Eerie, haunting, mournful calls echoing through the great, slow heaving of the ocean.
What are they saying, he asks, and his breath bubbles out before him. He’s naked, or at least his arms are bare, his skin caressed by cool micro-currents like tendrils.
His companion floats next to him, silvery fins flaring in the corner of his eye. None of this seems strange, in this dark, weightless place.
The bubbling laugh is familiar, achingly so. They’re telling tales, sweetheart.
Yuuri opens his eyes, shock pulling him up into consciousness with the same cold abruptness as breaking through water to drink in air. He finds himself gasping, as though he’s just held his breath for a long while, heart thudding in his ears.
It’s dim in this room, outlines fuzzy in the low light. Fuzzy because he doesn’t have his glasses on.
He blinks and turns his head; to his left is a bedside table and an empty IV stand. Ah, he must be in the hospital.
There’s a jug of water on the table and a few other indistinct things. Beyond that is a wall, upon which hangs a painting. On his other side is the curtain and some more medical apparatus, lying dormant, and — his heart gives another jolt: Minako-sensei, napping in a chair.
“Sensei?” He whispers, and winces at the sound of his own voice, before going into an extended coughing fit.
She snorts and jerks awake, eyes going wide when they focus on him. “Yuuri!” And then she hits the call button.
The next few minutes are a whirl of bustle, as a nurse comes into check his vitals and ask Yuuri questions like “who is the prime minister?” (as if it hasn’t been Abe Shinzo for the last forever) and “which year of the emperor are we in”. Minako tries to make him tell her when the Jomon period in Hokkaido started, but the nurse glares her into submission.
“All right, we have just one last thing to do, and then you should have a shower,” Arakawa — Yuuri squints at his name tag — san says firmly. “Your hand, please.”
Yuuri obediently gives his hand to Arakawa-san, and sniffles a little.
“Ah, yes, it’s normal for you to have a bit of cold, Katsuki-san. Don’t worry about it, please.” Arakawa-san’s patter is soothing as he clips a — Yuuri squints again — a pulse oximeter onto Yuuri’s index finger. “What we’re checking for now is the oxygen levels in your blood, right, and ... oh, well, you look like you’re fine. That’s ... good.”
“You don’t sound so sure,” Minako cuts in.
“I’m just surprised,” Arakawa-san says, starting to pack up. “Katsuki-san has a very strong constitution, it would seem. And is a very strong swimmer, even while drunk.”
At that, Minako’s glare swings right back to pin Yuuri against the hard mattress of the hospital bed.
“I will check with Takahashi-sensei, but probably we will keep you here for observation for tonight, and then you will be discharged. Take some rest now.” Arakawa-san punctuates this last admonishment with a significant look at Minako, before he ducks out of the curtain partition.
Minako waits for the door to snick shut behind Arakawa-san before starting in on Yuuri, at the very least.
It doesn’t help that Yuuri really doesn’t remember very much past a certain point the previous night, only the clawing, irrational despair that’d been building up through the day collapsing to a black hole in the pit of his belly when the sun set and Viktor’s stupid head still hadn’t appeared in the surf. He remembers feeling like the gnawing feeling of unworthiness had become concrete, as he waited. He remembers hating himself for a fool, for having come to rely so on his evening talks with Viktor.
Minako yells at him through her tears, as Yuuri remains obstinately silent; how can he explain, anyway? He tries, at least, to explain the start of it, why he’d been feeling so low even before he started drinking. He cannot, of course, explain why he let it get out of control.
And Viktor’d come for him anyway. Yuuri remembers this now: an impossible word, Viktor melting like a hallucination back into the sea.
“Sensei,” Yuuri interrupts Minako mid-sentence. “Can I have some water, please?”
She gives him a look, but then Yuuri’s throat obligingly tickles and he coughs.
He is sipping at the water that Minako poured out for him when the door squeaks open and a deluge of noise spills in. The noise doesn’t quite stop when the door shuts.
The curtains rustle, and then Celestino and Phichit come chattering in. Phichit looks mutinously at him and has Yuuri’s sandy backpack in hand. He doesn’t say a word, worryingly enough.
“Yuuuuuuuri!” exclaims Celestino. “You had us all worried! Especially when Mizuno called us to say you still weren’t home yet!”
“Oh.” Yuuri winces; Mizuno-san and his wife have become like grandparents to him in all the years that he’s let their spare room in the summer. “Are they ... all right?”
“Worried, but glad we found you. They telephoned your mother too.”
Minako holds up her cellphone, Yuuri’s mother’s name writ large over the dialling text. “Oh no is right, you little drunkard.”
Yuuri’s mother is very worried and querulous over the phone, but ultimately very happy that he is still alive.
“Yes, kaa-san,” Yuuri whispers into the phone, eyes flicking occasionally up at his visitors. Phichit’s on his phone and Celestino is talking with Minako in worryingly low tones. “I’m sorry, kaa-san. No, not again, kaa-san. No, it’s just ... the old things, I mean, you know.”
Because his mother is clearly in line to be reincarnated as the next chief priestess of Ise Jingu, she makes understanding noises and soothing sounds.
“Yes,” Yuuri says in response to her admonishments. “Yes, I’ll come down for a visit when this is over. No ... no, I’m fine, just a cold. The nurse said, yes. I’m sorry... oh, I don’t know. Eh? A different beach?”
He looks up at the peanut gallery questioningly.
“I don’t know how, kid, but you swept up on the beach right down the way from our hostel.” Celestino says in English, shaking his head. “One of your gods, maybe.”
“You’d better go to the shrine,” Minako says, shaking a fist at him. “And leave them all those bottles of fucking Asahi you have in your room. Once you’re better.”
Yuuri knows better, of course. And he doesn’t have any more beer. He drank it all.
His mother agrees with Minako, and Phichit’s eyes have brightened with curiosity.
So Yuuri agrees to pay his respects to the Funadomari shrine, and to go back home to Kyushu before the term starts again, and to eat katsudon, and to call his mother more often, before taking his ear away from the hot surface of the phone and ending the call.
“I found your backpack,” Phichit says, still quiet and unchirpy. “And your shoes. And all the beer.”
Yuuri closes his eyes wearily. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Phichit snaps, suddenly. A small cloud of sand poofs up into the air when he drops the backpack onto the floor next to Yuuri. “Just don’t do stupid things like that again! There’s fun drunk and then there’s ... there’s drowning drunk!”
“I won’t,” says Yuuri, before sniffling and blowing his nose.
Celestino discreetly moves the rubbish bin next to the bed. He really is very kind, Yuuri thinks.
“Everyone was so freaked out, Yuuri.” Phichit perches himself on the bed. “They were like, ‘oh my god, Yuuri’s dying, oh my god, he’s so nice, did we drive him to drink —’”
Yuuri can’t help his snort at that, and doesn’t even regret the coughing fit that triggers.
Celestino’s grinning a little bit at him over Phichit’s head.
“And then! And then,” Phichit says eagerly, “a certain someone, I won’t name names, was like, Yuuri’s too hot to die!”
“And there was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth,” Celestino finishes solemnly.
Minako cackles while Yuuri blushes and slides under the thin blanket.
“So when are you getting out of here, kid?”
“Tomorrow, if the doctor permits,” Minako asks for him, and gets up. “Speaking of, I’m going to go...” she pushes past Celestino and out of the compartment.
“I can’t come back to work though,” Yuuri says, sitting back up so he can blow his nose. “I have to rest, apparently.”
“Ah, well.” Celestino grins at him and reaches down to pick up a bag Yuuri didn’t notice earlier. “I brought your laptop from the finds lab, so you won’t be too bored.”
True to Arakawa-san’s word, Yuuri is released to the tender, slightly-absentminded care of the Mizunos the next morning.
“Come back here if you develop a fever,” Takahashi-sensei says, “though that’s unlikely at this point. And stay indoors, you hear me? You and your jogs ...”
Yuuri laughs nervously. “Ah, of course...”
“Well! Mizuno-san makes a very nourishing miso soup, so you’d better drink all of it. Here’s the medicine for your cough, and your nose. Sleep. Stop worrying so much.”
“I’m not —” Yuuri protests, and shuts up under Takahashi-sensei’s rheumy glare.
“How did you,” he tries, and then is cut off when Mizuno-san laughs her creaky, seaworn laugh. “All right, stop scaring him, Takahashi-kun. We’re going now, thank you very much for taking care of Yuuri.”
They both bow, and Takahashi-sensei harrumphs as he waves them off, and then Mizuno-san is imperiously tucking her hand through Yuuri’s arm and leading him off to the carpark, where his Nissan sits. She gives Yuuri his keys, pats him kindly on the wrist, and instructs him to drive back home, where lunch is apparently waiting.
In much the same manner, Mizuno-san makes sure Yuuri doesn’t even leave the house for the next three days. He’s starting to suspect that the gregariously absent-minded Mizuno-san of the past few years has been a cunning front all along.
He’s tied to the house with the work that Celestino has given him to do — absorbing, of course, as GIS work always is once he gets into the flow of things, and then being interminably sniffly doesn’t quite preclude him from helping Mizuno-san in the kitchen, which sends a flickering a homesickness for Hasetsu through him, or being press-ganged into helping the other Mizuno-san with small errands about the old house when the old man gets back in from another day out at sea.
On the fourth evening since leaving the hospital, Yuuri creeps out of the house whilst Mizuno-san is busy chatting on the phone to her sister, who lives on mainland Hokkaido. He’s quite sure he sees curtains twitching as he strolls along the harbour, and endeavours to keep his slow, easy pace; he’ll say that he wanted fresh air and that an evening constitutional was meant to help him build up his strength again. He’s got a packet of tissues in his pocket, just in case.
He gets clear of the main stretch of town, and pads down to the beach when he comes within sight of the junior high gymnasium; there’s no telling what Minako-sensei will do if she sees him out and about. Hidden from sight by the high dunes, Yuuri breaks into a light jog. The brisk and fresh sea air has cleared his nose, and his cough went away the day before.
It’s a good day: the sky is a depthless blue, mirroring the wrinkled blue of the sea beneath it. Yuuri’s lived near seas almost all his life, and being out on the beach and listening to the hiss and suck of the waves, the fizzing of the sand under the late evening sun makes something in him settle.
He finds himself speeding up a little as he approaches the beach he’s come to think of as his: his and Viktor’s. It’s irrational, of course, for him to expect Viktor to be there, silver hair winking in the sunlight and blue eyes dancing with delight. His stomach drops and his steps slow; in fact, how can he expect Viktor to be there? He wonders if Viktor has reappeared in the meantime. If Viktor has felt the same black disappointment at his absence. If Viktor’s given up on him.
Yuuri almost turns back, but makes himself carry on, until he’s walking carefully down the familiar steps again.
The beach is empty.
Yuuri tries to tell himself not to be surprised, or disappointed, or whatever this strange, sour, complex emotion twisting itself into a knot under his ribs is.
He stays till moonrise and his phone is buzzing in his pocket. He left a note for Mizuno-san; it’ll be fine.
Sweetheart, the waves sigh mockingly at him. Sweetheart, sweetheart.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaah!!” Yuuri yells at them, and leaves.
The thing is, Yuuri has to keep up appearances, once he’s returned to work the following week. It would, he thinks, be strange to just ... go on foot back to town anymore, not when everyone can see he is fit enough to dig and carry pails of spoil again.
He promises to take it easy and walk instead, lets Minako-sensei check his bag for booze, and sets back off along the path from Hamanaka back to Funadomari. He stops by every evening just to wait, and his frustration grows with each empty day, swallows the fear that Viktor has abandoned him. Found humanity too much trouble after all.
But another week passes and it seems quite conclusive that Viktor has disappeared. It is unpleasant, and Yuuri is on the verge of tipping back into the place that required too many bottles of beer, when it occurs to him to think of the implications of a magical merman saving you from drowning. Of all the folk tales he dug up online about the Vodyanoi being cruel and capricious, though obviously there has been a great divergence between the reality of them and their preservation in human stories.
Yuuri hopes as he turns these thoughts over and kneels, scraping, in a trench, that Viktor’s Tsar isn’t punishing him for being kind.
His private worries aren’t helped by the summer school students being particularly useless in some sort of misguided belief that TGIFs exist in archaeology. Yuuri is at the end of his tether, when Celestino appears like an avenging angel out of some sort of Renaissance painting, if Michelangelo had gone in for Hawaiian print t-shirts and cargo shorts. Phichit peeks out from behind him and gives Yuuri a conspiratorial wave and grin. He’ll go far in life, that one.
Yuuri gratefully tags out as Celestino roars cheerfully at his motley crew.
“Are all Japanese people as fond of walking as you?” Phichit asks, following Yuuri over the crest of the hill to the tool shed where he keeps his backpack.
“Some are,” Yuuri answers. “Walking is how you get to places, and when you are old you are grateful that you may continue walking.”
Phichit blows out a breath. “That’s very cryptic.”
“Mmm,” says Yuuri. “Shouldn’t you be in the finds lab?”
“Well, someone texted me to say you had your murder face on, so I went to get Ciao Ciao, and he brought me along.”
Yuuri unlocks the tool shed. “He brought you along, huh?”
Laughing, Phichit ducks into the cool interior after Yuuri. “Okay, no, I tagged along. Ciao Ciao’s really bad at saying no. Are you really going to walk back? It’s already six and the sun’s still high up.
Having located and beaten the spiders off his backpack, Yuuri shoos Phichit back out so he can lock up. “You’re from a tropical country, aren’t you?”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the wonders of air-conditioning. Or normal sunset times.”
Yuuri shakes his head. “I like it. It isn’t too hot, and it’s ...” He thinks about how to say it. ‘Peaceful’ sounds rude, like he’s implying something about Phichit. ‘Soothing’ gives away too much about him.
He’s still mulling it over, even after Phichit laughed brightly and waved him off with a “you do you”, as he walks barefoot along the beach, shoes tied to his backpack by the laces.
Whilst deep in thought, Yuuri’s feet have carried him to the tideline, where the cool sand is springy under the soles of his feet. The moisture rising up between his toes feels good, so he stays there, weaving a little in and out of the tickling surf. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the glancing of light off silvery scales. Yuuri's heart leaps, and he turns with a smile on his lips. It drops off.
That isn’t Viktor, not in the flashes of red in the sun or the sharp, knife-like turns whoever it is is taking.
In a fit of uncharacteristic seriousness, Viktor had once told him, “If you see someone swimming like this towards you, and it isn’t me ... run.”
So Yuuri does — he backs away up beyond the tideline, just in time for something silver and scarlet and almost feline to flash up out of the water, snarling and much too fast; it catches him in the arm, and Yuuri trips over himself, goes skidding back on the sand.
Whatever it is snarls up the beach at him, and Yuuri does a backward roll in his desperation to get further up onto the dry sand.
“Blyad!” spits the wild thing, stymied by dry sand, as Yuuri pants wildly and stares. He adjusts his glasses from where they’ve been knocked askew, and stares even more when his attacker turns out to be a little merman, with hair yellower than Viktor’s and a heart-shaped face twisted in wordless anger.
Or, well, not so wordless, when the boy starts yelling at Yuuri in the harsh, angular tongue of the Vodyanoi. At the bewildered look on Yuuri’s face, he falls silent, before thumping himself in the chest, muttering angrily.
The entire performance, at a safe distance, makes Yuuri smile a little to himself.
The boy’s furious muttering intensifies, before his words suddenly resolve themselves into Japanese. “— stupid, piece-of-shit-charm-oh! Right! YOU! I KNEW YOU WERE GOOD FOR NOTHING, YOU COWARD, COME DOWN HERE AND FIGHT ME —”
“I’m a pacifist,” Yuuri says as peaceably as he can, amusement thrumming under his skin. “It’s constitutional.”
Blue-green eyes the colour of ocean glass narrow at him. “Constitutional?” And then he shakes the confusion off, quite unlike Viktor. “Fuck that! I’m going to rip your fins right off!!”
“Why? You don’t even know me.”
The scowl he gets would be quite terrifying if not for the fact that Yuuri is growing increasingly convinced that the boy isn’t actually here to kill him.
“I don’t need to know you! I don’t need to know your name to kill —”
“I’m Yuuri,” he interrupts. He’s fairly certain that he’s talking to Viktor’s Yura now; there’s a certain resemblance now that Yuuri’s looking for it.
Bit hard to tell, since the boy’s swelling in indignation. “Yuri?! Your name is — by the gods, you’re an imposter who can’t even find a name for themselves!”
“Oh!” Yuuri widens his eyes, feigning surprise. “So you’re a Yuuri too?”
The little merman’s eyes widen and he says, “Oh shit.” And then very quickly, “No, that’s not my name.”
“Oh?” Yuuri stays where he is, but he gentles his tone. “What’s your name, then?”
He gets an impressive scowl. “I’m not telling you, human.”
Yuuri is reminded of old European stories about fairy folk and names. “Well, it must sound like ‘Yuuri’. I wonder ...”
“Stop wondering!” The shout is aggressive, but there is panic in little Yura’s wide eyes now.
“You must be Viktor’s friend, Yura, right?” Yuuri guesses tentatively. “Did he send you?”
“Don’t call me that,” he snaps, before seeming to realise what he’s just done. “No! No. I sent myself here.”
“I’m a Yuri too,” the boy says in a rush. “But it sounds different. Yuri.”
Yuuri blinks at him. The vowel sound in the middle is a little shorter, but it could be confusing. “Are you Viktor’s brother?”
His tail thumps irritatedly on the sand behind him. “No! I’m not! I’m a Plisetsky!” And then his eyes go big again, and Yuuri has to bite down on a laugh. He resolves to call the little merman Yuri P in his head.
“He’s done something stupid,” says Yuri P hurriedly. “You have to go save him.”
Well, that certainly serves as a distraction. “I have to — Viktor’s ... what?”
And then Yuri P embarks on a rant that Yuuri ... can’t quite believe.
Viktor apparently hasn’t given up on him or humanity at all, but using his strange logic, decided that he had to accompany Yuuri at all times to make sure he doesn't die, and came to the conclusion that the best way to go about doing this was to become human. Or gain legs.
And so Viktor hit upon the genius idea of asking for legs, went to the Sea Tsar, left Yuri P to spy on him through the rafters, or whatever passed for rafters in the underwater world, and witness the slow disaster that was this confrontation.
It did not go quite as Viktor imagined, the Tsar was most displeased, and now Viktor is being kept locked up in the palace in the middle of the Vodyanoi city and very upset about it.
Which has brought Yuri P to the shores of Rebun.
“No one notices me,” he shrugs. “I could slip out no problem.” Then he scowls again; it seems to be his default expression. “To find you. The way Viktor talked about you, I thought you’d be less useless. At least you have quick reflexes. But oh well, we have to make do with what we have.”
It sounds well-worn, the way Yuri P says it. And that mad, snarling attack had been, what — a test? The Vodyanoi were so incredibly strange.
Yuuri can’t even protest. “I — how? I can’t even dive!”
Yuri P rolls his eyes and says with heavy sarcasm, “The power of love.”
Yuuri stares at him.
“No, you moron, obviously not. By the power of magic, duh.”
Quite honestly, Yuuri wonders what kind of Vodyanoi slang Yuri P is using, for it to translate into Japanese like this. He sounds like the kind of hooligans Mari nee-san used to hang out with in senior high.
Shaking his head, Yuuri says, “I ... need to make arrangements. How, how long do you think this will take? I’ll meet you back here tomorrow morning.”
Yuri P frowns. “Well, one more day won’t —”
Seized with a horrible thought, Yuuri breaks in to ask, “Viktor’s not, I mean, they’re not torturing him, are they?”
“No! No, they would never, are you crazy, on Vitya?”
The look on Yuri P’s face is genuinely horrified enough, but Yuuri doesn’t miss the implication that torture is an option that somehow doesn’t apply to Viktor.
“Well, all right then.” Yuuri stands up and beats the sand off himself. “Will this take more than a week? Seven days.”
He gets a shrug and a familiar tilt of the head. “Maybe. It all depends.”
Yuuri breathes in the familiar briney scent of the sea, cold and bracing in his lungs. “Okay. Will I die?”
The considering look that Yuri P gives him isn’t very reassuring. “I don’t think so, I mean. You might just be a little bit drowned, but they’ll probably put you back here if we don’t ... succeed.”
“Right,” Yuuri says. “Okay. Well. I —”
“You’re not backing out now, are you?” The little merman is bristling all over now, his fins seeming almost to stand up from where they’ve been lying flat against his scaley flank.
“No!” It explodes out of Yuuri before he can think. “No, of course not. I’ll see you here tomorrow. In the morning, when the sun’s ... when the sun’s reached the midway mark in the sky.”
Yuri P turns to look at the vague latitude Yuuri’s pointing at, before shrugging. “Okay. You better be there, human, or I’ll make you wish you died.”
“I need to take that leave you were talking about,” Yuuri says, when he finds Minako in Hoshino’s pub. It’s in an old concrete block down by the harbourfront. He’s decided to start out strong, try the steam-rollering tactic. “For the next week. The Americans are doing cultural things for the most of next week anyway. And I’ve finished all the GIS.”
Yuuri has come prepared with all kinds of arguments.
Minako just rolls her eyes and says, “Finally! If there’s anyone who could do with a rest cure it’s you. So where are you going?”
Since he can’t quite say that he’s going for a very long swim, all the way to an underwater city where he will attempt to save a merman he’s become very fond of, Yuuri invents on the spur of the moment: “Sakhalin.”
“Huh.” Minako looks into her beer for a long moment. “Well, maybe you’ll meet a hot Russian there. I hear they’re rugged out on Sakhalin.”
He almost chokes on the water that Hoshino-san had pointedly slid across the countertop to him. “I, um, sensei!”
She cackles, and Yuuri realises that she’s at least a little bit drunk. “You don’t sleep around nearly enough for an archaeology post-grad your age, Yuuri. I’m concerned for you!”
“Right.” Yuuri drains his water. “Well, I’ll, um, I’ll see you, sensei.”
He buys tickets for the daily ferry to Sakhalin for verisimilitude, and tells Mizuno-san that he’ll catch the early bus up to Cape Sukoton, feeling a little guilty about lying to her. When Yuuri gets to the beach, he hides his backpack in the bushes. He probably won’t need it, where he’s going.
“What the hell are you doing?” Yuri P asks suddenly from behind him.
Yuuri absolutely doesn’t jump. “I’m, um, hiding? My backpack?”
“Oh.” The boy sounds nonplussed. “Why?”
“I had to pretend that I was going somewhere on a holiday; it would’ve looked weird if I didn’t bring it with me.”
Yuri P hmmmms and gets out some very viscous looking paint in a large, droplet-shaped sachet from the satchel slung around him. It’s the first time Yuuri’s seen evidence of merpeople using textile containers. Or, well, containers of any sort. He wonders why Viktor didn’t just bring one, the day they looked at journals.
“I can do a concealment charm up for you,” the little merman says grudgingly. “If you don’t mind getting this stuff on your ... backpack.”
“Oh!” Yuuri clutches his backpack to himself. “It ... um, it works? On land? Your magic?”
With a shrug, Yuri P reaches out for it. “We’ll see.”
It does work; when the swirling patterns painted onto his bag flash and sink into the canvas, his backpack just sort of ... fades into the beach. Yuuri has to pat around a bit to find its sides and take it from Yuri P.
“Thank you,” he says wonderingly, and stuffs it back into the bushes, after transferring some supplies into Yuri P’s satchel. No one will find the backpack, not unless they’re actively rustling through the bushes. Did Viktor perhaps just not know magic? No, he’s mentioned it before.
“This’ll protect you too,” Yuri P says grumpily, catching Yuuri’s attention. “Stick out your arm, here.”
It’s ticklish. The cold, gloopy glide of the paint, and the slightly rough sponge being used to apply it.
“Vit-Viktor’s an idiot, that’s why,” Yuri P says, completely unsolicited, as Yuuri is watching patterns swirl into being on his skin. He’d come in his full wetsuit, but the top of it is tied around his waist now.
“He doesn’t carry this on him. Otherwise he could’ve kept you from falling ill.”
“How did you know I was ...”
“You were coughing, he said.” Yuuri can’t see the expression on Yuri P’s face, shadowed as it is by his hair and tilted down to his work. “M-my cousin said it’s a sign that humans are ill. Viktor was ... upset.”
“Oh.” Yuuri doesn’t quite know what to say. Instead, he asks, “Do you all carry ... magic paint?”
Yuri P snorts indelicately. “Magic paint! What words you have.” He moves onto Yuuri’s shoulder blade, gesturing for Yuuri to turn around. “No, not everyone. Viktor doesn’t, because he’s an arrogant prat.”
Yuuri is quickly coming to realise that Yuri P’s bark is far worse than his bite.
He explains as he works methodically across Yuuri’s skin — “This is for warmth” and “This is for protection” (against what, Yuuri doesn’t dare ask) — and then when they’re waiting for it “to catch hold”, Yuri P hands Yuuri a little sachet of something that tastes utterly vile.
“Don’t swallow it until I say so,” he says in a bored tone, while rolling up the tight legs on Yuuri’s wetsuit bottoms. That’s two-for-two on the ‘no concept of personal space’ hypothesis. He starts tracing something on Yuuri’s calves. “I’m giving you strength, now, because your puny legs are nothing compared to this.” He pats his own tail, sheened in gold. Yuuri makes a gurgling noise that Yuri P somehow understands. “That’s the babelfish charm. Done by the same guy who did Viktor’s.”
When he’s finally given permission to swallow the babelfish charm, which is exactly as unpleasant as it sounds, Yuuri dry-heaves a bit.
Ignoring Yuri P’s alarmed expression, he says, “I can wear my wetsuit over this, right? I don’t have to go about ... naked?”
“Well, you can if you want to.” Yuri P’s expression says he doesn’t understand why Yuuri would rather go clad. More cultural differences. Yuuri zips up his wetsuit anyway, tugging the bottoms down. “Okay. Let’s fucking go.”
“I can’t breathe underwater,” Yuuri says, stopping before the little merman can accidentally drown him.
Yuri P goggles at him, before his face twists up. “Ugh, I hate it when she’s right,” he mutters to himself, before reaching into his satchel and pulling out yet another sachet. Yuuri can only hope it tastes half as bad as the other one.
It doesn’t, but it does make fire spread through his chest and up his throat, scouring his gullet and through his nose. “Fuck!” Yuuri yelps, startled. “What the fuck —”
He’s cut off when Yuri P grabs him and shoves them both underwater.
Yuuri shouts, gets a mouthful of water, panics, and then realises that he’s hyperventilating underwater.
“Oh gods,” Yuuri whispers to himself, and it comes out sounding slightly warped and through a series of bubbles.
When he looks up, Yuri P is flicking his tail impatiently. Right. Yuuri pinches himself through the thick material of his wetsuit.
“How are we getting there? I can’t swim like you can.”
Yuri P gives him a look of deep disdain. Can something roll off one’s back like water if one is already surrounded by water?
“We’re not going to swim all the way there. You need to develop your sea sense.”
Yuuri opens his mouth, then closes it. “Right. I’m depending on you until then.”
He follows Yuri P on the path that he sets, at the hard pace that he sets; all bearings lost and only the beating worry for Viktor to drive him onwards.
“Not bad,” Yuri P says when Yuuri catches up to him at a point that holds no significance for Yuuri whatsoever. It just looks like — ocean, to him. Or sea. Water, in any case. “I’ve heard some humans can’t swim.”
“I grew up by the sea,” Yuuri tells him. “A different, warmer one.”
“Hmmm.” Yuri P taps at his chin, reminiscent of Viktor. It makes Yuuri smile a little. “Do you see the difference here?” He gestures out to the water before them. Yuuri’s mostly just amazed he can see underwater without his eyes stinging from the salt.
“Um,” Yuuri tries. “It’s ... bluer?”
Yuri P throws up his arms in exasperation and whips his tail angrily, so that micro-bubbles froth up and cling to the edges of his many fins. “NO! It’s the current!”
Grabbing hold of Yuuri, Yuri P says, “Argh, just hold onto me,” and pulls them into —
A rush of water, sheer force that sweeps Yuuri’s legs out from underneath him, and he would have tumbled out or off into the distant unknown if not for the vise-like grip that Yuri P has on his arm. The pressure is hurting his ears. Yuuri imagines this is what being a shinkansen feels like.
They ride what Yuuri later realises is the Soya current, the warm branch of the Tsushima Warm Current that sweeps between Hokkaido and Sakhalin out into the Okhotsk Sea.
“There’s a junction coming up,” Yuri P says to him, a while later. Yuuri’s fairly certain ‘junction’ is not the actual word the boy used. “We need to hop currents, take the right path for Okhotsk. And then the city. But before that, we have to make a stop.”
“Okay?” Yuuri says, but he can’t hear himself over the rushing of the water past them.
“You’ll see,” says Yuri P grimly, and tugs them out of the current into a slightly gentler one with a jerk.
Yuuri thinks they’re in the Sea of Okhotsk.
They seem to have been swimming forever. He can’t believe he’s thinking this, but he misses even the ear-hurting pressure of riding the current.
The water he’s frog-kicking his way through at super-Olympic speeds is markedly cooler, enough so that Yuuri’s glad he did cover up in his wetsuit. And even at these depths, the currents that swirl and eddy and threaten to tug Yuuri away to the parts unknown. It doesn’t take him long to realise that Yuri P’s been skirting the deeper parts of the sea.
He puts on a burst of speed to catch up and ask, “What’s ... down there?”
Yuri glances towards the darker waters to their right. Yuuri thinks he sees the boy shiver a bit. “Don’t know. We don’t really venture into the depths.”
“Oh.” Yuuri considers this. “Do you swim across them?”
“No point.” Yuri shakes his head. “At the depths we travel in, the currents are unhelpful. Deeper, we would have to bring lights, and lights would bring ...” He shrugs. “Why borrow trouble?”
There’s a sing-song quality to Yuris rhetorical question, as though it were learnt by heart, repeated to him ad infinitum. A merpeople maxim, perhaps.
Yuuri hums to himself contemplatively, dropping behind a little as he thinks. He doesn’t expect Yuri to swing around and shout, “What?!”
“Eh? No-nothing,” he stutters, taken aback.
“No, you made a sound. What is it, spit it out.”
“I just thought ...” Yuuri hesitates as he draws back level with Yuri. “Humans, you know. As a species we have tended to look at the dangerous unknowns and fling ourselves at them.”
Yuri snorts and starts swimming again with a disdainful slap of his tail. “That explains why Vitya likes you so much. He does stupid things too.”
Kicking off after him, Yuuri thinks to himself that they’ve only been acquainted for fewer than 24 hours, but the boy’s spilt more about the Vodyanoi’s daily lives than the weeks that he’s been talking to Viktor. It is only by comparison that Yuuri sees how closed off Viktor kept himself.
A while later — he cannot keep track of time down here, the sun is but refracted light through the water — Yuuri demands a halt.
If nothing else, he’s hungry.
So they bob in the currents, Yuri’s fins and tail twitching minutely to adjust for them. Yuuri’s sort of given up on the identifying P, even in his head. In the meantime, Yuuri has to occasionally paddle back from where he’s drifted off to, munching on the strange, squarish ‘surveyor rations’ that Yuri’d retrieved from his satchel.
They taste surprisingly sweet, a little bit like dates. Not fishy at all. He doesn’t mention this to Yuri.
“These taste good,” Yuuri says instead.
An equally surprisingly sweet smile appears on Yuri’s face, before disappearing quickly. “Good. De — they’re home-made.”
Yuuri mmms around his third square, and watches with fascination as Yuri flips himself upside down in apparent restlessness.
"You know, Yuri,” he says slowly. “I’ve been wondering... how do you breathe?”
The boy gives him the blank, exasperated look that Yuuri is quickly getting used to. “What do you mean... with my nose, of course!”
“No, I mean, after that — I just don't understand what you breathe with!"
With a great rush of bubbles, Yuri shouts, "LUNGS, DUH."
It doesn’t make sense at all. “But how do you not choke? How am I not choking? You breathe water in?"
Yuri, clearly lost for words, waves his hand in a sort of grasping gesture in front of yuuri's chest, his wrist turning and fingers folding in one by one like a flower.
Yuuri would be lying if he said he felt a faint tingle. He felt nothing.
And then Yuri makes a throwing gesture, outwards, and a fucking honest-to-gods holograph of his respiratory system starts spidering into existence, outlined in glowing blue, in the water between the two of them.
Yuuri may shriek a little.
"What is wrong with you." Yuri stares, and squints at Yuuri's lungs. He makes a not-at-all-reassuring "hmmmm," sound. "You don't have the ... the thing. I forget what it's called." He jabs at an empty space mirroring where the heart would be on the right.
Yuuri squints at him. "You have ... another organ?"
"Organ?" Yuri repeats. "Yes, organ."
He repeats the spell on himself.
And lo and behold, there is an impression of something beneath the right lung. It is not the liver.
"Anyway," Yuri says dismissively, both holograms crumbling and floating away in the current with a flick of his hand. "That's how we breathe. Like you but not. Don’t know how your breathing charm works, though."
Yuri wonders if Yuri even goes to school. He is loth to ask.
“Have you rested enough? Can we go now? I don’t want to sleep out here.”
Yuuri looks around: light blue water as far as the eye can see. He twitches.
“Let’s go,” he says, and follows in Yuri’s frothy wake.
There’s a distinct chill in the water, and the water is shot through with gold. When Yuuri looks up, the undulating surface is tinted an orangey-pink. The sun must be setting soon; Yuuri shivers a little: from the cold, and from the sheer surrealism of the day. He’s breathing easily now but he misses the air, and the breeze on his cheek. He never thought that would be something he’d have to miss.
“Yuri,” Yuuri calls. “How much farther is it?”
“What, flagging already?” Yuri’s sneering, but he too has slowed down.
Yuuri’s not here to win any swimming contests. Not with Yuri, nor with the shoals of fish that arrow past at intervals, nor the curious porpoises who tried playing with them soon after their break.
“Yes,” he says simply. “I’m human and my legs are burning.”
The way Yuri harrumphs makes Yuuri bite back a smile.
“It’s not that much farther from here.” Yuri points in a vaguely downward direction. “We can start angling down now.”
Intellectually, Yuuri knows that he likely will have to go deeper than this to get to the Vodyanoi city. But the thought of that much water closing in over his head, the sheer weight and pressure of it like a benign blanket smothering him, make his heart beat a little faster.
This is for Viktor, he reminds himself, and follows Yuri down.
As the evening wears on and they plunge ever deeper, the thin blue light darkens to a nearly impenetrable murk.
“Yuri,” he calls again, starting to feel a little tight in the chest with panic. “Yuri!”
“What?!” Yuri pops up next to him, and Yuuri shrieks a little. “Oh my god, how are we going to — what?”
“I can’t,” Yuuri gasps, hand to his chest, eyes wide. “I can’t see.”
What Yuuri can make out of his face scrunches up. Yuuri thinks he’s squinting.
“I don’t...” Yuri shakes his head; his blonde hair, flaring out, catches what little light there is left. “Human eyes. Hmm. I don’t know a spell for sight. Okay. Hold onto this.”
Something rough and lumpy bumps into Yuuri’s hand, and he almost shrieks again, before he realises that it’s Yuri’s satchel.
“Don’t let go,” Yuri warns him, and then there’s a tug and Yuuri frantically kicks after him.
It’s oppressive, swimming blind and not knowing where they are, how deep they are, or what’s around them. Yuuri imagines he hears sounds of enormous sea monsters in the murky dark around him, thousands of slimy eyes peering curiously at him, tremors of their movement through the waves.
Through the rising tide of his panic, Yuuri kicks on, following the tug of Yuri’s satchel.
This entire enterprise has been an exercise in treading close to the edge of an attack, and then wrenching himself back abruptly. Just as Yuuri is about to just stop, he sees lights glimmering in the distance.
He blinks hard. “Yuri?” His voice comes out wavering. “Is that ...?” He really hopes they don’t herald some kind of angler fish attack. They aren’t that deep, he hopes.
“Yeah.” Yuri sounds satisfied and tired as well. “Almost there.”
The prospect of shelter and a rest gives Yuuri a final burst of energy, startling even Yuri, as he thrashes on ahead to the circle of lights. He’s far too tired to wonder how and what; he just wants to, to lie down and float in place without worrying about drifting off to the deeps.
“Doctor!” Yuri hollers, as they get near enough for Yuuri to see that the lights are flares of a brilliant amber, held in glass baubles floating in a fixed circle around a dwelling that looks strangely like an Atlantic broch, constructed from rough blocks of a dark grey rock. Yuri shouts again: “Doctor!”
Darkness presses in on them for as far as the eye can see, all around — not that Yuuri can see very far. Yuuri has no idea where they are, and no idea why they’re talking to a man with a squid head.
It makes no morphological sense. He thinks. But if merpeople could have tails, why not ... whatever this doctor is.
Yuri’s led them into the circle of baubles, through the shoals of small fish drawn by the light, and is now growling animatedly at the ... the kind creature who will be housing them on this night.
“Where are we?” He asks plaintively.
“Ah, you poor child,” says squid man. “Do you tell him nothing, Yura?”
“Don’t call me that,” Yuri snaps. “I tell him what he needs to know.”
The squid man proceeds to latch onto Yuri’s head with the fronds in place of his mouth.
Yuuri freezes for a second, before exploding forward to grab onto Yuri and pull him away. The top of his head comes free with a squelch.
Yuri makes a sound of deep disgust and shakes his head hard, like a puppy shaking off water. “Urk! Do you have to do that, Doctor Squidhead?”
He doesn’t seem nearly as traumatised as Yuuri would be.
“You are a very rude child,” the improbably named Dr Squidhead says serenely. And then he turns to look at Yuuri with suddenly menacing eyes. “My apologies. I was merely reprimanding Yura.”
“Don’t call me that!” Yuri shouts.
“I ...” Yuuri trails off. “What?”
“I’m fine, idiot.” Yuri slaps him on the arm, and shoulders past Dr Squidhead into the dwelling. “He just does that sometimes, like I’m his child or something. Crazy.”
Yuuri wants to ask if the Vodyanoi also glom onto their young’s head with their mouths, but holds his tongue when Dr Squidhead gives him a conspiratorial look, as if in invitation to share their adult amusement at Yuri. He isn’t quite over that alarming sight yet.
The fronds seem to droop a little, at Yuuri’s stoic silence. “Well, go on in. Guest, waiving rules, et cetera.” He waves Yuuri in a great, scarlet hand.
Against all common sense, there’s a fire burning in a pit dug into the centre of the main hall and in-lain with glassy black basalt, and wax candles burning in glass holders set into the rough walls. The inside of the roundhouse is sectioned off with drystone walls that go up to about a head over Dr Squidhead’s height, and made from flat slices of the same dark grey rock that makes up the outer walls. The soft, dark sand speckled with small, shiny grains beneath Yuuri’s feet must be from the very same rock.
There are ledges jutting out from the thick outer walls at random height intervals and no ladders or stairs. Except, oh, and Yuuri feels foolish now: of course, one may simply swim.
The tower twists up to a narrow point; Yuuri cannot make out if it is a skylight or ceiling.
“Well now,” says Dr Squidhead, settling cross-legged a few inches over the sandy floor and stirring something in the pot hanging over the fire. “Let’s have a look at your charms. Are you hungry?”
“We have rations,” Yuri cuts in hurriedly, and flashes Yuuri a look. “We’ll eat those.”
The doctor sighs, his fronds lifting and settling as bubbles issue out of where his mouth must be. “I’ve waived all the rules, young merman. All obligations are lifted.”
Yuri unwraps more squares and tosses Yuuri some defiantly.
“I’m not sure I can eat that, doctor,” Yuuri intervenes. “Being human.”
“But you can eat the Vodyanoi’s rations?”
“I, um,” Yuuri invents wildly yet again, “I’ve had the opportunity to try them before.”
“Oh? Well, I suppose there must be greater similarities between your species.” Dr Squidhead shrugs. “Nevertheless, while you are a guest in my house, you are welcome to the comforts of it.”
“Uh.” Yuuri bites into a ration square; the date-like taste bursts sweet upon his tongue. “Thank you?”
“You’re welcome.” Their host ladles out a dense-looking stew for himself.
Slightly muffled, around a full mouth, Yuri adds, “Also, you know, I paid him on my way to ... yours.”
“So he did,” Dr Squidhead says, slurping down his bowl of stew in one great gulp. “Now let me look at the warming charms young Yuri has done for you. You’re shivering.”
And Yuuri has been, but wasn’t expecting anyone to notice.
“D-do you have to paint it on my skin?” He really doesn’t want to strip off the wetsuit.
Yuri’s watching quietly, seaglass eyes piercing across the fire.
“It would be best. Oh. Is it the cold? Of course. I will stoke the fire higher.”
He turns to do so, and Yuuri crams the rest of the ration bar into his mouth.
The flames climb higher briefly, shadows flickering on the floor and walls, and Yuuri distracts himself with strained theorising about how exactly fire is burning in water. Magnesium? But the glare isn’t blinding. The answer may well be magic. He sighs to himself.
Once it has warmed up enough that Yuuri can feel it through his wetsuit, enough that he feels like he’s submerged in a lukewarm onsen, he takes a steadying breath and lets Dr Squidhead re-apply a warming charm.
“A sturdier one,” the doctor remarks. “Not a comment on your work, young Yuri, you did well for one of your age.”
Yuri mutters something, most likely disobliging and rude, from where he’s curled on top of his coiled tail in a shadowed corner.
“Oh! Yuri,” says Yuuri, with sudden recollection. “Can I have my bottle, please? I need water.”
He feels Dr Squidhead pause behind him, and tenses, before the tickling sensation of sponge against his skin starts up again.
Yuri brings him the bottle, hovers over them to inspect Dr Squidhead’s work. Yuuri ignores him to take a sip of his water, grateful for the sports cap. He has no idea how he’d drink water underwater, otherwise. Grateful he is, too, that Yuri has been obligingly carrying his water supply all this way.
“I’ve painted a strength pattern on as well,” says Dr Squidhead at length, finally moving away. “You have a difficult journey ahead of you.”
“Ahead of us?” Yuuri asks, zipping his suit back up. Apparently the paint that Dr Squidhead uses doesn’t smear.
“Really, young Yuri,” sighs Dr Squidhead. “Can’t you have warned him?”
“What — are there sharks? Jellyfish? What?”
Yuri snorts, from where he’s curled up again. To sleep, Yuuri realises. His eyes are half-hidden behind his lowered lids. “Humans, idiot. Great, hulking monsters with their legs sinking into the crust. It cries, but can you hear it? Do you care? No.”
“What?” Yuuri asks blankly. And then it hits him, with no little horror. “Wait, crude oil rigs?”
Dr Squidhead shrugs, his alien profile thrown into dramatic relief by the firelight. “Whatever it is, it stinks, and it’s hurting the crust.”
“The water peoples broke with humanity a long time ago.” Something hisses and pops as Dr Squidhead pokes at his fire. “Very, very long ago. For good reason, I think. You are not like the others, though, I hope.”
Yuuri drives a petrol-fuelled car.
“Uh,” he says. “No, I hope not.”
“I hope so too,” the doctor says ominously. “For your sake.” And then he looks up and flashes what might be a reassuring smile at Yuuri. “Not because of me, of course.”
Somehow, Yuuri doesn’t feel the least bit reassured. Somehow, he finds it within himself to yawn anyway.
“Sleep, young human,” the doctor says. “There is, ah, bedding on that ledge. I occasionally have a surveyor honour me with their presence, you see, and some of them take on human habits.”
There is a sardonic edge to his voice that Yuuri cannot even begin to dissect, so he merely nods and swims up to where he was pointed to.
Yuuri wakes to the feeling of lightness, or the lifting of an oppressive dark.
Whispers filter up through the water to him. Dr Squidhead is talking. He can’t help, he’s afraid. That kind of transformative magic on that level is beyond him. Not legs, never legs.
Yuuri’s starting to feel out of his depth. He is at least a hundred metres below his usual depth, to be honest.
When he opens his eyes, the water is still a deep blue, but he can see now, without the aid of the now quenched candles in their sconces. The fire in the pit is still going, though; Yuuri has the feeling that Dr Squidhead has kept it alive for him. Gratitude squirms uneasily in the pit of his stomach.
“Morning,” Yuuri rasps out, and winces at the taste of his mouth. “I taste like death. Do you have toothpaste down here?” This early in the morning and before tea, Yuuri cannot be having with manners.
Yuri bares his teeth up at Yuuri; they gleam white and sharp. “I don’t know what that means. We have a cleansing drink. Come down here.”
Yuuri dives down and nearly snatches the satchet of clear, jellyish liquid out of Yuri’s hands.
He bites into it and almost recoils as his mouth burns; it’s almost as bad as the breathing spell. When he spits it out into the fire, the flames themselves seem to shy away from the liquid, but his mouth feels as though he’s had a full-on scaling and polishing done by a dentist now.
“Wow,” Yuuri says, stunned and also shocked clear-headed and awake. “Um, thank you?”
Dr Squidhead makes a wheezing sound and slaps his thigh. Oh, he must be laughing.
“Ugh, whatever,” Yuri says, slinging his satchel on. “Thanks for putting us up, old man.”
“You’re very welcome, young Yuri. It’s always entertaining to have you around.” Dr Squidhead turns to Yuuri. “And it has been interesting meeting a human. I understand you drink freshwater?”
Yuuri glances uncertainly between Yuri and him; Yuri’s tensed up. “Um, yes?”
“Well,” says Dr Squidhead. “I can replenish your supplies, if I may.”
Yuri makes a muted noise, but nothing else.
“I...” Yuuri trails off, confused. “I would appreciate that a lot, doctor, um. Oh, wait. Yuri, in your satchel.” He reaches over and pulls out a pack of chocolates he’s been saving for a really bad time. “This is chocolate, a ... um, human delicacy. In thanks for the water.”
“Well,” Dr Squidhead takes the pack, curiously examining it. He sounds amused. “That’s very gracious of you. Where is this bottle of yours?”
And then he bustles off with the two bottles Yuuri emptied the day before to a ledge set high in a wall.
“That was well done,” Yuri tells him in low tones. “You don’t want to owe —”
“Thank you, doctor!” Yuuri says loudly over Yuri, when he spots Dr Squidhead descending. “I hope you enjoy the chocolate!”
“I’m sure I will.” Dr Squidhead hands Yuri the bottles and starts ushering them out. “Tell that brat Georgi to come and see me.”
Yuri rolls his eyes and flicks a dorsal fin, almost flouncing out the door. “I don’t see Georgi anymore. I’ll let him know.”
“They’re a complicated family,” Dr Squidhead says sympathetically to Yuuri, who was just trying to puzzle that out. “I wish you all the luck with them. Do come back one day.”
“Ahaha,” says Yuuri uncomfortably. “Um, thank you for taking care of us.”
“So polite, too.” Yuuri never knew squids could swoon. “He’s chosen well, has Viktor Piot —”
“OI!” Yuri yells, drowning out whatever Dr Squidhead was going to say next. Viktor’s full name. Something twinges under Yuuri’s ribs. Curiosity, perhaps. “ARE WE LEAVING NOW OR WHAT?”
“Sorry.” Yuuri bows from the waist. “I’ll come back when I can.”
He matches Dr Squidhead’s wave, and kicks off after Yuri.
Just yesterday, Yuuri wouldn’t have been able to tell you about the difference between one patch of water and the next, or one depth of water and the next, but now he is glad that Yuri is bringing them back up to where the water is clearer and he can see white patches of light forming and reforming on the wind-ruffled surface, the sun shining down from far above.
“Yuri, can we break the surface? Will that stop my breathing charm?”
Yuri turns to give him a strange look. “No it won’t, but why?”
“Why?” Yuuri gapes for a bit. “Because ... because I miss the air!”
“Oh.” Yuri frowns and turns back to swim on. “Not here, we’re near the human monstrosities. I hate those. We have to go around them, and then maybe we can go back up.”
Dr Squidhead drew a map the night before, in the fine sand lining his floor. It included landmasses, so Yuuri has a vague sense of the direction they’re heading in, skirting the shallower seashelf that Sakhalin sits on — he’s a little amused by this, that he is, sort of, visiting Sakhalin, following its edge north and east to the Vodyanoi city.
The map didn’t include the locations of the crude oil rigs, though. Yuuri’s starting to understand what they meant by ‘it stinks’; there’s an increasingly acrid tang to the water, something Yuuri would probably never had noticed without having spent so much time swimming through clear, pure seawater and visiting with the mysterious doctor.
Speaking of whom, Yuuri puts on a burst of speed to catch up with Yuri. “He’s very mysterious, the doctor,” Yuuri observes.
As expected, Yuri snorts. “He’s a weirdo.”
“Is that his real name?”
“What? Squidhead? No, but it’s the one I call him. He doesn’t like being named.”
“Ah ... he seems quite nice, I thought,” Yuuri says as nonchalantly as he can.
It’s amazing how Yuri can shrug whilst swimming at the same time. “He’s old, so I don’t really know the story. Maybe Viktor knows better. He likes all the old stories. But he got exiled long ago.”
Yuuri pauses. “Oh.” That explains the traces of bitterness the doctor couldn’t help but let slip.
“Don’t feel so sorry for him, though,” Yuri says, clearly uncomfortable. “He could’ve gone anywhere but he stayed near anyway.”
He lets a few minutes elapse as they swim in almost companionable silence, before hmmmming noncommittally.
Dr Squidhead’s charms hold up well; he’s nice and warm, and they make good time.
When they clear the head of Sakhalin and the last of the oil rigs, Yuri leads them out over deeper waters, and up to the surface.
The kiss of cool air and sea spray against his face is relief like no other. Yuuri has never been so aware of the sweetness of air, the expansion of his lungs in his chest as he breathes in, and in, and in. The vast expanse of the sea stretching out to the horizon on all sides is less intimidating now that Yuuri has spent a full day in it. Far to the southwest, the green cliffs of Sakhalin are a smear low in the sky.
“You miss it,” Yuri observes, having bobbed a little higher so that more than just his eyes are above the water. His face is thoughtful.
Disquieted, Yuuri says, “Of course I do.”
Yuri hums thoughtfully. “It would be easier for merpeople to go on land, I suppose, because the water is so close by.”
He hasn’t really thought about that before. “Not everywhere,” Yuuri says. “Not inland, where there are deserts. Sandy plains. Like the seabed, but without the sea on top of it.”
The look that Yuri gives him is sceptical in the extreme.
Yuuri shrugs. “I hope you never have to see it. You would die, maybe.”
“Maybe,” Yuri grudgingly says, before dipping below the water, tail flicking briefly in the air. He surfaces again quickly. “It’s time to go, come on.”
Casting one last lingering look at the sky, Yuuri dives after him.
As they angle back down to the seabed, Yuuri realises that the trip up to the surface was a kindness; it’s added more distance than necessary.
The sea-sense that Yuri snapped at him about the day before is, Yuuri thinks, developing; they seem to be cutting northwest across a deeper patch of sea.
“Yuri, what direction are we heading in?”
“Eh?” Yuri cocks his head. “What do you mean?”
“I think we’re going northwest; is that correct?”
“Oh, northwest.” There’s a pause as the babelfish charm clearly parses that into however it is that the Vodyanoi orientate themselves. “Yes. There are mountains, to the north of the city. It is easier to slip the guards if we go through them.”
“So we’re circling around the city now?”
“Sort of.” Yuri shoots him a sharp look. “You have your bearings now. Good.”
Yuuri smiles to himself, as they catch a short current to bear them back to true north of the city.
In the popular human imagination, the sea is floored with thick layers of fine sand, perhaps with the occasional ornamental outcropping of rock.
These outcroppings of rock are neither occasional nor ornamental: an entire metamorphic range of craggy mountains march along the lip of the plateau they are swimming along. Yuri shows him a faint map scratched into something that looks like the back of leather. Their approach will take them threading through hidden passes in a tight cluster of hills thrusting up from the continental shelf, and through that the shortest valley crossing before they come upon the backs of the mountains connected by an isthmus to the Vodyanoi City, secure on a large plateau rising over deeper water.
“Why can’t we just ... swim over the top?” Yuuri asks.
Yuri rolls his eyes. “We could, if we wanted to announce ourselves to the entire guard and the Tsar himself, at that.”
“All right, why couldn’t we have entered through the front, then?” Yuuri traces over the south-west facing side of the city, a comfortable distance away from the hatched tongue of sea labelled “THE DEEPS, AVOID THIS YURA”. He taps on the scratched words that say ‘MARKETS’. Apparently babelfish charms work on script too. “You get traders, don’t you? We could pretend to...”
Yuri’s just looking very significantly at Yuuri’s legs.
“Oh,” says Yuuri, embarrassed. “I forgot.”
“Glad you realised,” Yuri says sarcastically. “It’s hard to sneak up a plateau, anyway. Anyway, it is here that we must rendezvous.” He pronounces the word with great relish, tapping at an empty space in the north-eastern quadrant of the city.
Not having to duck their way through the entire length of the city from the south-western gate to the rendezvous is a big point in favour of the mountain route.
Yuri brings them low, to about halfway up the flanks of the foothills. Where a casual guard scanning the seas won’t see them, he says.
“At least we’re not climbing,” Yuuri remarks, looking at the map. “Do you know where we are, exactly?”
His companion is squinting at the map and then back up at the black, fluted masses of rock before them. “...No,” Yuri admits grudgingly. “Map reading has not been part of my lessons. So far.”
Yuuri has no doubt that the moment Yuri is restored to school, he will be demanding it be added to the curriculum. He’s distracted, for a moment, wondering what a Vodyanoi education would look like, before shaking himself back into the present. Viktor.
The map is crude; the barest attempts at contour lines and clearly hand drawn, but the cartographer has a fair draughtsman’s hand and a gift for picking out identifying features.
“We’re here,” Yuuri says, pointing out an irregularly shaped peak in the distance and tracing the line of sight to where they are on the map. “And I think the start of the path is further up ... there.” There’s is a narrow fissure in the rock at least fifty metres above their heads and to the right. On the map, it supposedly is the start of a hidden passage that will safely bring them through tight cluster of hills that the cartographer has dubbed THREE MEN IN A TUB.
Yuuri’s fairly certain by this point that Yuri’s cartographer is a Vodyanoi surveyor. Viktor certainly would not have been able to make that reference.
The light of begrudging respect in Yuri’s eyes makes Yuuri warm through. He’s glad to have served some purpose on this quest.
Tense hours pass as they thread their way through narrow gaps, breaks in the jagged walls where the cooling rock contracted and cracked apart, millennia ago. All they have to trust is the path traced out on the map for them, and Yuuri’s own navigational sense, a hundred metres below sea level. It would tickle him, somewhat, that merpeople use the same fixed reference to measure height, if not for the crawling pressure tightening his chest.
They twist from one hill to the next, sheer faces so close Yuuri scrapes his shoulders against rock in one passageway. It’s close and claustrophobic, dappling light far over their heads in narrow shafts.
Slowly, a sense of spaciousness beyond them opens up; there is a renewed vigour and freshness to the currents wafting past them, and possibly something that can only be put down to the sea-sense. There is also the way Yuri gets quieter and quieter.
“We’re most likely to get caught here,” Yuri murmurs. His knuckles are white around his grip on his satchel strap. “I don’t ... I don’t know how we’re going to get across.”
Yuuri blinks at him, and gazes down at the plains of glittering black sand. In his wetsuit and with his dark hair, Yuuri would probably camouflage quite well. Yuri’s colouration, on the other hand ...
“That spell you did.” Yuuri remembers suddenly. “On my backpack. Would that work on you?”
Well, Yuuri could really get used to being looked at like he’s a genius.
Either Yuri’s spellwork is stronger than Dr Squidhead made it out to be, or the city guards are not particularly observant, or all the gods of the Japanese pantheon are smiling upon Yuuri today, because they make their creeping way across the plain unseen.
It is at this point, of course, that a huge shadow passes suddenly over them, and in their fright they simultaneously flatten themselves to the rough rock in front of them.
When Yuuri looks up, he loses his breath: a shoal of whales is passing far over them, their bellies white and their movements slow and majestic.
“A good omen,” Yuri breathes, just before the whales start singing. “Oh, quickly now, while everyone is distracted.”
Huddled in the lee of a mountain, Yuuri frantically orientates them and gets them started up a scree slope, where their kind cartographer has indicated they will be hidden from sight of the nearest garrison. He wonders how the cartographer knows, and if he will meet them. The sorrowful, warbling call of the whales tugs at something low in his gut, urges him onwards.
They set out soon after sunrise penetrated through the water to the shelf that Dr Squidhead’s home sat on; the quality of light is now thickening, the waters shading a deeper blue.
“We can’t shelter here tonight,” Yuri whispers grimly. “Hurry.”
And so the two of them press on, putting their faith in a rough map, Yuri’s homing instinct, and Yuuri’s desperate map reading. They’re both quiet, focussing entirely on moving quickly through the twisting, winding passes, avoiding the strange undersea creatures that populate even the sunlit zone, and swimming up and over obstacles as unobtrusively as they can.
They come to the abrupt end of the isthmus just as light is dwindling to dark and Yuuri is almost blinded yet again. They pause, clinging to one of the last jagged peaks before descending onto the plateau that the Vodyanoi city sprawls like a many-limbed kraken in, lit up with that same warm, welcoming amber glow.
From this high up, it is a concentric series of dwellings that form a relatively taller, twisted building in the centre. The administrative centre, Yuri tells him quietly, taking pride of place. The Tsar himself lives in one of the westward dwellings off the centre. The Tsar commands the fertile fisheries along the Kurile island chain, and that is why the Vodyanoi are rich.
Midway through Yuri’s uncharacteristic patter, something grips him: a yawning sense of space, of open water stretching out so close by Yuuri could plunge and free fall into it.
“Don’t,” Yuri catches his arm just as Yuuri lunges. “Fuck, the compulsion. I forgot. Fuck. Quick. We go down here, it’s a less guarded path.”
With Yuri’s restraining hand, Yuuri half-blindly swims into what feels like yet another narrow chute, this time sliding definitively downwards.
It’s curious how, when darkness presses in on you from all sides, time almost ceases to have meaning. Oh, it must pass, but as Yuuri paddles in some vague direction, their passage through the path seems endless, like it is stretching out to infinity.
“Here,” Yuri’s whisper cuts through the dark, and Yuuri almost shushes him. “We’re here.”
A light flares, and a woman’s face, framed in wild red hair lifting slightly in the currents, peers back at them. “Good, we were getting worried. Follow me.”
Perhaps it is the aftereffects of the compulsion, or just a full day of swimming just now slamming into Yuuri like a tsunami of exhaustion, but what follows takes on a dream-like quality; he follows Yuri and his red-headed friend through a warren of stonewalled alleyways, ceilinged with low slung cloths. If not for their tails and the unmistakeable, constant press of the currents against his skin, Yuuri would think they were in some bazaar out of human fables.
Fatigue blankets his head and his limbs; Yuuri starts lagging behind before long.
The woman — merwoman, turning, catches sight of Yuuri yawning, and says something sharply to Yuri. She swims back and catches hold of Yuuri’s hand; her blue eyes are several shades darker than Viktor’s, but have the same piercing quality to them.
“Sorry,” she says; her voice sounds muzzy to Yuuri. “I’ll tow you, here. And, oh, your legs. Yura, honestly.”
“What,” Yuuri hears Yuri grump. When Yuuri forces his eyes open, Yuri is visibly wilting too.
The woman makes a frustrated noise, before clapping something to Yuuri’s hip.
“Sleep, friend,” she says to him. “I will carry you.”
He’s about to protest; she is so petite, but then a grey wave of weariness pulls him under, and Yuuri knows no more.
Soft murmuring lulls Yuuri back to the waking world.
“He’s awake,” a woman says ... after a whirling moment of confusion, a faint impression of red hair and blue eyes forms in Yuuri’s tired brain. “Good morning.”
“It’s uncanny,” someone else says, with no small amount of theatricality in the modulation of his voice alone, “how you do that without magic.”
“You’re so dramatic,” the woman sighs. “That’s what’s uncanny.”
“Me? Dramatic? I’m not the one wearing surveyor gear to storm their own home!”
“You are both so annoying,” Yuri says flatly. Strange to think the wild thing that came snarling out of the water at him a mere few days past is now the anchoring comfort in a strange place. “Oi, stop hiding in that corner.”
Yuuri gets out of the bed he’s been tucked into, is briefly tangled up in the surprisingly warm lightweight silk sheets, and goes over to where they are clustered around a low table. They’re in a small, round room, with only height enough for one tiny mezzanine, supported by a half-height wall. The table is pushed up against this wall, across from a heavily bolted door.
Upon the table is spread another map — clearly by the same cartographer’s hand — which is weighed down by an assortment of foods and glass bottles.
“Hello,” Yuuri says shyly.
The dark-haired merman with a profusion of turquoise fins shoves a mug at him; somehow, the contents of it aren’t merging with the surrounding water. Yuuri darts a look at Yuri to see if he has any objections; Yuri isn’t even looking at them.
“Thank you?” Yuuri takes the mug and peers into it. Its contents are a cloudy white.
“Freshwater tea,” says the merman. “No obligations. If anything, Viktor’ll just have to owe me another.”
It tastes startlingly like the iced roasted barley tea that Yuuri’s mother has on tap during the height of summer in Kyushu. Yuuri misses home with a sudden, fierce ache.
When he looks up, the merman is smiling at him. “Good, eh?”
“Yes,” murmurs Yuuri, and goes back to drinking the tea.
“Manners, Yura,” the red-headed merwoman, who is wearing something that looks a lot like a flak jacket, nudges Yuri. “I know you have them.”
“Ugh, fuck off, old lady. This is Georgi,” Yuri says, indicating the beneficent provider of tea. “And this is my annoying cousin, Mila.”
“Hi!” Mila says perkily. She’s speaking English. Yuuri stares; she smirks at him. “I’m Mila.” Her scarlet hair, the same shade as her elegantly turned fins, is braided back so that he can see the slightly more pinkish buzz of an undercut. It’s such a human hairstyle.
“Um,” says Yuuri in English as well. “I ... like your haircut?”
Mila bounces a little in place, switching back to the Vodyanoi language. “I told you guys! It’s popular in the human world!”
The other two barely react.
“I’m a surveyor,” she turns back to Yuuri and pats her flak jacket.
“Oh,” says Yuuri. He remembers Viktor mentioning those. “Wow. Oh, did you draw that map?”
“Yes!” Mila cries, puffing up with pride. “Did you like it?”
Yuuri smiles at her. “Yes, it was very helpful. Did you —”
“Okay, okay,” Yuri P interrupts. “Are you finished? Can we talk about important things now?”
Mila frowns at him, but Yuuri sits, chastened.
He nibbles at a pastry-like thing, filled with a tart, purplish jam, and quietly listens as the three of them, clearly close — well, Mila and Yuri are cousins, but Georgi fits in too, much like an older sibling — talk over each other and jab at points on the map.
They clearly have the lay of the land here, and do not need Yuuri’s map-reading services.
“Yuuri’s here to get Vitya back, fullstop,” Georgi says at one point, glancing his way. “But should we bring him along?”
“Yes,” is Yuuri’s only contribution. After two days of travel through the sea, feeling entirely out of his element and slightly cold all the time, the only thing keeping Yuuri going is the mental vision of Viktor’s silly smile and the way his warmth always seeped into Yuuri’s skin, when they curled up together.
The three of them look at him for a long while, before shrugging in eerie unison and turning back to their discussion.
Mila shakes her head, tail thrashing a little frustratedly, a while later. “They’re going to be on patrol around his rooms, double the patrol. I’ve tried to get into to see him, but that only worked once.”
And then, when they seem to have worked out a plan of entry and exit, a heated argument during which Yuuri has a nap, they turn to another problem.
“Legs are beyond me,” Georgi says, pressing a hand to his collarbone. “There’s someone else we can ask, but she lives on the other side of Okhotsk. Near the fisheries.”
Mila chokes. “You can’t think ...?”
Georgi shrugs. “She hasn’t got much love for the Tsar.”
“She’s fond of Viktor,” Yuri adds, though his expression shows what he thinks of that.
Mila flicks him on the nose. “Doesn’t show it, though.”
“Yes, well.” Yuri shrugs. “When does she ever?”
“Who,” Yuuri breaks in, exasperated, “exactly are you talking about?”
“Viktor hasn’t mentioned her to you?” Georgi affects surprise.
Yuuri looks up at the ceiling in mute supplication.
After a pause, the other three look up as well, with a distinct air of confusion about them.
“Oh,” Mila mutters. “I remember this. It’s a human thing. Just answer the question, Georgi.”
“Our tutor’s ex-wife,” Georgi says, and pauses. “Well, ex-tutor for me, now. She’s a witch. She can probably do legs. She’d try just to piss him off, anyway.”
Yuri puts his head down on the table and grinds his forehead against it. “We need to get Viktor out and to Lilia first, anyway.”
“And convince her to help us,” Mila points out.
They all subside at that, crestfallen.
“Let’s have lunch,” Georgi says, going over a recess in the wall. “All this scheming is making me hungry.”
“You’re sleeping a lot, Yuuri,” Mila observes over the seaweed wrap that Georgi handed her. “You all right?”
“I,” Yuuri yawns. “I’m just tired.”
Yuri shakes his head. “We’ve been swimming hard for two days.”
“And I’m only human,” Yuuri adds wryly. He takes another mug of tea gratefully from Georgi.
Georgi nods at him, before saying, “I’m surprised you’re not tired, Yura.”
Yuri shrugs, tapping his head. “We dropped by Squidhead’s. He did the thing.”
The penny drops. “Wait.” Yuuri looks up from another pastry, with a strangely spicy fish filling this time. “Was that...that ... was that supposed to be restorative?”
There’s a pained look on Georgi’s and Mila’s faces.
“Yes, and that’s not the point here,” Yuri says hurriedly, fins twitching. “He’s friends with Lilia, okay? It’s fine. So, updates, human-Yuri. Yes, we’re sneaking in. And then we hope Viktor hasn’t had a change of heart —”
At the same time Yuuri’s heart drops into a pit that has just opened up in the base of his stomach, Mila slaps Yuri upside the head. “Tact, Yura!”
“Or,” Yuri continues, glaring at his cousin. “Or he has decided to be all noble and self-sacrificing for the great good of the Vodyanoi.”
Georgi snorts. “You think so?”
There’s a suspicion forming in Yuuri’s mind, but before he can voice it, there’s a knock at the door.
His three companions freeze, and then Georgi seizes Yuuri by the arm and thrusts him with surprising strength behind the half-crumbled wall. There’s a gap between two flat slabs of rock that Yuuri presses his face next to.
The door bursts open and what can only be soldiers advance into the room. At their head is an old, old merman, whose square face is deeply carved with lines of anger and discontent, especially around his scowling mouth.
“Yakov!” Georgi says, showboating. “What a pleasant —”
“Don’t say it,” says the thickset old merman at the head of the company. Then he looks straight through the drywall at where Yuuri is crouching. “So. This is he, eh?”
Mila, voice steady, says, “Who, Yakov?”
“I think you’re losing your touch, Yakov,” Georgi joins in on the attempts to obfuscate. “Seeing things. I have just the charm for that, actually.”
Just inside Yuuri’s limited range of vision, Yuri sits and eats a pastry defiantly.
Yakov unfolds his arms briefly to rub at the bridge of his nose.
“No, stay back,” he snaps at the shifting soldiers behind him. “Look, Mila, what are you doing?”
“Hanging out with an old friend,” she says lightly. “Can’t help it if we have to sneak around just to have a chat.”
Yuri swallows and makes a hissing sound of annoyance. “I got dragged along.”
“Your charmwork needs work,” Georgi tells him, sounding miffed.
“Enough!” Yakov raises his voice, and folds his arms again. “All of you are not as subtle as you would like to think. Taking the mountain route? It’s crawling with guards!” He looks vaguely disappointed. “Are you going to fight, or come quietly?”
“It depends,” Mila says, her stance already shifting, “on what you do with ... our guest.”
Yakov throws his arms into the air in a very human gesture. His tail is staying unnervingly still, though. “It’s up to the Tsar. Whether or not he gets to the Tsar in one piece is up to you.”
Yuuri closes his eyes and counts to ten, before taking a deep breath and stepping out from behind the wall.
Almost immediately, Yakov’s squad of soldiers level their spears at him.
He stumbles back and gets his open hands up before him. “I’m not! Oh my gods, I’m just an archaeologist!” he babbles.
“Are you now?” Yakov says dangerously. “Well.”
“I am! And, uh, I’m willing to go. Please, all of you. Let’s go.”
The soldiers fall into line, two to either side of Yuuri, Yakov leading them.
Behind him, Yuuri can hear Yuri snarl, “Oi, get your hands off my stuff,” and Georgi long-sufferingly say, “Come on, gentlemen, you can’t possibly think I’ve forgotten my way to the palace?” Mila says nothing at all, but he can feel the press of her haughty disapproval like a touch. Their guard clearly feels it too, because Yuri is allowed to wrench his way up to the front and hover like a rabidly protective cat right behind Yuuri.
He’s touched, honestly.
Yakov leads them through the ramshackle quarter, through narrow and empty alleyways hemmed in by high walls. Through the slits in these walls, they feel hidden eyes on them from all around; the guards shift uneasily, their tails flicking faster than necessary. Adrenaline thrums through Yuuri’s veins, his heart pounding in his throat.
His thoughts are scattered, when he tries to gather them, flitting away whenever he reaches in an attempt to make a case coalesce in his head. Yuuri doesn’t want to die, and it is this refrain that beats over and over, leaving little space for any other thought.
“You’re hiding us,” Mila says quietly, from where she’s in the rear.
They’ve turned out into a section of the city with broader thoroughfares, where the buildings are built more squat and orderly. It is a quiet neighbourhood, residences standing empty and the currents barely stirring anything. Yuuri wonders if they have pet seals, all of a sudden.
No one replies.
She snorts, and silence falls again.
The city’s streets twist and wind, looping back on themselves in what seems to Yuuri completely unnecessary hairpin turns. The tall spire of the administrative centre appears in flashes, in the gaps between buildings, looming ever larger in Yuuri’s sight. It is in a cul-de-sac, directly backing onto a complex of low, residential-looking buildings that their procession skirts.
In this way, they are led unnoticed by the general public on the other side of the tower to a narrow door.
Yuuri is on the cusp of hyperventilating, and only a sharp push from Yuri that has him somehow tripping over his own feet in water snaps him out of it.
“Get it together!” Yuri barks at him, as a guard grabs him by the arm, hauling him back upright.
“Ah,” Yuuri looks up. “Um, thank you?”
Yuuri’s starting to wonder if the guards are mute or have their tongues cut out or something equally barbaric, given how quiet they are.
The guard lets go and looks away.
They’re in an antechamber, dimly lit and low-ceilinged.
“This brings back memories,” Georgi muses, as though they weren’t all in danger of their lives.
Perhaps Yuuri is the only one who might die.
“Am I going to die?” he asks plaintively.
Yakov produces a mighty snort of disdain. “Killing you would be more trouble than it’s worth. Death is not what you need to worry about, boy.”
In an undertone, Georgi says to Mila: “And you call me dramatic — Ow! Yakov!”
Yuuri is so confused. Yakov’s just slapped Georgi upside the head like an errant child, not a prisoner. His three companions don’t look terribly bothered by the predicament they’re in. His terrible brain is now spinning out all the gruesome ways in which Yuuri could be kept alive and in pain: Prometheus comes to mind.
“Hey.” Someone’s gripping Yuuri’s wrist. It’s Mila. “Yuuri, calm down. Yakov means that if they kill you, Viktor’s going to go crazy. Which would definitely be more trouble than it’s worth. Come on.”
Yuuri lets out a thin laugh. “And the other bit?”
“He’s just trying to intimidate you,” she says. “God, your heart’s going too fast. Nothing will happen to you, Yuuri, I promise you.”
He doesn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s been thudding like this ever since Yakov and his guards burst into the room, and just gives her a deeply sceptical look.
“Step away from him, Mila,” Yakov orders. “The Tsar will see you now.”
A door opens in the far side of the antechamber, lighting up the dim space.
Out beyond the door is an immense crowd of people, pale faces and tails in every colour thronging around the empty space in the centre of the hall. The murmur of the crowd is run through with a thread of tense excitement.
“Well,” Mila remarks to no one at all. “This escalated quickly.”
The administrative centre is one great open hall, apparently, with high walls twisting up to a close, comma-like openings set into the distant ceiling. Familiar ledges jut out along each fold in the wall, and the place is packed to the literal brim. Yuuri still isn’t quite used to the concept of living in three dimensions. He doesn’t know how anyone gets anything done, with at least a 50% chance of going eye to crotch with someone. Not that merpeople seem to have crotches, as far as he can see.
The looks his legs are drawing even in here, where Yuuri presumes a court may have more sophisticated manners, makes Yuuri want to flaunt them even more. His terror is slowly transmuting into something cleaner, something that doesn’t fuzz his head with static, something a little like anger.
It helps, definitely, when their guard draws back, leaving them isolated. There is something of the feeling, perhaps, of being players on a stage. The Tsar’s court the audience, and the Tsar himself, a distant figure on the high throne set into the smooth basalt facing of the far wall, their director. Yuuri’s mind ticks over these details, as the Tsar gestures them closer.
Where’d they get the basalt from? It isn’t the rough texture of pillow basalt, which plumes along seabeds. And Yuuri has only seen finely silted marine sands blanketing the floor for the most part, coming to the Vodyanoi city. Wherever the glassy basalt came from, it is one of the clearest monumental expressions of power and control that Yuuri has seen.
He’s grateful, in a way, that his brain so easily chases thoughts down rabbit-holes; it’s brought him absently within a hundred metres of the throne and insulated him from the aloof, diminishing regard of the Tsar.
Mila and Yuri, the Tsar glances at with wintery chill; his gaze turns into a terrifying glare at Georgi, who pales a little and sways back. They stand with him, anyway, as Yuuri holds onto his steadying anger at the Tsar, who has seen fit to constrain Viktor, smother the life out of him.
“Well?” The Tsar asks, voice rolling out like the distant boom of thunder out at sea on a stormy summer night. “Why have you come sneaking into my city like a common thief? What business have you here?”
Nothing in Yuuri’s life, not all the vivas or conference presentations, could have prepared him for this moment.
Taking a deep breath, Yuuri declares: “I’m here for Viktor.”
A susurrus of voices swells in the room.
They fall silent when the Tsar sweeps them all with a look and orders quiet.
“I — I know I’m just a human,” Yuuri starts again. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Yuri scrunch his face up.
“Yes,” says the Tsar. His voice is remote and cold as the ice floes in winter. His blue gaze seems to cut at Yuuri from afar. “You are.”
Yuuri winces. “But that’s the thing. I am a human, but I’ve come all the way here, haven’t I? I’ve swum more in the past few days than I have in my life, and I grew up by the sea.”
He shakes his head, tries to marshal his thoughts.
“Viktor saved my life, the way I saved his. I’ve learnt that we — we have more in common, the Vodyanoi and humans, than anyone would think, and it’s because of Viktor. Viktor has a brilliant mind, and he’s kind, and he’s curious about everything, and makes me learn more about myself and my own world in turn. I think Viktor deserves ... to see more of the world that he wants to see. Locking him up here is not good for anyone. Not him, nor your people.”
“You presume,” the Tsar says softly and dangerously, but his chin is propped lazily in one hand, “to lecture me on the good of my people?”
Behind him, Yuuri hears Mila whisper, “Ohshit.”
“I’m not lecturing you,” Yuuri says as politely as he can. “I’m reminding you.”
The pause that follows has the quality of a straining tightrope.
Yet, all the Tsar does is to shift his weight and his chin to his other hand. His numerous, broad, trailing fins are so pale as to be transparent, his preternaturally still tail a silvery white. The overall effect is that of a whispery beard.
“Well. And is there anything else, little human?”
Yuuri’s throat clicks as he swallows nervously. Mila gives him an encouraging nudge in the back.
“And I, I love him,” Yuuri blurts abruptly, and flushes at the explosion of sound in the room.
It cuts off again, once the Tsar raises a quelling hand.
“You love him,” the Tsar repeats slowly, eyebrows rising. “And how has this come to be?”
So Yuuri, in this excruciatingly public setting, recounts the fateful night Viktor washed up on the shore of Gorotayama, and how Viktor found him again after that, and how they found each other again, and again. Safe harbours against their days. Yuuri has no idea when it happened, just knows that he had been falling in love over those happy weeks, and he has no other way to explain it than to spill it out, disembowel himself for the raw, emotional truth of it.
He stops mid-ramble when the Tsar holds up a hand.
“Do you know,” the Tsar asks, apparently disregarding all of Yuuri’s messy feelings, “whose time, exactly, you have been monopolising?”
Yuuri’s starting to see why this Lilia that the others were talking about hates the Tsar.
“I, I mean, clearly he’s important, but what —” Yuuri collects himself. “What does it matter? It doesn’t sound to me like you’re talking about Viktor as, as himself. For himself.”
This time, it’s Yuri who murmurs “ohshit” almost inaudibly behind his back.
The pressure in the hall is so immense it feels like a storm is threatening. Like they’re all in a syringe, and the plunger is being pressed slowly in.
Yuuri does his best to ignore the stinging feeling in his ears and the overwhelming instinct to cower away.
Abruptly, the Tsar barks out a laugh, and the oppressive feeling dissipates.
“Well! You have spirit, at least.” The Tsar taps his fingers against an arm of his throne as he considers Yuuri. “I can respect that.”
There’s a commotion outside the throne room just as the Tsar is opening his mouth. He closes it and frowns, twisting in his seat.
Distant shouts suddenly grow clearer, and Viktor tumbles his way in through a hidden door in the wall high above the throne, silver hair like a flare and his fins; Yuuri’s never seen them in water before, and they’re beautiful: fanning out to control his fall, the silvery blue of them catching the light in the hall.
“Yuuri!” Viktor exclaims, eyes wide and panicked, immediately focussing on him. “Why — no, you shouldn’t be —”
“Do be quiet, Vitya,” says the Tsar almost fondly, and Yuuri rapidly revises his reading of their relationship, the whole situation. “Your human’s come to plead for you.”
Viktor looks at the Tsar almost as if he doesn’t believe his ears or the reality of Yuuri’s presence not a hundred metres away from him. The Tsar looks evenly back. Their eyes, Yuuri realises suddenly, are the exact same shade of piercing blue.
“Oh,” says Viktor very quietly, but the great hall has fallen so silent a pin drop could be heard.
And so all hear him, and see the way his face brightens and his attention swings back to Yuuri. Viktor’s gaze sweeps over Yuuri from head to toe, warming Yuuri as it goes. It pauses at Yuuri’s toes, and then there is that familiar head-tilt that so quickly became dear, again. “Oh, but — how?”
Yuuri smiles at him, drinking the sight of him in. Unable to help himself, he says, “Magic.”
Despite the uncertainty of the situation, and despite the sound of retching from the peanut gallery standing at Yuuri’s back, the smile that blooms across Viktor’s face makes Yuuri feel invincible.
“Hrrmmmmm.” The Tsar puts his chin in a hand. “We were wondering about your sudden interest in international trade, Vitya. It is not a bad thing, of course, but ... we also thought your interest in archaeology would have lasted a few more decades.”
Yuuri feels something shiver down his spine. “Decades?”
He is ignored, as the Tsar continues: “But now I see it for what it is. You foolish boy. Did you think you were the first?”
“No,” Viktor says lowly. His voice carries anyway, the gentle currents bringing his words to the ears of all in the hall. “I would not have asked you for this boon, otherwise.”
“A boon!” exclaims the Tsar, throwing his hands out in a very familiar way. “And what say you, brave little human?”
“Uh,” says Yuuri, taken aback by the quick about-change in the Tsar’s countenance. If he’s supposed to embody the sea, he’s certainly doing a very good job of it. “I just want Viktor to be free to do what he wants.”
“How convenient for Vitya,” the Tsar says wryly. “Right. All of you, get out. There will be no dismemberment.”
Viktor spins with an indignant look on his face to remonstrate with the Tsar, but all the old merman does is laugh. Yuuri is almost half-sure that he was joking. His moods are indeed as mercurial as the seas.
It takes a while for the disappointed crowds to funnel, grumbling, out through the skylights in the ceilings and the great doors that were swung open upon the Tsar’s order.
“I hate it when he does this.” Yuuri thinks he hears Mila hiss. “It always takes so bloody long.”
“Where d’you think Viktor got his sense of drama from?” Georgi rejoins.
“Same place you did, I thought,” Yuri snarks, but quietly.
The comedy trio helps a bit, as Yuuri just buzzes silently under his skin, fingernails biting into the flesh of his palm. He feels a little as though his gaze has been magnetised to Viktor, who’s turned back around from huffing at the Tsar and is now staring back at him, eyes devouring. It’s been so long.
At last, the doors swing silently shut and the hall has been emptied but for the five of them and Yakov’s company of guards.
“Hmmmmm.” The Tsar steeples his fingers and visibly ruminates at them. “Did you know, we broke with you humans millennia ago?”
“Um,” says Yuuri, and breaks off when Yuri punches him in the kidney, hidden from view behind Yuuri’s back. “Ack! Um, oh?”
The Tsar gives the knot of them a knowing look. “Yes, I rather suspect you’d found out. Somehow. But we had sound reason to,” (next to him, Viktor makes a face that mirrors how Yuuri feels about that), “and recent developments have not entirely inspired confidence.”
Yuuri wishes he had something to counter that with. Humanity as a whole doesn’t inspire confidence, especially not when one is looking back upon the long disaster of human history. And not, he supposes, when they have to listen to the crust of the earth screaming. He stares at the Tsar, who’s looking particularly satisfied, and Viktor, whose eyebrows are furrowed in frustration.
Wait — Viktor is the point here. Viktor and Yuuri are the point here.
He shakes his head rapidly. “With all due respect, your ... um, Majesty, I’m not talking about reintroducing your people to humanity. We’re talking about letting Viktor have his freedom again.”
“Ha!” the Tsar barks. “Well, at least you chose someone clever,” he says in an entirely too audible aside to Viktor.
Viktor looks mildly pained.
“And if I let him go, what do you suppose will happen, smart one?” The Tsar taps at his chin meaningfully. “He will run away again, and with a little help from these ones,” he flicks his fingers at the trio behind Yuuri, “he’ll —”
“I want legs,” Viktor interjects quietly and firmly. “To live overwater. As a human. With Yuuri.”
It’s one thing to hear about it second-hand, and quite another to have it declared in front of him. Yuuri can feel his damned ears heating up, even in the chill of the sea.
Viktor continues speaking, like the inexorable cracking of an ice shelf. “I do not wish to reopen relations with humanity as a whole; I do not wish to be an ambassador of the Vodyanoi. I merely wish to spend time learning, your Imperial Majesty, so that I may understand better. Is this not what you have taught us?”
The Tsar sighs gustily and adopts a put-upon look, spreading his hands palms up. “Am I not allowed to fret over my own blood?”
His own — Yuuri’s brain sort of starts screaming hysterically at this point. Unformed suspicions are quickly gaining shape.
“Mila went overwater. Don’t I deserve a chance too?” Viktor asks. His tail is jarringly still, moving only enough to keep him in place.
“Yes!” Mila says, leaning forth. “I did, and if you say it’s because I’m a girl and expendable to the throne, your Imperial Majesty ... well, that’s one thing we can learn from humans. It’s in my report.”
“You were away two years, Milka,” the Tsar says reprovingly. “Viktor’s talking about decades.”
Mila waves a hand dismissively. “We can make do without Vitya for just a few decades.”
Yuuri feels a little like a bug on the wall, watching a drama play out.
Up near the throne, Viktor looks offended, but says nothing. Then he does a double-take. “Wait! What do you mean, a few decades?”
This is the most that Yuuri has seen the Tsar move in this whole time. Heaving himself sideways to look at Viktor, the Tsar says pityingly, “Human lifespans, Vitya. They are not as long-lived as we.”
Time suspends for a while, as Yuuri lets the realisation percolate through his brain and Viktor seems stunned still.
And then he cuts across the room with one mighty whip of his tail to stare Yuuri in the eyes from one inch away.
“Yuuri?” he asks uncertainly.
Heart breaking preemptively, Yuuri says, “Um, yes? I might live until I’m 90, if I’m lucky. How old are you now?”
Viktor’s eyes burn suddenly. Without responding, he turns back to the Tsar, hand catching hold of Yuuri’s wrist as he goes.
“Grandfather,” he says pleadingly, and also melting Yuuri’s brain. “Do something.”
The Tsar laughs again. It’s a short, unhappy laugh. “You ask for something beyond what I can give, Vitya. And I have not agreed to the legs yet, mind you.”
They all four of them, the Tsar’s grandchildren apparently — and oh god, Yuuri cannot believe he has been cavorting with Vodyanoi royalty — snort in unison.
“Wait,” Yuuri bursts out. “Viktor, you can’t ... I won’t look the same in even ten years, you know?”
“I see I can at least rely on you to speak sense,” the Tsar says drily.
“I can age myself with you; it is no matter,” Viktor says dismissively, “But only, Yuuri, I can’t imagine: only a few decades?”
Yuuri shakes his head, antsy feeling churning up in his gut. “Your, um, grandfather hasn’t ... agreed yet, Viktor. Can we, can we please focus?”
“Ah,” the Tsar says. “How troubling; I like you, little human. Yuuri, is it? And have you a family?”
The way Viktor’s grip goes painfully tight around his wrist is as much warning as Mila’s hissing intake of breath. Yuuri takes a step back. What does — his mind is awhirl with confusion; what is the old merman thinking?
“Yes,” he says shakily, and takes a guess. “And they’d miss me a lot. Mourn me. Their own blood, you know.”
“That is inconvenient.” The Tsar leans his weight on one elbow, tail now freely flicking back and forth smoothly. “And I suppose Vitya would be insufferable, even with you amongst us.”
It is an unpleasant thing, to know that one’s mind runs on the same tracks as a very old and powerful being. Yuuri cannot even begin to articulate the horrified howling in his mind.
Viktor has no such hesitation. He lunges forward, Yuuri pulled along a few metres forward in his indignant wake. “He can’t! Yuuri has a whole life up there, grandfather! He cannot abandon it so!”
“And you, Viktor Piotrovich, have one here too. Your responsibilities, your family, your time.”
Viktor bites his lip and frowns, turning his head to the side.
“Your life debt, as I see it, is no longer owed,” the Tsar says. “So, Yuuri, what have you given to the sea, that we should surrender one of her sons to you?”
Yuuri stares blankly. His time? Three days of his life spent in the strange, merciless depths of the sea were, he didn’t think, anywhere near enough to bargain for a human lifespan of Viktor’s time. A life for a life, is what the Tsar wants. There’s no point dying, and there’s no point if he’s trapped under the sea with Viktor.
In the way thoughts do when one’s mind is frantically ticking over, it occurs to Yuuri to wonder if this is how Dr Squidhead was exiled. A catch-22 he couldn’t talk his way out of. Yuuri licks his dry lips and — oh. Oh. Water, chocolate.
Feeling slightly dirty, Yuuri says, “My grandfather drowned in the sea.” Silently, he promises to clean his grandfather’s empty grave and light ten thousand incense sticks.
“Oh,” says the Tsar, tail stilling. “Is that so? And which sea is this?”
“The Sea of ... Japan?” Yuuri’s incredulous; he can’t believe that ploy might’ve worked. “South, far south of here.”
“Indeed, yes.” The Tsar frowns. “We have treaties with them. As you ought to know, Vitya.”
“I know,” Mila pipes up, grinning.
“Be quiet, brat,” Viktor mutters, but his grip on Yuuri’s wrist has relaxed.
It feels like ... they are relaxed, the four of them, but Yuuri cannot let go until he’s certain. He turns his wrist to grip Viktor’s as well; Viktor jerks, turns to look at him, before shifting closer.
After yet another interminable pause for deliberation, the Tsar grimaces and sits up straight. “Well, a life for a life. Yes. That should work. And it will be a happy life for the two of you, short though it may be. I will send for you tomorrow when the magic is ready, Vitya.”
“Grandfather!” Viktor cries, anguished. “No, but I cannot —”
Yuuri tugs at his arm, unwilling to push the Tsar any further. “It’s all right, Viktor. I mean, who knows if you’ll even ...”
“Even what?” Viktor turns on him in his desperation. “I would not leave — Yuuri — you would think that of me?”
“Oh my gods!” Yuri shouts, somersaulting over their heads in frustration. “Great-uncle, you’ve forgotten something. Yuuri may have a choice at the end of those years. You told me this story when I was small.”
Viktor’s eyes are already brightening, his face smoothing out from the lines hurt anger had creased into being. “I’d almost forgotten! Oh, Yura, from the mouths of babes!”
“I’m not a —”
Yuri’s protest is cut off by the Tsar’s laugh. “I’d almost forgotten myself. Well, is Yuuri deserving of the choice?”
“What choice?” Yuuri cuts in, feeling increasingly frustrated.
“To join me,” Viktor breathes, catching Yuuri’s other hand in his own. “Oh, Yuuri. We can come back here together!”
Yuuri looks around, thinks of the water and the constant craving for the touch of air that’s been clawing at the back of his mind. He blanches instinctively and regrets it immediately, when Viktor’s face falls.
“Well,” the Tsar says mercifully. “You will have the option. I suggest you think on it wisely, and you must send a message before you die.”
It is ... bewildering, to be in the company of a people who think on a far wider timescale than humans do. And Yuuri’d thought archaeologists already had a wider chronological perspective than most people.
“Um,” Yuuri says. “Yes?” He looks at Viktor’s crestfallen face. “I mean, yes. I will. Thank you.”
“Such melodramatics,” the Tsar tuts rather hypocritically, before turning to the rest of their party. “And you! Mila, I will speak with you later. Yura, to your lessons. Georgi, I did not see you here, unless you have changed your mind?”
Georgi smirks and starts swimming for the roof. “No, old man, I haven’t. It was nice seeing you again, though.”
“Bah!” says the Tsar and sends a whirl of water after Georgi’s rapidly disappearing fan of fins, speeding his exit. He heaves himself out of his throne, barking in quick succession: “The cheek! Yakov, make arrangements! Brats, dismissed!”
Once he’s disappeared behind the throne, Yakov’s guards start drifting towards their small knot in the middle of the empty hall.
“Viktor,” Yuuri whispers. “They’re not going to keep us down here forever, after? Like, when I’m old?”
Viktor blinks down at him, and releases Yuuri’s hands only to pull Yuuri closer against him with both arms, like he can’t bear to have Yuuri so far after so long. Giving into a long-restrained impulse, Yuuri puts a hand on Viktor’s chest.
Mila coughs out a laugh behind her hand. There are more vomiting noises from Yuri, drifting off as the boy is tugged away by Yakov, Mila teasing as she follows.
“No, sweetheart,” Viktor says. “You wouldn’t let them anyway, would you?”
The warmth in his voice heats Yuuri up all the way through, and he grins. “No, I wouldn’t.”
That earns him quicksilver smile in return.
“What a tale for the ages, eh?” Viktor whispers, and chases whatever else Yuuri may have had to say away with his lips.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mila told Yuuri before he returned to Rebun, pet merman in tow. “We’ve been walking amongst you lot for a long time. I will come with you to put Viktor’s affairs in order.”
Somehow with Mila and Viktor, the journey back to Rebun does not take two days.
“That was Yura’s first time out of Okhotsk,” Viktor says, eyes smiling. “He was brave.”
“Yes,” Mila agrees, as they tumble through the currents, completely oblivious to Yuuri’s horror. “He does not know how to ride the currents as we do.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Viktor tucks Yuuri’s arm tighter through his own. “You don’t look well?”
“Well,” Yuuri manages. “I’m just reliving all the times I could’ve died on that trip.”
Cultural differences, he reminds himself, when Viktor and Mila both laugh as though he just told the funniest of jokes.
They make sure to put in at Cape Sukoton, to get Viktor and Mila’s fake Russian passports stamped, and drop by their anonymous beach to pick up Yuuri’s backpack.
“Not bad,” Viktor says, when he sees Yuri’s spellwork. And then he touches his finger to the paint, and the backpack shimmers back into sight.
“Don’t ... don’t do that,” Yuuri tells him. “Not where people can see, please.”
Of course, when Yuuri — with great trepidation — slides open the front door of the Mizunos’, the entire inner circle is there. They freeze, mouths open and halfway through springing up probably to shout surprise.
“So THIS is who you’ve been sneaking off to meet!” Phichit cries, the fastest to recover.
“Um,” says Yuuri, taken aback.
Minako, smirking, slings an arm around Yuuri’s neck. “You should’ve just told me you wanted a fuckation, Yuuri.”
Yuuri’s pretty sure his head is on fire.
“He’s not very rugged,” Minako continues, glancing Viktor over. “But he’s definitely pretty.”
Mila lets out a bell-like peal of laughter from where she’s hidden behind Viktor’s greater height. His legs came out beautifully proportionate to his torso, so that he’s a good head taller than Yuuri. If his thighs weren’t so mouth-wateringly powerful, Yuuri’d be annoyed.
“Oh!” Minako leans around to peer at her. “A threesome?”
“N-no!” Yuuri shouts. “Oh my gods, sensei! No! Just a friend! From Sakhalin! She’s helping Viktor settle in at Hokudai!” He’s so flustered he babbles out their entire cover story. “Viktor’s studying languages and translation, Russo-Japanese. Really. We, um, um —”
“Yoroooo~shiku oneeeeGAIshimasu~!” Viktor steps in at this point with his atrociously enunciated Japanese, entirely bypassing his babelfish charm, bowing low and smiling his most charming smile.
It’s wide and heart-shaped and utterly perfect.