Author's Note: Chapter 9 is finally done. I struggled a lot (as I sometimes do) with the first section of this chapter. Chapter 8 was really the climax of the action in this story, and I knew all along that Chapter 9 was going to be much more introspective, with the majority of the tension being emotional tension. However, a lot of those emotions come from Yuuri, so it was a challenge (although a satisfying one) to write this section from Victor's POV and still portray the complexity of what was happening with the other characters.

In the end I really love this chapter.

Sakhalin Island, The Far East, Spring, 1889 - V.N.

Neither of us sleep much that night. We are both on edge, tense, alert for someone else to come and break our fragile solitude. Lying together on the futon we take turns dozing lightly, waking, listening in the darkness, our senses stretching out, tentative and afraid of what we will find.

But nothing comes. There are a few gun reports, but they are distant. At one point I think I hear someone in the woods outside, but it could easily have been an animal or even nothing at all.

As dawn breaks the room slowly starts to brighten. Yuuri shifts against my side and sits up. For a few long moments he sits there, still, staring into the darkness. I gently run the tips of my fingers up his spine.

"Victor?" He turns towards me, and I can just make out the outlines of his face.

"Yes, Yuuri?"

"I need to do something. Before we leave. Will you come with me?"

My heart quickens a little. "I'm certainly not going to leave your side, but I don't know that leaving the minshuku before we go to meet Otabek is a good idea. What if we are seen? Where do you need to go?"

He sighs and I feel his breath against my skin as he leans down close to my face. "To Kusun-Kotan. I... I want to visit my grandparents' grave one last time, to say goodbye to them. There won't be anyone here to tend their graves once I leave. I thought I'd have more time, but... like you said, I can't stay on Sakhalin any longer." He's quiet for a moment and then adds softly, "And I want to leave a letter for Suzuyama-san explaining that I've left. I don't want him to worry about me. I've caused him enough trouble."

I stare at him silently for a moment. My caution tells me it's not a good idea, but how can I deny him this? I draw his face to mine, touching our foreheads and noses together. I breathe in his scent. "We can go, but not by the road."

"Of course." His lips find mine in the darkness. "You could stay here if you wanted..."

"No," I say immediately, my voice almost stern. I swallow and take a breath. "No," I repeat more gently. "We should not separate. There is no reason to tempt fate."

"Alright. Let's go now while it's still early."

"Now?" I chuckle. "I'm supposed to want to get up while you are kissing me so sweetly?"

I feel him smile against my mouth. "Neither of us have been getting any sleep anyway."

"Did I say anything about going back to sleep?" I murmur, reaching out to run my hands up his back again.

He makes a soft sound in the back of his throat and dips his head almost to my chest. He's quiet for a moment and I wonder what he is thinking. "What it is?"

He takes a soft but uneven breath. "Is... is it alright if... if we don't... do anything like that right now? I'm sorry, I just... It doesn't feel right after..."

After we left two murdered bodies in the woods outside? No, I don't imagine it feels right, I chide myself.

"Of course," I say softly, wrapping my arms around him to embrace him tightly. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I cannot help but always want you as close to me as possible."

He sighs and lies down against my chest, tucking his head under my chin. "It's alright. I just... can't right now. I'm sorry."

"There's nothing to be sorry for." I stroke my fingers through his dark, cool hair. "I will never ask anything of you that you are not wanting to give."

His arms tighten around me and for a few long minutes we just lie together as it slowly grows lighter outside. Eventually we rise and dress. Yuuri folds up the futon, and then writes a quick letter at his desk, the one at which I watched him write many, many letters over the winter. The sight fills me with a bittersweet aching.

We check the horses before we set off on foot into the woods, heading for Kusun-Kotan. We hold hands without speaking, walking along a faint path that cuts through the trees. I wonder if Yuuri often walked this way rather than on the road. It seems like him, enjoying the quiet solitude of the forest.

It is a gray morning, overcast and still not very bright. I'm alert despite my lack of sleep, eyes scanning the woods for signs of trouble. But everything is quiet and we don't encounter anyone or anything on our way.

The path and the woods end abruptly at the edge of small graveyard. I've never seen a Japanese graveyard before, but all graveyards give off the same air of solemnity. The gravestones are funny little shapes. Each is carved with Japanese characters I cannot read.

To one side, what is probably the front entrance, there is a wooden arch that is somehow elegant despite the fact that it looks like it is about to fall in on itself. There is a tiny, dilapidated hutch covered in moss beside it.

It gives me an almost magical, otherworldly feeling. Like I am looking at something that isn't meant for my eyes.

Yuuri sighs softly next to me. "It looks sadder each time I come here. When I was growing up there was a proper priest in Oodomari who tended the shrine and kept the graves clean. All of these families are gone from the island. Once I'm gone there really will be no one left to come here."

I glance at him, frowning softly. "This is where your grandparents are buried?"

He looks up at me and nods. "Yes. That's our family memorial." He points to one of the stones, this one noticeably cleaner of moss and lichen than the others. "So... this will only take a few minutes. When I'm done praying I'll take the letter to the Consulate building and leave it in the mailbox. You should probably wait here in the treeline, just in case."

"Yes. You're probably right." I step back further into the trees, relinquishing Yuuri's hand as he steps forward. He moves with that measured grace I so love, but seeing him moving through the gravestones in the gray, misty morning strikes me with a bittersweet, melancholy feeling. And I think about what I am taking from him, how my life has interrupted his so completely.

I know that Yuuri loves me, but still I wonder if some part of him wishes I'd never come into his life, that things had not changed for him. Had I not pursued him, would he have chosen to pursue me? Would he have fought harder to stay on Sakhalin?

I watch him kneel before the memorial stone and place sticks of incense in a burner, lighting them. The tendrils of smoke curl upwards as he bows his head and presses his hands together. Watching him I think that there are probably many things that I still don't know about him, or Japan, or the life we are facing together. I want to ask him a million questions.

I suppose there will be time for that later.

I think about my own family. I don't remember much about my grandparents. Did we visit their graves? Did I ever pray for them? I can't remember the last time I prayed or even went to church. It was probably before I met Ignacy. I wonder if my parents still go. I haven't written to them since my imprisonment. Will I be able to write to them from Japan? What will they be told when my departure has been noticed?

Or will they be told anything at all? Will I just slip into a silent absence, a question as to my fate unanswered?

I think, not for the first time, how disappointing I must be to them, and I wish they'd had another son. I wonder if they will be disappointed when they realize Yuri is not coming to stay with them. Or perhaps they will be relieved.

I am so lost in my thoughts that I do not realize Yuuri has left the graveyard. My heart lurches in panic for a brief moment before I remember he has gone to the consulate. Waiting in the woods alone, surrounded by the gray, silent trees, looking over the empty, all but abandoned graveyard is unnerving.

I cannot help but glance over my shoulders again and again. It feels like someone is watching me, as if I am not alone. But there is never anything there, and I hope what I feel are nothing more than the spirits of the past rather than a threat of the present.

"Victor? Are you alright?"

Yuuri's voice startles me and I realize I've been staring out into the woods. I blink my eyes and shake my head a little. "Yes. I'm sorry. I was... thinking about my family."

"Oh." The word sounds heavy. "Do they... did you write to them about going to Japan?"

I shake my head. "No. It's too risky that my mail might be read. Hopefully I can write them once we are safely with your family." I smile at him wryly. "What about you? Did you write your parents to tell them that you were going to be bringing two foreigners with you?"

He flushes faintly and rubs the back of his neck. "Well... I told them I would be coming to Kyushu. I didn't tell them all the details. I might have mentioned I would have traveling companions, but not that you'd necessarily be... you know. Permanent companions."

I laugh at that. "Yuuri! What if your family turns us away? What if they don't like me? Have you told them anything about me?"

He flushes even more now. "I have! I mean... I told them about you last summer, when you started visiting me. That I'd become friendly with one of the Russian settlers. And I told them about your leg and that you were staying at the minshuku. I haven't..." He rubs the back of his neck. "I haven't told them about... that we're... in love. But I know they'll understand when they meet you. How important you are to me."

My smile softens. "Yuuri." I kiss his forehead. "I hope you're right."

"I am. I know I am. They'll love you."

We embrace, for a moment, grounding one another in the life we will share as we stand at the edge of this place of death. I never want to let him go. But after a few moments we both pull away.

"Let's go. This place feels eerie," I say.

He smirks at me faintly and reaches for my hand again. "Well, there is a graveyard right there."

I purse my lips and shake my head. "It's more than that. I feel like my mind is playing tricks on me. I need to get off this island."

His hand is warm in mine as his fingers squeeze mine tightly. "It's going to be ok, Victor. We just have to make it through the day."

The walk back to the minshuku is quick. The horses are still patiently waiting in the clearing, which means they haven't been found.

"The letter you left for Suzuyama, what did you tell him?" I ask as we enter the minshuku.

Yuuri twists his lips. "Only not to worry about me. That I'd decided to leave on the Baikal's sailing today, because I had no reason not to. I was only staying, because..." He sighs softly. "Well, I suppose because I didn't have to leave yet. There was nothing really keeping me here until the next sailing except sentimentality."

"Will it cause trouble? You just leaving so suddenly."

He shrugs. "How could it? No one needs me here. He'll be disappointed I didn't say goodbye, that I didn't come to his going away party. He might even think me rude, but... I'm sure once he hears that you have also disappeared he will put it all together. What he'll think of me - or what he'll do then -I don't know."

"But you trust him, don't you? He's helped you - us - in the past."

Yuuri twists his lips and shakes his head a little. "I don't know. I don't know what he'll do."

I purse my lips. "If he tells the Russian Officials, they will know where I've gone."

Yuuri's brows furrow. "But would they really go through all of the cost and trouble to track you down? You're just one person, Victor. Japan is a big place. And it's not like Russian officials can just go do whatever they want there."

I bite my bottom lip. "I don't honestly know. It does seem rather unlikely they'd go to all the trouble. Plenty of exiles have fled to other countries. Still..." I sigh. "I would have liked the peace of mind of not having to look over my shoulder."

Yuuri steps into my arms and we embrace. "Suzuyama would have figured it out with or without the letter. He knows what you mean to me, even if he's never said as much. There's no way he couldn't have known."

I stroke my fingers through his hair. "What's done is done and what will be will be. Let's just get off this island and worry about the future later."

We re-pack quickly, Yuuri putting everything into two large furoshiki. All in all it's no more than a couple changes of clothes each, a few books, and a some odds and ends. He wraps what money he has in a separate furoshiki and tucks it into his kimono, then does the same with what is left of my gold bullion, tucking it into the bottom of one of the sacks. As I watch him, I see his fingers shaking.

"Everything is going to be alright," I say to him. "We just have to make it through the day. Like you said."

He nods, but doesn't respond. We stand together for a few moments, looking at the inn, which will soon be empty. Then I take the sacks and go to fetch the horses, leaving Yuuri a few moments to be alone in his home for the last time.

I saddle the dead soldiers' horses in the inn yard, tying down our bundled belongings and the two rifles, one to each saddle. I hope we don't have any use for the guns today, but it's likely they are worth something, either to trade or sell once we reach Japan. Or possibly for our clandestined passage aboard the Baikal. I stand alone with the horses, adjusting the length of Yuuri's stirrups, waiting for him for some time before finally going back into the minshuku to fetch him.

Yuuri stands silently in the middle of the room. I have that eerie feeling again. Like there are ghosts in the air.

Everything has been put away. Even the fire in the irori has been put out. I can't remember a single time it wasn't quietly burning. The doors to the west and east rooms are open as if the building is being aired, but the door to the porch is closed.

"Yuuri?" I call to him softly.

He startles a little, turning to look at me with an owlish, almost dazed expression. There are no tears in his eyes, but I think what he is feeling is probably beyond tears.

"Are you ready?"

He looks at me for a long moment, looks back at the room, and then nods, taking a deep breath as he turns around. "Yes. I'm ready." He walks past me quickly, not looking back. The door slides shut with a soft clack behind me. Yuuri flinches a little at the sound, but he doesn't say anything. His back is straight and his head is high as we walk out into the yard.

"You'll be alright to ride by yourself?" I ask, smiling at him faintly.

He smiles wryly in response, but there is no warmth in his expression. "Yes. If I can manage a ride to save your life I can manage a plod through the woods."

I laugh. "I really wish I could have seen that."


I help Yuuri into his saddle, boosting his foot with my hands. I check to make sure his stirrups are the right length, adjusting them a little again. I feel a light touch on the top of my head and look up. Yuuri is pressing his finger again the part of my hair.

I can't help but chuckle. "What are you doing?"

He smiles back unsteadily. "I don't know. It was just an impulse. Your head was right there."

"I wonder if you will still love me when I am old and bald," I says with a despondent sigh.

"I will love you no matter what," he says softly, turning the touch into a stroke of his fingers through my hair.

I gaze up at him for a moment and then take his hand to kiss it.

Climbing into my own saddle, I glance up at the gray sky. I wonder if it spells more rain. For a few moments we both sit and look at the minshuku, dark and shuttered and empty. I nudge my horse forward, moving closer to Yuuri so that I can take his hand.

"Thank you, for sharing your home with me."

He smiles at me faintly and squeezes my fingers, and now there are finally tears in his eyes. "Thank you, for coming to visit."

With a last look at the minshuku, the only home Yuuri has ever known, and the place where I have been happiest in all my life, we set off for the forest.

We skirt as widely as we can around Kusun-Kotan, aware there may be soldiers from the Consulate patrolling for escapees. When the trees become too dense, we leave the horses, removing their tack and our belongings and sending them on their way with a swat on the rump. They don't seem that interested in going, and I hope that they find their way back to Korsakovsk and new owners. I think sadly of Shadow, hoping that he too will find a new owner once they discover that I'm gone. If they haven't already.

We make the rest of the way to the beach on foot. And by the time we get there my leg is aching terribly and it's raining, a constant, cool drizzle that has everything we have with us damp in a matter of minutes. It's difficult to tell exactly what time it is with the cloudy skies and dreary, gray light. But regardless, we have a long wait ahead of us.

"We can take shelter in the remains of those huts," Yuuri says, pointing to the treeline where the little river flows out onto the beach. "This was an Ainu fishing village once upon a time."

The frame of the hut is still more or less intact, but the grass and thatching that once made up the walls and ceiling have fallen away in many places. Half of the roof has simply collapsed in on itself. We settle near the doorway on the remains of a woven floor mat that has all but disintegrated from damp and mold. The dilapidated hut provides only just enough shelter to be better than being outside. The small space is filled with a musty, earthy smell.

There are the remains of an indoor fire pit, not unlike the irori, but we decide that lighting a fire is too risky. So we sit close together to keep one another warm, our arms entwined as we shiver. I don't say so, but my leg is throbbing painfully. Truthfully, it has been since the night before, but it's even worse now with the damp. I try to be subtle about rubbing it.

"Your leg hurts."

I have not been subtle enough.

"Only a little. All that running last night," I try to sound dismissive as I look over at him.

"You don't have to hide your pain from me, Victor. I've seen you in much greater pain than this."

I balk a little at that, and feel some color rise into my face. Much of my first weeks with Yuuri after the accident are lost to me. It was all more or less a haze of pain and laudanum induced sleep. Not having to remember it, it's almost like it didn't happen.

"I guess that's true. I don't remember much about when you first began caring for me."

Yuuri chuckles faintly, readjusting his clothes to try and pull them tighter around himself. "That's probably for the best. You weren't enjoying yourself."

I purse my lips, looking out at the rain. "It must have been hard for you. Caring for me in that state. Having someone completely dependent on you. It must have been a burden."

He leans against my shoulder. "No. I wouldn't call it a burden. I was terrified, of course. I had no idea what I was doing. I was afraid I was going to hurt you or make you worse, or that you would die in my care, because I was incompetent. But when you started to improve, even a little, I was so happy to know that it was partly because of me." He is quiet for a moment and I feel his arms squeeze around mine. "I was always so happy that you were there. Even when you were very sick. It was a selfish joy, having you with me all the time."

I turn my head towards him and cup his chin in my hand, lifting his face so that he has to look at me. "I was also happy, Yuuri. Even though I thought you must resent having to take care of me. I, too, felt selfish joy being by your side."

His brows furrow and the look he gives me makes my chest ache. "Victor..."

Then his arms around around my neck and he is embracing me so tightly I almost cannot breathe. I hold him back, pressing my face into his damp, dark hair. "I love you so, my Yuuri. I would do anything for you."

He makes a soft croaking sound and then whispers, "I'm the same. I would do anything to stay by your side."

We hold each other for a long, quiet moment. Then finally I ask the question that has subconsciously preoccupied me for days. "Are you really happy to be leaving Sakhalin with me?" I can feel my hesitancy even as I force the words out.

Yuuri leans back in my embrace and lifts his face. His spectacles are clouded with damp, and I gently remove them from his face so that I can properly see his beautiful brown eyes. He purses his lips for a moment before slowly nodding.

"Yes, although, honestly, I don't feel like I'm really ready to leave. This has always been my home and I don't really know anything else. I'm afraid of the unknown world and what it holds in store. I'm afraid that I won't be much of a guide to you and Yuri. I don't know what to expect of a life in Japan. I don't even know what to expect of my family. It's been so long since I've seen them."

He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. It is warm against my chilled face. "But even a life of uncertainty with you is preferable to one where you don't exist or can't be with me. There was never any future for us on Sakhalin. Here everyone is a prisoner, even me."

His words soothe a rawness inside of me I hadn't fully realized was there. I smile in faint relief. "I am also afraid of the unknown. But I am more excited for my life with you, whatever it might bring."

The rest of the day is spent in much the same manner. We huddle together to stay dry and warm. We talk about the future, and tell each other stories about our pasts. In many ways it's just how we've spent all of our time together. Eventually the sun begins to drop and the world outside our dilapidate hut grows gloomy with twilight.

Out on the water, lights appear as the shadowy outline of the Baikal sails around the point of the cove. Our shared relief is palpable and we exchange an excited glance, laughing giddily as our plans begin to come to fruition.

Not too long after, as a deeper darkness fills up the beach, I can hear the faint, soft splashing of oars. It's time. Otabek is coming for us.

We gather our things quickly and make our way down to the shore. Out in the small cove I can just make out the outline of the tender boat as it slowly grows closer. I want to call out, but I know it's dangerous. Instead we stand at the edge of the water, nearly bursting with excitement and the fear that now, at this final moment, something will unravel.

Otabek paddles the tender up onto the sandy shore and hops out, wading through the freezing cold surf as if it does not bother him in the least. "You made it."

I grin. "Yes. And we are very glad to see you."

He shrugs. "Everything went smoothly once I got Yuri on the ship this morning. He's been mad as a hornet cooped up all day, but I told him it was safest for him to be out of sight and out of mind."

I can't help but snicker at that, thinking of Yuratchka fuming up and down the decks of the Baikal. "That was good thinking. Thank you, again, for taking care of him. I'm in your debt."

The young man shakes his head. "You don't have to thank me." He helps take our packs, tossing them into the little boat. "I managed to sell a few of your things today. Including your horse. There are plenty of people who are willing to give you money without asking questions if you know where to look."

I smirk. "Oh. I'm well aware of that. I'm even further in your debt now." I feel relief knowing that Shadow at least will be cared for by someone.

Otabek just shrugs and then motions to the boat. "Both of you get in. I'll hold the boat and push us off."

Yuuri looks at me nervously and then takes a deep breath. "It's been a long time since I've been in a boat."

"Do you want me to lift you in?" I ask a little teasingly.

He narrows his eyes at me. "I can manage."

We're both wet with freezing water up to our calves by the time Otabek pushes the boat off the beach and climbs back in. The tender rocks as he takes his position at the oars and then their soft, rhythmic sound resumes.

"You both may want to stay low. Just in case."

I do as Otabek suggests, sinking down between of the bench seats. I'm surprised when Yuuri does not sink down next to me. When I look up I mean to say something to him, but his name dies on my lips.

He is sitting up straight, his eyes fixed on the island we are slowly pulling away from. Even if I said his name, I doubt he would hear me. His expression makes my heart ache. It seems almost blank, his gaze distant. But just below the surface is the pain of a heartbreak I too have known. It is the pain of losing all that you know, all that you have held dear.

It is the loss of home.

Sea of Japan, The Soya Strait, Spring, 1889 - V.N.

Once aboard the Baikal, Otabek had shown us to a worker's cabin belowdecks. It was too conspicuous for us to stay in a stateroom, although it was likely there were some available. Yuri was waiting for us there, and I'd rarely seen him so happy to see anyone as he was to see us. He even hugged Yuuri, much, I think, to both of their surprise.

I'd expected to go and speak with the Captain, or at least someone on his behalf, to settle the matter of paying for being smuggled off the island, but Otabek assured me that the debt had been settled already with the money from the things he sold and what I'd left with Yuri. The only money we had left now was what Yuuri and I had brought with us from the minshuku. All I could do was hope the gold found a good exchange in Japan and that we could earn something extra by selling the rifles.

Exhausted from the nearly sleepless night before and our long day of anxiety, Yuuri and I fell asleep almost immediately.

Now it's morning and we stand on one of the lower decks of the steamship. We'd been warned to stay off the upper deck, where again we might seem conspicuous to the real paying guests, but even here the feel of the ocean wind on my face is heavenly. I feel light as a feather. I feel free.

Yuuri stands next to me, gripping the railing so tightly his already pale hands are nearly white. He hasn't said as much, but I can tell that he doesn't like being aboard the big ship. In fact he hasn't said much of anything since the night before. I watch him out of the corner of my eye.

His gaze is trained on the distant green shore of what little of Sakhalin we can still see. Sailing through the Soya Strait between Sakhalin and Hokkaido we can see either island depending on which side of the ship we stand on. Personally I prefer to stand on the Hokkaido side and stare towards the land that holds our future. But Yuuri keeps returning to this place at the railing, staring back at the past.

"It won't be long until it's out of sight," he says suddenly. "We'll sail around the Cape and then... it'll be gone."

I move a little closer to him, turning so that I'm leaning my back against the railing. "You are still struggling to say goodbye." I reach over to brush a piece of his hair, which the wind is toying with, behind his ear.

The touch seems to break the spell the island has cast over him and he looks at me. "I guess I am. I honestly didn't think it would be this hard. I'm just..." He looks away, not back at Sakhalin, but down into the water churning past below us. "I'm so afraid. I don't know what to expect or what to do. I've never been to a big city like Hakodate. What if... what if I can't be of any help to you and Yuri? I'm the only one who speaks Japanese. We'll end up lost or swindled or... or robbed and murdered!"

"Yuuri," I can't help but chuckle a little. I turn around again so that I can put my arms around his back. "Many foreigners have fumbled their way through Japan even without the benefit of a Japanese speaking guide. If all else fails I'm sure we can find someone who can help us in one of the five languages we speak between us." I chuckle. "Though I admit my English, French, and German are very rusty at this point."

He turns into me a little and I pull him closer. "Besides," I murmurs against his hair, "you are forgetting that we are very dangerous fugitives. Who would dare to try to swindle us?"

He snorts softly. "Victor, that's not funny."

I chuckle. "I don't know. It's a little funny."

"What are you two doing?"

I lift my head and smile at my little brother as he approaches us with Otabek in tow. He is wearing rough work clothes, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, the oversized pants held up by suspenders. There is soot or maybe grease smeared across parts of both of his cheeks.

"Yuri! You look so manly!" I call.

He glares at me. "You two are supposed to be acting inconspicuous. Being all lovey dovey on the deck is probably not the best way to avoid drawing attention to yourselves."

"Yuri's probably right," Yuuri says and gently pulls away from me. I pout, but dutifully move away to put a little space between us.

"It would be safer if you both just stayed in the cabin," Yuri grumbles.

"But that's no fun. It's two whole days from here to Hakodate. We can't just mope around in that tiny room. It's stuffy and awful."

Yuri sighs and puts his hands on his hips. "This is one of the only ships that carries passengers to and from Sakhalin. You don't know who could be on this ship. Someone might recognize you."

"You worry too much, Yuratchka. What are they going to do? Try to arrest me? Toss me over the side? Go back to Sakhalin just to tell someone they saw me on a boat? We're not in Russia anymore. Once we're in Japan we're free. We're going to be together and we're going to have a good life, just like I promised." I grin at my little brother.

He gives me an unreadable look and then abruptly turns to look out at the water, rubbing the back of his neck. "Yeah, alright."

His reaction seems odd and I furrow my brows a bit. After a moment he glances at Otabek, but the other young man just looks back at him calmly. "I guess we should get back to work. I can't loaf around like you two. Just try not to draw attention to yourselves. Also there's breakfast left in the sailor's dining room. The captain said you can eat there."

I blink at his abrupt exit. "Oh. Alright. We'll see you later. Don't work too had."

Yuuri and I watch him and Otabek head back down the deck. They jostle on another's shoulders playfully and laugh about something one of them says.

"You should talk to him," Yuuri says.

"Hmm?" I look back at him. "About what?"

He smirks faintly as he turns his head to look up at me. "Just... talk to him." He rests his hand on my chest briefly and then takes a deep breath. "Are we brave enough to see what passes for breakfast for the sailors?"

I chuckle. "It can't be worse than some of the food I've eaten in my life."

The day passes rather monotonously and I lament that we can't go up into the upper decks to enjoy the parlor or the upper balcony or even converse with the other passengers. But I know that Yuri is right. Now is not the time to become careless. Not when we are so close.

The sailing doesn't seem to agree with Yuuri much at all. He spends much of the day lying down, and while I don't mind lying next to him on the narrow bunk we are sharing, I find that I'm restless and simply can't sleep all day, so I try to read.

We go back out onto the deck together sometime in the early afternoon, just in time to see the very last glimpses of Sakhalin off the stern of the the ship. Now just a faint grey-green outline, we watch it fade slowly in the gray mist far behind us. I find that I am unexpectedly melancholy.

I hear Yuuri take a shuddering breath. "I think I'm going to go lie down again," he says softly, his voice a little hard to hear.

I reach for his hand. "I'll go with you."

He pulls it away. "No. No, it's fine. I'd... I think I'd like to just be alone for a little while." He pauses and then adds, "If that's alright."

"Of course. Whatever you need, my love." I swallow, unable to deny that him pulling away is hard for me to take.

He looks up at me with a wobbly smile, and I can see that he is struggling to hold back tears. "Why don't you find Yuri? Perhaps there's lunch you can eat together."

I smile back, trying to be reassuring. "Alright. I'll bring something back for you."

He nods and then walks back inside the ship. Taking a deep breath I lean against the railing and stare out at the sea for a long time. My own feelings are unquiet. I had never thought of Sakhalin as Russia, but the further we draw away from the island the more I realize that however much it was not Russia, it was still more Russia than anywhere I am ever likely to live again. Soon I will be a stranger in a strange land, where no one speaks my beautiful language.

I want us to be truly happy in Japan, but I wonder if that is possible. And suddenly I know what I'm supposed to talk to Yuri about. I curse myself softly and push away from the railing, going back inside the ship to find my little brother.

Searching for Yuri gives me a good excuse to go prowling the bowels of the ship. I'm dressed more or less like a worker in a linen shirt and woolen pants, so nobody seems to question my presence. It's even stuffier and closer down in the hold, jammed full of crates and boxes and even pieces of furniture. Some items are obviously Russian others Oriental. It's obvious that the Baikal does quite a good business as both a passenger and cargo vessel.

I find Yuri - and Otabek - sitting on some crates near the back. I watch them for a moment before making myself known. Yuri is so easy with him. He smiles as they talk, swinging his legs over the side of the crate. It reminds me of how he was when he was younger, when we were alone together and would make up stories about our future selves. It gives me a little pang of jealousy. It feels like it's been a long time since he's smiled like that for me.

"I found you!"

Yuri startles and his smile turns into a glare as he looks at me. "What are you doing down here?"

"Looking for you," I say. "Isn't that obvious?"

He looks over my shoulder. "Where's your bumpkin?"

"Yuri, don't be rude," I say with a sigh. "Yuuri is lying down. I think the sea doesn't exactly agree with him."

He snorts at that. "How predictable. Your fragile Japanese flower."

I purse my lips in irritation for a moment, but the expression soften again as I look at Yuri. "I wanted to talk to you about something."

He looks at me skeptically. "What? Are you hungry or something? You can just go up to the dining room."

"No, it's something else." I glance at Otabek. "It's something I'd like to speak with you about privately."

Otabek nods and slides down off the crate.

"B-beka!" Yuri splutters. "You don't have to go just because of him."

I don't miss the fact that he calls him 'Beka.'

"It's fine." He looks at Yuri with a calm smile. "I'll come back in a little while. You should have a good talk." He pats Yuri's knee before walking off between the rows of cargo.

"Well, it's not exactly like this is a private place anyway," Yuri grumbles. "Anyone could hear us back here."

"But probably no one pays much attention, otherwise you wouldn't be squirreled away here with Beka, right?" I say as I sit down on a crate of my own, grinning at him teasingly.

He turns bright red, splutters for a moment and then huffs, crossing his arms. "What do you want?"

I purse my lips again. "Why are you so upset with me?"

He balks at that and then frowns, slouching a little. "Well you're making fun of me, for one thing."

I smile wryly. "Since when has my teasing been something you can't handle?"

"It's not... I just don't know why you're always making a big deal out of everything. You didn't have to come hunt me down. We could have talked later. We're sleeping in the same cabin."

"I just thought it would be good to talk about some things before we get to Japan. While we're alone."

He shifts like he's uncomfortable and rubs the back of his neck again. "Ok fine. What do you want to talk about then?"

I look at him for a moment and then take a deep breath. "I know I haven't been a very good big brother lately. I've had a lot of my own concerns and I haven't given a lot of time or thought to yours. We didn't even celebrate your birthday."

He looks up with an expression of mild surprise. His mouth parts as if to say something, but then he closes it before looking down into his lap again and mumbling. "It doesn't really matter. It's not like I actually know when my birthday is anyway. Other than probably the spring."

"Still. You're sixteen this year. You're really not a child anymore. But even so I always assume you're happy to go along with whatever I want. I never ask about what you want, even though you're an adult now."

He looks up at me with a kind of stunned expression on his face. There is faint color in his cheeks.

"Oh. Well... it's alright. I know you've been having a lot of troubles. The accident and then falling in love and being arrested and then planning your escape. You didn't have a lot of time to think about me. I'm just... glad you didn't leave me behind. I would have hated being there without you."

I frown and nod. "I know that was unfair of me to ask. I'm also glad we were able to stay together." We smile at each other faintly. "I've also been thinking a lot about my feelings on leaving Sakhalin, and Yuuri's as well. It is hardest for him, because it was his home. But I realized that Sakhalin has also been your home for a long time, and that I haven't thought much about your feelings. That's not fair of me."

Yuri twists his lips and then snorts softly, smirking. "I don't care about Sakhalin. I hated that place. Do you know how many times I thought about sailing away and never coming back when I worked on these ships? You were the only thing that made anything about that place a home to me. I never had any friends, there was nothing to do, and everyone was drunk or miserable, or both. I'm glad we're leaving. I dreaded coming back every time."

I feel a wave of relief to hear him say so. I'd wondered if I wasn't taking him away from a home he secretly loved.

"I'm glad to hear that. Once we're in Japan and we're settled with Yuuri's family, there will be lots to do, and there will be young people for you to meet. We'll learn the Japanese language and culture and we'll have a good, happy life there, the three of us together."

Yuri is looking down into his lap now. I can't see his face, but I can see him clenching his hands together, fingers twisting. He mumbles something I don't quite catch.

"What was that, Yuri?"

He looks up abruptly and his face is set with an almost angry look of determination. "I'm not going to live with you in Japan. That's what I said."

I blink at him, dumbfounded. "What... what do you mean?"

He swallows. "I wasn't going to tell you yet, because I didn't want you to make a big fuss. But... I couldn't just let you sit there and blather on like an idiot about our perfect life together in Japan. It's not my perfect life. Maybe you will be happy there with Yuuri, but there's nothing there for me. I don't want to learn Japanese and be an outsider all my life. I don't want to wear those stupid robes and eat nothing but rice and salty shit soup. I don't want... to just be an extra person in your happy love affair."

"Yuri, that's not-"

"Just listen to me!"

I close my mouth and listen, but he doesn't say anything else for a long moment, like he's trying to compose his thoughts.

"I've never had a friend like Otabek. Someone other than you who really cares about me, who likes me and wants to be around me. When we work together it's not even like work. We have fun just talking and joking. He makes me feel like I can do anything. And when we're together we don't even have to talk. We can just... be together and it's fine."

Yuri looks into his lap for a moment and then looks over his shoulder like he's making sure no one is there listening before he continues.

"I don't know if what I feel is just friendship or if... maybe it's something more. I don't feel like I need to hurry to find out. I just know I don't want to lose him." He looks directly at me and his face contorts a little as if the words he is about to speak cause him pain. "Not even for you, Vitya."

My heart squeezes in my chest, and I sit forward, swallowing. "Yuratchka... why... why didn't you talk to me about this earlier?"

"Because I didn't know!" he snaps, and then his race reddens and he looks over his shoulder again. "I didn't know that's how I really felt. Not until... until Yuuri brought it up. He knew somehow that I didn't want to go with you, that I wanted to stay with Otabek. He knew it even before I did. He said I should think about my life and what will make me happy, that... the world is full of possibilities for me." He closes his eyes and shakes his head. "I'd never really... let myself want anything for myself. I always just thought... being together with you would be enough." He sighs and looks at my with a terse purse of his lips, eyes narrowed. "Besides, I thought you would just make fun of me anyway."

It hurts me that he felt this way, not because he didn't trust me with his feelings, but because I know he is probably right. I would have teased him about Otabek. It's my nature, it's how I've always been with him. I wonder if it has always hurt him.

I frown sadly. "Oh, Yuratchka. I'm sorry. I never meant to make you feel as if I didn't take your feelings seriously. What you want in life is important to me. But I only know what is in my power to give to you, and I know it isn't much. You're not a child anymore. And every man wants his own life. Every man deserves his own happiness. I knew that what I could give you wouldn't be enough one day. That's why... that's why I tried to send you back to St. Petersburg."

He nods and sniffles, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his arm. "I know. But that's not what I wanted either."

I take a deep breath, the weight in my chest and stomach grows heavier and I know Yuri and I are heading towards a place as brothers from which we can't return. "So. What is it you do want?"

He furrows his brows and purses his lips and I know he is nervous to tell me. "I already talked to Otabek about it. He'd never said anything about not wanting me to go to Japan or that he wanted to stay together, so... I was nervous when I told him what I was feeling. But..." his face lights up a little as he begins to smile, "no one has ever looked so happy as Beka looked when I told him I didn't want to part with him. He was so excited. He said he'd already thought about things we could do together, that he thought I was becoming a very good sailor. For a long time he's wanted to sail on a bigger ship, a trading ship or a whaler and really see the world. One day he wants to be a captain, have his own ship. He said he thought it would be easy for us to find work on a ship in one of the big Japanese harbors. That we could stay together and... have an adventure."

"An adventure." I say the word and it fills me with a kind of dread I've felt before. The dread of a parent for their child's safety. But I'm not Yuri's parent. I'm not even really his brother. I've taken care of him all this time, wanted what is best for him, wanted what will keep him safe and happy. But I know it is not my right to keep him from the life he wants, no matter how much it pains me. I laugh thinly and then shake my head. "Oh, Yuratchka. You just have to say the kind of thing that fills me with worries like an old man, don't you?"

He purses his lips. "I know you probably don't approve, but you said it yourself. A man has to make his own life."

I laugh again and hold up my hands. "You're wrong. I completely approve, even if it fills me with dread, and knowing you will not be at my side where I can love and protect you breaks my heart."

I get up then and walk over to the crate Yuri is sitting on. I take his youthful face in my hands and stroke back his blond hair, stringy from sweat and dirt. "You are young and strong and so smart, Yuratchka. And I have given you only the barest of lives." I smile at him and my heart is at once filled with happiness and sadness, both terrible in equal measure. "Go and have your adventure. Live the most glorious life you can have."

He makes a choked sound in the back of his throat and his green eyes fill up with tears before he throws his arms around me and buries his face in my chest. I wrap my arms around his shoulders and press my cheek to his hair.

"Thank you..." he whispers into my shirt. "Thank you for... for everything, Vitya. You didn't have to do anything for me. But you did everything without complaint. Even let me go."

I smile softly, glowing with my love and sadness. I stroke his hair. "Only on one condition, though."

He sniffles and looks up at me his expression a little wary. "What is it?"

I smile. "First you and Otabek have to come with Yuuri and me to Kyushu. So that you will know where to come home."

He stares at me for a moment and then lets out a laugh, even as few more tears roll down his cheeks. He smiles at me the way he used to. "Ok. It's a deal."

Hakodate, Hokkaido Japan, Spring 1889 - V.N.

I'm not sure what I expected Hakodate to be like, but whatever it was it's not what Hakodate is actually like.

When we first arrive in the huge harbor I'm astounded by how many ships - Western ships - are at anchor. As the only open port on Hokkaido, merchants from abroad are forced to come here to trade with the northern portion of Japan. The ships fly flags from Russia, France, England, America, and many others.

Yuuri and I stand at the deck of the lower balcony, taking in the sight of this strange, foreign city.

The jetties and piers are full of what might be called junks; smaller vessels move about the harbor, transporting goods and people to the moored ships. It is the most civilization I have seen in nearly a decade and it makes my heart race.

"Yuuri, look at this place." We can see the main street along the harbor. The buildings are a strange mishmash of Japanese and Western styles and the people walking along the piers and the quay wear clothes in many different styles. "It's amazing."

"It's terrifying," he murmurs.

I smile wryly and reach out to stroke his cheek. "Don't be so glum. This is our first step on our journey to... Ha...sasu?"

He smirks faintly and looks at me. "Ha-set-su."

"Hasetsu," I repeat.

"Which is on...?"


"Which is?"

"Japan's most southern island." I grin at him. "See, I have absorbed everything you have told me."

He chuckles, though thinly. "And can you repeat the phrase I taught you in case we get separated?"

I grunt and twist my lips. "Mmm... Kyushu no Hasetsu..."

"E," he prompts me.

"e iki ma su. Ikku nohou-"

"No hou. It's not one word."

I huff and cross my arms over my chest. "Ikku nohou wan an de suka?"

He takes a deep breath and then chuckles as he sighs. "No one but me is going to understand you. Try not to get lost."

I smirk and lean in towards him, murmuring in his ear. "I have no intention of ever leaving your side again."

His ear turns bright red and I grin, feeling I've at least recovered some of the upper hand.

We are the last ones to leave the ship, tendered over to a pier after the other passengers have disembarked. Yuri and Otabek had already informed the captain they'd be leaving the crew at Hakodate and there had been some grumbling, but nobody tried to stop them from leaving.

Once again I'm glad we have Otabek with us. As the only one who has already been to Hakodate a number of times he is able to lead us to a clean, but relatively inexpensive Western style hotel that is often used by travelers staying in the city as they await the departure of their next ship. It's run not by a Japanese family, but a Dutch one, which I find surprising for some reason. Luckily the proprietor speaks a number of languages well enough to conduct his business and we muddle through a reservation for two rooms in English.

"We could just share one room," Yuuri says as we are shown the way down a hallway lit with gas lamps.

"Maybe I want to be alone with you," I say with a wry smile.

He reddens a little at that. "Well... but the cost, Victor."

I chuckle. "Yuuri, I'm not so poor yet that I can't afford two rooms in this kind of establishment for a few days. And one meal a day is included. It's actually not a bad deal."

He doesn't argue any more after that, and once we have put our things in our rooms the four of us meet in the small dining room for dinner and to discuss what happens next.

"There is a Bank of Japan here in Hakodate," Otabek says as we eat what I can only describe as some kind of fish stew. "Tomorrow you can go and see if you can get currency. Otherwise I'm sure there are gold buyers all over the market. And I'm sure we can find someone to buy those guns. Once we have money we can find passage on a ship headed for the south."

"My parents wrote that I should sail to Hakata, also called Fukuoka-ku. From there we can make either overland arrangements or find another boat going to Hasetsu. It's apparently not too far down the coast," Yuuri chimes in.

Otabek nods. "Then tomorrow morning Yuri and I can take the rifles into the market and sell them. Victor and Yuuri, you go to the bank. We'll meet back here once we've accomplished our goals and then go together to the harbor to look for a ship sailing for this Hakata. I've never heard of it, so it's probably not an open port, which means we'll need to look for a Japanese vessel."

We all nod and I feel a palpable sense of relief that we have a plan. We'd been so preoccupied about getting off Sakhalin that neither Yuuri nor I had thought much further. "It sounds like a good plan. For tonight let's just eat and then we can rest."

"Suit yourself. Beka and I are certainly not going to just go up to bed and sleep," Yuri says.

"We're not?" Otabek looks at Yuri with a raised eyebrow.

"No!" he scoffs. "This is my first time in a big city! You have to go exploring with me!"

"Oh. Well if you want, I've been here before though."

Yuri huffs. "Beka. Don't be boring."

The young man snorts and chuckles. "Ok. Yura."

Yuri chokes on his fish soup, almost spitting it out and I try to hide my laughter at Otabek's smug expression behind my hand. Beside me I hear Yuuri laughing softly, too, and it warms my heart to see him at least a little lively.

After dinner we go upstairs as Yuri and Otabek go out into the city. I can't help but be a little worried, even though I know I don't need to be. Otabek will look after Yuri even better than I probably ever could.

I leave Yuuri in the room for a few minutes as I go to ask about the bathing arrangements and when I return he is sitting quietly on the side of the bed, hands folded in his lap, crying softly.

"Yuuri," I say his name tenderly as I sit beside him. "Yuuri." I whisper his name sweetly against his neck before I kiss him, sliding my arms around his waist. "My Yuuri. My sweet, Yuuri."

"Victor, I... I'm sorry..." he whispers. "I sh-should be happy... I... I am happy, I just..."

"Shhh. You don't have to apologize." I kiss his neck again, reaching up to pull the collar of his kimono down, exposing his back and shoulder. I kiss a trail across his bare skin. Yuuri shivers and lets out a shaky breath.

"Ah... V-victor... I don't know if..."

"It's alright, Yuuri." My hands begin to undo his sash. "Love making is also for comfort. Let me hold you close. You don't have to do anything. Just let me love you."

He takes a few deep breaths. "Is it really ok? Even if I'm like this?"

I turn him to face me, cupping his face with my hand, stroking the tears away with my thumb. "We don't need permission from anyone but ourselves to love each other, Yuuri. There is nothing that is right or wrong, unless we say so." I pull his sash away and let his kimono start to fall open. "I want to make love to you. Will you let me?"

He swallows and nods. "Yes," he breathes. His expression, flushed and still tear stained, is utterly beguiling. "Please, Victor. Comfort me. Let me feel something wonderful."

I smile and kiss his cheeks, tasting the salt of his tears. "I will. Let me do everything. All you have to do is feel me close."

We kiss and then stand so that we can fully undress. I touch him, allowing my hands to indulge themselves in the softness and warmth of his body. I love the sounds he makes, the way his pale skin flushes beneath my fingers, how quickly he melts into my touch. It's hard to remember now his shy face, his hesitancy, his reluctance even to kiss me. Or that there was a time I doubted that he loved me.

I want so badly to show him the very depths of my love, to reassure him that we are exactly where we are meant to be. I take my time kissing him lovingly, running my fingers through his hair, holding him in my arms as we sway on our feet almost like we are dancing.

Finally we lie down together, and once on the bed I straddle his hips. As I kiss his neck and lips and coo to him sweetly he doesn't notice as I prepare myself for him. Not until I guide his hand to touch me and he feels the slick oil against my backside does he seem to realize my intention.

"V-victor?" he questions as I press one of his fingers inside with one of my own.

"Let me," I whisper against his lips, my breathlessness as genuine as my aching desire for him. "Please let me."

He breathes against my lips, soft panting sounds, and his response is to press his finger gently deeper. My eyes close and I sigh his name as together we prepare my body.

When I cannot wait any longer I sit up, looking down at him with a flushed and hooded gaze. I push up on my knees and with one hand guide him into me. Never do my eyes look away from his as I take him slowly.

It has been so long. I'd almost forgotten this glorious feeling. My legs shake as if I am some virgin boy. I pull his hand to my chest, pressing it over my heart. I want him to feel how fast it's beating, how hard he makes it hammer. As I seat myself fully, our bodies becoming flush, his fingers curl against my skin. He gazes at me like a man enchanted, his eyes and cheeks still wet from his tears, his thick lashes sparkling.

He is so beautiful. And he is mine.

I move my hips slowly, for myself as much as for him. I want to relish this moment. This first time of having him inside me. Our first love making in this new life together.

Even though I told him I would do everything, he is soon moving with me, making me arch my back and free my voice for him. I want him to know how good it feels. How good he makes me feel. How much I love him.

But I'm not used to this anymore and the shaking of my legs grows worse. I bow down over him, planting my hands in the bedding. My genitals rub against his belly and my insides tighten at the blossom of pleasure. "Hnn!" My brows furrow and my eyes squeeze shut as I gasp in pleasure.

He touches my face, and I open my eyes again. He is looking up at me with wonder. "I never imagined that I could make you make such a face."

I gasp a breathless laugh at that, turning my face into his touch to kiss his palm. "Of course you can. It feels that good to be so close to you. I've wanted to feel you like this for so long."

"You didn't say," he huffs.

I smile against his palm and kiss it again before turning my face back to look into his eyes. "I wanted what made you happy even more."

His face scrunches up with emotion and I see his lips begin to tremble. "Y-you do make me happy, Victor. Anything... any... any part of you... makes me happy... So happy, I feel like I don't deserve it." Tears begin to gather in his eyes again and roll down his cheeks.

I look at him almost sternly, and for a moment my hips still. "You're wrong," I hiss. "You deserve such happiness more than anyone I have ever known. And that I can give it to you..." My words choke off as my throat constricts, my own emotions threatening to overtake me. I close my eyes and drop my head further until our foreheads touch and I nuzzle his wet face with my nose. I swallow down the lump in my throat and manage to whisper, "Being your happiness is my greatest joy, Yuuri."

We gather each other tightly in our arms and cling to one another as we make love almost desperately. Unexpectedly I find him rolling me onto my back, his expression fierce and intense in a way I've never seen before. All I can do is stare at him, dazed, as he takes the lead from me, lacing his fingers in mine and pressing my hands into the bed.

Like this we come together for the first time, but it is not the last of the night. He has a surprising amount of stamina, my beautiful Yuuri.

Later we lie together, both breathless, our limbs entangled.

"Are you feeling better?" I murmur softly and he giggles.

"Yes. I guess I was just... I mean, I have been, overwhelmed by everything. I can't feel at ease. Nothing is familiar anymore."

"Except for me," I tease gently, kissing his nose.

"Except for you," he admits, smiling softly and kissing my chin.

"So, stay close to me, and I will never leave you."

He lifts his head to look down at me, his smile soft and sweet. I brush his sweat-damp hair back from his forehead, stroking my fingers over his ear. "I will. Wherever you are, that's my home now. From now on... I'll try not to be afraid."

We gaze into each others' eyes, and I know we are both, finally, free of our exile.

Hasetsu, Kyushu Japan, Early Summer 1889 - V.N.

The small boat leaves us on a pier in the harbor. It's hotter here than I expected, and after living on Sakhalin for so long, none of us are handling the heat all that well. I want to take my shirt off, but Yuuri says that's absolutely unacceptable. So I satisfy myself with rolling up my sleeves. Meanwhile Yuuri has long ago abandoned his formal kimono for the much lighter yukata he used to wear around the minshuku. It makes me feel a little nostalgic. He fans himself as we stand on the pier.

"Well..." he says looking around, scanning the docks and the beaches. Curious fishermen stick their heads up out of their boats and nets to stare at us. "I guess we'll have to ask someone how we get to my family's onsen," he pants, squinting up into the sky. We'd left Hakata early that morning and it was just now about high noon.

"I can't believe this place is known for hot springs. Isn't it already hot enough here? Who wants to sit in more hot water?" Yuri grumbles, fanning himself with his hand.

Only Otabek seems more or less unperturbed by the heat. "Let's go find someone to ask. No point standing here on the dock."

The four of us make our way down the pier with our sparse belongings, still getting many strange looks from the sun-browned fishermen. I wonder how many foreigners they've seen in this town.

At the top of the pier there is an elderly man sitting on a stump that someone has rolled over. He has the thickest, whitest eyebrows I've ever seen. He surveys us placidly, tapping out a pipe over his gnarled knee. I wonder if he has some kind of formal occupation overseeing the harbor, or if he's just an old man from the town who likes to sit and take in other people's business. I have a feeling it's probably the later.

Yuuri approaches him, calling out and bowing in greeting. The old man just grunts and nods. They converse for a few moments and Yuuri shows him one of his letters from his parents, pointing out their names and the name and address of their onsen. To all of our relief the old man seems to know something; he nods to Yuuri and points to the southeast where the town starts to grow up the side of small mountain. They talk for a moment longer and then as if beleaguered by Yuuri's questions, the old man stands, grunts and motions us to follow him.

"He says he knows someone who can take us there," Yuuri says with a grin, though he looks flustered from the conversation.

The "someone" turns out to be a boy I would guess to be around ten years of age, and from what I can gather has a little racket taking money from visitors to lead them to the onsen. The price is one yen.

The old man seems to explain to him where we want to go, but the little boy keeps looking back at us and gawking, mouth open.

"Why is that brat staring at us so much?" Yuri mutters.

"He's probably never seen anyone with blond hair before," Otabek answers matter-of-factly.

Yuri doesn't respond, but I see him roll his eyes. I smile at the boy and wiggle my fingers at him in hello, but this just seems to frighten him. He looks up at Yuuri, firing off a stream of Japanese, to which Yuuri responds by covering his mouth and trying not to laugh. Once he's composed himself he responds, giving the boy a pat on the head.

Still looking skeptical the boy accepts his payment from Yuuri and then begins to lead the way through the seaside town. It is charming and unlike any place I have ever been. Always close at hand is the sound of the ocean and the soft calling of the gulls. It reminds me a little of St. Petersburg.

Yuuri comes to walk at my side, shifting his pack from one shoulder to the other. "What did our guide have to say that made you laugh?"

He chuckles again and looks up at me. "He wanted to be sure that I was traveling with you of my own accord and that you weren't a group of... demons, I suppose is more or less the right word, who had kidnapped me and were forcing me to take you to my family so that you could eat them."

I snort at that. "You're joking."

He laughs and shakes his head. "I'm not. I think you are the first Europeans he's ever seen."

"We're going to cause a stir, aren't we?"

He smirks as he looks up at me. "Definitely. We're going to have to turn you into an attraction for the onsen. I'm thinking of spreading rumors about you being an exiled Russian prince."

I laugh at that. "If you think it will help. I will be happy to play the part. I certainly have princely good looks." I give him a haughty smile and he rolls his eyes, though he's blushing a little.

"Well... I can't really say you're wrong."

My eyes hood as I look at him. "Mmm... I can't say I would hate being known as Yuuri's Russian prince."

He actually gives me a bashful look and then shakes his head before going back to taking in the town.

The little boy leads us down a road that eventually begins to wind into the mountain the old man pointed at before. The incline isn't too steep, but my leg still begins to ache a little. Yuuri has been rubbing it for me in the evenings on our voyage south, and it is growing stronger, but it still protests now and then. A few times when I have been alone I have tried to dance. It feels stiff and awkward, but it's getting better. Every day I stretch and every evening Yuuri massages the tight, shrunken muscles.

One day, I know I will dance again.

The little boy stops abruptly in front of a gate at the left side of the road. He points at it, calls out to us and then darts beneath it, running out of our view.

"Where's he going?" Yuri asks irritably.

"I think to announce us," Yuuri answers and the four of us pause at the gate. A wooden plaque is placed at the top of the entryway. "Oh. This is it."

I glance at him and don't miss the way his brows are furrowed or the edge of his bottom lip is stuck between his teeth. I reach out for his hand, squeezing. "Are you nervous?"

He takes a deep breath. "Yes. Nervous. Excited. Anxious. I feel a little like I'm going to throw up."

"You're being very dramatic, Katsuki," Yuri grumbles. "Let's go. I'm dying of heat and this bag is heavy."

Otabek places a hand on Yuri's head and ruffles his hair lightly. "Relax, Yura."

We walk under the gate and down a short, broad path that opens up onto an inn yard. It reminds me vaguely of the minshuku, but it's far grander, and so beautifully kept that I feel like I can't take all of it in. The little boy is standing beside the front door, grinning, and there is a short, plump, round-faced woman in a yukata and some kind of jacket standing next to him, peering at us curiously.

Yuuri's fingers tighten around mine.

It takes her a moment, but then she gasps in recognition. "Yuuri!"

Yuuri releases my hand and bows formally. "Okaa-sama. Tadaima"

"Yuuri! Yuuri!" she cries, rushing forward, ignoring all of us except for her son. She pushes his shoulders up and then takes his face in her hands, squishing it in delight. "Okaeri!"

Yuuri blinks at this and then smiles, emotion springing into his eyes. "Hai."

They beam at each other for a long moment and then Yuuri reaches for my hand once more. "She says, 'Welcome home.'"

In case you didn't already realize this is the end of the main story of Love in Exile. There will be a Chapter 10, but it will be an epilogue. Thank you all for reading!

Historical Notes:

1. Japanese burial customs - Today in Japan something like 99% of all people are cremated after their death. However, up until the 20th century, most Japanese were buried and cremation was limited to the wealthy. This is why Yuuri's grandparents are physically buried in the old Oodomari graveyard. Even today it is common for Japanese families to share a memorial stone. It is not necessary for a family member's physical remains to be at that location in order to "visit" them or pray for them at the family memorial. Individuals are often represented by placing sotoba (wooden slats with names written on them) around the family stone. Traditionally family members care for the family memorial and visit at least once a year, which is why Yuuri is distressed that no one will be there to do so anymore.

2. The Soya Strait, also known as the La Perouse Strait, is the body of water between Hokkaido and Sakhalin. It connects the Japan Sea between Japan and Korea with the Sea of Okhotsk between Russia's east coast, Sakhalin, Kamchatka, and the Kurile Islands.

3. Hakodate - In 1889 Hakodate was the largest city in Hokkaido, and the only port on Hokkaido that was open to trade with most foreign nations. It was considerably metropolitan by Japanese standards and had a number of foreigners living and working in the trade industry there. In the spring of 1889 (right when our story takes place strangely enough) Sapporo also opened its port, but only to American traders. Eventually Sapporo would become Hokkaido's capital city as well as its primary trade port. But at the time of this story Hakodate was the place to be on Hokkaido.

4. Kyushu no Hasetsu e ikimasu. Iku no hou wa nan desu ka? - This is what Victor is trying to say. It basically translates to "I'm going to Hasetsu, Kyushu. How do I get there?" It's a pretty simplistic phrase, but Victor is currently struggling with just stringing the right syllables together in the right order. Good thing he didn't get lost.

5. Closed ports and open ports - Prior to 1853, Japan went through a long period of self-imposed isolation, even going so far as to cut off trade with all foreign nations (save a very few exceptions) In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry from the United States - under instruction from American President Fillmore - showed up at the entrance to Edo Harbor (Edo is the old name for Tokyo) and demanded to be allowed in under threat of force. This event lead to trade negotiations and the opening of two ports to American trade ships (Shimoda and Hakodate) and paved the way not only for other Western nations to negotiate trade rights, but eventually the Meiji Restoration/Revolution. Even so not all ports were open to foreign trade, and ships from foreign countries could only visit those ports which were agreed upon in their trade treaties. Closed ports accepted only domestic (Japanese) vessels.

6. Hasetsu location/geography/climate - It's a public secret that Hasetsu in Yuri! on Ice is based on the actual town of Karatsu. So for the purposes of traveling there I just used Karatsu's geographical location for the location of Hasetsu. Kysuhu's climate is considered subtropical with summers in the 70-90s and winters rarely dropping below freezing. After living on Sakhalin, which is subarctic, you can imagine how hot it must seem there.

7. Yuuri's exchange with his mother - Yuuri greets his mother, Katsuki Hikoro, in a very formal manner, bowing and calling her "Okaa-sama," which is a very respectful way to say mother. I felt that Yuuri, in his uncertainty and after not having seen his family for so long, would default to a more formal, stiffer manner of speaking, than we see him adopt in the anime. "Okaa-sama. Tadaima," is Yuuri basically saying "Mother. I'm home." The formal response is "Okaeri nasai;" however, here Hiroko simply and happily exclaims "Okaeri!" as she takes Yuuri's face in her hands. It has the same meaning of "Welcome home" or "Welcome back" but using this informal version and not returning his bow, she has discarded the necessity for formality, expressing the closeness of family and putting him at ease. It's an exchange with a subtle sub-context I want to try to share.