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The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Clothes On

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The sun still hangs proudly in the sky, this far north, when Yuuri finishes going over the day’s site log with Minako and Celestino. High summer in Rebun Island is a far cry from what it is in Hasetsu, leagues down the chain of islands that form Japan. When they step out of the finds laboratory that takes over the local junior high gymnasium every summer — one of the few spaces big enough and air-conditioned enough for finds processing in the tiny town of Funadomari — it is hot, yes, but nothing like the muggy heat of Kyushu in August.

“Well,” Celestino sighs, sweat already springing out on his broad, kind face under the relentless sun. “I’m going to see what those rascals of mine have broken open.”

“American swill,” Minako sniffs. “And undergrads.”

Yuuri, having had to deal with all kinds of emergencies all day long as the senior site supervisor, can only agree. There have been:

  • two (2) section collapses
  • over-enthusiastic students scraping without thinking
  • someone almost taking someone else’s eye out with a mattock
  • someone dropping a planning frame on a delicate silt layer
  • someone else sitting on a spoil heap for a selfie and causing a minor landslide; and,
  • someone trying to argue with him over the historicity of fucking blue-and-white

“They’re not that bad,” Celestino protests.

Both Yuuri and Minako give him a look.

Wincing, Celestino concedes, “All right, they’re pretty bad.”

There are bright spots, of course: small, tanned Phichit who laughs at the weather and meticulously made platforms for the scattering of canine teeth he uncovered in the Jomon layer; grizzled Naoki-san, who has been coming up from Aomori for the past three years as a volunteer; the neighbourhood dog that has better dig discipline than half the field school cohort.

“I’m going for a walk,” Yuuri says, which he is. He has a date with a six pack of Asahi sitting in a cooler in his car, and at least two hours of sunlight left.

Minako gives him a piercing look, but Yuuri is an adult now, way over 20 and fully capable of making his own bad life decisions. He, at least, hasn’t slept with Celestino in an ill-considered fit of ... whatever.

“Well,” Minako says airily, turning away and flicking her wrist. “I’ll be in Hoshino’s.”

Celestino follows, but not before clapping Yuuri on the back and telling him to “stay safe out there,” like Yuuri’s the foreigner with only a very basic grasp of Standard Japanese in rural Hokkaido.

“I will,” says Yuuri, bowing slightly. “Thank you for your hard work today.”

The interior of his car, parked half under the eaves of the gymnasium, is unpleasantly warm and muggy. Yuuri leans against the slatted wooden walls of the gym, watching thin, white clouds skid across the sky while his car airs out. The beers are still sitting pretty in the boot, insulated in their little cooler; Yuuri hopes that they’re lukewarm, at most.

When the breeze coming off the majestic, sweeping bay Funadomari faces onto has sufficiently freshened up his car, Yuuri starts driving west along the coastal road, windows rolled down so that the tangy sea air ruffles his air. One month into the dig, and all the little irritants and anxieties of living and digging cheek-by-jowl with far too many other people have settled over Yuuri like layers of sediment, compressing him under sheer weight. He needs to get out, breathe, let go, and he knows exactly where to go.

It’s a clear day, and there’s a good north-easterly wind coming off the Sea of Okhotsk that’s whipping through the car, whipping Yuuri’s thoughts away with it. The water off the beach he’s intending to watch the sunset from should be fairly calm, protected as it is from these winds by Gorotayama.

Rebun is not the largest island, and Yuuri reaches the turn off into the start of the trail that leads up and over Gorotayama to the other side Rebun before long. He turns left onto the narrow mountain road, smiling to himself as his old Nissan starts juddering up the incline over uneven paving. It really is a lovely day, the usual coastal fog wreathing the tops of the anonymous ridges entirely burnt off by the entire day of sun.

Sandy tarmac turns to gravel as the trailhead comes into sight, wooden signposts pointing to Cape Gorota to the southwest and Cape Sukoton at the northernmost tip of Rebun. The air up here is bracingly fresh, and Yuuri’s clothes whip around him as soon as he gets out of the car, parked on the weary verge. He retrieves his windbreaker from the boot and pops open the beer cooler; the ice has long since melted, but has faithfully done its job: his beers are still relatively cold. They go in Yuuri’s backpack, and then he trudges off up the grassy trail to the first ridge.

The hike to the viewpoint for Cape Gorota is only about 0.6km as the crow flies, but under the late evening sun, a golden coin diffuse in the sky and on the incline up the spine of Gorotayama, it seems longer. He makes the loop round the head of Gorotayama in good time, the short alpine grass and edelweiss bending in the wind that dries off sweat as fast as Yuuri works it up. He pauses at one point to crack open a bottle - Asahi Dry, light and cool - to wet his throat, and take in the dramatic, green-clad bluffs that march on before and behind him, the sharp white cliffs that sweep down to the deep blue sea, sparkling under the sun. Somewhere off the cape a speedboat arrows by, white surf churning in its wake.

He fills his lungs with the air, lets the wind rush into his lungs, and expels it all out in one go: the air, the itch under his skin that’s been driving him mad. It’s impossible not to feel lighter up here, with the wide open skies overhead and the wind buffeting him from the back. If he spread his arms, Yuuri could probably go tumbling over the ridge and glide on down to the sea. Laughing at himself, Yuuri finishes off his beer and puts the empty bottle back into his backpack, picking up the pace again.

Yuuri could pick his way to the viewpoint for Cape Gorota, but he wants to get closer to the water, so he turns east where the footpath forks. Gorota beach lies further to the southeast, down a treacherous descent from the high bluff, but for now the path winds along the tops of the cliffs that swoop down to meet the rising surf.

The sun is finally starting to sink when Yuuri makes his way down a pinhead turn to Gorota beach; it’s popular with windsurfers, but they seem to have packed up and left, with only about an hour to go to sunset at nine. Good. The beach is a long, narrow strip of sand that spills out into another large bay, across which a small fishermen settlement gleams white and proud.

Yuuri sits on his windbreaker and retrieves the bento he packed that morning for dinner, opening another bottle of Asahi. He’s still feeling light from the hike, and intends to keep it that way with the application of mild alcohol.

When he sets aside the empty box, the sun is a burst orange spilling across the darkening sky, painting the sea gold. Yuuri wonders if the Ainu, hundreds of thousands of years ago, already settled on this wild, dramatic island, witnessed a similar sight. He stretches his arm out, palm up towards the ocean, following the sea path of shimmering light stretching from the sinking sun to the shore. For all the long, stretched-out summer daytime, dusk falls quickly once it starts, inky blue spreading across the sky towards the blazing coin disappearing under the horizon.

Twilight is a liminal time, Yuuri muses, well into his fourth bottle of beer; two worlds overlapping briefly, night moving into the sphere of day, the blurring of the two together pregnant with potential. Lights are winking on across the bay, fishermen coming home to warm hearths. The moon is a pale sliver high in the sky where night has already unfurled, a ghostly portent. Of what, Yuuri doesn’t know. The beer only takes his imagination so far.

The clink of the now-empty bottle joining its brethren in his backpack is the only foreign noise on the beach: seagulls call overhead, heading inland to their nests on the crumbling cliffs; the tide is swelling again and the sound of surf rises with it; the light breeze ruffles the beach-grass growing on the rocks that start only a few feet up from where Yuuri installed himself.

He sits, eyes closed, letting the peace expand under his ribs and his consciousness spin out into the deep, dark unknown.

Then he hears it: a faint slithering, a hoarse cry, something heavy falling over onto sand with a dampened thud.

Yuuri’s mind immediately jumps to snakes, abduction, oh god the police station is all the way on the other end of Rebun.

There’s another dampened thud, like whoever it is has fallen again.

Okay, Yuuri tells himself. Okay, the surf is coming in, so you’d better go see who or what it is before you’re party to someone drowning. He tucks his backpack further up the beach, well beyond the tideline, and grips his multitool in one hand and his torch in the other.

In the dark, lit only by the thin crescent of the moon and the stars winking overhead, Yuuri picks his way down the beach carefully to the general vicinity of the thuds. The small oval of his torchlight sweeps in arcs across the sand before him: bare, pale sand; more bare, pale sand; and then, suddenly gleaming out of the dark, netting gleaming with scales and — hair?

The thumps have stopped, and Yuuri trains the spotlight on the heap of netting where it’s tangled around what looks like a really huge tuna. Whichever fisherman this net belongs to, he’s going to be so pissed off. Two eerily blue pinpricks of light pierce the dark to the right of his spotlight suddenly, and the thumping starts up; the tuna kind of jumps, and Yuuri ... Yuuri almost swallows his tongue, because he’s no fisherman but he’s pretty sure tuna fins don’t look like that.

Heart beating so loud in his ears that the sound of the sea is drowned out, Yuuri slowly, slowly turns his torch to the right.

Yuuri closes his eyes, scrunches up his face, opens them again.

“What ... the ...”

The — if his own eyes are to be believed — merman makes a harsh sound and starts flailing around again, blue eyes wide and ... helpless.

Yuuri takes one, two steps closer, flicks out the knife on his multitool. “If I ... if I cut you free, promise not to harm me?”

Those preternatural eyes are trained on the blade of his knife now, and then the merman starts jack-knifing away. This is probably not the time to notice that he has abs that Yuuri can only dream of.

“No!” Yuuri exclaims as much to himself as the merman. “No, I’m here to help!” He mimes a rope, and then cutting.

The merman’s silvery head tilts, his eyes narrowing, and then all at once he smiles and relaxes into a pose that’s almost sultry. He looks like one of those European models in utterly incomprehensible high fashion shoots in one of Minako’s expensive magazines.

“Right,” Yuuri mutters to himself, and advances.

The merman stays obediently still as Yuuri saws through the thick hemp rope with his knife, trying to make a hole large enough to start pulling the net off him. It’s a good thing Yuuri keeps his tools in good condition, and he’s severed enough sections that the merman has good clearance for his arms and head to get through.

Yuuri is gestured back, and he gladly does so - the incoming waves have been rolling higher and higher up the beach.

Merman-with-the-spectacular-abs flexes and kind of rips the net further apart. Yuuri goes rigid all over in shock. Then mer-Superman is tunnelling the rest of the way out before his fins, caught in the netting, stop him.

He makes a pained, frustrated noise, and turns those eyes on Yuuri again.

“Gods,” Yuuri says, and hurries forward to disentangle the last of him. The fins feel delicate where he can’t avoid brushing against them, thin cartilage damp against his skin.

They’re inch deep in seawater by the time the merman wriggles entirely free. Yuuri retreats up the beach and, to his shock, is followed, with more incomprehensible sounds being made at him.

When he’s finally on dry sand, he stops, keeping a close eye on the water.

The merman says something emphatically, pointing to his chest.

“Uh,” says Yuuri. “I ... need to go before I drown. I’m sorry.”

Because Yuuri’s life always can get weirder, the merman wraps a hand around Yuuri’s shin. He can feel the strength in those long, elegant fingers through his jeans.

The merman emphatically repeats himself; Yuuri can discern the similarity in those noise patterns at the very least. It doesn’t really help. Maybe he’s saying thank you.

“Okay,” Yuuri tries placatingly. “You’re welcome.”

He receives that head-tilt again, and then a furrowing of his brows when Yuuri tries to tug away. Then the merman echoes him, the syllables sounding strange and rough around the vowels.

“Oh dear,” says Yuuri. “Um, yes. I ...” and then he shrieks when he sees that the thin film of water has reached them. “I’m going to die!”

The merman frowns at him, before letting go and gesturing out to sea, at himself, then back at Yuuri, before tilting his head to the side again, raising both palms up to the sky with his elbows tucked in at his sides.

SMALL

What?” Yuuri asks, pocketing his multitool and starting to walk back to where he’d left his backpack. The bright blue of it, lit up by his torch, is a speck in the distance. “Oh god, stop following me. How are you even — oh, is that what you want to know? I stay in Funadomari? Do I have a merman stalker now? How is this my life?”

Said merman stalker lets out a plaintive noise as Yuuri’s two legs quickly outpace his two arms and one admittedly muscular tail on land.

“Funadomari!” Yuuri shouts, feeling foolish, and points into the mountains. “Now go away and don’t get caught in any more nets!”

Mystery merman repeats the syllables of “Funadomari” back at him, before he melts away into the darkness behind Yuuri.

 

*

 

The first thing he’s going to do, Viktor decides, is get a babelfish charm.

All right, no, that’s the second thing he’s going to do. The first thing is to go and warn his little cousin about the dangers of nets and beautiful, life-saving humans with very shapely legs.

“Ugh,” says Yuri Plisetsky, cute little face all wrinkled up in disgust. “I didn’t need to know THAT!”

“Oh, but Yuri,” sighs Viktor. “He was so very brave and clever, and we understood each other!”

“What do you mean you understood each other,” demands Yuri. “You don’t speak any overwater languages.”

“People don’t talk with just their mouths, Yura.”

There’s a pause, and then Yuri’s face twists. “You didn’t...”

“No! No! The sea was swelling, and he seemed quite scared. But he told me where he’s from!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes — Foo-nado-mah-lee?” Viktor sounds it out best as he can from memory.

Yuri stares at him. “I have no fucking clue what that is.”

Viktor sighs, draping himself over the ledge under Yuri’s window. “I just want to see him again.” His mysterious saviour with the sharp blade and the light, the way they’d connected, the cute way his voice went up and down and his beautiful eyes went big. Wait.

“Do they have ‘he’s overwater?” Viktor asks.

Yuri groans. “I don’t know, ask your precious human.”

“That’s an excellent idea!” Viktor sits up excitedly — he’s glad that Yuri came to the same conclusion as him. He had to see his saviour, the human of Foo-nado-mah-lee, again.

“Wha — wait, no, Viktor —”

But it’s too late, Viktor is already swimming off towards the map room, merrily ignoring Yuri’s shouts.

An hour and several nervous enquiries from the resident librarian and cartographer later, Viktor has marked out the sandy land where he washed up, and worked out where the beautiful human was pointing towards. The stretch of water to the northeast, all the way around the landmass. There’s a small human settlement there called Funadomari: smaller than the one on the other tip of the land, but big enough that their surveyors had found it important enough to research and include. Viktor likes it better anyway than the beach of doom anyway; it’s closer to home, if more populated.

Yuri points out as much, having come to hover annoyingly over Viktor’s shoulder.

“Weren’t you just warning me about the dangers of swimming near human settlements?”

Viktor swishes his fins dismissively.

“I have,” Yuri sighs, turning to leave. “Such a bad feeling about this.”

But he does cover for Viktor when he goes to get a babelfish charm from Georgi, the slightly shady purveyor of magical goods who asks no questions and provides no answers, and always manages to conveniently mix up his customers with his latest love lost if some nosy person were to come along and ask him.

All languages overwater?” Georgi asks, dramatically kholed eyes narrowed at Viktor. “Do you even know how many —”

 

small georgi

 

Viktor laughs lightly. “Come now, Georgi, of course I don’t. But how about in this area?”

“Hmm.” Georgi looks down at the codex in his hands, strokes his index finger along a vertebra. The codex shivers and fans open to a sliver with tightly written script on it. “Yes, all right, that narrows it down. But not underwater languages?”

“Those I already know,” Viktor says. “The important ones anyway.”

“Well,” Georgi says, smiling slightly. “Fair enough. I’ll be out with you in a few.”

He disappears behind a curtain of kelp with a dramatic swirl of his fins, bright turquoise in the dim shadows of Georgi’s shop. Viktor looks around curiously from his seat. Georgi moves around the city at irregular intervals, and the interior of his shop never looks the same. There’s barely anything on display in this iteration of Georgi’s shop, not like the last brightly-lit one with pops of colour and tinkling trinkets scattered over the shelves, all the better to entice the schoolchildren and lovestruck teenagers of the district with.

A discreet sign is stuck to the counter: a list of services, possible wares, and prices. Murky, grotesque murals plucked out from the ruined settlements scattered around Okhotsk are sealed with sticky charms to the walls, adding to the air of mystique and falsely alluding to the ancient tradition of magic that Georgi’s pretending to be part of this time round, Viktor supposes. How very funny.

He’s inspecting the mural — not at all legally obtained, and a little bit of a professional slap in the face if Viktor’s being honest about it — that might depict some kind of ur-myth of the Koschei the Deathless when Georgi comes back out with the finished charm.

“Where’d you get this from?” Viktor asks without looking up.

“Oh,” Georgi says lightly. “Somewhere, I can’t really remember anymore. Your charm is ready. You know, the one for overwater languages.”

It’s as pointed an unspoken quid pro quo as any, so Viktor ceases his line of inquiry and drifts back towards the counter and Georgi.

The babelfish charm is liquid, sealed into a sachet. It looks thick and silvery through the translucent seaweed film. In Viktor’s mouth, the sachet pops with a sharp shock of salt, and then the charm fills his mouth; it oozes viscous and cold on his tongue, clings to the soft insides of his mouth, clots the raw tenderness of his throat. Viktor makes a face at Georgi as he waits for the charm to take, and Georgi laughs.

“Think of your overwater lover, Viktor. People have done worse things for love.”

Viktor rolls his eyes, but the word ‘love’ makes his stomach turn over, makes him feel like the warmth of sun has penetrated deep into the waters just to settle into his fins.

The timer Georgi set goes off, empty clam shells clacking together, and Viktor hurriedly swallows the rest of the charm, grimacing at the feeling of it sliding down his throat.

“This had better work, Georgi,” Viktor says direly, feeling a little like throwing up.

Georgi hands him a mug of tea. It’s astringent, made from freshwater harvested from the surface in winter, and helps a lot with the nausea. “Of course it will. I’ll do you another free if it doesn’t.”

What he doesn’t say is that his charms rarely ever fail; it’s the only reason people still seek out Georgi’s shop and that the Tsar turns a blind eye to its semi-legal activities.

“You’d better,” is what Viktor says, before he pays Georgi and ducks out of the shop.

He makes it back to work without anyone having noticed his having been gone, and gives Yuri a sea-berry pasty he’d bought on the way back as appeasement.

“You don’t look any different,” Yuri says dubiously to him.

Viktor raises an eyebrow. “Should I?”

Shrugging, the boy starts drifting towards the ceiling-hatch. “Who knows what weird shit that weirdo’s potions do to people. Only weird people go to him for weird things for weird reasons.”

Biting back a smile, Viktor says, “You’ll find out one day, Yura!” and waves goodbye to the disdainful swish of Yuri’s tail as he disappears up out of the hatch.

Work and other responsibilities conspire to keep Viktor away from his personal mission for the next few cycles - days, the overwater people call them, Viktor knows from his stop-start study of the overwater language his rescuer probably speaks.

It’s only when the same day that he went to see Georgi comes round again that there is a lull. Viktor has an early start, all the better to avoid any urgent requests and to make sure he can slip out of the city gates without much notice.

Viktor rides the same currents he did to get to the bay of doom, enjoying the speed and the way the wide ribbon of rushing water whips him past stretches of ocean. He almost forgets to exit the current earlier, and tumbles out just before it’s too late. If his triangulations are correct, he should be only a middling swim away from the town that he’d identified in the map room so long ago. Funadomari.

The waters warm as he rises absently towards the surface, thinking about what he’ll say to the beautiful human once Viktor finds him. Viktor’ll ask him for his name first, of course, and tell him his in return. And then perhaps Viktor will lift his hand and —

A boat goes churning past, its low steel hull almost taking Viktor’s head off his shoulders.

Heart beating furiously in his chest, Viktor flips over and swims deeper.

All right: regroup. He has to get to where the land started — the shore, without dying first.

Viktor strikes out further west, and when he breaches the surface the boat trails are in the distance, along with the boxy structures that dot the sealine. He can’t think of a way to get to the boxes without risking decapitation, but the boxes mean human town, which means Funadomari, which means his rescuer.

The course of true love, Viktor has read, never did run smooth. An overwater author so famous his works had been acquired and translated and traded across the oceans.

Oh well, the first thing to do is get to the sealine, in any case, and so Viktor ducks under again and makes for land, keeping a sharp eye out for fishing nets this time round. This early in the day, the sun strikes through the water so that the world is a clear green. The waters taste faintly of that sharp, unpleasant tang that accompanies proximity to human settlement. It does not approach unbearable.

The tide is moving in towards land, and Viktor gratefully lets it sweep him along, so that he only has to make an effort when the undertow pulls back out. The land shelf here rises steeply, the way it does around the whole island, and Viktor soon runs aground on wet sand finely compacted and giving only a little, jellyish, under his weight. He grimaces at the feeling of sand swirling under his scales.

The beach is a long, narrow strip of white sand, much like its kin on the further side of this outcropping of land, and similarly deserted. It rises gradually, almost imperceptible to the naked eye, until it abruptly meets a grey wall with stones set into it, bound together by more grey. Metal boxes on wheels whizz by occasionally, sometimes with music thumping in their wake.

Other than that, all Viktor can hear is the calling of sea-birds gyring high in the sky and the sighing of the sea. Sighing at him, maybe. At least the sun isn’t at its zenith yet, and the push of each tide is keeping him nice and damp. He stretches out, sunning himself in the low surf, and loses track of time.

The sound is so foreign at first that Viktor dismisses it - a rhythmic thud-thud-thudding from across the beach.

From the furthest reaches of the beach, a figure in blue and topped in black draws ever closer. It’s ... running, that’s the word. Running across the beach and due to pass by Viktor in only a matter of minutes. He slithers down the sand and withdraws further into the surf, presses himself belly first and stays very still. Not all humans may be as kind as his own rescuer, after all — some of them had nasty nets and chugging boats.

The running figure is close enough to make out clearly now, and Viktor’s stomach drops dizzyingly: it’s his human! With the tousled, wind-swept hair, and the beautiful brown eyes, and a becoming flush on his cheeks. Viktor can hear him breathe, too: deep panting huffs to the rhythm of his swinging arms. His legs, clad in some sort of tight black fabric, are very shapely indeed. Viktor wonders what it’d be like to have legs like them, what they’d feel like under his fingers.

Suddenly overcome with shyness, Viktor pulls back into deeper water. He hasn’t prepared a speech yet, hasn’t decided how to announce himself. Perhaps Viktor might leap up out of the water, to show off the strength in his tail, but he isn’t sure how humans might take it. He doesn’t want to scare the human off, and doesn’t want to attract any others’ notice. And, in any case, the beautiful human who rescued him looks busy, like he’s going somewhere in a hurry.

Still! Viktor’s heart lifts, and he does a happy little flip. Now he knows where and when, and only must work out the how.

 

*

 

Digging with a hangover, no matter how mild, is not the ideal state of things.

“You could have crashed into the sea!” Minako sensei harangues him as he miserably neatens up the sections that the students have left behind. “Dead, Yuuri! Dead!”

“I wasn’t that drunk,” he mumbles, scooping up the spoil and dumping it into his bucket. He hadn’t been, really; he’d defy anyone to remain drunk after inadvertently rescuing a bloody merman from a fishing net. Then again, that would probably count as evidence for how drunk he’d been. Yuuri’s still not sure that hadn’t been an extremely trippy dream. The manifestation of his doubts about the utility of his study. If he couldn’t help people in real life, then at least he could save hallucinatory mermen. But he definitely wasn’t drunk after the hike back over the mountains and to his car. The nippy wind would have taken care of that.

The summer school students had all retreated, to the other side of the tumulus they were working on, to open up new trenches under Celestino’s stern eye.

“Tough luck, man,” Brad from the unlikely-sounding Wyoming had told him, giving Yuuri an entirely unwelcome commiserating pat on the back.

“You had six beers, Yuuri,” Minako retorts. “And you were driving!”

“I only had four before driving back. I had the other two when I got back to Funadomari.”

“Is this a cry for help?”

Yuuri sighs, pushing his sunglasses firmly back up. He climbs gingerly out of the trench with his spoil buckets, making sure not to step on the delicate lens of ash Phichit uncovered earlier that morning in the silty Jomon layer.

“Stop ignoring me, Katsuki Yuuri.” Minako takes one of the buckets from him and upends it onto the further side of the spoil heap. “Should I give you a few days off?”

A few days off to spend alone and burrow further into the labyrinthine depths of his own mind? No thanks.

“No,” says Yuuri, stacking the buckets together with the others and picking up his field notebook and a planning frame. He’s going to plan all the trenches in this section of the dig and then take a couple of the older undergraduates through GIS for the rest of the week. Which is, thankfully, only two days until the summer school goes off on one of the cultural experience days that seem to have attracted most of the cohort, rather than the actual archaeology.

Minako takes the frame from him and replaces it with a bottle of water. “Fine. Finish drinking this, then you can plan. And put on a hat. It’s too hot today.” She’s already in a fetching straw sunhat, polka-dotted ribbon girding its circumference. Yuuri has a sinking feeling that Celestino might still be slightly smitten with her. There’s enough drama going on the with the undergraduates, if Phichit’s updates are anything to go by. They don’t need middle-aged drama. Yuuri doesn’t need middle-aged drama.

The water is blessedly cool. Yuuri must have been more parched than he’d realised. “Thanks, sensei,” he mutters when he finishes swigging — half the bottle, it seems.

“You’re welcome. Now finish the rest of that before you do the planning.”

She strides away, not looking back, but Yuuri finishes the water anyway. Minako would know if he didn’t. Probably. He puts on a hat too.

Yuuri hadn’t realised how much all the human interaction necessitated by being senior site supervisor was stressing him out, until he has almost the entire afternoon to himself, just quietly beavering away at planning out the site. He settles into the rhythms of setting the planning frame gently over the archaeology, sketching the plan against the faint green gridding of the planning sheet, and then moving onto the next part of the grid.

It’s not for everyone, this slow, patient work, but Yuuri likes it and is good at it. There’s an artistry to it, a knack for perspective and proportion, and transferring what one sees onto paper.

 


small arch

 

He blinks sweat out of his eyes, and it drips onto the page just below his current sketch.

“Ah, shit,” Yuuri murmurs to himself. His towel is all the way across two trenches, and he’s comfortable here. With a quick look around, he establishes that he is well and truly alone, before taking off his shirt and scrubbing at his face and neck with it. Draping it around his shoulders, he bends back to his work.

Yuuri has settled precariously on the berm between two trenches, when someone says, “Holy shit.”

It’s a near thing, but Yuuri does not actually cause section collapse by falling into the trench behind him.

And then he realises he’s half-naked and almost windmills into the trench in front of him and destroys Phichit’s hard work. Almost.

Speaking of Phichit — “Holy shit,” the man himself says again. “Dude, you’re like. Fit.”

Yuuri looks down at his belly, and the little rolls of skin and fat that have wrinkled into being from his sitting down, and back up at Phichit with raised eyebrows and a squint. Phichit’s standing directly in front of the sun. Yuuri can’t make out the expression on his face.

“I’m just gonna...” Phichit trails off and jabs a thumb back over his shoulder. “Uh, go make sure no one else sees you like this?”

After another blank interlude of silence, Phichit starts backing away. “Because, you know, we’re supposed to be doing section drawings?”

“Oh.” Yuuri forgot. So much for a solid afternoon of solitude. “Yes, um. Thanks. Phichit. Thank you.”

Yuuri doesn’t actually want to put his sweaty shirt back on, but it’s either that or getting stared at by sex-mad undergrads, so he flaps it violently and uselessly in the breeze three times before wrestling his way into its sticky confines. Gah.

An hour and a half of teaching undergraduates about section drawings and then herding them through drawing — yes, all four walls; yes, all the trenches; yes we will be using this later, please don’t step there Sharon — later, Yuuri feels like he’s going to jitter straight out of his skin. He’s normally better than this at teaching; it’s what he wants to do with the rest of his career, after all, but he just needs a. A break. He wants to recapture the feeling he had, leaning into the wind atop Gorotayama.

After the last group resentfully submits their final drawing to him and go grumbling away over to the waiting vans at the foot of the tumulus, Yuuri sighs in relief. He tucks the drawings carefully into their protective plastic sheets, and then into his notebook, and then into his backpack.

Yuuri potters about for a bit, tidying up and putting away stray tools. The quiet is a relief, with only passing cars in the distance and the omnipresent soughing of the sea. The low-level headache he’s been bearing has mostly died away. He has another bottle of water while he waits for the last of the vans to rattle off back to Funadomari.

A few minutes later, Celestino’s broad shoulders and ponytailed head crest the ridge of the tumulus. Phichit’s slighter form follows behind him, together with one other summer school student whose name escapes Yuuri.

“Ciao ciao!” Celestino waves. “Thanks for waiting, Yuuri!”

Yuuri tosses his car keys to Celestino.

“No worries. I’ve left the cooler in the boot. Trunk,” he amends, for the American audience. “For things that won’t hold up to the heat.”

“Amazing. Would you like to join us?”

Biting his lip, Yuuri tries to find a way to decline going on the grocery run. He doesn’t stay with the summer school anyway. “That’s all right. I’m getting some exercise in. Jogging back.”

Celestino’s refreshingly easygoing — he gives Yuuri a booming laugh, a clap on the back, and an, “Ah, to be young again,” before rounding up his helpers and turning away

Over his shoulder, Phichit wiggles his irrepressible eyebrows and mouths, “Fit,” before turning to his companion.

Yuuri blushes and shakes his head, before shouldering his backpack and walking down the other way towards the seafront. The sand gives beneath his feet. It’s a challenge, and a gift, when all Yuuri can concentrate on are his breaths and the fierce pounding of his heart in his ears. Phichit probably didn’t mean to, but after his comment Yuuri is now doubly conscious of the winter weight he’d put on and never quite managed to fully shed.

He loves this beach and this run. He has the beach all to himself, the wide shining expanse of the sea to his left and the mountains of Rebun green and promising to his right. It’s not quite Goratayama, but it’s enough. Fuck the car, Yuuri decides. He’s jogging to the site in the morning and back every evening now. He can have Celestino drive the car up so he has the option of driving back. Or vice versa.

Celestino is quite happy with the arrangement, of course, and they fall into a loose pattern after a couple of days: driving up together in the mornings, and Yuuri jogging back with only the essentials on him.

It’s on one of these evening jogs that Yuuri gets the strange feeling that he’s being watched. The fine hairs on the back of his neck are tingling, but the roads are clear and the lighthouse is far away. It could be someone wondering what this fool is doing, travelling between Hamanaka and Funadomari on foot. He shrugs it off, continues on his way.

But the feeling persists — sometimes on the rare morning jog, more often in the evenings.

Rebun is pretty much the edge of civilisation, especially on the northern tip of the island. A liminal zone, the more theoretically inclined faculty would say. The drunken reverie from a fortnight ago floats to the forefront of Yuuri’s mind all of a sudden, and he remembers the weird charade near the end. If it’d even happened at all. What if, though. What if.

The what ifs persist, cling to his mind as Yuuri goes about his business, and one evening on the way back to Funadomari, he veers off his path nearer the seawall to — go paddling, that’s it. He just wants to wet his feet in the surf for a bit, have the day’s aches washed away by the sea.

A few feet away from tideline, Yuuri puts his backpack down and stoops to take his shoes off.

It is at this precarious point, of course, that something sinuous and heavy flops out of the incoming wave and thuds enthusiastically onto the sea-dark sand right in front of Yuuri.

Yuuri screams and falls over, scrambling back on his elbows.

“Wait!” shouts the — oh gods, it’s the merman, it wasn’t a dream after all. And he can speak Japanese now? “Wait, please.”

To be honest, Yuuri’s been stunned still. He wonders if he fell down and hit his head on the seawall and is now hallucinating. But could his brain hallucinate someone this hot? Ignoring the tail, of course. And now he’s smiling, wide and adorable, and okay, no, this can’t be a dream. This is beyond Yuuri’s wildest dreams.

“Ah, how do you say it? It’s nice to meet you.” The merman’s tail undulates fascinatingly and Yuuri watches his abs clench as he sits all the way up, and then bows from the middle, where faint, silvery scales wink down to a divot in his hips. It’s a proper, Japanese bow for the first time you meet someone. Then merman laughs a little and there’s some pink on his pale cheeks. “Again, I guess. I’m Viktor. Please take care of me from now on.”

“I —” Yuuri feels like his brain has congealed, stupid with shock. “What? How? Viktor?”

He watches as Viktor the merman gets a distressed little wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Did I do that wrong? I’m so sorry.”

“N-no!” Feeling bizarrely culturally shamed by a merman, Yuuri scrambles onto his knees and bows back. “I — I’m Yuuri. It’s nice to meet you too.”

He gets a dazzling smile in return. “Yuuuuuuri. What a nice name!”

Yuuri laughs a little hysterically. “Thank you, um. Viktor...is, um. Unexpected.”

“Oh?” Viktor comes a little closer, and then stops, wincing minutely and rubbing at his scales. “How so?”

“I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like a ... merman’s name?”

“Merman,” Viktor repeats, as though he’s tasting the word. “Hmmm. I don’t know. What did you expect?”

That’s a good question. “Something I couldn’t pronounce, I suppose.”

Viktor cants his head thoughtfully to one side and puts a finger to his lips. Then he opens his mouth and says, “Viktor,” like an experiment.

“Um.” Yuuri stares at him helplessly. “What?”

They stare at each other for a bit.

“Did that sound different to you?”

“...No?”

“Oh.” Viktor taps at his lips, and then shrugs. “That’s just how my name sounds, I suppose. I like yours, though. Yuuuuuri. I know another Yuri, but it sounds different.”

“I...see.” Yuuri’s processing.

He jumps when Viktor claps his hands twice.

“Well! I almost forgot! I wanted to say thank you, for rescuing me that night. It would have been most unfortunate to have been caught.”

Yuuri doesn’t say that he’d been drunk and it was amazing that he’d had it together enough to cut Viktor out of the net. “No...no problem. Anyone would have.” Except that’s not true, and Viktor looks like he knows it.

“Perhaps,” is all that he says. “Why were you there? This is where you live, yes? It is not a short swim around.”

“A short swim —” the laugh bursts out of Yuuri unexpectedly. Viktor looks startled too: his eyes have gone wide and his face has gone slack. “No, no, I mean ... I walked over the mountains from here to the beach. I didn’t swim.”

“On your legs? All the way over... those?” Viktor doesn’t quite stop looking startled, but he does reach out to lay a hand on Yuuri’s thigh. Yuuri shudders a little; Viktor’s hand is searing through his jeans. For some reason, Yuuri’d expected him to be clammy. Cold. Viktor kneads a little at Yuuri’s thigh. Yuuri stares at the long, elegant fingers digging into his quads, dazed.

And then Viktor bursts out with a: “Wow!”

Yuuri laughs again. “Okay, no, I drove halfway up that hill before I started walking.”

“Drove?” For someone so muscular, Viktor looks weirdly winsome with his head tilted to one side like that.

“Oh!” Yuuri blushes; of course, he wouldn’t know ... “In a car? Have you seen one? On the road, a sort of ... um ... it moves very fast?”

Viktor lights up. “Yes! The moving boxes!”

“Yes, those. They have wheels on them ...”

Yuuri starts sketching in the sand with his finger, and Viktor watches quietly.

“Oh,” says Viktor. “Wheels, yes. How do they work?”

Gaping at him, Yuuri scrambles for his high school physics, half-forgotten. “Um, internal ... combustion?”

“Combustion. Oh, you mean ... fire?” Viktor draws back, face twisting a little. “You humans are mad.”

Yuuri’s about to defend the honour of humanity when his phone rings — it’s Minako.

He shoots Viktor an apologetic phone before bringing his phone to his ear. “Ah, yes, sensei?”

“Where are you?” Minako demands. “Are you hurt? Celestino said you were running back, and I know you run faster than a snail, Yuuri.”

“Oh.” Time went by faster than Yuuri realised. “Sorry, no, I just sat on the beach for a breather. Is there something...?”

Minako launches into a lecture about ... something; Yuuri’s attention is on Viktor, who’s doodling around his drawing of a car and adding streaming lines to it, drawing a blimp-like fish pulling it along like a carriage.

“...Yuuri?”

“Ah, yes! Minako-sensei!”

Her sigh crackles over the line. “Just get over here with those plans of yours, Yuuri.”

“Oh, okay.” Yuuri starts getting up, and Viktor’s head jerks up. The look in his eyes makes Yuuri feel irrationally guilty. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

He hangs up and tucks his phone away into his pocket; Viktor’s eyes track it curiously.

“Ah, um.” Yuuri slaps the sand off his jeans. “I have to go, sorry.”

Viktor’s face falls immediately.

“It’s, um, work! Work-related. You must have ... come very far? Thank you. You didn’t need to.”

“Oh.” Viktor’s eyes are boring into him. “No, I absolutely had to. Can I see you again?”

The heat in Yuuri’s cheeks are definitely not from sunburn. This is so ridiculous.

...Yes?”

Viktor cheers. Literally: he flings his arms up in the air and his smile is shaped like a cartoon heart. Yuuri just hopes that he isn’t being groomed into becoming fish food.



***

Chapter Text




The weather turns soon after, the shell of the earth quaking and maddening the waters beyond the shelter of the city.

Viktor spends the first two days pouting: what if Yuuri were waiting for Viktor to show up? What if he thought Viktor didn’t want to see him any more? What if ... what if he thought Viktor was a liar?

He is only held back from trying to secretly brave the turbulent waters nearer the surface by Yuri, who brings him a visitor.

“Milka!” Viktor cries, dropping his reading. The journals waft slowly down onto his table as he swims over to her. “I thought you were away! How did you — but the waves?”

When Viktor looks more closely at her, Mila does look a little dishevelled, her red hair messy and her tail a little ragged.

“Got through yesterday evening.” Mila waves a hand. “Managed to outswim most of it, but I’m pretty sure I broke my speed charm, so don’t even dream of it, Vitya.”

The protective gear that surveyors wear on expeditions does look ragged on her, and Mila’s hair is atypically dishevelled. Viktor lets out a deep sigh, a stream of tiny bubbles frothing up.

“He’s been like that all day,” Yuri says, face twisted up in disgust. “It was worse yesterday.”

“Oh, Yura,” sighs Viktor. “You don’t understand.”

Yuri and Mila exchange looks.

“Yeah,” Yuri says, flipping nonchalantly towards Viktor’s ceiling hatch. Viktor has no idea why the boy likes exiting through it so much. “I’m out of here. Over to you, Mila.”

“So...” Mila says, settling onto the soft, kelp-woven chaise longue Viktor usually uses as his auxiliary desk. “Yura tells me you’ve been to see Georgi?”

Viktor rolls his eyes. No such thing as a secret here.

“Yes, he has stolen murals on his shop walls! Did you know that? The iconography looks really familiar, Sintashta culture, I think?’ Viktor babbles, deflecting. “I should’ve brought a copying cantrip with me, really. Or maybe we should just educate looters so they can at least make proper records before selling their loot.”

Mila snorts. “I bet Yakov would love that.” Then she flicks her red tail at him, wispy fins fanning through the water like flames. They have records of fire from other surveyors, both those who go on land and those who go into the deeps. “Come on, Vitya, what’s so secret you need to sneak off to Georgi for a charm?”

Drumming his fingers on his table, Viktor considers Mila. She’s a distant cousin, open-minded and adventurous enough to have apprenticed early to become a surveyor. Viktor has heard rumours of an understanding she has with a maiden of a distant society, so far away it hardly matters. When they were younger, Mila once confessed that she wished to win the privilege of legs, to survey the human lands and understand them better.

“I met a human,” Viktor says quietly, drawing closer to Mila. “I ... wished to understand him, and for him to understand me.”

Mila’s eyes widen and her mouth drops open.

Vitya!” She hisses. “Oh my god, have you been...?”

Viktor sighs unhappily.

“You have! Why — are you bored?”

“I suppose so.” Viktor nudges one coil of her tail aside so he can sit close to her. “But that’s only how we first met. Now...”

Impossibly, Mila’s eyes go even wider. “Vitya, you can’t possibly be in love?”

He isn’t, not yet. But Viktor could be, he knows this. He wants to know so much more about blushing, kind, patient Yuuri. He wants to marry him, like in the legends. But first, he must woo him. And to woo him, Viktor must find out more. And to do that, he needs ... secrecy.

“Well,” Viktor says lightly. “Who knows? Perhaps I’m just curious! You understand, Milka!”

Mila’s face has fallen out of its mask of surprise now, and she’s examining him closely.

“I do,” Mila mutters. “God help me, but I do understand. All right, well, if you’re going to try and reenact a ballad then at least get some enhancement. You know the charms.”

“I don’t have the materials for them,” Viktor returns, smiling. He knew he could trust Mila. “And I can’t go and buy them, because that’ll only raise suspicions.”

Mila rolls her eyes, and rises with a roll. “All right, all right, I get it, Vitya. I’ll get you your stupid supplies. You’d better keep me updated!”

The sea may still be thrashing beyond the city walls, but all Viktor feels right now is calm certitude.

 

*

 

The beach was empty for two evenings straight, after Yuuri confirmed the existence of a sea-dwelling humanoid species in the sober light of day.

Sometime in the night after Yuuri met Viktor again, there was a surprisingly small earthquake further to the north, out beyond the Kuril Islands. Rebun mostly experienced aftershocks only. Minako and Celestino were, nevertheless, keeping the summer school students safely in the converted gymnasium back in Funadomari doing finds processing.

Yuuri ran to the beach between Funadomari and Hamanaka every evening after dig hours anyway.

“I’m going for a jog,” he would say as he was leaving the gymnasium, hoping that everyone would read that as ‘Yuuri needs his quiet time’.

Of course, it was not to be.

“Man, that’s a good idea. We’ve been cooped up all day long,” said one of the American undergraduates. “Mind if I come along?”

“Um,” Yuuri stutters. “Well...” Hoping desperately that they would get the point. Any Japanese person would have understood that for the emphatic “Yes, I do mind a lot” it was.

Unfortunately he was not talking to a Japanese person.

Yuuri managed through divine intervention of Phichit to get alone time to himself, though he had no idea why he was persisting in this. Yuuri had so many other things to do, like fill out site reports, construct harris matrices, have dinner with his homestay family ...

Don’t be stupid, Yuuri, he tells himself on the third evening, quelling the sour swell of disappointment in his belly. Obviously mermen are going to have more important things to do than talk to random, boring humans.

Yuuri jogs down to the beach anyway.

He’s a hundred metres out from the steps down to the beach when his heart leaps traitorously in his chest: it might just be Yuuri’s shit eyesight, but the sinking sun is glancing off something shiny on the beach. His feet speed up without his permission, and he almost trips his way down the steps.

There, across the beach, stretched out in the surf with the sinuous curves of his tail hidden and revealed with every wave that washes in and pulls back out, Viktor’s waiting for him.

Viktor is beaming at him as Yuuri slows to a stop, and pushes up off the sand.

The play of his muscles under his skin, just from that movement, is fascinating. And there’s new paintwork scrolling across his torso, shining curls of it along one bicep, drawing the eye.

“Yuuuuuuri!” he carols, waving excitedly. “You’re here!”

Yuuri ducks his head. “Um, yes. Hi.”

“Sit, sit.” Viktor reaches out to pat his legs. Yuuri wonders if all merpeople were just this touchy-feely, and does as directed.

At a closer distance, Yuuri can see that the ... tattoos? Are composed of distinctive repeating patterns that wrap across Viktor’s lower ribs and curve up towards his shoulder, before rushing down his right arm. Ritual purposes, maybe?

But Viktor is talking to him: “...and the waters were too rough to get out, really. Even the swim up here was still a little turbulent.”

“Ah,” Yuuri says, thinking quickly. “Oh, the earthquake! We felt it here, too, but only the aftershocks. Stopped work for a bit.”

“Ah, your work that made you leave the last time.” Viktor smiles and tilts his head. “What is your work?”

“Oh.” Yuuri looks for the words. “Um, I ... study the material past, and I’m currently working on a dig near here. Do you have that? Archaeology?”

Delight explodes across Viktor’s face like a sunrise.

“Yes!” Viktor half-shouts, before looking around quickly and lowering his voice. “This —” he breaks off, looking overwhelmed, and does what looks suspiciously like jazz hands. “The ... the earthquake, it maddened the water so! I was stuck in the city, when I was meant to go out on a survey of the ruins to the ... eh, the east! Material past — that’s exactly it. What a wonderful phrase.”

And then he smiles dazzlingly at Yuuri, who can only blink back at him in shock.

“So ... like an underwater archaeologist,” says Yuuri, because he is an idiot.

Viktor tilts his head in a way that is becoming rapidly familiar. “Of course we’re underwater.”

“...right,” says Yuuri faintly. “Of course.”

“Well!” Viktor flops down on his belly and rolls onto his side, sending up a small splash of water. Good thing Yuuri’s wearing quick-dry running tights. “Tell me more about your dig? Why dig? You mean this, yes?” And then he worms a hole into the sand with his finger.

Yuuri stares at him. Why ... dig? Then he shakes his head hard, remembering a question he never got around to asking the first time. “Yes it does, but. No, wait, um ...” Yuuri gropes for the words. “You —- your Japanese is very good...?”

“Oh!” Viktor laughs. “I got a babelfish charm!”

Yuuri wonders if he’s heard wrong. “Babelfish?” He sounds the word out, squinting. He’s not even going to touch the charm part of it, for now. Maybe Viktor’s people just had different terms for technology.

“Hmmm,” Viktor taps his lower lip. “It helps me speak your language. Japanese, was it? I’m glad I chose the right one, then.”

“Okay.” Yuuri frowns. “So ... this ... charm, it translates for you? Wait, how does it do it for human languages?”

Viktor frowns back at him. “I’m thinking in my language, but when I speak it is yours, I suppose. I’ve never really thought about it. I will ask, and tell you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Yuuri squeaks.

“Not tomorrow? Are you busy?”

He can’t sound disappointed, not when all Yuuri has done really is interrogate him. Yuuri finds himself shaking his head anyway. “No, no. I just didn’t expect...”

“Well, no,” Viktor says. “You’re right, I might have to make up for the last two days at work. And if I come too late, it is unpleasant to swim against the tide.”

“Of-of course.” Yuuri really hadn’t expected the disappointment in his own voice. He’s always been aware of fishing communities, of course; the way the rhythms of fishermen’s lives are dictated by the tides, but it’s never really touched Yuuri’s own life before.

Viktor must hear it too, because the smile is back on his face. “I will see you two evenings from now, yes? And I will bring answers.”

Bewildered, Yuuri says, “Yes, of course.”

“Excellent.” Viktor beams. “Now, explain digging, please.”

 

*

 

These evening conversations quickly become the highlight of Yuuri’s days. Not to get all Middle-Range Theory about things — racist douchebag that Binford was — but his exchanges with Viktor make Yuuri think about how differently the ancient societies they’re studying now could have perceived the world. It’s not just the flush of discovery, of having his eyes opened to an entirely new world. It’s refreshing his interest in the dig, helping him rediscover his passion for archaeology.

 

*

 

“Do your people have a name for yourselves?” Yuuri thinks to ask one evening.

They’re familiar enough now that Viktor seems to have deemed Yuuri safe enough to curl up around, like a very affectionate dog. If dogs had fins and the torsos of very muscular men.

Viktor blinks, his head canted familiarly to the side. “Yes — we are people.”

“Ah, no, I mean — for example, we call ourselves Japanese, the people who live on these islands.” Yuuri pulls up a map of Japan for Viktor on his phone.

“Oh!” says Viktor. “Interesting. I’ve never seen maps like this before. Not from the top.”

There’s a pause as they both adjust to each other’s world views.

“We have oceanographic maps too, actually,” Yuuri says slowly. “I wonder how accurate they are to yours.”

The babelfish charm fails at ‘oceanographic’, clearly, because Viktor just blinks those ice-blue eyes at him. “Oh-shee-what?”

“Like ... the bottom of the sea. The geography of the seabed.”

“Oh!” says Viktor excitedly. “Yes! Yours are probably all wrong. Though this is so interesting.” He reaches out with a damp finger to poke at Yuuri’s touchscreen. Predictably, it goes haywire. “Oh no!”

“Oh, oh.” Yuuri wipes it dry with his shirt. “No, it’s okay, it just doesn’t like water ...” He trails off at the hurt look on Viktor’s face. “No, it just ... it reacts to your touch, and water kind of ... confuses it.” He zooms in on the green ridges in the middle of Rebun Island. “See, it’s okay now.”

Viktor is silent for a long time, eyes trained on the phone. He reaches out, wipes his finger dry on Yuuri’s shirt, and touches the dry pad of it to the screen tentatively. Copying Yuuri, he drags to the left, and lets out a squeak when the map moves with it.

Taking a deep breath, Viktor shouts, “Wow!” His mouth is stretched wide in child-like wonder; Yuuri cannot help but laugh.

“It’s so ... green...” says Viktor. “We just leave blank spaces where the overwater starts.”

“That’s sort of what we do with the sea,” Yuuri tells him. They smile at each other, and then go back to looking at the map of Rebun, Viktor dragging them north, south, east, and west with his finger.

“I wish I could see these places,” he says wistfully, after he’s tired of the screen and has closed his eyes, resting his head on Yuuri’s thigh. “They look so ... tame.”

Yuuri briefly entertains the insane idea of finding a bucket big enough to stuff Viktor into. He’d probably need a bathtub.

“I wish you could too,” he says honestly.

Viktor heaves a sigh, and Yuuri wonders, not for the first time, what he uses to breathe. “On the eastern rim of my —- the sea that we live in, there are lands like this one. Islands.”

“The Kuril islands.”

“Ah, is that what you call them? Some of them are green, like this. I’ve swum out to look at them. There are seals, did you know?”

Yuuri laughs. “Yes, I did.”

“Well, they’re not very nice, seals, not as a whole. I’ve met some nice ones, but generally speaking ...”

“No?” Yuuri’s always thought that seals were cute.

“No!” Viktor sounds indignant. “They’re very territorial. And rude about it, too.”

“Oh dear.” Yuuri can’t help his giggles. “That’s terrible.”

Viktor pouts at him. “It really was. You don’t believe me, but it was. They’re very strong under all that blubber, you know. Knocked me into a kelp forest.”

small seal

Yuuri’s laughing so hard he’s tipped over onto his side, hunched over Viktor’s tail.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri apologises between giggles. “I’m sorry, it’s just ... we think seals are cute, you know. I saw some in the Osaka aquarium when I was small.”

“Aquarium?”

Ah. Yuuri hasn’t really thought about it — would Viktor find the idea barbaric?

“Um,” says Yuuri, shifting uncomfortably. “It’s sort of like a big ... building? And we keep aquatic animals in big water tanks.”

Viktor blinks. “Why?”

If a whale were to sort of sail past and make loud noises right now, Yuuri would be very grateful.

“For ... entertainment, I suppose. And science?”

“Hmmm.” Viktor frowns. “Is it like pets? Do you keep them all in one place?”

“Not...really.” Yuuri gives up. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Well, some of us keep pets. Seals, even, but only the small, non-arsey ones.”

Curious, Yuuri asks, “Do you have one?”

“Hmmm, no,” Viktor says. “I wanted one, but ... well, I have Yura!” And then he laughs a bit to himself.

Viktor’s mentioned a ‘Yura’ enough that Yuuri’s worked out he means another merperson, and not an actual pet.

“Do you?” Viktor asks, then.

It’s been long enough that Yuuri only feels a little like he’s been punched in an old bruise. “Ah, I used to. He, um, passed away.”

A gull helpfully aaarks into the silence that falls.

“Um, anyway, so. Viktor ... so what do you call yourselves? Do you?”

There’s a small quirk to Viktor’s lips that Yuuri hasn’t seen before. It goes away fairly quickly, when Viktor says, “Oh, we’ve been the Vodyanoi for a long time.”

“How long?” spills out by instinct.

Viktor’s lips quirk up again, but there is honest delight in his eyes. Yuuri recognises it: the delight of finding a kindred soul. “Well, the textual records say...”

The rest of the evening goes by rather quickly after that.

 

*

 

Yuuri isn’t quite sure what keeps Viktor coming back, to be honest. The same quasi-anthropological interest, perhaps, in a society that seems so close, but so alien.

Viktor’s interest in human affairs is voracious: in the few weeks of their acquaintance, Yuuri has had to read up on topics as arcane and esoteric as why zoos, triggered by their conversation about seals; particle physics, which was a joy to explain to someone whose society didn’t share their vocabulary of physics; and Japan’s national history, which helped Yuuri realise he remembered far more from history lessons in high school than he’d thought.

And he has the knack of drawing opinions and these long-buried memories out of Yuuri, all innocuous little leading questions until Yuuri remembers what seemed an inconsequential detail about the architectural style of the Muromachi period from the one course he took on ‘Buildings and Postholes’ at nineteen — all Yuuri’s fault, really, for remarking, “I don’t know, I haven’t really paid attention to any of Japan’s history after the Kofun period since I was an undergrad,” in response to a question about something probably Heian that Viktor apparently dug up from his city’s archives.

Which really raises questions about human-merman exchanges ... is their budding friendship really just a pretext for fact-finding? Viktor updating the merpeople records about humanity?

It is likely — there’s nothing very special about Yuuri, a typical graduate student occasionally paralysed by existential angst, after all — but Yuuri hopes not.

So this time, before Viktor can start on some new line of inquiry, Yuuri says, “Um, Viktor?”

The smile Viktor directs at him makes something sour twist under Yuuri’s ribs. “Yes?”

“How is your society organised? Politically, I mean. If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Oh! Well. We have a Tsar,” says Viktor, who always seems happy to answer questions about his society, but not so much about himself. “Or a Tsarina. What word is that translating into?”

“That’s the Russian title for a King or Queen, I suppose. Like the only ruler of a group of people, who makes all the laws and whose word is writ. Or something, I don’t know, we don’t really have that kind of thing anymore.”

“Huh. What do you have, then?”

Yuuri stares at Viktor, wondering how to explain a constitutional monarchy. “I ... don’t really know how to explain it.” Something else he’s going to have to read up on next, he supposes. And prepare a mini-lecture on ancient Greek history at the same time, probably. He sighs.

“Oh, well!” Viktor says brightly. “You can explain to me next time. Now our Tsar has a council, so he doesn’t make all the laws by himself, because the laws are old, but he is the only ruler.”

“Has that always been the way?”

Viktor looks at Yuuri like he expected better. “No, our records tell us that the Tsar system of government is a post-migration development.”

“Migration?” Yuuri parrots.

“Yes, our people are originally from inland.” Viktor waves in the vague direction of Russia. “But thousands of years ago, I forget the exact dates, they started swimming away and some of us ended up here. On the edge of the great ocean.”

Yuuri remembers something from the reading he did after Viktor told him what his people identified themselves as. “Oh! That explains why you’re called the Vodyanoi. It doesn’t really sound like ... well, not that I’d know. Vodyanoi.”

Viktor’s smiling at him.

“What?”

“You say it funny,” says Viktor, still smiling. “Vodyanoi. But I can’t tell if it’s because of your, ah, Japanese accent, or if Russki is different from my language.”

“Can you ... say something in your language?”

Viktor does, and it sounds ... angular and throaty. Yuuri runs his recording through Google Translate, Viktor propping himself up on Yuuri’s leg to look.

Oh,” says Viktor, when Google recognises it as some form of Russian. “Wow.”

“Huh,” Yuuri says. “How did that happen?”

Shrugging, Viktor says, “Your language is called Japanese, yes? The seapeople who live south of here must sound like you, then.”

Yuur blinks. Of course ... it makes sense, in hindsight, of course, that there’d be ... more merpeoples out there. “I grew up near another sea, far south of here,” Yuuri ventures. “Do you think...?”

“Oh!” Viktor gasps. “So you’re not...you migrated here, too?”

“Ah, well, um.” Yuuri taps over to Google Maps and zooms out so that all the Japanese islands are visible on his screen. “Not ... well, sort of. I grew up here, you see?” He points at the northern coast of Kyushu.

Viktor stretches up to look. “That doesn’t look like the island you showed me before.”

“No, we’re ... all the way up here now.” Yuuri points at the speck that is Rebun Island, off the northern tip of Hokkaido. “And I suppose you live somewhere ... in here.” He points to the water masses around Sakhalin Island.

Squinting at the screen for a long time, and looking back and forth between it and the ocean, Viktor sighs and shrugs. “Well that’s very far south, but I know we trade with peoples from far away in all directions. I wish d-they let me go on trade trips; maybe we could’ve met earlier than this, then!”

Considering Yuuri left Hasetsu almost a decade ago for his studies, that’s unlikely.

“Why don’t they? Let you, I mean?” Yuuri asks, but Viktor looks away and says nothing.

Looking down at his silver head, the side of his face limned gold in the late evening sunlight, Yuuri thinks Viktor looks a little sad, his jaw a little tense.

So when Viktor looks back, and his smile is brittle, Yuuri lets him change the subject.

 

*

 

It preys on his mind, that he could perhaps have met Yuuri earlier, a little younger. If only, if only.

Mila’s still in the city, making her reports and recuperating from two years’ worth of travel. When she left, she’d still been a callow youth. It seems that travelling the world has toughened her, helped her grow into a sense of self-assuredness that had been at least half pretend, before.

She comes to visit Viktor at work beyond the city walls, one day, and they take tea together a short distance away from the site.

“I didn’t remember to give you this, last time,” she says, and fetches out from her satchel a small, oblong packet. With a double tap, it expands into rough sketches of crumbling ruins in an architectural style Viktor’s never seen before, a colossal bust with a leafy crown encircling its head half-buried in sand, and a decent site plan, drawn in a confident hand on sharkskin parchment. “Human ruins, sunk underwater. Overwater studies over there are very into this stuff. Thought you’d like this.”

small mila and viktor

“I do,” Viktor breathes, absorbed in the details. “Are there...”

Mila laughs and sips at the freshwater tea that Viktor brought out especially for her. “Journals? Yes, of course. But they’re in my rooms, and the price of admission is dinner.”

“You’re all grown up now, Mila.” Viktor smiles at her. “Playing these games.”

Surprisingly, Mila flushes. “They’re not ...”

“Oh?” Viktor keeps his voice light. “And who might you have learnt this from?”

To his utter entertainment, Mila flushes harder. “It wasn’t just one person, I mean ... you know ...”

“I don’t know,” Viktor teases. “Do tell. I want to hear all about your surveyor adventures, Milka, and all the people you’ve met.”

It comes out a little more plaintive than Viktor meant, and this Mila, grown up and sharper, definitely catches it.

“Are you bored, Vitya?” she asks, eyes flicking over at the site in the distance, where Viktor’s students are busy at work.

It’s an innocent enough question; everyone knows that Viktor bores easily. But Mila knows the secret of Yuuri, sort of, and it gives her question more layers than are comfortable.

He cants his head to the side and smiles the cheeriest smile he can summon up. “Of course not, Mila! Why, we’re only coming closer to understanding the socio-political organisation of the Sintashta, especially amongst the laity, you know. The new technique really helps.”

Mila doesn’t look extremely convinced, but she lets it go with a visible sigh that bubbles out of her mouth. “The one you invented right before I left, you mean?”

“Oh well, yes, but I’ve been refining it.” Viktor laughs. “It wasn’t perfect, you know.”

“And then you had to train people to use it.”

They both look over at the site, where the technique is currently being put to use to untangle the stratigraphy.

“Yes, yes, but that is not new, is it?” Viktor rolls his right wrist, gesturing for Mila to go on. “We were talking about you, weren’t we?”

Rolling her eyes, Mila flexes out of the slouch she’d come to rest in. “I think your tea time’s over, Vitya. Come to supper, and I’ll tell you more.”

And because she really has grown up, she flicks her tail and shoots away back to the city before Viktor can even cajole her into doing some work with him. Laughing a little to himself, Viktor goes back to work and thinks about seeing Yuuri again that evening.

Dinner with Mila and Yuri two evenings later is less than satisfying — oh, he finds out very much about navigating through riverine systems, and swimming through babbling brooks and riding the rushing waters that tumble towards the sea, and how walking amongst humanity overland was both thrilling and terrifying.

It sets an itch going under Viktor’s skin.

He has always been proud of his tail, but ever since meeting Yuuri he has felt a wonder he thought lost to him. A wonder specific to the human world; Yuuri’s world.

 

*

 

Yuuri stomps towards the tideline, sand spraying up in his wake. His mood is not helped at all by the absence of a merman who has, despite all the walls Yuuri has tried to build up around his heart, somehow managed to worm his silly way under Yuuri’s skin.

He kicks off his cargo shorts and sits down in the cool surf anyway to grind his teeth at the temerity of the sky to remain clear, and the sea to sparkle cerulean blue.

Viktor appears eventually, the muscular undulations of his tail visible through the clear water. He lets the tides push him up the sand, the lazy creature, and curls up half around Yuuri, propping his arms up against Yuuri’s neoprene-clad legs. Yuuri’s wetsuit bottoms had been a wonder for an evening, and Viktor had pinched and pulled at the foamy fabric, and been very pleased that Yuuri could finally join him in the water.

“You look like you’ve had a bad day,” says Viktor. “Theoretical disagreement?”

“How did you guess,” Yuuri grumps sourly.

"We have those too. You know — the Vodyanoi? We didn’t come from here, originally. Many have tried to figure out the migration routes," said Viktor. "Did they go round the Arctic ocean or intracontinental riverine systems? Where was our ultimate source?"

Yuuri squints, distracted. “I don’t think they’re all connected, though. And even if they did, rivers flow in different directions. You can’t be swimming downstream all the time. How on earth...?”

“Ah, well, you see,” Viktor starts dramatically.

“Don’t tell me,” Yuuri groans.

Sweeping his arms out, Viktor declares: “Magic!”

Yuuri is really coming to dislike that enigmatic smile of Viktor’s; it signals some sort of hidden merpeople secret that Viktor doesn’t feel like sharing, or isn’t at liberty to share.

“We have surveyors,” Viktor says suddenly. “They explore, and help us find out.”

“Oh.” Yuuri considers this, and Viktor’s many questions. “Are you one?”

It’s a little bit like the sun going out, the way Viktor’s face shuts down. “No. No, I am not.”

“Oh,” Yuuri says again, awkwardly. “Um, ah. So ... can you tell me more about the debate?”

Viktor can, and does, at great length. Maps are drawn in the wet sand, and redrawn when incoming waves wipe out his efforts.

After much cursing and laughter, Yuuri blinks. “Wow. This is like the Out of Africa debate.”

“Africa?” Viktor asks quizzically.

Yuuri disentangles himself from the coil of Viktor’s tail, careful of his filmy fins, and beckons Viktor up towards drier land. His turn for a mini-lecture complete with visual aids, it seems.

“I wish the students on my site were like you,” says Yuuri when he’s winding down from his explanation of the Out of Africa hypothesis — more like theory. The wind has changed directions. Night is chewing at the edges of day in the sky, the sun sinking low in the sky. The tides will be turning soon; it is almost time for Viktor to go home.

“Students are the same over or underwater,” Viktor soothes. “I am an actual archaeologist.”

Yuuri concedes the point.

“Oh!” Yuuri sits up a little straighter. “But did you have the processualists and post-processualists?”

Viktor tilts his head in that familiarly quizzical way. “The what now?”

“Oh, god,” Yuuri flops back onto the sand. “That’s for another day.”

They watch the sun blaze into the sea, sharing a beer. Viktor’s quite taken to the taste of Asahi. Yuuri is just glad he didn’t inadvertently poison him, after the first time he let Viktor try some.

"I know a couple who left each other over the migration debate," Viktor says solemnly a little later, when the stars are out and the moon is hiding behind a veil of clouds. "Really brutal peer reviews, that sort of thing, you know. He was never quite the same after."

 

*

 

Yuri swims in on him trying to compress a stack of journals into a storage spell without compromising the integrity of the flatfish.

“What the hell, Viktor?”

“He’s an archaeologist too! We’re going to compare journals.” Viktor waves a flatfish at him. It flaps a little sadly. “He was really surprised to hear that we have journals. I don’t know why.”

“Of course. Of COURSE he is.” Yuri mutters angrily under his breath. “But what the hell is this mess?”

Viktor, who recognises a teachable moment when one presents itself, beams at him. “What do you think, Yura?”

“I think you’re crazy.”

Viktor sighs at him, and sends Yuri off to retrieve a reference book from the library for him. The construction of domestic spells was definitely not Viktor’s specialty, and he doesn’t want to go about asking questions that may raise suspicions. What Viktor’s really struggling with is replicating one of the storage spells that the archivists use; he wants to show Yuuri one of the really old journals that he acquired a while ago, but when he tested a usual bulk storage spell with an irrelevant article, it crumbled right after he unpacked the spell again.

Oh well, Yuri will probably get distracted somewhere along the way to the library, or turn up only a few days later with what Viktor asked him for. Viktor squints at the preservation storage spell that he took apart and laid out on his table, before blowing out a stream of exasperated bubbles.

He honestly would hate to owe Georgi yet another favour, but there’s something in the nest of curlicues clustering in the top right quadrant of the spell pattern that he’s not seeing. Viktor could sleep on it, but he’s seeing Yuuri again tomorrow and he wants, desperately, to do this for Yuuri; bring something that will give Yuuri as much joy and wonder as Yuuri has been giving him.

After making sure that the dissected spell array is sticking to the thin seaweed parchment he carefully deconstructed it on, Viktor packs it up and paints his concealment spell on before leaving for Georgi’s.

In the few weeks since Viktor got his babelfish charm, Georgi’s moved again, right across the city to the liminal zone where the rich circles of residence abutt the crumbling slums of the old merchant quarter. It’s easy to lose oneself in the warren of alleys here, where the high walls and twisting paths lead as easily into a courtyard as a dead-end.

Georgi looks up with surprise when Viktor squeezes through the narrow opening set mid-way up into a nondescript wall in a nondescript alley.

“Back so soon? Do you need a love potion now?”

It is with considerable restraint that Viktor does not point out that Georgi is the one more in need of one of those, or a better understanding of love.

“Nothing of the sort.” Viktor resets the deflection runes scraped into the wall around the entrance. “I need you to look at something for me.”

“Oh?” Georgi raises a sceptical eyebrow, but he looks intrigued. “Not a mural, I presume?”

Viktor takes the jab; he hadn’t mentioned the murals from the last place to anyone, he didn’t think. But he’s sure that they were why Georgi had to move so soon.

“I wouldn’t need you to look at a mural for me.” Viktor swims closer, and unfolds the preservation spell array on Georgi’s countertop. “It’s this.”

Reverently, Georgi reaches out to spread his fingers in the water over the array. “Vitya,” he breathes. “You brought me a present.”

“You can’t keep it,” Viktor says quickly. “But if I were to turn my back for a little while after you’ve helped me, you know, I’m so easily distracted by shiny things ...”

“You are,” Georgi agrees. “All right then. What are your questions?”

Viktor points at the troublesome mess of patterns giving him a headache. “I can’t make head or tail of this, but it’s the most important part, I think. There’s the main pattern, I think, see? And that curly bit in the middle, it joins into the cohesion clause, but then I can’t find the tail...”

Already absorbed in it, Georgi waves a dismissive hand at Viktor. “Go and ... look at shiny things, Vitya. Hovering won’t make me work faster.”

Viktor stops hovering, but he doesn’t go look at shiny things.

“Is that your site report?” Georgi asks curiously, when he looks up for a breather.

“Mmm.” Viktor taps at his mouth, preoccupied with the findings the site has produced so far. “Shiny.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Georgi shake his dark head and bend back down to examine the spell. Viktor smiles to himself a little: this reminds him of being in school, so long ago, when Georgi and he still led similar lives.

“I’ve almost got it,” Georgi says absently a while later. And then, “Ha! Yes!”

Viktor puts his work aside in his excitement and swims over to the counter. “Yes?”

“This is genius work, really professional,” Georgi enthuses. “It’s a recursive pattern, that’s how it seals up so tight, see?”

Viktor does see; it’s dizzying.

“And what’s all the fuss about this for?”

“Ah, well,” Viktor dissembles. “Intellectual curiosity?”

Georgi gives him a piercing look. It’s a bit like being stabbed with a surprise knife out the shadows, given how much khol he’s got on. “So it is kind of a love potion, then.”

Sighing, Viktor leans onto one elbow and traces the loops of the preservation clause. “It’s such a fascinating place, the overwater world. Humanity. They’ve learnt to fly, did you know?”

“Yes,” says Georgi, straight-faced. “The wrecks yield some marvellous things.”

Viktor opens his mouth, then decides against asking. Georgi can be rather morbid.

“Nothing I acquire, of course.” Georgi starts rolling up the preservation spell; he must have taken an imprint already. “But if you’re interested in the human world, I can introduce you to some of my ... contacts.”

Smugglers, leeches, looters. They would never agree to meet Viktor, and Georgi knows it.

Fluidly shrugging his shoulders, Viktor takes the scroll from Georgi and puts it in his satchel. “I’m all right without.”

He makes to flip up and away, when Georgi stops him with a hand on his arm. Viktor looks down at it, startled, and Georgi takes it back. “How serious are you, Vitya?”

Viktor blinks at him and cants his head to the left; Yura has reliably informed him that it makes him look spectacularly idiotic. “I don’t quite catch your meaning.”

“The world above, Vitya,” Georgi says impatiently. “Stop acting younger than you are.”

“Serious enough.”

It’s plain that Viktor’s hedging is irritating Georgi, because he lets out a dark, dismissive snort. “You’re going to have to get more serious about it, then. You’re too careless.”

He can feel his tail twitching with the urge to beat against the water in distress. “I have these,” Viktor says, gesturing at the gleaming paint wrapped around his torso.

Georgi shakes his head. “I thought what I had was enough too, Vitya.”

Except what Georgi did was so different from what Viktor’s doing now. Georgi wanted to get away — and he did in the end, anyway. All Viktor wants is ... a taste of something different. A life he’s never got to live.

“Well, if we’re going to talk about being careful,” Viktor says, snapping his tail so he cuts smoothly through the room to the entrance. “Then I’ve spent too much time here already.”

He hears Georgi sigh behind him. “Yes. Be careful, Vitya. You wouldn’t fit this life.”

“Goodbye, Georgi,” Viktor says firmly, and squeezes back out.

The courtyard is sleepily deserted, just a stand of seagrass in one corner waving gently in the currents. It may just be the conversation he’s just had, but Viktor feels unsettled, damn Georgi, as he hugs the wall and swims towards the arch leading away from the city centre. A crawling sensation raises the hairs on his skin, but then someone’s always watching anyway.

 

*

 

Yuuri hasn’t quite realised how much he’s come to rely on their evening chats.

Not until his heart does a strange flip in his chest when he’s jogging breathlessly down the steps, having near sprinted to the beach after a stratigraphy-related “discussion” ran long, and he sees Viktor dipping under the surf and surfacing closer to the shore. Somehow, he’s come to be able to recognise Viktor from afar, based solely on his hair and the way his body flashes through the water.

“Hi,” Yuuri says, when he’s removed his shoes and socks, and sits down on the dampl sand, just inside of the line where cool seawater may lap against his thighs.

“Hi! You said you were interested so I brought some of our journals!” Viktor beams expectantly, looking proud of himself. The translucent flare of his tail bobs a little where it’s perked up over the water. He really is like a kind of sea dog.

Looking around and finding nothing, Yuuri parrots him. “Journals?”

And then Viktor throws a fish at him.

Yuuri catches it with a squawk. It’s surprisingly un-slippery — rough and nubbly against his fingers, actually, and decidedly dead. By deduction, as much as Yuuri doesn’t want to believe it, this must be Viktor’s journal. Of all the questions that pop into his head, the one that falls out of his mouth is: “Where were you keeping that?”

It’s a fair question; Viktor very much does not have a bag on his person.

“Oh,” Viktor flaps a hand nonchalantly. “Storage charm.”

Yuuri makes a sound that Viktor says sounds uncannily like a territorial seal that’s pissed off.

The comparison only annoys Yuuri a little more. He decides to ignore this.

“Well, how do I ... read this?”

"Ah, well.” Viktor perks up and takes the ... flatfish back from him, stroking his fingers in a particular way over its ridged spine. The rough surface of its skin smooths out and words in a strange, incomprehensible script appear. Yuuri blinks, and blinks again.

“There were too many journals I wanted to show you, so I had to ... what’s the word? Put them on this. It's very exclusive, a very new development, you know," Viktor says conspiratorially. "Great for storing lots of text in one place. I think we traded the idea from a society further to the south, in warmer waters."

“Oh.” Experimentally, Yuuri tries to swipe left. Nothing happens.

Viktor laughs. “Oh! It is not like your, what do you call it? Your phone. The magic is in the eyes, you know.” He taps at one of the eyes, and Yuuri gets the impression of a page turning; new text appears on the fish.

It is, Yuuri thinks hysterically to himself, literally an eye-flatfish.

“I ... see,” says Yuuri, and steels himself to tap at the very same eye. It feels like a marble; nothing like the tacky, slightly jelly-ish feeling he was expecting. A new page appears.

Out of the corner of his eye, Yuuri sees Viktor look up at him, a satisfied curl to the corner of his mouth. “It works for you too! I thought it would.”

“Eh?” Yuuri asks, lost.

“The eyes,” says Viktor. “They work for you too.”

Well, Yuuri thinks, why wouldn’t they? Just because he didn’t make his own phone personally, or generate his own electrical supply doesn’t mean that he can’t use his own phone or laptop. He’s still not entirely convinced that what Viktor calls magic isn’t just ... a different path of scientific advancement. Any sufficiently developed technology, et cetera.

“Hmm,” Yuuri hums noncommittally. “Are all your journals like this, then?”

Of course, what happens is that Viktor produces another flatfish out of seemingly nowhere.

“Current Archaeology,” Viktor pronounces it to be. “I’m published in it! And oh, later, I have a very old and rare journal to show you.”

He beams at this pronouncement, and Yuuri helplessly smiles back.

It turns out that the flatfish containing Current Archaeology has been sliced laterally into leaves of almost-transparent flesh, which fan out like the bamboo sheafs of a traditional uchiwa if one strokes the spines a certain way.

"How on earth do you...how is it not bloody and wet?" Yuuri can’t help but touch the tissue-thin, hah, tissues, packed with squiggles and diagrams printed in dark ink. Possibly squid-ink. Perhaps blood. Yuuri doesn’t really want to know.

"Oh," Viktor says cheerfully. "Magic."

"Fine," Yuuri huffs out a helpless laugh. "Keep your secrets."

And Viktor obviously doesn't understand at all, but he just smiles mysteriously at Yuuri.

Yuuri ducks his head and turns back to the journal article Viktor called up. His journal article, apparently.

“I ... can’t read this.” Yuuri traces his finger along the lines of text. Then he smiles. “Facts and figures are the same everywhere, hmm? I wonder what your equivalent of Francis Bacon is.”

Viktor cocks his head. “Bacon?” His brow furrows. “I don’t recognise the word.”

“Well,” Yuuri starts, and stops, considers. “How do you ... hmm, what is this article about?”

It’s ... cute, the way Viktor perks right up. “Oh! Provenancing of some artefacts we found on a site to the south of our sea; near here, really. Just off the warm current. I thought there were some stylistic similarities in terms of — ah, I’m not sure of the word ... the symbols used? The things that are painted?”

“Oh! Iconography?”

“Yes! Perfect! Iconography. But, well, you know, ideas can travel far without the people bringing them.”

Yuuri nods.

Smiling, Viktor throws his arms out and open. “So we tested the artefacts for, how do I say? Hmmm, trace elements? Are the words making sense to you?”

Yuuri nods again. Trace elements in the chemical sense is something that Yuuri is familiar with. He didn’t think the merpeople had an analogue of the periodic table, though.

“Yay! And we found, well, essentially we found evidence of early trade links with the South Pacific! So our claims about where the artefacts originate aren’t just based on similarities in iconography or ... well, you know. Make.”

Petrie and the hot mess that was seriation came to mind.

“Oh, good,” Yuuri says. “That’s ... good. That kind of, um, way of thinking about ... trying to find answers, I suppose, with making observations and testing your assumptions through experiments. And recording all the, uh, data that you get from that.” He pauses to check Viktor’s expression, which is only a little befuddled.

Yuuri sighs. “Bacon’s basically the ... the father of the scientific method and empiricism. He didn’t invent them, but he wrote about a way of thinking that led to them.”

“Scientific method,” Viktor repeats, a furrow between his brows. “Empiricism. Bacon.”

Yuuri briefly considers also telling Viktor that bacon is also a kind of cured pork, and also not a word native to the Japanese language, before discarding the idea.

“That’s right,” he says encouragingly instead.

In response, Viktor deflates. “I think I need to read a book about this.”

“Well, actually.” Yuuri reaches towards his backpack and gets his phone out. “I thought I’d show you something more fun today!”

Viktor wriggles himself closer, expression lightening only a little. “But you’ll bring me a book when we meet again, yes?”

The library in Funadomari is unlikely to have the readings necessary, but Yuuri will ... improvise, somehow. He’ll print out Wikipedia articles if it comes to that.

“I’ll do my best,” Yuuri promises, before pulling up a gifset of penguins falling down on ice that Phichit sent him the other day.

Viktor’s eyes get very big and soft, and he has the silliest grin on his face. At the weirdly adorable chirrup of laughter when the last penguin takes two of its brethren down with it, Yuuri’s wayward heart trips a little.

“It doesn’t stop,” Viktor says wonderingly. “What are they?”

“Penguins.” Yuuri finds the world map he’s downloaded to his gallery. “They live in Antarctica. It’s, um, far to the south. Here, see?”

“We’ve heard tales of it, yes. Strange creatures in the deeps, and in eternal winter. But to think they have these birds! Can you eat them?”

In the meandering way that Yuuri has become fond of, their conversation turns from edible birds, to middens and how helpful they are in understanding past diets, to the kinds of papers they like to read. Bottles of Asahi are cracked open, when they move onto the continuing difficulty in balancing theory and praxis. It is with a slight pang that Yuuri distantly realises he is far more at ease complaining about archaeological theory with an archaeologist merman than his own human peers.

At some point, when the sky is streaked a peachey orange and the gulls have started circling home, Yuuri tipsily shouts about the stupidity of phenomenology and curses Christopher Tilley.

“I still don’t understand,” Viktor says hesitantly, when Yuuri is done grumbling at length about spaces between spaces and capital-B-Being and cultural relativism.

“Well.” Yuuri pokes at the sand, thinking. “It’s basically ... if you go into or onto an archaeological feature, right, and then ask yourself, ‘how does this make me feel?’ And then you publish a paper saying ‘and that is how the Neolithic people would have felt’. ...something like that.”

Viktor cocks his head, eyebrows furrowed and tail lashing a bit in the surf. “Oh.”

“Hmmm, actually, I suppose to be fair, you start out with ‘What do I hear? What do I see? What can I smell?’, but from what I’ve seen, it very quickly spirals out of control into, I don’t know, sense impressions and claims about the subjective experiences of past peoples relating to their ... material worlds.”

Yuuri winces; he hates it when he starts sounding like a reading.

“That ... sounds like what we do,” says Viktor.

Yuuri gives Viktor a look. “You carry window frames onto a site and look through them to ‘experience’ the ‘landscape’ from ‘within the dwelling’?”

“Well,” Viktor squirms a bit. “No, but ...”

“You go walking with your dog — swimming with your seal — through an archaeological landscape and interview passersby about how they feel about their ... um, daily constitutional?” Yuuri asks, getting quite het up. It’s keeping him warm in the cool evening breeze sweeping in off the Pacific in any case.

The laugh that bursts out of Viktor’s chest is incredulous and slightly hysterical. “What? No! No! But we ... one of the techniques that we have used, we lift sense-impressions off sections of our site, at different depths each pass, and study the stratigraphy of them with —” Viktor hesitated. “Apparatus.”

Despite knowing better by now, Yuuri still demands: “How.”

Viktor beams uncertainly at him, because this song-and-dance has become a ritual, almost, by now. “Magic!”

Yuuri stares at him, and then shoves Viktor off him and stands up.

“No, no!” Viktor latches onto his leg, because Viktor literally grew up amongst animals. “Let me explain!”

And then he does, and points at the relevant graphs and illustrations in the flatfish journal. The visualisations make a lot more sense now that Viktor’s explaining them.

“...like magical LiDAR,” Yuuri realises, and what the fuck, really. Either Viktor’s people had technology so advanced as to seem like magic, or ... they had magic.

“What’s LiDAR?”

Yuuri takes a deep breath of the salt-clean air, and blows out a sigh. The technological aspects of field methods are a little beyond him; his relationship with them tends to the ‘I use you, and you shall work’ end of things.

“Yes, okay. The ... do you remember the trees?” He points at the dark hills behind them. “They ... and you remember digging? Wait, no. Before digging, to identify a potential site.”

Viktor’s nodding encouragingly at him.

“LiDAR’s one of the ways we use ... if the ground is covered in trees, so we can’t see what’s underneath them.” Yuuri starts drawing in the sand. “And it uses, um, lasers, which are sort of, um, you can think of them as beams of light? And they can go through the tree cover, and bounce back up when they hit something really solid, and this all creates a map of the topography of features under cover.”

When he checks Viktor’s expression, it’s politely blank.

“Aaaaah.” Yuuri wipes away his diagrams in frustration. “Okay, it’s like taking a plaster cast with light. Like a fine net settling over a landscape, but when you lift it away it holds the shape of the topography.”

“Oh!” Viktor’s face lights up. “Yes! Sort of like that, then. But we don’t just read a topography of what’s under the, um, tree cover, though. We have impressions of the spells they used, you know, and the aftereffects, and the ... the colours and smells.” Viktor adds the last almost apologetically.

“So phenomenology as methodology, not theory,” Yuuri says semi-disbelievingly. The flatfish journals were one thing, but this ... He shakes his head. “And the sun still rises in the east. Viktor, I should like very much to see this one day.”

“I would like you to, as well,” Viktor says, smiling wide and sending Yuuri’s heart into somersaults. This cannot end well.

 

*

 

“Yura, would it not be nice to journey to Antarctica?” Viktor tells Yuri over their shared meal a few days later, feeling whimsical. It’s a bad idea.

Where?”

“Oh! Well, to the south. Very far to the south, on the far side of the great gyre. It’s as cold as Okhotsk in winter, but always.”

Yuri stares at him like he’s lost a fin. “Are you talking about the tales? Why?”

“Swimming birds!” Viktor beams. “They’re called penguins and they live there. Very cute; I saw some photographs.” The Japanese word comes out weird in his own language, the lilting pitches entirely out of place.

“Photographs,” Yuri repeats.

Viktor throws a remembered picture of the penguins into the water between them with a flick of his wrist. “Aren’t they adorable?” The way his picture bobs with the current makes it seem almost as though it were one and the same as Yuuri’s moving photos.

With a bang, Yuri shoots upright from his slouch and slams his hands on the table between them. “Are you a FUCKING IDIOT?” Yuri shouts, sweeping an arm out and batting the poor penguins to bits.

“Excuse me?” Viktor asks, icily polite now. He is very fond of his little cousin, but Yura needs to be put in his place from time to time.

They sit in slightly uncomfortable, simmering silence.

It’s mostly Yuri simmering, to be clear.

“They’ve been asking questions about your questions, idiot.” Yuri tells him. “Mila let it slip to Yakov, about your dinner. She said you were interested in international trade relations.”

Viktor stifles a laugh. This is serious, but, really — him, international trade?

“Well, I imagine Yakov was quite happy to hear that?”

Yuri scowls at Viktor. “He asked me too, when I had my lessons with him. He said, ‘Tell Vitya it’s about time he got serious.’”

“Ah, Yakov.” Viktor waves his hand dismissively. He hasn’t really spoken to his old tutor in a long time, not since their last disagreement about what greater purpose Viktor’s research ought to serve. “Well, he has a very narrow focus. No imagination.”

“Be careful up there,” Yuri warns him. “Don’t ... don’t get carried away with that human, Vitya.”

Viktor smiles, cold as the currents buffeting them. “Thank you for your concern, Yuri Plisetsky, I will note them well.”

“I’m serious,” Yuri insists. “I hid up in shelves when my lesson was over, Vitya. The guards know you aren’t in your rooms before sunset, not when you should have come back from your site.”

That is distressing news indeed, that Viktor has been so closely tracked.

He draws in a quick breath. “Georgi?”

Yuri scrunches up his face and shrugs. “I don’t know, but that weirdo always comes out all right, somehow, doesn’t he?”

“Don’t call people names, Yura,” Viktor says absently, thinking. “And it’s a skill we all learnt and that you shall too.”

“So you’ll stay in tonight, Vitya?”

There’s a look of something almost identifiable as concern on Yuri’s face when Viktor focusses on him.

“Perhaps.” Viktor taps at his mouth, frowning. Yuuri expects him, and there is no way to send him a message. He sighs, and turns back to his food. “Perhaps.”

The evening meal passes quickly, once Yuri declares his disgust and that he’s washed his hands of the matter, and Viktor is left with time to spend thinking about — humanity, and the Vodyanoi, and the buoyancy in his chest when he spends time with Yuuri.

“Ah,” he mutters to himself, flicking his tail so that he remains in place, floating on his back in the middle of his room as he is. “I don’t want this to end.”

So he delays, with mental apologies to Yuuri, so that the sun has already set by the time he takes the quiet backways, with double-strength concealment spells painted on; so that the stars pressed into the dark blue sky are twinkling in full force when he finally breaks the surface. The wind is almost a slap in the face, with how cold it is; Viktor suppresses a shiver and frowns, concerned. It is almost definitely too cold for Yuuri to be sitting on a beach, waiting for him.

And yet, he still hopes with every beat of his tail that Yuuri will be there, smiling at him in the silvery moonlight.

There, in the narrowing distance: a shuffling figure on the beach, swaying slightly, turns to him and the white of Yuuri’s smile stands out in the dark.

“Vik-tooo-ruuu!” His name is drawn out, accented, shouted across the lengths of the waves that separate them. Something is wrong. “You ... I thought you wouldn’t come!”

He’s just opened his mouth and taken a deep breath to shout back, when Viktor swallows a mouthful of water in shock. Yuuri’s started stumbling towards the water, turning in circles — he’s, he’s dancing, Viktor realises. But why?

And the tides now are stronger, pulling out to sea, so that Viktor has to cut against them.

He only manages to cough out a useless “No!” before Yuuri’s splashing in, laughing wildly.

The white foam surging around his knees, kicked up into the air, seems almost to hang treacherous in the air on this clear night.

Viktor desperately redoubles the beating of his tail.

Yuuri loses his footing, and is swept under.

His yelp, swallowed by the sea, freezes the very blood in Viktor’s cold-loving veins.

“No, no, no,” Viktor swears, and dives for Yuuri.

This close to the rise of the land shelf, the chewing of the waves at the shore has stirred sand into the water; it scratches at Viktor’s eyes. It is a small mercy that Viktor’s lighting charm hasn’t worn off yet; it still glows in a gentle penumbra about him, throwing the dark water about him into clarity.

As Viktor swims desperately towards where he thinks the currents will take Yuuri, Yakov’s voice rings unbidden in his mind; an admonition given to all of his people from young: Veles gives and takes in equal measure.

Please, Viktor pleads, senses straining, please.

As if in answer to his prayer, a dark shape resolves itself into sight right on the edge of his penumbra of light.

Viktor puts on another burst of speed, the muscles in his tail burning.

One beat: legs become clear, as they kick at the water.

Another beat: Yuuri bobs up out of the water briefly, and his arms drag up.

Yet another beat, and Viktor is there, reaching out to wrap around under Yuuri’s armpits and hold his head over the water. Yuuri’s breath bursts out of him in a great gasp, and he sobs in a ragged breath, before coughing.

“Yuuri!” Viktor half-shouts, but Yuuri doesn’t open his eyes. “Yuuri, you ...”

Viktor has never had to pull someone with legs along before, and he can’t quite work out what to do with his tail and Yuuri’s legs, and the panic is creeping quickly up his spine now, with Yuuri still coughing out weak breaths in his ear and the sea pulling insistently at them.

He adjusts his grip on Yuuri so that he’s holding Yuuri close to his side with one arm, and Yuuri’s arms loosely curled about his neck; a cruel parody of how Viktor truly wishes to hold him. Yuuri’s almost limp, his legs loose behind them as Viktor swims hard for the sealine — the shore.

It’s a relief, for once, when they skid up against the sand, and Viktor can anchor them where the water is so shallow they are in no danger of being pulled back into the sea’s greedy grasp. He pulls his tail in so that Yuuri may rest on it, lean up against Viktor’s chest.

Now that they aren’t surrounded by the bitter salt of the sea, Viktor can smell the alcohol — he recognises the smell now — on Yuuri’s breath, and frowns to himself.

“What upset you so, sweetheart?” Viktor whispers.

Yuuri makes no reply, as expected. He’s shivering, though, and Viktor tries painting a warming charm into his skin with the seawater. The beads of water slide away too quickly for the charm to take, and he huffs in exasperation.

And then Viktor remembers — Yuuri always has his bag with him, and in his bag may be found dry cloth.

He casts about the beach for the familiar blue of Yuuri’s bag, and spots it a good distance away, sitting above the tideline.

When he makes to set Yuuri down to fetch the bag, however, Yuuri whimpers and turns into his chest, setting off a few more coughs.

“Yuuri,” Viktor says, and rubs a little at his skin. It’s chill and wet, nothing like the way Yuuri usually feels warm when Viktor curls about him. “I have to get your, ah, clothes.”

It would be much easier if Viktor had legs, to walk across the sand the way Yuuri does, but now instead he has to push Yuuri higher onto the beach and then wriggle down back into the surf, deep enough that he can swim to where Yuuri’s bag lies. The whole exercise takes far longer than Viktor would like, especially when he discovers Yuuri’s shoes sitting further up from Yuuri’s bag.

Far too many minutes have passed by the time he’s managed to get back to Yuuri, bag held carefully over his head as he swam, and the bag contains just a strange, smooth sort of shirt that cannot be fastened together in any way that Viktor understands, a towel that’s slightly damp, and what must be Yuuri’s field notebook.

In his digging, Viktor finds a treasure: Yuuri’s phone.

He fumbles with it, fingers trembling in excitement, and tries to tap on it, the way Yuuri has done before, to make it come alive. It does nothing, the unobliging thing, and Viktor swears at it a little; still, the thing remains inert. He tries pressing the little buttons in the side, next, and the screen finally flashes on to show the time, a small creature that he knows now is a ‘dog’, and a demand for a password.

“Password!” Viktor says, exasperated, and tries a random combination. He tries two more, before the phone refuses any more guesses.

No such luck; they need to go somewhere with more humans, where someone can come and help Yuuri.

Viktor doesn’t want to try the sea again, not when it has already been so unforgiving once, and not when Yuuri has already been wet and chilled through once, but there is no other way for it that he can see.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he murmurs to Yuuri, and carefully puts Yuuri’s phone back into his bag, tossing it up the beach so that the morning tide will not steal it away, before pulling Yuuri back into the cold, dark waves.

It is an unpleasant swim, slow-going and wearying, as Viktor worries about Yuuri, about being caught on the rocky shoals that jut out of the water, about the sea coming back to teach him a lesson. His heart beats loud in his ears, as he pulls its keeper through the dragging waves that catch at them underwater, and threaten to drown them over the waterline.

Funadomari announces itself with the unpleasant tang of humanity, and the appearance of strange blocky structures built into the sea. They change the way the water flows, unpleasantly so, and it is a difficult task to navigate their way through a gap to a clear stretch of beach. The waters are calmer once they’re through the gap to shallower waters, and the going is much easier.

Viktor swims until he can see, across the beach and in the dim light that the settlement gives off, a sandy path winding up from the beach to where the humans live.

It is hardly the longest distance that Viktor has ever swum; the leagues from his home to their beach far outmatch it. And yet he is tired, and feels as though all the energy is running out of his limbs as he lays Yuuri down, safely above the tideline. Sand particles scratch under his scales and against his fins. He pays them no mind, curling around Yuuri for warmth, remembering the picture of penguins huddling that Yuuri showed him.

Immediate danger now past, and with Yuuri shivering in his arms, Viktor finds himself thinking. Why didn’t any of his human friends come help Yuuri before Viktor found him? Does no one care for Yuuri? Is Viktor the only one who does? Viktor finds himself working himself up into a lather.

As the night wears on it becomes abundantly clear that only Viktor can take care of Yuuri the way he ought to be taken care of, and with only a tail it is very hard to help him the way Viktor wants to.

The course of action from here is very, very clear.

He stays until the sun rises and the sea has crept up to them, tickling kindly and apologetically at Viktor’s fins. Viktor has never before really understood when his elders and the surveyors called the sea treacherous; now he knows.

Yuuri stirs, coughing weakly yet again. The puttering sound of boat engines — another new word Viktor has learnt, courtesy of Yuuri — comes as the fishermen put out to sea.

He must go soon.

Human voices sound in the distance and Viktor starts sliding back into the surf, grateful for the wet against his skin. There’s a shout, one of alarm. It sounds as though its bearer has come nearer to the beach.

Yuuri’s eyes slit open. They are unfocussed, before sharpening on Viktor.

“Wha—?” He hears Yuuri whisper hoarsely.

Viktor reaches out to grasp him by the forearm, even as the tide tugs at him. “You’re okay now,” he whispers. “I have to go. See you soon, sweetheart.”

Yuuri’s eyes widen, and Viktor smiles a little tremulously before letting himself be swept out to sea.




***

Chapter Text








Whalesong.

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.

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.

Yuuri gulps.

“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.”

“Oh no...”

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.”

“Okay...?”

“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.

“Eh?”

“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!”

“...Oh.”

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.



yuuuuuuuuuris



"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.



dr squidhead is HENCH



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.”

“...Oh.”

“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.”

A choice?

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.

 

***



Epilogue




“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.




full on contrapposto