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The Tiger and the Hornet

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Leningrad St. Petersburg

Spring 1992

At first, Otabek notices the boy's hair.

It's blond, a colour which has always, for some reason, struck a chord of desire deep inside Otabek. The part of him that's a proudly independent, anti-Soviet Kazakhstani doesn't want to examine that attraction too closely.

More unusually, the boy's hair is long. It's hard to tell it's exact length, as it's done up in two braids tied tightly against his head, but it must reach past his shoulders. Just a couple of years ago, under the old regime, a man with hair like that would have been arrested, beaten, and forcibly shaved. Otabek wonders whether this man started growing it out the moment the statues of Lenin began to come down. Probably, given the length it is now.

Secondly, and more importantly, Otabek notices how well the man fights. He's only up against a training partner, an older man a few inches taller than he is, but the long-haired boy fights like his life is on the line. They are practicing the turn-taking style, in which one fighter attacks the other, who can only attempt to block the blows with his hands before the two fighters switch roles. This long-haired boy is ruthless. His punches fly, raining down over and over again on the other man's face, his chest, his stomach. At first glance, it seems wild, uncontrolled, but as Otabek watches more closely, he notices the boy's technique is in fact orderly, his shots carefully targeted and his footwork graceful. Almost like a dancer. There's a beauty to it that stirs Otabek's soul, and other parts of him. More than that, there's a familiarity to the way the boy moves, as if Otabek has seen it before. But how could that be?

“Like what you see, Kazakh?”

Otabek jerks around. Yakov Feltsman stands beside him. Otabek's stomach flips and he can feel himself blush. “I, um, well, you know, I, um...”

“You're right to. Yuri's my best fighter,” Feltsman goes on, and Otabek allows himself an inward sigh of relief. “In that style, anyway. No one has ever gone more than five minutes with him.” Feltsman smiles fondly. “Sometimes, they take one look at him and change their minds.”

“Isn't that a bit boring?”

Feltsman shrugs. “There's always some drunk fuck in the crowd who'll take his chances, and I still rake in the cash. But Yuri's not as good with the typical boxing style.” Otabek assumes he means when each fighter is allowed to hit the other whenever they can, and dodge blows in any way they choose. Otabek's style.

“That's why I'm here.”

It's not a question. Feltsman answers anyway. “No. That's why I invited you here. Whether you stay depends on how good you really are.” Feltsman whistles. The two men, Yuri and his training partner, turn to look in their direction. Rather, the taller man looks. Yuri scowls, his pretty, surprisingly unmarked face drawn up in an expression Otabek assumes is meant to be frightening. If he was facing Yuri in the ring, it probably would be. As it is, Otabek holds Yuri's gaze, maintaining eye contact until Yuri scoffs and turns away.

“Georgi,” Feltsman says, addressing the other man. “This is Otabek. Let's see what he's made out of, hm?”

What Otabek is “made out of” is solid iron. Feltsman should know that already. He found Otabek fighting in an underground club in Almaty a year ago. Otabek won four of his five fights that night, and lost the other after a gruelling eleven minutes. A lifetime in bareknuckle boxing. His ears were still ringing when Feltsman came up to him afterward, handing Otabek a drink with one hand and a bag of ice with the other.

“Come to Leningrad,” Feltsman offered, as Otabek applied the ice to his aching jaw. He left the drink, which looked like a shot of straight vodka, on the table. “Whatever you're making in this shit hole, you'll double it there. Maybe even triple it, if you're as good a draw as I think you'll be.”

“I'm a great draw,” Otabek said, because false modesty isn't one of his qualities. “But I'm not interested in making a career out of this.”

“Who is?” Feltsman replied, which seemed like a stupid answer. Feltsman was obviously in his late fifties, if not older, and he clearly knew this world well. Otabek doubted he saw underground fighting as a short-term job taken out of desperation, a step on the way to better things. The way Otabek saw it. The way he still sees it now. “But listen...” Feltsman hesitated. Otabek realized he was waiting for him to supply his name.

“Altin,” Otabek put in.

“Listen, Altin. I can tell you're a smart man. Things are changing in this country.” Otabek knew that all right. He could feel it, buzzing in the air, whenever he stepped out of his home. The Soviet guards that lined the street seemed to care less about their jobs every day. Once, Otabek had even caught an earful of Western music playing openly in the marketplace. The Beatles, Hard Day's Night. Otabek had only ever heard it on his carefully tuned, secret radio late at night, on fuzzy broadcasts coming in from Japan or, on a clear night, even the west coasts of Canada or the U.S.A.

“Who knows how long we'll even be a country?” Feltsman said. “And much as I love Mother Russia, she'll hang you poor provincial fucks out to dry first chance she gets. She won't think twice about it.” Otabek knew that, too. “Leningrad,” Feltsman repeated. “When you get there, ask around for Feltsman. You'll find me.”

Otabek had. He did. And that's how he ended up here.

Georgi is a decent fighter, physically, but his style lacks any element of surprise. Otabek picks up on the pattern almost immediately, and wields the knowledge like a club against him. After only a couple of minutes, Feltsman calls, “That's enough. Save it for later.”

Breathing heavily, Otabek holds out a hand. Georgi looks at him for a moment, then reaches out to shake it.

“I can give you two fights tonight,” Feltsman promises Otabek, as they step away from the makeshift ring in the corner of whatever this place is. An abandoned warehouse, it seems like, riddled with anti-Gorbachev graffiti and what look like bullet holes. “Maybe more, depending how many people show up.”

“How much will you pay me?” Otabek's genteel mother would gasp at the forthrightness of it, but there's a lot about this situation that would make her gasp, and Otabek isn't here as a volunteer.

Feltsman laughs, apparently not offended. “I knew I liked you, Altin. Three percent of my net profit for each of the first two fights you win. We'll negotiate a lump sum if you win any others.”

Otabek bristles. “In Almaty, I got a guaranteed payout.”

“This is better for my fighters,” Feltsman replies, smoothly. “You won't complain, believe me.”

“Why is he being offered three percent?” Georgi squawks, before Otabek can voice any further complaint. “I only get four, and I've been here two years!”

“And he's obviously a better fighter than you,” Yuri puts in. Otabek glances over his shoulder. Their eyes meet, briefly. Again, Yuri is the first to look away. “But nowhere near as good as me.”

“So, what do you get?” Otabek asks.

Yuri casts his gaze at Feltsman, then replies, “Eight percent.”

“For each fight you win?” If Yuri's as good as he says he is, and if Feltsman makes the kind of money he claims to, that could quickly add up.

“Yuri has proven his worth,” Feltsman breaks in. “And he doesn't fight more than twice a night. Become a draw like he is, then we'll talk about a raise, Georgi. As for you,” Feltsman turns to Otabek. “I want you to impress me tonight.”

I haven't already done that? Otabek wonders. But he says,“Yes, sir.”

When Feltsman leaves, Georgi follows closely behind him, leaving Otabek alone with Yuri. Yuri starts to pack up his things, throwing his shoes into a worn brown Adidas gym bag, then pulling on a zippered sweatshirt with an appliqué of a tiger on the back. “You think you're good,” Yuri says, without looking at Otabek.

“I think I'm good enough.” He wouldn't have come all this way if he didn't.

Yuri snorts. “We'll see.”

Part of Otabek—the intelligent part—thinks he should leave it at that. But Otabek didn't travel over four thousand kilometres for a job as an underground boxer by letting his intelligent parts call the shots. “You don't look like a fighter,” he says. It's true With his beautiful hair and delicate features, Yuri looks like he belongs somewhere far more genteel, more sophisticated than here.

Yuri stops. “What are you, an Uzbek?”

“Kazakh,” Otabek corrects. Although his grandmother was of Uzbek heritage, from Baxt. He doubts Yuri wants to hear his entire genealogical history.

“Same difference. I hope you didn't sell your yurt or whatever the hell it is, because you won't last ten seconds.”

“We'll see,” Otabek replies, calmly. Since that's as good an exit line as any, he leaves the warehouse, although he has nowhere to go and no idea how he's going to fill the time between now and the first fight.

***

In Almaty, the fighting is rough, of course, but it is also fairly friendly. The underground world is small. Everyone knows everyone else, and their mothers, and their fathers, and their sisters. It's possible, even likely, that you could share lunch one day with the man you'd beaten—or who'd beaten you—into submission the night before. As a result, everything is light, and nobody takes anything personally.

It's different in St. Petersburg. Otabek can see that the moment he steps into the fight venue, another filthy warehouse. The energy in the building is different from anything back home. A substantial crowd of hard-eyed, rough-looking characters has already assembled, many of them obviously drunk, crowded around the roped-off area that apparently serves as the ring. Yuri's already there, his blond hair standing out amid the shaved heads and dirty hats of the onlookers. Beside him stands a tall man, handsome in a movie star kind of way, with thick dark hair and even white teeth. The man bends to talk to Yuri, his mouth close to Yuri's ear, and Yuri smiles up at him. It's such an unusual expression for him—they may have just met, but Otabek hadn't pegged Yuri as much of a smiler, under any circumstance—that Otabek takes half a step back, directly into Georgi.

“Do you have a wife?” Georgi asks. His voice is dour.

Otabek blinks. “Excuse me?”

“A girlfriend? Anyone who cares about you?”

“I have my family.” His widowed mother, mainly, who is counting on Otabek to send money home to help support his younger sister and brother.

“Hope you kissed them good-bye. Because that,” Georgi jerks his head, “is your first opponent.”

He's more mountain than man. Otabek is not particularly tall, granted, but he has to tip his head back to see all the way up to his opponent's battered, toothless face. While Otabek is wearing the white T-shirt and black shorts he always fights in, this man is shirtless to the waist, showing off a massive gut and arms like baked hams.

“Ivan Grinkov.” Feltsman appears at Otabek's side. “Doesn't look like he's in top form. Although God knows how he's managed to keep up his gluttonous ways in these lean times.”

“He probably threatened to eat the butcher if he didn't get first pick of the meat,” Georgi suggests, less than helpfully.

“But he's strong,” Feltsman adds.

Otabek rolls his eyes. “You don't say.”

“It's like being punched by an ox,” Georgi says. “At least, so I've heard. Although that doesn't make much sense. Wouldn't it be more like 'kicked by an ox'?”

“He's undefeated in twenty-one bouts,” Feltsman breaks in. The two of them are giving Otabek a headache. Or maybe that's coming from straining his neck to look up at Ivan Grinkov. “I think that's a long enough streak, don't you, Altin?”

“Yes,” Otabek replies. His voice is squeakier than he would like. Squeakier, in fact, that it's been since he was about fourteen years old.

“You'll finish him.” Feltsman sounds so confident, it nearly gives Otabek hope. Then Grinkov stomps his way toward the ring, the concrete floor shaking as if it's about to split beneath their feet. The crowd cheers at the sight of him, and Grinkov raises his meaty arms in acknowledgment.

Otabek swallows, hard, and looks away. His gaze lands on Yuri, who smirks. Good luck, he mouths, lips moving with exaggerated enunciation. Yuri turns back to the handsome man by his side, and Otabek utters a silent prayer to a God he doesn't believe in and has never called upon until this moment.

There are two types of fighters: those who rely on speed, and those who rely on strength. Clearly, Ivan Grinkov is the latter. Otabek knows from the start that he's going to have to be quick, and aim his hits well, if he wants to come out of this looking good. If he wants to come out of this alive.

It starts off poorly for Otabek. An instant after the fight begins, Grinkov lands a solid hit, right in the middle of Otabek's chest. He's knocked back, gasping for air, but Otabek knows he can't pause to recover. He launches himself right back into the fight, dodging and weaving, slipping beneath one of Grinkov's heavy arms when he sees the chance, and forcing the big man to spin around to face him.

That's when Otabek spots his opportunity. Grinkov raises his arm, in preparation for another hit, and Otabek seizes the chance. Quick as lightning, he's in there, with a solid shot to the kidney. Grinkov grunts. In Almaty, Otabek might have shown mercy at this point, but he gets the feeling St. Petersburg is less than merciful. Otabek hunches low and throws all of his speed and power into one last upward shot, to Grinkov's heart. Grinkov staggers and falls backward, a collapsing monolith. There's a second of stunned silence, Grinkov waves weakly in submission, and a cheer goes up.

“I knew it!” Feltsman throws an arm around Otabek's shoulders and uses the other to raise Otabek's fist in victory. “I knew it!” Otabek feels dazed, the way he always does after a fight. Still crowing, Feltsman helps him out of the ring.

“A bee,” he says, as someone passes Otabek a drink of water. Otabek takes a long swig, only to realize it is, in fact, vodka. He coughs, tears in his eyes, as Feltsman explains, “That's you. Like Muhammad Ali, yeah? Or, no.” Feltsman shakes his head. “You're more dangerous, like a hornet. The Hornet of Almaty, that's what we'll call you.”

“I don't really think...” Otabek tries to protest, but Feltsman has already moved on. Otabek allows himself to slump against the wall, watching as Yuri hands his sweatshirt to his dark-haired friend and steps into the ring.

While Yuri practiced in a T-shirt, for his fight, he's topless, the muscles and pale skin of his back and chest on full display. Otabek tries not to gulp, just as he tries not to wince when Yuri's opponent, a tattooed man a few inches shorter than him, lands an excellent hit to Yuri's stomach.

“Don't worry,” a voice beside Otabek says. “He's only ever lost one fair fight.”

Otabek looks over. A woman stands next to him, dressed in a tight white jeans and a denim jacket. Her short hair is dyed a bright, unnatural red with dark roots showing at the crown. “Who was his opponent?” Otabek asks.

The woman smiles. “Me.”

“You box?”

“When Yakov lets me. Normally I have to wrestle other women in mud or foam or some shit, because these pigs can't appreciate a real female fighter.”

“That's too bad.” Otabek feels genuinely sorry for her.

“Tell me about it.”

It's Yuri's turn to attack, now. If he had been wild with Georgi, his training partner, then with this man, Yuri is truly uninhibited. His fists fly far too quickly for the other man to effectively block the blows. Otabek doesn't know how Yuri's opponent manages to stay upright, but he does, resisting as Yuri pummels him without mercy.

“That's it, Yuri!” A loud voice cuts through the clamour of the crowd. The Russian is heavily accented, and Otabek glances over to see it comes from the tall, dark-haired man who'd been with Yuri earlier.

“Who's that?” Otabek asks the woman, jerking his head in the man's direction.

“A friend of Yuri's,” she replies. “They call him the Canadian. Yuri thinks he's going to take him back to Montreal or wherever the hell he's from.”

She sounds skeptical, so Otabek asks: “What do you think?”

The woman sighs. “I think we're all still here, aren't we?”

In the ring, the other fighter finally succumbs. He collapses, his eyes rolling back into his head, and Yuri raises his hands in victory. The crowd cheers, yelling, “Tigr!” over and over, in a poor attempt at unison. Yuri waves his arms to urge them on. “I'm Mila,” the woman beside Otabek says, as she brings her hands together to join in the applauding. “Welcome to St. Petersburg.”

Yuri fights again almost immediately, followed by Georgi, then two men Otabek doesn't know. Otabek himself fights once more, toward the end of the night when most of the audience is already beginning to filter out. His opponent is a small man, shorter even than Otabek, which is no mean feat. Otabek defeats him handily, to a smattering of applause. Looking out over the departing crowd, Otabek sees Yuri and Georgi huddled in a corner with Feltsman. Otabek hurries over to join them. If Feltsman is paying out, then he wants to be there.

“Job well done, Hornet,” Feltsman says, as he hands Otabek a thin stack of notes. Otabek keeps his hand out, waiting for the rest. Nothing comes.

“What the fuck, Yakov?” Yuri snaps, holding up his own wad of money. Its considerable thicker than Otabek's, but he's obviously displeased with it. “There were at least two hundred people here tonight.”

“And you know I wouldn't cheat you,” Feltsman replies. Otabek knows no such thing. “My costs have skyrocketed lately, like everything else in this fucking country.”

Yuri's not placated. “What am I supposed to do with this shit?”

“Take it to Canada,” Georgi suggests.

“Fuck off.” Yuri stuffs the money into the pocket of his acid washed jeans and zips up the tiger sweatshirt. The man they call the Canadian is lurking near the doorway, casting glances in their direction. “There'd better be more next time. I don't do this as a fucking hobby.” Yuri walks out, his friend close behind him.

It might be crass, but Otabek counts his money right there on the spot. It's not much, but it's more than he's made in a long time. More than he's seen in a long time.

“Come back tonight,” Feltsman promises. “You'll make more. Saturday nights are always our busiest.”

“Yeah,” Otabek says, like he has any choice in the matter.

“Hey,” Mila comes up beside him. “You got anywhere to stay?”

Otabek hesitates. She is pretty, in a rough sort of way, and she seems kind. He's been with women before, but it's never worked out, and a failed relationship is the last thing he needs at the moment. “I, um, that is to say, I don't know how long I'll be here, so...”

Mila holds up her hands. “I'm not coming onto you.” She lowers her voice, even though Feltsman and Georgi have already gone, and no one else is within earshot. “I saw the way you were watching Yuri. I'm a hopeful girl, Otabek, not a fucking stupid one.”

Otabek's face burns. If Mila notices, she doesn't let on.

“You can crash at our place if you want,” she continues. “Mine and Yuri's. At least until you find something else.”

“I don't know if Yuri would like that.” He doesn't seem warm to Otabek.

Mila shrugs. “ Whatever. He's always sleeping over with his Canadian these days.” She looks up. “Sorry to tell you that. I hope I can trust you not to go running to the cops.”

“Of course.” Yuri's affairs, legal or not, are no concern of his. And it's not like Otabek has anywhere else to stay. He'd been planning on sleeping on a park bench somewhere, if he could find one. “Thank you.”

She links her arm through Otabek's, as if they're old friends, and leads him out of the warehouse.

Mira's apartment is in a tall, narrow building, at the top of a tall, narrow staircase. Before Red October, it was probably a house for a wealthy family, but it's obviously come down a bit over the decades. The bricks are chipped, the paint is peeling, and a strong smell of cabbage permeates the building.

“Sorry about the stink.” Mira opens the single tall, narrow window, then jumps back as a creature lurking on the outer windowsill yowls and hisses. “Fuck!” Mira exclaims, and the creature—a brown cat, it seems—bounds away into the night. “Fucking Yuri. The dumbass feeds the strays.” She barely has chance to turn away from the window when another cat, this one inside the apartment, saunters up behind her. It's black, mostly, with a splotch of white on its chest and a hole in one ear, like something took a bite out of it. “That one's his.” The cat meows at her. Mira ignores it and heads over to the small, stained refrigerator in the corner of the room.

It shouldn't be surprising, Otabek supposes, that the “Tiger” loves cats, but that Yuri would take the time and money to feed strays when he's clearly not rich speaks to his character in a way Otabek hadn't expected. He lets the cat rub against his legs, then bends to pick it up, holding it awkwardly as Mira pulls two pastries on plates out of the fridge.

“You hungry? I can warm something up if you want.”

“I'm fine,” Otabek replies, because it doesn't look like they have food to spare, and he's nothing if not a polite house guest. Unfortunately, his body betrays him. His stomach rumbles loudly, and Mira smiles.

“Piroshki,” she explains. Setting down the food, she turns on the rusty hot plate sitting on the counter, on top of an unsettling scorched black mark. “Yuri's grandfather makes them. He has a little bakery and lets us mooch off him sometimes. He adores Yuri.”

The cat, clearly dissatisfied with Otabek, meows and leaps out of his arms. “Thank you again for taking me in,” he says.

“Don't mention it. It's nice to have someone to talk to. Like I say, Yuri's been off with his friend every night for the last few weeks.”

“But you don't think it's going to come to anything?” It's none of Otabek's business, of course, but learning these little details—like his fondness for stray cats, and his doting baker grandfather—about Yuri are almost enough to make Otabek concerned for him. Almost.

“Yuri can be a dumb shit sometimes,” is all Mila says.

The piroshki is good. There is very little meat, but the heaviness of the pastry and the potatoes fills Otabek's stomach. Before they've even finished eating, Mila is yawning. As Otabek swallows his last bite, she says, “I hate to be a bad host, but I have to be up early in the morning.”

“You have a job?” It sounds more astonished than Otabek intended it to. “Sorry,” he adds, but Mila just shrugs.

“You wouldn't know it from this place, but I'm a hotel maid.” Otabek makes a vague sound. The apartment isn't dirty, although it is a little cluttered, with dishes in the sink and magazines and books strewn across the table and the floor. They don't have a television, but there's a cassette player in the corner. “Come on, I'll show you where you can sleep.”

Despite Otabek's assurances that the couch would be more than good enough for him, Mila leads him to a bedroom. It's tiny, about the size of a closet, and almost entirely taken up by a narrow mattress on the floor. The only other furnishing is an old-fashioned steamer trunk, pushed into a corner and covered with trinkets: a matryoshka doll, a plastic Garfield figurine, a gold medal, although Otabek can't immediately tell from what.

“It's Yuri's room,” Mila explains. “But don't worry. Like I said, he won't be back tonight.”

A wave of discomfort passes through Otabek. It feels wrong to sleep in another man's bed without him knowing about it. But Otabek is bone tired, and this is the first real mattress he's seen since he left Almaty. “Thank you,” he says.

“I think there are extra blankets in the trunk,” Mila adds. Then, she's gone.

Despite her assurances, Otabek can't make himself entirely at home. He pulls the sheets and the thin, leopard-spotted duvet over the unmade mattress, then lies on top of it, removing nothing but his shoes. The bed smells of piroshki and sweat. Like Yuri, he supposes. Otabek rests his head on the pillow and shuts his eyes.

It lasts all of five minutes. The radiator by his feet clangs, over and over again, but when Otabek holds out a hand, no heat seems to emanate from the bars. He lies down again, wrapping his arms around his body, but it's not enough. Just get under the covers, he tells himself, but he can't do it. It feels too intimate, too much like taking something not offered to him.

Instead, Otabek stands up and turns on the light, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling on a wire that looks less than entirely secure. Extra blankets in the trunk, Mira had said. Blankets Yuri presumably doesn't use on a regular basis. Logical or not, that feels a little less wrong than using Yuri's every day bedding. Carefully, Otabek removes the knickknacks from the top of the trunk and opens the latch.

The first thing Otabek finds is a photograph, unframed and glossy, of two people. One, a young teenager, looks enough like Yuri that Otabek presumes that's who it is. The other is a taller man, bending down with his arms looped around Yuri's shoulders. He's dressed for the stage, in a sumptuous costume decorated with row upon row of glass beads, white lace, golden brocade. The tights and the shoes indicate that he's in the ballet, rather than an actor or an opera singer or some other type of performer. Strangely, although the man isn't old, his hair is a uniform shade of silver. It's that detail that lets Otabek recognize him as the famous dancer Victor Nikiforov.

Quickly, Otabek puts the picture aside. If sleeping uninvited in Yuri's bed is inappropriate, then going through his belongings is even worse. Otabek reaches back into the trunk, but instead of finding the blankets promised by Mila, his hands land on another picture.

This one is slipped into a white cardboard frame, the words “Lilia Baranovskaya Summer Training Camp, July-August 1982” embossed in gold across the top. Otabek freezes. It can't be.

It is. Looking down, Otabek sees his own youthful image gazing back at him, a disembodied head floating in the back row of a crowded picture. But why would he... Otabek glides his gaze over the ballet mistress, the merciless Lilia Baranovskaya, and then the other children. Some he half-remembers; others, he doesn't remember at all. Otabek's eyes arrive on the first row, and he stops.

There he is. Third from the left, his feet resting in perfect first position even though he's sitting on a bench. It's him.

Yuri Plisetsky. Three years younger than Otabek, and a far better dancer. Not only was he more naturally talented, Otabek recalls, but Yuri was even more dedicated, and that's saying something. Even at ten years old, there was a fire inside him, an undeniable strength that showed on his face. The eyes of a soldier, Otabek thinks. Yuri still has them. So how did he end up here?

Otabek can't ask, obviously, and it does him no good to wonder. He pulls a woollen blanket, grey and scratchy and covered in cat hair, from the trunk and puts the two photographs away.

Arranging himself beneath the heavy blanket, Otabek immediately feels the warmth. It seeps into his bones, offering his tired body much needed comfort. It's still a long time before he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Otabek wakes up first to a light blazing in his eyes then, almost immediately afterward, to the sensation of strong hands closing around his neck.

Instinctively, Otabek's own hands go up, clawing at his assailant. The grip on Otabek's throat only tightens. Otabek's breath grows short, and he kicks out wildly, trying to connect with any part of his attacker. The man—Otabek assumes it's a man, given the strength of the grip—evades him neatly. Spots dance in front of Otabek's eyes. As darkness begins to creep in at the edges of his vision, a voice yells, “Yuri! For fuck's sake, stop it!”

A final squeeze then, unexpectedly, Otabek's attacker lets him go. Otabek gasps, his lungs desperate for air, while Yuri says, “What the fuck is he doing here, Mila?”

“I said he could stay over.”

“And you can't keep your clients in your own room, hag? Or do they pay extra to sleep away from you?”

Otabek's vision resolves itself, just in time to see Mila scowl. “I beg your pardon, you feral bitch?”

“Fuck you, Mila,” Yuri snaps, then dissolves into tears. Loud, unabashed tears, which roll down his cheeks in rivers as he sobs like a child.

Mila rushes over, throwing her arms around Yuri. She strokes Yuri's hair, which has come undone from its braids and hangs down his back, and Yuri buries his face in her shoulder.

Otabek clears his throat. “I'll, um, I guess I'll just...” He points toward the bedroom door. Mila nods. Otabek takes that as permission to retreat to the living room.

Once he's out there, Otabek isn't sure what to do. He glances at the window. A thin strip of dawn is appearing in the sky, and the cracked clock on the wall reveals it's approaching five o'clock. Too early to be wandering the streets, given Otabek doesn't know St. Petersburg and has nowhere to go. Instead, he perches awkwardly on the edge of the couch, leaning down to pet the cat when it twines itself around his legs.

Finally, Mila emerges from the bedroom. She's dressed only in a thin nightgown, something Otabek hadn't noticed before. He keeps his eyes firmly glued on her face as she sits beside him. “I knew it was going to happen,” she says, rubbing the cat's ears. It meows and jumps onto her lap, pushing the hem of her already short nightgown up a little further. “Don't tell Yuri I told you, but the Canadian's parents are diplomats. They've finished what they came here to do, and now they're all going back home to prepare for his wedding.”

Otabek feels a stab of sympathy. This is none of his business, of course, but he knows how it feels to watch a man you love—or even a man you are infatuated with—marry a woman. It must be even worse if you'd been counting on that man to rescue you. Otabek never expected them to do that.

“But I've talked to Yuri about you,” Mila goes on, her tone brightening, “and you can stay with us for as long as you want.”

“That's very generous, but I...”

“Get some rest." Mila stands. “You'll need it for tonight.” She disappears back into what Otabek assumes is her own bedroom. The door has barely closed when Yuri's opens.

Yuri's eyes are red, his face puffy from crying. Otabek's stomach twists. He wants to say something comforting, but nothing springs to mind.

“Here.” Yuri launches an unidentified object at him. It hits Otabek squarely in the chest. The woollen blanket, scrunched into a ball. “And give me my fucking cat.” He grabs the cat, shooting a suspicious look at Otabek, like he'd been planning on stealing it. The bedroom door slams, hard enough to rattle the clock. Otabek waits a moment, to see if anyone is going to come back. When they don't, he lies back, arranging himself on the lumpy couch and pulling the blanket on top. Later today, he thinks, I'll find somewhere else to stay. It seems the intelligent thing to do.

***

When Otabek awakes for the second time, sunlight is streaming in through the window. The clock tells him it's approaching eight-thirty, and the apartment is still and silent.

Otabek could leave, he supposes. Slip out now and pretend he was never here. But that seems a little ungrateful, and Otabek was raised to be both a generous host and a grateful guest.

His first thought is to make breakfast for Yuri and Mila, if she's still here, but that idea is dashed as soon as Otabek opens the little refrigerator. A quarter of a piroshki sits on one shelf, alongside a minuscule portion of ham. That's all. The cupboards are no better: two eggs in one, a small container of tea leaves in the other.

Otabek pulls out the stack of money Yakov gave him and counts it again. It's not much, but surely it will buy something?

A quick glance around the kitchen reveals nothing to write on or with, so, although it feels painfully rude, Otabek forgoes leaving a note. I'll be back soon anyway, he tells himself, as he heads down the narrow staircase.

That turns out to be wishful thinking. There's a shop on the corner, but the door's boarded over and one window is broken. In the darkness, Otabek can see rows of empty shelves, and a flash of movement that looks a lot like the stray cat from the windowsill the night before. He walks a little further, but while the first shop was deserted, the next is overcrowded, a queue of shoving, arguing people spilling out of the door and down the pavement. It's a familiar sight to Otabek. Just before he left Almaty, he lined up for over an hour to try and get his mother half a dozen lamb chops. They ran out just as he arrived at the head of the queue.

“Are you looking for bread?” A voice asks, seemingly out of nowhere. Otabek turns around, then looks down. It's a child, a little girl, dressed in boys' denim overalls with holes in the knees. Her golden hair is done up in braids, like Yuri's. “Are you looking for bread?” She repeats.

“Yes.”

“You can come with me.”

“I don't think...”

“My mother has bread.”

This seems like the beginning to a very good horror story. Otabek shakes his head. “That's not necessary. Thank you.”

Apparently unoffended, she moves on. Otabek watches her pluck the sleeve of a woman standing in line. When she looks down at the girl, the woman's face curls into an expression of complete disdain, as if the girl is something truly foul. An unattractive insect, maybe, or a pile of dog shit. She yanks her sleeve away so hard, the little girl falls to the ground, but she stands up immediately and approaches someone else, an elderly man this time.

“Hey!” Otabek calls, before the girl reaches the other man. “I'll come with you.”

She smiles happily. Hope that's enough to comfort you when you're sitting in a bathtub of ice with both kidneys missing, Otabek tells himself, and takes the girl's offered hand.

The apartment she takes him to is smaller than Yuri and Mila's, and much more crowded. At least five small children—it's hard to count them, as they don't stop moving—with dirty faces and ragged clothes run in circles. A baby cries. An unkempt dog that must be at least half wolf bays. In the middle of it all is a thin woman, about Otabek's size and maybe a few years older, standing over a stove. She looks up when Otabek and the girl come in, and the girl calls, “Mama! A customer!”

“Oh. How nice.” The woman's smile is exhausted. “I have six buns, if you want them.” She brings a tray over to Otabek. It seems heavy, so he takes it from her, and gets a grateful look in return. “I'll give you a good price,” the woman says. The buns are small and look like they'd be a serious workout to chew. “There's not much flour,” the woman says, as if she heard Otabek's thoughts. “But it's bread. Hard to find that around here.”

Otabek's about to buy all of it when one of the little boys approaches.

“How long until breakfast, Mama?” There's a note of hope in his voice. His mother ignores him. Instead, she looks steadfastly at Otabek, her jaw set. It's an expression he's seen before, on his own mother when times were tough. They never had it as tough as this.

“Here.” Otabek holds out the entire stack of money, everything he earned at last night's fight.

“I don't have any change.”

“Doesn't matter. Keep it. Keep the buns, too. A gift.” Otabek turns and leaves quickly, rushing out the door and down the staircase to the street. He doesn't want to see the woman's expression, even if it's one of gratitude, and he doesn't ever want to come back here.

When Otabek arrives at Yuri and Mila's apartment, Yuri is awake, sitting on the couch in that tiger sweatshirt he seems to love. He's flicking through a magazine with a glossy picture of a well-dressed woman on the front, alongside Western letters Otabek can't read at a single glance. “Mila's at work,” Yuri says, not looking up. “But if you catch her on a break, she might let you suck her tits in a supply closet.” Seeing at him in the light of day, Otabek can easily see the boy he admired so many years ago. He can't imagine how he didn't see it before. “What the fuck are you staring at?”

Otabek looks away. “Nothing.”

Yuri tosses his magazine aside and stands, stepping forward into Otabek's personal space. He's a few inches taller than Otabek, but not so much that Otabek needs to tilt his head. “If you're thinking about running your mouth about what happened last night, you know, spreading it around town, I advise you to fucking forget about it.”

“You mean, when you nearly killed me for no fucking reason?” Otabek's neck is still sore. He imagines there will be bruises soon, if there aren't already.

“Funny. I'm talking about the other thing, dumbass. You know what I mean. About my...episode.”

Otabek blinks. “I won't tell anyone you cried.” The thought hadn't crossed his mind.

Yuri snarls, obviously trying to be intimidating. Fuck that, Otabek thinks. “You're not the only one who's ever been fucked over by a guy,” he says, coolly. He relishes the expression of shock on Yuri's face. His forehead creases and his mouth opens, then closes again soundlessly. If they were in the ring, Otabek would press this advantage, harass him with it, use Yuri's confusion against him, but they aren't in the ring. Otabek backs down. He walks away and looks out the window, until he hears Yuri scoff behind him.

“Whatever.” Yuri stomps off in the direction of the bathroom. The pipes shudder and groan, and when Yuri emerges after a protracted period, his long hair is damp.

“I'm going out,” he says. Otabek restrains himself from voicing his mother's old adage, that going out with wet hair will lead to chills, pneumonia and almost certain death. “Stay here if you want, I guess. Don't touch my shit.” Yuri slams the door behind him.

Otabek doesn't plan on hanging around the apartment all day. He takes his own shower, ice cold because Yuri has clearly used up all the hot water, then heads down the stairs again.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. Otabek thought that last time he was here, when it was still Leningrad and Otabek was still very young and very full of hope. Hope that he would one day leave the USSR. Hope that he would learn more English than the handful of words he'd picked up from pirate radio broadcasts. Hope that he would succeed as a dancer.

This last hope was dashed almost as soon as he arrived at Lilia Baranovskaya's summer training camp. The camp was full of children like Yuri, young and so good, they didn't even know how good they were. Otabek knew, and he knew he would never be like them.

In another life, where Otabek's family had the money and he had the time, he might have been able to overcome his lack of innate talent with sheer effort. In this world, that wasn't possible. When Otabek was fourteen, less than a year after the training camp, his father died. His remaining family—his mother, and a brother and sister both far too young to work—relied on him to help make ends meet. There was no time for frivolities like dance or music, not when he had to go to school and work two jobs just to keep the family afloat.

There was no time for Otabek's other passion, either. As he walks down a quiet side street, he spots a motorcycle, parked on the pavement in front of a shop. It's a big black Ural 655 M66. Nothing like the sporty little IZH Jupiter he sometimes borrowed from a friend back in Almaty, but stunning nonetheless.

Otabek can't help it. He's not going to touch, he tells himself, merely look. As he stands there, admiring sheer beauty in bike form, a man pokes his head out from the shop, smiling.

“Hello. Can I help you with something?” The man is small, slender, and young. Foreign, clearly, although his Russian is good. Otabek hadn't thought there were a lot foreigners still around.

“Just admiring your bike,” he admits.

“It belongs to my boss. He had to go to Italy for a while, but I think he'll be back soon.” The man continues to beam. It's a little unsettling. Otabek hasn't seen many cheerful people lately. “I hope he is, anyway. I've been having a lot of trouble managing the deliveries without him.”

“Deliveries?” Looking past the man, he sees a few bunches of flowers in pots of water. “You sell flowers?”

“That's right.” The man sounds inordinately proud of it. Otabek can't imagine why. He can't think of a more useless frivolity than cut flowers. “Say.” The man's eyebrows crease thoughtfully, although his smile doesn't waver for an instant. “Would you help me?”

“Help you?”

“With the deliveries. It's not a hard job. I don't get as many orders as I used to.” He sighs. “I couldn't pay you that much, but I could let you ride Ciao Ciao's bike. I don't think he would mind.”

Otabek hasn't ridden a bike in years. Looking at it fills him with an unexpected yearning, a desire much stronger than he would have expected. He was only ever a casual motorcyclist. He never even had his own, but now, he wants to get on that bike more than anything.

But this is nonsense.

“Why would you trust me?” Otabek asks.

The man shrugs. “Why wouldn't I?”

Otabek snorts, then realizes this is a genuine question. “You don't know me,” he reminds the man.

He sticks out a hand. “I'm Phichit,” he says. “You are...”

“Otabek.” He shake's Phichit's hand. It's soft and gentle, and Otabek is suddenly very aware of his own cuts and callouses.

“So, now we know each other. Do you want the job?”

He's insane, Otabek thinks. Then, I can't let someone else take advantage of him. “All right.”

“Perfect!” Phichit claps gleefully. “You can start right now.”

Remarkably quickly, Otabek falls into a routine. A few nights a week, the “Hornet of Almaty” fights in some dirty warehouse or underground bar. In the mornings, Otabek goes to Phichit's and sees if there are any deliveries to be made. Even if there aren't, Phichit lets him take the motorbike out.

Sometimes, Otabek sees the sights. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which is just starting to offer religious services again after many decades as an atheism museum. The canals. The Peter and Paul Fortress. More often, Otabek leaves the city and explores the countryside. Occasionally, he passes through villages so small, the residents come out of their houses to stare at him as he drives by. At other times, he rides all day without seeing a single other person.

After about two weeks, the man Phichit calls “Ciao Ciao” returns from Italy. Otabek expects him to be an old, “Godfather”-like character, but instead he's a robust man in his late forties, with a long dark ponytail and a seemingly endless supply of neon coloured shirts. Otabek also expects to lose this cushy job, but when Phichit says, “This is our deliveryman, Otabek,” Ciao Ciao just looks at him.

“All right,” the man says, his arm slung around Phichit's waist. There's no further discussion.

Otabek doesn't know exactly what Phichit and Ciao Ciao are to one another. At times, they seem like an indulgent boss and an eager employee, but just when Otabek thinks he's got it figured out, he arrives back at the shop early one day to find them wrapped up in one another in the back room, Ciao Ciao's broad hands across Phichit's narrow backside. Otabek doesn't ask. He also doesn't ask why they're here when they could be in Italy, or Thailand, where Phichit is from. Both seem like better options than Russia for men like Ciao Ciao and Phichit. For anyone.

With his job at the flower shop seemingly secure, at least for the time being, Otabek intends to find his own apartment, but even between the two jobs, Otabek's finding it hard to send any appreciable amount back to his mother. When Mila suggests, “You can keep staying with us. It's nice to have someone to dilute Yuri's presence around here,” Otabek agrees, and starts to pay a little rent in exchange for sleeping on their couch. Yuri still doesn't say much to him, but he's taken to shoving a cracked cup of coffee at Otabek in the mornings, when Otabek's folding away his bedding for the day. That's something, Otabek guesses.

Mila and Yuri invite a lot of people over, after fights and sometimes on their evenings off. There's Georgi--who seems to have a new girlfriend every other week although he never stops talking about his ex Anya--along with a dozen others who come in rotation, in groups of three or four. Otabek doesn't know all their names. He sits with them because he has nowhere else to go, watching them drink vodka from the bottle and smoke hand rolled cigarettes. Yuri puts music on the cassette player, usually Pink Floyd or AC/DC or some other Western band. Once, Otabek makes an inadvertent face when “You Shook Me All Night Long” comes on for the nth time. He doesn't feel himself do it, but Yuri snaps, “You want to be the DJ?” and tosses a shoebox of cassette tapes at Otabek.

Any questions Otabek might have had about where Yuri got the tapes is answered at once. Most of them are copyright EMI Canada; a few have the letters “J.J.” written in black marker on the paper sleeves. Otabek searches through them until he finds a new Madonna tape. He sticks it on to the first song, “Vogue”, which he's heard only a couple of times, hoping he passes Yuri's test.

Yuri doesn't say anything, but he doesn't complain, which Otabek takes as a win. Yuri even cracks a smile when Mila and Georgi get up to dance, striking poses around the room. He doesn't join in. Neither does Otabek.

As they're hanging out one night, Yuri's feet on Mila's lap and a cigarette dangling from his lips, Yuri runs a hand through his dishevelled hair and meets Otabek's eye. They're all drunk, except for Otabek. He's never been a devout Muslim, but he's never liked the taste of alcohol, either, not unless he's trying to recover from a fight, and religion is a convenient excuse not to drink.

“So.” Yuri smirks. “When are you going to take us all for a ride on that motorbike of yours, bad boy?”

“It's...ah, it's not mine.” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Otabek knows they are the wrong ones, although he doesn't know what the right ones would be. Yuri rolls his eyes and mutters something Otabek can't hear, but which earns him a poke in the ribs from Mila.

“Bitch,” Yuri complains, and then they're off, yelling at each other in the way they do, like siblings. Yuri doesn't mention the motorbike again and, while Otabek finds he wouldn't mind offering, he doesn't know how to broach the subject.

***

“His name's Yevgeni Sokolov. He's from Moscow,” Yakov says, as he, Yuri, Georgi and Otabek stand together in a new place that stinks of motor oil and vomit, looking at the man on the other side of the room. He's taller than Yuri but even skinnier, his ribs obvious beneath his sallow skin. His head is shaved bare, and he's covered in blurry blue tattoos that are impossible to decipher from this distance or, possibly, at all.

“Looks like a fucking skinhead,” Yuri says. “I don't like him. Tell him to fuck off, Yakov.”

“Otabek's the one going up against him.”

“What?” Yuri scowls. “What the fuck are you talking about?” Otabek should be offended at the depth of Yuri's surprise, maybe, but he shares it.

“He came here to fight the Hornet of Almaty,” Yakov explains.

“Shit,” Yuri says. Again, Otabek agrees. He knew that nickname would be nothing but trouble.

“You'll be fine,” Yakov reassures him, but it sounds empty, like not even he believes it. He shoves Otabek in the direction of ring, marked off with spray paint. Otabek stumbles forward.

“Wait.” Yuri comes up beside him. He glances over at Sokolov again, then turns his back on the man, lowering his voice so only Otabek can hear. “He wrapped his left ankle, which means it's probably a weak spot. Kick him as hard as you can, right off the bat.”

“That's not...” Otabek was going to say “sporting”, but he doesn't.

Yuri snorts anyway. “If you think he's going to play by any fucking rules, you're out of your mind. Kick him in the ankle and knee him in the fucking balls. Then maybe you'll have a chance.” He brings up one hand and claps Otabek's shoulder. “If not, it's been nice hanging out with you.”

“Yeah. Right. Thanks,” Otabek calls, to Yuri's retreating form. Then he breathes deeply, squares his shoulders and steps forward.

Yuri's right, of course. It might not be sporting, but Otabek's not stupid. As soon as the fight starts, he goes for Sokolov's weak ankle, but Sokolov is faster than Otabek expected. He dodges easily. Otabek tries again, but again, Sokolov evades him. He lunges into a third try, but this time Sokolov surges forward, pummelling Otabek's chest and stomach.

He's quick, Otabek has to give him that. Still breathless, Otabek tries to rally, but it's already too late. The fight may as well be finished, and Sokolov knows it. He smirks and punches him dead in the face.

Otabek's nose cracks, and a firework of pain explodes in his head. He doesn't have time to indulge it. Sokolov brings his leg around and kicks Otabek in the back of the calf, a move that brings Otabek swiftly onto his back. There's another crack, this one as Otabek's head hits the cement floor beneath them. A multitude of shapes and colours dance in front of his eyes. Into this festive hallucination steps Sokolov, his ugly face leering down at Otabek, showing off his mouthful of missing teeth. “Looks like I squashed the Hornet,” he hisses, and spits, right in Otabek's eye.

Otabek's not sure what happens next. His vision is blurred, and not only from the glob of saliva lodged in one eye. Suddenly, Sokolov looks away from Otabek and says, “I came to fight the Hornet, not some fucking fair--.” He stops abruptly.

Woozily, Otabek he sits up and wipes his eye. Yuri's going at Sokolov like the man's a punching bag. Sokolov gets in a few hits here and there, but they don't seem to faze Yuri at all. They certainly don't slow him down. Before Otabek even has time to really process what's happening, Yuri's got Sokolov on the ground.

“This is my town. If you come here, you come to fight me, not my friends,” Yuri tells him. “And next time, call me the Tiger.” He punctuates the sentiment by bringing his foot down hard on Sokolov's face.

A cheer goes up, the usual chants of “Tigr!” that accompany Yuri whenever he fights. Rather than revel in them the way he usually does, motioning for the crowd to chant louder and louder, Yuri steps aside. “Get up,” he snaps at Otabek, reaching down to pull at his arm. He's a little less dizzy, but he still stumbles as he gets to his feet. Yuri grabs him around the shoulders and raises one hand. The crowd applauds obligingly, although Otabek can't say he deserves it.

“Come on.” Glancing over, Otabek sees Mila on his other side. “Let's get out of here.”

“What...” Yuri begins.

“He's got buddies.” Mila nods in the direction of the men gathered around Sokolov's prone body.

“So what?” Yuri demands. “I'll fight them, too.”

“They have knives, Yuri. I saw them. I've told Yakov you'll pick up your money tomorrow. Now let's go.” She puts an arm around Otabek's waist.

“That's not necessary, thank you, Mila,” Otabek tries to say. It comes out more like a slurred yelp.

“Put your arm around me. Like this.” She moves Otabek's arm over her shoulders, and she and Yuri drag Otabek out of the filthy building.

Two hours, a few drinks, and a large ice pack later, Otabek feels more like a human being. He's also completely humiliated. “You didn't need to save me,” he tells Yuri, who is sitting at the end of the couch, brushing out his long hair like, Otabek thinks, fucking Rapunzel or something. The cat with the hole in its ear, named Pirat, sits on Yuri's lap. Every now and then, Yuri strokes it, and it purrs. “I had things under control.”

“Right.”

Otabek can't blame him for being skeptical. “Even if I didn't, that's the way it goes. You've never jumped in before when I've lost.”

“I told you, I don't like Sokolov.”

“You've met him before?”

“No. But I don't like men like that.”

“Like what? Crazy?” Because you seem a little unhinged yourself. Otabek says that last part only in his mind. Yuri is his roommate, after all, and he's not in a position to be kicked out right at this moment.

“Fucking skinheads,” is Yuri's reply.

“Don't fuss with your bandage,” Mila says, gently smoothing it down over Otabek's nose again. It's uncomfortable and itchy, but he says, “I won't,” obediently. Her skills as a medic kept him from having to go to the hospital, which is the last thing he wants to do. Well, one of the last. “I have to get to bed,” Mila says. “I'm at work in the morning. They've got us coming in early for some big important guest. But Yuri will keep an eye on you, right?” She looks pointedly at Yuri. “It should be all right for you to go to sleep in an hour or so, I think.”

“Thanks, Mila.” He'll have to get her some flowers the next time he's at Phichit's. It's the least he can do.

Once she's gone, Otabek and Yuri sit in silence for a long moment. Yuri puts down his hairbrush and sweeps his hair into one hand, laying it over his shoulder. Otabek's about to tell him that he doesn't have to baby-sit, that Otabek can keep himself awake for an hour without Yuri watching him, when Yuri says, “Who was he? The guy that fucked you over, I mean.”

“What?”

“When I was pissed off about J.J. leaving me, you told me I wasn't the only one who'd ever been fucked over by a guy.”

“Oh.” Otabek sighs, but there's no reason not to tell him. “There have been a few. The first was a Russian.” Blond, handsome, kind of a pain in the ass. Like someone else Otabek could name. Otabek was in love with him from the first moment they met. “His father was some government official in Almaty. We were at school together for a couple of years, then they moved away.”

“And he broke your heart?”

“He didn't know I existed. Well,” Otabek corrects, “he did. I let him copy my homework and I lied to his parents for him. A lot of times. Told them he was playing football with me when he and his Kazakh girlfriend were off in the woods together. But when I actually wanted to spend time with him, there were always a million other things he had to do.”

Yuri shakes his head. “Bastard.”

“Yeah. So I guess it's not exactly like your situation.”

“No.” Yuri looks thoughtful. “J.J. always said we could live together in Montreal. Right out in the open, with everyone knowing what we were. Sounded fucking awful. But it also...it also sounded kind of nice, you know? Not to have to hide. It would be so different to here.”

“Yeah.” Otabek can't picture it.

“But in the end, he couldn't even tell his parents about me. So I guess nothing was that different after all.”

“He was an idiot, Yuri.” It might be the concussion talking, but it's suddenly imperative that Otabek say it.

“Yeah." Yuri catches his eye. "So was your guy." He holds Otabek's gaze until discomfort begins to gnaw at Otabek. He shifts on the couch, which breaks the spell.

Yuri gets up, bringing his cat with him. “Don't go to sleep for at least, like, forty-five minutes, okay? Mila will kill me if you're dead when she wakes up in the morning.”

“Right. Okay.”

“Good night, Otabek.”

“Good night. And...” He hesitates. “Thanks.” By jumping into the fray, Yuri had embarrassed Otabek in front of a crowd of bareknuckle boxing fans, but he'd also come to Otabek's defense when he didn't have to. And he stomped on Yevgeni Sokolov's face.

All things considered, it's a pretty fair trade.

Chapter Text

Otabek is hot.

He's boiling; he's stifling. Sweat runs down his body in rivers, pooling at the base of his throat, under his arms, in his groin. He shifts, desperate for some relief, until a blessedly cool hand lands on his hip.

“Stay still.” It's Yuri's voice, irritated and lovely. Otabek obeys. Cracking open an eye, he sees that he's lying on Yuri's bed. The matryoshka doll and the Garfield figurine are beside him, staring in a way that seems disproportionately judgmental for a nesting doll and a plastic cat.

Otabek jerks, suddenly, when the cool hand slides around his cock. “I said stay still,” Yuri repeats, and then, just like that, Otabek's cock is in his mouth.

Otabek would be lying if he said he never wondered what it might feel like. The truth is, it's better even than Otabek could have imagined. He arches his back, pressing into Yuri's touch, savouring the sensation of that beautiful, talented tongue as it wraps itself skillfully around Otabek's erection. All of the heat in his body seems to have flown there, to a penis that must be scalding the poor guy. Otabek glances down, to make sure Yuri's all right, and because it's a sight he really wants to see. Yuri's hair is wrapped around his head in an extravagant, braided style, and he's wearing the maroon blazer, striped tie and short grey pants of a school uniform.

“Otabek.” Before Otabek can ask about his outfit, Yuri looks up, his mouth sliding wetly off Otabek's cock. He looks sinful, his lips glistening and red. “Otabek, have you finished my geometry homework yet?”

Otabek jerks awake so violently, he tumbles from the couch. He hits the floor with a loud bang, which seems, strangely, to repeat itself, over and over again. It takes a full thirty seconds for him to realize that someone is knocking on the door.

Staggering to his feet, Otabek wraps the blanket around his waist and drags it over. The little, bun-faced old woman from next door stands on the other side, staring at Otabek with naked contempt. “Telephone for you,” she snaps and walks off, one of her brown nylon stockings sagging around her ankle.

The phone is on the main floor, in an alcove near the building's front door. Otabek throws on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt before he makes his way down there. The receiver is hanging from the cord.

“Sorry to keep you waiting...” He begins as he picks it up, unsure whether anyone is even on the other end.

“Oh, that's fine!” Phichit replies, brightly. “I had a lovely chat with your neighbour. Did you know she worked in a gulag for eighteen years?”

“No, I had no idea.” Otabek's head aches.

“It's fascinating, really. Otabek, do you have any idea of the things that went on there? And that poor woman felt she had to carry out her orders, or risk her own life. What choice is that to put before a person?”

Otabek swallows, trying to wet his dry throat. “Did you...I mean, were you calling for anything in particular, Phichit?”

“Yes, I am! And it is so exciting, Otabek! I've got an absolutely enormous order for you to deliver. Twenty-six red roses, twenty-two white ones, nine pink carnations and nine tiger lilies. To the same place!”

“That's quite a mix.”

“Well, the client originally wanted sixty-six red roses, but we didn't have enough. One flower for every month he has been with his lover. Isn't that romantic?” There's a grumbling in the background. “Oh, be quiet, Ciao Ciao! It is very romantic.”

“How am I going to carry all of that?” They won't fit in the basket he normally sticks on the back of the bike, and Otabek can't imagine balancing that amount of flowers as he navigates the streets of St Petersburg.

“We've got a little wagon for the motorcycle. Ciao Ciao's getting it out of the shed now, aren't you, Ciao Ciao?” Another indistinct grumble. “It's for a suite at the Petr Alexeyveich Hotel.” Mila works there. As his brain starts to slowly come into focus, Otabek remembers her mentioning some very special, important guest. This could be him. Otabek can't imagine any average person wanting a bouquet of sixty-six flowers. “Do you think you could come soon? Please?”

“I'll be there in fifteen minutes.” Otabek hangs up the phone and goes back upstairs to dress.

When he gets to the shop, Ciao Ciao is hooking the wagon, a rough, wooden contraption with rusty wheels, up to the bike. He glances at Otabek, and says, “What happened to your face?”

Otabek's hand goes to the bandage over his nose. “It was a, uh, a misunderstanding.”

Ciao Ciao raises an eyebrow skeptically, but all he says is, “Phichit's going to be upset.”

He is. When he emerges from the shop, Phichit claps a hand over his mouth and gasps. “Otabek! Your nose!”

“Just a misunderstanding,” Otabek repeats. He hasn't told them about his second job fighting in warehouses. He's not embarrassed about it, exactly, but he doesn't want everyone to know, either. “I'm all right, really,” he assures Phichit, who still looks fretful as he loads the cart.

Sixty-six flowers is a large amount. One you can't really picture, Otabek finds, until you see them laid out in front of you. “He's crazy, if you ask me,” Ciao Ciao remarks. “The client, I mean.”

“Who's it for?” Otabek asks.

Phichit hands over the order form. There's the hotel's address, above the name “Yuuri Katsuki.” “Is the hotel expecting the delivery?” The last thing Otabek needs this morning is for snobbish hotel staff to treat him like something that's crawled out of their drains. It's happened before.

“Ciao Ciao rang them about it. But the client really wants it to be a surprise for his lover.”

“Great.” But, despite his lack of enthusiasm, Otabek does feel a glimmer of excitement. A man who spends this much money on something as useless as flowers is clearly exorbitantly rich, and his mistress, this Yuuri Katsuki, no doubt has access to that money. If she's happily surprised, that might mean a good tip for Otabek. Good enough to send back home. Or, his brain adds, maybe good enough to get Yuri something, to thank him for what he did with Sokolov. Otabek doesn't know what that something might be. Food, probably, if he can find it.

“All set,” Ciao Ciao breaks in, saving Otabek from his own thoughts. He clips a tarp over the wagon as Otabek gets onto the bike.

“See you soon!” Phichit waves. “And be careful!” As Otabek pulls away, he sees Ciao Ciao slip an arm around Phichit's waist. Right there on the empty street, Phichit goes up on his toes to plant a kiss on the other man's cheek.

Like the apartment building, the Petr Alexeyveich pre-dates the revolution, although this time, it's in a good way. Mila told Otabek that, until recent events, the hotel was a favoured haunt of the Party elite, which is no doubt why it kept its gilded columns, its polished chequerboard floor, and the painted ceiling and mirrored panels that are, apparently, supposed to bring to mind the very un-Communist Palace of Versailles.

Otabek parks the bike in front and lifts the huge bouquet into his arms. He tries to protect it as he goes through the revolving door, but a tulip gets caught. He stops in his tracks, mid-rotation, to get it loose. It takes some deft work, but Otabek manages to free it without losing its head. By the time he finally steps into the foyer, the concierge is already raising his moustached upper lip in a sneer of contempt.

“I have a delivery for Yuuri Katsuki,” Otabek tells him, firmly ignoring the look.

“He's in the Tsarevich suite. I'll have someone bring it up.”

“I can do it,” Otabek replies quickly. There's no way his tip's going to some bellboy, not after the care he just took to preserve all sixty-six of the flowers.

Otabek strides toward the elevator like he knows what he's doing. It's only there, as he watches the numbers count down over the doors, that he registers Yuuri Katsuki is a “he.”

When he was young, Otabek was certain he was the only gay person in existence. There were a couple of boys who would fool around with him, for fun or, like his Russian “friend”, in exchange for what Otabek could do for them, but sooner or later, they all found girlfriends, and seemed to be happy with them. Otabek liked girls well enough. He tried to love them, tried to be crazy about them like every other boy seemed to be, but he just couldn't do it.

As he grew older, Otabek realized he couldn't really be the only one who felt that way. Otabek just isn't that special. No one is. He didn't, however, expect that he'd ever meet another man like him, certainly not one who was open about it. And yet here, in the space of a few weeks, he's met not only Yuri, but Phichit and Ciao Ciao, and now this Yuuri Katsuki and his unnamed, sentimental lover. If Otabek was the kind of man who believed in signs, he might see it as one, although what the sign might mean, he has no idea.

The Tsarevich suite is the only room on the top floor. Otabek steps out of the elevator to find the door to the suite already open. He calls out, “Hello? Mr. Katsuki?” as he maneuvers the flowers through the doorway.

“Ah, hello. Yes. Me.”

Otabek peers around the flowers. A Japanese man in a suit and glasses blinks back at him. “I have a delivery for you,” Otabek says, perhaps unnecessarily.

“Yes.” An anxious expression comes to the other man's face. “I'm sorry, my Russian...” He winces. “English?”

“Little,” Otabek admits. He doesn't know of the lyrics to the works of the Beatles or Madonna are exactly what the situation calls for. “Is there a...” He approximates the shape of a vase with his left hand. It looks like he's miming a curvaceous woman, but Yuuri gets it.

“Yes! Of course.” He disappears into a room within the suite. After a moment of rifling, Katsuki returns with two large vases. Otabek lays the bouquet on the polished coffee table, next to a glass ashtray full of butts, and glances around as subtly as possible. There's a grand piano, a chandelier, and a thick white sheepskin rug on the floor. Through an open doorway, he can see an unmade four-poster bed that looks big enough to sleep half a village.

“Please...” Otabek pulls the delivery slip from his pocket and mimes signing.

As Katsuki obeys, he laughs, a little nervously, and says, “My...my, uh, my wife is too much, sometimes.”

“I think...she is romantic.” Otabek looks at him meaningfully. Katsuki blushes and shoves the slip back at Otabek. He's quite sweet, Otabek thinks, even though he's not at all Otabek's type. This wife of his is a lucky man.

Otabek folds the slip, but doesn't head for the door. He can see the moment the reason for his meaningful hovering dawns on Katsuki. The man's eyebrows go up, and he scrambles for his wallet. “Ah, yes. For you.” Without looking at them, Katsuki pulls out a thick wad of bills and pushes it into Otabek's hand. “Is that enough?” It's far too much. More than Otabek has ever made in a week of boxing bouts. Enough to cover more than a month's rent.

Otabek hesitates. These men are rich, obviously, and the money would clearly mean much more to Otabek than it does to them. Still, even thinking of his family—even thinking of Yuri—can't make Otabek do it. He takes half, which is still the most generous tip he's received, and returns the rest.

“Thank you,” Otabek says, and leaves, before he has chance to regret being a complete idiot.

Otabek wonders, briefly, whether he ought to try and find Mila, but since she's no doubt busy, and since the snotty concierge is watching him like he expects Otabek to steal a purse or pickpocket a wallet right there in front of him, he decides against it. He shoots the concierge a contemptuous look of his own and strides through the revolving door, throwing his leg over the motorcycle and revving the engine before peeling away from the curb. It would have looked cooler, Otabek admits, without the homemade wooden cart rattling behind him.

Otabek's head is still pounding. While he would normally take the bike out for a ride, this morning he's just going to return it to Phichit and Ciao Ciao, then go back to bed.

Or, at least that's the plan. He's stopped at a red light not far from the hotel when he spots a familiar blond in a very familiar tiger sweatshirt walking along the pavement on the other side of the street. Otabek's too far away to call out to Yuri, but when the light turns, he switches lanes, darting between cars until he can turn left.

Otabek has no idea what Yuri's doing here, but he'll offer him a lift wherever he wants to go. It's the least he can do. As he's coming up the street on his way to meet Yuri, however, Otabek spots trouble.

Sokolov looks a lot worse than Otabek does. His face is criscrossed with bandages and new, heavy black stitches, and he's lumbering along like a man half-drunk. Maybe he is. The men with him look sharper, though. They're glancing from side to side as if they're looking for someone, their hands stuck suspiciously in their pockets. They have knives, Mila had said. Otabek believes it.

As Otabek drives past the group, keeping his head down, one of Sokolov's cronies points in the direction Otabek saw Yuri going. Otabek passes too quickly to hear what the man says, but he doesn't need to. Swerving his handlebars, Otabek steers the bike into a narrow space between old buildings. Rats scurry out of his way as Otabek cuts through the alley, wet leaves and wetter rubbish squelching beneath his wheels. He pops out the other end just in front of Yuri, who looks up, his eyes wide, as Otabek skids to a stop in front of him.

“What are you...”

“Sokolov and his friends are after you.”

Yuri furrows his eyebrows. “I thought I saw one of those bastards.”

“Well, there's more than one of them, and they're headed this way. Get on.”

“What?”

Otabek jerks his head. “Get on the bike. Unless you want me to leave you here, and you can find out just how pissed off they are.” It's a bluff. Otabek's not leaving. Yuri is coming with him, even if Otabek has to somehow overpower him and forcibly kidnap him. Thankfully, it doesn't come to that. Yuri gets on the back of the bike, holding onto the sides of the seat as Otabek drives off the pavement and back onto the road.

After a long moment, Yuri leans forward, his hair whipping Otabek's face. “Where are we going?” His breath is warm against Otabek's ear.

Otabek hadn't thought that far ahead. All he knows is that he wants to get Yuri as far away as possible, as quickly as he can. “Do you feel like a cup of tea?”

The hamlet is only about thirty minutes south-east of St. Petersburg, but it may as well be on the moon. There's nothing there, no sign of human habitation save for the few old stone farmhouses scattered close enough together to be considered a community, but far enough apart that they aren't really neighbours. The last time Otabek passed through here, he'd learned there was a woman, an Ivana Nikulkina, who served tea and pastries out of her home. It's the closest thing the region has to a restaurant or a café. Her food is decent, Otabek discovered, and she has four cats. It's perfect for Yuri.

When Otabek gets off the bike in front of the house, Yuri looks unsure. Still, he follows Otabek, running his fingers through his badly windswept hair. When Ivana Nikulkina opens the door, she doesn't smile, but she looks them over before stepping back and wordlessly allowing them into her home.

Like the last time, Otabek sits in the woman's front room. One wall is covered in framed photographs of men, women and children—all dead or moved to the city, Nikulkina told him last time Otabek asked, although she didn't specify which was which—while on the other hangs a dark, dour painting of two peasant girls in headscarves.

Yuri sits beside him, a little closer than necessary on the long velour sofa, half-falling into the dip Otabek's body is creating in the overly soft cushions. Their shoulders bump together, but Otabek doesn't move away.

“This place is fucking creepy, Otabek.”

“She makes great syrniki.”

Yuri snorts. “If you want good syrniki, I'll take you to my grandpa's.” The door swings open. Yuri jerks his head around to look, but it's only one of the cats, a tortoiseshell with a limp. Nikulkina had told Otabek its name, but he can't remember. “He makes the best pastries in the world,” Yuri adds, holding out his arms. The cat hops eagerly onto his lap.

“I'd like that,” Otabek says. It's true. “Mila told me you and your grandfather are close.”

Yuri shrugs. “He hates that I fight.”

“What would he prefer you to do?”

Yuri rubs the cat's ears. It purrs under his touch. For a moment, Otabek wonders if the question was too much, too invasive, but Yuri answers, “Dance. I was a dancer, before. Ballet.”

Now's the moment, Otabek thinks. There's never been a better time for it. He should tell Yuri they knew each other as children, that they danced together at Lilia Baranovskaya's summer camp. That Otabek never forgot him. He opens his mouth, but all that comes is, “I can see that.”

“Why?” Yuri demands. “Because I'm such a pretty fucking fairy?”

“No!” That's not it at all. “Because...because you're strong.” He knew that even when Yuri was ten years old. “Dancers are the strongest people there are.”

“Hm.”

They sit in silence, until the door creaks open again. This time, it's Ivana Nikulkina, pushing a wheeled cart with two more cats at her heels. There's a teapot on a tray, and two cracked, flowery cups, along with a plate of syrniki, garnished with dollops of cream and bright red berries.

“Thank you,” Otabek says. His mouth is watering just looking at it. The woman nods, dour as always. She seems closer to middle-aged than elderly, but Otabek couldn't guess how old she is.

When she leaves again, one of the cats goes with her. The other jumps up, insinuating itself into the tiny space between Otabek and Yuri. Yuri puts an arm around it and reaches for a cup.

The food is good, as Otabek expected. Yuri eats happily, putting away the syrniki with a smile on his face. It makes Otabek feel good to see it, like he accomplished something by bringing Yuri here. As Otabek leans forward to refresh his cup of tea, Yuri says, “Mila called me to the hotel this morning. That's why I was around there. If you were wondering.”

“Why?”

Yuri sticks a finger into his mouth, licking off a spot of sticky jam. Otabek's hand shakes a little, and he tightens his grip on the teapot. “A...person I used to know is back.”

“A friend?”

“Not anymore. He's a fucking traitor.” Yuri's tone is venomous. His grip on the cat tightens, until it mewls in protest and Yuri apologetically rubs its ears. “A defector. They let him go to Japan to perform, and he never fucking came back.”

Otabek takes a sip of tea. It's cooler, now, but still warm enough to slide pleasantly down Otabek's throat. “Is it...” He hesitates. “Is it Victor Nikiforov?”

“How did you know that?”

The picture. I saw the picture in your room. Also, I was at Lilia Baranovskaya's summer camp the same time you were... “I know a bit about ballet.” That's true, even if it is cowardly. Otabek knows Nikiforov defected in Japan. Everyone does. There was never any official announcement. If you went by what the Party said—or didn't say—then you would assume the greatest male ballet dancer in the USSR had just dropped off the face of the Earth one day, but the word on the street was that he got out, like many others before him. The word on the street isn't usually wrong.

Yuri snorts. “Well, apparently he has some fat Japanese bitch in tow.” Yuuri Katsuki hadn't seemed fat to Otabek, at least not unappealingly so, but Otabek doubts this is the time to tell Yuri that the other Yuuri is in fact quite cute. “Of course, Mila didn't tell me any of that until I got to the fucking hotel. And as soon as I knew Victor was there, I left. I have nothing to say to that asshole. Mila should know that, for fuck's sake.”

“You have finished?” The door swings open again. Ivana Nikulkina looks at them, expressionless.

Otabek drains his teacup. “Yes, thank you. It was lovely.”

Yuri reaches into his pocket, but Otabek says, “It's okay,” and produces Yuuri Katsuki's money, counting off the cost and a generous tip besides.

“Thanks,” Yuri says. Nikulkina slips the money into the pocket of her apron.

Otabek's nearly out the door, Yuri close behind him, when she says, “Wait.” Nikulkina jerks her head at Yuri. “A word.”

Otabek looks at him. He's ready to demur on Yuri's behalf, but Yuri shrugs. “I'll be there in a second,” he says, and Otabek goes out to the bike.

They're going to need to head back to town. The bike is running pretty low on fuel, and Otabek knows from experience that there's no such thing as a gas station anywhere near here. Hopefully, Sokolov and his cronies will have given up on finding Yuri by now.

Otabek checks the trailer, to make sure its still properly attached, and picks up the single helmet. He's going to insist Yuri wear it. He should really have done it on the way here, he thinks, but he was so busy trying to get Yuri away...

“I can't fucking believe it!” The farmhouse door bursts open and Yuri stomps out, red-faced and scowling. “Stupid cunt thinks I'm a girl.”

“Yuri, I don't think they see many people like you around here...” Not even Otabek's seen many people like Yuri.

“And,” Yuri looks at him, “according to her, I should be with a nice Russian boy, not a filthy foreigner like you.”

Otabek's cheeks burn. It's a little disappointing, especially when he liked Ivana Nikulkina enough to come to her house a second time, but it's not like she's the only person in Russia who thinks like that. “Yuri, that's not...”

Before he can finish the sentence, Yuri grabs him, mashing their faces together. Their noses collide, sending a renewed spike of agony through Otabek, and Yuri's teeth catch on Otabek's bottom lip. He doesn't pull away. Instead, his mouth falls open, from shock as much as anything else, and he lets Yuri press their tongues together, breathing harshly as Yuri cups his face with one hand and gropes his ass with the other. He tastes like cream and berries, like syrniki and hot tea.

When they break apart, after what seems like an eternity, Yuri glances over his shoulder toward the house. Otabek sees the curtain at the front window twitch, and Yuri grins in triumph. “Stupid cunt,” Yuri reiterates. He kisses Otabek again, this time on the cheek, and straddles the bike.

“You should...” Otabek feels dazed. The headache, which had all but disappeared, is suddenly back in full force. “Here.” He holds out the helmet.

Yuri shakes his head. “I don't need that.”

“Yuri.” A bubble of something—hysteria, maybe—rises in Otabek's chest. “As your filthy foreigner, I have to insist you wear it.”

Yuri laughs. Really laughs, like a happy kid. It's such an unexpected noise that Otabek finds himself smiling in return. “In that case, yes, sir!” Yuri takes the helmet. This time, instead of gripping the sides of the seat, he hugs his arms tightly around Otabek's middle when Otabek starts up the bike. He leaves them there even after they're well out of sight of the farmhouse.

When they arrive at Phichit's, Yuri insists on coming inside.

“I'm not waiting around in the street. Fuck that,” he says, but there's a lightness to his tone, a cheerfulness Otabek's never heard before. It does things to Otabek's insides that he's not sure he should admit to.

Ciao Ciao is nowhere in sight, but Phichit is behind the counter with his back to the door. When Otabek says, “I brought back the bike,” he replies, “Great! Listen, Otabek, there's something we...” It doesn't sound like the end of a sentence, but Phichit stops talking when he turns around.

“Hello! Who's this?” He beams at Yuri. Yuri, to Otabek's astonishment, smiles back at Phichit. It's not much, just a vague raising of the corners of his mouth, but it's not a scowl. Otabek would have laid money on him giving Phichit a scowl.

“This is Yuri,” Otabek replies, when he realizes he's been staring. “My...” Otabek hesitates. Friend? Is that too strong a word?

Apparently, Yuri doesn't think so. “I'm his friend,” he says.

“Lovely! That's lovely. I'm so pleased to meet you, Yuri.” As always, Phichit sounds like he's telling the truth.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” Otabek asks.

Phichit waves a hand. “Oh, it can wait. Ciao Ciao's not here right now, anyway. I'm sure he wants to talk to you, too.”

That sounds ominous. Are they going to fire him? Is it because he showed up to work with a bandaged nose? Did Yuuri Katsuki figure out just how much of a tip Otabek took, and did he call to complain?

“Let's go, then,” Yuri says, jerking his head toward the door.

“Nice to meet you, Yuri,” Phichit repeats. Yuri grunts—that's more like the Yuri Otabek knows—and Otabek follows him out of the shop.

The walk back to the apartment is quiet. When they arrive at the building, the old woman who worked in the gulag is out front, walking her little white dog on the cigarette-strewn patch of pavement in front of the doors. Otabek nods politely and wonders just how many people she killed. He'll have to ask Phichit sometime.

As they climb the stairs, Otabek is directly behind Yuri, which puts Yuri's denim-clad ass practically in Otabek's face. The sweatshirt does nothing to cover it up. Being a gentleman, Otabek looks away, focusing on the stained walls and the rickety bannister until they're nearly at the top and Yuri glances over his shoulder.

“Want to fuck?”

Otabek stares.

“No strings attached,” Yuri adds, quickly. “I don't need a fucking boyfriend. I'm sure you don't either.” Otabek wouldn't know. He's never had one. “But it's stupid, us living together and not, you know, taking advantage of the situation.” Yuri's tongue darts out, wetting his lips. He turns back, stepping off the top of the stairs. Otabek comes around to stand beside him.

Before Otabek can formulate any type of a response—before he can even figure out what kind of response he wants to give—they both stop dead. At the end of the hallway, their apartment door stands ajar, a light glowing from within.

Instinctively, Otabek moves to stand in front of Yuri.

Yuri snorts. “Are you fucking kidding me?” He steps around, until he's in front of Otabek. “I'm the one who kicked Sokolov's ass, remember?”

In the end, they approach the door side-by-side, carefully avoiding the squeaky floorboard in the middle of the hall. Dim memories of a bootleg cassette of some American police movie run through his head as Otabek stands to one side and pushes the door the rest of the way open with a single, solid kick. He and Yuri leap in at once.

There's a man sitting on their sofa. He's tall, his impossibly long legs folded up like a stork's. There's a cigarette in his hand, and he's dressed like something out of one of Yuri's Western magazines, with a wide-shouldered, white pinstriped jacket, a wide brown tie, and white pinstriped pants. His shoes alone probably cost more than the entire apartment building is worth.

“Yuri! Darling!” As Otabek and Yuri step through the door, the man unfolds his legs and stands up. He rests his cigarette on what Otabek notices is their only soup bowl and holds out his arms. “I'm back!”

Yuri says nothing. Instead, he turns on his heel and leaves. His footsteps echo down the stairs; seconds later, the front door slams. If the man's offended, or even surprised, he doesn't show it. He holds out a hand to Otabek. “I'm Victor Nikiforov,” the man says, with a brilliant, stage-ready smile. “You must be Yuri's lover.”

Chapter Text

“I'm not...” Otabek begins.

Victor talks over him. “He's angry with me, of course. Things didn't work out the way we planned. But you can't account for love, I'm sure you understand that.” He looks at Otabek with big eyes, as if beseeching him to agree. It's an expression Otabek remembers from his childhood. Victor was a star from a young age, beautiful and masculine at once, the pride of the Russian ballet. He was also a former student of Madame Baranovskaya's, and the year Otabek was there, she took her summer students to see him perform the role of Albrecht in “Giselle” at the Mariinsky. Watching the great Nikiforov smile handsomely and leap across the stage, Otabek knew he himself would never be that good. He knew others, like Yuri, would be.

“I'm not sure...”

“Anyway, he won't be angry once he hears the plan I've got. I'm taking him to Japan at last!”

Otabek doesn't know what to say. Fortunately, Victor doesn't seem to require his active participation to carry on a conversation.

“My darling husband is a dancer as well. A superstar in Japan.”

“Yuuri Katsuki?”

“Yes!” Victor lunges forward suddenly. The boxer in Otabek tightens his fists, ready to fight back, but Victor only places an elegant, pale hand on Otabek's shoulder. “You've heard of him!”

He seems so thrilled, Otabek can't disillusion him. “I...sort of.”

“I've choreographed a piece. It's groundbreaking, the most original work the ballet has seen in decades.” His hand still on Otabek's shoulder, Victor looks out, as if onto an imaginary audience. “'Eros and Agape.' The story of romantic, erotic love and pure, selfless love. How they compare, how they contrast. It's a dance for two performers, in addition to myself. My Yuuri will play Eros. I want your Yuri to play Agape.”

“All men?” Otabek's too surprised by that to mention that Yuri is not, in fact, “his.”

“Yes! That's what makes it so unique. Shocking, to some, but these are the Nineties, Otabek. The world of dance needs to embrace the future.”

“Yuri hasn't danced for a long time.” Otabek has no idea whether he wants to. He does know that the idea of Yuri getting out of here, going to Japan and probably never returning, should make him happy, for Yuri's sake. Instead, it makes him feel ill.

Victor waves this aside. “He is the most talented young dancer I ever knew. That's why I planned to take him with me five years ago.”

“He was meant to go with you?”

“We arranged it together. But he worried what they would do to his grandfather, once they realized we were gone, so he stayed behind. I told him I would come back, and we would try again another time.”

“You didn't.” It goes without saying. Still, Otabek says it.

Victor gives a dreamy sigh. “I met my husband. Otabek, my friend, who can argue with love?”

Plenty of people, and especially with that kind of love. A forbidden love, an illegal love, that causes someone to forget his responsibilities, to abandon not only his country, which Otabek can admit isn't ideal, but also his friend, a much younger boy who was depending on him.

Otabek's not a vindictive man, usually, but suddenly, he wants Victor to know just how much pain he caused. “Yuri's an underground boxer,” he says. “The best in St. Petersburg. He's had to be, to survive.”

Instead of seeming ashamed, Victor just beams brighter. “I knew he would manage without me.” He picks up his cigarette, lying on the rim of the bowl. “Your Yuri is a force to be reckoned with. I'm sure you know that already. Mine is just as powerful. Performing my choreography, we will take over the world.”

Otabek doesn't doubt it, but that doesn't mean he wants to see Yuri go.

Victor keeps talking, and talking, and talking, for what feels like hours. Whether he wants to or not—and he doesn't, particularly—Otabek hears about Victor's life in Japan and his travels around the world, about his ballet career that has carried on, apparently, despite being firmly ignored by the USSR. Most of all, Victor talks about the man he ceaselessly refers to as “my husband.”

“My husband's family are the ones who saved me,” he explains, tapping yet another cigarette on the bowl. A dense fug has gathered around the ceiling, as bad as anything that ever appears when Yuri and Mila have their friends over. “They hid me at their little hotel in the countryside until it was safe for me to come out again. You'll adore meeting them, Otabek. I never knew people could be so kind. You just don't, growing up here. When my husband and I were preparing for our wedding...”

“Wedding?” There is a ring on Victor's right hand, but Otabek assumed that, like the “husband” thing, is an affectation. “You're really married?”

“In the eyes of certain people. Those who matter. There is a shinto shrine near where Yuuri's family lives, with a priestess who has a very liberal view on love. She's marvellous.”

Otabek's head spins. He assumes he'll get married one day, of course. Nearly everyone does. He'll go back to Almaty, eventually, find a nice girl, probably the daughter of one of his late father's friends, and have children. That is his job. His personal preferences have nothing to do with it. But to hear this, something he's never considered, a thought which has literally never crossed his mind...It's too much.

“Maybe you should go. I don't know when Yuri will be home.” It's rude, a little. Otabek's mother would be aghast. Nevertheless, Otabek stands.

Victor does the same. “Of course. I must be getting back to the hotel. When you see him, please tell darling Yuri my plan. Tell him...” Victor hesitates for the first time all afternoon. “Tell him I know he's upset, and I'm sorry for the way things worked out, but I long to be with him again.”

That sounds a little too romantic for Otabek's taste. He feels a frown come to his face, but he forces it away. Jealousy is ridiculous. Victor is with the Japanese Yuuri. He's made that more than abundantly clear. “I will.”

Victor stubs out the cigarette. “I like you, Otabek.” He holds out a hand. “I can tell you're good for Yuri.” He shakes Otabek's hand, his grip firm, and leaves. It's like a whirlwind departing, leaving an eerie calm in its wake.

Almost as soon as he's gone, the door swings open again.

“Where have you been?” Otabek asks Yuri, as he slinks in.

“Hiding around the corner. Did Victor yap your ear off about what an amazing guy he is?”

“He wants you to go to Japan.”

“No fucking chance.”

“He's written a ballet for you and his husband. 'Eros and Agape'.”

“Are you fucking joking?”

“You're meant to be Agape.”

Yuri chokes. “Then he's even dumber than he was when he left.”

Perhaps he is, and part of Otabek wants to encourage that line of thinking in Yuri. But he's just not that selfish. “It's a good chance to get out of here.” Or so it seems, anyway. At least better than anything offered by the Canadian.

“I don't give a shit. It's Victor. I fucking hate him. I wouldn't take five hundred million rubles if he held them in front of me.”

It's none of Otabek's business. Still, he says, “He said he wanted to take you with him, all those years ago.”

“Yeah. And they would have killed my grandfather if I'd gone. Fucking Victor never understood what that felt like.”

“He doesn't have a family?”

Yuri shrugs. “His mother died. His father ended up in the gulag for fucking the guy next door or something. I guess he's dead now, too.” That adds a new dimension to Victor's “marriage”, and his obvious pride in it. “Anyway, I don't want to talk about fucking Victor. I'm done with him. I was done five years ago.” Yuri's expression softens. Not into a smile, exactly, but the deep, angry creases in his forehead smooth out. Yuri looks at Otabek as he reaches up into his own hair, loosening his braid and letting it fall over his shoulders.

“I meant what I said, you know. Earlier.”

Otabek doesn't need to ask for clarification.

It's a stupid idea. Otabek's never done well with “no strings attached” sex. “No strings attached” sex with a friend and roommate is uncharted waters for him, but it seems like something destined for disaster. Otabek doesn't have to think hard to come up with a very long list of ways this could go horribly wrong. Before he can voice any of them, Yuri steps forward and presses his lips, softly and almost chastely, against Otabek's. Suddenly, the only concern in Otabek's mind is how quickly he can get his hands on Yuri, and what he wants to do when they get there.

In the ring, as in life, Yuri is aggressive. Otabek expects the same from sex. At first, though, Yuri is just the opposite. He lets Otabek push him back onto the sofa, hooking a leg around Otabek's waist and gasping when Otabek pushes a hand beneath his shirt. As Otabek's callused fingers work their way up Yuri's ribcage, Yuri sighs. When Otabek leans back, just a little, to dispense with his own shirt, Yuri's eyes grow wide.

Otabek doesn't know why. They've seen each other shirtless plenty of times before, but this time sparks something in Yuri. It's like flicking a switch. There's a flash of feeling in his eyes and suddenly, the Yuri Otabek knows is back, flipping them off the sofa and onto the floor.

The impact jars Otabek's still-tender bones. Yuri doesn't apologize, of course. Rather, he laughs and pulls his shirt over his head, tossing it aside and squirming deliciously on top of Otabek's crotch. Otabek's dick responds with enthusiasm, straining against the fabric of his pants. In response, Yuri bites his lip and grinds down, which does nothing to alleviate the problem. Rather the reverse.

“I want to ride your cock,” Yuri breathes. From him, it sounds like poetry.

“Mm,” Otabek grunts in response. Eloquence eludes him at the moment.

Yuri reaches for Otabek's pants, long fingers closing over the button. Otabek's eyes slide shut in anticipation, only to fly open again when the door bangs open. He tries to sit up, but Yuri holds him tightly, his body on Otabek's groin and his hands around Otabek's wrists.

“Fuck, Yuri,” Mila complains. “You've got a bedroom for this shit...oh. Hi, Otabek.”

“Hello.” Otabek does his best to sound cool and collected. He doesn't succeed.

“I've got your money from Yakov.” Mila tosses an envelope at Yuri. He raises one hand and catches it. “You're welcome. He says he wants all of us there tomorrow afternoon. He's got something big to tell us.”

“Right. Okay.” Yuri sets the envelope aside, on the newly vacated sofa. He doesn't even count it. “We're kind of busy here, Mila.”

“I can see that.” Otabek doesn't need to look to see her smirk. He can hear it perfectly clearly. “But I have a message from Victor, too.”

On top of Otabek, Yuri stiffens, and not in a way that's at all enticing. “Victor can go fuck himself, and his fat bitch.”

“He just wants to see you.”

“I have nothing to say to him.” Yuri leaps to his feet and stalks off, slamming his bedroom door behind him. Otabek sits up, glancing at Mila who smiles back. Before either of them can speak, the door opens again.

“Are you fucking coming or what?” Yuri barks.

There's only one answer to that. Otabek heads for the bedroom.

“Good luck,” Mila calls after him. “You'll need it.”

***

Otabek isn't the kind of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and his emotions on his face. At least, he didn't think he was, until he arrives at the flower shop the next morning.

“Otabek!” Phichit gushes. “You look so happy!”

If he does, there's a reason for it. Sex with Yuri was better than Otabek could have imagined. Much better than he dreamed.

It's been more than a year since he had anything at all, so maybe desperation is colouring his view, but Otabek doesn't think so. He's pretty sure that, even if he'd been fucking men regularly for years, fucking Yuri would stand out as special. Yuri's skill, his enthusiasm and his excitement and his noises, were so intense, Otabek blushes remembering them. He came a record three times, twice with Yuri's hands on his cock and once, as promised, with Yuri riding him, his thighs squeezing Otabek from either side as Otabek thrust up into his blissfully tight, hot hole. It was so mind-blowing, Otabek might have been able to go again, if they hadn't run out of condoms. But maybe that's wishful thinking.

The only awkwardness came after, when Otabek was unsure whether “sex without strings” meant he should return to sleep on the sofa. Yuri solved that problem by throwing an arm over Otabek, pinning him in place, and immediately falling asleep with his head on Otabek's shoulder and his hair in Otabek's mouth. He was still sleeping when Otabek gently extricated himself this morning, snoring softly as Otabek crept out of the apartment.

“Must be the nice weather,” Otabek replies. It sounds silly, even to him, but Phichit, the kind of person who really does get even happier when the sun is shining, doesn't argue.

“We've only got one delivery for you today,” he says, sounding apologetic as always. “Before you go, could you have a word with Ciao Ciao and me?”

Otabek doesn't reply. He doesn't need to. Phichit calls, “Ciao Ciao!” into the back room. A moment later, the older man appears.

“We have exciting news, Otabek. At least, we think it's exciting. We hope you do, too.” Phichit takes Cialdini's hand. At first, Otabek wonders if he's about to hear about their engagement, but that is nonsense, and obviously due to yesterday's interlude with Victor Nikiforov. Instead, Phichit says, “We're moving to America!”

Otabek blinks. “Oh. Ah...congratulations.”

“We're planning to open a shop there. All our paperwork's gone through.” Phichit glances at Cialdini. “We were wondering if you might like to come with us. We'd have to get your visas sorted out, but there shouldn't be a problem with that. You and I could stop over in Genoa for a while with Ciao Ciao's mother, get all that figured out there before we join him in Detroit. What do you think?” Phichit looks at him expectantly.

“Ah...That's, ah, that's a very generous offer.” It's more than that. It's a lifeline, a strong one, thrown by people with no obligation whatsoever to care about Otabek. The opportunities available in America are huge. He's known that since he was a kid with a well-tuned radio. Briefly, Otabek allows himself to picture them: money, success, maybe even the chance to bring over his family, for his brother and sister to go to American universities and for his mother to enjoy a worry-free retirement.

“Take your time.” Cialdini breaks in. “Let us know in a couple of days. It's a big decision. You shouldn't make it on the spot.”

“No! No, you shouldn't.” Phichit agrees. “But I hope you say yes! What?” He turns sharply to Cialdini, who nudges him in the side. “I know we said we wouldn't pressure him, but I really want him to come!”

“I'll think about it,” Otabek promises.

He does. He thinks of nothing else as he delivers the single order of the day, a dozen carnations to a rich elderly woman who tips him nothing.

The responsible thing would be to go with them. Chances like these come along rarely, maybe once in a lifetime. Even if America isn't as great as Otabek has built it up to be, and he can concede that maybe it's not, it still has to be better than here. There can't be many places that aren't.

But leaving Russia means leaving Yuri. And the thought of that still gives Otabek a sharp pain in his chest, like a well-placed punch to the heart.

After making the delivery, Otabek drives around aimlessly, turning the idea over and over in his mind. He's so absorbed in it that he nearly forgets about Yakov's order that they all meet up. Otabek's the last to arrive at the warehouse, hurriedly returning the bike to Cialdini and rushing in just as Yakov himself appears from the other direction.

“You fucked off early this morning,” Yuri says, as Otabek stands beside him. Mila and Georgi are sparring playfully, although from the scowl on Georgi's face and the grin on Mila's, it looks like only one of them is having any fun.

“I had to get to the flower shop.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Yuri scoffs.

Normally, Otabek would ignore the attitude, but this time, it rankles. “What's that supposed to mean?'”

“What's what supposed to mean?”

“You're acting like you don't believe me.”

“Well, are you telling the truth?”

“I have a fucking job, Yuri.”

“And a lazy ass like me wouldn't know what that's like, right?”

“I didn't say that!”

The side of Yuri's throat is peppered in little red love bites. In the heat of the moment, Otabek hadn't thought twice about making them, and Yuri hadn't complained. Now, Yuri rubs a hand over his neck, as if he can feel Otabek's gaze on him, and pulls up the hood of his beloved tiger sweatshirt.

Yakov claps his hands for attention. “I have good news for everyone,” Yakov says, as they gather around him. More good news, Otabek thinks. It's my lucky day. “I'm arranging a massive fight night. Everybody's on the ticket. Even you.” He looks at Mila. “I've found an Italian girl, Crispino or something. Fights all over Europe. Claims she's the best female boxer there is.”

“I'll change her mind,” Mila replies, with confidence.

“I'm counting on that. But you haven't heard the best part yet.” Yakov grins. Otabek's never seen him do that before. It's unsettling, to say the least. “The tiger and the hornet,” Yakov proclaims, like that's an announcement in itself.

“What?” Yuri snaps. “You want us to fight together or some shit?”

“I want you to fight against each other. I'll pay you both, win or lose. You're the most famous fighters in St. Petersburg. It'll be a windfall for all of us.”

“I can't fight Yuri," Otabek breaks in. There's no point in hearing whatever else Yakov has to say. It's just not going to happen.

Yuri looks over. There's an odd expression on his face. If Otabek knew people better, he might be able to interpret it, but as it is, he's at sea. Then the expression evaporates, and Yuri's trademark sneer returns. “Don't worry. He just said you'll get a payout even when you lose.”

“I don't care about that,” Otabek answers. There are some things more important than money. Like friendship, for one.

Clearly, Yuri disagrees. “Don't be a pussy, Otabek.” He turns to Yakov. “If that's all, I have somewhere else to be.”

“Where?” Mila asks, but once again, Yuri walks away. Yakov snorts and goes off in the other direction, Georgi trailing after him.

“Is Yuri...” Otabek doesn't know what he wants to ask.

Mila shrugs, unconcerned. “You know him.” No, Otabek thinks. I really don't. “I can't believe I'm actually getting to box! I wonder what she's like. You'll have to help me train, Otabek. It's been so long since I really fought someone who has any idea what she's doing.”

“Right,” Otabek says. His stomach twists uncomfortably. “Mila...” He doesn't know where he's going with the thought. He abandons it.

“Oh, honey.” Mila shakes her head. “It's not you. Really. It's him.”

It's probably both of us. Otabek smiles tightly. “Do you want to start with a warm-up?”

They train late into the evening. Mila is more enthusiastic than any male fighter Otabek has ever worked with, and as talented as the best of them. She puts him down more than once, and while Otabek would like to use distraction and a lingering concussion as an excuse, he doesn't think that's really fair.

After the second time, Mila holds out a hand. “Come on,” she says, as she helps him up. “I'll buy you a drink. Better yet,” she amends, throwing an arm around Otabek's shoulders. “I'll take you for a free one.”

Stepping back into the Petr Alexeyveich Hotel, Otabek feels even more out of place than he did the previous morning, when he at least had the flowers in his arms. Mila, however, walks in like she owns the place, waving at the concierge. Rather than head for the bar, as Otabek expects, she leads him through an unmarked door and down a narrow corridor. They pass rows of parked trolleys, laden with rolled towels and bins of cleaning supplies, then go through another door and are suddenly surrounded by laughing, talking people.

The windowless room is some kind of storage space. That's obvious from the shelves of cardboard boxes, the peeling paint on the walls, the rat traps in the corners. It's also completely full, and so noisy, Otabek has to restrain the urge to wince. A young man with a passing resemblance to Yuri, his tie hanging loosely over his shoulders, stumbles up to them, an open bottle in his hand, and casts a critical eye over Otabek.

“Got a new man, Mila?”

“Not mine, Sasha. Are you up for grabs, Otabek?”

Otabek can't say he feels enthusiastic at the prospect. Still, he says, “I guess so.” Closer up, Otabek sees that the man doesn't really resemble Yuri at all. It's just the blond hair that made him think it.

“Hm.” The critical eye turns appraising. “Might have to come back and speak with you later.” Sasha passes Mila the bottle, still a quarter full, and squirms away through the crowd.

“Cheers!” She takes a swig, knocking back a large mouthful, then passes the bottle. Otabek does the same, or tries to. The vodka goes down roughly. As Otabek coughs, a familiar voice rings out.

“Mila! Darling!”

Silence drops down like a curtain. Every person in the room turns, as one, to stare at Victor Nikiforov, standing in the doorway in a pale suit and a pink tie that probably cost more than anyone in this room has made in the past year.

If Victor notices the sudden awkwardness, he doesn't show it. At his side, however, Yuuri Katsuki fidgets with the hem of his shirt and pushes up his glasses. “Um, sorry. We is...are sorry to, ah, disturb.”

“Yes, yes.” Victor waves a hand. “We don't wish to bother you, but I spotted you coming in, Mila, and I just had to offer my thanks. And to you, Otabek! I admit, part of me was afraid Yuri would never see sense when it comes to me.”

“Does that mean he's going with you?” Mila asks. Otabek's glad. It saves him from having to.

“He came to see us this afternoon. He wants to leave Russia, he says, and he's willing to work with us.”

Every eye in the room remains on them, although no one can have any idea what Victor's talking about. Otabek barely knows. Just yesterday, Yuri was cursing Victor to hell and back, and now he's leaving the country with him?

“But the last thing we want to do is get in the way of love,” Victor prattles on. “Please come with us, Otabek. We'll find something for you.” He takes his husband's hand. “Yuuri's family is always in need of help at their hotel, and once we premiere the ballet, there will be touring and travel...”

“You've got the wrong idea about Yuri and I." Otabek doesn't particularly want to have this conversation in front of an audience, but he's beginning to suspect Victor does very little without an audience. "We're just friends.” Barely that. He offers a tight smile. “I wish you luck.” It's true. This is the best thing for Yuri. It's the best thing for them both. Now, Otabek can pursue his own opportunities, free of any guilt.

“Mr. Nikiforov!” The concierge materializes behind the couple in the doorway. “Were you in search of the bar? Please, let me to direct you.” Victor allows himself to be shepherded away, although his gaze remains on Otabek until they're out of sight. The moment that happens, life returns to the party. Laughing and talking resume, and Mila downs another mouthful of vodka.

“Here.” She holds it out to Otabek. “Take a drink.”

“I'm fine.”

“Otabek, you don't have to...”

“Really. I'm happy for him. It's for the best. I'm going to America, in any case.”

What?”

“I'm going to America.” Repeating the words doesn't make them sound any more real. Otabek spent so much time picturing it when he was young, he long ago ceased to believe it would actually happen. “With Phichit and Celestino. So, thank you for everything. I mean it. I hope things turn out for you.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a few notes, all he has. He presses them into her hand.

“I can't take your money.”

“Call it rent.”

“You have to at least say good-bye to Yuri.”

“Why?” Yuri has just unilaterally decided to leave Otabek and everyone else behind. When he says “no strings”, he clearly means “no strings.”

“That's not...Otabek, you know why he's doing this. After what happened with the Canadian, he's scared to take a chance with you.”

“He's right.” Even if they were a couple, there's no future them, certainly not here. For every Victor, rich enough and lucky enough to get away with his fake marriage, there are a dozen, a hundred, a thousand men who end up the way Victor's father did. This is the responsible thing to do. Otabek has always prided himself on being responsible.

“Men!” Mila cries. “You're fucking impossible!” Otabek can't argue with that, so he doesn't.

Phichit and Cialdini live in an apartment over the flower shop. It's late, but when Otabek knocks on the door, a light flicks on in the upstairs window. A moment later, Cialdini opens the door an inch, peering around the chain. When he sees who it is, he unlatches the door and lets Otabek in.

“Sorry,” Otabek says. “Can I stay here?”

Their apartment is even smaller than Yuri and Mila's. As Otabek and Cialdini walk in, Phichit pops out from a narrow doorway, his hair disarranged and wearing nothing but a long T-shirt with Western writing on it. Otabek can't read the language, but he assumes it's Italian.

“Otabek!” Even after being woken up in the near-middle of the night, Phichit is bubbly and smiling. “Does this mean you're coming with us to Detroit?”

“Yes.”

Phichit leaps into Otabek's arms. Even Cialdini pats him on the back. “I'm so happy!” Phichit cries, pulling back. Actual tears of joy glisten in his eyes. Otabek tries to feel the same.

He fails, but he tries.

Chapter Text

Detroit
Winter 1999

“I just don't get it.”

Celestino Cialdini peers at the bright orange iMac in front of him with deep, obvious suspicion, as if it's a colourful cobra that might strike at any moment. Otabek glances up from his newspaper. For the tiniest of moments, a fraction of an instant, Phichit's ever-present grin falters. Then the smile is back, and Phichit is leaning over Ciao Ciao's shoulder, gesturing at the new computer.

“Like I said, darling, it's a web site. Our web site. People can order our flowers right from their desks.”

“What's wrong with the yellow pages?”

“This reaches people all over the world.”

“How often do we get orders from all over the world? Or from anywhere outside north Detroit?”

“Well, we haven't had a web site until now.”

Otabek holds up the newspaper again, to conceal his grin. Phichit's been at this for a good ten minutes already. He's an irrepressible ray of sunshine, but he's not a saint. Otabek is waiting for him to crack. When he does, it's going to be spectacular.

In the seven years since they left Russia, Ciao Ciao and Phichit have become Otabek's best friends. More than that, they're the family he never had. They're loving and affectionate with him, like Otabek's mother and siblings were, but they're also open-minded and accepting of Otabek in a way his birth family wouldn't be. He doubts they would be, in any case. He's never tried it out. All he knows is that he's asked his mother several times to come to America, or at least to send his brother and sister for a visit, and has received no response, other than endless questions about whether he is meeting any "nice American girls, but not too American.”

Ciao Ciao grunts. “I just don't see the point in throwing our lives out there for someone in...I don't know, goddamn Switzerland or somewhere to poke through.”

“It's not our lives,” Phichit counters. “It's our business.”

“That's the same thing, isn't it?”

Otabek turns a page, and what he sees makes his smile evaporate in an instant.

His English has improved a lot in the last few years, but even if he didn't speak a word, Otabek would know that face. He's known it since he was a kid, and seven years ago, it was indelibly imprinted on his mind. In the newspaper is a picture of Victor Nikiforov, sitting in some airy apartment, dressed in a festive sweater. He's gazing into the camera, below a headline that reads, “A Russian Christmas at Lincoln Center.”

Otabek's eyes can't scan the article fast enough. He bypasses a paragraph about Victor, his eyes catching on words he knows well like “Soviet Union”, “defect” and “ballet.” Then, he reaches the next paragraph, and finds what he's looking for.

“'We are in for a treat with Yuri Plisetsky reprising his role of Agape,' Victor says, smiling fondly at the mention of his fellow Russian dancer, 28, who has recently taken the European avant garde world by storm. 'There is nobody else who can dance it the way he can.'”

Yuri fucking Plisetsky. That's how Otabek has thought of him these last seven years. The man who broke his heart. He's tried to forget—God how he's tried to forget—but even after all this time, whenever Otabek catches a glimpse of long blond hair, whenever he visits the tiger exhibit at Phichit's beloved Detroit Zoo, sometimes even when he sees his own motorcycle, it all comes flooding back.

There have been others since. Otabek even dated one, a fellow bike and boxing enthusiast called Rick, for over a year, but dating was all it was. There has been no one like Yuri. There is no one who makes him feel like Yuri did.

Otabek reads to the end of the article, but it doesn't say anything more about Yuri. It's all Victor, with a little bit of Yuuri Katsuki, and it ends with the line, “Victor Nikiforov's masterpiece is on stage at Lincoln Center through December 30.”

Otabek swallows. It's a bad idea, clearly. The worst he's had for a while. Possibly the worst he's had since he followed Yakov to St. Petersburg, but that ended up turning out more or less OK. Maybe this will, too, Otabek thinks. It's not like he has to talk to Yuri, or even let him know he's there. But it would be incredible to see him again, to watch him dance the way Otabek used to watch him fight. Otabek bets it's an equally beautiful sight.

Otabek puts down the newspaper. Phichit and Ciao Ciao are still arguing about the benefits, or lack thereof, of the web page. They could go on for a while, so Otabek interrupts. “I'm going to New York for a couple of days.”

“Ooh!” Phichit squeals. “I love New York!” Otabek knows that. It's emblazoned on at least a third of Phichit's T-shirts. “Do you want me to come with you?”

“Sorry. Not this time.” This is something Otabek wants to do by himself. It's the only way he'll see it through.

“When are you leaving?” Ciao Ciao asks.

“Uh, soon. I guess.” The more he thinks about it, the stupider this idea seems. “I mean, unless you guys really need me here. I wouldn't want to leave you short-handed.”

“We'll be fine,” Phichit assures him. “Have a good time.” He turns back to the iMac. Ciao Ciao doesn't. He keeps his gaze on Otabek, looking at him with an expression Otabek's seen a few times over the years, usually directed at Phichit. It reminds Otabek oddly of how his father used to look at him. As if Ciao Ciao feels like he should say something, but he doesn't know what. That's fine. Otabek feels like any semblance of reason might talk him out of this, and he doesn't want to be talked out of it. Not yet, anyway.

***

Otabek likes Detroit well enough, but New York City is what he pictured as a kid, when he'd lie in bed at night listening to those radio broadcasts and thinking of America. The crowded streets, the yellow cabs, the hot dogs. The Statue of Liberty, which is smaller than Otabek imagined, and the World Trade Center, which is bigger. As jaded as he is after years in Detroit, a feeling washes over him when he arrives in this city that he can't quite explain. A sense of accomplishment, almost. Like, despite everything, his childhood self would be proud of him for making it here.

Phichit loves Broadway, and Ciao Ciao hates it, so Otabek has seen all the top shows: The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Rent. He's avoided the ballet, though, and Phichit has never asked him to go. Otabek wonders, belatedly, if Yuri's show might be sold out, but when the Lincoln Center box office opens, he is able to buy a single ticket in the middle of a row, almost exactly in the centre of the theatre. No going back now, he thinks, as he secures the ticket in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. There are still several hours until the curtain rises, but it's set in stone. Otabek may be a “rich” American now, but once a person has experienced poverty, it doesn't go away. He would never spend this much money on a ticket and not attend the show.

He would, however, spend that much money and fret about it. What am I doing? He thinks, wandering through Central Park. Two little blond children skip along the path, giggling when the Asian woman with them—a nanny, Otabek assumes—pretends to chase them. It's mid-December but the ground is still bare of snow. That's not the case in Almaty, or in St. Petersburg, he assumes. He hasn't received a letter from Mila for a couple of months.

They kept in touch, more or less, after he left for America. He knows that she and an Italian rival turned friend, Sara Crispino, have opened a women's boxing academy, and he knows she still has her day job at the hotel. He knows Yakov disappeared about a year after Otabek moved away, “run out of town by the gangsters that killed Yevgeni Sokolov.” Otabek can't feel sorry for either of them. She tells him that slowly—very, very slowly—things are beginning to look up in Russia. He doesn't ask for news about Yuri and, after a while, Mila stopped sharing any.

It doesn't matter. Otabek reads the newspaper, in English and in Russian when he can find one, and from time to time, he uses Phichit's beloved Internet. He knows Yuri is a star. He knew that seven years ago.

As soon as Otabek arrives for the show, he feels underdressed. The Broadway shows always have a mix of people in the audience, but this ballet seems to skew heavily upper-class. For all the touted “classlessness” of America, Otabek knew as soon as he arrived that it was just like any other country. He doesn't care about that tonight. He withstands the withering stare of women in diamond necklaces and men in tuxedos as he maneuvers his way down the aisle. His stomach flips as he sits down, not because of them but because he genuinely doesn't know what he expects to get out of this. He's never been a masochist, but this seems decidedly dangerous.

Still, it's too late now. Otabek clenches his fists on his thighs, steels his jaw as if he's heading into a fight, and waits.

When the curtain sweeps open, Yuuri Katsuki is already there, leaping onto the stage in a tight black costume that clings to his body like paint. His movements are enticing, alluring, daring. They match the passionate reds and blacks swirling on the backdrop behind him. It's not what Otabek would have expected from the sweet, kind, overarchingly nice man who over-tipped him in St. Petersburg. It's erotic, there's no doubt about that, but rather than clutching their pearls, the glitterati around him look on in fascination.

The solo goes on for quite some time. As it comes to an end, Katsuki collapsing in an apparently sated heap on the stage, Otabek joins in the applause. Then, the backdrop shifts to a lighter, more innocent-seeming colour scheme, shades of white and swathes of gold, and Yuri Plisetsky appears.

His hair is still long. Otabek wondered if it was. It's done up in a braid, like he sometimes wore it when he was fighting. Other than that, he's completely changed. The Tiger's big eyes are made up to look wider than normal, Otabek can see that even from his seat. His costume is white with those same accents of gold, the silken fabric draped and flowing where Katsuki's was tight and clinging. On his feet are white pointe shoes, which he uses to maximum effect as he comes out of a jeté and goes onto his toes. The crowd around him can't take their eyes of him and neither, of course, can Otabek.

When he allowed himself to think about it, Otabek assumed that seeing Yuri again would remind Otabek of the first time they'd met, in that squalid warehouse where Otabek first saw him fight. Instead, it reminds Otabek of the day he and Yuri rode into the country on the motorbike, when that woman with the unofficial teahouse mistook Yuri for a girl and Yuri kissed him as a “fuck you.” Otabek's heart drops, even as Yuri grand jetés and soubresauts and relevés with perfect balance, his coordination as flawless as it was every time he stepped into the ring. I still love him, Otabek thinks. Idiot, a voice in the back of his mind replies, harsh and Russian and sounding undeniably like Yuri. You always did. Otabek can't argue with it, so he watches as Yuri and Yuuri come together, spinning with their arms intertwined until they stop and great Victor Nikiforov himself takes the stage.

There's a story to the ballet, something about a man who is torn between his erotic, base love for his lover and his pure, familial love for his younger brother. Otabek barely registers it. When the ballet ends, he stands and claps with everyone else, showering applause on Nikiforov, who blows enthusiastic kisses, and on Katsuki, who looks bashful, but Otabek's eyes are on Yuri. He bows perfunctorily and only once. It seems like he's scanning the crowd, looking for someone, but that's probably wishful thinking. He likely can't even see beyond the glare of the footlights.

Otabek, it seems, left his brain and his common sense back in Detroit, in his little apartment with the motorcycle posters on the walls and the plastic Garfield, a gift from Phichit for some forgotten or never-known reason, on the coffee table. There's certainly no hesitation, no thinking twice before he leaves the theatre and goes around to the stage door, where a small crowd has already gathered.

Otabek has done this a few times before, always with Phichit who was dying to have some obscure performer sign his Playbill. Otabek's job, at those times, was to take photos of Phichit and whatever actors he cornered with the disposable cameras Phichit always carries with him. This time, the mission is far more serious.

There's a December chill in the air, and Otabek pulls up his collar. When the door finally swings open and Nikiforov emerges, grinning and waving to his fans, Otabek ducks his head, hiding in the shadows. He stays that way while Nikiforov signs autographs around him, sometimes coming very near but never, it seems, noticing Otabek. After a moment, Yuri Katsuki joins him. In heavily accented English that is still better than Otabek's, Victor sings his husband's praises to the crowd.

“Wasn't he wonderful? The talent of a generation, ladies and gentlemen. I am so fortunate to have him with me. He makes my work transcendent.” An appreciative murmur runs through the crowd. Katsuki blushes, but he scribbles signatures on the magazines and the scraps of paper that are shoved his way.

When they make their way, at last, away from the crowd toward a taxi that has been idling expensively, Otabek risks stepping forward a little. It's too soon. Nikiforov's attention is already elsewhere, his tall frame bent over to speak to the cab driver, but Katsuki looks back at the crowd. His eyes meet Otabek's, and, from the way Katsuki's mouth drops open, Otabek knows he recognizes him. Otabek freezes. He doesn't know what he wants from this, he doesn't even know why he's here, but he knows that he doesn't want Katsuki—or more specifically, Nikiforov—involved. Not now. Not yet.

Then, proving that he is a true star and probably too good for Victor, Katsuki turns around wordlessly. He gets into the cab and they drive off, leaving most of the crowd to disperse behind them. Otabek breathes a sigh of relief, and he steps back into the small knot of remaining fans, to wait.

And wait, and wait. As the hour grows later and the wind grows colder, more people wander away, until there are barely half a dozen left.

“He always comes out late,” a woman says. There's a picture in her hand, a print-out of Yuri Plisetsky in another costume, one Otabek hasn't seen. The top is slashed into ribbons, barely covering anything, and the pants are tighter even than Eros'. Otabek looks away.

Finally, just as Otabek is wondering if Yuri's slipped out another way—it wouldn't be out of character for him, Otabek thinks, although it's been so long he doesn't really know if he can speak to Yuri's character anymore—the stage door opens with a creak.

He's wearing studded jeans and a long winter coat, black and expensive-looking. A ponytail hangs down his back, and his hands are in slim leather gloves. Otabek thinks back to the days in St. Petersburg, where they shivered in that apartment with the broken radiator and would have given anything, if they'd had anything, for clothes like that.

Yuri doesn't stop to sign autographs. He ignores the praise and congratulations that rain down on him, and heads briskly for the cab that has appeared at the curb. Suddenly, panicked that Otabek is going to lose him again, he speaks up. “Yuri.”

It's no more than many people are yelling in his direction, and a lot less than some, but Yuri stops. He turns, looking over the small group of people until his eyes land on Otabek.

If he's surprised, he doesn't show it. Instead, he frowns. He jerks his head, beckoning, and Otabek complies. Yuri yanks open the cab door and gets inside, grasping Otabek's wrist and hauling him in behind him.

Yuri barks an address at the driver, as Otabek, not sure exactly what's happening but sure he's not going to ask questions right now, shuts the door behind them. The cab pulls away, and Yuri leans over, to kiss Otabek full on the mouth.

“Hey,” the driver calls, as Otabek's head swims. Yuri tastes like he always did: like some dangerous drug, something that could hurt you if you let it, but so incredibly good, you would. “I don't want none of that queer shit in here.”

Yuri pulls back, a little. Otabek steels himself for a verbal tirade, but instead Yuri pulls out his wallet. Without a word, he holds a handful of bills up to the Plexiglas divider that separates the front and back seats, high enough that the driver can see them in his mirror. Yuri fans them out. The driver grunts, but doesn't say anything when Yuri pulls Otabek close again.

They pull up outside a flashy hotel, a shining behemoth rising into the night sky. Yuri pays the driver, who peels away, tires squealing. “Americans,” Yuri says, without looking at Otabek, “are pigs. Like Russians. Like everybody.” They're the first words Yuri has spoken to him in seven years. Otabek opens his mouth to reply, but his mind is blank. “Come on. Let's go.” He walks toward the revolving doors. Again, Otabek follows.

The elevator ride is silent, and lengthy. As he watches the floor numbers tick by, Otabek knows he has to say something. What happened between them—all the years they spent apart—wasn't entirely Otabek's fault. It wasn't even mostly his fault. Yuri was the one who had stopped trusting him, Yuri was the one who'd wanted to leave without him. Otabek would never have come to Detroit if it hadn't been for Yuri taking off with Victor and Katsuki...

“I have two cats,” Yuri says, as the elevator shudders to a stop. The doors slide open, revealing a long hallway with plush carpeting and wall sconces every few feet. Not a single bulb is burned out. Even after nearly seven years in America, this still amazes Otabek. “At my home, in London.”

“That's where you live?”

“Most of the time. My grandfather didn't like Japan.”

“So he's with you?” That's a relief, somehow, even though Otabek never met the man.

“He worked in a bakery there, for a while, but he is getting old. So now he makes piroshki for me in England.”

“Sounds great.”

Yuri stops in front of a door, sticking a key card into the hole. He steps inside, switching on the light. The room is spacious, more of a suite, with a large living area, a view of the city, and a bedroom off to one side. It's more than twice as big as the apartment in St. Petersburg. Yuri pulls off his coat, flinging it haphazardly in the direction of the closet, and kicks off his boots. With one hand, he pulls the elastic from his ponytail as he crosses the room. He fills a wineglass from a bottle chilling in an ice bucket, and immediately hurls the glass against the wall. It shatters, shards and wine raining into the thick carpet, and Yuri turns on Otabek.

“What the fuck do you think you're doing?” And there, Otabek thinks, he is. “Thinking you can just pick me up again after seven fucking years? You think I've been hanging around waiting for you?”

“No.”

“Well, I haven't been. I've had a brilliant career and a lot of fucking men, so if you think I've missed you, then you can fucking...”

“You said no strings, Yuri.” Although obviously, that was always an unattainable goal. From that first moment, he and Yuri were wrapped up in strings. Seven years hasn't broken them.

“That didn't mean I wanted you to leave me!”

“I didn't! You were the one who took up Nikiforov's offer to get out of St. Petersburg.”

Yuri scowls, an expression of pure fury Otabek recognizes from the ring. “I was dumb, okay? Back then. Probably now, too, if you want to get real about it.”

“You're not dumb, Yuri. That's the last thing you are.”

Yuri ignores him. “How long do you think I could have kept on being the Tiger? You know that world. One day you're on top, the next you're a corpse floating in the fucking Neva. Nikiforov threw me a bone, I had to take it. Even though he's a pain in my fucking ass.”

“I don't blame you for it.” That's the truth. “You're a dancer, Yuri. I've known that since we were kids. Watching you on stage...” Otabek can't describe it, in any language. “It was amazing.” The word falls far short, but Otabek can't think of a better one.

Yuri snorts. “Yeah. I'm a fucking star. And everyone leaves me sooner or later. So why not go first?”

Otabek has never been a talker, even in his native tongue. The right words never seem to spring to his lips. So instead of talking to Yuri, he decides, he'll show him what he's always wanted to say.

In St. Petersburg, it was Yuri who kissed first, Yuri who made all the first moves. It's been like that with Otabek's other partners, too, but this time, taking the lead feels natural. Yuri freezes, just for a moment, then relaxes, his arms going around Otabek as Otabek nudges him toward the bedroom. When he reaches it, Yuri doesn't hesitate to lie down on a bed more luxurious than Otabek's ever seen before, stretching out his long, beautiful body and winding his long, beautiful legs around Otabek's back as Otabek comes down on top of him.

Otabek unbuttons Yuri's shirt slowly, kissing a trail down his skin. Their previous time—their only night together—was fantastic, but this time, Otabek wants to treat Yuri the way he deserves to be treated. He wants to worship Yuri. Yuri doesn't argue. Unlike last time, he lets Otabek take control and stay in control, even when Otabek leans back to undress himself. Yuri waits, eyes wide and cheeks pink, while Otabek pauses to undress himself, fumbling with buttons and zippers that, until now, have posed no problems for him.

When he's at last undressed, logistics come up, but Yuri, as always is one step ahead.

“In the drawer,” he mutters.

Otabek reaches over and pulls out an open package of condoms and a bottle of lube. That Yuri had them there, so readily accessible, raises questions, but Otabek isn't going to ask them, not tonight and not ever. It's none of his business. The past is the past, whether you're talking about fighting or fucking, and that's where it has to stay. Otabek knows that as well as anyone.

Otabek's plan, such as it is, is to keep up the same slow, languid pace, but his body has other ideas. As he slides into Yuri, he's overcome. He thrusts harder, his hips snapping with a rhythm that makes Yuri gasp and groan, his arms clinging to Otabek and his tongue tangling with Otabek's. Otabek reaches down, and Yuri comes with barely a touch, spurting hotly over Otabek's hand and onto his stomach. Moments later, Otabek does the same, filling the condom with a shameless shout he can hardly believe comes from his own mouth.

Otabek can't bring himself to get up, even as the come cools on his skin, sticky and uncomfortable. He stays where he is, running his fingers through Yuri's tangled hair. That was the first thing Otabek had noticed about him, he remembers: his brilliant blond hair. He worried it was due to some sort of Russian fetish. Now, Otabek knows better. He has a Yuri fetish, and he can't imagine it ever going away.

After a long moment, but not long enough for Otabek, Yuri props himself up on one elbow. “I love you,” he says. It's calm, matter-of-fact. “Come back home with me. To London.”

It's not the first time someone's asked him to make a life-changing move, to go to a new place where he has no job and knows nobody. It is the first time Otabek has replied,“Yes,” with such conviction. Even if he had doubts, which he doesn't, the brilliant smile on Yuri's face would immediately chase them away.

“I'll get us a drink,” Yuri says, climbing gracefully off the bed. “And something to clean us up.” He glances over his shoulder as he heads toward the bathroom, giving Otabek a little grin and a shake of his ass. Otabek is watching, of course. How could he not?

It's not going to be easy. Otabek knows that. Yuri actually is the tiger, and he, just possibly, might really be the hornet. But Otabek's life has never been easy, and now, it could possibly be happy.

And that's something worth fighting for, he thinks, and lies down to waits for Yuri to come back to bed.