The sun still hangs proudly in the sky, this far north, when Yuuri finishes going over the day’s site log with Minako and Celestino. High summer in Rebun Island is a far cry from what it is in Hasetsu, leagues down the chain of islands that form Japan. When they step out of the finds laboratory that takes over the local junior high gymnasium every summer — one of the few spaces big enough and air-conditioned enough for finds processing in the tiny town of Funadomari — it is hot, yes, but nothing like the muggy heat of Kyushu in August.
“Well,” Celestino sighs, sweat already springing out on his broad, kind face under the relentless sun. “I’m going to see what those rascals of mine have broken open.”
“American swill,” Minako sniffs. “And undergrads.”
Yuuri, having had to deal with all kinds of emergencies all day long as the senior site supervisor, can only agree. There have been:
- two (2) section collapses
- over-enthusiastic students scraping without thinking
- someone almost taking someone else’s eye out with a mattock
- someone dropping a planning frame on a delicate silt layer
- someone else sitting on a spoil heap for a selfie and causing a minor landslide; and,
- someone trying to argue with him over the historicity of fucking blue-and-white
“They’re not that bad,” Celestino protests.
Both Yuuri and Minako give him a look.
Wincing, Celestino concedes, “All right, they’re pretty bad.”
There are bright spots, of course: small, tanned Phichit who laughs at the weather and meticulously made platforms for the scattering of canine teeth he uncovered in the Jomon layer; grizzled Naoki-san, who has been coming up from Aomori for the past three years as a volunteer; the neighbourhood dog that has better dig discipline than half the field school cohort.
“I’m going for a walk,” Yuuri says, which he is. He has a date with a six pack of Asahi sitting in a cooler in his car, and at least two hours of sunlight left.
Minako gives him a piercing look, but Yuuri is an adult now, way over 20 and fully capable of making his own bad life decisions. He, at least, hasn’t slept with Celestino in an ill-considered fit of ... whatever.
“Well,” Minako says airily, turning away and flicking her wrist. “I’ll be in Hoshino’s.”
Celestino follows, but not before clapping Yuuri on the back and telling him to “stay safe out there,” like Yuuri’s the foreigner with only a very basic grasp of Standard Japanese in rural Hokkaido.
“I will,” says Yuuri, bowing slightly. “Thank you for your hard work today.”
The interior of his car, parked half under the eaves of the gymnasium, is unpleasantly warm and muggy. Yuuri leans against the slatted wooden walls of the gym, watching thin, white clouds skid across the sky while his car airs out. The beers are still sitting pretty in the boot, insulated in their little cooler; Yuuri hopes that they’re lukewarm, at most.
When the breeze coming off the majestic, sweeping bay Funadomari faces onto has sufficiently freshened up his car, Yuuri starts driving west along the coastal road, windows rolled down so that the tangy sea air ruffles his air. One month into the dig, and all the little irritants and anxieties of living and digging cheek-by-jowl with far too many other people have settled over Yuuri like layers of sediment, compressing him under sheer weight. He needs to get out, breathe, let go, and he knows exactly where to go.
It’s a clear day, and there’s a good north-easterly wind coming off the Sea of Okhotsk that’s whipping through the car, whipping Yuuri’s thoughts away with it. The water off the beach he’s intending to watch the sunset from should be fairly calm, protected as it is from these winds by Gorotayama.
Rebun is not the largest island, and Yuuri reaches the turn off into the start of the trail that leads up and over Gorotayama to the other side Rebun before long. He turns left onto the narrow mountain road, smiling to himself as his old Nissan starts juddering up the incline over uneven paving. It really is a lovely day, the usual coastal fog wreathing the tops of the anonymous ridges entirely burnt off by the entire day of sun.
Sandy tarmac turns to gravel as the trailhead comes into sight, wooden signposts pointing to Cape Gorota to the southwest and Cape Sukoton at the northernmost tip of Rebun. The air up here is bracingly fresh, and Yuuri’s clothes whip around him as soon as he gets out of the car, parked on the weary verge. He retrieves his windbreaker from the boot and pops open the beer cooler; the ice has long since melted, but has faithfully done its job: his beers are still relatively cold. They go in Yuuri’s backpack, and then he trudges off up the grassy trail to the first ridge.
The hike to the viewpoint for Cape Gorota is only about 0.6km as the crow flies, but under the late evening sun, a golden coin diffuse in the sky and on the incline up the spine of Gorotayama, it seems longer. He makes the loop round the head of Gorotayama in good time, the short alpine grass and edelweiss bending in the wind that dries off sweat as fast as Yuuri works it up. He pauses at one point to crack open a bottle - Asahi Dry, light and cool - to wet his throat, and take in the dramatic, green-clad bluffs that march on before and behind him, the sharp white cliffs that sweep down to the deep blue sea, sparkling under the sun. Somewhere off the cape a speedboat arrows by, white surf churning in its wake.
He fills his lungs with the air, lets the wind rush into his lungs, and expels it all out in one go: the air, the itch under his skin that’s been driving him mad. It’s impossible not to feel lighter up here, with the wide open skies overhead and the wind buffeting him from the back. If he spread his arms, Yuuri could probably go tumbling over the ridge and glide on down to the sea. Laughing at himself, Yuuri finishes off his beer and puts the empty bottle back into his backpack, picking up the pace again.
Yuuri could pick his way to the viewpoint for Cape Gorota, but he wants to get closer to the water, so he turns east where the footpath forks. Gorota beach lies further to the southeast, down a treacherous descent from the high bluff, but for now the path winds along the tops of the cliffs that swoop down to meet the rising surf.
The sun is finally starting to sink when Yuuri makes his way down a pinhead turn to Gorota beach; it’s popular with windsurfers, but they seem to have packed up and left, with only about an hour to go to sunset at nine. Good. The beach is a long, narrow strip of sand that spills out into another large bay, across which a small fishermen settlement gleams white and proud.
Yuuri sits on his windbreaker and retrieves the bento he packed that morning for dinner, opening another bottle of Asahi. He’s still feeling light from the hike, and intends to keep it that way with the application of mild alcohol.
When he sets aside the empty box, the sun is a burst orange spilling across the darkening sky, painting the sea gold. Yuuri wonders if the Ainu, hundreds of thousands of years ago, already settled on this wild, dramatic island, witnessed a similar sight. He stretches his arm out, palm up towards the ocean, following the sea path of shimmering light stretching from the sinking sun to the shore. For all the long, stretched-out summer daytime, dusk falls quickly once it starts, inky blue spreading across the sky towards the blazing coin disappearing under the horizon.
Twilight is a liminal time, Yuuri muses, well into his fourth bottle of beer; two worlds overlapping briefly, night moving into the sphere of day, the blurring of the two together pregnant with potential. Lights are winking on across the bay, fishermen coming home to warm hearths. The moon is a pale sliver high in the sky where night has already unfurled, a ghostly portent. Of what, Yuuri doesn’t know. The beer only takes his imagination so far.
The clink of the now-empty bottle joining its brethren in his backpack is the only foreign noise on the beach: seagulls call overhead, heading inland to their nests on the crumbling cliffs; the tide is swelling again and the sound of surf rises with it; the light breeze ruffles the beach-grass growing on the rocks that start only a few feet up from where Yuuri installed himself.
He sits, eyes closed, letting the peace expand under his ribs and his consciousness spin out into the deep, dark unknown.
Then he hears it: a faint slithering, a hoarse cry, something heavy falling over onto sand with a dampened thud.
Yuuri’s mind immediately jumps to snakes, abduction, oh god the police station is all the way on the other end of Rebun.
There’s another dampened thud, like whoever it is has fallen again.
Okay, Yuuri tells himself. Okay, the surf is coming in, so you’d better go see who or what it is before you’re party to someone drowning. He tucks his backpack further up the beach, well beyond the tideline, and grips his multitool in one hand and his torch in the other.
In the dark, lit only by the thin crescent of the moon and the stars winking overhead, Yuuri picks his way down the beach carefully to the general vicinity of the thuds. The small oval of his torchlight sweeps in arcs across the sand before him: bare, pale sand; more bare, pale sand; and then, suddenly gleaming out of the dark, netting gleaming with scales and — hair?
The thumps have stopped, and Yuuri trains the spotlight on the heap of netting where it’s tangled around what looks like a really huge tuna. Whichever fisherman this net belongs to, he’s going to be so pissed off. Two eerily blue pinpricks of light pierce the dark to the right of his spotlight suddenly, and the thumping starts up; the tuna kind of jumps, and Yuuri ... Yuuri almost swallows his tongue, because he’s no fisherman but he’s pretty sure tuna fins don’t look like that.
Heart beating so loud in his ears that the sound of the sea is drowned out, Yuuri slowly, slowly turns his torch to the right.
Yuuri closes his eyes, scrunches up his face, opens them again.
“What ... the ...”
The — if his own eyes are to be believed — merman makes a harsh sound and starts flailing around again, blue eyes wide and ... helpless.
Yuuri takes one, two steps closer, flicks out the knife on his multitool. “If I ... if I cut you free, promise not to harm me?”
Those preternatural eyes are trained on the blade of his knife now, and then the merman starts jack-knifing away. This is probably not the time to notice that he has abs that Yuuri can only dream of.
“No!” Yuuri exclaims as much to himself as the merman. “No, I’m here to help!” He mimes a rope, and then cutting.
The merman’s silvery head tilts, his eyes narrowing, and then all at once he smiles and relaxes into a pose that’s almost sultry. He looks like one of those European models in utterly incomprehensible high fashion shoots in one of Minako’s expensive magazines.
“Right,” Yuuri mutters to himself, and advances.
The merman stays obediently still as Yuuri saws through the thick hemp rope with his knife, trying to make a hole large enough to start pulling the net off him. It’s a good thing Yuuri keeps his tools in good condition, and he’s severed enough sections that the merman has good clearance for his arms and head to get through.
Yuuri is gestured back, and he gladly does so - the incoming waves have been rolling higher and higher up the beach.
Merman-with-the-spectacular-abs flexes and kind of rips the net further apart. Yuuri goes rigid all over in shock. Then mer-Superman is tunnelling the rest of the way out before his fins, caught in the netting, stop him.
He makes a pained, frustrated noise, and turns those eyes on Yuuri again.
“Gods,” Yuuri says, and hurries forward to disentangle the last of him. The fins feel delicate where he can’t avoid brushing against them, thin cartilage damp against his skin.
They’re inch deep in seawater by the time the merman wriggles entirely free. Yuuri retreats up the beach and, to his shock, is followed, with more incomprehensible sounds being made at him.
When he’s finally on dry sand, he stops, keeping a close eye on the water.
The merman says something emphatically, pointing to his chest.
“Uh,” says Yuuri. “I ... need to go before I drown. I’m sorry.”
Because Yuuri’s life always can get weirder, the merman wraps a hand around Yuuri’s shin. He can feel the strength in those long, elegant fingers through his jeans.
The merman emphatically repeats himself; Yuuri can discern the similarity in those noise patterns at the very least. It doesn’t really help. Maybe he’s saying thank you.
“Okay,” Yuuri tries placatingly. “You’re welcome.”
He receives that head-tilt again, and then a furrowing of his brows when Yuuri tries to tug away. Then the merman echoes him, the syllables sounding strange and rough around the vowels.
“Oh dear,” says Yuuri. “Um, yes. I ...” and then he shrieks when he sees that the thin film of water has reached them. “I’m going to die!”
The merman frowns at him, before letting go and gesturing out to sea, at himself, then back at Yuuri, before tilting his head to the side again, raising both palms up to the sky with his elbows tucked in at his sides.
“What?” Yuuri asks, pocketing his multitool and starting to walk back to where he’d left his backpack. The bright blue of it, lit up by his torch, is a speck in the distance. “Oh god, stop following me. How are you even — oh, is that what you want to know? I stay in Funadomari? Do I have a merman stalker now? How is this my life?”
Said merman stalker lets out a plaintive noise as Yuuri’s two legs quickly outpace his two arms and one admittedly muscular tail on land.
“Funadomari!” Yuuri shouts, feeling foolish, and points into the mountains. “Now go away and don’t get caught in any more nets!”
Mystery merman repeats the syllables of “Funadomari” back at him, before he melts away into the darkness behind Yuuri.
The first thing he’s going to do, Viktor decides, is get a babelfish charm.
All right, no, that’s the second thing he’s going to do. The first thing is to go and warn his little cousin about the dangers of nets and beautiful, life-saving humans with very shapely legs.
“Ugh,” says Yuri Plisetsky, cute little face all wrinkled up in disgust. “I didn’t need to know THAT!”
“Oh, but Yuri,” sighs Viktor. “He was so very brave and clever, and we understood each other!”
“What do you mean you understood each other,” demands Yuri. “You don’t speak any overwater languages.”
“People don’t talk with just their mouths, Yura.”
There’s a pause, and then Yuri’s face twists. “You didn’t...”
“No! No! The sea was swelling, and he seemed quite scared. But he told me where he’s from!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes — Foo-nado-mah-lee?” Viktor sounds it out best as he can from memory.
Yuri stares at him. “I have no fucking clue what that is.”
Viktor sighs, draping himself over the ledge under Yuri’s window. “I just want to see him again.” His mysterious saviour with the sharp blade and the light, the way they’d connected, the cute way his voice went up and down and his beautiful eyes went big. Wait.
“Do they have ‘he’s overwater?” Viktor asks.
Yuri groans. “I don’t know, ask your precious human.”
“That’s an excellent idea!” Viktor sits up excitedly — he’s glad that Yuri came to the same conclusion as him. He had to see his saviour, the human of Foo-nado-mah-lee, again.
“Wha — wait, no, Viktor —”
But it’s too late, Viktor is already swimming off towards the map room, merrily ignoring Yuri’s shouts.
An hour and several nervous enquiries from the resident librarian and cartographer later, Viktor has marked out the sandy land where he washed up, and worked out where the beautiful human was pointing towards. The stretch of water to the northeast, all the way around the landmass. There’s a small human settlement there called Funadomari: smaller than the one on the other tip of the land, but big enough that their surveyors had found it important enough to research and include. Viktor likes it better anyway than the beach of doom anyway; it’s closer to home, if more populated.
Yuri points out as much, having come to hover annoyingly over Viktor’s shoulder.
“Weren’t you just warning me about the dangers of swimming near human settlements?”
Viktor swishes his fins dismissively.
“I have,” Yuri sighs, turning to leave. “Such a bad feeling about this.”
But he does cover for Viktor when he goes to get a babelfish charm from Georgi, the slightly shady purveyor of magical goods who asks no questions and provides no answers, and always manages to conveniently mix up his customers with his latest love lost if some nosy person were to come along and ask him.
“All languages overwater?” Georgi asks, dramatically kholed eyes narrowed at Viktor. “Do you even know how many —”
Viktor laughs lightly. “Come now, Georgi, of course I don’t. But how about in this area?”
“Hmm.” Georgi looks down at the codex in his hands, strokes his index finger along a vertebra. The codex shivers and fans open to a sliver with tightly written script on it. “Yes, all right, that narrows it down. But not underwater languages?”
“Those I already know,” Viktor says. “The important ones anyway.”
“Well,” Georgi says, smiling slightly. “Fair enough. I’ll be out with you in a few.”
He disappears behind a curtain of kelp with a dramatic swirl of his fins, bright turquoise in the dim shadows of Georgi’s shop. Viktor looks around curiously from his seat. Georgi moves around the city at irregular intervals, and the interior of his shop never looks the same. There’s barely anything on display in this iteration of Georgi’s shop, not like the last brightly-lit one with pops of colour and tinkling trinkets scattered over the shelves, all the better to entice the schoolchildren and lovestruck teenagers of the district with.
A discreet sign is stuck to the counter: a list of services, possible wares, and prices. Murky, grotesque murals plucked out from the ruined settlements scattered around Okhotsk are sealed with sticky charms to the walls, adding to the air of mystique and falsely alluding to the ancient tradition of magic that Georgi’s pretending to be part of this time round, Viktor supposes. How very funny.
He’s inspecting the mural — not at all legally obtained, and a little bit of a professional slap in the face if Viktor’s being honest about it — that might depict some kind of ur-myth of the Koschei the Deathless when Georgi comes back out with the finished charm.
“Where’d you get this from?” Viktor asks without looking up.
“Oh,” Georgi says lightly. “Somewhere, I can’t really remember anymore. Your charm is ready. You know, the one for overwater languages.”
It’s as pointed an unspoken quid pro quo as any, so Viktor ceases his line of inquiry and drifts back towards the counter and Georgi.
The babelfish charm is liquid, sealed into a sachet. It looks thick and silvery through the translucent seaweed film. In Viktor’s mouth, the sachet pops with a sharp shock of salt, and then the charm fills his mouth; it oozes viscous and cold on his tongue, clings to the soft insides of his mouth, clots the raw tenderness of his throat. Viktor makes a face at Georgi as he waits for the charm to take, and Georgi laughs.
“Think of your overwater lover, Viktor. People have done worse things for love.”
Viktor rolls his eyes, but the word ‘love’ makes his stomach turn over, makes him feel like the warmth of sun has penetrated deep into the waters just to settle into his fins.
The timer Georgi set goes off, empty clam shells clacking together, and Viktor hurriedly swallows the rest of the charm, grimacing at the feeling of it sliding down his throat.
“This had better work, Georgi,” Viktor says direly, feeling a little like throwing up.
Georgi hands him a mug of tea. It’s astringent, made from freshwater harvested from the surface in winter, and helps a lot with the nausea. “Of course it will. I’ll do you another free if it doesn’t.”
What he doesn’t say is that his charms rarely ever fail; it’s the only reason people still seek out Georgi’s shop and that the Tsar turns a blind eye to its semi-legal activities.
“You’d better,” is what Viktor says, before he pays Georgi and ducks out of the shop.
He makes it back to work without anyone having noticed his having been gone, and gives Yuri a sea-berry pasty he’d bought on the way back as appeasement.
“You don’t look any different,” Yuri says dubiously to him.
Viktor raises an eyebrow. “Should I?”
Shrugging, the boy starts drifting towards the ceiling-hatch. “Who knows what weird shit that weirdo’s potions do to people. Only weird people go to him for weird things for weird reasons.”
Biting back a smile, Viktor says, “You’ll find out one day, Yura!” and waves goodbye to the disdainful swish of Yuri’s tail as he disappears up out of the hatch.
Work and other responsibilities conspire to keep Viktor away from his personal mission for the next few cycles - days, the overwater people call them, Viktor knows from his stop-start study of the overwater language his rescuer probably speaks.
It’s only when the same day that he went to see Georgi comes round again that there is a lull. Viktor has an early start, all the better to avoid any urgent requests and to make sure he can slip out of the city gates without much notice.
Viktor rides the same currents he did to get to the bay of doom, enjoying the speed and the way the wide ribbon of rushing water whips him past stretches of ocean. He almost forgets to exit the current earlier, and tumbles out just before it’s too late. If his triangulations are correct, he should be only a middling swim away from the town that he’d identified in the map room so long ago. Funadomari.
The waters warm as he rises absently towards the surface, thinking about what he’ll say to the beautiful human once Viktor finds him. Viktor’ll ask him for his name first, of course, and tell him his in return. And then perhaps Viktor will lift his hand and —
A boat goes churning past, its low steel hull almost taking Viktor’s head off his shoulders.
Heart beating furiously in his chest, Viktor flips over and swims deeper.
All right: regroup. He has to get to where the land started — the shore, without dying first.
Viktor strikes out further west, and when he breaches the surface the boat trails are in the distance, along with the boxy structures that dot the sealine. He can’t think of a way to get to the boxes without risking decapitation, but the boxes mean human town, which means Funadomari, which means his rescuer.
The course of true love, Viktor has read, never did run smooth. An overwater author so famous his works had been acquired and translated and traded across the oceans.
Oh well, the first thing to do is get to the sealine, in any case, and so Viktor ducks under again and makes for land, keeping a sharp eye out for fishing nets this time round. This early in the day, the sun strikes through the water so that the world is a clear green. The waters taste faintly of that sharp, unpleasant tang that accompanies proximity to human settlement. It does not approach unbearable.
The tide is moving in towards land, and Viktor gratefully lets it sweep him along, so that he only has to make an effort when the undertow pulls back out. The land shelf here rises steeply, the way it does around the whole island, and Viktor soon runs aground on wet sand finely compacted and giving only a little, jellyish, under his weight. He grimaces at the feeling of sand swirling under his scales.
The beach is a long, narrow strip of white sand, much like its kin on the further side of this outcropping of land, and similarly deserted. It rises gradually, almost imperceptible to the naked eye, until it abruptly meets a grey wall with stones set into it, bound together by more grey. Metal boxes on wheels whizz by occasionally, sometimes with music thumping in their wake.
Other than that, all Viktor can hear is the calling of sea-birds gyring high in the sky and the sighing of the sea. Sighing at him, maybe. At least the sun isn’t at its zenith yet, and the push of each tide is keeping him nice and damp. He stretches out, sunning himself in the low surf, and loses track of time.
The sound is so foreign at first that Viktor dismisses it - a rhythmic thud-thud-thudding from across the beach.
From the furthest reaches of the beach, a figure in blue and topped in black draws ever closer. It’s ... running, that’s the word. Running across the beach and due to pass by Viktor in only a matter of minutes. He slithers down the sand and withdraws further into the surf, presses himself belly first and stays very still. Not all humans may be as kind as his own rescuer, after all — some of them had nasty nets and chugging boats.
The running figure is close enough to make out clearly now, and Viktor’s stomach drops dizzyingly: it’s his human! With the tousled, wind-swept hair, and the beautiful brown eyes, and a becoming flush on his cheeks. Viktor can hear him breathe, too: deep panting huffs to the rhythm of his swinging arms. His legs, clad in some sort of tight black fabric, are very shapely indeed. Viktor wonders what it’d be like to have legs like them, what they’d feel like under his fingers.
Suddenly overcome with shyness, Viktor pulls back into deeper water. He hasn’t prepared a speech yet, hasn’t decided how to announce himself. Perhaps Viktor might leap up out of the water, to show off the strength in his tail, but he isn’t sure how humans might take it. He doesn’t want to scare the human off, and doesn’t want to attract any others’ notice. And, in any case, the beautiful human who rescued him looks busy, like he’s going somewhere in a hurry.
Still! Viktor’s heart lifts, and he does a happy little flip. Now he knows where and when, and only must work out the how.
Digging with a hangover, no matter how mild, is not the ideal state of things.
“You could have crashed into the sea!” Minako sensei harangues him as he miserably neatens up the sections that the students have left behind. “Dead, Yuuri! Dead!”
“I wasn’t that drunk,” he mumbles, scooping up the spoil and dumping it into his bucket. He hadn’t been, really; he’d defy anyone to remain drunk after inadvertently rescuing a bloody merman from a fishing net. Then again, that would probably count as evidence for how drunk he’d been. Yuuri’s still not sure that hadn’t been an extremely trippy dream. The manifestation of his doubts about the utility of his study. If he couldn’t help people in real life, then at least he could save hallucinatory mermen. But he definitely wasn’t drunk after the hike back over the mountains and to his car. The nippy wind would have taken care of that.
The summer school students had all retreated, to the other side of the tumulus they were working on, to open up new trenches under Celestino’s stern eye.
“Tough luck, man,” Brad from the unlikely-sounding Wyoming had told him, giving Yuuri an entirely unwelcome commiserating pat on the back.
“You had six beers, Yuuri,” Minako retorts. “And you were driving!”
“I only had four before driving back. I had the other two when I got back to Funadomari.”
“Is this a cry for help?”
Yuuri sighs, pushing his sunglasses firmly back up. He climbs gingerly out of the trench with his spoil buckets, making sure not to step on the delicate lens of ash Phichit uncovered earlier that morning in the silty Jomon layer.
“Stop ignoring me, Katsuki Yuuri.” Minako takes one of the buckets from him and upends it onto the further side of the spoil heap. “Should I give you a few days off?”
A few days off to spend alone and burrow further into the labyrinthine depths of his own mind? No thanks.
“No,” says Yuuri, stacking the buckets together with the others and picking up his field notebook and a planning frame. He’s going to plan all the trenches in this section of the dig and then take a couple of the older undergraduates through GIS for the rest of the week. Which is, thankfully, only two days until the summer school goes off on one of the cultural experience days that seem to have attracted most of the cohort, rather than the actual archaeology.
Minako takes the frame from him and replaces it with a bottle of water. “Fine. Finish drinking this, then you can plan. And put on a hat. It’s too hot today.” She’s already in a fetching straw sunhat, polka-dotted ribbon girding its circumference. Yuuri has a sinking feeling that Celestino might still be slightly smitten with her. There’s enough drama going on the with the undergraduates, if Phichit’s updates are anything to go by. They don’t need middle-aged drama. Yuuri doesn’t need middle-aged drama.
The water is blessedly cool. Yuuri must have been more parched than he’d realised. “Thanks, sensei,” he mutters when he finishes swigging — half the bottle, it seems.
“You’re welcome. Now finish the rest of that before you do the planning.”
She strides away, not looking back, but Yuuri finishes the water anyway. Minako would know if he didn’t. Probably. He puts on a hat too.
Yuuri hadn’t realised how much all the human interaction necessitated by being senior site supervisor was stressing him out, until he has almost the entire afternoon to himself, just quietly beavering away at planning out the site. He settles into the rhythms of setting the planning frame gently over the archaeology, sketching the plan against the faint green gridding of the planning sheet, and then moving onto the next part of the grid.
It’s not for everyone, this slow, patient work, but Yuuri likes it and is good at it. There’s an artistry to it, a knack for perspective and proportion, and transferring what one sees onto paper.
He blinks sweat out of his eyes, and it drips onto the page just below his current sketch.
“Ah, shit,” Yuuri murmurs to himself. His towel is all the way across two trenches, and he’s comfortable here. With a quick look around, he establishes that he is well and truly alone, before taking off his shirt and scrubbing at his face and neck with it. Draping it around his shoulders, he bends back to his work.
Yuuri has settled precariously on the berm between two trenches, when someone says, “Holy shit.”
It’s a near thing, but Yuuri does not actually cause section collapse by falling into the trench behind him.
And then he realises he’s half-naked and almost windmills into the trench in front of him and destroys Phichit’s hard work. Almost.
Speaking of Phichit — “Holy shit,” the man himself says again. “Dude, you’re like. Fit.”
Yuuri looks down at his belly, and the little rolls of skin and fat that have wrinkled into being from his sitting down, and back up at Phichit with raised eyebrows and a squint. Phichit’s standing directly in front of the sun. Yuuri can’t make out the expression on his face.
“I’m just gonna...” Phichit trails off and jabs a thumb back over his shoulder. “Uh, go make sure no one else sees you like this?”
After another blank interlude of silence, Phichit starts backing away. “Because, you know, we’re supposed to be doing section drawings?”
“Oh.” Yuuri forgot. So much for a solid afternoon of solitude. “Yes, um. Thanks. Phichit. Thank you.”
Yuuri doesn’t actually want to put his sweaty shirt back on, but it’s either that or getting stared at by sex-mad undergrads, so he flaps it violently and uselessly in the breeze three times before wrestling his way into its sticky confines. Gah.
An hour and a half of teaching undergraduates about section drawings and then herding them through drawing — yes, all four walls; yes, all the trenches; yes we will be using this later, please don’t step there Sharon — later, Yuuri feels like he’s going to jitter straight out of his skin. He’s normally better than this at teaching; it’s what he wants to do with the rest of his career, after all, but he just needs a. A break. He wants to recapture the feeling he had, leaning into the wind atop Gorotayama.
After the last group resentfully submits their final drawing to him and go grumbling away over to the waiting vans at the foot of the tumulus, Yuuri sighs in relief. He tucks the drawings carefully into their protective plastic sheets, and then into his notebook, and then into his backpack.
Yuuri potters about for a bit, tidying up and putting away stray tools. The quiet is a relief, with only passing cars in the distance and the omnipresent soughing of the sea. The low-level headache he’s been bearing has mostly died away. He has another bottle of water while he waits for the last of the vans to rattle off back to Funadomari.
A few minutes later, Celestino’s broad shoulders and ponytailed head crest the ridge of the tumulus. Phichit’s slighter form follows behind him, together with one other summer school student whose name escapes Yuuri.
“Ciao ciao!” Celestino waves. “Thanks for waiting, Yuuri!”
Yuuri tosses his car keys to Celestino.
“No worries. I’ve left the cooler in the boot. Trunk,” he amends, for the American audience. “For things that won’t hold up to the heat.”
“Amazing. Would you like to join us?”
Biting his lip, Yuuri tries to find a way to decline going on the grocery run. He doesn’t stay with the summer school anyway. “That’s all right. I’m getting some exercise in. Jogging back.”
Celestino’s refreshingly easygoing — he gives Yuuri a booming laugh, a clap on the back, and an, “Ah, to be young again,” before rounding up his helpers and turning away
Over his shoulder, Phichit wiggles his irrepressible eyebrows and mouths, “Fit,” before turning to his companion.
Yuuri blushes and shakes his head, before shouldering his backpack and walking down the other way towards the seafront. The sand gives beneath his feet. It’s a challenge, and a gift, when all Yuuri can concentrate on are his breaths and the fierce pounding of his heart in his ears. Phichit probably didn’t mean to, but after his comment Yuuri is now doubly conscious of the winter weight he’d put on and never quite managed to fully shed.
He loves this beach and this run. He has the beach all to himself, the wide shining expanse of the sea to his left and the mountains of Rebun green and promising to his right. It’s not quite Goratayama, but it’s enough. Fuck the car, Yuuri decides. He’s jogging to the site in the morning and back every evening now. He can have Celestino drive the car up so he has the option of driving back. Or vice versa.
Celestino is quite happy with the arrangement, of course, and they fall into a loose pattern after a couple of days: driving up together in the mornings, and Yuuri jogging back with only the essentials on him.
It’s on one of these evening jogs that Yuuri gets the strange feeling that he’s being watched. The fine hairs on the back of his neck are tingling, but the roads are clear and the lighthouse is far away. It could be someone wondering what this fool is doing, travelling between Hamanaka and Funadomari on foot. He shrugs it off, continues on his way.
But the feeling persists — sometimes on the rare morning jog, more often in the evenings.
Rebun is pretty much the edge of civilisation, especially on the northern tip of the island. A liminal zone, the more theoretically inclined faculty would say. The drunken reverie from a fortnight ago floats to the forefront of Yuuri’s mind all of a sudden, and he remembers the weird charade near the end. If it’d even happened at all. What if, though. What if.
The what ifs persist, cling to his mind as Yuuri goes about his business, and one evening on the way back to Funadomari, he veers off his path nearer the seawall to — go paddling, that’s it. He just wants to wet his feet in the surf for a bit, have the day’s aches washed away by the sea.
A few feet away from tideline, Yuuri puts his backpack down and stoops to take his shoes off.
It is at this precarious point, of course, that something sinuous and heavy flops out of the incoming wave and thuds enthusiastically onto the sea-dark sand right in front of Yuuri.
Yuuri screams and falls over, scrambling back on his elbows.
“Wait!” shouts the — oh gods, it’s the merman, it wasn’t a dream after all. And he can speak Japanese now? “Wait, please.”
To be honest, Yuuri’s been stunned still. He wonders if he fell down and hit his head on the seawall and is now hallucinating. But could his brain hallucinate someone this hot? Ignoring the tail, of course. And now he’s smiling, wide and adorable, and okay, no, this can’t be a dream. This is beyond Yuuri’s wildest dreams.
“Ah, how do you say it? It’s nice to meet you.” The merman’s tail undulates fascinatingly and Yuuri watches his abs clench as he sits all the way up, and then bows from the middle, where faint, silvery scales wink down to a divot in his hips. It’s a proper, Japanese bow for the first time you meet someone. Then merman laughs a little and there’s some pink on his pale cheeks. “Again, I guess. I’m Viktor. Please take care of me from now on.”
“I —” Yuuri feels like his brain has congealed, stupid with shock. “What? How? Viktor?”
He watches as Viktor the merman gets a distressed little wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Did I do that wrong? I’m so sorry.”
“N-no!” Feeling bizarrely culturally shamed by a merman, Yuuri scrambles onto his knees and bows back. “I — I’m Yuuri. It’s nice to meet you too.”
He gets a dazzling smile in return. “Yuuuuuuri. What a nice name!”
Yuuri laughs a little hysterically. “Thank you, um. Viktor...is, um. Unexpected.”
“Oh?” Viktor comes a little closer, and then stops, wincing minutely and rubbing at his scales. “How so?”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like a ... merman’s name?”
“Merman,” Viktor repeats, as though he’s tasting the word. “Hmmm. I don’t know. What did you expect?”
That’s a good question. “Something I couldn’t pronounce, I suppose.”
Viktor cants his head thoughtfully to one side and puts a finger to his lips. Then he opens his mouth and says, “Viktor,” like an experiment.
“Um.” Yuuri stares at him helplessly. “What?”
They stare at each other for a bit.
“Did that sound different to you?”
“Oh.” Viktor taps at his lips, and then shrugs. “That’s just how my name sounds, I suppose. I like yours, though. Yuuuuuri. I know another Yuri, but it sounds different.”
“I...see.” Yuuri’s processing.
He jumps when Viktor claps his hands twice.
“Well! I almost forgot! I wanted to say thank you, for rescuing me that night. It would have been most unfortunate to have been caught.”
Yuuri doesn’t say that he’d been drunk and it was amazing that he’d had it together enough to cut Viktor out of the net. “No...no problem. Anyone would have.” Except that’s not true, and Viktor looks like he knows it.
“Perhaps,” is all that he says. “Why were you there? This is where you live, yes? It is not a short swim around.”
“A short swim —” the laugh bursts out of Yuuri unexpectedly. Viktor looks startled too: his eyes have gone wide and his face has gone slack. “No, no, I mean ... I walked over the mountains from here to the beach. I didn’t swim.”
“On your legs? All the way over... those?” Viktor doesn’t quite stop looking startled, but he does reach out to lay a hand on Yuuri’s thigh. Yuuri shudders a little; Viktor’s hand is searing through his jeans. For some reason, Yuuri’d expected him to be clammy. Cold. Viktor kneads a little at Yuuri’s thigh. Yuuri stares at the long, elegant fingers digging into his quads, dazed.
And then Viktor bursts out with a: “Wow!”
Yuuri laughs again. “Okay, no, I drove halfway up that hill before I started walking.”
“Drove?” For someone so muscular, Viktor looks weirdly winsome with his head tilted to one side like that.
“Oh!” Yuuri blushes; of course, he wouldn’t know ... “In a car? Have you seen one? On the road, a sort of ... um ... it moves very fast?”
Viktor lights up. “Yes! The moving boxes!”
“Yes, those. They have wheels on them ...”
Yuuri starts sketching in the sand with his finger, and Viktor watches quietly.
“Oh,” says Viktor. “Wheels, yes. How do they work?”
Gaping at him, Yuuri scrambles for his high school physics, half-forgotten. “Um, internal ... combustion?”
“Combustion. Oh, you mean ... fire?” Viktor draws back, face twisting a little. “You humans are mad.”
Yuuri’s about to defend the honour of humanity when his phone rings — it’s Minako.
He shoots Viktor an apologetic phone before bringing his phone to his ear. “Ah, yes, sensei?”
“Where are you?” Minako demands. “Are you hurt? Celestino said you were running back, and I know you run faster than a snail, Yuuri.”
“Oh.” Time went by faster than Yuuri realised. “Sorry, no, I just sat on the beach for a breather. Is there something...?”
Minako launches into a lecture about ... something; Yuuri’s attention is on Viktor, who’s doodling around his drawing of a car and adding streaming lines to it, drawing a blimp-like fish pulling it along like a carriage.
“Ah, yes! Minako-sensei!”
Her sigh crackles over the line. “Just get over here with those plans of yours, Yuuri.”
“Oh, okay.” Yuuri starts getting up, and Viktor’s head jerks up. The look in his eyes makes Yuuri feel irrationally guilty. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
He hangs up and tucks his phone away into his pocket; Viktor’s eyes track it curiously.
“Ah, um.” Yuuri slaps the sand off his jeans. “I have to go, sorry.”
Viktor’s face falls immediately.
“It’s, um, work! Work-related. You must have ... come very far? Thank you. You didn’t need to.”
“Oh.” Viktor’s eyes are boring into him. “No, I absolutely had to. Can I see you again?”
The heat in Yuuri’s cheeks are definitely not from sunburn. This is so ridiculous.
Viktor cheers. Literally: he flings his arms up in the air and his smile is shaped like a cartoon heart. Yuuri just hopes that he isn’t being groomed into becoming fish food.