's useless! He's neglecting his duties to the natural world to chase after some boring fucking farmer who can't even be bothered to grow into his inheritance!"
"You've met him? The mortal?"
"Sort of." Yuri exhales in a puff. "It's probably easiest to just show you."
When Yuri said farmer, Otabek was imagining someone in rough clothes, toiling away in a small field. They certainly pass plenty of those fields during the two hours it takes for Otabek to walk there, Yuri once again gone to raven form, alternating between swooping impatiently forward and circling back to rest on Otabek's shoulder. At least one messenger they meet along the way does take Otabek for a sorcerer, which is embarrassing. Yuri, the little shit, does his best to make things more difficult by rolling his eyes and letting his wings hunch up, feathers ruffled, until he looks like he might dive forward and release a curse at any moment.
The messenger, once she sees Otabek scolding his albino raven, gives them an even wider berth and hurries down the road.
The farm Yuri eventually directs them to is much larger than the others, and the contrast between it and the struggling plots that stretch out from its boundary fences couldn't be more marked. As well as the neatly waving rows of grain crops, half a hillside is taken up with an apple orchard, the branches of every tree already sagging under ripe fruit despite it being far too early in the season. Another hillside looks like grapevines. The air rings with the chatter and calls of busy workers, and the occasional low noise of cows. The farmhouse is a large white building with an even larger barn set just behind it.
Snugged up next to the farmhouse is a smaller patch of cultivated ground, clearly the private kitchen garden of its inhabitants. It is--if anything--even greener and more prosperous than the surrounding farmland. The only person working in the garden is a young man with black hair and neat, well-made clothing. He's trimming back a lemon tree with a sharp blade, humming a tune as he does so.
Seated on a nearby bench, watching this pruning operation with every appearance of rapturous interest, is the king of the fairies.
Yuri, once again in his own shape, puts a finger to his lips and pulls Otabek to crouch down behind a hedge where they have a good view into the garden.
Otabek can't help staring a while longer at Victor. The fairy king has hair like quicksilver, partly caught up at the back with a complex gold comb, but mostly spilling down over one shoulder and reaching almost to his waist.
"Yuri," says Victor.
Otabek tenses, but Yuri's hand is on his arm, and Yuri leans in close. "Yuuri Katsuki," he whispers, nodding at the young man, who has turned to look at Victor with a faintly strained smile. "This is his family's farm."
"I told you I had work to do," Yuuri Katsuki is saying.
"You always have work to do," says Victor. The pout adorning his lips would try the willpower of almost anyone.
"Yes," Yuuri says. "This is, actually, the thing about farming."
Victor untangles his legs from their pose, climbs to his feet, and goes to stand next to Yuuri. "I could help," he says.
"It doesn't need rain," Yuuri says. He pats the lemon tree. Otabek isn't sure if he's imagining the way some of the smaller branches sway towards Yuuri's hand, but there's almost no wind to explain it.
"Yuuri," Victor says, low.
Yuuri darts a look at Victor that clears up any concern Otabek might have had about whether Victor is inflicting his affection on someone who doesn't return it.
"Victor," Yuuri says. It's almost a plea. "I told you yesterday--"
"You told me you liked me. A lot."
"I do like you," Yuuri says. "But I can't abandon the farm. And I'm...normal. I can't be with the king of the fairies!"
"Normal," Yuri whispers to Otabek, scornful. "For the farm to be thriving in this thin earth? He's a tree-whisperer. He might be mortal, but there's leshy blood in him somewhere."
"Of course you can!" says Victor. "I don't see the problem."
Yuuri ducks his head. He looks at the ground, turning the handle of the pruning knife round and round in his hand, an anxious motion. He sighs. The expression on his face is very soft.
"No, you don't, do you? You don't know what it's like to spend your whole life leaving out offerings to the elementals and the ala, thanking them for everything they've done. Knowing yourself blessed. But you don't expect them to show up at your house one day and--" He breaks off, going a fiery pink.
Victor reaches out and lifts Yuuri's chin with a bent finger. He looks just as entranced, but somehow more steely.
"You're underestimating yourself, Yuuri. And you're insulting me."
Yuuri's eyes widen. "What?"
"Are you telling me I have bad taste?"
"No! I just--" Yuuri reaches up and takes hold of Victor's hand, pulling it down from his jaw. He sounds exasperated. "I honestly don't know why you like spending time with me, when you could be doing--anything."
"I like your house. I like your farm. It's relaxing. And you're fun, Yuuri," Victor says, lowering his voice and and leaning close, until their mouths almost touch. "When you relax."
Yuuri's pink face shades closer towards red. He doesn't release Victor's hand.
Victor lifts his free hand and snaps his fingers. White magic streaks out from beneath his feet, and Otabek feels a snap of chill in the air, until Victor and Yuuri are no longer standing on grass but on a flat expanse of ice, unmarred and inviting. Victor snaps his fingers again. Now his boots, and Yuuri's, are suddenly raised on lines of light that could pass for blades. Otabek goes skating on the river when it freezes over; most people do. But right now it's the tail end of summer.
Yuuri has grabbed onto Victor's arm for support. He says, "Victor!" and looks around in dismay. "My tomatoes will not appreciate this."
Victor sighs. The sunlight over the vegetable patch intensifies, and a small cloud like a puff of carded wool appears and begins to sprinkle it with warm rain. The ice retreats by a few feet.
Yuuri laughs. "Thank you," he says.
Victor grins and links his arm through Yuuri's, then tugs him in circles around the lemon tree. Yuuri laughs again. The two of them look besotted enough that Otabek feels bad about spying on them.
"See? You can't do that," Yuri says, glaring at Victor. "You can't mess with the weather in one spot, not without putting everything out of balance. And he's the king. The land's trying to do what he wants. It's reacting to his moods."
"Can't you talk to him about it?" Otabek says, though dubiously.
"He knows." Yuri is still glaring. "He does know, he's just--he's always been thoughtless, when he wants something. And he's so powerful that he forgets what seems like nothing to him is often huge to everyone else."
Otabek looks at the mist rising from the ice as the sunshine hits it, and at the light in Victor's face as he spins Yuuri around. This doesn't look like nothing. It's relaxing, Victor said.
It isn't just the fact that Victor's in love. The king of the fairies is having an existential crisis, and the whole kingdom has to suffer for it.
Otabek spends half a day up a mountain, chasing down a blud, after the closest town sends an envoy to JJ to complain that their foragers have suddenly started getting lost on the mountain, even if they've lived in the area for years. Otabek uses an iron compass and a truth-stone with a hole in the centre in order to keep his feet on the path, wraps a chain of fresh white daisies around the hilt of his sword, and eventually manages to kill it. He chops the horns off the blud's corpse and puts them in a bag for Zarina.
On his way down the mountain again he stumbles across a clearing with a bizarre carpeting of snow. The snow is beginning to yellow and melt where the treeline begins, but the rest of it looks fresh. Yawning on a snow-coated branch at the level of Otabek's head is a cat, small but intensely fluffy, elegant like a lady wearing a white winter coat trimmed with grey.
"I expect this is Victor's fault too?" Otabek says to the cat.
The cat leaps from its branch in a way that sends wet flakes down the back of Otabek's neck. There's a soft crunch as it breaks the pristine white surface. It picks its way delicately through the snow to rub its head against Otabek's legs and curl its plume of a tail around the back of his knee.
Otabek kneels down. "If I pat you, are my fingers in danger?"
The green eyes give him a look that essentially dares him to try it. Otabek smiles and stands up; he likes his fingers intact.
Yuri blinks twice and shimmers into himself. He's still dressed in white and silvery grey, wrist to ankle, blending into the snow.
He says, "Yes, this one's another of Victor's accidental fucking marvels. They're dotted all over this region."
Otabek leans against a tree, keeping his toes out of the snow. "And what would you do, if you had the throne instead? Hold onto it for a turn of the seasons, and then get bored and move on?"
"No," Yuri snaps. "I fight for keeps. And that's not--that's not what you do. That's not what being king means. Look, Victor's...charming," he admits, stiff. "I can't be that. But I'm smart. I'm focused. The land needs someone who'll work hard."
"All work?" Otabek says. "I thought there'd be more pomp, in the life of a king. Feasts. Dancing."
Yuri looks narrowly at him, as though trying to decide if he's being teased. Otabek keeps his face straight.
"Dancing." Yuri casts a glance over his shoulder, at the snow. Otabek thinks about Victor's magic skates. Yuri holds an imperious hand out to him. "I will if you will," Yuri says.
After a moment, Otabek puts out his hand as well. As soon as Yuri takes it, Otabek tugs hard, making Yuri stumble forward a few steps to stand flush against him, just outside the snow's edge. Yuri's face goes hard with annoyance. For all he looks like a pattern of frost, he's warm as a furnace in Otabek's arms.
Otabek looks down and moves one of his feet to kick some snow off the tip of a dark lump, revealing a smooth stone. He takes a step to the side, pulling Yuri with him, and does the same thing there. Another stone peeks through the snow.
"Fairy ring," Otabek says. "Nice try, though."
Yuri sighs and makes to pull away; Otabek keeps hold of his hand.
"Oh," Otabek says, pretending surprise. "You don't want to dance?"
There's another of those rippling sounds and Yuri turns into a pale yellow snake with gemstone eyes, wrapped around Otabek's arm. His forked tongue flickers out, scathing, and he hisses. Otabek has the feeling he's been creatively cursed at in yet another language.
"Real snakes are cold-blooded," Otabek says, smiling.
Yuri's thin coils tighten, just enough that Otabek can feel his own pulse begin to pound unpleasantly against the hot, corn-coloured scales, and then he loosens and slithers himself down Otabek's body and onto the ground. The snow melts gently away on either side of him as he crosses the fairy ring and vanishes into the undergrowth.
Aliya has graduated from falcons to her first eagle, and won't stop talking about it. When Otabek visits her she drags him out to the palace mews and shows off her new pride and joy.
"She's called Celine," Aliya says. "Isn't she beautiful? Master Rainier said I should have the manning of her, right from the start."
Celine is almost half the size of Aliya herself, a giant tawny bird with yellow patches around her fiercely hooked beak. The other birds in the mews, mostly goshawks and smaller falcons, are all eyeing Celine with a mixture of wariness and resentment that Otabek can sympathise with.
"She is beautiful," Otabek agrees.
Aliya clicks her tongue at the eagle as she carries Celine carefully out onto the open lawns, and Otabek follows. She pulls the hood from Celine's eyes and bounces her supporting hand up and down a few measured times. Her leather gloves are newly laced with austringer gold, instead of falconer silver.
"No jesses?" Otabek says, noticing.
"No, she's her own bird," says Aliya. "She chooses to come back."
When she lifts her wrist, Celine takes it as a signal. The eagle's wingspan is enormous; the only larger thing that Otabek has seen airborne was a dragon. The sun catches on paler patches on the undersides of her wings.
On a training perch, a goshawk watches Otabek with a suspicious haughtiness that makes Otabek smile. But the hawk's eye is an orange rim around a black bead, and when Otabek raises iron to it, it doesn't flinch.
Otabek turns. The king is hurrying across the lawns towards them.
"I saw you from the window," JJ says. "Good timing! I was about to send out a messenger for you."
"What is it?" Otabek asks. Aliya throws a final smile at him, bows her head to JJ, and then turns away, keeping her eyes on the sky where Celine is making slow circles.
JJ takes Otabek's elbow and starts to walk him back towards the palace.
"You're sure I can't talk you into dealing with the fairy king and his nonsense?"
"I'm a lot better at killing things," Otabek says. Having seen the way Victor looks at Yuuri with his own eyes, he's even less willing to get in the middle of that particular romantic clusterfuck.
"Listen, I'm not ruling that out," JJ says. Otabek generally thinks of his king as unflappably buoyant, but JJ sounds now as though his good humour is being distinctly stretched. "I have a desk full of crop reports that read like bad fiction. I'm going to send Chris another message. And in the meantime, I do have something you can kill."
It's been raining for the past half hour. From the strange colours of the lightning in the distance, and the fact that this storm shouldered its way aggressively into an otherwise spotless sky, Otabek assumes he is being slowly drenched by Victor's feelings on Yuuri Katsuki's continued polite refusal to be carried off to a life full of leisure and being fucked in a bower of petals and honey.
Otabek hisses a few choice curses, first under his breath and then more loudly, when his tinderbox fails for the fifth time to produce more than a pathetic spark.
Most tree spirits are quiet, retiring things who want nothing more than to be left in peace. Last year JJ sent Otabek to negotiate with a group of leshiye about a dam-building project that would temporarily affect their water supply, and he found them perfectly reasonable, if prone to forgetting how soft and breakable human bodies are.
This one doesn't seem to have forgotten. It seems, instead, to be counting on it.
Otabek dodges a flailing blow from one enormous limb, but misses the smaller one that strikes out like a whip, catching him just above the knee. He manages to slice through it with his sword, causing a splash of hot sap and a roar of rage from the tree, but the damage has been done. Pain erupts in his leg and he trips, his tinderbox slipping from his hand and bouncing away across the rocky ground. He catches himself awkwardly on his free hand, sending a smaller pain shooting up from his wrist.
Before he can stand again, a foot like a rotten stump catches him in the ribs and kicks him onto his back, where he lies with the air suddenly missing from his lungs.
This is not happening, Otabek thinks, furious and incredulous in equal measure. He can taste metal at the back of his tongue. Rainwater is running into his eyes and making his hand slip on the hilt of his sword.
The tree stomps closer, a tangle of thorns and scraping bark. The smell of rot and damp leaves fills Otabek's nose until he almost wants to vomit. He's light-headed and his muscles are screaming, and he still can't inhale, but he is somehow going to move--
At first Otabek thinks what he's seeing is a lightning strike. A sudden flash of gold, falling from a corner of the sky, lands square in what counts as the tree's face, sending it stumbling backwards and away. Then Otabek thinks it's a shadow: a black cloud of fury. A higher sound, a screech of defiance from a small throat, rings out.
Against all reason, the tree catches alight.
Otabek forces breath into his lungs, first once, and then again. He tightens his grip on his sword and struggles to his feet, ready to rejoin the fight. But there doesn't seem to be a fight. The tree is an inferno, the crackle of flames and the snap of thunder barely audible beneath the din of its screams, and as Otabek watches it takes a few more unsteady steps and then falls, with a crash.
The lightning shadow, which has a wingspan to rival Celine's, makes two quick swoops above the motionless, burning mass, as if admiring its handiwork. As if to say, see?
Where the tiger had been more spectacularly coloured than its illustrated version, the firebird is less: it's no brilliant mix of scarlet, orange and gold. Instead, it's something between a pheasant and an eagle in shape, and its plumage is glossy black with occasional vivid patches of pink and red. The feathers of its wings and tail are tipped with gold sparks, and raindrops sizzle into nothing where they meet those sparks.
Otabek has exactly enough time to take in these details before his wounded leg decides that it's had enough of being made to bear his weight, and collapses abruptly beneath him.
By the time Otabek hits the ground, the firebird is Yuri, who dashes forward and kneels down in the rocks and mud, glaring at Otabek's knee as though Otabek got his trousers and skin ripped open on purpose.
"It's fine," Otabek tries. It probably is. He can't see bone, and the fact that he was able to stand at all suggests that the more important ligaments are basically intact.
"I thought you were supposed to be good at this," Yuri says.
A laugh bubbles up from beneath Otabek's ribs, which are also aching. He is uncomfortably aware that Yuri has just saved his life. He wonders if he'll be able to get away with pretending that it didn't happen; the glance Yuri pins him with suggests not.
Yuri says, with more sarcasm than hope, "I don't suppose you feel you owe me an obligation, now?"
"No," Otabek says. "I didn't ask you to help."
"Worth a try," Yuri says. His hair is limp and rain-darkened. He's frowning again at the blood on Otabek's leg--Otabek could tell him that the rain is diluting it, making it look worse than it is--and his arm is behind Otabek's shoulders like a solid branch, helping him to sit.
"That's the spirit," Otabek says. "Never give up."
Yuri's frown clears into something startled, something that makes his youth shine brightly through his agelessness, and Otabek leans in and kisses him, just because he wants to.
It's a light, easy, thank you kind of kiss. When Otabek pulls away, Yuri's eyes are huge.
Otabek opens his mouth to break the tension with a dry comment. He doesn't get there. Yuri plants a hand on Otabek's chest, pushes him to the ground, and dives into the second kiss with purpose.
Otabek didn't plan this in advance. He hadn't anticipated it, or given any thought to how Yuri might kiss. Otabek hasn't kissed many people in his life, and those partners he's had have all been more experienced than him.
There's nothing expert in the way Yuri kisses, or the way Otabek kisses back. It feels like they are inventing the act entirely anew. Yuri has a hand in Otabek's hair and he kisses with a rough urgency that Otabek wouldn't have expected even if he had thought about it; even if he'd laid in bed and let himself picture Yuri's fiery green eyes when he closed his own.
Fairies have lifespans like the deepest-rooted and most ancient trees. That kind of perspective would wipe urgency away, Otabek would have thought. He's glad to be wrong.
The air is sodden and cold, but Yuri's wet cheeks are warm under Otabek's hands and his mouth is even more so, hot and sweet like mulled wine sipped too-impatiently just on the edge of comfort, burning gloriously all the way down until Otabek doesn't know if the feeling in his stomach is magic or pure old-fashioned lust.
Otabek lets out a tiny grunt of pain as he forgets himself enough to pull Yuri closer, forcing Yuri's leg into contact with his own. Yuri pulls away at once, and Otabek sits up and catches his breath for the second time that afternoon.
Yuri is flushed. His eyes have gone wild, almost all the way gold, with just a hint of green in their depths. For once, Otabek doesn't think Yuri is calculating anything to his own advantage.
It's still raining. Otabek is going to have to dry everything he's wearing in front of the fireplace, and then clean and oil his boots and weapons. He thinks about Victor's brilliant smile and JJ's crop reports. And about Yuri, who's still fighting, playful and beautiful and stubborn as granite.
"Giving you my strength," Otabek says slowly. "What would that involve, exactly?"
Otabek offers to use his own knife, but Yuri produces one with a solid handle and an odd green tinge hiding deep in the reflection of light off the blade. It feels lighter than it should for the size of it. The bowl between them, where they're seated on the ground, is made from the same metal.
Otabek pushes up one sleeve and then holds the blade over the thin skin of his wrist, eyeing a vein that looks large but not deep. His skin prickles. The reflections in the green knife seem to be moving, and Otabek realises that his hand is shaking.
"You don't have to," Yuri says. He sounds strained.
Otabek has had much worse injuries than this. He had a worse injury yesterday, though it's been neatly stitched now and it's barely hurting him to walk. But he spends his life trying to avoid them, not inflict them on himself, and somehow the difference is like an enchanted mist, freezing his hand in place.
He exhales and holds the knife out in Yuri's direction.
Yuri blanches. "No!"
"If I can do this, Yuri," Otabek says, "you can do this part."
"Fine." Yuri grabs the knife back.
"I'll say whatever you need me to say. Here. I offer this to you freely," Otabek says, tilting back his wrist further and supporting it with his other hand.
Now it's Yuri's turn to hold the knife above Otabek's veins. Yuri takes a couple of slow breaths and Otabek wonders if this entire thing is going to fall into pieces because both of them are having a bloodshy day.
Then Yuri leans forward and kisses Otabek's cheek, very light, and the bite of the knife into Otabek's wrist between them dissolves into that sensation.
If something's freely given, its potency is increased. And it can be just as freely returned. Otabek has known that for most of its life, like he's known not to eat food from the fae if it's offered to him, or to dance any steps within a fairy ring. It amuses Otabek that it never occurred to Yuri to just ask, but that doesn't seem to be how the fae do things. Nothing so straightforward. What they want, they win.
Yuri watches the slow trickle of blood in silence, his cheek resting in one of his hands, elbow propped on his crossed legs. Otabek watches Yuri. The shape of him is familiar and yet also new, infused with memory: I've kissed you, I know your taste. I would like to know more. Otabek feels as though he's lifted a truth-stone to his eye and is gazing through the centre of it upon his own life, finally seeing something that's always been there. Or rather the place where something should be, and isn't. A half-recognised absence; a gap in what he'd thought was a perfect contentment.
Enough to half-fill the bowl is enough that Otabek begins to feel weak, which he supposes is the point. The blood should be congealing, darkening, but it isn't. It stays berry-red and liquid.
Eventually Yuri says, "That should be enough," and holds the flat of the greenish blade against Otabek's bleeding wrist. There's a shivery sensation, like a sliding chip of ice, and when Yuri lifts the blade away the cut has already scabbed over.
Yuri puts down the knife and pulls the bowl towards himself. Looking at Yuri's pale hair reflected in the red surface, Otabek feels even more woozy.
"Now what?" Otabek says. "You're sure you're not about to drink it? Because I would need some warning. So I can look away."
"Fuck no," Yuri says, making a horrified face. "I haven't actually done this before. But I think--"
Yuri dips his fingers into the bowl full of Otabek's blood. His face shifts from horrified to fastidious, but he submerges his hand entirely to the wrist, and then past it, far deeper than the bowl itself. He pauses when the blood is nearly lapping at his elbow, and his mouth tightens with satisfaction.
He pulls his hand clear in a single smooth motion, and with it comes a sword, silver and slim and suffused with a glow that seems to burn away the dripping red.
Otabek stares at it. He doesn't know what to say. That's a more concrete metaphor than I was expecting?
Yuri stands and falls into a fencer's stance. He moves through a few positions, sweeping the blade through a complex pattern almost like a dance. He's light on his feet but something about him is more solid now, less ethereal, a solidity spilling down from the fierce smile growing on his face. Otabek aches to touch him.
Otabek says, "Is it what you wanted?"
Yuri lowers the sword and nods. He says, with a bite of satisfaction in his voice, "Now I'm ready to win."
There are several entrances to the fairy court, scattered throughout the kingdom. Yuri leads Otabek beneath a waterfall, through a short tunnel that smells of salt, and out beneath trees. Otabek had been preparing a remark about how anticlimactic the whole process was, but it dives back under his tongue when he sees the entirety of Victor's court gathered in state to watch their king do battle with a challenger for his throne.
It's not a clearing, nor a grand hall. Nor is there anything fussy or airy about it. The impression is that of a small town of tents and huts which was minding its own business when a sparse forest sprung up through it, carrying some of the dwellings up into their branches, and leaving others to lean between them or to burrow into the ground in self-defence, until creeks learned to run over them, and then various furiously flower-dense vines hung themselves over the whole.
A clear ring of ground, bordered with stones, has been prepared. Everyone seems to be ignoring it. The atmosphere is similar to the palace parties that Otabek has attended, although usually it takes a few hours and quite a few barrels of alcohol for the mood to slip this far down the formality slope.
Whispers and glances follow Yuri as he sets his shoulders and walks straight towards Victor. The fairy king draws the eye instantly, laughing in conversation with a small group of people, decked out in shades of icy blue with a cape like the foaming caps of ocean waves spilling down from his shoulders. The word resplendent lands in Otabek's mind like a dropped gauntlet and refuses to budge.
"This is Otabek," Yuri says to Victor. "He's the one who lent me his strength."
Otabek blinks, a bit taken aback at the baldness of this--even though he'd known his offer must be well within the rules of engagement, because Yuri is a trickster but has always played fair, at the heart of it--and bows. Victor casts a single glance at the sword hanging at Yuri's waist and then raises his eyebrows. It might be an approving expression. It might be an insult. It's hard to tell.
"Look at that," Victor says. "Where's my token, Yuuri?"
Otabek manages with difficulty neither to change his facial expression nor to do a double-take, because he honestly had not realised that the person standing on Victor's other side was Yuuri Katsuki.
Otabek thought Yuuri looked ordinary, the first time he saw him. Today, here, dressed in the same elaborate style as the fairies of the court, Yuuri looks faintly unreal; all except for his eyes, which are a warm and gentle brown. One of the flowering vines has found its way onto his shoulder. As Otabek watches, it unfurls a pink flower like a yawn, and Yuuri brushes it absently away. Otabek remembers what Yuri said, that Yuuri was failing to grow into his potential. That potential is very clear now.
The smile that Yuuri directs at Victor is the same as it was on the farm. "I didn't know I needed to bring anything," Yuuri says.
Victor's hurt expression is clearly a tease. Yuuri, though, looks thoughtful. He reaches to the high collar of his tunic and then beneath it, rummaging with his fingers until he pulls out a loop of delicate chain and tugs it over his head. Dangling from it is a golden ring.
"Will this do?" he asks, anxious.
Victor looks like he will burst with delight. He lowers his head and Yuuri slips the chain over it; Victor sweeps his hair through the chain, every silvery inch, and then begins to tie it up in a ponytail. Safer for fighting, Otabek presumes.
"Ready when you are, Yuri," Victor says.
Yuri's eyes snap away from the golden ring. He nods, and turns to walk towards the duelling circle. Victor meets Otabek's gaze and gives him a bright, solemn wink. Otabek has no idea how to interpret that. He follows Yuri instead.
"Otabek!" says Christophe. JJ's ambassador appears at Otabek's side. He has a wooden goblet in his hand and looks entirely unbothered by the prospect of Victor's displacement. "I didn't expect to see you at this thing. You know it's not diplomatic to kill courtiers, right? Or are you here in support of one side in particular?"
Otabek says, "Yes," seeing no reason to lie about it. "What does that mean?" he asks, nodding over at Yuuri. "Has Victor won his campaign?"
"Hardly," Chris says, with his sunny grin. "Yuuri's very firm about the fact that he's accepted a temporary invitation, to support Victor in the duel. I'm not sure his gesture is going to help. Victor's the kind of person who doesn't settle for a single bite of something when he's had his sights set on the whole fruit from the beginning."
Otabek nods in agreement. Chris, flipping into political mode, makes a point of introducing Otabek to the two nearest fairies, who have settled themselves on a log which is obviously going to be a prime vantage point for the duel. Otabek nods again, going for courtesy, but he doesn't register much more than the scent of freshwater streams rising from Mila's hair and the impression of Georgi's firm, gloomy jaw. He's watching Yuri.
As Victor approaches the ring, a near-silence falls. A bright sound like trumpets rises into that silence, though Otabek can't see where it's coming from.
"Attention!" calls someone. "Attention."
More trumpets. Yuri, sword now in hand, is walking in tight circles. He meets Otabek's eyes and Otabek, not knowing what else to do, steps right up to the edge of the ring.
"Is this more like the kind of pomp you were expecting?" Yuri says, in an undertone.
Otabek nods. He doesn't want to tease further, not now. Yuri is breathing deeply and his hair looks feathery again. If Otabek touched Yuri's skin, he wonders if he would feel scales, or score himself a scratch from nails gone sharp as claws.
Yuri turns in a sudden movement to face him fully. The border of stones is between their feet.
"Kiss me," Yuri commands.
Otabek kisses him, one hand on Yuri's neck and the other seeking Yuri's hand, forgetting for a moment which one is holding the sword. A strange feeling like static jumps up Otabek's fingers as they brush the weapon forged of his own strength. The same static flicks at his lips when he pulls them away from Yuri's.
Yuri sets his shoulders, says nothing more, and walks into the centre of the ring.
"I didn't know Yuri had this much romance in his blood," Georgi says. He sounds approving.
"Romance," Otabek says.
The sudden focus of both Mila's and Georgi's attention makes him realise that they think he is protesting the word. He's not. He's trying it out, the sound of it, trying to make it fit. Otabek has always thought of romance as either something like what his parents had, comfortable and well-worn, or as something enormous and prone to shattering worlds. Not this thing in between: the lightening of his breath when he recognises Yuri in any of his shapes. A gladness. An affinity. It's a pleasant feeling and beneath it, like black moving water beneath a frozen surface, lies the knowledge that if Yuri had not said kiss me, if he'd instead asked Otabek to open his veins again, Otabek might have done it.
"Wring the joy from it while you can." Georgi lets out a deep sigh and looks away.
"He fell in love with a mortal last century," Mila whispers to Otabek. "It did not end well."
Inside the ring, Victor has removed his cape, which seems wise. His own sword has an elaborate cage of a hand-guard and is gold, or at least the colour of gold. Otabek would have thought the real thing too soft for weaponry under normal circumstances, which these definitely are not.
Yuri and Victor shake hands. The air is pulling tense.
The same announcer's voice says, "Begin."
Otabek finds himself making tight fists of his hands, nails digging in, as he watches. It's to first blood. Yuri was clear about that. But they look like they're trying their level best to kill one another. Victor's long limbs seem made for this kind of combat, and his hair whips behind him like a living thing; he's moving so fast, and so constantly, that it barely has time to rest against his back.
Yuri's face is set in subdued fury. When he falls for a feint of Victor's, or when Victor parries a blow of his, his lips curl back. But he parries every single jab and slice aimed at him in turn, blades meeting and scraping and disengaging, over and over, a musical din.
"I've never seen anyone last this long," Mila says, after what seems like a very short time.
"Does this kind of challenge happen often?" Otabek asks. He realises in the next moment that 'often' may well mean something different to him than it does to Mila, who refers to last century in the same offhand voice a mortal would use for yesterday.
She tilts a hand. "Not for a while. And it's not often serious; sometimes it's just an excuse for a festival. For Victor to show off. There hasn't been anyone who could seriously match him."
"Yuri is serious," says Otabek.
Mila has a lovely smile. She leans back on her hands. "Yuri has always been serious," she says, sounding fond.
The duel continues. Both of the fairies in the ring are breathing hard. Otabek had no inkling that Yuri could use a sword like this. A lot of the technique would only work in a duel, against someone else using the same kind of blade, but there are a few tricks there that Otabek is going to insist Yuri teaches him, no matter what happens.
A flurry of blows from Victor sends Yuri backed up against the stones; Yuri spares a glance faster than a hummingbird's wing to make sure his feet are still in the ring. His arms are locked. Otabek sees his face for a moment, very clearly.
And then Yuri pushes forward, with a force that seems impossible given the angle and the poor leverage he had, sending Victor stumbling back. Yuri's blade flashes out, a shallow sweep.
Victor claps his hand to his own upper arm, and brings it away smeared with red. He looks at it for a moment, then flicks the blood off it and laughs, pure and exhausted and very clear in the sudden hush that's fallen.
Yuri wavers where he stands; falls for a moment to one knee; wrenches himself back up again.
Various shouts and cheers rise from the assembly as Victor throws his sword to the ground and bows his head, still smiling, to Yuri. Almost at once, the tension breaks, people turning to converse in small groups, or to hunt down more drinks. Attention drifts away from the pair in the ring.
"That's it?" Otabek says to Mila, dubiously.
"I assumed there'd be some kind of...ceremony. Handing over the crown."
"Oh, maybe later." She sounds amused. "Victor likes that kind of thing. But it was over as soon as Victor's blood hit the ground."
Victor straightens up from the most graceful obeisance Otabek has ever seen. He cries, "I'm so proud of you, Yuri!" before leaping forward with a wide smile and wider arms.
"Get off me! Fuck!" Yuri protests, smothered in Victor's sleeves.
Victor, once he's finished squeezing a scowling Yuri to his own satisfaction, ignores everyone else and walks up to Yuuri, who's been watching from Georgi's other side. Yuuri steps into the circle and hugs him briefly.
"I'm sorry, Victor," Yuuri says earnestly. "You fought so well."
"Yes, terrible, so disappointing." Victor says. "Now. You said you wouldn't be with the king of the fairies. And it looks like that's not who I am any more." His blue eyes are wide, and he's practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. He looks like a completely different person to the proud, fiendish fighter.
Yuuri, for his part, looks caught between disbelief and radiance, as though he's finally realised where he is and what's happened.
"I suppose," Yuuri says, "we could use an extra pair of hands for the harvest?"
Victor makes a face, but scoops Yuuri into his arms again and kisses him soundly. "I can stay with you for the season?"
"You can stay forever," Yuuri blurts, eyes glued to Victor's mouth, and then goes red.
Otabek lets them be and goes to stand with Yuri, instead. He feels a bit awkward about it. Yuri is still in the ring, accepting bows, handshakes and elegant gestures of congratulations from half of the court; he looks a little like he's just bled into a bowl, and a little like he could reach up and take a handful of stars as easily as plucking grapes from a vine. The sensation of sheer power, fizzling at the edges of him, is uncanny.
"If Victor wanted to abdicate," Otabek says, once there's a pause in the business of homage, "why didn't he just do it?"
"Abdicate?" Yuri sounds shocked. "You can't. I told you, that's not what--the throne has to change hands through a true challenge, or else the land gets discouraged and doesn't recognise its master, and..."
He trails off. The two of them stare for a while at Yuuri and Victor, who have their foreheads pressed together, smiling as though the rest of the world simply doesn't exist.
"I'm going to fucking kill him," Yuri hisses.
"Didn't you just try?"
Yuri ignores him. "That asshole! I can't believe he let it get that bad!"
Otabek shrugs. "It all worked out."
Yuri's eyebrows promise further storms on this topic, but he lets his breath out, and moves his attention back to Otabek. He shifts his grip on the sword.
"Let's get this over with," Yuri says. "Otabek Altin. What you gave to me willingly, I now return twofold."
And then he draws his arm back, flicks his eyes up to Otabek's, and plunges the sword point-first into Otabek's heart.
Otabek chokes, his entire body tensing around his ribs, waiting for the pain. But it doesn't really hurt. The idea of it hurts, and his chest feels like someone is pouring a kettle into it, filling him and filling him and filling him until he's brimming, bursting, until the heat has to flow out, rushing into every muscle, through every tiny blood vessel, right to the tip of every finger and toe.
Yuri pushes and pushes until even the jewelled pommel of the sword has vanished. He rests his palm flat for a moment on Otabek's chest, and then drops his hand.
Otabek is breathing fast. His body is surging and roiling with a terrible strength. He looks at Yuri and every part of him shouts to try it out; he could lift Yuri over his head with no effort at all, he could press him into the soft grass and kiss him until the dirt gives way and water wells up around his limbs.
"That part of it won't last," Yuri says, eyeing him. "And you're going to need it."
"What do you mean?"
"This is tradition," Yuri says, stepping to stand close. Otabek wraps his arms around him, a motion that already feels thoughtless and natural, and Yuri gives a nod. "Hold on tight. That's all you have to do."
Otabek says, "What--" and Yuri changes.
It's luck, if there's such a thing as luck, that Otabek's first instinct when the body in his arms suddenly expands is to tighten his grip. Even so, his hands are forced apart by a huge, warm mass of muscle, which tips him over onto his back and lands atop him with enough force to nearly wind him. His wounded knee throbs in protest. Thunder rattles through Otabek's body as the tiger growls, bares its teeth--Otabek buries his face in its chest and thinks, through a glut of terror, hold on tight--and tries to fight one of its paws into a position where it can do harm.
Then Otabek is holding air. He fights to focus, feels the hot wriggle of something on his chest, and grabs at the snake with clumsy hands. Did it have fangs last time? Did it look venomous? No time to remember. He gets a fold of his tunic over its head, ignores the coils around his wrist which feel like a tightening vise of metal, and keeps his grip on the writhing, scaly body.
He's braced for the next change when it happens, and keeps the bird's head covered in the same fold of fabric. The image of Celine's leather hood flashes absurdly in his mind. Pale wings flap madly and Otabek nearly loses his grip, but rolls to his side, caging the raven beneath his body. He calls on the surge of power in his muscles and stays where he is even when the battering of feathers becomes a small, furry ball of malice, desperate to escape.
The cat needs almost more strength than the tiger because of how soft and nimble it is, like a skeleton slung together with string and stuffed within a ball of greased wool. Otabek gets one hand at the back of its neck and another splayed over its chest, and grits his teeth as tiny claws find his exposed skin. He holds on.
And then his nose is full of a sickly charcoal scent and the sizzle of flesh. He thinks, feathers, and then can't think of anything but how much it hurts. He manages to turns his face to the side, concentrating on finding fresh air and not the smell of smoke and panic; the firebird is a combination of the worst parts of everything else, strong and supple and slippery and pecking at him, but the worst is the fire burning beneath his palms.
This is a fight, Otabek thinks. You know how to fight.
"You could have let go," says Yuri's voice.
Otabek lets out his breath.
It is Yuri now, his own small golden self, stretched out and trapped beneath Otabek. Otabek's hands are on either side of Yuri's head, supporting his weight, the contact searing with pain against the burned patches.
"It never even occurred to me," Otabek says honestly.
Yuri stares up at him. Yuri licks his lips, clears his throat, and says very softly, "Let me up, Otabek."
It feels like everyone is looking at them as they climb to their feet. Victor and Yuuri are close by; as is Christophe, who raises his goblet and smiles, with a nod that Otabek thinks is impressed.
”Water," Yuri says, raising his voice. There's a note of authority in it that wasn't there before.
Mila joins them. She cups her hands and water wells up from nowhere within them. She lets it tip out and trickle over Otabek's blistered hands, blissfully cool, and when it passes over his palms it leaves smooth healed skin behind. Otabek bends his fingers, makes a few wary fists, and then reaches out and folds both of Yuri's hands in his.
"I've finally got you," Yuri says, looking smug about it.
"He's got you, you mean," puts in Victor.
"What?" says Otabek.
"You held on, Altin," Victor says. "Congratulations! You get to keep him."
Yuri rolls his eyes as if to communicate how totally irrelevant that distinction is.
"Why didn't Katsuki have to do this for you?" Otabek asks.
It's Chris who chimes in: "Victor's an elemental, not a shapeshifter."
"I would, if I had to," Yuuri says firmly.
Victor beams at him. "Of course you would. You'd be amazing."
Otabek remembers something. He looks back at Yuri. "You said that part of it wouldn't last. What's the other part?"
"Ah," Yuri says. He looks cagey.
"What did you give him?" Victor asks Otabek. He gestures with one elegant hand towards Otabek's chest. "Strength, obviously, but what was it truly?"
"Blood," says Otabek. "Why?"
Victor laughs, his eyes crinkling in delight. "Everything you gave willingly, Yuri's returned twofold. There's fairy blood in you now, Altin. Quite a lot of it, I'd say."
Otabek starts to raise a hand to the tops of his own ears, decides that he is not ready to cope with that right at this particular moment, and drops it.
"I don't feel different," he says. He doesn't, now that the flood of strength has faded.
"You probably won't," Victor says. "Much. You might have started to notice in twenty years, when you didn't look a day older than you do now."
"Yuri," Otabek says, after a long pause. "We're going to have a talk about this."
"Don't be so dramatic," says Victor, which is enough to make even Yuuri stare at him. Heedless of his deep hypocrisy, Victor goes on, "This kind of exchange-magic is all about willingness. I'm sure it can be undone, if you really want."
"No!" snaps Yuri.
"No?" says Otabek.
Yuri leans up and kisses him. It's not a soft kiss. It feels like the knife felt, parting his skin. Otabek would give nearly anything to be kissed like that every day for--for however long it is he has, now.
"I've got you," Yuri says, in a voice like steel. "And I fight for keeps."
"Are you sure?" Aliya asks, eyes wide, when Otabek passes her Tazagul's reins.
"There's not much point my keeping her now," Otabek says. "I confuse her."
Tazagul still loves Otabek, but he makes her skittish. She keeps nosing worriedly around him as though to find whatever magical item he has on his person, and then prancing away, and then stepping warily back.
Otabek's been experimenting. He's not fae enough for the iron rings to hurt him, he's discovered, though they turn warm if he wears them too long.
"Take her hunting," Otabek suggests. "She was never much good for my usual kind of quarry. But she's perfect for a falconer."
Aliya drops the reins, throws her arms around him and beams. "Ow!" she squawks, as Otabek hugs her back. "Beka, my ribs!"
Otabek loosens his grip hurriedly. No matter what Victor and Yuri said, he is stronger, even if it doesn't rage within him like it did immediately after the sword was returned. He doesn't think he'd need backup to take down a noctnitsa any more, not even in the middle of the night.
"Thank you," says Aliya.
That was the easy one, Otabek thinks, and heads down into the western market area of the city.
Sure enough, Zarina yells for a while and calls him a fucking idiot. Then she sits him down to do his hair, a ritual that's calming for the both of them. Zarina tells him about the handsome healer who's been coming by every week for tonics and who's almost worked up his nerve to ask her to dinner, as she works one of her own hair-oils into the long parts of Otabek's hair. A lock of it is growing in bone-white, just above one of his eyes. She then grills Otabek for details of the blood magic as she slides the razor along the lower half of his scalp, and gathers up the clippings with more care than usual.
"Part fairy," she says, tipping them into a small jar and looking around for the labels and paste. "That's got to be useful for something. I wonder if it might have some of the properties of halfling horse-hair? Change, you know, and--oh, it might work in the recipe for the sea-calming powder I found in an old book, the one I haven't been able to try out because you can't get raw gingernut anywhere these days--"
Otabek laughs. "It's good to be useful."
Zarina labels the jar, puts it on a shelf, and comes back to stand behind the chair. She rests her hands on his shoulders. Otabek leans his head back against her stomach.
"You're not angry?" she asks.
"I was a bit angry," Otabek allows. "We've talked it out."
"Right. Talked." Zarina presses a finger down hard at a spot on Otabek's neck, just beneath his ear, creating a throb of pain where no pain should be.
Otabek winces. A vivid memory of Yuri's body in his arms, Yuri's hungry mouth hot as a brand against his skin, assaults him.
"Among other things," he says.
Zarina laughs and gives him a push, and Otabek stands up. "Get out of here, little brother," she says, smiling. "I've got orders to fill."
Unlike Yuuri, Otabek has no objections to fucking the fairy king in a bower of petals and honey.
Well, he might have objected when it was Victor.
But the ruler of the fae is Yuri now; Yuri, thrumming with power, half-asleep on Otabek's chest, his hair spilling down in golden rivers and his sharp mouth finally relaxed. Otabek shifts his grip, moving Yuri higher, and kisses that mouth. He was right. He's not going to get sick of doing that anytime soon.
Yuri sighs into the kiss, his arms sliding around Otabek's neck. Otabek runs his hand down Yuri's side and squeezes, filling his palm with the curve of Yuri's ass. Yuri moves, rubbing down against him, and they kiss until Otabek loses track of time: lazy, aimless kisses that aren't building to anything, just a gentle ebb and flow of pleasure and magic that spreads through Otabek's body, everything melting into the sensation of skin against skin and the sounds that Yuri makes in his throat.
Eventually Yuri's kisses turn more purposeful, more full of teeth, and he drops a final kiss that's more like a bite at the corner of Otabek's jaw, before rolling off him. He sits up to pour a cup of water from a jug beside the bed.
Otabek sits up too. Cushions slide everywhere, and the smell of crushed flowers rises.
This is all very nice, but Otabek is going to insist on them spending some time in his house as well, because he's getting cobweb-silk in unspeakable places and everything here is the perfect temperature, all the fucking time. Autumn's upon them and Otabek misses the small wonder of morning air that's a touch too cold for comfort, forcing you to cosy up beneath the covers. He wants that. In winter he wants to feel the heat of Yuri beneath him, wants to have Yuri slow and luxurious in a nest of blankets as snow falls outside the window.
"I was talking with Mila earlier," Otabek says, waving a no to Yuri's mute offer of water. "She and some of the other water sprites have found grimweed in the depths of Grey Lake. They think there's a bukavac about to spawn. They'll bring it to you tomorrow."
Yuri sets his cup down again. "You want me to hire you to deal with it?"
"Hire anyone you like," Otabek says. "But I am the best. And my rates are reasonable."
Yuri rolls his eyes, but he's nodding. Both of them know that Otabek is no more built for leisure than Yuuri is. Otabek likes his kind of hunting; he enjoys the challenge, and knowing that he's making the world a bit safer.
"Oh," Otabek says, reminded. He leans down and pulls one of his leather bags from an enclave in the smooth rock that surrounds the bed. "I have a gift for you."
Yuri leans his cheek on his knees, smiling like a cat. Otabek almost expects to hear a subdued version of the tiger's thunder coming from him, when he looks like that. "I like gifts."
Otabek pulls out the velvet pouch, tips the necklace into one hand and spreads it out over his palm. The filigree design catches the light beautifully. Yuri lifts his head in surprise, eyes shining nearly as bright as the metal.
"You got me a necklace," Yuri says.
"You know I was lying about the magpie, right?"
Yuri grins and takes it from him, holding it up to see the detail. "Pure gold," he says.
Otabek says, "JJ did promise a bag of gold if I could deal with what Victor's sulks were doing to the kingdom's weather. He thought my methods of solving the problem were unusual. But he couldn't argue with the results."
Yuri stares at him for a while, necklace dangling from his fingers. "You--you did all this on purpose?" he splutters, shoving at Otabek with one knee. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Otabek raises his eyebrows, unimpressed, and touches the white lock in his own hair.
Yuri bites his lip and glances away. They're probably not done talking about it. But they've got plenty of time to talk in, at least.
Otabek says, "I didn't have a plan. I improvised. Everyone knows Willow Lake is a fairy haunt, but I didn't know who I'd run into. I'm glad it was you."
After a long moment, Yuri turns his back. Otabek's heart goes momentarily heavy in his chest, but Yuri sweeps the ends of his his hair to either side and bares his nape, then sets the necklace around his neck and holds out the unclasped ends.
"Help me," he commands.
Otabek takes the two halves of the clasp in his fingers. He leans down and kisses the place where the knob of spine meets the fairest, finest wisps of Yuri's hair; Yuri shivers and his shoulder blades move, restless. Otabek fastens the necklace.
There's a considering look on Yuri's face as he turns back around. He's peering down at where the necklace is draped like heavy lace over his skin.
"You should have asked your king for more gold," Yuri says. "Even if you paid for the workmanship, this isn't that much."
Otabek smiles. The sight of Yuri in Otabek's necklace and nothing else is kindling a fire again, deep in his stomach, and he's looking forward to releasing it slowly. To letting it meet the flames of Yuri's mouth and hands, until they both combust.
"Well," he says. "The reward I asked for was gold and an honorary ambassadorship to your court."
Yuri looks up sharply.
"Diplomatic immunity," Otabek says. "I've got the credentials in my bag, if you want to see them. I can eat whatever I want. I can carry iron. I can come and go freely."
It also means that Yuri is not, technically, Otabek's king. Yuri holds no formal authority over him. This makes Otabek feel better for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he suspects his heart's allegiance has already shifted, and that's more than enough to be getting on with. He'll always come back to Yuri's hand. And he'll dig in his claws, to remind Yuri exactly what he's won for himself. They can renegotiate the rest of it in a decade or so.
"Don't trust me?" Yuri says. His voice is cooler, thinner. Uncertain.
Otabek gazes at him. "One of my middle names is Temir," he says.
Yuri gazes back, drawing his perfectly formed lower lip between his teeth.
"Go on," Otabek says.
"Otabek Temir Altin." This time the wind-sensation is stronger, a tempest of longing, something into which Otabek could fall and be lost. He doesn't mind it. He was halfway to lost a long time ago. Yuri says, "How many more names to go?"
Otabek counters, "How many do you have?"
Yuri leans in and whispers in his ear, a word that starts with yu and dissolves into that language more like birdsong than human speech, layered with the sound of soft metal jingling against itself and of breeze through dry leaves. Otabek feels it sink beneath his skin like a tattoo. He's not sure he could speak it, not yet, but he'll never forget it.
Yuri's cheekbones when he pulls away are like soft slashes of light.
"Just the one," Yuri says.