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A vow to uphold

Chapter Text

 

 

The torch flame flickers as they run through the dark tunnel beneath the palace kitchens. The noise their boots make on the dusty stones echoes off the bare walls. Someone can hear them. Someone can catch them. They need to hurry.

They pause at the inner doorway. The torch bearer pulls a ring of keys from his belt. Clinging, he searches for the right one with harried fingers and, once he finds it, he quickly jams it into the lock. The ancient steel resists. It grits, it whines, but the lock clicks open at last. The man pushes the doors open. Screeching, they give way and they all slip through it right into another dark tunnel.

Before the man closes the door behind them, they hear it: the scuffle, the screaming, the clash of steel. It comes from far above them, but all their necks tingle with the phantom touch of an axe that will turn into a very real danger should they get caught. 

"Hurry!" The man with the torch snaps back into action, pushing them forward. "We're almost there!"

They run through the tunnel in complete darkness, their only guidance coming from the torch flames, which flicker and shake and make their shadows as scary as their fears. They turn left when the tunnel splits, then right, then right again. The little princess begins to wail before they can cross the door at the end of this section. Even though her mother and father both try to calm her, she must feel the imminent danger, for she only cries harder. 

The noise must be what finally draws attention to them, there is no other explanation. The door somewhere behind them bursts open. Footsteps of heavy boots, the metallic clinging of armor and the shouts – that's all they hear as the man with the torch struggles to open another door. He finally does and they make it to the other side right when the soldiers crash into the closed door at the end of this section. Even from afar they can hear how it rattles it in its ancient hinges.

It won't hold.

"Quickly now!" the man orders, pushing past them to guide the way.

They run faster. The princess still sobs, but her weeping has hushed down, be it from exhaustion or fear. 

The entire tunnel rattles when the cannons go off on the ground above them. Dirt and pieces of stone rain down on them as the walls shake with the force of it. The queen sways and only the arm of her husband steadies her before she crashes into a wall. There is fear in her eyes, fear in his, and it flickers in the orange flames of the torch.

"Come on!" 

The torch bearer tugs the queen by her other elbow. With a click of heels she follows at his side, and the king with the little princess in his arms do so as well. 

"You need to change your names, hole up in some tiny village at the edge of the kingdom and never," He looks back to them, panicked and urgent, "never speak of this again. If you value your lives, the life of your child, and mine, don't mention this even between yourselves. You can never be sure who listens or whom you can trust, so don't take any chances. Do you hear me?"

"Aye, we hear you," the king replies, voice hard. 

They turn the corner one after another and then finally come up to the stairs that lead upwards to the trapdoor. The man climbs first to open the lock that has kept it chained and hidden for all these years. He pushes the wood upwards. Dirt falls on his head and shoulders, but he hardly even blinks. A night breeze brushes their sweaty, frightened faces – their first breath of fresh air in weeks. 

The man offers a hand to the queen, who takes it and crawls through first, carefully protecting her swollen belly from knocking into the stones. Before he goes through himself, the king lifts the little princess right into her mother's waiting arms. He intends to follow, but the man with the torch stops him.

"The child," he says, looking back into the open hole in the earth where the moon shines onto them. "If it's an omega, then come back. My son will marry them and we'll put a Katsuki heir on the throne again. This is not how it needs to end."

The king looks at him, at the guilt in the man's eyes. This was not his fault. Nothing that led to this dreadful night was. He was just as much a victim as they were, a pawn of the revolution, a puppet king, tugged about by the strings that could rise him onto the throne one morning, but which could just as well string him up by the neck and leave him for dead that same evening should he prove useless. 

And, still, he helped them escape with their lives. Such debts need repayment, even if it takes more than one lifetime to do so. Sadly, the king has always been a man of impeccable honour. He cannot turn the offer to make things right when it is offered from a repentant heart.

"If the child is an omega, we will present them with a choice," he replies, already feeling the burden of what's to come. "It's the people who make their kings, don't forget. And… thank you, Tosha. We will never forget this kindness you've done to us."

They embrace like brothers for the last time. 

The cannons go off again, rattling the ground. 

"Go," Tosha says, pushing the king out the trapdoor. "Be safe. And when the time comes, return to take your rightful place. I will keep it in your stead until our children are ready."

The king says nothing to that. He only nods and closes the trapdoor, leaving Tosha alone in the dark with only the torch to keep him company. 

That is the last anyone sees of king Toshiyuki, queen Hinako and the little princess Marianna. Anton Nikiforov accepts the crown come morning, and the kingdom of Tsenkh accepts a new monarch, a new royal family and a new order – fought for with sword and blood and sweat.

 

 

***

 

 

"You have a choice to make," his father says on the day of Yuuri's sixteenth birthday. "I can write Tosha and arrange everything, but it is you who has to choose."

Yuuri clutches his hands in his lap so hard that his knuckles turn white. His head spins, his breathing is shallow, and his heart beats double as if he was about to faint. He won't, of course not, but the feeling of the room closing in on him is enough to make him spiral into panic.

"But… the prince?" He licks his lips, struggling to wrap his mind about this. "Father, are you sure? This honestly sounds like a fairytale. And I know life can't be this good without something horrible following in its footsteps. Please, tell me this was all just a tasteless joke. I won't be upset with you, I promise."

"I wish it was, my son." 

Toshiya smiles at him sadly. The corners of his eyes wrinkle, the lines of laughter now looking more like the lines of worry that he must have kept hidden from his children for all these years. Somehow, as Yuuri looks at him now, he seems like he's seeing him for the first time. He's the same man that raised him, the one who taught him the sword, the bow, who patiently showed him how to skin the animals to waste as little as possible. And yet… 

He's also the man who kept something like that secret from him for almost two decades.

"If you don't want this, just say the word and we will never return to this conversation again," his father offers, seeing his hesitation. "I will not force you, Yuuri, I give you my word."

That allows Yuuri to breathe just a little bit easier. Still, this decision cannot be more difficult to make.

"If I refuse, you and mother will never be able to return…"

"Yuuri," his father admonishes softly. "Don't worry about your mother and I. We have lived good lives here. We will continue to do so, no matter what you choose. Our return to the capitol is not based on this. We made a vow as soon as we settled here, you see. We will never go back. Here is where our happiness lies." His father smiles, gentle and kind as he's always been. "You must think of yourself when your decide, my son. Choose what you want your life to be. Not what others would want from you, but what you want from your own life and future. That is all I ask."

"Can I have a little more time to think?" Yuuri asks.

"However much you need," his father offers, and Yuuri nods, grateful. 

 

 

***

 

 

It takes him three years to come to a decision, and even when he makes it, he is still ailed by doubts. His parents have not pressed him for answers and neither has his sister, whom he told everything as soon as he learned the truth himself. She remembered some of it, the palace and the life she has been ripped from, but those memories seem more like a dream now that she is grown. To Yuuri, this entire matter feels like a dream, too. What else can it be? He's lived his life as an omega son of the family of innkeepers, a kind, honest boy who aspired to become a distinguished dancer one day. Faced with the sudden reveal of his true identity, Yuuri has been left at a crossroads he could never have divined in his wildest dreams. 

It helped that no one expected him to make up his mind within days, but weeks, months, then years passed and their silence on the issue made Yuuri feel completely alone in this. He pondered on the matter every now and then, but in the end he couldn't bring himself to make a choice. How could he? To decide to marry the prince, to marry anyone when he's barely of age was not something he ever believed he'd need to do. He still feels like a child at heart, like no time could prepare him for marriage, far less marriage to a royal.

Even if he himself comes from a royal family.

The knowledge of his origin comes as a surprise, but it doesn't change much in his everyday life. Yuuri is still Yuuri, the omega son of the inn owners in the tiny town of Hasetsu. Everyone knows him here as such. And nothing will change that, not even the marriage to the dreamy prince Victor, who Yuuri may or may not have loved in his little heart since he was twelve and saw the prince as he rode through town on an equally beautiful white stallion.

But because he did, and because the yearning to see the prince again grew over the years, he could not deny the draw to the offer. As much as he was against marrying someone he did not know, he did know a bit about the prince. He knew his favourite season was winter, that he enjoyed his wine as sweet as the spring flowers, that he enjoyed hunting and horse racing, that he was gentle and kind, even though he was an alpha. 

The prince, for all that Yuuri knew, was every omega's dream.  

And he was Yuuri's, too.

A dream he might have been thus far, but should Yuuri say yes to his father's offer, he could have the prince as husband. As mate. As a lifelong companion. This was a lot different than fleeting faraway admiration of a man whom he'll never speak to. This was real life. This was a spark of change.

"Should I do this?" Yuuri asks on the night of his twentieth birthday, seeking advice from the only source he can: the sky splashed with stars. "Is this the right path for me? A prince and a crown and a life of luxury?"

The stars do not reply, so Yuuri makes a decision all on his own.

"Father," he calls as soon as he comes back home. 

His parents sit at the low table in the kitchen, playing a game of cards with their old, used set. They both look up from the game when Yuuri speaks.

"I'll do it," Yuuri tells them, even though his heart flutters in his chest like a tiny bird that still hasn't learned to fly. Soon, he thinks, it will. It'll have to. Or it will crash and break its tiny wings, and die a miserable death of a loveless marriage. 

But whichever it will be, Yuuri will face it with his chin held high, proud of who he is and where he comes from. Just as he does now, as he says with a finality to his voice: 

"I will marry the prince."

 

 

***

 

 

Steel sings as their swords come together time after time. Victor rolls his blade over that of his cousin and then he pushes him back with the sheer force of his attack. Yuri stumbles backwards and bares his teeth, ugly and angry. He charges at Victor, more with his ferociousness than actual skill, and lands blow after blow, which Victor parries with little difficulty despite the strength that Yuri puts into it. Victor allows him to keep at it until Yuri is red in the face and panting, and only then does he return the blows. Precise, measured, he pushes Yuri back step by step, and then with a swift upturn of his blade, he flips the sword out of Yuri's hands.

It lands in the grass a few feet away. 

"That hurt, you ass," Yuri hisses at him, holding his wrist with his other hand. 

"It was supposed to," Victor replies, careless of his pain. "How else do you expect to learn if you refuse to listen to reason or instruction?"

"Well, guess what? I don't even want to learn stupid swordplay anyway!" 

Yuri spits at Victor's feet and storms away, kicking his sword on his way for good measure. Victor sighs as he lets him go. A servant comes to take his blade. Victor exchanges it for a fresh towel, which he uses to pat the sweat away from his face and neck. The servant takes it once he's done and another brings Victor a drink.

"He should know better than to pick a fight with you," someone says.

Victor turns to see his father coming his way over the perfectly trimmed grass of the royal courtyard. He's clad in gold from head to toe, and it all shimmers in the morning sun with his every move. He's so bright that Victor must look away for fear of going blind, but he supposes that this is the entire reason why his father chooses to dress in such a way. 

"It would take a lot more than that to pick a fight with me, you know that," Victor replies, smiling. He takes a sip from the crystal glass. "Did you come to watch us spar?"

"As much as I enjoy that… no." 

The king waves away the servants, who leave after bowing deeply. Victor lifts an eyebrow at the unusual secrecy, but he doesn't say a word. He simply waits for his father to share what he finds so demanding of privacy. They exchange a long look, and the heaviness of the king's gaze dissipates the last of Victor's amusement.   

"You remember what I told you the night of your coming of age?"

Victor nods, the story still fresh in his mind. The coup d'état, the secret escape, the final members of the royal Katsuki line alive and well… and the marriage. Oh yes, that too.

"Does you bringing that up now mean you heard back from them?" Victor asks. 

From the Katsuki's… from the rightful king and queen of this land. And their omega offspring, who Victor will marry to fulfill the promise his father made over two decades ago.

He swallows the unease that rises up his throat. He always knew that his marriage will be decided by his parents, but marrying a prince of blood in complete secret, keeping it secret all his life… Victor isn't sure if he's ready for it. Should it ever come out, no one will be spared. It will ricochet onto all of them: the Katsukis revealed, facing death, the Nikiforovs ousted as liars, most likely facing the same. 

Victor closes his eyes just as his father answers: "Yes, I have just received word. Their son has made a decision. He agreed."

"Then we go through with this?"

"That was our promise," his father reminds, and Victor only nods. "I understand how great a burden this must be, Vitya, and I am sorry that you have to pay for our deeds. But this is a chance for us to do what's right, don't you see? We can fix the mistakes of our past. Your child, your heir will inherit what rightfully belongs to the crown. Ours by choice, theirs by blood. This will be the best for everyone."

"Everyone but me," Victor says with a crooked smile. He shakes his head and steps away when his father reaches out to rest a hand on his shoulder. "No, it's alright. I will do what is expected of me, father. I gave my word and I will keep it."

The king nods. "He will arrive in a fortnight. I don't expect you to love him, Vitya, but give him a chance. Your mother and I… we had our union arranged from the moment we were born. It wasn't easy for us to see eye to eye at first, but we have grown to care about each other deeply. That is what I wish for you, my son, but should it prove impossible, remember that you can always come to me."

He says nothing more, but Victor knows what he means. He's seen it happen at court enough times to know. Sudden incurable disease, poison, horse riding accidents, a stray arrow at a hunt. A shiver runs down his spine at the mere thought of it.

"Let's give him a chance first," he decides. "Fortnight, you say?"

"Yes, fortnight." 

And till then, they wait.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The carriage arrives just before midday. A servant opens the door and offers Yuuri a hand, which he gladly accepts as he climbs down the steps to the solid ground. After hours of sitting in a tiny carriage his legs feel as if they are made of straw. Every step sends pinpricks of pain up his feet. Yuuri grits his teeth and stops to allow his blood to reach his toes again. He forces himself to unclench his jaw, then takes a deep breath of fresh air. It feels good to be outside again, even if it is accompanied by pain.

He opens his eyes when someone clears their throat next to him. A servant, yet another one. She doesn't look at him. Her eyes are obediently bowed to Yuuri's feet as she offers a curtsy.

"Please follow me to your chambers, Your Highness," she says. 

"I'm not–" Yuuri starts, but then closes his mouth, because he is. He is. A true prince of blood. 

He follows the servant in silence. She leads him through the corridors of marble and gold, under the paintings of monarchs, next to the stunning sculptures of gods. He looks around to see if he can spot any traces of his mother or father, or even Mari, but nothing that could bear the Katsuki name remains in the halls they pass. The palace has been wiped clean of them as if… 

Yuuri shakes his head. After the coup, it shouldn't surprise Yuuri that the new royal family wanted to get rid of the reminder that it wasn't their rightful place. But as Yuuri takes in everything around him, he doubts that it is his, either. Everything here is more riches than Yuuri has seen in his entire life. And it shows, it shows painfully, for even the servants' clothes are of better make than what Yuuri wears on his back – his best outfit. A prince by blood he may be, but as he looks around his surroundings, he knows he is only a pretender. He doesn't belong… and he may never belong, either.

Shame sits in his belly when the servant finally leads him into a room through large, double winged door. It's a sitting room with a table and a sofa, and three plush armchairs. There is a fireplace on one wall decorated with blue and gold print, two doors on the other, and in front of him – large windows, which stream bright sunlight through curtains light like spiderwebs. 

It's incredible.

"His Highness, Prince Victor, has prepared robes for you to change into before you meet the royal family," the servant says. "He hoped they were to your taste, but if you do not like them, he asked to be informed immediately so that he can send for a tailor. Once you've changed, His Highness would like to see you for lunch with the King and the Queen." When Yuuri says nothing in return and doesn't move from where he's standing, the servant asks: "Should I help you change, Your Highness?"

"Ah, yes, um… please?"

The servant curtseys again and quickly goes through one of the doors, leaving it open so that Yuuri can follow. He does after he takes three steadying breaths and none of them help to calm his rabid heartbeat. 

He knew he would be in over his head here, but he never realized how much until now. 

At last, he steps into what must be his bedroom. The bed alone takes up more space than Yuuri's entire room back at home. Yuuri stares at the soft baldachin and curtains around the four posts, the silken sheets, the mountains of fluffy pillows. This is what a royal nest must look like and, while Yuuri wasn't excited about this new life of luxury, he thinks that to this particular part of it he might get used to pretty fast. 

"Over here, Your Highness," the servant calls. 

She hangs five different robes over the screen at the side of the room opposite the bed, each of them as beautiful as the last. There is a red and gold one, royal and magnificent. There is a blue one with pearls dotted on it like stars across the night sky. There is one that looks like velvety green grass, its hem woven in golden thread into a pattern of leaves. There is one that is pure silver, almost as if it was made of moonlight or spidersilk. And then, there is the one of black silk and violet so stunning that Yuuri cannot even imagine how the clothmakers could get such a wonderful material except for by using magic. 

"Is there one to your liking, Your Highness?" the servant asks.

"One? They're all beautiful," Yuuri answers truthfully.

The servant nods as if what he says is what she believes as well. "Which one do you wish to wear to the dinner with the King and Queen?"

"Do you think the black one will be too dark?" Yuuri bites his lip, looking from the robe to the woman. He offers her a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry to say that don't know the etiquette of the palace."

"I think the black one is a wonderful choice, Your Highness," the servant answers. 

She takes the rest of the robes back behind the screen, where she folds them and places them safely inside a chest to keep the dust and the sunlight away from the vivid colours so that they don't dim overtime. 

"It will match your dark hair," she adds. "And violet is one of Prince Victor's favourite colours."  

Yuuri nods, happy to have this knowledge for later. The servant motions for Yuuri to step behind the screen. He does, and she begins to undress him, and even though he blushes to the tips of his ears and needs to shut his eyes, he allows her to do what she needs to make him appear presentable. 

And that is how his life in the palace begins.

 

 

***

 

 

When Victor sees him for the first time, he can almost imagine that his life may not be quite as over as he thought before. Yuuri Katsuki, for that is the name of the man Victor will be promising his future to in all but a few days, is a beauty beyond compare. His hair is dark and luscious, pulled back out of his eyes in a tasteful manner. His brown eyes are alight with curiosity as he peers around the room. His cheekbones, nose, lips, ears… they're perfectly shaped in a way that can only be his royal pedigree, and Victor finds himself staring while a servant leads his betrothed over.

"Your Highness." 

Yuuri bows to him, a tad awkward. It's understandable of one not raised at court like Victor himself was. Yuuri is nervous, too. It's clear to see in the way his back is too straight, his arms too stiff, his eyes unable to rest in one place for long. It's… quite charming, Victor thinks. Despite the awkwardness.

It pushes at Victor's lips to reply with the same, but he can't. Not with the servants, his cousin and aunt all present at the dining table, unaware of who this young man is beyond being Victor's intended. Instead, Victor steps forward, takes Yuuri's hand and drops a kiss to his gloved knuckles, like is expected of him. 

A lovely scent of something dark, something rich and smoky, with a little bit of honey sweetness, tingles at Victor's nose through the glove. It slides down his throat like fine wine, which is honestly not a bad start to the relationship they will most likely have for years.

"It is a great pleasure to meet you at last," Victor says, peering up his lashes at his husband-to-be.

A flush dusts Yuuri's cheeks, rosy and stunning against his skin. "Likewise, Your Highness."

"Please, do me the honour of calling me Victor." 

Victor smiles his sweetest smile, delighted to see the blush on Yuuri's face deepen. The way it brings out the light in Yuuri's brown eyes is truly incredible and Victor can't wait to make him blush again, even if Yuuri's cheeks are still healthily flushed. Victor straightens up and, without letting go of Yuuri's hand, he leads him to the open seat at his left side. Yuuri's robes flutter, a beautiful fit for him. 

"The robe suits you," Victor can't keep himself from commenting. "I'm happy you liked it enough to wear it. I wasn't sure about your preference when I ordered them made, but I'm glad that at least one was passable."

"Passable?" Yuuri repeats as if he cannot believe that is the word Victor used. "Your– Victor, forgive me, but the robes are all stunning. I picked this one because dark colours are what I'm used to, but they were all incredible. It wasn't easy to choose between them, I swear."

Victor grins, pleased to the bone. It's every alpha's need to care for their chosen omega, and even if he hasn't picked Yuuri as his per se, Yuuri's acceptance and happiness already influence Victor's own. He waves the servant away and pulls the chair out for Yuuri all on his own. Only when Yuuri takes his seat, does Victor do so himself. He's still unable to look anywhere else but at him, though. Yuuri has completely caught his eye, and Victor doesn't know what to do with himself. Could it be possible that this disaster of an arranged marriage would not end up caging him against life itself?

"Welcome, Yuuri," the king greets as they take their seats. "We are happy to see you arrived safely. Here, a toast to you. May your stay at the palace bring you nothing but joy and peace to this wondrous country we call home."

Around the table, everyone lifts their glasses to join in the wishes. Everyone, except for Yuri.

"Why did no one tell me he has my name?" the boy asks, scowling. His mother whispers something to him, but his scowl does not wane. "No, I will not be quiet. He comes here with my name and what now? I'm the one that needs to be careful? Careful not to insult him? I don't think so!"

Yuri pushes his chair away with a screech and throws his napkin into his still empty plate. He stomps around the table and stares Yuuri down so hard that Victor does not need to look at them to see Yuuri flinch. Something protective rises in him, but before he can say anything, Yuri leans into Yuuri's face.

"Tread lightly. I'm the only Yuri this family needs. You're just a spare that can be tossed out at any time," Yuri bites out.

He storms out of the room before Yuuri can even reply. To make sure he's alright, Victor rests a calming hand on Yuuri's back. It's his mistake for being overtly forward, it seems, because Yuuri jumps in fright at the first touch. Victor pulls his hand back quickly and offers a smile in its place to ease Yuuri's tension.

"Forgive him," Victor asks. "He's a little moody these days. The ails of growing up, I'm sure you understand." 

"I do, yes, but... should I be worried he might try to do something?" Yuuri asks, spooked. It's in his eyes, clear as day, and Victor curses Yuri's childish tantrums. Today just wasn't the right day for it and he knew that.

"He won't, worry not," Victor tries to smooth things over. "He might use some colourful words, but he is fairly harmless. Like those sweet little puppies who growl and bark, but have no bite in their tiny bones."

Victor smiles again, and this time Yuuri offers him a shaky smile as well. It's sweet that he tries, and Victor thinks all the better of him for it. 

"So, tell us, Yuuri," the queen starts just as the servants bring the first course in. "How was your journey here?"

"Long," Yuuri replies, slightly stilted, but no less polite. "It was so gracious of you to have sent the carriage for me, but my legs still feel like I'm in one."

That gets him a round of polite laughter. The plates of sweet oysters are set before them, and everyone digs in. Victor closes his eyes in pleasure as the sweetness melts on his tongue. Despite the little hiccup with Yuri, everything seems to be going so well… He's more than pleased.

"Did you have a chance to look about your rooms yet? Are they suitable?" the queen asks again, slurping her oyster down with some lime juice. "If anything is not to your liking, we can have it redecorated to whatever you like. Though I imagine you will not be spending long in those chambers. The wedding is set to be soon." 

"They are far more than I imagined," Yuuri says. "Thank you so much for your hospitality, Your Majesties."

He's so polite, so sweet, Victor marvels. His lips smile all on their own, he can't help it.

They indulge in small talk until the second course comes in, and then the third. Victor remains silent, taken with watching Yuuri like he never watched anyone before. There is something about him, something about his quiet demeanour that piques Victor's interest. Beneath it all, he feels passion. Yuuri might not show this, but Victor has learned how to read people through all his years of palace intrigue and court ploys for attention. There is something more to him than sweetness and kindness… something that Victor is excited to learn, should Yuuri wish to show him.

The servants put the main course before them. It's a beautifully seared golden duck, the favourite of the previous queen. It was made especially on the king's orders, so that Yuuri might still keep a little piece of home with him, even if his parents could not be with him on this, or any other day of his life in the palace. Victor wonders if Yuuri knows this, but when he turns to the side, Yuuri has not even touched his food. None of it. Throughout the entire supper. 

"Is the food not to your liking?" Victor asks, leaning close to him to keep their conversation somewhat private. "We can have the kitchens prepare something else–"

"No," Yuuri interrupts him, and only then seems to realize he did that. He flushes, lowering his gaze. "Forgive me, Your Highness. The food is lovely, I just… I can't seem to stomach anything today. I'm, I'm a little nervous."

"And you must be tired, too," Victor adds, wanting to kick himself for not thinking of this sooner. Yuuri has travelled a long way. Of course he wouldn't be excited about a stiff formal dinner with royalty. "I apologize for being so insensitive."

"No, please, this is very nice. There is no need for you to apologize," Yuuri says, but his eyes show the truth when Victor catches a glimpse of them. "If anything, it should be me–" 

"Mother, Father," Victor calls, standing. Yuuri startles at Victor's raised voice, but Victor carries on, "aunt Lysa. I believe we tired Yuuri out enough for one day. He's crossed the entire country to get here and he must be too polite to say anything, but I am not. I will take him back to his room, so he can get the rest he needs. Please, excuse us."

"Very well," the king allows. "Should you need anything, Yuuri, don't hesitate to tell us. We want your stay here to be a homecoming, not prison."

"That is incredibly kind of you, Your Majesty. I cannot express my gratitude enough," Yuuri says, and the king nods in clear dismissal. 

Yuuri stands and gives him a bow, lower than before. Victor offers his hand to him and together they leave the dining hall. A servant tralis a few paces after them, but it's enough to give them the opportunity to speak alone.

"I hoped to get a moment with you just for myself," Victor confesses to start somewhere. Yuuri peers up at him, and then quickly turns away when their eyes meet, cheeks aflame. "Tell me, Yuuri, are you truly resolved to do this?"

"Are you not?" Yuuri returns. 

"I will admit that the thought hasn't been pleasing since I've learned about it all those years back, but I have grudgingly resolved myself to accept the harsh reality of it," Victor says with a subtle shrug of his silver-clad shoulders. "I am a prince, after all. If it wasn't you, it would be someone else. Such arrangements are what makes aristocracy hold onto our power." He squeezes Yuuri's hand to have his full attention, and smiles when Yuuri turns to look at him. "But the moment I saw you, I knew: we can make this work, Yuuri. If you want to, that is."

Yuuri stops in his tracks. Victor takes one more step before he notices, but then he veers to a stop right in front of him. Facing Yuuri, he hopes, and in Yuuri's eyes he sees a mirror of it.

"I would like that very much, Your–" Yuuri catches himself, then gives into a small smile. "Victor."

Lighter at heart than he has been in days, Victor smiles back. "Your Victor? My, that does sound quite lovely indeed." 

Yuuri opens his mouth, a blush staining his cheeks, but before he can say a word, Victor brings his hand to his lips and drops a kiss against his knuckles. 

"I'm only playing, Yuuri. Please, don't take my joking to heart. I mean no offence." 

They resume their walk towards Yuuri's chambers, both threading lighter than before.

"Tomorrow," Victor suddenly remembers as he searches his mind for things to talk about, so that their walk is not filled with silence. "Tomorrow there is an annual mating run. My parents and I have been invited to watch. Would you do me the honour of sitting with me in the stands?"

"I–"

Victor can see the hesitation in Yuuri's eyes, the uncertainty, the discomfort. He squeezes Yuuri's hand gently.

"Please?"

Like many before him, Yuuri can't say no to that. Victor lights up with a smile when he agrees. They arrive at Yuuri's chambers with Victor talking his ear off about the contestants and their chances to win the grand prize – a hefty sum of money and, this time, another great boon in the form of the invitation to the royal wedding.

"Have you thought about it?" Victor asks when the 'w' word drops between them, heavy like a rock that sinks to the bottom of a lake as soon as it touches the water. 

"Yes, quite a lot," Yuuri admits. "I… I never thought that my wedding will be a grand affair, but it must be in the palace, no? You're a prince, after all. It's a royal wedding. You deserve something spectacular."

"You deserve it as well, Yuuri." 

Yuuri shakes his head. "It isn't that I don't think I do. I just prefer it to be my family and friends only. For this wedding… How many guests will there be?"

Suddenly, Victor understands the problem. 

"Last I checked, about six hundred," he admits, somewhat sheepishly. Yuuri flinches at the number. "It's a royal wedding, Yuuri, you must understand. The guest list is all formality for such affairs. If I had any choice, I would likely have picked something that aligns more with your taste."

"But you don't?" Yuuri looks up at him. 

"My parents handle everything. This wedding… it's a way for them to invite many of our allies and to talk others into an alliance. Royalty rarely get together, except for events such as weddings, you see. So they will be busy doing the work behind the scenes, while we will join our lines and solidify our rule by producing an heir to take the crown. Did your parents not speak to you about it?"

"Not in detail, no," Yuuri gives. "I have to say… I wasn't very interested in hearing about it."

Victor nods. "I understand. It requires many more sacrifices from you than it does from me, and I loathe to ask, but… will you do it?"

Yuuri looks into his eyes directly, for the first time without fear. He's determined, he's headstrong, he's driven to follow through with the decision he's made. This, more than anything about him, leaves Victor impressed and... wanting. 

"I have agreed to do this of my own will," Yuuri says, lifting his chin high in a manner of princes. "So, yes, Victor, I will carry your heir, our future king." He pulls his hand out of Victor's. His warmth is gone, and so is his sweetness. "But, if it is the same to you, I'd rather not speak of it again until we're wed."

Feeling as if he overstepped, Victor agrees. Yuuri offers him a bow. He's withdrawn from Victor completely, and after years of careful court dancing, Victor knows when his presence is not wanted. Unlike the many times Victor enjoyed others' discomfort, he intends to live a happy life with his soon-to-be husband. Instead of pushing him, then, Victor takes a step away and gives Yuuri a bow in return – one that is deeper than any he's given in years.

"I will take my leave for tonight then, allow you to rest," Victor says. 

He searches for Yuuri's eyes, but Yuuri refuses to meet his gaze. It stings just a little. Victor believed they were on their way to find common ground, but maybe… maybe he was wrong. Or maybe he pressed too much. Or maybe Yuuri was just tired. 

Unwilling to make any more mistakes, he simply says: "I will see you tomorrow at the mating run."

Yuuri doesn't reply, and with that Victor leaves him. The next day, Yuuri doesn't come.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Three days. Victor has not seen Yuuri for three days. 

He's asked his mother and father, but they too have not seen their guest, and have not pressed for answers despite his absence from their table. Victor told himself that Yuuri might just need his rest when he didn't show at the mating run, but when one day turned into two, he began to worry. He sent a servant to inquire about Yuuri's wellbeing, but the woman returned without even seeing him. Victor took matters into his own hands then and walked over to Yuuri's chambers right before supper, but alas – he, too, was turned away at the door.

"His Highness is already asleep, Your Highness," Yuuri's personal attendant claimed with a bow of apology. Not to be seen as brutish, Victor let it go. 

He gets little sleep himself that night, thinking about what went so wrong that Yuuri refuses to see him. And he knows. He knows it was his fault. The mention of a child… It must make Yuuri think that's the only thing Victor cares about. It might be true when it comes to his parents' wishes, but Victor… Victor has always hoped to find love in his marriage. And whatever hope there was, he might have just ruined it by asking the wrong questions at the wrong time.

Which, in turn, brings him to the resolution that awakens within him at the break of a new dawn: he needs to apologize. A true royal apology, done in style, requires a grand romantic gesture – something Victor has been born to do. It is not in him to wonder what, how or when. The tricky part is to know how much, since Victor has never knows restraint in anything he does. More than that, he doesn't know Yuuri's limits, either. Overall, it's going to be tricky to find the right balance of grand, and Victor plans and plots and schemes, until the sun stands high in the sky.

For an apology like this one, of the royal calibre, he believes that no matter how much he does, it will still be reasonable and Yuuri must know this as well, so he begins his work as soon as he tumbles out of bed, newly resolved. 

 

 

***

 

Yuuri awakens late for the second day in a row. It is fairly understandable, given that he stayed up for long hours, thinking of all the ways his life will never be as it was. He spent all of the day before in bed, sick to the stomach with thoughts of what's to come. 

What the prince said… It was not meant with malice. Yuuri could see that in the concern so apparent on Victor's face. But no matter how he meant it, he put the thought of the wedding – with its hundreds of guests, the riches, the political machinations, the eyes of all invited on them, watching, following, waiting for Yuuri to slip and show his true colours – and what will follow after right into Yuuri's overeager mind. When Yuuri agreed to this marriage, he tried to push the consequences as far away from him as he could manage, but this single conversation bought them back with a vengeance. 

They will have to mate.

Yuuri will have to open himself up to a man whom he's known for only a few days, and he'll have to accept him as his mate, his husband, his alpha, who will then breed him and fill him with pups whether Yuuri wants it or not. He doesn't believe that Victor would press the issue if Yuuri resisted his advances. Even the one conversation he had with the prince made him realize that he is a good person. Or so he seems. It's difficult to say, but Yuuri hopes for the best. He hopes for kindness and sweetness and trust. But is Victor someone who can give him that? Is he the kind of alpha who will put his mate's needs before the pressures of society? Before even his parents, who no doubt will quickly wish for them to conceive? Will Victor stand up to them for Yuuri's sake?

Yuuri rolls onto his side, curling in on himself. The sun is already high up, but the curtains in Yuuri's bedchamber are drawn. He dismissed his attendant when she arrived to bring him breakfast and dress him for the day. Everything is quiet here. If he closes his eyes, he can still pretend that the new day hasn't arrived yet and that there is still time for him to be just himself. Not the prince's betrothed, not the prince's mate, not the bearer of the prince's children. Here, now, he's just Yuuri – scared, alone, and empty. 

He isn't ready.

Maybe all these years of making up his mind prepared him for the idea of being married to someone he didn't love, someone he barely even knew, but they did nothing to prepare him for childbirth. No amount of time could do that, Yuuri believes. 

His stomach throbs with sharp pain and he gasps for breath. He's been feeling ill all night, until he finally succumbed to tiredness. Now that he's awake and his mind keeps feeding him the ugly truth of his life, the sickness returns. Yuuri groans, pushing his face into a soft, fluffy pillow. He hasn't been eating the past few days, and he wonders if that might be why he's feeling this awful now. But even if eating would help, Yuuri doesn't think he could stomach anything.

He doesn't know how long he spends simply lying there, wondering if this pain could be similar to the pain of having a child grow inside him. While he's slumbering in a limbo of emotion, a knock sounds on the door to the bedchamber. It makes Yuuri jump, since he didn't expect anyone to bother him after he told his attendant not to disrupt his peace. Even the other servants learned to leave him be after his first day here.

Before Yuuri can gather his thoughts, the knocking sounds again. 

"Who is it?" Yuuri asks, rising up. 

Only silence answers him. Curious beyond what he should be, Yuuri leaves his bed among the ruffle of sheets. In his night shift he walks up to crack the door open. There is no one there, but–

Colour catches Yuuri's eye. He pushes the door open all the way and stands there, staring. For his sitting room has overnight been turned into a menagerie of flowers. Peonies, roses, sunflowers, gardenias, lilies, and others that Yuuri can't even name – they cover all the surfaces in the room. Bouquets in gorgeous vases stand on the drawers, the tables, the fireplace shelf, the floor. Wherever Yuuri turns, more flowers look back at him. 

The only place free of them is the sofa, on which Yuuri spots a piece of paper. A note, he sees as he comes closer. He opens it.


 

Please, forgive me?

Meet me in the gardens, so I can apologize in person. I really wish to make this work for us, Yuuri. If that is what you want from this union as well, do not withhold the opportunity to make things right from me, I beg of you.

Hoping to see you soon,

V


 

The flowers, Yuuri opens his mouth in awe, they're all from Victor. An apology for something he should not be apologizing for. Yuuri feels distinctly silly as he looks about the room again. He made Victor worry. He made Victor feel guilty. He made Victor think he's done something to upset Yuuri, something so wrong that Yuuri could make the rest of his life a living hell just to spite him...

It's all Yuuri's fault. 

He crunches the note in his hand as he walks back into his bedchamber. He pulls out whatever the first clothes he finds in the chest behind the screen and dresses as well as he can manage on his own. He stops at the basin standing on the vanity with the beautiful, gold-rimmed mirror. The water is warm, but when he splashes some on his face, it's delightfully refreshing. 

Yuuri looks at his reflection: the tired eyes, pale skin, even paler, worried lips. He looks awful. Not how he wants Victor to see him, but he owes the prince at least an explanation for his absence. Apology for it, at best. Most likely both, since Victor must be so confused and hurt by Yuuri's sudden silent treatment.

But as Yuuri heads out into the sitting room and sees all the flowers, their sent lush and fresh and hopeful, he doesn't know if he'll be able to say a word. He still walks outside his chambers. The men standing guard at the end of the corridor straighten when they see him, and Yuuri swallows hard. 

"Can you guide me to the gardens?" Yuuri asks.

And, with a chip on his shoulder, he follows one of the men right to his doom.

The garden is beautiful in the morning sun. It's made of a maze of privet, high but not so high that one could get lost in it. In the heart of it stands a pavilion, an open space filled with tables and chairs, all white and clandestine as if they were freshly painted. Gold and opulence shines off the roof, a rich contrast to the bare inside. But when the sun hits the mosaic of amber and sapphire glass on the roof, it all drips down inside with a rainbow of colour. Nothing is bare then and all is grand. It is so stunning that Yuuri turns his eyes away, feeling unworthy of looking at something so brilliant.

Or, at least, that's what he intends to do before his eye catches the sight of his intended sitting in a chair among all the splendour. He looks like he's bored, looks like he's been born among riches like this, looks like it has no more charm over him – and it's true. Victor was raised among all this wealth. It's something natural to him. Something that always was, and always will be. 

Unlike Yuuri. They are so far apart when it comes to everything. Yuuri feels the distance between them even more keenly than he has before he met him.

And when Victor looks up, he must see Yuuri for what he truly is as well. A prince of blood he may be, but he's nothing more than a commoner at heart. His soul will always betray him as a pretender…

But despite Yuuri's dark thoughts, Victor's face splits with a smile. It's so bright that when Victor jumps to his feet to greet him, Yuuri believes that he might die of shame. Who is he to fool a prince into thinking he could ever be his equal?

"Yuuri, you came!" 

Victor greets him, quickly rushing down the small steps of the pavilion. He comes to stand before Yuuri, smiling still. He's so vivid, so bright, that even looking at him feels a little bit like looking at the sun. Yuuri has to blink. He looks down at his hands that Victor takes into his own upon meeting him, glad for an excuse to look away from Victor's blinding smile. 

"Does that mean you accept my apology?" Victor asks, sounding so hopeful that Yuuri's heart breaks a little at the idea that he might have made him doubt himself.

"There is nothing to apologize for," Yuuri says. "In fact, I should be the one begging forgiveness. You did nothing wrong and I–"

But Victor hears none of it. 

"No, it's alright. Please, Yuuri. I know when I step out of line, and I did that when I mentioned children before we're even wed." He squeezes Yuuri's hands and steps closer to him. He's entirely contrite, and Yuuri struggles to simply listen. "I don't want that to come between us. I give you my most solemn vow that I will not force you to have my child in any way until you actually tell me you're ready. That part of our marriage will always belong to you, no matter what."

"But what about your parents?" 

Unable to hide his shock, Yuuri stares at Victor wide-eyed. He never imagined that he could say something so kind, so thoughtful, so selfless… But no. He did. He imagined Victor capable of that, but those were simply Yuuri's wishes. They hadn't been true. Now, with his words, Victor made them true. He made all Yuuri's wishes come true as if he truly was–

"What about them?" Victor cocks his head to the side with a smile. "The child will be the heir to this kingdom, a future ruler – yes. But until you're ready, I will stand by you and keep them at bay. No matter how long that takes. There is no one else who can give this child life, but you and me. If we both stand against them, what choice will they have but to wait for us to agree to do this of our own will?"

"Why?" Yuuri's voice trembles, just as his heart does. "Why would you do that for me? You don't even know me!"

Victor's smile softens. "I may not know you yet, but I want to get to know you. I want to be your friend, your confidante, your companion for life. Your true mate, your alpha. Earning your trust is the first step towards that, don't you think?"

"You want me to trust you," Yuuri repeats, and Victor nods, still smiling. "Do you trust me?"

"I do," Victor replies without a second of hesitation. 

"Enough to prove it?"

It surprises Victor, that much Yuuri can see clearly. But Victor nods his agreement before Yuuri's heart can sink back into a chasm that still sits open in his chest.

"What will you ask of me?" 

"If you truly mean it, if you truly wish for us to be more than married in name, ask a unicorn to attend our wedding and bless our union," Yuuri gives his ultimatum. "They are creatures of pure intention, of magic and love and life. If that is truly what you envision for us, then I will believe you and trust you, if you bring one to our wedding."

Victor looks stricken for a moment there, but when their eyes meet, Yuuri sees the consideration in his eyes. 

"You want one to simply attend the wedding, yes? Not to use it for anything else?"

Yuuri shakes his head. "Just to have its blessing, and your word that this is the truth on your lips and in your heart, both."

"I will leave before the day is out," Victor vows. Then, he smiles. "But first, will you join me for lunch, Yuuri?"

And because Victor gave his word and offered Yuuri so much already, Yuuri stays. To return the inklings of trust that Victor has sown into the soil of his heart.

 

 

***

 

 

Victor leaves right after lunch. He kisses both of Yuuri's hands goodbye and offers him a smile, which Yuuri only nods to. He's cold that day, Yuuri. Something must still be weighing on his mind, but he doesn't share it with Victor and, taught by the previous experience, Victor doesn't press. If finding a unicorn is what Yuuri requires to fully believe that Victor's intentions are strictly honourable, Victor will do his best to fulfil his duty towards him in the hopes of proving himself to the man he cannot help but want for a mate. 

It takes him three days to find a unicorn in the lush forest right outside the city walls. They are not easily found, but they are not creatures that hide away from worthy humans. Many a time has Victor seen them from afar as he rode through the forest during hunts and races and simple riding trips. He knows that it is only a matter of time until he sees one again, so he waits. Getting it to come back to the palace with him – that will be the real challenge, he knows.

Victor camps in the wild, sleeps on the summer grass under the starry skies. He misses the comforts of the palace, but there is some charm in a life of travel and excitement. Every day is different here, every day brings something new. One day he eats the bread he's brought with him, another he runs out and must find his own food in the forest. He eats berries and fruits of trees and bushes he knows are edible, unwilling to spill blood in case the unicorn can feel the impurity of it on his hands. He drinks all his water from his waterskin within a day, then scouts the forest for a source of freshwater, so that he can refill it. He's crouching by the stream winding through the forest, drinking his fill, when he spots it at last. 

It's coat shines a white so bright that it's blinding. It drinks from the water with its long, beautiful neck bowed, magical, enchanting, pure. 

Victor can't help but stare. His watching does not go unnoticed and the beautiful creature lifts its milky head to peer his way. Its eyes are golden, all-seeing, and Victor feels as if it could see right into his soul, so he doesn't try to hide his intentions. 

Instead, he kneels before it, bows down to the ground, and asks: "Will you come with me to bless my union to a man I wish to love?"

The unicorn snorts. It is not an answer, so Victor does not dare to move. The hooves click on the river stones as the creature comes closer. Gently, it touches Victor's forehead with its silver, spiral horn. 

Your intentions are seen, it says. The voice, light like summer bells, echoes directly in Victor's mind. The sensation is odd, but Victor appreciates the use of common tongue. 

The unicorn lifts up and Victor looks into its face, hopeful. Golden eyes gleam.

Lead the way to the one who holds your heart, childe. I will come.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The wedding preparations are well underway when Victor returns to the castle. Yuuri doesn't see him arrive, he's still asleep then, but once he awakens, from the window in his bedchamber he can see the unicorn grazing in the gardens. Its coat is pure white, glistening, gorgeous. The creature sniffs at flowers, chews on the neatly trimmed grass, and looks as if it doesn't belong there at all – and it doesn't. But it's there, a tangible proof that Victor is more than worthy of Yuuri's trust, that he will do everything in his power to earn it. And now… now it's time for Yuuri to reply in kind.

He dresses quickly and, even though it's still rather early in the day, he sets off to Victor's rooms in the hopes of doing just that. The guards don't stop him when he asks if he can see the prince, so Yuuri enters Victor's sitting room, which looks much like his own, except more. More silver, more beautiful, more royal. Of course, it makes sense for it to be this way, but as Yuuri looks around the empty yet incredible space, it only emphasises the feeling he's been battling since the moment he stepped foot into the palace – the feeling like he doesn't belong.

He shirks it off now to focus on what he came here to do. With a determined lift to his chin, he walks to the inner door that he believes leads to the bedchamber, and he knocks. 

"Yes?" comes Victor's voice from the other side.

"It's Yuuri. I'd like to speak with you for a moment, if you can?"

There is some shuffling, a splash, a knock and a groan, and before Yuuri's mind can give him all the reasons as to why this was a bad idea, that Victor must be tired after his journey and that Yuuri should've picked a different time for this conversation, the door opens and–

Yuuri's mouth drops just as his cheeks turn a brilliant crimson. 

"I'm so sorry! I'll-I'll come back later," he squeaks, ready to run.

Because before him stands Victor, the prince in the flesh, bare as the day he was born. There is only a tiny cloth wrapped around his hips to keep his modesty, but there is nothing modest in his wet chest and damp hair and cheeks flushed from the heat of bathwater that Yuuri sees still steaming behind Victor's shoulder.

"I didn't know you were– I'm sorry. I should've thought you'd be–" Yuuri falters in his explanations, unable to clearly say what he wishes to. 

Instead, he steps back and turns around, but he doesn't get far. Victor's hand closes around his elbow. Allowing his eyes to shut for a brief moment, Yuuri wills himself not to look back. Back at Victor's chest, his nipples, his abs, the beads of water running down his skin, all the way to where the white towel covers his… 

Even though he doesn't look, the thought of what he's already seen is enough to make heat rise in Yuuri's body. Blood in his veins courses faster and Yuuri knows it's all in the air before he even smells it himself: the unmistakable scent of his attraction. It betrays him to Victor, it must, because Victor's hand moves up from Yuuri's elbow, delicate and sensual in a way that shouldn't be allowed, but which makes Yuuri's entire body tingle, hyper aware of the few scant centimetres that separates them. 

"Yuuri," Victor calls gently, and Yuuri shudders when his voice crawls deep under his skin. Never before now has he so keenly felt the call of Victor's alpha blood. It makes his own blood stir in need that Yuuri suppresses with another shudder. 

"Yuuri, please, look at me."

It's almost as if Yuuri wants to refuse him in spite of every single of his instincts telling him to do as his alpha commands. 

Not his alpha, Yuuri reminds himself. Not yet.

He still turns around and lifts his face to look somewhere around Victor's nose, since his eyes would see too much in his own and his lips… that Yuuri doesn't even want to think about. If he does, he doubts he'll be able to think of anything else.

"I'm really happy to see you," Victor says as if he can't tell what kind of mess he made of Yuuri's mind. "Have you seen the unicorn yet? I brought it with me, just like I promised."

"I know, I've seen it from my window," Yuuri admits. "And I believe you now. That's what I came here to say. A unicorn would only ever follow you if it deemed your intentions pure and honourable, so… I believe you and I, I want to trust you, too."

He doesn't need to look at Victor's lips to notice his smile. It brightens Victor's entire face, shines a new light on him. 

He's beautiful. 

And Yuuri, Yuuri feels caught off guard even more than he was with the nakedness.

"You don't know how much it means to me to hear you say that, Yuuri," Victor says, taking both of Yuuri's hands into his bigger ones and squeezing them in his joy. "I promise I will not fail you."

Yuuri nods. "I simply want to ask… I know you want this… us, to work not only as a marriage of convenience and, believe me, I want that too, but I have to, I have to ask." He takes a deep breath and, at last, looks into Victor's softly blue eyes. "What will…? I mean, how will you…"

"I think I know what you want to ask," Victor says before Yuuri can get the courage to force the words out. "I vow to you, here and now, and for the rest of our lives together, Yuuri, I will treat you like nothing else but my equal. My partner, my husband, the other half of me. Never less."

Relief is almost as heady as the scent of Victor's honesty. Yuuri takes a deep breath of both and for the first time in many days, allows the tension to ease off his shoulders. 

"That is all I could've asked for," he admits.

Victor smile softens. "I know. And I will give it to you, willingly, because I want us to be happy. Even if our circumstances are what they are. Reality does not always have to be painful, so if I can make ours just a little bit lighter, then I will do my best."

Yuuri smiles back, too. 

"Then let's both make sure that ours will be perfect instead," he replies. 

And the grin Victor gives him for the courage it takes is as bright as their hopes for tomorrow.

 

 

***

 

 

There is little time for them to get to know each other before the wedding, but they do try. They spend every waking moment together. Almost to the point that when Yuuri is left alone, he feels Victor's absence like a chill to his very bones. It's only at night, though, and in the morning he knows he will see his intended again, like he does every single day. Victor goes out of his way to greet him bright and early, and even brings him breakfast so they can enjoy even more time together. 

At the very thought of it warmth returns to Yuuri's body as if the omega in him already recognized the thrall of a mate in Victor. Yuuri isn't surprised by this. Victor is kind, he is sweet and most of all, he is considerate. He's many things that Yuuri wished for in a mate, but he's also more. He has a wild side that Yuuri often times is surprised by. Yet even caught off guard, he isn't appalled. Quite the contrary, he enjoys it. It's something that Yuuri hasn't allowed himself to partake in, this wild, carefree nature of going after things just as he thought of them. Before consequences or rationale could make him reconsider. 

For the first time, doing those things with Victor, he feels… free. Even if he is the farthest from actually being free, since he's betrothed to be married to a person whom he barely knows. Victor, with all his smiles and energy and sweetness, makes it easy to believe that life is heading right where it's supposed to, when Yuuri himself can't decide if it is.

So Yuuri allows himself to believe in him. In their future, as one. And he allows himself to be free, to laugh at Victor's jokes, and to eat cake from the forks Victor that offers him. 

The wedding is set to take place on the first day of the new month, the day when ears of corn are harvested before the autumn rains can ruin the crop. Every morning, as he wakes up in his soft bed, wrapped in sheets of silk and blankets of fluff, Yuuri sees people rushing about to ready everything: painting the chairs pure white for the guests, lugging around the bolts of silk and brocade for the baldachins over the altar and the path leading to it, cutting and arranging the flowers for the bouquets, preparing the food for the rich and the poor to enjoy at the feast that will follow after the ceremony. 

It's difficult to forget about what is to happen, what with all that is going on, but spending time with Victor isn't all about making preparations for the day to come. As much as it is about that, yes, it's also in a large part about simply getting to know each other for their joint future. For that, which they both intend to make last long after the vows are made and the guests appeased.

"Don't be surprised if you get kidnapped the night before we're to be wed," Victor tells him one day as they sit in the dining room, sampling the cakes that servants bring in and out as if the cooks bake three every other minute. 

"Kidnapped?" 

Yuuri drops his mouth open in surprise. Victor laughs at his expression. It's a sweet kind of laughter that doesn't make Yuuri feel as silly as it should. He blinks when Victor reaches over. Victor motions for him lean closer and Yuuri does so without thinking. Gently, Victor swipes a bit of cream from the corner of Yuuri's mouth and licks it off his finger. 

Yuuri blushes, even when Victor's eyes twinkle in delight.

"It's tradition," Victor explains his previous thought. "My best friend will most likely take it upon himself to take you away and hide you somewhere. He'll leave out clues for me and I'll have to use them to find you before midnight strikes. If I manage that, we're guaranteed a happy life together."

"Well then, I really hope you do your best," Yuuri answers, aware of the flush on his cheeks. He stuffs another piece of cake in his mouth to mask the sweet thrill of nerves in his belly. "So, the best friend, yes? Whom should I expect?"

"Tall, blond, gorgeous green eyes…"

Yuuri frowns. "Your cousin?"

Victor laughs again. "No, oh no! Chris is definitely nothing like Yuri. To be fair, he's as far from Yuri as you can imagine. Complete opposite."

"Do you think we'll get along?" Yuuri asks. He thinks of Yuri and sighs. "I'd like to get along with the people that are important to you."

Victor takes his hand and joins their fingers together. His eyes are soft and grateful when they look into Yuuri's, as if he is touched by what he just said. It brings a small smile to Yuuri's lips, and Victor mirrors it on his own face to match.

"I'm sure that they will both love you once they get to know you better."

"I hope so…"

Victor kisses his hand then, kisses his cheek too, and soon Yuuri forgets all about his worries and hopes. All his head is filled with is sweetness of the cakes, the wine, and Victor's smiles. And Yuuri… he doesn't hate it.

The night of the infamous kidnapping comes sooner than Yuuri expects. With his days spent on pleasures and getting better acquainted with all of Victor's quirks, likes and dislikes, Yuuri almost forgets all about it. Until one day, as he's walking back to his chambers after meeting with Victor in the royal gardens to watch the sun fall behind the horizon, someone suddenly steps up behind him. He's too slow to turn. Yuuri's mouth is covered by a big hand. Choking on air that's still in his lungs, Yuuri struggles to free himself, but before he can move the hand to scream for help or fight the other off his back, he's forcefully dragged into a room.

"Hush, love," a voice whispers into his ear right as the door closes them off from the world. 

Yuuri's released when he stops struggling. He whirls around, ready for a fight. The man that stands before him lifts his hands in surrender. He gives Yuuri a smile, but it does nothing to placate Yuuri's fear. Not even when his vision narrows to clearly see his attacker. His short golden locks, his green eyes… He's taller than Yuuri, bigger too. And he distinctly smells like an alpha.

The memory of his conversation with Victor returns to Yuuri slowly.

"I apologize for the ambush," the man says, keeping his distance to make Yuuri regain the feeling of safety. "Didn't Victor warn you about the kidnapping?"

It's only then that Yuuri fully recalls the conversation over the cakes. His heart still beats out of its usual rhythm and the blood buzzes in his ears, but the fog of fear clears from his mind. Slowly. 

He eyes the other man with a suspicious glance, but allows himself to minutely let his guard down.

"Yes, he did tell me about it. I just didn't think it will look like a real kidnapping."

The man's grin widens. "Well, we have to keep to the tradition."

"So this is it, yes? Or should I expect more surprises?" Yuuri looks around the room. It's one of the guest rooms, he guesses, empty of anyone but the two of them. "Are we staying here?"

"No, we're about to move. I just need to drop a clue for your prince," the man says as he reaches into the inner pocket of his robe. He puts the envelope that he must have prepared before on the table, "and now we can leave to the last place he'll look."

"Are you trying to make him find me or to make him fail?" Yuuri asks when they peer into the corridor again.

There is no one there, not even a patrolling guard. They sneak out. 

"Now, what kind of friend would I be if I intended to stand in the way of true love?" 

The man grins, and in his sparkling eyes Yuuri sees the similarities. He has the same air of spontaneity about him as Victor does. No wonder the two are friends. 

"I'm Chris, by the way," the man says as he checks if it's safe beyond the corner. When he deems it passable, he motions for Yuuri to lead the way. 

"Yuuri." Yuuri slips past him. "I can't say it's a pleasure to meet you, given our circumstances." 

"Oh, why not? The night is still young. We have all the time in the world to get to know each other!" 

Chris grins again, then reaches over to pull Yuuri through a door he hasn't noticed at all. Yuuri stumbles at the sudden turn, but Chris's hand on his elbow steadies him. What they've stepped into is a tunnel. It's dark, darker than the bright hallways of the palace, but at the same time it's lit with torches on both walls. As Yuuri's eyes adjust to the difference in light, he realizes where they are. 

This must be one of the passages used by the servants to get around the palace unnoticed.

"So, tell me, Yuuri, how do you like the life in the palace?"

"It's different from what I'm used to, but it isn't hard to fall into a life of luxury, I'm ashamed to admit," Yuuri answers, a little distracted by looking around in case he needs to ever find his way out. 

The walls are bare brick, but the floor is carpeted and muffles the sound of their footsteps, so that no one outside can hear them. Somehow, he gets a feeling like he's been here before, but that… that's not possible, is it? Yuuri hasn't stepped foot into the palace since he was born and for as long as he's been here, he had no chance to seek out servants' quarters. He didn't even know where to find them if he wanted to. 

"I haven't met many of the residents yet," he continues to say to distract himself from the odd feeling. "Apart from the prince and his family, that it. Everyone this far has been so kind. I couldn't have asked for more."

"Is he treating you well?" When Yuuri looks to Chris for clarification as to whom he means, Chris adds: "Victor."

The question brings a blush to Yuuri's cheeks. He thinks of all the sweet things Victor whispered in his ear, all the kisses that touched his skin, all the smiles that warmed his heart… He can't help but smile to himself, too.

"Now that's a face that tells me someone is doing right by you," Chris teases, which has Yuuri blush harder. He can't be mad about it, though. Nothing Chris has said is a lie, after all. 

"He is," Yuuri admits. "I believed that marrying him would mean spending the rest of my life feeling as if I was alone. Locked in a golden cage, you see? Being a husband to an alpha prince." He smiles to himself. "But he, Victor, he made me realize that maybe it won't be that awful. That it doesn't have to be if we both want to be happy."

They walk through the tunnel, pass the crossings of passages that wind through the one they're taking, and finally they arrive at a door. Chris pushes the old wood open. It swings as it should, without a faintest screech. They step out into a small dark room. At the end is an open door, where all the light comes from. And along with it so do the sounds of cheerful conversation, laughter, and smells: wonderful smells of pastry, fresh bread, spice and sugar. 

"After you." Chris half bows, showing Yuuri the way with his outstretched arm.

Yuuri steps in. All the voices halt as he does and all eyes turn to him, the intruder, but when Chris appears at his side, everyone erupts in a cheer. They act as if they know him, even if he's never met any of them. It isn't hard to fall into this when smiles greet him whenever Yuuri looks, and before he knows it, he's sat at the table among the servants, given ale and bread, and wrapped in their warmth as if he was one of their own.

Chris sits at his side and then? Then, they drink.

"To the future of the kingdom of Tsenkh," Chris toasts, and Yuuri knocks their cups together.

"To the future of Tsenkh," Yuuri repeats. Even if that future is so closely tied to his own.

One toast turns to two, two to three, three to four, and after five Yuuri loses count. For the King, and the Queen, and to the Prince's health, to the royal union, to love, and more. The minutes fly by as they drink and they laugh, while servants tell stories one after another. Some are of the myths that their land has far too many of, others of the childhood of the royal family. But one… one catches Yuuri's attention despite the alcohol clouding his mind.

"They say," one of the milkmaids whispers, bowed over a bowl of butter, "the Katsuki's aren't really gone. That they escaped. And that one day they will come back to take the throne that was stolen from them."

"Nothing was stolen," the baker barks, harsh in words and expression. "They left. They have no right to the crown anymore."

"Their blood does," the maid insists. "They descend from the goddess Katsuya, who is the creator of all things. That alone should be enough to sway some to their side. People don't need much to start a revolution. Remember the last time?" At the grim faces of everyone at the table, she shrugs her arms and returns to kneading the butter. "I'm not saying they will return or that anything will happen if they do. It's been so long that most have forgotten them. And even if we have things to complain about, the Nikiforovs treat us well, yeah?" Heads nod around the table. "It's just a rumour that people like to whisper when they want to feel a little danger without any consequence to go with it," she finishes. 

But it stays with Yuuri, even as he drinks and laughs over the tale of young prince Victor getting his hair long tangled in a rose bush during his tryst with one of the visiting princes from Czatnopta and, despite the help of many, having to cut it short just to free himself from the insolent plant.

"You see, our prince has always been a free spirit," Chris tells him with a wide grin. His cheeks are flushed with ale, and so must be Yuuri's. "I never thought I'd see him committed so soon, so when I heard about his betrothal it came as a huge surprise to me. Tell me, Yuuri, how did it happen? How did you meet? And was it love at first sight?"

It's one of those questions that Yuuri's parents worried about when he first decided to agree to fulfil the decades old vow. They told him many times what to say, what to do when someone insists too much on learning the truth about him. And their advice most often was nothing else but "Speak as much truth as you can. Lie by allowing them to form their own conclusions. And never let them see you're afraid."

That is exactly what he does now, too.

Yuuri shakes his head. "Not really. Our families… they agreed on it before I was even born."

"So it's arranged?" Chris slumps against the table and takes a swig of his ale. "That's boring and exciting both at once!"

"Doesn't feel boring to us, trust me," Yuuri murmurs into his cup.

"Oh? Tell me."

Yuuri shrugs. "There isn't much to tell. We just met."

"And you're already getting married. There must be something on your mind."

Yuuri knows he can't fully trust Chris. He's Victor's friend for one, and they've only just met so he can't truly gauge how much he can tell him, but as he thinks about it, the alcohol loosens his tongue and the words spill out before Yuuri can stop them. There is no use in trying to curb it, since nothing about what he says needs to be kept secret from anyone but Victor himself.

"He's sweet," Yuuri says about his husband-to-be. "He's kind. He's nothing like the prince I imagined. I thought… I thought ours will be a union of formality, you see? But the more time I spend with him, the more clear it becomes that it's possible for us to have more. To have what everyone wants…" He downs the rest of his ale and speaks the one word they both must be thinking of: "Love."

"You're really taken with him, aren't you?" Chris looks up at him from the table. His eyes are beautifully green, Yuuri notices. Beautifully green, yes, and incredibly keen at catching all slips that Yuuri is still inept at hiding.

"I'm not sure," Yuuri replies, hesitant. "Is it possible to be like this after knowing someone only for a week?"

Chris hums. "What is your heart telling you?"

Yuuri refuses to ask it, in fact. Even now as Chris says it, he doesn't allow himself to wonder. And it's good that he doesn't. The doors on the other side of the kitchen, different than the small entrance they came through, open wide to show Victor – red in the face, panting, windswept and harried. He stands there, searching for something, and then he finds it: Yuuri's face among the servants.

With a grin he makes it over to their table and slumps onto the bench right next to Yuuri. He takes Yuuri's cup out of his hand, pours himself some ale from the pitcher that stands in the middle of the table and downs it in a few harsh gulps. 

"Do you have any idea how long it took me to find you?" he asks Chris, who grins at him openly. "You just had to make my life harder than it already is, didn't you?"

"It's your fault for having the memory of a sieve," Chris chirps back. 

"Maybe," Victor agrees, pouring himself another cup. He finds Yuuri's gaze, smiles, and lifts the up in a silent toast to him. "But I still found you."

"And just in time, too," Chris adds. "Midnight will strike soon."

"That it will." Victor takes a sip of ale, this time at a slower pace. "Have you been here the whole time? Drinking?" 

Yuuri has not spoken a word since Victor appeared. Not for the lack of words to speak, but because the alcohol hasn't rushed to his head as much as Victor's presence did. Sitting next to him, so close that he can smell the sweat on his skin, that he can feel the warmth of his body… it's messing with his head. It clouds it with feelings, with wants and needs that Yuuri hasn't felt before. But Victor has a way of awakening things in him, things Yurui never knew he wanted until he met him. Things that Yuuri doesn't think he'd ever want, if not for Victor showing him he could.

"We've been here a while," Chris says, while Yuuri is lost in his head. "Yuuri was just telling me how in love you two are."

If Yuuri was paying attention, he might have choked. But since he wasn't, it took Victor's widened eyes looking straight at him for him to realize he has missed something. Before he can get out anything more than "What?", Victor's face shifts into something else. It is not a blush like the ones that so often appear on Yuuri's cheeks, but it is a blush nonetheless. It's softer, lighter, much prettier… but it's there. Right for Yuuri to see.

And for Chris, too.

Yuuri hears his whistle, but he can't take his eyes away from Victor.

"You two sure play to the same tune," Chris says, teasing, yet happy. That seems to snap Victor back to the present, but Yuuri… Yuuri still can't look anywhere but at him. 

"You're absolutely right, we do," Victor says, downs his ale, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand in a very unprincely manner, and stands. He offers Yuuri his other hand. "And because we do, we have to go now. As in, right now."

Yuuri takes his hand, stuck in the weird trance that Victor's presence thrust him into. Victor pulls him up, barely sparing his best friend a glance. 

"Goodnight, Chris," he adds, and without waiting for Yuuri to do the same, he leads him out of the kitchens.

Yuuri follows him, keenly aware of the warmth of his hand, of its shape as it sits in his own. He slides his fingers through Victor's, stumbling as soon as he does. Victor catches him before he falls. His arms come around Yuuri, to steady him, yes, but also to keep him there. 

As if Yuuri would want to be anywhere else.

"How much did you have to drink?" Victor asks. He lifts Yuuri's chin up with a gentle hand, smiling when Yuuri bites his lip in order not to lie. "A lot, I assume. Did Chris push you for answers?"

"I didn't say anything I didn't mean," Yuuri answers.

"And the thing about us? Being in love?" Victor's eyes trace his features as if the answer hides somewhere in the lines of Yuuri's face. "Did you mean that, too?"

"I–"

A door slams somewhere down the hall and Yuuri twitches like a spooked hare. Victor seems to come to his senses then as well. He steps away from Yuuri, but holds onto his waist, still, as if he's reluctant to let go.

"We should probably move this conversation somewhere more private," he offers.

They stumble through the palace halls together on their way to Yuuri's chambers. Or, Yuuri stumbles, while Victor helps him walk in a line that isn't straight, but that's still better than crawling. He's drunk quite a bit, Yuuri thinks to himself, which honestly hasn't helped him much. One thing it has made irrevocably clear, though: he's attracted to Victor. He's attracted to him like he never was to anyone, and with the alcohol coursing in his veins, making him feel the fire that much more keenly, Yuuri is unable to resist the pull.

Victor opens the door to Yuuri's sitting room and they both come inside. Yuuri is guided to sit, which he gratefully does. Victor sits right next to him, close enough that their thighs brush. 

It's warm. 

The clock that stands on the shelf above the fireplace strikes midnight.

"Yuuri, are you… Is it alright if we talk?" Victor asks, sounding unsure for the first time since he arrived in the kitchens. "Can you keep clarity of mind?"

"I'm not drunk," Yuuri replies, even though his mind swims on a hazy cloud of alcohol and Victor's scent, mixed together in a way that one can't be truly separated from the other. 

Victor eyes him for a moment, as if he is debating whether to trust Yuuri's judgement or not. 

"Should I prove it to you?" Yuuri asks, jumping to his feet. 

He stumbles as he does and Victor reaches for him just as Yuuri regains his balance, which sets him off it once again. He falls right into Victor's lap, only by a breath missing knocking their heads together. He laughs.

"Well… Maybe I am a little bit drunk."

"Oh, you're more than a little drunk." Victor chuckles too, but does nothing to remove Yuuri from his position. In fact, his hands come to rest around Yuuri's knees and pull him into his lap more firmly. It's more comfortable this way, Yuuri has to admit. He still flushes when Victor slides his hands higher to rest on his thighs. "Yuuri, tell me, did you truly mean what you told Chris?"

"Would you want me to mean it?" Yuuri asks back.

Victor's blue eyes are dark in a barely lit room. The candles that still remain lit from when the servants have been here last paint yellow shadows on his skin, shimmer his hair golden. 

"I don't want to influence your reply," Victor answers with a tiny smile. "So, please. Tell me the truth. Do you think you could love me? One day?"

Yuuri gently touches Victor's hair, runs his fingers through it. It slides between them, soft like a kiss. He cups one side of Victor's face and leans closer, lead by a thought… A thought he shouldn't think. One that is too bold, too daring, even for him as he is: drunk, careless, free.

"Yes," Yuuri breathes.

Victor's pulse rushes inside his veins, Yuuri can feel it under the fingertips he rests below Victor's jaw. Victor tips his head to the side, turns it as if to allow Yuuri's fingers to find the one place that tomorrow– tonight, Yuuri corrects himself – he will place his mark on. Yuuri skims the tender skin on the scent gland below Victor's chin, enraptured by the softness and the flush that spreads there.

"Yuuri…"

Victor's voice wavers. His breath hitches. A scent of sweetness and allure fills the air when Yuuri's fingers rub against the gland. It swells under his touch and Victor swallows thickly. 

And then Yuuri knows. Victor is just as attracted to him as he is to Victor. It's all right there, in his scent. In the vanilla and flowers and amber. 

Yuuri takes a deep breath, then leans in close to nuzzle his nose on Victor's neck.

"Yuuri, we shouldn't–" Victor starts, but stops the moment Yuuri presses his lips to his scent gland. Victor shudders instead. His hands clutch onto Yuuri's thighs, fingers dig into them and Yuuri makes a deep, needy sound at the back of his throat. "Yuuri, you're drunk. We should wait–"

"We aren't doing anything wrong," Yuuri slurs, drunk on Victor's scent. "I know you want this… I can smell it on you. You smell so good, Victor. So sweet…"

Victor gives a needy moan. "You can't say things like that, Yuuri. Not while you aren't fully yourself. I can't do anything while–" 

"You can," Yuuri interrupts him, looking up right into Victor's eyes. He cups his face gently. "You can kiss me."

"Yuuri–"

"You know you want to."

"We shouldn't," Victor repeats, but he sounds like even the very sound of that pains him. Like he himself doesn't truly believe it. "I shouldn't…"

"But I want you to." Yuuri leans closer. "And you want to as well." He feels Victor's breath on his lips, licks his own. Blood rushes in his veins, awakening his deepest desires. "Please, Victor. Kiss me."

Victor trembles underneath him. It's so apparent that he's trying to suppress his need to claim Yuuri then and there. Yuuri trembles with him. Oh, it's such a powerful feeling to tempt someone to do something they so desperately want, yet try to avoid. They say that omegas have no power, that alphas rule the world – and they're right. But now, as Yuuri breathes against Victor's lips and sees him come apart in his hands, he knows that it's omegas who rule over their alphas.

It's them that rule the world.

"Just a kiss, nothing more," he begs. "Alpha, please…"

Like magic, Yuuri sees Victor's will break. 

And then, then his lips are on Yuuri's and his hands pull him in, and Yuuri forgets about everything. The only thing that matters is the warmth that spills in his belly, the desire that fills his veins, and the man who put it all there – his soon-to-be husband, his alpha. 

Victor.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The sun that curiously peeks into Yuuri's chambers that morning finds Yuuri sprawled across his bed and Victor dozing on the couch in his sitting room. It's that very same sun that wakes Victor from his slumber. He groans as he sits up properly, aching all over. His muscles protest at every move. But the memory of the night before warms all of Victor's limbs as soon as he recalls it. 

The shape of Yuuri's lips against his, the taste of him on his tongue, the scent that filled Victor's lungs with a fire of need – the sweetness and the spice of his desire... Even now, Victor trembles for it. He never imagined that Yuuri could be so forward. He seduced Victor to his will with such ease that Victor has to wonder if it was simply the alcohol that made him bold enough to try it, or whether Yuuri has been hiding his most desperate needs behind a mask of shyness. 

It might be both, Victor comes to a conclusion in the end. It might also be that something that Victor felt the first time they met. The spark he noticed in Yuuri. Having seen what he has last night, having felt what he has as Yuuri broke his will so completely, Victor can't help but think this must be it. Despite knowing better, he can't help but want more, too. 

And tonight, he will have it. He'll have Yuuri as his, according to law and all customs of men.

His thoughts turn to the wedding that will take place within brief hours. Yuuri will stand at his side, swear himself to him, promise his life to Victor's and spend the rest of it with him. As will Victor. 

Given that he's the alpha, he could have more than one mate, since the law permits it as long as the alpha can provide a respectable life for all his bonded omegas. Being a prince, Victor has every means to have not one, not even two, but four, five, ten, should he want them all. But Victor could never do that. He could never make people who will inevitably care about him fight for his attention like that. It wouldn't be fair to them, and Victor knows he could never divide himself like that either. Long before he even met Yuuri, Victor decided that if he marries with any hope of love in the marital union, he will never look at another. And since meeting Yuuri, he became more and more set in his decision. 

He will marry Yuuri, and he will love him. After last night, he has no doubt about that.

Victor looks at the open door to Yuuri's bedchamber. He put Yuuri to sleep in his bed after their kisses turned too heated. Yuuri went willingly, falling into the sheets and looking up at Victor in a way that made it hard for Victor to resist kissing him again. He did, then, but before Yuuri could pull him into his arms, wrap him in his sweet, irresistible scent, Victor covered him up with silky sheets, kissed his forehead and told him to sleep. Yuuri refused, until Victor promised to sit by his side as he falls asleep, and he did. He held Yuuri's hand even long after Yuuri's breathing evened out. Finally, he moved to the sofa in the sitting room, unsure about leaving Yuuri alone, drunk as he was.

And then he, too, fell asleep, thinking of the man he will soon be married to.

Now, Victor rubs at his eyes, yawns, and stretches his bones until they pop. He walks up to the bedchamber. In the doorway, he stops, watching Yuuri's curled up form in the messy sheets. Tonight, they will both lie down in one bed, among sheets of crimson, and they will worship their union as it deserves to be worshipped. As Yuuri deserves to be worshipped.

It's a thrill to think of it, and a shiver of excitement rolls down Victor's back. He has to push back the images of last night from his mind, lest his arousal rises in his scent and wakes Yuuri from his peaceful slumber. They will have time to enjoy each other later. All the time to fully explore their bodies and bare their souls and deepest desires until they truly become one. 

Before then, however, they still have a wedding to prepare for, which is why Victor takes a last look at Yuuri's peaceful face and leaves. On his way out, he sends for Yuuri's attendant, for light breakfast and a bath. He orders the same to be prepared in his own chambers. He bathes, relishing in the hot water that brings the much needed relief to his aching muscles, dresses in his wedding robes – silver and blue brocade, decorated with woven in, crushed sapphire to bring out the blue of his eyes and compliment the red of Yuuri's robes – and then paces around his rooms until the sun begins to lower its face to the ground once more.

Until it's time.  

The sun is almost touching the horizon, painting the world in oranges and pinks, when he leaves his rooms at last. Barefoot, as the tradition requires, he walks down the hall, then down the stairs, and then he walks farther, walks through the halls decorated with flowers and silk. He reaches the west entrance to the palace and leaves through the door that was left open for him. A carpet of white stretches from where the grass begins and runs up, through the hill to the forest line, where even from this far Victor can see the rows of white chairs set out for guests. 

Before he takes the first step, Victor steps into the bowl of red paint that waits at the last step before the carpet. Next to it, is a bowl of blue paint for Yuuri. Victor's heart flutters as he wets his feet. Finally, he stands on the pristine white of the carpet and begins to walk, leaving a bloody trail of footprints for Yuuri to follow. 

It's another one of those traditions, the poetic metaphors that those to be married must complete to prove their willingness to spend the rest of their lives together. This one, following the footsteps made with blood, symbolizes the omega's determination to follow their alpha in happiness and in pain, both. 

The white carpet ends at the bottom of the hill. There, Victor will wait for Yuuri, who will trace his footprints with his own, and once he reaches Victor, it will be Victor's turn to prove himself. He will pick Yuuri up into his arms and carry him over the hill, over the grass and stones and pebbles, to prove that he can and will care for Yuuri, that he will protect him even at the cost of his own health, until Yuuri's feet can safely touch the soft carpet that waits for them on the other side.

Standing there, at the foot of the hill, Victor waits. Seconds, minutes, then an hour. Shadows begin to gather around him. The sky grows darker, still. Finally, as the far horizon dips into complete darkness while the sun still clings to the sky behind the hill, Yuuri appears at the palace door. He's dressed in black and red, a contrast to Victor's silver and blue. Victor can't see much of him from the distance, but he's sure he looks beautiful. Yuuri steps carefully on the marks that Victor's bare feet left, leaving prints of blue against the red of his. 

And then he's there, and Victor offers him his hand, which Yuuri takes without a second of hesitation. It warms Victor's heart something fierce. 

"How are you feeling?" Victor asks before they move forward. 

"Nervous," Yuuri admits. His eyes flit towards the hill and what lies beyond. 

Victor squeezes his fingers. "I will be with you every step of the way."

That earns him a smile. It's shaky at best, but it is a gesture of trust that Victor will not refuse. He lifts Yuuri's hand to his lips and kisses his knuckles. Yuuri's cheeks colour. For a brief moment, Victor wonders how it is possible for someone who was so sensual, so unabashed last night to blush like this at a simple kiss to his fingers, but before he can come up with any reasonable explanation, Yuuri points towards the hill with his chin.

"Should we…?"

"Yes, we should," Victor agrees. "Are you ready?"

"As ready as I will ever be," Yuuri replies. He rests a hand on Victor's shoulder when Victor steps closer. "Are you sure you will be able to carry me all the way there? I am not the lightest…"

"I promise I will not drop you," Victor says, bending to take Yuuri under the knees. 

He picks him up and hefts him a bit higher into his arms. Yuuri makes a squeaky sound of half-fear, half-embarrassment, which makes Victor chuckle. He squeezes Yuuri once, giving him his best smile. 

"See? You're safe with me, love."

Yuuri's eyes are close to Victor's like this. In their depths Victor can see the beautiful amber, the flecks of red. He cannot help himself from resting a fleeting kiss on Yuuri's cheek. It makes Yuuri's flush deepen, but neither of them speak more as Victor begins their climb. 

The weight in his arms is considerable and his pace is far slower than it would be on his own, but Victor doesn't let it show. Yuuri has wrapped his arms around Victor's neck to support himself, so he is the first one to see over the top of the hill. He shrinks back and trembles, and Victor stops as soon as they reach the peak. 

The wind tugs at the cloth that decorates this part of the palace grounds, rustles the leaves of the trees that stand right behind the altar. Victor looks down at the gathered crowd, at the chairs, dozens and dozens of them, all taken. There are more people standing around the edges of the gathering. All are dressed in finery and riches. There is no poor face around. It was once a custom, decades ago, when Yuuri's family still held the crown, that royal weddings were about giving back to those less favoured by fate. Families that could barely afford meat were invited to the feast, daughters of farmers were offered dresses and gowns so they could feel like princesses if only for one night, omegas from houses that thought them a burden and barely allowed them outside from fear of what they could bring back were invited to taste the freedom and joy of this carefree life. The balls and feasts were a decadent affair then. They were full of scandalous behaviour that common people brought with them, or that's what was used as the excuse to ban them at the beginning of the new reign. In fact, as Victor knows far too well, not much has changed. The aristocracy still behaves like pigs, still abuses their power, still prefers orgies and rape to love and consent. But they have money and they have power. And those are always enough to silence anyone who'd dare to stand against them. Even the King.

Victor doesn't know what Yuuri must think of this, and he doesn't allow himself to think about it now. Not when they're about to be married. There will be time for conversations of morals and politics. They have the rest of their lives for it, but for today, for today Victor wants them to be only themselves. Just Victor and Yuuri, two people hoping to fall in love.

He begins their descent from the top of the hill. 

"Do you know all these people?" Yuuri whispers to him. 

"Not everyone, but most of them," Victor replies. "Since I was a child, I had the names of other royal families crammed into my head. It came to me with no trouble. My tutors both loved and hated me for it. Loved, because it was easy to teach me, but hated, because they constantly needed to find new material to keep me interested. It amused my parents endlessly."

"Please tell me I don't have to learn all their names before we reach there," Yuuri begs, sounding quite ill at the very thought.

Victor offers him a smile. "Not today. Today is only about us. Let my parents deal with everything else." The talk of parents makes Victor think of Yuuri's. "Your parents won't be able to attend, right? Will anyone be here for you today?"

Yuuri falls silent for a moment.

"I don't think so," he says at last. "My sister spoke of coming before I left home, but I doubt she could. We would not be able to afford it."

"I will make sure to send for her tomorrow then," Victor says, and when Yuuri looks to him with wide, surprised eyes, Victor smiles. "You deserve to have someone here who can support you as well."

"That's so kind of you… Thank you, Victor."

They arrive at the edge of the white carpet, which has been flooded with water. It's wet and glistens, still. The water is there to wash away the dirt and paint off their feet. Victor steps onto the carpet first and only then does he set Yuuri down onto his own feet. Side by side, they walk between the rows of guests that sit in the chairs on both sides of the carpet. Victor feels Yuuri tense up, but he squeezes the hand that he refuses to let go, and Yuuri takes a deep breath. He smiles at Victor, a tiny, tiny thing, but it's enough. 

Before they step up to the altar, they are both handed candles. Victor accepts his from his father, the alpha. Yuuri takes his from Victor's mother, the omega. With the blessings of their parents, they turn to each other once again. Victor is given a long match with which he lights Yuuri's candle, only to hand the match to him after, so that Yuuri can light Victor's candle in turn.  With the symbol of their joining, the eternal flames of life and love, they turn to face the priest, protecting the flames with their hands. If they go out, their happiness will be lost and their marriage doomed to remain cold and lifeless. 

The priest begins the ceremony, but Victor has a hard time focusing on it. His eyes keep flitting back to Yuuri. He's beautiful, even if the anxiety make him bite on his lip. Or maybe he's beautiful because of that. Because he's human, imperfect, warm and open. Unlike the faces that keep watching them, all poised and controlled, all masks that never betray emotion that doesn't benefit them.  

Victor is no stranger to faked smiles. He's put dozens of them on his face over the years. But that, more than anything, makes him appreciate the quiet honesty about Yuuri. When he's upset, he's upset. When he's happy, he's happy. When he's angry, he's angry. It's something that Victor cannot even put a value on, but he values it above all else.

Yuuri glances at him. Victor smiles back. Yuuri's lips stretch a little in a smile, too, even if it's small.

"In the name of the Father, I wed thee," the priest says. A servant brings forward a bowl and Victor and Yuuri join hands and lift them towards him, so that he may pour the rainwater over them. "May the tears of heaven wash away your past sins and cleanse you for the future."

The water splashes on their hands, runs into their sleeves. Yuuri's touch is cold. Victor feels him tremble minutely. He squeezes his fingers, but it does little to help when the wind chills their hands further.  

"In the name of the Mother, I wed thee." A plate of food is brought forward. "May the fruits of the earth be plentiful at your table and her protection wrap you in warmth."

Victor picks a grape from the vine that rests on the plate and brings it to Yuuri's lips. Yuuri eats it, and then does the same for Victor. Next, they share some bread, and at last a piece of meat.

"In the name of the Daughter, I wed thee," the priest continues as a single goblet of wine is brought to them. "May your lives be filled with sweetness, and any bitterness washed away as you take the first step on this road." 

Victor drinks first, then passes the goblet to Yuuri, whose eyes are dark like wine above the gleam of the gold that shines off the goblet from the light that candles give off. 

"In the name of the Son, I wed thee," the priest ends. "May your union prove strong and fertile, and your offspring healthy and able."

Another bowl is brought to the priest. This one, like the first, was to be used by the priest himself. He dips his fingers into it, and then brings them out, covered in the blood of a freshly slaughtered lamb, still innocent, still pure. He draws a circle on Victor's forehead, then on Yuuri's. Once he's done, another servant steps up to them with a pillow on which two gold rings rest, gleaming in the bright sunlight. 

Victor takes the first one. 

"Let these rings be a reminder to you of the vows you make today to each other in front of all these witnesses," the priest says as Victor slides the ring onto Yuuri's finger. "As a symbol of eternity that you will spend together, may you be blessed. As a symbol of perfection that will be what your aspire to," he keeps saying as Yuuri brings the other ring to put on Victor's finger, "may you be blessed. As a symbol of immortality, which your love shall be for your mortal souls, may you be blessed."

Yuuri slides the ring onto Victor's hand. They join their fingers together, gold against gold. 

"Blessed by the heavens, blessed by the earth, let these two be joined!"

The candles that Victor and Yuuri have been holding till now, they bring together so that the flames can burn as one. Wax drips onto Victor's hand, but he hardly notices, because he leans down and Yuuri arches up, and they join, too. Their lips come together like they have the night before, sweet and perfect against each other. 

 

 

 

 

Applause bursts around them, polite and measured, but still deafening. Flowers rain on their heads. Victor smiles at Yuuri and Yuuri offers him a smile in return. It's still small, still nervous most likely, but the longer they look at each other, the more the tension disappears from his eyes. And that, that gives Victor all the wings he needs.

Together, they blow out their candles. More applause follows. The servants step up to take the candles from them so Yuuri and Victor can turn to the guests and be presented as the new royal couple. Before they manage that, the applause suddenly halts, replaced by gasps and shouts of surprise. Victor, alert, turns his head away from Yuuri. 

The unicorn, the one he's brought with him from the forest, walks down the isle of chairs. The sky has almost fully turned dark now, but even in the darkness it's horn gleams silver, it's coat glows white. It's majestic, and Victor understands now where the gasps have come from. Whispers follow behind the silver tail that swishes back and forth as the unicorn comes up to them. It looks at Victor, truth mirrored back at him from its golden all-seeing eyes, then it looks at Yuuri.

Victor doesn't know what it sees, but it must be enough. The unicorn bows its legs, lowers its head. Silence rings around them. 

Yuuri drops to his knees before Victor has a chance to recover from the surprise. Following after his husband, Victor kneels as well. They lower their heads to show their respect for the magic and the creature that is as old as time. 

For the future of this nation, I bless this union. May love take roots in your hearts and sprout forth like it has in these two. 

The voice booms in their heads. At the awed, shocked faces around them, Victor realizes that not only Yuuri and him must be able to hear the creature.

Rise now, children of the future. And let the others kneel to celebrate you.

Victor and Yuuri climb to their feet, their hands joined. Like one, the guests fall to their knees. They bow to them, and Victor looks over their heads until he can look at Yuuri at his side. There is a sort of awe on Yuuri's face, too. He meets Victor's gaze, bewildered, dazzled, and maybe just a little bit scared. Victor squeezes his fingers, Yuuri squeezes his back. 

They once again face the crowd, like they will face everything else from now on: joined as one. For better or worse, standing side by side. Together. 


 

***   


 

The wedding part Yuuri goes through as if in a dream state. Everything is a blur. It all happens so fast that he's breathless and dizzy with it. The walk to the altar, the ceremony itself, the unicorn and the guests – all royalty and aristocracy – kneeling to them. To him. To Yuuri Katsuki, who until now was absolutely no one. 

But from today, from today he is no longer that. From today, he is a prince. And he's married to one, too. 

His eyes find Victor among the guests. They've been joined at the hands since the moment the feast started, but after a good few hours of Victor introducing Yuuri to King of this country and Queen of the other, with their sons and daughters' names following in the same breath, Yuuri needed to slip away. He felt awful about leaving Victor alone to this torture of endless pleasantries, but when Victor noticed Yuuri's growing discomfort, he told him to go take a breather to calm himself. With his blessing, Yuuri has left him to eat something. 

Yet, despite the mountains of appetizing food, he can't stomach anything. He only drinks ale, cup after cup, and avoids people as much as one can avoid them at their own wedding. The sky is dark and only the lamps and torches light up the grounds, but everywhere he goes, eyes follow him. Shadows creep in. Curious whispers dog at his heels. Loud laughter spooks him. The sounds of insects buzz in his ears, make his head spin. Somehow, from a dizzying daydream of a wedding, he's been thrown into a nightmare, where every one of his moves is judged against him. 

He shudders briefly, looking at Victor again. His husband, for that is who Victor is now, is smiling politely while a couple gives him their congratulations. He looks like a fish in the freshwater, completely in his element. He squeezes hands, kisses cheeks, laughs his trill-like laughter. He's beautiful like this, Yuuri thinks, but he's also the direct opposite of what Yuuri himself is or ever will be. People make Yuuri uncomfortable, they make him tense. How can they hope for unity in their marriage when the differences between them are so obvious?

Yuuri downs the rest of his cup, then pours himself some more. Nothing will ever work the way they hope if he remains complicit in being inept. He realizes that as he stares into the golden liquid filling his cup. His reflection wavers, his hand trembles. The shadows grow longer, but he doesn't allow himself to get swollen up. Not this time. It is time to change, he knows. He must, if he has any wishes of becoming a true spouse to Victor – to the man who brought a unicorn to him just because Yuuri asked.

This show of trust, this proof of Victor's willingness to do what's needed, is exactly what Yuuri needs to replicate. What he needs to show Victor in return. Answer trust with trust, answer openness with openness, answer love with love – all in equal measure, all to make them one. It's only right, Yuuri decides.  

So he squares his shoulders, lifts his chin, and makes his way towards his husband. Because Victor deserves Yuuri to try his best, too. And Yuuri would be an ungrateful ingrate if he didn't offer him as much as he received.

He's deadly set on coming up to Victor and staying by his side, but before he's even halfway there, he hears something. Or rather, someone. Victor's cousin's voice: sharp, growling, nasty. It makes Yuuri's skin crawl and his steps falter.

"Look at him," Yuri spits, hateful and ugly. His eyes are boring holes into Yuuri. "He's such a commoner. It honestly disgusts me that they allowed him into the palace. Didn't we get rid of that vile habit of bringing the rats to the feasts a few decades ago?"

"We sure did, yes," the man he's talking to replies, his face contorted as if he's sick. 

The woman, on the other hand, trills a laugh. "Oh, my dear princeling. You are so young still!"

She turns and stares right at Yuuri, who stopped frozen as their words cut into him. Her eyes meet his across the distance. A nasty smirk that is half-pity, half something else quirks her lips. Something about it is so dangerous, so threatening it makes Yuuri wish to be as far away from her as he can.

"A commoner, you say?" she repeats, and Yuuri flinches at her mocking. "I pity your eyesight, Your Grace. Truly. What a tragedy, to be so young yet so blind!"

The hair on the back of Yuuri's neck rise. 

This woman… She knows

Somehow, in Yuuri's face, in his features, she recognized the line he's descended from. Even though the characteristics of his ancestors are a mystery to Yuuri, he knows that inheriting those is what most royals, most aristocracy take pride in. In recognizing them in others, too. He sees the truth of it among many who see Victor's silver hair, well-known in his line, and know he's the prince. Much in the same way, he sees Yuri's brilliant green eyes, which are so prominent in the Plisetsky line. Chris' green eyes, too, belong to that same line, for his grandmother has been born into that family as well and their blood flows through his veins – mixed, but still vividly present in his every gaze. 

Briefly, Yuuri wonders what it is that betrays him a Katsuki to this woman whom he has never met, nor even seen before. She seems old enough to maybe have known his parents in their prime, but in the end when or how or why hardly matters. What is more important is that he's been found out. It hasn't even been two weeks since he arrived here and yet, the secret they've been so carefully keeping under wraps now threatens to ruins everything.

He's been found out.

Yuuri's heart beats so loud in his ears that it muffles Yuri's fuming. Yuuri feels the urge to run away, to leave here and never come back, but the woman's gaze keeps him in place. He looks at her and she looks at him, and they measure each other like two pawns on a chessboard – she, a queen, and him, only a lowly pawn at her mercy. 

Yuuri's hands are cold, his face sweaty. Even when a drop rolls down his temple like a tear, he keeps looking at her. At her face, wrinkled with age. At her hair, greyed almost white and streaked with black. At her eyes, brown and vivid despite her long-lived life. Her robes are rich, but so are anyone else's here, which means Yuuri can't quite tell who she is or how high her standing reaches. Her acquaintance with Yuri is his only clue.

At last, she turns away from him, smiling in a way that bodes trouble. Yuuri quickly looks away. But, suddenly, it seems like everyone is watching him. Like they all know. 

Wherever he turns, he sees gleaming eyes staring back at him: menacing, dangerous, hateful. A shiver of dread runs down his spine. All the courage he's gathered in his heart to stand up proud at Victor's side disappears as if it was never there to begin with. Yuuri feels small, he feels unsafe, but most of all he feels, not for the first time, like he should not be here

He's about to turn on his heel and flee from the accusatory gazes, but a hand on his elbow startles him. He almost jumps in fright.

"Yuuri, are you alright?"

Victor, it's Victor

Relief is so strong a feeling in Yuuri's heart that he is tempted to simply push his face into his alpha's neck and beg him to take him far, far away from here. Despite all of the watching, or maybe in spite of that, too. But, in the end, he can't. He can't. This is their wedding feast and their presence is required. Yuuri would not want to bring shame to Victor or his family by behaving like a selfish, vapid omega. 

He takes a deep breath, tries to calm down. It doesn't work too well, but when Victor's hand takes his, Yuuri is able to squeeze back his fingers.

"Say, Victor, do you know the woman talking to your cousin?" Yuuri asks. His voice trembles, but only a smidge, which he's somewhat proud of.

Victor peaks over his shoulder. "That's Duchess Wintry. Would you like to meet her?"

"No, no, that… no." Yuuri shakes his head wildly. Something in his face must betray his fear, because Victor steps closer. Concern is so beautiful on him, Yuuri can't help admiring it just a little. "I think… Victor, I think she knows who I am."

The worry cools on Victor's features as if it was brushed away by the nightly wind. He looks at the duchess again, this time more calculating than before. It's a look Yuuri hasn't seen on him before. Devoid of kindness or any other warm emotion, Victor is colder than the ice as he measures the woman from afar. He's assessing the threat, Yuuri is sure, and he must be debating the best way to solve this problem. This is how he must have learned to live in the high court for so many years. By scheming and plotting, and seeing and doing things that were required of him in order to remain where he is, in order to keep the power balance in check. 

Frankly, it's quite terrifying. Yuuri shudders, ready to look away.

But then, then Victor turns back to him and smiles down at Yuuri, and everything is back to normal. Victor wraps an arm around his shoulders like he knows that's exactly what Yuuri needs. The contrast between the two is stark. From coldness to warmth, it feels like Yuuri is being burned hot white to the very bones, and it shakes him almost as much as being discovered has.

"Put that out of your mind, love," Victor soothes. "It will be taken care of, I promise. She will not bring us trouble."

"Are you sure?" Yuuri doesn't allow himself to look at the woman, but her gaze still burns his mind when he recalls it. "She could tell everyone. She could… She could kill me with that. Victor, she could kill us both."

He trembles at the thought. Victor's arm tightens around him, safe and secure. It helps, just a little. Even through the confusion that consumes Yuuri from within, the fear is stronger, and Victor's calming presence stronger still.

"I will never let that happen, Yuuri. Don't you trust me?"

And because he does, or he wishes to, Yuuri nods. He struggles to put away his fear, but when his eye catches the sight of the servants bringing forth a tray of apples and a big bow made of cherrywood and strung with unicorn hair, his fears are replaced by a new one. Akayumi, the bow that belonged to the first king is as magnificent as the legends that surround it. Through magical means, it has remained untouched by the passage of time. Yuuri has imagined this moment ever since he agreed to marry Victor, but no matter how hard he tried, none of his ideas could measure up to Akayumi's beauty. The handle is polished, by talented hands and those that used the bow over the centuries. Carvings of leaves and vines run over the cherrywood, darker and filled with an inlay of resin that glows as the moonlight shines off the unicorn hair string. 

It's stunning, truly. Once was a bow like others, but for centuries now it's only been used for ceremonies and on very special occasions.

Occasions such as this: the royal wedding.

Because the bow has been brought out for them. For Victor to use, for Yuuri to watch as an arrow soars right towards him in the final show of trust. It's tradition and they must obey the laws that their predecessors set. But when the guests begin to clap, expecting a thrilling show of utmost love and submission, Yuuri begins to tremble. 

This is all too much. He knew that doing this will be hard, but he never expected it to be like this

"Yuuri," Victor calls softly and Yuuri looks up at him, aware of the naked fear in his eyes. Gently, Victor takes his face in his hands and kisses his forehead in a gesture so full of kindness and sweetness that Yuuri's fear momentarily stops. "I will always keep you safe, love. I made a vow and I intend to keep it. Believe in me, please?"

Yuuri breathes him in, closes his eyes, and when Victor's thumbs rub his cheeks, he lets it all go. He made a promise, too. To his parents, to himself, and most of all – he made it to Victor as well. And Yuuri Katsuki, for all that he feared quite many things, was not a man who broke his vows.

"I will," he replies. And then, swallowing harshly, he adds: "Please don't shoot me."

Victor's laughter is like a balm to Yuuri's heart. "I won't." 

Victor brings Yuuri's face up one last time, so he can rest a little kiss right on Yuuri's lips. They part there. Yuuri walks to the place where the servant with the tray awaits. He takes one apple from the plenty that he's offered. All of them look the same: all perfect, all round, all flushed red. Like a still beating heart inside Yuuri's chest, one that hopes Victor's arrow will only pierce the apple. 

On the other side of the grounds, Victor puts a protective glove on his drawing hand. Yuuri lifts the apple which lies flat on his palm. His hand shakes a bit, but he forces himself to stand as still as he can. Victor nocks one white fletched arrow and draws. Keenly, Yuuri feels the gazes of the gathered people, watching, waiting for the blood that may spring from him if Victor's aim goes even a smidge astray. He squeezes his eyes shut, unable to look any longer at the beautiful form that Victor presents to everyone as he holds. He can hardly breathe.

Because of that, Yuuri doesn't know when Victor looses the arrow. He simply hears the whistle of it as it flies through the air and, only a few precious seconds after, the lurch of the apple that is knocked off his palm once the arrow impales it cleanly through. Yuuri opens his eyes to the thunderous applause, but his eyes are only aware of Victor's smiling face. 

Before he even moves, Victor is halfway towards him. Yuuri walks towards him to meet him halfway like Victor has done many times before. His blood buzzes in his ears again, his heart beats double, his breath comes faster with every step. And when Victor catches him in his arms, warm and delighted, laughter on his lips, Yuuri feels all of his worries somehow slip away.

"I told you I would keep you safe," Victor tells him, grinning into his hair.

This time, unlike the many others, Yuuri truly believes him. He pushes his face into Victor's neck and allows himself to breathe.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The moon is high up on the starry sky when they are finally allowed to retire. Yuuri is dragging his feet as they make their way through the torch-lit grounds. An owl hoots somewhere, a sound almost drowned in the laughter of the guests who stayed behind at the feast. But like the night before, when he was drunk, Victor holds Yuuri up whenever he stumbles over the hem of his robes. He helps Yuuri up the steps of the palace and then leads him to the chambers that from this night forth will be theirs to share. 

The very thought of that fills Yuuri with an odd sort of yearning. On one hand, he is looking forward to that. To the freedom that comes with being a prince, not just his intended. To living with Victor and getting to know him more deeply than he ever knew anyone. But on the other hand, the idea of that terrifies him, too. Because if he and Victor grow closer, Yuuri will have to open up to him as well. He will have to share himself in equal measure. 

And that, that scares him a lot. 

There are things about him, about his past that he doesn't think he can ever share. Not with Victor, not with anyone. In a marriage, truth and honesty are crucial, so if Yuuri begins their union while harboring secrets… wouldn't that mean they were set to fail from the very start? Wouldn't it be his fault and his fault only if Victor chooses to keep their marriage a cold front? To stay married to him, put a child inside him from sheer obligation to fulfill his parents' wishes, and then cast Yuuri aside, with all his secrets and all his fears? He promised he wouldn't, and Yuuri trusts him enough to believe him in the moment, but the fears… the fears aren't as easily dissuaded.

Victor leads Yuuri into the room, where servants still rush about. From the sitting room, two doors lead to two bedrooms, but it is obvious that they will not be spending this night in separate quarters. As they enter, the servants stop and bow to them, before they continue with their work. Some pass them by with buckets of steaming hot water, some fold the freshly ironed towels by the copper bathtub that Yuuri glimpses in one of the rooms. 

Victor squeezes Yuuri's fingers. Yuuri looks at him, nervous and curious both. Victor's smile is sweet when he takes Yuuri's face in his hands. This thing, the tenderness, the claim hidden in it, it makes Yuuri's heart sing like it never did for anyone.

"Come to me once you're ready, yes?" Victor asks, stroking Yuuri's cheeks. "But you don't have to rush. Take all the time you need. I will wait for you, I promise."

He kisses Yuuri then, soft and sweet. Yuuri can't help but arch into it. He closes his eyes and imagines Victor kissing him like this for the rest of his life, and the feeling it awakens in his heart, oh! Yuuri could live like this forever.

Sadly, Victor pulls back and Yuuri needs to open his eyes.

"Yuuri?" Victor asks, concern beautiful in his blue eyes. "Are you alright? You've been so quiet. Are you still worried about the duchess?"

Frankly, Yuuri forgot all about her. Victor promised to take care of it, so he put it out of his mind. He had lots of other things to worry about, after all. The wedding games, the wedding night, Victor… those were the things that stuck with him. But now that Victor has mentioned it, the piercing eyes of the duchess return to Yuuri as vivid as they were at the feast.

He shudders at the memory.

"No, I–" he starts, then falls silent as a servant passes by with an empty bucket. He finishes in a hushed voice, much like a whisper: "I'm just worried about, well, about tonight and, and the future, and I just– Victor, I don't want to disappoint you. And I don't want to put you in any danger. You've given me so much already, so I want to give you something back, but–"

"Yuuri." Victor gently kisses him again. "We spoke about this before. I will not press you for children. Not now, nor ever. We will simply take things at the pace that you set. I will match you step for step, you needn't worry." Victor smiles, rubbing his thumbs into the corners of Yuuri's mouth, which lift as if drawn by his warmth. "And trust me, love, I know the dangers we will face if people find out. But they won't. I give you my word."

It warms Yuuri's heart to hear him say it, but he knows the truth: while Victor may be open to waiting, while he might be sympathetic, everyone else will not be that understanding. Still, Yuuri doesn't wish to make Victor worry about him. Or, he doesn't wish to make him worry further. So he smiles and arches up to kiss Victor once more, before he steps away from his husband.

"Thank you, Victor," he says. "I will see you soon then?"

"Of course," Victor answers, gifting him with one last smile.

They part to enter each room separately. The doors softly click behind them and that's how Yuuri is left in the capable hands of the servants. His attendant is there among them, the beta woman called Maya. She helps him out of his clothes while the other servants finish the bath preparations and leave, bowing one after another. Only when they are alone, does Maya bring out the tray that has been sitting on the vanity. 

Since the very start, Yuuri refused any help with his bathing. As always, Maya will obey him, but before she does, she presents the tray to him. Tiny bottles of oil sit there, beautiful in their crystal vials and precious beyond doubt. 

"This one is for your hair," Maya points out a blue bottle. Then she points to the yellow one. "This one for your skin. They will both make it soft, the hair shiny." And then she points a pink one. "This one is to prepare. For the slide."

"The slide?"

"For the mating," she explains, face without expression as if they are speaking of the weather. "So that when the prince enters–"

Blushing furiously, Yuuri shakes his head. "I understand, I understand! Enough, please!"

She bows, falling silent as asked. Yuuri snatches the tray from her.

"Will you be needing help with anything, Your Highness?" she asks, and when Yuuri shakes his head again, still flushed, she curtseys to him. "Then I will take my leave. Goodnight, Your Highness."

"Goodnight," Yuuri replies stiffly. 

Even when the door shuts closed behind her, he doesn't relax. It's hard to do when he thinks of what is going to happen within minutes. He looks at the steaming water, at the bed that will remain untouched this night, red sheets, soft pillows and all, and then his gaze moves to the door at the side of the wall. It looks like a part of the wooden panels there, but the golden handle betrays it. It's right behind it, that Victor must be taking his own bath in preparation for taking Yuuri into his arms and truly making him his mate.

Yuuri trembles as he turns away. He carefully sets the oils next to his tub, then takes off the rest of his clothes. He hisses as he slips one foot into the water. It's scalding, almost. Oddly enough, Yuuri welcomes this distraction. The water burns his feet, sears his calves and thighs. But the worst comes when he sits down and his most sensitive places get flooded with warmth. It makes him shiver. Goosebumps cover his flesh. 

Will Victor's touch feel like this, too? Or will it be more? Yuuri sits back in the tub, resting his shoulders against the cold copper and flinching briefly at the stark contrast in temperature. 

He doesn't know how long he simply sits there, eyes closed. The logs in the fireplace crack sweetly in the background, soothing his senses. It may be seconds, it may be minutes, but when he reaches for the washcloth and soap, the water is still warm even if all the steam is gone. Yuuri washes himself, especially his intimate parts. Once he's clean, he washes his hair too, and then reaches for the oils. He slicks his hair with one, rubs the other into his shoulders, arms, stomach and back. He stands to do the same to his thighs and calves. He even rubs some on his behind, which makes his breath come shorter and his cheeks colour crimson. He covers all the places that Victor might run his hands over, but that, that is still nothing in comparison with what he has to do next. 

He eyes the pink bottle as his heart flutters about his chest. Slowly, he takes it in hand. The water is warm around his knees, but the rest of his body already feels the chill. Wet skin is far more sensitive to cold, after all. Yuuri shudders, and then opens the vial before he can talk himself out of this. 

The most incredible scent hits his nose. It's sweet, overwhelmingly so. He feels slightly dizzy from a single sniff. Briefly, he wonders if this is what alphas feel when they smell an omega's slick. Blushing, Yuuri forces himself not to think of that, but it's already too late. This scent, it awakens something in him. Some deep craving that Yuuri hasn't been aware of before. It stirs in his belly, warm and coiled like a snake, ready to be fed more. 

It's desire. He knows it must be. 

Yuuri sinks to his knees in the tub. The water rises to his waist, brushes against him like a silky caress. He takes a breath, sweet with the scent of the oil, and then he pours some on his fingers. The thick oil is smooth and drips down his palm like honey. Curious, Yuuri licks at it. His mouth explodes with an array of things: sweetness, thirst, want, overwhelming sweetness and even more pure, pure desire that throbs low in his belly with an unspeakable urgency. 

He can't help but moan. 

His fingers find their way behind his back without much thought. His own touch is not strange to him. Like any omega, Yuuri has been exploring his body during his more desperate heats ever since he'd presented at the young age of sixteen. He craved for an alpha's touch then, but now, outside his heat, he cannot help but think of what being with an alpha will mean. What being with Victor will feel like.

He pushes an oiled finger into his hole, then pulls it out. The movement of his hand makes a splashing sound in the water and Yuuri bites his lip. The oil is warm and it makes him tingle in the best way. The more he fucks himself with his fingers, one at first and then two, the more sure he is that there is something in the oil that makes him more desperate than he has ever been. He bites his lips hard, struggling to keep his noises down. Victor is on the other side of the wall and Yuuri doesn't want to let him know what he's doing. Shame would swallow him, he knows, but the mere thought of Victor stirs a madness in him. His fingers curl, desperate, needy, wild, and Yuuri's voice finds a way out. 

He groans, untamed. 

The sound reverberates off the copper tub, even louder in his ears. He's sure that Victor must have heard it, and somehow the idea that he might have burns in Yuuri's veins hotter than desire itself. He allows himself to moan again, and more when he pushes the third finger inside himself in preparation for Victor's knot. His big knot, hard and swollen, deliciously red, wet and keeping Yuuri tied to him in a way that will bring both of them incomparable pleasure...

He moves his hand faster, but he knows he can't come. He can't bring himself the relief he wants. That privilege belongs to Victor, his alpha, his husband. His mate

Once he deems himself loose enough, Yuuri pulls his fingers out and stands up. It takes some effort, for his thighs quiver and his hole clenches on empty air. Careful not to slip, Yuuri steps out of the tub. Water drips off him, so he pats his skin dry with a towel before he puts on the silk shift that Maya prepared for him. He slicks back his still damp hair, but all the while his heart hammers inside his chest.

It is time.

With his blood buzzing in his ears, Yuuri walks to the door that joins his bedchamber with Victor's. He rests his hand on the golden handle. Only silence greets him from the other side. Desire still courses through Yuuri's veins, but now so do Victor's words. He told Yuuri to come when he's ready, that he will wait as long as it takes. Yuuri stops there and considers if he is. 

He wants Victor, he knows. But as much as he does, he is not yet ready to bear children. Those two conflicting things battle in his mind until Yuuri takes his hand off the door handle. He shouldn't do this. He shouldn't want this, not when he isn't ready for the consequences. He turns away and takes a few steps, but he can't truly leave. He's drawn back to the door, back to Victor, like a helpless moth drawn to a flame. Victor, his husband, burns just as bright in Yuuri's heart. 

It's so strange that they've only known each other for two weeks, but Yuuri already feels so strongly about him. He was never someone who warmed up to people quickly. With Victor it was surprisingly easy, though. Victor is a bright person, kind and warm and understanding. He never pushes, never pulls. He simply takes everything Yuuri gives him and answers with the same. At times, yes, he might be more affectionate than Yuuri could handle, but that in itself is a part of his charm. That, and the ease with which he receives Yuuri's boundaries when he sets them. Oh, Yuuri knows that he will never find another such as Victor. 

Victor is wonderful. And, most of all, Yuuri can trust him. All those things Victor promised him… Yuuri doesn't doubt that he will keep his word. He doesn't, but he doesn't trust himself even half as much.

He bites his lip. He looks back at the door.   

Before he can change his mind, however, before the courage leaves him again like it has back at the feast, he walks to the door and pushes it open. Heart beating double, Yuuri's walks into Victor's room. His breath leaves him as the scent of Victor brushes against his swollen, aroused glands. Victor is aroused, too, Yuuri can tell. The cloying scent of alpha, of need and want, fills Yuuri's nose. And it smells delightful. It smells like everything Yuuri ever wanted. It smells like something he needs more of, and more of right now.

Heat pools between his legs and Yuuri's steps falter, but not for long. Victor stands by the window, looking out at the grounds. His back is turned to Yuuri. In the dim lights of the candles and the fire burning in his fireplace, strong muscles of his back are visible through his shift. Yuuri feels another throb of desire low in his belly. He begins to walk towards his husband without thinking of what will happen once he gets there. 

Victor turns to him at his approach. He smiles and offers Yuuri his hand. Their fingers slide together like they have at the wedding, making their rings gleam bright. Victor must notice him looking, for he lifts Yuuri's hand to his lips. His kiss is warm against Yuuri's fingers, warmer still against his heart. And even more as it runs down his spine like a shiver, down to where Yuuri is left open, waiting for Victor to claim him.

"Come, look," Victor says. 

He pulls Yuuri to stand before him and wraps his arms around him. His chin settles against Yuuri's shoulder. For all the reasons, Yuuri should feel trapped, but he only feels warm. Warm and safe. 

"Look at them. They're all here to celebrate us. You and me, our union."

He means the guests, Yuuri can see the feast still ongoing from the window of Victor's bedchamber. They drink, they laugh, they dance. To celebrate them, Victor says. When Yuuri was young, he never imagined his wedding to be like this: full of strangers who, drunk as they are, won't even remember his name come morning. 

"I don't think they're here for that," Yuuri replies.

"What do you think they're here for, then?"

But Yuuri only shakes his head. He turns away from the window, spins in Victor's arms, so that he can look in Victor's eyes.

"Can we not talk about this now?" 

Victor's smile is soft when he gives it. "Of course, whatever you wish for, Yuuri."

He leans in for a kiss, which Yuuri gladly returns. The wind rattles the blinds on Victor's windows and Yuuri shudders. But his shudder is not caused by the wind, no. It's all Victor's doing. His lips are warm and sweet against Yuuri's, his hands a grounding weight on his hips and when they slide to Yuuri's back, big, but careful in their wanting, Yuuri is unravelled to his very soul.

Victor feels his shudder and he breaks the kiss.

"Come to bed," he whispers. "I would be a terrible husband if, after all the vows I made today, I allowed you to catch a fever on our wedding night."

Yuuri follows him over the soft carpet, their hands never parting. Victor sits down first and pulls Yuuri into his lap. This position, it reminds Yuuri of the night before. He remembers it like through a fog: the kiss, the touching, the warmth. He knows they talked about something, he knows that Victor was flushed and all the more beautiful for it, but why, what, how… that he can't quite recall. Straddling Victor's lap now, he thinks he wants to help his mind rediscover those memories. Or, maybe, to make new ones. Some that this time he'll remember.

His shift sneaks up his thighs and Victor's hands follow over his calves, past his knees, under the white hem. Yuuri's skin is painted golden from the candlelight. Against it, Victor's hands are as pale as the moon. But unlike the moon, they are warm, hot even, burning imprints of heat into the places they touch. Yuuri's breath quickens, just like his heartbeat does. Victor's face is so close that Yuuri can feel his breath on his face, too. Delicate and careful, it makes his eyelashes flutter shut as he leans in to drink it straight from Victor's lips. 

Victor answers him with tamed passion. Yuuri can feel the strength of his want, the sheer power of will it takes for him to keep it in check in order to give Yuuri the upper hand, and it's sweet. It's precious. It's more than Yuuri could've ever asked for. But that's the thing with Victor, Yuuri doesn't need to ask. Victor simply offers what Yuuri needs most as if he knows him, as if he's known him for years. He hasn't, of course, but Yuuri feels the kinship between them grow stronger and stronger every day. Until one day they will know each other that well. Until one day, he will no longer be surprised at the strength of his feelings.

"You're distracted," Victor mumbles against Yuuri's lips. His blue eyes flutter open, dark with desire, but warm with concern. "What's on your mind, love?"

"You," Yuuri admits openly. 

"Me? What about me?"

Yuuri shakes his head. He takes Victor's face in his hands, touches his skin like he's within a dream. Victor is cleanly-shaven, but there is a small patch of needle-like hair that Yuuri finds at the side of his jaw. He lets his fingers linger there, smiling to himself as if he discovered some secret that Victor knows not about. 

"You are everything I wished for," Yuuri confesses. "That, and more. Say, Victor, are you… are you even real?"

Yuuri traces the small smile that crawls onto Victor's face with his fingertips. Before he replies, Victor takes his hand and kisses the fingers, the palm, the wrist. His eyes never leave Yuuri's.

"I ask myself that very same question whenever I look at you."

Yuuri blushes. "I'm not worth it."

"You are," Victor insists. He rests Yuuri's hand behind his neck and pulls him closer by the hips. Yuuri sits directly above Victor's cock now and he feels it through Victor's shift, but instead of giving in to embarrassment, he focuses on Victor's words. "You are, Yuuri. You're a prince, the true prince. I'm only a fake, but you… oh, darling. You may not have been raised the way I was, but there is grace in every part of you. There is royal beauty in you, body and soul. Sometimes, when I stand with you, I feel like no one looks at me anymore, because all they can see is me, a pretender and you, the true picture of royalty. And it's inspiring."

"Wait," Yuuri licks his lips, "you like that? You aren't upset about it? That's–"

Not what Yuuri imagined at all. But Victor only laughs, a warm breeze on Yuuri's cheeks.

"Believe me, Yuuri, I love it," he says. "You can overshadow me every day and I'll be happy just standing by your side."

"No, no, I… Thank you, but I'd rather not." Yuuri shakes his head. "You can keep all that attention, I'd rather just be your husband. It'll be safer for all of us."

"Whatever you wish, Yuuri."

Yuuri kisses him in thanks. Victor kisses him back, deepens the kiss, too. And before Yuuri's mind can bring another issue for him to worry about, Victor rolls him into the sheets. His weight settles against Yuuri, pins him to the sheets. Yuuri gasps into Victor's mouth.

"Is this alright?" Victor asks, searching Yuuri's face for signs of discomfort.

Yuuri's heart hammers in his chest at this change in positions, at what it leads to. But he finds that he isn't afraid. He's excited instead. He's ready to do this, even if he wasn't ready just moments ago. Now… now he is. 

"Yes," he answers. "Victor, please–"

"Vitya," Victor interrupts. "We're wed now. Please call me Vitya, Yuuri. If you want to, that is. I would not wish to force you in this or anything else, but it would mean a lot–"

Yuuri's lips quirk in a smile that halts Victor's words. Yuuri leans up to kiss him.

"Vitya," he whispers. 

Victor shudders. Yuuri feels it as if they were already one body. 

"Say it again."

"Vitya," Yuuri repeats and then, without being asked, does it again. "Vitya, please take care of me. I trust you."

"I made a vow, remember? I will always do that. You're safe with me, Yuuri."

Yuuri brushes a hand over Victor's neck, over his slightly swollen scent gland. "I know."

And then, then the time for words is gone. Victor kisses him again, and Yuuri pulls him close – as close as he can. Their bodies slide together, hardness against hardness, softness against softness, warmth against warmth. Victor's tongue is hot in Yuuri's mouth, his teeth sharp on Yuuri's lips. Every kiss, every breath, they leave him tingling. He needs more, he knows it, and the feeling of Victor's weight on top of him only magnifies it.

The wind howls outside the window, but Yuuri isn't sure if it's the wind anymore. His blood roars in his ears, his breath deafens him to it all. But even despite that, Yuuri is keenly aware of the rustle of the sheets and their shifts, which are the only things that keep the warmth of their skin away. 

Yuuri can't stand it. His hands clench on the back of Victor's shift as Victor kisses down his cheek, his jaw, his neck. Yuuri tugs on the material when Victor finds his scent gland. He moans, then groans, tipping his head back. His hands falter for a moment, tremble, where they clutch the material in bunches. Victor's teeth scrape on his sensitive skin. Yuuri's arousal fills the air with thick, sweet scent that makes Yuuri's mind cloudy like the night sky. Victor's tongue laps at Yuuri's sensitive skin, and then he too moans out his pleasure. He sucks on Yuuri's gland, drinking in Yuuri's scent as if it was the sweetest nectar. 

"Vitya," Yuuri moans.

"You're so sweet, Yuuri," Victor mumbles against his neck. "I want to bite you so bad…"

"Then do it," Yuuri answers, fearless and wanting. "I'm yours, aren't I? Bond with me, alpha."

Victor makes a conflicted sound. He nuzzles his nose into Yuuri's neck, kisses it and makes Yuuri shudder with want. But he doesn't bite. Instead, he pulls back and finds Yuuri's dark eyes with his own, just as dark, just as desperate. 

"Not yet," he says. "I will bond you when I'm deep inside you, when you take me and I take you, when we're one in the height of passion. And then you will truly be mine and I yours, my love."

Yuuri moans in reply. His mind is as hazy as if he was once again drunk, but he didn't drink that much this night. No, this haze is different. This haze is far more dangerous. Because this is the pure strength of his desire. It's his own scent, needy and sweet with temptation, and Victor's, heady and thick: the musk of an alpha ready to claim their omega. Yuuri has only ever smelled that once, but this is different now. This is his alpha, and his body answers that call like it never has for anyone else. 

It's a little scary, the sheer power of it. Yet Yuuri is not frightened. He trusts Victor. He wants him. And he is ready to taste what love feels like.

He tugs on Victor's shift again. "Off. Take it off!"

Victor needs not be told twice. He pulls away and lifts his shift, only to throw it away like a rag. Yuuri admires him while he takes it off. His body, strong and healthy, beautiful, pale, sculptured. His blush, pink even in the dim light of the candles, reaching from his cheeks to his swollen, gorgeous glands, and his chest, too. His hair, spilling over his face like moonlight on still water. And then Yuuri's gaze slips lower, lower still, until his eyes fall on Victor's cock.

Yuuri shifts as desire throbs between his legs hard. He licks his lips, nervous and excited both. 

Victor doesn't wait to give Yuuri time to take it all in. He rests his hands on Yuuri's knees, touch hot, heated. Or maybe it's Yuuri's skin that is too hot, it's hard to tell. Victor kisses him again, harder this time, and Yuuri feels the heat in his belly, in his cheeks, in his chest. Sweat dampens his skin. It's stifling like this, as if the fire that crackles in the fireplace has suddenly roared with a magnitude of a bonfire. Victor's hands push up Yuuri's shift like he knows Yuuri's thoughts. The material slides up Yuuri's thighs, then higher to his belly, revealing what's hiding underneath. Air brushes against Yuuri's cock, against his open hole, and he bites his lip, too impatient to wait any longer. He pulls back, rips off his shift, and attacks Victor's lips with a desperation that he never felt before. 

Victor answers in kind. He hefts Yuuri up, sits him in his lap again. Yuuri presses close, as if he wants to melt their skin together. His cock presses against Victor's stomach and he feels it quiver with every sharp breath Victor pants into Yuuri's mouth. Their scents mix together in a way that sets all of Yuuri's senses into madness. In that madness, he rubs himself on Victor, on his stomach and his lap, and he feels it, oh yes – the hardness of Victor's cock, rubbing between his legs like a promise of what's to come. 

As if he wants to help him rut, or stop him, Yuuri can't know for sure, Victor's hands clench on the flesh of his thighs. They mark him, but not in the way that Yuuri aches to be marked. Victor's lips once again leave his to trail kisses down his neck, but like he promised before, he doesn't give Yuuri what he wants. He simply kisses and sucks on his skin, until his own flesh is as flushed as Victor's. 

Yuuri groans. "Vitya..."

Without a reply, Victor's hands move to cup Yuuri's behind. They spread him, knead him like a baker does with fresh dough. It feels amazing. Slick pours out of Yuuri, adding to the heavy scent of desire that stifles the air in the room. But still, this is hardly enough. Yuuri needs more.

And he gets that, too. Incredible as he is, Victor reads his mind again. He slips one hand between Yuuri's legs and slides two fingers into him at once. Yuuri gasps. His back arches and his hands claw into Victor's shoulders in surprise, but not in pain. The slick makes for a smooth entry, and the oil he used before helps even more. Yuuri relaxes as he grows used to the feel of Victor's fingers fucking him just like Yuuri imagined when he was preparing himself in his tub. 

"You're so soft here," Victor tells him between kisses and bites to his neck that drive Yuuri mad. "And so wet, Yuuri, fuck…" 

He gives a deep groan that sends a throb of desire through Yuuri. 

"I heard you, you know? When you were preparing yourself in your room. I heard you moan." Victor's fingers curl and Yuuri gives him just what he wants: he moans, loud and clear, right into Victor's ear. "Gods, Yuuri, do you know how badly I want you? I have, ever since I laid my eyes on you. I never imagined I could be so attracted to someone, but you captured me within a single glance."

Yuuri's cheeks burn at the silky words that Victor whispers against his heated skin. But desire burns inside him and among it, the embarrassment is easy to turn into strength. 

"Me as well," he confesses, pulling Victor's head up by the damp hair so he can kiss him. "You're so handsome, Vitya. So stunning. I knew you were, but when I first saw you, I thought no human could be this pretty. And now you're here: all mine. Please," he gasps as he moves his hips in time with Victor's fingers, "please make me yours, too."

"Anything you want, Yuuri," Victor promises fervently. "Anything at all."

He adds another finger, and then when Yuuri easily takes him in, he adds another. With four, he spreads Yuuri open until he's loose enough. Yuuri writhes against him, desperate for more. But even if he is loose around four fingers, when Victor throws him onto the sheets and bends his legs so he can see his hole and put his thick, hard cock inside, Yuuri isn't loose enough to take that. Victor pushes inside him and Yuuri feels him, every inch of him, spreading him till he's breathless. He gasps, his hands clench in the red sheets, and Victor, gorgeous Victor, looks down at him with relish, desire, and all of that encompassed by soft worry.

"I'm alright… I think," Yuuri gasps out before Victor can ask. Victor shifts at his words, relieved. That makes Yuuri moan. "You're so big…"

"And you take me so well," Victor praises. His words run down Yuuri's spine sweet like honey. "Look at you. You're beautiful. My Yuuri, my mate. My sweet omega."

Yuuri pulls him down by the neck to crush their lips together. Victor's cock slides deeper into him when the position brings them closer and Yuuri gasps right against Victor's tongue. He bites on Victor's lip as they end the kiss, hot and reckless.

"Not sweet," Yuuri insists, cheeky with happiness. "But all yours."

"You're perfect," Victor tells him instead. 

He begins to move then, slowly at first as if he still thinks he could hurt Yuuri. Maybe he could, but Yuuri is so wet, slick running down his back from how he's folded to allow Victor entry, that he can only feel the pleasure of the hard length of Victor's cock. It pushes inside, outside, in measured thrusts. Yuuri feels everything, every little move, every breath, as if his entire body was made to be claimed like this. And it has, he realizes. He was born to do this. To be the recipient of an alpha's love, to be the husband of this man and no other. His body accepts Victor, accepts him as his mate, just as Yuuri's heart seems to have accepted it. 

Emboldened by how good it feels, how right it feels, Yuuri slides his legs around Victor's hips, pulls him closer. Victor thrusts into him harder. The soft noises that leave his lips make Yuuri's body hotter than he'd think possible. But it's Victor's eyes that undo him. They keep watching him with something obsessive, almost as if he can't get enough, as if he needs to see that Yuuri is driven with the same passion as him. To answer him, Yuuri bares his neck in submission, in unvoiced temptation, and moans – gives voice to all the pleasure that Victor bestows on him.

Rain begins to fall against the window, a slow pitter-patter that accompanies their rushed breaths and rustling sheets. Victor's hips snap against Yuuri's, their moans fill the silence. It doesn't take long until both of them are clutching to each other hard. Desperate hands, even more desperate mouths, they meet halfway and pull apart only to come together once more. In this dance of passion, Yuuri feels more free than he ever felt since he learned about his destiny. He couldn't have imagined it back then, that mating would make him feel like this: so powerful, so beautiful, so desirable and happy and full. 

But like any other dance, though, this one also comes to an end.

Victor pushes inside him hard, then again, and then he's quickly pulling out and grasping at his cock as he comes. Hot spurts of his seed paint over Yuuri's stomach and chest, and he moans. But the moan is as much for that, as for the fact that he's now empty. Victor's cock is gone and Yuuri's body misses it like a lost limb. 

Disappointment makes him shudder. It's maddening how close to his own release he was, but now he can't reach it because Victor is done. Before Yuuri can reach down to stoke himself to release, as always, Victor surprises him. Victor's now spent cock brushes against Yuuri's thigh when he leans in to give Yuuri a kiss. A deep one, fierce, as if he wants to sear their lips together forever. It almost distracts Yuuri from the fact that he is still hard, still ready, and still willing to pleasure Yuuri until he's satisfied.

Yuuri moans around Victor's tongue when that hard, thick cock slides into him once more. 

Victor begins to fuck Yuuri again, fills him up until Yuuri can feel his balls brush against his bottom, until his hips ache delightfully with fullness. Yuuri inches closer to heaven with every snap of Victor's hips, but still it isn't enough. 

"More," he begs. "Vitya, more…"

And more Victor gives. He grasps Yuuri's cock and strokes it, matching the pace of his thrusts. Yuuri's hands are lost in pleasure. He covers his mouth, runs them over his chest, over the seed smeared on it, and that, too, to his lips. The taste of Victor on his tongue blossoms into a fever that Yuuri could not and would not want to stop. 

Under Victor's touch, fucked by his cock, Yuuri comes apart. Warmth coils in his belly just as Victor's lips find Yuuri's scent gland, his bonding gland, and then–

Yuuri gives a wild cry the moment Victor's teeth sink into his flesh. They easily break the skin, make the mark that binds him to Victor for life. The pain that comes with it is exactly what Yuuri needs to careen off the edge. He comes, shaking and drooling, and clinging to Victor as if he wants to melt them into one. He doesn't realize that his fingers turned to claws or that he's raked them down Victor's back. All he feels is the overwhelming pleasure, the throbbing between his legs, the answering throbbing in his neck, and the mixed scent of their release – so right, so good, so perfect.

He's clenching down hard on Victor, but Victor isn't done with him. The thick cock fucks Yuuri through his release, and keeps fucking him still when Yuuri returns to the world from the height of pleasure. He's so sensitive now that every thrust makes him doubly aware of Victor's hard length, of how hot he is, how hard. Mewling, moaning, begging for something, unable to say what, Yuuri takes every inch of him. Consciously this time, he clenches around Victor's cock just like he clenches his hands on Victor's arms, holding onto him as if he was a dream that could disappear at any second. Victor gives a sound that makes Yuuri do it all over again, just to hear it come from his lips once more.

"Yuuri," Victor whines, "stop that, please. Do you want me to come inside you?"

Does he want that? Yuuri imagines the hot seed spilling inside him and he burns. His skin feels feverish when he turns his greedy eyes to Victor. His desires must show clearly on his face, for Victor moans and shakes his head as if it brings him pain to deny him.

"No, darling, no," he pants, trembling as he keeps fucking Yuuri, who clenches on his cock like he wants to milk it dry with his body. "This is the mating talking. You told me you are not ready for childbearing, remember? We can't risk it."

Before Yuuri can reply, Victor leans in and rests his forehead on Yuuri's. Like this, he still fucks him, but it's slower now. Less deep, yet just as good, and more intimate than ever.

"But one day," Victor says, breathing shallowly. "One day when you're ready, I will fill you up until… until you're all swollen right here," Victor smears the drying seed on Yuuri's belly with his hand, "and I will knot you, and fuck you on my knot. You will be so full of my seed that it will start leaking out even with my knot inside you. And then, then you will bear our pups." He rests a kiss against Yuuri's open, panting mouth. "But not today."

It takes a while for his words to reach Yuuri's addled mind, but they do. And when they do, Yuuri's eyes light up. His heart lights up, too. It's love, Yuuri knows. It must be. It's so strong, so deep, so hard to put into words because it's a cluster of emotions so convoluted that putting one name on them could be nothing else but this. 

Love.

Unable to do anything with this revelation, Yuuri keeps his mouth shut. Not for long, though. Victor fucks him just right, and before he knows it, Yuuri is inching another steep height of pleasure. He gives into it, allows himself to breathe Victor in with every pore, to feel him with every inch of his body, and then he comes again, clenching hard around Victor's cock. Victor hisses and he moans, fucking Yuuri a few times more, before he pulls out and strokes his release out onto Yuuri's belly, adding to the mess that's already there. 

This time, they slump together into the sheets. It takes a moment before they can do anything other than gasp. At last, panting, they look at each other. Both flushed, both exhausted, both sated. 

Mated. 

Truly and fully one. 

They smile at each other. With no words spoken, Victor wraps Yuuri in his arms and Yuuri snuggles into him. He wipes his neck when something tickles him there. His fingers come away blotted with blood from the bonding mark that come morning will have healed, because this bonding has no chance of failing. Yuuri's body, his heart, his very soul have accepted him, and so will the bond. 

Yuuri smiles to himself, hiding his happiness in the crook of Victor's neck. 

That night, he falls asleep in Victor's arms, right against his sweet heartbeat. Married, mated, and somehow in love with his husband, which he didn't expect but began to welcome ardently.  

 

 

***     

 

 

Victor awakens at night, suddenly, as if from a bad dream. Except... he hasn't been dreaming.

The wind howls outside the castle walls, knocks heavy rainfall against the windows. A thunder splits the sky. Victor thinks it must be that that awakened him, but then he looks to his side where Yuuri should be peacefully aslumber and finds nothing but empty sheets. Yuuri's absence must be what made his senses scream. The fresh bond would demand they stay close together. But that, Yuuri should know that. And if he was gone...

Frowning at the sudden unease, Victor peers about the dark. The candles have mostly gone out, but the fire in the fireplace is still inkling. It's there that he spots the hunched silhouette of his mate. Yuuri didn't even bother to dress, and the dim light hunches his back in the shadows, even though he stands straight. 

"Yuuri?" Victor calls, sitting up. "Come back to bed, love. It must be cold out there, you can get sick even by the fire."

Yuuri twitches at his voice. He doesn't move for a moment. Victor thinks to come to him instead, but before he can, Yuuri changes his mind. He walks up to the bed and crawls into its warmth, avoiding Victor's eyes. 

"Are you alright?" Victor asks when Yuuri doesn't speak.

"I had a dream," Yuuri tells him. "A… a nightmare, really. Or, well, it wasn't scary, just… odd. I'm not sure what to make of it, to be honest."

"For now? Nothing." Victor lies down again, pulling Yuuri into his arms. He kisses Yuuri's forehead and rests his cheek on Yuuri's head when he nestles into Victor's chest. "Let's keep the worries and the talking for breakfast. Now you must rest. Let your bond mark heal properly."

Yuuri gives a little noise of agreement. He falls quiet then and so does Victor. Waiting until Yuuri's breathing evens is a bit of a challenge, but Victor keeps awake. Only then does he allow himself to fall asleep as well. 

The storm outside rages on, but this time they both sleep it through.

 

 

***

 

 

It's still raining when Victor awakens again. This time it must be early morning hours, or maybe late morning hours – it's hard to tell when the sky is a monstrous expanse of gray rain clouds. 

Yuuri is softly breathing right next to him, peaceful as he was not at night. Looking at him like this, Victor can notice the subtle differences. Yuuri's face is gentle in his sleep, calm and at ease. Seeing the wrinkle of worry between Yuuri's brows is something Victor is used to, so to see him without it now is a revelation that he hasn't expected. Led by an urge, Victor traces the little space with a fingertip. Yuuri's nose wrinkles in his sleep and Victor has to bite his cheek to keep his laughter in. 

Yuuri stirs. He doesn't fully wake up, but as Victor's fingers skim over his skin to the healed mark on Yuuri's neck, Yuuri's eyes flutter open. 

"Good morning, love," Victor greets, rubbing a thumb over the sensitive gland. "How are you feeling?"

"Sore," Yuuri replies, then blushes a little. "Does it always feel like this?"

Victor instantly knows what he means. He smiles and leans closer to rest a kiss against Yuuri's forehead. 

"Not always, no," he says. "Only when you're unused to it. If you want, I can help you with that."

Yuuri's blush deepens. He doesn't reply with words, but he nods and ducks his head in a way that catches Victor's heart completely. Yuuri's sudden yawn cuts his playful mood, though.

"You must be tired after waking up at night. How about you try to nap some more while I call for a bath?" Victor offers. He makes to get up, but Yuuri rests a hand against his chest to keep him where he is.

"No, stay." 

Resting back down, Victor turns to Yuuri fully. Something is bothering his mate, it's clear to see. Victor wishes to help, wishes he could handle half of Yuuri's burden like a true husband should. He didn't think he'd feel this way for someone he was arranged to marry, but Yuuri is not just someone. He is not just his arranged partner. More and more often, Victor catches himself in thinking that maybe destiny isn't such a ludicrous concept. That maybe they were destined to be together from the day their souls have arrived in this world, and their feelings reflect that.

Maybe…

"Did I wake you? At night?" Yuuri's voice rips Victor from his thoughts.

"I think it was the bond that woke me," Victor answers. "You were too far away and it unsettled me. But it's not your fault, don't feel bad about it," he quickly adds when the wrinkle between Yuuri's eyebrows appears again.

"Still, I apologize for waking you. It was not my intention."

"There is nothing to apologize for, but I accept and understand. Say, Yuuri, do you want to share your dream with me? There is little I can do, I'm aware, but if possible, I wish I could walk that path with you." 

Yuuri bites his lip. "I don't know how to say this…"

"Why not start at the beginning?"

Yuuri seems to consider it for a moment, before he takes a deep breath and begins his story.

"My mother used to tell me stories about grandmother Yana. She had this gift, a gift of premonition," Yuuri explains. "In jest, people used to call her a prophet, but it wasn't that grand. It was just… sometimes she got those feelings, premonitions, you see? And I think I have that same gift."

It's a revelation that Victor didn't expect. He knew that some powers were inherited through the royal bloodline, but while he's heard of Queen Yana's gift, he never thought that it could be hereditary. 

"How can you tell? Did you have some… visions, is that what they are?"

"Sometimes they're just feelings," Yuuri explains, "and it's so hard to put them into words. But sometimes they are also dreams or visions. Last night… I had a strange dream. I don't really know what it was about, but I remember blood. There was so much of it, Victor… It felt like it was all over me and I don't know if it was mine or someone else's, but–"

His words die in a sharp sob. Yuuri isn't crying, no. He's simply overwhelmed by what he's seen and Victor's heart aches inside his chest at seeing him this distraught. No alpha likes to see their omega in pain, and Victor is no exception. He wraps Yuuri in his arms, hoping that it makes Yuuri feel just a little bit safer. 

"Do all your visions come true? Are they all prophecies?" Victor asks. "Maybe it was just a bad dream? You've been through so much stress these past two days, maybe it's only a reflection of that?"

Yuuri clings to him, breathing hard. "Maybe. I hope so…"

Victor kisses his head and holds him close. "No matter what happens, I will always be here for you. If it's a true vision, we will deal with it together, I promise you that, Yuuri."

"But what if the blood is yours?" Yuuri whispers in a voice that is terrified beyond belief. His hands clench on Victor's chest as if he wants to push him away, but Victor instead holds him closer.

"It can't be," Victor tells him, completely sure of it. "You'd never hurt me, would you?"

Yuuri pulls back to look him in the eye, before he vehemently says: "Of course not! I would never–" 

"Then you needn't worry about it," Victor tells him. He takes Yuuri's face in his hands and holds it until Yuuri's eyes focus on his. "We will get through this, if it comes. But until it does, we needn't worry about it. There is no use in trying to prevent something that we don't know will happen for sure. Promise me you won't allow this to cloud over our happiness."

He can see the hesitation in Yuuri's eyes, but the longer Victor looks into them, the more it gives way to acceptance. Finally, Yuuri nods.

"I promise."

When Victor kisses his lips, Yuuri tastes of what he dreamed off: the metallic tinge of blood. But, since he gave his word, Victor puts it out of his mind and kisses Yuuri deeper to erase these terrible ideas out of both their hearts. 

After all, they have worse things to fret about.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"I have something for you," Victor says once they are both finished dressing for the day. 

Instead of calling for servants, Yuuri insisted on being the only one to help Victor with everything he needed. It took a lot longer than it usually did, but Victor could not deny Yuuri a simple pleasure like that. While Yuuri brushed his hair, dressed him, tied the strings of his cuffs for him, Victor came to realize that he is absolutely gone for this man who came into his life as suddenly as Victor fell for him. If Yuuri asked him for a necklace of blue pearls, Victor knows he would set out to the sea to get them. If he asked Victor for fresh honey to pour on his breakfast cake, Victor knows he would travel to the Great Wood and battle a hundred bees just to get it. If he asked Victor to give him the stars, Victor knows he would stare at the skies until they fell into his hands, and then he'd gift them to Yuuri, who in Victor's eyes shines brighter than any of them. 

It's incredible that one can feel as strongly about someone whom they've just met, but Victor finds nothing odd about it. It's love, he knows, true love that comes only once in a lifetime, if that. Something special, something precious to be cherished, admired, and upheld. Something to be protected at all cost. 

And he knows that Yuuri must feel it, too. Every one of his gestures and gentle touches is unbearably sweet, as if Yuuri is taking care of something fragile. He is not fearful in his touch, simply reverent, full of unspoken awe that Victor is real. That same awe that last night filled Victor's heart to the brim. In that, Victor feels they are truly alike: both enchanted by the other, desperate to hold onto first inklings of love that stirred their lonely hearts.

Once Yuuri is done, Victor jumps at the chance to return the favour. The quiet assurance of his expected touches, the comfort of familiar hands, the safety of slowly building up the confidence to face the world – it all rises within Yuuri the more layers Victor puts on him. It's clear in the easing of stiffness in Yuuri's neck as the shirt slides over his head, in the shape of his back as Victor flattens the material of his dark robe against it. Victor cannot help but kiss him then, yet when they part, the happiness still churns inside his chest, urging him to act. 

That, and Yuuri's brilliant eyes, which shine and glimmer, and fill Victor with even more joy, make him bring up the gift he had prepared for his mate the day their fates have been decided.

"I had this made weeks ago," Victor explains as he leaves Yuuri to open one of the drawers. Nervously he flips some cloth around to uncover what in hidden underneath. "I didn't know how you looked, so I wasn't sure about the colour scheme. We can change that if you don't like it, that's not a problem! Or we can have a whole new one made, or a set, or however many you want, if you like. In fact, I think we should–"

Yuuri's quiet laughter draws Victor's eyes to him. "I'm sure that whatever it is, I'll love it."

Smiling with new hope, Victor pulls out a velvet box from the drawer. He comes up to Yuuri and opens it, and even though his heart skips a beat, he continues to smile when Yuuri's mouth drops open in awe. Because there, on the pillow of silk, sits a collar of leather layered with velvet. In the middle, a fat ruby is encaged in silver so fine it seems as if it was wrapped in a spiderweb. The stone is large enough to catch the light of the candles and stands out among the thick band of black that should be wide enough to cover his bonding mark. 

It's tradition for alphas to provide their bonded omegas with a collar, so Victor had it made with that in mind, but if he had to do so now, he'd pick something else for Yuuri. Something that would match his sweet personality, his kindness and gentle smiles. Maybe purple and blue, or black and gold, or–

"It's beautiful," Yuuri says, touching the soft leather with his fingertips. 

He looks up at Victor, admiration clear in his face. Their eyes meet. Feelings, all the feelings Victor has been nurturing in his heart, they look right back at him from within Yuuri's gaze. A love for a love, a heart for a heart, a soul for a soul – the perfect match they have made since they agreed to honour the vow their fathers had taken. 

Yuuri turns his back to Victor now, shrugs his outer robe down to his elbows. His bare neck stands against the white fabric of his shirt, tempting, beautiful, royal. Over his shoulder, Yuuri looks at Victor with a smile that almost brings Victor to his knees in worship. 

"Will you put it on me?" Yuuri asks, coy in his flirtation. Or simply unaware of how smitten his husband is with him, but how could that be possible when Victor feels like he can scream it from the rooftops?

Saying not a word further, with careful fingers he takes the collar and wraps it around Yuuri's throat. He ties it, on those thin, delicate strings that he sneaks under the hem of Yuuri's shirt once he's done. Yuuri shivers at their light touch against his skin, but then he sighs as Victor helps him pull on his robe. Expecting the beauty to hit him hard, Victor waits for Yuuri to turn back around so he can feast his eyes on his mate. 

And when Yuuri does turn, Victor falls into breathless awe.

"How do I look?" Yuuri asks when Victor's silence stretches into worship. 

Unable to help himself, Victor takes Yuuri's face in his hands and rests a sweet kiss against his lips. "Divine." 

Yuuri's cheeks paint with a blush, as if to match the ruby that gleams on his throat. He's stunning, Victor thinks not for the first time. And, like that, not for the first time, he can't believe how lucky he is. Yuuri could have turned out to be a person worthy of contempt, someone whom Victor would loathe, someone he'd take to bed from sheer obligation, but instead… instead he is all that he is – a wonderful companion, a kind soul, a person whom Victor came to care so deeply about in such a short time that it terrifies him a bit.

It does not scare him when he takes Yuuri's hands into his own.

"Shall we go greet the guests? I'm sure they are already waiting for us." 

"I wish we could stay." Yuuri sighs, turning a longing glance at the door that connects them to the world. "I wish it could be just the two of us… No expectations, no guests, no problems. Just us."

"Maybe it can be," Victor offers. He squeezes Yuuri's hands. "I will have to leave tomorrow to escort the unicorn back to the forest, but if you'd like, you can accompany me? Just the two of us."

Yuuri's smile is grateful when he gives it. "I'd like that very much."

Their plans having been made, Victor kisses both of Yuuri's hands before he transfers one to the crook of his arm. With one last look at his mate and Yuuri's nod, which is more bravado than actual comfort, Victor leads Yuuri to the door. Side by side, together in more ways than one, they leave to face whatever may come their way.

 

 

***

 

 

"His Highness Prince Victor and His Highness Prince Yuuri!"

They are announced with honours the moment they step into the dining room. All eyes turn to them, all chairs scrape as the guests rise to lift their glasses in toast to the new royal couple. Only once the voices sound through and all propriety is obeyed, everyone takes their seats again: Victor and Yuuri at the center, right next to the King and Queen.  

Breakfasts are boring affairs while people fill their bellies with food, not wine or ale. But because they try to keep their appearances together – not wits, never that – it's easy to find a chance to speak with someone privately. 

Even as they sit down, Victor is aware of the gaze that follows them with far more interest than others. It is not difficult to find her. The Duchess Wintry sits opposite of them, five chairs down the row. She is too far away to speak freely, but as the staring continues, Victor meets her gaze and waits, waits for the woman to drop her eyes as is proper. She doesn't. This, much like her daring the night before when Yuuri has told him of her words, gives Victor a bad feeling. He engages in the polite conversation running around the table, fills his plate with food and takes a few bites, but he is only biding his time. 

At last, when first guests begin to excuse themselves, Victor leans over to Yuuri.

"I'm going to talk to the duchess. Will you be alright by your lonesome for a moment?"

"Are you sure you want to go alone? Maybe I should come with you?" Yuuri asks, worry clear in his eyes. Victor feels an urge to kiss it away, but he stifles it in order to keep his focus. 

"It will be better if I do this alone, love. I wouldn't wish to put you in danger, should she strike against me. And seeing you may provoke her unnecessarily."

Yuuri says nothing to that, and nothing more when Victor stands. But when Victor makes to leave, Yuuri catches his hand. Their eyes meet: Victor's hoping to soothe, Yuuri's begging for caution.

"Be careful," Yuuri says. 

Victor squeezes his fingers once and brings them to his lips for a brief kiss. They slide out of his hand as he goes away, but he can't turn back now, no matter how much his heart aches to do just that. He doesn't have the leeway to linger any longer either, for the duchess has risen to leave as soon as she saw him turn away from her. Victor barely catches her by the doorway. For a woman her age, she walks with enough power and intent that Victor must run up to her once they are outside the door. It clearly shows him that someone here has something to hide. 

"Duchess Wintry," Victor calls as he falls into step with her. His face melts into a mask of a fake smile, polite to a fault. "I was hoping I could speak with you this morning, but you disappeared so fast, I thought you were running away from me. Would you allow me to escort you back to your rooms?"

The duchess offers him an equally as forced a smile. "Your Highness! I wouldn't dare run! Not to mention I would hardly be able to with my old knees, you see. It would be my greatest honour to speak with you, if you wish so, but whatever could you need an old lady like me for?" 

"Oh, don't put yourself down, my lady," Victor chirps, offering her his arm, which she takes with no reluctance at all. This game they play, Victor has learned the steps when he was still a boy. No older than fourteen, a child tainted by the real world. Now, as he leads the woman who holds the information that could ruin his life forever, he's glad for his early introduction to the greatest of court games: deceit. "You are neither old, nor gullible enough not to know what I might be seeing you about."

She snickers, her mask of a pleasant lady of the court falling away with it. She allows it to fully slip away, and looks at him with new eyes – shrewd and calculating, like the very gaze that Victor turns on her in that moment as well. To match wit for wit, cunning for cunning, every step of their treacherous dance.

"You are quite a perceptive man, indeed," she praises as if Victor would ever be happy about hearing that from someone who threatens his very life. "Let us talk, then, my prince."

They slowly make their way through the hallways of the palace. At first, many of the guests follow them to the guest wing, but Victor leads the duchess into a corridor that is rarely taken by anyone other than servants to keep their conversation more private. The trickle of voices behind them dims, until they are left in complete silence. Only then does Victor begins his true mission.

"I've heard a curious little rumour," he says. "You see, someone told me that you believe my husband to be something he is not."

"Oh?" the duchess mocks, eyes twinkling. "And whatever might that be? Isn't he just your mate who appeared out of nowhere and with nothing to his name? Quite a curious case, that, but whatever could you mean, Your Highness?"

"You very well know what I mean," Victor says, unwilling to speak the truth, lest anyone hears it. Lest her knowledge is only suspicion and he confirms it for her. "I am here to tell you that you're wrong, whatever it is that you have conceived in your pretty little head. I would also appreciate it if you stayed away from Yuuri. I have grown quite attached to him, you see. I would hate to be taken for an overbearing alpha, should my temper get the better of me at this perceived threat to his wellbeing and, driven by protective instinct, which is natural for us alphas, as you must know, I could not be held responsible for anything I do to that pretty little head in a fit of desperation. I'm sure you understand."

"I don't think I do, Your Highness," the duchess answers, untouched by his threat. "I have not threatened your husband, nor have I any intention to do so. Your informant must have taken some creative liberty with whatever they told you, because I assure you that I intend to do no harm."

"So, if not to threaten us, what do you plan to do with this knowledge? I can't imagine that you are simply content with knowing things for the pure sake of knowing things," Victor insists. They take a turn into a corridor lit with torches and their shadows grew longer.

"Oh, Your Highness," she answers, her voice as if soaked in pity. "I assure you that this is exactly what I intend to do with this little secret. It will be safe with me, I give you my word."

The falsity in her smile is as obvious as the lie in her words. Victor hides his shudder as well as he can. To think that people like her have all the power to rule over kind, loving people like Yuuri's been raised to be. It makes him sick to the stomach, nauseous with disgust. But he's been taught to treat fire with fire, and even now his instinct prevails. He will not allow her to hang this threat over their heads for any longer.

When he looks at the duchess again, his spine is steel, his eyes are ice and his tongue a silver poison. He drops her arm like he wished to do since she touched him first.

"I find myself doubtful that you'll keep it," he says as he takes a premeditated, threatening step towards her. "Which is why, you will find yourself honoured by my constant attention. Your every move, every breath, every blink of your eye – I will be watching. And I will know who you speak to and what you tell them, so be very careful not to say a word too much or else we will both find ourselves in a position that will bring us nothing but unwelcome pain. Do you understand me now, my lady? Or should I rephrase it in a way that even a beta like you will comprehend without further aid?" 

The insult he could've gone without. Every bit of him shrivels as the cruel words pass his lips. He has never been one to discriminate, no matter what cause he might have for it, but for women like the old duchess, there is no greater insult than the reminder they have been born ordinary. That nothing they can do in their pitiful lives will ever amount to anything, overshadowed by a simple wave of an alpha's hand or a flutter of omega's lashes. 

In the end, however, he does not regret it. The look in the duchess' eyes tells him he struck a chord. And when she offers him a curtsey, he knows that it reached just where it needed to.

"There is no need for hostility, Your Highness. I know my place. Thank you for the warning, I will make sure to heed it."

"Make sure that you do, or lord help me, I will make sure that your entire family is wiped out from the pages of history forever, if it's the last thing I do."

She remains in the curtsey as Victor walks away without a further word of this. She will stay quiet, he hopes, or she will pay in blood. Equal amounts as what will be spilled of Victor's or Yuuri's, but her blood will be spilled much earlier. He will make sure of that. 

 

 

***

 

 

When Victor disappears behind the door to the dining room, Yuuri can hardly sit still. He can't find a place for himself suddenly, because his place is at Victor's side and with Victor gone his every instinct tells him to go to his alpha, to find Victor and stay by his side. The reasonable part of him tells him he shouldn't. He ought to show his trust in Victor by waiting, like he's promised. Despite his given word though, the feelings in his heart cannot be denied. Yuuri can't tell if it's the bond that's breeding this unease or his own fear of their secret coming to light and ruining what little happiness they have found, but it's gnawing at him like crows do at a dead body – pulling away at scraps, merciless and ever hungry. 

It doesn't help that people look at him, speak to him, engage him in pointless polite conversation and, most likely, wish to come into the King's good graces through him. What graces, he can't fathom, for he has no actual power to grant anything to anyone. Yet they all think he does. Yuuri tries to keep up with everything that's thrown at him. It's important to Victor and thus important to him. Try as he might, though, Yuuri's fear makes him more aloof than amiable in the eyes of the guests. 

It almost comes as a salvation when Victor's cousin grabs his elbow and excuses them both with a gruff, "Lay off, vultures." 

Yuuri is tugged from the room. For someone so small, Yuri has a lot of strength to his grip, and even more power in his legs. Yuuri almost stumbles a couple of times, until Yuri stops, as abruptly as he arrived. Startled, Yuuri is spun around to face the angry teen. His arm pangs briefly, where Yuri's fingers bit into flesh a little too hard, but it's Yuri's eyes that call for Yuuri's attention, so he dares not turn his gaze away. Because, like most times Yuuri has seen him, Yuri is barely withholding his anger and disgust. It makes Yuuri want to shrivel back from him. The only thing that keeps him grounded is the fact that Yuri is only a teen, a mere child whose words, while callous, most likely stem from some deeper problems than Yuuri's presence at court.

It is not all about him, Yuuri tells himself as he lifts his chin to accept whatever Yuri is going to blame him for.

"I still can't imagine what Victor sees in you, but I'm going to find out," Yuri growls out, clenching Yuuri's elbow in a way that almost makes Yuuri wince. "You're going to come to the northern courtyard tonight. At midnight. Alone."

"I can't. Victor will know." Yuuri shakes his head. "I can't just leave in the middle of the night when we're both in the same bed."

Yuri's face twists in a grimace of disgust. "I don't fucking care. You will meet me there, or you will never find peace in this mess of a family. I'll make sure of that."

"But–"

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Yuri rips away his hand from Yuuri's elbow with such force that Yuuri stumbles back a step. "Are you honestly just a weak little omega who needs their alpha to allow them to shit?"

The crass words make Yuuri flinch. Or that's what Yuuri tells himself, trying to quiet the truth that whispers in his heart. The truth that tells him Yuri is right. Yuuri never wanted to be one of those kept omegas, those who required the permission to do everything and went mad with trying to please their alpha. Even when Yuuri agreed to marry the prince, he promised himself that he will not succumb to this. 

And Yuri just reminded him of how close he came to that which he most despised – being kept, like a dog on a leash. Like a doll on a shelf, a prized possession and nothing else. 

"I'll be there," Yuuri decides in the moment, straightening his back and rising to his full height. His arm pangs, as if to agree with his choice. 

Pleased surprise lights up Yuri's green eyes. He opens his mouth to give Yuuri another smart comment, but before he can, the doors of the dining room somewhere behind their backs open again and the queen steps through. Her eyes find them and narrow, as if she knows there is something unusual in seeing them together like this. 

Yuri scoffs. He turns on his heel with a final glance at Yuuri. He doesn't need to warn him against coming forth with what transpired between them. Yuuri himself knows to keep this a secret. From the queen, the king, and Victor – at least for the time being. He nods to the unspoken warning, and Yuri twists on his heel, disappearing beyond the corner before the queen makes it there.

"I hope he wasn't too rude to you this time," the queen says as she comes to a stop at Yuuri's side. "That boy could use a firmer hand. His mother is sweet on him, because he's her only child, and his father couldn't care less as long as it isn't murder." She shakes her head with a small sigh. "What did he want from you now?"

"Just the usual," Yuuri replies without lying. He straightens his shoulders a little more, aware that next to the queen he must look like a man playing at being a prince. She does not say a word of that, but it is something he feels anyway. "I think we will be able to reconcile our differences at some point, though. I will work hard to make sure I get along with all the people important to Victor."

He earns a smile for that sentiment. The queen takes him under arm, much like Yuri himself has before. Her touch, in comparison, is gentle, feather-light. As if she wasn't touching him at all. Yuuri almost doesn't feel her as she glides at his side, barely touching the stone tiles with her heels. 

"I wanted to speak to you alone for quite some time, Yuuri," the queen tells him, leading him down the hall towards the royal wing. "To get to know you like a mother should. I know you must miss your own mother, especially at a time like this. I wish we could welcome both your parents back here, but you know our circumstances. It wouldn't be wise."

Yuuri simply nods. His heart yearns for his parents, that much is obvious to those who know to look for it. He's never been away from them for so long, and even today he has no idea of when he will be able to see them again. If ever. 

The queen must know this, for she squeezes his arm in a gesture meant to comfort.

"You will see them again, Yuuri. Maybe not tomorrow, not this week, but one day we will find a way." 

"Thank you, Your Majesty, that's very kind of you," Yuuri offers, throat suddenly tight. "I mentioned this to Victor yesterday, but maybe my sister could come visit me? She was still a child back when…" He falls into silence, but they both know what to supply in its place. "She changed since then, like all children do. I was hoping to see her sooner, if that is something you think would be wise."

"But of course, my dear! Why didn't I think of it myself? We will send for her immediately." 

And like she says, she does. She calls forth a servant and orders a carriage to be prepared and sent for Yuuri's sister, to their tiny hometown of Hasetsu on the southern border with Czatnopta. Yuuri's heart swells at the gesture and when the queen smiles at him, he answers with a big, grateful smile of his. She squeezes his arm as if to say it's nothing, but Yuuri knows its a kindness that he will always remember.

"Now, tell me, Yuuri, how are you enjoying my son?" 

The words catch him off guard. She laughs at his instant blush, her laughter like pearls tinkling across the ballroom floor: rich and graceful. 

"I don't want details, dear," She pats his arm, still amused, "I simply want to hear how you two are getting along."

Swallowing his embarrassment at how his thoughts immediately ran back to last night, Yuuri fights through his blush. "I believe we are doing well, Your Majesty. Victor is very patient, very kind with me. I couldn't have asked for a better husband or mate."

"I'm happy to hear it," the queen smiles. "The only thing a mother wishes for her child is happiness, as you will come to find out one day. I did not know about the promise Tosha made to your father until it was too late, you see. And I worried. Oh, how I worried that my child will be forced into a loveless marriage that will bring him nothing but fear and pain!" 

She offers Yuuri a smile that looks somewhat apologetic, but it cannot be, for what could she be apologizing for? She'd done nothing to wrong him, even if she expected him to be someone far more awful. Yuuri shakes his head with an understanding smile. 

"I can see that I was wrong in my fears," she continues. "You will be just what my son needs, what he's been waiting for. Won't you, Yuuri?"

In her gaze, it's a question of Yuuri's worth, of his drive to bring happiness and peace into this union. But to Yuuri, it's something much deeper. It's a matter of soulmates, of two people finding each other against all odds, and staying together as if to thwart all evil in the world. It's a question of his measure as an omega, as someone who will stand by Victor through everything.

"I will do my best," he replies with full honesty. "I really care for him, Your Majesty."

"Then that is all I needed to hear," the queen replies.

"But because I care," Yuuri adds. Even as he talks, he isn't sure that this is the right choice. There could be something he doesn't know, there could be something Victor has not told him, but Yuuri decides that if Victor's mother cares about her son's happiness enough to ask Yuuri things like that, she must care about his life as well. That is why he doesn't stop the words as they roll off his tongue: "I think I must tell you something. You see, yesterday, at the feast, I believe someone…" 

He looks about them to check if they are truly alone, and once he knows they are, he finishes in a hushed voice: "I believe Duchess Wintry knows who I truly am."

The queen does not look surprised at his confession. Instead, she only sighs. 

"I knew this would happen sooner or later," she admits at Yuuri's surprise. "It's your features, Yuuri. I could see the truth from the moment I saw you." They take the familiar by now steps which lead to the royal wing of the palace. "There are few left who remember your parents, far less the portraits of the royal line that once decorated these halls. Since we took our country, most of Katsuki supporters fled, others turned to our side out of pure survival instinct, and those who still harbor love for the past in their hearts have left court to live their lives beyond our borders to escape persecution and death. Duchess Wintry is one of the those that stayed and chose to accept new masters." Her smile turns to something of a grimace, bitter and cold. "But leopards rarely change their spots, do they?"

Yuuri's skin crawls at the thought of all these people who once knew his parents, now being turned to nothing but nameless, faceless, homeless ghosts, remembered in memory, or not even that, for simply a breath of Katsuki support could land one on a chopping block if the wrong person was there to hear it. 

He never asked his parents what happened during that time and they were never willing to share. They were happy with their lives as they are now, but he's sure that there must be moments when it all comes back to them. This palace, the people they knew, the ancestors whose work they promised to continue… Yuuri can't imagine what that must feel like. To him, as he is now, all of it is new. The halls of this place, without the portraits of Katsuki rulers, are simply halls of a palace. The people at court, Nikiforov supporters and loyalists, are simply people, whom he's meeting for the first time. The ancestors, all the previous Katsuki's, he never felt connected to in any other way than through his parents' dinnertime stories.

But even if he is blissfully ignorant of his ancestry, there clearly are still those who believe in the return of the rightful royal family of this land. On the opposite side of the scales, there are those who wish to ensure it never comes to pass. And between these two are the worst of the worst: those who wish to use their secrets for their own wicked games. The most crucial question to him is… which one of those groups does Duchess Wintry belong to?

At the top of the stairs, they pause for a moment. The queen's breath is slightly quickened, but she doesn't let it show in the least. Instead, she allows the pause to stretch as she leads Yuuri down the hall. They pass by Yuuri and Victor's new chambers and make way for what he expects to be the Queen's very own accommodations.

"So Duchess Wintry is sympathetic to the previous rule?" Yuuri asks at last, wondering if maybe he misunderstood the situation. Maybe, in fact, the duchess was no threat at all. Maybe he was just too quick at passing judgment out of fear.

His hope is as fleeting as the pitying smile on the queen's face.

"She is not, my dear. Don't let that woman close to you. She is a master manipulator and will not blink twice at hurting you and thus hurting my son," she explains, squeezing Yuuri's arm in warning. "No, her connection to the Katsukis is much more sinister. You see, her grandmother was a distant Katsuki relation. She married into that family, which, by extension, makes the Duchess a part of the line. It is only through her cunning ways that they avoided having all their assets seized during the coup all those years back, but ever since, their family has fallen into ruin. No one wants to do business with a family that is ostracized, after all."

"That's how she recognized me," Yuuri realizes as they come to a stop before double-winged door of the Queen's rooms. It isn't joy, nor hope that makes his heart beat double. "We're family?"

"Very distant family, but yes," she confirms. Her gaze calls Yuuri to full attention. "You must remember, though: do not trust her. She will use you, if you allow her. The best way would be to steer clear of that woman. I will ensure her silence, trust me. She will not get her hands on you or my son, of that you can be assured."

She motions Yuuri into the sitting room, where a set of beautiful teacups has been placed around a still steaming teapot. She offers Yuuri a seat on a plush sofa while she moves about the small table to pour them both some tea. Relief at the queen's assurances is almost as heady as the scent of green leaves steaming in hot water.

"Victor went to speak with her after breakfast," Yuuri confesses. The aroma of green leaves steamed in hot water tickles his nose with nostalgia, but he swallows it to continue. "We thought it best to react immediately, lest she shares this information with someone else."

"Of course he did," the queen smiles as if that was to be expected of her son. She shakes her head a little. "My son always acts fast. You will learn that at times he does things before he even thinks them through. It's usually my responsibility to keep him from doing irreparable damage, but I believe you will get to do that soon as well. This time it might not be needed, but I will teach you how to handle anything that comes, should he do the wrong thing and you must cover your tracks."

She passes Yuuri the delicate porcelain cup, painted with roses in full bloom. The enamel on fat blossoms of pink and red, and the leaves of green shine against the morning light that streams through the arched windows. Yuuri takes the cup with a smile of thanks, then brings it to his face to allow the aroma to take him back home for a brief moment. To his parents, whose smiles he remembers without trying, and to his sister, whose laughter is infectious and never fails to make him feel better no matter what. And to that, he can now add his mate, his husband, Victor, who smiles as if his sole purpose is to make Yuuri's heart tender and sweet and who laughs in a way that fills Yuuri's up with more love than he knows what to do with.  

"I will always take care of him, Your Majesty," he says softly, returning to their conversation. "I'm his husband now, and I will protect him as best I can. I want to see him happy as much as you do."

A genuine smile of gratitude comes across the queen's face. "Thank you, dear. Now, drink up. And let us get to know each other better. We're true family, after all."

 

 

***

 

 

Yuuri feels much more a part of the royal family when he leaves the Queen's chambers hours later. The sun has gone down bit by bit, but Yuuri hardly noticed the passage of time. The queen has embraced him kindly, and in her honest, carefree laughter Yuuri has found much of his husband. Their eyes crinkle in the same way, the depths of blue glimmer with the same delight when they're happy. Even their lips are a familiar shape, a little bow of the upper lip stretching to make a tiny heart. Every time he takes note of another similarity, Yuuri catches himself on missing his husband more and more with each one of the smiles he shares with his mother. 

The queen's keen eye, of course, misses none of that, like she doesn't miss anything else. 

"Go on," she says at last once they finish another meal together. "Go find my son. I'm sure he is as anxious to return to you as you are to see him. A fresh bond will do that even to the otherwise most grounded people. I still remember how it feels, so I shan't keep you any longer. Go, go find him. And don't worry about the old duchess. All will be well."

Without pretending that he does not wish to leave, Yuuri gratefully accepts her mercy and goes in search for Victor. His husband. Even the very thought of that brings a blush to Yuuri's cheeks. It's accompanied with a smile though, so Yuuri allows it to adorn his face as if to match the ruby on his throat. He fingers it as he walks, smiling to himself in a way he is sure would turn curious eyes towards him, but he finds that he hardly cares at all. He is just… happy. And if anyone has a problem with that then, well, Yuuri will politely apologize and keep on smiling, because it is no one's business at all. 

He finds Victor in their sitting room, the first place he checks. Victor is sitting in a chair, book in hand, as if submerged deep within the pages. He might have fooled anyone else, but when Yuuri steps into the room and sees Victor's leg jumping nervously in a manner unworthy of a prince, he knows that it was all just a front.

And when Victor's eyes snap up to him the second he closes the door behind himself, Yuuri almost smiles.

"You're finally here," Victor breathes, rising to meet him halfway and wrap Yuuri in his arms. "Where were you? I was growing worried."

"I had tea with your mother. And lunch. And dinner." Yuuri shakes his head when he realizes how long he was truly gone. He  settles his face in the crook of Victor's shoulder. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize how long it's been. She is a wonderful woman, your mother. You take after her, it's so clear to see." 

Victor gives a little laugh. "Everyone says that, so it must be true. Personally, I think I take too much after my father."

Yuuri hums. He lifts his hand to run it through the ends of the hair on Victor's nape. It's incredibly soft, and all the tension eases off Yuuri's body as he gently twists his fingers there, at the same time breathing Victor's scent in to calm the bond that has been stretched thin by the distance they've kept the whole day.

"I think I like what you take after both of them," he says. "But I like all of you, so I may be biased."

Victor's laugh warms the skin over his neck. Absently, Yuuri tilts his head to give him more leeway and Victor uses it to press a kiss below Yuuri's ear. It makes him shudder, but it's a tender kind of pleasure that only makes Yuuri relax further.

"How long ago have you eaten?" Victor asks. His hand runs over Yuuri's back in a way that warms Yuuri's heart. "Should I send for something to be brought to us?"  

"We just finished, but have you eaten anything since morning?" Yuuri asks, pulling back to look Victor in the face. The sheepish smile on Victor's lips is answer enough, so with a sigh, Yuuri orders: "Then call for some food. You can tell me all about your talk with the duchess while you eat."

"You know, you should order me around more," Victor tells him, leaning close to rest a sweet kiss on Yuuri's cheek. "I love it."

Blushing, Yuuri gently pushes him away. "Then do as I say."

"Of course, Your Highness. Right away, Your Highness." 

Victor bows to him, a full, respectful bow, not a mockery like one could expect from his playful tone. It warms Yuuri's heart as much as it warms his cheeks. They remain warm even after Victor sends for light supper and joins Yuuri on the sofa, sitting so close that it is impossible to ignore how badly Yuuri wants to crawl even closer. 

His hand lifts to the collar he's been wearing the whole day. Soft velvet meets his fingers, the leather warmed with his body heat. Victor's eyes follow the movement of Yuuri's hand and darken as he takes Yuuri's collared neck in with all its black-and-red elegance. Before Yuuri can say a word, Victor lifts his own hand to touch the collar. His thumb slips over the material and onto Yuuri's skin, claiming, adoring, warm.

"Would you mind if I took it off already?" Victor asks.

Slightly out of breath, Yuuri whispers: "Please do."

Without asking Yuuri to turn around, Victor reaches behind Yuuri's neck. His fingers make quick work of the collar, untying the strings that kept it together this entire time. The ruby slides down Yuuri's throat before Victor lifts the collar away from his skin. Without the leather to keep him warm, Yuuri shudders at the first brush of air against his sensitive skin. But, even so, he shudders harder when he takes note of the gaze that Victor drops to where his bonding mark sits against Yuuri's skin – healed, yet still branding him as Victor's.

Yuuri's insides coil in delight at the way Victor licks his lips. Softly, Yuuri tilts his chin to offer Victor a better look. The little noise of appreciation that escapes the alpha almost involuntarily gives Yuuri the push he needs to open his lips and say:

"Kiss it."

Victor needs not be told twice. He takes hold of Yuuri's neck and brings his lips to the mark. Soft like butterfly wings, they rest on Yuuri's tender skin. Breath leaves Yuuri with a shudder and his arms come up to rest around Victor, to cling to him while he rests adoring little kisses against the mark he'd put on Yuuri's skin only a day before.

"Yuuri," Victor says as if in prayer, and Yuuri answers him with a questioning hum that sounds far too much like a moan. "Gods, I want you… I've been wanting you the whole day, but…" He takes another sniff of the need and want that spill from Yuuri's bonding mark. He almost moans. "I want you right now."

Yuuri's heart flutters about his chest. "Then have me. Here, on this couch… Have me, Vitya. I'm all yours."

Victor makes a sound as if he would wish to do nothing else. His hands move to cup Yuuri's face and bring him in for a kiss. A kiss that is hunger and want, but also softness and love, and Yuuri melts into it, into Victor's arms, into Victor's hands and lips and scent that fill him with a fever of desire. 

He makes a move as if to crawl into Victor's lap, but before he can, the doors open and servants enter with the ordered food. Victor pays no attention to them. Maybe a complete disregard of privacy is something royals are used to, yet Yuuri's body seizes at the idea that someone can see him like this. That someone can see how desperate he is and how it affects his alpha. He rips away from Victor, flustered beyond a simple blush, and slides away to create enough distance between them to clearly convey to Victor his intention. 

Victor's eyes, dark with lust, follow him. That is the only thing he does, though. He remains seated in his place, respectful of Yuuri's wishes. And that, that fills Yuuri's heart with even more appreciation for him. Who else would be kind enough to be so gentle, so kind with a mate whom they hardly had a choice in bonding? For that, Victor is special. For that, Yuuri does not feel bad about giving his heart to him.

The servants come and go in silence. They set the food and drink on the table, offer curtseys, and leave with no word spoken to either Victor or Yuuri, nor among themselves. Only once the doors close behind them again, does Yuuri allow himself to breathe. 

"You," he swallows as the scent of arousal coming off Victor hits him hard. Heat pools between his legs, makes him throb with want. He ignores it. "You should eat something."

"I can do that later," Victor answers, never taking his eyes away from Yuuri. 

"What about the duchess?" Yuuri asks, clinging to anything else, lest he gives into this overwhelming desire that sets his body aflame. They are not even close, sitting on the opposite ends of the sofa, but Yuuri feels every single one of Victor's breaths as if they directly touched his skin. 

"She will behave," Victor says, moving closer. "Or she will be put in her place. I made it clear to her."

His eyes gleam like that of a true predator and Yuuri needs to bite his lip to keep from whimpering at the mere sight of him. He wants him so bad...

"I told your mother about her. She promised to handle it."

"Good. Now, Yuuri… Can we please continue what we were so rudely interrupted?" 

There is coiled tension in Victor's body, as if he is holding himself back for Yuuri. As if he waits for his permission, as if Yuuri could deny him at any time and he would respect his wishes. Desire for him throbs between Yuuri's legs again, more desperate than before. Yuuri is about to cross the distance between them, crawl into Victor's lap and allow himself to melt under his mate's touch, but suddenly, ridiculously enough he remembers the promise he made to Yuri.

Tonight. Midnight. Alone.

Squeezing his eyes shut and his legs together, Yuuri swallows thickly all the lust that runs hot through his body.

"I'm still a little sore," he uses the first excuse he can find. "And I… I think we are jumping into this a little too quickly. If, if it's alright with you, I'd like to spend tonight alone." The hurt that flashes across Victor's face, even though he tries to hide it, hits Yuuri harder than a punch. Guilt stings right into Yuuri's heart, and so, Yuuri adds: "Just to think! Please, Vitya, I… I don't mean forever. Only for tonight. I want–" He pauses and moves to sit a little closer to Victor. Gently, as if afraid he would avoid his touch, he rests a hand on Victor's. "It scares me how much I've come to care about you. I simply want to, to better understand my own feelings."

Victor takes Yuuri's hand in both of his and gives him a smile: small, but honest and reassuring. Knowing that he must be hurting underneath makes Yuuri's heart tender with an ache of love.

"You can take as much time as you need, Yuuri," Victor says. "I'm sorry if my reaction made you feel guilty, it was not my intention." He squeezes Yuuri's hand and Yuuri squeezes back. "I need you to know something, Yuuri. I, too, care about you a great deal. I didn't imagine I would when I first heard of this marriage, but I believe that I am falling in love with you."

Yuuri's heart, already aflutter, stops for a brief moment as Victor's words sink into it. And then it resumes its erratic beating, even more set on making Yuuri dizzy with the dreamlike reality he never would've thought possible.   

"I will always respect you," Victor promises him. "So if you need time, time is what I will give you. If you need me to stay away, I will stay away. If you need to tell me no, I will accept it and swallow my own feelings to make sure you feel safe with me. I give you my word. I will be whoever you want me to be."

But Yuuri can't accept that. 

"I don't want you to swallow your own feelings, Victor. I want you to be yourself, and only that. I'm your mate, your omega, the one who will build our nest. And I want it to be ours, mine as much as yours, so that you too can feel that it's a safe place for you to be no one else but Victor. I will never expect from you to be anything but who you are."

Something shines in Victor's eyes when he looks at Yuuri without a word. It's new on Victor's face, nothing Yuuri has seen before. He can't place what it is, but when Victor takes Yuuri's hand in both of his and brings it to his lips to rest a kiss against his palm, Yuuri recognizes the feeling. It's gratitude, it's surprise, it's love – a mixture of all three, so strong that it forms tears in Victor's beautiful blue eyes.

"Yuuri Katsuki," Victor breathes, resting his lips against Yuuri's skin, "you are a blessing I don't know who or how to thank for."

Yuuri does not know what to say to that, so he says nothing. Victor doesn't seem to want for a reply anyway, but Yuuri wonders if maybe deep down he yearns for one as much as the feelings push against Yuuri's lips to spill out. 

In the end, he doesn't say anything then, and they move to safer topics. They talk about the duchess, about Yuuri's meeting with the queen, about this and that, and all of nothing, but something doesn't allow Yuuri to forget about that look in Victor's eyes. Even as they part for the night at the door to Yuuri's bedchamber, it still keeps his heart in check. Gently, he sets his hand to Victor's cheek, guiding him to look into Yuuri's eyes.

"I am falling in love with you, too, Vitya," Yuuri says. At the widening of Victor's eyes he is glad he did. He softly stokes one pale cheek and smiles with all the heart he has. "But when I say that, I mean you, Victor, not the prince or the alpha I've been arranged to mate with. Just… you. And it's you, as you are, that I want to spend the night thinking about, because I know that I can trust you. And I want to… I want to love you."

"I want the same thing," Victor says, nuzzling into the hand that Yuuri keeps against his cheek. His hair slips to cover one of his eyes and his eyelashes flutter shut, as if this simple gesture is the greatest comfort he could've asked for. Yuuri's heart swells in his chest. "I want to love you and be loved by you. I want to be worthy of that."

This sentiment, Yuuri feels it echo inside him as he himself spoke the words. It's exactly how he felt, too. He didn't think himself worthy, he didn't think he could ever amount to anything, that he'd always be just an extension of Victor's kindness. But to hear Victor speak the same thing that Yuuri has been considering… To think that Victor was worried about being unworthy of Yuuri's love? It's preposterous as much as it is bewildering, and it opens Yuuri's eyes further to the person that Victor Nikiforov truly is. 

The person that Yuuri has already fallen in love with, he realizes as he sees him clearly in his mind's eye, just as he sees him stand here before him.

"You already are," Yuuri tells him.

Victor's smile is sweet when he gives it. And it is sweeter still when Yuuri climbs to his toes and tastes it with his lips. Victor kisses him gently, tenderly, as if Yuuri is something precious to hold. In his eyes, as they part, Yuuri sees the same thing. He knows the signs, knows what to look for, because he himself has felt this towards Victor.

Feeling happier than he ever remembers feeling at knowing their hearts are joined, Yuuri leans his forehead against Victor's.

"Goodnight, Vitya," he whispers, still able to taste his mate on his lips. "Sweet dreams."

"And to you as well, my Yuuri," Victor returns, caressing Yuuri's cheek with his thumb. "I hope you dream of me."

"If I do, I will make sure to knock on your door," Yuuri answers, smiling. 

They part with a last kiss. Yuuri's heart feels full even as he closes his door and cuts himself off from Victor. His own bed is freshly made and still unslept in, but as Yuuri looks at it, he knows that this night he will not sleep in it either. He hears the click of Victor's own door, hears him putter about the room before all falls quiet once more. 

The only thing that isn't is the old clock in the sitting room that ticks away the time and Yuuri's heart which beats more rapidly the closer it gets to midnight.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The candlestick Yuuri brought with him grows hot the longer he holds it. It steals the warmth from his palm, even though Yuuri's hands are already cold and sweaty. The flame of his candle flickers, drawing shadows across the walls of the hallways Yuuri sneaks through. Some scare him, some make his heart race, but he made a promise. He gave Yuri his word that he'll be at the courtyard at midnight, alone, and making good with Yuri is more important to him than Yuuri's feeble fears.

At last, once the final patrol passes through the courtyard and the guards disappear behind the corner, Yuuri steps into the open. He blows out his candle, so as not to call attention to himself and waits. It takes no longer than a couple of minutes before Yuri arrives as well. He brought no light with him as if he knew every corner of the palace even in the middle of the night, and Yuuri realizes he must. It would be incredible to learn more of this place, to learn more of the place that his parents have once called home and that now has become one to Yuuri himself.   

Before he can think further of it though, he takes note of what Yuri brought with him instead. Two swords sit in his hands, the silver blades gleaming in the moonlight.

"You came," Yuri says as if he expected Yuuri to be anywhere else but here.

"I gave you my word," Yuuri answers. "But I thought… I thought you wanted to talk. Why did you bring those?" 

Yuri's face twists into a grin so sharp that moonlight shines off of it as well. "Isn't it obvious? We're going to spar." 

He throws the blade at Yuuri, who lurches to catch it, but then jumps back when the blade threatens to slash his hand open. The sword clatters to the ground, a sound loud in the silence of the night like a scream.

"Pick it up," Yuri orders. Yuuri does as asked, but he still holds the blade with a hesitant grip. 

"I don't want to fight," he starts. "Can't we solve this any other way? Yuri, please, I promise I will never do anything to usurp your place. It was never my intention. Can't we just start over and become friends?"

"Friends?" Yuri spits at Yuuri's feet. His eyes show his disgust for that single word, his face – his disgust for Yuuri. "We will never be friends. But, if you best me in swordplay, I will leave you be."

"That's not what I want," Yuuri tries again. "I want to get along with you. For Victor's sake."

For a second, Yuri considers him. Then, he swings his sword casually. Tha blade catches the moonlight and swings through the air as if dipped in unicorn blood. Yuuri's breath catches at both the beauty and the anticipation of Yuri's decision.

"Fine," Yuri says at last. "If you win, we will start to get along. For Victor's sake. But if you lose…" His lips stretch in a nasty smile that makes Yuuri's skin crawl. "If you lose, you will leave here and never come back."

Yuuri's lips almost form the words of confirmation, but in the end Yuuri shakes his head. 

"I can't do that. I'm married to Victor, we're mated. I can't just leave and I think you know that." He narrows his eyes at the boy when a thought crosses his mind. "And because you know that, you feel threatened by me. Is that it? You feel as if Victor will stop paying attention to you, because I'm around?"

Yuri strikes at him without warning. Anger blazes in his green eyes, vivid like the green of summer grass. Yuuri barely lifts his blade in time to parry the steel that crashes into it. A current of Yuri's strength runs through Yuuri's arm and he gasps at it, but has no time to wonder at how a boy of Yuri's posture can muster so much power in his lithe body. Yuri attacks him again, swinging his blade left and right and right again, overpowering Yuuri without a second of hesitation. 

"Yuri, please!" Yuuri tries again, clumsily protecting himself from Yuri's anger. His hand already feels numb, his wrist and elbow ache, and he knows that if this lasts, he will not be able to win. "Yuri, I don't want to fight you! Please, just talk to me!"

Instead of talking, Yuri lunges at him and this time his blade passes through Yuuri's weak guard. Pain blossoms in Yuuri's arm, where the blade leaves a bloody cut against his shoulder. But the pain Yuuri forgets the second he catches the shock on Yuri's face. It tells him all he needed to know – that Yuri doesn't want to hurt him

"Yuri," Yuuri tries again, softer this time. "I know you're afraid and I promise you, I am too. This is a new situation to all of us. It will take time to readjust, but we can do it together."

His arm hurts, but Yuuri doesn't allow himself to be distracted. He watches Yuri for any opening, for any sign that he might bend and take Yuuri up on his offer. It's all for naught. Yuri's face closes off, and once again he lifts his sword.

"Yuri–"

"Shut the fuck up!" 

Yuri swings his sword at him. Yuuri scrambles to parry, but the strength of Yuur's anger makes him stumble backwards. 

"You think you know everything! I hate that! I hate you! You don't know who I am or what I want, and you come here pretending to be better than me? Fuck you! You are nothing, you hear me? Nothing!"

Every sentence he marks with a swing of his sword, every sentiment rings through with a clang of steel. The moon hides behind a cloud, submerging them in complete darkness, but that does nothing to quell Yuri's anger. Yuuri does his best to defend himself, but he only manages it by running out of Yuri's reach. 

That, however, seems to only make Yuri angrier.

"Stop running away, you coward! Fight me!"

The words ring inside Yuuri's head like an echo. He's heard them before. 

The second of hesitation that this realization draws is all the opening Yuri needs to kick Yuuri in the gut. Yuuri falls backwards. Pain screams at him from so many places on his body he doesn't know which to focus on first. His behind meets harsh stones, his hands scrape on them, too. His breath is shallow, uneven, and every single one makes the place Yuri's boot left a bruise on throb to the rhythm of his pulse.

Yuuri rolls away from the spot he's fallen into just as Yuri's blade crashes into the stones. Sparks fly when metal meets stone, but Yuuri barely sees them. Something burns within his blood, desperate, urgent. A memory. A vision. He tries to suppress it, but when steel sings again, the sound pulls him away from present.


Sweat and blood stream down his face. Yuuri wipes it away with the back of his arm. The coarse material of the battle uniform, red and gold, and familiar in a way Yuuri cannot remember, rubs against his face. He hisses when it catches on the cut that runs from his eyebrow to his jaw. Everywhere around, people scream, people cry, people shout. Steel clings against steel, cannons fire away, projectiles hit the ground and explode in parts ground, parts people. Fire burns across all, leaving nothing unscathed. 

Half deaf from the noise around him, Yuuri rises from one knee. As far as the eye can see bodies lie waste, bleeding into the green grass. 

The air smells like death. Death, blood and fire.


He parries Yuri's next strike, for the first time throwing his weight behind his arm. He catches Yuri's forearm, pulls him close and knocks his own forehead into the boy's face. The crack of Yuri's nose breaking is deafening in the silence.


A scream behind his back makes him twist, lifting his blade. He cuts the enemy wearing silver and blue insignia that Yuuri recognizes as if in a dream. He knows it, he knows he knows it, but he can't quite recall–

The man gurgles, chokes on his blood as he falls at Yuuri's feet. Yet another to blood sack to quench the thirst of this hollow ground.


Yuri's blood seeps through the fingers he pressed to his nose. He grimaces, red in his teeth. He spits it out, just like he spat at Yuuri's feet when his confidence was still brimming. 

For the first time, led by the feeling of battle, Yuuri lunges forward. He purposefully slashes in wide motions that Yuri could easily block, but he puts all his strength into them – all of it to win. To make Yuri drop his sword and surrender. 

Step by step, Yuri gives under the powerful strikes. Yuuri backs him into a corner of the courtyard like a wolf hunting its prey.


"Yuuri!"

He turns around, but he doesn't know who called him. He can't see anything. The blood from the cut on his face begins to dribble into his eye, and he gives in and closes it. 

He doesn't see him coming.

 

 

Yuri dives under his sword and slashes into the outside of Yuuri's thigh as he slips past him. Yuuri stumbles, but recovers quickly enough to twist and block the thrust that is coming for his open back.

They fall apart, measure each other, and the moonlight shines down on them.

 

Hot white pain blinds him for a second. It steals his breath, it freezes his body. But it's only momentarily, for when the sword is ripped out of his side, and fresh, wet blood warmly oozes onto the hand Yuuri presses to his wound, everything is sharper. Everything is clearer. As if new light has shone into his eyes. 

Spinning on his heel, Yuuri swings his sword. His attacker jumps back. Yuuri knows he has seconds until the blood loss hits him hard, so he lunges after him without missing a step. Their blades crash together, their eyes meet and Yuuri recognizes him: the angry green eyes, the chin-long blond hair, the permanent scowl.

He could never forget this face. Never.

 

He kicks Yuri's legs from under him and Yuri falls back into the stones. With no mercy, Yuuri strikes before Yuri can get his bearings together. The boy parries one blow, then another, but the third pushes him to lie against the stones, and in his angry green eyes, Yuuri sees something he never wanted to put there.

Fear. 

Just as terrified for a single moment, Yuuri swings his sword for the last time and flings the blade from Yuri's hand. The steel clatters on the stones and falls silent at last. 

Yuri looks up at him. At the man who Yuuri has become in the course of those few minutes, and Yuuri knows he sees someone he cannot recognize. He feels like that, too. Like, suddenly, he is someone else. Someone… That other him, the one from the vision. The him he can't recognize either, because he hasn't yet become him. 

But that Yuuri is gone now and only this Yuuri, him, is left. He throws the sword away, as if disgusted that even for a second he considered hurting the boy before him. Even if this boy will grow into the man who will end up piercing Yuuri's body with his sword, he is not him yet. Not yet, maybe not ever. Yuuri will not take chances of making it happen by being unnecessarily cruel to him now.

Yuuri squeezes his eyes shut to rid himself of the remnants of the vision. When he opens them, Yuri is still on the ground, watching him with his incredibly green eyes. There is no fear in them anymore. Instead, curiosity replaced it, mixed with something else. Something, that Yuuri optimistically decides to call respect.

He offers Yuuri a hand, which the boy grudgingly takes. Only when Yuuri helps him to his feet, does he realize why Yuri never got off the ground himself. He holds his balance on one leg, protecting the other as if–

"Is your ankle broken?" Yuuri asks. 

"It's nothing. I'll be fine by morning."

He won't and they both know that. Yuuri leaves him to pick up the other sword and then returns to offer Yuri his arm. 

"Lean on me, I'll help you back to your room," he says. Yuri opens his mouth to snap at him, it's oh so clear in the haughty tilt of his chin, but before he can speak a word, Yuuri gives him a look. "I won. You lost. We had a deal. Are you a man of your word or are you a liar, Yuri?"

The boy scowls at him. "Fine. Stop yapping and help me to my room then."

They begin to walk, slowly, as every step Yuri takes is done with a hiss of his sharp breath. 

"Keep this a secret from Victor," Yuri tells him as they walk. "He's training me in swordplay. If he learns I got done in like this, he'll put me through the winger."

"Fine," Yuuri copies the way Yuri spoke to him earlier, but when he does it, he does it with a little smile that makes Yuri roll his eyes at him. "But for that, I want you to teach me the basics."

"Are you trying to insult me?" Yuri glares. "You just won! What do you need the basics for?"

"Believe it or not, this was the first time I held a sword in my hand," Yuuri gives.

Yuri's head snaps up to him from where he was watching the ground they walk on to avoid stumbling on his one good leg. "Bullshit."

"It's true!"

Yuri's eyes narrow. 

"One day, when we are closer friends than we are now, I will tell you about how I won," Yuuri tells him. 

"So never, because we'll never be friends," Yuri adds. 

Yuuri gives him a little smile. "Don't be so sure of that."

Yuri scoffs at him, but the sound, much like the boy's face, is a far cry from the anger Yuuri has seen before. And, more than that, it is nothing against the anger he remembers seeing in his vision. 

His side throbs with phantom pain, but as he helps Yuri through the hallways of the sleeping palace, Yuuri vows to make sure that whatever his path leads to, it does not lead to that. For both of their sakes.

 

 

***

 

 

Victor awakens in the middle of the night for the second night in a row. It's strange how he has always slept alone this far – well, mostly, apart from the occasional affair here and there, but nothing serious enough to warrant him wishing to awaken next to his partner for more than a few days in a row – yet now, as he wakes up to his empty bad, his entire being knows it is wrong. That something is missing. Or, not something, but someone.

Yuuri.

Victor's eyes find the door that separates their rooms. Yuuri wished to spend the night alone to think about them and Victor will not be an alpha who broke his promises like that. He will give Yuuri his space, all the time Yuuri needs. After all, the words he's heard from his mate where enough to make Victor the happiest man alive.

"I want to love you," Yuuri said to him. And oh, how Victor's heart sung under his sweet gaze! Victor doesn't remember being happier than when these few tender words set his heart alight. 

He looks at the door again, but tells himself to stay still. Even if the joy, the love, the simple adoration makes him want to cross the threshold and take Yuuri in his arms. He rolls to the other side of his far too large bed, unable to fall back asleep. He tosses and turns, but the thought of Yuuri stays on his mind as if he has truly bewitched him. Maybe he has, Victor smiles to himself. Maybe Yuuri's kindness did what no one else could – maybe he opened Victor's heart and made him feel alive when everyone, Victor included, thought it hopeless. Or maybe, maybe he just made him love for the first time. Maybe that's all the magic he needed, maybe that's all it took.

Did that mean Victor is easy to please? No, he doubts it does. He's had countless suitors before, all of whom believed Victor to be one thing or another. They appealed to those sides they thought they knew, always making assumptions, always thinking they knew Victor better than he knows himself. Sometimes they succeeded in catching his attention, but it was never for long. Sooner or later, the truth of their greediness came out and Victor grew bored of being someone he wasn't. 

Yuuri never did that to him, not once. He took what Victor offered, never assumed anything, never asked for anything. He didn't wish to gain by being with Victor, he only wished to give. He simply was, and he simply loved. 

How could Victor not fall in love with him?

He covers half his face with his hand, smiling, because he can't not smile when he thinks of Yuuri. This man, whom he only met mere weeks ago, has filled his heart with love, with joy, with energy and life and happiness beyond compare. Victor traces the curve of his smile with his fingers, recalling the soft kiss Yuuri graced his lips with before they parted. This man, who Victor expected nothing of, turned his world on its axis. He changed everything for Victor or maybe he changed Victor himself – changed him enough to make him open his eyes to that, which he previously was blinded to.

Whatever the magic he spun with his fingers, Victor knows that he wants to be there to see it. He wants to stay by Yuuri's side and never leave. He wants to hold him dear forever, just like they vowed to each other only a day before.

He sighs, too happy for words. His heart feels full to bursting and it's a wonderful feeling. But it's also a feeling he wants to share with his mate. Unwittingly, Victor's eyes return to the door that parts him from Yuuri. Would it be so awful if he sneaked in just to look at Yuuri's sleeping face, maybe press a kiss against his forehead and bless him with good sleep? No, Victor thinks, it wouldn't be awful at all. Yuuri would forgive him for that, should he catch him red-handed, he's sure.

So with a grin, he slips out of his bed and makes for the door. He opens it, as quiet as he can, and steps through. And then he stops dead in his tracks.

The bed is empty. 

More than empty, it is completely unslept in. The sheets are as neatly drawn as the servants always leave them, which means Yuuri never slipped a foot under them. 

All the joy that hummed in Victor's veins evaporates like steam from freshly brewed tea when you breathe over the rim of the cup. Instead of finding his mate sweetly asleep, Victor finds nothing but a cold empty room. Almost as if… as if Yuuri was nothing but an unattainable dream. 

A sharp breath leaves Victor's lips. No, Yuuri wasn't a dream. His parents would not play him like that, neither would his cousin, for all that this seems to be cruel enough to fit Yuri's tastes. No, no, Yuuri is real. He must be

But since he is, where could he have gone?

Victor checks the privy, he checks behind the screen on the other side of Yuuri's room. He even checks the sitting room beyond the other door in the room. Yuuri is nowhere to be found, which leads him to think that he must have left. The only question is, where could Yuuri go? He grew more and more familiar with the palace over the weeks, but Victor doesn't think Yuuri knows his way around well enough to wander the halls at night. He believes he should go after him, but with no clue as to where Yuuri might have gone, he doesn't know where to even start. 

He begins to pace back and forth, trying to come up with places that Yuuri could have needed to reach in the middle of the night. All the while, worry gnaws on his heart like a disease. Before Victor settles a place to look first, the door to the sitting room opens and Yuuri steps through, still in his day robes. In the faint light of the sparse few candles it is difficult to see him clearly, but it's Yuuri and Victor's relief is strong enough that he crosses the room in a few strides and takes his mate into his arms without a thought of how Yuuri might react at seeing him in his room.

"Oh thank the gods," Victor breathes, tucking one hand into Yuuri's hair. It's damp, damp with sweat, and Victor curls his fingers in it in wonder.

And then he smells it, too. The sweat, yes, the fear, the worry, the relief, but also the blood. And not just any blood, but Yuuri's blood. It masks the uniquely Yuuri scent that Victor has grown to love so much, and erases his own that has been clinging to Yuuri's skin since they mated.

Fear grips Victor by the throat when every breath fills his lungs with more of it.

"You're hurt," he says, and it is not a question. 

"Just a scratch," Yuuri answers. 

His hands run down Victor's sides as if to soothe him. As if Victor is the one that needs reassurance, as if he is the one who is fragile, hurting and bleeding. Seven hells, Victor thinks as his heart gives another painful throb, maybe he is. 

"I'm alright, Victor, really," Yuuri clutches at Victor's hips through his thin shift, squeezes them to make him focus. "But if you are worried, you can help me dress it?" 

"Of course," Victor quickly answers, glad to be able to do this much. "Come on, sit on the bed. What happened?"

Yuuri shakes his head while he slowly walks to his bed. He's limping, even if it is slight, and Victor's chest tightens so painfully he cannot breathe for a moment. And then, then there is anger. Even before Yuuri utters the words that make Victor's blood boil.

"I promised I won't tell," Yuuri says as he sits down.

"Yuuri, if someone did this to you, if you were attacked, I need to know." Victor forgets about the dressing of Yuuri's wounds to kneel before him and look into his eyes. Yuuri avoids his gaze, but he is not given the choice when Victor takes his chin and gently guides him to look at him, despite the fire burning inside him. "Whoever did this, I will make sure they hang for it. So please, tell me. Who touched you?"

"No, no, it's not–" 

Yuuri shakes his head again, freeing himself of Victor's touch. Before Victor can pull his hand back, as it is clearly unwelcome, Yuuri grabs at it and holds it like he's afraid that Victor will leave. 

"It's not like that," he explains. "No one did this to me. Or, well, yes, they did, but it wasn't with bad intentions? I– It's so hard to explain without revealing the truth, Victor. I'm sorry, but can you… can you just trust me? And let it go?" 

Hopeful brown eyes look into Victor's, begging him to agree. Victor would give Yuuri the world should he only ask, but this? This Victor's can't do. Yuuri must see it in his expression, because he squeezes Victor's hand. 

"Please, Victor. Trust me."

"Only this once," Victor decides in the end. The anger still churns inside him, now more bitter for whoever Yuuri is protecting surely doesn't deserve this. "If it ever happens again, you will come straight to me and tell me who did this. I swear, Yuuri, your safety is the most important thing to me. I don't care about secrets or your good name. Nor mine, for that matter. If someone hurts you again, I will hunt them down myself if I have to, but I will make them pay."

Yuuri's smile is sweet when he gives it. "Thank you. I'm lucky to have you as my protector."

Victor would lie if he claimed that pride and warmth didn't bloom in his chest at Yuuri's words. They spilled over the flaming anger and settled it more into a burn like the red coals do in the fireplace when the fire is put out. He still worries, but he will do as Yuuri asks. Just this once. With a sigh, Victor rests a kiss against Yuuri's hand and climbs to his feet.

"Wait here, I'll bring something for your wounds." 

He should send for the royal doctor, have her take a look at Yuuri to make sure everything heals with as little damage as possible, but Yuuri's wish to keep it all a secret makes him disregard that idea. Instead, Victor walks into his own bedchamber, where in a drawer of his wardrobe he keeps a small chest for emergencies like this. He takes it out now and carries it back to Yuuri, who in his absence has managed to strip out of his outer robe and shirt. 

At the sight of the blood smeared over the cut on his arm, Victor bites the inside of his cheek. As an alpha, his first instinct is to protect his mate, to keep him safe. This blood proves that he has failed. Does that make him an awful mate? Does that mean he doesn't deserve Yuuri, if he can't protect him? He made a vow less than two days ago and he has already broken a part of it.  

"Is this the only one?" Victor asks, but Yuuri shakes his head. He points to his thigh, something that Victor missed before, since the dark material covered the burgundy shade of blood quite well. He swallows thickly when in the sparse candle light he sees how much of the material is soaked. "Show me that one first."

Yuuri doesn't protest. He takes off his pants and sits back on the bed. Only when he does, does the true extent of the wound reach Victor. It was a blade that's done it, there is no doubt in his mind. The cut is clean, deeper than the one on Yuuri's arm. Victor kneels at Yuuri's side and throws open the chest he's brought with him to pick up some clean cloth and clean the wound to see the full extent of it. With most of the blood gone, but fresh welling up at the edges, still, Victor knows that this will not magically heal itself. 

"It needs to be sewn," Victor decides. "And I can't do that. Not in a way that won't scar or get infected." He stands up. "I'll send for the doctor, don't move."

"Victor, no–"

This time, however, no matter how much he begs, Victor will not bend. "No, Yuuri. This is too important. I will forbid the doctor from speaking of this to anyone, but she must see your wounds. I will not take responsibility for sewing this and then watch you die from infection only to protect someone who hurt you. I will not, you hear me?"

Yuuri's face falls at his words, but in the end he nods his agreement. It pains Victor to be so strict with him, but when it comes to Yuuri's health, he must. Before he leaves to order the doctor to be brought to him, he steps up to Yuuri and rests a kiss against his sweaty hair. Yuuri sighs, but when their eyes meet again, he offers Victor a small smile of gratitude.

The doctor arrives in mere minutes, in her nightgown still, but her gaze is bright and focused. She takes one look at Yuuri's thigh and clicks her tongue, impatient like a busy mother whose child came to her with a scabbed knee.

"It is good that you sent for me, Your Highness," she says, pulling things out from her medical purse. Needle, a bundle of thread, scissors, a little bowl. Victor wants to wring his hands, but that would be unbefitting of a prince, so he only holds them before him and clutches them hard enough to turn his knuckles white. "This needs a practiced hand if we're to make sure it leaves minimal scarring. I will need a candle, if you will, to cauterize the needle. Some alcohol to disinfect, and clean linen. As much as you can get me."

Victor hands her a candlestick before she is even done listing everything, and while she takes care of the needle, he steps back through the door to his bedchamber to fetch the half-empty whiskey bottle that stands on his dresser for self-medicating bad dreams. For linen, he reaches into the wardrobe and grabs one of the clean bedsheets, hoping it will do. 

The doctor nods when he brings it all to her for inspection. She gives Yuuri the bottle first.

"Drink, Your Highness," she says. Yuuri carefully takes a gulp, grimaces at the burn and the taste, but she only nods. "One more."

Obediently, Yuuri does as told. His breath comes harsher then, but his hand is steady when he passes the bottle back to the doctor. They trade for a piece of wood, which she orders Yuuri to put between his teeth and chew on to keep from screaming. Only when he sets it inside his mouth, does the doctor proceed: she pours the whiskey all over Yuuri's thigh. The sound Yuuri makes as he falls back on the bed is inhuman, and Victor squeezes his eyes shut, wishing he could somehow take at least half of it. 

He snaps out of it the moment the whiskey is handed to him. He takes the bottle, takes a swig from it, too. The alcohol helps him deal with watching his mate hurt, but it does nothing against the pain in his heart. The doctor sews Yuuri's skin together, knotting the thread neatly as she goes. Every time the needle pierces Yuuri's thigh, Yuuri sucks in a breath that makes every part of Victor murderous. Whoever did this, whoever Yuuri is protecting… Victor cannot forgive them. 

By the time it is over, Yuuri is pale and shivering, and Victor isn't far off himself. He is not in physical pain, no, but seeing his mate suffer like this puts a strain on him that equals that of Yuuri's. Still, Victor knows that his own feelings are secondary to making sure that Yuuri has everything he needs. So while the doctor dresses the wound in clean linen ripped off the bedsheets Victor brought in, Victor sits at Yuuri's side and holds his hand. 

"You were so brave," he tells Yuuri when his sweaty, pale face rolls to his side. Gently, Victor plucks the piece of wood from between Yuuri's teeth. The indents left there make him shudder, and Victor quickly sets it away. "You're so strong, Yuuri. If I wasn't already in love with you, I would surely be now."

Yuuri snorts, a weak sound, but just as amused. He doesn't get the opportunity to say anything back, because the doctor moves to his shoulder. Here, at least, sewing is not necessary and she only disinfects the wound with a ball of linen soaked in whiskey. Yuuri hisses at the sting, clutches Victor's hand hard. But that's more than alright. Victor will gladly share this pain with him. He'd take it all if he could, half, anything, if it helped Yuuri feel less of it. 

With a piece of linen tied around his arm, the doctor finally stands. She swipes her arm over her sweaty forehead.

"The wound on your thigh will require dressing at least two times a day, Your Highness," she directs her words at Yuuri. "You can do that yourself, if you so wish. Disinfect the wound with alcohol every time you change the dressing, and move as little as possible. The more strain you put on your leg, the more often you will have to change it, because even if it is closed now, it will still bleed. In worst case, you can even pull the stitching apart, which I would suggest avoiding. Sewing old wounds is impossible and the scarring will be much, much worse." 

She begins to put her things back into her medical purse, while the used, bloodied linens, she throws into the fire that rekindles at this new addition. Victor watches the evidence of Yuuri's pain be consumed by flames, all traces soon gone with a hiss of the fire. 

"If you are in severe pain, you may come to me for a concoction that will dull it, but I must warn you that for one, it is highly addictive, and then it will also make you unable to focus on anything. My suggestion is to go without, but it is all up to you. The stitches must be taken out within two weeks or else they will grow into your skin and cause an infection. For that, please come see me or send for me."

She turns to Yuuri and Victor again, her face hard. 

"Should anything happen, like swelling, change of colour, bruising or worse – a fever, come to me immediately. I cannot stress that enough. So many sick ignore doctor's orders and then ask us to perform miracles on their deathbeds." She shakes her head. "This will be all, my prince, Your Highness. I hope your recovery is smooth, but please remember that I am at your service at any time should you need me."

She curtseys to them both, and without even waiting to be dismissed, she leaves as quietly as she came. Victor hardly takes note, too focused on Yuuri's pale face. 

"You should lie down properly, Yuuri," he says, resting a hand against Yuuri's hip. "Come now, I'll help you."

No word of protest passes Yuuri's lips as Victor guides him to lie in his bed. He covers him with red sheets, which do nothing to hide the blood and alcohol stains. In the morning, they will need to be changed and servants' secrecy bought with gold, but for now, for now this is enough. Victor kisses Yuuri's forehead, intending to sit by his side until sleep takes him. Yuuri has other plans, it seems.

"Lie with me, Vitya," he asks, using the name Victor asked him to use. It swells in Victor's heart like it always does: sweet and tender. "Please."

Undone by everything that happened, Victor cannot say no. He needs to be as close to Yuuri as Yuuri needs him to be, and thankfully they both need it equally as bad. He slides under the sheets behind Yuuri, wraps his arm around him, presses one thigh against the back of Yuuri's. He's careful not to jostle him or touch his injured places. Yuuri doesn't seem to care. He looks numb to pain at this point and simply sinks into Victor like he's been waiting to do so all this time. 

It makes Victor's heart weep. He kisses Yuuri's damp hair and breathes in scent of his sweat, his soap, the slight perfume that lingers on his skin from the oils he used the night before. Above it all, he takes in Yuuri's own scent, dark, yet sweet, mixed with Victor's own.

"Never scare me like that again," Victor begs on a feeble breath that passes through his lips.

Yuuri's hand comes to rest over his arm, comforting him as if in apology. "I'll try."

It is not a promise Victor expected, not the words he wanted to hear. But it's better than nothing. He closes his eyes and vows to himself that next time will be different. Next time, if it happens, he will be there to protect Yuuri. He will become a mate Yuuri can trust, a mate he will feel safe enough with to share all secrets and know he will never betray them. 

With heart set on it, he falls asleep, holding his mate as if he could protect him from unknown threats even in his dreams.

 

 

***

 

 

The morning greets him with blinding light when he opens his eyes. The curtains have not been closed, Victor realizes with a groan. He hides his face in Yuuri's shoulder before he recalls the happenings of the night. He cracks his eyes open again to see his mate still asleep next to him. 

A thought crosses Victor's mind, a scary thought, one that he pushes away almost as soon as it comes. 

What if Yuuri dies?  

Victor buries himself deeper into the sheets. In their sleep, Yuuri must have shifted around, because now his face is turned to Victor. Carefully, so as not to touch Yuuri's thigh or arm, Victor slides lower. Low enough to press his cheek to Yuuri's chest, his ear to his heart. The tender heartbeat soothes the worry that spikes through him at that silly, silly thought.

Yuuri won't die. Victor will not allow it. He will do everything in his power, he'll move heaven and earth, he'll mobilize the troops and start a war, if he must. But Yuuri will not die. He can't.

Breathing harder than he should be, Victor is surprised when Yuuri's arms wrap around his head. Yuuri curls around him as if it was him who meant to protect Victor, and Victor's eyes sting with unshed tears. He blinks them away just in time to hear Yuuri's sleep-roughened voice.

"What are you doing down there? Making sure I'm alive?"

He isn't far off, so Victor only wraps his arms around his waist with more purpose. 

"You can't blame me for being afraid of losing you."

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't say things like that in jest," Yuuri quickly says, contrite enough that Victor breaks out from under the sheets to look him in the eye. "Not after last night. And I realize how awful this must have been for you. I apologize for the fright I've given you. I promise not to do it again, if I can help it."

Victor sighs and brings up one of Yuuri's hands so he can kiss it. 

"I am not angry with you, just so you know. I'm simply upset that I couldn't protect you. That you got hurt and I didn't know. What if… what if it happens again and it's worse? What if I'm not there, if I'm too late?" Yuuri opens his mouth to say something, but Victor rests a finger against his lips. "No, Yuuri, this is on me. I'm your alpha, your protector. I know you're strong, but it's in my nature. I must be able to protect you. So, if anything like this happens again, please, please, I beg you, allow me to protect you."

Yuuri nods. "I didn't think of how you might feel about this. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, Victor."

"Vitya," Victor corrects gently.

"Vitya," Yuuri repeats. He tucks a strand of Victor's hair behind his ear, a gesture so sweet that Victor's heart squeezes in his chest. "We should probably get ready for breakfast. Wouldn't want anyone to find our absence suspicious."

Victor's lips twitch into a smile. "We're newlyweds, Yuuri. We can find an excuse that everyone will believe."

"Oh?" Yuuri blinks. "And what excuse is that?"

Instead of telling him, Victor leans closer and shows him – he kisses him on the lips with all the worry, all the love, all the fear and passion and untold things he's been holding onto since last night. And Yuuri answers to them all, accepts them, and holds them all and he holds Victor, too, because no one else can. No one else will ever match him, no one else will care.

Only Yuuri. His Yuuri.

Dear God, Victor thinks as they share the same breath, please don't take him away from me.

 

 

***

 

 

Yuuri limps a bit when he walks, but he does so with a blush. Victor is hard pressed not to laugh every time their eyes meet and Yuuri's cheeks burn a deeper red, because when Yuuri worried about what to say if anyone notices, Victor was the one to whisper into his ear: "Just tell them I'm a very enthusiastic lover. They will back off."

And now, thanks to that, he gets to see Yuuri's adorable flushed face at every step. Victor thinks himself a winner, no matter if those blushes are paired with exasperated little glares and soft gasps of pain.

They arrive at lunch fashionably late. The morning passes them by as they sleep away the nightly worries, so they don't make it to breakfast at all. No one will ask after their absence, of that Victor is sure, but if they stay away longer it might become suspicious to Yuuri's attacker, so he leads Yuuri down, slowly and asking after his wellbeing almost every ten steps. 

In the end, Yuuri begins to roll his eyes at him, which he's never done, but which Victor loves no lesser than the exasperated, "Oh, stop worrying, you motherhen! I'm fine!" that Yuuri presses into his lips when he pulls Victor down by the front of his robes in a fit of darling annoyance. 

Playfully teasing each other, they finally come among the people. And no one notices anything. Yuuri's limp, his slightly paler complexion, the little cut in the corner of his lip from the piece of wood he chewed on to keep from screaming – not a word is said about them. 

But as much as Victor pays attention to Yuuri and his needs, filling his plate with the richest morsels of food and making sure he eats at least half of everything, he also looks about the table for a glimpse of whoever could have hurt him. His eyes first travel to the duchess, the one who poses the biggest threat to them. He can hardly find it possible. For one, she couldn't have done that herself. No matter how lively the old lady is, Yuuri could easily overpower her, even if she took him by surprise. Next, she could have paid someone off to do her bidding, but that would mean bringing someone into the palace late at night. The guards would not allow that. And lastly, she could bribe a guard, in theory, but Victor knows that the people manning the Nikiforov palace are loyal to a fault. After what happened to previous occupants of this grand estate, Victor's father took all the precautions. The guards would not dare take someone else's money and harm Victor's husband, oh no. Unless… 

Unless she told them who Yuuri truly is.

Victor is half turned to Yuuri, at his every beck and call, but his gaze unfailingly comes back to the old duchess. Could she be the one to hurt his mate? Why would Yuuri cover for her then? It hardly made any sense to him.

And then, then he sees him. 

Pushing up from the table, brushing his blond hair behind his ear, which draws Victor's eyes to the purple bruising around his nose. As Victor watches, he gives Yuuri a look that is returned with a nod, and then he's walking away – with an all telling limp. 

Victor's heart freezes inside his chest before it jumpstarts with a spike of anger so harsh that for a second there Victor is breathless and dizzy with it. 

"I'll be right back," he whispers urgently to Yuuri once he recovers his voice and, before his mate can react, he's out of his chair, following his cousin out of the dining hall. 

They both round the corner. Thanks to the now obvious limp, Victor catches up to him immediately. He grabs Yuri's arm harder than he wanted, but there is anger thrumming inside his veins, protective anger aimed at the person who hurt his mate. Victor's fingers tighten on the boy's arm, even when Yuri tries to rip it out of Victor's hold.

"Let go," the boy barks.

"It was you," Victor says as if he still has trouble believing what his mind tells him. "You attacked Yuuri." And when Yuri says nothing, simply purses his lips together and ceases his struggling, Victor knows it's true. "How could you?"

"He tattled on me, didn't he?" Yuri sneers. "I knew he was a rat, despite everything."

Victor drops his hand. He regards Yuri coolly. "He didn't say a word about you. I figured it out myself, because I want to protect him. Even when he refuses to tell me who cut him up hard enough that he needed sewing."

Yuri's eyes widen as if he didn't know, as if he didn't expect Yuuri to be hurt. 

"Is he okay now?" he asks, voice smaller than before.

"No thanks to you," Victor says, and some vindictive part of him is pleased when Yuri flinches. He pushes it down, hard enough under his boot that it doesn't rise again. "Tell me what happened."

"I challenged him to a swordfight," Yuri admits. "But I never meant to hurt him like that, I swear. He didn't say anything and he didn't show he was in pain. I didn't know. I promise you, Victor, I didn't know."

"You shouldn't have used real blades if you didn't want anyone to get hurt, then." Victor snaps before he can hold himself back. 

Yuri looks stricken for a moment, his face young and unguarded. Sighing, Victor runs a hand through his hair. As Yuuri's mate, his alpha, it is Victor's right to demand payment from anyone that hurt his mate. He could ask for Yuri's blood, he could ask for his banishment from court, he could ask for his life. But Yuri is family and, most of all, Yuri is still a child. However thoughtlessly cruel, he is only a boy who simply didn't think. Victor remembers well enough how that feels.

Not to mention that Yuuri wanted to protect his cousin enough to keep this all a secret.

"Why didn't Yuuri just tell me that? What did you say to him?" Victor demands.

"I just asked him to keep it from you, because I knew you'd be angry I lost," Yuri admits, sounding as petulant as someone perpetually angry can. "He agreed to it, I didn't press him to do anything. He even helped me to my room afterwards. I– I swear, Victor, I didn't mean to hurt him that badly."

Victor nods, stiff as it is. "And you? What's with the limp?"

"I twisted my ankle, but it's fine," Yuri says, waving a careless hand through the air. "Look, I just wanted to measure what kind of man he was. I didn't mean to cause any trouble."

"And did you find out who he is?" 

"He's not half bad." Yuri doesn't look at Victor when he says it, but from Yuri's lips such words are as much as a compliment from anyone else. The slight flush on his cheeks is only added praise. "I think we will be able to get along."

"Good. But make sure that you never, and I mean it, Yuri," Victor steps up to him, a threat in his posture, his eyes, and his voice, "never hurt him again. I will not be this understanding next time."

Yuri nods stiffly. He is still young, unpresented, untrained. Victor could crush him with the sole of his shoe, if he truly wanted. They both know that. 

Before either of them can say much more, footsteps round the corner. Yuuri, limping slightly, walks up to them. His eyes trace Victor's face, then Yuri's, as if he can divine what they were speaking about only from their expressions. Maybe he can, Victor realizes as he remembers Yuuri's gift of premonition, maybe he knows. 

"What's going on?" Yuuri asks. 

"He figured it out," Yuri tells him. "My stupid ankle did us in. You needed stitching?"

Yuuri looks a little embarrassed when he admits: "A little, yes. But I'm fine."

"You are not fine," Victor interrupts. "You were hurt."

"And so was Yuri," Yuuri points out. "His ankle didn't twist itself."

Yuri snorts, amused. "True enough."

Victor looks from one to the other. There is a strange camaraderie in them, something that only a good sword fight could've brought. Something only hard earned respect could have bred. He wanted for them to get along from the very moment Yuuri stepped into the dining room that first day he arrived at the palace, but he never, not once, thought it would have been over this. 

Victor sighs. "You will both make me go senile with worry, I swear."

Yuri snorts again. Even Yuuri has amusement clearly painted over his face. Victor sighs again. Yuri, Yuuri, Yuri, Yuuri, Yuri… this will be a nightmare to navigate, he knows. 

"Fine, I will let this pass just once," he decides, "but as punishment, from today on, your name, Yuri, will be Yurotchka."

"What? Why?" The teen scowls. "I refuse! I'm not a child anymore."

"Yuriochka?" Yuuri repeats. "It sounds nice."

Victor bites back a snicker when Yuri's ears dip red in embarrassment. 

"It's Yurotchka, Yuuri," Victor repeats clearly to make sure Yuuri hears the difference. "But wait, what did you say? Yurio…?" He takes a look at the boy, at his embarrassment, at his anger, at his arrogance. Yes, some punishment will do, he decides. "Yurio sounds even better, I think."

"What the hell?! No, it doesn't!" Yuri forgets himself and stomps his injured foot. He hisses in pain, but he doesn't change his mind. "I'm answering to that. Ever"

"But Victor is right," Yuuri interrupts, and it is hard to say if he is genuine or if he has joined Victor in teasing. "Yurio does sound nice. I like it."

"Then it's settled, Yurio it is!" Victor ends the matter.

And even when Yurio protests quite loudly, he cannot hide the softening of his eyes from Victor more than Victor can hide his love from Yuuri when their gazes meet next.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It's only after lunch, when the skies clear a little and the rain has stopped pounding the ground, that Victor and Yuri leave the palace on horseback to guide the unicorn back to the forest. The rain comes down still, but it's only a slight drizzle that is not enough to soak them. The air is fresh and every breath Victor takes fills his lungs with delight and the thrill of adventure. 

"Are you certain you're alright to ride?" Victor asks once again as he spots Yuuri wince yet another time when they go into a trot. 

His thigh must be bothering him. The wound is still fresh and oozing blood in tiny amounts. They changed the dressing before they left, but riding will for sure force them to do so again before they return to the palace. They packed clean cloth for such an event, but the mere necessity of doing so still sits heavily upon Victor's heart. 

"It's nothing," Yuuri tells him. "I don't feel it most of the time. The numbing potion sure works wonders. Lady Elena should be proud."

The doctor gave them a bottle of thick, honey-like liquid and ordered to rub some around and into the wound during their journey. She was as happy to hear of it as Victor was to allow it, but she knew her place. She didn't say a word against it, just asked to be called for upon their return to reexamine the healing of the sewn flesh. Once Yuuri promised that, Victor had no more valid excuses to keep him from going.

He sighs now, turning his gaze forth. It is not a long ride from the palace to the forest line. A few hours at most. They should be able to reach there by the time the skies grow dark. What comes after worries him instead. Yuuri, with his leg in the state it is, would feel much more comfortable in a warm, dry place. Camping in the forest under wet, dripping trees, where starting a fire from wet wood might be nigh impossible, is not the best setting for healing.

"Vitya," Yuuri's voice rips him from his musings. He lifts his head, a smile ready on his lips, as if to reassure Yuuri that all is well, but it is Yuuri's own smile, small and sweet, that puts Victor's heart at ease instead. "I'm well. Don't worry too much about me, please. You'll get wrinkles."

Caught off guard, Victor gasps. He must look as funny as he feels, for Yuuri only bursts into laughter. Before Victor can decide what to say, or whether he should be offended or simply laugh with him, Yuuri urges his horse faster and Victor is left behind.

It helps little that when he looks at the unicorn gently trotting at his side, it seems as if the creature's golden eyes shine with amusement as well. To avoid its gaze, Victor heels his horse into a faster trot. They catch up with Yuuri soon and together they make their way to the forest.

Only at the streams do they part to allow their horses some respite, but apart from that they continue on without resting. In good time they arrive at the forest line. The sky is still gray, not yet fully dark when they step between the trees. They speak little along the way. Narrow pathways force them to follow each other instead of staying side by side, so even looking at Yuuri is hard. 

Every now and then, Victor twists in his saddle to check if Yuuri and the unicorn are still following him, because even with the sound of hooves at his back, the darkness of the forest brings forth fears that Victor never knew were there to begin with. But whenever he turns, the light that shines off the unicorn's pure coat illuminates the reassuring smiles Yuuri offers him, and all those fears dip back into darkness as if chased away by light and love.

 

You have kept your word, the unicorn says once they arrive at the stream where Victor first met it. 

 

During their rise through the trees it must have begun raining heavily, for in the open space they stop in, the droplets beat against them with a vengeance. Yuuri limps harder than he has that morning, his pain having grown worse after hours of riding. Victor begs him to stay on his horse, since the additional movement can only stir his wound worse, but Yuuri insists on climbing down and paying the blessed creature one final bow of respect. 

He kneels and so does Victor at his side, their heads bowed as the unicorn touches them both with its horn. 

 

Allow me to give you one more gift for the truth and the love that I see in your hearts. Those are a rare thing in your kind, and for upholding them your entire lives, I will bestow this knowledge on you: beware of the one who protects, for he will be cause to your undoing.

 

"The one who protects?" Victor repeats. "But who? You mean our guards or–"

But the unicorn only rears its head with a neigh of denial. Silver mane slaps droplets of rain onto their faces and Victor blinks. It says nothing more. They remain kneeling as it leaves, reverent, but equally as confused.

"What could it mean?" Yuuri asks when Victor offers him an arm to help him stand up. He winces and touches a hand to his thigh as if it pains him. "The one who protects will cause our undoing? Victor, is there… is there a way for our marriage to be dissolved?"

"No," Victor answers instantly. "There is no such way. We were wed in the eyes of gods and men, nothing could make it invalid. The only thing I can think of is... death. But that hardly makes any sense, does it? The one who protects is meant to protect. And if he doesn't – or she, since we don't know who that might be – and they cause one of us to die, then doesn't that null the first part of it? The protecting part? One cannot protect and cause harm at the same time, it's illogical."

Yuuri shakes his head, as confused as Victor.

"And here I thought we were past the worst after last night," Victor sighs. He squeezes Yuuri's hand when Yuuri looks to him, apology ready on his lips. "It's alright, love. I don't blame you for anything, I promise. I just wish our lives could be a little less exciting."

Yuuri's lips quirk in a wistful smile instead. "You and me both."

He is almost drained to the last thread, Victor notices. Yuuri and him, both. Yuuri's hair clings to his wet skin and he impatiently brushes it back out of his forehead. His skin glistens with rain, a light flush on his cheeks from hard riding. He looks beautiful like this, but then again he always does. Victor would be a liar if he didn't admit that. Likewise, he'd be a liar if he didn't admit that staying out in the rain is the worst thing for Yuuri right now. With his injury, his body is already strained at battling one thing. It wouldn't do if he caught a fever, too. 

"There is a hut, not far from here," Victor says, pulling Yuuri back to their horses. "A family of woodkeepers lives there. They are good people. I intruded on them when I was searching for the unicorn, so I'm sure they will take us in for the night. We better head that way instead of trying for the palace in this rain."

"Are you sure you wish to spend the night away?" Yuuri asks as if he couldn't believe a prince would ever choose a poor abode over riding for his palace. 

Victor helps Yuuri climb the horse, then wipes the muddied hands into his own trousers. He grins up at Yuuri. 

"With you? No matter where we go, I will be the happiest man alive."

Yuuri's cheeks flush a little, but in the dark that has fallen, in the rain that keeps on pouring, it's hard to see his face clearly. Still, Victor takes Yuuri's hand and kisses the back of it, before he hops onto his own horse. 

"This way," he tells Yuuri, and leads him into the darkness of the forest. 

It takes another hour, maybe two for them to get to the hut. Victor loses his way once or twice. It isn't easy to follow the clues of the forest in the dark, especially while worrying. What Victor previously took for a blush on Yuuri's cheeks, must have been more, because the longer they ride, the less steady is Yuuri's position in the saddle. He tries to pretend he is fine, his brave, brave Yuuri, but Victor can see the gleam of fever in his eyes whenever they focus enough to look into his own. 

At last, they arrive at the hut, and Victor wastes no time in pulling Yuuri into his arms as Yuuri slides off horseback. Yuuri goes without a word of complaint, which is truly the worst sign of his condition. Victor touches his hand to his cheek and almost bites his tongue on a curse. Yuuri's skin is burning, hot like the coals taken straight from the fire. 

There is no barn for the horses, so Victor ties them to a tree at the edge of the little clearing, where they can still feed on the wet grass, and – with Yuuri tucked in his arms – he knocks on the door of the little hut. It opens after a moment. The sight of an axe greets him first, then the grim face of the woodkeeper. 

His eyes widen the moment he recognizes Victor. 

"Your Majesty," he mumbles, quickly lowering the axe. "Please, come in."

Victor nods at him gratefully. "I know it is an inconvenience to you and your family to host me in such little intervals of time, but we need your help. Fire and clean cloth, if you will. Some water, too, if you can spare any."

"Of course, Your Majesty, right away." The woodkeeper motions for his wife to bring everything needed. "Is there anything else? Food? Your horses?"

"They should be fine for the night," Victor answers, then shakes his head. "I'm sorry, I can't think of anything right now. My husband, he has a fever. He was wounded before we left and the rain didn't help. I worry he might–"

The words halt in his throat like a log. Just the thought of losing Yuuri is enough to make his heart squeeze in the most excruciating way. What the unicorn said… Victor can't get it out of his head. The one who protects… It couldn't be him. No. That possibility was too outrageous to even consider. 

"You must lie him down, my lord," the woodkeeper's wife comes over, wiping her hands into the apron tied around her waist. "He must eat something and then he must sleep. It's the only thing we can do to help him."

Victor nods. He carries Yuuri over to the bedding of straw they indicate and lies him upon it gently, as if he is a treasure he is unwilling to part with. And he is. Victor can't imagine returning to the palace alone. No, Yuuri must get better. He must.

While they wait for the stew to warm, Victor strips Yuuri off his wet clothes and wraps him in a blanket the woodkeeper's daughter brings him. He thanks her with a forced smile. She curtseys, a cute little thing, that almost makes Victor tear up. He pets her head and asks for a bowl of fresh water. She runs along to get it while he wraps Yuuri in the blanket. Once she comes back, she does not wish to leave, so Victor has her help change the dressing on Yuuri's thigh. The cloth is wet and so is the wound below. Gently, they wipe away the rain and the blood that's gathered there, before Victor brings the salve from Lady Elena and then teaches the little one how to tie the dressing so it doesn't press too hard into the wound.

"Here, feed him this." The woodkeeper's wife brings a bowl of stew to Victor. It's only the stock, no meat or vegetables, which Yuuri would not be able to chew. "My husband went to get more wood to keep the fire going through the night."

"Thank you," Victor tells her. She only nods, no hint of a smile, but no unknindness either. "I promise, you will be rewarded for the help you've given us. No matter what happens next."

She bows a little and retreats to the other side of the room. She calls her daughter to her, Mary's her name, and they both climb into the wicker chair by the fire. Soon, the daughter falls asleep in her mother's arms, but Victor barely takes notice of it. He feeds Yuuri the soup, slowly, sip by sip. Yuuri is half conscious for most of it, barely able to keep his glazed eyes open. 

"You're going to be alright, love," Victor tells him, but it's more for his own benefit than Yuuri's. He needs to hear these words, he needs the comfort they offer. "You'll wake up in the morning and we will go home, together. Sleep for now, rest. You'll be well."  

Yuuri listens. Or maybe the fever takes him deeper, but he falls into a restless sleep. Victor sits by his side, on the hard wooden floors, without a care for his knees which begin to ache sooner than he thought. He remains in place even then. After a few hours, the ache passes into numbness and the fear into weariness. He continues to watch Yuuri sleep, every now and then brushing his sweaty face with a wet cloth. 

And then the morning comes, creeping into the room through the slits under the window wings, under the door. Victor startles when he feels a hand in his hair. He startles harder when he realizes he must have fallen asleep and jumps up in fear that maybe while he was sleeping Yuuri–

Yuuri smiles at him when their eyes meet. "Good morning. Mind telling me where we are? I don't quite remember getting into bed naked."

Surprised and relieved, Victor gives a little laugh.

"I'm sorry I didn't ask for your permission, you were out of commission for most of the night and it was a matter of life and death," he answers. His words make all the playfulness disappear from Yuuri's face. Before he can apologize, like Victor knows he must want to, he asks: "How are you feeling?"

He touches Yuuri's cheek with the back of his hand, his forehead with his palm. Yuuri captures his wrist and rests a kiss against it, sighing as he presses Victor's hand to his cheek again. He breathes his scent in deep, as if Victor's presence was more of a comfort than anything else.

"I'm better now," he says at last. "Thank you for taking care of me."

"Always, love. Thank gods you're well, I was so worried for you," Victor answers, lifting up to kiss him. 

The little squeak as they kiss is all the reminder they needed that they are not alone. Sheepish, Victor turns away from Yuuri to thank their hosts again. The woodkeeper only bows, repeating how honoured he is to have been able to give shelter to them, and how happy he is that Yuuri recovered from his fever. On wobbly knees, which still feel numb and stiff, Victor stands to give the man his money pouch. A small fortune hides within, but Victor knows that Yuuri's life is worth much, much more, so he parts with it with no qualms. 

They leave after breakfast. The rain has ceased sometime during the night, and only the wet grass is left as a reminder of its presence. The woodkeeper and his family bow to them as they disappear behind the trees. The ride back is a lot less taxing on them, but Victor does not allow the horses to go harder than a slow trot for the fear of Yuuri's recovery taking the turn for the worse. 

Thankfully, nothing of the sort happens. It is still light out, barely beginning to twilight, when they first see the palace at the top of the hill. After the entire day of surprises, they arrive back safe. No lighter, no happier than they were before, but safe and together.

And that's all that counts, Victor thinks as he helps Yuuri down from his horse. That's all that will ever count.


 

***

 

 

"It would be best if you didn't try any such thing again until, at least, we take out the stitching," Lady Elena says after she peers closely at Yuuri's wound. "You were lucky that the fever was brief. If it lasted any longer, the wound could get infected and that could magnify the fever, which in turn would make the danger to your life that much more serious. No more strenuous activity while this heals, Your Highness."

She changes the dressing on Yuuri's wound, muttering about unruly princes. She must expect him not to hear, but Yuuri is too close to be able to tune it out. He hears every word, and every word brings him more embarrassment than waking up naked in someone else's home has brought him. This, after all, was all his fault. He deserved to be embarrassed for it.

"Take this with your morning tea for the next three days." Lady Elena gives him a vial. "Three drops for a cup. No more than six per day. It's an invigoration draught, meant to battle against the fever, should it return."

Yuuri takes the bottle.

"Your Highness," Lady Elena calls. He looks up into her stern face, now drawn serious. "I have seen many things over the years in this court. People have died from far less than this." She points to Yuuri's thigh. "You best be careful. If you think something is wrong, if you don't feel well, please, seek my help. I would hate for our prince to become a widower so soon after your wedding."

Unable to say anything to that, Yuuri nods. She nods back, and that is that. 

Victor waits for him behind the door of the infirmary and brightens when he sees him. Yes, Yuuri thinks, he'd hate to make him a widower too. So instead of answering Victor's question about his health, he simply falls into his arms and holds him. Holds him close to his heart, which will beat for as long as Victor's own beats inside his chest.

"I'll be fine," he finally says. "We'll both be fine."

"And the fever? It won't return?"

"I have something for that. Lady Elena thinks it shouldn't be a problem."

Victor smiles, pressing his warm lips against Yuuri's ear. "Good. I'm glad to hear it."

They could have stood like that for a long time, just them, wrapped in their own little world. But, alas, the real world does not hold them in consideration. 

Footsteps sound across the polished stones of the corridor. Fast, fast, faster... They part at the sound, only to see the queen herself come their way in a hurry.

"I seem to have caught you, good," she speaks with no greeting. Her breathing comes quickened and she does nothing to hide it. "I'm happy to see you both back and well. I heard about your fever, Yuuri. Are you alright now?"

"Yes, I'm better." Yuuri offers her a smile, which she returns. He has stopped questioning how the queen knows the things she does a while ago. "Thanks to your son's expert care."

He looks to Victor, who flushes a little at the smile Yuuri gives him. He's precious, Victor is, so precious that Yuuri cannot stifle the love that swells inside his heart. Cannot and shall not. He simply links their hands together, threads their fingers, and brings Victor's hand to his lips. 

"Anyone would do what I have," Victor replies, but the warmth in his eyes is undeniable.

"I'm glad you boys get along so well," the queen interrupts their tender moment. "But while you were gone, we seem to have run into some serious trouble. You see… Duchess Wintry is dead."

Surprise shivers down Yuuri's spine. 

The duchess… dead. The only person who knew Yuuri's real identity is dead. Unable to share her knowledge with anyone, unable to hurt Yuuri or Victor. 

Relief should be the first thing Yuuri feels at such news, or maybe it should be sadness that a life has passed on to a better world, but he feels neither of those. Oh no. Somehow, what shakes Yuuri down to the very core is shock. Shock and fear.

Because he's sure, for some strange, inconceivable reason, he's entirely certain that the matter of his uncovered identity is not yet over. 

"She's dead?" Victor repeats. "But how? What happened?"

"Come along, let's get out of the corridors. I will tell you everything, but not here."

The queen ushers them along right to her chambers. Only once the door closes behind the servant who brings them some refreshments, does she speak of the matter again.

"The official ruling is that she has passed in her sleep."

"And you don't believe that," Victor says as if he knows it for a fact. His mother gives a half-mouthed smile that speaks of her pride in her son's deduction. "So, what really happened?"

"We don't know," the queen admits. "I'm having the body examined for poison and other things, but for now all we know is that she's dead."

"Does that mean that–"

"My secret is safe," Yuuri mumbles into the cup of tea that the queen has given him. 

He has not drunk any, too involved in his feelings. Something about this… Something isn't right.

"As far as we know, yes, it is," the queen agrees. "She was the only one who realized, so now you should have no trouble with anyone else at court. It will still be best if you don't linger on that. He who has things to hide will always show it."

Yuuri barely even listens to the words, because as suddenly as he realized that this death was strange, he realizes why he thinks so. Both Victor and the queen assured him that duchess will not use her knowledge to harm him. Both of them spoke to her, both of them, most likely, threatened her life. 

Both of them… had motive to get rid of her. 

All to protect him. To protect themselves and their shared secret.

He licks his lips, aware of the sweat that has gathered above his upper lip. He wipes it away with his thumb, while his cup clatters on the saucer when his other hand trembles. But no matter how hard Yuuri thinks about it, he cannot remain silent. He cannot remain simply guessing at the truth. It would ruin him and ruin his relationship with Victor. 

So Yuuri stills his will, lifts his head, and asks:

"Did you kill her?"

He looks first at Victor, then the queen. Both royals, both cunning, both cold-eyed and ready to do what's necessary. Or are they? He can no longer tell.

"What?" Victor is the first to speak. "Of course not! I was with you the entire time. How can you even ask such a thing?"

And truly, Yuuri feels ashamed for even asking. Of course, Victor couldn't have done it. He was at Yuuri's side the entire night as he tossed and turned in his fever nightmare. 

Before he can apologize for suspecting him, the queen speaks first. 

"That is a very good question, Yuuri," she praises. "You should not fear to ask it. Never fear that. It is always better to know the truth that you must cover for, than cover for something blindly. You have less chance of failing then."

"Mother," Victor chides, "this is not the time for lessons. You don't need to scare Yuuri–"

"I am not scaring him, my dear. I'm teaching him. One day he will be king alongside you. He must know these things."

Victor grabs Yuuri's hand, holds it tight enough that Yuuri knows he's truly upset by this. Yuuri rests the saucer on the table, so he can cover Victor's hand with his other one. It does little to soothe him.

"It's enough that I know these things," Victor says. A muscle in his jaw twitches when he clenches his teeth. "You needn't bring him into this."

"I want to be brought into this," Yuuri interrupts. Victor's eyes turn to him, wide and disbelieving, and all Yuuri can do is give him a small smile. "I want to be of help to you. I want to be someone whom you can trust with all manner of things. I don't ever want you to hide anything from me. Anything, Victor. Even murder."

"You don't know what you're talking about," Victor murmurs, but Yuuri sees the fight slowly go out of him. "Have you ever killed anyone, Yuuri? Have you wanted to? Because thinking of it is so much different than having done that or cleaning the blood off your hands."

"And if that is something I need to know to be able to stand at your side as your equal, then I want to learn it. Maybe not the killing itself," Yuuri corrects. "I don't know if I'll be able to do that. But I want to know all I can to help you, if or when you need it. I don't want to be just a decoration at your arm. I want to be someone you can rely on like you rely on your mother."

The slow clapping from the queen is enough approval for Victor to finally sigh and give in. 

"Very well, but I insist that you don't do any of this by yourself."

"Then we shall start right now," the queen decides. "I had nothing to do with duchess Wintry's death. Not for the lack of trying. I planned to have tea with her today. Some very special tea, if you get my meaning. But she passed during the night, the doctor said. I was too late. My first thought would've been either of you, but since you were away, it was impossible. Unless you paid someone off to do it for you? I admit your absence would make a perfect cover for it."

"We didn't," Victor replies, sounding as if he was offended by even the thought of going to such lengths.

The queen tilts her head in acquiesce, then takes a sip of her tea, wrinkles her nose and sets the cup back on the table. She pours two more spoonfuls of sugar, stirs her tea, and then picks it up again. This time with a small hum of delight, she takes another sip.

"Perfect," she says, and only then returns back to the topic at hand. "Now, we can all decide that this was just an accident and that we're safe from whatever duchess Wintry might have wanted to do with her newfound knowledge. But also, we may prepare for the worst."

"The worst?" Yuuri repeats, frowning.

"She might have told someone before she died," Victor answers for his mother. "She might have written it down, she might have sent a letter. We must act as if someone could still know."

"Exactly," the queen agrees. "I ordered her rooms searched and everything of import brought to me at once. She sent no letters. None through the court couriers, none through any other means. The stables have not been used this past day, except for your leaving, and I doubt you carried any messages for the late lady Wintry. Still, we cannot exclude the possibility that she may have been able to pass on the truth to someone inside the palace. Until we know for sure that the secret is safe, we must tread carefully. You must not speak of this to anyone, understood? Everyone can be an enemy. Everyone except us."

Yuuri can only nod to that. He cannot help but think that this, such fear, such constant paranoia, is a really awful way to lead one's life. But when he looks to Victor, he realizes that this has been the only way his husband has been living. That this is as normal to him as it is abnormal to Yuuri, who was raised in warmth and comfort of truth and honesty. The masks every royal was so ready to wear whenever needed were coined through hard-learned lessons that life at the palace has bestowed on them and, somehow, Yuuri can't help but pity them a little. They took this life away from Yuuri's family only to be turned into this: fearful, hardened dolls lead by the strings of court intrigue. 

Victor catches his eye and smiles, but even in that smile Yuuri sees the years of pretending, the years of struggling for normalcy. He squeezes Victor's hand. His own heart squeezes in his chest when he realizes that he himself has now been thrust into this world: to harden into one of them and live, or to remain his trusting self and die. 

He shudders at the thought.

"I think it's enough eye-opening for today," Victor decides. "We've only just returned and Yuuri is still weary from the fever."

"Very well," the queen nods. "You should rest while you can. I will let you know as soon as I learn anything myself."

Yuuri isn't sure how he can rest with all of this hanging over his head like an executioner's axe, but the moment they return to their chambers and he crawls into their bed, he feels the exhaustion take over. Yawning, he shifts about until he can fit snuggly against Victor's side. Together, wrapped in each other in body and soul, they fall asleep as the sky turns dark beyond the palace walls. And then... nothing else matters.  


 

***


 

At breakfast no one speaks of anything else but duchess Wintry. People reminisce about her, recall this and that event, what she wore and what she said and whom she insulted. Some scoff, some laugh, some fall silent recalling the past offenses, but her name is on everyone's lips. At lunch it is much the same. At supper, news comes from the court doctor – the duchess has passed away from natural causes. She has been suffering from a cough the past few days, Lady Elena says, and that took her life during the night when no one expected it, not even the duchess herself. 

No one finds that explanation odd and, come morning after, everything remains as it was. 

At breakfast people still trade fond memories. At lunch they weave them with talks of the newly wed royal couple and how awful it is to have their happiness overshadowed by a death of a loyal courtier. At supper it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing. 

And then on the third day, at breakfast, rarely anyone mentions the duchess at all. As if the woman was never there to begin with, people move on with their lives. She left nothing behind, nothing to remember her by. No tenderness in the shallow hearts of those who cluster around the ones with fortune and remain cold to those disfavoured by the royals. Since the duchess was one of the latter, the memory of her is whisked away with the final gusts of summer wind.

Yuuri supposes that it must have had to do with her relation to his defamed family. For that reason, she and her family have been treated with contempt, and even in death it was to be no different. Soon, she will be forgotten, like all the Katsukis were. Or maybe not entirely forgotten, but never spoken of again, as if her name alone could bring back the ghosts of the past. 

Yuuri wasn't sure if this was for the best, but he didn't want to speak out either. Did that make him a coward? In a way, maybe he was. But on the other hand, should anyone learn about him, it would cost all the people he loved much more than silence cost him. It would cost their lives. 

And that Yuuri values above all.

So he keeps his mouth shut and allows the memory of duchess Wintry be extinguished from court by nothing more than the passage of time. 

Instead, he focuses on healing. Lady Elena checks on his wound every few days and a week later, she pronounces it as "Healing nicely, Your Highness. It should be ready to unstitch within a week or so." Yurio comes to visit a few times, and during those visits Yuuri finds that behind a mask of an angry teen hides a startlingly intelligent boy, albeit a bit rough around the edges. They talk a lot and grow closer, both healing from the wounds that make them look at each other with sword earned respect.

It's more than Yuuri first hoped for and he's happy for it. His life in the palace started roughly, yet, as he looks back on it, now settled into the place where he belongs, he knows that all things must run their course. And his introduction to the royal life seems to be at the long awaited finish. The thought brings Yuuri joy, a happiness that is soft and tender, a deep content.

But still, despite all that, the thing he's most happy about pertains to no one else but Victor. His husband – Yuuri still finds his heart fluttering about whenever he uses that word – fills Yuuri's life with nothing but love. Even in the smallest of things, Yuuri finds his feelings growing with each day. Like in the way Victor smiles when he catches Yuuri's eye or in the gentleness of his touch when Yuuri forgets to pay attention. Like in the sweet kisses Victor presses into Yuuri's lips, his skin, the ring on his finger. Like in the warmth of Victor's blue eyes, which peer into Yuuri's with affection that perfectly mirrors his own. 

Victor is wonderful, and Yuuri feels himself lucky to have been gifted with such a loving alpha. 

Loving, in more ways than one. 

Woken up at the crack of dawn by nothing more than the sheer peacefulness of sleeping next to his husband, Yuuri has spent the hours till Victor's waking thinking of everything and nothing. No matter where his mind wandered though, it always returned here: to their bed, to their life and their love. To the feeling of Victor's breath on his neck, to the feeling of the warmth of his body keeping Yuuri warm as well. 

And then, to the feeling of Victor's hand running up Yuuri's thigh to rest on his hip, warm and claiming and safe.

"Good morning, love," Victor murmurs, sleep rough and just as sweet. He presses a kiss to Yuuri's shoulder, where his night shift has slipped some, bearing his skin to Victor's lips. "How long have you been awake?"

"A while," Yuuri admits. He sighs in bliss when Victor's kisses take him to Yuuri's nape, and then to his bonding mark. Yuuri tilts his head. "I've just been thinking, you know… About us. About how happy I am that we are the way we are. About how lucky I am to have you."

With the hand on Yuuri's hip, Victor rolls Yuuri onto his back so that their eyes can meet. Warmth and love shines down at Yuuri and he melts in them just like he melts under Victor's tender touch. 

"I am the lucky one," Victor replies. "You are nothing I imagined, but everything I didn't dare to hope for. I could spend all the years I have left to live thanking the gods for you and I still don't think it'd be enough."

It's hard not to smile at such a blatant exaggeration, and Yuuri fails at it. His lips stretch in a grin and he presses it to Victor's mouth, happy to share in his love. Victor kisses him back, deepens the kiss, too, and Yuuri groans when from one to another, the sweetness turns into something more.

Victor's lips skim the skin on Yuuri's cheek, then turn lower: to his jaw, his neck, his mark. Yuuri clings to Victor's shift as his husband licks at the scent gland, which already is leaking Yuuri's happiness into the air. 

"You smell so good in the mornings, my Yuuri," Victor mumbles, drinking in the scent. "Do you know our bed smells of you? It's so delightful to wake up in it every day and feel you all wrapped around me."

"Not just me," Yuuri denies. He pushes his hands into Victor's sleep-mused hair. It's soft and silky, and Victor gives a little sound of appreciation that stirs something in Yuuri's belly. "It also smells of you. And you... " He tugs on the hair to bring Victor's head up so that their eyes can meet. "You smell of you. And every day I wake up next to you I just want–"

Victor kisses him then. It's still soft, still tender, but the sharpness of Victor's scent is not. As if Yuuri flipped a switch, something rises in both of them. Something that Yuuri knows from that first night they spent together.

Victor's hand slides from Yuuri's hip. Yuuri almost moans when it takes his half-hard cock. Victor's mouth muffles the sound. It does little to muffle the arousal that rises thickly in Yuuri's scent. 

"Do you want to?" Victor still asks. 

As if Yuuri could deny him. As if Yuuri could deny himself. As if Victor would stop if Yuuri only said the word, as if all of this was dependant on Yuuri's will and nothing at all would matter if he told Victor to back away.

"Do you want to?" Yuuri asks instead, because Victor deserves as much consideration as Yuuri himself.  

Victor's eyes are soft when he looks down at Yuuri. 

"If I could, I would want to stay with you like this forever and do nothing else but make sure you are pleased and full," he answers.

Yuuri's heart melts with every single word. "Then I want that as well."

Softly, as if that is all he wants to be, Victor kisses Yuuri again. And as he does, he begins to move his hand. His touch is tender, slow, almost leisurely. He has no reason to hurry, Yuuri realizes. They are in their chambers and the sun is only now beginning to peer into their windows. No one will bother them for hours. They can take their time, love each other softly – and that is what they do.

Victor's thumb rubs circles into the head of Yuuri's cock, his hand coaxes him into full hardness. Yuuri's gasps are shallow, but quiet, trapped in Victor's lips and pressed against his jaw. Victor takes his time. Even when Yuuri begins to tremble, he doesn't speed up the motions of his hand. 

It's maddening, this slow, sensual torture, but Yuuri gives into Victor's touch with an open, loving heart. Victor answers it with kisses, with tender worship of Yuuri's bonding mark. Like that, caressed by Victor's hands and lips, Yuuri feels his pleasure reach the peak. 

He comes with a sharp gasp, breathing harshly into Victor's face. But no sound apart from that comes from him. Victor milks Yuuri's cock in the same slow pace. His own breath is harder than it was at the beginning, but that is the only clue of his arousal. Or, it is until Yuuri's mind clears from the fog of his release and he scents the air: filled with Victor's desire so thickly that something throbs between Yuuri's legs, and it throbs hard.

"Let me…" Yuuri speaks before he's even able to take in one full breath. He swallows, and then repeats: "Let me return the favour."

"You don't have to," Victor says, smiling. He presses sweet kisses in both corners of Yuuri's mouth. "I'm happy to give without return."

"That is lovely to hear, but I want to please you as well." Yuuri lifts a hand to Victor's cheek. He brushes the silver strands behind Victor's ear and smiles as well. "I want to give you as much love and pleasure as you give me. Not because I want us to be equal in all things, but because I simply want to cherish you. Will you allow me?"

And Victor, sweet Victor, leans their foreheads together and says: "I'm the luckiest alpha alive to have a mate as generous and sweet as you. Yes, my love, you may do as you please, for anything you do will for sure make me happy."

"Are you so certain of it?" Yuuri can't help laughing. "What if I rile you up only to leave you here cold and unfulfilled?"

Victor's eyes widen. "You would not!"

"Wouldn't I?" Yuuri's lips quirk in a playful manner. 

"If you do that, I promise you that I will find a way to pay you back in kind," Victor threatens, but his threat falls on deaf ears because Yuuri already moves his hand under Victor's night shift. His fingers skim lightly over Victor's taut ass, over his hip, down to...

"Oh?" Yuuri mocks, taking Victor's girth in hand. "And what would you do? Tell me, Vitya. Tell me what you'd do to punish your sneaky little omega."

Victor's breath punches out of him in a sharp gasp. Yuuri's hand has clenched hard on his cock, a hold that could be painful yet just as pleasurable. Yuuri has often times used that on himself when the frustration of his heat grew unbearable. Now, when Victor's hips twitch as if to fuck his hand, to fuck Yuuri's tight grip, Yuuri knows that Victor enjoys that as well.

Gone is the softness from mere minutes before. In its place, like a roaring fire, desire blooms a flush of pink over Victor's cheeks and neck, slipping low enough to hide beneath the neckline of Victor's shift. 

"I would seek you out in public," Victor pants, fucking Yuuri's hand. "I would pull you away from a crowd, but not far. Somewhere we could see everything. Somewhere we could be seen…" 

He gasps when Yuuri clenches his fingers around the head of Victor's now leaking cock. He coats his hand with his spent to make the slide smoother, as he listens intently to Victor's breathy words. 

"And then?" he coaxes.

"And then," Victor continues, eyes closed in pleasure. "Then I would fuck you on my fingers, make sure you come, and make sure you know that every second someone else can walk in on us and see you–" 

Victor groans, pauses on his plans when Yuuri's hand clenches harder. The image Victor is painting, oh. Yuuri sees it so clearly now. And he wants it, he realizes. Shame burns in his cheeks, but arousal makes his hole tingle as a phantom of Victor's fingers teases him. It makes him crave just what Victor promises.

"See me," he picks up, licking his lips. "See me as you fuck me on your fingers. As I come apart in your hands, mad and flushed with pleasure. And they will know that I belong to no one else but you. That no one else can have me, only–"

"Me," Victor moans. "You're mine, and they will all see that. And then, then–"

Yuuri moves his hand now, hard and fast. Victor's hips stutter. He groans. The arms he's been using to keep himself above Yuuri begin to tremble so hard that Yuuri thinks, hopes, that Victor falls against him. He doesn't. Instead, he opens his burning eyes and looks right into Yuuri's, setting his own arousal ablaze. 

"Then," he finishes, "I would fuck you on my cock so hard that everyone would hear you scream with pleasure. I would fuck you, and fill you, and then come inside you until your belly stretches with my come and everyone thinks you carry my heir, but no–" Victor gasps, then shakes, and Yuuri feels him throb in his hand. Throb with the force of his upcoming release. "No," Victor moans, "you'd be full and round with my spent, and then I would, I'd lick it all out of you until you're trembling and begging me to stop…"

"Never," Yuuri breathes. "I would never ask you to stop."

"Don't–" Victor stops. 

Yuuri doesn't. 

Victor shudders and Yuuri strokes him harder, and then it's over. Victor comes all over Yuuri's fingers, into his hand, onto Yuuri's shift. Yuuri makes sure he's all spent before he wipes his hand in the sheets when Victor drops to the side bonelessly. Victor's breathing is hard, but his eyes are open and glowing. He meets Yuuri's gaze as Yuuri slides lower on their fluffy pillows to be face to face with him. 

"You will be the death of me," Victor says, but nothing in his face says anything about regret.

"Only as much as you will be the death of me," Yuuri answers, smiling. 

"It's good that we have our lives promised to each other already, because I wouldn't know who should be held accountable for treason first," Victor jokes. His eyes crinkle when he smiles, and Yuuri's heart squeezes with all the love he has for him. Even the threat of losing his life would not be enough to take him away from Victor, he's sure. 

"How about neither of us, because no one will know that I'm a Katsuki, and we both keep our heads for as long as we can?" Yuuri offers. He presses a hand to Victor's heart. "Promise me you'll stay safe."

"Of course, darling." Victor takes Yuuri's clean hand and kisses it. "And I will protect you, too. Don't ever doubt that."

"I won't," Yuuri answers.

He knows not if Victor can keep his promise, but with the same certainty he has about his feelings for him, Yuuri knows that no matter what may be thrown their way by capricious fates, he will never doubt Victor's true and honest affection. And he will never doubt Victor's willingness to protect, because he would do the same for him. 

Even if it costs him the ultimate price: his life. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It's only when Yuuri's thigh heals enough for him to attempt more strenuous activity, does Yurio come through on his promise to teach Yuuri swordplay. Victor, once he hears of it, demands to be present for those lessons. 

"To make sure Yuuri learns the correct way," he claims, but Yuuri suspects it's only an excuse to keep an eye on them. To make sure nothing like their midnight duel happens again.

Yurio only scoffs at him, but he does not deny him the right to be there for their lessons. Yuuri doesn't do it either. If Victor wants to come, he will be more than happy to have him there at his side. 

And then, on one sunny day, when the courtyards begin to cover with brown and golden leaves falling from the trees around them, their lessons begin. Yurio has little patience to teach, but it turns out that Yuuri does not need much guidance in words. Like that night of their duel, his body appears to know what to do on its own. But no matter what it knows, the stances and motions they work through, unlike that night, make the sword seem to weigh far more than it has before. 

"You need muscle to fight," Victor explains, while Yuuri pants under the strain of parrying continuous strikes against his sword. "Just carrying a sword around requires strength. Swinging it even more so. Especially if you want it to be elegant, deadly swinging, and not the kind that Yurio prefers. Honestly," Victor taps his lips with a finger, a smile on his face that Yuuri hasn't seen before, "when will you learn to use finesse more than brute strength, Yurio?"

"When you drop dead," Yurio hisses at him, kicking at a pile of leaves by his feet. "I don't care about all that, I just want to win. And I win, don't I? Strength is all I need."

"Except you don't win when it matters," Victor insists. "You continually lose to me and you lost to Yuuri, too."

Yurio says nothing to that, but the scowl on his face clearly shows his feelings. His shame, his drive, his unwillingness to have these failures define him. He's strong. Stronger than Yuuri himself, might be. Yuuri can't help but admire him for it.

He can't help but think back to the vision he had during their last fight, either. Every time Yurio breaks past Yuuri's guard, Yuuri has to blink twice to get rid of the image of Yurio's blade piercing through his skin. He shakes it off, but by then it's too late and Yurio has flung Yuuri's sword out of his aching hands.

He needs to get better, Yuuri knows. To protect himself, to protect Victor, to protect their future. Yuuri needs to become a swordsman who will not allow that premonition to happen. And not just to make sure that Yurio doesn't hurt him – to make sure that he won't get into the position to be forced to do that at all.

"Let's try again," Yuuri offers to ease up the tension between the three of them. 

So they spar again. He loses. He loses a lot more times than that. In fact, every single sparring session from that first day of lessons, Yuuri is the one whose sword is flipped from his hand. Or he is the one who has a blade pointed at his neck, his heart, his belly, his back. 

Sparring is hard work, Yuuri comes to recognize. Which is all the more reason why he admires Victor, who joins their sessions, easily defeating them both. Sometimes even both at once. He's skilled with sword, strong, and deadly when he strikes. Yuuri is not ashamed to admit that there are moments when Victor's hard face, his cold eyes and relentless, measured hits make him flush with arousal. It's hard to contain himself when it happens and more often than not his scent rises to distract Victor enough to lower his guard, but in the end… in the end, Victor always triumphs. 

It is good indeed that Yurio is still unpresented, for if he was able to scent the air that becomes a mixture of Yuuri's arousal and Victor's need to claim, he would be even more disgusted than he already is when by the end of the session Victor and Yuuri cannot keep their eyes off each other.

Sooner or later, he will present and he will know, but for now Yuuri is able to hide it from him, even as he is not able to hide it from his husband. Every time they return to their rooms, Victor's hands find Yuuri's hips and Yuuri's hands sink into Victor's sweat dampened hair, and they come together like only freshly mated couples do. Still, Victor keeps to the promise of not pressing Yuuri for children, and every time he pulls away to ensure that. 

With each time it grows more and more frustrating. Yuuri wants him, wants all of him, but he knows he isn't ready. He knows neither of them is ready for heirs yet. That knowledge does little to ease the frustration when all he wants is to feel Victor come inside him, but fear keeps them from relishing in that utmost pleasure. 

Yuuri thinks of his heat, which should come within the next month or so, and he can't help but dread it. Not for the reason of having Victor with him for so many days, but for having to stop when he'll need it most. 

It's difficult to bring up with the queen, but one day Yuuri musters all his courage and decides to speak to her openly. He would much rather wish to speak to his mother, but she's far away and would not be able to help in a way he requires, so he is left with little else. The queen listens intently and nods, gentle and kind to the bone.

"Are there… are there any ways to prevent that?" Yuuri ends up asking, warm with a flush. "To make sure I don't conceive?"

"Is it that you do not want children at all or just not yet?" the queen asks. "I admit that I would love to have a few babes running around the halls of this palace sooner rather than later. Something to take my mind off aging, if you will."

"We aren't ready yet," Yuuri confesses with a flush to his cheeks. "We've only just wed. I love Victor, I truly do, and one day it would be my biggest honour to give him a child. More than one even. But for now I just–" He shakes his head. "For now I simply want to get to know him and to cherish the time we have without worrying about someone else. A child, after all is a big responsibility."

"That it is, yes." The queen nods. "I understand where you're coming from, my dear. And while I may wish it otherwise, I will support your decision. Does Victor know of your willingness to take concoctions to prevent pregnancy?" 

"I haven't spoken to him of this yet, since I didn't even know if those exist. But you say they do, yes? It's possible to be, well, to be intimate and still be safe?"

She nods again. "There are many potions related to what you're asking. Some, even, that make sure the pregnancy does not take. But I believe in your case a simple contraceptive will do the work. I will ask the doctor to prepare you some, but make sure you speak to Victor before taking it. I would not wish to cause marital discord between you two should he be of a different mind than you." 

"I will," Yuuri promises, grateful to have the queen's support. "I'm sure he will be thrilled to hear the news."

And he is. He kisses Yuuri deeply and grins against his lips, elated and ready to try it instantly. Yuuri has to keep him from sprinting to Lady Elena's chambers, laughing at Victor's enthusiasm. 

"It will only be ready in a week," he says when Victor returns to his arms. "You have to wait till then."

"I will, but…" Victor bites his lip. "Are you certain you want to try it? I know I may look forward to it, but should you still wish to wait, I will respect it. Just because we have a way does not mean we have to make use of it. I hope you know that?"

His consideration is sweet, and Yuuri can't help but smile at it. He kisses the corner of Victor's mouth, caresses his cheek. He loves this man, he knows. It burns in his veins, pumps in his heart, bleeds into Yuuri's cheeks. It's clear in every breath he takes, for every breath is filled with sweetness that comes from his scent: that of a content omega in love, safe in his alpha's arms.

"I love you," he tells Victor, because that's all he can say.

Victor's eyes widen briefly at the unexpected confession, but then they warm over with the same kind of love that Yuuri knows must be in his. "I love you, too, sweetheart. Still, should you change your mind about this, let me know, yes?" 

"Of course," Yuuri promises, but he knows he won't need to do that. Not now, not when the potion is ready. And definitely not when the time comes to try it out. 

 

 

***

 

 

"Your Highness," one day a servant in king's livery bows to Victor. "Your father, the king, wishes to speak with you."

"Now?" Victor asks, barely turning away from Yuuri. 

They are in the gardens, enjoying the last days of warm weather on a swing in the heart of the grounds. Hidden from view, they were in their own little word: just the two of them and trees whispering their golden and red songs of upcoming winter. Blankets are wrapped around them to keep the chill autumn winds at bay, but more than them, it's their smiles and sweet kisses that breathe warmth into their hearts. 

 

 

"He said whenever you find time," the servant answers, still bowed respectfully.

Before Victor can send him away with a careless wave of his hand, Yuuri pushes lightly at Victor's chest. "Go find out what he wants. The sooner you do, the sooner you get back to me. I will wait for you in our chambers. It's getting chilly outside anyway."

Victor, with nothing else to do, sighs like a martyr ready to go to his death. Yuuri laughs, then kisses him sweetly goodbye. Fighting a smile, Victor leaves him, but it is not without turning once and blowing a kiss to Yuuri, who catches it and presses it to his heart. The little skip in Victor's steps is visible even from afar and Yuuri does nothing to hide his fond smile as he gathers the blankets into his arms. 

He follows after Victor, but while his husband went straight through the garden to where the main entrance to the palace is, with all the chambers of the council and the king's great study, Yuuri turns left to walk the garden paths instead of the palace halls. Here, among the nature, he feels much more at home than he does there, even if he's grown used to the royal treatment. Like this though, he feels much more like Yuuri, the son of the innkeepers, and less like Yuuri, the prince. He grew up among trees just like this, after all. Among bushes of roses that his mother grew in the back of the inn. Among the neatly trimmed privet that his sister tended to.

The thought of his sister makes Yuuri sigh. The queen sent for Mari, but a carriage will take at least two weeks to get there and two more to arrive back. It will still be a while before he can see her again, yet he can hardly wait. There is so much he wants to tell her, so much he wants to tell his parents, too. He could write them, and maybe he will, but it would be far too dangerous to put anything of import onto paper, so he will have to trust his sister's words to tell them all the truth. 

Still, he looks forward to that. And he looks forward to introducing Victor to her, his sweet, gentle husband, whom he's come to love more than any of them imagined. Oh, Yuuri can't wait to do that! Mari will surely be surprised to see Victor and to see how much they care about each other.

Yuuri slips through a side entrance into the royal wing. The echo of his footsteps carries through the empty halls. He's all alone, it seems, until he isn't. A servant turns the corner at the same time as Yuuri does and they almost bump into each other. Yuuri startles, but the servant's reaction is much more severe: he squeaks and stumbles to the side, tripping over his own feet and almost falling. At the last moment, Yuuri grabs the man's arm and keeps him steady. He releases him the second he falls to his knees in a sign of obeisance. 

"It's alright," Yuuri says to the fervent apologies that spill from the servant's lips. "Nothing happened, you did no wrong. Please, do get up."

The man climbs to his feet, but he remains bowed, now with even more respect than before. Yuuri stifles a sigh. This, the bowing, the avoidance of eye contact, the attitude, this is the part of being a prince that Yuuri finds the hardest.

"Your Highness," the man says to the stone tiles. "I was just coming to find you. I have a message. Someone is waiting in your sitting room, looking for the audience with you and prince Victor."     

"Someone?" Yuuri repeats. "Who?"

"A gentleman," the servant says. "He did not give me a name."

Yuuri's eyebrows rise. A gentleman? To see him and Victor? With Victor gone to speak to his father, Yuuri is the only one available to see him. He does not feel all too confident in his ability to entertain nobles, but he cannot in good conscience leave the man to wait who knows how long for Victor to return. 

"Very well, I will see him right away," Yuuri decides. "You may go."

"Thank you, Your Highness."

The man bows to him and, soundlessly, just like he came, he leaves. Yuuri looks after him for a moment when he realizes that the reason he has not heard him before is the wrapping around the man's boots. All servants do this, he thinks back to everyone he's seen. Their boots are covered with a layer of material that muffles their steps on the stones of the palace halls. It makes their movements unnoticeable, as should be expected of a servant. 

Silent, unnoticeable… it's servants who know the palace best. They know all the shortcuts, the hidden places, the servants' corridors built into palace walls. Yuuri thinks to what the queen has said about Duchess Wintry's death. If it was not her or Victor, not Yuuri for sure, a servant would be their best guess. Someone who could easily be bought, someone who would have no motive of their own. 

Could it be that simple? But who could be behind this?

Yuuri shakes himself out of his musings. He can't think of anyone and this is hardly the time. He hurries over to his and Victor's chambers and, with an armful of blankets, he steps into the sitting room. He can't help being just a little bit curious about this unexpected visitor. As it turns out, the curiosity runs both ways. 

The man rises from his seat on the sofa and offers Yuuri a bow in greeting as soon as Yuuri opens the door. Yuuri sees his brown hair first, streaked at the temples with grey, then his robes. They are still fine, but after weeks Yuuri spent at court, he can see that they do not match the standard here. 

The man, however, carries himself with a dignity that makes such observations silly and unneeded. Yuuri fights a flush of embarrassment when startlingly cool, almost black eyes meet his. They are depthless, as if unfeeling, and Yuuri's stomach knots with distrust before the man even says a word. 

"Good day," Yuuri breaks the stilted silence. "I heard you wished to speak to me and prince Victor, but I'm afraid my husband was called away by the king."

He closes the door behind him, but the moment he does, he begins to regret it. He should've left it open. For one, to have an easy way to ask the man to leave, and then, also, to make sure that no one could suspect or accuse him of untoward behaviour.

It's too late, though.

"If it is alright with you, Your Highness, I do not mind if you play intermediary between us," the man replies. "In fact, I would prefer it."

Yuuri tilts his head in surprise. "I don't mind complying, but I'm afraid I must first know your name, my lord."

"Ah, forgive my manners, Your Highness. I was struck by your beauty and forgot myself," the man smiles, his eyes hiding beneath his eyelids. Somehow, Yuuri does not like that smile. In fact, he does not like this man. Now he's sure of it. "I am Morio, the heir– well, now the lord of the Wintry duchy." 

And just like that Yuuri's heart stops. 

Oh, he thinks to himself, how silly he was to forget. How irresponsible to think that all could be well with the duchess gone. How truly naive he proved to be to allow himself to live while his life could still be at risk.

Yuuri squares his shoulders, even more on guard than before. Yet he plays along, like he's so often seen Victor do in polite company. This man can be a threat, but while he doesn't know Yuuri thinks of him as such, he might show his hand. Yuuri is not as good as this at Victor, far from it, yet he will do his best to at least match this threat step for awful step.

"Allow me to offer you my condolences. I have not had the pleasure of being introduced to your mother, but I'm sure she must have been a remarkable woman to be able to head the family for so many years. People at court remember her fondly." 

Yuuri inclines his head lightly, then gestures for the newly made duke to sit. While the man bows back, Yuuri leaves the blankets in one of the armchairs and crosses the room to sit in the other, as far away from the man as he can get without seeming impolite. 

"Now, please, tell me what I can help you with."

The duke's smile returns. It makes Yuuri shudder, but like his true feelings, Yuuri hides it as well as he can. He can't be sure how well it works, but the man does not comment on it, so Yuuri plays strong.

"I heard that right before my mother died prince Victor spoke to her about something," Morio begins, watching Yuuri closely. "I wondered what it might have been about. Do you know?"

Yuuri opens his mouth, then closes it. He knows he must look like a liar already, so he may as well overplay the role that many believe to be his truth: that of a feeble omega.

He offers the duke a smile full of apologetic sweetness. "You must forgive my husband, my lord. He is highly protective of me, you see. Your mother made a little comment about my upbringing during our wedding feast and he spoke to her about it. From what he's told me, Duchess Wintry was understanding of our wishes."

"Ah, I see. So it was just a misunderstanding that was solved amicably, yes?" 

"Of course." Yuuri nods. "We left it at that and that very afternoon we set off to return the unicorn that has blessed our union to the Great Forest, where we spent the night. Because of the rain I was ailed by fever and we took shelter at a woodkeeper's hut. We only learned of your mother's passing when we returned to the palace nearing evening on the day after."

The duke hums. His eyes are once again hidden in a smile. It's hard to know what he thinks because of that smile. Frankly, it's disconcerting. Nothing about it is what a smile should be – an expression of joy or happiness. Instead, this is a mask, and not a cold one either. It's… blank. There is nothing on Morio's face, even when he is smiling.  

Yuuri shudders once more, turning his eyes away from it. To distract himself, he looks at the shape of Morio's face, at his hair and the shape of his lips. And he knows then that what the queen has told him of the Wintry family's ties to the Katsukis is true. The similarities are few and hard to spot, but as if it was a gift carried by those who share Katsuki blood, Yuuri is able to recognize it in this man.

And if he is… could it be that Morio could tell the same about Yuuri as well?

Trying not to think about it, Yuuri forces himself to play his part.

"Is that all you wished to speak to my husband about?"

Morio hums again. "No. Not at all."

Silent, Yuuri waits for him to continue. The longer the duke keeps from stating his true business, the less confident Yuuri is in being able to handle this. He's in over his head. The harsh flutter of his heart in his chest clearly says so. But he's in, so he must continue, or else he'll drown in whatever this is – in whatever this man intends for him. And that, that can't be anything good.

Morio at last sits back on the sofa. He crosses his legs at the ankles, twines his fingers together and rests them atop his belly. This position, it's not something one would do in front of a prince. He's daring Yuuri to berate him, to show him his place. But Yuuri can't. He has never felt like a prince and he feels even less like one when Morio's bottomless eyes find his.

"You're a Katsuki," the man speaks the words Yuuri dreaded to hear.

Yuuri's heart stops. His breathing stops. Even his thoughts all stop for a brief moment of panic.

Then, they start again, more chaotic than before. He could pretend not to understand, to take it as a joke, but the duke's certainty is not something Yuuri thinks he can put into doubt. He swallows harshly, but before he can speak, Morio does so first.

"You really look sweet when you're troubled," the man says with another one of those smiles. This time, Yuuri cannot hide his shudder. "Oh, don't fear me, sweetling. I will not hurt you. I promise that is not my intention at all."

"What do you want then?" 

"The truth."

Yuuri clenches his shaking hands together in his lap. "I told you the truth. We had nothing to do with your mother's death."

"Not that." Morio waves a careless hand. "The old witch is dead, good riddance. I should probably thank you for that, in fact. I waited many years to take my rightful place as the duke and now that I have, and now that I have something that can help me rise, I intend to use it."

Yuuri frowns. Rise? Did the man truly care less about his family than his own position? A single glance at Morio's cold eyes tells him that, yes, indeed, he didn't care about family at all.

"I want a position that, in your husband's mind, is worthy of keeping your secret," Morio says at last. "Something lucrative. Something with status."

"I don't think he will respond well to blackmail," Yuuri warns, even though his protest is feeble. 

"Oh, I doubt he will be able to refuse a request from his beautiful omega." That disturbing smile is back on the duke's face and Yuuri flinches when the man sits up. Despite his eyes being hidden, Morio seems to notice everything. "Do you fear me? No need, darling. I promised I mean you no harm, did I not?"

All these pet names that Yuuri craves from Victor's lips, which make Yuuri's heart swell and warm over, now make him shiver as if in the dead of winter. Something coils in his belly, a mixture of disgust and fear that is so thick that Yuuri can't tell which one there is more of. 

"Your promises don't mean much when you are blackmailing us with a smile on your face," Yuuri answers in a bout of anger that is more bravado than the actual feeling. 

As soon as it came though, it leaves when Morio laughs. And his laughter, if possible, is even worse than his smiles. It's hoarse and throaty, and makes every hair on Yuuri's nape rise in alarm.

"I'm simply taking what's due to me," the duke says. "Consider this a favour given to the man whose mother you disposed of, if your conscience bothers you."

"I told you two times already – we had nothing to do with her death," Yuuri insists. "And have you considered that something similar might happen to you when I tell the prince of your visit?"

The cold smile returns. Morio leans closer to Yuuri, who intends to lean back, but before he can, the man snatches one of his hands so fast that all Yuuri can do is gasp in surprise. He tugs, intending to rip his wrist out of the hand that holds it with bruising strength, but the man is stronger. 

"Ah, but I do have insurance for that," Morio says, bringing his nose close to Yuuri's gland even as Yuuri struggles against him. "I have a rider ready to leave to my business partner's estate with a little letter in which I explain the situation thoroughly." 

Frozen in shock, Yuuri realizes what Morio is doing a little too late. Yuuri's skin crawls when the man's lips press to his scent gland. His touch is vile, dirty and unwelcome, and everything in Yuuri screams to get away... but he can't. Morio is too strong. He mouths his next words right against Yuuri's scent, now full of disgust and fear. 

"Should anything happen to me, your secret will be out there for all to know."

His tongue comes to taste Yuuri's skin, but before it can touch him, Yuuri jumps to his feet. The sudden movement dislodges the man's fingers and Yuuri rips his wrist free. His heart beats double, from the threat in the duke's words and in his actions, both.

"I will relay your message, then." Yuuri says, his voice trembling as hard as he himself is. "But I cannot guarantee prince Victor's agreement."

"You better work your hardest, little omega," Morio says, standing up slowly. "Work him up to it, work your talents on him, if you have to." The smile on his face is more of a leer at this point. Yuuri flinches, but dares not turn away from him. He dares not drop his guard again "Work his pretty mouth on him, if that's what it takes. I'm sure one way or another you will find a way to, ah, what's the best way to put it? Seduce him to our best interests."

Yuuri watches him leave, trembling, and then collapses bonelessly into the armchair. The fear for his life, for Victor's life, for his parents and sister and Victor's parents, too – all of that was nothing compared to the fear he's feeling now. Raw, unconscious fear of an omega trapped by a predator bigger and stronger, and far more intelligent than him. 

What can he do? What can he hope to do against him? 

Nothing. That's what it feels like when Yuuri wraps his arms around him and chokes on tears that suddenly begin to flow from the sheer helplessness of his situation.

 

 

 

***

 

 

"You're here. Good," the king greets Victor without looking up from his papers. "Come in, sit. I must finish this report first. I will be with you in a moment."

"What's this about?" Victor asks. "I have better things to do than–"

"A moment, Victor. That's all I ask. Be patient."

Not entirely sulking, Victor settles in the chair before his father's desk. He sighs, thinking of his lovely husband, who is right now waiting for him back in their chambers. Oh, Victor can't wait to return back to his side. 

Still, as patiently as he can, he waits until his father is done with whatever new report he's reading. Victor taps his fingers against the back of his hand, a familiar rhythm of an old lullaby first, then something he invents on the spot. He only stops when his father rests the papers back on the desk.

"Well?" 

The king sighs. "From your impatience I can already guess at the answer to my question, but I'll ask it anyway. Are you happy, Vitya?"

"Happy?" Victor tilts his head to the side. "What do you mean?"

"With your husband. With the arrangement. With the progression of your relationship," his father lists. "Do you remember what I told you when we first received the word of Yuuri's acceptance? That is still a promise I will keep, should you tell me you are in any way unhappy with him."

The promise, Victor recalls, was to stage Yuuri's death. Victor has never wanted that, but now that he's come to know Yuuri, that he's come to love him, the very thought makes his heart squeeze painfully.

"No, definitely not," he replies. "I know it's still early for sentiments like that, but I love him. I don't want any harm to come to him."

"And his affection for you…?"

"Is very much the same," Victor replies. He can't help but grin at that. Yuuri loves him, he loves Yuuri. Nothing could be better in this world than the safety of their feelings.

"You're sure of this?" 

Something in his father's face bursts Victor's happy bubble. It's not entirely a bad expression. Not anger, not distrust, not hatred, not disgust. It's simply scepticism, and mild at that. Yet it's enough to make Victor bristle.

"I am sure of it," he answers in a voice colder than before. "What exactly are you insinuating?" 

With another sigh, the king stands. "I am not insinuating anything. I simply worry about my son. Is that not allowed simply because we are royals?"

His reply softens Victor's heart a little, but it doesn't last. His father's next words harden it all over again. This time into ice.

"The only reason I'm asking is to know how much we can trust him. I wish for your union to be happy and full of love, my son, don't ever doubt that. It is a father's prerogative to worry, though. And I worry, you see, I worry that because of Yuuri's name he might try to use your affection for his gain. For his family's gain."

"Regardless of what you think of him, Yuuri has been nothing but loving and kind to everyone here. He hasn't asked me for anything and he won't, I'm sure of it. He isn't the sort of person you think him to be."

"I hope you are right, Vitya. I really do." The king nods. "But I must caution you to be careful of this. We don't know what kind of feelings he's been taught to believe by his parents. Once, his father and I were friends, and we parted as such, but time can make even the closest of friends as distant towards each other as strangers. We must think of all possibilities, if we want to ensure the safety of our rule."

"I still don't think that has anything to do with Yuuri himself," Victor insists. "He has shown no ill will towards us. None at all. You can't expect me to always suspect my own husband of the worst. That's no way to live, and I refuse to entertain even the possibility of such hollow marriage."

"I will watch him for you then, if you believe it's something beyond your capabilities." The king waves a hand. "It is of no consequence who does it, but someone must pay attention. And you, you must think ahead of him at all times. Question him about his motivations even for the most mundane things. Do so to his face, if you fear secrets that much. Let him know his every move will be watched. It will keep him in check."

Victor purses his lips hard. He won't do any of those things, never. He trusts Yuuri fully, and trusts Yuuri's affection for him. He will not betray those feelings by suspecting Yuuri of the worst like the lowest criminal. Yuuri is Victor's husband, someone he loves and wants to trust. To treat him the way father wants… what would that make of Victor?

"For someone who pushed me into this marriage to fulfill the old promise of bringing a Katsuki heir onto the throne again, you act like you don't really care about that at all," Victor points out. "Was it a lie, then? That you want to unite our houses?"

"It was the truth," the king answers without even blinking at the accusation in Victor's words. "And it still is. But it will be done by our rules. Whatever child comes out of your union, they will be raised here, under our laws, our protection, our guidance. This child will be a Katsuki by name, but a Nikiforov by heart. We will then be truly united, yet still having won. Do you see my meaning, son?"

And Victor does. Politics have always been full of such artifice. At times serving him, at others only driving him mad when his opponents suddenly pull a trick out of their sleeves. It's a slippery slope, using such maneuvers. All things must be thought out thoroughly, for should only one of the variables change, the entire plan may as well crumble before it is even implemented. 

His father's plan is just like that. He's counting on many things, thinking of others, but he clearly has missed one key component of it: Victor himself.

"I understand now what you want of this union," Victor answers coldly, rising from his chair. "And I understand that what you and I want are two different things. I will never become what you want me to be. To spy on someone who shares your life? To build your children into puppets? Maybe that is who you envision ruling the future of this kingdom, maybe that is what you would be willing to do. I am not. I will not."

"Victor, don't be rash about this," his father urges. "I only say this for the good of our family and our people–"

"Thanks to you," Victor interrupts, hissing ice from between his lips, "Yuuri is our family. He and his family are our people now. And it's those people you wish to make into criminals they aren't. Do so if you will, but I will have no part of it. And, should anything happen, I will stand between you and them. Mark my words, father."

There is no reply from the king. He looks much like Victor now, with lips pursed, eyebrows drawn, face cool in an expression of near anger. They are truly father and son. Both hot tempered, both cold when required. And yet, for as close, as similar as they are, they are as far from each other on this subject like the sun and moon – always meant to miss each other.

Speaking no more of this, Victor turns on his heel and storms from the room. The heels of his shoes click on the polished stones, an even rhythm that is almost even with his breathing. It's not exactly anger that courses in Victor's veins as he takes one corner, then the next. It's anger, too, yes, but mostly it's just… disappointment. In his father, in his family.

They took the crown from the Katsukis. They got what they wanted. Even if it's mostly nobles who rule the kingdom, the official royal family is the Nikiforovs. They worked hard for it, earned it in blood, money and sweat, and they have it: the crown and what little riches come with it. To think that his father could suspect Yuuri, of all people, when it was him who betrayed Yuuri's father… it's laughable. It's also shameful. How could a man who has it all because of treachery be so afraid of having it stolen away from him in much the same way?

Or, no, Victor thinks, that's exactly the reason why his father is so fearful. Because he knows that what little power he has is not his. It was never his. It was always Yuuri's. And should Yuuri only wish it, there are still those who will accept him as their ruler. In fact, there are those who wish for that to happen. It's that that Victor's father fears. To have a revolution upon his head, just like he once served to his friend, Toshiyuki.

Victor turns into the royal wing, takes the stairs two steps at the time. It's silly, he thinks of his father, to fear something that may or may not come. Yes, preparation is important in case anything happens, but treating Yuuri like he's his father – or worse, like he's Victor's father – will solve nothing. It will help nothing. No one. 

Victor refuses to allow that thought to linger. Yuuri has been nothing but true to him, kind and sweet and honest. He will never betray Victor's trust, just like Victor will not betray him. They are nothing like their parents and they will prove it.

A sound of door shutting somewhere before him snaps him out of his thoughts. His door, he realizes as soon as he looks up. He only spots a man's retreating back before he's gone behind a corner, but that much is enough. It's all the fodder his ailed mind needs to begin to suspect Yuuri. 

With no mercy, Victor squashes that suspicion, and throws the door to his chamber open.

What meets him inside is not what he expected. Yuuri's face, pale, drawn, tear-streaked lifts to him from where he was hiding it in his hands. Guilt is the first thing Victor feels when he sees him. Guilt for ever suspecting Yuuri of anything other than utter loyalty and love. And then, then there is also worry.

Victor crosses the room and kneels at Yuuri's side, gently wiping away his tears with his thumbs.

"What's wrong, darling? Who was that man?"

So Yuuri tells him all of it, and the more he says, the more Victor's blood freezes in his veins. Once Yuuri is done, Victor feels so cold, so numb, that he can't even unclench his jaw to reply. His father suspects Yuuri of the worst, but it is not Yuuri who brings pain and fear into this family. It's everyone else in the world, all those who want to gain by their loss. All those who see their weakness and prey upon it, always ready to rip a piece more than Victor wishes to give.

Victor stays on his knees, keeping gentle hands on Yuuri to make sure he gets the comfort he needs, but in his veins the ice burns.

Burns.

And burns.

"What should we do?" Yuuri asks, trembling, as if the ice that has taken hold of Victor somehow touched him as well. "Victor, what do we do? We can't let him blackmail us, but what can we do to stop him?"

It pains Victor to admit, but… 

"We can't stop him," he says. "We may search for the rider, but even if we eliminate that danger, there will be no guarantee that Duke Wintry will not share it with anyone else. The best option for us would be to get rid of the duke himself, but so soon after his mother… people are bound to talk. And I'm sure someone would discover the truth if they looked closer into their deaths. Without us knowing who, all of this would be out of our hands and out of our control." 

He runs a hand through his hair. At last, he lifts off his knees and perches on the arm of Yuuri's chair. His free hand is still loosely tangled with Yuuri's, but the other Victor lifts to his own mouth. He thinks, and he thinks hard, as he traces the shape of his lips, pursed in anger and worry.

"No," he decides at last. "We must go through with what he wants."

"You will give him a position at court? You'll give him power?" Yuuri turns to him, surprised. "A man who has no hesitation in blackmailing a prince?"

Yuuri's straightforward honesty is so innocent that Victor can't help but smile. Even if that smile is bitter and tight-lipped.

"You will come to find, the longer we live together, that many of those at court have earned their positions not with hard work or good deeds, but exactly through means like Duke Wintry. Betrayal, blackmail, schemes and plots. Even murder. Those are the things that are the heart of court life. The duke will be right at home here."  

Yuuri bites his lip, looking sick. "Is it wise then? To allow him to form connections with like-minded people? To–" He turns his fearful gaze to Victor. "Victor, what if– What if he forms a clique and tells everyone about me? What if they all come to blackmail you?"

The thought of that puts something colder than ice in Victor's veins.

"We will face that when it comes," he says, but he doesn't feel convinced by his own game. 

Yuuri doesn't look convinced either. Victor can't help that. He can't help anything, it seems. Oh, what a joke he is: a puppet prince, whose nonexistent power is nothing against the secret that was forced on him. It's laughable. He's laughable. And he can't even protect the one person he vowed to protect before the people and the gods.

Yuuri's hand tightens on Victor's. It takes all of Victor's strength to fight against the ice in his veins and squeeze back, but he makes the effort. At least he can give Yuuri this much.

"Keep your enemies close?" Yuuri asks, still worried.

Victor only nods. "And your loved ones even closer."

He pulls Yuuri off his seat and into his arms. Yuuri breathes against his neck, little trembling breaths that tug on Victor's heartstrings. With the duchess dead he hoped… No, Victor tells himself. It doesn't matter what he thought. What matters is what is, and what is is trouble. Always, forever following Yuuri because of his name. Somehow, Victor knows that for as long as it remains secret, they will never be free of this fear.

Which leaves him only one choice: to kill or be killed. And the latter is not an option. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"He wants land closer to the capital," Victor tells Yuuri after returning from another secret meeting with Duke Wintry. Or rather, what he should say, from being called on by the duke like Victor's some kind of dog, waiting for his master's orders day and night.

Yuuri has been waiting for him on the sofa in their chambers, and Victor wastes no time for pleasantries. He crosses the room and settles himself with his head in Yuuri's lap. Yuuri, already aware of how speaking to the duke riles Victor up, brings his fingers to Victor's temples and begins to massage them. His touch is soothing and tender, but against the anger and bitterness of Victor's thoughts it does little to help.

Still, Victor appreciates the gesture more than he can put into words.

"You've already given him so much," Yuuri says, his disgust clear. "Does this man's greed know no bounds?"

It's a purely rhetorical question, since after three weeks of Victor giving him whatever he wanted, Duke Wintry is now a permanent fixture of the court life, a constable tasked with protecting the peace of the palace, and a man richer than when he started: in both coin and fame. And he gained all of it through blackmail. 

If he wasn't the one being blackmailed, Victor would have admired him a little.

"He will get his due," Victor answers, fervently hoping his words will come true. "Such greed always finds ways to betray the one who crosses the line. It's only a matter of time. Until then, we have no choice but to persevere."

"Can you find the lands he's asking for?" Yuuri asks. His hands slip into Victor's hair, soothing, even if his face is nothing else but a mark of worry.

Victor sighs. He turns to the side and buries his face in Yuuri's robes. 

"I already made a deal with Lord Popovich. He agreed to 'lend' us his lands for a favour to be called upon in the future."

"It seems to me that before this is even over you will be in debt to many, and angered the rest of your nobles." Yuuri pauses, as if hesitant to ask. Whatever holds him back, though, he fights through, and finishes his thought: "Are you sure that keeping this secret is worth it, Vitya?"

To Victor's ears, it sounds more like "Are you sure that I'm worth it?", and he balks at it. Rising to face Yuuri equally, Victor takes Yuuri's cheeks in his hands in return. He forces Yuuri to look into his eyes, and says with all the fierce affection that burns in his heart:

"I will rather pay with my life than allow anyone to hurt you."

"That's not what I want," Yuuri says back, desperate. He takes Victor's wrists, closes his fingers around them as if he wants to push Victor's hands away, but doesn't. "I never wanted to make you give up so much for me, Vitya. I never– I never wanted you to give up anything for me. And now, to keep this ridiculous secret, you're giving away everything. Even things that aren't yours to give." 

"It doesn't matter, my love," Victor gently interrupts. "What matters is your safety. Yours and your family's. And, because all our fates are now tied together, I'm also protecting my own family, too. Our rule and the future of this country. It's much more than just us, Yuuri. You understand this, no?"

Yuuri nods. He does not look convinced, though. 

Victor sighs. "Listen to me closely, Yuuri. I am not giving away anything that I would be loathe to part with. The riches, the positions at court, the fame and favours… All those things hardly matter to me. They're fleeting and can be taken away as easily as they have been given. And, above all, they have never truly been mine to begin with."

"What do you mean they haven't been yours?" Yuuri frowns. "You're the prince. Your father is the king. All that's in these lands, the people, the things, the land itself – it all belongs to you."

For a second Victor wonders how Yuuri's parents raised him to make him grow up into a man so honest, so pure and so forgiving. He almost smiles. Almost.

"Yuuri, you are the true prince of Tsenkh. I'm just a replacement. Whatever I'm giving away… it all should and does rightfully belong to you."  

The way Yuuri's face freezes for a moment makes Victor wonder about how Yuuri learned the truth about his blood. Did his parents raise him knowing that some other boy took his place as the crown prince? Did they tell him when he was a child and taught him to rule, hoping that one day he might reclaim their name? Or did they tell him nothing at all and Yuuri was as confused to find out he's a prince as he must have been to hear of the marriage their parents arranged for them when they were still little?

In the shaking of Yuuri's head Victor deduces it must have been the latter.

"I never wanted that. And I still don't want it," Yuuri says.

Victor's lips quirk in a bitter smile. "Do you think anyone asked me if I wanted it? For things like that, your wanting it or not has no real value. You simply are something or you are not. And where truth is concerned, you are the real prince. Our positions should be reversed."

"Well," Yuuri answers, biting his lip, "forgive me for being honest then, but I am glad they aren't. It may be insensitive of me, but I would not want to be in your place, Victor. And–"

He pauses, searching for something in Victor's face. Gently, Victor nods at him, giving his permission for Yuuri to be as honest with him as he dares.

"If it our positions were reversed and I was the one to protect your secret like this, I don't know… I'm not sure if I'd be able… If I'd have the courage to do what you do. I'm sorry, but–"

"You needn't think of it like that, Yuuri," Victor tells him carefully. "I understand what you're trying to say, and I promise that I do not take offence. But speaking of what you would have or wouldn't have done in my place will not help us any."

"Why did you have to point out that I'm," Yuuri pauses, unable to say the word, "that I am who I am then?"

"Exactly because of that." Victor takes Yuuri's hands into his. "Because you still think that you are not my equal. Because you don't believe that you could be. Because you think you're in my debt, for some reason, the longer we keep giving in to Morio's demands. That is my point, not forcing you to think of what you'd do in my position."

"That's not true." Yuuri shakes his head. "I know we are of a somewhat equal standing, but you are the prince of the royal family. I just married you, so my title isn't–"

"Yuuri," Victor interrupts him, a little impatient now. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. You are the prince of the real royal family. I'm just a noble who married you."

Yuuri falls silent at that, but something in his cloudy gaze remains troubled. Victor could press him to accept the truth. He chooses not to. Yuuri will come to accept it at his own pace. But he must accept it. Victor will see to it himself.

After all, Yuuri is finally back where he belongs – at the head of the kingdom his forefathers built from the ground up. 

"You are more than my equal, Yuuri," Victor says to end this conversation on a happier note. "And you are more than my prince. You are my husband now and I love you, and I want you to be happy at my side."

"I also want you to be happy," Yuuri returns, squeezing Victor's hand in his. Victor smiles. "I want to make you happy."

"Can I ask you to promise me something, then?"

"As long as it's within my abilities, ask for anything."

Victor smiles. "Promise me you will not feel guilty for whatever it is I have to do to keep our secret safe."

He says 'our' on purpose. As much as it is Yuuri's secret, as much as it is Yuuri's family's secret, it is also now Victor's secret as well. Frankly, it has always been: first his father's, when he helped the Katsukis escape, and now Victor's as he's tasked with protecting his husband from those who'd mean him harm. 

As an alpha, there could be nothing more important to him than that. As a man in love, nothing else could compare.

Yuuri bites his lip, still not fully agreeable, but in the end he nods. "I'll try."

And it's all Victor could ask for.

"How are the preparations for the ball progressing?" Yuuri changes the direction of the conversation. Victor lets him, falling back to rest his head once more in Yuuri's lap. "Is there anything I can help with?"

"My mother has it all under control, but you can ask if she needs another pair of hands. I'm sure she will find some use for you."

Yuuri resumes playing with Victor's hair. "I will ask her tomorrow then."

"Are you at least a little excited? This will be the first time you will officially be introduced to everyone as my husband." Victor smiles up at Yuuri, who also smiles at him. Even if their smiles are a little bit strained. "I can't wait to show everyone what a lucky man I am."

"Oh, stop it." Yuuri pokes Victor's cheek with a finger, a faint blush touching his cheeks. "No one will be even remotely interested in me when you will be by my side. They can never take their eyes away from you."

It's Victor's turn to feel the sweet kiss of shyness. "Can you?"

This time Yuuri's smile is as genuine as it is sweet. He runs a hand through Victor's hair, then leans down to kiss the very tip of Victor's nose, which makes Victor's heart swell with affection.

"Not for a second," Yuuri answers, and chuckles when Victor curls around him to hide his blushing face in Yuuri's belly.  


 

***


 

They don't speak of the duke for the reminder of the week, and Morio himself seems to be busy with everything that's happening in the palace, which is a great relief to Victor. At last, he's allowed to have some peace. 

Victor's mother has been overseeing the preparation of the main hall: the flowers, decoration, the ice sculptures and beautiful flowing fountains. Even the list of food to be served during the ball was compiled by the queen. After Yuuri asked to help, she tasked him with tasting each item and deciding on the dishes they should serve. Yuuri has been blown away by every single one, but after some debate and speaking to Victor at length with all the bright excitement of a child trying something for the first time, he settled on the ones that he believes would surprise the guests the most.

Seeing him like that made Victor see for the first time what their life could be without the shadow of Duke Wintry hanging over them. Brightness and excitement, balls and splendour, life and love; all of these untainted by darkness. Victor can't help but ache to give Yuuri at least a fracture of that, so whenever Yuuri isn't busy with food tasting, Victor sneaks him away from the palace. 

They don't go far, only enough to lose the sight of the high walls and feel the vastness of the world outside them. Yuuri's shoulders always lose their tension then. Victor's follow suit. The crisp autumn air is still warm enough to allow them to stay out as long as they wish to and, once they get out, neither of them feels inclined to go back. It's incredible how much the sight of girls picking up rowan berries to make into coral red necklaces and kids throwing sticks at large chestnut trees in hopes of knocking some of the green shells down can make you realize that the world isn't truly an awful place. Victor always marvels at it, as much as he marvels at how bright Yuuri's eyes turn in direct sunlight.

Still, despite how much they love it outside, they must return to the palace before the night falls. And come morning it is the same, all over again. 

Once all the preparations for the ball are done, Yuuri has no more to do except try on his new set of robes and prepare for the envoy from Czatnopta to arrive. Victor has been eagerly looking forward to it. Yuuri in new robes, that is. The Czatnoptan princes he could do without, as long as he gets to see Yuuri looking as brilliant as he has on their wedding day.

"You look stunning, my love," Victor says, unable to tear his eyes away from his husband when the time finally comes. 

He has come from the last audience with his father, where the king gave him another lecture on the history of Tsenkh-Czatnoptan friendship and the importance of befriending the envoys from Czatnopta who will be arriving later today for the annual Peace and Prosperity feast, which celebrates the signing of the treaty of non-aggression that has been upheld by Tsenkh and Czatnopta for over ten years. 

During those years, their countries have prospered in equal measure. The trade of goods that were otherwise hard to get, like amber and gold that Czatopta is famous for, was now resolved by mutual agreement and monthly shipments of those, and wood and ice from Tsenkh across their shared border. The support of Czatnoptan army helped to keep their other neighbour, Amistra, at bay, while the backing of the Tsenkh fleet allowed Czatnopta to safely trade with the eastern lands of Wengu.  

Overall, Czatnopta became a good friend and ally to the Tsenkh, so making an impression on them was as well as required to keep their relations on even footing. 

Looking at Yuuri now, in his stunning new robes, Victor has no doubt that they will be able to stun the Czatnoptan envoys into awe. After all, Yuuri, as always, looks like a god-given gift. 

Victor smothers the need to cross the room and kiss him senseless.

"It's only the robes," Yuuri answers, a darling flush on his cheeks. "You spoil me with such finery, it's impossible to look bad in them."

"Lies," Victor argues. "You would look stunning even in a potato sack."

Yuuri laughs at that. The sound of his amusement warms Victor's heart and gives him wings. As if stepping on air, Victor walks up to him. He wraps his arms around Yuuri from behind and looks into the big mirror to admire Yuuri again. 

The robes are dark once more, but not black and red like his wedding robes. This time they are blue, the colour of the nightly sky. As if the material was scattered with the stars, small crystals have been woven into the thread on his back in the shape of a fleur de lis, which is a part of the Nikiforov House crest. The robe itself is beautiful, but the way the blue and silver bring out the darkness of Yuuri's hair and the brilliant brown of his eyes… 

Victor sighs in bliss, intending to plant a kiss on Yuuri's cheek, but a scent of something delightful makes him pause. Instead, he sniffs and then buries his face in Yuuri's neck, inhaling deeply. 

"V-Victor," Yuuri stutters, gently pushing Victor's head away, "stop that. It's embarrassing."

"Embarrassing?" Victor repeats. Then, he grins. "My darling, I'm your husband and mate, what is there to be embarrassed by? Let me tell you, you smell absolutely divine today. I could probably stay right here for hours, if you'd let me."

Yuuri turns his face away, but the tips of his ears are red. Victor chuckles. He kisses Yuuri's ear instead, stifling his laughter when Yuuri makes a startled sound and slips from his arms. 

Narrowed, brown eyes glare at him briefly, before Yuuri's face melts into softness again. 

"You should probably put on your robes as well. They will be arriving soon, won't they?" 

He is right, of course he is. Victor only kisses his temple and with a smile leaves through the door leading to his chamber. He strips there and puts on his own robes, golden and white – a perfect balance to the darkness of Yuuri's. As he admires the golden thread on his cuffs, Victor has to laugh a little at the clear playfulness of the royal seamstress. She has dressed Yuuri as if he was a prince of night, and Victor as if he was the prince of day. Opposites, yet one as a whole, for no life could go without one or the other. Just like Victor cannot go without Yuuri, and he hopes that Yuuri feels much the same.

He's battling with the golden cuffs and mother-of-pearl cufflinks when Yuuri slips through his door. Gorgeous and demanding of attention with his simple beauty, he forces Victor to pause in his struggle with his very presence. Before Victor recovers from the sudden quickening of his heartbeat at the sight of his husband, Yuuri is by his side. He takes the cufflinks from Victor's clumsy fingers and clicks them into place.

Only then does he look at Victor's robes and Victor himself.

"They suit you," he says. 

"You think so?" Victor cocks his head. "They don't clash with my hair? Gold is always so intense."

Yuuri lifts a hand to Victor's cheek. 

"Then it means it's perfect for you." He smiles, and Victor feels a soft flush crawl onto his cheeks. It makes Yuuri's eyes shine brighter as he continues: "But, no. I don't think it clashes. I think it only makes you look more regal than usual."

"Good, maybe this way I won't be only a pretty boy at the arm of a real prince." Victor winks, but it must have been the wrong thing to say, because Yuuri's amusement falls off his face like raindrops on a foggy window. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned it today. You have other things to be concerned with and here I am only adding to it."

Yuuri shakes his head. "It's alright. You didn't mean anything hurtful by it. I apologize if my reaction ruined the atmosphere."

"That is not something you ever need to be sorry for, my love," Victor tells him, taking his face and resting a kiss on Yuuri's bare forehead. His hair is slicked back and smells as lovely as the rest of him. "Never, ever apologize to me for being honest. I'd much rather have you scold me than feel like you can't be true with me."

Yuuri offers him a smile, a sweet little thing that Victor kisses straight from his lips without letting him go. And then he kisses Yuuri's nose, both his cheeks, his chin, between his eyes, then his eyelids and lips and once more his forehead, until Yuuri can't help his laughter.

"My life could've been awful the moment I married you," he confesses when Victor stops kissing him for a moment, "You have no idea how thankful I am to the gods that you are the way you are, Vitya. But most of all, I'm thankful to you, for being who you are, because who you are makes me feel like I'm the happiest, luckiest man alive, and I never thought that I would feel like this. You're a miracle, Victor Nikiforov. My miracle."

There is little else than Victor can do other than kiss him seriously then: with all his love and all his happiness, and all the life that he never thought he'd have before he met Yuuri. 

For once, like his true equal, Yuuri answers with the same.


 

*** 


 

Just as the sun begins to set beyond the horizon, the carriage bearing the Czatnoptan royal family crest arrives at the palace gates. Victor and Yuuri hurry down to the gates to greet the envoys, but the meeting is brief to allow their guests the time to prepare for the ball. All Yuuri truly glimpses from behind the King and Queen are sun-browned faces, dark hair and robes of red and gold, resplendent in the last rays of the setting sun. 

Victor and Yuuri remain behind the King and Queen, who welcome the princes of Czatnopta to their home. There will be time for proper introductions at the ball, so after a few pleasantries are exchanged, a servant leads the envoys to their chambers and the gathering of court nobles and servants disperses to their respectful tasks, Victor and Yuuri among them. 

It's only when the sky turns into the gray of the hour between day and night that they make their way to the main hall of the palace. As soon as they enter, Yuuri is blinded by brilliance. 

Somewhere in the front of the hall, music is playing. Its faint sound reaches Yuuri even across the masses of people. There are so many who have come, nobles and royalty and dignitaries from the neighbouring countries – all here to drink and eat at the expense of the Nikiforovs' coffers. Yuuri tries not to be a little bitter about all this as he takes in the fine gowns, the jewels gleaming on fat fingers or hanging around bloated necks. 

And that is only a fraction of lavish expanse of the hall.

The entire chamber has been turned into a treasury, filled with sparkle and shine. Garlands of colourful autumn leaves hang above head from wall to wall, casting long shadows among the guests. The candelabra glimmer with gold, just like the flames of the beeswax candles that sit heavily on them, burning, burning away into nothing. 

As if to contradict the gold of the ceilings, everything on the ground is bathed in silver. Mountains of food Yuuri has approved of have been piled on silver platters on the tables that stand against the walls. Honey wine flows freely from the silver fountains installed next to them. A little further away, but not too far, ice sculptures have been placed strategically to catch the eye with their sparkle and to, at the same time, make sure that everything on the tables remains chilled and fresh. 

It's smart, it's efficient, and yet it's still preposterously wasteful.

After they are announced at the entrance, Victor leads Yuuri into the throng of people, who bow as they pass, but Yuuri doesn't entirely notice. He thinks of his family, of the village he was raised in. With how much food there is here for one night of luxury they could have fed the entire village for a month. A month! And, Yuuri knows, he was still one of the lucky ones. There was never a shortage of food on his parents' table, but there are families that don't get even one fourth of what he remembers from home. There are families, people, real human beings and children, worst of all, who would kill for a butt of stale bread.

And here, before Yuuri's eyes, is the root of it all: the splendour and waste of those who can afford it at the cost of innocents going hungry.

Yet, even as he thinks it, he knows that he has no power here. No real power to change anything. Not now, at least. Maybe one day when he becomes a ruler at Victor's side, but now… Now, Yuuri swallows and looks away, unable to do a single thing to help the people who need it most.

"There, look. That's them," Victor whispers to him, discretely pointing out between the dancing pairs.

Yuuri looks between the stunning gowns, the jewels, the twirling nobles. They are all stunning, he notes absently, and their reflections peer at him from the floor tiles polished so finely they could serve as mirrors. But it isn't what Victor intended to show him. What Yuuri was supposed to see are the envoys from Czatnopta, standing a little ways off to the side of the dancing pairs in the middle of the chamber.

"Shall we go introduce ourselves properly?" Victor asks.

"You go." Yuuri gives Victor a faint smile. "I think I need a drink first."

Victor, unable to tell anything is wrong or simply choosing not to, winks at him. "Don't get carried away without me."

And then he is gone.

Yuuri watches him make way through the gathered nobles, and not for the first time he notes how well Victor fits among them. How well Victor has made himself fit. Because now Yuuri knows that he is not someone who pays nothing for charisma. Even a prince has his limits and after spending so much time with Victor, Yuuri knows that there is a cost to Victor's never-ceasing smiles and good humour. 

Instead of dwelling on it, Yuuri takes an empty crystal glass and dips it in the wine. It's sweet, sweeter than honey, and he downs the entire glass at a surprising pace. He refills it and leaves the fountain side, so as not to be tempted to indulge more than he should. On something so sweet it would not be difficult to get drunk. But that must be the entire point of it, he ventures a guess. Drunk people are generally happier, after all.

While Victor is on the other side of the hall entertaining the envoys, Yuuri walks among the edges of the gathering. He has never been overtly social, but now he finds it even more difficult than before, because now people not only stare – they also bow to him as he passes. 

Yuuri's eyes catch on the dancing pairs once more. If only Yuuri could sweep Victor into a dance and simply forget about the rest of the world… Just the two of them, smiling, dancing–

"Would you like to dance, Your Highness?" a voice comes from the side.

With a grateful smile, Yuuri turns to the person speaking. "No, thank you. I'm quite content with simply watch–"

His smile falls off his face faster than his breath leaves him. Because at his side stands the very bane of his existence, the man who holds Yuuri's life in check – Morio, the Duke Wintry.

A shiver crawls down Yuuri's back and he has to force himself not to step away from him.

"I insist, Your Highness." Morio smiles his empty smile as he offers his hand to Yuuri. "A gentleman's heart will not allow me to leave you be when you so clearly wish to dance."

A what, now? Yuuri doubts Morio knows what the word gentleman even means. He wants to snort, but Morio's very presence makes him far too nervous to do so. He simply takes a sip of his wine again and barely swallows it, his throat is that tight.  

"I'm sure you'd much rather dance with your husband, but since he is occupied elsewhere, allow me to stand in his place," Morio adds.

Yuuri's jaw clicks when he grits his teeth hard. "You could never stand in his place, Your Grace. Don't even try. You're not even half the man that he is."

Angry at the very insinuation that someone so vile could be worthy of taking Victor's place, Yuuri turns to leave the duke behind. Maybe this ball won't be a horror if he doesn't see him again. That, however, is too much hoping. 

Just when Yuuri takes the first step away from Morio, the man's hand closes around his elbow in an iron grip. He's strong, and Yuuri winces when he's forcefully turned around to face Morio once again. The cold, bottomless eyes make Yuuri flinch. 

"Knowing what I know, I don't think you should be so rude to me, Your Highness," Morio says, voice plainly conversational. His other hand takes Yuuri's and squeezes hard enough that Yuuri bites his lip to keep in a whimper. "I'd like you to reconsider dancing with me. What do you say?"

"Fine," Yuuri bites out. "One dance."

Morio's eyes disappear in the wake of his unnerving smile. "What an honour."

He leads, more like tugs, Yuuri into the crowd of dancing pairs. With a single pull on his hand, Yuuri stumbles and falls right into his chest. Dread gnaws it claws deeper and deeper inside him, especially when Morio's other hand settles low on his back and pushes him harder into a stranger's body. 

Yuuri shudders with disgust. 

"You look absolutely stunning tonight, Your Highness," Morio whispers in his ear when they begin to dance. 

He says the words Victor has already spoken before, but from his lips they sound like nothing more than bile. Yuuri swallows hard, already tasting bitterness on his tongue, even though he has just been drinking honey wine. Morio holds him in a way that doesn't allow him to put even a breath of distance between them, and Yuuri feels their bodies with every step they take. For a simple dance, this makes him feel far more violated than if Morio had tried to kiss him.

"You also smell delightful," Morio adds. "Is your heat coming up?" 

"Stop that," Yuuri snaps at last. "It's none of your business. You have no right to say any of those things to me. What are you trying to do here?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Morio smiles, then twirls Yuuri around and brings him in hard once more. Yuuri is positively thrown into him, devoid of any breath in his lungs as Morio's smiling face looms over his own. "I want you."

Sweat and cold, cold fear trail down his spine just like Morio's hand does, until it rests low enough to touch Yuuri's buttocks. Yuuri's entire body goes hot, then cold, then hot again as anger and fear battle inside his veins. 

"You must jest," he says, unable to believe that Morio could truly mean it. 

But he does. He leans closer to Yuuri and whispers hot words against Yuuri's ear: "You're gorgeous. You're royal. You're an omega capable of bearing healthy pups. Who wouldn't want you?" 

Shuddering, Yuuri pushes him away, but Morio only allows him the freedom for just a second before he pulls him back in by a hand he crushes in his grip hard enough to make Yuuri wince. Trapped in his arms, Yuuri cannot help but give into fear.

"What do you say? Should we sneak out of here?" Morio asks, his lips brushing against Yuuri's forehead. Morio's hand runs over Yuuri's butt, then settles on his hip and squeezes. Yuuri suddenly feels nauseous. "I'm sure I could show you pleasures you've never seen before."

Weakly, Yuuri lifts his chin as high as he can. "I will never–"

"Mind if I cut in?" 

A voice Yuuri doesn't remember ever hearing speaks right next to them. Morio turns to the person who inevitably ended up saving Yuuri from his clutches, and Yuuri does so as well. The man, seemingly Yuuri's age, smiles at them. Yuuri has never seen him again, but he instantly recognizes the red and gold robes as those belonging to Czatnoptan royalty. Black hair, dark, almost black eyes and sun-bronzed skin shine in the glow of golden candles.

His smile is directed at Yuuri, and before Yuuri knows it, he's reaching his free hand out to him, begging for salvation.

"I would be honoured," Yuuri chokes out as the Czatnoptan prince grasps his hand in his. "Your Grace, if you'll excuse us."

Faced with audience so close to him, Morio has no choice but to loosen his grip on Yuuri, who slips away as soon as he can. It's clear in the chilly smile on Morio's face that he will not let it rest, but for now he bows in a mockery of respect and disappears among the dancing pairs. As if that was all it took, Yuuri's entire body grows heavy with relief. He shudders in place, unable to control his body.

"Forgive me," he turns to the Czatnoptan prince, "I don't think I can– That is, would you mind if we–"

"Come," the prince gently rests a hand on Yuuri's back, "let's get you something to drink first. I would hate to have you faint while we're dancing. Can you imagine the rumours that would sprout after? Prince Somchai forces Prince Yuuri to dance till exhaustion. What a brute!"

Yuuri gives a little stilted laugh, but there is only kindness in the smile the Czatnoptan prince directs at him. They leave the dancing pairs behind and step up to one of the fountains filled with wine. The prince hands Yuuri a cup full to the brim, which Yuuri gratefully accepts and downs in one go.

"You saved me out there," Yuuri starts once he recovers his breathing, "and I don't even know your name."

"Didn't I just mention it?" The prince cocks his head to the side with a smile, then takes a sip of his wine. His eyes are warm despite being so dark. It's a pleasant change from Morio's empty death-like stare. "But I don't think we were formally introduced, so allow me to make up for it. I am Prince Somchai, second son of King Mongkut of Czatnopta."

Second son. Yuuri's eyes widen briefly at how lacking of proper respect he has been towards someone of such prestige. 

"No, no, none of that." Prince Somchai must know his expression well, for he shakes his head with a smile. "We are of the same rank. Please, don't feel obliged to be formal with me. I'd much rather you consider me a friend, if you think it possible?"

Relieved and thankful both, Yuuri has to return his smile. "I would be honoured, Your Highness."

"Call me by my given name then, please," Prince Somchai insists, and Yuuri nods.

"Then you should call me by mine as well," he answers. "I'm Yuuri, husband to prince Victor."

"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Yuuri." Somchai smiles. Then, as if his eyes caught something in the crowd of people, he sombres up. "I may be stepping out of line here, but is it simply my overtly suspicious nature or did you not enjoy dancing with that nobleman?"

"Can't really hide it, can I?" Yuuri shakes his head. "No, I did not enjoy that at all. He's… he's not someone you should ever consider a friend."

Somchai makes a considering hum. "I see. I will make sure to avoid him then."

They remain at the fountain side for a while longer, then begin to walk around the ballroom. Unlike when in the company of Duke Wintry, Somchai is easy to converse with. He often laughs, and smiles almost never leave his lips. But those smiles would be nothing to admire, still, if not for the warmth locked inside them, so real that for a moment there it always seems as if Somchai held a piece of Czatnoptan burning sun inside his heart.

He speaks of his home with fondness and much love, and Yuuri does not get bored listening to him. At one point, Yuuri even mentions it would be lovely to see the vast Czatnoptan deserts in person.

"Oh, feel free to visit anytime!" Somchai answers with bright excitement. "We'd love to welcome you in our home just like you have welcomed us. And your husband as well, if he'd be willing. It is always us who come to Tsenkh for the peace treaty feasts, but maybe it is time we change the tradition and invite you to Czatnopta next year."

"I can't say how it be taken by the King and Queen at this time, but the idea is lovely. I'm sure Victor would be as interested as I am," Yuuri answers with a little nod. 

Before he can say anything else, Somchai lightly taps his arm. "Speak of the devil and he shall appear."

And when Yuuri looks to where he points, he sees Victor, his husband, cross the ballroom right towards them. Something warm and loving lights up in Yuuri's heart and he turns to Victor like a sunflower turns to bask in the sun.

"Your Highness." Victor nods at Somchai, then smiles at Yuuri. Yuuri answers with a smile of his own, reaching for the hand Victor offers him. Their fingers slide together and, at last, Yuuri feels the remaining tension leave him as if all is right in the world again now that Victor is with him. 

"Prince Victor." Somchai nods back. "Since you're here, I can safely deposit your husband into your capable hands." He turns to Yuuri once more. "If you ever decide to come to Czatnopta outside the peace treaty feast, send me a letter. It was a pleasure being your saviour for one evening, Yuuri. If you ever need saving again, don't hesitate to ask." He smiles and bows to them both. "Excuse me."

He leaves after Yuuri offers his gratitude with a deep bow and as brilliant a smile. 

"Saviour?" Victor asks, looking after Somchai's retreating back. "What was that all about? What did you need saving from?"

Unwilling to ruin this evening for Victor as well, Yuuri shakes his head. "I will tell you later. How did it go with the rest of the delegation?"

"Rather well," Victor answers, but his eyes still remain questioning. "Prince Arthit intends to uphold the treaty our fathers signed once he takes over the throne in five years, which comes as a great relief to us. One less enemy to prepare to battle with. Good riddance."

Gently, Yuuri squeezes Victor's hand. As if charmed, Victor's face instantly softens.

"But enough of boring diplomacy," Victor says. "How about we dance? You look so lovely in those robes that it would be a crime to not allow them to shimmer on the floor." 

Some of the past dread and fear seep back into Yuuri's heart and he shakes his head quickly. 

"No, I think I've had enough dancing to last me a lifetime," he answers. Unable to watch Victor's enthusiasm dissipate though, he offers: "But how about we take a stroll through the gardens? Fresh air would do us both good, I think. We've been in this stuffy room for far too long, don't you think so?"

"What a great idea!" Victor smiles. "My skin feels like it's burning, to be fair. And I haven't drunk more than two cups of wine."

They make their way to the side door that leads straight into the beautiful garden of the palace. Right before they step out, someone calls Victor's name. They both turn to see the King himself walk towards them. 

"Good that I caught you," King Anton starts, nodding at Yuuri's respectful bow. "You were about to take some fresh air, no? Why don't you go ahead, Yuuri, and I will speak to Vitya for a moment?"

"Of course." Yuuri nods, then squeezes Victor's hand. "I will wait outside."

He leaves both royals to speak and enters the darkness of the night that spreads outside the double winged doors. The gardens are dark, yes, but not enough that Yuuri can't make out the shapes of trees and the white pathways that reflect the sparse moonlight. He sets off towards one of the paths, breathing the fresh air greedily. After the heat and brightness of the hall the night feels liberating on his flushed skin.

He doesn't go far so that Victor can easily find him, and he does. Yuuri feels arms sneak around him from behind, resting on his belly for a moment, then one of them begins to sneak down his robe right to his–

"Victor, what are you doing?" Yuuri asks, surprised. "Not here!"

"I'm wounded," the voice of Yuuri's nightmares breathes into his skin. Yuuri's hair rises on his nape as his heart flutters in the familiar rhythm of fear. "First we are so rudely interrupted, and now you mistake me for that foolish prince. I wonder what I must do to make you see, hm?"

Frozen with terror, Yuuri doesn't move for a second, but then disgust and anger burn in his blood and he rips himself out of the slimy arms of Duke Wintry. He whirls around to face him, fists clenched at his sides and ready to strike. 

"You're disgusting," Yuuri spits. "No matter what you do, I will never see you as anything other than the vile, ugly creature you are. You will never be worth of as much as licking the soles of Victor's boots."

"Ah, but my worth is not at question here," Morio answers, his face bathed in shadows that make him seem even more dangerous than usual. Yuuri stifles a shiver. "It's his worth as an alpha that I put at contest. You don't seem claimed enough to me. Does he even satisfy you, omega?"

Yuuri has been referred to as many things in his life, but not once was he degraded like this. And it is not the words Morio speaks, but how he speaks them. As if he pities Yuuri. As if Victor is doing a great injustice to him. As if he, Morio, could do so much better. As if all that Yuuri is is an omega, a fuck hole for him, the alpha, to stick his cock into and impregnate him. 

Yuuri swallows the bile that rises up his throat. "It has nothing to do with you."

"But it has everything to do with me," Morio insists, smiling like a demon straight from hell. "Come to my chambers tonight, lovely. I will show you what that silly excuse for an alpha has failed to give you."

"Never," Yuuri answers, breath stuck in his throat from the outrage over sheer audacity of this man. "You hear me? That will never happen."

But Morio only chuckles. The sound, more than his smile, makes Yuuri tremble in fear.

"Never say never, little one. I hold your life in the palm of my hand. You better remember that before you make your choice. After all, if I reveal the truth, it will not be only your life that shall be lost."

He leaves as quietly as he came, allowing Yuuri to sink into true fear. Alone in the dark, with the sounds of music and laughter coming from the palace hall, Yuuri looks to the sky, helpless and lost. 

How will he tell Victor about this?

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The how becomes really easy, because when Victor finally finds him, Yuuri is a mess of harsh breathing and wide, unseeing eyes as panic takes him over. Victor doesn't need to ask to tell that something has happened nor who caused it. His face chills with anger just when the moonlight peers through the clouds to shine down on the sweat on Yuuri's pale, sunken with worry cheeks.

"What did he say now?"

"He wants to–" Yuuri manages between his sharp, sob-like breaths. "He wants– Me. He wants me."

Victor's eyes narrow. "No. He can't have you. You told him that, yes?"

Yuuri nods quickly, unable to speak, but needing Victor to believe him. He does. Of course he does. Yuuri's heart hurts when Victor gently takes him into his arms, as if to chase away Yuuri's fears with his warmth.

"Then that is all I need to know," Victor tells him. "I know you want to keep us safe, but this is where we must not cross the line. Please, trust me to handle this."

"But what if he tells everyone? Victor, we can't have that," Yuuri answers, clutching onto Victor as if he was sinking. To be true, it feels like it, too. Sinking in despair of being faced with a choice where neither of the options is the right one.

"I will think of something," Victor answers. He holds Yuuri closer. "I will not let you do this."

"He wants me to come to him tonight," Yuuri says after he swallows hard once. "What can you do?"

Victor's frowns, the lines of his forehead deeper than Yuuri has ever seen them. 

"I will think of something," he says once more in the end, and Yuuri can tell that it's more his wishful thinking than anything else. After all, what can Victor do in what little time is left? 

Slowly, they gather themselves up and, lead by Victor's gentle touch, Yuuri is escorted back to their chambers. He sits hard on the sofa while Victor pours them both two big glasses of whiskey. Nursing his glass for a few long minutes of silence, Yuuri thinks hard on what to do. 

What can he do? What can they do? Nothing seems to come to his mind, blank and void of anything other than pure fear.

And then he makes up his mind.

He has to do what Morio wants. He has to give in. If he doesn't, Morio will use Yuuri's secret to do much worse, Yuuri is sure of it. The way Morio spoke tonight of replacing Victor, of Victor's worth, of contesting Victor's rightful place as the prince and Yuuri's husband... Yuuri would not be surprised if he went as far as to try to take all that for himself. He has proven time and time again that his greed is far beyond anything Yuuri can imagine, so it would not surprise him if he truly made a move to replace Victor. Even if it comes at a cost of Victor's life. 

And now, because of Yuuri, he has the perfect weapon to do so: a secret that would ruin them all.

It's his fault. All of it. Everything that Victor has given up was for Yuuri, but this one thing – hif life – Yuuri cannot allow him to give up. He will not.

"I'll do it," Yuuri finally speaks, hard resolve in his eyes. 

Victor looks at him, stricken. "No. You can't."

"I have to, Vitya," Yuuri argues, softening at the sheer denial on Victor's face. "I don't want to do this. The very thought of letting that man touch me just–" Yuuri shivers. He looks away from Victor, unable to stand the gaze of those beloved blue eyes while he's speaking of lying with another man. "But I have to."

"You don't have to," Victor snaps at him suddenly. Then, he shakes his head when Yuuri twitches in reaction to his raised voice. "Forgive me, I did not mean to startle you. But, Yuuri, my love," He slides out of his chair and comes to kneel at Yuuri's side, "you don't have to do this. You can't. I don't–" 

Victor swallows harsh, and Yuuri knows it must cost him a lot to remain as calm as pretends to be. All for him. All of it always for Yuuri. Yuuri can't stand a second more of this. 

"I don't want you to go anywhere near him," Victor ends, begging Yuuri with his eyes.

In any other situation, Yuuri would listen to him. He would gladly never look at Morio again. But he can't. If he doesn't do as Morio wants… Is Yuuri ready to risk Victor's life for it? Is his own dignity, his own heart worth more than Victor's life?

The answer is clear to him. 

"I'm sorry, Victor," Yuuri answers. "Just this once I can't do as you ask."

For a brief moment, Victor is too shocked to speak. Then, as if his breath has left him all at once, he speaks in a voice no louder than a whisper:

"You're going to go to him?"

Throat tight with dread, Yuuri can only nod. 

"Yuuri, no," Victor says again, sharper now. "I forbid it."

He takes one of Yuuri's hands, but Yuuri suddenly can't stand to be touched. Ripping out his hand from Victor's, Yuuri stands up. He leaves the still full glass on the table and walks towards the large window. The night is deep and the ball in the grand hall keeps going. From this high up, Yuuri can see the light streaming on the grass in a mesmerizing play of shadows. 

"Why? Why must you do this?" Victor asks. He sounds as if Yuuri has hurt him somehow and Yuuri's heart throbs inside his chest. "Don't you trust me, Yuuri? Don't you believe that I will handle it somehow?"

Yuuri's shoulders tense up at the unspoken accusation in these words. "Of course, I believe in you. But it's tonight, Victor. How can you do anything tonight when you haven't been able to do it in all these weeks?"

Victor flinches as if Yuuri has slapped him, and Yuuri's heart shrivels in his chest. It seems like nothing he says comes out as he means it and, instead, only serves to hurt Victor more. Yuuri takes the first step towards Victor, but halts when Victor rises to his feet in one angry sweep of his golden robes. 

"So what, you're saying that it's my fault you have to do this?" he asks bitterly, refusing to look at Yuuri.

"I never said anything like that!" Yuuri exclaims, surprised that Victor might even think that. "This is not your fault, Vitya. If anyone's, it's mine. So I have to take responsibility for this. I have to–"

"I told you it's much more than just your secret, didn't I?" Victor answers, jaw tight. "You don't have to shoulder it alone. We can deal with this together come morning and–"

Now angry as well, Yuuri snaps. "We don't have till morning, Victor! It's tonight or never, and if I don't do as he wants, come morning they will be building a chopping block for you and me and all our families. Our heads will roll! Is that what you want? To preserve my virtue at the cost of everyone we love?"

Pausing for a breath, Yuuri allows Victor to speak. Victor chooses silence. 

"See, I don't want that either," Yuuri finishes, breathing hard. "So I will go."

"Go then." 

Victor turns his back on him as if he can no longer stand being in the same room as Yuuri. Yuuri's heart rips apart. Whatever he was expecting Victor's reaction to be when he first decided to go along with Morio's wishes for all of their sakes, it was not this.

He swallows hard, feeling the tears gather in his eyes. But as he takes the first step, then another, the tears are replaced by anger. At Morio, at himself. At Victor as well. He thinks of reaching out to Victor when he passes him by, but Victor still refuses to look at him and so Yuuri doesn't. 

In a bout of anger, Yuuri grits his teeth. He stops only in his room to take the potion he received from the queen to prevent becoming with child, and then he bangs the door to their chambers shut behind him. His throat is tight with a mixture of rage and heartbreak so thick it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, but his steps are even. The bittersweet taste of the potion reminds him of what he's going to do, and fear joins the anger and sadness. Sinking into anger, however, is more of a comfort than thinking of Victor, so Yuuri allows himself it to engulf him as he walks towards the staircase that leads to the guest wing, where Morio's rooms are placed. 

"Yuuri!"

Victor's voice echoes around the empty corridor. Yuuri turns around, his heart tearing itself with hope despite the thrum of anger in his veins. In a few quick steps, Victor reaches him and pulls him into his arms. His hug is tight, so tight that Yuuri's ribs groan in protest, but he clings to Victor just as hard. With his nose thrust into Victor's neck, Yuuri breathes and breathes, and tries to imprint his alpha's comforting scent in his very pores.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, my Yuuri," Victor mumbles against his hair. "I shouldn't have said all that, I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry as well," Yuuri tells him. "Please…" He swallows hard. "Please say you will not hold it against me."

"I would never," Victor vows fervently. He pulls Yuuri's face up and rests their foreheads together in a gesture so tender that it almost breaks Yuuri's resolve right there. "I know your reasons and, while I don't agree, while I wish I could do anything to stop you, to stop him..." Victor grits his teeth for a moment and a muscle in his jaw jumps. Yuuri strokes his cheek and Victor takes a steadying breath before he continues. "I understand that you are not to blame for any of it. And, Yuuri, I promise you, we will make this right. I will not allow him to get away with this."

Yuuri nods. His throat is too tight to speak. 

Victor kisses him once, briefly, then strokes his cheeks as if he was never to see him again. Something about that thought makes Yuuri angry all over again. He takes Victor's hands from his face and turns away from him. 

"I have to go," he says.

"I'll wait for you," Victor answers, squeezing Yuuri's hands. 

Yuuri takes the first step without letting go, then another. He doesn't want to let go and neither does Victor. They hold on until Yuuri's lifted arms begin to hurt.

"I have to–"

"I know," Victor says, sounding pained. "I know. I'm sorry."

At last, he lets Yuuri go, but when he does it still takes a long moment for Yuuri to move. He doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to leave Victor, doesn't want to feel the touch of anyone else but his husband, his alpha, his Vitya... 

Gritting his teeth hard, Yuuri forces himself to take the first step away from all that.

Victor doesn't stop him again – and deep down Yuuri wants him to, he wants Victor to stop him and tell him he knows what they can do to stop Morio, he wants Victor to make all of this right and selfishly keep Yuuri at his side; but he doesn't – and, with his heart crying, Yuuri leaves him behind. Every step hurts, every step reminds him of what he's leaving behind. Yuuri's cheeks are wet with tears and he stops two times along the way to wipe them and force himself to cease crying. 

He makes it to Morio's door at long last, and then stands there, struggling to calm his breathing. It works, but at a cost of his nervous, fluttering heart. It's impossible to ease it, not here, not now, not so far from where it truly wants to be, so Yuuri does what he has to – he lifts his hand and knocks.

The door opens to Morio's smiling face.

"Ah," the duke says, pulling the door wider to allow Yuuri entry, "I knew you would make the right choice, Your Highness."

Yuuri steps inside, even if his every instinct tells him to run away. "This means nothing, just so you know. You are a vile beast that I will never see as anything other than that."

"We will see what you say come morning…"

Morio closes the door behind Yuuri and leads him through the room to his bedchamber. Yuuri's skin begins to crawl with dread as the door closes behind him again and Morio's cold, empty eyes take him in. 

"Now, strip."



 

***



 

Victor returns to their chambers once Yuuri disappears from view. The guards stationed by their door say nothing as he passes them. They don't even look at him, all proper ad well-trained. That only adds to Victor's fury. So many guards in the palace, but not one can protect them from Morio's blackmail… They're useless. Just like Victor himself feels. 

There is helpless anger burning inside his veins, and even more of it is locked inside his heart. He swallows hard, shutting the door behind himself. The room is empty and so much colder now that Yuuri is gone. Somehow, it feels even colder when Victor imagines Yuuri kissing Morio, Yuuri on his knees with his face smeared with Morio's spent, Yuuri pressed into the mattress of Morio's bed with Morio sinking deep into–

In a few steps, Victor is at the table and downs the entire glass of whiskey in a couple large gulps. His throat burns, but it's nothing compared to how his eyes burn with barely held back tears of anger. 

Unable to tame the fury inside him, Victor throws the empty glass at the fireplace. 

It crashes into pieces that spray towards him. He hardly feels them knock against him. Without a second to breathe, Victor snatches the other glass – Yuuri's glass – and almost throws it at the fireplace too. In the end, he drinks the whiskey first, swallowing the burn, the anger, the pain with it all. 

The image of Yuuri in Morio's arms does not leave him alone though, and it isn't until Victor feels the pain in his hand that he realizes he has gripped the glass so tightly that it broke in his grasp. Blood drips onto the carpet, but all he can do is watch. Pieces of broken glass have bitten deep into his fingers and palm. Instead of pulling them out, Victor takes the bottle and slumps into an armchair. 

It's his fault. All of it. He was the one who said Morio will grow bored, that they will wait him out and everything will be well. But Victor's attitude only made him bolder. And now, now Yuuri is paying for it. 

It hurts. It hurts to think that he could've changed things. But it hurts even more to think of how much it must hurt Yuuri, how much love it must cost him to give up his dignity, his virtue for Victor's own mistake.

Victor takes a long swig out of the bottle. His hand throbs where the glass still sits inside the flesh. Suddenly aching for more hurt, to punish himself, Victor pours the whiskey over the bloody mess. It stings enough to make him breathless, but it's good. Somehow, feeling this pain gives him an impression that through it he may come closer to Yuuri. Even though Yuuri's pain is nothing as fleeting as this. Will be nothing as fleeting as this, because there will be lasting consequences of his choice, Victor knows.

Oh, how naive Victor has been. How blind to human greed. 

Now that he thinks back on it, he should've said no to Morio's wishes in the first place. What he has asked for seemed so insignificant at the moment, so easy to part with. But they never should've given him anything at all, because allowing one exception only made Morio more daring. It made him greedy. It made him want things that were never to be his and, Victor, because he didn't put much stock in riches and favours, allowed that, thinking he was doing it to keep them safe. 

Until Morio finally reached for something that Victor could not give up.

Before he thinks of what he's doing, Victor runs his hand through his hair… and hisses. The glass still imbedded in his hand has cut his forehead and scalp in places, blood smeared over hair and skin. 

Unable to be angry about it, Victor only laughs an ugly bitter laugh. Serves him right. For someone as stupid as him, it's only right that he ends up hurting himself in stupid ways.

He drinks the rest of the bottle mouthful after mouthful, as if the drink can make him forget about what must be currently happening on the other side of the palace. It can't. Whenever Victor closes his eyes, he sees Yuuri's face, and then he sees Morio, who cruelly abuses the one person that Victor has given his heart to. His life, his love, his entire world... 

He stands up at one point, ready to run to Yuuri's side and bring him back. To kill Morio with his bare hands if he has to, but–

He would be dooming them both just the same. For murder, even if you are a prince, there is always a price to pay. But, maybe, Victor's price would be less than death. Maybe, maybe he will simply be exiled. Maybe forbidden to inherit. Maybe… 

Maybe, maybe, maybe. 

It's not good enough, he thinks. Because no matter what maybe comes after he takes matters into his own, angry hands, it will affect Yuuri just as much. He will share Victor's fate like any mate in history. He will be exiled, he will be forbidden to raise the next king of this country, he will never see his family restored. Victor can't risk taking away Yuuri's future from him, not like this.  

So, like a fool that he is, like a helpless tool, Victor takes another bottle of whiskey and drinks that. Then another. Minutes pass so slowly, he feels as if time has stopped to prolong his suffering. 

Good, he thinks, I deserve this. The pain, the worry, the thoughts of Yuuri in the arms of another alpha. The thoughts of how much pain Yuuri must be going through because of him. 

Victor deserves it. 

He clenches his hurt hand and the glass sinks deeper into his palm. The fresh pain feels good, too. Victor pours more whiskey on his hand, drinks in the sting of it. Then he drinks more, too. 

By the time the candles begin to burn out, his vision swims and his head swims with it. He's drunk, but he stands to get another bottle. There are no more left. Of the tree that have been on the drawer by the fireplace, he's drunk all three. 

Mood souring, he slumps into the sofa. The only thing he can do now is wait, so he waits. Time passes even more slowly than before. Victor begins to pick at the glass still stuck in his hand, trying not to think of Morio and Yuuri, and failing. He throws bloody pieces of glass into the fireplace, making more of a mess from his palm than he would when sober. 

But the pain is good, he deserves it.

He plucks one of the bigger pieces. An urge to cut open more of his flesh, to let his blood breathe and boil out of his skin, is stronger than Victor's reason. 

He brings the sharp edge of the glass to his wrist and almost presses down when– 

The door to the room bursts open. 

Even as drunk as he is, Victor would recognize this face anywhere. He stumbles to his feet, then stumbles again as the world spins around him. The piece of glass falls from his fingers. He catches himself on the arm of the sofa, but his eyes are fixed on only one spot.

"Yuuri," Victor breathes. 

Yuuri's face is ghostly pale and shining with sweat. His eyes have a glow to them, but it isn't the same warmth Victor remembers. It's ghastly now, eerie, and Victor stands rooted into place, not knowing what to say or do.

It's Yuuri who speaks first.

"What have you done?" he asks quietly, crossing the room towards him. He reaches for Victor's hand, but stops, and then withdraws his hand as if touching Victor pained him. 

Victor shakes his bloody hand and tries to hide it behind himself. 

"It's nothing," he slurs. "You… Is it, is it over?"

The empty look returns to Yuuri's eyes. He nods. Victor takes a step towards him, to wrap him in his arms and hold him, and promise him that nothing like this will ever happen again, but at the same time Yuuri takes a step back. 

"Yuuri?"

"I'm–" Yuuri's voice breaks. He clears his throat, looks away from Victor. "I need a bath first. Please don't touch me while I'm still..."

He doesn't finish, but Victor knows what he means. 

While he's still tainted with Morio's vile touch. 

Once again, Victor's heart squeezes in his chest. It's all his fault. The look in Yuuri's eyes, his unwillingness to be touched… Victor is to blame for it. But, more than him, it's Morio.

Fire lights in Victor mind with hot white anger. 

"You're drunk," Yuuri observes when Victor sways on his feet in his attempt to run for Morio's chambers and stand still at the same time. 

"I couldn't just… sit here," Victor admits. Even if that's all he did. "I want to kill him. Yuuri, I want to close my hands around his throat and choke the life out of him. I want him to bleed for every second of pain he caused you," he babbles.

Yuuri says nothing, but it's clear that Victor's words affect him. His face scrunches up as if he's putting every effort into holding back from crying. 

Victor believed his heart to already be broken, but now it seems to break even further.

"Yuuri," he breathes, aware of how hot his own eyes are. "How– Are you– I mean, did he…?"

Yuuri wraps his arms around himself. "What are you asking?"

His voice is small, scared. As if he believed that Victor could be angry with him, as if Victor could ever blame Yuuri for doing what he had to do in order to save Victor from his own powerlessness. 

Once more Victor wants to take Yuuri into his arms. The way Yuuri holds onto himself stops him. It may be just Victor's eyes, but Yuuri seems to be trembling. 

"How do you feel?" Victor asks through his tight throat. "Are you alright? Did he hurt you?"

Yuuri's shaking is more visible now. "I– Don't ask me about it. Not tonight. I'm– I can't–"

He falls silent, a sob ripping from between his lips. And before Victor can say anything more, Yuuri runs into his bedchamber and shuts the door tight, closing himself off from Victor for good. The only sound that Victor hears from him that night is ugly, heart-wrenching sobbing that sombres Victor up better than anything could.

He's going to kill Morio, Victor realizes as he sits by Yuuri's door long after the servants have brought the bathwater and left. He will kill him, Victor is sure deep in his heart as he listens to Yuuri's choked sobs.

Morio Wintry is going to die.



 

***

 

 

Yuuri falls quiet when the sun has risen up high. Wind has picked up and blows hard against the windows, rattling them on their rusty hinges. Victor listens to the silence on the other side of Yuuri's door, but he hears nothing but the draft that whistles about his feet. 

Thinking that Yuuri has given into exhaustion and fell into a fitful sleep, Victor leaves him be. He needs the rest. After everything… some peace is the least of what Victor should give him. 

It hurts, hurts deep, that Yuuri refuses to let Victor in, but Victor is not upset with him for that, no. He understands Yuuri's feelings. Or so he tries to convince himself. What pains him most though, is that he cannot help in any way. Yuuri has locked himself away all alone in his dark, awful state of mind that Victor can do nothing about. That he cannot help him through. 

It's painful, sitting out here and waiting for Yuuri to allow him in, but if this pain is what he must feel to be closer to Yuuri, Victor will embrace it. If this pain is what his punishment for being a terrible mate, a failure of an alpha, is, Victor will accept it gladly.

The alcohol has left his blood long ago, yet he feels no thirst, no hunger. He waves away a servant who comes to ask whether they will partake in breakfast. Food is the least of the things on his mind right now and so it is on Yuuri's, he believes. 

Morio needs to die, Victor has decided. But he must die in a way that no one will connect directly to him or Yuuri. An accident. No witnesses. No one to contest how and why it happened. 

The first thing Victor thinks of is a lethal fall down the stairs, but there is a possibility that Morio would survive it. He's a healthy, strong alpha. It would be quite the opposite of what Victor intends if he took a chance on getting rid of him and Morio somehow survived unscathed to then take his revenge on them. Victor has no doubt that neither him, nor Yuuri, would like that very much. 

Then he thinks of poison, but crosses that out immediately, too. It would not do for Morio to die in a manner similar to his mother. That would certainly get people talking. And, on top of that, poison is a weapon of slow killing. Victor needs Morio gone as soon as he can arrange it. 

And then, then he knows. He must speak to his father first. He must get his permission. With the Czatnoptan delegation here, he doubts it will be hard to convince him. 

Now, while Yuuri sleeps, Victor decides to act. 

He stops by his own room, cleans his hand off glass as best as he can, then wraps it in some clean cloth. He can see Lady Elena later. There is something more pressing he must see to first. He only straightens his clothes without changing them and leaves the room. Pausing by Yuuri's door on his way out, he listens in, but it is still quiet. 

Before he can think twice, gently, slowly, Victor opens the door. He intends only to peer inside to check on Yuuri, but the moment he sees him he cannot help but cross the room to crouch by his side. Yuuri is curled on his bed, naked except for a drying sheet wrapped tightly around him. What little Victor can see of his skin is red, scratched, abused, and he doesn't know if it's Morio's doing or Yuuri's own – when he tried to clean away Morio's touch. 

Guilt and hatred stab Victor's heart like twin swords. He swallows hard. 

Lightly, so as not to wake him, Victor wipes away the still fresh tears on Yuuri's red-scrubbed cheeks. He leans in to rest a kiss in his hair. Yuuri still smells of himself, and only that. Victor breathes him in deep, searching for any lingering hint of Morio's presence, but there is none. There is only Yuuri, and the heavy scent of his anger, his disgust, his self-hatred. Victor wants to take him into his arms and hold him until Yuuri once again regains his happiness, but it's a useless wish. Or, it is useless for as long as the cause of it all remains alive.

Even more resolved than before, Victor covers Yuuri with a blanket so that he does not take ill sleeping like that, and leaves as quietly as he came. He shuts the door behind himself, then crosses the room to the outside door. 

Morio will pay. He will pay in blood.

"Yurio?" 

Victor blinks, ripped out of his bloodlust once he finds the boy right outside the door. Yurio's hand is raised as if to knock, and he lowers it when Victor speaks. 

"What are you doing here?"

"I came to see your better half," Yurio answers. "Is he up? I want to spar."

Victor looks behind himself at the door to Yuuri's room. Then he shakes his head. 

"I think it'll be best if you give him some space today. He is not feeling well."

Yurio's eyebrows rise. "That's a first. What's wrong with him?"

"Don't ask," Victor warns heavily. "And, please, don't ask him about it either. Just… just leave him be for today, alright?"

"That sounds suspicious," Yurio tells him, his eyes narrowed. 

Victor sighs. "Please, Yurio. He's still asleep, so you can wait in the sitting room and see if he'll like your company while I go speak to the king, but don't ask him about this. If you care at all, don't."

Yurio says nothing to that. He steps to the side when Victor passes him in the door. It's only when Victor is a few steps away, does he say: "I would never do anything to hurt him just to hurt him, you know."

With a bittersweet smile, Victor looks over his shoulder. "I know. But sometimes we hurt the people we love, even though we don't want to hurt them. Still, thank you, Yuri. I will be back as soon as I can."

The door softly closes when Yurio enters their chambers. Victor stands there for a moment, before he forces his feet to move. The king's chambers are on the other side of the royal wing, but at this time of morning, Victor's father will already be in his study. 

One floor down, to Victor's surprise, he almost bumps into someone coming up from breakfast. And not just someone. The darker skin, red and gold sash around his waist… Victor instantly knows whom he's almost ran through.

"Prince Somchai," Victor greets. 

"Prince Victor," comes a reply. "I wondered where you were when I didn't see you nor your lovely husband at breakfast. Having a lie in?"

His tone is purely conversational, light and airy. But Victor's hackles rise, as wound as he is. 

"I do not think that is any business of yours what me and my husband do," he answers far more harshly than needed.

Prince Somchai opens his mouth, startled by his reaction. He lifts his hands in a peace-offering gesture, then smiles in a way that is only a tad bit awkward.

"Forgive me, you're right. It was not my place," he says. 

But Victor realizes his mistake as well and shakes his head. He takes a deep breath, then returns Prince Somchai's smile.

"No, please, forgive me as well," he replies. "I did not mean to be so curt with you. I am just… well, you might say I am on the way to speak to my father about a matter of great import."

Curiosity crosses the other prince's eyes, but he does not press Victor for answers. Instead, he steps to the side and allows Victor to pass. 

"I will not hold you back from it, then," Prince Somchai says. "I hope whatever it is, it goes well."

Victor intends to thank him and leave, but a sudden idea stops him. After all, if he has Prince Somchai's approval as well, his father will surely be more inclined to agree to Victor's suggestion. 

"Actually," Victor starts, "why don't you walk with me for a while, Your Highness? If you have time, of course. I'd like to ask your opinion on something."

Once again surprised, Prince Somchai considers him. In the end, he shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

"Why not? My schedule is quite clear. Lead away, Prince Victor."

They take the stairs down to the ground floor and from there head right. As they pass through the hall of arts, where the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with portraits and paintings and landscapes, and sculptures stand guard over them, Victor pauses by the great oil on canvas presenting a hunt for a white pheasant. 

Horses in full gallop, men's shouting, the sound of whistling arrows – those are the realities of a hunt. 

No armour. No protection. 

Isn't that just perfect?

"Say," Victor starts, still looking at the painting, "do you enjoy hunting?"

Prince Somchai steps up to the painting, gazing at it with Victor. The white pheasant has spread its wings, ready for flight. But it will not escape, Victor knows. The men are hot on its trail, the arrows fly around it. Any second, one will pierce its pure heart. Any second, a stray arrow will paint its feathers crimson…

"It depends on what we hunt," Prince Somchai replies. "For instance, I do enjoy hunting prey that can fight back. There is something so satisfying in conquering fear and fighting against something that can just as well take your own life if you aren't careful enough, isn't there?"

"Would you like to partake while you're here?" Victor asks again, turning from the painting to the Czatnoptan prince. "If I promise to make the prey worthwhile? Let's say… a dangerous animal who should be put to death as soon as possible before it hurts anyone else?" 

Prince Somchai grins a wolfish smile as if he has caught Victor's subtle hint. "I think I don't need to be convinced further. Name the day and place and I'll be there with my bow and quiver."

"I will speak to my father then," Victor answers, returning a polite smile that is a little bit sharper than usual. "It is good to know we can count on you."

He offers his hand to shake and the prince grasps it. They part after exchanging the usual pleasantries, and Victor takes his steps to his father's study. Now without interruptions he arrives at his door, knocks, and enters before he is invited.

The king looks up from where he's been staring into the softly kindling fireplace.

"Good morning, father," Victor starts. 

"You do not look like it, my son," the king returns. "Have you even slept?"

Victor shakes his head. "It doesn't matter. One sleepless night won't kill me."

"No, it will not. But it will dull your senses. Slow your reaction. Make you miss things you would otherwise notice." The king's eyes are as sharp as ever. "Was it even worth it?"

When Victor stays silent, refusing to tell his father about the heartbreak and pain of the night, the king sighs. 

"Go on, tell me. What is it you came to ask of me?"

"How did you know I want to ask something of you?" Victor moves to sit in one of the two armchairs by the fire. "Can't I simply come see my father?"

The king laughs. "Oh, if only that was true!"

Fondly, Victor rolls his eyes. His father smiles at him, then asks again: "So, what is it, Vitya? Tell me."

"I came to get your permission to hold a hunt within a week's time," Victor answers. "We have honoured guests with us, and I know for a fact that Prince Somchai enjoys hunting, so I thought this could be a perfect opportunity. A final hunt before the winter sets." 

"A hunt?" His father repeats, stroking his chin in thought. He  comes to sit opposite of Victor. "We haven't had a proper hunt in quite some years. Your mother detests the racket." He peers at Victor carefully. "But I believe that we could all use some enjoyment. Especially if you say the Czatnoptan prince enjoys it." At last, he nods. "Very well. I know your mother will never say no to new furs, no matter where they come from. We will make preparations. You and Yuuri will, of course, take charge–"

"Yuuri will not be joining us, father," Victor gently interrupts. "I'd rather he stays with mother in the castle."

The king's eyebrows rise. "Are you afraid he will come to harm? I did not know you to be so cautious. And I did not expect him to be such a weak huntsman for you to worry so much."

"It is not that." Victor shakes his head. The truth, however, does not wish to pass his lips. "He is simply in no state to participate wholeheartedly and I do not wish for him to force himself to keep silly propriety at the cost of his wellbeing."

"In no state, you say? Are you implying what I think you are? His state, your worry... He has been looking rather glowing lately, and he did not drink much at the ball, I've heard. One has to wonder..." 

There is a smile on his father's aged face, a certain kind of satisfied smirk that Victor has to blink at thrice to understand the implications of. Then, as if struck in the heart by a heated knife, he chokes.

"No," Victor says, shocked. And then, because his father keeps on smiling and the picture in Victor's mind – that of Yuuri swollen with a child, Morio's child – refuses to leave, he vehemently repeats: "No. He is not with child. Definitely not."

Imbalanced by his determined refusal, the king considers Victor for a moment.

"Is it that you do not wish for children now or is it something else?" he asks in a voice so kind it brings a memory of Victor sitting in his lap, all but a child himself, learning about his country. Victor blinks it away. It is no time to grow sentimental.

"It is not the time yet, father," Victor replies. "That's all. We are still young and freshly married. Let us enjoy our union before we commit to raising children."

"Did I hear someone say 'children'?" comes a voice from behind them and Victor twists in his seat only to see his mother, the queen, standing in the doorway. He did not hear her enter, and his father's warning about his dulling senses strikes true. The queen smiles at them both, unaware of their previous conversation, and ushers her lady maid away to speak with them privately. "What's this about children, Vitya? Are we expecting some in the near future?"

"Not yet, he says," Victor's father answers for him. He hides his smile well, but his eyes twinkle with it.

The queen hums. "I should think not. After all, poor Yuuri went to so much trouble to ask me for that potion to prevent this. It would have been a miracle should he become with child after taking it."

Victor says nothing to that. The potion... they were supposed to enjoy it together. Instead, someone else took what wasn't his to take. Someone else laid claim on what is rightfully Victor's. Someone else abused what Victor beloved. And now Victor is left with the rest: anger, pain and regrets.

He grits his teeth and forces himself to think of why he has come.

"So we are agreed about the hunt?" he asks his father once more. The king nods. "Good. I will begin preparations immediately."

"Very well, very well."

In clear dismissal, Victor stands to leave, but his mother's gentle hand on his elbow stops him.

"Before you go," she says and offers him a little note. "I was bringing it to your father, but since you're here, have a look first."

"What's that?" the king asks.

Victor takes the paper and unrolls the tiny scroll. He doesn't read further than "Your Esteemed Majesty." His mother, always impatient when she knows something she wants to share, answers the question without giving him a chance read more.

"A note from the town's gate, notifying us about the passage of the royal carriage. Within half an hour it should be here."

Victor lifts his eyes from the scroll. Wide as they are, he doesn't miss the smile on his mother's face, nor her little encouraging nod.

"She's here," she says. "Yuuri's sister."

"About time," the king answers. "Why did it take so long?"

"A flood over the bridge at Floigter forced them to ride around it," the queen explains. She takes Victor's place in the armchair. "But, at last, she's here. Go and greet her, Vitya. I'm sure she's looking forward to seeing her brother-in-law." 

It seems that surprise after surprise will greet Victor today. He nods to his parents dutifully, though. There is still some time before Yuuri's sister arrives, and Victor thinks to check on Yuuri, but then thinks against it. Once he's at his side again, he will not wish to leave. Instead, he walks down to the main courtyard.

As if in response to their feelings, it seems that autumn has arrived in full. The trees have balded overnight, only clumps of leaves left on their branches. The fallen leaves now carpet the ground. The courtyard has been swept off them by servants, but the naked branches are proof enough. Even the wind has changed. It was growing steadily colder the past weeks, but what blows against Victor now is far colder than any of the days before. 

Victor shudders in his robes. 

Princess Marianna, he thinks. Yuuri's older sister. The one who once walked among the halls of this palace that Victor calls home. 

He's seen her portrait once when he was a boy and they moved into the royal chambers here. Above his parents' new fireplace hung a portrait of the Katsukis: the king, the queen, big with another child, and the little princess in their arms. She looked hardened even then. As Victor waits for her among the chilly winds, he wonders whether she is still that. Or, maybe, after everything that's happened, she only hardened more. 

That, like everything that seems to have happened recently, also feels like Victor's fault.

He is not given a chance to wallow in self pity, however. A carriage tumbles into the courtyard with a clicking of wheels and horse shoes on the stones. It stops before the stairs that Victor is waiting on, so he walks down to open the door and offer the princess his hand in getting out. 

She steps out without touching him. Like he expected, her face is closed off, hard, with no softness or kindness to it. She looks at Victor as if she isn't seeing him, but his rich robes, his jewels, his pretty, unblemished skin that never knew any hard work or poverty; she must hate him.

"Welcome," Victor says, fighting against the instinct that tells him not to get close to her. "My name is Victor. I'm your brother's husband. It is our greatest pleasure to have you here with us."

"Is it?" the princess asks, her voice cold. "I can't imagine why."

Victor once more offers her a hand in climbing the stairs, but she simply turns away, takes her skirts in her hands and begins to climb on her own. Slightly chided, Victor drops his hand to his side and follows after her.

"We are family by marriage now," Victor says. "Of course I am delighted to meet you."

"For the sake of argument, let's say I believe you. Where is my brother?" 

They pause at the top of the stairs. 

"In our chambers. But I must warn you… Last night, well, I'm not exactly sure how to say it, because no matter how I say this I'm sure you will want to murder me," The princess' eyes narrow down on him, "I think, I think it might be best if Yuuri tells you yourself, but I need to warn you: he's in a very fragile state of mind right now."

"What have you done?" 

It's an accusation, but it's also truth. Victor opens his mouth, then closes it. 

"He will tell you what you need to know," he says in the end.

"Which chambers?" she asks. Victor blinks. "Which chambers? In the royal wing?"

Before Victor can answer, she begins to walk. They enter the palace and, to Victor's surprise, the princess makes her way towards the stairs that lead up to the royal wing. As if she knew the way, as if she remembered it. When she pauses to orient herself, Victor doesn't tell her where to go. He waits to see if she can find it, and she always does. 

Soon, they enter the royal wing. Once there, Victor takes over. He leads them to his and Yuuri's chambers and opens the door for Yuuri's sister. 

Yurio is lying on the sofa, his legs slung over the back of it. He looks at them upside down.

"Took you long enough," he grumbles. "He's still asleep, by the way. And I'm bored. Who's that?"

"Yuuri's sister," Victor explains. He turns to the princess and makes proper introductions: "This is Yuri Plisetsky, son of Lord Etam and Lady–"

"Where's my brother?" The princess doesn't seem to care about anything else. 

"Through there." Yurio points at the door. "He's asleep."

"I'll wake him up, so please wait here a moment," Victor quickly says. He slips away from the two, hoping they don't kill each other, and comes to Yuuri's bedside.

Yuuri, like Yurio said, is still deeply asleep. His face is drawn tight, as if he was battling against nightmares. The shadows under his eyes are deep like bruises and his lips, usually pink and beautiful, are bitten raw red. Victor gently touches his black hair, strokes it away from Yuuri's face. He is loathe to wake him, but he's sure Yuuri will forgive him once he sees the surprise Victor has brought him.

"Yuuri," Victor gently calls. "Darling, wake up. There is someone here to see you." And when that doesn't help, he strokes Yuuri's cheek. "Yuuri. Time to wake up, my love."

Slowly, heavily, Yuuri's eyes slide open. And then he startles, jumping away from Victor as if in fear. 

And it is, it is fear. Victor sees it in Yuuri's wide, panicked eyes before Yuuri recognizes Victor's familiar features. 

It hurts. Oh, how it hurts.

But Victor swallows the hurt for Yuuri's sake.

"I'm sorry to wake you," he says. "Can you dress? There is someone here to see you."

"I don't–" Yuuri rasps, but his voice breaks mid word. He sounds like he's been screaming all night and Victor's heart breaks all over again. 

"You want to see her," Victor tries again. "Trust me." However little that means.

Yuuri looks at him for a moment, then nods jerkily. The tiny smile Victor gives him is as helpless as he feels. 

He intends to get up and wait with the others until Yuuri is ready, but it appears that Yuuri's sister has far less patience than Victor has given credit. Just as Victor rises from his crouch, the door to the room bursts open. Yuuri squawks, gathering all blankets to himself. But then, then he notices who it is that interrupted his peace. 

"Mari?" 

For the first time, Victor sees a smile break out on Princess Mari's face. "Hello, brother."

Yuuri almost flies into his sister's arms. Something stings inside Victor's chest at that. Yuuri has flinched away from Victor, he didn't allow him to touch him since last night, but here he is, hugging his sister of his own volition. 

Jealousy and bitterness battle in Victor's heart, but he stomps them both down. He has no right to feel them. No right at all. It is his fault and his fault alone that Yuuri can't stand to be touched by him. That he can't stand to even look at him. Victor knows this. He understands this. And yet… and yet it still hurts when he sees princess Mari wrap her arms around Victor's mate, giving him the comfort he needs and which Victor can't provide.

"I will leave you both to catch up," Victor speaks at last. "If you need anything, please call. I will be in my room."

He begins to leave, but Yuuri's small voice stops him.

"Victor…" Yuuri can't look him in the eye, which hurts, hurts enough to make Victor's eyes sting. But he's speaking to him, he's trying, and that's all that Victor could wish for right then. "Thank you."

Victor shakes his head, unable to say a word through his tight throat. He swallows, and then forces a reply out: "No need to thank me, darling. Consider this the beginning of my apology and thanks, because I will surely continue to give those till the day I die."

He bows to his husband, lower than he has ever bowed to anyone in his life, and then he leaves. The door shuts quietly behind him, but even though Victor is on the other side, his heart remains with Yuuri. Always. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Victor doesn't see Yuuri for the next three days. They live in the same chambers, but Yuuri rarely leaves his room and whenever Victor knocks on the door, he is greeted by Yuuri's sister. Never him. 

It's a little frustrating, but Victor understands. Yuuri can't look at him. He can't look at Victor without remembering the awful happenings of the night of the ball. Victor is a walking, breathing reminder of what Yuuri had to sacrifice to make up for Victor's own incompetence. His naiveté. His lack of decisiveness. It's all Victor's fault: all this suffering, all this pain. He has no right to be upset with Yuuri. The only one he can be angry with is himself.

And Morio. 

That pure, raw hatred that leaves his mind blank and his blood boiling is exactly what Victor channels every second of his days, so that somehow he may carry on. That anger, helplessness, guilt. He puts all that on the tip of his sword, allows it to course through his veins and leave his body with the sweat that pours out of him in gallons. No matter how hard he pushes himself though, the well of feelings inside him never empties. 

Yurio has enough of him after one day, and Victor scares all the nobles away with the fierce scowl on his face. Even Chris refuses to cross blades with him after Victor bruises him like a late autumn apple. Only Prince Somchai seems able to withstand Victor's mood, so Victor asks him for a friendly round of sparring almost every day. As it happens, Prince Somchai is a demon with a sword, so Victor finds a worthy opponent to vent his anger with.

"You sure know your way with a blade," Prince Somchai pants one afternoon after they almost kill each other. Again. The cut on Victor's palm has not held him back from almost slicing the other prince apart. "I have never met someone that could match me when I try my hardest. Even my older brother is not able to handle me as well as you have."

"I'm glad my skills please you," Victor answers from where he's propped against a tree trunk. He's retying the bloodstained cloth around his hand to better cover the wound that has reopened. A lone leaf drops from above them and floats down to rest atop Victor's shoe. He's too tired to flick it off, which is good. It's good. 

He'd much rather be tired than so angry all the time.

Prince Somchai laughs. "You sound like you mean quite the opposite. Don't worry, friend. We are not at war, we needn't have a winner yet."

War is the last of what Victor wants to think about, so he ignores the comment. 

"Are you ready for the hunt?" Victor asks instead. 

"Tomorrow, yes?" When Victor nods, Prince Somchai grins. He looks up at the gray sky. "I hope it won't rain. That would make spotting pray so much more difficult. And, you know, it's easy to make mistakes when it rains."

That brings a little smile to Victor's lips. "Wet arrows don't always fly like we want them to, do they?"   

"They sure don't," Prince Somchai agrees. "Say, will Yuuri join us for the hunt? I haven't seen him since the ball, but I'd very much like to continue building our friendship. He seemed quite a bright man when we spoke earlier."

"I'm certain Yuuri shares your sentiment, but I'd rather he doesn't take part in tomorrow's amusements. I don't think he will feel up to it anyway. He hasn't been well since the night of the ball." 

Victor turns to gaze thoughtfully at the palace windows. It's impossible to see the window to the royal chambers from this courtyard, but he looks for where they would be anyway. Up there, almost at the very top... 

"That doesn't sound too good, but maybe some fresh air is just what he needs?"

Victor shakes his head. "I don't want him to see the bloodshed that will surely happen tomorrow. It's better this way."

Prince Somchai only hums and says not a word more of it. They part for the day, clasping hands like old friends. Even though Prince Arthit is the one who will inherit the Czatnoptan throne, Victor feels a brotherly closeness with King Mongkut's second son. With his support, Victor has no need to worry about the treaty between their countries ever coming to an end. Through this friendship, Somchai will advocate on their behalf, and thus make Victor's life just a little bit easier. It is always good to have allies in high places, after all.

In slightly lighter spirits, Victor returns to his chambers. He washes away the sweat and dirt, and dresses in clean robes before he decides that it is time: he must speak to Yuuri. And not just through Mari. 

They must talk. Face to face. Like mates ought to.

He knocks on the door to Yuuri's bedchamber. Mari opens it, like she has been doing ever since she arrived. 

She's an alpha, that much Victor has learned from Yuuri weeks ago, but her being one does not bother Victor in the least. There are many who, given that their bond is still fresh and new, would not let even family close to their mate. Victor is not one of them. And he never intends to be, unless that family poses a threat to his husband's wellbeing. Mari, then, is definitely not one. She is the opposite. She is exactly what Yuuri needed during his moment of weakness and Victor has been more than happy to have her there, so that Yuuri could once again feel safe.

But today he must see him.

"Yes?" Mari asks, her eyebrow raised at Victor.

"I need to speak to my husband," Victor tells her. And before she can say a word more, he adds: "It's important. Please."

Her hard face remains hard as she closes the door to confer with her brother. Seconds tick by while Victor waits. It's almost a full minute before the door opens again and Mari walks out, leaving it ajar for him. Victor takes the first step to enter, but her hand on his arm holds him back.

"Hurt him and I will rip you apart, Nikiforov," she tells him, and Victor has no trouble believing it. The threat in her eyes is real.

He nods solemnly, and walks into Yuuri's room once she releases him. He closes the door carefully, suddenly a little bit nervous. 

He hasn't seen Yuuri since that day. He knows only what little Mari decided to share with him: that he's eating almost nothing, that he wakes up from nightmares each night, that he flinches away from touch when you startle him. Every little bit she has shared with him was like a knife into his heart, and he suspects that Mari only said those things to hurt him, but he is still thankful to her – at least that brought him closer to Yuuri. At least he knew what happened to him.

He's offered to help, to talk to him, but each time Mari refused him entry, claiming that it is Yuuri's will. Victor had no trouble believing that. Whenever he thinks back to how Yuuri flinched away from him that first morning…

He shuts his eyes closed against the memory and forces his mind to focus on here and now. Anxious to see him, yet unsure how to behave when faced with him, Victor turns around. Yuuri is standing by the window, more than a few steps away from Victor, but...

God, Victor thinks, struck by the view of him, he's so beautiful. It doesn't matter what he's dressed in, because Victor doesn't see the clothes. All he sees is Yuuri's sweet face, his dark messy hair, his gentle brown eyes, and that, that is all he ever needs to see. 

The longer he remains simply looking, the more beautiful Yuuri seems to him. But along with it, Victor realizes that Yuuri is also tired. He's exhausted. Thinner, paler than Victor remembers, but still the most beautiful creature in this world. 

Victor pauses in complete silence, honoured to be allowed in his presence once more.

Yuuri doesn't look at him at first, but the longer Victor standing there, quiet in his worship, the more Yuuri turns to him. And then, at last, he lifts his eyes to Victor's. 

Oh, how beautiful they are! How much Victor has missed staring into them!

His vision blurs a little with tears, but Victor stubbornly blinks them away. He doesn't want to lose a second of looking at his stunning husband, for he doesn't know when next Yuuri will agree to see him. 

"I'm sorry," he says when he lifts a hand to wipe away a single tear that has slipped down his cheek. "I didn't mean to just come here and cry. I have… well. There is going to be a hunt tomorrow." 

He pauses, unsure of how to say this. Yuuri speaks before Victor does.

"I need to be there," he says in a voice that sounds as if he'd rather die. 

"No, no," Victor quickly denies. "You don't. That's what I came here to say. You don't have to be there. You, you shouldn't, in fact."

"I shouldn't?" Yuuri repeats. He wraps the outer robe tighter around himself as if he is suddenly cold. "I thought it was customary for the prince and his mate to lead the hunt. Are you… are you ashamed of me?"

He asks this in such a quiet, fearful voice that Victor's heart screams as it tears itself apart. 

"No, never," Victor says so quickly he almost bites his tongue. "I will never be ashamed of you, and I am not now. I just do not wish to overwhelm you. I know you're struggling right now, so I don't want to add to it. I have never, ever considered hiding you away because I'm ashamed of you."   

Yuuri nods. "I want to come, then."

"Is that a good idea, Yuuri? Are you sure you feel up to it?" Victor insists. And then, to make Yuuri realise the danger that comes with it, he adds: "He's going to be there."

Yuuri flinches as if Victor slapped him. Victor's heart gives another pained cry. Yuuri shouldn't force himself to be someone he's not, to be something he doesn't feel like being. Especially not for Victor, the one who hurt him most by doing nothing to protect him like he should have.

"You're so strong, my love," Victor says softly. "I know you are. I see that every day. But you needn't be strong with me."

He reaches out a hand to Yuuri. Offers it for Yuuri to take. He doesn't walk towards him, doesn't get close. He simply offers his hand, but even that is too much, it seems. Yuuri doesn't take it. He looks at it for a moment, then longer, but in the end he turns away. 

"I'm sorry, Victor. I can't. Not yet. But… I, I want to be there." Determination gives Yuuri's eyes an eerie glow. "Especially if he is, too. We can't show him he's won."

"He will think that when he sees how you react to me anyway," Victor points out. "How you flinch at his name, how you avoid my touch. It's a weakness he will exploit and I… I don't want you to hurt because of me any longer."

"Because of you?" Yuuri repeats, as if surprised. He looks at Victor, truly looks at him. "You think I'm hurting because of you? That you… that you're the reason for all that happened?" Somehow, with every word Yuuri seems to grow angrier. "Don't be ridiculous! If anyone is to blame then it's Morio. It's all his fault! All of it!"

Victor can't disagree. But he knows that pushing the blame on just that vile man isn't going to fix things.

"And mine," Yuuri adds, now more controlled. "It's my fault, Victor. Because I'm, because I'm a Katsuki. If you married someone else, you wouldn't–"

"Don't even finish that sentence," Victor warns, suddenly angry too. "I don't want to hear it. If I didn't marry you, what? I'd be happier? I'd be less worried? I'd have a better life?" Victor forces himself to lower his voice, lest Mari comes barging in on them to protect her brother. Yuuri looks at him with surprise. "Forgive me, Yuuri, but I would never wish to marry or mate with anyone else. You're my husband, my mate, and I love you. Don't insult me by implying I could ever choose to love anyone else when I've promised my heart to you for ever."

His words are heartfelt, and they must reach Yuuri, for Yuuri's eyes fill with tears. He takes a step towards Victor, then one more. Victor stands still, scared to move in case Yuuri once more backs away. But Yuuri doesn't touch him. He comes as close as he can, wipes his red eyes with his hands and lifts his head to gaze into Victor's eyes.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I shouldn't have said that. I was, I was so worried you'd think that without me–"

"Never," Victor interrupts him again. "They could offer me the most beautiful princesses and princes from around the world, the richest, the most submissive, the most faithful, and I'd still refuse to even look at them for a single chance of having you."

Yuuri's breath is heavy with tears. "You're a fool then."

"A fool in love," Victor corrects, smiling a tiny smile. 

He wants so badly to reach out and wipe away Yuuri's tears, take away all his fears and worries, but he doesn't. He can't. Yuuri is already pushing himself for him. Victor can't ask for more. He must leave it to Yuuri to give him permission to come close again. Until then… until then, Victor can only stay by his side and stew in his yearning, as punishment for his stupidity.

Yuuri shakes his head at his words, but he is also smiling. Even if that smile is barely there and tinged with pain. 

"I don't know what I did to deserve you, but I am thankful," he says. "I can't say how much I'll be able to take, but…" Yuuri lifts a trembling hand and gives it to Victor, who gently, tenderly, almost afraid to, takes it in his. Yuuri shudders, but he does not pull it away. "It's a start?"

Victor's throat tightens so much that he cannot speak a single word. Instead, he bends over Yuuri's hand and rests a single kiss on Yuuri's knuckles. And with it, he leaves him his heart, because it, like Victor himself, belongs in the palms of Yuuri's hands. Now and forever. 



 

***



 

"I need a favour," Victor says. 

Chris hums to make him continue, but Victor takes his time. He looks down into the plains, where the royal stable horses are being exercised in preparation for tomorrow's hunt. Chris' green eyes linger on the groom: a tall man with hair the colour of brown autumn leaves. 

"Two favours, actually," Victor adds, watching Chris watch the man he is undoubtedly attracted to. He's seen the signs too many times before not to know what this means. "But first, tell me about him."

He grins a little when Chris finally takes his eyes from the man who stole his fancy to look straight at Victor. Chris rolls his eyes a little, but he's smiling when he turns back to watch the mystery man again. 

"We had some fun during the ball," Chris says. "But every time after that when I came down to the stables he only treated me like any other noble. I tried gifts, but he returned every single one. I tried flirting, but he's only ever polite. I'm thinking of giving him a horse next. He can't refuse that, can he? And he loves them to death, so it should work, I think."

"Ask him for a ride and take only one horse," Victor offers. "He'll have to listen to you then and, given your passion for romantic speeches, I'm sure you can convince him of your heart's true intent."

Chris laughs. "Now that is an idea worth considering."

They fall silent for a moment, returning to their observation of the proceedings below. Briefly, the groom turns towards them and lifts his head up as if to see whether Chris' balcony is empty. Once he notices Victor and Chris there, he quickly looks away. His reaction is enough to make Chris sigh a smitten little breath. He props his elbow on the balustrade, his chin in his hand.

It's been a while since Victor has seen him like this, and he smiles to himself, happy for his friend's happiness. Even if his own love life seems to have been burnt into ashes.

"What do you want from me, then?" Chris asks at last.

"Are you coming to the hunt?" Victor asks and when Chris offers a non-committal hum, he follows: "I'd like you there. I, well, I need someone to keep my guards occupied, if you know what I mean."

"A romantic getaway when everyone is out for blood? How romantic, Victor," Chris teases.

It's Victor's turn to roll his eyes. 

"It's nothing like that. I don't want to explain, though. For your own sake, it's better that you remain ignorant."

There is something in Chris' eyes that makes Victor want to tell him everything. But he can't. He reminds himself of all the suffering Morio has caused, of all the pain he could still cause if Victor fails. If he learned that Victor has told someone…

Soon, Victor reminds himself. Soon they will be free of him and Victor will be able to once again be honest with his friend.

"Very well, I won't ask," Chris gives in after a long moment of silence. "And I will have no trouble with your guards. We've had lots of practice over the years, haven't we?"

Victor answers his grin with a little smile of his own. 

"What's the other favour you wanted to ask?" Chris asks. "I'll have you know that I will come to collect both at some point."

Victor waves a hand. "Fine, fine. As if I could ever refuse you, if you come to ask me for something." He pauses, then bites his lip as he prepares to say what he must. "I need one of your arrows."

Chris blinks. "What?"

"I need one of your arrows," Victor repeats. "For the hunt tomorrow."

Chris' eyebrows lift. "And royal treasury is so low on coin that the heir to the throne can't afford even one quiver of arrows?"

"He can and he will have it." Victor turns away from Chris' penetrating gaze, choosing to stare into the horizon instead. "But all royal arrows are marked. You know this. I need one that will be inconspicuous. That no one will connect to me in any way."

He needn't look at Chris to know his expression: his narrowed eyes, his thoughtful expression, the suspicious quirk to his lips. Chris remains considering for a long moment, and with every passing second Victor's heart flutters about his chest like a caged bird around its prison.

"I will not ask what you need it for," Chris begins at last, "but tell me this – will I be implicated in whatever it is you're planning?"

"I don't plan for anyone to know either of us had anything to do with it, but in case it cannot be helped… I promise I will not allow you to suffer for my actions," Victor vows. 

Chris sighs again. "I hope you know what you're doing."

Victor thinks to everything that's been happening ever since Morio came into his life. It's laughable how little control of his life he has. Even now, while he's planning his murder, he feels like it's Morio who's tugging on his strings. Like it's him who's leading Victor onto this path of bloodshed... 

"I hope I do, too," he admits quietly. 

Chris says nothing more. He simply squeezes Victor's arm as if in support, and for that Victor is more than thankful.



 

***



 

The day before the hunt Yuuri wakes up with an odd smell making him dizzy. He asks if Mari knows what it is, but she can't tell anything is out of the ordinary, which makes Yuuri even more sick – down to the very bottom of his stomach. It must be a premonition, he decides then, and that thought gives him no peace at all. In fact, it only makes him fear the future more than he already does. 

Every breath he takes feels like wet ground sliding down his throat. That scent, the scent of muddy, melting snow, so cloying and choking that you can't stand it, but need to breathe it to live… It makes Yuuri afraid. It's not his own fear, not his present fear, he can tell. It's just… It's the fear of the future him: his fear, his cold dread, his despair.

On top of Yuuri's own fragile state of mind, it's almost enough for him to wish he could lock himself away in his room forever. 

He isn't allowed that luxury. When Mari tells him Victor wishes to speak to him, Yuuri has half a mind to send him away, like he's been doing since that awful night only few days ago, but something – maybe that fear, that chilling despair – convinces him against it. And he's glad it did. Whatever distance between them there was, somehow, by Victor showing Yuuri more love than he deserves and Yuuri choosing to accept it despite the fear that still lingers in every fibre of his being, they managed to bridge their lives together once more. It is not enough to make them forget about everything that happened, but, as Yuuri called it, it's a start. It's a tying of loose threads that their bond has slowly been unravelled into, so that they may last past these trying times. 

Mari isn't happy when Yuuri tells her he has decided to take part in the hunt. She is not happy at all.

"So, you cling to me sobbing for hours, then ask me not to ask you questions about it, then ask me to keep your husband – whom you love, as you say – from seeing you, and then, above all that, you suddenly want to speak to him and you agree to ride a horse all day and hunt some animal through the woods?" She snorts. "That is a load of horse crap and you know it. Now, spill. What is this about?" 

She narrows her eyes when Yuuri opens his mouth, excuse ready on his tongue. "And no lying, little brother."

Yuuri glares.

"I wasn't going to lie. But I can't tell you everything. Or rather, I don't want you to know, because you'd worry. Or worse, you'll want to take things into your own hands and I can't have you executed for being unable to keep your temper."

"It's that bad?" Mari's eyebrows rise. "What are you keeping from me, Yuuri?"

But Yuuri only shakes his head. 

"I promise I will tell you one day, but for now… for now it's still too fresh." Mari doesn't say anything for a long while, and Yuuri feels like he must explain further. "Victor never hurt me. It is not him you should be upset with. But I can't tell you who. I'm sorry."

He must look as pitiful as he feels, for Mari only sighs. 

"I worry about you, Yuuri," she says. "Can't you simply stay here and rest? You haven't been eating, haven't been sleeping. How do you plan to ride the entire day when you can barely walk about without swaying on your feet?"

"I will manage somehow," Yuuri insists, "because I want to be there, Mari. I want to be at Victor's side. We have to present a united front, to seem strong to all those nobles who want to see us crumble."

"You want to or you have to?" she asks, eyeing him. 

"I want to." Yuuri decides. He doesn't know if that's the truth, but he wants to believe it. "I want to be with him, Mari. I, I know it might not look like this now, but I've been happy with him. I love him."

That confession softens Mari's eyes, if only for a fraction. She shakes her head, exasperated. 

"I'm going to come with you then," Mari says. "You'll need someone to lean on."

Yuuri, torn by fondness and gratitude, can only smile. "You can't. People will recognize you."

"What are you saying?"

"People will know who you are, Mari," Yuuri explains. He heaves a sigh that holds all the heaviness that presses against his heart. "Not all of them, but some. They will recognize you. It's dangerous."

"No one said a word to me about it yet," she returns. 

Yuuri shakes his head. "They won't. But they will come to me or Victor, they will–" He pauses, so as not to say too much. "Look, just trust me on this, please. It's good that you have been locked in here with me so far. No one should know you're here, except the King and the Queen, and a couple servants." 

"I don't understand this," Mari snaps at last. "You invited me over. You said it was safe, that no one will remember me, because I was a child when we escaped. And now you're telling me quite the opposite. So what is this? What's the truth, brother?"

She's right, Yuuri knows. He is guilty of bringing her into the fold of things at a time most dangerous for her. If Mo– If he learns she's here… Yuuri doesn't dare to think of the consequences that will follow. Of what else he'd ask for in order to keep this secret as well.   

He must tell Mari as much as he can, Yuuri realizes. He sets his jaw hard and says:

"There is someone in the palace that knows who we are, Mari. He's been blackmailing us. If he learns you're here…"

"Who?" Mari instantly asks. 

"I can't tell you," Yuuri answers, wringing his hands. The pain helps ground him. "Or rather, I don't want to tell you. You're safer not knowing. After the hunt… or, wait, maybe even during the hunt? Yes, that'd be best, I think. No one should notice then." He looks at Mari seriously and takes her hand in his. He squeezes it to tell her how important the matter is to his heart. "I need you to go back. You can't stay while he's here. It's too dangerous. For all of us."

Mari doesn't say much as she looks at him. His fear must be obvious to her. She's known him for years, after all. She's been with him through all the moments of weakness, she's seen him crumble and rise back up. She must know that this is not a trifle then.

In the end, she simply nods, but she does not look happy in the least. In fact… In fact, she seems angry. She says nothing about it, though. 

"Very well. I will go. But only if I think you can carry on without me," she gives her condition. 

Yuuri has no choice but to accept it. He was overjoyed to see Mari, more than thankful to have her support during those few days, but… he'd much rather know she's alive somewhere safe, than have her here with him and risk her life for a moment of comfort. He could use her familiar presence in this hateful world, but if his only choice is between himself and her safety, her life, he will make the same decision as that fateful night.

So, no matter what happens, he knows what he must do; to save her, his parents, and Victor – Yuuri must be strong. Strong, stronger… to live.

He rises his chin then, and keeps it risen. For Mari, for Victor, for their parents. And for himself as well, so that he may look into his face and not cower.



 

***



 

The sound of swords, oddly enough, gives Yuuri the peace of mind he had trouble finding elsewhere. Something about sparring, maybe the feel of the blade in his hand or the strength with which Yurio swings at him – he does not hold back at all and comes at Yuuri like he always does: with passion and pure, brutish brawn – makes Yuuri feel more confident in himself. 

He parries blow by blow, and every time the steel sings and his arms go a little bit numb, Yuuri reclaims his courage. Bit by bit, it returns to him, swells within him, freezes the core of him into something steel-like. 

This is what he needed, Yuuri realizes as he sidesteps Yurio's lunge and strikes the blade from the boy's hand. This is what Yuuri needed to feel in control once again. A blade, a rhythm, a safety that only a lethal weapon can give. 

He breathes in deep while Yurio fetches his sword. They stand in position again, watching each other closely. Yurio has gotten better from that first time they sparred, but so has Yuuri. What previously they did by accident, now was calculated and measured like the steps they now take as they circle each other. Victor has trained them well.

Would Yuuri win against Mo– against him, if he tried? Yurio is still unpresented, no matter how much his behaviour screams alpha. He is already a man in his own right. He's an alpha. A strong, healthy alpha. Would Yuuri be able to have an even match with him? Yuuri, an omega of undoubtedly lesser strength, would he be able to win against him if he had the courage to raise a blade against him? Yuuri doesn't know the answer. He does not dare even think of it. 

While his head is somewhere else, Yurio sees his chance and lunges. He takes Yuuri off guard and within a few quick strikes, he slaps the blunt side of his blade on Yuuri's hand, making him drop the handle. Yuuri hisses, but his voice drowns in the clang of the sword hitting the courtyard stones.

"That was too easy," Yurio comments. "Are you even trying?"

"Forgive me,, I was distracted by my thoughts." Yuuri bends down to pick up his sword. "Once more?"

"Why are we even doing this at such an hour?" Yurio asks, but he gets in position. "It'll be getting dark soon if we continue like this."

"I simply needed some exercise to prepare for tomorrow's hunt," Yuuri explains. It is not fully a lie, after all. "You didn't have to agree, if you didn't want to do this."

Yurio says nothing to that. They step around each other again, come together to trade a few blows and jump back. 

"Are you coming to the hunt?" Yuuri asks. 

"Can't," Yurio answers, trying to catch Yuuri off guard by striking against his shins. Yuuri jumps away and swings at Yurio as soon as he regains foothold, but Yurio is prepared and parries his blow with his blade. "I'm not allowed. Still unpresented and all."

"That's hardly fair." They push away from each other once more. "What does that have anything to do with hunting?"

Yurio only shrugs, his eyes greedily looking for any openings in Yuuri's guard. Then, he finds one and he dives to slice his blade upwards and knock Yuuri's sword away. He's strong, stronger than Yuuri remembers him being, and soon, Yurio's blade gleams threateningly right under Yuuri's chin. 

Breathing hard, Yuuri gives in.

"Let us finish for today then," he decides. "We shouldn't do this in the dark. Victor would be angry, if he heard."

Yurio snorts, but he says nothing to fight it. They find the discarded sheaths of their swords and take the weapons back to the royal armoury. As they walk back to the palace, they pass through another courtyard. Like Yurio said, the sky is quickly dipping into black, but not only because of upcoming night. 

Yuuri lifts his face up and the first drops of rain gently knock against his cheeks. 

"I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow," Yuuri says, "that would surely ruin the hunt."

"If you ask me, I don't know why they are holding it so late anyway," Yurio says. They come to the inner door of the palace and he swings it open for them to step inside. "It's almost winter. What are they hoping to hunt? Pigeons?"

He snorts again, and Yuuri frowns. He hasn't thought of that. In fact, until Yurio mentioned it, Yuuri has not noticed the change in weather. He has been locked inside the palace walls for so long that he missed the true coming of autumn. And now that it's here, he is right that most pray will already be hidden away in their winter nests.

What will they be hunting then? And why is a hunt taking place this late in the season? Yuuri doesn't remember there being one in the plans when they were preparing for the receiving of the Czatnoptan delegation, which must mean it is a recent addition. One that was spurred on by someone's rash decision. But whose…?

He's deep at thought when they arrive at the corridor crossing. Yurio lifts a hand in a wordless goodbye and Yuuri waves to him in answer. He watches the blond hair disappear as Yurio walks away, but somehow Yuuri can't help the feeling like something is not right here.

Why is there a hunt when the pray is so little? Why in such weather? Who wanted this to happen? There is only one person whose whims have recently been obeyed in this palace, but surely it could not be him...

He looks out of the big windows as he climbs the stairs to the royal wing. The rain has started in full now: it's heavy and draining, and the entire sky looks like it will never see the sun again. The corridors are even darker for it. The lone torches and braziers are not enough to keep the shadows away, and as Yuuri walks towards his and Victor's chambers, he feels them chase after his heels.

Something about the darkness… it brings out Yuuri's unease. As if someone was watching him, as if someone was following him… Yuuri quickens his steps, his breath coming faster. There is no one there, he tells himself. He tries to stifle the rising panic, the strange unbidden fear that came out of nowhere, out of nothing. But when the flames flicker, he flinches away as the shadows move to greedily grasp at him. The only sound in his ears is his own breathing, his rapid rabbit heartbeat, and the clicking of his heels on the stone floor that echoes, echoes double as if someone else was chasing after his footsteps.

Almost at a run, Yuuri passes by the two guards stationed outside their rooms and bursts inside, gulping air like a thirsty man does water. He bangs the door shut so loud that he startles Victor, who is sitting on the sofa before the fireplace. Even Mari comes out of Yuuri's room, searching for the explanation for the sudden noise.

They both turn to Yuuri with worry on their faces.

"I apologize," Yuuri gasps amid the harsh breathing. "I did not mean to shut it that hard."

"No need to apologize," Victor quickly says, standing up. He does not move closer, but all his attention is unwaveringly given to Yuuri. "Are you quite alright, my love? Come, sit. You look as if you were chased by wolves."

Slowly, Yuuri crosses the room and takes a seat in one of the armchairs. Mari closes the door to Yuuri's room and comes to sit on the sofa, where she's closest to him. She picks this exact position to put herself between Yuuri and Victor, and it makes Yuuri feel a little bit safer, but also a little bit upset, because it is not Victor he needs to be protected from.  

"I'm alright," Yuuri tells them both. "It's nothing. Nothing happened."

"You were with Yurio, yes?" Victor asks. "Sparring?"

Yuuri nods. "And it was a really good session. Yurio has grown a lot. You're a great teacher, Victor."

But Victor only shakes his head. "You have made great improvements to his thinking, Yuuri. It is as much my influence as it is yours. I have been training him for a long while before you arrived and it's only now that he began to listen. I'm sure your skill and drive lit a fire inside him. You should take credit where it's due."

He smiles at Yuuri, sweet and precious, and somehow, little by little, Yuuri's panic eases. His breathing returns to normal, the shadows recede, and the flames in the fire once more begin to give warmth. Yuuri takes a deep breath, still a little shaky, and answers Victor's smile with a tiny one of his own.

"Thank you for saying that."

"I'm simply speaking the truth," Victor says. "But, please, will you tell us what had you running in here looking so scared? We," he looks at Mari briefly, and Mari nods as if some unspoken exchange has passed between them, "We'd like to help you, if we can. Together."

As much as Yuuri appreciates the gesture, he doesn't know what to say. Far less what to ask help for. After all… Those were only shadows, no? Nothing that needs actual help from anyone. Just, just shadows. It's too silly to speak aloud.

"I simply felt like running," Yuuri answers, even though it's a lie. Why is he lying? Or... is he? Those were only shadows. He was alone, there was no one else. Why was he running...? "It's nothing, I promise. Don't worry about this, please. I am well."

Neither Victor, nor Mari look convinced. 

"We spoke while you were with Yurio," Victor says after a moment. "Mari has told me about your decision to send her away during the hunt and I agree that it would be better for her, but what about you, Yuuri? Will you be able to stand living here without the safety her presence offers?"

Yuuri doesn't think, when he says: "I will have to learn."

"Yuuri," Mari cuts in, her voice scornful. She sounds so much like their mother that Yuuri is momentarily caught off guard. "You must have a safe space here. Remember the condition I made for my leaving? I will go, but only if I think you will be well without me. As of now, I don't see it happening."

Something stirs inside Yuuri's chest. Something angry, something nasty. "What are you saying then?"

"I'm saying that I think you need to listen to your husband for once," she answers and nods to Victor. 

Yuuri turns to him, his eyes narrowed. "Since when are you two such close friends?"

"Since we both care for your deeply, is it really that strange that we found an even footing to communicate on?" Victor asks back, but then he shakes his head when Yuuri opens his mouth to argue. "Never mind that now, Yuuri. Your sister is right. You need to feel safe again and I, I don't think I can give you that feeling. I want to, oh, believe me, I want nothing more," he quickly adds, looking pained, "but I don't think there is anything I can do to make you feel safe with me as of yet. I will try my hardest, and please know that you can always – and I mean it, Yuuri, always; any time of day or night – come to me and I will do my best to protect you or hold you or do anything you wish of me." 

He steps closer, kneels before Yuuri. He doesn't touch him, but even his closeness, his scent – thick and musky and all alpha – makes Yuuri tense up. 

"I don't think you'll be able to trust me within a day or two, and that is fine, my love. I promise, I hold it not against you, so take as long as you need. But I need to protect you. I need to ensure your safety. I need to– I need you to never, ever be in the position I put you in by neglecting the threat inside this palace." Victor takes a deep breath and, all in one exhale, says: "I want you to be accompanied by guards wherever you go."

"You want me followed?" Yuuri echoes, stunned into disbelief.

"No," Victor vehemently shakes his head, "no, no, no. Not followed. Guarded. Protected."

"Isn't that the same thing?" Yuuri asks, sharp. "You want guards to go wherever I go as if, as if I'm the one who needs to be kept under close watch. Like a… like a criminal."

"Yuuri, no. Please. I don't mean it like that," Victor insists, but he seems to be at a loss for words.

"I don't want guards," Yuuri says, as strongly as he can. "I am not fragile. What happened… That–" He swallows, then continues: "No guard could have prevented that. You couldn't." Victor winces. "I don't need someone following my every step as if I'm going to break without you or Mari. I am not that weak. Or is it that you think I am? Both of you?"

He looks from one to the other, and they both seem unable to reply. Somehow, that only makes Yuuri more angry. He stands up.

"If you think me that weak, maybe I will just need to stay in my room and not see either of you–" Suddenly, as if all anger turned into heat, Yuuri feels his throat clog. His eyes sting, his voice breaks. His chest squeezes painfully. "I will not see either of you."

He intends to turn and pointedly walk into his room and shut the door in their faces, but he is not able to. All strength has left his body. He simply stands there, choking on his breath, stifling sobs that rise up his throat unbidden. 

"Yuuri…" Victor starts, but Yuuri shakes his head.

Mari reaches for Yuuri's hand, but Yuuri rips it away. 

"I don't need guards," Yuuri insists. His voice is weaker than before, but it's as solid as he can make it. Why don't they understand...?

"Very well," Victor finally says. He bows his head, and it's clear that it weighs on him to agree to Yuuri's will. "I will not make you. I never want to do anything against you, I hope you know that. There will be no guards."

Shakily, Yuuri wipes the wetness out of his eyes. He nods his thanks to Victor, who eyes him worriedly. That once more sparks anger in Yuuri's heart, but he's too tired to feel it burn. 

"You're too soft on him," Mari tells Victor as if Yuuri isn't standing right there. Then, she turns to Yuuri, her eyes narrowed. "And you. You're such a little brat, brother. He's trying to protect you, can't you see that? Why be so stubborn about this?"

"I am not being stubborn," Yuuri insists. "I simply do not wish–"

"For your husband to use every means available to protect his mate who has been hurt before?" Mari supplies for him with a raised eyebrow. And true enough, when she says it like that, Yuuri feels the reason of her words. Still… 

"I don't need guards," Yuuri says again, and as the words leave his mouth he realizes what he must sound like: a spoiled child. In the moment, he honestly feels like one, which only makes him feel more silly than before. 

Mari rolls her eyes. Yuuri fights his rising anger. Victor sighs.

"There will be no guards," Victor decides in the end. "If Yuuri doesn't want them, then I will not insist." Yuuri can't help but feel a little triumphant. That is, until Victor lays his condition: "But instead, I insist that you never leave here without another alpha present. It can be me, it can be Mari, for as long as she stays here. It can be my father or one of the guards. Someone, anyone. You may choose whom you trust most, but someone must be there to protect you. Please, promise me that, Yuuri." 

This idea sits with Yuuri no better than the idea of guards, but it is an improvement from what he thinks would be prison. 

"Very well," he agrees. "That I can live with."

They look at each other for a moment, before the tension seems to dissipate. Mari gives a long, exasperated sigh. 

"When I leave, will you two promise to behave?" she asks, gazing at one, then the other. "You," she tells Victor, "need to press him harder at times. Yuuri is stubborn to the point of annoyance at times. He won't admit to many things and he will try to shoulder everything on his own. You need to read him and push him to open up." Her face softens. "But despite that he's also fragile, so make sure you don't push too hard." 

"Mari," Yuuri injects, now feeling embarrassed.

That makes Mari round on him in turn. 

"And you," she says. "If you don't trust your own mate, whom will you trust? With us so far away, he is the only family you have here. He simply wants you to be safe, Yuuri. To be loved. Let him protect you, let him love you. Trust him like you trust me. And if he hurts you," She sends Victor a little nasty glare over her shoulder, "you let me know and I will rip him apart. That much I promise you both."

Yuuri can't help but laugh at the accepting look on Victor's face. 

"I believe in you," Mari ends, speaking to them both. "I believe in your union. It's clear to me that you both care about each other. It's just that the world hasn't been kind. Still, I hope you stand against it and win. That is what I wish for you, little brother, brother-in-law. Be happy, both of you. Even if you have to do so in spite of those that want to see you crumble."

This time, when the tears come, Yuuri does not blink them away. He accepts them, even if they don't fall. Because, this time, they are tears of love, not fear, and that makes all the difference.

And when Yuuri's blurry gaze meets Victor's, he knows that what Mari wishes for them is not at all impossible. It's a dream that is well within their reach, if only they allow themselves to feel the courage to do so together.



 

***

 

 

What little Mari has brought with her, by the time dawn rises over the horizon is packed away and ready to leave in the carriage with her. Victor has spoken to the Queen that evening, warned her about their plans for Mari's departure. She agreed to have a carriage prepared for her while everyone will be out of the palace, enjoying the year's last hunt. 

Yuuri has trouble sleeping that night. First he stirs and turns, until Mari wakes up for the second time and asks him what's wrong. Yuuri says nothing, and turns away, willing himself to sleep. He falls into slumber not long after, but what he dreams about is so strange, such a disturbing mixture of dream and reality, that he can't truly be sure what he's seen. There was him, but he wasn't human – he was a monstrous creature with horns and ooze coming out of every pore, and the stink of him was more than Yuuri could handle. 

And then there was a unicorn, too. That same one that blessed his and Victor's union during their wedding ceremony. It hasn't been more than 3 months since then, but to Yuuri it feels like forever ago. He has almost forgotten the words the creature spoke straight into their minds. In the dream, however, he clearly heart them again. They kept coming back to Yuuri over and over:

 

 

Beware of the one who protects… Beware… who protects… Beware… the one...

 

 

When morning comes, that dream still haunts Yuuri beneath his eyelids whenever he closes his eyes. It means something, he's sure. It's a premonition, it must be. A reminder to him of what is sure to happen. But what it is exactly, he can't even venture a guess. 

Or rather, he can, but he does not want to believe in it. Because the one who protects… it's Victor. Victor is sworn to protect him. Wasn't it Victor who just last night has promised Yuuri that he will do everything he can to protect him. It's Victor, then, Victor of whom Yuuri should be scared...?

As hard as Yuuri can, he tries not to think of it. For the most part, he succeeds. With the hunt, Mari's leaving, his own overtly heightened feelings and Victor, sweet Victor who tries his hardest to reconnect with Yuuri, Yuuri's mind and heart are full to bursting. He spends a ridiculously long while simply hugging Mari goodbye, while Victor waits by the door. 

"Write to me, please," Yuuri begs. "And have mother and father write to me, also. I miss hearing what's happening at home."

"I will tell them," Mari promises. "And you write as well. A little more than the previous letter, if you don't mind." Yuuri sob-laughs into Mari's shoulder. "And, no matter what, Yuuri, remember that you can always come home. Always. We will protect you, no matter who comes after you."

Yuuri only squeezes her harder. She rubs her wrists, her familiar, calming scent onto his neck, and for the first time that day, Yuuri allows himself to feel safe and relaxed. 

It doesn't last. As soon as they leave their rooms and Victor offers Yuuri his arm, Yuuri feels his brief happiness dissipate, drawing out of his body like smoke – whiff by whiff, until none is left. 

They head down to the main courtyard, where the royal groom is waiting with their horses among the gathered nobles. Before they even arrive, Yuuri already hears the noise of conversation, the neighing of horses, the barking of impatient hounds. He has not been among so many people since the night of the ball, and the prospect of it makes his skin crawl. 

But he promised. They must look strong. Yuuri must not lose against Mo– him.

So he pushes himself, step by step. His hand on Victor's arm is pale and tight. Victor covers it with his free hand, and for a second there Yuuri can breathe easier. He offers Victor half a smile and receives half a smile in return, both of them weighed by different things, yet as one, bearing  two sides of their pain: their own, and their mate's. 

Suddenly, Yuuri appreciates Victor more than he ever has. For staying with him, for fighting for him, for carrying half the weight that sits upon Yuuri's shoulders. Who else would do such for a mate they only just met? Victor, like always, surprises him. Yuuri can't help but ache as love strikes painfully in his chest.

"Will you allow me to scent mark you, Yuuri?" Victor asks, as if uneasy with his request. "It would be best if they could smell me on you. It will keep you protected. Maybe it will deter even him from as much as looking your way."

Yuuri swallows hard, pushing away all thoughts. If he allows them in, he knows he will not be able to leave the palace walls. He takes a deep breath, takes in Victor's familiar scent. The musk of an alpha rises all hair across his arms, but there is something achingly sweet in Victor's scent. There is something in it that makes Yuuri nod and tilt his head for Victor, obedient and accepting.

Victor marks him carefully. His touch is gentle, soft, as if he doesn't want to hurt Yuuri on accident. As if he could hurt him if he presses his wrist a little harder to his scent gland. A simmering of anger awakens in Yuuri's heart, but he stifles it. It is no time for arguments, and… what reason did he give Victor to think of him as strong? 

Somehow, that thought alone makes Yuuri consider how he must look like in Victor's eyes: unstable, helpless, lost. Like a fearful child that must be kept safe from his own nightmares. He detests that, and so, stubbornly, he lifts his chin higher.

"This should do," Victor says at last, then smiles at Yuuri gratefully. "Thank you for allowing me to do this, Yuuri. I know it must be hard. You're so brave, my love."

"Don't treat me like I'm broken, Victor," Yuuri says back, a bit sharper than he intended. But once the words are out, the sharpness seems to stick to him.

He grabs Victor's retreating hand and, before Victor can react, he sinks his teeth into the scent gland on Victor's wrist. A little yelp escapes past Victor's lips, but it disappears as soon as Yuuri rolls his tongue over the indents he's made in Victor's skin. Victor's sent rises to fill Yuuri's mouth, and Yuuri swallows it down, as if it could give him strength from inside out.

Blue eyes are widened and almost aglow when Yuuri lifts his head again.

"I am not helpless," Yuuri tells him. "I am not fragile. Trust me a little."

His words seem to reach right into Victor's heart, because he presses his bitten wrist to his chest, as if to keep the proof of Yuuri's anger closer. His lips quirk, a smile so small and fleeting that it almost seems a ghost, but Yuuri knows Victor's face well enough to be able to tell it's there. It's there, and it's staying. 

"I trust you," Victor tells him, his wrist pressed to his heart. "I trust you with my life."

And then they step out into the fresh morning air. 

For whatever reason, Yuuri expects it to smell like yesterday's premonition – that of wet, muddy snow filling his lungs – but all he smells is humidity and horse. It is not quite relief that makes his body lighter, but it is as close to it as he can feel now. 

Everywhere he looks, horses stomp in place. Riders dressed in colourful cloaks, both men and women, alphas and betas, and even a few daring omegas, seem like a gathering of butterflies atop their saddles. The air is filled with excitement, whispers and laughter. A royal hunt, Yuuri thinks as he takes in the mass of horses and people before him, is something of a ball, except with bows and arrows and blades that yearn for blood. It is a different form of amusement than simple dancing and feasting, and the change is clear not only in the emotion, but also on people's faces. They are all flushed, glowing, the eyes shining with a need to spill blood or, even, to watch it be spilled by others. 

It's odd to see those desires worn so plainly. Yuuri has never been a part of a hunting group. Those tasks back at home were left to alphas. Even Yuuri's father did not wish him to learn hunting, even if he did teach him to shoot. Those lessons, however, were given to him alone, and never before has Yuuri seen so many people itching to spill blood. 

Whose blood? That Yuuri still doesn't know. 

"What are we hunting?" he asks as they come to the two horses the royal groom has been keeping for them.

Victor waves the man away, choosing to help Yuuri climb onto his gelding himself. He holds the stirrup steady for him and only answers when Yuuri is seated in his saddle. 

"Most of the animals are already preparing for winter, but for occasions like this we have a few deer and pheasants kept in the royal care. A couple of harts have been released to the forest this morning. We will have ample pray, and the tracks won't be too difficult to find among the fallen leaves."

But something in Victor's face isn't right. Yuuri can't tell what, but there is something…

Victor turns and quickly jumps onto his own horse. The stallion throws its silvery mane when Victor takes the reins and turns it around to stand with Yuuri. 

He's truly beautiful, Victor is. As always, Yuuri is suddenly caught by it. On his white and gray horse, with his hair touched by wind and his eyes bright with resolve, Victor is the most beautiful man Yuuri has ever seen. His robes are dark today, resplendent with golden thread on material dyed wine-red. Against those, his skin seems to almost glow, and the flush that the caress of wind puts on him seems to only make him more stunning. 

Yuuri's heart squeezes painfully in his chest. This is his husband. His mate. His alpha. So beautiful, so royal, so graceful. The way Victor sits in his saddle – back straight, head level, confident and at ease – it tugs on something inside Yuuri's very soul. It's attraction, he knows. He's attracted to Victor. Painfully, helplessly attracted, and, as his husband, he is allowed to be. But another part of him, the hurting part, is also crying. Yuuri is torn by love, torn in half by feeling it and wanting it gone all at the same time. Because this love, this attraction, reminds him of what he has done, and that… that hurts even more, even in memory.

Thankfully, he is not allowed to hurt about this further, for cheers erupt from the crowd behind them. Startled out of his thoughts, Yuuri lifts his eyes to where everyone is looking. The king and queen have just stepped out of the palace. They stopped at the top of the stairs and the king now lifts his arms, calling for silence, which falls within seconds. Everyone is ready to hear his blessing. Everyone is ready for the hunt to begin.

"My lords and ladies!" the king calls. "A royal hunt is not only an opportunity to hunt, but a chance to be recognized among your peers. It is also an opportunity to gain favour with your king. It is a chance for you to distinguish yourself. It is a chance for you to earn a boon."

More cheers sound at these words. The king waits until the rides fall silent again, and carries on:

"For this hunt the rules are simple: each hart assigned as prey has a white ribbon tied to its head. Bring back the antlers to which a white ribbon with a royal seal has been tied and great treasures await you! The one who does so first, shall have the opportunity to ask us for anything they want, and should it be within our power, the wish will be granted!" 

The nobles cheer as one, and the king takes a blowing horn from a pillow that one of the servants brings him. Even from afar Yuuri can see the silver and gold it is embellished with gleam in the sparse sunlight. It is customary for the king to blow into the horn in a signal to begin the hunt, but this time he breaks away from tradition. He carries the horn down the steps, then offers it to Victor. 

"I entrust the hunt to you, my son. May the gods bless your fortunes and keep you safe from all harm."

Victor takes the horn with his head lowered respectfully. Once he straightens up, however, he is smiling. 

"Forgive me, father, but just this once I must shirk the responsibility on someone more deserving of this honour." 

Victor turns his horse around and guides it in a slow trot to the first row of nobles behind them. Yuuri follows him with his gaze, and then he sees where Victor is heading. 

"Prince Somchai!" Victor's voice sounds loud and clear in the courtyard. The gathered nobles fall silent, and even the wind ceases to blow, as if it, too, is interested in what will happen next. "Will you do us the honour of leading us on this hunt?"

"It will be my greatest pleasure," comes the calm voice of Czatnopta's second prince. 

The horn exchanges hands. The crowd cheers. Victor returns to Yuuri's side. He smiles at him encouragingly, and Yuuri tries to answer with the same, but his face seems to have forgotten what muscles are required to make it work. Victor opens his mouth as if to say something, but a servant hands him a bow and a quiver, and Victor purses his lips shut. He slings both over his shoulders. Then, he takes the sword and belts it around his waist.

Another servant brings Yuuri his weapons. Yuuri gladly accepts them. It has been a long while since he held a bow in his hands, but holding one now gives him a sense of peace that he has only been able to feel back at home. It is a different bow than the ones he's used to. This is a thing of beauty, made of polished wood that slides smoothly under Yuuri's fingers like water. The arrows are just like it: their fletchings softer than silk, and dipped in blue paint to mark them as belonging to royalty. 

Yuuri slips the bow and the full quiver over his shoulders and grips the reins in a trembling hand. He takes a deep breath to steady himself. For a brief moment, he closes his eyes.

Then, the horn signalling the beginning of the hunt sounds as Prince Somchai blows it. Like one, the cavalcade of horses forms behind them, ready to move. And when the horn echoes around the courtyard again, they all spill out of the palace gates.

The hunt has begun.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The sound hooves make as the hunting party rides through the wet forest paths is closer to a squelch than a steady staccato they began with on the palace courtyard. Somehow, that takes away almost half the glory of the moment. The trees drip with rainwater as the tumult shakes the last leaves that still cling to the already dead husks. The mud splashes everywhere. 

Truly… anyone would wonder why a hunt should be held at this time of year. Yuuri doesn't. Or, he doesn't allow himself to. Because if he even thinks about it, he knows he will begin to suspect awful, terrible things about his husband, and he cannot do that. Not now, when Victor is the last person he can still somewhat trust in the palace.

Yuuri chances a glance at Victor. They are riding close together at the beginning of the line of horses. On both sides they are flanked by guards, cloaked in navy blue and clinking silver armour. Victor promised not to put them on Yuuri's tracks, but the guards that ride with them are his own, so Yuuri cannot say a word. Victor is a prince, after all. He must be protected. 

So are you, whispers a small voice at the back of Yuuri's mind. He ignores it, looking straight ahead. It is not the time, nor the place for this.

The forest flashes by as they ride hard. Any moment now, Prince Somchai will blow his horn once more and the nobles will disperse in all directions, searching for the harts with white ribbons tied to their antlers. Any moment now, the heavy presence of eyes on the back of Yuuri's head will disappear. Any moment now…

A horn sounds through the partly naked trees. The hounds begin to bark, joyful and bloodthirsty. A few birds lift off the branches, spooked by the noise and the leaves that were torn off the trees by their sudden movement flutter to the wet ground. The guards close in on both sides. 

It all happens on a single breath and, once Yuuri blinks, it is done. The hunt has begun.

All around them, riders take to the left and right, disappearing between the trees with great hoots of joy. Only a small group keeps following the lead of Prince Somchai. Victor turns around in his saddle as if he is searching for someone, and Yuuri has an odd feeling he knows whom he wants to see. 

The expression he's wearing when he faces the path ahead of them again is not at all pleasant. Yuuri struggles not to get involved, but he can't win in the end. If this is about him...

"What's wrong?" he asks, unable to remain silent.

But Victor only shakes his head. He gives Yuuri a smile that is meant to placate him, and fails. Yuuri hates it a little.

"It's nothing, love. Worry not. You stay here, follow Somchai's lead, alright? There is something I must do."

"What?" Yuuri starts, frowning. This is the first he's hearing about this. If Victor was planning something, he should've told Yuuri. He should've spoken up. "Victor, what are you–"

But Victor doesn't wait. 

Christophe moves up on his side all of a sudden, blocking the guard on Victor's left, while Victor pulls on the reins and shoots in the opposite direction. There are shouts from the people that follow them, when Victor forces his horse into the midst of them, but Victor passes by so fast in the opposite direction, their horses carry them away so fast, that before Yuuri takes another breath, Victor is completely out of sight. 

Fear grips Yuuri hard. Suddenly, he's dizzy. Suddenly, the world blinks as his eyes are covered with a veil of darkness. 

"Don't worry for him," Christophe tells him, following after Prince Somchai at Yuuri's side. The guard on his side is throwing him nasty looks. "Victor knows what he's doing."

"What is he doing?" 

Yuuri looks over his shoulder once more. He can't see anything. Only the few people that still follow them.  

And then he notices: the guard at his side is gone as well. He must have followed after Victor, since the other one couldn't. Somehow, as upset at having them come along as Yuuri was, he feels the absence keenly now. He's glad the guard had the brains to keep up with Victor's wild scheme, butt at the same time… At the same time, Yuuri feels as if his entire side was left bare, ready for attack.

Unconsciously, he leads his horse closer to the centre of the column. 

"I have no idea," Christophe admits in answer to Yuuri's question. He does so with a smile and his tone is careless, as if whatever Victor's plan is, it's just another amusement for them to enjoy. "But he assured me that none of us will be held accountable whatever happens, so you may as well sit back and look forward to the surprise."

Yuuri considers him skeptically. Did Victor seem in a mood to surprise anyone? Did he seem carefree enough to consider something like that? Yuuri doesn't think so. 

He makes the decision before he consciously thinks about it. He pulls on the reins and kicks his heels into his horse's sides like Victor has done mere moments ago, and, like lightning, he turns around too fast for anyone to stop him. 

"Yuuri!" 

Christophe calls after him, but Yuuri is far beyond listening. He veers to the side and urges his horse forward as fast as possible. Soon, the sounds of the party disappear and the only thing he can hear is the stomp of his own horse's hooves on the wet forest floor. 

That, and the answering echo of the guard's horse that has followed after him with ease. 

Yuuri looks over his shoulder. 

"Your Highness, please don't endanger yourself like that," the guard tells him as he comes to ride on Yuuri's side. "Prince Victor would have my head if anything happened to you."

Suddenly angry that everyone seems to care more for Yuuri's safety than Victor's – because whatever Victor is doing cannot be without risk, he's sure of it – Yuuri cannot bite back the harsh words.

"And I will have your head if anything happens to him," he snaps at the guard, who looks stricken by Yuuri's risen temper. Yuuri takes a deep breath to calm himself, then adds: "Where could he have gone?"

"I am not sure, Your Highness," the guard replies, now with slightly more humility. "Prince Victor likes to lead the hunt. I have never seen him act like this before and I have been in his personal guard for five years now."

If he likes to lead, why is he not at the head of the party then? Yuuri wonders as they ride back on the path, straight whence they came. What could make Victor leave the heart of the hunt?  What else could he prioritize more? 

The only thing that comes to Yuuri's mind – in silly, silly hope, which he berrates himself for, yet deep down yearns for it to be right – is himself. But, if Victor's focus was on Yuuri, he would not have left his side. No, it must be something else. Something more important than Yuuri. More important than love… 

What was Victor looking for among the riders? What could he have been upset about not seeing? Or… who?

"We should've spotted him by now," the guard suddenly says. 

Even before the guard speaks, Yuuri's limbs grow cold. Now, as he snaps out of his musings, all of him feels numb. The man is right. They should have already met up with Victor. 

"He must have gone deeper into the forest with the rest of ther hunters."

"We shouldn't follow." The guard looks into the trees. They are bare enough for them to see far into the forest, but no matter which way they turn, they see no horse, no prince, no one. "It is not hard to get lost in the forest, and I fear that alone I might not be enough to protect you. A stray arrow or–"

"Then isn't the same true for your prince?" Yuuri asks, cold with dread and fear. "Are you ready to risk his life in fear for your own?"

A look of uncertainty crosses the man's eyes, but it is with exasperation that he answers: "What I fear is only to fail in my duties, Your Highness. And those include protecting you."

"Then protect me, if you were so instructed." Yuuri's heart thunders in his ears, but he does not feel the usual warmth that comes with it. Here, now, he is as if a statue frozen in his anger like the gods of the old. "But I will also protect the one I have sworn to love and cherish. You have no power over me. You cannot stop me. And you will not try to."

The guard only inclines his head. "As Your Highness commands."

Yuuri has never intended to exert such power over another, but doesn't this man understand that Yuuri must find Victor? That he cannot allow Victor to be alone in this forest, searching for the man who hurt them both beyond reason, when princes die of less? Here, where the arrows fly and swords gleam in the sunlight, where the harts' antlers are sharp and ready to rip flesh and make humans bleed in order to save themselves.

But what can you do to save him, even if you find him? A voice whispers in Yuuri's heart. It's harsh and insidious, and Yuuri cannot help but listen. What can you do when an arrow flies straight for him?

Yuuri kicks his horse hard, riding off the path. The guard follows closely behind him, looking out for dangers in a way that Yuuri can't. They must slow down to move safely between the trees and their pace drops, but the feeling of danger, the feeling that he must make it to Victor's side… that does not get any less urgent.

Beware the one who protects, Yuuri remembers, and he shudders when droplets of rain slide down his collar. It's not Victor, he tells himself. It can't be Victor. It can't be.

Somewhere far away, a horn blows. 

"The signal for the riders," the guard says as they both turn their horses towards where the sound has come from. "Prince Victor will be following the horn."

"Very well," Yuuri says. They have come all this way, but now that they are between the trees with no soul to meet them, Yuuri doesn't know what to do. The horn is a guiding post for them, as much as a ray of hope, and he decides to accept it. "Let us ride towards it, too. Maybe we will see him on our way."

They make their way through the forest. Everything is quiet here. Even the wind that whistles between the large trees seems to honour the peace of the world with the branches. It's eerie, this silence. After riding so long within the ranks of the main party, being out here alone… It's scary, somehow. 

Oh, how Yuuri wishes they could just find Victor and return to where it's safe!

Out of nowhere, there's a whoosh, a crack, and a shout from the guard: "Ride, Your Highness! Ride!"

And before Yuuri can react, the man slaps the behind of Yuuri's horse and the steed shoots between the trees. Breath caught in his throat, Yuuri has only enough time to look behind and see an arrow sunken deep into the tree he was just passing by. He looks around, but there is no one there. No one… Except, the feeling of being watched has never left him, not for a moment. 

The hair on Yuuri's nape rises. 

Another arrow whistles over Yuuri's head and with a little sound of fear, he bows low over the back of his horse's neck. He doesn't know where he's going, he simply knows that ahead is the right direction to escape the arrows that try so hard to hit the mark… the mark that is him

Not Victor, Yuuri realizes suddenly, slipping a little in the saddle as he gallops away. It's Yuuri they want. Not Victor, but him. And Victor knew. That's why he left, didn't he? To keep an eye on Yuuri from afar, but to keep him safe in the party, so that he's hidden by the bodies of others, he told Yuuri to stay with Prince Somchai. That must have been it. That must be it. 

And suddenly, too, Yuuri knows who is behind all this. There can only be one person cruel enough to do this. There can only be one person resolved enough to aim an arrow at a prince.

Fear, like blindness, strikes Yuuri hard. He urges his horse faster and faster, barely able to breathe through the tightness in his throat, his rabbit heartbeat and the pressure of wind against his face. Somewhere, the horn sounds again, but Yuuri cannot tell left from right, far less which direction to ride in. 

Stupid, he tells himself, he's so stupid. He shouldn't have come here. He shouldn't have left the party, shouldn't have come after Victor. He should've… he should've trusted him. 

The crash of armour makes him twist around so fast that that his side begins to hurt. But when Yuuri sees what caused it, all his pain is forgotten. The guard who has been riding with him this far has fallen off his horse and now lies crumpled on the ground, unmoving in his silver castket of armour. Yuuri is too far already to see clearly, too blinded by fear as well, but he thinks he sees the burnt colour of golden fletchings of an arrow. 

The guard was shot. He is dying, or dead. 

Yuuri is alone. 

It's just as he thinks that, as he thinks he must ride away quickly, that something knocks into him. Voided of breath, Yuuri barely feels himself being lifted out of the saddle by the motion. The impact steals his vision also, and then he sees stars when he hits the ground hard. Everything goes black for a moment, then terribly, horribly white, and he sucks in a breath past the pain that crashes on him from every part of his body.

Lying there, unable to do anything other than wheeze, Yuuri thinks this is the worst way to die. Alone, violent, at the hands of someone who has no right to his life, love or death. 

The thought breeds anger inside his heart. Forcefully, Yuuri rolls to the side. He pushes himself up, not ready to face death lying down. He will look him right in the eye, proud and on his own terms. And, most importantly, he will do so as Victor's husband, his mate, his omega. Only his.

Rising to his knees, then fully, Yuuri looks about the trees. There is no one in sight. The arrows have stopped flying, too. The forest is silent once more. 

As Yuuri looks around, he can see the sun glinting off the scales in the armour on the dead guard. He can see their horses, stopped a little way further, trained to never stray far from their riders. But, no matter how hard he tries to peer between the trees, he cannot spot him.

And then, then he doesn't need to. 

Graceful, like a lethal snake striking, Duke Wintry jumps down from the branches right before Yuuri. In all his searching, Yuuri has not once thought to look up. Now, he is paying the price for his stupidity. For his naiveté. For everything he has done wrong since meeting this man.

Cold sweat runs down his back, a cold, heavy knot tying inside his belly. He feels like he's going to faint, but he steels himself from pure fear of letting this man closer than he is now.

Morio doesn't notice his reaction. Or, if he does, he does not seem interested in commenting. Instead, he slings a large, ornate bow over his shoulder and smiles that awful smile of his, eyes dead as ever.

"I was hoping to see you here, Your Highness," Morio says, coming closer to Yuuri, who steps away from him in equal measure. "Why are you moving away? Aren't we close friends? Let us talk for a bit."

Yuuri says nothing. He is frozen by fear, struck by disgust. Trapped in his memories, and the scent of blood that now fills his nostrils. It's another premonition, it must be. It's impossible for him to smell the blood of the dead guard from this far. But he is so focused on him, on how close he is now, far too close, to think of anything else.

"Do you know that you look especially lovely when you ride?" Morio says, cocking his head to the side as he leers. "Seeing you from behind really made me want to see how you would ride something other than a horse."

Yuuri's skin breaks out in shivers. He steps further away, then more, but once he takes the third step, he trips. He recovers quickly, but during his inattention, Morio has crossed all the distance between them and now pushes Yuuri hard against the bark of a tree. 

Yuuri doesn't wait for what may happen. He doesn't think of what will come next. The only thing on his mind is flight. The kingdom, Victor, his secret… those things are secondary to the harsh pulsing of blood in his ears. He needs to escape. He needs to run. This man, Yuuri can't stand to be around him a second longer.

Swiftly, Yuuri bends his knee and aims it right into Morio's groin. He hits hard and slips through Morio's arms while the alpha bends in half with a yelp of pain. 

Yuuri doesn't look back as he runs. He doesn't know where he runs, either. The horses would be his best bet, but they are on the other side of Morio and Yuuri can't risk going that way. But, a fool that he is, the thought that an alpha would far outstrip him when it comes to running did not cross his mind. Morio catches up with him easily and snatches Yuuri by the waist. His arm is tight around Yuuri in such a way that Yuuri can't move either of his arms to elbow him in the face like he so badly wants to. 

"Let me go," Yuuri bites out, breathing heavily through a mix of panic and adrenaline.

"You really know how to excite me, you little minx," the alpha says, his breath hot on the back of Yuuri's neck. 

"Let me go!" Yuuri barks at him again, straining against Morio's grasp. He kicks out and tries to rip himself away, but the Morio is like a rock: immovable. "Are you insane?! Anyone could see this and you'd be dead within a day for touching me!"

"Would I?" Morio asks. He shakes Yuuri hard, then spins him, and before Yuuri can recover his balance, he tugs Yuuri back in by a rough hand on his nape. "I know what you fear, little one. And I know how to make you obey me. You wouldn't want me to tell everyone what it is that I hold over you, would you?"

Yuuri's blood curdles at the reminder. And then he sinks, sinks hard into the memory of that night, the one he's been trying so hard to wipe from his mind. The scent, the touch, the feeling… As Morio brings his face closer to him, Yuuri can feel his breath on his own face and his heart tightens painfully in his chest. His stomach churns. Something cold and awful slides down to the very depth of it, and Yuuri shudders as he remembers Morio's hands sliding over him as well.

No, no, no, he begs in his mind. Not again–

He's breathless with despair, overwhelmed by disgust, and his vision grows dark, but not fully. Somehow, through it all, he's able to register the warmth that suddenly sprays his face.

But then, then he sees something else entirely. 

Morio is gone. Gone is the autumn forest, gone are bare trees. What he sees is a clearing lush with greenery: raspberry bushes and apple trees, grass and flowers, and more. And among them a hut. Empty, ruined by time, but standing. A feeling that is not quite his own reaches Yuuri through the echo of the vision – satisfaction. Pleasure and fulfillment, and excitement at having finally found–

He blinks and before him appears a picture of horror. Morio's hands have left him free to flee, but Yuuri cannot move. Paralyzed by more than fear, he stares at Morio's throat, at the hands that only seconds ago were keeping him prisoner and now claw at the blood that freely pours from around the arrowhead that has pierced Morio's neck. 

The tip points at Yuuri, so threateningly close that if Yuuri has moved, he could cut himself on it's blade. 

Morio gurgles, his eyes wide. They stare at Yuuri and Yuuri stares back, unable to think. Fear, naked and blind crosses Morio's pale face. And then Morio gurgles once more and coughs, and spits blood straight into Yuuri's face. 

Blood. There is so much blood. 

It's everywhere: on Yuuri's face, on his neck, on his lips and eyes. He lifts his hands to wipe his face, and then it's on his hands too. From Morio's mouth trails a string of it, thick like porridge. 

That dream Yuuri had on the day of his wedding, he realizes as he takes in the blood on his hands, the blood pooling at his feet, staining his clothes. This is what he's seen then. Yuuri knew this would happen, but he didn't think– He didn't expect it to be this moment, this blood… Morio's blood. 

Yuuri looks up again at the man who has made his life into a nightmare and he feels nothing but horror. 

Morio slips down onto his knees, wheezing. He spits more blood with every breath and the whistling of air escaping through the hole in his throat is loud in Yuuri's ears, as is the sound of his own blood coursing through his veins. Slowly, as if time has ceased its natural rhythm, Morio falls face first into the dirt. Right before Yuuri's feet. He still struggles, still clings onto life, but with every breath he rips away from death, more of his blood oozes out of his throat. 

And then, at last, he falls silent and still, his hand clutching blood-stained grass.

Yuuri can't look away. 

It startles him when someone touches his arm and he flinches away, flight still keeping its claws deep inside his feeble heart. 

"Shh, shh," comes a familiar voice. "Yuuri, it's me. It's alright. You're safe now, love."

Hands whose touch Yuuri knows reach for his own. The blood makes them slip, but the gleam of the matching rings on their fingers reaches the reasonable part of Yuuri that seems to have hidden away behind the wall of fear until now. 

Yuuri looks up. Victor, for that is who is standing before him, gives him a gaze filled with worry.

"Are you hurt?" Victor asks. "Is any of the blood yours?"

Is he? Is it? Yuuri can't tell. 

He turns his eyes to his hands again, now held by Victor's, yet still covered in blood. He catches the glimpse of Morio's still warm body. He thinks of the days, weeks that this man has been poisoning him, them, their relationship. 

Is he hurt? Yuuri wants to laugh. 

Instead, he shakes his head. 

"The guard," he says, and his voice sounds as weak as he feels, as hoarse as if he hasn't spoken in weeks. "He came with me. And he– he killed him."

"I'm so sorry it happened this way," Victor replies. "Why didn't you stay with Chris? With Somchai?"

For you, Yuuri wants to say. Because I was worried you were doing something dangerous. Because I believed you were doing something equally as stupid as what I did to keep us safe. Because I thought I could stop you. 

He says none of that. 

"Were you planning this?" Yuuri asks, lifting his eyes to Victor's. The admission of guilt is plain to see. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want to put even more pressure on you. I thought I was doing the right thing. I didn't think you were–" he pauses. Then he says something else entirely: "I needed to do this. He couldn't be allowed to live, and I didn't wish to involve you further. You have suffered enough of him. You shouldn't see him ever again." Victor turns to look at Morio's body. "No one should look at him ever again."

Finally, as Victor says that, the reality of the situation reaches Yuuri fully. 

"You killed him," he whispers. Morio's blood on his lips, he can taste it on his tongue as well, a vile sweetness that makes Yuuri feel sick. "You killed him, Victor. How are we going to explain this? And what of his accomplices? The messages he promised to send out if he is murdered?"     

"I spoke with mother last night," Victor answers, surprising Yuuri again. "I told her of this snake and his plans. As we speak, her personal guard are taking care of Morio's messages. Everything he has ever written will be destroyed, all riders silenced." He gives Yuuri a smile, a sheepish one. "We should have spoken with her earlier. She could have helped us. I am so sorry for not pushing harder to involve her."

Yuuri shakes his head. "I did not wish to involve her either. Nor your father. You needn't apologize for that. But… does she know about–?"

He can't say it. Just asking reminds him of what happened, and he stuggles to keep his expression even, as his heart chills again at the resurfacing memory of Morio's leer.

"About all he extorted from us?" Victor asks, and when Yuuri nods stiffly, he says: "No. I did not tell her anything other than the blackmail and the messengers. The rest… I did not think you'd like me to speak about it."

"Thank you," Yuuri says, though he is not sure what he's thanking for: Morio's death, Victor candidness, or his respect of Yuuri's wishes, even if he didn't yet know them. 

Gently, he slips his hands from Victor's. The blood is still here, still vivid crimson. Somehow, seeing it again makes Yuuri bitter. 

"I would appreciate a warning next time you intend to kill someone," Yuuri adds. "Especially if I am to play the bait."

"I never intended for you to be bait," Victor injects sharply. "That's why I told you to stay with Somchai. I did not want you close when I kill him." His sharpness mellows the longer he looks at Yuuri. With his thumb, he wipes away some blood from Yuuri's cheek. "But, again, I seem to have underestimated you. You came after me to make sure I'm safe, didn't you? Oh, Yuuri."

His hand is warm against Yuuri's cheek. So warm, in fact, that Yuuri cannot help but lean into it. After Morio has touched him again, after he has chased him, trapped him, terrified him, Yuuri should not crave touch. He should escape it, he knows, and a part of him wants to shrink away from Victor's kindness, but the other part of him, the one he's been denying as he sweted in self loathing, it yearns for his alpha's love.

"You should have told me," Yuuri says, yet all the fight has gone from him. 

"Would you have stayed with Chris and Somchai if I had?" Victor asks with a smile that says what Yuuri knows: he wouldn't have. "But you're right. I should have told you something. At least warned you that I was planning to do this. Will you forgive me, if I promise to never hide anything from you again?"

"Only if–"

Yuuri does not finish. His vision is once more overtaken by something else. The forest. The hut. The joy, the excitement, and yet the urgency. And there is something else. Something that Yuuri is holding in his tightly clenched hand. Something that bites into his flesh almost painfully. 

He looks down and opens his palm to see a glimmer of aged dark silver. It's a–

"Key," Yuuri speaks. "It's a key."

"Yuuri?" Victor's voice reaches him from afar, sounding worried. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"It's a key," Yuuri tells him, still gripped by his premonition. 

But what is the key for? It must open something. Something that Yuuri badly wants, judging by the feelings that accompany the vision. But what…? The hut door? Or maybe a place inside the hut? 

"Yuuri," Victor's voice again reaches him, and this time Yuuri is able to blink away from his dreams. "Yuuri, speak to me, please. What is happening? Are you well?"

"I had a vision," Yuuri admits. "Just a vision."

"Of what?" Victor asks, frowning. "Is it about him?"

Yuuri opens his mouth to tell Victor about it, but before he can say anything, darkness claws at him again. This time, however, it is not another premonition. This time it is weakness, and Yuuri's knees buckle under him. He feels Victor catch him, but that, and the feeling of peace, at long last, are the last he recognizes before darkness swallows him whole.

Then, there is nothing.



***

 

 

Mari lifts the curtain that protects the windows of the carriage from people peering inside. The city is busy at this time of day. People hurry towards their homes for meals, others to the market, others to work, and more of them already hard at it. Carriages pass each other on the street, filling the air with the sound of the wheels rolling and the hooves rhythmically striking the stones. 

The palace is far behind them now, but Mari's thoughts are still within its walls. Still with her little brother, who so obviously needed her that it was a battle against her own heart to leave him that morning. But he had his reasons to ask her to leave, and so she has, but she still worried. 

Who was the one blackmailing him? Why did no one act to protect him? Why didn't the king simply hang the blackmailer on fabricated charges? Isn't that what nobility do to pass the time?

There are so many questions she'd like answers to. She has not asked them. Yuuri was already in a fragile state of mind when she arrived, and he has not improved much when she agreed to leave. The only difference was that Victor, whom Mari hasn't yet decided whether she accepts or not as her brother-in-law, now stood firmly at his side and Yuuri allowed that. If he hasn't… Mari would've stay, even if Yuuri wanted to make her leave by force. 

A rider in blue livery speeds past the carriage and catches her eye. Blue livery. The queen's sigil on his back. Then, after him, another one. And a third. 

Mari puts the curtain over the window again. It's no use thinking of answering her questions on her own. That never leads to anything good. Still...

"You better be safe, Yuuri," she says to the ceiling finely painted. "Or else I'll tell our parents and you know it won't end well for you if mom starts to worry."

The ceiling doesn't answer her, but she did not expect it to.

 

 

*** 

 

  

On Yuuri's horse, with Yuuri cradled against his chest, draped in his cloak, Victor rides back to the palace. The hunt is not over yet, he can hear the horn blow somewhere far behind their backs, but with an unconscious, blood-covered mate in his arms, Victor doesn't think it would be a good idea to pursue the party. Too many questions would be asked of him, too many he did not know how to answer convincingly.

So he takes Yuuri's horse, loads them both onto its back and takes them home. Whoever finds Morio, finds him, he decides. He won't waste a single thought for that man anymore. The arrow he used is untraceable, and with the body of the guard lying close by, it may just seem like a shooting accident: both heard movement and shot before they got a good look at their target. 

It's convincing enough, Victor thinks, thus closing the matter entirely. From now on, all that matters to Victor is Yuuri – him, his health and his happiness. Victor is resolved to make it his utmost priority. 

The guards at the gates rush to him when they cross into the courtyard, but Victor growls at them to stay back. The act surprises him as much as it does them. He has never behaved like this towards anyone. Not even during his rut, when the feelings are heightened and run rampant. 

"Go to my mother," Victor tells one of them. "Tell her I wish to see her immediately."

The man bows and rushes away quickly to fulfill the order. Victor slides off his horse, still holding Yuuri in his arms. With ease that he does not think natural, but has no time to question, Victor brings Yuuri up the stars, then into the palace and up another staircase that leads to the royal wing. 

Something is different, Victor can tell. But it is only in their chambers, when he enters Yuuri's room to lay Yuuri on his bed, that Victor figures out what. It's the scent. Yuuri's scent. In the fresh air, as they were riding, it was hard to smell it, but here, where Yuuri's scent is strongest, Victor can tell at a single sniff: Yuuri's heat is about to begin.

He touches one of Yuuri's bloody cheeks. True enough, his skin is warmer than it should be after coming in from the chilled autumn air. He's heating up, and soon his reason will be taken away in the fever that will burn from within. 

It could not have come at a worse time. Why, he thinks bitterly. Why everything must go so wrong for them?

"Whatever I did, whatever mistakes I've made," he speaks to any god listening, "don't punish him for them. I will take it all, shoulder the blame. Just leave him be."

There is no reply, and little he can do about it all. Potions to suppress the fever of body and mind can be taken to prevent succumbing to heat, but they must be administered at least a  week before the first onset of the heat. At this stage it is too dangerous to try. The consequences could be lasting for Yuuri's health and Victor will not try to manipulate his body like that, never. 

That, however, leaves him with only one choice. To stay by Yuuri's side and suffer through this with him, which – after everything Yuuri has done to keep Victor safe, after everything Yuuri has suffered through in the past days – is a truly small price to pay, in Victor's mind.

If, that it, Yuuri wants him to be there.

While there is still time, Victor walks to the basin resting on a table by the big mirror. He pours some water into it. He washes his hands first. From touching Yuuri they have become bloody as well and, as soon as he dips his hands into the water, red spills over it like paint. The dressing on Victor's hand soaks through and he unravels it quickly, so that the healing wounds have a chance to breathe. It's only been a few days since he'd hurt himself, but the flesh is already closing nicely thanks to Lady Elena's salves. 

Victor wipes his hands on a washing rug, then takes another and wets it with water fresh from the water jug. He takes it back to Yuuri and gently, carefully begins to wipe away the blood from Yuuri's face. His forehead, his nose, his cheeks. Tenderly, Victor wipes away at his lips as well, wishing deeply he needn't do this. He returns to the basin to wash the cloth off the blood every now and then, and then comes back to clean Yuuri's chin, his neck, then both his hands. He dries them all with a clean sheet, but even once he's done he cannot help but reach for Yuuri's hand.

He sits by him, unsure of how much time passes. Yuuri's cheeks grow pink with fever, his lips part on greedy breaths. Even his fingers feel warm where Victor holds them. But the strongest indicator of his upcoming heat is the scent that hangs in the room: strong and heady, a scent that makes Victor's own body heat rise in answer.

They are bonded, it shouldn't surprise or worry him. But after everything that happened, Victor cannot help but dread this. Will Yuuri want him to stay? Or will he close himself away from Victor again? Will he allow Victor to be with him through this or will he choose to suffer alone? Victor can't tell, but he fears the moment Yuuri will wake up and make his decision.

"Victor?" his mother's voice calls out from the sitting room. "Are you here, son?"

With a deep sigh, Victor rests a kiss on Yuuri's knuckles. "I will be back soon, my love."

Yuuri does not reply. Victor gives him one more lingering look, before he rises and leaves to meet his mother. The moment he steps through the door, her eyes narrow on him. But no, not on him exactly. On the blood that has smeared on his robes.

"Is it yours?" she asks. Victor shakes his head. "Yuuri's?" He shakes his head again. "It is done, then?" This time he nods. "Good. Did anyone see you?"

"I managed to lose the guard that came after me," Victor says at last. "And Morio killed the other. He's dead now, yes. But I can't say this was a good plan, mother." 

He motions for her to sit and takes a seat on the sofa himself, hiding his face in his hands. His lungs feel tight, as if away from Yuuri he could no longer breathe. 

"Yuuri came after me," he continues without looking at her. "Once more, I inadvertently put him in danger. I almost… I almost shot him, mother."

"Oh, Vitya…"

Her arm comes around him in what is meant to be a comforting embrace, but he does not feel it. The weight of what he's done… He doesn't regret killing. He won't wallow in guilt. But what he's done to Yuuri again… And soon after he's promised to keep him safe, to protect him. 

"Why do I always hurt him?" he asks, his voice thick with emotion.

His eyes sting, his throat is tight, but he does not allow himself to cry. How can he, when it is Yuuri who has the only right to it? When it is Yuuri who's had all the wrongs committed against him? What is Victor's pain in the face of his?

"You don't," his mother says softly, rubbing her hand on Victor's shoulder. "You love him, my son, it is so clear to see. I'm sure Yuuri sees it too. I'm sure," she pauses to grip his arm tight, "he does not blame you for any of this."

"It's enough that I blame myself," Victor answers. "I'm his alpha, I should not put him in danger like this. So why–"

His voice dies as if someone has stolen it. With an angry swipe of his fingers through his hair, Victor takes a choking breath.

"Even an alpha can't always protect their mate. Do you think your father has never hurt me?" Slowly, Victor lifts his eyes to look at his mother. "Our match was arranged, much like your own. It was quite a journey for us to get to where we are today. I remember, one summer evening when I was already bearing you inside me, I found out he's taken a lover." At Victor's shocked expression, she gives a bitter smile. "And not just taken one. He's brought her to our own bed. I walked in on them, you see. Oh, I was so angry… You can't imagine. I have almost ripped out all the hair on the poor woman's head as I dragged her out of my own bed. And then, I don't know where I got the strength, but I dragged her through the halls, where people watched us with a mixture of fear and amusement, and I threw her out the door, baren as she was born. Suffice to say, no woman dared to ever lay her hands on your father, but that alone would not have made me happy. No, what I wanted most was for him to repent for how hurt I was, so I locked him out of our rooms, and then vowed to him that I will take you and leave the palace if he doesn't do his best to convince me he is worthy of staying my husband and mate."

"He must have done right by you, or else you wouldn't be here, but how did he do that?" Victor asks.

His mother gives him a little smile. "It took him three years, you know. Your father was never the brightest, and he never needed to work for anything in his life. So when I told him to work hard to win me back, to convince me of his life and heart, he was quite at a loss. He started by sending me flowers and jewelry, the fool." She snorts, half amused, half critical. "The hurts of the heart can only be healed by kindness of equal measure, my dear. Remember that, please. Your father has learned this the hard way, when week after week he's spent writing me letters and slipping them under my chamber door. It was through those that we truly fell in love. And then, once the anger has passed and you came into the world, I opened up to him as well. From the moment he took you into his arms, I knew I would love him more than life itself. Just like I knew I would do anything for you."

She lifts her hand to place it on Victor's cheek. Her smile is sweet, full of love and motherly affection, something more precious than any title in the world. 

"We raised you to be kind and loving, my son, and you have proven time and time again that you can be both. I am sure that Yuuri sees it, too. You only need to speak with him honestly."

Victor nods. "Thank you, mother. I will."

"It is a duty of a mother to lift up her child. No need to thank me. Just speak to your husband and make right with him, for I know you and him both have love for each other in your hearts."

"But will it be enough?"  

"Only time can tell." His mother squeezes his arm again. "Time that you must give him, for even love that burns strong, once it is almost snuffed out, will take long while to rekindle." 

"I will do my best," Victor promises to her, to himself, and most of all – to Yuuri. "I do not wish to lose him."

"I know, love. I know."

They sit together quietly for a moment, both deep in their own thoughts. At last, however, Victor's mother speaks again.

"While you were gone, I sent Yuuri's sister back home in a carriage under gurad, and after, I dispatched a dozen men to get rid of all the messages and riders who knew Morio. There will be no trace left of his plans."

"Thank you," Victor breathes, somewhat glad to change the subject. "I should have come to you sooner."

"You should have," his mother says in a voice that is a bit sharper than before. "Honestly, I do not know what possessed you to wait this long. We could have acted well before now. But, I suppose, it is also a good thing we did not. People would find the death of Duke Wintry too suspicious if it was to follow so soon after his mother. At least one good thing came out of it."

"I allowed myself to be caught in his web. I felt like I must do this alone, and so did Yuuri. It was a weakness, mother. I will never let it be repeated," Victor promises. "By the time they find his body, all traces of his crime will be gone and this will seem as just another hunting accident."

"Good. I am glad you did not lose your wits in all that's happened."

"How could I, when you were the one who raised me?" Victor returns with half a smile.

His mother's answering smirk is well worth it. "Remember that for any future conflicts then."

"I will."

She nods, satisfied. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

Victor looks over his shoulder at the door to Yuuri's bedchamber. He considers asking, but he already knows the answer: suppressants would be far too dangerous. But so will the natural course of a heat, what with Yuuri's emotional upheaval. 

"I need you to warn the head maid and my groom to be careful for the next few days. Leave our food and fresh water outside for the guards to bring in. Yuuri's heat will start soon."

"I thought it was quite the time for one," his mother says, peering at the door as well. "Will you stay with him?"

"If he allows it," Victor answers, a heavy weight on his chest. "I will not blame him if he does not, and I will take care of him nonetheless."

"Very well. I will warn the servants. And, Vitya," she starts, her eyes softer now, "while I do not doubt your strength of will and ability to restrain yourself, should you feel like you are losing the fight against your nature, leave him and come to your father."

"I will," Victor repeats once more.

His mother nods her approval. "Then I will leave you now to speak to the servants. And I will send a bath to you. You can both use it before the worst of it comes."

"Thank you, mother."

She touches Victor's cheek tenderly once more. When she sweeps away from the room, her robes billowing after her like colourful clouds, Victor rises and makes it towards Yuuri's chamber. He pauses for a brief moment by his door, unsure if he is welcome, but in the end he decides to leave the final word to Yuuri. Should he wish Victor leaves, he should only speak up and Victor will do as he commands.

But once he enters, he finds Yuuri still sleep in the large bed. He is curled on his side, so he must be feeling slightly better to have turned around, but his face is as flushed as Victor remembers. Touching the back of his hand to one cheek, Victor feels the heat sink its teeth into his skin. Soon, Yuuri will wake, either of thirst, or from the desire that is burning within him. And what he will need, Victor must be able to provide. 

He pours a glass of water from what little is left in the water jug and sets it on the small table by Yuuri's bed. So as to have the perfect view of Yuuri's face, Victor sits on the floor. He takes Yuuri's hand in his, presses his cheek to the sweetly smelling sheets, and breathes out all the anxiety. It's hard to do with a single breath, so he takes another, and another, and more. 

No matter how many he takes and how many he exhales, however, the worry for Yuuri does not dissipate. Victor doubts it ever will. 

Is this how mated alphas feel? Always anxious for their omegas? Is this how Victor will feel for the rest of his life? Worried for Yuuri's wellbeing, and then guilty when he fails to protect him? Why then mate at all, if this is what life will look like until they grow old?

But he knows why. As he looks at Yuuri, he knows perfectly well why. 

For love. For even the inkling of hope for it. Because love makes the worry worth it. It makes sadness and heartbreak somewhat sweet for the hope of reconciliation. It is cruel, it is harsh, but it is full of joy so sharp that the sting of it is addictive. It can make even the smartest blind, and those blinded by it feel like they have grasped a piece of heaven. 

And for a long while, that's how Victor has felt: like the luckiest man alive. Like he has earned a treasure that no other man can posses. He, of course, has been wrong. He's been too full of himself and too sure of his rights. He has taken love for granted. But no more. From the moment Yuuri opens his eyes, Victor will set out on the path his father has once taken. He will put his every effort into making up for his pride, for his lack of forethought, for his ignorance of the littlest things that has lead them to this day. He will rekindle the flames of their love, so that they may burn strong once more. 

He will love Yuuri, and in his every action, every word, he will repent. And he will love him stronger still.

So deep is he in his own mind, that he does not feel his eyelids grow heavy. He slips into sleep, watching Yuuri's face, and he dreams of Yuuri's smiles, his happy, sun-lit eyes, his soft, tender lips… And when he wakes, stiff from sitting on the floor, and far too warm in the robes that should not give this much heat, he meets the gaze of his beloved: dark, lust-filled eyes peer into his with only one desire shining through.

"Victor," Yuuri breathes and his voice sounds like a pained moan.

"I'm here, my love. I'm here," Victor says, rising to his knees. He gently brings a hand to Yuuri's cheek. "Are you sound of mind? I need to ask you something."

"What is it?" 

"Can I trust you to make a good judgment? Or are you already gone into the heat?" Victor insists to know.

"Just speak," Yuuri bites out, somewhat angry with him. It makes Victor smile a tiny little smile.

Victor touches Yuuri's face again. The scent that comes from him, sweet and irresistible, clouds Victor's mind with want until he blinks it forcefully away. 

"I need you to tell me what to do. What you expect of me," he says at last. "Do you wish me to stay? Or should I leave? I will do as you ask, but I need your thoughts before the fever takes you completely."

Yuuri remains silent for a long while. His eyes close and his breathing becomes so quiet that he could almost appear to be sleeping. At last, he squeezes Victor's hand. 

"Stay," he decides, opening his eyes. And in them, Victor sees his own worry mirrored back at him. "But I do not want to– to do… anything. I don't think I'll be able to after– after–"

"I understand, my love. I understand," Victor tells him gently. He smiles when Yuuri looks uncertain. "I promise I will not touch you like that, even if you beg me for it in the deepest heat."

Yuuri nods. The trust he's being offered makes Victor's throat clog with emotion. Yuuri seems relieved at his promise, and Victor is glad to at least be able to offer him this little comfort. He's glad to be able to begin making up for all his mistakes with something as important as this.

"Drink some water first." Victor takes the glass from the table within his reach. "You will need to drink a lot to battle the heat." 

Yuuri downs the entire thing in a few quick gulps. He gives Victor the glass, which he puts back on the table. 

"I do not mean to intrude, but… will you tell me about your heats, Yuuri? What you do, how you spend them? How can I help? Anything that you need, please, let me know."

And so, Yuuri tells him. Slowly and uncertainly, blushing hard enough that at times his entire face is turns the colour of Czatnoptan royal robes. Victor listens, quiet and attentive, and he files away everything to the deepest part of his heart, so that he knows and does not step out of the line.

"And lastly," Yuuri says after a long list of what he hates when he is this vulnerable. He turns to Victor, and something in his eyes seems the most fragile as of yet. With no conscious thought, Victor squeezes Yuuri's hand and Yuuri bites his lip, as if still uncertain about all this. 

But he speaks. His courage shines through, and he asks: "Do not judge me for whatever happens."

"I would never," Victor answers, bringing Yuuri's hand to his lips. "Not for this, not for anything."

"Thank you," Yuuri tells him, a faint smile on his lips. "And I'm sorry. You will have to battle against your own instincts because of me."

"Do not worry for me. I will control myself as best I can, and should I feel like that control is slipping, I will make sure to leave before anything happens," Victor vows. "I want to be with you, my love. In happiness and in pain. Always."

Yuuri curls in on himself, pulling Victor's hand to his lips. He breathes the scent that is strongest around the gland on Victor's wrist, then rests a kiss there that tingles warmth straight to Victor's heart. He does not speak again, but he needn't say more. Victor understands perfectly. 

Together, of one hope and one mind at long last, they wait for the worst to arrive.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Before Yuuri, Victor never imagined a heat to be as harrowing as it proved to be. He never indulged with any other omega, mindful of siring children out of wedlock, so he did not realize… He didn't think... 

For a prince, taking unmated omegas to bed would not have such disastrous consequences, as it would for other nobles. Royal Consorts who bore their lord sons often enjoyed more privileges than the Queens who failed to do the same. In fact, it is often required when the royal line is in danger of dying out that Heir Apparent takes more than one fertile omega to his bed to ensure the survival of the royal line. Since the Nikiforovs are a fairly new addition to the royal circles and their ascension has not been as widely accepted as they hoped among the nations, they have not resorted to this practice. For one, brokering alliances through marriage has been out of question on the account of the promise between Victor and Yuuri's fathers. And then, their line is also full of cousins, both close and distantly related, full of children that could just as well inherit the title should it prove necessary, and there has never been a need for Victor to do his duty in such a crude way.

Now, however, wed and beloved of an omega, Victor should be doing what any alpha worth their salt does once their mate succumbs to heat. Victor, contradictory to tradition, feels himself a better man if he withholds. After all, Yuuri has asked him to. After all, Yuuri deserves better than a mate who is callous enough to demand heirs from him. After all… After all that happened, Victor would not be able to live with himself if he as much as touched Yuuri in a way that Yuuri did not ask of him.

But still, when Victor looks at Yuuri, his own dilemmas seem too petty to think of them longer. Yuuri's face is blotchy with heat, pain, and the despair that fills him every time another wave of desire awakens within him. His moans are part frustration, part lust, part pain at having his wishes go unfulfilled. Part pain at having to fulfill those wishes when he does not want to, too.

Victor's heart breaks for him. He tries his best to keep a cool cloth nearby to relieve some of the fever from Yuuri's face and body, since in a fit of anger Yuuri tore off almost all his clothes the first night. The water can only help so much, though. The heat that burns within Yuuri is of a different kind than that of a sickness. It can only be satisfied by an alpha's touch, by his love, his knot, his seed. And it is not something Victor can give him, no matter how Yuuri begs him.

Frustration and guilt, and pain, oh, so much pain – for himself and for his Yuuri – are potent in every breath Victor swallows, thick with the scent of Yuuri's heat that cloys Victor's lungs and slowly makes his heart shrivel inside his chest. 

And then, as if all that wasn't already too much for one person to bear, there are Yuuri's dreams… Those are the hardest, Victor knows. What little sleep Yuuri can get is almost always broken by a nightmare of Morio touching him in a way that Victor has promised not to. Yuuri mumbles in his sleep, begs and whimpers, and apologizes over an over, until the pain of it is too much and he wakes up terrified. And just when fear clears from Yuuri's eyes as he recognizes Victor among his nightmares, the heat grips him again, and he begs. He begs Victor to touch him, to take him, to knot him and give him pups. 

He doesn't know what he's saying, the needs of his body overtake his logical mind, but Victor knows. He knows and he's promised. And it hurts every time when Yuuri's face contorts in heartbreak at Victor's denial. Between the promise he's made to his husband and the needs of his omegan side, Victor is torn in two, because he wants to help, but is it really helping when he keeps the promise and hurts Yuuri by rejecting him when he needs him most...?

It's a decision he cannot make, but one he must, so he suffer and hurts, and follows the promise he's made to his husband in the hopes that once he regains his logical mind he will understand. So to answer his pleas, instead of giving in, Victor takes the desperate hands that reach for him, kisses them, and scents Yuuri praying that this will be of some relief to his suffering mate. That he will know subconsciously that even though Victor denies him, he loves him more than life itself. 

It helps a bit, but not for long. And then they start anew: fever, restless sleep, nightmares, begging, sobbing, desperate pleas and anger, and pain, pain, always more pain.

After three days of this, Victor does not know which is worse: to listen to Yuuri's sharp, pained breaths, knowing he cannot share any of his burden, or to force Yuuri's hands away from himself when he aches for Yuuri's touch almost as much as Yuuri wants him. Both, combined, are what hell must feel like. 

Over and over again, it makes Victor aware that this is what it means to be an omega. It's suffering, it's pain, and then it's desire that you don't always have control of. It's maddening, such life. Victor never realized. He never imagined. But now that he's seen it, his respect for all omegas has risen tenfold. They're strong, all of them. Creatures of will harder than steel, of determination that will not be moved. To suffer through all they do, while most of society sees them as nothing better than breeders for their offspring… 

As Victor watches Yuuri, he vows to himself that when he begins his reign, he will treat them differently. He will change things. He will make their lives better. 

But first, he will make the life of his omega into what he wishes for them all to have: carefree, brilliant happiness and lots of unconditional love and support.

Even though that is his goal, even though he has promised Yuuri, not once, as Yuuri's scent and moans change, Victor's own body betrays him. He grows hard, sometimes enough to leak, and he must leave Yuuri alone to take care of it and change clothes, for the scent of his arousal alone is able to bring Yuuri close to madness. He has put his hands all over Victor, slid them under his robes, grasped him and stroked, before Victor could pry him off and convince him to be good. They both were breathing hard by then and Victor's control was so close to breaking, he could not help but detest Morio even more for all he has done.

Yuuri didn't deserve this. Victor didn't deserve this. No one deserved such a thing.  

Every time he felt his control slip, his scent rise to meet Yuuri's, his cock throb in his pants, Victor has forced himself to remember the vulnerability in Yuuri's eyes and that, like nothing else, has brought him back. Time and time again, Victor has punished himself by the memory of Yuuri's frightened face when he returned from Morio's room or the pain he's felt when Yuuri stepped away from him when Victor wanted to get close.

In a way, it helped. Victor's cock always withered at the thought of that man. Yet, what has worked for him, could not work for Yuuri at all. For one, Victor did not want to utter that vile creature's name around his husband again. Never, ever again. The man is dead, and he will be just as dead to them. Never will he put them into discord again, never will he hurt them again. Never will he be spoken of, for things that are dead must stay dead.

But then another problem was that Yuuri's mind was clouded by desire, by the need to procreate, to have an alpha's knot and seed, to become full, so that the heat inside him could weaken. It was torture to watch Yuuri lose himself so completely, but it was even more torture to hear Yuuri pleasure himself in those brief moments Victor left the room to bring him food or water, or to grapple his own needs under control, and then, upon his return, to see Yuuri's disgust towards himself rise.

Victor has kissed his hands then, offered him his scent as means of comfort, but that helped little. What Yuuri wanted, what he needed… Victor couldn't give him. He has promised not to give it to him. And, even though it hurts them both, he's resolved to keep that promise.

But keeping it is far harder than giving it was. Victor realizes this instantly. Not only watching Yuuri trash about in the throes of pleasure he does not want to feel has put Victor's resolve to test, but even at night Victor must be watchful. He tried to sleep in his own bed, but he has been awakened by Yuuri, who has climbed onto him, pulled up Victor's nightshift, and was rubbing himself on Victor's cock, almost ready to sink down on him and take his pleasure from Victor, if Victor did not want to give it. Victor wrestled him away and kept him pinned down to the mattress until his scent calmed Yuuri down enough, but he could not deny feeling the need to sink into Yuuri's sweet, welcoming heat.

He hated himself for it. Those moments, when his guard was lowered and Yuuri looked at him as if he wanted no one else in the world… Victor hated them, but a part of him also couldn't help but bask in the need Yuuri has for him. And for that, even more, Victor hated himself.

He never fulfilled his deepest desires, those of accepting Yuuri's needs, of pleasuring him with his hands, mouth, cock. Instead, every single time, Victor has pushed himself away and put a door between them, as if not seeing Yuuri, as if not smelling him would make him want him less.

It was more than hard to resist Yuuri, more than painful to keep the promise he's made. But, until now, Victor has somehow prevailed. Three days of this, and, from what Yuuri has said of his heat cycle, two more. And then Victor will be able to breathe fully again.

On the bed, Yuuri stirs awake from his nap. It's one of the rare peaceful ones, and Victor is glad for it. Yuuri's had little rest in the last days, so whatever tiny moment of peace he's able to get away with makes Victor a bit happier. 

Gently, he strokes Yuuri's sweaty hair away from his still heated forehead. Yuuri's bleary eyes blink at him.

"How are you feeling?" Victor asks. 

"Sore… like I need a week-long bath," Yuuri answers in one of those precious moments of clarity. "I should still have waves today, but tomorrow there most likely will be just one or two."

"That's good to hear." 

Victor wipes Yuuri's face with a cold rug. Yuuri sighs, leaning into him trustingly enough that Victor's heart gives a stab of affection among all the pain and hurt. 

"Thank you," Yuuri says softly. "You– This must have been so hard for you. I can't tell you how much it means to me that you're here. That you didn't–"

But Victor only shakes his head. "You needn't thank me, Yuuri. I love you and I want to be with you. We made a vow before gods, remember? I am yours and you are mine until the day we die. And… if it wasn't for my lack of forethought, none of what has happened would have. Who knows, today we may have been enjoying each other fully, if only I wasn't so weak. I can't apologize enough–" Yuuri opens his mouth as if to argue, but Victor talks over him, "No, Yuuri. Let me say it, please. I can't apologize enough for what I've done, or what I haven't done, but I can begin to make up for it. I can begin to earn your trust again. So this, this is me trying. I hope you will accept my efforts one day."

Yuuri does not say a word. He takes Victor's hand instead and rests a kiss on its palm, after which he closes Victor's fingers into a fist. 

"One day," he says at last, "I'm sure I will."

Victor's heart swells with hope, with love, with utter devotion. And it keeps fluttering in his chest for the reminder of the next two days. Every time Yuuri reaches for him, Victor takes his hands and holds him, and holds him even once the wave of lust passes. 

This closeness is what Victor has missed in those days after the ball. But truth is, he never wants to press Yuuri to accept him. He's ready to wait. He's ready to wait however long it takes for Yuuri to trust him. With the heat so demanding, the distance between them seems to have been breached overnight. Out of necessity, yes, but out of pure love and trust as well. 

That, Victor thinks, is the only thing he might be grateful to omegan biology for. 

Yuuri's smiles are rare and far between, but at the end of his heat, as night falls around them, and Victor wipes the last of sweat from Yuuri's face, Yuuri smiles at him, and whispers a sweet little "I love you," that makes Victor feel like a man who has been bestowed the most precious gift of all.

For once, he sleeps with Yuuri in the same bed. Yuuri asks him to. Not from any final lust-guided desires, but from pure need to be close to him to make up for the lack of closeness during his heat. After so long of having to put distance between them, Victor gladly accepts.

The bed smells strongly of Yuuri's pleasure, of his pain, his suffering and his slick, and when Victor sinks into the sheets and pillows, for a brief moment he has to wonder if he'll even be able to sleep. The scents are so strong that he feels his body react despite his wishes. Whatever his worries, they disappear as soon as he closes his eyes. He did not realize how much caring for someone can drain you. He never did anything like this. And, after five days of being on guard at all times of day and night, Victor knows he will never look down on those who choose healing as their profession.

Sleep comes over him within minutes, and he gives into it, tracing the peaceful expression on Yuuri's face with his eyes until the very moment he drifts into dreams. For once, all is well.

The next morning comes and goes, and it is only when the afternoon sun begins its descent again that they awake. Both exhausted more than sated, they stay in bed for as long as they can. Yuuri cannot stand being tied to it any longer, though, and Victor cannot lounge while his mate needs him, so he too gets up.

"Bring us a bath, some light food, chilled water and fruit," he tells one of the guards stationed outside their rooms. "Did anything happen that requires our immediate attention?"

"No, Your Highness," the man replies with a bow. "But, His Majesty the King, has sent a message for you two days ago. He asked to see you at your earliest convenience."

Victor nods. "Tell my father that I will see him tomorrow then."

He returns back into their chambers, leaving the guard to fulfill his orders. Yuuri has changed clothes, but he must still feel as dirty as Victor himself does. He's sitting by the open window in his room, breathing in the chill air that seems to breathe life back into him. His cheeks are flushed, but unlike the fever of heat, this is a healthy flush, where chill air has left kisses on his warm skin.

"You mustn't sit there too long," Victor tells him, stopping by the bed. "You will get sick. I don't think you want to spend another day in bed, do you?"

"Not if I can help it," Yuuri answers. He rises to close the window. And then he simply stands there, as if unsure what to do with himself, what to say. 

"Help me make up the bed?" Victor asks. 

Together, they strip the bed off the sheets and bring new ones – the last pair – from the drawer. The white sheets are stained with blood here and there, and Victor tries hard not to think why. It could be from Yuuri being rough with himself, it could be some lasting wounds from his night with Morio, it could be– No, Victor tells himself, if Yuuri was pregnant, he would not have gone into heat. That thought alone is enough to lighten his heart significantly.

With Yuuri smoothing out one end of the new sheets and Victor the other, they quickly finish the work, but that's alright. It was only ever meant to distract Yuuri.

"How are you feeling?" Victor asks once they're done.

"Tired," Yuuri answers, sitting on the bed heavily. "I never had a heat that was this exhausting."

"I hope you never have another one like it."

Yuuri looks to him, something unnamed in his gaze. Victor waits, as if waiting can make him better at reading Yuuri, but it doesn't. It only helps Yuuri to make up his mind, which is just as good.

"Thank you, Victor," he says at last. "I know you said you want to repent, to earn my trust again. What you did for me these past few days… It's definitely a step in the right direction. I may not be able to fully bring myself to be with you the way we used to be, but I, too, want to try."

"I would be honoured if you'd give me a chance."

Victor comes to Yuuri's side of the bed and kneels before him, helpless in his adoration. Yuuri must see it in his face, for one of his hands lifts to Victor's cheek. Briefly, Yuuri hesitates, but then his palm touches Victor's skin, and Victor's heart throbs inside his chest like a beginning, like new hope.

He leans into Yuuri's touch, sighing.    

"We've been through so much in only a couple months of having met," Yuuri says softly, "but I can't imagine wanting to trust anyone more and knowing that this trust will be answered with respect and love of equal measure. Despite everything, Vitya, I'm glad to have married you."

Victor gasps in surprise. But it's a weak gasp, it's a wet gasp, for as sudden as Yuuri's words are, Victor has been thinking about this for weeks. He's been wondering, he's been doubting… And here, Yuuri has just said what Victor has been hoping to hear. 

"Are you– Do you mean it?"

"With my whole heart," Yuuri says.

And it is then that Victor cries. 

He's been battling against his own feelings for so long. Stifling them, because if anyone had the right to shed tears, it was Yuuri. It's Yuuri who should be giving way to his feelings, Yuuri that Victor should be cheering up. 

And yet… And yet…

"Why are you crying?" Yuuri asks softly, wiping away Victor's tears, but more replace them before his fingers can leave his cheeks dry. 

"I love you," Victor simply replies. "I love you. I love you, Yuuri." 

"I know," Yuuri tells him, and he gives Victor a smile: a small one, and all the sweeter for it. "Is that a reason to cry?"

Victor can only nod, holding onto Yuuri's hand and pressing it to his wet cheek. 

All this time, all this time he's been so worried that Yuuri might hate him. That he might regret ever agreeing to marry him. If he didn't promise his life to Victor's, after all, none of the awful things would have happened to him. He wouldn't have come to the palace, no one would recognize him, Yurio would not injure him, Morio would not– 

Once, in a moment of doubt, Yuuri has told Victor that it would be Victor who'd have a carefree life without him. Victor grew angry at the very idea, but ever since then, he couldn't quite help but wonder if Yuuri only asked this, because he felt like that, too. If he asked, because he wanted to know if Victor felt as he did.

Now, however, he knows. Now, he's heard the truth. 

Yuuri gently guides Victor's head to his lap, and there, drawn by his soft touch, Victor sheds all his sorrows. All the sleepless nights, all the worry, all the heartbreak – he cries out all the tears that he's stopped multiple times, for he had no right to them then. Today, at the peak of exhaustion, and with Yuuri's love once again reassured in his heart, Victor allows himself to let go. 

So he cries, and he cries, and Yuuri strokes his hair as if he understands his need to cleanse his soul. Victor clings to Yuuri's knees and sobs his pain out, breathless and weak, and so incredibly thankful for his husband that every breath only serves to put more love into his heart as the disappearing pain leaves it room. 

His tears finally stop after a while, but Victor does not let go of Yuuri and Yuuri does not cease the soothing caress of his fingers in Victor's hair. They remain like that still, simply close, taking comfort from finding peace. Victor doesn't know how long they sit there, but that, of course, can't last. Footsteps and sounds of movement out in the sitting room disrupt their newfound idylla. 

Yuuri's entire body grows tense within a span of seconds. His hand stills in Victor's hair and, unwittingly, Victor stiffens too.

"It must be the servants," he tells Yuuri. "I sent for a bath and something to eat. You must be starving, no? I know I am."

Victor rises to his feet. He squeezes Yuuri's hand once, before he makes it to the door. He peers outside and dismisses the servants who, indeed, have brought the large copper bath and filled it with steaming water. At the table beside it, a variety of foods have been prepared, too. All like Victor's asked.

"Bath first," Victor decides, as he opens the door further, so Yuuri can see the sitting room as well. "You go first. I will bathe afterwards." Yuuri looks uncertain, but Victor only smiles. "I can wait. I've had time to bathe while you were chained to your bed."

It's a lie and they both know it, but Yuuri doesn't call him out on it. He only gives Victor a gaze that says he knows Victor isn't being truthful. Victor answers him with a sheepish smile. 

"Very well," Yuuri gives in. 

"I will be in my room, if you need me."

Victor retreats to his bedchamber. The air is stale here, so long no one has opened neither the doors nor windows inside. The final nights of Yuuri's heat Victor has spent on the floor beside Yuuri's bed, listening for every rustle of sheets. Now, he could at last relax. Now, he could sleep in his own bed. But no matter how soft the mattress, how silky the sheets, Victor would rather pick the floor of Yuuri's room just for a chance to be close to him. 

With a sigh, he moves to open the window. The chill of quickly approaching winter bites into his cheeks. After days of being cooped up inside the palace walls, it feels refreshing and nice. No wonder Yuuri couldn't help himself before. Victor breathes in the fresh air. His eyes rest on the far away trees of the royal forest, now completely naked.

And, as if someone has magically snapped their fingers, all of Victor's peace disappears. 

Morio… Is he truly dead? Was his body found yet? What happened to the hunt? What are people saying about the missing duke? 

And also… also, what are they saying about them? They both disappeared so suddenly… Victor can only hope that the word of Yuuri's heat has circled around the palace, so as to excuse their sudden leaving from the hunting party. It could serve them as an alibi, surely. The best one they could have gotten.

Still, Victor cannot help but worry. He thinks about it while Yuuri bathes, while they eat, while he bathes afterwards, and long after he's already settled into bed. Despite the soft pillows and new sheets, he can't find a comfortable position and tosses and turns, thinking, wondering, worrying. At last, he decides to get answers to all his questions from his father tomorrow. 

With that decision having been made, he closes his eyes, this time fully intending to sleep. But sleep is not in the stars for him that night, it seems.

The door that separates his room from Yuuri's opens with only the slightest sound of wood pushing on soft carpet. A silhouette draped in a white nightshift stands in the doorway, and it is only thanks to that whiteness that Victor can see him at all. 

It's enough for Victor to rise up on his elbow in alarm. 

"Yuuri? Is something wrong? Do you need something?"

Hesitant, Yuuri steps into the room. The light of the moon, sparse as it is where it slips through the slits in the curtains, draws out the shadows across the floor and Yuuri's face. Yuuri leaves the door open as he walks closer to Victor's bed, so unsure, so shy, that Victor wants to rush to his side. He would have done that too, if he wasn't scared of scaring Yuuri in turn.

"I'm sorry," Yuuri starts, digging his fingers into the ruffled sleeves of his night gown. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't," Victor quickly assures. "I was still awake… thinking."

Yuuri chances a look at him, then – as if he sees in Victor's shadowed face what he's been hoping to see – he walks up to the bed, and asks in a quiet, strained voice: "Can I sleep with you tonight? I'm– I don't…" He takes a breath and whispers: "I don't want to be alone."

Gripped by the heart by the request, Victor can only move over to make some space for him. Yuuri crawls into the bed at his side, covers himself almost up to his ears and shudders.

"Thank you," he speaks so quietly that Victor barely hears him over the rustle of sheets.

"No need," he answers just as softly. "I am your husband, your alpha. You needn't ask for my company. It is always yours to take, Yuuri. Anytime you wish it. And anytime you don't, you only need to say a word."

"Still, thank you." Yuuri turns over his shoulder to look at Victor. "If I want to thank my husband for being kind, then you will let me."

Startled by Yuuri's firmness, Victor gives a little laugh. "Very well. If you insist, I won't say a word further."

They drift into silence after that. It's warm under the covers and, with Yuuri so close, Victor's heart seems to be soothed enough to sleep. He turns to the side… and can't. Yuuri's back is stiff, he can see that much. But even if he didn't know him as well as he does, the fact that Yuuri has shifted to the very edge of the bed to be as far away from Victor as possible would be a dead giveaway.

"Yuuri?"

"Yes?"

"Are you certain you wish to spend the night here?"

"You don't want me to?"

"That is not what I asked." Victor sighs, a bit exasperated at the way Yuuri always seems to think so badly of himself. Then, he reminds himself that it's not Yuuri's fault, that he shouldn't be angry, and he offers: "Would you prefer it if I slept on the chaise? I can drag it over before the bed."

Yuuri is silent for a moment. "You won't mind?"

"No, love, I won't. Didn't I just say you only have to speak the word?"

Yuuri turns to him, his face a picture of guilt.

"I'm sorry," he says. "This is your bed and I asked to be here. It's not fair for you to leave your own bed and sleep on a chaise."

"It is fair, if I offered. And I did." Victor smiles at him. "Will that make you more comfortable? Or would you rather go back to your room? Be honest with me."

Yuuri bites his lip before he says. "I want to stay."

"Then it is decided."

Victor slips out of bed and in a minute he has the chaise set about a metre away from the bed. He takes one of the pillows from the bed, fluffs it up and rests it at the head, but he cannot take the quilt in the same way. 

"Would you mind if I used your quilt for tonight?"

Yuuri makes a little sound of agreement, so Victor quickly disappears into his room. He returns with his arms full of soft bed covers, which despite being new still smell distinctly of Yuuri. As Victor makes himself comfortable on the chaise, he does not fully mind sleeping on it. He didn't mind before, if it helps Yuuri feel a little bit safer, and he doesn't mind now. Especially if he falls asleep wrapped in his mate's scent. 

"Victor?" Yuuri asks into the night.

"Yes?"

"Can I… can I hold your hand until I fall asleep?"

Victor's heart squeezes. "Of course."

Their hands meet in the empty space between the chaise and the bed. This time, palm to palm and heart to heart, despite the distance that still remains between them, they both fall asleep.



 

***



 

"His Majesty the King wishes to see you both," the guard tells Victor in the morning when he steps out to send one of them to the kitchens for breakfast.

Yuuri hears him from the sitting room, and he hears Victor's reply as it follows.

"Very well. Once we are finished eating, we will come to see him."

The guard must bow and hurry to take Victor's orders to the kitchens and then to his father, for Vicor returns to Yuuri's side, and sighs. 

"You heard?" Yuuri nods. "I wish I could handle this alone. You should rest while you can and–"

"Don't do that," Yuuri tells him, frowning. "What are you doing, Victor?"

Victor blinks at him, confused. "What am I…? I don't understand. What am I doing?"

"You're trying to do all of this alone. Why?" And before Victor can answer him, Yuuri gives him a slightly narrowed, suspicious glare. "Or are you again trying to protect me? Thank you, but I do not need this kind of protection. Not now, at least."

"Well, yes, in a way I suppose I am trying to protect you. You've been through so much in the past weeks. Is it really that odd that I, as an alpha who failed to do so, now wish to keep my mate as safe as I possibly can?" still slightly miffed, Victor answers.

"What then? You want to lock me up in here under guard and never have me leave the royal wing? Is that your idea of protection?"

He's harsh on him, Yuuri realizes. He's being mean on purpose, but… it feels good to say this. It's what Yuuri has been thinking after all. He might have been hurt, yes, but that did not make him into someone who wants to hide. Yes, he will need much more care, and he will want to keep distance from the court life, but not by staying cooped up in this place, while Victor left and did the things that princes do while their obedient mates waits for them longingly to return and bless them with their attention. 

No, Yuuri will never be that. He will not allow himself to. And he will not allow Victor to turn him into it, either.

"I never said that's what I want," Victor denies.

"What do you want then? Because I will not be locked up in here like someone who has something to hide." 

Too late Yuuri realizes that his words are actually true. He is someone who has something to hide. A whole bag of somethings, in fact. Victor seems to know that as well, but he chooses not to point out. He needn't do it. Yuuri already feels bad enough about saying it.

"I do not want to hide you, Yuuri. That was never my intention," Victor says instead, his voice soothing. "I told you before and I will say it as many times as you need to hear it: I am not ashamed of you. And I never will be. I simply don't want you to experience anything awful again. You were hurt, and hurt once again, partly because of me. No, don't deny it," Victor's voice hardens as Yuuri opens his mouth to argue. It's an old argument and bringing it back would not help anyone, so Yuuri let's it rest, while Victor continues: "I am to blame for at least part of it, and I want to make sure that you are safe. That nothing like that ever happens to you again."

"It would go a long way if you were honest with me about your plans," Yuuri says bitterly. 

Victor looks pained at the way Yuuri says it, and Yuuri's heart squeezes in his chest. He shouldn't have said it that way, no matter if it's true or not. He almost reaches out to Victor, but something… something holds him back. 

"I should've been, you're right," Victor admits. His hands clench together in his lap until his knuckles whiten. "Maybe I'm finding excuses, maybe I'm just trying to justify myself, maybe absolve myself of the responsibility, but…" He looks to Yuuri again. "You were in such a fragile state, Yuuri. What Mari has told me – about you not eating, not sleeping, crying – and then when I saw you when you finally agreed to see me… Yuuri, you looked like a ghost. I couldn't possibly put any more burden on you, for I feared that you would snap under the weight of it."

"And yet, I still bore it, didn't I?" Yuuri points out. "I just didn't know what it was."

Victor turns away from him, ashamed. "You're right. I once again proved to be unworthy of protecting anyone."

They fall into silence, stiff and heavy with things yet unspoken. Hearing Victor tell Yuuri how weak he looked in his eyes was painful, but Yuuri couldn't truly blame him. It made him bitter, but Victor was right. No matter how Yuuri convinced himself that he was strong, that he could face anything life would throw at him, he wasn't ready to see Morio again. It's painfully obvious to him now. 

Would he have agreed to be the bait, if Victor asked him to? He knows the answer would be yes. And he knows that it would only make him fear the bastard more. Victor must have known that before Yuuri did. 

On the other hand though, if Yuuri knew, he could've prepared himself mentally for it. For the moment the reason for his heartbreak dies right before him. He's braced himself for seeing him again, but not for watching Morio's face tighten with white, cold fear as death has gripped him by the throat. Not for the moment when he spat into Yuuri's face, his last act of insult. But… could he have really prepared himself for something like that? For death? For blood? For the violence of it?

Yuuri knows the answer. And he knows that what Victor has done was not right, yet if he did speak to Yuuri beforehand, the end result might have turned out to be the same in the end. 

"I don't need you to protect me, Victor," Yuuri says at last. "Not anymore. I will protect myself. I have done so for almost ten years now, and I will continue to do so. But to be able to do this right, I need to be told the truth. I can't protect myself from threats, when I am not aware of them. Do you understand?"

"I do, and I can't apologize enough for putting you in so much danger." 

Victor's eyes are filled with regret. He looks at Yuuri, knowing that he cannot take back time, but wishing with his entire heart to make right by him. It's that, more than his words, that melts some of the anger that fills Yuuri's chest.

Before either of them can say anything more, however, the doors open and the servants bring their breakfast. Only once an array of fresh foods is spread on the table in front of them and the doors close once again after the last of the kitchen maids, does Victor speak again.

"You're angry with me, and you have the right to be. I put you in danger. I failed you. As an alpha, as a mate, as your husband. I failed you. I know that. But I– Yuuri, please, understand me right. This has not been an easy path to walk on for me either." He smiles, but it's a smile so filled with pain and bitterness that Yuuri must look away from it. "In no way am I trying to invalidate your hurts, but believe me when I say this: I have been hurting as well. You might have been the one who suffered most, and I know I have no right to measure my experience to yours, but I have been hurting, too. The decisions I have made… those were guided by my ardent wishes to spare you even more pain, and while they may have been wrong, I never meant to hurt you more. Please, believe me."

"I do," Yuuri assures him. "But it doesn't really change things, does it?"

"No," Victor admits quietly. "It doesn't."

For a moment, they sit stiffly by each other, gazing at the food before them. Yuuri doesn't have much of an appetite, but he knows they should both eat. He reaches for the cup of steaming herbal tea and pours one, only to hand it to Victor. Surprised blue eyes meet his, and Yuuri sighs.

"Never protect me like this again," Yuuri tells him. "I'd much rather hear the most awful truth than go into something unwittingly."

"No more secrets," Victor promises instantly. "No more protecting. At least, not like this."

Yuuri glares. "No more protecting, period."

"Yuuri… I'm an alpha," Victor starts slowly, pleadingly. "I cannot promise not to protect you. It's… it's in my nature. But," he adds quickly as if he could see the hope fleeting out of Yuuri's expression, "I can promise you that I will always talk with you first. I will always ask how much you need of me, what you wish me to do. Is that… Can that be enough?"

Could it be? 

Yuuri measures Victor with a long, careful look. He's honest, that much is apparent. He's also remorseful and regretful, and it is clear that he knows the mistake he's made. 

"Yes," Yuuri agrees. "It's enough." 

And when Victor's eyes gloss over with hope, Yuuri remembers the way Victor has cried in his lap – his heart wrenching sobs, his quiet tears, his sharp, pained breathing. Victor never meant to hurt him, Yuuri knows. He never meant to keep things from him just to spite him. He never meant to be anything, but a man worthy of him, one who could protect Yuuri from harm. 

Beware of the one who protects, Yuuri remembers the warning the unicorn gave them all those months ago. But, as he looks at Victor, as he slowly reaches for Victor's hand and Victor holds onto him as if honoured to be allowed to touch him, Yuuri knows deep in his heart that whatever prophecy this is, it is not speaking of Victor. 

It can't be.

 

 

***

 

 

"First of all, let me say how glad I am to see you back safely," the king says to Yuuri and Victor who have been invited to sit before him in his study. The king's face is unreadable, but somehow Yuuri senses his displeasure the moment they step into the room.

"But?" Victor asks as if he knows it's coming.

"But," the king acquiesces with a little nod, "you have both behaved so foolishly I could hardly believe it when Galina told me everything. You endangered not only your own lives, but my life. Your mother's life," he says to Victor, and then to Yuuri, "your sister and your parents. All of us who have been trying for so long to protect you. How foolish can you be?"

Listening to the king, Yuuri once again feels slapped with the word 'protect'. Why must everyone insist on protecting him? When did he ask for such a thing? He can understand his parents, for that is an integral part of bringing up a child, but now that he's an adult, why can't people just trust him to protect himself?

It's endlessly frustrating, and it takes all of Yuuri's control not to grit his teeth in anger.

"Father, peace. We simply didn't think that it was–"

"You are quite right," the king snaps, interrupting Victor. "You didn't think.

He takes a deep breath to calm himself, and Victor and Yuuri sit there in silence like children about to be scolded. They are, Yuuri realizes. In the king's eyes, they are nothing but young newlyweds, who know nothing of life yet. Maybe in some ways he is right to think so, yet in others… 

Yuuri loses track of the conversation for a moment as he remembers Morio, and fights to suppress the memory of him. What is dead must stay dead, he tells himself and then repeats it until the memories recede.

"I would expect something like this from Yuuri, who was not raised like you, Victor, and cannot know better, because he has never been trained for this. But you, son? I cannot believe that you have been so blinded, so as not to–"

"It is not Victor's fault," Yuuri begins, unable to watch Victor bear the burn of his father's anger when the fault was his own in equal measure, if not larger. They've already spoken so many times about this that one more just seems to him like reopening closed wounds for naught. "I was the one to insist we tell no one. Morio, he... his threats have scared me into compliance and I was terrified for all our lives, should he learn that we told someone. I'm sorry I gave in to his threats, but please don't blame Victor for this."

The king looks at Yuuri, slightly exasperated. "My dear Yuuri. I am sorry to hear of your fear, but this changes nothing. Victor knew better. Or, at least, he should have." He gives his son another withering look. "Were you so taken by your beautiful mate that you were ready to risk his life to do as he ordered? Or was that to spite us for agreeing upon this union without your approval?"

"It was neither," Victor barks, his temper rising. Yuuri sees his hands shake where he grips the arms of his chair hard. "You want to know what the truth is? Why I didn't tell you about Morio before? Fine, I'll tell you," Victor spits. 

His anger sits high in his cheeks, red blotches of it marring his beautiful face. Yuuri has seen him angry, has argued with that anger, has faced it and never wanted to see it again, but this? This was not that anger. This was anger, but also something more. Embarrassment, as deep as it goes. Humiliation. Yes, that's what it was. Anger and humiliation, two things that Yuuri never imagined could make Victor's pretty face twist into a mask of such ugliness.

"Everyone who is even the slightest inconvenience to you dies, father. They disappear for a while, then suddenly they are found: torn to pieces by dogs, drowned, fallen ill or simply never awakened from their sleep. Others find themselves convicted on fabricated charges, hanged and decapitated, or worse – tortured to death. There are rumours already!" Victor gestures towards the door, and Yuuri realizes he means servant gossip, which carries away from the palace to the common people's homes. "Do you know what they say? That we have only gotten where we are because we killed everyone who opposed us. That if anyone says a word against us, they will die. That no one is safe, that it'd be better if the Katsukis returned."

Those last words are what gets through to the king. He twitches where he's sat in his throne-like chair behind his writing table and he looks away from Victor. His eyes find Yuuri's, narrowed and as dangerous as Yuuri has ever seen them.

Victor is hardly done, however.

"Say, what would happen if Duke Wintry died of any of those mysterious causes not even a full month after his mother, hm?" Victor taunts, and when the king says nothing, he nods. He spreads his hands as if to prove his point. "See, that's why. Our reputation is not doing us any favours here. People talk about us behind our backs, father. Servants, but also nobles. You should know best how dangerous that is. And those whispers, they are never good. I did not wish to add to them further, to give them more reason to hate us."

"You think I do not know what my own people say about me? That I am not aware of the reputation we have garnered throughout the years?" The king smiles humourlessly. "Oh, I assure you that I know all this. And still, I repeat: you should have spoken to us about this before. There are more ways to solving a problem other than killing the one who created it. I hoped your mother has taught you this, but it seems like you need more learning still."

Yuuri says nothing as he listens to them both. This conversation, it seems, does not fully involve him. Not in the way it should, if he was to truly be part of this family. Victor's parents might have accepted him, Yuuri realizes, they might have honoured the promise they'd made with his father all those years ago, but that does not mean they are willing to fully accept him as one of them. As a Nikiforov, for that who Yuuri is by marriage. To them he will always be a Katsuki. Always someone outside their circle, someone to protect. Someone to… use? 

Yuuri takes his eyes away from the king to look at his husband. His husband, who so willingly professed his love. His husband, whom Yuuri has grown to love as well. Even through all that they've suffered, that feeling did not change. But… could all of it be a lie? Could Victor have been playing?

No, Yuuri decides, he will not doubt him. 

"You know as well as I do that what we do, what we are made to do is not always dependent on what we want," the king tells Victor. "If we fail, do you think they will hesitate to take all our power away? Do you think that people will mourn us, like some have mourned your spouse's parents?" His eyes flicker briefly to Yuuri and his frown deepens. He looks back to Victor before he speaks. "You must think more about the position we're in, son. If they hurt one of us, they hurt us all. If they play against one of us, they play against us all. If they want to get rid of one of us, they will face the wrath of us all. That is what has made us strong. That is how the Nikiforov House has risen to power. I will not see this power taken away by a few mistakes of you young ones."

"The illusion of power, you mean," Victor mumbles quietly enough that his father does not hear it, but Yuuri, sat at his side, does.

Yuuri has never thought… he never questioned the power the royal family held now. He knew that once it was his parents who were in this same position, but knowing it and knowing what that meant are two different things. Royalty always meant absolute power to him. It meant that the royals could do what they wished and no one had to right to question them. 

Was he wrong? Was there more to it than he believed? Or… is it just that Victor's family is special in this regard? Special, and cursed?

"We should have spoken to you about this," Yuuri says, speaking for the first time in a while. The king turns to him, his attention as heavy as his gaze. "You're right. We should've come to you or to Queen Galina sooner. We will not make this mistake again."

The king nods stiffly. "You're right, you won't. I am sure that all that happened will be a good lesson for you to never deal with adversaries alone. That is why families exist. That is why noble houses exist. That is why humans gather together to form groups and societies. Because together we are strong, divided all of us are weak – those involved and those unaware." The king moves his eyes to Victor, narrows them at his son's still clearly visible anger. "Do you understand that, Victor?"

"I understand," Victor bites out. 

"Good."

The king grips the arms of his chair and lifts himself out of it. He walks around the table to peer out of one of the big windows at the side of the chamber. One of the few beautiful mornings peers back at him. The sky is cloudy, but the clouds are a gray only a smidge off white, bright and easy to look at. There is little sun, as it usually is in winter months, and Yuuri knows that soon rains and snow will begin to destroy what little there is left of the greenery.

"There is another reason I wished to speak to you," the king says at last. "A much more sinister reason."

"What is it?" Victor asks.

"Etam's men have found the bodies and brought them back to the palace."

Yuuri sucks in a sharp breath, but the king doesn't spare him a look. It is Victor who takes notice and he grips Yuuri's hand hard. 

"The word has spread faster than we could stop it. I think someone might be working against us, but that is a whole different matter that you needn't worry yourselves with yet. What I need you to know is this: the Katsuki sympathizers are stirring."

"There are still any left?" Victor wonders. "I thought most of them have been killed during the coup, and the rest disposed of afterwards."

The king turns to them at last. His eyes skid over Victor and come to rest on Yuuri. His next words he addresses straight to him. 

"Just like your parents, there are many left who escaped. We were not particularly eager to hunt you all down, despite the rumours we spread about. Some survivors took refuge in neighbouring countries that aren't too happy about the change in power, others chose to change their names and hide, working to undermine us from the inside. They have been a true pain in our sides the entire time we've been ruling these past twenty years. They have paid off spies, tried to poison us, paid off nobles to vote against our proposals. They have done as much as they could without actually starting another rebellion." The king sighs, walks over to his chair and sinks into it heavily. "We, of course, have prevailed, because we can spot their plans a mile away. But it still comes at a large cost every time."

"Why are you telling us about it now then?" Victor asks. "If you have been able to manage them all those years, I don't see what could possibly–"

And he falls silent, as if he's realized what changed. Yuuri does as well.

"You don't mean… me?"

The king laughs a little. Yuuri isn't sure he likes the sound. Frankly, he isn't sure he likes his father-in-law at all.

"No, boy, not you," he replies. "Thankfully, they still have no idea that you are even alive. We would have a fine uprising on our hands, if they did. No." The king's eyes sharpen. "Morio Wintry, the last remaining noble with Katsuki blood that was out in the open. His death has been taken as an act of hostility."

"They think we want to finish what we started," Victor continues for him. "That this was no accident and we meant for this to happen. To get rid of him."

The king's mouth lifts in a sharp, pointed smirk. "Didn't we?"

"You surely didn't mean to kill him, too?" Yuuri asks, breathless with the possibility that they all could've played into the king's hands, but he only shakes his head.

"No, no, you mistake me, son," he answers. Then nods to Victor. "It is you who did this. But like I said before, we all share responsibility in this family. Your actions are just as much my actions, and the other way around."

Yuuri's lips purse together. Morio was related to him, that much he was aware of. But he had no idea that there was still any resistance left. Any other members of the families that were once close to his parents. Any cousins or uncles or distantly related aunts… Yuuri can't help but imagine what it would be like to meet them. 

Then again, those are strangers to him, he reminds himself. They would treat him as such. If not worse, owing to the fact whom he is currently married to. 

"So by killing Morio we have angered the Katsuki supporters," Victor reiterates. "But what can they do? What else that they have not tried yet?"

"I do not know," the king admits, for the first time looking at the table strewn with messages with a deep frown. "All my spies have to say is that anger has once again made them willing to act. There are no concrete plans formed yet, or they have not been able to get them, but something is going to happen." He looks up at them, first Victor, then Yuuri. And Yuuri realizes that for all that the Nikiforovs may not fully accept him as one of them, they do care about his life, if only as Victor's mate. "I warn you both now, be cautious. Do not let anyone close enough to hurt you. You are a new addition at court, Yuuri," he adds, "which makes you a new target for them. An easy target, since you are unused to palace intricacies and an omega. They will pick you first, if it comes to assassination. Or that is what we believe highly possible."

"But I'm– I'm one of them," Yuuri protests, but it is a feeble thing. 

His blood doesn't matter, he realizes. They don't know he is a Katsuki. They only know that he is the husband of Victor, the prince, and that is all they need to know. 

"Most of the folk who support them are common people," the king says, seeing that Yuuri has realized the truth. "And the common people appreciate that their prince has married someone of low status. It gives them hope, you see. It makes them think that maybe if they live good lives, once you take the throne things will change for the better. For now, that is enough to keep the peace. But I cannot say how long that will last, so you must be vigilant."

"Shouldn't we do something then?" Victor asks. "Something more to win the favour of the people? Maybe give out more food or lessen the taxes this year?"

The king shakes his head. "Not at the moment. The taxes have already been gathered and simply saying that we will take less next year will not do. I am thinking on what more we can do, but for now this is it. Warning you is all we can do to prepare."

"What about reaching out to people in person? There were those tours that monarchs have taken at times, remember? They went around the country, visiting people, eating with them, talking. It brought people together, made them see their rules as kinder, more human, more..."

Victor's voice drifts away. Yuuri blinks, then frowns. He can see Victor's lips move, but no sound comes out of them. No, he realizes when he looks to the king. It is not Victor's voice that disappeared. The king's lips move too as he replies, and Yuuri still hears nothing. Something is… Something is…

Suddenly, he hears it. A sound like a tune you can play with a finger on the rim of a glass. A ringing, a note: clear and deep, and it's all that Yuuri can hear. 

He sits up, casting his eyes around for what could be making such a sound, but he doesn't see anything. He stands up, still searching. He doesn't notice Victor and the king braking their conversation to gaze at him. He doesn't hear Victor call his name. There is only that sound, the sound of something calling out to him. Something that wants to be found. Something that wants Yuuri to find it.

He takes a step here, a step there, and finally the sound gets louder when he moves towards the old clock that stands next to the study library. The clock hums to Yuuri, it calls to him. Gently, Yuuri touches it's glass, slides his hands over the wood. It vibrates under his fingers.

What is this, Yuuri wonders. What do you want from me?

The clock sings. The face is pure mother-of-pearl white with hands made of silver, which shine brightly as they reflect light. It's almost two in the afternoon, but as Yuuri looks at the hands, they begin to move, then spin, and then – when Yuuri takes a sharp breath, ready to squeeze his eyes shut lest he becomes dizzy with it – they stop at five past ten.

The room has suddenly darkened. The clock hands look golden now, glowing in the light of the fireplace instead of sunlight. Victor and the king are gone, and Yuuri's confusion only rises until he sees him. Someone so achingly familiar, younger and dressed in finery that Yuuri has never imagined him in... but he could never mistake that face for any other.

Yuuri's own father walks up to the clock, opens the hidden compartment behind the clock's face and quickly snatches a locket– No, not a locket. Yuuri's eyes widen. It's a key. The key. The same key he's seen in his vision during–

He forces himself to forget it and focus on the vision before him, but the corners are already spilling with light of the day. In one, two blinks of his eyes, Yuuri sees his father hide the key in the clock, then close it, and then he is once again standing in Victor's father's study, looking at the same clock with wide-eyed wonder.

Suddenly a hand rests on his elbow and Yuuri almost jumps out of his skin.

"Yuuri?" Victor's voice sounds as if it's coming from the next room, muffled and distorted. "Are you alright?"

Yuuri shakes his head. He gently unlodges Victor's hand from him and reaches for the clock. He opens the face just like his father once had. His hand disappears inside. He gropes around and around, and then, at last, his fingers catch on something cold and smooth, and he pulls. 

The chain comes clattering, carrying the key at the end of it. 

"What is this?" The king peers over Yuuri's other shoulder. "A key? How did you know it was here?"

"I didn't," Yuuri answers quietly, looking the key over. It's old, silver darkened with age. 

And suddenly, Yuuri remembers his other vision. The other key. The hut in the forest. He closes his fingers tight around the key to see if this is the same sensation. True enough, it is. This is the key from that vision. This is the key that will lead Yuuri to the hut, where something he will want very badly must be hidden.

"This clock," Yuuri says, turning to the king. "It was here already when my father still lived in the palace, wasn't it?" 

The king seems surprised at the question, but he answers Yuuri with no hesitation: "Yes, that's true. I liked it, so I never got rid of it. Why do you ask?"

"My father hid this here." Yuuri shows them the key. "I am not sure what it opens, but I know there is a hut in a forest that I must visit come spring."

"Why not now?" Victor asks, taking the key when Yuuri offers it to him to look. He turns it over, strokes it with a finger, before he looks back to Yuuri.

"It has to be spring," is all Yuuri can say. He doesn't know why, but the words feel right.

Victor looks at him for a moment, but finally he nods. "Then we will go."

Before Yuuri can give him a smile in thanks, the king speaks as well.

"You should keep the key then. If it belonged to your father once, then it is yours by right."

Just like this kingdom, Yuuri thinks, but he does not speak it. He would hardly know what to do with one, even if the king decided to hand it over. Which, again, Yuuri doubts would ever happen.

"Thank you," he simply says. 

"May I?" Victor motions to Yuuri with the chain hanging open between both his hands, and Yuuri nods. Victor hangs the key around Yuuri's neck. "Yet another mystery we have to solve. I'm starting to miss the easy life."

The king snorts. "It will be easy once you die."

"Well," Victor answers, a little bit sour now, "I am in no hurry to try that medicine yet, thank you."

"It gladdens my heart to hear it," the king answers, equally as sarcastic.

Father and son share glances, then both snort and turn away with mirth dancing in their eyes. Yuuri has never seen a parent and child fight like this. Somehow, seeing Victor with his father, and seeing a vision of his own young father, has made Yuuri miss home more than he has before. 

He is still thinking of home, of how they would be preparing the meat for winter right about now, when the king dismisses them at last. Yuuri follows Victor back through the palace, but his thoughts and heart are miles away, up north, east of the Viklyg Mountain Range, in the small village resting beyond the Tawna River… The inn that has been his home for over 20 years has a storage spacious enough to fit all that they need for guests and travellers passing by during winter, but most of the meat has to be cured, salted and smoked to make it last through all the months till spring. The smell of it, bloody and salty, yet full of warm feelings of laughter and family, Yuuri is able to recall as if he was currently standing with his mother in their small kitchen.

"Are you tired?" Victor asks when Yuuri remains deep in thought even once they leave his father's study. "I'd like to take you somewhere, but if you'd rather we postpone just say the word."

"Where do you want to take me?"

Victor smiles. "I think you'll enjoy it."

So Yuuri allows him to take his hand and guide him past the royal wing, past the grand hall, where the ball has been held, and out through the door leading to the gardens. Except Victor doesn't take him to the gardens. He guides Yuuri along the path winding right beside the palace wall, and then to the little steps that climb towards another door, another tower. 

Yuuri has never been here, never even seen this place on all his trips outside palace walls. Victor brings out a key from his pocket, an intricate copper one, and smiles at the bewildered look on Yuuri's face.

"I sent for it before we even left to meet with father," he says. "I hoped to bring you here to distract you a little from all that has happened recently. We've hardly had a moment to just rest. Something always seems to interrupt. Now, too, what father has said about the resistance…"

Victor manages to unlock the door, opens it and allows Yuuri inside first. He lifts a hand to stop their guards from following and closes the door again behind them. He doesn't lock it, but it's enough to give them privacy. 

It's a little dark where they are – at the bottom of a spiral staircase that leads up and up as far as Yuuri can see. Victor offers Yuuri an arm again, which Yuuri takes gladly. Together they begin the climb. Slowly, step by step, they make their way up, pausing to look through the beautiful stained-glass windows that climb upwards along with them. The pictures on the glass are as are as many as there are windows. There are those of magical creatures, like mermaids, unicorns, dragons, fairies and such. Others are of beautiful court ladies in grand dresses and shoals. And more of pairs dancing. The higher they climb the more brilliant the colours and the harder it is to tear away from such beauty. 

Yuuri pauses at one such window. Presented on it is a scene of a dancing pair. The woman's dress is a mixture of brilliant blue and violet, all shades of purple and pink, while the gentleman in silver and blue long robes dips her at the waist. Her long brown hair gleams with flecks of orange as the sun shines through the glass. And around the pair, the mosaic of a thousand colours spreads in all directions, filling the window with even more beauty.

"What is this place?" Yuuri asks, charmed.

"This is a present that your great grandfather has given his beloved wife and queen for the twentieth anniversary of their engagement." Victor smiles as he looks at the bright colours of the stained glass. "She loved butterflies, you see, because they were always so colourful. They live very short, very fleeting lives, though. He decided to give her something that would remind her of them all year round."

"That was so sweet of him." Yuuri smiles, even if it is odd to hear Victor referring to the people who raised this wondrous building as his great grandparents, when in truth they are nothing more than strangers to him.

"Come upstairs," Victor asks, offering his shoulder for Yuuri to lean on. "There is something else here that I'm sure you will enjoy. These are just the preamble."

They return to their climb. Around and around the stairs go, but it is not long before they reach the very top. It climbs up higher, but the ceiling is right at their heads, so Yuuri looks closer and yes, he sees it: a little trapdoor and a copper lock that keeps it shut. Victor crouches as he opens it with the same key as the tower door. With a nasty screech of rusty hinges, the door  swings open.

"I'll have to have them oiled," Victor mumbles, grimacing at the sound. He quickly walks into the room first and bends down to help Yuuri up as well. Curious, yet still wary, Yuuri takes Victor's hand and makes the first step into the room. "No one's been here in many, many years. This tower is a remnant of the Katsuki reign. The strongest one here, most likely. I am a little surprised that they never tore it down, but it is hard to ruin something as beautiful as this."

And Yuuri knows what he means. Sunlight blares through the room in an array of colour, and Yuuri sucks in a breath filled with dust and awe. All the round walls around them are made of stained glass. Painted across them all is a lush garden, vivid and lifelike, almost magical when the sunlight brings its true beauty out. Flowers of all colours peer from the green grass, bushes and trees that make up a sea of temptation to any butterfly. Now, as he looks at all this, Yuuri knows why this place deserves its name: the Butterfly Tower, for that is what it is. 

Everywhere, remnants of flowers and potted plants are lying neglected. They crunch under their boots, as they walk deeper into the space that for all its decay, still remains beautiful. Once, this must have been as much a garden as the one painted on the glass. Once, the walled windows could have been opened to draw in the butterflies and lure them to the garden inside, so that the queen could admire them at her leisure. 

In his mind's eye, Yuuri can see it as if he was there. He smiles.

"It's a beautiful place," he says.

"It is," Victor agrees. "And I've been thinking, Yuuri. I want you to have it."

Yuuri frowns at him. "Have what?"

"This." Victor waves his hand around. "And the only key that goes to it." He takes Yuuri's hand gently, and Yuuri is surprised enough to allow it when Victor rests the copper key in his palm. "I want you to have this place. I know that I once said that I wish for your room to be a place of safety and retreat for you, but I know it might not be enough. This tower has not been used in decades, but it belonged to your family once. I want it to belong to you again. I want you to have a corner of this palace that will belong only to you."

Yuuri's fingers clench around the key. "Is it… Can I really have it?"

Both of Victor's hands close around Yuuri's hand, and Yuuri is forced to look up. Victor smiles at him sweetly.

"Of course, love. It's yours if you want it."

"Thank you," Yuuri says, because he isn't sure what else he can say to such generosity. He has never owned anything like this. Something so beautiful, so fragile, so old. A tower! How mad is that?

"I have only one favour to ask of you," Victor adds. "Please, whenever you come here, do take one of my guards with you. I know you do not want to be followed, I know. But, please, Yuuri, for my own peace of mind."

"No, Victor. You… you were right. I should've accepted the guards. Maybe if I had, things would be different." Yuuri turns his eyes around the room: it's beautiful, yes, but all his awe has suddenly left him under the weight of reality. "I will accept the guards, Victor."

There is surprise in Victor's face, but there is also so much relief that Yuuri feels guilt hit him hard all over again. He shouldn't have been so angry then. If he only agreed to have guards…

But such thinking is useless now, he decides. He can only do better as his apology.

"You… Do you mean you will accept me assembling your personal guard?" Victor asks.

Yuuri nods. "I still don't like the idea, but I was too stubborn about it before. I didn't want to believe that I could come to harm simply because I'm your husband. But what your father has told us… I would be an idiot if I continued to be obstinate in this matter."

"I will give the order then. By tomorrow we will have at least a guard of six, so they can take turns."

"I have only one thing I want to ask beforehand," Yuuri interjects. "I don't want alphas. I don't think I'll be able to, to trust them. Not now."

Victor's face softens. "Of course. I will make sure all of them are capable betas."

"Can I meet them beforehand, too?" Yuuri asks.

"You can pick whomever you like out of the ones I choose, how about that?" Victor answers. Yuuri nods. "Thank you, Yuuri."

"No, thank you, Victor. You always take care of me and I have been so angry and so ungrateful–"

"You had your reasons. I wasn't the best husband and partner I could have been, either. I–"

"Victor, let's make a promise," Yuuri interrupts him like Victor himself has done only seconds before. 

"A promise?"

"A promise," Yuuri confirms. "To never again hide anything. To never again lie, no matter how awful the truth is. To never be anything but honest with each other, even if our own feelings would hurt the other."

Victor looks at Yuuri for a moment, then nods. "Very well."

Victor drops to his knees before Yuuri, and Yuuri follows him. Yuuri slips the key to the Butterfly Tower into his pocket as he goes and when Victor offers his crossed hands to him, he takes them after crossing his own. Their palms slide together, warm and wet with sweat.

"I vow," they start together.

"To never again hide anything from you," Victor says.

"To never again pretend that everything is alright when it isn't," Yuuri goes on.

"To never again lie to you, no matter how horrible the truth is."

"To never again be anything but honest with you, even if honesty will hurt you."

"To never again put you in danger."

"To never again protect you at a cost to myself."

Victor's lips press a bit unhappily at that, but he does not break their vow. They look each other in the eyes, and then like one, they say: "This, I vow. Gods be my witnesses."

The sun lights up the room with a million colours, which play on their clothes, faces, hands. Nothing is right, nothing is safe, but as Yuuri kneels there holding Victor's vow in his palms and looking into his eyes, which now shine green and purple and blue, Yuuri feels a little bud of hope break through the ashen soil of his heart.

 

 

the vow in the butterfly tower [fic: a vow to uphold by karasunotsubasa] [art: by impatvish]

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Getting up every day is easy. Going about his day as if nothing has happened also. It's easy to be brave in broad daylight. After all, distracting himself with plain tasks allows him to focus so that his mind does not wander. He doesn't see shadows in every corner, doesn't hear footsteps behind his very back every time he turns away. Living day by day as if nothing is wrong is simple. Too simple.

It's falling asleep that proves the biggest challenge. In the darkness, all alone, Yuuri cannot fight against the thoughts. They come and they drag him back into his nightmares, no matter how hard Yuuri tries to resist.

Every night, Yuuri tries to sleep in his own bed, but the emptiness of it is too vast, too terrifying for him to stand it for long. So, like clockwork, he began to sneak into Victor's room and Victor, who always looks as if he's been waiting for him, moves to the chaise without being asked. Yuuri's heart tightens every time at this gesture of pure love. Nothing between them is the same as it once was, and for a long time it won't be, he can tell, but it is clear to him that Victor loves him. It's clear, so plainly there that at times Yuuri is caught by it. They have traded the words of love so many times that they have almost lost their meaning in this maze of madness they have been thrown into, but these gestures – selfless, caring, tender – have been much more than just words. They have been action, and actions can never lie; they are always honest. And they have shown Yuuri the truth that simple words have lost along the way: that their love is still strong.    

There are nights, however, nights like this, that even in Victor's bed, holding Victor's hand, Yuuri cannot sleep. He chooses to look at his husband then, at his sleeping face, his slightly parted mouth, the hair that spills over the pillow like moonlight. Victor's brows are always close together as he sleeps. His forehead is always creased. His lips twitch every now and then. He looks, for all that Yuuri knows, as if he's worried about something. Or, maybe, as if he's trying to apologize, and Yuuri's heart hurts then too, even if he does not have proof that Victor dreams of what Yuuri suspects he must. 

Victor, as much as Yuuri himself, has been touched by what happened to them. When Yuuri thinks back to the way Victor has sobbed those scant few days ago, his own eyes begin to itch with tears. Truly, they both have been through hell. And yes, maybe Yuuri has gotten the worse of two bad ends, but Victor has suffered his own share of pain. Pain, that he did not know he was bearing, just like Yuuri did not know the burden that rested on him during the hunt. 

They were both steeped in suffering to the very tips of their ears. Yuuri wanted to erase all that happened, so that they could go back to being carefree and sweetly in love like they have been right when they first wed. But… But Victor hurt him, too. It wouldn't do to deny it. Victor hurt him, and after the first initial anger at being told nothing and put in danger without as much as a hint at what may come next, Yuuri can still feel the bitterness of it bubble inside his heart. He's forgiven him in words and actions, but his feelings… he can't truly help them. Especially not where he, where Morio is concerned.

Yuuri pushes the thoughts of him away. They come unbidden, but he tries to not give him any more power over himself. To forget and never revisit the horrible things that happened because of that man. It is not a good thing to do. It is not healthy. But he can't help it. He isn't ready to face it. He isn't ready to talk about it, if he can't even think about it. And he can't. He doesn't want to. 

Morio is dead. Shouldn't that be the end of it?

It's laughable to think so. Yuuri doesn't feel like anything has ended. In fact, he feels cheated. He wanted to be part of the plan to rid them of that vile man. He wanted to do it himself. He wanted his revenge. Instead, he got to see him die, while Morio spat his own blood at him in one final disrespect. 

Yuuri lets go of Victor's hand and turns to his other side, away from his husband. 

He wanted to be the one who triumphed. This one last time, he wanted Morio to see how strong he was. And it didn't happen. Nothing seems to happen the way Yuuri wants it to. Oh, how frustrating that is! How infuriating! Anger burns in Yuuri's belly again, but there is nothing for it to burn away – Morio is dead. The only one Yuuri can be angry with is Victor, and that… that is too hard, too complicated. 

Should Yuuri be angry when Victor so readily offers him his bed? When Victor tries so hard to make up for everything that he did wrong out of good intentions? Or maybe when Victor acts out of pure love for him? 

Yuuri can't stand the thought of being angry with him. He shouldn't be, for one, and he isn't. He knows it would be justifiable, but whenever he opens his heart to it, all anger melts out of him as if the love for Victor is stronger than any anger Yuuri can hold towards him. He doesn't regret it being this way. Who would? Being upset with one's husband is one thing, wanting him to do better is another, but being angry with him? Truly, maddeningly angry? Yuuri is not capable of that. He loves Victor too much for it.

His own feelings, however, tear him apart. His mind is in a state of constant upheaval. His body remains tired, even if he gets a full night of sleep. Phantom aches bring up memories that Yuuri never wants to revisit and real pains, those that have yet to heal from his wild chase through the forest and those of his heat afterwards, answer in an endless echo of discomfort. A dull ache has settled between his legs, so familiar now that he almost doesn't notice it except for the sharp flares of pain when once again he tears a healing wound and blood stains his undergarments. The bruises on Yuuri's shins and back are brown and yellow now, but the huge one on his chest, where he's hit a tree branch and was knocked off his horse, is still stubbornly purple. 

He has not been to see Lady Elena about them. He has not agreed to Victor's proposition to bring her to inspect him. He can't… He doesn't want anyone to see him like this – marked by that foul man, branded as a victim of his evildoing. He himself doesn't want to see those, either. Every bath he takes is spent with gritted teeth and quick, harsh rubbing, as if he could wash away the oily feeling of his touch. It's impossible, but still, he tries. And it never works. The bruises remain there, as does the phantom of Morio's hands.

Yuuri shudders under the covers, cold and suddenly reminded of Morio's bed: equally as cold, as big, as–

He sits up, heart beating out of his chest. Everything is dark, but the corners of his vision begin to darken still. Victor stirs in his sleep and Yuuri almost jumps out of his skin, crawling to the other side of bed, as far away from him as he can. Victor's breath is loud in Yuuri's ears. His own heartbeat is louder still. Yuuri clutches his hand to his chest and the wild fluttering from inside answers him boldly. 

Fear, odd and sudden, grips him by the throat. 

He's breathing, but every shallow breath he's able to suck into his lungs leaves him in a sharp gasp not long after. Dizzy, Yuuri tries to stand up, but he can't. Anxious tears fill his eyes. It feels like… it feels like suffocating. 

Is he going to die? After all of this, is he going to die here?

No. No, he is not going to die, that's silly. All will be well. This is only blind panic reaching out its deathlike hands for him. He will not die. He still has so many things to do. He can't die now. Not yet.

Maybe he is lying to himself, or maybe his logical mind has finally broken through the haze of fear surrounding him, but Yuuri finds himself believing in it. He counts his breaths, forces himself to breathe as long as he can through his nose, release the air through his mouth, an even rhythm that gives him enough respite to notice how his heart slowly begins to beat at a natural speed once more.

Exhausted even more than usual, Yuuri slumps back into bed. He lies there, helpless, until the rush of danger passes and he truly feels how tired he is. His eyes grow heavy, heavier, and at last, Yuuri gives into sleep. 

It feels like only minutes have passed when he awakens next. The morning is already peering into the room through the curtains. Victor is no longer on the chaise, but dressing by the wardrobe that stands against the wall opposite the bed. Yuuri has the perfect view of him, and he watches, watches before he even knows what he's doing.

Victor's naked back is turned on him, pale and strong and perfect. His shoulders move as he picks out a shift and tugs it on through the head. His silver hair spills over his nape, almost aglow in the gray light of the morning. He tucks the shift into his breeches, then dons a robe of beautiful blue speckled with silver droplets and silver thread that form a pattern of a stag on his back. 

He's beautiful. Not for the first time, Yuuri notices it. But this time, unlike the others, he feels like he should not be thinking about it. Because thinking about it always leads to attraction, and Yuuri doesn't– He can't– He shouldn't be thinking about this.

He shouldn't be–

His eyes meet Victor's and Victor smiles: a sweet, soft smile that lights his face up and makes Yuuri's heart hurt from how much he loves him. 

"You're awake," Victor says. "Good morning, my Yuuri. Are you ready to rise or do you want to stay in bed longer?"

"Just a little bit," Yuuri answers, pulling the covers over himself. He hears the smile in Victor's voice, hears his love, and it hurts. It hurts so sweetly. Yuuri hates that it hurts. And he hates that it makes him love as well. 

"I will call for breakfast then," Victor answers. "Come eat with me once you're ready."

His footsteps are equally as soft as his voice when he leaves. And Yuuri shudders under the covers, because how can he love and fear at the same time? The same man? There is only so much a person can take and… Yuuri is sure that he can't take much more of this, no matter how hard he tries.



 

***



 

"We missed out on the Water Festival," Victor tells him with a mournful sigh one day at breakfast. 

They still dine within their rooms, for which Yuuri is unspeakably grateful. Being surrounded with people and forced to play at court politics is not something he needs on top of everything else. Victor seems to understand it without Yuuri saying so, which only makes Yuuri love him more.

Victor's words make him pause with a spoon of honey midway towards his second cup of tea.

"Water Festival? What's that?"

"What's–?" Victor gasps, wide-eyed with shock. "Yuuri! You do not celebrate the festivals of elements up north?" 

"I don't think so," Yuuri answers. None of the festivals he remembers from home seem to match. "We celebrate the Harvest Festival and the summer festivals, but in winter we only seem to have the Yearly Greetings and the Coming of Spring."

"That's awful then!" Victor exclaims. "Since you are at court now, and my husband, you will most likely be invited to take part in all of them at one point or another. We missed the Water Festival because of your heat, but soon the preparations for the Fire Festival will begin. Here, let me tell you all about the elements first."

And so he does. He speaks of four separate winter festivals, one per every month since the first chill winds. The festivals come in three parts: first a ritual of sorts must be performed to connect their bodies and souls with the protection of the gods, then feasts which people enjoy in their homes, and lastly a prayer offered to the gods the morning after in thanks for their patronage. 

In November, also known as the blood month, since all the winter preparations take place then and meat is cured and salted and smoked to make it last till spring, there is the Water Festival. To cleanse the body and soul of all the slaughter and blood, but also to cleanse it from evil that has accumulated all year in the deepest cracks. Common folk, Victor says, strip naked and jump into the cold river waters, believing that the running water will pull away all the evil workings out of their skin along with its warmth. Only once they are cold enough that their teeth chatter, do they rise from the waters, clean and empty vessels for good. 

Nobles would never stoop to running about naked, of course. Here, in the palace, Victor tells him, the tradition is to walk to the nearby stream and walk into the waters knee high, then kneel and ask for cleansing. It is slightly less rustic, but – smiling fondly – Victor recalls the one autumn when he was still a young prince and he, Chris, and a visiting prince from Amistra joined the common folk in their naked ritual. Yuuri doubts he could ever do that, so deep in his heart he is thankful that this odd festival has passed them by unawares.

In December, the Fire Festival takes place. As Victor explains it, it takes place on the winter solstice, when the day is shortest in the year. In the morning, common folk and nobles alike awaken early to watch the sun rise and then at night, once it goes down again, in village and city squares huge bonfires are built. Every person taking part in the ritual takes a log, a torch, a twig and lights it up from their home hearth to then take it all the way to the bonfire, where all the fires from the multiple homes join into one. Fire, Victor says, while also cleansing, in this ritual is meant to rekindle life and love, all warmth, that have been chilled previously in the Water Festival. 

"In the palace, the bonfire is usually held in the main courtyard, so everyone can join in on the celebration. The fire is controlled and there is no danger of it spreading, so there's no need to worry," Victor adds, as if reading the unease on Yuuri's face. "It's really quite a bit of fun. The fire is very warm, and there is always a feast laid out, and people dance around the fire. It's a beautiful celebration of life."

Then, he tells Yuuri about the Yearly Greetings, which only consists of staying up all night to watch the new dawn rise and making a wish as the first sun of the new year finally climbs up the sky. 

After, he follows to the Festival of Air, which happens not too long into the new year. From the first day, people begin to make kites. Commoners of twigs and spare linen, nobles out of wood and stitched cloth with colourful patterns and often gemstones woven into the fabric. They write their past regrets and burdens of the last year onto them, and then, once two weeks of the new year pass, they release the kites to the sky in order to let go of their sorrows and begin the year with a clean slate. 

As Victor speaks, Yuuri knows that he will have many things to write on his kite. Many regrets, many things he'd like to let go...     

"And then, the final festival is of the Earth in February," Victor tells him. "Commoners and nobles alike sow seeds into the cold ground to begin life anew. There is a superstition that if your seed takes and bursts through the snow, your year will be plentiful and fruitful."

"We do that for the Coming of Spring," Yuuri says, drinking from his cup. "That and making crowns out of twigs, then lighting them up and sending them downstream to chase away the last of winter."

"Oh, that's a really nice tradition." Victor smiles. "We should do that when spring comes!"

Yuuri returns his smile. "It's still a long way off. First we have to survive the winter."

"Speaking of holidays and festivals," Victor says after a moment of silence, during which Yuuri finishes another cup of tea. 

He feels soothed in a way he hasn't in a while. Everything is quiet, everything is bright, everything is… good. It almost feels like nothing happened. Like the past month hasn't been real, just a nightmare that they have finally awakened from. Yuuri doesn't mind indulging in this feeling a little bit longer. 

"Your birthday is coming up at the end of the week."

Yuuri blinks, surprised. "Oh… you're right."

He completely forgot about it. At home, his mother would remind him, asking what he wished for on his birthday. What little money they saved up through the year, they never regretted spending on birthday gifts. Yuuri never asked for much. He knew he couldn't. But now… now he could have all his heart desired, and he simply forgot all about it. 

"I forgot," he murmurs into his cup. 

Last year, Mari brought chestnuts out of their pantry and his mother has made a wonderful cake with caramelized chestnuts. Sugar is expensive in small villages like theirs, and it has been one of the very few times they could afford it. Instead of honey glaze, she has made true caramel, and Yuuri inhaled half the cake all on his own. Even now, if he closes his eyes, he can taste the sweetness of it on his tongue.

He sets the tea down on the table, suddenly missing home.

"We promised each other no secrets, so I should probably tell you now," Victor starts, looking slightly uncomfortable and guilty. "Mother has been preparing a surprise feast for you. Knowing her, since it's so late already, the invitations have been sent and the menu has been composed. It might be too late to stop it."

"Your mother must have worked hard to get all this done. To make us– me happy. It would be rude not to go," Yuuri says, even if he feels none of the excitement about the news. "And… I don't think I should keep hiding in here for much longer. Who knows, it might do me some good to talk to people other than you and the servants."

He tries for a smile, but it's a feeble thing that Victor sees through immediately.

"I will not leave your side, no matter what happens," he promises, and even if Yuuri isn't really excited about the prospect of a feast full of nobles, somehow the promise of Victor's support makes it just a little less awful. 

"Thank you."

Yuuri doesn't realize how much Victor's promise means to him, until the time comes at last. The days pass so quickly that before he notices, his birthday is upon them. And so is the feast itself. 

They dress in fine robes that afternoon, much finer than they wear every day, even if those are already so beautiful that Yuuri feels afraid to move in them too much lest he ruins them. That very morning, the servants have brought large chests to their bedrooms and made space in their wardrobes for the winter robes. Cloaks from thick wool, robes lined in fur, all stunning and resplendent with glimmering gems and threads have replaced the lighter clothes. 

This time, especially for the feast, Yuuri's robe is in a colour of plum wine: dark, almost black, but with a deep purple shine to it. Across the sides and back, in silver thread, plum trees and leaves climb up his body. The collar is lined with black fox fur that tickles softly against his neck with every move. 

Victor, in turn, is dressed in robes of white, shining with crystals and gems and silver thread. Soft gray rabbit fur cuffs his sleeves and neckline. He looks glowing next to Yuuri, like moonlight reflected on a surface of a lake. But when he sees Yuuri in his robes, his eyes seem to shine far brighter than his robes.

"You look divine," he praises.

The words stroke something vain in Yuuri, something that has always yearned for Victor's praise. He flushes at it, aware that he is nothing so amazing without the beautiful clothes to turn him into a vision. 

Victor offers him his arm, which Yuuri reluctantly accepts. His heart beats wildly from Victor's closeness, but also from what they will have to walk into within minutes. Yuuri forces himself not to think of it. Nothing good will come out of giving in to fear. Tonight his only priority is to enjoy himself. He can still do that, no? Live like tomorrow never comes, enjoy life like nothing else matters?

Escorted dutifully by their joint guards – four men in total, two from Victor's guard before them and two from Yuuri's following after – they make their way to the ballroom. Even before they step foot into the hall, Yuuri knows that this will be no simple feast. This, for all that it isn't, is another ball. A ball, just like the one during which Morio–

Yuuri doesn't realize he's squeezing Victor's arm hard enough to make him notice.

"What is it?" Victor asks, concern on his face. "Are you feeling ill? Should we go back? I can always make some excuse. I'm sure mother will understand, given the circumstances."

Maybe Yuuri should take him up on that. His logical mind tell him that would be best. But Yuuri's too stubborn to listen. He doesn't want to feel weak. He doesn't want to lose anything else to Morio ever again. 

So he forces himself to relax the claws his fingers have made on Victor's arm, and says: "No, we'll stay. I'm just… I'm just nervous."

Victor nods, as if it makes sense to him. "I'll be right here the whole night. Just say the word, Yuuri, and we leave." 

With a nod and a half smile shared between them, they enter the hall. They are announced loudly and all eyes turn to them. Yuuri's mouth is parched. He steps closer to Victor, who rests his free hand on Yuuri's, as if to give him courage. The warmth grounds Yuuri a little. It helps him breathe. But it's all it can do. The rest Yuuri must do on his own.

Slowly, with all eyes on them, they make their way down the stairs and, at the very bottom, the guards step behind them at last. Bared to the view of all gathered nobles, Yuuri feels naked and unprotected. It's only Victor's closeness that keeps him from turning on his heel and running away. 

A servant with two tall glasses of champagne appears at their side. Victor takes them both and offers one to Yuuri, while the king and queen make their way through the crowd to stand with them. 

The king lifts his glass and all falls quiet.

"Tonight we celebrate the birthday of my son's chosen mate. Allow me to be the first one to toast to him," he calls. "May he live a long and fulfilling life, and give us many healthy boys and girls to guide our beautiful kingdom towards a bright future. To Prince Yuuri!"

Everyone repeats the toast, lifting their glasses. The gesture is as calculated as all the king does. Yuuri doesn't feel honoured at all. May he live long to give us heirs… What an awful sentiment that is. 

So disconcerted Yuuri is that he does not raise his glass with the rest of the hall. 

"Forgive him," Victor whispers from the side. "He likes to say things like that, but he does it out of concern for us and the future of Tsenkh. Do not take it to heart. I already told them that children will come when we're both ready." Victor smiles at him, then knocks their glasses together. "For now, let's just focus on healing and being the happiest we can be. To you, my Yuuri. May your life be filled with nothing but love this next year and forever."

To that, Yuuri can drink. With a small smile and a whispered "Thank you, Vitya," he takes a sip from his glass. The champagne is sweet, but somehow it sits wrong in Yuuri's belly, so he doesn't drink more. He gives his glass to the servant who still waits on them, and Victor does the same. 

The king and queen leave them to begin the dancing, but Yuuri refuses with a slight shake of his head when Victor extends the offer to him as well.

"I don't feel like dancing, I'm sorry," Yuuri says. He is hardly in a mood suited to it. Not to mention his battered body… It's healing, yes, but he still feels so tired all the time. He doesn't think he could muster the strength or energy to dance. "But if you wish to go, I won't stop you."

"Yuuri," Victor's softly chiding voice makes him turn to gaze up into Victor's eyes. "There is no one in the entire world I'd dance with other than you. If you don't want to, then that's all there is to it. Should we get something to eat then?"

Yuuri does not feel hungry at all, but after Victor has once again made him speechless with his kindness and effortless expression of love, Yuuri can't refuse him. He allows Victor to lead him to the tables that are as filled with food as they have been during the ball in honour of their Czatnoptan guests. The entire great hall is decorated with as much splendour, as much riches, as it was then, and Yuuri feels like it's all so much waste. To have all this made just for him… when it could've been given to those who need it most, who would appreciate it most... it's such a waste.

Before he can sink into misery, a familiar face distracts him. Standing by one of the tables, with a scowl on his face and hair braided back so that his expression is on full display to anyone daring to approach him, is Yurio. He's chewing on a sweet, fluffy meringue, which from the face he's making Yuuri would guess to be something else entirely, if he did not see the meringue with his own eyes.

"Happy birthday," Yurio tells him as they stop next to him to load their plates with food. "You're a year closer to death. How's that feel?"

"Not that good, I have to admit. Still, thank you for the wishes," Yuuri answers with a true, genuine smile. "How are you here? Didn't you say your father thinks you too young for balls?"

"I think it's different when it's family," Yurio says with a shrug. At Yuuri's questioning look, he adds: "My mother was Victor's mother's sister, which makes us cousins. You're my cousin's husband, which makes you my…" He pauses, frowning. Then he shrugs again. "Whatever. I guess it's enough for my father. He's here somewhere, too."

Yuuri, who has never met Yurio's father, but has heard enough of him to be on guard, looks about them. He wonders if he'll have to face the man that even the king fears crossing. He hopes he won't, and if he absolutely must, it won't be tonight. Or in the days, weeks to follow. He's had enough court intrigue and power struggles to last him a lifetime. Enough royal amusement to never wish for anything but a quiet life. 

Victor offers Yuuri a plate filled with morsels of food that Yuuri doesn't honestly have an appetite to try. Now he understands Yurio's expression as he chewed on that meringue. He gives Victor a small smile as he accepts, nonetheless. 

"You should eat something," Victor tells him softly. "Food is exactly what a healing body needs. And if it won't help, at least it will not hurt. Please, my Yuuri. Just a little."

Yurio eyes them carefully and, while Yuuri looks at the food with mixed apprehension and a want to ease Victor's worries, he asks: "Are you with child?"

Victor chokes on a mouthful of fruit salad. Yuuri's eyes widen and his cheeks darken, but then he's too busy smacking Victor's back when he begins to cough as if to hack out his lungs. Only once Victor's fit ceases and he can breathe easier, do they both turn to Yurio with the same expressions of shock and embarrassment.

"Why would you ask that?" 

"The food," Yurio points out. "Victor is hovering more than his usual. And you had a heat not that long ago. What the king said, too." He pauses to let it all sink in, and when Yuuri thinks about it, the clues could indeed lead one to such a conclusion. "So, are you? Will there be a new heir to the royal Nikiforov line soon?"  

"No. Definitely not," Victor answers for Yuuri, but Yurio doesn't look away from him. His green eyes are narrowed and bright, as if something in that question mattered to him more than it may seem. "We still have time for children."

Yuuri nods in agreement. "I don't think we'll have any soon. Why do you ask? Would you like a little cousin to play with, Yurio?"

He says it to tease and redirect the conversation onto a different path. Yurio's reaction – his flushed cheeks and another scowl – is exactly what Yuuri expected. Yuuri smiles, and then grins when Yurio turns away from him to hide his blush like he so often does when he is not being honest with himself.

"S-shut up! I don't want any brats around. They're annoying." He huffs. "I was just worried I'd have to find another sparring partner, that's all."

"Don't worry, I don't plan to give up the sword just yet," Yuuri tells him, still smiling. "You will still have the opportunity to beat me to a pulp." 

"It's so sweet of you to care, Yurio," Victor adds, also smiling. 

That is a bit too much for the boy, though. Even the tips of his ears turn red, and he kicks the ground in frustration, for he cannot kick either Victor nor Yuuri in a place where everyone can see. 

"I don't care," he snaps. "Go die in a ditch, moron!"

And he stomps away in a cloud of embarrassment. Victor chuckles. 

"He doesn't change, does he?" 

"You know he gets flustered easily. You shouldn't say things like that. He has to be given love slowly, in portions," Yuuri tells him, but he too cannot fight the amused curl of his lips.

"You started it," Victor points out, his eyes crinkled in laughter. 

This time it's Yuuri who turns away from him. "I can't recall."

They both laugh a little. It feels good to laugh like this. It feels like freedom. But nothing good can ever last, Yuuri knows. The memory of Yurio's cloudy eyes returns to him, and he cannot help but wonder about that. 

"I think I know the reason," Victor says when Yuuri shares his thoughts with him as they walk about the hall, accepting greetings and birthday wishes. "Have you ever wondered why Yurio spends so much time at court? A boy of his age?" When Yuuri nods, he continues: "It's a simple matter of new family getting rid of old family. You see, Yurio's mother, my aunt… she died in childbirth. Yurio's father remarried a few years afterwards, and once the new wife gave him a son… I think you know where I'm going with this." Sadly, Yuuri does. He has seen enough of life to know the direction those stories always take. "She didn't want him around, but Etam loved Aunt Lysa and refused to get rid of his own son and heir. Instead, he brought him to court. Mother took him in gladly and since then Yurio has been raised by the Nikiforovs more than the Plisetskys, whose name he carries."

"That's awful," Yuuri says. His heart clenches in his chest for all the pain Yurio must have gone through. "No wonder Yurio tries so hard to keep everyone at arm's length."

Victor nods. "He has been like this most of his life. He doesn't get close to anyone and doesn't allow anyone close, for fear that he will have to once again leave them behind. Or that someone else will leave him. Somehow, despite that, Yurio has grown attached to you. I believe he might have asked about a possible child out of fear of losing you like he lost his mother."

Yuuri doesn't know what to say, but his heart tightens again. "I wish we could help him somehow…"

"I think you're already helping." Victor smiles. "I haven't seen Yurio this happy, this honest in a long while. He may scoff and scowl, but deep down, I think you're already making a difference in his life."

Yuuri looks out at the crowds of people, searching for Yurio's familiar blond head. He doesn't find him anywhere. Still, he trusts Victor's judgment. He knows Yurio better, for one. But then again, Yuuri himself has noticed a change in Yurio's brittleness. Before they began their swordplay lessons, Yurio reminded him of an alley cat: always ready for a fight, always on his guard, always shying away. Now, even though those features remained, he seems to have accepted Yuuri's presence as much as Yuuri has grown used to his.

Suddenly, Yuuri's eye catches the dark gaze of Prince Somchai, who has been conversing with a pair of noblemen a few feet away. They nod at each other respectfully, and before Yuuri knows it, Somchai makes his excuses to head their way.

"Prince Victor, Prince Yuuri," Somchai greets them with a bow. They answer with bows of their own. "The most joyful of birthdays to you, Prince Yuuri. But, from what I hear, there already might be a cause for celebration?"

His smile is kind enough that Yuuri doesn't take offense at the suggestion the prince is making. 

"Let me guess… You think I'm with child," Yuuri says in a flat voice. 

"Your reaction tells me I have my facts wrong," Somchai returns, looking from Yuuri to Victor. Then, his smile falls. "Forgive me. I did not mean to cause any offence. It was not my place to ask, anyway."

"It is quite alright," Victor answers kindly. "You did nothing wrong, but we both appreciate your humility."

Yuuri nods in agreement. 

"It gladdens me to hear it. The last thing I would wish to accomplish before leaving Tsenkh is to anger you and cause unnecessary strife between our nations." Prince Somchai smiles. Then, he turns to Yuuri. "I know we have not had many opportunities to get to know each other better, but I hope that you will come visit Czatnopta someday. Until then… may I ask for this last dance before we return back home?"

He offers Yuuri a hand. It's almost imperceptible, but Yuuri feels Victor tense up at his side. It would be a slight not to agree, an offence to a royal house of Czatnopta, but Yuuri cannot… he doesn't have the strength to allow another alpha to hold him that close. To pull him in and brush against his body in seemingly innocent pastime that will remind Yuuri of that which he is so desperately trying to forget. And yet, he knows he should not decline. He should not cause offence, he should not put Somchai's graciousness to the test.

Conflicted, Yuuri feels his smile's ingenuity as it stretches his cheeks. "Forgive me, Your Highness. I have given up dancing for the foreseeable future. It is not out of my wanting to slight you, but out of larger issues that I cannot disclose. I hope you will not hold it against me, nor Tsenkh."

Somchai's hand drops. There is something in his dark eyes that Yuuri cannot understand, but he does not will himself to try harder. Oddly enough, he finds, he cares little what the prince thinks of him.

"Very well. I suppose dancing will be another thing we must postpone until your visit," Somchai says. "It seems to me that you will have to stay with us for quite some time, if we are to accomplish all that we agreed on. But let me warn you, we do not dance like you do here. Our banquets are quite different. Quite a bit more… wild, would be the word, I imagine."

"I am looking forward to experiencing that, then," Yuuri answers with a grateful smile. "Maybe some wildness is just what we'll need after living in these haunted halls for so long."

Somchai gives a little laugh. "If you take a fancy to our way of dancing, I am sure my twin sisters would be delighted to teach you. They are the most enchanting dancers in our country, if I can say so myself."

"I will be honoured to be taught by them," Yuuri answers politely. 

"Then I will expect you to keep your promise and visit us at your earliest convenience." 

"We will see to it, worry not," Victor nods, smiling. "After all, friendly as we are, it is always good to cultivate that friendship, so it never dies. I am sure it is something we can accomplish. For the good of both Czatnopta and Tsenkh."

"Indeed," Somchai agrees. 

Victor and Somchai clasp hands. 

"It has been a pleasure to host you, Your Highness."

"Likewise, it has been a pleasure to be your guest, Prince Victor. Let us hope for many more visits like this."

"And an everlasting friendship between us," ends Victor. 

With that, and not a word more, Somchai leaves them. He only bows to Yuuri once more, before he turns on his heel and returns into the throes of nobles. Following him with his gaze, Yuuri spots a familiar head of blond, braided hair. 

"I'll be right back," he tells Victor, who makes a small sound of protest, but Yuuri moves before Victor can voice any of it in words.

His quick steps carry him past the nobles, past the guests. All bow to him with murmured greetings, but Yuuri is intent on catching Yurio, so he ignores them all. At last, he catches up with Yurio, and calls for him. The boy turns, his eyes even more stormy than they have been as he left them.

"Did something happen?" Yuuri asks first. 

"Just my father," Yurio answers, a bite to his voice. Yuuri chooses not to ask. "You need something from me?"

Yuuri smiles. "Yes, actually. You see, Victor and I will be spending quite some time browsing through the Royal Library in search for something. Work is always easier when there's more hands on deck, so I was wondering if you'd like to help."

Yurio shrugs. "Why not? It's not like I have anything better to do." 

"Great! Meet us in the library tomorrow for lunch?" 

After nodding, Yurio asks: "What are we looking for anyway?"

"I'll tell you all about it tomorrow," Yuuri promises, smiling broadly. Finally, at long last, a tiny chunk of happiness has returned to him. "Thank you, Yuri."

It's only when Yurio's cheeks cover with pink that Yuuri realizes he's used the boy's actual name. Not the nickname, but his given name. Still, the spark of happiness he notices in Yurio's eyes is like a ray of sunshine breaking through a cloudy sky – it's lovely, and a bringer of hope.

"I didn't even do anything yet," Yurio grumbles.

"But you are willing to. That's already enough for me to be thankful," Yuuri answers. He squeezes Yurio's shoulder. "See you tomorrow?"

"Yeah."

It is with a smile that Yuuri returns to Victor's side. It's a little bit strange, and a little bit odd that reaching out to Yurio, who has been alone for so long, can make Yuuri as happy as he feels. Maybe something about helping him, about including him, caring for him, maybe even loving him, helps Yuuri himself to care, love, heal. Maybe this path of reaching his heart out to others is just what his heart has needed to know that there still is true good in the world. That life did not need end for him. That joy and happiness are still his to claim, should he wish it. 

His happy stride falters when he nears Victor, for his husband is not standing alone. Next to him is the king, and that would not be a thing to fear, if not for the man who stands with them – Lord Etam Plistesky, the Midnight Duke. Yurio's father, and the King's Hand. 

Victor spots Yuuri and offers him a hand, which Yuuri gladly takes. Their fingers twine together, squeezing in comfort and warning alike. Yuuri forces on a smile.

"Your Highness," the duke bows to him. Then, completely ignoring him, which is more than alright with Yuuri, he turns once more to the king. What he says, however, does not allow Yuuri to release the tension that sneaked into his shoulders at the sight of him. "As I was saying, Your Majesty, I believe that his death was no accident. It would be our duty to investigate this thoroughly, seeing as how this might just as well have been an attempt at your heir's life. I will begin the inquiry immediately and–"

"This is no place for such conversations," the king interrupts him. "And not the time for it, either. Tonight we celebrate my son's mate, and let us leave it at that. You will bring this matter at the next council meeting and we will take the vote then, as is proper."

Etam's face stills. For a second he looks as if he is ready to spit a snide word. He must decide against it, since not a second more passes before his brow smoothes. His face loses not its stone-like harsh appearance, though.

"Very well. Till then," he bows to the king, to Yuuri and Victor, and then he leaves with a flutter of his cloak and the click of his heels.

"He is truly getting too arrogant for his own good," Victor says once Lord Etam is out of earshot. 

"He is," agrees the king. 

He looks weary: tired and suddenly aged. It's an odd thing, too, for Yuuri has always taken him for a strong man – a man capable of ruling an entire kingdom. What is before his eyes, does not match Yuuri's impression. Here, he sees a man whose age has finally caught up, whose spirit has dimmed and whose eyes do not shine with bright hope as they once had. Here, is a man who has long since lost.

For a king to look this way is something horrible. Yuuri can hardly believe what his own eyes see. Was he wrong in being wary of the king? Was he as much a victim of his circumstances as Yuuri? 

"But there is little we can do about him. He has power in court, far more than any other man," the king adds, a bitter tinge to his words. "Even we, the royal family, must pay heed to that."

"I want to come to the council meetings from now on," Victor decides.

Surprise shows on his father's face. It is only a brief change, which, once it passes, turns into a smile and an agreeable nod.

"It is about time you took interest in governing," the king says. "I will gladly have you by my side, my son."

"Can I come, too?" Yuuri asks. Now, two sets of surprised eyes turn to him. Under their gazes, Yuuri's courage dims, but he still has enough of it to explain: "If it is about Duke Wintry, then I want to be there. I want to know."

"If you wish. There is no rule that denies you the right to do so," the king answers. "Galina has never expressed a desire to involve herself in the matters of state, but that was her decision to make. If yours is to attend, then by all rights, you are welcome to it."

"Are you certain?" Victor asks, his concern worn plainly on his face. "I do not wish for you to force yourself, when I can just as well relay all that has happened to you after the meetings."

Yuuri squeezes his hand once. "I know, but I want to hear it with my own hears. I do not want to run away anymore."

Victor's face softens. His gaze fills with love, with admiration, and so much of it that Yuuri's blood rushes to his cheeks.

"You are so strong, darling," Victor says. "I'm so proud of you."

But his words, albeit meant to praise, have left Yuuri feeling cold. Not them, per se. The endearment Victor has used. 

"Darling," is what Morio used to call Yuuri. 

Darling, a word meant for someone precious, turned so vile in his mouth that Yuuri's entire body recoiled in revulsion. 

Darling, a word that Victor uses so freely, turned into a weapon of another man's use. 

Darling, an innocent thing, now weaponized to strike against Yuuri's heart every time he hears it.

He does not realize he has ripped his hand out of Victor's. He does not realize that he has taken a step back. He doesn't see the looks on Victor and the king's faces.

"I have to–" he says. "I need to–"

His voice falters. He cannot speak. His heart is loud in his ears, thrumming a rhythm that spikes the fear in his heart. 

I will take care of you, darling, you'll see.

Do you fear me? No need, darling. I promised I mean you no harm, did I not?

Shh, darling. No need to despair. 

Morio's voice comes to him as if he was standing right behind him, and Yuuri – without considering it logically, without considering that it's impossible, Morio is dead – flees through the crowd of nobles, away, away, further away, as if putting distance between him and the great hall could spare him from reliving the torture of his memories. 



 

***



 

When Victor, shocked, turns to his father, he only hears an understanding "Go," before he's off, following after Yuuri. What has just happened… he doesn't understand any of it. He knew Yuuri was tense the entire evening and he regretted ever thinking that a ball would be a good way to celebrate his birthday, but this? Victor was confused, and he still is, but more than the confusion, his heart aches with concern.

What has happened to his husband? What went wrong to make his face stricken so pale, so fearful? Was it something he saw? Was it something Victor said? Was it something his thoughts brought him? Victor can't find the right answer.

His guards dutifully shadow him and step up to his side as Victor leaves the brightness of the great hall. 

"Have you seen my husband?" he asks the men who are his eyes and ears when he is distracted.

"He was headed towards the royal wing, Your Highness," a guard answers. "His guards went with him like you ordered."

Good, Victor thinks. At least he will be safe on his way there. 

Quickening his steps, Victor heads towards their chambers. He takes the stairs two at a time and walks so fast that his robes billow behind him despite how thick the material is with threading. His guards match his pace, their chainmail clinking like wind chimes. Once they arrive at their destination, Victor spots Yuuri's guards, breathing heavy, but standing guard at the entrance to their rooms. 

"Good work," he tells them, grateful, then addresses them all. "Let no one in. We do not want to be interrupted, short of the palace being on fire or either or my parents dying. Understood?"

"Yes, Your Highness," they all answer. 

His own breathing is a bit harder than usual when Victor enters the sitting room. It's empty. It means only one thing: Yuuri has locked himself in his room. But as Victor looks up, he realizes he's wrong: the doors to Yuuri's room are open. Slowly, Victor steps into his husband's bedchamber, and yet again he does not find Yuuri there. 

But he hears him – panicked, gasping breaths that make Victor's heart clench in pain. They sound like sobs, and they sound like nothing Victor has ever heard from a living being. 

It's awful. It's inhumane. No one should suffer like this, lest of all a person so kind, so full of love and brightness as Yuuri.

Slowly, carefully, Victor takes his steps towards the doorway that separates his and Yuuri's rooms. The door has been left open, as if Yuuri has forgotten about it in his hurry. Victor enters, his heart heavy, knowing what he will find there. 

It is exactly as he imagined: Yuuri, bowed over on the bed, choking on his fear. This reaction, the strength of it, the violence – it doesn't surprise Victor at all. Yuuri has suffered so much pain in the past months, it's only natural that it will take its toll. Yet, what he doesn't understand, is why. What reason could there be now? What has happened that made him succumb to this?

Instead of asking this, Victor knows what he must do first. First, he must help Yuuri.

He kneels by the bed. "Yuuri? Is there anything I can do to help? Please, let me help you, darling."

A terrible flinch goes through Yuuri's body, followed by a shiver so violent that Victor recoils. Yuuri keens, as if to begin crying, yet doesn't.

"Don't," Yuuri begs between one gasping breath and another.

"Don't what, love? I don't understand," Victor admits, wishing he could just gather Yuuri into his arms and take away all his pain. He doesn't do so. He keeps his hands away from Yuuri, already having learned to allow Yuuri to initiate all the touches between them.

Yuuri clutches at his heart. His eyes squeeze shut and he bows his head, now almost curled on the bed. His body still shakes, his breathing is still panicked. His voice, however, is what scares Victor then. It comes as a plea, a desperate, rough plea of someone suffering so much that they can do nothing else but beg to die.

"Don't call me that," Yuuri begs. "He did– He–"

He chokes on his own breath, and then, then he falls silent. Suddenly he slumps and, right before Victor's eyes, he loses consciousness. 

Victor's own breathing stops. From Yuuri's words, yes, and also from what has just happened. 

It's his fault. Victor's fault that this has happened. He– He brought back Yuuri's memory of that night. Unwittingly, he is the cause of Yuuri's suffering now. Again, and again, he is the one who hurts Yuuri the most... 

On his knees, Victor crawls over to the side of the bed and checks the pulse on Yuuri's wrist. It flutters against his fingers, like small wings of a trapped bird. It is only a slight relief to him, though. With great effort, Victor heaves himself to stand. He tucks Yuuri under the covers, careless of the robes and shoes Yuuri is still wearing, and sits by him. One hand he keeps on Yuuri's wrist, needing to know that life burns within his husband, and with the other he wipes away the stray tears that have escaped Yuuri's eyes.

This… it was worse than Yuuri's nightmares, for those only happened at night. If Yuuri could not find his rest then, and during the day he was haunted by the memories, how could he even begin to heal from the wounds of his heart? If his memories brought him so much pain that he even lost consciousness, what has happened to him that night? Victor has imagined things, and every time anger and helplessness and pure hatred towards Morio and towards his own weakness choked him as well, but he cannot know whether his mind has been accurate in his belief. He has promised not to press Yuuri, to wait until he wanted to share it with him, but he could not help but worry.

It is an hour, maybe two, until Yuuri stirs. The darkness has fallen in full. There is no moon to light up the room and no fire in the hearth to warm it. In the dark, Victor can only see the shape of him on the sheets. 

Yet, hearing Yuuri's calm breathing is all that Victor needs right now.

"Victor…?"

"I'm here, lo–" He bites his tongue, as the words that have been so natural to him, but a cause of such great pain to Yuuri, almost pass his lips. "I'm here." 

He slides his hand down Yuuri's wrist to take his hand, hoping that his slip did not do any damage.

It didn't. Yuuri stirs and rolls to his side, and releases a sigh so deep that he shudders with it.

"I'm sorry," he whispers, his voice raspy and a little weak. 

"There is nothing you need to apologize for," Victor tells him. "It is me who should beg your forgiveness. Once again, I hurt you. I don't– Yuuri, what do I do to make sure it never happens again? Please, tell me, because everything I do recently seems to only hurt you more and I can't keep doing this. I can't keep watching you hurt because of me."

"It wasn't your fault," Yuuri disagrees. In the dark, Victor can't see his expression. The only way to tell his feelings is the timbre of his voice, which is soft… softer than it should be if he blamed Victor for any of this. "You didn't know. You couldn't have known, because I never told you what… what happened that night. I– Victor, can you, can you be patient a little longer? I don't think I can speak about it just yet."

"I admit that I do want to know, but I will never force you to speak about it, if you do not wish to. Know this, though: I will always be willing to listen to whatever you want to tell me. Whatever details you wish to share, whatever memories you wish to entrust me with, I will never think less of you for it. Or for keeping other things to yourself."

"Don't promise me something you may not wish to keep after you learn the entire truth."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Victor frowns. "You think I would judge you for doing what you thought necessary to save my life? The lives of your parents, your sister? That I would hold it against you? I must say, I am disappointed you think so little of me, Yuuri."

Yuuri's voice, when it comes, is nothing short of a whisper. "I broke our vows…"

"You did not."

"But I did!" Yuuri rises from the bed, anger ringing clear in his raised voice. "I did, Victor! I allowed him, another alpha, to take what is rightfully yours! I did not fight him! I did not resist him! I–" 

Yuuri's breath stops short with a sound much like a sob. Victor's heart hurts, but he sits there, waiting, for he knows that Yuuri is not done yet.

"I was not faithful to you, I broke our vows, Victor. I don't know how you can stand even looking at me, knowing what I've done… Don't you hate me?"

"I could never hate you," Victor replies, all the softness of his affection for Yuuri, all his love, tender in his words. "I love you, Yuuri. And you broke no vows. You broke nothing. Except maybe your own heart, for which I cannot and will not allow you to take full blame. You did what you thought necessary, just like I did what I believed necessary when I killed him." Blindly, Victor reaches for Yuuri and finds both his hands by sliding his own down Yuuri's arms. Yuuri shudders under his touch, but allows Victor to hold his hands. "You vowed to love me, stay by my side and be forever faithful to me. Is that not what you've done? You have returned to me, you have stayed with me. What you have done was out of faithfulness, out of loyalty, out of love. Do you still… Do you love me, Yuuri?" 

Yuuri's breathing is harsher than before, and he swallows loudly before he says: "You know I do."

Victor's lips quirk in a sad little smile, because no, he didn't. It has been a long while since Yuuri shared his feelings with him plainly. For now, however, this will do.

"Then you have broken no vows you've made to me, for all your actions have come from trying to keep them. And you have." 

"But you don't know what I've done," Yuuri injects. "You don't know what he made me do, what he–"

He stops. Victor shakes his head before he remembers that Yuuri can't see him. 

"I trust you," Victor says. "And I know, or I hope I do, what lies in your heart. That is all I need to keep resting my faith with you. I love you, Yuuri. And nothing will change that."

Yuuri's hands tighten on Victor's, desperate and needy at once. Victor holds them tighter in response. Yuuri's breathing slows again.

"Is it really that simple? Just a question of love?"

"We can make it that simple. I love you, and you love me. Why should we complicate things more than that?"

"Because life is already complicated. It has been complicated for us from the day our fathers made the agreement to wed us, and it has only grown more and more complicated since. We can pretend that there is nothing else between us but love, but it will never be the entire truth. This…" Yuuri's hands tremble slightly. "He will always be between us."

"For now, maybe," Victor agrees. "But with time, as you begin to heal, I promise that he will leave us alone. Like a bruise that takes weeks to heal, at long last, he will be gone. He's dead now, Yuuri. We will be the ones who will triumph over him by living long and happy lives together. Isn't that what you want, Yuuri? Isn't that the best way to extract revenge on him?"

Yuuri is silent for a moment. Then, he says: "And you're willing to stay by my side through all of that? All the healing? The nightmares and the fear, all the weakness, all the pain? Isn't that too much?"

And Victor hears it, the true question Yuuri is asking – Aren't I too much?

"I love you," Victor repeats again, wondering how many times he will have to say it until Yuuri believes him. "And I also made the same vows as you. I will not leave you to suffer through this alone, though I wonder if by staying by your side I am not hurting you more. Like today…"

Yuuri contemplates his words for a moment, and Victor sits there, awaiting his judgement with his heart in his throat. 

"Today was not your fault," Yuuri tells him what he has already told him before. "You couldn't have known that I will react like that. I myself didn't know it either. It was… it was terrible, Victor. I felt like he was right there beside me, alive and ready to hurt us again. I– I'm sorry. I should tell you everything, but even now just the snippets of the memories are too painful."

"Don't push yourself then," Victor offers, biting back another endearment. That, however, brings him to ask: "But will you tell me one thing? What caused today's incident? Before you passed out, you mentioned not to call you with the little terms of endearment I use. That he used them, too. All of them?"

"I can't remember all of them," Yuuri answers honestly. He trembles as he speaks, and Victor clutches his hands tighter still. "I'm surprised I didn't react to them before. You always used them, I know. And even after– after that night, you used them too. I never reacted to them this way, but tonight something just–" He pauses and then starts again: "I know it's a lot to ask, but please don't use them again. I don't want to be reminded of that vile man during our happy moments."

"Of course," Victor promises. "Can I make a suggestion, though? He was a Katsuki, so he must have been raised in the old Katsuki ways, but I am a Nikiforov and our way is a little different. We, of the Western clans use different terms of endearments. Have you ever heard them?"

"No," Yuuri answers.

"Would you like to hear them?"

Hesitant, Yuuri at last breathes: "Yes."

So Victor lists myshka, zaichik, solnyshko, zolotse, golubka, lapochka, dusha moya, and countless others – whatever comes to his mind. Yuuri listens closely until Victor stops short for the lack of other things to name, and then he asks:

"Those are terms of endearments?"

"Yes, they are. Have you noticed how I asked you to call me Vitya? It's much of the same thing. It's something intimate, something for married couples, parents and family."

"Will you tell me what they mean?"

Dutifully, Victor does. This one is little mouse, he says, and this one my gold. This one is sunshine and this one is bunny. My soul, my heart, my life, and others, on and on until his mouth is parched from talking sweetness.

"I like those," Yuuri tells him once he's done. "Will you use them?"

"If you want me to," Victor answers, smiling a little that something good has come out of something awful. "I can use those instead of the ones that have bad memories connected to them. Does that sound good?"

Yuuri's voice is soft when he says: "Yes, please."  

"Then, zaichik, can I ask you one more thing?" Emboldened, Victor cannot help himself. "May I still call you 'my Yuuri'?"

And when Yuuri tells him "Yes," it is with a kiss to his hand and a warm breath against his knuckles. Even if Victor cannot see his face in the darkness of the night, he knows – he can feel it just like he can feel his own lips stretching – that Yuuri is smiling, and that is more precious than anything else in the world.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The next morning, the sky is a beautiful painter's blue – clear and as perfect as nature can possibly make it. Clouds lazily stroll over its expanse, pink with delight on the right, while the softest of lilac shades hides beyond the palace walls. On the left, the sun rises in pale orange, shyly peeking over the horizon. It's colourful enough that vibrant hues stream into the room through the window that both of them forgot to cover last night. 

Victor wakes up in his bedchamber, still dressed in his pants and shirt. He only shirked off his shoes and robe before crawling under the quilt on the chaise. They were both exhausted from fear and all that has happened, so within minutes they were asleep. If Yuuri suffered any nightmares that night, Victor was not able to say – he has slept through the night soundly. 

Now, however, as he turns his head to the side to greet the new day with the sight of his husband's sleep-soft face, he is surprised to find him gone. Surprise lasts seconds, though. Then, it is replaced by fear. 

Victor stumbles to his feet and, barefoot, careless of the state he's in, he runs through the door to Yuuri's bedchamber, worried that Yuuri is gone, that something might have happened, that he left him and–

Yuuri, sat at the writing desk, turns around to face him. Surprise is etched on his face, but it melts into worry at the pure alarm that Victor feels in every single one of his bones. 

"Vitya?" Yuuri's voice is soft as he sets a quill to the side of what Victor expects is a letter. "Is everything alright?"

"I–" Victor croaks in his sleep-thick voice. He looks Yuuri over, as if expecting to see him injured or, or… he doesn't know what. "I just… You were gone."

It doesn't explain all the thoughts that have crossed his mind in those few seconds between finding Yuuri out of bed and seeing him here, but that is all Victor is able to say.

Yuuri's face softens. He walks up to Victor. Slowly, he takes his hand. 

"I'm here, Vitya," he says, repeating the same words Victor has spoken to him last night when Yuuri woke from his attack. "I'm here. And I am not going anywhere."

Victor nods. He doesn't let go of Yuuri's hand, as if holding it can ease his worry. To a point, it can.

"What are you doing up so early?"

"I couldn't sleep any longer, so I thought to write to my parents," Yuuri answers. "I promised Mari I would, and with that mysterious key I found, I thought I would ask for clues."

"Good idea," Victor agrees, then yawns. 

Yuuri smiles, amused. "Maybe you should go back to sleep? It's still early."

"How could I sleep when you're awake and I can look at you instead?" Victor asks, and it pleases him to note that Yuuri's cheeks turn pink with a tender flush. He grins now, too, happiness slowly burning away the horrors of minutes past. "Did you sleep well, zaichik?"

For a brief moment, Yuuri hesitates. Then, he says: "Yes. Surprisingly enough."

"I'm happy to hear it." Victor squeezes Yuuri's hand. "Shall I leave you to finish your letter and call for breakfast? Or do you feel like coming down to the dining hall?"

"I'd rather just breakfast here, if that's amenable to you?"

"Of course, detka," Victor agrees. 

He offers Yuuri a smile, which is returned to him equally as sweet. With a single squeeze more to Yuuri's hand, Victor leaves his husband to his letter and disappears back into their room to wash the night off his face and change clothes into something less rumpled. Only then does he step out into their sitting room and through it, he opens the door to speak to the guards.

"Send for breakfast," he tells one of them. "And on the way, stop by Heir Plisetsky's chambers to let him know to meet us in the Royal Library at noon. Warn the cook that we will take lunch there, and to have some tea prepared for us." Victor pauses, and then recalls Yuuri's letter. "Oh, and send Timur up here. I have a letter for him to carry."

"Understood, Your Highness."

The man bows. The chainmail under his guard's jacket rings like bells as he moves to fulfill Victor's orders. Satisfied, Victor returns to the sitting room. He sits on the sofa, allowing his head to fall back and rest against it, too. His thoughts wander here and there, lacking any conscious effort on his part. 

He thinks of Somchai leaving, of the newly renewed treaty with Czatnopta. He thinks of the invitation the prince has extended to him and Yuuri, of how wonderful it would be to leave this palace, just the two of them, and move someplace they would not be expected to be anything they would not wish to be. He thinks of Yuuri, of the small steps he is taking to breach the distance between them. And then he also thinks of how much there is still left unsaid, how many things there are still left that could hurt them both. Of how much Yuuri must still fight against all on his own.

It's in those thoughts that he's immersed when Yuuri emerges from his chamber, sealed letter in hand. The wax is a blue of the Nikiforov's standards. Such a lie, since the writer is a Katsuki heir to boot. The irony is not something that misses Victor's heart, reaching it like an arrow.

"Do we have time to send the letter before we are expected in the courtyard to bid Somchai farewell?" Yuuri asks, setting the letter at the table.

"I have already sent for my personal messenger," Victor answers, smiling. "You should use him. He will be a far safer choice than any of the palace messengers."

Yuuri nods, a small smile on his lips. "Thank you."

The breakfast arrives not too long after. For the first time in a long while, Victor has the pleasure of seeing Yuuri reach for food unbidden, as if the full night's rest and the little bit of suffering he has shared with Victor has made room inside him for something more substantial than just fear and pain. Victor almost forgets to eat himself, so content is he to watch Yuuri bite into a beautiful, red apple. 

The knock on the door disrupts their peace. Yuuri stiffens, but Victor smiles at him soothingly and it is so uplifting to see Yuuri relax at that, that Victor's heart squeezes with true happiness inside his chest.

"Come in!"

Timur steps inside, bowing low to them both. 

"Yuuri," Victor starts, "this is the man I have spoken to you about. Timur has been the one to carry letters between our fathers whenever it was required, so he knows the way and is sworn to keep the secret. Since we have been wed, father has given him to me, so he may serve us in the same manner. He will sooner destroy the massage than allow it to fall into wrong hands, so you needn't fear it."

Timur once again bows, this time to Yuuri. "It's an honour to serve you, Your Highness."

Yuuri nods, offering him a small smile. He takes the letter from the table and hands it to Timur. "It is not a letter that must urgently make it to my parents, so you needn't rush with it."

"That will not do, Your Highness," Timur interrupts him as he takes the letter and hides it beneath the flap of his messenger's coat. "All letters are urgent. What if you have a dire need of me while I'm gone for weeks, delivering this? A messenger's job is this: always be there when you're needed and carry the message as fast and as safely as possible." 

"You are right," Yuuri agrees, chided. "Very well. Run like a wind then, but make sure you bring a reply."

"Of course, Your Highness." Timur bows again. "Will that be all?"

"Yes, you may go about your duty," Victor says.

Once Timur leaves, Victor smiles at Yuuri. "Have I ever told you that seeing you order others about is incredibly satisfying to me? As if, finally, you are in the position of power that has always been yours to take."

Yuuri's cheeks redden at that, and he shakes his head.

"It isn't mine, Victor," he argues. "It's your name that holds the power. I'm simply borrowing it."

Unwilling to argue, Victor sighs.

"One day, you will see that it is not just that. One day, you will know that the people find you as much a prince as me. Some, maybe more." Yuuri opens his mouth to argue, but Victor offers him a hand instead. "Let us not speak of it now, though. We should go see to our own duties first. And then we have a mystery to solve, don't we?"

"That we do," Yuuri agrees. He sets his hand in Victor's. "Victor?"

"Yes, zolotse?"

"Thank you," Yuuri say, completely disarming Victor of all anger, all irritation, all, but for the love that suddenly overshadows it greatly. "For everything."

"It's my pleasure, detka," Victor answers, then squeezes Yuuri's hand. 

The tiny smile Yuuri gives him is sweet. It's the kind of smile that Victor would once not hesitate to lean in and kiss. He knows he cannot do that now, and it hurts, yes. But what pains him more is that the last kiss he has given Yuuri was right before he left for Morio's chambers, filled with anger and despair and everything that a kiss should not be.

Yuuri must notice his mood, for he, too, squeezes Victor's fingers. 

"We should go," Victor says, touched by Yuuri's caring. "Somchai's party will not be waiting for us forever."

With Yuuri's nod, they step out into the hall. The guards arrange themselves around them and their slow procession moves towards the stairs that lead down from the Royal Wing. The main courtyard of the palace is already filled with nobles and, as Yuuri and Victor pass the great double-winged door, they can already see the King and Queen also waiting for their esteemed guests to arrive. 

"Greetings, mother, father," Victor says as they stop at their side. Yuuri offers a bow instead of words. 

Victor's mother smiles, nodding. The king eyes them both for a second, then asks: "Is everything well?" 

"Yes," Victor replies, hard. He knows what his father means. The way Yuuri has left a ball that has been thrown in his name… It would have people talk. 

"Then I must say, Yuuri, that you must begin to think like a royal should," the king says. His eyes find Yuuri's and the look in them makes Victor grind his teeth. 

"Father–"

"No, my son," the king cuts him off, sharp. His face is still pleasant on the outside, but his narrowed eyes have not left Yuuri for a second. "He must learn. Yuuri, you are now a member of the royal family, and you must behave as such. You must be aware that all eyes are always turned to us. What we say, what we do, must always reflect the nobility of our position."

"I understand," Yuuri says.

But the king only lifts an eyebrow. "Do you? Do you really? Because last night you have shown everyone a behaviour worthy of a peasant. Fleeing through a crowd like a commoner, pushing past people like an uncultured–"

"That's enough," Victor barks. The anger simmers inside him, ready to burst. "You needn't insult him to say your peace, father. I will not stand for it. Remember that Yuuri is my mate and, if I must, I will protect his honour. Even from you."

"Victor…" Yuuri starts, but Victor ignores him.

His father's eyes gleam with a challenge as they turn to Victor and away from Yuuri. Before either of them can utter a word further, it's Victor's mother that speaks.

"You are both behaving like idiots," she tells them, smiling a sweet smile that looks all the more terrifying for it. "This is no time and no place for such talks. And," she peers at her husband, "Yuuri would not have done what he has, if he did not have a good reason. Has he given us any cause for worry with his behaviour before?" The king only purses his lips and does not answer. "Then hush now, my king. There is no cause for anger."

The subject is dropped just like that, for the crowd around them begins to murmur. Within a second, a thunderous applause swallows them whole. And when Victor takes his eyes off his father and looks up at the doorway to the palace, he sees what has caused such a reaction. For there, clad in red and gold, Prince Somchai and his party come down the stairs to where Victor and his family stand. 

"Your Majesties," Somchai greets, bowing. "Thank you for your hospitality. I know that my men and I will be recalling the balls and other amusements for many months to come."

"It pleases us to hear so," the king replies. "Please, send your royal father our regards."

"And our invitation for next year's visit as well," the queen adds, smiling. "We would love to host your again."

Somchai inclines his head with a smile. "I shall pass your words onto my father. I am sure he will be pleased."

Once the pleasantries are observed, Somchai turns his attention to Victor and Yuuri. 

"I hope we may hunt again someday, Prince Victor." 

He offers Victor a hand, and Victor clasps it, as he returns: "Me as well, Prince Somchai. Safe travels."

Somchai nods. His eyes shift to Yuuri. Something about the smile that crosses his face stirs the possessiveness of an alpha inside Victor, but he quickly pushes it away. It's silly. There is nothing that Somchai has ever done to make Victor feel threatened. And more than that, nothing that Yuuri has ever done to make Victor suspect him of anything other than utter love and devotion to him.

"I do hope to see you two in Czatnopta someday as well," Somchai says to Yuuri. "Until then, farewell, Prince Yuuri. I will pray that you stay in good health."

"Thank you," Yuuri replies. "So will I for yours."

And, to Victor's surprise, he gives Somchai his hand. It must surprise Somchai as well, for he hesitates. It lasts maybe a second, maybe two. Then, he takes Yuuri's hand and bows over it to rest a quick kiss against Yuuri's knuckles. 

Before Victor can truly feel the surprise settle, Yuuri retrieves his hand and tucks it into his sleeve. That's when Victor knows that it was not done out of some unforeseen connection between the two, but out of Yuuri's sense of propriety and obligation, now strengthened by what Victor's father has said only moments ago. 

Anger simmers within Victor again: at his father, at society, at the world.

"Godspeed," the king offers one last blessing to the Czatnoptan delegation as they climb their horses.

Somchai bows to him once more from atop his steed, then grips the reins in one hand and lifts the other to the crowd

"Farewell, people of Olksha!" he calls out. "May you live long in peace and prosper!"

And among the applause and cries of farewell, at last they ride out the palace walls. The king doesn't wait until the dust kicked up by the horses settles down: he turns on his heel and begins to climb up the stairs. Without a word or a glance, he leaves.

Victor's mother clicks her tongue. "That stubborn man."

"I'm sorry," Yuuri says, sounding small among the uproar of the crowd. "Last night I didn't even think about what I was doing or how it might reflect on you. And I should've. He's right. I have a duty to fulfill, as much as all of you."

"Zaichik, you had a good reason," Victor starts, but Yuuri shakes his head.

"Maybe I did, but people don't know what it is. They can only see what we represent, what we show them. On the basis of that, they suspect and spin rumours and tales that often have nothing to do with the truth. Allowing them to whisper about this or to, heaven's forbid, use this as a weakness against me or you, or your parents, is not something that I would want to be the cause of."

"My husband is harsh with his words, that much is true," the queen speaks, "but he says the things he does out of concern for those he cares for. And that, believe it or not, includes you as well, Yuuri. Do not blame him, please."

Yuuri shakes his head. "I don't. I, I think I understand. Please, let him know that I will do my best to compose myself in public."

She nods with a satisfied smile. Then she pats Victor's arm. 

"Go on, then. I am sure you must have things to do other than keep company to an old woman."

"Old woman?" Victor asks. "Who might you mean?" He makes a show of looking about. At last, with a smile, he returns his gaze to his mother. "All I see is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen."

"Oh, you charmer." His mother giggles, waving a hand. "Go on, go on. Leave your poor mother to her own devices, lest I employ you to help me out."

At that threat, Victor knows it is time for them to go. He bows to her, as does Yuuri, and together they return back to the safety of the palace. Victor did not notice the cold until they have stepped back into the shelter of the walls. He shudders as the heat of the fire burning in the brazers melts away the numbing cold. Within days, he's sure, winter will rear its ugly head.

They make their unhurried way to the Royal Library, where Victor stations two guards outside the door and the other four out of view around the huge shelves, so that they may keep fulfilling their duty, while also allowing Victor and Yuuri some relative privacy. At the table by the huge windows, they find a teapot and a set of three beautifully painted cups on equally as stunning saucers. Spoons of polished silver ended with tears of mother of pearl inlay rest on each, while sugar glitters inside its bowl like freshly fallen snow does in bright sunlight. 

Victor pours them both a cup, happy to see that the tea is still hot. The aroma fills the air and Victor sighs, once he sits down opposite Yuuri. The first sip burns his lips and tongue, but it's good. The tea warms his soul, his body and heart, all at once.

Yuuri hums as he tastes his own. "That's good."

"It's my mother's special recipe," Victor tells him, smiling. "I will ask her to send you some."

"Thank you."

For a moment, they sit in silence, enjoying the tea and each other's company. Yuuri presses his cup into his hands, so that he can feel the warmth seep into his skin. His gaze is unfocused, staring down into the amber tea, as if in it he could find answers to the questions that must be on his mind. 

Victor doesn't break his trance. They wait like this for minutes, then half an hour. The tea grows cold, so Victor sends to the kitchens for another pot. As he returns back to Yuuri, his eye catches on the key that Yuuri absently plays with. 

"May I see it again?" Victor asks. 

"Hm?" Yuuri blinks at him. "Oh, the key? Yes, of course."

He pulls it off and hands it to Victor, who takes it in a careful hand. The silver is old, that much is obvious at first glance. But how old? No matter how long Victor looks at it, he cannot discern any distinctive style about it. He can, however, see that it is not something that has been coined within this century. 

"It's old," he tells Yuuri. "And it doesn't look like any of the palace keys I know. I wonder how your father got it. What does it open? Did he share anything with you?"

"He did not. He," Yuuri shakes his head, "he did not speak to me about his life in the palace. If he has said anything at all, it would be to mother or Mari. I was never interested, and he never seemed to want to speak with me about it."

"And you wrote to him about this?" Yuuri nods, and Victor hums.

"Oh, wait," Yuuri suddenly sits up straight. "I forgot! That day I found it in your father's study, I didn't tell you everything."

And this time, he does. Yuuri speaks to Victor about the vision he had during the hunt, the one of the hut in a forest. The key he was holding then. This exact key, he's sure, he says. Then he speaks about what he's seen in the study: his young father hiding the key, as if he knew that only he or someone close to him could find. Someone of his blood with the power to see visions. Someone like Yuuri.    

"Why didn't you say any of this in front of my father?" Victor asks once Yuuri is done. "You don't trust him?"

"I–" Yuuri looks away from Victor. "It's not a question of trust, I think. I just, I don't want people to know about this ability."

Victor can understand that. But they did make a promise. 

"We shouldn't keep secrets anymore," Victor reasons. "Remember what happened last time? I would hate for history to repeat itself."

Yuuri purses his lips, but Victor can see that his words have rung true for him as well. 

"Can we… can we tell your mother instead?" Yuuri asks. "She intimidates me less than your father, I must admit."

Victor nods with a smile. "Of course, zaichik. Whatever you want."

Yuuri returns his smile. 

"I do like those terms of endearment you use," Yuuri says. "It's a nice change. I, I don't think I've told you, but I truly appreciate what you're doing. It means, it means a lot to me."

Soft in heart and smile, Victor inclines his head to the one who holds his heart. 

"Then I am happy as well, solnyshko," he says. 

Their sweet mood is broken when the door to the library smacks shut. They need not strain their ears to hear the stomps of annoyed feet, and within seconds, Yurio's scowling face appears in the space between the shelves. 

"Honestly," he snarks, "if you're going to invite me somewhere, at least make sure you warn your guards to actually let me in."  

Victor bites back a smile. "Did they give you trouble?"

Yurio huffs, but doesn't say a word more. Instead, he collapses in a chair next to Yuuri, kicking his feet over one arm. 

"So what are we doing here?" he asks.

Victor passes him Yuuri's key. "We found this and we've been wondering what it might open. It's old and looks like no key I've seen before. Do you have any suggestions where we might look?"

Yurio takes his time to look at the key. He turns it this way and that, brings it so close to his face that Victor's eyes hurt just from watching him. But, when he speaks, it's to share with them something they have overlooked.

"There's something here," he says, frowning as he narrows his eyes in concentration. "Something's engraved on it."

"What?" Yuuri asks, surprised.

"Where?" Victor follows, wondering how they could have missed it.

"At the bottom," Yurio says, handing Yuuri the key to look. "It looks like spikes? Or something?"

Yuuri brings the key close to his eyes and turns it so that the sunlight gleams off the silver.  

"Huh… you're right. Something has been engraved on it. But what is this?"

"Can I see?" Victor asks. When the key passes into his hand, Victor brings it to his eye as well. Unlike the others, though, he instantly knows what shape has been embossed in the silver. "It's a crown."

"A crown?" 

"Why would there be a crown on a key?" Yurio asks.

Victor and Yuuri trade glances. It must be Yuuri's choice to share anything with Yuuri, Victor decides, so he will keep silent. It is not his place to reveal Yuuri's secret like this. 

But Yuuri must trust Yurio as much as he does Victor, for he turns to the boy and says: "This key once belonged to the previous king. We do not know if he had it made, but he hid it in a clock in the king's study."

Yurio's mouth drops open in surprise. He looks young like this, at last truly his age. He turns from Yuuri to Victor and then back, as if he cannot believe it. 

"So this key, which has a crown on it, belongs to the Katsukis?" he asks, and when Yuuri and Victor nod, he shifts, dropping his feet to the ground. Eyes intent, sparkling, he adds: "It's obvious what this is then!"

"What is it?" Victor doesn't follow. 

Yurio gives him a look as if he's lost his mind, then turns to Yuuri who is equally as lost. He huffs an annoyed breath and stands. Before either Yuuri or Victor can do anything, he leaves them seated and disappears between the shelves. He's gone maybe a minute, maybe two, but when he returns, he's carrying a large, leather-bound volume in his arms. 

Yuuri moves the tray with tea, so that Yurio can set the book down on the table. With urgent hands, Yurio flips through the pages calligraphed with incredibly fine penmanship and adorned with sketches and paintings so minuscule that one would need a seeing glass to fully appreciate their intricacy. 

At last, Yurio finds what he's been looking for. He gestures towards the book.

"There," he says. "The crown of the First King. Also known as the Crown of Truth."

Victor and Yuuri peer at the pages, where the story of the crown or its wearer must be written. Beside the words, however, is a drawing of a crown. It's a grand thing. Golden band and its spires are decorated with gems of varying shapes and sizes, but of one colour: green of the Katsuki line. That is not all, however. From the center of the crown, in the place where it would rest on the forehead, like a droplet of water, drops the biggest gem of all. Clear like the most pure of waters it must be, for it is not coloured, but left only a sketch.

In all, it is the most magnificent crown Victor has ever seen. And he's seen quite a few of them throughout his life at court.

"What is the Crown of Truth?" Yuuri asks, his eyes tracing the drawing. "I haven't heard of it."

Yurio sputters. He looks so offended that anyone could not know what it is that it's hard to bite back a smile.

"It's a crown of legend," Victor explains in Yurio's place. "The First King who united the warring clans of our land is rumoured to be aided by Magic herself. And once he has proven himself by bringing those of opposing views and cultures together, by making them realize that they could live in peace side by side, like brothers, Magic decided to give him this boon: a crown that will always make its wearer speak nothing but the truth. The First King wore it all days of his rule, gaining the trust and love of his people. His son did so also, but his son in turn was not of such honest nature. He hid the crown in the royal treasury, or so goes the tale, and pretended that it has been stolen. Magic felt offended by this, which began the slow withdrawal of all magical beings from Tsenkh. After the third king's death, his successor has searched for the crown, but it would not be found. Some claim that Magic herself took it back, deeming the royal line unfit for her gift. Others claim that it will only appear to those who are worthy of wearing it." Victor shrugs. "We have no way to tell what the truth is now, too many centuries have passed since then. These days, the Crown of Truth is nothing but a story to tell children at bedtime."

"And now you found this key," Yurio takes up the story once Victor finishes, his eyes glowing with interest. "You found a key, hidden by the last Katsuki king. A key, on which a tiny crown has been embossed." When Victor and Yuuri still look unconvinced, Yurio adds: "Whatever and wherever the thing it opens is, it has to be a key that leads to the Crown of Truth."

"It could be," Victor allows. "But it could also be just a key to a royal chest. Or a key to a secret passageway that only the king knew. Or a key to a dozen different things that once belonged to the Katsukis. We have no way to prove it has any connection with the crown."

Yurio rounds on him, a scowl on his face. He opens his mouth to snap, most likely to say something snide about Victor's skepticism.

"But it could," Yuuri says before he can. They both look to him, surprised. "It could be a key that leads us to the crown." 

"Well, it could be, yes." Victor inclines his head. "But I don't think it likely."

Yurio snorts. "If you keep thinking like that, you won't find the crown even if it drops out of thin air right in front of you."

"You seem to know quite a lot about it, Yurio. Would you mind showing me all the books that speak of the crown?" Yuuri asks. 

"I might, if you promise to spar with me tomorrow," Yurio barters. 

Yuuri laughs. "Alright. You've got yourself a deal."

"Fine," Yurio grins, a smile that is more happiness than his usual derision. "Come on, then. There's about fifteen books in this library that you want to look at. The others aren't worth it."

"Are you coming?" Yuuri asks Victor.

Victor shrugs. Then, he smiles, helpless and a little bit sheepish about his earlier skepticism. "I might as well. I don't have anything better to do, do I? Besides, looking through these books means spending time with you, and I could never say no to that."

Yuuri's cheeks cover with a delicate blush. He's beautiful like this, so stunning that Victor's heart melts in all the love he feels for his husband in that tiny second as they stand in the Royal Library, bathed in the early afternoon sun.

"Gross," Yurio comments, and it makes Yuuri and Victor laugh.



 

***  



 

Almost four hours and a hefty lunch later, they have only gone through one book each. Victor's neck is stiff, his shoulders hunched and his behind hurts from sitting still for too long. Next to him, Yuuri stretches his back and arms for the third time in half an hour. 

"I think it's enough for today," Yuuri decides when Yurio yawns into his hand. "We can continue this at another time."

Victor can't hide his sigh of relief as he hefts his heavy tome onto the table. "I will warn the librarian to leave the books here, so we know what we've already done and what is left."

"You go, I'll stay," Yurio tells them, when Yuuri also rises to stretch his limbs. "This one is quite interesting."

"Anything about the crown?" Yuuri asks. 

"Hmm? No," Yurio says without as much as lifting his eyes off the text. "It's about the clan wars before the First King united them."

It is not Victor's imagination that he sees a soft smile touch Yuuri's lips. He looks… he looks much like a parent would as they looked at their son: with love and pride. 

Victor has to turn away. It hurts to watch Yuuri like this, when Victor knows that if things happened for them differently, Yuuri might already be pregnant with their own son. Or daughter. Or twins. His heart hurts to think of what they have been so cruelly robbed of. All that happiness, all that joy and expectations. All that excitement of bringing up kids of their own.

"We'll leave you to it then," Yuuri says. "Just don't stay here too long. Your eyes need their rest, too."

Yurio rolls his eyes at that, but his lips do quirk a bit as well. He waves a hand at them.

"Just go. You're making too much noise and I can't focus."

Snickering, Victor offers Yuuri a hand. "Come on, zaichik. We clearly aren't wanted here."

Yuuri shakes his head with a smile, but he takes Victor's hand and follows him out of the library, after telling Yurio "See you tomorrow," once more. The guards arrange themselves around them as soon as they step out. 

"Do you really think it cannot be the crown?" Yuuri asks quietly.

Victor hums. "I cannot say. It could be? But it's been lost for centuries, Yuuri. Would we really have that much luck?"

Yuuri bites his lip. He doesn't say anything for the longest moment.

"But, you know," Victor adds, as the thought crosses his mind, "maybe it can be the crown. That hut you mentioned you saw. You said you saw the key then, too. Maybe the crown could be hidden there."

"Maybe," Yuuri agrees. "We'll have to wait and see once the spring comes and the weather is better for travelling."

Victor nods. "That we will."

Unconsciously, they make their way to the stairs leading up to the Royal Wing, but before they can ascend, Yuuri pauses. Victor looks to him, questioning. 

"Would you mind if I went to the Butterfly Tower?" Yuuri asks. He doesn't look Victor in the eye, but somewhere over his shoulder, as if afraid of what Victor's reaction could be.

It's another small thing, but another great hurt. Seeing him like this, Victor wonders if there will ever come a time when Yuuri openly tells Victor what he wants, when he takes what he needs without worrying. 

Here, now, Victor gently lifts Yuuri's chin so that their eyes may meet. And he smiles. With all the love and kindness that he has in his heart for his beautiful, sweet husband.

"You are free to do as you please, zolotse," he says. "Wherever you wish to go, whatever you wish to do, you needn't my permission. You are not, and will never be, a prisoner here." Tenderly, Victor strokes Yuuri's jaw with his thumb, relishing in the lack of fear on Yuuri's part. "If it is your wish to go, then go, detka. I think I will survive this absence of yours, although I am sure I will miss you through every second of it."

Delicate, but apparent, Yuuri's blush rises again. It must be a good day for him, Victor realizes, for he does not remember another one recently, when Yuuri blushed quite so much. It warms Victor's heart with newfound hope.

"You always say such embarrassing things easily," Yuuri answers. "Don't you have any shame?"

"When it comes to you? None at all," Victor parries, smiling down at him. "I will never be ashamed or embarrassed about loving you. And nothing can change that. Even if you choose to run through these halls as naked as you entered this world and the entire court sees you."

"I don't think I'm inclined to do that, but your confidence in me is heartwarming," Yuuri tells him, and only after a second does Victor realize he is teasing him. 

He laughs. 

"Should I come with you, zaichik?" Victor asks, once his mirth subsides. 

But Yuuri shakes his head. "I want to do some cleaning and thinking. I think I already have an idea what to make of the space there and I want it to be a surprise."

Touched as he is, Victor's smile softens.

"Very well," he says. "Go on then. And if you need anything, send for me."

"I will." Yuuri nods. 

Victor watches him go for a moment longer. Two guards follow Yuuri dutifully, a step away, but close enough to be able to protect him should it prove necessary. He dearly hopes it doesn't. Yuuri has had enough freight to last him a lifetime and he has been in the palace barely for a scant few months. 

Still, Victor is not foolish enough to think that their lives will now be peaceful. He simply hopes that when next trial arrives, they will have strength enough to face it, and win. Together, side by side, as husband and husband should. As mates should.

Instead of heading to their chambers, Victor changes his direction towards the guest wing. It has been a while since he spoke with Chris… that time before the hunt, if he remembers correctly. Back then, Victor could explain little to his friend. Now, he feels like he could talk for hours and still not say all he could about the challenges of the past months. Yet, he knows, he owes his friend an explanation. 

So he takes his steps to Chris' room and knocks on the door. 

"Victor!" Chris exclaims upon seeing him. "What a surprise! Come in, come in. Excuse the state of my rooms, I haven't been quite… well, here, to take care of it all."

"Oh?" Victor smiles, already knowing where this is going. "And where have you been?"

"Here and there, here and there." Chris closes the door behind them and motions Victor towards the sofa. "But I'm sure you have better reasons to be here than listening to stories about my conquests."

"Actually," Victor says, smiling. "I wouldn't mind listening to some of that. Is it still the same stable boy?"

"The stablehead, you ass," Chris tells him, snorting, but his eyes glimmer with happiness that is hard to hide. "I finally got to him, you know. After the hunt. There was this injured horse who was left out there in the woods and he needed someone to go find it, so I offered to come with him. We brought it back and I helped him take care of it. I guess the way to his heart was just being kind to his animals, which I can't say was hard to accomplish. Definitely easier than coming up with gifts to send him."

Victor smiles. "I'm glad for you, my friend. You deserve this."

"Oh yes, I absolutely do." Chris grins slyly. "Especially when he leaves my bed the morning after and I feel aches in body parts I did not previously know could even ache. He once took me in the stables and I swear I kept finding straw all over myself for the next three days!"

They both laugh. This mood of amiable companionship that reminds Victor so much of the past, of those years they have been close as brothers, getting in all kinds of mischief together. His content at his friend's happiness somehow turns into bitterness within a second. And that, in turn, into jealousy. Ugly and unfair, it rears its head.

Victor is freshly married. For all that is right in the world, he, too, should be this happy. He and Yuuri should be the ones making everyone else jealous. 

And yet, they are not.

"Now, tell me," Chris' voice intrudes on Victor's thoughts, "what's been going on with you? How is married life treating you?"

For a brief moment, Victor only looks at his friend. And then he tells him all. 

He tells him of Morio's blackmail, of his stalking of Yuuri, of how much damage he's done to their relationship. He doesn't tell him about what Yuuri has done to save them, but he does not downplay the effect Morio's attentions had on him. On them, too, as a couple. 

Chris listens, concern etched on his face, and once Victor is done spilling all his grievances, he says:

"I knew there was something strange about his death. The arrow you asked of me… that was for him, wasn't it?" Victor nods, throat clenched tight as the relief of finally confiding in someone strikes him. "Curse that man! May his soul never find peace for all he's done to you."

"If it was me alone he was after, I could deal with it," Victor says. "But Yuuri… he's so innocent in all of this. I wanted to protect him and I failed. Only once it was too late and the irreparable damage has been done, did I get enough dedication to do what was necessary. I'm–" Victor pauses as anger at himself once again takes away his voice. "I'm so useless, Chris. I could've stopped this before it got this far. I didn't. And now Yuuri suffers because of it. How do I keep putting on a brave face, when my life is falling apart before my eyes? When I've ruined our marriage before it even had the chance to start?"

He looks to Chris, pleading for help. There is none to be had. Giving in to his broken feelings, Victor puts his face in his hands. A rustle of robes is his only tell that Chris has risen from his place. The sofa dips down on Victor's right as Chris sits down next to him. His hand is warm where it falls on Victor's shoulder.

"What does Yuuri say about it? Did you talk to him? I'm sure that whatever happened, he does not blame you like you blame yourself. You love him, Victor. It's clear to anyone with eyes. And it's as clear that he loves you back."  

"Sometimes love isn't enough," Victor mumbles. 

Those words… they are the exact opposite of what he has told Yuuri those brief hours ago. Back then, Victor was trying to cheer Yuuri up, to make him believe that Victor still loved him. And he does. Gods be his witness, he loves Yuuri more than life itself. But what of it? What can his love do to heal Yuuri's hurts? What can his love do to make him forget Morio's voice? His touch, his smell, his words? 

It's impossible. Victor loves him, yes. But that is not enough.

"That isn't true," Chris argues. "It may not be a cure for all ails, but it definitely isn't useless. You may not see it now, maybe you won't see it for weeks or months, but I'm sure that your love makes a difference to Yuuri."

Even if Chris is only speculating, he gives Victor hope, because if someone else can see how much they love each other, doesn't it mean that Yuuri still cares about Victor as much as Victor cares about him? He said he loved Victor last night. Not directly, but he did say it. And if it wasn't for the circumstances, Victor would be weeping out of joy.

Alas, it seems that all their happy moments these days are tinged with lingering pain that refuses to leave them be. 

Victor sighs. "I dearly hope you are right."

"I'm sure I am." Chris squeezes Victor's shoulder. "So, what happens next? The body has been found, yes?"

"Lord Plisetsky will put forward a proposal at the Council meeting this week," Victor says. "I have no idea what his angle is on this. Why would he care? He didn't really know Wintry, and he wouldn't even want to. You know whose relatives they were."

Chris hums. "He's not a man who would do such a thing for no reason, though. You should be wary."

"I am." Victor runs a hand through his hand. "I am. But worse than that, Yuuri is. He wants to come to Council meetings from now on."

"Then let him." Chris shrugs. "If he was a coward, he wouldn't ask to come. If he didn't feel himself able or of enough courage, he wouldn't ask. If he has, it must mean he is ready to face that challenge. Don't stop him."

"I just… I worry," Victor whispers, feeling feeble again. "What if he gets hurt again? How many more times can he get hurt before he decides that being my husband, my mate is too much?"

"You know that worrying about such things never leads to anything good."

Bitter, Victor smiles. "I wish I could help it…"

"Maybe all you need is a distraction. You and Yuuri both," Chris offers. "How about you leave the palace for a while? Spend some quality time together away from all this nonsense."

"We can't. We have to know what Plisetsky is planning." Victor heaves another heavy sigh. "Can you imagine the damage, should he learn what really happened?" Victor shakes his head. "We have to stay. And I hope… I hope we can count on your silence," he adds.

"I'm offended that you feel the need to ask," Chris huffs. "But yes, you have my silence. And my allegiance. Whatever and whenever you need it."

Grateful beyond words for Chris loyalty, but still more for his friendship, Victor takes his hand and squeezes it. "Thank you."

Chris rolls his eyes at him.

"Let's leave the gratitude for when you have some dukedoms to give out," he says, smiling.

"You will be the first in line, my friend. Trust me," Victor promises.

Chris does not comment on this. They both know that such things are not always in the hands of those with royal titles, but rather in the hands of those who hold the true power.

They trade a few more words, a few more rumours and gossips, until Victor grows truly hungry. Chris offers to have food brought to them, but Victor declines. 

"Not that I do not value your company, but if I can choose between you and Yuuri…"

Chris laughs, lifting his hands up in surrender. "That is one battle I know I cannot win, no matter how hard I try. Go on then, away with you, you silly prince."

"Thank you for listening to my troubles," Victor says as he and Chris embrace in a brotherly hug. "I cannot even begin to tell you how much it weighed on me, being unable to talk with anyone about it." 

"Anytime, my friend," Chris promises. He claps Victor on the back. "And next time, do include me in your planning. I would very much enjoy some plotting myself."

"I dearly hope it won't be needed, but I will remember it."

With that, they bid each other goodbye. Victor leaves, lighter at heart than he has been, though none of his problems have been solved. And they will not be solved for a long time, he knows. Not for as long as any lingering damage Morio has caused will not be forgotten. 

Refusing the thoughts of it to allow to sour his mood, Victor takes his steps to the Butterfly Tower. He will pick Yuuri up and together they will dine in their rooms, just the two of them, enjoying each other's quiet, undemanding company. It sounds like bliss and Victor is excited for it as he takes the stairs with a skip in his steps.

A surprise waits for him once he makes it outside, however. The sky has been growing darker and darker as the day goes by, but when the door opens before Victor, he gasps in wonder. Snow, the first of the season, falls in flakes of white so brilliant, so beautiful that for a moment Victor is caught in awe of nature. The snowflakes twirl in the air in a graceful dance, while everything in sight is covered with a dusting of those that have already fallen. 

"Bring me a parasol," Victor tells one of his men. 

He is not afraid of getting wet in the snow, but he thinks of Yuuri, and how awful he would feel if he were to catch a cold when he already doesn't feel his best. Once the man returns, Victor takes the folded parasol in hand, and walks outside: into the dancing snow and closer to the man who holds his heart for life. 



 

***



 

When last Yuuri has been to the Butterfly Tower, he asked for a broom, some old cloth and a bucket to be left at the entrance. They are waiting for him as he arrives, like promised. He declines the offer of one of his guards to bring them upstairs. It has been a while since Yuuri did any manual labour, far longer than he cares to admit, and he is quite looking forward to cleaning the beautiful space himself – to shaping it into something just of his own. 

Cleaning always had some special influence on him. He would avoid it for weeks, months even, and then when his life became too hard, too complicated to make heads or tails of and he needed a break, he would tug up his sleeves and get down on his knees to clean everything from ground up. Polishing the metals, rubbing the floors with pine needles, dusting and wiping, sprinkling the windows with lavender infused water... Cleaning not only gave him the satisfaction of seeing things improve as he worked on them, of seeing him make an actual difference in his life, but also it gave him the time to think. And now… well. Yuuri does have many things to think about, doesn't he?

He sets the empty bucket, the cloth and the broom against a wall. He sweeps his gaze around the chamber. Dust is everywhere. On all surfaces and the floor, on windows, and even dancing in the air where a stray ray of sunlight betrays it. 

Before he gets down to it in full, Yuuri shrugs off his robe. It would be awful if he dirtied something so pretty. There is nowhere to put it, though, so Yuuri steps out and slings it over the stair's railing. On his way back, he pushes up his sleeves.

And then, he gives himself over to work.

First, he opens up all the windows he can. The hinges on some have rusted enough over the years that they do not budge, but others slide all the way to the side, letting in fresh air and late autumn sunlight. Once that is done, Yuuri finally begins the real cleaning. He dusts the floors, gathers up all the dirt and leaves and remnants of plants into the bucket. All of it he takes down and, as one of his men points him towards the closest well, Yuuri discards the contents of his bucket next to it to make room for the water he'll need wipe the beautiful stained-glass windows.

"Your Highness!" his men, who dutifully follow his every step, exclaim. "Please, let us carry the water. You shouldn't do it yourself."

"But I want to," Yuuri simply replies with a smile.

The guards try to convince him that it is not becoming of a prince to carry buckets of water like a commoner, but to that Yuuri only says: "I was born a commoner. A common son to common parents, who raised me to do my work by myself. I will do what I can, and if I cannot do something, then and only then will I ask for help." 

That, unlike the previous excuse, makes the men cease their offerings of help. They watch over Yuuri as he enters the door that leads up to the tower, then they watch as he comes back again with a bucket full of filth, which he spills over the grass before the tower. And again, he makes the same journey, and again they watch him in silence. By the fifth time, in their eyes Yuuri sees more than just surprise at this oddity of a prince. He begins to see something of respect, and it fills him with even more happiness.

It takes ten buckets to clean the entire span of window-glass. Yuuri is sweaty and panting by the time he's finished, and he knows there is still more to do. The floors need to be cleaned, the tables need to be sanded. But for today, he thinks he's done enough. His arms ache from all the lifting he's done, and his thighs burn from the strain of walking up and down so many stairs. Yet, even if his body is tired enough to make Yuuri stop thinking of all the other aches he's been so conscious of, his mind does not stop spinning thoughts and ideas. 

And, whether he wants it or not, at the forefront of them is always just one: Victor.

His husband, the one Yuuri has sacrificed so much for. The one who still makes Yuuri's heart beat faster, despite all that has happened. The one that Yuuri, undeniably, unapologetically, loves… 

It was so sweet of Victor, so kind when he proposed to use those other terms of endearment instead of the ones that made Yuuri flinch with revulsion. It was so kind, so sweet also, when he readily gave Yuuri his bed, yet stayed within reach simply because Yuuri asked it of him. Forgoing his comfort, forgoing his habits and what was easy, he chose a harder path simply to give Yuuri the comfort he needed.

Isn't that lovely? Isn't that a proof of his love?

And even this tower, Yuuri thinks as he wrings out the cloth he's been using to clean the windows. He gave this place to Yuuri, so that he could have a haven to be alone if he wished to. He told Yuuri, just hours ago, that Yuuri could do whatever he wanted here. That he wasn't and never would be a prisoner in these walls. Wasn't that so sweet and so kind as well?

Yuuri doesn't know if he would be able to do as much, if their places were reversed. Even in simple things, Victor shows such consideration towards Yuuri that at times it hurts. It plainly hurts to be loved so much, when Yuuri himself cannot reply with the same. And yet, if Victor did not do all that, if he did not go as far as he does to prove to Yuuri that he loves him still, what would become of them? Yuuri doesn't know for certain, but he is fairly sure that their love, and their marriage, would not survive. In the absence of Victor's love, Yuuri would not be able to stand living like this.

He wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. He has closed the windows so as not to catch a chill while he worked on them. The sun must have hidden away behind clouds, for the room is darker now. 

"Enough for today," Yuuri decides. 

He feels good about the day's work: first at the library, now here. Today has been good for him, he thinks, happy that such days can still happen to him. Among the anguish of the past months, it feels so freeing, knowing that the sun will rise again on a day like today, when goodness and joy will once again find home in Yuuri's heart. 

Smiling to himself, he locks the door to the chamber, slings his robe over one arm and makes down the spiral staircase. A surprise, much like this entire day is, waits for him downstairs. For, once he opens the door, he is greeted by a marvellous sight of snow. Large petals of it fall down from the dusty sky, covering everything in sight with a soft white blanket.

"Oh, the first snow!" Yuuri exclaims.

"It's been snowing for an hour, Your Highness," one of the guards says. 

The other follows it with: "Are you ready to return to the palace? Let me run ahead and bring you a parasol to cover yourself with."

"No need, no need." Yuuri shakes his head. He smiles up at the sky. "I love snow."

Together with his men, after locking the tower door, they thread a new path through the freshly fallen snow. Flakes of it settle in Yuuri's hair and on his eyelashes, others melt on his cheeks like sweet, cold kisses. His boots leave imprints in the white covering the ground and, feeling like a child, Yuuri grins as he walks over the unblemished snow.

He doesn't notice him until his boots enter his field of vision, and then Yuuri snaps his head up. 

Before him, stands Victor, smiling just like Yuuri himself does.

"First snow," Victor tells him, and Yuuri nods.

"It's wonderful," Yuuri says. "I love snow."

"So do I."

They both look up at the sky, where snowflakes twirl in the air in a mad dance. The gray clouds make them almost glow, but there's so many that as they watch it's hard to see anything but a flurry of them. 

Yuuri turns his head to look at Victor. In his hair some of the snowflakes have nestled like petals of a strange winter flower. His eyebrows are sticky with melted snow and droplets have settled on the skin of his face. But it's his eyes, the eyes that catch Yuuri's glance as if he's felt him looking. They capture Yuuri, like they always do. Now, though, the blue, which for all that is true, should be cold against the snowy weather like this, is warm. Sweet and warm, turned to Yuuri with hope. Framed with eyelashes that carry brilliantly white snowflakes that dare not melt in the warmth of that gaze.

A droplet of melted snow water pearls on Victor's cheek as the heat of Victor's body melts a tiny speckle of winter. On impulse, Yuuri lifts his hand and gently, tenderly brushes it away with his thumb. 

Victor smiles at him, and Yuuri leaves his hand there. He allows it to rest against Victor's cheek as Victor turns to him and lowers his head. For a second, Yuuri thinks Victor will kiss him, but he doesn't. He leans their foreheads together instead, soft beyond words. 

For a while, they stand there like that while the snow falls all around them and there is nothing more important in the world than the warmth of their own bodies they share with the other.

"I brought you a parasol," Victor says at last.

"And you didn't use it?"

"I wanted to feel the snow," Victor answers, smiling. 

Yuuri smiles again, too. "Let's share it, then."

Victor opens the parasol of threadwork so fine that no droplet of water would melt through the beautifully threaded fabric, on which Yuuri can spot flowers of all kinds and colours. He holds it up over Yuuri and then offers him his arm. 

It's a good day, Yuuri thinks again as he takes that arm with barely a twinge of discomfort. It's a good day, he thinks as he remembers the softness of Victor's hair as it brushed against Yuuri's cheek. It's a good day, he thinks as he returns Victor's smile without forcing it.

And, as they make their way back to the palace, Yuuri hopes it won't be the last.