To Sing of Contests

by 織工 (Okō)

The fall of 2013 seems to absolutely fly by. One moment there’s a hastily-staged intervention where what feels like half of Nick’s teammates are in his kitchen telling Nick they know about him and Kolya, the next it’s December and New York is even more slammed with tourists than usual.

Isabelle flies back to the farm for her Christmas break, but Nick has games bracketing Christmas Eve and Day, and isn’t willing to be that jetlagged if it means he has to spend time trying not to punch his brother-in-law in the face. To say that things haven’t improved between him and Jason would be a distinct understatement. Nick’s collected family Skypes him in for Christmas, and Nick carefully doesn’t comment on who is and isn’t in the room when the computer is on.

Instead of going back to Minnesota, Nick and Kolya eat take-out and watch Die Hard. It’s low-key and relaxing, and Marc makes fun of them relentlessly for being stereotypical New York Jews, because apparently Chinese food on Christmas Eve is a thing in New York. Kolya shakes his head, and Nick sputters something, and eventually Marc lets it drop when it looks like they’re drawing too much attention in the locker room, because it’s not common knowledge that Nick and Kolya are a thing, even if some of the team totally has their back. The plan is still for things to stay that way, Nick knows, and that means even Marc occasionally dials it back.

New Year’s Eve is more of a big deal: Isabelle is back, and she insists on coming along to the Bykov’s house for the enormous party. Sergei Bykov dresses up as Father Christmas, and Isabelle dresses up as the Snow Maiden, and the Bykov girls are spellbound when she walks in, even Katya, who insists she’s too old for things like this.

It’s a really great night, even if Nick doesn’t speak enough Russian to keep up when the vodka really starts flowing after the children have gone to sleep. He doesn’t drink much, because he knows someone has to get them home, and he keeps Kolya from getting too handsy when he steps close at midnight.

All in all, Nick thinks, as they head home in an taxi, things seem to be going pretty okay.

* * *

So Nick isn’t sure what he’s expecting when he goes over to Kolya’s place on January third. It definitely isn’t anything like what he gets.

“I got the call. I’m on the Olympic team,” Kolya says. “Going to Sochi too.”

“But that’s a good thing,” Nick says. Kolya has wanted to go to Sochi since he was passed over for the Vancouver team, deemed too young, too green.

Kolya makes a face Nick can’t interpret.

“Good for hockey,” he says finally. “Bad for me. For us.”

“You said –” Nick pauses. “So we don’t talk during the Olympics, we talked about that.”

Kolya looks almost physically pained. He makes a frustrated gesture, then pushes Nick to sit at his kitchen table.

“Stay there,” he says. “Be right back.”

He must be really upset: his accent is coming through in ways he normally doesn’t allow. Nick stays put, confusion coalescing into the beginnings of anger. Kolya comes back with a stack of color printouts in Cyrillic.  Then he asks for Nick’s phone.

Nick hands it over, and Kolya leaves the room again, comes back with a pad of paper and a couple of envelopes this time. He puts them down on the table and pulls a chair over to sit next to Nick.

“I was stupid,” Kolya says. “Thought, oh, we hide, it’s fine, no problem.” He shakes his head. “Not true. Look,” he says, flipping through the stack of full-color printouts. It’s all blocky-weird letters that Nick recognizes maybe half of. he should really put in more time with Rosetta Stone, or with Isabelle’s tapes.

“Kolya,” Nick says, trying to bite back his temper. “I can’t read that.”

Kolya points again. There are seals and sigils all over the pages, and it looks like maybe it’s an itinerary of sorts? Nick can’t tell.

“Events,” he says. “They buy us girls. They take us out, show us off. Single guys have to choose a few girls, go out with them. Good Russian girls, models, daughters of rich men.” He looks really upset.

“So you go out with some people,” Nick says. “It’s not like you haven’t put a few girls in cabs this fall, you know?”

“Not just pretty girls, Nick,” Kolya says. “Spies.” He stabs a finger at the computer screen again. “More events, mandatory for NHL players, not for KHL players.” He shrugs. “Talked to my agent. All events more mandatory for me. Closer watch, more attention.”

Because he ran away, Nick thinks. Because he left Russia, left Traktor Chelyabinsk behind, and hasn’t gone back since except for international competition, when he absolutely had to. Nick knew it was something Kolya was worried about in the abstract.

“So we don’t talk in Sochi,” Nick says. “So you, what, don’t give these people your phone and your password. You’re–”

“Can’t bring own phone to Russia,” Kolya says. “Nick, you can’t.” He looks panicked.

“What?” Nick asks. “I mean, I need an international plan, but –”

“They hack it,” Kolya interrupts. “They hack it, you have text messages, photos. Can’t – you have to promise me.”

“Who is ‘they’?” Nick demands. “Seriously, who is going to hack some hockey player’s cell phone?”

Kolya stares at him.

“FSB,” he says. “Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti.” He looks at Nick, who shrugs. “KGB,” Kolya says, like this is something painfully obvious. “Was the KGB, the Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti.” He stares at Nick. “Spies,” he says. “Like FBI, CIA.”

“Those are two different agencies,” Nick says, mouth running on autopilot. “They do two different things.” It’s a stupid objection, and he knows it.

“Fine, different,” Kolya says. “All spies. And still the FSB hacks my phone, the SVR hacks yours. You’re not just another hockey player. You’re an American, and you’re on a team with me. They hack all the phones with free wifi. They just read yours first because of me.”

He pushes a handwritten list across the table at Nick, along with two sealed envelopes. Kolya hates writing things out by hand when he could type, so this is just plain weird.

“You’re being really fucking paranoid,” Nick says. “The Cold War is over, Kolya, you don’t have to be so freaking cloak-and-dagger about this.”

“Maybe it’s over in America,” Kolya says. “Not in Russia.”

Nick swears.

“You’re being crazy,” he says.

It’s the wrong thing to say, and he knows that as soon as he’s said it.

“Crazy,” Kolya spits. “You think I want this? Go to so many events, have shadow, have handler. Can’t just play hockey, have to make nice with politicians? I know this kind of men. They want people like us in camps. They pass the laws that take Russia away from me.” He shuts the laptop with a sharp click, shoves it away from them across the table. “I have to watch everything, there,” he says. “Nothing easy, nothing simple, always being watched.” He laughs, long and bitter. “Sasha calls me, says good luck, Putin wants gold, it will be so much pressure, we have to work hard. He has no idea how much worse for me.”

Nick has rarely heard Kolya say so much at once. He hardly ever talks about Russia, much less about Russian propaganda laws, about the pressures that sent him running for the United States as soon as he was able.

“I want gold,” Kolya says. “I want to win, I want to go to the Olympics.” He sags in his chair. “I want to be safe, too. I don’t get both, not in Sochi. But I can keep you safe, maybe, if you just fucking listen. Don’t bring phone, don’t talk to me, don’t –” he throws up his hands. “Don’t hold hands with men in public,” he says. “Don’t do anything stupid!”

“You’re not making sense,” Nick spits back. “It’s not that bad. We’d have heard about it if it were that bad.”

“Where?” Kolya demands. “American media is so interested in safety of American queers that it cares about Russian queers too? It’s not.” He seems genuinely angry. “You check RT, you check news, it says nothing,” Kolya says. “I hear from friends, bits and pieces, I put together the whole thing. They don’t think about it that way. They say, oh, a pedik disappeared, too bad, oh, that goluboi, that rozovyi, they choose to move to Finland, no big deal.” He glares at Nick, and he must be angry if he’s using words this strong. “It’s bad,” he says. “Safer for you, because American. So, Olympic athletes, they get a pass if they behave in public.”

“I’m not going to hook up with someone in Sochi,” Nick says, and he’s getting angry now.

“Maybe you should,” Kolya says. “Safer for you, safer for me, too, maybe.”

Nick stares at him.

“What?” He demands. “You know I –”

Nick doesn’t just hook up. He’s not wired that way, doesn’t want people unless he knows them already, is friends, trusts them. Strangers, even really hot Olympic strangers, might as well be sexless mannikins as far as Nick is concerned.

“Maybe I do,” Kolya says. “Maybe I have to. The women they’re going to send, they’re not only spies, also rewards.”

“What the fuck,” Nick says, flat. “You’re telling me they’re sending you hot spies as some kind of sex prize? What are you, James Bond?”

“They’re spies,” Kolya says. “Not for me. I’m reward for them. They sleep with me, they get paid more, they get a, what, a notch in their belt? Look, I slept with him, good for me. I’m just a bonus to them, maybe some fun.”

“So don’t fuck them!” Nick exclaims. “Easy!”

“Easy?” Kolya says. “Easy? Fuck you, Nick, is not easy.”

He breaks into a long stream of impassioned Russian, all sharp consonants and hard vowels and hand gestures, and Nick gets madder the longer Kolya goes on, because he can’t understand a word of it.

“We break up first,” Kolya tells him, finally, in English again. “Better for both of us, safer, less worry.”

“Fuck that,” Nick says. “I’m not breaking up with you.”

Kolya stares at him.

“You said you wanted this more than hockey,” Nick tries.

His voice breaks a little bit. Kolya had sounded so certain about that, so sure that he knew what he would choose when the time came. This is the opposite of what Nick expected, and he feels like he’s in freefall.

“I was wrong,” Kolya says. “Change my mind. Olympics. So I break up with you. Now leave.”

And he stands up and walks out of the room. He comes back, puts Nick’s phone on the table and walks out again, leaving Nick alone in the kitchen until he grabs Kolya’s list with shaking hands and lets himself out.

* * *

Nick has never thought of himself as a particularly optimistic person: he just doesn’t see the point of borrowing trouble, that’s all. Shit’s going to hit the fan at some point, and he’ll have to deal with it then. Why worry beforehand? Nick has his own set of coping mechanisms for when that happens, and whether said shit is his little sister, Emma, being bullied for having hand-me-down glasses, or his boarding school hockey teammates deciding to give an openly gay kid a swirlie in the locker room toilets, Nick knows how to step in and make the situation go away. Usually it involves him hitting someone, or yelling a lot.

Today, though, he’s out of options, because this is a problem he can’t just punch in the face. He and Kolya are both going to the Olympic Games in Sochi, in Russia, and Kolya just broke up with him to keep them safe from Putin’s laws during the games.

Nick closes his eyes and sits back on the couch, trying not to freak out. Maybe Isabelle is right, maybe his fight-or-flight-and-really-just-fight instincts need some talking to. There’s no way he can smack sense into the entire Russian government, and he knows better than to wrap his hands and go at a punching bag when he feels like this, so Nick just sits, hands gripping his knees, and waits for it to pass.

Isabelle, his younger sister, comes in some indefinite time later.

“Shit,” she says, and curls up on the couch next to him. “Nicks, look at me.”

Nick opens his eyes, and she almost flinches.

“That crisse de toton,” she says. She’s got to spend less time with hockey players, Nick thinks, vaguely, because that kind of swearing is really going to piss off their mom. Nick doesn’t react, though. It doesn’t seem worth it right now.

“He broke up with you,” Isabelle says. “That dick, I swear, I don’t even know what –”

Nick puts a hand on her shoulder. “It’s his choice,” he says. “He’s scared, Izzy. That’s it.”

“Fuck that shit,” Isabelle all but yells. “He’s making you miserable just because he’s nervous? He doesn’t get to do that.”

Nick shakes his head, and it seems to clear a little bit. He’s mad at Kolya, sure, but he can’t punch Kolya, either, and he’s really got to find some way of dealing with things that isn’t honed for a hockey rink. “He’s –” Nick starts, but he doesn’t know what Kolya’s thinking, only what he said. “He says it’s too dangerous, so, okay. Fine.”

Nick doesn’t see how it could really be that bad, but Kolya was white-faced and visibly terrified when he gave Nick a hand-written list of precautions to take, including not bringing his real phone to Russia with him at all for fear it would get hacked and give them away. The list, which Nick still has in his pocket, is heart-breakingly complete and exhaustive, and includes different layers of precautions for Nick, his sister Isabelle, and the rest of his family. There’s even a note at the end begging Nick to go along with it even if he’s mad.

“It’s not fine,” Isabelle says. “He’s hurting you. That’s my job, I’m the youngest child, I’m supposed to be the selfish jerk.”

Nick laughs, and tugs her into a hug, because Isabelle couldn’t be a jerk if her life depended on it.  He doesn’t even protest when Isabelle turns on a DVRed episode of Cupcake Wars and makes him watch the whole thing with her, even when he knows she has homework, and it makes him crave sugar something fierce.

* * *

Marc is tapped as the second-string goalie for the Canadian team, which seems to shock him and doesn’t surprise Nick at all. And then a few days later, Anton comes into the locker room visibly puffed up with pride. One of the Russian KHL players who was picked for the team just got a concussion in a game with Dynamo Moscow, and Anton was one of the alternates.

He’s so proud, Nick has to be a little happy for him: everyone wants to play for their country. Kolya congratulates him, but he looks a little pinched, and he leaves practice faster than usual.

“Shit,” Marc says, and grabs Kirill and Timmo before they can leave. He drags them back to Nick’s apartment without asking, because apparently that’s something they do now when they want to talk about Nick and Kolya.

Isabelle takes one look at them and pulls out beer, then takes her stuff to her bedroom.

“Gotta finish this paper,” she says. “Zap can fill me in later.”

Kirill makes a face at the nickname, but honestly, he deserves it after setting off a fire alarm with a microwave, and it could be so much worse. Nick nods, and ruffles her hair as she hands him a beer, even though she’s not little anymore.

“Thanks, Iz,” he says. “Sorry to crash the study party.”

“It’s fine,” she says. She’s been a little down recently, but she hasn’t wanted to talk about it, so Nick has been leaving well enough alone, figures she’ll talk to him when she wants to.

“So,” Marc says, settling at the kitchen table. Nick pulls out some leftovers. They just came from practice and they’re hockey players, they can all basically eat forever. “Tell us, Zap. How bad is this?”

Kirill looks at his beer, and then he gets up and grabs a bottle of vodka from the cabinet next to the sink. Nick’s heart sinks, because that’s not a good sign at all.

“Well, fuck,” Timmo says. “Get glasses for all of us, kid, let’s set up a plan of attack.”

Nick grabs glasses and plunks them on the table, then pulls out cold grilled vegetables and chicken and sets them out as finger food. Kirill pours vodka, and the rest of them finish their beer.

“Is bad,” Kirill says. “Best chance gone now. Anton on team, more hard.”

Marc makes a face, obviously confused.

“Best chance keep secret,” Kirill says. “If Kolya was only one on team knows. Anton maybe guesses, thinks something. He talks, is bad.” He makes a face. “Will be bad. English worst.”

Nick puts his beer down and pours a shot of vodka, tips it back. “So,” he says. “Kolya’s about to be on a team that’s probably violently homophobic, in a country that hates gay men, and Anton’s going to out him.”

Kirill looks at him, obviously parsing the sentence in his head.

“Yes,” he says. “Very dangerous. Smart thing, safe thing? Not play. Get injured now, not go to Sochi.” He shakes his head. “Kolya not that smart.”

“Hey,” Nick says, offended on Kolya’s behalf.

“Nah,” Timmo says, “Zap has a point. K’s not good at taking care of himself, not really.”

Marc toasts him. “He ended up with Nicks, right?” He adds. “How good can his self-preservation really be?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Nick says. “I’m not that bad.”

They all laugh, and the mood lightens for a moment.

“So,” Timmo says, because he’s like a dog with a bone, a winger with a breakaway, hyper-focused on the goal in sight. “What do we do?”

Kirill shrugs.

“Watch,” he says. “Be careful. You,” he points at Nick. “You stay far away. You not safe.” He points at Marc. “You talk to Dmitriev, backup goalie, he good, tells you things.” He thinks for a minute. “I text friends, feel left out, ask stories about Sochi. I tell Bella.”

He looks at Nick.

“We need Bella,” he says. “She” –he makes a hand gesture between the two of them– “safe,” he says, obviously frustrated.

“She’s our go-between,” Nick says. “She knows Kolya’s mom and dad, she can talk to them.”

“Misha at team events,” Kirill says, nodding. “Tells Mama K, she tells Bella. Bella tells you.”

Calisse de tabernak de merde,” Timmo says. “This is pretty epic spy level shit.”

Kirill looks confused.

“Very paranoid,” Nick says. “Do we need to be so careful?”

Kirill stares at them like they’ve just suggested the team pull the goalie in the middle of the first period, like it’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard.

“Not good enough,” he says. “Better if buy real spies, but you not know how find good.” He shrugs. “All good ones bought now,” he says. “Probably. Tough shit, we do it careful.”

Marc locks eyes with Nick. “And if it gets bad?” Marc asks, pouring more vodka for all of them. Nick winces.

“Kolya keeps passport, not that stupid,” Kirill says. “Charter flight out. Costs much money, but.” He shrugs, looks around the apartment. “NHL money, maybe.”

Nick blanches.

“Maybe not need,” Kirill says. “I still suggest, ask Kolya soon.”

He’s really stepping up. Nick must look surprised, because Kirill bristles a little bit.

“I like, proud to be Russian,” he says. “Not have to like shitty laws. Kolya good guy, want to keep him safe.”

Nick toasts him, because there isn’t much else to say to that. Talk turns to line composition at practices and the ways their coach is changing up the lines, because they’d all really rather talk about that than anything related to whether or not Kolya is going to get lynched.

When they go home, Nick is still slightly buzzed. He takes out his phone and considers texting Kolya, then puts the phone away. Kolya said to be safe, so he’s going to start now.

He does, however, get Isabelle on board for Kirill’s plan before he turns on game tape to prep for their second-to-last pre-Olympic game.

* * *

Sochi is not as cold as Nick expected, for someplace they’re holding the winter Olympics. And when he gets into them, the American dormitories are, well, they’re something, that’s for sure. Nick’s glad he’s not as tall as his New York teammate, Paulie, because the beds are exactly six feet long, and they’re narrow for twin mattresses, to boot. They’re probably great for ice skaters, Nick thinks, and then feels a little bit bad about the stereotype. Not that bad, though, because the ice skaters he’s seen have all been freaking tiny, and about twelve years old. They’ll sleep just fine on these kid beds. Nick spares a thought for the Czech team’s captain, who’s 6’9″, and sighs in relief.

There aren’t really shelves for gear, and the bedside tables are tiny, so Nick leaves most of his stuff in his bags: clothes in the suitcase, hockey gear in the gear bag and hanging on the hooks on the wall. The whole room is probably going to smell horrible in a few days, because the windows don’t open, but Nick’s room at Shattuck wasn’t exactly a paragon of cleanliness, and it’s not forever.

Nick’s roommate is Jamie Barnes, captain of the Minnesota Wild, which is Nick’s uncle’s team. They’ve been doing pretty well this season, and Jamie’s really been lighting it up on the ice, racking up goals and on track for an 80-point season if things go as they have been. Nick’s been watching his tape, all his Team America co-player’s tape. He knows Jamie shoots left and likes a U-curve stick, and that he’s prone to passing too hard.

“Hey,” Jamie says, and Nick blinks and smiles. “Nick, right?”

He holds out an enormous hand to shake, and Nick grabs it and steps aside to let him into the room. Jamie looms over him, easily 6’5″, and Nick wonders how on earth he’s going to sleep on these tiny beds.

“Holy shit,” Jamie says, looking around their room. They can hear the people in the next rooms through the walls. “They weren’t kidding, eh?”

“Not exactly the Ritz,” Nick agrees. “I’ve never been so glad to be short for my family, you know?”

Jamie laughs. “You’re Coach J’s nephew, right?” He asks, as if he doesn’t know. Nick’s uncle Jordan is easily 6’4″ and has been assistant coaching for the Wild for nearly half a decade now.

Nick nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Hoped I’d get to his height when I was a kid, but it didn’t work out.”

“Well,” Jamie says. “Doesn’t seem to have stopped you.” He looks at the beds and shakes his head. “At least there’s just two of us,” he says. “I hear Team Canada has some three to a room, pretty much the same size.”

Nick stares at him. “Goddamn,” he says. “That’s gonna suck for them.”

The room isn’t small, exactly, but there’s already not a lot of floor space with two tiny beds and two gear bags in it. Three would be pushing it. Jamie shrugs and sets his bags down by the wall. Nick has claimed the bed nearer the window, and he’s glad Jamie doesn’t seem to care.

“Yeah, well,” Jamie says. “It’s the Olympics. We can bitch about the mattresses forever after we win. At least tell me we’ve only got one toilet in the bathroom? Don’t have to hold hands while we shit, right?”

Nick must look confused, and Jamie pulls up a photo on his phone.  Apparently he’s referring to a photo on social media of two toilets next to each other, no dividers, no nothing.

“Really shitty construction,” Jamie says. “I mean, look, some guy even got locked into his bathroom and broke the drywall to get out!”

“Don’t say that too loud,” Nick says, half-kidding, and makes a ‘look around the room’ gesture, then taps his ear gently. It’s half superstition about jinxing a win, half paranoia.

Jamie looks up from his gear bag, which he seems content to unload all over the floor like a miniature tornado hit his side of the room.

“Man, I know these buildings are probably bugged up the wazoo,” he says. “But you know, I’m not advocating political dissent, I’m just saying the rooms suck and I want to win.” He shrugs. “I’m not into politics,” he says. “Fuck that shit, I’m just a hockey player.”

Nick nods. He’d have said the same thing before he knew Kolya, before the talk with his friends. That was way more sobering than the talks the Rangers gave the four of them, Nick and Kolya and Marc and Anton, even worse and scarier than the very pointed talks he had with his agent because of his ostensibly secret relationship with Koyla.

“Yeah,” Nick says. Apparently his very existence is political here in Russia, if he allows it to be, but he doesn’t want to be political either; he just wants to play hockey. “I want gold for sure. Let’s make them work for it, hey?”

Jamie looks up with a brilliant grin.

“That’s the spirit,” he says. “Hey, want to go take some pictures of Sochi, maybe those herds of stray dogs, post them all over Instagram?”

Nick admits that he hardly ever uses Instagram, or Twitter, or SnapChat, or even Facebook unless he absolutely has to. He and Jamie argue amiably about the relative merits of public-facing social media while Jamie does something that seems more like strewing than unpacking. It does leave Jamie’s stuff on his side of the room, though, so Nick figures he can live with it. He’s had worse road roommates with the Rangers in the past, and that’s leaving his Shattuck roommates out of it entirely.

Jamie looks up from his bag, and grins at Nick’s expression as he drops his shoulder and chest pads next to his suitcase in a heap. “You’re not going to bitch about my stuff, are you,” he says. He sounds surprised.

Nick shrugs. “Not my problem,” he says. Then he adds, because that’s a little too laissé-faire: “Besides, if I trip on your shit and die, you’re the one who has to explain it to the coaches.”

“Harsh, man,” Jamie says, miming a heart attack. But he does toe the half-empty suitcase a little closer to wall.

“You usually get a lot of shit for it?” Nick asks, curiosity getting the better of him.

“Eh,” Jamie says. That means yes, Nick figures.

“Long as you don’t snore like a jackhammer or let the alarm go off forever, we’re cool,” Nick says. “Or puke on me while I’m asleep, dude. Just don’t do that, it’s not cool.”

Nick used to be a lot stricter, but he can put on an eye mask if there are lights, and he can sleep through just about any temperature these days, so it’s really just noise that he’s worried about. Earplugs drive him crazy.

Jamie stares at him, seemingly baffled. “Huh,” he says. “That’s pretty chill. And here Tyler warned me you were wound pretty tight.”

Tyler was one of Nick’s older teammates at Shattuck, and one of the assholes who taught Nick to be careful about locker room talk. Tyler is part of the reason Nick asked his high school girlfriend out in the first place, because he bullied the younger boys, the ones who didn’t hook up. Nick learned real fast in that locker room how to be NHL-normal in public, and a lot of it was Tyler being a homophobic dick.

“Guess he’s a little out of date,” Nick says. He’s maybe a little bitter about Tyler being a jerk, though, because he can’t resist adding: “He still leave jizzed-up socks in the locker-room shower these days, or did they break him of that habit in the AHL?”

“What,” Jamie says. He looks torn between horror and delight. “No way he did that.”

Nick knows this is prime chirping material, but he’s got the space to do it now: he’s at the Olympics, and Tyler isn’t, might never be. Turnabout might not be fair play, but it sure feels good right about now.

“Never admitted it was him,” Nick says. “But it sure happened less after he graduated from Shattuck. You know, like, never.”

“I can’t tell if that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard, or if I love you for the chance to bring that up the next time he’s a dick to the rookies,” Jamie says.

So Tyler is still bullying the rookies. Nick isn’t surprised, exactly, but he is a little disappointed. He’d kind of hoped that with the amount of time Tyler spent playing in college and in the AHL, he’d have gotten to be less of a jerk. Some people just get hardened into it, and some players are just assholes, Nick knows, but he’s been pretty lucky in his team these past few years.

Nick makes a wiggling gesture with his hand, a so-so motion.

“Anyway,” Nick says, because he still can’t tell if Jamie is one of Tyler’s friends or not, and doesn’t want to get into this too far right now. “You wanted to piss someone off by tweeting stray dogs?”

Jamie is absolutely still interested in taking pictures of the stray dogs roaming the streets of the Olympic Village. “Great way to get more press attention, you know?” Jamie asks. Nick puts his phone away. Even if he were inclined to make a stand for animal welfare, even if he thought it would make a difference, well, he can’t draw attention right now: for Kolya’s sake even more than his own.

Jamie snaps some pictures of dogs that Nick feels really bad for, all ribcages and floppy beat-up ears. Kolya would probably be Instagramming the hell out of the dogs, Nick things, if he didn’t think it would reflect badly on Russia. He probably wants to adopt them all, and Nick makes a note to tell him not to smuggle a puppy home in his suitcase.

Then Nick shakes his head to clear it: He’s at the Olympics, Kolya dumped him, and he’s going to play his heart out and forget how much he misses his boyfriend in the process, and bring home a gold medal. That’s the plan.

Finally Jamie snaps one last picture of a mottled grey and brown dog with a long skinny muzzle, and they head back into the dorms to meet the rest of the team.

* * *

The first practice is the next day, all the ice time carefully rationed out to the various teams who need time to get used to the new lines and ice size. International ice is larger than the NHL standard, which means a faster, less physical game, one where Nick needs to rely more on his stamina and less on his temper. He’s really glad Anton has been on his line this season in the NHL, because it’s helped his passing to people he doesn’t know, or doesn’t much like, but it’s still a struggle to click with people he usually sees across a face-off circle.

The team eats together, and hangs out together, and most of the teams wear their nationally-issued jumpsuits and track pants, and Nick feels a little bit like an automaton, a hockey bot. He sees Kolya in the distance from time to time and is completely, resolutely ignored so thoroughly that the guys on Team USA notice.

“Man, your teammate Nikolai’s got a stick up his ass for sure,” Jamie says, after he and Nick pass Kolya in the rink hallway on their way into practice.

Nick just shrugs. “Probably a lot on his mind,” he offers. “You know there’s a lot of pressure on them, yeah?”

Jamie makes a skeptical face. “Sure,” he allows. “But Sasha’s still talking to his teammates, and Ilya’s not giving me the cold shoulder. What’s up with that?”

Nick just shakes his head, hoping his expression doesn’t give too much away. Kolya has been looking more and more stressed out the longer they’re here, shoulders hunching in a way that makes Nick uncomfortable on his behalf. He wants to sit down and work the kinks out of Kolya’s trapezius, hold him in his arms and let him relax, but he knows that’s pretty much the worst possible thing he could do right now.

“Anyway,” Nick says, changing the subject. “What did you think of Coach’s approach to one-man rushes today?”

Jamie lets him steer the conversation, and they chat amiably enough until they’ve gotten back to the room and Nick has to fight him for first shower.

Hockey takes up a lot of his time – more even than the playoffs, and way more condensed – but Nick makes time to see his family when they finally fly in for the second round of games.

“Hey, Izzy,” Nick says in passing, when they’re out walking between buildings and there’s less chance of being overheard. “Maybe text Zap, tell him to check in?”

Kirill still hasn’t been able to live down his ill-fated attempt to set a hotel on fire by microwaving metal, but it’s not a public nickname yet. It’s safer to use nicknames, his agent said in Nick’s private meeting, especially ones that aren’t well known. Timmo had pulled Nick aside, too, told him to get Isabelle’s help with keeping an eye on Kolya.

“The games are your first priority, obviously,” he’d said. “But it’s going to be a lot. If you can keep an eye out, I’d appreciate it.”

At the time, Nick thought they were overreacting, just like Kolya. Then he talked with Kirill, and still thought things wouldn’t be that bad, that they couldn’t be. Now that they’re here, he’s starting to think they didn’t know the half of it, weren’t worried enough.

“Sure thing,” Isabelle says. “Look, I’ll take care of it. You go get some fancy athlete food, I’ll check in with the family.”

Nick doesn’t see her again until the next day, and she pulls him aside for a walk again.

“It’s not good,” she says. “Zap says Asshat’s probably making problems about stuff. It sounds like a bad environment, pretty toxic.”

Translation: Anton is spreading rumors about Kolya being gay, which Kolya can’t counter directly without being slammed with anti-propaganda law charges, because even talking about this directly is dangerous with the laws the way they are. Kolya can’t even ask the guys to stop using the really nasty homophobic slurs that he’s so hair-trigger sensitive to, for the same reason. Anton’s probably punching that up, too, because he’s just that much of a vindictive jerk, and he sees Kolya’s acceptance by some of the NY Rangers as a kind of personal affront.

“It gets worse,” Isabelle says, as they walk into town, speaking quietly. She’s ramped up her Minnesota accent, on purpose, Nick thinks. “One of his family members got in good with a big shot,” Isabelle says. “Zap doesn’t think he has as much leverage there anymore. Plus he’s not here, you know. No proximity to the threats anymore.”

Nick stops walking for a moment. If Anton’s family isn’t at risk of blackmail and of financial ruin anymore, Kirill’s threats won’t keep him quiet, either here or back in New York. Isabelle pulls him to keep going.

“Don’t block traffic,” she says. It’s a veiled reminder: be normal. Act normal. Just in case.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nick says, but he keeps walking. “Keep an eye on it?” He asks.

“Sure,” Isabelle says. “But I’m still pissed, you know?”

She’s been solidly in Nick’s corner on this one, and Nick is starting to think he doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t deserve anyone being mad at Kolya for breaking up with him. He wonders that Kolya was brave enough to come out to him at all, if this is what things are like.

“Don’t be,” he says. “This all sucks. It’s not worth it.”

Isabelle shrugs, and then lights up at the sight of a sign on a street vendor’s cart. “Ooooh,” she says. “Lookit, souvenirs!”

She drags Nick over and quickly establishes with the vendor that, Nick is pretty sure, he’s ripping her off with the quoted price. A calculator changes hands a few times, and the vendor seems surprised that Isabelle reads the sums in Russian. Finally money changes hands, and Isabelle walks away with utwo creepy stuffed dolls.

“You’re so lucky I’m here,” Isabelle says. “He was totally going to charge you ten times what I just paid.”

Nick shrugs. “I can afford it,” he says. It’s not like anything here is really all that expensive.

“You are so bad at this,” Isabelle says. “Haggling is fun!”

“Maybe if you speak the language,” Nick points out. He mostly hates the artifice of it, the turning away and pretending not to want something. He’d rather just pay and leave, because it saves so much effort.

“You are no fun,” Isabelle announces. “I’m finding someone better to go shopping with. Maybe Mama K will take me.”

She means Kolya’s mother, and now that Nick thinks about it, that’s actually a really good idea.

“Good call,” Nick says. “Maybe bring the whole family along, get some native pointers.”

Isabelle makes a face. “Ugh, I’m not bringing Mischa, he’ll just complain the whole time, make us stop every half hour for something to eat, something to bring back to his chess buddies.”

Nick shrugs, because he can’t really imagine Kolya’s dad enjoying bartering all that much, but he doesn’t see Mikhail enjoying much of anything other than Russia Today and sitting in the park pretending to play chess with his friends in Brooklyn. “You’d get good deals on vodka,” he points out, and Isabelle laughs.

“We’d get shitty vodka,” she says. “Mama has better taste.”

“So go shopping with her,” Nick suggests. “She can show you how to find ingredients or something.”

“Ugh, you’re the worst,” Isabelle says, elbowing him in the side. “I got this, okay? You want some?”

Nick turns down the ice cream cone Isabelle is pointing at, which looks delicious and also like it’s definitely not in his meal plan.

“Suit yourself,” Isabelle says, and devours two of them in short order.

Nick heads back to the Olympic village while Isabelle heads back into town to find the rest of their family, and perhaps also Kolya’s parents, who have been acting as impromptu tour guides despite all Kolya’s worries.

* * *

Isabelle and Kirill have set up a really insanely layered spy network in what seems like no time at all. Misha goes to a lot of the events with Kolya, because the fathers are invited to a lot of the press events.  Ksenia, Kolya’s mom, goes to some of the family events, but the women get siphoned off in the evenings, and she’s not really up for a lot of physical activity, even with how much better she’s gotten since Kolya got her a new specialist at NYU last year. So Misha goes with Kolya, and when he gets back to the family hotel, Misha tells Ksenia all about it.  Then she talks to Isabelle when they go shopping.

Isabelle texts almost constantly with Kirill, who has some kind of whisper network set up among other Russian rookie players in the locker room. Apparently he’s convinced Ilya Markov and Alexei Petrov, two of the younger players on the team, boys he played with in juniors, that he’s desperately jealous of the Olympics. Somehow he’s gotten them to tell him all about even the tiniest details. He says he’s bored, Isabelle tells Nick, because the NHL is on pause for the Olympics, and he’s convinced them that he needs hockey details to keep from going crazy in New York. Isabelle is also texting with Marc, who gets to cross paths with the Russians a little more often, by virtue of being Canadian, and he’s been keeping tabs on people on his own as well, pulling in some of the other goalies, including Dmitriev, with god only knows what excuse or planned prank.

So Isabelle builds a picture of what it’s like in public and on the team, and she sees Nick every day or so for lunch, for family meetings, for some excuse or other. Yesterday she “forgot” her phone with Nick so she’d have a reason to see him today.

And the more she tells him, the more worried Nick gets.

“He’s not even eating at the public events anymore,” Isabelle tells Nick. “Papa thinks the food is weird, the athlete’s plates come out different. He thinks something’s up with their diet.”

Misha is a conspiracy theorist these days, so Nick doesn’t know what to do with that, exactly. But Kolya needs to be eating, and Misha wouldn’t make that part up.

“Plus the women keep hanging all over him,” Isabelle says. “They pulled in a new one, Papa says. She’s a runner, not a model.” She sees his expression, and stops. “You asked,” she says. “And Zap says none of them have gotten anywhere. All the guys are bragging about banging these hot chicks, and he’s just keeping his head down. Dickface is, predictably, being an utter shit about it.”

Nick doesn’t know whether to be relieved that Kolya isn’t cheating on him or worried that he’s going to blow his cover. The locker room sounds awful, way worse than even what Kolya has told Nick about what it was like as a teenager, or in Chelyabinsk. Kolya was never the target before, Nick knows, too careful, too closeted, too young, too obscure. Now he’s the runaway, the one who won’t come home, the one who doesn’t brag about banging girls, and he’s got a teammate with an axe to grind and perfect ammunition.

“Anyway,” Isabelle says. “You’ve got practice. Thanks for my phone!”

* * *

Nick focuses on hockey, as best he can. The US team is coming together, and the first period of the USA’s quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic is a blow-out: 3-1, and the game itself ends really well for them with a final score of 5-2. It’s bested only by Sweden’s shut-out game against Slovenia that same day, and its 5-0 score.

But Nick has been keeping an eye on all the teams’ standing so he knows that Russia just lost to Finland and is out of the running for a medal entirely, done and dusted and on their way home, and probably under a ton of pressure and recriminations, if what Isabelle has been telling him is any indication.

“Damn,” Jamie says, when he gets the news about Russia.  He seems happy about it, which Nick supposes is probably the well-adjusted reaction to a formidable opponent losing a hockey game. “That’s going to make our lives easier.” Jamie is getting dressed up to go out, clubbing probably, because they don’t have a game tomorrow, and their ice time is scheduled for late morning.

“Probably,” Nick says. “I mean, Canada’s going to be a bitch, and Sweden’s playing well.”

“Take the W, kid,” Jamie says, which is ridiculous, because he’s not much older than Nick. “I mean, honestly, it’s like you never stop working. You’re staying in?”

Nick shrugs. He’s planning on staying in and watching game tape tonight, it’s true.

“You do you,” Jamie says. “I’m just saying, snowboarding’s women just got gold, they’re gonna be celebrating like crazy people tonight. You want in on that?”

Nick must make some kind of face he can’t stop in time, because Jamie laughs.

“Yeah,” he says. “Message received. Man, I’d go nuts in your skin, but you just – what, channel it all into hockey?”

Nick’s heard this before. “I guess,” he says, because he doesn’t really feel like explaining. He doesn’t owe that to anyone, not even his Olympic roommate. Jamie’s a good guy, but he thinks with his dick, and he wouldn’t get it.

Jamie shrugs on a tight red, white, and blue shirt that is absolutely hideous and obviously American and puts way too much gel in his hair before heading out.

“Back late,” he says, with a wink. “Or not at all.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nick says. “Go get it, Casanova. Don’t be hungover for practice.”

“Buzzkill,” Jamie says, but he’s already heading down the hallway, and he doesn’t sound mad about it.

Nick goes back into the room and settles down with a tablet to watch game tape. It’s a new iPad, not his old one from home, and isn’t connected to any accounts he has in the ‘States. He’s increasingly glad Kolya was that paranoid. It’s a nicer one than his old iPad, which he’s thinking about giving to his niece Abigail for her birthday. Her dad, Jason, will be able to complain about price less if it’s used, though he’s still going to be a bitch about it no matter what Nick does.

Nick is just settling into highlight reels of Elias Johansson, the top-line Swedish center, when there’s a tap on the door.

“Just a second,” Nick calls, and puts the tablet down under his pillow. No sense getting chirped for being a hockey-bot if it’s a teammate trying to drag him out to a party.

Nick opens the door and stops dead in his tracks: It’s Kolya.

“Nicks,” Kolya says. His eyes are red-rimmed and he’s in nondescript sweats, the first time Nick has seen him in anything except the searingly bright Team Russia sweatsuits or equally over-the-top fancy suits since they got to Sochi.

“Kolya,” Nick says, too surprised to move right away. “I mean, come in.”

Nick didn’t expect this, exactly, but he sure didn’t feel like celebrating when he knew how Kolya would be feeling. He texts Jamie a quick note encouraging him to have fun, and hopes that will be enough to keep Jamie out of his hair, keep anyone else from coming by to see that Kolya has snuck into the American dorms, where he’s really not supposed to be.

“Hot snowboarder,” Jamie texts. “Didn’t medal, needs consolation.” He’s added a winking face, an eggplant, and a peach.

Nick sends some combination of emoji that seem not completely inappropriate, and shuts off his phone. “Okay,” he says. “Jamie is hooking up with some girl, we’re fine. How did you get in?”

Kolya looks around, then shrugs. “Russia,” he says, as if that’s enough explanation. Maybe it is: Nick thinks the Russian athletes have been able to get away with more than the international athletes, if gossip is right. But that’s not important right now.  Kolya looks like someone dragged the life out of him, like he’s been extinguished, crushed. Nick steps forward.

“I know we can’t,” Nick starts, but he opens his arms anyway, and Kolya all but falls into them with a muffled sob.

“Can’t do this,” Kolya says. His accent is thicker than Nick has heard it in years, and Nick wonders how much he’s been able to speak English since they got here. Maybe not at all. “Nick, it’s too hard.”

“Shhh,” Nick says, and pulls Kolya close. He should be mad, maybe, but he doesn’t have the heart for it, not when Kolya looks so tired, when Nick has some idea what he’s been going through recently. “You don’t have to do everything,” he says. “Just come sit down, okay.”

There aren’t any chairs in the room, so Nick drags Kolya over to his tiny twin bed and pulls him down. The mattress sinks alarmingly under the weight of two hockey players, but Nick ignores that. Kolya pulls Nick down to lie stretched out on top of him, buries his face in Nick’s neck, like he wants to hide from the world under Nick’s broader shoulders.

They probably shouldn’t be doing this, Nick thinks, but he can’t bring himself to care, not when Kolya has his hands fisted in the front of Nick’s t-shirt and is shaking with repressed sobs. Nick props himself on his elbows on either side of Kolya’s head and pets his hair awkwardly and lets him ride it out.

“Too much,” Kolya bites out, finally, once he’s stopped quivering quite so badly. “So much, and it’s all – nothing. No medal.”

Nick presses a kiss to the crown of his head. “Next time,” he says. Kolya will be over thirty by then, but there have been players that old in the Olympics before, and 2018 isn’t that far away.

“No NHL in PyeongChang,” Kolya says, very quietly. He sounds dead certain, and devastated. “We don’t win at home so Russia doesn’t push again. They keep KHL players, dope them better.”

Nick’s mind catches on that last bit, but he decides to let it go for now. They can talk about doping when they’re not in Russia anymore, he decides. Or never, so long as Kolya passes the Rangers’ blood tests at home. There are some things Nick doesn’t need to know.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and Kolya unfists his hands and wraps his long arms around Nick’s back to pull him close.

“Me too,” Kolya says. “Media very bad, soon. My fault, I think. They blame the runaway. Good target, good excuse. I already tell friends, you have permission to be mean to me. Keep them safe.”

Nick rears back in shock.

“I’m the scapegoat,” Kolya says, as if any of this makes sense. “Few other Russians play only in NHL, mostly in KHL.” His English seems to be coming back to him as they keep talking. “Anton has told some of the press by now, called me goluboi.” He laughs. “Maybe worse.” Kolya’s eyes are closed, and he looks almost resigned. “It will be out,” he says, then corrects himself. “It will come out. I leave early morning, first flight, just in case.”

Just in case what, Nick wants to ask, and at the same time, why are you waiting so long, but Kolya is still talking.

“Wanted to say goodbye, tell you I wish I could cheer for you, sit with your family.”

Nick grabs him tighter, and they just hang on until Kolya’s phone alarm beeps. It hasn’t been that long, Nick thinks, and he resists the urge to grab on harder, to beg Kolya to stay.

“Have to go,” Kolya says regretfully. “Few more people to see, give permission to. One to knock sense into.”

Nick nods. He’s not sure what Kolya means, but he can’t make this harder on him, not right now. They can argue about things later, when Kolya doesn’t look like he’s gone three rounds with one of the biggest guys in the league.

“Nikashenka,” Kolya says.  “Be safe. I see you at home.”

After that, there’s not much else to say. Nick watches him walk out of the room, and wonders when the shit is going to hit the fan, and what he can do about it.

* * *

Kolya leaves, and Russia is out of the tournament, and Nick tries to pour his heart into playing hockey on his own terms, to playing hockey for America, even though he has no idea if Kolya got home okay, if anything is working out for him, how bad things are going to be for him, or for the two of them. Isabelle had to leave to go back to school in New York, and no one else on his team seems to have attention to spare for Nick’s personal life, especially since he can’t exactly talk about it openly. Texting helps, but it’s not the same.

So Nick puts his nose to the grindstone as best he can, and plays his hardest. But maybe they get cocky, or maybe the hockey gods are fickle, or maybe they suffered too many injuries, or maybe hockey is just a shitty, unpredictable sport sometimes. Canada beats the US 1-0 in the Semifinals, which leaves Nick’s team playing Finland for the bronze medal, and no chance at gold or silver anymore.

And it turns out there’s nothing Nick can do to fix even that much of his life, because he plays his very hardest and watches his team fall apart in the bronze medal game anyway. They lose in a shut-out, 0-5, and it’s embarrassing how badly Finland schools them. It gets to the point that the Finnish players don’t even really celly for the last couple of goals, like they feel bad for making the lead that much more egregious, and that’s — well, Nick hates that feeling.

In the end, Canada wins gold, and Scandinavia cleans up silver and bronze, and Nick has to watch other teams stand on the podiums while he tries really hard to look supportive. He’s never been good at that, even in peewee hockey games when he was a kid, and he’s not much better at it now, even with all the Rangers’ PR coaching they’ve put him through since the Rangers’ captain, David Brooks, made him an assistant captain and the team’s fine master a few years ago.

On top of the lass, Nick has been keeping a line on his phone and eyes open to texts from Isabelle, and it’s starting to look like Kolya wasn’t wrong at all. The Russian media is livid about the lack of medal, Putin is visibly angry, and Kolya is an even better scapegoat than Nick expected. People Nick thought of as Kolya’s friends have denounced Kolya to the media, called him a traitor, said that if he had just played more in Russia in the summers, gotten used to international ice instead of the smaller NHL rink size, he’d have been able to pull the team together, not dragged it down. You don’t lose a hockey game single-handed, Nick knows, but these people don’t seem to care.

What’s even worse are the things that aren’t making it into the media, the things Isabelle is hearing from Kirill, the things she has to text him really carefully now that she’s back in New York City and back at school. Even reading between the lines, it’s bad. One of Kirill’s friends warned him against sharing a locker-room with Kolya.  He just said that it wasn’t safe, and there’s only one thing that can really mean. Another just asked Kirill: “Did you know?” and followed it up with a pair of eggplant emojis. Kirill said he didn’t reply to that one, because he’s a smart cookie, despite all the shit he gets up to in the locker room, all the times Nick’s had to fine him for being a dumbass on the ice.

Ksenia tells Nick’s mother to tell Nick that Misha thinks there are rumors about fines being levied by the Russian government, and Nick doesn’t know what to do about that, so he keeps his head down, and his media smile pasted on, and does his best to be a good loser when the USA can’t even manage to pull off a medal to make this whole fiasco more tangibly worth it.

His parents have their hotel room booked until the end of the Olympics, but Nick chooses to fly home almost immediately, because he doesn’t have the heart to stay. If he’s going to lick his wounds, he’s going to do it at home, where he doesn’t have to worry about falling off a tiny bed, or the walls being paper-thin, or there being shitty door locks that trap people in their bathrooms until they break through the wall to get out, or the stray dogs giving him a side-eye every time he walks by, like they think he might be a good snack.

“Hey, you do you,” Jamie says again. Nick has gotten really sick of that phrase, but he just smiles.

“You just want my bed,” Nick says, because Jamie has arranged to stay to the end of the Games, and will probably hook up with at least one person a night until things wind down.

“Caught me,” Jamie says. “Hey, do you have an extra towel?”

Nick leaves behind his towels and toiletries, including lube and condoms. The last are mostly just to fuck with Jamie’s head, but it’s kind of worth it. Plus he’d probably have had to throw away the lube to get through airport security anyway, and the look on Jamie’s face is pretty damn great.

Nick’s flight connects somewhere in Europe – he honestly doesn’t know or care where, just that it’s somewhere he doesn’t speak the language and has to find his way through crowds on a tight deadline only to find out his flight might be canceled. It isn’t, in the end, but Nick still has to talk to way too many people who are only really sympathetic once they find out he’s in first class. One of them recognizes him and brings up the Olympics, and Nick has to dig past the hours of flying-fatigue to thank the guy for watching, when what he really wants to do is scream.

When Nick gets home from Sochi at just past four in the morning, he’s intensely jetlagged and terribly grateful that the team sent a car to the airport for him. There’s optional skate tomorrow, and he knows the best way to get through the jet lag will be to stay up, and then skate tomorrow. He’s just not sure he has the willpower.

The doormen at his building smile, but they don’t offer to take his bags: they’ve learned by now that Nick will wrangle his own stuff, even when it looks like a lot, and just be painfully awkward if they try to help.

“Hey, Antonio,” Nick says.

“Hello, Mr. Larsson,” Antonio says. “Welcome home.” He doesn’t say anything about the Olympics; he’s not really a hockey fan, and told Nick he prefers the summer to the winter games anyway. He’d probably not mention it even if he were a fan, though: he’s usually pretty hands-off with Nick. Isabelle knows how many kids he has, and all their names and ages, Nick thinks. They all like Izzy better, but Nick doesn’t really mind.

Nick rides the elevator up in a half-trance, stumbles into the apartment, and drops his bags in the entry. He doesn’t have the energy to put his gear downstairs in the gym, and he doesn’t want to deal with the rest of it right now. The sun is just rising, and he wonders why he thought an overnight flight was a good idea in the first place, even if it was the fastest way to get home. He never sleeps well on commercial flights, even in first class.

Nick staggers into his doorway then stops dead in his tracks, staring into his bedroom and wondering if flight-induced sleep deprivation can make you hallucinate, because Kolya is asleep in Nick’s bed.

Nick must have made noise coming in, because Kolya stirs, and the sheets dip to reveal that he’s naked between Nick’s sheets, having thrown off all the blankets. Kolya overheats faster than Nick, even in the dead of winter.

“Shit,” Nick says. He’s been expecting – he’s not sure what he’s been expecting, really, after what Kolya said in Sochi. More things to talk through, for sure, hard decisions and fraught discussions and a lot of forcing himself to think things through instead of just getting angry.

This – Kolya here waiting for him, blinking sleepy eyes and smiling – this is nothing Nick ever expected. He thought they were still on the outs, were still broken up, were going to fight again. He’s been missing Kolya so fiercely, but he didn’t think he could have this again.

“Nikashenka,” Kolya says, and pushes himself up to his elbows. He sounds surprised, but not in a bad way. “Home early.”

“No traffic,” Nick says inanely, because it was an easy drive back from the airport, no accidents or delays. “The flight had a tailwind or something, I don’t know.”

Kolya just looks at him, and then he lifts the sheets and pats the mattress.

“Come, nap,” he says. “You won’t stay up all day without it. I’ll wake you at nine.”

Nick knows, foggily, that they should probably talk about this, about how easily they’ve slid back into each other’s lives in this moment. He should say something. He’s so tired, though, and Kolya is right there, and Nick has missed him so damn much.

Nick strips out of his travel clothes and all but falls into Kolya’s waiting arms.

“Shhh, vozlyublennyy,” Kolya says. “Sleep now.”

Nick wraps an arm around Kolya’s waist, buries his face in Kolya’s shoulder, and is out like a light.

Nick wakes some time later to winter-pale sunlight dappling the bed and the smell of coffee. Kolya is sitting up in bed next to him with reading glasses on, the ones he says he doesn’t need, but wears sometimes anyway, and there’s a cup of coffee on the bedside table next to Nick, pale with just the right amount of milk.

“Mm,” Nick says, and reaches for it.

“Predictable.” Kolya sounds fond. “Always coffee first thing.”

Nick doesn’t even try to argue it: he’s useless in the mornings unless he absolutely has to be awake for hockey, and even then he wants a cup of shitty hotel or rink coffee if he can manage it.

“Thank you,” Nick says, after he takes a long sip, savoring the milky acidity of the coffee. Kolya has tea, and it’s probably dosed with half his daily caloric value in jam, but Nick has long since given up on commenting on that.

“I like this,” he says, surprising himself. “God, Mikushka, I missed you.”

Kolya puts his book down, and closes his eyes. “Me too,” he says. “I’m sorry. I thought –” he shrugs. “It doesn’t matter what I thought,” he says. “It wasn’t fair.”

“No,” Nick says. “I mean, it was shitty. It sucked. But, like,” he stares at his coffee, the coffee Kolya got up and made for him before he woke up. “I thought the NHL was bad for guys like us,” he says. “I had no idea.”

Kolya shrugs. “Couldn’t really explain it,” he says. “Maybe I did a bad job, didn’t find the right words.”

That hurts, because Nick knows how hard Kolya has worked to be able to get his point across in English, how much effort he’s put into being sure he doesn’t sound stupid in his second language.

“No,” Nick says. “I mean, maybe, but, like, it’s not your fault. I didn’t know.” He drains his coffee and sets the mug on the bedside table. “Look,” he says. “I missed you. Can we just –” he gestures between them. “Not fight right now?”

Kolya nods, and Nick moves his book out of the way before climbing into his lap. “Good,” he says, and licks his lips.

He wasn’t kidding about missing Kolya, and it’s not like he hooked up while he was at the Olympics. Nick doesn’t really understand the drive behind random hookups: he could tell the other athletes were fit, sure, attractive, definitely, but he didn’t want to sleep with any of them. Apparently his reputation as an ice-queen, a sexless hockey-bot, preceded him, so he didn’t get too much shit about staying celibate. But just because Nick doesn’t want strangers, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want, and he’s really missed Kolya these last few weeks.

Kolya opens his mouth and Nick cuts him off. “We have to talk later, I know, but,” he leans forward, and Kolya’s eyes track his movement. “Can we – can we just not talk right now?”

Kolya nods, and Nick pulls off his glasses, folds them carefully, and puts them on the side table with the book and Kolya’s cooling tea.

“Good,” Nick repeats. Then he gasps, because Kolya has grabbed the back of his head and reeled him in for a rough kiss, licking into his mouth with barely-restrained desperation. It seems like maybe Nick wasn’t the only one who felt the separation. It’s heady to know he’s not alone in that feeling. Nick kisses back, drops his hands to Kolya’s shoulders and spreads his legs to rock down against Kolya’s thighs.

“Mmmngh,” Kolya says, maybe a groan, maybe a muffled word.

“Missed you,” Nick says, biting at the edge of Kolya’s jaw probably a little too hard. “Want you.”

Kolya’s hips twitch under Nick’s weight and that noise he makes, that’s definitely him swearing under his breath. “Fuck, Nick,” Kolya says, more loudly. “Fuck.”

“Let me –” Nick asks, and he’s got a hand in the center of Kolya’s chest, holding him back against the pillows, as Nick slides back and down. “I want to.”

Kolya nods, face open and almost shocked, and Nick wriggles a little bit as he shoves the remaining sheets out of the way. God, but Kolya is built, he thinks. All wiry strength, skinny for a hockey player, but so damn strong. Nick places a light kiss at his iliac crest, and then noses up the length of Kolya’s hardening dick, teasing contact that he knows isn’t enough yet.

“Shit,” Kolya says. “Oh, shit, Nick.”

And that means Nick isn’t trying hard enough yet, because Kolya’s still swearing in English.

“Mmm,” Nick says, and licks wetly up the length of Kolya’s erection, bobs his head to suck the tip hard. Kolya’s hips knife up, and Nick grabs at him, shoves him down onto the mattress. He pulls off, and nips lightly at Kolya’s belly.

“No,” he says. “You stay still.”

Kolya actually whines.

“Or I can help,” Nick says. “You want me to hold you down?”

They haven’t done this often, but Nick really likes it, thinks Kolya does too.

Da,” Kolya gasps. “Yes, please.”

His hips strain against Nick’s hands, and Nick nuzzles the head of his dick. “You’ll have bruises,” Nick warns, because if he’s going to really hold Kolya in place, he’s going to have to grab hard, and Kolya bruises almost as easily as Nick.

“Don’t care,” Kolya says. “Nikashenka, please. Pozhaluysta.” He’s got his hands clenched into fists at his side, and he looks almost desperate.

“Okay,” Nick says. “Okay, baby. Just tap out if you have to, okay?”

That’s the best bet for them, because Kolya’s brain gets fried, and he forgets to switch languages sometimes in the heat of the moment.

“Yes,” Kolya says. “Please.”

His hips strain to move up, and Nick tightens his grip, holding Kolya down. He’ll feel the strain in his upper body, in his arms, tomorrow, maybe later today, but it’s so worth it, and Kolya whines again when he can tell he’s been restrained.

“Good,” Nick reassures him, and then, without much warning, he lowers his head down onto Kolya’s cock, moving steadily until his nose is buried in Kolya’s belly and his throat is protesting the stretch. Nick swallows, and wrings a moan from Kolya, and then he pulls back, takes a breath.

“You like that?” He asks. “You want more?”

Kolya nods, dumbstruck, and Nick smiles.

Nick knows most guys like getting blowjobs; he’s seen enough porn to have picked that up. But most people don’t seem to like giving head the way he does, the way he craves the weight on his tongue, enjoys the bitter taste in his throat. It was a pretty abstract concept for a long time, but Kolya loves everything about it, and Nick loves making him fall apart, so it’s even better, like a feedback loop.

Nick licks his lips again and presses sucking kisses up the length of Kolya’s dick, not hard enough to be painful, but enough to make him squirm, and Kolya clamps a hand over his mouth.

“Wanna hear you,” Nick says. “K, come on.”

He nuzzles at Kolya’s balls, sucks one into his mouth and hums a little, tonguing at it lightly the way Kolya likes. It’s more gentle than Nick prefers for himself, but he knows how much he can push now: not much yet, but more later, when Kolya’s closer to the edge.

“Fuck,” Kolya says. “Nick.”

“Not yet,” Nick says. “But soon,” he promises, and holds Kolya down again to deep-throat him a second time, thanking god for his underdeveloped gag reflex as Kolya tries to thrust into his mouth despite Nick’s grip on his hips. He makes a muffled noise, pushing Kolya down, and Kolya arches under his hands, then taps Nick’s shoulder three times.

Nick pulls back immediately.

Kolya is panting, head tipped back, and he looks okay. Nick is confused, but he lets go, waits.

“Too much,” Kolya says. “Not come yet, please.”

Oh, Nick thinks. He thought he was the only one on a hair-trigger. He knows Kolya went out with girls in Sochi, was set up with them by his team. They had a big fight about it beforehand, and Nick said some things he’s not really proud of. He assumed Kolya would fuck them, go all the way to keep up appearances, like he did before he came to New York all those years ago.

“Will you fuck me?” Nick asks, hands tightening on Kolya’s hips again. “God, I want you to.”

Kolya’s eyes fly open, and he groans, hand flailing for Nick as he comes, completely untouched. Nick watches, transfixed. Kolya pants through it, spine curling as he finally moves a hand and coaxes the last of the orgasm out of himself, the movement almost reflexive. There’s a spatter of come on his chin.

“Shit,” Nick manages. “That was really hot.”

He’s still wearing his underwear, was too tired to strip down all the way last night, and Nick doesn’t bother taking it off, just shoves a hand in and rubs himself hard and fast until he’s coming, too, hips rutting down against the foot of the mattress as he tries not to bite a mark into Kolya’s hip. They can’t leave marks, he knows that, he always knows that. He still wants to. Nick rolls to one side, and Kolya’s hand lands on his shoulder. Nick knows he should get up, at least get out of these boxers, but he can’t be bothered: he just drifts for a bit.

“Sorry,” Kolya says, after a moment. He sounds surprisingly alert for it being just after sex; usually he’s the one who knocks out right away.

“F’r what?” Nick asks. “Not talking yet, too tired.”

He doesn’t want to talk about their fight – their fights – now. He feels too good, and he doesn’t want to mess this up.

“Hair trigger,” Kolya says. Of course this is one of the idioms he’s picked up in the locker room, while he still struggles with things like ‘butt dialing’ vs ‘booty calls.’

“Me too,” Nick says. “Mmmm.” He drags himself up the bed to put his head on Kolya’s chest. “That was so hot,” he says. “We should shower. And then you should really fuck me.”

Kolya looks down at him, and Nick can’t really read his expression. “Okay,” Kolya says. “But first you get up, clean up.”

Nick sighs, and levers himself out of the bed with an exaggerated sigh. By the time he’s gotten his dirty clothes gathered up into the basket and off the floor, Kolya is in the shower and has two towels draped over the fancy heated towel bars he told Nick were an absurd waste of money but always uses despite all his bitching about the excesses of capitalism.

Kolya climbs out, Nick climbs in – his shower isn’t really big enough for the both of them, since Isabelle has the master suite with the big bathroom. When he gets back to the bedroom, Kolya has shoved the covers out of the way entirely and has lube out, and a condom as well. Nick’s heart sinks: they hadn’t been using condoms before Sochi.

Don’t pick a fight, he tells himself. Don’t fuck this up by picking a fight.

“I didn’t hook up,” Kolya tells him, obviously seeing Nick’s gaze flick from the condom to Kolya and back. “But – if you want, I get tested again.”

Nick knows he should probably insist, be smart. He’s so relieved, though, and he trusts Kolya so much more than he’d ever expected to trust someone. “I didn’t either,” he says. “God, I–” he breaks off, and just climbs onto the bed and wraps himself up in Kolya’s arms. “I was so worried,” he admits. “I hated the idea of you – I mean, it just kills me.”

Kolya’s arms tighten around his back. “Don’t want anyone else,” he says.

Nick knows he means it, even if he feels things differently than Nick.  Kolya still feels lust for other people, not like Nick. But Kolya would never do anything about it, even if he maybe could, might want to. Nick was worried he wouldn’t have a choice about it, the way he was talking before the Games.

“No condom,” Nick says, and Kolya’s face smooths out in something that looks a lot like relief.

“Nick,” Kolya says, and Nick puts a finger to his lips to shut him up. He doesn’t want to talk yet. He’s not the one who’s good with choosing his words, not carefully, not without thinking about it.

“God,” he says, instead. “I want you in me so much, come on.”

Kolya rolls them over so Nick is on his back, and gets straight to it. Maybe two fingers right away is too much, too fast, maybe that’s how it is for some people. Maybe it’s even a little fast for Nick after how long it’s been but Nick just arches with the stretch and focuses on Kolya sucking on the head of his rapidly hardening cock.

“More,” he demands, and Kolya lubes up his fingers again and presses in two again.

“Dammit,” Nick says, and then Kolya crooks his fingers, and Nick whines through his teeth.

“Greedy,” Kolya says. He sounds approving. His voice goes softer, a little more possessive. “No one else see you like this?”

Nick shakes his head, desperate for more.

“Don’t want them,” he says. “Never want them. Just –” he grits his teeth as Kolya thrusts deeper. “Just you.”

You know that, Nick wants to say, but there’s something darkly pleased in Kolya’s eyes. Maybe he needs to hear it.

“God, I missed you,” Nick says. “Wanted everyone to know I’m yours,” he gasps, and it’s true, it’s so true. He knows they can’t do that, but he wants stupid things sometimes, things that don’t make sense.

Kolya groans, and so Nick keeps talking, telling him how hard it was to see his roommate going out, hooking up, and knowing Kolya was so close, and so far away.

“Missed you so bad,” Nick says. “Baby, oh, god.”

Kolya pulls his fingers out and then, finally, he’s pushing his cock up against Nick, slick and hot.

“Shit, yes,” Nick says, flexing his back and trying to get even closer. “Yes, please.”

Kolya braces himself on his forearms as he slides oh-so-slowly all the way in, and Nick grabs the backs of his own thighs to all but fold himself in half. Kolya pauses there, breath jagged, and Nick wants to scream at the pause.

“Come on,” he says. “I can take it. You know I can take it.”

“Fuck,” Kolya says. It sounds like the word is ripped out of him, and his arms are almost shaking. Nick doesn’t quite know what to do with that, so he just wriggles a little bit, flexes the way he knows drives Kolya crazy.

“Come on,” he says again. “Fast and hard.”

He tips his head back, and grins, knowing he’s about to do something stupid.

“Mark me up,” he says. “Come on, K, make me look like I’m all yours.”

And maybe this neck thing of his, of theirs, is a stupid kink – it’s certainly a dangerous one, especially given their jobs, Kolya’s situation, the risk it involves. But it’s still so damn hot. Nick can’t resist.

Kolya groans, and snaps his hips in again, and Nick lets out a sharp, high gasp. Kolya buries his face in Nick’s neck and sucks, just a little too hard, before he thrusts again, slow and deep. Then he moves his mouth and bites, a light nip against Nick’s collarbone. He keeps that up, alternating long, slow, rocking thrusts with kisses and bites against Nick’s neck. His pace is measured, controlled, and Nick knows he’s going to practically have a collar of marks when this is over.

“God,” he says when Kolya bites down, “Mikushka, baby, please.”

He doesn’t know exactly what he’s asking for: he’s so wound up, he’s probably leaving finger-shaped bruises on his own thighs trying to keep from shaking apart. Kolya buries his face in the dip of Nick’s shoulder and just breathes for a moment, rocking very gently inside him, too much and not enough at the same time.

“More?” Kolya asks. Nick nods, frantic, and almost hits the top of Kolya’s head with his chin.

“Please,” he says. Kolya pulls out, and Nick makes a protesting sound.

“Over,” Kolya says, and pushes at Nick’s side.

Nick scrambles to obey, getting on his knees immediately. Kolya blankets him with his body, slipping back in with a longer-feeling slide than Nick expected. They don’t fuck like this very often: Kolya says he likes to see Nick’s face, and it’s not like Nick isn’t flexible enough to pull it off other ways. Plus they don’t get to fuck very much during the season. It’s been ages, and Nick is surprised all over again by how surrounded he feels with Kolya draped over his back.

Kolya braces his left hand on the mattress, wraps the right arm around Nick’s hips. His forearm holds Nick’s cock flat against his belly, teasing as he uses the grip for leverage.

“Fuck,” Nick gasps. “K, please.”

Kolya pulls back carefully, then sets a fast pace, and Nick is glad they both came earlier, because this feels so damn good, fast without being as desperate as he was before. Kolya bends down and rests his forehead on the curve of Nick’s spine. He presses his lips to the bend of Nick’s neck, then pulls back.

“Bit you too hard before,” Kolya says, words pulled out of him as he just keeps moving, taking Nick apart from the inside. “Nicks, sorry, going to be marks.”

He sounds like he expects Nick to be angry, and Nick didn’t want to talk about this now, he wanted to fuck, he wanted to just feel good, to have Kolya back again without having to think so hard about everything that’s been hanging between them since they fought.

“Fuck,” Kolya says. He follows it up with something Nick recognizes only as a string of profanity, long and probably anatomically detailed in ways Nick can’t really follow. It sounds upset, impassioned, and Nick can’t keep up.

“Kolya,” Nick says, and tries to sit up.

“Want you always,” Kolya says. He pulls Nick up to sit up, so Nick is in his lap, and has more control of the pace, depth, everything. Nick freezes them in place, thankful for the strength of his thighs.

“Want you too,” Nick says, and then he grabs Kolya’s right arm and moves his hand to Nick’s cock. “Now touch me,” he says. “If I’m going to get shit in the locker room for those marks, you’re at least getting me off for my trouble.”

Kolya laughs, and they fall into an easy rhythm. Kolya’s mouth keeps finding the side of Nick’s neck and pulling away, until Nick reaches back and drags Kolya’s mouth to the space just below his ear.

“Go for it,” he says. “You can show me off if you do.”

That must be the right thing to say, because Kolya groans and all but latches on to the sensitive skin just below his ear, one of Nick’s hot spots on an ordinary day. Now, with Kolya stroking his cock and thrusting up into him so, so carefully, Nick doesn’t stand a chance.

Kolya twists his hand on an upstroke and Nick’s orgasm hits him almost by surprise, loud and wrenching. Kolya fucks him through it, just the way he likes, and then, when Nick is almost over-sensitive, bends Nick forward and fucks him hard and fast, panting like he’s just finished a double shift, a triple shift on the ice. He comes with a groan and all but collapses on top of Nick, who wrangles them both onto their sides and then moves to get up.

Kolya grabs at him, uncoordinated and half-asleep, and Nick smiles. “Be right back,” he says. “Need to clean up.”

Kolya grunts assent, and lets Nick go without further protest. Nick grabs a washcloth and looks in the mirror while the water warms up. He was right about having visible marks: the one under his left ear will be the most obvious, but the others are going to darken up nicely, and show alarmingly well on Nick’s winter-pale skin.

When Nick steps back out, Kolya is curled up on his side, more awake than he usually is at this point. His eyes zero in on Nick’s neck, and he flushes visibly.

“Sorry,” he says.

Nick climbs into bed with him, and hands him the washcloth. “I’m not,” he says. “Unless you’re going to ask me to lie about who I got them from.”

Kolya blinks. “You never want,” he says. “No marks on you, ever, except in the summer.” He looks really confused. “You don’t mind on me,” he says. “But never for you. Sometimes I think you don’t like, just agree for me, when I want.”

It seems like Nick hasn’t been very clear about this.

“I –” Nick says. He puts a hand up and touches one of the bite marks on his neck and hisses a little at the sting of the bruising. “I like them. I just didn’t want to explain them.” He shrugs. “I can’t lie for shit, you know? And I don’t hook up, everyone knows that. It’d be a great way to get you caught.” He looks at Kolya. “I didn’t want to do that to you.”

Kolya puts the washcloth in his empty tea mug. Gross, Nick thinks, but effective at keeping it from getting anything else damp. He looks conflicted, but also maybe pleased. “Okay,” Kolya says. He sighs. “You talk so much,” he says. “But not about the hard things. I stop asking, I guess, make stupid assumptions.”

Nick grabs one of his hands, runs his fingers over the scars on Kolya’s knuckles from a childhood cooking accident. Kolya hasn’t told him much about it, but Nick knows it’s not a good memory. “Yeah,” he says. “Sorry. I – I don’t know. I’ll try harder.”

Kolya wraps his fingers around Nick’s hand. “We both try,” he says. “And you don’t have to lie. Tell whole locker room.” He pauses. “Maybe don’t tell press yet,” he says. “Need to warn mama and papa first. Then they can warn friends back home.”

He looks determined, but not surprised, not unsure. Nick feels like the world just tipped off its axis. “K,” he says. “You’re talking about coming out to everyone on the team? Not just the people who know already? I thought –” He pauses.

Nick thought they were going to wait until after hockey, until retirement, until something forced their hand. But, then again, something kind of has forced their hand, if the Russian rumors are any indication.

“Been thinking,” Kolya says. “Since I got home from Russia. There were rumors when I left, already I can’t go back to Russia. But there’s no protection if it’s just rumors, you know? Maybe it’s better if I come out, have backing from You Can Play.”

You Can Play is about as toothless as a teething infant, Nick knows, but after being in Sochi, he can see how its protection would be better than nothing, better than the active disregard and scorn of your peers. Even two inches of rainbow tape and half-hearted marketing ploys to sell rainbow t-shirts to fans who know they won’t get actual representation is miles better than being thrown in jail or being disappeared.

“What if they try to, like, extradite you?” Nick asks.

Kolya shrugs. “Have plan with agent,” he says. “Paperwork in process for American residency, very complicated but money helps.” He looks like he’s put a lot of thought into this. “If Rangers kick me out, I go to grad school for visa,” he says. “Have recommendation letters, can apply next winter earliest. Maybe I travel a little while, three months in Canada, some time in Caribbean, with tourist visas and bribes.”

“Graduate school?” Nick asks. “More school?” He can’t imagine anything worse, but he doesn’t really understand why Kolya wanted to get a bachelor’s in the first place.

Kolya shrugs. “PhD in comparative literature,” he says. “Plan for after hockey. So I can teach writing and work with international students. Not easy, but it’s interesting, you know?”

Nick nods, and Kolya laughs.

“You’re making the face,” he says. “The I think you are totally crazy face. Bad media training, Nick, tell Dena you need more time.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Nick says. “I’m fine with media, you’re not a reporter. Besides, you just said you want a PhD. Do they even give those to people with multiple concussions?”

Kolya laughs again, and Nick relaxes a little bit more, because it seems like maybe this will work. “If you earn it,” Kolya says. “Besides, I fuck up my hip, my elbow, not my head. I don’t stop pucks with my face.”

“That was just the once,” Nick protests. It wasn’t his fault that he got a puck to the back of the head a couple of years ago, just a weird bounce and shitty luck.

“Okay,” Kolya says. He tugs Nick closer. “So I have plan,” he says. “What about you?”

Nick hadn’t really thought that far ahead in as much detail as Kolya. “I don’t know,” he says. “I mean, I’ve talked to my agent, we have a plan in case, but,” he shrugs. “It’s not illegal here, you know? I figure if the team keeps me, I’m good, and if they don’t, I sue. There’s some cases Dan says will be good for my side of things. if I have to do that.”

Kolya frowns. “Not worried about play?” He asks. “Chirping, bad things on-ice?”

Nick shrugs. “I mean,” he says. “If they get up in my face I guess I’ll just fuck them up, you know? I can handle myself.”

Nick has a reputation for being someone you don’t fight, these days: he’s solid enough to take most hits without falling over, and he’s strong enough to dish out hits when he needs to. He might not fight as much anymore, but that’s not none, and Nick’s still got a temper on him.

“Dan says they can’t get in that many really dirty hits against the first openly gay players,” Nick adds. “That the refs will have to call that shit or the fans will go crazy, the media won’t shut up about it.”

A lot of Rangers fans will hate him, sure, and Nick’s sure a lot of the loud ones, the drunk ones, the big dudes from Long Island and Jersey, they’ll be assholes. But he doesn’t read his press, and he doesn’t have to talk to fans that often. And he thinks that maybe it’ll be better in New York City than it would be somewhere like Pittsburgh or Edmonton, where the city is smaller and hockey is a bigger deal. If he were in Pennsylvania or Alberta, Nick might be scared of the reaction, but New York isn’t really a hockey town. He’ll still be able to live his life, and maybe there will be more queer fans than he thought.

“Can’t just punch people,” Kolya says, obviously able to tell that Nick is thinking about beating up some jerks in the process.

“I can sure try,” Nick says. “Besides,” he adds with a wry smile. “That’s what I’m good at. They keep me around for a reason, you know?”

“Because you score points,” Kolya says. “Not because you sit in the box.”

Nick shrugs. “I can do both,” he argues. “Someone needs to tell these dipshits they’re wrong, and I can do that so they’ll understand. Some of them just won’t listen if you’re polite about it.”

“So we tell the team,” Kolya says. “Good. I have PR meeting later today about Russia, you come with me.”

Nick nods. He starts to curl up next to Kolya again, because he’s exhausted, but Kolya pinches him in the side.

“Lazy,” Kolya scolds. “You get up, no jet lag for you. Already slept too much, no more sleeping.”

Nick lets Kolya drag him up and into the kitchen. Isabelle has headphones on and music blaring out of them, and raises an eyebrow when they get in. Nick realizes they didn’t turn on a white noise machine or music or anything, too caught up in each other, in the moment.

“I’m glad you got things worked out,” she says. “But seriously, I’m so going to kill you if you do that to me again. Y’all are loud.

Nick feels himself flush bright red.

“You can go away,” Kolya says, and pours more coffee for Nick, flicks on the electric kettle. “Hide in library, don’t have to be here.”

“You’re not chasing me out,” Isabelle says. “I live here too.”

“Your loss,” Kolya says, and plunks a cup of coffee down in front of Nick. “Sit, drink coffee. You want eggs?”

Nick nods, and Kolya starts digging in the fridge.

“You can make me some, too,” Isabelle says, shoving her big, noise-canceling headphones down to sit around her neck. “Since I didn’t hide the coffee.”

“You just drink all the coffee,” Kolya says, nodding at her enormous mug. Nick knows Kolya always makes enough for both of them, just in case, and that he doesn’t really mind. “Don’t bitch so much, I’ll make you eggs.”

“Fine,” Isabelle says. And they leave it at that. Nick will go to a meeting with Kolya later, and they’ll hash out a plan of attack, but for now there’s breakfast, and Nick’s weird little family, and he’ll take what he can get.

 

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

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13 thoughts on “To Sing of Contests

  1. I love this series, I dont like or follow hockey but the characters are so vivid and the writing is so engaging I find myself captivated.

  2. Whew, what an awful way for anyone to come out after years of being careful! I appreciate the fact that the end is left a bit messy; they got their happy reunion but are aware there’s still problems left to fix, yet despite there being so much ahead of them they both have actual plans, be it grad school or playing while out, and I like that open-ended feel. At least now they have plenty of time to figure out how to beef up their respective communication skills!

    I’ll be interested to see where you take your writing next now that it seems like you’ve put a lid on Nick, Kolya, and company (at least for now?)! Do you have any plans yet or are you going to play it by ear?

    • Thank you for commenting! I wanted it to be a messy ending, but one that left readers not feeling like “BUT WHAT NEXT?” and it sounds like I did okay, so that’s great to hear.

      As for future stories, I have a few in the works for upcoming issues, nonhockeyboys-wise, and we’ll see where I go. I’m going to try testing myself by trying to write shorter pieces, since I tend to wordvomit when left to my own devices. 🙂

  3. This has been SUCH a satisfying set of stories to read!! I was pretty sure the Sochi story would be stressful, but WOOF it really was, huh. I’m glad Nick and Kolya could reconnect so well back home. I really love the conversations they have; the way you have them suck at communicating sometimes and be really good at it others feels super real.

    • Thank you! It was hard to write – and I was going to write the coming-out-in-the-NHL part, but I just didn’t have the heart to make home unsafe too. It’s not really S2B2 friendly.

      I’m so glad you liked the conversations and communication failures / successes: one of my pet peeves in fiction is communication that is too smooth or a plot that hinges on people NEVER TALKING AT ALL, so your comment really made me smile.

  4. Oh god, that was so hard to read. My shoulders had crawled up around my ears before I was even halfway through. I wanted to give these guys hugs so much and make everything better but that’s not how the world works, even outside of Russia. They both deserve better.

    I love the callback to Kirill’s little incident in the hotel. Poor guy. Some things you never do live down.

    • I’m … sorry? I’m torn, because I wanted it to be hard to read, but I also didn’t want to cause readers undue distress.

      Thank you so much for commenting!

  5. I’ve loved reading about these hockey boys – you write such interesting characters, who feel very real. And the emotional impact of the environment they are in is tough, but makes the whole thing so rewarding.

    I can’t wait to see what you do next!

    • Thank you so much – it’s lovely and very rewarding to hear that they feel real to you.

      I’m working on my next couple of S2B2 stories!

  6. I am so invested in this series that I started thinking about looking up the results of the Sochi Olympics in order to theorize about what would happen to Nick and Kolya. I’m glad I didn’t because I….would have been very off the mark, I think.

    I love them and will miss them, but I’m pumped for what you’re gonna do next!

    • It was a REAL SHOCK how things ended up in Sochi IRL, I have to say.

      Thank you so much for commenting! I’ve got a few other ideas in the works.

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