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But Monsters Are Always Hungry, Darling

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December 24, 1928

 

It started just like the snowfall: a handful of snowflakes, tiny ones, falling from the sky at first, until you blinked once and suddenly you were knee-deep in it, watching it rise. Years from now, I’ll think about this day and try to remember what I was doing before it all went to hell, and what I might have done differently to stop it.

 

I wasn’t meant to come into work today, but I did. I knew the office was going to be a ghost town with the coming holiday, but that never meant much to me, and I had things to do. There were always things to do. In hindsight, I should have been more prepared for it than I was. I’ve been here long enough to know that this city’s a breeding ground for crisis after crisis, and I should have known better than to think that any illusion of equilibrium could ever be more than that. An illusion.

 

I got careless, though. Things were quiet for once, and the turn of the year was promising a fresh start. For just a moment, I fooled myself into thinking that everything was alright.

 

And then the phone rang, and it was the beginning of the end.

 

  

 

chapter 1 header

 



It was the same story the world over, and that story never changed: it’s always the forbidden fruit that tastes the sweetest.

 

‘Sweet’ wasn’t the word Viktor would choose to describe the dregs of gin that he swirled in the bottom of what should have been a coffee mug, but words burned and died at the back of his tongue with every swallow anyway, so what was the point? He couldn’t remember if this was from the unmarked bottle Mila had smuggled into the office from a ‘friend of a friend of her uncle’s’ back in Germany, or left over from the batch Christophe had distilled in his bathtub for Halloween. But good alcohol had a way of making him forget to care about its origins. It made him forget to care about many things.

 

So when the phone began to ring at just past seven on his wristwatch, it was hard to care about that too. Makkachin, his poodle and the only good thing this life ever had to offer him, lifted her head up from where she’d been resting it on his feet, blinking sleepily at him. I know, he tried to convey as he ruffled her ears with his free hand. Maybe they’ll go away.

 

They didn’t, and the ringing continued.

 

Sighing, Viktor downed the rest of his gin and pried himself away from the table. His apartment was a glorified shoebox on Delancey Street overlooking a row of dumpsters down below, and it took all of five and a half strides to get to the phone. He dragged his feet the whole way, because there was only one person in this city who knew his number - it was the same person who’d insisted on paying extra for a private line anyway, because leaving your work at the office was a luxury that you signed away from the moment you started out in this industry.

 

“I thought I had the day off,” he said once he finally picked up the phone.

 

“Good morning, I’m doing well, thank you.” Any derision in his employer’s response was lost in how the man always spoke as though he were dragging his words through gravel. “Have you been drinking?”

 

“No,” Viktor lied. His eyes were smarting, and he remembered now that that ‘hair of the dog’ had been the last of his liquor, and that his apartment was now completely dry. Damn it. “Please tell me this call isn’t about paperwork.”

 

“It’s not. Have you heard?”

 

Makkachin nosed at his hand. Viktor obliged her and let her lick the salt from his fingers. “I feel as though I’m about to.”

 

His boss had always been a man of measured sentences, and Viktor understood the paranoia that came with conducting shop talk over the phone, private line or not. But there was only so much information you could get from not so many words, which was how Viktor learned only that there was a murder last night - when wasn’t there a murder in this city, that was the better question - and for some reason, the Feltsman Detective Agency had officially been invited to consult.

 

“Sounds like a mess,” he said at the end of it. “Why don’t you give it to Mila? She’s been hungry for a case since her last one went cold. Tell her it’s my Christmas gift to her.”

 

“Trust me when I say that I considered that option. It would have been preferable, considering your… circumstances.”

 

‘Circumstances’? Was that the term they were using now? Funny how just a week ago, it was ‘accident’ that was being thrown around, and a week before that, it was a far uglier word altogether. Maybe time just diluted everything in the end. Oh, but that wasn’t really true, was it? God, he wished it was.

 

“But I’m afraid neither of us has a choice. They requested you by name.”

 

“Who did? The police?”

 

He got a grunt that sounded vaguely like assent. “They said it looked like something that would benefit from your expertise.”

 

What expertise? “Why?” he asked instead.

 

The voice on the other end of the line spoke three words by way of reply. Three simple words, and all of a sudden, he was two years younger, standing in the middle of an opulent living room whose walls threatened to swallow him whole. And he was ‘making amends’ with a man who was more legend and whisper than flesh, who could have snuffed out Viktor’s life without so much as looking up from his morning newspaper. God fucking damn it. “How on earth can they be sure?”

 

“They can’t, of course. But they were insistent that you go visit the crime scene, and I promised I’d at least try to make that happen.”

 

“Uh-huh.” Viktor rubbed at eyes. He was already feeling the headache, which had greeted him from the moment he woke up and he’d tried in vain to chase away with a little more gin, start to come back with a vengeance. “Right.”

 

“That could be the end of it, for all we know.” Through the lull in their conversation, Viktor thought he could pick up on faint strains of Christmas music from the radio in the background. Emil must have already come into the office. “Listen, I hate this just as much as you do. If you could just drop by… confirm their suspicions, call it, and bill them for half a day. You could be home before the snow hits. Well before Christmas.”

 

When did that ever matter? Viktor bit back the retort that was already sitting on the tip of his tongue, and tried to rationalize it somehow. A few hours out of the apartment wouldn’t kill him. Besides, hadn’t he been against this stupid forced vacation, which was starting to feel more like a suspension every time he thought about it, from the very start? Maybe that was something. “I’ll be up in a bit.”  

 

“And Vitya?”

 

That right there was another loaded word. He could count on one hand the number of people who’d ever used that nickname with him, and on one finger the number of people who still did. As with all words, it was used sparingly, and Viktor found that he could never see what was coming on the other side of it. Sometimes it was warmth, which came in terribly short supply nowadays. Sometimes it was anger, or frustration, an entreaty born out of something desperate, or an attempt to sweeten a sucker punch a second before it came. Sometimes, it was this: Don’t die. For the love of God, please don’t die. “Mmmm?”

 

“Sober up a bit before you go.”

 

 


 

 

This was what he knew: the crime scene he was looking for was enclosed somewhere within the walls of the Waldorf-Astoria, a pair of twin hotels built side-by-side on Fifth Avenue by relatives who, rumor had it, hated each other’s guts. This meant not only that a murder was committed in what was supposed to be a sanctuary for the rich and famous, but also that the murderer somehow got in, did the deed, and got out without being caught when all of it happened smack in the middle of Midtown. Viktor hoped the cops had already started work on figuring that out, because he had no idea where to begin.

 

He was halfway through the courtyard when a familiar, annoyed voice cut through the din of about a couple dozen cops, hotel employees, and the few guests that hadn’t joined the exodus of check-outs in the morning. “You’re fucking late, old man.”

 

“Hello Yura, you seem to be in a better mood than usual today.” He held out the crumpled paper bag which still held about a quarter of the food truck breakfast he’d been working through on the walk over. “Pretzel?”

 

Yuri made a face.

 

“More for me, then. Where’s Yakov?”

 

“Back at the office. He said the scene was going to be crowded enough as it is, we shouldn’t add to the problem.”

 

Viktor glanced at the pockets of crowds behind them. Well, he wasn’t wrong. “But he sent you. Was it to shadow me, or to make sure I’d show?”

 

“Don’t see why it can’t be both. I agreed because Emil wouldn’t stop singing, fuck all of that.”

 

Viktor laughed. Yuri mumbled something else, but he picked the absolute worst time when Viktor was taking a bite, and all he heard was the rustle of paper near his face. “What?”

 

Yuri glowered, obviously not enthused at having to repeat himself. “I said, how are you holding up?”

 

Viktor fixed him with a sickeningly sweet smile. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

 

At that moment, he spotted a familiar face in policeman’s blue walking towards them. He immediately turned to greet him, grateful for the sudden distraction.

 

“Hello, Otabek - pardon me, Sergeant.” He noted the new insignia on the man’s uniform with delight. Ranks like these came at a premium of one to two grand apiece, but if there was one person in the New York Police Department who would have actually earned his rank, it would’ve been Otabek Altin. “Congratulations.”

 

“Thank you.” He nodded, and Viktor thought he almost saw a bit of a smile on that face. What a change. “How much do you know?”

 

“Not nearly enough,” Viktor admitted. “Who found the body?”

 

“Night shift. There were reports of gunshots heard from a high floor at around five in the morning. The hotel was evacuated right away, employees took a headcount on the ground and came up one short. That’s when they called the station.”

 

“Did anybody see the shooter?” Yuri asked. “Or shooters?”

 

“It was chaos all the way down, apparently.”

 

He snorted. “I can imagine.”

 

There were a few good pieces of information to pick out of that exchange, yet Viktor’s takeaway was: “They put you on night shift?”

 

“I’m on the prohibition squad.” Otabek hesitated. “Officially.”

 

“Ah.” Viktor considered saying something about his lifestyle being ‘dry’, ‘officially’ as well. “It’s a bit of a jump from prohibition to homicide though, isn’t it?”

 

“There’s a pretty fertile middle ground shared by the two.” Otabek looked at him curiously. “I thought Mr. Feltsman told you.”

 

Right. Right. Viktor scarfed down the rest of his pretzel and mumbled, “I want to see the body first.”

 

“Of course. This way.”

 

The penthouse suite was the Waldorf-Astoria’s crowning jewel, or at least that was what all of the promotional flyers and pamphlets he’d read had claimed. Nobody would be calling it that anymore, he thought as he stepped into the bedroom and took in the chaos. It looked like a storm had passed through here: chairs were overturned, one of the curtains was ripped halfway off the rod, and exactly none of the pillows remained on the bed, all of them strewn throughout the floor nearby. A couple of them must have been pierced, because Viktor saw clumps of feathers scattered in a handful of places. That was a shame.

 

An unfamiliar man, practically a kid in a police uniform, was crouched on the floor over a broken bottle, collecting the shards with a pair of tweezers. Viktor noted the color of the liquid that had seeped into the carpet and thought, huh, this hotel wasn’t dry. Good to know. He wondered how Otabek felt about that.

 

But all of these observations were just delaying the inevitable, so Viktor finally let his eyes fall onto the body. Poor Josef Karpisek lay dead on the king-sized bed, having lived sixty years and taken in about half that number of bullets which now riddled his corpse. A few other bullets had been buried into the headboard and parts of the wall on either side of the bed. Assuming he didn’t miss any, Viktor counted fifty in all. So fucking inefficient. But it got the job done in the end, so that was something.

 

Though he would go over it later, he didn’t need the detailed write-up Yuri had made on the victim, something Yakov probably forced him to work on at the last minute. Karpisek was a household name. He was a politician, or he had been one anyway, and one of the very few ‘good’ ones at that: he’d been all about ‘cleaning up the city’, from his stump speeches to the ads he took out in the local papers. If only he hadn’t been murdered, he might have given the sitting mayor a run for his money in the coming year’s elections. That was an even bigger shame.

 

“Oh yeah.” Yuri counted out the bullets and scribbled something into his notebook. “That’ll do it for sure.”

 

“Was there any other physical evidence you found besides what we’re seeing right now?” Viktor asked.

 

“There were three separate scraps of fabric on the floor, two here, one near the door.” Otabek pointed out the spots which had been marked with number cards.

 

“Do we know what the guns were?”

 

“So far it all looks to be from the same gun. Something with a .45 ACP cartridge. Witnesses from floors close to the penthouse reported extremely rapid fire.”

 

Otabek was giving him a look, like he was supposed to make some kind of conclusion from that. Well, Viktor knew what he was trying to get at, but he didn’t like it. “Everybody and their mother could get their hands on a submachine gun. Soldiers use them, civilians use them… hell, I could walk down to the police station right now, pick off everyone I know there who’s fired a Tommy Gun, and you wouldn’t have enough men left to cover Battery Park.”

 

“True, but using all fifty rounds in one go, on a single target from point-blank range?” Otabek shook his head. “Not our style. We all know what this looks like. You see it too, don’t you?”

 

The worst part was that he did. The latest victim that Viktor knew of was actually a cop - he’d seen the story on the front page of the New York Daily Mirror that morning, and page six had offered a gruesome photo of the corpse that looked like Swiss cheese. He’d seen these kinds of kills before, heavy-handed messages spelled out in too many bullets that might as well have been a signature:

 

With love and death, and everything in between - La Cosa Nostra.

 

“Then I have a question for you. Why loop us into the investigation at all, if you already know who did it?”

 

Otabek sighed. “The department isn’t… keen…” He glanced over at Yuri, clearly weighing his words carefully, “on directly pursuing this further at the moment. Normally we would, but because of what happened three months ago… it is what it is.”

 

So he’d hit the nail on the head after all. He should have felt better about that than he did. “Very classy, Sergeant.”

 

“The order came from the top.” Otabek scowled. “What, you think I wanted this? I wouldn’t have called you here if I could help it. Especially after what happened to you…”

 

Viktor felt his blood run cold. When he turned face him, Otabek refused to meet his eyes, which confirmed the worst. How the hell did he know? A glare shot at Yuri was only met with a shrug; not him, then. Shit.

 

Who else knew?

 

Did this whole damn city know?!

 

“Sorry. That wasn’t necessary.”

 

“It’s fine.” Viktor gritted his teeth, took a moment, and forced a smile. “I get it. Your hands are tied, and you can’t sweep this under a rug because the victim might have been mayor one day. Fine. I still find it hilarious that you seem to think I’ll magically be able to get you - what, exactly? Proof? A confession?”

 

“You are the best interrogator we’ve got at the Agency,” Yuri offered. “Much as I’m loathe to say it to your face.”

 

“You don’t interrogate the Mafia,” Viktor hissed.

 

“Still, we know for a fact that you’ve been able to walk into Crispino Tower uninvited, and walk out with all of your limbs and fingers intact.” Otabek shrugged. “That’s more than we can say for most of the city.”

 

“If you’re going to accuse me of something, just do it already.”

 

“I’m not. Viktor - ” Otabek was about to say something, but he visibly wrestled with it before changing his mind. “We just want you to talk to them. Please? That’s all. And who knows, even just showing up there for their sake… might win you back some people’s favor, you know?”

 

Those words ended up cutting a bit too deep for Viktor to take without flinching. He wanted to say that he didn’t care about any of that, that it had been years since the ground caved out from beneath his feet and that he was fine, he was fine now. None of that ended up making it out of his mouth. “I want to speak to some of the hotel employees.”

 

Otabek directed him to a few of them, giving him names, occupations, rough gists of their statements to the police, and notes on where they were when the shooting began. Very few of them actually had anything to contribute; nobody had been on a floor high enough to hear the shooting firsthand, and although it didn’t take much effort to coax them to talk, they really didn’t have much that was useful to say.

 

Otabek’s notes seemed to indicate as much, so at least they were consistent.

 

They caught the concierge just as he was straightening up his station at the front desk, preparing to leave. “I already told Sergeant Altin everything.”

 

Yuri started, “Do we look like Sergeant Altin to you - ?” but Viktor stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

 

“We’re not with the police, sir.” He placed himself between Yuri and the concierge, offering up a business card with his name and office number on it. “We’re with the Feltsman Agency, they called us in just this morning. We’re doing a bit of catch-up.”

 

The concierge accepted the card, albeit with much grumbling under his breath. He looked about ten seconds away from telling them both to hit the road. Viktor would have to wear him down just a little more before that happened.

 

“I understand your frustrations, sir. Hopefully this will be as quick and painless as possible.” He took out a cigarette, and started patting his pockets with a concerned look, even though he knew precisely which one had a lighter in it. “Say, do you have a light?”

 

Yuri gave him a confused look. The concierge blinked, crouched down to rummage under the counter, and handed him a lighter from the hotel’s Lost and Found box.

 

“Thank you so much.” Viktor offered him a brilliant smile, all teeth and pleasantries, waiting until the man made eye contact before blinking. “You’re a lifesaver.”

 

“… You’re welcome,” he muttered.

 

“So we just need to hear it from you one more time.” Viktor took out a small notepad from his coat pocket, flipping to an empty page halfway through. He then plucked the pen out of Yuri’s hand, pointedly ignoring the glare he got that promised something worse than a fifty-bullet murder. “5:00 was around the time that the shots started, is that right?”

 

“Roundabouts. I didn’t really hear all that much from here. I didn’t know for sure what was happening until the front desk got flooded with calls from inside the hotel.”

 

“That was when you started to evacuate, is that right?” When the man nodded, Viktor pressed, “Why not a lockdown instead?”

 

“By the time we were sure what was going on, half of the guests from the upper floors had already started rushing out anyway. I don’t think we could’ve convinced them to stay unless we had guns on them ourselves.”

 

“Alright. And you were posted here the whole night?”

 

“That’s correct. Ten-thirty to six, been working that shift for five years now.”

 

Viktor checked his watch. The concierge had been here five hours longer than he should’ve been. “Did anyone happen to check-in or check-out, or did any of your guests enter or exit the hotel between the time when your shift started and the evacuation?”

 

The concierge paused, and fixed his eyes onto the bell on the counter, to his right. “No, nobody was in the lobby besides me until the evacuation started.”

 

“Hmmm.” There was a tell if he ever saw one. Scanning the front desk area, Viktor spotted a a decorative keychain marked ‘Sacramento’ with a bunch of keys on the concierge’s desk. He decided to put his theory to the test. “You been to California recently?”

 

“Beg your pardon?” He followed Viktor’s eyes to the keychain, and visibly brightened. “Ah, that was almost a year ago. The missus and I, we wanted to escape the winter for a bit, you know?”

 

“I should think about doing that myself. They’re saying we might have a bad one this year.” Viktor spoke casually, but he kept his eyes focused on the concierge’s face. “Did you drive?”

 

“Oh no, we took the trains.”

 

“Really. You remember the route? And how long did it take - just so I know what to tell my boss. I’ve still got a few vacation days to burn.”

 

“Uhh…” The concierge squinted as he tried to remember. He turned his head, likely without realizing it, to stare at a set of travel brochures stacked to his left. “Let’s see… we were on the Union Pacific line ‘til Ogden, Utah. Then then we switched to the Southern Pacific… it might have taken five days in all? We stopped at a couple of places on the way.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Viktor set his notepad onto the counter and started scribbling on the page: ‘Spoke to concierge at Waldorf-Astoria, 12/24/28, 11 AM’ . “So, to sum up: no-one was in the lobby for the entire duration of your shift, until the evacuation began, that is. You were missing one when you did the headcount of the guests in the courtyard, which was when you called the police. That sound about right?”

 

“Yes, that’s right.”

 

“Perfect, I think we have everything we need.” Yuri’s head whipped up in surprise at that, but Viktor ignored him for now. This was the most important part, he thought as he handed the concierge his notepad. “Could I get your signature here, please? Anywhere on the page will do. It’s just to note that you and I had this conversation - standard practice, nothing to worry about.”

 

The concierge signed with his right hand, which gave Viktor all that he needed to know.

 

“Thank you. You’ve been a great help to our investigation so far.” He took the notepad back, gave him that same brilliant smile again, and shook his hand. “Take it easy, okay?”

 

Yuri kept a wary silence until they were safely out of the hotel, at which point he was practically bursting. Viktor appreciated his restraint. “What the fuck was that back there? You barely asked him anything!”

 

“Mm-hmmm.”

 

“And why are we already heading back? Didn’t you want to interview the other employees too?”

 

“No, there’s no point to that. Not now, anyway.”

 

“How the hell would you know?”

 

“Because we’ve heard enough.” Because certain aspects of human nature, while unquantifiable, were predictable. Case in point: the universal tendency to associate one’s own creation - or fabrication, in certain scenarios - with their dominant hand. And so… “I need to figure out why that concierge was lying to my face.”

 

 


 

 

The Feltsman Detective Agency was located in a converted old townhouse in the Upper West Side, close to where Amsterdam Avenue met Broadway. The main floor had been completely gutted and converted to a receiving area and a couple of private interrogation rooms. A common lounge for the detectives sat at the back of the house near the stairs, which led up to the private offices on the second floor. As luck would have it, when he and Yuri stepped inside, Mila and Emil were both sitting in that lounge, playing cards.

 

“Welcome back!” Mila’s greeting of choice was a hug that threatened to crush your ribs. Viktor saw it as her way of causing just enough of a scandal to make you think about saying something, but then preempting that by taking your breath away. “I thought we weren’t seeing you here until January.”

 

“I thought that too.” He caught Emil’s eye and nodded his way. “Yura tells me you’ve been driving him crazy with Christmas music.”

 

“What can I say? It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Emil grinned, and most definitely did not take a peek at Mila’s cards on the table while she was distracted. “Oh, Yakov wanted to see you as soon as you got in.”

 

Ah. Of course. “You sure he meant me and not Yuri?”

 

“Nope, pretty sure it was you…”

 

Viktor waved a hand in front of his face. “I was kidding. I’ll go see him now.”

 

That might have been a lie, if only because his office was the first in the line at the top of the stairs, and if he spent a few more minutes sitting at his desk, flipping idly through the pages of his notepad than strictly necessary, well that was neither here nor there. Eventually, he convinced himself that this was a conversation that was going to happen whether he liked it or not. So he stood up, bit the bullet, and made his way to Yakov’s office.

 

Yakov had the biggest one, which only made sense. The window behind his desk faced the street, which was a drastic improvement; Viktor’s own window offered him an exciting view of the next house’s side wall. Yakov didn’t look up from the papers on his desk as he walked in, just motioned for him to take a seat. There was another privilege he enjoyed: enough office space to have multiple chairs.

 

“I trust you’ve visited the crime scene?”

 

“I did. Ran into Yuri there.” Viktor sank into the only chair where his view of Yakov wouldn’t be obstructed by cardboard boxes or piles of paperwork. “He’s getting better at fieldwork, isn’t he?”

 

Yakov grunted. After having known the man for over two decades, Viktor thought he would have been able to decipher all of the little wordless noises that he made by now. But occasionally he’d come upon a vague one like this: it was either an agreement, or a dismissal of the topic altogether. “Do you agree with the police’s conclusions?”

 

Dismissal, then. “I think it’s too early to tell,” he said honestly. “I know the method is telling, but it could be a coincidence. Or a copycat.”

 

Yakov nodded. “I understand that the police are hesitant to meet with La Cosa Nostra directly. If such a meeting were to be witnessed - or worse, noted by a member of the press - the optics would not be ideal.”

 

“They don’t want to meet with them,” Viktor forced through a strained smile, “because they’re afraid.”

 

“Be that as it may, opening a dialogue with them seems to be the easiest way to either further this investigation or put it to bed, depending on what that dialogue yields.” Yakov finally put the papers away, and propped his arms against the desk. “It would put the NYPD in our favor. And I’m aware… though I’m thankfully not familiar with the finer details… that this is something you’re able to arrange.”

 

Viktor glared at the paperweight on top of Yakov’s backlog of case files. It was a tiny replica of a church with colorful domes. It was a cathedral in Moscow, Yakov had said, and far more impressive in real life. Viktor didn’t know; he’d never even been across the Atlantic.

 

“I won’t force you to do anything you feel might be dangerous, Vitya.”

 

That nickname again - what was it, twice in one day today? He was getting rather tired of this game. “I’ll go,” he said. “Just not right away, I want to look into a few other angles first. Is that all?”

 

“One more thing.” Yakov opened one of his side drawers and rummaged through it for a while, before retrieving a single business card and handing it to Viktor. “Now, I want you to hear me out before you say no.”

 

Viktor ran the pad of his thumb over the card. The first thing he noticed was an address in Tribeca, and a phone number with a comical number of 8s in it. The name was unfamiliar,  but the letters ‘M.D.’ at the end certainly were not, and… ‘Psychoanalytic Clinic’ ? “No,” he said, quickly and with vehemence.

 

“What did I just say?”

 

“You can’t possibly be serious. No.”

 

The only reason Viktor didn’t get up right then and there was because Yakov would probably just follow him back to his office. “I can assure you that it’s not what you think it is.”

 

“I think it’s a slap in the face. Whatever happened to trusting my judgment?”

 

“Your judgment,” Yakov ground out, “ended with you sneaking yourself out of the hospital a week early, against your doctor’s orders!”

 

“I’m fine!” Viktor finally snapped. “How many times am I going to have to say that before you believe me? And why is it that everyone I run into seems to know what happened? You promised you’d contain it!”

 

That seemed to start a crack in Yakov’s wall of righteous fury. “But… I did,” he said, after a long pause.

 

“Otabek Altin knows.” Every word of that came out like a barb. “Which means I’ve got two days, maybe three, before someone from the press gets their hands on it.”

 

“I’ll look into it. I’ll fix it.”

 

Viktor laughed, because they both knew what Yakov meant by ‘fix’.

 

“I will,” he insisted. “But Viktor… you know that if you’d only listened to me, none of this would be a problem now, right? If you hadn’t been so reckless, there would be nothing to fix.”

 

The last remnants of his laughter left a bitter, bitter taste in Viktor’s mouth. “I never should have picked up the phone this morning,” he murmured.

 

“It’s too late for that now.” Yakov gestured towards the business card. “That clinic, it’s… how do I explain it? It’s nothing like an asylum, if that’s what you’re afraid of. They follow that new European model - similar clinics in Vienna, Berlin, Paris - ”

 

“Moscow?” Viktor guessed.

 

Yakov nodded. “You meet with a professional, one-on-one. The meeting happens in a study, or in an office like this. No admittance. No drugs - not without your consent, at the very least. And you just talk to them, that’s all.”

 

Viktor turned the card over and over in his hand. “That’s all?” he echoed.

 

“That’s all.”

 

“And what if I don’t want to talk to them?”

 

“It was a traumatic experience, Vitya.” Third time’s the charm. “No matter how much you try to pretend otherwise. What happened to you was… harrowing, and the way seem to have chosen to deal with it is cause for concern. I would feel infinitely more at ease if you were at least talking about it to someone.”

 

What was he supposed to say to that? No matter how he explained it, it was clear that Yakov had already made up his mind. Bruises faded, after all, and Viktor barely even thought about what had happened anymore. He was content in assuring himself that one day, sometime in the future, he’d have forgotten about it completely, and on that day he’d just be able to breathe again. Sure, maybe it would take a hell of a lot more time, but it would be on his time.

 

That was what healing was, right?

 

“No promises,” was what he ended up going with. It was enough to at least placate them both for now.

 

He spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in his office, poring over old newspaper clippings, speeches, interview transcripts - everything Yuri had collected and prepared for him as a ‘primer’ of sorts on their victim, Josef Karpisek. Viktor went through each of the documents line by painstaking line, trying to find a loophole or figure out some way to further the investigation without having to engage the Mafia.

 

It looked bleak.

 

The snow that had started at noon turned into a storm by three. Yakov sent everyone home early, so that they could beat the storm. But Emil, Mila, and Yuri all had families to go home to, and that was a luxury that Viktor didn’t have. So he kept on working.

 

At around six, Yakov passed by his open office door, dressed in his coat and hat, finally ready to leave. He lingered at the top of the stairs and peered into Viktor’s office with narrowed eyes. “You’re still here?”

 

“Didn’t want to waste this momentum,” Viktor said.

 

Yakov shook his head. “Go home,” he admonished him. “You can stay and get locked in, but who will feed your dog?”

 

Well. He couldn’t argue with that.

 

As they stood in front of the building, with Yakov locking the main door behind him, a silly, errant idea formed in his mind: one that involved asking Yakov if he wanted to have dinner, or something like that. It was strange, he knew, and awkward; it had been so long, so much had changed, and he was too old to still be entertaining this kind of sentiment. There were a thousand other things as well, he was sure. The idea persisted, despite all that.

 

But he couldn’t find the words, and maybe this was a good thing.

 

 


 



Home was on the fifth floor of a five-storey walk-up in a row of mismatched low-rise apartment buildings on the Lower East Side, where you had to jiggle the key in the lock just so, and your welcome was a shower of happy barks and dog kisses. The next best thing, Viktor had discovered, was Casa Roja, a cozy little speakeasy tucked away in the back of a barber shop on 28th Street. There were thousands of these places in Manhattan alone, he knew - Otabek and his squad didn’t have a prayer of shutting them all down, and at this point Viktor wondered if he was even really trying - but there was something about the lights, the aged pine countertops, and the permanent cloud of smoke that agreed with him enough for it to become a regular haunt of his. That it was on his way home from the agency was just another happy coincidence.

 

“I have to say, I didn’t think I’d be seeing you in here until after the New Year.”  

 

And knowing the owner certainly didn’t hurt, either. Viktor turned at the voice that had greeted him just as he was starting to shrug off his coat, taking in the familiar sight of Casa Roja’s tireless bartender, Christophe. “Is that my cue to leave?”

 

“Nonsense.” He waved off Viktor’s half-hearted attempts to put his coat back on. “It’s always good to see you. The usual?”

 

“What can I say, I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.”

 

Christophe rolled his eyes. “You realize that joke would be a lot less effective if you didn’t look like that, right?”

 

Viktor gave him a wink for his troubles.

 

The night was more or less uneventful for the first hour or two. There was a small stage against the wall on the opposite end of the speakeasy, and a couple of jazz acts came and went. A couple of old fashioneds came and went too, not necessarily with the bands, but enough so that each successive one tasted more and more like forgiveness, plying him with false warmth. If nothing else, it was quieter in here than it was outside, and depending on what he needed, Viktor would often take his place at this bar to either clear his thoughts or focus them. Even against the music, and though the patrons talking amongst themselves, the quiet din was infinitely more agreeable than the chaos of the city outside. That was how it always was, he guessed. Speak softly, or Otabek and his men break in, and all the fun is over forever. Speak softly, love, so no-one hears us but the sky.

 

It must have been close to nine when he walked into the bar.

 

He was the most beautiful stranger Viktor had ever laid eyes on. And maybe somebody was smiling on him from somewhere above, because this stranger chose to slide into the empty stool between Viktor and one other patron who’d been glowering into his drink since the night began.

 

Viktor made it a point not to stare, but it was hard not to; he wasn’t wearing a coat, and the neat silhouette cut by his suit, tailored to an inch of its life, drew Viktor’s eyes to the lines of his body in a way he couldn’t quite explain. He certainly looked far more put-together than the rest of the clientele this place usually attracted, jet-black hair slicked back without a single strand out of place. But up close like this, his features had an almost unbearable softness to them, making Viktor yearn to touch him just to see if he was real. His almond-shaped eyes, which called to mind a rich red Merlot under the bar’s light, held something in them that was steely but wounded, something Viktor couldn’t read.

 

Christophe suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and Viktor set his eyes on his drink again. “Evening, sir. What can I get for you?”

 

“May I please have - ah.” The stranger’s voice was as delicate and refined as the rest of him, and carried vestiges of an accent that Viktor wasn’t quite sure how to place. “Three parts cognac, two parts orange liqueur, and two parts lemon juice, thank you.”

 

“In a cocktail glass with an orange slice for garnish?” When he nodded, Christophe chuckled. “I don’t get many orders for it, but a French-style sidecar is divine. I’ll be right back.”

 

It was hard, focusing all of his attention on his nearly-empty glass, or following the knots in the wood of the countertop so as not to stare. Usually whenever someone sat right next to him in this bar, there was a good chance that it would lead to a conversation. But the stranger kept to himself, sitting rigidly straight with his hands folded in front of him. Allowing himself a small, stolen glance, Viktor caught sight of the timepiece around the man’s wrist, which gave him pause. What was he thinking, wearing something like that in a neighborhood like this?

 

About a minute later, Christophe came back with his drink: something rich, a gradient of orange in a cocktail glass, with the promised orange slice on the rim. The man on the other side of him scoffed after Christophe left, at which the beautiful stranger turned to him and said, “May I help you, sir?”

 

“You’re kidding, right?” He gestured towards the glass as though it held something vulgar. “That looks like a fucking lady’s drink.”

 

“Maybe you’re right.” The stranger hummed, tilting his head thoughtfully. “Is there any reason you’re so fixated on what another man puts into his mouth, that you would disturb a complete stranger in a public place just to discuss it?”

 

The man’s eyes widened in shock, and he sputtered out something unintelligible. Whatever it was that he said, it didn’t even get dignified with a reply, so he eventually threw a fistful of bills onto the counter, cursed, and took his leave.

 

Before that, Viktor was already half-laughing, half-choking into what was left of his drink. Narrowed eyes zeroed in on him, and made his skin prickle. “Something you’d like to share?”

 

“That depends. Are you going to eviscerate me with your tongue like you did to him?”

 

“I could eviscerate you with something else.” A pause, and a deliberate rake of the eyes over his frame, down and up, made his skin do something else. “Or, I could do other things to you with my tongue, if you prefer.”

 

Viktor waited a beat, letting that roll over him to make sure he’d heard it right. “Normally I would ask you to buy me a drink first.” He fingered the rim of his glass. “But I already have one.”

 

“And what great misfortune that is.”

 

Screw it. Viktor chugged back the rest of his drink, and set the now-empty glass onto the counter. The man smiled, a slow curve of the lips that was at once devilish and sweet, and ordered another old fashioned for him.

 

“I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.” Viktor waited until his new drink arrived before swivelling around to face the man completely. “So? Any reason you’re sitting here instead of celebrating Christmas Eve somewhere else? Say, somewhere warmer and quieter?”

 

“Well, let’s just say that I’ve had an extremely terrible day.” He sighed. “And you?”

 

“Me?” Viktor had to think about that. How had his day been? He’d gone to bed last night thinking he wouldn’t have anything to look forward to besides bathtub gin and quality time with his dog until after New Year’s Day. All of a sudden, he’d been dragged into a murder investigation with La Cosa Nostra all but confirmed to have been involved. Otabek knew about his ‘circumstances’, which probably meant that the whole police department knew too, and the cherry on top was that Yakov was explicitly expressing doubts about his sanity. “My day was… actually pretty unremarkable. All things considered.”

 

“Really?” There was that tilt of the head again, coupled with the slightest twitch of the man’s lips. His eyes glittered when they caught the light. “I don’t know whether to envy you or feel sorry for you.”

 

Viktor shrugged. “Or eviscerate me.”

 

“You would like that, I bet.” He polished off the rest of his sidecar, and Viktor told himself that he only watched the bob of his Adam’s apple because it happened to be in the line of sight. When he set the glass back down, he opened his mouth as though to say something, only to close it as though he’d reconsidered. He went through one more cycle of this before standing up, thumbing open the front of his suit jacket with a single flick of his wrist. “I need to make a phone call,” he finally announced. “You wouldn’t mind saving this seat for me, would you?”

 

Before Viktor could answer, he peeled off his jacket, draped it over the seat of his barstool, and walked away without looking back.

 

Viktor didn’t know how long the stranger was gone. Other patrons left the bar, replaced by newer ones, all faceless and interchangeable. But nobody touched the seat next to Viktor, or the fine jacket that, upon closer inspection, looked about as out of place in this neighborhood as the man’s watch had been.

 

What strange wind brought him here, Viktor wondered.

 

The main act of the night eventually showed up. He didn’t need to see her to know; cheers and hoots and wolf whistles followed her as she made her way to the stage. The sequins of her dress flashed as she moved and breathed, such drama… but it was her gloves that caught his eye, satin of a deep, deep red, that under these lights made it look like she’d drenched her arms to the elbows in blood.

 

Viktor finished his drink as she started to sing. It went down easy, and he was really starting to feel quite warm. Usually this was a sign that he’d had enough, and should really start thinking about heading home. But he couldn’t dream of tearing himself away now. Not until that beautiful stranger came back to him.

 

When he did come back, it was with something of a stumble, very nearly colliding with Viktor from behind. He clung to the edge of the countertop and let out a breathless little laugh. “Heyyy you…”

 

“Welcome back.” Viktor took one look at him and chuckled. “Wow. Does Chris store his good liquor in the phone booths? Because I would really love some of whatever you’ve just had.”

 

The stranger giggled, though Viktor doubted it had anything to do with his joke. He latched onto Viktor’s arm and began to tug. “Come on, I want to show you something.”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

The tugging turned harder, more insistent. “Come on!”

 

He reached into his pockets and withdrew a few bills - more than enough to pay for his and Viktor’s drinks twice over - and deposited them onto the counter before pulling again. Viktor got up after him, barely remembering to grab his coat and the man’s discarded suit jacket. Then he let himself be dragged through the throng, unsure of where exactly they were going, or what he was supposed to expect.

 

Eventually, as they passed the stage and the coat check counter, he realized that they were headed towards the bank of phone booths by the door. Was there someone on the phone who wanted to speak to him? But why? And how, when they’d never even exchanged names?

 

Viktor realized that that train of thought had no merit when the stranger opened the door to one of the booths, and he found the receiver resting on top of the phone. He was also being shoved inside, and he scarcely had time to turn around before warm, warm lips were pressed against his own. In his surprise he let out a gasp, which the man took advantage of by sliding his tongue between Viktor’s parted lips, taking that as an open invitation.

 

He… certainly didn’t know what to make of this. He felt himself kissing back before he could really help it, responding more out of instinct than any sane, conscious choice. What was he even supposed to do? It was so hard to decide, so hard to care when he tasted cognac and oranges, and something else that was indescribable, yet far more intoxicating.

 

Busy fingers found the buttons on his suit jacket, wandered upwards, and pulled until the garment slipped from his shoulders. Teeth raked against his bottom lip, either a question or a demand - more likely the latter, Viktor thought, when his arms had scarcely cleared the jacket before his waistcoat met with the same treatment, and was discarded… somewhere. Somewhere, Viktor didn’t know, because those same hands were tugging on his tie, teasing open the buttons at the top of his shirt, and wait. No. Wait.

 

“Wow. Okay.” It took all of Viktor’s strength to break the kiss, at which the man simply sought greener pastures for his lips. “Ah, so this is all certainly… very enjoyable - ” He bit back a groan when the man’s teeth found the shell of his ear. “But - but you also seem very, very drunk.”

 

The beautiful stranger’s mouth was occupied, but he made a sound that Viktor felt more than heard. It sounded like: ‘so what?’

 

“Well, I just… I can’t be sure if this is something that you really want, and how much of it is just coming from the alcohol.”

 

The man finally lifted his head, pulling back to assess Viktor from arm’s length. There was barely any light in the phone booth at all, only the feeble glow from the bar filtered through the glass of the door. Viktor couldn’t make out the man’s expression.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Oh, I’m just waiting for the moment where you tell me, explicitly, that you don’t like this.”

 

Viktor swallowed, with a bit of difficulty. “I can’t do that.”

 

“So you do like this.”

 

“That’s not - ” Viktor wanted to shake him if it would help to get his point across. And… when had his hands moved to the man’s waist? Because that was where they were resting, and he didn’t feel a pressing urge to remove them just yet. “Listen, if you weren’t so completely, obviously inebriated we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. For one reason or another.” He flashed a soft, cloying smile that had often worked for similar situations in the past. “Come find me again when you’re sober, and I’d be more than happy to continue then, if you still are.”

 

But the man dropped his gaze, staring at Viktor’s shoes as he shook his head. “Tomorrow’s… too much of a gamble.” His voice quavered for a moment, as though he were already in mourning. “What if one of us doesn’t make it?”

 

“… What?”

 

When the man’s eyes met Viktor’s again, they were flashing. He ran his palms up Viktor’s chest, slowly, threading his thumbs through the elastic of Viktor’s suspenders and coaxing them lazily off of his shoulders. Viktor started to protest, but the man pushed him more insistently against the wall, wedged a knee between his legs and… oh. Oh.

 

“What if the world burns tonight?” Those sinful lips hovered dangerously close to Viktor’s, drinking in the muted, desperate noises Viktor tried in vain to suppress. “What if the cops finally find this place and make it rain bullets on us all? Or what if I slip on the ice and crack my head on the sidewalk, and forget all about you? That would be a tragedy, wouldn’t it?”

 

Viktor barely heard half of it. “It… would.”

 

“Then we should celebrate while we have reason to. While we can.”

 

And then Viktor was being kissed again, and any protest he could have come up with was swallowed away. Not that he really had one, words were just not possible right now, and thoughts were only barely so. Although there was a moment of clarity when Viktor felt buttons coming undone, and his tie loosened enough to pull his shirt open at the neck, that clarity came with a momentary panic: his throat was exposed, and he opened his eyes, trying to decode the man’s expression.

 

Surely he could see, right? Was there enough light in here? Could he tell? Did he even know what he was looking at?

 

But he only blinked a few times, brought his hands up to cup the sides of Viktor’s face, and kissed him again.

 

 

  

phone booth kiss

 

 

 

There was something gentler in the way the stranger kissed him now, not hesitant but fervent, like he’d suddenly realized that Viktor was made of glass. He felt a brief flash of bitterness at that thought, but it was chased away by a far more urgent need. Viktor finally allowed his hands to roam, grazing his knuckles against the impossibly soft material of the man’s waistcoat, threading his fingers through that perfectly-arranged hair. He nipped at the man’s bottom lip, relishing the low moan he got as a reward.

 

Time must have continued to pass, but if it did it only did so outside of the phone booth, inconsequential. Viktor was aware of that, just as he was aware that they were not the only people in this speakeasy, and that sooner or later, someone was going to see them. Hell, someone could very well already have seen them. Yet he didn’t care, about that or about anything. Because this beautiful stranger had slipped a hand down his pants and wrapped a hand around his cock, and he was driving Viktor mad.

 

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Viktor had his face buried into the crook of the man’s neck, smothering the shameful noises being ripped out of throat with every stroke. He clung to that infuriatingly fancy waistcoat like his life depended on it. “Just like that,” he murmured into Viktor’s hair, encouraging him. “You’re stunning. God.

 

Viktor didn’t trust himself to form words.

 

He’d been moving his hips, which he didn’t realize until he was already close. And he didn’t realize that until he heard the abrupt banging on the phone booth door.

 

The man stopped, and withdrew his hands in the blink of an eye, leaving Viktor… frustrated. Confused. He thought he heard Christophe’s voice: something about him hating to ‘break up the party’, but a few paying customers had started kicking up a fuss, and so would they mind taking this elsewhere?

 

Okay. He really should have seen that coming.

 

“There’s that fancy hotel up on 34th and 5th,” Christophe was saying. “That’s only a couple of blocks from here… they’re not cheap, but they ask no questions. And you look like you could afford it, no problem.”

 

“I’m familiar with it.” The man had already shrugged on his suit jacket, and was in the process of straightening his tie. “Apologies for any inconvenience we caused, sir. It won’t happen again.”

 

Viktor didn’t see the face or number on the bill that the man withdrew from his pocket and pressed into the bartender’s hand. But it was enough for Christophe’s eyes to go wide.

 

Thankfully, by the time Christophe turned to face him, Viktor had just finished buttoning up his pants. He froze. “Ah… um - ”

 

“Why are you still here?” Christophe hissed. “Are you crazy? Go after him!”

 

Viktor nodded quickly, put his waistcoat back on, and grabbed the rest of his clothes before dashing to the exit.

 

It was a monumental struggle to get dressed, at least to some half-decent state as he weaved between tables and fellow patrons in various states of drunkenness. He’d just pulled his coat on by the time he found the exit. A cold breeze immediately punished him for his hubris, and he buttoned his coat up all the way.

 

The most beautiful stranger he’d ever laid eyes on - and wasn’t it crazy, that he still didn’t know this man’s name? - was leaning against a street lamp, holding a lit cigarette in his hand.

 

 

  

the most beautiful stranger under a street lamp

 

 

 

It was only now that Christophe’s exact words about that hotel sank in, and Viktor realized that he was probably talking about the Waldorf Astoria - the very same hotel where Josef Karpisek had been murdered. Maybe it really was a small world, after all. “Well? Where to now?”

 

He would have loved to kiss away that smirk he got in response. “Look who’s so keen all of a sudden.”

 

Right, but Viktor hadn’t been the one who’d started it, dragged them both into that phone booth and started something so reckless that even Christophe was scandalized - and knowing Christophe, that was a high bar to clear. But he had a point. “Maybe we’re going about this all wrong. Let’s start again.” He walked over to the streetlamp, crunching snow beneath his shoes with every step. He held out a hand. “I’m Viktor, by the way. And you are?”

 

The stranger took a long, lazy drag from his cigarette. Viktor watched the smoke as it left his lips, curling and twirling gracefully in the air, until it vanished into the sky. “Cold. Re-evaluating some of the choices that I made.”

 

Ah. Now, finally, he was starting to make sense. “Well, how about that,” Viktor said with a laugh.

 

“Don’t give me that look.”

 

“What look?”

 

“Like you’re wounded at the loss of something that wasn’t even promised.”

 

Viktor didn’t even know what to say to that. Oh, if only you knew. “I don’t have a lot of faith in promises.”

 

“That’s a wise policy.”

 

He pushed himself away from the streetlamp, and made his way over to where Viktor was standing with a gait that had Viktor’s eyes drawn to his hips. He grasped the back of Viktor’s head with his free hand, pulled him into a slow, languid kiss that somehow tasted like ‘goodbye’.

 

And then he pulled back, forced his cigarette between Viktor’s lips, and lifted Viktor’s chin. “Don’t follow me,” he whispered. “I’ve got a gun.”

 

Viktor’s eyes watered as he coughed once, sending a much less graceful cloud of smoke into the air. The most beautiful stranger laughed, traced the line of Viktor’s jaw with his lips, and walked away without looking back.

 

All too soon, Viktor lost sight of him in the fog and snow.

 

 


 


Christmas Day came and went the same way it did last year, and the year before. Viktor woke up just before noon to Makkachin standing with her front paws over the edge of his bed, whining to be let out. He took her for a walk around the block, letting her sniff at everything and jump into mounds of snow that had accumulated from the storm. He checked his mailbox when they headed back home, didn’t find a postcard or an envelope with a return address in some exotic, farflung land, and wondered why a part of him still felt disappointed.

 

Christophe arrived an hour before his shift at the bar, dropping off a handle of bathtub gin with a birthday card and a ribbon tied around the neck, because he was a godsend like that. No, he said, he had no idea who Viktor’s mystery man from last night was - it was the first time Christophe had seen him at the speakeasy, and he was sure because he never forgot a face. How strange.

 

That mysterious stranger occupied most of Viktor’s thoughts through the day after Christmas. He went into work as usual, but wound up just phoning it in all morning, rereading the same first ten pages of Yuri’s Karpisek file and delaying the inevitable. Just after lunch, Yakov poked his head into Viktor’s office and reminded him about therapy again.

 

“You need to get it done before the year ends,” he said. “More importantly, get it done before those vultures of reporters dig up dirt on what happened to you, and question your competence to be the lead investigator for the Karpisek case.”

 

Viktor squinted. “I thought you said you’d handle that for me.”

 

Yakov scowled. “Let’s just say that the timing was… unfortunate.”

 

Viktor waited to let out the string of curses sitting on his tongue until he was sure his boss was out of earshot.

 

Afternoon was much of the same. He managed to reach the end of Yuri’s primer, but the results were still inconclusive. Though he ran on a platform that clearly opposed organized crime, not once throughout his entire career did Karpisek ever mention La Cosa Nostra explicitly. Neither did any of the man’s known associates check out as confirmed enemies of the faction. He called Otabek to ask if they’d had any breakthroughs with the physical evidence, but of course these things took time, and with the holidays…

 

Yeah, Viktor knew how it was. He pulled on his coat and headed out. He needed to think, and preferably not about that beautiful stranger from Casa Roja for just a few minutes.

 

He didn’t succeed, not really.

 

When he got back to the agency, Yakov was standing in his office doorway, blocking his entry. “I’ll pay you.”

 

Viktor groaned. “What now?”

 

“Go see that therapist, and I’ll give you a bonus. Simple as that.” Yakov must have seen something in the look on Viktor’s face, because he let out an exasperated sigh. “You’ll get it at the end of next year, assuming you pass scrutiny. If you get him to sign off on your case, testify - in writing - that that trauma didn’t break you, and that you’re really acting and making decisions on a sound mind, I’ll pay you for it.”

 

“Obviously your offer assumes that I’ll still be alive at the end of next year,” Viktor muttered under his breath.

 

“See? That right there,” Yakov barked, “is exactly why you need to do this. For the love of God, Viktor - ”

 

“Fine,” Viktor finally bit out. “I’ll go tomorrow. Okay? Can you please let me into my office now?”

 

If he thought his morning had been unproductive, now was even worse. He brought out the business card Yakov had given him yesterday, staring at the words until they became individual letters, and then staring some more until even those started to lose all meaning. ‘Psychoanalytic Clinic’, right. He almost wished that he hadn’t known how to break those words down into their roots, because not knowing what they meant would have been infinitely better than knowing, and being forced to face everything that they implied.

 

He swallowed back another blooming curse word, with a bit of difficulty. Damn it. He tried again. This time it went smooth.

 

Viktor jumped to his feet, grabbing his coat. He had to get out again. He couldn’t breathe in here.

 

“Taking off early today?” Emil called out from behind a filing cabinet on the main floor.

 

“Going to interview a person of interest,” he lied. “They’re on my way home. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

 

He spent the rest of that afternoon playing fetch with Makkachin in the snow.

 

 


 

 

Navigating Tribeca during rush hour was a special kind of hell that Viktor wouldn’t wish on anyone. It hadn’t been anywhere near this bad three years ago, he recalled. Then they’d gone and opened up the Holland Tunnel, and ever since it felt like this place was always a congested mess.

 

It wasn’t hard to find the clinic once he turned on the right street. The unit number was displayed on a golden plate next to the front door, and it stood out against the brick face of the two-storey building. Viktor lingered outside until exactly five minutes to six, at which point he took one last drag, crushed his cigarette underfoot, and walked into the building.

 

“Good evening, sir.” A pretty, smiling receptionist greeted him when he stepped through the door. “Do you have an appointment?”

 

He almost wanted to lie. “Yes, in five minutes actually.”

 

She leafed through a short stack of papers on a clipboard. “With Dr. Leroy, is that right?”

 

Viktor frowned. “Ah, no.” He started searching his pockets for the business card, blanking on the name. “It was someone else, I think - ”

 

“Ah, never mind, I think I found you. Mr. Nikiforov, is it?” When he nodded, she smiled in relief. “Whew. I thought I’d messed up the paperwork for a moment there. Please, have a seat.”

 

Somehow, sitting down only made him even more restless.

 

He ended up not having to wait too long. At exactly six o’clock, he heard a door open from somewhere further into the building. A hefty man sporting a gray suit and a bushy mustache walked into the waiting area. Their eyes met for a moment, and Viktor started to wonder. Doctor?

 

No, that wouldn’t have made sense… his name wasn’t -

 

“Mr. Nikiforov?” the receptionist called out. “Second door to your left.”

 

As he made his way through the short hallway leading out of the waiting area, Viktor went over the plan in his head one last time. At the end of the day, all he had to do was convince this doctor that he was sane, that he hadn’t been traumatized by what happened to him, and that he was most certainly not basing any of his decisions on this nonexistent trauma. As long as he stayed calm, made sure not to get talked into a corner, and added a dash of pleasant charm, he’d be fine. He would.

 

He found the door he was looking for. He knocked thrice on the wood, which was met with a muffled ‘It’s open’ from inside.

 

In and out. You’ll be fine, Viktor told himself as his hand closed over the doorknob, and he opened the door.

 

 

 

first meeting

 

 

 

And: No you won’t, the universe seemed to reply, when he found himself staring at the most beautiful stranger he’d ever laid eyes on, who was not so much a stranger anymore.

 

 

 

hello dr katsuki

 

 

 

“… Dr. Katsuki?”

Chapter Text

 

 

December 26, 1928

 

I feel as though I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.

 

Who would have even guessed? With six million people living in this city alone, you get careless sometimes, and it’s not hard to confuse that number with infinity. You bump into someone at the market, you help them pick up the things they dropped and wish them well, and you never speak to them again. You finish up some business for a client you never really got to know, and they say ‘Let’s keep in touch’, but they never do and so you never hear from them again. You lock eyes with a stranger on the opposite subway platform, the train comes, and you never see them again.

 

You kiss the most beautiful man in the world at a random speakeasy one ordinary night, you’re drunk and you’re stupid, and you never get his name. You’re slow, you hesitate, you’re afraid. You let him go, and you lose him forever.

 

I really thought that that would be the ending to our story. But there he was, and there I was, and it was like the Universe was saying: ‘Now what? This is what it is. So what are you going to do?’

 

 

 

 

 



“Are you…?”

 

The rest of that question languished and died before he could put it into words. Dr. Katsuki stayed frozen where he was. The look on his face wasn’t so much that of a deer caught in headlights, but closer to one that had suddenly locked eyes with a predator - Viktor had seen that fight-or-flight expression countless times before, and hell, he’d probably worn it himself a few times as well. It was too bad for him that the windows had bars across them on the outside, and Viktor was blocking the only doorway.

 

“It’s you, isn’t it? From Casa Roja two nights ago?” Viktor pressed as he stepped closer. Ignoring the new suit he had on, and those spectacles that somehow made him look even more delicate, he recognized the shape of the man’s eyes, the curve of his throat as he swallowed, the same preciseness in the way he’d arranged that annoyingly-perfect hair. “It is you. Holy hell.”

 

Dr. Katsuki cleared his throat. “I’m going to ask you to to please step back and take a seat, Mister - ah, that is, Detective - ”

 

“Nikiforov. No, Viktor. I changed my mind.” He shook his head. “Call me Viktor.”

 

“If you insist, Viktor. Please, have a seat.” The doctor gestured towards one of the chairs in front of his desk, having recovered from his earlier shock. His expression was all business now, but it was undone by a faint dusting of pink on his cheeks. He cleared his throat again. “I trust that you know why you’re here?”

 

“I think so. The universe finally decided to smile in my direction for once, and led me back to you when I thought I’d lost you forever.”

 

He winced. “Ah…”

 

“Seriously. You just left me there, stranded out in the cold all of a sudden… you didn’t even give me your name!”

 

“Viktor, please.”

 

Viktor went through what he remembered of that night - practically all of it, since he hadn’t really been that drunk. The taste of orange, and of a lit cigarette forced into his mouth; hot breath breaking over his skin, lips that teased and teased but fell far short of making any real promises. “You were never going to, were you?”

 

Dr. Katsuki sank heavily into his chair. He folded his hands on top of the desk, the same way Viktor had seen him do at the bar. But now his hands strained, his knuckles pale and his fingers threatening to leave marks on the backs of his hands. He looked as though he might have been reconsidering the bars on the window.

 

“It’s okay. I’m not judging you or anything.” Viktor laughed. “God knows I’m the last person in this city who’d be able to judge anyone.”

 

“Does my earlier conduct at that establishment raise any concerns for you? That is… with regard to my competence as a medical professional, and as someone who can help you.”

 

“What?” Viktor gaped at him. “You want us… you want us to continue this?”

 

“If you have no reservations about it, then of course.” He lifted his shoulders, just barely, but it was enough for Viktor to learn that even shrugging could be made to look so graceful. “Though I am technically under Mr. Feltsman’s employ, I’d be remiss if I didn’t consider the possibility that our earlier… encounter, shall we say… might have colored your perception of me. I would be happy to refer you to Dr. Leroy if you are not comfortable receiving treatment from me.”

 

Viktor clawed at the sleeves of his coat, at his elbows. He didn’t even realize he’d had his arms folded across his chest until now. “Comfort has nothing to do with it,” he mumbled. “But it is a bit awkward, isn’t it?”

 

“Why? It doesn’t have to be.”

 

Why, indeed. He knew he could end this right now; what was a good way of saying ‘I can’t stop thinking about your teeth on my ear and your hand on my cock’ ? It would’ve even been half-true. But then, that wouldn’t really solve the problem, would it? He’d just be transferred over to Dr. Leroy, whoever that was, and he’d just be in a different chair, facing a different person seeking unwelcome entry into his head.

 

Damn it. For all that he’d been amused at Dr. Katsuki not having a way out of this, at the end of the day, neither did he.

 

Well, there was one way, maybe. Stick to the plan. And that involved having to play nice for now. Viktor stripped off his coat and hung it on the peg next to the closed door - holding on to it would have been too obvious, and keeping it on would have been even more so. He finally sank slowly into a chair, all the while fighting down the part of him that wanted to drag that chair closer to the door.

 

 

 

 

 


“I’d like to start by having you tell me a little bit about yourself. Anything you’re comfortable sharing.” Dr. Katsuki leaned back into his own chair, crossing his legs so that he could place his notebook on his lap. “We can go from there, see where that takes us.”

 

That sounded easy enough. Viktor fixed his gaze onto a random spot on the bookshelf, a massive thing that lined an entire wall of the office. “Is that all there really is to these sessions? Conversations, stories we tell each other until the hour is up?”

 

“You can choose to think of it that way, if it helps.” A pause. “Does it help?”

 

Not really. Over the past couple of days, Viktor had wanted nothing more than to put a name to the face of that beautiful stranger from Casa Roja, who’d spoiled him with kisses and driven him to the brink with just his hands. Now that he’d learned that this was the same person whom Yakov had contracted to probe into his mind, Viktor wondered if this was one of those wishes that some higher power granted on a technicality, only to somehow screw you over for its own amusement. “Eh.”

 

The good doctor smiled, and inclined his head ever so slightly, motioning for him to elaborate.

 

You have a plan, he reminded himself. That hasn’t changed.

 

“So are we just pretending that Christmas Eve never happened, or…?”

 

“Well, we can discuss it, if we absolutely must.” Dr. Katsuki fixed him with a meaningful look. “However if we do, you should know that I’m going to ask you about those marks on your neck.”

 

It wasn’t physically possible for the temperature in the room to suddenly plummet a few degrees, but it sure as hell felt like it. Viktor suppressed a shiver, and swallowed. It felt like there was a lump there, blocking his throat.

 

The doctor’s eyes were no longer focused on his face, but locked onto the knot of his tie.

 

The next breath came with a battle; the breath after that refused to come at all. Shit. He hooked a finger into his collar, despite knowing very well what it would look like, and tugged.

 

“Viktor?”

 

He gasped, and immediately tried to cover that up with a laugh. “You were wasted. And it was so dark in that phone booth… I wasn’t sure you noticed them.”

 

“It was impossible not to.”

 

Of course, he thought bitterly. He’d been told before, by more than a handful of parties, that his skin was so easy to cut, and to bruise. It held onto its memories of the things that marked it as though these were prizes, and it was very, very slow to let them go.

 

“Shall I ask now, or later?”

 

Those words shook him out of his thoughts. No. Later, much later. Never. “I was born in Long Island. Christmas Day, actually.” He forced himself to mimic Dr. Katsuki’s posture, lacing his fingers together over his knee. He smiled. “They said something about the weather - either it was snowing and it suddenly stopped, or the other way around, when I was born. I don’t remember which.”

 

Dr. Katsuki returned his smile. He selected a fountain pen from his desk and began scribbling something in his notebook. “I see. I wish you a belated happy birthday, then.”

 

“Thank you, Doc.” Viktor glanced up. “Is it fine if I call you that?”

 

“I’m not a stickler for protocol. Call me whatever you feel comfortable with.”

 

“… Yuuri?” He sounded out the name on the business card, relished the way it rolled off of his tongue. “If I called you that, would it be inappropriate?”

 

Dr. Katsuki kept his smile, but his lips twitched in such a manner that Viktor couldn’t quite tell which way they wanted to go. “A tad.”

 

Pity. He’d been looking forward to saying it again. “I’ll stick with ‘Doc’ then.”

 

“Anyway, please continue.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You were telling me about Long Island, and the day you were born.”

 

Right. Long Island and the sun, a house right at the mouth of the bay, hours upon hours spent staring at the water and the docks, because Mama would only come back from work after nightfall, and she’d often leave before sunrise. He didn’t really feel like talking about any of that right now. “Um… I don’t know what to say from there.” Then he remembered his saving grace. “I live in the city now, with my dog Makkachin.”

 

“What kind of dog?”

 

“She’s a Standard Poodle.” He chuckled, because he could see through the window that it was starting to snow again, and he remembered the look on her face the first time she’d seen snow. “Unless you weren’t talking about her breed, in which case she’s a happy, fun-loving girl. She’ll chase anything if you give her enough incentive to.”

 

Dr. Katsuki made notes on that with a thoughtful smile. “You seem very fond of her.”

 

“I love her. She’s my world.” That was just as true now as it had been eleven years ago, when he’d first found her in that soggy cardboard box and taken her home, thinking we can be each other’s strays. “Are you fond of dogs, Doc?”

 

“I like them just fine. There are people who theorize that dogs and humans evolved into natural companions due to a shared affinity for persistence hunting - seeking and pursuing much faster prey over long distances, until that prey is exhausted. No need to be swift or even particularly strong, if you can simply outlast your target, and wait for it to fall.”

 

“Huh. I never knew that.”

 

“It’s just a theory.” Dr. Katsuki caught his gaze, and held onto it with a searching look. “Do you think it holds any water?”

 

Viktor shrugged. “That sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea.”

 

“Mmm. I suppose that’s something you avoid in your line of work - theorizing before you have all the facts, all the history at your disposal?”

 

“Theorizing by itself is fine,” he said carefully. “It’s when you assume an unproven theory to be true, and act on that assumption, that you start to run into problems.”

 

The air was filled with the sound of Dr. Katsuki scribbling furiously into his notebook for a few long seconds. Viktor replayed the conversation in his mind, and wondered if he might have stepped on a landmine.

 

“Fascinating.” Dr. Katsuki adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. They caught the light for the briefest of moments, so that Viktor couldn’t see his eyes. “Well then, what else shall we talk about?”

 

“I get to choose again?”

 

He nodded. “I did stress that it was important for you to feel comfortable, especially during this first session.”

 

If Viktor had any say in it, this would be their last session.

 

But he wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity like this, and so their conversation for the rest of the hour was desultory: subway stories, the recent snowstorm, more light-hearted anecdotes about Makkachin and her shenanigans. He spoke a bit about his colleagues; Emil had always seemed entirely too cheerful for this job, and Yuri - hah, fancy that, he and the doctor almost shared a name - was a charity case of Yakov’s, doing grunt work and shadowing them on the field as an alternative to community service for some earlier, stupid misdemeanor. Now that he’d thought of that, he wondered if maybe they were all Yakov’s charity cases, in one way or another.

 

Dr. Katsuki took notes sporadically. The rest of the time, he listened to Viktor with the ghost of a smile on his face, staring intently. Viktor had expected as much, and this was fine - though he took care not to make it obvious, every word that came out of his mouth had been measured beforehand. And he was studying Dr. Katsuki just as much as Dr. Katsuki was studying him, taking cues from the way he tilted his head, noting the times he furrowed his brows, and tracking every single change in the curve of his lips. It was no hardship for him; Dr. Katsuki was very, very easy on the eyes, and Viktor would have been content to just stare at him for an hour, even if they hadn’t been playing this game.

 

They’d drifted to the topic of Wall Street, and how word on the street was that ‘nowhere to go but up!’ might not have been entirely true, when their hour ran out. Dr. Katsuki abruptly stopped himself in the middle of a sentence about the subtle differences between market speculation and gambling, and thanked Viktor for his time.

 

It looked like Viktor had been his last appointment for the day, because he stood up at the same time and started clearing out his desk. He put some things away while placing others - among them, the notebook he’d just been writing in - into a leather briefcase that looked as though it might have cost several months’ worth of Viktor’s rent.

 

“So listen, I don’t know what or how much exactly Yakov told you…” Viktor lingered at the doorway even after he’d already put on his coat. “But to be honest, I’m doing just fine.”

 

Dr. Katsuki didn’t even look up from his desk as he continued packing. “Are you?”

 

“It was a single event. An accident. I miscalculated, and…” And what, exactly? Continuing that sentence would have meant walking down a road that looked treacherous at best. It wasn’t worth it. “These things happen, you know? Hazards of working in the industry. I knew about them when I signed up. I’ve had worse.”

 

“Have you?”

 

It was such a simple, innocent question. He should have seen it coming from a mile away.

 

But he hadn’t, and now a door had been wedged open in his mind - just a little bit, a crack really. But Viktor had memorized every square inch of what lay beyond that door: a cold hospital room and the smell of rust; newspapers delivered to his bedside, each new headline worse than the one before it; nurses calling him ‘lucky’ as though they were spitting curses at the ground, and Viktor never said anything, but he understood. Recalling, over and over, that single moment of raw dread that had consumed him whole, before the blast and the fire tried to do the same. One hundred and twenty-one letters sent out to strangers who would condemn him, drafted in pain with his left hand, because his right arm was broken and slow to heal.

 

And all of those had come from the easy part.

 

“The point is, it’s fine. I’m fine. This…” He gestured towards his neck. This is nothing. “It’s healing. I’ve moved on. So I guess I don’t really know what we’re doing here.”

 

“Tiring of my company already?”

 

“I just don’t want to waste your time.” Or mine, Viktor finished in his head, but he latched onto that teasing note at the end of the doctor’s sentence and spun it into something more pleasant for the both of them. “But hey, if you’d be so kind as to sign off on whatever Yakov is asking you to sign off on, I’d be happy to show my appreciation. Say… over coffee? Do you drink coffee?”

 

Dr. Katsuki chuckled. He paused in the middle of clearing up to pull off his glasses, storing them carefully in a hard case that eventually found its way into the briefcase as well. All of a sudden he was the stranger from the bar again, and in that moment his eyes glittered with something - a possibility, perhaps. Or temptation.

 

“Thank you again for your time, Viktor.” And then, all too soon, that something was gone. “I’ll have my report ready for Mr. Feltsman by tomorrow.”

 

 


 

 

The agency building was so close to the 72nd Street subway station that you could hoof it from door to platform in less than two minutes on most days - or at least, that was what he’d always heard from Mila, and that was accounting for the fact that she was always in heels. Viktor, who’d never once lost sleep over ‘the shortest path from X to Y’ in his life, preferred to take the Ninth Avenue El, get off at 59th Street, walk the wrong way to 8th Avenue, and then head up North along Central Park West.

 

The park had been wanting for love and affection these past few years, and it was starting to show. Despite all of that, it was still a welcome oasis of green - or white, as it was now - in the midst of all this concrete, bloodstains, and bricks. Sometimes he would even see someone walking their dog, and that would be the highlight of his day. Viktor considered that extra thirteen-block walk to 72nd Street an essential part of his morning; if he were only a tiny bit more superstitious, he would’ve convinced himself that his good days, bad days, and all days in between were foretold by that walk. There had been some interesting correlations in the past.

 

And if he had believed that, really believed it with all his heart, then he would’ve known when he crossed Columbus Avenue and saw the man standing at the corner, that today was going to be a terrible one. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath. “Shit, shit, shit…”

 

He waited a fraction of a second before lowering the brim of his hat, just to be sure. But the shock of brown hair, olive skin, and the way the man chewed on his cigarette left no room for doubt.

 

It was also too late. “Detective? Detective Nikiforov?” He tossed his cigarette onto the sidewalk and broke into a run when Viktor just walked past him without slowing down. “Hey! Viktor Nikiforov!”

 

Shit. Viktor walked faster.

 

“Hey c’mon, don’t be rude.” The man grinned as he caught up, though he had to stay at a slow jog to keep up the pace. “You got a few minutes to spare? Lionel Church from the Daily Mirror.”

 

“I know who you are, Leo.” Viktor used his real name out loud, hoping that that would faze him. It didn’t, because Leo wore the face of a reporter who’d sniffed out a tasty story, and against that, self-preservation looked to be a mere afterthought. “We’ve spoken before.”

 

“Yeah? Hard to keep track. You know what they say about a ‘New York minute’, right? I must’ve forgotten, what with you having been out of commission so long…”

 

Never in his life had a long block in Manhattan felt so, well, long. Viktor kept walking, hoping to lose him at the intersection. But the light changed just as he was starting to consider sprinting ahead at full speed, and so they both wound up stopped at Amsterdam Avenue, because of course. Fuck.

 

He could even see the agency building from here, taunting him.

 

“Your last case was the Kips Bay Strangler, isn’t that right?”

 

Viktor heaved a sigh. “Isn’t that old news for you at this point? All the official reports were filed three weeks ago, try and keep up.”

 

“Alright, how about this, then: is it true you’re leading the investigation into Josef Karpisek’s murder?” Leo’s grin widened, and he winked. “How’s that for the bleeding edge?”

 

“That investigation is still in its early stages.” Viktor turned his eyes back onto the road, keeping his voice bored. “Whatever it is the police told you, I don’t have anything to add.”

 

“But the police wouldn’t even talk to me!”

 

“That sounds like something that isn’t my problem.”

 

“Is it true that Karpisek was murdered by the Mafia?”

 

Viktor laughed. He welcomed the fact that Leo wasn’t beating around the bush today, but they were out in public, in broad daylight. Although he supposed he wasn’t that surprised; Leo de la Iglesia, or rather ‘Lionel Church’ as was the pseudonym he used in all of his stories for the Daily Mirror, had penned dozens of pieces condemning La Cosa Nostra for their dirty dealings over the past few years. It made sense that he was starving to get his hands on any information regarding this case.

 

Still, it wasn’t as though Viktor had much information to give him in the first place. So when the light finally changed, Viktor stuffed his hands into his pockets and called out “No comment” over his shoulder.

 

“Interesting.” Leo dogged his heels, taking the pencil that he always kept tucked behind his ear and scribbling something down. Viktor suddenly had to fight down a feeling of déjà vu. “Can you at least confirm you’re leading the investigation into his murder?”

 

“No comment.”

 

“Seriously?” Leo finally stopped at the foot of the stairs leading up to the agency building. It turned out he still had a tiny bit of self-preservation in him after all. He was likely remembering the first and last time he’d tried to barge into the agency to pester Mila for a comment on one of her cases. Cigarette butts weren’t the only things she could fling onto the street. “Throw me a bone here, man. You gotta give me something.”

 

“Merry Christmas, Leo,” Viktor said as he shut the front door.

 

 


 



It was a good thing Viktor hadn’t conditioned himself to hope for it, because there was still no word on whether the police had finished processing the physical evidence that they’d collected from the scene. Whether it was legitimately taking that long or because everyone had just mentally checked out for the holidays was a mystery in and of itself, but at least it wasn’t one that really needed to be investigated.

 

Another possibility, of course, was that the police had finished processing the evidence already, and were just giving him the cold shoulder. The official request had come from the agency - it was Yakov’s name that was so prominently displayed on all of their letterheads - but maybe someone had figured out his involvement. Leo certainly had.

 

Obviously, this meant that they’d also figured out that he was using Otabek as a buffer. “Honestly, I’d be more surprised that it took them this long,” Viktor murmured. “I could have been more subtle about it.”

 

“You know, I don’t think so.” Otabek’s voice sounded even quieter than usual over the phone. Viktor had to strain to listen every time they had a call like this. “It’s not like anyone’s really watching me. So far, it doesn’t look like they care.”

 

“I’ll take your word for it. But the moment they start giving you a hard time for associating with me, you should cut and run right away, okay?”

 

“If anyone still seriously feels any ill will towards you over what happened, then that’s their problem.”

 

Viktor found himself smiling, though it didn’t feel like it reached his eyes. "It's not that simple…"

 

The fact that Otabek was able to stay on the phone with him for this long was probably testament to him slogging through a slow day as well. For Viktor’s part, without any physical evidence to study, all he’d really had left to go on at this point was witness evidence, and he’d gone through the testimonies from the hotel employees and guests several times already. Most of it had been completely useless; the concierge’s blatant lies almost tempted him to chuck everything out the window, and start from scratch.

 

Emil had left a small slip of paper on his desk: Karpisek’s home address, with the names of each member of his household. Talking to the families was always a tricky thing, though Viktor had done it enough times to be somewhat ‘good’ at it; hell, Yakov himself had sometimes appointed Viktor to do this job on some of his past cases. Speaking to Karpisek’s widow and children was inevitable, but it was a task that required finesse and a certain mental state that Viktor didn’t happen to possess right now. That would have to be postponed to another day.

 

So all that really left for him was… nothing. Sure, there was the Mafia angle to consider - another goddamn thorn in his side - but the precious little information he had to go on wasn’t really enough to let him do anything about it. What was it? He was missing something, he was sure. “I was hoping to talk to the medical examiner about taking another look at Karpisek’s corpse.” Viktor checked his watch. “Say… some time after lunch? Could you put in a word for me?”

 

“I could… but are you sure that’s a good idea?”

 

“Why wouldn’t it be?” came tumbling out of his mouth before he understood. Ah, of course - the medical examiner would likely be holed up somewhere in one of the hospitals along the East River, which would put him right in the middle of Kips Bay. Huh, it was a good thing he didn’t have any plans of telling Yakov about this until after the fact - easier to ask forgiveness than get permission, or something like that.

 

“You should bring Yuri with you.”

 

“Yuri is shadowing Emil today. And I’ll pretend not to be insulted at how you basically implied that I need a 19-year-old’s protection.”

 

“Alright, fair enough. What if I go with you?”

 

Viktor shook his head, having forgotten that he was on the phone. “I’ve got this. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to afford your freelancing rates anyway.”

 

Otabek eventually relented. If Viktor wound up taking a cab that afternoon, so that he wouldn’t have to walk around the area so much, well, that didn’t really have to mean anything.

 

The Office of the Medical Examiner was in the NYU Medical Center, but Viktor found the actual medical examiner in a small room on the wrong side of the building, facing away from the river. Not that it mattered, because this room didn’t have any windows that actually opened anyway.

 

“I don’t understand why you had to come all the way here, Detective.” The medical examiner was an imposing man in a pinstripe suit, with bushy eyebrows and a piercing glare. “I turned over all of my findings to the police already. Couldn’t you just check with them?”

 

“I prefer to take a look for myself.” Viktor smiled, laying on the charm, but just a little bit - the read he’d gotten on this man from their first handshake made him feel as though too much of it would end quite badly for him. “That won’t be a problem for you, will it?”

 

“Be my guest, Detective.” He ushered Viktor towards a table in the middle of the room, where the body was covered in a white sheet. “But I have to ask that you make it short. The Office is swamped with cases from a glut of people drinking distilled wood. If you’ve ever wondered, methanol poisoning is a hell of a way to die.”

 

Good to know. “I promise I’ll be quick.”

 

This was far from the first time Viktor had been inside rooms like this one, but that familiarity made this experience no less disquieting. It was constantly cold, the light was either too much or not enough, and there was always the smell of something rotten, persistent, lurking beneath the odors of steel and formalin.

 

Seeing Karpisek’s body here was… sad, if Viktor had to put it in a word. He’d seen it once at the crime scene, but the whole hotel had been engulfed in chaos then, and the body had been one component of a tableau that included torn curtains, broken wine bottles, cops milling about, and bullet holes embedded in walls. Now, abstracted from all of that, it was just tragic. Viktor had never been close to the man, but he’d always associated him with fiery speeches and promises as big as the sky. Now, here they were, and all was quiet.

 

… Something didn’t feel right.

 

“You listed the official cause of death as exsanguination, is that correct?”

 

The medical examiner chuckled. He’d left Viktor to his own devices and was perusing some sort of science magazine from behind a desk near the window. “Did you see how many bullet wounds our victim took?”

 

“Okay, but…” Viktor beckoned the man to come closer. “What do you make of those?”

 

He looked at it every which way to rule out any trick of the light, and blinked hard several times to make sure he wasn’t just seeing things. But he wasn’t, and it really was there: a visible discoloration of the skin around the victim’s throat. Had it appeared only over the past two days, or had it been there from the start, and Viktor just hadn’t noticed it then? Or had he noticed it, made a note to mark it… and then just forgotten about it, somehow?

 

It was possible, he conceded. Not likely, but possible.

 

(The doctors had warned him that it might happen.)

 

“It’s nothing. Possibly an artifact.” The medical examiner made a noncommittal sound. “Doesn’t make a difference.”

 

Viktor wasn’t convinced. “Mind if I take a closer look at his head?”

 

Though the medical examiner didn’t move to stop him, he didn’t look entirely too happy as Viktor proceeded with his spontaneous, self-imposed examination. He found some other telling marks this way too: a contusion on the back of the victim’s head, some lacerations there as well as on his left temple.

 

“Unimportant.” All Viktor got was a careless shrug as he pointed all of these out. “Maybe he hit his head on the way down.”

 

Viktor gave him a look. “On the way down to the bed?”

 

“Listen, you can obsess all you want over shaving nicks or a bump on his head that, for all we know, he got last Tuesday.” The medical examiner finally placed himself squarely between Viktor and the table, blocking any view of the body until he covered it back up with the sheet. “My professional opinion is that those thirty-two bullet holes contributed a hell of a lot more to our victim’s death than any of those other ‘incidentals’, shall we say. Do you really want to raise a big stink over this?”

 

Of course, he wanted to say. If they were just going to blatantly ignore evidence like this, then what the hell were they doing here? His knee-jerk reaction was to yell all of that in the man’s face.

 

Then he remembered: Chief Medical Officer was a mayoral appointment, wasn’t it?

 

Also: this wouldn’t even have been the first instance of a key witness or expert lying about something that could prove crucial to this investigation. Wasn’t that just grand.

 

He had to squint to peer out of the single, tiny window with smudges all over the glass. “That’s a nice car out there,” he said, jerking his head towards the sleek, gorgeous Isotta Fraschini parked on the street. “Brand-new. Is it yours?”

 

The only response Viktor got was a frigid smile, and the medical examiner’s eyes drifting towards something behind him: an empty examination table, identical to the one that currently held Karpisek’s body. “I think you should go now, Detective.”

 

Viktor was inclined to agree.

 

 


 

 

It took all of his willpower to resist the temptation to just go home from here - he was already two-thirds of the way to his apartment, and more importantly, Casa Roja was just a twenty-minute walk away. But Yakov was expecting him, and he’d promised to take Yuri out for dinner and listen to him rant about whatever his grievance of the day happened to be. So he took a cab back to the agency, riding in the backseat and leaning his head against the glass with his eyes closed, to dissuade whatever small talk the driver looked like he wanted to make.

 

He wondered, what with all his attempts at investigating this murder being stonewalled, if it was about time for him to start seriously considering that this might be a Mafia cover-up - and, in turn, the likelihood that Karpisek’s death was a Mafia hit. But there was something holding him back - he didn’t want to call it his ‘gut’, because that was such a Yakov thing to say, and from there it would be a slippery slope to losing his hair, smoking cigars, and chasing after pretty cabaret dancers who could kill you with their thighs. Still, it was there - something about the body, and the bullet wounds... something else about Leo, or something he’d said, or was that Otabek? Half-thoughts, convoluted threads floating in his head, formed what felt like the beginnings of a theory, but it was like looking at a painting with a gaping hole in the center, and trying to figure out its subject from random stripes of color near the edges of the frames.

 

(He’d been warned about this, too - it was supposed to go away on its own soon, but apparently he and those doctors had a fundamental disagreement on what the word ‘soon’ was supposed to mean.)

 

He gave up trying to make sense of it all when the cab pulled up to the agency building. It had gotten dark out faster than he’d expected; maybe tomorrow would be better to him. For tonight, he decided he’d just duck into Yakov’s office, maybe do some token paperwork he’d been putting off, and then drag Yuri out of whatever menial task Yakov had him doing once the hour changed.

 

But all of his plans turned to ash when he reached the top of the stairs, and saw the very last person he expected to be here: Dr. Katsuki, standing outside his closed office door, peering inside through the small glass window.

 

“Can I help you,” he called out before he could help himself, “Doctor?”

 

Dr. Katsuki jumped, and immediately backed away from his door. He was smiling when he turned around, but he looked as though he’d been spooked. “Detective! You’re back.”

 

Viktor nodded slowly. When the silence stretched on, he gestured meaningfully towards the door. “Am I going to have to ask?”

 

“Ah. I was on my way out, and wondered if you were in your office.”

 

“Uh-huh. And after you found out I wasn’t?”

 

“Well… I’ll admit curiosity got the best of me. I apologize.” Dr. Katsuki moved his head, before stopping abruptly - it looked like he was about to bow, but then caught himself at the last second. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve drawn no conclusions from what I’ve seen… save, perhaps, that you are in terrible need of another filing cabinet.”

 

Viktor wasn’t sure how to feel about that. It wasn’t entirely an unpleasant surprise; the doctor was a vision in his fancy white winter coat, and damn - from what he’d seen of this man’s wardrobe so far, either the Katsuki family was one of old money, or Viktor had seriously underestimated the income potential of working at a ‘psychoanalytic clinic’, whatever that meant. Finally, he decided he was too tired to play any of his usual games, and simply asked, “Why are you here, Doc?”

 

“I told you that I’d be submitting my recommendation to Mr. Feltsman today.” Dr. Katsuki glanced back towards Yakov’s office door. “I had errands to run in the area, so I thought I’d deliver it in person.”

 

“Wait, you - you’ve made a decision already?” The doctor nodded, and Viktor wanted to shake him by his shoulders when it looked like he had no plans of saying anything else. “Aren’t you going to tell me what it is?”

 

“Perhaps this is something that would be best discussed with your employer…”

 

Viktor ignored the rest of that, pushing past him to rush to Yakov’s office. He flung the door open, without remembering to knock, to find Yakov sitting at his desk with his reading glasses on, studying a single sheet of paper. “Is that from Dr. Katsuki? What does it say?”

 

Yakov didn’t even look up. “Viktor, perhaps you should close the door behind you and have a seat.”

 

He stared at Yakov for a few seconds, and took note of some things in particular. Yakov was leaning back in his chair, and he was smoking a cigar - one of the good ones too, Viktor recognized. Yakov had always had rules about his caffeine consumption: coffee in the mornings, tea in the afternoons. The mug on his desk was steaming, and when he drew closer, the air smelled ever so slightly like chamomile.

 

Viktor decided to take a chance, and snatched the paper from his grasp.

 

“Viktor!”

 

But he didn’t care, walking quickly back into the hallway and shutting Yakov’s office door as he began to read.

 

 

 

 

WEST ST PSYCHOANALYTIC CLINIC

Re: Psychological Evaluation of Detective Viktor Nikiforov

 

Summary Evaluation: After reviewing the sealed incident reports pertaining to the events that transpired at the conclusion of Detective Nikiforov’s last case, and conducting a personal interview with Detective Nikiforov himself, it has become apparent that further analysis is required in order to make an informed assessment of his mental health and well-being. Detective Nikiforov displayed no outward signs of distress throughout the course of the interview, nor did he exhibit overt indications of any personality disorders. However, the severity of the trauma that he recently suffered, coupled with his reticence to speak about or indeed even acknowledge said trauma, cannot be discounted.

 

Thus, to err on the side of caution, Detective Nikiforov’s psychological condition must be further evaluated. In addition, his recent conduct as an investigator - including, but not limited to, his latest case which opened up the initial inquiry - will repay further study, to the extent that the Feltsman Detective Agency is willing to share such information.

 

Final Recommendation: It is highly encouraged for Detective Nikiforov to return for regular weekly sessions at the West St. Psychoanalytic Clinic, until such time that a clear judgment can be made regarding his mental health and stability.

 

Dr. Yuuri Katsuki, M.D.

 

 

“That son of a - ” Viktor bolted just as Yakov’s door swung open, and the sound of angry yelling followed him all the way down the stairs. There was no sign of the doctor on the main floor. Viktor rushed out of the building, scanning the street - he couldn’t have gotten very far in such a short time, could he? Or was he already in the subway station…?

 

Viktor spotted him in about five seconds, walking towards West End Avenue. That coat made him light up like a neon sign.

 

“Hey!” he called out. Dr. Katsuki stopped in his tracks, and Viktor sprinted towards him to close the gap. “Are you kidding me with this?!”

 

He sighed, adjusting the knot of his scarf with a casual sort of apathy. “I’d hoped that Mr. Feltsman would have known you would try something like this.”

 

“What is this? ‘Further analysis is required’... ‘to err on the side of caution’... ‘his recent conduct as an investigator… will repay further study’??” Viktor waved the damning letter at him. He imagined it would feel immensely vindicating to tear it to pieces, but Dr. Katsuki would be sure to simply write another one. “This is so unnecessary!”

 

“There is nothing in the way you’re behaving now that is making me want to reconsider my recommendation, Viktor.”

 

Those words hit him in a manner not too far from the gusts of wind that would greet him every time he left Casa Roja in the winter: they were cold, merciless, and sobered him up quick. Fuck, the good doctor wasn’t exactly wrong, was he?

 

Viktor had always been a ‘people’ person - charming up witnesses to make them share, talking circles around guilty suspects and playing cat’s cradle with the lies they spun, until they broke down and confessed. Once upon a time, he could talk down killers who’d already had their finger on the trigger. It was his one gift, likely the only reason Yakov had even hired him at all. And now here he was, ranting like a fucking lunatic at a respectable doctor out in the street, and people had started to stare. What the hell was happening? This wasn’t like him at all.

 

(Yeah. Maybe the doctors had warned him about that too.)

 

“You’re not the only one who reads people for a living, you know.” Dr. Katsuki pried the letter free of his hands, gently, one finger at a time. He smoothed out the creases from where Viktor had been clutching the paper in a death grip. “Besides, I’m doing you a favor.”

 

Viktor let out a hollow laugh. “In what universe,” he ground out, “is this a favor?”

 

“This one - in which I didn’t write the recommendation that I truly wanted to give.”

 

“And what was that?”

 

“To suspend you from field work indefinitely.” Dr. Katsuki lowered his voice, looking down as he folded the paper neatly into thirds. “You aren’t a danger to others from what I can tell, not directly anyway. But you pose a very real danger to yourself, whether you’re fully aware of it or not, and for that reason alone I wouldn’t trust you with a gun.”

 

… No, that… that wasn't right. That couldn’t be.

 

Viktor had a basket of reasons for doing the things he did. Some of those reasons were selfish, others he liked to think weren’t so much, but they were there and their composition changed every so often. He wanted to find answers; he wanted to be useful. He wanted to help people find closure, because it felt like there was a new murder in this city every time he blinked, and he understood the pain of those left behind wondering why, why? He wanted to save people; he wanted to atone.

 

But he’d never wanted… hell, until Dr. Katsuki brought it up just now, he’d never even thought about…

 

Had he? Viktor struggled to draw up memories of their conversation from yesterday’s session, replaying the lines he could remember and dissecting every word. Where had he gone wrong? He’d been so fucking careful. What had he said? What had given him away?

 

He didn’t know. He didn’t know what he’d said wrong. And he didn’t know what to say when Dr. Katsuki stepped forward, pressed the folded letter against his chest, and pulled him closer by the gun flap of his trenchcoat, so he could whisper into Viktor’s ear.

 

 

 

 

 

“But let me help you.” Dr. Katsuki breathed out those words like they were made of cigarette smoke, and Viktor was almost distracted by how warm they were against his ear. “Languishing away behind a desk would only accelerate your implosion. So we’ll keep this our little secret for now, and we’ll work on you until the time comes that I’m certain you’re okay. Is that fair?”

 

Did it even matter what he said? If he refused, Dr. Katsuki would just tell Yakov the truth, and then that would just be The End. “You’re not exactly leaving me with much of a choice here, Doc.”

 

“Then I’ll see you next Wednesday at six.” Dr. Katsuki pulled back, took one of Viktor’s hands, and pressed it against the paper so that he could pull away completely. “I know it’s not the coffee date you proposed, but I’ll put on a fresh pot before you arrive, if that helps.”

 

Of course. Silver linings, and all that. Viktor stared at his retreating figure as he walked away. The ends of his scarf trailed behind him, dancing coyly whenever a small breeze blew. Viktor swallowed back a lump in his throat, and it actually fucking hurt.

 

“Oh, and Viktor?” Dr. Katsuki stopped and turned around. He looked so damn sure that Viktor hadn’t left yet, which was a little bit infuriating… but again, he wasn’t wrong. “Whenever we’re not at the clinic… feel free to call me ‘Yuuri’.”

Chapter Text

December 31, 1928

 

It’s such a stupid cliche, but as this year comes to an end I can’t help the part of myself that wants to look back and remember every single thing I screwed up over the past twelve months. In a perfect world, midnight would forgive the sins of the year that just passed. But it can’t make them go away.

 

So they linger, these sins stacking onto the mistakes of past years, and I just know that one day, one year, it’ll all come crashing down. Maybe I won’t even see it coming, or maybe I’ll see it from a mile away. I won’t be able to stop it either way, and it’s going to be the same in the end.

 

I wish I could get off this train. I wish I could stop it all - not even forever, that’s more than I deserve. Just for a day. Just for a little while, I wish everything… would just… stop.  

 


 

It’s past midnight as I’m adding this part, but it’s too short to put in a page of its own, and the day has only just started. I’ll write a separate, proper entry for tomorrow.

 

I saw him again today. It’s like fate or some unseen hand is conspiring to constantly throw us together. A hundred words wouldn’t be enough to describe how I feel about this. It’s complicated. I didn’t spend the night with him, though. That would have been a bad idea.

 

But I wish I had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being alone could be a frightening thing, sometimes. Viktor had gotten used to it by now - what was eighteen years of experience good for if he hadn’t? - but some days were still worse than others. On those days the sheets seemed so much colder, and silence threatened to rattle his head. He felt small, like this city could chew him up and swallow him whole, and would anyone even consider that a loss? It was hard to tell.

 

There were a few times, though, when being alone felt like a blessing. They mostly came when he was interviewing victims’ families.

 

“Mrs. Karpisek, I can’t begin to imagine what you must be going through.”

 

Karpisek’s grieving widow, a frail-looking woman in her fifties with bones that seemed hollow like a bird’s, wept quietly into a handkerchief.

 

“And if this is a bad time for you,” Viktor continued, “I can always come back.”

 

“No, stay. Please. I’m sorry.” She dabbed at the corners of her eyes. Her hands were shaking so hard when she brought them up to her face that if Viktor hadn’t known better, he might have guessed that she suffered from some kind of palsy. “I just need a moment.”

 

“Alright. Please, take your time.”

 

Viktor elected to look out the window while he waited, because nobody wanted to be stared at as they cried. Josef Karpisek had lived with his family in a respectable brownstone with a stoop in Carnegie Hill, a stone’s throw away from Central Park. In the spaces between the buildings on the opposite side of the street, he could see glimpses of wide, empty space that would have been green, or some happy symphony of gold and red, had it not been wintertime. But the season had just changed, and at least three more months remained before any semblance of life would return to the bones of this city.

 

“What did you say your name was, Detective?”

 

“Viktor,” he supplied.

 

“You’re leading the investigation into my husband’s murder, is that right?” When he nodded, she asked, “Are you alone?”

 

In what context? he was tempted to say. “We’re a team of detectives at the Feltsman Agency, I’m just running point on this investigation. I also have a liaison with the NYPD.”

 

She nodded. “I see.”

 

From another room, he could hear the sound of a young girl’s voice, high and pretty, floating through the walls. Aside from his wife, Karpisek had left behind two children with a significant age gap between them: his daughter, playing in the other room, was too young to fully understand what had happened to her father, whereas Josef Jr., only four years younger than Yuri, sat next to his mother and glared at the Persian rug under his feet.

 

“He was a good man,” Mrs. Karpisek said between sniffles. “Such a good man. He couldn’t harm a fly.”

 

“Do you know of any reason that anyone in particular might have wanted to hurt him?”

 

She shook her head sadly. “In his line of work, I… I suppose it was unavoidable. That he made himself the enemy of quite a few people.”

 

“He wasn’t shy about running on an anti-organized crime platform, among other things.” Viktor dangled the bait. He always hated doing this to victims’ family members, though. It was one thing with actual suspects, or with witnesses who’d clammed up for no good reason. But with people who were - presumably - innocent, and mired in the worst stages of grieving, it just felt… dirty, sometimes. He wished he had another choice.

 

“That’s right.” She sniffled again, and managed a bleary, crooked smile. “He always said that he wanted to clean up the city, bit by bit. It started at around the same time he… oh, what was it he said?” She turned to her son, who hadn’t moved or spoken in the whole time Viktor had been here. “His last birthday, he said he wanted to clean up his life too, was that it?”

 

“Clean up his ‘act’,” Josef Jr. mumbled.

 

“Yes, that was it.” Mrs. Karpisek turned to Viktor again, still wearing that same, tragic smile. “He quit smoking that day, cold turkey. He gave up coffee for tea… it’s all he’s been drinking since then.”

 

“Wow.” That probably explained the cup of tea she’d set out for him, a strange but welcome departure from his usual currency of coffee and cigarettes. “That’s impressive. It sounds like he wanted to set a good example.”

 

Josef Jr.’s face twitched. It was barely there, but Viktor noticed it anyway: a momentary crack in his poker face, gone as fast as had come. His posture reminded Viktor of a compressed, coiled spring, ready to snap at a single touch. But the boy had been that way since Viktor had walked into the house, so it was hard to establish a baseline. Was he trying not to cry? Was he angry?

 

“That’s right.” Mrs. Karpisek heaved a sigh and slumped back into the couch. This conversation had clearly already taken its toll on her. Viktor would be lucky to get one, maybe two more answers out of her at this rate. “If I had to guess, then… political opponents, maybe? Or one of those crime factions… oh, I just can’t think of any other possible reason.”

 

‘Murder most likely a business matter’ Viktor scribbled onto a random page of his notepad. He wondered, briefly, if someone would be writing that same note about him in the future. He was very much aware of the odds, and even before working for Yakov he’d always held that tiny, persistent thought sitting like a demon in the back of his mind: he was going to die on the job, one day. There was nothing morbid about it; it was just a numbers game.

 

And what a shitty game it was. He’d already seen people cash out - too many to count, too many for a lifetime.

 

“Mrs. Karpisek,” he sighed. “May I ask if you suspect that your husband might have made enemies within La Cosa Nostra?

 

Bless her heart. She didn’t even know who those people were.

 

That left him with nothing, then. But what was left of his tea had gone cold, and the poor widow looked as though she really needed to lie down soon. Also, at some point Josef Jr. had shifted his glare away from the floor and onto Viktor’s face. Perhaps he’d overstayed his welcome.

 

He left Mrs. Karpisek with his card, asking her to call him if anything else came to mind - and really, if she started to feel overwhelmed and needed someone to talk to. Then came the usual requests for information that they always brought to the next of kin: personal correspondences, government documents, bank statements, any and all paperwork that she had on hand which could be considered even remotely useful, and that she didn’t mind turning over to the agency. She agreed readily. Anything to find her husband’s killer, of course.

 

Viktor thanked her, but stopped there. He knew better than to promise anything.

 

There was one last thing he wanted to do before leaving this place, though. No sooner had Mrs. Karpisek picked up the teacups than Josef Jr. stood up, with neither a glance nor a goodbye thrown his way, and strode purposefully towards the hall. Viktor thanked Mrs. Karpisek again for her time, waited for her to retreat into the kitchen, and then went to see if he could get the boy to talk to him.

 

The hall that he’d disappeared to was longer than Viktor had expected, with two closed doors on either side, and one last door at the very end. This door had been left ajar, and as he drew closer, Viktor realized that there was a figure peeking out from the crack between the door and the jamb.

 

“Josef?” he called out.

 

But when he took a single step closer, the door was abruptly slammed shut.

 

 


 

 

By the time Viktor got back to the agency building, he’d already blown most of the day. With less than an hour to go before everyone would eventually start trickling out of the office anyway, he figured it wouldn’t hurt to just pop in, wish everyone a Happy New Year, and duck out early. Hell, as of a week ago, he wasn’t even supposed to be back here until January anyway.

 

When he reached the top of the stairs, it was definitely not Yakov he saw coming out of the big office at the end of the hallway, with the door clearly marked ‘YAKOV FELTSMAN’. “Doc - ” he caught himself at the last second, remembering where they were and the words they’d parted with the last time they’d seen each other, four days ago. “Yuuri.”

 

This time, Yuuri didn’t look shocked to see him. Today he was in pinstripes, a double-breasted jacket in dark gray, as though he’d been wrapped in a thundercloud. A thick wool scarf had been pulled in a classic loop around his neck. “Hello, Viktor.”

 

“What is this now, twice in four days? Should I ask Yakov if we can spare you some desk space?”

 

“Don’t worry.” Yuuri flashed him an affable smile. “I was just about to see myself out.”

 

“Yeah? To what did we owe the pleasure?”

 

“Nothing of any real importance. Enjoy the New Year, Viktor.”

 

Yuuri nodded once, and moved towards the space between Viktor and the railing to make his way down the stairs. Viktor took a step to the right, blocking his way. Yuuri frowned, moved the other way, and Viktor deliberately blocked him again.

 

“I could do this all day, Doc,” he said in a teasing tone.

 

Yuuri’s frown deepened. “This is very immature.”

 

Viktor shrugged. He wondered what the chances were that Yuuri would actually call his bluff, or enlist Yakov’s help to rein him in. This wasn’t the approach he preferred, but he was going to be damned if he let the doctor walk out without knowing what he came here for.

 

“If you really must know,” Yuuri finally sighed, “I was just talking to your employer.”

 

“So I gathered.”

 

“He wanted to discuss my recommendation in detail - in particular, my request for documentation regarding your previous cases.” He fiddled with the rim of his glasses. “After our discussion, he’s agreed to release everything to me.”

 

Viktor felt something turn in his stomach. Really, Yakov? “Everything?”

 

“All of your case files, and any related incident reports, since you started working at the Feltsman Agency.”

 

Images from his past cases - suspects’ faces, stakeout venues, miles and miles of interview transcripts and every single bullet he’d ever fired as a private investigator - all flashed in his mind. Funny, he heard this sort of thing was only supposed to happen when you were dying. He really, really wished Yakov had talked to him about this before signing off on it, but Viktor supposed this had never really been his call to begin with.

 

“It’s fine, you know?” Yuuri said in a much gentler tone. “I’ll only be getting the documents over the next few days. After that, I’ll need some time to study them… we don’t have to talk about their contents right away.”

 

And maybe there was a very thin silver lining to this: all of the files Yuuri had requested would only contain information about Viktor’s work at the Feltsman agency, and nothing from before that. At the very least, he wouldn’t have to know about what happened two years ago.

 

“Viktor?” This time it was Yuuri’s turn to break out the teasing voice. “You’re not going to push me down those stairs, are you?”

 

He processed the words, but the black humor was lost on him. Viktor knew that none of his usual attempts at damage control would be of any use; both Yuuri and Yakov had clearly already made up their minds. But there were still a million other things he could have said, which was why he surprised even himself when what ended up leaving his mouth was, “Do you have any plans for New Year’s Eve?”

 

Yuuri blinked. His head jerked back, barely, about a millimeter or so, before he could stop himself. If Viktor remembered right, this was only the second time he saw Yuuri show any semblance of surprise on his face. “Tonight? I… to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it yet.”

 

“That makes this easier, then.” He didn’t realize he was already flashing Yuuri his killer, case-winning smile until he registered the familiar feel of it on his face. “Want to spend the rest of 1928 with me?”

 

Yuuri’s eyes widened, and he huffed out an incredulous laugh. “What?”

 

The simple question echoed in his mind. What the hell was he doing? He didn’t know, but some subconscious part of him must have really wanted it, because he still wasn’t withdrawing the offer. “I don’t really have any plans either.” He shrugged. “Can we just… pretend you’re not my therapist until the year is out? What is that, a few hours?”

 

Viktor wasn’t sure if the logic of this ludicrous request was finally starting to come to him, or if he was just rationalizing it because, well, it was too late to take it back - especially when it actually looked like Yuuri might actually have been considering it. In any case, this was his chance to engage Yuuri outside of the clinic, and he liked to think that if the clinic was Yuuri’s home turf, then the rest of the island was his. He’d have another try at showing him that he was a productive, sane member of society, that he was stable, that he was fine. Sure, he’d asked Yuuri not to think of himself as his therapist tonight, but he’d met many professionals like Dr. Katsuki in his lifetime, and they never really ‘turned it off’, did they?  

 

“Sure.”

 

Viktor’s eyes widened. “Wait… really?”

 

“Why not?” Yuuri glanced at his watch - it was different from the one he’d worn to Casa Roja, but no less fancy. Viktor idly wondered how many of those he owned. “I don’t have any appointments for the rest of the day. And I feel as though being in your presence will at least be more… entertaining… than sitting at home and watching the clock on my desk.”

 

That was funny, because Viktor had planned to do much of the same, except minus the desk, and plus a handle of Christophe’s gin. “I will be right back.” He finally moved to unblock Yuuri’s access to the stairs. “Wait for me outside, okay?”

 

If Yuuri replied to that, he didn’t hear it. Rushing to Mila’s office, Viktor half-wondered if he really was starting to go insane, although perhaps not in the way that Yakov and Dr. Katsuki seemed to have imagined. She wasn’t there, but Yuri was: on his hands and knees, muttering less-than-pleasant phrases in Russian under his breath, as he sorted files alphabetically on the floor.

 

“Hi.” He flashed Yuri a different smile - wide, sheepish, and hopefully deferential enough to prevent any yelling. “I… need a huge favor.”

 

 


 

 

Yuri, his grandparents, and - whenever she cared to show up - his mother lived in a complex almost identical to Viktor’s building about a block and a half away. Yuri’s building had specifically been built for families, though - something about larger kitchens, and direct access to an enclosed playground below. Regardless, because they lived so close to one another, this was a favor that Yuri had already granted him before; Viktor didn’t know what time he’d be home tonight, so all he requested was for Yuri to pop in once in the evening, take Makkachin outside for a few minutes, and make sure she had enough food and water. He wasn’t too worried about the fireworks, you couldn’t really hear them from the apartment. And he resolved to be sure to make it up to her in the morning.

 

Obviously Yuri hadn’t wanted to do this for nothing; Viktor had offered him money, same as always, but Yuri wanted something different this time: he wanted Viktor to take him along when the time came for him to talk to the Mafia. That was absolutely out of the question, for so many reasons that Viktor didn’t even know where to begin. Eventually, they agreed that once Viktor confirmed the guilty party in the Karpisek case, he would let Yuri be there for the accusation and arrest. Fine; Viktor figured that wasn’t going to be happening anytime soon.

 

Still, Yuri’s acquiescence meant that he had one less worry on his mind as he walked down West End Avenue with Yuuri by his side. “So, I have a question.”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

“Well, it’s just that you know - or are soon to know - practically all that there is to know about me.” That wasn’t technically true, but it was certainly more than Viktor would ever care to share willingly. “On the other hand, I know almost nothing about you.”

 

“I didn’t hear a question there.”

 

Viktor smiled. “You don’t think that’s a little unfair?”

 

“Generally, the flow of information from patient to therapist is, by the very nature of the relationship, one-sided.”

 

“Ah, but you’re not my therapist, remember?” Viktor pulled back his sleeve to check his watch. “Not for the next seven hours and sixteen minutes, anyway.”

 

“Fair enough.” Yuuri chuckled softly. He stuffed his hands into his pockets with a small sigh. “Alright, let’s see… my parents immigrated to the States from Japan, which you probably already guessed. Seattle. Father worked on the railroad, Mother was a cook at a restaurant. I don’t really have memories of living there though - we all moved to New York when I was five.”

 

“Wow.” Viktor regarded him with mild surprise. “May I ask why?”

 

“I don’t believe my parents ever gave me a reason,” Yuuri said. “It was just something that happened one day, and I went along without questioning it.”

 

“I see.” So Dr. Katsuki was a second-generation immigrant, then. That was one thing they had in common. “I guess you’ve gotten people, strangers, coming up to you and asking when you plan to go ‘home’?” Viktor mimicked the tone that some of the older members of the community were fond of using with him, and made the air quotes in front of his face with his fingers.

 

“Oh my goodness, all the time.” Yuuri’s frustration resounded through his words. “Though, I do plan to go someday.”

 

“You still learned the language, I’m guessing?”

 

“Yes. We always spoke it at home, and Mi- ah, my mother,” he amended, “insisted that I learn how to read and write. It was important, she said. So I think I can get by.” They stopped at a red light, and Yuuri gave his arm a gentle nudge. “What about you? Any appetite for a pilgrimage to… hmmm, Russia, is it?”

 

Viktor nodded. “Someday. Maybe. If it’s in the cards.”

 

They kept the conversation light as they headed South into the heart of the city. As the street numbers decreased, the familiar row townhouses of the neighborhood around the agency building grew less and less ubiquitous. By the time they reached the point where West End Avenue turned into 12th Avenue, they found themselves walking through a sea of warehouses.

 

Viktor didn’t think much of it; it was relatively quiet for this time of day, though there were still a few people milling about. On the other hand, Yuuri seemed visibly on edge, and Viktor glanced over to find him ducking into his scarf.  

 

“Ah, sorry… I wasn’t thinking. You, uh, don’t come up to these parts much, do you?” There was a reason they dubbed this part of the city as ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, after all: the first gangs in this area had been formed by immigrants working on the Hudson River docks, and with gangs came violence, plus all of the other nastiness that came as a matter of course. That said, the gangs had been here since the 19th century, and the presence of multiple, relatively old gangs like these guaranteed a non-intuitive sense of security: crimes had to be accounted for by each gang, after all. And as long as they had paid their dues, businesses in the area were generally left alone.

 

Viktor relayed all of this to Yuuri, which did seem to put the doctor at ease. That, or he was putting on a brave face for Viktor’s sake. “Did you deliberately take me through this neighborhood in an attempt to intimidate me?” he said in jest. “Perhaps you were thinking that I’d want nothing to do with a patient who recklessly walks through streets where criminals run amok.”

 

Viktor laughed. “Not that a good, law-abiding doctor such as yourself would know much about it, right?”

 

“Let’s extend your mental exercise further and suppose I’m not a doctor at all, not until midnight anyway.” Yuuri lowered his gaze. Viktor wondered what thoughts were running behind that piercing stare. “How do you stomach it? Organized crime, men who’ve made a business out of murder and larceny and everything in between… you must find yourself in the thick of it more often than you’d like, no?”

 

If only he knew. “We do our best. And we’ve got some good people fighting the good fight - sometimes they pay for it dearly, like Karpisek did. But someone will take his place.”

 

He thought he might have heard Yuuri scoff at that. “You and I have very different opinions on what makes a good man.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“Nothing. Forgive me.” Yuuri glanced back up with a smile. “It’s only decent to say all good things about the recently-deceased after all.”

 

Viktor didn’t know what to make of that. He would have loved to continue this train of thought, but now he had a dilemma on his hands: if he asked Yuuri to elaborate more, Yuuri would probably realize very quickly that Viktor was working on the Karpisek murder investigation. Though it was bound to become public knowledge quicker than he’d like, this was something Viktor wanted to keep close to his chest for now.

 

In the end, he decided to drop it. There were many other potential sources he could tap for information on Karpisek’s less-than-stellar qualities. And if he needed to, he could always ask Yuuri again later. “Anyway, here we are!”

 

‘Here’ was a collection of food carts near the docks around 41st Street. Viktor had never learned their operators’ names, nor had they ever learned his. But there was an easy familiarity in their friendly smiles, their boisterous laughter, and the way their eyes crinkled when they asked what he wanted. The usual?  

 

Viktor took a little bit of everything: some pretzels, sausages in buns, and something else that had Yuuri watching him with an eyebrow raised. “Oysters? Really? Don’t you think you’re being just a bit presumptuous?”

 

“Sorry, do you not like oysters?” Viktor squinted at him. Didn’t everyone like them?

 

“Oh… no, I just - I thought - ” Yuuri flushed. “Never mind.”

 

Viktor didn’t say anything about it, but in that moment, the doctor looked quite adorable. It was a pity that moment didn’t last longer than it did.

 

They took their food with them and sat right at the docks, watching the water as the sun began to set. They weren’t the only ones here, but the area was emptier than usual, deserted enough that they had plenty of room all to themselves. This was what New Year’s Eve did to most of the city, he supposed, drawing most of her populace away from their usual haunts and towards where all of tonight’s festivities would be.

 

Yuuri was inspecting an oyster shell, holding it up to the dying light. “You know New York’s oyster beds were shut down last year, right?”

 

“Well, nothing good lasts forever.” Viktor shrugged with a little laugh. “These oysters are shipped in, and they’re bound to get more and more expensive in the coming years. One day I might have to stop coming here, which is a shame.”

 

“You come here often?”

 

“Yeah… sometimes.”

 

A spell of silence fell over them like a shroud. A gull’s cry, coming from somewhere above them, broke it before too long. But it returned, and Viktor could feel Yuuri’s stare on him, waiting for something.

 

“A friend of mine used to come here with me all the time,” he finally said. “He lived close by, and I was often at his place…” He didn’t really want to elaborate on that, and thankfully Yuuri didn’t ask him to. “We’d gorge ourselves on street food, and then when we were too full to walk home right away - which was every time, by the way, we never learned - we’d just sit here for a while and talk.”

 

“What would you talk about?”

 

“What do kids usually talk about?” Viktor shrugged, staring at the sky. Did he really want to be having this conversation? He supposed it wasn’t the safest of choices… but it felt alright somehow. The water, the breeze, and the way Yuuri kept his eyes on him with a soft, thoughtful look on his face put him at ease. “Classmates, teachers, the war. Which one of his siblings he was feuding with that day, and why they were in the wrong. We’d talk about what we wanted to be when we grew up… and then when that actually came true, shockingly, for both of us, we’d talk about what our next steps would be. One day, we decided we wanted to go to Scotland Yard.” He laughed weakly. “To be honest, I think we just wanted off this island. Obviously we never agreed on which of us was Holmes and which of us was Watson, so he said we’d flip a coin for it on the trip. But yeah, that was the dream.”

 

Yuuri drew closer, his eyes searching. “What happened?”

 

Viktor stared at the water. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

 

Part of him wanted to laugh at that answer. It was amazing how you could distill an infinite number of truths - dreams, tragedies, things that were and things that could have been - into just those seven words. Not that they weren’t true, but putting it that way glossed over so much of the whole story, making it seem as though it was something that had just happened to him, and that he’d just been a spectator to it all. But in truth…

 

“This friend of yours…” Yuuri’s voice was so soft that Viktor could barely hear him over the wind. “Is he…?”

 

“His name was Georgi. We lost him two years ago, and the world’s a worse place for it.” Viktor heaved a sigh. “No, you don’t have to be sorry; yes, I’ve grieved, et cetera.”

 

Yuuri chuckled. “I thought I wasn’t your therapist for today.”

 

“Right.” Shit, he’d forgotten all about that for a moment. Maybe Yuuri wasn’t the only one between them who was incapable of ‘turning it off’ after all. “Sorry.”

 

Yuuri shook his head. He reached out and very gently put a hand on Viktor’s arm. “Thank you for sharing this with me, Viktor.”

 

If it hadn’t followed the conversation they’d just had, he might have appreciated the contact more. But the warmth of Yuuri’s hand felt at once comforting and oppressive. “Um.” He smiled briefly, before pulling away and getting to his feet. “We should probably get moving…”

 

“Where are you taking me?”

 

“…To be completely honest? No idea.” Viktor chuckled. “I thought I’d kind of just make it up as I go along.”

 

Yuuri’s lips curved into a teasing smile. “Is that your general philosophy in life, or a strategy you reserve strictly for me?”

 

Viktor found that he didn’t actually know the answer to that question. “Does it matter?” He extended his arm, offering Yuuri a hand. “Come on, it might be fun. And if you get bored, you can end the evening at any time.”

 

Yuuri stared at the hand for a few seconds. Viktor started thinking that he might be considering playing that card now.

 

But then he took it, pulled himself to his feet, and murmured into Viktor’s ear: “I don’t think I could ever be bored of you.”

 

 


 

 

They headed East from the docks, because it was the only direction that made sense and the other options would have taken them back to where they’d come from, or to the clinic, or to the river. Viktor still didn’t have a destination in mind, and to his surprise, Yuuri seemed perfectly fine with this as well. Eventually, he knew, continuing this way would take them closer to the city center, and maybe they would figure something out along the way.

 

But this city’s weather had decided to be just as fickle and random as they were, and before they knew it they were caught in a spell of freezing rain. They panicked, swore, and ran along 43rd Street, past brick walk-ups and other unmarked buildings, until they found an ornate theater entrance near Broadway. They ducked into it without a second’s hesitation.

 

“They said the skies would be clear tonight,” Yuuri grumbled once they were safely inside, indignant. He’d stripped off his suit jacket and was trying to get as much moisture off of the material as he could.

 

“You listen to weather forecasts?” Viktor watched this losing battle with thinly-veiled amusement. “I’ll say a little prayer for your suit.”

 

“Me too.”

 

“What are you doing out in December without a coat, anyway?”

 

Yuuri let out a frustrated huff. “It wasn’t that cold a few hours ago. And I’d planned to head home right after meeting with your employer.”

 

Viktor wasn’t too sure that made sense; Yuuri hadn’t been wearing a coat at Casa Roja, either. He almost wanted to ask him where ‘home’ was. “Should we just wait out the rain here, then? Maybe if we’re lucky, it won’t last.”

 

Gingerly, Yuuri pulled his jacket back on. He was already staring at the posters on the wall. “What’s showing here today?”

 

The theater’s current offering was a mystery play called ‘One Way Street’, and as it turned out, the next performance was scheduled for less than half an hour from now. It wasn’t exactly Yuuri’s genre of choice, and Viktor hadn’t been on Broadway enough times to even develop a preference for one thing or another. But the freezing rain had worsened, and what else were they going to do? This was fine, Yuuri said, as he paid at the counter for a pair of box tickets.

 

“I’ll pay you back in one of our sessions.” Viktor paused when he saw how much money Yuuri deposited onto the counter. “Probably not this coming week, but soon I promise.”

 

“Don’t worry about it.” Yuuri waved his concerns away. “You already paid for food.”

 

“Still, I feel kind of bad about it, since I’m the one who asked you out and all.”

 

“Oh, is that what this is?” Yuuri smiled. “A date?”

 

…Was it? “This is whatever you want it to be,” he said instead. It was better not to overthink it. He figured he could make sense of it all later… especially when he noticed Yuuri visibly shivering. He frowned. “You okay?”

 

“Just fine,” Yuuri said quickly. But a tremor in his voice gave him away.

 

“Alright.” Viktor unbuttoned his coat, stripped it off, and placed it onto Yuuri’s shoulders without any preamble. “Here.”

 

Yuuri stiffened, and immediately began to squirm out of it. “It's fine, really.”

 

“Well, I’m afraid I insist.” Viktor let him struggle for a second before cheerfully putting the coat back on him.

 

Thankfully, Yuuri stopped trying after that, and slipped his arms through the sleeves after some reluctance. Viktor liked to think that it was because he remembered their earlier standoff on the stairs at the agency building. “At least take my scarf in return?”

 

Viktor’s eyebrows knotted. “Why?”

 

“It’s a very warm scarf?”

 

“Oh, stop. You can’t take a favor, can you? Is that it?”

 

Yuuri pulled the coat tighter around himself. He really looked quite adorable like this, with Viktor’s coat swimming on him, the sleeves too long for his arms, and excess fabric wrinkling around his shoulders. He murmured, “I haven’t had the best track record with owing people favors.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Nothing, I’m exaggerating.” Yuuri shook his head with a smile. “Anyway, if you’re still feeling bad about the tickets… I wouldn't mind some coffee.”

 

The theater had another entrance off of Broadway, decorated rather simply with granite and terra cotta like the 43rd Street entrance. It was also connected to the Fitzgerald building, where Viktor was able to get them a couple of coffees in Dixie cups. Once they were finally allowed inside, Viktor tried not to gawk: the interior of the theater was so much more grandiose than the lobby, decorated in a style that echoed the Italian Renaissance. There were two sets of balconies, with murals around the proscenium arch and under the boxes - of which, Viktor noted, they seemed to be the only occupants tonight. Even after the rest of the audience trickled in, only half of the house ended up occupied. He wondered if this was an indicator of the quality of this mystery play.

 

If nothing else, at least this arrangement allowed them to talk rather freely with one another, once the play finally started. “You know that no interrogator worth his salt would open with a question like that, right?”

 

Yuuri hummed into the rim of his coffee cup, amused. “No. Enlighten me, Detective.”

 

“You can't just accost a suspect with a leading question out of the blue, you'll scare them,” Viktor explained. “Well, I guess it depends… it seems to work for Yakov sometimes. But I prefer a more subtle approach.”

 

“Subtle,” Yuuri echoed. “What would an interrogation with you look like, I wonder.”

 

“If I like the subject enough, maybe I take them out for oysters and a show.”

 

He didn’t notice that Yuuri had been taking another sip of his coffee. Yuuri sputtered and laughed at the same time, prompting some members of the audience to shush them. He also ended up spilling some coffee on the front of Viktor's coat.

 

“Oh my God…” He tried frantically to clean up, swearing in another language.

 

Viktor grinned, unable to help himself. “I’m sorry.”

 

“No, I’m sorry! I’ll have it cleaned, I promise.”

 

“Don’t worry about it. I know a guy, complete wizard with textiles. I’ve gone to him with worse.”

 

“Even so, this one’s my fault. Let me fix it. I’ll give it back to you during - ” Yuuri stopped himself. “I mean, when we next see each other,” he amended, and Viktor was grateful for that.

 

The show went on, as it always did. Viktor poked fun at everything in the play that represented any aspect of his job inaccurately, which ended up happening a lot more than he’d expected. Yuuri drained his coffee cup halfway through the first act, and diagnosed each new character with a possible personality disorder.

 

During the scene change just after all of the characters named in the playbill had been introduced, Yuuri leaned over to whisper into Viktor’s ear. “Well, Detective? To whom do your suspicions point?”

 

“Well, almost everyone is explicitly suspect in one way or another.” The show’s dialogue and acting had certainly delivered that impression with a heavy hand. “But it feels like it would be too easy if it were one of them. The twist might be that the only straight man is the actual guilty one.”

 

“Interesting. Is that something you see often in real life?”

 

“Surprisingly more often than you’d think.”

 

Yuuri mulled over that for a while. “But you always catch them in the end.”

 

“I always catch them in the end.”

 

At some point, the lights darkened considerably, kicking off a nighttime scene. Yuuri leaned his head against Viktor’s shoulder.

 

“Tired?”

 

“Mmmm.”

 

Viktor chuckled. “Bored?”

 

“I wouldn’t put it like that. Although I am open to any alternatives you might have in mind. To entertain me.”

 

“Is that so?”

 

Yuuri didn’t answer. Viktor tried to focus on the play again, but he couldn’t; Yuuri’s warmth, the tips of his hair tickling Viktor’s cheek, and the smell of the rain and his aftershave were doing strange things to Viktor’s head.

 

He reached out, found Yuuri’s knee, and slid his hand slowly up his thigh.

 

Yuuri snorted. “Once again you are the pinnacle of maturity, Detective.”

 

Viktor snickered. “I’m not exactly hearing a protest there.”

 

“If that is the only conclusion you’ve made, then you’re not listening closely enough.”

 

“Ah.” Perhaps he still hadn’t quite shaken the vestiges of the image of Casa Roja Yuuri from his mind; of course, there would be a difference between drunk Yuuri and sober Yuuri. “Then I apologize.” He took Yuuri’s hand in his and pressed a kiss against his knuckles in atonement.

 

A moment of silence passed between them. On stage, one of the actors drew a fake gun - his finger was on the trigger even though he was waving it all over the place in a mad tirade. Viktor sighed.

 

Suddenly Yuuri got up, calmly climbed into Viktor’s seat, and shifted until he was straddling him without a single word.

 

“Y-Yuuri?”

 

“I said,” Yuuri whispered as he cupped the sides of Viktor’s face in his hands, “you weren’t listening.”

 

Yuuri was kissing him before he could react, conjuring up very vivid visions of a phone booth in a seedy speakeasy from only days ago. Viktor found himself waiting for someone to yell at them to stop, because although this felt very much like Casa Roja again, this time they were even more exposed, to 500-odd people in the house and on stage. Any moment now, he thought, an usher would come to throw them out of the theater.

 

But it was dark, and that voice of protest he was imagining never came. Viktor finally stopped caring, grasped Yuuri by the hips and pulled him closer, until they were pressed against one another and the friction was… promising.

 

Yuuri pulled back, breaking the kiss to look Viktor in the eye. His gaze positively smoldered in the darkness before he surged forward, claiming Viktor’s lips again, this time with teeth, demanding so much more. Viktor let him plunder his mouth, greeting Yuuri’s tongue with his, and rolled his hips forward. Yuuri moaned into the kiss, which Viktor was more than happy to encourage by moving his hips again. And again.

 

Yuuri’s hands, which had been busy working on loosening Viktor’s tie, fumbled and stilled. When they resumed, they’d lost a lot of dexterity to something desperate - Yuuri wound up popping the button on Viktor’s collar free with something that felt like a growl against his lips.

 

“Sorry.” Yuuri gasped, coming up for air. He pulled open Viktor’s collar, lowered his head, and froze - probably after seeing the marks again, Viktor guessed. But those were nothing new, so he didn’t care. Yuuri swallowed hard, and his voice quavered as he whispered, “May I?”

 

“…Please.”

 

Yuuri lifted Viktor’s chin and brought his lips to the side of Viktor’s neck. He was grinding against Viktor again, harder this time, as he very slowly, very thoroughly sucked a bruise onto the delicate skin. It took every last ounce of willpower Viktor had to suppress the moans that were threatening to slip from his lips.

 

 

 

   

 

 

Then the theater darkened completely, to an oppressive pitch-black. The applause started; Act I was over. Yuuri let out the same curse word Viktor had heard him utter in the rain, and climbed off of Viktor’s lap before the overhead lights all switched back on for intermission.

 

“That…” Viktor fingered the side of his neck, which was still tingling and sensitive from Yuuri’s teeth and lips. “That’s… a lot higher up than my collar will cover,” he breathed.

 

“All the more reason for you to accept this.”

 

Viktor looked at him, and realized just then that at some point during the show, Yuuri had unwound his scarf from his neck. He now wrapped that same scarf, which had been draped over the back of his seat, lovingly around Viktor’s neck, fixing him with a beatific smile.

 

“Is that…” Viktor gaped at him. “Is that really all you wanted?”

 

“It was at first, but I got carried away. You are far too tempting.” Yuuri smoothed out the ends of the scarf hanging over Viktor’s chest, and stood up with purpose in his step. “I’m going to get more coffee.”

 

To Yuuri’s credit, it really was a very warm scarf.

 

 


 

 

After the play ended, they left the theater through the Broadway entrance to find that the freezing rain had stopped. The streets and sidewalks gleamed in the thin layer of water and ice that the rain had left behind. It made the millions of lights from the area’s buildings and huge electric display billboards seem even brighter.

 

Everything in Times Square was still open, either as a matter of course or to take advantage of the year-end celebrations. Yuuri cheerfully, but insistently, dragged them into a shop that sold men’s coats. Viktor understood the reasons for that the moment he realized where they were going, but he failed miserably to talk Yuuri out of them even once they were in the shop.

 

“It’s the least I can do,” Yuuri insisted, as he handed Viktor yet another coat to try on. “Given how I might have ruined yours.”

 

Viktor stared at the coffee stain on the front of his coat. He could barely even see it. “This lovely evening we’ve spent together is more than payment enough.”

 

“Flatterer.” Yuuri rolled his eyes. He appraised Viktor wearing the coat he’d just handed him - a tannish brown overplaid topcoat, a touch too large for him - and shook his head. He selected a similar one from the rack, bluish-gray this time, and motioned for Viktor to take off the one he was wearing. “Are we the same, then? In the sense that you’re unable to accept favors for yourself?”

 

“It’s not that.” Viktor pulled on this new coat, wondering why he was even humoring Yuuri like this. He liked the color well enough, but unfortunately this latest offering was a bit too small, and the buttons strained when he tried them. “You’re aware of the nature of my job, right? The places I find myself in, the things I get on myself… I don’t think any of these fancy coats would be up to the task.”

 

Yuuri hummed, perusing through another rack. He found three more coats that caught his eye, piling them into Viktor’s arms one by one. “Then save it for a special occasion?”

 

“Those are few and far in between.”

 

“Hence them being ‘special’.” Yuuri seemed to remember something, and checked his watch. His face fell, if only for a second - he was smiling again when he said, “I need to make a phone call, okay?” Viktor watched as he disappeared in the direction of a larger building across the street, where a bank of phone booths sat near the main entrance.

 

As he worked through the coats Yuuri had left for him to try, Viktor wondered, for not the first time tonight, if taking Yuuri out for a night on the town had been the best of ideas. He didn’t think he’d revealed anything too drastic about himself that Yuuri might one day use as ammunition against him, as Dr. Katsuki. Maybe he’d come closer than he’d wanted, mentioning Georgi at the docks. That had been… careless, but Yuuri had seemed sympathetic. Perhaps he’d known a similar pain in the past? Viktor didn’t know.

 

At the end of the day, Yuuri was… still largely a closed book to him. He’d seen glimpses of that book’s contents, accidentally. Yuuri had been generous with his kisses, his stares, that touch of his that left all rational thought impossible, but Viktor had also witnessed his laughter, his moments of disquiet, the curious words that sometimes bubbled from his lips unbidden: on goodness and crime and how one could abide with the status quo, awful as it was. Altogether, they gave Viktor the impression that Yuuri wasn’t a bad person, at least. But that wasn’t really much to go on, was it?

 

Despite all of that… it didn’t seem to matter. Viktor didn’t regret what he’d done tonight. Why was that?

 

When Yuuri returned, Viktor was still wearing the last of the three coats, a dark blue Chesterfield with a velvet collar. When he glanced up, he could see Yuuri’s expression in the mirror: the downward curl of his mouth, and an excess moisture in his eyes that made them shimmer. Viktor turned around. “Everything alright?”

 

“Hmmm? Oh, yes… of course.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Perhaps the exhaustion of the night is getting to me, that’s all.” Yuuri rubbed at his eyes and adjusted his glasses, before fixing his stare onto Viktor. He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, but the admiration was frank in his eyes. “That’s the one.”

 

“You think so?”

 

“It looks like it’s been tailored to you. You look positively ravishing in it.”

 

Yuuri paid for the coat, seeming genuinely pleased with himself as they exited the shop. Since only a few blocks separated them from where the yearly ball drop ceremony was to take place, they decided to head over there and wait out the last few moments of the year with the rest of the revelers in Times Square.

 

When they eventually got there, it almost felt like the entire city must have come out tonight. People filled up an area on the streets several blocks wide, shoulder to shoulder. Quite a few had begun cheering and yelling too early, and Viktor swore he could smell alcohol on some of them. He wondered if Otabek and his squad knew about this, or if they just didn’t care to have to arrest half of this throng.

 

“How many minutes until the ball drop?”

 

“How many minutes until I’m your therapist again, you mean?” Yuuri chuckled. “A little over ten minutes.”

 

Ten minutes. That was all? How quickly time had flown.

 

“Do you come here often?”

 

Viktor shook his head. “I’m not a fan of the crowds.”

 

“Mmm, good point.” Yuuri squinted in the direction of the ball. “We can barely see anything from here as it is.”

 

“And you? Is this your first time?”

 

“It is, actually.” Yuuri had his hands stuffed into the pockets of Viktor’s coat for warmth. “But I’m familiar with what happens - ball drop, fireworks, revelry.” He paused. “And some traditions associated with it as well.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Superstitions, more like. Practices like these endure even long after all of their meaning has been stripped away.” He shrugged. “But it’s not all bad.”

 

The energy in the crowd intensified tenfold when the countdown finally began. The lighted ball, designed to descend seventy feet in the last sixty seconds of the year, had begun to move.

 

And he finally understood, with thirty seconds to go, why it didn’t even matter whether or not he’d accomplished his goal of convincing Yuuri that he was sane and not the slightest bit traumatized tonight. “Yuuri?”

 

“Yes?”

 

They had to practically yell at one another to be heard over the noise of the crowd. But that didn’t matter. Viktor smiled at the sky. “This was a lot of fun.”

 

“It really was, wasn’t it?” Yuuri moved closer to him, until their arms were touching. “Thank you for inviting me.”

 

Ten seconds to go. Ten seconds more, and they would revert back to therapist and patient, and Viktor would have to resume walking on eggshells around Dr. Katsuki with every word he said. He could already foretell difficult, vexing conversations at the clinic to come. If nothing else, at least, he would have this to hold onto: the memory of tonight, and how being with Yuuri, not Dr. Katsuki but Yuuri, had helped him to forget about most of his troubles, if only for a few hours.

 

Five. “Viktor.”

 

Four. From the corner of his eye, Viktor saw Yuuri taking off his glasses. “Hmmm?”

 

Three. A hand closed around his scarf - Yuuri’s scarf, which was still wrapped around his neck. The hand hesitated for a moment - two - and pulled.

 

One.  

 

    

 

 

 

 

When the clock finally struck midnight, the fireworks went off, and the band gathered near the stage started playing Auld Lang Syne. The crowd screamed and roared. Viktor barely took notice of any of these, because Yuuri had captured his lips in a surprisingly tender kiss.

 

     

 

 

 

 

And soft, and chaste, and sweet as it was, it sent a shiver down Viktor's spine, and surges of excitement coursed through his limbs. His heart beat to the pop of fireworks above.

 

Yuuri kept his eyes closed as he pulled away. A gentle smile lent him some serenity against the chaos all around them. And although Viktor couldn’t hear him, he read the doctor’s lips quite clearly:

 

“I’ll see you this Wednesday.”

Chapter Text

January 2, 1929

 

I’m starting to wonder if I might have been given an impossible task.

 

The win condition is simple enough: find out the truth, and act accordingly. The problem is, that first step requires me to do something that I don’t think I have the stomach to do. I’ve been trying to think of alternatives for days now, but nothing comes to mind anymore. I had a few ideas along the way, but by the time they made it to practice, they just… failed. Just like that. Mocking my efforts.

 

I’m running out of time. I really may have to bite the bullet soon. God, is there really no other way? Am I going to have to face what I’ve been deliberately avoiding for so long?

 

I keep hoping that on the eleventh hour, something might save me. But miracles are in short supply nowadays, even though the hope for them springs eternal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Viktor walked through his office door on the first working day of the year, the lights were already on. But it wasn’t a new case file that greeted him, or a new client seeking closure for yet another murder that had happened overnight. No, it was something far more mundane, but also far more peculiar: a shoebox, sitting in the middle of his desk.

 

“Happy New Year to you, too.” Yuri was slouched in the chair that had been pushed up against the wall he shared with Mila for about as long as he could remember. Viktor would often drape his coat over the back of this chair and dump his hat on the seat, but now he could do neither. What an odd start to the day this was. “By the way, your stupid dog chewed on my favorite scarf!”

 

“Sorry. I’ll get you a new one.” Viktor shut the door behind him, dumped his coat and hat onto the tallest stack of file boxes, and made his way towards his desk. “What’s all this?” he asked.

 

“Came for you this morning. From Josef Karpisek’s widow.”

 

“Ah.”

 

When he opened the box, he was treated to an assortment of papers: government documents, typewritten speech transcripts, letters from family and business associates. A smaller box within that box contained Karpisek’s personal banking records, a passbook, and copies of withdrawal and deposit slips piled in an unsorted heap. Lovely. Newspaper clippings held together in a document envelope came with a note in his widow’s gorgeous cursive written on the flap: ‘I found these in his study’ .

 

He glanced up at Yuri. “And what are you doing here?”

 

Yuri shot him a puzzled look. “I’m on your service today. Didn’t Yakov tell you?”

 

…Did he? Viktor wracked his brains to try to remember. What day was today, even - it was the second, right? “Must’ve slipped my mind, sorry.” He cleared his throat, and avoided Yuri’s eyes. He took the thick stack of speech transcripts and handed it over. “But anyway, I’m glad to have your help. Divide and conquer, that’ll be our motto for the day.”

 

Yuri accepted the stack with a bleak look on his face. “Want to tell me what I’m looking for?”

 

“Any time he spoke about La Cosa Nostra would be great. I’m not sure if he’d have mentioned them by name, but who knows? We might get lucky.”

 

“But he was against all organized crime, no?”

 

“Yeah… yeah, you know what, you’re right. Let’s cast a wider net: let me know if he ever publicly antagonized any of the smaller players too. The White Hand, the Triad, any of the gangs involved in those Harlem ‘numbers rackets’... anytime he ever called out a single group in general, we should make a note of that.”

 

Yuri nodded. “On it.”

 

As Yuri took the speech transcripts with him back to the chair, Viktor started attacking the bank records. He wound up burning hours just putting everything into some semblance of order, and most of the lot wasn’t really worth the effort. Karpisek paid his bills on time, and he’d accumulated a decent amount of savings, but nothing worth killing over. Useless. He supposed it would have been too much to ask of the universe to give him a record of a wire transfer from a member of the list of known enemies of the Mafia. If he had that, he could promptly hand it off to Otabek, forget all about this case, and maybe hit Casa Roja early tonight.

 

There were a few things that caught his eye, though. Karpisek had received an awful lot of ‘campaign donations’ in the recent months - nothing too dramatic, mostly small amounts here and there, which was interesting because Viktor couldn’t remember if he’d ever formally announced his intention to run for mayor. But there was something even more intriguing: a series of withdrawals every couple of weeks or so, all for the same exact amount of $6.72. Flipping back to the very first instance, Viktor determined that these withdrawals had started around a year and a half ago.

 

The last such withdrawal had taken place the night before Karpisek’s murder.

 

“Yura,” he called out, “what can you buy for exactly $6.72?”

 

Yuri pondered that a bit, squinting at the ceiling. Eventually, he shrugged. “I give up, what?”

 

“Oh… no, it was a serious question. I don’t know. Look at these.” He beckoned Yuri to come closer, and pointed out all of the suspicious records. There were far too many, and the amount was far too precise, for all of those to have been a coincidence.

 

“That’s weird.” Yuri turned over one of the withdrawal slips, probably hoping for some kind of ‘Memo’ field on the back. Oh, if only they could be so lucky. “Maybe the wife knows?”

 

Viktor shook his head slowly. “I’ll ask her, but I don’t think so.” He paused, considering that some more. “There is someone in that house who might know something, but I don’t think he’s willing to talk. Not yet, anyway.”

 

“‘He’? The son?” Yuri snorted. “You’d think he’d want to cooperate with you, you’re only looking for his father’s killer after all.”

 

“People can be complicated.” Viktor stuffed all of the banking papers back into the smaller box. He’d figure out what to do with them later, maybe. And if he was still stuck at the end of the day, well, maybe gin would help unlock some insight. “Anyway, how are you holding up?”

 

Yuri groaned. “This guy must’ve loved to hear himself talk. He goes on and on and on and on…” He let out a frustrated sigh. “No hits, though.”

 

“I guess that would have been too easy.” Viktor drummed his fingers against the top of his desk. Idly, he checked his watch - fuck, was it almost noon already? “Shit. I have to go.”

 

“Home?”

 

Hah. “I wish. I’m heading to police HQ - they’re finally going to let us look at the physical evidence from the crime scene. Otabek is a miracle-worker.” In the middle of putting on his coat, he saw Yuri getting ready to leave as well. Viktor waved him off. “Oh, you don’t have to come for this if you don’t want to. I set you free, go have lunch, come back in an hour or two.”

 

Yuri stared at him.

 

“What?”

 

“I… I thought we were doing lunch at Lindy’s today. You’re supposed to get me cheesecake.”

 

Shit. When had he made that promise? “Right… I said this, right?” Viktor forced out a laugh, and then had to fight back a grimace because of how awful it had sounded. “Of course, of course. Come along then, we’ll get lunch after. I’ll invite Otabek, if he can spare the time. And if that’s okay with you.”

 

Yuri’s stare burned holes into the back of his head as they left the office.

 

Viktor thought he was in the clear once they exited the building. But of course, Yuri immediately piped up again once his foot touched the sidewalk: “This… side-effect, or whatever it is. It’s not permanent, is it?”

 

God, he fucking hoped not. “No. I just need to let it run its course.” At least, that was what the doctors had told him, and who was he to question their wisdom? Viktor stuffed his hands into his pockets and glanced back at Yuri with what he hoped was a disarming smile. “You’re not actually worried about me, are you?”

 

Yuri’s nose scrunched up in disgust, and he quickened his pace as though to prove some kind of point. But he didn’t deny it, and somehow this was worse than any reply at all.

 

 


 

 

Viktor always got a kick out of visiting the NYPD’s Central Headquarters, a five-storey Beaux Arts behemoth that was practically a palace by itself. It leached drama into the streets from every which way you looked at it, with its domes and colonnades, Renaissance-inspired, and also so very French. The carved ornaments decorating the facade enjoyed more attention to detail than some career police officers had ever paid to a crime scene.

 

Before its time, Yakov had told him, this place had been occupied by butcher stalls. Viktor had always thought that there was scathing commentary to be made about that, but he’d never gotten the chance to sit down and find the words.

 

“Why the fuck are they all staring?”

 

Yuri broke through the din of voices, footsteps, rustling papers, and about a few dozen other benign office noises with all the finesse of a cannonball. Viktor smiled at him. “I think you might be imagining things, Yura. You know what they say about the gnat and the bull, right?”

 

“I’m not imagining it,” Yuri insisted. “They keep looking this way - like that guy. Hey!” He raised both of his arms and glared at a man who might or might not have been looking vaguely in their direction. “You have a problem??”

 

Viktor grabbed his wrists and forced his arms back down. “Don’t be rude, Yura, we’re guests here.”

 

The man eventually walked away. Yuri yanked his arms free and folded them across his chest, scowling at a series of memorial plaques on the wall. “That cheesecake better be worth it.”

 

Viktor sighed and stared out the window. Looking anywhere else would have put him in at least indirect eye contact with one of the cops on this floor. And Yuri wasn’t wrong - they really were staring.

 

But he wasn’t going to add to the younger detective’s agitation by confirming that, or worse, calling them all out. Unstable equilibrium was still equilibrium, and so long as no-one approached them, there would be no problems. Otabek had been the one who’d told them to wait in this area for him, so they had every right to be here.

 

That said, Viktor wished he could have chosen any other part of this building as a rendezvous point instead - the radio room, the gymnasium, or hell, even either of the two basement levels that were rumored to connect to some secret tunnel underground. There, at least, he wouldn’t have burned under all of these people’s stares, or slowly drowned in the whispers he pretended not to hear. What the hell had Otabek been thinking? Surely their presence here was terrible for this floor’s productivity.

 

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Otabek finally arrived, carrying a mountain of paperwork with him. He nodded once at Yuri, and promptly gave a death glare to everyone who’d been lingering in their orbit, until the last straggler went back to work.  

 

“Wow,” Viktor laughed, able to breathe easy now that there were no longer any eyes on him, “look at you, lording it over in here. You’re a natural.”

 

Otabek, who’d never quite mastered the art of accepting a compliment unless it had something to do with hard, tangible results, mumbled through his thanks. “It’s taking a while to get used to. I try not to let it get to my head.” His lips quirked and almost formed a smile. “But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it a little bit.”

 

“Mmm, trust me, that gets old fast.” There was a small tray on top of all the papers Otabek had brought. Viktor peered inside to find three scraps of fabric - the ones the police had found at the crime scene, no doubt - stored separately in small, clear bags labeled with tags. “Are those all for me?”

 

“If you want them.” Otabek picked out one of the bags and set it apart from the rest. “We’ve matched these first two to the sheets and to the victim’s clothes. This last one is a mystery.”

 

“We’ll take the mystery one,” Yuri announced.

 

“It looks like silk.” It really did, Viktor thought when he held it up to catch the sunlight. Why Otabek was staring at him while saying this, though, was beyond him. “In fact, if we were to run with the Mafia theory, and if I were a betting man…”

 

Oh, that was why. Viktor groaned. “Don’t even say it.”

 

“I can’t help it.” Otabek shrugged. “They’re kind of her signature piece, aren’t they?”

 

Once upon a time, the kingdom called Little Italy in Manhattan had crowned a queen. She’d been a socialite then, always on her husband’s arm, one of those pretty, fragile little things that everyone loved and tried to please. She’d had these gloves - long, white, silk gloves that would come out on special occasions and random Tuesdays alike. They’d looked gorgeous on her, and just right - something about her hands being ‘clean of it all’, in her head maybe. Or so the whispers went.

 

She hadn’t been wearing them on the day she’d burned to death, though. And those gloves hadn’t been seen again until the day of her funeral, cladding the hands and arms of her only daughter. Some things were just meant to stay clean forever. “Sara Crispino doesn’t kill people,” Viktor sighed. “She’s surrounded by too many men who would trip over themselves and kill each other for the chance to eliminate whoever she tells them to. Why would she exert the effort?”

 

“An excellent question for the Feltsman Agency to tackle.”

 

Of course it was. “Smooth. Any luck with the gun?”

 

“Afraid not. We haven’t stopped looking, though to be honest I don’t know how much luck we’ll have.”

 

“What about the wine bottle?” Yuri asked. “The one that was shattered all over the floor?”

 

“We don’t know for sure where it came from. The consensus seems to be that either Karpisek or his killer brought it in.”

 

Viktor saw the telling look on Otabek’s face. “But…?” he prodded.

 

“To be honest, I have a hunch that it came from the hotel. I haven’t been able to confirm it, though.”

 

“Because obviously they wouldn’t tell you that,” Yuri scoffed.

 

“Obviously.” Otabek turned, and Viktor had already known where this was going ten seconds ago; he didn’t need the overly-polite, hesitant expression Otabek had on when their eyes met now. “If you’d be so kind…”

 

“I’ll try my best.” Viktor took the bag with the scrap of what was probably silk, maybe, inside. He was about to put it into his pocket, but changed his mind at the last second and tossed it towards Yuri instead. “No promises, though. The last time I was there, all I got from the hotel staff was a pack of lies.”

 

“Thanks.” Otabek let out a breath, as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “We appreciate this. You know that, right?”

 

Viktor bit back the urge to ask who, exactly, Otabek meant by ‘we’. “Right.”

 

What followed was an endless sea of forms - it turned out most of that stack of paperwork Otabek had brought was for him - that he had to sign before he could walk out of the building. He caught Yuri holding the fabric up to the light, staring at it with a befuddled look on his face, and Viktor felt the wordless sentiment keenly: despite all of the evidence that had been thrown at his feet, he really felt no closer to solving this case at all.

 

 


 

 

“I’d like you to tell me about your day.”

 

The light from the fireplace, flickering and warm from the wall behind Viktor’s head, cast an interesting show of moving shadows over Yuuri’s face. At one end of his office, opposite the wall spanned by bookshelves, a more intimate conversation nook had been set up, with an overstuffed chair and a Victorian daybed, piled with cushions and draped in fine Persian rugs.

 

Yuuri had wanted to conduct today’s session here, and so here they were.

 

It hadn’t really mattered to Viktor either way. The daybed was infinitely more comfortable than the chairs in front of Yuuri’s desk, and he laid there with his hands folded atop one of the cushions, which he’d rested over his stomach. “Is that really going to be all that useful to you, Doc? My day was pretty boring.”

 

“Where you say ‘boring’, others might say ‘quiet’. To others still, something like that would be a relief, perhaps. It’s important to have a frame of reference for everything we observe.”

 

Viktor hummed. “Is that what you’re going to do every week? Ask me how my day went, until you’ve got enough data to come up with a baseline? I can tell you how that’ll end.” Boring.

 

Yuuri scribbled something into the notebook on his lap. Already? Viktor turned to look at him, and was met with a neutral, close-lipped smile. “Humor me, Detective.”

 

With a sigh, Viktor resigned himself to staring at the ceiling again. He didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed this before, but the ceiling of Yuuri’s office was just a plain, solid expanse of white. He wished he’d at least had some tiles to count.

 

“I took Makkachin out for a walk around the neighborhood,” he finally began. “She found this… this mound of snow, I think, next to my tailor’s shop. She seemed really interested in it, I don’t know why. But it was completely frozen over from last night’s cold spell, so she couldn’t get to whatever she wanted in there.”

 

More scribbling noises, pen scratching against paper, filled the air. Viktor wondered, as he almost always did, what Yuuri was writing about him. ‘Opened with talk about dog again’ ? Possible. “What time was this?”

 

Viktor tried to remember, but drew a blank. “What time was sunrise?”

 

Yuuri laughed. “I would never know the answer to that. Do you always start your day so early?”

 

“Force of habit, I guess.” But that first part of Yuuri’s answer hadn’t escaped Viktor’s notice. “You a night owl yourself, Doc?”

 

Yuuri only smiled, wrote something down again, and didn’t respond to that. No surprise there. The good doctor had set the expectation quite clearly that, at least while they were in this room, the flow of questions would only go one way. Any exceptions to that rule would have to be counted as grace, Viktor supposed. “Tell me more about your morning. It sounds like you have a set routine.”

 

He did - sort of. But there wasn’t all that much to tell. How many permutations were there of getting ready to leave, grabbing something from a food truck, and making the same trip from his apartment to the Agency everyday, anyway?

 

“When I got to the office, Yura - Yuri Plisetsky, I think I told you about him?” If he hadn’t, Yakov must’ve done it, because Yuuri hummed in recognition at the name. Viktor thought he must’ve certainly mentioned Yuri to him, if only to point out that their names were so similar. But he couldn’t remember for sure. “Anyway, he was waiting for me. We worked together today.”

 

“I see.” When Yuuri next spoke, Viktor could hear a smile in his voice. “You seem fond of him.”

 

“I do?”

 

“You speak of him with some affection - more than I hear when you talk about your other colleagues, anyway.”

 

Was that so? He’d never really thought about it; he liked Mila and Emil just fine. “Well, he’s young, he’s hungry. That’s good for him. He didn’t exactly have the easiest childhood… I just want him to succeed.”

 

“Does he remind you much of yourself, when you were his age?”

 

Viktor burst out laughing before he could help it. What a completely ridiculous notion. “Not even a little bit.”

 

Yuuri smiled, and promptly proceeded to fill up what sounded like an entire page with notes. “I see.”

 

Viktor shifted on the daybed so that he wouldn’t have to turn his head to see Yuuri’s face. It really wasn’t very difficult to keep the two entities separate in his head: Yuuri on the one end, and this Dr. Katsuki on the other, abstracted within the walls of this office with his pointed questions and relentless scribbling. It was during sessions like these that Viktor most wondered: what was on his mind? It had been obvious from the moment he’d walked into the door at the start of the hour that they weren’t going to be talking about New Year’s Eve. Had that night meant nothing to Yuuri? Did he simply not care?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viktor cared. He’d meant to bring Yuuri’s scarf with him today - he’d draped it over the back of his chair, so that he would be sure to see it - yet he’d forgotten anyway. Damn it. “I had an errand to run at the police station, so I took him along,” he continued. “He was upset that people were staring.”

 

“Were they?”

 

“Maybe?” He shrugged. “We were sticking out like sore thumbs, waiting there. I guess they might have gotten the wrong idea about us.”

 

“Is that the lie you fed Mr. Plisetsky to placate him?”

 

Viktor frowned. “Excuse me?”

 

Yuuri carefully closed his notebook, and set it aside onto the small round table beside the overstuffed chair. The pen followed soon after. He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and steepled his fingers together in front of him. “Viktor, I’m going to ask you a question that you will likely be tempted to skirt. For the sake of us moving forward in our work here, I’d appreciate an honest answer.”

 

He wasn’t sure what exactly to make of Yuuri’s shift in posture, but it didn’t seem promising. “Let’s have it, then.”

 

“What made you decide that you no longer wanted to be a cop?”

 

Viktor went very, very still.

 

Even though he’d braced himself, somewhat, the question still felt like a punch to the gut. “Before I answer that,” he said, surprised at how his voice came out much steadier than he’d been expecting, “this didn’t come from Yakov, did it?”

 

Yuuri shook his head. “It came from you, actually.” At Viktor’s confused look, he elaborated: “When we were at the docks, you mentioned your friend’s name, that his family lived in the area, and the year he died… it didn’t take much, from that. Those spaces had only a very small intersection among them. That, and his family had put out an obituary in the papers… it didn’t take long to confirm.”

 

Viktor waited for all of that to sink in. Every new sentence added a weight to the pit in his stomach. He’d been so fucking careless. “You got all that from a throwaway comment that I made?” He forced out a laugh. “Forget therapy, I should ask Yakov if he’s got any openings for you.”

 

Yuuri spared him a vacant glance, unamused. Viktor wasn’t too surprised; using jokes as a distraction was already hit-or-miss to begin with, and this one had been a piss-poor execution at that. “He was killed in that explosion - the one on Chambers Street, close to City Hall, was it? I remember that incident causing quite a stir.”

 

“It was a distillery. Accident.” The words tasted flat on his tongue. “There were about a dozen cops in the area that day.”

 

“Were you one of them?”

 

“I don’t see why that matters.”

 

“Of course it matters. He died; you lived. Men have been broken by happier fortunes.”

 

Lucky, they’d all said. You’re so lucky. Those who’d known better had either kept their mouths shut, or said most of the same things anyway, but with a venom that only grew more potent the more he was stung. Viktor dug his fingertips into the soft velvet of the cushion, if only to temper down the sudden, irrational urge to claw at the wall to his side. How far would he get, he wondered, before Yuuri noticed? It was a laughable thought.

 

“Fine. Maybe you’re right,” he said. “I wasn’t as relieved as I should have been, or grateful as I should have been, that I survived. I was guilty.”

 

“Why? The explosion was an accident.”

 

“Because it wasn’t fair.” Viktor took that lifeline Yuuri had dangled before him, unwittingly or not, and ran with it. “One of us happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that made all the difference. I must’ve been less than fifty yards away from him. It was so…”

 

Firelight danced in the lenses of Yuuri’s glasses as he drew closer, prompting at Viktor to continue after he’d trailed off. “Random? Tragic?”

 

“Senseless.” The word slipped out of him in a noisy exhale. It provided absolutely no relief. “That’s what it was.”

 

He could see Yuuri’s hands twitching, like he wanted to write this all down. Something must have made him change his mind after he met Viktor’s eyes, though, because he kept his hands folded even after the tension had left them. “How do you feel about it now?”

 

“What’s ‘it’?”

 

“The incident we were just talking about.”

 

“I already told you that. I’ve grieved, I’ve moved on.”

 

“Have you?” Yuuri prodded. “You mention guilt at having survived - ”

 

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Viktor cut in, “before you accuse me of what I think you’re about to accuse me of.”

 

“What do you think I’m about to accuse you of?”

 

Viktor wanted to laugh. Was Yuuri really going to make him say it? Hadn’t he been the one who’d so astutely picked up on Viktor’s supposed appetite for self-destruction, when Viktor himself had not? That was why he was here, after all. Ever since his last case, Yakov had looked at him as though he were a time bomb, and the good Dr. Katsuki happened to agree with him. What was the point of being coy now?

 

Viktor decided that, if he could do nothing else, he could at least deny him the satisfaction. “All I know is that I was given a second chance. I was stupidly lucky, and I’m never going to know why. But I’ve accepted it.” Because that was what sane, well-adjusted individuals did to things that they couldn’t change. What other option was there, anyway? “I quit the Force because, no matter how much I didn’t want it to, that incident left a bigger imprint on me than I anticipated. I was compromised. I had men under me. It was the only responsible choice to make.”

 

“I understand.” Yuuri finally picked up his notebook again, and leafed to an earlier page. “And you joined the Feltsman Agency six months after.”

 

“You’ve got everything on me from that point onward.”

 

It was hard to tell if Yuuri took that as an accusation or just the plain truth that it was. He didn’t say anything in the minute that followed, and the crackling of the fire was the only sound that Viktor’s thoughts had to contend with, leaving them free to bounce and echo off the walls of his head. Stop talking, the loudest of them chided him. He minces every word you say and puts them under a microscope to see what they’re made of. Stop. Talking.

 

“I think that’s a good note to end on for tonight.” Yuuri pushed himself up and out of the overstuffed chair. He started to move towards his desk, but stopped himself after a second and stepped back. He closed the distance between himself and the daybed, and gently placed a hand on Viktor’s cheek. “Thank you for being forthcoming with me, Viktor. I know it wasn’t easy.”

 

Just like that, he could no longer differentiate them anymore - was this still Dr. Katsuki talking to him now, or was it Yuuri - Yuuri from the bar, Yuuri running with him under the freezing rain, Yuuri at Times Square wearing his coat and kissing him when the fireworks went off? The contact only lasted for a few seconds, but Viktor found himself leaning into the hand, seeking out the warmth it promised. He knew he couldn’t have it, not tonight, and tried to content himself with a very tender nuzzle.

 

He didn’t say anything when Yuuri eventually did walk back to his desk. This was more exhausting than some of the most challenging interrogations he’d done. So this was how it felt like, to be on the other side of those conversations. Viktor wasn’t sure he was a fan.

 

“Have you got my business card on you?” He nodded, and Yuuri beckoned him closer. “May I see it, please?”

 

He had to tear himself away from the daybed to hand it over. Yuuri turned it over, wrote down another number on the back of the card, and gave it back to him.

 

“This is my home number. If you ever need anything, or if you want to talk - any time of day, if you can’t get a hold of me here at the clinic - I hope you’ll call that number.”

 

Unlike the number to his office, Yuuri’s home number wasn’t a comical deluge of 8s. Still, there was a quality in Yuuri’s penmanship that gave him the same satisfaction: precise, pleasing strokes, beautiful as the man himself, made up for the lack of symmetry with ease. “Is this allowed?”

 

“It depends on who you ask.” Yuuri chuckled softly. “Perhaps you already know this, but the field I’m practicing in is still very much in its early stages, especially on this side of the Atlantic.”

 

“So you’re winging it.”

 

“Or, to put it more positively: there are lines that are sketched in sand, for now. I’m willing to be a bit flexible… if only you’ll meet me halfway.”

 

He sounded so earnest when he said those words. The small smile he wore on his face, a remnant of his laugh, looked nothing if not inviting. And maybe there was a touch of something else there, too: something uncertain, but at the same time… hopeful?

 

Viktor couldn’t bear this kindness any longer. “Thank you, Doc.” He flashed a brief smile of his own, and stared at the frames of Yuuri’s glasses. “May I go?”

 

Yuuri’s eyes studied him curiously, even as he nodded. “Have a good night, Viktor.”

 

He told himself not to obsess over it on the trip home, denying the part of him that was a glutton for punishment and wanted to run over what he recalled of tonight’s session with a fine-toothed comb. He’d been a hell of a lot more careful this time, especially after learning everything Yuuri had uncovered from just having dropped Georgi’s name. He’d given Yuuri nothing, though - nothing that he wouldn’t have already found in the newspapers. Or even if he’d asked around… the two other people who’d survived that encounter had skipped town the next day, never to be heard from again. As far as Viktor knew, it was airtight.

 

All was well with the world, then, and Viktor could count tonight’s session as a win. After all, the most masterful untruths were those where you never even had to tell a lie.

 

 


 

 

The next morning started with promise: clear skies, the slightest hint of a breeze, a gentler cold that didn’t bite your skin. Viktor had decided to take Makkachin out for a longer walk today, because he could spare the time, and who knew when they would get a mild morning like this again? January was supposed to be awful for that kind of wishful thinking.

 

Today, she seemed hell-bent on sniffing down every last square inch of an old, rusted bike that someone had left out on the corner of Columbia Street. Viktor stared at the pavement and waited for her to lose interest, because he could deny her nothing.

 

“That’s a cute dog.”

 

Viktor would have recognized that voice anywhere; it filled him with sheer dismay to be hearing it here, so close to home. “It’s too early in the morning for questions that can’t be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Leo.”

 

“You think that’s a hardship for me?” Leo handed over one of the two paper cups he was holding with a wide grin. “For you. Careful, it’s hot.”

 

It really was, Viktor agreed, halfway through a sip. It burned his tongue and the roof of his mouth, which was an annoyance he would have to deal with for the rest of the day. What was infinitely more distressing, though, was the fact that it was this hot in the first place - there was a very high chance that Leo either lived in his neighborhood now, or was shacking up with someone who did. Shit.

 

Leo laughed. “Do you seriously make a habit of just drinking anything that gets handed to you without even knowing what it is?”

 

“You don’t want to kill me. If you did, you’d never get your story.” Viktor shrugged and took another sip. Although he’d probably scorched half of his taste buds, it was still delicious. “What is it?”

 

“Some kind of tea blend, I forgot what it’s called. Ever hear of The Silk Umbrellas?”

 

“Can’t say that name rings a beil.”

 

“They’re a tea shop in midtown. They opened a couple of years ago, you should pay them a visit. Their cheapest teas are twice as expensive as coffee, but they’re worth it.”

 

“Well, I’ll keep an eye out.” Makkachin had returned to his side, and was sitting on the sidewalk by his feet. Time to end this conversation, then; God, his day hadn’t even started and he was already exhausted. “Something tells me this is a peace offering that was given in advance.”

 

“Or a bribe.” Leo stepped closer, like he was about to let Viktor in on a juicy secret. “See, my editor’s been breathing down my neck since Christmas. In the spirit of… shall we say, being proactive, I’ve got a nice, explosive story all written up and ready to go, about how Karpisek got done in by the Mafia. All I need is confirmation from the P.I. working on his case, you know?”

 

At the very least, Leo and the Daily Mirror were nothing if not predictable. Viktor tugged on Makkachin’s leash and started walking. “Go away.”

 

Leo chased after him in a heartbeat. “Now you’re just being impolite.”

 

“Sorry. Thanks for the tea - now go away, please. How’s that?”

 

“You know, I saw this coming.” Leo seemed quite happy to jog beside him when Viktor quickened his pace. “If I can’t publish that story, well, that’s too bad. I’ll just have to find something else to fill the front page of tomorrow’s paper with.”

 

“Sounds good to me.”

 

“Say… a story about Detective Viktor Nikiforov regularly seen exiting something called a ‘psychoanalytic clinic’?”

 

It was rare, so rare, to find someone who could threaten you with the sweetest of smiles. Everything, from the way his eyes crinkled just so, to the relaxed, carefree body language Leo gave off while they waited for the light to change, made him out to be the friendliest man on the block. To everyone else who saw them, it must have looked like they were just two friends engaged in casual conversation. But none of those passersby were close enough to appreciate that Leo was baring teeth.

 

“I don’t understand all this fancy medical jargon myself. Maybe it’s more a European thing,” he continued. “But it sure sounds to me like whoever goes to those places has got one foot in the asylum door already. How would the good people of New York following the story of Josef Karpisek’s murder, the murder of the man who could’ve been their savior, react to that? I wonder.”

 

Viktor had been playing these games long enough to know that there was no clean exit from this conversation. “I don’t have it,” he finally admitted. “I don’t have solid proof. All the police have right now is a theory.”

 

Leo sighed into his own cup. “Old news. I’m gonna need more.”

 

“That’s all I’ve fucking got!”

 

The sudden outburst startled Leo, and turned a few strangers’ heads in their direction. Makkachin whimpered, pressing herself up against the side of his leg.

 

Viktor took a moment to recover, squeezing at the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. This too shall pass, he reminded himself. Just like the random memory problems, and the occasional difficulty in navigating very complex trains of thought… he would just have to wait these out as well.

 

He didn’t speak again until he’d gotten himself back under control. “I need some time. Can you give me time?”

 

“How much?”

 

Viktor tried to find the middle ground between however long Leo’s editor would likely be willing to wait, and eternity. “A month?”

 

Leo burst out laughing. “How do you feel about this title? ‘Local Gumshoe Headed For Loony Bin’.

 

“A week, then.”

 

“Deal.” The light changed. Leo tipped his hat, and started walking backwards into the street. “It was great to see you again, Detective. I’ll be in touch.”

 

Viktor watched him go until he got to the other side, and the morning crowd swallowed him whole. Rush hour was upon him. He had to get ready. But he stood still in the middle of the sidewalk, letting the crowd swell and converge all around him, until Makkachin gave her leash a tug and snapped him out of his stupor.

 

What was he supposed to do now? He’d bought himself a few days, sure - but was it enough? All of his attempts at attacking the same problem had wound up ineffective so far. And sure, maybe he’d been making this needlessly complicated by trying to avoid the obvious solution, but hell, he hadn’t expected everything to fail. If he went back to the hotel now, would the concierge be honest with him? Was Josef Jr. ready to talk? Would the scrap of fabric they’d obtained from the crime scene check out against the next piece of white silk he saw? All of these seemed about as likely as getting a signed letter delivered to his office, from the killer, confessing to everything.

 

And in the end, there was really only one answer that he kept coming back to.

 

Fuck this, he eventually decided. If he was going to end up doing it no matter what, then he was going to do it tonight.

 

 


 

 

When he finally bit the bullet, it didn’t feel like playing a trump card, or going all-in with a royal flush at the river. There was no victory to be had here, although Otabek or Yakov might have thought otherwise. It was just dinner, with a kiss of sweetness in his water that had Viktor wondering if this was his last meal, and he just didn’t know it yet.

 

The Mafia wasn’t a black box of shapeless entities and secrets that, every so often, would open to deposit liquor, or stacks of dirty cash, or bullet-riddled corpses onto the outside world. It was impossible for so large a group, a system really, to be completely self-contained. It was made up of people after all, and what were people if not fallible? There were leaks in the seams of that shadowy box, which even the top brass of the NYPD were afraid to touch, and some of that knowledge had found its way to Viktor. He knew the name of the family that currently held the most power - although that was more of an open secret, the name was spelled out on the side of the tower on the Southeast corner of Central Park, there for the world to see. He knew that Cialdini’s, a restaurant whose risotto alla piemontese was to die for, was all but confirmed to be a front for the Mafia.

 

He knew, from a desperate conversation he’d had with the owner of a moving cabaret two years ago, that the current Don was a man who placed a premium on formality, and tradition, all good things that turned any attempt at communication with him into a ceremony approaching art. It was basically a ritual, she’d told him - not because he deemed himself a god, no, but because if you weren’t already in the family, how was he supposed to know he could trust you? Viktor didn’t know if parting with that secret had put her in peril - he sure as hell hoped it hadn’t - but he was grateful for the knowledge now.

 

You get a table near the window at Cialdini’s, and you sit with your back to the door. You place a flower on the other place setting opposite yours. You eat alone.

 

In fairness, the risotto really was delicious. Viktor stared at the single red rose sitting on the unused plate on the other side of the table, and wondered if it had been too unimaginative. What would be the penalty for that?

 

When the waiter asks you how your meal was, you tell him to send your compliments to the chef. Before long, the chef will come out to bring you either dessert or an espresso, depending on his mood.

 

It was the latter that Viktor wound up getting tonight, delivered by the very man whose name graced the restaurant. Celestino Cialdini, wearing his apron and a radiant smile, slid into the empty seat across Viktor after having placed the cup onto the table.

 

“We are so pleased to have been graced with your company tonight,” he announced, “Mr. Viktor Nikiforov of the Feltsman Detective Agency, who lives at 174 Delancey Street. How is your pet dog doing these days?”

 

“She’s doing very well, thank you.” If it was any small consolation, at least Celestino hadn’t rattled off his apartment number too. Viktor nodded at the man’s naked hand; two years ago, he still remembered, there’d been a ring there. “I’m sorry about the wife.”

 

“Trust me, it was a mutually beneficial parting.” Celestino laughed as he rested his elbows against the edge of the table. “And how have you been?”

 

“Surviving.” Viktor gave him an affable smile. “You know how it is.”

 

“Indeed. I’m certain you have such fascinating stories to tell.” His eyes glittered with mirth. “But for now, the matter at hand.”

 

If you’re lucky, he'll tell you when the Don is next open for a meeting. If you’re not, he’ll tell you never to come back.

 

“Well?” Viktor really didn’t have a lot of leeway here. If the Don’s most gracious offer was a meeting more than a week out, it would be too late for him to stop Leo from running that story. He briefly, very briefly, considered asking upfront, before realizing the impudence in the thought. He’d have to sleep with his gun under his pillow after that. “What did he say?”

 

“He said to tell you that he has cleared his schedule,” Celestino murmured, “and will be happy to receive you tomorrow night.”

 

Viktor nearly recoiled at that. So fucking soon? People who asked for an audience with the Don in this manner were lucky if they got a meeting within the month; hell, Viktor had heard of family members who weren’t so fortunate. He hadn’t been expecting this at all. “While I’m very flattered that he would be so kind to make time for me like that,” he demurred, “it isn’t a matter of life or death. I can wait a few days.”

 

Celestino shook his head. “On the contrary, he said that this meeting with you is two years overdue.”

 

Of course he’d said that. Viktor regretted even bringing it up.

 

Celestino had to head back into the kitchen soon, but he spared a couple of minutes to discuss the specifics without actually dropping any proper nouns. Yes, Viktor assured him, he knew how to get to the Tower, because it was impossible to miss. Yes, he knew to get off on the second floor; everyone’s first guess was to go all the way up, but the two penthouse suites were actually reserved for the twins. No, he hadn’t made that mistake the first time, because his information had been solid - which was good, because his contact had absolutely fleeced him for it. No, he wouldn’t give Celestino her name.

 

“Consider your meal on the house tonight.” Celestino waved away all of Viktor’s protests as he tucked the rose into a pocket of his apron. “Don’t thank me; he insisted.”

 

And with that, of course, Viktor was probably supposed to express his gratitude in person, tomorrow night. Honestly, it was like they were going out of their way to not be subtle about it. Fucking classic.

 

“Safe travels, Mr. Nikiforov.”

 

Stepping out of Cialdini’s, he was greeted by a blast of frigid air. He lit a cigarette and idled at the restaurant’s doorstep for a few seconds, letting the familiar noise of cars, trains, and a thousand and one strangers wrap him in an embrace, like an old friend. Broadway was a sea of street lamps and neon signs and theater marquees that chased away the darkness, something he usually found welcome at this time of year. Now, though, it was too much: a brash reminder that the world kept turning even after he’d just sought out his own doom. It would keep on turning tomorrow, too.

 

Maybe that was for the best. Viktor lowered his head, tugged down the brim of his hat to block out the oppressive lights, and stepped out into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

(((He thought he could hear the ticking of a clock, too loud, far too loud, and… too slow.

 

What?

 

The suspect stood a few feet away, and had a gun pointed at his chest. But his arm was shaking, and his eyes darted from Viktor’s face to the judge cowering in a ball on the floor. To the bank manager, sobbing quietly against the wall. To the huge clock hanging above the vault - oh, that was what it was. Back to Viktor.

 

When was this? Had he just gotten here? The rest of the bank’s customers and employees were gone; it was just the four of them left inside the building now. It was so quiet; the clock was so loud. Had he never been able to hear the chaos that he knew was taking place on the street outside?

 

No matter. This time, he would change it. This time, he would get it right.

 

“Sir… I am going to ask you to keep that gun pointed at me, and only at me. Is that okay?”

 

This time, he vowed to himself, he would save them all.

 

But no, he wouldn’t - the suspect already knew, somehow, and when he snapped and yelled and fired, it was all the same. The sudden burst of pain in his leg, the blooming stain of red, it was the same. The clock might have been slow, but Viktor was still slower. And when the suspect jumped on him and used all of his strength to rip away his gun, together with anything that happened to be attached to it, Viktor didn’t hear the sickening crack of his bones this time, or his own voice as he screamed from the pain. All he could hear was that fucking clock.

 

He didn’t need to hear the explosion, or the screams that followed. No matter how many times this happened, it always ended the exact same way.)

 

Viktor stood carefully off to the side, far away and out of sight, but close enough to trick himself into thinking he was a part of the ceremony. This was a mistake.

 

Georgi’s sister delivered a beautiful eulogy.

 

When his time came, would anyone have any good words to say about him? Would anyone care? He couldn’t think of anyone who would. On the other hand, he tried to think of who might actually celebrate his end - the voice in his head that hated him was still rattling off names by the time he gave up.

 

If he was lucky, it wouldn’t happen before Makkachin’s time. He wouldn’t want to leave her sad and alone.

 

Someone spotted him and started yelling, pointing. Shit, was the funeral over already? He tried to get away, but there was nothing else to duck behind - what the hell had he been thinking, sneaking around in a cemetery? This was a fucking mistake. Georgi’s mother, who’d taught him how to braid his hair, who’d always told him to take seconds and thirds at the dinner table, just the kindest woman he’d ever known, stopped crying only long enough to say,“I wish you were the one who died instead of him.”

 

Yeah.

 

Viktor wished that, too.)

 

“Consider it done.”

 

Viktor blinked, confused. It took him a moment to regain his bearings, but only a moment; the sheer opulence radiated by this room, from actual works of art etched into frosted-glass windows to furniture with ivory and gold inlays, was as unmistakable as the line of this man’s jaw. The Don liked beautiful things, they all said. He was a connoisseur of beauty.

 

Viktor let out a breath, and forgot to keep his eyes on the floor.

 

“You sound doubtful of this promise.”

 

“No, sir. I just…” Was it this easy? Had it always been this easy? No, there was a catch to this, he was sure. There had to be. Why couldn’t he remember what it was? He’d replayed this scene in his head so many times, yet every time was like the first. He never fucking learned. “May I ask… why?”

 

“Ah, you wonder what is in it for me.” Don Crispino didn’t look up from the newspaper spread open in front of him, chuckling at a blurb near the bottom of the page. “Make no mistake about this, Lieutenant: the only reason you are walking out of this building with all of your limbs and teeth intact is because I consider you an investment. It took an inordinate amount of bravery, and stupidity, to reach out to me in the way you did. But one day - perhaps soon, perhaps in the far future - I am bound to find myself in need of a man of your talents. You will owe me a favor; when the day comes, I expect to be able to collect.”

 

Viktor was starting to remember now.

 

He remembered, and that was why he agreed, conveyed his respect one final time, and immediately made his way towards the door. The walls and all the finery in the room blurred as he focused on that exit. He needed to get out.

 

He needed to get out, because -

 

“Wait.”

 

Because it wasn’t over. It wasn’t that easy.

 

“The favor I am about to grant you requires a sizable amount of money. It also brings significant risk to my own reputation and my security, as well as that of my children.” He heard the rustle of paper, and the soft thud of a shoe hitting the floor as the Don uncrossed his legs. “Surely you didn’t think I would let you go without procuring some form of an advance?”

 

That wasn’t a clock ticking that he heard; it might have been his own heartbeat.

 

“You understand, don’t you? Because of your carelessness, my wife… a man has needs that can no longer be satisfied.”

 

He could never, ever change how these encounters ended. Why had he ever hoped that he could?

 

“Come here. Let me look at you again, in the light.”

 

The Don liked beautiful things. He was a connoisseur of beauty.

 

“Such arresting eyes.” He reached out until his hand closed over the band that had been holding together the ponytail at the base of Viktor’s neck. He pulled, slowly, setting Viktor’s hair free to tumble down and rest like a curtain over his shoulders, to the middle of his back. “You are almost as beautiful as she was.”

 

There was really no dignified way to suffer through the rest of that hour, not without retreating into his head. Viktor kept his eyes squeezed shut and tried in vain to think about anything - the stars over Long Island, the gusts from subway grates that felt like steam on summer days - anything that wasn’t the taste of salt or the clench of the fist in his hair, or how every thrust seemed to hit deeper and deeper into the back of his throat, until he could no longer breathe. In the end, his throat closed on him, and the Don only laughed. He still had his newspaper in one hand as he used the other to wipe off the mess, with a lock of Viktor’s hair.

 

“Let’s do that again sometime.”)

 

And when it was finally over, fucking finally, it didn’t end with him lurching to a sitting position, or falling off the bed completely. He thought he might have preferred that, though, instead of jerking awake with the blankets twisted around his legs, his hands clutched in a death grip around the sheets. It took far too long for his eyes to adjust to the darkness; he stared up at the ceiling for countless seconds, convincing himself that there wasn’t a shadow there in the shape of a smoking jacket and newspaper pages, bearing down on him from above.

 

He couldn’t breathe. There was something filling his mouth, blocking his throat. He couldn’t breathe -  

 

Viktor wasn’t sure what eventually ended up breaking the spell - whether it was reaching full wakefulness, or just sheer instinct finally kicking in - but he was grateful for it. He gasped, sucking in air until his chest hurt, but that was fine - he was more than happy to live with that, if it meant taking away from the phantom pain that still persisted in his throat.

 

He pushed himself up to a sitting position, and wrapped his arms around his torso to fight down a shiver. Fuck, it was freezing in here. But… was it, really? He craned his neck to get a look at Makkachin, curled up and fast asleep in her bed on the kitchen floor. If the heat had conked out, like it tended to do once every month or so, she would’ve jumped up into bed with him already.

 

No… no, the heat was just fine. It was something else that was broken.

 

He’d draped his coat haphazardly over the back of the chair at his desk - his other coat, he recalled, because Yuuri had yet to return the one he’d worn on New Year’s Eve, and he only remembered this now, and shit - what if Yuri was right, and this side-effect was permanent after all?

 

The real tragedy, he supposed, was that it didn’t matter. That wasn’t even his most pressing concern right now.

 

Straining a bit, Viktor was able to reach out and pull the jacket towards himself without having to leave the bed. He fumbled through all of the pockets and found Yuuri’s business card in the very last one. Now that his eyes had adapted to the faint moonlight streaming in through the window, he could make out part of the number that the doctor had scribbled onto the back of the card.

 

‘Any time of day’ - that was what Yuuri had said, right? ‘If you ever need anything’ .

 

It was so, so tempting - to walk over to the phone, wait for Yuuri to pick up, and say it. I need help. He imagined he wouldn’t even have to say anything; to just listen to the doctor’s voice, soothing and soft, talking about things like stock markets and dogs and persistence hunting, and how every last person on this island could be a walking personality disorder if you tried really hard… it would be enough. Enough to ground him, enough to silence the noise of ghosts and regrets raging in his head.

 

He couldn’t do it, though. He didn’t want to disturb Yuuri at this godforsaken hour. And the last thing he needed was to be handing Dr. Katsuki more ammunition like this.

 

So he stuffed the card back into a different pocket and tossed the jacket onto the floor. He pulled open the top drawer of his bedside table, withdrawing the bottle of barbital tablets he’d been keeping and refilling since 1926.

 

What was the maximum safe dosage again? Shit, he couldn’t remember. Was it five? Five sounded right in his head. Maybe that was it.

 

He ended up spilling half of the bottle’s contents on the bed trying to get the damn bottle open; his hands were shaking too much. Fucking hell.

 

There was always the option to just stay up until morning, he supposed. He could even get some work done that way. But then tomorrow night, which already held so much promise of being about as enjoyable as a distillery  fire, would be ten times worse if he didn’t sleep now.

 

Not much of a choice, then. Viktor counted out what looked like five of those tablets, maybe, dry-swallowed them two at a time. He didn’t bother cleaning up the rest of the spilled tablets, or even moving the open bottle off of the bed at all; he simply lay back, stared at a sliver of moonlight on the wall, and waited for the barbital to do its magic.

Chapter Text

January 9, 1929

 

It's been several days. More than enough for any bruises to fade, any cuts to close, any burns to heal. Any marks of sweat and blood and something else, smeared with his fingerprints, should have already been washed away. At this point, I can't really know if there were any to begin with.

 

It's been several days - long enough to forget, long enough to let go. But in the deepest pit of my mind, there's a fantasy where I kill that man with my bare hands.

 

  

 

 

 

 

Pulling himself out of what turned out to be blissfully dreamless sleep felt like being dragged through a mire. Viktor cracked an eye open, and immediately regretted it when he realized how high up the sun already was.

 

Makkachin barked and barked, frantic, scratching at the apartment door. Shit. What time was it?

 

The gust of winter air that blew in his face when he took Makkachin outside helped, but only a little. He was beginning to second-guess how well he’d counted those pills last night.

 

He called the agency once he got back to the apartment, telling Yakov that he was sorry, that he’d be coming in late today, but that he’d work into the evening to make up for it. He set out Makkachin’s food bowl, murmuring soft apologies while stroking her ears. He made sure she had enough water. And he waited until she was distracted enough with her food to gather up all of the spilled barbital pills from the bed, putting them carefully back into the bottle.

 

If he ended up settling for the bare minimum that he needed to get ready for work - forgetting to shower and shave and, hell, even eat - he told himself it was only because he was in a hurry. It was unfortunate, but he was running late, and there was no other reason.

 

It didn’t work, of course, but damn it at least he’d tried.

 

Viktor took the subway for a change, because this morning was already shot, and there was no recovering from it. When he walked into the agency building, it was a bit past ten in the morning. Yuri greeted him at the top of the stairs. “You look like shit.”

 

“Thanks,” he said, and promptly locked himself in his office.

 

He didn’t get much done that day at all. He tried, because there was still more to go through in all of the papers that Karpisek’s widow had given them, and he’d planned to look over the speeches himself because a second pair of eyes never hurt anyone. But it seemed he could not make it two sentences before spacing out, or before his mind wandered to darker places - places that smelled like fire and sulfur, or musk and cigar smoke, or the fresh earth on top of a day-old grave.

 

Viktor lost count of how many cups of coffee he’d had by mid-afternoon. He didn’t trust himself to keep anything else down, though he’d tried valiantly with half of a pretzel at lunch. Neither the coffee nor the cigarettes he tried to chase it off with were any help; the fog in his head didn’t lift until evening fell, and he was startled by an angry rapping on his open door.

 

His open door… when had he opened that door?

 

“Hi. Yura. Sorry.” Viktor looked up to see Yuri standing at the entrance to his office, already bundled up for the commute home. “What do you need?”

 

“I think that’s something I should be asking you.” Yuri’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve been knocking for a whole minute, what the fuck?”

 

“Sorry,” he said again. He had no idea how to even begin to explain himself, but by some miracle, Yuri didn’t grill him further. It still took him a few seconds to recognize that there had been a question there. “Are you heading home?” When Yuri nodded, he didn’t even bother trying to sugar-coat it anymore. “Could I ask you to check on Makkachin again, please? I know I already owe you for last time, and I hate to ask again so soon after - ”

 

“It’s fine,” Yuri cut in. Viktor couldn’t tell if he was irritated because of the favor or because of the apology. He convinced himself that there was no third possibility. “Tonight?”

 

Viktor avoided his eyes. “And probably tomorrow morning, too… if it’s not too much trouble.”

 

There was no earthly, sensible reason for Yuri to agree without making more of a fuss about it. He slammed Viktor’s door shut behind him after brusquely saying goodbye, and the loud bang! jostled something in his bones. Fuck. A reckoning was coming, slowly but surely, he knew. Yuri wouldn’t stand being frozen out forever; he’d either explode, or just cut himself off entirely if Viktor kept pushing like this. He’d have to figure out how to make it up to him.

 

One crisis at a time, Viktor told himself. At least now, he could breathe easy knowing that Makkachin would be looked after. That was something. Hell, maybe that was the only thing that really mattered.

 

He worked until long after everyone else had gone, until words on paper began to blur and bleed and blend into one another, making less and less sense the more he tried to focus on them. The beginning of a headache had sprouted somewhere at the base of his skull, a dull ache that was just mild enough to be tolerable, but not enough to ignore.

 

He tried to keep going, but the letter he held in his hands, addressed to Karpisek from a potential bigwig donor, ran for twelve pages that felt like twelve hundred. He couldn’t focus. He couldn’t, because one moment, he was trying to parse a sentence that refused to end; the next, his vision darkened, and the letters on the paper shifted to his own handwriting - forced with his left hand, an absolute disaster - from two years ago: ‘Dear Mrs. X, / You may not know me, but I knew your husband. He was one of the bravest, finest men I have ever known…’ And: ‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. Y: You may not know me, but I knew your son. Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am…’

 

Well. That was when he knew that it was time to get out of here. Viktor tossed the letter back into the pile of papers, resolving to tidy up his office on some day that wasn’t today. He locked up, spied some empty cabs on the street, and was already walking towards one when he changed his mind: Crispino Tower was less a thirty-minute walk from here, and he thought that if nothing else, maybe the cold winter air could help clear his mind.

 

It didn’t, of course. All that ended up happening was that he ran out of cigarettes just as the looming, twenty-storey chateau-style Crispino Tower came to view.

 

 


 

 

The Don must have sent instructions out beforehand, because the two men waiting in the lobby looked as though they’d already been expecting him.

 

“Weapons.”

 

Viktor complied with the unspoken order and left his pistol with them, holster and all. When the man on the left grunted, gesturing vaguely towards his coat and hat, Viktor gave them up too. There was no point in protesting. He’d done this stupid dance once before, and by now he knew better than to try.

 

When they finally let him go, he bypassed the elevator and headed up the stairs. He was only going to the second floor, and he wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of gambling with the temperament of what would have been a twelve-year-old elevator by now. It felt like there were a lot more stairs than there should have been, though. Some of his landings were uncertain, and the climb felt almost like scaling a mountain - the higher up he went, the thinner the air became.

 

He really, really should have had one last coffee before coming here.

 

Finally, he reached the second-floor landing. The twin suite doors stared him down in cold silence. When he mustered up the nerve to knock, they echoed the raps of his knuckles with what sounded like mirth.

 

“Come in.”

 

He came upon Don Crispino in the library nook, sitting at the leather writing desk near the window. The suite hadn’t changed very much at all since he last saw it two years ago, and this area in particular was flooding his nerve endings with déjà vu. Viktor occasionally spotted a few small trinkets here and there that looked new, but everything else, from the ash-colored gramophone horn to the dizzying geometric designs on the rug beneath his feet, was familiar. The arrangement of white carnations and lilies in a wide vase, which took up an entire side table, looked exactly the same as it did in his memory - not a single flower out of place. Surreal.

 

Had those curtains always been that shade, though? He seemed to remember them being lighter.

 

“Have a seat, Lieutenant - ah, I’m sorry, it’s ‘Detective’ now, yes?” The Don didn’t slow or pause in his writing, much less look up to acknowledge him. “You are a bit early. I’ll be with you shortly.”

 

Early? When had they ever set a time to begin with? Viktor bit down on his tongue, because once again, there was no point in arguing. He retreated from the library nook into the living room, picking a spot on the couch that wouldn’t be caught in the Don’s peripheral vision. Not that there was any point to that, either.

 

His resolve - if he’d ever really had any to begin with - flickered and faltered much like the flames that he watched, dancing in the fireplace. It’s not too late, they whispered in his head. He could still back out. He could leave, and if he was lucky - if the Don was in a charitable mood - maybe they wouldn’t even kill him, if he was gracious enough about it. How many ways were there to repay a debt, anyway? Despite the fact that he’d agonized over this question since he’d first seen Karpisek’s corpse riddled with bullets in that hotel room, it still refused to die, persisting in the corner of his mind: Is there another way? Maybe there’s another way…

 

But then he remembered the story that Leo had promised to run, and the fact that if he hadn’t thought of an alternative now, he didn’t have a chance in hell of coming up with one before that story hit the press. And then, the repercussions of that would be a hell of a lot worse - for him, for the agency, even for Yuuri.

 

He must have zoned out at some point, because he didn’t notice that the Don had even come into the room until he was already sitting beside him on the couch, running a hand through his hair. Viktor glanced at the clock hanging above the fireplace, and started when he saw just how much the hands had moved since he’d last looked at them.

 

“You cut your hair.”

 

Viktor managed a small smile, and fought against his compulsion to pull away. “It was getting difficult to maintain.”

 

“Shame. Celestino warned me that I might not recognize you.” He slid his hand lower, running his palm over the light stubble on Viktor’s jaw. “He must think I am getting old. How could I ever forget this face?”

 

Don’t engage, he reminded himself. Smile.

 

Apart from a few more prominent streaks that resembled gunmetal in his hair, which only served to make him appear more dignified, Don Crispino looked much of the same as he had two years ago. In other words, he still looked exactly like his son, give or take thirty years, albeit without Michele’s permanent scowl. Nor did he bear any of the tension carried in the limbs of a man who was always ready to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. No, unlike his son, the Don was a calm, overcast sky: perpetually gray and heavy with the promise of a storm that, if you were supremely lucky, would never unleash its wrath on you.

 

“Something tells me you haven’t come here only to repay your earlier debt to me.”

 

Viktor took a deep breath. “Actually, I’ve come to make another request.”

 

Don Crispino laughed. “What is it like, to walk this earth without an ounce of shame in you? You must lead a very interesting life.”

 

He’d read about a curse that was worded in a very similar manner. He wondered if the Don meant it in that same context, or if that interpretation was entirely his own. “It would help us both,” he said. “I just need to ask you a few questions.”

 

“About Josef Karpisek’s murder, yes?” The roughened pad of his thumb traced the line of Viktor’s jaw. “The whole city is talking about it. I hear whispers about you everywhere I go, from the tops of skyscrapers to filthy back-alley walls.”

 

“There are some in the police who suspect you.” Viktor kept his eyes on the fire, which was likely the only reason those words came out as steadily as they had. “Or someone from your family… they think it was a hit.”

 

“And what do you think, Detective?”

 

He supposed his thoughts on the matter hadn’t really changed since this investigation began. “I think that if they were correct about that, I would have been dead by now. But I need something a little more solid than just inference.”

 

“Of course you do.” The Don chuckled and patted his cheek, like one would a child’s. “Be that as it may, I have been doing business in this city long enough to know better than to blindly lend another favor, when a previous debt has yet been unfulfilled.”

 

Right. Of course. There was no reason for his pulse to be quickening now. He’d seen this coming from day one.

 

“The bathroom is over there, through the hall.” He moved his hand away from Viktor’s face only to carelessly gesture in that direction. “Take your time, make yourself comfortable. Use whatever you need… I enjoy a clean workspace.”

 

Don’t argue. Don’t engage.

 

Smile.

 

Viktor didn’t know how long he spent just staring at the mirror over the vanity. Christ, he really did look like hell - the bags under his eyes stuck out even more against the terrible pallor of his skin under the bathroom’s light. When he tugged open his collar, he saw that the marks on his neck were mostly gone… all except for the single bruise that Yuuri had left him as a reminder of New Year’s Eve, and even that was starting to fade.

 

He allowed himself a moment of weakness, replaying the memory of that night in his head. And then, he carefully put all thoughts of Yuuri aside.

 

This bathroom was almost as big as his entire apartment. He didn’t know what to make of half of the bottles on the counters and shelves, because most of the labels were in Italian. He wondered, briefly, what would happen if he just locked himself in here, and waited for the night to end. He spied the straight razor in a basket of shaving implements off to the side, its blade pristine; he imagined Michele would be quite happy to slit his throat with it, and leave him to bleed out in the bathtub. At the very least, if all the rumors of the Mafia’s disposal methods were true, he wouldn’t have to worry about someone like Leo making a spectacle of his corpse.

 

He spent what felt like an hour, maybe more, in the shower, staring at the water. Even now, technically, he could still call this off. He could tell the Don that he’d changed his mind - obviously, risking his ire and that of his entire clan. But that would be a problem for another time; he could still stop this. He could try.

 

He stayed, instead.

 

Viktor came out barefoot, in one of the bathrobes that had been hanging from a peg on the door. His dripping hair left a trail of water droplets in his wake. All of the lights in the living room had been turned off; only the fireplace remained lit. But there was light coming from what must have been the bedroom, through the door that had been left ajar.

 

He could still walk away. He could.

 

He pushed open the bedroom door, letting it click shut behind him.

 

“Much better.” The Don was already reclining on one side of the bed, in a crushed velvet smoking jacket, working on a cigar. He beckoned for Viktor to join him. “Come here.”

 

This was all new to him now, as he’d never set foot in this room before. The art deco pattern printed on the area rug under the bed echoed the design on the rug in the library. But it wasn’t even the most eye-catching feature in the room - that honor would doubtlessly go to the chandelier, hanging from recessed ceiling domes above the bed. Viktor wondered how the Don managed to get any sleep under that thing when it was lit, like it was now. Then he thought about that a little harder, and realized how much of an idiot he was.

 

  

 

 

 

 

Viktor had scarcely sat on the bed when he felt the Don pulling him closer. It was as though two long years’ worth of patience and benevolence had suddenly run out. “Such a shame about your hair.” He started playing with it again, marvelling at how it caught the chandelier’s light. “It was so beautiful.”

 

“Sorry to disappoint.”

 

“Don’t be sorry. I have survived worse tragedies.”

 

So have I, he wanted to say. The words died in his throat.

 

Don Crispino put out his cigar on an ashtray atop the side table. He then pulled and shifted and arranged Viktor’s limbs just so, until they were both sitting upright, with the Don leaning on the headboard and Viktor’s back pressed against his chest. Viktor felt the robe slipping from his shoulders, and his eyes smarted despite himself.

 

He couldn’t change his mind now even if he wanted to. But he didn’t have to feel anything; this was just repayment for an old debt, nothing more.

 

The Don’s hands had wandered all this time, free of cigars and newspapers, and having finally moved on from his earlier fixation on Viktor’s hair. One of those hands lingered for a while on his hip, tracing out lazier and lazier circles before sliding down. Viktor sucked in his breath, and started counting the glass fixtures hanging down from the chandelier.

 

Though the man’s lips were right on the shell of his ear, his voice sounded like it was coming from a room away. “Your mother was a Jew, wasn’t she?”

 

Viktor gritted his teeth. “Can we please not talk about her?”

 

“As you wish.” The teasing, almost singsong delivery made it sound like he was placating a silly little child. “Any other requests?”

 

A few came to mind immediately, and they all started with ‘let’s not’ . But there was no way in hell the Don was going to grant them, so he didn’t even bother.

 

Strangely enough, all of a sudden he found himself thinking of Yuuri again. Maybe it was the light refracted through hundreds of glass pieces overhead, triggering a memory of fireworks, a noisy crowd of revelers shielding them from the rest of the world, lips that chased away the chill of winter. “I’d rather not kiss you tonight,” he finally said, “if it’s all the same to you.”

 

The Don said nothing for a moment.

 

Then he burst into laughter, and seized Viktor’s hips. “To think that once upon a time, people called you a master negotiator.”

 

There wasn't any tenderness to be found in Don Crispino's hands, in the bruises bearing his fingerprints that he would leave on Viktor's hips. Not that Viktor had ever really hoped for it, anyway - hell, the fact that he'd been pushed face down on the bed, and didn't have to make any eye contact throughout this whole ordeal, was mercy enough for him. He didn't know if he'd expected it to hurt this much, though. Or maybe it was all in his head? He tried to take himself out of it, because neither of them was speaking, and so his ears were filled with the creak of the bedsprings with every thrust. He thought of Karpisek's corpse, and tried to see how many of those fifty bullet holes he could map out in his head with any confidence. He thought of Leo sipping tea and smiling as he delivered a death sentence through his teeth. He thought of negotiations he'd held long ago, some successful, others less so, and one infinitely more disastrous than the rest.

 

He thought of why he was here. And there was a part of him that remembered, and reminded him why this still wasn't enough.

 

The Don grabbed a fistful of his hair without warning, and pulled. “If I wanted to fuck a corpse tonight, Detective, I’d have dug up my dead wife from the ground that you put her in.”

 

Viktor felt the sting of tears threatening to escape from the corners of his eyes. He didn’t know whether it was from the sheer pain that this new angle caused, or from those words sinking barbs into his heart. “I’m sorry.”

 

“You should be. You were a risky, expensive investment. You ought to at least make it worth my while…” He trailed off, and stopped moving his hips. A hand reached over, cupped Viktor’s chin, and tilted his head to the side. “Hmmm? What’s this?”

 

It took awhile for Viktor to realize what he must have been seeing: the bruise Yuuri had left on his neck from New Year’s Eve. He swallowed. “N-Nothing.”

 

The Don wasn’t convinced. “Is someone out there cold and alone tonight because you’re here with me?” he purred into Viktor’s ear.

 

“It’s not like that.”

 

“No? Then you won’t mind if I do this.”

 

He placed his lips on Viktor’s skin and started sucking a bruise onto the exact same spot. Viktor squirmed, and felt an overpowering urge to lash out that surprised even himself. But the Don held fast to his wrists, and bore down on him with his weight. An errant kick that connected with the Don’s leg was rewarded with a growl, and teeth sinking into his skin.

 

The Don was a lot rougher with him after that. He pulled out and flipped him over before Viktor could even cry out, hooking his legs over his shoulders, until every snap of his hips felt like he was being split in half. Was this a punishment for Viktor’s earlier defiance, or for being here two years too late, or being an ‘expensive’, ‘risky’ investment that hadn’t paid off just yet? Was it because of what had happened to his wife, after all this time, and Viktor’s unfortunate entanglement in that tragedy? Viktor couldn’t tell anymore. Maybe it was all of those.

 

He forced his eyes shut, ignoring the burning in them that threatened to undo him. None of his usual distractions were working anymore; images of blood and bullet holes and corpses on examination tables couldn’t take him out of his head, out of the pain. Gravestones and memorial plaques, and hand-written letters that all shared the same sentiment - ‘my deepest condolences and regrets’ - couldn’t make him forget where he was.

 

So, he gambled… and he thought of Yuuri.

 

Perhaps the most shocking thing in the end was that it actually worked. He imagined Yuuri’s hands holding his wrists down and pinning them to the bed, Yuuri’s lips exploring the skin on his thigh, Yuuri’s teeth leaving marks where no-one would see. He tricked himself into thinking that it was Yuuri’s hand coming to wrap around him, dexterous and warm, impossibly sure. Yuuri pushed into him all the way and Viktor let him, wrapping his legs around Yuuri’s waist with a breathless moan. It didn’t feel like betrayal at all when Yuuri found his lips and kissed him, torrid and deep.

 

Yuuri must have wanted to claim everything. Viktor eagerly gave him all that he asked for, and more.

 

It was only much later, when the weight lifted off of him and he found himself gasping for breath, coming down from the high, that he remembered. The Don’s rich, rumbling laughter, buried into his hair, shattered all of the illusions he’d built to protect himself, leaving only this: Yuuri was gone, and he was here, his skin burning and raw, his throat threatening to close itself off for good.

 

A hand closed around his wrist the moment Viktor moved to leave the bed. “Where do you think you’re going?”

 

“Bathroom.” Viktor couldn’t look at him. He felt sick. “I need to clean up.”

 

The Don grunted. “Alright, but come back right away. You’ll have what you need in the morning.”

 

Viktor stared at a singular spot on the Don’s no-longer-pristine sheets for so long, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see them spontaneously catch fire. “You… you expect me to stay the night,” he said, his voice hollow.

 

“If you didn’t want to, perhaps you should have negotiated for that in advance.”

 

Would it have made a fucking difference? He could still taste the Don’s cigar in his mouth.

 

Viktor couldn’t really feel his legs; this would be ten times worse tomorrow, he guessed, and he wasn’t looking forward to that. He let the sink run as he rummaged for anything that looked like disinfectant, and gingerly treated the places where his skin had broken and bled. He spied the razor again, and with it came a moment of madness: something about introducing its blade to Don Crispino’s throat. It would be so easy, while the man was sated and pliant on the bed. And then… nothing. Viktor’s best bet after that would be to throw himself out the window, and then what the hell would any of this have been for?

 

Just a little longer, he told himself. When he finally returned to the bed, the Don draped an arm around him, pulling him closer. Viktor trained his gaze onto the pattern printed on the fabric of the curtains, trying to see how many paths he could trace in the lines and arcs and see if any of them led to escape. None of them did, he found out in the end, and so he wound up staring at the blackness outside of the window, until sunrise.

 

 


 

 

(In his dreams, he smelled the sea. The waves tickled as they curled and broke over the shore, over his feet. Mama was here, somewhere - he could hear her voice.

 

‘Hush, little baby, don’t say a word…’

 

The beach stretched on and on, empty, for miles. Although the sun raged overhead, the sand wasn’t as warm as it should have been. Neither was the breeze.

 

‘Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…’

 

Why did that sound like it was coming from far away… from somewhere in the open ocean? Cautiously, Viktor waded into the water.

 

‘And if that mockingbird don’t sing…’

 

He found himself sitting on the boardwalk in Coney Island - he could hear the rollercoasters from here, but none of the riders’ screams. Strange. He had a cone of frozen custard in his hand, all of a sudden. Someone must have bought it for him, so he couldn’t be alone… right?

 

‘Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…’

 

Viktor wore the key to the front door of their house on a chain around his neck. He unlocked it and stepped inside, because now the sound seemed to be coming from somewhere in the house.

 

‘And if that diamond ring turns brass…’

 

He ran into her study, where he thought the sound would be the loudest. He was right, but she was still nowhere to be found. Only her books and her microscope, and the map of the world that she’d spread over the table with pins marking the places she would always gush about - Fiji! Petrograd! Delhi! - were here to keep him company.

 

‘Mama’s gonna buy you a looking-glass…’

 

He still couldn’t find her; he wanted to cry. He felt something sliding on his cheek, too soft and smooth to be tears. Right, he remembered now: how she would stroke his cheek so tenderly, guiding him one way or the other out of that limbo between wakefulness and sleep, humming that same lullaby.

 

Mama?)

 

Something was blocking out the light - daylight, from the looks of it, and the way it hurt his eyes. It took a few seconds for him to recall where he was, and why something felt off: where he’d expected to see a chandelier, there was only a woman’s face, much closer to his own than it had any right to be, blocking his view of everything else.

 

Her lips were curved in a smile as she hummed.

 

He couldn’t quite place her features just yet. All he could register was that she had his head cradled in her lap, and that her hands were gently caressing his cheeks. Her long hair draped over him from above like a curtain, and the tips of the longer strands tickled the sides of his face.

 

Huh… he couldn’t remember Mama ever having worn her hair down.

 

His eyes didn’t snap into focus until she’d already laughed, and it was only then that he finally, finally recognized her. The silk gloves on her hands should have clued him in sooner.

 

“Ah, you poor thing!” Sara Crispino, gorgeous and exquisite, grinned down at him with perfect teeth and twinkling eyes. “Do you miss her?”

 

…Fuck. Had he really called for Mama out loud?

 

“I bet you want to crawl back inside, hmmm? All men are like that, you see. Their mother’s womb is the only place where they can ever feel true warmth.” She reared her head back to address someone standing at the door. “Isn’t that true, Mickey?”

 

Michele stood with his arms folded across his chest, leaning on the door jamb, glowering at them both. On closer inspection, though, most of his displeasure seemed to be directed at Viktor. It made sense - he couldn’t show any real anger towards Sara without suffering some potentially painful consequences. No-one in the Mafia could.

 

He narrowed his eyes when Viktor met them, and snarled something in Italian that most certainly did not sound friendly.

 

“Ignore him. He’s just moody because Papa asked me to deal with you instead of him. Makes it clear which one of us he trusts more, no?”

 

“Papa didn’t say anything about climbing into bed with him!” Michele hissed.

 

Sara shushed him. “You’re not going to tell on me, are you? And besides, all that Papa owns and controls will be ours one day. What’s the harm in playing with some of his toys?”

 

Viktor saw the wicked smirk on her face, and followed her line of sight. He grabbed the end of the blanket and pulled it up over his waist. “What time is it?” he mumbled.

 

Humming softly, Sara pulled a very familiar-looking watch from a pocket that was either sewn into her dress or her bra - Viktor couldn’t tell. “A quarter to eleven.” She clicked her tongue. “You’ve wasted half the day.”

 

He stared at the watch, trying to make out the faint scuffs and scratches on the face of it. That was the only way he could be sure that it was the same watch he’d left on top of the pile of his folded clothes, sitting on the bathroom counter. “May I have that back, please?”

 

“Only because you asked so nicely.” Sara reached for his arm and placed the watch back on him, taking her sweet time. The metal of the watch was so, so warm from her body heat. “Papa sends his regrets that he couldn’t be here to fulfill his end of your bargain in person. Urgent matters stole him away early this morning, and he said he didn’t have the heart to wake you. I’m sure you’ve had enough of his company last night, anyway.” She turned and reached over behind her, to where the pillows were, and handed him an unmarked document envelope. “In any case, a promise is a promise. For you.”

 

Viktor accepted it, and finally started to push himself upright. He regretted that immediately when pain shot up his spine - fuck. Sara giggled at him, and graciously helped him up the rest of the way.

 

Michele’s eyes flashed with the promise of murder.

 

The envelope’s contents were mostly letters, written in Italian. He couldn’t make out what any of them were saying, but he did recognize the same name alternating with Don Cripino’s, either as the sender or the receiver, on every single one. Near the bottom of the envelope, weighing it down, there was a stack of deposit slips, already helpfully arranged by date. Viktor knew, after thumbing through the first dozen of them, that if he took these back to the office, he could match the account number and the amounts to a pile of similar bank records that he already had back at the agency. “You’re kidding me.”

 

“So you see now that the police’s theory is completely absurd.” Sara inspected the seam that ran along the side of her glove with nonchalance. “Why would we kill off Josef Karpisek, when he was one of ours?”

 

“But… he kept talking about his anti-organized crime platform - ”

 

“Oh, that? Yes, nothing but pretty words. It was Papa’s idea - brilliant, no? If he were to win, he would have made an extremely useful tool for us, and no-one would have been the wiser. It’s a shame that he died, really.”

 

Something about the sheer irreverence with which she’d said those words jostled Viktor out of his initial shock, as well as whatever else he was trying not to feel. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said with derision.

 

“Don’t be like that.” Sara frowned. “The protection afforded by having an elected mayor in Papa’s back pocket would have been more than welcome.”

 

“I wasn’t aware that you needed it.”

 

“Well of course we don’t, we’re Cosa Nostra.” She laughed. “But he would have been in a prime position to take care of some of our more… persistent annoyances. There are so many gangs in the North part of town nowadays. God knows what they’re doing, but you can be sure it’s no good. Then there’s the Triad - those people are so shady, I’m not even convinced that they’re real sometimes.”

 

Viktor might have heard of them before, in passing. He had to concede that Sara was telling the truth here: though they might have been the biggest and most prominent at the moment, La Cosa Nostra was far from the only criminal faction operating in the city. “And your father - through Karpisek’s machinations, I’m guessing - would have done away with these other criminal factions, is that right?”

 

“Put it this way: this island is tiny, Detective. She only has so much room for scandals on her streets.” Sara placed her hands on Viktor’s shoulders and pulled him back, so that his head was resting on her lap and she was looking at him from above once more. “Which brings us to the matter of payment.”

 

Viktor blinked, momentarily disoriented. “For what’s in this envelope?”

 

“We’re not in the business of handing out anything for free, Detective.” Sara plucked the envelope out of his hands. “All Papa asks is that you do your diligence as an investigator, and use all of your talents to get to the bottom of this unfortunate… mess. Once you find the killer - and he has great faith that you will - you are to deliver the guilty party not to the police, but to us.” She looked like an angel when she smiled: so beatific, so beautiful. “Acceptable?”

 

Surely the Don knew, on some level, that there was no way Viktor would be able to promise him that. Not only were the police and the press seemingly watching his every move - there was no guarantee that he’d even catch whoever was responsible in the first place. Not to mention the laundry list of moral objections he had against dooming whoever was responsible to whatever kangaroo court La Cosa Nostra had set up in the shadows, and that was if they even bothered with one at all - cinder blocks and a drive to the harbor were so much more efficient, after all.  

 

But Sara didn’t know any of that, so he simply nodded for now. He’d cross that rickety, unstable bridge when he got there.

 

“Then we have a deal! Papa will be so pleased.”

 

She swung her long legs over the edge of the bed, leaving Viktor’s head to fall and hit the mattress. The fabric of her dress shimmered in the sunlight as she moved. It was hard not to watch her: the graceful slope of her neck and shoulder coming into view as she gathered her hair to one side; the silk straining against the swell of her hips when she bent down, probably to slip on her shoes, with one hand braced against the edge of the bed.

  

 

 

 

 

 

Michele must have noticed him staring. He snapped his fingers loudly, and snarled when Viktor looked at him. “You have a death wish, bastard? I’ll rip your eyes out!”

 

“Oh stop it, Mickey.” Sara stuffed all of the letters back into the envelope, leaving Viktor only with the stack of deposit slips. “That should be more than enough. The accounts have been closed, so don’t bother. You can say it all came from me.”

 

“And you’ll corroborate that? If the need arises?”

 

Sara scoffed. “Of course not. I’ll deny everything to the death.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder, and checked the time by pulling his arm towards her, so she could inspect his watch again. “I won’t keep you any longer, you have a job to get to after all. Can you stand?”

 

“I’ll find out in a little while.” He sat up, with a bit less difficulty this time. Something - a blind impulse, or maybe a fit of temporary insanity borne of that death wish Michele had mentioned - made him reach out and grab Sara’s arm just as she started to pull away. He was mostly fixated on her glove, running his thumb over the soft, white silk of it near her wrist.

 

Sara blinked, surprised. “See something you like, Detective?” she purred.

 

Michele looked about three seconds away from making good on all his promises of murder. “I’m not supposed to be telling you this, but we found a piece of silk in the hallway just outside Karpisek’s room,” Viktor told her. “You wouldn’t mind if I borrowed one of your gloves to check against it, do you?”

 

“Hmmm… I don’t know. I’m rather fond of these gloves. Why would I ever agree to that?”

 

Because you have about a dozen more identical pairs of these gloves, he didn’t say. “Well, since you’ve just confirmed to me that the Mafia wasn’t behind the murder after all, you have nothing to hide.”

 

Sara mulled over that for awhile. “I suppose granting you this little favor means some assurance of seeing you again the near future, no?” That seemed to convince her, for some reason. Instead of letting Viktor pull away the glove he was already holding, she closed that hand into a fist. Then, she brought her other hand over to caress his face, and pushed just the tip of her gloved middle finger between his lips. “Be my guest. But I’ll want it back.”

 

Ignoring the look on Michele’s face which promised a slow, painful death that would likely leave an unidentifiable corpse, Viktor tugged off her glove with his teeth.

 

Sara laughed. “Now, wasn’t that fun?” With that, she sauntered over to the door, pushing a sputtering Michele out into the hallway. “Take care of yourself, Detective. Don’t be a stranger.”

 

 


 

 

It was infinitely tempting to just write off the rest of the day, and head straight home from Crispino Tower. Unfortunately for him, the scrap of silk that had been marked as evidence currently sat on his desk, all the way on the other side of town. As he navigated the never-ending stream of office workers and tourists heading every which way for lunch, Viktor really wished he’d thought to just bring it with him the night before. Hindsight was useless like that.  

 

He headed straight for his office once he got to the agency, intending to duck in, grab the fabric scrap, and duck back out. By some miracle, he didn’t run into anyone else on the way in - they’d probably been sent to the field, or headed to the streets to duke it out with the rest of the lunch crowd. Viktor didn’t really envy them either way… although if they knew any better, they sure wouldn’t be envying him, either.

 

He never bothered to take his coat off, or even glance at the pile of mail that someone - Yuri, probably - had dropped on the seat of his chair. He simply came in, picked up what he came here for, and headed back out before his door had even finished swinging closed.

 

On his way out, he saw that Yakov had left his door ajar. The light coming from within the office was a dead giveaway, too. Viktor stopped, and weighed the options in his mind. Was this a conversation that he wanted to have?

 

In the end, he walked over to Yakov’s office and knocked on the open door, having decided that this was the bare minimum of common courtesy. That, and precisely nothing that had happened in the past twenty-four hours correlated with what he’d wanted anyway, so what was the point in breaking that streak now?

 

“I’ll be checking with a contact of mine to examine the physical evidence we got from Otabek.” He was too tired to come up with a convincing lie. “I don’t know what time I’ll be back.”

 

Yakov glanced up from his paperwork. “Thank you for letting me know.” He stared at Viktor over the rim of his reading glasses with a furrowed brow. “What time did you finish working last night?”

 

It took him entirely too long to respond to that. For one, he wasn’t sure whether Yakov was asking what time he’d left the office, or what time he’d finally drifted off after staring out the Don’s window for most of the night. Then again, he didn’t really know the answer to either of those questions. “One?” He shrugged. “Two? I didn’t really keep track.”

 

Yakov’s stare could have bored holes in him. This went on for an uncomfortably long time, before he finally sighed and said, “Take the rest of the day off.”

 

Viktor wasn’t going to argue with him on that.

 

If he hadn’t taken so long to get downstairs, he might have been able to leave the agency without running into another soul. But today was a day of disappointments, so of course Emil was there in the lounge area, an oppressive concentrate of molasses and sunshine. He was poring over some files on the coffee table - medical records, from the looks of them, probably for a case he was working on - while having lunch.

 

“Hey, we didn’t see you this morning. Did you just come in?” When Viktor made a noncommittal sound, Emil’s permanent smile only widened. “I get it. Walk of shame?”

 

“Sorry?”

 

“You’re wearing the exact same clothes as yesterday. Usually, you’d at least change the tie. Also…” Emil made a vague hand gesture around his neck, wearing a wicked smile. Viktor resisted the urge to tug his collar up, and wished he’d had a scarf on him. “Congratulations?”

 

This was one of those moments when Viktor appreciated that there were some serious downsides to working at a detective agency. “I plead the Fifth.”

 

Emil burst out laughing. “One of these days, you and I need to get a drink together. You look like you have the most interesting stories.”

 

“Not really. Unless you like hearing about my dog a lot, you might wind up disappointed.” In the process of avoiding Emil’s eyes, he noticed the still-steaming paper cup on the table, and the small tag on a string hanging over the rim. “Is that tea?”

 

“Yup. Nothing better on a day like this.”

 

“Did you happen to get it from... ah, what’s the name of that place?” Shit, he couldn’t remember. Leo had mentioned the name, hadn’t he? “Silk-something.”

 

“The Silk Umbrella?” Emil raised his eyebrows, and laughed again. “No way. That would be entirely out of my price range. Though I hear their stuff is really good - just not for your wallet.”

 

“Hmmm.” It only begged the question as to how Leo - fearless reporter and thorn in his side, whom to Viktor’s knowledge had always operated in more or less the same economic circles as he did - seemingly liked their wares not just for himself, but also to give away as a random act of charity. What was that all about? Perhaps the more important question was: why was he even fixating on this?

 

“Yeah. And it’s not just tea, too. They sell everything - china, infusers, the works. Something about ‘reading your tea leaves’, too. And they also have this service where you pay to get to talk to some of the girls that work there, over tea of course…” Emil trailed off, and looked at Viktor meaningfully. “That reminds me…”

 

“What?”

 

“Well, I was just thinking about conversations that come at a price, and…” At the deliberately blank look Viktor gave him, he finally cut to the chase. “Is it true what they say? That you’re able to set up meetings with…you know. A certain criminal faction?”

 

This time, it was Viktor’s turn to laugh. He should have known better than to expect that the deal he’d brokered with the devil, or what passed for the devil in this city anyway, wouldn’t come back to haunt him one day. He just wished that his torment didn’t have to come all at once, from all directions, on this day. There was only so much a man could take.

 

“Ignorance is bliss,” he said, and meant it. “Enjoy your tea.”  

 

 


 

 

Viktor’s tailor had a shop on the first floor of a low-rise walk-up about half a block away from his apartment building. He’d moved into the area four years ago, and the first time they’d met had been when they were both out walking their dogs on a Sunday morning. A fully-grown Siberian husky, walking majestically against the backdrop of brick, concrete, and sadness that was their neighborhood, was impossible not to notice.

 

For Viktor’s part, the man’s first words to him had been: ‘That jacket’s fit on you is appalling. Looking at it irritates me. Let me fix it.’

 

Viktor brought Makkachin along as he headed to the shop today, because while Seung-gil Lee professed a profound distaste for many things, he did have a soft spot for dogs. If his past visits were any indication, Viktor would have guessed that Makkachin was the one he actually considered a guest in his shop; Viktor just happened to be there, a fixture that he’d come to tolerate a bit more than most.

 

“Afternoon,” he called out as he pushed open the door. “Anyone home?”

 

He found Seung-gil at the counter, working on a piece that had entirely too many ruffles, sewing by hand. He didn’t look up as he said, “What did you ruin this time? Was it the pin-striped suit jacket again?”

 

“No, and in my defense, that was an accident.” Viktor closed the door behind him and unclipped Makkachin’s leash, setting her free to roam the shop as she pleased. “I’m here for a consultation, actually.”

 

Makkachin made a beeline for the counter, where Seung-gil had already abandoned his handiwork to crouch down, waiting with treats in his hand. If he moved his facial muscles just a little bit more, Viktor might have described the conservative curve of his lips as a smile. “Hello, Makkachin. Good girl.” He said this with utmost seriousness, as though he were reading off an almanac. “You are a very good girl.”

 

Viktor approached the counter slowly. He tried to appear casual, stuffing his hands into his pockets and perusing the garments on the mannequins. In truth, it was difficult to walk with his usual gait, not at any respectable pace at least. This would pass, he knew, but God he hoped it would pass soon. “What do you say? Want to help me catch another murderer?”

 

“Depends. Do I get any benefit out of helping you again?”

 

“What are you talking about? I gave you a cut of my bonus check the last time.” Which had hurt, considering what Viktor had gone through in the process of earning that damn money in the first place.

 

Seung-gil gave him a withering look. “I can get money the usual, boring way. Making bullet holes vanish from suit jackets is a lot easier, and safer, than helping you track down murderers who might come for me.”

 

Well, it was hard to argue with him when he put it that way. “What do you want?”

 

“You Americans and your policies on liquor cause me a great deal of grief.”

 

You and me both, he wanted to say. But that was fine. He understood. “If, hypothetically, I had a friend who regularly hooks me up with some homemade gin… then I suppose I could, hypothetically, ask him to divert a couple of handles your way. Is that good?”

 

Seung-gil wrinkled his nose. “I’ve had your gin, it tastes like molten iron.” He’d just managed to get Makkachin eating out of the palm of his hand, which was probably why he was more agreeable than usual. “But I’ll accept it.”

 

Viktor nodded his thanks. He dug into his coat pockets for both the sample and the glove, and deposited both items onto the counter before Seung-gil could change his mind. “The scrap was found at the crime scene. I want to know if we’re looking at the same thing.”

 

Curiously, Seung-gil picked up the glove first, running the silk through his hands, holding it up to the light. He looked over the mousequetaire buttons on the inside of the wrist with narrowed eyes. “This looks like one of Sara Crispino’s gloves.”

 

Viktor kept his mouth shut.

 

“One day, you are going to get us both killed.” Seung-gil let out a heavy sigh, and began unlocking the single door behind the counter. Viktor had only ever caught glimpses of the back room that it opened into, but he could piece those together to construct a rough image of it in his mind: a single, open room filled with reams and reams of fabric, hanging suits in various stages of completion, and a wide table shared by a sewing machine and a microscope. God knew what else was in the parts of that room he hadn’t seen yet. “Alright, come on. Follow me.”

 

“Thanks,” Viktor breathed. He started walking -

 

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

 

He stopped in his tracks. Seung-gil whistled once, and Makkachin trotted happily after him. Traitor.

 

Suddenly, Viktor found himself alone in the shop, with absolutely nothing to do.

 

That was a recipe for disaster even on much better days.

 

He tried his best to keep his mind clear, but it was an absolute mess up there. He’d hoped it would have gotten better throughout the day, but it hadn’t, and now here he was, trying to shut out whispers in his head, and rubbing at his arms to stop the prickling feeling on his skin from touches that didn’t even exist. He caught sight of the mannequins along the walls of the shop and tried to use them to distract himself. But whenever he stared too long at any one of them, it didn’t take long before he would see the blank mannequin face slowly start to shift. And in the next moment, he was recalling silvery hair and violet eyes, and the next breath smelled like it might have been tinged with cigar smoke.

 

Stop. Stop.  

 

Viktor reached into his coat pockets out of reflex. He’d gotten to the point where he was already fiddling with the lighter wheel in one hand and pulling out the cigarette carton with the other, before he noticed how weightless the latter was. It was empty - right, he’d run out of cigarettes yesterday night. Damn it.

 

He stuffed everything back into his pockets and leaned some of his weight against the counter. He ended up having to brace his hands against it when the world teetered and blurred. Barely past one in the afternoon, and he was already so tired. When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember anymore, but it was probably yesterday. It must have been yesterday, because Sara had poked her pretty little head back into her father’s bedroom while Viktor was dressing up, and said something about Celestino having made brunch if he wanted to stay. It had been tempting, so tempting. But he’d declined, because every second he spent in that tower was flirting with the chance of seeing the Don again, and… he didn’t want that. Not for another two years, at least.

 

It was payment for a debt, he reminded himself again. Just like plying his tailor with gin in exchange for his skills in fabric analysis, or thinking of something nice for Yuri since he’d watched Makkachin as a favor to Viktor too many times. It was a business transaction. Nothing more.

 

“It’s not a match.”

 

Viktor jumped at the sound of Seung-gil’s voice. He barely braced himself in time before Makkachin lunged at him, standing on her hind legs with her paws on his chest, her tail threatening to break the sound barrier. Viktor’s eyes were drawn to the clock near the back door, and it was almost two. Had he lost time again? Fuck.

 

“Also, for what it’s worth,” Seung-gil continued, “the Crispinos and their associates most likely import their silk in bulk, and have whatever pieces they want constructed locally.”

 

“In other words, there’s no reason to believe that Sara was anywhere near the crime scene that night.”

 

“You don’t look surprised,” Seung-gil observed, studying his face.

 

“No, I guess not.” Once he got Makkachin to settle down long enough to clip her leash back on, he gathered up both the glove and the fabric scrap from Seung-gil’s hands. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a different verdict, though.”

 

Seung-gil nodded sagely. “Because then your case would be closed?”

 

“Sure.” That explanation was as good as any other, and easier to write off than the truth. Viktor thanked Seung-gil for his time, called Makkachin to his side, and began to head home for the day.

 

 


 

 

The days that followed passed in a perpetual fog. At some point - on Sunday, no less - Viktor finally remembered to match the deposit slips Sara had given him against the bank records he’d already received from Karpisek’s widow, and he actually made the trip to his office to do so. They checked out. ‘Campaign donations’, my ass.

 

He told Otabek about this development the following day, and Otabek promised to kick it up the chain on his end. And then it was all radio silence from the NYPD, which was no surprise; bureaucracy was such a troublesome thing.

 

As for Viktor, he… managed, somehow. As best as he could, anyway. He made his way through each day that passed as though it was only muscle memory that drove him forward. He spent all of Tuesday morning glancing through Karpisek’s speeches and circling all the lies, until all of the papers were bleeding red by lunchtime. He kept forgetting to buy cigarettes. Mila, who’d apparently sworn on some New Year’s resolution that he didn’t fully understand, started joining Yakov on his afternoon tea habit, and at three on the dot he noticed the whole second floor smelling like a different tea everyday. He wondered if he was going insane. Yuri was starting to ask him every morning if he needed anything, like he saw Viktor as some goddamn invalid, and Viktor’s irritation with that question grew every time he asked. So far, he’d been able to smile every time he dismissed it. He really hoped Yuri would stop asking soon, because he wasn’t sure he could keep doing that forever.

 

Makkachin wouldn’t leave his side whenever he was at home nowadays; she would whine and whine whenever he’d head out to leave. He didn’t know what to make of it. Things had stopped hurting after the second day, and he was fine. The handle of Christophe’s bathtub gin was getting lighter and lighter, and the sound of the tablets rattling within the bottle of barbital grew louder every time he took it out, but that was fine. Things ran out. He’d just make a note to get more whenever he remembered.

 

Before he knew it, Wednesday had rolled around again, which meant a necessary detour to the West St Psychoanalytic Clinic - fucking Tribeca - before he could head home. He’d spent the past week trying, with various levels of success, not to think of many things, and Yuuri, for particular reasons, was one of those ‘things’. Unfortunately for him, that was going to be quite impossible tonight.

 

“Mr. Nikiforov?”

 

Viktor blinked, feeling as though he’d been physically shaken out of his thoughts. The waiting room of the West St Psychoanalytic Clinic greeted him with silence. How had he gotten to this place? Had he walked? It seemed like it. How long had he been sitting here before the receptionist called out his name?

 

“Mr. Nikiforov?” She tried again. “He’s ready for you.”

 

“Right. Of course.” He returned her smile with as much warmth as he could, while fighting back what felt like the first wave of panic.

 

The hallway that led from the reception area to the offices was narrow, even by this city’s standards. Just as Viktor was about to go in, a gorgeous woman dressed in velvet and furs was already coming out.

 

He couldn’t quite place her features - the jet-black hair that she’d wrapped in a silk scarf, endless legs, and skin like alabaster failed to trigger any of the memories lying dormant in his mind. It was too bad; he would’ve remembered that face for sure, and those eyes that would have looked like storms had they not been quite so pensive.

 

He stepped aside to let her pass. She graced him with a smile when she did, but she didn’t say a word as she kept walking, all the way to the exit.

 

“Heh. She’s really something, isn’t she?”

 

Now that he thought about it, this was probably the first time he’d seen the door across from Yuuri’s office - the one marked ‘Jean-Jacques Leroy, M.D.’ in fancy golden lettering - left open. This was also the first time he’d laid eyes on the man now standing in front of that door, with a smile so self-assured; Viktor only needed one look at him to know that this man’s ego could use its own zip code. “She sure is,” he murmured anyway.

 

“I know. I’m the luckiest man in the world.” He chose to show off the shiny golden band on his left hand in such a way that, if he’d been one finger off, Viktor would have been quite justified in throwing the first punch. “I made sure to put a rock on her as soon as she’d let me.”

 

Dr. Leroy was taking up just enough space in the hallway that Viktor couldn’t get past him without suddenly ending this conversation, or being glaringly impolite. He decided not to mention that yes, he had noticed the ring on her hand, and yes, if it had been any brighter in this hallway, he would’ve been blinded by it as she’d walked past. “Congratulations to you both.”

 

“Thanks. Sorry, I just needed to get that out of the way - you know how it is, right? Need to set some ground rules right out of the gate. Otherwise, what would make us different from animals?” Dr. Leroy pushed himself away from the wall and swept an arm towards the interior of his office. “Before we start, what’s your poison tonight? Coffee? Tea?”

 

Viktor finally realized something that he really should have picked up on sooner: all this time, Dr. Leroy had been expecting him to go inside. What? “I’m sorry, I’d love to chat more, but I have an appointment with Dr. Katsuki.” Which you are making me late for, he bit back.

 

On any other day, it might have been a fun exercise to pick apart the sequence of emotions that played out on the doctor’s face: confusion, realization, sheer horror… and then a lingering, uneasy embarrassment. Yuri would’ve gotten a kick out of it, he was sure. “M-My mistake, then,” he stammered. “I’m so sorry… I honestly thought you were someone else.”

 

“Happens to the best of us.” Viktor figured this was about as graceful an exit as he was going to get, and started to move. “Excuse me, please.”

 

Dr. Leroy stepped aside, and Viktor promptly forgot all about that strange, useless conversation. He walked straight into Yuuri’s office, closed the door behind him, and got his coat off and hanging by the door without once meeting Yuuri’s eyes.

 

“Sorry I’m late. Where do you want me today, Doc?”

 

After a pregnant pause, Yuuri answered, “Wherever you want to sit.”

 

Viktor wanted to sit in the backseat of a cab that would take him home. He settled for one of the chairs in front of Yuuri’s desk instead. Something about the daybed and the overstuffed chair from last week felt like it would be too… he didn’t want to use the word ‘intimate’. Nothing else was coming to mind, though.

 

He felt Yuuri’s eyes tracking his every movement, until he’d finally slumped into his seat. Even then, Yuuri’s stare asked a thousand and one questions without him having to speak a single word. “You look exhausted, Viktor.”

 

“It was a long day,” Viktor found himself saying. He didn’t clearly remember what he’d done for most of it, but it still felt the same in the end, like time had slowed to a sluggish pace, to match the fog he’d been fighting for the past few days. How many days had it been, since this started? It would be simple to just count, but maybe he didn’t truly want an answer to that question, because it would just trigger another one: if it’s already been so long, why aren’t you better yet?

 

“Do you want to walk me through it?”

 

“Not much to tell. Paperwork, it doesn’t end… I might as well have been chained to my desk.”

 

Out came the notebook, and the fancy pen as Yuuri started to write something down - no, actually it was a different pen this time. Was it new? Maybe. He wondered if it was a gift, or if Yuuri had bought it for himself. God, but Yuuri was a sight for sore eyes… he always was, but tonight he was something else, in a deep burgundy suit tailored with no mercy to fit his frame, and had Viktor fighting off the sudden, irrational urge to drink him in like a fine wine. “For the case you’re working on, yes?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

More scribbling. Why was Yuuri writing so much? What could you even begin to write, about such a boring account like that? Viktor studied Yuuri’s desk, the rich finish of on the wood, the knots and swirls and the patterns you could get lost in. Though there was absolutely no reason for it to do so, it reminded him of another desk, in another building in another part of town, next to a window drenched in darkness overlooking Central Park, and holding an ashtray for many, many cigars.

 

“Viktor?” Yuuri’s voice cut into his thoughts, but not deep enough. “What’s on your mind?”

 

“Nothing.” He let out a breath. “Sorry. I’m distracted.”

 

“What is distracting you?”

 

Good question. He should have seen it coming. Now, what was the lie? He should have been ready with that, too. Fucking hell, why was he so awful at this stupid game today? He should have been able to deflect these questions in his sleep. “I don’t know. I guess it’s this case - all of it.”

 

“The one you can’t tell me about?”

 

“Unfortunately.”

 

Yuuri sighed. He pushed himself back, away from his desk, so that he could cross his legs and place the notebook on top of his lap. “Let’s try that again, only this time, you don’t lie to me: what happened within the past seven days that’s been taking up all of the space in your mind ever since?”

 

Viktor felt the sting in the back of his eyes again. It was a sensation he’d come to know awfully well over these past few days, and this was far from the first time he had to fight it off. Tonight it persisted, refusing to die, settling into a low, constant burning. He didn’t know if this was necessarily an improvement.

 

The only reason Viktor wound up telling the truth in the end was because he didn’t have any other options. Lying was expensive, and spinning a tale that was sophisticated enough to fool someone like Dr. Katsuki required a clarity of thought that Viktor just could not achieve tonight. “I might have had an… encounter,” he swallowed back something bitter that had crept up his throat at the end of that word, “that I regret.”

 

Thankfully, Yuuri didn’t ask him to elaborate on what he meant by that - the slight widening of his eyes before he returned to his neutral, carefully curated expression told Viktor that he’d understood. “In what way do you regret it?”

 

“I wish it hadn’t happened.” That was a truth that was easy to part with, because it could mean about a dozen different things. “I can’t turn back time, though, so I wish I could just forget about it.” But somehow, that wasn’t happening nearly fast enough for Viktor’s liking. Why?

 

“That’s unfortunate.” Yuuri’s scribbling took on a more hesitant quality, full of stops and false starts, words that he crossed out and replaced with other words. He didn’t say anything for a long time. “I suppose if you could turn back time, with the knowledge you have now, you would take care to avoid the encounter altogether?”

 

Viktor was laughing before he realized it. That was funny. Why was that funny? “There was no avoiding this.”

 

The scribbling abruptly stopped. For the first time since this session had begun, Viktor found himself looking straight into Yuuri’s eyes.

 

It took a few seconds for it to sink in. Oh, hell. “And besides, it’s over now,” he added quickly, “so it doesn’t really matter either way. What can you do, right?”

 

“Viktor.” Yuuri’s voice had dropped to barely above a whisper. “Were you forced?”

 

He had an answer to this. He did. It was a business transaction. He’d repaid a debt, whose terms had been known to him for two years. He’d purchased new information - information that was vital to his case.

 

“No.”

 

Yuuri didn’t buy that for a second. “I can’t tell if you’re trying to convince me, or yourself.”

 

“It wasn’t like that. I - ” He struggled through something blocking his throat, eating all of the words. His mouth felt impossibly dry. “I was the one who went to him. I knew… I knew what was going to happen once I walked in there.”

 

“Because you wanted to?”

 

He… he must have. The alternative would have meant doing nothing, still owing that debt, and letting Leo run his story. Now that they had real, solid proof, the cops would finally drop their Mafia theory, and that would relieve some of the pressure they’d been putting on Viktor and the agency. Leo would back off and leave him alone, hopefully for a long while. At the end of the day, he’d done this for his own good.

 

Hadn’t he?

 

“He didn’t have a gun to my head.” His voice was shaking. He couldn’t stop it, why couldn’t he stop it? Was it cold in here? No, that wasn’t it, because the fireplace was lit. This was just like back at his apartment - he was shivering, and he couldn’t stop that, either. Did Yuuri notice? “I could have stopped it at any time. I could have walked away.”

 

“Without suffering any repercussions for having done so, I’m sure.” Yuuri leaned forward. “Or am I wrong?”

 

Don Crispino liked clean workspaces and beautiful things.

 

Viktor was an ‘expensive, risky investment’.

 

“I… I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

 

Yuuri heaved a sigh. He closed the notebook and placed it on top of his desk, just far enough that he had to strain to reach it again. Viktor wasn’t sure if that was supposed to comfort him. “It’s important to be honest with yourself, Viktor. You need to acknowledge where the line is drawn between events that are the consequences of your own actions, and injustices committed to you through no fault of your own.”

 

Viktor was laughing again. He almost didn’t realize it because his voice had sounded like it was coming from so far away. What the hell? He was so tired. “Pretty sure this was my fault,” he mumbled under his breath.

 

“Then enlighten me.”

 

Viktor scoffed at that. “You’d have to clear out the rest of your night.”

 

“And what if I did? Would you talk to me then?”

 

Fair question.

 

What hurt the most about it was that, if left to his own devices, Viktor didn’t think he’d consider talking to Yuuri any trouble at all. New Year’s Eve was just a memory in his mind now, starting to fade like all memories did, but a part of him still held onto that feeling - of being reckless, unguarded in another person’s presence for the first time in a long time, and how much of a relief that had been. Viktor was willing to talk - or not talk - to him all night, every night. Just not here.

 

And not as Dr. Katsuki.

 

“I only want to help you, Viktor.” But unfortunately for him, it was Dr. Katsuki that was speaking to him at this very moment. “You know this, right? But you’ve built walls upon walls around yourself, shutting everyone out. Even those who only wish you well.”

 

Viktor said nothing to that. Yuuri was still talking in that same soft, gentle tone from before, and a part of him hated it. It felt patronizing, and he read it as though Yuuri was terrified of breaking him. That made no sense, because there was nothing to break. Why would there be? It was a business transaction.

 

“I wish you would let me in.” Yuuri kept the conversation going. “In the same manner that you seem to trust so easily with your body, I wish you would trust me with your mind.”

 

Viktor physically recoiled at that, as though he’d been slapped. It sure as hell felt that way, and when he went over those words several times in his head - to make sure he hadn’t heard them wrong - the stinging feeling worsened a hundred times more. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

 

“Nothing,” Yuuri said quickly, too quickly. “I take it back.”

 

“That… that was really fucking unprofessional.”

 

“It was,” Yuuri agreed with him on the spot. “And I apologize. I should not have said that.”

 

Viktor wanted, so badly, to read real contrition in Yuuri’s face and words. There were shades of it there for sure, in his tense posture and wide, worried eyes. But there was a reason those words had cut so sharp, and so deep - he would have expected something like this from the Don himself, or Michele or Sara or maybe even Yakov on a very bad day. And he didn’t imagine, in any of those scenarios, that it would hurt anywhere near as much as it did now.

 

It wasn’t just because Yuuri knew, or claimed to know what had happened to him. And thinking back to that encounter, he didn’t really have a fucking leg to stand on, did he? No-one had forced him to imagine Yuuri in the Don’s place instead, And when it had actually worked, because he was apparently a depraved piece of shit, no-one had forced him to come here tonight instead of begging off with an excuse, because he could barely look Yuuri in the eye.

 

At the very least, though, he’d learned exactly what Yuuri thought of him now. Good to know. “You’re only sorry that you said it out loud.”

 

“Viktor, that’s not true - ”

 

“No. You know what? I’m done.” He was trembling when he stood up, trembling when he struggled to button up his suit jacket, and trembling when he walked to the door, every step taking him further away from Dr. Katsuki forever. “Tell Yakov whatever you want. I’m ending this.”

 

Yuuri watched him from behind the desk as he pulled on his coat. Viktor couldn’t see the look on his face, but that was fine. He wasn’t sure if he could really look at Yuuri again without the stinging in his eyes delivering on what it had long promised. “If you leave like this,” Yuuri said quietly, “I’ll have no choice but to give Mr. Feltsman my real recommendation. You know what that means.”

 

“Fine, do your worst!” The words came out like they’d been ripped from his throat. “What’s Yakov going to do, bench me? Fire me?” He choked through a laugh. “Anything is better than having to sit here, week after week, while you dig into my head and pull out all of these things that I don’t even want to think about, forcing me to relive them again and again and again and - for what? To watch me suffer? Does… does that amuse you?” His voice cracked at the end of that; betrayal tasted like salt, and he almost wanted to shoot himself for it. To hell with all of this. “You can’t fix me. You don’t even know what the hell you’re doing!”

 

Throughout his whole tirade, Yuuri remained silent. Viktor might have hoped for him to argue, to stand up and yell back, get in his face and tell him he was wrong. To placate him with soft-spoken promises and apologies, a salve to at least make it hurt less as he bled out. To deny everything, put up some kind of a fight, say something! He deserved at least that much, didn’t he?

 

Or… no. Maybe he didn’t, and maybe this made sense. If Yuuri hadn’t really cared - if all this time, Viktor had been nothing more than a paycheck and some warm thing for him to play with when the mood struck, then why would Yuuri bother to expend any more effort on him?

 

It all made sense now. That he’d come to this realization through reason should have spared him from pain, but he could only be so lucky. Because not too long ago, he’d walked home from a raucous Times Square with his head light from the haze of a feeling he hadn’t experienced in years, and the world had seemed just a bit less gray.

 

It was funny how things worked out, sometimes. He wished he could just forget about it all.

 

Yuuri finally spoke when he pulled open the door. “Viktor, please - “

 

“Goodbye, Dr. Katsuki. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

 

 


 

 

At the end of the day, Viktor didn’t even remember how he’d gotten home. He remembered storming out of the clinic, fighting back the burning in his eyes and whatever had felt like a vise around his heart. He’d hit the street and walked in some random direction - he didn’t know for how long or how far, because the next thing he remembered was being dropped off by a cab in front of his apartment building, and the driver hadn’t had enough change on him to give back but Viktor had said take it, take all of it, it’s fine. What the hell even was the difference? He didn’t care anymore.

 

Viktor paced around his apartment, trying to find something that would help. He needed it, he needed… something, tonight, something to ensure that he didn’t spend all night thinking of Yuuri or Don Crispino, or both of them switching places in a familiar, terrible delusion that now sickened him. He didn’t trust himself to go to Casa Roja and not drink himself blind, so it had to be something here.

 

The bottles of gin that Christophe had so graciously given him were all empty now, though - he’d drank the last of it in lieu of coffee this morning and told himself he’d stay sober until Christophe’s next visit. Fuck. He still hadn’t gotten cigarettes, even though this must have been the hundredth time he’d told himself to, because Yuri was probably right and it was permanent, this brain damage, it was forever, and he’d be like this until the day he died.

 

Makkachin whined and followed him around the apartment as he nearly tore it apart looking for a cigarette. She kept low to the floor but consistently close, and feeling her warmth pressed up against his leg was the single good thing he had to hold onto right now, to ground himself. She deserved better. He wanted to apologize, but his throat was a dam that was going to break any second now, and he didn’t want to upset her even more.

 

It turned out he only had two barbital tablets left, which was as good as none.

 

Was this it, then? Was this what rock-bottom was? Had he now finally repaid his debt - not to the Don, but to some larger entity, or to a higher power somewhere? To the universe? He hated this, he hated it he hated it he hated it and it hurt, oh God it hurt so much. But he could abide it, or at least he’d sure as hell try, if it meant that, somehow, he’d been forgiven for his folly from two years ago.

 

Could it be…?

 

Of course not. He almost wanted to laugh at himself for thinking it, even for just a moment. Had he seriously, actually allowed himself to hope for it? That was just pathetic.

 

No, this was how it was, and this was how it would always be. Because the Don was an anomaly: one widower made whole on terms that Viktor had accepted despite every fiber of his being begging himself not to, because how else could he possibly have atoned? Those one hundred and twenty-one lives that had been snuffed out because of him… those would never be fully paid for. Not in this lifetime. He’d always be in the red.

 

And it was this, of all things, that finally drove him back to despair. When his knees gave out and the dam finally broke, it wasn’t because of what the Don had taken from him, or the daggers that had fallen unbidden from Yuuri’s lips, carving his words over and over into the walls of Viktor’s mind. No, after everything, it was a far simpler truth that proved to be his undoing: every single thing that was happening to him now, in one way or another, traced itself back to his hubris, his mistake from two years ago. So he’d brought this all on himself, and no matter how much he suffered, it still wasn’t enough.

 

It would never, ever be enough. Maybe that, if nothing else, was worth breaking over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

January 10, 1929

 

He’s driving me mad.

 

I don’t know if he’s doing it consciously or not. And if I told him this, to his face, I wonder how he would react? Knowing him, he’d probably laugh it off, think I was joking. He might even turn it around and ask me why I feel this way. I wouldn’t have an answer for him.

 

It doesn’t make it less true. I’ve found myself dreaming of him on nights when I don’t dream of worse things, and maybe that’s played a part in how much I’ve been thinking of him throughout the day. His eyes, his lips, his voice. The warmth of his body pressed against mine. The taste of his skin. It never ends.

 

It was supposed to. We’d parted on the absolute worst of terms, and he’d said some things that cut deeper than I would have ever thought possible. Against my better judgment, I asked Y and M for advice - I kept it all hypothetical, of course, and I don’t believe they suspect anything. Anyway, both of them gave me the same answer: never see him again. It’s not worth it. There are alternatives, they said, better options out there that won’t hurt you. Quit him while you’re ahead.

 

I don’t know why, after everything that’s happened, I just can’t tear myself away.

 

  

 

  

 

 

Viktor spent the following morning steeped in an eerie sense of calm. He wasn’t sure if it was the first sign of recovery - the worst had passed, and all that - or if it was simply reminiscent of the peace that fell over a man who was about to be hanged. There was a numbness that had settled in his veins, dulling his nerve endings. Crying through most of the night until there was nothing left to cry out and falling asleep curled up against your dog would do that to you, he supposed. Somehow, the next morning, it made it easier to function.

 

More importantly, it made it easier to work. Well-meaning citizens had been phoning the agency with tips since the year began, although none of them had panned out so far; parsing through all the speculation and hearsay, he seriously doubted that they ever would. Case files for old murders that might have been ‘connected’ had found their way onto his desk without him noticing. He worked his way through the stack slowly, picking up on a trend after the third or fourth one: local, grisly murders whose only criteria for selection seemed to be the fact that the victims had received more than a handful of bullet wounds. Still, he went over them, painstakingly, one at a time. This was fine. This was better than having nothing to do.

 

His eyes kept darting to his door, and to the phone on his desk. He was just waiting for something, and he knew it was coming. Any minute now. It would either be a knock on his door from Yakov, calling him to his office to fire him politely, or a phone call from the West St Psychoanalytical Clinic, formalizing the end of his therapy, which would probably be followed by Yakov firing him anyway. It was only a matter of time.

 

The knock on his door came just as he was in the middle of discarding another file - a corpse that had been found hanging in a locked in a barn out of state, killed by two bullets to the back of the head; it didn’t sound even remotely close to Karpisek’s murder at all. He glanced at his watch. Just before lunch? Yakov could be so cruel, it seemed. “Come in.”

 

But it wasn’t Yakov standing outside his door, he saw as it swung open.

 

“Hey.” Yuri didn’t look angry at him today, which he supposed was some small victory. “You taking any visitors right now?”

 

“Depends.” Viktor sighed, chucking the entire folder into the overflowing banker’s box marked ‘Discard’ at his feet. “Is it another person trying to sell us information on Karpisek’s personal life? I doubt we’re going to get anything useful from that at this point.”

 

“No, I don’t think he’s here for that.” Yuri frowned, surveying the disaster zone of papers and boxes that was Viktor’s office. He looked like he was about to say something about it, but decided against it at the last second. “He says he’s here to deliver something, but it sounds sketchy as hell. Won’t tell me any more than that, though.”

 

Viktor squinted at him. “Deliver?”

 

“Like I said, sketchy as hell.”

 

He’d read Yuri Plisetsky enough times to know that he wouldn’t be getting any more information out of him today. “Could you send him up, please?”

 

“Yeah, that’s not happening.” Yuri scoffed. “You should probably just see for yourself. He’s downstairs.”

 

Huh? Viktor was about to ask, but Yuri waved off whatever he was about to say and made his way down the hall - most likely to head to the office of whichever detective he was actually assigned to shadow today, if he had to guess. Viktor finally got up from his seat, walked the winding path of free space between the boxes, and out the door, stopping to peer over the railing. He didn’t see anyone from here, but the lounge area was in a blind spot from this point…

 

He didn’t really know what he was expecting. Visions of threatening letters in unmarked envelopes and parcels with no return addresses containing bloody, sawed-off body parts danced in his head. Another possibility was a box with a bomb inside, set to go off the moment he opened it. It was a remote possibility, for sure, but it was also the one that carried with it the most irony, and didn’t some higher power seem to relish that kind of thing?

 

When he finally reached the lounge, though, he certainly didn’t anticipate this: a huge, elaborate arrangement of white flowers sitting on the coffee table. Dozens of roses and carnations sat in a painted wicker basket, sprinkled with lilies in full bloom that stared back at him, albeit with none of his bewilderment. The flowers took up all of the space on the table, reminding him of a funeral arrangement… and of something else, something from a recent or distant memory that he couldn’t quite call to mind.

 

The ‘delivery’ eclipsed the face of the man sitting behind it, so that Viktor had to move his head to see who it was. And maybe he didn’t expect to see this person waiting for him, but in hindsight, he should have.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

Yuuri didn't stand up right at that moment. But he stiffened when he heard Viktor’s voice, and he cleared his throat as he straightened his spine. “Hello, Viktor. I… you look well. Better than yesterday, at least. I’m glad.”

 

That wasn’t really saying all that much, he wanted to shoot back. “You didn’t answer my question. Why are you here?” He gestured towards the flower arrangement, which was starting to look more and more ridiculous by the second. “What is all this?”

 

“A grand gesture, I suppose. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Yuuri leaned forward and clasped his hands together, staring at the still-closed lily bulb closest to him. “It’s also an apology… if you’ll have it.”

 

“An apology,” Viktor echoed.

 

“You don’t have to accept,” Yuuri said quickly, quietly. “Truth be told, I’d understand it if you choose to send me away.”

 

“Truth be told, a part of me is considering it.”

 

“Not all of you?” Yuuri laughed. “That’s already better than I’d hoped for.”

 

Viktor didn’t say anything to that. It wasn’t as though he could think of anything to say, anyway.

 

Something about Yuuri looked… off, today. He was still completely gorgeous, as he always was, but there was a slight hunch in his shoulders that didn’t escape Viktor’s notice. And it was hard to tell through the lenses of his glasses, but… were those bags under his eyes?

 

Viktor sighed, and moved around the table to take a seat next to Yuuri on the couch. He left a measured distance between them, a careful buffer that neither of them would likely dare to break. He didn’t know for sure why he was even bothering with this. With one word, he knew, he could’ve had Yuuri thrown out of this building from the start. He could still arrange that now, but he couldn’t help but feel as though an opportunity had already passed.

 

“Why flowers?” he finally asked.

 

Yuuri lifted his head, blinking slowly. Viktor wondered how much sleep he’d gotten, if any. “Do you dislike them?”

 

“They’re beautiful.” Admitting that didn’t seem to feel like a huge concession, for some reason. He reached out and ran the pad of his thumb across a rose petal. It was so soft to the touch. “They gave me a bit of a shock, though.”

 

“In a good way or in a bad way?”

 

“You called them a ‘grand gesture’. If you don’t know how your target is going to react to your presence, rattle them first to buy you some time.” Viktor understood where this was coming from; hell, he’d played this stupid gambit himself countless times before. “I don’t appreciate being manipulated like that, Yuuri.”

 

“Noted,” Yuuri said, “but that wasn’t my intention. I truly just wanted to apologize, and this,” he waved at the flowers, “embodies how sorry I am.”

 

Viktor took another look at the arrangement. He had no choice but to entertain the thought that Yuuri might have actually been serious about this, if only for the effort it must have taken to get all of that up the stairs and through the front door. It looked heavy as hell too, and from the sheer size of it, Viktor wasn’t even sure it would fit cleanly through his office door.

 

“For what it’s worth,” Yuuri cut into his thoughts, “I would have filled this room with flowers if I could. But I don’t suppose Mr. Feltsman would be amenable to that.”

 

Trying to imagine Yakov’s reaction to that was a valiant struggle that yielded nothing useful. “No, I don’t think he would.”

 

“Well, I really am sorry. I keep thinking about that session, and wishing that I could take it all back.” Yuuri’s voice dropped to a murmur, and he scrutinized the cufflinks on his sleeves in a transparent bid to avoid Viktor’s eyes. “What I said to you last night had no place in your therapy, and I regret it very much. In my head, I meant something else entirely. But I knew the moment those words came out that I never should have said them at all.”

 

Viktor couldn’t stop himself from asking. “What did you actually mean? In your head.”

 

“It doesn’t matter, I still shouldn’t have said it… especially in light of what happened to you.”

 

That again. Viktor had no appetite to go over this same, tired discussion one more time. “Nothing happened to me,” he said through gritted teeth. “It just… happened.”

 

“Right, of course. My mistake.”

 

The haste with which Yuuri had agreed to that irritated him. He wondered if he was being played - maybe Yuuri, for all that he projected doubt and remorse, was leading him into a tree of questioning that had been designed to trap him, slowly but surely. It certainly wasn’t too far-fetched of a possibility; after all, it had happened before.

 

When the silence promised to stretch on forever, Viktor decided to play anyway, heaving a long sigh. “You don’t have to patronize me like that, either.”

 

“Again, not my intention… but, fair enough.” Yuuri pushed his glasses higher up on the bridge of his nose, and rubbed at his eyes with a quiet groan. “I’m sorry, I’m doing this all wrong. I just want to make amends.”

 

“I’m not setting foot back in that clinic.”

 

“I expected as much.”

 

“Then what are you even proposing?”

 

“Dinner with me.” The words tumbled out of Yuuri’s mouth in a rush, as though he’d just been waiting for Viktor to ask, and forced the answer out before Viktor could reject it outright.

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“It’s the least I can do. You came to me for help, and when you most needed that help, all I did was make it worse.” Yuuri finally, tentatively, raised his head and met Viktor’s eyes. “I can’t undo what happened at the clinic, no matter how much I wish I could. Let me make it up to you?” He offered a pensive smile. “At the very least, let me try to take you out of your head, if only for a little while?”

 

Viktor broke that offer down into words, into goddamn letters, in his mind. No matter which way he cut it, it all sounded the same to him in the end. “Your idea of therapy… is a date.”

 

“Date?” Yuuri echoed. His features softened, and he managed a little laugh. “Your wording, not mine. But it doesn’t have to be. And it’s not therapy, either - I’d assumed when you walked out last night that that was you unofficially firing me as your therapist.”

 

Viktor winced. In hindsight, yeah, maybe that had been rude of him. “Ah.”

 

“It’s just dinner.” Yuuri reached into his coat and pulled a piece of paper from an inside pocket, scribbling something on the back of it over the precious pittance of empty space that had been left on the coffee table in front of him. “Tomorrow night, if you’re free? You don’t have to decide right now, but call me tonight so I’ll know if I’ll be cooking for two.”

 

Viktor took the paper as soon as Yuuri offered it to him. He ended up checking the front of it first, because that was the side facing him right now, and also because he was curious and couldn’t help himself. It was the carbon copy of a receipt from some place called The Golden Dragon, he observed - a restaurant from the looks of it, for some unspecified takeaway order. On the back, Yuuri had written out a phone number.

 

The sense of déjà vu that settled over him at that moment was potent.

 

“Well, I won’t take up any more of your time.” Yuuri finally rose to his feet. He took the time to adjust a couple of roses that had strayed ever so slightly from their original places, likely from having moved the arrangement all the way here. “And Viktor - it’s alright, if your answer is ‘no’. I understand completely.”

 

The more he looked at the numbers scribbled onto the paper, the more they seemed to dare him to do something. He wasn’t sure what; he still wasn’t even sure how he felt about Yuuri showing up here at all, much less his unorthodox offer of reconciliation. “What if it is?” he asked. “What happens then?”

 

“Then here is where we say goodbye.” Yuuri wasn’t looking at him, but Viktor could hear the tinge of heartache in his voice as clearly as if he’d been decked out for mourning. “I tell you that meeting you has been a privilege, and that I hope you’ll find peace. I wish you the best in your current investigation. And then, if I’m feeling particularly brave… I let you know that I’ll forever regret how I drove you away.”

 

It felt wrong, all wrong. There was a heaviness in the air between them, nameless and awful, that he couldn’t dispel. Oddly enough, an errant thought flashed in his mind just as Yuuri turned to walk away: something half-formed, about how moments like this should end with a kiss.

 

But it didn’t, and as Yuuri headed out the door, Viktor was left staring at the flowers he’d left behind, feeling… empty. Hollow.

 

Maybe that explained the answer that he eventually ended up giving to Yuuri later that night, over the phone. As he replaced the handset, and was treated to a silence that felt somewhat oppressive, he wondered if he was making a mistake.

 

When he glanced up to see what Makkachin was doing, he caught her staring at the vase of flowers, mostly roses, sitting in the middle of his dining table. Yuuri’s arrangement had indeed been too large for him to do anything practical with, so he’d split it into smaller bouquets and ‘spread the joy’: Mila had gotten the basket and the lion’s share of it, much to her delight, and he’d given Yakov a sprig of lilies that he knew would inevitably wind up in the dressing room of the owner of an infamous moving cabaret - if he could even find her tonight, anyway. A hand-tied bouquet dropped off at Casa Roja had scored him a bottle of bourbon and an ‘open invitation’ from Christophe, murmured in French so as not to scandalize their eavesdroppers.

 

But he’d kept most of the younger flowers, from tightly-closed buds to those that were just starting to open, for himself. As of now, half were sitting in a recycled glass bottle, the closest to a vase that he could find, on his office windowsill; the rest were here, in the apartment with him. Maybe it would have made more sense to leave all of the flowers at the office, or just get rid of them all as a glowering Yuri had so helpfully suggested. But Viktor decided that he liked having some at home as well. He didn’t mind catching glimpses of them as he moved around the apartment, and they livened up this sad, tiny space more than he’d expected them to.

 

That, and it was certainly easier to admire them here, without being interrupted. Or having to field relentless questions from curious detectives who’d suddenly seemed to have had very little work to do.

 

The flowers really were beautiful, though. That was the only reason why he kept staring at them, and why he felt himself smiling sometimes when they reminded him of Yuuri…

 

His mind was wandering again, Viktor realized. With a heavy sigh, he beckoned Makkachin closer. “You don’t think I’m going crazy, do you?”

 

She trotted over to rest her head in his lap, and Viktor wasn’t sure if that was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Still, it made him feel a bit better either way.

 

 


 

 

Later, while rummaging through his coat pockets for any loose change, he instead found Yuuri’s business card. It was the one he’d written his home number on last week, Viktor remembered after staring at it for about a minute. When he compared it against the number Yuuri had left on the back of the receipt this morning, though, he noticed that they didn’t match.

 

Huh. That was strange.

 

But it was late, and the first few gulps of Christophe’s bourbon had settled nicely in his stomach, leaving him feeling so warm. So he didn’t think anything of it.

 

 


 

 

The address Yuuri gave him led to a swanky high-rise on the corner of 77th Street and Fifth Avenue, from where a dash across the street landed you right in Central Park. The fact that the Karpiseks’ residence was just one neighborhood over was an unfortunate coincidence that he tried not to fixate on too much. It made sense, anyway, for someone with Yuuri’s apparent wealth to live in a white-glove building like this one. There were quite a few of them along Fifth Avenue alone; it must be nice, Viktor thought, to be sheltered in towers like these, far away from the city’s dirtier arteries clogged with smoke and bullets and bloodshed.

 

He arrived with seconds to spare before the clock struck five, carrying a box of chocolates under his arm. What he’d actually meant to bring was Yuuri’s scarf, which he’d been meaning to return every day since this year started. But it seemed some parts of his memory still had the consistency of Swiss cheese somehow, so naturally he’d forgotten all about it. He hadn’t remembered until he was already on the train.

 

In another life, he might have brought a bottle of wine. But he’d spied a confectionery store just as he’d emerged from underground, and he hadn’t wanted to arrive empty-handed. So here he was.

 

Never mind the implications of it. Yuuri had started it anyway, with his gigantic, fancy flower arrangement. Despite this, Viktor could still clearly hear Emil laughing at him in the back of his head as he knocked on the door, and waited.

 

No response.

 

Viktor counted out a minute in his head and knocked again, harder this time. That didn’t seem to work either, and he could feel the possibilities being churned out in his head. He’s not here; he forgot; you got the time wrong, or the building wrong, or the apartment number wrong. It could have been some combination of those, too.

 

But there was always the chance that it was something a lot simpler: maybe Yuuri couldn’t hear him. The irregular arrangement of windows, which broke up the building’s otherwise plain limestone facade from the view on the street, suggested that the layout of apartments throughout its interior was likely more complex than Viktor would have guessed. Maybe Yuuri’s unit was a massive one; given that the only other doors he could see on this floor were the elevator’s, it was certainly possible.

 

A third series of knocks went unanswered before he finally tried his luck, and the handle on the door. It yielded to him easily, although the door itself required a bit of work on his part. The entrance vestibule opened into a massive living room, with a ceiling that must have been ten feet high. It was impossible not to gawk. And he might have been content to do so for a little longer, if he hadn’t suddenly heard a shout from the other room - it was followed quickly by the sound of something heavy, possibly metallic, hitting the floor.

 

Viktor tossed the box of chocolates onto the nearest couch. By the time he burst through the door into the room where the sound had come from, he’d already drawn his gun.

 

This room, as it turned out, was the kitchen, done up with mint green walls, off-white cabinetry, and gleaming subway tiles. There, in the middle of it all, was Yuuri, decidedly alone, standing at the sink and running his hand under the tap. A big, flat metal pan lay overturned at his feet, and… were those breadcrumbs covering the floor, crunching under his shoes?

 

“What,” was all that Viktor could say.

 

“Hi. Ah… you’re early?”

 

He shook his head. He didn’t even have to check. “No, I’m really not.”

 

Yuuri was the one who ended up having to look at the clock on the wall. When he did, he let out a whisper that Viktor had by now come to recognize as a curse.

 

Viktor finally remembered to lower his gun, now that it was clear that Yuuri wasn’t in any immediate danger. In any case, he looked rather… different, tonight. There was a part of Viktor’s mind that refused to reconcile this man in front of him, nursing a burn with a wrinkled apron thrown over his waistcoat, rolled-up sleeves, and a bit of flour dusting his cheek as Dr. Katsuki, of the flashy suits and polished shoes and immeasurable grace. No, this Yuuri was shaky and flustered, something Viktor would have never been able to imagine less than a minute ago.

 

Minor injury aside, the sight was kind of endearing. “What happened?” he asked, placing his gun back into its holster.

 

Yuuri turned the tap off. His face had turned an intense shade of red, so much so that Viktor barely noticed the small burn on his hand. “Nothing. A moment of carelessness that I’m eager to forget.”

 

What?

 

Viktor’s eyes started scanning the kitchen, trying to figure out what he’d meant by that. A closer look at the oven, with its door half-open, showed him that quite a lot of breadcrumbs had actually been spilled inside. A hypothesis started forming in his head. “Do you tend to run into mishaps while cooking like this?”

 

“I’ll admit that I don’t really cook that often.” Yuuri sulked, glaring at the oven as though it had personally offended him. “And not with this kind of…”

 

Viktor had expected the first half of that sentence, but the rest of it gave him pause. Frowning, he switched off the oven - something Yuuri had forgotten to do, which was telling all on its own.

 

Come to think of it, in the three seconds or so that he’d spent in the living room before running to the kitchen, he didn’t recall having noticed any framed pictures or knick-knacks, and only a single coat had been hanging from a peg in the foyer. As he looked around the kitchen now, he noticed that it was actually immaculate, save for the spilled tray of breadcrumbs and the counter where Yuuri had started to prep… something. Which would have been fine on its own, but in all honesty, he found himself hard-pressed to recognize any sign that this place had been occupied for very long at all. That, and the fact that the number Yuuri has given him last night was different from the ‘home number’ on his business card…

 

Usually, coming to a logical conclusion was its own reward. Now, however, all it did was sow even more confusion. “You don’t live here, do you?”

 

Yuuri didn’t answer, but with the way he ducked his head and slid his eyes down at that, he might as well have.

 

“Who lives here?” When it looked like Yuuri wasn’t going to respond to that either, Viktor’s eyes hardened. “Yuuri, if you don’t tell me whose apartment this really is, I’m walking out that door - ”

 

“It’s a friend of mine’s,” Yuuri finally blurted out. “I asked for a favor. His job, it… he… he receives a lot of guests from out of town.” He shrugged, and kept his hands busy by wiping down his palms over and over again on his apron. “Some of them end up staying for weeks at a time. Others just aren’t comfortable with staying in hotels - or at least, they aren’t anymore.”

 

If that was true, Viktor wasn’t sure he could blame them; a popular and supposedly well-loved politician being murdered in his own hotel room wasn’t exactly a fount of confidence for anyone concerned. But wasn’t that the American way, to profit off of the absolute worst of circumstances? God bless. “And you brought me here… why, exactly? To impress me? Or because you don’t trust me?”

 

“Because I thought it was important to choose a neutral location.” Yuuri sighed. “If I’d brought you back to my place of residence, it wouldn’t have been all that different from being at the clinic. There would still be an imbalance there, which is precisely what I’m trying to avoid with this arrangement.” A pause. “That, and… I suppose I was trying to impress you, a little bit. Is it working?”

 

Viktor glanced down at the breadcrumb-coated floor again. “Oh yes, I’m very impressed.”

 

“Rude,” Yuuri scoffed at him, and finally cracked a smile. He’d lost some of the tension Viktor had noticed in his posture upon having first walked in, which was an encouraging sight. “What do you want to do?”

 

Viktor hummed in thought. “Well, I think we can still salvage this.” He found himself peering curiously at the ingredients Yuuri had set out on the counter, in various stages of preparation. Bread crumbs, eggs, rice, a bottle of white wine that Otabek most certainly did not need to know about, and pork cutlets? Curiosity won. “What are we making?”

 

After a bit of prodding, Yuuri revealed that he’d planned to give him a taste of home - or rather, his parents’ home, which he’d never quite gotten to know but for stories and books, and calligraphy lessons, and recipes like this one. Katsudon, which was what Yuuri had hoped to make for him tonight, came from the Japanese words for ‘pork cutlet’ and ‘rice bowl dish’. A close friend of his had gotten her hands on the recipe a few years ago, and served it at a housewarming party that Yuuri had attended. It had been a guilty pleasure of his since then.

 

Viktor, who had been starving for these tiny bits of casual information that chipped away at the mystique of Dr. Katsuki without even realizing it, decided that he wanted to see if it lived up to all that praise. He waved away all of Yuuri’s protests at this - he had this under control, he didn’t want to impose, what kind of a host would he be if he allowed this, all of it predictable - and found another apron folded in one of the drawers. The recipe was written on a worn piece of letter paper, in characters that Viktor assumed were Japanese. Under each line, an English translation had been written out, and Viktor immediately recognized Dr. Katsuki’s handwriting.

 

They worked side-by-side at the counter, mostly in a comfortable silence that neither of them broke for anything really consequential. There was no talk of murder tonight, or of the ne’er-do-wells in Hell’s Kitchen, or of other atrocities which left scars that, though unseen, were slow to heal. Yuuri asked about Makkachin; Viktor promised that he’d meet her one day, if he wanted that. Yuuri mentioned that some of the ingredients that the recipe called for were more exotic than others, and he hadn’t had time to raid his friend’s kitchen beforehand, so they would have to make do with the best substitutes he could think of. Viktor complimented his speedy, precise knifework, watching him cut up onion after onion into almost eerily consistent pieces without so much as blinking.

 

“Thank you,” Yuuri said with a small smile. “You know, I was actually in training to be a surgeon, once upon a time. Obviously, I didn’t end up finishing it. But on the bright side, at least some of the more fundamental skills have still translated over into something useful.”

 

“Wow. Why didn’t you pursue it?”

 

“I suppose it was like you and Scotland Yard - simply not meant to be.”

 

Silence flowed back into the room after that. The offhand revelation had thrown him for a bit, but Viktor wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. A broken dream from when he was younger, perhaps? But this city was saturated in those; what was another one more?

 

He could feel Yuuri’s eyes on him as he tossed pork cutlets in a bowl of flour. “What is it?”

 

“Nothing.” But Yuuri was still watching him, and never made a move to pretend he wasn’t. “You seem really comfortable with that, even though you’ve never made this before.”

 

“Cooking’s always agreed with me, I think. I had to learn when I was pretty young.” It hadn’t been too hard to find the motivation, he recalled. The alternative would have been stale bread, soaked in water and re-baked, or tinned meats that might or might not have been war rations at some point, for five days a week. “Anyway, I don’t do much of it now. The apartment I’m living in at the moment makes opening the oven door a fire hazard.”

 

“I see.” Yuuri went back to his onions, seemingly lost in thought for a while. “Do you find it relaxing, though, when you get to do it?”

 

“I guess? I haven’t really considered it.”

 

“I suppose it’s a healthier outlet than most. It’s one that keeps both your hands and your mind busy as well.”

 

He knew where this was going, Viktor realized. He looked up and met Yuuri’s eyes with a scowl. “Stop that.”

 

“Stop what?”

 

“You’re talking to me like we’re in a therapy session. Stop psychoanalyzing me.”

 

“I’m doing no such thing.”

 

Yuuri hadn’t bothered to make his denial sound the least bit believable. Viktor let it go anyway, turning his attention back to the pork cutlets he was preparing. What had the recipe said? Flour first, then egg yolks, then breadcrumbs. He found the egg carton, pulled it closer to himself, and started breaking some eggs into a bowl.

 

“I imagine it’s a universal truth, not just specific to you,” Yuuri murmured. “There’s something undeniably curative in hobbies like this, where you can create something without any of the hang-ups from the dangers - and the consequences of those dangers, sometimes - that you face in your day job.”

 

Viktor groaned. “Seriously, please stop.”

 

“Crime, justice - or lack thereof…”

 

“Yuuri, this is your last warning.”

 

“Death…”

 

That was it. Viktor yanked open the flour drawer, took a huge handful of flour, and flung it all in Yuuri’s direction.

 

He’d really only intended to distract him - at worst, maybe even piss him off a little, if only to derail his train of thought. But maybe Viktor had underestimated his aim, or misjudged just how close they were to one another, because in the next second, Yuuri wound up with a face full of flour.

 

“Uh…” Viktor gaped at him. Shit.

 

Yuuri coughed, sending down a shower of flour that had been caught in his hair. He opened and closed his mouth, and then did it again a few more times. “You…”

 

Whatever came after that, Viktor didn’t hear it, because he was already laughing.

 

There was something incredibly liberating about it. It felt as though the permanent weight that had been bearing down on him everywhere he’d gone recently was easing up, bit by bit, if only for a while. Viktor forced out half-hearted apologies in between bursts of laughter, but the indignant scowl on Yuuri’s face did nothing to take away from the fact that he looked like he’d shoved his face into the flour drawer, and Viktor only ended up laughing harder. Eventually, he wound up clutching at the counter and gasping for breath, but for the first time in what must have been forever, it didn’t hurt.

 

Viktor finally stopped laughing when Yuuri closed the gap between them, and kissed him without warning.

 

He stopped breathing after that, too.

 

“Sorry.” Yuuri pulled back after barely a second. “I shouldn’t have done that, I think.”

 

Viktor stared at him for a long while. He felt as though he should have immediately agreed with that. “It must have taken a lot of nerve,” he murmured, “for you to do it anyway.”

 

Yuuri bit on his bottom lip. “Do you want to leave?”

 

No. He knew that much, at least. It would probably be a good idea, but he didn’t want to. Beyond that, though, lurked about a dozen more questions that Yuuri could ask, probably would ask, and Viktor wasn’t sure he had answers for any of them.

 

So he did the next best thing: taking Yuuri’s chin in his hand and gently tilting it up, so he could kiss him again.

 

He felt it when Yuuri finally relaxed against him, sighing into the kiss, coaxing Viktor closer to him by pulling on his tie. Viktor followed, until he had Yuuri’s back pressed against the fridge door, and Viktor ran his hands through his hair, getting flour all over them both. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ah.” Yuuri placed his hands on Viktor’s chest, breathless after they finally pulled apart. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that.”

 

“I’ve wanted to kiss you since I met you,” Viktor admitted. “I don’t think that ever really changed.”

 

Yuuri regarded him with a look that held more fondness than surprise. “Even after what happened at therapy?”

 

“Well, you’re not my therapist anymore.” So it didn’t really matter now. That was what it meant, right? “So what do we do now?”

 

“In general? We’ll have to figure that out as we go.” Yuuri stole another kiss, a heartbeat’s worth, before finally pushing him back. “But let’s finish cooking for now. There’s someplace I want to take you after dinner.”

 

 


 

 

That evening, Viktor learned that katsudon was very likely the food of the gods, and deserved every bit of the accolades that Yuuri had given it.

 

He learned a lot of other things too, most of them trivial, but any information that Yuuri shared about his personal life was always welcome in Viktor’s eyes. He preferred to eat with chopsticks, especially at home, and had to be pretty vigilant about what he ate because it was too easy for him to gain weight. His mother had been a terrific cook, never having bothered with recipes or even really measuring anything at all - a talent that had clearly skipped generations, Yuuri added with a wry smile. Before crossing the Pacific, his father had owned a hot springs resort back in Japan; ‘home’ for his parents had meant a small port city by the sea, where a castle stood on a mountain with its stonework rising straight out of the water, as though its moat were the entire ocean. For someone who’d never set foot in the place, Yuuri certainly knew how to describe it in compelling detail, and if he’d been plagued by just a touch more madness, Viktor might have considered carelessly leaving this city behind, and venturing out to see that castle for himself.

 

But that wasn’t even the most interesting revelation that the evening had to offer, as he soon found out. From the apartment, it took about five minutes to walk to The Lake in Central Park, which had frozen over for the winter. Yuuri led him there with a pair of his own skates slung over his shoulder, and Viktor did his best to hide his surprise.

 

It was colder than what had been forecast tonight, cold enough that there weren’t all that many people skating at this time. Yuuri seemed all too pleased with this, saying something about how crowds of other skaters were a bother; he usually didn’t come to places like this until the very late hours of the night, precisely to avoid those crowds. For his part, Viktor welcomed the nonexistent line to get rental skates.

 

“Do you come here often?” Viktor asked, though he was only vaguely paying attention as he laced up his too-tight skates.

 

“Not here specifically. But there’s a rink closer to where I live, and I suppose I do find myself there pretty often. Especially now, when…”

 

Yuuri trailed off, and Viktor barely remembered the first part of his sentence. When Viktor raised his head and waited for him to continue, he shook his head, eagerly took Viktor’s hand, and led him out onto the ice.

 

“Anyway, that’s not important. Does it surprise you?”

 

“A little bit,” Viktor said. “I always pictured your downtime to involve sitting near a fireplace of some sort.”

 

“There’s plenty of that, too.”

 

Viktor tentatively let go once they were far away from the edge of The Lake, and swore it was only muscle memory that kept him upright. How many years had it been, since he’d last skated? Had it been with Mama? God, it might as well have been forever then. Yuuri was a vision on the ice, though. He didn’t go for any of the daredevil jumps and spins that Viktor had witnessed many others try, and quite often fail, in the past. But there was an effortless beauty in the way he moved, like he was gliding through the air.

 

They skated together along the lake’s perimeter. Viktor came to find out soon enough that, even after years of not having done this, he could still keep up more or less. Still, he glanced up at Yuuri from time to time, eyeing the graceful line of his limbs and the length of his scarf trailing behind him as he moved, the wind whipping through his hair, and the sheer serenity on his face. He couldn’t help but wonder if Yuuri was holding himself back for his sake.

 

“When did you first start skating?”

 

“When I was seven.” When they took a moment to catch their breaths, Yuuri placed a hand on his shoulder for balance while he inspected the blade on his opposite skate. “There was a pond behind the - behind our house. The adults didn’t really want us anywhere near that pond, especially in the winter. But my friends and I would sneak over whenever we could.”

 

Viktor tried to conjure up an image in his head, of a seven-year-old Yuuri skating tentatively, falling on the ice and picking himself back up again. “Wasn’t that dangerous?”

 

“In hindsight? Absolutely.” Yuuri laughed. “But it was worth it, I think. Or at least we thought it was at the time. It helped a lot.”

 

“How so?”

 

“The same way it helps now.” He finally let go of Viktor’s shoulder and skated away, putting a few feet of distance between them, and leaving Viktor suddenly wanting for the weight of his hand. “The cold air, the exertion, the non-trivial amount of concentration you need to stay upright, even if you’ve been doing this for years… I find that it helps to clear the mind, when it gets too crowded up there.” He smiled. “Perhaps you’d consider it?”

 

“I… guess I’ll think about it.” No promises were made, but Yuuri seemed satisfied enough with that.

 

He took Viktor through some of the formalisms: turns, counters, and a few simple figures. Viktor found himself entirely too entranced in watching Yuuri move, from the way he leaned and extended his arms, to how he could make a switch of foot happen in the blink of an eye. Yuuri spent three passes sketching out a very large ‘8’ on the ice with his blades, before skating to a stop at Viktor’s side.

 

He just remembered something. “Say, your office number is almost all 8s, isn’t it?”

 

Yuuri nodded. “It makes it easy to remember, no?”

 

“That’s convenient, yes.” Actually, he was lying. He couldn’t even remember the rest of the number. Only the ‘8888’ at the end came to mind. “Was it on purpose?”

 

Yuuri shook his head. “The previous owner of that office thought it was his lucky number. I just inherited it from him.”

 

“I see.” Viktor hummed in thought. “Do you have a lucky number? Or do you not believe in those things?”

 

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not a very lucky person.”

 

“We should start a club for that,” Viktor joked. Yuuri obliged him with a laugh.

 

They found a clearing at the edge of The Lake with a couple of metal benches near the ice, which were usually occupied by people feeding ducks in the warmer months. They sat in silence for a few seconds while Viktor stared at his boots, and Yuuri struggled to light a cigarette against an unexpected wind.

 

“I’m sorry I snapped at you during therapy the other day,” Viktor eventually said, speaking to the ice. “I was angry, and I was upset at what you’d said. But I could have handled that better.”


“You don’t have to apologize.” Yuuri finally won his self-imposed battle against his finicky lighter, and blew a stream of smoke towards the sky. “I understand where it was coming from. In your mind… it was that other man who was the target of your anger, wasn’t it?”

 

Was it? Viktor wasn’t even sure anymore. Maybe Yuuri was right. Maybe…

 

But it didn’t matter. It wasn’t as if Viktor had had any right to be angry anyway, since he was the one who’d reached out, knowing full well what was going to follow. Things just… happened, as he’d said before.

 

And after everything he’d done -

 

“Stop.”

 

Yuuri’s voice startled him out of his trance, and Viktor turned to see Yuuri’s eyes on him keenly. He had no idea how long Yuuri had been staring at him. Had he been talking out loud? He didn’t think so. “Stop what?”

 

“Thinking. Justifying it, rationalizing it. There’s nothing good waiting for you at the end of that road.”

 

Who’s to say there’s anything good waiting for me anywhere? he bit back. At that moment, Yuuri tapped his cigarette against the edge of the bench, and Viktor tried to track the ashes as they scattered to the snow.

 

“Cold?”

 

He wasn’t sure. “Maybe.”

 

Yuuri raised his cigarette before putting it back between his lips. “Want one?”

 

Viktor laughed. He didn’t even remember how many days it had been since he’d last had a cigarette to his name. “If you’d be so kind.”

 

Yuuri handed him a stick from what was probably the fanciest cigarette case Viktor had ever laid eyes on, silver and enamel, with what looked like a hand-painted depiction of poppy flowers in a snowy field on the side. It disappeared back into Yuuri’s jacket pocket before Viktor could make out the importer’s mark, or the number on the stamp that would have revealed the grade of the silver used in the case.

 

But, perhaps far more importantly, Yuuri’s hand came back out empty, leaving Viktor with a decidedly useless, unlit cigarette in his mouth. “Um…”

 

Yuuri reached out and cupped Viktor’s cheek with his hand. “Here… allow me.”

 

There was no sensible reason for him to be affected by this. He’d had this done to him, and done it himself, many times before, too many to count. He’d shared this experience with men and women alike, some of them strangers, some of them less so. As Yuuri lit his cigarette with his own, Viktor thought that his eyes would be drawn to the light between them. But he ended up staring at Yuuri instead: the slight furrow of his brow, his inviting lips, and those long, dark lashes that looked like strokes of a painting under the moonlight.

 

He almost forgot to inhale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It took a few seconds before the light finally took. Yuuri pulled away from him, and - God, that first drag felt orgasmic.

 

“It gets colder than this in Russia, doesn’t it?”

 

“So I’ve heard.” He seemed to recall Yakov having grumbled about it once or twice before. “What about Japan?”

 

“It depends on where exactly you live, I think. That’s what they say, anyway.” Yuuri shrugged slowly, a measured lift and fall of his shoulders as he stared at something in the distance. “I suppose I’ll find out soon.”

 

Ah, he remembered something about that - Yuuri had mentioned that he wanted to visit someday, right? When had that conversation happened? He couldn’t quite place it. “When do you plan to go?”

 

“Nothing’s set in stone yet. But it’s been the dream for a while. My friends - the same ones I told you about earlier, the ones who would smuggle me to the pond - they’ve always wanted to go back. I’ll be going with them, but on my part it’ll be for the first time.”

 

“Wow.” All of a sudden, Viktor wanted to take back his earlier answer and say yes, maybe it was a little bit cold now. “Would you stay there?” Would you not come back?

 

Yuuri chuckled over his cigarette. “Would you miss me?”

 

More than I probably should.

 

“I’ll be happy with a postcard,” was what he ended up saying.

 

“Ah, I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

Viktor smiled. He lowered his head and kicked up some of the snow at his feet. “Sure.”

 

He’d heard those words before, and he knew better than to believe them. How many years had it been, anyway? Who was the one who’d taught him about time zones and date lines, sketching all over the globe in the study? Sending mail from this place or that place was never an exact science, because there were always factors you couldn’t account for, they’d said. But if you learned the routes, and you planned carefully, and you made any arrangements well in advance, well, you could make it happen more times than not.

 

How many Decembers had it been? I made it so easy for you.

 

But also: what right did he have to complain, really? He’d put an end to countless more conversations and correspondences, lifetimes’ worth in fact. Surely he didn’t get to grieve; that was a privilege reserved for those whose hands had stayed clean.

 

A hand was pulling back the fringe that had fallen over his face just as his eyes started to smart - from the cigarette smoke, no doubt. Viktor let out a breath and pulled back. “What are you doing, Yuuri?”

 

“Trying to ascertain if I’ve succeeded in taking you out of your head tonight.” Yuuri placed his hand back in his pocket with a sad smile. “It looks as though my most valiant efforts have still fallen short, I’m afraid.”

 

“No, don’t say that.” He felt terrible all of a sudden. “I’m grateful for today. It helped, really.”

 

“Maybe, but not enough. I wish I could help a bit more.”

 

Something about how he might be beyond help at this point sat on the tip of Viktor’s tongue. He let out a weak chuckle. “Giving up on me already?”

 

“Not necessarily.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Yuuri stood up, and squashed his cigarette underfoot. His dark eyes glittered in the moonlight when he offered Viktor his hand.

 

“Do you trust me?”

 

 


 

 

That question - or more precisely, Viktor’s answer to it, which he might have given with more recklessness than was wise - led them back to the apartment, in the master suite with the lamps dimmed and the curtains drawn, kissing in the middle of the bed. Viktor could hear the wind outside, banging on the windows, rattling the glass. Yuuri’s hands slid from his shoulders down to his chest, and started plucking open the buttons on his waistcoat, slowly.

 

He pulled back.

 

“Something wrong?” Yuuri asked him.

 

“No. No, nothing’s wrong. I just… are you sure about this? It kind of feels…” He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to finish that sentence, exactly. ‘Risky’? ‘Wrong’?

 

‘Too good to be true’?

 

“No, I’m not sure.” Yuuri laughed at the look on Viktor’s face, and placed a hand on his cheek. He supposed that was meant to provide him some kind of comfort, because Yuuri’s words certainly hadn’t. “This isn’t an exact science, as I’m sure you can imagine.” He ran the pad of his thumb along the shell of Viktor’s ear. “But I’d still like to try… if you’ll let me.”

 

If you’ll let me. Viktor let out a shuddering breath. There was power in those words, something he knew they could both sense, even though neither of them would acknowledge it. But it couldn’t be that simple, could it? It never was.

 

“Viktor?” Yuuri nudged at his arm gently with his free hand. He waited until Viktor was looking at him before speaking. “I only want to help you. But I won’t do anything unless you want me to.”

 

Viktor opened his mouth, barely, unable to get any further. Yuuri wanted to help him. He’d said as much then, back at The Lake. Whether it was for further atonement or a real desire for Viktor’s well-being wasn’t too clear to him yet, but maybe it didn’t matter in the end.

 

Did it?

 

“Viktor.” Yuuri cut into his thoughts once more, and traced out his bottom lip. “May I kiss you again?”

 

Words stopped and withered in the back of his throat, before going up in flames.

 

But there was more than one way to answer this question. Viktor took the bridge of Yuuri’s glasses between thumb and forefinger before slowly, carefully pulling them off. He set them down onto the night table, made sure they were safely away from the edge. Then he grasped the back of Yuuri’s head, and leaned in close.

 

Yuuri tasted mostly like the wine from the unlabelled bottle in the cupboard that they’d had with dinner, and a bit like the smoke of the cigarettes whose light they’d shared. There was a sweetness that lingered on his tongue when Yuuri pulled away to start peppering soft, gentle kisses down, tracing the line of Viktor’s jaw, moving along the slope of his neck. For a long time, all he could hear was his own breathing, too loud in his ears. Then there was the shift of satin sliding against itself as Yuuri pulled off his tie, placing it… somewhere. Viktor wasn’t sure.

 

His hands felt useless. He felt useless, threading his fingers over and over through Yuuri’s soft hair. Viktor failed to fight a shiver when his chest met open air, but Yuuri trailed his lips along his shoulder as he peeled his shirt off, chasing away the chill.

 

“Viktor?” Yuuri murmured into his skin. “Are you still with me?”

 

Viktor let out a shaky breath. He shut his eyes and nodded.

 

Yuuri raised his head. “I need you to say it for me, please. So I can be sure you’re not trapped inside your head.”

 

“Yes,” Viktor breathed out. “Yes, I’m… here.”

 

“That’s good.” Yuuri smiled, wearing an incredibly tender look on his face. “Thank you for telling me.”

 

Yuuri lowered his head again, his lips now following the line down Viktor’s breastbone. He thought he could feel the first hint of tongue on his skin, and it sent a violent charge scuttling down his spine. Yuuri’s hands ran down his sides, coming to a stop at the waistband of Viktor’s pants.

 

“Can you lift your hips for me?” Yuuri asked him just before his tongue found a nipple. Viktor hissed and arched against the mattress, and dimly thought that the result would’ve been the same even if Yuuri hadn’t said anything at all.

 

He wasn’t sure how to read the set of Yuuri’s jaw when he pulled back completely, hovering over him, straddling him. His eyes raked over every inch of Viktor’s skin; he could feel it, pressure and a quiet burning in the path they traced. He swallowed. “What is it?”

 

“It’s nothing, it’s just - you’re gorgeous.” Yuuri’s fingers stalled on the top button of his own waistcoat, and Viktor was tempted to help him. “It’s a bit much, sometimes.”

 

Viktor slid his hands up Yuuri’s thighs, working his way up the line of buttons from the bottom of the waistcoat, until he met Yuuri halfway. “Sorry?”

 

“Don’t be.” The sudden rough quality in Yuuri’s voice startled him. Something simmered in Yuuri’s eyes as he violently yanked off his own tie, and it sent a sudden rush of warm blood to somewhere promising. “Alright, then. What happens first?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The first thing that he…” Yuuri shook his head. “How did it start?”

 

Oh. Oh, he was actually serious about that. “Um.” Viktor looked up at the ceiling, where there wasn’t a chandelier, and managed to laugh a little. This was… kind of insane. Wasn’t it? “He was, uh, behind me. I was sitting up - ”

 

He hadn’t even finished talking before Yuuri was already moving into position. One of his arms wrapped around Viktor’s waist, and his other hand came around to rest on Viktor’s hip. Viktor thought he could feel every fiber of cotton and wool brushing against his bare skin, and suddenly felt so, so exposed like this… especially when Yuuri hooked his ankles beneath his own and spread their legs slightly apart.

 

“And then? I assume he worked you with his hand?”

 

This was insane. “He did.”

 

But Yuuri was gentle tonight, gentler than he’d been in that phone booth at Casa Roja. Viktor let out a breath, gripping at the sheets. Yuuri took it slow with him, almost maddeningly so, and his free hand traced patterns onto the skin of Viktor’s hip and thigh that Viktor couldn’t keep track of. He let his head fall back onto Yuuri’s shoulder with a gasp, and Yuuri pressed a tender kiss on his cheek in response.

 

No. This was nothing like that night at all.

 

“He hurt you.” Gingerly, Yuuri ran a finger over the side of Viktor’s neck, tracing the bite mark there. “This was him, wasn’t it?”

 

Viktor shivered, and said nothing.

 

“That animal,” Yuuri muttered under his breath. He ran his lips along the wound, very gently, and it felt like an apology.

 

It didn’t take very long before Viktor was lost, in the warmth of Yuuri’s body pressed against his own, in the rush of blood in his ears and the frantic thumping of his heart against his ribs. He turned his head for a kiss but ended up burying his face in the crook of Yuuri’s neck instead, breathing in the smell of him, sweat and pine and sheer heat, something unique to Yuuri, and so very addictive. He couldn’t get enough.

 

He couldn’t get enough, and yet at the same time, it was just too much. “Yuuri,” he gasped. His hand shot down, almost possessed, and closed over Yuuri’s wrist. “S-Stop, I’m - ”

 

Yuuri’s hand stilled immediately. “Close?”

 

Viktor could hear the smirk in his voice. He flushed. “You’re driving me mad,” he panted.

 

“Then I must be doing something right.” Yuuri pressed a kiss against his temple. “What next?”

 

“…What?”

 

“What happened next?” Yuuri moved around him, laying Viktor’s head gently on the pillow instead of letting it fall. He climbed on top of Viktor and pushed his hair out of his eyes. Very, very gently, he asked, “Did he enter you?”

 

Viktor struggled through the answer in just about every way imaginable. “Yes.”

 

Yuuri hummed. It didn’t sound like anger, or disgust, or whatever terrible thing Viktor had feared would come after his earlier admission. No, it was just a soft, mellow acceptance, punctuated with the briefest flash of a smile before Yuuri leaned in closer, and pressed their foreheads together.

 

“Do you want me to?” he whispered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viktor swallowed. It was so treacherously easy to lose himself in Yuuri’s eyes, like drowning in twin pools of wine. Right. He’d been asked a question. The truth was that the answer was already sitting somewhere on his tongue, but he couldn’t quite pull it out the rest of the way. “Um…”

 

“That’s a ‘no’, then.” Yuuri kissed him before he could argue. “I understand. And that’s perfectly fine.”

 

“Is it?”

 

“Of course it is. I want you to trust me, Viktor, and believe me when I say that this stops at a single word from you. Do you understand?”

 

Viktor nodded. There was something about the solemn look on Yuuri’s face, and the gravity of those words that sent a shiver up his spine. “And from you…” He searched Yuuri’s eyes. “Right?”

 

Yuuri simply smiled at that. He pulled back and found Viktor’s hands, resting useless on the mattress on either side of him, and brought them up to the waistband of his pants with their fingers intertwined. “Not from me. I’d ravish you senseless if you’d let me.”

 

Is that a promise? Viktor almost wanted to ask. But his mouth had suddenly gone dry. Still, he accepted Yuuri’s invitation anyway, thumbing open the buttons one after another, trying not to lose his mind to the burning heat beneath his fingers.

 

It seemed to take forever before his damn hands, trembling all the way, got anything useful done, and Yuuri graciously lifted his hips as Viktor peeled the fabric away. Yuuri was already hot and hard in his hand - uncut, flushed, gorgeous as the rest of him. Viktor swallowed hard. “Can I…?”

 

“Please.” Yuuri looked down at him with darkened, hooded eyes. “Do whatever you like.”

 

Okay. “Okay.” Viktor grasped Yuuri’s hips and pulled him closer, until their cocks were flush together. The sheer contact sent a jolt that electrified his entire body. He had to bite back a groan. “Is this okay?” he breathed, taking them both in his hand.

 

Yuuri nodded quickly.

 

“Can… can you say it for me?”

 

“Giving me a taste of my own medicine, are we?” Yuuri chuckled and braced his hands against the mattress, on both sides of Viktor’s shoulders. His answer was a slow roll of his hips, maddening, pushing into Viktor’s hand. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viktor began to stroke in time with Yuuri’s hips, already so close to the brink and finding himself closer with each passing second. It wasn’t even the sensation, the shared heat and friction, that was doing the most to drive him to the edge. No, it was the sounds that Yuuri was making - desperate, cut-off moans that he tried to suppress at first, until he eventually stopped trying. They were such a far cry from the soft, curated tone of voice that always came with the good doctor’s composure. That composure frayed a bit more, every time Viktor squeezed, or whenever he snapped his hips up to meet Yuuri’s. It was stunning, and a little addictive even, to watch him come apart like this, slowly losing his inhibitions and his fancy words.

 

It almost felt sinful… like he wasn’t ever supposed to witness this with his own eyes, especially from up close like this.

 

It felt like he wasn’t supposed to be touching Yuuri at all. And he was tainting him with every moment that he did.

 

Viktor dropped his head to the pillow and turned to the side, letting his hair fall over his eyes. He didn’t deserve this. Yuuri was so beautiful, so much so that a part of Viktor would have been happy to live trapped between his thighs from this day on. But there was an ache deep down that he couldn’t will away.

 

He wasn’t worthy.

 

“Viktor?” The way Yuuri gasped out his name threatened to take him right over the edge. “Will you look at me?”

 

He wanted to. He couldn’t. Viktor squeezed his eyes shut, and a strangled, wordless noise escaped his throat before he even knew it was coming. God, he was really fucking close. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take.

 

“Okay. Okay. It’s okay.” Viktor could feel Yuuri’s breath breaking over his skin, so close all of a sudden, so warm. “God, you - you have no idea what you do to me.” Yuuri’s hands gripped his hips with a desperation that would leave bruises. “Viktor… I could just look at you like this all night. And I’d erase everything that man ever dared to do to you, again and again, forever if I have to… until the only touch you can remember is mine.”

 

It didn’t take much, after that - just a few more words from Yuuri’s lips, sweet and pretty, dripping with worship that he didn’t deserve - and he was undone. Unravelling, coming apart, and crying out from the force of it. Yuuri held him steady through it all, and he pressed those same, lovely words against Viktor’s skin when he finally came down from the high.

 

“Still with me?”

 

Viktor nodded, forgetting to form words as Yuuri brushed the hair out of his eyes. He felt heavy now, sated, and a tad slow… he didn’t register Yuuri pulling away until he’d already done so, and Viktor could no longer feel his warmth.

 

He barely got a hand up in time to tug on the waistband of Yuuri’s pants. “Wait - ” He grimaced at how hoarse he already sounded. “What… where are you going?”

 

“To get something to clean you up.” Yuuri chuckled, running a hand idly up and down Viktor’s thigh. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. As if I could stand being away from you for very long, especially when you look like that.”

 

“But what about…?”

 

Viktor ended up gesturing lamely at Yuuri’s waist - rather, somewhere lower, where he was still clearly very much unsatisfied. Yuuri grinned and pressed kisses against his knuckles. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m sure I’ll manage just fine. More importantly, how do you feel?”

 

Viktor frowned. He’d started learning to recognize, by now, when Yuuri was handling him with care, as though he were made of something brittle. He hated it every time.

 

Placing his hands on Yuuri’s hips, he coaxed him off with a meaningful tilt of his head. Yuuri let Viktor push him down until he was lying flat on the mattress, but there was a questioning look in his eyes when Viktor moved further down, eventually settling on his knees.

 

“If you want, I…” He hesitated, though he didn’t have any reason to. Yuuri was the one who’d ascribed a certain meaning to what they were doing at this moment, right? Then this should make perfect sense to him. “There’s one other thing that I did for that man.”

 

But it was easy to forget, to not think about that other encounter, when he lowered his head and took Yuuri into his mouth.

 

Yuuri flooded his senses immediately: the tightness of his fingers suddenly grasping Viktor’s hair, the taste of him, and the sweet, sweet sound of his voice as he gasped out with Viktor’s name on his lips. He pressed down on Yuuri’s hips so they wouldn’t buck up from the mattress, taking him in until his nose was buried in wiry hair and all he breathed in was Yuuri, Yuuri, Yuuri, like a mantra, like a drug.

 

He would never, ever get enough.

 

He listened, ever waiting for a word of protest, or for any sign that he should stop and pull away. But nothing of the sort came, only whimpers and stifled gasps that sent his blood rushing and made his pulse trip over itself.

 

Near the end, Yuuri breathed out something in Japanese, and Viktor had no idea what he’d said. But he imagined those same words, harsh but gorgeous, slipping out with Yuuri’s legs around his waist, or the other way around. He didn’t care, either way was fine with him, so long as he could see the look on Yuuri’s face when he finally arched against the mattress. For tonight, though, he had to content himself with picturing it as he swallowed it all down. That was a shame. Maybe some other time, then.

 

Hell, maybe soon.

 

“Come here,” Yuuri murmured, once his breathing had returned to something manageable. He reached out and pulled Viktor closer to him for a kiss. Viktor idly wondered if he could taste himself on his tongue, and if he liked that.

 

It wasn’t until much later, when the wind outside had finally died down and matched the calm inside the room, that Viktor realized how blissfully empty his head felt. Cocooned under these soft, warm sheets, with an equally soft, warm Yuuri in his arms, it was surprisingly easy not to think about anything. All he knew was that he was here, and Yuuri was here, and very little else seemed to matter.

 

He traced lazy, whimsical patterns onto Yuuri’s back with his finger, and belatedly tried to chase those patterns with his lips. This, too, he could happily do all night, he thought as his lips found their way Yuuri’s collar. He reached up and started pulling on the material of Yuuri’s shirt, suddenly missing the taste of his skin.

 

Yuuri’s hand came up and closed over his, stopping him just as he’d peeled the shirt back to expose a shoulder. “You know this wasn’t a permanent fix, right?” he murmured.

 

Viktor blinked, and let out a soft chuckle. He didn’t even know that Yuuri was still awake. “Are you suggesting that we do it again?”

 

Yuuri didn’t share in Viktor’s mirth. “You need help,” he whispered. “I’m not saying we can’t do this again - in fact, I’d love to do it again soon.” He pulled on the hand he’d ensnared and guided it so that Viktor’s arm was wrapped tightly around his waist. “But I hope you’ll still consider… I’d be happy to refer you to Dr. Leroy, or even to another clinic if you prefer. Mr. Feltsman doesn’t have to know.”

 

In all honesty, Yakov really was the least of his concerns, but Viktor didn’t voice that thought. He heaved a sigh, fixing his gaze onto the back of Yuuri’s head, trying to find words there. He wasn’t thrilled that they were talking about this. But he supposed this conversation was inevitable, and Yuuri had only been waiting for the ‘right’ time. “You’re just going to keep pushing this until I give in, aren’t you?”

 

“It’s for your own welfare.” Yuuri laced their fingers together. His voice dropped to a whisper. “And I care about you. I really do.”

 

Perhaps it was telling, that Viktor’s immediate response was to try to discern if Yuuri was being truly sincere, or if he’d only said that to get him to agree. He couldn’t read him because Yuuri was facing away from him, and even if he weren’t, Viktor was too tired to try anyway.

 

Was there really no alternative to this? Yakov had seemed convinced of that; otherwise it was off to the asylum, and at least Leo would have a field day. And maybe on some level, beneath layers and layers of denial walling him in, he’d known - that maybe things weren’t all right upstairs. Maybe they hadn’t been for the past two years. He’d hoped, and he’d tried so fucking hard, to keep everything contained.

 

For a while, he’d actually managed.

 

But he didn’t need Yakov’s pestering to acknowledge, if silently, that it was getting harder and harder to manage. At some point, ‘managing’ had turned into taking too many sleeping pills so as not to see Georgi’s bloodied face, or having a complete breakdown over a handful of empty words. ‘Managing’ had led him to do something terribly, terribly stupid in hindsight, which Yakov would never let him forget in this lifetime. And Viktor was still suffering the consequences from that decision today.

 

“I don’t want anyone else in my head,” he finally said. “If I really have to do this, then… I guess I’d rather it be with you.”

 

“Thank you, Viktor.”

 

With the way he’d been so quick to reply, it was almost as if Yuuri had been expecting this all along. “Thanking me for giving you extra work?”

 

“For trusting me. And for giving me this chance.” Yuuri brought his hand up to his lips, and pressed a gentle kiss against his wrist. “I’ll do my best.”

 

Viktor pulled Yuuri closer to him, so he could wrap his arms around him and bury his face in his hair. He let Yuuri wash over him, intoxicate him, until he could take in nothing else.

 

He fervently hoped that he wouldn’t regret this in the morning.

Chapter Text

January 14, 1929

 

Some days it's easy to forget, and some days it hits you hard like a freight train. But it never goes away: this feeling, this knowledge, that all of the time we have on this earth is borrowed time.

 

Long ago, when I was old enough to wrap my head around the idea of death, I decided that winning meant avoiding it for as long as I could. If all things had to end, then I wanted to live a peaceful life, make it to some ripe old age, and then pass away quietly, like walking into a dream, surrounded by people I loved. For a while, I thought I could achieve that. I thought I could win.

 

Maybe we all do, when we're young and naive.

 

Then time goes on, and life goes on, and you look around and realize the game's been stacked against you from the very start.

 

It's hard to think otherwise, especially when you first start to learn that, despite what everyone says, there's really no evidence that being a good person, and doing good things, offers you any protection from meeting a horrible, horrible end. A popular politician, one of the 'better' ones, is found murdered in his hotel suite, shredded by so many bullets that only the nastiest rags bother to include pictures the next day. A switchboard operator, four months pregnant, gets pushed onto the subway tracks by a man who jumps in after her, just as the train rolls in. A warehouse in Woodside burns down in the middle of a freezing January night, killing all thirty of the occupants inside. A fresh-faced young stockbroker, or what's left of him, paints the cobblestones on Wall Street - he's got a stab wound to the back and a suicide note in his hand.

 

An 'accidental' explosion at a distillery kills two dozen on the street instantly - these are the lucky ones, because it leaves almost a hundred trapped in a burning apartment building, unable to escape. They all die, too.

 

I hear about all of these tragedies, and I read about them in the newspapers. I think about how all of these people, even those who were reduced to tally marks in a body count, had lives and stories and dreams just like mine, how they worked and loved and struggled just like I do. And more often than not, it makes me look at what I've done with my own life, the paths I took and this business I'm in, the choices I'm making right now.

 

When will my number be up?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moonlight streamed through the gap between the curtains and the windowsill, casting slivers of light over Yuuri’s form. Viktor traced out the courses that they charted with his eyes, following them as they climbed over his arm, descended the slope of his shoulder, skirted the curve of his hip and jumped to the blanket he’d pulled up to his waist. They moved with every breath that Yuuri took, shifting and receding like waves to a shore, and Viktor found himself staring, transfixed.

 

He was so warm. Yuuri was warm, and he was here, and he was real.

 

Viktor hooked an arm around his waist and pulled him closer, burying his face into the crook of Yuuri’s neck. Yuuri let out a soft sigh, but didn’t wake.

 

Viktor envied him for that.

 

He lifted his head ever so slightly, so that his nose just bumped against Yuuri’s earlobe, and his lips hovered over the skin close to Yuuri’s jaw. He pressed a tender kiss there and let it linger, until he could feel Yuuri’s pulse, albeit faintly, under his lips. Viktor closed his eyes. This steady rhythm, coupled with the slow rise and fall of Yuuri’s chest, should have been enough to ground him. He tried to focus on these, on Yuuri, and on nothing else.

 

Yuuri breathed in. Out. Viktor opened his eyes, and the light moved.

 

…He couldn’t do this.

 

His head refused to quiet down, churning with thoughts of that office in Tribeca with the muted lights and the treacherously soft daybed, and of Dr. Katsuki sitting inscrutable in his chair. He could hear the sounds of Dr. Katsuki’s pen scratching against the pages of his notebook, on and on and on, and any hopes he’d had of ever falling asleep here dissolved into nothing.

 

With much reluctance, Viktor tore himself away from Yuuri’s side. He allowed himself a few more seconds of weakness, to stare at the back of his head, and to entertain fleeting notions of staying the night, even if sleep never came to him. But that would lead to breakfast, and to conversations that Viktor had already never been fond of to begin with - what more with a partner whom he’d just granted full access to the disaster that was the inside of his head?

 

He tried not to let himself succumb to the guilt as he picked up his clothes from all over the room, and dressed mutely near the door. He took out the small notebook he’d been using partly as a journal, and partly as a repository for case notes, tore off a page in the middle, and scribbled a quick note: an apology, he’d love to have stayed, but he had to get back to Makkachin, and tomorrow was an early morning… and so on, and so on. Last night was lovely. Thank you. I’m sorry, this is rude of me…

 

Viktor left the note on the bedside table - the one on his side of the bed, far from Yuuri, because he was a coward until the very end. But he would be seeing Dr. Katsuki again for therapy sessions again very soon, so what difference would a single morning make?

 

Nothing, he convinced himself as he stepped out of the apartment. A gust of wind forced him to pull up the collar of his coat, and made him wonder when it had gotten so cold.

 

 


 

 

The restlessness from that night followed him all the way home, and Viktor spent the better part of the next few hours staring at his ceiling. He’d let Makkachin jump into bed with him, much to her delight. The warmth she provided as she snuggled up against him was soothing, and more than welcome after a frigid trek home. Still, he couldn’t help but think that it was a far cry from what he could have had, if only he’d stayed.

 

That wasn’t an option, he reminded himself. And it was far too late to undo it now; it wasn’t as though he could just sneak back into Yuuri’s apartment, even if he had, in fact, suddenly gone insane and changed his mind. No, there was only one way for this to go: morning would come, Yuuri would see his pathetic little note, and he’d make of it whatever he wanted. The world would keep turning. More likely than not, before the night was over, there would be another murder. But the city herself was unkillable, and she would keep on breathing.

 

In the end, did any of this matter? Maybe not, and maybe that was comforting in its own way.

 

He took off earlier than usual that morning, while it was still dark out, because sleep was a lost cause. He realized, about halfway through to the first stop, that the Waldorf-Astoria wasn’t too far out of way from his usual route to the agency. So he took a detour at the very last second, determined to see if he’d have better luck this time.

 

Viktor checked his watch just as he walked into the lobby: five-thirty, perfect. Maybe he could catch the concierge at the end of his shift.

 

He wasn’t expecting to see a petite, freckle-faced young woman greeting him from behind the counter.

 

“Hmm? Who…? Oh, you must mean the man who had this shift before me.” She returned the business card he’d given her and flashed him an apologetic smile. “Sorry, but he no longer works at this hotel.”

 

“What?” Viktor didn’t bother hiding his surprise. “Since when?”

 

“His last day was New Year’s Eve.” Her lips pursed into a frown as she stared at the wall, trying to jog her memory. “I don’t know all of the details, but I think it was a family emergency of some sort, and he had to suddenly move back West. It’s so tragic, especially because it happened around the holidays…”

 

Viktor recalled the man’s stories, and a keychain with ‘Sacramento’ printed on it. It was hard not to form suspicions from that. “I don’t suppose he left a forwarding address?”

 

She shook her head slowly. “I’m so sorry, sir… is there anything else I can help you with?”

 

Actually, there was one other thing. In the course of trying to go over every syllable that he could call back to mind of the conversation he’d had with the old concierge, he remembered some other things as well - specifically, bits of conversation with Yuri and Otabek, and a more recent encounter with the latter that reminded him of another question. It was a question that he was supposed to ask… discreetly.

 

“I… I don’t know why you think we’d offer that kind of service,” she stammered, laughing nervously. “Why, that would be illegal.

 

“It would be.” Viktor hummed in agreement. “But I’m not a cop, you know. And I’m not going to get you into any trouble. I’m just trying to make sense of some evidence that we found at the scene.”

 

“I’m afraid I really can’t say.” The smile she gave him now was uneasy, forced. “I’m sorry, Detective.”

 

“It’s alright. Don’t worry about it.” He hadn’t expected her to come out and openly admit, in actual words, that the hotel offered wine to its guests, or at the very least to those who chose its most expensive rooms. The look on her face told him more than enough, anyway.

 

An elderly couple arrived to check out. Viktor stepped aside to give them room, but he didn’t want to leave just yet.

 

The bulletin board in the lobby, next to the elevators, was an overwhelming mess of flyers and notices. A gorgeous handwritten note displayed the room service menu and daily breakfast offerings in the hotel’s dining room, but the prices physically hurt to look at. It was good to see that the hotel management possessed some self-awareness, though, from the random collection of takeout menus tacked onto the very same board. There was one for Lindy’s, whose cheesecake Yuri had dismissed as ‘overrated’ while stuffing his face with it like a starving bush hog; some place called The Golden Dragon, smack in the middle of Chinatown, which boasted ‘The best dim sum in the Tri-State Area!’; Lombardi’s PIzza, whose five-cent pies were more addictive than liquor itself…

 

Something caught his eye: a flyer printed on light green paper, half-hidden behind an ‘Employee of the Month’ announcement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What was it that Mrs. Karpisek had said? Viktor racked his brains, trying to find the exact words. He could remember the weather that day, the color of her blouse, and the way her son had stewed on the couch next to her, but what had she said? Something about how her husband had switched to tea in the past year, and drank nothing else until he died. That was it, right? Of course, there were probably dozens of tea houses and hundreds of tea sellers in New York. But the oddly specific numbers, the tea connection, and the fact that he was staring at the flyer in this hotel - and how long had it been on that board? - gave him pause.

 

The full tea ceremony was too expensive. It wouldn’t make sense to go for multiple readings of your tea leaves in a single day. So there was really only possibility left…

 

He ended up having to do the math by hand, on a random page in the middle of that notebook he carried with him everywhere. He already had a hunch, but he checked it anyway, twice. The numbers fit nicely, and the result was the same: the amount that Karpisek had been withdrawing regularly was exactly enough to pay for a four-hour Tea and Tête-à-tête session.

 

Huh.

 

“See anything that interests you?” The couple must have finished checking out, because the woman left her post behind the front desk to stand beside him. “I had my tea leaves read there once.”

 

“Yeah? What did they say?”

 

“That there’s love waiting for me around the corner, supposedly.” She giggled. “It made sense, you know, because the leftover tea at the bottom of the cup kind of looked like a heart.”

 

Viktor hummed. “That does make sense.”

 

“Do you want to give it a try?”

 

“Maybe someday. For now, I’m more interested in something else…” He trailed off, turned to face her, and flashed her the sweetest of smiles. “Have you got another copy of this flyer?”

 

 


 

 

Actually finding The Silk Umbrella turned out to be one of the easiest things he’d done for this investigation so far. It was tucked in one of the quieter corners of E 9th Street, but a sign with its name mounted high on the wall jutted out over the sidewalk, whimsically shaped like an umbrella. The two-storey brick building actually housed two different units: the first floor was leased to some company called ‘T.U.S. Holdings’, and Viktor learned after entirely too many tries at the buzzer that nobody was home. The second floor was the tea shop’s, and it had its own entrance through a winding staircase around the side.

 

It was also, shockingly, close to home - about a 20-minute walk, give or take. Leo having shown up in his neighborhood that one time made a bit more sense now, if he’d come from the tea shop first. But it was strange… Viktor was sure he’d walked down this very street countless times before. He felt as though he should’ve noticed The Silk Umbrella before today.  

 

“Welcome, sir!” The shopkeeper, a young Asian man with bronze skin and a megawatt smile, came around from behind the counter to greet him. “Boy, sure is brutal out there, isn’t it? This winter can’t end soon enough!”

 

Viktor caught on when he started rubbing at his arms, and quickly closed the door. It was quieter in here than he’d expected, although that was most likely due to the time of day. Two of the walls of the main room were lined from floor to ceiling with white porcelain jars, labelled in gorgeous black cursive that had been painted by hand.

 

“See anything you like, sir?” He’d been wandering aimlessly around, and either the shopkeeper had been following him this whole time, or he’d somehow materialized beside him without Viktor noticing, “Our chrysanthemum blossom tea is half-off until the end of the week. I’d be happy to brew you a small cup if you want to try it out.”

 

Viktor hummed. “Actually, I was more interested in some of your special offerings.” He retrieved from his pocket the flyer that he’d gotten from the hotel, and unfolded it in front of the shopkeeper.

 

“Ahh, I see.” His eyes twinkled. “Which one did you have in mind? Shall I make you a cup of something more ‘talkative’, shall we say, so I can read the message in the leaves for you?”

 

Viktor regarded him now with a new, mild curiosity. “You must be Phichit Chulanont, then?”

 

“What gave it away?” Phichit laughed. “Would you be so kind as to return the courtesy?”

 

“Viktor Nikiforov.” He handed over his business card, drawn from the same pocket. “You do know fortune-telling is illegal in New York City, right?”

 

“Good thing I’m not a fortune-teller, then. Reading your tea leaves is a very different art, you see, and I make no predictions or promises about your future.”

 

“Then what do you offer?”

 

“Hmmm…” Phichit tapped his finger against his chin. “I’d like to call it wisdom, to a point. Sometimes all we need to know to make the most of our lives is right in front of us. We just need to be steered in the right direction.”

 

“You don’t say.” Viktor decided to let that go, because he wasn’t a cop anymore, and he really didn’t care either way. This wasn’t what he’d come here for. “I don’t suppose you keep a log of all your customers who avail of your shop’s special services, do you?”

 

Phichit blinked at him a few times before answering. “If such a record did exist, I’d be very curious to know what you’d want with it, Detective.”

 

“I have reason to believe that a person of interest in a case I’m working on might have been a frequent patron of this ‘Tea and Tête-à-tête’ service that you offer.” He muddled up the details a bit, just to be safe.

 

“That doesn’t really surprise me. It’s one of our most popular offerings… but I’m afraid I can’t really help you all that much.”

 

“May I ask why not?”

 

“Well, those sessions often get booked directly with the ladies who host them, and I don’t know if they really keep detailed records of the people who book them, especially those that aren’t necessarily regulars.”

 

“I always thought that some kind of record-keeping was a basic requirement for any decent business,” Viktor murmured, half to himself.

 

“We keep track of the numbers, Detective, if that’s what you’re getting at. Let no-one say that we don’t render unto Caesar his due.” Phichit chuckled. “The owner wouldn’t let that kind of nonsense slide.”

 

Viktor frowned. “You aren’t the owner?”

 

“No, sir! I’m just a humble tasseomancer.” Phichit swept his arm out and gave an exaggerated bow. “That said, if you still think your suspect was a regular of ours, feel free to talk to one of the ladies.”

 

Might as well. “Can you tell me how I might arrange that?”

 

“Well, you know how much their time costs.”

 

He certainly did, didn’t he?

 

In the end, Viktor scarfed up the cash upfront for an hour-long session. He really only wanted to test the waters for himself, see what these sessions were all about and try to probe for any indication that Karpisek regularly attended them while he was alive. The bare minimum would have to be enough for that; he wasn’t exactly made of money.  

 

As Phichit happily accepted his money, and showed him a closet where he could leave his shoes, Viktor found himself thinking of Yuuri, and how he probably wouldn’t have blinked at coughing up the cost of a full four-hour session. Come to think of it, he wondered: would these ‘talk about anything you want’ sessions be all that different from the weekly therapy sessions he had with Dr. Katsuki?

 

Maybe it was still the guilt talking; it had been two days since he’d run out on Yuuri in the middle of the night. Yuuri hadn’t called him since then, and Viktor had decided that he didn’t want to try to interpret what exactly that meant.

 

“Hello.” A petite, pretty little woman in a floral silk kimono found him just as he’d gotten his shoes off. “May I take your coat and hat, sir?”

 

“Call me ‘Viktor’ please,” he said as he gave up his hat. He was starting to get tired of being called ‘sir’. It made him feel old - well, older than he already was. “What’s your name?”

 

“Yuuko,” she answered with a smile. Her soft brown eyes and dainty, heart-shaped face did wonders to put him at ease, and she beckoned for his coat again. “I won’t be the one hosting your session today, though. That would be Minako. Lucky you - she’s one of our best.”

 

Viktor started pulling off his coat, and waited for her to tell him to leave his gun behind as well. She didn’t, but as she took the coat from him, he noticed the bandages wrapped around her right hand. “What happened?”

 

“Hmmm? Oh, this?” She covered her mouth with her other hand as she laughed. It was such a high, delicate sound, like the ringing of tiny bells. “It’s embarrassing. I was careless with a teapot, and then I was in too much of a hurry while cleaning up.”

 

“Ah. Sorry,” he said with a wince. He sympathized; many years ago, too many to remember, he’d raced to clean up the evidence of a dropped, broken glass with minutes to spare before Mama came home from work. To his credit, she'd never noticed - the missing glass, or the shards in the kitchen trash, or his bandaged hand.

 

“This way, please.” Yuuko placed a hand on his arm, and steered him towards a narrow corridor. “Green door at the end of the hall. Enjoy!”

 

A seasoned, but stunningly gorgeous woman sat on her knees in the middle of the room, arranging teacups, bowls, and other instruments on a wooden tray in front of her. She had on a kimono that was identical to what Yuuko was wearing, but instead of having her hair done up in a bun, she’d chosen to leave hers down and flowing over her shoulders, with a clasp shaped like a blooming hibiscus keeping it pulled back from her face. She rose to her feet when she heard the sliding door open, and turned to face him with a low, graceful bow.

 

“Welcome. My name is Minako. Before we start, how should I address you?”

 

Viktor tried to mimic her bow. Though he thought he might have managed it, he couldn’t help but feel like he still messed it up somehow. “‘Viktor’ would be fine.” And a welcome change of pace.

 

She nodded. “Please have a seat then, Viktor.”

 

He found himself staring at a flat cushion on the floor, on the other side of the tray with the implements she’d been setting up. He watched as she returned to her previous post, folding her legs beneath her thighs, until she was practically sitting on her heels. He entertained the thought of trying it out himself, before quickly realizing that he couldn’t possibly hold that position for more than a minute. He sat with his legs crossed in front of him instead.

 

“Is this your first time?” She smiled when he nodded his assent, and showed him a small bowl filled with tea leaves. “Today’s featured tea is called gyokuro, which means ‘jade dew’ in Japanese. Unlike most other green teas, its leaves are grown in the shade for three weeks prior to harvest, rather than in the hot sun.”

 

“Wow,” Viktor said, because he couldn’t think of much else to say to that. “I have to admit, I’m not really much of a tea drinker, though.”

 

“Well, I hope this session might change your mind.” She took back the bowl holding the tea leaves with a close-lipped smile.

 

Viktor watched as she centered an open ceramic pot with a curiously-flared handle onto the tray in front of her, and poured into it a measure of water from the teapot. The water looked newly-boiled, from the steam rising up from the pot, and she divided it between the two identical teacups. They didn’t have any handles, and they were smaller than he was used to, hand-painted with images of cranes on one side.

 

There was a quiet grace in the way she moved, every motion so refined and deliberate, yet seemingly so effortless at the same time. He couldn’t stop looking at her hands.

 

“So if you are ‘not really much of a tea drinker’, may I ask what brought you to this place? Did someone recommend us to you? Or was it simple curiosity?”

 

“I’m a private investigator,” he said, once he finally remembered to talk. “My client noticed some strangely precise withdrawals showing up repeatedly in the joint account that she and her husband share.” Once again, he was muddling up the details a little, but this shouldn’t hurt.

 

“And this led you… here?”

 

“In a way. I’m at the stage where I’m trying to eliminate possibilities.”

 

“And what possibility are you trying to eliminate now?”

 

“The repeated withdrawals were for $6.72.” He watched her face for a reaction. There wasn’t one, so he pressed on. “Incidentally, that would be the price of a session like the one we’re having now, but for the maximum four hours.”

 

“I see.”

 

Minako placed the water from the teacups back into the pot, and set them back down onto the tray. There was a perfect symmetry shared by those three implements from the way they were arranged now, Viktor noticed. She leaned back, reached into a long, thin wooden box on the floor behind her, and pulled out a jade cigarette holder.

 

“Do you know why an hour of these sessions is priced at $1.68?” She pulled a matchbox and a cigarette case out of the same wooden box. “It has to do with how numbers sometimes sound like other words in other languages. Depending on what those words are, the numbers themselves are deemed lucky or unlucky. Or, supremely unlucky.”

 

Viktor stared at the cigarette she picked out through its entire journey, from the case in her hand to the end of the holder. God, he wished he had one too, and tried to suppress memories of sharing a light with Yuuri that had felt just shy of a kiss. Not that that mattered; they’d kissed properly plenty of times the other night, and well, here he was, thinking about Yuuri again despite his best efforts not to. Damn it.  

 

“I take it 168 is a lucky number, then?” he ventured.

 

“It is ‘fortune all the way’.” She lit her cigarette, and blew on the match to put it out once she was done. After taking a drag, she turned her head to blow the smoke away from his face. “Don’t despair. I’ll offer you one later, after you’ve had your tea.”

 

Viktor chuckled. “Was I that obviously pining for it?”

 

“You look like you’re gasping, Viktor. Desperate.” Minako gave him an unreadable smile. “But whether your yearning is just for a smoke, or for a break in this case you’re investigating, or for something else entirely… that, I cannot quite tell for sure.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viktor belatedly remembered to smile back. He was, at the very least, somewhat competent at this game they seemed to be playing. “Aren’t we all desperate for one thing or another? It’s just human nature, to always be chasing after something.”

 

“Perhaps you are right.” Minako used her free hand to transfer the tea leaves into the teapot. Then, she carefully poured the water in after it, down to the very last drop. She left the teapot uncovered as she took another drag. “We’ll let it steep for two minutes,” she announced.

 

That was just fine with him. “So, about this man I’m looking into - my client’s husband,” Viktor stressed.

 

“Yes?”

 

“If I gave you his name, would you be able to tell me if he was ever a client of yours, or perhaps one of your colleagues'?”

 

“I very much doubt that, unfortunately,” Minako said. “You understand, right? This is not a small city, and the girls and I don’t necessarily talk among ourselves about this client or that, or else we would never get any work done. And it’s not as though we hold on to such information in the first place… I mean no offense, Viktor, but I cannot promise I’ll remember your name when the night is over.”

 

“And if I told you that this man’s name was one you’re guaranteed to know? Maybe you’ve heard of him, heard his speeches. Or maybe you first read about him in the papers last Christmas Eve.”

 

The smile she was currently wearing faltered - just by a bit, but it was enough. Minako took one last, long drag, and blew the smoke towards the door. She ground the tip of her cigarette into the floor, killing its flame.

 

“I don’t make a habit of discussing past clientele with other parties,” Minako finally murmured.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Well, I want you to consider this thought experiment: a man books one of these sessions with me, say, an hour or two after you leave. He is angry, and suppose he has a gun. He asks me, ‘Was Viktor Nikiforov here?’”

 

Viktor replayed their conversation in his head, going back just a few lines. He took care to keep his expression neutral when he said, “I never told you my last name.”

 

“You told someone. Remember? Careless.” She waved that thought away before anything else could come of it. “But that is not important. Tell me, in that scenario, what would you have me say to him?”

 

Viktor heaved a sigh. “It depends - is the gun for me, or for you?”

 

“Come now, you and I both know that that doesn’t matter. There is simply no way to tell, with full certainty, what his intentions are. I can say the same for you.”

 

“Maybe so. But I think you and I also both know that I don’t wish any harm on the man I’m asking about.”

 

“Do we? There is so much destruction that can be dealt to a person posthumously, after all.”

 

He wasn’t sure why she was staring at him so intently, like she could read and unwind all of the thoughts he held if only she willed it enough. Nor did he really know how it had come to this, how she’d managed to make him feel like he was scorching under her gaze, with such a tepid smile on her face.

 

There was one thing that he was sure of, though. Because he could read her just as well, and for all of the deflection and posturing she’d just done, he’d still gotten his answer in the end.

 

“Your loyalty to your clients is noble.”

 

“I’d rather not call it that. Keeping the subjects of these conversations private is more of simple courtesy.” Finally, she began to pour tea into the teacups. She alternated between the two of them, pouring in a little at a time, going back and forth. When she finished, she set the teapot down and turned one of the teacups so that the crane was facing him. As he accepted it from her hands, he noticed that there was barely a tablespoon’s worth of liquid inside. “Here.”

 

Viktor downed the tea as he would a shot, or the dregs of a cocktail mixed with melted ice at the bottom of a rocks glass. He was half-expecting it to burn, all the way down.

 

But it didn’t, and he was left stunned at the rich, almost savory notes, hitting him with such intensity that it felt like he’d swallowed smoke. He took a breath, and all of a sudden he was standing on the beach near Mama’s house in Long Island, watching the sea on one of those oppressively humid, late summer days.

 

“Wow,” he muttered. He felt as though he’d been robbed of all other words.

 

“As I mentioned before, these tea leaves are stressed from having been grown in the shade. Fighting to draw energy from the sun, up to the last moments in which they are finally picked, changes their composition immensely. Yet this struggle, this futility, lends itself to beauty - it is what you are tasting right now."

 

She prepared two more infusions for him, steeping the leaves again for one minute at first, then for two. These rounds produced much more tea than the first, and the flavor was closer to what he’d expected - mostly grassy, with some harsher notes at the end. If they talked about much during that time, it was all inconsequential: tea cultivation, philosophical tangles, the ethics of probing into the affairs of a ‘hypothetical’ man once he was dead. All of these were things that Viktor filtered once in his mind, and deemed safe to forget as soon as this session was over.

 

With the tea having warmed him up and settled comfortably in his system, more than once he found himself picturing Dr. Katsuki on the other side of that tray, serving him tea and quoting Rousseau. He had to shake himself out of it every time.

 

It was the accent, he told himself. That, or the guilt.

 

When his hour was up, a series of knocks on the door ended their session. Minako stopped him with a hand on his arm just as he was about to walk out of the room.

 

“As promised.” She placed her entire pack of cigarettes into the pocket of his suit jacket. From the weight of it, it felt like it was still mostly full. “I know I only offered one, but have the rest of it on the house. Consider it your reward for being such a good listener.”

 

“That’s very generous, thank you.”

 

“One less thing to yearn for,” she murmured. “Take care of yourself, Detective.”

 

She’d already shut the door by the time that sank in, and he remembered to ask. No matter; the answer was probably the same, anyway.

 

He stepped out into the street and lit a cigarette from the gift he’d just been given, because the warmth from Minako’s tea had started to fade, but the chill of winter was going nowhere anytime soon. He felt like he couldn’t make heads or tails of absolutely anything that had just happened, and there were things Minako had said, things he'd said, that he’d have to evaluate once he could find the time.

 

It was fine; he’d gotten what he’d come here for. He was certain now that Karpisek had been a frequent patron of this tea shop’s sessions, and at some point - when the withdrawals had become most frequent - it might have turned into something of a ritual, or an obsession. Which was it? And what did Karpisek find here, or in the sweet words and bitter tea of the women who’d sold him their time? Those were the questions that burned at the moment, though he knew that he would never find their answers here.

 

But the new burden they placed on him was… tolerable, if he had to put it to a word. And maybe it was the remnants of the tea talking in his head, but now that both the police and La Cosa Nostra were off his back, he felt as though he’d finally found a bit of breathing room. For the first time in forever, he had time.

 

 


 

 

The next day’s copy of the Daily Mirror, lying face-up in the middle of his desk to greet him in the morning, served as a sobering reminder that no, he did not get the luxury of taking things slow after all.

 

 

 

+

 

 

 

He didn’t have to read the story to get an idea of what it said. The picture of him exiting the tea shop, blown up right in the middle of the front page, painted well more than a thousand words. So did the angry note Yakov had scribbled on a napkin and slapped onto the page: ‘My office. Now.’ He hadn’t signed it, but Viktor could tell it was his; nobody else in this office wrote quite like Yakov, who tended to put his entire weight into the strokes of his pen. The angrier he was, the deeper the strokes, and from the look of this note, Viktor almost wanted to grant his request, if only to see whether he’d ended up carving the words into his desk.

 

But no, he had far, far greater problems to worry about right now. Chucking the note into the trash, he stuffed the newspaper into his jacket, and tried hard not to give in to thoughts of imminent doom as he left the office to head downtown.  

 

The office of The New York Daily Mirror was a beehive today, and he figured he could probably guess why. Phones were ringing off the hook everywhere he turned, and harried employees ran around the office like the whole damn building was on fire. Hell, Viktor almost wished it was.

 

“Detective Nikiforov?” A fresh-faced employee - an intern, from the looks of it, struggling to balance a tray of coffee and several folders full of papers - peered at him from behind a pair of coke-bottle glasses. “Oh, wow, it is you! You’re a lot… uhh… taller in person.”

 

Viktor had very little patience left for this kind of nonsense. “Where is he?”

 

“Where is who?”

 

“Church! I need to talk to him, where is he?”

 

“Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.” Leo’s voice was unmistakable, as was the saccharine, self-assured grin he wore when Viktor turned around to face him. “If it isn’t the man of the hour! To what do we owe this honor, Detective?”

 

Viktor bit back the first of many rude retorts. “You get one guess.”

 

Leo must have read enough from the look on his face, because he quickly sent the intern off to some fool’s errand while ushering Viktor further into the building. They passed through a labyrinth of desks crowding the main floor, dodging people rushing about the whole way. They took a winding, horribly inefficient path, until they came to an enclosed corner office at the very end.

 

As Viktor took in the gorgeous views of the city afforded by the windows, and the half-unpacked boxes lined up against the desk, he let out an incredulous, bitter laugh. “Well, would you look at that.”

 

“Great, isn’t it? To be honest, I wasn’t expecting you to show up here. I was planning to meet you in the neighborhood when you walk your dog tomorrow morning, just like last time.”

 

“Too busy turning these new digs into home, I take it?”

 

Leo shrugged. "What can I say? You know, I gotta thank you - you’ve been so great for my career. All I have to do is follow you around, and I know sooner or later I’ll find gold.”

 

It took all of Viktor’s self-restraint, or whatever was left of it from this whole ordeal so far, not to curse him out in all the languages that he knew. “Then it’s fair to say you owe me for all of the good things falling into your lap at my expense, isn’t it?”

 

“Maybe.” Leo’s grin, which hadn’t let up since Viktor first saw him today, only widened at that. “What do you want? Can I buy you a drink?”

 

“Your story that came out this morning,” Viktor ground out, pulling the newspaper from his jacket and slamming it down onto Leo’s newly-acquired, spotless, vintage mahogany desk. “Where did you get that information?”

 

Leo took one look at the paper, then at his face. He burst out laughing. “Wow. You’re crazy if you think I’m ever going to burn my sources.”

 

“Was it La Cosa Nostra?” He’d turned over that possibility throughout the entire trip over. But it couldn’t have been; Sara, her father, that whole family hated Leo. And the look on Leo’s face now reminded him that the feeling was mutual. “No, that doesn’t make sense. They’d have no reason to help you.”

 

“It’s insulting that you think I’d ever need their help with anything.” Leo walked around him to close his office door, shutting out the sounds of the pandemonium that was reigning over the main office floor. “But anyway, let me throw you a bone, just because you’ve been so good to me: my information was firsthand. Seeing you leave that tea shop told me all that I needed to know.”

 

Viktor tried to hide his surprise. Was he saying that The Silk Umbrella… was a front for the Triad?

 

“Come on. Don’t tell me you didn’t make the connection yourself.” Leo peered at him. “Am I really supposed to believe you just ‘happened’ to be there?”

 

“I was following up on another lead.”

 

“Bullshit.”

 

“I don’t care if you believe me.”

 

But the more Viktor thought about it, the more he had to admit: it actually made sense, if it was true. Karpisek had publicly made himself the enemy of all organized crime, and had even gone out of his way to avoid singling out any particular groups. Winning the mayor’s seat while secretly working for the Mafia all along would have put him in a prime position to smoke out any of the other, invariably smaller criminal factions operating in the city.

 

Had that been the plan all along, and had the Triad caught wind of it somehow?

 

More importantly: how much did Leo already know?

 

“So what’s your angle? That Triad operatives were behind the murder, and they made it look like a Mafia hit to frame them?”

 

“It makes sense, doesn’t it? Hell, it’s what I would do.”

 

Viktor shook his head. “It’s a hell of a theory. Too many things would have had to go perfectly right for them to pull this off.”

 

“Hey, crazier things have happened in this city.” Leo picked up the paper from the table and held it at arm’s length. The frank, unsurprising admiration of his own work showed quite clearly on his face. “And it’s not like it’s impossible. The Triad's presence in New York right now is a lot bigger than most people might think.”

 

“And by running that story of yours, you’ve accomplished… what, exactly?”

 

“Oh, I’m a simple man, Detective,” he said with a shrug. “If you’ve been following my work at all, you’ll notice that all I’m ever really after is the truth. One day, it will set us all free.”

 

“Or, it’ll derail my investigation completely.” Viktor took a step forward, his hands balled into fists at his sides. “You realize that if you’re right about this, you’ve basically tipped them off to the fact that they’re under suspicion now. And if you’re wrong, then you just officially made both of us enemies of the Triad, for no goddamn reason. Do you understand that?”

 

Leo blinked. It was like that thought had never even occurred to him. “Then I guess we both better get back to work, don’t you agree?”

 

Viktor should have known better than to hope that appealing to reason would ever work with journalism’s equivalent of a rabid attack dog. “What is it going to take,” he finally said, “to get you to stand down?”

 

“No offense, Detective, but I don’t think you can pay me enough to muzzle me.”

 

“And I don’t think you ever had any illusions that my offer was monetary at all.” Viktor drew closer, relaxed his posture, and forced the barest hint of a smile, an invitation. “Come on, Leo, let’s not insult each other. I’m not asking you to sit on your hands… just, a little heads-up next time would be much appreciated. What can I do to earn that?”

 

Leo squinted at him, trying to tell if he was being played.

 

In the end, Viktor knew that it didn’t really matter to him either way; the mere act of buttering up to Leo would have had the same effect, whether he received it consciously or not. “Supposing I had some questions about a past case of yours,” he mused, “would you indulge me?”

 

Viktor sighed. In truth, he’d kind of expected something like this. “Let me guess, you want to add on to your write-up on the Kips Bay Strangler?”

 

“Nah, that story’s just about run its course, I think. Besides, I already know everything worth knowing about that case.” Leo opened up the newspaper, likely rereading his own article. “The look on Feltsman’s face during that press conference he gave… you dropping off the face of the earth for weeks afterwards… it wasn’t hard to put it together, is all I’m saying.”

 

Viktor struggled to swallow that information. Yakov had told him, back then, to keep a low profile, and to ignore any requests for interviews from the media, ostensibly for the sake of his own recovery. But now, this was new; there’d been a press conference? “You didn’t print anything different from what the other papers did.”  

 

“Right, and I’m waiting for a nomination to sainthood for that.” Leo chuckled. “Look, I’m not cruel, Detective. You may not believe this, but I don’t actually get a kick out of exploiting any tragedies that might befall you.”

 

Memories of their last conversation would beg to differ. “Then what do you want?”

 

“Like I said, the truth.” Leo dropped the paper onto his desk and looked straight into his eyes. “The Chambers Street Explosion, 1926: what really happened that day?”

 

Viktor held onto his gaze, though he could sense his resolve to do so fracturing by the second. This, he hadn’t seen coming.

 

And why? Had the rest of the world not moved on from the tragedy of that day? He knew it was an empty, stupid question, and that he didn’t have to look very far to find the answer to it. But the city’s machinations only ever moved in one direction, and as far as he knew, Don Crispino had upheld his end of the bargain. And especially now, when he’d finally settled that first debt… what the hell was this then, all of a sudden?

 

“What do you care? That was years ago.”

 

“Exactly. I’ve been sitting on this for two years, and in all that time I could never quite shake off the feeling that we, the public, weren’t given the full story.” Leo broke the eye contact to reach into a box at his feet, coming back up with a pen and a slip of paper in his hands. “You were one of the handful of survivors that day. Talk to me about it.”

 

So he was just fishing after all. Viktor held back a sigh of relief. “I’m afraid I’m going to bore you with this one. The official reports are all open to the public.”

 

“Hmmm, right, the reports that state that it was all a tragic accident? Years of nonexistent safety practices in an illegal distillery, and all the luck just ran out?”

 

“That’s what they say.”

 

Leo scoffed. “And I guess the fact that all of the other lucky survivors, except you, of course, immediately skipped town within a month of the explosion is just… what? A happy coincidence?”

 

No. There was nothing ‘happy’ about those days and weeks that followed, the screaming and the burning in his ears, the phone calls, and all of those letters he’d written at night. ‘Happy’ didn’t exist in the same space where his arm had started healing wrong, and so they’d had no choice but to break it again. And once he’d finally gotten out of there, the guilt, the dreams, the groveling… oh, the fucking groveling

 

Looking back on it now, Viktor wondered how he’d even survived it all.

 

Still, he was able to look Leo straight in the eye when he threw his own words back at him. “Crazier things have happened in this city.”

 

Leo stared him down for a few moments, before his glower dissolved into his usual, easygoing smile. “Unbelievable,” he breathed, shaking his head. “You know, it’s this kind of pigheadedness that’s going to get you killed someday.”

 

“Feel free to start writing out an obituary, then. Just in case.” Viktor turned and began walking towards the door. There was just nothing left for either of them to hope to get from this conversation, which was a pity - he was really starting to enjoy the view from up here. “Until then, I’d appreciate if you didn’t throw me under the bus again.”

 

Leo’s fancy new office door didn’t close quickly enough for Viktor to miss him calling out “No promises!” as he left.

 

 


 

 

All roads led once more to Casa Roja that night, as they so often did, and Viktor found himself in his usual spot at the bar. He’d wound up completely losing track of time at the office, and whatever hunger he’d felt and ignored a couple of hours ago had long since passed. Ever since he’d returned to the office from that meeting with Leo, he’d spent the rest of the evening digging through whatever old case files he could find involving a criminal faction that, for once, was not La Cosa Nostra.

 

This was what he knew about the shadowy syndicate called the Triad: precious little. The few files he’d found which had even mentioned them by name - and he’d gone back years, diving headlong into their older, dust-ravaged storage cabinets in the basement - only ever involved one or two of their operatives tangentially, and never the same ones. The affiliations had only been written in as an afterthought too, an asterisk next to the suspect’s name. ‘Suspected involvement with Triad (??)’ ‘Low-level Triad recruit.’

 

Useless.

 

“You’ve been nursing that same drink since you got here,” Christophe cut into his thoughts. “Finally getting bored of it?”

 

“Sorry. I’ve got a lot on my mind tonight.” He noticed that there was barely any liquid left in the glass. He chugged it in one go, and winced; it mostly just tasted like melted ice.

 

“Too bad, I thought I’d finally get to make you something special.” He took the empty glass out of Viktor’s hand. “More of the same, then?”

 

“You know I’m a creature of habit.”

 

Christophe rolled his eyes and moved to serve another customer at the other end of the bar, leaving Viktor alone with his thoughts.

 

He took a cigarette out of the pack that Minako had given him, and lit up while waiting for his drink. It tasted like menthol, just like every other cigarette he’d had from this pack so far. He hadn’t quite decided yet if the flavor really agreed with him, but the rush of nicotine was the same.

 

It wasn’t long before his thoughts strayed from these cigarettes, to the tea house, and back to the Triad again.

 

He’d gotten no solid confirmation that The Silk Umbrella really was connected to the Triad somehow, but again, his pool of information had been shallow at best. Granted, when he’d mapped out those cases he’d studied and taken a step back, there were a few places where the lines crossed. And with some persistence, he’d found that he could separate the patterns from the coincidences. Counterfeiting seemed to be a significant part of the Triad’s business - the cases he’d reviewed all had to do with currency, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that they could have extended that talent to other things as well. A couple of the cases, curiously enough, had involved something to do with healthcare fraud.

 

But if the numbers were anything to go by, then it seemed that drugs were their bread and butter. Most of the cases were investigations into drug smuggling, opium especially, in one way or another. Yet incompetent recruits and turncoat fences only allowed him the barest of glimpses through the veil, it seemed. If he really wanted to investigate the Triad - and really, sketchy though Leo’s theory was, what other leads did he have at this point? - then he would have to start from scratch.

 

Christophe arrived with his second drink, but he was in and out of Viktor’s field of vision in just a blink, an afterthought. Viktor took a sip and found comfort in the familiar burn, and the false warmth that spread down through his chest.

 

Perhaps the only sure thing to come from tonight’s musings was this: whether Leo’s theory held any water or not, it still needed to be investigated. That meant that he had a mountain of work waiting for him in the morning either way. But every new sip he took from the drink calmed him down, bit by bit. Tomorrow’s problems could wait until the sun was up.

 

Scattered applause rose up in pockets from the area behind him, especially close to the stage. Tonight’s crooner was a bombshell in blue, though it was of a dark enough shade to look almost black under the stage’s lights. The velvet clung to her like it’d been poured on, and whenever she moved or shifted or even so much as breathed, it kept absolutely no secrets.

 

Viktor nursed both of his vices as the show unfolded, though he ended up having to squash his cigarette against the bar counter while he was only halfway through his drink. He considered lighting up another one, but then he would have to order another drink after that. And after that - who knew when it would end?

 

He was still steeped in this silly dilemma when he caught a strange commotion in the corner of his eye: another patron must have tripped over something, because in the next second she cried out and lay sprawled over the floor, right behind the spot where Viktor was sitting. He was at her side in the blink of an eye. “Are you okay, Miss?”

 

The woman lifted her head from the floor. She wore a miserable look on her face, which was a crying shame because she was so beautiful. There were tears in her pretty, stormy blue eyes, which she quickly wiped off with the back of a satin-gloved hand. “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”

 

“Are you sure?” Viktor took her by the arm, and started helping her to her feet. “What happened? Are you hurt anywhere?”

 

She shook her head, and her hair was short enough to move freely, clear of her shoulders as she did so. Nonetheless, she still clung to him for support, and let him pull her up. “I was clumsy, that’s all. I’m sorry. This is so humiliating.”

 

“Don’t say that. It happens to the best of us…”

 

Viktor trailed off when he got a closer look at her face: flawless skin and dark cherry-painted lips, framed by a feathered black headband that pushed her hair out of her eyes.

 

…He knew this woman.

 

Why did he know this woman? Where had he seen her before?

 

“Thank you again.” She pulled away and gave him a slight bow. “You’re very kind. Have a good night.”

 

Viktor was still struggling to remember by the time he lost her to the throng of patrons crowding around the stage, blocking his view of the door. Was she a past client of his, perhaps? No, that couldn’t be it; she would have likely recognized him if that were the case. Maybe he’d glimpsed her in a magazine. Or maybe she was just a face he’d seen in the crowd, once upon a time, and some dormant part of his mind had just happened to recognize her without really remembering her.

 

That was certainly more likely.

 

He slipped back into his seat and tried to shrug that momentary disquiet off by downing the rest of his drink. His throat burned pleasantly as the liquor slid its way down. It was one of those customary, comforting pains that he’d come to embrace. It reminded him that he was alive.

 

He glanced over to look at the seat beside him, empty tonight. There were other, far more agreeable reminders, he realized, recalling the whirlwind that was Yuuri on Christmas Eve. God, but it hadn’t even been very long since that night, had it?

 

How long had it been? It felt like it had been ages already, what with how much had happened since then. To have lulls like these, so rare and so far in between, made him second-guess himself, and wonder if they were for real.

 

Viktor set the empty glass back down onto the counter. The music from the stage washed over him like a wave, swelling and receding, crashing over his head. The noises of the crowd, words and laughter and footsteps and the clinking of glass against wood, glass against glass, had somehow shifted into some low, amorphous din.

 

What?

 

His eyes started to smart from the light - strange, because there wasn't really all that much of it in this bar. There never had been. All of a sudden, his heart felt like it was jackhammering against his ribs. He forced out a cough, and his temples throbbed in punishment.

 

Something wasn’t right. He felt… off.

 

Perhaps it was about time to call it a night anyway. But he didn’t mind the thought of another drink, because for some reason, his mouth felt absolutely parched.

 

Christophe frowned at him. “How much have you had tonight?”

 

“Two,” he gasped out.

 

“When you’re looking like that? I don’t buy it.” Christophe leaned in closer, studying Viktor’s face closely. “It’s okay if you’re going to other bars, you know, I won’t be offended.”

 

“I don’t know what to tell you.” Viktor licked his lips, struggling to focus. “Could I have some water, then?”

 

It seemed like an eternity passed before Christophe finally nodded. “I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”

 

Viktor wasn’t too sure he could if he wanted to. He braced himself against the counter, and it was all he could do to stop himself from falling off the barstool. The light, the light, it was too bright, and there was too much of it, it was everywhere. He shut his eyes and pressed the empty glass against his forehead, surprised to find it so cold.

 

No, it wasn’t - not really. It was warm; he was warm, he could feel it now, the flush in his cheeks and a quiet burning beneath his eyelids. Fuck.

 

He tried to force himself to focus on the music. He knew this song, and it should have been easier than it was, to ground himself in the low thrum of the bassline, count out the beats, cling to the words spilling from that singer’s golden throat. ‘Oh, what hard-luck stories they all hand me…’ But the notes sounded discordant in his head, and he couldn’t hold on to any of them. ‘Make my bed, light the light, I'll arrive late tonight…’

 

“Hey.” Christophe’s voice cut into the haze in his head, but didn’t get very far inside. “Viktor.”

 

‘Blackbird, bye-bye… goodbye.’

 

The sound of something banging against the counter startled him, forcing his eyes to snap open. He spied the clear liquid in a glass in front of him, and forced it down in one gulp. He’d gotten about halfway before he actually tasted it, and he gagged. Salt water??

 

“There’s a side door. It opens up to an alley that’ll take you to 29th Street,” Christophe murmured. “Go around the bar, through the kitchen. Make sure you’re not followed.”

 

It was only when he saw the severe look on Christophe’s face that he fully understood what might have just happened to him. Viktor pulled out some random bills from his wallet and pressed them against the counter, hoping it was enough; if not, he was sure Christophe would hound him for the rest the next time he was here. He tried to catch his eye, but before Viktor could thank him, he was already gone.

 

It wasn’t safe here. He had to get out.

 

Stupid. Stupid. How long had he taken his eyes off his drink? A few seconds, at most? God fucking damn it.

 

He stumbled through the kitchen, pushing past nameless staff members who turned to look at him, but he couldn’t make out the expressions on their faces. Nor could he understand what they were saying, his head was spinning, and he couldn’t remember how he'd gotten here. What was he looking for? Someone jostled him, and it took all of his strength not to fall over. His heart was pounding. Where was he supposed to go? He couldn’t remember.

 

He eventually managed to find the side door Christophe had mentioned, by some miracle. Someone pushed him out, and he nearly tripped over the stairs leading down. The door slammed shut behind him, and in about two seconds, the stench from the piles of garbage bags parked right up against the building finally hit.

 

He tasted the salt from the concoction Christophe had given him suddenly sitting in the back of his throat, and he barely got enough time to brace himself against the wall before he was doubled over, retching his guts out. It should have helped, but it didn’t. Not really.

 

Viktor staggered through the alley, making his way to the blurry lights at the end, which he hoped was 29th Street. He didn’t know what he was going to do once he got there, but he couldn’t be here. Christophe had caught onto it. How much longer did he have?

 

He still had a few yards to go when he heard the footsteps. Not very fucking long.

 

Viktor broke into a run, and the footsteps quickened behind him. Shit. The world teetered, and his heart felt like it was going to burst. The light he’d been so desperate to reach turned out to be a street lamp, illuminating a lonely street - only shadows and trees, and a single phone booth, to bear witness.

 

He sprinted, heart in his throat, thinking he could at least lock himself in the phone booth. His fingers just missed the door when his legs finally gave way, and buckled from underneath him. He hit the ground hard, biting back a scream as his head exploded in pain.

 

This was it. He was going to die. Oh, hell.

 

The footsteps drew closer. Viktor groaned and rolled onto his back, pulling out his gun with a trembling hand. His vision was too far gone to even gauge the man’s height, much less focus on his face. But when he squinted hard, he thought he could make out a vaguely familiar hairstyle… he recognized something there, from the man’s gait as he approached, and a hesitation when he drew a knife from his jacket.

 

No. No. Viktor’s eyes burned, and his voice broke. “Otabek…?”

 

The man stopped in his tracks. Viktor gritted his teeth and fired blind, emptying his gun into the space in front of him, and into the shadows left behind as the man turned tail and ran away.

 

He didn’t know how long he stayed there, on the ground, squeezing an empty trigger against a target that was no longer there. The pain in his head had become unbearable. Was he bleeding? He couldn’t tell.

 

It didn’t matter. Inch by painstaking inch, Viktor dragged himself into the phone booth. He didn’t bother putting his gun away, or even closing the damn door. He was running on fumes, and he didn’t know how much longer he had. Pulling himself up by the base of the receiver, he stuffed coin after coin into the slot without looking, without even thinking.  

 

He still didn’t remember for sure, even now, what those first three numbers were. He took his best guess before bearing down on the ‘8’ at the end, wondering why, of all the phone numbers he could have called, this was the only one that felt ‘right’.

 

Maybe it was still the guilt, hounding him even until the bitter end.

 

“Hello?”

 

Even with a single word, that soft, soothing voice managed to calm him. It did nothing for his heart, which by now beat in a frantic, erratic rhythm, that he swore would probably stop any minute now. But it made him feel less like the darkness was about to swallow him whole.

 

“Yuuri… I screwed up.” He leaned against the wall and slid slowly down, until he was sitting on the filthy phone booth floor. The cord strained when he pulled the handset closer to his ear. “I think I’m dying… I might already be dead.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Viktor? Is that you?” Yuuri’s tone was laced with confusion. “What’s going on?”

 

“I screwed up,” Viktor said again. “I was careless. I took my eyes off of my drink for ten seconds, and I think…” What, exactly? The clues were pretty much damning; someone had poisoned him, and then followed him into the alley to make sure it had worked. That woman who’d tripped behind him was probably in on it, too. Stupid, he’d been so fucking stupid. “I should have known better.”

 

From the other end of the line, he thought he could hear the rustling of papers, and some other commotion. A light, jangling sound - keys, maybe? “Viktor, where are you?”

 

Too far away, he didn’t say. Too far gone for him to figure out where exactly he was, and even then, too far away for Yuuri to get to him.

 

But that wasn’t what this call was about. And he was slowly starting to realize that maybe it never had been. “Tell Yakov I’m sorry… and Makkachin, oh God. She’s gonna need a home... would you take her?” He fought back a lump in his throat. He was no longer sure if his blurry vision was because of the poison, or because his eyes had filled with tears. “I know it's a lot to ask. But I think you'd be so good to her.”

 

“Of course I’ll take her. But Viktor, before I do that, I need you to focus right now, okay? I need you to focus, so you can tell me exactly where you are, so that I can come find you.”

 

Viktor wanted to laugh at that, but he couldn’t find the strength. Spots danced in front of his eyes. His mouth was so, so dry - or maybe it just felt that way, because he was starting to think about regrets now, and one of them was how he wished he could have kissed Yuuri one last time.

 

“Maybe you were right about me in the end, huh?” He let out a weak chuckle that sounded more like a wheeze. Felt like it too. “Maybe it was all subconscious, this…”

 

He forgot how he’d wanted to finish that sentence. “This what?” Yuuri’s voice hiked up in alarm. A sudden, loud bang echoed through the line. “Viktor?”

 

“I'm sorry, Yuuri. You know, I was kind of looking forward to our next session.”

 

His hand dropped to the floor at his side, unable to bear the handset’s weight anymore. The handset dangled from its cord and swung like a pendulum beside him, and he could still hear Yuuri’s muffled voice, shouting out his name - the smallest of comforts, when the darkness finally took him.

Chapter Text

January 18, 1929

 

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by him when he’s everywhere. He’s here, close enough to touch. He’s an imprint on the bed; he’s seeped into the sheets. He says words, too many words, and he smiles and he reaches out, and he’s warm, and here we are again.

 

I screwed up. Again. How does this keep on happening?

 

That phone call was a mistake. Of course, the alternative might have proven fatal, but there’s a small part of me that still wonders if this might be worse - for me, for him, for everyone. I’m a liability to him now, I can tell. He’s just too kind to figure it out, or too polite to say anything about it.

 

I tried to keep my distance, I really did. God knows I don’t have the time or the luxury, or even the constitution, for any relationship with him that isn’t just professional right now. And yet here I am, moving in the spaces marked by his footprints, touching his shadow, breathing his air. All of a sudden I’ve been caught up in his world… that, or I might have just dragged him headlong into mine.

 

In no universe do I imagine this ending well.

 

(And yet, still: here we are again.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viktor no longer remembered how he’d gotten out of that phone booth, which in all honesty, was a recognition that started to feel far more familiar than it should. He did recall, vaguely, the roar of a car engine, resonating with the pounding of his head. And then there had been… light? He’d heard shouting, that was for sure. And then: arms lifting him up, before he was cocooned in something soft and warm.

 

That had been an hour ago - maybe. He thought so, anyway. It was hard to tell, because he’d lost the rest of that hour, and the very next thing he knew was here, sitting up in a bed that was entirely too soft and too massive to be his own, vomiting into a metal bucket for the third time.

 

“Shhh. Breathe.” Yuuri’s voice was comfort in his ear, a hell of a lot sweeter than nicotine, and headier than gin. He supported the bottom of the bucket with one hand, and rubbed circles against Viktor’s back with the other. “How are you feeling?”

 

Viktor groaned. “Like I’ve been run over by a bus.”

 

“The fact that you’re able to string together figures of speech is a good sign.” Yuuri placed his fingers against the side of his neck, checking his pulse against the clock hanging on the wall. Every second that ticked by chipped away at Viktor’s resolve, until he could just barely stop himself from leaning in, and seeking out more of Yuuri’s touch. “Pain?”

 

“Mostly in my head.” Viktor waved a hand in front of his face and clutched at the rim of the bucket while he tried to catch his breath. “I’m more worried that you might never want to kiss me again, after all… this.” He winced.

 

Yuuri chuckled. He swept back the stray strands of hair clinging to Viktor’s sweat-lined forehead. “You’re fine. I’m a doctor, I’ve seen worse.”

 

“Right. From your surgery days?”

 

Yuuri didn’t answer that. Instead, he nodded at a glass on the bedside table, where about an inch of water sat with some black and silver powder that had been dissolved in it, now sinking slowly to the bottom. “Do you think you can handle another dose?”

 

Viktor shook his head vehemently. He remembered now - choking back that God-awful concoction, followed by a spell of peace that had lasted for all of ten seconds, before it was shattered by the urge to expel everything he’d eaten in the past month.

 

“Okay. That’s fine.” Yuuri studied Viktor’s face for a few seconds, and eventually made a judgment call to put the bucket away. Viktor wasn’t too sure it was the right call. “I phoned your office, just so you’re aware. I didn’t give them all of the details, just that I’m your doctor and I need to keep you here for evaluation over the next few days.”

 

Huh. Viktor squinted, trying to focus on the hands of the wall clock. It wasn’t too far from midnight. “Who picked up at this time?”

 

“He didn’t give me his name.” Yuuri shrugged. “He sounded young. Angry.”

 

“Oh.” Viktor didn’t really have to ask anymore, though he did wonder what could have kept Yuri so late at the agency tonight. He was usually out the door by six, at the very latest. “What was that about me staying here for the next few days?”

 

“When I picked you up from that phone booth,” Yuuri explained, “one of the very few things you said that I could make out was ‘no hospital’.”

 

Ah. That sounded about right. God, but he could already imagine Yuuri - or Dr. Katsuki, rather - asking him a million questions about this at their next session. Then again, there wasn’t really that much to say; the last time he’d been in a hospital had been two years ago, and surely someone whose job title was ‘psychoanalyst’ wouldn’t need him to draw a diagram from there. “What else did I say?”

 

“Nothing of any real consequence.” Yuuri poured out some clear liquid into a medicine cup from a bottle labelled in what he guessed was Japanese, and handed it over to Viktor. “Here. For your head.”

 

Viktor took it like a shot. It tasted absolutely awful, although not as bad as the emetic Yuuri had given him earlier. The harsh, sour note that lingered at the end, even after he’d already swallowed and regretted, was the worst part. “Ugh.”

 

Yuuri took the cup back from him with a small, close-lipped smile. He rinsed it out with some water, wiped it dry, and then dropped inside two small, familiar white pills that Viktor recognized immediately as over-the-counter painkillers. “And this is for your headache.”

 

Viktor stared at them, taking in the stamps on the pills with the scores in the middle, trying to fight back a growing sense of dread. He swallowed hard. “What… exactly… did you give me before this?”

 

Instead of trying to placate him, Yuuri simply stared out the window with a shallow sigh. “Viktor,” he started, “why did you call me, of all people, when you thought you were in danger of death?”

 

Viktor’s head was pounding too much for him to think of any satisfying answer to this question. “Your number is easy to remember?”

 

“Try again.”

 

Damn it. He bought some time by dry-swallowing both of the pills at once. They got caught in the back of his throat, because of course they would, before finally going down.

 

He imagined that he knew the answer Yuuri was looking for, or at least, he knew what Yuuri was probably expecting him to say. Perhaps it wasn’t so much of a tragedy to just give him what he wanted, then. He had saved Viktor’s life after all, hadn’t he? And they were just words; Viktor had certainly dispensed with worse things. Far, far worse things.

 

“I suppose it was because I thought you might be able to help me,” he admitted.

 

“And how have I been doing so far?”

 

Viktor placed a hand over his chest. His heartbeat had slowed to something calmer, no longer the reckless, frantic death march it had been when he’d first stumbled out of the bar. That, and at some point between now and then, he’d regained his vision completely - he just hadn’t noticed it until now.

 

“You treat everyone around you with wariness as a matter of course.” Yuuri spoke to him without really looking at him, and the low, murmured quality of his words made it feel as though he were addressing some faceless person on the other side of the window. “I certainly can’t blame you. This attempt on your life must certainly have you convinced that such an outlook is justified.”

 

Viktor rubbed at his temples. “Didn’t know we were still doing therapy today.”

 

He got a laugh for that. Yuuri placed a hand on Viktor’s cheek, and gently turned his head until their eyes met. “I’m asking you to make an exception for tonight,” he whispered. “Can you do that for me? You called me, so trust me. I’ll take care of you.”

 

Well. He couldn’t really argue with that.

 

He was lucky, in a way, that the first few pangs of guilt that had started to come to him now were dulled by exhaustion, and the fog in his head that had somehow returned. Obviously, this only meant that the guilt would be more potent in the morning, but he tried not to think about that just yet.

 

“Thank you for this,” he murmured, staring at the empty medicine cup that he was still holding. “I owe you one.”

 

“If you must think of it that way, then just be a cooperative patient and I’ll consider this debt settled.” Yuuri took the cup back from him, and gently pushed him down to lie back on the bed. “Stay there. I’ll be right back.”

 

Viktor stared at the ceiling, and all too quickly lost himself in the swirls and curls of the elaborate patterns that had been hand-painted into the coffers. It took him far longer than it should have, but he eventually realized that this wasn’t the same ceiling from the bedroom in the apartment on Fifth Avenue, which was much smaller than the room he was in now. He had to strain to get a look without lifting his head, but what he saw confirmed it: there was enough space in here for a sitting area, anchored by a fireplace and a huge, circular rug, as well as a writing desk by the window.

 

Was he in Yuuri’s house?

 

He struggled to remember anything about how he’d gotten here, save for fleeting, useless recollections of blurred lights, the smell of cigarette smoke, and sitting in a car as it had raced over… a bridge? Was that it? Damn it, he wasn’t sure.

 

Still, he stopped himself from asking right away when Yuuri came back into the room. He placed a hand against Viktor’s neck. “Good, your temperature’s gone down. How are you feeling?”

 

“Mmmh.” Now that he could see him, really look at him again, he found himself distracted. Yuuri had taken off his jacket and loosened his tie, and he’d left the sleeves of his shirt quite sloppily rolled up to his elbows. If Viktor weren’t half-dead, he might have been tempted to pull him closer… make him even sloppier. “Hazy.”

 

“That’s to be expected.” Yuuri smoothed back his hair, away from his forehead. “Are you hungry? It’s a bit late for dinner, but I can warm something up for you, if you like.”

 

It was certainly tempting, if memories of Yuuri’s katsudon were anything to go by. But it also sounded like entirely too much effort, for him and Yuuri both.

 

Viktor turned his head towards him, letting out a soft sigh. He could smell Yuuri’s cologne, faintly, strongest near his wrist. He blinked; he couldn’t focus.

 

“How did you even find me?” he whispered instead.

 

“Well, you mentioned that you’d been drinking, so I took a chance and tried Casa Roja. Once I got there, it wasn’t too hard to ask which way you’d gone.” Yuuri chuckled. “You gave some of the staff quite a fright, it seems.”

 

“Did you talk to the bartender?”

 

“Briefly. I believe you owe more of your life to him than to me.”

 

“Yeah? I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

He wanted to ask more: if Christophe had mentioned anything about a man who’d been following him, or if any of the staff had noticed one other person in the kitchen who wasn’t supposed to be there, if only briefly. He needed to know for sure who had been in that alley with him, because if his hazy recollection was right, then he needed to tell Yakov as soon as humanly possible.

 

But if he asked, Yuuri would only come up with even more questions… and he didn’t really want that, at least not now. Maybe tomorrow, then. Or maybe he would just ask Christophe directly, whenever they could next see each other; hopefully, it wouldn’t be too long.

 

“Viktor?” Yuuri’s voice cut into his thoughts, and he jerked. He’d been drifting off. “How’s the pain?”

 

“Bearable,” he mumbled.

 

“Bearable is good.” Yuuri stopped stroking his hair long enough to reach down, and pull the blankets up to Viktor’s shoulders. “Sleep it off, you’ll feel better in the morning.”

 

“Hmmm.” Viktor stretched out on the bed, feeling extremely relaxed. Exhaustion did wonders to curtail his inhibitions, so much that it was better than alcohol in that regard, he’d come to find. Before he knew it, he could already hear himself asking, “Say, am I in your bed?”

 

Yuuri busied himself fussing with the pillows under Viktor’s head. “Warm enough? Tell me if you want another blanket.”

 

Viktor shook his head. He shifted until he was lying on his side, pulling the blanket up to his face, and burying his face in the pillow. He took a deep breath and smiled. “Smells like Yuuri.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yuuri stared at him for a few seconds, stunned. Viktor had to wonder if he was just imagining the slight flush on Yuuri’s cheeks; it was rather warm in here, now that he thought about it.

 

“This is your house, isn’t it?”

 

If Yuuri had wanted to deny that, for whatever reason, he must have decided it wasn’t worth it in the end, when he finally gave in with a sigh. “Does that bother you?”

 

“Why would that bother me?” On the contrary, he was already dying of curiosity, and planned to explore as much of this place as he could, the moment he was no longer confined to this bed.

 

“Let me know if you would rather I sleep elsewhere tonight.” At Viktor’s confused look, he glanced away and murmured, “I just want you to be comfortable.”

 

Ah, fuck. Of course. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, and really meant it. “The other night, that was… it wasn’t personal, I promise. I just - I don’t usually care for morning-afters. I never know what to say, and I’ve had some experiences in the past… well, let’s just say I don’t want to set expectations.” He grimaced, not daring to meet Yuuri’s eyes. Was he babbling? It sure felt like it. “I hope I didn’t upset you?”

 

Yuuri let out a little laugh. Leaning over, his lips ghosted and lingered over Viktor’s brow before he pressed the lightest of kisses on his forehead. “I’m teasing. Go to sleep.”

 

 


 

 

Viktor didn’t actually register falling asleep that night. All he knew was that, some unknowable amount of time later, he woke up to the mattress dipping slightly from a weight on the other side of the bed. The bedside lamp clicked shut, flooding the room into darkness. Arms reached over to pull the blanket up to his neck, before coming to wrap around him from behind.

 

He could have said something. But the words wouldn’t come, and Viktor found that he was more than satisfied with this arrangement. He let Yuuri hold him, and surrendered to the warmth of his embrace.

 

 


 

 

“Bit young to be a detective, aren’t you?”

 

Viktor drifted awake to sunlight, an empty bed, and no trace whatsoever of the headache that had plagued him last night, which was a pleasant surprise. The bedroom door had been left ajar; either the main entrance or the living room must not have been too far off from the stairs, if he had to guess, because he could clearly make out the voices coming from below.

 

“Last time I checked, there wasn’t an age limit. And why the hell does that even matter? For the millionth fucking time, where is he?”

 

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

 

“Don’t fucking lie to me, we spoke last night!”

 

“Was that you? You sounded older on the phone…”

 

Viktor frowned. He recognized both of those voices - what on earth was Yuri doing here?

 

“…Look, if you’re not a cop, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

 

“What the fuck have you done to him?” There was a sudden, loud bang, before Yuri started to yell. “Viktor?! VIktor!!”

 

Viktor had made it halfway down the stairs before he was treated to the sight of the hell cat that was Yuri Plisetsky, already so angry so early in the morning. It took all of three seconds before he was spotted, because the creaky treads in Yuuri’s house keep no secrets.

 

In any case, a temporary truce ended up being called in haste, if only because both Yuuri and Yuri redirected their violence towards yelling at him to get back to bed.

 

“I’m not leaving until I’m absolutely convinced that he’s no longer dying,” Yuri declared. He dragged over one of the chairs from the sitting area, pulled it right up to the side of the bed, and threw himself into it as though to prove some kind of point.

 

“Do as you like,” Yuuri said with a sigh. The set of his mouth and the furrow between his brows belied the irritation he tried, and failed, to hide. “It’s not like you’ll listen to me if I object either way, might as well ask you to keep an eye on him while I make some coffee. Do you…” He trailed off, and gave the younger detective a bland look. “Are you even old enough to drink coffee?”

 

Yuri snarled, and yelled out a disjointed series of less-than-polite retorts, half of which were in Russian, none of which were dignified with a response.

 

“Be nice to him, Yura,” Viktor implored, once he was sure that Yuuri was out of earshot. “It’s poor form to be rude to people in their own homes. I already feel bad about causing him all this trouble.”

 

“That’s your doctor?” Yuri snorted. “I don’t trust him. There’s something sketchy about him.”

 

“You think there’s something sketchy about every new person you meet.”

 

“What kind of doctor sends his patient a fuckton of flowers, anyway?” Green eyes flashed when Viktor regarded him with surprise. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about that. You still haven’t explained what the hell that was all about.”

 

Viktor laughed and hand-waved a lie, something about Japanese customs that he knew Yuri wouldn’t buy. True to form, Yuri didn’t, and he made that very clear. But it wasn’t as though he would know any better.  

 

“I brought your dog back to my place. Yes, yes, you’re welcome,” he stressed, before Viktor could launch into a spiel of how much of a lifesaver he was. “Those flowers on the table, were they from him?”

 

“I won’t say that they weren’t,” Viktor not-answered. “More importantly, how were you able to find this place, anyway?”

 

“I got his name from Yakov.” Which automatically meant that Yakov knew, shit. Then again, Yakov would have been bound to find out sooner or later anyway. “Took a chance and went to the police station to see if his address was on file anywhere.”

 

“And it was?”

 

“Sure was.” Yuri had draped the upper half of his body over the arm of the chair, fiddling with first the bottom, then the top drawer of the bedside table. Both were locked. “Fished his address out of a witness statement he gave last year.”

 

Viktor frowned. “What was the incident?”

 

“Some kind of fight outside a restaurant, I think? It was in Chinatown. I didn’t really read most of it, to be honest.”

 

“I see.” Viktor chewed on his bottom lip, weighing the question there. Eventually, he decided to hell with it. “Could I ask you where we are, then?”

 

“He didn’t tell you?” Yuri straightened himself up, returning to a somewhat respectable sitting position, and muttered something under his breath that sounded a lot like ‘sketchy’. “We’re in Brooklyn - the fancy, rich part of it too. I take it he must’ve driven you in the Phantom parked out front? I wonder if it’s too late to switch career paths…”

 

Viktor had no idea.

 

When Yuri grilled him to find out what, if anything, he did know, Viktor just told him upfront that he was going to be disappointed. A woman he couldn’t name had tripped in the middle of the bar, and in the time he’d spent helping her up, someone had spiked his drink. He still didn’t know what the poison was - neither did Yuuri, for that matter, which probably explained why he was watching over Viktor like a hawk. He didn’t even know for sure if that woman had been involved, though he sure as hell found it difficult not to at least suspect her.

 

There was only one thing, in the end, that he was halfway sure of. Yuri frowned when Viktor laid out what he could recall from the man who’d followed him into the alley, and cut in before Viktor could tell him to watch his back. “No, that’s not possible.”

 

Viktor sighed. “I know, you’re very fond of him. Hell, I was too. But people surprise us sometimes.”

 

“No, I mean it’s not fucking possible, because he was at the Agency with me when Dr. Katsuki called.”

 

He didn’t know what it was that made it take so long for those words to settle in his mind. “…What?”

 

He’d been so sure. But Yuri was insistent, and Viktor couldn’t get a read from him that pointed to him being anything but truthful. He didn’t know how to feel about that.

 

Yuri didn’t end up staying for very long; he’d promised to be home for dinner, and there was so much work to do. Viktor’s near-death experience at the bar had been awful, but he figured that it was also a clue in and of itself. A newspaper story came out claiming that he was investigating the Triad in Karpisek’s murder, and an attempt was made on his life that very same day? If nothing else, Yuri reasoned, it must have meant that Viktor was on the right track.

 

And he wanted in. “If Yakov will let you,” Viktor said warily, “then I don’t have any problem with it. But I hope you know what you’re getting into.”

 

“Of course, old man. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t. Besides, it’s the least you can do for how many times I’ve looked after your dog.”

 

It was refreshing, for a debt to have been paid so easily for once. Still, as Yuri walked out the door with a huge smile on his face and a spring in his stride, Viktor tried to fight down the feeling that he might have just signed his own death warrant.

 

 


 

 

Yuri lingered for awhile at the foot of the stairs. Viktor knew this because he could hear him talking to Yuuri, and while he couldn’t make out what they were saying, the softer, calmer tones hopefully meant that they were no longer trading barbs.

 

He knew better than to squander away an opportunity when he saw one. In all honesty a part of him did enjoy this arrangement, now that the worst had passed - he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt this rested, and having Yuuri come in and dote on him, wrapping him in blankets and bringing him food in bed had been a surprisingly… pleasant experience. But the relative peace he’d enjoyed had shifted into an oppressive boredom as of this morning, especially now that he was no longer tired. He was starting to get restless.

 

Yuri would probably leave soon, and Yuuri would probably head back upstairs after that. Did he even have enough time?

 

It was worth the risk either way. Kicking off the covers, he disobeyed Yuuri’s repeated orders to stay in bed, and got up to explore a bit.

 

He didn’t dare to go downstairs, and in fact kept as far away from the stairs as possible. He could hear their voices more clearly now - Yuri was asking when he could expect Viktor to go back to work, and Yuuri was giving him polite, but vague non-answers. Viktor lost interest in that conversation almost immediately, and set out to see what else was on this floor.

 

He wasn’t surprised at how fancy this house was; Yuri had told him to expect as much, and it was all very consistent with every other facet of Yuuri’s life that he’d been privileged to get glimpses of so far. A pair of bay windows in the hallway showed him a view of the neighborhood’s tree-lined streets, pristine sidewalks, and neat row houses in red and white brick. Yuuri’s house was probably the same from the outside, if he had to guess. He would have to wait to find out if he was right.

 

It was all kinds of lovely from the inside, though, and absolutely massive - two additional guest rooms, and a private library, lay behind each of the doors south of Yuuri’s room. Each of the rooms shared the same quiet, elegant air that reminded Viktor somewhat of his office at the clinic: dignified, nothing too flashy or exotic, forgiving on the eyes in a timeless sort of way.

 

The same could be said of Yuuri himself, he supposed.

 

In the end, there was one room that he found to be a bit peculiar. Opposite Yuuri’s bedroom, it was surprisingly smaller than the rest - meant to be maid’s quarters, perhaps? He certainly assumed as much, at least until he opened the door.

 

The paint in here looked older than the rest of the house. The curtains, covered in a thin layer of dust, were heavy and completely opaque, weighted down to block out all of the sunlight. There was no bed; the main focus of the room was a large cabinet pushed up against the East-facing wall. An icon of a flower that looked like it might have been a lily was etched into both of the doors, the carving so elaborate that he almost missed the keyhole.

 

Of course - it was locked.

 

The rest of this room didn’t have much to write home about. A suitcase had been placed against the wall, right beside the door - he might’ve tripped on the blasted thing right as he’d entered, if he hadn’t been paying attention. A map of New York on a numbered grid, printed in 1921, spread across the wall opposite the cabinet. Between them, there was a swivel chair and a secretary desk, both in matching oak.

 

Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the desk had been customized: a combination lock had been built right into the hinged piece of wood, demanding twelve digits to unlock. What overkill. Some characters - Japanese, if he had to guess - had been carved into the wood underneath it:

 

太陽を追いなさい

 

Was it something to do with Yuuri’s name, perhaps? How interesting. Curious, he took out his notebook from his trousers pocket, found an empty page, and painstakingly copied the characters down. There wasn’t any point in bringing it up now, but maybe it could be a conversation for another time.

 

He had just over a third of the way to go when he heard Yuri bidding their host goodbye, and a shout directed to the stairs that he ‘better not die, old man!’ He scribbled down the last few characters in a hurry and headed back to Yuuri’s bedroom, careful to pull the door shut behind him just as he made out the faint sound of footsteps, coming up the stairs.

 

By the time Yuuri walked in, he was already comfortably back in bed, snuggled under the covers.

 

“Hey.” Yuuri came bearing water and a smile. “How are we doing?”

 

“Bored,” Viktor said without thinking. He winced when he realized how that had come out. “Ah, not to be ungrateful, but… how much longer am I going to be cooped up in bed? I feel like I might actually go insane.”

 

“No, you won’t.” Yuuri chuckled. “I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped. There have been precedents of poisoning cases in which the victims seemed to recover, and then suddenly deteriorated. I just want to make sure you’re really stable.”

 

Viktor wasn’t sure if he believed that, but he didn’t know nearly enough about past poisoning cases to challenge it. He sighed. “How much longer?”

 

“Another day? Two, at the most?”

 

Viktor grumbled through the water Yuuri had brought him. It wasn’t as though he didn’t enjoy spending time with Yuuri outside of the clinic - hell, all of these moments were more than welcome as far as he was concerned. But every minute he spent here was a minute wasted if it got him no closer to finding out who’d tried to kill him. If the killer really had wanted him dead to stop his investigation, then everyone at the agency was in danger.

 

“Look, I’m really sorry.” Yuuri took the empty glass from him and set it on the table. He combed the fingers of his free hand through Viktor’s hair. “I wish there was more I could do.”

 

Viktor snatched up his hand and tugged, until Yuuri was forced to sit at the edge of the bed. “You could keep me company.” He noticed, for not the first time, that Yuuri’s hands were so smooth. Were these the ideal for a surgeon’s hands, he wondered, or just a natural consequence of having enough money to eschew all kinds of manual labor? “Entertain me?”

 

Yuuri raised an eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?”

 

There were quite a few things that came to mind now that he’d asked. Perhaps the boredom really was driving him mad, Viktor thought as he pressed feather-light kisses on Yuuri’s wrist, and dragged his lips over Yuuri’s pulse.

 

“Viktor,” Yuuri hissed, after a noticeable delay, “you need to rest.”

 

Viktor ignored him, spurred by Yuuri’s response, and fully gave into the madness. Pulling Yuuri’s hand closer to his face, he splayed out the fingers and flicked the tip of his tongue over the webs of skin between the digits, slowly, one at a time. He stared up at Yuuri through his eyelashes, challenging him. Do I look like a man who’s dying?

 

Yuuri swore. His throat jerked when he swallowed. “You are impossible.

 

In the end, maybe he had only himself to blame, when he very soon found himself quite effortlessly pinned to the bed, with his mouth full of Yuuri and his head trapped between sinewy thighs. Yuuri’s shins and arms, braced against the mattress, supported most of his weight, because he was so good to Viktor like that. Every so often, though - when he would get distracted, usually, and a quiver in the muscles of his legs would give him away - he almost seemed to forget, and Viktor would feel the warm, warm weight of him settling onto his chest. Those moments never lasted for very long, but whenever they came, it was just a bit harder to breathe.

 

It was fine. It was hard, so hard to care, when he was engulfed in heat and musk, and Yuuri’s cock in his mouth made any protest nigh impossible anyway. Viktor’s tongue drew out the most salacious sounds from Yuuri’s throat, and it was well worth the momentary tightness in his chest, the heady fog that traveled slow and settled in his head.

 

Viktor wasn’t made of stone, though, and a rush of air when Yuuri leaned forward brought with it a surge of something else. Slowly, he reached down to touch himself, but Yuuri leaned back and grabbed his wrists at the last second, bringing them back up and pinning them against the mattress on either side of his head.

 

Viktor whimpered around him in protest. Yuuri hissed, and lost himself all over Viktor’s face.

 

“Oh God - I’m so sorry - ”

 

Viktor laughed. He let his eyes slide shut as Yuuri’s weight lifted off of his chest and arms for good.

 

Yuuri was gone for what felt like a single breath, before all of a sudden he was back, holding a soft towel he’d wrung under warm water. As he gently started cleaning up, Viktor decided to help him out by licking his lips.

 

“I should have warned you.” The tips of Yuuri’s ears looked as though they were on fire. “Again, I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be,” Viktor murmured. “I was asking for it.”

 

Yuuri opened his mouth to say something to that, but changed his mind at the last second. Shaking his head, he tilted Viktor’s face towards the light, and got to work.

 

Seconds ticked by, and turned into minutes. Viktor’s eyes swept over his face. Like this, up close, Yuuri reminded him so much of how he’d looked when Viktor had first seen him step into Casa Roja on Christmas Eve. Something elegant lived in the spaces between his brows, in his eyes like spilled wine. It was in the smooth way Viktor’s name left his lips, half of the last syllable lingering at the end of it like an invitation. It was in the expanse of skin that Viktor had yet to survey for himself, or even really see.  

 

“You need to have a word,” Yuuri said, finally breaking the silence. He’d spent all that time cleaning the last traces of himself off of Viktor’s skin, deep in thought. “Either a single word or a short phrase, that you are to say whenever you feel that you want to stop.”

 

Viktor let his hand wander down Yuuri’s side, lingering over his hip. Stopping was the furthest thing from his mind, especially when he’d as yet been left… hanging. “Why would I ever want to stop?”

 

“It’s just a precaution. Think of it like a fuse, or a failsafe. Just in case this goes too far.” Yuuri took his hand and laced their fingers together. He brought their hands up to the light, and studied them with a look that Viktor couldn’t quite read. “In case I go too far.”

 

Viktor tugged, brought their hands to his face, and turned them over so that he could press idle kisses against each of Yuuri’s knuckles, in turn. “I’m curious, is this something you require from everyone you sleep with?”

 

“You are a potent test of my self-control. Sometimes I just want to…” Yuuri trailed off, and shook his head. He pulled his hand back. “Never mind. Have you decided?”

 

Another sidestepped question. Viktor made a note to remember to ask about it again in the future… but hell, who was he kidding? Given his recent track record, he’d have forgotten about it by the end of the hour. “What if I never end up saying this word?”

 

“Then I’ll trust that you’re present, and willing, and conscious that what we do here should have no bearing on your therapy.” Yuuri, seemingly unable to resist touching him, reached over and pushed away the hair that had fallen in front of his eye. “I’m afraid it’s far too late for proper boundaries at this point.”

 

“You say that like it’s the end of the world.”

 

“I propose ‘Chambers Street’. What do you say?”

 

It was shocking, how visceral of a reaction those two words were able to provoke in him. Two words, dropped on him without warning through Yuuri’s soft, almost delicate voice, and he was back where it had all gone to hell. He could feel the marble floor, cold against his cheek, and a phantom pain in his leg that reminded him more of a burn than what it had actually been. Even before the blast, he could hear the screams. He could smell the smoke.

 

Maybe that had been the point all along. “I say that you might be thinking too highly of yourself,” Viktor ground out through his teeth, under a sickeningly sweet smile. “Doctor.”

 

Yuuri smirked. “Then it sounds like it will serve its purpose perfectly.”

 

He returned the favor with his hand, not as gentle as last time - not treating Viktor like glass anymore, thank God for that - but with a slowness that seemed conscious and, if the look on Yuuri’s face was anything to go by, deliberate. He’d pressed himself up against Viktor’s side and used his other hand to keep both of Viktor’s wrists restrained, against the mattress next to his hip. Viktor found that he didn’t mind that nearly as much as he’d imagined he would.

 

Yuuri started out with kisses, dropped like little notes on his chest, his shoulder, the underside of his jaw. But all too soon, they stopped, just as Viktor had started to feel something building. He forced open his eyes, and found Yuuri staring keenly at his face.

 

“S-Stop it,” Viktor forced out through gritted teeth.

 

Yuuri didn’t even bat an eyelid. “You know your safe word.”

 

“No, I mean…” A sweep of Yuuri’s thumb derailed him, and his hips snapped up without his permission. “Stop staring.

 

Yuuri’s gaze set a thousand tiny fires across his skin. “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he murmured, a guttural sound that left a gasp perched on the edge of Viktor’s throat. “You make it impossible to look away.”

 

Viktor groaned. With a sharp tug, he managed to pull his arms free. Reaching out, he grasped the back of Yuuri’s head and crushed their lips together in an act of desperation. When you’re kissing someone, it’s impolite to stare.

 

  

 

 

 

 

Yet Yuuri did just that. His eyes never left Viktor’s face for a moment, all throughout the kiss, until Viktor finally broke it to suck in air. And even then, he kept watching, his eyes surrendering nothing when Viktor gave up and tore his gaze away. His hips bucked up against the mattress, and a cacophony of humiliating noises slipped out from between his lips, but Yuuri watched him the whole time.

 

He watched all the way to the end.

 

Viktor waited for the ceiling to come into focus, which happened much more slowly than it should have - it took a lot out of him, to be able to think of anything else but Yuuri’s tongue running over his thighs, his hips. “You should, uh… you should have one, too.”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

“A word.” Viktor licked his lips, trying to taste the last remnants of Yuuri there. “If you want to stop.”

 

“I told you before, you don’t have to worry about me. I believe I said I’d ravish you senseless if I could.”

 

“And I’ll hold you to that. But, humor me anyway?”

 

Yuuri sighed. “It is so astonishingly difficult to deny you anything.” He didn’t sound too frustrated about that, though. “Then, I suppose my safe word will be ‘Woodside’.”

 

Woodside? Viktor frowned. That was the name of a neighborhood in Queens - he didn’t know all that much about it, but he’d found himself in the area a few times in the past, back when he’d still been a cop. He tried to remember what he’d seen there: apartment buildings, warehouses, a couple of big churches, and breweries that had been shuttered for Prohibition. What history did Yuuri have with that place? Or had his choice not even about that neighborhood at all, and was Yuuri referring to something else altogether? “Woodside, huh.”

 

“Don’t overthink it,” Yuuri kissed him deeply, until his thoughts frayed and melted away. He was smiling when he pulled back. “Stay put, I’ll bring you dinner.”

 

 


 

 

Viktor left Yuuri’s house on Sunday morning, and the very first thing he did with his newfound freedom was pick Makkachin up from Yuri’s apartment. After that, he spent the entire morning, and then some, spoiling her in the park.

 

He decided to hit up Casa Roja that night, even though he usually spent his Sundays at home, drinking whatever was the strongest liquor he had left in his apartment while dreading the week to come. Indeed, he was anticipating a lot of late nights over this coming week, and maybe even for the rest of the month. He had to make up for lost time.

 

Still, he talked himself into paying a visit in the end, because Christophe had saved him after all. There were thanks to be given. That, and if he was lucky, maybe nobody would be in the alley tonight, and he could scour the area for any clues the man might have left behind.

 

He’d scarcely turned onto 28th street when he spotted someone patrolling it, wearing the familiar uniform of New York’s Finest. Damn. Had someone beaten him to it?

 

When Casa Roja finally came into view, the building’s interior was completely dark. A whole section of 28th street had been surrounded by cars, blocking the intersections with their lights on. The speakeasy - and, in turn, the barber shop - had been cordoned off of the sidewalk by red ropes.

 

No.

 

Oh, no.

 

Viktor desperately fought down all thoughts of the worst as he tried to come up with his way in. He finally found a young-looking cop who’d been reinforcing the cordon, and looked as thought he wouldn’t recognize him. “Viktor Nikiforov from the Feltsman Detective Agency,” he said, introducing himself with his business card. He then proceeded to lie through his teeth when he added, “We’ve been asked to consult on this case.”

 

The cop looked surprised. “Uh, sorry, but… by whom, exactly?”

 

“Well I would hope it’s by the New York City Police Department, because otherwise I’d be wasting my time here, wouldn’t I?” Before the cop could speak again, he asked, “Could you be so kind as to let me in?”

 

“Ah… about that, I’d have to call my boss - ”

 

“You could do that,” he cut in with a sigh, “and we could end up waiting anywhere between three minutes and three hours, depending on whether or not your boss picks up his phone at this hour, all for him to simply repeat what I’ve just told you. Either way, you’ll have ruined his dinner, or God forbid interrupted his quiet time with the wife, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be you in the morning.” Viktor inspected his gloves with a nonchalance made to seem very close to boredom. “Or, you can let me pass, and I can take a look at the scene, and if we’re really lucky, you and I both can be home before midnight. It’s your choice.”

 

It didn’t take very long for the cop to make his choice. Luckily, it was the choice he knew they’d both wanted. Viktor thanked him with a charming smile, then promptly ducked under the ropes and entered the crime scene.

 

There was nothing of note to be found in front of the bar, but that wasn’t where most of the cops had stationed themselves. He slipped around a corner to the side of the building - the one that faced the alley - and stopped cold.

 

A pool of blood had collected on the pavement near the side entrance, and flecks of red had traced a small arc onto the door itself. He didn’t need to think to find the source; most of the pool of blood was eclipsed by the body lying on the ground, which someone had covered with a sheet.

 

It couldn’t be.

 

No.

 

The cops who’d been milling about in the alley before him paid him no heed, likely thinking nothing of his presence now that he’d made it past the cordon. They moved around him, placing down evidence cards, taking notes. He waited for someone to call him out, but nobody did. And nobody stopped him as he crouched down beside the body.

 

There was only one way to know for sure, and he had to know.

 

He steeled himself for a moment, took a deep breath, and then reached out to touch the sheet.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

Fuck. Of course he would run into Otabek, of all people, here at the crime scene. “Following up on an attempted homicide that happened here last Tuesday,” he lied.

 

“I don’t tend to see a lot of cases being investigated by their victims.” At Viktor’s despairing look, he backtracked a little. “Yuri told me.”

 

“Told you what, exactly?”

 

“Enough. Nothing more.” Otabek nodded at the body. “You should walk away. Yours was an ‘attempted’ homicide; this one was successful.”

 

Like hell. “When did it happen?”

 

“We’re still trying to figure that out. We’ve got a street sweeper who passed through here at around three, so it had to have been after that. But we’ve got two dozen witnesses from the area who swear they didn’t hear or see anything.”

 

“Cause of death?”

 

“Multiple stab wounds. Which I’m only telling you in the hopes that it’ll give you enough incentive to leave.”

 

Viktor was only barely listening. His eyes swept over the crime scene in short, random bursts: an overturned trash bin there, two empty ones closer to the door; dozens upon dozens of cigarette butts on the pavement, because some people had taken it upon themselves to ensure that the loathing this city felt for her subjects was mutual. He couldn’t concentrate. There was so much blood. “Have you identified the victim?”

 

He could feel Otabek’s eyes on him for a long time. “If I answer that, will you walk away?”

 

“You have.” He let out a short, hollow laugh that sounded foreign to his own ears. “Because you were already keeping tabs on him, weren't you?”

 

Because there was no other explanation. The site of the murder, the shape of the body under the sheet… the fact that the bar wasn’t even open yet… The conclusion was a clean one, and it left no room for doubt.

 

For the first time in his life, Viktor wished it could have been otherwise.

 

He didn’t even need to pull off the sheet. He still did it in the end, despite Otabek’s protests, useless words about processing the crime scene and contaminating the evidence. Didn’t he already know? None of it fucking mattered, because anyone with the gall to stab someone to death in a capillary between two major streets, before sundown, surely wanted this body to be found.

 

Well, he’d been found all right.

 

Christophe had died with his eyes open. One more thing to lament.

 

“You know him, don’t you?” Something on his face must have given him away, despite his best efforts. “Viktor, you really shouldn’t be here.”

 

He couldn’t look away. Images of murder victims, too many to count, too many for a lifetime, had been burned into his head from cases in the past, and some of the deaths had been more brutal than this. And yet, this was the first one that had shaken him to the point that he couldn’t even move. “Did you find the murder weapon?”

 

“No. But we’ll find it soon.”

 

Viktor shook his head. If, by some miracle, they did find it, he wondered if it would look familiar - if it would have been one he’d already seen before, in the hand of that man who’d chased him to the phone booth. “He helped me, you know? He might have saved my life that night.”

 

“Viktor, are you seriously thinking - ”

 

“I don’t know what I’m thinking,” he cut in. Maybe he wasn’t really thinking at all.

 

Otabek was right to look doubtful. There were probably a thousand and one other, equally valid explanations for this. A competitor in the industry. A fanatical Prohibition advocate. Hell, a jilted lover even. There was no reason to believe this had anything to do with Tuesday night at all, and no evidence that suggested this was anything but a single, isolated case.

 

Nothing, save for the burning in his eyes, and a weight in the pit of his stomach that grew heavier with every second.

 

“Viktor? Come on, you need to go. I’ll call you a cab.”

 

“Just a minute, I…” He needed to stay. He needed to find something here, anything. He needed to help the cops, he needed to be fucking useful for once in his goddamn life, because Christophe was dead and all he’d done so far was stare at him and struggle to breathe. “I need to…”

 

Otabek placed a hand on his shoulder. “Viktor - ”

 

“Get away from me!!”

 

It was always easy to forget that what he thought of as quiet always came coated in a layer of background noise. When he tore himself away from Otabek, jumped to his feet and staggered a few steps back, the cops in the alley all stopped what they were doing, and looked up to stare at them both. In that moment, Viktor remembered what true silence was like.

 

“Viktor,” Otabek started, raising his hands, “it wasn’t me. I swear on my life. The man who tried to kill you… while he was chasing you here, I was at your office. On the other side of town.”

 

He’d heard this before. It made sense, but why couldn’t he will the uneasiness away? He’d been so damn sure.

 

“Yuri would tell you. And I can come up with at least half a dozen witnesses who can corroborate that.”

 

And Viktor would take him up on that offer, if only for his own peace of mind. But not today. “I’m sorry,” he finally said.

 

Otabek barked some orders for his men to quit gawking and get back to work. “Go home,” he told Viktor. “And I’m sorry too.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Your friend.” Otabek glanced around, making sure no-one was eavesdropping before continuing in a low voice. “For the record, my team’s known about Casa Roja since last year. I never picked him up because, well, he was one of the good ones. For what it’s worth… I’m truly sorry that this happened to him.”

 

It was probably worth something, but it sure as hell didn’t make him feel better. Nor could it help Christophe now. “Will you let me know? If you catch the person who did this?”

 

When we catch them. Have a little faith.”

 

But faith was a commodity that had always been in short supply for him, even as a child. Now, as he stumbled out of that alley and past the cordon, walking aimlessly through the streets with only muscle memory to guide him home, he thought he could start to see the bottom of the barrel.

 

Despite the many possible explanations, there was really only one that felt right in his mind. The evidence would come later, but he was confident that it would; all he had to do was find it. And by then the conclusion would not have changed, and Christophe’s blood would have still been partly on his hands.

 

It was hard not to think of all the things he could have done, might have done to avoid this. He could have left that bar without asking for one last drink. He could have skipped the bar altogether that night, or otherwise he could have not been so fucking stupid and fallen for that trap to begin with. Most importantly, he could have had Leo muzzled earlier, before it had gotten this bad. He could have told Yakov, right when he’d first blackmailed Viktor about leaking that story about him being in therapy. He could have gone to that same fixer that he’d contacted two years ago - he knew full well what they said about desperate measures, but the desperate times were here and now.

 

Because that really was his biggest problem, and there was no way to fix it. The city knew his name now, and he would have to walk her streets with a target on his back, until he solved this case, solved Christophe’s murder along with it, or die trying.

 

Viktor glanced thrice over his shoulder as he walked through every door leading up to his apartment. The whole time he took Makkachin out for one last time that night, his eyes burned with unshed tears, and his skin prickled as he tried to shake off the feeling that he was being watched. He wedged the back of a chair under the doorknob within seconds of returning home, because the puny lock he had there now wasn’t enough; tomorrow, he decided, he’d install a proper deadbolt lock. Maybe two. Hell, maybe more.

 

“If they come here… if they come for me,” he said to a sleepy Makkachin, whom he’d coaxed into the bed with him for tonight, “do me a favor, and don’t go being a hero, okay?” He stroked her ears with as much fondness as his shaking hands could muster. “You have to survive this. I love you so much…”

 

He only managed to drift off at past three in the morning, after having grabbed his gun and shoved it under his pillow.

 

 


 

 

By the time Wednesday rolled around again, Viktor’s mind was still swimming in thoughts of the Triad, and Christophe, and how a series of poor choices and circumstances, and one reporter’s unchecked ambition, had led him to this. The threats would just keep escalating until this investigation was over, he knew. And while he finally had some solid leads, and something of a suspect pool, that had only been the beginning. Now came the hard part.

 

Yakov, by the power vested in him, et cetera, had given Viktor his blessing to keep investigating the Triad. He’d also agreed to let him make use of Yuri’s assistance full-time, at least for this investigation. The Karpisek murder was the Feltsman Detective Agency’s most high-profile case since its inception. People were watching. People were talking.

 

Viktor was so deeply immersed in his thoughts that when the freezing rain hit, just as he’d crossed Canal Street, he didn’t even notice until he was already soaked. Even then, he just kept on walking through it.

 

He found the clinic shrouded in darkness, which immediately set the alarms blaring in his brain. The fact that there were no cops in the area, and no cordon to section off a crime scene, placated him somewhat. But not enough to stop him from reaching into his jacket and letting his hand hover around the holster of his gun.

 

The front door was open. Letting himself inside, he spied a single, faint light that had been left on near the reception area, which sat empty. Nobody was in the waiting room, either.

 

What the hell?

 

There was more light coming from the hallway - from Yuuri’s office, whose door had been left ajar. Viktor walked over, tracking water in his wake, passing by the door to Dr. Leroy’s darkened, empty office.

 

He didn’t even end up having to knock; his shoes, soaked from the rain and the slush, announced his arrival for him. “Viktor?” Yuuri jumped to his feet when he saw him. “God, what happened to you?”

 

Oh… shit. He was dripping all over Dr. Katsuki’s fine, fancy office carpet. Shit. “Sorry,” he mumbled. Glancing back into the hallway, he couldn’t help but feel as though he’d missed something. “Where is everyone?”

 

Yuuri had bent down and was now out of sight, seemingly fussing with something underneath his desk. “I sent the receptionist home to beat the storm - the one that got you, from the looks of it. You’re my last patient for the day.”

 

“Oh.” So those weather predictions were sometimes good for something after all. He felt somewhat bad for having kept Yuuri here now. “What about Dr. Leroy?”

 

“Dr. Leroy is on leave at the moment.”

 

“For how long?”

 

The answer was punctuated by the sound of something slamming shut. “Indefinitely.”

 

Yuuri emerged from under his desk dragging out a suitcase - one that looked very similar to the suitcase Viktor had found in the strange room with the locked secretary desk at Yuuri’s house. Was this the same one? No, after a second glance, this one looked… smaller. He thought so, anyway. He wasn’t sure, but he was completely distracted trying to figure it out, and barely caught the towel Yuuri had tossed his way before it hit him in the face.

 

“Thanks.” He unrolled the towel and started drying off his hair. “And I’m sorry about this. I… don’t really have an excuse.”

 

“Yes, well, we’ll talk more about that in a while.” Yuuri waited until he was done before taking the towel back, and trading it for a pressed white dress shirt. “This probably won’t fit you, but try it on anyway? It beats staying in your wet clothes.”

 

Viktor stared at the shirt in his hands. “Um.”

 

“Come on.” Yuuri stepped forward and took the liberty of unbuckling the belt around Viktor’s coat. “You’ll freeze in these.”

 

Yuuri was already working on the buttons of his waistcoat before Viktor stopped being distracted by him, his face so close and painted by firelight and shadows. He finally started to help, but his fingers felt numb and kept slipping from the buttons, shaking too much.

 

Huh. Maybe he was cold.

 

“Right… thank you. And sorry,” he said again. “I’m causing you so much trouble.”

 

“You’re doing no such thing.” Yuuri motioned for him to get closer to the fireplace, and made his own way over to a curio beside the door, near the bookshelves. “Take your time, and we’ll start whenever you’re ready.”

 

Viktor turned around to face the fireplace, which was pointless - it wasn’t as though Yuuri hadn’t already seen him naked before. Perhaps he was still trying to keep that distance between them, as doctor and patient, at least within the four walls of his office. What was that he’d said about ‘proper boundaries’? Viktor could no longer recall.

 

The shirt, which had been tailored to fit Yuuri’s frame, just barely fit him around the waist, and there was no hope of closing any of the top three buttons. Still, he couldn’t complain too much; the material was soft, and unlike the rest of his clothes, dry. The way it shifted over his skin felt like a luxury he didn’t deserve, which was just about right for something from Dr. Katsuki’s wardrobe.

 

He wasn’t sure what hit him first: the soft bubbling sound, or the familiar, pleasant aroma he’d come to associate so intimately with it. “You made coffee?”

 

Yuuri smiled. “If you’ll recall, your agreement to enter therapy was initially predicated on us having coffee together. I’m simply honoring that promise now.”

 

“Hey, I’m not complaining.” He took one of the two steaming mugs off of Yuuri’s hands when he offered them. Up close, it smelled absolutely divine. “I need all I can get. Hell I’ll settle for a shot of caffeine straight to the heart.”

 

Yuuri studied his face. “You’ve been burning the midnight oil.”

 

“Yeah.” A pause. “Wait, was that a question or a statement?”

 

“An observation. I can see it in your eyes… and you’ve got a bit of a tremor in your hands.”

 

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he murmured into the rim of his mug. If he had to say it in a word, the coffee tasted rich - again, appropriate for the man who’d prepared it. The slightly fruity tones at the end of his first gulp were an interesting note. He’d have to ask Yuuri where he’d gotten this later, although he wasn’t confident he’d be able to afford it.

 

“I’d chastise you, if I didn’t live by those very same words myself.” Yuuri guided him towards the daybed near the fireplace, where they’d conducted their session - their last ‘good’ one - three weeks ago. “May I ask what’s behind your self-imposed sleepless nights?”

 

“Work.” He remained seated upright on the daybed, stretching out his legs and holding the mug in his hands. He took another sip. “And no, I’m not lying this time. I’ve been taking work home for the past couple of nights. Honestly, the only reason I haven’t been staying at the office round-the-clock is because of Makkachin.”

 

Yuuri thumbed open the lowermost button on his suit jacket before taking a seat at the overstuffed chair next to the daybed. He placed his own mug on the table, still full from the looks of it, and picked up his notebook. “Shall I put in a word to Mr. Feltsman about the importance of rest to a productive worker?”

 

“Oh, it’s not Yakov who’s pushing me to this.”

 

Yuuri gave him a meaningful stare. But Viktor had caught onto that little tactic of his by now, and it wasn’t going to work today. Ask me a question, or don’t. He drank some more coffee while waiting; it was so comfortably warm, and he found that he was starting to like the curious, almost citrusy notes.

 

“Why are you working yourself to a breaking point, Viktor?”

 

There it was. Viktor sighed, reaching over to place his half-full cup onto the table, next to Yuuri’s. He lay back with his hands linked behind his head, staring at the ceiling, weighing and choosing his words.

 

Screw it, he decided in the end. Sugar-coated proclamations had never helped anyone. “Someone died because of my investigation.”

 

Yuuri took a moment to process that. “A colleague?”

 

“No. A witness - ” No, that wasn’t right either. What had Christophe been to this case, really, at the end of the day? “A bystander. Innocent.”

 

“Were you present when they died?”

 

“I was present for the aftermath.”

 

“How do you know the death had anything to do with you, then?”

 

“No, there’s no doubting this. I know.” And yet, just like with Otabek, he had no proof of this whatsoever. But he still felt that certainty so keenly that he knew it was only a matter of time until he got the proof that he needed. What was that? “He - he helped me when I needed it, and he paid the price for that.”

 

Yuuri nodded. He scribbled a few words into his notebook, paused for a moment, and said, “I am very sorry for your loss, Viktor.”

 

“Me too.” Viktor sighed and rubbed at his eyes. God, what time was it? He thought about finishing the coffee Yuuri had given him, but he’d left it just out of reach. He didn’t quite feel like exerting the effort right now.

 

“How are you feeling? Cold?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

Yuuri didn’t seem convinced. He got up and reached into a trunk next to the head of the daybed that Viktor had never seen before today - it had always been obscured by the daybed itself, especially when looking in from the door. He pulled out a blanket, draped it over Viktor, and returned to his seat without saying a word.

 

The blanket was warm, and soft, like an embrace from someone who’d been gone for decades. What was this even, chinchilla? As the warmth settled over him, a thought sprouted in his mind. “Have you slept in this bed?”

 

Yuuri was fussing with his notebook as he sat back down. “I don’t really see how that’s relevant to what we’re discussing here.”

 

“Right.” Viktor pulled the blanket up higher, until only his eyes were peeking out. He chuckled. “Smells like Yuuri.”

 

“This is unhealthy, you know.”

 

“What is?”

 

“The way you’re treating yourself. Forgoing ample sleep and, if I had to guess, proper eating as well… there is more to life than just your work.”

 

Viktor laughed. “That’s rich, coming from the man who sometimes sleeps in his office, and picks up his phone at ten o’clock.”

 

Yuuri pointedly ignored that. “I’m not convinced that you’ll know to stay on the right side of the line between dedication and obsession, Viktor.”

 

“If crossing it means that I can solve this case, then so be it.” He’d certainly gone far enough in the past, hadn’t he?

 

“Why?”

 

“Why what?”

 

“Why is solving this case so important to you? So much so that you would prioritize it over your own self-interest, and seemingly your own self-preservation?”

 

Viktor remembered, all of a sudden, a brief but professionally scathing assessment on letter paper that Yuuri had hand-delivered to Yakov’s office. Also: words spelling a secret arrangement that Yuuri had whispered that very same day, discourse on tragedies and accidents and what made a guilty man so ‘lucky’.

 

He recalled the words he might have said to Yuuri over the phone, when he’d thought for sure that he was dying. Oh, hell. Was today going to be his reckoning for that?

 

“I’ve gone over your case files.” Yuuri flipped back a few pages, to go over some notes he must have written before today’s session. “Of all of the detectives working at your agency, you are the only one who’s posted a 100% success rate. No false accusations, no cold cases.”

 

Viktor shrugged. “What can I say? I aim to please.”

 

“Indeed. But at what cost?”

 

“What is that supposed to mean?”

 

“Let me rephrase the question.” Yuuri turned another page, and cleared his throat. “Summer of ‘27, you were investigating a spree killer operating in Hell’s Kitchen. You decided to set up nightly surveillance in the area, alone, until the killer was caught. You did this without Mr. Feltsman’s approval - in fact, you specifically refrained from informing any of your colleagues until the case was closed.”

 

He didn’t really hear a question there. “Okay. And?”

 

“In April of the following year, you set out to confront the suspect in your new case, a known contract killer, at his place of residence the night before the operation you had planned with the rest of the Agency. You exchanged fire with him in the stairwell.”

 

“He shot first.” It was a knee-jerk response that had been waiting on a spring in his mind ever since the first time he’d been asked about that incident. “And in my defense, that operation was blown - he already knew about it, somehow. He would’ve skipped town before daybreak.”

 

“And what of the case of the Kips Bay Strangler?” Yuuri raised his head to look him in the eye. “Do you have an explanation for your conduct then?”

 

Ah. No, this was his reckoning. After all, that nonsense with the Strangler was what started this all, wasn’t it? A miscalculation, he’d insisted, and he was fine, he’d insisted. But nobody ever wanted to listen.

 

“No offense, but does this tedious trip down memory lane have a point, Doc?”

 

“I am simply trying to ascertain whether this recent pattern of behavior is bound to have a conclusion that will only end in regret,” Yuuri answered. “If I extrapolate from the data that I have, the endpoint I reach is quite worrisome. If I need to interfere to stop that from becoming reality, I will… unless you can give me a reason not to.”

 

Viktor recognized the play in the open, agreeable expression Yuuri wore on his face, the barest hint of a smile, the way he’d leaned forward ever so slightly to seek entry into Viktor’s space. Although there was an earnestness in his eyes that didn’t quite fit with the rest of how he was presenting himself. It was always so hard to tell, and it was something he had to keep re-evaluating every time Yuuri asked him a new question. Was this just for therapy, for Dr. Katsuki? Or was it really Yuuri who wanted to know? And if it was Yuuri, then… why, exactly? Was he just curious? Or was it something else?

 

Viktor went over the response in his head about a dozen times, careful to make sure he wouldn’t reveal too much with it. “I’m trying to solve another murder,” he finally said. “I can’t tell you much more than that, but it’s… a bit more high-profile than all of the other cases I’ve had.” That might have been the understatement of his lifetime. “It’s been an uphill battle so far.”

 

“How so?”

 

“The victim, he… he had a lot of enemies, and those people are now my enemies too. Suffice to say that there are a lot of people who would be happy to see me fail.”

 

“Is that why, then? Are you keen to prove them wrong?”

 

“No, it’s not about that.” It never had been.

 

“Perhaps it’s to keep your perfect track record, then.”

 

Viktor laughed at that. Ridiculous. “I couldn’t care less about my ‘track record’. Yakov’s the only one who really pays attention to that kind of thing.”

 

“Then enlighten me. Don’t tell me it’s just about some abstract notion of justice.”

 

“It’s…” Why was it so hard to explain? He struggled to find the words; he couldn’t seem to be able to string them together to save his life. “It’s not any different from any other case, really: the perpetrator needs to answer for the crime. It’s just something I need to do - to see through to the end. If not for me, then for the victim’s family at least.”

 

“With respect, Detective,” Yuuri spoke softly, and slowly, “nothing you can do will bring the victim back to life.”

 

Of course. Of course, that was no secret to him, or to anyone who worked in the industry. It still smarted a bit, hearing that truth spoken out loud, no matter how gently Yuuri had tried to break it to him. “You think I don’t know that? Even so, I could still do something. I could stop the killer from striking again. I could stop other people from getting hurt, or worse.”

 

“Right. But this case is different, no? It took someone close to you, or at least that is the way your suspicions point. It’s become personal.”

 

Flashes of red, and of cigar smoke, and of an ornate chandelier danced in his mind’s eye. “Oh, it became personal long before that.”

 

“In what way?”

 

“In ways I’m not cleared to tell you.”

 

“Fair.” Yuuri closed his notebook, and left it closed on top of his lap. “You admit, then, that there’s a selfish component to your desire to solve this particular case. Is Mr. Feltsman aware of this?”

 

“Does it really matter?” This conversation was starting to become truly exhausting. “Who cares what my motivations are? If this case is just a paycheck to me, or if I relish the thought of watching the killer get shoved into a police car, doesn’t change how I’m going to treat it. It’s a murder investigation. The stakes are what they are.”

 

Yuuri mulled over that answer for a few seconds. “I suppose,” he conceded.

 

“Solving this means one less killer out on the streets. That’s an objectively good result - for this city, for everyone.”

 

“No-one would argue with that.”

 

“And the family - don’t they deserve to see justice carried out?” Something twisted in Viktor’s chest. His throat jerked. “Doesn’t her son deserve closure?”

 

Yuuri gave him a strange look. After a lengthy pause, he finally said, “…‘Her’?”

 

Viktor furrowed his brows. “What?”

 

“Doesn’t ‘her’ son deserve closure,” Yuuri said, quoting his own words back at him. “Earlier you referred to your victim as ‘he’.”

 

Viktor blinked. No, there was no way… he hadn’t… had he?

 

“Sorry. His son.” He avoided Yuuri’s eyes, and let out a noisy exhale. “God, I’m tired.”

 

“It seems that way.” Yuuri stood up, and picked up his coffee mug. “Let’s take a short break.”

 

Yuuri walked over to his desk, but Viktor didn’t follow him with his eyes. He could hear Yuuri messing around with some things over there - the rustling of papers, and the opening and closing of various drawers, all made reports that the crackling of the fireplace and the noise inside his head couldn’t suppress. Viktor rubbed at his eyes. God, that coffee had not helped at all, had it?

 

He was staring at the ceiling until he wasn’t, when he shifted and turned, burrowing further into the cocoon of warmth that the blanket offered, until he was on his side. And then he was staring at a curious-looking tapestry… hanging on the wall…  

 

At some point, he fell through the floor.

 

Right. Through the floor.

 

He wasn’t sure how to explain it, or how it happened. One second, he’d been lying on the daybed in Yuuri’s office, thinking that the firelight made it seem like the tapestry was moving somehow. And then there’d been a falling sensation, and now all of a sudden he was somewhere else, and he knew it was a different room because there was no fireplace here… only steel and cloth and plain, empty walls, and a stench he’d always associated with death.

 

Wait. This was… the office of the medical examiner?

 

How the hell had he gotten here?

 

Had he lost time? No - or he didn’t know, because there were no clocks in this room, and he wasn’t wearing his watch. What? He could’ve sworn he’d put it on this morning. What was going on?

 

Just like he remembered from his last visit, there were two examination tables in the middle of the room. One of them was empty - again, just like it had been when he’d visited, the metal surface of the table exposed and pristine. The other was occupied.

 

There was no reason for him to be doing this, he knew. He’d already been here once, and that visit had ended in more questions than answers. But he went over and pulled off the sheet anyway, because there had to be a reason he was here, and he could think of nothing else.

 

It wasn’t Karpisek lying under that sheet.

 

“I’m sorry…” Viktor barely recognized the sound of his own voice. It was shaking, and before he knew it, he could already taste the salt in the back of his throat. Tears sprung up in the corners of his eyes. “I’m so sorry, I never should have… God, what can I do?”

 

Christophe stared at him with dead eyes. It wasn’t just because of what had happened - the gray pallor of his bare skin, and the ugly Y-shaped incision spanning his entire chest were stark reminders of that. It was hard to forget even when Christophe stirred, sat up, and pushed himself off the table.

 

Viktor didn’t run, though he probably should have. But he didn’t, because Christophe’s eyes had always lit up the bar and whatever room he was in, and they’d twinkled in mirth or mischief, or both at once, more often than not. But now they were dead. There was nothing to read.

 

What hope did he have of ever making this right? “I’ll figure this out. I’ll find out who did this to you, I swear it. I’ll - ”

 

He didn’t have time to process the surprise when Christophe grabbed his arm. His hand was like ice, and so was the look on his face when he pushed Viktor down onto the empty table. His other hand fumbled with the medical instruments on a rolling cart near the wall, until it finally closed over a syringe.

 

Viktor bit back a cry of pain when Christophe stabbed him in the arm.

 

He didn’t fight, even though the rest of the instruments were just within reach - he could see the scalpel from here. He just stayed very still, lying on that table, staring at the yellowish-tinged liquid in the syringe, and at Christophe’s grayed thumb hovering over the plunger flange.

 

“Do it,” he whispered. “Do whatever you need to do. I’ll take it.”

 

Christophe’s hand remained frozen. So did the needle in Viktor’s arm. It didn’t hurt as much as he’d imagined it would, which he found kind of odd.

 

There was something else that was odd: a sound, coming from the ceiling. It was muffled and soft, but he could hear it. He just wasn’t sure what it was.

 

It sounded like… crying?

 

The sound persisted, at least in his head, even when Viktor woke up. It was a struggle; he didn’t even remember having fallen asleep, and now he felt completely heavy with it, slow and listless.

 

If he felt unusually warm, now he knew why: Yuuri was in the daybed as well, curled up against him. Viktor blinked, and finally remembered where he was.

 

“Uh. Did I…?” He groaned, and shook his head to clear it. Images from that disturbing dream were still fresh in his mind. They couldn’t fade soon enough. “Sorry. That was really rude.”

 

“No, it’s okay. You’ve been sleep-deprived. It looks like you needed it.”

 

Something was… wrong with Yuuri’s voice. Viktor placed a hand on his chin and tilted it up, so he could study his face. One look was enough for him to realize that the sound that had woken him hadn’t just been in his head at all. “You’re crying.”

 

“As expected, your observational skills are unparalleled.” Yuuri wiped his eyes on the cuff of his sleeve, and forced out a crooked smile.

 

Viktor didn’t laugh. “What’s wrong?”

 

“You don’t have to worry about it.” Yuuri pushed away Viktor’s hand and started to dig himself out from underneath the blanket they were sharing. “It would be unprofessional for a therapist to unload on his patient. Let me know when you want to resume our session, we’ve still got a few minutes before - ”

 

Viktor kissed him.

 

“There. Now we’re officially unprofessional,” he murmured when he finally pulled away. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

 

Yuuri laughed. Viktor stared pointedly at him until he stopped, and he could see new tears in his eyes when Yuuri squeezed them shut, and shook his head. But Viktor wrapped his arms around him, and held him tight.

 

He waited.

 

Eventually, after an eternity, Yuuri relented. “I suppose it just hit me now, all of a sudden… how close I came to losing you.”

 

Viktor tried not to show his surprise. If he felt anything else from those words, anything else that he could acknowledge despite his own hang-ups, he tried not to show that, either. “You’ve never lost a patient before?”

 

“Not as a therapist, no. I can’t imagine what I would do, if you…”

 

Yuuri trailed off. If I what? he wanted to ask.

 

But he didn’t have to, did he? And Yuuri… he’d stopped talking not to be infuriating, but because he already knew this.

 

The way Yuuri had brought him to his house, nursed him back to health and forced him to rest… Viktor had chalked that up to paranoia. But then there’d been his panic on the phone… and before that, the dinner, the skating, everything. Flowers hand-delivered to his office, when he’d screwed up and sought to make amends. All of that, against a backdrop of countless kisses, and whispered nothings, and…

 

He was an idiot.

 

The clues had all been there.

 

“Will you fire me for good this time?” Yuuri said quietly. “Or do you want to pretend this conversation never happened?” He wiped off these new tears with the back of his hand. “I crossed a line today. I’ll accept either decision.”

 

Viktor had been stupid, so stupid. He’d been so caught up with everything else, with the murder and everything this investigation had thrown at him so far, but it had always been in the back of his mind. He hadn’t wanted to entertain the thought, much less hope…  because he’d never even considered the possibility of it.

 

Dr. Katsuki - Yuuri - was so far out of his league, Viktor counted himself lucky to even be able to see him.

 

“Will you say something? Anything.” Yuuri clutched at the material of his shirt. “Please.”

 

But here he was now, so warm in Viktor’s arms, aching and waiting and close, stopping just shy of saying the actual words.

 

“The last thing I want to do is let you go,” he whispered. “Hell, you’re the only person I’ve wanted to hold onto like this…” He pulled Yuuri closer to himself, and finally bared his heart before he could lose his nerve. “You're all that feels real.”

 

For all that Yuuri was usually so hard to read, tonight he was an open book. The relief that flooded over his face when he smiled, and the way he melted anew into Viktor’s arms, revealed more than any of his fancy words could ever hope to do.

 

Yuuri was the one who’d wanted to draw the lines. Viktor thought that he could finally understand the wisdom in that.

 

He also understood that Yuuri was right, and it was far too late for it now.

 

“It's not healthy,” Yuuri whispered, “to use a single person as a crutch.”

 

Viktor chuckled. “Nothing I've ever done in my life has been healthy.”

 

“Well, we'll work on that.” Yuuri returned the embrace, wrapping his arms around Viktor’s waist and tilting his head up to face him. “Until then, let this place be your refuge. You're safe here. I won't let anything happen to you.”

 

“Yeah?” Viktor brought his hand up to Yuuri’s face, lovingly tracing the tracks of old tears with his thumb. “You shouldn't make promises you can't keep, Doc.”

 

“I don't.”

  

 

 

 

 

 

Outside, the storm raged.

Chapter Text

January 25, 1929

 

More than ever these days, I feel that people are watching me.

 

It’s not just the people that I work with, or the few who know me through more than just work - it’s everyone. I know they’re looking, out on the streets and through tinted shop windows. There are eyes under the subway grates and beneath the cracks on the sidewalk. They’re everywhere.

 

There’s no peace to be found in this city, not anymore. Even if I went back there, paid a visit to that place where the world was quiet, once upon a time… I’m afraid I’ll feel their eyes staring at me from six feet under the ground.

 

I know what they’re all thinking, even though no-one will ever say it out loud: ‘what’s taking you so long?’

 

It’s a fair question. I’ve done harder jobs in the past. But with this one, I just keep screwing up at every turn. And everyone’s watching.

 

I don’t know how much longer this will last. Something has to happen soon: either I pull myself together and succeed, or all of these threats and eyes and shadows that have been closing in for some time now finally catch up with me. If I’m truly unlucky - and I’ll let history be the judge of that - this will rip away someone I’m starting to care deeply about.

 

No matter what happens, I just want him to be safe. I’ll move heaven and earth to make that happen, but there’s only so much I can do. I can’t have my eye on him at all times. I can’t protect him forever.

 

God, what am I supposed to do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I don’t really understand why you’re here, Detective… I already told you everything the first time you visited.”

 

“And I’m very grateful for the cooperation you’ve shown so far.” Murder investigations were a nightmare for those ‘left behind’. Viktor knew that every time he came back here to the Karpisek house meant ripping open this poor widow’s wounds anew. He hated that. “I can’t imagine it’s been easy.”

 

Mrs. Karpisek tried to force a smile. She placed a cup of piping hot tea in front of him, on the coffee table. Viktor paused in the middle of leafing through his notebook to find a blank page, and inhaled. Smelled like oranges.

 

“Some days are harder than others.” She folded her hands across her lap. “There are some moments where I almost… forget. Can you imagine? I’ll be making dinner, and a part of me just wants to call out and ask him to taste it, let me know if it needs more salt, or what…” Her voice cracked at the end. “I’m sorry. It’s so silly.”

 

“It’s not,” Viktor assured her. “You don’t have to apologize for how you grieve.”

 

“It just… it feels so wrong. I can’t bring myself to accept that he’s no longer here, but I still am.”

 

“Yeah, that never really changes.”

 

Viktor snapped his mouth shut, and took a huge gulp of the tea he’d been offered. It tasted exactly as it smelled, and if he’d burned the roof of his tongue just now, well - he deserved that.

 

“How is it? Would you like some more sugar?”

 

“No, it’s perfect. Thank you.” God, but this woman was an angel. He wouldn’t have wished any of this senseless tragedy on her at all. But it seemed the universe had had other ideas. “If you’ll allow me, I was hoping to ask you a few more questions about your husband.”

 

“Ah.” Mrs. Karpisek wiped off some unseen tears from the corners of her eyes. “They say you have some suspects?”

 

“Where did you get that from, the Daily Mirror?” She nodded her assent, and Viktor fought back the urge to heave a sigh. It was criminal, in its own way, putting her through false hope. “I have to be honest with you. We’re still very early on in our investigation.”

 

“Anything is better than nothing. Please, I want to help however I can.”

 

Do you speak for the both of you? Viktor wanted to ask. Because while his mother carried herself with a quiet grace that only those dignified in suffering could possess, Josef Jr., sitting at the other end of the couch, looked as though he were ready to run, or to burst. The scowl that he wore paired well with his brows, drawn together in a manner which shut down any notions that he thought of this as a friendly visit.

 

“Well, I’ll get right to it, then.” Viktor pushed the teacup aside, finally found the blank page that he’d been looking for, and decided to get this over with as quickly as he could. “By any chance, did your husband ever mention a place called The Silk Umbrella to you?”

 

He waited for any sign of recognition on her face. He didn’t see anything that even hinted at that, and he knew what her answer was going to be long before she shook her head. “I’m sorry, Detective. I’m afraid it doesn’t ring a bell.”

 

Looking over at the younger Josef’s face, Viktor saw that it told quite a different story. But it wasn’t one Viktor could explore just yet.

 

“Okay.” He bent his head and pretended to write something down, if only so that Josef Jr. would be tempted to think that Viktor was no longer keeping an eye on him. “Now, there’s no polite way to word this next question, so I’m just going to go ahead and ask it: have you ever suspected that your husband had dealings, or more importantly enemies, within a group that call themselves the ‘Triad’?”

 

She shook her head.

 

Viktor took a moment to explain what it was, to a point. Its footprint seemed to be a lot smaller in this city than the Mafia’s, but organized crime was organized crime, and her husband had made himself an enemy of all those who would dabble in it, hadn’t he? He listed off the names of a couple more suspected fronts that Yuri’s research had uncovered: an underground gambling den masquerading as a tiny community bank, and a hardware store in Chinatown that had been holding a ‘Going Out Of Business Sale’ for the past eight years. Neither of those really produced a reaction, which wasn’t too much of a surprise.

 

A read on Josef Jr. yielded nothing of use either. But this only confirmed something that Viktor had been suspecting for a long time: if he was ever going to get answers out of this boy, it wouldn’t be here.

 

“I have to thank you again for gracing me with your time.” At the door, with one foot already out on the porch, he stopped and made a show of checking his wristwatch. “Looks like I’ve got the rest of the hour to kill before I have to get back to the office.”

 

“Oh, feel free to stay if you’d like!”

 

“Thanks, but I couldn’t possibly impose like that.”

 

“It would have been no imposition,” she assured him. She didn’t insist on it, though -  fortunately for him, because it would have completely ruined his plan. “So where will you go now?”

 

“I think I’ll stay in the Park for a while.” Viktor smiled, and made sure Josef Jr. was looking at him. “It’s such a nice day, after all.”

 

 


 

 

Viktor’s parting words hadn’t completely been a lie - the air outside was warmer than it had any right to be for a late January day, and the sun had actually decided to show itself and stay. He waited at a bench not too far from the Karpisek house, staring into the Park. There still wasn’t all that much to look at; the sight of dormant trees against snow and ice was beautiful in its own way, but with hardly anyone out at this time of day, it wasn’t too different from looking at a wall. Or the ocean, he supposed, thinking back to when he’d spent hours with his toes curled into the sand, trying to trick himself into ‘losing’ the horizon. Those were good days, he thought.

 

Well, perhaps ‘good’ was pushing it. But they were better days. That meant something, didn’t it?

 

He didn’t make it halfway through his first cigarette when Josef Jr. showed up beside him - just as he’d predicted - asking for one too.

 

“Your mother know that you smoke?”

 

“Well, what she doesn’t know won’t kill her, right?”

 

Viktor actually considered denying him, just for that. He’d had no illusions that getting Karpisek‘s son to cooperate wouldn’t involve some kind of bribery. He’d interviewed countless suspects and witnesses cut of the same cloth, and no matter how much they’d practically reeked of desperation to spill, it had still taken some kind of incentive to push them over the edge. Viktor didn’t have much else on him that he could use, though; he barely had enough cash on him to get home tonight, and he imagined that anything else Josef Jr. might have wanted would have certainly cost more than that.

 

It wasn’t as though he had any right to judge, he thought as he handed over a cigarette, and chased it with a light. How old had he been when he’d started smoking, again? Far younger than Josef Jr. was now, that was for sure.

 

The boy fell into a coughing fit halfway through his first puff. He swore, and glared up at Viktor with confused, watering eyes. “Is it always supposed to taste like this?”

 

“Nope,” Viktor said, perhaps a tad too cheerfully. “So. I take it you have something to tell me?”

 

Josef Jr. fidgeted in his seat. He kept his eyes fixed onto the ground as he stubbornly placed the cigarette back between his lips. “Earlier, back there, you asked if my father often went to that tea shop.”

 

“The Silk Umbrella.” Viktor nodded. “He patronized that place quite a bit, didn’t he?”

 

“Yeah. Figures. You look like you already knew.”

 

He’d known ever since that session he’d had with Minako. But just that knowledge wasn’t all that useful to him. He needed more. “What do you reckon he liked about it?”

 

“I mean, they’re a tea shop, so… you know. He’d buy a lot of their teas. Mostly just whatever was in stock at the time, because the charge that that place tacks on for special orders is just plain highway robbery.” He scoffed. It looked as though he’d gotten the hang of the cigarette by now, because his breathing sounded a lot less strained when he started crunching ice beneath the soles of his shoes. “It’s bad enough that everything in there’s so expensive already.”

 

“Well, they’ve found their niche. And a loyal clientele, from the looks of it.” Viktor paused. “Your father included.”

 

“Yeah. Good for them.”

 

“But let’s be honest. It wasn’t just the tea that kept him a loyal customer, was it?”

 

The sound of crunching ice suddenly stopped.

 

“You know how many places you can get tea between The Silk Umbrella and where you live?” Viktor pressed. “Dozens. Now, I can assume the worst… or you can make both our lives easier, and tell me what you know.”

 

Josef Jr. kept his eyes on the ground, but his hands tightened around the edge of the seat of the bench. His jaw tensed.

 

Just as Viktor was starting to consider the possibility of him bolting, he finally broke. “Okay. Okay. The truth is, for all that he presented this ‘squeaky-clean’ image to everybody else… my father did have one vice.”

 

Vice? Karpisek’s widow had attested that he’d quit smoking long before his death. And given the amount of research Yuri had done on the man, if he’d ever been a boozehound at any point in his life, they would have surely learned of that by now.

 

So Viktor went with the next-best, logical guess. “Women?”

 

“Yeah.” Josef Jr. barked out a laugh, and shook his head. “Yeah. Well, nobody’s perfect, right?”

 

Right. With every day that passed and every new piece of information that they uncovered, the image of Karpisek that Viktor held in his head shifted, straying further and further away from perfect.

 

“Josef, I’m going to ask you again. Your father… he didn’t just visit that place to buy tea, did he?”

 

The boy opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He tried again, and again after that. But the words kept getting stuck in his throat.

 

“You don’t have to worry about getting into any trouble yourself,” Viktor assured him. “I’m not a cop, remember?”

 

“I know. Just… you can’t tell my mother any of this.”

 

Viktor nodded. He’d figured as much, and he’d had a rough idea of how this conversation was bound to go ever since he first sat down here. He just needed to confirm everything he already suspected. “What did he do, Josef?”

 

Promise me you won’t tell her.”

 

“You have my word.”

 

Josef Jr. took a deep breath, and then about a dozen more, before finally answering. “He kept going back for those sessions with the girls - you know the ones, where they serve you tea, and they talk to you for a few hours. Only… only it wasn’t just talking, with him.”

 

Viktor swallowed back the words of disgust already sitting on the tip of his tongue. “Did he ever take you along?”

 

“Couple of times. Said he wanted to show me ‘what it’s like to be a man’.” He grimaced. “I didn’t like it. He’d get really aggressive, really handsy with some of the girls. So…”

 

He took a deep drag instead of finishing that sentence. He didn’t have to; Viktor understood fully well what he was trying not to say. But something wasn’t quite adding up. “I’ve been to one of those sessions myself. From what I understand, they’re strictly ‘tea and conversation’ only.” Minako had never so much as given him the impression that he could have tried anything further.

 

“Sure, yeah. That’s what it says on paper.” He sniffed. “But there are a few girls there that are more desperate, need the cash more. Some of them are…” He trailed off again, visibly hesitating before he eventually settled on the word: “broken.”

 

Viktor frowned. “What do you mean?”

 

But Josef Jr. only shook his head. He crushed the cigarette under his shoe, grinding it into the ice. He was about to clam up. Fuck.  

 

“Do you have any names?” He tried to switch tactics. “Did your father have a favorite, maybe? What did you mean by ‘broken’ earlier?”

 

“He had a lot of favorites, but no names.” Josef Jr. stuffed his hands into his coat pockets, and jumped to his feet. “Look, I’m sorry, Detective. But that’s really all I’ve got.”

 

No matter what kind of miracles you pulled, there was only so much water you could coax out of a stone before it eventually dried up in the end. Having no other choice, Viktor simply thanked him for his time, and watched him jog all the way home.

 

 


 

 

Back at the Agency, Viktor took a step back and surveyed all of the information that they’d gathered on the Triad so far. It didn’t feel like much, even after all this time. So it was surprising to see how much physical space it took up: all of the papers, folders, and boxes crowding his office were starting to get out of control.

 

His desk didn’t have nearly enough space to keep track of everything he wanted to see at once, and he found himself dropping files face-up onto the floor. When that approach didn’t quite end up working, he started taping things to his wall - notes, newspaper clippings, copies of old police reports that Otabek had so kindly ‘misplaced’. He put up blank sheets of paper so that he could have space to jot down his thoughts as they came to him, without having to write all over the walls and incur Yakov’s wrath.

 

Yuri walked in a bit after lunch, carrying a new box full of files. He took one look at what Viktor was doing, put the box down, and sighed.

 

“Alright… walk me through it. What do the colors mean?”

 

It took a bit of bickering, but they eventually agreed on a system in the end. Annotations in the margins - where this information came from, when, and how confident they were in its accuracy. Strings connecting people, places, events, and all sorts of permutations of these together: red for the sure connections, white for shakier ones.

 

In the center of the wall - and after having pulled off all of the pieces Viktor had already built there - Yuri started an organizational chart, or at least what they thought it would look like, based on the hierarchy documented in some mass-arrest involving an Eastern European branch of the Triad. They had no names for any of the important positions though, just a couple of aliases and grainy photos from petty arrest records, of men who’d probably been initiates at best and no longer lived in the city anyway.

 

Interestingly, both of those arrests had taken place within a few blocks of the Silk Umbrella. Coincidence? Viktor wasn’t sure.

 

“Very niiiiiiice.”

 

Emil popped his head into Viktor’s office at the end of the day, long after Yuri had gone home. He took a sharp detour from the stairs to inspect the beginnings of Viktor’s crime wall up close. Running the pad of his thumb along the criss-crossing strings, he hummed as he skimmed the little blurbs that Viktor or Yuri had scribbled onto scraps of yellow paper: facts, theories, and questions. Mostly questions. So many questions.

 

“So it looks like you’ve covered a lot of ground already.” He peered at a piece of paper where Yuri had simply scrawled an angry ‘?????!’ before slapping it against the wall. “You closing in on anybody in particular?”

 

“I wish.” Viktor moved to stand beside him. “It feels like I’m fumbling around in the dark, most of the time.”

 

“Yeah, that part of the investigation is never fun.” Emil grinned. “Need a hand? I know you’ve already got Yuri, but more eyes and hands can’t hurt.”

 

“Aren’t you busy with your own case?” Viktor wracked his brains to remember the details of it. “The lounge singer whose body turned up in the East River, was it?”

 

“It was the Hudson, actually,” Emil corrected him with a chuckle. “Took a winding route, but it turns out my very first theory was the right one: secret lover’s jealous ex-wife. Sometimes you just gotta go with your gut.”

 

“I see.” When had that been solved? He had no idea. God, the Karpisek case had been swallowing him whole lately, so much so that he was barely aware of things that were going on two doors away from him. It felt like he’d been shut out from the rest of the world, at least until this case was closed, but obviously that didn’t stop it from turning. On and on and on. “Congratulations.”

 

“Thanks! Anyway, I’ve got some time before Yakov realizes it’s time to give me another case, so… whatever you need.”

 

What did he need? He needed more coffee - or a proper night’s sleep, but one of those was infinitely easier to obtain than the other. He needed a long weekend at the beach with Makkachin, he needed winter to end and he needed the sun to return. He needed a lazy, quiet night in Yuuri’s bed, where he could afford not to think about dead politicians and their sons’ dirty secrets, their dealings with crime syndicates, their penchant for tea -

 

Wait a minute.

 

Viktor turned his eyes back to the crime wall, searching for the Silk Umbrella flyer that he knew he’d posted there. When he finally found it, he focused on the line at the bottom of the flyer, just above the shop’s address: ‘Ask about our rare specialty teas’ .

 

“What’s that all about?” he wondered aloud.

 

“Hmmm?”

 

“The ‘rare specialty teas’.” Viktor gestured towards the flyer and turned to Emil. “You’ve been to the Silk Umbrella a few times, haven’t you?”

 

“Guilty as charged. I’m a sucker for their rosebud and green tea blend.” Emil laughed. “I’m afraid I don’t know what that line means, but if I had to guess…” He shrugged. “Maybe they keep the fancy, expensive stuff in the back?”

 

Viktor wasn’t convinced. He found Yuri’s earliest notes about the Triads’ supposed favorite activities - ‘counterfeit goods’… ‘healthcare fraud’… ‘drug smuggling’

 

“You got another theory?” Emil prodded.

 

Viktor shook his head. He couldn’t shake off the feeling that an opportunity to peek behind the curtain that perpetually shrouded them might have been staring him in the face. The link was tenuous at best - hell, as things stood now, there was a big chance that the link didn’t even exist at all - but now the idea had taken root, and it wouldn’t go away until he followed through.

 

“The first time you went to that place,” Viktor asked, “how did you introduce yourself? ‘Detective Nekola’? Something else?”

 

“I didn’t, actually. All I’ve ever done is buy tea… I don’t think I ever even told them my name, much less where I work.”

 

“That’s perfect.” Phichit Chulanont had written off his obvious fortune-telling tea-reading activities as ‘advice’; well, he wasn’t the only one in this city who knew how to deal with half-truths. “Could I ask you for a huge favor? The next time you’re there, ask them about those ‘specialty teas’, and just see where that conversation leads.”

 

“Sure thing,” Emil said. “But wait… does this mean you’re not investigating La Cosa Nostra anymore?”

 

This time, it was Viktor’s turn to laugh. “You don’t read the Daily Mirror, do you? No, that theory was put to bed right away.”

 

“Huh. Well, I’ll give the Umbrella a visit sometime this week. Let you know how that goes.”

 

After he left, the second floor of the Agency building settled into silence. Viktor was all alone now, and running on fumes, but he couldn’t possibly leave just yet. Not when he could finally think.

 

And there was, indeed, so much to think about. Did you know, Yuri had asked him, that the Triad assigned codes to represent ranks within their group? It had to do with Chinese numerology, he'd said, based on what information they'd managed to lift from a gang that operated in Hong Kong. Imagine that; they were so desperate for something, anything that they could use for this investigation, that they had to reach out to law enforcement on the other side of the world for scraps and pittances. What a riot. If this information yielded something useful in the end, hell, he'd turn a blind eye and give Yuri the bourbon he'd squirreled away for 'better times'.

 

This must be what weariness tasted like, he thought.

 

Or maybe it tasted more like this: menthol, smoke, and nicotine, his fifth of the night. Viktor tore his eyes away from the crime wall and focused on his lighter's flame. In the midst of all the news clippings, incident reports, and his own post-midnight speculations scribbled by hand sat the very beginnings of that organizational chart, all bones and shadows, useless to him for now. The titles were just as cryptic as the codes themselves: phrases like 'Dragon Head', 'Glass Slipper', 'White Paper Fan', 'Red Pole'. What did any of those mean? Nothing, he knew, not without any actual names assigned to them. But he had to start somewhere.

 

Someone in this city - or several someones, if he was lucky - knew what happened the night Karpisek died. And if all of the evidence from the past few weeks was to be trusted, it had something to do with the Triad.

 

He would find out what that connection was, and he would solve this case. He'd turn this city inside out if he had to.

 

  

 

 

 

 

The phone on his desk rang, a shrill, piercing sound that cut through his focus and shattered his train of thought. Viktor put out his cigarette in the ashtray on the corner of his desk, and heaved a sigh as he reached for the handset. Maybe it was time for a break, after all. “Feltsman Agency.”

 

“Detective Nikiforov?”

 

“Speaking.” What time was it? He rummaged through the pile of papers on his desk, trying to find his notebook. “How can I help you?”

 

“I’d rather tell you how you can help yourself,” the voice responded. “And you can do that by dropping this case.”

 

Viktor’s hands stilled.

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“I’m sure you heard me the first time. The Karpisek murder investigation - you need to let that go.”

 

He strained to listen for something familiar, anything in the quality of the caller’s voice that would remind him of anyone he’d ever encountered since this investigation began. But there was nothing. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t even tell if the caller was a man or a woman - their voice was coming out strange, as though it had been muffled through a handkerchief, or something similar.

 

“And why on earth would I ever do that?”

 

“Because if you don’t, he’ll be next.”

 

“Who’s ‘he’?”

 

“You have to ask? Think about who you have left.”

 

It was harder than he’d expected, to somehow avoid letting that get to him. The image of Christophe in that alley beside Casa Roja was still painfully clear in his mind, every single detail from the length of the cordon, to the splotches of red all over the alley, to the goddamn shade of blue of the insignia on Otabek’s uniform. He could still smell the blood.

 

And with that harrowing picture in mind, he found himself falling for it - realizing who, indeed, he had left.

 

“It’s not worth it, Detective. Think about that.”

 

“All I’m thinking right now,” Viktor managed to say, in a calm voice that surprised even himself, “is that you wouldn’t be threatening me like this if you weren’t afraid that I was closing in.”

 

“Please. I’m simply doing you a favor.” There was that laugh again, dry and mocking, and completely unrecognizable to him. “Walk away, Detective. This is far, far beyond the reach of a disgraced, washed-up ex-cop who’s probably one bad day away from getting locked up in an asylum.”

 

Viktor kept silent as he let those words wash over him.

 

Then he edged closer to the window, as far as the phone’s cord would let him, and dared to peek through the blinds. He was already fiddling with his gun when he seethed, “Why don’t you come over here and say that again, to my face?”

 

All he got for that was a click, and then the haunting drone of a low buzz, telling him that the call was dead.

 

 


 

 

Viktor headed home immediately after that, climbing out of a window in the back of the building instead of taking the front door. He sprinted full-speed towards the nearest big, well-lit street, which turned out to be Amsterdam Avenue, and kept along that road until he could flag down a cab.

 

From the second he left his office to the moment he finally turned the last of the locks on his apartment door, with Makkachin watching curiously near his feet, he kept his gun hand free and ready to draw in a heartbeat.

 

There was no point in telling Yakov about what had happened. Viktor agonized over the decision for a good hour, long after he’d calmed down and triple-checked every window, closet, and cupboard in his tiny apartment. Not that Yakov would have pulled him off of the case anyway - the press would have feasted on that for sure, and it would’ve only served to embolden the guilty parties some more. He just didn’t want Yakov to worry about him, and start entertaining unnecessary, paranoid thoughts. It was already bad enough that one of them was doing so.

 

So he didn’t call Yakov at all that night. But he did phone the clinic, and Yuuri picked up after only the second ring. Viktor didn’t tell him about the call, either. “What are you doing this weekend?” was what he ended up saying instead. And when Yuuri told him that he did not, in fact, have plans for Saturday afternoon, Viktor immediately claimed it for himself.

 

“Do you want me to pick you up? I have your address on file.”

 

“No,” he said, a bit too harshly. “I’ll pick you up at your office, if that’s alright with you?”

 

“Sure.” He could hear a smile in Yuuri’s voice. “I’m looking forward to it.”

 

Viktor replaced the handset, and felt a quiet, gnawing dread settling in his gut.

 

It became a constant companion of his over the next 48 hours, keeping his head on a perpetual swivel, robbing him of sleep. It drove him to spend hours poring over any and all old cases they could find that were ‘possibly’ Triad-related, because he had to solve this case. He had to solve it soon. Before something happens. The dread was a magnet that pulled his gaze to the nearest phone, wherever he was; it felt as though, at any given moment in time, he was seconds away from it ringing again. But instead of potent threats by a masked, disembodied voice, it would be something much worse.

 

There’s been an incident. Something happened. Yes, they’re sure…

 

It finally lifted, if a little bit, when Saturday afternoon came.

 

It was at at its worst just before then, when Viktor dashed out of the Canal Street Station and booked it all the way to the clinic. When he finally saw Yuuri, standing in front of the clinic next to his black Rolls-Royce Phantom, working on a cigarette without a care in the world, the dread finally lifted. The sight of him here, regal, gorgeous, safe - it felt like finally letting out a breath he’d been holding for the past two days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yuuri smiled when he approached. God, but he really was such a sight for sore eyes. “Where to?”

 

Viktor gave him directions in the car - or rather, he gave the intersection and that was enough, because once you got out of the Southernmost part of the island, most of the street names gave way to numbers, which was so much easier to navigate. If Yuuri was disappointed when they finally reached their destination, he certainly didn’t show it; he simply threw Viktor a bemused, if slightly questioning glance as he pulled up to the front of the building.

 

Viktor had been coming to this same shooting range for years now. He’d trained here with Georgi, then with Yuri. Every now and then, he would come by here on his own, or sometimes with Makkachin in tow, to practice.

 

This was where he’d first learned to shoot, back when his hands had been smaller, and kept shaking too much. Yakov had been patient with him though, bending down to match Viktor’s line of sight, setting his shoulders straight, critiquing his stance. He hadn’t been thrilled about Viktor owning a gun without knowing how to use it. Better to start off young, he’d said. Either Viktor would learn, under his supervision, or he would confiscate it.

 

It was the same gun that he handed over to Yuuri now, an old Colt revolver that had seen better days, but still had plenty of years left in it. And he made it clear that it was to keep - he knew that Yuuri didn’t typically carry a gun of his own.

 

Yuuri’s lips quirked up in a smile. “How long have you known?”

 

“Honestly? From the very first night that we met.”

 

“What gave me away?”

 

“I had my hands all over you in that phone booth. Hard to keep any secrets like that.” Viktor gave him a once-over that spoke more than his words could ever hope to do, and laughed at the look on Yuuri’s face. He nodded towards the hanging target, a cardboard sheet shaped into a crude outline of a man’s torso with rings spreading out from the center. “Go on.”

 

Yuuri looked down, testing the weight of the gun in his hand. He hesitated like this for about a minute before finally taking aim, and shooting once.

 

The shot went completely wide, and missed the outermost ring on the target by quite a bit. As he’d predicted, Yuuri also underestimated the recoil severely, and Viktor grabbed him by the shoulders so he wouldn’t jerk too much when it kicked.

 

“You don’t expect it from that tiny thing, do you?”

 

Yuuri shook his head with wide eyes.

 

Viktor let him process that for a bit before asking, “Do you want to try again?”

 

Yuuri tried a few more rounds, taking his time. Only his shots echoed off of the walls of the range - it was empty right now, probably because it was late on a Saturday afternoon. People had better things to do with their weekends. Hell, he imagined that if he hadn’t called, Yuuri would be somewhere infinitely more interesting right now.

 

But Viktor hadn’t truly been able to sit still since that strange phone call. And with the thought of what had happened to Christophe still looming, heavy in his mind…

 

Yakov and Yuri could both protect themselves. He wasn’t sure where he stood on whether or not to worry about Otabek - it was partly because he was still shaken by his memory, spotty though it was, of that night in the bar. And besides, he doubted that whoever was after him would try to go after a cop, especially with how the NYPD had barely been involved in this case at all.

 

That really only left one person that he considered himself close to.

 

It was also the one whom every fiber of his being yearned to protect.

 

“This isn’t your gun, is it?” While he took a break from shooting, Yuuri inspected the weapon in his hands again, with a more careful, critical eye this time. “I’ve seen you draw yours before, and it isn’t this one.”

 

Viktor remembered that all too clearly. “From that night at your friend’s apartment? After your little spat with bread crumbs and gravity?” he said with a grin.

 

“That, and I’ve had my hands all over you as well.” Yuuri’s voice came in a faraway murmur, like he was reliving a dream. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the gun, running his finger along the length of the barrel. “It doesn’t look new, either. Is it just a spare piece?”

 

An image flashed in Viktor’s mind, of the study  with the huge picture window overlooking the beach, with the plants and the feathers and the microscope, French books with Cyrillic scrawl along the margins, and the map spread along the tabletop. Many years ago, he’d torn that table apart in tears, looking for clues. All he’d found was the false bottom in the middle drawer, hiding a gun he’d known nothing about. “It was my mother’s, actually,” he admitted.

 

Yuuri fixed him with a curious stare. “And there is another interesting Wednesday evening to come, I’m sure.”

 

Viktor forced out a laugh. “There’s nothing to talk about, believe me. I just think she won’t be needing it anymore.”

 

“Hmmm.” Yuuri looked as though he had a thousand questions he wanted to ask after that, but he chose to hold them back instead. Viktor knew that this meant he would probably hear them all in their next therapy session anyway. “Have you needed it often? Your gun, I mean.”

 

“I try not to engage suspects on the field if I can help it. I’m not a cop anymore, and I know it wasn’t what Yakov had in mind when he hired me.”

 

“I see… but as a last resort?”

 

“Yes.” Viktor frowned. “You should already know all of this, right? You have my case files.”

 

“From which I was able to obtain facts and dates and numbers, yes. But intent, well, that is more difficult to determine from just words on paper.”

 

“Why do I feel like a question is coming?”

 

“Why are you doing this for me?”

 

Viktor weighed out the words on his tongue. He hadn’t wanted to have to deal with this question just yet, but he’d known it would be coming eventually. “It depends on who’s asking,” he finally said, which was probably the most honest answer he could have come up with.

 

“Does it really? Alright, then… suppose we say that it’s ‘Yuuri’.”

 

That was exactly the problem, wasn’t it? When was he talking to Yuuri as opposed to Dr. Katsuki, and how was he supposed to know? The door to the clinic had been the boundary before, but now it clearly wasn’t anymore.

 

Even after what had happened during their last session, and everything that he and Yuuri had said that night, he still wasn’t completely sure where they stood with one another.

 

“You saved my life once.” That was true regardless of whom he was talking to, and certainly Yuuri would understand. He hadn’t been able to save Georgi. He hadn’t been able to save Christophe. “If it ever comes down to it, and this might just save yours… then I want you to have it.”

 

“Is there any particular reason for me to feel that my life may be in danger?”

 

There wasn’t, actually - nothing backed by solid proof, nothing that had been made explicit. But whoever had called him knew that he was being treated by a therapist somehow. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that they knew who exactly that therapist was.

 

“You’re tied to me. Professionally, and…” He waved a hand in front of his face, because ‘otherwise ’ felt like such an empty, unsatisfying end to that sentence. “This is how it goes. If I’ve been made a target, then that means that the people close to me are too.”

 

Yuuri said nothing, just staring into middle distance, deep in thought. He understood, right? He had to.

 

A door creaked somewhere - the sound came from further in the building. Viktor glanced up at the clock hanging from the back wall, and imagined he could hear the ticking as he watched the second hand move.

 

No, perhaps he was being unfair.

 

If he really wanted to keep Yuuri safe - and he did, of course he did - then there was a surer, more efficient way to do it.

 

“I understand if this isn’t something you want to become involved in.” The words left a dull ache in his chest. He was barely able to force them out at all. “The last thing I want to do is put you in danger. If you want to walk away - ”

 

Yuuri grabbed him by the shoulders, pulled him close, and silenced him with a kiss.

 

It was intense, and demanding as much of Yuuri’s kisses were. But it was also soft - languid and unhurried, like a warm sigh shared between the two of them. Viktor closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around Yuuri’s waist, deepening the kiss.

 

He forgot about the rest of whatever he’d been planning to say.

 

He didn’t quite care.

 

When he finally pulled back, Viktor was more confused than anything else. “What was that supposed to mean?”

 

He didn’t get an answer to that. Yuuri picked up the gun with one hand and grabbed Viktor’s wrist with the other. His eyes gleamed as he nodded towards the exit.

 

“Let’s get out of here.”

 

 


 

 

Whatever adrenaline rush Yuuri had drawn from the shooting range ended up lingering far, far longer than it probably should have. Viktor didn’t say a word, but he could sense it, thick and palpable in the way Yuuri’s hand strained, his knuckles white against the gearshift. He tore through the quiet Saturday streets with a look on his face that would’ve given Viktor pause, if it also hadn’t given him other, completely different ideas as well.

 

“Mind telling me why we’re in such a hurry?”

 

“Are you complaining?”

 

“If we’re going where that look promises? Not at all.” Viktor laughed, and placed a hand over Yuuri’s on the gearshift. His hand was so cold - Viktor was tempted to offer him his gloves. “You might want to slow down a bit, though. You never know when there’s a traffic cop who’s bored, or had a terrible day.”

 

Yuuri glanced up at the rearview mirror. He finally started to slow down, but by this time, they were already at the bridge.

 

Once they pulled up into Yuuri’s driveway, hidden in the back of the lot, they ended up spending ten seconds, maybe even less, outside before Yuuri grabbed his hand, and impatiently dragged him into the house. The side door hadn’t even slammed shut when Yuuri shoved him up against the wall, and captured his lips in a torrid kiss.

 

Viktor wasn’t too terribly surprised; he’d seen this coming from the way Yuuri had behaved during the car ride over. Still, it was impossible not to be just a little bit thrown by the graze of Yuuri’s teeth, or the way he wound his hand up Viktor’s tie before tugging hard, and dragging him further into the house.

 

They were a mess of tangled limbs moving up the stairs, at an agonizingly slow pace. They’d already reached the threshold to Yuuri’s bedroom when Viktor realized he was already missing his suit jacket. He ran his hands under the hem of Yuuri’s, slid them up, and yanked Yuuri’s jacket open from the inside to settle the score.

 

As soon as he pulled it off, he caught sight of the gun, and the leather of the holster cutting lines across the silk over Yuuri’s chest. Well, damn. Maybe he understood what this was all about, after all. Somewhat.  

 

Yuuri caught him staring and stepped backwards into the room, away from Viktor and his lips, his needy hands. He kept walking back, staying just out of Viktor’s reach, as he pulled the holster off in maddeningly slow, deliberate movements.

 

Viktor felt a jolt when the gun hit the floor. Oh, he understood.

 

“Close the door, Viktor.”

 

He heard the sound of it, a sharp bang that echoed throughout the room, but he didn’t register actually doing it. In the blink of an eye, he crossed the distance to the bed and captured Yuuri’s lips again. He coaxed them open, slipped his tongue inside, and thought that he wouldn’t mind drowning in this heat.

 

He wanted more.

 

No, he needed more - he’d been craving this for a while, hadn’t he? To take Yuuri in his arms again, to get lost in him and be wrapped and wound and smothered in him. Just for a while.

 

Just so he didn’t have to think for a night.

 

Yuuri broke the kiss with a gasp, letting out a shaky laugh as Viktor’s fingers, eager and clumsy, ruined the buttons of another waistcoat. “Hey, I actually liked this one.”

 

“Sorry. I know an excellent tailor, though.”

 

Viktor’s words sounded so far away from his own ears. He pressed himself against Yuuri’s hip, hiding a groan in the crook of his neck.

 

“Viktor…”

 

He was still thinking - it wasn’t enough then, not yet. He needed more. Just one night. Was that so selfish? He tried to take his time with the buttons of Yuuri’s shirt, but he gave up halfway, and ripped off the rest of them.

 

“Viktor, w-wait - ”

 

He’d already spun Yuuri around and yanked off his shirt by the time he even heard that, so eager to get his lips on warm, warm skin. And when he succeeded, he was already so far gone that it took him a beat to even recognize what he was looking at.

 

When he finally did, his blood ran cold. All of a sudden, he forgot how to breathe.

 

“…Woodside.”

 

That single word stabbed daggers into the space between them, and he felt gutted when he remembered what it meant. Fuck.

 

Viktor stumbled back, and nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to get away - this was what Yuuri wanted, right? It had to be, from the arrangement they’d made before. “Oh, God, I’m sorry - I’m so sorry! I wasn’t thinking - ”

 

“It’s okay.” Yuuri cut him off, so quietly that Viktor could hardly hear him. “You have nothing to apologize for, Viktor.”

 

It sure as hell didn’t feel that way. Viktor swallowed back a lump in his throat, wishing he hadn’t been so reckless. If only he’d been more careful, then Yuuri…

 

A part of him wondered if he’d just imagined it. Or maybe he’d been mistaken; maybe he’d seen something else altogether, and was so caught up in Yuuri and his own madness that he conjured up something of his own fucked-up imagination - something that couldn’t possibly be real.

 

“You want to see it again?”

 

“What?”

 

“What you saw on my back - you only caught a glimpse, didn’t you? You probably aren’t even sure… so, here.” Yuuri wrapped his arms around himself and faced the window. He took a deep breath, and let the shirt drop to the floor. “Take a good look.”

 

Viktor did.

 

The second time seeing it was no less distressing than the first - maybe this was even worse, because instead of just getting a split-second glimpse, an accident really, now he was looking at it consciously, deliberately. But the reaction he had was the same: a sick, paralyzing shock, as he took in the burns all over Yuuri’s back.

 

It was impossible not to recognize them for what they were, now that he was staring at them up close. Round, white burn marks covered the entire surface of Yuuri’s back. They were most likely from cigarettes, if he had to guess, based on the sizes of the scars and the consistency in the patterns that the burns had left behind. And there were so many of them that it was a struggle to find any large spots of unmarked skin. He didn’t even try to count.

 

“Who did this to you?” he whispered.

 

“No-one you can bring to justice anymore.”

 

“So they’ve been punished - they’ve paid for this, right?” Was that what Yuuri was saying? He wanted so fucking badly for that to be what Yuuri was saying. “Was it someone you knew? These look old… when did it happen?”

 

“I’ll answer all of that in due time.” Yuuri’s countenance was strangely calm when he turned around, forcing the burns out of Viktor’s sight. Whether or not that was on purpose, Viktor couldn’t tell. “But for now… will you show me something in return?”

 

“Anything,” he said quickly. Anything to make up for this, though he had no idea how that would even be possible. “What can I do?”

 

Yuuri didn’t answer. He walked around Viktor and bent down at the waist to pick up the gun - the revolver, his gun now, pulling it out of its holster. He took a handkerchief out of the pocket of his discarded suit jacket, left the jacket in a heap on the floor, and started wiping at the barrel of the gun.

 

“You remember your safe word, right?” he finally said.

 

“Yeah, I do.” Viktor felt himself tense up just a bit. It was the same feeling he got whenever someone was armed in his presence, and he himself wasn’t. It couldn’t be helped; his own pistol was probably lying useless somewhere, either just outside the bedroom door or halfway up the stairs. He couldn’t recall. “We don’t have to continue this, if you want. I screwed up, I crossed a line.”

 

Yuuri shook his head. “You didn’t know. Come on.”

 

He pulled Viktor down onto the bed, making him lie flat on his back in the center of the mattress. He climbed up himself soon after, settling on his his knees not too far from the edge of the bed, but close enough to lean forward and brush some hair away from Viktor’s face.

 

He was still holding the gun in his other hand.

 

“We’ll need to set another rule. If you can’t say your safe word, then tap against the bed. Three times, like this.” Yuuri reached for one of Viktor’s hands, guided it towards the mattress, and did just that. “Is that okay?”

 

“Sure.” Viktor stole a glance at the gun now that Yuuri had finished cleaning it, making sure the safety lock was still on. “It’s kind of redundant though, don’t you think? I’m not going to forget the word.” Or two words, as it actually was.

 

Yuuri finally smiled for the first time since Viktor had ripped his shirt off. The sight of it filled him with relief. “Do you trust me, Viktor?”

 

Viktor stared up at the barrel of the revolver in Yuuri’s hand. Light that had leaked into the room from the tiny space between the tightly-drawn curtains danced on the surface of the metal as Yuuri moved, making it glint. “Yes,” he started carefully, “in the sense that I haven’t yet been given a reason not to.”

 

“How flattering.” Yuuri let out a soft chuckle, stole a quick kiss on his cheek, and pulled back. “I hope you’ll remember what we agreed upon,” he murmured.

 

That was the only warning Viktor got before his mouth was suddenly filled with the taste of metal. His arms jerked, and his hands flew up to Yuuri’s wrist before he even realized it, gripping tight and trying to wrench Yuuri’s arm away. But the angle was all wrong, and Yuuri - damn his slight, slender frame - was stronger than he looked.

 

Fuck. Fuck.

 

Viktor tried desperately to cling to reason - the safety was on, he kept telling himself, and of course he’d unloaded that revolver before they’d left, of course he had… hadn’t he? Shit, he was no longer sure.

 

He bucked his hips, trying to arch up from the bed, but Yuuri held him down fast. His eyes watered. A choked, cut-off whimper managed to escape from his throat.

 

“Breathe.” Yuuri kept his free hand pressed against Viktor’s shoulder, bearing down on him from above. His knees, braced on either side of Viktor’s legs, stopped him from thrashing. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

 

Then what the hell are you doing?!

 

“There’s a theory I’ve been wanting to test for a long time now.” Yuuri released his shoulder only long enough to clasp his hand again, pressing it against the bed in reminder. Right, the tapping - his new ‘safe word’. He should have figured. “You can end this at any time. Okay?”

 

Right. He could. He could end this right now. Just a few slight movements of his hand would put a stop to this, just as a single word from Yuuri had pushed Viktor away when he’d gone too far. That was their agreement.

 

He laid his palm flat against the mattress, but that was as far as he went.

 

So Yuuri continued, and Viktor endured.

 

It was a… strange sensation, having the barrel of a gun being thrust in and out of his mouth. It moved a bit more smoothly this time, with the metal slick from his spit and Yuuri’s hand having settled into a constant, unhurried rhythm. Every so often he would feel the front sight grazing the roof of his mouth, or he would notice how close Yuuri’s finger was to the trigger. And he didn’t need any of his past training as a detective, or as a cop, to know that there was something profoundly, horribly wrong with that. This was dangerous. This was ridiculous.

 

Yet his hands remained stubbornly still.

 

“Viktor?” Yuuri pulled the gun out of his mouth. Gently, he ran the fingers of his other hand through Viktor’s hair. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

 

Viktor was too busy sucking in lungfuls of clear, free air that he wasn’t sure he really had much of anything on his mind. “Was that it?” he panted. “Have I been punished enough?”

 

“I’m sorry.” A flash of contrition passed over Yuuri’s face, though he saw it for only a moment because Yuuri was soon leaning close, pressing a tender kiss against his temple. “A part of me just didn’t want to be the only one who was completely… exposed, I suppose.”

 

It felt like an accomplishment in and of itself, to hear Yuuri admit that out loud. “I see.”

 

“And, well…”

 

“What?”

 

“Well… you don’t… exactly look like you hated it.”

 

Yuuri dragged his gaze downward. Viktor followed it about halfway before he realized what Yuuri was looking at.

 

He had no idea when it had started, but now that he was no longer getting a gun shoved down his throat… he could no longer ignore his erection, pressing against the side of Yuuri’s thigh.

 

Viktor swore under his breath. What the fuck was wrong with him?

 

“I can help you with that - the old-fashioned way.” Yuuri gestured vaguely at it. “Or I could continue. Whatever you like.”

 

Whatever it was he’d thought of Yuuri’s little experiment at first, he couldn’t deny that he’d turned out to be more ‘receptive’ to it than he’d expected. That was definitely a surprise, and something that would require some serious self-introspection later. For now, Yuuri was waiting for an answer.

 

They’d already crossed so many lines. It only felt right to see it through to the end, somehow. “Do your worst, Doctor.”

 

A slow, positively wicked smirk spread across Yuuri’s face at those words. With that look in his eyes, this angle, and the shadows dancing over his features as he moved to pull off Viktor’s pants - and then, his own - he almost looked like a different person.

 

Yuuri pushed his hair up out of his eyes and swung a leg over Viktor’s hips before straddling him properly. He straightened his back, still wearing that same smirk. Definitely a different person, Viktor thought as he parted his lips. Yuuri accepted that invitation, and pushed the barrel of the gun back into his mouth.

 

  

 

 

 

 

Viktor tilted his head back, trying to ease the pressure of the barrel on his tongue, but Yuuri only used that to slide the gun in deeper. Viktor groaned, shut his eyes, and tried to pace his breathing. His hands found Yuuri’s thighs, hot and tensed around his hips. He dug his fingertips into the flesh and relished the quiet gasp he got in return.

 

“You like this,” Yuuri whispered. It wasn’t a question, or some haughty, cold observation made by firelight in an overstuffed armchair. It was raw, and volatile, and if Viktor had been able to speak, he might have shot back that you like it too.

 

It must have shown in his eyes anyway, because Yuuri lifted his hips and moved backwards just a bit, until Viktor’s cock was flush against his backside. He reached back with his free hand and guided Viktor in, so that when his hips finally sank down, Viktor felt himself sliding between Yuuri's cheeks. The sheer heat that engulfed him made him want to choke around the barrel.

 

“You do.” Yuuri let out a gasp. He wrapped his free hand around himself and started moving his hips up and down. “God, I - I wish you could see what you look like.”

 

Viktor moaned. He still tasted metal, but he smelled musk and heat and he wanted so much more than that. Snapping his hips up, he thrust into that heat as Yuuri bounced on top of him, a mockery of ‘riding’ him - or at least, a mockery was what Viktor would have called it, if only it weren’t proving to be just as effective. He raked his nails along Yuuri’s thighs and watched through his eyelashes as Yuuri jerked himself off.

 

All this time, he never let up on the gun - fucking Viktor’s mouth with it, and making a mess of both. His hand sped up to match the movements of his hips, and he was no longer as gentle as he’d been before. Rougher strokes sent the barrel slamming into the inside of Viktor’s cheek, or dangerously close to the back of his throat. If Viktor cried out, it was swallowed by the barrel. He kept his hands on Yuuri, and he didn’t dare to let go.

 

Viktor wasn’t sure what got to him in the end, if it was just the heat and the friction, or the sound of Yuuri’s voice as he kept whispering out praises with Viktor’s name as a refrain. Or it might have been something else altogether, something that made even less sense - all he knew was that at one point, when he was already dangerously close, he’d glanced up to see Yuuri’s finger hovering over the trigger, heard the click of the safety lock being disengaged, and suddenly saw white.

 

It took a long time to come down from the high. Viktor felt Yuuri’s weight slumped over him, and belatedly realized that the gun was no longer in his mouth. He licked his lips and tried to focus on Yuuri’s heartbeat, fast and erratic against his chest. His was no better. “Wow,” he managed.

 

“You never tapped out.” Yuuri pulled himself off of Viktor just barely enough so that he could collapse onto the other side of the bed, panting hard. He tossed the gun over the edge - again, so goddamn careless. The soft, muffled sound from when it made contact must have meant that it landed among their discarded clothes. “I’m impressed.”

 

Viktor acknowledged that with a wordless grunt. He couldn’t imagine possibly coming up with something dignified to say after they’d done… whatever it was that they’d just done. He was about to ask a question, but dragging his fingers across his stomach left them sticky and wet, and he no longer had to. “Come here,” he said instead.

 

Yuuri groaned softly. “Wait a bit.” With much difficulty, he leaned over the side of the bed and rummaged through the clothes on the floor. He came back up with a lighter in one hand and a single cigarette in the other.

 

Viktor watched the glow of the flame dancing over his hands as he lit up. “Is that mine or yours?”

 

“Yours,” Yuuri said. “Mine were out of reach, I think. I honestly don’t know where they are.” He tossed the lighter onto the side table and blew a stream of smoke up to the ceiling. “I’ll make it up to you later.”

 

“I don’t mind.” Viktor had figured as much, remembering now that he’d been down to his last cigarette. He tugged on Yuuri’s hand and said again, “Come here.”

  

 

 

 

 

 

They shared that cigarette in silence for the most part, just holding each other, sharing in the warmth of the smoke and their body heat. Viktor hadn’t forgotten what he’d been so concerned about before he’d been so thoroughly distracted, but he decided to wait a few more minutes to extend this spell of peace, before he would inevitably kill the mood.

 

“Have I earned an answer to my question, by the way?”

 

Yuuri shut his eyes, and heaved a deep sigh.

 

He didn’t answer right away; he simply plucked the cigarette back out of Viktor’s mouth, placed it between his lips, and took a long, slow drag. He blew the smoke towards the window, unintentionally giving Viktor a view of the burns on his back once more.

 

Just looking at them was enough to make him sick. He wanted to lean in and press a kiss against each of them in turn, as though that would have had any hope of changing anything.

 

“For what it’s worth,” Yuuri started, “I was going to show you. Eventually.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Viktor said, and really meant it. “But is it so bad that we’re having this conversation now?”

 

“That, I haven’t decided yet.”

 

He took another drag. Viktor waited, running his hands up and down the sides of Yuuri’s arms, letting his palms ghost over his skin. He knew better than to try to rush him; with conversations like these, you could either wait it out, let the other person dictate the pace, or spook them forever.

 

“It was a long, long time ago. I was a… difficult child, to put it lightly.” Yuuri ashed his cigarette into a tray on his bedside table, his eyes focused on the curtains. “Prone to ‘fits’, if you will. Anxiety. It wasn’t pretty.” Another sigh. “Human patience is finite, especially for problems that don’t have a clean fix. Looking back, I don’t condone what they did… but I think a part of me understands.”

 

Viktor didn’t want to guess. “Your parents…?”

 

“No!” Yuuri’s outburst surprised both of them, and he vehemently shook his head. “No, never. They were nothing but good to me.”

 

“Then who?”

 

He let out a low, broken little laugh. “Where do little children go when their parents are suddenly taken away from them, Detective?”

 

Viktor felt his heart sink. ‘Taken away’ could have meant one thing or another, but he’d gotten enough from this conversation so that he didn’t need to ask anymore. “I am so sorry.”

 

“It’s fine. Like I said, it was a long, long time ago.” Yuuri took another drag, quicker this time. It didn’t seem to have helped him much, if the look on his face was anything to go by. “In any case, it went on for a year before they finally shut that sorry excuse for an orphanage down.”

 

“And what happened to the people who ran it?”

 

“They got their due.” Yuuri shrugged. “It was terrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But now, in retrospect, I can see that I did gain a little bit from it. I don’t get the fits anymore.” He chuckled, letting out a puff of smoke. “Silver linings and all.”

 

“The pain helped you to control them.” Did that even count for anything? Viktor couldn’t ever imagine that it had been worth it.

 

“‘Control’ isn’t the word I would use. But, when the emotions come… I’d say I’ve learned to sublimate them into something different.” Yuuri swallowed. “Something more tolerable.”

 

‘Tolerable’. What a loaded word. Viktor tightened his grasp around Yuuri, burying his face into his hair. He was still reeling from what he’d learned, but now a part of him just wanted to track down whatever scum of the earth had seen it fit to torture a child with cigarette burns, and make sure that they never had a chance to hurt anyone again. Another part of him ended up fixated on Yuuri’s latest words, and wondering what underlying emotion would have sublimated itself into kissing a complete stranger on New Year’s Eve, or using a gun in a way that it had never been designed to use.

 

“I’m still sorry that this happened to you.”

 

“Stop.” Yuuri shook his head. “I don’t like being pitied.”

 

“Does anyone?”

 

“You’d be surprised. We all come in different strokes.” Yuuri shifted in his arms until he no longer had his back to Viktor’s chest, and could turn to face him. “Some of us more interesting than others.”

 

This time, it was Viktor’s turn to sigh. “This is where you flip the conversation around so we stop talking about you, isn’t it?”

 

“Caught onto my tactics already? Now I’m even more impressed.” Yuuri placed a hand on his cheek, and forced Viktor to meet his eyes. “That’s saying a lot, considering I just watched you finish with a gun in your mouth.”

 

“There’s a question at the end of this, I’m sure.”

 

“Do you have a death wish, Viktor?”

 

There it was. Viktor avoided Yuuri’s eyes, glanced at the cigarette butt in the ashtray, and sorely wished he had another one.

 

He wondered what he was supposed to say. Yuuri was probably expecting some specific answer from him - not too much of a stretch, given that the only choices were really ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Two very different questioning trees could sprout up from either answer, but choosing silence would come with its own host of complicated problems as well. And it probably wasn’t really an option - not when Yuuri was staring at him like this, waiting him out.

 

Ah, hell.

 

Yuuri had claimed that he’d wanted to test a ‘theory’. Viktor thought back to their first meeting, Yuuri’s written recommendation, and the third degree he’d been given about his past cases during their last session. He knew it looked bad on paper, but Yuuri had made the wrong conclusion about him from the beginning.

 

Hadn’t he?

 

But the Strangler and his most recent cases were more consequences than anything else. Right, perhaps this - and many other aspects of his life that Yuuri could write entire dissertations on - had started much earlier. And, well, if Yuuri had picked up on that … then maybe he already knew the right answer all along.

 

Maybe this was just a formality, then. “No.”

 

The long pause must have given Yuuri enough reason to doubt that that was the end of it. “‘But’?”

 

“But I’ll never shake off the feeling that I should have died two years ago, on Chambers Street.” Viktor let out a shaky breath. “That’s all.”

 

Yuuri mulled over those words. “You don’t actively seek it. But you’ll accept it if it comes.”

 

“Something like that?” He slumped back, resting his head against the headboard. The ceiling stared back at him, and offered no answers. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

 

It was a warning that his superiors had drilled into him from his first day on the Force, and it was a sentiment Yakov had echoed, albeit not in words, when he’d first handed Viktor the key to his office in the Feltsman Detective Agency. People who entered this industry willingly had to know that the numbers for life expectancy weren’t as friendly as they could have been in safer, quieter careers. Still, even as a child, Viktor had never imagined himself doing anything else. The worry lived in the back of his mind, always, but it was a quiet, muffled voice in a sea of louder, more immediate screaming.

 

…And then Chambers Street happened.

 

Viktor suspected - no, he was sure - that he’d been permanently broken that day, and that no matter how awful living with the aftermath of that was, it was only fair. Hell, he was lucky to even be able to ‘live’ at all, wasn’t he? But if he knew anything about how this life worked, it was that luck was a finite, precious thing, handed out by some uncaring power without a lick of sympathy for the damned.

 

Someday, one way or another, he was going to have to settle all his debts.

 

Yuuri must have noticed him brooding. He pressed a kiss against the underside of Viktor’s jaw. “May I say something potentially inappropriate, possibly unwanted, certainly unprofessional… and completely, utterly selfish?” he murmured.

 

“Go for it.”

 

“I would be devastated if you died.”

 

Viktor’s breath caught in his throat.

 

It seemed pathetic, almost - to be so utterly affected by those words, to feel the warmth spreading in his chest until it had nowhere to go, filling him up so much that he started to ache. He supposed it only made sense; he’d thrown himself into his work during his days as a cop, because they’d had goals back then, and planting roots and finding people to settle down with could come once they’d both finally left this island. And then Georgi had died, and… there hadn’t really been anyone. He hadn’t been looking, of course, and for completely different reasons this time. The closest he could call a friend and confidante was Makkachin; beyond that, there was no-one.

 

Well… there had been no-one.

 

Despite having been alone for so long, which he liked to think was by his own choice, hearing those words from Yuuri touched him more than he’d even thought possible, and with it stirred a few dormant hopes and wishes that he thought he’d put to bed years ago. There’s someone who looks out for you. There’s someone who cares.

 

“Thank you,” Viktor finally managed to get out. “I’ll… do my best to avoid it.”

 

“And I’ll absolutely hold you to that.” Yuuri smiled up at him, and rested his head on Viktor’s shoulder. “You’ll tell me, right? If I - if this becomes too much for you?”

 

What? “I don’t think I understand what you mean.”

 

“You will.” Yuuri reached up and ran a hand through his hair, playing with strands of silver. “There are no laws in place against what we’re doing - what I’m doing. But I worry, sometimes.”

 

“You’re not going to break me, Doctor.” I was already broken when I met you.

 

“That isn’t the issue. You see what it is, right?” Yuuri’s voice dropped to a whisper. “The argument can be made that, because of our relationship… I’m no better than…”

 

He trailed off, and Viktor had never been so grateful to hear a sentence left unfinished. “You didn’t go as far as he did. If that helps at all.”

 

“Do you want me to?”

 

There was that question again. If Yuuri had asked him today, Viktor knew that his answer would have been different from the one he’d given the first time. And he could have said that now, but something told him this wasn’t what Yuuri was looking for tonight. Not yet. And so… “Why don’t you let that be your line in the sand, then? If you’re so keen on drawing one?”

 

Yuuri scoffed. “It’s a bit meaningless, don’t you think?”

 

“Yeah, it really is.” Viktor laughed. “But it could be nice. We could make an evening out of it.” He pulled Yuuri close again, and nuzzled at his temple. “The minute I’m no longer your patient, I’ll come over. We can make that - what was it called - katsudon again. Maybe share a bottle of something special, though we’ll deny it to the death if the cops decide to raid your house that night.”

 

Yuuri laughed with him. “God forbid.”

 

“We could light the fireplace… take it slow. Or not, because we’d have been waiting long enough.” He pressed a kiss against Yuuri’s shoulder, just barely missing the edge of an old burn there. “In the morning, I’ll make you breakfast. I’ll wake you up before it gets cold, and you’ll hate me for that, but I’ll put on some really good coffee and all will be forgiven.” Viktor smiled against his skin. Yuuri was always so warm. “What do you think?”

 

“Mmmm.” Yuuri traced aimless patterns onto Viktor’s chest. “That does sound nice.”

 

If they stayed there in Yuuri’s bed, lounging in their shared warmth for longer than was responsible, well, Viktor couldn’t quite bring himself to care. All too soon, Viktor knew, he would have to go back out into that world where people lied and threatened and killed each other, and he would have to worry about Yuuri’s safety every second that he wasn’t in his arms. But it was hard to think of bullets flying, or of portents of doom conducted down telephone lines, when he was surrounded by these sheets that smelled so much like their owner, and locked in an embrace with Yuuri himself.

 

“You’re not staying the night, are you?”

 

It was Yuuri who killed the mood now, which made them even. Viktor flashed him a rueful smile. “Not tonight. I’m sorry.” And he really was sorry, this time. “I’ve got some other things to take care of, and Makkachin - ”

 

“Go.” Yuuri pressed his palms against Viktor’s chest, and started getting ready to leave the bed. “It’s okay, don’t let me keep you. But at least let me walk you to the door.”

 

They ended up lingering a few more minutes in bed anyway, after Viktor pulled him back and murmured something about Yuuri not kicking him out so soon.

 

At some point, Yuuri finally mustered up enough self-control to tear himself away from Viktor’s grasp. The conversation was desultory as they cleaned up - gun safety, train schedules, next week’s session. Viktor listed off a few places near the clinic where you could buy bullets, and told Yuuri to let him know when he wanted to practice shooting again. Yuuri asked if Viktor would rather he drove him home, but Viktor begged off; yes, the trains were still running, and yes, he knew his way back home from Brooklyn, thank you very much.

 

“Viktor.”

 

Yuuri called his name at the door, just as Viktor had put on his hat. Viktor had scarcely started to turn back when Yuuri grabbed the end of his tie, yanked down hard, and crushed his lips against Viktor’s in a kiss that robbed him both of breath, and of any desire for it.

 

“Next time we do this… I’m going to make you stay.”

 

That whispered promise followed Viktor all the way home.

 

As he made his way through gradually busier streets, he felt the city’s eyes burning holes in him as they always did. But at least for tonight, he didn’t give a damn.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

February 13, 1929

 

If I remember right, there’s supposed to be a very human way of thinking like that of a prey animal sticking its head in the sand. I don’t want to call it a ‘philosophy’, because that feels like I would be giving it too much credit. It doesn’t help that this manner of thinking is usually attributed to the very young, the very naive, or the very deluded: ‘if I don’t look at it, it isn’t there’. If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t matter, and therefore it isn’t a problem.

 

I suppose I knew from the start that it was going to be a terrible idea: talking about HER, knowing that it would mean thinking about HER, when I’ve been trying so hard not to. What even would be the point? It’s been so many years, and it’s not as though thinking about her and wishing to have just a little more time would ever bring her back. I know. I know that too well.

 

But then all it took was one evening - one conversation, and it’s like I’ve been taken right back to that same day, and nothing has moved. Nothing has healed.

 

I still miss her. I miss everyone who was taken from me.

 

I suppose that will never really change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps it was inevitable that Viktor eventually found himself climbing up the winding stairs to that otherworldly realm of bricks and secrets and porcelain that was the Silk Umbrella again, barely two weeks after his first visit. But for all of the new ground that their team had covered, and the decently solid lead he’d gotten from Karpisek’s son, there were still far too many holes to fill. The crime wall in his office had too much empty space in it, too many connections that had yet to be made.

 

Would he find his answers in this place? That was up in the air, and would depend on too many factors that Viktor couldn’t control. But he had no idea where else to go.

 

“Welcome back, Detective!” Phichit Chulanont, never one to face a patron without a smile, greeted him with an ear-to-ear grin plastered on his face. “How good of you to visit us again - is it for business, or for leisure?”

 

“Why?” Viktor decided to indulge him in this little game for at least a little while. Niceness was a card that paid dividends for most of the subjects he spoke to in his day-to-day, but this man was far from his typical subject. “Would your prices change depending on my answer?”

 

Phichit laughed. “Nothing like that, sir. We simply seek to ensure that we give you the best possible experience.”

 

“Right, of course.”

 

Viktor glanced around the shop. For a stormy Tuesday afternoon, it was far busier in here than he would have expected, with two or three other patrons perusing the store’s wares, and a few others sitting at the tables near the window. A group of older ladies had pushed two of those tables together, so that they could huddle over some sort of board game. A man sitting alone in the far corner waited as a woman in a kimono refilled his tea. His brows drew together when Viktor looked his way.

 

“Well?” Phichit pressed. “Which is it?”

 

“Business,” Viktor answered, figuring that there was no point in lying. “If you don’t mind.”

 

“Not at all.” He wouldn’t have imagined it to be possible, but somehow, Phichit’s grin widened even more. “I’d guessed as much, from the time of day. Anyway, what can I get you? Same as last time?”

 

Viktor nodded.

 

“Excellent!” Phichit clapped his hands together. A few quick, long strides took him back to his place behind the counter. “Any girl in particular you have in mind?”

 

“Anyone who’s ever entertained the late Josef Karpisek as a client would be great.”

 

A beat passed. Behind him, he heard the clinking of porcelain.

 

Phichit was a consummate professional at what he did, but nobody was perfect. He slipped up with the smallest of tells: a quirk of the eyebrow, a twitch in the corner of his lips that strained the stretch of his smile. If Viktor had blinked, he would have missed it completely. “We’ve already had this conversation, sir. As I told you before, I don’t keep track of any of the details of those sessions.”

 

“And you don’t know if the girls do either, yes, I’m aware. But I’m sure any one of them would remember if they’ve served him - if not for his celebrity, then at least for the gruesome way he died.”

 

“What makes you so sure that that man ever once stepped foot in our humble establishment at all?”

 

“Come on.” Viktor gave him a meaningful look. “Are we really doing this?”

 

“Doing what?” Phichit chirped. “Having a conversation?”

 

Viktor sighed, and bit back more than a few cutting, but ultimately useless retorts. The split-second of satisfaction, while so tempting to imagine, just wouldn’t be worth it in the end. This was clearly not working. “Alright. Say I book an hour-long session with each of the girls working here, and ask them myself. Would that be fine?”

 

“It’s your money, sir.” Phichit shrugged, and made an obvious show of arranging some of the pens and other trinkets behind the counter. “It’s up to you how you choose to part with it.”

 

“Well, I’m not a man with particularly expensive vices.” That was a lie, of course. But the worst part of his bluff was that he didn’t actually have enough money on him to see it through - he could probably sit down with one of the girls, maybe two if he committed to walking home tonight and every night for the rest of the week. What were the chances he’d luck out and find himself a useful witness on his first two tries?

 

A flash of movement in his peripheral vision distracted him, and shattered his train of thought. He turned to see a girl in a familiar floral kimono starting to make her way towards a door marked ‘Employees Only ’. He was sure this was the same girl who’d been serving the man at the corner table, but there was something else that was familiar about her. Had he seen her the last time he was here? Maybe. He couldn’t recall.

 

“Can I start with her?” he asked, nodding in her direction.

 

Phichit craned his neck over the counter to see. “Ah, I believe you just missed the end of her shift.”

 

Viktor glanced at his watch just as the door clicked shut. It was 1:42 p.m. “Then you won’t mind if I talk to her normally, since she’s off the clock now.”

 

He tuned out all of Phichit’s protests as he walked away from the counter, smiling at the group of old ladies on his way. A couple of them actually smiled back; the rest either gave him a blank stare, or averted their eyes and murmured something he couldn’t hear.

 

He heard footsteps, approaching, from within the room almost as soon as he’d knocked on the door. But it most certainly wasn’t the girl from before who opened it to greet him.

 

“Detective Nikiforov.” The slow, sensual spread of a smile on Minako’s face made his skin prickle. “If you’ve run out of those cigarettes, and decided to come here for more, I’m afraid I’m going to have to charge you this time.”

 

Viktor mirrored her smile easily, and forced himself to relax his posture. “Tempting, but I would rather reserve my money for a Tea and Tête-à-tête session today.”

 

“Splendid. I’m always happy to see satisfied customers coming back,” she said, leaning casually against the door jamb. “But I’m sorry to say that the girls and I are all fully booked for today.”

 

“Is that so?” Viktor glanced back at Phichit. This time, he seemed to be making a show of flipping through some papers, pretending he wasn’t listening. “Maybe I should have called ahead.”

 

“Maybe you should have,” Minako agreed. “The recent cold snap in this city has driven a lot of people in search of warmth indoors. It’s really been quite good for business.”

 

“I can imagine,” Viktor murmured. He tried to steal a glance into the room behind her, but Minako was blocking his view. From the parts that he could see, there wasn’t much to write home about anyway - just a short, narrow corridor that abruptly bent to the left. “They say this cold snap isn’t going to go away for at least the next couple of weeks. Guess I have plenty of time to come back for that session.”

 

“And we would love to be able to entertain you, but unfortunately, all of our girls are booked solid for the rest of the month.”

 

“So you do keep records of these sessions after all.”

 

If Minako had actually been caught off-guard by that, she certainly didn’t show it. She tilted her head just so, letting long tendrils of hair spill over her shoulder like spun silk. “What have you really come here for, Detective?”

 

“The same thing I came here for last time: information. The tea is a welcome bonus, though.”

 

“Indeed, but given the nature of the information I believe you may be seeking, I have to refuse. Some of the girls will doubtless find your chosen topic of conversation… unpleasant.”

 

So that was how it was. He should have known that it only would have been a matter of time before Minako figured out the true nature of his investigation, which he’d abstracted away as best as he could in their first meeting. In that case, he decided he might as well do away with the vagueness entirely. “I’ll settle for the names of the girls who were working the night that Josef Karpisek was killed.”

 

“Do you really think that, if one of them witnessed anything important that night, they would not have already gone to the police?”

 

“Plenty of reasons not to go to the police.” Viktor could already think of a dozen, off the top of his head. “Maybe one of them saw something and didn’t realize what it was. Maybe one of them was the last to see him alive, and remembers something she doesn’t know is useful. Maybe he might’ve talked about being threatened or scared, or who knows, maybe one of your girls was the one who killed him.” He shrugged. “I like to keep an open mind.”

 

A short spell of silence filled the air between them, measured, but no less heavy. Minako gave him a look, and Viktor found himself unable to read her expression at all.

 

And then the spell was over, and she let out an incredulous laugh. “I am impressed by your honesty, Detective! I find it somewhat… refreshing. Especially in times like these.”

 

“Are you impressed enough to give me the list I’m asking for?”

 

“Oh, of course not. You and I have already had this discussion - the courtesy I extend to my clients by protecting their privacy extends to my girls as well.”

 

He’d expected as much. Still… “Interesting word choice,” he couldn’t help but comment. “‘Your’ girls, huh?”

 

Minako smiled. She stepped out into the shop’s main room, shrinking the distance between them, and shut the door behind her. “Come with me. I’d hate for you to have wasted a trip coming here, so let’s make sure you at least don’t leave empty-handed.”

 

Viktor tried to protest. But before he could get a word out, Minako had already looped an arm through his, and started pulling him along. She half-led, half-dragged him like this back to the counter, where she promptly rang the desk bell - even though Phichit was already standing there, and staring right at them.

 

“Mr. Chulanont, we are unfortunately unable to fulfill this fine gentleman’s request for a session with one of our girls,” she announced. “Would you be so kind as to offer him something else as compensation - perhaps indulge him with a tea leaf reading?” She patted his arm. “You can tell the owner that I’ll cover the cost for it.”

 

“I’d be more than happy to offer it on the house,” Phichit said. “We wouldn’t want to lose such a valued customer. In fact, if the gentleman pleases…” He started to turn towards the locked built-in cabinet at the back of the reception area, which Viktor would soon find was filled with cups and other tea-making paraphernalia. “We can do it right now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

He started preparing for the reading right then and there, over the counter. Viktor tried to move when Phichit had his back turned to him, but a sharp tug from Minako, who had yet to let go of his arm, stopped him. As far as warnings went, it wasn’t too hostile; she was still smiling at him, after all. And although she held fast to his arm, it would have been no hardship for Viktor to break free from her grasp. Then again the question lay, of course, in what would happen after that.

 

So he decided to stay.

 

Just as Phichit started to measure out tea leaves, Viktor heard the door opening from where he and Minako had been conversing earlier. He turned his head, just barely, so that he could observe the same girl from earlier walking out. Despite the odd time of day, it really did look like she’d just finished up her ‘shift’, having already changed into street clothes.

 

He watched her the whole time, as she made her way to the exit. When she was finally out of sight, he looked down at where Minako had his arm in a vise grip, and at the familiar pattern of white flowers on black painting the silk of her sleeve. “These kimonos you all wear,” he asked, half out of sheer curiosity. “Are they custom-made?”

 

“Yes. Each new girl that we hire receives three sets in her size.”

 

“They all look identical,” he murmured. “Do they all go through the same tailor?”

 

“Naturally. It’s how we assure their uniformity.” She hummed. “I’m not going to give you a name, if that was the next thing you were going to ask.”

 

It wasn’t, not really. Viktor wasn’t even too sure where this train of thought was leading him. “It doesn’t look like she took it home. Do you keep them in the shop?”

 

Minako mulled over that for some time, before eventually deciding it was safe to answer. “Yes. They are company property, after all.”

 

“I see.” Viktor weighed that information in his mind, and put it aside for now.

 

Finally, it seemed as though Phichit had finished his preparations. He filled a single cup with some green, piping hot tea, stopping just before the liquid hit the rim. “We’ll give it a minute,” he announced, “after which I’ll take a look at the patterns in your tea leaves, and give you advice which is most certainly not intended to be interpreted as fortune-telling.”

 

Viktor chuckled at that. “Smart man. You remembered?”

 

“When your livelihood depends on your talent for talking to people, you tend to remember even the tiniest details from important conversations.” He nudged the cup forward, with a deceptively light touch; the liquid hardly even moved. “Drink up, Detective.”

 

Viktor stared at the tea. The way the leaves slowly sank to the bottom reminded him too much of ashes, and the clumps they began to form called to mind dark splotches in the alley outside Casa Roja. He swallowed back something bitter that had been perched on the edge of his throat. “Please don’t take this as ingratitude,” he said, “but I’ve had some less-than-pleasant experiences with drinks that other people have prepared for me recently. I hope you understand.”

 

“Ah, of course.” Phichit raised the cup to eye-level and swirled the liquid inside, never losing his smile even as it came dangerously close to spilling at some points. He didn’t waste a single drop, though. “Then, since it’s all the same in the end, let’s do it the old-fashioned way.”

 

Phichit poured the tea out into a wide, shallow bowl. He then placed the palm of his hand flat over the rim, and shook the cup vigorously from side to side. He waited a few seconds for the liquid to settle, before removing his hand to let the last few drops of liquid drip down into the saucer. Finally, he turned the cup over.

 

“What do you see?”

 

Viktor peered inside. Most of the leaves had now clumped up into a single, vaguely-triangular shape just slightly off the center of the cup. A fraction of them had broken off, probably from when Phichit had shaken them, to form a line along the side that traced out the arc of the rim. A few single leaves, scattered here and there, added a splash of chaos to the tableau.

 

“I’m not sure,” he finally said. “A pyramid?”

 

“A mountain.” Phichit then pointed at the leaves near the rim, murmuring, “And a snake.”

 

“Is that all supposed to mean something?”

 

“Well, the mountain usually signifies a journey of hindrance,” he explained. “And the snake, well - you can probably imagine what that represents.”

 

“Enlighten me.”

 

“I could, but that would simply serve to insult us both, Detective.” Phichit laughed, and in one swift motion managed to pull the cup away. He placed it in some compartment underneath the counter, out of sight. "In any case, the wisdom that your tea leaves want me to impart unto you is one that you should already know: in spite of our best efforts, danger always lurks around the corner. To chase after it willingly, despite what might be the noblest of intentions, is a foolish endeavor… one that is only bound to end in tragedy."

 

Viktor registered the warning in the sudden tightening of Minako’s grip around his arm, mildly threatening to cut off his circulation. It was then that he noticed that the interior of the shop had suddenly fallen silent; he didn’t need to look around to know that the rest of the patrons’ eyes had locked onto the back of his head.

 

Well… that was likely about as much information as he was going to get for today. So he thanked them for their time, carefully extricated his arm from Minako’s grasp, and walked out of the shop without daring to look back.

 

 


 

 

Once he got back to the agency, the very first thing Viktor did was to hunt Yuri down. It wasn’t hard - he found the younger detective already in his office, courtesy of a spare key from Yakov, adding some newspaper cut-outs to the sprawling tableau on the wall. Yuri asked him how his little ‘fishing trip’ had gone without even looking at him, and instead of answering - or maybe this was an answer in its own way, as Yuri was certainly sharp enough to figure out what it meant - Viktor asked him to compile a list of all of the city laundries within a ten-block radius from The Silk Umbrella. He specifically asked about those that offered hand-laundering, in cold water, because he’d just talked to Seung-gil about how silk would be cared for by a professional, and he knew what he had to be looking for.

 

“Is this really for the case, or are you getting into some weird sideline that I don’t wanna know about?” Yuri asked, wrinkling his nose.

 

“It’s for the case,” Viktor assured him. “I have a hunch. More importantly, have you got anything interesting for me there?” He draped his coat over the back of his chair and wandered over to the crime wall, surveying Yuri’s new additions.

 

“Not much,” he admitted. “Police picked up a body on the border of Chinatown yesterday morning. Single bullet to the back of the head. Ballistics matched it to the gun he had in his hand when he was found.”

 

“That’s… tragic,” Viktor found himself saying. He wasn’t quite sure if he could have found a more appropriate word. “But how is it related to our case?”

 

“That isn’t confirmed yet. Which is why the border I’m using is orange, didn’t we talk about this?” Yuri mumbled something under his breath - something about Viktor being ‘senile’. “Anyway, the reason I’m putting this down as ‘maybe’ relevant is because when they searched the body, they found something in his back pocket.”

 

Viktor skimmed the newspaper clipping Yuri had tacked onto the wall. ‘The body of a man now identified as so-and-so… was found near the corner of Broadway and Canal Street…’ The writing, sparse on details and drama alike, read as flat and cold to him. Or maybe he was getting too used to reading Leo’s pieces - he had to check them every single day now, to make sure he wasn’t writing anything patently false. Or dangerous. “A written and signed note confessing to Karpisek’s murder?” Viktor murmured.

 

“Hah, you wish.” Yuri withdrew a small piece of paper from his back pocket, and handed it over. The paper was badly wrinkled, and had been folded tightly into eighths. “It’s a receipt from a tea shop. You get one guess.”

 

“I don’t even need it.” After carefully unfolding the paper, Viktor was no longer even surprised to see ‘The Silk Umbrella’ printed near the top, in the same elegant, bold style as the flyer he’d found in the hotel. Below it was a much messier scrawl: ‘5x specialty hibiscus blend, $44.40, 02/02/1929’ ; the bare minimum for a legal receipt.

 

“It might not be important,” Yuri said. “This place has been getting pretty popular lately, hasn’t it? Maybe it’s nothing.”

 

“Maybe.” Viktor was starting to entertain that possibility less and less with each passing day. “But maybe not.” He tore himself away from the tableau on his wall, and motioned to his door. “Walk with me.”

 

Yuri made a face. “Sounds like effort.”

 

“We’re going two doors down. Come on.”

 

Emil’s office was a reflection of the man himself, with its windows stripped of curtains and blinds, eagerly letting in all of the sunlight that this dreary season could spare. His desk sat at an angle, aligned with absolutely none of the walls in the office, and the single guest chair was piled high with a whimsical array of throw pillows. Rumor had it that he’d once floated the idea of a rocking chair in here, but Yakov had put his foot down.

 

“Well, that’s just not right. Fleecing your customer base like that is rude,” Emil commented, studying the paper closely. He’d actually taken a magnifying glass to it, and Viktor tried not to laugh at the comical way he was squinting through the lens. “‘Hibiscus blend’, huh.”

 

“There was no tea anywhere on or near the body.” Viktor turned to Yuri for confirmation, and got a nod in return. “The cops would have made a note of that.”

 

“Still,” Yuri said, “there’s no way to tell if the exchange had already happened, or if he was on his way when he was killed.”

 

“Right.” In other words, they knew almost nothing about this crime in and of itself, much less whether it was actually connected to the Karpisek murder. Fantastic. “The phrasing is interesting, though. Five what, exactly? Cups? Sacks? Individual tea leaves?” Viktor certainly wouldn’t have put it past them.

 

“Ahhh, I wish I knew.” Emil sighed. “I tried to find out more about these things, like you’d asked me to. But I think they made me right away.” He turned to Yuri. “Does my face scream ‘Detective’ to you?”

 

“I plead the Fifth.”

 

“What exactly did they say?” Viktor asked.

 

“Something along the lines of, ‘we’re out of specialty teas right now ’, and when I asked them when they’d have more, then it became, ‘sorry sir, we’re out of stock indefinitely ’.”

 

Yuri snorted. “They didn’t even try to be subtle about it.”

 

Viktor frowned. He hadn’t completely expected that Emil would be successful - that would’ve just been setting himself up for disappointment. But something was bothering him… was it the wording? Something else? He wasn’t sure. “Thank you for trying, anyway.”

 

“Wait, I didn’t walk out of there empty-handed.” Emil sprung up from behind his desk, waving his arms to stop them from leaving. “So this tea shop, it’s always open, right? That’s kind of part of its appeal. Anyway, I heard that they’re actually going to be closed all day on the last day of the month. Isabella Yang’s throwing some kind of huge auction, and she’s contracted all of the Silk Umbrella’s staff as servers and, uh, ‘entertainers’ for that night.”

 

Viktor could have asked many questions - where exactly Emil had heard this gossip from, and why he’d thought it necessary to make the actual finger quotes. But he ended up only voicing the one at the forefront of his mind: “Who’s Isabella Yang?”

 

Yuri fixed him with an incredulous stare. “Are you kidding me, old man?”

 

“What?”

 

“The princess of Chinatown? The socialite?” At Viktor’s blank look, Emil’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “Really, nothing? Her father’s supposedly this bigshot, one of the gentry back in China.”

 

“What is she doing here, then?” Viktor asked, genuinely confused.

 

“Well, for one, she just got engaged to some doctor… his name was John something? John Jack something?”

 

“I have no idea who these people are.”

 

“How have you seriously not at least heard of Isabella Yang? Anyway, she also inherited her old man’s vice for fancy art, but her tastes skew a lot further West.”

 

“Didn’t she commission something like half of all the murals in the Paramount Theater?” Yuri added. “There was a whole party for her when it opened, two years ago. Yeah, it shut down 43rd and Broadway for a few hours, it was so fucking annoying.”

 

Viktor tried to understand how he could have possibly missed all of this. What had he been doing two years ago - oh. Oh, right. “I don’t recall.”

 

Yuri rolled his eyes. “Useless.”

 

“In any case, I wasn’t going to make much of it,” Emil said. “But then I heard where they were planning to hold the auction, and I thought you’d want to hear this: it’ll be in the biggest ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria.”

 

Viktor started at that. What were the chances of that particular venue having been chosen by sheer coincidence? “There’s gotta be something there,” he muttered. What was it? “I’m guessing this event isn’t open to the public?”

 

“Sadly, no… I would’ve asked for more details, but I honestly don’t think they were big fans of me there.” Emil scratched the back of his head, chuckling. “Something about the looks on their faces.”

 

Viktor sighed, and rubbed at his eyes. Of course, it wouldn’t have been that easy. But this closed auction promised a rare opportunity to peek behind the veil that constantly shrouded that tea shop and - if he was really lucky - the mysterious Triad itself as well. He was going to have to give this some serious thought.

 

“Thanks for this, Emil. You were a great help.” And he really was, but Viktor would have been remiss if he didn’t temper that with a warning. “Stay away from that tea shop for awhile, okay? I get the feeling those people might not be too friendly if you show your face there again.”

 

Emil laughed. “If you say so.”

 

Viktor waited a few seconds after Emil’s office door had clicked shut behind them, and they’d already made it halfway back to his own office, before addressing Yuri. “Don’t look at me like that.”

 

“Like what? You can’t even see me, I’m fucking behind you.”

 

“You think I have some ulterior motive in getting Emil to back off. I don’t. These people we’re investigating are dangerous, and the less people I can get directly involved, the better.” He’d still told no-one about that threatening phone call, and how that meant that the whole agency was possibly under surveillance by now. There was still a chance that whoever was behind the threats was targeting only Viktor himself, though, and in that case he would be better off working alone. “I’d tell you to stay away, if I thought there was a chance you might listen.”

 

“Yeah, that’s not happening, old man.” Yuri scoffed. “You made me a promise, remember? Once we find out who did this, I’m making the collar.”

 

“I know.” It was a promise he was starting to regret. “I remember.”

 

“Good. So until that happens, I’m not going anywhere! Yakov already gave me his blessing, so there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.”

 

The realization started to form as they stepped into his office, but it didn’t actually hit until he’d closed his door. Once you got past Yuri’s wall of bluster and vulgarity, Viktor had learned after a week or so of knowing him, there was little else but raw, unfiltered honesty that remained. Based on that, he wasn’t sure how to feel about the conclusion he drew now - it was at once heartwarming, amusing, and horrifying. “You… like this job. Don’t you?”

 

“…Ugh. Why do you always have to make everything so weird?” Yuri scowled and stomped over to stare intently at the crime wall, taking him to the only place in the office where Viktor couldn’t make eye contact. “So, this auction… we’re going, right? What’s the plan?”

 

 


 

 

“Let’s talk about your father.”

 

Viktor had to give himself some time to process that. Yuuri’s idea of ‘hello’ tonight was apparently this: his own version of ripping off a bandage, barely a second after Viktor had sat down, and peering to see if he’d uncovered any blood. “Dare I ask where this is coming from?”

 

“It’s a conversation you and I were going to have inevitably. Be it now, or a week from now, or the week after that.” Yuuri didn’t have to mention the gun, the brief history Viktor had given him as to where it had come from, and everything that had followed after that; the mild, restrained smile he wore on his face said it all. “Shall I put you out of your misery?”

 

“Not much of it to put me out of,” Viktor mumbled. His hands felt clumsy and completely out of place, resting on the arms of his chair. The urge to dig his nails into the wood was growing, bit by bit. “My mother left Russia - and him - before I was born. I don’t think I ever even got his name.”

 

“I see.” A pause. “Did she tell you why?”

 

Viktor shook his head slowly. He’d had his guesses, but all of them were ripe for Yuuri to cut into and tear apart. And besides, he was only here to earn Yakov’s professional trust back, right? Why would any of that even be relevant?

 

“It must have been difficult for her, going at it alone.” Yuuri glanced down at his notebook, flipping through some notes he must have written before their session. “Mr. Feltsman tells me your mother had no other blood relatives here when she moved to America. Not much of a support system, either… is that correct?”

 

Now Viktor was starting to wonder if Yakov’s motivations for making him attend these sessions were, in fact, strictly professional. “He - he told you that, huh?” He winced at how strangled his voice had sounded.

 

Yuuri offered him a soft smile. “Does that bother you so?”

 

Viktor was quickly getting tired of this silly death-by-questions game. “A little.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because he’s my employer now,” he forced out. “He doesn’t - he shouldn’t have to concern himself with any other aspects of my life.”

 

Yuuri nodded. He jotted something down quickly - a word, maybe two at most. “As opposed to what?”

 

“What?”

 

“You just said, about Mr. Feltsman: ‘He’s my employer now.’” Yuuri stressed a different word, and glanced up at Viktor over the rim of his glasses. “May I ask what he was to you before?”

 

Something that doesn’t matter now, was what immediately came to mind. Something I didn’t deserve.

 

“He was… someone who helped me out during a difficult time,” he managed to say instead. “Even though he had no reason to.”

 

Yuuri nodded, and proceeded to fill the air with the sound of his scribbling across the page. This went on for entirely too long - it must have just been a few seconds, but at some point it sure felt as though it would go on forever. Viktor hated that; clearly, Yuuri had a lot of thoughts about what he’d just said, but he obviously wouldn’t be sharing those thoughts with Viktor anytime soon. With Yakov, maybe - he was technically under Yakov’s employ, after all. And that would be even worse, wouldn’t it?

 

“Shall we resume speaking about your mother, then?”

 

Viktor stared sullenly at the floor. “Sure, why the hell not.”

 

Yuuri chuckled. “You are completely shutting me out tonight, Viktor. Why is that?”

 

“I’m not.” He swallowed. “Shutting you out - whatever that means. I said we can go ahead, didn’t I?”

 

“Not like this. Not when every question I pose is blocked by a wall that’s colder than the streets outside.”

 

Viktor felt his eyes drawn to the window. The fog that had started barely halfway through the afternoon had claimed the street outside completely. Yes, he supposed it was particularly frigid out tonight; a chain of cigarettes smoked during his walk to the clinic had been the only thing that stopped him from forgetting about his fingers.

 

Yuuri was just doing his job, he reminded himself. Whether or not he personally cared to know the answers to all of his persistent questions was… secondary. That they happened to be talking about Viktor’s childhood tonight was also just that. Secondary.

 

“I’m sorry.” He rubbed at his eyes. “Let’s do it again, and I’ll… try to be nicer.”

 

Yuuri closed the notebook, gently enough so as not to make a sound, and put it aside. Adjusting his glasses, he leaned forward over his desk. Viktor read every muscle in his body warning of the same impending thing, and he braced himself for the question that was to come.

 

But it never did. Instead, Yuuri suddenly stood up, and motioned for Viktor to do the same. “Let’s switch places.”

 

Viktor furrowed his brows. “What?”

 

“Let’s switch places,” Yuuri said again. “I’ll take that chair, and you can sit behind my desk. The reversal might make you feel a bit more at ease.”

 

Viktor wasn’t so sure. “You think so?”

 

“If I am wrong, we can always switch back.”

 

He supposed he couldn’t really argue with that. He stood up, glanced at the clock on the wall, and sorely wished that the hands would move just a little bit faster.

 

Being behind Yuuri’s desk felt… strange, in a word. The perspective was one that was entirely new to him, and seeing the rest of his office spreading out from here, with the light from the streetlamps filtering through the window behind him, made it look like a wholly different place. Viktor let his fingers skim along the edge of the desk, relishing the smooth finish of the wood beneath his skin. He imagined himself an intruder in Yuuri’s space - the closed notebook stared at him coldly, and the chair that had contoured itself to Yuuri’s form after years of use did not feel the least bit welcoming.

 

How many others like him had sat across this desk, he wondered, and how many diagnoses must Yuuri have fired off with this view? How many words had he written here? Viktor would never know.

 

“Ah, sorry… I seem to have forgotten…”

 

“Hmmm?” Viktor followed his gaze, and his eyes landed on a mug of steaming tea on the other side of the desk, near the phone. “Oh. Here.”

 

He handed it over. In that split second before Yuuri accepted the mug into his hands, Viktor caught a whiff of the tea. It smelled… familiar? Somehow? But he couldn’t quite place it.

 

“How does it feel?”

 

“…Different,” he answered honestly.

 

“Different is good. That was the intention, after all.” Yuuri took a slow, measured sip of his tea. “Comfortable?”

 

Viktor really wasn’t sure. He took in everything that was sitting on Yuuri’s desk, things he’d already seen or at least caught glimpses of throughout his past sessions: that fancy-looking phone of his, those fountain pens arranged in a line, the cigarette case with poppies painted on it. A small stack of books with Japanese characters on the covers sat on an open shelf that was only visible from this side of the desk, and a decorative bowl that he’d seen before but never really noticed repaid his close attention now, as he took stock of the potpourri of objects it held - mostly loose change, but also a few individually-wrapped pieces of what he guessed was candy, and a strange-looking key with a flower-shaped bow sitting near the bottom.

 

“It’s… a bit overwhelming,” he said at length.

 

“I see.” Yuuri paused, surveying the room. He stood up and put the mug of tea back onto his desk. “Shall we move over there, then?”

 

This time, he was staring pointedly at the corner of the room with the daybed and the overstuffed chair. Viktor didn’t know if this would be an improvement; more than once, he’d found himself hopelessly lost in the the patterns of those tapestries draping the walls. “Sure,” he said anyway.

 

If Yuuri’s seat behind his desk had felt too stiff, this was the opposite - Viktor wound up sinking halfway into that blasted overstuffed chair.

 

Yuuri toed off his shoes and lay back until he was reclining fully on the daybed. Viktor raked his eyes up the lines of Yuuri’s body, slowly, and swallowed. He couldn’t help but think that he would much rather join Yuuri on that bed - pull that soft chinchilla blanket over them both, kiss him quiet, and swallow all of his pointed questions in that kiss until he finally, finally ran out of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Well?” If Yuuri was privy to Viktor’s current train of thought, he mercifully showed no sign of it. “Ask away.”

 

Viktor blinked. “What?”

 

“Ask me something.” He caught the confused expression Viktor was surely wearing right now, and laughed. “You don’t want to? I suppose we can stay here in silence until the hour is up, but that’s hardly an efficient use of your time.” He smirked. “Right, Doctor?”

 

Oh… oh, that was what he’d meant by ‘switch’. Oh. “Right.”

 

Yuuri’s smile widened, beatific.

 

Well. If this was how Yuuri had wanted to conduct this exercise, then Viktor was just going to have to play along. For all that Yuuri had so carefully phrased everything as a question, he doubted he’d ever really had any choice in the matter.

 

But… what was he supposed to ask? There were a thousand and one things he didn’t know about Yuuri yet, and perhaps a thousand and one more that he didn’t even realize that he didn’t know. He had no idea where to begin.  

 

In the end, it was too difficult to be creative when put on the spot like this. “So.” Viktor cleared his throat, and threw back the very same question with which Yuuri had opened tonight’s session. “What, uh - what can you tell me about your father?”

 

“Hmmm… well, he was a good provider, although that meant he was away at work more often than not. Sometimes for days at a time.” Yuuri shrugged. “But whenever he did come home, he always carried with him the smell of the steam engines. It was like a switch in my brain: coming home from the neighbor’s, picking up on that scent when I entered the house… it meant that Otousan had come back.”

 

This still didn’t feel quite right. Viktor took a moment, and tried to switch off the part of his mind that insisted on treating this as a therapy session, before he continued. “Were you close to him?”

 

“Not as much as I would have liked. But I always knew that he was doing his best, and I was grateful for that.”

 

“I see… you were closer to your mother, then?” When Yuuri nodded, he pressed on. “What was she like?”

 

“She smelled like lavender and grill smoke.” Yuuri had tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. He inhaled deeply, like he’d stepped into a room in his mind, trying to breathe it all in. “Incense in the mornings. Dashi - I mean, cooking stock - and sweet rice wine.”

 

“Wow,” Viktor breathed, unable to help himself. It was almost as if he could smell the room himself, just from Yuuri’s descriptions. Yet at the same time, it felt like he was intruding on such a personal moment. He looked away and stared at the floor instead. “That’s… that’s really vivid.”

 

“Our sense of smell is intimately coupled with memory - perhaps the most out of all our senses.” Yuuri opened his eyes. “To the point that sometimes, certain smells can be enough to trigger the memory of a past experience… even one that has been long forgotten.”

 

Viktor reflected on that - and because he had his wires all hopelessly crossed upstairs, that meant thinking about blood and smoke and something else, something acrid that he couldn’t name. Still, Yuuri seemed to know what he was talking about. “Huh.”

 

“Will you humor me, just for a bit?” He could feel Yuuri’s eyes on him as he said those words. “You’re twenty years younger - you’re in your childhood home, in Long Island. You hear your mother entering the house. It’s not long before she enters the room you’re in.” And then Yuuri’s voice dropped, to almost a whisper. “Close your eyes. Take a breath. Tell me about it.”

 

Viktor… did what he was told. That was all.

 

Where was he? Silly question; there was only one room in the house that his mind knew how to recreate almost perfectly, especially given where this conversation was leading. He saw a large table in the center of the room, a microscope, a map. Books and books and books, here, everywhere, a lot of them even older than he was. But the room didn’t smell as much like old paper and dust as he would have imagined.

 

Because Yuuri had set the scene. And when the door creaked open, he breathed in…

 

“The sea… saltwater, and the sun.” Viktor opened his eyes, not even realizing when he’d closed them. He took another, shakier breath. “It smells like the sea, and machine oil. And… ethanol, I think. A little bit.”

 

The silence that filled the room after that probably only lasted for a few seconds. But it still felt like a lifetime before Yuuri finally broke it. “Ethanol? That’s a rather precise way to describe what I’m guessing is liquor… vodka, perhaps?”

 

Viktor shook his head. “No, she never drank. It was ethanol solution - the kind you use to clean glassware, and… parts of some machinery, I think. Yeah.” He’d been too young at the time, and he wouldn’t have known to identify what it was back then.

 

But he’d learned soon after, from having gone over every square inch of her study at least a dozen times, poring over the little notes she’d written to herself and stashed between the pages of books he’d never even seen her read, because what else could he have done? Even now, twenty-six years after the fact - because Yuuri had been just a tad optimistic with his timeline - he couldn’t think of what else he might have done differently. He couldn’t imagine what he might have changed.

 

“Your mother - she worked in a laboratory of some sort?” Yuuri ventured. “What did she do?”

 

“I don’t know.” That phrase was starting to sound more and more meaningless, as he kept using it. “That was never really clear to me, I think.”

 

“Perhaps she didn’t feel the need to share the details with you back then, since you were so young.”

 

“That’s a thought.”

 

“You’re not convinced.”

 

“No.” He laughed - or more precisely, he made a pathetic sound that approximated one. “Not even a little bit.”

 

Yuuri slowly sat up in the daybed. The blanket pooled around his waist, but he didn’t pay it any heed. “Why not?” he said softly.

 

‘Yeah, why not?’ The voice that echoed in his head was mocking him, and sounded suspiciously like Christophe’s. Fuck. Viktor’s fingers curled into the armrests, itching to dig in, as though he could somehow claw his way down until he’d carved out a hiding place into the ground, out of Yuuri’s sight. Maybe then, he would no longer feel so fucking exposed.

 

“Viktor.”

 

“That’s just the way she was,” he ended up blurting out. “She never - she never lacked for anything, not on paper anyway. I had a roof over my head. I had food. But she never really shared much of… of herself? If that makes sense?” Viktor swallowed hard, feeling his cheeks burn. “I don’t know if that makes sense.”

 

“It makes more sense than you’re giving yourself credit for,” Yuuri said. It was hard to tell if he was being honest, or just placating him. Or maybe he lingered somewhere in between. “Would you say she was disagreeable, then? Perhaps she was cruel?”

 

“No, she wasn’t like that.” Viktor shook his head. “She was just… she was…”

 

God, but how would he even put it? Mama had run like lukewarm water, all placid smiles and wandering eyes and unfinished sentences, so easily distracted. She’d been the hurried scrawl in those half-hearted notes she’d left behind for him to see on his bedside table in the morning: ‘ Working late. Soup in the fridge. Don’t wait up. ’ She’d loved him, of course she had - she must have, anyway - but her love had lain in too-complex books that she’d urged him to read, or fantastic stories about the places she might take him to ‘one day’, or the key to the house that she’d given him to wear around his neck.

 

Yuuri finally filled in the silence with a guess. “Was she distant?”

 

“…Yeah,” Viktor conceded. “Yeah, I suppose she was.”

 

Yuuri nodded. He turned his gaze down, and began gathering up the blanket that he’d been neglecting. “There are those who say that the opposite of love is not hatred, but rather apathy,” he said. “Do you believe that?”

 

“I don’t know. It’s not like it would make a difference now.”

 

“Why? What happened?”

 

Viktor watched as he folded that blanket into smaller and smaller halves across his lap. Yuuri worked methodically, his hands first finding a corner, then the opposite corner, and bringing them together… their movements were not too unlike the rhythm of a waltz, and it was easy to get distracted by them.

 

It would have been easy, if Viktor hadn’t seen through the tactic in two seconds - because staring at his hands would have meant missing the obvious lack of a question in Yuuri’s eyes, which held something that looked like anticipation instead. Oh, fucking hell. “You already know… don’t you?”

 

Yuuri blinked mildly. “Know what?”

 

“Don’t lie to me. You - ” He couldn’t help but laugh, despite himself. Unbelievable. “Come on. You talked to Yakov about her, right? You should know how that story ends.”

 

“Perhaps.” Yuuri stopped folding the blanket, and let his hands drop to his sides. “But then you, of all people, ought to know that one of the most important facets of a story is the person telling it.”

 

Viktor gritted his teeth. Again - he couldn’t really argue with that.

 

Maybe the worst part of all this was that, in hindsight, he really should have seen it coming. When you’d spent your entire life with a certain person, squandered years and tears trying to understand them in the hopes of forming some meaningful connection, you’d have known if something was off.

 

Viktor certainly should have known.

 

He should have suspected that something was up when she’d started coming home earlier, cooking more, singing at the stove and teaching him the basics: slice, stir, simmer. He should have known better than to think that it was normal when she insisted on spending weekends with him, taking him to the city, to Coney Island, letting him pick out the biggest stuffed poodle in the fair, and laughingly promising him a real dog one day. He should have been wary when she’d grabbed him by the hands, spun and danced with him in the living room, crowing about an adventure, exciting, soon! And when she’d tucked him into bed and climbed under the sheets with him, pulling out a storybook, actually reading to him - well, he should have seen the writing on the wall.

 

And this: ‘Love is energy,’ she’d said to him that night, just as he’d started to drift off, ‘neither created nor destroyed. It just shifts into something else, and sometimes it takes forms we don’t easily recognize.’

 

“The next morning,” Viktor whispered, “she was gone."

 

"Gone?" Yuuri echoed softly.

 

"I woke up to an empty house, and… that was it.”

 

“And she didn’t leave a note?” 

 

“She didn’t leave anything.” He swallowed hard, forcing back the lump that had started forming in the back of his throat. No, there would be none of that today.  “Or, well, maybe you can say she left everything - her books, her clothes, her jewelry.” Her son. “The microscope on her desk. The map in her study… I saw a new pin that morning, on top of London on that map. I guess she added it before she left.”

 

“Is that why Scotland Yard was the dream?”

 

“It’s pathetic, isn’t it? I never, ever told Georgi… God, how would that have sounded, anyway? Here’s this grown man, still holding out hope that he’ll be able to find the mother who left him. Stupid.”

 

“It’s not stupid,” Yuuri assured him. “You haven’t heard anything from her - or about her - since that day, right?”

 

“Sometimes I wonder, if I would’ve at least gotten an answer… I don’t know, some confirmation of her death, or even just a postcard, or a goddamn letter from her saying ‘ Yes, it’s true, I left you, I never wanted you ’ - ”

 

“I’m sure that’s not something she would have said,” Yuuri cut in.

 

“How the hell would you know?”

 

Viktor bit down on his lip to stop from lashing out any more. This wasn’t Yuuri’s fault, he reminded himself. Hell, to this day, it still wasn’t even officially anyone’s fault.

 

Maybe that was why it was so hard to swallow. “I wonder if it would have hurt less. If it would have stopped hurting.”

 

Yuuri fiddled with the edges of the blanket, deep in thought. “In many ways, a lack of closure may well be worse than an actual tragedy,” he murmured. “You’ve been shouldering that burden for… twenty-six years, is it?”

 

Viktor nodded weakly.

 

“A wound that hasn’t been given a chance to close, no matter how small, will not heal.”

 

Right… it made sense, of course, when Yuuri put it that way. Viktor wasn’t sure that the analogy was a perfect one, but it explained how he still felt long after he should have outgrown those feelings, and after time should have ‘healed all of his wounds’ like well-meaning strangers and their empty platitudes had fucking promised him. All of this time, still waiting, still unable to not cultivate that last pathetic shred of hope - hope that he would get an answer, that things would one day make sense - which refused to just shrivel up and die… it felt just a bit less irrational, now.

 

“How long was it before Mr. Feltsman found you?”

 

“A few days.” Terrible days, he didn’t say. “And it was his wife who found me - she knew my mother, vaguely. Said that they used to work together, but I don’t know if I believe that.”

 

“I see. And what else did she tell you?”

 

“That she didn’t know any more than I did.” He shrugged. “I believe that, at least.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because in getting to know her, I came to recognize when she was lying. And I never forgot the look on her face, that first night… she was telling the truth.” Which was something to lament.

 

“What happened after?”

 

“She and Yakov took me in. They didn’t have to, but they did it anyway. I wasn’t with them for too long - Georgi’s family offered to take me in after a couple of years, and I left them as soon as I could, too. I didn’t want to be a burden.” And yet. He sighed. “But I still owe them.”

 

“I see.”

 

Yuuri nodded slowly, still fiddling with that blanket. Viktor watched him, and imagined that if he’d had his notebook on him, he might have filled out a dozen pages’ worth of notes with this session alone.

 

“Did you choose a career in law enforcement, and later private investigation, as a way to repay some of that debt you believe you owe?” he asked. “Or was it more driven by what happened with your mother?”

 

“It was… a little bit of both, I think,” Viktor said at length.

 

“Could you expound on that?”

 

“You were right. Having no closure is… upsetting. Exhausting. I know you said before that my work doesn’t bring any victims back, but if I can somehow help those left behind… spare them that pain… that’s a noble thing to do, right? That’s why I do it.”

 

Yuuri mulled over his words, letting out a thoughtful hum.

 

And then: “I don’t quite believe that.”

 

Viktor sighed. “You can believe whatever you want.”

 

“Rather, I don’t believe that that’s the entirety of it.” Yuuri’s eyes searched his face, although he couldn’t really see them from behind the glare of the lenses that reflected the firelight. “I believe at least some of your motivations - perhaps conscious, perhaps not - spring from a need to alleviate your own personal frustrations. Your mother’s disappearance, the first great mystery of your life, so close to your heart, remains unsolved.”

 

“What’s your point, Doc?”

 

“By solving all of these other cases, to whom are you bringing relief? Is it only the survivors, and is every investigation you undertake, bar your payment for it, an act of pure altruism? Or is a part of you still trying to comfort that sad, scared little boy who woke up one morning to find his mother gone, with no answers in sight?”

 

Something clawed at his chest, sparked to life by those words. Viktor tried to convince himself that he didn’t feel it, didn’t feel anything. But doing that only made it angrier, and a part of him felt as though it had been torn to shreds. All of a sudden, it was harder to breathe.

 

The pain subsided on its own, after a bit. But the relief that was supposed to have taken its place never came, because of course it didn’t. “Would it really be so terrible,” he said bitterly, “if it were true?”

 

“Not at all,” Yuuri whispered. “It simply means that you are human.”

 

Viktor didn’t know what to make of that, and he didn’t know what to make of it when Yuuri set the blanket aside, swung his legs over the edge of the daybed, and rose to his feet. He closed the meager distance between them in two strides, and when he placed his hands on Viktor’s shoulders, climbed into his lap, and kissed him without a single word… Viktor didn’t know what to make of that, either.

 

“What - ?” His mind was a jumbled mess of mismatched emotions and half-formed thoughts, struggling to regain some semblance of clarity when Yuuri pulled back. “I thought… when we’re here, we can’t - ”

 

“The hour is over.” Yuuri pulled off his glasses and placed them gently on the table next to the overstuffed chair that they now shared. He traced the line of Viktor’s cheekbone with his finger. “Kiss me?”

 

 

  

 

 

 

If he found any comfort in this - if Yuuri’s lips chased away some of the demons that he himself had awakened in Viktor’s mind tonight - that wouldn’t be so terrible either, would it? Viktor hoped not. He hoped it wasn’t too much of a sin to let himself be lost in Yuuri’s embrace, to run his hands down his sides and trace the curve of his backside, slip them beneath his jacket and let them linger just beneath the waistband of his pants, chasing the warmth that dwelt there for the sake of warmth alone. Yuuri kissed him tenderly, but it wasn’t like he’d done before, when he’d been too cautious, when he’d kissed as though Viktor would break if he held on to him too tight. No, this was different, this was… gentle, but not careful.

 

This was meant to console him. “Viktor…” Yuuri brushed away some of the hair that usually fell over his eye, and ran the pad of his thumb along Viktor’s cheekbone again. It was as though he were trying to wipe away tears that were simply not there. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

 

“Thanks.” In the past twenty-six years, he realized, no-one had ever said those words to him when speaking about his mother. “I think.”

 

“Before our next session, I want you to try something.” Yuuri didn’t climb off of his lap just yet, but he did push Viktor’s shoulders back, until he was an arm’s length away. He looked into Viktor’s eyes, waited until he was satisfied that Viktor was listening, and continued: “I want you to write a letter to her - tell her anything you want, what you’re thinking right now, what you’re feeling… tell her everything that you told me, or don’t. Tell her everything you never got a chance to say.”

 

Viktor frowned. “I don’t know if I somehow failed to imply it, but I have no idea where my mother is.”

 

“I know that.” Yuuri flashed him a coltish smile. “And the intention was never for you to send the letter. Just to write it.”

 

“Will I have to show it to you?”

 

“No. You can do whatever you want with it.”

 

“Okay.” Viktor still wasn’t too sure about this, or what purpose this task was supposed to serve. But he was too tired to want to keep pressing for details. “Say, are you asking me to do this as my therapist, or…?”

 

“Does it really matter?” Yuuri stole another kiss, a chaste one, quick as the blink of an eye, that left Viktor almost wondering if it had really happened. “But I do have one other request, as your… not-therapist, shall we say.”

 

“Tell me.”

 

“Will you call me, when you get home tonight?” Yuuri reached out and carefully straightened the knot of his tie. “I should still be here, by that time. I just want to know when you’ve made it home safely.”

 

“You don’t trust me to be able to make it back to my apartment?”

 

“I don’t trust this city,” Yuuri said softly, “to leave you alone.” He ran his hand down the length of Viktor’s tie, until it was stopped by the buttons of his waistcoat. He glanced up and met Viktor’s eyes. “Will you do that for me?”

 

Viktor pulled him closer, until Yuuri was pressed against his chest, with his head resting on Viktor’s shoulder. “Anything for you,” he murmured into Yuuri’s hair, staring at the pattern of the tapestry hanging behind him.

 

If he hadn’t been so distracted - and if Yuuri hadn’t been so warm - he might have thought about how easy it had been to say those words, and startled himself with how much he'd meant them.

 

 


 

  

 

Dear Mama,

 

 

…No. This was stupid. Viktor tore off the paper from the top of the pad, crumpled it into a ball in his hand, and tossed it into the wastebasket under his desk.

 

He had no idea what Yuuri was expecting, or what he himself was expecting, with this exercise. Especially when the writing of the letter itself seemed to be both the task and the end goal, it was hard not to think of it as pointless. Hell, Yuuri had no way of knowing whether he even did this or not, so why would he bother to waste his time?

 

The next page in that pad stared up at him blankly, and offered no answer to the question he’d just asked in his mind. Neither did Makkachin, who freely roamed the apartment behind him, and seemed to have taken an intense interest in sniffing out the baseboard moulding under the dining table. Understandable.

 

Yet here he was, sitting at his desk with a pencil in his hand. Bite marks on the wood reminded him of a terrible habit he’d managed to kick before leaving the Force. There it was, evidence that he was capable of letting some things go.

 

Why not all things, then? 

 

 

Dear Mama,

I still have your microscope.

 

 

That was a start, yeah? And he still did have that microscope - it was sitting in an old box, wrapped in even older paper, and tucked away at the very back of the top shelf in his closet. That box had come with him during every move, from the house in Long Island to Yakov’s place in Queens, to the Popovich house, to various run-down shoebox apartments in this city, until he he came here. Yet he hadn’t opened it once in the past twenty-five years.

 

 

I tried looking into it the day you disappeared. It took a long, long time before I was able to even see anything, because it was out of focus, and I’d forgotten how to fix that. I managed, eventually. But I still didn’t see anything - the slide was empty.

 

 

He still remembered it: the surge of hope he’d felt once the image had snapped into clarity, only to dissolve when he realized what he was looking at. Nothing. That had been the first of many false leads and dead-ends, whispers and rumors from adults who’d known her and ‘known’ her. He’d doggedly followed all of those trails set out for him, only for them to lead him to nowhere. To no-one.

 

And then one day - he could no longer even remember when - even those whispers had completely dried up. 

 

 

I don’t really know what it was that I was looking for. I guess a part of me thought that you left it on purpose, and that I was supposed to find something there. A clue on the slide, something I could use. Some hint you’d left, to help me find you.

But there wasn’t anything there.

 

 

There hadn’t been anything there for at least a decade - maybe even longer.

 

Viktor had known this for a while. He’d known this, and yet there was something about seeing it explicitly written out, by his own hand no less, that made it feel somewhat more… final? It reminded him, with much more gravity than his own memories and thoughts alone could produce, that this was it, and this was real.

 

Fuck. Maybe… maybe Yuuri had been onto something, after all.

 

The first great mystery of your life, so close to your heart, remains unsolved.

 

Those had been Yuuri’s words. And Viktor had tried, he’d tried and he’d done everything he could have possibly done. But it had been so long, and there had been nothing… and that was not going to change anymore.

 

Viktor wrote out the rest of that letter through a blur of tears, unshed at first, and then further when the dam broke and he had to write around splotches of them that had fallen onto the paper. He was barely even thinking as he went on, and on and on and on, writing out random things he’d wanted to tell her at ten, at twenty, at thirty. His handwriting devolved into a messy scrawl that he knew he wouldn’t be able to read in the morning. But it didn’t matter, because that wasn’t what this was about, and because at that point everything he wrote was just some form - like energy, eternal and indestructible, he could imagine her saying - of the same two questions that he now accepted would never be answered. 

 

 

Where did you go?

Why didn’t you take me with you?

 

 

He only stopped writing when he heard a whine from somewhere near the floor. Makkachin, who’d been watching him this whole time, had her head resting on his foot, and was staring up at him with worry in her eyes. He dropped the pencil and forgot all about the letter, showering her with praises and apologies alike. She raised her head only to rest her chin on his knee, and he laughed through his tears as he wrapped his arms around her.

 

“If one day I don’t come back… if I don’t come back for a long, long time,” he murmured, “it’s because I died. There’s no other possibility. Alright?” His answer came in the slow wag of her tail and a clueless look on her face. But it was fine. “I would never, ever leave you. I wish you could know that…”

 

He never did wind up finishing that letter, in the end. He left it on his desk and went to go play with Makkachin for the rest of the hour. He didn’t know if this was the takeaway Yuuri had expected for him - acceptance did precious little to temper the ache left behind, but he supposed it was a start. Maybe it would never really go away completely, and maybe he’d live with this until the end… but maybe what Yuuri had been trying to tell him was that, maybe, this was okay.

 

Before he went to bed, well after midnight, he decided to grant his 'not-therapist’s' request: he phoned Yuuri at his office, to wish him goodnight.

 

 


 

 

It turned out that the only thing he had to do to learn about Isabella Yang was to head downstairs to the basement of the agency building, where they kept, among other things, boxes and boxes of daily newspapers. Viktor only had to open one box before finding multiple newspapers with articles about her: her name was attached not just to the murals in Paramount Theater, as Yuri had said, but to dozens of other art installations, galleries, and art-related fundraising events spanning the last five years. Newspapers that favored her called her a breath of fresh air, a passionate philanthropist, and a ‘mover’ of New York’s art and culture who used her personal wealth to help the city’s creative energies thrive. The Daily Mirror called her ‘an exotic flower thriving in the lush meadows of a land fattened by the ashes of war’, two sentences before blatantly asking the reader whether she ever really did anything useful at all - a piece by Lionel Church, Viktor was amused to read.

 

He found a picture of her two articles in, and immediately felt like an idiot.

 

So he had seen this woman before, the same day he’d met her fiancé. Though he could have sworn he’d seen her face at least one other time, he couldn’t remember for sure, and maybe his brain was just trying to fill holes for the hell of filling them in. In any case, either Emil’s accent or one of them mishearing at one time or another had completely thrown him off from making the connection to Jean-Jacques - Dr. Leroy, from the West St. Psychoanalytic Clinic, the very same place where Yuuri worked.

 

That was it. That was his ‘in’.

 

But that meant getting Yuuri involved in this investigation, no matter how he was to play it. Did he really want that?

 

Viktor knew the answer even before the question had fully formed in his head. No, he needed to find some other way to check behind the veil. What were his options?

 

He stayed in that basement for the rest of the afternoon, sitting on the cold floor, staring at the ceiling and the spots near the edge facing the street that were discolored from water damage, trying to think. What had Phichit said to him, and what had Minako said to him? There had to have been something he could use…

 

Eventually, he found what wasn’t so much the ‘right’ answer as it was the ‘best’ one - and that wasn’t saying much, given the circumstances. While it still carried a hell of a lot of risk, in more ways than one, it was still the approach that minimized all of those risks, and found him back in the hallowed yet decidedly unwelcoming halls of the NYPD’s Central Headquarters.

 

“You’re investigating the Triad?” Otabek put away whatever other papers he was trying to work on at the same time, and gave his full attention once he’d processed the request Viktor had just made of him. “Is this for the Karpisek case, or for something else?”

 

“Karpisek case,” Viktor confirmed. “You know I only like to work on one case at a time.”

 

“Hmmm.” He drummed his fingertips along the top of his desk, near the edge. “You think the Triad had something to do with his death? That’s surprising.”

 

Viktor took one look at him and laughed. Otabek’s tell, as it turned out, was a shift from direct eye contact to staring at the bridge of Viktor’s nose. Maybe other people wouldn’t have noticed, but to Viktor, who made a living off of decoding the tiniest of these tells, it was the exact opposite of discreet. “No it’s not - you’re a terrible liar,” he added, for good measure. At the very least, he now felt a bit more confident that Otabek was not, in fact, the man who’d attacked him in the alley. “Yuri’s already given you a heads-up, hasn’t he?”

 

Otabek heaved a sigh. “Right… but don’t confront him about it, if you can? I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate that. You know he only means well.”

 

He did, in fact. “What else did he tell you?”

 

“Quote, not to let you do anything stupid. Unquote.”

 

“Wow.” Viktor chuckled. “I don’t know whether to feel insulted or touched.”

 

“He looks up to you, though. In a strange, unintuitive way.”

 

“What a terrible choice on his part.”

 

Whether or not Otabek agreed with that assertion was channeled into a simple shrug. Maybe he just didn’t feel very strongly about it either way. “Come back tomorrow, around the same time. It should be ready by then.”

 

Viktor did what he was asked, showing up at eleven on the dot the next morning - only to be met with an empty desk, and no Otabek in sight. One of the other sergeants who’d been there longer took pity on him, and informed him that Otabek had been held up by an interrogation that was running long - some suspect caught leaving the scene of a homicide near Pier 42, or so he’d heard. Viktor thanked the man for letting him know, and tried to find a secluded spot to wait.

 

But there was no such thing as a secluded spot here, which on some level he already knew. So he waited where he was, and stewed in stares and whispers for almost a full hour before Otabek finally showed up.

 

“Sorry, I’m so sorry, this keeps happening - I tried calling your office, but you weren’t there…” He stopped himself long enough to bark at a young recruit who was still staring to get back to work. “They didn’t give you any trouble, did they?”

 

Viktor shook his head with a serene smile. “Ready?”

 

“When you are.”

 

As they left, they streets welcomed them with a frigid blast of winter air. Viktor wrapped his scarf more securely around his neck and tucked his hands into his pockets, suppressing a shiver. Then again, this was better than the heat he’d felt in that building - the prickling on his skin from all the staring, and the slight burning in the backs of his eyes when he’d managed to make out what some of those whispers had said.

 

“You okay?” Otabek called out tonelessly.

 

“Never better,” he answered. “Are you sure this isn’t eating up too much of your time? There’s a whole city out there that needs saving, Sergeant.”

 

“It’s fine. Besides, I have to be there for this to work.”

 

“Still.” Viktor checked his watch and winced. It was about five minutes away from the start of what would have been Otabek’s lunch hour. “We could’ve chosen a more convenient time.”

 

“Waiting any longer only increases the chance that they find out we’re coming.”

 

He had a point there.

 

If there was any silver lining to this, it was that the Silk Umbrella wasn’t too far from the Central Headquarters building at all - ten blocks due North, if that, which might as well have been nothing to Viktor who’d once walked from The Battery to Central Park for his own leisure. It gave him less time to think along the way, but the plan was solid; all of the details had been taken care of.

 

Which didn’t mean that there was nothing to think about, of course - executing this plan, he knew, would immediately shut a lot of doors for more ‘diplomatic’ methods, as he was wont to call them in his head. How this was going to end would depend entirely on how charitable Phichit Chulanont was feeling today.

 

“Say, I have a question,” he said as they waited for the light to change. He could already make out the shape of the umbrella from the shop’s sign in the distance. “The cops who’ve been there for longer than two years… do they all still hate me as much now as they did then?”

 

Otabek stared straight ahead. “You shouldn’t pay any attention to that.”

 

Ah, so that was a ‘yes’.

 

Still, there was wisdom to be found in Otabek’s words. Viktor decided to heed them, and when the light finally changed, he cast all of those thoughts away, until he had only this task - and the fact that he was about to deliver a declaration of war - on his mind.

 

 


 

 

True to Viktor’s expectations, Phichit - though all smiles and pleasantries, ever the professional host - greeted them with a reception that felt frostier than the streets outside.

 

“Surely, there must be some kind of misunderstanding here, Detective.” Phichit’s smile was dazzling but just a little bit strained. It showed in the corners of his eyes - a tad too much effort there than strictly necessary. “Why, I am starting to think that you might be intending to accuse me of something.”

 

“I don’t know why you would ever come to that conclusion,” Viktor demurred. “I believe my ask is a simple one, Mr. Chulanont. A request for a look at this esteemed shop’s books, in the hopes that they may indirectly help us in our investigation that only happens to involve one of your patrons, seems like it would be painless for a business that has nothing to hide.”

 

“Implying that anything short of full, unquestioning cooperation is tantamount to some nefarious activity on our part, I see how it is.” Phichit folded his arms across his chest. “Nevertheless, as I told you before, I am but a humble tasseomancer. The owner of this shop is away on business.”

 

“But are you not, in this moment, acting as his proxy?”

 

“Be that as it may, I’d imagine that such an intrusive request for information would require a warrant of some sort.”

 

“It would.” Otabek, who until this moment had been a fixture standing beside Viktor, finally spoke up. He withdrew a thick envelope from his coat pocket and slid it across the counter. “And there you go.”

 

Phichit stared at him with widened eyes. He hadn’t recognized Otabek as a cop, because the long coat Otabek was wearing had hidden his uniform. That had all been part of Viktor’s plan, though. And the difference was immaterial anyway, when Otabek took out his badge, and flashed it with the barest hint of a smile.

 

Viktor watched as Phichit tore open the envelope, and studied the warrant in his hands line by line. If he was looking for a mistake there, or any kind of loophole to wriggle out of, he wasn’t going to find anything. Viktor had made sure of that himself.

 

Finally, after a good few minutes of this, Phichit dropped the warrant onto the counter, threw back his head, and laughed. “Ohhhh, Detective. And to think I thought you and I were getting along so well. Where, oh where, did we ever go wrong?”

 

“Trust me, I would have greatly preferred not to have to do this.”

 

“This warrant your associate has just handed me begs to differ.”

 

“And we decided to do this only as a last resort,” Viktor insisted. He stepped closer to the counter, bracing both his hands against the edge of it, so that he could look Phichit straight in the eye. “When we first met, you assured me that you ‘render unto Caesar his due’. The questions I’ve been trying to find the answers to all have had to do with a customer of yours, not the shop itself, and yet neither you nor any of your colleagues have been very forthcoming. If you won’t give me the truth, then I’m hoping maybe your numbers will.”

 

And if they didn’t, or if they wound up revealing more anomalies that had nothing to do with the murder, well - that would be a much bigger problem for the shop, and something at least Otabek would be quite interested in.

 

Phichit shook his head, chuckling under his breath. “You actually remembered that, huh?”

 

Yes, and it had been surprising - even to Viktor himself. And yet, what was another thing Phichit had said to him, the last time they’d met? “‘When your livelihood depends on your talent for talking to people’,” Viktor quoted back at him, “‘you tend to remember even the tiniest details from important conversations’.”

 

“Unbelievable.” Phichit kept laughing, at least partly to himself, as he stepped back from the counter and crouched down low, until Viktor could no longer see him behind it. “Well,” his muffled voice called out, “it seems you’ve left me with no choice, gentlemen.”

 

He surfaced in the blink of an eye, and unceremoniously dumped a huge ledger book onto the counter between them. Heavy, worn, and leather-bound, it was open to the current page, about three-quarters of the way through, before being snapped shut without preamble.

 

“This only covers the records for the past three years. I honestly don’t know where the earlier ones are being kept.” Phichit hesitated. “I’ll only ask one last time. Is this really necessary, Detective?”

 

“If it weren’t, I wouldn’t even be here. Does that disappoint you?”

 

“Not at all.” Phichit shook his head slowly, and his eyes never left Viktor’s face the entire time. “I suppose I’m more amused than anything - to see you completely disregarding the advice I gave you the last time you were here.”

 

“Well, I hope you don’t take it personally. I was never good at following advice.” Viktor took the ledger from the counter, tucked it under his arm, and dipped the brim of his hat in greeting. “Appreciate your cooperation. We’ll be in touch.”

 

Phichit didn’t say anything or send someone after them, and leaving The Silk Umbrella turned out to be a rather uneventful occurrence. Viktor didn’t really know what he’d been expecting - more resistance, maybe? Minako had been conspicuously absent, but perhaps she was just working. And unlike the last time he’d visited, no-one else in the shop had taken much notice of him or Otabek at all.

 

In any case, they were able to get what they’d come here for, and the whole exchange had gone much more smoothly than he’d anticipated. Maybe he’d miscalculated - he’d put too much weight on worst-case scenarios that were nowhere near as likely as he’d imagined them to be.

 

He opened the ledger as soon as they’d crossed the street, testing the weight of the book in his hands. Damn thing was heavier than it looked. “I suppose it was too much to hope for,” he commented, skimming his eyes over the handwritten characters on a random page, “to have the books written in English.”

 

“That would have been too easy,” Otabek said. “I’ll get in touch with a contact at the police station, start work on some translating. Are you alright with giving us the first crack at it?”

 

“By all means.” Viktor handed it over, grateful to be able to stick his hands in his pockets again. This winter was never going to end. “I can’t really get anything from it as it is now.”

 

“Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

 

“Any mentions of Josef Karpisek by name would be the mother lode.” That would be as good as Case Closed - so of course, he doubted he was going to be so lucky. “Failing that, I’m curious about those ‘specialty teas’ that they offer. I’ll bet my paycheck that they don't actually mean 'tea'.”

 

“Got it.”

 

“And if you can, find out the name of the actual owner of this shop?” He could have asked Phichit, but serving him with that warrant had surely cost him a lot of the man’s goodwill. “Who knows, maybe he’ll be more willing to talk.”

 

“That shouldn’t be too hard, if these books are clean.”

 

“If,” Viktor echoed.

 

There were other things he could do with this, of course. If they could cross-reference any of the entries in that book with the suspicious names and receipts that Yuri had put up on the crime wall, they could build smaller cases and use those to leverage the Silk Umbrella employees for information. If they managed to uncover the owner’s identity - and if they found out he was dirty - that could easily be used as leverage too. Would there be anything in there that he could feed to Leo, maybe to keep him distracted long enough to give Viktor some breathing space, at least for a few days? He sure as hell hoped so.

 

Viktor was still thinking about the ledger they’d just obtained, and what kind of secrets they could find hidden in its pages, as they rounded the next corner. He stopped, and his train of thought dissolved completely, when Otabek suddenly froze.

 

In the end, there was simply too much going on - about a hundred people in his line of sight, milling about on the sidewalks or driving down Lafayette Street. Clouds had covered much of the sky, making the city feel colder than it really was. But there was still light out - plenty of light, actually, so that even with the snow and the buildings and the cars and the people distracting him, he was still just able to make out a metallic flash.

 

“What - ”

 

“Get back!! He’s got a - !”

 

In the end, it all just happened too fast.