(A/N: Head’s up, this update contains an anecdote about bigoted experiences, which may be uncomfortable for readers. Proceed with this in mind.)
“Did I do alright?” Avi asked once they reached the locker room. Even though they were far from the showroom, the audience’s displeasure still rang clear. Intermission was announced over the speakers, which briefly drowned out the booing.
“Oh yeah, everyone hates you,” Mitch chuckled while he peeled his shirt over his head, beyond ready to climb into the shower and wash the grime away. As he unlaced a boot, it dawned on him that he was being watched. He tilted his head upwards and looked over at the lockers, where Avi worried his bottom lip between his teeth. “That’s the goal, right?”
“Right,” Avi responded slowly, but the uncertainty persisted. Mitch worked on the other boot and tried to place where he’d seen this before. It dawned after a few seconds: newer wrestlers rattled by an unanticipated reaction.
Mitch’s lip quirked. “Shot in the dark here: have you really never been a heel?” Avi’s face dropped, and his cheeks flushed as if he’d been caught committing some type of wrestling sin. “Seriously? Fuckin’ Avi Sher, with two decades under his belt, never been a bad guy?”
“I-” Avi gulped, then rested the back of his head against one of the lockers while he stared up at the ceiling. “No, not usually. I mean, yes. I did when I was starting out because I just wanted to get booked. I was like, 16 years old and desperate to prove myself. But it was also just after 9/11, and promoters ‘needed’ to have a guy that looked like me-“
“Oh, fuck,” Mitch blurted out and his jaw hung open. Avi now had his undivided attention. “I’m so sorry, man. That’s-“
“No, don’t.” Avi waved it off and sighed, then scrubbed a hand down his face. “Like it didn’t matter that I’m…not that. I’m Indian and Latino, y’know? But to a lot of people I was just brown and convenient. Not that that even matters, it was a fucked up period of time. Shouldn’t have been a thing at all.” He chewed on his bottom lip. “Like. They yelled fucked up shit at me all of the time. And sometimes people in the crowd would threaten me or try to attack me during a match, it was terrifying. One time someone followed me out to my car…”
“Jesus,” hissed Mitch.
“Yeah, not a great time when you’re not even an adult.” Avi grimaced, then shook his head to dispel the bad taste from his mouth. “Anyway, I worked super hard so that I’d be too good to be booked as a heel. I’ve, well.” He looked back down, meeting Mitch’s eyes as his own watered, then stared at the wall across the room. Voice lowered and creaky, he followed the anecdote with, “Never told anyone about any of that. Not my family, my mom or dad. No one. I was so ashamed that it happened at all, but I also worried they wouldn’t want me to wrestle anymore if they ever found out. I’m still too anxious to check any database websites to see if I’m credited under those characters.”
Mitch’s mouth hung open while he struggled to settle on an appropriate response. A selfish part of him was touched that Avi allowed for such a rare glimpse into his personal life, which he usually kept under lock and key. Remorse followed swiftly, and his stomach lurched. Because how dare Mitch think about himself after he’d been confided in, entrusted with something so simultaneously heavy as it was delicate.
What the actual fuck was wrong with him?
“Well,” Mitch stood up and kicked his boots away, then moved towards Avi and lightly grasped his shoulder. What he wanted to do was pull him in for a hug and never let go, never let anyone hurt him like that again; but Avi’s eyes followed his hand, and Mitch became too self-conscious to commit to any other gestures. “For whatever it’s worth, that shit won’t fly here. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, no. I get it, I do. Feels dumb to even think about, since it happened almost 20 years ago. But I still get…dunno, cagey?”
Mitch snorted. “There isn’t a deadline on being messed up over something. It’s not like ‘oh, you didn’t purchase the extended warranty on your feelings, now you can never be upset about this bad thing again’, y’know? Besides, you saw me at Thanksgiving.” They exchanged a knowing look, and the worried creases on Avi’s face eased. “But no one out there’s judging you because of…” Mitch swallowed hard. “Any of that. I promise. If they did, they’d get blacklisted, and word would spread far and wide.”
“OK,” Avi nodded, and Mitch reached up and ruffled his hair, earning a soft laugh that raised his pulse.
“Meanwhile, we’re gonna have a lot of fun being bad guys together, OK? I’ll help you loosen up, it’ll be great. By the time we’re done with being a tag team, everyone’s gonna feel sorry for you because you dealt with me.” It didn’t feel like enough, but what would? There weren’t enough meaningful words to articulate the rightful condolences when a person lay themselves bare like that. How does one express adequate compassion and sorrow over another person’s account of their own humanity being degraded? Let alone when it was a loved one.
Let alone that it was Avi.
Although Mitch wasn’t sure how much he believed his own assertion, or if it was the best time to make it, Avi broke into a smile so genuine that his heart ached. Finally, he retracted his hand before it risked overstaying its welcome. If he kept it there any longer, he’d have a hard time fighting back the urges to card his fingers through the damp strands, running them down the sides of Avi’s face, slide down his neck-
Mitch stepped back. The air’s density became suffocating, causing him to become acutely aware of the proximity between his body and Avi’s. Couldn’t have that. It’d never be the time for that, not with Avi, but especially not then. Goddammit, he needed to get it together.
Clearing his throat and desperate for some space, Mitch changed the subject. “Great. Anyway, I’m disgusting. Gonna go hit the showers.”
“Uh, Mitch,” Avi spoke up before Mitch rounded the corner. He stopped in his tracks and craned his neck back. “Thanks.”
Mitch cocked his head. “For?”
“Just-” Avi paused. His adam’s apple bobbed under his beard, and Mitch fixated on that for a fleeting few seconds. “Being there. For me. Listening and stuff.”
“Of course,” Mitch responded, aware of the dopey grin that threatened to spread across his face despite his efforts to appear nonchalant. He hurried away to hide his shame.