by Okō (織工 )
It turns out 2013 isn’t the New York Rangers’ year for the Stanley Cup either. They make it to the playoffs as a wildcard, and lose the first round of the playoffs in six games. Kolya is exhausted, and bone-weary, and his ankles and knee are killing him, and some part of him is faintly relieved, because he’s not playing his best, none of them are, and he knows full well that it hurts less to be eliminated in the first round than in the final playoff games.
And that’s it: It’s late April, and the season is over. Everyone cleans out their stalls, and splits to the four winds, going home to family and friends all over the world, to spend the summer in California or Canada or Finland, wherever they have friends, family, trainers, summer homes.
Valya and Sergei are going back to Russia, and ask Kolya if he’ll come with them, visit Moscow or Novgorod. Kolya doesn’t know why they always ask: he’s never said yes, not in six years. He moved to America in 2006, and he hasn’t been back to Russia except for Worlds or the Olympics since then, not once. It’s obvious they don’t understand, but they’re both married to beautiful Russian women, with adorable Russian-speaking children. There’s no way they could understand how much it hurts Kolya to go back to the country that raised him thinking he was broken.
Kolya usually stays in New York, takes in-person intensive summer classes to rack up college credits while he’s not traveling with the team. Sometimes he visits other American cities, flies to Phoenix or San Francisco or Atlanta just to see what they’re like. This summer his mama and papa are in New York for the first time, and he’s looking forward to getting to see them a little more than he does in the season, spending time on the beach, maybe going to Coney Island with them a few times, taking his mama on the roller coaster she pretends to hate, but secretly enjoys.
“Come to Minnesota,” Nick says one day in late May, after Kolya’s semester has finally ended. Kolya is finally graduating this spring, but he’s not really planning on doing anything special. Going to graduation would just be a press nightmare, even if PR has asked him about it a few times.
Nick and Kolya have taken to working out in Nick’s home gym, spotting each other and keeping up the pace without a trainer. It’s nice to avoid the press, avoid pictures on Twitter and articles on Deadspin speculating about their workout routines, and it’s also enough of an excuse for Kolya to go over nearly daily without too many questions. Being in a gay relationship is mostly unremarkable in New York City, sure, but not in hockey. And it’s really not okay in Russia.
Kolya pauses mid-benchpress as he processes Nick’s words.
“I mean,” Nick says, “only if you want.” He grabs the bar from Kolya and racks it, and steps around to sit on the bench between Kolya’s legs. “It’s just–” He looks conflicted. “I mean, I’ve met your parents already, I just thought–”
“When?” Kolya asks. Nick thinks he’s so direct, but the way he’s talking around this means he really wants Kolya to do it. That’s enough reason on its own. “I can book tickets.”
“Um,” Nick says. “Isabelle already booked us tickets?”
“Okay,” Kolya says easily, and sits up, rubbing at his face with the towel around his neck. “I’ll book same flight if I can.”
“No, I mean,” Nick says, “she booked three tickets.”
Kolya looks over, and can’t help a grin at the sheepish look on Nick’s face.
“Your sister is a menace,” Kolya says. “She does this to your family, too, yes?”
“She tells them she’s already got the tickets, can’t exchange them,” he says. “I mean, she does that so they can’t feel bad about me paying for them. When I book them, Jason gets all weird about it.”
Jason is Nick’s brother-in-law, Kolya remembers. Isabelle seems not to be that fond of him. He doesn’t come up as often as his kids, Abigail and Lila, doesn’t Skype with Nick and Isabelle the way their sisters and nieces do.
“And I won’t get weird about you buying a plane ticket?” Kolya teases, and Nick flushes down his neck. “I can think of one way pay you back,” Kolya says, and licks his lips. Nick flushes, and they all but fall over each other on their way to the bedroom. Maybe blowjobs and athletic sex weren’t on the workout plan for today, but Kolya thinks they can make an exception.
“When we leave?” Kolya asks when he comes back to himself, petting Nick’s hair absently. Nick is playing with his phone, always more alert after sex despite Kolya’s best efforts.
“Um,” Nick says, “day after tomorrow.” He shoots such a guilty look at Kolya that Kolya can’t help it. He bursts out laughing.
“Long notice,” he teases. “Such long notice, Nikashenka.”
Nick looks down, flushing.
“I didn’t want it to be awkward if you said no,” he mumbles.
“Why I say no?” Kolya asks. He doesn’t think he’s given Nick reason to doubt him, but this thing between them is still fairly new, only a few months old.
Nick shrugs, and puts his phone down.
“It’s just –” he puts his head on Kolya’s chest, laces their fingers together the way he does when he wants reassurance. “It’s not like New York. It’s a really small town, and we’ll have to be careful, you know?” He sighs. “Even at home, because Jason and Mandy and the kids drop in all the time.” He shrugs. “Four year olds don’t exactly lie well. It’s — I know we wanted this summer to be less hiding.”
“Can’t really be less hiding until after hockey,” Kolya reminds him.
It’s sweet that Nick is worried about this, but they’ve talked about their plans, and everything relies on the both of them staying closeted until after they retire from the NHL. Nick might be able to come out and still compete internationally, if You Can Play had his back, but Kolya doesn’t have that option, not with Russia the way it is. Kolya knows he’s good enough to make the Olympic team, the Worlds team, but he’s not good enough to have a guaranteed spot. If he’s outed, he’ll never play for Russia again, and no one will stick their neck out for him.
“I know,” Nick says. “You don’t have to come, I just –” he nuzzles Kolya’s chest, and sighs. “I want you to meet my family.”
“Have met them,” Kolya points out, because Nick’s family has flown out for games, and Kolya has said hello in passing, same as he’s said hello to Marc’s family, to Tim or Dan’s.
“Not the same,” Nick says. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Meet your uncle, too?” Kolya asks.
“Yeah,” Nick admits, “I — is it shitty if I admit I kind of want you there for that, too?”
Kolya cards a hand through Nick’s hair. Nick’s uncle Jordan is a sore spot, sometimes. He’s the man who paid for Nick’s education at Shattuck and hockey gear growing up, but also the one who pushed Nick to impossible standards in exchange for necessities. He’s a retired NHL player who blew out his hip and put his dreams on a kid’s shoulders, and he’s an opiate addict who made Nick’s little sisters, Isabelle and Emma, grow up far too quickly when he moved home and overdosed.
And Jordan is family, which means everything to Nick, and that’s what really matters.
“No,” Kolya says. “That’s okay.”
Nick relaxes a little under his hand, so Kolya guesses he said the right thing. Nick feels like a minefield sometimes, and for all that Nick considers himself too blunt sometimes, Kolya misses being in Russia, where people tell you what they mean without dancing around it for hours, days, weeks. But he’s told Nick that, too, and Kolya knows Nick is trying.
“How long you want to stay?” Kolya asks. “Not whole summer?” He doesn’t want to leave his parents alone all summer, though they have friends in Brighton Beach now, and his mother has doctors she can communicate with just fine, ones who speak Russian or have staff who do.
“No, I don’t know,” Nick says, “a week or two? Not a month. We can play it by ear.”
“Hm,” Kolya agrees. “We skate, or just work out?”
Either would be fine for that length of time, but Kolya will miss the ice.
“We can skate,” Nick said, “there’s a rink an hour away, I usually book time there when I’m home.”
“Good,” Kolya says, “I pack hockey gear, what else?”
“Workboots,” Nick says, “work jeans, long-sleeve shirts.”
“Okay,” Kolya says. He probably has something that will work. Nick must hear it because he pushes himself up, and raises an eyebrow.
“We’re going shopping,” he says. “Em’s fiancé came to the farm in dress shoes two years ago and I don’t think they’re ever going to let him hear the end of it.”
Kolya frowns. “I have jeans,” he protests. There’s nothing wrong with his jeans, even if his mother tells him he looks like a thug in them.
“You have clubbing jeans,” Nick points out. “With holes in them.”
“They’re jeans,” Kolya says. Nick seems to think designer denim is tantamount to murder, which Kolya really doesn’t understand. Nick dresses like a catalog model, like he’s Canadian, bland and boring and almost untouchable.
“Trust me,” Nick says, “they’re really not jeans. We’re going shopping or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Kolya tugs at Nick’s hair, but doesn’t protest too much. He’d like to make a good impression, and if that means buying clothes, well, Kolya can do that.
* * *
“Ooooh,” Isabelle says two days later when they’ve settled into their seats on the plane, “flying first class is the best. Do I get a complimentary cocktail?”
“No,” Nick says, just as Kolya shrugs. It’s an Air Canada flight, and Isabelle is over eighteen.
“Dude,” Nick says, “no getting my baby sister hammered before we take her to see my parents, I want them not to think she’s living in sin in the scary city.”
Then he winces, obviously replaying his words and hearing the echo of his and Kolya’s argument last fall.
“Sorry,” he says, “I didn’t mean–“
Kolya puts a hand on his knee, knowing the contact will calm Nick.
“It’s okay,” he says, “I know what you mean. We all know one drink won’t get Izzy hammered. Let her enjoy the flight.” And Kolya winks at Isabelle.
“You two are terrible,” Nick grumbles, but he doesn’t sound like he really minds, so Kolya gets two vodka tonics and passes one across the aisle to Isabelle.
“You’ll spoil her,” Nick says.
“Someone has to,” Isabelle shoots back. “You know mom’s going to make me fly economy on the way back.”
Nick winces, because Isabelle is nearly six foot, and economy is hell on her knees. Kolya shrugs.
“Become fancy opera star,” he says. “Then you can fly how you want.”
“Ugh,” Isabelle says. “Kolya, you’re supposed to be on my side!”
“I am,” Kolya says, gesturing at her drink. “Stop whining, not attractive.”
“You’re the worst,” Isabelle says, and kicks at him across the aisle. She’s smiling, though, and tucks her feet under the seat in front of her when a stewardess frowns at them.
“I know,” Kolya agrees. “Watch your movie,” Kolya says, and stretches his legs out, tangling one ankle with Nick’s under the seats in front of them.
<b>You’re so married, it’s gross.</b> Isabelle texts him.
“You’re just jealous,” Kolya says, but he’s glad she texted instead of saying anything out loud on a public flight, so he texts back a hug emoji just to see her wrinkle her nose because she hates its little grabby hands.
Nick falls asleep on the flight, dropping into a doze against Kolya’s shoulder the same way he does on the bus, on charter flights. Kolya watches a movie with half his attention elsewhere. He’s not entirely sure what Nick has told his family about them, other than the need for secrecy. Kolya knows from Isabelle that Nick hasn’t brought a boyfriend home before, just roommates at Shattuck who needed a break from boarding school food, and even that was seven or eight years ago.
When they land at Duluth, there’s no doubt where Nick’s family is waiting. Kolya has said hello to Nick’s mother over Skype a time or two, but she looks taller in person, broad-shouldered and broad-hipped with close-cropped light brown hair and thin-framed glasses. Her husband is Kolya’s height, and looks like an older Nicholas, blond hair going white at the temples, features that echo his son’s. He also looks like he lifts hay bales recreationally.
Kolya’s a professional hockey player, and he’s not accustomed to finding other men intimidating off the ice. Nick’s father’s glare is definitely doing the trick.
“Mr Larsson,” Kolya says, holding out a hand for a swift, firm handshake. “Mrs Larsson,” he says, turning, and Nick’s mother pulls him into a hug.
“None of that, now,” she says, “call me Michelle. And we’re so glad to meet you, Nikolai.” She pushes him away, holds him at arm’s length. “It’s been forever since Nick’s brought a friend home,” she says, “and he says you’re a city boy, too.”
“Mom,” Nick says, obviously embarrassed.
“None of that, Nicholas,” she says again, still looking at Kolya. “You know it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’ll get you into the swing of things soon enough. Now,” she says, “Isabelle, Nicholas, take your father to the baggage claim and get the bags while Nikolai and I make sure Officer Stevens doesn’t try to give us a ticket again. That man never does know when to quit,” she says, leading Kolya out to a large four-door pickup truck that’s idling at the curb. “Lord knows he has to do his job,” she continues, “but he needn’t make it so hard on the rest of us, that’s all I’m saying.”
She keeps up a steady stream of chatter the whole time, until Nick and Isabelle and their father emerge into the bright sunlight with two gear bags and three suitcases.
“That’s all?” Michelle asks. “Well, I suppose Nick never did pack much, and you must have learned to pack down, Nikolai, what with flying halfway around the world like you do.”
Kolya’s stomach sinks at the implication that he travels to Russia as often as his other Russian teammates.
“I don’t go back much,” he says, wondering how to frame this. “My parents are in New York now.”
“Nick said they moved,” Michelle says, slipping into the back seat, and letting her husband get in the driver’s seat. “And that’s just marvelous, but don’t you have other family back home?”
Kolya shrugs. Russia hasn’t been his home for years, even when his parents were still there. With them in the US, Russia is even more a part of his past.
“Not much,” he says.
“That’s a pity,” Michelle says, “you must miss them. Do you have many aunts and uncles back home?”
Kolya does, but they’re not in touch. His father’s family cut ties when he married Ksenia Nikolaevna Bukharin. She was only a distant cousin of the famous dissident, generations removed from trouble, but still close enough to be a problem for anyone who wanted to keep their heads down in the Kudryavtsev family, which already had its share of ghosts.
Marrying Ksenia and bringing her back to Chelyabinsk was Kolya’s father’s one great act of rebellion, and it doomed him to a lifetime of civil service without promotions, and New Years’ celebrations with only Kolya’s mother’s family, and then no one else at all.
“My mother is—“ Kolya pauses, wondering how to cut off this line of friendly inquiry. “Only daughter.”
Nick glances at him, but he doesn’t say anything. Kolya tells himself he hardly remembers his uncle Gennadi, his mother’s much older brother, a laughing man who disappeared when Kolya was seven years old.
“My,” Michelle says, and if she can tell Kolya doesn’t want to talk about his family, she doesn’t bat an eye. “Well,” she continues, “my family’s been on this farm for more than a hundred years, now, since they immigrated from Sweden in the 1880s. Mandy and Jason live in the old farmhouse with their girls, but we built the new one when my brother Jordy was signed to the NHL, back in the late 80s. You know he played?” she asks, as if Kolya could miss that. “He was so supportive of Nicky, it was just wonderful.”
Supportive is only one potential word for it, but Kolya makes the appropriate noises. It really seems like Nick’s mother can carry both sides of a conversation, and the drive passes in a haze of words. Kolya has reason to be glad for the nights in his first year with the Rangers when he and Nick sat together in bar booths and Nick’s Minnesota accent came out, because Michelle’s vowels are long enough that he has to pay attention.
The scenery makes Kolya think of scenes from his American literature classes: bucolic, he thinks, and pastoral. It’s a far cry from anything he’s ever seen before, so different from Manhattan’s asphalt and skyscrapers, from Brooklyn’s row houses, from Chelyabinsk’s run-down infrastructure.
“Mom,” Nick says, when they finally pull off an unmarked road in front of a gleamingly white farmhouse with a huge red barn and pull their own bags out of the back of the truck, “I’m pretty beat. Can we just–” He waves a hand.
“Sure thing,” she says. “Nick, you know where your room is. Nikolai, if you’ll follow me?”
Kolya catches Nick’s eye, and Nick looks almost panicked at the implications of those words. Kolya smiles in forced reassurance, and follows Nick’s mother up the stairs to what is obviously a guest room, clean and impersonal.
“I hope the bed is long enough,” she frets. “Isabelle said you were tall, but, well. Flying must be so hard. No wonder you don’t go back to Russia often.”
Kolya nods. He knows Nick said they’d have to pretend to just be friends while they were around Nick’s nieces, but Kolya hadn’t expected to be put in a guest room. He’d been looking forward to waking up with Nick every morning while he was out here, sleeping soundly to the sound of Nick’s breathing beside him.
“Now,” Michelle says, gesturing at a door propped partway ajar, “there’s a bath through there, and we’ll have dinner at six-thirty. You just rest up, flying is horrible.”
And then she’s gone. Kolya sets his bags down, unpacks his single suitcase into the empty dresser on auto-pilot, washes his face and arms to get some of the plane-feeling off his skin, and sits on the edge of the bed, wondering what to do next.
Nick slips in some time later, shuts the door behind them, and climbs into Kolya’s lap, bullying him back on the bed with quick kisses and his greater mass. His shoulders are broad and reassuring under Kolya’s hands.
“Hi,” he says, voice rushed, “I’m sorry, I’ll get it sorted out. You don’t have to stay in here the whole time.”
“Good,” Kolya says, “I want to be with you.”
“Me too,” Nick admits, and sags against Kolya. “God, I thought they’d be better about this, they’ve known since I was nineteen.”
But Kolya thinks this might be the difference between your son telling you he’s gay and showing you his boyfriend. It took the better part of this past winter for his father to even be in the same room as Nick without drinking himself into a vodka-induced haze in retaliation; putting Kolya in a guest room is just a different manifestation of the same discomfort. It’s a lot nicer on the surface, but Kolya doesn’t have to like it.
“Mmm,” Kolya says, and presses a kiss to the side of Nick’s mouth. “Long time with no one, maybe they forget.”
“Well, they can un-forget,” Nick says fiercely, and kisses Kolya back with determination, like he can change the world with sheer force of will.
The sound of a shutter click makes them both freeze, Kolya’s hands halfway up the sides of Nick’s shirt.
“Dammit,” an unfamiliar voice says, “I owe Izzy twenty bucks, I thought you’d still be on your best behavior, what with mom sticking Nikolai in here and all.”
Nick climbs to his feet and holds out his hand to the young woman standing in the doorway. She’s shorter than Nick and Isabelle, with brown hair and brown eyes, glasses like her mother’s, but the resemblance is unmistakable.
“Phone.” Nick says, voice hard. “Now.” Kolya can hear the suppressed panic, but the woman doesn’t seem to register it.
“I’m not gonna Instagram it,” Emma says, but she hands over her phone without complaint. “God, Izzy said you were paranoid, but this is nuts.”
“Phones get stolen,” Nick says, and deletes the photo with a few swift taps. “Just — god,” he runs a hand through his hair. “I’m being a dick. Emma, this is Kolya.”
Kolya stands, glad the sound of the photo being taken killed his incipient arousal.
“Nice to meet you,” he says, and Emma ignores his outstretched hand and just pulls him in for a hug. She pushes him out to arm’s length just like her mother did, and looks him up and down.
“Okay,” she says, “you’re not as tall as Iz said, but I guess you’ll do.” She makes a face, then says, quickly, “I know this is ridiculous, because you’re like twice my size, but if you hurt my big brother I’ll find a way to fuck you up. Uncle Jordy might have a bum hip, but Nicky’s still his favorite, I can get him to help.”
“If I hurt him,” Kolya says seriously, meeting her dark brown gaze, “I’ll help.”
Emma laughs. “I think you might,” she says. “Okay, I like you more than I liked Andrew, we’re good.”
“Did you come up here for something,” Nick says, and he sounds like he’s in a bad mood. Kolya puts a hand at the small of his back, just resting there in reassurance.
“Dinner time soon,” Emma says. “Izzy and I flipped for it. She figured you didn’t want dad walking in on you.”
“Thank you,” Kolya says, because that’s not the kind of impression he wanted to make on Nick’s father on the first day. He pushes Nick toward his sister. “Go, go.”
“So mom’s really nervous to meet you,” Emma says softly. “She always talks up a storm when she’s on edge.”
Nick goes silent when he’s worried, unless he’s angry. Kolya hadn’t considered that Michelle might be nervous, that her constant stream of patter might not be her default conversational state.
“And your father?” Kolya asks, because Charles Larsson’s expression on the drive was not what he’d call welcoming.
“Eh,” Emma says with a shrug, “you’re a city kid. He’ll get over it.” She shoots him a grin. “Zane’s in his good books, now,” she says, and Kolya remembers that’s her fiancé, “and he showed up in patent leather loafers the first time he came here.”
“Nick and Izzy took me shopping yesterday,” Kolya admits, and Emma laughs again as they head down the stairs. She seems kind, friendly, and Kolya hopes she’s as much like her sister Isabelle as she seems, because he gets along well with Izzy.
“Nick,” Michelle calls, “you and Isabelle come help me cook, Emma’s done her share today.”
“Come on,” Emma says, leading Kolya through the dining room into a comfortably outfitted room with an enormous television. “You okay with watching hockey?”
“You believe me if I say no?” Kolya jokes, and Emma laughs.
“Probably not,” she admits. “You want a beer? Dinner won’t be for a while, mom’s still finishing the meatballs.”
And she ducks out of the room, leaving Kolya with Nick’s father, the traitor. Kolya reconsiders his positive opinion of her on the spot.
“Nikolai,” Charles Larsson says, not standing up from his armchair.
“Kolya, please,” Kolya says. “It’s too confusing with two Nicks.”
Charles smiles a little at that.
“I imagine it would be,” he allows, and gestures at the TV. “You caught up with the playoff games?”
Kolya shrugs, and settles into an armchair across from Charles, sitting just shy of interview-straight in his seat. “Not much.”
It’s unprofessional to admit he hasn’t been watching all the games, just reading the summaries and watching the highlight reels. Nick has watched every minute, but Kolya had finals, and final papers, and wanted to lick his wounds in peace.
“Blackhawks and Senators,” Charles says, and flips the DVR to a pre-recorded game. “You played well,” he says, as the announcer goes through the lineup for yesterday’s game.
“No,” Kolya says, “we played tired, not our best.” If they’d played well, they’d still be in the playoffs, not watching them on television.
Charles looks at him, then, and his expression is somber. “Well,” he says. “Maybe you did, at that.” He turns the volume up, and Emma returns with two beers, hands Kolya one. “What do you think of the Hawks’ chances?” Charles asks, and Emma settles into a corner of the couch.
“Dad,” Emma protests without much heat, “he just got here, give him a break.”
“Is okay,” Kolya says. He’d rather discuss hockey than sit in awkward silence. “They have a strong offensive line,” he says, “but too many of their d-men are injured. Puts pressure on the goalies. Calling guys up from the AHL is hard in playoffs.”
“Ugh,” Emma says, after Kolya and Charles have run through the Hawks’ season and roster. “New topic.”
“Emma’s not a huge hockey fan,” Charles says, and Kolya’s feeling relaxed enough to quirk a grin.
“Not everyone can be perfect,” he chirps.
“You–” Emma stares. “My god, you do have a sense of humor, I thought Izzy was lying.”
“Emma,” Charles warns.
“I know,” Emma says, “still.” She stretches her legs out and pins Kolya with a direct look. “Nick says you’ve never been to a hay farm before.”
Kolya shrugs. “No,” he says. “I grew up in Chelyabinsk, mostly played hockey.” He shrugs. “I was lucky,” he says, “good air in Chelyabinsk, not a steel city like Magnitogorsk, not polluted like Moscow.”
He’s in the middle of describing the rink he learned to skate on — better than describing their two-room apartment, people in America get weird about that for some reason — when he hears the pitter-patter of little feet.
“Aunty Emmy,” a piping voice calls, “Aunty Emmy, where are you?”
A little girl with dark hair in beribboned pigtails bursts into the room and jumps on the couch with Emma, throwing herself into a hug.
“Hiya, Abby,” Emma says, and Kolya sees Charles’ face soften as he looks at his granddaughter. He pauses the TV and smiles at her.
“I drawed you a picture,” Abby says, “mommy says I can show you after dinner, it’s in the car.” She seems to notice Kolya, then, and pauses, suddenly shy.
“Abby,” Emma says, “this is Nikolai. He’s Uncle Nicky’s friend from New York City.”
Abby raises her hand to her mouth, then pulls it away. She nestles closer to Emma’s side. “Hi,” she says in a very small voice.
Kolya smiles at her. “Hi,” he says. “You call me Kolya, okay?”
Abby looks at him consideringly. “That’s a funny name,” she says, challenge in her voice.
“Russian nickname,” Kolya counters. “Very common back in Russia, where I grow up.”
“I know where Russia is,” Abby offers. “It’s big.”
“It is,” Kolya agrees. “Very big country, very cold in the winter.”
“No,” Abby says, “it’s colder here, ’cause we’re almost in Canada.”
Kolya pretends to consider this, making an exaggeratedly studious face. “I don’t know,” he says doubtfully, “Siberia is pretty cold. We wear fur hats.”
“You’re silly,” Abby announces, and sits up a little straighter. “Nobody wears fur hats anymore.”
When Abby’s father, Jason, comes in, Abby has warmed up enough to tell Kolya about her school, and what other countries she knows about.
“Who needs a refill?” Jason asks, and Charles nods, so Kolya does as well. “I’ve got the empties,” Emma says. “Abby, you want to come help?”
“No,” Abby says, “I want to watch hockey with Grandpa.”
Charles unpauses the game as Emma and Jason step out and Abby leans forward, intent on following the puck. Her head tracks the movement on the huge television screen, and she turns her whole body when there’s a fast pass, nearly falling off the couch.
“I like watching Uncle Nicky,” she announces when there’s a pause. “He skates pretty.”
Kolya privately agrees: Nick is a force of nature on the ice, skates like he was born to it, like music made flesh. Nick plays fast instead of physical, avoiding hits and dancing away with the puck like magic. It was one of the things that made Kolya fall in love with him, along with Nick’s fierce determination to be better and his unswerving devotion to team and family.
“He does,” Kolya agrees. “You know his number?”
“Eighty,” Abby announces. “That’s an eight and a zero.”
“My number is thirty-one,” Kolya tells her.
“You play hockey?” Abby asks, and her face lights up, so like Nick that Kolya can’t help but grin at her.
“With your uncle Nicky,” he confirms, and then he has a lapful of four-year-old, bouncing up and down in excitement. One of her hands lands somewhere awkward, and he huffs out a breath, lifts her away from his groin with a grimace.
“Abigail,” Kolya says, and settles her in his lap, far back on his knees. “Careful.”
Abigail nods, and hops off his lap. This time her hands don’t land on his groin and she flashes him a grin. Charles is unmoving in Kolya’s peripheral vision.
“Uncle Nicky,” she calls, heading toward the kitchen, “I’m hungry!”
“Dinner’s not ready yet, squirt,” Isabelle calls. “Come get some carrot sticks.”
Kolya watches her go, wondering if that was okay. He knows Americans have different preconceptions about gay men and kids than Russians, but they seem to vary so much from place to place, different in New York than in California, different in the midwest than in the south. Navigating the different norms is exhausting. He wonders if he should have said something more.
Nick sets something down on the dining room table with a click, then steps over and rests a hand on his shoulder. Kolya leans back into the touch, just a little bit more than he would if they were in public in New York, but not too much.
“You did good,” Nick says, quiet.
Kolya nods, tentative, and Nick squeezes his shoulder for a moment.
“You’re good with her,” he says, and Kolya tips his head back, feeling surprised. “She doesn’t usually like strangers this fast,” Nick says, poking him in the forehead, and then Jason comes back with more beer and Nick gets called back to the kitchen.
“Nikolai, right,” Jason says, handing him a beer. “Nice to meet you.”
“Kolya,” Kolya says, “it’s easier.” He takes the beer, and Jason sits. “Nice to meet you too,” Kolya offers. “Your daughter skates yet?” he asks.
Kolya’s father trained him out of complementing other people’s kids when he was a teenager, just in case it was taken the wrong way, interpreted as some kind of expression of perverted sexual interest. He knows Americans don’t see things the same way, but the habit has stuck.
“Just a little,” Jason says, “it’s hard to find time to get to the rink, you know?”
Kolya doesn’t know, but he nods, and they settle in to watch the Hawks limp to a win against the Senators.
“Dinner’s up,” Michelle calls, and Kolya stands and goes back into the dining room, where the table is set and everything is ready.
“I want to sit with Kolya and uncle Nicky,” Abby announces, and Nick’s sister Amanda sighs.
“It’s okay,” Nick says, “I’ll make her eat her vegetables.”
Kolya ends up on the far end of the table from Jason and Charles, with Abby on one side, and Emma on the other, facing Amanda. She has Lila in her lap, drowsing and tiny. When Kolya goes to pick up his fork, Nick kicks him under the table, and so Kolya waits for Charles to say grace, Abby’s little hand almost disappearing in his own.
“I want tater tots,” Abby announces, and nearly stands up in her chair, so Kolya puts a hand on her shoulder.
“Patient,” Kolya says, “dish is hot.”
The table is full of unfamiliar casseroles, tater tots and green beans and something that must be Nick’s mother’s famous meatballs. It looks like enough food for half the team, more than enough for the eight adults and two kids gathered around the Larsson’s enormous table.
Nick’s mother and sisters carry the conversation for the most part, while Nick supervises Abigail and Kolya tries his best to answer what seems like a never ending stream of of questions about New York City and Russia. Finally there’s a lull.
“Pretty ring,” Kolya says to Emma, who smiles, lights up the way Nick does about hockey. “Long engagement?”
“We want a fall wedding,” Emma says, “here on the farm.”
“I get to be flower girl,” Abby announces, “and wear a pretty dress, and throw flowers, and it’s a real fancy wedding.”
“Abby–” Emma starts, but Abby looks up at Kolya.
“What?” Kolya asks.
“A real wedding,” she says, like it’s perfectly obvious. “A boy and a girl.”
Kolya blinks, and he sees Nick freeze in his peripheral vision. Across the table, Amanda has gone as white as a sheet.
“Abigail Margaret Larsson,” she snaps, “what did we say before we came over here?”
Abby looks confused, and Kolya reaches over her head and puts a hand on Nick’s arm, because Nick looks tense the way he does before he launches himself at someone on the ice, drops the gloves and gets into a messy fight.
“But that’s what Mrs. Jonsson says,” Abby quavers.
“Is okay,” Kolya says to Amanda, “people say many things, not blame Abby for repeating them.”
Amanda doesn’t look any less angry, and conversation has stopped over the whole table. Nick’s knuckles are white around the butter knife, like he can stab Abigail’s school teacher if he just grabs it hard enough. Kolya squeezes his forearm and Nick starts to relax.
“Uncle Nicky,” Abby says, and she looks very small between the two of them all of a sudden. “Uncle Nicky, what’s wrong?”
Nick shakes his head and forces a smile. It looks awful, strained and fake, and Abby shrinks back into her chair a little bit, instinctively moving closer to Kolya. “It’s nothing, Abby,” Nick lies, “it’s okay.”
“It’s not okay!” Abby kicks her feet, hits Kolya’s knee. “Mommy’s mad and I don’t know why. Why can’t I say what Mrs. Jonssen says. Daddy says so too.”
Amanda makes a small, distressed noise, and Nick drops the butter knife and puts his hands on his knees, breathing fast. Jason’s jaw is clenched at the far end of the table, but he doesn’t deny it.
“Mommy?” Abby asks. Amanda looks away, and Abby’s face crumples. She looks on the verge of tears, and Kolya can’t do anything about Jason, but there’s a distressed little kid right next to him, and he can do something about that.
“Come here,” he says, and holds his arms out. Abigail climbs up on her chair and into his lap, and Kolya scoots his seat back and gives her a hug. She’s shaking a little bit, and he runs a hand up and down her back, soothing.
“Why’s mommy mad at me?” Abby asks. She sounds much younger than five.
Kolya can’t answer that one, but he can’t just leave her hanging, either. “Your papa says two men together, or two women, it’s not real?” Kolya prompts. Maybe if he gets her talking she’ll calm down.
“Mm-hm,” Abby confirms, and she’s clutching her hands into fists, so like Nick it almost breaks Kolya’s heart. “He says it’s an ab–abomination?”
Kolya keeps looking at her, but he hears Amanda make a disbelieving sound, and Nick whooshes out a breath like he’s been punched. Abby just huddles closer to Kolya’s side. No one says anything, so Kolya puts a hand on Nick’s forearm again, grounding him and keeping him in place.
“You scare Abby,” Kolya chides, kicking Nick under the table for good measure. “Calm down.”
Abby is watching them carefully.
“Abbatchka,” Kolya says, “your mama didn’t want to hurt your Uncle Nicky’s feelings, tell him your papa thinks those things.”
“But–” Abby looks confused, and she huddles closer. Kolya rubs her back gently.
“Some boys love other boys, Abbatchka,” Kolya says, and Jason huffs out a breath. Fuck him, Kolya thinks, and keeps going. “Some girls love other girls. If they both grownups, is okay, is good to love someone, to be loved. Simple.”
Jason makes another noise, and pushes his chair back.
“Don’t you dare,” says Michelle, and there’s steel in Nick’s mother’s voice. “Sit down and finish your meatballs, Jason, and for god’s sake, Mandy, tell your daughter you’re not mad at her, you’re frightening the poor thing.”
Abby insists on staying in Kolya’s lap for the rest of dinner, which is tense, to say the least. Jason and Charles retreat to the television again as soon as Jason as finishes inhaling his food and Kolya watches them go, wondering what he should do now.
“Isabelle,” Michelle says, taking charge. “Why don’t you take Abby to play piano. Emma, take Lila, she’ll need a diaper change.” She stands and looks at the rest of them, clearly disappointed. “Amanda,” she says, “you and Nick and Kolya are on clean-up duty.”
Her glare clearly means something to Nick and Amanda, who wilt in place. Michelle goes upstairs, and Amanda stands and starts gathering plates, but Nick doesn’t move.
“You okay?” Kolya asks, when Nick doesn’t say anything, doesn’t get up from the table.
“Yeah,” Nick says. “No. I don’t know.”
He’s surprised, Kolya realizes. He’s been completely blindsided by Abby’s revelation of her father’s casual bigotry. Kolya stands and puts his hands on Nick’s shoulders, just resting them there, and Nick relaxes slightly.
“Come on,” Nick says, finally, “let’s just clean up.”
Amanda has disappeared somewhere, so Kolya and Nick settle into a rhythm in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher and readying the pots and pans for washing up. It’s an unfamiliar kitchen, but they do this often enough at home, in either Nick’s apartment or Kolya’s, so it’s easy to fall back on habit. Nick washes, and Kolya starts drying.
“He doesn’t know where everything goes,” Jason observes, leaning against the end of the kitchen counter, just barely in the room with them.
“He is right here,” Nick says, and Kolya keeps drying a casserole dish just to have something to do with his hands.
“So, you’re a–” Jason starts, and he sounds perfectly pleasant, but Kolya doesn’t like where he thinks that sentence is going. Kolya puts the first dish down and picks up another one.
“If you’re not going to apologize,” Nick says, and he’s furious, angrier than Kolya’s heard him, maybe ever, “I don’t want to hear it. You may be family, but you don’t get to say those kinds of things to my face.”
Jason doesn’t say anything, and Nick waits, and Kolya puts the second dish down. There’s nothing left to dry, so he starts straightening the counters, stepping around Nick with an instinctive hand on his hip. It has to be clear they’re comfortable in each other’s space, even now, and maybe Kolya should be more discreet, but Nick presses into his touch just a little bit, like he wants the reassurance.
“Fine,” Jason bites out finally, “It’s your life. But they’re my kids.”
Kolya freezes. Every casual homophobic slur he heard growing up floods back into his mind, every time someone was called pedik in the locker room in Chelyabinsk. He can’t help but remember every time his father pulled him away from a child just in case Kolya couldn’t help himself and did something wrong.
“I don’t care what your fancy New York teammates tell their kids,” Jason is saying, “but Abigail’s going to be a good girl.”
Like it’s a choice, Kolya thinks desperately, like he ever would have chosen this for himself, growing up scared and alone, watching himself like a hawk, desperate to keep his secret from people who would hate him for it.
“So you’re going to raise her to be a bigot?” Nick demands, challenge clear in his tone, and Kolya puts down the plate he’s holding, because that’s not a good edge to Nick’s voice.
“She’s sure not gonna be a hell-bound queer,” Jason says, and he’s half-smiling, the asshole.
Only practice born of game-time fights lets Kolya grab and catch Nick mid-lunge, hands clasped on Nick’s straining biceps. Nick is incandescent with rage, every muscle in his body pulled taut. Jason stumbles away from him, obviously shocked by the violence of Nick’s reaction.
What kind of absolute moron, Kolya wonders, insults a hockey player and is surprised when they go for a fight.
“Let go,” Nick demands, voice choked, and Kolya wraps him in a tighter embrace, hugging him from behind like they’re on the ice, like Nick’s about to drop the gloves and take a major penalty, lose them the game. Kolya can’t see his face, but Jason pales, takes another step back.
“Go,” Kolya says. His voice is strangely calm. “Go watch television with Charles.”
Jason just stares at the two of them, and Nick shakes in Kolya’s arms, straining to be free of Kolya’s restraining embrace.
“You want I let him go instead?” Kolya offers, and Nick pulls again, like he thinks it’s an offer. Nick’s big hands are clenched into fists. “He’s bigger than you,” Kolya says, “fights better.” He’s amazed by how calm he sounds, like they’re discussing the weather. “You want to explain to Amanda, to Abby? Or you want a beer, some television?” He manages a little shrug. “Your choice,” he says. “Choose soon, I don’t hold Nick back forever.”
That seems to shock Jason into motion. He grabs two beers and beats a hasty retreat. Coward, Kolya thinks uncharitably, but Nick is shaking in his arms, breath going deep and fast, uncontrolled. He’s hyperventilating, Kolya realizes.
“Okay,” Kolya says, rubbing his hands up and down Nick’s arms, pulling his hands out of fists. Nick’s blunt nails have broken the skin of his palms, and the little crescents are bleeding sluggishly. “Nick, you’re okay.” Nick just stands there, head bowed, and struggles to breathe.
“Come on, vozlyublennyy,” Kolya says, and tugs Nick over to the sofa in the front room, only a few steps from the kitchen. “Sit down, breathe.”
Nick just stands there, shaking, so Kolya pushes him to sit down, guides him to put his head between his knees. Kolya rubs a hand up and down his back, soothing, and Nick gradually gets his breath under control. Eventually he puts his hands on his knees, pushes himself to sit up. He looks wrecked.
“I’m okay,” Nick says. He’s clearly not, but he’s also breathing, and not about to attack anyone, so Kolya lets it slide. “God,” he says, “what was I thinking.” He looks at his hands. “Thanks,” he says, “for–” he gestures vaguely.
Kolya laughs, bitter and clipped. “I know you,” he says, “you deck Jason, make Abbatchka cry, you regret it after.”
Nick sighs, and Kolya wants nothing more than to wrap him up in his arms. It looks like Nick wants that too, because he pushes himself to his feet and turns to Kolya.
“Can I,” he starts, hesitant, and Kolya pulls him close before Nick has stopped speaking, one hand cradling the back of Nick’s head, gentle on the nape of his neck. Nick’s not a small man, but he folds gratefully into Kolya’s arms, melts against him and lets Kolya press a kiss behind his ear.
“I’m sorry,” Nick says, voice muffled against Kolya’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t — Abby might see.”
“Is okay,” Kolya reassures him, and knows this hug, this desperate embrace, is as much for him as it is for Nick. “I’ve got you.”
Someone makes a surprised noise, and Nick recoils, jerks out of Kolya’s arms like he’s gotten a puck to the face. Amanda looks tired, and a little bit red-eyed, and Kolya really doesn’t care right now.
Family is central to who Nick is, even though he’s far from them, even though he wants hockey more than he wants the farm. Family is why Nick dropped a frankly stupid amount of money on a New York apartment so Isabelle could come to Juliard, pays her tuition without a second thought. Family is why Nick Skypes with Abby and Amanda and ends the calls grinning and full of stories. Family is why Nick paid off the mortgage on the farm with his first contract because he couldn’t think of any better way to say thank-you to his parents for their support over the years.
Family is why Nick, who loves fiercely and without reservation or reserve, worked so hard to get Kolya’s father to see that Kolya is good with children — more than that, to see that Kolya is safe with children, after more than a decade of mistrust, and Kolya may never be able to pay that debt.
And family is why Nick just fell apart in this farmhouse kitchen, and Kolya isn’t about to forgive that, not easily, and not without work.
Kolya puts a hand on Nick’s shoulder, casually possessive.
“I’m sorry, Nicky,” Amanda says. “I — fuck,” she says, and meets Kolya’s eyes. “Kolya, I didn’t know he’d say that, I swear.”
Kolya shrugs. He’s probably still glaring. He doesn’t much care.
“Oh,” she says, and her voice goes faint. “Russia. The — fuck. Those laws.” She’s nearly as pale as she was over dinner.
Kolya nods, and pulls Nick to sit down again, rests a hand on Nick’s thigh just to feel him there, solid and reassuring.
“Fuck,” Amanda says again. She sits down across from them and rubs a hand across her forehead. “Jason’s–” she takes a deep breath. “I’m not going to apologize for him,” she says.
Nick goes as tense as if he’s about to lose a face-off and Kolya makes a shushing noise, grips just above his knee.
“God,” Amanda says, as if she’s just realized how that sounds. “Nick, not because I agree with him. I’ll just never stop apologizing, that’s all.” She looks at him. “You’re my baby brother,” she says, “I love you so much, Nicky.”
Nick takes a deep breath, and Kolya waits.
“You never told him about me,” Nick says. It sounds like an accusation.
It should be an accusation, Kolya thinks. Jason’s known Nick since he was fourteen, has been part of the family for nearly a decade.
“I–” Amanda looks at her hands. “No. I didn’t. I’m sorry, Nicky. I–” she twists her hands together. “It just — I didn’t think it would ever come up,” she offers. “You said–“
Kolya knows Nick was nineteen when he told his family he didn’t usually like people like that, but it was probably boys. He’s never brought a boyfriend home before, as far as Kolya knows, not since he told them, not for years.
Kolya knew Nick’s family doesn’t talk about things that bother them, that they’re too polite to bring up hard topics, to hurt each other’s feelings, that they avoid conflict like the plague. He’s starting to think that Minnesota nice, as Isabelle calls it, is total garbage.
“You hurt him worse this way,” Kolya says, because he’s sick of beating around the bush. Maybe they’ll have to fly home to New York tomorrow if Kolya fucks this up, but he can’t stand to see Nick like this.
“I know,” Amanda says. “I’m sorry.”
Kolya wraps an arm around Nick’s shoulders and pulls him close, presses a kiss to the top of his head. Amanda watches them, and Nick closes his eyes and snuggles a little closer, seeming almost defiant in that small gesture.
“Your husband called Nick a ‘hell-bound queer,’ in the kitchen,” Kolya says, and Nick makes a small hurt noise. Kolya hugs him a little closer and meets Amanda’s eyes.
“He talks like that around Abby, Lila, other kids, it hurts them, too,” Kolya says. “I grow up in Russia, hearing poison every day, everywhere, and I grow up thinking I’m broken because I like men. Was because of people like your husband, saying those things.”
He pauses, then continues, because it’s important.
“It was because of people like you, too nice, too polite to say to them, stop.”
Amanda won’t meet his eyes anymore.
“Come on,” Kolya says, and pulls Nick to his feet. “We go to sleep now.”
Nick clings, and Kolya shushes him.
“Together,” Kolya says. “Shh, Nikashenka, shh.”
Nick almost collapses against him, and Kolya leads him upstairs to the guest room. Nick’s things are in his own bedroom, but Kolya doesn’t care. He pushes Nick to sit down and takes off his shoes, pulls off his socks. Nick is moving slowly, and it’s almost like when they were rookies, when Kolya would pour Nick into bed after a night out. Being drunk would be a lot more fun than this, Kolya thinks. He pulls Nick’s phone out of his jeans pocket and texts Isabelle.
took Nick upstairs to sleep Kolya texts. see you in morning
He pauses, then adds hug abby from us
Then he turns both their phones off, strips to his boxers, and climbs into bed next to Nick, who crawls into his arms.
“Shh,” Kolya says, running a hand through Nick’s hair. “I’m sorry, vozlyublennyy,” he says, voice soft. “Sleep.”
Nick drops off, and Kolya falls asleep to the sound of his steady breathing, the weight of Nick’s body pinning him to the too-soft mattress.
* * *
Kolya wakes with the sun, Nick sprawled halfway on top of him. He puts a hand on the small of Nick’s back and watches the sunlight creep across the ceiling until Nick stirs.
“Mngh,” Nick says, because he hates mornings, and Kolya kisses him, close-mouthed and chaste. Neither of them brushed their teeth last night, and Kolya’s mouth feels furry and disgusting.
“Shower,” Kolya says, “then coffee. Everything else can wait.”
Nick blinks, then nods.
“Love you,” he says, and hauls himself out of bed, stumbles to the shower. When he comes back out, he pulls open the dresser and puts on one of Kolya’s workout shirts. Maybe it’s a statement: it’s an old Traktor shirt, the faded lettering obviously in Cyrillic and the fabric too tight over his shoulders in a really appealing way. Kolya doesn’t really care if it’s a statement or just easier than going downstairs for a shirt, so he just presses a kiss to Nick’s forehead.
“Make tea?” he asks, and heads to the shower.
When he gets downstairs, the table is only set for six. No Amanda and Jason, Kolya thinks, and he’s glad of it.
He heads to the kitchen, because while he’s not as fuzzy-headed in the morning as Nick, Kolya likes tea. Michelle is in there, cooking bacon on the shining white enamel stove.
“Morning,” she says, and a timer beeps. “Can you get that out of the oven?” Michelle asks, so apparently they’re not talking about whatever happened last night, or about sleeping arrangements. “Charles will be back from checking on the hogs soon, we’ll sit down for breakfast.”
Isabelle emerges while Kolya is setting a basket of muffins on the dining room table.
“No Mandy?” she asks, and Emma shakes her head minutely. “Oh,” Isabelle says. “Shit.”
“Language,” Michelle scolds. Isabelle rolls her eyes, and goes toward the kitchen.
“You want tea?” Isabelle calls, and Kolya calls confirmation as Emma stumbles down the stairs in sweatpants and a tanktop, mumbling something about coffee. Apparently Nick comes by his caffeine addiction honestly, which Kolya finds altogether too endearing.
The Larssons move around each other easily, and before Kolya knows it, they’re seated with eggs and hash browns and muffins and bacon, plates heaped high. Charles comes in, washes his hands, and sits to say grace, and then everyone digs in.
“I was thinking you might go to the rink today,” Michelle says, “and we could show Nikolai around town a little bit after you boys get your ice time in. It’s not much,” she adds, “not a city, really, but it’s enough, and it might be fun. We could check out the bookstore, Nick usually likes that when he’s here, and you might find something, too.” She frowns. “I don’t think they have anything in Russian,” she says, “but you never know.”
“Mom,” Isabelle says, “Kolya’s a literature major, he’ll be fine at the bookstore.”
Kolya nods, mouth full of hash browns.
“Oh, that’s right,” Michelle says, “you’re in college, that’s very exciting. Emma just graduated, you can talk about school while we drive to town. It must be challenging, balancing it with your season?”
It sounds like Michelle doesn’t remember much Nick has told her about Kolya’s classes, and Kolya feels a newly-familiar dip in the pit of his stomach. He wonders if this is what it felt like when his father was dismissive of Nick, this swooping dread.
“I took it slow,” he says, “part-time, many classes in the summers.”
“He just graduated,” Nick says, “skipped out on graduation to visit us.”
Emma looks surprised by that.
“Online degree mostly,” Kolya insists, “who cares about ceremony. I already have best job, can skip career fairs.”
“So why’d you do it?” Emma asks. “I mean, most NHL players don’t finish college, do they?”
“Some do,” Kolya says, and she gives him a skeptical look, which, all right, he’s totally earned. “I wanted better English,” Kolya admits.
“Your English was pretty good when you got here,” Nick says, because he’s stupidly loyal.
“My English was garbage,” Kolya counters. “You understood me, I understood hockey, reporters called me stupid.” He looks at Emma. “I’m staying in America,” he says, “not going back to Russia, so I want to be fluent.”
“Won’t your family —“ Michelle starts, and Charles glances at her. “Well, I suppose your parents are here.”
“Not much family in Russia,” Kolya says, “complicated, very political.”
“Well,” Charles says after a moment of silence in which everyone clearly waits for Kolya to continue, to explain his family situation to these near-total strangers. “Congratulations. That was well done, and it can’t have been easy.”
Kolya smiles, and Nick pats his hand as the conversation turns to Emma’s degree, Isabelle’s classes and recitals.
Kolya helps clear up in the kitchen after breakfast, and then he and Nick take Emma’s car and go to the rink, which is an hour away. The roads are clear and empty, nothing like New York traffic, and Kolya guesses he can see why people like driving in places like this.
“The showers aren’t great,” Nick apologizes, when they’ve finished up with a game of one-on-one, sweaty and pleasantly sore.
“Nick,” Kolya says, “you try Chelyabinsk rec rink showers, then tell me these aren’t much. They have hot water?”
“Usually,” Nick allows.
“We good,” Kolya declares.
“Asshole,” Nick says, and flicks a towel his direction.
Kolya shrugs, and they shower and meet up with Michelle and Emma and Isabelle for a late lunch and a walk around the tiny, two-stoplight town. It’s clear that Nick is well known, but people seem to be protective of his privacy, which is kind of sweet. Only a few children approach them, and some seem drawn to Kolya as much as Nick.
They’re at the bookstore when a little boy practically launches himself at the two of them, the first time a kid has slipped their parents’ hands and ignored the loudly whispered admonitions to be polite.
“I’m sorry,” Michelle apologizes to Kolya, when the little boy bounces up and down, tugging on Kolya’s hand. “Nick’s never brought a friend home before. He usually gets less attention than this.”
“No problem,” Kolya says as he kneels, pulls the sharpie off his keychain, and signs the boy’s Minnesota Wild t-shirt.
“You say thank you to the nice man, now,” the boy’s mother admonishes, and the boy — Carson — babbles something, and turns to Nick with stars in his eyes. “Oh, goodness,” his mother says, “Mr. Larsson, I am so sorry.”
“Nick, please,” Nick says, kneeling to be at eye-level with Carson, and holding out a hand for Kolya’s sharpie. “Mr. Larsson is my father. Now,” he says, “Carson, right?”
Carson holds very still, and Nick signs the other side of his shirt.
“If you give mom your address,” Nick says to Carson’s mom, when Carson has run off to the other side of the bookstore to show a friend, “I bet we can get you tickets to the Rangers-Wild game in St Paul next season.”
“Oh,” she says, “goodness, you don’t have to,” and Nick laughs.
“I’d love to,” he says, “so be in touch.” And that seems to be that. They sign a few more autographs, Nick picks up a history of Ancient Rome that’s supposed to be good, and they head for the car.
When they get back to the farm, Charles is waiting.
“Come on, boys,” he says, “we’ve got some work to do. Kolya,” he asks, “you have work clothes?”
It’s a good thing Nick took him shopping, Kolya thinks. He and Nick change into their heavy jeans and boots, long-sleeve shirts, and Charles herds them over to the barn with Emma, where there are carts full of bales of grass — hay, Kolya corrects himself. It’s an alfalfa hay farm, so they must have just cut the hay.
“Dad,” Nick says, and Charles shoots him a look. “You–” Nick sighs. “Yeah,” Nick says, “fine.”
“You remember how to stack bales?” Charles asks, climbing up into one of the — carts — no, trailers, Kolya thinks. Charles looks completely at home standing among the jostled hay bales.
“Like I’d forget,” Emma says, and Charles grins. “You’re my stacker,” he says, “Kolya, Nick, you get to work too, take the far side. We’ve got to finish up before your mother’s finished dinner.”
“Damn,” Nick mutters. “Okay, Kolya, I’ll hop up in the trailer,” he does so, “and I pick the bales up by the twine,” he demonstrates, “and chuck it over,” he tosses it, easy as anything. “You just straighten them when they land,” Nick says, “lay them out crosswise, see, like laying bricks.”
Kolya has never laid bricks, either, but he can see that the bales already stacked are in alternating rows, the way Dan’s oldest son does Legos sometimes, so he just follows the pattern, and Nick corrects him if he gets something wrong. On the other side of the barn, Charles is hurling bales at Emma, who hardly needs to move them, they’re so well-aimed. Nick’s a little less graceful, and once or twice he misses. Emma mocks him for it, disturbingly not out of breath, and Kolya is too distracted to chirp back.
Emma and Charles finish first.
“Hah,” she declares. “Practice wins, bitches.”
“Language!” Charles calls, and she sticks her tongue out at him, but only after he’s turned his back.
“Finish up, losers,” Emma calls, and heads out after her father. “Winners get first shower.”
Nick makes a frustrated face, but goes back to tossing Kolya hay bales until they’ve emptied the trailer. Kolya tests the stability of the stack he just made, then drops to the ground, sitting on a single layer of hay bales on the ground and leaning against the stacked ones. His upper body is burning, past workout and well into limp-noodle territory, and Kolya wonders how people who aren’t professional athletes do this for a living all day long. Maybe they’re better at it than he is. He hopes they are.
Nick drops down from the trailer next to him, stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt, and Kolya lets himself just look, openly appreciative in a way he rarely gets to be.
“Ugh,” Nick says, scrubbing the shirt over the back of his neck, where his hair is dark with sweat, “I’m all gross, you’re so weird.”
He doesn’t sound like he really minds, though, so Kolya tugs Nick into his lap for a kiss, hauls him in with his hands on Nick’s bare waist, skin warm and sweaty against his grip.
“Mmm,” Nick hums happily, then leans down to nip Kolya’s lips. “You know what?” he asks.
Kolya shakes his head, chases Nick’s mouth instead of answering.
“No shared locker rooms,” Nick whispers against Kolya’s lips. “You can mark me up.”
They’ve been so careful all winter: Kolya has even tucked a couple of girls into cabs to keep up appearances. So Kolya could get away with something, maybe, but everyone on the team knows Nick doesn’t pick up at bars. Ever since the first time Nick admitted he wanted this, Kolya hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it, about leaving his marks on Nick’s skin, being able to tell he’s been there, about Nick wanting Kolya to do it.
Kolya groans, and his hands tighten on Nick’s hips.
“Yeah,” Nick says, “like that, harder.” He leans into Kolya’s grasp, encouraging, and Kolya pulls him close, hands splayed over Nick’s hipbones, the cut of his hip sharp under Kolya’s thumbs.
“Fuck,” Nick gasps, and bucks down against Kolya, already half-hard. “Kiss me,” he demands.
Nick is so bossy about sex, demanding and unembarrassed in a way he only is otherwise on the ice, and Kolya loves it, loves knowing what Nick wants. He leans up and presses a kiss to the side of Nick’s mouth, gentle and teasing, and Nick growls at him.
“You know what I mean,” Nick says, and bites him, almost too hard, before leaning in for a deeper kiss. He plasters himself against Kolya’s chest, warm and solid, and Kolya grabs at him harder just to hear Nick moan and shove Kolya back against the hay bales. The bales are prickly but solid, and Kolya really doesn’t care about the hay scratching through his shirt if Nick is going to keep kissing him like this, like he’ll die if he doesn’t get more, running his hands up and down Kolya’s arms.
Nick puts his hands over Kolya’s.
“I want you to,” he says, and presses Kolya’s grasp tight. “Bet you can leave fingerprints,” he whispers in Kolya’s ear, “strong hands.” Then he kisses Kolya’s neck, nips gently. When he sucks hard just above Kolya’s collarbone Kolya squeezes hard and Nick groans.
“Yeah,” he says, and ruts down against Kolya’s lap. “Like that,” Nick insists, grabbing Kolya’s hands with his own, pushing.
“I–” Kolya gasps. The barn door is still open, and he doesn’t know where Charles and Emma went, or if they’re coming back. “Now?”
“What?” Nick asks, nosing at Kolya’s neck, “don’t stop.”
“Nick,” Kolya says, and he’d pull away, but there’s nowhere to go, just the hay bales behind him, under him, so he’ll have to find words. English sucks, Kolya thinks, and Nick isn’t helping, kissing along the line of Kolya’s collar, hands firm on Kolya’s waist now.
“Fuck,” Kolya gasps, and Nick rocks down against him, which is a little uncomfortable, actually, with how Kolya’s dick is stuck in his jeans, but god, he wants Nick to touch him everywhere, hands up under the waist of his shirt and running across Kolya’s sides, callused and huge.
“Yeah,” Nick agrees, “good idea. Let’s.”
He pushes down again, rubbing off against Kolya’s abs, and that’s hot, that’s so hot, but Kolya really, really doesn’t want Nick’s family walking in on them making out. And he wants more than this right now, wants Nick spread out under him, wants to put his mouth on Nick’s skin, wants noise and skin and touch and everything.
Kolya groans and pushes firmly away. Nick squirms, and Kolya grabs harder and shoves, holding Nick a few inches away.
“Not–” Kolya starts, and the words just aren’t there. “Bed,” he manages, “Nick.”
“Fuck,” Nick says, eyes blown out, and he’s panting for breath. “Kolya, please.” He licks his lips, and strains toward Kolya. “Let me suck you off,” Nick says, “you can fuck me later, I want you to, but I want you now, fuck, just let me.”
Kolya lets go of him and Nick slips to his knees on the uneven barn floor, thumbs open Kolya’s jeans and pulls out his straining cock. Nick strokes him for a moment, thoughtful, then leans in and licks across the head.
“Fuck,” Kolya gasps, and knocks his head back. Nick does it again, sucks just a little at the crown, and Kolya whines low in his throat. “Nick,” he manages, because he’s so close all of a sudden. He winds a hand in Nick’s hair and pulls. Nick makes a punched-out sound, a little wordless gasp, and Kolya tugs a little harder, pulls Nick’s mouth onto his dick, stretches his lips around it, pink and obscene and gorgeous.
“Da,” Kolya says, “Delay eto, Nick.”
Nick pins his hips down one-handed, forearm across his thighs and Kolya bucks in vain. Nick sucks, moaning like he can’t get enough, like he’ll never get enough of Kolya trying to fuck his mouth and Kolya bites the meat of his hand to muffle a shout as he comes down Nick’s throat.
“Kolya,” Nick is saying, face buried in Kolya’s groin, “god, Kolya, you’re so hot, fuck.”
Nick runs his mouth when he’s turned on, Kolya thinks blearily. He should probably fix that before anyone finds them, and so he tips Nick onto his back, fumbling at his pants. Nick goes with a mumbled curse, fingers tangling with Kolya’s, and they stroke him off together, Nick’s hair sun-bright against the barn floor as he shakes through a silent orgasm.
Kolya collapses on top of Nick, kissing the bend of his neck and sucking a hickey at the edge of his collarbone, right where a shirt collar won’t quite hide it. Nick goes still beneath him in surprise.
“God,” Nick says, “Kolya.” He sounds wrecked in the best possible way, and Kolya wants more, but he can’t quite find his brain right now, so he just nuzzles closer, hands square on Nick’s waist again.
“Okay,” Nick says after a moment, “you were right, up we go.”
Kolya makes a dissatisfied noise, and Nick pokes him in the ribs.
“Up,” Nick says, “shower, dinner, bed.”
“Ugh,” Kolya says, trying to lever himself up and feeling the tremors in his arms. “Why?”
“Because the barn’s a shitty place to sleep,” Nick says, and pushes him gently, getting to his feet. “You have so much hay in your hair,” Nick says, carding a hand across Kolya’s scalp. Kolya leans into the touch, sitting up and contemplating staying on the ground anyway. Surely standing is overrated.
“Come on,” Nick says, “up we go.” He pulls, and Kolya follows. “You’re always like this after,” Nick says, and he sounds fond. “It’s kind of flattering.” Kolya pulls Nick into a hug, nuzzling into him just to stay close, and Nick laughs. “Okay,” he says, “get off me, we need to sneak in the back door, hope no one notices we just had sex in the barn.”
Kolya sighs, but he pulls away and helps Nick pick some of the hay out of his hair, does up his jeans. Nick leads them to the back door, and they pause, because Nick’s mother and father are in the kitchen.
“He’s not going to get Nick in trouble,” Charles is saying, “besides, you think you’ll make Nicks happy keeping them apart? Nick will be sneaking in every night, Mish, you know that, and feeling all kinds of guilt.”
Michelle sighs. “I suppose so,” she says.
“Cut them some slack,” Charles says, “I rode ‘em hard today, and Kolya kept up.”
“You’re a bad man, Charles Larsson,” Michelle says, but she sounds fond. “You know you could have had the hired hands do those trailers two days ago with the others.”
Charles chuckles. “Where’s the fun in that?” he asks, and Michelle pulls him close. Kolya meets Nick’s gaze, Nick rolls his eyes, and they sneak away to shower in the guest room. Hot water feels like magic, and Kolya has to be pushed out from under the spray. Nick manhandles him into jeans and a clean shirt, and Kolya tugs him onto the bed.
“Nap,” Kolya demands, and Nick sighs, exaggerated, but folds against Kolya’s side without protest until Isabelle calls them down for dinner a little while later.
Dinner that night is a huge meal that Kolya hardly tastes, just inhales the food like he’s skated a full game and overtime. He should have stretched, Kolya thinks, and idly wishes for an ice bath.
When he and Nick make their way upstairs, Nick’s suitcase is sitting on the guest bed, along with extra towels. Nick blinks, and Kolya realizes that this is all the conversation they’re going to have about sleeping arrangements. Nick’s suitcase being here means he’s got Michelle’s tacit permission to sleep with her son. It would be more exciting if Kolya’s whole body didn’t ache, and he weren’t so damn tired.
“Come on,” Nick says, “sleep.”
* * *
“Your uncle Jordan was talking about coming up this weekend,” Michelle says at dinner the next day. It’s only the six of them again: Amanda and Jason haven’t shown up since the argument after that first dinner. “He’d love to see you, Nick, and I know he’s wanted to meet you, Kolya.”
Isabelle and Emma share a look.
“That’s fine,” Nick says. Then he squares his shoulders. “Are we going to talk about why you never told me about his problem with pills?”
Nick probably thinks he’s being direct, Kolya knows, but he still says problem with pills instead of drug addiction. From the silence at the table, it’s more than direct enough for the rest of the family.
Charles sits back in his chair, rubs at his chin.
“Huh,” he says. “Been wondering when you’d bring that up.”
“So?” Nick says. “Had to hear it from Isabelle by accident and then drag it out of mom over the phone after that. So, look, this is me bringing it up.” He sounds mad, and determined.
“We thought you’d take it hard,” Michelle says. “And then you were in the playoffs that spring, and you know we don’t like to distract you. And then — there just wasn’t a good time, honey.”
Her voice is soft, but she doesn’t quite make eye contact with Nick. No one looks at Kolya, who feels entirely out of place.
“Yeah,” Nick says. “Right. Maybe when he relapsed would have been a good time. Or before then, when you moved him home, would have been a good time. Or any time you talked to me about anything at all, might have been a good time.” His hands are clenched on his thighs, and Kolya doesn’t dare touch him. “He’s family,” Nick bites out. “He’s family, and you didn’t let me help.”
And, oh, but that’s an angle Kolya hadn’t considered before. He breathes out, long and slow, and Nick echoes it, almost unconsciously.
“Oh, honey,” Michelle says. “There’s nothing you could do.”
“Yeah,” Nick says, “well, maybe you should have let me decide that, huh?”
He pushes back from the table, takes his plate and glass into the kitchen, leaving Kolya with a table full of silent Larssons.
“I’ll go–” Emma says, and pushes her chair back from the table.
“Leave it,” Isabelle says. “He’s too mad right now.”
Kolya wants to go after him, but Isabelle is right: Nick is too mad to talk right now, and Kolya doesn’t want to get yelled at.
“So,” Michelle says, “Kolya, Nick’s never told us much about your family.”
“Mama and Papa are in New York,” Kolya says. “Not close with Papa’s family.” They’re disowned, is more like it, but that’s a conversation he doesn’t want to have right now. “Very political, complicated,” he tries, hoping that the Larssons will have the usual American reaction to Russian politics and steer clear.
It halfway works.
“And your grandparents?” Michelle asks.
“Mama’s parents were old when they had her,” Kolya says, “died when I was little.”
Grandpapa drank himself to death in Moscow after his precious son, Gennadi, died, and Grandmama moved in with them in their two-room apartment in Chelyabinsk, slept on a folding cot in the bedroom while Kolya slept on the sofa.
“I’m so sorry,” Michelle says, and she sounds like she means it, too. “My mother passed last year. It’s hard losing them, even when it’s time.”
“Long time ago,” Kolya says. It was, too — uncle Gennadi died when Kolya was seven, and grandpapa Dima followed his son when Kolya was eight. Grandmama Anna died when Kolya was twelve, in her sleep, and probably of a broken heart. At least Kolya has never had to worry that he contributed to her broken heart: she never knew he liked boys.
“They were from Moscow,” Kolya says, “but Grandmama moved to Chelyabinsk when I was eight, lived with us.”
“Wasn’t that tight?” Isabelle asks. “I mean, your place was small, yeah?”
“Two rooms,” Kolya agrees absently, wondering where Nick is, if he’s okay. There’s silence, and when he looks up, the Larssons — except Isabelle — look shocked. “Not uncommon,” Kolya says, “one bedroom, one big room, bathroom down the hall.”
“An old Soviet building, then?” Emma asks. “We studied some of that in my Anthro class last semester. Did you share a kitchen, too?”
“We had our own kitchen,” Kolya offers, because that had been something of a luxury at the time, not to have to rely on a communal kitchen down a flight of stairs Ksenia couldn’t always manage. “Uncle Gennadi paid to put it in,” he adds.
Kolya realizes his mistake a moment too late.
“Your uncle?” Michelle says, obviously curious.
“Mama’s big brother,” Kolya says, “he died when I was seven, didn’t know him much.”
That’s a lie: Gennadi had paid for his first skates and childhood hockey gear, spun him around in the air on his rare visits from Moscow, had been little Kolya’s favorite person, all flash and chatter and big-city glamor. But there must be something in his tone, because no one asks why he said his mother was an only child.
“Where did you sleep in just two rooms?” Emma asks, obviously trying to keep the conversation moving.
“The couch was long,” he says. “We put another bed in the bedroom when Babushka — my grandmother — moved in with us.” He shrugs. “I spent most of my free time at the rink,” he allows, “wasn’t home much, and Papa worked long hours.”
“Oh,” Michelle says. “Well, Nick will have to show you around the farm tomorrow, make sure you see more than the inside of the barn.”
Kolya’s not sure what that has to do with anything, but he’s not going to argue.
“Nick can what?” Nick asks, and puts a hand on Kolya’s shoulder.
“Take Kolya for a drive,” Charles says. “Show him around the farm, get some fresh air.”
“Fair enough,” Nick says. “Kolya, you mind waiting upstairs? I want to talk to my folks.”
Kolya shrugs and clears his plate into the kitchen, heads upstairs to the room he and Nick have been sharing without comment. He’s reading Pale Fire with a dictionary open on his phone and struggling to stay awake when Nick pushes the door open.
“Well,” Nick says, “that sucked.”
Kolya puts the book down, pats the bed beside him.
“They think they were protecting me,” Nick says. He sounds deeply frustrated. “I just—“ he waves his hands. “They’re family and they think they can just not tell me things, and—“ he flops down on the bed and stares at the ceiling.
“So,” he says, “new topic.”
Kolya makes an affirmative noise.
“You never said you had an uncle,” Nick says, and Kolya closes his eyes.
“He’s dead,” Kolya says. “Mama’s big brother, worked in Moscow.”
“Yeah, but you said you were seven,” Nick insists, “you must remember him.”
Kolya remembers Gennadi’s flashy clothes, his fancy car. He remembers presents, and big hands with strange calluses, and hushed arguments about dirty money, and new hockey skates.
“Only a little,” he says, hoping to avoid this conversation, though he knows Nick is stubborn, like a dog with a bone, unwilling to let things drop.
“And you’ve never brought him up,” Nick says. “You never talk about your family, Kolya, just your parents.”
“Is politics,” Kolya says, shrugging. That’s made Nick back off before, but tonight Nick just glares at him.
“You always say that,” Nick says, “and — you can tell me, you know?”
Kolya doesn’t really want to talk about it. “Is just politics,” Kolya says, “complicated, boring. Not good conversation.”
“Yeah,” Nick says, “right. And there was never a good time for my folks to tell me about Uncle Jordan.” He sits up, stares at Kolya. “It’s you,” Nick insists. “I want to know.”
He gets up and shucks off his clothes, pulls on one of his own shirts to sleep in. He climbs into bed next to Kolya and rests his forehead on Kolya’s shoulder.
“You know everything about me,” Nick says, “I feel like I’m missing out.” Nick’s voice is very small when he says, “do you not trust me?”
Kolya sighs, presses a kiss to the top of Nick’s head.
“I trust you,” he says, “is just — is a lot, Nikashenka.”
“What,” Nick says. “Like my uncle being an addict wasn’t a lot for me to put on you?”
That was a lot for Nick, obviously, and for Isabelle, and the rest of their family. Kolya closes his eyes. If Nick thinks that’s a lot, Kolya doesn’t know what he’s going to do when he learns about Kolya’s uncle, who maybe made drug addicts, but at least Gennadi is long dead.
Kolya sighs. Maybe he can work into it, give Nick a chance to back out, to stop asking. It feels like cowardice, but Kolya starts with the past anyway.
“Soviet era,” he starts, “Chelyabinsk was a center for deporting people to many gulag, on many train routes.” he says. “You know gulag? Soviet prison camps, many in Siberia?”
Nick makes an affirmative noise.
“My father’s great-grandfather, Andrei Kudryavtsev” Kolya says, “he worked for government under Stalin, but had soft heart. He saw people, felt sorry, sent them nicer places, women, young men, gave them faked papers.” He shrugs. “He got found out,” Kolya says, “shot for it. Big disgrace for family, take two generations to clear family’s name, keep head down, be good workers, keep party line, work hard in Chelyabinsk, no questions, no problems.”
No morals, either, no disputing bribes or crooked ministers or contracts going to someone’s nephew, someone’s mistress’s husband to sweeten the deal. Not a step out of line, not a ruble misplaced, not a word to the wrong person, and all the right words to all the right people.
Nick nods again.
“Right,” he asks, “so was that during the Great Purge? Or during one of the smaller ones?”
“No purge,” Kolya says, because it hadn’t been anything so dramatic. “Just fast trial, shot him, no pension for his widow.” He pauses. What’s the English saying? In for a penny, in for a pound?
“Great Purge,” Kolya says, “was problem for Mama’s family. Her name before marriage was Ksenia Nikolaevna Bukharin,” he says. Nick takes a sharp breath, so he recognizes the name.
“Not close relatives to the famous Bukharin, the dissident,” Kolya says. “But shared name, shared cousins. Her family in Moscow, have some money at first, survive by being good, being — unremarkable.”
Kolya takes a steadying breath and keeps going, telling Nick how after the money ran out mama’s mama survived by sewing for Communist Party wives, earning enough to feed the kids while her husband drank his salary away and overlooked his son’s excesses. Grandmama kept little Ksenia on a close leash, helping sew and save money for university, even when girls didn’t often go, because grandmama wanted something better for her children, and knew her son was already too far gone. Gennadi started running errands for one of the Moscow families when he was only a kid, and got in too deep, too fast.
“Wow.” Nick says. “Em would write a paper about this,” he says, “for class.”
“Is just life,” Kolya says. Not everyone has a story like Kolya’s, but everyone back in Chelyabinsk knows people who do. Many of them knew Kolya’s family, even if they knew what not to say out loud.
“My mother and father meet at university in Moscow,” Kolya continues. “Grandmama very angry when papa brings her home to Chelyabinsk, big scandal. Grandpapa tells him, you marry that Moscow girl, we disown you.”
“And they got married anyway?”
“Big rebellion, disowned completely,” Kolya agrees. “Papa was young and — and idealistic, thought hard work was enough.” He shakes his head at the stupidity of it. “Never promoted at work,” he says, “always worst jobs, most paperwork. And Mama’s health not so good after me,” he says, “she can’t work, just keep house, take in sewing. I start skating young,” Kolya says, “Mama takes me to the rink because close to home, easy walk for her. When I’m older, I go alone, let her rest.”
She’d mostly stayed home and sewn, taken in mending, anything to augment their income.
“Mama tell me very young,” Kolya says, “no office job for me, not even if best at school, not unless money for bribes. I play hockey, I can get out. Otherwise,” he holds his hands out, empty. “Money was all for doctors,” Kolya says, “and some for hockey.”
Nick makes a curious noise. Kolya guesses he hasn’t been clear enough. He closes his eyes.
“Not many choices in Chelyabinsk,” Kolya says. “If lucky, I run drugs or girls, maybe survive, maybe get shot, get disappeared. Mama’s brother Gennadi worked for big family in Moscow, don’t know which one. He made good money, then got stupid, got disappeared when I was seven. That — it is not a smart choice, I see that very young.”
Nick freezes next to him. Kolya supposes he hasn’t put it in quite these terms before, has assumed Nick understood what Kolya meant when he said hockey was his chance, his way out. He obviously didn’t.
“The mob,” Nick says. “You mean your uncle was in the Russian mafia, and they killed him.”
“Yes,” Kolya says. “He works in Moscow, visits, brings presents, argues with mama, avoids papa.” He sighs. “Hockey was my way out,” Kolya says again. “I tell you this before, you not wonder why?”
“Kolya,” Nick chokes out.
Kolya sighs. “Is life,” he says. He’s so tired.
“I thought—“ Nick says. His voice is soft. “I mean, I figured it was because you’re gay.”
“That too,” Kolya admits, “I know I like boys, I know it has to be hockey, have to be best, get to NHL, to America. Not safe in Chelyabinsk,” he says.
Not safe anywhere in Russia, but especially not in a city like Chelyabinsk, rural enough to be conservative, and large enough to lack a small town’s forgiveness of its black sheep.
And this is the hard part, but it’s like he’s unstoppered something, and he can’t stop talking now. Kolya hopes Nick doesn’t hate him for this. Kolya hates himself enough for both of them, maybe.
“You want I tell you how I learn it’s not safe?” Kolya asks. “How I know I have to leave Chelyabinsk?” Maybe Nick will say no, and Kolya can change the subject. He can’t even tell if he wants that, he’s so mixed up right now.
“Yes,” Nick whispers. He takes Kolya’s hand.
“A boy in my school, younger than me, he looks too soft, no girlfriends, likes playing music, drawing,” Kolya says, closing his eyes. He hasn’t thought about Artemi in years, has kept this bottled up where it can’t hurt him anymore. “Boys on hockey team,” Kolya says, “they call him goluboi, throw rocks at him, beat him behind school little bit at first, then more and more.”
Artemi had beautiful green eyes, Kolya remembers suddenly, long lashes, and delicate wrists, and one day Sanja had stepped on his hand, broken his fingers and his wrist while Kolya watched, too scared to do anything else.
“God,” Nick says. “Kolya.”
“I watch,” Kolya says, and his voice is small and scared. “I see them kick him in stomach, one day they break his hand, and I don’t stop them, not ever.”
Something wet tracks down his face, and Kolya realizes he’s crying.
Artemi had been so beautiful, and Kolya had stood by while they ruined him, seeing himself on the ground with every blow. He bites back a sob, only half-successful.
Nick’s arms are around him, all of a sudden, thumbs smoothing across his cheeks. Kolya doesn’t open his eyes.
“Baby,” he says, “Mikushka.” He presses a kiss to Kolya’s forehead, climbs into his lap. “You were a kid,” Nick says.
“Sixteen,” Kolya says. “Old enough to know better.”
Kolya had been old enough to have scouts at his high school games, to know he might have a real future with hockey, if he didn’t screw things up for himself, if he didn’t want things he couldn’t have. Artemi had only been fourteen, almost fifteen. He’d killed himself on his fifteenth birthday, and Artemi’s mother hadn’t worn mourning black, not for a single day, not after what they’d found on his computer, in his suicide note.
“People like that are better off dead,” someone had said, loud enough to be heard in the crowd. “They shame their families.” Kolya had stood stock still, frozen like a rabbit before a hawk.
Kolya had kept a straight face through the entire school memorial service, standing with the rest of the hockey team, the whole school watching, and then had gone home and crawled into his mama’s arms and cried himself sick, guilty and terrified.
“I learned,” Kolya says, “blend in, be careful. Mama says always, be careful. Papa says no kids, I listen harder.”
“Oh, baby,” Nick says, and he wraps his arms around Kolya’s shoulders, his weight in Kolya’s lap grounding and reassuring. “That must have been so scary.”
“It was Chelyabinsk,” he says. “I grow up there, not know different.” He sighs, and he knows his English is slipping, but he just can’t care, not right now. “I — I am lucky, Nikashenka,” he says, “no one find out, beat me. Family not tell me I’m better off dead.”
“Oh,” Nick gasps, and it’s like he’s been hit. “Oh, Mikushka.”
“You see?” Kolya asks. “You ask before, why I not want more? What more can I want?” He pushes Nick back, looks him in the eye.
“Artemi,” he says, and Nick looks puzzled, “the boy,” Kolya says, “he killed himself, left a note. Said he was tired of being alone.” He blinks, crying again. “He was so beautiful, Nikashenka,” Kolya gasps. “He thought he was alone, and I was there the whole time they hurt him.”
Nick is crying now, too, petting Kolya’s hair.
“Mikushka,” he gasps, “oh, love. Oh, my love.”
Kolya holds on, and weeps harder than he has since he was sixteen, since he decided to be stronger than anyone else, since he promised his mama not to end up in a casket like Artemi.
Nick holds on, and when he’s done, Kolya feels lighter for it.
“Spasibo,” Kolya whispers, “sorry.”
Nick presses a kiss to his forehead and stands, petting Kolya’s shoulder when Kolya makes an abandoned noise. He comes back with a warm washcloth and wipes both their faces before climbing back into bed and aggressively spooning Kolya, lacing their fingers together over Kolya’s sternum.
“Love you,” Nick mumbles. “So much.”
Kolya falls asleep with Nick’s arms around him. If he dreams, he doesn’t remember it.
* * *
Nick’s uncle Jordan drives up a few days later in a pickup that looks like it’s seen better days, mud-spattered and clearly just hanging onto respectability.
“Jordy,” Michelle says, and shoos him into the house, taking a bottle of wine and a bakery box. “You didn’t have to.”
“No, Mish,” he says, pulling her into a hug, “but I wanted to.”
“This is Kolya,” Michelle says, “Nick’s friend, he’s visiting for a bit.”
Kolya wonders what Jordan makes of that, but Jordan just shakes his hand.
“You boys played well,” Jordan says, and Kolya wonders for the millionth time while all Americans are such polite liars.
“No,” Kolya disagrees, “we didn’t, but thank you.”
Jordan laughs. “Russian,” he says, shaking his head. “I forgot. And you’re right. You guys played tired, kid, but you might do better next year.”
Kolya nods, and lets go of his hand, steps back so Jordan can say hello to the rest of the family, but they’re hanging back, almost like this is some kind of interview for Kolya.
“Fewer injuries would help,” he says, not thinking about things too hard so he doesn’t freak out, and Jordan steps in and laughs.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Jordan says, “but my boys never want to wait long enough. The trainers have to sit on them to keep ‘em off the ice.”
“You help,” Kolya guesses, “Isabelle says you don’t let anyone skate hurt.”
“Well,” Jordan says, and there’s a wry twist to his lips. “Someone better learn from my mistakes, and my hip’s too busted for it to be me.”
“Go, go,” Michelle says, finally taking pity on Kolya, “there’s time before dinner, and I know you’re dying to catch the ‘Hawks.”
Nick pops open a couple of bottles of beer, and hands Kolya one on the way to the TV room, where he settles against Kolya’s side without hesitation.
“Damn,” Jordan says, when the ‘Hawks goalie stones a particularly hard shot with his head. “That kid better watch out, he’s gonna scramble his brains.”
“Goalie,” Kolya says. “He already crazy.”
Charles quirks a smile, and Nick pokes him.
“I’m telling Marc,” he threatens, and Kolya pulls out his phone.
“I’m tell him first,” Kolya says. “He be insulted you think he not crazy, you know Marc.”
Isabelle wanders in and perches on the edge of the couch. “Jason and Amanda are joining us for dinner,” she says at the end of the second period. “But they apparently got a sitter, so Abby and Lila will stay home.”
Jordan looks curious, and Isabelle shrugs. “Jason’s being a dick,” she says, waving a hand at Nick and Kolya. “Mandy’s trying to talk sense into him.”
“Huh,” Jordan says. “Let me know if I have to knock any heads together.”
“I think Emma has dibs,” Isabelle says, and bounces to her feet. “Sweet goal!”
Kolya watches the replay — it is a pretty sweet goal, just in under the left corner of the net, right over the goalie’s shoulder.
“You hurt my feelings, Iz,” he chirps, “now you like Senators better?”
“Just because you suck,” Isabelle chirps right back. “When you play better, I’ll like you better.”
“Isabelle—“ Nick starts, and Kolya laughs at the indignation in his voice.
“Fair deal,” he says, “we shake on it.”
Isabelle reaches past his outstretched hand and takes his beer. “We drink on it,” she says, and plunks down on the couch next to him, so Kolya is surrounded by her and Nick.
“You’re a good kid,” Jordan says in a quiet moment, as they players onscreen argue an icing call.
“I know,” Isabelle says, “I’ve got a good family.”
There’s weight there, but Kolya doesn’t want to think about it too hard, so he just steals his beer back from her, pokes her to make her squawk in indignation when she grabs Nick’s, which turns out to be empty.
“All right, you hooligans,” Michelle calls, “dinner time.”
Amanda and Jason are already seated in silence at the far end of the table. They don’t look up when Nick and Kolya come in. Kolya waits for Nick to sit before sitting next to him: at that gesture Jason’s lips go tight, but he doesn’t say anything.
Jordan sits at the only seat with no wine glass, and Kolya blinks, realizing Jordan didn’t take a beer, either. Jordan seems to notice, and he draws in on himself a little.
“I—“ Jordan looks at his water glass, toying with it.
He looks smaller than anyone with shoulders that broad has any right to do, the way Nick looks when they’ve fucked up a play and it’s lost them a game, the way Nick looked when he thought he’d lost Kolya’s friendship, standing bereft in Kolya’s doorway with a bottle of vodka and an apology on his lips.
“We all fuck up,” Kolya offers. “You’re not dead, you have chance to do better.”
“What do you know,” Jason says, malice in his words if not his tone, which is perfectly pleasant, “you’re not part of this family, how dare—“
“My uncle Gennadi made mistakes too,” Kolya says, “bad choices,” and he’s not speaking loudly, but there’s nothing soft about his voice right now. It feels strange to mention his uncle after so long, but Nick presses their knees together. Kolya continues. “He died when I was seven. He never got to see me play pro hockey.”
Jason opens his mouth, and Michelle glares at him.
“What was he like?” Isabelle asks.
Kolya shrugs, because there’s no way he’s telling these nice people that he thinks his only uncle was maybe a recruiter for human traffickers or drug dealer, nor that the calluses on his hands might well have fit a gun or a crowbar. Maybe he’ll ask his mama when he gets home. Maybe she’s been carrying this alone for long enough. Maybe it’s time to find out for sure.
“I don’t really know,” Kolya says, because that’s true enough. “I was a child. He gave me hockey gear and took me skating when Mama was sick.”
“That sounds nice,” Amanda says. “I know Nick loved skating with Uncle Jordan when he was little.”
“Always,” Nick says, and Jordan smiles, frank and relieved. Kolya bumps knees with Nick under the table in silent affirmation. “Always have,” Nick continues, “always will.”
Jordan smiles, and Kolya thinks he’s not imagining the way a little bit of tension seeps out of his frame at Nick’s words.
“Does Abby like skating?” Kolya asks Amanda, and he takes a fierce kind of pleasure in the tightness of Jason’s mouth.
“Loves it,” Amanda confirms. “She wants to be a figure skater, when she doesn’t want to be a goalie.”
“We could take her later this week,” Nick offers, “I’ve already got the rink booked.”
“Oh,” Amanda says, “no, you need to practice.”
“It’s okay,” Kolya says, partly to piss off Jason. It’s petty, but he’s not feeling particularly nice right now, not with how Nick’s shoulders have been tense all meal, with how rude Jason has been. “Is mostly a rest day, we can take her, give you a break.”
“I’ll come too,” Isabelle says, “take Lila, give you guys a day to yourselves.”
She and Amanda exchange a glance.
“If you really don’t mind,” Amanda says, hesitant. “That might be nice.”
After that the only thing that spoils dinner is Jason, but Kolya was expecting that, and at least he’s quiet now, his presence only a gap in the conversation until Amanda and Michelle stop trying to coax him into participation. Kolya ignores him, not bothering to be polite.
“Well,” Michelle says, after Amanda and Jason have left. She takes a breath. “Jordy, you’ll be in Nick’s room.”
Jordan blinks, but shrugs away his surprise.
“Sure,” he says, “that’s fine.”
“Great,” Nick says. He yawns obviously and Charles chucks him on the shoulder.
“Get to bed, son,” he says, “Isabelle and Mandy can help your mom clear up.”
Kolya heaves himself to his feet and follows Nick upstairs, nodding goodnight as they go. Nick shuts the door behind them and leans against Kolya, sagging slightly.
“Mmm,” he says. “Thank you. Glad you’re here.”
“Didn’t do anything,” Kolya says, and Nick kisses him.
“Yes you did,” he insists. “You helped.”
They strip in companionable silence, dropping dirty clothes in Nick’s open suitcase. Kolya reaches to turn off the bedside light when they’ve both climbed into bed, Nick on the side closer to the windows, because Nick likes that side of the bed better and Kolya doesn’t much care.
“Mmm,” Nick says, reaching out to stop him before Kolya can flick off the light. “Leave it on. Want to see you while you fuck me.”
And — oh. Kolya thought they were just going to sleep now, but that sounds better. Kolya has let Nick set the pace here at his parents’ house, because he knows they can be loud, and it’s a little awkward, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t want this, didn’t want Nick.
“Okay?” Nick asks, his voice warm, and he’s pulling back the sheets and shimmying out of his boxers. The bruises from Kolya’s fingertips are still visible on the cut of his hips, the curve of his ass. Seeing them sends a little shiver through Kolya. Kolya just rolls over and kisses him.
“Mmm,” Nick hums again, rolling his hips up against Kolya. “Good, get closer.”
“Quiet,” Kolya says, “or no coffee tomorrow, Isabelle hides it.”
Nick huffs a laugh, but he kisses Kolya quietly, tucks his fingers under the waistband of Kolya’s boxers and tugs without words.
“Impatient,” Kolya whispers, but he strips them off, then leans over to his suitcase and grabs the lube from where it’s hidden under his socks and out of plain sight.
“Maybe,” Nick says. He doesn’t sound sorry about it, but he doesn’t hustle things either, letting Kolya set the pace for once, slower and less frantic than Nick usually prefers.
When Kolya bends over him, Nick tips his head back, and Kolya kisses along the line of his neck, bites gently at the corded muscle where his pulse beats. Nick chokes back a gasp, and Kolya remembers that it’s okay. When he bites just a little harder, licks gently, and then sucks hard at the same spot, Nick whines and pushes up against him in obvious invitation.
Kolya pulls back, kisses down Nick’s throat to the dip between his collarbones and sucks on the delicate, fluttering skin there, brings one hand up to pinch a nipple. Nick’s not as sensitive here as Kolya, but he arches shamelessly into the touch, practically begging for more, so Kolya licks his way down then sucks hard just below the areola.
“Kolya,” Nick whimpers, “again.”
His face is flushed, head tipped back against the pillows, and Kolya loves when he looks like this, so he bends down again, sucks harder while he grabs Nick’s hip again, fingers placed just over the lingering marks from the barn. Nick’s hand flies to Kolya’s head, holds him close, but Nick doesn’t say a word, doesn’t tell Kolya what to do next. Kolya presses messy, biting kisses down the line of Nick’s ribs, petting the faint red marks with his fingertips as he goes, and Nick’s back arches into each touch, breath catching in his throat each time to tell Kolya he’s on the right track.
When Kolya reaches Nick’s belly his dick is curved hard and heavy against it and it jerks slightly when Kolya bites the arch of Nick’s hipbone.
“Please,” Nick whispers, voice rough. Kolya takes him in hand and rubs him gently, slowly, and Nick bites his lower lip, eyes squeezed tight shut. He doesn’t make a sound.
Kolya flails for the lube, and then urges Nick to turn over onto his belly so Nick can bury his face in the pillows, because Nick loves being fingered, and he’s never quiet about it, not even when they mean to be.
“Nika–” Kolya says, when Nick doesn’t move right away, still flat on his back. He’s gorgeous, and Kolya wants badly to watch him, but– “Turn, too loud.”
Nick goes over and up on his knees immediately, and Kolya strokes his own cock for a moment, lets himself look. Nick is all compact muscle, strong thighs and hockey ass and Kolya has to touch, has to bend down and push a slick fingertip in, gentle instead of fast and sudden the way Nick usually likes it. Nick buries his face in the sheets and presses against Kolya’s hand.
“More,” Nick gasps, muffled. Kolya teases him instead, dips one finger in and out, adds more lube until Nick is sloppy and squelching with it, until they’re both breathing heavily in the silence of the room. The quiet on the farm is deeper than Kolya’s ever heard before, no background city noise to distract from the two of them. It feels almost painfully intimate, and when Nick keens at a touch, Kolya takes pity and gives him another finger, then another, movements slow and deliberate.
“Blyad,” Kolya breathes, stretching out above Nick at last, chest against Nick’s strong back, one hand braced on Nick’s waist. “Going to feel so good, Nick, so good for me.”
“Shush,” Nick hisses, “fuck, Kolya.”
Kolya bites the meat of his shoulder, right on the line of the trapezius, and Nick shoves his face into the pillows again before pushing up on his elbows and rolling over on his back.
“Fuck,” Kolya says, reverent. There’s a trail of small, round bruises down Nick’s ribs, and his cock is flushed dark. “Nick,” he asks, “you–“
“I want to see you,” Nick insists, and adds, almost pleading: “I’ll be quiet, I’ll be so quiet.”
Kolya’s not sure either of them can be quiet, really, but he’s beyond caring at the moment. When Nick shoves a pillow under his hips and spreads his thighs, Kolya thrusts in three fingers to the knuckle, watching Nick’s expression the whole time. He’s been avoiding Nick’s prostate, keeping things slow and hazy, but now he brushes it and Nick bites back a whine.
When Nick rolls his hips in frustration, Kolya just follows his play, and when he presses in, slow, just the head of his dick, Nick bites the meat of his hand. His eyes are locked on Kolya’s, lids fluttering like they want to close, and Kolya slides in achingly gradually, lips pressed tight against a moan.
Kolya fucks him slow and deep, and Nick rocks up against him with little bitten-off gasps, falls apart so sweetly on Kolya’s cock.
“Fuck,” Kolya breathes, bending down to kiss Nick, “look at you, so hot.”
Nick whines, and Kolya grabs his hips to steady them, pushes in again, angling his hips to drag against Nick’s prostate in a teasing slide.
Nick bites his palm again and grabs Kolya by the back of his neck to pull him down into a sloppy kiss. Kolya goes easily, still thrusting slow and hard, and muffles Nick’s cries with his own mouth.
It’s not long before they’re panting against each other’s lips more than kissing, Kolya’s grip on Nick’s left hip slippery with lube and Nick trying to tip his head back. Kolya buries his face in Nick’s neck instead, presses gentle kisses there. When Nick starts making the familiar hitched noises that Kolya loves, Kolya nuzzles into his collarbone and speeds up just a little bit, encircles Nick’s cock with his still-slick hand and jerks him off, letting his thrusts move Nick against his loose grip.
It doesn’t take much: Nick twists his head to one side and shoves the meat of his hand into his mouth to muffle a yell as he comes between them, back arching under Kolya, who pauses to feel it. Then Nick’s hands are on Kolya’s back, his hips, stroking in encouragement.
“It’s good,” he whispers, and his voice is a little rough still, “so good, Kolya, keep going, want to see you come.”
Kolya sucks a mark into the side of his neck in retaliation for the words — Nick knows how words like that affect him — and fucks as slowly as he can bear, trying to make this feeling spool out for as long as possible.
It feels like forever and like not long enough when Nick buries a hand in his hair and whispers to him.
“So much,” Nick whispers, “god, Kolya, so much, so good. Come for me, Kolya, krasivyy.”
Kolya’s hips snap in once more, harder than he intended, and he’s coming, muffling himself in Nick’s collarbone and shoulder as he falls to pieces with Nick’s arm around his back and Nick’s hand in his hair. He slumps down over Nick, who accepts his weight without complaint as he always does.
Kolya is drifting when Nick rolls him over, but has enough sense to pull out carefully, mind hazy with post-orgasmic pleasure.
“You’re so useless,” Nick says, but he sounds fond, and pats Kolya’s belly as he stands and goes to the bathroom for a washrag. When he comes back he cleans them both up gently, and bullies Kolya under the blankets with him, Kolya content to be wrangled with word and touch so long as he ends up with Nick in his arms. Kolya drops into a deeper sleep than he’s experienced since getting to Minnesota, feeling Nick’s breath hot against his shoulder.
* * *
When Kolya comes out of the shower the next morning, there are voices raised downstairs. He towels his hair mostly dry, steps into yesterday’s jeans, and heads down, pulling on an undershirt and grabbing up one of the long-sleeve shirts Nick and Isabelle were totally right to insist he buy.
“—didn’t bother to tell me,” Jason is saying, quiet and conversational, as if the words coming out of his mouth aren’t pure poison. Amanda is frozen before him. Nick is white as a sheet, unmoving. “Anything else you should tell me before you hand my kids over to your fag brother?” Jason asks. He might be asking after the weather.
“Out,” Kolya says, shoving between Jason and the Larsson siblings. He doesn’t know where everyone else is, but he doesn’t much care, not when Nick is frozen like this, hand clapped to his neck to hide something.
“Who the fuck are you–” Jason’s face is suddenly ugly. “Just Nick’s teammate, my ass.”
“Also boyfriend,” Kolya confirms, “you want other words?” He stares down at Jason. “Maybe start with pedik,” Kolya says, “I hear that one a lot growing up.” He pauses, shrugs. “Limp-wrister,” he offers, “shirt-lifter, cocksucker, faggot. You want I go on?”
Jason stares at him, shocked.
“You think you want to hurt someone,” Kolya says, “you hurt first me.” He tips his head toward the door. “You want to take this outside?”
Nick’s hand on his shoulder brings Kolya back to himself. “Kolya,” he says, voice soft, “Mikushka, don’t.”
“Should have known he’d be the girl,” Jason mutters, and Kolya sees red.
He’s punched Jason in the face before even thinking about it, before Nick can stop him. Jason rocks back on his heels, head slamming against the door like someone going up against the boards, and Kolya has never been so viciously proud of a hit.
“Mandy,” Nick says, “maybe you two should go for now.”
“Yeah,” Amanda says, “I–” she looks helplessly between her husband and her little brother. “Jason,” she says, “let’s go.” He opens his mouth, and she glares. “Not one word,” she says. Her voice is as steely as her mother’s, and Jason slumps, puts a hand to his bleeding nose.
They leave, and Kolya shakes out his fist in disgust. “Tea,” he says. “Too early for this shit.”
Nick stares at him, and bursts out laughing, high and slightly hysterical.
“Wow,” Emma says from the next room, “Kolya, I think you broke him.”
“That was Jason,” Kolya says, too on-edge to be gracious. “Your brother-in-law’s an asshole, you know?”
He walks into the kitchen, leaving Nick and Emma alone in the entry. Michelle is making bacon at the stove. “Tea?” she says, and gestures at the kettle.
“You hear that?” Kolya asks, heading for the stove.
“Enough,” she says. “You care about him very much.”
“Yes,” Kolya says. “Enough to tell him the truth, even when it’s hard.”
“I suppose I deserve that,” she allows, though Kolya meant about his uncle, about himself. “Kettle’s on the stove, Isabelle put jam on the counter.”
Kolya makes a mug of tea, and Nick doctors a cup of coffee in silence while Michelle finishes the bacon.
“Saw Jason leaving in a hurry,” Jordan says, stepping in and unlacing his boots. “He slam his face in a door?” His tone is casual.
“I punched him,” Kolya says. Several sets of eyes settle on him. “He insulted Nick,” Kolya says, and takes a piece of bacon from the stove. Michelle doesn’t stop him.
Silence reigns in the kitchen for a moment.
“He’ll be fine,” Kolya adds, because it’s really quiet. “It’s probably not much broken.”
There wasn’t enough of a crunch. Jason cringed away too hard for that.
“Well,” Charles says finally. “Can’t say I saw that one coming, but the boy’s certainly earned it.” He pours a mug of black coffee, and looks at Kolya. “You keep standing up for Nick like that,” he says, “we’ll get on fine.”
“Nick can take care of himself,” Kolya says, fiercely loyal.
“Sure” Charles says, “and I can check on the hogs alone. Doesn’t mean some help isn’t welcome once in a while.” He shrugs, hands the coffee to Jordan, and pours another mug for himself.
And that, apparently, is that.
* * *
Amanda brings Abigail over a little later while they are still sitting around the table for breakfast, and Kolya stays in his seat while Nick and Amanda have what sounds like a tense conversation in the kitchen.
“Can we go skating?” Abby asks. She’s dressed for it, just missing skates, helmet and maybe a jacket.
“I hope so,” Kolya says. He’s not sure what her mother is discussing with Nick. “You like skating?”
“It’s the best,” Abby says, and launches into a story about skating camp, or maybe it’s just a birthday party: Kolya can’t quite follow the rapid-fire excitement.
“Abby,” Amanda says, appearing in the doorway. “Uncle Nicky is going to take you skating. You be good, okay?”
Abby nods in excitement and runs to Nick, who is standing next to his sister now.
“You want to come?” Kolya asks, looking at Nick’s uncle. “Can keep up with Abby?”
There’s a moment of silence, and Kolya wonders if chirping Nick’s uncle’s skill at hockey was too much, too soon — some people are mean about injuries. He knows it was the right approach when Jordan grins, looking so much like his nephew that Kolya can’t help but smile back.
“You’re on,” Jordan says. “Two on two, loser buys lunch.”
When Kolya meets Nick’s eyes across the room, Nick smiles too, and Kolya thinks that maybe, just maybe, they can work this out despite Nick’s asshole of a brother-in-law after all.