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The Ghost with the Hammer in His Hand

Chapter Text

The day’s first red-gold shadows fell heavy and long through the high windows onto the gym’s lone figure, stationed at the heavy bag. Feet firmly rooted, each punch was a sharp pulse from hips to fist that ended in a dull, solid thump, the slow rhythm just shy of regular. The familiar force of the impact echoed through each bone and muscle in the boxer’s arm, down into his core. Yuri’s blond hair hung stringy in front of his face, strands slipping out of place a little more with each solid blow to the bag.

He didn’t hear when the door to the gym swung open, like the room clearing its throat. He didn’t hear the hard-soled footsteps as they tracked in a cautious, measured rhythm across the concrete floor, just barely faster than the hits against the bag.

The two shadows fell across each other even though the man who had just come in had stopped a good two yards from where the heavy bag hung, hands folded in front of him. The slow rhythm of the punches stopped abruptly. Both still, the only sound in the room was the heavy breathing of the wire-muscled blond man planted by the bag. The other man sighed quietly.

“Yura, did you sleep?” he asked, his deep voice caught somewhere between apology and pity.

“Beka, don’t,” the fighter’s voice rasped softly through his heavy breath. He didn’t even attempt to turn around as he spoke, instead steadying the bag by wrapping his arms tightly around it, cheek pressed to its side. “After tonight, let’s end this.”

Yuri woke suddenly, frantic and tangled. The deep rumble of his zeyde’s snoring across the room kept its steady rhythm as Yuri caught his breath and settled back into the sofa that served as his bed, a thin film of sweat clinging nervously to his skin.

When he was younger, his grandfather’s snoring had infuriated him. Yuri would kick his grandfather in the night until he rolled over or woke up or made it stop in some way, then yell at him again over tea once he’d finally awakened and made his way downstairs into the bakery the family owned. That was before the nightmares started, before there was any reason for them. He still barked at him over the counter about it as they shaped loaves together in the weak pre-dawn light, Yuri deftly weighing out the hunks of dough as his grandfather’s practiced hands pulled and twisted them into shape, working almost entirely off of muscle memory. He could tell the older man knew Yuri’s heart wasn’t really in his complaints, but had enough respect for his pride not to call him on it. For as much as they talked, there was little that actually needed to be spoken between them.

He kicked the sheets out from where they had wound themselves around his body and resettled himself on the sofa, trying to match his breathing to the slow drag of the snoring from across the room.

Blood and broken glass. His dream. The floor had been covered in blood and broken glass. The bottles hadn’t been filled with blood before they’d hit the ground, but the amber liquid inside had melted into scarlet as the room shook and the bottles fell. It was more or less the same every time. Yuri couldn’t see himself, but he could feel his body freeze as the bottles flew in every direction in a slow, eerie silence. He ached and struggled to reach out, but nothing would respond. Not even his own body. Not even his own voice, swallowed whole in the thick of it. Zeyde was a motionless lump on the floor, a heap of stained clothing identifiable only by his beard. There were three other figures that Yuri knew, with the absurd gut certainty unique to dreams, to be his mama and his sisters, Miri and Lena. There were others - there were always others - but they were just part of the sum total of the damage, without faces now if they’d ever had them.

Yuri drifted away, and then there was nothing. The dream always had the same basic shape. The predictability never made it any easier, at least not until he woke up, until he was certain that his family was safe. All it meant was that Yuri knew what was going to happen as he watched, frozen in anticipation of each blow he was powerless to stop.

He’d awaken, the sheets wrapped around him, alongside the strangled, soothing rumble of his grandfather’s snoring. The silhouette of the fire escape ladder reached across the floor, as if its steps led through the window, across to the sofa where Yuri lay.

In the dim light, Yuri could just barely make out the time on his grandfather’s prized wooden clock sitting on the mantle across the room. It was a little past three-thirty. The first fingers of autumn chill reached in through the windows. He twisted in his bedclothes trying to get comfortable again, but the nervous jitter that had crawled under his skin refused to settle. He turned again, facing the back of the couch.

Yuri hadn’t been there when it happened. He’d only ever seen the one photograph that was published in the newspaper, stark black and white. His father hadn’t even really been in the photo. In it, he was nothing more than one of the faceless heaps left to be a number in the headline rather than a name anywhere in the article: 7 Dead in Speakeasy Shooting. His family refused to speak of the incident, even throughout the week of mourning that followed it. He’d been left to fill in the color and the detail for himself.

He finally gave up and rose from the couch. Dawn hadn’t yet begun to crack, but it wouldn’t be that much longer until he and Zeyde had to make their way downstairs to start working through the day’s loaves, anyway. If Yuri couldn’t sleep, he might as well squeeze in some roadwork before things got busy. He dressed for his run, trying to step as lightly and quietly as he could out of the room.

The curled shapes of his mama and his sisters rested silently across the big bed as he peeked into the dark bedroom. Yuri winced a little to see them cramped together, then eased himself out towards the door. They deserved more than this, more than three rooms and one bed above the bakery, he thought as he left the door open just a sliver.

It was darkest close to the door, and Yuri had to put on his running shoes almost entirely by feel. They deserved more than this, he thought as he slipped out into the dank, empty quiet of the street and began stretching out the tightness still lingering in his arms and legs.

They deserved more, he thought as he settled into a steady, even pace towards the towering steel bridge that loomed a few blocks away.

“You look so tired, tsigele. You’re going to make yourself sick practicing like this,” Yuri’s mama scolded as he wrapped up a few sandwiches to take uptown with him to the gym. He rolled his eyes, but last night’s aborted sleep tugged at the corners of them the same way it sat acridly in his stomach. He was sure that she could read it on his face as plainly as she could read the ledger on the counter in front of her.

“A little, but I’m fine, mama,” Yuri said, a sharp sigh punctuating his words as he bit back a longer response. “Really.” He knew better than to argue with her on something like this, but if he played it quiet, he might be able to get away with leaving before she noticed.

“Papa told me you were up before him again this morning,” she said, her voice taking on an accusatory edge that cut sharply into the rein he had on his temper.

‘Again’ what? You know I can’t just cut practice. You want them to think I’m lazy?” Yuri demanded, the words spilling out before he could remember he was trying to hold them in. “You know it’s not bad like it used to be. It’s been weeks since I’ve been up before him. You know that. And months since-” he finally caught himself, breathing before trying to shove words between them, before she could ask any more questions that would only prod at old wounds. “I’ll be back by dinner, I promise,” he added, his voice steady and soft again.

“Won’t you at least try to catch some rest before you go out?” she asked.

“I love you, mama,” Yuri said in place of an answer, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek before slipping back from the counter towards the ovens at the rear of the bakery. He set his sandwiches down on the counter and slipped off the plain white apron he’d been wearing since before dawn. He wiped at the fine coating of flour that clung to the skin of his arms and the downy blond hairs that grew there, but it was something of a lost cause so he gave up and dropped the apron in the hamper on top of the one Zeyde had already deposited there before heading upstairs.

As the screen door out the back of the bakery slammed behind him, Yuri saw the sleek, orange-striped cat that lived and worked part time at the bakery slinking across the alley.

“Ks, ks, ks,” he clucked softly, trying to pull the cat’s attention as he squatted down on the dingy concrete of the alleyway.

“Hey, Buster,” Yuri said in the soft voice that only surfaced in the cat’s presence. Buster continued in the opposite direction for several long strides, tail high in the air, before turning back and trotting languidly towards him. He wound around his legs, rubbing his face against the knuckle that he was offered. If Buster belonged to anyone, it was Yuri.

He had been a damp, lanky thing when Yuri had first found him, yowling from under a vegetable crate where he had gotten trapped in this very alley. It had been maybe a month after his family had moved in with his grandfather, little more than a month after Yuri’s father had passed. Buster had been a little too big to be called a kitten in good conscience at that point, but everything else about him pointed in that direction.

Buster looked taken aback as Yuri yawned where he squatted, the bag of sandwiches slipping from his lap.The cat leaned in to inspect the bag, looking incensed as Yuri grabbed it back up and away from him.

“Fine,” he said as the cat strode past him towards the back door of the bakery. Yuri picked up his bag and pulled the door open just enough for the cat to slip inside. He grinned quietly as his mother yelled off a string of curses in Yiddish, presumably as the cat ignored her direction. She’d softened somewhat on the cat, but never quite warmed to him. The feeling was largely mutual.

Buster had been too stunned or weak to run away after Yuri had freed him from the crate that first day. He’d fetched some bits of meat to feed the cat, who allowed Yuri to handle him ways he still never tolerated from anyone else. Yuri had spent a good two or three weeks sneaking table scraps out to the alley for the cat before he’d gotten caught. But by that point, the stray was already Buster.

If it had occurred at almost any other point in time, the standoff between Yuri and his mother over the cat would have likely dragged on far longer. Yuri’s mother was livid that he hadn’t been eating as much as she thought he’d been: she’d been greatly distressed by the way her son’s appetite had disappeared after his father’s death and was encouraged by his sudden enthusiasm at the dinner table. She blamed the cat, loudly, for both her son’s bony body and his deception.

But Zeyde, who saw his own relationship with the cat as strictly professional, also quickly saw how much more it meant for Yuri at that point in time. Yuri, who had eaten like a bird and hidden silent like a mouse since he’d moved in. Zeyde had made some comment about how he’d had rodent trouble in the bakery lately, and how a good mouser might be just the solution.

Buster held up his end of the bargain, for what it was worth.

Yuri slipped upstairs into the apartment to grab his gym bag and willed himself not to sit down. The exhaustion in his body had its own sort of gravity that pulled at him as he walked past the chairs at the kitchen table, down the short hall into the sitting room where he and Zeyde slept.

The apartment was silent as he retrieved the bag from the wardrobe, save for the usual hum of the street drifting in through the open windows. Miri and Lena were still at school, and Zeyde must have taken off for his afternoon chess game already. Yuri rested his hands on the back of the couch, his weight falling on them more heavily than expected as his tiredness tried to pull him prone. The heaviness of his own body felt almost foreign. He still hadn’t quite gotten used to the weight of the muscle the last few years of training had built up on his compact frame. He wasn’t used to that weight feeling like it was working against him.

It would be so easy to fall asleep right now, he thought as the weight of his body tried to betray him by pulling him towards the sofa. Unlike the night time, unlike last night, Yuri had never had to worry about nightmares sleeping during daylight, even when they had been at their worst. For now, easy sleep was a luxury not available to him. Especially not now.

With a deep breath Yuri pushed himself up, slung the bag over his shoulder and strode outside with heavy steps to go catch the streetcar uptown.

The streetcars weren’t particularly crowded this time of day. There was even a seat available as Yuri got on and he debated taking it. Most days, he would have been right on it, but sitting down seemed like a losing proposition today.

Betting against gravity is always bad money. Yuri snorted under his breath as the words he’d heard his grandfather say so many times ran through his head. He used to repeat the phrase through giggles when he was younger like it was the best joke he’d ever heard. The idea seemed so obvious as to be absurd. Of course gravity always won.

The absurdity of it had worn off some with age, since Yuri had discovered too many ways that gravity could pull at him for it to be quite so funny anymore.

Normally, he got off about ten blocks before he got to the Y and ran the rest of the way to warm up but today he clung to the handrail inside all the way to 92nd, leaving him only a block or so to walk. A steel blanket of clouds had slowly crept in across the sky as he’d made his way here from the bakery. The rain hadn’t fallen yet, but it seemed only a matter of time before it did.

Yuri scowled down at the sidewalk as he approached the tall brick building. As long as the weather was decent, he could ride home on the back of Otabek’s black Indian. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t ride on the back of the motorcycle in the rain, but Otabek wouldn’t let him unless Yuri had no other way home. Especially today, it seemed like it wouldn’t be worth the argument. Maybe the rain would blow over by the time they were done and it wouldn’t even be a question.

The gym was quiet as Yuri changed and made his way out of the locker room. Yakov was barking directions at a group of younger boys, an assortment of the usual after-school crowd, as he put them through their paces with conditioning work. A part of him was relieved not to see Viktor yet as Yuri started stretching.

Viktor’s career had expanded past what the gym at the Y could offer years ago, but he still returned a couple days a week out of loyalty to the place or maybe just to Yakov, whom Viktor described as a better father than the one god had given him whenever he got the chance. Yakov winced a little every time he heard his star pupil say it, but never contradicted him. In all honesty, it was probably true not just for Viktor but also for any number of the boys who had come through this gym. Yuri wasn’t inclined to say it, especially not like that, but he couldn’t deny that he might be one of them too.

If this were anywhere but New York, boxing would have taken Viktor somewhere bigger by now. But New York being what it is, the fights had come to Viktor from all sorts of places. Yuri had even heard rumors of a match in the works for Viktor against Christophe Giacometti, the current lightweight champion out of Switzerland, for the title.

Since Viktor had started working with Yuri and his friend Otabek more closely in the last year, he’d snuck them into a couple of his fights through the back. Not that Mama or Zeyde knew about that. Yuri’s mama barely tolerated his boxing as it was, but so long as he kept up with his work at the bakery and out of other trouble, it would be difficult to come up with reasons to keep him away from such a highly respected Jewish institution as the 92nd St. Y. Anywhere else and he probably wouldn’t be so lucky.

Yuri was stretching up against the wall when a shadow crossed his own on the floor. He recognized it as Otabek before he even turned around.

“You gotta stop trying to sneak up on me, man,” Yuri grinned as he turned around. Otabek just smirked in response, his thickly muscled arms crossed in front of him. A large part of Yuri was relieved to have seen him first. Otabek got to practice when he could, but his construction job meant he was liable to be just about anywhere in the city on a given day.

“You’re here early,” Yuri continued. “Thought I was going to be stuck alone with the old man for a while before you got here.”

“Job today was uptown,” Otabek shrugged. “I came right from work. You already warmed up?”

“Nah, just got out here a few minutes ago myself. I must have just missed you in the locker room.”

“Race me to a hundred then?” Otabek asked, a playful spark in his dark eyes.

Davai,” Yuri smirked and dropped to the floor with almost reckless speed, Otabek just a fraction of a second behind him. Yuri could feel the exhaustion melting out of him as the muscles in his arms began to sing with warmth, at the reassuringly familiar sound of Otabek counting under his breath in his native Bukhari just across from him while he muttered out his own count in English.

Their push-up races were always close. Otabek carried more muscle mass, but the extra power it offered was offset by the added weight, which meant it was a liability as much as it was an advantage. Some days it was just a matter of whose job had worked them harder before making it to practice, some days it just came down to timing.

Yuri wondered sometimes what it must be like for someone like Viktor, for whom practice was the whole of his day’s work. Yuri got a taste of it once a week, since the bakery was closed on Mondays, but to have the kind of lightness that came from so few responsibilities each day seemed an unimaginable luxury.

Fifty-one, fifty-two. Otabek had started pushing himself up high enough that he was clapping at the summit of each push up. Yuri could feel the dark eyes on him like a challenge. It wasn’t even really a question. The bastard knew he’d follow suit. Even as Yuri thought that, a tiny smile crept into the grim determination that lined his face.

Tiny beads of sweat had already begun collecting on Yuri’s brow as his count climbed into the eighties, pace unrelenting as he pressed his body through the exercise. Yuri’s push ups were sloppy at this speed even without the clapping and he knew it. He’d never put up with this kind of form if he was working out on his own, but he’d never try to do them this fast, either. There was something about the heat that coursed through his body and the way it synced up with Otabek’s own exertion so close that felt like electricity. Yuri couldn’t quite make out where Otabek was in his count as his breathy voice continued, close enough that Yuri could feel Otabek’s breath as the words puffed out along with it. Not that he’d understand anyway if he could hear him, but he could tell their counts were close.

Ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety- Otabek grunted out one hundred just before Yuri could, the two of them both breathing hard as they collapsed onto the ground. Otabek rolled onto his back, arms resting lightly across his middle as he worked to catch his breath. A giggle escaped Yuri where he lay flat against the cool concrete of the floor, resting his face on his hands, eyes trained on Otabek, their faces both flushed. And then they were both laughing, though neither could say precisely why.

“You asshole,” Yuri grinned, which only made Otabek laugh harder, curling up and rolling onto his side as he continued breathing hard.

“What are you even doing lying down here, you bums!” Yakov scolded from halfway across the room, the wild laughter having finally caught his attention. They sat up quickly, trying to wipe their shit-faced grins onto the back of their hands.

“Sorry if we actually enjoy ourselves at practice, alter cocker,” Yuri spat back as he pulled himself to his feet.

“You can’t talk like that in front of the boys,” Yakov hissed.

“Like they’ve never heard it before,” Yuri said, setting his hand on his hip.

“With you around, they certainly have,” Otabek snorted as he pulled himself upright.

“You’re supposed to be on my side, asshole,” Yuri barked.

“Yuri!” Yakov bellowed as Otabek snickered under his breath.

“Fine,” Yuri sighed with a roll of his eyes. “You seen Viktor yet today?”

“Not yet. He’s usually in by now on Thursdays, but you know how Viktor is,” Yakov said with a dismissive tilt of his head. “Maybe he got caught up with his other... people across town.”

Yuri grunted in acknowledgement. He supposed he should be used to this by now. Viktor may have been the best lightweight fighter in New York or maybe anywhere at that point, but it didn’t change the fact that he couldn’t keep to a schedule if it was nailed to him.

“I guess Beka and I’ll just work on conditioning shit or whatever until he gets here,” Yuri said quietly as Otabek wandered back from the equipment racks with a medicine ball.

“Language, Yuri,” Yakov repeated loudly. Yuri sighed in annoyance.

“I could yell it next time,” Yuri said more aggressively over his shoulder as he walked to meet Otabek.

Without even discussing their next move, Otabek sat down on the floor with the ball and Yuri sat down across from him, setting his feet between Otabek’s. As opposed to their breakneck-speed push ups earlier, they quickly settled into a synced rhythm as they began running sit ups with the medicine ball, passing the heavy ball between them with each repetition. The breath, the rhythm between them became the whole of the room for that time. Yuri could almost feel the movement of Otabek’s body before he saw it, as if the movement itself formed a physical connection between them. Yuri felt a strange twinge of satisfaction each time his eyes met Otabek’s right where his muscles tightened to curl his torso forward towards him.

“You two look plenty warm,” the voice interrupted.

Yuri dropped the med ball between their feet to look up at whoever was talking to them. “You’re late, old man,” he said.

“There were certain things that were,” Viktor paused and inhaled audibly before continuing, “unavoidable.”

“You’re still late,” Yuri said. Viktor shrugged in response.

“You’ve found productive ways to keep yourselves busy,” Viktor said with a smirk Yuri couldn’t quite decipher.

“Whatever,” Yuri said, leaning forward to rest on his knees. “So what’s the plan for Saturday?”

“Meet up in Brooklyn near MacArthur around 6?” Viktor said. “That won’t be a problem, right?”

Yuri shook his head wordlessly.

“Try and eat something light before you head out, maybe 3 or 4 o’clock,” Viktor continued. “You won’t want a full stomach for the fight, but you also don’t want to be completely running on empty. I mean, you know the deal. It’s not really all that much different than the amateur tournaments you’ve been through. It’s just later in the day, you know? We’ll have some real dinner once it’s all over. On me.” Viktor smiled with all the ice-eyed reptilian grace he could put together.

Yuri nodded and hoped it looked casual as his stomach churned, his lips pulled into a thin line. He hugged his knees a little more tightly and looked over at Otabek, who was curled around the medicine ball in his lap. Their feet remained where they had set them for their partner sit ups, legs staggered between each other’s.

Yuri had been the one who had ultimately asked Viktor to find him a bout - to find both he and Otabek professional bouts - but he couldn’t help but feel like he’d been steered in this direction by something else. He didn’t think it was Viktor and he was sure it wasn’t Beka, but he couldn’t say for sure what it was outside of a thought haunting the back of his mind as he laid back on the gym floor.

“Alright, well, we already wasted enough time waiting around for you today,” Yuri said, trying to cover the nervous twitch that was growing inside him as he sat up. “Let’s get to work.”

Chapter Text

Loop around the thumb, around the back of the hand to the wrist. A lot of boxers spaced out while their trainers wrapped their hands before a bout, but Otabek had always preferred to wrap his own. Something about the process, the thick-woven cotton defining each part of the hand, the pressure anchoring his awareness there, made him feel like his hands were a fluid extension of his thoughts.

From the wrist around the palm. The first time Otabek had wrapped his hands to box had been not long after his bar mitzvah, just about the first and the last time he’d wrapped his arm and hand to pray. He thought about it every time he wrapped his hands like this. If he’d started boxing just before instead, he suspected he might have felt a more personal connection to the event rather than it feeling like a visit to the past, to another country that never quite claimed him as its own. The purpose was the same, after a fashion: connect the body with the mind, connect yourself to a longer memory of people going through the very same motions. To remind yourself of the strength that is always with you.

Under the thumb, then a series of Xs that wrap in between each pair of fingers and back under the wrist after each one. Otabek hadn’t told his family where he was headed before he left, giving them a story about meeting up with Yuri and some other friends to head over to Coney Island for the evening. He wasn’t sure why he felt the need to invent a larger group of friends for their benefit. His parents liked Yuri quite a bit, even if conversation between them was cumbersome at times, given Yuri’s weak Russian and his parents’ weak Yiddish and English. Yuri frequently sent Otabek home with day-old bread from his family’s bakery, and always sent him home with a challah on Fridays. Otabek’s mother sometimes asked why he didn’t invite Yuri to dinner more often. He couldn’t fully answer the question himself, the same way he couldn’t say why he felt the need to maintain the illusion of a larger social circle to his family.

Around the palm, across the knuckles. Otabek was clear about why he had carefully lied about where he was going. His parents barely tolerated his boxing when it was at the Y a few nights a week, as long as it didn’t interfere with his day job or the accounting classes he took on the other evenings. Otabek got the sense they hoped he’d grow out of boxing, or at least out of having time for boxing, even if they wouldn’t say that in so many words. They had a plan for him, one they had bled for, and it did not involve boxing, no matter how well it paid.

Alternate between wrapping wrist and palm until wrap is spent. It wasn’t just the prospect of the money, though he’d definitely thought about all the ways his family’s life could be easier with just a little more: the little luxuries that had been out of the picture since before they’d left the last scrap of USSR left to them. They’d been unseated three times just in Otabek’s lifespan, both by the Tsar’s guards and by Soviet forces, before leaving entirely to start over in New York. Otabek had been eleven when they left. He remembered the terror of leaving in the middle of the night, but it seemed like little more than a distant nightmare, the way his grandparents’ garden in Bukhara was a distant dream. He’d spent more of his life in New York at this point than anywhere else. His parents’ dreams for him were much like his memory of his grandfather’s roses.

Yuri said the money was enough for him, but Otabek didn’t buy it. He’d spent too much time watching Yuri’s face in the ring to believe that was everything. Some piece of it seemed inescapable.

Otabek was still having trouble identifying himself with the sight of his own name on the poster out front of the stadium in Bay Ridge where the fights were being held. Even sitting in his trunks in the locker room, wrapping his hands, it didn’t seem quite real.

His and Yuri’s fights were at the beginning of a slate of three. Viktor wasn’t fighting that night; instead he was there to act as their coach and manager of sorts.

Otabek’s opponent was an Italian kid up from Philly named Crispino. Viktor had fought him before. Southpaw, hell of a left hook. Viktor had knocked him out in the eleventh round.

Yuri was paired with a Thai fighter no older than Yuri himself who had apparently caused quite a stir when he’d arrived in this country. The kid hadn’t lost a single one of the string of fights that had met him in San Francisco, even a couple against guys in weight classes above his. This was his first fight anywhere on the East Coast. They’d had him training over in Jersey since he’d arrived like he was some kind of secret, so no one here knew any more about this Chulanont kid than they had read in the papers, outside of the brief glimpse of him they’d gotten at weigh-in.

“Hey, asshole,” Yuri said blithely, waving his own wrapped hands in front of Otabek’s face, breaking his concentration. Otabek swatted at him playfully as Yuri bounced from toe to toe in his gear in front of him, practically vibrating with nervous energy. Behind him, Viktor stood quietly, his face taking on a rare, unguarded softness.

“So they actually figured out you’re one of the boxers, I see,” Otabek said playfully and this time Yuri actually did punch him in the arm, though it lacked any of the real power he was capable of.

“Come on. Let’s go peek at the crowd,” Yuri said, reaching his hand out to where Otabek sat on the wood of the bench, his blue eyes brilliant with excitement. Otabek chuckled under his breath, perhaps despite himself as he clapped their hands together, fingers clasping around the stiff cotton of the hand wrap, and let himself be pulled up from his seat.

“Actually, if we could take a moment, I have a few people I want you to meet,” Viktor said, as the lines in his face tightened somewhat, his eyes training across the gunmetal tones of the room, back towards where they’d come in.

The camera flash hit them right as they made it through the door, leaving Otabek temporarily blind and blinking for a moment as his eyes recovered from the shock. The metallic smell of the flash twisted in his nose with the compound scent of sweat and tobacco smoke that drifted in from the arena.

“You can wait to ask,” Otabek heard Viktor scold someone in a loud whisper as his eyes began to recover from the shock. “These are my friends I was telling you about. They’re going to to say ‘yes’ to you.”

“Sorry, force of habit,” Otabek heard a new voice say in apologetic, lightly-accented English as his sight regained enough clarity for the speaker to become more than a vague silhouette in front of him. The photographer was a slender, slightly flustered-looking East Asian man in loose-fitting black trousers and a plain, dark blue shirt, his hair smartly combed back above his glasses. His camera swung gently in front of his chest as the puff of white smoke from the flash dissipated. He could feel the man’s eyes scanning over him inquisitively in a way he’d generally learned to put up with, as he tried to sort Otabek out by sight alone.

“You must be Otabek,” the photographer said finally.

“Because I don’t look much like a Yuri?” Otabek retorted flatly. The photographer finally cracked a tiny smile through his flustered surface.

“Oh, I don’t know. Do I look that much like a Yuri to you?” he asked with a coy flick of his eyebrow, swapping his flash lamp to his off hand so he could extend the other towards him. “Yuuri Katsuki,” he said, “I’m, ah, I’m a friend of Viktor’s.”

“Otabek Altin, and no, not really, but I guess I’ll have to get over that,” he said, and could see the photographer’s shoulders relax as he took his hand, squeezing it firmly through the wrap.

“Yuri Plisetsky,” Katsuki said, turning to Yuri and nodding, hand outstretched again, “I’ve heard so much about you from Viktor.”

“Funny,” Yuri sneered, “I don’t think Viktor’s mentioned you before.”

Katsuki’s earnest expression deflated briefly, but Yuri thrust his own hand out enthusiastically to meet the one offered.

“But if you know him, you know what a forgetful bastard he can be,” Yuri said, sneaking a sharp smirk at Viktor, “So I wouldn’t take it personally.”

“I am familiar,” stammered Katsuki, still a little off balance. Yuri smiled a bit more broadly and Otabek wondered if he wasn’t enjoying the moment a little too much.

As his eyes fully readjusted to the low light of the gray cinderblock hallway, Otabek’s attention was drawn past Viktor and the photographer to a thickly built man in a suit, standing with his arms folded in front of him and his strong chin jutted forward.

Otabek nodded in his direction, cocking his chin up like an open question and the man’s face curled up into the kind of chilly smile that shoots down more questions than it invites.

“This is Celestino,” Viktor explained as he followed Otabek’s eyes behind him, his voice taking on a softly deferential tone he’d never heard out of the man. “He’s my manager. He was instrumental in putting this all together tonight. He’s very interested to see the both of you in action.”

“Viktor’s spoken very highly of the both of you,” Celestino said, his words deliberate and crisp. “I have a great respect for the loyalty Viktor has to where he came from.” Celestino unfolded his arms, but made no motion to shake either Yuri or Otabek’s hands. “We will have a good show tonight, hm?”

Otabek nodded quietly, sneaking a glance over to Yuri beside him, shifting his weight from foot to foot. Their eyes met briefly at on their way to the floor. Celestino’s tone had risen as if he were asking a question but somehow neither had felt like they had been granted the necessary invitation to speak. Otabek suspected that the question left open was intended to be answered in actions rather than words.

“Viktor,” Celestino nodded as he refolded his arms and strode away. Viktor’s eyes followed him quietly, patiently until he reached the door.

“Alright,” Viktor said, once Celestino had gone, “You wanted to go see the crowd?”

Crispino was taller than he expected, but Otabek supposed that was what he got for working off of Viktor’s report of him. Viktor, who stood a head taller than he did and almost certainly taller than this Crispino kid as well. A fair number of the guys Otabek had faced had been taller than he was, so he’d learned to work around it. Taller opponents had an unavoidable advantage in reach, but that assumption often left them somewhat sloppy in their precise awareness of the distance to their opponents, to say nothing of speed. Otabek had found that a finely tuned sense of distance created all kinds of openings he could turn to his advantage. It let him keep his game in close to the chest, which was exactly the way he liked to run things.

Viktor liked to say that boxing was a performance as much as it was a sport. Yakov would roll his eyes and start griping about the travesty he considered pro boxing scoring to be each time he caught Viktor saying it, as if it were a personal offense to him, but that was Yakov’s agenda. It was part of why neither Otabek nor Yuri had mentioned the plan to Yakov ahead of time. For Yakov, the spectacle of pro fights ruined the purity of boxing.

Otabek could almost hear the man in his head: “Those pro judges, they have no respect for the soul of boxing. They just award each round to the fellow they’d rather be at the end of it. They don’t care how solid your hit is, they only care about the faces you both make when it lands. The only thing that’s still fair under their rules is a knockout.”

The room hummed with anticipation as the two boxers started making their final preparations before the fight.

“This Crispino kid has a lot of attitude and no stamina,” Viktor said in his ear as Otabek pushed his arm across his body in a final stretch. “His whole game is based on the fact that guys hate fighting southpaws like him. He assumes surprise is on his side, so surprise him instead. Watch out for his far hand coming across, but keep him moving, tire him out. Hang on him if you have to. Remember, this is a kind of dance,” he said, adding a little too excitedly, “it’s just one that you can win.”

Yuri leaned in from the floor, where he was covered up in sweats and trying to stay warm. He leaned his elbows on the canvas and gently grabbed Otabek’s ankle. Otabek looked down at Yuri, the fingers clasped around the high canvas of his shoe.

“Get him, Beka,” Yuri said, and squeezed his ankle before slipping back away from the ropes. The encouragement would be bland coming from anyone else, but Yuri's words settled in his belly with a greater weight than anything Viktor had just said.

As he heard the announcer call out his name, Otabek’s hands clenched inside of his gloves as he tried to clear his mind. None of the things that had bothered him earlier mattered right now. Even Viktor’s flowery words, “this is a dance you can win,” did not seem worth worrying about. Otabek just needed to stay on his feet and keep breathing, keep his eyes open.

As they touched gloves in the center, Crispino sneered smugly, looking down at Otabek. Otabek countered his opponent’s cold, purple glare with a perfectly still face, though in truth he was holding back a smirk. He liked the look Crispino was giving him. He’d seen it before. It always meant his opponent underestimated him, and it made his work that much simpler.

They lined up, their stances a mirror image of each other reflected across the center of the ring. The bell rang and Crispino tried to throw that left hook of his at him almost immediately. Otabek spent most of the first three rounds dipping around the tall Italian, trying to get him to turn and move, hoping to throw him off balance. Otabek found a few openings where he could get in a couple solid jabs to the body, driving Crispino across the ring before ducking away and making his opponent reorient himself.

But the way Crispino’s stance kept their bodies away from each other made every angle that much more difficult to attack. Otabek let himself wait patiently for those perfect openings, the kind a taller man might not have caught, when Crispino held himself too high and left the body open just enough that Otabek could get in under his guard. Crispino got in a couple solid jabs of his own here and there, but the first few rounds didn’t hint any advantage to one side or the other.

In the middle of the fourth, that left hook he’d heard about finally caught Otabek full in the jaw. Viktor hadn’t been kidding when he said it packed a wallop. Before he knew it, Crispino followed it up with a barrage of solid jabs to the body, driving him towards the ropes and it was all Otabek could do to stay on his feet and keep breathing, keep himself calm, the way he told himself he needed to at the outset.

The ref came to pull them apart after they got tied up at the ropes and Otabek tasted salt and copper on his tongue as he caught himself square on his feet. Crispino had that same self-satisfied grin plastered across his face he’d had at the beginning. The smirk Otabek had been hiding finally crept to the surface, because for as hard as he’d just taken it right then, he could tell Crispino was counting on that one punch and his offset stance to win. That punch wasn’t going to get any sharper the deeper they made it into the rounds, especially if what Viktor had said about his lack of stamina held up. And here Otabek was, still on his feet.

Crispino pushed to make an opening for that hook of his again right away but Otabek dodged and came right back up under him, close enough to get in a solid uppercut. He followed it up with a right cross to the head into a left hook of his own and Crispino went down. He was back on his feet almost as fast as the ref could push Otabek back towards his corner, but as he saw the scarlet tint on Crispino’s teeth - even as he tasted his own blood in his mouth - he could feel the scale tip in his favor.

Predictably, Crispino’s attacks grew wilder as the fight went on. The haughty expression he had worn into the opening faded entirely by about the seventh round. Otabek kept his attacks cautious, punching into his opponent’s failed attempts rather than trying to carve out his own.

“You think you can push for the knockout?” Viktor asked Otabek during the break after the eleventh round as Viktor’s trainer, Georgi, dabbed at his face with a towel. “Doesn’t look like he’s got a whole lot left in him. Punches have gotten real sloppy. You’re doing a great job running him around, wearing him out, but a couple of good shots to the head, you could probably get him to go down hard.”

“Don’t know,” Otabek said through heavy breath. “He’s got nothing left, but he’s still hard to hit.”

“He knows he’s behind,” Viktor said, his eyes darting across the ring to Crispino’s corner, where the man looked vaguely ill as his coach yelled at him in rapid-fire Italian. “He doesn’t have a whole lot of reason to play it safe at this point. He’s gonna give you some solid openings when he tries to land anything that looks good.”

Otabek grunted in agreement, but suspected the rest of the fight might be a keep away game as much as anything else. Crispino may have had no incentive to play it safe, but Otabek did.

“How you holding up?” Viktor asked. Otabek shrugged as he sagged back on the tiny wooden stool. He knew he was in better shape than the other guy, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t feeling the weight of eleven rounds pulling on him. His legs already burned with exhaustion, the whole of his body felt slick with sweat, and just about every part of him from the waist up ached in some way or another.

“Yeah, I know,” Viktor said, agreeing with Otabek’s silence. “It’s a lot longer than three rounds, huh? Just keep up fighting it your way. You got this.”

In the thirteenth round, Crispino left enough of an opening that Otabek could get in a solid combo of punches to his head that sent him to the floor. This time, Crispino didn’t get up right away and the ref in the ring started to count over him.

One, two. Otabek took a few cautious steps backwards away from where his opponent lay. Crispino wasn’t totally out: he rocked gently back and forth on the canvas, his knees tucked up slightly, but he made no attempt to push himself up at all yet. Crispino’s coach screamed from the edge of the ring over the roar of the crowd that had newly picked up with this development.

Three, four, five. As he turned to walk back towards his corner, his gloves resting on his hips as he worked to catch his breath, the first thing Otabek saw was Viktor’s face, sparkling with an excited pride. He tried to wipe the sweat away from his brow with his arm but it was covered with its own damp sheen, so all it accomplished was to smear one with the other. Just then, he caught the brilliant gleam of Yuri’s eyes as he leaned on a post, head resting on his hands, watching with a wide-eyed stillness that was wholly uncharacteristic of him.

Otabek felt his eyes captured there in a way he couldn’t explain, as if there were nothing else in that room full of photo flashes and thousands of screaming people. His mouth fell open as if to say something, but there were no words behind it. Not that Yuri would hear anything he said from here anyway.

Six. Crispino finally anchored a glove on the floor to press himself up to standing again. Not that Otabek saw it, his eyes fixed ahead of him, until Viktor’s yell broke through the trance Otabek had found himself in and he turned himself sharply back to the fight.

Otabek might have known it was over by the end of the fourth, but it took the full fifteen rounds to confirm what he had known that early. Crispino looked defeated in more ways than one as the ref held up Otabek’s hand to declare him winner by unanimous decision. For his part, Otabek wasn’t sure if his lead-tired arm could hold itself up that high at that point.

Yuri was scrambling at the ropes to meet him as Georgi took Otabek’s gloves and he stepped down from the ring. Otabek’s hands felt impossibly light on heavy arms as his fingers tasted the open air.

“That was incredible, Beka,” Yuri said excitedly, grabbing Otabek by the shoulders, his eyes as wide as they had been when Otabek had seen him when Crispino was down. “That sucker never had a chance.”

Otabek grinned tiredly, still at a loss for words through the dazed fog of exhaustion and excitement the bout had left him. The satisfaction of winning buzzed through him, but the exhaustion of it all had him flattened. All he really wanted right now was to sit down and to watch Yuri’s bout.

Viktor stepped down beside them. “Come on, Yuri, go check in with Georgi,” Viktor said, “I’ll be there in a minute”

As Yuri turned towards the trainer, Viktor put an arm around Otabek’s shoulders and started walking him back towards the locker room with slow steps.

“You should be very proud of what you just did there,” Viktor said. “Folks are going to remember your name after a fight like that one. Your performance in there was commanding.”

“Thanks,” Otabek said flatly, though it felt incomplete as a response somehow. Commanding felt like it carried a heavy expectation with it, and he was briefly put in mind of his parents again, the thought rising tightly in his throat.

“Why don’t you go shower, get cleaned up and change right now. Maybe you’ll catch the end of Yuri’s fight,” Viktor said. Otabek stopped where he stood.

“No, I’ll wait. I don’t want to miss any of Yuri’s fight. They’ve only got six rounds, and I told him I wouldn’t miss it,” Otabek said, trailing off.

“You sure? It’s probably going to get uncomfortable sitting as all that dries on you,” Viktor protested.

“I’ll be fine,” said Otabek quickly. “I’ll shower after he’s done.”

“Suit yourself, champ,” Viktor said dryly, as his eyes scanned Otabek’s body much the way the photographer’s had earlier, as if it would answer a question otherwise unasked. “But at least go wash the blood off your face first. It suits you, but it’s not your best look.”

Viktor turned with a quick wink. “I’ll see you ringside in a few.”

Otabek made it back out in time to hear the end of the introductions. Chulanont’s build was fairly similar to Yuri’s, compact and wiry, both of their faces still belying a hint of baby fat in their round contours. Their eyes were level with each other’s as they faced off and touched gloves across the center of the ring. Any wide-eyed excitement that Yuri’s eyes had held earlier had been replaced with a martial sharpness that Otabek could see from where he perched near Yuri’s corner.

Yakov sometimes went off on long-winded tirades about what made boxing different from fighting. They were, perhaps surprisingly, not that different from Viktor’s proclamations about boxing as a performance that seemed to infuriate Yakov so much, at least on the surface: romantic mumbo-jumbo about elegance and wit, about dance and poetry. On some level, the similarities were unsurprising; Viktor had grown up listening to Yakov’s speeches, too, of course. Otabek knew it was supposed to be inspirational and all, particularly given the number of boys like himself and like Yuri who had been more or less assigned to the class for fighting outside the ring, but Otabek inevitably found himself unable to focus on Yakov’s words for that long. He thought he understood the meaning of it watching Yuri in the ring, though.

Yuri was made for this. Otabek was often in awe of the way that Yuri came to life when his feet hit the canvas, the way that it seemed like the ropes could scrape away whatever else tried to cling to Yuri as he stepped through them. There was an elegant lightness to his movement in the ring that made it seem like he only touched the ground because he chose to, because it was to his advantage. As if gravity was optional for him, somehow. He’d seen Yuri drag himself exhausted into practice at the Y after a long day at the bakery and come out of it less tired than he’d started. Even today, he knew Yuri had been up since four and worked a full day before coming over here.

Right from the first bell, it was clear this Chulanont kid was fast, probably the quickest guy on his feet Otabek had ever seen in the ring. Chulanont held himself low as he and Yuri tested each other out through the first round, dancing around each other on their toes, punches thrown as much to gauge a reaction as to actually land.

Since both Yuri and his opponent were still under twenty-one, the law in New York limited their fight to six rounds, making it more of a sprint than an endurance test like Otabek’s fight with Crispino had been. It left less room to feel out the other guy’s game with any kind of caution.

Caution wasn’t really a natural part of Yuri’s game, though. He’d learned it some, over time, but in many ways he was the same fighter who had been dragged out of the alley behind the elementary school when he was 11 after taking out three guys bigger than him. Otabek had jumped in and helped there, too, though he still wasn’t sure how much Yuri had needed him. He’d moved like electricity through water back then, too.

Chulanont’s left was as quick as his footwork. Early in the second, he fed a series of sharp jabs to Yuri’s body before Yuri could return any kind of attack. He seemed content to keep this up, to peck away at his opponent bit by bit without so much as feinting at a big knockdown attack. From where he was watching, Otabek had a hard time finding any kind of opening in Chulanont’s game. It wasn’t always flashy, but it was tight.

Yuri gave him few opportunities, though, light on his feet and with a sharp left of his own. Even under the harsh light hanging over the ring, Chulanont’s skin was dark enough that it mostly masked the angry red patches hinting where tomorrow’s bruises would be that screamed on Yuri’s ghost-pale skin. Otabek couldn’t say how long Yuri’s patience would hold in all this, but there was only so much time in the bout for the boxers to tease each other this way.

The two men in the ring glistened with sweat as they entered the fourth round, but neither seemed to have dulled in their affect at all, their eyes still shining bright with intensity. If anything, both boxers seemed to have shed a layer of caution heading into the back half of the fight, the punches flying more frequently in exuberant flurries between them.

In the fourth, Yuri went down. Yuri was back on his feet before the ref could even start counting, before Otabek holding his breath could mean anything. Chulanont’s constant needling had finally found room for a combo that took Yuri’s feet out from under him.

Otabek could see Yuri’s patience starting to spread paper thin over his face, starting to crack around the edges. His blond hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, a trickle of blood marking one nostril. Otabek knew the scrappy brawler still inside of Yuri wanted to just put his head down and barrel the other guy down. But Yuri had spent years working on just this kind of self-restraint. His patience might crack, but wouldn’t break. Not as long as his opponent fed him a clean fight, and Chulanont’s game was unimpeachable.

At the break after the fourth round, Viktor was in Yuri’s face almost as quickly as he dropped to the stool in the corner, his back held perfectly straight. Otabek couldn’t hear what they were saying from where he was, but Yuri shoved Viktor’s chest with his gloved hands in short order, sending Viktor a few loose steps backwards with an unplaceable grin on his face.

Yuri’s movement shifted slightly as he came into the fifth round. There was a looseness to it that surprised Otabek. About halfway through Yuri finally found an opening. Otabek didn’t even see where Chulanont had made his misstep. All he saw was Yuri pivot sharply to the side and slam a hard right cross to the other man’s head. Shocked out of his low stance, Chulanont staggered back, just enough for Yuri to get inside his guard and send him to the canvas hard.

Chulanont was back on his feet quickly, but the look on his face on his coach’s from the corner suggested he hadn’t anticipated the bout being quite as close as this. Yuri floated out the last minute of the fifth round as if surprised at it himself.

The two of them slipped and dodged their way through the last round, dancing lightly around each other. Several times their bodies fell into a graceful rhythm together before one of them broke it by trying to punch into where the other should be. But their rhythm seemed to come from their ability to read the clues left on hips and shoulders as much as a simple pattern, so nothing seemed to land more than glancingly.

The final bell sounded and Otabek recounted as much as he could, trying to figure out if there was any way to read the outcome. On the far side of the ring, the judges leaned in together to confer in a way they hadn’t at the end of his bout. Otabek felt heart in his ears as they muttered and pointed at each other, then back at the ring, where Yuri and Chulanont stood, breathing heavily, resting their arms against their bodies.

The two boxers didn’t speak, but stole the occasional look at each other. Chulanont smiled first. It wasn’t the predatory smile that Otabek had seen on the faces of so many men before they got in the ring with Yuri, but rather an open smile of pure satisfaction. It looked out of place on Chulanont’s face next to the streaks of sweat and blood, but somehow also the most natural thing in the world. The soldier-like stiffness in Yuri’s face twisted with confusion before softening into his own small grin. Finally, the judges motioned the ref over. As he nodded at them, Otabek felt his lungs burn as he realized he’d been holding his breath since the bell.

In the end, Yuri took the bout in a split decision that sent a cacophony of howls and cheers peeling through the crowd. He and his opponent embraced briefly before returning to their respective corners, though it seemed like they never exchanged a single word. Viktor put an arm around Yuri and ruffled his hair, earning him a quick kick in the shins as Yuri pushed him away. Even that couldn’t remove the excitement that radiated off of Yuri. Otabek’s eyes were glued to him as he climbed down from the ring.

“Did you fucking see that, Beka?” Yuri jumped on Otabek, almost knocking him down as he bounced from the ring, dazed and ecstatic. Yuri’s skin was slick with sweat against his own, slipping against the places where sweat had dried in a salty film on Otabek’s skin.

“You know, for a little while there, I thought that Chulanont kid had your number,” Otabek said with a smirk, taking the punch Yuri threw at his arm with a chuckle under his breath.

“Oh stuff it,” Yuri said. His fight seemed to have left him energized rather than drained the way Otabek’s had but maybe that was just the difference between six rounds and fifteen. “He’s,” Yuri paused, clearly unaccustomed to constructing praise for his opponent, “he’s good. He’s really fucking good.”

“And,” Otabek asked, watching the glint in Yuri’s eye.

“And I still fucking won,” Yuri gushed, throwing an arm back around Otabek’s shoulder. “And so did you. Hot damn, Beka!”

“You both looked great out there,” Viktor said as he joined them, his photographer friend from before a few steps behind him.

“Would it be alright if I took a photo of you right now?” Katsuki asked meekly, his flash lamp poised and ready.

“Of course, moron!” Yuri bellowed gleefully and Otabek blinked into the blinding light that followed an instant later.

As his sight returned, Celestino’s blocky, broad-shouldered figure had appeared, looming over Viktor’s shoulder.

“Congratulations, boys,” he said, his voice taking on a warmth that had been absent at their introduction earlier. “I have to say I was pleasantly surprised watching the both of you. That’s the kind of surprise I love,” he laughed. “In fact, I think it’s something worth celebrating. After Davis and Callahan’s bout, once I get your money together for you, why don’t you let me take you for dinner and a bit of a time? I insist. It’s the least I can do to show my appreciation.”

“Thank you,” Otabek said uncertainly, adding “sir” a moment later, “but I think I should be getting…”

“Beka, can’t we just enjoy it?” Yuri asked.

“Didn’t you work your bakery shift this morning?” Otabek said, “Aren’t you working again tomorrow?”

As he looked over at Yuri, his face still flushed and sweaty from his fight, Otabek knew two things for certain: first, that Yuri wasn’t going to back down on this, and second, that if Yuri was going, Otabek was going, too.

“I want to have a little fun before I wake up one big bruise tomorrow,” Yuri said with a grin Otabek couldn’t argue down. “Same goes for you, asshole.”

“Viktor, you’re coming too, I assume,” Celestino said and Viktor nodded. “You boys have a car?”

“I have my motorcycle,” Otabek volunteered.

“No, leave it here,” Celestino dismissed with a casual wave of his hand. “You ride with me. You can come get your motorbike tomorrow. Besides, I don’t suspect you’ll be in any state to ride home when we’re through.”

Chapter Text

“Walking with you like this is going to hurt me more than that fight did,” Otabek said as the lights of Sixth Avenue smeared across Yuri’s vision as they peeked around the elevated railway where they’d just come down. Yuri stumbled onto Otabek’s toes yet again.

“Fuck, sorry,” Yuri apologized, “I’m not trying to step on you, I promise.” Viktor giggled from the other side of him as the three of them walked down the sidewalk, arms around each other's shoulders.

“Mmhmm,” Otabek smirked.

“What?” Yuri demanded.

“So you mean this isn’t like last Purim with my family, when you kept trying to crush my toes under the table during dessert?” Otabek said and Yuri felt his ears start to burn.

“Shut up, asshole, or I actually will try to break your stupid toes,” Yuri grumbled. He’d hoped Otabek had forgotten about that incident, but he supposed it was too much to hope for. Up until tonight, it was probably the drunkest he’d ever been. Otabek had been pretty drunk himself that day; they all had. It was strange seeing Otabek’s warm, but fairly staid parents let loose like that, his older sister and her husband, even his younger brother and sister, both a few years younger than Yuri both now sufficiently of age to partake. The footstomping under the dinner table wasn’t even what made him cringe when he thought about it. Sometimes people just needed to get kicked under the table; it happened, especially when their attention kept drifting. He could cope with that embarrassment, such as it was. What he hoped Otabek had forgotten - what he couldn’t forget - had happened earlier that day, when they were outside watching that stupid snowman melt in the snowiest damn February he could remember, already drunk. He hoped Otabek’s memory didn’t extend as far as Yuri trying to climb inside the coat he’d been wearing and to plaster himself to his friend’s side even as the small fire burned between them and the shocked-looking, beet-mouthed snowman. That was the part of that day that almost burned him to think about.

In truth, Yuri couldn’t say exactly how much he’d had to drink at the restaurant. There had been cocktails waiting for them on their arrival to the banquet room at the restaurant in Bensonhurst with Celestino and the glass of white wine that had been set in front of him at dinner simply never got the chance to empty. The girl seated beside him in her sequins and heavy perfume had made sure of that, leaning into his body every few minutes, giggling into his ear as she reached across to make sure his glass and her own stayed topped up.

Back on Sixth Avenue, Viktor was about to go into convulsions as he laughed even harder, his steps falling dangerously close to the curb edge. Yuri, nestled in the middle of the trio, tried to drag them all forward with a frustrated grunt, pulling the other two off balance.

“Yuri, you don’t even know where we’re going,” Viktor laughed, starting to catch his breath again.

“Doesn’t change the fact that you’re slow, alter cocker,” Yuri sneered loudly, and Viktor lost it again, laughing harder as he stumbled forward into Yuri’s lean. “How much farther is this place, anyway?”

“Not far,” Viktor said as he took a deep breath and worked at collecting himself again. He gestured broadly ahead of them. “Actually, here, let’s take a left onto Waverly just up ahead so we can cut across Gay Street to Christopher. It’s a little dark, but it saves a few steps and I just want to sit down and...I just want to get there.”

“Yeah, it must have been really tiring standing there and yelling all night,” Yuri said, “How are you the tired one?”

Yuri grunted, swaying forward as Viktor steered them sharply around the corner of the brick building onto a smaller street away from the elevated train line. As they turned again, the streetlights disappeared into the distance ahead of them and sidewalk shrank to almost nothing. Viktor unhooked his arm from Yuri’s shoulders, leaving Yuri and Otabek leaning into each other as they kept walking through the shadows of the tiny street.

The cool air was sweet in Yuri’s lungs. Even as dark with the scents of wet garbage and gasoline as it was, it was relief after the swelteringly sharp, rebreathed perfume of the restaurant.

Everyone must be asleep at home by now, Yuri thought. He had gotten home this late before, coming back from whatever movie he’d dragged Beka to or whatever concert Beka had dragged him to. Yuri’s mother had been up waiting for him the first few times, fretting over mint tea at the kitchen table. The first time, both his mother and his grandfather had been up waiting for him, his mother tapping nervously at her mug, his grandfather holding her other hand quietly. Yuri had told them he might be back late, so it wasn’t as if it was a surprise, but that only seemed to help so much.

At the time, he’d snapped at her for treating him like a child, but on another level Yuri knew that was not the largest piece of it, and he couldn’t really begrudge her the concern. He’d seen the way his father looked in their wedding photo. The clothes were different, thankfully, but his father hadn’t been much older than Yuri was at the time in that photo. Yuri had his mother’s blue-green eyes, cold and brilliant like the sea, but the resemblance to his father was inescapable.

Even if he hadn’t looked so much like his father, Yuri couldn’t really blame her for worrying, even if his words suggested as much at times. Not after what had happened. His mother had learned to live with it, for the most part, but it never quite let her go. Her life had rerouted itself around that wound, but it had never really closed over. It was the same for him, he supposed, but he tried not to think about it as much as possible.

Yuri was shocked back to attention by the warm pressure of Otabek’s thumb against the center of his forehead.

“Ey, durachok!” Otabek said, turning to face Yuri with his thumb still in place. Yuri tried to focus his eyes on the hand right in front of him and stumbled backwards a step. As he caught himself, Otabek’s face curled itself into one of its rare smiles, crinkling around his eyes with a soft openness that made Yuri’s cheeks burn.

“You’re drunk,” Yuri retorted as he folded his arms across his own chest.

“Oh, so your cow is so quiet?” Otabek deadpanned, still facing Yuri, his eyebrow cocked as if waiting for laughter. Yuri stared at him with a blankly puzzled tilt to his face while Viktor chuckled under his breath.

“You’re drunker than I thought,” Yuri said, trying to unstick a piece of wet newspaper from one shoe with the other, “The fuck you on about, Altin? Cows?”

“You’re drunk,” Otabek said flatly. Yuri could feel the warmth of Otabek’s eyes settled on him, and rubbed his hand on his neck, trying to find an excuse to look away.

Bozhe, fucking Celestino,” Viktor muttered with sigh, shaking his head, “You’re both a couple of stubborn cows right now.” He turned to give both Yuri and Otabek a gentle shove towards the end of the street. His voice was clear if slightly agitated again. “Yes, we get it. You’re drunk. You’re both drunk. It’s cute, but it would be a lot cuter if it weren’t cold out here when we’re only like five steps from the Papaya.”

“The fuck you mean, cute?” Yuri demanded as Viktor swept between the two others, throwing an arm around each of their shoulders to guide them forward. Yuri realized the the newsprint had stubbornly clung to his other shoe as it flapped damply through the next few steps. The other two jerked as he stopped short and tried to stomp the paper off of his shoe again.

“Yurochka, what are you doing?” Viktor said as he tenuously caught his balance.

“Fucking paper,” Yuri said grimly. “Here, you step on this,” he insisted, looking across at Otabek.

“So it can get stuck on my shoe? I don’t want it,” Otabek laughed.

“Fine,” Yuri grunted and finally reached down to remove the paper with his hands, pulling at both Viktor and Otabek as he leaned over. “Ugh, I need to wash my hands. Where is this place?” He said, wiping his hand on the dark wool of Viktor’s cardigan.

“Must you?” Viktor protested, steering the group towards an arched brick doorway. “It’s just over here.”

“Is this it?” Yuri said, looking skeptically over the unremarkable doorway, a small, hand-painted sign hanging on hooks by the door. The Blue Papaya Lounge. The plain, quiet brick of the place wasn’t where he imagined Viktor beelining to on a Saturday night. All Viktor had told him was that he thought it, “might be a little more your speed,” than the place Celestino had taken them, but that told him more about what it wasn’t than what it was. The tightness began rising in his throat again, the way it had at the last place almost immediately after they’d stepped inside.

Yuri was certain it would take even more alcohol for him to say it out loud, but Viktor hadn’t been wrong about how overwhelmed he’d felt in that banquet room at the restaurant. The room there was textured with the light reflected from carefully polished brass fixtures and cut glass pieces that twisted and spun the light around the room in a way that made it hard for Yuri to focus his eyes. The round of drinks that arrived before the food, oddly herbal and bittersweet, didn’t make it any easier for him to fix his eyes in any one place. By the time he was finished with the lemony, heavily sauced chicken he’d been served alongside the apparently bottomless glass of wine, Yuri wasn’t sure if the light fixture was still the only one spinning.

“It’s upstairs,” Viktor said, adding with a shrug, “Tyotya Lilia likes to keep the tourists to a minimum.”

“This is your aunt’s place?” Yuri asked.

“She’s not really my aunt. Not more than anyone else’s, at least,” Viktor said as they started climbing the stairs.

“Ah, that kind of tyotya,” Yuri said, thinking of the parade of bekerchiefed older women who came through the shop, insisting he make small talk in Russian that hurt his head as he got their loaves and bialy in order.

“She likes anyone that will speak a little Russian with her, though,” Viktor said and Yuri snickered quietly as Viktor continued to describe her in ways that applied to the demanding old bittties at the bakery. “I think she still gets a little homesick. Here, we’re going all the way up to the top.”

“Did she leave with the revolution?” asked Otabek as they turned up a second flight of stairs. Sure, leave it to Otabek to think of a polite question to ask right now.

“Earlier. The war,” Viktor said. “She had been a principal with the Imperial Ballet in Petersburg but she retired just before the war started and, with that and with, well, with some other things, she decided that it was time for a more dramatic change. She’ll tell you quite the stories about it if you give her half a chance, though she won’t talk your ear off about it quite the way Tyotya Minako will. Ah, here.”

Viktor knocked at the door waiting at the top of the next flight of stairs. A muffled blend of conversation and languid piano music leached through the walls.

“Tyotya Minako?” Yuri asked, unused to hearing the title without a Russian name following it.

“Oh, yes, Minako is Tyotya Lilia’s,” Viktor began, but was cut off by the door opening by a somewhat older woman in a dark dress edged with bright red and gold beads. The sound flooded out around her with a warm cloud of cigarette smoke and light, earthy perfume. The scent was soft in all the ways the scents of the restaurant had been sharp, but Yuri started to feel the same clutter begin to cloud his head that had left him unable to focus at dinner.

“Vicchan!” she squealed, extending her arms warmly to pull Viktor in towards her.

“Tyotya Minako!” he said, setting his hands on her shoulders to kiss her politely on each cheek.

“Yuuchan is already here. I just saw him back by the blue sofa a moment ago,” said Minako, nodding back over her shoulder. “And who are your darling little friends here?” she asked, pointing her chin at the other two.

“This is Yuri and this is Otabek,” he said, indicating each of them where they still stood on the stairs below him.

“Another Yuuri!” She cooed, the name dragging on her tongue as she passed her cigarette to her left hand and extended the right as if offering it to be kissed, though she seemed unsure which one of the two she was addressing.

Yuri’s eyes darted from Viktor to Minako to her hand before he finally reached out to grasp it, turning it into a firm, businesslike handshake.

Ochen’ priyatno,” Minako giggled playfully in Russian, pulling a shocked Yuri closer to her to kiss his cheek.

Ochen’ priyatno,” Yuri mumbled almost automatically in response.

Ochen’ priyatno poznakomit’sya,” Otabek volunteered crisply as Minako released Yuri, stepping up to kiss the older woman on the cheek.

“Ah! You too?” She almost squealed in excitement, pinching Otabek’s cheek. “Lilia’s just going to flip. Where did you find these little gems, Viktor?”

“The city just gets bigger every day,” Viktor said with a soft shrug. “Are you going to let us come in, or...?”

“Oh, of course,” Minako said, looking around the narrow staircase and then back into the lively room, as if it hadn’t occurred to her that she was blocking the entrance.

The room was draped in tapestries and soft light, in the blended scents of tobacco, jasmine, coffee, and clove. Small groups of people - mostly the bohemian types Yuri expected from the Village - were scattered in conversation around the room, divided among the mismatched, well-worn furniture. Yuri couldn’t say that he immediately agreed with Viktor’s assessment that this place was more his speed, but if nothing else he didn’t feel as immediately put on the spot as he had at the last place.

As they wove through the people, Yuri found himself reaching for the cuff of Viktor’s jacket as he led them through the crowd, so he couldn’t get separated. Otabek rested his hand on Yuri’s shoulder a step behind.

Yuri was surprised to recognize the photographer from earlier, the one whose name sounded the same as his, as Viktor stopped in front of a shabby blue velour sofa that was outlined in a rich, dark wood. Pausing in his conversation, the photographer stretched his hand out with a warm smile and Viktor let himself be pulled down on the sofa beside him with a giggle. He immediately threw an arm around Viktor’s shoulder and squeezed him close, planting a kiss on his cheek.

“Hey, dumpling,” Yuuri cooed, “Took you long enough.”

“Eh, Celestino legitimately had a lot to crow about tonight, I suppose,” Viktor said, coughing and turning his eyes up purposefully to where Yuri and Otabek still stood. As Yuuri turned towards them his face tightened slightly with embarrassment and he sat up straight, retracting his hands and folding them primly in his own lap.

Viktor set his hand on Yuuri’s arm and the photographer’s face softened somewhat, though his expression still seemed slightly more guarded than it had on Viktor’s arrival.

“I can imagine,” Yuuri said, relaxing back into the sofa some. “He must have made a lot of money off of those fights. I know Chulanont, at least, came in heavily favored. Those odds must have paid out like a bank robbery. I hope you two got a decent cut. I mean, I’ve been hanging around Viktor long enough to know that Celestino almost certainly didn’t give you enough for your efforts, but like I always tell this one,” Yuuri replaced the arm around Viktor’s shoulder he’d pulled away, “he’d go broke if he actually paid you what you were worth.”

“Yeah, but even he says basically the same thing,” Viktor said, before Yuri or Otabek had the chance to speak up. Yuri reached into his pocket to the $150 Celestino had handed him before they’d left the arena, with the promise of more in trust, squeezing the tightly folded bills in his pocket for what must be at least the fiftieth time. “‘What you do is worth more than anyone can pay you,’” Viktor said in an exaggerated version of Celestino’s slow, deep-voiced cadence. Yuri could hear Celestino’s voice saying it in his head; he had said the very same thing to him and to Otabek just tonight.

“Yeah, but it’s horseapple flattery coming from him, babe,” Yuuri scoffed gently. “And you know it, too. The words might be almost the same, but when he says them, it’s an excuse for why he doesn’t pay you more, not why he can’t. And before you start again, there is a difference.”

Yushka, that might be true, but if it was just about money, I wouldn’t bother with him at all,” Viktor protested, “Some things are worth more than money. And not just in that pansy kind of way you mean when you say it.”

“So dignity is a pansy thing now?” Katsuki asked. “I mean, I’m not going to fight you, of all people, about it, but...”

Zolotse, we’ve been through this so many times already. Now is not the time to run through it again,” Viktor interrupted softly, covering Katsuki’s lips with his fingertips, his attention fully absorbed in the other man’s face. “Tonight is not about me, anyhow.”

Katsuki pried Viktor’s fingers from his lips silently, their eyes still fixed together until Katsuki leaned over to whisper something in Viktor’s ear. Viktor looked up towards Yuri briefly, shrugged and whispered some inaudibly hushed response. The whole thing was starting to make Yuri nervous: the squabble, the whispering, the unexplained look in his own direction. He looked over at Otabek beside him, still standing just as awkwardly, fingers twisting in hands clasped together in front of him.

The whispers that passed between Yuuri and Viktor finally bloomed into a soft smile across Viktor’s face and a reignited sparkle in his eye, followed by something Yuri hadn’t expected: Katsuki sliding his hand in behind Viktor’s head through the soft platinum curtain of his hair, pulling his face close, and kissing him like Douglas Fairbanks had kissed the princess in The Black Pirate. Suddenly, the comments from a moment ago about the dignity of pansies took on a somewhat different weight.

Yuri was trapped between feeling like he should look away and being unable to. His eyes twitched reflexively over towards Otabek, leaving the pair at the edge of his vision. Otabek had folded his arms protectively against his chest, eyes trained towards the wall, away from Viktor and Katsuki and away from Yuri. A drawing hung on the wall there: a sparse collection of thick, fluid black lines that approximated the form of a dancer in motion. The lines expressing the dancer’s body and their movement were difficult to disentangle, as if the action and the body were one.

Otabek’s profile lingered in Yuri’s line of sight, even as he studiously tried to focus his attention on the drawing. In the low light, the elegant lines of the drawing became tangled with the outline of Otabek’s face, as if he himself was an integral part of the way the lines seemed to come alive on the stark field of the paper. The whole of the image - the drawing, Viktor & Katsuki’s joined form, the sharp, strong lines of Otabek’s face - twisted deep in his gut, in the soft buzz of his inebriated brain, and Yuri swayed gently on his feet, shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath.

Yuri’s eyes opened at the feeling of fingers curling around his hand and he found himself somewhat disappointed to see Viktor reaching out to him, having disentangled himself at least partially from the man beside him on the sofa.

“Yura, are you alright?” Viktor asked, concern shading the brightness of his face. Yuri wasn’t quite sure what to say, still feeling like another shot of alcohol had just taken effect. Maybe that was it, maybe just the day’s exertion and the alcohol catching up with him. He could hear another part of his mind calling bullshit on him even as he thought it, but repeated it to himself again.

“I-,” Yuri said feeling heat in his face that he wished he could control, especially as he felt Otabek’s gaze as it turned onto him from the side, “Yeah, I’m fine, I think I’m just - can I sit down?”

“Please, of course,” Katsuki gestured to the dark wooden chair that faced the sofa, a few steps to Yuri’s right and he flopped down into it eagerly, settling quickly into a low slouch. Wordlessly, without unfolding his arms, Otabek perched himself on the edge of a well-worn green ottoman not far away.

The seat was oriented with its back to most of the room, but Yuri’s eyes traveled the edge of the room, his mind and his will unable to agree where to settle. He scanned over what part of the tearoom’s population he could see with a more careful eye. The men with their arms casually linked around each other’s waists, the women with their fingers delicately intertwined as they talked and laughed. Was this what Viktor thought “his speed” was?

Yuri had long known that Viktor had a life that he didn’t discuss with any of the crew at the Y. Yakov always referred to them just as Viktor’s “other people.” Yuri had assumed he just meant Celestino’s crew, the way Yakov nearly spat the words. Maybe that’s all it was, and this place would have been just as much a surprise to Yakov as it had been to Yuri.

Their stalwart coach had always expressed a distaste for just the kind of extravagances Yuri had seen and tasted with Celestino at La Mezzaluna tonight, from the wine and brass to the glittering beads and lips on the women who crowded him at the table. The way all of those pulled in the light and pushed it back out at him, twisted in some way. The place had made Yuri feel like a sliver of that light, pulled in many directions and refracted into something he barely recognized. Maybe that reflected image Celestino offered, the distraction of it, was what Yakov dismissed as well.

But Viktor - he’d always thought Viktor had thrived on that kind of environment. That was more or less what he’d imagined Viktor did with his Saturday nights. If Viktor had felt out of place there, it certainly didn’t show as he whispered and giggled cheek to cheek with the woman plastered to his side at dinner. But there was no possibility that he looked at her the way he had looked at Katsuki, slouched in next to him on that shabby blue couch. Viktor had looked at him like a fire in winter, like his presence was as relaxing and refreshing as sleep itself. Something about it chewed at Yuri in a way he couldn’t explain just with exhaustion or alcohol.

As he turned back to Viktor and his - whatever Katsuki was to him - Yuri wondered if they served alcohol here. Sure, he was already pretty drunk. But he wasn’t sure if this place was something he was meant to remember, and it was going to take a lot more than this to make sure he forgot. If alcohol couldn’t explain it, maybe it could prevent him needing to.

Yuri cleared his throat and had three pairs of eyes on him immediately.

“Um, so,” he began, eyes darting between the other three, “can we get a drink or something here?”

“Maybe we best stick to tea for the rest of tonight,” Viktor said, pulling a watch out of his jacket, pressing his hands into his lap to stand up. “I remember hearing something about someone having a bakery shift in, oh, about four and a half hours.”

“No, let me, babe,” Katsuki said, setting a hand gently on top of Viktor’s.

“A big pot of the toasted rice tea, then?” Viktor asked. “Please?”

The bakery. A wave of exhaustion hit Yuri just thinking about it, and he could feel the tightness pull at his shoulders as he thought about near-hundred pound bowls of dough and about his own face as he’d cleaned up after the bout. The exhaustion he had seen in the mirror washing away the blood and the sweat. There was no way of getting out of it without explaining where he’d been, and despite his victory, despite the $150 that burned in his pocket and the $300 more he’d been promised, it didn’t feel like enough to justify it yet. Even if it was all for them. Besides, it would be far from the first time he’d worked a full shift on no sleep with no good explanation for it.

Yuri and Otabek’s eyes met briefly as they both looked up at the rustle of Katsuki, stepping between their seats. The quick glance surged into Yuri’s stomach and he focused his eyes on the small wooden table set to the opposite side of his chair. Otabek hadn’t said a word since they’d come through the door, but he was like that sometimes. Politeness came naturally to him, more so than for Yuri if he was honest about himself, but Otabek tended to remain closed and quiet to new people for some time. At the restaurant, they’d been seated with their assigned girls both between them, so Yuri hadn’t been able to see him. That in and of itself had bothered him, but he couldn’t imagine Otabek having been any more comfortable there himself, even if he wasn’t as vocal about it as Yuri had been on the train ride over. But when was he ever as vocal as Yuri about anything?

“Lilia will be over in a minute with the tea. You two were brilliant, by the way. The both of you,” Katsuki said, dropping back onto the couch beside Viktor. “There’s such a beauty in the movements, and, you know, this one always makes fun of me when I start talking about the dancers at the center and boxers in the same breath, but...”

“Viktor’s so full of shit,” Yuri cut him off, wondering how much of the spiel he’d been hearing from Viktor on the subject for the last two years had originated with Katsuki. “Do you know how often he goes off about the similarities between boxing and dancing like he’s some kind of goddamn philosopher?”

“Oh, well, that is interesting,” Katsuki grinned smugly and Yuri caught Otabek in a tight-lipped, almost silent snicker. “You, know, Yuri, I’m so glad we’re having this little chat. You should really come here more often.”

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,” Viktor threw up his hands, trying to fight the shit-eating grin that was trying to shape his face with only partial success.

“Would you stop trying to use Uncle Walt to try to get away with your own bullshit?” Katsuki scolded with a snort as he pressed a playfully accusing finger to Viktor’s chest.

“Bullshit? Me?” Viktor scoffed with a flirtatious smile, feigning offense. “Never!” His voice had slipped into a more animated register not entirely familiar to Yuri. He’d known Viktor had another life he didn’t discuss at the Y, carefully delineated, but between this, the soft voice he’d heard Viktor use with Celestino, and the way he’d chatted up the woman sitting beside him at dinner, he was starting to wonder how many of them there were, each boxed up separately under that platinum dome. He wondered how much they had in common, how much they listened to each other, how much they learned from each other. How much control Viktor had about which one spoke in a given situation. If any of them was more or less real than the others.

“You’re lucky you’re so damn cute,” Katsuki said, shaking his hands as he leaned in to kiss Viktor again through a smile, as quick and soft and casual as saying good morning.

Yuri wanted to ask, but didn’t.

The list of things he wanted to ask, but didn’t was growing quickly.

He wanted to ask what it meant when they kissed each other like that. Ask how long this had been going on, and what they even called it. To ask who knew. Trying not to stare, Yuri bit the inside of his lip quietly and tried to focus on the the delicately carved woodwork of the chair he was sitting in, running his fingers over through the smooth grooves and curls of the dark wood as his stomach twisted. His eyes darted quickly from his own hand on the chair to the two men on the couch to Otabek. He wanted to ask what it meant to be a secret, and not just to have one, like Yuri did right now.

Vot,” Yuri was startled out of his focus by a deep, clear woman’s voice and a flowered teapot breaking into his peripheral vision, set on the small table beside him, “Vash chay.

Spasibo, tyotya,” Viktor quickly thanked her as Yuri turned around to look up at the imposing figure standing above him as she set down four small, unhandled tea cups alongside the pot. The sharp lines of her face flowed into those of the sleekly-cut tuxedo she wore, strict black and white except for the lavender-toned cameo brooch clasped where a bow tie would typically sit. Her dark hair was pulled tightly back behind her head, heightening the crisp severity of the way she presented herself. Even in a tux, Yuri could see the ballerina still standing tall within her. Despite his earlier impressions, he was hard pressed to imagine her with a kerchief on her head.

“Are you going to introduce me to your new friends?” She continued in Russian. Yuri wasn’t sure if she expected anyone besides Viktor to understand her. He hoped no one had high expectations of his ability to carry on a conversation like this. Yuri’s name advertised a greater faculty with the language than he actually had. He had enough to make polite small talk with the kerchief brigade, and the rest of the bakery’s generous handful of patrons who spoke Russian but not Yiddish. They were mostly older folks who had been coming to see his grandfather probably since before his mother was born. The Minako who had met them at the door had suggested Lilia sought out other Russian speakers. Minako is Lilia’s...Yuri finally put the unfinished explanation from before together.

“They call me Otabek,” his friend volunteered, also in Russian, the first words he had spoken since the formal pleasantries exchanged with Minako at the door. If there was one thing he could say unquestionably in Lilia’s favor, it was that she was able to draw Otabek out of his silence, if only by pressing into his unfailing politeness, as she gently questioned him about where his family had come from.

Yuri only picked up about half the conversation. He heard his own name once or twice, caught enough words to know which of the stories he’d heard a dozen or more times Otabek was telling and could fill in the rest. Yuri suspected he could draw a convincing picture of half the places Otabek had lived, in greater or lesser detail, just by having heard about them so many times. If he were any good at drawing, that is. He could probably map out more half the plants in the garden in Bukhara, though there were quite a number he’d never seen, not even at the botanical gardens he’d been dragged to so many times, mostly by Otabek or by his zeyde. By what Yuri had caught, Otabek was on about the gardens again. Or at least something about apricots.

He’d never known someone who could be quite so expressive and compelling just with facts as Otabek was. To Yuri, it felt sometimes like the emotions Otabek didn’t like discussing were dripping out around his descriptions of things, as if the objective parts of it couldn’t avoid absorbing a more colorful, passionate tone by virtue of having been closed up together inside his head.

At some point, Yuri stopped trying to listen and caught Katsuki’s eye from across the way, looking equally glazed and distant, but probably far more pleasant than Yuri was sure he appeared. He grinned softly and offered a silent shrug as the conversation hurtled along over both of their heads. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seemed the Japanese man had even less faculty in Russian than he did, but after the rest of tonight it would take far more than language skills for Yuri to be shocked by him.

Yuri pointed to the teapot with an inquiring tilt of his head and Katsuki nodded. Yuri peeked perfunctorily under the lid of the teapot before pouring out each of the bowls about halfway full, passing one over to Katsuki under Lilia’s arms, then to Viktor and Otabek, who thanked him without breaking momentum in their conversation. Cosmos. Definitely still in bobo’s garden. He almost offered the fourth cup of tea to Lilia before he remembered she was the host here. He brought the steaming green tea just under his own nose and began to feel just a little more put together at the smell.

A ty otkuda?” said Lilia. “Yuri?” It took Yuri several moments to realize she was talking to him and to spin back the conversation far enough to process what she was asking.

Ya? Otkuda?” Yuri said with a snort. “Rodilsya v Lowereastside-ye. Tam yest’ pekarnya u moyei semyei, na Attorney-ye. I vsyo. That’s really about what there is to know about where I’m from. Interesno li, nyet? Izvenite, tyotya, I don’t have any beautiful stories about my bobo in Bukhara or whatever for you like this one does.”

The conversation paused in its steps as the soft piano music gave way to applause.

“Nevermind that,” she said, her English heavily accented. “I will hear about your family’s bakery, but unfortunately, it must be another time,” she nodded sharply across the room towards where the music had just stopped, “If you will excuse me.”

“Shit, is she always so intense like that?” Yuri asked after Lilia had stepped away briskly.

“I mean, you don’t get as far in the Imperial Ballet as she did by goofing around,” Viktor said. Otabek handed his teacup back to Yuri wordlessly.

“She seems pretty nice, actually,” Otabek interjected as Yuri handed back his refilled cup.

“She scared me at first, too,” Katsuki added, “But she really means well. She and Minako, both. I’d guess that out of all the people in this room - Lilia and Minako have done some kind of huge favor for more than half them at some point.”

“What about for you?” Yuri asked, leaning forward in his chair and taking a long sip of his tea, the warm, oddly toasted flavor of it underlined with a note of bitterness.

Viktor shifted in his seat, uncannily silent as he sipped his tea. Katsuki leaned forward, handing his cup back to Yuri to refill.

“I’d still be in Japan if it weren’t for Minako,” Yuuri said with a clear-minded steadiness that underlined the significance of what he’d just said, looking Yuri directly in the eye, “and Lilia, too, I suppose. I can’t undervalue her support, there. She - they - have helped me open many doors I would not have been able to on my own, artistically and, well, trust me when I say that the opportunity to come here changed a lot for me.”

“You mean for you and Viktor?” Yuri asked, the words spilling out more flippantly than he had meant.

Katsuki blushed at the question, taking a large gulp of his freshly filled tea.

“I suppose, yes,” Katsuki said, and Yuri could feel his dark eyes directly on him as his composure returned. The sincerity in his voice became something Yuri could almost feel crawling on his skin. “Viktor has been a very important and supportive friend to me for- quite a while now. That may be the second greatest favor they both have done for me. Without them, I wouldn’t have come here and I wouldn’t have met Viktor, and I can’t imagine my life without either of those things having happened.”

Yuri sat dumbly, nudging the dark, well-worn leather of one shoe with the other, both hands tucked around the heat of his tea. Something about Katsuki’s openness felt almost like an attack; he supposed the stupid phrasing of his question warranted it. It seemed difficult to identify anything in what he had said that pointed back at him, though, even as he turned the words around in his head.

The disorganized sounds of musicians warming up finally broke his concentration.

“Looks like Mila’s got her whole combo back together again!” Viktor said as Yuri turned around to look.

A tiny figure in a long, dark coat was wrangling a huge double bass towards the stage area opposite where they were sitting, joining the red-haired pianist that was perched at the upright tucked against the wall alongside a few others adjusting their instruments. What served as a stage wasn’t even raised up off of the ground, just marked off by a long, purple velvet curtain hanging behind it.

“Yeah, it’s been awhile since they were all here,” Katsuki said. “You like jazz?” he said, looking from Yuri to Otabek, who was already smiling.

“This fool,” Yuri said, nodding his head towards Otabek. “He’s always trying to drag me to some weird cafe or another to hear that music.”

“And?” Viktor said, fighting back his smile.

“It’s not too boring,” Yuri said, earning a bemused laugh from Otabek, who had put up with probably more than his fair share of petty complaints about his music choices. “It’s even kinda good sometimes.”

Before they could talk about it any further, the band started, the violin and clarinet doubling each other, just a few measures out ahead of the piano chords on the rippling intro to “Dipper Mouth Blues.”

The band was loud enough that keeping up any kind of conversation became a struggle. Moments later, after a brief conversation that required no words being spoken aloud, Viktor pulled Katsuki up from the sofa and led him by the hand into the mix of dancing figures.

Something pulled at Yuri as he watched them disappear into the crowd, slipping between people until Yuri could barely see the bounce of Viktor’s pale hair. The same feeling followed him into almost every concert Otabek dragged him into, at least all the ones that expected him to stay sitting down. Something about watching people dance triggered some odd combination of emptiness and jealousy that came out of not feeling like he could join them. It was oddly like the feeling Yuri knew from watching someone else box poorly, some combination of disappointment and the frustration of wanting to jump in himself. He knew he didn’t make a great spectator a lot of the time. In truth, he was more surprised by the times watching something did captivate him than the times it didn’t.

Otabek quickly took the opportunity to slide around from the place he’d been sitting to take the vacated spot on the couch, where he could relax back and get a better view of the band.

Yuri yawned as he slumped down into his chair, eyeing the spot beside Otabek on the sofa. He twisted himself around in the chair to see if he could spot Viktor and Katsuki in the crowd, but they had woven themselves deep into the fluid, moving fabric of the people in the room. He turned back to the couch and swung himself over before he could think too hard about it. Thinking seemed too hard right now, after everything the day had held. There was only so much left in him, and the filters always went first.

Otabek looked over at him as Yuri flopped down beside him with a frustrated grunt, slouching heavily into the cushion.

“Apparently, we went to one of your places,” Yuri said. Otabek pointed to his ear and shrugged his shoulders lightly. Yuri knew that one. It read as “sorry, can’t talk, too loud.”

It wasn’t worth trying to have a conversation right now, anyway. Otabek always hated when he talked over the musicians. Yuri crossed his arms in front of him. The sitting wouldn’t be so bad if he had someone to talk to but with the music like this he was stuck with himself.

He looked over at Otabek, watching the band with the soft openness he always watched music, his fingertips starting to play with the rhythms against his leg. Otabek wasn’t content just to stick close to the pulse of the music, tapping on the downbeat like most people. His tapping wove into and around the beat, changing so quickly that Yuri couldn’t quite follow it, couldn’t unlock any given pattern presented there. It almost made him wish he was more musical himself, just so he might be able to follow that, or to play with the beat himself.

The song had shifted into one Yuri didn’t recognize, keeping up the quick pace as the dancers held the beat in their bodies, in the body they became together. Yuri looked over at Otabek again, then back at the room as it danced, and he realized he was wondering what it would be like to dance with him. If he was honest, it wasn’t the first time he’d considered it, but it had never really been an open question until now. Men didn’t dance together. Not like that, at least.

No one would bat an eye here. Men didn’t kiss each other like Viktor and Katsuki had, either. Except here. No one would bat an eye. No one but Otabek, at least. His eyes darted back to Otabek, caught up in the music as his fingers danced strange, unrepeatable steps against the dark gray wool of his trousers.

What he knew was this: he wanted to move his body, and he wanted to stay close to Otabek. It seemed so simple presented like that. He wasn’t sure if there was a word for that, or if he needed one. If this was a place to forget, what did it matter what happened here?

Even with that in mind, it took more courage for Yuri to stand up now, to extend his open hand in an invitation than it had to step into that ring in front of hundreds, maybe thousands of people earlier that night. By the feel of it, he suspected his body was pumping more adrenaline into backing him up on this opening venture than it had earlier tonight. His other hand was held behind him, clenching so hard that he could feel the nails digging into his palm as he waited for Otabek to respond.

Otabek took his hand almost immediately as he noticed, before his face seemed to have even registered why, looking up with a soft inquiry in his dark eyes as he tightened his grip to stand up. They’d ended up grown to almost the same height and, standing face to face, their eyes naturally fell into line with each other’s. Still joined at the hand and now at the eyes, Yuri nodded towards the dance floor, pursing his lips tightly as he tried to keep his breath steady and calm, tried to keep his face even. Otabek’s expression tightened briefly in confusion, then softened again as he nodded in the same direction.

Yuri was less convinced with each moment that this was a place he was meant to forget. He didn’t care that the movement pulled at his sore muscles, or that the place Otabek had settled his hand on Yuri’s shoulder had a fresh bruise. He didn’t care that he wasn’t actually a very good dancer, only managing to avoid stepping on Otabek’s toes most of the time.

If Yuri regretted anything right then, it was all the jazz concerts he’d already spent not dancing with Otabek.

A few songs in, Yuri caught sight of Viktor and Katsuki in the crowd. Katsuki saw them first, grinning broadly as he turned them both around so that Viktor was facing them instead. Yuri felt the first flush of self-conscious embarrassment as Viktor turned to them making that ridiculous, wide-mouthed face of broad excitement that he sometimes did.

The band hadn’t paused much between any of the songs so far, though the short breaks between each song felt jarringly long. At most of the concerts Otabek dragged him to, Yuri was waiting for those breaks because it was the only time he knew he could get Otabek to talk to him. Tonight, he hadn’t dared speak during those moments, for fear that it might break whatever magic that was allowing this to happen, for fear that he might have to release his hand from Otabek’s.

A few band members stepped away as the pianist with the flaming red bob grabbed the ukulele that had been sitting across the top of the upright and tucked it casually under her arm.

“Hey, cats and kittens,” she said, linking her arm around the beaded waist of the dark-haired violinist. “You all couldn’t get rid of me if you tried, but we’ve been suffering without Sara, our violinist, for just over a month now while she took care of some family matters back in Philly. But let’s be honest - some of us have been suffering a little more than others without her. And by that I mean me.”

At that, the crowd hooted and whistled as she pressed a kiss to the violinist’s tawny cheek as she beamed a little awkwardly despite the obvious joy and admiration in her face.

“So, we’re going to give the rest of the band a break for a few moments and sing you a little something all slow and romantic-like,” said the bandleader, making some last minute adjustments to the tuning of the ukulele. “Though, Izzy, Emil, Kenji - feel free to jump in anytime after the first chorus if you feel like it. You know how we like to spice things up.”

She strummed through a few chords as an intro and then the two of them began singing together with only the brittle warmth of the ukulele for accompaniment. The violin and bow hung loosely at the other woman’s side. They started in perfect thirds that made it impossible to untangle one voice from the other, but quickly one voice broke into a harmony that danced around the melody, sometimes below, sometimes above, landing on intervals that tugged at the already exposed heartstrings of the song.

Yuri realized, as the singers built into the chorus, that Otabek hadn’t let go of his hand, as he had feared he might during a break from dancing. Yuri snuck a look at the hands clasped between them, the sturdy, warm tan of Otabek’s against his own pale fingers. He tried not to assign it any particular meaning. Like the others watching, Otabek seemed captivated by the delicate spareness of the arrangement that spoke volumes of longing in the spaces left open. There was a good chance he’d just forgotten, having gotten so used to it in the time they’d been dancing. Whatever he was thinking or not thinking, he didn’t want to let go of the warmth of Otabek from where it was, so close to his skin. The same way he hadn’t wanted to let go of him, drunk in the snow back in February, watching an evil snowman melt.

The rest of the room seemed to be held still and silent as well as the two women sang, daring not to move as if afraid of breaking whatever magic their harmonies had spun for all of them there.

The clarinetist - the tall man with the beard and the heavily embroidered shirt - was the first of the musicians to join them, blowing little fills at the end of the line, sticking to longer notes pulled from the chords for the rest. The delicately-built bassist, who looked like she could curl up inside of her instrument, joined them next, plucking out long, slow-ringing notes. The drummer, dressed in all black with his wild pouf of hair, slipped into the empty seat at the piano a few measures later and started tying together chords with gentle arpeggiations.

With the addition of the other musicians, the room began to move again, in slow undulations of bodies held cheek to cheek. It didn’t break whatever romantic spell the two women had cast, but finally it felt as though you could breathe without breaking the fragile beauty of sound that they’d created, just the two of them.

As the lyrics of the song ran out, the band kept going with it. Sara tucked her violin back under her chin, picking up the vocal melody on her instrument in long-bowed notes.

Yuri almost jumped as he felt a squeeze on his hand, heart fluttering in his chest. He looked down at the two linked hands before trailing up to Otabek’s face, still afraid of what he might see there. Yuri saw the softness in the way Otabek held his lips first, more open than the thin line in which they usually rested. Following up to his eyes from there, his mouth almost dropped open at the life dancing in Otabek’s eyes, wide and focused exclusively on his face. The expression made it difficult to maintain eye contact, made it something he could feel in the tight flutter of his chest, somewhere between pain and intense release. Yuri’s eyes darted away and back several times before they actually came to rest, licking his lips to try to let go of some of the pressure building inside of him, the corners of his eyes beginning to itch with moisture.

He set his other hand lightly back on Otabek’s waist as they let the music reabsorb them, pulling each other that much closer than they had dancing to the quick beat of the tunes before. Yuri’s breath caught in his throat with the tiny prickle of stubble that pressed against his cheek with the warmth of Otabek’s skin. He tightened his grip on his waist as he let his eyes slip closed and relaxed into the the gentle sway of their bodies together.

It took them both a moment to realize it when the song finally ended, still held there wrapped in the world the music had created for them, as applause surged around them. Yuri’s eyes felt damp as he opened them, still held against Otabek and, fuck, since when was he a weepy drunk? His tongue pulled his bottom lip in between his teeth as he grudgingly released his cheek from the clean warmth of Otabek’s. Their faces hung there for a moment and Yuri could feel the warm air of Otabek’s breath against his skin, the pull to close the distance between them feeling almost like gravity as their eyes reconnected like some kind of visceral sensation. At that, instead, they dropped their hands from each other and Yuri felt the worst kind of weightlessness in the absence of their touch.

Yuri tried to wipe his eyes discreetly with the back of his hand, but there was only so much discretion that was possible in the middle of the room, surrounded in the applause that still seized the room. Belatedly, Yuri joined it, clapping like he was certain he had never clapped for anything before.

The band reshuffled back into their original arrangement and the clarinet led them into a quick-paced stomp of a tune Yuri was pretty sure he recognized. He held out his hand to Otabek again, a smile crossing his lips finally. He was rewarded with the feeling of Otabek’s calloused hand against his own again, and they let themselves be claimed by the beat as they danced.

A few songs later, Viktor and Katsuki managed to navigate over to them without dropping their ballroom hold on each other. Viktor bumped against Yuri’s shoulder. Yuri might have punched him if it didn’t require letting go of Otabek, so he just shoved back with a sharp look on his face, though it did nothing to wipe the dopey-eyed excitement off of Viktor’s. It would take a lot more for Yuri to admit in words that Viktor had been right about this place being more his speed, but, for better or worse, he wasn’t sure if he needed to say anything for Viktor to know.

The exhaustion hit Yuri hard again once the band finished up for the night.

“You’re both welcome to come stay with us,” Katsuki said as they collected themselves to leave at last. “Our place is just a little closer, I think, and we have a second bedroom if you want it.”

Our place. Did that mean they- how did Viktor, one of the most loud-mouthed, outspoken people he knew keep something like this, that clearly ran so deep in his life, so quiet?

“Er, thanks, but the bakery, and,” Yuri stammered.

“Of course,” Viktor said gently, as if to release him from any explanation.

“The offer is open anytime, though,” Viktor added, “for both of you. Anytime, even if you just need a little space by yourself for a while.”

“Thanks,” Yuri said quietly, still standing close enough to Otabek that he could feel the warmth of him through his shirtsleeves.

“Walk out with you?” Viktor asked, nodding to the door.

“Sure,” said Yuri.

Viktor and Katsuki waved goodbye to Lilia and Minako, both busy cleaning down different parts of the bar. Only Minako noticed, but tapped on Lilia’s shoulder to turn around and wave with her.

“Can we help you get a cab back?” Viktor asked once they were outside again, the chill in the air having doubled down even from when they’d headed into the club. “You might be waiting quite a while for a train at this hour.”

“You don’t have to,” Yuri said, touching the wad of bills in his pocket yet again. “I think we can manage.”

“Suit yourselves,” Viktor said. He reached out and laid each of his hand’s on Yuri’s and Otabek’s forearms. “I know I don’t really need to say this, but I’m so proud of what both of you have accomplished tonight. And I hope you are, too. Everywhere,” he said, squeezing their arms. “You know,” he said, the mischievous smirk creeping back onto his face, “we can come out here again even if we’re not celebrating victory.”

Konechno,” Otabek said.

Yuri smiled at his shoes, nodding gently.

“See you at the Y on Monday?” Viktor asked, releasing his grip on them.

“Course.” Yuri nodded again, able to make eye contact this time.

“I’m so glad we finally got to meet,” said Katsuki.

“Yeah,” both Yuri and Otabek said.

“Get home safe!” Viktor called over his shoulder as he and Katsuki turned down Christopher together back towards the lights of Sixth Avenue.

Yuri led Otabek back the way they’d come, through the narrow street around the corner, back out of the light. As the shadows fell around them, he nudged his fingers against Otabek’s right beside him. Even anticipating it, the feeling shocked him as the touch was returned, and his breath caught in his throat as their fingers laced together. All excuses but exhaustion were gone: there was no music to dance to, no crowd that didn’t care because they were doing the same. They weren’t even all that drunk anymore.

“Cows, Altin?” Yuri asked, suddenly remembering the odd conversation they’d had almost right on this spot on their way in, drunk and delirious, with an intense, if distant, clarity. It seemed far longer than a few hours ago. In many way, it was. The drunkenness had cleared in his head, but the feeling of delirium was there and not, leaving Yuri high on a barely guarded clarity he didn’t think he’d be able to hold onto in the light.

He felt the pull between them again, the same one he’d felt as the two women had sung their love song together in the club, the same one that, if he was honest with himself, he’d been pretending wasn’t there for who knows how long. It had never been as strong as it was tonight, though, and never as strong as it was right now, feeling as though it was a physical force between them.

“Shut up, Plisetsky,” Otabek said with a laugh, and finally closed the distance between them. He wasn’t someone who wasted time with hesitation once he’d made a decision. Otabek kissed like he seemed to do everything else, unreservedly and passionately once he’d settled on his course of action, one hand combing through Yuri’s hair as the other snaked around his back to pull their bodies closer together.

Yuri pulled him back against him onto the rough brick, the wall cool and slightly damp under his touch. He’d kissed a girl, once, on the ferris wheel at Coney Island. He and Otabek had met up with her and her friend there after a fairly pleasant conversation with them in line for ice cream. It seemed worth a try. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do at the top of the ferris wheel with a girl? Her lips had been too soft to be interesting, tacky and sweet with some kind of product she’d put there that just felt like a distraction. She was nice enough to spend time with, but that didn’t really seem to add any interest for him.

This was nothing like that. There was an honesty in the roughness of Otabek’s half-chapped lips, with nothing to mask the salty warmth of his taste, still slightly bitter from the oversteeped green tea they had washed down at the end of the night.

“Fuck,” Yuri said as his head lolled back against the wall, still breathing hard, his heartbeat double-stepping in his chest as he could feel tears start to burn at the corners of his eyes again.

“Eloquent as ever,” Otabek said and turned his head away to yawn broadly. “Sorry.”

“We should go,” Yuri whispered as he was caught by Otabek’s yawn into his own.

Otabek nodded sadly. Yuri could just barely make out his lips pressed together in the minimal light.

“I’m just-” Yuri began uncertainly. “I feel like once we go home, that I’m supposed to forget this. And I don’t want to.”

“Yeah,” Otabek breathed, his hand falling from Yuri’s cheek to lace their fingers together again. “I know. Me too.”

“This isn’t- this doesn’t,” Yuri said, struggling to come up with some kind of excuse for himself.

“Don’t,” Otabek said. “You don’t have to. Not now. Not for me.”

Yuri raised their interlocked hands to where he could see them, waving them back and forth before raising his other hand to draw Otabek’s face back into his own again, savoring the touch of his lips before his body pulled another yawn out of him.

“You will be okay tomorrow?” Otabek asked gently, pulling back enough to look at him. Yuri cast his eyes down as he laughed at himself quietly.

“I’ll be fine,” he said, looking back up. “It’s not going to be a fun day, but at least I’ll have this to think about.”

Otabek tucked his face into the curve of Yuri’s neck and he could feel Otabek smiling against his skin as he inhaled deeply. He could feel the tears rising again, though he was smiling as he sniffed them back.

“We should really get you home,” Otabek said. “Let’s head out to Sixth and see if we can find a cab. I’m not going to make you walk all the way back.”

“I don’t think I ever intended to,” Yuri said, and stole one more kiss before pulling himself back off of the wall and walking down the dark street towards where the streetlights picked back up again. As they stepped back into the light, their hands dropped from each other’s, though if they had turned around, they would have seen that their shadows, blown out of proportion by the angle of the streetlight, were still intertwined behind them.

Chapter Text

The sun was far brighter than it had any right to be when Yuri opened his eyes. Far brighter than he expected, in fact, unless Zeyde had let him sleep. Shit, he must have looked bad when he got in if he’d let him sleep into his shift like this.

The clock on the mantle had just crossed nine. He’d gotten in just before three, which meant he’d slept for six hours, about as much of a night’s sleep as he ever got.

The last time Yuri had slept in like this any day but a Monday, he’d caught some bug that had left him unable to hold down any food, even when there had been nothing left in his stomach to reject. In the nearly six years he’d been working full time at the bakery, he’d missed a few days due to illness, but never because of something he’d chosen to do. Working through feeling like shit was part of the price of having fun, sometimes. If anything, he found himself complaining less on those days, found himself quieter overall.

He squeezed his eyes shut again as his stomach churned through some cocktail of guilt and unease, wondering if his grandfather was down there by the ovens on his own. He rubbed his sleep-gritted eyes with the heel of his palm and quickly regretted that too, wincing with a sharply inhaled breath as he pressed down on over-tender skin.

“Oh, so you are alive. I should feel so lucky, I suppose,” his mother’s voice scolded tersely from across the room.

Yuri forced his eyes open just enough to see her silhouette by the window, leaning against the sill as she aggressively folded a piece of clothing she’d just pulled in off the line and dropped it into the basket at her feet. She gave the line another sharp pull and the grating, metallic creak turned as far in Yuri’s gut as it did on the line.

She was doing this on purpose. She had to be. There was no reason to fold each piece of laundry as it came in off the line, no reason to do that here, not now. The reel creaked sharply again, but she said nothing further. His mother’s silence was far more worrying than anything else.

He tensed his body into a stretch and felt his muscle fibers fight back against the movement in no fewer than three different ways, each with its own particular tonality of discomfort. Yuri reached his hand up to trace fingertips across the swollen contour of his lips, still tender from the night before, and his body tingled through his breath underneath the pain as he held the memory of the touch of Otabek’s lips against his own, even above every other reminder of the past day that he wore on his skin.

The wood floor was cold against his bare feet as he twisted himself up to sit on the sofa, pulling the quilt around his shoulders as his body fought him even harder on that move than it had on the last. He blinked a few more times against the light, still unwilling to let his eyes open fully. Every curtain in the room was drawn open, which was almost never true, and just as certainly not a coincidence.

The line between his mother’s worry and her anger was imperceptible at times. One could easily bleed over into the other with a single word. Yuri was the same, if he was honest with himself, even if it took a different shape in his hands that rarely looked as productive as clean laundry. He wished he had been blessed with Zeyde’s even temper instead. Shit, he wished she had, too. Yuri didn’t imagine his grandfather’s even temperament to be effortless. Having practiced that kind of patience in the ring for years now, Yuri could admit that, more often than not, doing nothing required far more effort in the face of frustration. His grandfather just made it look easy.

Yuri’s mouth was sticky and dry as he tried to swallow. Even that hurt right now. He just wished he knew which part of the whole situation, which part of him she was going to rip into when she finally broke open with it. Maybe if he just went downstairs now and said nothing, they could avoid talking about this.

“You know, your zeyde is not so young as he used to be,” she finally said, her tone quietly barbed as she tugged on the clothesline again.

“I know,” Yuri said softly.

“You know how his back is unreliable at best after lifting those heavy bowls for so many years.”

“I know,” he said, the apology in his voice growing slightly more defensive.

“Even Miri and Lena together - they can barely lift those bowls of dough onto the counter,” she went on, “You know, that’s where they are right now. Their day off from school and they’re lifting those huge bowls while you’re up here sleeping.”

“I’m awake, alright?!” Yuri finally exploded. “And they always work the front on Sundays. If they were down there early, it’s because Zeyde chose to wake them up instead of me and I don’t know why. I didn’t ask him to let me sleep - when have I ever told him I couldn’t work because I just needed a little more sleep?”

“Have you seen yourself, tsigele?” she demanded. “You didn’t need to say anything.”

“Listen, I’ll get dressed and head down right-”

“You’ve been fighting again,” she said.

“It’s not what it-”

“It’s bad enough you make me worry staying out so late, but then you come home looking like, well, like this and I’m just supposed to sit here and listen when you say, ‘No, mama, you don’t have to worry about me.’ Maybe it would be better if I just didn’t care, but,”


“I don’t know whether to hope that this is something you started or not. The one would mean my son is some kind of common thug, and the other, that he’s putting himself around dangerous people. What am I supposed to think?”

“Mama! Would you listen for just a moment? It was a tournament,” Yuri spat out finally, hoping his half-truth would hold long enough not to talk about all of this at once. “I was boxing. I promise I didn’t start anything. I didn’t even touch anybody outside of the ring. I promise.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Yes?” Yuri said, his mouth twitching uncertainly, though no less so than if it were the whole of the truth.

“No,” She stood up, the slip she had just pulled in off the line rippling in front of her, clutched tightly in her fist as she shook it at him. “When have you ever gotten back from one of your tournaments so late? When have you ever come back from one of your tournaments so beat up?”

“He was better than anyone else I’ve ever fought before- boxed, better than anyone else I’ve ever boxed,” Yuri pulled the quilt tighter around his shoulders as he hunched over further. “Then Viktor took me and Beka to dinner and we went to hear some music. That’s it. And then I came home. I didn’t know Viktor was going to invite us out or I would have told you. I swear I would have gotten up with Zeyde if he’d asked. I didn’t want it to make anyone else’s day worse. I promise.”

His mother sighed, leaned back against the windowsill, and tugged another slip in off of the clothesline to fold. Yuri’s eyes were turned towards his bare feet against the wood of the floor, but he could feel her eyes each time they grazed across him. Her face lacked any tells of disbelief in what he had told her, but it was equally clear that there was no answer he could offer that would satisfy her.

“I don’t know how many more of these fights my heart can take,” she said quietly as she dropped the folded slip into the basket, looking up at him. “I know you’re grown and you don’t need my permission for all of these things. But do you know how hard it is for me to look at you like that? Do you know what it does to me?”

Leaning against the sill, she brushed off the navy blue cotton of her skirt and let out a big sigh, folding her hands in front of her, looking down at her thumbs as they rubbed against each other. Her voice softened as her eyes turned back to him.

“You’ll understand when you have your own kids,” she continued, a sad distance cracking in her voice. “It breaks my heart to see your beautiful face that I have washed and kissed so many times - to see it covered in bruises and cuts like that. And each time, I worry it will be something worse. I still remember reading the obituary for that Frankie Jerome, and reading about his mother sitting together with his wife and his little daughter at the funeral and I can’t help but think of myself in her place when I see you like this.”

“I’m sorry, mama,” he said softly, standing up all the way, reluctantly drawing the quilt from around his shoulders and folding it onto the couch. “I’m going to go get dressed and take over downstairs.”

“This isn’t done, you know,” his mother said, pulling one of his shirts in through the window.

“I know.” Yuri nodded solemnly, and stretched his arms up over his head and winced through all the different places his body cracked, the tightness his muscles held almost all over. It was never done.

Zeyde meant well letting him sleep, but that didn’t make this any easier. Even his mother meant well in every word she threw at him, in every time she brought up Frankie Goddamn Jerome, that Irish kid from the Bronx who had been knocked out in the ring at Madison Square Garden some two-odd years ago and never woken up. The Bronx Spider, they’d called him. Frankie had been a bantamweight, just like Yuri himself was now, a top contender for the world championship when he’d been permanently KO’d.

There was no arguing with his mother about Frankie Jerome. Not in words, at least. She always brought it up as if the risk were something he hadn’t considered. As if his death hadn’t affected Yuri.

Yuri had read that same obituary his mother had. In fact, he’d read everything he could find on Jerome’s death, going through the descriptions of the mourners to see who he recognized, scouring the writeups of the fight itself to see if he could find traces of himself in the action. He was never sure if he was more afraid of seeing himself in Jerome or in Bud Taylor, the opponent who had struck the fateful blow.

At some point, after the fifth or sixth or however many articles he’d read breaking down the fight, one of the things Yakov had said to him repeatedly when he first began training with him came to him and wouldn’t leave the top of his head: “Boxing matches are really all made up of the same basic parts, you know.”

When Yakov said it, he was trying to stress the importance of fundamentals to angry kids who didn’t see the use in drill work. Yuri had heard the words directed at himself many times in that context. But as he read over the details of the match again and again, the words shifting slightly without substantially altering anything, it all just broke apart into those basic elements every boxer drilled from the start. At the end of it, he couldn’t find any one thing that even hinted at an explanation of what had turned Taylor’s punches into killing blows that night.

There was nothing in there Yuri could point to that would allow him to distance himself from it completely. He supposed he couldn’t blame his mother for reading the newspaper in an attempt to find some detail that could place distance between herself and Jerome’s family. Even if it sometimes felt like what she was doing was trying to insert herself into another mother’s grief prematurely.

In her mind, at least, it was for Yuri’s benefit, and there was no arguing with her about it. There was nothing in Yuri’s temperament or boxing style, nothing even in the wad of bills Yuri had stashed in the clock on the mantle last night, that could promise her that it would never happen that way with him.

Oddly, the thought that kept Yuri afloat was the idea that boxing had been this dangerous even before Jerome had died, that there was nothing about what had happened that had made it any more or less likely to happen to him. At the end of it all, Frankie Jerome’s death changed nothing about what happened in the ring. And somehow, that still didn’t make it something he could argue about.

As he headed for the bathroom, he closed his eyes and let his tongue run along the crooked line of his lips again as he breathed deeply. For once, his mother hadn’t been exaggerating: the face that met him in the mirror was something of a terror. The sickly purple-green bruises clung around one eye and along the cheekbone under the other, his lip puffing out around the place it had split during the bout. His eyes were dull, outlined in red, though that much wasn’t the fault of the fight.

Examining the damage on his own face, Yuri wondered how Otabek was faring. Even with more than double the time in the ring, he hadn’t taken quite as much abuse to the face in his match. Even so, he’d still left the ring wearing his own blood on his face. The dark spot along the hard line of his jaw had started to bloom even in the soft light of the midnight streets.

As the sore spots along his ribs throbbed, he pictured those same spots in shades of red and purple along the strong lines of Otabek’s bare torso. He’d seen them starting to come in red as they were changing last night. His skin wasn’t dark enough to hide them that much, but offered slightly less contrast than the pale canvas of Yuri’s own skin.

Yuri hoped Otabek was still asleep right now. He tried to picture his friend, asleep on the creaky single bed in that tiny room he shared with the two siblings still at home, the often too-serious lines of his face softened by sleep. The memory of Otabek as a warm brush on Yuri’s cheek, on his lips lingered deeper inside him. The warmth of the moment that coursed through him pulled some of the sting from his skin.

Thoughts of Otabek drifted and twined together, causing heat to pool low in Yuri’s belly: the lines of his muscles, the gentle scrape of his cheek, the warmth of his breath across the tender skin of Yuri’s neck, and, dammit, he didn’t have time for this right now.

He’d never before been so glad that the water up here only ran cold.

The screen door slammed behind him as he stepped into the back of the bakery; Yuri could feel the sound throughout his body. At the bench, his grandfather looked up from the batch of proofed loaves he was preparing for the oven and nodded as if he’d been expecting Yuri at just this moment. Lena was across from him, dressing the loaves with sesame seeds as Zeyde finished brushing the tops of them.

“Looks like they didn’t quite finish the job turning you into hamburger,” Lena said as she turned around. “Did you win this time?”

“Do I ever not?” Yuri smirked quietly and yawned as he pulled his apron from the peg and quickly put it on.

“I don’t know, what did mama have to say?” Lena snickered, pressing the bowl of sesame seeds against his chest.

Yuri sighed in frustration as he grabbed hold of the bowl.

“Couldn’t you hear her?” he said as she started untying her own apron. “Hey, Lena, thanks for helping out a little extra this morning. I didn’t mean to…”

“Boy, she really must have laid it on extra thick today,” Lena said with a snort as she pulled the apron off over her head. “You’re welcome, though.”

Yuri picked up the peel to shove a few loaves into the oven, wincing as he jerked the peel back with a quick, practiced motion.

“So was he cute?” Lena asked casually as she began pouring out two cups of tea. Yuri’s head was immediately flooded with golden skin and dark eyes.

“What do you…” he stammered as he set the peel back on the bench, feeling blood creep into his cheeks.

“The guy you fought yesterday, who do you think I mean?” Lena’s shoulders shook with a deep belly laugh.

“I don’t know, what are you asking me for?” Yuri barked at her and she just started laughing harder. Even Zeyde was chuckling softly under his breath.

“I need to keep apprised of these things. If he was cute, I’d need to know if he was Jewish, and if so, I might need an introduction,” Lena said, very matter-of-factly, her blue eyes smiling harder than any other part of her face. “You know you owe me at least that much.”

“Ugh, I can’t believe you,” Yuri said shaking his head as he delicately transferred a few more proofed loaves onto the peel. “Do you even know what Mama would say if I introduced you to someone I met boxing?”

“I don’t ask for much, Yuri,” Lena said, stirring sugar into a cup of tea and setting it in front of him.

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Yuri asked with an exasperated smirk.

“Nope. Sunday, Miri’s turn out front at the counter. You going to answer my question or did my future husband bash your brain in even harder than it looks?”

“I don’t think he’s your type,” Yuri said flatly, catching his grandfather laughing quietly under his breath again.

“You sure?” She placed the second cup of tea in front of Zeyde.

“How should I know?” Yuri said. “I’m almost positive he’s not Jewish, though.”

“Hmm, pity,” Lena said.

“Thanks for the tea,” he said.

Stirring the last cup for herself, Lena pressed her lips together uncertainly. The boldness that had driven the rest of her questions softened in her voice, “Was Otabek there?”

“What? Oh, yeah, of course.” Yuri paused long enough to take a sip of his tea, but felt the heat of embarrassment crawling up his face again, challenging the sense of relief the warm tea in his belly. Yuri found himself having to work to keep himself from grinning like an idiot.

“What about him?” Lena asked softly, from across the rim of her mug.

“What about him?” Yuri replied defensively, setting his tea back down and returning to his work on the bread.

“Um, just, you know, how did he do?” Lena shrugged, trying to affect a casual tone in her inquiry that set Yuri on guard.

“Oh, he was- he was brilliant. Wiped the floor with the guy,” Yuri said, his voice distant as the thought of Otabek finally managed to creep onto his face in a soft smile, “It’s always something to see him in action.”

Lena smiled softly into her tea and nodded.

“Are we going to see him around here anytime soon?” Lena asked, the softness in her voice slipping almost into caution. The question, even the tone in which it was asked, left Yuri bristling with an unfamiliar sort of unease. It wasn’t the first time Lena had expressed this kind of interest in Otabek, but it felt somewhat different after last night, as if there were something there for Yuri to defend.

Yuri’s face twisted into an expression he hoped could just be chalked up to the soreness in his body.

“Don’t worry, his face isn’t as beaten in as mine is,” Yuri snorted numbly and slid another several loaves into the oven. “He’s still pretty, if that’s what you’re really asking.”

“I’m going to go bring Miri some tea,” Lena said, trying to conceal her own blush as she quickly pushed forward into the front of the bakery, leaving Yuri alone with his grandfather in the back by the ovens.

If he was less tired, he might have thrown something. Not at Lena. Not really, at least. Instead, he stopped to pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply, his eyes sliding shut for a moment as he released the breath.

His grandfather was watching him as his eyes reopened.

“What?” Yuri scowled tiredly. “If you’ve got something to say, old man, just say it.”

“No, nothing important,” he said, brushing the tops of more loaves with the egg wash. ”It just looks like you had yourself quite the long night. Anything you want to talk about? Care to humor a boring old man with any exciting stories?”

Yuri trained his eyes down to the bread in front of him and felt his tongue dart out through his lips, worrying at the split spot as he shrugged.

“I don’t know,” Yuri said, eyes still focused in front of him. “You didn’t have to let me sleep like that. I promised I wouldn’t put this ahead of work- ahead of you all, and I meant it. And mama, she talks about it like I don’t care what it means for you all.”

“And you think you would have escaped hearing about it from her just by not sleeping?”

“She doesn’t need more reason to be upset about my boxing.” Yuri was interrupted by a wide yawn. “Maybe someday boxing can pay the bills better than baking, but for now I owe you this much.”

His grandfather grunted quietly and nodded. Yuri had found that his grandfather could communicate more with a single grunt than most people could in words, though it was possible that it was because Yuri had become very adept at reading the intention coded into it over the many early mornings they’d spent together in near silence. He suspected his grandfather found him yet more transparent in what he said without words, but was usually too politic to force whatever was on Yuri’s mind to the surface.

“You know your mother loves you,” Zeyde began cautiously.

“I know she does, but I wish she-” Yuri slid another few loaves into the oven, jerking the peel back more aggressively than was strictly necessary and feeling it in his shoulder.

“I wasn’t done,” Zeyde interrupted calmly, not pausing in his work on the loaves in front of him.

Yuri let the handle of the long, wooden peel rest on the floor, cheek resting against his fingers as they curled around the flour-dusted edge of the wood.

“She loves you, but she can’t see the future better than anyone else,” he said. “She has her reasons for playing things safe. You know that already. I blame myself and her mother in part for being so single-minded about the stability of this place, and, well, you know that she has her reasons. They are good reasons, but I think we get so used to telling stories about the past as cautionary tales that we forget that they only tell us about what can happen, not what will happen. It’s more true here than it was in Russia. It’s part of why your Bubbe and I came here, because we wanted to tell a different story than the one we’d heard over and over again. We weren’t exactly sure what that story was going to be, though, until we told it.”

His grandfather pushed the pan he’d been working across the bench towards Yuri. “Loaves in the bottom oven should be ready about now. You should check them before you do anything with these.”

Yuri pushed himself off of where he was leaning against the peel and blinked heavily.

“What did your family think about you leaving? Were they worried about you?” Yuri asked as he opened the lower oven and peeked inside.

“Of course they worried, but they would worry if we stayed, too. It’s their job to worry,” Zeyde chuckled. “It’s one of the things you do when you love someone. You know that your mama would find a way to worry about you whatever it was you were doing. If all you did was work here and sleep, she’d worry that you didn’t get out enough.”

Lena crept back into the kitchen, trying to make herself as invisible as possible as she poured Miri the cup of tea she had left in the name of bringing out earlier.

“You can’t tell me that she’d worry this hard about it, though.” Yuri slid several loaves out of the oven and onto the rolling rack beside it.

“Why, are you considering it?” Zeyde chuckled.

“Not a chance, old man,” Yuri responded immediately with a click of disdain as he shoveled the next peel’s worth of hot loaves onto the cart and his grandfather’s low, chesty laugh swelled softly. “You trying to control me?”

“Has anyone ever been able to control you?” Zeyde laughed generously. “We’re all just lucky you have a good heart. We just worry about you.”

The loaves that had just come out of the oven began to crackle, the small, hollow sound that always came with the cooling of fresh bread. Even though Yuri heard it many times a day, almost every day, there was always comfort in that sound for him, the same way there was comfort in the smell of the baking loaves. When he was very little, before he’d lived above the bakery, Zeyde had told him that it was the sound of the bread applauding a job well done. The image had stuck with him, and he still heard it as applause from the tiniest hands in the world.

That quiet, hollow applause still made him smile. In the back of his head, echoes of the applause from last night began to twine with the sound, some fragment of the ecstatic relief of that moment swelling in his mind. At some point he’d be able to tell Zeyde about it, once his success was clear and not just a one-off fluke. For now, it ached to hold it so close to his chest.

The rough rattle of someone knocking against the back screen door of the kitchen pulled him fully back into the room, as he turned around to see who was at the door. Otabek stood there, cupping his hand above his eyes against the screen to see inside.

“Beka,” Yuri said, his voice coming out more breathy than he’d intended as the sight rooted him in place. The heat creeping through his skin that he’d tried to suppress earlier threatened to stifle him entirely.

“Can the cat come in?” Otabek asked.

“If he likes,” Zeyde said, waving Otabek in, “Just come on in, son, don’t worry about him.”

Buster trotted purposefully through the door right as Otabek opened it and wound around Yuri’s legs once or twice before setting off on his appointed rounds in the kitchen. Otabek stepped inside behind the cat, closing the screen door behind him gently and standing just in front of it.

Normally, Otabek had an easy stillness about the way he moved. It even carried over into how he moved in the ring, where his movements were patient and precise. Today he shifted where he stood, scratching the back of his head as if he wasn’t sure what to do with his body, while Yuri was the one left motionless, captured in the space between Otabek’s dark eyes and the red-brown tile of the floor.

“How are you holding up today, Otabek?” Zeyde asked. “You don’t look quite as rough as my Yura. He says you did well?”

“Um, yes, thank you, I’m a little sore, but I’m good. Yesterday was, um, it was good,” Otabek nodded, still fidgeting quietly. The spot on his jaw was a deep purple, and the strong lines of his face were dulled slightly, but his face was nowhere near the abused mess that Yuri’s was. Yuri wondered how the bruises to his ribs were doing and was overcome with the memory of the lines of Otabek’s chest that had sent him under the cold tap not long ago.

Yuri had broadly learned to disregard the flicker of excitement he felt in his body at seeing Otabek, assuming it was more or less part of having a friend that close. Certainly, no one else had ever been that close. But even his memory of the lines of Otabek’s body seemed different after last night, as if they’d always been tied to a line connecting them to some large vessel like the ones down at the docks, the rope that bound them together drifting underwater, only revealed when it was pulled tight.

“Yurochka, why don’t you pour your friend some tea,” Zeyde said. “There’s a poppy babka from yesterday we cut into earlier behind you if you want to get him a slice of that, too.”

Yuri lurched into action, still without saying anything. He was grateful for something to do, the movements flowing together like they did when he hit his stride at the busiest points of the day. He cut himself a slice of the babka too, the dark, sticky-sweet filling clinging to his fingertips as he balanced Otabek’s slice on a clean towel.

“Here,” Yuri said, delivering the tea and babka, close enough that he could smell the mixed scents of fresh soap and gasoline drifting from Otabek into the pervasive smell of baking bread around them. His tongue darted between his lips as he actually allowed his eyes to meet Otabek’s. Suddenly he wasn’t sure if he was ready to eat anything yet as the flutters in his chest fought the varied reminders of the last night that plagued his stomach.

“Thanks,” Otabek all but whispered and Yuri tried to find anywhere else to rest his eyes. Yuri realized he hadn’t finished getting the loaves out of the lower oven and quickly slipped back over to finish.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you today,” Yuri said, his voice cautious but much more in possession of himself from the other side of the room. “I would have expected you’d still be asleep.”

“I can’t really sleep when it’s light out,” Otabek shrugged apologetically, settling himself against the thick wood of the bench with his tea and babka, “and, I just wanted to see how you were after yesterday.”

Yuri smiled quietly to himself as he faced the ovens.

“I’m fine,” Yuri said. “Tired, but fine. This one let me oversleep this morning, though.”

“It’s not oversleeping if I let you,” Zeyde protested. “Who else do you have to explain it to?”

“I think you know the answer to that question,” Yuri snorted.

“Hi, Otabek,” Lena said, leaning into the kitchen around the doorframe to the front and Yuri tensed and gritted his teeth together, gripping the peel more tightly as he shoveled the last few loaves of bread out of the top oven.

“How are you this morning, Lena?” Otabek responded.

“I had to wake up really early to cover for Yuri today, but I’m doing alright,” Lena said and Yuri scanned the counter for something to throw.

“Lena! I’m sorry, alright? I already told you that I was planning on getting up with Zeyde and he was the one who let me sleep!” Yuri punctuated his defense by launching a damp cleaning rag in the direction of his sister’s face.

Lena ducked back around the corner and out of sight as the rag smacked the door frame and dropped to the floor.

“Yuri, you can’t let these things get to you like that,” Zeyde said calmly, squatting to pick up the rag, grimacing and holding one hand on his back as he stood back up.

“Your back’s acting up again, isn’t it,” Yuri said, hurrying across the room to offer a hand of support. “Don’t tell me you were trying to lift the bowls of dough this morning.”

“Not by myself,” Zeyde protested, waving away Yuri’s help, “I’m not quite so stubborn as all that these days. The girls helped me.”

“You really should have gotten me up to help. I wouldn’t have complained, I promise.” Yuri repeated yet again.

“I’m not so delicate, either. I’ve had worse,” his grandfather grumbled as he tossed the rag into the nearby sink and wiped his hands on his apron.

“And I am? You know I hate to see you like this,” Yuri said, the agitation in his voice rising again.

“You see what I meant about how we worry about each other earlier, though, hmm?” Zeyde tilted his head as if to drill the point home.

Yuri grumbled and opened up the proofing box to get out the next round of things to go in the oven, but said nothing to object. Zeyde picked his arguments carefully, but it was very difficult to argue with him when he did. Arguing with someone who refused to get angry was near impossible.

“How’s your family, Otabek? Did your sister have her baby yet?” Zeyde pulled his attention away from Yuri before he could dig into further argument.

“No, not yet, any day now, though.”

“Ah, first babies like to take their time like that,” Zeyde said with a sweetly knowing smile. “Such a blessing, though. Your parents must be so proud.”

“Well, I think my mother has spent more time with Zara than any of us recently, and when I have seen her it’s all she can talk about, so I would guess so,” Otabek chuckled gently.

“Well, I hope everything goes smoothly, kina hora. My best wishes to her and all of your family.”

“Thank you.” Otabek nodded to his tea.

“So tell me about your fights yesterday,” Zeyde said. “This one hasn’t woken up enough to tell me any of the details.”

“You know, someday you’ll have to come see Yuri fight,” Otabek smiled softly across the table as Yuri deftly slashed the tops of the dark loaves in front of him. Without looking up, Yuri felt the gentle affection in his voice. “It’s a pretty spectacular sight. But I don’t need to tell you much about what he can do when he’s determined enough.”

“No, son,” Zeyde offered his own affectionate smile, “You certainly don’t have to sell me on that.”

Chapter Text

Yakov said nothing to Otabek or to Yuri at practice on Monday. He could read it on their bodies even if he hadn’t read about it in the paper or heard about it from the other folks he knew who followed boxing. Even if they hadn’t known who Yuri or Otabek were before Saturday night, they knew who Viktor was, and that would be enough for comment to trace its way back to Yakov. Who knows how much he knew, but he knew enough. Otabek could read that much on Yakov’s body.

Viktor’s fights always left Yakov with mysterious symptoms in the days following. Nothing serious: just enough of a headache and an upset stomach to give him an even lower threshold than usual for putting up with the antics of the younger boxers. Otabek tried to keep his head down and out of the way those days, but it seemed Yuri couldn’t resist the urge to push into Yakov’s sore spots when they were so close to the surface. Sometimes he managed to drag Otabek into it—in one case literally, after fashioning a lasso of sorts out of a pair of jump ropes. When Viktor did appear, Yakov did his best to pretend Viktor wasn’t there for the first few days, at least until the bruises had started to fade.

Otabek couldn’t bring himself to be particularly surprised that Yakov was giving them the same treatment he gave Viktor after his fights. It wasn’t that far from the way Otabek’s own father dealt with his boxing matches, only instead of ignoring him completely, his father only went so far as to avoid mention of anything related to the sport. His father wasn’t exactly the chatty type even on a good day, but two days later, his father hadn’t said a word to him about the bruise on his jaw. Instead he measured out brief, useless questions about Otabek’s work and classes in the short time they saw each other. Silence was something of an awkward weight to hold, but Otabek knew he wasn’t much better himself when put on the spot.

By the time Otabek arrived at practice that Monday, Yuri was doing his best to get Yakov to notice him. Viktor showed up shortly thereafter and began the work of redirecting and reining Yuri in when Yakov approached him, his withered, angular face redder than usual.

“Vitya, a word please,” Yakov said through gritted teeth, standing about an arm’s length away from where Viktor’s arm rested softly on Yuri’s shoulder like they were posed for a family portrait.

“Of course,” Viktor said through a gentle smile, eyes bright and wide, as he turned himself fully towards Yakov and folded his hands demurely in front of him. “Anything for you.”

“Don’t patronize me, Vitya,” Yakov said with a shake of his head. “Especially not right now.”

“Alright,” Viktor said, his bright expression unchanged despite Yakov’s obvious frustration, which just made the anger in Yakov’s face deepen. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Locker room,” Yakov sputtered, already starting to walk back towards the locker room door. “In private.”

“Anything for you, Yakov,” Viktor said again as he turned to follow. Otabek could swear that Yakov’s hat jumped off of his head a little as Viktor repeated himself.

The room went silent as the heavy wooden door swung shut behind them. Otabek wondered if Viktor’s flightiness was simply on full display or if the calm, almost flippant response was something more calculated on his part. The two were often indistinguishable and Otabek felt he’d only scratched the surface of the ways Viktor divided himself up and tailored his face to his exact audience. Otabek could decipher far more from Yakov's tone right now than from the words he could barely hear.

Yuri crept towards the door to listen more closely, his eyes wide and alive, and the sight of it made Otabek uneasy. He didn’t really need to listen in to know the main beats of what Yakov had to say. To eavesdrop felt like another layer of betrayal, but telling Yuri ‘no’ wasn’t really in Otabek’s vocabulary. He suspected Yuri knew as much.

Otabek hadn’t expected this to be harder on Yakov than anyone else in his life. Otabek supposed he had his sister and her baby to thank in part for that, but he felt like he should have anticipated this better. The feeling of it twisted inside him as he watched Yuri crouched outside the door, his face streaked with mischief and worry.

“Yuri,” Otabek whispered loudly.

“Shh,” Yuri swatted in his general direction without turning his head. Otabek bit his lip and scanned the room nervously.

“Come on, let’s go do some med ball work,” Otabek said, his voice raised just above a whisper now. Yuri just grunted in response, his ear against the heavy wood of the door. Otabek pushed a slow breath out through closed lips. He studied the look on Yuri’s face as he stood there. Yuri’s eyes were almost surprise-wide, but the corners of his mouth twitched uncertainly, his expression flickering between amusement and concern.

Otabek was certain Yuri couldn’t hear every word. They must have walked fairly deep into the lockers, because the combination of distance and the echo off the surface distorted Yakov’s voice past the point of intelligibility for the most part. From where Otabek stood he could make out maybe every tenth word Yakov said. Most of what he did hear was in Russian, though who knows whether that was to provide another layer of privacy or just his mind defaulting under pressure.

The volume of Yakov’s voice had calmed some by now from its original boiling point, interrupted by occasional empty spaces long enough to give Viktor some chance to respond, who retained the calm voice he’d brought in with him. For better or worse, that calm voice couldn’t carry as far.

Otabek certainly had his own morbid curiosity about the conversation, but he worried that Yuri half-hearing was worse than hearing nothing at all. A few of the words that Otabek had made out were quite rough. There was probably more honesty in the raw texture of Yakov’s voice right now than in whatever piece of his words Yuri could hear.

“You want to race to a hundred?” Otabek asked, though he wasn’t surprised when Yuri ignored him altogether.

Neither of them had gotten as far as wrapping their hands at all yet, so any kind of bag work or sparring was off the table, but Otabek suspected that at this point, there was nothing he could use to bribe Yuri away from that door.

It almost hurt watching Yuri there, as if he were captive to his own hard-headed curiosity. It was far from the first time Otabek had seen him this way, stuck in a split-second judgment like it was the only way forward, without seeing how he was setting himself up.

Otabek gave up and walked over to where Yuri stood, still crouched. He wasn’t going to be able to focus on anything until this was over anyway. He leaned back against the wall, sliding down into a wall sit right beside Yuri, his legs bent at a sharp right angle in front of him.

“No use wasting time,” Otabek said as he settled himself against the wall. He tried to keep his eyes fixed ahead of him, where the practice ring currently stood empty, but it was hard to keep himself from looking to Yuri at his left. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back gently against the wall, trying to keep his breath slow and even through his nose as the muscles in his thighs began to warm.

Otabek could feel the vibration in the cinderblocks behind him as Yuri threw himself against the wall beside him, the warmth of his body just inches away from his own. Otabek cracked an eye to his left and saw Yuri in much the same pose next to him, though his face was twisted into a scowl thrown far into the distance.

They still weren’t far from the door, sitting silently against the wall. Yakov’s tone had evened out some, making his words almost impossible to understand.

Usually, Otabek and Yuri talked their way through this exercise to distract themselves from the burn in their legs. If they couldn’t think of anything else, they would just start repeating the stupidest jokes they could think of, even if they ended up being mostly ones they’d told each other a dozen times before. Otabek cleared his throat, but couldn't bring himself to speak.

Otabek had forgotten the way that this exercise could draw time out so long without anything else to focus on. Today, the heat of the strain he felt gave him something else to focus on besides trying to hear what was being said behind that door, besides trying to guess what was going on in Yuri’s head.

Yakov pushed through the door a long moment later, though it was probably a fraction of the time that it seemed. He looked at Otabek and Yuri briefly as he exited, but brushed by them without a word, walking to the center of the room and clapping to call in the other boxers together. Viktor followed just behind, his face quiet but without quite the same liveliness he’d brought in with him.

“Why don’t you two go grab your things,” Viktor said softly as Otabek and Yuri pushed themselves up off of the wall, “We’re going to go practice outside today.”

“Is Yakov angry with us?” Yuri asked, the nervousness in his voice forcing the questions out faster than anyone could possibly respond. “Is he kicking us out? Just for today? For good?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Viktor said, tightening his face into a mask of calm. “Let’s head over to the park for now. It’s real nice out. You guys deserve a bit of a break right now, anyway, so we’ll just do some light conditioning today.”

Viktor was uncharacteristically quiet as they collected their things from the locker room and left the Y for Central Park. It made for an uncomfortable silence, given how chatty Viktor usually was, for how much Otabek was used to seeing him as an open book. Or, at least, the way Otabek had thought Viktor was easy to read. It was becoming harder to tell.

“When can we come back to the Y?” Yuri asked outright for about the fourth time as they walked along the sidewalk.

“I’m afraid there isn’t a simple answer to that one,” Viktor finally answered him. “I don’t think Yakov could really keep any of us away. Not completely. And I mean that in more than the sense of physically preventing us from coming into the gym.” Viktor turned back over his shoulder, a conspiratorial smirk creeping across his face, which had been locked into a solemnly neutral expression since just after he’d walked out of the locker room.

“I don’t think his heart would be able to take not seeing any of us ever again,” Viktor said, smiling softly down at the sidewalk in front of him, a step or two ahead. “He didn’t say it that way of course, but I know Yakov. He’s a big softie under that hat and all those big teeth.”

“What’s not simple about that?” Yuri asked.

“Well, that’s on a personal level,” Viktor shrugged. “On a more professional level, he’s not going to let us work together in that space anymore.”

“What? He can’t do that!” Yuri said, stopping in place, visibly bristling as he looked back towards the tall brick structure of the Y, still just visible in the distance behind him. “Can he?”

“I, well, he seems to have taken this a little harder than I thought he would. I mean, I knew he wasn’t going to be thrilled, but…” Viktor sighed, finally turning around to face the two of them. “I told you I’d handle him and I’ll handle him. The good news is that he’s mostly angry at me. You two could show up in a few days, you know, when the swelling’s gone down a bit, and as long as you never mentioned it, you’d be fine. Even better if it never happened again. Though, fat chance of that, right?”

“Why’s he so mad at you, though?” Yuri asked, ignoring both Viktor’s hopeful half-smile and the last question he had asked.

“As far as he’s concerned, this is my fault,” Viktor said, leaning back against the brick wall to pull them all out of the stream of pedestrians that flowed around them. “Which, he’s at least part right, I guess. Those particular fights would not have happened without me. But he seems to think I pushed you into it, that I’m trying to use you for my personal gain, somehow. Those aren’t the exact words he used, but that was the general idea of it.”

“That’s so fucking, ugh!” Yuri said, kicking a can near his feet into the wall. “How did you do anything wrong? What’s his problem?”

“I mean, you know what his problem is. He’s Yakov: he worries, and then he deals with it by blowing up like that. It’s just part of who he is. That, and, you know, all of his usual complaints about everything that’s wrong with pro boxing. But that’s a given,” Viktor said, pushing himself back up off of the wall.

Otabek stood quietly, a step behind Yuri, another two steps behind Viktor. The nervous, uncertain twist in his stomach had unclenched itself and dropped into his gut like cold lead.

Maybe he should have seen this coming. Viktor hadn’t really practiced at the Y himself since he had turned pro, which hadn’t been that long after Otabek and Yuri first started there. Viktor had always seemed so much more serious about making a career out of boxing that Otabek had always assumed that Viktor had chosen to change gyms to mark the transition to a new phase of his career. Now Otabek wasn’t so sure, but he sure as hell didn’t think it was the right time to ask. There wasn’t any answer to that question that could change the case at hand.

Otabek had never expected his own boxing career to outgrow the Y that way. Was one paid fight a career, successful or no? He’d expected that eventually he would outgrow boxing. Because that was the story, right? An angry young man goes to boxing class to blow off steam and learn discipline, grows up and doesn’t need it anymore, then puts it aside with other childish things in favor of a good, stable job and supporting his wife and children.

Falling in love wasn’t part of the story. Certainly not with boxing. But Otabek certainly wasn’t ready to let go of the dizzying rush he got from being out there, of taking apart the other man’s game piece by piece, of a successful misdirection or perfectly placed punch. He The feeling of his body asserting an intelligence that bypassed his full awareness, a secret knowledge written under his very skin. His body started to tingle with excitement even in revisiting his memory of it.

Otabek remained quiet as Viktor ran them through a series of fast-paced footwork and head-movement drills on a grassy strip near the reservoir. In every open moment, Yuri continued to pepper Viktor with the kind of anxious questions that revealed more that their answers did, even when he was breathing hard from the exercise. Viktor, for his part, persisted in replying to each with the kind of pleasantly empty responses that would smooth Yuri down so long as his mind was at least partially somewhere else, though they would infuriate him once he was fully focused on the issue again.

Yuri flopped out onto the ground after Viktor had pushed them through a low-stance shadowboxing drill that had left Otabek’s legs feeling like jelly. Apparently, Yuri felt much the same as he groaned from where he was sprawled on the grass.

“Get down here, Beka,” Yuri said, kicking lazily at Otabek’s foot with his own. Otabek felt a shiver run through him as he looked down at Yuri, who was lying on his back in his tee shirt and sweats, looking up at Otabek warmly. Yuri’s face was flushed with the exercise, the longer top of his blond hair tousled out of place.

The shiver that twitched through Otabek as he dropped to the ground and stretched out close enough to feel the warmth radiating from Yuri’s skin ran far deeper than the last. Otabek closed his eyes and let the breeze brush over him again. His hand twitched, knowing that Yuri’s was just inches away, but he wasn’t ready to touch him like that here, not without any other explanation than that he wanted to.

Otabek was pretty sure Viktor had only brought up the nice weather earlier as a pleasant excuse to usher their practice out of the Y, but it really was a lovely day, in the kind of way that was so effortlessly comfortable as to totally escape notice. It was coming into that last part of September that hadn’t completely forgotten the summer, but was already settling into the cooler, crisper air of fall. A few of the maple trees around them were starting to show the first blush of red tracing their edges. A light breeze ruffled the leaves and ran its soft fingers across Otabek’s sweat-slick face.

Viktor plopped himself down in the grass not far off, sitting cross-legged with a soft look in his eyes and a small, gentle smile on his face. Usually Viktor schooled his face for the benefit of a particular audience, but this was the rare sincere expression that made all the rest of them feel like such an act.

“Oh, I just remembered,” Viktor said a short time later, his face beginning to bloom into his manic grin. “Yuuri said I should invite you both over for dinner.”

“That’s very kind of him,” Otabek said.

“I mean, I also would like to have you over,” Viktor clarified.

“That’s very kind of you, too, then,” Otabek smirked.

“Great, let’s go!” Viktor exclaimed cheerfully as he sprang up from the ground.

“Wait, right now? Tonight?” Yuri said, sitting up quickly.

“Well, we usually practice longer than this, so I thought it might be a nice- I’m sorry, I’m not keeping you from anything, am I?” Viktor asked, looking around as though the surroundings would answer the question for him.

“Uh, I guess not?” Yuri said, still sounding confused.

“No, no conflict, it’s just- Are you sure Yuuri meant to invite the both of us tonight?” Otabek asked carefully.

“He’ll be so glad to see you! He keeps bringing you up and saying we should have you over. I have to stop by the butcher’s to pick up the meat anyway, so I can make sure we have enough for all of us. Yuuri makes the best food,” Viktor gushed.

Otabek and Yuri looked at each other, their faces working together through confused surprise to agreement without needing to speak aloud.

“Alright,” Yuri said with a surprised shake of his head.

Otlichno!” Viktor said. “We can cut across the park and pick up the train there.”

“What about my bike?” asked Otabek.

“Oh, right,” Viktor said. “You can both ride on it, right? Why don’t we just meet up there, then?”

“That works,” Otabek agreed.

“Great! We’ll see you soon! Poka!” Viktor said and started walking away.

“Wait, Viktor, I don’t know where I’m going,” Otabek called after him.

“Oh, right. I suppose that does make things difficult,” Viktor paused and turned, holding a finger to his lips. “26 Horatio St. It’s right off of Jackson Square.”

“We’ll beat you there, old man!” Yuri called back as they headed back out towards the gate.

Yuuri was not, in fact, expecting guests. Viktor had not yet arrived when Otabek and Yuri rang the bell outside the grey brick building.

“Wow, this is, uh, a bit of a difference from most of the buildings near us,” Yuri said, looking up and down the street as they approached the stoop. Otabek had to agree. He’d expected something nicer than the buildings he and Yuri lived in, stacked up in very functional red brick with very little decoration, but this neighborhood was more than he was expecting. The building Victor had indicated wasn’t anything like the palaces uptown, but it was smartly accented in a more contemporary style. Most of the buildings on the street showed signs of recent renovation, and windowboxes full of flowers rather than clotheslines hung out over the street.

“Otabek, Yuri, what a surprise! I’m so glad you stopped by,” Yuuri said as he let them in, looking somewhat rumpled and wearing an oversized shirt dabbed with paint. “I’m sorry, I was just doing a little work in my darkroom. I actually have a few shots from Saturday you might like to see. I only have contact proofs so far, but you’ll get the general idea.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Yuri said, though his voice was distant as he looked around the room. The inside of the apartment was even more impressive than the building’s exterior. Both Otabek and Yuri were silent as they took the place in, stopping to leave their shoes with the others by the door. The high ceilings were decorated with embossed tin panels. The walls were a virtual patchwork of framed art.

“I’m expecting Viktor home any minute now, he’s just coming back from-” Yuuri stopped and turned to them with a nervously confused look.

“Yeah, we were just with him. He took the train back, but we came on Beka’s bike,” Yuri said, clearly enjoying catching Viktor at his carelessness. “He said you wanted to invite us for dinner.”

Yuuri’s mouth hung open briefly before he pressed his lips together in a terse smile and he gently bowed his head.

“I suppose I did say that,” Yuuri said, shaking his head. “I-” He took a deep breath, raised his head with a tired smile and continued. “I really am glad you came to visit.”

“You didn’t mean tonight, did you,” Yuri said smugly.

“We don’t have to stay if you’re not ready for guests,” Otabek offered. “Viktor said he’d make sure he got enough at the butcher’s for everyone, whatever that means.”

“Here,” Otabek said, holding out the small bouquet of mostly daisies he’d insisted on picking up on the way. “I wasn’t sure what I could bring, so I brought some flowers. They’re nothing fancy, but-”

“No, they’re lovely. How very sweet of you,” Yuuri said, taking the flowers, “Let’s head to the kitchen so I can put these in some water. I’ll get you some tea, too.”

Otabek and Yuri followed him. The kitchen was airy and bright, but felt a little more like home, with a round wooden table at its center, though some of the pots and tools that adorned it were unfamiliar. Yuuri lit the stove under the kettle.

“Actually, do you two want to wash up a little while I’m getting this together?” Yuuri asked. “Only if you want, but I know you just came from the gym and I gather this was something of a surprise for all of us. I could use a moment to put myself together, too.”

“Sure, I guess,” Yuri said, going back to grab his bag from by the door, “Where’s the bathroom?”

“Just down there to the right,” Yuuri said, pointing, “Please, make yourself at home.”

“Come on, Beka,” Yuri said as he grabbed Otabek’s bag as well, slinging it over his shoulder with his own and brushed past him in the direction that Yuuri had indicated.

Yuri set the two bags down in the bathroom and quickly turned on the water in the sink.

“Hot,” Yuri said approvingly as he waved his hand under the stream. “Hey, can you close the door?”

As Otabek eased the door shut, Yuri pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it to the floor, turning his attention quickly to the hot water running in the sink, splashing it up onto his face, wiping it onto the back of his neck. Otabek’s breath caught in his throat as he leaned back against the door and took in the sight of him. The defined contours of his pale torso were littered with bruises in different levels of repair. It wasn’t so dissimilar from Otabek’s own body right now. He could feel them almost every time he moved, though thankfully he was past feeling them every time he breathed like he was yesterday.

The sight of Yuri shirtless was something Otabek should have grown accustomed to by now. He must have seen him like this hundreds of times, but this time managed to be different. In the past, he’d let himself appreciate the way Yuri looked the same way he appreciated the clean, marble lines of a statue. Now, his awareness refused to take on that kind of detached distance, and Otabek found his mind flooding with the feeling of Yuri under his hands the other night, the heat of the memory beginning to pulse through his body as sheer desire.

Yuri looked up at him, water beading down his face, onto his chest. His lips fell apart briefly, then came together as his tongue peeked out as he drew his lower lip in between his teeth. His gaze was fixed on Otabek’s own face, holding him to the door like a pin. Otabek felt unable to move as he stood there, one hand still clenched around the embossed texture of the brass doorknob.

“Hey,” Yuri croaked softly, eyes wide. Otabek pushed himself up from the door and took a few hesitant steps towards Yuri, still standing in front of the sink. Yuri’s lips were on his before he could question himself further and Otabek felt his whole body relax as his eyes slid shut and his hands found Yuri’s hips, settling right at the line where his sweats were drawn tight against his skin.

Quickly, Yuri’s arms were around him, pulling him closer against his skin, and suddenly Otabek was home again, here in Viktor and Yuuri’s mint-tiled bathroom. His hands slid up the smoothly muscled planes and angles of Yuri’s back as they kissed with a hunger he couldn’t explain. All Otabek could think about was what he could do to get Yuri’s body even closer to his own than it was now.

“You can’t wash up properly with this on,” Yuri whispered, pulling at the soft, cotton hem of Otabek’s shirt and twisting it around his finger. As he stretched his arms up to let Yuri slip the shirt over his head, tossing it to the floor with his own, Otabek supposed he shouldn’t be so surprised at how forward Yuri had suddenly become. Yuri had always had an aggressive streak in him, compared to Otabek’s cautious defenses. Otabek was honestly glad for it right now; it was like some kind of switch had been flipped the moment the door had closed. Yuri was far bolder than he had been the other night. So was Otabek, for that matter.

Otabek wrapped his arms around Yuri, pressing their bare chests together, hungry for the heat of Yuri’s skin against his own. His lips hung open in a shocked sigh at the feeling, and Yuri leaned in to capture his mouth again. The tip of Yuri’s tongue teased at the edge of his lips. It sent a wave of pleasure through Otabek that made him unsteady, and he rested his back against the white porcelain of the sink. The hot spray from the faucet spattered against Otabek’s skin and he pushed away from the water and into Yuri, pressing their hips together. Otabek gasped at the sudden jolt of pleasure from his hardened length rubbing against Yuri’s through the loose, soft fabric of their sweats, Yuri biting into his lip at the same moment in his own shock.

This still wasn’t close enough for Otabek, even as Yuri pressed a thigh between his legs to straddle one of Otabek’s own and wrap himself around Otabek even more tightly where they stood. As Yuri began to rub himself against Otabek’s leg, Otabek found his hands sliding down Yuri’s back on their own accord, over the edge of the waistband to settle on the curve of his ass to guide his movements.

Yuri’s head fell to Otabek’s chest as he gasped into the hollow of Otabek’s collarbone, breath falling into a jagged rhythm against his skin. One of Otabek’s hands came up to cradle Yuri’s head against his chest. Otabek himself was leaning into Yuri for support, dizzy from the pleasure that coursed through him towards his core, electrifying every bare inch of his skin.

His body seemed clearer about what it wanted than anything his mind could come up with. He was caught up in the smell of Yuri’s wet, half-washed skin, in the friction that his body demanded as he clung to Yuri, rolling against him where they stood.

They were pulled out of the moment by three sounds in quick succession: the front door slamming shut, Viktor announcing his arrival in a singsong voice, and quick, heavy footsteps across the floor.

Yuri’s head sank dejectedly against Otabek as he groaned in frustration rather than pleasure against Otabek’s skin, pounding against his shoulder lightly with a fist. Untangling their legs, they wrapped their arms more loosely around each other to rest for a moment, still not willing to let go completely.

Even nestled against Yuri, Otabek could hear Viktor and Yuuri in the other room. They seemed to be keeping their voices purposefully low, but the tone of the conversation seemed tense.

“We should probably get washed and changed for real now,” Yuri said quietly and Otabek nodded agreement sadly into his shoulder with a sigh, trying to will away his arousal.

The tap was still running. Otabek turned and leaned over it, cupping his hands under the hot water to wash his face. Yuri finished washing beside him as well, standing shoulder to shoulder with him over the sink. Otabek looked up at the mirror just in front of them. Their reflections were framed by twin shaving cups, razors, and toothbrushes, and Otabek smiled softly at the image, letting himself imagine for a moment that this was their bathroom.

In the mirror, Otabek watched Yuri go about the business of drying himself and changing, not taking his eyes off the reflection as he scrubbed himself with a wet washcloth. He imagined this being part of their everyday routine, of waking up and seeing Yuri each morning with his hair damp and out of place like it was right now. Otabek’s body still ached for the heat and the pressure of Yuri’s, but, looking across the bathroom, that wasn’t the only thing he wanted from him.

Otabek had never really pictured an everyday outside of his own family. He expected it, he supposed, but he didn’t imagine it. The setting changed, the details of the routine changed sometimes depending on where they were living, but his family was his family.

Being around Yuri had always been easy. It seemed a strange way to put it, given the number of fights and other kinds of scrapes they’d gotten into together. He and Yuri had been nearly inseparable since they had met, but he’d never thought much of it. Yuri’s presence was like the air on a beautiful day, so easy that you don’t even notice how comfortable it is. Or, at least, he hadn’t noticed until earlier that year, when Yuri had tucked his wine-flushed face into Otabek’s neck against the cold February air and it had felt like home, the way it had here today, the way it had when they were dancing the other night. He looked at Yuri and he saw family as well as desire.

“What are you looking at, you nut?” Yuri said as he offered Otabek one of the thick towels that was hanging in the bathroom. Otabek reached to cup Yuri’s face with a single hand as he took it, tossing the towel over his shoulder. Yuri smiled softly at him for a moment, his face still flushed pink and eyes still dreamy-wide, before grabbing his hand and pulling it away from his face, holding it with both of his.

“No, really?” Yuri asked again as he idly pressed into the flesh of Otabek’s palm with his thumbs.

Otabek leaned in to kiss Yuri one more time, softly, chastely.

“Don’t start again,” Yuri said quietly, pulling back from him, pressing down at the button of his pants with the heel of his hand. “I think it would kill me to stop a second time. We should- we should probably get back out there.”

Otabek nodded, pulling the towel from his shoulder and starting to dry himself off.

“Refreshed?” Viktor said with a knowing smirk as they emerged from the bathroom in street clothes.

“No thanks to you, alter cocker,” Yuri scowled as Yuuri handed him his tea. Otabek tried to disappear into the wall behind him. Yuuri pressed a cup of tea into his hands anyway.

“It’s so nice to see you, too, Yuri,” Viktor said.

“Dinner will probably be about half an hour,” Yuuri said.

“That’s alright, the three of us have some things to talk about,” Viktor said. Yuuri’s lips pressed into a thin line at Viktor’s words, but he nodded and returned to the kitchen. He turned to Otabek and Yuri. “Come on, let’s go sit somewhere comfortable.”

“Place like this can’t be cheap,” Yuri, flopping on one end of a sofa upholstered in a rich, dark green. “How did you even find this place?”

“Oh, Celestino - you remember him - he owns this building,” Viktor said, “So, I get a great deal on it and I never have to worry about paying the rent on time. The rent comes straight out of my winnings.”

Yuri grunted noncommittally in response.

“Are these Yuuri’s?” Otabek asked, taking a closer look at some of the art hung in the living room.

“Most of the photographs, yes,” Viktor confirmed.

A dancer in flowing robes captured mid-spin. A group of people in identical black posed in geometric formations. Viktor in his boxing kit against a white background, surrounded by heavy shadows. Another of a group of people in front of a house dressed in robes of some sort. It stood out as the only one taken against a natural background, where the people seemed to be themselves rather than some piece of a geometric shape.

“That’s Yuuri’s family,” Viktor offered, apparently noticing the way that Otabek’s eyes had lingered on that photo. “He took that not long before he left Japan.”

“How long ago was that?” Otabek asked, still studying the photo. There were trees flowering in the background behind them, so it must have been springtime.

“Almost five years ago, exactly,” Viktor said. “Well, he arrived almost exactly five years ago. The trip took quite a while; he didn’t come straight here. But you should ask him about it later, he can tell you much more about it than I can.”

Otabek nodded, and turned back to the photo. He wondered if the blossoms behind them were white or pink, wondered what the quiet expressions on the faces of the people meant. If they had known that he was going yet. Otabek didn’t have any photos like this of any of the places or the people he had left behind. He suspected Yuuri had more chance of returning than he did as well.

“And how long have you two been,” Yuri asked cautiously, seeming to struggle with the exact wording to finish the question.

“Together? Lovers?” Viktor supplied with a smirk from across the top of his tea. “It’s okay, you can say it. You are in our home, where we live together.”

Otabek finally turned his attention to where the two others sat. Yuri curled into himself where he was perched on the sofa and muttered something unintelligible across the top of his own tea. The fierceness he had shown in the bathroom earlier was imperceptible in the way he held himself now.

“We’ve known each other for almost four years now,” Viktor said, his smirk melting easily into a dreamy smile. “It’s hard to say exactly when we went from just being friends to being together - though I suspect you understand the challenge of that - but Yuuri moved in with me here when I took this place about two years ago now. If that’s what you’re asking.”

Yuri nodded into his tea.

“But we should talk business right now, to get it out of the way. We can talk about the fun stuff over dinner,” Viktor said, his more serious face returning to him as he turned his head to make eye contact with each of them. “I figured we would have to talk about this at some point. I just didn’t think it would be so soon. It’s possible that Yakov could have a change of heart when he calms down, I suppose, but I don’t think we can plan on that or on practicing at the Y anymore. That is, if you’d like to continue working with me. I would completely understand if-”

“No,” Yuri interrupted. “No, I don’t want to work with anyone else. Yakov can go stick his head in the ground like the fucking overgrown onion he is.”

“Otabek?” Viktor asked, looking up at him hopefully.

Otabek just nodded, but it felt like a formality after what Yuri said. If Yuri was with Viktor, he was too.

“Alright,” said Viktor, with a deep breath. He seemed almost reluctant to go on. “So, I’ve been training at a gym just across the river in Brooklyn for the last few years, since Yakov and I had something of a similar disagreement about me fighting professionally. I haven’t spoken to them about it directly, but especially after this weekend I don’t think the management there would have any problem with taking you on as well. I mean, Celestino was asking after you already the other day.”

“So what’s there to discuss?” Yuri asked, uncurling himself and relaxing into his seat more openly.

“Well, it’s a fairly different scene than the Y,” Viktor said, seeming to struggle with his words in a way he rarely did. “The people there are all very serious about what they do.”

“Again, what’s the problem?” Yuri asked, starting to grow more agitated. “Was Saturday not serious enough for you?”

“No, that’s not it.” Viktor’s face was becoming visibly creased with unease. “Listen, both of you have a life and a job outside of boxing right now. And as long as you’ve been working with me, that’s been fine. If you’ve needed to skip practice for work or school or your family, even at the last minute, I’ve never questioned that once. If you’ve come in tired and needed to take it easy, run at half-speed, same thing, no problem. These people aren’t like that. They’re going to expect a certain kind of commitment and they’re going to expect results.”

Otabek felt a chill run through him at Viktor’s words and he wrapped both hands around his tea, clutching it tightly. His accounting classes would be over in December, but his construction job didn’t leave him much flexibility in his schedule. Then again, the single bout had made him more than he made in half a year at that job.

“Will you not be coaching us there?” Yuri asked, his feet tucked up against his chest again.

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Viktor said. “They’ve known I was coaching amateurs on my own time and it hasn’t been a problem so far, so I can’t imagine that my coaching you there would be any different. But you know how there were times I just didn’t show up at the Y?”

“Of course,” Yuri said with a snort and Otabek just nodded across his tea.

“That was because they told me I needed to be there,” Viktor said. “And that was that. So, I’m not saying you need to drop everything else in your life right now if you decide to come over with me, but I am saying that you need to be ready to put them first at a moment’s notice, whatever else is happening. I need you to understand that.”

“Alright,” said Yuri thoughtfully, any trace of cockiness gone from his voice.

“I don’t expect you to have an final answer for me right now,” Viktor said, “In fact, I won’t accept an answer from you tonight. I don’t want to put any pressure on you here. I need you to really think about this before you make a commitment, to talk to whoever else you might need to talk to.”

“Could you coach us somewhere else?” Otabek asked and the question seemed to cause Viktor physical pain.

“I don’t think so, no,” Viktor said, his face twisted uncomfortably. “They were fine when I was coaching you at the Y, especially as amateurs, but that’s, I guess the best way to put it is that it’s neutral ground. You know? No one else is making money off of the boxers at the Y. That wouldn’t be true at another gym.”

Otabek nodded again, looking over at Yuri. Yuri was strangely quiet on the far end of the couch, curled around his tea on the dark green upholstery.

“Now, I’m happy to answer any questions about what to expect if you choose to join me there as honestly as I can. You can ask me later if you like, whenever you think of it, but if you don’t have any other questions at the moment, I’d rather not talk about it anymore right now.”

“When do you need to know?” Otabek asked, realizing that all he was asking for was more time to sit alone with the idea as he silently ran through the list of people he could talk to. If presented with the situation, virtually all of them would tell him that it wasn’t worth the risk. Except Yuri. Right now, that was the only other voice that mattered.

Chapter Text

“What are you doing here?” A voice asked impatiently, just after the foreman had called out for break time.

Otabek’s stomach swerved coldly at the tone of the question, and he swayed slightly where he was perched on the beam. He turned around to both sides of him trying to place who had spoken, but the other men he could see were too caught up weaving carefully around the building’s steel skeleton, seven stories above Lexington, to pay him any mind.

“No, man, up here,” the voice continued. Otabek grabbed onto the nearest vertical beam and squinted up into the bright sun above him, where the voice took shape in a round face he didn’t recognize.

“Excuse me?” Otabek asked roughly, shielding his eyes from the bright light above him as he tried to make out the man’s face where he leaned over the edge of a beam. His skin was darker than most of the people who’d told him to go back where he came from in however many words it took them, but, unfortunately, that didn’t mean much.

“It was you that I saw fight, wasn’t it? Last Saturday night over in Bay Ridge? Or am I just imagining things again?” the man went on, “I’m terrible with names, but I thought your face was familiar, and they said you were from the city here, so, and that bruise on your face.”

Otabek let his breath go, puzzled but soft with relief as he nodded, rubbing at his bruised jaw. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d been put on the spot to explain himself while going about his daily business, but it always soured the rest of his day.

“Uh, yeah,” Otabek said, his voice soft again, pleasantly dazed at having been recognized from the lone fight. It was a welcome contrast to what he’d been expecting based on that opening question.

“That’s crazy, man!” The other worker said, dropping down to the same level as Otabek, standing slightly taller with the cool, rich tan of his skin, his chestnut hair flopped loose across his head. He held out his hand. “I’m Leo.”

“Otabek,” he said, shaking the man’s hand politely.

“But like I asked before: you box like that, what are you still doing here?”

Otabek shrugged, shifting the toolbelt slung heavily across his hips. That very question had been sitting there with him uncomfortably since he’d gotten home last night to a sleeping apartment. He’d jerked off in the bathroom in an effort to clear the hazy clutter in his head, but it had just left the other part of the question clearer before him. It had been with him as he tried to distract himself to sleep, and also as he’d woken at five to get some roadwork in before the rest of the day started. It had still been there as he’d packed a thermos of coffee and a few sandwiches onto his bike and fought his way uptown to the job site on the Upper East Side.

“That was just one fight,” Otabek said, trying to get a read on Leo’s face. “You don’t quit your day job for one fight. You mind if I go get my coffee?”

“Oh, no doubt,” Leo said, stepping around onto another beam to let Otabek pass. “Wait, what do you mean one fight?”

“Never fought pro before. The announcer seemed to make a big enough deal about it introducing me, I thought it was clear.” Otabek winced with embarrassment at the extravagance of the introduction as he brought his thermos back over and sat down delicately on the beam. Leo plopped down on the other side of the corner from him, an arm casually slung around the vertical support.

“I don’t know, I thought that was just building it up for drama. You know how much they love that shit,” Leo said, looking out over the rooftops to where they could see the treelines of Central Park. “I mean, I believe it was your first big fight, but who has their pro debut somewhere as big as MacArthur?”

“True enough, I guess.” Otabek shrugged, pouring out some of the still steaming coffee into the little tin cup. “Viktor was the one who set it up. He has ways of making things happen. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting something so big either.”

“Nikiforov, you mean?” Leo asked, and Otabek nodded. “Yeah, I suppose he does have a history of pulling out some miracles,” Leo snorted. “I was there for that fight with Rocky Kansas back last fall, just before Kansas took the lightweight title. You see that one?”

“Nah, not the fight. Saw the shiner he walked around with for the next week, though,” Otabek chuckled, sipping at his coffee. Leo laughed with him, but his eyes were tellingly wide.

“Should have been Nikiforov in that title bout instead of Kansas,” Leo said quietly. “And that Italian sap who’s got that title now-”

“Pretty sure Giacometti’s Swiss,” Otabek jumped in to correct him.

“The Swiss cat, whatever,” Leo shrugged. “Nikiforov’s beaten him before, too, hasn’t he?”

Otabek nodded, grunting agreement through a sip of coffee. “Goodrich and Mandell, too,” he added softly.

“Shit, you serious?” said Leo. Otabek just shrugged. The truth was that there hadn’t been a lightweight champ Viktor hadn’t beaten at some point or another since Benny Leonard released his seven-year steel grip on that title last year.

Yuri had figured it out around the time Giacometti had taken the title back in May. Viktor hadn’t denied it when Yuri had thrown it in his face, in the way only Yuri could wield someone’s own success like a backhand slap. The way Yuri had brought it up, it was like it was a personal insult that Viktor hadn’t taken that title yet. Viktor’s face hadn’t broken in the least at it.

“You think he’s going to make a run at that title?” Leo asked.


“Nikiforov. He’s not getting any younger. Don’t get me wrong, he still looks like he’s in top form, but no one can hang onto that forever,” Leo said.

Otabek had heard the same hushed rumors about Viktor making a bid for the title that everyone else who followed boxing in New York probably had, but Viktor tended to be quiet about his own career at practice. The closest he came was in describing the fighting styles of other boxers by way of example, in ways that wouldn’t be possible if you hadn’t been there ringside or closer to watch.

“I don’t know anything about it that you don’t,” Otabek said. “Sorry.”

It was strange to think about Viktor as being old, mostly because he wasn’t. Everything about him screamed that he was in peak condition. It would still be a stretch to say that Viktor was pushing thirty, but not a lot of guys stayed in the game past that point. Leonard had retired at 28. Even Dempsey had lost his heavyweight title at thirty not long ago, and he had defended it like a damn machine for the last seven years.

But also, Otabek could remember when Viktor had officially gone pro and left the Y that first time, not long after Otabek and Yuri had first been pushed into Yakov’s hands. Otabek had seen it at the beginning, which made it odd to think about staring down the end of it. Viktor would always be that guy who had just turned pro to him, on some level.

“So, you train with him?” Leo asked.

“Sort of. He trains somewhere else, but he’s been working with me and Yuri, who, well, you were there on Saturday, you know who Yuri is,” Otabek said.

“The little blond tornado?” Leo said with a friendly snort.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Otabek smiled softly into his coffee, heat creeping into his cheeks as he drained the little cup. “Yeah, Viktor’s been working with us at the Y on 92nd Street for about two, two and a half years now. Here, you want some?” Otabek asked, pouring out a second cup of coffee.

“Sure, thanks,” Leo said, taking the cup. “Shit, so, he’s been, like, keeping you like some kind of secret?” Leo said. “I mean, you had to have been good enough for small time pro shit a while ago.”

Otabek shrugged as the other man blew on the hot coffee.

“I never really asked for it. Viktor says the small-time pro shit’s bad news. Even that fight you saw probably wouldn’t have happened if Yuri hadn’t pushed for it,” Otabek said, cursing his own bullshit through every word. It was strictly true: he had never been the one who asked. He never would have been either, but he’d always had Yuri to speak for both of them together.

“You’re too much, man!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What do you mean ‘what’s that supposed to mean’?” Leo laughed wryly in a way that made Otabek scowl at the toy cars down on Lexington. “How much money did you make on that fight?”

Otabek didn’t bother to look up, squinting uncomfortably at the street below.

“Fine,” said Leo, “I get why you wouldn’t want to talk about it, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you made as much there last Saturday night as you would here in a couple months.”

Otabek looked up, glaring at the rooftops of Park Avenue a few blocks ahead of them instead of at Leo.

“Now, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but even assuming you don’t get any more fights, and - let’s be clear, people want to see you fight - I’m just saying there’s a lot that I would do with a couple of months not having to sell myself to this shit,” Leo said.

“Yeah? What would you do?” Otabek asked, the corners of his mouth curling up slightly as he turned back towards Leo.

“I’d stay up late playing music every night and not worry about when I had to wake up,” Leo said, laughing at himself as if to soften the blow.

“You’re single, aren’t you?” Otabek said.

“What, can you smell it on me or something?” Leo grinned.

“No, that’s just the answer of an unattached man,” Otabek said.

“I don’t know,” Leo protested with a smirk. “I’m pretty attached to my guitar. She’s the only woman I’m ready to commit to right now.”

Rolling his eyes, Otabek laughed openly.

“No, but seriously. I was half-joking a moment ago, but I really wish I did have more time for my music. You don’t want to know what I’d do to be able to make that my day job, too, even just for a few weeks. I’d happily wake up early for that. Playing with other people is a high like you can’t stick in a bottle, but even when I’m practicing, I just- I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. You know?”

Otabek nodded quietly, his mind immediately filled with a memory of sparring with Yuri. “Yeah, I think I do.”

Leo tipped up the last of the coffee in the little tin cup and handed it back.

“Thanks for the coffee, man,” Leo said. “But I mean it: This shit’s still going to be here in a few months. People are always going to be building more buildings. And when they run out of room, they’ll just do what they did here and tear the old ones down. Start over with something newer and bigger.”

“Not better?” Otabek smirked.

“They don’t pay either of us enough to make that call, man,” Leo laughed.

The thermos steamed at Otabek as he poured himself a little more coffee. Leo was right, in a number of ways. The work they did there wasn’t unskilled, to be sure, but the higher ups treated guys doing the kind of work they did like they were interchangeable, blank faces with strong arms and backs. Jobs ended, you found a new crew on the next building going up. It seemed like half the city was being torn down and rebuilt these days, but maybe that was just the way the city worked.

Otabek started pressing Leo for more about his music, but only half-processed those details as his mind began to spin over the question that had opened this conversation.

It wasn’t like Otabek planned on working construction forever, anyway. He’d be done with his accounting program in the spring, and have a selection of better-paying, less risky jobs in front him, though he suspected it might be more of a concern if he showed up at an office job with the kind of bruised face he was sporting right now than at a job site like this.

Fitting boxing practice and his classes in around his job had gotten exhausting. He’d been doing it long enough that he was used to it, but it took a toll on him. As far as he was concerned, he’d never really had the choice. The only thing he could realistically set aside was boxing and even that wasn’t particularly realistic. Practical, maybe, but not realistic.

He’d been spinning through these details since last night, over and over, but hearing the nudge towards them from someone else gave them a new kind of weight.

Otabek knew that if he were having this conversation with Yuri - if Yuri had his job - it would have been decided already.

This wasn’t a conversation he could have with Yuri, though. Yuri didn’t have the option of walking away from the bakery the way Otabek could walk off his job site. Even if Yuri could leave the bakery, he wouldn’t. Too much of himself was caught up in the place.

Otabek had never considered the bland anonymity of his construction jobs as any kind of advantage before. It wasn’t really. The only thing it could make easier was leaving.

The rhythm of the week felt off without heading to the Y each afternoon. Work and class were enough to give Otabek’s days definition, but left awkward stretches of time where he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He found himself home at seven o’clock on a Monday a week later, sitting at the kitchen table staring blankly ahead as his brother Ari scribbled intently at some homework beside him.

His mother and younger sister, Yushuo, were off at the maternity hospital with Zara, who had finally gone into labor earlier that day.

With his mother out, the apartment was far more quiet than Otabek was used to. Across the room, his father dozed with an open edition of Novoye Russkoye Slovo across his chest. A light rain was falling, silent but for the occasional splash of wheels through the puddles in the street. The clouds made the sky darker, made the day feel later than it was.

Otabek’s fingers tapped a hollow rhythm against the blue ceramic cup in front of him, trying to peek over into Ari’s textbook just to give his mind something else to do. He’d already washed the dishes for the three of them, and put the big pot of bakhsh his mother had left for them back on the stove.

Ari sighed purposefully across the table.

“Could you not?” Ari finally asked.

“Sorry,” said Otabek, pulling his hands off the table and into his lap. The chair creaked under him as he leaned back.

The last time Otabek had been home around this time so often, he’d been younger than Ari was now, trying to cram his own schoolwork in. He eyed the newspaper rising and falling with his father’s slow, even breath. His father’s sleep was shallow enough this time of the evening that he would wake if Otabek tried to pick the paper up.

Otabek wondered if he was missing boxing or if he was just missing Yuri. Was there a difference? He’d never really had to say; boxing had always included Yuri. Or, at least, that’s how it had been. It was part of what worried Otabek about the possibility of quitting his job to spend more time boxing: it meant Yuri wouldn’t always be there.

As it was, he hadn’t seen Yuri since the previous Monday, and the last aborted practice they’d shared. That alone was enough to send Otabek’s mind into a spin. On the surface, the brief hiatus from boxing practice clearly explained why he hadn’t seen Yuri.

Other parts of his mind had difficulty accepting that explanation, whispering doubts into the back of his head. His imagination ran through increasingly nightmarish scenarios: Yuri had decided that he was uninterested, that he was disgusted, that he never wanted to talk about it again, that he never wanted to see Otabek again.

Most, if not all, of it was the far side of ridiculous, and he knew it. That didn’t help Otabek to purge that line of thought completely. Even the darker part of his rational mind whispered as much into his thoughts: it couldn’t be this easy forever.

Seeing Yuri would at least be some kind of an answer. Normally, he wouldn’t think twice about stopping by Yuri’s place. Both families were accustomed to having the two show up for dinner after practice on any given day.

Otabek and Yuri’s mothers had both made the same jokes about setting a place for their other son. The words bit differently as he turned them over in his head. The thought occurred to Otabek that his own mother had probably described Yuri as her son more times than she had Zara’s husband.

Showing up at Yuri’s place right now felt like it would forcing a question Otabek hadn’t even fully figured out how to ask himself. Maybe more than one of them; he wasn’t sure.

If Otabek went there now, somehow, he would think too loud; the things he wasn’t ready to talk about would be written on his face, whether it was Yuri’s family reading something in the shift of the dynamic between them or Yuri himself reading Otabek’s uncertainty about his job. Often, people who saw Otabek commented on the sour blankness of his face, but Yuri knew him too well for Otabek to hide much.

“Beka,” Ari said, the annoyance plain in his voice, “You’re still doing it. You’re just tapping with your feet now.”

“Sorry,” said Otabek, trying to hold his body still.

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Ari demanded. “Aren’t you usually still at practice right now?”

“Yeah, I’m just,” Otabek paused, aware that this foot had started bouncing again as he tried to pull together plausible words, “taking a few days off. After the tournament last weekend.”

Ari scowled back with the full weight of his fifteen year-old authority.

“Did something happen?” Ari asked as Otabek focused on willing his legs quiet.

“Why?” Otabek asked too quickly, suspecting his flat affect wasn’t much better at fooling his brother than Yuri, especially right now.

“You’re usually not this - twitchy,” Ari said, pointing the tip of his pencil at Otabek. “And I can’t remember the last time you took this much time off that wasn’t a holiday or something.”

Otabek shrugged.

“Fine,” Ari groaned. Another car splashed through the street.

“Just- thinking about Zara,” Otabek said after too long. Ari shed some of the annoyance in his face as he nodded, even though Otabek was certain his brother could call his bullshit.

His concern for his sister wasn’t entirely untrue, but he knew she didn’t need his worry. Otabek had great trust in his sister’s strength, and barring that, his mother was there as well. If anything, he pitied the hospital staff that had to deal with them if anything went wrong.

Otabek folded his hands in his lap, tapping his index finger against his other hand. Sitting still wasn’t getting any easier. He’d already run through push ups and sit ups and as many other exercises as he could think of without bothering the neighbors downstairs. He’d been keeping up with his morning run each day, too, finding it hard to break his sleep routine around it. He could go for another run - that usually helped to clear his head - but it didn’t seem like a wise plan in the rain.

His body started getting tense again as he tried to restrain his nervous twitches. Maybe running in the rain was worth it right now.

Ari’s eyes followed him as he stood up abruptly and stretched his arms.

“I’m, uh, going for a run,” Otabek said.

“Now?” Ari asked.

“Yeah.” Otabek hoped he sounded casual, but knew the act he had going wouldn’t fool even people who didn’t know him.

“Whatever,” Ari said, turning back to his schoolwork. “Just don’t whine about it if you get sick.”

Otabek didn’t answer, just turned to go get changed into his sweats.

His brother gave him another odd look from across the room as he paused by the door to pull on his running shoes, but said nothing further.

The rain was chilly but soft, halfway to being a mist that clung to Otabek’s skin as he hit the street and took a moment to stretch. The last daylight had given up, but the rain held the warm light around the streetlights like a halo.

His feet led him down Orchard Street towards Grand. Was he blowing this all out of proportion? Maybe Yuri would be fine with it. Maybe he’d even be happy for him.

Yuri had always had a way of speaking up for what Otabek wanted even when he couldn’t quite find the words for it himself. It helped that they often wanted the same thing, but Yuri’d had his back a couple of times when it had nothing to do with him. Somehow, this didn’t make any of it easier. It wasn’t so much the disapproval he was afraid of as the distance.

Every step he and Yuri had taken so far into boxing, they’d taken together, since the day they’d met in that alleyway after school. There hadn’t been a single competition they hadn’t attended together. Otabek had almost always been happy to get swept up in Yuri’s plans. He’d never tried to stand in the way of them, before. Not sincerely, at least.

Was this standing in the way of Yuri’s plans, though? It wasn’t as if Otabek quitting his job meant Yuri had to. So why did it feel like such disloyalty? As Otabek turned down Delancey, his lungs had settled into the gentle, familiar burn, his annoyance at himself bubbling through the acid in his muscles the way it always did on a run.

He wondered how his sister was doing, wondering if the new baby would give Otabek a better or worse chance of avoiding invasive questions about when he was going to get married. He’d largely been able to use his school program as an excuse to push that line of questioning away from himself.

Even still, Otabek’s mother still had women she knew from Magen David over for tea from time to time when she knew he’d be around. They usually came with their daughters who were conveniently about his age. He only had a few months left before he graduated and that excuse was gone.

He thought back to dinner at Viktor and Yuuri’s, watching the two of them fuss over plates in the kitchen together, the way they both scolded each other but then bragged about the other’s accomplishments over dinner. How easy it seemed. They didn’t have family hanging over their heads the same way, though; no one to shove those expectations under their nose.

Otabek barely noticed when he passed Attorney Street, though he reflexively looked up the way he always did to look for any signs of life in the second building in. Each step squelched at this point, his wet clothes clinging to his body.

The rain kept the sidewalks quiet, though. They were never truly empty, not even when Otabek ran this same route at a quarter past five in the morning. The few people he passed were busy rushing about their own business, leaving Otabek’s run undisturbed.

The sidewalk sloped up to where the bridge rose ahead of him. His legs complained at the gentle incline, as much of a climb as he got on this route and his eyes focused angrily on the ground directly in front of him.

The wet thump of hitting someone else was a shock before it was anything else.

Otabek mumbled an apology as he stuttered a few steps backward, catching his breath to the sound of a stream of curse words that covered at least five languages. His eyes jerked up when the list hit Bukhori.

“Yura?” Otabek said, trying to focus his eyes in the dim, misty light. Yuri looked like an angry, wet cat, hair falling into his face in heavy, dripping strands as his body tensed and bristled.

“What?” Yuri growled sharply before realization hit him, and his voice softened. “Beka?”

“Shit, Beka,” Yuri started laughing through his heavy breath. “You’re even worse when you’re running than when you’re drunk.”

Otabek chuckled softly, relieved to hear Yuri laugh. He rested his hand against the guardrail, cool and slick with the rain. The rest of the city glowed faintly through the loose fog that hung over the river.

“It’s good to see you, too,” Otabek said and Yuri rammed a shoulder into Otabek’s side with a playful grunt. Otabek shoved back with his body until they both settled there, their arms pressed together silently as they looked down towards the lights glowing from Navy Yard across the river.

The rhythm of Yuri’s breathing was deep and even against him as they stood there together. The relief melted through Otabek’s body as the warmth from Yuri’s body bled through to his own. That warm, gentle pressure against him answered a number of Otabek’s questions more completely than words possibly could have.

“It’s been weird not seeing you,” Yuri finally said, his breath back under control. “I’ve been having trouble keeping track of what’s a dream and what’s not.”

“Does that mean you’ve been sleeping at least?” Otabek asked.

Yuri shrugged, but said nothing.

“Good dreams, I hope?” Otabek said. Yuri pushed back away from him, leaning forward against the railing on his own.

Yuri just shrugged again, looking down at his feet.

Otabek crossed his hands over his chest to rub his arms, trying to push out the wet chill in the new absence of Yuri.

“You want to come over?” Yuri asked, finally turning back towards Otabek. “Or, um, you were probably just at the beginning of your run, so,”

“I went for a run this morning already,” Otabek said. “I just needed something to do.”

“You talk to Viktor at all?” Yuri asked as they started jogging back down off the bridge.

“No, haven’t seen him,” Otabek said. “You?”

“No,” Yuri said.

“You going to go over to his gym with him?” Otabek asked after they had been jogging in silence for a short time.

“It’s not much of a choice, is it?” Yuri spat, watching the street as they darted across Delancey. “Like, the choice is ‘do I want to keep boxing or not?’ How the fuck else am I supposed to answer?”

“There are other gyms. They’d take you,” Otabek said.

“Right, cause they’re going to be any better about this. At least we’ve got Viktor on our side here,” Yuri said as they rounded the corner onto Attorney.

“I’m not letting go of this,” Yuri said as they ducked into the narrow alley next to the bakery. He pushed his wet hair back with his hands as they stopped running. In the dim light of the alley, his eyes were as fierce as they were in the ring. Yuri’s eyes darted up towards the windows above briefly before grabbing Otabek’s wrist and pulling him in under the stairs, where the streetlights couldn’t touch them.

Yuri’s hands were on him quickly, pressing his shoulders to the brick behind them. Yuri’s face hung a tiny distance from Otabek’s own. The same intensity lit up his face as had been there after they’d collided on the bridge. Still, Yuri chewed on his lip, small twitches falling across his face like there was something he wanted to say that he was struggling to put together.

Yuri kissed him instead of saying anything; once, quickly, his face pulling back, his lips just parted as if he might still speak. Otabek drifted forward into him, following his breath. Instead, Yuri cupped Otabek’s face in his water-shrivelled hands and kissed him again. Water dripped off of Yuri’s face onto his own, and whatever message Yuri had been trying to get out was pressed incomprehensibly onto Otabek’s rain-wet lips instead.

Otabek wondered what Yuri had been trying to say, but couldn’t bring himself to worry about it for too long, shivering under Yuri’s touch and the sharp, wet chill of the air. The staircase provided shelter from the falling rain, but the air was so saturated that the tiny drops drifted in and around them to cling to their bodies. Both of their clothes were so wet already that it didn’t really matter whether the rain was falling directly on them anymore.

Their arms twisted around each other, Otabek’s arms locked around Yuri’s waist as he pulled Yuri against himself hungrily. Yuri’s tongue unfolded into his mouth and Otabek felt the same queasy pleasure twist inside him as he had when Yuri had touched him before.

Otabek believed each of Yuri’s kisses more than the last. It didn’t help with the feeling of disloyalty that nagged at the back of Otabek’s mind, even as he melted back against the wall under the weight of Yuri’s body, slight but forceful.

“I didn’t ask you yet,” Yuri whispered against Otabek’s skin and Otabek shivered in reply.


“About Viktor’s gym,” Yuri said. “You’re coming with me, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Otabek breathed.

“I can’t imagine being there without you,” Yuri said, stroking Otabek’s cheek.

“Yeah,” Otabek said, turning his head from Yuri’s hand, “Me neither.”

“I’ll call Viktor, then,” Yuri said. “I’m getting sick of not practicing.”

Otabek ran a hand along the back of Yuri’s wet shirt, feeling the water sluice out under his fingers. For a moment, Otabek considered asking what Yuri would think if he made boxing his only job, but most of him still was afraid of the answer. He pulled Yuri back into him and kissed him again rather than try to force the questions still in his head to take shape.

Chapter Text

The clock stared at Yuri as he hefted the last of the doughs he’d mixed up for tomorrow off of the big, gray stand mixer and set it on its wheeled stand, rolling it off to the end of the lineup of heavy bowls. 2:05. If he caught the trains just right, he could still make it to the gym in time.

Yuri untied his apron as he crossed the kitchen, stopping short as he saw the dough hook waiting in the sink, a few stringy globs of dough clinging to the metal. He should really wash it before he left. It would only take a moment. He looked up at the clock again. Yuri hated leaving things unfinished, but Zeyde would wash it when he came in to check on the dough like he always did after dinner. It was easier to apologize to Zeyde for a tiny bit of cleaning than to explain his lateness at the gym.

Grabbing his knapsack by the back door, Yuri sprinted out of the alleyway towards the train in his work clothes.

The smell of the gym assailed Yuri’s nose as he stepped inside. All gyms seemed to have the same basic smell, an acrid mixture of sweat and disinfectant. It wasn’t pleasant, but at a certain point the familiarity of it made it comforting in its own way. He’d made it in before three, which was what really mattered.

After about two weeks, Yuri was starting to get used to the layout here. The gym itself was carved out of the end of one of the brick industrial buildings that lined the river in this part of Greenpoint. The rest of the building was some kind of warehouse that Celestino used for the rest of his business, but Yuri wasn’t entirely clear what that was yet. It hadn’t really come up. Celestino seemed far more interested in talking about boxing in the little contact Yuri’d had with him.

As Yuri headed towards the lockers, he saw Otabek up in the ring already, sparring with Viktor. Beads of sweat caught on his and Viktor’s faces as they danced around each other, flushed red like they’d already been at it for a while.

“Enough!” Josef yelled. The relief as their guard dropped was palpable even from across the room. Josef, Viktor’s coach. Their coach. Josef was their coach now - he worked with all of Celestino’s boxers - but Yuri couldn't help thinking of Viktor as his coach still. After a fashion, he was, about half the time. Yuri had promised Celestino at least four hours of practice a day, five days a week, but Josef had balked at staying past five. Viktor had volunteered to stick around to make up the difference. As long as Yuri could make four hours a day and half of them with Josef, Celestino was willing to take him on.

Yuri took a few steps towards the locker room again, but stopped as Otabek’s eyes fixed on him tightly for a moment. There was an odd sadness hanging on his dark eyes Yuri couldn’t quite place before Otabek’s gaze dipped away to the floor. Yuri’s eyes widened even as he cursed himself for it, darting for the locker room as soon as he was free.

In the locker room, Yuri shook out his work pants. They released a delicate cloud of flour dust that caught the sunlight streaming in from the high window as it curled around the air currents left by the shaken fabric. He threw them to the ground with an angry grunt, glaring at the limp, plain-looking cloth where it was splayed out on the floor as if it was supposed to explain something.

Yuri heard Yakov’s voice in his head again. “Save it for the bags, Plisetsky,” he’d say when Yuri would take out whatever anger he’d brought to practice on someone or something that wasn’t there to take the brunt of that energy. He’d had to say it much less frequently as time went on as Yuri learned, both to figure out which shit was actually worth his time and when to find the bags on his own when he needed to blow off steam.

Shaking his head, Yuri grabbed his flour-dusted work pants back up and hung them in his locker. His head rested on the locker door as he shut it after changing, banging a few times lightly against the metal before heading out to the floor. This kind of jealous anger was beneath him, but knowing that just made him angrier about it, made it harder to let go.

What did it matter? It wasn’t as if there was anything wrong with Otabek practicing without him. Otabek and Viktor were in the same weight class; it made them natural sparring partners. It probably meant Yuri was stuck working with Guang-Hong, the gym’s other bantamweight, again today, though.

“Hit the jump ropes for warm-up, Plisetsky. I’ll be with you in a few,” Josef called before Yuri could make it over to the bags and then turned back to Viktor and Otabek.

Taking a few deep breaths, Yuri settled into an even pace with the jump rope, quick but not pushing himself. He let his eyes slip closed, trusting the beat in his body as his muscles started to warm, as his breath settled into an even rhythm across beats of the rope against the hard floor.

“Altin!” Celestino bellowed, and Yuri skipped a beat where he was, eyes opening to see Celestino strolling from his office at the back over towards the practice ring with another man in a dark suit beside him. They were too far for Yuri to hear where the conversation went. Conversation was maybe too strong a word. It didn’t look like Otabek said much of anything, as he climbed through the ropes and hopped down. He nodded occasionally. At one point, his face twitched back towards Yuri for just a moment.

Celestino and Josef both clapped Otabek on the back. Viktor turned back towards Yuri a moment later, his eyes lingering with almost the same look of apology Otabek had given him when he’d first walked in.

Otabek and now Viktor: the fuck were they looking at him like he was some kind of wounded animal that needed their pity? There was no point in storming over and demanding an explanation, so Yuri began running through his jump rope warm up again, faster this time, the snap of his wrist just a little more forceful as he turned the rope. He didn’t turn his eyes from the scene in front of him.

Celestino returned to his office with the man in the suit, shutting the door behind them. Josef spoke briefly to Viktor and Otabek before heading back over to Yuri.

“What was that about?” Yuri asked in a tone he hoped seemed casual.

“About a fight in a few weeks,” Josef said.

“For Otabek?” Yuri asked, though his voice caught in his throat and he had to repeat the name.

Josef nodded, but headed straight into discussing the day’s training plan. As he suspected, the plan was for most of his partner work to be with Guang-Hong, at least until five or so when most of the crew left. This was one of Otabek’s class nights, so it would just be Yuri and Viktor later tonight.

None of this was Guang-Hong’s fault. The same logic that put Otabek and Viktor in the ring together put Yuri there with Guang-Hong. Even if it was good training to take advantage of the different styles of the boxers in the gym, Yuri missed the way it had just really been the three of them at the Y. They had sparred with some of Yakov’s students there sometimes, but it had never challenged how closely the three of them had worked together. Or, really, how the two of them had worked together.

Guang-Hong was working a speedbag right now alongside his brother Jianjun, a tall, broad-shouldered man who was the gym’s lone heavyweight. They looked like an odd pair, Guang-Hong standing only as high as his brother’s shoulder, his limbs as wiry as his brother’s were thick. From behind, you would never believe they were related, but their faces left little question in the matching bows of their smiles and dusting of freckles across their proud cheekbones.

Jianjun said something that made Guang-Hong miss the bag, his eyes going wide for a moment before he bent over laughing. Jianjun smiled broadly, as if proud of the craftwork involved in shocking his meek, reserved younger brother out of his quiet.

It was maybe Yuri’s biggest complaint about Guang-Hong: he never really said much around anyone but his brother. Even then, he seemed content to let Jianjun do the talking. Although he and his brother preferred to speak Chinese together, his silence didn’t seem like a language issue: when Yuri was able to coax a few words from him they were perfectly clear. It seemed to be the act of speaking itself that challenged Guang-Hong. Yuri had to keep reminding himself that any of the few Chinese words he’d picked up living as close as he did to Chinatown, which amounted to food orders and curse words, were likely unhelpful in trying to get him to open up.

Silence wasn’t the worst quality in a sparring partner. Yuri supposed silence was better than expecting the kind of polite small talk that drove him crazy, evaporating into dry nothing as soon as it met the air. Yuri wasn’t particularly good at being alone, but that kind of empty contact was even worse. Guang-Hong was thoroughly competent if a bit predictable in his boxing, but there was a clinical quality to it that left Yuri unsatisfied, as if it were also a one-sided conversation.

Otabek was also a quiet sparring partner, content to let Yuri do the heavy lifting when it came to conversation, but the limitations on what Yuri could say to him were based more on the ears of the people around them than on what he could say to Otabek. He could say anything when it was just the two of them, and knew exactly what to say to get a particular reaction.

The game of trying to get Otabek to blushingly miss a beat like Jianjun was doing with his brother was also one of Yuri's favorites. Even when they said nothing, the silence between him and Otabek was more often effortless than empty, still rich with things that simply didn’t need to be spoken to fill that space.

Yuri looked up at the ring again, where Viktor and Otabek were faced off, watching each other intently as they crouched gently on their toes, coiled for the next reaction. Something in between longing and jealousy twisted in his chest, that same feeling he’d tried to dismiss as childish in the locker room. Yuri scowled and resisted the urge to spit on the ground as he stalked over towards the heavy bags.

Yuri tugged at the stiff collar of his shirt, scowling at the chipped, gray enamel of the concrete floor as Georgi and Josef fussed over Otabek, Viktor hanging quietly over their shoulders. Otabek didn’t even want their attention right now; he always preferred to be left alone as he got ready for a fight. Yuri didn’t quite understand it himself, but he’d seen it enough times to know it for certain.

For his part, Otabek looked like he was determined to be alone regardless of how many people were around him, a distant blankness across his face that Yuri had seen enough times to know that Otabek heard nothing that was being said to him right now, his mind wherever it went when his eyes had that glazed look.

At least they’d let Otabek wrap his own hands. He’d had tried to explain it to Yuri once. Something about remembering. Yuri didn’t quite get it, but it seemed important enough to Otabek that Yuri would fight anyone who tried to tell him to do it another way.

Yuri undid the top few buttons of his shirt. Fuck it, it wasn’t like anyone was going to be looking at him tonight. Celestino had given him an emphatic speech earlier about what it meant to represent the gym at an event. Whenever Yuri replayed the words in his head, they always came back in Yakov’s voice. Yuri wasn’t sure whether that made him want to follow those instructions more or less.

Did Yakov follow their fights? He always seemed to know when Viktor had one of his, but knowing the fight had happened - even knowing the outcome of it - wasn’t the same as following. Even when Yuri just read the clipped phrasing of a newspaper brief, he tried to conjure images of the fight as thoroughly as he could, down to the stink of the crowd, until he felt like he was ringside himself. Yakov talked like he was doing the inverse of that, but wasn’t he just a little bit curious? Wasn’t there any satisfaction in seeing his instruction paying off?

Not that Yuri had been much to follow over the last five weeks or however long it had been since he and Otabek had started training at Celestino’s gym. Yuri still hadn’t had another fight. He didn’t even have a prospect of something on the schedule. Celestino had waved his hands about there being fewer opportunities for younger fighters because of the restrictions on the bouts, but Yuri smelled bullshit.

A lot of the fight cards he saw had at least one six-rounder on them, and you didn’t have to go far for the rules to be different, just across the river into Jersey. Jianjun had just lost a squeaker at the Armory in Jersey City, and age wasn’t even a factor in setting the fight over there in his case. That Chulanont kid Yuri had beaten had just won a big one down in Atlantic City. Though, as close as Jersey was, Atlantic City felt like it was a world away.

Otabek sat with his arms resting loosely on his thighs, a towel around his shoulders. As if he could feel the weight of Yuri’s gaze, his dark eyes lifted towards Yuri with recognition. Yuri was unsure if Otabek had actually rejoined the room or had just invited Yuri onto whatever distant cloud he had disappeared to.

Yuri let himself be held there for a moment before looking back down at the floor as he scuffed at it in the shiny dress shoes that pinched at his toes, his arms folded tightly in front of him. He should be excited for Otabek, excited to watch him in action, but it was harder to keep his mind on Otabek’s fight when he didn’t have his own to look forward to.

Otabek deserved his success; he’d worked hard for this, but all of it felt like a reminder of why Otabek was about to fight and Yuri wasn’t. There really was no good reason that Otabek should have kept up his construction work; the job was never more than just that to him and he would have been even less able to make the practice schedule they’d set up than Yuri if he hadn’t quit.

It left Yuri with the loneliness of feeling like a dilettante among professionals wherever he was at work, though. It hit him harder at the gym, looking up into the ring while Viktor and Otabek worked together, but he felt like a fucking amateur every time he left something for Zeyde to clean or asked him to finish something so he could leave early. It wasn't in Zeyde’s nature to turn him down, even if maybe he should sometimes. For better or worse, Zeyde kept Yuri’s secrets, even when Yuri didn't ask him to.

Zeyde's tacit support didn't make him feel better about it. He almost wished he could just get into it with his mother one of these days, so he could build up enough rage to walk out the door with dishes in the sink and his sense of righteousness intact as opposed to sneaking out the back door with his tail between his legs, only to slink into the gym the same way. But instead it was Zeyde, who said nothing, the way that Viktor and Otabek said nothing when he arrived at the gym in the middle of practice, as they hung around the gym for an extra hour or two in the evening with him even though they could have gone home already.

The regularity of practice with Otabek had always brought them together, but lately it seemed to highlight a distance which shouldn’t feel as real as it did. It sometimes even made Yuri question how real their closeness felt when he was by himself. It seemed too stupid to mention, but that thought didn’t actually make the idea any easier to shake.

Yuri wanted to look at Otabek and see the beautiful line of his lips. He wanted to see the power in his body, the strength and kindness in his eyes. Right now, he looked at Otabek and all he could see was the clock staring at him as he slipped into the gym later than anyone else. He looked down at his feet as he kicked idly at the floor in front of him again. Without looking up, he walked quietly out of the locker room to go peek at the crowd.

Katsuki was leaning against a railing not far from the locker room door, his photo gear hanging around his neck on various straps. Yuri stood next to him without a word of greeting. Katsuki turned to him a moment later.

“Had enough locker room talk?” Katsuki asked with quick look and a soft grin. Yuri shrugged.

“I’m probably just a distraction right now,” Yuri said, talking to his feet.

“I doubt that’s strictly true, but I know the feeling. I’m never sure what to do with myself in there. Especially around Viktor, you know?”

“I guess so,” Yuri said, though that wasn’t really the problem.

“It’s one of the reasons I like having the camera,” Katsuki said. “Gives me a reason to be here, something to do with my hands.”

Yuuri turned to look more carefully at Yuri and pressed his lips together at the sight.

“You want to be out there,” Yuuri said, not as if it was news, but as if the weight of that fact had just now hit him.

“No shit,” Yuri snorted.

“You have any news about when you might,”

“No,” Yuri interrupted quietly, with a tone that warned against further questioning. Katsuki knew the answer, if he thought about it. He’d heard Yuri rant about it enough over the Monday night dinners the four of them had fallen into sharing.

The mingled scents of tobacco and sweat had made Yuri pleasantly drunk before, tonight it felt like they just sent him straight to the hangover, digging into his head, grabbing onto the exhaustion that followed him around. Before, those had been Viktor’s fights, or also his own. Otabek was always with him to talk through it, even if it was usually Yuri doing the talking.

Dammit, why couldn’t he just be excited for Otabek? He couldn’t imagine Otabek acting like this if their positions were reversed. He couldn’t imagine that situation at all though. It wasn’t as though they would always be on the same slate of fights, but the lack of action Yuri had seen felt personal. Anger wasn’t going to change anything about that; Yuri could push that feeling away \for the time being, but it left an empty spot in himself where it should have been that ate away at him. It didn’t change anything either, it just managed not to make things that much worse.

He knew what it was. No one said it, but he felt it every time he showed up at the gym and saw Otabek sparring with Viktor, feeling like he was constantly walking in late. Yuri diligently put in his hours at practice, but the gym all but shut down before he was done. Viktor hung around with him to make up the hours he’d promised Celestino. Otabek stuck around, too, on the days he could. It didn’t seem to matter how hard he worked himself in the practice time he had, when no one else saw it.

The announcer’s voice began to crackle through the loudspeaker as he began all the fanfare bullshit to focus the crowd’s energy, but the excitement washed around Yuri without ever touching him.

Otabek brushed past Yuri on his way to the ring, grazing him lightly with his gloved hand and a quick smile that fluttered through his annoyance. Yuri’s eyes followed the fluid lines of Otabek’s bare back all the way to the ring, but the bitterness still hung in the back of his mouth, only partially masked by the rest of it.

“Feeling any better now?” Katsuki asked with a small, knowing grin.

“Can it, asshole,” Yuri scowled and Katsuki giggled from behind his camera.

“What did I miss?” Viktor asked as he stepped up behind them, draping an arm over each of their shoulders. Yuri shrugged him off quickly, and Viktor pulled his arms back from both of them.

“You’re not going to be up in the ring with him?” Yuri asked.

“It gets crowded too easily up there. I can’t do what Josef or Georgi do any better than they can,” Viktor said. “Besides, how often do I just get to sit back and watch?”

Yuri liked Georgi well enough, but was certain he’d rather have Viktor up there with him than Josef. Not that Viktor needed to know that right now.

Otabek’s opponent was over from the West Coast somewhere, a Korean guy called Lee whose steely expression, capped with heavy eyebrows, seemed out of line with his colorful trunks.

“I think they’re just going to let their eyebrows fight it out,” Viktor whispered in Katsuki’s ear, but loudly enough that Yuri could clearly hear. Yuri turned and gave Viktor a sour look.

“Viktor! So rude!” Katsuki scolded, giggling softly nonetheless.

“Maybe I’m just jealous,” Viktor said, no longer bothering to whisper. “I wouldn’t stand a chance against either of them on those terms.”

With a grunt of frustration, Yuri gave Viktor a single sharp punch to the arm and stomped forward away from the two of them just as the fight was about to begin. Viktor picked strange moments to air his sense of humor. Yuri could barely handle serious commentary right now.

The first round started out slow. Lee had a patient, cautious style that wasn’t far from Otabek’s. For Otabek, it came partially by temperament, but also partly as a response to being significantly shorter than most of his opponents. This Lee was an exception to that, standing maybe an inch taller than Otabek, and Yuri wondered how much it had pushed his game in the same direction.

Lee wasn’t as visibly muscular as Otabek, though. Most boxers didn’t go in for heavy weight lifting for fear of losing flexibility. Otabek didn’t either, not as such, but up until recently, enough of the daily gruntwork he did on construction sites served much the same purpose whether he wanted it or not.

The bell rang for the end of the first round and the two boxers had barely touched each other, bouncing around each other instead with careful deviations from their stance. The audience chattered restlessly as the boxers returned to their corners.

Yuri was more anxious watching Josef talk Otabek through the break than he had been watching the first round. That brief time between rounds was always hard for him in his own fights, too. When he’d only fought three-round amateur bouts, he used to say that he wished he could just run one round into the next without stopping.

Otabek started picking away at Lee with quick jabs as the second round got underway. Lee seemed content answering in kind as they worked in and out, in close and then out away from each other. The rhythm seemed to push them slowly towards the ropes, with Otabek’s back getting closer with each pass.

With a quick pivot, Otabek rolled away from the ropes and landed a few solid hits to Lee’s body in a way he hadn’t yet managed before dancing away. Lee’s face displayed only the slightest hint of a reaction to the shift in the pace, but he didn’t bother following Otabek where he led.

Otabek came back and started jabbing again, opening things up enough to slip in another sharp combo. Since when did Otabek drop step like fucking Dempsey? Otabek was built a bit like Dempsey, short for his weight class and built broad out of solid muscle, but he didn’t seem to have the temperament. Otabek had always been the kind of guy who fought on balance and a clear head, and now he was damn near falling over to throw his punches harder.

Beautiful and terrifying in equal measure, it was an aggressive push to his boxing that Yuri hadn’t seen before. But then, Lee was a different boxer than he was used to facing. Maybe that’s all it was, but Yuri had also seen subtle shifts in Otabek’s boxing since they’d changed gyms. There wasn’t anything subtle about what he was seeing right now.

The crowd was on their feet watching this new development, like they could smell blood before they saw it. Lee showed up to the next round looking like a different man himself, and the two of them spent the next couple rounds damn near wrestling at the ropes, pushing each other back and watching for the moment to break the pattern.

Lee didn’t seem to have the same power that Otabek did, but he fought smart. The techniques Otabek was using to hit harder needed room to work properly. They both took some minor damage staying as close as they did, but it was far harder to get the momentum for serious damage without the distance.

It was the sixth round before the action really shifted again, both men gleaming with a film of sweat in the harsh light that hung over the ring as the arena hummed noisily around them. They were visibly breathing hard at the break. If this were Yuri’s fight, this is all the time he would have. It seemed impossible to decipher which way the judges would call the bout if they had to right now. As it were, they might not be halfway done yet.

Whatever he tried, Otabek didn’t seem to be able to draw out the big attacks from Lee that he usually could turn around to his own advantage. At a certain point though, it seemed that Lee’s deliberate patience was giving way to exhaustion.

The close work they’d held up the last couple rounds was draining, but the men in the ring seemed determined to mask whatever strain they were feeling as they burst into the seventh. Otabek’s movement was still as unshakeable as the firm set of his eyes. Lee still seemed grounded on his feet, but even from where Yuri stood, the bright steel of his eyes had dulled a little. Yuri knew then for certain that this fight was Otabek’s.

That fact became clearer as the fight slipped forward. The more room Lee left for Otabek, the more he left himself open. Otabek had slowed down, too. Even throwing his full weight behind a punch, it was clear from across the room that there wasn’t the same power behind it that there had been early on. The quickness in his legs that had propelled him early on had slackened some.

By the ninth round, Lee looked in rough shape. His nose had bled and smeared across his face. His arms were still up and he bounced on his feet, but he didn’t seem to have the energy to crowd Otabek out like he’d used to his advantage earlier. Even without the full power he’d displayed earlier, Otabek’s punches were still landing hard given the room he wanted.

About halfway into the round, Lee went down. He struggled to get to his feet almost immediately as Otabek stepped back from him, tripping over himself the first few times he tried, but he was back on his feet before the ref could count to five.

It was less than ten seconds before it happened again. Lee was up even more quickly this time, but his posture hung a little more than it had before. His face still carried the same defiantly blank scowl he’d worn into the beginning of the match, but his body told a different story.

Watching the tenth round, it was clear that Otabek wasn’t going to let this fight go the full fifteen rounds, and that it was just a matter of time before Lee couldn’t get back up fast enough.

Even with that in his head, Yuri wasn’t ready for it when it came. Early in the eleventh round, Otabek landed a sharp hook that threw Lee off his balance, leaving him open for a brutal series of hits that sent him to the canvas hard, blood trickling out of his nose and mouth.

Lee didn’t even try to get up. He didn’t move, didn’t even open his eyes as the ref’s count climbed over his body. Even Otabek looked shocked as he stepped back into his corner, Josef already talking into his ear. Otabek’s eyes didn’t leave the limp form on the ground.

Even the crowd that had been screaming for just this moments before quieted to an anxious hush as the count went on. A chorus of camera flashes sparked around the perimeter of the ring as reporters fought for the money shot to this fight.

A sick feeling tightened in Yuri’s chest as he watched, frozen where he was. He stared at Lee’s body, mostly sure he could see his chest still rise and fall, but unsure of his own judgment. The movement was subtle. Maybe he was just imagining it. He’d seen knockouts before, but none of them had involved anyone actually being knocked unconscious to this degree.

The ref abandoned the count with a look to Lee’s corner and a shake of his head and a team of men immediately surrounded the downed fighter: his coach, trainer, and another man with a bag who must have been the on site doc. Lee was sitting up again after just a few moments of treatment, looking dazed, but it was only partial relief to Yuri, still tense as he watched the scene unfold.

“He’ll be fine,” Viktor said, putting a hand on Yuri’s shoulder, his voice soft but firm. Yuri hadn’t even noticed him approaching. “He’ll have the world’s worst hangover tomorrow without even drinking a drop, but he’ll be fine.”

As Lee’s crew worked gingerly to help him out of the ring, the crowd was wild again as the ref held up Otabek’s hand without ever bothering to talk to the judges. Otabek’s face still hadn’t fully recovered its usual calm, and his eyes kept darting over to where Lee’s team were still working on putting him back together enough to make his exit.

Even now, Lee’s face refused to give anything away. It was easy enough to read disappointment into it - it certainly wasn’t a pleased face - but he hadn’t looked any more credulous when the bout began.

Yuri wasn’t sure what to say to Otabek when he finally saw him, still shaken from the end of the bout, so he just gave him a quick slap of a hug.

“You did good,” Yuri finally choked out, wishing he could say anything more about it. “I’ll see you when you’re cleaned up.”

He left to go wait with Viktor and Katsuki, and found them talking with Celestino in the hall. He quickly rebuttoned the few shirt buttons he’d undone earlier as he approached.

“You see our boy out there? That was quite something, no?” Celestino said, clapping Yuri on the back as he noticed him. Celestino, at least, was glowing with excitement at the situation.

Dinner was the same overstuffed production as it had been after the last fight, but Yuri was more prepared for it this time, drinking his wine in tiny sips so that he at least had better control over how much he drank.

He’d also been seated across Viktor this time, actually able to talk to him, so he wasn’t quite as lost in the room. Otabek was at the far end of the table, looking dazed as people fawned over him. Yuri would be more bothered by it if Otabek didn’t look as lost as he did with the girls in his face and the men in suits with their hands on him like some kind of trophy, but he looked like he was about ready to melt into the floor.

As the party broke up, Yuri walked out into the the crisp cool of the street with Viktor and Otabek.

“Yuuri’s waiting for me over at the Papaya,” Viktor said, his breath curling out into the cold, still air in front of him. “You’re welcome to join us of course, but,” Viktor pursed his lips nervously, looking around as he reached into his coat pocket and quickly pressed a key into Yuri’s hand.

Yuri looked at the key in his hand and then back up at Viktor, his tired, wine-buzzed brain unsure of what to make of it. His eyes shifted over to Otabek as if to ask him for an explanation, but Otabek hadn’t even seen what was in Yuri’s hand right now.

“Look, Yuuri and I are going to be at the Papaya for a couple hours yet. You’re welcome to join us now or whenever you want. But we both thought-” Viktor cleared his throat and leaned in towards Yuri to speak in a whisper, “We thought you two might be tired after a long day and might want to take a rest instead.”

“Um,” Yuri said, unfolding his fingers and looking at the key in his open palm, but Viktor continued talking before Yuri could get anything else out.

“Yuuri cleaned up his darkroom materials from the other bedroom and, well,” Viktor grinned like he’d just handed a fox the key to a henhouse and he winked. “Anyway, you’re welcome to it while we’re out.”

As the nature of what Viktor was offering began to dawn on Yuri, he quickly shoved the key into his own pocket and quickly looked up and down the street to see who might have been there to overhear.

“You can stay the night, of course, but I know you have to work early tomorrow. We can wake you up when we get back so you don’t oversleep.”

“Alright,” Yuri said, nervous excitement beginning to spin up inside him. His eyes darted to Otabek, but quickly away again.

“I should get going,” Viktor said. “Rude to keep people waiting and all that. Otabek, congratulations again on your win.”

“Thank you,” Otabek said, turning to look at Yuri puzzledly.

Viktor nodded and started walking briskly down the street, shoving his hands into his coat pockets.

“Hey, Viktor,” Yuri shouted. Viktor paused in his step and turned back towards the two of them. “Thanks.”

The familiarity of Viktor and Yuuri’s apartment was gone in the dark. Both Yuri and Otabek failed to find the light switch as they took their coats and shoes off by the door. Instead, Yuri felt for the sharp line of Otabek’s jaw in the dim light and just let his fingers rest there.

Even through the gentle haze of the alcohol, Yuri still couldn’t fully shake the image of the other boxer lying limp and bloodied in the ring, of the dazed look he’d tried to hide even before that. The fierceness in Otabek’s face as he’d delivered those punches was too familiar, too much like his own in the ring.

That memory bore only passing resemblance to the softness of Otabek’s face under his fingers right now as Yuri stroked his cheek with his thumb. There would always be those two selves to reckon with. There always had been, he supposed.

No, that wasn’t true. There was a time when Yuri hadn’t been able to separate his anger from himself. It was better that he could entertain that in the ring and only there. In the time they’d known each other, Otabek had always been the one who could keep an even head. Better than Yuri could at least. Otabek was someone who understood how to punch exactly as hard as you need to, and no more. Or, at least, he had been. That didn’t change the way the fight ended tonight.

That wasn’t the Otabek who was here with him right now, though. That wasn’t the Otabek that set his open palm against Yuri’s chest, his touch warm and gentle as his hand delicately slid up to cradle Yuri’s neck. A sick heat pulsed through Yuri’s body as Otabek’s warmth beckoned to him, drawing him closer.

Otabek’s eyes still shone in the dim light, fixed unblinking on Yuri’s face as they finally gave in to the pull between them and kissed, even that gentle touch of their lips like a shock. Yuri wrapped his free arm around Otabek tightly, but could feel Otabek wince against him.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Yuri said. “You’re probably pretty bruised up right now.”

“It’s not that bad. Not as bad as it could be,” Otabek said apologetically.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Yuri said, realizing that he should be the one concerned with being gentle right now. “Do you want to go lie down? Would that be more comfortable?”

The words stuck to his tongue, as if shy of being spoken, even though it was why they were here right now and they both knew it. Knowing it was one thing though, and speaking it was another. That first time they had kissed in the alley off of Christopher Street, Otabek had told him he didn’t need to explain anything, so he hadn’t. Not then, not since.

“Alright,” Otabek said simply, squeezing Yuri’s hand.

Yuri led Otabek slowly through the dark living room, probing ahead of himself with his stocking feet until they reached the door to what Yuri still thought of as Katsuki’s darkroom.

The room itself still smelled of photo chemicals. Photo chemicals and Viktor’s cologne. They’d tried, but this room was probably fated to always smell a little like darkroom at this point. It was odd seeing it without the trays and the cluttered display of films and prints hanging up to dry. They’d even taken down the heavy covering that had blocked out the light from the room’s lone window, and a streetlight outside streaked in through the blinds across the neatly-made double bed that Yuri had honestly forgotten was even there.

They both stood there, just inside the door, as if waiting for the other to move next. For as many corners and alleyways Yuri had brazenly dragged Otabek into since they had first kissed, this setting, where there was virtually no chance of being discovered, seemed intimidating, maybe for that very reason.

Otabek sat on the edge of the bed, still holding Yuri’s hand, pulling Yuri in towards him until he stumbled down onto the bed himself, blissfully soft under him. Otabek kissed him softly, humming approval against his lips as he reached around Yuri to pull at the quilt covering the bed.

“Here, we’re not going to be able to do this without getting back up for a moment,” Yuri said, pulling Otabek up by the hand. Reluctantly, Yuri disentangled his fingers from Otabek’s long enough to pull the blankets back on the bed.

Slipping into the bed in his dress clothes felt wrong somehow but Yuri wasn’t feeling bold enough to take any of them off at this point. As they pulled the blankets up over themselves, they lay facing each other, bodies gently curled into a mirror image of each other.

Yuri’s breath came out in a shudder as Otabek stroked his face lightly, eyes sliding gently closed as he leaned into that touch. He ran his own hand along Otabek’s side, the crisp fabric pulled tight against his body but keeping Yuri from the immediate warmth of his skin. He brought his fingers up to the top of the shirt’s buttons.

“Can I?” Yuri breathed and he could feel Otabek nod against the pillow as he began unbuttoning his shirt, fumbling through the buttons at the awkward angle. Otabek’s breath fell unevenly against his face as his fingers began combing through Yuri’s hair.

Otabek sat up just enough to pull his shirt off when Yuri finished with the buttons, leaning down over him after he’d pushed it away and pressing a kiss into him, bolder than he had been so far, his tongue teasing at the seam of Yuri’s mouth.

“You, too,” Otabek said as his hand rested against Yuri’s chest, already beginning to work his way through the buttons of Yuri’s shirt. Yuri’s body was already throbbing with desire as he pushed his way out of his dress shirt, shoving it out to the side. He slid his hand around to the small of Otabek’s back and urged him closer, inhaling sharply as Otabek settled a leg between his own and leaned in to kiss him again.

Yuri’s head was swimming with the warmth around him and the lemon and wine taste of Otabek’s mouth as he melted into the softness of the bed. Even with the desire that pulsed through his body, the exhaustion that was always there pulled at the back of his eyes. The moment he noticed it, he was fighting off a yawn.

Otabek pulled back, his face concerned.

“Don’t you dare stop,” Yuri scolded, running a hand down Otabek’s chest to pull at the undershirt he still wore. Otabek paused to pull it off and drop it carelessly behind him, fingers immediately running under Yuri’s own, sliding along his hip and pushing the soft fabric up as their mouths fell together again.

Even with Otabek’s hands tracing his bare skin, Yuri’s body demanded more. He pushed Otabek up gently so he could sit up and pull his own undershirt off. He reached to undo his pants next, fed up with the way they twisted around his legs, and pushed those away too. At the sight of it, Otabek ditched his own as well.

Yuri pushed Otabek back against the bed this time, pulling the blankets back up over them as Yuri settled on his side next to him, his fingers playing with the waistband of Otabek’s shorts where they fell along the curve of his hipbone.

Otabek’s breath was heavy enough to hear as Yuri let his palm slide along the defined muscles of his abdomen, tracing along the band of his shorts.

“Yura,” Otabek whispered, rolling up onto his side and folding his arm around Yuri to pull them closer. The pulse in Yuri’s body leapt at the reverence in Otabek’s voice as he spoke his name, and then their lips were together again as their bodies followed. They became a single fluid heat as their limbs twisted them tightly together, drawing as much of their skin together as they could manage, though there couldn’t possibly be any way it would feel like enough.

Their heavy breaths fell into sync as their movement found rhythm against each other, and Yuri was going to implode if he didn’t explode first. Otabek’s breathy whimper as he shuddered against him felt like a promise, and Yuri wondered how there were ever days that he doubted this, that he imagined Otabek would find his success and forget about him, or that he would somehow lose the sweetness that defined him.

There was truth in the pleasure that moved through Yuri’s own body in waves, clinging to Otabek beside him, and the easy relief that followed that couldn’t be put into words. When he finally nuzzled his head into Otabek, buried in the warm cocoon of the bed and released himself to the exhaustion that he’d been pushing aside, his last thought before sleep claimed him was that he was home.

Chapter Text

The sharp knock made Yuri jump. He would have sat bolt upright if it weren’t for the dead weight of the arm across him, passively pinning him to the bed. He struggled blindly for a moment before he realized where he was. Otabek stirred beside him, pulling Yuri closer as his eyes fluttered drowsily.

“Are you alright?” Otabek whispered.

A second knock was followed by giggling and an aggressive hushing sound.

“Yuuuuura! Bekaaaa!” A voice sang from behind the door. Viktor. Drunk. More drunk than when they’d parted ways after dinner, it sounded. “You're not asleeeep!”

“Viktor, go to bed!” Another voice cut him off in a sharp whisper. Katsuki. The voice of reason, as usual. The scolding was met with further giggles and the mechanical clunk of the doorknob turning.

Yuri scrunched down further under the blankets, trying to cover Otabek and hide every available inch of his own bare skin. Otabek’s hand opened flat against Yuri’s back as if it could shield him somehow. There was a loud thunk against the door, but the sound of the knob stopped. In fact, it was totally silent for a moment, but for the slight sound of fabric sliding against the wood, then the wet smack of lips parting.

“Viktor, you can go to bed now or you can sleep on the sofa. Alone,” Katsuki said, his voice not rising above a whisper, but clearly firm in a way that didn’t require increased volume. There were only footsteps in response.

“So sorry about that,” Katsuki said through the door, softly but above a whisper now. “Can I just get a word from you so I know you’re awake? I don’t want to come in unless it’s absolutely necessary, but I also don’t want you to be late for work.”

“Yeah, I’m up,” Yuri grumbled. “What time is it?”

“About 2:30. We’re going right to bed, but we’ll see you for dinner on Monday?” Yuuri asked.

“Mmhmm,” Yuri grunted, rubbing his eyes but not yet attempting to pull himself out of the perfect warmth that surrounded him.

“Okay, lock up on your way out. You can bring the key back Monday,” Yuuri said. “Good night.”

“Mm,” Yuri managed in response. He let his body go slack again, trying to absorb the comfort of the moment. His body felt warm and loose, far from the dull stiffness he usually woke to.

It had been years since Yuri had slept in an actual bed. He’d slept on the same old, green sofa since they’d moved in with Zeyde. The thing was almost certainly older than his mother, the plush of the fabric and the cushion worn thin and uneven with time and use. He’d slept there so long that he barely even had any comparison for it anymore, the same way he barely understood waking up after dawn.

Before they’d moved, when they were still in the apartment on Jefferson Street, Yuri had shared a bed with his sisters. At this point, he couldn’t even remember what it felt like, only the fact that it had been true, like some detail he’d had to memorize in a history class.

Regardless, Yuri’s memory of that bed back on Jefferson was thin comparison to where he found himself waking right now; difficult to say whether it was the bed itself or simply Otabek there with him that made this bed so impossibly comfortable.

Otabek began to trace light circles with the tips of his calloused fingers along the bare skin of Yuri’s back, rooting him back in the bed. Yuri rubbed his face back against the pillow, and he melted back into exactly where he was.

As he ran his own fingers along the length of Otabek’s spine, tracing along the smooth, warm skin from the gentle bump of one vertebra to the next, he regretted the thought of having to get up. Not just soon, in the ungodly predawn hour, but ever. Even beyond the frantic pleasure they’d built together here when they’d arrived, it was lying here, tangled together indefinitely without having to answer to anyone else’s expectation, not even having to hold up his own body that Yuri didn’t want to let go.

Only that wasn’t really true, was it? Those expectations: the bakery, practice, family, might not be able to pass through that door, or climb into the bed, but it didn’t mean they weren’t waiting on the other side. One way or another, he had to wake up, like Little Nemo at the end of any of his adventures. How long had he even been asleep?

Yuri leaned forward and kissed Otabek gently across the small distance, smiling softly as Otabek pressed back into him with his dry, swollen lips. His eyes fell shut again. Yuri flexed his legs and tightened his grip around Otabek, pulling his body just a little closer.

Shirinam, you can’t fall back asleep now,” Otabek whispered and kissed Yuri on the temple, “We need to get up.”

“How are you more fucking awake than me?” Yuri grumbled. Otabek chuckled softly. “Anyway, you don’t need to get up. I do.”

“No, I should get home, too,” Otabek said. “If I get back before anyone else wakes up I won’t- it’ll just be simpler.”

Yuri grumbled and dipped down head to press his forehead against Otabek’s bare chest while he still could. His hairline barely poked out above the edge of the blankets as he tried to soak up the warmth for the way home, feeling the gentle rise and fall of Otabek’s breath against him. The trains were running infrequently enough at this hour that it was a toss up as to whether it would take less time to walk the two or so miles home.

Otabek’s hand slid up into Yuri’s hair, stroking the shorter bristles on the back of his head. His chest rose heavily and then released.

“You’re not helping,” Yuri mumbled against Otabek’s chest.

“What’s that?” Otabek said, pulling back a little.

“I said you’re not helping,” Yuri repeated, pulling his head back up and wrinkling his nose against the chill air of the room. Even now, Otabek seemed to glow in the dim light of the room, lying on his side with the longer top of his hair disheveled, flopped into his face. Yuri licked his lips and leaned in to kiss him again, pushing him onto his back as he leveraged his own weight on top of him, astride his hips.

“I’m not helping?” Otabek asked as he finally pulled back from their kiss.

“Fine,” Yuri said and pushed back the covers as he sat up. They were silent as they stood up and dressed in the dark room as quickly as they could. Silent even as Otabek winced with pain as he stood and stretched. Silent even as they realized they were trying to put on the wrong shirts and had to trade back before they could finish dressing.

They smoothed the bedding down and, with a final look at each other, opened the door and stepped out together.

It had started snowing by the time they got outside; big, lazy flakes that drifted slowly in front of the streetlights. A spare layer already outlined the edges of the world around them.

Between the snow and the hour, the city had a rare silence to it. As they started trundling back down Fourth Street towards the East Side, the only sound was the starchy crunch of the snow under their feet.

“Your boxing looked really different last night,” Yuri said, trying to phrase it as neutrally as possible, even though he wanted to say, “I could barely recognize you out there.” He wanted to say, “It scared me a little.” But that felt it would be too revealing for both of them.

Otabek nodded silently.

“Was that change in style Josef’s idea?” Yuri asked once it was clear that Otabek wasn’t going to say anything else about it unprompted.

“I guess,” Otabek began uncertainly. “He said that I can’t count on arrogance so much. I should work with the advantage my body has and not just count on patience every time. I guess there’s something to that. I can’t always wait for the other guy to lose control. He said early on that Lee wasn’t someone who would ever lose it.”

“He wasn’t really wrong about that, I guess,” Yuri said, sniffling slightly as the cold had started to make his nose run.

“I don’t know,” Otabek went on. “I never really dropped it that hard before on anything besides a bag before last night. And, it was starting to feel good, you know? Like when the different parts of your body just find a perfect rhythm together? Like music coming together from different instruments, and you’re dancing and it feels like you’re part of something bigger. Even gravity feels like it’s on your side. And it just worked. Maybe too well.”

Yuri’s breath clouded out in front of him. He shivered, not with cold but for recognizing himself in what Otabek had said. Almost more than winning, that was the feeling he was chasing when he boxed, though one often led to the other.

The first car they’d seen running since they left rumbled by slowly and they walked in silence as it passed.

“I really did beat the shit out of that guy, though,” Otabek said softly to the ground. “I didn’t even think about it that way until he was down.”

“He’ll be fine,” Yuri interjected quickly.

“That’s what they all tell me,” Otabek said. He sniffled from the cold himself as he spoke, but it couldn’t quite mask the uncertain guilt in the words as he said them.

“It’s nothing personal, right?” Yuri said. He’d struggled with reasoning through this himself after the bout, but now that Otabek’s doubt was near the surface, it seemed much clearer. “We know the risks going in. It’s called a fight: people are going to get hurt.”

“I guess,” Otabek said.

“You fought clean, you know?” Yuri shrugged as much as he could without pulling his hands out of his coat pockets. “Outside of that, you just go out and keep fighting ‘til they tell you to stop, right?”

Otabek didn’t say anything in response this time, just nodded solemnly, shaking loose some of the snowflakes that had settled on his dark hair. He wrinkled his nose as some of the half-melted snow dripped into his face and shook his head to clear the rest off.

A blob of wet snow landed square in Yuri’s eye. The brief shock of it stopped him in his tracks, but almost instantly he had scooped the offending snow from his face and flicked it back at Otabek without even thinking about it.

Otabek stooped down a moment later and before Yuri could ask what he was doing a much larger lump of snow had thumped against his coat and Otabek was chuckling under his breath.

“Oh, it’s on, asshole!” Yuri yelled into the snowy quiet before reaching down to scoop up his own snowball. If he wasn’t fully awake before, he was now. Otabek had already taken off running across the street, though. Yuri started sprinting after him, nailing him in the back of the head as soon as Otabek stopped to grab more snow.

Otabek tossed the barely-formed snow at him underhanded before he even stood up, quickly scooping up more and running as Yuri took off after him. Yuri was always a little quicker on his feet than Otabek, and Otabek was moving a little more stiffly than usual, the weight of the fight still hanging onto him. Yuri would worry more about it, except that Otabek had been laughing the last time Yuri had stuffed snow in his face.

Taking full advantage of the empty street, they darted from one side to the other, ducking behind the odd cart left parked on the street as they tried to sneak up on each other. Using his speed, Yuri ran up and got a handful of snow into Otabek’s face from close range before darting away, staying just far enough that Otabek couldn’t lunge and grab onto him.

As they came up on Washington Square Park, Yuri sprinted inside the gate and flattened himself against the trunk of a convenient tree, though the tracks in the snow, otherwise untouched, would quickly give him away. His cheeks burned with the cold as melting snow dripped down the back of his neck.

Otabek lumbered into the park a moment later, his heavy breath clouding out in front of him. As quietly as he could, Yuri leaned down to pack together a large mass of snow before jumping out in front of Otabek on the path. The compacted snow slicked under the soles of his shoes this time, though and he slipped face forward into Otabek, knocking them both back onto the snow-covered grass.

Otabek was laughing almost as soon as he hit the ground, and Yuri was laughing breathlessly beside him as soon as he got over the brief horror of knocking him down when he was already as banged up as he was from last night.

“I don’t think I can bend my fingers anymore,” Yuri huffed as he caught his breath. “My hands are fucking freezing.”

Otabek grabbed Yuri’s hands and brought them together in front of his mouth, breathing into them and then rubbing his own hands around them briskly. Otabek’s own hands were so cold themselves that it only provided minimal relief.

Yuri let his face fall forward into Otabek again, their foreheads resting against each other as they lay on the snowy ground side by side. Yuri could feel the warmth of Otabek’s smile blooming in his chest even if he could barely see it. Yuri tried to guide their joined hands under the lapel of his heavy, wool coat with some success, and could feel his heart beating clearly against them. He licked his lips, emboldened by the snowy, late-night silence and leaned in to kiss Otabek, who pushed back into him without hesitation, his lips warmer than any other part of them that was joined.

They both jumped at the distant rumble of a car engine as it approached, on their feet quickly, trying to brush the snow from their clothes. For the moment, the warmth radiating from inside him almost let him forget the freezing burn in his fingers as he jammed them back into his pockets, balling them into fists as if to hold tight to any warmth they could grasp.

Yuri’s eyes slipped over to Otabek as he went through the same process, and they broke down laughing again as their eyes met.

“If I freeze to death, I’m going to blame you,” Yuri said.

“Hey, you’re the one who knocked us both over,” Otabek said. “You have no one to blame but yourself.”

“Asshole,” Yuri hissed playfully.

“You better not freeze to death, though,” Otabek said as they stepped back out of the park. “I’d miss you too much.”

“You too, asshole,” Yuri said, “You too.”

“Have you seen this?” Lena asked, waving a newspaper in front of Yuri’s face too quickly for him to pick up anything on the page. He tried to reach for it, but Lena pulled it back in against her chest. “Ew, no, keep your sticky dough hands off the paper.”

“No, I haven’t,” Yuri snarled, angrily twisting through the mass of sticky rye dough in front of him with his cutter as Lena grinned mischievously at him, “And apparently you’re not going to let me see, so just tell me what this is about.”

You can’t fool a horsefly,” Lena read aloud in a big, radio announcer voice as Yuri tossed the lump of dough onto the floury scale, watching to see it balance.

“What the hell is this, Lena?” Yuri rolled his eyes and tossed the dough over to Zeyde as he deftly shaped the round loaf. His sister peeked back at him over the top of the newspaper.

Nor can you fool the average interested fight fan,” she continued, undeterred. At this, Yuri smiled quietly to himself as he continued weighing out the loaves. “Last night at the Broadway Arena, Seung-Gil Lee of San Francisco and Otabek Altin of the East Side, practically unknown gladiators, packed the arena to its capacity and then engaged in one of the best scrimmages of the current season. Yuri, why didn’t you tell me about this?” Lena demanded as she brought the newspaper down on his head.

“Cut it out, Lenale,” Yuri snapped back, “It just happened last night. I’m not some kind of fortune-teller, I can’t tell you about something that hasn’t happened yet.”

“You could have told me it was going to happen,” Lena shot back.

“So, what? So you could go?” Yuri snapped. “Mama doesn’t even want to think about me being there.”

“So you were there last night,” Lena said.

“It’s Beka. Of course I was there,” Yuri said, rolling his eyes. “Now, are you going to read me the rest of the article or are you just going to keep harassing me about what I do or don’t do on a Saturday night like it’s any of your business?”

“What bug died in your butt?” Lena said, with a sigh and a frown. “Fine.”

She continued reading, this time without her radio voice, “As early as the second round it was evident that Altin had no idea of submitting with the docility which the ringside odds warranted. Coming from his corner with a bound, he met-

Mama ducked through the curtain separating the kitchen from the store front just then

“Altin. Is this about our Beka?” Mama asked.

“They wrote up his fight in the Eagle!” Lena said excitedly. “His name is in the headline and everything!”

Mama pressed her lips together and went to refill her cup of tea, carrying silence through the room. Yuri chopped another hunk of dough off and tossed it onto the scale, watching the balance out of the corner of his eye as he tried not to focus too much on his mother’s reaction. The balance of the scale settled with the dough reading just a little too light. Yuri cut off a small corner from the mass of dough in front of him and pressed it into the larger piece already on the scale.

“Well, are you going to finish reading it, Lenale?” Mama asked. The dough balanced and Yuri tossed it over to Zeyde.

“Alright,” said Lena, clearing her throat and raising the newspaper again. “He met the stern Korean with a savage flurry of lefts and rights which had the house in an uproar and sent Lee into a shell from which he did not emerge for the entire stanza. The third, fourth and fifth were but repetitions of before, with Altin outpunching and outboxing the Korean at anything he elected to try.

The thin-lipped look on Mama’s face didn’t change as Lena read through the rest of the article, though she looked down towards the tile as the words detailed the knockout and Lee’s condition.

“Our Beka is such a smart boy,” Mama said as Lena finally folded the newspaper under her arm. “I don’t see why he thinks he has to do this.”

“Weren’t you listening?” Yuri said, struggling to keep his voice even. “He won. Is it so wrong to want people to pay attention to what you’re good at?”

“So I should be proud that a smart young man chose to beat someone half to death in public?” Mama said.

“Lee is fine, Mama,” Yuri protested. “It even said so in the article. It’s just part of the sport. These things happen.”

“And this is supposed to make me feel better?” Mama demanded.

“He’s fine, Mama,” Yuri insisted. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Well, I’m glad you don’t expect me to, because I certainly do not,” Mama said. “Is he fighting for money now? There are so many things Beka could do. Why this? Wasn’t he in accounting school?”

“He still is, Mama. Boxing isn’t forever. It never is,” Yuri said. “But for what it’s worth, it’s not just money. It’s a lot of money. He probably made more last night than he would have in the better part of a year working construction. Think of how much he can do for his family with that.”

“That may be true, but that means nothing if he gets himself killed,” Mama said. “There’s nothing wrong with making your money by working hard every day. There is no wealth in the world that means more than family.”

“Aren’t you the one who’s always talking about how you wish we could afford an apartment with more than one bedroom?” Yuri shot back.

“Nobody should have to risk their life for that,” Mama said.

“Right, because Beka’s last job was any better there: walking around on steel beams a hundred feet in the air,” Yuri said. “People die at that kind of job, too. They just don’t put it on the front page of the newspaper when they do.”

“Nobody calls them famous for risking their lives, either, though,“ said Mama. “Or risking anyone else’s.”

“Can’t he just be good at it?” Yuri said. “Can’t you just let him be somebody for a moment?”

“Beka already is somebody to me, tsigele,” Mama said. There was a fierceness to the strong line of her mouth, but it looked like her eyes were about to break open the way clouds do on a humid day. “Just maybe not the somebody I thought he was.”

The bell that hung on the back of the front door rang, letting them know a customer had come in. His mother set her tea down on the counter and stepped back through the curtain. Yuri’s face burned as he chopped through the dough forcefully as his eyes followed her out.

“Sorry,” Lena mouthed silently as she unfolded from the corner she had pressed herself into. She also ducked back into the front, leaving the newspaper folded up on the counter beside the sink.

Yuri looked over at Zeyde, who had continued silently shaping loaves through the whole of it. Eventually, Zeyde looked back up at him, staring back with an expression that still lacked answers, even as it offered a small degree of comfort. Yelling wasn’t going to help right now. Especially not with Mama right out front.

Not for the first time, Yuri wished they had a heavy bag at the bakery. Punching the hundred pound sacks of flour in the storeroom came close, but he couldn’t get quite the right angle on them to lean into it with the kind of force that would give him real relief.

It was irrelevant for the moment anyway. His hands were crusted with dough and flour, and he couldn’t leave the rest of the dough just sitting out on the counter, not with Zeyde waiting for him. This was his to swallow right now; he wasn’t going to make someone else work extra over it.

“Yuri!” His mother called from the front and Yuri cringed instinctively, waiting for the next critique. It never came, though. “There’s someone here to see you.”

“I can take over for a moment there,” Zeyde said. “Go ahead, the dough won’t overproof while you say hello.”

Yuri nodded as he set down the dough cutter and wiped the loose flour off of his hands with a dry towel. Trying to get his hands fully clean right now would be too much of a production.

Lilia was waiting on the other side of the counter as Yuri stepped through into the front, standing as tall and proud as always in her long, fur-trimmed coat and hat, her stern expression softened slightly. She already clutched a large paper bag full of goods from the bakery. Yuri found himself trying correct his posture, folding his hands politely in front of his apron as she looked at him.

“Lena, would you mind helping Zeyde for a moment?” Yuri said. His sister nodded and disappeared into the back.

Dobroye utro,” she greeted him in Russian.

Dobroye,” he said. “How can I help you, tyotya?

This is a lovely bakery,” she continued, her tone firm but generous. “I didn’t know it was yours. Just the smell of the place - I feel like I’m in Piter again.

Thanks, tyotya,” Yuri said, painfully aware that his mother was still standing by his shoulder and understood each word, probably better than he did. “Anything else I can help you with?

I know you’re working, so I won’t keep you long. I was talking with Viktor and Yuuri last night.” The bakery bag crinkled as she tucked it under her arm to open her small, black clutch. She pulled out a business card and extended it across the counter between black-gloved fingers. “Here’s my card. Please, contact me if there’s anything I can help you with.

He took the card and started looking over it. It was a fairly simple design, flowing black script on cream. The address it listed couldn’t be the one at the club.

I’m serious,” Lilia said, laying a gloved hand on his, the jade cut of her green eyes fixed on him intently. Her words were spare; Yuri wasn’t sure exactly what Lilia knew, despite her air of omniscience, but it was clear she valued his discretion.

Of course,” Yuri said. “Thanks.

And thank you as well,” Lilia turned to address Yuri’s mother. “As always.

It’s nothing,” his mother deflected politely. “Please enjoy.

“How do you know Madame Lilia that she’s asking after you?” Mama asked as soon as the glass door had closed behind her.

“She’s a good friend of Viktor’s,” Yuri said, tucking the card quickly into his pocket before Mama could get too curious about it. “I’ve met her briefly a few times out with him. Why, do you know her?”

“She’s been coming into the bakery now and again for years,” Mama said. “Your Bubbe was always a bit starstruck by her.”

“She was some kind of a famous ballerina, right?” Yuri said, starting to wonder if he should have recognized Lilia when they first met.

“What ‘some kind’? She was the famous ballerina. At least as far as your Bubbe was concerned,” Mama said, her face softening into a rare smile. “When I was younger, she’d always tell us when Madame Lilia came through the store as if the president himself had visited. I’m a little surprised you don’t remember it.”

“I wasn’t at the bakery much before she passed,” Yuri said with a small shrug.

“No, I suppose not,” his mother said, her voice edged with quiet disappointment. It wasn’t any kind of disappointment with Yuri. How could he remember something he hadn’t seen? In its own way, that distance made her seem less real, and Yuri wished he could offer his mother more than that.

Yuri’s grandmother had died only a few months before they’d started living here, only a few months before his own father had died. The apartment on Jefferson was maybe a half-mile away. He was still here a few times a week, but there were certain things he could never know as a visitor.

His memory of his Bubbe lived in the kitchen upstairs, not the one down here in the bakery. It existed somewhere between a fact and a feeling, though it was increasingly difficult to get them to overlap into a clear picture. The feeling grew more and more vague, while the facts gained in their distance from him, the way some memories lost their personality and just became the kind of history any person could know with as much truth as another.

He worried sometimes that all of his conscious memories of her and of his father would become that way, like his Feter Avi who had gone west to California before he was born, or worse, like one of the people he’d learned about in school, like George Washington or Napoleon, who were roughly as real as Little Nemo or Felix the Cat for all it mattered in Yuri’s life. Maybe less so.

Then, he’d only have the nightmares left to tie him to his father, the nightmares that existed in a place that was beyond facts but more than feelings. Those and the odd reflection looking back at Yuri from his parents’ wedding photo. But even photographs never captured the whole truth; his Bubbe watched sternly from her frame on the wall, though in every memory Yuri had of her she had a broad, generous smile, a figure in constant motion.

As long as he could remember that, Yuri supposed, he had something of her that he could still hold onto.

Chapter Text

When he was younger, Yuri used to play this game with his sisters sometimes: one of them would fold their hands together, interlacing the fingers. Another would point at one of the folded fingers, and then the one with clasped hands would have to try to wiggle that exact finger individually. It seemed like the simplest thing in the world until you tried it. Even with intense focus, it was a minor miracle when any of them managed to move the correct finger on the first try.

Attempting it was the strangest feeling, like his body was some kind of a distant tool that he couldn’t operate directly, like trying to braid the strands of a loaf of challah using the end of the long-handled peel rather than his own skilled fingers. It didn’t matter how many times they’d played this game before. Each time, something got lost between his mind and his hands, like they were working against each other instead of as two integral parts of the same thing.

As Yuri stared down at his own hands, he had a similar feeling of them being something that was entirely separate from the rest of him, as if they didn’t belong to him anymore. It wasn’t that he couldn’t feel them - he could certainly feel the pressure as Otabek taped off the strips of woven cotton he’d wrapped firmly around them - but there was a distant weightlessness in watching them disappear under the cotton and tape of the wrap, as Otabek lifted each and turned them gently to examine his work. His practiced motions moved a minimum of Yuri’s muscles to see his hands from different angles, which heightened the sense that his hands were moving completely independent of his body.

“Looks finished,” Otabek said, setting Yuri’s wrapped hands onto his lap before standing up from where they’d both sat astride the wooden bench. “Not too tight? Any spots feel like they’re pressing in or rubbing wrong?”

Yuri turned his hands over and back himself a few times, wiggling his fingers and marveling that they moved when he asked them to. It still felt like he was watching them like they were part of a movie, flickering in the distance, like he could reach through the screen.

“Yura?” Otabek asked again.

“No, feels fine,” Yuri said distantly. “Thanks.”

Yuri needed his hands tonight. Or, at least, he needed to trust them to know better than his mind. All he had was four rounds, and he still suspected that even those were given to him by the grace of Viktor, though the man had repeatedly denied it. Maybe that didn’t matter. It did matter that Yuri made an impression.

After nearly two months practicing at Celestino’s gym, this was the first fight Yuri’d had. He’d watched all the other guys who trained there cycle through bouts in the time he’d been there - some of them more than one. He’d been to some of those, but it became difficult to watch them without a frustrated bitterness frosting over any other awareness he had of the action.

Even in the moment, he knew it wasn’t fair to them: he wouldn’t really call any of them friends, save Viktor and Otabek, but none of them had ever caused any grief for him. The week or so leading up to the fight Guang-Hong, his de facto sparring partner, had had a couple weeks ago, Yuri had been, to put it generously, uncooperative.

Guang-Hong’s bout, supposed to be a sure thing against a has-been from across town who was clearly on his way out, had come up a draw. If Guang-Hong didn’t really talk to Yuri before, he certainly didn’t now, though it really was hard to tell with him. Even though he hadn’t been there to see the bout, Yuri had taken on the weight of it as his own loss. It had been so long that it was the closest thing he had to hold on to.

Yuri wasn’t sure which he trusted more right now: his head or his hands. Maybe it was better that his hands had a mind of his own. Four rounds. It was more than the three he’d get in one of his amateur fights, but he’d never really had to worry then about where the next match was going to come from. If the next match was going to come.

Otabek sat quietly across from him, astride the wooden bench in the gray-green locker room, his face set in that impenetrable frown it seemed to take while resting. Otabek always liked being left alone just before a fight, so it was only natural that he was offering Yuri that same quiet space. It was at least part of the story behind why Otabek preferred to wrap his own hands.

Georgi was busy seeing to Viktor, who had top billing for tonight’s event. He would have made time to wrap Yuri’s hands but was clearly relieved when Otabek had volunteered. Yuri had been relieved, too. He had nothing against Georgi, but if given the choice, Yuri would always take Otabek.

Yuri kept his mouth shut even now. If he opened his mouth now, it wouldn’t really be him talking, but the same self-doubt that had been so short with Guang-Hong. If it was anyone else, he might not care so much, but Otabek deserved better than that. Otabek deserved to see the best of him. Yuri wasn’t sure if there was enough of that in him right now.

Four rounds. He really needed to keep his attention there, and stop thinking too hard about what would come after. Make his mama happy and be the baker she wanted him to be, he supposed. It was inevitable, eventually, that he’d land there. It had been since he’d started full time at the bakery instead of high school when he was fourteen. Yuri had ultimately been the one to make that decision but what was he going to do, let Zeyde put himself in a wheelchair while he tried to lift hundred-pound flour sacks like he used to?

The bakery wasn’t so bad, but it was something he did for everyone else. Boxing was the thing in his life that was just for him, but at the moment, it felt like what Zeyde would dismiss as betting against gravity. He’d be smiling kindly when he said it, too.

Yuri’s eyes snapped back into focus in front of him as Otabek slipped a robe around Yuri’s shoulders. His thin frown hadn’t changed, but his eyebrows pulled together with concern.

“Yura,” Otabek said, offering Yuri his hand, “let’s find something to do to help keep you warmed up.”

Yuri stood up on his own to follow him.

If the acrid musk of the arena had excited or nauseated Yuri before, it enraged him now. People were still wandering into the bleachers as Yuri and his competitor, some idiot from Jersey called Spark Plug Russell, were announced. The crowd lounged in their seats, talking with their neighbors, barely bothering to look over at the ring.

To anyone paying attention, the anger was almost visible, rippling under Yuri’s skin, greasing the gears and springs coiled tight within him. As he stepped through the ropes and into the ring, Yuri closed his eyes and rolled his neck from one side to the other, breathing deep in through his nose, back out through his mouth.

The anger settled as a heat in his legs, in his tightly-bound, gloved fists. Somehow, the gloves had bridged the distance between himself and his hands. His hands might have ideas of their own, but the gloves were his.

Across the ring, the pale, bald-headed man in blue trunks bounced in his own corner. Josef was talking into Yuri’s ear but he only half-heard the advice he was being offered. It mostly sounded like the same details about Russell’s past performances that they’d already been over together more than once. In Yuri’s head all of it came down to the basics: there’s only have four rounds, so get the upper hand early. Don’t drop the bomb until you have control and are sure you can land it.

The sound of the bell rang through Yuri’s muscles like fire, and his eyes opened with one clear thought: There was no way he was going to lay down his chance at a boxing career in front of a bald nobody from Jersey called fucking Spark Plug. Not in four rounds, not even if he had all night.

Yuri came out of his corner, light on the balls of his feet, his fists on a hair trigger. Russell stepped to the center of the ring and planted his front foot, pivoting around it, hoping to stay on his feet by his anchor. His posture was upright and rigid; one of those guys who liked to to think of themselves like a brick wall. More than that, one of those guys who seemed to think that being a brick wall was enough, that it could make him invincible.

Yuri slipped around him fluidly, hooking into his sides as he got out ahead of his opponent’s pivot. There was no denying that Russell got a kind of power from his stance; the punches that he did manage to land left Yuri off balance, but the vast majority of his punches just flew past Yuri as he ducked and swayed around them, and his rooted stance didn’t leave him much room to follow up the ones that did with any real vigor.

Russell stood fast through Yuri’s barrage of punches, still managing to protect his head from most of it. The stern lines of his face didn’t budge, his sandy bar of an eyebrow fixed low. I can keep this up all day, the expression challenged. If this had been the endurance test of a longer bout, that might have meant something.

If you can keep it up, so can I, fucker, Yuri’s body offered in response. Truth be told, if they were just going to have four rounds of this, the whole affair would probably end in Yuri’s favor. It was hard to imagine that he wasn’t outscoring this flat-faced, stolid opponent. You couldn’t trust the judges here, though. They watched more like a crowd, and this crowd had still only mustered moderate interest in this opening bout of the night.

About halfway through the first, Yuri decided he’d had enough of this game. If they wanted more of a spectacle, he could give them that. In his time with Josef, he’d been working on a technique he’d seen Chulanont use a couple times in their bout back in October that both he and Josef had found exciting. He’d feinted a hook to one side, but come around on the other with a powerful, cockeyed uppercut that was halfway to being a wide hook itself. Against someone as quick as Yuri, it left him vulnerable as often as it created an opening, but on someone like Russell it seemed like his chances were good. This was the bomb he’d been waiting to drop.

Yuri got in close and leaned into telegraphing a hook with his left side. He almost smiled as he saw Russell springing in to punch under it as Yuri’s right wound up and swung right into Russell’s jaw at four o’clock. Yuri took a hard right hook to the ribs as it landed, but the way Russell’s weight was overextended in throwing the punch left him unbalanced. Where Yuri hopped away and rolled off the punch he’d taken, Russell ended the exchange on his knees.

The sight of a man down was like blood in the water for the crowd and the social hum of the room had begun to transition to a buzz focused in on the ring. Yuri settled on the soles of his feet just long to sneer down at Russell from a safe distance as the older fighter hauled himself to his feet.

They staged a near repeat performance of the whole exchange maybe thirty seconds later, after some tied-up pushing back and forth. Russell was left still struggling to his feet when the end of the first round rang out.

“Well, that’s going about as well as we could have hoped,” Josef welcomed Yuri into the corner for the brief pause between rounds.

“That guy’s an idiot,” Yuri spat. “Really, what does he think he’s doing out there?”

“He does have a winning record, if not by much,” Josef said, a quiet smile turning up one side of his mouth. “So tell that to the guys he’s beat before.”

“Fuck that,” Yuri said. The coach’s persistent, if positive, aloofness grated on Yuri, though slightly less than it had just ahead of the first bell. The fact was that this bout wasn’t a big deal to him; it was just a four-round warm up act with a couple of unknowns. It was a far cry from Yakov, though, who would never treat a bout as insignificant until it was over. Even then, the truth of that judgment could be hard to read.

“Alright, so that Thai kid’s move is working well for now, but I don’t know how many more times you’ll be able to throw him the same feint,” Josef said. “I know he’s thick, but it’s probably best to switch it up a little. Since he’s probably expecting this again, see if you can work deeper into that left hook and build a tighter, quicker combo off of that.”

Yuri nodded. “Anything else?”

“The usual,” Josef smirked. “Go out there and hit him. Hard, if you can. Outside of that, don’t worry about saving your energy. Unless he’s got some kind of radical strategy change, this one’s yours for the taking.”

“Whatever you say, coach,” Yuri said with a snort, though the queasiness that Yuri had carried into the ring still gripped his stomach. The first round had been an unqualified success, but for all his cocky talk to Josef, the moment his mouth had shut, the weight of it had crept back in.

His eyes scanning the room, Yuri found Otabek sitting in a wooden folding chair not far from the entrance to the locker rooms with a couple other guys from the gym. Catching Yuri’s eye on him, Otabek flashed a small thumbs up from where he sat. Yuri tried to shoot back a thumbs up before realizing there was no way it would work with his gloves on, rewarded with the sight of Otabek chuckling through a quiet smile. Yuri wasn’t sure whether he’d rather punch him or kiss him, though neither was an option right now, and the answer was probably both.

Russell came back in the second looking reluctantly more mobile, but it was clear that his punches didn’t have the power like this that they had in his more rooted stance. His whole game seemed ungrounded on his toes.

Yuri jabbed at him, pushing his distance and running him around the ring. He watched Russell’s body for signs that he was off balance before snapping in with whatever he could throw hard. There was no reason for Yuri to keep anything in reserve, and he put his whole body behind each attack, the force just this side of flying.

Russell was down, after some fashion or another, three times in the first minute of the second round. He never went down hard enough that it was worth the ref’s time to start a count, but each time seemed more of a struggle to climb to his feet.

As Russell’s energy left him, it seemed to feed right into Yuri. His muscles sang with the heat coursing through them as his body moved ahead of his brain, like his mind went clear as he saw himself moving in perfect rhythm. His punches got closer and closer together until it felt like each punch was building momentum for the next, letting him swing harder and harder.

By this point, Russell was barely even trying to punch back, just trying to figure out where to hold his arms to best protect himself from Yuri’s onslaught. His blood-streaked face barely revealed where he was bleeding from as his body seemed to curl into itself more and more.

When Russell finally hit the ground long enough for the ref to start counting the first time, he made a brief attempt to pull himself up before mumbling something to himself that sounded something like fuck it and collapsing back against the canvas.

Yuri hung there for moment, across the ring, left weightless as he stared down at the other man who, to all appearances, had simply given up.

That wasn’t how a fight was supposed to end. Sure, there were times where a boxer might forfeit, unarguable injuries that made it unreasonable to continue, times where a ref might end a fight out out of concern for the condition of one of the boxers, but neither of those was the same thing as just giving up.

Staying down by any sort of choice was simply not a thought that had ever occurred to Yuri. But then, he had spent all of his time as a boxer in orbit around Viktor. While Viktor certainly hadn’t won every fight he’d had, he’d never been knocked out. Neither had Yuri, for that matter, but he didn’t hold up his amateur record in the same way.

Josef’s hand clapping against the sweat-slick skin of his back brought him back to the room, to an awareness of his heaving breath as he stood, his feet flat on the floor of the ring. Russell picked himself up and out of the way.

The relief Yuri had expected from winning didn’t come. The fear of fucking up had rolled itself back, but that was a long way from satisfaction. Even the anger that had carried him into the ring was strangely absent.

Fuck it. That’s all it had taken.

The crowd had finally found their way into a roar that echoed around him. They couldn’t tell the difference. As the referee raised his arm, Yuri looked back to where Otabek had been sitting. He found him on his feet with the other guys from the gym, wearing a small, soft smile, applauding with the rest of the room.

“Shit, Yuri, a second-round knockout?” Otabek caught up with Yuri on his way back to the locker room.

“He gave up,” Yuri spat, anger finally catching up with him like the pain on a blow hard enough that it just hits numb at first. “The son of a bitch gave up.”

“I don’t-” Otabek began.

“At the end there, he could could have gotten up. I know it. He started to get up and then he just went ‘fuck it’ and stopped trying,” Yuri said, punching a locker.

“I don’t know,” Otabek said, pushing the sleeves of his sweater up, “Here, let me help you get your gloves off.”

“Fine,” Yuri said, offering up his wrists to Otabek as he slumped heavily back against a wall of lockers.

“You looked really good out there,” Otabek said as he pushed back the sleeve of Yuri’s robe and picked at the laces of one of the gloves. Yuri had no response for that, only a half-hearted kick back against the lockers. It had felt good, too, like it was all coming together and then the fucking Spark Plug had shut it down on him.

Otabek slipped the gloves off and set them down on the bench behind them, picking up one of Yuri’s hands and cradling it in his own as he started carefully undoing the wrapping he’d put on earlier.

The air felt strange against Yuri’s clammy skin as it was uncovered, the imprint of the cotton weave still visible on his skin. Otabek cradled the newly-bare hand in his, pressing his thumbs into the center of Yuri’s bare palms, rolling firm circles into his hands until they relaxed open, and working firmly up the inside of his wrists as far as the wrap had gone. Yuri’s breathing started to even out and his eyes closed as he relaxed back against the locker.

“There’s my boy!” Celestino’s voice fell ahead of him into the locker room as Otabek worked on Yuri’s other hand. He dropped it unceremoniously as Yuri stood bolt upright away from the lockers, eyes wide open. The tightness in his stomach returned all at once.

“I was wondering where you got to,” Celestino said. “That was spectacular! Usually these little four-round warm ups aren’t much to watch, but you really gave them quite a show out there.”

“Thank you,” Yuri said, more out of obligation than sincerity.

“You know, Viktor was right about you,” Celestino said, “I’m really looking forward to seeing what else you’ve got to show us in the future.”

Yuri nodded, chewing on the inside of his lip.

“I’ll leave you to finish getting cleaned up, but I’ll see you at dinner later,” Celestino said, and turned to leave without waiting for a response.

“I fucking knew it,” Yuri hissed as soon as the footsteps were gone.

“What?” Otabek asked.

“Viktor!” Yuri said. “Old man can’t fucking leave well enough alone and won’t even own up to it!”

“Whatever it was he did, I’m sure he was just trying to help,” Otabek said.

“Maybe I don’t want his help,” Yuri snapped and started pressing his own thumb aggressively into the center of the hand that Otabek had dropped as Celestino came in.

“What do you mean?” Otabek said, “Viktor’s been helping you out for years. And you don’t even know what Celestino’s talking about.”

“But he said that he didn’t,” Yuri insisted as a damp heat itched at the corners of his eyes. “That he wouldn’t. Fuck!”

Otabek sighed and rubbed his eye with the flat of his hand, his lips thin as though he were holding something tightly behind them.

“I’m going to go back out and watch the next one,” Otabek said finally, “unless there’s anything else you need in here.”

Yuri said nothing. He wanted to tell him to stay. He wanted to wrap his arms around him and bury his face in the crook of his neck, but he hadn’t really earned any of that just now.

“I, uh,” Otabek said as he began stepping backwards out of the room, “I’ll see you out there, I guess.”

As Otabek disappeared from sight, Yuri turned and pounded the locker with the side of his bare fist, leaning his still-sweaty forehead against the cool metal. His eyes squeezed shut and the tears that had been itching at the corners of his eyes traced silently down his sweat-stained cheeks.