A Voice Once Swallowed

by 織工 (Okō)

Kolya’s mother invites Nick to join them for a family dinner in early February, when he and Kolya have been together for about three months. It’s really more of a demand than an invitation, since there’s no way for Nick to turn it down politely even if he wanted to.

“All move in,” Ksenia says, though Nick knows she and Mikhail have been moved into their house in Brighton Beach for a while now. “Ready to company.”

Nick and Kolya bring cherry and apple pirog from the Russian bakery near Kolya’s apartment, and take the subway out to Brighton Beach together. It still amazes Nick, even six years in, how long it can take to get places in New York City, but at least they’re not stuck in a car in stop-and-go traffic, and the train clears out pretty quickly, so they get seats together. It takes Kolya putting a hand on his knee — a rare gesture in public — for Nick to realize he’s jogging his knee up and down.

“Sorry,” Nick says. “Nervous, I guess.”

And he is. Even though Nick has run into Ksenia and Mikhail several times in the past, either before or after games, he’s never met them as his boyfriend’s parents, and he’s never had dinner at their house or been judged as a potential partner for their only, much beloved son. The prospect is more than a little bit daunting.

“Mama likes you,” Kolya says, squeezes his knee once, and goes back to his reading. Nick breathes through his nose and tries to feel reassured by Kolya’s seeming calm.

Ksenia greets them at the door and exclaims over the pierog, kissing them both on both cheeks and pulling Kolya into an embrace. She takes the bakery box and leads them into the kitchen.

“Mama hates baking,” Kolya explains. “She cooks more.”

When Nick follows them into the eat-in kitchen, the table is already piled high with food, set for four.

“Blini!” Kolya says, and kisses Ksenia on the cheek again. “Mama best.”

“Go get papa,” Ksenia says, and pushes Nick to sit down at the kitchen table while Kolya disappears into the hallway. He returns with his father, who nods at Nick and sits at what is clearly the head of the table, across from Ksenia and at Nick’s right. Kolya tangles his feet together with Nick’s under the table.

Conversation over dinner starts off slow-paced as Ksenia shows Nick how to assemble the blini. They are a little like pancakes and a little more like crepes but self-assembled on the plate, folded around toppings like a burrito or an eggroll. To Nick’s surprise, as they dig in, and the meal progresses, Ksenia holds her own conversationally in English. Her grammar is sometimes a little off-kilter, like Kolya’s was at first, but Nick knows she’s been working on her English ever since Kolya moved to America six years ago. Mikhail’s English is much more limited: Nick thinks he doesn’t practice it much. Kolya has mentioned that they don’t need English much in this neighborhood.

Even putting the language barrier aside, though, Mikhail doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in making friendly conversation. When Ksenia or Kolya translate something Nick said for him he nods, and once or twice he bites out a reply that Nick is pretty sure Kolya translates with more tact than accuracy. Mostly Mikhail grunts, puts away an impressive amount of the delicious, carb-heavy chicken and mashed potato blini, and pours and drinks a truly staggering amount of vodka, avoiding eye contact with Nick the whole time.

When they’ve finished, Mikhail pours another tall glass of vodka, stands, and walks out of the kitchen without a word or a look back.

Kolya and his mother exchange a glance, and Kolya goes after him with the water carafe and another glass. Nick stares down at his plate, and tries hard not to feel like he just failed a test, like he fucked up meeting Kolya’s parents. There’s your boyfriend’s parents not really liking you, and then there’s your boyfriend’s dad trying to get blackout drunk to avoid even looking at you across the table. They’re really squarely in situation two right now. Nick looks at his hands, in tight fists on his knees, and breathes slowly, counting to ten in Russian.

“Is hard for Misha,” Ksenia says, and it takes Nick a minute to remember that, right, Misha is Mikhail, Kolya’s dad.

“Um,” Nick says, because he hates it when people make Kolya sad, and he likes Ksenia, he really does, but this sucks.

“It’s making Kolya sad,” he offers, because he can’t really threaten to punch Ksenia’s husband in the face. Hockey-honed coping mechanisms are shit off the ice, Nick thinks, not for the first time.

“Always has,” Ksenia agrees. “Misha better now.”

Nick thought his parents weren’t great about the whole gay thing. God, he owes them a phone call and an apology. Their reaction to him coming out was fucking stellar, in comparison to this, it was a-fucking-mazing. And Nick — Nick has his sisters, has Amanda and Emma and Isabelle, and Izzy at least has always had his back. Kolya has his parents, and that’s it, in this whole damn city, this whole country. It’s starting to look like Kolya really only has Ksenia.

“This is better?” Nick asks, stunned.

This is fucking awful. Nick’s only seen Kolya this visibly upset once, and that was when Nick accused him of pulling underage drunk girls. Kolya misunderstood, Marc broke Nick’s nose and Timmo threatened to knock all his teeth out, and Nick apologized. It was what got them together, but it still sucked that Nick made Kolya hurt that much, made Nick feel like he’d earned a broken nose and worse for being so unintentionally cruel. He can’t begin to imagine knowing he’s hurting Kolya this much and keeping right on doing it.

When Kolya comes back in, he seems to understand that Nick is on-edge, because he doesn’t say anything, just pulls Nick to his feet, bundles them both into their coats, kisses his mama’s cheeks, and promises they’ll be back soon.

“Nikochka,” Ksenia says, and kisses Nick’s cheeks. “Good boy. You good for Kolya.”

Nick knows Kolya loves his parents, and Nick wants to love them too, but he just — he’s glad they’re leaving, because Nick doesn’t think he can stay here, not right now. He’s not shocked by Mikhail’s behavior over dinner anymore: he’s starting to get mad, and he can’t start a fight with Kolya’s parents, he can’t, but if they stay here he absolutely will, and that’s not something he gets to do if Kolya doesn’t want him to.

Nick nods, and follows Kolya out, and if he bumps shoulders with him a little more than they should do in public, well. New York isn’t a huge hockey town, they should be safe.

The subway ride to Kolya’s place feels like it takes forever. Usually they talk about hockey, about upcoming games, about Isabelle’s on-again-off-again feud with her classmate Amy, or Kolya’s reading, but Nick doesn’t have the focus, and Kolya doesn’t push, so they just sit in silence for the full forty-plus minutes. Kolya reads and Nick stares at his hands on his knees as he sits and counts his breathing. Nick usually loves going over the Manhattan bridge, but he doesn’t even notice the skyline tonight, just follows Kolya home.

The second Kolya closes his apartment’s door, Nick pulls him close, kisses him desperately.

“God,” he says, “Kolya, please.”

Please, what, he doesn’t even know. He’s angry at Kolya’s dad and he’s scared about fucking things up with Kolya’s family and he’s practically vibrating with feeling, and he just wants — something. He wants Kolya.

Kolya kisses him back, and Nick bullies him over to the couch and drops to his knees on the floor.

“Please,” he says, and Kolya stares at him, pupils blown. He looks shocked, like it’s still a surprise that Nick wants him. Nick wants to kiss the expression off his face, wants to make Kolya understand that Nick is always going to want him, to love him, to love taking him apart and waking up with him. He wants to have kids with Kolya, to see Kolya cradling babies in his arms and teaching them how to skate and babbling at them in fluid, fluent Russian. Nick wants so much, so hard, he can’t put it all into words, not yet.

“Please,” Nick says, and his voice is already raspy, and Kolya nods.

Nick scrabbles at his fly, stupid button-fly jeans, and by the time he’s shoved them down and pulled Kolya’s underwear out of the way, Kolya is half-hard. Nick doesn’t stop to think, just bobs his head down, as far as he can go, and Kolya gasps. One hand lands on the back of Nick’s neck, petting at the nape, but not pushing, because Kolya is way too fucking polite about blowjobs.

Nick wants to make him fall apart. He pulls back.

“You can fuck my mouth,” he says, and then adds: “and pull my hair,” because he likes that, Kolya has to have noticed that he likes that, and he’s pretty sure Kolya likes it too. Then Nick wraps a hand around Kolya’s dick, already hard and flushed, and goes to work like his life depends on it.

Nick has only done this for one other person; he’s only wanted to do it for a couple of other people, and most of them weren’t interested in boys. He’s heard that some people don’t like oral, but Nick loves the sense of power, the balance of submission and control, the way it makes Kolya gasp and curse and lose hold of his English. Nick really gets off on knowing Kolya likes it, and this — this isn’t distracting like when Kolya is touching him too, and it lets Nick just focus on making Kolya feel good.

Kolya holds back at first, and Nick has to practically bury his face in Kolya’s pubes before he gets with the program, has to moan when Kolya’s hips jerk before Kolya lets himself move at all, little aborted thrusts, so gentle Nick wants to scream. He doubles down, swallowing around Kolya’s cock and moaning, feeling the vibration in his throat as Kolya gasps. The hand on the nape of Nick’s neck tightens, pulls his hair, and Nick groans again, feeling his cock jerk in his pants.

That seems to flip a switch, because Kolya’s hands are both on his head, and he’s pulling a little bit, like he’s trying not to, and Nick — Nick could come just from this, but he wants to get Kolya off first, so he puts his hands on his own thighs and lets Kolya fuck his mouth with short, desperate thrusts. Kolya is babbling something at him, English words mixed up with Russian and nonsense sounds, and that gets Nick even hotter, knowing he’s making Kolya lose it.

“Nick,” Kolya gasps. “I—“ his hands tighten, and Nick moans again, and Kolya shoves down his throat, god, Nick’s never been so hard or so glad his gag reflex is for shit, and Kolya is coming, gasping and panting, and Nick only has to shove his hand down his pants and he’s coming so hard he can’t see, Kolya’s hands still buried in his hair, petting gently and pulling Nick back and away from his softening dick.

“Nikashenka,” Kolya gasps, still petting Nick’s hair, breathing hard. “You —“

Nick puts his head down on Kolya’s thigh and just breathes.

“I’m good,” he rasps. “So good, Mikushka.” His voice is destroyed, but Kolya likes that, and Nick kind of likes it too, even though he knows he’s running the risk of getting shit from the guys about it at practice tomorrow.

Kolya’s hand stills in his hair, just holding on, and Nick sort of dozes until the disgusting reality of coming in his pants starts to settle in.

“Up,” Nick says. “Shower.”

It’s still kind of delightful, getting to shower with Kolya, put on his sweats and an old Traktor t-shirt that pulls tight across Nick’s broader shoulders. Kolya’s face goes all hot and possessive when he sees Nick in his clothes, and Nick loves that, too, loves that he can make Kolya happy that way.

Staying at Kolya’s tonight, don’t stay up too late Nick sends to Izzy.

Same to you Izzy sends back, and a winking face followed by an eggplant emoji, which cracks Kolya up.

“You ask her, she can explain it,” Kolya says, laughing so hard there are tears streaming down his face, and Nick just has to tickle him then, seriously, it would be against the fucking rules not to.

They eventually pull each other off the floor and watch a couple of episodes of something on HGTV while they curl up in bed together. Kolya must still have reading for class, but he doesn’t pull out his iPad, and Nick rests his head on Kolya’s chest and watches him play some ridiculous iPhone game while people on the TV find out they have knob and tube wiring and can’t take out that weight-bearing pillar for an open plan kitchen after all.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Kolya says, smiling with his whole face. He looks so much happier than he did earlier. Nick wants to wrap him up in this mood, keep him safe from sadness forever, but he also wants to understand what went wrong at dinner tonight.

“I love you,” Nick says.

“You too,” Kolya says, but his tone says he knows that’s not what Nick wants to say. Nick sighs, and flops onto his back.

“I just,” Nick says, staring at the ceiling. “I don’t understand.”

Kolya is silent for long enough that Nick thinks he may have fallen asleep.

“My papa?” Kolya asks.

He sounds very serious. Nick keeps watching the flicker of the TV on the bedroom ceiling, reflections of reflections, because he’s not sure he can do this if he’s watching Kolya.

“What –” Nick says, and doesn’t say what did I do wrong. “What happened?”

He’s not sure exactly what he means, but Kolya doesn’t so much as pause.

“When I first told them,” Kolya says, “mama told me, don’t tell anyone, it wasn’t safe.”

Nick has gathered this much: Kolya seems to think this was an amazingly supportive reaction, someone telling him to hide his sexuality, to be scared of anyone finding out about it.

“Papa,” Kolya pauses. “Papa told me to stay away from children, that it was safer.”

Nick frowns, trying to wrap his mind around this.

“You mean,” he says, “in case anyone thought something –”

“No,” Kolya says. “To stop me doing anything to them. I think. We didn’t — don’t — talk about it.”

He sounds matter-of-fact, as if he isn’t telling Nick that his own father thought he needed to be quarantined, to be forcibly prevented from hurting children. Nick knows Kolya’s kind of screwed up by Russians thinking gay men are pedophiles, but he thought that was, like, small-town prejudice, maybe media propaganda, you know, just Russia being Russian and fucked up about homosexuality in general. This is so much worse.

“He — what?” Nick really hopes he misunderstood where this is going. He’s desperately afraid he didn’t.

Kolya shrugs next to him.

“Mama’s family was from Moscow,” Kolya says. “Papa’s was not, was maybe more traditional, I think. It was a long time ago, Nick. He was trying to help.”

But Kolya still sounds deeply sad, worse than the first time they made the playoffs and lost the Cup in game seven, when he’d been skating on a busted knee and thought it was all his fault they’d lost. He sounds like he’s given up all hope of things ever being different, and that — that’s not the Kolya Nick knows.

“I —“ Nick sighs. “I don’t know how he can stand to make you feel so bad,” he admits, “I don’t understand.”

The sheets rustle, and Kolya leans over and kisses him gently.

“I know,” he says. “But you try. Thank you.”

He sounds like he means it, and Nick doesn’t know what to say to that. Kolya has fallen asleep before he finds the right words anyway, and Nick loses the shape of them in his dreams.

* * *

Nick doesn’t see Kolya’s parents again until their next home game, when Ksenia and Mikhail are standing in the family section with Isabelle when Nick comes out of the locker room, finally done with his press responsibilities after the game. He’s never going to understand why reporters like him so much, Nick thinks, all he does is turn their questions back at them, crack stupid jokes at his own expense and praise the rest of the team.

“Nikochka!” Ksenia calls, waving him over to where she and Isabelle are standing. “Isabella say me you not know borscht?”

Nick blinks.

“Um,” he hedges. “I mean, I know what it is?”

He’s never been a huge fan of cooking with beets, is the thing. Izzy loves them in salads, but they’re such an awful mess. Nick sticks with root vegetables that don’t make his kitchen look like a murder scene, thank you very much.

“No good,” Ksenia says, hands on her hips. “You learn to make, I teach, teach also Isabella, yes? Find Isabella good Russian boy.”

Nick is pretty sure his parents will kill him if Isabelle ends up dating any of the Russians he knows, since they’re all professional hockey players.

“Isabelle—“ Nick glances at her, and she grins at him from behind Ksenia’s back, gives him a thumbs-up. He sighs. “I’d love to learn,” he says, because he has three sisters, he knows when to concede in the face of superior firepower and behind-his-back cunning.

“I’m love to learn, mama,” Ksenia corrects. “I teach you cook Kolya, you call mama.”

Isabelle, because she’s a ridiculous traitor of a little sister, is cracking up, laughing so hard she’s wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands. Mikhail looks like he’s following just enough of the conversation to want to kill Nick and hand his corpse off to one of his chess buddies from the playground in Brighton Beach. Nick’s pretty sure none of them have active mob ties, but he wouldn’t bet money on it.

“I’d love to learn, mama.” Nick says, because he can’t yell at Mikhail when the man hasn’t even said anything, and Ksenia gives him an enormous grin and pinches his cheeks.

“Good,” she says. “You come visit tomorrow, bring Isabella. Kolya come dinner after school, yes?” she asks, and there Kolya is, standing next to Nick. He moves so quietly sometimes, positively ghostlike for a guy his size.

“Mama,” Kolya protests. “Nick is busy.”

“Nonsense,” Ksenia says. “Isabella say it good, we make plan already.”

Nick leans against Kolya’s side, smiling when Kolya puts an arm around his shoulders. They shouldn’t do this when there’s even a chance of press around, but the family hallway is a no-press zone, and it’s nice to just rest for a moment.

“It’s okay, Mikushka.” Nick says. “It will be nice.”

Ksenia beams at him. Even Mikhail’s dour expression can’t spoil the moment.

* * *

The next day, Nick is starting to have his doubts about how nice it will be to learn to make borscht. It’s not the cooking part he’s worried about: Isabelle may do most of the cooking for the two of them, but Nick can follow instructions. It’s the part where the last time Nick was at their house, Mikhail seemed ready to kill someone via drowning down a bottle of vodka.

“I don’t get it,” Nick says, finally, when they’re on the subway.

He’s been worrying at dinner with the Kudryavtsevs since it happened, trying to make sense of it, figure out whether him being there made it worse. He can’t tell what it would mean if him just sitting in the kitchen eating dinner made things worse for Kolya.

“Not your family,” Isabelle says, not looking up from her libretto. “Not your dog.”

Not your dog is a saying she’s picked up recently, maybe from a classmate. Nick sighs. He wants it to be his family, is the problem.

“Look,” Isabelle says, closing the score. “You can’t just, like, cross-check his dad or punch him in the face or something, you’re not at the rink. Calm down. Talk about it, if you want to know what’s going on.”

“When did you get so smart, squirt?” Nick teases. Izzy’s only nineteen, and he’s damn sure he wasn’t this smart when he was nineteen.

“I dunno,” Izzy says. “Maybe not playing a full-contact sport where I get hit in the head all the time helps, ya think?”

She smiles at him, and Nick grins back, glad she can finally joke about his concussions. He lets her go back to her reading, and he grabs his phone and reads up on opposing teams’ stats. The playoffs are coming up, and they need to win more games if they want a guaranteed spot. Scrapping for a wild card is a very real possibility, but Nick hates the stress of doing it every time.

When they arrive at the Kudryavtsev’s little house, Ksenia hugs Nick tight, kisses his cheeks. Then she fusses extravagantly over Isabelle, and Nick wonders idly if she wanted a daughter, if she wants grandchildren as badly as his parents did before Amanda had kids and got the rest of them off the hook for a while. They hang up their coats and scarves and take off their boots.

“We need,” Ksenia says, guiding them into her bright kitchen. She pauses, making a gesture like she’s tying something around her waist. “Fartuki?” She makes a frustrated noise, so familiar to the one Kolya used to make when he couldn’t find an English word in his first years here.

Nick says, “Aprons?” and points at one.

“Aprons,” Ksenia agrees. “Beets – big mess if wrong.”

She looks them up and down, at Nick’s worn jeans and Isabelle’s yoga pants, their matching Rangers t-shirts.

“Good,” she says. “Not fancy for cook borscht, is good. Now aprons.”

Ksenia has two graters, and sets Isabelle to chopping three onions, then a head of cabbage, while Nick grates carrots and Ksenia grates up a mountain of beets. They chat idly, hands busy, and Nick feels strangely peaceful.

“Not small-small,” Ksenia says, showing Isabelle how big to leave the cabbage when she tries to mince it.

“No finger in borscht,” Ksenia scolds, when Nick nicks his finger on the grater. “Leave carrot end, make stock.”

“Okay,” Nick says, and Ksenia smiles.

“Okay, mama,” she corrects. “You promise not hurt hands, you do beets.”

So Nick grates beets. Ksenia wrangles an enormous stock pot out of their walk-in pantry, and Isabelle takes it away and puts it on their stove, pours in what looks like gallons of home-made beef broth.

“Make home,” Ksenia says. “teach later, takes much time.”

Ksenia wants to stand on a step-stool to drop the shredded beets, carrots, and onion into the stock pot, because she’s a tiny bird of a woman, but Nick shakes his head.

“I can do it,” he says, and before she can object, he says, “I’m taller, mama, let me do it.”

She smiles as she supervises.

Dvadtsat minutes,” she says, frowning.

“Twenty,” Nick says, because he’s been working on numbers. “Only?”

“Twenty,” Ksenia says, trying out the word. “Then add–” She gestures at the cabbage and butter. “Then twenty more.”

“Okay,” Nick says. They clean up in relative silence, and drop the cabbage and butter in when Ksenia tells them to.

“Isabella,” Ksenia says then. “I talk Nikochka now, you go.”

“I want to practice Russian anyway,” Isabelle says, unfazed. “I’ll go watch TV with Misha.”

She drifts into the other room and Nick hears the TV turn on to what sounds like Russia Today, all yelling. He’s gradually getting used to the fact that Russian news sounds like people are mad at each other all the time.

“Now,” Ksenia says. “Borscht almost done. We wait for Kolya, you tell me family.”

“Okay,” Nick says, thrown for a loop by her casual bossiness.

“Okay, mama,” Ksenia corrects, and sits him down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, stirring jam into it for him before she hands him the mug. “You family many?” she asks.

So Nick tells her about growing up on his family’s alfalfa hay farm in Duluth county, near the Canadian border, about his three sisters, his uncle and aunts. When she seems interested, he tells her about his big sister Amanda’s husband Jason, who was her high school sweetheart. Ksenia coos over pictures of their daughters and then demands to see pictures of Amanda’s wedding. When they get to a picture of Nicholas in a suit, she pauses, finger hovering over the screen.

“Handsome,” she says, and something in soft, fast Russian that he can’t follow, eyes locked on the screen. When she looks up at him, her eyes are suspiciously bright. “My Kolya very lucky,” she says, and points at him. “Very happy because you.”

“I want him to always be happy,” Nick says, and looks down at his tea. He feels unsettled, off-balance in Ksenia’s bright, cheerful kitchen. “Mikhail doesn’t like me,” he blurts out, voice soft. “Does he?”

Ksenia wraps her hands around Nick’s on the teacup.

“No,” she agrees. “You very big dangerous.”

Nick takes a deep breath, lets it out again. He didn’t expect her to lie to him, exactly, but she’s not sugar-coating things, either. It stings, this frank admission that the man he hopes will be his father-in-law someday doesn’t like him even the least bit. But, somehow, it’s better than wondering.

“Nikotchka. You make Kolenka happy, learn Russian food best,” he can hear her smiling. “Kolenka and Misha, maybe they good, maybe never. Russian men most stubborn, Misha very angry, very long time.”

He looks up, and meets her eyes. She looks tired. He wonders for the first time what it has cost her to balance between the two of them, her husband and son, to keep them from losing each other entirely.

Spasibo, mama,” he says. Thank you for being there for Kolya, he means, and thank you for yelling at your husband when he was an idiot but keeping the peace, and thank you for trusting me to cook for your only son. He doesn’t have the words even in English, much less in Russian, but he can try.

“Welcome,” she says. “Now, check food, more picture.”

Nick shows her pictures of Kolya with Katya and Anya this time, then with Dan’s mini-brood hanging off his arms at a family skate last fall. She looks at them in silence with soft eyes, and touches the screen gently, once, when Nick shows her a picture of Kolya burping Anya his first year in New York, when he babysat for the Bykovs more often than not. Sergei and Yulia brought the girls to family skate and Kolya had skated circles on the ice holding Anya for more than an hour when the smooth movement was the only way to make her stop crying.

“Pretty baby,” she says, and her voice is a little choked.

Kolya arrives just as the borscht is ready to serve, and they assemble in the kitchen for dinner. Having Isabelle there this time helps carry the conversation, though Mikhail still won’t look at Nick and drinks more vodka than Nick has seen even professional hockey players on a bender put away. Judging by his willingness to even pretend to listen to the two of them, Mikhail seems to like Isabelle more than he likes Nick. Nick tries really hard not to take it personally and mostly fails, but no one calls him on his slightly sour mood.

Nick and Kolya have morning practice, so they leave early, though Ksenia insists on giving them what seems like a gallon of leftover borscht.

“Two hockey player,” she says. “Eat lots.”

Nick can’t tell if it’s a statement of fact or a command, but he doesn’t much care: the borscht turned out surprisingly good, and Kolya seemed to really like it. Nick will have to invest in some aprons and a sacrificial cutting board so he can make it again.

* * *

Kolya seems tired when they get to Nick’s apartment that evening. Nick thinks maybe three months is too soon to have so many clothes at each other’s places, but it feels right, and it makes keeping things quiet easier. He tries not to worry about it.

They change in silence and climb into bed, Nick closer to the window, Kolya closer to the door, and Nick curls up to rest his head on Kolya’s chest, feeling something tentative, delicate stretch between them.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Nick says.

“Thinking about family,” Kolya says. He’s always so direct, so honest.

“Complicated,” Nick replies, because it is, and because he’s too tired to find other words.

“It is how it is,” Kolya says. “It’s not going to kill me, Nick, not going to stop me playing hockey.”

He seems to honestly think that this is enough, that if it won’t stop his hockey, it doesn’t matter that his father’s constant, unwavering anger and distrust makes Kolya actively miserable when they’re in the same room, made him fearful and untrusting of himself for a decade and a half in a way Nick is still coming to understand.

“You–” Nick feels like facts are flipping around in his head, realigning themselves into a new pattern, like seeing where the opposing team’s defensemen are going to be in the moment before a perfect goal. They’ve been talking past each other, he and Kolya, because they were aiming different places.

Nick curls against Kolya’s chest and presses an ear to Kolya’s ribs a little harder, wanting to hear his heartbeat.

“You’re allowed to be happy, too, Kolya.”

Kolya doesn’t move, but his breath hitches.

“I play pro hockey,” he says. “I love you, my mama and papa are here, safe.” He shrugs. “I’m very lucky.”

“I agree,” Nick agrees. “But Mikushka, you don’t have to just, just survive. You can want to be happy. You can want more.”

Kolya shrugs, his frame shifting under Nick in a long, slow slide. “That’s very American thinking,” he says. His tone says clearly it’s very crazy thinking or maybe it’s not how I think at all.

Nick takes a deep breath, because losing his temper won’t do any good. He hasn’t kept his temper this well this often in, well, maybe in his entire life. He should get a fucking medal. If he just doesn’t fuck this up, this thing with Kolya, he’ll count that as his medal.

“Yes,” he says, and maybe he’s not doing such a good job, because his voice is sharp, judgmental. “But you’re not in Russia anymore! You can do better than just keeping your head down and — and just — just fucking scraping by.” He huffs out a breath and counts to ten in Russian, slowly. “I’m sorry,” Nick says. “I’m sorry, I’m not mad at you.”

“You are,” Kolya says. “A little bit.”

Nick sighs, and buries his face in Kolya’s chest, presses a kiss to his sternum in apology. “Okay,” he admits. “A little bit. I just — I don’t get it.”

“What more I’m wanting?” Kolya says, and he must be upset, Nick can tell by the slip in his grammar. “I can’t change Russia, change laws. I can’t make it different.” He huffs out a frustrated breath. “I come out, I never go back to Russia, never play for Worlds or Olympics again.”

And Kolya wants Olympic gold in Sochi more than Nick — as much as the Canadians wanted it in Vancouver. It’s special, winning at home, more than a normal gold medal. Nick wraps his arms around Kolya and holds him tight.

“I know,” he says, sighing. “I’m not saying you should come out. I just want you to be happier.”

“My papa is not going to change,” Kolya says, because sometimes he circles around emotional topics, leads into them, but when it matters, he cuts to the heart of things.

My brave boy, Ksenia called him, and he is.

Nick sighs, and kisses Kolya’s sternum again.

“I want him to,” he says. “I want him to trust you.”

Kolya’s breath catches, and Nick rests his forehead against Kolya’s chest.

“I know,” Nick says. “I just — I want impossible things, sometimes.” He blinks, and admits. “I love you so much I can’t stand it sometimes. It makes me mad when someone hurts you.”

Kolya wraps Nick in his arms so, so gently, then, and if Nick feels Kolya shake against him for a time, well, he’s not telling anyone.

* * *

The thing is, Nick has never been one to let things go, not when he cares about them. If the season were going well, maybe he’d be able to distract himself with hockey, but they’ve lost the last two games, and Nick’s cranky and out-of-sorts even before the media starts speculating and Kolya’s name comes up as a prospective trade.

PR comes to practice one day, after Deadspin runs a particularly terrible article about the Rangers’ needing new blood for a better playoffs push next year and the Post and Daily News pick it up with warring headlines about trades. Nick’s trying not to take it personally, but it’s hard when he can see Kolya and Marc and the newer guys beginning to look a little green under the unrelenting pressure to perform.

“First of all,” Dena says, “you know it’s all garbage. Management has your back, guys.”

She may be the head of PR, but Nick doesn’t trust that management has kept her in the loop, or that she isn’t lying to them to save face. They all know management wants to pay the Garden’s fees, and that low ticket sales for a losing streak don’t help. Nick still hopes she’s not too far wrong.

“We’ll ride it out,” Dena is saying. “We just need a new narrative, something to give them instead of the losses.”

“The Junior Rangers program has been going well,” Makayla offers, tugging at her blazer sleeve. She’s an intern, majoring in sports journalism at one of the local colleges. Kolya would know which one, Nick thinks, he always keeps better track of the interns.

“That’s–” Dena pauses, looks like she’s thinking about it for a moment. “That’s not a bad idea. We’ll need to center one or two players, make them the face of a social media campaign.”

“Kolya loves kids,” Marc says, before Nick can even open his mouth. “He’s always babysitting for Sergei and Danno.”

Kolya adores children, Nick knows, even if he’s only ever really seen Kolya looking after their teammates’ kids. He shies away from publicity with kids, and now Nick knows why.

“I’ll do it if Kolya’s in,” Nick says to keep Kolya from backing out from some kind of misguided sense of self-denial or fear he’ll mess the kids up.

“Okay,” Dena says, “we’ll set up some extra events, maybe a fundraiser for a kids’ charity.” She looks at the two of them. “Makayla,” she says, “you’re on social media. Tease it.” Dena is poking at her phone, checking something. “We can get the camera crew on board, get the release paperwork to parents, put together a schedule.”

And just like that, the ball is rolling.

“Mr. Larsson, Mr. Kudryavtsev, do you have a minute?” Makayla asks after practice two days later, brushing her long dreadlocks out of her face. She doesn’t even mangle Kolya’s last name too badly. PR has obviously been planning this: Nick knows plans don’t get drawn up that fast, even if Makayla had been working on it in the background before suggesting it to Dena.

“Hey,” Nick says, skating to a stop before her, “just Nick is fine.”

“And Kolya,” Kolya says, “but you said my name well. Better than Nick,” he chirps, and shoves his shoulder against Nick’s.

Makayla beams up at him.

“Great,” Makayla says, “okay, I bet you want to get cleaned up and stuff, but can we grab lunch? There’s some things Dena wants me to talk to you about.” She looks desperately nervous, but she’s clearly trying her best.

“Sure thing,” Nick says, aiming for reassuring. She’s so tiny, especially when they’re both still on skates. “We’ll be out fast, you want to pick somewhere we won’t be bothered while we eat?”

When they get out of the locker room Makayla has her messenger bag and coat. She still looks tiny, but at least they don’t tower over her quite so much without their skates.

“Diner food okay?” she asks, and Kolya nods. He’s probably going to break his meal plan, get a milkshake and fries, but Nick can’t really blame him, and Kolya always has trouble keeping up his weight for the trainers this far into the season.

They settle into a corner booth at a little diner on Ninth Avenue, and order enough food that the waitress looks a little surprised.

“You guys really put it away,” Makayla says, but she sounds kind of admiring. “Dena said, but.” She stops herself. “Anyway,” she says, “I want to run through the plan we’ve put together.”

What she’s put together is an early spotlight on the Junior Rangers program, focusing on the squirt and peewee groups – boys who are nine to twelve years old.

They’ll be bringing back some kids who participated in the Junior Rangers program on the squirt team last summer for interviews and a scrimmage, letting the kids pick whether they’ll be on Nick’s team or Kolya’s after drills and some practices with the two of them. It’s impressive, and Nick wonders again how long PR has been working on it.

There’s a brief pause when their food arrives, but not long, because Makayla is on a roll.

“We’ll sell tickets at a local rink, probably not the Garden, maybe Barclay’s or Long Island City Ice, maybe even the City Ice Pavilion” Makayla says. Nick hopes it’s not one of the rinks in Long Island: getting to the island with gear can be a pain, even in a car. “We’ll set it up as a fundraiser to send some kids to the summer program for free. We’ll have people say whose team they’re rooting for when they buy tickets, or signed shirts, gear. If we make it a competition, we’ll get more screen time, more interest.”

“I’ll match what my team raises,” Nick offers, because he can afford it, and that generosity might get people to stop talking about player trades. “Kolya too, right?”

“Good for more kids to skate,” Kolya agrees. “We pay for gear for scholarship kids, yes? They keep it?”

“Oh,” Makayla says, and she makes notes. “Good idea, I hadn’t thought of that. Gear’s pricey, that’ll be great.”

“We’ll probably send you to a few extra partnership kids games to drum up attention,” Makayla says, referring to the local leagues the Rangers work with. “Have you do faceoffs and maybe coach a little for some bantam games in Jersey, on the Island.” She pauses, and looks very serious. “It’ll be a lot,” Makayla says, “I mean, this is going to eat your days off, guys. You okay doing this for real?”

Nick shrugs.

“Better than brooding,” he offers. “You going to tweet this, put it on Instagram and stuff?”

Makayla nods, and launches into her social media exposure plan, which loses Nick entirely, but which Kolya seems to keep up with, probably because he spends so much time texting with Isabelle.

“You can re-gram stuff, re-tweet it,” Makayla says, “but I need to approve anything new you guys post about it for the first week or so, okay?”

“Sure,” Nick says, because it’s not like he has either an Instagram or a Twitter.

“Nick is not on Twitter,” Kolya says. “Old man before his time.”

“Well,” Makayla says, “you’ll have to start. We’re going to crowd-source a lot of this, you know, there’s not a lot of budget for advertising extras for interns.”

“I can have my sister set things up,” Nick promises, already wondering how he can bribe Isabelle to do this for him. “Bring her to some events, have her snap some photos for you, maybe?”

Makayla looks relieved. “Isabelle?” she asks. “The singer? Yeah, that’s okay, her feeds are usually pretty clean.” Nick doesn’t know what to make of the fact that the Rangers’ PR intern knows what his little sister’s social media feeds look like, but maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. Makayla clearly knows her shit.

The waitress comes back and looks astonished at the stacks of clean plates, and even more surprised when Kolya orders pie. They talk through schedules, and Makayla pulls out paperwork, and that’s it — they’re on board for a kid-intensive PR spin, and Nick won’t have a real day off for the next month.

* * *

Nick follows Kolya home in a separate cab after they walk Makayla back to the Garden: she has paperwork to finish up, and they can catch cans there more easily than on Ninth Avenue.

When Nick gets there, Kolya is pacing.

“You hungry?” Nick asks, because he’s not sure what else to say. Kolya nods, and they throw together leftovers to carb load: tomorrow’s game against the Bruins is going to be brutal, and they’re going to be busy. Nick makes a note to ask Isabelle if she’ll mind cooking or ordering in more often for the next month.

They eat in near silence, and Nick starts to worry. Kolya usually fills the silences, tells Nick about his classes, about Marc’s next round of pranks on the rookies and call-ups, small details he’s noticed about the team. Kolya is eagle-eyed about hockey in a way Nick has never been, acutely aware of everyone else on the ice instead of internally-focused. It makes him a great assistant captain, and Nick might hate him for it if he didn’t share so eagerly, and with so much good intent.

“You’re quiet,” Nick says. “Penny for your thoughts.”

“Dollar, at least,” Kolya replies, poking at his pasta. “Inflation.”

Nick kicks him under the table, and Kolya meets his eyes. He looks nervous in a way he rarely does, even before game seven of a playoff run.

Nick tries to think of what Isabelle would say.

“You can talk to me,” he tries. “I mean. If you want.”

Kolya quirks a wobbly grin.

“So many feelings,” he teases. “You think about what Isabelle would say, yes?”

Nick shrugs.

“She’s smart,” he says. “And, you know, you can tell me. You’re not usually this nervous.”

Kolya goes back to staring at his plate, spinning a few noodles around the tines of his fork, though he obviously has no intention of eating them.

“Kids,” he says. “I don’t want to fuck up.”

He doesn’t want to fuck the kids up, he means. Kolya’s shoulders are hunched, and he looks much smaller than his six-foot-plus frame should allow, even as scrawny as he sometimes gets by the end of the season.

Nick wants to hit Mikhail more than ever.

“You won’t,” Nick says. “Kolya,” he says, and stops. “It’s just hockey,” he tries. “They love it, they’ll love playing it, you’re just there to coach a little bit.”

“Never coach before,” Kolya says. He’s still bent in on himself, looking down as if the second-hand IKEA china will answer some kind of question he won’t say out loud.

“So pretend you’re Coach Ellison, or one of your old coaches back home, when you were a kid” Nick says. He pauses, considering what Kolya has told him about his coaches growing up. “Maybe with less swearing, though,” he adds. “I think the parents would appreciate a lot less swearing.”

Kolya looks up, and Nick meets his eyes.

“Come on,” Nick says, and he stands to take their plates and clear up for the cleaning lady. “We have practice in the morning, let’s get some sleep.”

* * *

The next day Kolya is visibly distracted until the game against the Bruins, when he clicks into place, calm and centered, skating around the other team’s attempted checks and dirty hits, tipping the puck into the net once with a neat wrist-shot.

Nick isn’t quite so on point. When one of the offensive linesmen for the Bruins finally, viciously checks Kolya, sending him headfirst into the boards with a sickening thunk, Nick drops his stick and gloves, swinging for a fight before he can think. He doesn’t stop even when the referee gets between him and the Bruins player, not until he sees Kolya standing up on his own.

Both of them get penalties and the game goes to a four-on-four, which is probably the best Nick could have hoped for, all things considered. Nick tries not to glare at the cameras from the penalty box, knowing the media is probably having a field day with him losing his temper, the way they always do. Dana’s going to be mad: violent hockey players and kids don’t match. Nick still isn’t sure he wouldn’t do it all over again, after the strength of the hit Kolya had taken, how hard his head slammed into the boards as he fell.

In the end, Nick gets a goal and an assist on top of his a fight: a Gordie Howe hat trick, and the Rangers win in overtime.

Dena comes into the locker room before the cameras and makes a beeline for Nick.

“That was stupid,” she says. “You know that, right?”

Nick nods, and tries to look contrite despite the victory endorphins running in his veins.

She shakes her head.

“You and Kolya have practice in Long Island City tomorrow at nine a.m.,” she says. “If you’re hungover in front of the kids, you’ll wish I’d gutted you with your own skates.”

This is why Nick likes Dena: she’s from Jersey, and she doesn’t take shit from anyone, not even hockey players twice her size. He has no doubt she’d make him beg for mercy if he fucked up the kids’ fundraising PR effort, if he fuels more trade rumors when they’re trying to focus attention elsewhere.

“I’m going home,” Nick says. He could go out to Warren 77 with the guys tonight, get hammered on free booze, but a couple of this season’s rookies and call-ups are still trying to set him up with girls, and that’s just awkward.

Dena looks sharply at him, then nods.

“Good,” she says, and then the cameras are flooding in, and Kolya is the star of the show for his overtime game-winning goal, a neat snipe from almost behind the goal line that would have been enough to make Nick fall in love with his hockey all by itself.

Kolya is grinning and gesturing expansively for the cameras when Nick slips out, and Nick hopes the mood sticks.

* * *

The next morning both Nick and Kolya arrive separately at the Garden at seven-thirty, because weekday traffic, even reverse-commute traffic, is a bitch and a half in New York City. What would be a twenty-minute drive anywhere else will take at least an hour this time of day.

Nick is disappointed to see that Kolya looks nervous again.

“Hey,” Nick says, bumping shoulders. “Uncle Jordan used to have me coach kids, you know?” Nick is pretty sure this has come up before. “Jordan said explaining hockey to kids was good practice for explaining hockey to reporters, except the kids would understand it better.”

Kolya flashes him a surprised look from under his baseball cap.

“It’s like PR, but backwards,” Nick says. “The reporters loved you last night: just explain things to the kids like they’re the smarter bloggers, you know, the ones who know the rules and give a shit. The kids already love hockey,” Nick says, because that’s always been the hard part for him: he honestly has no idea how to talk to kids who don’t like hockey. “You just have to get them to play a little better, that’s all. You’re like a coach, not a babysitter or anything.”

Kolya’s shoulders are a little less hunched when they get into the hired car, and they dissect the Bruins game in traffic all the way to the LIC rink. When they get there Kolya manages a faint ‘this is my PR face’ smile, but he still looks a little pale until they’ve strapped on their gear in the locker room.

Davai,” Nick says as they walk out towards the rink. When they’re on the ice he hip-checks Kolya, and skates over to his net as the kids laugh at Kolya’s exaggerated flailing and his pretended loss of balance.

To Nick’s surprise, Isabelle comes in with Makayla while the PR team is checking the positioning of their cameras. Makayla seems to be getting along with Isabelle in a way that Nick associates with younger-sister pranks, and he shoves down nervousness: he’s here to do a job, not to worry about his sister making friends.

Dena and Makayla have already emailed with the pewee team’s coaches, so Nick and Kolya know they’re basically backup, sort of circus animals, sort of a reward for good behavior, sort of assistants. One of the coaches for Kolya’s group looks a little apprehensive about having hotshot NHL players following his instructions, but when Nick looks over after a set of skating drills, Kolya is laughing with him, obviously following his lead in a way that seems to be setting the other man at ease.

The kids, who are way smaller than Nick remembers being at this age, are easily distracted, and the parents in the stands are way more numerous than Nick remembers even from his pre-boarding-school practices.

“No,” Nick says, when one of the boys tries to slip his grip too far down the hockey stick. “See, like this.”

The little boy, whose name tag announces that My Name Is Aidan, frowns.

“I have better control this way,” he says, moving his hands back down toward the blade. Nick frowns. The stick seems to be a little too big for the kid, if he’s having trouble with that.

“I know,” Nick says, “but if you hold it too close to the blade, you have less power. It’s a balance. Why don’t we try you on a different stick?”

Aidan stares at him.

“But I have to grow into this one,” he says, and Nick bites back an automatic denial. Gear is expensive: Aidan’s probably growing into his pads and skates, too.

“Maybe,” he says, because seeming mad at Aidan’s parents won’t do any good. “But let’s just try a shorter one, huh? Just to see.”

When Nick plays goalie a little later in the practice, Aidan has adjusted to the new shorter stick well enough that he manages to stone Nick in the sternum with a called shot that’s surprisingly accurate for his age.

Kolya laughs his head off at Nick’s exaggerated expression of betrayal, because he’s a dick, and Aidan looks back and forth between them, expression a little uncertain. The coaches and other kids hover.

“Hey, Aidan,” Kolya says, skating over and bending down. “You did good. Nick hates losing, is all. Very competitive, always.”

“Like you’re not,” Nick snipes back, but he skates over and pats Aidan on the head. “Good shot,” he says. “You like that stick?”

Aidan nods, but he looks a little uncertain about it. Nick makes a note to tell Makayla that some of the current kids need gear, too, add that to the budget.

“We’re totally doing warring hashtags,” Isabelle announces after practice, when she and he are in a car back from the LIC rink. “It’s puns all the way, because hockey parents are dorks. You’re <b>#Larsson</b>” she says, showing Nick an alarming number of posts on her phone. There are dozens of pictures he hadn’t noticed being taken, Aidan grinning at him while he corrects their grip on a hockey stick, Nick looking surprisingly intent while he shows one little boy how to tie his skates better.

“Kolya’s <b>#Kidryavtsev</b>,” Isabelle continues. There are pictures of Kolya holding a baby that a mother had handed him, of Kolya making exaggerated faces while playing goalie, bending himself in half to listen to a very small boy with bright ginger hair. Kolya’s hashtag seems to be trending. Nick tries not to feel jealous about the fact that Kolya has more posts than Nick does.

“People can spell that?” Nick asks.

“Duh,” Isabelle says, “it autocompletes in Hootsuite and TweetDeck and Instagram and shit. We decided not to add an emoji, though, that was too much of a hassle. Also, Kolya would want terrible ones.”

Nick decides not to ask. Based on what he’s seen of Isabelle’s texts with Kolya, he can only imagine.

Dena is at the Rangers’ practice the next morning, with Makayla in tow.

“Looking good, guys,” she says, and holds up the Daily News, whose front page headline is their hashtags in opposition. “Now maybe keep on racking up those goals,” she says, looking over at Nick and Kolya. “That way your coach doesn’t kill me for taking up all your time.”

The next weeks pass in a haze: off-days are spent at the kids’ practices, rest days are full of catching up on game tape and cooking, for Nick, and homework, for Kolya. How he’s balancing it with everything else is beyond Nick, but Kolya seems to be doing okay, even if he’s spending more time at his own apartment than at Nick and Isabelle’s.

Marc pulls Nick aside after practice about two weeks in, when the rumors about trades have almost entirely been replaced by speculation about a baseball player, and most of the hockey news is about their winning streak, and the Junior Rangers Fundraiser. Some of the web reporters are coming to each of the practices, and pictures of Kolya with kids seem to be pretty popular with some of the fans.

“Thanks, man,” Marc says. “Holly was getting pretty down about the trade rumors, you know?”

Marc’s girlfriend, Holly, grew up in Staten Island. She’d move with him if Marc were traded but she’d be miserable and they all know it. Nick thinks the Rangers would be crazy to trade Marc, especially since Carter’s talking about buying out his contract and retiring and they’re two of the best goalies in the league, but he guesses worry isn’t exactly a rational thing. And while Marc knows better than to read his own press, Holly seems not to have picked that up yet, and she really likes the warring hashtags on Instagram.

“Yeah,” Nick says, “well, you’d better make sure I win, or I’ll never hear the end of it from Kolya, you know him.”

It looks increasingly like Nick’s going to lose: even the kids seem to prefer Kolya. Their initial awe wears off pretty quickly as Kolya loosens up around the kids enough to joke around with them, mock-wrestle some of the scrappier ones and pretend to lose.

It’s great to see him look so comfortable around them, but finally one of the kids, Jon, crosses a major line: he mimes a kick at Kolya’s knee, obviously forgetting he’s got blades on his skates.

“Jon! You do not do that.” The coach says, pulling Jon aside by one shoulder. “Bag skates. GO.”

Kolya stands up, but doesn’t say anything. He and Nick have been coached by Dena about undermining authority enough times for Nick to know he’s got to stay quiet.

“As for the rest of you,” the coach says, gesturing at the boys who were screwing around. “Suicides. Two sets. Go.”

Nick stands back, and Kolya skates over with a carefully blank expression on his face.

“Strict,” Kolya says, too low for the kids to hear, or the coaches.

“That’s nothing,” Nick replies. “Uncle Jordan would have had me doing a double set of suicides before the bag skates if I’d fucked around like that in practice.”

Kolya blinks. “Thought my coach was strict,” he says. “Everyone says, Russian coaches, they are the most strict.”

Nick shrugs. “Jordan wouldn’t have made the whole team do the bag skate,” Nick says, “just the guys who were screwing around. Everyone else would have had to do the suicides, though, the whole team.”

Kolya shakes his head. “Very strict,” he says, but he lets it drop.

Nick knows his uncle was strict: but Jordan’s coaching got him to the National Hockey League. It would be ungrateful to complain about it, even if Nick sometimes wonders how he got enough sleep while he was at Shattuck, coaching and playing and practicing and still doing all his classwork on top of it all.

After Jon all but collapses in fatigue, the coaches pull everyone off the ice. They sit the boys in the front row and have Nick and Kolya demonstrate forehand, backhand, and wrist shots, then face-off technique. It’s almost like media week with the Rangers PR team hovering over them, and Nick hopes the PR guy who is here gets good enough footage that he and Kolya don’t have to do it again.

When they leave, Kolya insists on taking the Long Island Railroad back.

“Homework,” he says. “Can’t read in the car.”

Nick goes with him, but Kolya really does read the whole time: As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, which Nick has never read. He can’t imagine wanting to read anything like that, but Kolya taps at the dictionary on his phone from time to time, and occasionally underlines passages with a shaky pen, looking perfectly content with his depressing book.

* * *

Somehow, and Nick suspects black magic or blackmail, or a combination of the two, the Rangers’ PR team managed to talk Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn into holding the event there. It’s a huge rink, and Nick expects it to be mostly empty: mid-afternoon on a weekend is fine, but not a great time for hockey fans, and even the most die-hard Rangers fans don’t really care about kids teams.

Isabelle has been waving seating plans at him, because she’s become fast friends with Makayla, who is only a few years older than her, and used to sing in a church choir.

“Look,” she says, when Nick goes to the locker room to change before the kids do. “Your side is wearing white: Kolya’s is wearing blue. You totally lost,” she adds, and Nick turns back to her. “What,” Isabelle says, “I know I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but you hate surprises. Kolya’s dad got, like, all of his chess buddies to come, they bought way more tickets than just the parents of the kids on your team.”

It’s easy to pick out Ksenia and Mikhail. They’re sitting in the middle of a section of middle-aged Russian couples in Rangers gear and small tow-headed children. Mikhail is holding a huge sign in Cyrillic up to the glass: не пуха не пера

Kolya’s face breaks into a grin when he sees it. He immediately skates over to flip a puck at their neighbor’s kid, who is sitting with his parents. Nick does slow circles, flipping pucks over the glass at the siblings of kids on both sides of the rink until the officials come out and he and Kolya are shooed off the ice so the kids can compete.

The scrimmage opens with more than the usual PR nonsense, teams announced and introduced as parents cheer and siblings look alternately enthralled and very bored. Someone brought a t-shirt cannon, and Nick supposes that firing shirts into the stands is one way of getting rid of excess unpurchased merch. Isabelle sings the National Anthem along with a couple of her Juilliard friends: Nick wonders how many of them he’ll see sleeping off booze on his couch in thanks over the next month or two.

When they get down to it, the game is surprisingly good for a bunch of eleven-year-olds. The kids are evenly matched, but Kolya’s team gets a few shots past Nick’s goalie in the first period, and it’s hard for Nick’s team to keep their spirits up when they’re behind and the stands are so much emptier on their side. Nick feels faintly guilty for not mobilizing some kind of Midwestern gossip network to rival the effort the Kudryavtsevs have obviously put into mobilizing their friends and neighbors.

Nick’s team rallies late in the third period, but it isn’t enough to win the game. Kolya skates out on the ice after the buzzer and scoops up his team’s goalie, pads and all, to spin him in the air as if he were the Stanley Cup itself, and not a gawky pre-teen. It’s so far from Kolya’s exaggerated care around the kids of just a few weeks ago: Nick is astonished, and then the kids are crowding around Kolya, each demanding their own turn.

Nick spins around a few of his own team members, but they mostly seem to want to get changed and go home, shake off the loss with video games and whatever snacks their families allow. Nick talks to PR from the bench for a little bit, gives them a few soundbites about how it’s all worth it for the kids, talking up the Junior Rangers program. He almost misses it when Ksenia and Mikhail come out and talk to Kolya for a moment. Kolya leans in, the conversation too quick to follow even if it had been in English. Ksenia hugs her son and then Mikhail leans over and pulls Kolya into an embrace as well, pulling him close and saying something that makes Kolya lean closer. They hug for a brief moment before a kid is pulling on Kolya’s sleeve and demanding attention and they separate with another brief exchange of words.

* * *

Later that evening, after showers and dinner and separate taxi rides back to Nick’s apartment, Nick is reading in his bedroom when Kolya finishes his homework. Nick hears him make brief conversation with Isabelle, and then Kolya shuts the bedroom door.

“Hi,” Nick says. Kolya smiles and comes over to sit on what has become his side of Nick’s bed.

“Hi,” he replies, and bends down to kiss Nick gently. He huffs a laugh when Nick presses into the kiss eagerly, when Nick cups the side of Kolya’s face to pull him closer. “You want something?”

Nick wraps his hands around Kolya’s neck and pulls him down.

“I want you,” he says. “Let’s embarrass Isabelle.”

Kolya presses his face to Nick’s neck, laughing, then nips at the line of his throat, hard as they dare, and Nick moans.

“I text her,” Kolya says, voice deep. “Tell her headphones, otherwise she angry, hide tea.”

Nick loves Kolya when he’s eloquent, when he woos reporters with flawless English. He loves Kolya when he’s half-asleep and mumbling in Russian with sleep in the corner of his eyes and terrible bedhead. He thinks he just might love him best like this, though, when he’s holding onto his English in bed with Nick, grabbing feebly as little bits of it slip away from him.

“Mmm,” Nick says, “fair enough.”

The last time they had really loud sex, Isabelle didn’t say a word about it, just took all the sources of caffeine in the apartment and hid them for a week.

So Nick turns on the white noise machine while Kolya pulls his phone out of his pocket. When Nick looks back up, Kolya is stripping out of his shirt. Nick leans over and presses a kiss to his belly, the trail of dark hair that edges up from his waistband.

Mmgh,” Kolya manages, and drops his shirt on the floor. “You too,” he says, and Nick peels out of his shirt and sweats, then leans back on his hands, naked and unashamed. Nick has never felt quite so free with his body as he does with Kolya. His first boyfriend was embarrassed about naked bodies, scared of being found out, walked in on, and Nick hadn’t wanted anyone else until Kolya, not anyone that he could have, no one he could take a chance with. But Kolya seems to love seeing Nick spread out for him, and isn’t scared to reward him for it.

“You going to come over here?” Nick asks, and leans back on one elbow so he can grasp his cock, stroking it gently until he’s half-hard. “Or am I doing this on my own?”

Kolya kicks out of his jeans and briefs with a ferocity and speed that gets Nick all the way hard just looking at it, even when Kolya still has his socks on.

“Not fair,” Kolya says, and then his hand is over Nick’s, slowing him down. “God, Nick.” He kisses Nick again, sprawled against his side, and that’s nice, but it’s not what Nick wants.

“Get up here,” Nick demands, and he knows he’s pushy in bed, but Kolya has never made him feel bad about it, just does as Nick asks. Right now, he slots himself over Nick, bracketing him in with his arms, and sliding their erections together in Nick’s hand.

“Lube,” Nick gasps, and thank god for Kolya’s long arms, because he reaches out and grabs it from the nightstand, squeezes a little into Nick’s waiting hand.

This time they both groan, and Kolya’s hips shove down against Nick, the movement instinctive and so, so hot. Kolya usually has such fierce self-control, and Nick loves knowing he can make it shatter, drag Kolya to pieces.

“Want you to fuck me,” Nick says, because Kolya likes it when he talks. “Want it hard, want to feel you for weeks, Mikushka, carry it inside me.”

They can’t do that right now, not with games back-to-back in the end of the season, but Nick wants it anyway. Kolya bites his collarbone, almost but not quite hard enough to leave a mark.

“Know you want it too,” Nick says, “want you to mark me up, Mikushka, leave handprints on my hips like I belong to you.”

Nick knew a few things about himself when he started sleeping with Kolya. He knew he liked bigger toys, and to fuck himself with them harder, faster. He knew porn did nothing for him, and that most people were uninteresting until he got to know them as friends. He’s learned a lot, these last three months. Turning Kolya on makes Nick hot; letting Kolya pull his hair, be possessive, is intensely satisfying. Nick wants to be <i>owned</I>, and he thinks Kolya wants that too.

But Nick also knows they can’t leave marks. Nick has a reputation in the locker room as an ice queen, uninterested, the safest of wingmen on nights out and the most boring guy on the team, and he’s not a good enough liar to cover things up if he gets chirped for hickeys or bruises. So it’s not safe, not while they’re in season.

“God,” Nick thinks, and his mouth is running ahead with him, “this summer, Kolya, will you — mark me up, okay?” He tips his head back, baring the line of his throat, which is so sensitive, which Kolya loves to kiss, bite lightly. “Promise,” he says, “I really want it.”

Kolya’s hips spasm against his, and Nick moves his hand a little faster.

“Fuck,” Nick says, “want you so bad, so much.”

Blyad,” Kolya gasps. “Nik–” He sounds wrecked.

“You could bite me,” Nick says, “all over my neck.”

Kolya’s forehead slams into Nick’s shoulder, and he’s coming hard, shaking from head to toe as he stripes Nick’s chest with his come.

Nick strokes him until Kolya shivers and tries to pull away, and then stops, lets Kolya collapse on top of him, chest heaving like he’s done a bag skate. Nick is still turned on, but he can feel it ebbing, not desperate anymore. He can wait.

“Love you,” Nick says, combing his left hand through Kolya’s messy hair. “So much, Mikushka.” He takes a breath. “Wish we could tell everyone I’m yours,” he says, because he does, “let them see how much I care.”

Kolya nuzzles at his neck, orgasm-drunk the way he sometimes gets, sleepy and heavy and placid. “Mm,” Kolya says, voice muffled against Nick’s skin. “After hockey.”

Nick scratches his fingers through the hair at the base of Kolya’s skull, quiet for a moment.

“Okay,” he says, “after hockey. If you’re sure.”

Nick has been planning on coming out for a long time, in the back of his mind. He’s not impatient about it: he has Kolya, now, and that’s worth a lot. But Kolya — Kolya might not be able to go home again.

“Is plan,” Kolya says, and he sounds entirely unconflicted about the idea. “Since I know about me, America is my future, not Russia.” He pauses. “But only after hockey,” he warns. “I want gold in Sochi.”

Nick can’t help laughing, he really can’t.

“You arrogant sonofabitch,” he says, and pokes Kolya in the side. “Me too. I’m gonna make you work for it.”

“Good,” Kolya says, and kisses him again, hot and sweet, and they lose themselves in each other’s bodies.

The next morning they discover that Isabelle has hidden the coffee, but she leaves out Kolya’s favorite tea, so Nick supposes they’ll eventually be forgiven.

* * *

“Hey,” Nick asks in the taxi on the way to practice that afternoon, “what was it your dad said last night?”

Kolya smiles, brighter than Nick ever has seen before.

“Said he’s proud of me,” he says. “Said I looked great with the kids out there.”

There has to be more to it than that, given how long the two of them spoke, but this, Nick can tell, this was the important part. Mikhail trusts his son again, for the first time since Kolya was a teenager.

Nick can’t resist: he laces his fingers with Kolya’s, even knowing the cabbie might see.

“That’s so good,” he says, feeling the words to be inadequate, and squeezing Kolya’s hand hard in relief, in reassurance. “Kolya, I’m so glad.”

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16 thoughts on “A Voice Once Swallowed

  1. More of these two, and this time from Nick’s POV? What a nice continuation of their story! Also this very much is giving me the feeling of building up towards the Sochi Olympics, so I’m eager to see where things go in the next installment.

    • Thank you so much! I’m trying to build while keeping the stories effectively stand-alone and it’s a good challenge! Sochi will also be Nick’s POV. :)

  2. I’m so glad you decided to write and share more about these two because they’re wonderful. So much feeling! And such a good ending! Negotiations in bed! Good!!

  3. I like how you’ve looked at family dynamics in this story & the last and they’ve both been so satisfying, but in very different ways, with very different family situations and conflicts. There’s so much depth to these characters and their lives, I feel very invested at this point. :)

  4. I loved seeing Nick’s point of view in this. It was also interesting to realise this was a jump back in time from the last one, although the links were subtle – like Nick mentioning Jason without apparent animosity. I’m looking forward to finding out more about these two!

  5. I had just reread the first one in this series on my memories on live journal and saw a comment where you said there was a sequel (which I somehow missed the first time around) so I went hunting and I’m so glad I did.

    I love that we got to see Nick’s POV not just on the relationship but his frustration over the way Kolya’s father treats him as well and how that’s just the status quo and as good as it gets in his mind.

    This was a really great follow up!

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