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One May Hide Another

by Okō 織工

Nikolai Mikhailovich Kudryavtsev is drafted to the NHL in 2004 and signed to the New York Rangers.

His mama cries, because New York is an enormous city, so much larger than Chelyabinsk, and it’s halfway around the world, but she looks relieved, too, because her baby will be safer there, and they both know why. His father gives him a bone-cracking hug, like he’s forgotten all the reasons (the one reason) he doesn’t touch his son anymore. It’s not a perfect day, but it’s as close as Nikolai thinks he’s going to get, because they don’t live in a perfect world, and no one knows that as well as he does.

Then there’s an NHL lockout for the ’04-’05 season. Nikolai signs a two-year KHL contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk on the advice of his American agent, because he could probably afford to fly to New York, but his mother isn’t as well as she insists she is, and Nikolai knows they can’t afford the best doctors on his father’s salary. Besides, it means he gets to play hockey while he waits, and Traktor has good coaches, even if the ice is larger than he’s been training for, and the style of play in Russia is different than his American agent has been preparing him for. Nikolai has always been adaptable, tall and fast and lean on the ice, and the Russian style of play suits him, so he tries not to worry.

He doesn’t even think about it when the Traktor team manager, Evgeny Korotkov, takes all the players’ passports before they go to a KHL game in the Ukraine, because he’s seen his teammates lose the weirdest shit — Val actually lost one of his skates before an away game a few months back, and that’s the craziest thing Nikolai has ever heard.

But then the other players, the ones who didn’t sign with the NHL, get their passports back, and Nikolai doesn’t, not for months. He’s not stupid enough to ask for it back outright, and but he sees Korotkov looking at him sometimes, more often after the NHL lockout ends, and Nikolai starts to worry.

“Oh, baby,” his mama says, when he tells her his worries in person, unwilling to talk about this over even a burner phone, because he thinks their phone at home might be bugged, and this isn’t something he’s willing to risk. “You are too trusting by half, Kolya.”

But she folds him into a hug, tucking her head against his collarbone, and he wishes for a small, weak moment that he was still shorter than her, could still fold himself up into her embrace and feel surrounded the way he did when he was a boy.

“We’ll figure it out, my love,” she whispers against his shoulder, and he hopes she’s right.

America has always been their plan, ever since Nikolai woke up one morning and had the courage to tell her the truth about him, that he’d never bring home a nice girl and give her the grandchildren he knew she wanted. She’d wrapped him up in her arms and cried, and told him never to tell anyone else, because it wasn’t safe. Then she told him that she loved him more than anything, and kissed his cheeks and made his favorite meals for a month, even when they weren’t in his diet plan.

In the end, Nikolai doesn’t get his passport back until nearly two years later, and only after he’s signed another, longer contract to play for Traktor. No one threatens his family: no one has to. Nikolai knows his mother’s health is fragile, knows the team has access to better doctors than his father can afford on a bottom-rung civil servant’s meager salary. There are even better doctors in New York City than in Chelyabinsk: Nikolai knows how to use a VPN, knows what he could afford on an NHL player’s salary, but he can’t sign with the Rangers without a passport.

It’s all very polite, very above-board, and Nikolai thinks he might crush under the pressure even as he picks up the pen to sign his life away.

“You are too kind,” his mother says when he tells her, because she is not a fool. Her mama survived Stalin. She knows why Nikolai signed the contract, and she knows better than to thank him.

Nikolai can’t meet her eyes, so he just helps her make an enormous batch of pelmeni. He and his father drink their way through most of a bottle of vodka that evening, and Nikolai doesn’t remember if they said anything, but he feels lighter for it. Sometimes the safest way to have a conversation is without words. Nikolai may be a fool, and he may be too trusting, but even he knows that much.

So Nikolai takes his paycheck from Traktor, and Nikolai buys a house for his parents, a new car, extravagant gifts of jewelry and watches that are fitting purchases for a nineteen-year-old with more money than sense. He dances with girls at clubs, goes home with some of them, downloads English podcasts onto his phone, and tells himself it will be enough.

Sometimes he even almost believes himself.

* * *

Nikolai’s chance comes hand-in-hand with the 2006 season’s training camp, which is in Finland. Korotkov collects the team’s passports again, but has to give Nikolai’s back for long enough to pass customs, even just going into Finland.

When Korotkov rounds up passports again at the airport, Nikolai is in the bathroom, on the phone with his American agent. Robert speaks good Russian for an American, and he knows training camp is in Finland. He has a ticket to New York City ready for Nikolai, just in case.

“I have travel insurance on the tickets,” Robert tells him. “You don’t have to do this. It won’t be easy.”

But Nikolai does have to do this, because the NHL has always been his dream, and because his mother isn’t getting better, and because he’s heard the whispers in the wind. Being a queer hockey player in America won’t be safe, but he won’t be arrested for it.

“I do,” Nikolai says, using the English he has been practicing with his phone. “I want play NHL hockey.”

Robert takes a deep breath, as if he needs steadying, as if he is the one crouched on a toilet seat in a tiny stall at the Helsinki airport waiting to be strong-armed back to Chelyabinsk for the rest of his life.

“Then we’ll do it,” Robert says. “I’ll meet you in Helsinki.” And there’s hotel information in Nikolai’s email, somewhere downtown, away from the airport. “Be careful,” Robert says, as if Nikolai needs reminding. Leaving the bathroom stall is one of the scariest things Nikolai has ever done, but he gets a cab to the hotel and locks himself in the room to wait.

Robert meets him after midnight, texting Nikolai to let him know he’s at the door, and takes him to the American Embassy the next day. There’s a lot of very fast-paced English and even more paperwork, and Nikolai lets it wash over him and tries to remember all the reasons he has to do this.

Nikolai arrives in New York City six days later with a backpack that contains a change of clothes, his passport, his laptop and his phone. He has the worst headache he has ever had in his entire life, hasn’t slept in more than a day, and everything is too loud, too bright, too American. When the sign with Nikolai’s name on it is in Cyrillic, Nikolai almost weeps in relief at that tiny familiarity.

* * *

Nikolai has never had a host family before, only lived with his parents and on his own.

The Bykovs embrace him at JFK like a long-awaited son. Yulia exclaims over how tall he is, how hard the flight must have been on his long legs and her daughter Ekaterina hugs him from Yulia’s arms. Nikolai lets the Russian wash over him and just tries to stay awake while Robert watches them carefully. Thankfully Yulia doesn’t seem to expect much in the way of response from him so long as he lets her fuss as she shepherds him into the car where his future teammate, Sergei, is waiting for them.

The Bykovs live in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, in a stand-alone duplex that has a driveway and an actual back yard.

“You’ll be in here,” Yulia says, leading him up the interior steps to a large bedroom with an en-suite bathroom. “It’s not fancy, but —”

“It’s more than we had growing up in Russia,” Nikolai assures her, because he grew up in a two-room apartment. Having a room of his own is still a novelty: a bathroom of his own is almost impossibly much. His teammates in Chelyabinsk called him a mama’s boy for living with his parents for so long, but it was a good enough disguise, until it wasn’t. Then he’d moved out.

Yulia shakes her head and pulls him down to press a kiss to his forehead.

“You’re a good boy, Kolya,” she says. “Come down for dinner in fifteen minutes, yes? Don’t fall asleep.”

The shower wakes him up a little bit and Nikolai feels almost human when he goes down to the kitchen, where he is matter-of-factly handed a sleeping baby and told to sit down before he falls over.

“That’s Anya,” Ekaterina informs him, tugging at his free hand with a very solemn expression on her sprite-like face. “I’m Katya. Mama says you came all the way from Russia!”

“Ekaterina Sergeevna!” Yulia chides. “Don’t bother Kolya, he’s tired.”

“It’s all right,” Nikolai assures her. He’s always liked children, even if he doesn’t often get to spend time with them, even if he won’t ever have any of his own. “Have you ever been to Russia?” he asks Katya, and she settles on his knee and chatters eagerly about their last trip to Moscow, about meeting her grandmama and grandpapa.

“I met them before,” she says, “but I was a baby, like Anya.”

“So small!” Nikolai exclaims, looking back and forth between the two of them with an expression of exaggerated surprise. “No, Katya, you’re wrong. You were never so small!”

Katya giggles, like he’s just made a wonderful joke.

“I was!” she insists, and stands up in his lap, narrowly avoiding stepping somewhere very uncomfortable. Nikolai winces, but she seems entirely unaware. She balances barefoot on his thighs with a hand on his shoulder for balance and pokes her sister on the cheek. “I was even littler,” she says. “Mama says I was tiny!”

“I don’t know,” Nikolai says, forcing a dubious tone into his voice, because she’s just plain adorable when he teases, “your sister is pretty small.”

“You’re fooling with me!” Katya says. She sounds delighted, and plops down in his lap again. “You’re funny, Kolya.”

Yulia brings heaped dishes over to the table just then, and Sergei pulls Katya away.

“Let Kolya eat,” he chides, when she fusses, and Yulia takes Anya, who is stirring fussily.

“Anya’s hungry too,” Katya says, from the seat next to Kolya. “But she doesn’t get solid food yet, so mama feeds her.”

Kolya is so tired that it takes him a minute to understand what she means.

“Do you mind?” Yulia asks, already unfastening her shirt, and Sergei looks to the ceiling as if asking God for patience with his beautiful wife.

Nikolai shakes his head hurriedly.

“She’s just a baby,” he says, and maybe if he were more awake he could make more sense, but it’s like all of his hours of alertness have caught up to him all at once and are clouding his mind. “I mean, no.”

He shrugs, feeling awkward, and Katya starts chattering at him again, something about how Anya is the best baby. Nikolai looks away from Yulia and Anya, methodically empties his plate, and wonders if he’s expected to help clean up. Then Sergei is at his shoulder, pulling him to his feet.

“Come on,” he says, “you’re exhausted. Get some sleep.”

Nikolai has enough manners to thank Yulia for dinner and say goodnight before he allows Sergei to herd him toward the stairs. He stumbles into his room and is asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

* * *

Nikolai wakes in the late morning, and checks the time difference. It’s early evening at home. Nikolai dials a number he can only use once, and his heart rises into his throat while he listens to it ring. Finally his mama picks up the phone.

“Kolyushka,” she says, and she sounds so scared that he almost forgets to breathe.

“Yes, mama,” he says, “it’s me. I’m all right, mama. I’m in New York now.”

“Thank god,” she breathes, and if there’s a little sob in her next breath, well, neither of them are going to mention it.

“I have a host family,” he says, but he won’t say who, because perhaps he’s too scared, to give his mama a burner phone and instructions on how to break a SIM card, but perhaps not, and he doesn’t want to be stupid again, like he was when he gave away his passport. “They’re kind, mama. They have two little ones.”

“Oh, Kolyushka,” she says, “I’m so happy to hear your voice. Tell me about them.”

So Nikolai tells her about dinner, about the house and the drive and a little bit about the flight, about getting through London customs with his English, because he knows she’ll be proud. He doesn’t tell her about hiding in the airport bathroom, or about almost throwing up on the plane to London, because he was so scared. She doesn’t ask. When he runs out of things to say, he just listens to her breathe for a moment.

“I have to tell them,” he says, after a moment.

They have children, he doesn’t have to say, they deserve to know because they have children.

Nikolai knows America is different from Russia. He knows not all gay men are pedophiles, because he isn’t one, but he won’t start on false pretenses. If he has to get his own apartment because the Bykovs don’t want him around their children, it will be easier to find one now than after he’s betrayed their trust. It will be easier to play with Sergei if he only hates him for being gay, and not for putting his children at risk.

“Kolyushka,” his mother says, and she sounds gutted in a way he’s never heard before. There’s a pause where he feels like he’s not breathing. Her voice is very soft when she says, “You are a good boy, Kolya. Yes, you need to tell them.”

His breath catches in his chest, but he nods.

“I know, mama,” he says. “I promise. Do you want to talk to them? I think they’re home.”

“Yes,” she says, “I do. Your father isn’t home from work yet.”

It’s nearly seven at night, but sometimes they keep him late at the office to make a point, and the week after his son has fled the country, well, Nikolai can’t say he’s surprised to hear it.

“Tell him I love him,” Nikolai says, and pulls on yesterday’s clothes.

Sergei and Yulia are sitting in the kitchen with a pot of tea, and look over with wide smiles when he walks in. He holds out the phone in their direction.

“It’s my mama,” he says, and his throat closes up. “I can’t call again soon, but —”

Sergei takes the phone, and Yulia pats his shoulder before pouring him a mug of strong tea and pushing the jam his direction. The jam tastes different in the tea than he expects, sweeter, but he knows everything will be different now, so it’s just one more thing to get used to. He blinks back tears and drinks his tea while Sergei and Yulia put the phone on speaker.

“He’s a good boy,” his mama is saying, voice tinny over the phone’s speakers, and this might be the last time he hears her voice for months. Nikolai takes another sip of tea and squares his shoulders. “He’s never hurt anyone.” She pauses, then, because his mama always tells the truth, adds, “Except for playing hockey, but even then he doesn’t fight as often as some boys do.”

Yulia shoots him a puzzled look, and Nikolai shrugs. He knows what his mama is trying to do. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t.

“I have to go,” his mama says, “it’s telling me — Kolyushka,” she says, voice going fast before she gets cut off, “I love you so much, my darling. Worry about yourself, don’t worry about us —” and the phone goes dead.

Nikolai has grabbed for it before he knows what he’s doing, like holding his phone will bring his mama back.

Sergei and Yulia give him a moment, and Nikolai makes himself another mug of tea. He’s going to need it, to have this conversation. And if he’s about to be kicked out of their house, he can at least do it after a good night’s sleep, and with enough caffeine in his system to navigate the Roman alphabet in the subway and find his agent’s office.

“I need to tell you something,” he says, and he knows he should look up, but he can’t make himself meet their eyes. He bites his lip and folds both of his hands around the mug, which is twice the size of his mama’s cups and looks tiny in his hands.

“It’s why I had to leave Russia,” he tells the tea, and then, “I’ve never told anyone except my parents.” He can’t say it, can’t call himself a pedik, when he’s not, or even goluboi, which he is. He can’t substitute in the English words.

“I like men,” he says instead, voice so low they might not hear him. “I’ll leave if you don’t want me to stay here anymore,” he says, when there’s no response but silence. “You didn’t know, and you have the girls to think about.”

The silence is deafening for long enough that Nikolai forces himself to look up.

Yulia and Sergei look like he’s slapped them, her eyes wide in shock, his narrow in anger.

“I’ll —” Nikolai says and pushes his chair away from the table. “I’ll get my things.” He doesn’t know exactly where his agent’s office is, but he can read a subway map, and he has his phone.

“What?” Yulia shakes her head. “No, sit down.” He stares at her, and he doesn’t know what she sees in his face, but her expression crumples, and she stands up and pulls him into a tight hug. “You brave, stupid boy,” she says. “We don’t care about that.”

Nikolai rests his hands gingerly on her shoulders, not quite daring to believe her, and Sergei meets his eyes. He still looks angry, but maybe it’s not at Nikolai, because his expression softens. When Yulia releases him, Sergei stands and embraces him without hesitation. It’s so far from his own father’s reaction that Nikolai has to bite the inside of his cheek to hold back a sob.

“Now,” Yulia says, “sit down, both of you. We’re going to talk, but first—” she looks at Nikolai, “first you’re going to eat something.”

The bowl of kasha she puts in front of him is so large Nikolai almost protests. Instead he eats the entire thing.

“You thought we’d be angry,” Yulia said. She sounds disbelieving, and Nikolai ducks his head. She sounds offended, as if Nikolai has insulted her.

“I’m sorry,” he says, not entirely sure what he’s apologizing for.

“That explains why your mama said you’d never hurt anyone,” Sergei says. He seems genuinely puzzled when he asks, “Why did you bring up the girls?”

“I can hear what people say,” Nikolai says, and he has to look down at the bowl in front of him. “About people like me.” He swallows back a lump in his throat, because maybe they haven’t put it together yet. “And children.” He forces himself to look at Yulia, because she’s less intimidating right now.

“When they say all gay men are pedophiles,” Sergei says, and the words sound flat in his mouth. He sounds angry again.

“Well,” Yulia says, and she sounds practical more than anything else, “Are you?”

“No!” Nikolai says, and he stares up at her, horrified. “They’re — they’re children!” The thought makes him feel physically ill.

“Then,” Yulia says, “I don’t see what they have to do with it.”

There doesn’t seem to be a good way to admit that his father wouldn’t let Nikolai participate in the younger children’s hockey clubs or events after he found out, even though Nikolai was only thirteen at the time, that he hasn’t been allowed to be alone with anyone very much younger than him in nearly seven years, for his own good.

Yulia sees something in his face, because she clasps his hand between hers.

“Kolya,” she says, “you didn’t need to tell us, but thank you for trusting us.”

When the baby monitor crackles a moment later, Nikolai thinks he’s never been so grateful for an interruption in his whole life.

* * *

Katya gets home from school early that afternoon and promptly demands that Nikolai pick her up and parade her around the house on his shoulders, because then she’s the tallest. Yulia takes pictures with a fond smile, and Sergei gives him a thumbs-up and a goofy grin, and Nikolai starts to feel some of the fear unclench from around his heart.

The next weeks are a whirl of meetings and paperwork and lawsuits, of practices and meeting people and gearing up. Yulia plays fashion consultant, and Katya insists that Nikolai has to have a superhero t-shirt to match hers, and snuggles up on the couch with him to watch children’s television.

Nikolai supposes he should be embarrassed that Katya’s English is better than his, but she’s so delighted to play translator that he can’t help but find her charming. Besides, having her on his hip at parties is an excellent way to cheat in conversations that move too quickly. While he knows that hiding behind a four-year-old translator will come back and bite him in the future, probably at a terrible time, having a steady stream of whispered Russian in his ear is more comforting than Nikolai wants to admit. Sergei looks like he’s got Nikolai’s number, but Yulia just looks like she finds the whole thing adorable, so Nikolai gets away with it for now.

There’s just one problem: the Rangers already have another Nicholas on the roster. (There are so many problems Nikolai can’t even begin to count them: this one he can handle.)

Nicholas Larsson is two years younger than Nikolai, is from Minnesota, and also plays center. He’s shorter and broader than Kolya, blond and blue-eyed and shockingly Scandinavian. He went to some fancy American boarding school to play hockey, and played semi-professionally before the NHL, and Nikolai has seen his game tape: Nicholas is really, really good.

They’ve just really got to figure out the name thing, because American nicknames are stupidly limited.

“Nick!” someone calls, and Nikolai and Nicholas both whip around in response. Nicholas catches a Gatorade just before it smacks him in the face, and Nikolai goes back to unlacing his skates.

“Man,” Carter says, as what seems like half the locker room bursts out laughing, “that is never not going to be funny!”

Goalies, Nikolai thinks for the millionth time, are crazy.

It might be funny, if it weren’t screwing up their passes on the ice, if it weren’t making their teammates unsure who the coaches are talking to or about. ‘Nicholas’ and ‘Nikolai’ don’t sound that alike to Nikolai, but it’s his name, and he’s listening to everything so carefully right now, stupidly proud of himself when he gets half the words in a sentence without Sergei’s help.

Nikolai wants to say It’s not funny, because it’s confusing the fuck out of you assholes, and you’re playing for shit because you keep mixing us up. What he knows how to say in reasonably grammatical English is shorter.

“Not funny,” he says, glaring in the direction the Gatorade bottle came from. “Not funny, because make bad hockey.”

“He’s right,” Nicholas says, putting the cap back on his Gatorade bottle. “I don’t care what you call me,” he says, “but this has to stop.” Then Nicholas seems to realize what he’s said, how he’s left himself open to world-class chirping. “I mean, obviously I care, but whatever, use my middle name.”

“Jordan?” Marc says. “Dude, you hate —”

“It’s fine,” Nicholas snaps, “we can’t have two Nicks, that’s fucking confusing.” He quirks an eyebrow, and continues, “I mean, if you guys could keep your passes straight normally, maybe you could handle something this easy …”

Marc grabs him in a headlock, and one of the older guys breaks them up before it gets too out of hand.

“Is okay?” Nikolai asks, sliding next to him on the bench, because Nicholas doesn’t look happy about this. “I Kolya at home,” he offers.

“It’s fine, man,” Nicholas says, “you know the guys can’t pronounce Russian for shit.” it doesn’t sound like it’s fine, and Nikolai decides to pull Marc and Carter aside, maybe Sergei and Valya, get them to agree. He knows Valya and Sergei can pronounce a Russian nickname, that can’t be what this is about.

“So,” he says, “you name Nicholas Jordan Larsson?” The way Americans name their kids is still weird, but it’s one of the less weird things he’s getting used to, all things considered.

Nicholas grimaces.

“After my uncle,” he says.

Nikolai nods, but he doesn’t really understand, except that Nicholas doesn’t want to talk about it. He makes a mental note to figure out who Nicholas’s uncle is later, if he remembers. Maybe Sergei knows.

“Okay,” he says instead of pushing. “I Nikolai Mikhailovich Kudryavtsev. My father Mikhail. You say Kolya.”

Nicholas’s mouth moves like he’s trying to echo Nikolai’s name. It’s unexpectedly adorable, and Nikolai has to think very hard about the time when he was twelve and tried to do his parents’ laundry, because maybe New York City is safe for people like him, but hockey players definitely aren’t, and popping a boner in the locker room is really not okay.

“Kudryavtsev,” Nikolai repeats. “Is okay, Russian names too hard for American tongue.”

“What?” Nicholas sits bolt upright, as competitive about pronunciation as Nikolai has ever seen him get about hockey. “No way, now I totally have to get it.”

He really doesn’t get it, even when Sergei comes over and pretends to help. It’s hilarious, and it’s the best time Nikolai has had without a four-year-old translating since he got to New York City.

After that, it’s the least he can do to get all the guys to call him Kolya, so Nicholas gets to stay Nick. He forgets to ask about Nick’s uncle.

* * *

Kolya’s first game in Madison Square Garden is terrifying. It’s amazing. It’s huge and open and tiny and compressed. It’s a stadium larger than any he’s ever played in before, and it’s ice smaller and more violent than he’s ever skated, and he gets a goal and an assist and they win in overtime.

“Rest day tomorrow, so we’re going out!” Carter calls in the locker room afterwards, because goalies are crazy, but apparently everyone else knew to bring clothes fit for clubbing with them to an evening game. Kolya edges towards Sergei and wonders if he can just go home and watch Sesame Street, because that seems like his level of English right about now, and some of that must show on his face.

“What, seriously, chickening out on us?” Marc asks, and ruffles Kolya’s hair.

“Nothing for wear,” Kolya tries. It might work.

“All hands on deck,” Marc calls, which makes no sense, because no one’s getting decked, there’s no one around he’d want to punch. Marc follows it up with something in swift French — at least, Kolya hopes it’s French, because he’s pretty sure he’s not that tired yet — and the French-Canadians on the team swarm around him.

“Back — go,” Kolya says, making a shooing gesture with the hand that isn’t grabbing his towel, because he’s just out of the shower and the towels here really aren’t made for hockey players’ thighs, and they’re crowding way too close for comfort.

“Okay, back off, give Kolya some space,” Marc calls. He looks over at Sergei and winks. “We’re taking him out tonight,” Marc says, as if Kolya isn’t even there, and Kolya takes the opportunity to haul on his jeans, thankful he isn’t doing media yet, didn’t have to wear a game-day suit.

But when Kolya goes to pull on his polo shirt, Chris stops him.

“No way, man,” he says, and holds out a tiny black t-shirt. “Try this.”

Kolya gives Chris his best unimpressed look, and Chris just stares back, so Kolya throws his hands in the air and huffs in exaggerated disdain. When he pulls on the shirt it’s definitely too small, the v-neck low enough that his necklace almost falls out, but Chris just looks him up and down, reaches up to ruffle his hair, and nods.

“Yeah,” he says, “you’ll do. Kind a metrosexual European look, that’s gonna work for you.”

Not two of those words together made any kind of sense to Kolya, but he’s been learning how to pick his battles, and on the scale of things he doesn’t understand, this really doesn’t rate.

They pile into cabs — three full-grown hockey players in the back of a New York City yellow cab is an experience Kolya hopes he never gets used to, but suspects will become normal — and get off at a corner with a parking lot, somewhere south of the Garden.

“Okay, rookies, we’re gonna buddy up,” Carter says on the sidewalk. “Both Nicks, you’re mine tonight, don’t go home without checking in with me.”

“Like little Nicks ever goes home with anyone?” Valentin cat-calls, and Nicholas flushes. He doesn’t like the nickname, but it’s more than that, to get this reaction out of him.

“Valya stupid,” Kolya says, quiet, because he has no intention of going home with anyone either. He picked up enough girls for the sake of appearances in Russia to last the rest of his life. Kolya knows he’ll have to pick up girls again sometime, but he isn’t going to think about it tonight.

“Go home,” Kolya adds, because Nicholas looks confused. “Not go home, who cares.” That’s not what he wanted to say, but he thinks it’s close enough, because Nicholas’ shoulders have settled a little bit.

They walk a half block across frankly dangerous sidewalk to a bar with tall windows and a signboard out front proclaiming pre-game half-price drinks for anyone in Rangers gear.

“We carded?” Kolya asks when he sees the bouncer at the door, because America is stupid about many things, and their drinking age is one of those things.

“Man, you serious?” Carter demands, “no way.”

“Carts’ buddy owns this place,” Marc says, when Kolya looks dubious. “Don’t go to the bar, but they won’t care if you’re discreet about bogarting someone’s drink at the booth.”

Goddamn English, Kolya thinks, and some of that must show on his face, because Nicholas takes pity.

“Do what I do,” he says, and the bouncer waves them in, and back to a booth that’s been roped off.

Nicholas slides into the back corner, and Kolya follows. The screens above the bar are showing the Sharks-Oilers game in San Jose, thank god — Kolya knows New York isn’t a huge hockey town, but this bar seems like an exception, and he doesn’t like seeing himself on television when he’s in public, doesn’t like the girls that attracted in Russia. Maybe it’s different in New York, but he doubts it.

“You don’t have to hide back here,” Nicholas says.

“I just do what you do,” Kolya says, spitting Nicholas’s words back at him with his best kicked puppy face, and Nicholas grins.

“You’re such a —” he starts, and shakes his head.

“Larsson—?”

“Call me Nick,” he says, “or Jordy,” because he still seems to think that Kolya wants to be called ‘Nick’ despite everyone’s best efforts to convince him otherwise. “Whichever,” Nicholas offers, “just don’t, like, stand on ceremony.” He must see that Kolya doesn’t understand. “To stand on ceremony is to be too formal,” he says, “like, calling me by my last name, it’s too formal.” He ducks his head, and mumbles something that Kolya doesn’t catch.

“Okay,” Kolya says, “I call you Nick, you call me Nick, we confuse team.” Nick looks up at him with a grin, and Kolya winks. “Is game,” he offers. “Yes?”

It confuses the hell out of the team, which is objectively hilarious and only gets funnier as they get drunker. Nick gets hammered on a couple of beers, while Kolya sticks to shots of shitty vodka and half-carries Nick out for some fresh air not long after midnight.

“That’s not how you’re supposed to pick up after a winning game!” Valya calls in Russian, “Kokochka, you disappoint me!” Kolya just gives him the finger without looking back.

“You can get him home?” Carter asks, and for all that he’s supposed to be looking after them, and probably would leave now if Kolya asked, he has a girl on his arm who looks happy to be there and Kolya knows he’ll never hear the end of it for cockblocking a teammate tonight. He likes his goalies happy, thank you very much.

“We good,” he says, “I sleep couch, make good Russian hangover breakfast.”

Someday, Kolya thinks, he’ll have a vocabulary that doesn’t sound like a cross between a pre-schooler and a locker room. Or maybe he won’t, if he keeps letting Sergei and Katya translate for him. Kolya makes a mental note to work on his English, because if he’s going to live in America for the rest of his life, he’s goddamn well going to be fluent in English. He’s already tired of people assuming he’s stupid, and it’s not even been three months.

“Breakfast?” Nick asks, perking up.

“First tell cab where you home,” Kolya instructs, pouring Nick into the back of a bright yellow taxi. “I stay with.”

Nick peers at him, but rattles off an address easily enough and settles, boneless and trusting against Kolya’s side.

And, oh, Kolya thinks, feeling Nick’s breath hot against the skin of his neck, but this could get to be a problem.

* * *

After that, Kolya starts looking for a small apartment of his own in lower Manhattan.

Kolya loves the Bykovs like a second mama and papa, and little Katya and Anya are dear enough to his heart that he’s rescued Katya from the path of a bike messenger more than once, but he knows that if he stays in Sunset Park he’ll never learn English, not when all the signs are in Cyrillic and Katya’s so willing to play translator, and Yulia’s parents are just next door to fuss over him and let Kolya fix the things Sergei forgets about and they won’t let him pay a handyman for, like changing light bulbs and tightening plumbing gaskets and fixing gutters. He’ll move after the season, he thinks, or after his twenty-first birthday, one or the other.

In the meantime, there’s always hockey, and there’s the team to hang out with, and then there’s the online college degree he starts working on in English in the spring semester, auditing a class on the Western classics and writing papers about them. He likes how quiet it is, how different from everything else he does, how it helps his vocabulary, even if he has to spend the a lot of his free time practically glued to a dictionary and google translate and ask Yulia to help him with his essays.

And there’s Nick, who is brilliantly, stupidly, amazingly good at hockey, who’s got a temper like a firecracker on the ice and can spot a flawed play from a mile away and never wants to stop.

There’s Nick, who skates like he was born on the ice, who fucking glows when he’s playing, like his white-blond hair is a halo, who says the perfect things to get the press to love him and is awkward and skittish around anyone not on the team.

There’s Nick, who sits in the booth at Warren 77 with Kolya and talks about his little sister, his family’s farm, whose vowels get longer and harder to understand when he talks about Minnesota.

There’s Nick, who never once picks up a girl, who can’t hold his liquor at all and whom Kolya usually ends up pouring into bed at the Brooks’s enormous apartment. Kolya never picks up a girl either, not really, but he dances with them, lets them kiss him in clubs, sometimes makes sure the younger ones with obvious fakes get home safe, and that’s enough for his teammates to leave him alone, thank god.

And at the end of most nights, there’s Nick, who never looks twice at anyone, but who folds so trustingly into Kolya’s shoulder when they’re in a cab on the way home, and whose breath is so hot against Kolya’s skin.

Falling in love with a teammate was never in Kolya’s plan, but there were a lot of things that weren’t in Kolya’s plan, and at least Nick is blind. Timmo and Carts brag enough for all of them in the locker room, anyway. Kolya is the safe one at clubs, the one who takes Nick home, and if Kolya cooks him breakfast that’s a little more than he’d do for himself, well, that’s the shape of their friendship, no questions asked.

If that’s all Kolya’s going to get, he’ll take it, and gladly.

It’s not safe to be around Nick too often, Kolya tells himself, and completely fails to stick to his resolutions when Marc or Carts pour Nick into a booth next to him.

It’s not safe to trust someone with this secret, Kolya reminds himself, and still puts his arm around Nick so he doesn’t fall over onto the girl Max is chatting up. It’s not safe, and it’s not smart, and Kolya left safe and smart behind a long time ago, knows exactly how long he can look at Nick before it’s weird, knows how Nick flushes when he drinks, gets a little petulant and a lot pliant when he’s drunk.

But that’s Nick, who never picks up at bars or clubs, who sometimes really does seem like he was raised by hockey, not by human beings. That’s Nick who never notices girls or guys, Nick who will buy a round for the team without a blink and never notices when someone smoking hot sends him a drink with an unspoken invitation attached, like he hasn’t spent more nights than they can count at Warren 77 being hit on by puck bunnies and cougars and even some really attractive men.

Kolya settles into the rhythm of it, and by the end of the first season, by the time they’ve gotten to Stanley Cup finals, first time the Rangers have gone that far in at least five years, well, there’s a pattern to things, a pattern to him and Nick, to this slow dance, whatever it is they’re doing.

* * *

They’re in D.C., and they’ve just won the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that’s when it all goes to shit.

“Oh, wow,” Nick says, leaning against Kolya at one of the club’s standing tables. There aren’t any booths in this club, and most of the guys are on the dance floor, looking anything from tragic to hilarious, all having a good time.

Nick wobbles, and Kolya loops an arm around his waist to steady him.

“Hey, mom,” someone calls, and Nick’s still with it enough to give Lars the finger and a glare.

“Fuck off,” Nick calls.

“That’s no way to treat the man buying you shots, momma dear!” Lars shoots back, and Nick shakes his head.

“They’re never going to let that go,” he says.

Kolya thinks it’s hilarious. Nick is totally the team mom, the one who always has extra vitamins and tissues, knows everyone’s schedule and superstitions. He’s not even captain yet, just one of the alternates, but they all know it’s a matter of time if he can keep his temper on the ice a little bit better, not throw down quite so often. Kolya has his doubts about that one, but he keeps them to himself.

“They know you care,” he says instead, and if he bends a little closer than he needs to, lets his lips brush the curve of Nick’s ear, well, he can blame the shots. It’s not like anyone’s going to blink to see Nick all over Kolya, not tonight or any other night. Kolya knows he should know better. But Kolya was so good, for so long, in Russia, and he’s only human. Helping Nick out hurts no one but Kolya, and he’s never been very good at protecting himself for his own sake.

Someday, Kolya knows, he’ll have to think about what this means, that he will lay down his identity and his dreams and sign with Traktor to keep his mama safe, that he’ll drop the gloves for a teammate, that he’ll run into New York City traffic for Katya, but he’s so foolish with his own heart. But tonight is not someday, and Nick is warm and relaxed against his side when Lars returns with a tray of what are probably terrible shots.

“Big Lars,” Kolya says, because alcohol is alcohol, “good man,” and reaches for the tray.

Lars pulls a face, but Kolya knows he actually really likes the nickname, even if Nick hates it.

It’s not Nick’s fault Lars is taller than Kolya and built like a brick shithouse, where Nick’s short for a hockey player. Nick could probably take Lars down, Kolya thinks, because Nick’s built like a soviet-era tank and he knows how to fight. He’s really fucking hot when he fights. And thinking like that will get him in trouble, so Kolya picks up two shots.

“One’s mine,” Nick protests, and Kolya holds them both up out of reach and untangles his arm from around Nick’s waist to bop him on the nose.

“Are mine,” Kolya says, “get own.”

Nick grabs two shots of his own, which is a spectacularly bad idea at this point in the evening, but Kolya isn’t the team mom, isn’t in charge of anyone’s drinking but his own. Apparently Nick can read his expression anyway, always the first to pick up on Kolya’s mood, always attentive to his team.

The whole team knows that Kolya is a terrible liar — he wears his heart on his sleeve, and his mood on his face, and if that’s because Kolya has only one secret he cares enough to keep, well, they never need to know that part.

“Fuck off,” Nick says, “you’re not the boss of me.”

He knocks the two shots back in quick succession, and Lars blinks and looks at Kolya, who shrugs.

One of the shots he picked up smells like vanilla vodka, which is an abomination Kolya likes to put on his list of Perfectly Good Things America Fucked Up, along with sour cream, Jello, and Americansky futbol, which is only halfway to hockey and all the way wrong.

“Ugh,” Kolya says, and puts it back on the tray, “nasty, not vodka.”

“Vanilla’s the best kind,” Nick says, and takes it away from him.

“Not yours,” Kolya says, “you had yours.”

“Uh-oh,” Carter says, coming over from the dance floor, “are mommy and daddy fighting?”

“Fuck off,” Kolya says pleasantly, “I no one’s daddy.”

“Not for want of trying,” Carter says, which makes no sense, but Kolya is too drunk to figure out that particular idiom.

“Oh, fuck,” Kolya says, because Nick has done the vanilla shot. “I hate you,” he says to everyone, and he glares at Carter. “You get real vodka, come back soon. This shit awful, not for people drinking.”

He puts the second shot down, too, because it smells like peach, what the actual fuck, America. Carter just laughs at him, but he heads for the bar. They’re not at a Russian bar, so the vodka is going to suck, but Kolya would rather drink vodka that doesn’t taste artificial coming back up, and not whatever plastic-bottle-shit they have in the well.

“Maybe Stoli,” Kolya calls after him, because they usually have that in America, and it’s not so bad. Nicky leans against his side, and Kolya’s heart does a not-entirely-unpleasant flip.

“I be back,” he says, and pushes Nick at Lars, who takes him with good grace. Kolya splashes cold water on his face in the bathroom’s tiny sink, and stares at his reflection. He reminds himself to behave himself, to keep his mama safe at home, keep the Russian media out of her life and the American media out of his own.

When he comes back, Nick is draped across Carter’s shoulders, and Lars and Marc are laughing.

“Kolya!” Nick announces, swaying slightly. “You went away.”

“I come back,” Kolya says, trying not to find Nick impossibly charming and failing, if possible, even more spectacularly than he usually does.

“Yes,” Nick agrees, and staggers back over to him, bumping his shoulder in what is probably supposed to be friendly solidarity and actually feels a little like getting hit by a freight train. Kolya likes it. “You did.”

Lars and Marc break out laughing again.

“They think they’re funny,” Nick says, whispering. “But they’re not.”

“No,” Kolya agrees, because making fun of his teammates is always entertaining. “We go now?” he asks, because he’s really ready to go back to the hotel, to stop torturing himself for tonight with things he shouldn’t want and can’t have.

“We just got here,” Nick protests, which isn’t true, and manages to drape himself even closer to Kolya. Nick’s handsy with everyone, Kolya knows, but he must have done something very wrong in a past life — in this life — to have earned this particular kind of hell.

Then again, if Kolya were straight, he probably wouldn’t even notice, he thinks bitterly, and takes one of Carter’s shots. He’ll have a hangover tomorrow, but they’re just flying, he can drink gatorade on the plane and growl at anyone who tries to talk to him.

Kolya jumps — actually jumps — when Nick’s hands invade his jeans pockets. He shoves Nick away, the gesture reflexive and way too hard, and Marc only barely catches him as Nick stumbles away.

Chert voz’mi—” Kolya spits, under his breath, and he knows his face is bright red. “What the hell, Nick.”

“Got your key,” Nick sing-songs, holding up two hotel keycards. “And mine.”

He sticks his tongue out and tries to put the keys in his pocket, failing hilariously. Kolya feels a familiar warmth bubble up in his chest, and knows he’s had way too much to drink.

“Now we can’t leave,” Nick proclaims.

Lars has almost fallen over, he’s laughing so hard. Kolya sighs, and tries to slow his heartbeat from a frantic, panicked tattoo to something that will let him breathe.

“You suck,” he says to all of them, and takes another shot and a glass of water. Apparently he’s not going anywhere any time soon.

“Careful,” Kolya says, a few minutes later, when Nick nearly hits his head on the table bending over to pick up the key card he just dropped. Nick just grins at him, bright and sunny and absolutely hammered.

“You very drunk,” he says to Nick, who has squirreled away the cards in one of his pockets. “We go now.”

“Hit it, Larsson,” Marc says, and dissolves in drunken giggles. “Chante la pomme!.”

“Fuck you,” Nick says, slurring only very slightly. “What did you say? Fuck you all, Canadians are crazy.”

“No fucking,” Kolya says, steering Nick towards the waiting cabs. “They too drunk to get it up. Come on, Nick.”

“Like you’re not practically Canadian,” Lars points out, “you’re from Minnesota, you dick.”

Kolya drags Nick out to the sound of Marc and Lars debating the merits of honorary-Canadianness and why Minnesota doesn’t count.

Nick and Kolya aren’t road roommates, but Kolya usually has Nick’s room key when they go out, because he’s the one who will have the dexterity to get the door open at the end of the night. Tonight Nick is trashed on shitty American beer and artificially flavored vodka, and only the fact that Kolya is completely insanely in love with him is making his breath even remotely tolerable.

“Nick,” Kolya says, when he’s pulled Nick out of the cab and has one arm around Nick’s waist, almost holding him up in the hotel hallway. He’s really glad they’re not more famous, because the pictures of this would be damning. “Key.”

“Mmmph,” Nick says, breath hot against Kolya’s neck, and Kolya is not going to dig in his pockets.

“You find key,” Kolya says, “you get water, sleep in bed. No key, stay in hallway, pictures on Deadspin.”

“You’re bossy when you’re drunk,” Nick slurs, but he shoves a hand between them and fishes a key out of his pocket on the second try. “There,” he says, and tries to put it in Kolya’s hand. He misses, but Kolya catches it. “Good catch,” Nick says, “good assist,” huffing out a laugh.

“Terrible assist,” Kolya says, “you almost drop key on floor.”

Kolya drags them to Nick’s room, gets the door open, and walks Nick over to the bed closer to the bathroom.

“No,” Nick whines, “window,” because he always wants the bed closer to the window, one of his myriad superstitions or preferences.

“You puke on Marc later, he very angry,” Kolya points out, leaning down to start to take off Nick’s shoes. “This closer to bathroom.”

This is nothing he hasn’t done before. It’s not the drunkest he’s seen Nick, and not the most handsy or bossy or petulant.

It’s nothing new, but Nick turns his head as Kolya straightens up, and their lips brush, and Kolya feels flame shoot straight down his spine. He should laugh it off. He should pull away. There are a hundred, hundred things he should do, and putting a knee on the mattress and reeling Nick in one-handed for a deeper kiss is nowhere on that list.

Nick makes a soft, punched-out sound, and the thing is — the terrible thing, the thing that will haunt Kolya’s dreams — is that Nick kisses back. His hands wind into Kolya’s hair, and he grabs just hard enough to make it even better, and Kolya lets Nick’s shoe fall from nerveless fingers, because he has to touch, he’s going to die if he can’t touch Nick now, when Nick is kissing him back like he — like he wants this, like he wants Kolya.

Kolya’s hand lands on Nick’s waist, and Nick pulls away from Kolya’s grasp like he’s been burned. Kolya’s heart stops beating.

“I—” Nick licks his lips, and Kolya tracks the motion with helpless eyes, because he’s already done the stupidest thing he can imagine, he can’t help himself. Nick looks seriously freaked out, is the horrible thing. Kolya figures if the friend he’d been relying on to keep him safe had just assaulted him when he was drunk, he’d feel pretty damn awful, and that’s the worst part, that Kolya’s probably lost his trust.

“I, um. I’m not —” Nick gestures between them. “I just don’t, you know.”

Kolya can’t help glancing down, and wishes he’d had more self-control. Nick isn’t even the least bit hard, and his jeans are so tight, god, tailor-made and sinfully skin-hugging, and he doesn’t want this at all. He doesn’t want Kolya at all.

“Is okay,” Kolya tells him, and his voice is steady even though he wants to scream. You kissed me back, he wants to say, and how can you be so fucking blind and I don’t understand. More than anything, that’s what he wants to say. Instead, he stands. “Sleep good, Nick.”

Nick nods, his expression completely blank, and Kolya flees to his room and paces and drinks what feels like gallons of water and tries not to think, not to feel, not to weep like a heartbroken child.

Nick is epically, disastrously hung over in the morning. Kolya smiles and sits with Lars on the plane, and plays cards and kicks Dan’s ass at HALO and resolutely doesn’t look at Nick, who is curled up with an eye mask and earplugs in the seat next to Marc, looking like he hates the entire world even in his sleep.

All right, so Kolya looks at him. He tries not to, at least. He tries. If Nick wants to pretend it never happened, well. Kolya’s heart may be breaking, and his stomach may be tied in knots, and he may want to vomit at the thought of all the things he’s screwed up, but Nick isn’t saying anything, isn’t outing him, isn’t going to get Kolya kicked off the Russian team for Worlds, or get the press involved.

And that’s all he’s going to get, so Kolya turns his attention back to HALO, and proceeds to kick Dan’s ass at King of the Hill with singular focus.

* * *

Kolya’s an idiot, because he honestly thought having his heart broken would make things easier to deal with. But Nick’s still there, still playing fucking gorgeous hockey, still lighting it up on the ice and taking unnecessary penalties when the other team makes comments about his mom or his sisters, still fuming and glorious in the penalty box with a bloody nose and bruised fists, and Kolya starts to think he’s never going to stop falling.

Nick never says anything about the kiss. Kolya would think he hallucinated it, except that he’d never be able to make up that look on Nick’s face, the way he’d looked horrified and scared and like the bottom had just fallen out of his world, never been able to imagine that Kolya would be the one to put that expression there.

They go out to a bar in Ottawa after the next round of the playoffs: it was a shut-out win, Marc blocked the other team’s shots like his life depended on it, like he was possessed by the ghost of goalies past. It should feel fucking amazing, celebrating that kind of win. Kolya got two assists, and they scored four goals, and a 4-0 win in the playoffs is incredible, even if the pressure’s going to keep going up.

Nick and Kolya take drinks from the older guys, because they’re old enough to play professional fucking hockey and get into it on the ice but not old enough to buy their own booze, what the fuck, America, and Nick slings himself against Kolya’s side like always, fits under Kolya’s arm like he belongs there, like it’s the most comfortable place in the world, like nothing has changed.

And Kolya’s heart just can’t take it.

“You get him back to hotel?” he asks Marc, nodding at Nick, who is slumped boneless in the booth, watching Kolya with a puzzled look on his face.

“Lover’s quarrel?” Marc teases, and Kolya forces his expression to go blank.

“You say that in Russia,” he says, “I never play again. Not a joke.” His tone is colder than he’s ever heard it before, and Marc actually takes a step back.

“Okay, man,” he says, “I get it, I was just kidding.”

Kolya doesn’t know what Marc sees in his face. He’s always too easy to read, always, except about the thing that matters most, but he thinks maybe he’s just fucked that up, too.

Kolya goes back to the hotel and drinks most of the minibar and passes out with his shoes on. It is not, all things considered, his proudest moment.

* * *

It’s easier to stay away after that.

If Kolya’s traitorous heart wants to get close, he just has to remember the look on Nick’s face, the pity mixed with something darker, something perilously close to loathing. They play fucking amazing hockey, they bring the Stanley Cup back to New York City, and they get drunk for a week.

Over the summer Kolya turns twenty-one, hooks up with a few nice boys who have no idea who he is, and breaks up civilly with one man who wants him to come out publicly. Maybe the NDA paperwork was over the top for a two-month relationship, but Kolya’s not taking any chances.

Kolya may be in America now, but he’s still a Russian NHL player, and he’s not stupid, not all the time.

Five more years of hockey means injuries and making the playoffs, and losing the playoffs, and making the playoffs again. It means learning how to hand off Nick-sitting at bars to the rookies, to the married guys.

Five more years is a long time to be in love with anyone, let alone a straight man who is probably New York City’s new favorite hockey player and also a teammate, but Kolya’s never been good at giving up on things he wants, even when he knows he can’t have them. Kolya will walk through fire for his teammates, drop the gloves against guys twice his size and win, but it turns out he can’t protect himself for shit.

2012 marks the year Kolya re-signs with the Rangers: eight more years. He finally convinces his parents to move from Chelyabinsk to a small house in Brighton Beach. It’s a lot to juggle, two online classes and a full season and his parents’ move. Kolya kind of forgets about everything else until Nick’s little sister, Isabelle, the one who wants to be an opera singer and who just moved to New York for college, the one Nick never shuts up about, shows up at practice when Kolya’s out with a tweaked knee.

From Nick’s descriptions, Kolya half-expected someone small, peppy, something like he thinks Katya is growing up to be. Instead she turns out to be Nick’s height, willowy to her brother’s square frame, and model-gorgeous with waist-length honey-blonde hair in a messy braid.

“Pleased to meet,” Kolya says from the bench, spoken English abandoning him the way it hasn’t in years, and shakes her hand. He’s pretty sure Nick’s going to kill him just for that, but then Tim skates to a theatrical stop before them in a flurry of snow, and Isabelle is cracking up.

“I thought you told me hockey players had no manners!” Isabelle yells at Nick, grinning wide and pointing at Kolya.

“Yeah, well,” Nick yells, shrug visible even through his pads, “that’s Kolya.”

The grin he flashes their way makes Kolya’s heart stop in his chest, it’s so beautiful, so full of unrestrained joy.

“Izzy,” Nick calls, “you good? We’re not quite done here.”

“Yeah,” Isabelle calls, “I’m good, I’ve got reading.”

She plops down on the bench next to Kolya. Kolya moves his melting ice-pack out of the way to make room for her. There’s a whole long stretch of bench, but she’s in arm’s reach.

“Your knee?” she asks, and Kolya nods.

“It’s kind of fucked,” he says, and then flushes, “but better soon.” It’s just a sprain, barely enough to take him out of practice, and that only because the coaches are really careful with knees after last season. Tim’s fine, now, but they almost lost him for the playoffs because he started skating again too soon, and he’s not their only defenseman, but he’s part of their first line for a reason.

“I bet you miss it,” she says, nodding at the ice. “Nicky was always a pain when he couldn’t skate, but Uncle Jordy was really strict about injuries, you know?”

Kolya thinks he’s heard that before, but Nick doesn’t talk about his uncle much, so he just nods, letting the words wash over him as he watches practice, aching to be out on the ice.

“Is frustrating,” he says, “but better not to skate now than not skate again ever.” He shrugs, and Isabelle punches him in the shoulder. It’s all too familiar, the kind of casual intimacy Nick trades with Marc and Chris all the time. The kind of gesture he used to share with Kolya, years ago. Kolya tells himself he doesn’t miss it.

Kolya has always been a terrible liar.

“I should do my homework,” Isabelle says, when Kolya doesn’t really reply to the hit. “Sorry, Nick’s a taskmaster, he’ll send me home if I don’t at least look like I’m working.”

Maybe it’s something about that apology. Maybe it’s that she sounds so much like Nick. He hasn’t told most of the guys he’s graduating college soon, because it’s just an online degree and because they’d make fun of him for majoring in literature. Whatever, he likes the reading, and it’s not like he needs a college degree to get a job, he already has a job.

“Me too,” he says, and gestures at his book. “I graduate soon, if I’m lucky.”

The book is a Russian novel he hasn’t read before, because high school in Chelyabinsk for professional-level hockey players was iffy at best. He knows he should be reading it in English, because he’ll have to discuss it in English, but he’s not above taking the easy way out from time to time, and he really needs a break this week, with all the extra time in PT appointments for his knee and helping his mom find doctors who have someone on staff who speaks Russian. He’ll read a fucking novel in his native language, thank you very much.

“What is it?” Isabelle asks, peering at the Cyrillic on the cover.

Eugene Onegin,” Kolya says. “Is novel by Pushkin, very dramatic.”

Isabelle beams at him, giving up all pretense of getting out her own work.

“We’re singing it!” she announces, and she’s almost bouncing in her seat. “Oh my god,” she says, “you’re Russian!”

This is so obvious as to make no sense, but over the last six years Kolya has learned that sometimes if he waits, people make more sense in English.

“You don’t have to say yes,” Isabelle continues, “but my vocal coach is shit at Russian, and the director keeps yelling at me. Can you help me with my pronunciation?”

And her face when she looks at him, then, that’s pure Nick, and Kolya has a moment to realize he’s so, so fucked, he’s in so far over his head, because he hears himself agree.

“Great,” Isabelle says, “can you come home with us after practice?”

And Kolya — because he is too trusting, still a fool, because he’s weak in the face of those blue-green eyes, so like her brother’s — Kolya says yes.

* * *

Kolya expects to wait for Nick after practice ends, but Isabelle’s phone dings.

“Nick says he’s got a meeting, like a suit-and-tie meeting,” she announces, “so I’m not gonna wait for him at the rink, it’s more comfortable at home. You still have time to come over? I’m making lasagna tonight, and, like, mountains of garlic bread, it’s going to be epic, you should stay.”

Nick’s beautiful opera singer sister cooks for him. Nick would be beating the team off with hockey sticks if they knew, if they hadn’t all had the “touch my little sisters and no one will ever find your body,” talk from Nick before his family visited for a game years ago, with the scary face Nick only makes when he’s about to really fuck someone up, leave someone else’s teeth on the ice.

It’s a good thing Kolya isn’t interested in women, he thinks, as they pile into a taxi, because Isabelle is going to be a heartbreaker, almost as oblivious as Nick and just as effortlessly gorgeous. Isabelle sits beside him chattering happily about how excited she is to be cast for the chorus in the opera, how hard Juilliard is, how one of her classmates is a total diva. Kolya lets the words wash over him, wondering what the hell he’s doing here.

Kolya has spent the last five years trying to be anywhere but where Nick is, all without seeming like he’s hiding from the teammate who was his first, best friend in America. Apparently all it took was an eighteen-year-old girl with puppy eyes to screw up all his best intentions.

The doorman nods at Isabelle, eyebrow raised at Kolya tagging along behind her like some kind of really enormous pet.

“This is Kolya,” she says brightly, “he’s okay, he’s on the team!”

And she breezes past, up to the eleventh floor in an elevator that has more ornate woodwork than Kolya thinks he’s seen outside of a hotel, and opens the door to — oh — to an absolutely enormous apartment. Isabelle slips off her shoes and puts them on a rack, and drops her bag by the door.

“Nick would tell you the view’s not great,” Isabelle calls over her shoulder, and Kolya realizes he’s staring, “but he’s such a loser, it’s awesome, come on in, take a look.”

Kolya toes off his shoes as well, lining them up neatly, and steps into the enormous open-plan apartment Nicholas Larsson bought for his little sister. He knew it was nice, he tells himself. There’s no reason for this display of — of fraternal adoration, of filial piety, of whatever the fuck it is — to have turned his world on its head, but it still seems like it has.

Isabelle is digging in the fridge, and Kolya perches himself on a barstool.

“Can I help?” he asks, because it’s polite, and he didn’t bring a house gift, so it’s the least he can do. She’d probably have been weird about it if he’d stopped to get something, but it still feels wrong to descend on someone’s home empty-handed, just one more thing Americans do so very differently. Kolya used to keep a list: now he just tries to live with the discomfort.

“Um,” Isabelle says, “how are you at chopping stuff?”

“Best,” Kolya says, standing and unbuttoning his cuffs, rolling up his sleeves. “Helped mama lots.”

It had been another thing his teammates made fun of him for in Russia, that he didn’t talk about when he was playing for Traktor, when he got old enough that it wasn’t safe to be a mama’s boy anymore. Here in America, knowing how to cook is good for a bit of friendly chirping and a lot of sad-eyed rookies following him home and begging to be fed with all but words. Kolya will never be on Top Chef, but he knows his way around a kitchen just fine.

“Great,” Isabelle says, “dice these onions, and then chop some peppers and mince a couple of cans of tomatoes, I forgot I need to make sauce.”

Isabelle makes tomato sauce from scratch like her life depends on it. A little while later, Kolya is stirring with a dish towel tucked into the waistband of his jeans, tomatoes on his shirt, and Isabelle is on her tiptoes trying to look over his shoulder, one hand balancing herself while she cranes to try to see the saucepan.

“God,” Isabelle is saying, “why are you so stupidly tall, come on, let me see the sauce.”

“Not my fault you so short,” Kolya says, and teasing her feels natural, for all that he’s only known her a couple of hours. “Go away. You get sauce on me again, you owe me new shirt.”

Nicholas clears his throat and Isabelle drops back on her heels with a thud.

“Hey Nicks,” Isabelle says. “Kolya’s gonna help me with my Russian pronunciation, so I said I’d feed him, but now he’s being a jerk and not letting me see the tomato sauce! Use your awesome assistant captain hockey powers to boss him, or something, he’s huge.”

When Kolya glances over, Nick looks — stunned might be the right word for it. Not angry, but Nick’s hard for Kolya to read at the best of times.

“I —” Nick coughs. “I don’t actually have awesome hockey powers, Iz,” he says, “and what do you mean, help you with your pronunciation, you’re taking French.”

Kolya goes back to stirring the sauce, which, honestly, doesn’t need his attention, but it’s better than looking at Nick right now.

Kolya is cooking dinner for the teammate he’s been avoiding for five years. He’s covered in tomato from when Isabelle tipped a cutting board the wrong way and he caught it, and he thinks the casual, easy domesticity of it might kill him, if he thinks about it too hard, so he tastes the sauce and adds a little more oregano.

“—doing Eugene Onegin, remember,” Isabelle is saying, “and Kolya’s reading it too for class, and you know Adriana’s shit at Russian, I’ve told you that a million times, so Kolya’s going to help me with the lyrics, and I said I’d feed him dinner to say thanks.”

It sounds perfectly sensible, put that way.

It’s certainly better than I’m here because your sister’s eyes look just like yours and I’ve been in love with you for half a decade and can’t say no, or I’m a gay hockey player in the NHL cooking dinner for the man I know I can’t have or I’m breaking my heart over you all over again just standing in your kitchen making pasta so Kolya figures Isabelle’s description is probably the better one.

“But he took over,” Isabelle says, “because he’s the absolute worst at taking directions,” and Nick — Nick actually laughs.

“Yeah, no, Iz,” he says, “I could have told you that one. Kolya only takes directions on the ice.” Nick saunters over, still in his game-day suit with the jacket off, already rolling up his sleeves. “You been hassling my sister?” he asks, and Kolya thinks his tone is teasing but he can’t be sure.

Kolya just stares at him.

“Hey, whoah,” Nick says, actually taking a step back, “kidding, man. You’re, like, really Betty Crockering this shit up, that’s all. Usually Izzy cooks.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Isabelle shoots back. She’s digging in their floor-to-ceiling pantry, half-hidden. Kolya thinks his whole kitchen would fit in the cupboard space in this kitchen, it’s that huge. “But apparently it’s rude to not help, if you’re a crazy Russian hockey player, or something.”

“It’s rude to be guest, not bring something,” Kolya explains. “So I’m helping.”

Isabelle emerges from the pantry with a box of penne.

“Two boxes, Iz,” Nick says, and she scowls.

“I swear, you both have tapeworms,” Isabelle says, obviously not used to hockey player appetites yet, and Kolya can’t help a laugh.

Dinner is, if Kolya does say so himself, fucking fantastic. Isabelle quizzes him about his classes, and they start with some basic Russian words. Isabelle’s Russian pronunciation is laughably bad, her coach’s terrible misunderstanding of Russian vowels obviously tripping her up. They’re going to need to work on it, he tells her, and goes home before Nick remembers his rules about hockey players and his little sister and, like, guts Kolya with a carving knife or something.

All in all, it’s a pretty good evening. If Kolya goes home to his empty apartment and feels heartsick and lonely in a bed full of cold pillows, well, he’s only got himself to blame for that.

* * *

Isabelle drags him to the Larsson apartment a few more times to cook dinner for them and help her with her lines, and she picks it up faster than Nick, who is competitive but a pretty good sport about it, especially once Isabelle gets the understudy role to Olga and has to learn a whole new set of lines for the arias. Nick never makes fun of Kolya for complaining about his classes, and even remembers what they’re reading in his Russian Lit class, which is more than Isabelle manages.

And Isabelle texts Kolya a lot.

At first it’s just pronunciation questions — does she emphasize this syllable or that one, which vowel is this again, how can she sing this word on a high note and sound okay but still get the tone right. The production of Eugene Onegin isn’t until December, at the end of her semester, and once she’s learned the words to the choral parts and also all of Olga’s lines, well, Isabelle doesn’t stop texting.

Amy’s such a total diva she sends one afternoon. God I want to strangle her I swear I’m going to jail

not strangle amy Kolya shoots back, then you have to sing soprano turn into huge diva too

i bail you out still he sends, because Amy is one of Isabelle’s better friends in the program, but she is unrelentingly a diva of a soprano, and he knows Isabelle gets impatient sometimes, just like Nick.

Amy hates you for offering to get me out of jail for justifiable homicide she texts back, but she follows up with a snapshot of her and Amy smiling a few minutes later, so he figures it worked out okay.

Kolya hasn’t ever really texted this much with anyone who isn’t team or family. It’s not like he has a huge network here in New York: he’s too busy with hockey and college to do much of anything else, for one thing. But Isabelle doesn’t mind if he’s late replying because of a game — she knows their schedule — and she doesn’t tease him for being stressed out about classes, because she’s in college too.

Can I come over? PLEASE? Isabelle texts one day in early November. It’s a rest day, so Kolya is catching up on homework for his Russian Literature class, idly wondering if he can write his paper on Lolita in Russian and then translate back into English, or if that’s cheating, taking the easy way out. Nabokov wrote it in English, Kolya knows, so it’s probably better to write his paper in English, but it’s hard to find the right words, and Humbert Humbert makes him feel slimy all over, so he doesn’t want to get it wrong.

have lots of homework bad company ((( he sends back

Me too but Nick is driving me crazy Isabelle replies, and then I’ll be quiet I swear he’s just making me nuts with game tape right now I can’t get this paper on Mozart written here

And Kolya can’t say no to either of the Larssons, apparently, when there’s something they want and it’s in his power to give it to them, but he knows Nick is protective of Isabelle.

only if nick gives permission he says. make him text me yes

You’re sure it’s not too much trouble? Nick asks, and then, I can leave the apartment, let her study in peace.

stay there Kolya texts back, and then he must lose his mind, or something, because he adds: we have study party you be sad hockey player alone ))))

Kolya texts Isabelle his address and hopes Nick didn’t notice Kolya flirting with him.

They make surprisingly good study partners, even if Kolya is a little distracted by Nick’s lack of reply.

* * *

It’s just before American Thanksgiving and Kolya is checking his phone after a loss — to Minnesota Wild, of all teams, which just plain sucks, because the Wild is a new team, they’re not that good, and they just, they just fell apart tonight, and he doesn’t know why. Some of the team is going out for dinner, but Kolya is about to head home when Nick’s hand on his arm stops him.

“What,” Nick says, holding up his phone. There’s an Instagram post of Isabelle and Amy on it, holding bottles of kvass Kolya left in the fridge. We <3 you Kolya )))))) reads the caption. Probably Isabelle, who’s been picking up Kolya’s habit of eyeless smiley faces.

When Kolya looks down at him, Nick looks like the only thing keeping him from kneecapping Kolya where he stands is what it would do to their chance at the Stanley Cup. Given how protective Nick is of Isabelle, Kolya’s not sure even the Cup will be enough to stop him.

“Nick,” Kolya says, wondering if holding up his hands to ward Nick off like they’re about to get into it on the ice would be a bad call. “What’s problem?”

Kolya isn’t sure exactly what’s going on in Nick’s head, but — well, he is stupidly protective of Isabelle, maybe he thinks Kolya’s distracting her from schoolwork or something.

“Do you just give booze to all the underage girls you know? You could be arrested for that shit.”

Kolya is honestly flummoxed by this line of attack.

“Nick,” he tries,” you have wrong idea. Is kvass,” he adds, “not alcohol.” Kvass is practically a soft drink. Kolya started drinking it when he was a kid, everyone does at home.

“It’s a lightly fermented beer,” Nick spits. “I looked it up. You can’t just get my little sister drunk, you asshole!”

“Can’t get drunk on kvass,” Kolya points out, and can’t resist a chirp. Maybe humor will get through. “Even babies not get drunk on kvass, Nick.”

That isn’t enough. Nick is still beautifully, brightly furious, even angrier now than he was before, and Kolya is going to get his ass handed to him, because he doesn’t lose fights on the ice, but he can’t hit Nick — he can’t.

“Not—” Kolya stops, because he doesn’t know where to go with this. “Not hurt her, Nick. Never.”

“What, but you’ll give her booze?” Nick snaps. “Fuck you, Kolya, I’ve seen you pick up.”

“Whoah, man,” someone says, but Kolya can’t tell who through the sudden buzzing in his ears. “Nick, whoah, back the fuck down.”

Kolya feels like this conversation is hurtling past him at a million miles an hour, and not happening in any language he speaks. Even so, he can tell it’s going nowhere good, and it’s going there fast.

“I — what?” he asks, because he has no idea what’s going on. He grasps for words. “I’m not understand, Nick.”

“I’ve seen you pick up,” Nick spits, “you like them underage and so drunk they can’t stand, you dick.”

Nick lunges at Kolya, Marc holds him back, and the entire locker room erupts into screaming chaos.

Kolya walks out.

* * *

Kolya doesn’t actually remember how he gets home. He must take a cab — he’s probably not stupid enough to take the risk of taking the subway when he feels like this. His hands are shaking so hard it takes him three tries to open his front door, and he drops his keys as soon as the door is shut.

So.

Nick thinks Kolya is the kind of hockey player who rapes women who are too drunk to say no. He all but said that he thinks Kolya’s a child rapist, that he goes after underage women who can’t make their own choices. Worse, he thinks Kolya would do that to his little sister. To Isabelle.

Kolya throws up in his kitchen sink, then stands there with his hands braced on the cool enamel, his whole body shaking.

Kolya’s been called a lot of things, on the ice. Pedik is a word that got tossed around a lot in the Traktor locker room, though Kolya was never on the receiving end of that one, too young and baby-faced and careful. He’s been so damn careful, Kolya thinks.

He never thought it would hurt this much to be called a pedophile to his face.

He never thought it would be Nick doing it.

Kolya wants to be sick again. He wants to be unconscious. He wants a time machine, and he wants to scream and punch something until his knuckles bleed, and he wants a lot of things he can’t have. He always wants things he can’t have.

What he can manage is getting drunk.

Kolya thumbs open his calendar on his phone with hands that are still shaking, checks tomorrow’s schedule. He has breakfast plans with Valya. Kolya shoots off a text to cancel and pulls out a bottle of vodka and pours out a full glass. He doesn’t bother to put the cap back on: he’ll probably finish the bottle tonight. Besides, it was hard enough getting the bottle open, he’s so unsteady.

Kolya’s hands don’t stop shaking until he’s drunk the whole first glass of vodka. He slides down the refrigerator to sit on the floor. The fridge door is cool against his back, and he tips his head back against it and closes his eyes. He’ll get up soon, Kolya tells himself, he’ll take a shower, and he’ll go to bed, and he’ll stop feeling like this.

He doesn’t believe himself. He doesn’t think he’s ever going to stop feeling like this, like someone just kicked a hole in his chest with their skates on, like he’s just been checked into the boards so hard he can’t see, like it would hurt less if he just stopped breathing.

Kolya gets up and pours himself another tall glass of vodka, because if it doesn’t stop hurting, even just a little bit, he honestly doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but it will be really, really stupid.

His phone is buzzing in his coat pocket, and Kolya — he can’t make himself care enough to see who is texting him. It rings, and goes to voicemail, and beeps angrily at him, and he sits with his back to the refrigerator and drinks half a bottle of vodka and wishes his alcohol tolerance were shittier, because he’s not drunk enough to forget, not even close.

Kolya tips his head back and closes his eyes again, pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them, and finally, finally lets himself shake until he passes out, too exhausted even to move to the couch.

* * *

“Kolya,” someone says, and there’s a cool hand on his forehead, covering his eyes. Kolya tries to blink. “Kolenka,” the voice says, and Kolya recognizes it and flails away.

“Get away from me,” he hisses, “your brother will kill me, I don’t want to hurt you, go away, go away now, my god, Isabelle, get away from me, I don’t want to —”

God, his head hurts.

“Speak English,” Isabelle says, not unkindly. “Kolya, I don’t understand Russian.”

“Go home,” he says, “Nick already angry, go away, you make it worse.”

“Yeah, no,” Isabelle says, “I’m pissed at him because he was a dick to my friend, that’s why I’m here.” She stands up and runs the tap, letting the water get cold.

Kolya watches as she shuffles around in his kitchen, blinking against the sunlight. His head is killing him. Maybe he’d understand what was going on here if it didn’t hurt so much just to breathe.

“Here,” she says, and hands him a bottle of ibuprofen along with a glass of water. “I’m glad you’re not dead. Valya was worried.” She shakes the bottle of vodka at him — empty, he can see — and scowls. “The next time Nicholas is a dick and you want to get shitfaced about it, you call someone, okay? You could have hurt yourself.”

“It wasn’t full,” he says, taking three ibuprofen and draining the water glass. He’s not stupid enough to drink a full bottle of vodka alone. Probably. Last night is a little bit fuzzy around the edges, though. Maybe he would have.

“Like I care,” Isabelle says, and comes to stand over him. “You look pathetic,” she announces, poking him with one foot. She looks imperious, and back-lit by his east-facing windows she seems like a goddess, like an avenging Valkyrie. He has no idea why she’s here.

“Go shower, you moron,” Isabelle says. “I’m making a huge greasy breakfast, and you’re telling me what my terrible brother did to send you on a bender. Nobody else will tell me because they’re all assholes too.”

“I regret giving you my keys,” he says faintly, but she must be able to tell he doesn’t mean it, so he just lets her haul him to his feet and shove him in the direction of the bathroom.

When he comes back, Isabelle is dishing up omelets and hash browns and bacon, none of which were in his fridge last night. She went shopping on her way here. Valya must be really worried.

“Sit,” she says, pointing at Kolya’s little table. “I know Nick said something awful, I know it was related to him being pissy about losing to Minnesota, and maybe to him freaking out about Amy’s Instagram. I don’t get why Marc punched him in the face and broke his nose.”

Kolya stares at her, fork stopped mid-air.

“Marc — he what?” he asks.

“Marc broke his nose in the locker room,” Isabelle says. “The trainers set it, but he won’t tell me why.”

Kolya turns this over in his head. Some goalies get into fights, have epic tempers. Marc isn’t one of them. Marc lets pressure and insults wash off him like water off a duck’s back, like nothing can ever get under his skin. Kolya has literally never seen him in a fight. Not once in six years, and he’s had more than enough provocation.

“Marc also told me to check on you,” Isabelle says, “and to tell you he’s got your back, and Nick’s an idiot who picks stupid fights when he’s scared and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” She stares at him. “You want to tell me what any of that means?”

Kolya takes a bite of hashbrowns, and sets down the fork. He chews and swallows while he thinks about how to explain this. He should face it head-on. He opens his mouth and closes it again.

“In Russia,” he says, “in Russia, we have new laws.”

Isabelle looks confused, but she doesn’t interrupt. Kolya must look worse than he feels, because Isabelle loves interrupting him.

“Is illegal to —” he doesn’t know the English verb. He starts over. “Propaganda about being gay is illegal now in many places. Talk about it, write about it, all illegal.” He looks down. “New laws,” he says, “but not new ideas.” Kolya closes his eyes. “In Moscow,” he says, “maybe it is not so bad. But I — I’m from Chelyabinsk, small city, Siberia. Not so open. I grow up hearing — gay men, they are pedik, they are pedophiles, monsters.” He takes a breath, and can’t make himself go on.

“Kolya,” Isabelle says, and she sounds very cautious. “Are you coming out to me?”

He nods, and her hands cover his on the table, not grabbing, just present. Her hands are warm.

“God,” she says, “that sounds like it sucked, growing up. I mean, it’s bad enough here, you know?”

“Mama knows,” he says, “she helped.”

“That’s it?” Isabelle says, and she sounds disbelieving. “Nobody else knows?”

Kolya opens his eyes, and she looks — she looks the same as ever.

“Papa took it hard,” he admits. “Not a good thing, your son being goluboi in Russia, was hard for him, very disappointing. I told Sergei and Yulia, because of the girls.”

Isabelle looks confused, so Kolya explains.

“They have children. If they did not want to host me,” he says, “because of what people say about people like me?”

“Oh, you moron,” Isabelle says, and she stands up and drags him into a hug. “Yulia told you that was stupid, right? You’re — you’d never hurt a kid, Kolya.”

She sounds completely certain, down to her bones. She sounds so much like Nick that it hurts, and Kolya pulls away.

“Nick does not think so,” he bites out. Isabelle goes stiff.

“I’m going to kill him,” she says. “What did he say?”

Kolya sits down and pokes at his food, and tells her.

This is almost worse, harder to say outright, so Kolya starts by telling her about about the girls he tucks into taxis and sends home, the ones who are too young to be drinking, or too drunk to make the kinds of choices they offer him, the men he pulls them away from with a smile or a glare. He doesn’t get into fights in bars, but he’s big enough that he doesn’t have to.

“Nick said —” Kolya starts. He can say this out loud. He can. He’s heard it once, already. “He thinks I like underage drunk girls. He thinks I — but I wouldn’t hurt you,” he says, staring at his plate.

“Fuck no, of course you wouldn’t,” Isabelle says. Her jaw is clenched, and she looks blindingly angry. “Will Valya help? Or Sergei? I know Marc will.”

“Help what?” Kolya asks.

“Hide Nick’s body,” Isabelle says, “I’m going to kill him very, very slowly, and very painfully, and then we’re going to take his corpse to, I don’t know, the Gowanus, or the fucking East River, and we’re going to put the pieces of him in concrete, and I’m never going to tell my parents what he did because they’d be so fucking angry with him.”

“He wants to protect you,” Kolya protests.

“He’s a fucking idiot,” Isabelle says, “I don’t care if you’re head over fucking heels in love with him, he’s an asshole and he deserves a lot worse than a broken nose.”

Kolya swears he feels his heart stop beating. It feels like all the blood just drained from his face, and he must look awful.

“Shit,” Isabelle says, “you really are, aren’t you. Fuck.”

“I never touch—” Kolya starts, but the memory of that one kiss floods up without warning. “He never wants me,” he says instead. “I know this.” He takes a shaky breath. “Is okay, Iz, your brother is straight, I’m not going to bother him.”

“Fuck bothering him,” Isabelle says, “I don’t give a shit about him right now, his stupid temper just about killed you and I think he just broke your heart.”

“No,” Kolya says, sighing, because, well, who else can he tell? “No, Isabelle, he did that long time ago.”

He puts his head on the table. Isabelle’s hand settles in his hair and they sit in silence for what feels like a long, long time.

* * *

Practice the next day is ragged, chippy and disconnected, and Kolya has never been so glad he and Nick aren’t on the same line, are hardly ever on the ice together, because he’s having a hard time keeping his head in the game when they are. Nick has two black eyes and his nose is taped straight, and Kolya feels sick just looking at him.

“Look,” Marc says, afterwards, his voice soft, “That was some fucked-up shit, the other day, and I’m not apologizing for him, but you know he didn’t mean it, right?”

Kolya nods, leaning down to unlace his skates. He wants to not be having this conversation now. He wants to never have this conversation.

“And just so you know, if he pulls that shit again,” Marc says pleasantly, “I’ll break his fucking face, not just his nose. You don’t need cheekbones to play hockey, right?”

Kolya looks up, floored. Marc is one of Nick’s closest friends on the team, and he’s — he’s threatening to take Nick out, on Kolya’s behalf?

“I think you kinda do, man,” Timmo says from Kolya’s other side, “but teeth, you know, I hear those are totally optional.”

They share a dark look over Kolya’s head, and he strips down and heads for the showers in a daze. Whatever’s going on, it’s clear the team has his back. Kolya tries not to wonder if they’d still have his back if they knew the truth about him. He’s not planning on telling them, so it really doesn’t matter, but it still hurts, the falsehood curling low in his belly in a way it hasn’t done in years.

Nick tries to corner him on his way out of the showers, but Kolya just shoves past, dresses in silence and leaves.

The next couple of practices are just as bad, and Brooks finally calls Kolya aside afterwards, stopping him on the ice with a hand on his shoulder.

“Look,” he says, “captain hat on here. Larsson’s an idiot, but you need to be able to play, okay? Get it fixed up for the ice.”

Kolya strips, showers, and changes on autopilot. When he gets home, he texts Nick his address.

come talk he sends we suck at hockey right now, need to fix this

You sure? Nick sends back immediately, like he’s been waiting. I’m really sorry, I fucked up

come talk Kolya sends not do this over text

Okay Nick texts, be there in fifteen

He arrives twelve minutes later, hair still wet despite the cold, and stands awkwardly in Kolya’s doorway.

Kolya’s heart rolls over in his chest at the sight of him, pink-faced and slightly out of breath from the stairs, his face still kind of a mess from the broken nose.

Kolya wants to pull Nick into a hug and never let him go. He wants to punch Nick in the face and scream obscenities, make Nick bleed. He wants to stop being hopelessly in love with someone who can hurt him so badly. He can’t do any of these things, so instead he waits.

“I’m sorry,” Nick says. “I’m — can I come in?”

Kolya steps back, and Nick holds out a bottle of vodka.

“We don’t have to drink it now,” he says, “I just — I know you usually bring something when you come over, and, well.” He looks away. “Sergei told me you like this brand,” he says, “it was going to be for your birthday, but —” he shrugs.

“Is good vodka,” Kolya agrees, and gestures for Nick to follow him into the apartment.

“Nice place,” Nick says.

If this were a normal day, Kolya might chirp Nick about the comparative size of their apartments, might make a joke about over-compensation. He doesn’t have the heart.

“Small,” Kolya says after an awkward silence, “easy commute.”

They stare at each other. Nick looks away first.

“Look,” Nick says, “Can I — I want to try to explain. Can we, like, sit down or something?”

The sofa is right there, but Kolya doesn’t want to sit next to Nick right now, so he gestures at the kitchen table. His mama would yell at him, not offering a guest something to eat or drink, even a comfortable place to sit, but it’s all Kolya can do to stay in the same room as Nick right now without the distraction of hockey.

“Sit,” he says, “talk.”

Nick swallows, but he takes a seat.

“Okay,” he says, looking at his hands, clenched into fists on the wooden table. “You know my family’s from Minnesota — they have a farm?”

Kolya nods. Everyone knows this.

“Yeah,” Nick says, “so, money was pretty tight growing up. I — I really liked hockey, but it’s not cheap, you know, and we were four kids, so.”

He opens one hand, turns it palm up on the table.

“My dad thought I had potential,” Nick says, “and my uncle played in the NHL, you know, and he agreed. They made a deal. Uncle Jordan paid for everything, and all I had to do was play my best hockey.”

He makes a fist again. Kolya waits.

“That sounds stupid,” he says, “but — my uncle got injured when I was nine, maybe ten? And he came back too soon, fucked his hip up real bad. After that, it was like — it was like if he didn’t get to play, then I’d play for him. He moved back to Minnesota, took a job coaching, and just — he just pushed.”

Nick blinks, and Kolya wonders why Nick is telling him this.

“It’s dumb,” Nick says, “I always wanted hockey, I did — more than anything. It’s just — with uncle Jordan, there were always strings attached. I got new gear if I was MVP, or got a game winning goal three times in a row, or had the most points in the season.” He laughs. “I mean, I was a competitive little fuck,” he admits, “but this was like — all the other kids at Shattuck had money, you know? Like, serious money, and here I was, some farm kid from the sticks, and I wasn’t going to even have the gear I needed if I didn’t play better than everyone else. It was kind of intense.”

It sounds like a terrible thing to do to a kid, but it’s not an explanation.

Kolya waits, because he’s gotten good at waiting for things to make sense, these last six years. Americans never stop talking, he thinks, but they also never just say what they mean.

“So,” Nick says, “I — my other two sisters, they just wanted to stay home, you know, keep the farm, go to college in-state. And I get that, I mean, family’s important. But — ” He looks at Kolya. “But Isabelle wants opera the way I want hockey,” he says, “and I — I can give it to her, you know, no tests, no strings attached,” he says, “but only if our parents let her stay. And they — they have all these conditions for her living in New York City with me, and one of them is no press, and I just, I kind of freaked out when I saw that on Instagram.”

Kolya blinks, letting some of Nick’s behavior slot itself into a new configuration in his mind. Maybe Nick’s not as much of a possessive bastard as the team assumes. Maybe he is, but it’s for a good reason.

“So you were angry,” Kolya says, when Nick doesn’t keep talking. “Fine, be angry, yell about parents, we fight, we get over it.”

“Yeah,” Nick sags. “I — I get pretty fucked up when we lose to Wild, and —”

“No,” Kolya says. He’s not sure where he gets the strength to keep going, but he can’t let this go, can’t just wallpaper over the hole in his heart. Not this time. He’ll bleed out if he lets this go, and it will destroy him, and it won’t fix them on the ice.

“You’re not going to blame this on losing,” Kolya says. “You were a mean fucker, Nick. You said nasty shit to me, shit I maybe never forgive you, even if I understand. No excuses, no bullshit, okay? Why you say those things?”

“Because you like her better,” Nick blurts out. “I mean,” he says, “you two are always texting, and talking about college, and I just —” he shrugs. “I guess I was jealous.”

“So you think — oh, I know, I be better friends, I call teammate child molester,” Kolya says. His voice is very, very even. He almost sounds like he doesn’t care about the answer.

Nick looks like Kolya has slapped him.

“What?” he gasps. “God, no, Kolya—”

“It is what you said,” Kolya points out. “You said I like them underage and so drunk they can’t stand.” The words have been rattling around in his head since he heard them, he knows he remembers them right.

Nick goes white.

“Oh my god,” he says. “Oh my god, Kolya, I’m sorry. I meant — I meant under twenty-one, I didn’t —” he flails his hands out towards Kolya, who pulls away reflexively.

“Fuck,” Nick groans, and puts his head in his hands, elbows on the table. “Fuck, Kolya, I — I’m such a fuckup, I’m so sorry, I — you’d never — Jesus Christ, I’m an asshole.”

He sounds like he means it. His hands are gripping his white-blond hair so tight it’s got to hurt. It seems like he’s having a hard time breathing.

“Okay,” Kolya says after a minute or two. “I believe you.”

Nick peers out from under his hair.

“Now what?” he asks, voice very soft. Kolya shrugs.

“If we’re American,” he says, “I don’t know. If we’re Russian?” He gestures at the kitchen. “We drink vodka, stop talking about feelings.”

“Russian,” Nick says. “Let’s be Russian, I’ve fucked up enough being American this week.”

A few shots later, Kolya is really reconsidering the whole vodka idea. Nick is draped half across Kolya’s lap and half across the couch, and is definitely snuggling.

“We used to do this all the time,” Nick says, struggling to a sitting position. He’s almost nose to nose with Kolya, and his eyelashes are golden blond as he blinks. “Why did we stop doing this?” he asks. “You used to hang out with me, and let me sit with you when the guys were picking up, and I could make you laugh, and then you just — you just stopped. You were so nice, and then you stopped liking me.”

Kolya stares at him. Apparently they’re back to being American and talking too much and not making sense. Fuck, but he hates his life right now.

“You really don’t know?” he asks. He didn’t think Nick was blackout drunk that night. He’d hoped, once or twice, but he’d never really thought it was true.

“Is it because I’m —” Nick blinks, shuts his mouth. “I mean, you don’t pick up like Lars or Timmo, I didn’t think I was, like, getting in the way by just sitting there.”

Nick has been the one getting between Kolya and anyone else for a long time now, but it’s not his fault Kolya is still in love with him.

“Because you what?” Kolya asks. He wants to lean away from Nick, whose breath is ghosting across Kolya’s neck and cheek. He wants to lean in and kiss Nick more than he’s wanted anything in a long time. He doesn’t move.

“You —” Nick starts, and then he settles against Kolya’s side, takes one of Kolya’s hands in his and starts playing with his fingers, like he needs something to focus on. “You can’t tell anyone, okay?”

Kolya nods, then says “okay.” He doesn’t know what he’s agreeing to, but it’s Nick.

Kolya’s heart feels like it’s about to pound its way out of his chest. He can feel every brush of Nick’s fingers across his skin like a brand, like if he looked down there would be red swirls tracing out the path of his touch.

“I —” Nick runs a finger across a knife scar on Kolya’s knuckle, acquired when he was fourteen and showing off in the kitchen for a teammate he’d had a crush on. Kolya stopped cooking for a month after that went wrong.

“I don’t pick up,” Nick says, “because I don’t — I don’t usually feel that way about people?” He pauses. “I figured I was just wired wrong, maybe I was, like, asexual? I guess? For a while, at least,” Nick says, “but, well, it’s not never, you know, it’s just, not, like, strangers in a bar. I mean, I can see people, I can tell when they look good, I just have to know someone first to,” he pauses, “to want them.”

There are words in there Kolya doesn’t know, but he’s too tipsy to figure them out, and it sounds like interrupting Nick would be a bad idea right now.

For his part, Nick is staring at Kolya’s hand intently, like Kolya’s palm holds the secrets of the universe. Kolya has no idea what he’s supposed to say in response to this kind of confession, and Nick, stupid, brilliant, American Nick, just keeps talking.

“And I only really spend time with hockey players.”

“No time to meet girls?” Kolya asks. Now he really doesn’t know where this is going.

Nick giggles. “You’re funny,” he says. “I don’t like girls.”

He pauses, running a finger up and down Kolya’s palm like he hasn’t just dropped a bomb on Kolya’s heart, like he hasn’t just outed himself to a teammate, like this is a normal thing to admit in a casual, drunken conversation. Kolya wonders how much Nick has actually had to drink.

“I mean, I don’t hate women,” Nick says thoughtfully, blissfully oblivious to the impact of his words. He’s always so blind, Kolya thinks. “I’m not that kind of guy,” he says, “and I love my sisters,” Nick is saying, “but they’re family.”

“Nick,” Kolya says, carefully. How did Isabelle phrase this? “Are you coming out to me?”

“Yep,” Nick says, peering up at him. “I’m a gay hockey player who really only likes other hockey players, and they’re all straight.” He sighs. “I’m going to die alone,” he says, “but at least Izzy will be happy singing opera.”

That’s — that’s heartbreaking, all the more because Kolya has been thinking the same thing, except that he doesn’t have a sister. He has a mother with poorly managed fibromyalgia and a father who is an alcoholic by American standards and probably even by Russian standards these days, who has been drinking himself into an early grave ever since his son admitted he was gay.

Kolya feels like his head is spinning, so he latches onto the only part of the last few moments that makes any sense.

“Not all hockey players straight,” Kolya says. There probably should have been a verb in there somewhere, but Nick has always been able to understand his shitty English.

“Maybe on other teams,” Nick says. He sounds sad, now. Kolya has never been able to stand it when Nick sounds sad.

“Nick,” Kolya says. “You can’t tell anyone. What I tell you — could ruin my life, never go back to Russia.”

Nick looks up at him, still holding his hand.

“Part of why I’m so angry, so hurt,” Kolya says, and he must be tipsy, because it’s easier to talk about this than it has any right to be. He’s been so scared of this for so long, but it tumbles out of his mouth, like he hasn’t spent his whole life trying not to say these exact words. “Is because in Russia, in Chelyabinsk, they say gay men, they are child molesters. So when you say that, I think you know.”

Nick frowns down at Kolya’s knuckles, his hands still for the first time.

“I think you know I’m gay,” Kolya says. “I think you try to hurt me, and it works.”

“You’re —” Nick blinks at him, slow and syrupy, and then he just looks baffled again. “But you — you mean you’re bi?”

Kolya laughs. It comes out bitter, because how many times did he wish for that as a teenager, that being gay was a phase, that he was bisexual and hadn’t found the right girl yet. He tried so hard in Russia, and it never changed him.

“No,” he says, “no girls. Never liked girls.”

“But —” Nick has pushed himself to sit up again, facing Kolya. “But girls at clubs. I’ve seen you leave with them.”

Kolya shrugs.

“Some girls go out alone, get too drunk, get sick, get scared. I send them home, tip taxi drivers to get them safe indoors.” He looks at Nick, whose expression is doing something Kolya can’t figure out. “Can’t pick up boys in bar,” he says. “Looking like I pick up girls is safer. Is —” he thinks back to nature channel documentaries. He thinks of baby deer, of fawn spots, and the word slips into place. “Is camouflage.”

“You —” Nick wraps his arms around Kolya’s neck, drops his head onto Kolya’s shoulder. Nick is more than halfway in Kolya’s lap, and it’s the best and worst thing that has ever happened to him. “You devious fucker.”

Kolya holds still, because he has no idea what else to do now.

“You know, that just makes me feel worse,” Nick says to his collarbone after a long moment. “God, Kolya, I’m such a dick, and I —”

Nick huffs out a frustrated breath, right across Kolya’s skin, and Kolya can’t help the little gasp it provokes, the hot gust of air against his skin. He hasn’t been this close to someone else in ages, much less someone he wants as much as he’s always wanted Nick.

Nick stills, and Kolya waits for him to pull away, to see that look on his face again. Kolya should be pushing him away, should be salvaging his dignity, grabbing the scraps of it with both hands. But Nick smells almost the same as he used to, and his hair is soft in Kolya’s face, and he’s so warm. He can’t have this, and he knows he can’t have this, but he’s tipsy and exhausted and can’t bring himself to pull away. Not just yet.

And then Nick flat-out licks across Kolya’s collarbone and it’s like someone wired his skin straight to his dick, hotter than it has any right to be. Kolya moans low in his throat, and Nick — god — Nick does it again. Kolya’s spine arches to get more touch, and Nick pulls away. It’s all Kolya can do not to grab him, pull him back.

“You want this,” Nick says, and he sounds amazed. “You want me?”

“You don’t remember?” Kolya asks. “Five years ago, after we win in D.C.?”

Nick frowns. Kolya wants to kiss the furrow of his brow, same as he always has. He’s starting to hope he might get to. It’s terrifying.

“The bar with tall tables?” he says, “and big Lars got us shots, and …” He looks at Kolya. “You stopped taking care of me after that,” he says. “Flavored vodka really fucks me up, I don’t remember.”

“I kissed you,” Kolya says. “You said — you weren’t —” he makes a vague gesture. “Not interested.”

Nick looks puzzled, and Kolya shrugs away the hurt and confusion all over again.

“You not want,” he says, because that’s been a cornerstone of his life for the last five years.

Nick is straight, and therefore Nick doesn’t want him, and it feels like this conversation keeps shifting underfoot, like Kolya has no idea where it’s going anymore. And Nick — Nick isn’t straight. Kolya tries to keep breathing, because the hope he can’t help feeling might just kill him if he doesn’t keep it in check.

“But you — I mean,” Nick looks hurt. “You practically stopped talking to me, Kolya!”

“Too hard,” Kolya says, and English is deserting him, and he really wishes Nick spoke Russian, but he thinks he might not have the words even in his native language.

“Too hard,” Kolya says, “see sleepy, happy Nick, put to bed, not climb in with, not kiss again. So I stop.” He looks down. “You not want,” he says. “I think you straight, you not want me.”

Nick stares at him. Kolya shrugs. He tries to find a good face to put on it.

“I was just happy you not go to press.”

“God,” Nick says, “no, I’d never — I mean, that would be awful.”

Kolya shrugs. “Some people not so nice about it,” he says, “you hear on ice, in locker rooms.”

“Wait,” Nick says, “you kissed me five years ago?”

He leans a little closer, slides a leg over Kolya’s lap so he’s straddling Kolya’s thighs. Kolya grabs at his hips, keeps Nick from grinding down. Kolya thinks his brain is about to fry just from this, isn’t sure he can handle more yet.

“Do you —” Nick stops. “Do you not want this anymore?” He bites his lower lip, and Kolya groans, and pulls him down, because Nick should — Nick should never doubt that, never doubt him.

“I want,” he breathes, and leans up to kiss Nick, breathing against his lips. He pulls back, and whispers, “I’m wanting so long, Nick. You want now also?”

Nick goes boneless against him, kissing back hard and sloppy, clicking their teeth together in his eagerness, and Kolya doesn’t need to think about who else Nick has done this with, and — fuck — that’s vodka strong on Nick’s breath when he huffs out a complaint into the kiss.

Kolya wants this more than he thinks he’s ever wanted anything before. He wants this so, so much, and he wants Nick more than he ever has before, which if you’d told him that would ever happen, well, he’d have laughed in your face, because how could he want Nick more. Even if it’s only once, only because Nick is lonely and Kolya is convenient — Kolya doesn’t have the strength to deny himself this.

And Nick is pliant and handsy and definitely, definitely drunk, and he didn’t even remember the first time they kissed. Kolya can’t fuck this up.

Kolya hates himself a little bit. Then Nick wriggles in his lap, drags his hard cock against Kolya’s abs, hot through his slacks and Kolya’s shirt. Nick groans and does it again, and Kolya drops his forehead to Nick’s shoulder with a thunk. His hands tighten convulsively on Nick’s hipbones, and that sound — that needy whine — Kolya almost comes in his pants just from that, from Nick making that sound with Kolya’s hands on him.

“Nick,” he gasps, leaning close and grabbing harder to try to get Nick to stop rubbing off against him. Kolya’s only human and, god, this is so perfect, Nick wants him. “Pizdets, blyad, Nick, wait.”

“Am I —” Nick freezes. “Am I doing it wrong?”

He sounds small, a little scared. Kolya can’t help it, he has to lean up and kiss Nick again, run a hand through Nick’s stupidly fluffy hair the way he’s always wanted to, has never been allowed to.

“Not wrong,” Kolya says, pulling back and dropping a kiss on the side of Nick’s mouth, the tip of his nose. “Not wrong, so good, fuck, Nick.”

Nick chases his mouth, kisses him again, a little slower, like he wants to copy everything Kolya is doing to him, like he needs to be good at this, like Kolya’s not shaking with want from just a few kisses, crazy with the feel of Nick heavy and solid in his lap, a hundred ninety pounds of pure muscle and sex appeal. Nick shifts his weight, and, fuck, Kolya has to put the brakes on, or he’s not going to be able to stop this and he can’t — he can’t fuck this up. He can’t stand it if he fucks this up again.

“Nick,” Kolya says, and he has to pull Nick’s head away by tugging at his hair. Nick goes with a soft sound of protest. His hips buck down when Kolya tightens his grip and Kolya bites his tongue, because he doesn’t need to think about hair-pulling being a turn-on for Nick, not right now. Maybe not ever.

“Nick,” Kolya says again, “you are very drunk.”

Nick stares at him, blinking slowly. His lips are a little pinker than usual, and Kolya — god help him, Kolya wants to kiss him again. Then Nick starts giggling, and collapses across Kolya, poking him with an elbow.

“How are you even real,” Nick gasps, “oh my god, Kolya.”

He’s laughing so hard he can’t seem to breathe, and when Kolya frowns, Nick actually falls off his lap onto the floor, gurgling like something is the funniest thing in the entire world.

“What,” Kolya complains, rubbing at his ribs. “I am real, Nick.”

“I know —” Nick gasps, “I just — you’re —” he collapses into giggles again, hiccupping slightly. “Okay,” he admits, after a little bit of focused breathing, “yeah, you’re right, I’m so wasted.” He looks up at Kolya and his expression goes soft and serious. “Can I stay here?” he asks. “I don’t want —” he looks away. “I don’t want you to change your mind,” he all but whispers.

“How are you real,” Kolya says, but he’s feeling better about things now, warm and fond in an old, familiar way. “Love you for years, Nick, not change mind overnight.”

Nick stares at him, and Kolya replays his words. Oh, he thinks, oh fuck. He shouldn’t have said that yet, even if it’s true.

“Okay,” Nick announces, starfished on the carpet, “but you’re totally making me breakfast, I’m still not going anywhere.”

He sounds imperiously drunk. He sounds like Isabelle. He sounds so much like himself that Kolya can’t help a grin. Nick waves a hand at him from the floor.

“Come on,” he says, “you have to pour me into bed and climb in with me, you don’t fit on the sofa.”

Kolya pulls Nick to his feet and they wobble to the bedroom, where Nick lets Kolya strip him with gentle hands, get him water and tuck him in and then crawl in next to him. It feels comfortable, domestic. Kolya thinks that never getting to do this again might kill him.

“Up early,” Kolya warns, setting his phone alarm.

“Good,” Nick slurs, “so w’have time for sex before practice.”

Kolya closes his eyes and only years of sheer willpower prevents him from pinning Nick to the mattress right then.

Well, that and the fact that Nick is snoring gently, completely sacked out, and Kolya’s never been into the idea of fucking unconscious people, not even Nick.

* * *

Kolya wakes with someone heavy sprawled on top of him nuzzling his neck. It takes him a moment to realize it’s actually Nick, and his stomach flops and his knees go weak.

“Mmm,” Nick says, “morning, sleepyhead.” He presses a kiss to the side of Kolya’s mouth, and his hair — his hair is an utter disaster, and Kolya is even more in love with him than he was last night.

Kolya folds his arms around Nick, and kisses him gently, half-convinced he’s dreaming. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d dreamed of Nick in bed with him, of Nick wanting him. Those dreams have always been the worst, because Kolya always wakes up from them alone again, and fumbles easy shots in practice the next day, trying not to want Nick quite so badly, not to be so horribly, hopelessly in love with him.

“Mmm,” Nick says again, and he kisses back harder, sloppier. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t have much practice kissing anyone, and Kolya feels warmth bubble through him at the idea that Nick wants him. And right now, with Nick half-sprawled over him and absently rubbing his erection against Kolya’s hip, Kolya has no doubt that Nick wants him.

“Less thinking,” Nick says, when Kolya pauses to pet his hair and wonder at his life, “more fucking.”

Kolya snorts, and Nick moves to straddle Kolya’s hips and grind against him, and wow, Kolya’s suddenly one hundred percent on board with this, introspection can wait.

“Nick,” he gasps, and Nick braces his hands on Kolya’s shoulders and grinds his ass against Kolya’s dick like he means business.

“Lube,” Nick says, “god, Kolya, I want you in me so bad.”

Kolya swears his brain shorts out. Nick grinds down against him again, and sort of shakes Kolya by the shoulders.

“Lube,” Nick says, “condom, get with the program.”

Kolya blinks and scrambles to comply. Nick grabs the lube out of his hand, bossy and impatient, and Kolya wonders why he ever thought Nick would be different in bed than he is on the ice, why he expected to take small steps. When Nick wants something, he’s all in, no holds barred. It’s irresistable on the ice. Kolya grits his teeth.

Nick slicks up his fingers and reaches back, and Kolya kind of flails and grabs at Nick’s hips, because holy shit, Nick really means it, he wants Kolya to fuck him, right now.

“Oh,” Nick groans, and Kolya wants to be the one to make him do that, make those noises. “Kolya, fuck.”

He writhes above Kolya, broad-shouldered and loud, and Kolya has to grab at the base of his dick to be sure this isn’t over before it even starts. Closing his eyes is impossible, Kolya has to watch, see Nick arch his back and strain, his cock still impossibly hard, arching up against his abs.

Kolya has never fucked someone so fit, never dared pick up anyone who looked like an athlete. He’s never going to be able to look at anyone else again. He never wants to look at anyone else again, so that’s probably for the best.

“Okay,” Nick says, “okay, let’s go, god, Kolya, do I have to do all the work around here?”

But he’s grinning as he strokes Kolya’s cock, rolls the condom on and slicks him up, and Nick pauses above him.

“This okay?” he asks, suddenly serious.

Kolya nods, open-mouthed, and Nick bends down to kiss him, hot and sloppy and so, so good, and pulls away. Kolya doesn’t even have time to react to the loss because Nick grabs his cock and just kind of shoves himself down on it, like he’s never heard of taking it slow.

Chert voz’mi,” Kolya swears, and only some kind of divine miracle keeps him from snapping his hips up, fucking into Nick the way his body wants to, because Nick makes this gasp, the kind of sound he makes when he’s checked into the boards, and, god, Kolya will never be able to check him again if he keeps making those noises in bed.

Nick has his hands braced on his knees, and he’s biting his lower lip, and, god, he’s still hard, Kolya’s never seen that before, never fucked someone who stayed hard through it. It’s an impossible turn-on and Kolya bites his lip so hard he tastes blood.

“Okay,” Nick gasps, and slides down a little farther, “oh, god, Kolya.” His face is flushed and sweaty and he’s grinning, and then he pulls up, and thank god for hockey player thighs.

They fall into a rhythm quicker than Kolya might have expected, if he’d ever let himself think about this in so much detail, which he hasn’t, because he’s only human but he thought he knew what he couldn’t have. He was so wrong. He’s never been so glad to be wrong.

Nick’s breath goes choppy when Kolya swears, when Kolya grabs at the sheets to ground himself, and Kolya doesn’t hold back, lets himself be as loud as he wants, fucking chants Nick’s name when he gets close.

“Oh, oh, Nick, Nick, Nick,” he gasps, hands fisted in his own hair just for something to hold onto, and Nick locks eyes with him and grinds down, hard, and Kolya bucks up, coming so hard he can’t see, whining behind his teeth like he’s been gut-punched, and Nick freezes and fists his cock and comes a bare moment later, splattering Kolya’s collarbone and belly and collapsing on top of him.

“Ow,” Nick says, when Kolya slips out, and Kolya pats his sides, trying to be reassuring, but he can’t seem to find his brain, much less English words that make sense.

“No, it’s okay,” Nick says, pulling off the condom and chucking it in the general direction of the trash. “That always feels weird.”

He is altogether too coherent for someone who just fucked Kolya’s brains out, so Kolya just flails a hand out, grabbing, pulls Nick into his arms and nestles his lips into the hair at the crown of Nick’s head, folding them together like puzzle pieces. Nick nuzzles Kolya’s shoulder, and they drowse until the alarm goes off some time later.

* * *

They share a taxi to the rink for practice. Kolya feels newly aware of Nick’s presence, like he has invisible nerve endings telling him when Nick moves, breathes, looks his way. It’s amazing; it’s a little distracting. It might be dynamite on the ice.

When they walk into the locker room, just barely on time, Marc looks up, as do Brooks and Timmo. Marc smiles at him, and goes back to strapping into his shin pads like nothing’s wrong.

“Suit up, boys,” Brooks calls, “coach says last one out on the ice starts with suicides today.”

Kolya is ninety percent sure Brooks is joking, but he really hates suicides, so he strips down and suits up in record time, unaware of anything except the desire to avoid starting practice exhausted. His knees are wobbly enough already. Timmo’s the last one out, and coach actually makes him skate a full set while the team stretches.

“You guys good?” Brooks asks, skating to a stop behind Kolya, nodding at Nick, who’s doing some kind of absurd pretzel thing with his legs.

“Yes,” Kolya replies, blinking and looking away from Nick. “Yeah, we’re good.”

Brooks claps him on the shoulder, skates away, and a moment later Timmo comes to a halt.

“Fuck my life,” Timmo gasps, “sonofabitch, motherfucker.” He’s bent over, hands braced on his knees, and it would be pathetic, except for the part where it’s kind of funny how much Timmo hates this.

“You got enough air to cuss,” coach calls, “you got enough air for another set?”

Timmo drops to the ice, flailing dramatically.

“No more,” he calls. “Uncle!”

Everyone laughs, Nick hands Timmo a bottle of Gatorade, and they get started on shooting drills like any other day. Kolya and Nick line up their shots better than usual, get a few past Marc that he’d usually block, and Kolya feels something blossom in his chest, warm and welcome, when Nick grabs him around the neck for an exuberant celly.

Yes, he thinks, grinning like a madman and punching the air like it was a game-winning goal, a hat trick, and not just a practice shot. Yes, this is what I wanted.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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6 thoughts on “One May Hide Another

  1. Oh, geez, there’s more of their story, and it’s absolutely amazing. Koyla’s confession to Isabelle had me fighting back tears, it was so painful and honest. I’m so glad he and Nick got themselves on the same page in the end.

    • I’m so glad they sorted it out – the theme of the issue was “second chances” and they just RAN OFF WITH ME.

      Thank you for commenting!

  2. oh my god i second that, i can’t believe i missed this first time around, thank goodness the wiki told me there was more of these precious boys

    and i’m so glad to see so much of isabelle in this one!

    but also like. five years, jeez. or, as we say here in “practically Canada”, aw jeez.

    (also it’s so weird to be like “aw yiss other queer minnesotans” but like. good weird.)

    • Thank you for commenting! I love the wiki so much.

      Isabelle is … well, let’s be real, Kolya is my favorite, but Isabelle is my favorite non-hockey-player.

      Five years! Repression and self-denial do AMAZING THINGS. Also, you know, Kolya would tell you that he wasn’t pining the whole time: he was just, you know, living with the impossibilities of the real world.

      YAY queer Minnesotans. Yay.

  3. this broke me down into tiny little emotional pieces only to raise me back up, wrap me in a warm blanket and make me the happiest person ever.

    thank u so much for this gift.

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