So, it's been a while since I posted anything substantial. Sorry about that; college caught me by surprise, along with computer problems. As usual, I apologize to anyone this offends...although I'm not sure who would be offended, this time...people with a particular attachment to Russian fairy tales? Anyways. I'll stop babbling and let you actually read the story, ne?
Warnings: Male homosexuality, vague traces of heterosexuality, slight swearing...uhm, anything else? Oh, of course, my fumbling attempts at romance. Seriously, if you want something deep and profound and well-written either go somewhere else (maderr and tygati would be a good place to start) or give me feedback so I can write better.
Disclaimer: The fairy tale I adapted here isn't really attributed to anyone as far as I an tell. It's Russian in origin...it, obviously, does snot belong to me. Neither do the words themselves, and certainly not the characters: far be it from me to say that just because I create something, it belongs to me. Nope, they have free will...and in excercising their free will, they will make you very unhappy if you use them without their (and my) permission. This particular story also answers to someone else: it was written for maderr's birthday, because she's an amazing author. If you haven't read her stuff yet...well, what are you waiting for?
"He wants a what?"
"A firebird." Ivan glared at his plate as though it had personally offended him, then stabbed a piece of meat with rather more viciousness than was truly required. "Why? I don't know. Why this bout of avarice is so important that all three of us need to be sent to look for it? I would very much like to know."
"He sent your brothers too?"
"Vassili and Dmitri left this morning." Ivan gave up all pretense of eating and shoved his plate away with a clatter. The sound was swallowed up by the general cacophony of the crowded tavern, just as the hooded fur coat hiding his distinctive blond hair went unnoticed among many stranger costumes. Everyone knew of the tsar's third son and his foreign looks, and while most of the time it was nice to be easily recognizable, right now Ivan just wanted to stew in his misery alone.
"Aw, don't sulk! You'll get wrinkles on your little baby face."
Which his friend was making it difficult to do. Ivan swatted away the hands trying to pinch his cheeks and glared at the innkeeper, who innocently picked up a glass and began to clean it. As good a friend and source of advice as the man could be, he also had too much fun at the youngest prince's expense. After a moment the man spoke, seemingly to the glass. "So the tsar, for reasons unknown wants this-this-"
"Firebird. Right. And you and your brothers have been sent, regardless of whatever else you might like or need to be doing, to go get it?"
"So, one thing puzzles me, my prince." At last the man looked up from his cup.
"Don't call me that. What?"
"Why are you here and not, as instructed, looking for this firebird?"
"And where, exactly, would you suggest I look?" Ivan snapped, ice-blue eyes flashing a moment before he groaned and rested his head in his hands. "Sorry."
"No, no, it was a fair question prince." A moment's thought, and then the man continued. "Have you truly no leads?"
"None. My father claims to have seen this bird, and yet has given us a description that is little more than myth and legend. The entire thing is folly. I cannot chase down and capture a story!"
"Peace, prince." The innkeeper patted the dejected young man on the shoulder. "If your father said he has seen it, you ought to trust his word. This bird must then exist. There are legends…"
"Aye, legends." Ivan snorted derisively, and the older man frowned at him.
"And in your twenty years you've seen enough of the world to judge fact from fiction, have you?"
"Indeed." They were silent for a moment, as the innkeeper finished with the glass and replaced it on the shelf. He regarded Ian steadily for a moment and the prince gazed back, used to being scrutinized as something that came with his looks and his position. Eventually, his friend shrugged. "I'd say go south."
"…you do know that everywhere is south of here."
"Smart-mouthed brat." The inkeeper smacked him lightly on the back of the head, then tugged him to his feet. "Off with you now…the sooner you start your search the sooner you'll be done, no?"
"There's one way of looking at it…truly, though, thank you. Peace be with you."
"And you, my prince."
"Don't call me that." And then Ivan had disappeared out the door and into the snow.
"He who goes straight ahead will freeze and starve. He who goes left will keep his life but lose his horse. He who goes right will die, but his horse will be spared." Ivan read out loud, dismounting from his horse to study the crude wooden sign staked at a three-way crossroads. He was several days' journey outside the boarders of his homeland, and this was the first sign he had seen of anything at all out of the ordinary. Of course, just because this sign was odd didn't mean it was connected to the firebird, but it was the closest lead he had so far.
Now, the three options. Starving and freezing didn't sound pleasant, and he didn't intend to lose his life in this quest if he could possibly help it. So the left fork seemed to way to go…but this foolish quest certainly wasn't his horse's fault, and it didn't really seem fair that it should have to die for him. Ivan paused a moment in thought, then went back to the animal and unloaded his belongings from its back, strapping his sword to his waist and shouldering his pack. "It was nice traveling with you…get!" The loud shout was accompanied by a sharp smack on the horse's flank and the animal reared in surprise before whirling and taking off back the way he had come. Now at least it had a chance. Ivan hoisted his pack a bit higher on his back and turned down the left fork in the road.
Several days later, Ivan was reaching the conclusion that the sign had been a joke and he'd been rather stupid to give up his horse. The cold and traveling must have been getting to him, for him to believe that sign! Why, some mischievous child had probably spent ten minutes of effort on it and then skipped home not giving it another thought.
But as dusk began to fall and he began to look around for a place to build a fire and stop for the night, out of the bushes loped an enormous gray wolf, easily twice the size of any other Ivan had seen. The prince reached for his sword, but it wasn't needed; instead of attacking the wolf sat down on its haunches and spoke in a mid-tenor, dignified voice.
"The sign was truth. No adventure without suffering, Prince Ivan…and now your horse's life is forfeit." It looked up, took in the sight of the horse-less prince, and blinked. There was a slightly awkward pause. "…what have you done with your horse?"
"I lost it already." Ivan replied mildly. That once again seemed to stymie the wolf, who stared at Ivan for a moment longer and then grumbled "Cheater."
"Why? After all, I've lost the use of my mount, which was presumably the intent. There's no reason to kill a blameless animal, and the word 'lost' can mean 'misplace' just as easily." Ivan argued, although he was trying hard not laugh at the sulky tone.
"What are you, a lawyer?" The wolf was definitely sulking by now.
"No, I'm a prince."
"I don't care." With one more glare, the wolf turned tail and disappeared into the bushes.
"Wait, how is it you can…speak…curses." Ivan glared at the spot where the wolf had been and at the now completely innocuous bushes. "I didn't even get a chance to ask him about the firebird." Still, a talking wolf probably showed that he was on the right track.
Ivan was starting to notice a pattern when, three days later at dusk, the wolf once again appeared on the road. And glared at him as though he was personally making life difficult for it, which Ivan found rather rich considering that he was the one tramping through the countryside on foot. The wolf just stared at him for a moment and then recited in what was obviously a practiced speech "I am sorry for the loss of your horse, Prince Ivan. I shall aid you in whatever quest you have undertaken…" Its voice tailed off and Ivan could have sworn he heard a muttered "cheater" before it continued "Hop on my back; I shall take you wherever you wish to go."
"Did I stutter?"
The two of them stared at each other for a moment, locked in a stalemate of incredulousness and annoyance. Finally Ivan slowly explained "You are an oversized, talking wolf who has just asked me to climb on your back with no discernable reason, motives or explanation. Are you seeing anything at all out of the ordinary about this scenario?"
There was another long silence. Eventually the wolf sighed and appeared to concede the point.
"…all right, shall we start over? I'm obviously a magical creature, obviously bound under a geas, and obviously can't tell you about it. Pleased to meet you."
Ivan blinked a bit, then replied, "Pleased to meet you. I'm obviously a prince, and not quite as obviously on a quest, and not at all obviously have been sent to find a firebird and bring it to my father. And I still don't quite trust you enough to climb on your back, but any sort of advice or directions you can give would be welcome."
Another long pause. Finally the wolf sighed and appeared to give in.
"Fine, follow me then if you refuse to ride."
"Wait, you know where the firebird is?"
"Obviously." The wolf turned and began to trot through the snow, not waiting to see if Ivan would follow. Which the prince did, scrambling to catch up and grumbling, "You like that word too much."
"This is it?" Ivan frowned at the palace, the tops of shining towers and bare-branched trees visible over the walls. "This is where the firebird is?"
"Obviously." If a wolf could smirk, this one would be doing so. Ivan rolled his eyes and replied dryly "Yes, of course, obviously. Any ideas on how to get inside?"
"Yes, actually." The wolf quickly grew serious as Ivan listened intently to his instructions. "The gates will open at midnight for the change of the guard; slip inside then. You'll find the firebird in the centre of the gardens, sitting inside a golden cage. Remove it from the cage without touching anything other than the latch—you understand? Touch nothing but the latch. Then bring it back here."
Ivan nodded, and the two sat down to wait until nightfall. At precisely midnight, the gates to the palace swung open, and Ivan slipped inside. Silently he stole through the gardens, starting at every noise, certain that it was guards that had come to arrest him. As he neared the centre of the gardens, a golden glow began to light up the night, until suddenly there it was; the firebird, sitting in its golden cage and preening its feathers. It was exactly as his father had described it; like a peacock in form, but with feathers of pure, shining flame. Gold, red, orange…was that a hint of blue as well? Ivan merely stared for a moment, before venturing closer, amazed that the bird emitted no heat. Carefully he lifted the latch of the cage and swung the door open, carefully he lifted the bird and drew it towards him…but the bird gave a little shifting jerk, Ivan's hand jerked to compensate for it, and his arm jolted into the side of the cage.
At once alarm bells rang out all over the garden, followed by the drumming of many feet. Before Ivan could even think to run he was surrounded by armed guards and hauled before the king.
"The disgrace of it! The son of the tsar, sneaking into my palace by night like a common thief! If you had but asked for the firebird as tribute, I would have gladly given it," Here Ivan had to force his face to remain blank, as it badly wanted to twist into a skeptical expression. He doubted this king would have done any such thing. "but now, you must pay a thief's penalty!" There was a moment of silence just long enough to raise all sorts of horrible ideas in Ivan's mind as to what that penalty might be…and then the king spoke again. "There is a palace, a week's ride from here. In that palace there is a horse with a golden mane, the swiftest horse alive. I want it. Bring it to me, and I will give you the firebird." Ivan was struggling not to laugh even as he was escorted out of the palace. Being a thief was dishonorable…except when it was useful, of course. His levity faded when he saw the wolf waiting for him, however.
"…you don't have the firebird."
"I gave you amazingly simple instructions, prince."
"I know, all right? There's been a small problem. We need a horse with a golden mane now."
"…you're an idiot."
Two weeks later
"…you don't have the horse."
"Do you know how hard it is to control a rearing horse without touching the saddle or reins!?" The wolf sighed exasperatedly, but in the way that Ivan had learned meant he was giving in and wasn't really annoyed anymore.
"…what do we need now."
Ivan winced slightly. "Uh. We need a certain princess, who lives in a palace a month's journey away."
"A princess." That tone of voice, Ivan had learned, meant he was going to be getting 'you're an idiot' looks for a quite a while now.
As long and arduous as the month of travel was, Ivan had to admit that he wasn't necessarily sorry. The days were long (as he still refused, more out of principle than anything, to ride on the wolf's back) but at night when they stopped to rest he and the wolf would sit around the fire and talk. Their conversations ranged over every topic imaginable, and always lasted until Ivan, too tired to formulate words anymore, allowed himself to fall asleep. When he woke in the night, troubled by shifting dreams just outside the edge of sight, he always saw the wolf watching him, silver-grey eyes glowing in the firelight. Far from unnerving him, it was rather comforting. And so, Ivan was almost sorry when the wolf announced that on the following morning, they would reach the Princess Helen's palace.
"Now, Ivan. What are you going to do?"
Ivan glowered, disliking being treated like a child, but repeated the instructions anyways. "Go into the palace. Request an audience with the princess, posing as a merchant. Lure her out into the gardens, meet you there, run when you say run. Don't screw up this time."
"Oh, shut up."
"That's so fascinating! Where did you say they were, again?"
"In the gardens, princess." Ivan knelt before Princess Helen, noting that he could see why the king had wanted her—she was very beautiful. Not that he really wanted to be a party to kidnapping and forcing her into marriage, but what other choice did he have if he wanted the firebird? Besides, the princess looked positively delighted at a chance to get out of the palace; even as she waved away her maids and retainers, she was practically skipping with glee. If she was that bored, perhaps she wouldn't even mind being kidnapped that much. At least being married to a king would give her a hand in the ruling of a kingdom…Ivan courteously offered her his arm and she latched onto with a deathgrip, making him falter slightly before he kept walking.
The grey wolf was waiting for them in the gardens, and the princess gave a little shriek and skipped hastily backward. "What…what is that?!" Her grip on Ivan's arm was now tight enough to cut off blood circulation, and he tried completely unsuccessfully to tug his arm away. Ouch, pain.
"Princess, please calm down…if you cooperate with us and come quietly, you won't be harmed." Ivan glared at the wolf, as all that statement served to do was send the princess into a fury. "I won't be harmed anyways, you-you creature! You!" More pain in Ivan's arm, so he assumed that meant him. "You're a prince, you can use a sword, kill it before it eats me!"
"You told her you were a prince?!?"
Ivan was woefully confused by now, but the princess's yells had to be stopped before the guards arrived. "Princess, please, calm down! He won't hurt you!"
"Promise it won't touch me or I'll scream for help, and my father will cut off your heads!"
"I promise, I promise, please calm down!"
Instantly the princess stopped flailing and smiled sunnily at Ivan "Good. Now, where are we going?" she chirped. Ivan stared in disbelief and a bit of disturbance, while the wolf just growled in exasperation. "We need to go. Now."
"Not until you tell me where we're goooing!" the princess positively sang. Ivan grit his teeth, but anything he could have said was forestalled by the now-familiar sound of guard rushing into the gardens. Argh! He was going to be captured again, simply because the things he was trying to steal just refused to cooperate!
"Ivan. On my back, now!"
The prince hesitated for one moment as the last shreds of his distrust wavered and died, then swung himself onto the wolf's back and hauled the princess with him. She cried out—he was glad it wasn't a shriek—and latched onto his back as the world suddenly became a blur of motion and speed. There was wind whipping past his ears and making his eyes sting, and yet somehow above all that came the voice of the grey wolf; "Stop the female from screaming like that or I will do something drastic." It was probably rude to laugh. That didn't stop Ivan.
"But you're my True Love!"
Ivan sighed and ran a hand through his hair, pointedly not looking at the tree under which the wolf sat, his tongue lolling in unmistakable amusement. Unfortunately, that meant he had to look at the Princess Helen, who clasped her hands and looked pleading.
"How can you just hand me over to another man? I love you, Prince Ivan, I will pine and die without you! How…am I perhaps not good enough? Oh, I knew it! I'm too ugly for such a prince as you!" And she began sobbing. Ivan rubbed at the beginnings of a headache, and tried to think.
He knew he was fairly handsome; fine features, clear skin, a good build improved upon by tutoring and training. But he was certainly not stunning, and not even truly one to stand out in a crowd, although his pale hair was unusual. He didn't buy the 'love at first sight' tactic even for a moment…it simply made no logical sense. This was a princess, and almost all of them were much, much smarter than they appeared. There was probably a school or a handbook of some sort that taught them all the myriad ways to make sure they were underestimated.
Helen must have read something of his thoughts on his face, for suddenly the tears stopped altogether. Her head came up with a practiced flick and her features were suddenly cold, sophisticated and utterly royal. There was the face that was hiding underneath the mannerisms before…Ivan wasn't sure it was a good thing that he'd let it out.
"Very well, Prince Ivan. What do you demand in return for not giving me to that…man?"
Ivan sighed. At least this was less taxing than the protests of 'true love.' "You see, the problem is that I can't see how to avoid it. Trust me, I would be more than willing to spare you such a fate. But I need the firebird. If you can think of a way around the bargain I've made, I'll take it willingly." A tiny voice in his head made a few feeble protests about honour and keeping his word. Ivan made it a rule not to listen to that voice if he could possibly help it—it spoke up at all the wrong times. Sure, it was wrong to renege on bargains…but when those bargains were forced while his life was being threatened, did he really have an obligation to hold to them? Well then, that was settled.
"Ivan, why must you overcomplicate things?"
"Oh, here to give your input at last? Thank you for all the help before." The prince glared at the wolf, who looked completely unaffected.
"Then I suppose my solution to your little dilemma is of no interest to you?"
"Ah, no, I didn't say that!"
"Good." Ivan jolted in surprise as the voice that answered was not the wolf, but Princess Helen's. Standing there in the clearing were two identical women, one smirking rather smugly and the other staring in disbelief at her double.
"Why didn't I know you could do that before?"
"Because I didn't tell you. Obviously."
And that, it seemed, was that.
"I cannot believe you said that." Ivan moaned into the hands covering his face. "Why would you say that? That was not in the plan."
"We needed a distraction." The wolf, no longer in the guise of the princess, looked distinctly smug as he padded beside the prince. The real Helen, seated comfortably on the horse with the golden mane, was laughing so hard she was crying.
"You accused to him of-of…"
"Something that's quite probably true."
Ivan groaned again and tried to erase from his mind the chaos in the court after "Princess Helen" had calmly filed for divorce on the grounds that her husband-to-be was impotent. "We needed a distraction to get away. We didn't need that."
All he got in reply was a completely unrepentant snigger, and another gale of laughter from the princess.
The same strategy, although slightly less dramatic, gained them the firebird without their having to part with the horse. Ivan felt a little guilty about that, too…but who had been blackmailing him into the stealing things in the first place? Those kings deserved to be tricked. And he had to admit that the princess, seated on the horse with her arms around the firebird's cage, was a lovely sight. He would have felt bad to separate them…even though he had no idea what he was going to do with her and the horse once he got back to the tsar's palace. Perhaps his father would adopt her; that would make sound political sense. Or one of his brothers could marry her, if she wasn't adverse to the idea? That, too, would gain them ground politically.
"What on the earth are you thinking about, with that kind of look on your face?" Ivan blinked and then smiled down at the wolf.
"Just…what will happen when I get home. It seems odd to be done at last, after so long."
"It wouldn't have been nearly as long if you had just listened to me the first time." But the familiar complaint was half-hearted, as though the wolf's thoughts were elsewhere. "What will you do when you return home, Ivan?"
"Go back to being a prince, I expect." Really, there was nothing wrong with that. Most of the time, Ivan liked being a prince well enough; helping people, organizing things, stopping stupid people from causing problems. But sometimes he was sick of even the word 'prince', longing for someone to just call him by his name, for once.
He'd miss that, when this journey was over.
Speaking of which… "What are your plans?"
Silver-grey eyes flashed in surprise once, and then the wolf turned his muzzle away, his voice carefully neutral. "I have none. I will return to where we met and wait for the next traveler…as this thrice-damned geas requires." There was a snarl in the last words. Ivan had nearly—no, completely if he was going to be honest with himself—forgotten the geas. It had been part of the whirl of confusion and mistrust in the first few days, and had fled his mind afterwards.
"You can't tell me anything about it? …is there a way to break it?"
"I cannot say." The wolf growled, the tone of his voice making it very firmly clear that this conversation was over. And though Ivan wanted to ask more, what was the point when he knew the wolf couldn't tell him? Frustrating, that was what it was.
Even more so during the next few days, when Ivan found himself resenting any interruption that cut his talks with the wolf short. He had only a few more days with him and there were things to talk about, but the world simply seemed to enjoy getting in his way. Mostly in the form of Princess Helen, who had decided that she no longer hated Ivan and likewise didn't fear the wolf. With customary strong-mindedness, once she had made her decision she proceeded to boss both of them around without remorse, paying no attention to Ivan's reproachful looks or the wolf's aggravated growls.
Thus it was much, much too soon when they reached the point where Ivan and his 'prizes'—a phrase that made Helen glare every time they were referred to as such, which was probably why the wolf employed it—would continue into his own kingdom, and the wolf would return to his crossroads, to await the next questor. Helen had 'gone to groom the horse, his mane is so beautiful that it shouldn't be allowed to get tangled'…an excuse that translated rather un-subtly into 'giving you privacy'.
"You have to leave." It was more of a statement than a question, but the wolf replied anyways.
"I do. This damned geas."
Ivan paused a moment before asking the next question, but he'd never before stopped his mouth from getting him into trouble so why should he now? "…if you didn't have the geas, would you stay?"
"Yes." The answer came so swiftly that his breath caught for a moment in surprise and pleasure. "You're a good man, Ivan, if a bit of an idiot" a wolfish grin at that, tongue lolling "and I'm glad to know you. I'd be a fool myself to throw away your friendship." And somehow that meant more to Ivan than all of the tribute and fawning he'd received as son of the tsar combined.
"I will miss you." The wolf nodded slightly, and Ivan started in surprise as he felt his hand nudged for a brief moment by a furry muzzle. "And I you. I doubt we'll meet again; one questor, one quest. But I won't forget the only one stupid enough to lose his horse before I got there. Peace be with you, Ivan." And then he was turning and loping away, grey fur stark against the whiteness of the snow until he disappeared into the trees.
"Ivan!" He looked up at the call and started in surprise, making Princess Helen tighten her arms around his middle from where she rode behind him. His brothers trotted through the woods, their warhorses' hooves much louder than the horse with the golden mane's. "Ivan, it's been months, where have you…you actually found the firebird?!"
The bird chose that moment to send out a shower of sparks, making Helen gasp a bit and hold the cage away from her until they fell hissing into the snow. Ivan rather enjoyed the expressions of surprise on his brothers' faces as they took in the horse, Helen, and of course the bird they'd all been searching for.
"Vassili, Dmitri, allow me to present Princess Helen the Beautiful." Apparently that was her official title. Ivan hadn't been willing to question when she informed him of that fact; it would only lead to one of her quelling looks, or possibly a lecture. "Princess, these are my elder brothers." He dismounted and offered Helen a hand down as well, grinning when his brothers did so too. He was glad to see them; even before the quest, they were often out and about doing who-knew-what, while Ivan remained mostly in the palace or the surrounding town. He wished sometimes that his bond with his elder brothers was stronger…especially in the wake of the loneliness that had plagued him since the wolf left.
Both of the princes' eyes were fixed on Helen, although they darted glances at the firebird and the horse occasionally. Ivan was glad that they seemed so struck with her; it made it likely that one would eventually marry her, and although she was rather too fond of taking charge of him, he found he enjoyed her company. Having her live in the palace as his sister-in-law would be nice.
Ivan didn't resist when Vassili put an arm around him and led him off a ways into the trees; he assumed his brothers would want the story of how, exactly, he'd come to be in the possession of the firebird and the horse and be accompanied by Helen. The odd light in his brother's eyes didn't register, and even if it had he wouldn't have through much of it.
"Vanya." Ivan blinked in surprise. He hadn't heard that nickname since he was a very small child. "You're planning to bring these prizes home to father?"
"…of course. He asked for the firebird, and I was thinking—"
"Exactly. He asked for the firebird. Now, we'll let you bring father his bird. That will please him, won't it? But don't you think it's fair that we have something to bring home too? Give me Helen. Dmitri will take the horse. Then we'll each have one trophy, eh?"
"…what?" Ivan just gaped for a moment, too surprised to muster a coherent reply. "I…Vasya. That's idiotic." Perhaps not the most well-chosen words, but he couldn't come up with anything the more accurately expressed his feelings on the matter. "What does it matter who brings father what? As for Helen, I was assuming you or Dmitri would ask for her hand at some point, but I can't just give her to you. That…what is wrong with you?" The shock was fading, and the first few tinges of irritation and even anger were making themselves known.
"Ivan. I'm going to ask once more. Be reasonable about this."
"You be reasonable! Because at the moment you're being a fool, and certainly not acting as befits the son of the Great Tsar!"
"So be it." Ivan's eyes widened at the shriek of surprise and fear echoing back from where they'd left Helen, and then Dmitri came swiftly through the trees. "What…what did you…" He jerked in surprise as his brothers grabbed him, one to each arm, and his eyes widened in fear and sudden, horrible realization.
"V-vasya? Dima, don't do this! Why…?" He didn't get more than a stunned protest out before he was slammed brutally into a tree. He shook himself and tried again, but any words were cut off by a fist being driven hard into his stomach…coughing and choking, Ivan at last tried to fight back, but by now it was far too late; it was two against one, and his older brothers were stronger and faster than he. He could barely shield himself from the worst blows, and he was tiring…at last Vassili landed a hard blow to his chin, snapping his head back. His head hit the bark of the tree with a sickening crack and he blacked out…when he came to again he was shirtless and tied securely to the trunk, his body aching fiercely. His brothers, Helen, the horse and the firebird were nowhere to be seen.
The wolf was almost back to his sign and crossroads when he felt the now-familiar twinge of the spell, tugging at him. Never had he had more cause to hate this curse on him, but when it called he was still compelled to obey. And now it seemed to be…pulling him back to where he had left Ivan? Why would that be, if his prizes were won and his quest complete?
The wolf paused at that, then sighed. Really, why was he surprised? Ivan had a skill for attracting troublesome situations that was almost impressive, in a twisted sort of way. With another sigh that was not without fondness, the wolf turned and began to trot back the way he had come.
He knew something was wrong when he saw the crows circling. His easy lope sped up into a run and he was panting, tongue lolling out of his jaws slightly when he finally reached the tree. And there was Ivan, his arms wrenched backwards and tied to the trunk, his head dangling, bruises and cuts and blood all over and the birds hovering closer and closer. He wasn't moving.
"Ivan…? IVAN!" Never had he wanted a human form (complete with opposable thumbs) more than at this moment. All he could do was shout until the prince lifted his head slightly, before it flopped back down to his chest. But at least the prince was alive. If he'd had a human form he would be shaking with fear and rage and distress…but the wolf form didn't understand those kinds of emotions, and remained unaffected by his mind's turmoil.
A crow chose that moment to land on Ivan's shoulder, dark eyes bright and avid. The wolf growled, a guttural, angry snarl, but the bird merely hopped a bit and tugged on a piece of Ivan's hair with its beak.
'This is our prey. We were here first, and are merely waiting for him to die.' Its eyes informed him, from behind the fall of pale gold hair.
"Get away from him or I swear I shall leave no crow alive in this land, from the ocean to the mountains and beyond." The bird flapped agitatedly at the pure fury vibrating in his voice, and sprung into the air in a flurry of wings when he stalked a step closer, snarling all the while.
"Wait." It obeyed, something about the tone of voice leaving it no other choice. "Cut his ropes with your beak."
"K-k-k-k!" The crow cawed in agitation but obeyed, and Ivan slid to the ground. The wolf was beside him in a moment, nudging him with his nose to try to wake him. Eventually ice-blue eyes opened, blurred with pain and exhaustion, and the prince managed to speak through a throat scratchy and parched.
"Ivan, who did this to you?" He thought he already knew, and perhaps this wolf form wasn't so bad after all, suited as it was for hunting down and tearing apart princes who would dare turn on their own kin like this. The emotions were sleeting again, relief and anger and still some fear and more anger and concern…
"Dima…Vasya. …m'sorry…" Anger and affection won prominence among the emotions, and he had to get past one or two false starts before he could speak.
"What are you apologizing for, you idiot?" A faint smile was his reward for that. Then Ivan had to go and be an idiot and try to actually sit up. "And what exactly do you think you're doing?"
"Gotta…stop something. Bad. Wedding. Yeah."
"You're not going anywhere. We're getting you some water, and food if I can find something, and then getting you clothing because you're going to freeze to death like this." It was true; Ivan's shirt hung in tatters and he was already shivering with cold.
Once Ivan was recovered a bit thanks to water, food and clothing 'borrowed' from an unoccupied hut, they were able to search the area. The search turned up Ivan's sword and cloak, thrown carelessly aside, and the unmistakable tracks of horses heading towards the palace. And he churned again with mingled fear/worry/anger when he saw how Ivan's eyes immediately focused on the tracks, how he looked as though he would go after his brothers the moment he thought he could stand.
He couldn't let him do that alone. But now that he was no longer truly part of the quest, his curse was tugging him back to the crossroads. He was NOT leaving…but he had to find some way to stay.
Ivan looked up from contemplation of the tracks to find the wolf watching him consideringly, and he remembered that he'd forgotten something very important. "I just realized that I never thanked you, not really…thank you. For saving my life." He broke into a smile at the snort he got in reply, which said much more clearly than words could 'if you would stop getting into these situations, I wouldn't have to save you, but you're welcome'. He knew it wasn't a very good smile—he was cold and in pain and angry and still in shock that his brothers would do such a thing to him—but what mattered was that his wolf was always able to get him to smile, no matter how bad the situation.
"Ivan…do you trust me?"
Odd question. Frightening question, as his brothers' betrayal still stung…but the answer was still obvious. "Yes."
"Would you do anything for me?"
Another frightening question…and this time the answer, rising to his lips almost unbidden, frightened him as well. "Yes."
"Will you promise that? Promise to grant me one request, right here and now, no matter what it is, without asking why?"
Ivan frowned at the wolf, unable as usual to read anything in his face. Whatever these questions were leading up to worried him…but he did trust his wolf. Completely. And if that was foolish, well, he'd done a lot of foolish things recently, chief among them trusting his brothers. "I promise."
The wolf exhaled a long breath of air, then lifted his muzzle and spoke the words Ivan would remember for the rest of his life. "Then take your sword, and cut off my head."
He felt his world shatter into pieces—his emotions and stability and mind crack and break apart. He was vaguely aware of gasping out something, probably 'what?' He couldn't think, couldn't breathe, and was slightly worried that he might faint. He couldn't do this. He couldn't not do this…and he wanted so badly to ask why but he couldn't do that either. All he could do was breath in short, sharp gasps and stare at a world gone remote and strange. Then the world came rushing back in, and he was standing with his sword in his hand, staring at the wolf who stared back calmly.
"Don't make me do this." It was a desperate, broken plea as shock and panic warred for prominence within him. The wolf merely looked at him, his eyes calm and almost serene. "Leave the body where it falls." was all he said. Ivan could feel tears stinging his eyes but held them back for now, as he raised his sword with arms that shook. He paused once more, still staring into silver-grey eyes, then swung the sword down swiftly.
Ivan took one look at the blood splattering the snow, and turned around as his stomach rejected all of its contents. Tears splashed down his cheeks as he rinsed his mouth out, unable to look at the body. Shock was an almost comforting numbing as he cleaned his sword and fastened his cloak before setting off following his brother's trail and trying to muffle his sobs.
Ivan's legs felt like lead, an expression he had never before truly understood. He knew how vitally important it was to get there on time, to stop his brothers and save his kingdom…and yet, all he really wanted to do was sit down and cry and cry and never stop. His wolf. His magical, sarcastic, enigmatic, beautiful gray wolf who his own hand had destroyed. How was anything else supposed to matter?!
Still, it was a relief when the woods began to thin out and the palace came into view. Ivan managed to speed up his sluggish steps as he made his way through the corridors, and by the time he reached the doors of the throne room was almost running, exhausted as he was. With a shove they banged open, every head in the room turning to stare as the wedding ground to a halt. His brothers looked stricken, their pale faces in stark contrast to their red-and-gold finery but almost matching Helen's pure white wedding gown. The tsar, the firebird in a cage beside him, had half-risen to his feet but froze at the sight of his third son. The last strains of music faded away as even the musicians stopped to gape at the prince returned from the dead.
The princess reacted first: with a deft twist of her arm she jerked away from Vassili and pointed dramatically at Ivan, crying out loudly to the entire assembly "That is the man who won me!" As Ivan numbly climbed the steps to the dais she threw her arms around him with a strength she certainly shouldn't possess and proclaimed firmly "He, and no other, shall I marry!"
"What?!" Ivan's outraged exclamation went unheard in the general chaos following her pronouncement, as did Helen's fiercely whispered reply. "Shut up and let me handle this!"
He didn't have much choice: everything was moving so quickly, his father's shouts for order and quiet barely rising above the hum of speculation and amazement. Finally his father had to order someone to ring the great bell that was used to announce important events, and then there was silence. And into the silence Helen spoke, telling the entire (severely edited) story and finishing with "And I refuse to take any husband other than Prince Ivan, who won me fairly and this kingdom as well and whose brothers' treachery should not be tolerated!"
Every head in the hall turned to Vassili and Dmitri, who stood stricken for a moment before rallying their defenses. "Father. Surely you understand what foolishness this is? The woman is weak-willed, easily swayed by flights of fancy. Perhaps she finds Ivan more to her tastes than me, and so has concocted this story to obtain her desired husband…she has no proof, for while it is obvious poor Ivan has suffered much, how could you assume we are the cause of his suffering? We would never harm a hair on our little brother's head."
The tsar looked from his two eldest sons to his youngest, who was by this time being liberally supported by the princess. "Ivan?"
Liars. They're lying. That's not true. She's right. Come on, say something! But his voice seemed frozen. He was so tired…everywhere ached with a bone-deep weariness, coupled with the pain of injuries, his skin scraped raw both from his brothers and the tree he'd been tied to. And…his wolf. His wolf was dead. He couldn't…couldn't focus…the throne room was wavering in front of his eyes and he just wanted his wolf to come and help him as he always had before…
"Your sons lie, great tsar."
Once again, every head in the hall swiveled to stare at the doors and the figure who strode through them. Ivan nearly fell over trying to whirl around and see.
He knew it couldn't be who he thought it was, he knew that…but that voice…
Outlined against the setting sun and framed by the doors, the figure seemed almost like a portrait or a statue. Dark hair fell in waves down his back, black as a raven's wing. Though swathed completely in an enormous fur cloak, the figure was tall and solidly built—obviously male despite the long, feminine hair. What was holding the room speechless was his eyes, however, set below high brows and right now snapping with fury and intensity. His thin mouth twisted slowly into a sarcastic smile, taking in the dumbfounded assembly as he made his way to the dais. His face was aristocratic, but with an almost feral edge that no sheltered nobleman could manage. And the voice. A voice from beyond the grave, Ivan reminded himself sternly, because he had seen his wolf die.
"I know that your two eldest set upon your youngest out of jealousy and malice. I know that they beat him, tied him to a tree and left him for dead, making off with the prizes he rightfully won. I knew that he endured these hardships, escaped, and weary and injured as he was still made his way here in time to protest this grave injustice. Do you doubt my words?"
How anyone could was beyond Ivan. Although to be fair, standing up on his own was getting to be pretty far beyond him too, and the princess couldn't bear his entire weight and look haughtily regal and offended for much longer. Ivan was quite interested, in a fuzzy about-to-pass-out sort of way, to see which she would sacrifice; him or her dignity. He vaguely registered the king saying something about guards as the man approached the throne, but no one moved…
"Ivan." And oh, the way that too-familiar voice said his name hurt and Ivan shut his eyes so that he could pretend for a moment that instead of this strange, handsome man it was his wolf standing there. "Ivan, look at me." He wanted to resent the command in those words, the way his eyes opened almost without his consent, but he was too hurt and too tired and too…
"Oh…" The word was little more than a breath of air as Ivan found himself staring into silver-grey eyes that were without a doubt, without any explanation his tired mind could come up with but unmistakably, those of his wolf. "It's…you're…"
A smirk twisted pale lips and Ivan thought he saw the echo of a wolf's muzzle. "Obviously." Ivan's breath caught on a half-laugh half-sob and as he flung himself into the man's arms he was fairly certain he was crying, but all he could bring himself to care about were the arms that came up around him and the realization that somehow his wolf had come back to him.
"You absolute bastard! I thought you were dead! If you ever, ever do anything like that again I will—!" Ivan's shouting died off as he was apparently unable to come up with a threat severe enough to suit his purposes. His pummeling of the other man's arm, however, continued unabated until the man laughed and caught his hands.
"Unconscious to furious in under a second…well done, Ivan." A glare elicited another laugh from him, though his next comment was serious. "And I promise. Never again will I put you through pain like that. I wish it had not been necessary the first time."
"Why was it?" Ivan attempted to sit up, but a glare made him lie back quickly and meekly accept the bowl of soup handed to him. He was still tired, although nothing like the bone-deep exhaustion of before. A day's rest in his own bed, only just now disturbed by the former wolf, had abated most of the harm done by cold and weariness.
"The curse. Its conditions were fairly simple; I was bound to the wolf form, to the crossroads and to fulfill the conditions of the sign. If someone kept going despite the hardships, I was to help him fulfill his quest and then return. I could tell no one about it or its conditions, or that it could be broken."
"By cutting off the head of my wolf form. Of course, nothing with curses is that simple…though that was the only condition I knew, I was sure there had to be others. I figured that one of them must be that it was done willingly, and another that it not be done out of malice or a desire to harm me, because those would make it more difficult to fulfill. It took me until you broke it to figure out that last condition; I had to want the curse broken for reasons other than just to be free of it."
Ivan ate his soup in silence for a while, digesting that explanation. "So, is this your real form, then? Not a trick, the way you imitated Helen and the horse?"
"Those were illusions. This is me as I was born and as I am. The wolf form is an alternate form, more real than an illusion but not my original one."
Too complicated. Ivan wasn't going to try to understand that right now. His head hurt, not to mention the rest of him, though the soup was doing wonders to warm him and fill his stomach.
"I'm sorry if this sounds blunt, but who are you? …I don't even know your name."
That smile again. Ivan wasn't sure if it unnerved him or not…he knew he'd never actually seen it before, not on a human face, but the emotions that went with it were so stunningly familiar. Amusement-exasperation-sarcasm-fondness; after all, his wolf never just felt one thing at a time. "Not going to wait until we're properly introduced, Your Highness?" Ivan glared at that, violently disliking the sound of his title on the former wolf's lips, and the man relented with a laugh. "My name is Andrei. I once had a title as well, but it is for all intents and purposes irrelevant now."
"Why is that?" Ivan inquired, resisting the urge to test the name out, to see how it sounded on his lips. Andrei.
"A minor nobleman's title granted almost a hundred years ago? It would have long since been erased or reassigned. And I forfeited the rights to it when I stupidly fell victim to that curse in any case." There was a snarl in those words that Ivan recognized, and as Andrei explained how his dabbling in magic had led to the unfavorable attention of a witch and so in turn to the curse, the prince's eyes kept picking out more small signs that he hadn't been mistaken, that this man really was his wolf.
Unfortunately, Ivan had no idea what that meant. He'd thought his wolf dead and had despaired. That was shameful to admit, but even looking back Ivan could not condemn the reaction. Somehow in a few short months he'd realized that his life was lacking something vital without Andrei as a part of it. As a wolf, that role had been clear: protector, advisor, friend, and mystery. As a man? Presumably all but the last would be the same. So why did something feel unfinished?
"Taking the weight of the world upon yourself again, Ivan."
"Just figuring some things out."
"Heavens help us if you're trying to think. You know that never leads to anything good."
Ivan snorted with laughter as he attempted to sit up again, murmuring thanks when strong hands supported him until he could do so himself. "I'm not injured badly, am I? It feels like nothing worse than a few bruises and cuts."
"The exhaustion, cold and dehydration were the worst of it. We thought you might have a cracked rib, but it turned out just to be bruised." Andrei's eyes went a cold, flat grey and Ivan shivered a bit at the pure fury in them. "No lasting harm done…luckily for those two spineless cowards."
"…what happened to them?" He wasn't really sure he wanted to ask. "Did you do something?"
"If I had, could you honestly say that they didn't deserve it?!" That was better. Outrage was safer than the kind of cold, hard fury he'd seen before.
"They're my brothers, Andrei." The name still felt odd on his lips. "They made a mistake, but they're still family."
"No, actually, they're not." At Ivan's startled look, the other elaborated rather smugly. "Your father disowned them the moment he knew what they'd done, and banished them from the city." Ivan didn't know what to say to that. 'Good, I didn't really want to see them again'? 'Good, I hope that means you didn't hurt them'? 'I bet father feels terrible, I should go assure him it's not his fault'? 'I can't handle all their work on my own'? And then something struck him and he realized he did know what to say, after all.
"He disowned them?! But…I don't want to be tsar!" That made Andrei break into hastily-muffled laughter, and it really was not fair that that softened the lines of his face and made him even more handsome with the loss of the severity.
"Do you really not want to? I thought you enjoyed helping rule the country?"
"I do! But…" Ivan sighed, feeling foolish, and his last comment was muttered, not intended to be heard by anyone but himself. "I'm never going to get anyone to call me by my name now." He looked up to see Andrei watching him, and realized he probably hadn't been as quiet as he'd thought.
"I like your name." Ivan blinked in surprise, both at the comment and at the odd, intent look on the other's face. "I'm not inclined to switch over to calling you 'highness' or 'prince' or even 'tsar', not if you don't want me to." That intent look was a lot closer than it had been. When had that happened? When had his breath started coming so shallow and fast, as well? "Ivan. Vanya." He hadn't shivered at the way his name was said, Ivan tried to convince himself. He had just…something that wasn't a shiver but might be mistaken for one by unobservant people. Right.
He could feel Andrei's breath on his cheek now, light little puffs of air. Something—his survival instinct, maybe?—was screaming at him not to look into his eyes, but he couldn't seem to help it…and then silver-grey was swallowing him alive, he was drowning (and why was that a romantic phrase, when it felt like he was choking and suffocating and sinking?) and Ivan panicked.
"I…I-I-I like women!" He had quite possibly never sounded more childish in his life than he did at the moment, Ivan reflected. The fact that he had all but plastered himself to the headboard of the bed in order to 'run away' probably didn't help matters. Surprise and then hurt flickered over Andrei's face, and he frowned, covering the hurt badly with annoyance.
"Really, Ivan. Contrary to what you may believe, I can handle an honest rejection. There's no need to lie about it."
"…how would you…?"
"Ivan." There was actually amusement colouring Andrei's voice now, and really, only his wolf would laugh at a time like this. "You had Helen the Beautiful profess her love for you and beg you to marry her, and you treated it like a mild annoyance."
Ivan considered arguing that point. After all, that didn't really prove anything, did it? She'd been lying, for one thing. He was opening his mouth to remind Andrei of that fact, but the other spoke before he could get a word out. "Far be it from me to tell you your own feelings, however. If you don't…reciprocate, then say so and we won't speak of this again."
Ah. Well, that meant he had to shut his mouth again and actually think. Ivan tried to go about this logically, because if he didn't then he was going to descend into stunned shock and that wouldn't be helpful. Trying to read what Andrei actually meant from his words was completely pointless—when he wanted to, his wolf could be aggravatingly enigmatic. As it was, Ivan had no clue why he was doing this. And he couldn't even begin to comprehend the consequences; what his father would say, what Helen would say (and really, she'd been rather too prepared for that declaration of her intent to marry him, what was she up to?), what the court would say, whether it would invalidate his position as heir or if he'd just need to find some way to ensure the succession, what would happen if it didn't work out and why that thought sent stabs of terror through him…
"Ivan." Heavens, he loved the way Andrei said his name. "You're over-complicating things again."
Ivan thought rather sulkily that he was not, but still let the babble of confusion in his head die off. Somehow, all of that seemed a little…peripheral. Maybe he should just think about what he actually wanted?
And when he thought about it that way, everything was all so wonderfully simple.
He lifted his head so suddenly that he surprised the other man, and caught a glimpse of his unguarded face. Uncertainly, apprehension, affection, disquiet, even a little fear all flashed starkly there for a moment. It was that reassurance that this really did matter to him, that how Ivan chose did make a difference and he honestly did mean what he'd said, that gave the prince enough courage to lean forwards and press their lips together. It was a short kiss, nothing really more than a brush of lips, but when Ivan drew back his wolf looked completely stunned, making him grin.
"You're right; I was overcomplicating things. I'm an idiot. Sorry?"
Slowly, an answering grin grew on Andrei's face and he slid an arm around the prince tentatively, as if he thought the other might object. "Well, I obviously chose you for your looks, not your intelligence."
Ivan laughed, leaning into his hold and tilting his head up to receive another kiss. "Obviously."