February 28, 1929
What have I done? Oh God, what have I done?
The last thing I ever wanted was to put him in danger.
But how was I supposed to know
I should have seen it coming. What was I even thinking? It was just an auction, he was only supposed to attend. I was so stupid!
They know his face now. And THAT man, and his children who are no better than he is, and everyone else who might have been watching… they will remember, for sure. There aren’t enough words to describe how much I regret that.
But if this is how it’s going to be, then so be it. My goals haven’t changed, and my resolve remains the same. All I have to do is watch him, stay close to him, and make sure he doesn’t get caught in the crossfire until this is all over.
(After that, maybe, just maybe… we can be happy?)
“That doesn’t seem to bother you as much as I would have expected it to.”
Viktor blinked. Yuuri’s voice had shaken him out of a trance he hadn’t even realized he was in. A stubborn cloud of fog remained in his head, making it impossible for him to gather his thoughts. He couldn’t focus.
But the fog was also the only thing stopping him from falling into a full-blown panic.
Where was he? What time was it?
What day was it?
He recognized the interior of Yuuri’s office easily enough. The softness of the daybed beneath him, and the bewildering pattern of the tapestry hanging on the wall, grounded him in their familiarity. His hands felt impossibly hot; looking down, he realized that he’d wound the possibly-chinchilla blanket over and over, in and around his hands, and they’d become trapped in its warmth.
He was still missing something, though. He was missing a lot of things. “I’m sorry?”
“You were telling me just now, how a colleague of yours - although, from the way you’ve been speaking of him, perhaps you consider him more as a friend - took a bullet to save you.”
Really? He’d said all of that?
Why couldn’t he remember the rest of that conversation, or how it had even started? God, he couldn’t even remember how he’d gotten here. He must have managed somehow, given that, as far as he could tell, he was still in one piece.
There were things he did remember though, things that were starting to come back to him - or maybe they were just things he wouldn’t be forgetting any time soon. If he tried hard enough, he could probably trick himself into thinking he was still in the thick of it, the chaos erupting in that street, and the thick, wet spattering on his face before all he could smell was blood. There’d been a woman standing close to them, just about to go into a building. Her screams had pierced a hole through his skull.
What had he done? He’d whipped off his scarf and pressed it into the gunshot wound without even thinking, right at the junction of Otabek’s neck and shoulder, trying to tamp down the gush of blood. There had been so much blood…
“Viktor?” Yuuri cut into his thoughts. “Are you listening?”
Was he? He was. He swore he was.
Viktor opened his mouth to form words, but all that was going on upstairs was a mess of screaming, and the memory of how everything, everything had smelled like blood. Otabek had grabbed hold of his arm, wheezing, struggling to meet his eyes as Viktor had said - something, something stupid and useless in all likelihood, ‘hold on’ or ‘try not to move’ or ‘keep breathing’.
He was so stupid.
“Tell me what’s on your mind, please.” He heard Yuuri’s voice again, or something that sounded vaguely like it, trying to dispel the chaos in his head. “It isn’t good to let yourself be trapped inside alone.”
But blood had seeped through the cracks in the sidewalk by the time an ambulance arrived. The shooter, the shooter, had no one seen the shooter? There hadn’t been much room for any other thoughts at the time, not when Viktor knew that a jerk of his arm, or giving in to the impulse to find the shooter and chase him down the street, would have meant Otabek’s instant death. How had this even happened?
How could he have been so goddamn stupid?
There was a hand on his cheek, all of a sudden. Viktor jerked in his seat, but the panic that had been building and building in the past few minutes, threatening to spill over into something ugly, was arrested when he saw the tender look on Yuuri’s face, so close to his own. He’d knelt onto the floor beside the daybed, and he waited patiently until Viktor’s eyes could finally focus on his face, before smiling.
“That’s it,” he whispered. “Come back to me.”
Viktor let out a shaky breath that he didn’t even realize he’d been holding. More than anything, he wished he could just lean forward, forget everything, and melt in Yuuri’s arms. He was so tired.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m here.”
“Good.” Yuuri brushed the pad of his thumb along Viktor’s cheek. “I need you here, with me. Revisiting the scene of the tragedy in your head won’t undo it.”
Viktor swallowed. “I suppose.”
“Did he survive?”
“Yes.” It was a small consolation to him, truth be told, even though he knew it made a world of difference. The case wasn’t over; there was always another corner to turn, another enemy lurking in the shadows. “We managed to get him to the hospital early enough, and the doctors were able to get the bullet out. He’s stable, whatever that means. Last I heard, anyway.”
Yuuri studied his face. “But…?”
“But he hasn’t woken up yet.”
“I see. Well, you know that sometimes these things take time. You shouldn’t consider this an indication of anything necessarily… grave.”
Grave. Hah. What a poor choice of words.
Yuuri stood up and made his way back to the overstuffed chair, where his notebook and tea were waiting. Viktor missed the warmth of his hand as soon as it was gone.
“You’ve had a rough couple of days. Have you slept at all in that time?”
“Mmm,” was all that Viktor managed to say. He’d spent all of that time either camped out at Otabek’s bedside or pacing overnight in the waiting room, nursing stale coffee and an itchy trigger finger resting on his gun, hidden beneath his jacket. He could no longer afford to be careless - carelessness was how he’d lost Christophe, almost lost Otabek.
And… two years ago…
“I will take that as a ‘no’.” Yuuri took a slow sip of his tea, his other hand scribbling out a sentence that never seemed to end. “Surely you don’t need me to remind you of the consequences of prolonged sleep deprivation.”
“I’m acquainted with them, yes.” But Yuuri had no idea - if Viktor told him, right now, just how many ‘accidents’ had happened since he’d started working on the Karpisek case, maybe he’d never dare to sleep again.
“This case is eating you alive.”
“Was that supposed to be a question, Doc?”
“No.” He sighed. “I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Feltsman would approve of the way you are taxing yourself.”
Viktor shrugged. Yakov’s ‘approval’ had always been secondary to whatever results he’d been able to deliver. He couldn’t say much about how he operated as a detective in his own right, but as an employer, Yakov was the epitome of ‘better to beg forgiveness than seek permission’.
“And I’m certain it’s not a reasonable expectation to have you continue with your investigation, when it’s become clear that your life is in serious danger because of it.”
At this, Viktor couldn’t help but burst out laughing. “But it’s a sign that I’m doing my job right. If I weren’t getting warmer, they wouldn’t be in such a hurry to end me. I just need to solve this case before that happens.”
Yuuri stayed silent, and stared at him for the longest time. His head was tilted just so that the light from his desk lamp struck his lenses at exactly the worst angle, and Viktor couldn’t hope to read the look in his eyes.
“You going to tell me I’m wrong, Doc?”
“In all honesty, I don’t quite know how to respond to what you just said.” Yuuri shook his head with a smile. “You can imagine that isn’t a common occurrence for me.”
Viktor sighed. “Just let me know when you want to cut and run.”
“That isn’t what I meant. I made a commitment to you, and I intend to honor it.”
This time, it was Viktor who found himself staring. “‘Commitment’, huh?” He felt tempted to ask, ‘What kind?’
“You’re overthinking it,” Yuuri said with a laugh. “But I really do worry about you, Viktor.”
“It’s true. I fear the possibility that, one day, I may find myself no longer able to help you.”
Something about that wording didn’t quite sit well with him. The idea that ‘one day’, Yuuri would ‘no longer be able to help’ him… wasn’t that the point of this therapy in the first place? For Dr. Katsuki to ‘fix’ his head, for good? Surely this arrangement wasn’t supposed to be a permanent one.
Despite all of that, Yuuri had given him an opening - unintentionally, from the way it sounded, but Viktor was going to take it anyway. “You can actually help me a great deal,” he said in a small voice, “as it turns out.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He didn’t want to do this. He really didn’t.
But now that Otabek had been taken out of commission, he may as well have been completely cut off from the NYPD. Barring the worst case - and he didn’t even want to think about that, no - he would have to wait for Otabek to heal before moving on with the investigation.
He just didn’t have that kind of time to spare anymore.
“How… close… are you to Jean-Jacques Leroy?”
The words tasted like regret before they even left his lips. Yuuri’s brows drew ever so slightly together, and Viktor already wished he could take the question back. Damn it.
“Dr. Leroy and I are colleagues,” he answered, after what felt like a measured silence. “I’d like to think that he and I are capable of extending more than a degree of civility to one another. But I wouldn’t say we’re particularly close, no.”
Good enough for him, Viktor thought to himself. “You know his wife?”
“Miss Yang? Well… I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I know of her.”
He was more than willing to settle for that, too. “I see.”
“What is this about, Viktor?”
In not so many words, Viktor forced himself to come clean with what he needed from Yuuri, though he found himself fighting the urge to drop the request altogether at every turn. He tried his best to part with the details sparingly: there was an auction under Isabella Yang’s name to be held on the evening of the 28th, just over a week from now, in a venue that he hand-waved as a ‘fancy hotel’. He very much wanted to be able to attend this auction somehow, but it was a private event, hopelessly closed off to anyone who hadn’t been invited. As luck would have it, he learned recently that she happened to be married to Yuuri’s colleague…
He stopped just short of asking the actual question, leaving Yuuri to put it together. “Interesting request,” he murmured. “Not one that I’m certain I can grant, seeing as I wasn’t invited to this auction either. Tell me, is this for your current case?”
“And you suspect Isabella Yang, then?”
“Oh, no. It’s not like that at all.” Not particularly, anyway. Viktor shook his head. “I have a hunch that a few persons of interest might be in attendance, though.”
Viktor laughed weakly. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Of course.” Yuuri rolled his eyes.
“I wish I could, though. But… if that’s a deal-breaker for you, I completely understand.”
He studied Yuuri’s face in the silence that followed, wondering if he’d pushed just a little bit too hard. On any other day, he would have thought nothing about steering the conversation in this manner, but he usually only used this tactic against suspects or witnesses. It was easier to detach himself from people he would only ever think about over the course of a single investigation, who would then blink out of his existence the moment their case was closed. Being forced to use it here, now, with Dr. Katsuki… with Yuuri … it felt different, somehow. Almost dirty.
But just as he was starting to wonder if the distaste he felt with himself was something closer to ‘guilt’, the gambit paid off. “I’ll see what I can do to help you,” Yuuri said, “provided you grant a request of mine.”
Viktor almost couldn’t believe that worked. “Anything. What do you need?”
Yuuri flipped backwards through several pages of his notebook and skimmed over something he’d written beforehand. “Let’s talk about the Kips Bay Strangler.”
“Oh.” He really should have seen this coming; it was more than a little bit disconcerting how he hadn’t. It was as though, for just a moment there, he’d forgotten everything important - where they were, what time it was on this fine Wednesday evening, and that in the confines of this time and space, Dr. Yuuri Katsuki was his therapist. Nothing more.
God, he needed a coffee right now.
“Right. Of course.” Viktor cleared his throat. “Well… how much do you already know?”
Yuuri spared him the barest hint of a smile. “Answering a question with another question, Viktor?”
“I just… Yakov must have told you something already. And you have all my case files… everything’s in the public record, too.” There had even been a press conference, which he’d only found out about months after the fact, and from Leo of all people. “This all might be redundant. I don’t want to bore you.”
“No, please. Bore me.” Yuuri leaned back in his chair. “Go ahead.”
Viktor heaved a sigh.
What even was there to say? He thought about what Leo had told him, some time ago - everything that there was to know about that case was already out there, somewhere, floating like bits of ash in a restless wind. It would have been so easy to find it for himself, if Yuuri had just bothered to look. But then again, maybe it wasn’t so much the ‘who’ and ‘what’ that Yuuri was interested in, but something else, everything else that couldn’t be distilled into neat little newspaper blurbs and incident reports.
Looking back, it really should have been one of the easier cases. The East Side Strangler, as he’d been known at the time, had already killed five people by the time the Feltsman Agency had been invited to consult. Three more bodies had turned up before Viktor narrowed his killing zone to the Kips Bay area.
One more after that, and Yakov had set up a plan for capture.
“I wondered, at the time, if he’d thrown me a softball with this case.” Viktor spoke in a soft murmur, staring at the lamp on Yuuri’s desk, all the way on the other side of his office. “The killer’s hunting area, the frequency of his kills… it all fell into place quicker than usual.”
“Do you think he was careless?” Yuuri asked. “Or that he was taunting you?”
“In the beginning, yeah. But towards the end, we realized it was more of a compulsion. He had to hunt there - what was that, eleven blocks square? And he had to dump them in the river.”
Yuuri nodded as he noted something down. “It sounds as though there were aspects of his killing method that were borderline ritualistic. In the killer’s mind, he was acting this way - behaving predictably, making these moves that any reasonable observer would consider mistakes - as a matter of necessity.”
“Right. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have made sense. He had to know we were onto him, at some point.”
Yuuri kept on scribbling from there. He went on for about a whole page’s worth of notes, by Viktor’s estimation. He tried to find comfort in the silence, or at least in the brief respite he’d been given from having to answer questions, or talk about that case. But it was hard; something was still coming at the end of this, and knowing it made him want to just get it over with.
“Tell me about the thirtieth of November, 1928 - the night that the Kips Bay Strangler was finally apprehended.”
There it was. “I can tell you only what I remember.”
“Fortunately for the both of us, that’s the only thing I’m interested in at this time.”
Viktor let out a laugh, and managed to bite back a comment on how convenient that was, for one of them at least. Come to think of it, was this absolutely necessary? Stupid question; this was what Yakov had set up this whole damn arrangement for in the first place. His throat closed on him, and although the memory, for the most part, remained somewhat intact in his head, the words wouldn’t come. They dissolved and died and resurrected to die again, and he thought that he would really, really rather be anywhere but here.
But if you don’t talk, you can’t go to that auction, he reminded himself. And God knew when else he would be able to find a lead like this, especially with the ledger book they’d confiscated being about as useful as a fucking paperweight at the moment.
Viktor finally took a deep breath, and shut his eyes. Anywhere but here. He imagined the walls of the office being pushed back, shifting in color and orientation. Chairs shifted around him, underneath him, and the lights dimmed, until…
Until he was no longer in the West St Psychoanalytic Clinic at all, but rather lounging in the master bedroom of a fancy white brick row house in Brooklyn. Because even after all this time, he couldn’t bear to bring himself to talk about this with Dr. Katsuki… but maybe, just maybe, he could talk to Yuuri.
“We knew he was going to hunt that night - he’d been doing it like clockwork, after all.” Viktor wrapped his arms around himself, fighting a shiver that had come from God-knew-where. “Yakov came up with the whole plan. It should have been foolproof. We had Lexington Avenue blocked off all the way from 23rd to 34th Street. Cops and squad cars practically at every built-up intersection… I don’t know what strings Yakov had to pull to get the NYPD to agree to lend us that much manpower that night, but by God did he get it done.”
Yuuri wasn’t taking notes anymore, he noticed. Viktor couldn’t see the expression on his face, but he could no longer hear the scratching of that pen against the notebook. All he heard at this point was the gentle crackling from the fireplace. “Where were you, exactly?”
“Near the cordon at Lex, around 29th Street, along with everybody else from the Agency.” Mila, Emil, Yakov - hell, even Yuri had been there. Full house. “We already knew who this guy was, we just needed to make the collar. Yakov told us to stay back and let the police do their work, because ‘they’re trained for it, and you’re not’.” He actually imitated Yakov’s accent for that part, because he could, and because indulging in that minor pettiness might have made him feel a little bit better about all this. “Either he forgot that I was a cop myself, once upon a time, or he thought I was rusty.”
“Or he didn’t want you putting yourself in unnecessary danger.”
Yuuri took his non-answer as a cue to go on. “Yakov mentioned that you broke away from the cordon just before seven o’clock. Do you remember that?”
“What happened there?”
Viktor swallowed. “I realized that we… might’ve made a mistake.”
“Because the whole plan hinged on the assumption that he hadn’t yet killed that night.” He remembered standing there, going through his entire pack of cigarettes, wondering why he couldn’t shake off that terrible feeling in his gut no matter how hard he tried. “There were time frames he preferred for his hunting, and as far as we knew, he always killed outdoors.” The permanently-unfinished, half-built patchwork that was Kips Bay had certainly made that easy for him, with all its hidden dirt-road alleys, confusing dead-ends, and random construction barriers. “We were ready to wait all night. We were so sure that we had plenty of time.”
“What was the flaw in the plan?”
“If the assumptions we’d made were true? Nothing.” Viktor shook his head. “Nothing. It was supposed to be foolproof.”
“Until it wasn’t.”
“No. Our assumptions were wrong.”
“How did you figure it out?”
“The fog.” As soon as those words left him, he could almost imagine it, white and thick and stifling, unforgiving, engulfing the entire room. “All that time, we thought he was timing his kills with the daylight - or the lack of it, to be more precise. It made sense, didn’t it? He’d constrained himself to a tiny space, and to a rigid schedule… why wouldn’t he do the same to this?”
“The logic is not unsound.”
“Well, it was foggy as hell that night. It had been foggy since morning - I remember setting up in the afternoon, and thinking something wasn’t right.”
“But you didn’t act on it until later.”
“It wasn’t until later that I figured it out.” Looking back, it was so easy to regret - to think that he’d been so stupid. “The time of day wasn’t one of his constraints - he’d just been timing them that way so that the darkness made it easier for him.” And it was so easy to hate himself for it, because if only he hadn’t been so stupid… “We were wrong to jump to that conclusion so early.”
For whatever it was worth, Yuuri didn’t add on to his self-flagellation, nor launch into some patronizing account of how hindsight was always nearsighted and not terribly productive. He simply listened, and when Viktor stalled and let the silence back in, he dispelled it himself by asking, “What happened then?”
“I hightailed it all the way to the docks.” In his mind’s eye, Viktor could see the docks coming into his view. The streets, the people, and the rest of the damn city in his periphery fell away in a blink, but he still knew that he was going too slow. He felt his heart in his throat, and the punishing chill of late autumn air on his face. “If there was one part of his modus that we knew for sure was ritualistic, it was the dumping of the bodies in the water.”
“There was no police presence at the docks?”
“No, because he never hunted there.” Viktor shook his head. Coming out of it, he’d already known that there would be so many things to regret from that operation; he hadn’t had the time to entertain every last one. “Like I said, we thought we had time.”
“I see. And what happened when you got to the docks?”
“Well… the fog was even thicker near the water. Once I got there, it became a matter of who found the other first.”
Yuuri leaned forward. “And then…?”
“And then.” Viktor swallowed. “He found me first.”
“It must have been terrifying,” Yuuri whispered.
“It was… for the first minute or so.” Viktor toyed with the blanket, unable to decide what else to do with his hands. “After that, it was just…”
“Serene.” He wasn’t sure if saying that was supposed to feel like a weight off of his shoulders. He wasn’t sure if it even felt like anything at all. “Like I’d accepted it. And it got easier.”
“Or your brain had been starved of oxygen for so long, that it was starting to shut down.”
Viktor shrugged. “Or that.”
“The fact that you can manage to be so flippant about this is concerning.”
“Well, what do you want me to do? Obsess over it? Last week, when we were talking about my mother, you were all about letting go.”
“There’s no sense in comparing the two. She left you. You rushed recklessly into a dangerous situation, very nearly getting yourself killed.”
“He would have gotten away,” Viktor forced out through gritted teeth, “if I hadn’t. He would have killed again.”
“Perhaps. On the other hand, you would not have had to suffer so much.”
Viktor didn’t have a comeback for that. Nor did he know what to say when Yuuri crouched down, pulled out an envelope from his bottom drawer, and laid out its contents on top of his desk. Though he was too far away to be able to read any of the actual text, he did recognize something else: the hospital’s letterhead, prominent and unmistakable, gracing the top of each page.
“You were supremely lucky that Mr. Feltsman found you when he did.” Yuuri leafed through the top few pages - and he didn’t realize until now that there were so many pages - of Viktor’s hospital records. “You barely survived with your windpipe intact. If he had arrived a minute later, even less, we might not be having this conversation right now.”
“What a shame that would be,” Viktor muttered under his breath.
“But the prolonged lack of air was enough to do considerable damage already. The headaches, the mood swings, the gaps in your short-term memory… lapses in judgment… I imagine all of these have made it extremely difficult to function, much less do your job.”
Hearing all of those symptoms rattled off one after another, like some goddamn grocery list, made Viktor’s stomach turn. “It’s not as bad as you’re making it sound. I’m dealing with it.”
“You would not have to, if you’d simply told anyone where you were going that night.”
“Did Yakov put you up to this?” He let out an incredulous laugh. “Tell me the truth, these are his words, aren’t they?”
“They are mine,” Yuuri said calmly, “and they are no less true for that.”
“How very convenient.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone where you were going that night?”
“I don’t know - I panicked, okay?” God damn it, why couldn’t this topic just die? “I wasn’t thinking - ”
Later, he knew, Viktor would look back on this session and wonder if he might have done better, had he not been so tremendously exhausted. He supposed there was always a chance that Yuuri might have been able to see through him anyway, despite his best efforts. That was the danger with having spent so much time together; while he was starting to find himself able to spot and skirt around Yuuri’s loaded questions and ‘suggestive’ little platitudes, in turn, Yuuri was getting better at being able to decode him.
Was there really any point in trying to playing this game, then? Yuuri probably already had an answer in mind anyway.
“I didn’t want anyone else to be involved,” he finally said, “in case things got ugly.”
“You put other people’s welfare and safety over your own,” Yuuri told him. “Consciously. Constantly. Even when the alternative, most likely, would have been safe and perhaps even beneficial for all concerned.”
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t really matter now, does it? I survived.”
“At what cost?” Yuuri’s gaze on him, though not angry or particularly displeased, still left him feeling as though he might have been bleeding from it. “And will you be so fortunate next time?”
‘Next time’, huh?
He remembered, all of a sudden, the sound of footsteps, faint at first, but growing sharper and louder as his vision had slowly started to dim. He remembered a series of gunshots, and then…
Vitya, don’t die…!
Right. He hadn’t really been able to recognize the person’s voice at the time; the only reason he was able to place it after the fact, while lying bored and miserable, alone in a darkened hospital room, was because no-one else in this city called him ‘Vitya’.
Viktor understood his panic, anyway - having one of its investigators killed in the field would have been a black stain on the fine reputation of the Feltsman Detective Agency, after all.
For the love of God, please don’t die!
“Some food for thought for you tonight,” Yuuri snapped his notebook shut, similarly snapping Viktor out of his reverie. “I’m not going to ask you to write anything down, and we may not necessarily have to talk about it next week at all. Regardless, I want you to take a few minutes and think about it. Look back on the actions you took, try to deconstruct the pattern in the choices you tend to make. And then, think about how what it might imply for the next case, and the next. And so on.”
“Wait, are we… done?” Had he lost time again? He glanced quickly at his watch, and breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t; it really was early, only halfway through the hour.
“For tonight, yes.” Yuuri chuckled. “I thought you would enjoy having half of the hour back for yourself.”
Viktor blinked. He couldn’t be sure that this wasn’t a test of some sort. “Um…”
“Just give some thought to everything we talked about tonight, alright?” Yuuri offered him a soft, warm smile. Just the sight of it immediately put Viktor at ease. It had to be a gift of sorts - to be able to walk back most of the unease he’d caused in the past half hour, with only a single look. “Try to get some rest. You need it.”
But there was no rest to be had beyond the good doctor’s office walls, nor in the rush of winter air that howled at him the moment he stepped out of the building. Walking these city streets, so often a calming exercise that would help clear his mind, did absolutely nothing to put him at ease tonight.
He found himself too restless, still haunted by that conversation in Yuuri’s office, to make his way straight home. Perhaps that had been the point of letting him leave early, or perhaps it had been a lucky coincidence.
In any case, he decided to use the time he’d gained back to pay a visit back to the office.
To his surprise, once he got there, he found out that he wasn’t the only one who’d had the same idea. “Can I assume that you being here so late means that you’re close to some kind of breakthrough on our case?”
Yuri snorted. “I wish. And you?” Viktor felt his Yuri’s eyes on him the whole time as he pulled off his coat, and draped it over the back of a chair. “Have you heard anything about Otabek?”
“No real update yet,” Viktor said with a heavy sigh. “The doctors say he’s ‘stable’. But he still hasn’t woken up yet.”
“When was this?” Yuri asked. “Last night?”
“Two nights ago.” Had it really been two nights already? Right, it must have been - he seemed to recall two full days having passed, more or less, since that night he’d brought Makkachin and a blanket over to Otabek’s hospital room, intending to camp out until morning. He’d resolved not to sleep at all that night, but the next thing he recalled was jerking awake at a creak from the door, leaping to his feet, and nearly drawing his gun on Otabek’s sister, who’d just arrived from the midnight train. “I’ll pay another visit tomorrow.”
“Quit worrying. I’m sure he’ll pull through just fine.”
Yuri punctuated this admonishment with a nod, as though he could just end this discussion as he wished, and anything Viktor said after that would just be the start of a new one. He talked a big game, but Viktor could see that he was trying to hide his own worry - Yuri’s tell was a rhythm-less, frantic tapping of his feet, not in the least bit subtle, and almost kind of distracting.
Yuri wasn’t all too thrilled when he pointed it out, because he couldn’t help himself. “Shut up, old man. Besides, we found you almost-dead once, and look what happened? You pulled through in the end, right? Making us - making Yakov worry for nothing.”
Well. He had a point there, no matter how flimsy it was. Viktor was too tired to point out why one incident wasn’t in any way a precedent for the other. “Right.”
“So what now?”
“I don’t know.” He truly, honestly didn’t. “Do you want to talk about the case?”
If nothing else, doing just that proved to be an effective distraction, though it wasn’t necessarily a productive one. The ledger book, which on paper had been obtained only under Otabek’s name, remained within the NYPD’s possession for now. Unfortunately, Viktor had learned, through a discussion with another sergeant that had been about as fun as pulling teeth, that not only was the translation work slow-going, but Otabek’s blood had destroyed many of the pages.
Still, there was at least the tiniest of silver linings: the translators had flagged a couple of characters that appeared dozens of times over the first few clean pages they’d saved. This was, far more likely than not, the name of the owner of the Silk Umbrella that they’d been seeking. “What else do we know about this…” Viktor glanced down at the top of the brief Yuri had given him, “‘Cao Bin’?”
“Besides his name? Not a whole lot.”
“I don’t think so. There are records of at least one Cao Bin that go back fifteen years. Some member of the Chinese gentry, old guard, old money, that kind of thing.” Yuri shrugged. “Must have come here for business, if I had to guess. But we don’t know much more about him than that.”
“That’s too bad.” Viktor knew better than to expect so much, so early on anyway. Even having obtained the name at all was already a victory in and of itself. “As soon as we know enough to find him, we should bring him in for questioning. That shouldn’t be too hard to do, if the property’s paperwork at least is above board.”
Yuri nodded. “Got it.”
“You have anything else for me?”
“Just this.” Yuri rifled through the worn cardboard box in the center of the room, helpfully marked ‘To Be Handled’. True to its name, it contained a mess of sealed envelopes, forms to be filled out, and unsorted loose papers of just about every kind. Near the top of the pile, he pulled out a single sheet of slightly-yellowed paper. “A few people saw your gunman in the street, and a few of those people actually stuck around to give a description. Sketch artist did his best - it isn’t much, though, so don’t get your hopes up.”
Viktor stared at the paper in his hands. The sketch that stared back at him looked like a heavyset man with a bulbous nose and beady little eyes, a large burn covering most of the left one.
Unfortunately for them, all of the witnesses agreed to having seen a scarf covering the bottom half of his face, so they didn’t even have a full picture of who they were looking for.
“I have no idea who this is,” he finally said.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Should we be plastering copies of this up all over the city, or…?”
“Let’s get Yakov to decide on that.” Viktor shook his head. “In any case, it’s better than nothing.”
“Is it, really?” Yuri snorted. “Feels like we’re back at square one.”
It certainly did, on most days. Who knew when they would next get a break like that ledger book, anyway? Until then… “We keep pushing,” Viktor sighed. “Not much else we can do.”
That ‘break’ he was waiting for, which he didn’t realistically expect until at least another month of dead-ends and frustration, actually wound up coming the very next day. A package arrived with the rest of the Agency’s mail at exactly noon, addressed specifically to ‘Viktor Nikiforov’: two tickets to Isabella Yang’s personal auction on the 28th of February, as well as a pair of golden cufflinks, inscribed with some Japanese characters.
There was a note in there too, folded and tucked away at the very bottom:
Please forgive me in case I’ve been too presumptuous in sending the extra items enclosed with the tickets you’d requested. The Yang family has always moved in circles whose obsession with pomp and grandeur (including: delusions thereof) would merit an entire doctoral dissertation. Feel free to wear them as your own - you may return them to me after the auction, whenever you see fit.
“What.” Yuri, who’d been standing behind him and hovering over his shoulder, broke the silence for him. “The fuck. ”
Viktor barely even heard it. He grabbed the tickets and rushed out the door, already composing the speech he would use to try to convince Yakov that this was not, in fact, a terrible idea.
The end of the month came at him far too quickly, and out of nowhere. It was as though he closed his eyes - something he’d been constantly aching to do over every hour and minute of the past week - for just a moment. And then when he next opened them, he was here: standing in the middle of a ballroom that had been drenched in Baroque finery, wearing a rented tux that came with the promise of a thousand hells from Seung-gil if he got even so much as a smudge on it.
That wasn’t the only ‘borrowed’ thing he was wearing. Every few minutes or so, he found himself compelled to fiddle with the cufflinks Yuuri had sent him, partly to just make sure they were still there. The reminder comforted him, somewhat. He was starting to find that thinking of Yuuri, in general, comforted him.
Yakov had been surprisingly open to this idea, and it hadn’t taken very long at all for Viktor to get his approval for this operation. It only made sense, and they were stuck on pretty much every other avenue. The fact that the auction was taking place in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria - the same building where Josef Karpisek had been killed - was a constant in the back of his mind, and was certainly a factor in Yakov’s eventual decision. It was impossible to forget, even for a second.
"Well, Detective?” asked his ‘plus-one’ of the night. “Any one of these high-flying upper-crust types look like a murderer to you?"
“Difficult to say.” Viktor immediately spotted their hosts for the night, making their way from one guest to another, all pleasantries and small talk and canned, sometimes forced laughter. Isabella was a vision in red and gold, wearing a body-hugger of a dress with the sleeves cut off just below the shoulder, a high collar, and embroidery made to look like dancing dragons. Dr. Leroy, always and forever at her side, looked dapper as hell, but also had on a far more interesting accessory: his left arm was in a sling.
There had to be a story there.
From the stage, he heard a familiar voice calling out for bids on whatever the current item was. So Phichit Chulanont was serving as auctioneer for the night. Somehow, he didn’t quite find that surprising.
Who else was here that he recognized? There were so many people, guests and service staff alike, milling about every which way. The crowd, the lights, and the din of endless conversations all added up and compounded to form this milieu that, while elegant, was a bit dizzying.
“What about the man who shot Otabek?”
“Not from what I can see.” Viktor highly doubted that that man would dare to show his face here, though. It hadn’t been too long ago that Otabek was shot, and he couldn’t imagine that the heat would have died out just yet. “What about a rich, stately, possibly older gentleman who might be named ‘Cao Bin’?”
Mila laughed. “Take your pick! There must be dozens of those.”
A waitress walked up to their table, and asked if they would be interested in some refreshments. She didn’t bat a perfectly-curled eyelash when Mila jokingly asked for champagne. Huh. Good to know that Prohibition didn’t seem to apply within these walls, at least for tonight.
“And for you, sir?”
Viktor took in her doe-like eyes, milky skin, and black, pin-straight hair in a high ponytail that still ran long enough to end at the small of her back. He couldn’t remember if he’d seen her at the Silk Umbrella before, because for whatever reason, all of the women serving food and drinks were dressed in the hotel’s waitress uniforms. Though the palette remained more or less the same, it was still a bit of a jump from flowing silk kimonos, to frilly white aprons and tighter sleeves. “Black coffee, please?”
“Unbelievable.” Mila clicked her tongue, shaking her head after the waitress had bowed and walked away. “You’re going to turn waste a night with free, unchecked booze for coffee?”
“We’re working,” Viktor reminded her. He decided not to share the fact that he’d had about twelve hours of sleep in the past four days, and if his veins happened to have more coffee than blood running through them at the moment, that might have been the only thing that was stopping him from crashing right now.
Of course, he’d ‘neglected’ to share this fact with Yakov as well. Otherwise, Viktor knew that he would have pulled the plug on this mission before it even started, no matter how ripe this field was for picking out information.
“Suit yourself.” Mila sighed, and leaned against the surface of the table. It had been polished to within an inch of its life, so smooth that it was practically reflective now. “Do you really believe that everyone in this ballroom right now is part of the Triad?”
“Not everyone. Some of these people are just guests.” Viktor found himself glancing at the stage when Phichit banged his gavel, gleefully announcing a vintage loveseat as ‘sold!’ “The auctioneer is a sure bet - we’ll want to pay attention to anyone he might have a lot of personal contact with. Same goes for the waitresses and the rest of the staff who look like they’re from The Silk Umbrella.”
“That’s a lot of marks for just the two of us.” Mila hummed. “What about your precious doctor?”
Viktor tensed. “What about him?” he asked carefully.
“He’s the one who gave you the invitations, no? Yuri told me about him - nice cufflinks, by the way.” She laughed. “Do you think he’s Triad?”
For such a simple, clear-cut question, it sure took him a hell of a long time to process it.
Had he actually not entertained the thought of it in the past? He must have; a connection with Dr. Leroy was also a connection, if tenuous at best, to Isabella Yang. Then there was all the money - Viktor would have been a damn blind fool not to at least wonder where it might have all come from. He had no idea what kind of tax bracket a practitioner at a ‘psychoanalytic clinic’ would belong to, nor how much Yakov was paying behind the scenes for an hour of conversation every Wednesday night. Could he have inherited the money somehow? Yuuri was an orphan after all, and though his own description of his parents’ jobs didn’t really seem all that glamorous, maybe things had changed later on. Maybe their fortunes had turned, some time before their deaths. Or maybe Yuuri had been taken in by a wealthier family, after his time at that horrible orphanage.
Maybe he was thinking too much into this. And maybe they should have had this conversation sooner, in hindsight, but there were just so few ways to ask a question like that with any finesse.
At the end of it all, did any of that really even matter?
This was all that he knew for sure: Yuuri happened to work with a man who’d most probably been invited to join the Triad through his soon-to-be blushing bride. That, and Yuuri was practically swimming in money. Neither seemed particularly damning… especially when he considered, if Yuuri were indeed part of the Triad, what all of their shared recent history implied for him.
“I think… that he may or may not even show up at all.” Viktor shook his head. “Besides, I’m pretty confident he’s not mixed up in that kind of business.”
“Well, if he were - and if the Triad really did have a hand in the murder somehow - let’s just say he’s had plenty of opportunities to have me ‘taken care of’ by now.”
As Mila mulled over that, their waitress arrived with their drinks. Mila swirled the champagne in her glass and raised it in a toast, but didn’t take a sip just yet. “We’ll cover more ground if we split up.”
“Rendez-vous at Herald Square?”
“Midnight,” Viktor confirmed. Just as they’d agreed. This was only an information-gathering operation - Yakov had been sure to drill that into both of their heads, loudly and repeatedly. And he had no intentions of straying away from the plan they’d crafted together. As he’d been recently, brutally reminded, disaster was wont to happen whenever he did. “No matter what happens in here.”
Mila nodded, clinked her glass against the rim of his coffee cup, and vanished into the crowd with a smile.
Now left to his own devices, Viktor picked up the cup and wandered around, surveying the cross-section of New York’s rich and famous that had gathered in this place. A sizable crowd had gathered near the stage, where Phichit enthusiastically talked up a velvet-lined chaise, the current lot to be auctioned off. But a decent number of people had broken off into smaller groups, usually of around three or four, lingering around the decorative columns or near the tables that had been set up all across the floor. So far, the only familiar faces he saw were from the waitstaff, who plied the winding routes between those columns, tables, and clusters of guests while bearing trays of drinks and food in their hands.
Viktor nearly bumped into one of those waiters, whose tray was piled high with small bamboo steaming baskets, stacked on top of one another. He apologized profusely, but the waiter simply bowed, and offered him some of the food he was carrying.
“Give him some panstickers,” a familiar voice called from the next table over. “Oh, and some of those soup dumplings - you really can’t go wrong with those.”
“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Viktor sighed, walking over to join Yuuri at his table. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“I wasn’t,” Yuuri said, ashing his cigarette onto the ashtray stand next to him. “But then I learned of a particular item being put up for auction tonight, that I happen to be interested in.”
“Is that so?” He wondered what it was. Clearly it wasn’t whatever the people were betting on right now, because Yuuri was nowhere near the stage; he wasn’t even looking in the right direction. “Well, I hope you end up winning it.”
“Thank you. And I hope you find what you came here for.” Yuuri smiled graciously at the waiter as he placed two of the bamboo steamers onto the table, along with two pairs of fine cloisonné chopsticks. He waited until the man had left before lowering his voice to add, “Detective.”
Viktor returned the smile over the rim of his coffee cup, grateful for Yuuri’s discretion. “Say, do we know why this auction is happening at all? Is it just a fundraising effort?”
“Word on the street is that Miss Yang’s suddenly decided to go back home to China,” Yuuri murmured. “Of course, she’ll be taking her soon-to-be husband with her. It would cost too much trouble and effort to move the entirety of their wealth almost seven thousand miles, hence this auction.”
“When do they leave?”
“Huh.” It sounded like there was a story behind that, too - perhaps even more entertaining, and relevant to his case, than that sling on Dr. Leroy. “Any idea why they’re in such a hurry?”
“Who knows. Perhaps they’re running from something.” Yuuri shrugged, and uncovered one of the baskets. A cloud of white escaped and filled the air between them, before dissolving to reveal a set of round dumplings, crimped beautifully to form peaks on top. He picked up a pair of chopsticks, expertly plucked out one of the dumplings, and held it up to Viktor’s mouth. “Taste this.”
Viktor parted his lips before he could even remember to be surprised. And then, before he knew it, he was already biting down, and a burst of rich, hot broth washed over his tongue.
“Wow.” He chewed through the rest of the dumpling, swallowed, and immediately felt himself yearning for another one. “That’s really good.”
“Isn’t it?” Yuuri took one for himself, using the same pair of chopsticks. “One of the best things ever to come out of Shanghai, in my opinion.”
Viktor found himself eagerly sharing that opinion.
He wondered, though, how much it mattered that he hadn’t had a full, decent meal all day. It had been impossible to find the chance to even sit down for more than a few minutes at a time this week, especially these past few days when he’d been finalizing the details of the plan for tonight’s operation. How long could one live on a diet of coffee, cigarettes, and occasional street food anyway? While he’d been in a very good position to find out the answer to that firsthand, he was immensely grateful that this event served actual food.
A low chuckle from Yuuri took him out of his musings. Viktor found the other man staring at him, something he didn’t bother to hide when he said, “They suit you.”
Yuuri nodded in the general vicinity of Viktor’s hands. “The cufflinks.”
“Oh.” Viktor turned his arm just so, watching the light from the chandeliers overhead glinting off of the gold. “Thank you.”
“Do you like them?”
“I do. What does it say? In the engravings.”
Yuuri hummed. “I’ll tell you when you return them to me.” At the puzzled look on Viktor’s face, he let out a little laugh. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing offensive, if that’s what you were worried about.”
They made short work of the rest of the dumplings, including the potstickers from the other basket, and Viktor managed to finish his coffee while they watched three guests engage in a tense bidding war over a vase. More than once he had to rub at his eyes, feeling the exhaustion from the past few days creeping up to him. Not yet, he told himself, as he chased it down with more caffeine.
He wondered where Mila had gone.
He also wanted to know even more about Isabella and Dr. Leroy. As he and Yuuri talked about lighter, trivial things, he considered steering the conversation back to them again, to see if Yuuri could tell him even a tiny bit more. But that wouldn’t have been fair to Yuuri, who likely hadn’t come here tonight to be interrogated about the hosts.
Why had he come here tonight? Right, to bid on something - Viktor had seriously almost forgotten. How long had that been, ten minutes? Less?
Maybe he needed some stronger coffee.
“What’s on your mind, Viktor?”
“Nothing. I’m just - I’m glad to see you here,” he answered.
“A familiar face can be an anchor in a sea of chaos. Where is your plus-one?”
“I have no idea,” Viktor admitted. “Hopefully, having better luck than I am.”
“Am I distracting you from your work?”
Viktor shook his head. “I actually wish I wasn’t working tonight. Then we could just…”
He wasn’t sure how he’d wanted to end that. ‘Talk’? ‘Enjoy each other’s company’? Just for one night, Viktor wished he could forget all about… everything. He wished he could forget, if only for the next few hours, that a man had been murdered in this hotel barely two months ago, and he still wasn’t much closer to solving this case from the moment it had landed on his desk. He wished he didn’t have to constantly strain his ears on the off chance that he could filter out anything useful from the din of the crowd.
He wished he could just… be … with Yuuri here, tonight.
“My word. Do my eyes deceive me?”
He wished that the rare, fleeting pittance of peace he’d thought he’d found hadn’t just been snuffed out with seven measly words.
“Ah, they do not.” Don Crispino sauntered over, clad in all the glory of a white three-piece vested suit with white shadow pinstripes, because subtlety had never been in vogue for men of his stature. Conversations in their immediate vicinity died, half a dozen heads swiveling as he made his merry way to their table. He came flanked by his bodyguards and Celestino, who stopped halfway to sample an offering of steamed buns from a nearby waiter. “ Cravate noire is absolutely fetching on you, Lieutenant.”
Viktor forgot to correct him. He also forgot to be polite. “What are you doing here?”
“I was, and still am, looking for someone else - to put it quite bluntly, there is a score that I wish to settle, and tonight happened to present a prime opportunity to do so.” Don Crispino chuckled. “But then I saw you from across the room… of course, how could I not stop by and say hello? Especially since the last time we saw each other, I so rudely left without saying goodbye to you.”
Viktor gritted his teeth. “Trust me, I took no offense to that.”
“Indeed. You have always been so gracious like that.”
Grace was surely the last thing Viktor had on his mind right now. He had to wonder if the Don was insane, oblivious, or just completely reckless, waltzing in like he owned the place, declaring his intentions to ‘settle a score’. How had he even found out about this event? Did he have any idea what kind of party this was, and who the majority of the guests here were?
“And who might this be?” the Don purred, having tilted his head and turned his attention fully towards Yuuri. When neither of them responded, he raked his eyes up and down Yuuri’s form, twice. The lewd admiration in his gaze was something he didn’t even pretend to hide. “What a delightfully exotic beauty you are. I would be very interested in getting to know you better. Perhaps the three of us can all acquaint ourselves with one another after this party, hmmm?”
He tried to touch Yuuri’s cheek. But that was as far as he ever went, because before Viktor knew it, he’d already shot out his arm, grabbed Don Crispino by the wrist, and stopped him inches before his hand could make contact with Yuuri’s skin.
The Don’s smile vanished. His bodyguards, already a looming presence from the get-go, stepped closer with their hands slipping into their jackets. Shit. Viktor wracked his brain, trying to think of the quickest way to defuse whatever was about to happen. Shit shit shit.
He didn’t have too many options.
In fact, he could only come up with one… which was why he swallowed back his reservations, loosened his grip, and forced a lazy, come-hither smile.
“Sorry, but I’m not really a man who likes to share… or be shared, for that matter.” He took the offending hand in his own and pressed a feather-light kiss against his knuckles, fighting back every fiber of his being that wanted to bolt.
It worked, though - the bodyguards immediately relaxed, and a slow, wicked grin spread over the Don’s face. Never one to pass up on an opportunity, he was all too happy to force two fingers into Viktor’s mouth, right in the middle of the ballroom, with at least a dozen people bearing witness.
“You are more than welcome to visit the Tower tonight - and any night that you please.” He slid his fingers in further, up to the knuckle, and proceeded to thrust them in and out several times. Too many times. “Seeing you mindless in the throes of pleasure is a privilege that I very much look forward to repeating very soon.”
Then, just like that, he pulled his fingers out, turned on his heel, and left.
If a part of him had wanted to pretend that Yuuri hadn’t seen that, it was immediately destroyed when Yuuri asked him, in a deathly quiet voice: “Are you alright?”
No. No, he really wasn’t. He needed another coffee - he needed something, anything, to wash the taste of that man’s skin and cologne away.
His eyes watered.
He felt like throwing up. “Do you know who that was?”
“You would be hard-pressed to find a single person in this room who doesn’t.” Yuuri cleared his throat, and turned away from him. “Excuse me.”
And then Yuuri just left him there, without looking back. He left him with the empty bamboo baskets on the table, and Viktor couldn’t help but wonder if one of them might have been able to hold whatever was left of his heart.
Viktor wasn’t sure how long he just stood there, waiting for something to happen while stewing in the stares of the spectators around him, before he realized that nothing was coming, and that Yuuri wouldn’t be back any time soon. Despondent, he made his way to the bar at the far end of the ballroom, tempted to just screw all of this, and get a goddamn drink.
The bar boasted a spread of just about every beverage imaginable, and some he didn’t even recognize: coffees, teas, juices, some bottles of sparkling water… along with dozens of different types of hard liquors and beers, just proudly sitting out there in full display. Must not have been any cops on the guest list, he supposed.
“Evening, sir! What can I get for you, sir?”
The loud, boisterous tone, so jarring in this otherwise sedate event, was impossible to miss. In a way, it was almost refreshing. Viktor turned to the source of the that voice, and found himself staring at a smile he could have called ‘sharp’ in more ways than one.
“Well? Interested in a drink, sir? These walls have no ears, sir, if you know what I mean.”
It was so, so tempting to give in. God, he hadn’t had a drink in - how long? Not since Christophe, he thought. He didn’t have the heart for it.
But his throat felt parched, and his gut ached for it…
He managed to resist temptation at the very last second. “Coffee, please. Black.”
The young bartender grinned. “Good man. Coming right up!”
There were quite a few open seats at the bar, since most of the patrons had been slowly gravitating towards the stage. Viktor took the seat closest to him, and rubbed at his smarting eyes. It didn’t really help. Nothing seemed to help.
What the hell was Don Crispino doing here? That, all of a sudden, had become the biggest question of the night for him. Looking for Cao Bin, watching for Otabek’s shooter, and keeping an ear open for any mentions of Karpisek suddenly all got pushed further down the list. He highly doubted that the Don and his entourage had been given formal invitations. And yet, somehow, they’d known to come here tonight.
“Here you are, sir! Black as the devil’s heart, bitter as the devil’s kiss.”
“I wouldn’t know about that last one - those are usually sweet.”
Viktor took the coffee from him and gulped a third of it down in one go. It didn’t clear his head quite yet, but it did at least ply him with warmth. And it definitely washed the taste of the Don from his mouth.
“No problem. Say, aren’t you going to bid on anything? Some of the good stuff is just starting to come out.”
Viktor listened to the commotion from the stage. He heard Phichit calling out about another lot: some kind of oil painting Dr. Leroy had commissioned of himself, sitting in a throne with a crown on his head, and holding a golden scepter in his hands. “I’ll pass on that for now.”
“Suit yourself, heh. How’s the coffee?”
“Delicious, thank you.”
“You sure I can’t interest you in anything else? Rest of the city isn’t as forgiving as this hotel is regarding certain, shall we say, prudish laws that every good citizen ought to follow.”
Viktor couldn’t help but laugh at that. Perhaps more than the coffee itself, making small talk with this all-too-bubbly bartender had been more refreshing than he would have expected. He was still tired as hell, confused about the Don’s presence, and smarting from Yuuri having walked away, but this… this was something, at least. Funny how that worked out.
“These teas you’ve got on display…” Viktor gestured towards the brightly-colored, hand-painted teapots being kept warm on one end of the bar, as well as some glass jars of loose tea leaves displayed on a shelf overhead. “Are they from the Silk Umbrella?”
The bartender nodded, enthused. “Finest tea you can ever hope to find on this side of the Pacific, sir!” he declared.
“By any chance, would you happen to have any of those ‘specialty’ teas on offer tonight?”
The bartender hummed, and Viktor caught him staring at his cufflinks. For a moment, he was worried that he’d be asked to hand them over in exchange for whatever was about to come next.
Thankfully, nothing of that sort happened. “Sure do, sir! They’re not being sold in bulk tonight, you’d have to go to the shop for that. But I do think we have some samplers around…”
Was he finally making progress? Viktor glanced back into the crowd, and wished he could spot Mila among the sea of people. “Samplers would be fine,” he said, making sure not to sound too overly cautious.
“Excellent! What would you like?” The bartender leaned in closer, beckoned for Viktor to close the gap, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Personally, I’d recommend our new specialty chamomile-hibiscus blend. It’s one of our rare, prized luxury blends, and it’s absolutely unforgettable. When you come back for more - because believe me, sir, you will,” he chuckled, “it’ll cost you a pretty penny.”
That was it, his gut told him. There was no earthly way that that elaborate sales pitch would have just been for an ordinary, literal tea blend. But if not, then what did it refer to? And why would this bartender have been so glaringly obvious about it?
There was really only one way to find out for sure. “Alright, I’m sold.”
“That’s what I like to hear. I promise, you won’t regret it sir!”
To his surprise, the bartender didn’t set out to make any tea at all, though he had plenty of tea and equipment at the bar. He simply wrote out the order on a piece of paper instead, and handed that to Viktor over the counter.
“Specialty teas are brewed in the kitchen, sir. Look for Guang Hong, and tell him Minami Kenjiro sent you, sir!”
Viktor accepted the receipt Minami had just created, and stuffed it into his pocket. He then polished off the rest of his coffee before prying himself off of the bar stool, and setting out to find the kitchen.
He must have crossed the center of the ballroom at least thrice before conceding to himself that he had no idea where the kitchen was. He’d found a door to a small hallway that led to the stairs, an alcove that didn’t seem to serve any purpose he could think of, the coat check room - twice - and a side door that opened to the street. He felt disoriented, and so soon after his last coffee at that. It was no longer working; he was probably just running on fumes at this point.
Damn it. How much longer did he have until midnight? Just a little over an hour, a glance at his watch told him.
Where the hell had Mila gone?
A few more minutes of aimless wandering led him to a narrow hallway behind the stage, hidden from the view of most everyone in the ballroom proper. This was the only place he could think of that he hadn’t explored yet. Surely the kitchen was through there?
The sounds he heard from the far end of the hallway - a bustle of activity, orders shouted in a foreign language, knives and kettles and sizzling - gave him hope that he was on the right track. Viktor made his way slowly, feeling for the receipt in his pocket, making sure it was still there. He rehearsed what to say in his head, just to be sure. Guang Hong. Specialty tea, chamomile-hibiscus blend. Just a sample. Minami Kenjiro sent me.
But halfway through that hallway, he passed an open door, connected to a balcony. There seemed to be at least two people standing there, judging by the shadows cast by the street lamps onto the hallway floor.
Viktor slowed down when he heard the voices coming from the balcony, and realized that he recognized them both.
“So sorry to disappoint you,” he heard Minako saying, in that same low, sultry purr she’d used to compare him to tea not so long ago. “But I’m afraid I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re going on about.”
“‘Ignorant’ is not a look that wears very well on a lady of your stature, Miss Okukawa.” Sara’s voice was dripping with honey and poison, as it was more often than not. “I think you and I both know better than that.”
Viktor crept as close as he could, stopping when he found a column he could hide behind, while still being able to peek around and see them. He supposed he should have been less surprised than he was to see Sara here, knowing that the Don was also prowling around the building at this very moment. So he had brought other people with him to this event aside from the small entourage Viktor had seen earlier. How many more members had La Cosa Nostra sent tonight? Yet another mystery for the night.
He was not surprised, at least, to see Minako - he’d actually expected to run into her much sooner. As to why these two women were even speaking to one another at all - that was another matter entirely.
“And if you’ll forgive my impudence, ‘coy’ is not a look that suits you at all, Miss Crispino.” Minako took a long, deep drag from her cigarette. “If there is a message you want to bring to me, then it’s best to speak plainly. Life is too short for silly riddles.”
“Oh but I was, in fact, speaking plainly when I asked you.” Sara held a single long-stemmed rose in her hands - from an admirer, or had she brought it in? Viktor couldn’t recall having seen any roses in the ballroom. “After all, that is what this party is all about, right? All of these precious treasures changing hands, lest they disappear across an ocean and a half?”
“Does that displease you so? I’m certain you and your family know a thing or two about moving wealth around.”
“Funny.” The way Sara threw back her head and laughed at that was almost convincing. “But there are particular treasures that we are very much interested in. Blue lanterns… white paper fans… even a dragon’s head is rumored to be here somewhere.”
Minako shrugged. “I am merely a guest of this party. Surely you would have better luck asking the auctioneer, or Isabella Yang and Jean-Jacques Leroy themselves, if those items you’re looking for are indeed up for auction.”
“So vexing.” Sara clicked her tongue. “Please. We already know that those terms refer to people.”
She was right. Viktor didn’t have to struggle to bring up an image of the crime wall in his office - it had been all but permanently seared in his mind’s eye. In the center, flanked by notes, colored strings, and theories penciled in at three in the morning, was the organizational chart of the Triad that Yuri had started for him, which they’d all been adding to as more information became available to them. Blue Lanterns sat at the bottom of that tree, lowly sub-initiates that they’d hoped would have served as the Agency’s window into the organization - if only any of them would actually talk. It was infinitely harder to be sure of anything the higher up the tree they went, but Viktor knew at least that white paper fans handled logistical support; he thought of Cao Bin right away, and maybe he had missed him after all?
But at the very top of that tree, most shocking that Sara had mentioned, was the Dragon’s Head. Was the head of the Triad actually here? And if he was - how in the hell had La Cosa Nostra gotten hold of that information?
“I am sorry,” Minako said with a rueful smile. From this angle, she almost managed to make it look sincere. “I truly wish I could have been of more help.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“Will that be all?”
“Oh, just one last thing before I go - a friendly message, if you’ll have it.” Sara stepped forward to shrink the distance between them. “I’m sure you’ll agree that loyal, dependable people can be counted as wealth, even more precious than their weight in gold. My family does not appreciate having such assets so callously destroyed by, shall we say, agents who like to fancy themselves the competition.” She handed Minako the rose she was holding. “I promise you: one way or another, there will be reparations.”
Minako accepted the rose with reluctance, albeit never losing her smile. Sara giggled, called out something in a sweet, Italian singsong, and merrily sashayed away.
Viktor should have made himself scarce the moment he saw her start to move. But he was too slow to react, and his legs felt like lead. By the time he remembered to move, it was already too late, because she was already looking right at him.
By the next second, she was already pressed up against him, her face uncomfortably close to his.
“Tick-tock, Detective.” She tapped on the face of his watch while whispering into his ear. “Remember our deal, hmmm? If we find the killer first, then your current debt with us shall remain open.” She laughed. “Papa is a patient man, but he never forgets open debts.”
He knew that.
He’d always known that.
How could he ever forget?
As he watched her leave, Viktor suddenly felt as though she’d taken all of the air in the room with her. He tugged on his collar, hoping to find relief. More and more, though, it was just starting to feel like a noose around his neck.
The Mafia knew, they knew somehow, so much more than they’d ever let on, more than even Viktor and the Agency had learned after months of working on this case round-the-clock. It made sense that they would have wanted to keep tabs on an up-and-coming rival organization, whether or not they deemed them a real threat. But this - this felt intimate.
Could the Mafia have planted someone within the Triad?
What did that mean for his investigation, if it was true? What did it mean for him?
“...okay? Sir? Are you okay?”
Viktor snapped out of his trance with a gasp. He was no longer lurking behind that column near the balcony; somehow, he’d ended up standing next to one of the tables furthest away from the stage and the bulk of the crowd. The side door that he’d found earlier, in his failed attempts to find the kitchen, was right in front of him.
When… how had he gotten all the way over here?
“Hey.” He couldn’t make out the face of the woman who was speaking, but he felt it when she placed a hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong? You’re not - can you breathe?”
Could he? He wasn’t sure. He was trying, but despite his best efforts, and wanting it with every fiber of his being, his chest refused to move. It was as though he’d fucking forgotten how to do it.
That wasn’t possible, right? Breathe, he told himself, trying to fight back the snowballing sense of doom. Breathe. Breathe.
“Are you alone? Or did you come here with someone?”
Viktor blinked, startled by that sudden question. Where had that even come from?
Normally, there would be a second question that came to mind, especially on those occasions where he was seeking information himself. Is it safe to answer this? But he was in no condition to process that logic right now. “I came here with someone,” he found himself saying. “A woman - a colleague.”
“I see.” The hand on his shoulder pushed gently down, until he was sitting on a soft, velvet-lined chair. He hadn’t even noticed that there was a chair there in the first place. “It seems she isn’t with you right at this moment, though. Do you remember where you last saw her?”
“Uh…” What? Viktor licked his lips, struggling to remember. Where had they been before Mila had walked away from him? “It was, um. One of the tables… near the main staircase, I think.”
“Do you remember what she’s wearing?”
Barely. Still, the more he tried to focus on the question, the more details he could make out in his head: the cut of her dress, the flashy sequins in her feathered headband, even the holster around her thigh where he knew she kept a stiletto knife, ready to fly. He tried to describe it all, to the best of his ability anyway. Except for the knife - this woman didn’t need to know about that.
“Good.” The waitress rubbed soothing circles on his shoulder, and flashed him a soft smile when he looked up at her. “And how are you feeling?”
…Huh. Now that he thought about it, Viktor realized, he could actually breathe again. And his heart was no longer beating in that frantic death march from just a minute ago. “Better.” he exhaled. “Wow. That… actually worked.”
“Sometimes, forcing your mind to engage in something else, usually something trivial or distracting, is enough to stop an attack. I’ve had some experience with it in the past.” Her smile widened. “You are… Viktor, right? I’ve seen you in the shop a couple of times.”
“Right.” And he was certain he’d seen her at the Silk Umbrella too, but although his mind tried valiantly to make the connection with a face and a name from his memory, it wound up short in the end. “Um…”
“Yuuko,” she supplied, laughing.
“Ah.” Of course. “I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t be. I’m glad you’re feeling better.” She set a cup in front of him from the tray she’d parked onto the next table, and filled it to the brim with steaming hot tea. “Here, have some. It will help.”
Viktor took a long sip, letting the warmth flood over him. She was right about that, too.
“So.” Now that he’d recalled her name, Viktor glanced at her hand on the teapot, noting the visible wedding ring, and distinct lack of bandages there. “How’s the hand?”
“Oh, you remembered?” She set the teapot down and flexed her fingers. “It’s healing very well. Thank you for asking.”
“And you? Were you able to win whatever it is you came here for?”
“What? Oh.” For a moment there, he’d completely forgotten that this was supposed to be an auction. “Ah, I haven’t actually bid on anything yet.”
“No?” She hid a giggle behind her hand. “Then I don’t think you’ll have that chance anymore. They’re already on the final lot.”
Were they? Viktor forced himself to listen. Phichit had already finished giving the introduction, but from bits and pieces of the small spiels he would inject between bidding, building the item up so he could drive the price higher, he was able to get a rough idea of what it was: a beach house in Long Island. About four people were currently engaged in a bidding war, and Phichit was relishing every second of it.
“It’s not too late to throw your hat into that ring,” Yuuko teased lightly.
Viktor took note of the numbers being thrown around. “I’m afraid I don’t have nearly that much money on me right now.” Or to his name, even.
“You don’t pay for the items you win right away,” Yuuko explained. “Usually, you would just have to put up something of value as collateral.” She paused, and nodded at his wrists. “Those cufflinks, for example. They’re gorgeous.”
“Thank you.” Viktor fiddled with them. “Someone lent them to me.”
She smiled. “So I gathered.”
The conversation drifted to a natural lull. The bidding for the beach house was now down to the last two, it seemed. The bids kept climbing higher and higher. Phichit was beside himself with excitement.
“Do you, ah, happen to know what it says?” he asked. “The engraving?” Yuuri had given him a useless non-answer, and he was still curious.
“Hmmm, let’s see.” Yuuko turned his wrist over so that she could see the characters under the light. Her lips pursed, as though she were trying not to smile. “Well, a rough translation for these characters might be ‘courage’... and for these ones, ‘victory’.”
Courage and victory? Viktor couldn’t help but chuckle at that. Did Yuuri possess a fondness for puns?
Phichit’s voice boomed throughout the ballroom as the bidding drew to a close. “I have twenty-five thousand, thank you sir! Now, do I have twenty-six?”
But if Yuuri had been sincere with this choice… he wondered if that was why he felt like such an impostor, wearing these tonight. He didn’t know all that much about courage, but this operation sure as hell didn’t feel like a victory at all.
“No takers at twenty-six thousand? Going once… going twice…” A loud bang from the gavel put everyone out of their misery. “Sold! The Leroy family beach house in Long Island, for twenty-five thousand dollars… congratulations, and enjoy your new summer home, Doctor.”
He didn’t think much about that in the minutes that followed, as he and Yuuko made small talk about tea. But not too long after the auction had ended, he sensed someone heading their way, and turned just in time to see Yuuri walking straight towards their table.
“There you are. I was worried you might have gone home for the night.”
Viktor couldn’t say he wasn’t tempted, when Yuuri had just walked away from him after that encounter with the Don. If he hadn’t been on the clock tonight, he might have done just that. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Yuuri eyed the tea set on the table. “Well, you’ve been in good hands, I see.” He turned to Yuuko, and bowed his head with a fond smile. “Arigatou, Yuu-chan.”
Yuuko bowed at the waist, replaced the tea set onto her tray, and walked away with a smile.
“You two know each other?”
“I’ve been to the Silk Umbrella a couple of times, so I know a few of the employees’ names.” Yuuri stuffed his hand into his pocket. “Anyway… here. This is for you.”
He handed Viktor a key ring, holding three unmarked keys together - two bronze, one silver. “What is this?”
“The keys to the beach house in Long Island that I just won.” Yuuri took his hand, and placed the keys onto his palm. “It’s yours.”
Viktor stared at them. It took forever for him to process what, exactly, Yuuri was telling him.
To a beach house in Long Island.
Twenty-five thousand dollars.
No… no, he couldn’t do this. He had no idea what this was supposed to mean, and he had no plans to even try to understand it. There was no way. It just didn’t make sense.
“Sorry… excuse me, I need…” Viktor strained to find the words. Empty, twenty-five thousand dollar words. “I need…”
In the end, he didn’t even manage to finish the sentence. He simply dropped the keys onto the table, spun around on his heel, and made a beeline straight for the door.
If Viktor thought that a breath of fresh air would have cleared the sheer confusion in his head, well, he was wrong about that. The frosty breeze provided absolutely no help, and all it did was freeze him, right to the core, because of course he’d forgotten his coat inside. Damn it.
He must have heard that wrong. That was the only possible explanation, right? Because the alternative meant that Yuuri had bought him a house, and he could imagine no scenario in which that choice made even an iota of sense.
With a sigh, he decided to bear the cold for just a few minutes longer, and lit up a cigarette to make the wait more tolerable. Of course, he could have just gone back inside, but he had no idea what was waiting for him in there. This night just seemed to get weirder and weirder.
And weirder, the universe was happy to oblige, when he heard the click of a gun. God fucking damn it.
“Put your hands in the air, and turn around slowly.”
There was a pattern here, Viktor realized, that he should have caught on to much earlier on. He tossed his cigarette onto the ground, crushed it underfoot, and inwardly berated himself for not having seen it coming: one Crispino catching him by surprise was understandable, and two was still forgivable. But still being surprised by the third, well - that was just stupid.
“Did you not fucking hear me? I said, hands in the air and turn around! Slowly.”
Viktor did as he was told, because what else was he supposed to do? He didn’t have to wait for the man to come into the light to address him. “Your sister isn’t here, Michele. Shouldn’t you be by her side, protecting her honor, or doing… whatever it is exactly that she keeps you around for?”
Michele snarled. “Big words for a man who’s about to get a fucking bullet in his head.”
“Really? You’re going to shoot me here?” He glanced back at the door. He could still hear the din from the ballroom, albeit faintly, from where he stood. “We’re right in the middle of Midtown, you think people aren’t going to notice a man running from a crime scene with flecks of blood on his nice white tux?”
“Shut up!!” Michele moved closer with long, angry strides, until the gun was just out of Viktor’s reach. “You think I won’t fucking do it?”
“Why?” If he was actually going to die here, Viktor thought, he would at least want to go bearing the knowledge of what exactly the reason for it was. “What have I ever done to you?”
“You’re really going to play stupid with me, you spineless double-crossing piece of shit?” Michele’s eyes flashed sparks, and Viktor idly wondered if he could light a cigarette with them. “You think I’m stupid, huh? Or do you think the Family takes kindly to enemy operatives?”
Viktor narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean by that?”
“What the fuck did I just say about you playing stupid?”
“No, it sounds like you’re accusing me of something.” This time it was Viktor who stepped closer, that gun between them be damned. He needed to get close enough to read the look on Michele’s face. “How did you even know about this event? Do you know why it’s happening?”
“What? No - it doesn’t matter! How do you know about this event if you’re not one of them? ”
“‘Them’?” he echoed. “Who?”
Michele wavered. He started to look confused.
“Who are ‘they’, Michele?” Viktor asked again.
“You know who they are!” he spat out. “Fucking filthy coolie crooks think they can come in and take over our city?” He laughed. “They’ve got another thing coming.”
Viktor mulled over those words. Was that why the Don had brought a party of his own over to the Waldorf Astoria tonight? A show of force? That would have confirmed that the auction was really a Triad gathering then, and by crashing it, La Cosa Nostra were sending a very clear message. But then how did that fit in with Sara, and that conversation he’d witnessed at the balcony?
He was still trying to figure it out when the side door, the same one he’d rushed through just a few minutes earlier, creaked open. Viktor glanced back and saw Yuuri running towards him.
“Viktor, I - ”
“Get back inside!” he yelled.
Yuuri stopped running, but stayed where he was. “What’s going on - ”
“Hey, you heard him.” Michele swiveled on his heel, until he was aiming at Yuuri’s chest. “Go away!”
Viktor didn’t realize that he’d pulled Yuuri behind him until it had already happened, and he’d placed himself squarely between Yuuri and the barrel of Michele’s gun.
But this… this was something he’d done before, right? He raised his arms again, and laced his fingers behind his head in a show of deference. “Alright. Listen. I’m perfectly willing to continue this conversation, if you keep that gun pointed at me, and only at me. Is that fair?”
Michele grunted, but nodded once at Yuuri. “Why are you still standing there? Go on, get outta here!”
“I’m afraid at this point, I’m inevitably going to wind up as either a victim, or a witness to something,” Yuuri sighed. “It’s a bit too late for that now.”
As Michele yelled out a slew of obscenities, Viktor murmured, “Yuuri, what are you doing?”
“My best,” Yuuri answered with a quiet chuckle, “given the circumstances.”
“I said shut up!! I’ll fucking pop you both, God damn it - ” Mickey had been drawing slowly closer all this time, but something made him stop in his tracks. He squinted at something above Viktor’s head, and scowled. “What is that? What does that say?”
Viktor belatedly noticed that he was staring at his cufflinks. “What?”
“What does that say?” Michele demanded again. “Is that a name? Yang’s?” He scoffed. “So you really are one of her fucking dogs, after all? Is that it, is that why you’ve got her name carved into - ”
The words shocked them both, and shut Michele up immediately. As the seconds ticked by, Viktor almost wondered if they’d both heard the same thing.
Yuuri calmly pressed himself up against Viktor's back, resting his chin on his shoulder from behind. And then, he made it perfectly clear: “The characters on his cufflinks? They’re my name. Katsuki Yuuri.” He slid his hands into Viktor's jacket, letting them wander, seeking ever warmer pastures while holding eye contact with Michele, the entire time. "Do you understand what that means?"
Silence. Viktor didn’t know if Michele was disgusted, angry, confused, or some tragic combination of all three.
In any case, the distraction worked - Yuuri had bought them just enough time for him to slide his hand over, to the side where Viktor always wore his holster, unhook his gun from that holster, and whip it out so that he was pointing it straight at Michele’s face.
Michele jerked back. “The fuck?!”
“Walk away.” Yuuri’s voice was like steel, cold and cutting. “I’m not in the mood for any games. Put your gun away, turn around, and get out of my sight.”
“Who the fuck gave you the right to order me around?”
“You think I don’t know how to use this?”
Michele took one step closer, never wavering in his aim even for a second. “I’ll pop one right in his fucking heart. I’ll fucking do it.”
“Try it. It’ll be the last thing you do before I put a bullet in your brain.”
Yuuri’s words, coupled with the tone of his voice, sent a chill down Viktor’s spine. When he said it like that, it wasn’t too hard to imagine that exact series of events playing out, and Viktor was starting to consider the very real possibility that he might not walk out of this alive. Was Yuuri bluffing? Or was he dead serious?
He actually, shockingly, couldn’t tell for sure.
“Are you fucking kidding me with this?” Michele seethed. “I’ll kill him!!”
“You assume my concern for his well-being trumps your own self-preservation. Well? Does it?”
Another spell of silence followed, and Viktor could almost see the gears turning in Michele’s head. Yuuri settled his free hand over Viktor’s heart, and Viktor had no idea what that gesture was supposed to mean.
Finally, after an eternity, Yuuri’s bluff - or at least, Viktor sure as hell hoped it was just a bluff - seemed to actually pay off. Michele spat out a curse, and lowered his gun.
"Fine. You can have him tonight, for all I care. It'll all be the same down the road, when he gets you killed." Michele sneered. "Calamity follows this fool, haven't you heard? Enjoy whatever time you've got left."
“You should really go away now,” Yuuri told him.
But Michele wasn’t talking to Yuuri at all - he was staring straight at Viktor, and he carried the promise of sheer murder in his eyes.
“One day, I will collect payment for my mother’s death,” he snarled. “Make no mistake, it will be my bullet that ends your miserable life.”
So that standoff ended in a stalemate, by some miracle. Any other fool would have counted himself lucky for it. But Viktor drew absolutely no comfort from that, nor from the rush of warm air, welcoming but oppressive, as Yuuri dragged him back into the hotel.
Stop, he didn’t say, though he might have wanted to. He’s not wrong. Calamity had followed him since he’d started this case, a shadow he couldn’t shake off because this city boasted too many lights, too many walls, too many eyes. It had gotten Christophe; it had gotten Otabek. If Yuuri wasn’t careful, then soon… soon…
It was probably only a matter of time, wasn’t it?
The ballroom was still thronging with life, even though the auction had ended. Most of the guests had broken off into little clusters around some of the tables, but they were all faceless to him. Was Don Crispino still here? Was Sara? He couldn’t tell; maybe Michele lurking outside meant that his whole family had left for the night. Had they gotten what they’d come here for? He wondered where Minako had gone, immediately after Sara had given her that rose and left her on the balcony. He wondered if Mila was still in the crowd somewhere, and if she’d found Cao Bin… or maybe, if all of his ‘luck’ tonight had come at the expense of hers, she might have run into the Dragon Head.
Shit. He needed to find her. What time was it?
The ballroom was receding further and further from his sight. He wasn’t sure why, but he just now realized that Yuuri had been dragging him to the elevators. The words didn’t catch up with him until they were already inside. “Hey, what are you - ?”
“Shhhh.” Yuuri pushed him against the wall, and placed a finger against his lips. He looked over at the elevator boy, who was staring at them with wide eyes, only long enough to ask that they be taken up to the penthouse. “No more - no more dealing with those people tonight. Okay?”
The elevator doors slid shut. The minor, predictable jolt at the start of the car’s ascent made Yuuri lose his footing for some reason, and Viktor had to reach out and hold him steady. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“Never better.” Yuuri laughed, letting himself go entirely boneless in Viktor’s arms. Viktor hoisted him up, and Yuuri nuzzled at the side of his neck. “I’ve never felt more alive.”
Viktor somehow doubted that. “What you did back there…” He swallowed back a tide of apologies, as well as portents of doom that threatened to bubble up from his throat. “I’ll thank you for saving my life, but you should have just walked away. Michele Crispino is a dangerous man.”
Yuuri snorted. “I’m not afraid of Michele Crispino.”
“Well, maybe you should be.” He chuckled weakly. “At least a little. He’s had a lot of money, and a lot of blood, flow through his hands.”
“Is he going to be the next head of the Mafia?” Yuuri drawled, uncharacteristically loud. “I can’t wait to see that. He doesn’t have the stones for it. Hundred bucks says he doesn’t last a month.”
Viktor couldn’t find it in himself to share in his mirth. Even if Yuuri was right, this city was in store for at least another decade, maybe more, of the current Don at the helm - the same man who’d walked brazenly into an event that had almost certainly doubled as a gathering of the Triad’s elite, and all but promised revenge for some unnamed slight.
Come to think of it, the Don’s words to him… hadn’t been too dissimilar from Sara’s words to Minako…
Had they both been talking about Karpisek’s murder? Sara had spoken of losing a person, an agent of theirs most likely, and both father and daughter had practically sworn revenge. When else could a suspected Triad member have killed one of the Mafia recently? Surely, with how the whole agency had been keeping tabs on the Triad, Viktor would have caught some wind of it by now. Or if not them, then Leo, who always had an ear to the ground for any dirt on La Cosa Nostra, would have jumped at the opportunity to humiliate them in the morning papers.
How did they know? What did they know?
The elevator shuddered to a stop. Before its doors could open all the way, Yuuri was already pulling on Viktor’s arm. “Come on. Stop thinking. Come on…”
They stepped out - or more precisely, Yuuri nearly tripped over his own damn feet, and Viktor stumbled to stop him from falling - into the main room of a sprawling, stunning suite that he’d seen exactly once before. A big difference was that this time, at least, there was a lot less blood and chaos to witness.
“This is - ”
“The most expensive hotel room in all of Manhattan tonight.” Yuuri wriggled himself free from Viktor’s grasp, and stretched his arms out wide. “Do you like it?”
“This isn’t my first time here.” Viktor’s eyes swept the room. All of the paint, the furnishings, and even the tiny little accents that nobody paid attention to had been restored to their former, pristine glory. Anyone who’d been out of the city, or who’d had their head buried in the sand since Christmas Eve last year, might have waltzed in and been none the wiser. “You do know somebody was murdered here, right?”
“Stop.” Yuuri cut him off. “Stop. No shop talk - not tonight. Please?”
His voice was trembling; he was trembling, from head to toe, enough so that Viktor could feel it when he undid the buttons of his tuxedo jacket, and slid the garment off his shoulders. Viktor let him do as he pleased, but something didn’t feel quite right. “Are you really okay?”
Yuuri shook his head. He wrapped his arms around himself, and let out a strange little laugh. “I’m not long for this world, Viktor. I might even already be dead. It was nice knowing you.”
What the hell was he talking about? Viktor grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him towards the center of the room, right below the huge chandelier. Then, and only then, was Viktor finally able to get a good, hard look at him.
Yuuri’s pupils were absolutely blown - the ring of rich, russet brown that Viktor had so often found captivating had shrunk to nearly nothing, and it didn’t get any better now that he’d practically tilted Yuuri’s face up to the light. His breathing came in shallow, chaotic bursts.
“Are… are you high?”
“I’m high on Life and Love,” Yuuri mumbled. “And everything else in between.”
Viktor felt his heart hammering against his ribs. All of a sudden, everything made a little bit more sense: the standoff with Michele, the beach house, this. “What did you take?”
Yuuri giggled. “Nothing that will kill me, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m a doctor. I know what I’m doing.” He sighed, wrapped his arms around Viktor’s waist, and pulled him closer. “You’re too kind… you’re always so kind to me.”
Viktor forced himself to take a deep breath, if only to stifle the urge to swear. A glance at the wall clock told him that he had less than half an hour to get to Herald Square, where Mila would be waiting for him. He couldn’t deal with this tonight. He wasn’t even equipped to deal with this on any other night.
But he couldn’t just leave Yuuri here… could he?
“Okay. What do you need? Do you want some water?” When Yuuri shook his head, he offered, “Something to eat, then? I can probably sneak up some dumplings from downstairs if you’ll let me - ”
“I need you.” Yuuri tightened his hold. “Here, with me. Can you… can you stay?”
“Oh.” Viktor returned the embrace. “Of course.” Just for a little while, he ended up negotiating with himself. Fifteen minutes. Twenty, tops. And then he would have to leave. “Come here.”
He guided Yuuri to the bedroom, walking slowly as they navigated the winding path through the furniture in the living room. Once he finally got Yuuri to the bed, Viktor coaxed him to sit down, and helped him take off his shoes.
He had no idea what else to do after this; alcohol had always been his vice of choice, and he didn’t have any firsthand experience with drugs besides painkillers and barbital. Was he supposed to watch him? Was he supposed to give him anything? He didn’t want to have to call someone, but he wasn’t going to be here all night, and he really, truly had no idea what to do.
There was one final question lurking in the back of his mind, as to how Yuuri had gotten a hold of… whatever it was he’d taken. He tried not to think about it, because it was the kind of question that could wait until morning. Still, the answer seemed too self-evident for him to ignore. Downstairs, the party was probably still going on; there could have been any number of Triad operatives still down there, and since the Silk Umbrella had remained closed today, then maybe tonight was an opportunity to make up for lost business.
Was Yuuri a client, then?
Or was he…?
No, of course not. He’d been through this with Mila just this evening. If Yuuri were a member of the Triad, then surely, Viktor wouldn’t be alive right now.
“You’re still thinking. I can tell.” Yuuri shook his head, chuckling softly to himself. “Don’t you ever want to just - that off, for one night?”
“I’m sorry. And I want to, believe me. I just…”
“You’re here for ‘work’, right.” Yuuri pulled away. When he lowered his head, Viktor found that he couldn’t see his eyes. “I remember.”
He reached out. “Yuuri - ”
Yuuri grabbed Viktor’s arm before he could make contact, fisted his other hand around the material of Viktor’s waistcoat, and pulled sharply down. “How much, then?”
Viktor had to brace his hands against the mattress, on both sides of Yuuri’s legs, to keep from toppling onto the bed over him. “W-What?”
“How much is Yakov paying you, to be here? Tell me.” Yuuri had no patience for the buttons on Viktor’s waistcoat, yanking at the material until they popped, and all but ripping the waistcoat off of him. He tossed the garment onto the bench at the foot of the bed. “I’ll double it.”
Viktor struggled to find words. “That’s not - ”
Yuuri pulled even harder. The force of it knocked Viktor off-balance, and he forgot all about finishing that sentence when he suddenly found himself lying flat on his back, disoriented, on the mattress.
“Yuuri, I can’t. You’re not…” ‘In the right state of mind’ festered and died before it got the chance to leave his lips. This wasn’t happening. He strained against Yuuri’s grasp, to no avail - Yuuri, for his smaller, deceptively delicate-looking frame, was a lot stronger than he looked. “Please. I’m tired.”
“That’s fine.” Yuuri toed off his shoes, punted them carelessly across the room, and giggled when they crashed against the closet doors. Gingerly, he climbed up over the side of the bed, and ran a hand lovingly through Viktor’s hair. “That’s fine. You don’t have to do anything… I’ll do all the work.”
“That’s not the point.” Viktor swallowed hard. Visions of their first meeting, the smoke and the haze at Casa Roja, a dimly-lit phone booth, and a gaze that made a thousand promises, danced in his head. “You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Of course I’m not, I’m a dead man walking!”
The way Yuuri’s voice hitched at the end carried with it a raw, wounded desperation that Viktor never would have imagined from him. He stopped struggling in Yuuri’s hold, and went very, very still.
What the hell was that supposed to mean?
“Please,” Yuuri whispered. “I’m begging you. I’ll get on my knees if you want me to.” He let out a soft, pathetic laugh that threatened to rend Viktor’s heart in two. “You need to stop thinking, and I… I need you.”
“Can I…?” Yuuri stopped at that, like he couldn’t dare to finish his request in words. “Please?”
Viktor understood him all the same. And if this was what Yuuri wanted…
It wasn’t as though he wouldn’t benefit from it either, right? That was the thought he clung to when he gave his answer, though the word still tasted somewhat wrong on his tongue. “Okay.”
Yuuri’s lips tasted so much better, though. Viktor let his eyes slip shut, tried to savor the warmth and the peace of mind, so precious and rare, from having Yuuri so close to him. If Yuuri is here, then Yuuri’s not out there… which means that he’s safe. For that, alone, Viktor would have gladly paid any price.
…But why was he thinking of it this way?
“My God.” Yuuri heaved a deep sigh after pulling away, and traced the line of Viktor’s jaw with his thumb. “Sometimes I can’t believe how pretty you are.”
Viktor stared up at him without saying anything.
“What is it?” When Viktor remained silent, Yuuri brought his hand up to his lips, and planted a light kiss against his wrist. “Tell me.”
“Your eyes.” Viktor hesitated. “The pupils, they…”
Yuuri blinked at him. He had to do it a few more times, before something that looked like understanding finally dawned on him. “Oh.” He let go of Viktor’s hand and laughed. “You really, really can’t turn it off, can you? You’re still thinking too much.”
Viktor didn’t apologize for it this time. “I’m worried about you.”
Yuuri pushed him back down onto the bed, derailing Viktor’s train of thought before he could even string together a response. Holding Viktor down with one hand on his shoulder, he used the other to tug on the knot of his own necktie, fumbling with it for a bit before he could pull the whole thing loose.
“What are you - ?”
His answer came when Yuuri leaned in closer, and gently wrapped the silk garment around his eyes. Viktor stiffened, failed to stifle a gasp of surprise, and began to squirm.
“Shhhh.” Yuuri’s breath broke an inch from the skin of his ear, and Viktor struggled to hold onto it as he was engulfed in darkness. “I promised I’d help you, didn’t I? You can trust me.”
No. No, he… he wasn’t sure about this. Not anymore. “Yuuri - ”
“I want to make you feel good.”
He felt a kiss being pressed against the shell of his ear… another on his cheek… and then on his throat, as Yuuri tangled his fingers in a fistful of hair, and pulled Viktor’s head back. His other hand made quick work of the buttons on Viktor’s trousers, and as soon as he’d conquered them, those same kisses traveled down, to Viktor’s breastbone, and lower. His lips never lingered in one spot for more than a second.
“Let me make you feel good…”
It should have been so easy to just give in, to let himself be lost and ride out the pleasure when the sweet, feverish heat of Yuuri’s mouth engulfed him. And he did, bit by bit, but it was hard to ignore the thoughts swimming in his head - of the Triad, of Don Crispino, of threats and promises delivered through proxy by guns and roses. Of Yuuri, and how this wasn’t ideal because Yuuri was the furthest thing from sober right now, but he seemed to be secure in the fact that he wanted this, and so who was Viktor to deny him? He had to untangle all of those thoughts from his mind, to anchor himself on Yuuri’s lips and the swirl of his tongue, and on Yuuri’s hands holding his hips down as he let them all go. Let himself go.
Yuuri hummed around him, encouraging him, teasing him, one or the other, Viktor couldn’t tell. He reached out and tried to grab hold of something, but all he could manage was to bury his fingers in Yuuri’s hair. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected.
But he needed to be somewhere else tonight… right? Viktor tried to remember, but it was so hard to think. It felt so good, and he was so tired, and where was he supposed to be…?
At some point, Yuuri lifted his head. Viktor didn’t know for sure how long it had been, and he might not have even realized it if he hadn’t felt the shock of cooler air, and realized he was thrusting up at nothing.
Had he - ?
Fuck. He couldn’t even tell.
How could he seriously not know? What the hell was wrong with him tonight?
“Come here.” Yuuri took him by the hand, and slowly pulled him up off the bed. As soon as Viktor found his footing, he snaked his other arm around Viktor’s waist, and rested that hand on his hip. “I’ve got you. Come on.”
Yuuri steered him… somewhere, Viktor wasn’t too sure. He couldn’t hope to remember the layout of the bedroom anymore, and the fact that he’d spent hours and hours over the past few weeks poring over pictures and floor plans of this very same room made this all the more tragic. Were they going to the closet? The bathroom? He wished he could just take this damn blindfold off.
Then he felt himself pressed up against glass, hard, freezing. He gasped. “Yuuri, what are you doing?”
Yuuri nibbled on the shell of his ear. “Showing this city that you’re mine,” he whispered, “and that they can’t take you away from me.”
All of a sudden, he no longer needed to remember the layout of this suite, or to at least get his bearings enough to have a rough idea of where he was. The feeling of cold glass against his skin, oppressively cold, told him more than enough. He could already picture the lights from the surrounding buildings, the haze of midnight draping Fifth Avenue. Was he just imagining, or actually hearing the low din of traffic from the streets, so far down below?
It didn’t really make a difference. Everyone could see them either way. Everyone.
“Is this okay?” Yuuri mumbled into the crook of his neck. “Viktor, are you okay with this?”
No. It echoed in the back of his head, soft and feeble but there nonetheless. This was - this was insane.
“Viktor? Hey… I’ll stop if you want me to. Just tell me.”
This time, the words sat on the tip of his tongue, ready to fly out. Chambers Street. Two words, and he could put this to an end.
But those words wouldn’t erase the way Yuuri clung desperately to his hips, or the fact that Viktor knew those pupils in his eyes were still dilated, even though he couldn’t see them right now. Dead man walking - that was what Yuuri had called himself, right? He’d said it twice. Viktor had no idea what that was all about. He didn’t know why Yuuri chosen to take whatever his drug of choice was, and he didn’t even know what this was supposed to mean. He couldn’t tell if they all had anything to do with one another. And he didn’t even know where to begin trying to figure it all out.
He couldn’t do that tonight. He was far, far too tired for that.
But if he left, right now… what would that mean for Yuuri? Where would he go, and what would he do? Viktor had no way of knowing that, either.
Better the devil you know. “Go on,” he said. “I’m sorry. Keep going.”
Yuuri let out a breath. “Are you sure?”
Stop asking, he wanted to beg. “Yes,” he forced out instead, jerking his hips back, trying to stop shaking. “Take it - whatever you need.”
Yuuri trailed kisses down the back of his neck and murmured something in Japanese, in a tone that Viktor couldn’t decode. He heard the snap of a metal cap, and jerked back when he felt something warm and slick being applied between his thighs. Yuuri coaxed him back down, whispering words of comfort into his ear - that he would take care of him, that he was so beautiful, that everything would be alright. That they could stop anytime.
Viktor clung to each of those words, and to the warmth of Yuuri’s hands as they explored his skin, a welcome balm against the cold glass. Trapped in darkness, he found that the blindfold really did amplify absolutely everything else. Maybe that had been Yuuri’s intention from the start.
But it didn’t stop him from thinking again. Not even when Yuuri grasped both of his hips, buried his face in the crook of his neck, and slowly slid himself between Viktor’s thighs from behind.
Yuuri fucked him like this, thrusting between his legs with a low, long moan that he buried into Viktor’s shoulder. The sheer guttural sound of it, and the way it shook him down to his bones, sent a jolt that made him feel weak in his knees. He didn’t really know how to feel about this - was he supposed to be relieved that Yuuri wasn’t too far gone, because he still had the presence of mind to remember their arrangement? Or was he supposed to be disturbed at how this seemed like a loophole being exploited, somehow?
Now even he knew that he was probably overthinking.
Each thrust pushed him further up against the window, and he heard the clink of the cufflinks against the glass. He couldn’t help but wonder, now, exposed to all of Midtown, if Yuuri had always meant to ‘claim’ him in more ways than one. He wondered if that was why Yuuri had been so upset at Viktor’s display with the Don earlier that night, as fake as it was, and walked away from him only to turn around and buy him a house. He supposed at least some of those actions could have been blamed on Yuuri being under the influence of something.
But he’d probably been sober when he’d chosen to lend Viktor those cufflinks, right? He’d clearly been sober when he’d written that letter.
What was he supposed to think of that? He didn’t know.
Or he didn’t want to know - was there even a difference?
It didn’t matter, he told himself, again and again. Yuuri needed him, and Yuuri had begged him to stay. So he’d stayed. And here they were now. Nothing else really mattered.
Yuuri kept at it until he came with a shout, spilling all over Viktor’s backside and all across the backs of his thighs. Viktor shivered, and pressed his forehead against the glass. He struggled to catch his breath.
Behind him, vaguely, he could hear Yuuri doing the same. Maybe this was enough… maybe this had calmed Yuuri down for the night, and Viktor could take him to bed and finally make sure that he was set, and safe, until morning.
But then Yuuri started moving again, and the sound of his thighs slapping against the back of Viktor’s destroyed whatever illusion he’d been entertaining. This wasn’t over. Not yet. Yuuri wasn’t done. Yuuri needed more.
This was fine. Viktor was fine.
Yuuri’s hands found Viktor’s, braced against the window. He laced their fingers together, and pulled Viktor’s hands apart so that his entire chest, and the side of his face, ended up pressed against the glass. Viktor sucked in his breath; it was so fucking cold. Yuuri moaned, quickened his pace. His teeth found the side of Viktor’s neck, and raked against the tender skin there.
Viktor could handle this. He could.
“Mine,” Yuuri whispered into the side of his neck.
Viktor tried, with all of his might, not to make a sound. But he’d had enough, and he couldn’t go on, and he was so fucking tired. What should have been a breath, taken to steady himself, ended up being ripped out of him, and turned into a sob.
“Viktor?” Yuuri slowed down. His hands tensed. “Are you still with me?”
He wanted to shake his head, but he couldn’t seem to move it. He was frozen, against the glass and in Yuuri’s grasp, and he had to be here, he’d agreed to be here, he needed to be here but at the same time, he wanted to run. He wanted to run, he wanted to break free, he wanted to jump out this fucking window and it wouldn’t even matter.
He wanted out.
He couldn’t, though. He couldn’t move. Another sob escaped his throat, this one louder, more broken. Tired. He was shaking so hard.
“Hey - ” Yuuri stopped completely, and cupped Viktor’s chin in his hand. “Viktor, what’s wrong?”
“N-nothing.” His teeth chattered. Pathetic. “Don’t - I’m sorry, I just - you - you don’t have to stop - ”
“No, you’re upset.” Yuuri pulled him back, away from the window. Fucking finally. “What is it? Am I hurting you?” Viktor felt his hand move up to the blindfold, the pads of his fingers gliding over the silk. “You’re crying - ”
“It’s fine!!” Yes, yes, he was crying. He hadn’t realized it, and he didn’t know how long it had been going on. But he felt it now. “I’m fine, just - just take it. Take… whatever you need.”
Because that was what this had been all about, right? Yuuri needed him, whatever that meant, and Viktor… he’d tried his best. He’d given himself up so that Yuuri would be happy, because he wanted Yuuri to be happy, because Yuuri deserved that and he didn’t, and this was fine. He’d slipped up; he would get over it. And he’d given himself to Yuuri to keep him here, because Yuuri was high on something and God knew what he would do if left to his own devices tonight.
He’d done everything right. This had been the only possible choice for him.
So why couldn’t he stop crying?
Why did he feel like he was dying?
“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry, oh God…” Yuuri’s voice broke, and he clung to Viktor desperately from behind. “Viktor, why didn’t you - why didn’t you say anything?”
Because you needed me, he didn’t have the strength to say.
Because Yuuri had seen him with the Don and probably figured it all out, and if in return he felt the need to show to the world that Viktor was his, then that was… fair, he supposed.
Because he’d called himself a dead man walking, and Viktor couldn’t even begin to understand why, but if whatever had happened here helped to calm him down, then it was worth it. Viktor would have done it all again.
“Here, come on… I’ve got you…”
Yuuri hooked one of Viktor’s arms over his shoulders and guided him away from the window. It was slow-going, because Viktor was shaking too much, and his knees gave up on him halfway.
Eventually - a minute later, an hour later… or a whole week later, who even fucking knew anymore? - Yuuri managed to lay him gently down onto the bed. His hands dug into the knot of the tie behind Viktor’s head as he started to take off the makeshift blindfold. “I’m sorry, let me - ”
Viktor reached out, desperate, and still blind. Somehow, he managed to find Yuuri’s wrist. “N-No.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to see Yuuri’s face right now. And he sure as hell didn’t want Yuuri to see him. “Not yet. Please.”
“Oh - of course. Okay.” Yuuri pulled his hand away. “That’s okay.”
Okay. Okay. The more Yuuri used the word, and the more he kept hearing it, the less it seemed to make any sense in his mind. Okay. What did that even mean, tonight? What had it ever meant?
“Viktor…” Yuuri’s voice was shaking now, too. It was either that, or Viktor’s hearing was going haywire. He had no evidence that it wasn’t the latter. “I… I was selfish, and stupid. I should have noticed earlier, that you were…”
That he was… what? Crying? That was forgivable. Viktor hadn’t even noticed it until Yuuri had pointed it out.
And besides, Viktor was sure that there were things he should have noticed tonight, and probably didn’t. Not just with Yuuri, but with everyone… everything. Maybe now would be a good time to obsess over them, he thought - anything to take his mind away from this.
What was it Yuuko had said? Something about forcing the mind to… focus on other things…
So he let let the wave of thoughts he’d dammed up at Yuuri’s request wash over him again, if only so that he could numb himself to everything else. The auction… the Crispinos… he was forgetting something. Potstickers. A portrait of Dr. Leroy fancying himself a king.
The key to a beach house; a long-stemmed rose.
Chamomile and hibiscus. Right. Who was ‘Guang Hong’?
No, he was missing something… what was it? The rose, his brain insisted. There was something there.
Viktor rolled over, to his side, and curled into himself. He was still shaking. He was still crying. Which one would stop first? Yet another mystery. There were far too many mysteries.
“Is there anything I can do at all?” Yuuri’s voice sounded faint, like it was coming from far away. “What do you need?”
What are you yearning for?
That - that hadn’t been the exact question. That hadn’t even been from this evening. But he still knew the rest of it, or the gist of the rest of it, somehow: a break in your case, a cigarette, or something else?
Truth be told - honest-to-God, naked, truth be told - all he’d wanted tonight was to be with Yuuri. And not even in that way; looking back, if he could have had this evening redone and tailored to his own, stupid, undeserved fantasies, he would have just spent it in Yuuri’s arms, under these blankets, warm and safe and silent and…
“...It wasn’t a Triad hit.”
His own state of mind wasn’t too far off from the confusion he could hear in Yuuri’s voice. He didn’t know - he’d lost track of his own train of thought halfway, and so he had no idea if this statement even held any water. And if it did, then revealing it like this - to Yuuri, a stranger to this investigation - was utterly irresponsible. It was unthinkable in its stupidity.
Tonight was not a night for good choices.
“The murder, it - it looked like a Triad hit, to frame the Mafia. But it wasn’t.” Because he’d read Minako before, twice in the past, and that was enough for him to be confident in reading her again. And when Sara had walked away from her… delivering a promise of revenge, my family to yours … Minako had stood there, silent, and every inch on her face had told Viktor plainly that she’d had no idea what Sara was talking about. “I think it was personal.”
“Viktor… what are you even saying?”
“Please.” He grabbed onto Yuuri’s sleeve. “‘It wasn’t a Triad hit’. You… you have to remember, and then you have to tell me in the morning. Because I’m going to forget.” Because he was tired, and he was already slipping, and he couldn’t hold onto this thought much longer. He couldn’t afford to forget. “Will you do that for me?”
“O-Okay,” Yuuri stammered. There was that blasted word again. “Okay. If it will help - ”
“Promise me?” Viktor tightened his grip. “Don’t let me forget.”
“I won’t.” Gently, Yuuri pried his fingers off of his sleeve, one by one. “But for now, you need to rest…”
Viktor didn’t fight it anymore, slumping against the mattress, not bothering to move when he felt it dip under Yuuri’s weight. Even when he registered Yuuri beside him all of a sudden, and all of those earlier feelings he’d successfully distracted himself from entertaining came flooding back because of it, he didn’t even turn away. He was too tired for that.
He was also still crying, somehow. Maybe he was too tired to stop that, too.
Gingerly, Yuuri reached out, and pulled him close. He wrapped his arms around Viktor’s shoulders and rested his head against his chest. “Is… is this okay?”
He didn’t know. He really didn’t.
He was just… so… tired.
Viktor didn't know how long he stayed there, at once comforted and trapped in Yuuri's arms, waiting for the tears to stop and the crushing vise around his chest to either follow through and end him for good, or lift and leave him alone. Somehow it wound up being the latter, the pain abating bit by bit until before he knew it, he was numb all over.
It was hard to tell what was real and what wasn't, after that. That was the thing about tiring yourself to the bone, forgetting that you were a sack of flesh and blood, and that the impulses your mind fired off would degrade the closer you got to the fracture point. And he was - so, so close to that point.
So if he thought he could hear the roar of the waves in the distance, if he thought he caught a whiff of machine oil and ethanol, or felt the blindfold finally slipping from his face, well, it was either real or it wasn't. If the kiss of a frigid winter breeze right at the doorstep of Casa Roja matched something smooth, but shaky, caressing the side of his face - that, too, was either real or not.
And if he felt a weight lifting, then returning, and settling somewhere else on the mattress beside him, tasted bitter leaves and the salt of the ocean on his lips while recalling mountains and snakes and everything in between, he would never know for sure. If the echo of a slow, faraway clock matched a muffled weeping he had to strain to hear, then... maybe it wasn't real after all.
Maybe none of it was.